Written by Frank Westworth — JJ Stoner was a special forces soldier. He is now a freelance investigator who knows how to kill men without shedding a tear or suffering any flicker of conscience. His most regular employer is a government spook known only as The Hard Man, who uses JJ to tidy up messes which the official law agencies tiptoe around. The setting seems to be London, although it is never explicitly established. When the butchered corpses of several men are found in hotel rooms across the metropolis JJ is brought in to find out what is going on. Meanwhile, he has as tortuous relationship with a beautiful escort girl, and a passion for playing blues guitar in a seedy club.
Stoner pursues the killer across the city, helped by a fellow black ops man called Shard. The bond between them is peculiar, and a classic paradox. The only reason they work so well together is that they have zero trust in one another. The action in the book takes place in a kind of urban darkness which is usually literal and always metaphorical. Cars and vans chase each other around a nameless suburban hinterland of industrial estates, and factory units lit only by leaky yellow streetlights. Eventually, Stoner cottons onto the fact that his killer is not one but at least two people – and they are women. There is a final twist in the tail before the books ends as bleakly as it started, but with several mystifying loose ends adding to the sense of moral displacement.
This is a novel of great complexity. At times it seems to be one thing, and then a few pages later it seems to be something else altogether. There are whole sections which are very wordy, with dialogue and reflection which seem to be too existentialist by half; a paragraph later and we are witnessing extreme violence or grotesque sex. There are scenes which are intensely erotic, but curiously empty of love or passion. As a crime novel, it works on a superficial level, but JJ is basically reactive, and always seems to be playing catch-up. He doesn’t get closer to the killers through his own deduction so much as fall through the metaphorical ceiling into the room below, thus coming face to face with his quarry as he dusts himself down.
The writing is clever and inventive, paying few dues to existing genres or styles, and certainly does not wear any of the conventional crime fiction labels. There is a hint of Derek Raymond in the more visceral physical descriptions and the sense that we are looking at a dark and dystopian oil painting, while trying to work out exactly what is going on. The most poignant moments come when JJ is trying to rationalise his relationship with his prostitute girlfriend, the ‘dirty blonde’. She is as beautiful, witty and unattainable as he is lost for words and on the verge of heartbreak. He is violent, amoral and cynical, but a little bit of him dies each time he checks his phone and sees that she has not made contact. His final speech, when he realises how he has been played, is almost Shakespearean in its bitterness and helpless anger. Finally, and a little superficially, it has one of the finest covers I’ve seen this year.
Book Guild Publishing
CFL Rating: 4 Stars