Category Archives: Book Reviews

Mid-year reading report back: David Whish-Wilson, Simenon takes a train & 1970s Mexico noir

It already half-way through the year, and I thought a quick report on the highlights of my reading so far is in order. This is especially since I have a couple of big writing projects on the go and, as a result, will probably not have the time to do anything of the sort again before the end of the year.

So, let’s get to it.

The Sawdust House, David Whish-Wilson

Regular readers will have seen me talk before on this site about how much I rate David Whish-Wilson. I genuinely believe he is one of the most underrated crime writers working in Australia today and his latest does nothing to disabuse me of this view. The Sawdust House is Whish-Wilson’s second book to explore the lost Australian history of mid-19th century San Francisco. The Coves (2018) told the story of Australian criminals, many of them former convicts, who drifted to the San Francisco in the hopes of making a fortune amidst the gold rush gripping the west coast of the US at the time, and who assumed a major role in the lawless city’s criminal world. The Sawdust House focuses on the life of one of these men, Irish-born James ‘Yankee’ Sullivan, who has been arrested as part of the nativists attempt to root out and crush Australian criminal influence in San Francisco.… Read more

The mystery of Billy Rags

Billy Rags, Sphere Books, 1975
McVicar By Himself, Hutchinson, 1974

Crime fiction is just far too large a literary field to aspire to anything near being a completist in terms of reviewing. That said, the British noir author Ted Lewis has been something of a favourite on this site. I reviewed Jack’s Return Home aka Get Carter (1970) and its two sequels, as well as the novels Plender (1971) and GBH (1980). But there is one more Lewis work I want to tackle, Billy Rags, originally published in in 1973 and which, coincidentally has just been re-released by No Exit Press in the UK.

Billy Rags is very closely based on the life of the real British criminal John McVicar. Just how closely I’ll get to directly. McVicar was an armed robber, declared ‘public enemy no 1’ by Scotland Yard in the 1960s, until he was apprehended and given a 23-year sentence. He was also a serial escapee and after his final arrest in 1970 received a 26-year sentence but was paroled eight years later. McVicar was also something of a uniquely 1960s/70s phenomena, the self-aware/educated working class career criminal turned author and commentator on prison reform, a major social debate in those two decades. He studied for a university postgraduate, wrote an autobiography, McVicar by Himself, published in 1974, and authored a couple of other true crime books.… Read more

Sessions from two-day City Lights symposium on Dangerous Visions & New Worlds book now available to watch

If you were unable to catch the two day on-line symposium on the recently released book co-edited by Iain McIntyre and myself, Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction 1950-1985, organised by the iconic San Francisco bookshop City Lights in late February, fear not. All the sessions were recorded and are now available to view free on the City Lights Youtube channel at this link. This includes the interviews with new wave SF luminaries Samuel Delany and Michael Moorcock, and my session with Marge Piercy and US SF writer Terry Bisson, ‘The Forever War: Vietnam’s impact on sci-fi’. A huge thanks to the folks at PM Press, the events manager at City Lights Peter Maravelis, and all the writers who appeared as panel members or moderators over the two days. Read more

The bleak, propulsive noir of Georges Simenon’s Romans Durs

If forced to nominate any positives at all out of the last two years of global pandemic, it is the increased time I’ve had to read. In the first year of Covid I made good on a long-standing desire to read John le Carré’s George Smiley books. A literary focus of 2021 was the work of the Belgium born writer, Georges Simenon. Simenon’s output was a staggering 400 novels, although some have claimed he wrote as many as 500. The best known of these is his acclaimed series of crime procedurals featuring the French police detective Jules Maigret, 75 of which appeared between 1931 and 1972 (Simenon died in 1989). But my interest in Simenon is in his other, somewhat more shadowy body of work, his so-called romans durs or ‘hard novels’: tightly plotted, intensely psychological, often quite slim stand-alone volumes that have so far yielded some of the best noir fiction I can remember reading.

My latest piece for the US site CrimeReads, on the bleak psychological noir of Simenon’s Romans Durs is live and can be read in full here.Read more

Dangerous Visions & New Worlds: the reviews so far & upcoming two-day City Lights SF symposium

It has been a couple of months since my latest collaboration with Iain McIntyre, Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950-1985, hit the shelves in the US, and a lot has been happening. So, a short update is in order.

The book, available via the publisher PM Press, as well as all other book selling platforms has been well received. It made The Washington Post’s list of best science fiction, fantasy and horror books for 2021, and was also postively reviewed – twice – on the influential science fiction site, Locus. Ian Mond wrote in one of these reviews that ‘With its gorgeous interiors and thoughtful, de­tailed essays, I know that Dangerous Visions and New Worlds will inform newbies like myself while providing those familiar with the subject matter a contemporary perspective on the New Wave’s radical antecedents and the influential foundational texts the movement produced’ (you can read Mond’s full review here).

Our book was generously reviewed in Forbes magazine, on one of my favourite sites, We Are the Mutants, and for Counterpunch. I was also a guest on the wonderful British podcast, Breakfast in the Ruins. You can listen to the discussion, which ranged from new wave science fiction, to Norman Jewison’s 1975 film Rollerball, and the wonder that is New English Library’s teensploitation novels of the 1970s, in full here.… Read more