How the West was won, wangled and bloodily made worse by a job lot of America's pioneering forbears all staking their claims in Cottonwood, Kansas in 1872. Salty, sardonic narrative delivered by reluctant farmer Bill Ogden, who steals the inheritance of his bed-hopping wife, Ninna, to build the town's first saloon. Larger civic ambitions expounded by Marc Leval, slick Chicago entrepreneur who mistakenly sees Cottonwood as a potential boom town on the cattle trail, but whose wife, the beautiful Maggie, seems already disenchanted with what's promised. Ogden takes the sexual high ground and Leval plots the murder of his former friend. Meanwhile, the town's most degenerate family, the Benders, have developed a thriving business in slaughtering visitors to their homestead. Cottonwood develops a civic conscience of sorts and a posse of vigilantes - including Ogden and Leval - pursue them with lynching in mind. Some rough justice is dispensed, but sixteen years later two women, alleged to be fugitive members of the Bender clan, are hauled before a court. Ogden, who has abandoned Maggie and fled Cottonwood, makes a return visit to find that Leval - who he had supposed dead, after a hit-and-miss duel - is not only alive but seriously vengeful. There's a joyful sexual reunion with Maggie (who even remembers to bring a blanket to facilitate matters), a tornado which lays waste to Cottonwood and a fast and tactful exit to California by the couple. 'I've been telling your grandchildren tales of the Wild West', Ogden subsequently writes to his son Clyde, 'cowboys and Indians and outlaws, stories cribbed mostly from the moving pictures, since the real ones are mostly unsuitable for children'. Phillips's own tale is quirky and raw-boned, employing wit, energy and a relish for living history in a cool appraisal of the criminality underlying the American Dream. The pioneers, he implies, were brave, ingenious and visionary. They were also rapacious, amoral, and unremittingly out for Number One. They had the knack of revising ruthlessness as a virtue. How they were goes a long way towards explaining what many of us are now. Cottonwood is a tonic to read - sexy, ironic, funny and rousingly original. Maybe it's stretching it a bit to call it a crime novel, although crime is certainly built into its foundations. But the genre is infinitely elastic and Scott Phillips demonstrates quite brilliantly what it can accommodate.
ABLE, exciting espionage thriller by ex-head of MI5, Stella Rimington, with fairly traditional heroine, M15 agent Liz Carlyle, in doleful throes of ending unhappy love affair, and putting personal problems behind her as she pursues Islamic assassin out to revenge victims of American bombing of wedding party in Afghanistan. Some understandable empathy here; compassion too for the so-called 'invisible' - a white British woman aiding the bomber, but undetectable by hard-pressed intelligence team. Good scene-setting (much crawling through icy Norfolk ditches to reach the killing ground); occasional shots at predictable targets (David Shayler comes under fire); some stodgy dialogue and a huge manhandling of plot in order to get all the necessary elements in line. Considering the irritating hype, very much better than one dared to expect. But falls short of offering anything like the Le Car& insight into professional spookery. COME CLOSER * By Sara Gran
WHAT'S that tapping in the wainscot? Could it be a mouse? Or a wonky pipe? Or could it conceivably be an early warning of demonic possession? Like smart, yuppyish architect Amanda, central character and victim in Sara Gran's alarming first novel, you'll start out skeptical. Read on, if you dare. Gran's admirably concise and persuasive foray into the supernatural is the scariest book I've read in years, a classic slow-burner (or chiller) in its gradual revelations about the malaise that's threatening Arnanda's marriage and survival. And what about the stray dog who once loved her, but now smells something different about her that makes him take to his heels and howl? Very effective documentation of psychic disruption when the demon (a scary and seductive female fiend) decides it's time to move in. A short. stylish book you'll sprint through in a couple of hours. But the effects may linger longer. Debate whether or not you want to put your sleep at risk. Keep the holy water handy.
DIFFERENT strokes for familiar folks as Billy Bob Holland, Texas Ranger turned lawyer, allies himself reluctantly with rodeo cowboy Wyatt Dixon ('the most dangerous, depraved, twisted and unpredictable being I ever knew'), who's been released from jail one year into a sixty-year term due to the DA's failure to disclose a piece of evidence, and is now fighting life or death battle with Kirsten Mabus, biotech baddie with a $500 million bankroll and plans to rule and despoil the planet. Rich, lyrical narrative peopled by ghosts and visions, especially those seen by ecology hero Johnny American Horse (possibly a descendant of the great Crazy Horse), who dreams of Mabus-hired hitmen coming to kill him. A touch too much of the supernatural perhaps (Billy Bob has the usual visitation from his spectral, long-dead Ranger partner, while Johnny American Horse is led through the wilderness by a spirit guide) but admirers of Burke will go with the flow. What he's really writing about, I suspect, is redemption and he does so with passion, skill and a generous heart. Read it and be refreshed.
COMPETITORS despair. Alan Furst's mastery of the espionage novel puts him beyond any would-be rival. This is the latest in his series of Second World War thrillers, and here Furst leaves dry land to set sail with Captain (subsequently Lt Commander) DeHaan, master of the Dutch tramp freighter Noordenam, who - over a hush-hush dinner in Tangier, a honey-pot for spies - is recruited by Dutch Naval Intelligence to wage war on the Nazis on behalf of much-torpedoed Brits. Considering the inevitable risks to be faced by his crew, DeHaan decides not to worry that they're all o5cially Lutheran: 'Everyone must decide his own believing, as he will have to do his own dying.' Ensuing cloak-and dagger stuff includes taking British commandos to raid a German observation station in French Tunisia, shipping bombs from Alexandria to beleaguered Crete, and sailing in emergency convoys with U-boats prowling all around. Gradually the Noorendam becomes a ship not of fools, but fugitives, including: a Polish naval lieutenant; a Greek stowaway; a touring company of the Kiev ballet; two cats and two dogs; a Jewish refugee medical student who becomes a courageous ship's doctor; and Maria Bromen, a Russian shipping journalist, in flight from the communists, who falls in love with DeHaan and escapes rearrest when Russia enters the war, an event which ironically turns enemies into allies. Furst writes superbly about the climate of war: the way it smells (women leaving trails of sweat and perfume); old and gaudy hotels where secrets are peddled; people who become agents by accident and end up as heroes, including DeHaan himself - brave and selfless, fighting the good fight because he can and must. No one does it better than Furst and Dark Voyage is about as good as it gets. First class in every department.
STRANGE shooting on the shore of icy Lake Superior, where victim is found dead with three bullet holes in his head and heart. What's odd is that the bullets are Russian made and all fifty years old. Investigation by Lucas Davenport, state-wide troubleshooter for Minnesota, ho discovers an old Commie vigilante group, experts in assassination, who were thought to have been disbanded years ago. But could they be alive and still killing? Overseas aid supplied by Nadya, beautiful Russian supposed cop, who turns out to be a counter-intelligence agent. The case gets deeper and dirtier with seventeen-year-old hitman, good at his job because 'he never dreams about the dead'. Very cool and collected as it streaks through plot complications and high-velocity thrills. Sandford is heading for the top of his genre.