Gotta love Vegas! Two novellas written by two Fahrenheit Press legends and published as one volume. Gritty American noir in one, classic British mystery in another they complement each other perfectly.
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I love Vegas! I’ve only been a couple of times, but I adore its glorious insanity. There is nowhere else in the world quite like it, and I also believe nowhere else in the world where the right circumstances would ever come together to create such a bizarre city, its in its own odd little bubble and so unbelievably superficial. Yet somehow a huge amount of camp fun. Vegas is a common theme for both of the stories we have in this second volume on the 69 crime imprint from the folks at Fahrenheit press. For this volume, two Fahrenheit legends come together, I’m a huge fan of both Jo Perry and Derek Farrell and was incredibly excited to see what they did with the novella format of these books. Both stories utilise Vegas, but in very different ways, they compliment each other yet also stand on their own, unique voices shining through.
Jo is best known to Fahrenheit readers as the author of the brilliant Charlie and Rose series, Dead is Better, Best, Good and Beautiful. Although Everything Happens is not set in the world of Charlie and Rose, it’s very much a slice of Jo Perry Noir. The short snappy chapters are in place, over 40 in just over 100 pages, Jo’s unsurpassed prose skill and a deep understanding of classic American Noir shine through. The tale is told from two perspectives, Jennifer and Jake, married but separated and hate each other, their lives together have pushed them into the series of events that occur in the story. Two very different experiences of the same city. Jennifer has driven to Vegas to file divorce papers, Jake has gone to Vegas to escape his former life in LA. Neither knows the other is there, we have two separate but inextricably linked stories happening alongside each other. This approach allows Jo to utilise two different approaches to noir writing in a complimentary way and to build to a wonderfully poignant ending.
As this is noir nothing quite goes to plan, after all if Jennifer successfully filed divorce papers and then went for a steak dinner, we wouldn’t have much of a story. As it is Jennifer doesn’t get as far as her lawyers office. She is car jacked on the strip and taken by a man to a location off the beaten path. What follows is an unusual journey, and all the more compelling for the way it ends up, the unexpected shift in power and the way Jo challenges gender and genre convention in noir. Jo leads you down one path, to take a sudden turn in the story, to call it a twist doesn’t for me get to the root of what I think Jo has achieved here. This reads to me like a very deliberate challenge to mainstream crime writing and the expectations of characters within it, Jo is playful with typical structures and subtly subverts them to create a compelling tale that doesn’t go where you would necessarily think. Jo writes Jennifer’s story in an almost scattershot approach, thoughts go off on tangents before coming back round, in a sometimes disorientating manner. Jennifer is disorientated though and the writing really allows you to get into the head of the character and understand her, at times she is scared of taking the step to divorce Jake, at other times panicked and terrified at what she is enduring. As Jennifer starts to calm and feel more in control of her situation though, so the writing calms too.
Jake is a very different character, and his story is of a set up armed robbery and the aftermath. The ill-conceived crime, the attempt to get enough money together to set up a new life. The delusional partner with no real sense of what things cost. The increasing sense of despair as he realises things haven’t gone quite to plan. Jake is a nasty piece of work, who blames everyone around him for his lot in life, he takes no personal responsibility preferring to place blame on others, particularly women. A horrible misogynist with almost nothing to recommend him. As you get to know Jake, you understand Jennifer’s situation better. Understanding both of these character’s independently allows you to more fully appreciate how the two sets of events came to be, to get under the skin of what motivates them. I said the stories were inextricably linked and this is how. Each takes its power and impact from the other.
Death of a Sinner is the fifth entry in Derek Farrell’s Danny Bird series. I’m a huge fan of this series, as you can read here and here, and so a new entry is very much something to get excited about. When this book was announced I was intrigued to see how Derek would handle the shorter wordcount, his books are typically in the 300+ page range, he’s not known for brevity, so cramming one of his detailed mystery thrillers into a little over 100 pages was always going to make for an interesting read. What I really enjoyed here is how he has embraced the shorter format of the novella and instead of this feeling like a full-length book crammed in, it feels like the correct format for this particular story. I’m a fan of novella’s for exactly this reason. Not every story needs 80k words, and those that don’t are no less valid. Unfortunately, they are often seen as less commercial and so struggle to see the light of day, unless you have a publisher with the guts to find a way.
Our story opens on not one but two prologues. The first of a school bully and her victim, the second of a cheap 24/7 Vegas wedding chapel. Both are important in the mystery that follows, a mystery set around a highly successful reality TV show called SINners Palace and its cast. Danny gets involved as the latest series needs locations around London and via her connections Danny’s best friend Caz volunteers his pub, The Marq. Everyone is excited for this it seems, apart from Danny. Danny is not a big fan of the show in question to put it mildly and would rather avoid the chaos of the show being in his pub. Outvoted and outgunned at every angle though, even Danny’s gangster boss is in favor as SINners Palace is his granddaughters favorite show, he agrees to the use of his pub as a location. And when one of the cast thinks she is under threat, and a death soon follows, Danny inevitably gets sucked in to the investigation.
Derek hits all the notes we have come to know and love in this series. We have layered character’s, a more going on than first meets the eye mystery, colorful and camp prose and dialogue, and all the regulars. I particularly enjoyed the recurring joke of Ali, Danny’s bar manager and an acerbic wit, and Caz sitting back with snacks and a drink to enjoy the live show when things start to kick off. Which happens quite regularly with this being a cast put together specifically and cynically to encourage on screen drama. Which links to the social conscience running through the Danny series, here we have commentary on the dangers of over exposure on social media and the damage that certain types of TV shows can do if their stars and guests are not properly supported. The strain that can be placed on a persons mental health is real and can be very damaging, the fact that a person is on the TV and a bit famous does not make them immune to this in any way, yet social media and the press often treats them as targets with no thought as to the damage they could be inflicting, they are not seen as people anymore. It’s a dark side to entertainment and one which is increasingly being called out, hopefully we will see some positive change as a result. In our story, these impacts loom large in the case of SINners Palace.
Two very different styles of noir complement each other perfectly, a coming together of classically American and British styles which makes for a wonderful volume. The contrast only serves to heighten the overall impact of the book, allowing both writers the space to shine without readers subconsciously drawing comparisons. Apt really from a publisher that describes itself as a transatlantic love cult.