Crime authors are ten a penny these days, but mention must be made of Frank Bill’s debut collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana (FSG Originals), where pulp shock-horror confronts a Midwest long since cut out of the American dream. Bill’s characters are worn down by their own lives, desensitized and numb to the needs of others. They kill because it solves their problems, whether the inopportune arrival of a lawman, the burden of an inconvenient lover, or a relative who refuses to die and pass on their inheritance. There’s grim stuff here – I’d never realised how many ways there are to describe somebody being murdered – but also restraint and compassion; in the title story, which centres around dog fighting, we’re spared the grisly details of this so-called “sport” in favour of the grief felt by a man whose dogs have been used for bait. It’s a book in which sensational foreground material is off-set by little touches of humanity and wider political awareness, never hammered home but always lurking in the background: when Able Kirby pimps out his granddaughter to buy drugs, it’s not meth or crack he’s after, but cancer medication for his dying wife.
There are good people in Indiana – my in-laws, for a start – but from now on, when we visit, I’ll keep the car doors firmly locked until we get there.
Those who read Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s monthly The Unwritten (Vertigo comics) will get a great deal of pleasure from the free-standing graphic novel, Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice. Those who don’t read it should. On one level, it inspects the way that stories shape our world; on another, it looks at the fate of poor, confused Tom Taylor, a Christopher Robin figure whose whole life has been dominated by his father’s best-selling children’s books. Is he really the boy magician, Tommy Taylor? This graphic novel answers a few questions and poses more, while juxtaposing a (rather good) Harry Potter pastiche with the sinister manipulations of its fictional author.
For a time it seemed that Carey might linger indefinitely in Neil Gaiman’s lengthy shadow (his excellent Lucifer series was built on Gaiman’s Sandman universe), but with The Unwritten and the earlier, ill-fated Crossing Midnight, not to mention the Felix Castor novels, he has marked out his own territory. Few people in comics or out can provide such sheer entertainment and good story telling.
I’ve finally got round to JG Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come. It’s not his best, though still head and shoulders above the competition; and it strikes me as interesting that, for a man whose early novels read like a succession of still lifes, his later thrillers have a real page-turning quality as he exposes the inherent psychopathy of the modern world. He’s a little off the mark in terms of topicality here (unlike his previous book, Millennium People, which so perfectly fingered the malaise of a disappointed middle class), and much of the scenario, with its George Cross-wearing bully boys, recalls Britain in the late ‘70s when the National Front was at its most visible. A move to the right by successive UK governments has taken the demonization of out-groups (immigrants, benefit claimants) from the fringe to mainstream politics, a far more disturbing situation. This, though, is a minor quibble. With his apocalyptic imagery here deployed on the home front, and his trade-mark stylised dialogue, reading this novel is like a reunion with a long-lost friend, reminding me how perceptive and unique Ballard’s work always was. He influenced many, but no-one ever matched him. He is much missed.