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Wreaking by James Scudamore Review

 

Wreaking by James Scudamore

Wreaking by James Scudamore, reviewed for The Bookbag.

 

A derelict mental hospital, gloomy railway arches, the bleak countryside of the English coast. It all comes at us in grey flashes. If Wreaking was a film, it would saturated with cool tones. It’s an easy novel to visualise: Scudamore’s spare, elegant style creates an almost palpable atmosphere.

The main characters, Jasper Scriven and his daughter Cleo, are estranged. Their difficult relationship is based on painful past events, which for most of the book we can only guess at. Their attempts at communication have us holding our breaths. Indeed, the intricacies of the father-daughter relation are the most gripping elements of this novel. Each tentative telephone conversation is like a battle between them. There are no screaming rows but silence proves to be as important as words and is certainly more threatening. It is easy to relate to both characters. Both are loners; they have a self-sufficiency which is close to harshness yet is laced with vulnerability. But it’s Cleo who we fear for during the phone conversations and during the flashbacks to the past.

The flashbacks take us to Wreaking, the derelict psychiatric hospital which Scriven bought when Cleo was a child and where he continues his reclusive existence. Roland and Oliver, who were teenage friends of Cleo’s when she lived at Wreaking, were also affected by events there.

In particular, Roland, a hulking man who works for seedy characters in a labyrinth of railways arches, is still haunted by what happened. We follow him around the rainy London streets, tortured by his thoughts and uncomfortable in his large body. In fact the other characters are constantly aware of their bodies too – Scriven needs an oxygen mask to breathe and Cleo often fiddles with her glass eye.

If the bodies cause discomfort, mental health looms large over the characters, which is unsurprising in a novel featuring an old psychiatric hospital. As the story unveils in complex layers, we realise that nothing is definite. Sanity, memory and identity prove unstable. The structure of the novel, told in a mix of flashbacks and of present and past tenses, mirrors this (…)

 

 

Book Reviews, Reviewing, Thrillers

No Regrets, Coyote by John Dufresne

RNo Regrets, Coyoteeview of a ‘Florida Noir’ thriller for thebookbag. No Regrets, Coyote, published by Serpent’s Tail.

 

You may or may not be aware that there is a style known as the South Florida Noir. The action tends to take place in daylight, in the glare of the Florida sun rather than in nightclubs or dark alleyways. If you’re not familiar with South Florida Noir, No Regrets, Coyote is a good place to start. And if you are, well, be assured that it is a perfectly crafted example of the genre.

Wylie ‘Coyote’ Melville, the hero of the book, is not your usual cop or private eye. He’s a therapist and has his own practice where he sees dysfunctional patients. He even has certain days reserved for couple counselling. The therapy sessions are both dark and funny; we get to quite a selection of strange characters, such as a porn-obsessed shelf-stacker. Coyote also volunteers as a forensic consultant with the Eden police force.

When the action starts, on Christmas Eve, the police call him to request his services. When he turns up, a scene of carnage awaits him. A man, Chaffin Halliday, has apparently murdered his wife and three children before turning the gun on himself. Murder-suicide, or something else? That’s what Coyote wants to find out. From then on, the case obsesses him. He keeps remembering all the small things that didn’t make sense and starts digging for more information.

The brilliant thing is that we sometimes wish he’d stop, drop the case and get on with his life. Do normal things, look for a girlfriend and above all keep safe. Because we fear for our hero. He’s faced with brutal enemies and doesn’t seem to know it. The reader realises the dangers Coyote is in, but he himself seems unable to understand how nasty people can be.

He’s genuinely nice, a guy who analyses his own dreams and shows endless compassion to those around him. He’s the opposite of macho. When he catches his friend, tough cop Carlos, staring into space over his breakfast sandwich, he asks him, ‘where did you just go?’

Coyote uses his keen observation skills and his understanding of what makes people tick to get himself out of sticky situations. And how sticky they are! We tremble for him as his honesty makes him enemies so ruthless that they seem to be just about to kill him or at the very least set him up for a life in prison.

But he goes on, delves deeper into the investigation. He finds out that Halliday owed gambling boats and that his wife may have had a mysterious past. He’s determined to get to the truth. Coyote is clinging to his own sense of order and this drive is a recurring theme. He wants to believe that justice will win out in the end. The tough guys tell him that his reality doesn’t exist. They are convincing – the bullies do seem to be in control in the corrupt little town of Eden, Fl.

But Coyote, soft though he looks never deviates from his sense of what is right. Luckily, his friend Bay Lettique, a professional poker player with useful links to the underground, is on hand to assist him. Bay, a charismatic character, always turns up just when things are getting desperate.

Apart from Bay, Coyote is surrounded by a little network of dysfunctional people. His family, an obese sister and father with Alzheimer’s, is needy. His adorable cat Django relies on him for survival. He befriends a homeless man and his cleaner is a schizophrenic patient of his. Coyote is generous and kind to them. These qualities are unusual in a sleuth and make him easy to relate to.

The novel has it all – suspense, psycho killers, sleaze and corruption, gangsters and explosions. Dufresne’s style is clear as glass, polished as steel, with beautiful sentences bubbling up here and there. The action is taut and thrilling and the denouement satisfyingly unexpected. Above all, No Regrets, Coyote has an original voice. It’s a high definition mix of magic, humour and menace under the unrelenting Florida sunshine.