Between the badass fiction they’re putting out, the reasonably priced books, the innovative ideas they’re coming up with and the sheer amount of fun they seem to have on a daily basis, Blasted Heath is quickly becoming one of my favorite publishers. I’m going to assume that, if you’re reading this review, on this website, you already know who Blasted Heath is. If not, click here to get hip. I got two of their initial releases—All the Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith and Dead Money by Ray Banks—and read them back to back, and was surprised how well they paired up. Though narratively unrelated, the tones of these two novels go together like Layer Cake wine and mushy peas (yeah, that’s a stretch. Good thing the books are better.)
When a pregnant police is gunned down during a routine traffic stop in rural Minnesota, her boyfriend, Detective Ray Bleeker, becomes hellbent on tracking down the killers and bringing them to justice. (And before we go any farther, can we just stop and look at what a great name ‘Ray Bleeker’ is for a wicked gritty book like All the Young Warriors?) Ray’s investigation hits a dead end when he finds that the killer, Jibriil, and his best friend, Adem, have left the country, headed to Somalia to fight with the rebel army. Ray is eventually forced to team up with Mustafa, an ex-gang leader and the father of Adem. Over in Somalia, Adem and Jibriil find out what the holy war is really like. This suits Jibriil’s sociopathic tendencies nicely, but Adem finds himself as out of place when surrounded by his countrymen as he was when surrounded by Minnesotans. Jibriil quickly assumes a position of power within the platoon while Adem’s more passive qualities land him an equally important, but very different, role. As the boys are finding their places in the rebel army, Ray and Mustafa make the trek to Mogadishu, appearing on the horizon as the most memorably mismatched team since Omar and Brother Mouzone, and try to track down the boys.
All the Young Warriors shows a marked progression in Smith’s writing, and if you’ve read his other books, you know that’s a tough thing to do. Warriors still features morally compromised characters committing incredibly violent acts, but there’s something more refined—if that’s even the right word—about it. It felt almost like the descriptions were pared back slightly from his prior works, blurring the line between the fictional characters and people in my neighborhood, making me forget which one is holding the machete. The pacing, while still snare-drum tight, is a bit more nuanced than previous books, as well. What really struck me, though, was the complexity of characters and how they mirrored the landscape. The culture clash Adem experiences, especially with a young nurse, is handled perfectly, exposing both the precarious position of immigrants and the ideological/theological impetus behind this war, a factor that keeps it churning despite the bests efforts of the west. Too, that rage boiling inside Ray’s empty chest tears at him the same way it does the rebel boys, which seems to spill over and infect their homeland. The Minnesota of Smith’s Billy Lafitte novels was always vivid, but something about the way the scenes in Somalia were drawn was incredibly affecting. Even though I was in my bed or on my couch, I found myself squinting away the blazing African sun, my chest twitching with dust from the collapsed buildings that line the streets of Mogadishu.
As a stark contrast to the scorched landscape of Warriors, Ray Banks’ Dead Money takes us through the casinos and pubs of rain-soaked Manchester with Alan Slater, double-glazing salesman, gambling aficionado and life raft for his deadbeat best mate. Alan’s got his life sorted into nice little sections: one for work; one for his wife, Kathy; one for his mistress, Lucy; and one for the aforementioned mate, Les. He does well to keep these all separated and in good working order. Until they’re not, of course. Cathy soon becomes suspicious of Alan’s philandering, Lucy demands more of Alan’s time, his work gives him fewer and fewer leads, and then Les has to go and off someone in a rigged poker game gone violently wrong. And it only gets worse from there.
Banks has a Cain-esque ability (James M., not Abel’s brother) to take well-drawn, realistic characters whose moral compass is wobbling, and lets them slash and burn their way to ruin. Every decision he makes is completely logical and set up to be the exact proper choice to make, even though it will clearly (to the reader) only lead him further into Hell. I’d feel guilty for not trying to intervene, but it’s so damned entertaining to watch them self-destruct I can’t help myself. Besides the pitch-perfect double-glazing sales sessions—something that could only come from agonizing real-life experiences—what really spoke to me about this novel was the characterization of Alan. He’s an unreliable narrator, but not in the traditional sense. I could believe everything he said, but his assertions and evaluations of the other characters were so clearly the product of a man either completely amoral or so cocksure, that confidence has devolved into delusion. It’s the same sort of framing mechanism Martin Amis used with the brothers in Success, but with a much more personable character, one I actually cared about, which created a much more chilling effect.
Though there probably wasn’t any conscious effort to pair Dead Money and All the Young Warriors, these two novels work so well together to create varying depictions of a man’s personal Hell. Smith’s Hell is sweltering, filled with murderous teens, piles of corpses, crumbling buildings and forsaken gods. It is as expansive as it is extreme. Banks’ Hell is a quieter place, if such a thing can be said, but one that replaces the agoraphobia of a damned Somali with a claustrophobic Manchester. The demons in Alan Slater’s life circle him, drawing closer with each successive chapter, tightening the screws against his temples. After travelling through these various ideas of Hell, the protagonists are left with much different understandings of redemption and justice. Both are intrinsically tied to their character, I think, though to say much more runs the risk of spoiling plot points readers need to experience on their own, so you’re just going to have to read it.
According to their website (or maybe an interview with the founders, Allan Guthrie and Kyle MacRae, I can’t remember which) with the abbreviated publishing timeline that digital affords, Blasted Heath hopes to release up to thirty books a year. The handful they’ve published so far are absolutely top shelf, and I’d expect their standards will remain just as high with the coming books. With a schedule like that, hopefully reviews like this will become a regular feature.