The first thing I noticed about this chapbook from Nine Arches Press – part of their new Hotwire crime imprint – is the physical quality. It’s immaculately inked and typeset on thick, cream-coloured paper, with a double red and black card cover. Having paid good money for wonky, flimsy pamphlets in the past, this is a promising start and shows a passionate attention to detail. But is the content any good?
As the monopoly-themed title suggests, there is a downbeat vibe to these urban crime tales. Our protagonists are as flawed as you would expect, but any cliches are acknowledged with a weary smile as they search for destruction or redemption – often both – in this perfectly evoked world of smoky pubs, prisons and decrepit warehouses.
The first 3 tales are written in the 1st person, the author’s short sentence style lending a spoken word flavour. I could imagine being regaled by some jaded ex-con leaning on the bar at closing time.
“This Night Last Woman” is first, narrated by a hard drinker with nothing better to do at a karaoke night. He begins a relationship with a similar wayward soul, a pale, dark-eyed siren who promises a textbook disaster, but it turns out that both of them have encountered more than they bargained for.
“No More the Blues” is a short but powerful anecdote of a tense music fan attending a blues gig that descends into violence. The voice is strong as ever, and I was spoiled for choice when trying to select an example.
“Before I really have time to think about it, my pen-knife is open in my hand and my hand is pressed to his throat. Like a knee-trembler, how quickly you reach the point of no return.”
The story manages to carry much more weight than its few words should allow, and concludes with a surprisingly, yet very pleasing, elegiac tone.
“The Black Dog” brings strong elements of mystery to the story of murder: a woman bludgeoned and drowned beneath a pile of hot tarmac. It has a couple of tricks up its sleeve, using oblique references that allow us to piece the story together ourselves.
Switching to 3rd person, we get “Blue Mirror” which presents the less glamorous side of rock n’ roll. It follows the love/hate relationship of two key players in a moderately successful band that is losing its way, and even the booze and hedonism becomes depressing beside the frozen pizzas, debt and undiscipline. The author has a talent for painting huge vistas with the tiniest dabs of paint, and I would’ve happily seen this story expanded.
It saves the best until last with “Rituals”, the tale of a drug-gang who stumble upon the scene of underground gay porn being filmed in a derelict factory. An accidental fatal shooting by tough guy Finlay gives him some real inner demons of guilt and desire, and we almost empathise with his dark but subtle downward spiral. It asks some interesting questions about human nature, and his journey into one of the city’s seediest nightclubs is an incredible piece of cinematic noir fiction.
“As a child, he’d believed the outside world was only a city in daylight: after nightfall it became a forest.”
Joel Lane is capable of incredible place, and there are no weak links here, the characters and plot devices all very self-assured. Like Gene O’Neill’s moody masterpiece Taste of Tenderloin, I could feel the oily rainwater soaking through my shoes, the cloying taste of happy-hour whiskey and too many cigarettes. I also enjoyed the musical elements. It requires a deft turn of phrase to effectively weave music into fiction, but the author has it down to an art. Whether as integral to the plot or trickled in for ambience, it gives the collection a lyrical, heartbreaking flavour. Songs are sung, they mingle with memories, and infuse the text with that sense of regret and loss that is the essence of any gritty crime fiction.
At £5 for 40 pages, Do Not Pass Go certainly isn’t cheap, but still worth a purchase. It’s immediately obvious that during the writing, compiling and printing stages, somebody has thoughtfully tweaked this little book until it’s just right, and that’s much more satisfying than a bargain. Click here to join these troubled and dangerous protagonists on a walk through the city’s lurid shadows. They don’t all go directly to jail, but nobody passes go, and as for collecting the 200 quid…