Review: Good Cop, Bad War

Book Review

Good Cop, Bad War 

Neil Woods

Ebury Press, €18 hardback

 

 

 

Review: Cormac O’Keeffe

Having a sword pressed to your throat in the course of your work might be a sign that you should reconsider your job.

Not that it stopped Neil Woods.

Neither did being almost deliberately run over by a car, having a knife pushed against his back, or being repeatedly headbutted by a group of heavies.

But, it’s fair to say, Neil’s job is not your average occupation.

For a staggering 14 years, between 1993 to 2007, he was an undercover agent for a British police force.

According to the blurb for his book Good Cop, Bad War he was “the first and best of his kind”.

As the title suggests, it was a mission which he gradually became to believe was not only unachievable but fundamentally wrong. The mission in question was the so-called ‘war of drugs’.

It’s a debate that has come in from the fringes to the mainstream in recent years.

Neil’s story is one that has been little heard in that debate, primarily because his line of work is shrouded in secrecy and some controversy.

He provides a compelling argument against the so-called war, although it is up to the reader to determine if it is a convincing one.

Neil’s book, written in conjunction with JS Rafaeli, details the human costs of the war, seen through the impact inflicted on, for want of a better word, the ‘footsoldiers’.

These are the users and user-dealers, through whom undercover agents must go, and must exploit, in order to get to the people above them – those at the middle and higher ranks.

These individuals are expendable, and in many cases are essentially ‘entrapped’ into committing crime.

But more than that, these individuals have their safety, and very life, put at risk – because if and when the dealers above them are caught, they will be blamed for assisting the agent.

While I may have put a few of the gang away for a while,” Neil writes after one successful operation, ‘I had done absolutely nothing to address the situation that actually gave them their power. And, along the way, I had made a lot of vulnerable lives even more unbearable.”

And there’s more, he says. Because of the work of police – and the fear gangs have of undercover agents – bosses impose ever greater levels of intimidation and violence to protect their empire.

This, in turn, inflicts greater misery and terror on users, potential witnesses and entire communities.

Neil Woods

Not only that, police officers are vulnerable to corruption.

Neil provides a great public service in giving a voice to these addicts and addict-dealers and gives us a moving insight into their grim and grinding, and often dangerous, daily lives.

He also paints a picture of the scale of economic devastation and social neglect of whole areas of the East Midlands, from Derby to Leicester, to Northampton and Nottingham.

It’s not that Neil doesn’t show the benefits of his work: truly despicable gang bosses were jailed by virtue of his bravery.

But to Neil, this does not balance out the costs. To him, the end does not justify the means.

This is not a dry book – in fact, there is humour throughout and plenty of entertainment and genuine thrills – and his tone is chatty and breezy.

Neil lived to tell the tale, but at a considerable price. He suffered severe stress and was only at the end diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. His work contributed to domestic strife and the collapse of his first marriage.

He went from “cop to campaigner” and is now part of a group, LEAP UK, calling for legalisation.

This is not a cool and balanced pro and con analysis of the debate. But it is a fascinating and telling insight, one that warrants reading and reflection by policy makers, shapers and practitioners.

This review first appeared in the Irish Examiner on 2 September 2017.

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The post I feared I might never write

 

Well, this is a post I wished I would write sometime – but feared I might never.

My novel is due to be a book. An actual published book.

I have signed a contract with Black & White Publishing. And, it’s due out next year.

There, I’ve said it.

I’m waiting for someone to tip me on the shoulder or to knock on the door and shout, ‘Fooled You’ or ‘Fool You’ or ‘Sorry, there has been a big mix up’. Or something like that.

It has taken me a month to write this. A month since I signed the contract and the publisher counter signed. I’m not sure what I have been waiting for, apart from the knock on the door or that tap on my shoulder.

My wife says there’s something wrong with me. I think she’s right. (“Hi, I am his wife and I can verify that YES, there is something wrong…..)

Next up are the edits. That should be okay, shouldn’t it?

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Ireland’s underbelly sliced open

Traumatised souls. Murderous housewives. Wise-cracking hitmen. Bloody revenge. It’s all there in this excellent collection of short stories from Irish crime writers.

 

 

Review: Trouble Is Our Business

Edited by Declan Burke

New Island, €19.95 Hardback

 

Búla bos to editor and crime writer Declan Burke and New Island for Trouble Is Our Business. The collection of 24 productions receives the endorsement of no less than Lee Child in a foreword.

This is not exclusively a collection of crime writing, with contributions here that could easily sit in book sections marked Ghost Stories, Horror and Sci-Fi.

There’s a sense of careful planning in the writers selected — with a more or less equal representation of genders and both sides of the Border.

Burke says that the first half of the book is dominated by male writers and the latter half by female ones, representing the trend over time.

Actually, all the relative newcomers are women — Niamh O’Connor, Louise Phillips, Sinéad Crowley and Liz Nugent.

There are entertaining reads: Phillips’s murderous, frustrated housewife in ‘Double’; Gene Kerrigan’s trademark slice of gangland noir in ‘Cold Cards’; a wise-cracking killer, deliciously executing vigilante justice, in Ken Bruen’s ‘Miller’s Lane’ and Alex Barclay’s pulsating four-page blast of blood-soaked Americana in ‘Roadkill Heart’.

There are troubling tales, driven by social issues of domestic violence and child neglect-come deceit, in Arlene Hunt’s ‘Thicker than Water’ and Adrian McKinty’s ‘Fivemiletown’.

There are some stories that don’t work, but they are buoyed up by the overall quality.

There are first-rate contributions from Colin Bateman, Eoin McNamee, Julie Parsons, John Connolly, Stuart Neville, William Ryan and Jane Casey.

Bateman delivers a stunning vignette, tightly-packed in just seven pages, of a traumatised North in ‘The Gaining of Wisdom’.

We are presented with a mother doing her supermarket shopping, the most ordinary of scenarios, where she is jolted back to past traumas when she sees the killer of her teenage brother “in an aisle devoted to spices and condiments”.

The power in this story and the beauty of the writing are worth the price of the book alone.

In a slightly more demanding, and successfully-crafted, story, Eoin McNamee also deals with the trauma of the North in ‘Beyond the Bar, Waiting’ — this time tracing the brutal treatment of children.

It is a sad and haunting tale and, given recent inquiries in the North and fresh revelations in the south, a well-timed contribution.

‘Kindness’ by Julie Parsons runs at a more measured pace, which makes its success as a story all the more impressive.

She paints a lonely but captivating main character in elderly Gwen Gibbon, who is dependent on, and treasures, acts of kindness in a noisy, bewildering and cold world.

John Connolly’s eerie ‘The Evenings with Evans’ made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

Revenge is the engine for the tale, but it’s the setting and the assured writing, which serve up a ghostly, Gothic tale, that makes this story particularly satisfying.

In ‘Green, Amber, Red’, Jane Casey gives us a deeply unsettling yarn, more like a horror story, of a warped couple with a deeply twisted take on parenting.

Also unnerving, in a spooky way, is William Ryan’s ‘Murphy’. The unnamed protagonist, his mind fractured by a terrible act of violence, walks the beach, where he meets a mysterious woman and his memories begin to reassemble.

One of the most powerful offerings, perhaps surpassing Bateman’s tale, also comes from another northerner in Stuart Neville.

‘The Catastrophist’, set along the lawless borderlands, initially jarred in that it seemed to this reader to borrow too heavily from events in real life.

However, the quality and sincerity of Neville’s work adds weight, rather than any insult, to that injustice.

It is a deeply moving, but also thrilling, read, following a killer, traumatised by his own actions, facing a stark choice of lesser evils, with the stake on the decision his own life.

Top-notch stuff.

 

This review was published in the Irish Examiner

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If you are kidnapped, never tell a lie…

THERE’S a black and white photograph in the opening pages of The ISIS Hostage. It’s of the hostage: Daniel Rye, a young Danish photojournalist.

He stands in darkness and appears to be looking sadly out of some sort of blackened out window.

Even in the gloom, his blond hair stands out. But apart from a mood of despondency, there is no other emotional connection.

However, by the time you finish reading the book, it’s difficult to dwell on the image.

It’s hard to accept that such horror happened to an ordinary young man, who only wanted to tell of the suffering of the Syrian people.

Daniel was one of 24 hostages — 19 men and five women — taken captive by the so-called Islamic State, the bulk of them in 2013. They were all journalists, photographers or aid workers.

The author of the book is fellow Danish journalist Puk Damsgard, a veteran Middle East correspondent.

Puk Damsgard

It is to her credit, and the mark of an old-school journalist, that she leaves the telling of the tale, in the main, to the experiences of the main actors.

The quality of the writing itself, however, is mixed. Sentences are sometimes clunky and flat, other times sharp and gripping.

At the start, we come across Daniel, post release, on a flight to the United States for the funeral service of James Foley — the American journalist who was beheaded by ISIS in August 2014.

His British killer, the notorious ‘Jihad John’, became a household name at the time.

Out of his 13 months in captivity, Daniel spent eight of them with Foley, who converted to Islam during his imprisonment.

After the prologue, the reader is brought back to how Daniel came to be in Syria, where his life, and his family’s, was ripped apart in May 2013.

Daniel came from a modest background: his mother Susanne was a hairdresser and his stepfather Kjeld was a lorry driver. His dad, a fisherman, died when he was just three.

Daniel had two particular talents: gymnastics, where he competed at national and international level, and photography. As the Syrian civil war erupted, he became interested and wanted to capture the experiences of its citizens at the hands of the Assad dictatorship.

In April 2013, he flew to Gaziantep in southern Turkey and met up with a ‘fixer’, a local used by journalists, and networked with other journalists and aid workers.

On his return to Denmark, he had a phone conversation with a man known only as Arthur — a security consultant who came to have a pivotal role in his life.

He advised Daniel against the trip to Syria, saying the risk of kidnapping had grown since 2012 and that journalists were fair game among Islamist rebel groups.

Daniel Rye

“If Daniel were kidnapped, the golden piece of advice was: never tell a lie, create a routine for yourself and play the game,” Damsgard writes.

Daniel said his goodbyes to family and his girlfriend Signe and supplied them with contact numbers, including for Arthur.

From the start, he encountered problems and his photojournalism didn’t last long. After meeting the ‘local authorities’ Daniel, aged 24, was handcuffed and blindfolded.

His parents didn’t get the scheduled phone call from him and they rang the police. The fixer rang Arthur, who discovered Daniel’s captors were ISIS.

Daniel’s hell had only started.

It was an existence that would be dominated by disgusting sanitary conditions, beatings, torture, cramped spaces, hunger, heat and cold.

And there were death threats — of beheadings and the like.

These were interspersed by little moments of indulgences, like toilets and decent food. Early on, he made an escape attempt, but was quickly caught and beaten.

“He had reached a state of total exhaustion,” Damsgard writes. “Three weeks had now passed since he had been captured and he was starving, thirsty and urinating in his

trousers. His body simply couldn’t take it anymore.” He had more than 12 months to go.

He was moved throughout his captivity and, in the first stages, he was held in various parts of a children’s hospital in Aleppo.

There he tried to take his own life, by hanging, but it didn’t work.

Slowly, other prisoners joined him.

His torment continued, suffering terrible wounds to his hands and wrists.

And there was humiliation: forced to bark like a dog and bray like a donkey to his captors.

Susanne went a month without hearing anything. Then news came through via Arthur of talk of $700,000 ransom demand.

But the family was in a Catch 22: the Danish State prohibited payment of money to terrorist groups.

Around July, the family received their first picture of Daniel.

More prisoners joined Daniel: one from Denmark and more from France and Britain, and later Americans, including James Foley.

They were moved around regularly. They gave their various prisons names, like ‘The Box’, ‘Cigar Box’ and ‘The Dungeon’.

The prisoners played games and told stories — often of simple pleasures — to try and pass the time.

Daniel did his gymnastics and showed the others exercises.

The guards were mainly from the same countries as them, particularly Britain and France.

The prisoners called four of their captors, all British, ‘The Beatles’, and gave them the bands’ names. These guards were “feared the most”.

At one stage, Daniel had a gun shoved into his mouth. Another time, a sabre was held against his neck and he was asked did he want to lose his head.

Interpersed with Daniel’s tale, we follow the lives of Arthur and Daniel’s family.

The book gives an insight into the resourcefulness and expertise of Arthur, who was also trying to find Foley.

James Foley

Daniel’s parents half-lived and had to shield Daniel’s situation from everyone — as they didn’t want it to get into the media and inflame the situation.

At Christmas time, Foley’s parents got an email demanding $100m for his release.

At the time, the guards told Daniel he was going home — but it didn’t happen.

As bombs pounded around them in Aleppo, they were moved to Raqqa, the ISIS capital, where after a brief respite, the beatings and kickings resumed in their new jail, ‘The Quarry’.

Prisoners from Spain and France, where governments allowed ransoms to be paid, began to be released, dispiriting Daniel further.

A fresh demand of €2m was made for Daniel. His family had no choice but to risk publicity and began a massive fundraising campaign.

While the law prohibited financing terrorism it didn’t specifically criminalise the payment of a ransom to save a life.

On his 25th birthday, the guards gave Daniel a kick for every year.

The family eventually collected the money.

Now, they had to get it, all in cash, to the Turkey border. This was where Arthur stepped in again, an intriguing passage in the book.

On 19 June 2014, Daniel tasted freedom.

He had nightmares about being kidnapped and flinched when someone made a sudden noise.

His girlfriend Signe had moved on — another terrible price he paid.

Somehow, he forgave his captors.

“He found it easier to forgive than to be angry and filled with hatred,” Damsgard says.

Daniel survived. Unlike James Foley and six other of the prisoners.

 

*This review originally published in the Irish Examiner

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Around the Blocks of 2016

Does it happen to you that you can’t remember the books you read in the last year? Okay, you might know the more recent ones, but, whether it is advancing age or what, I’m having to scan various shelves and piles, both at home and in work, to recall the novels I read in 2016.

Not that I am a voracious reader. I give the usual excuse of time, together with being, well, a bit slow in the act of reading.

colum-mccann

Colum McCann

Anyway, here are the ones that stood out for me, along, in some cases, with a link to a blog post/review that I wrote on them.

Though published in 2015, I only got around to reading Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking in 2016 after hearing a work colleague go on about it. It’s a novella (from which the book is titled) and three unconnected short stories. An unusual combination but one that worked for me. It is a while since I read it, so I won’t try and review it. I would just urge you to read it if you haven’t already done so.

What stayed with me was the sheer quality and beauty of McCann’s writing.

I’ve dug out one of the scenes from the novella that I remember. It’s when the main character (now an elderly judge in New York) recalls leaving Ireland as a young boy many decades ago.

“The day he left Dublin, oh, the day. It was bright and dappled, a surprise of sunshine. The hackney pulled up outside, a large silver car, an air horn on the side with a loud commanding blast. The bags were packed. The suitcase were loaded. He hid himself in the cupboard underneath the stairs. America. He didn’t want to go. Didn’t want to leave Ireland at all. But his father had a job offer. A letter had arrived. Elaborate handwriting. An eight-cent stamp with a picture of a twin-motored transport plane. An invitation, or maybe an accusation. Another continent. He was dragged out from underneath the stairs, shoved down the steps and into the waiting car. He glanced backwards through the rear window and there she was, Eileen Daly, all eleven years of her – or was she ten? – waving to him from the window of her living room. The white curtains bracketing her face. Her head slightly tilted. A few wisps of dark hair around her shoulders. Her lips pursed open ever so minutely, as if about to speak. He knew even then that he would see her this way forever, his mind had processed a photograph and seared itself on his brain. He wanted to turn to wave to her again, but the hackney had already reached the corner and he waved instead at a dirty brick wall.”

This second novel grabbed me, literally, by the scruff of the neck. The Blocks was the debut novel of Irish poet Karl Parkinson.

the-blocks-karl-parkinson-copy

This was a real work of original writing: both in substance and style. Here’s the link to my  blog post on it, which also contains a review I wrote for the Irish Examiner.

Karl Parkinson reading from The blocks

Karl Parkinson reading from The Blocks. Pic: Jacinta Leigh

I would encourage you to Google some of his audio work. For more check out @Kparkspoet

I also enjoyed Andrea Carter’s Death at Whitewater Church. A debut mystery novel from another Irish writer, it was a satisfying read: atmospheric; beautifully written and engaging. It is part of series and Andrea has since published Treacherous Strand. Here’s a link to my blog post on her first novel.

Death at whitewater church

Another Irish crime novel that I enjoyed was The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. It’s a punky, literary tale, blistered with black-humour, right from the underbelly of Cork city.

glorious-heresies

Amid the large array of characters in the novel, one stayed with me: Maureen – a crazed, but clever, old bint and mother to a gang boss, who she creates a whole lot of bother for. She stole the show for me.

McInerney’s dialogue was top notch as was her evocation of the distinct Cork “C’mere, what d’you think you’re doing?” accent.

The book received considerable praise from the critics and scooped the Bailey’s Prize http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/title/the-glorious-heresies

She has a follow-up novel, due out this April, called The Blood Miracles.

For more on McInerney see http://www.lisamcinerney.com/

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The Blocks

 

theblockswmarmraised

 

I first came across Karl Parkinson listening to Arena one night, around a year or so ago.

As far as I can remember, he read the Prologue from his then forthcoming book The Blocks and another chapter, which is a separate add-on (Hidden Track it’s called) that marks the end of the book.

I was immediately grabbed by the intensity of his readings and afterwards tracked him down on Twitter and made contact. I kept an eye out for when the book was being published and, when I saw him mentioning it, sent him a message asking for a copy so I could review it in the Irish Examiner.

See below for what I made of it.

Myself and my wife, Jacinta, went to his book launch, in the Stoutman’s Pub on James’s Street. Jacinta took these photos from the night.

theblocks1wm

Book review: The Blocks

Saturday, September 10, 2016

WHAT stays with you long after you finish The Blocks are the images, the words and, even more than that, the sounds.

The author of the novel, Karl Parkinson, is a poet after all.

“De fat kids drink bottles uv coke wit der names on dem n spit chicken bones on de ground. Nike n Adidas signs er everywer, tracksuits uv indigo n concrete grey, luminous yellow n glowin Dutch orange runners on der feet.”

Like a poem, this novel suits being read aloud. It’s the better way to enter the flow of it, as it brings you on an absorbing ride — warts and all — into a part of Irish society rarely seen by most.

The words are working class Dublin speak, and the spelling, phonetic. For those who are from these areas, or who live or work there, it is easy enough to follow. For the rest, some might balk at the apparent demands of it: but push yourself that small bit. You will be rewarded.

The setting is three notorious flats complexes: Ballymun (north Dublin); O’Devaney Gardens (north inner city) and Fatima Mansions (south inner city).

These flats loosely bookmark the novel’s three stages: childhood; adolescence, and adulthood.

But it’s O’Devaney Gardens that is the heart of the novel, straddling all three stages of the personal, artistic and spiritual journey of the protagonist Kenny Thomson.

odevaney-gardens

O’Devaney Gardens

“O’Devaney Gardens n I grew der wit all de junkies, thieves, madmen n madwomen, sinners n singers, comedians n clowns. Wit de relics n de blood n de violence, n de beautifully deranged, de stories n de saints.” From the start, as a child, Kenny has a gift, or “the sight”, with a direct link to the mystical. He sees, and converses with, angels and demons.

The most striking of these creatures are what Kenny calls the ‘Glooptings’, physical and metaphysical forces — forces of darkness, violence, misery and nightmares. They prey on all, particularly the most vulnerable.

The Blocks is a heady mix of grim social realism and fantasy, dropping the reader from a height into a world filled with blood and bones, drugs and drink, pain and grief, profanity and prose, abusive drunks of das and violent, but caring, mas. Kenny is a shaman of the blocks, spitting the demons out.

The novel is also about friendship and humour, art and literature, and love. Kenny’s friends comprise addicts, the depressed, poets and musicians. Their lives centre around booze and dope, football and girls, music and bands, the dole and dead-end jobs, break-ups and death.

There are stand-alone scenes: snippets of lives that are sometimes terribly moving and sad. They all leave marks on the reader.

Kenny, who comes across as the author the more we get to the end, finds refuge and purpose, first in lyrics and, then, in poetry — and in his love for girlfriend Tara.

The Blocks (and what a deadly title) is a story from the frontlines. It’s a voice for, and of, the voiceless. With the Ballymun towers and Fatima demolished and O’Devaney Gardens set for the wrecking ball, this is a social history too.

the-blocks-karl-parkinson-copy

What few faults there are might include the sheer amount of characters, the occasional confusion around who’s voice we are hearing and occasional repetition on drugs and music.

Parkinson’s work packs a punch, both literary and political. A modern day tract of sorts.

“…de blocks er supermarket shelves wer de poor er stacked tegether.. de blocks wer gargoyles perch on de edges, wer de dark entities cry in the cracks..oh My God wot has become uv yer children in dis garden uv black flowers…”

Published by New Binary Press

 

LINKS

  1. Irish Examiner review http://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/artsfilmtv/books/book-reviewthe-blocks-420157.html

2. Karl Parkinson @Kparkspoet

3. New Binary Press http://newbinarypress.com/karlparkinson/

4. Karl on youtube

5. Arena

http://www.rte.ie/radio1/arena/

 

 

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Is it ever finished?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself.

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Last September, I finished my novel – and sent it forth to the unwelcoming bosom of agent land.

Now, I’ve just finished it again. Due, it has to be said, to my first foray into that strange world.

Not that it was really that awful. There were a few who seemed to like it and asked for the whole manuscript. But, that’s where it ended.

Some others were quite nice in response and a decent number gave constructive comments. One even liked it a good bit, but not quite enough to read the whole magnum opus.

Thankfully, I haven’t despaired. Mainly because I have a day job – one that has been turned all the way up to 11 for much of this year in terms of workload.

A few months ago, I tried a different tack and sent a submission to a scout. Yes, a new being for me. Not a publisher, not an agent, but a scout for agents.

The scout seemed to like it, but suggested some changes and additions. All of which made sense.

So, I opened up Draft 22, and started on Draft 23.

Novels are, as we know, one entity, so if you make changes at the start (some in the form of content, others stylistic) it has a ripple effect, or multiple ripple effects. The changes have to be consistent throughout the novel.

I went through the entire thing, like a jaded jungle explorer, hacking away.

When you rewrite, there is the fresh potential of new spelling/grammar mistakes. That requires (for me at any rate) another run through, to proofread. For that I printed the thing out. It’s funny when you print it out you see more that needs to change than when you worked on it on the screen. So it turns into more than proofreading, and you make more content changes. And it goes on….

You are frustrated, exhausted, partially blinded (from familiarity), and, at the same time, battling our old friend – doubt and self-criticism.

There is that terrible sensation that you are making it worse, by taking this out, putting that in, rewriting this, deleting that. You can write it to death.

But, at your centre, you have to keep your focus and breathe oxygen into that belief that there is something in this.

Draft 23 has been sent to said scout.

Draft 23 is better than Draft 22. That is true.

But could I subject myself to Draft 24? Or will I mentally (perhaps even physically) fling it into the canal (where my novel is set)?

If a scout, agent, publisher does bite, I’m sure there could be Draft 24 and 25. But that’s different. Because you have jumped that obstacle. There’s progress. Someone else (apart from your wife/mother/dog/cat) actually sees something in it.

Anyway, to all of us going half or three-quarters or nine-tenths bonkers from finishing our first novel, keep hacking/shoveling/polishing.

To torture the much tortured phrase from the tortured Irishman…

Finish. Finish better.

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