Years back I had a day where I had little to do so first thing after breakfast I sat down to a read a bit of this paperback book Green River Rising by Tim Willocks that I had just bought after seeing it recommended somewhere. It’s the story of a prison uprising and it turned out to be one of the most downright addictive books I’ve ever read. Willocks has pretty unique style that brings a literary sensibility to the lowest depths of human nature but which forges forward with thriller plotting. I finally came up for air in the early evening having read it cover to cover in one sitting. (I had a similar reaction to Iain Banks’ Complicity, reading that in one go too.)
Not too long afterwards I saw the hardback of Blood Stained Kings and immediately bought it. It would be a little while until I managed to get hold of Bad City Blues, Willocks’ first book, but it was eventually republished as a paperback.
Kings is actually a direct sequal to Blues so it was a bit odd to read them in that order. This time I’ve re-read them the right way around.
Set in the southern states of the US, in Blues we are introduced to Cicero Grimes, ex-surgeon and shrink now making an ‘honest’ living putting criminals and other low-life through his custom detox program (Willocks is actually a specialist in addiction himself) and the corrupt police captain Clarence Jefferson. The latter is one of the most powerful and vivid characters I’ve ever encountered, up there with Hannibal Lecter. (Like Lecter he unfortunately has a bit of an destabilising effect on the novels as, though the other characters are great, they can’t quite measure up to the ‘Shithammer’). Physically huge, Jefferson is a distillation of every bad-ass Southern bastard you’ve ever read about or seen. He’s also a fiendish autodidact. And an utterly insane sociopath. Willocks seems to bring a lot of professional expertise to the latter characteristic and the tracts of the novels examining Jefferson’s thought processes are mind-warping to say the least. The action brings in Cicero’s drug smuggler brother, his ex-prostitute girlfriend and her lunatic born-again preacher husband. Everyone is after proceeds of a bank robbery.
Unfortunately Blues is not quite up to the standard of Willocks’ later work. He never goes overboard on plot but it is particularly threadbare here. There’s a protracted integration / torture sequence padded out with lashings of Jefferson’s mad philosophy that goes on for a bit too – it seems like about a quarter of the book – and whilst important to the novel as a whole it does not have to be anywhere that length.
Kings has more plot and more action. It introduces a whole load of new characters – including Grimes’ father a retired Union bruiser and ex-marine, a young female soul singer, a DA who things he’s a bad ass but he’s way out of his depth, a hillbilly pilot who’s thinking of turning Muslim – ‘you get to choose a cool name for yourself’ – and Gul, the greatest canine character in any book I’ve read. This time the maguffin they are all chasing after are Jefferson’s files on all the corruption he’s been involved plus there is a unbelievably twisted revenge story subplot.
It’s not quite as good as Green River Rising though – but then, not a lot is.