Crime waves

Big Sky

Gareth Creer <em>Doubleday, 316pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0385602308

Voluntary Madness

Set among an odd assortment of small-time crooks on the north-east coast of England, Gareth Creer's third novel, Big Sky, is a story of drug deals gone wrong and lives spiralling out of control. Although this scenario has been written about and filmed countless times before - particularly in the post-Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels climate of British gangster chic - rarely has it received such skilful treatment as it does here. With its unlikely hero, Jimmy Mack, a mute whose simple quest is to save a soul, Big Sky lends the drugs-and-demons genre an absorbing dignity.

Creer's literary loyalties are eclectic and well chosen. Like Ian Rankin, he readily combines bleakness with extraordinary compassion; like Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler, he operates in a world where justice is not always the province of the law; and, like James Ellroy, he can endow the most extreme acts of retribution with poetic resonance. Yet the voice is absolutely his own.

Big Sky moves through English, Dutch and Spanish territories; while the pictures of Amsterdam and Andalucia are little more than sketches, Creer's England is deeply engraved. From an English village with its "shrinking ladies and flaking vicarage" to a "slow death" seaside town that has descended into violence and urban squalor, Creer's strong sense of place can transform a fictional nowhere into a place that is both exact and real. His writing is distinguished by his affection for the characters who inhabit these landscapes. Big Sky may be fashionably categorised under urban nightmare, but it is less a novel about bad men in a bad world than it is about ordinary people coping with a life that is better than the one they think they deserve.

In Voluntary Madness, Vicki Hendricks has written a funny and moving tale of a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde - Punch, who is dying from alcohol and diabetes, and his girlfriend, Juliette, who will do anything to help him. Determined to fashion both their lives and their deaths, they decide to spend a year together in Key West, collecting material for Punch's Great American Novel; when that is completed, they make a pact to kill themselves on Hallowe'en.

Since the publication of her first two novels, Miami Purity and Iguana Love, Hendricks has been acclaimed primarily as a lone woman writing in the male world of noir; Voluntary Madness, which is a few shades lighter and much more confident, proves that she can write about love as well as obsession, and is a far more satisfyingly whole book than either of its predecessors.

In his previous novels, particularly The Eros Hunter, Russell Celyn Jones showed himself to be a thoughtful writer with a sensitive approach to conflicts of love and identity. His latest novel, Surface Tension, draws on a scenario that is characteristically multi-layered: a complex relationship between Mark and his sister, Geena, which intensifies when she begins to recall images from a past that she doesn't recognise. This past includes a family secret that makes everyone question their assumptions about themselves and each other, as well as a journey into post-apartheid South Africa, from where Mark's parents fled, as political activists, many years earlier.

But while it has the imagination that coloured Jones's previous works, this novel lacks the same depth. The narrative is too often suspended by fragile platitudes, which undermine the interesting relationships that have been established. Surface Tension starts with an intriguing idea, but it ends as a missed opportunity.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Laughing all the way to No 10?