Review: BLACK BRICK by Jack Spittler

Many times over the years I have been asked to read over someone’s book. Usually it is a friend. Invariably it is a nervous character who sidles up with an easy to recognise expression of anxious anticipation.

They have the twin fears: first that I will say I cannot make time to read their work. This is a fixed position, because it is damned hard to make time. It’s hard enough to read the books I really want to, without taking on review copies of books I don’t know whether I’ll like or not. And reviewing for friends or others means eating into my spare time. During my working hours (which are considerably longer than most working weeks) I have to try to earn income. Reading for other people, unpaid, doesn’t fit that criterion. 

Sometimes I’m sent books to review from publishers. That doesn’t help. Recently I have been sent a number of bodice-rippers, a book of short stories on the subject of “love” (WHY?), the life story of a Harry Potter actress and the memoirs of a Radio One DJ. Do I look like the sort of crime writer who would want to read such stuff? And if I were, my readership tends to be people with interests in murder and medievalism. Who would want to read my review of a love story?

I have no interest in any of these. OK?

However, each story donor also has a second terror. That is, that I’ll say “yes”.

Why would they fear a positive response? Because I will be honest. If I’m reading a book, whether it’s for review or to give advice, I think the author deserves an honest assessment from me. Any author giving me his or her work will receive a genuine critique – and that itself is a scary proposition.

I know all about such fears. After all, in the last 25 years I must have submitted about fifty novels to friends and family, agents, editors and other authors for them to comment on. It is not a pleasant experience. There is always that long, deeply painful period of waiting, hoping that the reader will be gripped, thrilled, and delighted.

So you will understand that, much though I love reading, and really enjoy receiving new books to read, when it’s a book from an unpublished friend, there is a truly daunting aspect to it. It could easily lose many good friends. But I won’t lie to them. Which is why you see few, if any, comments here about books by friends who are not published. The few friends I do speak of are either professional writers (Karen Maitland, Susanna Gregory, Quintin Jardine, and many more) or have been let down badly, I believe, by the publishing industry (go and look up Andy Costello’s brilliant BOXING CLEVER).

Some eight years ago, I was privileged to be invited to go to New Orleans. A fan of my books, Jack Spittler, had asked me to be his guest at the annual New Orleans Mardi Gras. To my astonishment, this meant I was the Grand Marshal of the first parade of 2014 (if memory serves). It was a wonderful time, and Jack and the other organisers could not have been more kind and generous. It left me with memories I’ll hold for the rest of my life.

Which is why, when I recently received in the post a book by Jack Spittler, I was aware of a certain trepidation. I really like Jack and his family, and I did not want to have to rip it to shreds. As soon as I could, I sat down to read his work.

It is a crime book. That immediately sets it high above most of the books I have received from publishers in the last quarter.

However, it is considerably better than many crime books I’ve been sent. I loved it.

First, it is set in an area I really don’t know at all: Oklahoma. The countryside, the people, were all brought home vividly to me. Why? Because it is like Scandinavian stories, or like Michael Connelly’s stories set in Los Angeles, or like James Clavell’s books – they were set in locations I do not know and the comparison with my world makes such stories stand out. The difference in culture between those areas and my own give the stories additional depth. That was the case with Jack’s book too.

This story, THE BLACK BRICK, has the additional strength of a cast of wonderfully realised characters. Again, these were new to me because it is set in Native American territory, and with Native American protagonists. For me, that brought a whole new dimension to the writing.

The Black Brick starts with a violent sailor, Lonnie, who is forced to leave the US Navy after he killed who fellow sailors. It is clear that he was provoked, but that is not enough to excuse his violence and he is convicted of murder.

However, on his journey to the prison, he escapes and eludes his guards, only to be found and befriended by a gang which wants him to join them.

Meanwhile Jay Nation is a cop, raised on the reservation, and enjoying his job. There is rarely any violence or trouble, and with his position confirmed by the State, he feels up to any challenge – until, that is, there is a murder, and rumours of a “Murder Incorporated” organisation based in Texas which is killing within Jay’s territory. The first victim is the patron of a local bar 0- but it sounds wrong to Jay. The man is only an ordinary guy, not the sort to justify a contract killing. But as Jay delves deeper into the background, he begins to uncover secrets that should have stayed hidden.

He’s fortunate in his colleagues, but soon the FBI get involved, and he has to contend with Britt, a prickly, abrasive woman of Sak and Fox tribe. She is not going to make his life any easier.

This is a brilliant first outing for Jack Spittler, and a great introduction to Jay Nation. Each chapter has its own introduction which incorporates a piece of Native American wisdom. For example, Chapter Six has:

“Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good, and they fight each other all the time. When asked which wins, I answer, ‘The one I feed the most.’” (Chief Red Cloud, Lacota).

I really enjoyed each of these little pieces of wisdom, which had a relevance to their chapters.

So, did I enjoy this book? Yes, definitely. It is not a deeply convoluted story in the vein of Agatha Christie or PD James, but the plot works well, the characters are all well-rounded and believable, and for me this was a brilliant story to dive into and relax with – and it is very difficult for me to find books that achieve that for me. The people, the locations, the storyline and the aphorisms all worked well for me.

I was going to say, if you like the writings of … but then I couldn’t think of any writer quite like Jack Spittler. I guess the overall plotting is rather like Dick Francis – it is a good, strong, cosy crime story at its heart. All I can say, really, is that I enjoyed it enormously. It’s well-written and it’s different.

So, for the first time for a friend who gave me a copy of his own book, I can happily state it’s a Highly Recommended!

One Response to “Review: BLACK BRICK by Jack Spittler”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Another review from Michael…


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