Wednesday, November 16, 2022

OUTSIDE, Ragnar Jónasson's non-Dark Iceland thriller & DEVIL TAKE THE HINDMOST, 1920s London noir about lost innocence

(tr. Victoria Cribb)
Minotaur Books
$27.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Four friends. One night. Not everyone will come out alive . . .

When a deadly snowstorm strikes the Icelandic highlands, four friends seek shelter in a small, abandoned hunting lodge.

It is in the middle of nowhere and there's no way of communicating with the outside world.

They are isolated, but they are not alone . . .

As the night darkens, and fears intensify, an old tragedy gradually surfaces - one that forever changed the course of their friendship.

Those dark memories could hold the key to the mystery the friends now find themselves in.

And whether they will survive until morning . . .


My Review
: Short, intense, and darkly atmospheric novella by one of Iceland's most valuable exports.

This honestly feels like a climactic scene from a longer novel that Ragnar didn't think was working, but it was just too darn good to let go to waste. We join the dramatis personae in medias res, we experience the building tension of a climax, and then...that was it...? Abrupt ending that doesn't do a lot of explaining, at least to me. It makes the whole exercise of reading the book just a bit frustrating to invest in the idea of this kind of pressure-cooker plot and then...stop.

I think everyone over 21 knows that we're defined by our worst moments, our biggest lapses of judgment. (If there are kids in your life, you *really* know this!) And we all know there are people in our lives whose place is more theirs by habit than by any desire on your, often nor their, part. People change and when we're young we think that won't matter. It's only as the weight of coping with our own lives becomes more and more demanding that we realize the weight of carrying someone whose place in our life is no longer a good investment of our energy.

The problem for me, in reading this chilling short take, is that these emotions are so common to all adults that to see them turned into a justification for chillingly, cruelly premeditated murder is asking me to go a bit farther than I'm generally prepared to go. The murderer in this piece is so coldly obsessed with a terrible event that no other thing can be allowed to enter their mental sphere.

Sociopaths aren't delightful company, and the ugliness of the murderer's interior is too much the focus of the story for me to get anything I wanted in the way of understanding out of the read. I left as revolted as I entered, and that's not a good reult for me.



Freight Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$9.59 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A gripping historical noir set during the amphetamine-fuelled craze for velodrome racing which took London by storm in the late 1920s.

Into this world stumbles Paul, a bewildered Scottish farmboy running away from home. Powerfully built with a fierce passion for cycling, he is taken under the wing of Silas, a local loan shark, and from there enters a world he is ill-equipped to survive.

As the races get harder, the bets get larger, and the terrifying Mr Morton starts to take an interest in Paul's career. For fans of Peaky Blinders and Brighton Rock, Devil Take the Hindmost is a thrilling ride through a historical London that is rarely visited.


My Review
: So, you've read the synopsis. You've seen the way the parade's headed. And, you clever thing, you've seen my rating. Why isn't it up to a four?

Because it was a very good story that didn't need to make Silas, the intermediary between the owner and the athlete, have a queer passion for the athlete to make its point.

It's not like it never happens. There's an entire subsection of M/M romances based around this plot. But those are *reciprocated* queer feelings. These, with the best will in the world, are not. I hasten to say this isn't ever promised to us. It's never even said out loud in the story's description. It's still there, though, one gets the little tickle behind the eyeballs that means either excess pollen or gay subtext is in the blurb's air.

Then we get to the story itself. To the author's credit there isn't a lot of dishonesty in the presentation of the gay subtext. It's there, it's known...just nothing comes of it. So, though I found this oft-told tale well done, and the author's gift for dialogue pretty darn decent, this story suffers from the same thing that My Policeman suffered from: Yes, in the 2010s; not so much in the 2020s.

What led to a whole star-and-a-half going back onto the rating is the way the athlete, a raw innocent from the nowhere that was Scotland in the 1920s, simply doesn't care about the man who's in love with him being a man. I mean, it's not for him, but it's also not a problem because they're really good friends and that's what he values the most. The ending, which did not surprise me one bit, did satisfy me. I was completely comfortable with the way Author Froden sent these characters off into the world to meet their destinies. Why? Because, in every case, there was a powerful sense of each one grabbing the power to *create* that ending. Win, lose, or draw, each characted earned their destiny.

Nothing whatever wrong with a revenge story, in my book at least.

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