Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Rapid Reviews: The DC Max Wolfe Series by Tony Parsons

Former rock music journalist turned novelist Tony Parsons has added a new string to his bow in the last year; turning out two full length crime novels featuring the cases of a tough West End Central DC, Max Wolfe.

These are what I call page turners. There nothing special in literary terms but they have enough about them to keep you interested and they're written by someone who clearly understands and appreciates punchy prose.

They also feel like they desperately want to be made into feature films or, at the very least, a TV series; The Murder Bag - the first in the series - especially so. Because Parsons doesn't deal in realism or authenticity, he places his hero in a converted loft apartment above Smithfield Market; a very des res affair above a plainclothes constable's wages I would presume, but perfect visually for the screen. I'm reminded a little of those '80s Hollywood fantasies of Simpson and Bruckheimer, who produced Flashdance, the rags to riches story of a female welder and part time erotic dancer who dreamt of making it big away from the daily grind to become a professional dancer...but lived in a plush loft apartment!  

Wolfe is a lone parent to his five year old daughter Scout (yes, as in To Kill A Mockingbird) and, in an attempt to become a normal family unit they possess a King Charles Spaniel called Stan. Normalcy is something the Wolfe's strive for, because it's bad enough being a single parent family, but when your job is as dangerous as Max's it's even worse.

Max Wolfe is a maverick cop y'see. The kind of cop who risks his life solving the crimes that cross his desk. Again authenticity is a bit of an issue here as you do wonder just how much responsibility a DC has on a case when there are superior officers around such as a DS and a DI, and when said superiors seem to be deferring to Wolfe, it really does start to go a bit silly. Why Parsons just didn't make him a DI or a DS I do not know.

The Murder Bag is the lesser of the two novels, bearing all the hallmarks of a debut in a series. It has many good ideas but a lot of poor choices too and I have to confess I didn't find the central mystery - someone is cutting the throats of a group of rich and elite establishment figures for something they did back in their privileged private school days - all that involving. I only read it last month but already I'm struggling to recall all that much about it. What I do remember however is the regular characters, largely because Parsons is quite a repetitive writer when it comes to scenarios and descriptions - I lost count of how many times he transports Wolfe to Scotland Yard's Black Museum in Room 101, a training facility run by tea drinking Sergeant John Caine, and how many times he explains what the facility is all about. It's something he goes on to do in the following book... 

The Slaughter Man however is a vast improvement. Parsons seems to have calmed down on the 'please adapt me for the screen!' front and shows some careful consideration and concentration on the narrative at hand. The central conceit is also much more engaging; a wealthy family is found slaughtered and the youngest child has been stolen away. The murder weapon was a cattle gun, the MO of a killer who murdered three people thirty years ago. Could he be killing again or are they looking at a copycat? Parsons weaves his tale effectively from the exclusive gated communities of North London to the capital's travellers camps, where no one talks to the police and the law is an abstract concept. 

If I had one quibble this time around its that he shows a penchant for too much violence and a flair for the melodramatic threat to his good guys is never far from his mind. This is a double edged sword because on the one hand he's good at the pulpy narration of action and violence but on the other hand it can feel a bit OTT. I know it's expected nowadays to open any murder mystery with the crime to grip the reader from the opening page, but in The Slaughter Man Parsons describes the threat and the murders in great detail before moving the action on to a shoot out involving Wolfe and his colleagues, which sees one character die - yet the background of this moment is never revealed, and Parsons doesn't dwell on the shocking and tragic result at all. 

Overall, if you're looking for a new series of crime novels I'd say give these a try. A third novel entitled The Hanging Club is set for release next year and I'll be picking it up at the library or in the charity shops. I can also say that I imagine Parsons will get his dream to come true and they will be adapted at some point. Here's hoping whatever comes out of them will be an improvement on recent cinematic British police thrillers such as Welcome to the Punch and Blitz. For what it's worth, I tried conjuring up Tom Hardy whenever I was reading.

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