Cold Fire Calm Rage by Joe Stein
Review by Kieran Carey

OK, truth is, somebody recommended Cold Fire Calm Rage to me but I wasn't expecting too much. So I was more than pleasantly surprised (good British understatement) when I really got into this book. At last, I thought! A British thriller that doesn't bow to the current UK trend of jokey gangsterism or pointless action in order to cover credibility gaps big enough to drive a London double-decker bus through. Cold Fire Calm Rage has a real bite to it that gives believability to the characters and the scenes.

The story is certainly not a new one -- character caught up in something and having to decide what it is that he is or isn't prepared to do to get out of it -- but I was so drawn to the central character and so involved in his decisions and actions that thisbook became almost more of a character study than a thriller. Having said that, though, the action never flags and the three or four sections where the narrative shifts from first to third person, actually work, giving an unusual, off-balance feel to the story, and a realisation that there is something going on beyond the first person narrative that you are caught up in.

The story, as I said, is not unusual, something out of a thousand pulp fictions. Garron is an out of work ex-boxer who takes a one-off bodyguarding job from a man calling himself Smith, who turns out to be a London criminal. But naturally, the gig is a set-up and Garron finds himself playing the patsy in a situation that he doesn't even understand.

Meanwhile a second strand to the story develops, concerning high level European criminals attempting to recover a stolen computer disk which has been taken from them by one of their own people. The two stories come together in the middle of the book.

Garron's friends, as much in the dark as he is, are threatened and he decides that he has to fight back, but it's soon clear he's way out of his league. Still, he goes ahead and sets up a meeting with Smith -- unaware that both he and they are now being manipulated by the Europeans. It's all a neat twist on the PI/detective angle -- a bodyguard with an apparent conscience, but unsure of his own capabilities. And since Garron himself doesn't know how he's going to act, the reader doesn't either. I was carried along, not only by the action, but by the character's deliberations. The first person narrative is a tried-and-true way of drawing the reader in, and it sure suckered me in with this one. I found that I actually began to root for Garron, despite the fact that objectively, he's not always such a likeable character.

So what is it that makes the book work overall? I think it is the reality of the writing, of the character reactions and development. The London settings are spot on and the dialogue is real. Perhaps stereotypical in some cases, but then stereotypes are stereotypes because they do exist. Lines such as: "You know why they call them dicky bows, don't you? 'Cos they're wrapped round pricks". (Dicky bow is London slang for bow tie) are priceless and Stein has a good line in noting absurd realities. Hence: "This was ridiculous. Going off to kill someone, but having to put out the rubbish on the way. Exit first murderer stage left, with gun and large black bin liner." This is a story rooted in reality, not off in jet-set thriller land.

At the same time, the prose is punchy throughout and although detailed descriptive writing is rare in the book, the sense of the characters is clear. "He should have stayed in the shadows," thought Julot, "he was more impressive with a microphone. He is too short for his weight, his face is too heavy, his clothes are too sharp. He is a role player this one, he left his guts somewhere along the road to here."

So there we are. An intelligent, downbeat, London angle on the age old PI story and I loved it. Others may not, but I don't care. I'm off to buy one for my Mum now, she loves a bit of violence and psychosis

Cold Fire Calm Rage
By Joe Stein
Bluechrome Publishing (UK), 2004
250 pages

Review submitted by Kieran Carey, February 2005.

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