Reading a book that’s outside of your comfort zone can be scary – you don’t get that warm blanket of instant familiarity and have to fight against the bit of your reading brain that says you won’t enjoy it. But getting away from your reading comfort blanket can be extremely rewarding too – the books challenge and engage, providing different input and exposure to new scenarios, new characters and new writing style.
This, in a nutshell, was my experience reading City Without Stars, which I am delighted to welcome to The Shelf today. Anyone who’s followed The Shelf for a while knows I’m a mystery/crime/thriller fan but I do err towards the cosy end of the spectrum, which is definitely not City Without Stars’ territory.
The novel, the second from highly praised novelist Tim Baker (who was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger for his debut, Fever City), is a gritty urban thriller set in Ciudad Real, Mexico. Amidst a deadly war between rival cartels, hundreds of sweatshop workers are being murdered. Union activist Pilar, increasingly frustrated by the lack of official interest in the lives of these women, takes social justice into her own hands by organising illegal strikes in protest. Meanwhile newly assigned homicide detective Fuente, frustrated by his superiors shutting down his investigation into the deaths, suspects that most of his colleagues are on the payroll of drug kingpin El Santo. In desperation, these two unlikely allies come together to investigate. But when the name of Mexico’s saintly orphan-rescuer, Padre Márcio, keeps surfacing, Pilar and Fuentes begin to realise the immensity of the forces aligned against them.
This is a novel that keeps good company with the likes of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. It’s not afraid to show the gritty reality of life and the descriptions of Ciudad Real, from the slick offices of the wealthy to the slums and sweatshops that house so many people, are evocatively described. The world in which Pilar and Fuentes operates is a living and breathing one, even if it’s not particularly pleasant.
The characters, similarly, feel real. These are not nice people – there are no heroes in this novel – but they are people, real and flawed and with a range of complex emotions and reasoning behind what they do.
This combines to create a fantastically taut atmosphere, tense and claustrophobic with a growing sense of the net tightening as the story progresses. It’s extremely compelling and definitely has that page-turning quality. Even the violence, which is frequent and bloody, and the language, with an f-bomb on every page, didn’t feel unnecessary – yes, it’s unpalatable but that’s because it’s meant to be. There are no off-page deaths here – if it happens, the reader experiences it because the characters experience it and it feels frighteningly real.
As I said at the start of the review, this was a real step outside of my comfort zone but a welcome one. Whilst I wouldn’t say it’s converted me to a reading diet of gritty underworld crime, it was a novel that broadened my horizons – the Latin American setting was a new one to me and I found the challenges faced by Pilar and Fuentes to investigate amidst the drugs war and the internal corruption to well-conceived and though-provoking. It’s not a novel for the faint-hearted but fans of hard-boiled detective novels and urban thrillers will definitely find a page-turning, compelling read in City Without Stars.
City Without Stars by Tim Baker is published by Faber & Faber and is available now from all good book retailers in trade paperback and ebook. My thanks go to the publisher for an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review.