Night Blind

Ragnar Jónasson knows how to get a reader hooked. The first chapter of Night Blind finds police inspector Herjólfur following up a tip off at a house on the edge of town. It’s got all the classic ingredients in place for one hell of an opening- the house itself is not only remote and isolated but it practically hangs over a cliff, even its walls are “leaden and foreboding”, it’s dark and the rain is pouring, beams of torchlight peer out from inside. Only the edge of your seat will be needed before the chapter’s finished and it’s all too late for the inspector; “that was when he heard the shot, deafening and deadly.”

IMG_7059I’d been gripped by this opening chapter for close to a year before I got to read any further. It was included at the end of Jónasson’s first class début Snow Blind. The next instalment in the Dark Iceland series, Night Blind takes the reader back to the remote Siglufjörður, catching up with Ari Thór Arason five years on from the events of the first book. While it’s not essential to have done so before picking up Night Blind, I’m aware that not everyone will have read Snow Blind (and why not?!) so I’ll do my utmost not to drop any spoilers.

Ari Thór has settled somewhat since last we met- he and his girlfriend Kristín now have a young son – yet Siglufjörðu still holds plenty of discoveries for him. Preparing to return from an extended paternity leave and a battle with the flu, Ari Thór receives a concerned call from the new Inspector’s wife and soon discovers the likely-fatally wounded Herjólfur. Finding himself alone in the police department and unable to investigate the attempted murder of his boss, assistance soon arrives in the form of Ari’s former boss Tómas and we’re very quickly back into a taut, gripping and beautifully crafted murder investigation.

All the ingredients are in place for a great detective story. Yet Night Blind goes beyond the confines of any simple whodunnit. Layered within the mystery are sub-plots involving local political corruption, drug dealing, the opening up of a small community to the outside world (and its increase in crime), relationship challenges, a decades-old mystery and domestic assault; all of which Jónasson handles brilliantly, creating some genuinely memorable and affecting scenes that go beyond the slow-burning detective story of Snow Blind and show a talent that can cross genres.

The issue of domestic assault in itself is a tricky one, in a lesser-writer’s hands this could be so easily clumsily written and riddled with clichés. Not here though. Jónasson handles the subject deftly and manages to show a real ability when it comes to victim psychology. He can also write a bloody good action piece – the climatic scene between Elín and her ex had me gripped like a Jack Reacher action sequence yet with a genuine concern and sense of fear for the outcome.

Just as Snow Blind was interwoven with a narrative from the past and the question of how it connects to the present, Night Blind is interspersed with the diary entries of a young man held in a psychiatric hospital against their will for a seemingly violent incident – who is this young man and how does this relate to the shooting of  Herjólfur?

The final reveal and the connection between the two is, as with Snow Blind, a gob-smacker. The number of times I thought I’d sussed the answer out only to be shut down by the next chapter is too many to count, the reveal catching me so off-guard I had to go back and wonder how I’d missed the breadcrumbs. I’m not sure I’d like to play Mr Jónasson at chess, clearly a man who thinks more moves ahead than I.

One of the most wonderful things about Night Blind to me is just how many doors are so subtly opened, how many potential focus points for other stories are gently hinted at, but leave enough of a question mark, a hook in your interest as to leave you wanting more, much more of the Dark Iceland series. There’s the “wait, what?” moments of revelations including why the Siglufjörður police department is now under-staffed, the opening up of political influences on the department – and the interfering of shady locals, characters that are begging for larger roles in scenes to come and, of course, the thought that Ari Thór does his best to ignore; with Herjólfur shot, does this mean he’ll now be in line to become Inspector?

It’s here in these sly peeks at the depth of potential in the Dark Iceland series and the sheer number of elements at play in Night Blind that Jónasson excels; the subtle crafting of the story, with it’s intricate and overlapping plotlines and detailed characters coupled with a slow and genuinely surprising, out of left-field-reveal demonstrate a supremely confident and talented writer clearly revelling in his art.

It’s rare that I get quite so invested in the personal lives of characters in crime stories (often times they’re painted almost as side-shows and cursory / obligatory scene padding) but I was genuinely gutted (perhaps as my own son is still so young), though not entirely surprised, by the departure of Kristín  – yet even here Jónasson lays teasing ground-work for future developments. It’s also testament to Jónasson’s ability to create such genuine and fully-realised characters – it helps not only in keeping the reader hooked but adds a real depth and sense of community to these fictitious inhabitants of Siglufjörðu.

Snow Blind was one of my favourite reads of last year and Night Blind, an even stronger novel, will no doubt sit high atop the list of 2016’s best reads. To expand a little upon my original summary…..


….. Night Blind is a compelling, multi-layered masterpiece that breathes fresh life into the genre. Breaking beyond the confines of the traditional whodunnit, Ragnar Jónasson has delivered an intriguing, intelligent crime novel that leaves the reader open-mouthed wanting more (well, this one at least). Clearly an author to follow, he seems to have pulled off the not-so-easy task of creating a series that only gets deeper and more interesting as it goes.

A translation can make or break a book and here the translation is, again, in the very capable hands of Quentin Bates. There is no point at which Night Blind feels like it was written in anything other than English; the flow, pace and charm of the book are all captured perfectly. A cracking job.

I was delighted to take part in this Blog Tour for Night Blind and my thanks again go to Karen at Orenda Books (which has nothing but quality bearing it’s logo on the spine). Do check out the rest of the tour and today’s other, eye-opening, instalment at Mrs Peabody Investigates.

Nightblind Blog tour


…and polished up the chrome

It can be expensive being a Bruce Springsteen fan. I’ve just taken a look at the price tag on the River box set “The Ties That Bind” – what the hell, man? That’s almost as much of a piss-take as price tags that are attached to the recent trawls through Dylan’s vaults.

It’s all the more frustrating as:

a) The ‘specials’ for Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge of Town both sit in my collection and add plenty to the collection yet neither were as ott in terms as price (Born To Run’s 30th Anniversary edition set me back less than £20 if I remember and I was gifted the Darkness Set).

b) Raiding Bruce’s vaults has always turned up gold before and I doubt this is an exception.

Still – that’s what streaming is for I guess. I probably don’t have space for it in all honesty either.

But looking at point ‘b’ – Tracks proves that. That it’s so cheap now beggars belief – probably as it was the first such exercise in dusting off masters and so doesn’t have the kind of lavish ‘boxed’ feel that so many collections do now (oh but I so do still want that Ten box from Pearl Jam); there’s no hardback book, no live dvd concert or ‘documentary’ – just four fantastic (three faultless) discs of never-before released songs.

I’m pretty sure that the best of the outtakes from The River have already surfaced on Disc 2 of that set. Fuck, there’s 11 of them. I doubt very much if anything else is as good, to my ears, as Take Em As They Come (included on both):


The thing that always gets me with these sets is – “how the hell didn’t this make the cut when X-song did?” Even his latest, single volume ‘dust-off’ of scraps High Hopes had me wondering how songs like Down In The Hole or Frankie Fell In Love never made the cut – or the ‘bonus’ track Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale) was relegated in place of Easy Money etc etc…

Chief amongst the possible causes is the fact that Springsteen albums are almost concept albums. There’s a theme, a feel to them. Some songs, no matter how good, just don’t fit.

Another is that with so many strong songs being churned out, an album only has space for so many. Just look at the songs across the second, third and half of the first and fourth discs on Tracks.  Born In The USA was so rammed full of A-List songs that seven of its twelve songs were released as sings – and that didn’t include it’s best tracks like Bobby Jean, Downbound Train or No Surrender! It’s even more surprising then that there’s 17 further songs from the Born In The USA sessions on Tracks. Seventeen! And that doesn’t include the original demo of the title tune – that one was an out-take from Nebraska.

Even then there’s still more lurking in the vaults – what about the electric, full-band take on songs from Nebraska? Where’s the whole album Bruce recorded and shelved in 1994? Where are the other 36 tracks that made the original shortlist of 100 for this collection? Though, given that Tracks covered up to 1998 (ish) it’s safe to assume that a truck-load of those have appeared on the box sets for Darkness and The River.

That’s a whole lot of music. A wealth of songs. Is it worth these trawls? Well, when the material is as strong as this I’d say 100% yes.

It’s not like we’re wading through songs by Lifehouse that weren’t Hangin By A Moment or something here.

We’re hearing songs that were written by one of those few as prolific and important as Dylan to the musical landscape.

One of the things I love about these is seeing just how much goes in to developing the themes / characters / lyrics. There’s some which feature very-very close matches on lyrics, follow a theme but aren’t quite there, there’s something not quite convincing. It’s like listening to Springsteen try them on, see how they fit and adjust until he ends up with what he considers the best use of that lyric, theme and apply it to the right feel – usually the song that makes the album.

The song Car Wash wasn’t quite there but the line “Well I work down at the car wash” would appear in Downbound Train with just a tweak.

Further proof of this process can be seen on the Blood Brothers doc with just how many variations in just musical style / timing signatures the lyrics are staple to before the ‘final’ one is found.

It’s clearly an on-going process.

I caught one the other day, listening to Shut Out The Light:

It’s one of Bruce’s then many Vietnam-vet songs. Guys came home but bore scares physical and mental. In this case Johnny’s still reeling with shock, gets the shakes, wakes up at night and feels his girl next to him (another familiar trope, see Happy, Cautious Man, The River etc etc). There’s a line in there – “Bobby pulled his Ford out of the garage and they polished up the chrome”.

It hit me. I knew that line.

It’s used in one of the best tracks on the damn near unimpeachable (I could do without Girls In Their Summer Clothes) Magic:

Now I think I see what this song really is, all the more bitter.

It’s more than revisit of that soldier’s homecoming theme but instead of a happy reunion “Johnny oh Johnny I’m so glad to have you back with me” and picking up the pieces of life and trying to move forward – there’s no coming home. The soldier coming home here has been killed in Iraq, this time sung to his memory. Instead of a family welcoming, there’s a family mourning – Wendy sits with the soldier’s uniform while John is “drunk and gone”.

And the line? “We pulled your cycle out of the garage and polished up the chrome”.

Bobby? Bobby’s there too. He “brought the gasoline” and helped set the bike on fire in the foothills.

The use of the same names makes it all the more haunting and effocative. It could even be the same family given the “my love for you brother” in the last verse.

It’s brilliant. It’s not a re-use of lyrics that didn’t fit right at the time (Shut Out The Light was considered worthy of release even as a b-side – appropriately – to Born In The USA). It’s a return to a scene and delivering it’s final chapter. Magic is brimming with anger and barely-veiled hostility to the state of the US and, to me, it’s like Bruce looked back in his cannon to see what he’d got that could help punch his message home hard and he found it. Some quarter-century later, Springsteen delivered a bitter counter-punch to the almost-optimism of the earlier work to bury home the fact that so many families were being left gutted by yet another American war on foreign land.


It ain’t no secret…

I’m listening to a lot of Bruce lately.

Could be because – following an unexpected dance along in HMV – my son has adopted Glory Days as his current favourite and I end up putting it on in the car in the mornings and so listen on after dropping him off. Could be. Could also be that (High Hopes aside) there’s such a volume of great songs that not many an artist can compete.

Today it’s all about American Skin (41 Shots).

It’s a funny one, or three, really.

Live In NYC was probably the first ‘new’ Springsteen album I bought after getting into him. While not the most comprehensive live album it’s a great snapshot of the reunited E-Street Band at the peak of their performance for that tour and captures one of his then most contraversial songs, American Skin (41 Shots) in the most appropriate of settings – Amadou Diallo was gunned down by police officers in New York.

It’s an important song both socially and in terms of Bruce’s catalogue. Prior to it’s debut the only ‘new’ music played on the tour that wasn’t from Tracks was familiar Brooooce territory – Code of Silence, Land of Hope and Dreams and an early Further On Up The Road – but for American Skin (41 Shots) found the socially aware voice that he’d been lacking. It’s angry, it’s well crafted, it’s bitter and brooding, it’s tight, it’s got a fantastic guitar lead and solo from Bruce and explodes in all the right places and stands amongst his best tunes to this day.

It went down one of two ways – fans loved it. The police were pissed off. They called for a boycott of his shows after he premiered it in Atlanta. Fuck ’em; he bought it to Madison Square Garden with him and it was recorded on the accompanying album.

Then in order to get it played he recorded a studio version of the song in 2001 for radio (when it was still a relevant outlet). It’s a strong version.  For one thing it’s the E-Street Band as was that first bought the song to life. It lacks the spark and passion of the live version but that’s to be expected. It’s still solid, though, and convincing in it’s message and sentiment and still has Bruce’s lead guitar:


Then, bafflingly and frustratingly to many, he stated that and so re-cut it for High Hopes. When I say re-cut I really mean that in letting Ron Aniello over-egg the pudding with needless he pulled the passion out of it, allowed Tom Morello to staple a piss-poor 80’s power ballad solo in place of his own and had Clarence Clemons’ sax swapped out for one performed by C’s nephew Jake. He stated that the song had never been ‘presented’ officially on a studio album. And I believe that everybody said “so?!” Neither has Seeds but he didn’t let Morello wreck that. It’s got the same structure, the same lyrics and build up but it just feels like a pale imitation, especially when it comes to the climax.

The 2000 studio version is streets ahead of the High Hopes version but the ultimate take is still the live recording from NYC….

I’m a fleabit peanut monkey…

… for years I’ve been mishearing that lyric as “flea bit beat-up monkey”, what the hell is a peanut monkey?!


I’m not a huge Rolling Stones fan. But there’s a lot of Rolling Stones songs that I love.

Monkey Man is one of em.

Id say I have a handful of Stones albums – a couple of compilations, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Sticky Fingers and Exile… I couldn’t say that I’ve listened to them all that much – more a cherry picking of tracks. Until I read Life by Keith Richards.

But… in that imported-non-event Black Friday and the subsequent weekend of discounts, my local chain music store (if I can I still buy independent but we’re all on a budget) dropped the price on a handful of albums – going so far as to slap “1 purchase per customer” on them as if the £5 discount was as monumental as a signed cover – and I grabbed Let It Bleed.IMG_6471

It’s already been round the turn table a good three or four times. I’ve often sought it out and for three reasons: Monkey Man, Gimme Shelter and You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Any album with those on it is automatically elevated to great status.

One of my favourite song writers – Mr Bill Janovitz of Bufallo Tom – is a huge Stones fan. He’s even written a couple books; a 33 1/3 on Exile On Main Street and one called “Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones”. I don’t know that I could list 50 songs of theirs that I enjoy, probably a dozen or so.

review for said book in the Wall Street Journal kicks off with this:

“I used to work with a salesman who wore a Rolling Stones tongue-logo tie every day. His Stones were the Stones of “Satisfaction,” “Start Me Up,” and even (yuck) “She Was Hot”—huge arena-rock songs with instantly recognizable guitar-riff intros. Then there is the Stones fan of the classic-rock variety—the “Under My Thumb” and “Jumping Jack Flash” fan for whom the group, and the world, ceased to matter around 1968. My Stones are more about “Moonlight Mile,” “Monkey Man,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Rocks Off”—tracks that have the rambling, wide-open blues and rock sound that the band perfected in the 1970s. All three of us will devour Bill Janovitz’s “Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones.”

I fall in the middle – my favourite tracks are, for the most part, of that “rambling, wide-open blues and rock sound that the band perfected in the 1970s.”

So, in the spirit of Top 10s (if it was Top 5 there’d be very little that wasn’t on Let It Bleed) and lists…. they are, in no real order:

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking

It’s not Brown Sugar, nor is it Sway or Dead Flowers… the standout track on Sticky Fingers, to my ears, is Can’t You Hear Me Knocking. I first heard this when it was used in Tedd Demme’s drug-smuggling, Scorsese-like Blow (more on Scorsese and the Stones to come of course) . I love the nasty, dirty-feeling power of that guitar riff, the breakdown and resolve of the saxophone (the hugely talented Bobby Keys appears on so much of their best work) and the fact that the breakdown happened, according to Mick Taylor because “toward the end of the song, I just felt like carrying on playing. Everybody was putting their instruments down, but the tape was still rolling, and it sounded good, so everybody quickly picked up their instruments again and carried on playing. It just happened, and it was a one-take thing.”

It’s a powerful, swaggering monster of a Stones song that contains every element of that blues rock sound that they nailed down so hard and perfectly in the Seventies.

Gimme Shelter

Another belter and, of course, also used in a few films – Goodfellas being the most memorable for me. Mick Jagger has said of it that “That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse”. I read that Keith came up with the tune while stuck indoors as it was pissing down outdoors, meanwhile Mick was off filming Performance in which he beds down with Keith’s then-girlfriend Anita Pallengberg. Keith was just starting to use heroin and the anxiety and dread are palpable in the tune and it’s just a glorious tune that – while Satisfaction, Start Me Up or Brown Sugar might be the most well known – is undoubtedly their best.

Monkey Man

So; I’m a flea bit peanut monkey…. Whatever that means. The lyrics here are filled with snarl and bite (“I’ve been bit and I’ve been tossed around by every she-rat in this town”), the guitars even more so with Keith giving it some hard bluesy blasts, the piano is cracking and, like so much on Let It Bleed, pinned down by some ominous, urgent sense of menace. While Jagger’s line of “I hope we’re not too messianic or a trifle too satanic” is a classic, for me it’s all about the yell of “I’m a MONKEY…….”

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

For me, one of the best few seconds of any tune comes 50 seconds into the last Stones song of the Sixties. The choir finishes, the acoustic guitar has a few seconds alone and then the French horn pipes in with what could easily be considered a lament to the decade and the first chapter of the band’s life – the song was essentially all Mick in creation, Keith was beginning his journey into heroin addiction and Brian Jones was practically gone. And yet… it’s hopeful. Despite the universal doom and gloom Jagger sings of the song comes across as a near-rousing song of hope. The gorgeous arrangement, the keys, the horns, the shuffle of the drums and the kiss-off of the chorus “you just might find, you get you need” sung with a joyous sounding choir.

She’s A Rainbow

This is here almost entirely for personal reasons – it’s a song loved by my wife and I and played during our wedding – but it’s still a great Stones tune. Undoubtedly the prettiest thing they ever did and really the only one on Their Satanic Majesties Request that stands up on repeated listen. The delicate, pastoral piano, the shakes of the tambourine and then the dissonant breakdown with sharp, stabs of strings and the lewd “she comes in colours…” If the album was their attempt to take on Sgt. Pepper this song shows they could have knocked the Beatles into a hat and then jumped on it.

Their Satanic Majesties was a turning point in a way probably not intended. However, from here they went into an unbroken run of classics up to and including Exile On Main Street and kicking off with Beggars Banquet, featuring…

Street Fighting Man

To me, more so than Sympathy for the Devil, this one marks the start of the next chapter for the Stones. The lyrics came after a massive anti-war protest Jagger had witnessed, there’s no electric guitar on it with Keith building layer upon layer of distorted acoustic (via a cassette recorder!) and Brian Jones adds sitar and tamboura into the mix, keeping it rooted in the Sixties.

Thru and Thru

Ah Thru and Thru… Perhaps not the most obvious choice and I’d be surprised if it turned up in too many critical lists but this is my list and I love this. I first heard it when used on an episode of the Sopranos and the subsequent soundtrack. That it’s a Keith-sung number threw me off at first as I didn’t realise it was a Stones song. I love the slow build up, the layered vocal of “waiting on a call from you…” and Keith’s bluesy growl (though the ‘love as a takeaway’ lyric might not be his best). You know the subtle strings, build up and minimal guitar is going to break, has to break – especially with the thunder-crack drums appearing around the two minute mark – and yet the build up continues perfectly for more than half of the song and when the full-band does kick in, it’s glorious.

Mother’s Little Helper

“What a drag it is getting old….” An absolute ripper of a song about pill-popping mothers all wrapped up in under three minutes with a gleeful “oi” at the end. I continually find myself singing that opening line.

Wild Horses

Yeah, yeah… but it had to be on the list really. But it’s only lately that it’s snuck in there (over, say, Honky Tonk Woman) for me. Why? Because I read that Keith had written the chorus for his infant son as they were about to head off on tour. As a father I know that sentiment all to well. That it’s also among the best examples of how Mick and Keith wrote together – Keith had the riff and chorus, Mick added the rest (supposedly his relationship with Marianne Faithful going into his lyrics) and the pair of them sharing the mic for the chorus. The music is that most Gram Parsons inspired acoustic strum Keith had down at the time andsounds like it could sit on the Almost Famous soundtrack, underpinned with some beautiful electric lines and piano and is so well known it really won’t benefit from my prattling on about it.

Paint It, Black

Of course you can’t have any kind of Best Of list for the Stones and not have this song. That drone, that sinister sitar (Brian Jones’ legacy, to me, is in how much of their early work he got that instrument into), the drums and those lyrics that would no doubt inspire only Bailey knows how many ‘moody’ emo lyrics –

“I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door I must have it painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black”

Even if, according to Keith, it was written as a bit of a joke, they penned a classic here. Aftermath is the first Stones album to benefit entirely from the Jagger / Richards song-writing partnership, a move which meant Brian Jones got a tad bored with guitars and began exploring instruments like the sitar. This song is the perfect summation of the early-Stones’ parts.