Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Often, when an author produces a collection of stories, the majority of them have been published elsewhere either in magazines or anthologies alongside those of other authors.
Often, when an author produces a collection of stories, the majority of them have been published elsewhere either in magazines or anthologies alongside those of other authors. Tough Guys is unusual in two respects. First, the four pieces here – three novellas and one short story – are all previously unpublished; second, they are as different from each other as one might expect in an accumulation of unseen stories. The second is unusual as Cole’s previous collection was Nick Nightmare Investigates (Alchemy Press), where all the stories revolved around the same character and the world he inhabited. As a collection it worked extremely well as Cole won the BFS Award for the book.
Although called Tough Guys, there are some tough women here, too. The first story ‘Wait For The Ricochet’ is another about Nick Nightmare. Here we get an insight into some of his background. He gets a message to visit his old mentor, urgently. Zeff is a lifer in Sing Sing, a place where Nick did three years. Zeff is dying but he needs Nick to carry the information about the hiding place of a powerful artefact to the new keeper of the knowledge. Nick cannot refuse. The task might seem simple but there are others who want the information. One of them, Lucien de Sangreville, is aware that it will be easier the extract what he wants from Nick rather than the person it is intended for. The complication is that the person de Sangreville kidnaps to put pressure on Nick, is the one the information is intended for. Thus, Nick has to rescue him before he can complete his mission. He is aided by Ariadne Caradine, a wealthy woman who readers will recognise form previous Nick Nightmare stories. She elegant, charming and deadly, an ideal partner in this caper. The other important and familiar character is Oil-Gun Eddie. It is him, they need to rescue.
‘If You Don’t Eat Your Meat’ is science fiction blended with horror. At some time in the past the Virus decimated the population. In the countryside, winters are harsh and farmers and their families try to survive anyway they can. The rules the city people live by are often set aside. The narrator, Ryan Blackstone is a teenager in one such family on the edge of the moors. The Blackstones have had a feud with the Tregathick for many years, so when one of the cows goes missing, they are the first to be suspected. Ryan and Wayne, the youngest of his brothers are sent to check. Ryan sees the Tregathicks butchering the cow but is spotted. Chased through the snow drifts and desperate, Ryan kills Jed Tregathick. Since the Tregathicks are eating their cow, the Blackstones eat Jed. The feud escalates from there until Ryan flees to the city. This is not a pleasant story and even though there is some sympathy for Ryan, he does his best to alienate the reader.
Another character you can end up not liking is the narrator of ‘A Smell Of Burning’. The narrator wakes up immobilised in hospital. He cannot remember what happened, or why he is there. He discovers that he can leave his body and his astral projection is able to wander the hospital. Then he realises that he can tune into the thoughts of the other patients. For a while, this is enjoyable. Then he realises that there is a scary dark cloud also inhabiting the plane. He plucks up the courage to find the patient it is emanating from and tunes into the history of a very unpleasant pyromaniac.
The final story goes back to a Nick Nightmare kind of territory. ‘Not If You Want To Live’ also has the narrator waking up in an unexpected place when he thought he was dead. He is, but has been recruited as a Redeemer. As Razorjack his job is to return the soul to the body of a person who has just died so they can continue a productive life. He doesn’t know why these people are chosen – that’s another department. After initial training and a number of field missions, Razorjack is given a more complex task. A member of a group called the Adversaries are upsetting the balance. Razorjack has to trap one of them. He is sent back to live in the real world and await a call. A wealthy man, Silvio Fellini, will ask him to Redeem his wife who died from an overdose. Although Razorjack’s memories of his life up until his original death have been deeply buried, circumstances cause them begin to surface.
Adrian Cole is a skilled writer and all four of these pieces are excellently written. I would have liked the first to be longer, but the length is well judged for the other three. This is a book I can highly recommend.