We've read and reviewed a number of Michael J Malone's dark and gritty crime novels in the past, and enjoyed them. The author has a knack for pushing his characters to the limit, then allowing the reader an intimate insight into the results. We expected, and hoped for, more of the same when we came to read "Dog Fight", and we certainly got it. In our view this is, by some margin, Michael J Malone's best book yet.
We've met Kenny O'Neill before. He's a successful Glasgow "businessman" who always knows a good deal when he sees one and who has no qualms operating either within the limits of the law or beyond them. Kenny's cousin Ian is an ex-soldier who emerged from his service in hot and sandy places in once piece physically, but with deep mental scars that have made it impossible for him to re-adjust to a "normal" life back in Glasgow without reliance on drugs. And Ian was in many ways one of the lucky ones. Some didn't come home at all, and others, like his friend Dom Hastie, came back with deep physical and mental scars: in Dom's case from being shot through the head in Afghanistan.
There's little in the way of a mystery in "Dog Fight", but it is an outstanding thriller. It's clear from the start that ex-soldiers are being recruited and set against one another in illegal and brutal fights for the entertainment of gamblers able to afford the entrance fee. Ian becomes involved when he tries to help his friend Dom evade the clutches of the criminal gang behind the fights, and he quickly finds himself in over his head. Kenny in turn is embroiled when he tries to find out what has become of Ian, and the stage is set for a truly gripping conclusion. The climax of "Dog Fight" gives the reader one of those all-too-rare experiences, in which you find yourself reading what are obviously the last few pages of a book while still totally in the dark about how it will end, hoping against hope that all the signs about how it might be going to end are misleading.
This book stands out from the crowd for a number of reasons, all of them good. The story is beautifully crafted and perfectly paced, and as an ensemble-piece, being told from the perspectives mainly of Kenny, of Ian, and to a lesser extent of Ray McBain, who featured as a detective inspector in some of the author's earlier books, it works very well indeed. The characters are also beautifully drawn and detailed: and this applies across the board and not just to those at the centre of the action. In some ways the most captivating person you encounter is "Myleene", a little girl who lives in the same block of flats as Dom Hastie, and who passes her time offering to "look after" the cars of anyone parking nearby, for a fee.
The other reason that "Dog Fight" stands out from the crowd is that it is set against the background of an issue that truly matters: the fate of ex-servicemen and women who have given themselves in service to their country, yet who when they leave the military find themselves discarded by the very society they served. Michael J Malone has set an excellent thriller against the background of an important problem, and no-one reading it can fail either to be touched by the issues it raises or captivated by the quality of the storytelling.