Blog Tour – My Writing Process

Thanks to Steve Cavanagh for tagging me into the ‘My Writing Process’ blog tour – my bits in a mo. You can read Steve’s post here, and I’m sure you’ll come away from it with the same drooling desire to read his debut novel, The Defence, that I did. Annoyingly it isn’t out until Spring 2015 but you can read a short of his in the upcoming Belfast Noir Anthology, along with stories from some on Norn Iron’s most exciting criminal minds.

Here we go then –

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   a) What am I working on?

I’m currently finishing what will hopefully be the final edit of my second Zigic and Ferreira book, provisionally titled ‘Damage Limitation’. Starting out on it last year I was given lots of deeply serious warnings about the difficult second novel but nothing concentrates the mind like a ‘one book per year’ schedule. And having a big stack of unpublished manuscripts finally paid off; this isn’t book two, it’s book ten (ish) so I decided not to worry about it.

Book three is beginning to take shape, characters popping up, twists presenting themselves and I’m a good way to filling up a notebook with indecipherable scribbling. Right now it’s looking like a very different book to the others, less political, more domestic, but it’s early days and everything is up for grabs still.

    b) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The main difference between my work and other crime novels, police procedurals specifically, is that it follows the investigations of a Hate Crimes department rather than being rooted in CID. Hate Crimes legislation in the UK is relatively recent and not all forces have dedicated units yet, so it was good to have the chance to get in there first and explore the issues on a blank slate.

Much of the feedback I’ve had from readers about my debut, Long Way Home, mentions the depiction of the migrant communities it’s set among and the over riding response is shock at conditions and the level of exploitation they face, almost to the point of disbelief. This is the difference I’m most proud of, exposing a part of modern Britain many people know nothing about even though it exists in step with and so close to their own lives.


c) Why do I write what I do?

During my teens I dabbled in other genres but the feedback I received on my earliest attempts pushed me towards crime writing and it immediately felt like a good fit. I’ve always been criminally minded so it was the natural choice.

It took me awhile to settle on police procedurals though and I still love the idea of writing a psychological thriller, but the constraints of procedurals help keep me focused on the story at hand when I want to go off on tangents.

 
d) How does your writing process work?

It’s very Darwinian. An idea pops up and I mull it over for a few weeks, writing down absolutely nothing – the useless stuff gets forgotten, the good stuff sticks around to be developed later on paper. In the first instance I write notes in a Moleskine (cliché, I know) in fountain pen (it gets worse), describing the crime scene and the victims first, laying out all the possible motives and tying them to suitable people, concentrating on the characters who I want to carry their own chapters. Most of these notes are completely unreadable when I go back to them a week or so later to transcribe them into a Word file and again there’s a cull.

At that point – hopefully – I’m left with the strongest elements of the emerging story and can start to firm up the plot.

It’s very tempting to lie and say that, from those bare bones, I work everything out down to the finest detail, but can you imagine how boring that would be? I like the sense of danger that comes from not knowing all, or even most, of the answers. Ideally I want to be discovering things along with my main characters and I’ve written books that way in the past, but now my process is halfway between plotting and pantsing and that seems to be working okay.

Day-to-day my writing routine is the usual kind of boring. Up early, run, breakfast, arse in the chair, roll-ups, espresso, avoidance of social media essential, occasional games of poker optional. Dress code; pyjamas. Naturally.

So, that’s me done. Onto the next links in the chain…

Luca Veste is debut novel Dead Gone is part-procedural, part-psychological thriller, and all fabulous. Set in Liverpool and introducing detective duo Murphy and Rossi it marks the start of an intelligent, exhilarating series. You can find Luca here.

Nick Quantrill is for my money one of the finest proponents of Brit Grit around right now. His Joe Geraghty trilogy – Broken Dreams, The Late Greats and The Crooked Beat – mines the seamy side of his hometown, Hull, and I can’t wait to see what’s coming next from him. Find Nick here.


Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates

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Puzzle compiler isn’t a profession you’ll see on many author’s CVs, but Christopher J Yates’ début Black Chalk shows what perfect preparation it is for twisting readers in knots.  This fiendishly clever book follows six students at the fictional Pitt College in Oxford during the 1990s, adjusting to the ego bruising experience of going from smartest kids in school to middling intellectuals in waiting surrounded by much sharper minds.

Lead by American ex-country boy Chad and the gloriously effete Brit Jolyon the group decide to play a game, an initially simple and frivolous one with forfeits served to the loser of each round.  It needs to be worthwhile though, these are competitive people, and a large cash pot is provided by the shadowy Game Soc, three older students who are initially treated as laughable weirdos, until the true depth of their involvement emerges.

What starts out as harmless fun quickly escalates into all out psychological warfare.   The group dynamics shift, personal relationships lead to destructive alliances and real world betrayals, both romantic and plutonic, which feed back into the game.  The forfeits evolve from sniggering, childlike dares to acts of downright sadism, with the players ruthlessly exploiting their growing intimacy to find the soft spots in each others defences.

The parallel narrative skips neatly between the groups time at Pitt College, teasing out the development of the game, and modern day New York where Jolyon is now holed up in his apartment, enduring a hermetic existence structured around a series of OCD rituals; something which seemed like a charming affectation at university now signalling the true scale of his psychological trauma.  Quite early on we know that the game has proved destructive but we don’t know who is the victim and who the aggressor and Yates skilfully manipulates our impressions of the players, ensuring that just as you get a handle on events another move is made and you’re back to square one, questioning everything you thought you knew.  Yates is definitely not a man you’d want to play chess with.

Although the entire cast is well drawn and completely credible Jolyon steals the book.  Quintessentially English, with a distinctly Waughian vibe, he’s the man everyone wants to impress at college, foppish but effortlessly clever,  dripping with charisma, the perfect foil for the seemingly plodding Chad, who arrives at Oxford yearning to be part of the world Jolyon represents, and the increasingly toxic nature of their friendship is driving force behind much of the action.

Black Chalk is a tremendously enjoyable novel, elegantly constructed, with lots of mini-twists and cliffhanger chapter endings, so that it is near impossible to put down.  Yates writes with confidence and great flair, his prose is crisp, his characterisation beady-eyed, and there is a delightful fizzy wit running through the book.  Definitely a writer to watch.


Witness the Dead by Craig Robertson

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Craig Robertson just keeps getting better, which is some achievement when you consider that his first novel, Random, was shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger and hit the Sunday Times bestseller list.  He has made Glasgow’s mean streets his own and built a strong ensemble cast, led by the no nonsense DS Rachel Narey and scenes of crime photographer Tony Winter, who plays a central role this time round.

 

A young woman is found dead in Glasgow’s Northern Necropolis, raped, strangled and carefully laid out across a tomb with the word ‘SIN’ written across her body in red lipstick.  When a second woman is killed the next day Narey and her team realise they have a serial murderer on their hands.  Which would be bad enough, but Winters uncle and ex-copper Danny Neilson believes the case is even more complex than that.

 

During the 1970s Danny worked the infamous ‘Red Silk’ murders, a case which gripped and terrified the city of Glasgow as several women were murdered in quick succession without the police ever managing to catch their killer.  And these recent deaths exhibit links to the historical case which no copycat could know.  But the man suspected back then is locked up, serving multiple life sentences for a string of murders and can’t be responsible, despite the similarities.  Archibald Atto is a psychopath who has tortured his victims families for years, refusing to reveal the location of their bodies or the full extent of his crimes, playing with them and the prison authorities and the police for his own amusement.  Atto craves attention though and, worryingly for Winter, when the two men meet he seems to believe he’s found a kindred spirit.

 

As Narey and her comrades chase down leads on the street Winter is drawn into an mental chess match with Atto.  They know he has information about the killer but he won’t give it up easily, not without extracting something from Winter in return; an audience, a sympathetic ear, an admission that the thrill Winter feels in photographing the dead isn’t so different to the one Atto feels at killing?  No matter how repulsed he is by their encounters the police need Atto and Winter will be forced to confront his own darkest impulses if the murderer is to be caught.

 

Through dual narratives, one following Danny Neilson and the original Red Silk case during the 1970s and the other the contemporary investigation, Robertson skilfully creates a sense of emotional involvement with the murders as well as a breathless pace which had me whipping through the pages.  The team is growing with each book and dynamics becoming more involved; there are some great exchanges between Winter and the gloriously foul-mouthed DI Addison which are a real joy to read, while the relationship between Winter and Narey continues on its complicated way.  The scenes with Archibald Atto are the most compelling in the book though, recalling the Starling/Lecter meetings, but with an added frisson created by Winter’s own almost-deviant psychology.

 

Last year I raved about Cold Grave but Craig Robertson has surpassed himself with Witness the Dead, a perfectly constructed police procedural with real psychological depth.

 

 


Red Winter by Dan Smith

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Dan Smith’s previous novel The Child Thief, an intense thriller set among the Bolshevik-infested forests of 1930’s Ukraine, was one of my novels of 2012, so I had high expectations for Red Winter.  And I’m glad to say that it more than lived up to them.  Set in central Russia during the 1920s, an especially tumultuous period for a country which has rarely been settled, it sees Smith reprising some of the themes from his previous novel, the brutality of extreme political ideologies and the power of family ties.

Red Winter opens with a deserting soldier returning home to rejoin his family and bury his fallen brother, but after days of arduous trekking through snowy forests fraught with danger, and with his old life within touching distance, Kolya makes an unsettling discovery.  His village is abandoned, his house empty and showing signs of a speedy, possibly forced departure.  He is fully aware what the Red Army is capable of, he has worn that uniform and swept through villages like this, and he knows that many of his former comrades do not share his sense of human decency.

A lone woman remains in the village, filthy and emaciated, driven to the point of insanity, and she takes Kolya into the forest to show him the aftermath of the massacre which emptied the village.  The men have been killed in unspeakably terrible ways, their corpses left to rot where they fell, bearing star-shaped brands.  The old woman claims it is the work of Koschei, The Deathless One, a demonic figure from Russian folklore, but Kolya is a rational man and sees a human hand behind the brutality.

With no trace of his wife and children to be found he clings to the slim hope they have been taken prisoner, bound for the work camps or worse, and resolves to track them down, following the trail of destruction which Koschei has cut through the frozen countryside.  He isn’t the only person on Koschei’s tail though and his status as a deserter makes him a potential target for any soldiers in the area; it’s hard to conceal the mark which command leaves on a man, and so he must use all of his guile, and the skills which made him a formidable officer, to maintain his liberty long enough to find his family.

Once again Dan Smith has produced a first class historical thriller, which will satisfy the most demanding of crime fans, while exploring the consequences of unchecked military might and the persistence of the human spirit.  Smith’s prose is crisp, his sense of pace flawless and his appreciation of the mundane terrors of warfare nothing short of masterly.  In Kolya he has created a fascinating character, flawed and conflicted, with dark secrets he isn’t ready to face, but from the very first page you will find yourself rooting for him, gasping at his heartbreak and cheering the triumph of his spirit.

I read this book in a single sitting – not something I do very often – because I simply couldn’t tear my eyes away from the page.  Red Winter is utterly compelling and genuinely unsettling.


Wee Danny by Gerard Brennan

 

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Gerard Brennan’s acclaimed novella Wee Rockets was a pulsating slice of Belfast grit, following the lives of a gang of teenagers who spent their time harassing old folks and getting wrecked in parks on cider and weed, a story which hummed with street smart credibility.  The recently released Wee Danny is a sequel of sorts and sees one of the main characters, Danny Gibson, now locked up in a young offenders institution.

 

Danny has worked out how to make it through his stretch and his eyes are fixed firmly on his upcoming release.  He knows to keep his head down, avoid trouble and play the reformed character.  Maybe he is being rehabilitated, he’s certainly behaving better than he did on the outside – making nice with his psychologist and teachers, side stepping the macho crap of his fellow inmates, or at least making sure he looks like the innocent party when the fists start flying.

 

Then Danny is befriended by Conan Quinlan – The Barbarian, naturally – a gentle giant with learning difficulties who prompts an uncharacteristic protectiveness in Danny.  Conan is a big target, physically capable of taking care of himself but lacking in Danny’s feral guile.  They’re an odd double act but their friendship is the kind that develops in harsh situations, sparked at random and tentative to begin with.  Danny is initially wary of Conan, not sure if he’s a threat or a friend, confused by his strange behaviour and intimidated by his bulk, but he feels protective towards him and when the opportunity to spend some time outside on a work placement arises he talks the prison psychologist into letting Conan out too.  A move which will lead to his rehabilitation being tested.

 

Wee Danny is a much gentler book than Wee Rockets, there’s violence but because of the setting it is contained and brief, more a battle of wills than all out warfare, and Brennan does an excellent job of teasing out the small slights and power games which define the hierarchy within a young offenders institution.  At the heart of this slim but perfectly formed novella is the relationship between Danny and Conan, and through it we see the tearaway of Wee Rockets in new light, capable of decency and kindness.  Maybe he’ll be fully reformed in a future book, or maybe it’s only his environment which allows him to show this new side to his character, hopefully we’ll find out at some point.

 

Gerard Brennan has always been a writer with a great flair for character and this has come to the fore in Wee Danny, a large hearted character piece which, despite the subject matter, is actually really touching.

 

 


Dead Line by Chris Ewan

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Earlier this year Chris Ewan’s first stand alone thriller Safe House became a runaway success, dominating the Kindle charts for months, and garnering rave reviews from critics and readers alike for its driving pace and twisty narrative. So I must admit to having high expectations for Dead Line after being hooked by Safe House.  Whilst the setting and subject matter are very different Dead Line once again showcases Ewan’s talent for spinning a story which grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let up.

Daniel Trent is a hostage negotiation specialist, experienced, highly skilled and absolutely unflappable.  So when his fiancée Aimee disappears he has no intention of involving the police.  Because Daniel is certain that Aimee has been abducted and he knows who took her from that stretch of winding, mountain road high above Marseilles; Jerome Moreau, a well set up gangster with his fingers in many dirty deals.  The plan is simple, grab Moreau and make him talk.

But somebody else gets there first.  Swooping in and snatching Moreau from under his nose with well oiled precision which suggests that this team of kidnappers are at the top of their game.  Daniel is adaptable though, he has no choice but to be, and he finds himself working with Moreau’s beautiful, ballet dancer wife and his feckless son, pulling out all the stops to secure Moreau’s release, needing him alive if he’s ever going to get Aimee back.  Daniel is an emotional wreck though, swinging between hope and despair, trying not to let his ultimate motive show through his professional facade, while Moreau’s right-hand man picks away at him, sensing that Daniel might not be quite what he seems.

Meanwhile somebody is watching Daniel very closely, hidden in the shadows, exploiting his compromised state to monitor his movements for some obscure reason, and as the situation within the Moreau household becomes more fraught, with secrets and lies bubbling up through the cracks, demands being made and threats uttered, Daniel will have to use every trick in his arsenal to free Moreau before the kidnappers do something everyone will regret.

Dead Line has all the ingredients for a smash hit poolside thriller, the exotic location, pungently evoked, the steely lead man with a soft core, gangsters, henchmen and a trophy wife with something to hide.  It’s a more glamorous book than Safe House, has a cinematic scope which makes for very easy reading, and enough twists and turns to ensure your heartbeat doesn’t have a chance to settle down until the final, breath taking pages.  I literally could not stop reading – even when I was cooking dinner it was in my free hand – and writing this compelling is a rare thing, even in the crime genre.  It’s more than just crash bang wallop though.  Ewan is a technically accomplished writer; his prose is downright silky, his characters memorable and original, and he invests this action packed story with a genuine emotional weight which will leave you feeling wrung out.

With Dead Line Chris Ewan has gone from ‘must-watch’ author to top flight thriller writer.  Make room in your suitcase for this one.


A Taste for Malice by Michael J. Malone

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Michale Malone’s debut Blood Tears was a dark, blood-soaked novel set around abuses in a Catholic childrens home, a weighty subject but well handled, and after reading it I was eagery awaiting the next outing for DI Ray McBain.  A Taste for Malice is out now and I’m pleased to say it has lived up to the promise of Blood Tears.

After his previous shenanigans McBain is back on the job but not on the street, shackled to a desk until his physical and psychological scars have healed.  His personal life isn’t in much better shape either, with his married lover out of the picture and his relationships with the women in his life remaining stubbornly plutonic.  Mired in tedious paperwork McBain stumbles across an overlooked case which pricks his copper’s instinct – two young children who have been abused by a woman the family trusted to care for them.  She’s disappeared and the family want justice.  McBains aims to get them it.

Meanwhile Jim Hilton is welcoming his wife Angela back home from hospital after an accident which has robbed her of her memory.  For Jim it’s an oportunity to rebuild their marriage, she doesn’t remember anything about the previous years estrangement, and he is determined to keep her away from anyone who might tell her the truth.  At least until he’s made her fall in love with him again.  Then Moira shows up at their front door.  Jim is struggling with Angela’s condition and puts aside his unease to accept Moira’s help.  But isn’t this ‘friend’ just a little too good to be true?

As McBain investigates the initial crime, without his superiors knowledge, shielded by a couple of loyal colleagues, Moira insinuates herself into the Hilton’s life, and as a reader you know these two storylines are eventually going to converge, the only question is how much damage will be done before they do.

All of the elements which made Blood Tears such a compelling read are here too, the effortless prose and the piercing insight which creates characters you not only believe in but actually feel for, and of course, there’s McBain, attractive despite his flaws, given to moments of intense introspection leavened by a downright bawdy sense of humour.  He’s one of crime fictions more credible detectives and I’m looking forward to seeing how he develops as the series continues.

This is a very different book to Blood Tears, less violent but far more unsettling, because instead of a twisted killer it presents a destructive force which hides behind a perfectly amenable exterior, the kind of person you might actually allow to look after your kids or a sick relative.  It invites questions about how easily we trust strangers who are designated as ‘carers’ and cleverly subverts the conventional portayal of sadists, showing just how damaging ‘small’ acts of violence can be.

Deeply disturbing and emotionally charged, A Taste for Malice is a must read for fans of psychological crime fiction.


Guest post – Seth Lynch

With his debut novel Salazar just released, Seth Lynch was kind enough to pop over to talk about the research which inspired his 1930’s Parisian setting…

 

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The police in France in the 1930s had an interrogation technique which involved cuffing the suspect to a radiator and beating the hell out of them. I say the 1930s but I suspect they started using this method when the radiators were first installed and are probably still using it now. You wouldn’t necessarily know this from reading the memoirs of retired cops, although you get an inkling of it going on. The ones who were ending their careers around this period don’t mention violence too much, except when perpetrated by a criminal. In their books you’d imagine that the worst the cops ever did was raise their voices and serve cold coffee. The ones who started their careers around this time and ended them in the 1960s and 70s are more open about the beatings but it’s normally someone else dishing them out. I can’t read French that well so I have to rely on works in translation. It could be that the cops who describe the violence of their interrogations never had their memoirs translated to English.

There is another source for the beating up of suspects – the guys who received them. In their biographies/autobiographies there is no shortage of violence from the police. Their accounts, with the hints and suggestions in the police memoirs and from the films of the time, we get a pretty good idea of what the police did. Even Simenon’s gentle old Maigret used to get rough with suspects but he was another who left the room when the interrogations became more vigorous.

What’s the point in me telling you all this? It’s research. If you just read from one source you’ll never know what really went on. (OK, we never really know what went on we only get an approximation) Each autobiography is written by a person who wants to present themselves in a certain light. Maybe they’re writing to settle a grudge or, as some claim, to set the record straight. Others have political reasons for writing – maybe even literally, that they want to stand for office and think and account of their daring actions in the Sûreté or the Paris Police will win them support. Maybe those old cops who walked the beat during World War I didn’t think the occasional beating of a suspect as worthy of comment: what’s a bloodied face and a few lost teeth next to a million dead? For some I get the feeling that the beatings were part of the game – you commit the crimes and, if I catch you, I’m going to lay into you.

Once I’ve read from multiple sources I have enough of an idea to start out on my own. From here on I feel free to interpret events as I see fit. Maybe my cop will be one who relishes the violence, a perk of the job for a sadist in uniform. Maybe my union agitator will receive a bloody beating and will move on from organising strikes to planting bombs. I’ll decide as I write if the truth, as I see it, will be a part of the story or ignored (after all these are works of fiction not academic thesis) .

There are no cops in Salazar. There is a cop in Salazar 2, an Inspector Belmont. He’s a little like Maigret in that he’ll leave the room when the beatings are dished out only to return later when the suspect has been softened up. Belmont isn’t a bad man or a bad cop, he just accepts that the beatings are a part of police work. If you don’t like it you don’t have to be the one who does it, you can call in one of the other guys to handle that side of things for you. I’ve only written the first draft of Salazar 3 but he does get cuffed to a radiator. He already knows Belmont from the previous book and has gone under cover for him in this one. It’s a cover the other police know nothing about – hence the cuffing. There is no beating though as Belmont intercedes and takes Salazar away for questioning.

When coming up with the character of Belmont I wasn’t sure where he’d work or who for. The police system in France has been overhauled a few times since the 1930s. Back then there were the Gendarmerie, who acted as the local police in the French regions. There was the Sûreté who acted on cases which crossed the regions of France – in some ways like the FBI. Paris didn’t have a Gendarmerie instead they had the Préfecture of Police of Paris – the Paris Police. The Sûreté were based in Paris and, as you might expect, so were the Paris Police. And they were pretty much rivals. I get the idea that they’d rather see a criminal go free than see the other agency get the credit for an arrest. They weren’t above sending each other on wild goose chases so they could reap the glory of an arrest. A book by Roger Borniche called Le Flic portrays this rivalry quiet well. He was in the Sûreté so you see it from their perspective.

Police brutality and inter-force rivalries and not a real surprise. One thing I hadn’t expected was a punishment they used to dish out – banishment from Paris. It feels like something from ancient Greece or Rome rather than twentieth century France. The threat of this was often enough to turn a petty crook into a police informer. This happens in the film Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler) which came out in 1955. I get the impression that the police relied on informers for most of their information. I suppose that’s what happens when you don’t have computers.

Anyway, I’m starting to waffle now so I’ll stop. Thanks to Eva for letting me loiter on her blog today. And thanks to you for reading this far. If you want to read more why not head over to Amazon and buy a copy of Salazar? Or you could head over to my blog at http://salazarbooks.com/

Seth


The Never List by Koethi Zan

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“There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity. And then, very suddenly, and without warning, there were three.”  From the very first line of Koethi Zan’s hotly tipped debut you know you’re in for a terrifying read, made all the more disturbing by recent news stories which have revealed just how credible this story of abduction and torture is.

 

After a serious car accident during their adolescence best friends Sarah and Jennifer realise what dangers are lurking in the big, bad world.  So they create The Never List.  Tornadoes, plane crashes, asteroid strikes; these things are statistically unlikely and take comfort in that.  Rape, abduction, murder; these are possibilities, so they take steps to protect themselves.  But one moment of inattention leads Sarah and Jennifer into a strange car then a madman’s cellar.  And they’re not the only ones there.  Tracy and Christine are long termers and as they reveal what they know of the cellar’s previous occupants escape seems unlikely.

 

But they do escape – we don’t know how – and thirteen years on we meet Sarah again, living a reclusive existence, under an assumed name, in a well appointed Upper West Side apartment which she never leaves.  While Sarah hides in a prison of her making Christine has reinvented herself as a trophy wife and Tracy, always the most defiant of them, is now a spiky punk.  Jennifer, we learn, did not escape.  The three women share a complicated history and have no desire to see each other again, but Professor Jack Derber, the man who abducted them is up for parole and their testimony is vital to him being denied it.

 

During his incarceration Derber has been sending cryptic notes to his victims, trying to draw them back to the town where they were held, playing on Sarah’s need to know what happened to Jennifer.  Reluctant but determined Sarah returns to Ohio, eventually convincing Tracy to help her, and the two plunge into the murky world of sex clubs and the possibly even murkier one of academia, looking for the truth.  But Derber is still playing them and they discover that there may be other victims out there still waiting for release.

 

Koethi Zan picks up the abduction narrative where most authors leave it, exploring the psychological toll it takes on survivors and skilfully weaves this into a gut-wrenching thriller which will have you double checking the locks before you go to bed.  (It will probably put you off taking taxis for awhile too.)  At the heart of the book is the relationship between the survivors and it is a fraught one, guilt-laden, antagonistic and downright brutal in places, but slowly Zan exposes the underlying reasons and they are just as twisty and unexpected as the rest of the book.

 

The Never List is a highly accomplished debut which puts an original spin on the ‘girl in the cellar’ story and marks Koethi Zan out as an author to watch.  I can’t wait to see what does next.

 

 

 

The Never List is out now

 


Guest post – JH Everington

Nottingham based author JH Everington is responsible for some of the most unsettling short stories I have ever read, the kind of poised and elegant tales which turn the everyday world inside out, finding wells of darkness in unexpected places and imbuing the commonplace with chilly unease.  His latest collection, Falling Over, is out today, and James has been kind enough to join me to talk about one of the influences on his work.  Over to JH…

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning… 

First off, let’s all agree that this is one of the best opening lines to any book, even in translation. Just stand back and read it again: it seems to sum up The Trial in just twenty-one words. And the reason it manages to do this, of course, is that despite all we go on to read, we never find out anything more about why Josef K. was arrested. And neither does he. 

As a writer, describing yourself as being influenced by Kafka is a dangerous business, because of that word: Kafkaesque.  It’s come to be a shorthand for something that isn’t quite Kafka; doesn’t quite describe the combination of surrealism and clarity, of despair and jet-black humour found in his best writing. It implies, too, that Kafka’s style and themes are easy to imitate, easy to copy, when the truth is anything but. So I won’t claim any of my stories are ‘Kafkaesque’ but I do want to talk about one theme of his that has been a major influence: that of a protagonist caught up in a plot over which they have no control. 

This, of course, goes against the grain of the majority of fiction written today. Characters are meant to influence and shape the events of the story; in many stories the decisions of the central characters are the plot. Nor is this a new thing: the action of a play like Hamlet is driven by Hamlet’s personality; if he hadn’t have been so introspective and indecisive things would have turned out quite differently. 

But if Josef K. had a different personality, would the outcome of The Trial be any different? It’s hard to see how. This feature of Kafka’s writing is a key influence over many of my stories, but most consciously and deliberately onPublic Interest Story. The story begins with the central character, Joel, seeing a photograph of himself in a tabloid newspaper. Events follow on from there and as in The Trial, I don’t believe Joel could have influenced his fate one whit. 

You often hear writers say, nowadays, that they love those moments in writing when the characters seem to come alive, and move the story onwards in a way different to the writer had been planning. Not Kafka – he often started his stories at the end and worked backwards. Maybe his characters had limited freedom of movement, like cattle in a field, but they can’t alter their eventual destination. The original manuscript of The Trial had to be pieced together by Max Brod after Kafka’s death because, aside from the start and end chapters, it was partially unclear which chapters were meant to follow on from each. The structure of the novel is episodic and it’s easy to imagine events occurring in a different order, bookended by that brilliant opening line and Josef K.’s final cry of “Like a dog!” at the inevitable end. 

The inevitable end – as a horror writer, I can’t think of much scarier than that.  

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Falling Over is published by Infinity Plus and is out now.  Ten stories of unease, fear and the weird. 

 

 

Find out more at Scattershot Writing. 

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Guest post – Andrez Bergen

It’s my pleasure to welcome Andrez Bergen back to the blog.  September sees the release of Andrez’s next novel, Who Is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa, a typically inventive and playful take on the golden age of American comics, as seen through a noir lense.  If you’ve read any of his previous work you’ll know what a magpie eye Andrez has, with influences ranging from Soviet propaganda to Dashiell Hammett to Charles Dickens; today he’s sharing one of the points of inspiration for his latest…


THE BLACK FURY: A WOMAN IN TIGHTS; NO CAPE 

 

 

Miss Fury gun

 

One of the more meaningful characters in my next novel Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? (to be published in September) is actually an inanimate one. 

We’re talking up a doll—which probably augers poorly for the book in question and isn’t the best advertisement for what I’m supposed to be hawking here. 

Disclaimers aside, this doll is the childhood plaything of central character Louise Starkwell, a bank clerk at the Warbucks & Erewhon Union Trust Bank, and it has a name: Tarpé Mills. 

A reason for the meaningful nature of this pre-plastic thing made from glue mixed with sawdust is in nicking its moniker from another Tarpé Mills—the flesh-and-blood woman, real name June Mills, who created comic book daredevil Miss Fury way back in April 1941. 

 

 

Miss Fury comic issue 1

 

Initially called Black Fury (a title promptly changed), Miss Fury always was the kind of label that’d snag the noir/femme fatale-inclined side of me, yet until last year I’d never heard of the character. 

This being a confession (of sorts) brings me full circle to the point where, having discovered her, I’m now paying the respect you’ll discover here. 

In a book heavily influenced by the lads’ locker room that was New York’s Marvel (Comics) Bullpen in the 1960s, as well as the California-baked hardboiled fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (also men’s men) from the 1930s on, when I started doing research into the basic premise for this story I figured it essential to shoehorn in the leverage of a woman of some repute, if only to get a much-needed sense of balance. 

 


After all, I’d grown up with tough, self-reliant women including my mother, Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, British TV show The Avengers’ Emma Peel, Buffy, Xena, even Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward in Thunderbirds. The “fair-sex” fragility inherent in a lot of American comic books leading up to the 1970s was something preferable to ignore. 

Yet I wasn’t expecting to discover what I subsequently did. 

Turns out, Miss Fury was the first female action hero created by a woman, beating Wonder Woman into print by over six months.  

 

Miss Fury 1

 

Her often risqué newspaper strips ended up being published over the next decade, with Timely (Marvel’s predecessor during the so-called Golden Age of Comics) reprinting the strips in comic book form from 1942-46.  

Tarpé Mills, the creative force behind the series, had previously pursued a calling in fashion design and also developed comic book characters Devil’s Dust, the Cat Man, the Purple Zombie and Daredevil Barry Finn—but it’s Miss Fury who’s the outstanding creation.  

Though far less travelled, Mills used herself as the model for globe-trotting adventurer and wealthy socialite Marla Drake—a woman without particular powers who dons a black leopard skin catsuit (sans cape) to confront “Nazi threats, romantic entanglements, catfights, curses, and gangsters”. 

 

Tarpe Mills

 

Drake’s character may seem a tad Catwoman-esque in light of that skin-tight black costume, but Miss Fury actually predates DC comics’ femme fatale in terms of fashion. 

When Selina Kyle became “the Cat” opposite Batman in 1940, her first swing at a costume was a furry, purple cat mask with an outfit straight out of a Buck Rogers movie-house romp. It wasn’t till ‘47 that Selina seriously called herself “Catwoman” and threw on more appropriate livery (the infamous purple dress and green cape). Still later, Catwoman’s apparel bore more than a passing resemblance to Fury‘s, right down to the figure-hugging catsuit, pointy ears and claws. 

It’s also fairly obvious that the Second World War offered a creative field day for Marla Drake and her author Mills.  

 

Erica von Kampf + Miss Fury

 

Chief among the imported problems (courtesy of the always dastardly Third Reich) was Baroness Erica von Kampf, a platinum-blonde counterpoint to our brunette heroine, who fills out the role of Miss Fury’s major nemesis. 

Incidentally, von Kampf had her own influence on another character in Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?—the throwaway ‘Nazi’ villain, Baron von Gatz 

Von Gatz is equal parts Red Skull (as perfected by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee at Marvel in 1968) and the Prince Valiant bewigged bad-boy opera singer Rodolfo Lassparri from Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera (1935). He got his label courtesy of another, lesser Golden Age comic book character by the same name that fought Captain Midnight over at Fawcett Publications in the ’40s. 

Anyway, in my novel the doll Tarpé Mills fulfils a point made about what, precisely, constitutes life; she’s the memory someone shouldn’t have—and in a diabolical scene the toy’s eyes are gouged out in a “see no evil” moment. I’ll admit there is a minor degree of symbolism here, in that the real Tarpé Mills retired from the comic book industry in 1952—right before the publication of Fredric Wertham’s hysterical, anti-comic book tome, Seduction of the Innocent 

 

Rooftop Fight

 

Miss Fury would doubtless have been one of the targets of Wertham’s criticisms and the de facto censorship thereafter by the Comics Code Authority. 

Let’s put honesty on the sleeve here. 

In a book rife with sometimes overly sly comic book references and name-dropping most people will never get anyway (and probably won’t care to try), the Tarpé Mills homage ended up being one of those that meant most to me, and through writing Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?—a novel originally inspired by the exploits of fantastic men wearing snug union suits and cowls—I discovered a character of the opposite sex I now cherish. 

 

 

Miss Fury _detail

 

The female gender in Marvel comic books in the ’60s indulged in much swooning, the odd faint, and rapture over fashion accessories or handsome men. I’m looking at you, Sue Storm (Invisible Girl), Jean Grey (Marvel Girl) and especially Janet van Dyne (the Wasp). 

While Miss Fury had her fair share of these ailments twenty years before—you’ve got to read the yarns in context of the times—she possessed the rough-and-tumble aesthetic down pat beyond her alter ego’s glam lifestyle.  

 

 

miss+fury+1949+1

 

Drake also proved women could stand up to the best of the crooks,man or woman, when most of her female peers—even two decades later—were beholden to rescue by the men-in-tights running their four-colour show.  

Heck, Miss Fury’s escapades earned her the honour of being painted across the fuselage of three or four World War II era B-29 bombers.  

Take that, Miss Jupiter. 

 

 

- Andrez Bergen 

 



Plan D by Simon Urban

There is something irresistible about ‘what if’ historical thrillers, and World War Two has provided fertile ground for the likes of Robert Harris and, more recently CJ Sansom with the excellent Dominion.  If you enjoyed either of these books then Simon Urban’s debut Plan D, set in a modern day East Germany where the Berlin Wall never fell, will be a must.

An elderly man is found hanging from a major East German-Russian pipeline in a secure sector.  Suicide is swiftly ruled out by the presence of the eights knots around his neck and the shoelaces tied together; these are the hallmarks of a Stasi execution, one reserved for the worst kind of traitors.  But the Stasi was overhauled years earlier and such behaviour is no longer in their make-up.  Officially at least.  Inspector Martin Wegener knows he isn’t really expected to find the killer.  In the People’s Police Force crimes are rarely solved, only passed up the chain until they disappear into an anonymous filing cabinet, and this one seems more politically sensitive than usual, bound for bureaucratic snarl-up.

As it turns out the case is actually too politicised for a quiet cover-up.  A major gas deal is in the offing, one with wide reaching ramifications for the GDR and her position within Europe and they must be seen to be making every effort, prove that the dark days are behind them.  The drafting in of suave, West German detective Richard Brendel, only highlights the potential diplomatic tensions around the case, and it is a predictably bumpy ride for Weneger, who can’t help but measure himself against the man.  It doesn’t help that he has the voice of his ex – read dead – partner Fruchtl offering frequent commentary on life, politics and women.  Mostly Wegener’s ex – read moved on to better things – girlfriend Karolina, whose high flying and possibly rather sleazy job at the Energy Ministry throws some complications into the case, personally and professionally.

The initial murder is only a small part of Plan D.  It is, of course, well handled, satisfying the needs of the genre but, being an alternative history thriller, the real pleasure for the reader comes from Urban’s flawless construction of an East Berlin which never existed, with all of its social intricacies and political machinations,  grinding Communist-era economical constraints slamming against external pressures.  Urban has created a densely realised world, hugely atmospheric, grim and grinding, a city dominated by crumbling relics, but with hidden oases of decadence for the wealthy few.  Wegener is the city personified, crumbling himself but persisting as people with more power conspire around him, laying one betrayal over another.  He isn’t instantly attractive, he’s far too noirish for that, but he’s an intriguingly flawed protagonist, one you’re more than happy to sped five hundred pages with.

Plan D is a highly accomplished debut, ambitious, complex and written with great flair.  If you’re looking for a summer read which will suck you in and hold fast, this the one.


City of Blood by MD Villiers

City of Blood

City of Blood by MD Villiers South African crime fiction has enjoyed a long-overdue boost of late, with Roger Smith and Lauren Beukes’ eye catching, but very different novels, throwing the spotlight on the country. The region has huge potential for crime writers, grinding poverty sitting next to pockets of carefully protected wealth, with corruption rife and violence commonplace. Out of this seething melting pot debut author MD Villiers, a former Johannesburg native, has crafted a dark, complex and often moving novel.

City of Blood opens with the seemingly motiveless stabbing of an elderly mango seller. The market crowd looks on unmoved, the Nigerian killer knows he doesn’t need to run, but nineteen year old orphan Siphiwe can’t bear to remain uninvolved. He goes to comfort the woman and that simple act of kindness kicks off a chain of events which puts him at the heart of a bitter and bloody turf war.

Gangster McCarthy Letswe has returned to Johannesburg after a forced exile and he wants his business back from the Nigerians who have muscled in during his absence. Their leader, the white suited chameleon Abuju, seems untouchable, surrounded by thugs, protected by corrupt police, but everyone has a weakness and Letswe is determined to find Abuju’s soft spot.

Siphiwe is an unwilling player in this web of intrigue; known to Letswe via a criminal cousin, being watched and threatened by the Nigerian who attacked the mango seller, and with the police pressurising him to speak up and help them catch the man. Siphiwe has his own demons too, guilt from the death of his brother when they were boys and a sense of responsibility towards the people at the shelter who took him in, but he’s smart, with instincts honed from living on the streets, and with so much at stake he will need every ounce of guile he has to survive.

City of Blood is part crime novel, part coming of age story, and MD Villiers blends the elements very successfully, making it seem inevitable, even natural, that a decent young man like Siphiwe would become entangled with the violent power struggles of gangsters. She writes with a clear, confident voice and the kind of forceful pacing which makes you whip through the pages. It is a striking debut from a writer who promises to become a major talent and I’m looking forward to what she produces next.


Eleven Days by Stav Sherez

11-days

A Dark Redemption, the first book in the Carrigan and Miller series was the book of 2012 for me, a politically astute and truly unsettling work, written in some of the most beautiful prose you could hope to find in the crime genre, but the real hook was how Sherez leads the reader into London’s secret corners, unearthing the communities less seen and their dark, complicated histories.  Now Sherez is back with Eleven Days and once again we’re taken off the beaten track with a story which will make you look at the city afresh.

With Christmas approaching and snow blanketing the city Carrigan and Miller are called to a fire on a affluent west London square.  Hidden among the houses, the centre of the blaze is tiny convent home to the Sisters of Suffering.  Records show that ten nuns were in residence at the time of the fire and once the smoke settles the search team discovers their corpses around the dining table in a room locked from inside.  But then an eleventh body is found, trapped in a confessional in the basement, and this person hasn’t gone to their death quite as passively.

Aware of the potential media interest across the dead time of the holidays Carrigan’s boss pushes for a PR friendly result, any suspect will do as long as it doesn’t reflect badly on the church, but as they delve into the history of the order and the sisters’ community outreach work, which is far from universally popular, they begin to suspect that the case is more complicated than a random arson.  A suspicion which solidifies when they crash into a wall of perfectly polite resistance from the diocese, who are reluctant to have church business made public.  But surely they wouldn’t kill over it.  Unlike the Albanian gangsters who have taken an interest in the order and now have Carrigan and Miller in their sights.

The Catholic church, with its labyrinthine protocols and myriad dirty secrets has been a boon for crime writers, with most following a predictable if outlandish formula, but Stav Sherez has neatly stepped away from those hoary tropes, exploring instead issues of Liberation Theology, workers activism and people trafficking, with a brutal, long buried history reaching across forty years to touch the present day.  It’s ambitious, thought provoking material but Sherez weaves it into a solid crime narrative with impressive skill.

Eleven Days is the second book to feature Carrigan and Miller and their personal stories are gradually developing.  Carrigan, still haunted by his wife’s death and dealing with his mother’s dementia, meets a new woman but doesn’t seem ready to get involved.  While Miller’s divorce, touched on A Dark Redemption, is becoming increasingly acrimonious, and her affair with a married man is leaving her dissatisfied.  They’re a great pairing and I’m looking forward to seeing how these elements develop further in the next book.

I’ll admit to having high expectations after reading A Dark Redemption and Eleven Days has only cemented my opinion that Stav Sherez belongs in the top league of British crime writers.  This is a clever, compelling book, dark without being gratuitous and Sherez’s evocative portrayal of London is second to none.

Eleven Days is out now


Jay Stringer

Jay Stringer is among the noir new guard’s most exciting voices, an author whose hard and fast crime writing comes with real political and social depth.  His second novel, Runaway Town, featuring half-Romani P.I and ex-cop Eoin Miller is out now and I strongly recommend you grab a copy if you haven’t yet.  But with Runaway Town put to bed Jay’s mind is turning to the tricky issue of writing a trilogy.  Here’s the man himself…

Trilogy.jaystringer

How the hell do you write a trilogy?

We all think we know. I mean, we’ve all seen Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings. Those of us with even better taste have all seen Back To The Future.

I thought there were simple rules. First one sets up a simple status quo (whatever you want, whatever you need…) and has a happy ending. Second one breaks the status quo (whatever you want, whatever you need…) and has a depressing ending. The third one then brings everyone back together, has some dancing teddy bears, somebody invents a Frisbee, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Once I knew I was writing a trilogy I sat and studied all of these films to get a sense of how the structure worked, and I realised pretty quickly that I’d gotten the rules all wrong. Star Wars: Episode Four ends on a happy note -if you count racial segregation and restoration of monarchy as ‘happy’- but The Fellowship Of The Ring ends with everyone split up and Sean Bean dead (again.) Back To The Future has a happy ending, but adds on a teaser of what’s to come. (“It’s not you, Marty, it’s your kids.” Marty should surely solve the problem by staying right where he is and raising them better.)

I also realised that The Empire Strikes Back is not a very good film. We all remember it as brilliant. Mostly because of one moment of Harrison Ford coolness, and also because it was the first time our childhood brains were split open by a downer ending. As a story, however, it just doesn’t stand up. It’s a chapter in a serial. It relies on Episode Four to be it’s first act, and you need to watch the next film to see any character arcs carried through. Incidentally, It also shows that Han Solo is a douche. He is paid his reward at the end of the first film, which is enough for him to cover his debt to Jabba, yet by the second film it’s clear he still never paid up. He’s a bill dodger.

The Two Towers takes this problem even further, as nothing of actual consequence happens in the film. You could watch the first film and then jump to the third film, and you wouldn’t know you’d missed more than a five-minute toilet break. It also shows up some structural problems that haunt the whole trilogy; the good guys keep winning. They win almost every battle in the three films. There are no stakes by the time you reach the final showdown of the trilogy, because we’re betting on the side that has never tasted canvas.
So what I realised was that the only real rules of ‘trilogy’ that I could depend on where that there were no rules.

The ending of Old Gold had been an accident. I’d had a very different finale in mind, and wrote the existing ending as just another chapter on route to that finale, but there was a sadness and heartbreak in the final line of that chapter that seemed like the only fitting end to the book, and I stopped typing there.

But if the first act in my trilogy had already raised the stakes of heartbreak and depression, what was I to do for the second story? Once again I had an ending in mind when I started, but I also didn’t want to write a story that only worked as a second act. There needed to be stakes. Things needed to happen. And I needed to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.
That decision kicked all of the smugness out of me with regards to the “failings” of those films. It’s really hard. Everything that happens in Runaway Town is a consequence of actions in Old Gold. Each of the lies, punches and small betrayals from the first book are bearing down on my cast of characters by the time of the second one, and that has to be addressed. There are confrontations, bloodshed and revelations that need to be held off until book three, otherwise they would feel rushed.

Trying to find that balance between writing the middle act of a trilogy, and writing a story that had a self-contained arc, took my coffee obsession to a new level. The needle kept going to far one way or the other; I was either putting in too much or too little. And that continued even after I handed it in to the publisher, where my editor suggested that I move a couple of revelations forward from book three into Runaway Town.

The main trick was to go internal. It seems to me now –after handing in the manuscript for book 3- that the key to writing a trilogy is emotion. Fitting a story into the structure of a trilogy means we have to manipulate plot. We withhold things from the protagonist reader in contrived ways, and resort to tricks we wouldn’t dream of using if it was a single novel. There are always going to be plot twists and moments of physical drama that you want to hold off until the final act of the story, but book 2 is where you can wreck your characters emotionally.

I write crime and noir, so I deal in grief, deception and anger. Going internal meant ignoring the lies the writer tells to the reader, and focusing on the lies the characters tell themselves. Pulling the rug out from under. If your characters feel they have lines they won’t cross, or people they won’t become, or lies they won’t tell, then book 2 is the point when you make them face facts. Show them that their precious status quo (whatever you want, whatever you need…) is a myth.

I took great delight in making Eoin Miller face the lies he’s been telling himself. To make him relive the memories he chooses to ignore. We learn things about Eoin, Laura and Veronica that adds to the experience when re-reading Old Gold, but we also get the sense that the trilogy is not leading to a happy place in the next book.

Above all, I hope I succeeded in giving people a story with Runaway Town. It’s a book about being challenged. It’s about realising that difficult questions don’t have easy answers. A novel that can be read on it’s own, with a beginning, middle and end. Important things happen to my characters in this book, and I did it without any Harrison Ford coolness.

rt

Runaway Town is available now


Gone Again by Doug Johnstone

gone again

 

After the drink fuelled violence of Smokeheads and Hit and Run’s sexy, pill-popping rough and tumble Doug Johnstone was my go-to author for manchild hijinks, but his latest novel Gone Again signals an intriguing change of focus as he shifts into the domestic sphere.

Photographer Mark Douglas is vainly trying to snap a pod of whales on Portobello beach when the school calls to tell him his wife hasn’t arrived to collect their young son Nathan.  Initially it’s just a minor annoyance, nothing to worry about; Lauren’s job at an upmarket Edinburgh estate agents is demanding enough to cause these little derailments, so he picks Nathan up and takes him home, but as the afternoon draws into evening and Lauren’s phone goes unanswered Mark begins to realise something is seriously wrong.

His immediate thought isn’t murder – as you might expect in a crime novel – but that Lauren has abandoned them.  She’s done it before, just after Nathan was born, suffering from crippling post natal depression, and Mark suspects that her current pregnancy may have tipped her over the edge again.  As the days go by he becomes less sure of that explanation though and with the police unwilling to investigate Mark begins to delve into the parts of Lauren’s life she’s kept hidden from him.  Through it all he struggles to maintain a tenuous normality for Nathan, while making it clear to the police that his own history of aggression – rearing it’s head again – has nothing do to with Lauren’s disappearance, but when his detective work sparks more violence Mark is forced to act.

The first half of the book is a heartbreaking examination of how a disappearance affects those left behind, the wild swings between hope and fear, the accusations and recriminations which get thrown around between family members, and at the core of the story is the relationship between Mark and Nathan.  Closely observed, picking out the seemingly trivial routines and jokes which bond a father and son, achingly poignant in places, this is some of the best writing Johnstone has done and illustrates why he is so highly regarded.  The second half of Gone Again, when the crime element of the book takes over, is more typical of his previous work, brisk, violent, whip through the pages stuff, and it builds to a perfectly satisfying end.

I must admit I was surprised at how radical a departure Gone Again was from Johnstone’s usual hard and fast crime writing but the shift towards a nuanced, slow burning psychological thriller has proved hugely successful, and I’d love to see more from him in this vein.

 

Available now.


Runaway Town by Jay Stringer

runaway town

Old Gold, Jay Stringer’s 2012 debut, was one of the strongest first novels I’ve read in years.  Introducing half-Romani cop, turned underworld detective, Eoin Miller it combined a hardboiled sensibility with a fine tuned social conscience and signalled the arrival of a promising talent on the British noir scene.  So I had high expectations when the second instalment, Runaway Town, was released.  I’m pleased to say those expectations were met and then some.

Miller returns, nursing the slow healing wounds he sustained at the end of Old Gold, treading carefully as he negotiates the tightrope between Wolverhampton’s two major crime families, the Gaines and the Manns, both of whom have holds over him, as well as some old scores to settle.  Miller is between jobs, coaching aspiring young footballers under the watchful eye of his sort-of-boss Veronica Gaines, when she calls with a proposition and a fat wad of cash.

She sends Miller to meet with a Catholic priest – not his usual clientele at all.  Father Donnelly, along with local radio presenter Salma Mina, has established a support group for immigrants, helping them to deal with the myriad small attacks on their dignity, but they’ve run into something too big for them to handle alone.  Several young girls have been raped and nobody wants an official investigation.  Miller understands the urge to protect the girls from press attention and unsympathetic police, as well as the desire to have the man responsible properly punished, but as he begins to investigate he discovers that Donnelly, Salma and Gaines may have a more compelling reason to keep the police out of the matter.

As he’s pursuing the serial rapist through the Black Country’s urban sprawl Miller is dogged by problems closer to home as well.  His mother has been attacked but refuses to say who is responsible, and the incident brings the far flung members of the Miller family back together; Eoin’s human rights campaigner sister Rosie and wayward brother Noah, who washes up with a payload of unresolved sibling rivalry and his eye on Veronica Gaines.

Jay Stringer is an author who doesn’t shy away from tough subjects and Runaway Town, even more than its predecessor, covers ground most crime writers avoid, and from a position very few adopt.  Superficially it’s a story about a serial rapist – handled, incidentally, with far more respect than in your average crime novel -but the true subject is immigration; almost every major character is of foreign extraction, an excellent reflection of the real ethnic make up of the post-industrial Midlands, and the growing political influence in area of a UKIP-like far right party is chillingly topical.  These are big themes but Stringer shows the effect at street level, taking us into fascists meeting rooms and slum housing, never letting the issues overshadow the terrible human cost.

Runaway Town is cracking read, lean, pacy and grimly realistic, exactly the kind of crime fiction I love, and as the series progresses and the character dynamics become more complex, it’s only getting better.


Interview – Chris Ewan

 

With his first standalone thriller, Safe House, riding high in the charts Chris Ewan might have been expected to take things easy, but December saw the release of The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin, a sprightly caper novel set in Europe’s historical centre of espionage, featuring gentleman thief Charlie Howard, a man of enviable skills and cool wit.  Chris was kind enough to join me to discuss it…

 

chrisewan2Tell us a little about The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin…

 

THE GOOD THIEF’S GUIDE TO BERLIN is the fifth title in my series of mystery novels about globetrotting crime writer and professional thief, Charlie Howard. Like all of the books in the series, it can be read as a standalone mystery, although for series fans, there are some fun developments in the relationship between Charlie and his best friend and literary agent, Victoria Newbury.

 

The set-up this time is that something has been stolen from the British embassy in Berlin. There are four possible suspects and Charlie is hired to identify the guilty culprit and retrieve the item in question. There’s just one problem: the item is so sensitive that Charlie can’t be told what he’s searching for. Oh, and it doesn’t help when he witnesses a murder during his first break-in…

 

So, Charlie Howard’s back in business, how have you found the experience of writing him again after a break?

 

I loved it! I did think it might take a while for me to slip back into Charlie’s narrative voice after the more stripped-down style of SAFE HOUSE, but I was surprised by how quickly it all came back to me. And I love the freedom of the Good Thief books – Charlie lives in a world where pretty much anything can happen, and usually does, and that’s really liberating for me.    tgtgtb

 

Charlie’s in Berlin this time around, what drew you to the city as a location?

 

I considered a bunch of possibilities: Barcelona, Istanbul, Prague, Geneva … But Berlin won hands down. The city is just so varied and dynamic, and it’s history so fascinating, that I knew there’d been a lot of material to explore. I also wanted to fool around with the tradition of Berlin-set espionage novels. Mind you, italso didn’t hurt that it was a city I was more than happy to return to for several visits …

 

You’ve been to some glorious places with The Good Thief’s Guides, how much research goes into each book?

 

A lot. Really. I think coming back to write the Berlin entry, after a break while I was writing SAFE HOUSE, made me appreciate just how much additional work goes into writing a Good Thief’s Guide. The series was originally conceived as a way to combine crime fiction with travel fiction, so I’m always trying hard to convey an accurate sense of place. Working towards achieving this authenticity means that I have to visit the cities I write about several times (tough, I know… ), read about them and their history, study maps etc. So the process involves a lot of additional work, but I like to think that it’s worth it.

 

Charlie’s skill set is outside the scope of experience for most writers – unless there’s something you’d like to share – how do you go about ensuring his activities are so credible?

 

There’s an element of research here – I consult locksmith manuals and I spend time tracking down information online (it’s amazing how many videos you can watch teaching you how to pick locks…). But most often it’s simply a case of combining fact with fiction – springing off from something that I know is accurate and then speculating about how Charlie might apply that knowledge for his own nefarious means. Imagining how a burglar would tackle a particular break-in or gain access to a tricky safe is one of my favourite things about writing the Good Thief novels.

 

There’s a lovely dry wit running through the books, and more than a touch of the screwball about Charlie and Victoria’s relationship, what initially inspired you to work in the comedy crime genre?

 

Thank you for saying that. I think the humour really developed from thinking very hard about the character of Charlie and learning what his natural behavior and outlook would be. He’s a flippant type of crook and that really sets the tone for the books. But having said that, at the time I started work on THE GOOD THIEF’S GUIDE TO AMSTERDAM I was reading a lot of dark crime fiction and perhaps the comic touches developed as a bit of a reaction against that.

 

The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin marks a move into self-publishing for you, can you tell us a little about how you’ve found the process so far?

 

The book will be published by St Martin’s Press in the States in August, but yes, I’ve self-published in the UK. I have to be honest and say that I would have preferred for the book to come out from Simon & Schuster, who published the previous four titles in the Good Thief series in the UK, but unfortunately they declined to read the script. That said, I’ve really enjoyed working collaboratively with a number of people to get the book up on the Kindle store outside North America. JT Lindroos produced a jacket design that perfectly sums up the feel of the book and Luca Veste helped out in numerous invaluable ways when it came to formatting and uploading the script. It’s been truly encouraging to see the support that still exists for the Good Thief series among crime fiction fans but I can’t pretend I wouldn’t love to see the book available in print form in the UK some day, too.

 

Your previous novel, Safe House, has been a firm fixture in the Kindle top ten and held the number one spot for several weeks – huge congrats – how does it feel to know so many people loved the book?

 

It feels surprising, exciting, terrific, bewildering … I don’t know how to explain it, really. I’m just so grateful that the book has found a wide readership and that people seem to have really enjoyed it. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

 

What does 2013 have in store, writing-wise?

 

My new thriller, DEAD LINE, is coming out from Faber this August. It’s a dark kidnap thriller set in Marseille and I’m really pleased with the way the book has turned out. Meantime, I’m just working on a proposal for a new thriller set on the Isle of Man. I’m hoping that a return visit to the island will appeal to anyone who has read and enjoyed SAFE HOUSE. Fingers-crossed!


Spring 2013 – Essential Pre-orders

So the top crime books of 2012 is done and dusted, time to start thinking about what’s coming up next…

Gone Again – Doug Johnstone

‘It’s just to say that no-one has come to pick Nathan up from school, and we were wondering if there was a problem of some kind?’

As Mark Douglas photographs a pod of whales stranded in the waters off Edinburgh’s Portobello Beach, he is called by his son’s school: his wife, Lauren, hasn’t turned up to collect their son. Calm at first, Mark collects Nathan and takes him home but as the hours slowly crawl by he increasingly starts to worry. With brilliantly controlled reveals, we learn some of the painful secrets of the couple’s shared past, not least that it isn’t the first time Lauren has disappeared. And as Mark struggles to care for his son and shield him from the truth of what’s going on, the police seem dangerously short of leads. That is, until a shocking discovery…

Out in early March Gone Again signals a shift in gear from Doug Johnstone. An emotionally fraught novel with a fabulous eye for domestic details, it’s a real heartbreaker.

gone again

Ratlines – Stuart Neville

Right at the end of the war, some Nazis saw it coming. They knew that even if they escaped, hundreds of others wouldn’t. They needed to set up routes, channels, ways out for their friends. Ratlines.’

Ireland, 1963. As the Irish people prepare to welcome President John F. Kennedy to the land of his ancestors, a German is murdered in a seaside guesthouse. He is the third foreign national to die within a few days, and Minister for Justice Charles Haughey is desperate to protect a shameful secret: the dead men were all former Nazis granted asylum by the Irish government. A note from the killers is found on the corpse, addressed to Colonel Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s favourite WWII commando, once called the most dangerous man in Europe. It says simply: ‘We are coming for you. Await our call.’

Lieutenant Albert Ryan, Directorate of Intelligence, is ordered to investigate the crimes. But as he infiltrates Ireland’s secret network of former Nazis and collaborators, Ryan must choose between country and conscience. Why must he protect the very people he fought against twenty years before? And who are the killers seeking revenge for the horrors of the Second World War?

Like Stuart Neville’s previous books Ratlines merges the political and the personal to great effect. The period details are deftly deployed so that this historical crime novel feels fresh and punchy, and his hero Albert Ryan is a character I’d love to see more of. A bona fide single-sitting read, this one will grab you from page one.

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Runaway Town – Jay Stringer

After narrowly surviving a vicious knife attack, gangland detective Eoin Miller thinks he’s earned a break from hunting down thieves, runaways, and stolen drug money. But when crime boss Veronica Gaines tips him off to a particularly sensitive new case, his Romani blood won’t let him say no. A rapist is targeting immigrant girls, and the half-gypsy Eoin knows all too well just how little help an outsider can expect from the local police.

Besides, his client isn’t looking for someone to arrest the bastard. He’s looking for someone to stop him—for good. But the deeper Eoin digs, the more tangled he becomes in a web of corruption, racism, and revenge…especially once his troubled past threatens to derail the investigation by raising questions about his own loyalty and family ties. With his life teetering on the brink of disaster, Eoin realizes there is a fine line between justice and punishment. Now it’s up to him to decide just which side he’s on.

Old Gold, Jay Stringer’s debut, was a cracking read, grim and violent, pacy as hell, and Runaway Town continues in the same strong vein. Eoin Miller is an engaging protagonist, on the wrong side of the law but he has right with him most of the time, and this book takes him into territory often overlooked by crime writers. This series deserves to be huge.

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Where The Devil Can’t Go – Anya Lipska

A naked girl has washed up on the banks of the River Thames. The only clue to her identity is a heart-shaped tattoo encircling two foreign names. Who is she – and why did she die? Life’s already complicated enough for Janusz Kiszka, unofficial ‘fixer’ for East London’s Polish community: his priest has asked him to track down a young waitress who has gone missing; a builder on the Olympics site owes him a pile of money; and he’s falling for married Kasia, Soho’s most strait-laced stripper.

But when Janusz finds himself accused of murder by an ambitious young detective, Natalie Kershaw, and pursued by drug dealing gang members, he is forced to take an unscheduled trip back to Poland to find the real killer. In the mist-wreathed streets of his hometown of Gdansk, Janusz must confront painful memories from the Soviet past if he is to uncover the conspiracy – and with it, a decades-old betrayal.

Recently picked up by The Friday Project and with a paperback release in February this is a book which really makes a mark. Anya Lipska drags her readers into the murky, crime infested world of London’s migrant worker community and renders it pungent on the page in a way most writers could only dream of. Anya Lipska is definitely a name to watch.

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Matador – Ray Banks

A man wakes in a shallow grave next to a corpse to find himself shot, amnesiac and in deep trouble. Meanwhile, an expat drug runner finds out that he’s not the killer he thought he was.

That is all I know about Matador, but I want it. If you’re in the USA you can sign up for it in serial form already at $1.99. In the UK we’ve to wait until February, but on the upside it will be available as a paperback.

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The Next Big Thing

So it’s my turn in this Next Big Thing chain letter – not sure of the details but apparently if you refuse every book on your shelf is spontaneously transformed into Pippa Middleton’s Celebrate (if you already have that one, God help you).  Thanks to Andrew Nette for tagging me in.

I’ll keep it brief.

 

What is the working title of your book?

Long Way Home.

 

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It began with a conversation overheard in a pub last summer, where two men were discussing the business practices of local gangmaster.  The casual brutality towards his workers and how routine they made it sound really infuriated me.  The conversation led to a short story, the short story led to this book.

 

What genre does your book fall under?

Crime.

 

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I have no idea what my characters look like, not the main ones anyway.  The second they acquire a face they become slightly unreal so I try not to even think about it.  Although Brendan Gleeson gets a cameo.

 

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

When a migrant worker is found murdered in a suburban shed, suspicion immediately falls on the householders, but as police delve into the man’s background they discover that he’s made plenty of enemies during his short time in the city and the search for his killer takes them into the murky underworld of illegal housing, right-wing extremists and unregulated gangmasters, where human life is the cheapest commodity going.

 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Long Way Home is due out in spring 2014 from Harvill Secker.  Such a pleasure to write that sentence.

 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I’d been turning the idea around for a few months so by the time I came to actually sit down and start a lot of it was in place.  The first draft took just over six months, then there was the inevitable tinkering and polishing which took another two.

 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I wouldn’t dare.

 

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Think we’ve already covered that.

 

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Hopefully the exact thing which led me to want to write it – migrants in this country occupy a strange position, they can be highly visible through their work, but at the same time their communities often remain insular, self-policing and dominated by semi-criminal middlemen.  They’re routinely ripped off and exploited, with violence being used as simply another management technique.  Most British people never see into this world and I want to show them just how brutal and lonely it can be.

That’s more than enough about me.  Now for the interesting bit; five writers who you should have a look at …

Luca Veste is the editor/co-editor of two cracking charity anthologies – Off the Record 1 and 2 – and a talented author in his own right.  I was privileged to read his first novel a few months ago and am confident you’ll be hearing a lot more about him in the coming year.

Sara Sheridan has recently turned to crime writing after producing a string of excellent straight fiction novels.  Brighton Belle is the first in the series, set in 1950’s Brighton – think Foyles War with better clothes – and part two is out very soon.

Heather Hampson debut novel The Vanity Game is a wickedly sharp satire on Premiership football and the dodgy characters who operate in the shadows around it.  Dark, funny and downright brutal in places, it promises great things in the future.

Iain Rowan is the author of some of the finest short stories I’ve ever read, haunting, original and written with great poise, they stay with you long after you’ve put the book down.  Iain is currently coming towards the end of a year long project 52 Songs, 52 Stories which is well worth your time.

Author, playwright, pugilistic master of various arts, Gerard Brennan  writes books with huge punching power.  His latest, Fireproof, is a Satanic romp through the streets of Belfast – perfect Christmas reading for you bah-humbug types.


Settled Blood by Mari Hannah

Mari Hannah’s debut The Murder Wall was, for my money, one of the strongest debuts of 2012 and signalled the arrival of a major new talent on the crime scene.  Settled Blood sees DCI Kate Daniels back at work, a little worse for wear after the events of The Murder Wall, but she’s a steely, no nonsense kind of lady and when the job makes demands she’s ready to meet them no matter what her lingering personal complications might be.  And this case is one which will require her full commitment.

A young woman’s body is found at the foot of Hadrian’s Wall, dressed in clothing ill-suited to the terrain, and it quickly transpires that she hasn’t set foot on the surrounding countryside; she has been dropped, from a very great height, and died on impact.  Daniels sees it as the work of a truly callous mind and the only small crumb of comfort is that she appears to have been heavily sedated when she landed.  It is an elaborate way to dispose of someone though and immediately Daniels’ gut tells her this is no ordinary murder.

As they try to establish the girl’s identity a call comes in – Adam Finch, a man who owns half the county and plays golf with Daniels’ boss, has received a chilling letter, warning him that if he goes to the police his daughter will be returned to him in pieces.  Finch is a cold, manipulative man, the kind to make enemies by the score, and his daughter Jessica bears a striking resemblance to the young woman who died at Hadrian’s Wall, but what kind of kidnapper murders their captive before they send a ransom demand?  It could be the result of incompetence or an unforeseen complication, Daniels thinks.  At the morgue she gets her answer.  The dead girl is not Jessica Finch.  But she is wearing her clothes and the one of a kind Cartier necklace which belonged to her mother.

Daniels and her team are confronted with the possibility that Amy Grainger – a fellow student of Jessica’s at Durham University – was murdered simply to send a graphic message to Adam Finch.  But what could he possibly have done to provoke such a act?  Spurred on the possibility that Jessica is still alive and being held captive somewhere on the Pennines, Daniels and her team pull out all the stops to save her.  With harsh weather drawing in and a huge area to cover, the odds don’t look good.

Mari Hannah’s easy style and ability to inject driving pace into the narrative make this is a book which will have you saying ‘just one more chapter.’  Her background in the police and probation service definitely serves her well again too.  The internal politics and personal conflicts which arise during an investigation are deftly handled and give the book a real feeling of authenticity.  The character list is quite large but Hannah is a skilled writer and even those who only pop up for a few pages are memorably drawn, so that you’re constantly re-evaluating who the killer must be.  Kate Daniels is the heart of this book though and we feel her trepidation and fury every step of the way.  She is a strong character who seems bound to enter the canon of crime fiction detectives, a realistic, determined investigator, more original than many of her male counterparts and without the clichéd problems of her female ones, Daniels deserves to go far, all the way to the television screen.

Settled Blood is must for fans of taut, expertly plotted police procedurals.


Brighton Belle by Sara Sheridan

Brighton Belle is the first crime novel from critically acclaimed author Sara Sheridan.  Her back catalogue is a combination of sharply written contemporary fiction and historical novels, impeccably researched and thick with atmosphere, which have taken her characters from the slave markets of the Arabian peninsula to the aftermath of the Opium War.  The common thread running through these diverse books is the presence of strong female leads and Brighton Belle is no exception, launching ex-Secret Service operative Mirabelle Bevan into the seamy world of post-war Brighton.

It’s 1951 and although the Nuremburg trials are over there are reminders of the war everywhere, rationing is still in force and swathes of London are razed to the ground.  In Brighton Mirabelle Bevan is quietly mourning for her married lover and the promised future which has been snatched away from her by his premature death.  She is living in a numb twilight, existing on crackers and Glenlivet, working for a debt collection agency.  Which isn’t as glamorous as it sounds.  Not until her boss goes down with flu and she finds herself in sole charge of the office when a dapper Londoner comes in wanting to track down a young Hungarian woman who’s hightailed it to Brighton with a baby about to drop and four hundred pounds of his money.

With her boss away for a few days Mirabelle tells herself it’s only natural she should make some discreet inquiries.  Quickly she discovers that the missing woman Romana Laszlo has died in childbirth, along with her baby, and that everything is being smoothed over very efficiently by her sister and a local doctor who seems to have come into money suddenly.  She also discovers that the thrill of the chase makes her feel more alive than she has for years, temporarily shaking her out of her grief and making the most of her wartime expertise.

Romana Laszlo isn’t the only person to suffer a suspicious death in Brighton though.  A wealthy Spanish businessman has been murdered in his suite at The Grand Hotel, after an exhaustive session with a high-class call girl, and it doesn’t take Mirabelle long to sniff out the connection.  She enlists the help of Vesta Churchill, a young Jamaican woman who works at the insurance company in her building, and they get much closer to the action than is safe for either of them.  From this point the plot really begins to fly, moving into dark and brutal territory which reveals that the declaration of peace rarely marks the end of conflict.

On the surface Brighton Belle has all the hallmarks of a cosy crime novel, picturesque seaside setting, abundant period details and a feisty amateur sleuth with a rather fabulous wardrobe, but there is more than a touch of noir to this book and Sheridan gleefully dives into the seedy side of Austerity Britain.  We follow Mirabelle through Notting Hill dives and Soho nightclubs, on a house breaking mission to one of London’s better streets, and to an atmospherically worked race meet which felt like a respectful nod to Graham Greene.  Can’t quite imagine Miss Marple holding her own in such insalubrious settings.

Brighton Belle is perfect autumn reading, dark and cosy, the kind of book you’ll whip through in one long evening.  Sara Sheridan has an engaging style and she’s created an appealing character in Mirabelle Bevan, tough without being clichéd, a real product of the period.  For the first in a series Brighton Belle is highly assured and Sheridan’s literary pedigree shines out in her deftly written characters and evocative prose.  I will definitely be looking out for the next instalment of this series.


Interview – HJ Hampson

HJ Hampson’s debut The Vanity Game is one part satire, one part crime novel, plunging into the murky hinterland of football fixers who will go to extraordinary lengths to protect a cash-cow power-couple.  It has attracted some high profile fans, including Val McDermid and Megan Abbott, two ladies who know a lot about the dark side of the sporting world, and with the Euros now in full swing it couldn’t be more timely.

Heather was kind enough to join me for an interview…

The Vanity Game is out today, can you tell the readers a little about it?

It’s a black comedy, noir-thriller about a footballer called Beaumont Alexander. He goes to a celebrity party, does something stupid and finds A-list lifestyle spinning out of control and into the path of a shady cartel of gangsters.

To say you’re scathing about sleb culture would be an understatement, why does it rile you up so much?

It seems to me that there was a point somewhere in the 2000s where celebrity culture exploded. It was probably the arrival of Big Brother and reality TV, coupled with the launch of Heat, but suddenly the public’s hunger for fame increased, and dull and boring people were becoming famous. Back in the Nineties, Kurt Cobain’s suicide hardly garnered any coverage from the mainstream news, yet he was one of the biggest and most talented musicians on the planet, but look what happened when Jade Goody died… her ‘cancer wedding’ was streamed live on some shit cable channel or whatever, and the celebrity magazines were spewing out hundreds of column inches over it. Why?

Do people really care? I feel that some people are duped into thinking they care.

I do really dislike celebrity magazines. I feel they have a misogynistic agenda. In every other edition celebrities in the bikinis are splashed across the covers, with the alternating themes of being too fat or too thin, and in every issue there is story about some stupid celebrity’s crazy diet. I really don’t think this absolute obsession with women’s (as it is always the women), bodies does any good to the young girls who are reading these magazines.

When I was younger, magazines like Smash Hits featured feisty female pop stars and printed the lyrics to songs like Faster by the Manic Street Preachers. Now teenage girls only have banal columns by people like Alex Gerrard and stuff about grapefruit diets to read, while teenage boys are, apparently, all watching free hardcore porn on the net. That generation is going to be seriously fucked up.

Or, of course, you could just read Hello!, which seems to think that people qualify to have their pictures in magazines because they are aristocratic.

I don’t know which is worse really. As you can say, it does rather rile me up!

 Where did the inspiration for Beaumont Alexander come from?

I always wanted to write about a famous person. I find the concept of fame so interesting… so many famous people are messed up aren’t they? Some people get so famous that they become totally detached from all reality, and I wanted to see what a character like that would do… if you are detached from reality, you are also detached from the social code somewhat. Originally, I initially intended him to be a film star, it seemed more glamorous, but then there was a lot of press interest in footballers and their girlfriends. I specifically remember the 2006 World Cup, when all the wives and girlfriends were allowed to go to Germany. Even before they went, the celebrity magazines were profiling all the girlfriends, bitching about how they dressed etc, but out there it was a total media circus. I remember a reporter saying in the Guardian that he witnessed a paparazzo literally trip over himself to get a picture of England goal-keeper, Paul Robinson’s, father eating his dinner. Who wanted to see that?

It was the time there was a lot of stuff in the press about footballers and their sex lives… I guess after the David Beckham and Rebecca Loos thing.  And then you got the feeling Victoria Beckham wouldn’t leave her husband because, together, they were such a mega-brand. I remember I was travelling through Thailand on a coach and it stopped in this backwater town, off the backpacker trail. I got out of the coach and there was a huge billboard with Beckham on advertising a mobile phone. I just thought his image is more famous than Jesus’, but what really is behind the image?

So he came from all that, but he not based on any one player in particular!

There’s been a string of high-profile crimes involving footballers in recent years, mostly smoothed over by the clubs, do you think they would ever go as far as covering up a murder?

Well, I think they have covered up rape, or at least paid victims off, so why not murder? I think there are some very dodgy people involved in football… it’s blatantly corrupt in some areas. Tom Bower’s Broken Dreams gives you a good idea of what happened back in the nineties, and it’s probably got worse. There’s also been rumours of gangsters extorting protection money out of players – I guess many of the English players who came from very rough inner cities areas grew up with people who later turned to crime, so undoubtedly, some have connections with people who commit or would commit murder. With the money in football, of course it could be covered up: if, say, it was a young, hot-shot striker who was integral to a team winning the league or the national team, yeah, I think anything could be covered up.

It’s been a tough road to publication for you, what advice would you give to other writers now you’ve broken through?

Just don’t give up! Show your work to people who preferably aren’t close friends or family, and listen to feedback.  And network, and exploit any connections you have. I think it’s a tough road for most people, and if you want to go down the agent/ publisher route, rather than self-publishing, it’s getting tougher by the day, so you have to have a thick skin and a lot of determination.

You’ve been very active on social media with this book, how have you found the experience of engaging so directly with readers?

Well, Blasted Heath had the idea of setting up a blog and Twitter feed for Beaumont and that has been loads of fun. I’ve found it surprisingly easy to tweet as a footballer, which is a bit worrying.  As this is an e-book, online engagement is really important but the crime fiction online community has been very supportive.  There seem to be a lot of places on line where crime fiction lovers hang out, maybe more than other book genres (apart from fantasy and sci-fi), so that has been really helpful.

Has Beaumont’s Twitter account attracted any wannabe wags yet?

No, sadly he has not. But then his girlfriend, Krystal, would not be happy if it did anyway!

As an Essex girl I’ve got to ask, why did you choose to set the book here?

Well, I wanted to set parts of it in London, as it’s the capital of ‘sleb culture. Beaumont plays for an unspecified London club… and he’s a bit too, erm, chavvy, to live in any of the other Home Counties. Places like Surrey seem to be more for film stars and rock stars don’t they? I come from Cheshire myself, which is actually known as the ‘footballers’ belt’, so I could have set it there, but I didn’t want people to think he played for my team, Liverpool, because he’s much too nasty for that!

I would like to stress that I wrote the novel long before The Only Way is Essex was even a sparkle in some evil TV producer’s eye.

So, what’s coming up next for you?

I have just sent my second novel to my agent, but it’s nothing like the The Vanity Game. I am contemplating writing a quasi-sequel though if people like the book… not featuring Beaumont but maybe giving some of the other characters a chance to shine.  I’m also working on a couple of screenplays.

The Vanity Game is available now.


True Brit Grit – the Luca Veste Interview

As if he hasn’t already earned enough good karma for the baddest Scouse bastard going with Off The Record, this month sees Luca Veste release another charity anthology for child literacy, in collaboration with Paul D. Brazill.  True Brit Grit features contributions from forty-five of the darkest and dirtiest Brit crime authors around right now, and at less than two quid you’d have to be an animal not to buy it.

Luca’s dropped by to tell us a bit more about it…

So, how are things progressing with the Luca Veste Centre for Kids Who Don’t Read Good?

Great! We have a chair with three legs and a collection of old copies of the Readers Digest now. Hopefully we’ll get a roof for the shed we meet in soon. Been tough with all the rain, not enough armbands to share around.

Serious answer, Off The Record has raised over £200 since December. Happy with that, but would like that total to keep rising.

After going solo with Off The Record you’ve collaborated with Paul D Brazill on this one, I bet he’s a tyrant, he is, isn’t he? Go on, you can tell us.

(sniffs) He…he…calls me names. Like…Beardy, and String Vest. It’s horrible.

I can’t lie, Paul is one of the best. It’s impossible to find anyone who doesn’t respect and like the bloke. He’s a great guy, who I’m honoured to call a mate.

Dude can write as well. Seriously great writer.

The line-up for True Brit Grit is seriously impressive, how did you and Paul go about gathering contributors? Blackmail, bribery, threats to insert things in places they shouldn’t be inserted?

I can’t take any credit. It was all Paul’s work on that front. He must have a list of writers he has the goods on, and just works his way through. I just had to make sure the book did the names involved justice, which I hope it does.

Which reminds me…he still hasn’t sent those pictures back…

It’s an interesting mix of big names and bubblers-under, did you make a conscious effort to try and bridge the gap?

I think the idea with this was always to show the quality of writers out there in the U.K. So, whilst we have big names in there, there’s quite a few lesser known ones in there, and taking away the names, I think it’s difficult to see the difference in quality of writing.

In the introduction Maxim Jakubowski puts the Golden Age of crime fiction firmly in it’s place. Do you see the Brit Grit school becoming dominant finally?

I think for crime fiction, it’s very difficult to beat a good British writer. With the rise of ebooks, it’s proved to be a great platform for the less commercial gritty writers out there to make a mark.

Also, I think Brit writers are getting quite a few fans over in the US as well, which can only be a good thing. Shows there can be a wider audience for those types of stories.

Crime is a universal language anyway. Doesn’t really matter about the setting, every country has similar characters about the place.

Ever tempted to write a cat mystery? Maybe do an anthology of cosies…

An anthology of cat mysteries…now there’s a thought.

Cosies aren’t really my thing. I like death too much. It’s far too interesting to not write about. And death is so horrific, I could never treat it with kid gloves.

I want to do an anthology where every writer writes in a genre they have never written in before. Ray Banks doing a Lee Child style story. That would be cool!

Child literacy is obviously a cause close to your heart; which books fired your reading as a kid?

Enid Blyton at first. Moved onto fellow Scouser Brian Jacques and his Redwall series. Then, I was about 12 at the time, I convinced my Dad to let me read The Stand by Stephen King. Still my favourite book.

I stopped reading anything around the age of 16-17. Then was recommended a Mark Billingham book (his first one, Sleepyhead) about 6-7 years later. Haven’t stopped reading since.

Stav Sherez put it perfectly for me (earlier today in fact) “That’s the thing I love about books, the way they can pull you out of your day to somewhere totally different & make you forget who you are.” That’s exactly how it was for me as a kid. And still continues to be now.

And who’s doing it for you now?

Obvious answer (and always mentioned, and will continue to be for a long, long time) Steve Mosby. I got a sneak peek of his upcoming book ‘Dark Room’. An incredible novel, and his best yet. He’s a remarkable writer, paints intricate pictures with just a few words. Even though I’ve become friendly with him in the past year, reading his stuff just makes me go all fanboy.

Other than Mosby…Helen FitzGerald, Neil White, Mark Billingham, Ian Ayris, Nick Quantrill, Sean Cregan, Les Edgerton, Julie Morrigan, Harlan Coben, Tim Weaver, Dennis Lehane, Will Carver, Tom Wood, Howard Linskey, Ray Banks…I could go on and on. So many good writers working today. We’re very lucky as readers.

If there was one contributor you’d love to get next time around, who would it be?

Sean Cregan aka John Rickards. A fantastic writer, who everyone should be reading.

Never asked him as I have no idea if he even writes short stories, and the dude seems to be constantly busy. Next one, I’m just going to ask. Fuck it, he can only say no.

Or, choke me in my sleep. I’ve heard stories…

True Brit Grit is available now from Amazon UK ans US, and all proceeds go to charity.


Criminal Classics – Russel D. McLean

Russel D. McLean is an author, blogger and international jetsetter.  His latest novel Father Confessor is out in September, but until then you can catch up with the travails of Dundee PI J McNee with his excellent collection of shorts The Death of Ronnie Sweets, or the previous novel The Lost Sister.  Russel blogs at Do Some Damage and Crime Scene Scotland.

Russel’s pick is The Privates Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg …

Although it took Ian Rankin to point it out explicitly (he’s writing a screenplay adaptation of the novel and has often talked about in public appearances), it should have been obvious to me when I first read the novel at university that, with its dual narrative and clear psychological insight, MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER would plant the roots of what would later become the serial killer thriller.

Read any novel with a killer who leaves confessions and letters behind and you will hear echoes (however weak) of Hogg’s masterpiece. The plot concerns a young man who is beguiled by a stranger (possibly the devil, but more likely a figment of his own fevered mind) into committing acts of murder and sin. This figure persuades our Sinner that he is one of the Elect and will gain entry to heaven no matter what he does. The book is divided into two narratives; the editor’s narrative and the Sinner’s own journals.

MEMOIRS remains powerful even today, despite Hogg’s slapdash approach to his work. He claimed to never know when writing one line of a novel what the next would be, preferring instead to trust in “the fire and rapidity of true genius”*. And he despised the idea of revisions. Although this makes his lesser works rather forgettable, In the case of MEMOIRS, this approach works wonders, giving the book much of its raw power; something in the intensity of the writing gives life and credence to the book’s dark, confessionary nature.

(parts of this essay were originally presented as part of the Armitstead Lecture Series 2012 – “DOWN THESE AYE MEAN STREETS: A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH SCOTTISH CRIME FICTION and have been revised or edited for the purposes of this article)

*As referred to in the introduction to the 1999 Oxford World Classics edition, by John Carey

- Russel D. McLean

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Craig Robertson

Craig Robertson’s latest book Cold Grave is out in June but until then you can catch up with his debut Random, a tricky and sharply written serial killer novel, and the follow-up Snapshot.  You can stalk him on Twitter and find more about his work on Facebook.

Here’s the man himself on Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman…

Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is rarely regarded as a crime novel despite the prima facie evidence at the scene suggesting that it very much is one.

The unnamed narrator sets out with an accomplice to rob a local man and in the process the victim is murdered. The accomplice delivers “a great blow to the neck” then the narrator “smashes his jaw in with my spade”. So far, so crime.

It is a thriller that is terrifying in places, underpinned by themes of guilt and retribution. The plot centres round a stolen money-box, a spell in jail and, of course, policemen (three of them). Sounds like a crime novel, right?

And yet…

If we were to ignore the primary evidence and instead do a DNA test on The Third Policeman, we would undoubtedly find traces of Alice in Wonderland. There would also be the odd polymer of Crime and Punishment and definite strands of Dante’s Inferno.

The Third Policeman is a book like no other. It is intricate, deep, inventive, funny and scary. Nothing is as it seems and that is probably just as well when that includes an army of one-legged men; a box that can produce anything you desire; a contraption which changes sound into light; and one man’s unrequited love for his bicycle.

O’Brien’s book is a comic masterpiece of the absurd and a triumph of satire.

The most difficult question to answer about The Third Policeman is probably the one that is asked most often. What is it about? My best stab at it would be to suggest it is about the eternal damnation of a deserving hell. And bicycles.

My best advice would be not to try to classify it or analyse it. Just read it.

- Craig Robertson

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Zoe Sharp

Zoe Sharp is the woman Lee Child wishes he was – Google it, it’s true – she’s the author of the kick-ass Charlie Fox series, which is now on its ninth installment; Fifth Victim, and features in Childs’ new anthology Vengeance.   Zoe blogs regularly on her website, and at Murderati, and can also be found on Facebook, and Twitter (@AuthorZoeSharp).

Zoe’s pick is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies…

“What’s the dirtiest thing there is?”

This is a question asked by the visionary character, Simon. The answer he’s looking for is abstract—evil.

In William Golding’s 1954 classic, a group of English schoolboys being evacuated during a nuclear war are marooned on a tropical island after their plane crashes with the loss of all adults in the party. The boys start off with some semblance of law and order, electing Ralph as their leader, with the intellectual Piggy as his advisor. They build houses, gather fruit, and start a signal fire in hope of rescue.

It isn’t long before another boy, Jack, challenges Ralph. Jack wants to hunt, gradually becoming more and more consumed by the savage and predatory side of his nature. Jack is supported by Roger, whose sadistic tendencies are allowed free rein without the constraints of grownups and civilised society. He becomes Jack’s henchman and enforcer.

The boys all have fears, at first of some unnamed beast they think is lurking in the jungle, then later of the body of a dead paratrooper which lands on the island’s mountaintop and seems to move of its own volition as the wind catches the corpse’s canopy. This fear leads to Jack seizing control and appointing himself tribal Chief. Simon is accidentally killed when he appears in the camp suddenly out of the darkness, having discovered the true identity of the dead paratrooper. But when Ralph and Piggy refuse to submit to Jack’s tribe, Piggy is murdered by Roger. The boys start a forest fire in an attempt to run Ralph to ground. It is this fire which leads to their ultimate rescue.

Golding’s book was intended to be a modern fable, although it is not as clear-cut as that. His theory was that humans have savage and brutal natures which are only held in check by society as a whole. When society breaks down, evil takes control. It is Simon who sees this most clearly, after Jack’s slaughter of a nursing sow and the mounting of her head on a stick. To Simon’s hallucinating mind, this fly-blown head is the Lord of the Flies of the title, who taunts him that the nature of evil cannot be hunted down as it is contained inside the human psyche.

Golding set his tale on a tropical island to offer contrast to the boys’ adventure novels of the period. The war going on in the outside world—that led to the boys’ situation—is another point, that the grownups have descended into savagery, too.

At the heart of every crime novel is some form of exploration of the nature of evil. Lord of the Flies strips that to the bone.

- Zoe Sharp

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – John Rickards

 

John Rickards writes books and tells lies and if you call him Sean Cregan he’ll usually answer.  He blogs at The Nameless Horror, where you can – and definitely should – get copies of his books, including the outstanding dystopian actioner All You Leave Behind.

John’s pick is The Killing Jar, by Nicola Monaghan…

 

 

 

If I was to outline the basic elements of a story like so: child of a smack-addict prostitute on a council estate, slow rise up the local shitty crime ladder from helping mum’s clients hide their stashes to dealing speed to schoolkids, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, desire to either rise to the top or get out entirely, blah blah blah, you might be expecting one of those terribly worthy inner-city London dramas on Channel 4.

But this is not that. This is set in Nottingham.

Joking aside, it’s a world apart. In fact, The Killing Jar is something that most of this type of story should really aspire to. I’m aware that I’m in the minority, but I hated Requiem For A Dream. Awful characters failing to do much and getting ludicrously ruined because DRUGS ARE BAD. Lose an arm, have ECT, bring out the dildo. Roll credits. Hated it. This, this right here, is what Requiem could and should have been. It covers, superficially, similar ground, but does so with far more grace, nuance and grounding. Those involved are sympathetic (though, as in real life, never entirely so), and their lives feel genuine.

The main character, Kerrie-Ann, like the supporting cast, has proper, realistic depth to her, neither a hero nor a villain, victim or abuser, but both by turns. Her story is horribly miserable — the potted version has her mum vanish, leaving her to look after herself and her little brother, her getting involved with her boyfriend’s shitty estate criminal family doing petty stuff (and selling speed to kids at school), before he and her establish themselves as up-and-comer pill suppliers for the local rave scene, a move which eventually turns bad. She has a (genuinely harrowing) induced miscarriage at, as I recall, 16, because she didn’t quit her pill-popping, drink and coke ways, trying to kid herself she wasn’t pregnant, cleans up her act but loses her little brother to the crappy life she’s surrounded by, and her boyfriend turns into an abusive cock with violent tendencies and wild, drug-induced mood swings.

Awful stuff, no? But the book, written in the most unaffected local speech I think I’ve read in text, never gets sucked into EverythingIsBadsville. There are flashes of brightness, better days and good spells. No one, even the boyfriend, is completely awful, because by and large people aren’t. The estate isn’t a hell hole but a home and a community, even if everyone in it knows it’s pretty lousy, because that’s how they are. The drugs are mostly just drugs rather than the ultimate evil, because that’s what they are. And the ending, which I won’t spoil suffice it to say that it looks like she’s going to do one thing when her brother’s run, beyond her ability to save, and she’s had enough of the boyfriend, only to change her mind and do something completely different, is gently and welcomingly upbeat.

This is proper, real social fiction, beautifully told. It was also Monaghan’s debut. I can’t understand why it didn’t make more waves, but it certainly deserves a look from anyone with any interest in modern urban life or who thinks that the Daily Mail’s portraits of poor city culture or estate life are chillingly accurate.

 

- John Rickards

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Len Wanner

Len Wanner is the author of The Crime Interviews, a series of probing encounters with Scotland’s top crime writers.  Volume Two, which features Tony Black, Doug Johnstone and Ray Banks, among others, is out today and you can read more on his website The Crime of it All.

Len’s pick is Do They Know I’m Running by David Corbett…

If reading Ernest Hemingway makes you wish he hadn’t shot the great American novel, if your only complaint about Graham Greene is that he didn’t leave an heir to the epic international thriller, if you’re still backing Malcolm Lowry in his race to grace because contemporary literature challenges you less than a walk in the park, then read David Corbett. Do They Know I’m Running?, whether you like it or love it, will bring you up to speed on just how much a single novel can still change your life.

This is the story of what happens when we go to war, see part of our humanity die, and then wish with all the heart we have left that there was some other way home. Told from multiple points of view and at a pace that gives us no time to applaud ourselves as we watch and weep, something unique sets this novel apart from the demagogy that so often taints the debate on immigration politics, human trafficking, gang warfare, and our Pyrrhic ‘war on terror’. Corbett writes with such unflinching honesty that we have to forgive him the loss of our innocence as Roque Montalvo, Latino Holden Caulfield of the 21st century, fights the law; both that of the land and that of unintended consequences.

Entrapped by a conflicted family history, Roque sits on the fence between El Salvador and the US where his people are torn apart by organised criminals and recruitment officers alike. In a desperate attempt to smuggle his deported uncle back into the country, he travels through Guatemala and Mexico while his half-brother, an ex-marine as scarred as Iraq, organises the funds necessary to safeguard their passage home. Soon Roque is entrusted with the fate of a girl as beautiful as tragedy herself, and betrayal becomes the price of survival. Worse still, no one seems too certain about the Palestinian refugee in their midst, and once his guarantor turns FBI informant, borders are crossed with every loss of faith in those who promised protection and a way home.

Why is David Corbett the next big American novelist? Because he knows what he’s doing. At a time when most men of letters think they owe it to themselves to be easily bruised, Corbett knows he owes it to his readers to be unique, understanding, and unafraid. Setting his sights on a world beyond his own is not colonial complacency but simple strength. He lets us see unfamiliar places and perspectives with the same humble sensitivity with which he lets us see our shared violence and suffering. He is at home in life, and even in his darkest moments he shows us the difference between imitation feeling and the real thing, the stuff that will singe your soul or make you wish you had one.

Yes, David Corbett knows what he’s doing when he shows us sentimentality and cynicism as two sides of one nature, when he makes us wonder just how honest we want him to be, not only about his protagonists, but about ourselves. That, after all, is the measure of how much a novel can change your life. So when you find your own answer to Do They Know I’m Running?, the world might not be a better place, but you will certainly be a better reader; one who has found a way out of hell and the wisdom to know it is paved with perseverance.

- Len Wanner

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck is a writer living in Montclair, New Jersey. He is the editor of the Lost Children charity anthologies, and his work has appeared in Spinetingler Magazine, Pulp Modern, Shotgun Honey, Beat to a Pulp, The Utne Reader and Plots with Guns. His home on the web is Pluck You Too.

Here’s Thomas on Richard Wright’s Native Son…

 

A man plans a robbery with some friends, and once he knows it will go sour, he starts a brawl with the ringleader to get out of it. He takes a steady job in a rich home, tries to do their daughter a favor and she winds up dead…
Sound like a good hook for a crime novel? That’s part of one Native Son by Richard Wright. The protagonist is Bigger Thomas, and the girl dies by his hand. He is her chauffeur for a drunken evening, and when he carries her to her room, her blind mother comes to check on her. Terrified of being caught in a white girl’s bedroom, Bigger muffles her drunken mumblings with the pillow and suffocates her.

Fear and the hate that comes of it is a constant chilly undercurrent in this controversial tale. James Baldwin dismissed Bigger as an Uncle Tom. To some degree, Bigger has internalized the racist image of a subhuman brute who deserves his lot, and he wears his hatred openly. Native Son is not a novel that offers hope for healing. It puts Bigger in a hopeless situation. If he is discovered in Mary Dalton’s bedroom, he believes he will be murdered. He reacts with desperation and fear, and plunges himself into a worse dilemma.

Bigger covers up his crime by stuffing her body in the furnace and telling Mary’s parents that he last saw her when she came downstairs with two suitcases, with her radical boyfriend, Jan. The family sees it as a kidnapping, and reporters linger, playing up the class warfare angle. When one of them orders Bigger to put more coal in the furnace, he panics and shovels in too much to cover her bones, and he runs. They assume he raped and killed her, and print a lurid tale from their own imaginations, setting the blacks in town against him for shaming his race.

The novel also attempts to show how white radicals like Jan also see their own image of a black man instead of an individual, and how the fear of commingling makes their visit to a diner in a black neighborhood nearly as dangerous as if Bigger wandered into a whites-only one, but the core of the novel is his how his internalization of what others see him as limits his choices, and blinders him down a path of brutality.  That core is how one is affected by a steady diet of fear and self-hatred from birth. Bigger tries to plan an escape with his girlfriend on a snowy evening.  He is so overcome with emasculation, hopelessness and self-loathing that he rapes and kills her, sealing his own capture and doom. He has become the beast he’s been expected to be.

Is society to blame? Bigger is surely responsible for his own actions, but what the novel describes is how your environment limits your comprehension of the choices you can make. Rob, or work for the white man. Be caught with a white woman and die, or kill her and hide the body. When you’re caged in a yard with only one exit, it’s hard to see you can dig your way out under the fence, especially if you’ve never seen a shovel.

Native Son is a powerful novel that still resonates today, and serves as a window into the rat maze of poverty.

- Thomas Pluck

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Iain Rowan

Iain Rowan is the author of two truly outstanding collections of short fiction, and his debut novel One of Us has just been released with Infinity Plus.  He is currently undertaking a project to write one short story every week, inspired by song titles, at 52 Songs, 52 Stories.  And he’s taking requests.

Iain’s Criminal Classic is Macbeth…

 

 

 

Consider this, for a crime story.

Think of an organisation. A drug gang, maybe, something like the Barksdale organisation. A senior member of that organisation wants to be at the top, capo di tutti capi, but he’s uncertain about whether he has what it takes to get there, and besides, the leader is firmly in control. Our man’s wife doesn’t share his uncertainty, and seduced by the thought of power she encourages him to be ruthless enough to do what he needs to do.

Despite his persistent doubts, her constant urging spurs him into action, and they plot their next move. She drugs the bodyguards’ drinks so that they black out, he murders his boss, and then when the body is discovered the next day he feigns rage, accuses the bodyguards of being the murderers, and kills them before they can give away the truth. The leader’s sons go on the run, convinced that whoever killed their father is going to come after them next, and knowing that they will also be suspects.

Our man finds that power is not all it is cracked up to be and is troubled by guilt and fear that someone will do to him what he did to his boss. He looks to secure his position at the top by turning his attention to a rival senior gang member, and in particular his son, who he has heard is favourite to rise to the top one day. He ambushes the two of them, kills the father, but the son escapes.

Always flaky, our man is starting to crack up at this point, wracked with guilt and doubt, haunted by visions of his dead friend and colleague, and at a meal with most of the organisation present he starts raving like a lunatic. His wife tries to smooth things over, but her mental state is disintegrating too. She knows that she has got blood on her hands, and she can’t handle it. As if he’d been over fond of dipping into the gang’s cocaine supply, our man passes through his fear, and begins to believe that he is invincible because he knows some secret information that his enemies do not.

Desperately trying to keep control in an organisation that is falling apart and where no-one trusts him any more, he orders the execution of the family of another gang member he considers a threat. The man whose family have been killed joins forces with the murdered leader’s son, and they put together a team to take the organisation on and reclaim the leadership. Our man’s wife can’t stand her guilt and fear and kills herself; stricken with grief he moves to the final showdown, convinced that he has the upper hand. In a fight with the man whose family he killed, our man finally comes to understand that what he thought impossible, is coming to pass, as it was always fated to be. He is hacked to death, the former leader’s son takes control of the organisation, and our man’s brief grasp at power is over, leaving behind it a futile trail of betrayal and blood and murder, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Macbeth’s one hell of a crime story.

- Iain Rowan

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Martin Stanley

 

Martin Stanley is a Brit-grit author with a brace of  novels under his belt.  The Gamblers and The Hunters are both available now on Kindle and well worth a look.

Martin’s pick is The Outsider by Albert Camus…

 

 

 

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.”

 

So begins The Outsider, Albert Camus’ masterpiece of alienation.

 

The funeral of the protagonist’s mother gives us everything about the man that we need to know. Mersault experiences life from moment to moment, based on sensory experience, he seems to show little regard for the feelings of others, remains detached and aloof, and he is unflinchingly honest. These traits will ultimately prove to be his undoing, which pitches this work into the realm of noir.

 

Upon his return from the funeral, Mersault helps his neighbour Raymond take revenge on a girlfriend he suspects has been unfaithful and sets in motion a sequence of events that leads to him killing an Arab man on a beach. Mersault is arrested, incarcerated and tried for the crime. The prosecutor uses Mersault’s detachment to paint him as a soulless monster. It works, and Mersault is sentenced to death.  When a chaplain pesters him into accepting God Mersault flies into the one and only moment of rage in the entire book. He realises the pointlessness of his existence, of mankind’s existence, and tells the chaplain that nobody has the right to judge him. At the end, he accepts that the world ultimately won’t care about his death and finds a kind of peace.

 

The Outsider has a drive and momentum that few would normally ascribe to a piece of philosophical literature. Hell, there are plenty of pulp writers who probably wish they could tell a story as compelling and urgent as this. And, when push bumps chests with shove, Mersault’s story is pure noir. The novel’s conclusion isn’t one of triumph – after all, where’s the triumph in wanting a large crowd at your execution so you can feel less alone? No, you’ll find no triumph or happiness here, just truth, though you might be pleased to know that unlike many literary tales you won’t find many adverbs either!

 

The prose is as lean and hardboiled as they come. Camus openly acknowledged that The Outsider’s prose rhythms were influenced by James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice – and it shows. There are no bloated sentences or moments when the writer shows us his erudition (which in Camus’ case was considerable) – instead, he just gets on with telling a story and kicking the reader in the guts. And it’s all the better for it – you won’t forget this tale in a hurry.

 

If only all literature was this stripped back and powerful.

 

- Martin Stanley

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

 

 


Criminal Classics – Damien Seaman

 

Damien Seaman’s debut novel The Killing of Emma Gross is out now with Blasted Heath and available on Amazon.  You can find Damien at his blog and on Twitter.

His pick is RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island…

 

 


Ah, Treasure Island. What a book.

Aptly enough, if called upon to name my desert island read, this would be it. This is a classic novel in the most rudimentary sense: written by a Victorian, never out of print and adapted for the screen umpteen times. Ergo it must be a classic, right?

It doesn’t read like a classic; it’s actually readable. This is because Robert Louis Stevenson knows the value of a good story. Pack it full of incident and suspense and bugger the flowery language and highfalutin themes. We’re here to be entertained and whisked out of our everyday cares, not lectured to about the horrors of poverty, the nihilism of bourgeois intellectuals or the moral superiority of the Russian peasant.

What’s that? You want characters you can get your teeth into? Good point, I almost forgot. There are three reasons Treasure Island is brilliant. You’ll know them already, but in case you forgot here they are:

  1. Long
  2. John
  3. Silver

Name me a better villain in all of English literature. Can’t do it, can you?

Stevenson sets Silver up with great skill, first presenting us with two ugly, monstrous versions of piratehood from our childish nightmares. There’s Billy Bones, the tattooed, facially scarred, violent drunkard who intimidates all and sundry. Then Blind Pew, a twisted scarecrow of a man so frightening that he reduces Billy to the status of the tooth fairy, tracks Billy down and puts the fear of God into him. Well, it’s fear of the black spot actually, but all the same Billy goes and carks it out of sheer terror.

Who are both of these men scared of? A certain one-legged man who turns out to be Long John Silver, tavern owner, erstwhile quartermaster to the infamous – and long since dead – Captain Flint, and soon charismatic ship’s cook on the voyage to treasure island.

As our narrator Jim Hawkins makes plain, Silver does not look like a pirate when compared with Billy Bones or Blind Pew. He’s a warm, ruddy-faced, friendly sort who couldn’t possibly be a criminal.

And then Jim overhears Silver’s plan to mutiny and, shortly after, watches in horror as Silver murders one of the crew by stabbing him in the back in a frenzy. This bit is scarier than anything that went before, because we’ve seen our good friend turn into a murderer before our eyes. A man we trusted, admired even. Him, a pirate?

Stevenson understands how to make his reader shiver and he pours all of that keen insight into Long John Silver. Even at the end of the book, when Silver tells Jim that he would never have betrayed him, we still want to believe. We still like him, despite – or because of – his crimes.

It’s hard for us not to understand his motives either. When faced with such a huge treasure, one that we’d toiled hard to collect through a life of danger and death, what would we do in Silver’s place?

We think of Treasure Island as a kids’ book. That’s no bad thing. What we probably mean is that it’s accessible, exciting and reasonably short. But it’s also full of greed, murder and attempted murder, with a body count of well over a dozen by story’s end.

On top of all that, it’s a great advert for the many virtues of cheese. And really, what higher recommendation can there be for a novel than that?

 

- Damien Seaman

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

 

 


Criminal Classics – Jacques Filippi

 

Jacques Filippi is the co-founder of QuebeCrime Fest and reviewer at Crime Fiction Lover.  He blogs at The House of Crime and Mystery.

Here’s Jacques on The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan…

 

 

 

For many readers, Ian McEwan is “Amsterdam”, “Atonement”, “Saturday”, and more recently “On Chesil Beach” and “Solar”. But for others, like myself, it is “In Between the Sheets”, “The Child in Time”, “First Rites, Last Rites”. But mostly, it is “The Comfort Strangers” and “The Cement Garden”. The latter, published in 1978, is a classic of the gothic genre, an exploration into the darkness of a family’s gloomy life after both parents die, months apart.

 

The four siblings, two boys aged 15 (Jack) and 6 (Tom), and two girls aged 17 (Julie) and 13 (Sue) are suddenly orphans. Fearing they’d end up in different homes, and to prevent Tom from being placed for adoption, the children decide to hide the death of their mother from the authorities, thus keeping the family together. They place her in an old trunk in the cellar, pouring cement into it to bury her in.

 

The family has always lived in a remote and depressing area where houses have recently been demolished, theirs being one of the few left standing. They have no visitors, no relatives either. After a period of time where none of them seems to know how to grieve, the four children go on almost as usual, carrying in themselves the weight of their tragedy.

 

Jack, the narrator of the story, just wanted to be like everyone else but the loss of his father cracks something in him; he goes through a rebellious phase during which he neither cleans himself nor even changes his clothes. He spends the days masturbating, being mean to everyone, and daydreaming. His mind is a tormented and dark place where he loses himself; even his dreams are made of twisted Freudian scenes and filled with desperation.

 

Being the oldest, Julie soon becomes the surrogate mother, especially for young Tom who is the most traumatized from the loss of his mother. After getting beat up at school, he starts dressing up as a girl “because you don’t get hit when you’re a girl”; after his mother’s death his behaviour regresses into that of a baby.

 

As the family nucleus starts showing signs of weakness, so does the mother’s cement coffin, which is slowly splitting open; a foul odour from within spreads out and fills the house; like Poe’s tell-tale heart beating deafeningly, the overwhelming stench reminds the children of what they’ve done and of “what” is down there.

 

Ian McEwan brilliantly shows us the sad fate of four children that society has not only abandoned, but also forgotten. Telling their story from the perspective of the teenage boy, whose mind is as much troubled by his need of a fatherly presence as it is by his family’s isolation, is a brilliant, effective idea. The writing is voluntarily detached, almost emotionless, more observing than involved. It works so deeply on the reader that I read the whole story without feeling much of anything, numbed by the shocking events taking place in that house. As soon as I closed the book though, I felt something: it was a void. I was emotionally drained, emptied out.

 

A book like that stays with you a long time. I’ve recently read it again, and it was as if I had only left these kids a few minutes ago. The book had the same effect it had brought upon me fifteen years before when I first read it.

 

- Jacques Filippi

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

 

 


Criminal Classics – Heath Lowrance

Heath Lowrance is the author of the cult novel The Bastard Hand and a prolific producer of dark and twisted short stories which you can find at Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey and Pulp Metal, or in his collection Dig Ten Graves.  He blogs at PsychoNoir.

 

 

“There are all kinds of truth … but behind all of them there is only one truth and that is that there’s no truth.”

 
There’s a preoccupation with religion in the American South. It’s in the marrow of the land somehow, this blood and thunder, fire and brimstone notion of salvation. But it’s generally a pretty Protestant faith that dominates the southern states, so Flannery O’Connor was a bit of an anomaly.  A Roman Catholic, her notions of faith were a bit more restrained and philosophically inclined.  Also, a bit more resigned to the darkness inherent in the very concept of faith.

 
Her particular vision of salvation was laid out very nicely in her first novel, Wise Blood. In its way, it’s a defense of faith in a world where faith doesn’t seem to make any sense.  It’s a deeply serious book, yeah.  But it’s also a low comedy, Wise Blood is, with the blackest of humor seeping out of its pages like tar.

 
The story, in a nutshell: Hazel Motes is back home in Tennessee from WWII, a different man. His experiences have destroyed his faith in God and he’s now a confirmed and bitter atheist. So consumed is he by his hatred of God that he makes it his mission to spread a sort of anti-gospel, preaching on street corners and ranting at every opportunity.  And yet he can’t shake his bitterness. He feels haunted by his former faith, and a Jesus that moved “… from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”

 
When Hazel hooks up with Enoch Emery, that’s when Wise Blood starts to become an exercise in the bizarre and grotesque. Enoch is a weird young man, working as a zoo keeper, who has this idea that he is a “wise blood”—that is, someone with an innate sense of the spiritual world and requires no spiritual guidance. Enoch falls in love with Hazel’s anti-gospel.  The two of them cross paths with a preacher named Asa Hawks (who blinds himself with lye to avoid worldly temptations– supposedly), and his daughter Sabbath Lily (who ruins Hazel’s attempts to seduce her by proving to be a raging nymphomaniac). As the lives of these four characters become hopelessly entwined, setting off one bleakly comedic event after another, Wise Blood veers toward the surreal.  You have a mummified dwarf. You have a creepy cop with weird blue eyes pushing Hazel’s car off a cliff for no reason. You have Enoch deciding that the key to salvation is dressing up like a gorilla. You have barbed wire and shards of glass in the shoes.  And you have one of the most astonishingly funny and dark and emotional American novels ever written.

 
So most folks who know me know that I’m an atheist. I don’t push my non-belief on anyone, but by the same token I don’t hide it either. Why, then, is a novel that exists in defense of religious faith one of my top five novels of all time?  Well, for one thing, I don’t require that a book adhere to my own personal philosophy for me to enjoy it. But more importantly, I love Wise Blood because, in its way, it’s a deeply existential story, with some of the most finely-drawn and weirdly relatable characters I’ve ever come across. O’Connor really makes us feel Hazel Motes spiritual pain.  And it’s so darkly funny, illustrating the fine, fine line between tragedy and comedy better than just about any book I can think of.

 
“He had the feeling that everything he saw was a broken-off piece of some giant blank thing that he had forgotten had happened to him.”

 

- Heath Lowrance

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Richard Godwin

Richard Godwin is a crime/horror author and interviewer of rare technique over at Chin Wags at the Slaughterhouse.  His second novel Mr Glamour is out next month from Black Jackal Books.

Here’s Richard on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment…

 

 

 

 

“If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment-as well as the prison.”

In many ways that is the leitmotif of one of the most brilliant, disturbing novels ever to have been written. While occupying a strong position in literary fiction, Dostoyevsky’s seminal Crime And Punishment is also a crime novel. It is a dark, unflinching look at the human psyche and the irrational mechanisms at work within it. It is a dig by an expert archaeologist into the mind of Raskolnikov, who, influenced by the theory of the superman, kills his grasping landlady only to fall prey to his guilt.

In some ways the novel is about why he is unable to turn himself into a psychopath. And that is why I have given nothing away in telling you who he murders, because it is not a whodunit, it is a whydunit.

Dostoyevsky takes a scalpel and peels back the layers of his characters’ motivations. He exposes the need for the irrational in human beings, the fact that despite our illusion that we are governed by reason, we fall prey to impulses that get the better of us.

There is an interesting historical footnote to Crime and Punishment.  Nietzsche read Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground and wrote of the author, “At last a psychologist I can learn from”. While there is no written evidence Dostoyevsky read Nietzsche, there seems to be some cross-fertilisation at work in Raskolnikov’s use of the theory of the superman, and it is likely Dostoyevsky did read the theory and use it in the novel.

He shows the connection between crime and irrational drives in a St Petersburg filled with paranoia. In terms of its depth of characterisation and exploration of the nature of guilt it is a great novel.

 

- Richard Goodwin

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

 


Criminal Classics – Andrez Bergen

 

Andrez Bergen is a Tokyo-based musician and journalist.  His debut novel Tobacco-Stained  Mountain Goat, a dystopian love-letter to film noir, is out now with Another Sky Press, as a paperback or on kindle.

Andrez’s Criminal Classic is The Third Man by Graham Greene…

 

The Third Man wasn’t meant to be a book – Graham Greene tells us in his preface, “The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen.”  In the late 1940s Greene, already responsible for the thriller Brighton Rock, received a commission from British studio titan Alexander Korda to write a film for director Carol Reed.  Greene and Reed had just polished off a critically lauded adaptation of The Fallen Idol, and for their next effort Greene composed a novella before embarking on the screenplay, in order to set “a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere.”

Greene claims that The Third Man was born out of a short note written on the back of an envelope and it’s definitely a novella rather than a novel – my Penguin edition clocks in at 112 pages, including the brief preface by Greene, and is paired with The Fallen Idol. The book is significantly different from the eventual movie, yet principle elements remain, poking out of the woodwork, either in undeveloped form or as the polished gems Reed and Greene preserved in the screenplay.  There’s a mysterious, gorgeous girl, a world-weary hero and a ruthless villain, but undercutting these standard riffs are the twists – a murder where the victim wasn’t really a victim per se, and then it emerges the murder itself was a ruse – before comeuppance at the end.  But there is one thing that stands the book and the film apart – in Greene’s early written version there’s an implied happy ending. The movie defies that and is, ironically, more of a literary exercise for the change.

In ‘The Third Man’ Greene deftly mixed the procedural (military police tracking a killing) with a mystery (man’s friend is murdered; man tries to find out whodunnit) and helped to pioneer much of what we take for granted now in a crime thriller.

 

- Andrez Bergen

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

 

 

 


Criminal Classics – Stav Sherez

Stav Sherez is a journalist and author, his new novel A Dark Redemption is out now with Faber and Faber and you can follow him at his blog.

Stav’s pick is No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy…

In the realm of ‘serious’ literature there is one name that towers above all others and that is Cormac McCarthy’s. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award, McCarthy is widely regarded as the apotheosis of high-minded literary fiction. Yet surprisingly few people have commented on the fact that several of McCarthy’s works are also exquisite crime novels. His first two books, The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark, were rural revenge noirs in the mould later adopted by Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin. His third novel, Child of God, is about a cannibalistic serial killer. His masterpiece, Blood Meridian, has more crimes committed in it than perhaps any other book in the history of literature. But it’s No Country For Old Men that I want to talk about.

NCFOM is set in 1980, at the start of the 30-year drug war which has since torn northern Mexico to shreds. Moss is an ordinary working man who stumbles on the aftermath of a drug-buy shoot-out in the Texas desert. He takes a suitcase of money from a dead dealer’s hands. That night he suffers a pang of conscience and goes back to the scene to give water to a dying man. It is a measure of McCarthy’s sensibility and, indeed, of all noir fiction that this one moment of kindness sets off an inexorable chain of events, placing Moss squarely in the bad guy’s sights. And what a bad guy it is! Anton Chigurh is one of the most terrifying, appalling, and unstoppable forces in all literature. Like previous McCarthy antagonists he seems more a personification of evil, a howling wraith spewed up from the pit of hell to punish the living.

The set-up is both simple and crime-classic. From here on the novel becomes a white-knuckle chase through the scorched American borderlands. But it’s what McCarthy does with this narrative that makes NCFOM both an exemplary crime novel and, simultaneously, a trenchant and profound work of literature.

Bell, the sheriff and WWII veteran who tries to help Moss, spends large portions of the book meditating on the way life and society have changed since the days of his youth. He and his wife read atrocity stories from the newspaper to each other. These sections are aflame with a palpable sense of loss and anguished rage at the moral degradation of society. At how a human life means very little these days. (“They tortured ‘em first, I don’t know why. Maybe their television was broken.”) Bell’s WWII experience is mirrored by Moss’ time in Vietnam as a sniper. McCarthy uses the two wars to highlight the chasm in morality and belief that cracked open between 1950 and 1980 and how the type of war waged by a country dictates its soul.

A major part of the reason this novel transferred so well to the screen is the dialogue. Some of the best dialogue in fiction, razor-sharp and cynical and funny all at once. Like when Bell and another lawman are discussing the coming future:

“Dope”

“They sell that shit to schoolkids”

“It’s worse than that”

“How’s that?”

“Schoolkids buy it”

With NCFOM, Cormac McCarthy explodes the literary / genre debate and proves conclusively that you can write a crime novel which follows all the rules and, at the same time, create a piece of fiction resonant with deep ideas, dire warnings, and cautious grace.

- Stav Sherez

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Kyle MacRae

 

Kyle MacRae is the co-founder of Blasted Heath, Scotland’s first digital-only publishers and home to an impressive list of writers from both sides of the Atlantic, including Anthony Neil Smith, Ray Banks, and Douglas Lindsay.  You can indulge your inner heathen on Facebook and follow on Twitter.

Here’s the man himself on The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer…via a musical interlude…

 

The doctors are avoiding me.
My vision is confused.
I listen to my earphones,
And I catch the evening news.
A murderer’s been killed,
And he donates his sight to science.
I’m locked into a private ward.
I realise that I must be
Looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.

The Adverts, Gary Gilmore’s Eyes

The Adverts tell Gary Gilmore’s story (sort of) in three verses and two minutes.  Norman Mailer takes rather longer in The Executioner’s Song.  You know the story, right?  A bright but institutionalised loner in his mid-30s takes a notion to murder an innocent man one summer’s night in Utah.  The following night, he kills another.  Despite his half-hearted robberies, these are cold-blooded assassinations, not accidents.  Shooting himself in the hand is an accident, though, and one that leads to his capture, conviction and death.

Often categorised as a non-fiction novel in the same weirdo-genre as Capote’s In Cold BloodThe Executioner’s Song is an extraordinarily detailed and dispassionate account of Gilmore’s life and death.  Through Mailer’s intensive research and interviews, we learn who Gilmore was and how he came to kill.  But not why.  Never why.  There are no explanations here.

And we follow the American Civil Liberties Union’s self-righteous fight to spare him the chair, forcing a recalibration of the nation’s moral compass.  But while others wrung their hands from the moral high ground, Gilmore spat fury at their efforts from his Death Row cell and demanded to die.  In January 1977, after several stays of execution, he finally faced the firing squad.  “Let’s do it,” he said.  His eyes and organs were used for transplants, according to his wishes.  But not his heart; that didn’t come out of it so good.

Wholly lacking in plot and with no surprise ending, The Executioner’s Song is no ordinary thriller.  So why, at a ludicrous 1,000 pages, is it such a page-turner?  Because it excels in two ways.  First, in the quality of the writing.  With stylistic detachment and remaining invisible as the narrator, Mailer excels in the art and craft of perfectly (re)creating a time, a place and a cast of ordinary yet utterly compelling characters.  Gilmore, his girlfriend Nicole and his uncle Vern live and breathe and scream on these pages, and we’re beside them all the way.  Secondly, the subtlety with which Mailer uses a crime story as crosshairs focussed on bigger, deeper issues.  Mailer recognised that Gilmore’s story was not so remarkable, nor the man himself, but the implications of those killings, both the murders and the legal retribution that followed, would change 1970s America.

 

- Kyle MacRae

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Steve Mosby

 

Steve Mosby is the author of six excellent crime novels, with his seventh, Dark Room, out in July from Orion.  He blogs at The Left Room and can be found most days on Twitter, providing erudite social commentary and dirty jokes.

Steve’s Criminal Classic is The Pledge byFriedrich Durrenmatt…

 

 

 

The bare bones and plot beats of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novel The Pledge will be immediately familiar to fans of detective fiction. A little girl is murdered; the inspector in charge of the investigation, Matthai, is a precise man of logic and something of a genius, but is disliked by his colleagues and on the verge of transfer; alone in believing they have arrested the wrong man, he leaves the police and begins a painstaking personal search to unearth the serial killer he believes is really responsible… So far, so conventional. But taken as a whole, The Pledge is anything but.

The bulk of Matthai’s story is framed as a conversation between a former police chief and a crime writer, the former seeking to illustrate how detective work in the real world is entirely different from its portrayal in fiction. The title can be understood in two ways. Most obviously, it refers to the promise Matthai makes to the girl’s parents that he will find their daughter’s killer (another familiar trope). But the book’s subtitle is “Requiem for the Detective Novel”, and ‘pledge’ also nods to the implicit promise of the traditional detective story: that a careful application of logic will solve the puzzle; that order will be restored and justice done.  In this sense, what is pledged is that the reader will be removed from their comfort zone but ultimately returned.

Here, Matthai’s meticulous logic, rather than leading him to uncover the truth and catch the killer, is subverted by a cruel twist of fate entirely beyond his control. In the meantime, his search has become an obsession that will ultimately destroy his life and the lives of others. His pledge is broken – but the promise of the traditional detective story also remains unfulfilled. Where hardboiled fiction attacked the narrative from the streets, here Durrenmatt swings at it from a more existential angle, presenting the real world as a puzzle far too chaotic and unpredictable for even the smartest fictional sleuth to solve.

And yet, for all the bleakness of the ending, The Pledge is both satisfying and thought-provoking. The reader understands that although one puzzle has been set up and left unresolved (at least to Matthai), something larger and more interesting has been hinted at, and that is more than enough.

And to allay concerns, we should probably note: over fifty years later, the traditional detective novel remains alive and well, still puzzling away.

 

- Steve Mosby

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Jay Stringer

Jay Stringer is a crime writer from the West Midlands, now hiding away in Glasgow. His first novel OLD GOLD will be released from Thomas & Mercer in July, and he blogs every Thursday at DoSomeDamage.com

Hangover Square is one of the finest noir novels that you won’t find in the crime section of a bookstore. Written and released at a time when the industry wasn’t obsessing over pointless distinctions like ‘Literary’ and ‘Genre,’ the novel simply gets on with being both, and telling a compelling tale.

The story revolves around George Harvey Bone, a troubled alcoholic loner and probable schizophrenic in 1939 London. The opening paragraph of the book hooks you straight into his mental state, describing the changeover in his head from light to dark. In his light moods, he loves Netta, a woman who schemes against him and uses him for his money and contacts. In his dark moods he plots of killing her for the way she treats him.

The structure of the book follows that of a suspense novel quite closely, but it’s in pulling you into the mind of the criminal that it rose above any structural limitations. We see Bone, Netta, and his social circle for the users and deadbeats that they are, but never lose empathy for George himself, even in his darkest acts.

And there are some pretty dark acts. The story doesn’t shy away from the consequences of his murderous moods, and this isn’t the kind of book that comes with a happy ending.

Hamilton was, for a time, one of the most famous writers in Britain. After that, he was known more as a celebrated drunk, keeping his skill at arms length and keeping the world away through the buffer of gin. But as his star faded, so we also lost sight of a writer with a fine eye for detail, and a great ear for the stupid things people say. For all his literary flourish and fine handle of prose, he tapped into something much darker. He was a writer for the losers, the doomed, the downtrodden and the aimless.  Put simply; he was a noir writer.

Though some of the words are now outdated, the book is as fresh and relevant now as it was then. It belongs alongside Thompson and Goodis in any collection (unless your collection is arranged alphabetically.)

- Jay Stringer

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Doug Johnstone

 

Doug Johnstone is a writer, rocker and journalist, his new novel Hit & Run is out right now, from Faber and Faber.

Doug’s pick is The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson…

 

 

 
Forget those cheesy images of old movies full of grimacing transformations, bubbling beakers and steaming potions, Stevenson’s original is a stonewall literary classic, and very definitely a crime novel, with a smidgen of horror thrown in.

 
It’s only a novella (my copy clocks in at under a hundred pages) but it’s densely packed with meaning and subtext, as well as being a rip-snorting page-turner to boot. The idea of distilling the human condition into its good and evil constituents (or, more accurately, into its moral and amoral parts) is brilliant and never executed better than here, as the well-to-do medical man Jekyll transforms himself into the base animal that is Hyde.

 
I’ve seen it argued that this is a book about drugs, alcohol or medication, either way, it’s certainly a book about addiction on one level, but I think Jekyll becomes addicted to Hyde’s way of living as much as anything else, in the end choosing to live and ultimately die as him, rather than conform to conventional life in Victorian London. Superbly atmospheric, genuinely disturbing and endlessly thought provoking, it’s a classic that seems as fresh today as the day it was written in 1886. Timeless genius.

 

- Doug Johnstone

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – James Craig

James Craig is a London-based journalist and author of the enormously successful Inspector John Carlyle series.  The third installment is out later this year, but until then you can catch up with Never Apologise, Never Explain.

Here’s James on Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho…

As someone who set out to be pigeonholed as a purveyor of genre fiction, I don’t see how anyone could see American Psycho – published in 1991as anything other than a crime novel.

It’s about a serial killer, for God’s sake, with more graphic, stomach turning violence and sex than the whole of the Millennium trilogy put together. And the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is one of the nastiest baddies you’re ever going to meet.

And yet – Bateman is not just a criminal. Rather, if you read the cuttings of the time he is the very personification of a debased 1980s “yuppie” culture. A crazy banker on the rampage: rather topical, if you think about it.

Brett Easton Ellis – in his mid-20s when the book was published – was a hot young writer who certainly knew how to generate ink and sell books.  The “satirical psychological thriller” was ditched by its original publisher for “aesthetic” reasons and, at the time, sales were restricted in several counties.

According to the NY Times, it was “the biggest literary brouhaha since Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses.””

Even 20 years ago, it is hard to imagine a “crime novel” causing such angst, not least as it would have passed unobserved under the noses of the chattering classes.

It is interesting to note, that at the same time as American Psycho was causing a sensation (or a storm in a teacup, depending on your point of view), Lawrence Block was publishing A Dance at the Slaughterhouse. Also set in New York, A Dance at the Slaughterhouse is a great crime novel – commonly regarded as one of the best novels in Block’s truly magnificent Matthew Scudder series.  A Dance at the Slaughterhouse won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for novel in 1992. But I would be amazed if it got anything approaching 1% of the media attention afforded to American Psycho.

Both books still stand the test of time.  If Block had been younger and talked more about “satire”, if A Dance at the Slaughterhouse had been packaged differently, if it wasn’t part of a series maybe it would have been deemed “literary” too. Personally, I’m glad that it isn’t. Matthew Scudder can still teach me things. He is a character that I want to go back to in a way that Patrick Bateman isn’t.

Ellis, of course, is still mining a rich seam – The Canyons (“five twenty-somethings’ quest for power, love, sex and success in 2012 Hollywood”) is set to be made into a film by Paul Schrader. But it would surely be impossible for anything to create another furore on the same scale as American Psycho. Back in 1991, he gave a rueful interview to the NY Times: “I guess you walk a very thin line when you try to write about a serial killer in a very satirical way.”

Maybe that’s the difference between crime and literary fiction – some carefully chosen buzzwords, a lot of spin and a very thin line.

- James Craig

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – JH Everington

James Everington is a writer of subtle and disturbing short stories – his collection The Other Room is available for kindle and more of his work can be found at Scattershot Writing and Penny Dreadnought.

Here’s James on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle…

 

 

 

We Have Always Lived In The Castle is not as well known as some of Shirley Jackson’s other books and stories, but it has at least a strong a claim as The Lottery and The Haunting Of Hill House to being her masterpiece. Told in poised, controlled prose, it is the story of two sisters and their uncle living alone in their ‘castle’, isolated from and contemptuous towards the people of the village. As we learn in the first paragraph, everyone else in the family is dead. We are told this by the narrator Mary Katherine Blackwood, known as ‘Merricat’ – childish, narcissistic, given to daydreams of strange charm or savagery.

It is not a crime novel, and yet the list of wrong-doings contained in it is long: patricide; matricide; poisoning, looting; naked attempts at gold-digging; manslaughter; and involuntary (?) arson. All this takes place against a supposedly realistic backdrop of mid-century, small town America. Yet no justice seems to be done: the characters suffer neither manmade punishment nor apparently any feelings of guilt or sin. Before the novel begins Constance, Merricat’s sister, was acquitted of the murders she’s apparently guilty of…

Wrongdoing implies rules have been broken, but in Merricat’s view of the world these aren’t the rules of law or even God – it is telling that the person from the village who seems to represent officialdom and authority is the fire-chief, not a policeman or priest.

For the truth is, running underneath and contrary to the realistic trappings of the book, We Have Always Lived In The Castle is a surreal, twisted fable – a modern day Grimm’s fairy tale with a grimly ironic ‘happy’ ending. The tension between this, and the more realistic aspects of the novel, are what gives it its edge. Ambiguity often implies a soft blurring of meaning, but here ambiguity is razor-sharp and dangerous.

 

- James Everington

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Paul D. Brazill

Paul D. Brazill is the Spinetingler nominated author of 13 Shots of Noir, a dark and gritty collection of short fiction.  His blog You Would Say That is a den of unparalleled criminality.

Here’s Paul on Albert Camus’ The Fall…

 

I have no friends, I only have accomplices now. On the other hand, my accomplices are more numerous than my friends: they are the human race.’

Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a former big shot Parisian lawyer, and self-proclaimed ‘judge-penitent’, sits in Mexico City, a smoky, pokey bar in the murky depths of Amsterdam’s red-light district. And he tells a fellow Frenchman about the time when, given the chance to save a young woman’s life, he did nothing. And his subsequent fall from grace.

Camus’ The Fall is a stylishly written series of monologues about the desensitising nature of modern life, guilt, ‘the fundamental duplicity of the human being’, responsibility and more. And it’s a right riveting read, it really is. The intimacy of Clamence’s barfly confession drags you along as we hear how, like a true noir protagonist, his life spirals further down from Parisian high life to Amsterdam’s fog and neon soaked, underbelly.

The Fall was Camus last work of fiction, published in 1956, four years before he died. At 146 pages is a short, bitter and hard-hitting espresso that will give more than a few jolts during a sleepless night.

Bang, bang The mighty Fall!

 

- Paul D. Brazill

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Claire McGowan

 

Claire McGowan is the director of The Crime Writers Association and her rather excellent debut novel The Fall is out now from Headline.

Claire’s Criminal Classic is du Maurier’s Rebecca…

 

 

 

‘Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again’.

One piece of writing ‘advice’ that we often hear is not to start your book with a dream. Yet Daphne du Maurier proved it wrong with this mesmerising opening to Rebecca, her most famous novel. The dream shows us a decaying, destroyed house, before taking us back several years, to when the narrator was an impoverished companion to a rich old lady in the south of France. Swept into a whirlwind marriage with rich and mysterious Max de Winter, she’s soon mistress of Manderley. But she can never escape the shadow of Rebecca – Max’s dead first wife.

It’s difficult to put your finger on what makes Rebecca so special. Like all the great pioneering novels, you feel you might have heard the story before. Along with Jane Eyre, Rebecca is one of the cornerstones of the female psychological thriller. The language is beautiful, painting a picture of the mist-shrouded Cornish landscape. Then there’s the tension when the past comes to light, and the gripping climax of the court case. There’s the brilliant characterisation, often cruelly funny, and terrifyingly vivid in the case of Mrs Danvers, the deranged housekeeper. There’s the intense sympathy we feel for the narrator. We share her misery and embarrassment as she fails to live up to the dead first wife, and we learn the shocking truth at the same time she does. And the stroke of brilliance that means we never know her name. How clever to have a teasing, unsolved mystery, at the very heart of a book that’s as impenetrable as the sea-mists it conjures up.

- Claire McGowan

 

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Ray Banks

Ray Banks is the critically acclaimed author of the Cal Innes quartet and some of the grittiest novellas you’ll ever get your hands on.  His latest, Wolf Tickets, is out now from Blasted Heath.  He’s also the evil genius behind Norma Desmond’s Monkey and The Saturday Boy.

His pick is The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark.

The Driver’s Seat is a brief, brutal horrorshow of a novel, and it goes a little something like this: Lise, a thirty-four-year-old “Northern” (probably Scandinavian) woman takes a holiday from her soul-destroying work in an accounts office to spend some time in the “South” (more than likely Italy, probably Naples). Over the course of around forty-eight hours, she will shriek at a sales assistant for trying to sell her a stain-resistant dress, scare a fellow traveller into moving seats on a plane, hook up with a macrobiotic food guru, accompany an elderly woman on a shopping trip, narrowly avoid being raped and then, finally, get stabbed to death. This last event isn’t much of a spoiler, given that Chapter 3 begins:

“She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in the park of a foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at gate 14.”

Spark’s novel doesn’t make it easy to care. Lise is defined wholly by her interactions with others, and her gleefully irrational behaviour can only really be understood on multiple readings, where her deceit, instability, exhibitionism and eventual destruction make more psychological sense. Indeed, it’s only on a second reading that The Driver’s Seat shows its true colours. This is more a novel about free will than it is about predestination, and Spark subverts not only the idea of a murder investigation, but also the murderer-victim relationship. On top of that, she provides a caustic, clear-eyed and ultimately rather prescient commentary on the banality of a modern society that can’t believe in anything beyond its own digestive system. Lise, with her stark, proto-Ikea utilitarian lifestyle becomes the very definition of the hysterical modern consumer, now obsessed with buying the accessories for an ideal death and striving to be remembered, even if it just for her murder. And so The Driver’s Seat doesn’t just work as a crime novel, but also as a pitch-black satire that remains utterly relevant to this day.

- Ray Banks

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.


Criminal Classics – Allan Guthrie

Allan Guthrie is the co-founder of Blasted Heath, the punkiest digital-only publishers around, and author of some seriously impressive crime novels, including the freshly kindlefied Savage Night.

Here’s the man himself on Georges Simenon’s The Blue Room…

A few words first on the ‘literary fiction’ versus ‘crime fiction’ debate, if I may. I think this is actually about literary fiction versus commercial fiction, and genre is something of a red herring. You can see that with Georges Simenon’s work, with his Maigret detective novels falling into the commercial fiction category (indeed referred to in French as his roman populaires) and his roman durs (‘hard novels’) falling on the more literary side of the fence.

The Blue Room is one of those roman durs.

It’s a psychological thriller about a couple having a steamy affair that leads to no good. What’s of particular interest here is Simenon’s technique. In Robert Olen Butler’s book on the craft of writing, From Where We Dream, he advocates that the writer avoid summary narrative entirely, only ever using dialogue and immediate sensory experiences to drive the narrative.

The Blue Room, written forty years earlier, is a prototype for such a literary style. Occasional dialogue aside, the text of the book recounts one sensory experience after another. There’s some reflection and minimal exposition, but nonetheless, from a technical point of view, it’s every bit as mind-blowing as, say, the relentlessly behaviourist approach of that other great stylist, Dashiell Hammett.

- Allan Guthrie


Criminal classics

Last month I wrote a piece for Crime Fiction Lover trying to sell some of my favourite crime-centred literary classics to the site’s hardcore genre fans.  Once the comments started coming in it became clear that the genre vs literary debate wasn’t quite as polarised as I thought, with many readers, and writers, dropping by to offer their own recommendations.  And point out the ones I was insane to overlook.

So throughout march Loitering With Intent will be featuring a series of guest posts from writers, bloggers and reviewers, who’ll be suggesting a literary classic with its feet in blood.

First up is Garrick Webster, journalist, critic and co-founder of Crime Fiction Lover, with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

“I love that book!” one of my colleagues exclaimed this morning, seeing it on my desk.

Out the window went any pretence that we’d be knuckling down and getting on with work. It’s a far better thing to avidly discuss Donna Tartt’s incredible writing, first unveiled in The Secret History. The opening sentence informs you that Bunny Corcoran is dead and from there on in her perceptive prose sinks its hooks deep into the pit of your stomach and tugs you along. How did he die? And why?

‘Literary’ can be a dirty word when you’re talking to proponents of genre fiction. Why put on a poetic or literary pretence when story should be what drives a book? Well, Tartt proves beyond doubt that a densely layered text needn’t detract from the intensity of the plot. She’s used it to enhance it.

The main character is Richard, a young Californian desperate to fit in at an exclusive Vermont college. His fellow classics students guardedly allow him into their circle, which turns out to be more like a secret society.  Studying Greek literature they plunge into the darker depths of ancient culture. Rituals evoking an imagined past only heighten their old money, patrician attitudes.

The tragedy of Bunny isn’t actually that remarkable. It’s the cover-up that brings all the tension. Every line is enveloped in suggestion and mystery. Thanks to all the nuances in the characters – the way they smoke, drink,
love and kill – the reader becomes evermore a part of their clique. While equally unsettled by it. Will they regret their deeds? Will they have to pay for them?

Beautiful, clever and ominous this is ultimately quite a sad book. The literary approach is integral to The Secret History, and yet it’s one of the best crime stories ever written.

- Garrick Webster


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