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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 And having a big stack of unpublished manuscripts finally paid off; this isn’t book two, it’s book ten (ish) so I decided not to worry about it.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.

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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

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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


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.


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.

ratlines

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.

runaway town

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.

devil

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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