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

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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.  

——- 

 

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 

 

 

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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. 

 

 

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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.  

 

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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.  

 

 

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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