Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Following in the footsteps of a true legend


I hope you don’t mind me adopting a bit of a personal tone this week. But today is the tenth anniversary of my late father, Brian’s death, and I just want to take the opportunity to honour his memory with a quick retrospective on a life well-lived.

If you’ve tuned in for my review of Michael Moorcock’s sci-fi/horror classic, THE BLACK CORRIDOR, never fear – as usual, you’ll find it towards the end of this post. Though I chose that one specifically for today, as Moorcock was one of so many great authors that my father put me onto.

In fact, when you get down there, check out the amazing cover-image. That was one of many startling book jackets which, when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I first saw on my father’s shelves, and which intrigued me so much that, when I was finally old enough, I had no real choice other than to investigate the world of dark and mysterious fiction.

Before we get into that, though, a few quick words about my Dad ...

James Brian Finch (pictured above in the 1980s) passed away 10 years ago today, after battling a long and debilitating illness. He was only 70 years old, which I’m sure most of us would agree is no great age these days. But the things he achieved in his life cannot be estimated in a few short sentences.

Though a descendent of Charles Dickens, he was of relatively humble origins, born the son of a coal-miner in Wigan in the 1930s, at the very time when George Orwell was still plodding its sooty, cobbled streets. This was a dour time and place, and hardly conducive to personal ambition. As such, with nothing to boast about in terms of school qualifications, he grew to young manhood after a what could only be construed as an unremarkable early life. 

However, it was during his time in the military when he became interested in drama, writing routines and performing songs and comedy sketches for a concert party in the RAF. Though on returning to Civie Street, he secured regular work as a journalist and press officer, he remained fascinated by the stage and screen, making his first TV sale to The Wednesday Play in 1966, and then contributing episodes of Z Cars (pictured) and Coronation Street, finally becoming one of the latter show’s leading writers, penning over 150 scripts during the 1970s and 1980s, but at the same time branching out across the entire spectrum of British television.

Probably one of the most successful screenwriters of his generation, my Dad’s career eventually came to span four decades, and saw him writing for an astonishing array of popular and ground-breaking TV, hitting every kind of genre and subgenre there was. 

The many, many programmes he wrote for included The Tomorrow People, General HospitalThe Brothers, Public Eye, Hunter’s Walk, The Chinese Puzzle, The SquirrelsBergerac, Juliet Bravo, The Gentle Touch, Hetty Wainthrop Investigates, Heartbeat, The Bill, and All Creatures Great and Small. 

In the end, it all culminated in his winning a BAFTA in 1998 for his TV adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mr Tom, though the picture right was taken a year or so after that latter event, when I won the British Fantasy Award for my first short story collection, Aftershocks, and we thought we’d compare our gongs.

(Apologies about the mullet – my Dad, as you can see, always kept his hair sensibly short).

But it was quite a world that my Mum, my three sisters and I experienced. All the latest and juiciest TV gossip was aired around the kitchen table. It wasn’t unusual to pick up the phone in our house, and find Frankie Howerd on the other end of it, or John Thaw, or Robert Hardy.

Dad was the most astounding inspiration for all kinds of reasons. Though he’d left school with few grades, he’d made up for that over the years by self-educating, which meant that I grew up in a home where enquiry was always good, learning was prized, art and civilisation were hugely appreciated, and where a constant stream of books, films and plays were recommended to me. And it wasn’t just the darker material that I’d go on to make my own career in – though Dad was a big fan of that stuff – but also the classics of our age.

Stratford-upon-Avon became our second home. It was one of my Dad’s favourite places, and more times than I can count, he took us there to watch some of the greatest plays ever written performed at the highest level.

Is it inevitable that I always sought to emulate him, that he was, quite literally, everything I wanted to be? I’m certainly grateful that he lived long enough to see my early output as a professional – my own episodes of The Bill (shortly after I left the police for real), my various stories as they appeared in anthologies and magazines, and the stage production of a radio play I wrote in 1991 called Cross and Fire. Alas, he wasn’t around when what I classify as my real success – my cop thrillers, the Heck and Clayburn novels – came along. But at least I managed to get two shared credits with Dad, even though they came after we’d lost him. 

In 2008, a year after he died, I wrote a horror novella, Gingerbread, from an outline he himself had penned two decades earlier for a TV thriller which never got made (I think the series it was originally proposed for was Hammer House of Horror), and it was published by Pendragon Press. I was delighted to finally see it in print, and even more so to see mine and Dad’s names together on the by-line (many thanks to Chris Teague for getting it out in time for Fantasycon, that year).

A slightly bigger deal than this came with the 2010 full-cast audio Dr Who drama, Leviathan, which I wrote for Big Finish. It was part of the ‘Lost Stories’ series and I adapted it for audio from a Dr Who serial of the same name, which my Dad wrote in 1984 – it had reached the rehearsal stage back then, but was finally hacked from the schedule as it was deemed too expensive for production.

There is a cute little story connected with Leviathan, if you’ve got half a second ... 

My writing career was at a really low ebb in 2009; The Bill was several years behind me, and Heck was still far in the future. I hadn’t earned much for two or three years. When I found out that Big Finish were looking for the Lost Stories – i.e. Dr Who serials that almost got made for TV, but for various reasons weren’t – I offered it to them on the condition that I could be the one to write it. 

The problem then was that I couldn’t find the original script anywhere. 

I turned my Mum’s house upside-down and we uncovered scripts from every era it seemed, but there was no trace of Leviathan. I knew I’d seen it somewhere, but there was no sign of it when I needed it most, and obviously, if I couldn’t find it, I couldn’t proceed with the deal. After several days, I was sitting in my office at home in near-despair, thinking I was going to have to send back word – when I suddenly spotted a buff folder on a bottom shelf, covered in dust. I don’t know what drew my eyes to it, but it struck me as odd that I had no clue what was inside there. 

Tentatively, I dusted it off and opened it – and there it was, the original Leviathan by Brian Finch, yellowed and dog-eared with age, but minus only two of its pages. 

The project went ahead as planned: I adapted it for Big Finish Audio, and everyone involved was fantastic, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant going at it full tilt as I sat in a sound-proofed booth down at the Ladbroke Grove studio and enjoyed one of the proudest moments of my career. We got a great Dr Who product out, which did very well in the shops – and yes, I again got that all-important shared credit with my Dad.

The really uplifting bit about that little episode, though, is that it somehow turned the tide in my career. Up until Leviathan, I’d struggled to make any kind of notable impact. Ever since Leviathan, things have gone ... well, let’s just say that I’ve never been happier professionally.

It’s yet another reason to thank my late-father, and another memory to add to a whole batch of joyful memories that he left for us.

Yes, it’s now ten years since he passed, and though it’s true that you never get used to losing a cherished one, he left such a legacy of love, friendship, warmth and genuine, knowledgeable guidance – and of course that crucial inspiration for me – that I’ve never really felt as if he’s gone. I miss him achingly. Who wouldn’t? But he was such a great guy, who made such an enormous impact on the lives of all those who met him that I’m cosy in the sense that he’s still somewhere close by, and feel confident that his benign presence will never, ever fade.

(Many thanks to the local press, I assume the Wigan Evening Post, for the great picture at the top. Sorry guys, I’m not sure which particular snapper took this one, as it was an awful long time ago, so the credit goes to all of you).


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

THE BLACK CORRIDOR 
by Michael Moorcock (1969)

In a future of violence and decay, uncompromising businessman, Ryan, foresees no hope either for himself or for his family. In the midst of social disintegration, societal breakdown, ecological disaster and the impending slaughter of a nuclear war, and with all his close relationships – both personal and business-related – severed, he finds he has no option but to steal an interstellar spaceship, the Hope Dempsey, load it with the handful of people left on Earth whom he actually cares about, and set off for Munich 15040, a habitable world in the constellation of Ophiuchus.

The journey is a short one in cosmic terms – a mere six light-years – but it’s a massive undertaking for human beings. Even so, under his stewardship, Ryan feels they can make it. Once safely landed on their new home, he is confident they’ll be able to start again, get back to basics, live a simple, clean life, and in the process reformat humanity.

At least that’s the plan, but in reality it isn’t going to be anything like so easy.

In The Black Corridor (which term actually refers to space itself), once you’re out there among the stars there is no sense of the wonder and mystery that science fiction readers of earlier decades had been led to imagine. Instead, it is a cold, dead void, a soulless vacuum in which the chances of dying an ugly, lonely death are very high indeed – and in fact this is the note we come in on as the novel starts. Check out this immortal opening passage:

Space is infinite.
     It is dark.
     Space is neutral.
     It is cold.
*
Stars occupy minute areas of space. They are clustered a few billion here. A few billion there. As if seeking consolation in numbers.
     Space does not care.
*
Space does not threaten.
     Space does not comfort.
     It does not sleep; it does not wake; it does not dream; it does not hope; it does not fear; it does not love; it does not hate; it does not encourage any of these qualities.
     Space cannot be measured. It cannot be angered. It cannot be placated. It cannot be summed up.
     Space is there.
*
Space is not large and it is not small. It does not live and it does not die. It does not offer truth and neither does it lie.
     Space is a remorseless, senseless, impersonal fact.
     Space is the absence of time and of matter.

(If you feel you recognise that extract from the annals of rock music, you’re correct – it was utilised on Hawkwind’s classic 1973 album, Space Ritual).

The voyage itself is a nightmarish experience. With the rest of his crew in cryogenic stasis, Ryan alone must run the ship, check the computers, continue to monitor their course, and all the while he talks to no-one but the spaceship’s log, and, outside, sees nothing but the vast and frozen emptiness. Inevitably, his mind begins to wander and, whether he likes it or not, he commences reliving, in vivid flashback, the terrible events on Earth leading up to their departure, at the same time mulling over his own achievements, or the lack of such. For Ryan, it seems, is not a particularly nice guy. It may be that now he heroically leads his suffering people to a kind of promised land, but during his time on Earth he was ruthless, unprincipled, vain and deceitful. Wherever he went, he left damage.

The memories of this torture him unmercifully, but no more so than the sheer, mind-boggling solitude of his limitless journey. Eventually he begins to hallucinate, to fantasise … quickly losing track of what is real and what isn’t, and at the same time infecting the reader with similar doubts.

Did any of these events that Ryan flees from actually happen?

Who is Ryan?

Why is he here on this seemingly deserted spacecraft?

Where is he really headed to? Does that place exist?

And perhaps more frightening still, is it possible that he isn’t genuinely alone? Could there be someone else on board, someone who seemingly is not lying in suspended animation? Ryan certainly finds evidence of this, but who could this interloper be, why does Ryan never see them, and what is their purpose?

You just know, without needing to be told, that none of this is going to end well …

The most obvious thing you can say about The Black Corridor, which is only 126 pages in length, (and unofficially was co-written by Moorcock with his then-wife, Hilary Bailey) is that it was intended as a short, sharp shock to the blasé sci-fi buying public of that era.

It’s a classic example of the ‘new wave’ subgenre popular at the end of the 1960s in that it prophesied a dystopian future of warring, hate-filled tribes rather than an age of technological imperiousness; in that it was written in a consciously stripped-down style; in that it used ripe language and was frank in its depictions of human violence and sexuality – but also in that it was political (even anarchic) in its subtext and scathing about mankind’s reckless mismanagement of the Earth.

But don’t go away with the impression that this novel is an essay or a polemic. It’s certainly experimental in parts. There is curious and often distracting use of ‘alternative’ typography, and there are sections when we are subjected to technical printouts and random streams of consciousness rather than coherent narrative, but despite these tricks – which are a bit irritating, if I’m honest – this is still a rattling good tale, especially if you like your fiction off-the-wall.

Just be warned – there are no space monsters in this novel, no ray-guns. Though that doesn’t mean it isn’t eerie and fascinating, not to say on occasion pretty damn frightening. The growing sense of menace stems entirely from Ryan’s rapidly worsening predicament: the endless isolation of his headlong flight, the uncertainty of what might lie at its end, if anything, and his gradual but inevitable meltdown, which of course perfectly mirrors the meltdown back on Earth, for that too was fermented by ignorance and folly.

Some have accused The Black Corridor of dating badly, of being a typical exercise in ’60s psychedelia and laced with the sort of woolly-headed hippy-think we’d these days scoff at as pseudery. But on reflection, it actually seems rather prescient in today’s volatile climate: world economies collapsing, old alliances breaking, friends becoming enemies, suspicion growing about immigrants and foreigners, fear and paranoia running rampant in the land.

It’s also been said that it’s too slim, too quick a read, and for that reason a bit lightweight in sci-fi terms. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more. If a book does its job in 100 pages rather than 1,000, it’s still done its job. And at least you can’t complain that it’s been padded.   

As always – just for fun – here are my selections for who should play the leads if The Black Corridor ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (and what a fascinating challenge for any screenwriter that would be), but as there’s only one real star of this story, I’m only bothering to cast one person, and for that I’m opting for my main man of the moment. 

Ryan – Tom Hardy

Friday, 16 June 2017

When our favourite heroes face true peril

It’s a big news week this week, at least for those interested in the respective futures of Detective Sergeant Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg and Detective Constable Lucy Clayburn. 

Before we get to that, and on the subject of cops under pressure in a very dark world, I’m also proud today to be reviewing and discussing David Jackson’s superbly entertaining, New York-based crime thriller, PARIAH. If that feature is the main reason you’re here, you’ll find it, as usual, at the lower end of today’s column – feel free to scroll your way down there now. 

However, if you’ve got a bit more time and are fans of the Heckenburg and Clayburn books, you might be a bit interested in the following …

The weeks leading up to Christmas are usually pretty exciting, but as we raced towards the end of 2016, I was a bit more excited (and tense) than usual. In early November last year, I entered discussions with my publishers, Avon Books at HarperCollins, to maybe continue the two crime sagas I’ve recently been writing: the DS Heckenburg novels, and what, as most punters will have now guessed, was always intended to be a parallel crime series, the Lucy Clayburn books.

It may be a surprise to some that I had to discuss it at all. After all, STRANGERS, the first of the Clayburn novels, became a  Sunday Times best-seller within a month of publication, while the Heck novels, particularly the most recent one, ASHES TO ASHES, have pulled in some astonishingly good reviews.

But we authors don’t glue ourselves permanently to any particular character or series of characters, no matter how popular they may become. At least, we don’t plan to. Okay, I can’t speak for everyone in this … but I think it’s fair to say that we all of us have ambitions to broaden our writerly horizons. We don’t want to write about the same people all the time.

Hence the long chat I had with Avon.

It’s always a strange time for an author, that. Because even if you’ve enjoyed a happy and fruitful relationship with a publisher – as I definitely had with Avon, particularly with regard to the Heck and Clayburn books – you can’t help but question whether the grass might be greener elsewhere. You swap notes with fellow writers, you start mulling over different ideas, possible new directions, you discuss it with your agent, your wife, husband etc.

But ultimately, you wonder ...

You wonder if you’ve been in your comfort zone for too long, and if maybe your work has stagnated as a result.

You wonder if opting to write something completely different might totally re-energise you.

However … if you guys are all reading this now and assuming I’m about to declare that I’m either leaving Avon Books and/or dumping my two cop heroes, you’d be wrong. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

I’m very happy to announce that, after all the soul-searching I mentioned above, I’ve signed a new deal with Avon, and that both Heck and Lucy Clayburn will continue to work their cases harder than almost anyone else into the foreseeable future under the HarperCollins banner.

As such, another Lucy book – SHADOWS – will follow this year (in October, to be precise), the next Heck novel, as yet untitled, will hit the shelves sometime around next spring, and Lucy, most likely, will appear again later on in 2018.

You may wonder, ‘okay, so … why give us all that gabble beforehand?’

The simple answer is that lots of people have recently been asking what my plans are for the two characters, and have expressed concern that I seemed cagey or even unsure about what was going to happen next. The truth is that I wasn’t really able to say anything because I was genuinely undecided – it was, as I think I’ve underlined, a difficult decision.

But at the end of the day, I suspect I was always destined to sign on at Avon again. Firstly, they’ve done a great job with the novels so far, and have encouraged, supported and assisted me in every conceivable way as I’ve developed my two main characters. I’ve long felt I had something valuable in my connection to Avon – a relationship that more resembles close friendship than employer and employee hooked-up for mutual convenience, and this is something which, from my many chats with fellow authors, is not by any means a given when you move on to pastures new. If I’d decided to head elsewhere, I’d have been risking losing something very precious.

In addition, of course, I still have a directory’s worth of untapped ideas for both Heck and Lucy, and, quite frankly, it would have been an out-and-out crime to leave it there. Not only that, I’ve realised these last few months how emotionally attached I’ve become to these two fictional personalities – every day, it seems, I’m thinking up possible new developments in their careers. Merely considering drawing a sudden line under them actually affected me with a sense of physical loss.

So there we are: I’m still with Avon Books, at least for another couple of books, and, as I said before, both Mark Heckenburg and Lucy Clayburn will continue to hunt the bad guys with every ounce of strength in my body.

And now for something completely (well, a little bit) different …

Last year, I wrote a special blogpost for BLOOMIN BRILLIANT BOOKS on the subject of my research techniques, and what lengths I must go to in order to create the authentic feel of the homicide detective’s world. That was half a year ago now, of course, last October in fact, and so, with many thanks to BLOOMIN BRILLIANT BOOKS – and hopefully for your interest – I’m able to reproduce it in full here, today …

How do you research for your cop fiction?

I suppose it all boils down to how much research you actually want to do.

Do you want to be as precise as possible and follow real police procedure to the absolute letter of the law? Or are you quite happy to cut corners in order to tell a rattling good story?

Either way, I have a slight advantage because I was once a serving police officer, albeit some time ago now. Given that police protocols change so regularly, and vary so much from force to force, my basic knowledge is hardly likely to be 100% accurate. That said, my service did ensure that I have a good basic understanding of police life, police attitudes, police relationships, and I like to think that I’m fairly well informed when it comes to the law, though I too have to update my legal knowledge on a regular basis.

Thankfully, I still have some of my old crime investigation manuals to hand – very grubby and dog-eared though they are – and there are still lots of police buddies I can consult when it comes to tricky issues. In addition these days, we all have an amazing resource of information in the internet. Complex, detailed data that once could only be discovered by going to the library or visiting the local Citizen’s Advice office is now available at the push of a button. Law exists online, the rights of citizens are available online, police procedures at the time of arrest and custody are online – it’s not difficult to keep yourself appraised of essential developments.

Which brings me back to the point I raised earlier. How much hard fact to you want to include?

Some authors are very hot on procedure, while for others it’s nothing more than a vague background. I guess I fall somewhere between the two. I like things to be as accurate as possible, but by the same token I consider that I’m writing thriller fiction not police textbooks. So I don’t like to overdo it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t keep my ear to the ground and read up on new cases and systems, which can be a time-consuming process.

Of course, one key advantage the average crime writer has in this regard is the sheer amount of misinformation already out there. Most members of the public have never visited a real-life murder scene, and hopefully never will. Nevertheless, they think they know what goes on because they’ve seen it so often in the movies and on television. But most dramas operate on the same principles that we novelists do: in other words, their priority is not always to be absolutely faithful to real life, and they too will skimp on inconvenient details. In addition to this, there are some investigative techniques that official police advisers will not speak to writers, publishers or film and TV producers about, and I won’t even name them here. It definitely suits the police if not all the tricks of their trade are known to the public; there are some areas where they are more than happy for crime authors like myself to make stuff up.

With my last Lucy Clayburn novel, STRANGERS, there is no way that even as a former copper, I could just have grabbed up my keyboard and started bashing it in.

To start with, STRANGERS is about a policewoman, not a policeman. Not only that, it’s a policewoman who needs to go undercover among Manchester’s prostitutes to try and snare a vicious female serial killer called Jill the Ripper, a streetwalker who is murdering and mutilating her male clients.

How could I know what it would be like as a young woman, who as part of her duty must don the most suggestive clothing and walk the roughest parts of town at the dead of night, while actively seeking the company of deranged offenders?

But thankfully, I had this covered too. The author Ash Cameron, a personal friend of mine, is also a former police officer, and she performed this perilous duty many, many times during her own days in the job. So, I had more than a few discussions with her on the subject, and trust me, I got it chapter and verse, and you will too if you fancy checking out STRANGERS, in which I skimp on no lurid detail.

Even so, I reiterate that I’m not in the business of writing how-to manuals. On occasion, the mythology of police work is much more entertaining than the reality – how much do you really want to know about mountains of soul-sapping paperwork, or sitting in court for hours while lawyers argue over minutiae?

That doesn’t mean to say that the truth can’t every bit as compelling and hair-raising as the fiction. But for me it's about finding a happy medium midway between the two. I guess it’s over to my readers now to see what they make of it.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS ...

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

PARIAH by David Jackson (2014)

Detective Callum Doyle is one of New York’s finest. But he’s not the most popular guy in the station-house. Wrongly accused of once having an affair with a colleague’s wife, who subsequently died in a shoot-out with a worthless hoodlum, there is a distinct lack of support from his work-mates when a faceless and relentless killer targets him for isolation, eliminating anyone he gets close to in the most cruel and horrific ways.

The book starts at a hundred miles an hour with the slaying of two of Doyle’s fellow-cops, Detectives Parlatti and Alvarez, both of whom at the time of their deaths happen to be partnered with him. Letters are then sent threatening the lives of anyone Doyle has contact with – police personnel, family, friends and even those criminals he happens to be investigating.

Initially, the rest of the Detective Squad reacts the way you’d expect, showing determination to crack the case and bring the mysterious madman to justice. However, it soon becomes apparent that this calculating individual enjoys several big advantages over the NYPD and over Callum Doyle in particular.

To start with, he remains bewilderingly anonymous, carrying out his hits with ultra-professionalism, leaving not a clue for his pursuers to work with. He also – and this is the real butt-kicker for Doyle – seems constantly to be two or three steps ahead. It’s inexplicable, but the guy always appears to know exactly where Doyle is and who he’s interacting with, and as promised, he duly obliterates these unfortunates with extreme and elaborate viciousness.

Even Doyle’s most nefarious contacts, regular Internal Affairs opponent Paulsen, and washed-up former boxing pal-turned-informer, Mickey ‘Spinner’ Spinoza, find themselves in dire peril.

No-one, it seems – literally no-one – is safe.

Doyle is certain the answer lies in his own past. It’s just a matter of going through the files and trying to identify if there’s anyone who bears him this much ill will and who is capable of mounting such a campaign of terror. But increasingly, Doyle’s colleagues – especially those who were iffy about him from the start – are hesitant to assist. They’ve got lives to lead too, not to mention families whose welfare they fear for. In truth, Doyle has only one true friend in the department, Lieutenant Mo Franklin, heir to a wealthy estate and husband to the sexy Nadine, who has become a close pal of Doyle’s homely wife, Rachel – but now even Franklin has become concerned that his top detective is a danger to everyone, and so advises him to take an indefinite period of leave.  

Doyle keeps working the case – of course he does; he’s no intention of playing this crazy game. But things get much tougher when the lunatic switches his attention to Doyle’s family (and in one instance in the most harrowing and heart-rending way).

In some ways, Doyle thinks it might be better if this nameless enemy was simply planning to kill him. Because what happens now is infinitely worse: a living death, permanent and complete separation from his fellow men. Doyle literally must bury himself in a roach-motel and sever all contact with the outside world. And how can he fight back in such a predicament? Even the underworld, having lost some of their own to the killer, hold him at arm’s length – with the exception of low-level Mafia hood, Sonny Rocca, who Doyle has had run-ins with before but whom he basically likes, and far more scarily, the Bartok brothers, two major players on the New York crime scene.

For reasons of their own, Rocca and the Bartoks are ready to help Doyle, though of course this kind of help only comes at the sort of price a good cop will struggle to pay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, Doyle now has this nightmare decision to make: does he give up his life as he knew it previously, or does he give up his soul? …

First and foremost, the most impressive thing about Pariah – at least as far as I’m concerned – is the authenticity with which it is written, especially given that David Jackson is a British writer. It completely captures the world of a busy New York City police precinct, with believable dialogue, convincing use of genuine procedures (some serious research on show there, Mr. Jackson!), non-intrusive but atmospheric use of real locations, and lots of the kind of rugged, hard-bitten grotesques you’d expect to meet on the mean streets of the Big Apple.

It’s to the author’s credit that so few likeable characters populate these pages: pimps, addicts, winos, bang-bangers. Not every punter has reviewed this aspect of the book favourably, arguing that it perhaps wallows a little too much in grimness, and that maybe a few nicer personalities would be refreshing. But it works excellently for me and shows that Jackson is determined to immerse us in a version of NYPD life which is as close as damn it to the real thing.

This brings me fully onto the issue of David Jackson’s characterisation, which in Pariah is razor-sharp from the outset, but also pretty merciless.

Far from the oft-depicted police world of white knights and unbreakable brotherhoods, it feels here as if Callum Doyle’s work-buddies let him down disappointingly quickly. Again, this is an effort by Jackson to reflect real life. Let’s face it, Doyle was a guy with baggage and not too many friends to start with, and this confirmed outsider status was never likely to endear him to his fellow cops when it started to look as if he’d suddenly become a walking bullet-magnet.

Doyle, for whom Pariah is the first of several no-holds-barred outings, makes for a traditional flawed hero, his background in boxing giving him ‘man’s man’ kudos, but the suspicion with which he’s held in by certain colleagues even before he’s become the object of the killer’s hatred understandably steers him towards the friendship of lowlife informers like Spinner, Sonny Rocca and even Mr. Unpopular himself, IA investigator Paulsen. Doyle’s a family man, of course, so his home life is comfortable, almost cosy, but then there is still that lingering doubt in the minds of so many who know him about whether he had an affair or not, and the mere presence of loved ones presents its own kinds of difficulties, especially with a ruthless psycho hanging around. So, it’s never cakes and ale for Callum Doyle, not even on the domestic front.

The rest of the cops are convincingly drawn; even good guys like Parlatti and Alvarez have issues, while one particular member of the Detective Squad, Schneider, is an out-and-out hate mobile, one of those archetypical fat-necked, loudmouthed, aggressively opinionated law enforcement bullies of the old school and very much the opposite number to Doyle’s fearless pursuer of genuine justice.     

I was somewhat less sold on Mo Franklin. Not because he didn’t strike me as the real deal – in the workplace he certainly did, but his home life is perhaps a little too gold-plated. I had trouble buying into the huge inheritance, the big house and the kittenish wife. But that’s probably the only brickbat I’ve got for Pariah, and it certainly didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it.

This is a taut, fast-moving detective thriller, based on a singular and intriguing concept. When a cop is completely ostracised – when he literally has no access to any of his normal support networks, neither cop buddies, non-cop buddies, friends, loved ones, and certainly none of those basic departmental essentials like Forensics, Ballistics etc – how can he even start to track down so sadistic and yet sophisticated a maniac?

This is a truly great idea, very well executed, which screams to be adapted for film or TV. It also features some truly hair-raising moments – check out the scene in the nightclub alley! – which lift it well above the average police procedural, certainly in the action stakes, though it has its cerebral moments too; when Doyle is too weary and battered to keep on hitting the streets, he must fall back on that often most underused tool in detective fiction, his brain – though to talk much more about that would be a spoiler for sure.

Suffice to say that Pariah has my strongest recommendation. It’s a high-octane page-flipper, filled with unforeseen twists, which I defy anyone to get through in more than two or three sittings.   

As always, at the end of these book reviews, I’m now going to be cheeky enough to indulge in some fantasy casting and list those actors I personally would pick were this novel ever to make it to the screen. Here, purely for fun you understand, are my selections for who should play the lead characters in Pariah:

Callum Doyle – Jude Law
Rachel Doyle – Jennifer Esposito
Mickey ‘Spinner’ Spinoza – Micky Rourke
Sonny Rocca – Michael Imperioli
Paulsen – Robin Lord Taylor
Mo Franklin – John Turturro
Nadine Franklin – Sarah Michelle Gellar 

(I know, this cast wouldn’t come cheap, but there’s never any point doing this if I haven’t got limitless funds to work with!!!).

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Villains beware ... these hunters never tire!

Today, we’re talking cop heroes who come back again and again … whether that be in book form, on TV, the cinema, or preferably all three!

Were doing that first of all because I intend to wax lyrical about the TOP TEN TV COP SHOWS THAT HAVE MOST INFLUENCED MY CRIME WRITING, but also because I intend to review and discuss Michael Stanley’s fantastic Botswana-set cop thriller, DEADLY HARVEST, part of a crime investigation series which, more than almost any other I’ve encountered, illustrates the vast range of styles, tones and subject-matter available within the confines of this very special genre.

If you want to know more about that, though, you’ll have to head down towards the bottom of today’s post, where I review the book and discuss it in some detail. Before then, here as promised is a bit of lyrical waxing …

There are plenty of crime novelists whose heroes return for more. I think that all we crime authors enjoy that aspect of our job, particularly those of us who write from the POV of an investigator. It’s a genuine thrill to have created a hero or heroine who so connects with your readership that the clamour to see more of them rises and rises until it cannot be ignored … especially when the net-result is that you finish up with your own cop thriller franchise.

This isn’t just a big thumbs-up for the work you’ve done, and hugely gratifying for that reason alone, it also opens the whole thing up into a more exciting field, allowing you to develop your central character on an episodic basis, throwing more and more challenges at him/her, confronting them with an ever wider variety and multiplicity of threats, and learning more about them, yourself, as you progress.

Strangely, though … whereas for the writers this is usually the desired outcome (often an ambition rather than a certainty), readers appear to regard it as the norm. They almost expect it to happen, and my suspicion is that this boils down to the way we’ve been conditioned over the decades by a never-ending supply of cop shows on the goggle-box. They’ve been with us almost since the beginning of TV, and from the outset have adopted this very same format, hitting us week after week with a succession of free-standing dramas connected by over-arching story arcs and returning characters, who inevitably grow in strength and stature and profile until they are virtually immortal.

And immortality is undoubtedly the status we’d all like our cop characters to achieve, even if we don’t exactly anticipate it. For which reason, I’m very proud that on April 6 this year, ASHES TO ASHES, the sixth novel in my DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg series, was published. Heck works for Scotland Yard’s Serial Crimes Unit, which, as part of the National Crime Group, sends him all over England and Wales. But he’s a cop whose personal life is massively complicated by the fact that his ex-girlfriend is now his boss, by hideous events in his early years, and by an innate obsessiveness, which sees him embark on such dogged pursuits of justice that he will literally stop at nothing to get a result.

I’m totally delighted that Heck has now commanded sufficient attention in the crime market to have lasted this long in print. Hopefully, there are more books to come – I certainly have plenty more planned.

Anyway, referring back to that huge influence I mentioned previously, as exerted by all that classy cop TV we’ve been so prolongedly exposed to, here, in no particular order, are ...

THE TOP TEN COP SHOWS THAT HAVE INSPIRED MY WORK THE MOST

(I’d love to, and could easily have, chosen many more, but we have to draw the line somewhere, alas):

The Sweeney (75-78): British TV put the stern but friendly beat-bobbies of the Dixon of Dock Green era firmly behind it with this high-energy action series from Thames Television, which focussed on the investigations of the Flying Squad, London’s elite anti-robbery unit. It shocked even 1970s audiences with its sex and violence, and made lasting stars of John Thaw and Dennis Waterman. Teak-tough coppering of the genuine old school.

Dragnet (1949-2003)Dragnet may sound as if it’s the longest-running police show in history, but it’s had various incarnations: on the radio, on TV, and on the big screen, but the cases of LA detective Joe Friday, the arch wheeler-dealer in the midst of urban mayhem, are never less than enthralling. Several TV stars have played him, including Jack Webb and Ed O’Neill. Stands alongside The Untouchables as one of the granddaddies of TV cop dramas.

Miami Vice (1984-89): Allegedly sold on a two-word pitch – MTV Cops – this extraordinary fashion parade of a crime series rewrote the rules in the mid-80s, putting on a show that was faster, slicker and more explosive than anything prior to it, pitting snazzily-dressed Miami detectives Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas against a succession of drugs-dealing sleazeballs. Often OTT, it spellbound its initial audiences with its gaudy displays of carnage.

The Wire (2002-08): Seen by many as one of the greatest crime series of all time, The Wire broke all regular cop show protocols by telling its stories from the perspectives of the criminals as well as the police (usually non-judgementally), and in so doing, painted a vivid, warts-and-all picture of its host city, Baltimore. Sharply observant and meticulously written, it still dominates as one of the classiest and most literary police procedurals in TV history.

Columbo (1968-90): Peter Falk was already a household name when he took this role (which Bing Crosby rejected!), but it would still send his career stratospheric. His pitch-perfect portrayal of the scruffy but shrewd Lieutenant Joe Columbo perfectly complemented the show’s unique formula, in which we all knew who the murderer was but the tension stemmed from the cat-and-mouse game played between Joe C and his (often) star-name adversary.

Hill Street Blues (1981-87): In some ways a soap opera, but nevertheless a firm favourite with crime fans, Hill Street unashamedly took us into the private lives and loves of a whole range of individuals working a big inner-city police precinct. Action interwove with social drama as an ensemble cast of compelling characters worked their way through difficult shifts, which they often struggled to recover from afterwards. Gritty and unmissable cop TV.

The Shield (2002-08): Fox TV’s finest hour, as Detective Vic Mackey led his cold-blooded Strike Team in a non-stop war against the street-gangs of south-central LA, doing everything possible to pin the hoodlums down but at the same time getting rich from the illegal proceeds. Criticised for its ‘understanding’ portrayal of corrupt police officers, this eye-poppingly well-made cop show remains one of the most emotionally intense ever to hit the screen.

Cagney and Lacey (1982-88): Picking up the gauntlet where Angie Dickinson’s pioneering Police Woman dropped it, Cagney and Lacey followed the buddy-buddy cop format, but in this case with two female detectives, Tyne Daley and Sharon Gless, trawling New York’s mean streets, leading very different private lives, encountering endless chauvinism, and yet proving as effective a crime-fighting duo as any of their male counterparts. Great banter too.

Messiah (2001-2008): Though there have only been four installments in this hard-hitting BBC adaptation of (and spin-off from) Boris Starling’s original novel, Ken Stott has never been better than as DCI Red Metcalfe, whose adversarial Murder Squad pursued vicious killers responsible for crimes crazier and more harrowing than we’d ever seen before. The first outing in particular – which included crucifixions and sawings-in-half – struck new levels of horror in TV police drama.

Happy Valley (2014-16): One-time soap star Sarah Lancashire won deserved praise for her performance as a droll uniformed sergeant in a none-too-idyllic English rural setting, where she was confronted by drugs, rape, kidnapping and serial murder. A humungous hit on British television, Happy Valley made audiences nervous with its graphic portrayal of violent crime and its repercussions, and for its frank depiction of a tired police force in a very bleak world.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

DEADLY HARVEST 
by Michael Stanley (2016)

Detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, Assistant Superintendent of the Gaborone CID, in Botswana, needs a relaxed attitude and a good sense of humour to be able to do his job properly. And that’s not just because he has a procession of heinous crimes to investigate, even though he does, but because he also has to show constant political acumen.

On the whole, Botswana is a well-organised country and a laidback society. Its democratic status is well established and there have been a number of general elections which have been fair and have passed off peacefully. But politics is never an easy issue in this part of Africa; there is often some minor potential for trouble. And on this occasion – when Deadly Harvest opens – it may be worse than usual, because Bill Marumo, charismatic founder and leader of the Freedom Party, looks likely to upset the applecart. He is a strong candidate in the upcoming elections, and if he wins power in Gaborone, it will be a real blow to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party.

A routine event, you might think – politics would not be politics without surprise results now and again. But Marumo appears to be under threat. When bloody graffiti is daubed on his house and a severed dog’s head stuck on a post outside his door, local CID boss, Director Mabaku – a stern but fair-minded individual, constantly frustrated to be at the beck and call of his establishment paymasters – instructs his best detective, Kubu, to get to the bottom of it quickly but also to exercise sensitivity as the last thing they want is suspicion falling on the government.

Kubu thinks his time could be spent more profitably, but he’s a dutiful officer and he recognises that there are issues here which need addressing – and so he takes the case.

Meanwhile, rookie detective, Samantha Khama, the first female officer to join the Botswana CID, has taken it on herself to investigate the disappearances of two little girls from nearby villages. Both incidents occurred years apart, yet the circumstances were highly suspicious, all the evidence indicating that the youngsters, who were engaged in routine chores at the time, were snatched from public places by strangers who approached them in cars. The local rural police have had no real success in tracing them, but Samantha is disgusted to learn that neither have they tried especially hard. To her mind, there could be two reasons for this: standard inefficiency, which still exists in parts of Botswana’s various civil services, and which she has no patience with; or the muti belief, which she reviles but at the same time fears.

Muti, a form of tribal magic, involves the incantation of spells and the preparation of potions made from organic materials such as plants, herbs, animal parts and sometimes – on occasions when the desired effect is huge (such as the acquisition of immense power!) – fragments of human beings who have been ritually sacrificed by a witch doctor. This in itself is pretty horrific, but it actually gets worse; to achieve the perfect outcome, these witch doctors, the majority of whom assure the authorities that they longer practise muti in which humans are harmed (though who would admit otherwise?) need very specific and vulnerable kinds of victims: usually innocent children and/or albinos.

Initially, Khama struggles on alone in this enquiry. No-one else takes it seriously, while her prickly personality – she is a budding feminist – does not win her over to the largely conservative men with whom she must work. Kubu, a larger-than-life character who is so cheerful and upbeat that he is difficult to offend, is inclined to assist when he can spare a moment, but he too is very busy – especially when Bill Marumo is unexpectedly and brutally murdered. As it transpires, Kubu apprehends a suspect in this crime fairly easily, but increasingly he comes to suspect that he hasn’t even got close to the true evil in their midst, only to then make an astonishing discovery – namely that there may be a muti connection to Marumo’s death as well

Immediately, Khama’s investigation is accorded an entirely new degree of importance. Mabaku combines the two enquiries, Kubu and Khama joining forces. But even for two excellent detectives, it is still a monumental challenge, Kubu convinced that a particularly dangerous witch doctor is somewhere nearby, who, even though he is perpetrating horrific crimes, may enjoy the compliance and even the protection of individuals high up in the ranks of Gaborone officialdom. The dauntless duo continues to receive the full support of Director Mabaku, who is currently seeking a big promotion and thus wants results (though he too is distracted as he has a strong rival in the young but super-efficient head of the Diamond Division, Joshua Gobey). But other senior ranks, whom Kubu would previously have trusted implicitly, are now behaving strangely.

Kubu is increasingly fearful that if this case is ever solved, life as he knew it may never be the same again …

The Icelandic author, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, described Deadly Harvest as ‘sunshine noir’, and that is surely the perfect description of what you’ll get when you open this novel.

If such a phrase evokes a pleasing atmosphere of dramatic sunsets, nodding palms and scenic vistas as viewed from deckchairs on warm verandas, then that is absolutely accurate. For though this is indeed a dark story, there is a deep, deep warmth here. It emanates not just from the central characters, who are among the most pleasant I’ve ever known, but also from Botswana itself, both the spirited people who dwell there and its vibrant, post-colonial culture.

This is NOT the savage Africa of old-fashioned adventure novels. There are no jungles here, no ferocious beasts, no warring tribes. Likewise, this isn’t the Africa of so many modern newsreels, with bands of lawless guerrillas terrorising villages, or political despots inflicting injustice at a whim. Instead, what we get here is an orderly society with laidback people leading harmonious lives, and neighbours and families, even if they’re impoverished, respecting each other to a remarkable degree.

Granted, it’s a world ravaged by AIDS, and political and police corruption are key elements in this tale, but Botswana – and that’s the Botswana of real life, not just the Botswana presented here – has long been renowned among sub-Saharan African counties for its stable economy and generally good government. What’s more, much of this appears to stem from the determination of a nation-state to make a peaceful and prosperous future for itself.

Don’t get me wrong, Deadly Harvest doesn’t preach about this. None of this inherent goodness is in-yer-face, but it is certainly embodied in the character of David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, probably one of the most engaging lead-characters I’ve ever encountered in detective fiction. An opera-lover, a wine connoisseur, and a physically immense chap, overly fond (by his own admission) of good food and cookies (‘Kubu’ Translates into English as ‘Hippo’), he is also an expert homicide investigator, not just au fait with all the latest technical knowledge, but, when it comes to identifying hidden clues, possessed of a near-Holmesian instinct. His loving family – which figures large in this novel, and of which his wife, Joy, is the beating heart – only adds to his character, giving him huge emotional depth and appeal.

Be warned, though … this does not mean that Kubu is a soft touch. Far from it. The career copper in him loathes the ruthless criminals he so often pursues, seeing them as enemies of his people and potential destroyers of society. In Deadly Harvest, he is particularly determined to eradicate the muti superstition, which has claimed so many innocent lives in his beloved homeland.

In this cause, he is ably supported by the zealous Samantha Khama, a sometimes spiky individual, whose one Achilles heel may be that she is too quick to view Kubu’s fatherly attitude as patronisation, but who still has lots to learn, and yet whose quick wits and commitment to the job make her an ideal trainee-detective and a tireless ally when things get tricky. At the top of the CID command structure, meanwhile, sits Director Mabaku, a terse man but another likeable individual, who nicely personifies the difficulties so many senior policemen face in law-enforcement cultures the world over when they are torn between moral obligation and political compromise.

Unfortunately, I can’t elaborate too much on the villains of the piece. Because in many ways, Deadly Harvest is an archetypical (and yet at the same time very different kind of) whodunit, and the real baddies stay hidden throughout much of the narrative. Suffice to say, they are colourful and terrifying in equal measure, but they wouldn’t have half the impact if they didn’t combine the worst elements of two entirely different worlds: the arcane devilry of ancient myth, which to believers can reach you at any time and in any place, and the worst wiles of Modern Man, wherein self-advancement is everything and the losers can simply be damned.

Michael Stanley in actual fact is two authors working together: Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both are native Africans, so perhaps it’s no surprise that they handle this ‘black magic’ aspect of the novel with great skill and sensitivity. Muti murders are still a major problem in some parts of Africa, with entire police squads in that part of the world dedicated to locating the missing and bringing those responsible to justice. Despite this being the 21st century, it seems that the pernicious cult has something of a hold on the African imagination: in Deadly Harvest, even the enlightened Kubu occasionally wonders what he’s dealing with. Curious and unexplained things do happen, which in any community at the end of its tether could easily be attributed to supernatural agencies, so it’s no surprise that on occasion he struggles to find allies even among his fellow police officers.

At no stage, though, do you get the impression that this malignancy has its claws deeply rooted in Botswana. Kubu and Khama are the living proof of that, a pair of brave and resourceful cops who are determined to confront this age-old wickedness, knowing (or at least gambling) that their vindication will come when they bring the witch doctor and his acolytes to book through the normal procedures of everyday law.

Deadly Harvest is an inspiring read. Tense but enjoyable, and populated with delightful characters. I guarantee you will never view sub-Saharan Africa in the same way again.

And now, as always, I’m going to suggest my own choice of lead cast should Deadly Harvest ever make it to the screen (though of course, that could only happen if other Kubu stories got there first, this particular novel being the fourth in the series). And what fun they would have shooting it; I mean, you couldn’t do anything other than go to the actual place, could you? Anyway, here are my picks:

Detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu – Nonso Anozie (the role he was born to play, I swear)
Detective Samantha Khama – Nathalie Emmanuel
Joy Bengu – Naomie Harris
Director Mabaku – Djimon Hounsou
Bill Marumo – Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Joshua Gobey – Louis Cordice

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Making our gory mark in far distant places

Fast on the heels of my last blog, I’m posting a new one today, and this is mainly in anticipation of CRIMEFEST at Bristol, later this month. 

In addition, in rather timely fashion, I’ll also be reviewing L.A. Larkin’s international conspiracy tour de force, DEVOUR (it’s timely in the sense that Ms. Larkin will be chairing one of the panels on which I’m sitting at Bristol … an event I can hardly wait for, though Im always a tad nervous about these things).

As usual, you’ll find that review towards the lower end of today’s post. But before we get down there, I want to talk a little bit about the Bristol event, but also – and maybe you can treat this as a kind of ‘thought for the week’ – about the many benefits that writers can draw from reading and reviewing their rivals’ work.

That may sound like a contradiction in terms, but just bear with me for a couple of secs …

If you look above, you’ll see a billboard advert for Chris Ould’s very enjoyable Killing Bay; you’ll also see that it’s carrying a quotation from my good self. Now, that billboard is located on London Bridge, one of the most heavily utilised thoroughfares in the capital. It’s a truly great showcase for Chris Ould, but it’s not a bad showcase for me either. In fact, this has been happening quite a lot in the last few months. As you’ll see, just to make the point, I’ve liberally peppered today’s blog with advertising graphics professionally produced by publishers for their authors, which all carry snippets from reviews I’ve given them.

I’m sure you can all envisage the advantage I gain from this.

Of course, we don’t review fellow authors’ works specifically because we hope this will happen. It isn’t, and can never be, a guaranteed way to get your name into the public eye, because quite often you’ll never hear about said review again, let alone see it on a giant billboard in the heart of London. But as you can see, if/when that does happen, even though the main focus is on another writer’s book, it certainly helps get the message out that you too are a person of note.


But even if you don’t even get close to such an honour, posting positive reviews about works you’ve enjoyed is never a waste of time. It’s to all our advantage if our genre of choice is healthy and busy, and if the public are enthusiastically buying the kinds of books we write. And then, if there is a symbiotic offshoot, because other authors and their editors are so grateful to see our positive comments that they return the compliment, all the better, eh?

It’s not as if leaving reviews is a difficult procedure these days. We don’t all have to do what I do, which is write lengthy blogs. Online retailers like Amazon, and review sites like Goodreads, enable us to leave quick, short paragraphs in praise of those books we’ve enjoyed. And it frustrates me no end when I talk to fellow authors who somehow can never find the time to do this. Ultimately, I feel certain that their own careers would benefit if they could only make this minor effort a little more often.


Anyway, that’s my lecture for the week over with. Let’s concentrate next on CRIMEFEST 2017, which as always, is located at the Marriott Royal in Bristol, and this year runs from May 18-21.

For those not in the know, Bristol CrimeFest is one of the biggest and best crime-writing events in the UK. In short, it’s a convention for crime and thriller readers – not just the fanatics, but those with a passing interest as well – and it provides a big draw for novelists, publishers, editors, agents, reviewers and bloggers from around the world.

As well as the annual gala dinner, its programme comprises interviews with guest authors, one-to-one manuscript assessments, pitching sessions with agents, and over 40 panels featuring crime fiction figures from all corners of the genre. But the tone is never less than informal, friendly and very inclusive. You pop along there as a reader and you spot your favourite crime/thriller author in the hotel corridor, don’t hesitate to stop him/her for a quick chat – that’s what we’re there for. 

Special guests this year include authors Ann Cleeves, Anthony Horowitz and Peter Lovesey, artist Tom Adams and Agatha Christie expert and archivist, John Curran.

I attend CrimeFest every year these days, but have more responsibility than usual in 2017, as I’m participating in two panels. First of all, on Thursday May 18 at 3.50pm, I’ll be in the more than capable hands of L.A. Larkin (see today’s book review!), when she moderates The Hunter Hunted: Running For Your Life. And I’ll be on that panel in some very august company: Stefan Ahnhem, Felix Francis and Antti Tuomainen. But more nerve-rackingly still, I’ll be chairing my own panel on Friday May 19, at 9am: How Many Deaths? The  Appeal of the Serial Killer in Crime Fiction. On the table with me for this one are Helen Fields, James Carol, Mark Roberts and Leigh Russell.

If nothing else, I can safely predict that we’re going to have a lot of fun.

Not everyone can make it to Bristol, I know … but if you are there and you fancy a quick natter, just nudge my shoulder and I’ll be happy to gossip for a bit.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

DEVOUR
by L.A. Larkin (2016)

After a high-risk assignment in Afghanistan’s poppy-growing region, on the trail of a terrorist network, energetic investigative-journalist, Olivia Wolfe – who is no stranger to danger, but even by her normal rip-roaring standards only just returns from this trip with her life and limbs intact – is dispatched by her demanding editor, Moz Cohen, to the even more perilous realm of western Antarctica.

At first, she isn’t keen. It doesn’t sound like her normal field: a team from the British Antarctic Survey drilling down through fathoms of concrete-hard ice in a quest to discover samples of prehistoric life that may still be lurking in subglacial Lake Ellsworth … until she learns that her real mission is to investigate the various ‘accidents’ that are befalling the BAS crew at their research station, including an unexplained and rather horrible death, which more than likely was murder.

This is more up Wolfe’s street, but the situation is complicated by an unseen but menacing presence at home, a mysterious stalker, pursuing her both in reality and online, who barely leaves a trace of himself but is always undeniably there. Who this person is, and why he/she may have a beef with Wolfe is a complex thing to ascertain: there are plenty of people with reason to punish a journalist who has uncovered their dirty dealings in the past. At the same time, of course, Wolfe has to head down to the bottom of the world, to find out whatever she can about the problems facing the BAS.

This, in itself, is no picnic. The difficult conditions of the Antarctic and an engineering/scientific team who, though on the surface they seem quite normal, soon start to reveal stresses and strains among their ranks, combine to make Wolfe’s job a real challenge. While team-leader Professor Michael Heatherton is a time-served professional, dedicated to his cause and with no apparent interests other than a pursuit of knowledge, other members of the group are more secretive, in particular the intense and rather introverted Scottish scientist, Toby Sinclair.

On top of that, she learns that a rival Russian expedition to nearby Lake Vostok, whose mission failed when the lake was polluted by inadequate drilling processes, are now trying to bribe and bully their way into the British effort, which, in Wolfe’s eyes, puts them high on the suspect list – not least the most menacing member of the Russian party, Sergey Grankin, who is almost certainly a government agent. It also raises questions, particularly among the rest of the British team, about naturalised Brit but Russian-born engineer, Vitaly Rushkov; he is one of their own colleagues, at least superficially, but though Wolfe finds him attractive, he also frustrates her because he won’t reveal enough about himself to win her trust.

The tension is ramped up even more – to breakneck pace in fact, when the British team succeed in their quest, breaking through into the subterranean lake – an incredible three kilometres below the ice – and discovering something that hasn’t seen the light of day for millions upon millions of years; something so appalling that it has the potential to completely destroy modern society.

Needless to say, in the time-honoured fashion of greedy world-powers both fictional and real, it isn’t long before various shady forces are competing for control of this monstrous thing.

Even from this relatively early stage of the novel, it is difficult to reveal any more of the actual synopsis for fear of giving away spoilers, but suffice to say that, even when Wolfe returns to London, she finds herself in the midst of a deadly conflict, with numerous vying interests turning the city into a war-zone, and even the little she has already discovered making her into a prime target. Wolfe has developed lots of good contacts in her time, but even two of the best on her home turf – former top cop, Jerry Butcher, something of a father to her, and the infinitely shadier DCI Dan Casburn – are of minimal help; they may even be a hindrance as she tries to battle her way through a tangled web of confusing lies and life-threatening deceit, only to uncover a shocking and terrifying truth …  
              
If you like your thrillers to have an international scope, then this one is definitely for you. Devour is a wide-ranging, continent-spanning adventure played out in tough, no-nonsense fashion against a latter-day Cold War-type atmosphere. But don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re in 007 territory here. There is a high-tech dimension to Devour for sure, but there is also an aura of realism. We’re not talking ridiculous gadgetry, improbable skills and mind-boggling schemes for world-domination. New heroine, Olivia Wolfe, though she herself is a more than competent globe-trotter and thoroughly au fait with all the latest communications devices, is also very human, which is her most appealing aspect.

In fact, Devour’s greatest strength for me – considering that it’s painted on such an immense canvas – is that it’s all very plausible.

I’d go as far as to say that it’s terrifyingly plausible.

To start with, there is a real sense of danger in this book, and I don’t just mean the horrific force lurking in the sub-Antarctic depths (more about that later), but also from our heroine’s various antagonists. Whoever’s on your tail in Devour, whether they be opium lords, terrorists or security service personnel gone rogue (or even not gone rogue – just doing their government’s dirty work at full throttle!) – you soon get to learn that they are experts at what they do; it’ll only ever be a page or so before they catch up with you. It also becomes plain at an early stage that none of these heinous individuals are playing by the rules of chivalry.

Oh yes, there is some real brutality on show here. Everything about Devour is harsh, gritty and real. Its central characters spend much of it in a state of fear, particularly the civilian scientists who never imagined that their ground-breaking research could have caused such chaos, not to mention Wolfe herself, who soon learns that even if she emerges from this adventure unscathed, her life as she knew it will be over. Several times there are references to people who simply disappear, or run the risk of disappearing – in L.A. Larkin’s world, the niceties of international law just don’t apply when such threats as this endanger the planet, and I, for one, am more than prepared to believe that could be true.

Even routine activities, such as travelling, are given a rugged makeover. We’re talking long plane journeys, soulless waystations, the extreme geophysical conditions of the Arctic, not to mention a drab and wintry London which itself has the potential to endanger life – for example, in one scene, Wolfe gets soaking wet and as it’s December, it isn’t long before she’s struggling with hypothermia. At the same time, death means death; during an early sojourn to Afghanistan, she witnesses the shooting of a young woman, and it haunts her afterwards; she sees it playing through her head again and again.

These are the uber-realistic touches that we simply don’t get in run-of-the-mill thrillers, and Larkin hits us with them repeatedly, as if saying: “This is what it means, this is how it would actually be if you were to genuinely participate in this world”.

And I totally loved it, almost as much as I loved the central character.

Olivia Wolfe is an excellent heroine. She may not be the sort who can take waves of bad guys apart with her bare hands, or jump from plane to train to motorbike and still make it to her favourite restaurant in time for dinner. She may be a martial artist of sorts, but she gets battered, she gets hurt, she gets frightened. However, her main asset is that she is a skilled and highly driven investigative journalist. She hasn’t just got a nose for a great story, no matter how far afield it may lie, she has the determination and wherewithal to get there in time to cover it. But she has a survival instinct too. In anticipation of the dangers she will face, she is technically proficient, and perhaps more importantly, an exceptional judge of character, knowing instinctively who to trust and who to suspect.

In some ways, this may make her a tad unsympathetic. All the way through, she has an on/off romantic relationship with the Russian engineer, Yushkov, and yet she maintains an antipathy towards him too because … well, mainly because he’s Russian, and in this book the Russians are generally up to no good. It reaches a stage where as a reader it almost becomes tiresome, and yet that’s the point. Olivia Wolfe has survived as long as she has because she’s smarter than we are. She has really played this game, whereas we haven’t.

If I’m giving the impression that this is an edgier-than-usual book, that’s probably accurate. It’s no romp, that’s for sure. But this slap-in-the-face factor serves two purposes: it makes you believe it absolutely, and it keeps you glued to the pages – as, of course, does the overarching, and vaguely monstrous – concept.

On that subject, it would be easy, if you’d only read the blurbs, to think that what you’ve got here is something akin to John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (filmed as The Thing from Another World). And why not? Something nasty is lurking under the polar ice, a bunch of well-meaning scientists discover it and thaw it out, only to find that it’s a force beyond Man’s experience, which imperils the Earth as a result. And if it sounds like science fiction, there may be an element of that, though I draw your attention to the real attempt by British scientists to drill down to Lake Ellsworth in 2012, which failed (maybe fortuitously, or maybe it was halted – who can say?). But it’s all still incredibly plausible. I’m not going to give out any spoilers concerning the nature of the thing, but it’s truly horrifying because, even if surprises you – which it did me – you can very quickly envisage the colossal destruction that would result.

In addition, the novel is underlined with in-depth research – no B-movie stuff, this. LA Larkin, an Antarctic explorer in her own right, handles the biological and engineering complexities of the mission to the South Pole and the follow-up investigations with the same authority and conviction that she does the political intrigue and secret service chicanery, and yet weaves it all seamlessly into the narrative and the dialogue so that at no point do we feel we’re being hit by a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia.

It all makes for a totally believable and completely enthralling techno/eco thriller, perhaps with a few dollops of psycho horror mixed in for good measure (because let’s not forget that there’s an equally formless, equally dangerous threat to Olivia Wolfe lurking at home).

An all-round, superbly-crafted reading experience, which just screams for your attention.

And now, as usual and just for laughs, I’m going to nominate my own cast should Devour ever make it to the screen (and in this era of conspiracy thrillers and girl heroes, I reckon now would be the perfect time). Anyway, here are my picks:

Olivia Wolfe – Emily Blunt
Michael Heatherton – Tim McInnerny
Vitaly Yushkov – Igor Petrenko
Toby Sinclair – Alan Cumming
DCI Dan Casburn – Mark A. Sheppard
Jerry Butcher – Hugh Laurie
Mozart Cohen – Ian McShane
Sergey Grankin – Vladimir Mashkov