Thursday, 16 March 2017

In your face crime and grime, British style

This week we’re on the dark, rain-wet streets and grimy urban landscapes of the British crime thriller. Firstly, because we yet again are going to be talking about my forthcoming new release, ASHES TO ASHES, which is now only four weeks away. Secondly, because I thought this would be an opportune time to pick out and highlight the TEN BEST BRITISH CRIME MOVIES YOUVE POSSIBLY NOT SEEN, and thirdly, because I’m also going to be reviewing and discussing Mark Roberts’s gritty and tension-riddled, Liverpool-set crime novel, DEAD SILENT.

As always, that book review can be found at the lower end of today’s post. In the meantime, as mentioned above, ASHES TO ASHES, the sixth DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg novel, is due to hit the bookshelves on April 6. This time, we’re taking the lonely hero home to Bradburn, the Lancashire mill-town where he was born and raised, and which has haunted him all his life because of certain dreadful things that happened there.

But in ASHES TO ASHES, Heck goes back to Bradburn not so much unwillingly – he never likes returning ‘home’ – but determinedly, because the town of his birth is now overrun by criminals and drug-addicts, and at the same time being terrorised by two rival killers, who seem to be running up scorecards of victims in defiance of each other. And these are not run-of-the-mill stranglings or throat-cuttings. One of the killers is a professional torturer, who uses the most ingenious and protracted methods to despatch his subjects, while the other, known by the press as ‘the Incinerator’, wears heavy body-armour and wields a flame-thrower.

Yes, it gets nasty … which has often been a hallmark of British crime fiction, and especially British crime movies.

By their very nature, I’ve long found these a fascinating animal. Certainly, up until the more recent age of the mockney/cockney antics we started seeing in romps like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Layer Cake (2004) and Sexy Beast (2000), British crime cinema took its main inspiration from the American noirs of the 1940s, telling dour, downbeat tales of weary individuals trying to forge their way through cities blighted by squalor and vice, featuring lead-characters – be they cops, PIs, or even villains – who were often no better than they had to be, establishments that were inherently corrupt, and an underworld that was all-consuming.

The tone was bleak throughout, and they rarely ended well.

Most students of the genre will be familiar with the classics in this field. Brighton Rock (1947), Get Carter (1971) and the Long Good Friday (1980) are still in many ways the benchmark, but it also seems to me that there has been a whole swathe of British crime thrillers which rarely get a mention these days, and yet which tick all the boxes and stand up very well indeed.

And so here, just for the fun of it, and in no particular order, are …

THE TEN BEST BRITISH CRIME MOVIES YOUVE POSSIBLY NOT SEEN:   

The Squeeze (1977): Alcoholic Scotland Yard detective Stacy Keach has to throw off the DTs when his ex-wife is kidnapped by gangsters as part of a plan to pull a massive heist. Stephen Boyd and David Hemmings add kudos as the lead blaggers.

The Reckoning (1969): Nicol Williamson is the northern-born executive, successful at business, but whose inner loutishness isolates him from the London middle-classes. When his elderly father is beaten to death by Hell’s Angels, he heads back home looking for revenge.

The Internecine Project (1974): James Coburn is the London-based spy chief, who opts to clean house by arranging for his operatives to kill each other all on the same night. Rousing support from a cast of old reliables like Ian Hendry, Harry Andrews (left), Lee Grant and Michael Jayston.

Hell is a City (1960): Manchester DI Stanley Baker’s life falls apart as he goes all out to catch an old lag who has busted out of jail and is determined to reclaim the loot from his last job. Brit noir at its most intense, at the dawn of the swinging 60s.

The Offence (1973): Detective Sergeant Sean Connery struggles to contain his inner beast when he collars suspected child molester, Ian Bannen. Trevor Howard and Peter Bowles are his fellow detectives. Unrelentingly bleak cop drama, way ahead of its time.

Villain (1971): Vicious East End gang boss Richard Burton over-extends his reach when he joins forces with a rival firm who neither trust nor like him. Ian McShane is the underworld fixer who can’t prevent his gaffer from making this final, fatal mistake.

Sitting Target (1972): Psychotic killer Oliver Reeds busts out of prison, but eschews the escape route his gang have laid out, by looking to get even with the wife who betrayed him. Edward Woodward is the cop determined to nail him.

The Psychopath (1966): London cops investigate a string of murders in which the horribly mutilated victims all have dolls left by their corpses. Blood and guts from the ‘Pan Horror’ era of crime thrillers. Patrick Wymark is the DI with the least enviable job in town.

Eastern Promises (2007): Midwife Naomi Watts falls fouls of the Russian Mafia when she comes into possession of a baby, the mere existence of which proves they are trafficking underage prostitutes into the UK. Vincent Cassel and Viggo Mortensen are the menacing mobsters.

The League of Gentlemen (1960): A bunch of former WWII commandos, unable to reintegrate into society, reconvene to carry out a complex and violent bank robbery  (pictured top). A host of classy talent includes Jack Hawkins, Bryan Forbes and Richard Attenborough.


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.  

DEAD SILENT 
by Mark Roberts (2016)

Liverpool in the depths of December. Christmas is approaching, but there is little joy to be had in the Sefton Park district of the wintry city.

DCI Eve Clay and her team of experienced homicide investigators are baffled and horrified when they are called to the murder of retired octogenarian college professor, Leonard Lawson, an expert in medieval art. To make the case even more disturbing, Lawson, who was ritually slaughtered inside his own home and then fastened to a stake in the fashion of a game-animal, was discovered by his daughter, Louise, an ageing and rather fragile lady herself, who is so shocked by the incident that she can barely even discuss it.

This resolute silence, whether it’s a natural reaction to the horror of the incident, or something more sinister – and Clay is undecided either way – impedes the police, who are keen to delve into the victim’s past, not to mention his current circle of acquaintances, to try and work out who might harbour such a grudge that they would inflict such sadistic violence on him.

At least Clay can call upon a considerable amount of expertise. DS Bill Hendricks is her strong right-arm, and a no-nonsense but deep-thinking copper who knows his job inside out. DS Gina Riley is the softer face of the job, another experienced detective but a gentle soul when she wants to be, and very intuitive. Meanwhile, DS’s Karl Stone and Terry Mason are each formidable in their own way, as are the various other support staff the charismatic DCI can call upon.

With such power and knowledge in her corner, it isn’t long before Clay is making progress, a matter of hours in fact, though the mystery steadily deepens, leading her first to a care home for mentally disabled men (including the likeable, innocent Abey), and yet run by the non-too-pleasant Adam Miller and his attractive if weary wife, Danielle (who may or may not be more than just a colleague to the young, modern-minded carer, Gideon Stephens).

Yes, it seems as if there are mysteries within mysteries to be uncovered during this investigation. However, Clay and her crew continue to make ground, finally becoming interested in Gabriel Huddersfield, a disturbed loner who haunts the park and makes strange and even menacing religious speeches, and being drawn irresistibly towards three curious if time-honoured paintings: The Last Judgement by Hieronymous Bosch, and The Tower of Babel and The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel.

These garish Renaissance masterpieces were all regarded at the time, and by modern scholars, as instructions for the benefit of mankind, giving warnings about his fate should he stray from the path of righteousness, each one incorporating terrifying and brutal imagery in order to deliver its fearsome message.

But even though these objects inform the case, and Clay and her team soon develop suspects, the enquiry continues to widen. What role, for example, does the rather strange character who was the late Professor Noone have to play in all this, and what exactly was the so-called ‘English Experiment’? All we know about it initially is that it wasn’t very ethical and that it somehow involved children.

Clay herself becomes emotionally attached to the case, its quasi-religious undertones affecting her more and more, because, as a childhood orphan, she was raised by Catholic nuns, though in her case – and this makes a welcome change in a work of modern fiction – it wasn’t all negative; Clay owes her empathetic nature to the love and affection she received from her guardian, Sister Philomena, while the tough but kindly Father Murphy recognised and nurtured the spark of leonine determination that would go on to gird her greatly for the challenging paths ahead.

But all this will be rendered null and void of course if the Selfton Park murderer is not apprehended quickly. Because, almost inevitably, he now strikes again, committing two more equally horrific ritualistic slayings.

Clay and her team find themselves racing against time to end this ghastliness, a race that takes them into and around some very notable Liverpool landmarks, the city’s two great cathedrals for example, and all along the snowy, slushy banks of the Mersey (all of which are generously mapped out for us). And all the while, they become ever more aware that this is no ordinary level of depravity they are dealing with. Nor is it necessarily the work of a single killer. Who, for example, is ‘the First Born’, and who is the ‘Angel of Destruction’? Whoever these ememies of society actually are, however many they number, and whatever their crazed, fervour-driven motives, it soon becomes apparent that they are just as likely to be a threat to the police hunting them as they were to those victims they have already butchered …

Dead Silent is the second Eve Clay novel from Mark Roberts, and a pretty intriguing follow-up to the original outing, Blood Mist.

From the outset, the chilly urban setting is excellently realised. You totally get the feeling that you’re in a wintry Liverpool, the bitter cold all but emanating from its pages, the age-old monolithic structures of the city’s great cathedrals standing stark and timeless against this dreary backdrop, the gloomy greyness of which is more than matched by the mood; the murder detectives certainly have no time for the impending fun of Christmas as they work doggedly through what is basically a single high-intensity shift, pursuing a pair of truly malign and murderous opponents.

And that’s another vital point to make. Dead Silent is another of those oft-quoted ‘page-turners’, but in this case it’s the real deal – because it practically takes place in real time.

The enquiry commences at 2.38am on a freezing December morning, and finishes at 8.04pm that night, the chapters, each one of which opens helpfully with a time-clock, often arriving within a few minutes of each other. This is a clever device, which really does keep you reading, especially as almost every new chapter brings another key development in the multi-stranded tale.

If this sounds as though Dead Silent is exclusively about the enquiry, and skimps on any additional drama or character development, then that would be incorrect. It is about the enquiry – this is a murder investigation, commencing with a report that an apparently injured party is walking the streets in a daze, and finishing with a major result for the local murder team (and a twist in the tale from Hell, a shocker of an ending that literally hits you like a hammer-blow!), with very few events occurring in between that aren’t connected to it. However, the rapid unfolding of this bewildering mystery, and the warm but intensely professional interplay between the various detectives keeps everything rattling along.

Because this is a highly experienced and very well-oiled investigation unit, each member slotting comfortably and proficiently into his or her place, attacking the case on several fronts at once, and yet at the same time operating as a super-efficient whole, of which DCI Eve Clay is the central hub.

Of course, this kind of arrangement is replicated in big city police departments across the world, and is usually the reason why mystifying murders are reported on the lunchtime news, only for the arrest of a suspect to be announced by teatime. As an ex-copper, it gave me a real pang of pleasure to see one of the main offenders here, a cruel narcissist and Pound Shop megalomaniac, expressing dismay and disbelief when he learns how quickly he is being closed down.

And yet, Mark Roberts doesn’t just rush us through the case. He also gives himself lots of time to do some great character work.

As previously stated, Eve Clay is the keystone, the intellectual and organisational force behind the team’s progress, but at the same time, while a mother back at home, also a mother to her troops, someone they can confide in when they have problems, but also someone they have implicit faith will lead them from one success to the next. What is really fascinating about Clay, though, is the way her difficult childhood in a Catholic orphanage has strengthened her emotionally and gifted her with a warmth the likes of which I’ve rarely seen in fictional detectives (and which, at times, is genuinely touching). She makes a fine if unusual hero.

To avoid giving away too many spoilers, I must, by necessity, avoid discussing the civilian characters in the book, except to say that Mark Roberts takes a cynical but perceptive view of the kind of people police officers meet when investigating serious crime.

Ultimately, all those involved in this case, even if only on the periphery, are abnormal in one way or another, while those at the heart of it … well, suffice to say that some kind of insanity is at work here. Because surely only insanity, or pure evil, or a combination of both, can lie at the root of murders like these. Roberts investigates this wickedness to a full and satisfying degree, completely explaining – if not excusing – the terrible acts that are depicted, and yet at the same time using them to underscore the dour tone of the book. Because there is nothing particularly extravagant or outlandish about the villains in Dead Silent, even if they do commit horrific and sadistic murders. They may be depraved, but there is still an air of the kitchen sink about them, of the mundane, of the self-absorbed losers that so many violent sexual criminals are in real life – again, this adds a welcome flavour of the authentic.

To finish on a personal note, I also loved the arcane, artistic elements in the tale. Again, I won’t go into this in too much detail, but I’ve long been awe-stricken by messianic later-medieval painters like Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Though replete with multiple meanings, their lurid visions of Hell and damnation, of a world gone mad (or maybe a world born mad!), are among the most memorable and disturbing ever committed to canvas. It’s distressing to consider that such horror derived from men of artistry and intellect, but then to see these ancient atrocities interwoven with latter-day insanities like the English Experiment (which again has emerged from men with talent and education!), is fascinating, and gives this novel a richness of aura and depth of atmosphere that I’ve rarely encountered in crime fiction.

Read Dead Silent. It’s a class act.

And now, as always at the end of one of my book reviews, I’m going to be bold (or foolish) enough to propose a cast should Dead Silent ever make it to the screen, though most likely that would only happen if Blood Mist happened first. Nevertheless, here are my picks:

DCI Eve Clay – Claire Sweeney 
DS Gina Riley – Tricia Penrose
DS Bill Hendricks – Liam Cunningham
Danielle Miller – Cathy Tyson 
Adam Miller – Paul McGann 
Gideon Stephens – Tom Hughes
Louise Lawson – Alison Steadman
Leonard Lawson – Malcom McDowell
DS Karl Stone – Stephen Graham
DS Terry Mason – Joe Dempsie
Gabriel Huddersfield – Luke Treadaway
Abey – Allen Leech

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Fancy a little touch of terror in the night?

I’m pleased to be able to report that the TERROR TALES series is back on track. If you look left, you’ll see that the final proof of TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL has arrived. 

After months of unavoidable delays and disruption, it suddenly feels very real again.

I’ll fill you in on the latest situation a bit further down in today’s post. Very relevantly to this, I’ll also be offering a detailed discussion and review of Reggie Oliver’s amazing novel, THE DRACULA PAPERS – it’s relevant because a new story by Reggie appears in the Cornwall book, but also because it’s horror and horror is the theme of the day.

But as usual, you’ll be able to find that review at the lower end of today’s post. If you’re happy to stick around here a little while first, there are some other bits and bobs to talk about ...


First of all, I’ll be appearing at the Mill Forge Hotel, just outside Gretna Green, this coming Saturday (March 11) as part of the CRIME AND PUBLISHMENT weekend, to make a presentation and talk animatedly (at least, I hope I'll be animated) about HOW TO PUT HORROR INTO YOUR CRIME WRITING.

I won’t be the only attraction at the Mill Forge this weekend, of course. LIN ANDERSON (left) will be there to talk about the use of forensics, and TOM HARPER (right) to discuss suspense, among several other immeasurable talents.

My own subject was chosen for me by GRAHAM SMITH, Mill gaffer and crime-writer extraordinaire, so I owe him a big debt of thanks for that. He was very keen to hear me impart any wisdom I may have gleaned during my gradual transformation over the years from horror writer to crime novelist.

I will admit, I was a bit nervous initially. My two-and-a-half hour slot is considerably longer than any previous slot of this sort that I’ve been allocated, but I think (hope, pray!) that I’ll have prepped my stuff sufficiently to make this an interesting time for all those planning to attend.

If you are heading to the Mill this weekend, I look forward to seeing you. And if you’re a regular on this blog, or on Facebook or Twitter, or whatever, please introduce yourself to me. It’s always great to put names to faces.

Now … onto the subject of the TERROR TALES books.

It was a personal mission of mine for several years to edit anthologies of original horror fiction, specifically in reference to folklore, mythology and real-life paranormal or occult-related mysteries, of which we have an absolute plethora here in the UK.

The result was the TTs, as I like to call them.

Originally published by the late lamented Gray Friar Press, the series started out spiffingly with TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT and then ran on through THE COTSWOLDS, EAST ANGLIA, LONDON, THE SEASIDE, WALES, YORKSHIRE, THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS and THE OCEAN (yes, we’ve gone further and further afield the deeper into it we delved – it quickly became apparent to me that there were plenty other places in the world replete with eeriness and the arcane, so it was never the plan to draw the line once we’d covered the UK … not that we’re even close to that yet).

My motivation behind each book was not just to tell a bunch of scary stories from a particular geographic region, but to try and tap the zeitgeist of that district; to really get a feel for its culture and beliefs, its legends and curiosities.
As such, taking a leaf out of R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s TALES OF TERROR series from the 1970s, as published by Fontana, I opted to intersperse the fictional stories with non-fictional anecdotes – true terror tales if you like, supernatural occurrences, bizarre mysteries, horrific events, unexplained but ghastly crimes.

So for example, while in TERROR TALES OF THE OCEAN, we have Steve Duffy’s fictional account of a sea-rescue from Hell in ‘Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed’, we also examine the true life mystery of the Palmyra Atoll curse. Likewise, while in  TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS, we join Peter Bell on an ill-fated climbing expedition to a mountain-top rock form called ‘The Executioner’, we also investigate the incredible true facts in the case of the killer and cannibal, Tristicloke the Wolf.

This format was replicated throughout the series, and went on to win quite a bit of praise from various corners.

Anyway, as many are now probably aware, early last year, when half way through production of the 10th book in the series, TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL, the publisher, Gray Friar, through no fault of their own, were forced to cease trading. It was a sad event in the independent press, not just because of the TTs, but because GF had been a hugely productive outfit and a very adventurous publisher of British weird fiction.

All good things come to an end, but I was determined that TERROR TALES was going to continue. I needed to look around for a new publisher of course, and this coincided with the ever more time consuming process of writing of my own crime novels, which seemed to reduce the hours available to the bare minimum.

But despite this, we’ve got there in the end.

The new book is coming out from TELOS PUBLISHING, a hugely well-regarded independent publisher here in the UK. And it’s with every likelihood, and a firm intention on both our parts, that more volumes will follow.

But don’t just take my word for it. As you saw above, the final proof of TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL arrived at my office only yesterday.

So yes, after a long hiatus, the series is finally up and running again.

We don’t have an actual publication date or pre-order page as yet, but if you keep your eyes glued to this blog, Facebook, Twitter etc, I shall endeavour to post that information as soon as I get it, along with the full jacket, including the back-cover blurb, and a detailed table of contents.


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.


In the mid-16th century, Prince Vladimir Dracul of Transylvania, son of the vain and greedy king, Xantho, commences his rise to prominence as ‘the Impaler’ and in due course as ‘Dracula the Vampire’, through a series of violent, hair-raising adventures, an intense love affair and a succession of bizarre supernatural events.

All of this is observed and, in fact, noted down and related to us in diary form by the German scholar, Doctor Martin Bellorious, who at the start of this book, along with his companions, sly alchemist-in-training Matthew Verney and good-natured dwarf, Razendoringer, flees the University of Wittenberg before a heresy charge can be levelled, and heads east through ever more dangerous territories.   

It is already difficult to say much more about this astonishing narrative, because almost from the word-go, amazing, delightful and crucially important plot-developments occur – and continue to occur at a rate of at least one a chapter. Suffice to say that this is Europe of the 1570s, a vast, desolate, largely lawless land, where bandits haunt the highways, wolves fill the forests, armies wage endless internecine warfare, noblemen rule as crazy despots, black magic is very, very real and, when night falls, all kinds of evil supernatural beings walk abroad.

Even before Bellorious and his friends reach the ‘safety’ of Castle Dracula, they have several hair-raising escapades in this torturous land of far beyond, narrowly avoiding nasty fates at the hands of various antagonists, including, among several others, two ogre-like cannibals and then Rudolph, the unhinged ruler of Bohemia. And when the dauntless band makes it to Transylvania and then into Castle Dracula, they find themselves immersed in the cutthroat politics of Xantho’s Machiavellian court.

For example, despite a straightforward appointment to school rival princes Vlad (pictured above in his more famous later guise) and Mircea, Bellorious soon earns the enmity of the ambitious chamberlain, Alexander of Glem, who constantly puts dangers and difficulties in his path, he learns unsavoury things about Queen Eupraxia – things which could easily get him killed, he discovers that Xantho is more interested in acquiring wealth and in mocking his gibbering courtiers than he is in organising matters of state, and he struggles to educate Prince Mircea, whose main interests are guzzling wine and ravishing servant girls.

At the same time, there are countless weird and wonderful things in Castle Dracula. From complete absurdities – like a mechanical eating machine which Xantho forces upon one of his boyar flatterers; to the highly distasteful – like the deranged courtier who lives on a diet of spiders, cockroaches and other vermin; to the truly terrifying – like the vampiristic ghost said to roam the Old Queen’s apartments and the tribe of madmen living in the deepest, most forgotten parts of the castle dungeons.

Unfortunately for Bellorious, he doesn’t have much time to explore properly in order to assess these curiosities. Because all the time this is happening, the legions of Murad III (right), Sultan of the immense Ottoman Empire, are massing on the border under the super-efficient leadership of the ferocious Turkish warrior, Grand Vizier Sokolly. Despite the warnings of Ragul, Xantho’s illegitimate son and commander-in-chief of his armed forces, Xantho is strangely unconcerned about any this, so when the attack finally arrives it does so with overwhelming force. By this time, Bellorious has enlightened Prince Vlad sufficiently for him to realise that his homeland is in very serious trouble, and the noble youth participates in the following campaign with almost reckless courage. But both he and his teacher are aware from an early stage that victory, ultimately, is going to elude them, even if it is wrested away from them by skillful negotiation rather than bloody conflict.

Only God knows – or maybe the Devil – what will happen to them after that …    

It’s often said of Reggie Oliver that he is genre fiction’s best-kept secret. I have two immediate thoughts on that. First of all, it’s probably true. Secondly, if it is true it’s an absolute crime.

Oliver, who already had a successful career as an actor, theatre director, playwright and biographer before his writing took a distinctly darker turn in the early 2000s, is by far one of the most talented practitioners of spookiness currently working in the English language. It’s probably true to say that he first came to the literary horror world’s attention with a series of searingly frightening and at the same time very eloquent short stories – ghost stories on the surface, though often much deeper and more complex than that, strongly reminiscent of both M.R. James and Robert Aickman (if you can imagine such a thing!), and yet embracing every kind of nightmare in the weird fiction spectrum: from the restless dead to the demonic, from the spirits of myth to the often even worse aberrations of the human psyche, and invariably wrapping it all up in succinct, readable, and yet delightfully poetic prose.

Of course, not every expert in the short form is able to expand his skill into the much broader realm of the novel; the two disciplines don’t necessarily overlap. However, it was a joy (and somehow no surprise at all) to discover that this does not apply to Reggie Oliver, whose first novel, The Dracula Papers, is just as elegantly written, just as thought-provoking, just as shudder-inducing and just as much a pleasure and an entertainment as any of his short stories.

The first volume in a proposed trilogy studying the origins of Count Dracula the vampire, this is already a phenomenal feat of strange literature and though only one of three, a completely satisfying novel in its own right, which should appeal to a wide readership.

To begin with, The Dracula Papers isn’t specifically a horror novel, though there is much horror on show here: spine-chilling horror of the traditional ghost story variety on one hand, and sensual, shocking horror on the other – nothing explicit, though of such a lurid and Gothic tone that some of it wouldn’t be out of place in the old Dracula movies of the Hammer era. But in addition to all that, the book is written with such an air of authority, delving so deeply and fascinatingly into the culture of the time and place, touching on the many beliefs and philosophies prevalent in that age – everything from long-held superstitions, to late-medieval romances, to the intellectual chaos wrought by changing religion and advancing science – that it reeks of scholarship in its own right.

On top of that, it’s an historical saga on a grand but brutal scale. We see brandings, beheadings and impalements galore, a truly memorable scene wherein an avalanche of severed heads is launched over the walls of Castle Dracula by the besieging Turkish army, and one enormous battle which becomes a literal slaughterhouse.

Again, none of this is graphic or titillating, but it’s all there on the page – which only adds to the vivid portrayal of a terrible world now thankfully lost in time. And yet this itself is a kind of irony, because Oliver, rather bravely, makes no real effort to depict true historical events.

The Dracula Papers owes as much to folklore as it does to genuine history, and not a little amount to fiction. For example, the real Vlad Tepes and his brother, Mircea, lived in the 15th century not the 16th, there was no actual kingdom of Transylvania in this era, rather it was a principality of the kingdom of Hungary, while the lofty position the real Vlad aspired to was not as a king but as Prince of Wallachia, and Elizabeth Bathory (later known as ‘Countess Dracula’) who appears here renamed Nyela and as a deceased but murderess noblewoman of earlier decades, was not even born in 1477, when the real Vlad the Impaler died.

But none of this matters. In fact, it adds to the joy. Because what we’ve got here, rather than a textbook, is a richly-woven fabric of adult-themed fairy tales. For example, not even the well-educated and clear-minded Martin Bellorious thinks it odd that a local village is terrorised by a ‘murony’; in fact it is he who takes it on himself to dispose of the evil sprite. Rumours of the terrifying Black Cathedral – a secret university dedicated to the dark arts – are believed with absolute certainty. When Bellorious encounters Issachar, a vagrant claiming to be the Wandering Jew of apocryphal legend, he is honoured rather than doubtful. Likewise, when the Turkish sorcerer, Zushad, displays necromantic powers, Bellorious is only one of many fascinated witnesses to the dramatic and nightmarish outcome.  

But this is not just a story about myths coming true. Oliver also presents us with the real, functioning and yet terribly unjust world of the Reformation, where the peasantry struggles annually for survival, monarchs seek only to enrich themselves, and seats of intellectualism like colleges and guilds are too busy arguing about heresy to care about everyday affairs. He also concerns himself with military matters. Eastern Europe is now under threat from the Ottomans, the gunpowder-capable armies of the Early Modern Age constantly redrawing the map as they manoeuvre around each other, feinting and sallying, and occasionally clashing full-on to spectacularly bloody effect. At the same time, courtly intrigue is everywhere, both in the magnificent Ottoman capital of Istanbul – ‘Stamboul’, as it is referred to here – but also in the Spartan confines of Castle Dracula, where such is the underhand scheming that no-one, not even Xantho’s unfaithful wife, Queen Eupraxia, feels totally safe.

This brings me onto the characters, which – even those who only make a fleeting appearance – are constructed by Oliver swiftly and yet in full, complex fashion.

Even though we’re immersed in the world of angels and demons, there are few individuals here who are all good and all bad. Bellorious himself makes a fine lead, though he’s very human. Despite his status, he is only in his late 20s, and yet throughout the narrative displays wisdom, probity and empathy – he only takes lives when he has to, and though he’s a scholar and in many ways, an ascetic, his lustful yearning for the beautiful slave-girl, Inanna, is almost painful.

Dracula himself – Vlad in this preliminary volume – though he starts off a wide-eyed youth and an eager student, soon gives hints that he has a darker side: he is petty, he sulks and he will kill in battle with what can only be described as gusto. In addition, he is instantly recognisable as the scion of a noble house, for though he is brave, handsome and dashing, he is also self-centred to an alarming degree.

Other characters are equally colourful, if more briefly handled. Matthew Verney is untrustworthy from the outset, but Oliver paints him slowly and with immense skill, transforming him from ambiguity to villainy with a pace so subtle that it consciously takes up the length of the novel. Others meanwhile are more bound by their stations in life: rival sovereigns, Murad and Xantho, and the latter’s son and heir, Mircea, are distinctly unimpressive men, undeserving of the life-and-death control they exert, and yet so bored by it all that they often neglect their responsibilities, allowing ambitious underlings like Sokolly and Alexander of Glem to grow in power. Meanwhile, below them, better people are eternally doomed by their subservient status: Commander Ragul takes his job seriously, but knows that ultimately he will fail because he lacks the support of his king, and he is very aware that he himself will pay for this failure; star-crossed lovers Razendoringer and dwarf lady-in-waiting Dolabella, though spirited individuals of many talents, will always be servants and/or buffoons because they are dwarfs; while Inanna, the saddest character of all, has accepted her life as a sex-slave to the point where she will trade the abuse of her body to get better deals for her friends.

Despite these melancholic moments, The Dracula Papers, what we have so far seen of it, is a richly textured, meticulously-researched piece of fiction, but also a rolling, comedic, action-packed yarn, filled with magic, mystery and mayhem, romantic and sexual love, wild violence and chilling horror, and dosed throughout with the author’s trademark scholarly asides and scathing humour.

A bona fide treat of a novel that will leave no-one disappointed.

As usual, I’m now going to be bold enough to suggest a cast I personally would select should The Dracula Papers #1: The Scholar’s Tale ever make it to the screen (and how I would love to see that happen). It would be an expensive production for sure, but then so was Game of Thrones, and I’m always hearing how the networks are looking for a like-for-like follow-up to that hugely successful show. Well, guys … here you go.

Martin Bellorious – Darren Boyd (older than written, but itd work)
Prince Vladimir – Will Poulter
Razendoringer – Warwick Davis
Matthew Verney – Iwan Rheon
Prince Mircea – Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Ragul – Alexander Dreymon
Alexander of Glem – Daniel Webb
King Xantho – Vincent Regan
Queen Eupraxia – Patricia Velasquez
Issachar – Rutger Hauer
Grand Vizier Sokolly – Burak Özçivit
Inanna – Hend Sabry
Zushad – Art Malik

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

I hope everyone wants a piece of this action

Okay, today we’re talking action thrillers: cynical, hardboiled characters embroiled in kill-or-be-killed adventures, often in hellish urban settings, and pitted against foes who are the essence of evil.

Firstly, this is because ASHES TO ASHES, the next Heck novel, will hit the shelves in precisely 45 days’ time, but also because, as I’m increasingly hearing about the sequel (due later this year) to the 1983 movie blockbuster, Blade Runner, I thought I’d go back to its original source, Philip K. Dick’s masterly sci-fi/cop thriller, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, and offer a detailed review and discussion of it.

This will also, I guess, be a timely occasion for me to reprint a blog I wrote for OFF-THE-SHELF BOOKS back in October last year, when I was asked the question ‘what are your top tips for writing action sequences?’

But before we get to any of that – the Philip K. Dick article and review can be found, as usual, at the lower end of today’s post – I’m going to talk a little bit more about Heck.

ASHES TO ASHES will be published on April 6, and the reviews are starting to come in courtesy of the NetGalley folks. Thankfully, the two I’ve seen so far are both five stars.

NIGELADAMSBOOKWORM talks about the book’s readability, with the following quote:

“It’s one of those books where you keep looking for a point where you can put it down and get on with what you should be doing. In the end, I gave up and just read it straight through.”

Well, that’s certainly fine by me. When you write what you consider to be a high-energy thriller, the last thing you want is a mid-book sag, which sees readers happy to take long breaks between chapters.

The second five-star review has appeared on Goodreads courtesy of Elaine Tomasso, and okay, I’m hoping there’ll be lots of reviews on Goodreads at some point, so I post this one at the risk of seeming a little bit over-excitable. But this one is particularly interesting because it picks out a very different aspect of ASHES TO ASHES:

“Ashes to Ashes is a compulsive read with a bit of everything thrown in – action, violence, cop humour, some of Heck’s backstory and sadness as well.” 

This latter reference to a melancholy backstory was music to my ears because, throughout the Heck novels thus far, we’ve seen that our hero has family issues, and though we’ve explored them superficially, we haven’t yet drilled down into the nitty-gritty.

Well … in this sixth installment, we do.

Heck, you may recall – Detective Sergeant Mark Heckenburg – originally joined the Greater Manchester Police so that he’d only have to travel 15 or so miles to work, his home being in Bradburn, a run-down coal-mining town on the border between Manchester and Lancashire. But in due course he was driven south to the Metropolitan Police in London because his family ostracised him.

At the risk of giving away a slight SPOILER for those who haven’t read any of the Heck books so far, while Heck was still at school, his older brother, Tom, a college drop-out with drugs problems, was framed by a lazy CID unit for a series of violent burglaries and received a life sentence. A month into it, after much abuse in prison, he committed suicide. Perhaps inevitably, the real culprit was apprehended only a couple of weeks later.

It was therefore to the horror of his family, that Heck himself joined the police as soon as he was old enough. Understandably, neither they nor various family friends would speak to him afterwards, eventually causing him to abandon his hometown and seek reassignment at the other end of the country.

All of this became canon in the first Heck novel, STALKERS, but what has never really been revealed, despite the efforts to find out by numerous characters in the follow-up novels, is why Heck would seemingly betray his family in this most crass and inexplicable fashion.

Until now.

Heck is stripped to the bare bones in ASHES TO ASHES – yep, the much-publicised fire in this novel doesn’t just burn the victims of the maniac he pursues! – as everything we need to know about his early home-life is finally laid bare. But unfortunately, because I’m not going to give away SPOILERS for free all day, you’ll need to read the book to find out more.

Elaine also hits the spot with the following quote:

“The big message in the novel is the devastation caused by drugs, not just to the user but their families and to society in general … It makes for difficult reading in parts.”

That comment made me glad too. Quite often in these novels, Heck has hunted serial killers, sexual deviants, torture freaks and other homicidal madmen. But there are all kinds of evil in our modern world, some of them infinitely more subtle than these, and the scourge of drug-addiction is one with which we’re all very familiar – and so ASHES TO ASHES will hopefully strike a chord on that front too.

*

And now, on an only slightly different note, here is the article I penned for OFF-THE-SHELF BOOKS last autumn ...

What are your top tips for when it comes to writing action?

I’m honoured that my crime novels have won praise from reviewers for their action sequences. Flattering terms like ‘vivid’, ‘gut-thumping’ and ‘bone-crunching’ have all been used in recent times, so I can only assume that I’m doing something reasonably right.

It may surprise people to hear this, but one of the tricks to writing good action is to be subtle.

For real?, I hear you ask. ‘Gut-thumping’? ‘Bone-crunching’? What’s subtle about that?

What I mean is that action is most effective when used sparingly. Otherwise you risk your novel turning into a cartoon. Now, that may be what some authors are looking to achieve. But personally, I like to keep things just this side of believable. So I don’t include a fist fight or a car chase on every other page. Likewise, I try to do those other things that are important in novel-writing: evoke some mood, some atmosphere, develop plot and character, examine relationships, etc. And that’s not some attempt to be literary, it’s an attempt to create a more rounded and satisfying experience for the readers, and to prevent them becoming bored, because you can just as easily get bored with too much action as you can with too much kissing, too much chatter, etc.

Another problem with overusing action is that you consistently must raise the stakes, always needing to produce a bigger, louder sequence than the one before. You won’t need me to tell you that it isn’t long before this gets preposterous. You could finish up with the situation you had in the Bond movie, Die Another Day, which included an invisible car, a giant beam of concentrated solar energy fired from a satellite and destroying Earth’s armies, and Bond wind-surfing a tidal wave.

Even trying to keep things grounded sometimes isn’t enough. You only need to look back at some of the 1980s action extravaganzas, the Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies, which were basic cop movies in concept, but often morphed into blizzards of gunfire from beginning to end, with soaring body-counts and heroes who were completely invincible.

And that’s another thing.

Unless you’re setting out to write about superheroes, remember that the more vulnerable your lead character is going to be, the more effective he/she is. To have weaknesses is human – it’s a recognisable and even likeable trait in fiction. So if you portray them walking through storms of bullets without getting hurt, or dispatching every opponent with ridiculous ease … why would anything else your reader sees them encounter be deemed a threat?

How will he/she empathise with them? All tension and suspense is lost.

These are the most important tips I can offer with regard to action sequences. Don’t overuse them and don’t overcook them. Less is always more, and remember that in the real world violence has consequences. Even if your heroes emerge from the battle unscathed, they are not going to be unshaken.

There may also be legal ramifications, especially if your hero is a cop. Okay, it’s a built-in given with police thriller fiction that the central character tends to be on the side of right and therefore, almost whatever he/she does will end up being approved. But I once read a very interesting quote from a senior San Francisco police officer, who, after it was drawn to his attention that in the five Dirty Harry movies, Callahan’s kill-count was somewhere in the 40s or 50s, commented that no serving officer with such a record could expect to keep his job or even his liberty.

Obviously, we’re often dealing with life and death situations in our novels, but the legal structure of the free world is important, so we at least have to pay a degree of lip-service towards that.

All that said, if you use them judiciously, your action sequences can still be among the highlights of your book. For this reason, I myself find them the most demanding scenes to write, because they need to be bang-on.

One case in point was a car chase across South London in my fifth Heckenburg novel, HUNTED. It was described by one reviewer as ‘the mother of all car-chases’, which made me happy, because though it only occupied two pages of the novel, it had taken me two whole weeks to construct it. First of all, I’d wanted to get it correct geographically. This involved plotting it on a map and taking advice from London traffic officers. I also drove the route to see if such a chase was technically possible. And while the actual writing might have been done in a day, it then needed to be very tightly edited. It isn’t a rule of law, but I always find it gives you a quicker read if you use shorter, punchier sentences. So whatever you do, don’t meander – get to the point of each sentence immediately. This will energise the entire passage.

Also, remember that the quality of an action sequence is not just a piece of narrative: ‘he said, she said, this is what happened next …’ It works much better when it’s a genuine assault on the senses. Any kind of pursuit or combat situation can be overwhelming for those involved. You’ve got to think how it looks to be in the midst of this terrible danger, how it sounds, how it smells: a chaos of flickering ‘jumping jack’ images, the mingled stenches of sweat, blood, oil, the crump of splintering metal, the explosion of shattering glass, the deafening bangs as speeding cars rebound from one another, etc.

All of this can make it a vivid experience for your audience, who I try to involve as much as I possibly can. If you can make your reader feel that he/she is the one being put through the mangle, not your hero, then that is one sure way to make them flip through those pages in a blur of speed.

*

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. 


DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? 
by Philip K. Dick (1968)

The world of 1992 (or 2021 in later reprints) is a nightmare of ruined cities and desolate wildernesses. In the wake of World War Terminus, Earth has largely been depopulated. Those who weren’t killed in the conflict have either abandoned their homes for colonies off-world or are now slowly dying from the toxic dust that permeates the atmosphere. A parody of the human consumer lifestyle continues, those remaining working normal jobs (though very few of these are high-powered), living in apartment buildings (which otherwise are largely empty) and watching television (even though there is only one channel, run by the megalomaniac oddball, Buster Friendly). Everyone is so depressed that they need their ‘Penfield mood organs’ to try and uplift their spirits.

It is a blighted, despair-laden scene, in which the only light is ‘Mercerism’, the worship of Wilbur Mercer, a semi-mythical Christ-like figure, who when humans commune telepathically by means of their ‘empathy boxes’, they envision ascending a steep, rugged slope, at the top of which he is martyred by being stoned to death, leading all those tuned-in to reach a transcendental state.

Even the ‘specials’ and the ‘chickenheads’ find hope in Mercerism, the former because, having been sterilised by the radioactive fall-out, they are considered useless to the human race and thus are prohibited from emigrating off-world, and the latter because, having suffered brain damage, they can perform only the most menial tasks and are subsequently treated with contempt.

Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter employed by the San Francisco police, often wonders why he hasn’t left Earth by now. His wife, Iran, is more depressed than most – so much so that she can barely even rise in the morning, while Deckard himself struggles with his conscience. The police mainly use him to ‘retire andys’, which in a nutshell means hunt down and, by use of a controversial empathy test, the Voigt-Kampff, identify rogue members of the android slave race developed to aid human expansion into the off-world colonies, and then kill them.

Deckard’s problem is that the androids are in many ways like humans; they were biologically-grown rather than constructed, and though they are short-lived (designed to cease functioning after four years), they are excellent physical specimens, particularly the new, improved model, the Nexus-6. When androids go ‘rogue’ it basically means they have come to Earth, which is strictly forbidden; they don’t necessarily need to have committed a crime. Increasingly Deckard finds it difficult to retire these thinking, reasoning beings, though he does agree that they lack the all-important empathy, which means they have no concept of human kindness, even if they are increasingly adept at concealing this. 

Despite his doubts, Deckard is good at his job and earns decent money. One day he hopes to be able to dispense with his pet electric sheep, and buy a real animal. Because one other aspect of the tragicomic existence mankind has descended into is that, with animals so rare, their ownership has now become a status symbol. Anyone who is anyone owns an animal of some sort, and zealously shows it off, though only at immense cost. In this regard, Deckard’s lucky day finally seems to arrive when he is summoned to police HQ and advised that a senior bounty hunter has been badly injured by a particularly dangerous group of Nexus-6 androids, who are newly arrived on Earth. Their leader is the ruthlessly intelligent Roy Baty, who, unable to stand his servile status any longer, has led a miniature rebellion on Mars, which has cost several human lives. If Deckard can retire all six, it will earn him a fortune. But it soon becomes apparent that this won’t be easy.

To start with, enquiries at the central offices of the Rosen Association in Seattle, the corporation responsible for manufacture of the androids, brings him into contact with the alluring Rachael Rosen, whom he finds incredibly attractive – only for him to apply the empathy test to her, and discover that she too is an andy, which confuses him even more with his chosen role.

Meanwhile, the fugitive Nexus-6 have been blending in on Earth. Some successfully impersonate humans, even Deckard’s fellow cops, while another becomes a beautiful opera singer and gains immediate respectability. At the same time, several of those Deckard has targeted, Roy Baty included, are given refuge by the deluded chickenhead, John Isidore, who is both in awe of their perfection and terrified of their heartlessness.
               
If this doesn’t make it difficult enough for Deckard, he is further hampered by Rachael, who, in a mysterious gesture (though she seems to be genuinely attracted to the lonely, world-weary bounty hunter), offers to help him catch the renegade band. Despite being one herself, Rachael expresses a conviction that there is no place for the Nexus-6 on Earth. But Deckard has been an investigator for a long time, and even though he eventually falls into bed with her – because she is the ultimate femme fatale! – he is never sure that he can trust her …

Almost everyone thinks they know the story of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? because they have seen the epic movie version, Blade Runner, made by Ridley Scott in 1983. In truth, there are significant differences between the two narratives, though overall, the subtexts themselves are not hugely dissimilar.

But first things first; the book.

The late Philip K. Dick, while never a great literary stylist, was regarded throughout his life as one of sci-fi’s great visionaries. Famous for his obsessions with decaying worlds at the mercy of dictatorships and corporations, for the human metaphysical experience, for altered states, theology, drug abuse and insanity, the post-apocalyptic hell-scape he creates in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is really one of the most vivid and terrifying ever envisaged simply because it is literally a land without hope. Everything alive is slowly dying; everything that isn’t alive is turning to ‘kipple’ (rubbish). Even off-world in the colonies, we are told that things are only marginally better.

For all these reasons, this book is a hard read. There are moments of wild comedy, for instance Deckard’s burning aspiration to ascend to a level in society wherein he can actually be the proud owner of a goat. But the tone is always bitter-sweet, and ultimately that’s the atmosphere all the way through. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a tale of loss rather than a cop-thriller. Fans of the movie who have never read the book may be expecting a neo-noir, with the weary, overcoated Deckard working his way along the seamy streets like a latter-day Philip Marlowe, and indulging in regular, furious gun-battles with his near-invincible foes. There is a touch of that, particularly towards the end of the novel, but it isn’t a keystone of the story; for example, at no stage in the book do we encounter the term ‘Blade Runner police’.

Even the androids, who are never referred to as ‘replicants’ or ‘skinjobs’ are nowhere near as deadly as they were in the film. They are not a military caste. Roy Baty, the most dangerous of them, trained as a chemist while on Mars. Though this isn’t to say the menace isn’t present. It very much is, particularly as we approach the climax of the novel – especially when the seductive and intriguing Rachael Rosen injects herself more fully into the story – but again, it was never Dick’s overarching purpose to create an actioner.

Throughout the book, he is more interested in examining issues of individuality, self-perception and what it actually means to be empathetic. For example, the remnants of humanity we encounter all value their individuality, but though it eases their misery, the more they commune with Wilbur Mercer (and each other of course), the less individual they become; they even use technology to impose fake emotions on themselves. At the same time, it doesn’t escape Deckard’s notice that, by the end of the novel, the supposedly soulless androids are empathising with each other, and that he himself has begun to empathise with one of them.

Other issues, which back in 1968 were certainly relevant but must also have seemed like pure science-fiction, are now glaringly current in the 21st century: two examples being Man’s irrational stewardship of the Earth – it’s a deep irony that the bounty hunters are hired to kill relentlessly in a time and place when the real problem is that everything is already dying; and then the whole argument surrounding artificial life, its purpose and development, and the moral (not to mention potentially real-world) ramifications of enslaving it.

While it’s no great piece of literature, this deluge of thought-provoking ideas means that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is these days regarded as a sci-fi masterwork. Some of its essential ingredients are visible in the movie of course, but anyone picking this book up and looking for a ‘novelisation of the film’ is likely to be disappointed.

We regularly end these book reviews with me rather presumptuously selecting the cast I would recruit if the narrative was ever to make it to the TV or cinema. Well … it’s all been done already. Blade Runner may be a very different beast from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but it’s close enough (and a great enough movie, in my view – whichever version of it you prefer) to render any further remakes obsolete. 

Most of the images used in the column today speak for themselves, but I would like to thank Wikipedia for the original DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? first-edition cover as produced by Doubleday. 

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Human monsters from a world of darkness

Okay, we’re talking serial killers this week – not exactly a new experience for regulars on this blog, I suppose. 

But today we’ll be looking at two particular instances of fictional monsterdom: the indescribably terrifying psychopath who haunts the pages of Helen Fields’s new novel, PERFECT REMAINS, which we’ll be reviewing and discussing in full detail, and also the two-handed trail of slaughter and destruction that a pair of rival madmen wreak in my forthcoming Mark Heckenburg novel, ASHES TO ASHES.

I’ll also be reprinting a blog I wrote for GRAB THIS BOOK back in September last year, when I was posed the seemingly simple question: ‘If you had to meet a serial killer, how would you go about it?’

But, first things first. PERFECT REMAINS is a really excellent addition to the fictional serial killer canon. I strongly suspect that its author, Helen Fields, will pretty soon rank among the superstars of the genre. However, as always, my detailed analysis of the book can be found at the lower end of today’s post. Shoot on down there straight away if you wish. But if you’re interested in hearing stuff about Heck as well, hang around here for a bit first.

The most immediately important thing to day about ASHES TO ASHES is that a free sampler – approximately 29 pages of the final, finished text – is now available on Amazon. The book is published on April 6, but if you just can’t wait that long and you want to get a quick snifter of it without having to pay, then I recommend you call in HERE.

For those who are too impatient even for that, here is a quick outline:

The Serial Crimes Unit is hunting a professional torturer called John Sagan, a man who is literally a
travelling roadshow of atrocity. He cruises the country, taking his mobile torture chamber with him, and for a not inconsiderable fee he will happily introduce it to anyone a client nominates – though for the most part those he lures into his ‘Pain Box’, as he calls it, are underworld figures who have defied their paymasters and thus are being officially punished. As such, it’s taken a long time for word to get out that Sagan even exists. However, once Heck and the rest of SCU are informed, they go after him full-tilt – only for their first attempted interception to end in disaster, especially for one highly valued member of the team.

Now doubly determined to nab the highly-paid sadist, they pick his trail up again, but this time it leads them to the very last place Heck would have expected or wanted: his grimy northern hometown, Bradburn.

(As a quick aside, I’ve been asked several times now if Bradburn is my own hometown, Wigan, which occupies a similar place on the border between Greater Manchester and Lancashire. The answer is a simple and straightforward ‘no’. Bradburn, though fictional, is Bradburn. The fact that that I recently did a special introduction to the book, and a reading of it in Wigan Central Library – and here’s the photographic evidence – is entirely coincidental). 

(On a not-unrelated topic, I'll be doing another of these book events at Blackwells bookshop, Edinburgh, on Wednesday Feb 15, in company with HELEN FIELDS herself, so keep that date in your diary free).

Anyway, Bradburn, a drab, post-industrial blot on the Northwest English landscape, is a town already in a state of terror. A gang war has erupted between local drugs-dealers and a more powerful mob from nearby Manchester, resulting in a succession of tit-for-tat killings. In that regard, it’s probably a natural hunting ground for John Sagan, who will hire himself to the highest bidder but who, as he enjoys inflicting horrific and agonising deaths on his victims almost as much as he enjoys getting paid for it, is a serial killer in all but name.

And the frightened town’s problems don’t end there. The underworld battle has also attracted another nightmarish figure who will slay for pay – an armoured and helmeted maniac whose murder weapon of choice is a flame-thrower, which perhaps explains his nickname: ‘the Incinerator’.

Bradburn has never seen anything like this carnage. In truth, Heck has never seen anything like it. Perhaps they can pull together and face this double-headed challenge side-by-side? 

But then again, perhaps not.

As those who’ve read the Heck books prior to ASHES TO ASHES will know, Heck and his hometown don’t get on. There are deep wounds there. More than once in the past, Heck has commented that he wouldn’t mind if the entire place was reduced to ashes. Well, who knows … this could be that very moment.

*

Since the publication of my last novel, STRANGERS, which pitted a young undercover policewoman, Lucy Clayburn, against that rarest of criminals, a female sex-killer, I was grateful to be invited to participate in a number of crime-writing blogsites, to pen a little essay in each case about a different aspect of my work – the way I approach it, my research methods, and so forth. 

This is always an enjoyable experience, but sometimes it can be a challenge. Take, for example, this question I was asked last September by GRAB THIS BOOK.

If you had to meet a serial killer, how would you go about it?

It’s a fascinating question. Where would you arrange to meet a serial killer, to interview him (or her) if you had the opportunity? Well, assuming you ever wanted to do that, the location is certainly something you’d have to give considerable thought to.

Even meeting such a person in the controlled environment of a prison would be no guarantee of safety. Far from it. 

In the 1980s, Robert Ressler (pictured right) was a senior FBI agent who’d investigated a number of  serial murder cases. Around this time, he began to devise what we know today as Vi-Cap (or the Violent Criminal Apprehension Programme), which required him to get into the minds of repeat violent offenders and attempt to understand their motivations. As part of his mission, he interviewed numerous multiple murderers in US jails. One particularly disturbing story he later told involved an encounter with a 6ft9in convict who’d killed and decapitated ten victims. The interview was going swimmingly, the convict seemingly cooperating. Ressler felt perfectly safe. They were in the heart of a maximum security facility, under full and constant surveillance by the prison staff – and yet they were alone. Ressler later said that he only realised how vulnerable this made him when his interviewee’s mood suddenly changed, and he said: “Do you realise … if I attacked you now, I could twist your head off before anyone even gets in here.”

Ressler later described it as a wake-up call with regard to the kinds of people he was dealing with.

This is the important thing, I suppose. Serial killers are not like the rest of us. In fact, they are not like ordinary criminals either. 

By their nature, psychopaths lack empathy with others. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are violent – as long as they get their own way. However, add other factors. Such as narcissism, which involves a reckless pursuit of self-gratification (and wherein any opposition, whether real or imagined, is deemed intolerable), and maybe sexual sadism disorder (which speaks for itself), and you’ve got the devil’s own brew and a fairly typical blueprint for the average serial killer. 

The other thing to say, of course, is that these people are very plausible.

A genius like Hannibal Lecter would be a rarity in real life, but most serial killers are smart enough to know that it will benefit them to conceal their true personality. You only need to look at the numbers of killers who’ve managed to talk their way into people’s houses or have persuaded strangers to climb into their cars, or have used endless other strategies to charm or lure the innocent and gullible.

So, this gift of the gab is something else we’d need to take heed of. Robert Ressler emerged alive from his interview with his 6ft9in nemesis, but for a couple of minutes – because he’d allowed a pleasant demeanour and a glib tongue to fool him – he’d almost become number 11 on the maniac’s butcher’s bill. 

In light of that, how can we take them at their word? How can believe anything they tell us? Why would we even expect them to be truthful?

Hannibal Lecter is a good case in point here. Thomas Harris created in Hannibal such a deadly adversary that even the most experienced detectives had no option but to converse with him either through shock-proof glass or with him strapped to a gurney and wearing a mouth-guard. That would certainly be an attractive idea for our interview, but I’d query if the killer would even talk to us under such circumstances. 

I’d be surprised if any hardcore criminal, even one who hasn’t committed murder, would be prepared to talk to us about anything unless he or she was getting something in return. Consider that, and then bear in mind that the average incarcerated serial killer is almost certainly facing a full life tariff (and maybe even the death penalty) – and you can see how tough it’s going to be. 

At the very least we’d have to be nice to them. So … no straps, no gurney.

And where exactly does that leave us? A rubber room, where there is nothing nasty the killer can put his/her hands on? Maybe, but the killer can still put his/her hands on us … 

Might they be prepared to talk to us on the phone over a long distance?

Well, in that case we’re back to the old chestnut: it depends how much info we want. I remember hearing about a US journalist who regularly spoke on the phone to a serial killer serving life, asking his assistance in other unsolved murder cases. At first, the journo got the impression the killer was being helpful. But then he realised that the guy was playing games, imparting some information but on the whole offering just enough to make his correspondent come back for more. In other words, these phone-chats made pleasant breaks for the killer from his otherwise mundane life inside, and he wanted as many of them as possible.

After this, there aren’t too many options open to us.

Ultimately, I suppose, this is a question I can’t answer. 

In a novel I’ve got planned for the future, Serial Crimes Unit officer, DS Heckenburg interviews an imprisoned serial killer in a quest for information, but in that one I’m opting for the gentler approach (it all takes place in a ‘soft interview room’, with comfy furniture and pictures on the walls). This female felon is showing contrition, you see, and so she’s deemed by her jailers to be lower risk. But she still wants something in return … and she wants it so badly that Heck has made a judgement call that she won’t try anything stupid.

Will she or won’t she? 

At this stage, who knows. 

I’m suppose I’m just glad this terrible business is something I write about rather than something I actually do.

*

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.

PERFECT REMAINS
by Helen Fields (2017)

When ex-Parisian police detective and Interpol agent, Luc Callanach, transfers to Police Scotland, taking up a detective inspector post with the Major Investigations Team in Edinburgh, he isn’t completely a fish out of water. To begin with, Callanach is half-Scottish as well as half-French. He’s also a real bloodhound of a cop, with great analytical skills and a fearless dedication to the cases he is assigned – though on first arriving, it wouldn’t be true to say that he’s completely comfortable with his new environment.

After his sun-drenched days in the Interpol office at Lyon, he finds the Scottish capital windy, wet and dour, and quickly learns that certain officers at his command – the truculent DS Lively in particular – are irritated by his presence because they perceive him to be an outsider who’s been fast-tracked into a plum job.

Moreover, Callanach doesn’t help himself, because rather than attempting to win friends and influence people, he fights back domineeringly against those who seek to undermine him.

The reason for this is simple. Even without his sudden change-of-world, Luc Callanach is a man under astonishingly intense pressure. Back home, he was accused of raping a petulant beauty called Astrid Borde, whose main objection to Callanach was that he showed no interest in her. He wasnt even charged, never mind convicted – but of course this meant that neither was he able to clear his name, so he left France under such a cloud of suspicion that even his family have now disassociated themselves from him.

He is a good cop who focusses intensely on his job, but even now he agonises over whether he could have handled things better, and as such he is filled with self-doubt, and to a degree, self-loathing. 

Ironically, because he needs to be distracted from all this, it’s the perfect time for him to be handed a particularly difficult investigation – on his very first day no less, when what appears to be the burned remnants of an eminent Edinburgh solicitor are found on a Cairngorm hillside. There isn’t much left of the unfortunate woman, but it’s sufficient to reveal who she was and that she died very violently. Callanach throws himself into the case speedily and professionally, but then another prominent local woman – a vicar, no less – is also kidnapped, her tell-tale relics duly found in a drum of chemicals in a dockside warehouse.

Callanach is a by-the-book man. He doesn’t want to look at potential patterns just yet, but it seems increasingly likely that a serial abductor and murderer is at large, his sights fixed squarely on the successful women of the city. Callanach’s methodical approach then faces a serious challenge from within, when DS Lively – badly affected by the second abduction because he knew the victim personally – takes it on himself to call in renowned profiler Edwin Harris, an expert for sure, but a man more interested in promoting his own theories than in catching the actual killer.

Callanach’s protest that this is a breach of protocol falls on deaf ears, because head of the Major Investigations Team, DCI George Begbie, though sympathetic, is currently cash-strapped and has no option but to accept Harris’s assistance as it is being privately funded. 

All of this hampers Callanach massively, both in terms of the enquiry and in terms of his personal recovery. Though he doesn’t feel quite so isolated when his friendship grows with fellow DI, Ava Turner, who, though she is currently investigating a different case, is very open – not just to cross-enquiry consultation, but also to afterhours socialising. 

Meanwhile, in a parallel thread – and it’s no spoiler to mention this because we are hit hard with this intelligence very early in the novel – a certain Reginald King is hatching a truly heinous scheme. King, a sociopathic loner who work as a lowly admin officer in the Department of Philosophy at Edinburgh University, considers that he’s been at the beck and call of Professor Natasha Forge, Head of School, for quite long enough. In short, King regards himself as a genius and feels that Forge only doesn’t recognise this because she’s a stuck-up bitch. In the long run, he’s going to punish her, but he’s also going to punish lots of other women too. Hence the kidnapping, the imprisonment, the terrible torture and of course the murders.

Problematically for Luc Callanach, Reginald King, despite his lowly status, is a genuinely clever man, whose plan does not just involve a series of revenge killings, but is much, much more wickedly ingenious and twisted than that, and in terms of cruelty, is almost off-the-scale.

There’s one other problem here too, not just for Callanach, but all those who work with him. It’s a coincidence but of course hugely advantageous to the murderer that Natasha Forge’s best friend happens to be DI Ava Turner, another strong, independent woman. So this isn’t going to be any ordinary murder investigation, which all members of the enquiry team can go home from in the evening and relax; as King steadily advances his gruesome grand-plan, things start to get very, very nasty indeed, but also very, very personal …

There are plenty of psycho-thrillers set in contemporary Scotland, and Edinburgh seems to suffer from more than its fair share of fictional serial killers. But Perfect Remains is a very different kind of novel from the norm. Perhaps its most outstanding features are how well constructed it is as a story and how well written as a piece of crime literature. I don’t mean to say that other books of this ilk are not well written, but this one is truly of an exceptional calibre.

As a former barrister, Helen Fields clearly knows her legalities and her procedures inside-out, and yet she weaves them all into this complex and lurid mystery with an effortless, non-fussy style, which informs as much as it entertains, creating a real feel of authenticity but never once cluttering the quick-fire plotline with extraneous detail. In addition to that, her quality descriptive work fully conveys both the time and the place, not to mention the people embroiled in the saga, again without sacrificing any of the novel’s pace. Take one particular scene, for example, when DI Callanach, while stressed out of his mind, finds himself in an amorous clinch with an incidental character called Penny. Penny is little more than a walk-on, and as such could easily be a stock character whom we never think about again, and yet in the space of a page and a half, Fields brings her vividly and sympathetically to life – you almost want to cry for her, she is so unfairly treated by our emotionally distraught hero.

And that was only a member of the supporting cast, so imagine how it is with the leads.

The first thing that strikes me about these more prominent characters is that they are, none of them, free of foibles. 

It’s not unusual in crime fiction for our star detective to be damaged, but Luc Callanach takes this to a whole new level. We are told that he is a good-looking guy and at one time he even worked as a male model, and yet none of this info is used to win our favour. If anything, it paints a picture in the reader’s mind of a man who, perhaps back home in his beloved France – which he endlessly and pointlessly yearns for – was rather spoiled. On arrival in Scotland, his initially brusque and rather snippy attitude only adds to this. It’s also the case that what he’s actually on the run from – a rape accusation, for Heaven’s sake! – is the sort of thing that would blemish any police officer’s record for the rest of his career. And after all that, he doesn’t help himself much – at least from the reader’s POV – with a constant, dogged self-analysis which borders on self-obsessiveness. But again, what we’ve got here is a realistically flawed character who needs to work very hard to win his audience over – and, as you might expect, he eventually does so. Firstly, because he’s willing to learn from his errors in order to correct his behaviour, particularly his people skills, and secondly because he’s an excellent detective who doesn’t miss a trick – it is Callanach’s instinct, and his instinct alone, that manage to refocus the enquiry after Lively and Harris send it barking down a blind alley.

In contrast, DI Ava Turner, though another stranger in a strange land (she’s Scottish, but an English-sounding accent born of a private education puts her at a disadvantage), is much savvier in her day-to-day management style, and in the way she handles suspects. She’s an equally tough cop to Callanach, but she’s never less than even-handed: for instance, when she zealously closes down an extremist Catholic sect for brutalising the underage mothers supposedly in their care, her comment to the press that there is “nothing godly about what was happening here” indicates that it isn’t organised religion she has a problem with, but those who abuse it. 

Like Callanach, Turner is also single and, under the surface, maybe a little lonely, but she’s learned to ride with the blows and during her downtime is able to relax with friends – as such, she leads a happier, more fulfilled life. That said, her bosom buddy, Natasha Forge, is perhaps not quite so generous a spirit, and this provides us with a key link in the story. 

Another confident, professional woman, Forge is pleasant and companionable if she decides she likes you, but terse to the point of being discourteous with office administrator, Reginald King, and okay, while King is without doubt a tad pompous and someone whose academic credentials are at the least dubious, there are times when we as the readers feel that his boss could perhaps be a little warmer towards him.

This of course leads me to King himself, and what I consider to be one of the most powerful pieces of characterisation in the whole novel. For me, Reginald King is so neatly observed and multi-layered an individual that he underpins the entire narrative, and on top of that he must rate as one of the most believable psychopaths I’ve ever encountered in fiction – primarily because, like so many real-life killers, his greatest defence is his total anonymity. King is no drooling Mr. Hyde-type madman, nor is he suave and calculating like Hannibal Lecter. Yes, he is secretly and monstrously narcissistic; he is convinced he is a genius and that the only reason he hasn’t advanced further in life is because those around him are hateful and jealous, and are conspiring in his downfall. But apart from this, he is so, so ordinary. He possesses neither Hyde’s brutish physicality nor Lecter’s sparkly-eyed gaze. He is a simple everyman you could pass in a corridor without batting an eyelid. Incredible though it may sound, there is even an element of pathos in King’s makeup. Because for all the awful things he does – and at times they are truly and torturously awful (and the reader is spared almost none of it) – there are other times when we recognise what a lost soul he is, a guy who, despite attempting civility, can’t even seem to earn the most basic degree of respect from his peers.

Helen Fields has done an all-round amazing job with Perfect Remains. It’s even more remarkable when you consider that it’s her debut novel. A terrific premise is executed to full unforgiving effect in a complex yet pacy procedural, which is peopled by living, breathing characters whom you can easily empathise with (both the heroes and the villains), and which is not only adult in tone but also adult in subtext – there is far more on show here than a simple crime/actioner – but which accelerates during its final quarter to an exhilarating, slam-bang climax.

In short, this is superb stuff – not a whodunit exactly, but an intense and deeply intriguing ‘good vs evil’ thriller, which once you’ve started it is quite impossible to put down. But don’t take my word for it. Just read it. You will not be disappointed – and make a note of the author too, because Helen Fields is a name we’ll be hearing about again and again.

And now, as always, here are my personal thoughts re. casting should Perfect Remains make it to celluloid. It’s just for laughs of course – no-one would listen to me anyway – but this could be a very cool cop series indeed, so it’s got to happen at some point. In the meantime, here are my picks for the leads (as always, with no expense spared):

DI Luc Callanach – Pio Marmai
DI Ava Turner – Gemma Whelan
Reginald King – Gray O’Brien
Natasha Forge – Ruth Millar
DCI George Begbie – Gary Lewis
Astrid Borde – Melanie Laurent
DS Lively – Tommy Flanagan
Edwin Harris – Graham McTavish