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!!!).

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