Other Authors

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and fantasy 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.


A CROWN OF LIGHTS
by Phil Rickman (2011)

When a young pagan couple, Robin and Betty Thorogood, acquire an old farmhouse in rural New Hindwell, they are delighted to discover the relic of an abandoned Christian chapel in the grounds. Immediately, they launch plans to perform rituals there and to reclaim the ancient site for the ‘old religion’ by celebrating the traditional Celtic feast of Imbolc.

But of course, it isn’t going to be that simple.

To start with, Betty Thorogood – the more tuned-in of the two – senses a dark presence in the ruin and an air of foreboding in the encircling Radnor Valley. If this doesn’t worry her enough, the couple’s plans arouse the wrath of Reverend Nick Ellis, the local evangelical minister, who has brought a hellfire message to the UK from his former parish in the American South. Despite Betty’s charm and beauty, Ellis, a man with great charisma but an increasingly sinister fundamentalist agenda, manages to stir up intense local feeling against the duo – to the point where mob violence soon threatens.

Merrily Watkins, local vicar and Diocesan Deliverance Officer, a woman very experienced in tackling the occult, is sent to keep a watch on the volatile situation. But it soon becomes apparent that this is a vastly more complex and frightening problem than even she anticipated. To start with, there are several other bizarre, possibly interconnected issues in New Hindwell: eccentric lawyer JW Weal can’t seem to let go of his recently deceased wife and may well have used nefarious, if not downright evil, methods to hang onto her soul, while at the same time Merrily is disturbed by the rumour that a circle of medieval churches dedicated to St. Michael, originally built to contain a dragon lurking in Radnor Forest, may actually have been located there to entrap a demonic entity.

Above all though, the main threat to peace in this small community stems from the Rev. Ellis, who is much more than just a zealous preacher. Merrily soon comes to doubt his motives and even his beliefs, and finds his followers – who include several local people of note, including the fearsome councillor’s wife, Judith Prosser – a particularly menacing bunch, whose strict loyalty to each other may be concealing a wealth of sins, including murder. In fact, so worried is she by this gathering storm, that she finds herself siding with the pagan newcomers, though they themselves don’t make this easy for her when a whole bunch of them turns up, determined to desecrate the ancient Christian site with their Imbolc rites …

A Crown of Lights is the third outing in the hugely popular Merrily Watkins series, and for my money one of the best. Not that I don’t have a couple of reservations about it.

One key issue I have with the Watkins stories overall is the central heroine’s apparent lack of conviction. It can’t be easy for her; the loss of her husband while she was still young and the hostility she seems to face at almost every turn from her know-all teenage daughter, Jane, must leave her feeling pretty friendless at times. But even so, Merrily, while not exactly beset with doubts about her faith, is hardly the sort of muscular Christian you’d normally expect to occupy the role of exorcist. She doesn’t seem to like anything about her own Church, and nor is she easily convinced that supernatural forces exist (despite much evidence to the contrary in this series).

That said, these apparent weaknesses work in her favour in this particular outing, as the powers soon ranged against her – from all sides, both pagan and Christian – leave her more embattled than we’ve ever seen before, which quickly wins her over to the readers. You always tend to root for the underdog, especially if she gets bullied as often as Merrily does – one scene in particular, when she is unwillingly drawn into a live TV debate with a bunch of militant witches under the control of arch manipulator Ned Bain, has you on her side in no uncertain terms.

Less easy to reconcile is the other issue, which is Phil Rickman’s general reluctance to plunge fully into the world of the weird. There are several ghostly and demonic elements in A Crown of Lights, though it is essentially a clever and absorbing murder mystery, so they remain on the periphery. This is a personal viewpoint of course, but while this subtle combo of thriller and chiller has worked for some, I found the many signposts to the arcane – the ancient churches, the legends, the folklore, the prehistoric monuments with which the wild landscape is littered, the hints of a devilish presence, etc – disappointing, as there is no real fulfilment of that particular promise.   

However, this is still an excellent read.

To start with, the incendiary atmosphere in the village is hugely well handled. You wouldn’t normally expect the wintry Welsh Marches to play host to a furious war of words between fanatical religious groups, but it happens here in completely convincing fashion, the hostility simmering throughout the book until the threat of violence feels so real that you can’t help but shudder – there is surely nothing more frightening in both fiction and non-fiction than lynch-law.

It also helps to drive the narrative along that it’s such a multi-stranded mystery, which you simply have to get to the bottom of. A Crown of Lights is an intricate tale, at times almost overwhelmingly so, but it’s massively intriguing – and the reader can rest assured that it all gets tied up neatly at the end.

As always with Phil Rickman’s books, the writing is of the highest order. The gorgeous rural region is beautifully realised, its ancientness and mystery (my earlier comments notwithstanding) evoked in loving fashion. By the same token, the book is a mastery of research. The complex mythology of the Marches is brought vividly to life, while the pagan belief system is richly detailed and made to feel like so much more than silly superstition.

Most interesting of all, though, is the clash of cultures.

Paganism is portrayed as a free-spirited faith, only loosely based on genuine pre-Christian beliefs but unfettered by modernism, unlike Merrily’s ‘rational’ brand of 21st century Christianity in which the exorcist is expected to know as much about psychiatry as doctrine. And this is another key aspect of the book: the war between the old and the new – some of which rages inside Merrily, and between her vision of a kinder Christianity and Nick Ellis’s fire and brimstone, but also out in the wider village community of New Hindwell, which, though it’s hardly the back of beyond, is beset with tradition and was never likely to welcome changes enforced on it by outsiders.    

A compelling, thought-provoking novel, very, very readable and highly recommended for lovers of both mystery and mysticism.

As usual – purely for fun, you understand – here are my personal selections for who should play the leads if A Crown of Lights ever makes it to the movies or TV. Thanks to that fine writer, Stephen Volk, Merrily Watkins has already bestridden our television screens in Midwinter of the Spirit, but that was then and this is now, and only a couple of those characters play a role in Crown, so, with the exception of Sally Messham, this is a different cast:

Merrily Watkins – Rachel Weisz
Nick Ellis – Billy Bob Thornton
Judith Prosser – Catherine Zeta-Jones
Ned Bain – Hugo Weaving
Jane Watkins – Sally Messham
Betty Thorogood – Sophie Cookson
Robin Thorogood – Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
JW Weal – Robert Pugh

(I know, I know … this would be an expensive line-up, but in my imagination I have limitless funds, so yah!)


THE FORCE 
by Don Winslow (2017)

It’s a strange thing, but given that this epic-in-concept and epic-in-execution police thriller fills its 400+ pages with furious action, intense character clashes, crackling dialogue, emotional tangles and moral complexities that basically leave you breathless, not to mention some mind-bending ‘revelations’ about life and death deep in the NYPD, it all kicks off with an event that occurs five months before the book’s main narrative even starts, when the elite Manhattan North Special Taskforce, known simply as ‘Da Force’, pulls off a major drugs bust.

It’s the prize of prizes for streetwise Detective Sergeant Denny Malone, and his cadre of ultra-loyal sidekicks, Phil Russo, Bill ‘Big Monty’ Montague and young Billy O’Neil. Such a prize should have made their names as New York detectives forever. Except that this isn’t the way things work in this neck of the woods. The team, who naturally are corrupt to a man, stand by while Malone calmly executes Dominican cartel boss, Diego Peña, who otherwise would get in the way of their proposed theft of his product – but before they can make off with a very sizable portion of the haul, young Billy himself dies when he accidentally absorbs pure heroin through a series of fresh cuts.

These are the highs and lows of life in Da Force. They’ve lost yet another of their own, but at least the rest of the guys, who are near enough all family men, will have no problem meeting medical bills and putting their kids through college. Unfortunately, the wheels put in motion by this act of criminality don’t stop turning here; in fact, they spin faster and faster and ever more out of control.

We roll forward now to the following Christmas, and find the Manhattan North Special Taskforce freewheeling as always along the high-risk path of keeping the mean streets of Harlem clean and at the same time enriching themselves at the expense of the underworld, always cleverly – admirably so, in fact – but often violently too.

Malone is the heart and unofficial leader of this small, but very efficient crew. An Irish cop descended from a line of Irish cops, heroism and defiance are in his blood – his brother, Liam, a fireman, died on 9/11. Meanwhile, Malone’s estranged wife and kids live in a kind of safe ‘Copland’ enclave on Staten Island and are well supplied with everything they need, because though he’s a badass of colossal proportions, Malone also knows what matters to him.

Little wonder he sees himself as the King of Manhattan North, a kind of backstreet lawgiver, underappreciated for sure, but nevertheless handing down a real brand of justice as opposed to the vanilla stuff you get from the courts.

In truth, Denny Malone is a character we’ve seen before, though in my experience never quite as multi-dimensionally as he is portrayed here. He is an antihero, yes; he is brutal, yes; he is a casual user of profane and racist language, yes. But he is also brave, smart, tough and possesses bags of flawless instinct and low-key political acumen. He is also unswervingly loyal to his brother cops, and though it may seem like a huge contradiction, he genuinely believes that he is doing the right thing.

To Malone, small-scale police corruption is standard behaviour. Its proceeds are only what these men and women are owed in return for the danger and horror they face daily, and represent a small fraction of the reward they know they will never get from the uncaring power-structure above them, the one side of which is too busy acquiring privilege for itself to view them as anything other than expendable pawns in a deadly game of chess, the other side of which, politically motivated in a different way (as embodied by the likes of Black Lives Matter – yes, The Force, though a timeless tale, is a very current novel), views them as scapegoats for an unequal society, who should be made accountable for the establishment’s many sins.

Even so, street-smart and righteous though they may consider themselves to be, the Force’s cowboy lifestyle is never going to be a particularly safe option. They take a big chance with young Billy’s replacement, greenhorn Dave Levin, but the real dangers are posed by the likes of seriously dirty and very stupid cops like Rafael Torres, who are many in number (at least, they are in this novel) and who never cover their backs sufficiently, a folly for which everyone – and that means everyone! – is soon going to pay.

There is one other factor, though, which helps to blind Malone’s otherwise all-seeing eye to this very real weakness in the system: everyone else is as corrupt as he and his buddies are, if not worse.

In The Force, Don Winslow presents us with a world of law enforcement where it’s almost the norm for police officers to put things in their pockets when they attend crime scenes, to only ever hand over half of the drugs they seize, to steal stolen money again rather than return it, to tax the criminal lower orders and take bribes from those who are higher up. And it isn’t just the police. The judiciary and the political administration of the city are up to their necks in dodgy dealing as well. Everyone, it seems, resents those who have power over them, everyone thinks they are undervalued and underpaid, everyone considers that they only purloin what they are fully entitled to, and almost everyone is content to turn a blind eye to the next office along’s countless indiscretions on the understanding that this favour will be returned and the process perpetuated.

Almost everyone. 

And this is the beginning of Denny Malone’s undoing. Because though he’s constantly able to outfox the squeaky-clean but largely uninformed Captain Sykes, a crusading internal investigations unit then turns up, comprising the untouchable feds, O’Dell and Weintraub, who are working under the auspices of the superhot, supercool attoney, Isobel Paz. When they are able to implicate the ne’er-do- well cop in corrupt practises through his attempts to negotiate a crooked legal deal, there is a dramatic shift of power.

Suddenly, Malone finds himself in big trouble. He can get himself off the hook if he will serve up all his corrupt pals, but he obviously doesn’t want to do that – these are fellow cops, his blood-brothers, much closer than the kind of run-of-the-mill buddies that civies have. Through various Machievellian intrigues, he finally brokers a maybe-acceptable deal, in which he will turn over the city’s corrupt lawyers. But even more Machievellian intrigues further up the food-chain contrive to confound this.

Meanwhile, the everyday problems of cop life are also becoming an issue. There is huge racial tension in the city after a white officer shot a black kid. Major disturbances threaten while the Grand Jury deliberates, and even Claudette, Malone’s beautiful black girlfriend, wants to put distance between them both. At the same time, routine turf wars are in the offing between gangs who formerly were at peace. And then there is the uber-ruthless Peña cartel, from whom Malone stole at the very beginning of this dramatic tale. They don’t forgive, or forget …

There is no doubt that Don Winslow is the modern master of the broad-canvas crime story. And yet, his material is never less than completely shocking.

While he apparently worked for months with the NYPD to gain the special insights needed to create this enormous and enormously powerful saga of right and wrong and the multiple grey areas in between, it ultimately casts the New York police in a very bad light. At times, I was gobsmacked by the open assertion that so much of the city’s towering law-enforcement, legal and political structure is bent. The innocent soul within me even came to doubt the accuracy of this, though in the long run, whether it’s a true depiction or not doesn’t really matter, because it gives us a tumultuous backdrop to this most enthralling study of a man (and his world) on the edge of an abyss.

Okay, we may have been here before. Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys is one obvious source of inspiration (Da Force do booze-ups, or rather ‘Bowling Nights’ as they call them, in the most extreme and joyous way imaginable), but I caught more than a few glimpses of The Shield as well (Denny Malone even shares Vic Mackey’s penchant for jeans and black T-shirts!), while in the character of the lovely, heroin-addicted nurse, Claudette, there was a glimpse of the doomed Isabella in Daniel Petrie’s Fort Apache, the Bronx. But really none of that matters, because The Force goes much further along the line than any of those other great pieces of work, with a unique and muscular identity all of its own. In fact, the experience of reading it is so intoxicating, so real, that you’re basically out there on the streets with the guys themselves, kicking tenement doors down, busting the ‘mopes’ and the ‘skels’.

Each page is stacked with completely convincing NYPD detail; the procedures and protocols are all there, the attitudes and language – the language has drawn some criticism for projecting a clichéd New York cop tone, and one brickbat I sympathised with took issue with the cops’ apparent belief that they could do terrible things to and say awful stuff about ethnic communities because they had earned the right – but I still found it completely compelling.

The rooting for the bag guys thing is always something of a challenge. But not here. Not because they are softened by being tough guys with hearts of gold. They haven’t got hearts of gold; but they’ve been sucked into a negative way of life almost from the word-go, which offers no ways out, and yet because it allows them to beat, cripple, blackmail and kill the city’s very worst elements – yes, the vigilante element is strong with this one! – they are persuaded that it’s all okay. And that has a similar effect on us, albeit briefly.

These guys really are the strong arm of the law, we think, the thin blue line, civilisation’s only real defence against a horde of beasts. To deal with violence, you must show … well, violence.

Hardly an ideal scenario, of course. Few of us would actually approve of it. But in The Force you at least see how it happened. In Denny Malone’s own words:

‘How do you cross the line? Step by step.’

After his emotionally-wrenching The Cartel, in which we watched a beautiful society be systematically torn apart by criminals who were more like wild dogs, The Force is a huge change of pace and direction for Don Winslow. Yes, it’s savage, hardbitten and deals with edgy characters at the sharpest end of human experience, displaying both the best of them and the worst, but whereas The Cartel was a very serious statement about the plight of a country competely at the mercy of corrupt officials and organised crime, The Force is more of a personal experience – the progress of a damaged but likeable soul forging his way through a world of darkness, and yet, though constantly seeming to do the wrong thing, gradually edging closer and closer to that redemptive moment when he finally does the right thing (oh, and with plenty of frenzied and explosive action along the way).

Read The Force. That’s all I’m going to say. You don’t have to be a fan of crime, thriller, mystery or cop fiction. As long as you don’t mind being smacked in the face repeatedly by prose as tough as Brooklyn brickwork, you should find this novel a major, major experience. 

And now, as usual, though it’s utterly pointless, I’m going to try and cast it. I say it’s pointless, because the book apparently sold to Hollywood before it was even published, and for no small fee (not jealous at all). But I’ve not heard much about it as yet, so I’m going to try and get my suggestions in first. If Don decides that my ideas are better than whoever gets the casting director gig, he knows where to send the cheque. Here we go:

Det. Denny Malone – Chris Hemsworth
Det. Phil Russo – John Bernthal
Det. Bill ‘Big Monty’ Montague – Forest Whitaker
Sheila Malone – Jessica Chastain
Claudette – Gabrielle Union
O’Dell – Ben McKenzie
Lou Savino – Joe Mantegna
Benjamin ‘Nasty Ass’ Coombes – Tyler James Williams
Stan Weintraub – John C. McGinley
Isobel Paz – Eva Longoria
Gerard Berger – William Fichtner
Det. Dave Levin – Justin Long
Det. Rafael Torres – Javier Bardem
Captain Sykes – Don Cheadle
DeVon Carter – Lance Reddick
Janice Tenelli – Michelle Rodriguez
Insp. Bill McGivern – Jon Voight
Mary Hinman – Ann Dowd
Carlos Castillo – Steven Bauer
Bryce Anderson – James Cromwell
Stevie Bruno – Michael Badalucco
Diego Pena – Luis Guzman

(I know … what a cast that would be. But then … what a novel).


THE DEAD WOMEN OF JUAREZ 
by Sam Hawken (2012)

Ciudad Juárez is a Mexican border-town where something akin to a national disaster is being played out.

Since the early 1990s (in real life as well as in this powerful work of fiction), at least 5,000 young women, mostly prostitutes, students or assembly line employees in the maquiladoras – US-owned car-making plants where sweatshop conditions are the norm – have vanished. In many cases they have never been seen again, but a significant number have reappeared in shallow graves or on city dumps, murdered and displaying signs of extreme sexual torture.

Whether it’s the work of a serial killer, or multiple serial killers, or dope gangs, or sex tourists, or who knows what, it’s a hideous mystery which endures right to this day.

It’s difficult to understand how something like this can go on unchecked in the 21st century, but Juárez is a town with all kinds of problems, not least the cartels who fight each other daily up and down its bullet-scarred streets, the persistence of corruption in institutions like the police and local government, the prevalence of drugs and drug addicts, and the hordes of reckless American turistas who flood across the border every evening to drink and whore themselves senseless.

It is against this tragic but hellish backdrop that Texas author, Sam Hawken, tells his tale of two deeply-flawed men: Kelly Courter, an American boxer now long past his best, and Detective Rafael Sevilla, an alcoholic narcotics cop who is close to retirement after a career (and a lifetime!) during which he feels he’s achieved nothing.

Courter and Sevilla are as unlikely a pair of heroes as you could meet.

The former fled the States to evade a likely lengthy jail sentence, and now has a heroin dependency, which, though he’s only in his 30s, long ago ruined his boxing career. These days, just to be able to support himself (and buy smack!), Courter rents himself out as a human punchbag to unscrupulous backstreet boxing promoters like the verminous Ortiz – who put him in the ring against eager up-and-comers, where he suffers the unbridled hatred of the crowd and takes some bone-crunching beatings. The one light in his life is Paloma, his girlfriend, a fearless activist with Mujeres Sin Voces, a self-help organisation seeking justice for the legions of murdered women, and whose drugs-dealing brother, Estéban, he occasionally helps by providing a white face by which to lure nervous American customers.

It is through this connection that we first meet the honest but drink-enfeebled cop, Sevilla, who is constantly leaning on Courter to get him to give up his and Estéban’s supplier. Courter resists, of course, and there isn’t much Sevilla can do about that, or even is motivated to do, if he’s honest – because his life too has been irreparably damaged by the plague of ‘feminicide’, which, among so many others, has claimed both his daughter and his granddaughter.

As such, neither Courter nor Sevilla, nor even Estéban lead happy and fulfilled lives, but things get a whole lot worse when Paloma, who on several occasions has stood up to the menacing gangland figures constantly circling Mujeres Sin Voces, also disappears. If this isn’t enough, as neither Courter nor Estéban have adequate alibis – Courter was on yet another drugs binge at the time! – they are taken into custody as suspects by the monstrously violent Captain ‘La Bestia’ Garcia, who, while he’s pretty incompetent when it comes to collaring gangsters and sex-murderers, likes nothing better than to brutalise confessions out of the little fish who drop his way.

Even Sevilla, who by now has developed a reasonably amicable relationship with Courter, can do nothing to help. When he turns to Adriana Quintero, the almost impossibly well-groomed prosecutor attached to the Special Task Force for the Investigation of Crimes Against Women, and pleads Courter’s innocence, he is greeted with utter indifference; Quintero’s real job, it seems, is to make it look as if Juárez is being served by the law.

Sevilla realises that only one route is open to him. Somehow or other, he must do the unfeasible, and bring the real perpetrators of the Juárez ‘feminicides’ to justice …

The first thing that struck me about The Dead Women of Juárez, Sam Hawken’s debut novel, is that it isn’t your typical crime-thriller. I’ve seen it described variously as ‘hard-boiled’, as ‘a border noir’, as ‘a classic murder-mystery’, and while there are aspects of all those in there – hard-drinking detective, Sevilla, and battered boxer, Courter, wouldn’t be out of place in any Chandler or Mickey Spillane – the overwhelming catastrophe that is actually occurring in Juárez basically takes centre-stage.

And that’s the main point. Because this relentless spate of unsolved murders is a real thing, and because the real city in which the novel takes place is every bit as dusty and down-at-heel as Sam Hawken describes it here, it would seem indelicate, if not downright trite, to classify this novel as anything resembling pulp fiction. It’s a rattling good story – there’s no question about that, and Hawken’s lean, mean prose keeps it bouncing along at pace. But the whole narrative aches with a deep-felt sadness, which can only stem from the real life horrors of that woe-begotten burg.

And it’s quite clear that Hawken wrote his book fully mindful of this issue.

His approach is observational rather than judgemental. Whether it be the extreme inequality of wealth on display here (some folk living in ‘cartons’, while super-powered businessmen like Rafa Madrigal, and his vile son, Sebastian, own ranches and private golf courses), the rash crowds of American kids who flock across the border to party and get high, or the armies of dealers, hookers and hustlers who cater to them, he simply describes things the way they are, rather than calling down fire and brimstone on it. Even the ongoing murder spree is brought to us subtly, Hawken not sitting us down to lecture us, but gradually drawing it to our attention via the clusters of wooden crosses we see standing on wasteland now and then, or the flyblown ‘missing’ posters adorning streetlights and telegraph poles.

This, he shows us – without really needing to say it – is the tragedy of modern Mexico.

Poverty and crime are the norm. Murder is so common that people are no longer shocked; they simply live their lives around it, getting on any way they can. Even Mexico’s crime-lords and their roaming gangs of gunmen are regarded as an everyday occupational hazard.

But while that’s the way of normality in Ciudad Juárez, for the rest of us it’s seismically terrifying. You find yourself shuddering more with each page turned, appalled that such injustice and exploitation could ever exist in the modern world. The desolation of all the main characters’ lives is palpable. It extends to the lesser characters too: the scores of bereaved parents and siblings protesting futilely on barren street-corners; the dead-eyed workers trudging in for yet another long shift in hot, dirty factories; those people who live in cartons.

In all these respects, The Dead Women of Juárez is an unforgettable read. It is dispiriting and distressing – just when you think one awful thing too many has happened, another, even worse thing comes along. The violence and cruelty is more visceral and in-your-face than almost any reader could be comfortable with. However, none of this means that there isn’t going to be a reckoning of sorts. It certainly doesn’t mean that Rafael Sevilla, finally galvanised to take a long-overdue revenge on the enemies of his town, won’t get his act together.

To say more on that would be a spoiler, but The Dead Women of Juárez isn’t just a warts-and-all study of modern-day despair; it’s a multi-layered, fast-moving piece of docu-fiction, superbly written and while not exactly entertaining, ultimately very, very satisfying. Okay, it may not be true to call this book a typical crime-thriller, but that certainly does not mean that it doesn’t reach a very thrilling conclusion.

Another one I highly recommend, though with the caveat that it’s more an existentialist nightmare than a murder mystery, and that even in that brutal guise, it pulls absolutely no punches. 

And now, as usual, I’m going to be bold enough to try and cast this one in advance of it ever coming to the movie or TV screen. I’m not sure whether it’s been optioned or not, but hey … this is only an exercise. Like anyone would listen to me, anyway. Here are my picks for the leads:

Detective Rafael Sevilla – Antonio Banderas
Kelly Courter – Wentworth Miller (older than in the book, but he doesn’t look it)
Ortiz – Sergi Lopez
Esteban – Pablo Cruz
Paloma – Angelique Boyer
Captain ‘La Bestia’ Garcia – Alberto Estrella
Adriana Quintero – Blanca Soto
Rafa Madrigal – Miguel Sandoval
Sebastian Madrigal – Gael Garcia Bernal


THE MEPHISTO CLUB 
by Tess Gerritsen (2006)

As usual, on/off partners in crime-fighting, Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner, Doctor Maura Isles, are having difficulties in their personal lives. 

At the start of The Mephisto Club, Isles’s yearning for handsome Catholic priest, Father Daniel Brophy, remains unrequited, but as he is equally attracted to her, how long that status will last is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile Jane Rizzoli, an experienced homicide investigator with the Boston PD, has a happily-married life, but a car-wreck of a family, her brothers useless and her mom and dad increasingly quarrelsome with each other.

With all this going on, and in the depths of a bitterly cold Boston winter, it’s hardly the right time for the twosome to find themselves confronted by a particularly ghoulish ritual murder, the body horribly dismembered and the Latin word PECCAVI scrawled at the scene.

An apparent explanation suggests itself soon enough, the slaying seemingly linked to one of Isles’s former sparring partners, criminal psychologist, Dr Joyce O’Donnell, a woman with whom she has never seen eye-to-eye. It seems possible that the perp is one of O’Donnell’s more disturbed patients, either trying to spook her or leave her some kind of message. But O’Donnell can’t (or won’t) help examine this particular theory, and then more murders follow, with similar mutilations and similar cryptic characters inscribed on and around the corpses. 

It seems that it isn’t just Joyce O’Donnell who’s the object of interest, but the whole of the mysterious Mephisto Club, of which she is only one member.

A group of scholarly individuals headed up by the wealthy ex-college professor, Anthony Sansone, and the bullish Englishwoman, Edwina Felway, the Mephisto Club – or ‘Mephisto Foundation’, to use their preferred title – dedicate themselves to a profound and scientific analysis of evil; not just in its obvious form, as in the violent psychosis displayed by damaged individuals, but also the religious and metaphysical elements of it, i.e. its devilish origins, as described in the earliest archaeological records.

To the ever-cynical Rizzoli, all of this feels like hokum, but she’s frustrated to find that, owing to their fantastical wealth, the Mephisto Club exert huge influence over the authorities, even the FBI, and when they insist on helping with the investigation, tacit permission is given.

They don’t exactly interfere, but Rizzoli soon feels that she’s lost her leadership role, and is particularly frustrated by Isles, who is gradually won over by them, especially by Sansone, a descendent of cruel Italian nobility, and yet a man whose good looks are striking, and whose urbane style and intellectual depths make him a real force to be reckoned with.

In a parallel thread, meanwhile, we follow the fortunes of one Lily Saul, a girl whose family, many years ago, had the misfortune to take into their care her abandoned cousin, Dominic. Dominic was a curious boy with peculiar interests, an unnerving manner and a strange knowledge of ‘forbidden’ things.

We don’t dwell too much on that first summer of young Dominic’s residence at the Saul home in rural New England, but instead flit forward in time to find Lily, now an adult (with no family left to call her own!), on the run in Rome, leading a hippie-like existence, moving from one temporary accommodation to the next, doing things she would never normally have dreamt of in order to make money, and constantly looking over her shoulder for fear that he – or should that be ‘it
’ – won’t be far behind …

Tess Gerritsen’s blood-spattered crime thrillers have often been said to skate along the edge of the horror genre, and while that may not always be true, I don’t think it can be denied on this occasion. But that’s not because The Mephisto Club is a gore-fest. To start with, it’s not. Oh, there are gruesome murders a-plenty, and the author/doctor, as always, demonstrates her medical knowledge with some unstintingly detailed autopsy sequences, but the real horror in this novel – and the title itself is a bit of a give-away – actually comes to us from a more much traditional direction: its aura of Satanic evil.

The surprising implication in The Mephisto Club, namely that a truly malevolent force walks the Earth, an ancient power traceable right back to the Fall of Man, is not the kind of twist we’d expect in a routine crime thriller, but in this novel we get it full-on.

Lily’s flight to Rome serves to underline this almost in itself; Italy, the land of esoteric antiquity, Rome the capital of the Catholic Church.

And then there is the Mephisto Club itself.

For the uninitiated, Mephisto (better known as Mephistopheles) was an arch-demon, a close servant of Satan, who most famously claimed the soul of 15th century occultist, Faust. So once again in this novel we’re working on the basis that evil is not some intangible aspect of corrupted human nature, but a personalised entity, something with a form and a face, which actively seeks the destruction of our world.

The Club, itself, is equally reminiscent of the classic age of horror. 

It’s an amusingly old-fashioned concept, consisting entirely of enigmatic scholars and wealthy intellectuals, who spend their time tracing the movements of the world’s most malign beings, attempting to track their ancestry back to mythological days when fallen angels known as the Watchers spawned monstrous offspring, the so-called Nephilim, who dedicated their existence to the death and misery of mankind. Their tireless research has uncovered all manner of eldritch information: references not just to the Watchers and the Nephilim, but to the Book of Enoch (which is real and in which many of these disturbing legends were first written down) and to Lillith – Adam’s first wife, a wanton temptress who walked the Earth long before Eve (and who modern-day feminists regard as the quintessential demonization of women by a patriarchal church).

With all this in mind, it’s very easy to picture the Mephisto Club in a Hammer Horror movie, perhaps with Peter Cushing chairing the meetings.

The big question is … does it work in the context of a crime thriller?

My view – and I’m aware that it’s not shared by all crime fans – is that it does.

Okay, I will admit to having one or two minor problems with it. I didn’t buy totally into the idea that the Mephisto Club, even through the combined expertise of its members, could wield such influence over government organisations like the FBI. I’m sure these secret societies exist, but I’d imagine more as hobbies for the rich and the bored, whom the police would simply treat as well-meaning amateurs. I also thought that one or two moments were a little bit rushed; for example, after effectively and atmospherically building up the circumstances of Lily’s flight to Rome, not to mention the fear she feels at every turn, and the desperate (ugly-desperate at one point!) measures she takes to protect herself there, this whole part of the book seems to end rather mundanely and abruptly, within a page or so in fact. Compare and contrast that to the protracted and ultimately irrelevant break-up of Rizzoli’s parents’ marriage, and you have a quite noticeable imbalance.

But hell, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this novel.

Whether I’m reading crime or horror, I’m a sucker for ancient puzzles, and The Mephisto Club is riddled with them. From eerie Latin inscriptions to ritually mutilated corpses, from chalk symbols to assailants who move like shadows, this narrative is chocka with arcane symbolism and olde worlde weirdness. It’s also pretty damn thrilling: Rizzoli and Isles, two independent, modern-minded women, talented practitioners of their respective crafts and domineering forces in their personal lives, find themselves eyebrow-deep in a gory and distressing murder case for which no contemporary textbook could have prepared them.

For all these reasons, The Mephisto Club is a fast, riveting read. But then you have Tess Gerritsen’s skilled penmanship, as well – a great sense of time and place (Boston in mid-winter, brrr), fizzling dialogue, rapid-fire action, a range of extreme and even grotesque characters for us to get our teeth into, though none of them are OTT – and you’ve got everything you really need for an enjoyable thriller.

I can understand why certain crime fiction traditionalists found this one hard to take. The concept of evil as a sentient force, embodied by a single devilish being, or even a group of such beings, may on one hand seem naïve of the author, but on the other hand you’ve got to remember that this is fiction, and fun fiction at that. And it’s not as if the supernatural elements hit us on the nose. Like most good authors in this field, Gerritsen basically leaves it open at the end, leaves certain questions unanswered, and leaves her readers – this one at least – wanting more.

An intriguing thriller with an unusual, challenging and never less than uber-dark premise, The Mephisto Club ticked all of my boxes.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for – when I cast this beast. Of course, in the case of Rizzoli and Isles, if their adventures were to be adapted in the correct order, The Mephisto Club would be the fourth in the series, but just suspend belief for a minute or two (which you’ll need to do anyway, if you want to get your head round the idea that someone like me will be picking the actors):

Det. Jane Rizzoli – Jaimie Alexander
Dr. Maura Isles – Julia Stiles
Lily Saul – Emma Stone
Anthony Sansone – Mads Mikkelson
Dr. Joyce O’Donnell – Glenne Headly
Edwina Felway – Emma Thompson



BLOOD AXE
by Leigh Russell (2015)

It all starts very unthreateningly, when a replica Viking battle-axe is stolen during a semi-comic re-enactment of a Dark Ages battle in the grounds of Clifford’s Tower in the grand old city of York. It’s not the kind of thing that would normally require the deductive skills of an experienced copper like DI Ian Peterson, and in truth, he treats the whole thing light-heartedly.

Peterson is a relatively recent arrival in York, having relocated from Kent to obtain his much sought-for promotion, but while he himself is intrigued by the ancient city, and determined to try and enjoy its many olde worlde treasures, his wife Beverly isn’t quite as sold. She feels a long way from home, she misses her family and friends, and although she and Peterson have been together for quite a while now, she is increasingly uninterested in his job and shows progressively less concern for the responsibilities it demands of him. At present, the duo are living an uneasy kind of truce, though to be fair, this isn’t helped by Peterson’s workaholic nature. Even when there is relatively little for him to investigate, he manages to spend many, many hours at the office, dotting every i and crossing every t.

So, imagine the domestic strife that will ensue when a series of horrific murders suddenly commences. And by horrific, I mean horrific.

Yes, York, that handsome, atmospheric town in the scenic Yorkshire wolds, famous for its history, its archaeology, its excellent shopping, and its fine, old-fashioned English cuisine, is suddenly the hub of a bloody murder spree, wherein the victims – who’ve apparently been chosen indiscriminately – are literally axed to death.

Peterson, acting under the orders of the fearsome DCI Eileen Bullock, is immediately assigned to the case, and tackles it in his usual workmanlike way, aided and abetted by his trusty sidekick, Ted Birling, but impeded a little bit by the impulsive and somewhat overconfident Naomi. The problem though, is not Peterson’s hit-and-miss colleagues, but the killer, who despite his ferocity, comes and goes like a ghost, leaving scarcely a clue and not pursuing any pattern that even hints at his motivation.

In this regard, we readers are one or two steps ahead of Peterson, because we at least have the ‘pleasure’ of witnessing these graphic crimes, on each occasion slipping into the mind of a complete lunatic, who prowls the city’s byways after dark acting out an insane Viking fantasy in which murder and pillage are the only items of interest and where every stranger on the street is fair game. And no, just in case you’ve got a weak stomach, we are not spared the actual destruction that inevitably follows: the swinging of the mighty axe, the sundering of skulls, the lopping of limbs.

This is grim and grisly stuff, which unsurprisingly leads to a frenzy in the once-happy city, increasing Peterson’s workload to the point where it almost breaks him. Even though he makes the connection to the stolen axe at the beginning, and works with helpful staff at the Jorvik Centre, like Ralph Grey and Sophie James, to establish that he’s following a latter-day Norseman, there are so few real leads that – if for no other reason than to keep his spirits up – he consults with former boss and ace detective in her own right, DI Geraldine Steel.

Many crime fans will recognise this name, Steel having been Peterson’s mentor during a former series of books, in which she was the star of the show and he her humble sergeant. However, this is only really a guest-appearance. Blood Axe is very firmly a DI Peterson investigation, and one he’s soon under intolerable pressure to wrap up, not just to save further innocent bodies from the Viking axe – the severed corpses don’t half stack up in this one! – but also to save his own job, and maybe even his marriage, because it’s anyone’s guess how long the self-centred Beverly is going to tolerate the continued absence of her husband in what, at times, seems like a completely futile quest …

One of the most refreshing aspects of the DI Ian Peterson novels is the nature of the hero. Yes, these are solid police procedurals, but Peterson is quite different from the norm. He’s not moody, he’s not a drinker, he’s not damaged in some mysterious, indefinable way which no doubt will all come out eventually. In truth, he’s an everyman, a copper’s copper, one of those methodical, hardworking detectives who most likely account for the majority of real-life CID officers in the UK, and are almost routinely classified as ‘married to the job’.

In Peterson’s case, this hasn’t entirely been to his advantage. For example, he doesn’t have much time for romance or even a social life. So, while he’s sharp-eyed and deeply analytical, his people skills are not the best; he’s awkward in his dealings with the public, he handles suspects and witnesses brusquely, he’s not much fun at parties, and most discomfortingly of all for the reader, he has no clue that his marriage is going downhill fast, even though it’s happening right under his nose.

His wife, Bev, is being neglected on an epic scale. That said, she’s a none-too-sympathetic character in my eyes; she surely knew what she was getting into when she married a copper, and it can hardly have escaped her notice that an axe-murderer is prowling York, and that her husband is charged with capturing him – though this unreasonableness on Bev’s part does serve the useful purpose of making our harassed hero even more vulnerable and appealing.

The story itself runs convincingly and at pace, Peterson and his team working their way with much frustration through a complex web of misleading information, making repeated false starts, heading down blind alleys and the like, while confronted by a range of ‘persons of interest’ and falling out among themselves as to which of these is the most viable – and all of this amid the chaos of bereaved and very credibly distraught relatives, and of course a growing media panic.

It’s all quite effective and believable, the lovely city of York in virtual lockdown by the end of the book, its tourism-based economy seriously imperilled.

And it’s easy to see how that could happen. Any kind of serial killer is a genuine nightmare, not just for the police but for the general population of whichever area is being terrorised, but an axe-murderer who seemingly picks his targets at random has got to be the most awful creature of all. With real-life cases of this sort – the Mad Axeman of New Orleans and the Cleveland Torso Murderer – you only need to look at the newspaper reports of the time to see what a devastating effect they had on local communities, and how people literally would not leave their homes day or night, keeping doors and windows closed and locked despite stifling summer heat.

In the case of York, a great setting for all kinds of reasons, not least its quaintness, and which is rarely the stamping ground of maniacs even in crime fiction, it is all the more portentous – because this scenic old city wasn’t always quaint. In the Dark Ages, when York was called Jorvik, it was the Viking capital of Northumbria, and the city is alive even today with memories of that wild, barbarous breed, who saw war, conquest and the ruthless killing of their foes as the surest way to reach Valhalla. In fact, the 10th century Viking warlord, Eric Bloodaxe – and he wasn’t given that name because of his meek and retiring nature – ruled twice from York as King of Northumbria.

Leigh Russell plays this card very nicely indeed, not delving too deeply into Viking culture or mythology – after all, this is the Viking world as perceived by someone who’s mentally ill – though during those brief interludes when we’re on the road with the killer, we wield our axe with pride, view the local population as sheep waiting to be sheared, and enjoy the violence of our attacks as much, if not more so, than we do the acquisition of our victims’ wealth.

The book first caught my eye because of this unusual premise. In truth, I wasn’t initially sure that it would work – bringing Northman-style violence to a modern UK city – but the moment I got into it, I lost all qualms. This is heady stuff, very scary in parts and also pretty gory. But it makes for a damn good, and I have to say, quite easy and straightforward read. It also ends on a big, unexpected twist, so it comes highly recommended for all fans of murder mysteries and police procedurals.

I’ve heard some gossip that the investigations of Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson have been optioned for TV development, which, if it comes to fruition, will be good news indeed. However, as always, I’m going to try and get there first by nominating my own cast should Blood Axe make it to the screen. Here we go: 

DI Ian Peterson – Andrew Lincoln
DI Geraldine Steel – Kate Beckinsdale
Beverley Peterson – Kelly Macdonald
Ralph Grey – Brian F O’Byrne
Sophie James – Jennie Jacques



SIEGE 
by Simon Kernick (2012)

London is a city well-versed in dealing with terrorism, but it’s a sheer impossibility to throw steel around all of its major landmarks. So, when an organised and proficient terrorist outfit launches a military-style attack on the ornate Stanhope Hotel, on Park Lane, the metropolis is taken completely by surprise. 

Already preoccupied by a series of diversionary bomb attacks, the authorities are not even there to intervene when a man known only as Fox, an embittered former British soldier and combat veteran, leads a heavily-armed group in a disciplined assault, which captures most of the hotel’s staff and guests almost immediately, closes the building off with booby-traps and explosives, and starts laying down impossible political demands.

A lot of people die quickly, in many cases killed merely to make a point. It’s plain from the outset that these terrorists are playing for keeps, and pretty soon almost the entirety of the Metropolitan Police, not to mention a specialist SAS rescue squad, have got them surrounded.

A colossal siege then follows, a wide range of hostages awaiting its outcome fearfully.

Among these, Polish hotel manager, Elena Serenko, is the strongest, a diplomatic but authoritative figure, who never once loses her cool in the midst of the crisis, and becomes their unofficial spokesperson. Martin Dalston is there too, a forlorn character who has come to the hotel to die; recently diagnosed with inoperable cancer, he intended to commit suicide that evening, but now realises that he doesn’t just want to live, he wants to live and help those around him.

And then there is Scope … in his first outing (Simon Kernick has since written at least one more book following his exploits). Another disenfranchised ex-squaddie, Scope came to the Stanhope looking for vengeance regarding matters unconnected to this affair, but soon got caught up in the mayhem. He manages to lie low in one of the upstairs rooms, and is not corralled by the terrorists, but you sense almost from the beginning that he’s going to become their John McClane, their fly in the ointment, their ultimate pain in the ass.

Outside the hotel, meanwhile, it’s equally tense. The police are under the control of the normally efficient Deputy Assistant Commissioner Arley Dale, though her position is far from straightforward. Unbeknown to everyone else, Dale’s own family were kidnapped that morning by the same terrorists, and she is now under orders to assist the gang by providing misinformation to the military and sending the inevitable SAS assault team to its destruction. Naturally, she doesn’t want to do this, but what choice does she have? Things are further complicated for her when news arrives that a senior MI6 officer, possessing vital information, is among the captives, and by Detective Chief Inspector John Cheney of the Counter Terrorist Command, a cool but inscrutable figure (and, inconveniently, a former boyfriend of hers) who constantly hovers in the background.

The strongest card Dale can play is Riz Mohammed, a London cop of Middle Eastern origin and an expert negotiator. He makes many gallant attempts to talk the terrorists ‘down’, but gains little. This is partly because their motives are far from clear. Though two Arabic figures have now emerged from the murderous band to take charge - their overall leader, Wolf, and his fanatical female sidekick, Cat - the rest of the team, like Fox, are westerners at odds with the British establishment, and though they are brutal and violent, we soon get the feeling they are less interested in the Islamist cause than they are the fabulous pay-out they’ve been promised if everything goes to plan.

It’s a hellish scenario, the authorities all but paralysed, the armed-to-the-teeth madmen killing at every opportunity, but Arley Dale doesn’t just sit there and accept her fate. Again in secret, she enlists a disgraced former-detective, Tina Boyd (another of Kernick’s very cool recurring characters) and puts her on the case. Boyd, a loose cannon at the best of times, doesn’t understand why she’s been trusted with such a job, until Dale, who expects to go to prison anyway, says that she must do whatever’s necessary to recover her missing family – there are no rules.

Scope meanwhile, who initially takes time off to protect an ailing American tourist and her young son, finally decides that he too must take the gloves off. These vicious, arrogant killers are not going to have it all their own way …

Well, this is an absolute corker.

It’s also vintage Simon Kernick, surely one of the UK’s best thriller-writers when it comes to high-level conspiracies, espionage and terrorism.

Make no mistake, this is a big, big story, involving a monstrous and complex crime which has the potential not just to snuff out multiple lives, but to endanger national security as well, and yet as always, the author handles every part of it with astonishing attention to detail, delivering the entire catastrophe in completely authentic and convincing fashion. He deals with the emergency services response in the same way, not putting a foot wrong as he pulls the police and military together, co-ordinating their various assets, including their technical resources (which in Siege are absolutely up-to-the-minute) in the most believable style. It’s almost as if he has personally memorised the section of the Major Incident Manual concerning mass terrorist attacks on London.

As I say, vintage Kernick.

And yet … all this stuff is no more, really, than the backdrop.

The most interesting thrillers are always about people, focussing on their conflicting personalities and relationships no matter what degree of chaos is unfolding around them. And Kernick doesn’t skimp on this. In fact, he gives us an ensemble cast, throwing all kinds of individuals into this maelstrom of gunfire and explosions.

At first, I wondered if this was going to prove to be a mistake; there are so many living, breathing individuals in Siege that I worried it might fall victim to what I call ‘Towering Inferno Syndrome’: in other words, the author gives us a bit of everyone, but not enough of anyone. But no, Simon Kernick is too much of an expert in his field to make that kind of error. Once we’ve met the cast, we quickly close in on the key players, two of the most exciting being Scope and Tina Boyd.

Kernick certainly loves his antiheroes.

Yes, his work is often filled with straight bats like Arley Dale, and procedures and protocols hot from the Scotland Yard press. But quite often – and it’s certainly the case here – things are resolved by the smart thinking and raw courage of wayward individuals who, usually through misfortune, find themselves at the sharp end with minimal backup.

Don’t get me wrong. Earlier in this review, I alluded to Die Hard. And yes, there is more than a hint of that in Siege. But the action here, though fast and tough, is not quite so OTT. There are bombs, machine-gun battles and knife fights galore. But in this book, when people get shot and wounded, they are severely incapacitated at the very least. When they get put down by a heavy punch, they don’t get up quickly. Scope is not a man of iron. He is handy and experienced, but his main strength derives from his dogged nature and moral compass, which he engages regardless of the fine print. Likewise, Tina Boyd. She has had it rough; despite often doing the right thing in the past, she’s been on the wrong end of some politically correct but nevertheless harsh decisions – she is another who’s always prepared to risk it for the right result, and who isn’t just able to take a beating, but who can (and will) dish one out, herself, if necessary. 

In balance to all this, the non-violent characters in the book – Elena Serenko and Martin Dalston – are intriguing creations, nicely representing ordinary people at their best (and so often, of course, it is ordinary people who must navigate these terrible situations). They may not believe in have-a-go-heroism, but they’ll still do everything in their power to make things easier for those around them.

On top of all that, despite its massive canvas and huge rotation of characters, the novel is done slickly and quickly, the narrative bouncing from scene to scene at breakneck pace, allowing the reader almost no room to breathe – and yet still finding time to surprise us with curveballs. That’s another of Simon Kernick’s strengths. You never know the whole story; there is nearly always something shocking held in reserve, and Siege is no exception to that rule.

A terrific action-thriller, completely credible, totally enthralling and sadly, in our turbulent current age, more relevant now even than when it was first published.

It’s a bold man who’d try, at a whim, to cast a novel like this should it ever be adapted for the screen, but ‘boldness’ is my middle name. So, as usual, here I go (just for laughs, of course):

DAC Arley Dale – Naomi Watts
Scope – Robert James-Collier
Elena Serenko – Izabella Miko
Fox – Clive Standen
Tina Boyd – Gemma Arterton
Wolf – Naveen Andrews
Cat – Shiva Negar
DCI John Cheney – Ray Stevenson
Martin Dalston – Hugh Grant
Riz Mohammed – Cas Anvar


THE HUNTER’S PRAYER 
by Kevin Wignall (2015)

Carefree student Ella Hatto’s happy middle-class life ends horrifically one bright summer morning in Tuscany, where she’s on holiday with her boyfriend, Chris. First of all, back home in the UK, her father, mother and younger brother are murdered in their own home, executed by a skilled assassin. Next, she herself is targeted, caught up in a whirl of unexpected violence as a kill-team closes in on her, only to walk into a storm of bullets itself.

Unbeknown to Ella, a professional bodyguard called Lucas was hired by her successful businessman and part-time gangster father, and charged with shadowing her while she was abroad. Lucas, it seems, has stepped in at just the right moment, and gunned down the killers – but now he must whisk Ella and Chris away before the law arrives and starts asking awkward questions.

The two students are shaken to the core as their unlikely guardian moves them from one safehouse to the next, constantly trying to elude both the police and any further gunmen who might still be on their tail.

In due course, he finds sanctuary for them in the very last place he would normally have chosen: his own isolated and rather spartan villa in the foothills of the Swiss Alps.

As a former contract killer-turned-protector, Lucas is already a far cry from other characters of this ilk whom we may have encountered in different crime novels. He’s good at what he does, but he’s not cold-blooded about it. There is no granite hardness in Lucas, no pitilessness, no icy indifference to the pain of others. Okay, he’s not an especially warm character … but he does start warming to Ella. While Chris is simply frightened and increasingly resentful that he’s been dragged into this disaster, Ella – the real victim, who lost her family (whereas Chris merely lost his holiday!) – handles it better. She’s obviously grief-stricken, but she’s so innocent, so polite and yet at the same time so grown up in the way she deals with her terrible bereavement that Lucas can’t help but admire her and even be influenced by her.

The truth is that this ex-hitman is already, in a way, on the road to redemption. Though he’s still immersed in his murky world – he remains friendly, for example, with another much more callous killer, the likeable and yet utterly ruthless Dan Borowski – he basically wants out. He’s much happier to be a bodyguard than an assassin, but even then, his attempts to save the two youngsters take him far beyond the call of duty, a dedication to preserving their lives which stems not so much from his conscience, perhaps, but from a burgeoning desire to improve himself, a yearning to rejoin the civilised world (which gradual change of heart has already seen him develop an interest in the arts and literature).

Partly, this is down to his own domestic circumstances. His French girlfriend Madeleine, the one genuine love of his life, ditched him a decade and a half ago when she discovered what he did for a living, and ever since has denied him access to their daughter, Isabelle, who is now in her mid-teens; Lucas strongly desires to re-acquaint with the child, and can only hope and pray that she has grown up to be as balanced and sensible as Ella.

And yet here lies the deep irony in this unexpectedly philosophical story, because while Lucas’s initial interactions with Ella have encouraged him to reconnect with his estranged family, Ella is headed the other way.

Once safe in the care of her Uncle Simon, she becomes heir not just to her father’s wealth, but also to all his business dealings, even the nefarious ones, and as she works her way through them, trying to fathom out the identities of those who wanted her family dead, her grief transforms into slow-building rage, which, given that she’s now wealthy, no longer feels impotent. Very quickly, her attempts to rebuild her shattered world morph into an obsessive pursuit of revenge …

The Hunter’s Prayer – a revised version of For the Dogs (first published in 2004) – is not simply a murder mystery or an action thriller. If anything, it’s more of a parable. A metaphorical journey, if you like, into the ultimate futility of vengeance, and at the same time a lamentation at how salvation for some often seems to come at the price of damnation for others.

Unfortunately, I can’t discuss the unfolding narrative in too much detail for fear of giving away some quite remarkable twists in the second and third acts. Suffice to say that Kevin Wignall has done it again. The master of the thoughtful crime thriller presents us here with yet another potential high-octane scenario, and though he delivers the action plentifully, he asks questions of the reader throughout, even if only at a subliminal level.

You can tell where his real interests lie, because though we’re in the world of contract killers and organised crime here, we don’t go into huge detail about the criminal networks and illegal operations that provide the background to that. Nor do we investigate the creation of the hitmen themselves, neither assessing their warped psychology nor plumbing the hellish personal experiences that first put them into this line of work and equipped them with the necessary skills. Instead, the author is more focussed in the personalities of all his central characters as they stand now, their current mindsets, how they lead their everyday lives. 

For example, we watch his hitmen blend easily into the rest of society when it suits them, we watch them go home at night and relax, we see them try to maintain their own codes of ethics even when they’re out on the job, and yet at the same time we’re acutely aware of the coping mechanisms they’ve needed to develop into order to endure the isolation of this strange, stilted existence; we recognise that they live on a mental knife-edge.

Lucas is to the forefront of this, not just because he’s the novel’s antihero, but because he’s actively undergoing change. It’s not that he’s necessarily sickened by the killing, it’s just that he’s tired of being an outsider, and when he encounters a genuinely pure person, who certainly looks as if she had a stable and promising life ahead of her, he is galvanised into fighting his way back to normality. 
This is certainly a cause we can root for, because we never feel that Lucas is actually evil. We can see that he’s damaged and alone, and though he’s done bad things, he’s done brave things too, so we want him on the side of right.

Much more of a challenge is the novel’s other main thread: the disintegration of Ella Hatto’s soul.

From the sweet child we met at the start of the book, she goes on to do horrible things – and again, Wignall, who remains non-judgemental throughout, wonders where we stand on this. Do we at least understand it, even if we don’t sympathise?

She’s suffered appallingly, and because of her innocent nature, only slowly does she come to realise what the massacre of her family actually means: someone she’s never even met (she assumes!) harboured such hatred of she and her people that they made a determined and expensive effort to have them all eliminated. So, is it surprising that, even in the light of her newly acquired wealth – because, and it’s hugely ironic, Ella has gained more financially from this atrocity than anyone else! – she now feels that her life has been ruined? How can she enjoy such wealth? How can she rest while this terrible offence against the Hatto name remains unanswered? And while Lucas has never encouraged this kind of thinking, she’s seen him in action; she now knows how effective a ruthless attitude can be – if you can finally right all wrongs (at least in your own mind) quickly and neatly, without waiting on the wheels of justice, which grind slowly at the best of times but you just know are not going to turn in your favour at all on this occasion, aren’t you justified in doing it?

It’s an interesting question. But another one would be – and again, the author asks us this – just how much leeway should a bad experience give you? Can it really forgive or even explain the complete erosion of all human feeling? And just because you’ve given up on the prescribed concept of right and wrong, and in fact have invented your own, does that mean the original concept no longer exists? Does that mean there’ll be no consequences? Don’t bank on it.

Be under no illusion, The Hunter’s Prayer is a very, very dark novel. But at 210 pages it’s a slim volume too, clearly and concisely written, and as such, it provides a quick, tense read, which, while it wouldn’t be true to call it enoyable - certainly not near the end, at which point it becomes utterly horrific - is more than a little bit thought-provoking.

As The Hunter’s Prayer has already been filmed – it was only released in the US last month – starring Sam Worthington and Odeya Rush – it makes another of my usual ‘this is how I would cast it’ interludes redundant. Suffice to say, I’m glad it made the big screen and am keen to see how it adapts.

THE BLACK CORRIDOR 
by Michael Moorcock (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Ryan?

Why is he here on this seemingly deserted spacecraft?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan – Tom Hardy


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!!!).


DEADLY HARVEST 
by Michael Stanley (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DEVOUR
by L.A. Larkin (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I’m giving the impression that this is an edgier-than-usual book, that’s probably accurate. It’s no romp, that’s for sure. But this slap-in-the-face factor serves two purposes: it makes you believe it absolutely, and it keeps you glued to the pages – as, of course, does the overarching, and vaguely monstrous – concept. On that subject, it would be easy, if you’d only read the blurbs, to think that what you’ve got here is something akin to John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (filmed as The Thing from Another World). And why not? Something nasty is lurking under the Antarctic ice, a bunch of well-meaning scientists discover it and thaw it out, only to find that it’s a force beyond Man’s experience, which imperils the Earth as a result. And if it sounds like science fiction, there may be an element of that, though I draw your attention to the real attempt by British scientists to drill down to Lake Ellsworth in 2012, which failed (maybe fortuitously, or maybe it was halted – who can say?). But it’s all still incredibly plausible. I’m not going to give out any spoilers concerning the nature of the thing, but it’s truly horrifying because, even if surprises you – which it did me – you can very quickly envisage the colossal destruction that would result.

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

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

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

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

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


SUMMER OF NIGHT 
by Dan Simmons (1991)

It is 1960 and the start of summer in the Illinois farming town of Elm Haven. For a bunch of local school-leavers, a tightknit group of adventurous 11-year-olds self-defined as the ‘Bike Patrol’, long months of vacation lie ahead. The sun is high, the corn ripening in the encircling fields, and while the adults have their own issues to deal with – the new decade is already presenting different political challenges! – for the youngsters it’s just another extended playtime.

But then something goes wrong. One of their former classmates, a hillbilly kid called Tubby Cooke, disappears, and the Patrol – level-headed leader Dale Stewart and his younger brother, Lawrence, brave and good-hearted Mike O’Rourke, troublesome roughneck Jim Harlen, super-intelligent Duane McBride and loyal team-player Kevin Grumbacher – take it on themselves to investigate.

And very soon, they wish they hadn’t.

At the heart of Elm Haven stands Old Central, the large, ornate and crumbling schoolhouse they’ve just left, which is now condemned and will shortly be torn down. The guys can’t help but feel there was always something wrong about Old Central – not just the school itself, but its staff too, who behaved increasingly oddly as the end of the semester approached. The kids especially become suspicious when they learn that Tubby was last seen alive in the school toilets.

But it’s a hot summer and there is lots of other fun to be had, and so the investigation is undertaken half-heartedly. Surely there was nothing really wrong with their old school?, and none of them much liked Tubby Cooke anyway, nor his oddball sister, Cortie. Within a few days, the whole thing is put to bed … but now it seems their inquisitiveness has aroused a latent hostile force, which they’d never previously noticed in Elm Haven.

The Rendering Truck, a ramshackle vehicle full of rotting animal carcasses, takes to following them around town and trying to run them off the road, while a weird WWI era soldier begins popping up in their peripheral vision and even chases them when he catches them out in the fields.

Something weird is indeed going on here, and Old Central seems to lie at the heart of it.

However, it is only when Duane researches the history of the school and learns that as well as a legacy to the town from the wealthy and mysterious Ashley family, it was also used to house an arcane artefact shipped over to the States from Europe and associated throughout its long history with sorcery and devil-worship, that Hell is really unleashed.

Nightmare faces appear at the boys’ windows, shadow shapes emerge from under their beds, axe-wielding figures attack their tents, and horrible things stir in the corn.

Amid many other distractions that the Bike Patrol never anticipated this summer – sexual awakenings and the like – they now must battle for their lives against this dark and intangible foe, which can assume a multitude of forms and soon seems to infest every corner of Elm Haven …

So many US horror writers appear to owe it to themselves to at some point produce at least one novel steeped in the Americana of their small-town youth. This furrow has been successfully ploughed by such major names in the genre as Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and Robert McCammon – to name but a few, so it was no surprise to learn that Dan Simmons had done it too, producing in Summer of Night a semi-autobiographical account of his boyhood in the agricultural Midwest, recollecting it as a fun romp for the most-part, but at the same time striving to capture the complexity of that last summer of childhood, that confusing moment in life when we willingly or unwillingly trade everything that went before, even the good stuff, for a completely different mode of existence (and so often find it a raw deal), and then pumping the adventure levels up dramatically with lashings of supernatural terror.

In the hands of all these great writers, this has proved a potent mix, an unashamed juxtaposing of that cosy age of boy-scout camps and Mickey Mantle baseball cards with the looming subliminal fear of something monstrous and unexplainable. Psychoanalysts would no doubt have a field-day, talking about the remorseless approach of adulthood, the end of play and the commencement of work, and maybe even, with the advantage of hindsight, the transition of that relatively comfortable post-WWII era in America to the more unstable 1960s with its social discord and the horrors of Vietnam.

There is probably something in that, though I suspect it’s actually a lot simpler. Summer of Night is clearly a very personal work for Dan Simmons, but its greatest strength lies in the rollicking and hair-raising tale it tells, and its straightforward pitting of good against evil in such easily understandable fashion that it wouldn’t be out of place on the YA shelves were it not for the juicy language and its frank discussion of adolescent sexuality.

It is certainly a lively and worthy addition to the small-town horror cycle. Many familiar motifs are here: the non-too-perfect lives of some of the kids (who even in the midst of cheerful innocence must cope with ill-health at home, low incomes, drunken or absent fathers, etc), the roaming bands of bullies, the grim and rotting building at the heart of town, the aristocratic founding-family now elevated to semi-mythical status, the existence of something ancient and cruel which only was hinted at prior to this book, the adults who stubbornly refuse to believe in it, and of course the endless, sun-soaked landscapes of youthful reminiscence.

One criticism often levelled at Summer of Night is that it’s too similar in tone to Stephen King’s own nostalgic masterpiece, It. I see that, but I don’t consider it a weakness – the two novels are cousins for sure but Summer is in no sense a rip-off, as the narratives diverge noticeably. However, I do think Dan Simmons’s book suffers a little by comparison.

Whereas It bounces back and forth between childhood and adulthood, Summer of Night anchors us in 1960, and to see the whole thing through the eyes of a bunch of 11-year-olds becomes a bit of a strain when you’re hundreds of pages in and yearning for some adult interaction. It also means that you must suspend belief considerably. Even for a supernatural tale, some of the solutions our youthful heroes adopt feel as if they’d be a little beyond the average bunch of youngsters – their proficiency and ruthlessness with firearms for example, their ability to pick clues from distant history, and their overall maturity in the face of a horrific crisis (when at the same time some of them are too frightened of the dark to turn their bedroom lights off, and others are content to step out of the battle to attend birthday parties and dig for bootlegger treasure!!!).

But these are the only real brickbats. The rest of this novel is a whole load of fun.

Typically for Dan Simmons, it’s a lengthy tale, but it’s sweetly written and totally engrossing. Living, breathing characters populate a richly detailed community. An air of the authentic early ’60s sits vividly on the page, and yet the lurking menace, which, while vague in the early stages, never feels out of place – in fact these are the best parts of the book for me: the slow-dawning awareness that something terrible, only glimpsed at first, is coming on apace, threatening to sweep away this idyllic little enclave in a turbulent world.

And of course, when the book finally fires – it fires on all cylinders.

As you’d expect, there is a grand climax at the end, but well before then – throughout most of the second half of the novel – Simmons hits us a with a series of spectacular action set-pieces, each one scarier and more explosive than the one before it. And don’t be lulled into complacency by the extreme youth of our main protagonists – not all these chilling encounters end well for them (though to say any more on that would really spoil things).

Summer of Night is what people used to refer to as an ‘airport novel’ – in other words it’s a big, fat volume, so big that you’d happily buy it on the first day of your holidays and expect it to see you right the way through. That’s most likely what would have happened; at over 500 pages, it’s an absolute whopper. But though reading habits have changed a little since the 1990s, I still recommend this exciting and enjoyable tome. It may transport you back to your own past, it may provide no more than an amusing diversion for an hour each day, but once you get into the meat of it I guarantee you’ll stick with it right to the end.

In normal circumstances with these reviews, I like to close with some fantasy casting, just for fun picking who I’d love to see play the leads if the book in question were ever to make it to the screen. Alas, on this occasion I must stick my hand up and admit to knowing so little about Hollywood’s current A-list of child stars that I couldn’t make any meaningful suggestions. And given that the kids totally dominate the book, it would seem a little crass to try and cast the adult characters when so many of them occupy background roles.



THE ESCAPE 
by C.L. Taylor (2017)

Bristol wife and mother, Jo Blackmore, is struggling desperately with her nerves. Bereaved of her first child, Kevin, when he was still a baby, she struggles constantly with depression, and even though she now has another youngster, two-year-old Elise – a happy and healthy child – she is anxious, paranoid and increasingly suffers from agoraphobia.

In this regard, her once-loving husband, Max, is neither use nor ornament. A successful investigative reporter, he’s long felt that his job needs more attention than his family does, and despite Jo’s ailing mental condition, increasingly displays annoyance and frustration with her rather than affection. The twosome are certainly growing apart, but it finally comes to a head when Jo is one day fooled into giving a ride to a blonde-haired woman known only as Paula, who, once she’s in the car, demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of the Blackmores’ personal lives and makes vicious threats.

Jo and Elise emerge unscathed from the incident, but Jo is terrified, and so when Max responds with near indifference, the rift between them widens dramatically … especially as the mysterious Paula now upgrades her campaign of harassment, menacing the fragile Jo at every opportunity. Even when Paula finally reveals that this is all about Max, who apparently owes her something he plainly won’t give, he is blasé about the problem, dismissing the blonde tormentor as a fantasist or mental case, and refusing to entertain the possibility that she may be someone from his past.

Furious to be getting no support from her husband at a time when she needs it more than ever, Jo decides to leave, and starts making secret plans to take Elise to her parents’ home in Cheshire. But this decision, though it affords Jo some relief from her turmoil, and to all intents and purposes has been made in complete privacy, now seems to trigger a whole new wave of ever-more frightening events, which involve, among other things, house-breaking and violent assault.

And at no stage is Jo able to draw reassurance from law-enforcement, because no-one actually believes that she is being persecuted, the Social Services, who have been craftily and nastily manipulated, wondering if Jo, with her history of mental instability, might not be a fit and proper person to look after the one light in her life, Elise. Max, who now feels openly betrayed by his wife, continues to be as unhelpful as possible, prompting Jo to wonder if he too has some kind of agenda.

Eventually, with scarcely a friend in the world to turn to, and growing threats on all sides, the embattled young mother opts to put her child in the car and simply go on the run. It seems unlikely that she’ll find any refuge in the UK, so she heads overseas to the land of her mother’s birth, Ireland.

But even over there, things are not all they may be. Despite the picturesque surroundings of Clogherhead in County Louth, the ever beady-eyed landlady, Mary Byrne, is also a woman with secrets, while the mere fact that Jo’s family originated around here seems to arouse some latent hostility.

Meanwhile, the danger that Jo felt creeping up on her in the UK hasn’t gone away, and it isn’t long before it crosses the Irish Sea in pursuit of her …   

C.L. Taylor is fast emerging as the queen of British domestic noir. With such tales of homespun terror as The Missing and The Accident already under her belt, she now hits us with another one, and in her own inimitable style, manages to make even the seemingly safest of places – leafy Middle England – into a suburban minefield.

I should say from the outset that there are no extremes of horror in this book. We’re not dealing with massacres, rape or rampant child-abuse. But in many ways, The Escape is more subtly harrowing than any of those. Because the enemies here, at least for a good part of the novel, are the very institutions that are supposed to be there to help – they are especially supposed to help people like Jo Blackmore, a woman of good character but emotionally distraught to the point where many aspects of ordinary life are too much for her.

This is brave writing by Taylor. So often in thriller fiction, as in real life in fact, the police, the social services (even the nursery school establishment, for Heaven’s sake!), are firmly with the good guys, but so cleverly constructed is this story, and at the same time so skewed is the reality of things when viewed through the prism of mild mental illness, that they are here projected in a very different light. Jo Blackmore wants nothing more than to be able to live her life and raise her daughter, with or without her self-centred husband – which part of it is very much up to him. Yet there are so many implacable forces ganging up against her; and who the hell do they think they are, anyway, to interfere in the way she conducts her own affairs and raises her own little girl!

I should hastily add that the caring establishment is not the arch-enemy here, but it does present Jo with a wall of faceless and frightening bureaucracy, which not only must she somehow get over in order to find her freedom, but which is also doing a very effective job of shielding the real villains, though needless to say – and what a surprise this isn’t! – it doesn’t prove very effective in preventing them from striking at her.

I don’t think I’ve ever read another book in which the innocent were so up against it as Jo Blackmore is here. There is very little brutality in The Escape, the unfairness Jo faces in this tale is a monster in itself – not that this stops you wondering from time to time if maybe, just maybe, she has finally succumbed to her demons and the fault may lie with her after all. But that’s a question you can only find an answer to by reading the book. And this is another aspect of C.L. Taylor’s thrillers for which she is rightly lauded: the psychological questions she poses. From the very start, we are informed that Jo Blackmore is battling with post-natal depression. But just how far has it actually gone? Could it be that she is seriously mentally ill? How do we know what is real and what isn’t?

This delightful twisty element, which is masterfully blended into the narrative, gives The Escape a real Hitchockian aura, which when you consider that it’s a consciously low-key mystery-thriller – as I say, a ‘domestic noir’ – shows how effectively written it is.

A big book, but a quick read. Another of those famous page-turners. You won’t be disappointed.

And now, as usual, I’m going to be cheeky enough to suggest my own cast should The Escape ever make it to the screen, and given network television’s current fascination with the ups and downs and ins and outs of modern middle-class life, particularly when there’s a darker edge to it, I reckon this one would be idea. Anyway, here we go:

Jo Blackmore – Eleanor Tomlinson
Max Blackmore – Ioan Gruffud
Paula – Amanda Abbington
Mary Byrne – Sinead Cusack


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



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


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 bear-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. 



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. 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



THE BOOK OF SOULS 
by James Oswald (2012)

There can be few officers in the Lothian and Borders Police (as they were before ‘Police Scotland’) who’ve had a harder time of it than DI Tony McLean. A veteran homicide investigator whose normal beat is the grimy backstreets of Edinburgh, he thinks he’s seen and done it all, but as this second investigation in the McLean canon opens, the likeable but lonely detective finds himself under intense emotional pressure.

First of all, it’s nearly Christmas, which means the anniversary of the murder of his fiancée, Kirsty Summers, who was the final victim of Donald Anderson, an antiquarian book-dealer by trade and ritual sex-slayer nicknamed ‘the Christmas Killer’ by hobby. Every year for ten years, one of Anderson’s victims – invariably a young female – after being bound and raped in the cellar of Anderson’s shop, was found with her throat cut in one or other of the city’s filthy waterways. Kirsty Summers was only the most recent, and the last girl to die before McLean, then a detective constable, finally put an end to Anderson’s reign of evil. Needless to say, with it now being Christmas again, all the bad memories come rushing back. It’s a minor consolation – of sorts, when McLean learns that Anderson himself has now died in prison, the victim of a brutal attack by a fellow inmate. He even attends the funeral in Aberdeen just to ensure that he’s saying goodbye to bad rubbish.

But then, almost as soon as McLean returns to Edinburgh, another series of murders commences, which is almost identical to the one before: young women abducted, indecently assaulted and deposited in the city’s culverts and streams with throats slashed from ear to ear. To confuse things even more, a couple of occasions follow when McLean thinks he spots the deceased murderer walking the streets of Edinburgh, though of course, despite strenuous efforts, he’s never actually able to lay hands on anyone who looks even vaguely similar.

Despite this, our bewildered hero finds that he has the full confidence of his senior supervisor, Chief Superintendent Jayne McIntyre, but on this occasion he finds resources restricted because the bullish but somewhat empty-headed DCI Charles Duguid, known to his colleagues simply as ‘Dagwood’, has commandeered almost everything as part of the major anti-drugs operation he is running in the city, and deeply resents that McLean is leading a rival investigation.

At the same time, an unknown arsonist has been setting buildings alight all over the place. Most of these are disused industrial units, but then the block of flats in which Tony McLean himself lives is also torched, and several residents die in the process. This, in its turn, reveals that drugs production activity was occurring in McLean’s own building, right under his nose in fact, which is a huge embarrassment for him and deeply frustrates Chief Superintendent McIntyre, who insists that he’s overly stressed and must now attend psychological counselling sessions. This puts McLean in the clutches of irritating police-shrink, Prof. Matthew Hilton, who’s hardly the DI’s favourite person given that he interviewed Donald Anderson on his arrest and later tried to persuade the court that Anderson’s bizarre excuse for his crimes – namely that he was driven to kill by the evil contained in an ancient book – surely proved that he was insane.

In the midst of this seething tension, the copycat killer’s victims pile up, which only adds fuel to the fire in that a local journalist, Joanne Dalgliesh – in her efforts to sell a sensational new book – begins to air suspicions that Donald Anderson, evidently a mentally ill man, was framed by the original investigation team and now has died unjustly.

There will clearly be no rest this festive season for McLean and regular sidekicks like DS ‘Grumpy Bob’ Laird and station archivist John ‘Needy’ Needham. McLean gets some welcome assistance from the attractive DS Kirsty Ritchie, who is drafted in from Grampian Police, but finds he has very little time to devote to the potential new woman in his life, Emma Baird, who works for the police as a crime scene technician, and who, in truth, McLean is not sure he is right for.

It certainly seems as if nothing is going right. Even the glitz of the Christmas season, which is always there in the background, feels far removed from the cold, sterile offices in which McLean and his team must work, or the gloomy, half-empty house of McLean’s lately-dead grandmother, where he now must dwell. To match this mood, the weather switches regularly between snow and rain, constantly and consciously defying the yuletide spirit, creating a near constant aura of winter desolation.

But no evil lasts forever when good guys are on the case. A break finally comes along – but it’s a curious one. McLean first meets elderly cleric, Father Noam Anton, when he arrives at the detective’s door with a bunch of carol singers. But then he receives a second visit on Christmas Day itself, when Anton tells Mclean that he knew Donald Anderson well – the guy was originally a member of his monastic group, the Order of St. Herman, who among other duties, were charged with keeping rare books. Anton claims that Anderson, a tortured individual, stole a number of valuable volumes, including the Liber animorum, or Book of Souls, which legend claims was dictated to a deranged medieval monk by the Devil himself. This, Anton says, became the eventual cause of Anderson’s murderous depravity.

McLean is frustrated by this story – he believes it yet more excuse-making for a sexually degenerate serial killer – especially as there is no trace of the book now. To his mind that probably means it never existed, though an alternative – if somewhat fanciful – explanation could be that the Book of Souls has found its way into someone else’s hands and is now exerting the same malign influence as before, thereby creating another ‘Christmas Killer’.

It’s difficult to say more about the synopsis of The Book of Souls without giving away enormous spoilers, because there are several humungous twists and turns still to come in this complex and alarming tale (including one truly colossal head-spinner right near the end), but suffice to say that, whether he likes it or not, Tony McLean – ever more determined to catch the latest killer, and at the same time prove that he got the right one before – finally opens to the possibility that the answer to this mystery may lie in the occult …

One of the most interesting aspects of the Tony McLean books, at least in my view, is their regular supernatural undertone. Even though these are good, strong police procedurals – and The Book of Souls is no exception to that – you never get the feeling you have strayed very far from ‘the other world’. This intrigues and enthuses me because it’s often been said that horror and crime as rival subgenres simply don’t match, that there can’t be any overlap between the two because the rationale behind both forms of fiction should almost always work to cancel the other out.

If that is your resolute view, then James Oswald is definitely the fly in your ointment, especially when it comes to The Book of Souls. However, at first glance, what we're dealing with here is undeniably a cop thriller.

DI McLean is a little bit of an archetype in that regard: a flawed, tired loner in the midst of a mean city, almost invariably faced by opponents whose depths of wickedness know no bounds. Despite this, he’s an attractive figure; instinctively good at his job and no-one’s fool, but affable with it, trusting of colleagues (at least, those he rates), and yet monstrously unfortunate. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a fictional copper who suffers as much bad luck as Tony McLean does, but he’s very well written too, a weary Scottish everyman, which makes him a character you root for from page one.

So far so familiar, of course. This is solid cop novel territory, especially when McLean and his team get a hint that a copycat murderer is on the loose, leading them a non-too-merry dance from one corner of Edinburgh to the next, and these, it won’t surprise you to learn, are locations distinctly absent from the tourist trail: we’re talking derelict factories, rundown tenements and rubbish-strewn lots where sewer outlets swim with disgusting effluent.

But for all this, we’re aware from an early stage that there’s something curious going on here. McLean’s occasional sightings of the deceased Anderson are an eerie touch, but Oswald handles them most effectively, restricting them to brief glimpses in the thronging city streets. These weird events are so scant that it’s actually quite easy to feed them into Jayne McIntyre’s concerns about McLean’s fragile mental state. Even we, the readers, who are 100% on McLean’s side, might fleetingly wonder if it’s all been a bit too much for him, and if maybe these psychological counselling sessions are actually a good idea – but then of course we dismiss such concerns, because McLean is the hero while police shrink/profiler Matthew Hilton is a pillock of the first order.

So … does this mean that something genuinely strange is happening? Could it conceivably be that what McLean is seeing is Donald Anderson’s ghost? It’s an increasingly unnerving thought given what McLean knows about Anderson’s past: the esoteric bookshop he kept and the foul rituals that happened in its basement. Then add to this the emerging information about the so-called Book of Souls, a demonic tome, which according to Father Anton, does not just possess its owner like an evil spirit, but gradually drains his or her entire soul.

Separate all that stuff from the police procedural, and you are in pure horror story country. But the real strength of this novel is that Oswald doesn’t do that; he splices the two threads together neatly, creating a fast-moving, ultra-dark thriller, which in no way contradicts itself and thoroughly entertains from beginning to end.

Possibly not one to read on a bright, sunny day – I’ll admit that much – but no sooner will the spring and summer be here, than winter will be coming round again in due course, and if you like your crime fiction hard-edged, dark-toned, and you aren’t disaffected by the festive spook story tradition, this could well be one for you.

As always at the end of a review, I’m being cheeky enough to suggest the cast I would choose were this book ever to make it to film or TV. Obviously, as The Book of Souls is number two in the McLean series, it would only be right for the eponymous hero’s previous outing to hit the celluloid first, but this is the bit where we always suspend belief anyway (on that score, wait till you see who I’ve chosen!!!).

DI Tony McLean - Ewan McGregor
Emma Baird - Rose Leslie
DS Kirsty Ritchie - Georgia King
Sgt. John ‘Needy’ Needham - David O’Hara
Father Noam Anton - Peter Mullan
DS ‘Grumpy Bob’ Laird - Tony Curran
DCI Charles Duguid - Peter Capaldi
Ch. Supt. Jayne McIntyre - Tilda Swinton
Donald Anderson – Clive Russell
Joanne Dalgliesh – Zoe Eeles

(Ah, yes … another of those wonderfully expensive cast-lists that only someone of my limitless resources can assemble).



by Michelle Paver (2011)

It is London in 1937, and young Jack Miller is something of a lost soul. He was raised in the middle-class, but now has no family or partner, he lives in a cheap, dreary apartment, and despite being a qualified physicist, his career prospects look bleak. He’s also quite clearly suffering from depression, though this isn’t the kind of thing you can talk about in these days of stiff-upper-lips, much less seek treatment for. 

As such, Miller finds life a struggle. In fact, it’s damaged him. He’s become a misanthrope who doesn’t like or trust anybody, especially those he associates with the ruling class – which hardly helps when he volunteers to join a scientific expedition to the High Arctic, and in his first meeting with the organisers, finds them a well-heeled bunch, ex-public school boys who reek of old money.

Personality-wise, they aren’t an entirely bad lot. Expedition leader, Gus Balfour, is a traditional square-jawed hero, an Oxford Blue, a man’s man and all that – but he’s a genuinely friendly chap and is tackling the mission with an air of stolid professionalism. Algernon ‘Algie’ Carlisle is less attractive; pudgy, pompous and inclined to casual cruelty where animals are concerned. Miller initially despises Algie, but eventually weighs things up, and decides that anything must be better than lingering on alone in a bleak, fog-shrouded London, and so he grudgingly joins the trip, the destination of which is Gruhuken, on a remote stretch of the Spitsbergen coast.

When they arrive in Gruhuken the following autumn, it is a beautiful, pristine wilderness, but of course the intense cold here is likely to prove a real challenge, especially with the long darkness of the polar winter rapidly encroaching. Quickly and efficiently, the team set their equipment up, organise their cabin and then explore a little. There is nobody else here now, though there are signs that others have been present in the past: trappers, miners and the like. None of these appear to have lasted long, while hoary old Norwegian skipper, Erikkson, in charge of the team’s transport ship, doesn’t even like it that Gus Balfour’s team have turned up.

Erikkson won’t be specific about his fears, but strongly implies that something dwells on this coast which doesn’t like interlopers. And indeed, Jack Miller also starts to feel this, several times spotting what he thinks is an odd, distorted figure lurking in the vicinity of the camp. At first he is reluctant to let this trouble him, because for quite some time he is almost neurotically obsessed with how much he doesn’t like his expedition comrades, not even Gus Balfour – whom he has an increasing if (earlier on at least) unspoken attraction towards. Equally irrationally, he dislikes their pack of sled-dogs, even the youngest of the huskies, the frolicsome Isaak, who shows a clear disposition to be affectionate towards him.

However, Miller soon comes to learn the value of friends, as, one by one, through illness, injury and bereavement, they are forced to return home. The rapidly diminishing party feels increasingly marooned and ever more embattled by the worsening wintry elements: heavy snow, shrieking wind and deep sub-zero temperatures make for very cold comfort. When Gus Balfour collapses with an appendicitis, it looks as if the mission will end prematurely – because someone needs to escort the patient back to civilisation, which will leave only one person to man the base, and this just as the 24-hour ‘blackout’ of the Arctic Night is finally falling.

Defiantly, Miller – because even now feeling encumbered by his ‘ugly duckling’ status, he is keen to assert himself – volunteers for this task. It is only likely to be for a few weeks before the others return, but no-one thinks this is a good idea, especially not Erikkson. However, Miller insists, so in due course he is left behind at Gruhuken, with the nearest human being two days’ sail away across the ice-clogged Barents Sea, and now facing the winter darkness entirely on his own.

Or so he would like to think. Because the stranded loner is very soon reminded that someone or something else is close at hand, watching his every move, growing steadily bolder as it senses his isolation.

Miller, a methodical sort who has many duties to attend, is bent on working his way through this ordeal by following a tight schedule that is designed to keep him busy. But slowly, his unease about the thing outside becomes full-blown fear, and eventually, with pitch-darkness covering the frozen land, terror. He now knows that he is not alone here. Something truly awful is prowling his perimeter; he hears it regularly, and glimpses it through the flurrying snow. 

Can it enter the cabin? He prays to God not.

It’s possible that the dogs might dissuade this entity from drawing any closer, but then the dogs disappear too. Still, Miller holds on, expecting his companions to return imminently, only to receive another very grave shock: the sea is freezing over. Which means, not only that no boat can dock here and so the others may not be able to return to Gruhuken until spring, but that he can no longer leave even if he suddenly decides that he can’t stand it any longer.

Miller may be stuck here, facing this horror alone, for the entire duration of the Arctic winter …

One thing needs to be clearly understood from the outset with Dark Matter: this is a ghost story. That may be something you’d immediately infer from the teaser outline I’ve posted above, but you must to be under no illusion that this is what you’re dealing with. This is not a psychological thriller, or a tale of polar espionage, or a boy’s own mystery – this is an out-and-out ghost story very much in the tradition of M.R. James, and it’s a pretty terrifying one at that.

But that doesn’t mean to say this novel isn’t also multi-layered. There are all kinds of things going on here. To begin with, a number of different spectres haunt these eerie pages. 

The spectre of World War Two is just around the corner; all the players on-stage are acutely aware of this, even if they rarely discuss it – their madcap mission is in some ways an attempt to run away from all that, because these young, able-bodied men are exactly the sort who, like their fathers before them, will be expected to enlist. Even the distant lands of the Arctic provide no real refuge from this sad reality, because, as we are we reminded several times, the mission itself has been underwritten by both the Admiralty and the War Office, who are looking to gather vital meteorological data.

In addition, we have the spectre of Miller’s latent and yet – at least as far as he’s concerned – unknown homosexuality. It informs his character throughout. He pathologically opposes almost everything the handsome Gus stands for, and so can’t understand his attraction to the guy. This in itself becomes an intangible form of torture for him.

And then of course there is the spectre of class division. Jack Miller doesn’t hail from the lowest stratum of society. He’s a middle-class boy, but he isn’t upper-class, and back in the 1930s – at least to young Miller’s immature mind – this is a big issue. After all, this is the age of the British Empire, an era when the rich weren’t idle, but saw it as their ancestral duty to go out and conquer the world, and if they couldn’t do that, go out and at the very least explore and civilise it. That is Gus Balfour all over, while Miller, in contrast, is part of the ‘nation of shopkeepers’, the everyday folk who, while not exactly poor, have no such hifalutin aspirations, and yet feel unmanned by this limitation of their lives to the eternally mundane.

Michelle Paver showcases this final spectre very neatly indeed, even to the point where it becomes irritating, we 21st century readers, who don’t experience this kind of thing, finally getting fed up with Miller and saying: “For God’s sake, Jack … these blokes are okay! Just do your job and man up!”

Man up, Jack!

Just what the author intends us to say, and exactly the kind of thing the posh boys of the 1930s would have said, had they used such parlance.

As well being a clever piece of work, Dark Matter is also exquisitely written. Michelle Paver, an Arctic traveller in her own right, paints a striking picture of the far, far north, which is all the more remarkable because she rarely references colour: everything up there is either white or grey, and yet the Arctic atmosphere is vividly communicated, as is its air of utter isolation. Early on in the book, this loneliness at the top of the world is exhilarating – we’re deep in the one of the last great wildernesses, a picturesque realm barely hinting at the existence of man. We can see it, feel it, smell it; it’s almost visceral – you literally shiver at the awesomeness of it.

But later on, of course, with the group decimated and the terrible threat of four months of complete and frozen darkness about to fall, everything changes. What was scenic becomes desolate, what was wild and untamed becomes life-threatening, what was merely unsettling becomes nerve-shredding.

Which brings me onto the ghostliness of Dark Matter; the real ghostliness that is – the malevolent thing that actively haunts Gruhuken.

As I mentioned previously, we are in solid M.R. James territory here. Okay, we aren’t talking cathedral cloisters or misty graveyards, we’re in the High Arctic and there is only one person present, but this is every inch a Jamesian-style horror story. 

The undead force menacing Jack Miller is real and deadly. It’s also relentless, and the atmosphere this creates, particularly in the later stages of the book, with Miller trapped in the claustrophobic confines of the cabin, struggling just to keep a single light burning, almost suffering a coronary at every undue sound (not an easy predicament with the polar wind screeching through chinks and snowflakes rattling the window-panes), is quite literally hair-raising.

But the author doesn’t just go full-bloodedly for this. From early in the text, she employs many crafty, low-key devices to disturb her readers: Isaak whimpering, his ears flattening whenever he senses evil approaching; a gruesome bear-hunting post seeming to move around of its own ability; Miller suffering a series of progressively more lurid and horrible nightmares.

Oddly, Michelle Paver has drawn some criticism for her use of these time-honoured methods. One or two critics aren’t impressed that Dark Matter is set in the ‘old world’, the actual time of M.R. James in fact, or that its basic concept is the isolation of an already stressed and nervous character in a terrible environment where the fear-factor will inevitably then crank itself up to an eventual crescendo from which only madness can result. There have been dark mutterings about Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black or Eleanor Vance in The Haunting of Hill House, but as a reader who knew that he was acquiring a ghost story – because it said so on the cover – this is exactly what I wanted.

I have some sympathy with the more measured criticism that Dark Matter, though superbly written and intensely frightening, doesn’t do anything to progress the supernatural horror genre. But again, I suppose it all depends what you are reading it for. If you’re not looking for the cutting edge, and simply want to be terrified out of your wits by some good, old-fashioned scare-fare then this is undoubtedly a book for you.

Usually at the end of these reviews, I like to indulge in some fantasy casting, selecting the actors I myself would recruit if the narrative in question was ever to hit the screens (and this one would make a perfect ‘ghost story for Christmas’ of the sort the BBC used to do so well in the days before they became too sophisticated for all that). This is possibly the first in the series where we’ve not had to look for any ladies, but such is the nature of this particular beast. Anyway, here we go:

Jack Miller – Aiden Turner
Gus Balfour – Tom Bateman
Algernon Carlisle – Tom Hollander
Erikkson – Vladimir Kulich




RITUAL by David Pinner (1967)

In the late 1960s, the Cornish coastal village of Thorn is rocked when a young girl, Dian Spark, turns up dead at the foot of an ancient oak tree, apparently murdered in ritualistic fashion. But when idealistic young police detective, David Hanlin, is sent to investigate, he finds that he has entered a world apart.

It is a hot and beautiful summer and Thorn is a remote community, but this is not the picture-postcard Cornwall that we all know and love. 

To begin with, the village itself is in a poor state, dull and impoverished, many of its buildings decayed, while the villagers themselves are odd and unfriendly. Mrs Spark, Dian’s bereaved mother, is a sultry but mysterious presence, courting a reputation for witchcraft and yet on the surface strongly opposed to the ancient rites that she is convinced caused the death of her youngest daughter. Her older daughter on the other hand, Anna – a seductive beauty and wannabe nymphomaniac – captivates Hanlin with her wanton ways, though, as he’s of a puritanical inclination, he also finds her revolting.

Other characters in the village are no less awkward to deal with for the out-of-place copper. Pastor White, the vicar, is patently mad. The penniless squire, Francis Fenn, plays bizarre flute music all day – badly, while out in the woods a homeless weirdo known only as Gypo provides a brawny and threatening presence. Meanwhile, at the rotten heart of the village sits retired local actor Lawrence Cready, an insufferably pompous and camp fellow, who occupies the manor house with his gay man-servant, Martin, and engages in strange and inappropriate games with Thorn’s resident tribe of rumbustious, urchin-like children.

We’ve already touched on Hanlin’s puritanical streak, and this soon becomes a key factor. Ever more certain that satanic practices are at play – especially as we draw closer to Midsummer Eve, for which some kind of secret celebration has clearly been planned – he throws his weight around with increasing anger and righteousness, ignoring the instructions of his superiors back in London, bullying some of the villagers and attempting unsuccessfully to make allies out of others. All the time he suspects that elaborate psychological games are being played with him, and yet, despite the occasional clues he finds and the air of decadence pervading the village (which also extends to the youngsters) he is unable to unearth any hard evidence. 

When another child is murdered, Hanlin finally starts to realise that he’s out of his depth. His physical aversion to strong sunlight hampers him, the sensual Anna is a constant distraction – even he is becoming aware that his own bigotries are leading him to snap and fallacious judgements – and he feels increasingly tired and disoriented. The only remaining option, it seems, is to stick around for Midsummer Eve, to try and catch the malefactors in the act of their profanities … 

The first thing to say about this one-time infamous novel of the occult from celebrated actor and playwright David Pinner, is that it provided a kind of unofficial basis for The Wicker Man, which hit the cinemas six years later. It was not an easy translation from page to screen, however. Though Christopher Lee and Robin Hardy allegedly co-purchased the rites to Ritual in 1971, the story goes that they ultimately found it unfilmable and so screenwriter Anthony Shaffer created his own macabre tale based only very loosely on the original. Some vague similarities are present: the lone policeman investigating an isolated village drenched in esoteric lore; in the midst of it all a controlling and sophisticated man with entirely ignoble motives; and the tauntingly desirable landlord’s daughter, who in the most memorable moment in the book – one scene at least which made it to the film virtually unchanged – dances naked against her bedroom wall, driving her lonely male target on the other side almost crazy with lust.

However, there are also significant differences. The book does not end the way the movie ends, and though Hanlin is unhealthily obsessed with his own cleanliness and upright character, he gives little indication of devout religious belief. There is also more menace in the village of Thorn than we found on Summerisle; no one makes any effort to be reasonable with Hanlin, everyone he encounters demanding that he leave, while several of the oddballs who populate the place, rather than living comfortably in their strange, secluded world, are clearly on the verge of insanity. 

But enough said about The Wicker Man. At the end of the day, that was a completely different animal, and now has legendary status its own right. In comparison, Ritual has largely been forgotten, but it is nevertheless a curious book and bit of a mixed bag.

Pinner’s poetic style and ornate language occasionally feels out-of-date in the 21st century. The ‘moral’ stance has worn badly too. While the corruption of youth through sensual pagan practises understandably horrifies Hanlin and is a precursor to our modern-age zero tolerance of child abuse, he also takes issue with Cready and Martin simply because they are homosexual, and at the same time, while massively turned on by village minx, Anna, he also wants to beat her for her wickedness – not much of a reconstructed man, then, David Hanlin.

There are other problems with the novel too. The portrayal of lackadaisical police procedures is pretty ludicrous, even by the standards of the rural 1960s. And I wasn’t entirely convinced by Hanlin’s methods of detection – there was a little too much instinct and not nearly enough deduction for my liking. But in truth none of this really matters. I was very glad to get hold of Ritual. It was a famous book at the time and has been long out of print, and once I dug into it, my various complaints notwithstanding, I still found it a compelling read.

There are genuine mysteries here, and a growing sense of fear as the clock ticks steadily down to the big event of the summer. But it’s also subtly done. With two children murdered, it would be difficult for anyone to argue there is nothing wrong with this place, but very little of it falls into Hanlin’s lap; there are times when even he wonders if he is imagining the witchery he relentlessly hunts. Hanlin himself makes an unusual hero – I wouldn’t say you empathise with him much, but he strikes an effectively forlorn figure as he battles the largely unseen forces of evil. I also rather liked Anna. The hooker with the heart of gold is something of a cliché in thriller fiction, but Anna is altogether deeper and more complex than that, and makes a mischievous and sympathetic foil to Hanlin’s humourless Cromwellian.   

Overall, an intriguing and enjoyable read, recommended for those who enjoy a touch of blatantly old-fashioned occult horror (and aren’t too worried about a distinct absence of political correctness).

I usually like to end these book reviews with a bunch of actors I personally would cast if the tale in question ever made it to the screen. Well, I venture to suggest that the original Wicker Man is probably the closest that Ritual will ever get to that. But just for laughs – it’s always for laughs of course – here are my picks should Ritual (as oppose to TWM) ever get the full celluloid treatment: 

DI David Hanlin – Kit Harrington
Anna Spark – Lily Collins 
Squire Francis Fenn – Freddie Jones
Lawrence Cready – Ian McKellen
Pastor White – John Hurt 
Mrs Spark – Minnie Driver



THE CARTEL 
by Don Winslow (2015)

In 2004, former DEA man Art Keller is a burnt-out wreck after decades of war with the Mexican drugs cartels. Having survived to middle age, and having lost his wife on the way and witnessed the torture and murder of his partner, he now lives in self-imposed exile, working as a bee-keeper at a remote monastery. His days of conflict are over. He’s had enough of the rest of the world. 

But then disaster strikes.

His former enemy and leading drugs lord, Adan Barrera, after serving a short prison sentence that was more like a holiday, secures his freedom and commences where he left off with the aid of Magda, his intelligent ex-beauty queen wife, expanding and strengthening El Federacion, a huge but brittle alliance of Mexico’s most powerful and merciless dope gangs.

Keller knows his retirement is over. 

Initially it’s a matter of being realistic. Barrera has put a huge bounty on Keller’s head. If the former agent doesn’t strike first, his life won’t be worth living. But the moment he gets back into the saddle, it all comes boiling to the surface: the hatred, the fury, the desire for revenge. Within no time, it’s as though Keller has never been out of the service – and the game is back on.

What follows is a ten-year cat and mouse game between two wily, determined individuals who detest each other. On paper, Barrera is far the stronger. He has El Federacion behind him, and a virtual army of gun-toting narcos and sicarios. Keller, by contrast, has a less-than-reliable network of nervous informers and untrustworthy US and Mexican bureaucrats. But Keller also has his skills and his wits, not to mention good contacts among rival syndicates. It isn’t difficult for him to create in-fighting and factionalism. Not that he needs to do this on his own. Because in response to Barrera’s return, the so-called Zetas have emerged under Heriberto Ochoa: a chillingly ruthless paramilitary mob which, while Barrera mainly peoples his organisation with gunmen drawn from the barrios and backstreets, is itself composed of former spec ops soldiers, who will wage a campaign of total annihilation to achieve their ends.

The resulting civil war in the Mexican underworld is almost too horrifying to believe, the Zetas in particular stopping at nothing to terrorise their opponents, not just shooting them, but decapitating, burning, dismembering and burying them alive – and on an industrial scale. Strings of the most incredibly heinous murders occur right in front of our eyes, the victims including men, women and children. While Keller watches, helpless, the appalling violence spreads all across Mexico, engulfing the ordinary population, wiping out entire districts, shocking the country to its core, paralysing it with fear.

Many events in The Cartel are based on real historical incidents, which in the mid-2000s transformed Mexico from a Spring Break paradise to a no-go war zone. But for the most part this is a fictionalised account. Most of the characters Keller encounters come from Winslow’s imagination, but they also serve a valid purpose. Among the villains, ‘Crazy’ Eddie Ruiz began life as the all-American boy, but got drawn into trafficking while still young, naïve and ambitious enough to think he could make it pay – and once in, of course, he found there was no way out. While Chuy, better known as ‘Jesus the Kid’, is a hollowed-out shell of a human being, a slum child so horribly abused that he makes the perfect killer for the crime bosses (and is a genuinely frightening presence, so coldly does he obey their monstrous orders). On the goodies’ side meanwhile, the journalist, Pablo – an everyday family man, who bravely reports on the horrors of the dope war, is representative of the many real life Mexican journalists who were murdered (131 of whom are referenced in the book in a sobering dedication list). Likewise, the moralistic Doctor Marisol Cisneros is much more here than Keller’s love-interest; she is the female face of Mexico’s innocent population, the wife/mother figure we’ve seen in so many conflicts of this type, who fearlessly expresses outrage at the atrocities and contempt for the madmen raping her homeland. 

All of these heroes risk the most terrible reprisals, but ultimately, as Keller knows, the sad truth is that good people standing up for their right to live safe lives, will not be enough to win this war. His feud with Adan Barrera has become personal, and Keller is determined to take him down, no matter what it costs …

Where to start with The Cartel, except to say that it’s far more than a mere crime novel. 

I mean, it is a crime novel. It’s probably one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read; an epic, awe-inspiring tale of one man’s non-stop war against a criminal organisation who, despite the colossal resources thrown at it, remains virtually unassailable, and how, in the process and because he’s already lost everything he values in life, he is brutalised beyond recognition, changing from a well-intentioned, justice-driven lawman into a remorseless, rule-breaking avenger. 

But it’s also much, much more even than this.

Though it’s officially a sequel to Winslow’s previous gangster masterpiece, Power of the Dog, it won’t spoil your enjoyment to start here, because The Cartel is really the big brother of the two novels. It casts an enormous wide-angle lens on the entire tragedy that is Mexico in the era of the drugs wars, not just depicting the syndicates in all their gaudy, gory, soulless, nihilistic, wicked-beyond-belief glory, but also holding to account those government officials and business czars in both Mexico and the US who have kowtowed to them through fear or greed, and slamming the US in particular for a schizophrenic approach to hard drugs, which sees it on one hand spending billions of dollars to try and halt the flow of narcotics across the border, and on the other, through its everyday citizens, spending at least the same amount in efforts to acquire these substances and with no apparent awareness of the ghastly human cost. 

Don’t for one minute assume the ‘Cartel’ the book’s title is referring to is El Federacion. Not a bit of it; in this novel, and clearly in the reality Don Winslow has so carefully and painstakingly researched, the blame for this ceaseless whirlwind of atrocities goes way, way further than that.

As such, it’s a true nightmare scenario, a gargantuan genocidal mess, which the author examines in unstinting and forensic detail. There is little-to-nothing that will uplift you in these 640 corpse-strewn, gunfire-riddled pages. It’s often heartbreakingly sad, and not just because of the endless massacres and executions of the innocent, harrowing stuff though these scenes are – one appalling and pointless slaughter of a bus-load of itinerant workers who have simply strayed into the wrong place is enough to freeze the blood – but it’s the whole calamity of a country once not just famous for its beautiful landscapes and wonderful climate, but also for its vibrant culture and artistry, its architecture and literary tradition, being utterly consumed by a crime-wave which explodes in all directions and without limit, by bloody wars that never end, and by what in truth amounts to wholesale, home-grown, fully militarised ultra-terrorism rather than traditional organised crime.

In the midst of this maelstrom, the ordinary Mexican people, and all the fictional characters who figurehead them, are dragged from pillar to post, battered, beaten and broken down, and yet everyman figures like Marisol the country doctor and Pablo the weary journalist remain defiant, exemplifying courage and common decency, doing everything they can to oppose the banditos and at the same time remain alive. Such is the skill of Winslow’s detailed and emotional story-telling that you get totally sucked in, becoming progressively more terrified for them (not to mention for everyone else – literally, no-one is safe in this book).

If you think this sounds like a glimpse of Hell, you’re basically right. However, there is some light to be had. Art Keller is the embittered focal point of the story, but he makes for an excellent central character. He’s not a young man. He’s tired and careworn, but he’s an expert in his field and a wheeler-dealer from way back, and his fatalistic obsession now is to spend whatever remains of his life hunting down Adan Barrera. This makes him a formidable foe for a crime syndicate who are not used to being nervous about anything, and each time he’s on the page you feel more than a pang of hope that, if anyone can pull this impossible task off, it’s Keller. But he’s a flawed hero for sure, using every trick in the book, both legal and otherwise: making and breaking alliances as it suits him; infiltrating the mob; undermining and double-crossing them; bribing the corruptible; turning former friends into enemies; indulging, if necessary, in the most murderous violence. 

By comparison, his nemesis, Barrera, is not the demented monster you might expect. In fact, in contrast to the uber-vicious Ochoa, he’s remarkably restrained, running his world with a rod of iron, but a diplomat as well as a general, clever and ruthless but a suave fellow who values family life when he’s allowed to have it. He’s like the CEO of a large company rather than a gang boss, though again such is the skill with which he is drawn by Winslow, such are the subtle undercurrents of menace in Barrera’s urbane persona, that you’ve no doubt he’ll pull the trigger on anyone and everyone if the situation demands it.

Overall, The Cartel is more of an experience than a novel. For such a massive book, the pace rattles along – I read it in about three days – and that isn’t just down to the intensity of the shoot-outs or the horror of the murders and massacres; the complex judicial and political scene is also handled deftly, the labyrinthine dealings of all those involved in the dope game, even those not on the frontline of violence, are analysed from every angle, and yet it’s all done quickly and accessibly. There are literally dozens of characters, and yet every one remains vivid in the reader’s eye, proving easily and immediately recognisable. 

The most negative comment I’ve read from any reviewer on the subject of The Cartel is that it’s ‘sprawling’. Well … it is. But that’s because it’s a genuine, bona fide epic. James Ellroy described it as “the ‘War and Peace’ of the dope wars”. I can’t argue with that. It’s grim, dark-hearted stuff, but at the same time it remains an amazing feat of crime/thriller literature.  

At the end of these reviews, just for the fun of it, I usually name the cast I would pick if this book was ever to hit our screens. Apparently, a TV version of The Cartel has been in development for some time now, but I’ve seen nothing solid yet, so here, as always, are my picks for who should play the lead characters:

Art Keller – Leonardo DiCaprio
Adan Barrera – Benicio del Toro
Marisol – Sophia Vergara
Magda – Eiza Gonzalez
Pablo – Jesse Garcia
‘Crazy’ Eddie Ruiz – James Marsden
Heriberto Ochoa – Joaquin Cosio


by Peter James (2016)

When well-heeled Brighton couple and self-confessed townies, Ollie and Caro Harcourt, move out into the Sussex countryside, leaving their suburban life behind and taking possession of a rambling 18th century mansion, Cold Hill House, they are determined to make this new phase of their life work even though they expect it to be quite a challenge. Caro, a solicitor, is less than entranced by the place, finding it bleak and isolated, while Jade, their 12-year-old daughter, resents having been made to move away from her friends, but Ollie, a self-employed, home-based graphic designer who has always wanted to lead a rural lifestyle, sees it as a dream come true, and when push comes to shove, the whole family will admit that the grand old manor has great potential: it is a little run-down, a tad decrepit, but as long-term investments go it feels like a fairly safe bet.

But of course things are never quite so simple in the ever-menacing world of Peter James.

To start with, the house has many basic problems. There is a seemingly infinite list of structural defects, while time in general has taken its toll on the age-old property; the wear and tear is vastly more immense than the surveyors reported. Ollie, enthusiastic though he is, soon comes to fear that his new home may actually be a money pit.

Then there are those other, more intangible problems.

Within a very short time, the Harcourts start to suspect they are not alone here. Whose is the spectral female form they occasionally glimpse in the house? Who is the rather unpleasant old man Ollie several times encounters in the nearby country lane and yet whom no-one in the nearby village seems to know? Why is there a brooding atmosphere in this place when it should be so idyllic? And if all this isn’t bad enough, the fear stakes are upped dramatically when the family starts to have problems with their social media: strange figures appear on computer screens; bizarre and eerie messages are left via email, the origins of which are untraceable. Whatever the entity is that haunts this place – because it rapidly becomes clear that this is what they are dealing with here, a haunting – it is soon infesting their laptops, iPhones and other electrical devices.

These contacts are increasingly less pleasant, until eventually they become downright hostile, progressively more callous and damaging acts accompanying them.

Whatever walks in Cold Hill House, it is not some dim and distant memory of a life lived long ago, it is a thinking, sentient being, and quite clearly it isn’t interested merely in distressing and alarming the Harcourts so much as in tormenting, torturing and ultimately destroying them …

I love haunted house books. The bar for me was first set with The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson back in 1959, and raised even higher – in terms of pure terror, if not literary merit – by Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror in 1977. Both these books were particularly intriguing as haunted house stories went, because they presented us with nightmarish supernatural entities, mysterious, unknown beings hell-bent not just on scaring the innocents who had fallen into their clutches, but on terrorising them to death and beyond. As such, The House on Cold Hill was a real surprise for me, as I mainly know Peter James as a writer of superb crime thrillers. But this latest novel of his follows in the ‘Hill House’ tradition and adds comfortably to the canon.

All the author’s usual strengths are on display here. It is slickly and expertly written, which makes for a fast and easy read. The scene is set perfectly; you can picture the ornate but crumbling façade of the venerable old structure; you can smell the dank and stagnant air in its secret upper rooms; the rolling Sussex landscape is sumptuously present.

His characters, while not exactly oddballs, are not your regular heroes – they all have flaws (and very quickly and very cleverly the evil force seeks to gain leverage through these). Ollie Harcourt is the main protagonist, though he’s in some ways a rather effete and ineffectual figure – his initial response to the haunting is to try and shrug it off, in effect hoping that it goes away of its own volition. But it’s important to understand his plight. He has sunk every penny he’s got into this project; and when it suddenly seems like a bad idea it’s too late for him to do anything – certain readers’ complaints that he should just have upped sticks and left simply don’t ring true. Likewise, he is dealing with something utterly beyond his ken. Ollie is your archetypical forty-something ‘Middle England’ guy. He’s never encountered anything horrific in his life, let alone anything paranormal. He is completely steeped in the contemporary world with its huge complexity of electronic gadgets and virtual superhighways – and when all this turns against him, in the most unconventional way, his scientific mind is unable to process it.

Which brings me onto another interesting aspect of the book.

Some reviewers have criticised The House on Cold Hill for not doing anything particularly new with the haunted house milieu. But the supernatural infestation of the online media is something I’ve never seen done before, at least not this effectively. It goes even further than that. Despite the overarching supernatural atmosphere, science is never far away in this book. In fact, this is the first horror novel I’ve read in which the author seeks and explores a genuine scientific explanation for the existence of ghosts. And you know, it’s all pretty plausible. I’ll not give anything away, but Peter James has definitely done his homework. There is one scene in which Ollie Harcourt mulls over the situation with a physicist friend of his, and you can easily picture the author himself, a well-known and very thorough researcher, having exactly the same conversation with someone similarly qualified.

It also helps with the mood and authenticity that Peter James is personally experienced in this kind of scenario, as the lonely edifice at Cold Hill is apparently based on a real house he himself lived in once, and where he apparently had a less-than-comfortable time (though presumably he didn’t experience anything like the horrors on show here – I doubt he’d have emerged sane if he had).

All of this adds up to The House on Cold Hill being a neat little ‘old school’ chiller. It’s no ground-breaker in horror terms, but it’s a good, absorbing read, which, being fairly low on gore – certainly compared to the Roy Grace books – is unlikely to make you scream, but is guaranteed to creep you out repeatedly as you rustle through its traditionalist, doom-laden pages.

As usual – just for the fun of it – here are my picks for who should play the leads if The House on Cold Hill ever makes it to the movie or TV screen.

Ollie Harcourt – Rupert Penry-Jones
Caro Harcourt – Anna Friel


THE DEATH OF LUCY KYTE 
by Nicola Upson (2013)

The year is 1936, the place Polestead in Suffolk, where successful Scottish writer, Josephine Tey, has inherited rundown Red Barn Cottage from her deceased godmother, Hester Larkspur, a one-time glamorous actress who, towards the end of her life, came to live as a recluse and was inexplicably shunned by most of her neighbours. One of the conditions in the will is that Josephine, who barely knew Hester, must take possession of the house herself, along with all it contains, but in concert with another benefactor, a certain Lucy Kyte, of whom there is no physical trace and whom no-one locally seems to know anything about. 

However, this is only one of many mysteries that enshroud Josephine’s inheritance. The age-old cottage is crammed with curious artefacts, while one upper room in particular, which has a terrible atmosphere, is marked with disturbing and perplexing graffiti. An infamous atrocity, the Murder in the Red Barn – when, back in 1827, village beauty Maria Marten was butchered by her handsome lover, William Corder – occurred only a few dozen yards away, while an eerie ghost story connected to this crime still seems to haunt the village. Enquiries about Hester’s own death indicate that the elderly lady was hiding from someone or something when she expired from natural causes.

Seemingly, there has been much unpleasantness in and around this melancholy house, though no-one now will speak of it.

Isolated, and increasingly threatened by a nebulous but persistent presence, Josephine attempts to unravel the various puzzles, researching the details of the original crime and at the same time establishing the final movements of her godmother, whose death she is progressively more certain was hastened by foul play.

Josephine is a gentle person rather than a fighter. This makes her an unlikely hero, but she is intellectually superior to almost everyone she meets, and this gives her a big advantage, which is something she’s going to need – because even with the Red Barn a distant memory and Polestead now an idyllic summertime hamlet, there is a constant undercurrent of menace here. No one is really happy in this place. The hostility from certain neighbours is palpable, especially when Josephine starts asking questions, and even some of those who initially appear friendly possess an air of alarming superficiality.

Scratch this benign surface deep enough, it seems, and something very nasty may emerge from underneath …

My initial thought on The Death of Lucy Kyte was that it wouldn’t be for me. It had the overall aura of what used to, somewhat condescendingly, be referred to as a ‘woman’s book’. But very quickly I was seduced by Nicola Upson’s expert control of mood, not to mention her exquisite writing. The characters, both living and dead, are vividly drawn, their intricate and complex relationships deftly handled. Hester Larkspur in particular is a wonder. Given that she never appears in the book, we get astonishingly close to her through her property and diaries, and through Josephine’s fond ruminations on her melodramatic life in the Edwardian-era theatre.

But it is Josephine herself, for whom this is the fifth adventure to be novelised, who’s the real star of the show. Based on the Inverness-born mystery writer, Elizabeth Mackintosh, she is a very reserved person, almost to the point of being stuffy, primarily happy when in her own company or with Marta, her upper class lover, and yet easily frightened and affected emotionally by grief and solitude. And yet this apparent vulnerability is deceptive – Josephine has hidden depths of resilience, not least her absolute determination to get justice for Hester.

The investigation this leads to is fascinating.

To start with, there are actually two narratives interwoven here, both of them sprinkled with clues. The secondary thread, the tale of Maria Marten’s death and the execution of her killer by hanging and dissection, is enthralling, its gruesomeness and the general hardship of that age richly evoked by the author and contrasted sharply with the pastoral landscape of the Suffolk Weald in the 1930s. The ‘current’ narrative meanwhile, has an ambience all of its own, and lightens the dark mystery with some nice touches of gentle comedy, including guest appearances by none other than Tod Slaughter, the famous British star of Grand Guignol cinema, King Edward VIII and even Wallis Simpson.

I won’t go as far as to say that I was blown away by The Death of Lucy Kyte – there are times when it felt a little as if it was meandering, but despite its leisurely pace, it is increasingly fraught with danger and finally culminates in the unmasking of one of the most narcissistically nasty villains I’ve ever come across on the written page.

Overall, this is a high quality psychological/supernatural thriller, very much in the style of one of the slower-burn Hitchcocks. Maybe I’d have liked a slightly more conclusive pay-off, but ultimately it isn’t that kind of novel. Besides, the Josephine Tey story-arc is now five books in and counting, so lots of pay-offs, I suspect, are still easily possible.

As always – just for a laugh – here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Death of Lucy Kyte ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (though if it ever does, the series would have to start with An Expert in Murder, which is Josephine Tey #1):

Josephine Tey – Ruth Connell
Jane Peck – Lindsay Duncan
Maria Marten – Rosamund Pike
William Corder – Tom Weston-Jones
Lucy Kyte – Daisy Ridley
Marta Fox – Kate Winslet
Tod Slaughter – Brad Dourif (Controversial choice? Naaah … I think he’d be exceptional)


by Graham Masterton (2003)

When the disassembled skeletons of 11 women are uncovered in a farm field near Cork, in southern Ireland, Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire of the Garda Síochána is put on the case, but initially it seems that there is no panic. The bones, which though marked and laid out as if for ceremonial purposes, are old, possibly relating to the disappearances of a number of women and girls back in 1915. No-one can be prosecuted now, and so there is no great pressure – until a rumour starts to spread among local Republicans that the crime may have been committed by British forces in retaliation against IRA bombings, which causes several jitters at government level.

Maguire, aided by her surly sidekick, DI Liam Fennessy, has her doubts about this. These long-ago killings appear to be steeped in druidic Irish lore; by the looks of it, they were human sacrifices made in an effort to raise Mór-ríoghain, a Celtic goddess of extreme power and malevolence. It seems unlikely that even the most demented British squaddie would have possessed the knowhow to perform such a rite. But then, very unexpectedly, the situation takes a turn for the worse – a hitchhiking American girl is abducted in the neighbourhood, and subjected to the same appalling death: she is literally skinned, gutted and dismembered while still alive, and her constituent parts ranged ritualistically on land belonging to the same farm.

Maguire and her team are perplexed. It can hardly be the same murderer, with 88 years passed. Clearly someone else has picked up the gauntlet. An arrest is duly made – a travelling man with a long record of violent, sexual crime and a deep knowledge of witchcraft. He seems a viable suspect until a second abduction occurs while he’s in custody. This time it’s a local college girl. Maguire suddenly finds herself in a race against time to prevent a further atrocity. As if that isn’t difficult enough, her home-life is a mess. Her father, a former ace detective himself, is old, lonely and occasionally vague, while her wheeler-dealer husband, Paul, is constantly in trouble with the local underworld. On top of that, Fennessy turns ever more truculent, convinced that Maguire was promoted ahead of him simply because she’s a woman.

When the beautiful and elegant Lucy Quinn, an academic specialising in mythology, arrives from the States to advise the Garda, Maguire finds a kindred spirit and a like-mind. But Quinn’s revelations about the case offer no real comfort; these current crimes, she concludes, are a continuation of the 1915 murders, and they aren’t complete yet. Whoever the current culprit is, he only needs one more life and then he’ll be able to summon Mór-ríoghain, and who knows what will happen then?

Maguire doesn’t believe in Mór-ríoghain – she is convinced they are dealing with a madman – but Quinn seems genuinely alarmed by the prospect. Each new day, it seems, there are ever more urgent reasons for bringing this sadistic murderer to book as quickly as possible …

One thing you always know you’ll get when reading a Graham Masterton book – or you ought to know it – is that it’ll pull no punches when it comes to the violence and gore. Masterton traded for years as one of Britain’s most successful horror writers, and it was full-on, unashamed horror, beautifully written and meticulously researched (there has often been a mythological content in Masterton’s work), but also filled with explicit sex and intense, visceral gruesomeness.

If that is your thing, or if you simply don’t mind it – then you’ll thoroughly enjoy White Bones. But if it isn’t, then you’ll need to tread carefully.

Because without doubt, this is one of the grisliest crime novels I’ve ever read, if not the grisliest. In fact, I’m not surprised that quite a few reviewers online have described it as a horror novel rather than a crime thriller. That isn’t true – the viciousness displayed by the villains in this book is beyond the pale and the reader is spared not a single detail of it, while there is more than a whiff of the supernatural, but this is still, at heart, a murder investigation and a police procedural.

That said, the scenes in which protracted and barbaric surgery is performed on living people without any kind of anaesthetic are prolonged and torturous, as much for the reader as for the victims. And a couple of times, even I – who have a foot in both the horror and the thriller camps – found it difficult to read on.

But Masterton’s work has never been for the faint-hearted, and from this evidence, he clearly intends to tackle his crime thrillers with the same head-on gusto that he does his horror work. So we’re talking truly ghastly crimes graphically illustrated, outlandish villains who are both mad and bad at the same time – Eamon Collins is one of the scariest gangsters I’ve encountered in crime fiction to date, and he only has a small role – and all of it taking place on a gloomy, despair-ridden landscape. County Cork is a beautiful corner of Ireland, but it’s also bleak (especially in this book), and it doesn’t half rain there.

Did I enjoy it, though?

You bet I enjoyed it.

The goriness aside – which as I’ve said, did disturb me a little – I found it a compelling read. The gradual interweaving of the two mysteries, the murder case from 1915 and the current one, is excellently managed. The cops’ desperate pursuit of a remorseless but bewildering assailant is all quite believable, especially as they are constantly interfered with by politicians, distracted by other equally violent cases, and struggling with domestic difficulties in their homes.

The backdrop of mysticism is taken much further than other crime novels I’ve read that are based around ritual and sacrifice, but it is deftly handled. Though the author is clearly intoxicated by the idea of ‘the Invisible Kingdom’, and very, very tempted to take us there – on occasion he comes infinitesimally close – ultimately he behaves himself and we never stray from the real world. The magic is all in the mood and the atmosphere, but the vein of dark superstition that runs through this book is both fascinating and shudder-inducing.

Meanwhile, Kate Maguire makes for a very appealing heroine. If I had any criticism it would be that towards the end of the book she seems a little weak; given that she’s risen to the rank of Detective Superintendent – the first in Ireland – you might have expected a more robust personality. But to be fair, she suffers all kinds of personal disasters during the course of this narrative, which by the end have left her a shell of the woman she was.

White Bones (formerly published as A Terrible Beauty and Katie Maguire) gets my strongest recommendation. Sure, it makes grim reading and the ending is a bit of a right-hand turn, but it’s completely soaked in the atmosphere of its locations and peopled with grotesque but wonderful characters, while the dialogue is juicy and fast-moving, and there always seems to be a new menace just around the corner – you can’t afford to relax for one minute.

I wouldn’t say I didn’t guess the main culprit beforehand, but it was late in the day and it didn’t put a dampener on my enjoyment. A greatly entertaining if very, very dark crime thriller.

I often like to end these book reviews with my own picks for who’d play the leads if a film or TV version was ever made. If that was the case here, it would strictly be of the X-rated variety, but hell, I hope that wouldn’t put them off. Anyway, just for fun, here are my casting selections:

Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire – Heather Graham
Detective Inspector Liam Fennessy – Cillian Murphy
Lucy Quinn – Tricia Helfer
Eamon Collins – Gabriel Byrne
Paul Maguire – Damien O’Hare

BROKEN DOLLS 
by James Carol (2014)

Consultant behavioural science profiler, Jefferson Winter, has a unique insight into the minds of serial killers … mainly because he himself was fathered by one. When young Jefferson watched his evil genius parent die by lethal injection, he had no idea that his path in life was set.

“We’re the same,” the malevolent old man told his son through the bullet-proof viewing port of the execution chamber seconds before the deadly drugs pitched him into the next world. But this wasn’t entirely true, because, expert though he soon became in the ways of depraved murderers, the adult Jefferson eventually joined the good guys’ team. And though he commenced his career as a profiler with the FBI, he now carries the good fight all over the globe – in short he’s a profiler-for-hire, and a top-gun freelancer when it comes to cracking the psychological makeup of the world’s worst violent offenders.

In Broken Dolls, his very first outing, he’s been summoned to London by an old mate, Detective Inspector Mark Hatcher, who is struggling with a particularly distressing case.

An unknown maniac has been abducting women, shaving their heads, torturing them at his leisure and then lobotomising them, releasing them back onto the streets as wandering relics of the people they once were: broken dolls with no lives left to call their own.

Even Winter, who’d thought he had seen it all, is taken aback by the horror of this enquiry. There are four victims to date – a quartet of truly tragic cases. Obviously none of them are able to help with the details of their abductor. But then another woman goes missing; attractive but bored housewife, Rachel Morris, who disappeared on a blind date with a strange personality she encountered online.

Winter, in company with the beautiful and spirited DS Sophie Templeton, finds himself racing against the clock to prevent the zombification of another innocent victim, though on this occasion it’s entirely possible that the kidnapper may have bitten off more than he can chew – because Morris is the estranged daughter of London mob boss Donald Cole, who is desperate to assist in the search for her any way he can. This certainly interests Winter, but whether it will prove to be a help or a hindrance remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Rachel Morris finds herself imprisoned in a purpose-built torture chamber. The debonair chap she was secretly on her date with, the aptly-named ‘Cutting Jack’ – who has a penchant for unfaithful wives – is determined to put her through a living hell before finally taking her mind and her memories away …

Broken Dolls is a different kind of crime thriller from the norm in that we see things through the educated eyes of a criminal profiler rather than the instincts and street-smarts of a hard-assed detective. Some British reviewers have commented negatively on this; Jefferson Winter – a rather smug character, it has to be said, who doesn’t even carry a badge any more – popping over to the UK and showing Scotland Yard’s best how the job should really be done. But I didn’t get that feeling (and James Carol is a British writer, so I suspect his use of an American hero is more about gaining his books an international profile than about teaching the Brits what’s what). In any case, it all works. Quantico was the birthplace of modern-day offender profiling, and the FBI are still recognised as world-leaders in the field, so in that regard nothing jars for me. Plus, as I intimated previously, the approach in this novel is all quite original.

Instead of seeing doors kicked down, suspects leaned on and forensic clues painstakingly gathered, we see Winter dashing around at breakneck pace but also constructing a gradual and detailed psychological portrait of his anonymous opponent. The author has clearly done his research here – it all feels very authentic as he slowly and convincingly gets into the mind of his demented antagonist.

Which brings me onto the book’s personnel.

Jefferson Winter is an unusual kind of good guy. He’s affable, a straight-talker and driven to do the right thing – all stuff we like. But there are oddities too. Though he’s only young, thanks to a physiological anomaly he has a full head of snow-white hair – and yet he’s no white knight. It is hinted all the way through the book that Jefferson has inherited some of his father’s genes, and he constantly needs to battle against baser instincts. He particularly lusts after Sophie Templeton, though thankfully keeps most of that in check.

Needless to say, this is an aspect of the book that hasn’t been to every reader’s taste – some have even labelled it ‘misogynistic’. But I disagree with that. Winter is a single guy who likes gorgeous girls, which I don’t consider to be particularly offensive. He also admires Templeton greatly for her detective skills, so it isn’t purely a physical attraction between them. However, his horrific start in life has affected him in other ways too. Winter is good enough at what he does to make a lucrative living as he hires himself out to one police force after another, yet deep down he is still frightened and uneasy about the state of his own mind, and his Sam Spade-esque bravado is primarily a disguise. He is nowhere near as self-assured as he may appear.

Templeton meanwhile is so sexily described (it’s a little overdone, if I’m absolutely honest) that you’re tempted to picture one of those impossibly well-coiffured lady cops you get in American TV dramas, but this is offset by her feisty nature and upper class tone, which juxtaposes nicely with the hardboiled Winter, and helps create a cool if somewhat unlikely crime-fighting duo.

As for the villain, Cutting Jack … he is without doubt one of the most twisted criminal lunatics I’ve yet come across in crime fiction, though this does lead me to one slight criticism: there is an awful lot of torture in this novel.

Protracted scenes of cruelty and pain don’t do a great deal for me, but by the same token I don’t think they’re completely unnecessary here. Broken Dolls is essentially a race against time – the killer already has his next victim in chains and is currently playing with her; at some point soon he’s going to hammer his orbitoclast through her eye-socket and it’ll all be over. If we were purely to watch Winter and Templeton as they race about the snowy London streets doing everything they can to close ground on a faceless madman, it wouldn’t be half as effective. As things are, though it isn’t pleasant dwelling on the pain of doomed captives, the terror and tension in these scenes is almost tangible – every time the maniac enters through the dungeon door, you wonder if this is going to be it for housewife Rachel. And it isn’t just torture that Cutting Jack indulges in. Once you’re in his grasp, all kinds of unexplainable weirdness occurs – but I won’t say any more about that for fear of spoiling things. Put it this way, there are surprises galore in this narrative, and very few of them are nice.

I strongly recommend Broken Dolls to lovers of hard, dark crime fiction. It’s no comfortable read – not by any means, but even so I rattled through the pages, all the time hearing an imaginary clock ticking down to what might be yet another ghastly incident. If you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s quite a rush.

I’m reliably informed that a US TV show following Jefferson Winter’s various exploits is already in development, but maybe, if I’m bold enough, I can get in early with some casting suggestions. As usual just for the fun of it, here are my personal picks for the lead roles in Broken Dolls:

Jefferson Winter – Damien Lewis
DS Sophie Templeton – Jenna Louise Coleman
DI Mark Hatcher – Shane Ritchie
Rachel Morris – Katy Cavanagh
Donald Cole – Ray Winston
Cutting Jack – James Frain


RUNNING WILD 
by JG Ballard (1988)

Pangbourne Village is classic ‘stockbroker belt’ suburbia, a gated community in the heart of the English Home Counties; green, clean and exclusively inhabited by wealthy, well-heeled couples on whose pampered, expensively-educated children all the gifts that money can buy are bestowed. In Pangbourne, privilege is an inalienable right but ‘merited’ by the liberal attitudes enforced there. It is a model society for a new middle class and politically correct Britain. And similar purpose-built communities are now springing up all along the Thames Valley. This is the future for those who can afford it.

And then something astonishing and horrible happens.

With swift, commando-like precision, an early morning attack is launched on Pangbourne, and all the adults – not just the residents, but their staff and security guards as well (32 in total!) – are brutally murdered, and all the children (13) are kidnapped. No ransom demands follow, and there is minimum definitive evidence to indicate any obvious explanation.

After a massive police enquiry fails, the Home Office appoints top criminal psychologist Richard Greville to investigate, in company with the dour but very experienced Detective Sergeant Payne.

This ‘chalk and cheese’ and yet unexpectedly like-minded duo launch a very thorough assessment of the crime, both in terms of the forensics and the psychology. Note is taken of the many murder methods employed, which are varied and gruesome – from shooting, to bludgeoning, to electrocution, strangulation and crushing by car – and yet bewilderment prevails that such a swathe of horrendous crimes could all occur in such a short time-frame. How many murderers would it have taken to inflict such intense and targeted and yet widespread violence? What kind of mental state must they have been in? And just how organised and proficient at their craft would they need to be to pull it off so efficiently? And in God’s name, why did it happen?

Greville and Payne pursue all kinds of potential leads: a Hungerford Massacre-type ‘lone wolf’ killer; a crime syndicate assassination team; a terrorist group; a spec ops unit from a nearby army camp gone postal; and even the possibility of enemy agents acting on behalf of a malign foreign power. But none of these increasingly improbable possibilities pan out. The murdered residents of Pangbourne were model citizens in every sense of the word. Deep analysis of their lives uncovers no shady secrets, no hidden agendas.

The baffling case is almost broken when one of the children is found alive, though she is deranged and remains incoherent through shock. But at the same time, several rather curious facts finally start to emerge about Pangbourne Village itself. In many ways, the life its population led – particularly the children – was too good to be true. Everything they wanted they had. Their hermetically sealed world was perfectly ordered and protected by their moneyed parents. They knew nothing in their lives – literally nothing – but love and adoration, and as such, children from neighbouring communities thought them rather closeted and odd. And could it also be relevant that this idyllic little nirvana was imminently to feature in a BBC TV documentary about new modes of living? There was certainly a strange atmosphere in the village as this date approached, as if some kind of countdown had been activated.

Greville, something of a hard-headed calculating machine when it comes to putting facts together, starts to wonder if the secrets of these murders actually lie much closer to the victims’ homes than anyone had previously thought – unthinkably close as far as the previous investigation teams were concerned.

And then, very unexpectedly but with equal violence and ferocity, the killers strike again …

The first thing to say about Running Wild, this famously prophetic mystery from the pen of one of the UK’s most visionary writers, is that it’s no straightforward thriller. Or indeed a straightforward mystery.

Presented in the form of a dry, detailed, almost bullet-pointed account of the investigation from Greville to his Home Office paymasters, this not a traditional novel, nor a particularly long one – more a long novella really – and it doesn’t bother going greatly into character, preferring to concentrate on the means and motivation behind the crime, and of course, as always with Ballard, the subtext.

In truth, it is difficult saying a great deal about that without giving away too much of the plot, but it’s worth adding that the eventual explanation behind the horrific incident is more than a little bit unlikely, though this doesn’t matter because what the author is really addressing here are issues of isolation, elitism, collapse from within, identity loss, social engineering, social decay, neglect of reality by the chattering classes and so forth, and of course addressing them with great eloquence and his trademark touches of sardonic ‘Middle England’ humour.

Without doubt, Running Wild is a modern minor classic, deeply intriguing, easy-to-read and in many ways, if you’ve never read him before, an ideal introduction to the strange, disturbing and yet always coolly-appraised world of JG Ballard.

As usual – just for the fun of it – here are my selections for who should play the leads if Running Wild ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (and I’m amazed it hasn’t already, if I’m honest).

Dr. Richard Greville – Hugh Bonneville
DS Payne – Gwendoline Christie 
(Okay, I know that in the book Payne is a bloke, but that isn’t necessary, and Ms. Christie would still be ideal in the role).


by James Patterson and David Ellis (2015)

7, Ocean Drive is a seafront mansion in a wealthy neighbourhood of the Hamptons, Long Island. In appearance, it is a gorgeous ‘olde worlde’ residence with a white sand beach out front and extensive wooded grounds to the rear. It’s a holiday idyll; East Coast America doesn’t get more upscale than this. There is one problem, though – and not a small one. 7, Ocean Drive is also a shunned and abandoned ruin, known locally as ‘the Murder House’ due to it once having sheltered the deranged Dahlquist family, who, generation after generation, terrorised the district with their depraved and homicidal ways. The Dahlquists are now extinct, but their shadow lingers – even in recent years, unsolved violent crimes have been associated with 7, Ocean Drive and its overgrown environs.

It certainly exerts a strange fascination on one-time resident Detective Jenna Murphy (not to mention causes her several inexplicable nightmares and panic attacks) … only for it then to become the epicentre of a full blown investigation when a brand-new double-slaying occurs there, the two victims – a local playboy and his girlfriend – suffering impalement and torture before death.

Murphy, a streetwise cop from New York City, who has returned home to Long Island after giving evidence against corrupt colleagues back in Manhattan, gets stuck in hard, but is beaten to the prize by her uncle, Chief Langdon James (who gave her this job in the first place), when he arrests and convicts handsome handyman and inveterate womaniser, Noah Walker. Noah’s ex-partner is one of the vics, so it seems like a straightforward case. But of course this is James Patterson country, and all manner of twists and turns now follow.

Walker is found to have been framed, and is subsequently released from jail – but Murphy still isn’t sure about his innocence; then there are more ghastly murders, Chief James himself impaled on a heated spit. It starts to look as if a serial killer is at large – but aside from the signature impalements, the pattern is not clear, the victims differing widely. Links are then made with a horrendous high-school shooting of many years earlier, but the evidence in that case appears to point every which way. And all the while, the house, even though it is empty, seems to lie at the heart of everything, like a grotesque spider in the centre of its web.

Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, Murphy herself comes under scrutiny. Bewilderingly, she is implicated by the forensics, though she has had difficulty from the start with new police chief Isaac Marks – a cop she neither rates nor likes, and to a degree, someone she also harbours suspicions about.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Murphy has only the vaguest recollection of the childhood she spent here, but the panic attacks increasingly seem to indicate that something terrible happened to her, something that may well connect her to these hideous crimes, both the old ones and the new ones – and it is this uncertainty that drives her on relentlessly, even when she is suspended or wanted for questioning. In due course, her very liberty will depend on her discovering the truth behind these murders, because the evidence stacking against her is literally mountainous …  

Though it starts off in near-slasher territory, everything occurring around a ghoulish old house wherein a family of demented murderers once dwelt, this long and complex tale quickly transforms into a vintage James Patterson mystery. A sizeable cast of characters (including oddball loser Aiden Willis and debonair restaurant owner Justin Rivers), many of them likely suspects themselves, provide the backdrop to Jenna Murphy’s investigation, which proceeds in fits and starts as she makes and breaks alliances in her desperation to crack the case, as curve-ball after curve-ball is thrown at her, as she eventually loses track of who she can and can’t trust.

Though a lengthy book (over 100 chapters!), it is a concise and easy read, and an absorbing plotline. The heroine herself is very likeable: tough enough to be a cop but vulnerable too, struggling to come to terms with the bad things in her life – and when the odds are against her, you really feel it; the threat of life imprisonment hangs over the second half of this book like a black cloud. I wasn’t totally sold on every aspect of the novel. The romantic elements felt a tad forced given the awful events unfolding, and the big reveal at the end wasn’t a complete surprise (though that is what you get when red herrings abound – you always end up analysing each one of them in detail). But all in all, this was a fast and enjoyable romp. Definitely more of a thriller than a police procedural, with a few Hitchockian psychological touches en route, and several big dollops of whodunit.

As usual – purely for laughs, of course – here are my picks for who should play the leads if Murder House ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (which has to be likely at some point, given Mr. Patterson’s near-constant occupation of the best-seller lists).

Detective Jenna Murphy – Scarlett Johansson
Noah Walker – Matthew McConaughey
Chief Langdon James – Ray Liotta
Aiden Willis – Walton Goggins
Justin Rivers – Simon Baker
Chief Isaac Marks – Casper Van Dien



THE INFORMATION OFFICER 
by Mark Mills (2009)

Malta was no place to be in the summer of 1942.

A British-held strategic fortress in the middle of the Mediterranean, it maintained a vital link between the Allied base at Gibraltar and the Eighth Army in North Africa, for which reason it was hammered by Axis planes, wave after wave carpet-bombing the island indiscriminately, not just killing and maiming members of the garrison, but making life a misery for the natives, filling their graveyards with fresh corpses, their hospitals with casualties and laying waste to their homes and businesses.

This is the remarkable and tumultuous backdrop to Mark Mills's fascinating crime thriller, The Information Officer. It is also one hell of a headache for the book’s main hero, Major Max Chadwick … because Max is quite literally the British authority in Malta’s ‘Information Officer’, aka propaganda chief. He it is who, on a daily basis, must minimise the bad news and find and exaggerate the good, not just to boost the morale of the beleaguered British forces, but to try and keep the islanders onside. This isn’t Malta’s war, after all. Why should the Maltese support the British in this terrible, apocalyptic fight which was never of their making and for which they are now paying such an appalling price?

As you can imagine, Max’s job is a difficult one at the best of times, but it gets a whole lot harder when British doctor, Freddie Lambert, confides in him that he thinks there may be a serial killer of prostitutes on the island, and more worrying still, that it could be a British submariner. Max is stunned, but the facts speak for themselves: it seems that three Maltese hostesses catering to British forces have been found raped and murdered, their deaths disguised as bombing fatalities – and that one of them was clutching a tell-tale military lapel when discovered.

The implications of this are so terrifying – namely that on the eve of a possible German invasion, it could turn the Maltese against the British, which might lead to a complete collapse of Allied operations in the Mediterranean – that the governor’s main priority is to keep the whole thing under wraps. But Max, egged on by Lilian, a feisty Anglo/Maltese girl who edits one of the local newspapers, undertakes to investigate himself.

What follows is a death-defying game of cat and mouse played out among blazing ruins and raining bombs, Max increasingly coming to suspect that not only may the killer be a Nazi agent trying to set the British and Maltese apart, but possibly a double-agent too. Suddenly, he doesn’t know who to trust; the comfy world of the British officer corps no longer feels familiar. Max even suspects that he himself may be in danger, but the die is now cast, and this affable if rather louche young man, finally determined to do something honourable for the war effort, persists in trying to muddle his way to an answer. At the same time, he must navigate the tricky waters of adultery, because, very ill-advisedly, he is currently the lover of Mitzi, a sad but brave Englishwoman who spends every day writing letters of condolence to the sweethearts of airmen recently killed, and yet who is trapped in a loveless marriage herself. Of course, this complex situation is only made a hundred times worse when Max uncovers evidence that may implicate Mitzi’s husband …

The Information Officer is a many-headed beast: serial killer mystery, wartime adventure and espionage thriller all rolled into one, with a big dollop of romance mixed in.

It is also, to use some period terminology, a corking read.

To start with, it benefits from an immense historicity, painting an incredibly evocative picture of life on Malta during those hellish days, juxtaposing the sun-burnished ‘olde worlde’ architecture, the dusty hills and azure Mediterranean seascapes with an endless carnage of burned buildings, heaped corpses and severed limbs – and yet it goes much further even than this into the realms of mind-boggling authenticity. From the outset here, we are steeped in the officer class, a world of clubs, barracks, bunkers and cocktail evenings, all crammed with stiff upper-lip types, not to mention their dutiful wives, who, in the time-honoured fashion of Britain’s colonies, are also spirited, sensual and occasionally wayward. Moments of war-induced craziness abound, drinks parties and love-making sessions going uninterrupted by colossal air raids, some of the chaps practicing their golf swings by lofting high shots at the German fighters cruising low overhead, Max himself roaring around the island and its many craters on a clapped-out motorbike that he cobbled together from the charred and broken parts of lots of others (and finally, inevitably, coming a cropper on it) – and yet all of this stands in sharp, shameful contrast to the empty shops and endless misery of the local people, to the deep, sweaty shelters where the innocent Maltese hide petrified from the endless aerial onslaught.

Some reviewers, those only looking for a crime thriller, have expressed irritation at this constant intrusion into the narrative by World War Two, but I strongly disagree with them, firstly on the basis that this intense wartime atmosphere is so vivid as to be almost intoxicating, but also because such complaints totally miss the point about the possible insurrection this series of heinous murders might ignite. Surely no stakes in a psycho killer story have ever been as high as these?

Meanwhile, in the midst of the chaos, Max Chadwick makes an unlikely and yet likeable hero. An affable young man, though pretty ordinary in many ways, promoted to his position through family connections, he’s never been completely prepared for the daily difficulties of his role, through in that ‘band of brothers’ fashion he manages to keep it together sufficiently to get through. In terms of the other characters, Freddie Lambert, his closest friend, is a different kettle of fish; cut from the same cloth, but a hard-headed customer who remains completely focussed on his own task, which is to patch up the shattered bodies of friend and foe alike, and occasionally taking time out to forensically assess the murder victims. Then we have Elliot, another key player in the drama, an American officer who for various reasons is currently stationed on Malta, but who is much more than a standard wise-cracker – there are many mysterious depths to Max’s US buddy. 

It would be wrong to sign off without mentioning the ladies, though here, I think, lies the only weak link in The Information Officer. Both Lilian and Mitzi, while strong and beautiful, are somewhat underused, though to be fair that is often because we see so much of the action from Max’s own viewpoint (or from the killer’s, who of course is never named until the grand finale) – though this does seem to weaken them a little, Lilian understandably humourless as she witnesses the annihilation of her countrymen, Mitzi whose status as permanently unhappy wife leaves her in a kind of Limbo.

But these are only small criticisms. The Information Officer is one terrific thriller, totally engrossing as a mystery and hair-raising in its depictions of wartime terror and destruction, not to mention in the depredations of Malta’s very own Ripper – and on top of that it all ends with one of the best twists it’s ever been my experience to encounter on the written page.

I consider myself an expert, and I never even saw it coming. 

As always – purely for fun, you understand – here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Information Officer ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (and this one is absolutely begging for it):

Max – Tom Hiddleston
Lilian – Valentina Lodovini
Freddie – Benedict Cumberbatch
Elliot – Robert Downey Jnr
Mitzi – Kelly Reilly



THE WOLFEN 
by Whitley Strieber (1978)

When two beat-cops are murdered in a Brooklyn scrapyard, ‘fire and water’ detectives Becky Neff and George Wilson are put on the case. But it soon becomes apparent that this is not going to be just another day in Homicide. The murder scene is utterly repellent, the two victims having been mutilated, disembowelled and partially eaten, and then things turn even more bizarre when forensic analysis uncovers traces of unidentifiable ‘canine’ assailants.

Neff and Wilson consider various possibilities. Is a pack of particularly dangerous strays stalking New York? Or has someone trained himself a couple of killer dogs?

And of course, it doesn’t end with these two crimes. Soon there are more unexplained mutilation-deaths, usually in the most deprived corners of the city, the victims invariably drug-users or homeless alcoholics. In fact, it transpires that many Skid Row types have gone missing in the recent past without anyone really noticing.

Has something terrible been living concealed alongside the normal citizenry for decades maybe, feeding on the flotsam of modern urban life?

This ‘something’ is introduced to us in short-order, because a big part of this famous crime/horror crossover novel’s appeal is that it gives us the chance to assess the unfolding drama from both viewpoints – man’s and beast’s.

The Wolfen themselves are a kind of werewolf pack, only they don’t live normal lives and then suddenly grow hairy at night and start howling at the moon. They retain their hybrid form 24/7, and are incredibly strong and ferocious, and very, very agile – when they launch their murderous attacks, which we get to see unstintingly, it is in a blood-spattered blur of immeasurable speed. They are also hyper-sensitive and intelligent, and it isn’t long before they realise the cops are hunting them. As such, they opt to strike back hard, pre-empting their own demise by killing their two main opponents, Neff and Wilson.

When our heroes wise up to the fact they are next in line, they go to ground themselves, but that isn’t easy when the predators on their tail are the most proficient, the most savage and the most relentless the modern world has ever seen …

How to start discussing this superior and extraordinary horror novel of the 1970s without saying that I’m completely bamboozled it ever dropped from sight the way it has? This is partly, I suspect, due to the rather poor movie adaptation made in 1981, which, though it had its moments, strayed a long way from the original, preferring to talk politics and Native American mysticism, and starring Albert Finny as Wilson and Diane Venora as Neff, two good actors but sadly miscast here.

The worst mistake the film made, however, was with the Wolfen themselves, which it basically depicted as large, cute-looking dogs who panted more than they snarled, and whose complex nature and society it completely failed to examine. In the novel, the Wolfen are hellish antagonists for our hapless cop heroes, especially as at first no-one even believes they exist; they are literally a pack of killing machines – as curious Dr. Carl Ferguson, from the New York Museum of Natural History, discovers when he tries to make friends with them – and yet you sympathise with their position. This is their world as much as ours, but they know that if they were to come out into the open they’d be exterminated. Despite this, they are remarkable creatures; not just physically impressive, but reasoning and emotional – they have strong family ties, individual personalities, an order of rank and loyalty, and a strong survival instinct, which naturally resists a world they know would unhesitatingly destroy them.

On top of all this, the original Neff and Wilson are a great pair of down-at-heel heroes, the former a cool and attractive but tightly-wound officer who is constantly having to deal with the fall-out of cop-husband Dick’s dodgy dealings (he is now being investigated for corruption), and who wages a daily personal war against the institutionalised chauvinism that embattles her (this is the 70s, remember – female detectives were few and far between). Wilson, on the other hand, is more an archetype: slobbish, a drinker and a time-served veteran who, though he’s good at the job, is often unmotivated these days. He drives his partner mad with his lackadaisical approach and cynical attitude (not to mention his unspoken desire for her), but on the whole they work well together and trust each other, and you genuinely fear for them as the danger intensifies.

One accusation aimed at The Wolfen was that its hardboiled crime atmosphere jars with the underlying horror story, and that many of its protagonists are too willing to accept the mythical supernatural killers in their midst. But I don’t buy that. To start with, the Wolfen are basically animals – monstrous for sure, but non-supernatural. Secondly, Neff and Wilson only come round to accepting this via a long learning-curve, during which they encounter increasingly persuasive and gory evidence.

Meanwhile, the vast, grimy sprawl of the city has a role too. Yes, superficially The Wolfen is a crime thriller: it goes heavy on the legal speak and the police procedural, and as I’ve said, the cops are real cops with real-life problems – everything in The Wolfen, aside from the beasts themselves, is real. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in which any city, least of all the Big Apple, is as dingily and desolately portrayed as it is here.

I swear, it’s almost dreamlike: the endless dirt and garbage, the graffiti, the urban dereliction, the towering hulks of empty, boarded-up buildings – it’s a despair-ridden Hellscape, a darkly fantastical necropolis where almost any type of badness could be lurking. And it is used particularly well in one scene, where the two cops are drawn into the hideous environment of a derelict apartment block by the persistent crying of a baby, only to suddenly get suspicious that this isn’t what they are hearing at all but someone, or something, mimicking the sound in order to lure them. This is easily one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever read in any novel … for which reason I’ll say no more about it because that would really spoil things.

Suffice to say that Strieber corkscrews the tension from this point on, creating fewer and fewer places where our heroes can feel safe, until eventually there is nowhere at all – and what an explosive finale results from that.

At the end of the day, you just have to read The Wolfen yourselves. Okay, it’s an oldish book, but it’s still incredibly fast and taut, and beautiful writing – even when it’s ‘beautifully horrible’ like this – is beautiful writing, whatever its era. 

As usual – purely for fun, you understand – here are my picks for who should play the leads if a more truthful version of The Wolfen ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (the first film was okay in parts, but in my view it made the big mistake of veering way too far from the source material; if it ain’t broken, why fix it?):

Detective Becky Neff – Bridget Moynahan 
Detective George Wilson  David Duchovny 
Dr. Carl Ferguson – Chiwetel Ejiofor


MEG by Steve Alten (1997)

Former US Navy deep-sea diver, Jonas Taylor, is still haunted by the day he plumbed the bottom of the Mariana Trench and thought he glimpsed the long-extinct Megalodon. Few people took him seriously at the time, including Maggie, his ambitious TV reporter wife. Even though Taylor is now a civilian scientist, reasonably respected for his palaeontology work, Maggie knows that people still smirk behind his back and that this is no good for her career. As such, she embarks on a non-too-discreet affair with Bud Harris, Taylor’s former college buddy, who now leads a wealthy playboy lifestyle.

Taylor is thus at his lowest ebb when he is contacted by old friend Masao Tanaka, who runs a marine science operation. Tanaka has lost an earthquake-detecting submersible deep in the Mariana and wants Taylor to retrieve it for him with the aid of his two hotshot aquanaut kids, the adventurous, self-assured DJ and his sister, the uber-cool Terry.

Taylor is not enthusiastic about returning to the Trench, and his proposed assistants give him little confidence, DJ treating the whole Megalodon thing as a joke, Terry jealous and mistrustful that a non-family member is being brought into such a complex and costly enterprise.

Initially the recovery mission goes well. Though the descent into the Trench is horrific, Taylor starts to rediscover his old deep-sea diving touch. But then disaster strikes – DJ is attacked and killed by a colossal bioluminescent fish. The Megalodon …

It comes as no surprise to me that Steve Alten’s famous deep sea action/horror has been under option in Hollywood since 1997, or that it spawned a hatful of successful sequels. Because this is pure escapism at its best. Okay, even though the science sounds good I’m sure it doesn’t add up to much in reality – but who cares about that? Because this book has got everything that Jaws had, and more: clearly defined goodie and baddie characters, a hero with vulnerabilities, an exotic location (endless acres of cobalt-blue water!), and a gargantuan, near-indestructible monster, which according to cryptozoologists the world over could still very likely exist.

It’s also written in that wonderfully slick American style, especially the bone-jarring action sequences, which come thick and fast and at times seem to explode off the page.

A creature feature for sure, an ocean-borne Godzilla in which an ancient beast proves too mighty for all of man’s weapons, meaning that only a truly ingenious solution will fix it (and that solution turns out to be an absolute eye-popper). But great fun and another easy, rapid-fire read. One that anyone can happily get their teeth into (sorry).

As always, and it’s just a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Meg someday makes it to the screen (it’s allegedly been stuck in Development Hell for the last 18 years, somewhat uncharitably referred to as ‘Jurasssic Shark’ – but it’s too good a basic concept not to make it at some point):

Jonas Taylor – Jeremy Renner
Masao Tanaka – George Takei
Terry Tanaka – Anna Nagata
Maggie Taylor – Alice Eve
Bud Harris – Dustin Clare


DISSOLUTION 
by C.J. Sansom (2003)

The year is 1537, and the Protestant Reformation is picking up pace. England is now a land of informers, interrogation by rack, falsified evidence, and the handing down of death sentences for the simple crime of holding an opinion.

The driving force behind his new tyranny is King Henry VIII, but his iron fist is Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell, a zealous bureaucrat hell-bent on dissolving the Catholic monasteries and dividing their lands and wealth among a grasping nobility. One of Cromwell’s prime agents in this cause is hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake, another committed reformer and a man of razor-sharp intellect. However, even Shardlake now harbours doubts about his master’s increasingly brutal and swingeing methods – more and more are going to the block, torture is ever more frequently used – so when he is assigned to investigate the murder of Robin Singleton, a fellow government official, at the remote, marsh-begirt monastery of Scarnsea, he is initially relieved. 

Here should be an open-and-shut case. The monks are notoriously lax, as well as hostile to the new mood. There is no question about the righteousness of this enquiry, and Shardlake expects there’ll be suspects a-plenty – and indeed there are, because when he arrives there, Scarnsea turns out to be a den of vice and a nest of corruption.

Aided by his handsome young assistant, Mark Poer, Shardlake learns that, in addition to the murder, which involved decapitation by sword, a precious relic has been stolen and the monastery church desecrated in a weird satanic ceremony. He also uncovers evidence of fraudulent land sales perpetrated by some of the monks, dubious dealings with local smugglers, treasonous mutterings, and sexual improprieties (sodomy between men and boys, but also the molestation of serving-girls). At a purely personal level there is much here to question. While certain among the brethren are devoted to their role, others’ vocations are more doubtful: Abbot Fabian lives openly and unashamedly as a country squire; Prior Mortimus disciplines the novices with ridiculous viciousness; Brother Edwig measures everything in pounds, shillings and pence; Brother Gabriel is homosexual (a crime in that era); Brother Guy is a converted Moor; Brother Jerome is an unapologetic Catholic whose torture by Cromwell leads to him condemn the new England more vociferously each day.   

And yet, despite this catalogue of likely candidates, it is a far from straightforward enquiry. Shardlake finds that everyone here has something to hide, while almost no-one, whatever their rank, is straight with him about their true feelings for the Reformation. Even the local townsfolk have reason to be suspect, the commoners eager to curry favour with the King by loudly decrying the papists, their betters eager to acquire the papists’ land. Things are additionally complicated when Shardlake and Poer fall out over a comely serving-wench, Alice, and all the while a deep and bitter winter sets in, heavy snow virtually imprisoning our heroes in the grim and eerie structure at Scarnsea, which creates a brooding atmosphere of terror and evil when suddenly there is another murder, and then another one …

What can I say? This novel works for me on so many levels.

First of all, as a straightforward murder-mystery it makes for compulsive reading. Shardlake and Poer, though possessing authority, are constantly under threat in this isolated locale – tense moments abound – while the investigation, as they work their way through a complex tangle of clues, many of them contradicting each other, is riveting. Always, it seems, there are new questions and yet fewer and fewer answers. Is the killer someone who supports the Catholic cause, or someone who detests it? Was Singleton slain because he represented Cromwell and the King, or was it a personal matter? While on one hand the mystery appears to intersect with financial misdoings, on the other it looks like something sexual. On yet another it may involve witchcraft and Satanism. Is it possible the various murders look different in terms of their motives and modus operandi because they are the work of different murderers?

Though lengthy, the tale cracks on at great pace as Shardlake penetrates determinedly through the intrigue, winning some friends on the way but also plenty of enemies, and often having to dodge danger himself. When the resolution is finally reached, is it not exactly a jaw-dropper, but it is deeply satisfying and requires no suspension of belief given the widespread brutality and injustice of that era.

Shardlake himself is a fine central character. An unlikely hero, though he initially appears as a stealthy, eavesdropping man who insists on asking awkward questions and feels no guilt about foisting his beliefs on others, he is at heart a good soul who genuinely believes that a purer, fairer world can come from the Reformist movement. He has also suffered terribly at a personal level, not just from the physical pain of his crippled body but from the humiliation and mistrust it has brought on him, which makes him hugely sympathetic. In any case, Dissolution – the first of a whole series of Matthew Shardlake novels from C.J. Sansom – sees the Tudor-age investigator commence a long, arduous journey of self-discovery, during the course of which he is ever-more troubled by the new police state he serves and the apparent innocence of so many of its victims. 

The book also provides a fascinating snapshot of English intellectual life at the close of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Early Modern Age, clearly outlining the differences between the factions on either side of the Reformist fence, the Catholics mistrustful of a lay-aristocracy with no remit to do good and aghast that centuries of holy tradition are being torn down, the Reformers infuriated by a monolithic ecclesiastical body that empowers itself by enthralling the populace in ignorance and superstition.

It also issues a stern warning about sanctimonious idealogues who are so certain of the righteousness of their cause that they are prepared to perform vicious deed to bring it about, and that is surely a message as pertinent today as it ever was. 

Dissolution is a multi-faceted tale of great depth and interest. In some ways, it is only superficially a murder-mystery (though as I say, it works compellingly on that level too), because there is so much more to it. But all that notwithstanding, it remains an absolute must for the reading collections of any fans of crime, thriller and/or historical fiction.

As always – purely for the fun of it – here are my picks for who should play the leads if Dissolution ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (it was adapted by BBC Radio in 2012, with Jason Watkins starring as Matthew Shardlake and Mark Bonner as Thomas Cromwell).

Matthew Shardlake – Toby Jones
Thomas Cromwell – Jeremy Irons
Mark Poer – Al Weaver
Alice – Bethany Muir
Brother Guy – Don Warrington
Abbott Fabian – Matthew Macfadyen
Prior Mortimus – Andy Serkis
Brother Jerome – David Bradley
Brother Edwig – Mark Addy 
Brother Gabriel - Phil Davis

(I know … big cast! What are the chances, eh?)


THE MAGPIES 
by Mark Edwards (2013)

Love-birds Jamie and Kirsty think they’re living the suburban dream when they acquire a spacious London flat at a knock-down price. The neighbourhood is genteel, the neighbours themselves welcoming. On top of that, both Jamie and Kirsty have good jobs, he a software engineer, she a paediatric nurse. A comfortable middle-class life together beckons.

Until – slowly and subtly – things start to go wrong.

The arrival of dead rats on their doorstep could be the work of an overly industrious local cat, but why does someone keep sending the Fire Brigade to their address, who keeps ordering fast food deliveries they don’t want, and why are they deluged with peculiar and sometimes downright offensive junk-mail? It isn’t long before they start to suspect they may somehow have offended their downstairs neighbours, Chris and Lucy Newton, a slightly older and curiously unsophisticated couple. Initially, there are scant clues that the Newtons are behind this campaign of unprovoked harassment, though they do complain to Jamie and Kirsty rather a lot and often about the most innocuous things.

In the first instance there is no obvious sense of danger, but author Mark Edwards is nothing if not an expert when it comes to slowly and mercilessly turning the psychological screw.

In its most basic sense, the situation the young couple have found themselves in is the stuff of nightmares. These are pleasant, conscientious people looking only to get on with their lives. One thing they are not is adversarial. Jamie is no macho man, and neither he nor Kirsty are streetwise – if anything they are naïve. Quite clearly they’d be easy victims for a determined sociopath, particularly if this warped person decided to make them his/her new ‘hobby’ – and this is the raw and terrible nerve that Mark Edwards now relentlessly plucks.

The violations against Jamie and Kirsty’s happy world become steadily more vicious and personal, soon invading every aspect of their lives, leaving our heroes increasingly frightened and disoriented, especially as the Newtons, whenever they are encountered face-to-face, remain affable and polite, which even puts doubt in the reader’s mind that they may be guilty. But a whole new level of horror is reached when Paul, Jamie’s best friend and sole ally, is terribly injured in a go-carting accident, which again looks as if it might have been engineered by Chris Newton.

This has a devastating effect on Jamie and Kirsty, whose own relationship finally starts to suffer. Isolated and friendless, feeling besieged, the couple try to struggle on, but even this isn’t the end of it. Each new day brings ever more elaborately sadistic outrages, until soon, driven beyond despair, having lost everything, Jamie opts to take drastic action to fight back.

But his invisible opponents are no ordinary neighbours from Hell.

Up until now, civilised man Jamie has only been able to guess at the degree of wickedness that faces him here …

The Magpies is a fascinating and highly intelligent psycho thriller written by an expert in low-key terror, but genuine spice is added to this hair-raising brew because the author himself experienced similar persecution in his earlier life, and that harrowing authenticity is written all the way through. It certainly explains why the torment is piled on so ruthlessly, layer after layer, each ghastly new development superseded by the next – if it isn’t rats it is spiders, if it isn’t damaging computer viruses, it is stage-managed fatal accidents – until it literally becomes overwhelming, until you, the reader, are ready to rip your own hair out, never mind the novel's hapless heroes.

However, there is more to this than mere mental torture. The mystery and suspense run deep. We are never totally convinced that Jamie and Kirsty are correct about the identity of their anonymous foes – there are several other neighbours aside from the Newtons, and some of their normal friends are less than helpful. Their increasing air of paranoia only adds to the mix; they become confused and irrational; so cleverly is the book written that at times you even wonder if anything malicious is actually going on at all.

On top of that, The Magpies is a finely-observed study of a strong relationship cracking under outside pressure. The slow deterioration of Jamie and Kirsty’s partnership is as tragic as it is frightening, and completely compelling because it is so believable. Be warned, the pain and desolation that soon fill the central characters’ lives in this book feel very real indeed. Of course, that also intensifies the reader’s desire to see justice done – or should that be revenge?

By the time you get to the end of this intense and absorbing novel, you won’t really care.

As always, purely as a bit of fun fantasy-casting, here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Magpies ever makes it to the screen:

Jamie – Ben Whishaw
Kirsty – Sophie Turner
Paul – Rupert Grint
Chris – Neil Maskell
Lucy – MyAnna Buring


TIME OF DEATH 
by Mark Billingham (2013)

DI Tom Thorne and girlfriend, DS Helen Weeks, have taken a winter holiday in the Cotswolds, where they intend to spend Valentine’s Day together and enjoy a well-earned rest. But, as you can probably guess, from the commencement of Time of Death, the 13th outing for Mark Billingham’s gruff, no-nonsense hero, it is never going to be quite as easy as that.

Thorne, a veteran of the Murder Squad, is approaching middle-age these days, and still hasn’t entirely worked out his relationship with the relatively new woman in his life, DS Weeks. She is younger than he is, and doesn’t see the world in the same stark terms. However, it is Helen who makes the decision to suddenly interrupt their break and head north into rainy, flood-stricken Warwickshire, where an old school acquaintance, Linda Bates, is in trouble.

It seems that in Polesford, Helen’s rural but far-from-idyllic hometown, two teenage girls have been abducted, and one has now turned up in the woods, brutally murdered. In response, Warwickshire Police have laid their hands on local man, Stephen Bates – Linda’s husband – and look set to charge him with the crime.

Thorne is a little bemused as to why they are getting involved. By her own admission, Helen was not Linda’s best friend when they were kids, though they seem to share some kind of unspoken connection. On top of that, all Helen can really do once they arrive is provide a shoulder for Linda to cry on. And it’s a much-needed shoulder. Linda and her family are distraught and already being ostracised by their neighbours. Moreover, when Thorne looks into the case as an observer, it seems pretty straightforward. Even though Bates maintains his innocence, there is a mass of evidence stacked against him, and his alibi doesn’t stand up – in due course, he is charged with kidnapping and murder.

However, not all in Polesford is exactly as it should be.

Thorne isn’t won over by the loutish townsfolk, by the media who have swamped the place in a search for ever-more sensationalist news angles, or by the local investigation team, who have not been as thorough as he would like and who are increasingly resentful of his presence. When Phil Hendricks, his tattoo-covered but trusty forensics expert, joins him in Polesford, they commence an enquiry of their own – unofficially of course – and quickly start to uncover anomalies in the evidence. 

Pretty soon, Thorne is convinced that Bates is innocent. But the local fuzz will have no truck with that, and in fact complain to his bosses in the Met (who attempt to call him off), while Helen is only marginally more useful. For the moment at least, the level-headed policewoman he knows and loves has vanished, to be replaced by someone who is secretive, snappy and inordinately stressed. Clearly, Helen herself has more than superficial issues with the town of her birth, and there is no guarantee they are unconnected to this enquiry.

But Thorne, the hard-nosed investigator, is now in his element. Amid foul weather and despite a storm of hostility, he battles on determinedly. Because if nothing else, he strongly suspects that the second of the two abducted girls is still in the grasp of the real killer, maybe still alive, and if so, enduring who knows what horrors …

Tom Thorne is an iconic cop character in British crime fiction, and his cases are never less than totally readable. I particularly enjoyed this one, though, because it takes a new approach.

All the usual coolness of Mark Billingham’s crime-writing is there. The slick prose; the polished characterisation; the quickfire, uber-realistic dialogue; the grim tone – yet again the ‘real crime’ feel pervades this book: desolated lives, a non-empathetic public, the countless unsavoury elements that combine to create Broken Britain. This is vintage Thorne territory, but on this occasion the Met’s best bloodhound is not seeking to prove a murder suspect’s guilt, but to establish his innocence.

And it works so well.

Thorne is one of crime fiction’s top good guys, mainly because he’s believable – totally human and fallible – but at the same time he has all the attributes of a hero. He’s no angel, but he knows a dodgy situation when he encounters one, and he doesn’t care whose nose he puts out when he’s on the trail of justice. Hendricks of course – Thorne’s less conservative, happier-go-luckier other self – makes a great sparring partner, but together their combined intellect is a fearsome force. And this is the other thing about Time of Death: it is distinctly NOT a tale of brawn over brain. Don’t get me wrong; Thorne can kick arse if he wants to (and so can Helen Weeks, as this book illustrates), but this time it’s all about the minutiae of forensics, Thorne and Hendricks bouncing ideas back and forth at lightning speed as they strive to save an innocent man and rescue a tormented child.

This is raw, page-turning action, even though much of it is cerebral rather than physical.

And the background to it all is richly atmospheric too, the rain-sodden landscape a last word in winter dreariness, the support-cast almost entirely comprised of gossips and misery-merchants: metal-head taxi-driver Jason Sweeney is particularly odious and a masterwork of slow-building menace; Trevor Hare, the pub landlord and former cop who becomes Thorne’s confidant in the village, is an opinionated know-all; Linda Jackson herself ranges back and forth between sweetness, light and embittered, foul-mouthed shrewiness; even Stephen Bates is a self-centred oddball and someone you wouldn’t ordinarily root for, and yet such is Billingham’s skill that you end up doing precisely that.

This is one of the best and most unusual police novels I’ve read in quite a while, but it’s not just a procedural. Sexual misbehaviour is a key aspect of this story, especially abusive misbehaviour, and not just where extreme examples like homicide are concerned. But Mark Billingham is a serious writer – he doesn’t do pulp fiction – and as such he handles these heart-rending subjects with a deftness of touch and understanding that elevate the entire thing way above the level of routine tawdry suspense thriller.

Time of Death is an intriguing but grown-up mystery, played out at breathless pace and yet never once straying beyond the realms of the completely authentic. An excellent read.

And here again, just for fun, are my selections for who should take the lead roles if Time of Death ever makes it to the screen (Thorne is no stranger to TV of course; Sleepyhead and Scaredycat – Thorne #1 and #2 – both made it in 2010, and for me David Morrissey and Aiden Gillen were perfect in their respective parts, so I’d see no reason to change that now):

DI Tom Thorne – David Morrissey
DS Helen Weeks – Lorraine Burroughs
Phil Hendricks – Aiden Gillen
Linda Bates – Felicity Jones
Stephen Bates – Arthur Darvill
Trevor Hare – Trevor Eve
Jason Sweeney – Cillian Murphy
Aurora Harley – Anya Taylor-Joy


BROKEN MONSTERS 
by Lauren Beukes (2014)

The time is now. The place is Detroit, a city in its post-industrial death throes.

This is a landscape that is not just physically decayed, but morally bereft: where there are more citizens without jobs than with; where the homeless almost outnumber the residents; where over-worldly youngsters drink, take drugs and swear; where underage girls tease online paedophiles just for kicks, and high school kids are more interested in filming their friends being bullied than in helping them out; a place where graffiti and ruin-porn pass for art; where any hipster careerist thinks he/she can be a sculptor, or a musician, or a writer, or a journalist, or a social commentator, and yet somehow all of them finish up being vapid, vacuous wannabes.

In the midst of this urban ooze, cop and single mom Detective Gabi Versado finds herself investigating a particularly distressing case.

The fusing of a dead boy’s torso to the hindquarters of a deer sparks the commencement of a sadistic and gratuitous murder spree – the handiwork of a killer soon known as the ‘Detroit Monster’ because of the grotesque public displays he makes of his victims.

All the monumental complexity of a massive homicide enquiry follows, with various colourful but complex characters getting in on the act. For example, Layla is Gabi’s neglected yet spirited daughter, one of those brattish modern teens who can’t seem to live if she isn’t constantly active on social media, and yet who in this case is irrepressibly likeable; Jonno Haim is a failed New York writer-turned-blogger, a minimally-talented chancer looking to kick-start a career he hasn’t earned by shouldering his way into the Detroit arts scene; Thomas ‘TK’ Keen is an amiable hobo, a father figure to his fellow homeless, but a guy haunted by his own tragic and violent past; and then we have Clayton Broom, another failure – all these lives are broken in this land of broken dreams! – a skilled artist who struggles to support himself when his work doesn’t sell, and as such lives in a slum, absorbedly dwelling on his bizarre visions … which leaves him open to some very pernicious influences.

And this is the point where, for some readers at least, this novel’s wheels have come off.

Fans of Lauren Beukes, particularly those familiar with her stunning tale of magical realism, The Shining Girls, will probably expect Broken Monsters to enter the territory of the unreal at some point, and – well, that’s precisely what it does. Quite unapologetically. So be under no illusion. Despite first appearances, this is NOT a police procedural or even a traditional murder mystery.

At a relatively early stage, the identity of the felon is given away, but he quite literally is not himself. Call it what you will – an alien intelligence, a ghost, a demon, a faerie, an ancient god – but some powerful, unknowable and insane entity has awakened inside this already damaged soul, driving him to commit terrible deeds, each time intensifying the horror and savagery in its vain efforts to create better things, to entrance and heal the suffering public, and usher in a new age of wonder and enlightenment through the chalk doorways it motivates him to inscribe on walls near the scenes of his crimes.

And this is the real narrative, not the internal fantasy of a madman. The closer our various heroes come to resolving this case, the ever more bizarre, lurid and warped the realities they encounter, until we reach a point where you know in your bones that normality can never resume. It builds to such a crescendo of the weird and horrific that the annihilation of some of the good guys – or at least the annihilation of their sanity – seems inevitable …

I hate pigeon-holing in literature, but in this case it serves a valid purpose. Broken Monsters may not be your run-of-the-mill crime thriller. But neither is it your standard urban horror story. In fact, if the vague term ‘dark fantasy’ ever had a living embodiment, this is it. And so what if certain readers were not happy about that? That is down to their own preconceptions – they thought they were reading cops ‘n’ robbers when all the blurbs said otherwise.  

For me, in this case if none other, the quality is more important than the content. Because this is far and away one of the most readable novels I’ve ever picked up. It doesn’t just move at electrifying pace, it is exquisitely written. The loving descriptions of the half-abandoned city are intense and detailed – you can almost smell the oil and filth, the rotted steel, the rain-soaked concrete. The characters are rich and multi-layered, all forlorn, all struggling, all in many ways annoying, and yet on occasion funny and loveable too, and as such, so real that it is easy to form emotional connections with them. Even the killer is the star-turn in one achingly sad scene where, in an unwitting attempt to head off his ghastly future, he tries to reacquaint with the mother of his child, a slatternly ‘roadhouse mom’ – who casually and spitefully rejects him.

For all these reasons, Broken Monsters gets my highest recommendation. Yes, the change of gear (the ‘thriller to horror’ moment) is a bit of a jolt for those who didn’t anticipate it, but this is truly excellent stuff: compelling and fascinating, at the same time both depressing and uplifting. The depth and imagery of the ruined city and the raddled folk living therein is almost seductive; the soullessness of the internet age will horrify you; the constant madness of mass-communication, mass profanity, mass insolence, mass embarrassment – the whole damn thing is amazing and infuriating and scary and intoxicating all at the same time.

You may not love this novel (unlike me – I did, as if you can’t tell!), but I can damn well guarantee that you’ll be totally overwhelmed by it.

And as always – purely for a laugh, you understand – here are my picks for who should play the leads if Broken Monsters ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (which is surely very likely given the adaptation clamour that greeted The Shining Girls). 

Detective Gabi Versado – Salma Hayek 
Layla  – Amandla Stenburg 
Thomas 'TK' Keen  – Chris Chalk 
Jonna Haim  – Jonathan Rhys Meyers 
Clayton Broom  – Peter Stormare


THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY 
by Simon Wood (2015)

In Simon Wood’s heart-stopping thriller, The One That Got Away, PHd student and party girl, Zoe, has some rapid-fire growing up to do when she and her best friend, Holli, are abducted outside Vegas by desert serial killer, the Tally Man. Holli dies, but though Zoe escapes, she is both physically and emotionally scarred by the event, and finds her life in ruins. In fact, it gets worse than that. With one exception, the empathetic Inspector Ryan Greening, the cops are highly sceptical – there is no evidence of the abductions and soon Zoe herself becomes a suspect in Holli’s disappearance.

At the same time, the Tally Man – a deceptively clean-cut and yet highly obsessional psychopath – is very far from being finished with her …

This novel’s greatest strength in my view is its central character. Though initially a cold and distant figure, instinctively mistrustful of all those around her, Zoe remains likeable. A former free spirit, she is distressingly damaged by her experience … so you feel for her, you empathise with her pain. But at the same time, she isn’t cowed by trauma. In fact, she is driven by it to change her life, to become a hardened survivor, and in this you cheer her – because a key theme of this book is that fighting back, while not always desirable, may sometimes be a necessity if you want to make it through (especially when, as in this case, you can find no help among the grey faces of bureaucracy that surround you).

Of course, while Zoe struggles to convince the cops that she is the victim, the real killer – cool, intelligent, resourceful and relentless – gets ever closer, finally launching a protracted and carefully planned assault by which he intends to reclaim Zoe for his collection. Tired and alone, our heroine must face and resist this deranged aggression in almost complete isolation – which, though she is no longer the panic-stricken ‘fraidy-cat she was at the beginning, is a challenge of nightmarish proportions …  

Okay, this is a straightforward and simple idea. And yes, I’ve seen it done before, though rarely as well as this. The only real problem with this novel is finding enough time in which to sit down and read it, because trust me, it’s unputdownable. It starts out at 100 mph, and maintains that rip-roaring pace all the way through, the narrative careering from one hair-raising set-piece to the next. Some minor criticisms have been levelled at it: that it doesn’t possess enough twists and turns (virtually none, if I’m honest); that any cops behaving as some of these guys do would surely lose their jobs. But hey, it’s a great read … it keeps you on the edge of your seat and keeps you turning the pages, and what else is a thriller really supposed to do?

The One That Got Away gets my strongest recommendation, though as I say it’s another one you’ll need to find time for, because once you start you won’t want to stop. 

As usual, and purely for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if The One That Got Away ever makes it to the screen (and in this case, I’d be surprised if that didn’t happen):

Zoe Sutton – Emilia Clarke
Inspector Ryan Greening – Jared Padalecki
Marshall Beck, the Tally Man – Timothy Olyphant


THE DEMONOLOGIST 
by Andrew Pyper (2013)

Nothing is going right in the life of Professor David Ullman. He’s an expert in demonic literature, in particular Milton’s Paradise Lost, but he’s also an atheist, so he gets no spiritual fulfilment from this. In addition, his home life is a mess, his marriage falling apart and his 12-year-old daughter, Tess, suffering from depression. Then he learns that his best friend, Elaine O’Brien, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

In an effort to get away from it all, Ullman accepts a curious invitation to travel to Venice and bring his expertise to bear on “a phenomenon”. Taking Tess with him, he embarks on what he hopes will be a short but welcome holiday. However, the phenomenon turns out to be the apparent and rather horrible possession of an unknown man in a dingy backstreet house. Bewildered and distressed, Ullman returns to his hotel, only to find Tess in a similar condition, standing on the roof. Before he can intervene, she throws herself into the Grand Canal, screaming two words: “Find me!”

When the police search, no body is recovered. But Ullman saw the incident with his own eyes, and is certain his daughter is dead. He returns to the States, devastated, but soon embarks on a mission to learn more about the evil spirit he confronted in that grubby old house.

So begins a journey from religious denial to religious conviction for David Ullman. And it’s a very arduous journey indeed, a demonic entity that he’s only previously encountered in fictional work leading him from pillar to post across North America with a series of complex clues. It’s also a journey he must make with an extremely dangerous man on his heels, a proficient killer who calls himself ‘George Barone’ after a famous Mafia hitman. Whoever this guy really is and whoever’s paid him to pursue Ullman are details that remain elusive for the time-being. All that matters initially is Ullman surviving and unravelling the devilish puzzle that has been laid in front of him in the seemingly vain hope that, at the end of it all, he might find Tess, and that she might – just might! – still be alive …

In some ways, The Demonologist is more like a road trip than a horror novel, but be under no illusions. For all its arthouse trappings, it is a horror novel, and in some ways a very traditional one. It’s not even low on gore – there are killings aplenty, while the demon, when it appears, will be very familiar in its motives and manners to those imagined by orthodox religious folk.

And ultimately, at least at subtext level, that’s what this is all about: a soul’s voyage from darkness to light. It’s been suggested that in some ways it mirrors Satan’s journey in Paradise Lost; he too clawed his agonising way out of the pit, though in his case there was no chance of redemption at the end.  

David Ullman is a strange kind of hero – somewhat stiff, somewhat stuffy, quite superior on some occasions, and yet vulnerable and uncertain in others (he’s been dealt a pretty crappy hand, after all!), and for much of the time in this book, he’s terrified, relying on intellect rather than raw courage. For all that, he’s a nice guy in his odd, introspective way. So you can’t help but root for him along every inch of his difficult path.

I personally wasn’t terrified by The Demonologist, even though I first noticed it in various ‘top 10 scariest novels’ lists. But I was intrigued and pleasantly unnerved (the hitman is in many ways your very worst nightmare – an utterly cold, completely unemotional professional murderer), and once I got into it, I found it a damn good read. It’s taut, tense, and while it might not keep you awake at night, it will certainly keep you turning the pages.

As usual, just for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Demonologist someday makes it to the screen (I’ve heard that a movie version is in development, but we’ll have to wait and see):

Professor David Ullman – Brian Cranston
Elaine O’Brien – Mayim Bialik
George Barone – Viggo Mortensen



SEA TRIAL 
by Frank De Felitta (1980)

When adulterous businessman, Phil Sobel, and his married mistress, Tracey, embark on a secret boat trip to the Caribbean, they anticipate it will be the holiday of a lifetime. But they have no concept of the horrors ahead.

Rather than taking an official cruise, Phil and Tracey opt for a private charter run by a Florida couple, Captain Jack McCracken and his almost impossibly hospitable wife, Penny, who, as well as their luxurious motor-yacht (the amusingly named Penny Dreadful) also guarantee excellent seamanship and gourmet cooking.

Everything seems perfect. Captain Jack is a slightly odd fish – a bit distant, a bit philosophical, and he plays up outrageously to his self-image as a salty seadog. But Penny is very capable and can’t do enough for her guests, the sun is blazing and the sea that shimmering ‘swimming pool’ blue, so there’s no reason at all to assume this’ll be anything other than a luxurious experience.

Phil and Tracey feel they’ve finally got away from the stresses and strains of their deceitful life in New York

But only a couple of days in, things start going wrong: minor accidents and malfunctions, which gradually impinge on the couple’s enjoyment. In addition, the further they draw from land, the more their relationship with their hosts subtly changes. At first this is driven by necessity, the yacht’s systems failing and everyone having to pull their weight. But in a short time, Phil and Tracey are being treated less like paying customers on the boat and more like employees, and underpaid, ill-treated employees at that.

And of course by now there is no sign of land, and the two lubbers don’t have the first clue where they are …

If you’re a fan of both sea horrors and psycho thrillers, you can’t do much better than Sea Trial. Okay, it’s an old novel, one that’s been swimming around in the back of my awareness for several decades, and which for some unfathomable reason (alright, enough puns!) I’d failed to take a chance on. Well, now I have – and I’m very glad.

It’s a simple enough yarn, following a very basic premise – innocent couple get lured far from their comfort zone by the falsely charming, and are then plunged into a web of insanity. But it’s written in absorbing fashion, relying initially on brief but ominous hints that things may not be all they seem, and once the downward tilt towards disaster finally begins, accelerating to a rollicking pace, the fear and agony poured on unrelentingly.

De Felitta also achieves the near impossible by transforming the beautiful and serene Carribean Sea – and it never changes from that, there’s rarely a cloud in the sky – into a metamophorical desert where all hopes of rescue and salvation are repeatedly dashed.

This book is also a masterclass in the creation of understated villainy. Fictional baddies who roar and bellow don’t impress me much. Likewise, baddies who scream abuse as they brutalise, or baddies who cackle insanely. You don’t get any of that here. Nontheless, this is terrorising ordeal for the hapless victims caught up in it. How frail we ordinary humans sometimes are when confronted by monsters of the realistic variety. How weak we appear when straying only a few nautical miles from our orderly world and finding ourselves in the realm of savages …  

As always, just for a bit of a laugh, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Sea Trial someday makes it to the screen (I believe Tom Selleck was once lined up for a TV movie version, but whether that ever happened, I’m not sure):

Phil Sobel – John Hamm
Tracey Hansen – Holliday Grainger
Jack McCracken – Iain Glen
Penny McCracken – Rachel McAdams



YOU ARE DEAD 
by Peter James (2015)

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace faces one of his toughest ever challenges when, in the midst of moving house one rainy Christmas, at the same time as having to bury and grieve for a beloved colleague, he finds himself with two very serious crimes on his desk: a young woman is abducted from the garage below the flats where she lives, while elsewhere in the city a body is uncovered by workmen – this too belonged to a young woman, though by the looks of it she was killed at least a couple of decades ago. Initially there is no obvious connection, but then another girl disappears, and another, and it dawns on Grace with more than a smattering of horror that he might be investigating Brighton’s first serial murder case in 80 years.

You’d think the ace investigator with the ultra-reliable and professional team would be well equipped to deal with this. But these are tough times for all involved, Grace in particular – because suddenly there is fresh information about his first wife, Sandy, who disappeared 10 years earlier and who, for a brief time at least, he was suspected of having murdered. This is more than a little bit distracting for him, but never let it be said that any maniac – no matter how sadistic or deranged – can get the drop easily on Roy Grace …

You Are Dead is the 11th outing for Peter James’s popular police hero, and for my money one of the best yet.

Grace is a hugely likable character. Not just a sharp and fearless detective, or the cool hand on the tiller of what is almost always a massive and complex police operation, but an everyman too – life gets in the way for him much as it does for the rest of us mere mortals, he has personal issues and professional issues, things aren’t always great either at home or in the office. As such, we completely empathise with him. (He also has a remarkably warm relationship with his goldfish, Marlon, which I find charming and amusing in equal measure). But despite all this, of course, the killers keep coming – and someone has to catch them. Yes indeed, the Roy Grace novels are a deadly serious business.  

You Are Dead doesn’t just rattle along at the usual frenetic pace, hitting us with twists and curve-balls at every turn, working its way inevitably to another breakneck climax, but more so than almost any of the previous novels, it amply illustrates one of Peter James’s greatest trademarks – his astonishingly detailed research.

From the beginning with Grace, James set himself a difficult task, focussing on the SIO, the guy in command, and thus, with each book, needing to give us a constant and accurate overview of everything happening with the investigation. That would be a mammoth job even without the need to weave it into a fast and intriguing narrative. But James pulls it off in You Are Dead with his usual effortless aplomb. All the authenticity is there – you actually feel you’re in a real Incident Room, surrounded by the most up-do-date crime investigation technology, in company with coppers who look and sound like real coppers – and yet none of it is intrusive. James’s police protocols and procedures are bang-on, his understanding of even minor legalities is superb, his handling of police relationships as realistic as I’ve ever seen – yet this is background stuff; the narrative itself remains uncluttered, its pace relentless. Like all the others, this at heart is a very human story, one man determinedly pursuing an enemy of society with his wits and his courage, and risking life, limb and love in the process.

Another unforgettable entry in the Roy Grace canon. Absolutely terrific. 

As I usually do, and purely for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if You Are Dead at some point makes it to the screen (there’s been talk for years about a TV series – which I personally would love to see, but I don’t think anything’s imminent, and even if it was, it obviously wouldn’t start with You Are Dead, so this one really is just for fun):

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace – Colin Firth
Cleo – Tamzin Outhwaite
ACC Cassian Pewe – Aiden Gillen


NAOMI’S ROOM 
by Jonathan Aycliffe (1991)

Cambridge professor, Charles Hillenbrand’s life comes to a crashing halt one snowy Christmas Eve when his four-year-old daughter, Naomi, is abducted during a shopping trip to Hamleys. When her mutilated body turns up a few days later in Spitalfields, his world ends.

Inconsolable, Charles and his wife, Laura, will never be the same again. They must now eke out a miserable, blame-filled existence in their once handsome townhouse, their formerly close relationship doomed, their careers on hold. But is Naomi really gone? Because the next thing they know, a haunting has commenced – initially little more than bumps in the night, though it soon escalates into far more terrifying phenomena: footsteps in the attic; strange faces peering from windows when no-one is supposed to be home; Naomi’s toys moving around apparently of their own volition. However, it is only when a troubled press photographer called Lewis presents Hillenbrand with a series of snapshots in which curious half-seen figures are visible in constant attendance on the family that it becomes apparent something more is at work here than the spirit of a happy child who doesn’t yet realise she is dead …

As a lifelong fan of supernatural fiction, I always knew that at some point I’d have to check out Jonathan Aycliffe, aka Denis MacEoin’s spine-chilling classic, Naomi’s Room, and for some inexplicable reason it’s taken me this long to do it. However, I got there in the end and I was not disappointed.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot, because basically there is a mystery to be solved here, and a very frightening one – which Hillenbrand, our tortured protagonist, must get to the bottom of (and then survive the horror of its shocking revelation!), or he’ll never find peace of mind again. Okay, that may sound familiar in a cosy ‘English ghost story’ sort of way. But it all really worked for me. The tone of Naomi’s Room is exactly the sort I like when it comes to spooky fiction. There is something of the Gothic about it, something of M.R. James. Hip young academics though they are, the Hillenbrands still live apart from the rest of us, cosseted in the elitist, hermetically-sealed world of Cambridge academia. But as with M.R. James’s best stories, ultimately that provides no protection against the insidious threat of some decidedly malevolent spirits, whose cruel intent becomes more and more apparent the further on you read.

Unlike many stories in this traditional vein, there is quite a bit of gore in this one, while the basic premise concerns the torture and murder of children – and the author makes no effort to conceal those details from us – so it’s a bit more disturbing than the norm. But don’t let that put you off, because if you’re here to be scared, you’re in the right place. By the latter stages of this novel, the atmosphere of dread is immense, the sense of helplessness in the face of the maleficent ‘other world’ overpowering.

Even with its dollops of grue, it may still sound a tad safe and conventional to some of you. I wouldn’t totally deny that, but it’s really an excellent chiller with full potential to keep you awake at night, and so is well deserving of the fine reputation it has gained for itself over the many years of its publication.

Once again, purely as a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Naomi’s Room were ever to make it to the screen. I think it would make a particularly good 'ghost story for Christmas' type drama, if the Beeb ever get around to doing more of them. (I believe it is currently under option somewhere, but then what isn’t?):

Charles Hillenbrand – David Tennant
Laura Hillenbrand – Lenora Crichlow
Lewis – Rhys Ifans
Detective Superintendent Ruthven – Sean Harris



ELEVEN DAYS 
by Stav Sherez (2013)

When a small convent burns down in a quiet corner of West London and the ten nuns who lived there are incinerated alive, there is shock and horror – even more so when it becomes apparent the fire was started deliberately. However, this is not just a tragic case of arson. When DI Jack Carrigan and DS Geneva Miller are ordered to investigate, they quickly uncover a number of bewildering mysteries. Why did the nuns just accept their terrible fate, seemingly making no effort to escape? Why was there an unidentified 11th corpse in the ashes; as it transpires, the corpse of Emily Maxted, an angry and rebellious young woman who normally would never be seen anywhere near a church? And where is the mysterious Father McCarthy, the priest who supposedly tended to the nuns’ spiritual needs and a man with a shadowy past?

Under pressure from their superiors, in particular the narcissistic Assistant Chief Constable Quinn, to close the case quickly, preferably before Christmas – which is 11 days away – Carrigan and Miller embark on a difficult, time-pressured enquiry, which rapidly opens up into something enormous and, as it soon comes to involve South American politics, radical theology and ruthless Albanian gangsters, more perilous than anything they’ve experienced before.

If that isn’t enough, the Machievellian politics of both the Metropolitan Police and the Roman Catholic Church provide numerous distractions and in some cases near insurmountable obstacles. Lots of people have things to hide, it seems, and some have no intention of going down without taking large chunks of the world with them …

This is a labyrinthine tale, but a completely compelling one, so cleverly written by Sherez that almost every chapter either sparks a new revelation or ends on a genuine cliff-hanger. It is also a very mature novel, painted in shades of grey in that, though it does feature some of the nastiest villains I’ve come across in quite a while, there is scarcely a character in it who doesn’t have some angle, some issue, who by personal necessity is failing to follow the straight and narrow. The various political and religious activists, for example, are exceedingly well drawn – portayed largely as idealists, whose motivations are often to be lauded and yet whose zealotry has completely clouded their judgement. In an age of easy targeting, it’s a relief to see so sensitive a subject handled in such a grown-up manner.

On top of that, the whole book is played out in a near-Dickensian atmosphere of heavy snow, bitter frost and the impending Christmas season, which gives it an almost otherworldly feel (and not necessarily a pleasant one, as both our main protagonists think they are facing the festive days alone). 

Carrigan and Miller make great heroes, both still vulnerable after suffering personal sadness and yet stoic and determined, and, despite differing in professional terms, dealing quite manfully with the clear if unspoken feelings they are developing for each other. They are especially challenged in this story, as they are frequently dealing with elite-level opponents to whom their police status is meaningless – which makes you cheer all the more for them as they gradually progress the investigation (though quite often, and very realistically in terms of the frustration caused, it’s often a case of one step forward and three steps back).

One of the most intriguing and suspense-laden police thrillers I’ve read in quite a while, and despite the grimness of the concept, almost poetic in the quality of its penmanship. Hugely deserving of its critical acclaim.

As usual, purely for fun you understand, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Eleven Days ever makes it to the screen (it would be the second in the series, A Dark Redemption coming first, but let’s do it anyway):

DI Jack Carrigan – Clive Owen
DS Geneva Miller – Eva Green
Donna Maxted – Emma Watson
Roger Holden – Ben Kinglsey
ACC Quinn – Tom Wilkinson
Father McCarthy – Ken Stott
Viktor – Jerome Flynn



THE TERROR 
by Dan Simmons (2007)

In 1845, the Franklin Expedition set sail from England to forge the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. It wasn’t the first expedition to attempt this, and it wouldn’t be the last. But few better equipped vessels under the control of more reliable and experienced crews would ever undertake the task. It is all the more baffling then that the Franklin Expedition wasn’t just a failure but a catastrophe. Both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, vanished without trace – it was 2014 before the remnants of one of the vessels, the Erebus, were found underwater in Baffin Bay, and though a few pathetic graves were also discovered onshore, the majority of the 200-strong crew were never accounted for.

What actually happened will never be known, but in his blockbusting horror opus, The Terror, US author Dan Simmons gives us his own unique version of events – and it is one of the most enthralling and chilling stories you are ever likely to read.

As if the ravages of hypothermia, frostbite, scurvy and lead poisoning aren’t enough, the ships’ crews, who are already icebound when we join them, must also deal with a ferocious and unstoppable monster drawn straight from the darkest corner of Inuit mythology and now intent upon hunting them to the last man …

But, whatever you do, don’t come at this book under the impression that it’s simply a creature feature. Yes, the monster is relentless and terrifying and one of the main characters in the book – and its attacks are truly horrific, but there is so much more to The Terror than this.

To begin with, Simmons gives us a detail-crammed account of a hugely complex and heroic undertaking, leaving nothing out as he constructs in our mind’s eye the image of an invincible force, the best the Royal Navy’s Discovery Service can offer – the cream of its officers, the pick of its men, and the finest two ships in the fleet, both driven by new-fangled steam engines and ploughing the ice with their armour plated hulls – and then, slowly and sadistically deconstructs it, hitting us blow by blow with its gradual deteoriation in the White Hell of the Arctic wilderness, one thing after another going wrong from the mundane to the unbelievably disastrous … until all that remains is annihilation. Even without the monster, this would be an orgy of hardship, the participants constantly called on to use every scrap of strength and ingenuity they have just to survive for one day more, and so often failing.

It’s an epic of endurance, a saga of suffering. And as such, the book is massive – its prodigious length (an amazing 944 pages!) has supposedly put some punters off. But it’s so well-written and so readable that – for all its colossal length there is scarely no padding, and despite the fact so much of it is spent on the desolate ice-floes or deep in the nauseating dungeons below decks – its pace just bounces along. 

And as I say, it’s more than just a litany of horrors. Before its huge cast of characters gets whittled down, Dan Simmons creates a vivid cross-section of 19th century sea-faring life, from tough, professional seamen to damned rankers, from captains courageous to traitors and mutineers. The life-and-death intricacies of Arctic navigation are also laid out in minute and fascinating detail. It’s a wonder of research. You’d almost believe Simmons had been there himself and experienced it.

And then we have the set-pieces, which are among the best and most savage I’ve ever read. The battles with the ice-beast, the brutal flogging of the seditious, the cannibalisation of slain comrades, and most startling of all, a grand and crazy masquerade on the ice – men driven mad by cold and starvation cavorting in lurid costmes, performing profane rituals from the world of Grand Guignol in temperatures of a hundred below …

I can’t say anymore, except that The Terror is a historical horror masterpiece and must be read to be believed. Whatever you do, don’t let its size put you off. This is a page-turner of the first order.

And now, as usual just for fun, a bit of fantasy casting. My picks for who should play the leads if The Terror were ever to make it to the screen (my latest understanding is that a TV series is in development – probably not enough masked superheroes for it to get the big screen treatment):

Captain Francis Crozier – Michael Fassbender
Doctor Harry Goodsir – Timothy Spall
Lieutenant John Irving – Eddie Redmayne
Cornelius Hickey – Andy Serkis
Thomas Blanky – Robson Green
Lady Silence – Roseanne Supernault
Sir John Franklin – Anthony Hopkins



WITNESS THE DEAD 
by Craig Robertson (2013)

A brand new sex killer is terrorising Glasgow, dumping and displaying his ‘party girl’ victims in ritualistic fashion in the city’s various Gothic cemeteries. 

A seasoned but dysfunctional murder investigation team swings into action, aided and abetted by young crime scene photographer, Tony Winter. But this will be no straightforward enquiry. Retired detective Danny Neilson – Tony’s uncle – is convinced he’s seen this maniac’s hand before. Back in the ’70s, he hunted a Glasgow rape-strangler known as Red Silk, who also picked his victims up in bars and nightclubs. The problem is, the Red Silk murders were eventually pinned on another Scottish serial killer Archibald Atto – and Atto is still inside, serving a full-life sentence.

So what’s going on? Did the original Murder Squad get it wrong? Is this a copycat murderer? Or a student of Atto perhaps? One question definitely needs answering – how is it that Atto, all but incommunicado in the isolation block, knows so much about this latest batch of heinous crimes? …

I have all kinds of reasons to recommend his novel. A Glasgow native, Craig Robertson brings the wintry city to life in glorious, gritty form, using lots of real locations, and painting a vivid picture of its lively and street-smart population – both as it is now, and as it was in the sectarian early ’70s. He also knows his local history, because this fictional case is clearly influenced by the unsolved Bible John murders of the 1960s, a dark chapter in Glasgow’s history, which continues to haunt many of those who remember it.

The police enquiry itself is excellently handled and worryingly authentic – there are lots of stresses and strains in the team, not to mention inopportune moments of realistic error-making, while the sheer griminess of its members’ daily experience has had a brutalising effect on them. There is little love lost here, and almost no political correctness, especially where hard knut boss DI Derek Addison is concerned, but none of this matters because this is not the nice, safe world so many of us inhabit – it is dark, bleak, dangerous, and at the risk of sounding clichéd, the wolves that scour it will only be brought down by wolves of a similar nature.

Robertson is also known for his character work, and it’s never been better exemplified than it is here. Winter himself is a flawed hero, his fascination with the artistry of violent death leaving him open to the wiles of Atto, who, during the course of several tense interviews, starts to recognise a like mind in the young snapper. This makes it all the more difficult for Winter’s on-off girlfiend, DS Rachel Nary, who might once have been the warm heart of this investigation unit had she too not been battered by life. For me though, the star of this show is Danny Neilson, who we see in two parallel narratives, as he was when still a carefree lad-about-town copper back in 1972, and as he is now, old, overweight, grouchy, constantly trying to patch up his many failed relationships, and at the same time obsessed with the case he never managed to solve.

So yeah … this is a bit of an ensemble job, with several lead characters, all of whom go on dark if fascinating journeys. And all the time of course, in the background, the clock ticks down to yet another vile murder.

I’ll say no more except that it’s a tour-de-force. If you like your urban crime fiction grimy, and you enjoy looking a little more deeply into the lives and loves and hates and fears of those caught up in it, then this one is definitely for you.

As usual, just for the fun of it, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Witness The Dead were ever to make it to the screen:

Tony Winter – James McAvoy
DS Rachel Nary – Karen Gillan
Danny Neilson – Brian Cox
Archibald Atto, Red Silk – Ciaran Hinds
DI Derek Addison – Dougray Scott



DEVIL’S PEAK
by Deon Meyer (2005)

Devil’s Peak takes us into the heart of Cape Town’s Serious and Violent Crimes Unit, where one of the lead investigators, now a recovering alcoholic, finds himself pitted against the most dangerous opponent of his career.

DI Benny Griessel is an instinctively brilliant detective, a natural hunter of criminals. But hard drinking has destroyed his family life and made him a laughing stock in the department where once he was a legend. Not a good time for him to come up against ‘Artemis’, a vigilante serial-killer targetting child-abusers, who doesn’t just enjoy what appears to be advanced military training but is operating with the tacit approval of many of Griessel’s fellow cops.

One of the most startling thing about this crime masterwork from South African author, Deon Meyer, is that it was originally penned in Afrikaans. All the more credit, then, to translater KL Seegers for producing such a beautifully written and yet blood-pumpingly readable English language version.

But it isn’t just about the action. A far, far cry from your basic ‘cops and robbers’ or blow-by-blow ‘good guys v bad guys’, Devil’s Peak is a grown-up and multi-faceted tale, tough and visceral in tone, but also rich in flawed characters and deeply redolent of both urban and rural South Africa; not just the geographic landscape, but the political and social scene as well.

The three central personalities: drunken cop, Griessel, high class call-girl, Christine van Rooyen, and vigilante avenger, Thobela Mpayipheli, are so well-drawn that you can literally see them in front of you. Griessel in particular is a wonderful creation. You might be tempted to say, “okay, another alcoholic antihero … big deal”, but in this case it’s for real. By this I mean that Griessel’s recuperation from his alcoholism is every bit as gruelling as you’d expect it to be in reality. The reader isn’t spared a single torturous moment of his DTs, or allowed to forget for one minute the devastation his drinking has caused in both his private and public life. It makes him a hugely sympathetic if very conflicted hero, but hardly equips him to face the floodtide of heinous crimes exploding around him.

And yet this is all very serious stuff. The painful realities of an understaffed police force trying to function in the face of corruption, cynicism and spiralling crime rates, and in a society still divided and impoverished in so many ways, are never skimped on. There are times in Devil’s Peak when you really do wonder if there is any hope that good can overcome evil.

Anyway, I’ll say no more, because this novel has to be read cover to cover to be fully appreciated, and once you start you won’t be able to stop. I managed it in only two sittings, if I recall correctly.

A taut but very human crime thriller, which rises to a spectacularly brutal and exciting finale. No wonder Meyer is so highly rated. It’s my first one of his and won’t be my last. He deserves all the accolades.

Just as a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if we’re ever fortunate enough to see Devil’s Peak transferred to the screen (I think an adaptation may possibly be in development):

DI Benny Griessel – Arnold Vosloo
Thobela Mpayipheli, ‘Artemis’ – Idris Elba
Christine van Rooyen – Jessica Marais


THE DEEP
by Nick Cutter (2015)

When the world’s population is decimated by an incurable and rapidly expanding plague, mankind’s last hope rests with maverick scientist Clayton Nelson and his team as they test a possible solution at the foot of the Challenger Deep (40,000 feet below the ocean’s surface). But when all contact with the submarine base is suddenly cut – seemingly at Clayton’s own whim – the only remaining option is to send down his brother, Luke, to try and talk the nortoriously erratic genius around.

But Luke and Clayton, having shared a nightmarish childhood, don’t get on very well, and in any case there are things lurking down there that are beyond the normal comprehension of most human beings.

Make no mistake, the events that follow comprise pure horror – for all sorts of reasons.

Never has the terror of deep sea exploration been as fully and vividly realised as it is here. Nick Cutter takes us down through untold lightless fathoms to a realm that is alien in every sense of the word; an environment where oxygen itself turns toxic, where the tiniest chink in the hull could create an incoming jet of water so intense it will slice a man in half, and yet where native creatures exist that have no place in any sane creation. But it isn’t just the twisting of physics and biology that bedevils the reader’s mind here, it is Man’s helplessness in the face of it. With Hell triumphant on the outside, on the inside of the claustrophobic sea-base the foulness and disarray is horrendous; the sense of besiegement under millions of tonnes of crushing black water is overpowering. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book to which my most overriding response was “thank God I’m not there”.

And if all that isn’t bad enough, then there is the actual enemy – a force of evil crueller and more terrible than anything ever encountered on the ocean floor before (and just imagine what that actually means). A sentient something that will play catastrophic havoc with human minds, not to mention their anatomy, purely for reasons of its own fascination. To say more about this would be a real spoiler, but put it this way, there are some occasions when wickedness knows no bounds – quite literally; neither intellectual, spiritual, nor even physical. There are points in this novel where you must be prepared to be very disgusted indeed.

At the same time, Luke Nelson, a likeable hero in every possible way, is no more than an everyman. A veterinary surgeon, who by pure luck – pure bad luck in this case – happens to know the egomaniac scientist well. He has no skills of his own that he can bring to bear in this demonic zone, no specialist knowledge. His battle-scarred military sidekick, Lieutenant Alice Sykes, aside from being a submersible pilot, is in a similar position. The desperate twosome find themselves completely at the mercy of forces beyond their imagining, and yet somehow they must not just endure, but must save the world with their actions.

This an amazing piece of fiction. Another against-all-odds ordeal for the characters involved,  which races along at whipcrack speed and yet is written with great visual elan, including the complex technical stuff, which Cutter never shirks, but presents to us in quick, slick, easy-to-understand fashion. It is is also both horrifying and terrifying – in that numbing, near-nihilistic way that always seems to earmark those ‘adventures’ occurring on the very edge of human reality. An oceanic horror classic.

As always, and just for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if we ever get to see The Deep transferred to the screen:

Dr. Luke Nelson – David Franco
Lt Cdr. Alice Sykes – Charlise Theron
Prof. Clayton Nelson – James Franco

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