Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Demons, demons ... everywhere demons!


We’re firmly back on the horror trail this week. Primarily, that’s because there are big developments with the TERROR TALES series that I want to tell you about, but also because I’ll be reviewing and discussing A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS, Paul Tremblay’s masterly study of a suburban family’s catastrophic decline during the course of what may or may not be a demonic possession.

As always, you’ll find that review towards the lower end of today’s blog. Skip straight on down if you’ve a mind to, but if you’ve got a bit more time, perhaps you’ll be interested to hang around and see what’s happening with TERROR TALES.

First of all, if readers of the series can forgive me, I’ll just need to give those who are new to it a quick thumbnail sketch.

TERROR TALES was born from my love of regional folklore, not just in the UK but all over the world.

It was long my dream to commence editing a series of anthologies dedicated to this uniquely homespun brand of horror, but in order to create as broad an overview as possible, I knew that I’d need to focus each particular volume on a specific geographic region. So, for example, the first book in the series was TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT. Since then, we’ve covered, in no order of preference, the COTSWOLDS, EAST ANGLIA, WALES, LONDON, CORNWALL, the SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS, YORKSHIRE, the SEASIDE and the OCEAN.

My plan was not just to publish new fiction based on local terrifying mythology, but also to reprint a few classics here and there, and to intersperse the stories with short, factual anecdotes on the same theme.

So, again using TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT as an example, the marvellous stories Little Mag’s Barrow and The Coniston Star Mystery, as written by Adam Nevill and Simon Clark respectively, found themselves sitting either side of a vignette concerning the life and crimes of Tom Fool, the Mad Jester of Muncaster Castle (also depicted on the book’s cover). This has been the style of the series ever since, and from the responses I’ve had from readers, one of its most popular aspects.

When I first started with TERROR TALES back in 2011, the plan was to publish two books a year. But events have gradually conspired against that. My own novel-writing career has, to a degree, sky-rocketed, which has left me much less time to focus on the anthologies, and by the same token, Gary Fry, the owner of Gray Friar Press, the original publisher, has seen his own career develop and been left with no option but to move on.

This caused a brief interlude in the series, though last year we returned with a new publisher, Telos Books, and our first new title in a year and a half, TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL.

I’m glad to say that our audience hadn’t deserted us, but even now, with a new publisher behind us, doing two books a year is a bit on the difficult side. So, the revised ambition is just to do one. That will be a much more manageable time-frame and will give all those involved opportunities to do other things as well.

As such, this year’s offering, which I’m hoping will be available for pre-order in the early autumn, will be TERROR TALES OF NORTHWEST ENGLAND. I’m not able to show you the cover yet, though I’ve already viewed Neil Williams’s sensation artwork, and I’m totally blown away by it. Hopefully it will be available for you all to take a good look at in the very near future. Keep watching this space.

Making movies

Still on the subject of horror anthologies, here’s a fun thing.

I loved the recent, very scary movie, Ghost Stories (below, right), not least because it went where other recent British horror movies have feared to tread.

Some of you will already know that it was adapted by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson from their stage play of the same name. It tells a nightmarish supernatural tale in which three chilling shorts cleverly interweave with a central narrative, creating a very satisfying whole. It got a mainstream cinema release, which is a rarity for this kind of movie in the 21st century, and has been widely viewed and applauded.

At one time, British cinema was no stranger to this kind of thing. I’m sure you’ll all remember the halcyon days of the Amicus portmanteaux: Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt, Torture Garden, Vault of Horror, Asylum, etc … which were very successful in the 1960s and 1970s (having taken their cue, of course from the classic Ealing chiller of 1945, Dead of Night).

I’d like nothing better than to see horror film-makers get back to this format in some shape of other, and it seems I’m not the only one. After the success of Ghost Stories, I understand that The Field Guide to Evil, another big-money portmanteau horror, is currently in production, while Channel 4 is presently running its True Horror TV series, in which real-life ghostly events from around the UK are each week dramatised and presented to us in short ‘horror fiction’ fashion.

In respect of this apparent new interest in the short scary form, I thought I’d slightly alter my regular Thrillers, Chillers, Shockers and Killers section, by occasionally reviewing and discussing anthologies and single-author collections as well as novels – and each time I cover one, selecting four particular stories from it, which I’d love to see incorporated into a single movie, complete with my usual fantasy casting, etc.

While I’m not in a position to review any new anthologies at this moment, though I’m already inserting several into my to-be-read pile, I thought I might as well start with the Terror Tales books. I won’t review these as such – that would bit rich, me reviewing my own anthologies (five stars all round, lads!) – but I can at least turn each one into a portmanteau horror movie, pick the four stories necessary and cast them. In which case, assuming you’ve bought into the conceit of that, we might as well start at the beginning, with TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT (I’ll work my way through the others during the course of this year).

So, here is …


Just a bit of fun, remember. No film-maker has optioned this book yet, or any of the stories inside it (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed. Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book – I love all the stories in these anthos equally – but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, and your vivid imaginations, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories to each other. It could be that they’re all trapped in a cellar by a broken lift, and are awaiting rescue (a la Vault of Horror), or are marooned on a fogbound train and forced to listen to each other’s fortunes as read by a mysterious man with a pack of cards (al la Dr Terror) – but basically it’s up to you.

Yes, I know, I’m copping out on that bit. But, tough. You’ve got the idea. So, without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I envisage performing in them:

ABOVE THE WORLD by Ramsey Campbell

Lonely soul, Knox, is convinced that he hasn’t returned to the idyllic country hotel on the shores of Lake Bassenthwaite because he’s nostalgic about the holiday he once spent there with his lovely wife, Wendy. He’s moved on from those happy days, he tells himself, as he sets out on a solo hike through the surrounding fells, despite the impending stormy weather. He doesn’t regret their separation several years later, and he feels no grief that his ex-wife and the new man in her life suddenly and recently died while exploring these self-same wooded hills. What matter that he keeps hearing the drifting voices of an elusive couple? What matter the increasing sense that he isn’t alone in this bleak, desolate place …?

Knox - Steve Pemberton
Wendy - Anna Friel

THE CONISTON STAR MYSTERY by Simon Clark

Amateur frogmen, Blake Keller and Andrew Harper plan to scour the depths of Coniston Water, searching for the remains of famous escape artist, Iskander Carvesh, who drowned in 1910, when the boat he was chained upon, the Coniston Star, sank without trace. It’ll be a dangerous dive, but Keller and Harper know what they are doing. The only potential fly in the ointment, is Enid, a handsome blonde they’ve only known a day but who wants to accompany them. Loudmouthed Keller delights in trying to frighten her with his tales of underwater peril, but Enid is no novice, and she has dark reasons of her own for making this very dangerous dive …

Keller - Steve Oram
Harper - Michael Socha
Enid - Florence Pugh

THE CLAIFE CRYER – by Carole Johnstone

The tale of the Claife Cryer, a horrible, disembodied voice said to have cried out from the shadows on the wooded west shore of Windermere, luring a young ferryman to his death, is one of the scariest Lake District ghost stories Kerry has ever heard. But of course, she doesn’t believe it, or she tries not to on the day she and her unpleasant father attempt a bonding exercise by exploring that thickly-treed region. Local gossips say the voice belonged to a deranged monk from a monastery now long abandoned. Spooky as that is, Kerry doesn’t feel it’s half as bad as spending time with her scornful and argumentative parent, but then, as twilight descends, she hears an awful cry. And then she hears it again. And again. Undeniably, it’s getting closer …

Kerry - Ella Purnell              
Dad - David Morrissey

THE MORAINE by Simon Bestwick

College lecturers Steve and Diane’s relationship is in trouble. Hopes were high that a Lake District hiking trip would be just the thing. But they’re still not getting on, and that’s not helped by the terrible October weather, everything wet and gloomy, and now – typically – just when they’re lost among the high, rock-strewn peaks, a thick mist coming down, which ensures that they lose the path as well. Even then, in danger, they don’t form easy allies – though in truth, they don’t know the meaning of danger yet. That will only come when they realise they’re being stalked by something unseen, something that can mimic animal sounds and human voices, and which appears to be stalking them underneath the endless heaps of moraine …

Steve - Iwan Rheon
Diane - Jessica Brown Findlay


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi 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 HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS 
by Paul Tremblay (2016)

Meredith Barrett is an intelligent, sophisticated and seemingly stable young woman, leading a relatively quiet life in a South Boston apartment. However, it’s fairly well known that when she was a child, something appalling happened to her family, something she hasn’t been able to speak fully about for years, in consequence of which the true facts in the case are much-mythologised. When best-selling author, Rachel Neville, arrives to interview Meredith, a loose agreement has been reached that the younger woman will finally, for the first time, tell all.

Rachel is unsure what she is going to get, or whether it will be adequately enthralling for a new book, but the story, when it starts to unfold, astounds her. It concerns a young suburban family entrapped by an intangible but malevolent something, which may have an entirely mundane (i.e. psychological) explanation, or alternatively could be the work of the Devil.

Central to the story are the then-eight-year-old Meredith, known back then as Merry, and her 15-year-old sister, Marjorie. They enjoy a typical sisterly relationship, adoring each other but at the same time adversarial, delighting in catching each other out with naughty, sometimes nasty tricks. Marjorie is the cannier and more dominant of the two, but Merry, while not necessarily adept at this game, is so willing to meet every challenge that Marjorie treats her with a degree of grudging respect, and affectionately calls her ‘Monkey’.

From a reader’s POV, it’s a charming scenario, and something that’s instantly recognisable in happy families everywhere.

The rest of the Barrett clan consists of father, John, a Catholic by upbringing who, since he lost his middle-management job a year and a half ago, is trying to re-energise his religious beliefs, and mother, Sarah, also a Catholic, but one who has grown away from the Church of her childhood and is now skeptical of its teachings.

Worried about their dwindling finances, the parents are going through a difficult patch, but their real problems commence when Marjorie starts displaying erratic behavior. On some occasions, it’s odd but harmless, Marjorie telling her sister some unusually scary and macabre stories, or rearranging her bedroom posters into weird patterns, but on others it’s more sinister, such as when she sneaks into Merry’s room while she’s asleep, and clamps her nose and mouth shut.

Merry, as our main observer, is never quite sure whether Marjorie, a natural mischief-maker, is faking all this bizarre stuff or not. But parents, John and Sarah, have been concerned about Marjorie’s fractious, moody behavior for some time.

Initially, at Sarah’s behest, a psycho-analytical approach is taken, but medical personnel, though they talk to her and prescribe meds (for which they charge handsomely), are unable to fix the older girl’s apparent personality-change, which continues to worsen. One minute she is mocking her father’s belief in Heaven in a cruel, smug way, and the next she is screaming at her parents to get the voices out of her head.

Increasingly fearful that she might be possessed, a worry encouraged in no small fashion by Marjorie herself when she climbs the bare wall of her bedroom with spider-like strength and agility, John finally calls on a Catholic priest, Father Wanderly, who talks to Marjorie, seemingly calming her during a foul-mouthed tirade, but afterward admits suspicion that something evil has taken hold of her. Eager for publicity, the priest then makes an incredible suggestion: that the Barretts put themselves into a weekly television show, in which Marjorie’s deteriorating behavior will be filmed and discussed by various ‘experts’ in the field, from psychiatrists to theologians, with the grand finale the exorcism itself, at which point the heroic priest will cleanse the child of the entity possessing her.

Unsurprisingly, Sarah is not keen on this idea, but when a television company gets involved and substantial cash is offered, everything changes.

Thus, The Possession is born.

In the early stages, the experience isn’t too painful. Merry is intrigued to have TV people living with them. She doesn’t much like producer/director, Barry Cotton, but she gets on well with writer, Ken Fletcher. Marjorie’s antics remain unpredictable, but this is something that Merry, in that traditional way of easy-going eight-year-olds, has got used to. So, everything is cool.

Until Merry sees her sister strapped down on her bed for hardline interrogation. Until she sees her parents’ relationship completely break down, Sarah blaming John for this invasion of their lives, and John, who’s been desperate to find answers in his faith and has failed, losing track of reality and engaging in violent altercations with the crowds of curious onlookers who now attend their house day and night (many openly vilifying the family for this exploitation of their daughter’s illness).

And still there are questions in Merry’s mind about whether Marjorie is faking it. The older sister is a crafty child, even sly. In that tiresome way of all teen rebels without a cause, is it possible that she could be doing this to punish her quarreling mum and dad? Is it that she’s just a silly, naïve child, who, as a form of attention-seeking, is unconsciously allowing a callous media to manipulate her? Or could it be that she’s simply mentally ill? … because from the frightening things we are seeing now – and yes, by this stage of the narrative, it is way past a joke! – we could easily be witnessing a psychological breakdown.

Or alternatively, is it something genuinely evil?

There is no overt indication that a supernatural force is at work, but then … would a demon that wants to do extensive damage reveal its hand so quickly? And despite at one point assuring Merry that she has pretended to be possessed from the beginning in order to win her family the TV deal, Marjorie continues to give the impression that she is under some kind of malign influence, speaking in different, unrecognisable voices, moving around on all fours, and displaying arcane knowledge.

Despite the covert admission made to her, Merry is still unsure what to believe. And so are we, the readers. But one thing is certain. The ghastly turmoil besetting the Barrett family is not going to be resolved easily, or without serious and maybe multiple casualties …

Possession is an old premise for horror stories, these days. But Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts is a very original take on it. Whereas in early classics like William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (not to mention recent movies like The Rite and The Conjuring), the investigators, usually after some doubt, settle on a firm conviction that evil spirits are real, A Head Full of Ghosts takes more of a Shirley Jackson approach, keeping us guessing right to the end of the book. And rather than doing this by locking everyone in a supposed haunted house for the weekend, the author throws us into very unfamiliar territory by locating it in a suburban family home, now massively disrupted not just by the elder daughter’s apparent illness, but by the economic stresses that are driving the parents apart, and the unfeeling presence of a TV crew who are mainly interested in securing a ratings hit.

And this is a point where A Head Full of Ghosts becomes a genuine horror show, with every key character tormented in his or her own way, and on various levels.

Non-believing Sarah only goes through with the whole farrago because she knows they need the money (if there’s any demon here, it could be argued that it’s Mammon). But even this leaves her racked with guilt, not just because she fears that she’s giving credence to something she reviles, the paternalistic power of the Church, but also because she can clearly see that Marjorie’s condition is worsening, not improving. This is such a terrible burden that she can’t bear it alone, but of course she can’t put it onto her daughter because she is convinced the teenager is ill, and so she directs it at her husband, treating his religious desperation as a kind of pathetic hysteria.

For John, it’s even more torturous. As head of the family, and former main bread-winner, he would normally be the guy who sorts things out, but on this occasion he can’t – in fact it’s quite the opposite, the burly, bearded Bostonian constantly belittled by his wife and his smart-mouthed daughter (or whatever’s lurking inside her). He’s vulnerable in other ways too: his certainty that they’re facing an infernal foe is terrifying him given that God and his angels seem incapable of intervening; at the same time, he is bewildered and mortified that his Christian beliefs are attracting scorn rather than respect, which in the end leaves him a puppet of a man, easy to manipulate and easier still to blame (and maybe, just maybe, the absolute perfect target for a genuinely malevolent intellect).

And then there is Merry, who, all the way through the book views these events in a mild state of disbelief, internalising the shock because she’s a child, naïvely assuming that one day she’ll simply wake up and find everything back to normal because her mum and dad have resolved it. Overall, Merry is a marvelous creation, Tremblay completely and convincingly getting into the lively and genuinely funny day-to-day world of a bright little eight-year-old.

Not that this reduces the awfulness of the predicament, an effect the author achieves without throwing buckets of gore and vomit over us or hitting us with horrendous blasphemy (though these disturbing elements are not completely absent). He primarily relies on the interplay of these tormented individuals, a once close-knit family brutally broken, and who though they’re now in a virtual goldfish bowl of public attention, are more isolated than they could ever have imagined.

There is such devastation here that I’m not sure it even matters whether a devious intelligence is directing the chaos, or whether it’s just rotten luck; the terror of this tale doesn’t need any such revelation. But even so, the book ends with a savage jolt, which because it again makes you reconsider everything you’ve just read, caps the whole thing off perfectly. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Tremblay enjoys himself immensely in this book, filling it with a host of classic horror references, which has attracted much praise from the genre. We’ve already mentioned The Exorcist, The Turn of the Screw, and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (a study of young woman going slowly mad) is clearly lurking in the background, along with The Amityville Horror (wherein a middle-class family struggling to pay their bills turn to the supernatural as a solution), Paranormal Activity, which also features a pair of quirky children at the root of the disturbance, and even Scream, another postmodern horror outing which trades on sneaky allusions to other works of fiction. If these references aren’t oblique enough in the text itself, you get several of them through an amusingly hyper-critical ‘horror fan blog’ provided by a lively young lady called Karen Brissette, which interrupts the narrative at regular intervals, analyzing the TV show from an uber-cynical ‘keyboard warrior’ perspective – though be warned, even this slice of 21st century normality is deceptive.

Overall, A Head Full of Ghosts is one clever, insightful and darkly entertaining horror novel. Just don’t expect your spirits to be uplifted by it.

It’s usually the case when I complete one of these reviews, that I also try to cast it. But I don’t think I’m going to bother with A Head Full of Ghosts simply because the two main characters are the youngsters, Merry and Marjorie, and as I have no real clue about exciting new child actors, it would utterly self-defeating to cast everyone except the two main protagonists. Either way, A Head Full of Ghosts deserves to be on the screen in some shape or form, and as soon as possible, because it is horror stories like this that will keep the genre alive and kicking at adult and intellectual level.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

New Brit-grit, new journeys into darkness

I’m happy today to be able to reveal in all its glory the cover for the next Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH

Those who follow the investigations of DS Mark Heckenburg of the Serial Crimes Unit at Scotland Yard will likely be aware that this seventh novel in the series will be published on August 9 this year, and though its cover, which I hope you’ll agree is rather eye-catching, has been knocking around for a few weeks on one or two online retail sites, today is the official cover launch, so it’s possible that most of you will now be seeing it for the first time.

I’ll be talking a bit more about it, and the book, shortly. But in addition this week, on the same subject of gritty new cop thrillers, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing BLOODY JANUARY by Alan Parks, a smack-in-the-face slice of tartan noir (and at the same time a period piece), which takes the Brit-grit genre even further into the realms of hardboiled crime fiction.

If you’re only really here for the Alan Parks review, that’s fine. Skip down to the end of today’s post. As usual, you’ll find it there. But if you’ve got a couple of minutes first, I’m sure you won’t mind if I elaborate a little on the subject of KISS OF DEATH.

I will admit to being quite taken by the above cover. I don’t just consider it striking, it’s also relevant to the narrative, and regular readers of modern crime fiction will probably agree that that’s unusual.

So often these days, our thriller novels are jacketed with what are almost standardised images.

Quite often, for example, if it’s a police procedural, we’ll get a diminutive figure silhouetted against either a generic urban backdrop, or, if it’s a police procedural set in the sticks, against a bleak rural backdrop. If there’s a particularly dark tone to the book, we might simply see a run-down cottage set against emptiness, or if we’re in the world of domestic noir, there’ll be a suburban variation on that theme. Then again, if we’re dealing with gangsters rather than cops, we might focus on a figure in an overcoat, maybe wearing shades and hefting a firearm, or perhaps a roulette wheel scattered with jewellery and spent bullet casings.

I’m not being derisory when I make these observations. These are the memes the current marketing crowd go for in order to hit maximum sales, and it works, so who can complain? And yes, the KISS OF DEATH cover, to an extent, fulfils that tradition. It’s a cop thriller, so again we have a small figure silhouetted against an awesome backdrop. But in this case it’s the sea, and that’s the clever part of it.

Because in KISS OF DEATH, one of the many locations Heck visits during the course of his investigation, is Cornwall.

Regular readers of the series will know that Heck is a detective sergeant in the Serial Crimes Unit, which is part of the National Crime Group (before anyone accuses me of pinching ideas from reality, the real-life National Crime Agency, also based at Scotland Yard, was only formed after the first Heck book was published, and so I always say that they pinched the idea from me). And because this gives him a remit to cover all the police force areas of England and Wales, he tends to follow clues all around the country, taking in a host of different venues.

STALKERS, the very first Heck novel, took him from Kent to Manchester to the Midlands. In SACRIFICE, he travelled from London to West Yorkshire, in THE KILLING CLUB he ended up on Holy Island off the Northumbrian coast. DEAD MAN WALKING took him to the Lake District, HUNTED to the Surrey Weald.

It’s the same in KISS OF DEATH, Heck following all leads doggedly, which ultimately will lead him, among other places, to the East End of London, Humberside and yes, as I’ve already promised, the idyllic Cornish coast at the height of a lovely summer.

I obviously can’t give too much of the synopsis away at this stage, but suffice to say that in KISS OF DEATH, the National Crime Group is finally feeling the economic pinch. Police forces all over the UK are having to rationalise their resources and manpower because, in the age of austerity, the funding is simply not there. Even NCG’s most specialist departments, of which the Serial Crimes Unit is only one, are having to take a long, hard look at themselves.

In the Heck book prior to KISS OF DEATH, which was ASHES TO ASHES, you may recall that Heck was on the trail of a professional torturer who rented himself out to the highest bidder. Inevitably, he worked mostly for crime syndicates, and on that occasion, it took him to Greater Manchester, to Heck’s industrialised hometown of Bradburn in fact, where a splinter-group had broken away from the local drugs cartel, resulting in a bloody underworld feud. At the same time, while the torturer happily toured the Northwest with his so-called Pain Box (a caravan filled with torture devices), in the pay of one side, the other brought in their own fearful enforcer, the Incinerator, a crazy killer who used a flamethrower to reduce his targets to ashes. Heck, of course, was caught smack-bang in the middle.

Eventually, as you’d expect, it was resolved (but not without casualities), and the Serial Crimes Unit closed a major case. But when KISS OF DEATH commences, even this hasn’t been enough to ensure their survival. Money is simply too tight, and full-time murder investigation teams are deemed a luxury the British police can no longer afford. As such, Heck’s boss and one-time girlfriend, Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper, is handed a list of the UK’s most wanted felons who are still at large and still believed to be in the country.

Their crimes range across the board of horror; from Terry Godley, who hijacked a car in Nottingham, making the two teenagers inside it kneel before shooting them both in the back of the head, to Christopher Brenner, who chained three sex-workers in his Luton cellar, beat and raped them, and then left them to starve, to Leonard Spate, who strangled a Carlisle prostitute and then burned down the house in which her two children were sleeping – and these heinous specimens are only a few of them. Heck is instructed to focus on Eddie Creeley, a Humberside-born bank robber and kidnapper, who during the course of his ultra-violent career has killed at least two people after taking them hostage and injecting them with drain cleaner and battery acid.

Oh yes, only the worst of the worst figure on this list.

Of course, Heck undertakes the pursuit with his usual gusto, but very quickly uncovers a clue that leaves him bamboozled: a video tape portraying the fugitive in a desperate fight for his life.

The police, it seems, are not the only party in pursuit of Eddie Creeley. In fact, they’re not the only party in pursuit of all the other villains on the list. And, what’s more important, this mysterious other party could already be several steps ahead of the Serial Crimes Unit … so much so that a literal harvest of blood is already being sown.

The big question here, though, is just how far are the British police, and Heck in particular, prepared to go to protect some of the country’s very worst killers?

I actually only finished my final proof-read of KISS OF DEATH yesterday, but I am more than happy with the way it’s turned out, and am very hopeful that readers will enjoy it. Particularly because there are some explosive developments in Heck’s overall storyline here, which could pitch the entire series into a completely new direction …

With luck, you’ll all approve and enjoy.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi 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.

BLOODY JANUARY 
by Alan Parks (2017)

The time is January, 1973. The place is Glasgow.

Change is in the air. Huge slum-clearance programmes are in progress (and grotty high-rise flats being thrown up in their place). Motorway extensions are being built that will bring traffic into the heart of town (and carve up the neighbourhoods). And heroin is set to arrive.

Okay, illegal drugs have always been here, but this is something else. A smack epidemic is about to engulf Glasgow, which will ruin countless lives and at the same time empower the city’s numerous ‘disorganised crime’ elements, turning street-gangs into full-time syndicates who will wage bloody war, not just against each other, but against the forces of law and order.

In this book, those forces are represented by Detective Constable Harry McCoy, a copper who, even though he’s relatively young, has been round the track a few times already. He drinks, takes drugs, sleeps with whores and breaks police protocol without conscience. Now, please don’t immediately switch off, thinking this a total cliché. Because though, yes, we’ve met many cop characters like this in recent fiction, in McCoy’s case there’s something a little more appealing about it.

Primarily, that’s because he’s ordinary.

Yes, he’s damaged. Yes, he mistrusts colleagues and hates criminals. All ‘noir hero’ boxes ticked so far. But McCoy is no man of steel who can knock out six hoodlums with a single punch. He’s no master of the one-liner. He doesn’t draw lustful glances from every femme fatale he meets. He’s basically a normal guy, who works hard but is okay at his job rather than brilliant, and a regular mickey-taker where his fellow detectives are concerned, especially trainee investigator, ‘Wattie’ Watson, and if his morality sometimes seems blurred on the surface, there’s no question that he (usually) will do the right thing; he’s even sympathetic to the underclass, or ‘jakies’ as they are called, which would certainly have marked him out as unusual copper in that time and place.

Harry McCoy is a likeable, lower-class everyman, who ended up being a Glasgow cop rather than set out to be one. But either way, he’s about to undertake one of the most challenging cases of his career.

When old lag, Howie Nairn summons him to the famous ‘special unit’ in the hellhole that is Barlinnie Prison of the early ’70s, he is told that a certain waitress in the city, a girl known only as Lorna, will be subject to a gangland hit the following day. Little additional info is available regarding this. McCoy doesn’t know why this particular waitress will supposedly be killed, when it will happen, or how, and as such he only looks for her half-heartedly. But no sooner has he found her than she is indeed killed, shot dead right in front of him, in the middle of the street, by a seemingly crazed gunman, who also shoots at the police and then turns the weapon on himself.

It’s a perplexing mystery, because despite the warning McCoy was given, it doesn’t feel like an underworld assassination, more like a domestic gone badly wrong. He and Wattie get stuck into it anyway, at the same time as investigating other routine crimes, even additional murders (this is a tough city). Departmental boss, DCI Murray is an ally of sorts, and though he isn’t here solely to cover McCoy’s back and demands results in the most aggressive way, he does give his detectives a considerable amount of leeway; far more than they would enjoy today (laid-back Detective Alaisdair Cowie for example, seems to glide effortlessly through every shift).

Not that this helps in the long run. The puzzle deepens when Nairn is himself murdered, his body left in a prison shower with throat slashed and tongue cut out. After this, McCoy leans back towards the syndicate angle, at which point Murray’s enthusiasm starts to wane. When McCoy discovers that the deceased waitress doubled as a good-time girl once the sun went down, and had connections to the aristocratic Dunlop family, the boss decides that enough is enough. Lord Gray Dunlop and his wild-living son, Teddy, are two of the wealthiest, most influential men in the city. They also have a posse of important friends, one of whom, the psychotic former cop, Jimmy Gibbs (who also happens to be dating McCoy’s ex), behaves as their unofficial fixer. Murray, totally unnerved by this, finally clamps down on the enquiry, leaving McCoy and (somewhat more reluctantly), Wattie, to investigate it off the books.

McCoy eventually turns to Stevie Cooper, a close friend from when they were in care together as children. Cooper, who is bigger and stronger than McCoy, used to defend him back during those terrible days, but he’s now a villain in his own right. What makes this relationship particularly difficult is that, though Cooper has no apparent links to the Dunlops and their secret cadre of highclass weirdoes, his own criminal ambitions are soaring, mainly due to the new-fangled heroin trade. He’s also sampling his own product more than is good for him, which is turning him paranoid, reckless and steadily more violent.

McCoy thus finds himself investigating a complex murder case while having to rely on the most unreliable sort of assistance, in the full knowledge that when he finally gets an answer – assuming he ever does, and isn’t himself killed en route – he isn’t even sure that he’ll dare pass it on to the city’s higher powers …

Long before I got to the end of Bloody January, which from the outset is a vivid recreation of Glasgow in the grimiest days of the early 1970s, lots of comparisons were rattling around inside my head. I thought about stark TV plays of that era, like Peter McDougall’s Just Another Saturday, which focussed on sectarian tensions in the city. I thought about John McKenzie’s seminal A Sense of Freedom, adapted from the biography of East Glasgow gangster Jimmy Boyle. I even thought about Ted Lewis’s remarkable evocation of the post-60s gangland culture in Northern England that was Jack’s Return Home (i.e. Get Carter).

Alan Parks’s Bloody January bears comparison to all these tasty slices of period Brit-grit, not least because it near-perfectly evokes a time when the hopes and fears of the 1960s had leaked away, leaving a residue of drugs and despondency, and a pile of worn-out cityscapes where poverty and unemployment were rife. But also because it depicts a fledgling organised crime scene, wherein yesterday’s nobodies have suddenly become today’s kingpins and yet still only have a few men to call their own, whose product is sparse and poor quality, who rarely even handle firearms let alone possess the stockpile that you’d expect today, and yet who, through the forbidden fruit they can offer, still court the interest of the metropolitan elite, not just corrupt politicians, but entertainers, TV personalities and journalists as well (opinion-leaders who, in their turn, can ensure that understaffed, underpaid and generally under-motivated police forces will largely be ineffective against them).   

In all these things, Alan Parks is right on the money with Bloody January.

Be under no illusion, you are there … in that exact place, in that warts-and-all timezone. Those who experienced the era for real won’t be entirely thankful. The 1970s seemed great to me, but then I was only a teenager and didn’t appreciate just how much a rough-and-ready British society was unprotected from itself. Those who weren’t there meanwhile, will be jolted – because it really was another planet.

Okay, it’s Glasgow. And in fact, it’s not just Glasgow, it’s the worst parts of town – the Gorbals et al – districts which back then were near enough no-go zones for everyone but the razor gangs who controlled them (perhaps not surprisingly, this is one of the first crime novels I’ve read in a long time when I felt genuine relief that it was Harry McCoy doing the investigating and not me). These are neighbourhoods where you have to watch your back at all times, where the underworld – though it aspires to be Al Capone – is still largely cooped up in soulless pubs and austere tenements, and makes up for its lack of wealth and jazz with extreme violence. (And yes, that’s all here too, in graphic, bloodcurdling fashion – you have been warned).

But what did I think of the actual book?

Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have one or two minor reservations.

As an ex-copper – and I worked a rough part of inner Manchester – I knew plenty men who would struggle to cope with the job these days, who drank hard and were less than gentle in their dealings with both suspects and the general public. But I knew none who were junkies.

I could be wrong here, but it seems to be the curse of many modern authors that they attach 21st century civilian notions of drugs and drug-taking to police characters, and this especially jars for me when we are talking about coppers of former eras. Because as recently as the 1980s, when I served, while you might have had many poisons of your own, to take the poison of those scumbags laying waste to the same working-class communities you yourself grew up in would have been well nigh unthinkable. I know few other criminal trades so reviled by police officers as drug-dealing; at least, that used to be the case. So, I have my doubts about that aspect of Harry McCoy’s character (though as I say, I can’t boast an all-encompassing knowledge on this).

I’m equally unsure about McCoy’s relationship with hard-man Stevie Cooper. Though, as fellow Catholics, it’s entirely plausible that they came up through the same school of sectarian hard knocks together, it deflated me a little to see McCoy, a hard-nosed detective, so weak in comparison to his hoodlum ‘brother from another mother’. But that doesn’t spoil things too much, if I’m honest. And I can’t deny that it adds an intriguing twist to the plot, which, as I say, interweaves with all the most satisfying tabloid type shenanigans of that era, pop stars and landed gentry hobnobbing with mobsters and hookers (even David Bowie makes an appearance at one point, a great moment in the book, even if the star doesn’t really seem to know where he is – which, given that this was 1973, is probably fairly accurate).

And yet, while we dip in and out of this pseudo glitz and glamour, we see the downside too. Alan Parks is no apologist for inner city villainy. While, in the time-honoured fashion of tartan noir, he looks beyond the evil facades of his criminals (Jean ‘Madame Polo’ Baird, for example, is a whorehouse madame but also a highly complex character), examining the origins of such behaviour and giving us a hero in McCoy who, on occasion, seems to have more in common with the underclass than the ‘polis’, he doesn’t stint in showing us the full fall-out of organised crime – and this makes for some distinctly uncomfortable reading. You don’t join heroin whores in their freezing, bombed-out flats without feeling the hopelessness of their lives and a deep fury at those who have caused it. You don’t experience the utter brutality doled out to everyone and anyone who doesn’t get with the programme without hating and fearing those responsible.

Apparently, Bloody January is Alan Parks’ first published novel. Well, if that’s truly the case, he’s already found his voice, hitting us with a slick, stripped-down narrative, which doesn’t waste a word on extraneous detail and yet still manage to capture the essence of every person and place it introduces us to, and invokes a wonderfully brooding atmosphere. It also hits the mark in its portrayal of the cops. Okay, there might be a degree of exaggeration here, with so many of Glasgow’s class of ’73 depicted as bent, inept or simply uninterested – they may have been a rough lot back, but folk should remember that they were doing a dangerous, thankless job at a very difficult time – but Parks nicely captures the interplay between them, which is endlessly profane, irreverent and amusing and fits right in with the tone of the book.

I can only hope that as Parks presses on with his career, he sticks somewhere close to this fast, gritty style. Take that and the enthralling narrative, and I whipped through Bloody January’s 300 pages as if they weren’t even there. I’m pretty confident that other crime fans will too. If you’re a student of the genre, and you haven’t had a piece of Alan Parks yet, time to rectify that.

And now, as always, I’m going to stick my neck out and to cast Bloody January’s key roles in the hope that it’ll some day soon hit our TV or cinema screens. Just for laughs, of course; as if anyone who matters would listen to my views. But anyway, here we go:

Harry McCoy – Richard Madden
Wattie – Kevin Guthrie
Murray – Robert Carlyle
Jean Baird – Julie Graham
Stevie Cooper – Sam Heughen
Jimmy Gibbs – Kevin McKidd
Lord Dunlop – Mark Strong
Cowie – Craig Ferguson

Monday, 23 April 2018

Scouring Manchester’s darkest underbelly


It’s all about Manchester, this week. Ah yes, football, chip butties and Boddington’s bitter, right? 

Well ... sometimes maybe. But not today. Today, we’re looking at the darker side of the Northern English capital, its murder, its mayhem, its lurid criminal underbelly … or at least, we’ll be pondering it.

Because not only will I today review and discuss SIRENS, Joseph Knox’s enjoyable slice of Manchester Noir, I’ll be talking about my next Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH (Heck being a Manchester man displaced to London, of course), I’ll be previewing NOIR AT THE BAR, MANCHESTER, a literary event I’m honoured to be participating in, which is scheduled for this Thursday (April 26), and focussing a little bit on four lady crime-writers of my acquaintance, who, while they don’t necessarily live in Manchester any more, or even always write about it, were all born and/or raised there, and, as you’d realise within moments of chatting to them, are still Manchester lasses through and through. 

They’ve all got new books out too, or will have in the next month or so – so a little showcase here ought to be timely.

Before we get into all that, if you’re only here for the SIRENS review, that’s fine. You’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s blog. Feel free to scoot on down there right now. Otherwise, let’s get on with the rest of the business.

Firstly, a little bit about NOIR AT THE BAR, MANCHESTER.

For the uninitiated, Noir at the Bar is a literary tradition that first began in the States – in the four great cities of Philadelphia, St Louis, Los Angeles and New York, to be specific – and it involves crime fiction readers and fans gathering in specified public bars, where, needless to say, a damn good drink will be had by all, and where several noted crime writers (along with one wildcard entry, i.e. an amateur who wins a draw) will read out five-minute extracts from their next or latest novels.

Hugely popular in North America, the phenomenon spread to the UK a couple of years ago, and Noir in the Bar events are now springing up all over the country. I’ve been honoured to be invited to participate in three so far – Noir at the Bar, Carlisle a couple of years ago, Noir at the Bar, Wigan last year, and now Noir at the Bar, Manchester (which you can attend as a punter completely free of charge this Thursday, 7pm at Lock 91, 9 Century Street, Manchester (M3 4QL).

The full line-up consists of: Paul Finch, Cath Staincliffe (right), Chris Simms, Danielle Ramsay, Heather Burnside, Marnie Riches, Robert Parker, Roger A Price and, of course, the Wildcard. For my own part, I’ll be reading an extract from the new Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH (due for publication on August 9).

On that subject, I was hoping to have a cover to show you today, but apparently it isn’t quite ready yet. I’m reliably informed that it will be available for your perusal on or around May 10, so keep watching this space for that. The official blurb is now up, however, and I’ll run it in a second.

Ironically, given that we’re talking so much about Manchester today, KISS OF DEATH is probably the first Heck novel in ages wherein he doesn’t visit the city. In fact, he seems to go everywhere but, from Humberside to the East End of London to Cornwall. But I venture to suggest that it’s still relevant to today’s chit-chat, because Heck, or DS Mark Heckenburg, as regular readers will know him, is a Manchester native who originally joined the Greater Manchester Police and only later on, in order to escape a family trauma, transferred south to the Metropolitan Police, where he was assigned to the National Crime Group and became a mainstay of the Serial Crimes Unit.

As an ex-GMP cop myself, who ended up relocating to London, it was reasonably easy to get into the mindset of the guy, though even if I hadn’t been, there are precedents I could have followed. You may remember the character Jack Regan (right), from the pacy TV series of the 1970s, The Sweeney (one of my all-time favourite cop shows). Regan was also a Manchester man who found himself displaced to London, joined the Met and became a typical two-fisted DI of the old school.

In an affectionate nod to all that, Heck himself is courted by the Flying Squad in KISS OF DEATH, which sequence includes this passage:

     And it wasn’t as if the Flying Squad itself wasn’t appealing. Heck had worked Tower Hamlets Robbery once, though that had been a smaller role – mainly he’d found himself going after muggers and other street bandits. The Sweeney pursued the big boys. For that reason, there’d always been a certain glamour about it – they were regularly in the press and on TV. Their reputation for being wideboys, just a bit too close in spirit to the East End villains they often investigated, had always put him off in the past.
     But again, things changed.
     ‘Not that Squad DIs don’t do a bit of soldiering themselves from time to time,’ Hunter added. ‘Just think, Heck, you can make your ultimate fantasy real … you’ll be Regan Mark II, a displaced Manchester lad working over the blaggers of London ...’

 Anyway, I won’t go on about it too much because it’s still a couple of months off. As I said, I wanted to reveal the cover this week, but it’s not there yet. In the meantime, here is the official blurb:

A Deadly Hunt - DS ‘Heck’ Heckenberg has been tasked with retrieving one of the UK’s most wanted men. But the trail runs cold when Heck discovers a video tape showing the fugitive in a fight for his life. A fight he has no chance of winning.

A Dangerous Game - Heck realises that there’s another player in this game of cat and mouse, and this time, they’ve not just caught the prize: they’ve made sure no one else ever does.

A Man Who Plays With Fire - How far will Heck and his team go to protect some of the UK’s most brutal killers? And what price is he willing to pay? 

I’m also, as promised, intending to chat at least a little bit today about four Manchester-born female crime writers, whose work I’ve become enamoured with. And all four, as I said, have got new books out, either now or very soon, so it seems timely to give them a bit of a plug.

First up, Amanda Robson may have been born in Manchester, but graduated towards crime-writing after working in medical research at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and in the Poisons Unit at Guy’s Hospital, where she co-authored a book on cyanide poisoning. Her new novel, GUILT, was published one week ago, and concerns Zara and Miranda, twin sisters who always support each other … until Zara meets Seb. Handsome, charismatic and dangerous, Seb threatens to tear the sisters’ lives apart – but is he really the one to blame? Or are deeper resentments simmering beneath the surface? As the sisters’ relationship stretches to the brink, a traumatic incident in Seb’s own past then rears its head and all three find themselves locked in a psychological battle that will leave someone dead. The question is, who?

Next up, we have Caroline England, a Mancunian by adoption as she attended university there (having been born - and whisper this bit - in Yorkshire!!!) and never moved away again after. A lawyer by origin, Caroline’s new book, MY HUSBAND’S LIES, hits the shelves next month, and tells the tale of a wedding gone sour when a close friend of both the bride and groom winds up on on a hotel window ledge, ready to jump. The happy couple, Nick and Lisa, are stunned by this development, soon realising that neither they nor their closest friends have been as honest with each other as they perhaps should. But is that the whole of it? Could it be there are secrets lurking here that might destroy everything and everyone.

Third on the list, Sam Stone has worn a number of different hats during her writing career, dabbling successfully in vampire erotica, the supernatural and steampunk, but moving increasingly now into the world of noir. She’s a Prestwich girl by origin though currently living in Lincolnshire, and a former teacher. Her latest novel, POSING FOR PICASSO, recently published, strongly hints at her horror/fantasy roots, telling the tale of a Russian artist in New York, who becomes unjustly implicated in the mutilation/murders of his various models.

Last but by no means least – because this one is a force of nature - Marnie Riches, by her own admission grew up in a rough part of Manchester but ‘learned her way out of the ghetto’, earning a place at Cambridge University, where she gained a Masters degree in German & Dutch. Previously a children's author, she now writes very hard-hitting crime – the Guardian described her as ‘a leading light in Mancunian Noir’. Her latest novel, THE GIRL WHO GOT REVENGE (published one week ago), throws her regular character, criminologist Georgina McKenzie, into a complex double-murder case in Amsterdam.

As I say, not all these ladies write about Manchester these days, or even live there, but they are Manchester girls to the core, and if you’re a native yourself and/or of a mind to actively support some of the city’s finest daughter, well … you now what you’ve gotta do.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

SIRENS by Joseph Knox (2017)

Detective Constable Aidan Waits is facing dismissal from the Greater Manchester Police. The product of a horrendous upbringing in care, he was probably unsuited for policework from the start, not least because it has brought him into contact with all kinds of irresistible temptations. You see, Waits may be a cop, but he is also an alcoholic and an amphetamines freak, who has increasingly let down his colleagues and got into more and more trouble with his supervisors.

However, a chance to redeem himself comes along unexpectedly when the hard-bitten Detective Superintendent Parrs of the Drug Squad decides that he’s the ideal person – a permanently semi-inebriated wreck! – to infiltrate the Franchise, the Manchester crime syndicate headed by London-born drugs kingpin, Zain Carver.

The purpose of this is twofold: firstly, to gather vital intelligence on a cartel who, now that their main rivals, the ultra-violent Burnside gang, have fallen apart, are completely dominating the city’s narcotics trade (and in the process flush out whichever corrupt copper is supplying the intel that’s keeping Carver ahead of the game), and secondly, to locate Isabelle Rossiter, the wayward 17-year-old daughter of bigwig politician, David Rossiter, who has run away from home and has been seen hanging around Fairview, the palatial residence where Carver hosts most of his drugs and prostitute parties.

This would be a dangerous mission by any standards, but Waits manages to ingratiate himself with the Manchester mob – mainly by letting Carver know that he’s an out-of-favour copper who may be useful! – only to be tempted again by the drink and the drugs, and this time by the women too. Carver’s world is only a pseudo-glamorous one, superficially glitzy on the outside while on the inside it’s rotten and abusive, but he has in his employ a bunch of beautiful young women, his so-called Sirens – Catherine and Sarah Jane, for example – who dress as party girls in order to traverse Manchester’s pubs and clubs, collecting his illicit earnings, and where necessary, supplying yet more illegal substances to the various dealers. In truth, these are sad, forlorn creatures – who knows what kinds of lives they were escaping to come and work here? – who Waits, in his few lucid moments, feels pity for as well as lust.

All these girls think they’re in love with Carver, though his attitude to them is more ambiguous; he cares about them to a degree, and is apparently keen to know what happened to Joanna Greenlaw – a former siren who vanished a decade earlier – but ultimately, though they affect the air of femmes fatales, they are nothing more to the callous gang-boss than mules.

Less attractive fixtures in Carver’s domain are Danny ‘Grip’ Gripe, his deformed enforcer, and brutal, bullying barman/dealer, Glen Smithson. In addition, as Waits is on the lookout for bent coppers, several shady lawmen also catch his attention: Special Branch’s Alan Kernick hangs around a lot, ostensibly to look after David Rossiter’s interests, but Waits soon starts to suspect that he has a deeper involvement in these nefarious activities, while DS Jim Laskey, though a refined sort on the surface, is another one making regular, unexplained appearances (and whose police methods when you get on the wrong side of him have more in common with the 19th century than the 21st).

I don’t want to say too much more about the synopsis of Sirens, because it’s a twisting, turning path that Waits takes as he works his way deeper and deeper into the city’s slimy underbelly.

Suffice to say that his judgement is not always the best. An ill-advised affair with Catherine leaves him vulnerable in many ways, not least because it means he takes his eye off the ball, infuriating his superiors at police headquarters, whose response is virtually to abandon him. As such, when Isabelle Rossiter, now a siren-in-waiting is found dead, the victim of a tainted batch of heroin, which claims other victims too – in a particularly graphic and horrible scene! – he can only press on with his enquiry by joining forces with Carver, who finally suspects that some mysterious third party is stalking his operation, looking to do a lot more damage than simply closing him down …

I’m sure Joseph Knox will forgive me if I confess that my initial reaction on hearing that he’s the new Raymond Chandler was that I’d believe it when I saw it. Time and again in noir fiction, we’re advised that a new master or mistress has come onto the scene who’s going to take it by storm. We’re confidently told that London, Liverpool, Birmingham – or in this case, Manchester – will be the next LA, as a new, downtrodden but street-savvy investigator wends his or her way through a world turned dark with corruption and vice.

All these things, and more, have been said about Joseph Knox and his new character, DC Aidan Waits. But the proof is always in the eating, to quote a cliché, and having now eaten, I think I can safely say – as a former Manchester cop and journalist, and as a crime writer who’s also set some of his novels in the northern capital – that a lot of those comments are non-too-wide of the mark.

Sirens is indeed an impressive slice of Manchester Noir.

All the boxes are ticked: it’s a neon-lit and yet gloom-ridden scene, filled with litter-strewn passageways, burned-out warehouses and seedy clubs, the backdoors to which are always lit by lurid red light, and peopled by hookers, addicts, bent cops, corrupt politicians and of course gangsters – lots and lots of gangsters. What’s more impressive is that this sleazy atmosphere doesn’t come at us in dollops of grandiose info-dump, but is threaded throughout Knox’s narrative. Quite simply, it’s always there; this is the world that Aidan Waits moves through constantly, barely noticing it let alone passing judgement. It’s a cynical ploy by the author, really – a frank depiction of a ghastly environment, which, because he totally immerses us in it, we have no option but to accept, but it doesn’t half work.

Some reviewers, rather indignantly, have said that this isn’t Manchester. Others meanwhile have said that it absolutely is. Personally, I’m not sure it matters. It may be accurate in its portrayal of landmark and location, but Sirens is a work of fiction, not a street-guide. In this book, Manchester is as much a character as Waits, and represents a real effort by the author to recreate the kind of urban jungle backdrop that Chandler did so effectively with Los Angeles, and Mickey Spillane with New York.

And of course, at the very heart of it there lies this hugely complex mystery. Ultimately, by crime novel standards, it’s almost something of nothing – no-one’s attempting to unleash a chemical weapon here, or to massacre a record number of the city’s prostitutes. As fictional criminality goes, it’s relatively low-key. But it’s fascinatingly done, and again, very Chandleresque, numerous puzzling threads dangling on every page, the reader haplessly trying to tie them all together as he/she progresses, and yet there’s never a moment when you think ‘this just doesn’t make sense!’, especially as, when you get to the end, it all comes together in the neatest way.

I freely admit to having started Sirens uneasily, wondering how deep and bewildering the case was going to get, and yet pressing on effortlessly because it’s excellently written, and its short-chapter format makes it very readable.

However, there is one way that Knox’s writing does differ significantly from the original masters of noir, and that’s in terms of his characters.

Okay, as I’ve already said, we’ve got every aspect of the city’s lowlife – not all of which is to be found in low places – though I think there are more extremes here than you’d find back in the golden age. The Bug, for example, is a total horror; a bipolar transsexual addict and whore, who salivates at the prospect of corrupting young people and is more than happy to suckle at the injection wounds of diseased heroin-users. I’m not sure that Chandler, Hammett or any of the other guys ever hit us with anything quite as OTT as that, while Sheldon White and the Burnsiders, the most brutish members of the Manchester gang scene, are more like a tribe of orcs: hideous, uncouth dolts, good only for violence, and happy to inhabit a part of town that lies in darkened, Mordor-like ruins.

Don’t get me wrong; it all makes for a terrific read, but personalities like these represent moments of bleakness so intense that it might put off those readers unequipped with strong stomachs and nerves of steel.

(One other brickbat, while we’re on the subject of such: I could have done without the regular quotes from Joy Division; I guess we all went through a time when we had gurus in the rock world, and a doomy, post-punk Manchester outfit probably seemed very appropriate in these circumstances, but I always worry that this kind of thing borders on pretentiousness. However, that’s a personal gripe, and doesn’t really detract from the overall book).

Now back to the characters: Waits himself, the star of the show, makes for an interesting if very flawed hero.

An alcoholic cop, who is also a chronic pill-head (even though he’s still only young) is, on the face of it, not the most attractive lead. He’s also a bit weedy; though Waits is capable of violence, there is no human brickwork here. He’s no Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. He’s cunning for sure, and he bides his time cleverly, but he’s more a fox than a wolf. Give him a good smack and he’ll definitely go down. And this frailty persists throughout the book; there are several occasions when you feel like telling the guy to get his act together. But highly likely this is exactly what Knox intended. A hero who isn’t a square-jawed cliché might be a big change from the norm, but it’s a refreshing change too (and hell, don’t worry too much if you don’t like Waits; no-one in the book does, either!).

Some of the other characters, and there is a literal plethora to pick from, are sketched more thinly, but they are all clear enough to me; at no stage was I confused about who and what they were, and every single one makes his or her own vital contribution to the story. I’d strongly refute the criticism that there are too many people in this novel, because none of them are extraneous.

I’ve also read some reviews complaining that most of the females in this book are victims, and I think that’s probably true (though several of them are willingly involved in crime), but my considered response to that must be, and it’s a sad observation to make, that even in our modern world most prostitutes are female, most victims of sexual harassment are female, and most of those suffering violence at the hands of wild, dangerous men are also female. In this regard, Joseph Knox is only showing us a hard slice of reality (not that it doesn’t sometimes make you embarrassed to be male).

To round up, Knox is without doubt an exciting new voice in the genre, and Sirens – a genuine piece of Manchester noir, fizzing with tension and menace. It’s as good a debut as I’ve seen in many a year. If you like gritty cop stuff, read it or weep.

And now, as ever, I’m going to try and cast it, in case it at some point gets the green light for film or TV development. Just a bit of fun, of course. No casting-director is likely to listen to me, sadly. Here though, are my picks:

DC Aidan Waits – Warren Brown
Catherine – Talulah Riley
Isabelle Rossiter – Katie Jarvis
Sarah Jane – Romola Garai
Zain Carver – Daniel Kaluuya
DSU Parrs – Angus Macfadyen
Detective Alan Kernick – Geoff Bell
David Rossiter, MP – Vincent Regan
Glen Smithson – Joe Gilgun
DS Jim Laskey – Philip Bulcock

Thursday, 5 April 2018

A quick trek into the cosmos of the mind

It may be perverse of me, but in a week when I’m proofing my next thriller, have a glut of crime novels to read and a whole raft of new horror movies to watch, I’m going to be talking about science fiction.

Yes, this is one of those relaxing blogposts, which is more designed to occupy readers during mid-morning tea breaks than impart crucial information to them. 

To start with, I’m going to be reviewing and discussing – in what I hope is my usual forensic detail – Alfred Bester’s sci-fi masterwork, THE STARS MY DESTINATION (as always, you’ll find that review towards the bottom end of today’s column). 

On a not dissimilar subject, I’ll also be presenting a gallery of what I consider to be the 25 best ever science fiction book covers. It’ll be an entirely personal choice, of course; browsers and readers must feel free to disagree, or add suggestions of their own.

Reaching for the stars

That’s not something I’ve ever done, basically.

Well, in purely metaphorical terms, I’ve tried to reach for the stars … but when it comes to writing about journeys to the stars, in other words penning sci-fi, that’s not something I’ve done a whole lot of.

Okay, I’ve done it a little. Students of my career (assuming any such creature exists) will probably be familiar with my DR WHO output: LEVIATHAN and HEXAGORA, two full-cast audio dramas, and SENTINELS OF THE NEW DAWN, a Companion Chronicle, all courtesy of Big Finish Productions, which came out in 2010 and 2011; SPOILSPORT, a short story of 2008; HUNTER’S MOON and TALES OF TRENZALORE, published by BBC Books in 2012 and 2014; and THRESHOLD, the pilot episode of the Dr Who spin-off series, COUNTERMEASURES (Big Finish again) in 2012.

Before any of that, way back in 1996, there was also A GLITCH IN TIME, a short story I wrote for the non-Dr Who spoken-word (these days it would be called ‘audible’) anthology, OUT OF THIS WORLD; this one has a really special place in my heart as, despite it existing in our universe rather than the Whoniverse, my particular contribution to this excellent anthology was narrated by the late, great Jon Pertwee.

But the majority of this lot, as I’ve already said, is Dr Who-related, and therefore occupies a little world of its own, sitting slightly apart from the sci-fi mainstream. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m not a big fan or eager reader of all those other wondrous tales. 

My father, Brian Finch (right), another late, great character, and an author in his own right, was a huge science fiction buff, and helped turn me onto it as a genre when I was very young.

Perhaps that is why I’m slightly biased to the older school, as you’ll see when I present my 25 Best Covers. I hasten to add that I read the modern stuff too. But to put a gallery together like this, you really have to look for those cover-images that made the biggest impact on you, and in my case certainly, such a task took me back to my earliest days.

As with previous galleries – I did horror and crime on Oct 22 and Sept 10 respectively – I’m sticking to English language editions, as it would be too complex and time-consuming to go beyond that. Anyway, without further ado, here are what I consider to be …


THE 25 BEST SCIENCE FICTION COVERS OF ALL TIME 

1. THE CHRYSALIDS
John Wyndham (Penguin, 1970)


Not the first vision in sci-fi of a hellish post-apocalyptic world, but certainly one of the most intelligent, John Wyndhams 1955 classic (originally published by Michael Joseph), takes us to a UK decades after the bombs have dropped, where a form of fundamentalist feudalism has reformed what remains of society, and as this marvellous cover amply illustrates, mutation is a source of open war.

2. MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM!
Harry Harrison (Orb, 2008)


Probably best remembered for the 1973 movie version, Soylent Green (which considerably changed the plot), Harry Harrison’s 1966 masterpiece (first published by Penguin) envisions a world where overpopulation has collapsed all infrastructure, leading to societal chaos, and follows the fortunes of several hapless individuals. This Orb cover is clean, simple, and almost tells the story on its own.

3. THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS
Ursula K. LeGuin (Ace Books, 1985)

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The novel that made Ursula LeGuin’s name (and surely the best book title ever). First published in 1969 by Ace Books, the author’s career-long fascination with anthropology hits new heights of what if', when, in a different universe to ours, a male ambassador makes contact with an ambisexual race, and fails to understand it - to a near fatal degree. Described as the first foray into feminist sci-fi 

4. THE BLACK CORRIDOR
Michael Moorcock (Mayflower, 1973)


The embodiment of new wave science fiction, as tough businessman, Ryan, takes a select band of friends on a stolen spaceship to escape an impending nuclear war. The trouble is that, while they lie in stasis, he must remain awake to steer the ship on its seven-year journey. First published by Ace in 1969, this later cover perfectly encapsulates his terrifying descent into solitude-induced madness.

5. DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?
Philip K. Dick (Doubleday, 1968)


One of the most famous sci-fi novels of all time, though mainly because of the movie, Blade Runner, which differs in many ways, this deeply moving piece of visionary writing - and this is the original wonderful cover, as produced by Doubleday back in 1968! - sees a conscience-stricken bounty hunter pursuing a rogue band of human-like androids through a world dying from radiation poisoning.

6. THE RINGS OF SATURN
Isaac Asimov (New English Library, 1974)


The final installment in the Lucky Starr series, a collection of sci-fi novels written for younger readers (despite this scary later cover). First published by Doubleday in 1958, it tells an adventurous spy story set in the Saturnian system, but, Asimov being Asimov, is nevertheless filled with advanced scientific thinking, and was viewed by many as a thought-provoking commentary on the Cold War.

7. FAHRENHEIT 451
Ray Bradbury (Ballantine, 1953)


The ultimate Dystopia, as a young fireman becomes disillusioned with his job - which is not putting out fires, but starting them, using mountains of forbidden literature as fuel! What better cover could illustrate the anguish the author felt, not just about book-burning, but about book abolition in general? Written as a stinging response to McCarthyism, and viewed by many as Bradbury’s greatest work.

8. HELLSTROMS HIVE
Frank Herbert (Gollancz, 2011)


For once, not the original Doubleday cover, as first published in 1973, but an infinitely superior later one. Inspired by the speculative sci-fi/horror documentary of 1972, The Hellstrom Chronicle, this exceptional and chilling novel tells the tale of an undercover agent and his discovery of a secret society modelled along the lines of social insect communities, and the devastating events that follow.

9. THE DROWNED WORLD
J.G. Ballard (Penguin, 1965)


Another post-apocalyptic saga, though this time it isn’t Mans fault, solar flares having returned much of the Earth to a topical Triassic paradise, where even a hard-headed scientific research team find themselves regressing mentally into a dreamlike, tribal state. First published in 1962 by Berkley, this later, postmodern cover hints at the darker, grosser elements that lie beneath Edens genial facade.  

10. STAR MAKER
Olaf Stapledon (Gollancz, 1999)


First published by Methuen in 1937 - pretty incredibly, given how long that was before space exploration became a real thing! - this remarkable odyssey of a sci-fi novel charts an Englishmans journey through the universe in a disembodied state, at the same time telling us the story of all things and hitting us with a deluge of philosophy. How to illustrate such other than with a cover like this?

11. THE STARS MY DESTINATION
Alfred Bester (Gollancz, 2010)


In some ways, this 2010 cover to a novel written in 1956 (first published by Signet) almost softens the ferocious character of tiger-faced Gully Foyle, who ruthlessly pursues vengeance across a solar system wracked by interplanetary war, but it remains one of the most iconic in modern sci-fi, putting the man first and foremost above the futuristic setting, and perfectly capturing the authors intention.

12. I, ROBOT
Isaac Asimov (Gnome Press, 1950)


The wonderfully basic cover to the original publication, which, though it only partly provided the story for the recent Hollywood epic (that movie also owes quite a bit to Eander Binders same-titled short story of 1939), saw Asimov break phenomenal ground with a collection of interlinked stories and essays concerning the development and gradual humanisation of an imaginary android species.

13. ONE WAY
S.J. Morden (Gollancz, 2018)


The most recent entry in the gallery, and in some ways more a space-thriller than pure science fiction, but with a planetary geologist at the writing helm you know you’re in for an ultra-realistic assessment of just what it would mean for a party of condemned men sent to build a colony in the frozen wastes of Mars, who have no way back, and who, one by one, are then systematically murdered.

14. THE WAR OF THE WORLDS
H.G. Wells (New American Library, 1986)


An appropriately horrific cover for what in truth was a horror story. Everyone is familiar with Wellss masterly 1897 tale (first pub. by William Heinemann) of a late-Victorian era Earth at the mercy of an amoral and super-powered alien species prepared to wreak a total holocaust, but the transformation of our conquered world into a blood-soaked parody of Mars (as per this cover!) still has chilling impact.

15. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
Robert Heinlein (Ace Books, 1987)


A human raised by Martians returns to Earth as a kind of pseudo-messiah, and promotes libertarian concepts like free love and communal living, as this provocative cover illustrates. First published by GP Putnam in 1961, it was ahead of its time, but not by much, and is often seen as a prelude to the counter-culture - the very last thing those who knew Robert Heinlein would have expected of him.

16. BRAVE NEW WORLD
Aldous Huxley (Chatto & Windus, 1932)


The original, unforgettable cover to what is probably the most famous sci-fi novel ever written, though its as much a philosophical text in its study of a future world where hard scientific theory rules, human beings are produced in test-tubes, and though society is harmonious and productive, this comes at the cost of a cruel caste-system, psychological manipulation and extreme social control.

17. SWARM
Guy Garcia (Morphic Books, 2017)


A sci-fi novel you genuinely believe could happen - and in the not-to-distant future. The horror-esque cover nicely imagines the central antagonist, Swarm, an expert hacker and cyber warrior, who comes into possession of illegal experimental software, the resulting transformative effect of which goads him into seeking to change society without considering the potential catastrophic consequences.

18. THE ROAD
Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A Knopf, 2006)


Surely the last word on the apocalypse, though the author maintains that he never considered it sci-fi, penning it as a simple study of a father and son, this chilling epic still tells the story of an odyssey through a North America ruined by some unspecified disaster, leaving no stone unturned in its quest for misery and pain, and yet remains a lyrical masterpiece. This bleak, spare image sells it perfectly.

19. GATEWAY
Frederik Pohl (Penguin, 2008)


A suitably mind-blowing cover for the multi award-winning novel that kicked off an entire series of award-winners. First published by St Martins in 1977, its another of these incredible imagine if sagas, in this case the human response to the discovery of a derelict alien space station, where all kinds of abandoned craft, with pre-set coordinates, promise immediate voyages to distant stars.

20. A TIME OF CHANGES
Robert Silverberg (HarperCollins, 1975)


First published by Doubleday in 1971, this timeless tale of repression and revolution comes to us in the form of an intense autobiography as a young telepath seeks to overthrow a culture so down on individuality that the use of words like I and me are classified as a cultural crimes, and show his people exactly what it means to be human. As the ghoulish cover above illustrates, that won’t be easy.

21. THE PALACE OF ETERNITY
Bob Shaw (Pan, 1972)


Originally published by Ace in 1969, this legendary sci-fi thriller never really needed an iconic cover to sell itself, but it got one eventually, as illustrated above. Master of his craft, Bob Shaw spins the action-packed but thought-provoking tale of an exhausted war veteran seeking redemption and refuge on the tranquil Poets World, only for the war to catch up with him again in the shape of his one-time comrades.

22. DUNE
Frank Herbert (New English Library, 1968)


Everyones favourite space epic, and the cover that most genre fans remember best, mainly because it comes so close to encapsulating James Herberts colossal, multi-sequel-spinning 1965 saga (Chilton) of two noble houses fighting each other to the death across an interstellar empire. Yes, that’s correct; Herbert re-set the War of the Roses in Outer Space and created the best-selling sci-fi novel in history.

23. DAY MILLION
Frederik Pohl (Ballantine, 1970)


The original cover to a seminal collection of short stories, in which the author gives full vent to his imagination, taking his readers through the many realms of science fiction, but at the same time addressing serious issues like trans-sexuality, racism, medical and technological advance - both the benefits and drawbacks of such, etc. Still regarded as a masterly work by a true genius of the genre.

24. THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES
Ray Bradbury (Bantam Spectra, 2003)


First published by Doubleday in 1950, this episodic but poetic vision of Mans attempted colonisation of Mars and his inevitable clashes with its indigenous inhabitants commenced life as a series of short stories originally published in the 1940s. But this latter-day cover is still the best, perfectly imagining the barren red world, along with its mythical canals, as envisaged throughout the early days of astonomy.

25. THE GREEN BRAIN
Frank Herbert (New English Library, 1973)


One of Herberts lesser-known works, but a classic of its time, originally published by Ace in 1966 (as Greenslaves), and dipping into the expanding eco-consciousness in its tale of a human race at war with Earth’s flora and fauna, and the retaliation from the insect world, as experienced by a scientific expedition to the Brazilian jungle. This later cover says all you need to know about the ensuing terror.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

THE STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester (1956)

In the 25th century, humanity has developed the power to jaunt, most individuals now able to transport themselves up to 1,000 miles simply by the power of thought. However, life has not improved greatly. Earth society is going through constant social and economic flux as a result, and though the solar system is fully colonised, the Inner Planets (Earth, Mars, and Venus) are in ongoing conflict with the Outer Satellites (the moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune).

One casualty of this is the deep space cargo vessel, Nomad, which belongs to the influential Presteign corporation. Damaged by rocket fire, Nomad is now a drifting, incommunicado wreck with only one survivor on board, crewman Gulliver ‘Gully’ Foyle, an ignorant, uneducated man, who nevertheless stays alive against all the odds. He even manages to signal for help to passing sister-ship, Vorga, also a Presteign vessel, but is astonished when it deliberately ignores him, abandoning him to a terrible fate.

Infuriated beyond reason, Foyle manages to steer the floating scrapheap into the Asteroid Belt, where a little-known tribe called the Scientific People, a cargo cult who have long cut their ties with Earth, imprison him and tattoo his face with tiger stripes.

Still bent on revenge – and now looking the part as well – Foyle steals a ship to escape, and makes it back to Earth, where, in a barbaric state, he rapes a gentle, telepathic woman called Robin Wednesbury, and launches a one-man terrorist attack on Vorga, which fails and puts him in the grasp of the company’s all-powerful CEO, a man simply called ‘the Presteign’, someone who suddenly wants to know all about this errant crewman. It seems that Nomad was carrying a newly-discovered mineral, PyrE, which could change the course of the war – but Nomad is now lost, and only Foyle knows its coordinates.

Foyle is interrogated by a fearsome private security officer, the radioactive Saul Dagenham, but even Dagenham cannot break him, so he is condemned to life imprisonment in the hellish subterranean jail, Gouffre Martel. Here he befriends another convict, the resourceful Jisbella ‘Jiz’ McQueen, who educates him, advises him that it isn’t Nomad he should seek to destroy, but whoever gave the order to ignore him, and finally helps him escape.

Through Jiz’s criminal contacts, Foyle manages to remove the tiger-stripes from his face – though in times of anger they show again – educates himself further and augments his body so that he becomes a lethal fighting-machine. He then treacherously cuts Jiz loose and reappears as the dapper dandy, Geoffrey Fourmyle, bullying the unwilling Robin into helping him penetrate Presteign high society.

Everything is going to plan, but there are still problems. Those Vorga officers he tracks down involuntarily self-destruct before they can tell him anything, while his determination to ruin Presteign is hampered by his growing affection for the CEO’s beautiful daughter, the blind but infrared-sensitive Olivia. Meanwhile, Robin hates and fears him, Jiz is plotting something, and Foyle is troubled by an apparition he sees increasingly often: himself wrapped in flames. At the same time, the Outer Satellites are planning a massive attack, which they hope will win the war for them in one overwhelming blow.

If things have been difficult for Foyle so far, vastly more terrible days lie ahead …  

On first reading The Stars My Destination, it would be quite simple to write it off as straightforward space opera. The incredible adventures of Gully Foyle and the personal changes he undergoes as, through endless stress and suffering, he transcends the status of brute underling, becoming first a wealthy, scheming sophisticate, and finally a godlike intellectual, is more than a little bit reminiscent of Alexander Dumas’ classic adventure, The Count of Monte Cristo. But if, after some protracted pondering, that remains your sole assessment of this visionary sci-fi novel, you need to read it again.

Comparisons between The Stars My Destination and The Count of Monte Cristo are not wrong, and there’s a specific reason for that, Alfred Bester, by his own admission, seeking to snare his audience with what initially seems like a simple, exciting plot-line over which he can lay some complex but wondrous notions.

Though initially an editor and script-writer for comics, by the mid-1950s Bester was regarded as one of the world’s leading science fiction writers (he ‘invented’ it, according to Harry Harrison), and if you need further proof of that, just consider when reading The Stars My Destination that he penned this astonishing story when the vast bulk of the public drew their knowledge of the genre from movies concerned with insects grown to giant size through atom bomb testing and threats posed to Earth by bulb-headed men who spoke in senatorial US voices. That any serious sci-fi prophesying was done by authors writing in that era is quite remarkable, but plenty of them did, and yet Alfred Bester was ahead of the game even by those standards.

The concepts he presents us with in The Stars My Destination were mind-boggling in their day, and in many ways still are, and yet the book is also threaded with mindfulness of what these developments for mankind would actually mean.

For example, in the 25th century (or the 24th, depending on which edition you are reading), Man’s reach might stretch across the solar system, but it isn’t as though Pluto is suddenly in our back yard. The vast distances remain, especially as jaunting between planets is impossible. And so, Earth has lost cultural contact with its colonies. They have become advanced societies in their own right, and barely understand Earthlings, let alone see them as friends, and when war breaks out, there is no empathy between the two sides. Earth and the inner planets aren’t even aware of the outer satellites’ military strength, while the cargo cult that abducts Foyle early in the book is a completely isolated tribe, whose whole world is now the wreckage of ours.

The jaunt itself (named after scientist Charles Fort Jaunte), was an amazing concept to 1950s audiences. Long before Star Trek ever thought of it, the inhabitants of The Stars My Destination jump from A to B via teleportation. But again, Bester ponders the upheavals that stem from this: for instance, valuable high-class women must be kept in jaunt-proof isolation to ‘protect their honour’, while convicts can only be held in jaunt-proof solitary confinement (resulting in hellhole prisons like Gouffre Martel).

More familiar concerns among sci-fi writers of Bester’s era are also on show. Chemically and mechanically enhanced human beings don’t remain human for long. Telepaths are in such demand that they must conceal their talents from almost everyone. The author was also worried about the rise of ultra-powerful corporations, and how in the future they might become empires in their own right. The Presteign, though maintaining an urbane exterior, is utterly ruthless, and has the full cooperation of the government’s own intelligence agency, as represented by Peter Yang-Yeovil.

And yet, despite all this fascination with psi-power and speculative science, the main driving force in the book is that most basic of all human instincts, a yearning for revenge.

It is perhaps a nihilistic concept that the route to godliness may lie with Man’s desire to get even with other men … but you certainly can’t argue with it in The Stars My Destination as it’s given to us so full-bloodedly. It’s illustrated visually in the form of Foyle’s tiger mask, which even after he’s had it superficially removed, blazes to life whenever he’s angry (surely one of the most impressive devices of its sort that I’ve ever encountered in fiction). This vengeful nature is the single thing that constantly drives Foyle, and lies at the heart of his thrilling escapes: from the floating wreckage of Nomad, from the clutches of the asteroid tribe, and even from the jaunt-proof subterranean prison. It is this same motivation which, in due course pushes him to better himself – mainly so that he can infiltrate high society, though unknowingly of course, it also pitches him towards the realm of perfection.

Foyle makes an intriguing anti-hero. Appalling in his behavior at some points – the attack on Robin Wednesbury, for example (which would need to be excised out if ever the book were to make it to film) – but also later on, when he plays the likeable but untrustworthy Fourmyle. But from the outset, he is never intended to be an ordinary person, much less a person of noble character. If anything, he is a metaphor for mankind’s own evolution (and the path that Alfred Bester clearly hoped we would at some point take).

I don’t want to say anything more about The Stars My Destination for fear of giving too much away, except to add that it’s well worth its classic status, and that if some of the concepts seem standard in sci-fi these days, that’s only because forward-gazing writers like Alfred Bester made them so.

Optioned for movie development many times, but never yet made and in fact described more than once as ‘unfilmable’, The Stars My Destination is nevertheless another of those novels I would dearly love to see on celluloid – either the big screen or TV – and so once again, I’m going to pitch in with my own thoughts on a possible cast. (One quick note; it’s currently in the hands of director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who gave us Kong: Skull Island, so you never know – anything is possible). In the meantime, though, here are my picks for the leads:

Gulliver Foyle – Paul Bettany
Robin Wednesbury – Tessa Thompson
The Presteign – Ben Kingsley
Olivia Presteign – Lea Seydoux
Jisbella ‘Jiz’ McQueen – Rhona Mitra
Saul Dagenham – Rufus Sewell
Captain Peter Yang-Yeovil – Mathieu Amalric