Thursday, 16 May 2019

The mental aberrations of sociopathic men


Well … it’s publication day for STOLEN, my third Lucy Clayburn novel, so I’m inevitably going to be talking a little bit about that today (but not too much, as I’ve gassed a lot about it recently). But given that there is lots of gangster stuff in STOLEN, including one massive underworld hit (which has certainly got one or two reviewers gossiping), I thought we might also chat a bit about gangland atrocities, and just as an academic exercise, that I’d single out the 10 MOST SHOCKING AND TERRIFYING that I’ve ever come across in real life.

On top of that, because today we’re looking deep into the mental aberrations of evil, sociopathic men, I’ll be reviewing and discussing CAIN’S BLOOD by Geoffrey Girard, which is as grim and disturbing as the modern crime thriller tends to get, but with sci-fi elements interwoven. If you’ve only called in to check out the Geoffrey Girard review, no problemo. You’ll find it at the lower end of today’s blogpost, as always. Feel free to zoom on down there ASAP.

However, if you’re also interested in the other stuff, stick around a little longer, and let’s talk first about …

Lucy Clayburn 3

I’m very happy to see STOLEN, the third novel in my Lucy Clayburn series, published today. This latest installment finds my young police heroine still working cases in Crowley CID, Crowley being the ‘November Division’ of the Greater Manchester Police area (and a rough, tough beat by any standards).

However, she’s also facing a domestic crisis as her mother, Cora, normally a law-abiding citizen, is increasingly looking back to her wild youth, contemplating a possible reunion with her old flame, and Lucy’s estranged father, gangland boss Frank McCracken. As you can imagine, this isn’t going down too well with Lucy, who, when she first discovered that she and McCracken were related – and it was as much a revelation to him as to her – made a deal with him to keep it secret, because if news like this got out, it could be mutually catastrophic to both their careers.

At the same time, there are various heinous things going on in Crowley, which are soon likely to distract Lucy even from this. A number of pets have disappeared in unusual circumstances, and Lucy traces this, or so she thinks, to a dog-fighting ring, only to then learn that she’s off-track – and that now people are disappearing as well.

At first, it’s members of the homeless community, whose absence no one has noticed except Sister Cassiopeia, a drug-addicted former nun, who caters to the Skid Row folk as a kind of self-appointed pastor. Lucy initially takes this story no more seriously than she does the urban myth that a mysterious black van was prowling the housing estates on the nights the pet dogs were abducted … until she learns that this black van is supposedly still on the prowl, and no longer just looking for animals.

Something fiendish is clearly going on. It may be connected to the horrific inner-city wilderness that is the Fairview Landfill site, because weirds things are also supposedly going on out there. But alternatively, it might be linked to the network of disused air-raid tunnels that run underneath Crowley’s many derelict mills. One thing is certain: when an OAP is brutally abducted from his home – and once again there are stories that a van was heard racing away – Lucy has no option but to launch herself into a very complex and distressing investigation.

As I say, STOLEN is out today, from all the usual retailers. 

The worst mob hits ever

I saw a rather concerning headline in the news this last week. It read:

Organised crime in the UK is bigger than ever before

The accompanying story described how Britain has now become the hub of numerous international criminal networks, whose various rackets include prostitution, protection, slave-trading, gun and drug smuggling, murder-for-hire and the laundering of billions of pounds through London every year. Other figures, apparently straight from the National Crime Agency, reveal that there are 4,629 active gangs and syndicates in the UK today, which together employ 33,598 full-time professional criminals.

Stats like these will come as a sobering shock to many, particularly to those one or two reviewers of my Lucy Clayburn novels who have expressed doubt that highly-organised and well-resourced criminal cartels like the Crew – my fictional firm who control the North of England – genuinely exist in Britain today.

I should say straight away that I’m not quoting these sad figures as some kind of ‘told you so’ point-scoring exercise. I mention them simply to illustrate that the terrifying influence and extreme brutality exercised by the Crew in my three Lucy Clayburn novels to date – STRANGERS, SHADOWS and STOLEN – are not too far removed from reality.

The latest of those three novels, the one published today in fact, STOLEN, is particularly worth mentioning in this context because it features what has been described as ‘a horrendous sequence’ in which a major gang hit is carried out with ‘visceral, shocking violence’.

As always, I make no apologies for this kind of stuff. Unlike my Heck novels, which generally involve the pursuit of serial killers, my Lucy Clayburn books always have one foot in the realm of organised crime. And I honestly don’t feel that you’re doing anything other than shortchanging your audience if you fail to depict this fearsome hoodlum world in warts and all fashion.

So, yes … there is victimisation and savagery in these books, and the horror and despair of being caught on the wrong side of merciless gangs, and there is also, as I’ve said, that big, gruesome gang-hit which is carried out with extreme prejudice.

Also relevant to this conversation, I think, is the character of Frank McCracken, Lucy’s estranged father, whom she never knew until she was thirty years old and ten years a cop, and who in her absence has risen through the ranks of the Manchester mob until he now has a seat at the top table.

There are times in the books when Frank comes over as a good guy: affable, approachable, handsome, very urbane. And this is another effort on my part to be authentic. Because all these things are derived from real-life legendary dons who made their bones in the so-called golden age of gangsterism. The likes of Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel (left) were, at first glance, attractive and even charismatic figures. But the comparison doesn’t end there because, like all these infamous real-life villains, Frank McCracken’s seductive appearance conceals a deeply ingrained psychotic nature. He isn’t sweet and kind, he’s treacherous. He isn’t a straight-up businessman, he lies, cheats and breaks every rule in the book. He isn’t just violent, he’s a killer. I should add here that Frank is more progressive than his compatriots in some ways; he doesn’t like killing and doesn’t do it gratuitously. But by the same token, if he deems it necessary, he’ll do it without hesitation. Not only that … he runs an entire subdivision of the Crew, whose most vicious and murderous elements he will happily unleash on anyone and everyone who emerges as a possible threat (whatever their age or gender).

This is surely the most curious crux of the high-level organised crime phenomenon. Its chief practitioners know what decent society is because they yearn to move in it, they seek its validation, they adopt its trappings. It often seems as if they aspire to be part of it themselves, and yet they are often so inherently indecent that taking that final step is nearly always beyond them. They will never be part of the moneyed but respected establishment they seem to be in awe of, and deep down, I suspect, most of them probably wouldn’t want to be anyway.

Why would they? In the words of Henry Hill, the real-life enforcer at the heart of Nicholas Pileggi’s wonderful script for the Martin Scorsesi 1990 Mafia classic, Goodfellas:

… we were treated like movie stars with muscle. We had it all, just for the asking. Our wives, mothers, kids, everybody rode along. I had paper bags filled with jewelry stashed in the kitchen. I had a sugar bowl full of coke next to the bed. Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city. I'd bet twenty, thirty grand over a weekend and then I'd either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies. Didn't matter. It didn't mean anything. When I was broke, I would go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking.

And of course, I say it again, anyone who gets in the way is simply rubbed out. By means and methods that are never considered to be too horrific. Which brings us to the main meat of today’s chit-chat.

STOLEN is already drawing attention because of its brutal gangland vengeance scene, and because a leading character in the series, who up until this point the readers might have started liking, thinks nothing of issuing an extreme bloody sanction against a rival faction.

So now, let’s talk about some real ones.

Just for interest’s sake, I thought I’d draw you a list, in no particular order, of the 10 most shocking and terrifying mob hits (and/or hitmen) in the history of organised crime:

1) St Valentine’s Day Massacre

Still one of the most famous gangland slaughters of all time, the St Valentine’s Day Massacre seems like a relatively small event by modern standards, but it was the culmination of a long and well-publicised underworld war that had terrorised Chicago for much of the Prohibition era, and of course it was ordered by Al Capone (below), who is still regarded today as America’s first celebrity gangster. In short, Capone’s South Side Italian outfit had been in conflict with a gang of Irish hoodlums led by George ‘Bugs’ Moran, whose power base was on the city’s North Side.

The dispute was originally over turf and booze, but by 1929 there’d been so many murders and assaults and the level of hatred was so intense that no kind of peace treaty was ever possible. On the morning of February 14 that year, five members of the North Side Gang and two associates were hanging out at a Lincoln Park garage, well inside their own territory, when the premises were raided by four cops, who lined them all up against a wall, before mowing them down with Thompson submachine guns. Needless to say, the four ‘cops’ were Capone assassins, two wearing stolen police uniforms, the other two claiming to be plain-clothes. Moran himself wasn’t present but was said to have been so unnerved by the massacre that in due course he got out of Chicago, and to a lesser extent, out of the business.

2) Murder, Inc.

Initially formed as the enforcement arm of the US’s National Crime Syndicate, Murder, Inc (pictured at the top of this column) started life as the blunt instrument by which the will of a merciless higher power was enforced, but in due course rose to prominence as an empowered faction in its own right, before falling from grace with amazing speed. When Lucky Luciano created the Crime Commission, the governing arm of the American Mafia, in 1931, Murder, Inc were to serve as its executioners, the idea being that if they only ever struck on the orders of the overarching committee, there would never be retaliation between the Five Families. 

A gang of purposely chosen contract killers, headed up by accomplished hitmen Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter (above), Albert ‘the Mad Hatter’ Anastasia and Abraham ‘Kid Twist’ Reles, they slew regularly for the Commission, utilising every weapon imaginable, from guns to knives, neck-wires to ice-picks, baseball bats to broken bottles, but also began accepting contracts from mob bosses in other parts of the country too, breaking their own rule and subsequently claiming maybe 2,000 victims in the next ten years. 


The writing appeared on the wall in 1940 when Kid Twist became a government witness, the first of several. A succession of arrests followed, leading members facing long prison terms or death, Lepke becoming the first major organised crime figure in the US to go to the electric chair. Anastasia saved himself by having Twist murdered but was shot dead himself in 1957 (above), having annoyed key rivals.

3) Cannibal Stew

Organised crime had always been prevalent in the former Yugoslavia, with Yugoslav criminals particularly active, in fact prominent in some cases, in Western Europe, though in overall terms it was relatively small-time. The big change came during the 1990s, when the Balkan Wars saw Bosnia, Croatia and Herzegovina devastated, and the international community retaliate against Serbia with severe sanctions, which led to an economic crisis and galvanised thousands of young men, including many ex-soldiers, paramilitaries and other combat veterans to join criminal organisations. 

From this point on, the Serbian Mafia spread its tentacles far and wide, involving itself in drug smuggling, arms trafficking, gambling, protection, kidnapping and armed robbery, all of which necessitated the regular use of extreme violence. However, one of the grisliest episodes in anyone’s criminal history occurred in a Madrid flat in 2009, when two Serbian gangsters from the Zemun Clan, Stretko ‘the Beast’ Kalinic (above, left) and Luka Bojovic, punished light-fingered gunman, Milan Jurisic (above, right), by brutalising him with a hammer, skinning him, filleting him and putting him through a mincing machine, before making him into a stew and eating him. Kalinic was later sentenced to life imprisonment for a whole series of such sadistic murders committed in his capacity as a hitman, mainly on the evidence of informers from inside his own organisation.

4) The Iceman Cometh

Probably the most terrifying hitman ever to be associated with the New York Mafia was Richard Kuklinski, the so-called ‘Iceman’ (right). In so many ways, this guy was everyone’s worst nightmare. He stood 6ft5, was built like the Hulk and worked as a freelance mob murderer from 1954 to 1986, in which time he is said to have killed anything from 100 to 250 men, always concealing this horrific truth beneath the respected veneer of a middle-class family man who lived with his wife and children in suburban New Jersey. 

Kuklinski was referred to as the Iceman because it was his habit to freeze his victims’ corpses and only dispose of them long after they’d been killed, thus confounding investigators, but his real usefulness to Mafia bosses was how utterly indifferent he was to human suffering. Kuklinski would kill by any means – knife, gun, bomb and so on – but, if the contract required it, he would torture and kill too, on more than one occasion kidnapping his targets, feeding them alive to a horde of voracious rats, and filming it while it happened, an MO which prompted one gangland underboss to comment that he ‘had no soul’. Kuklinski, who was also a racketeer in his own right, was convicted of six murders in 1986, and died in jail in 2006. He confessed while inside but claimed that he’d lost count of his actual tally as he used to practise on the homeless long before he began accepting contracts.

5) Fatally Chopped

In April 2013, a long and bitter war between the rival halves of an infamous Hong Kong triad society, the Wo Shing Wo, led to an incredibly gruesome and very public murder, in which a notorious local gangster was literally disembowelled alive in front of stunned spectators. Mouse Shing, a 30-year-old underboss of the Wo Shing Wo, was recovering in hospital after receiving leg wounds in an earlier attack. A key figure in the Hau Sai faction, who were attempting to resist infiltration of their territory in Hong Kong’s Sheung Shui district by the infamously violent Yen Chai, Mouse Shing had survived the earlier assault but was till a key target. 

He’d no sooner left the hospital, even though impaired by his wounds – he was said to be walking with a cane – when a car sped up, and two assassins leapt out armed with knives, an axe and a meat-cleaver. What was described as a truly horrendous attack followed, the unarmed and undefended Mouse hacked and chopped, his lower abdomen sliced open so that, in the words of appalled pedestrians on the public street, his intestines were literally hanging out. Other deep wounds later found on his arms and limbs suggested that his assailants had also attempted to lop off his limbs. Rushed back into the hospital, Mouse was worked on frantically by the dismayed staff, but he was too grotesquely injured to survive. 

6) Crates of heads / Hanging Corpses


The violence of the Mexican cartels is renowned. The influence they wield is chilling, their appetite for revenge nightmarish. Almost no atrocity is deemed beyond such ruthless, monolithic power-structures as the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, Los Zetas, La Familia etc. All enforce their authority with extreme terror, and have used their incredible wealth, generated from trafficking coke into the US, to buy off the police, the military, the financial sector, the judiciary, even large sections of the government. As an illustration of the murderous mayhem caused by the Mexican drugs cartels, the so-called Mexican Drug War, which commenced in 2006, has now cost 60,000 lives.

Against a background of such bloodthirsty chaos, to single out any particular hit as an example of rampant criminality would seem ridiculous, but there are certain outstanding incidents that still defy belief. Acapulco, a tourist Mecca of the 1970s and 1980s, became less attractive in 2011, when 15 headless bodies were dumped on the streets, on the apparent orders of the Sinaloa Cartel. The heads themselves were in a nearby crate. If that isn’t enough, in one night the following year, 23 tortured people, including four women, were found either hanging from a public bridge or beheaded and dumped on the street in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, sad relics of the war between the Zetas and the Sinaloans. 

7) Kansas City Massacre


Conspiracy theories abounded in the wake of the terrifying Kansas City Massacre in 1933, and still do today, a range of experts offering different viewpoints regarding the perpetrators and their motives. In short, a small group of cops and FBI agents were in the process of escorting bank robber, Frank ‘Jelly’ Nash back to Leavenworth Prison, from where he’d absconded several years earlier, when, in the car park at the Union Station railway depot, Kansas City, they were ambushed by a posse of gunmen armed with Thompsons. In the following rain of lead, signalled by a cry of ‘Let ‘em have it!’, four law enforcement officials were slain, while Frank Nash died in the car into which he’d just been bundled. 

The killers all escaped – at least initially, but what were their motives? Were they trying to free Frank Nash, or silence him? In due course, the FBI named other robbers, Vernon Miller (left), Adam Richetti and Charles ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd (right), as their chief suspects. This was controversial, many – and not just fellow criminals – claiming that Richetti and Floyd were being framed as it was proving difficult to get them on other charges. Even today, that theory persists with certain crime historians, especially as Miller was later found mutilated in a ditch, a possible mob hit, which suggests the Mafia were involved. Either way, Floyd died in a shootout with cops in 1934, and Richetti was sent to the gas chamber in 1938.

8) Melbourne Killings

One country rarely associated with criminal atrocity, but where there is actually a flourishing organised crime scene is Australia, and in the early 2000s, its southern city, Melbourne, was the venue for a shocking underworld war, a succession of hits and shootouts claiming the lives of 36 prominent figures in the Aussie underworld. It all started when, thanks to the activities of the corrupt Painters and Dockers Union, Melbourne became the country’s capital of amphetamine distribution. Initially, the trade was controlled by one overarching firm, but when its leader, John Higgs, was jailed in 1996, a vacuum formed, and the jockeying for power that resulted transformed into a full-on gangster war, with several factions going at it. 

In all ways it resembled the bad old days in Chicago, with car bombs, drive-by shootings, gun-play in bars, restaurants and so forth ... and of course the more who died, the more places were left vacant, which only intensified the competition and the violence. A specialist police unit, the Puruna Taskforce, eventually brought the vying mobs to heel, but not until after a welter of carnage. Most of the murders remain officially unsolved, though a leading figure in the war, Carl Williams (above), was convicted of three (despite police suspecting that he carried out many more). Williams himself was killed in prison in 2010, the last victim of the war, when he was beaten to death with an exercise bike.

9) Football Face


Among the long, lurid list of drug cartel depredations in Mexico, one fairly small but nonetheless truly macabre incident stands out for all kinds of reasons. It happened in January 2010 in Los Mochis, in the northern half of Sinaloa state. It was so shocking, and so utterly mysterious, that even a drug and war-ravaged country like Mexico was rocked by it, especially as it was believed to be aimed at the powerful Juarez drug cartel in an effort to inflict on them the sort of terror they routinely inflicted on others. A certain Hugo Hernandez, who’d been kidnapped from the neighbouring state of Sonora, turned up several days later on an isolated road, headless and dismembered, his constituent parts in various different boxes. More shocking than this, though, a plastic bag was found near to the city hall. It contained a football, on the front of which Hernandez’s sliced-off face had been crudely stitched. A note that was also in the bag, a so-called ‘narcomanta’ read: ‘Happy New Year. Because this will be your last.’ (Check out the above image of Mexican cops examining a less gory manta – aka cartel warning – which was left at the site where five headless corpses had been dumped).

There was no obvious indication why Hernandez was chosen to suffer in this way, though the fact he came from Sonora could be relevant as that state was well known for its extensive marijuana crops. Whether the threat was followed up is unclear, but to date no evidence has come to light to give any obvious indication which cartel was responsible for this mindless act, even though there are plenty to choose from.

10) Kushchyovskaya Murders

Organised crime in Russia is a phenomenon of the 21st century, the overwhelming power of the Soviet Union having kept it in check for most of the 20th. Of course, the Russian syndicates are now among the most feared on Earth. But while much modern Russian gangsterism is either concentrated in the major cities or exported abroad, what is less well-known is that smaller, but no less brutal criminal gangs hold sway in rural parts of the vast country. This has partly been blamed on Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power in the centre, and his neglect of the provinces. 

Kushchyovskaya is a tragic witness to this. A prosperous farming community in the Northern Caucasus, it was long under the yoke of a local firm, which, with the collusion of corrupt bureaucrats and police officers, had lived like kings in the district, taking cuts of everything bought or sold, raping, robbing and generally terrorising the population. When, in 2010, an affluent farming family, the Ametovs, finally resisted, they paid a ghastly price. 


The farm was attacked by intruders that November, the entire family and their guests, 12 people in total (including four children), tied up and stabbed to death. The corpses were then drizzled with petrol and set alight. The crime shocked even a hardened land like Russia, leading to furious demands that Putin get to grips with the crime and corruption problem. In this case, the authorities responded hard (see above). Four perpetors were arrested and imprisoned, three having since committed suicide.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

CAIN’S BLOOD by Geoffrey Girard (2014)

DSTI is an ultra-secret biotech division working almost exclusively for the US military, so when things go disastrously wrong there, the problem is kept inhouse, with special operations chief, Colonel Stanforth, sending in one of his best men.

At first, ex-commando Shawn Castillo doesn’t know why he’s been given the job. A combat veteran with much experience in the Middle East (where he was captured by jihadis and viciously tortured), his normal field is counter-insurgency and espionage. On this occasion, as far as he knows, a group of six teenage delinquents being held in an educational facility attached to DSTI have absconded, committing several murders in the process. It sounds more like a job for the police. However, when Castillo arrives, it’s a scene of utter carnage, both institute staff and inmates alike lying slaughtered and dismembered.

But if that’s not enough, an even more terrifying revelation awaits him.

These so-called young offenders are actually cloned replicants of infamous serial killers – the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Albert Fish, Henry Lee Lucas et al – who have finally broken loose, and are now on a rampage, seemingly determined to fulfil the legacies of their genetic predecessors.

Prepared to chase and retrieve these burgeoning maniacs, Castillo is nevertheless suspicious of DSTI, unable to believe that any responsible group of scientists would indulge in such experiments. Though the plan was allegedly to isolate the predisposition towards violence in an effort to eliminate it from our world, he knows that the likes of Stanforth wouldn’t be involved if there wasn’t going to be some military application as well.

Feeling that he isn’t learning as much as he can from DSTI’s reticent Dr Erdman, Castillo pursues his own enquiries, forcing entry to the home of senior geneticist, Dr Gregory Jacobson, who has also gone missing, and there uncovering clues that knock him sick. It seems that, under Jacboson’s direction, certain of the clones were being purposely abused and neglected by their foster parents (mostly redneck DSTI stooges) in order to encourage the development of vengeful and sadistic compulsions. At the same time, he locates Jacobson’s own adopted son, Jeff – who it soon turns out is the clone of mass-slayer, Jeffrey Dahmer, but who has been raised in a loving, caring environment, and so appears to be manifesting no violent urges. In his own way, Jeff – a bright, pleasant young guy – is another example of one of Jacobson’s callous experiments; in this case he’s the positive outcome of careful manipulation, though Castillo isn’t sure that he can trust him.

Aware, that Jeff Jacobson will be ‘neutralised’ – either killer or lobotomised – if handed back to DSTI, Castillo opts to take the youngster with him, though he knows that getting emotionally involved in this way is the last thing he should be doing.

Meanwhile, he starts gathering useful intel. Advised by his old army buddy, Ox, who is a mine of information on the US’s numerous secret human-experimentation projects, Castillo begins to suspect that the real purpose of the cloning programme was to breed a race of testtube supersoldiers who will kill mercilessly when instructed to. He also learns that Gregory Jacobson, who appears to have deliberately released this select bunch of ultra-dangerous subjects, is leaning towards insanity himself, having developed a firm conviction that he’s a descendent of Francis Tumblety, a suspect in the original Jack the Ripper enquiry. At the same time, he gets curious about a mysterious place called SharDhara, where something horrible seems to have happened.

Meanwhile, the pack of young killers roams from state to state, commiting a string of ever-more horrendous crimes (explicitly raping, torturing and killing men, women and children alike). At least this enables Castillo to track them, but it also makes things easier for something else on their tail, something infinitely more savage than Castillo, but at least as efficient when it comes to clandestine soldiering. Only when it’s almost too late, does Castillo begin to wonder if the DSTI supersoldier programme was much more advanced than he realised …  

The first thing to say about Cain’s Blood is that, as ‘high concept’ goes, it’s up there with the best of them. I personally have no idea whether it’s even remotely possible to distill the evil from a bunch of notorious killers into the specially-grown bodies of a new race of synthetic assassins, but it’s a zinger of an idea for a sci-fi thriller.

Geoff Girard attempts to make it sound feasible by literally burying us under a welter of pseudo-scientific detail, not just catching us with it on the hoof while the story unfolds, but hitting us with the occasional lecture about historic advances in the field of genetics, everything from the Austrian monk, Brother Mendel’s experiments with peas during the 1850s, to the ground-breaking ‘nuclear transfer’ that led to the creation of Dolly the Sheep at Edinburgh Univerity in the mid-1990s. Again, I’ve no idea how credible it all is, but the idea alone is so wonderfully twisted that you can’t help but plunge in.

Of course, even then it requires a conspiracy theorist mentality to fully get on board with it. The character of Ox is a walking, talking device in this regard, a paranoid war veteran, one of whose few purposes in the book is to voice suspicion about the US Government’s role in biological experiments that have caused untold damage to countless test subjects, many of whom weren’t even aware that they were participating. It makes for an astounding read, but whether it’s based on provable truth is another matter. If it was, I’d have thought that Cain’s Blood would have been a far more controversial publication. But again, I reiterate that none of this detracted from my enjoyment. And that’s partly because once we get through that quite considerable wall of shock revelation, we are firmly into pursuit-thriller territory, and we remain there for most of the rest of the novel.

Shawn Castillo is a type of hero very popular with modern American audiences: a former spec-ops guy so badly damaged, both physically and mentally, by the many wars he has recently fought for his country that, while he’s not exactly conscience-stricken, it has left him an out-and-out sceptic regarding his commanding officers, and yet, through his innate loyalty to the US flag, taking on new missions anyway (though you get the feeling early on that this could be the final one – Castillo really is that close to the edge). But in the meantime, he does all the things you’d expect from one of these former ‘shadow company’ types: closing down his targets with effortless ease; keeping his emotions in check but suffering constantly from combat nightmares; playing it cool when some barroom brawler is causing hassle, until he absolutely has no option but to go into action, at which point the baddies get strewn across whichever car park happens to be nearest; and finding it difficult to express his true feelings even to the one female in his life, Doctor Kristin, a beautiful, intelligent, empathetic woman, who is the only thing, until now, that has prevented Castillo from slipping into madness.

So far so familiar, I know … but it’s all done very well. Kristin has been criticised by some reviewers for embodying the sexy mother/wife archetype on whom these damaged heroes so often lean. And she does play that role to an extent, but it’s not by any means certain that she and Castillo are meant for each other. Castillo is only one of a number of traumatised vets she’s managed to bring back to normality – and in that regard, their relationship also serves to examine the immoral complexity of a situation where soldiers are trained and conditioned to go out and kill the enemies of their country (enemies, they personally know nothing about), and then are expected to return to society without any kind of hiccup.

But the character who’s probably got more depth than most of the others put together is young Jeff Jacobson, the genetic offspring of a savage serial killer. You might not have thought there’d be much down for this kid, certainly not when so many other of the ‘prodigals’ have immediately begun replicating the worst atrocities of the originals. And yet Jeff Jacobson has a large role to play in this narrative, because, in the end, it is he who’s the living proof that genetic deviance is not unconquerable. It is young Jeff who serves to illustrate that, for all their research into genes, chromosomes, embryology, X&Y and so on, the ‘playing at God’ scientists of DSTI are taking a blind alley in their efforts to isolate wickedness in the lab – and in fact, in their casual mistreatment of anyone and everyone for the supposed betterment of mankind, are themselves exemplifying a far more insidious form of evil.

Jeff Jacobson comes over as a great kid. It’s a bit mind-boggling for the reader when you consider that he’s the mirror-image of a young Jeffrey Dahmer, but he’s also affable, clever and helpful. Though Castillo is initially wary of him – who wouldn’t be, given his patronage? – the twosome gradually become friends, and in fact go further than that, forming a bond in their efforts to track down their devilish prey. Jeff’s not just the living proof that nurture is more important than nature but ends up providing the heart and soul of this otherwise dark novel.

As a final thought, I’ve now learned that Cain’s Blood was published in tandem with a YA version of these same events: Project Cain, told from the POV of one of the youngsters. That does surprise me, because this is one gory outing. Be advised, there is some seriously cruel and brutal stuff in here, which more than captures the horror of the original crimes committed by the likes of Dahmer, Bundy etc. But if you don’t mind that, then Cain’s Blood is a very satisfying thriller, maybe a little far-fetched, but enjoyable nevertheless.     

As always, I’m now going to be bold (stupid) enough to try and cast Cain’s Blood should it ever be adapted for the screen. Just a laugh of course. I doubt anyone who matters would listen to me anyway. But here we go:

Shawn Castillo – Ryan Eggold
Kristin – Keira Knightley
Jeff Jacobson – Garrett Ryan
Gregory Jacobson – David Morse
Colonel Stanforth – Gerard Butler
Ox – Barkhad Abdi
Erdman – William Sanderson

Friday, 3 May 2019

Lucy Clayburn hits the mean streets again


As you can tell, the countdown is well and truly on.

STOLEN, the third book in the Lucy Clayburn series, is taking up much of my bandwidth and much of Avon’s as we fast approach publication date on May 16, and I’m going to be talking a bit more about it this week. 

Okay … I’ll come clean and admit it. Much of today’s blog is going to be a blatant trailer for STOLENIn fact, I’ve even decided to snip out a few choice excerpts and print them on here, so you can judge for yourselves whether it’ll be the book for you.

In addition to that, because I never like to talk purely about myself, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing the late, great William Gay’s marvellous novel, TWILIGHT.

Now, before we go any further, and I can’t stress this firmly enough. It’s not that Twilight, the one about the wistful young lass in love with a vampire. This TWILIGHT is a classic slice of Southern Noir, a grim crime-thriller set in the Tennessee back-country of the 1950s, and it’s got just about everything you’d expect from that genre: grime, poverty, mystery, passion, savage violence, bizarre perversion and even magical realism.

If the TWILIGHT review is the main reason you’re here, you’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Feel free to zoom on down there and get stuck into it straight away. If, on the other hand, you’re keen to know a little more about STOLEN – which I like to think also has a wide range of aspects to it (it’s not just a murder mystery) – then stick around at this end of the blog, and I’ll take you through some of the treats waiting between its covers.

Hardboiled Manchester

I don’t write cosy crime. I don’t do village greens or country house murder mysteries. It’s not that I disrespect those subgenres, it’s just that they’re not for me. My own thrillers are purposely gritty, visceral and urban. I do everything I can, in truth, to tick the ‘hardboiled’ box.

For the uninitiated, hardboiled’ is a subdivision of crime fiction which enmeshes its central character – often a police officer, journalist, or private eye – in the seedy world of inner city organised crime, and is set against a background of vice and corruption. Embittered by their experiences in this terrible time and place, the heroes themselves often become antiheroes who will bend many rules to get a result.

Those who read my cop novels will recognise this as home territory from the off, though I think, with the Lucy Clayburn series, we put our own spin on it. Lucy is a female, after all, a young detective constable who works local CID. She has no real power but is increasingly up against it because her home patch of Crowley, aka November Division, is an unruly Manchester borough where poverty, drugs and crime are out of control. She also has one particular problem that would make her unique among police officers in the UK. 


Raised by a single mother, a former stripper now turned respectable citizen, Cora Clayburn, Lucy was only introduced to her father, Frank McCracken, when she was 30 years old and a 10-year police veteran, and was stunned to find out that, though he’d first met and had had a relationship with her mum when he was a doorman at a Manchester nightclub three decades ago, he has now advanced in his career and become a major player in the Crew, the city’s most dangerous crime syndicate.

As such, Lucy finds herself walking an inevitable tightrope between her own world of on-the-hoof law-enforcement and street-policing and her father’s world of violence and racketeering.

I chose Manchester as the backdrop to this dark melodrama, not just because it was my own patch when I was a serving police officer, but also because it’s the grandest of all those great, bustling, post-industrial northern metropolises. Its centre is the soul of modernity and commerce, though its outer districts (one of which I was born and grew up in) are much less to write home about. The division I myself worked in as a cop, upon which Crowley (which is fictional) is loosely based, could pretty well be summed up as a big, dirty, noisy, chaotic, rain-soaked urban Hell.

Anyway, that’s the backdrop. Now to STOLEN, the third book in the series (though a series, all three of the books – the first two are STRANGERS and SHADOWS – can comfortably be read as stand-alones).

I’m not going to give you the outline, mainly because I don’t want to drop any spoilers, but also because the pitch is all over the internet now as the book is being advertised widely. However, as promised, I am going to take this opportunity to send a few trailers your way (so to speak):

The first thing you’ll notice in the Lucy Clayburn books, as I’ve been boasting all the way through this post, is the tough, frank cop stuff  
‘I’ve not seen her today,’ Newt said. ‘Not yet. If she’s shooting up, she’ll be in the women’s toilets on that row of boarded-up shops. On the other side of Penrose Mill.’
Lucy nodded. ‘I know it.’
‘But I don’t think she’ll be there. Yesterday, she was saying something about going to services.’
‘Services?’
‘I don’t know exactly what it means, but . . . she said it once before when she was going to someone’s funeral.’
‘A funeral?’
‘I think so.’ He tried to remember more. ‘She said she wouldn’t be around till this evening because this afternoon she was attending services out on Fairview.’
‘Fairview?’ Lucy was bemused. ‘A funeral . . . on a landfill site?’
Newt shrugged again. ‘That’s all I can tell you. I didn’t ask, did I? Told you, she’s a nutcase. Christ knows what she gets up to most of the time.’
‘This is all I bloody need.’ Lucy thought about Fairview, that hideous, decayed wilderness, with its foul stenches and its drifting toxic smoke and its gangs of weirdo scavengers scrambling across it like beetles. ‘If this is wind-up, Newt, I’ll make your life a misery from here on. It’ll be stops-and-searches every time I see you. I’ve got good contacts in the Drug Squad, and I’ll make sure you go right to the top of their list.’
‘On my honour,’ he protested. ‘She’s taking a few others to attend services on Fairview.’
‘On your honour?’ Lucy shook her head. ‘Your honour. Are you serious?’ She grabbed him by the collar, lugged him from the wall and threw him along the passage with such force that he staggered and almost fell. ‘Get out of my sight, soft lad!’
He hurried off, walking stiffly without looking back.
‘I ever see you again,’ she shouted, ‘I’ll pop those zits with the dirtiest needle I can find!’

     We also have a bit of a rep for going all-out on the action front …

Lucy sped on, passing through the narrow doorway and entering a long, concrete passage that had never been intended for vehicles. Again, it was cluttered with debris, as though part of the ceiling had collapsed, which made it difficult going. A dark shape bobbing ahead of her revealed her fleeing prey, but before she could catch up with it, she reached a junction of passages obstructed by a wheeled cart that was loaded with wooden pallets.
Lucy braked sharply. She heard feet hammering away ahead as she leaped from her seat to shove it all aside. What this place had once been, she couldn’t fathom. Whatever it was, if the rest of the structure was anything to go by, it was likely to be labyrinthine, which was all she needed when her quarry had a head-start like this.
She clambered back onto her bike and accelerated forward at reckless speed. At the next intersection, she had to slow down to listen. Hearing an echoing clatter of rubble on her right, she swung her machine after it, accelerating again. It was the same at the next junction. Even with her headlamp on full beam, she now saw nothing but endless concrete tunnels telescoping ahead, black elongated nightmares along which her Ducati hopped and skipped as it cleared mound after mound of masonry. Some were so narrow that at times her handlebars all but carved their way along the walls and turned the reverberation of her engine into gunfire.
Lucy swore. She could have overhauled this suspect in any normal circumstances, but it was typical that she’d wound up pursuing in what had to be the only place in Crowley where the speed and power of her Ducati were nullified. At the same time, she found herself having to duck, as missiles came flying back from the fleeing form: bricks, discarded bottles, wooden laths heavy with cement. At least her adrenalin was up, dulling the thudding impacts on her body, the blows of bricks and cans, the crunch of smashing glass on her visor. But Lucy knew that she wasn’t immune to this punishment. If her headlight was taken out, that was it; she’d be marooned in this unlit maze, at the mercy of whoever this maniac was …

     I’ll also admit that I have a penchant for colourful and generally irredeemable villains:

‘Why are you telling me all this?’ Lucy asked as she covertly tested her bonds.
     Torgau pondered. ‘It’s a good question, DC Clayburn. Most of my life, I’ve flown under the police radar. You can call it skill, you can call it luck, you can call it the Devil looking after his own. But after a lifetime dedicated to breaking the law – I mean, I’ve barely ever done an honest job and look at the life I lead – I have the smallest criminal record imaginable. So maybe, just maybe . . . this is an opportunity to show at least one of you what you’ve been missing. Cosy in the knowledge that it won’t mean a damn thing.’
‘Dad hasn’t told you what he was really good at yet,’ Torgau’s daughter chipped in.
Lucy saw that she’d lifted the poker from the flames and was blowing gently on its tip, which had started to glow.
This was Torgau’s cue to talk a little more about himself.
‘Wild Bill was impressed by my ability to steal,’ he said. ‘But what he really liked about me was how I excelled at violence. You may not believe that, because I’m not a big man. And back in Moston in the bad old days, when I was very young, that made me a target for every kind of bully. It began with my father, who hammered me regularly for the most minuscule things. But mainly it was this big kid in the neighbourhood – Arun Swaraj. He gave me a kicking every single day. Until my father saw it happen and refused to let me in the house afterwards. He put an empty milk bottle in my hand and said that I couldn’t come home until I’d smashed it over this guy’s head. I knew he meant it. So that was what I did. Arun went down like the pathetic sack of shit he was. But the really amazing thing was the way his wingmen ran away. My father taught me an important lesson that day, DC Clayburn. Violence works. Especially the nasty kind. The kind from which there is no coming back. That kind of violence doesn’t just earn you respect, it can actually earn you a living.’

     Like the hardboiled crime novels of the 1920s and 1930s, which were hugely concerned with the crime syndicates of the Prohibition-era US, Lucy Clayburn is often up to her neck in gangsters

Formerly a pirate and smuggler in the pay of the Mungiki crime syndicate in Kenya, Zambala, despite a machine gun-toting youth in which he’d violently rejected all things western, had effortlessly adapted to the capitalist lifestyle of the UK. He was now in charge of narcotics, importation and distribution, and his annual contribution to company funds was greater by far than everyone else’s, so, though still an underboss, when he spoke, people listened.
‘Not three weeks ago, one of my sellers was fished out of a Fallowfield sewer.’ He took a sip of mineral water. ‘The guys responsible had put him down the sewer while he was still alive . . . minus his hands and feet, I should add. The cops reckon the chopping tool was a machete.’
Wild Bill pursed his thin grey lips. ‘Not an ideal situation. When our own people are getting their hands and feet chopped off.’
Frank McCracken was the only one who didn’t mutter his discontent. He was too busy wondering where all this was leading. He too had heard rumours that foreign powers were slowly muscling in on their action. Not so much his, maybe. He dealt mainly with those established British gangs who even after all these years still failed to recognise the Crew’s authority. But it was plain there was a foreign presence on the streets.
‘You’re very quiet, Frank,’ Pentecost suddenly said.
McCracken shrugged. ‘We might have to make deals, Bill.’

It wouldn’t be a cop thriller, at least not a realistic one, if it wasn’t filled with hints of the mysterious and the abnormal

The problem with being a police officer – anywhere really, not just in a place like Crowley – was that you knew what went on behind the sometimes paper-thin façade of the local community. So Lucy wasn’t entirely surprised that night to look down the list of prisoners waiting in the traps at Robber’s Row police station, November Division’s HQ, to see that they included professional men with sedate family backgrounds: a senior civil servant, a local journalist, an estate agent, even a bank manager. There were louts and scallies among them too, all the usual suspects; but respectability was a keyword where several were concerned, or superficial respectability at least. Maybe, to an extent, she should have anticipated this, because dog-fighting wouldn’t have existed at all, even as an illegal sport, without the hefty cashflow it generated. It was only ever about gambling, and if you didn’t have the readies for that, you couldn’t participate.
‘Worrying, isn’t it?’ she said, scrolling down the file on the screen belonging to Sergeant Joe Cullen, the Robber’s Row custody officer. ‘Lots of these guys come over as perfect citizens . . . so able to create the impression they’re normal that they can function easily in everyday society. They do jobs efficiently and make them pay. They impress socially. They have friends, families. But deep down, they’re so disturbed that they derive pleasure from watching innocent animals rip each other apart. Either that, or they’re so indifferent to it that they don’t care so long as they make a few quid.’
‘I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the thin end of the wedge, to be honest,’ Cullen replied. He was a foursquare old-schooler, with a weathered hangdog face and a brush of thick grey bristles on his head. ‘If they’re prepared to do this, what else are they up to? Like you say . . . they’re not normal.’

And I have been known, just occasionally, to stray into the realms of Gothic horror

The figure of a man was silhouetted on the gradually paling sky.
Peabody switched his torch on again, but powerful though the Maglite was, the beam didn’t reach far enough. Whoever the guy was, he was about sixty yards away.
‘Hello?’ Peabody shouted, circling around the taped-off area. ‘Who are you, please?’ There was no response. The figure remained indistinct and motionless. ‘You need to clear this area. This is an official crime scene.’
The figure remained where it was.
Peabody was angry rather than alarmed. Primarily at himself. He’d stayed as sharp as he could, and he’d still let this creep sneak up on him. Not only that, he’d told him to get his arse out, and the guy wasn’t moving. Did he carry such little authority?
‘PC Peabody!’ he said, tromping uphill, his heavy feet crunching the trash.
The figure still didn’t move, though now the torch was picking him out. Peabody saw a grey suit, a white shirt, a green tie, dark hair – and a weirdly marked face.
‘What the . . .?’ Peabody breathed. And then he smiled to himself.
This was a wind-up of some sort.
Back when he’d been a probie, he’d been subject to all kinds of mickey-taking, as they all were, of course. There was never a trick too nasty or scary for older coppers to play on younger ones, or that they didn’t find hilariously funny afterwards. He’d hoped all that was past him now, but apparently not. Except that he’d be surprised if anyone found this situation amusing, and the higher up the slope he ascended, the less amusing it seemed. Because the thinner and stiffer the watching figure seemed to be, the darker its eyes, the more weirdly streaked its face, and . . . the redder its mouth.
‘What the hell?’ Peabody said again, this time aloud.
For half a second, he had the horrific notion that a corpse had been propped up. But over the last two or three yards, he realised the truth.
It was a shop mannequin, its suit ragged and filthy, its white shirt not a shirt at all but the mannequin’s own polystyrene flesh, its tie a piece of fuzzy-felt, its hair a ratty wig, its face gruesomely plastered with women’s make-up.
Peabody halted a couple of feet below the static figure. He half-expected a sniggering copper to come out from behind it. But no one did. The only sound was the rustling and flapping of the forensics tent down in the dip. Cautiously, almost gingerly, he scrambled up the remaining distance until he was face to face with it. When he looked down, he saw that its feet were embedded amid broken, twisted branches.
Okay, so it hadn’t happened by accident; someone hadn’t just discarded this thing. No doubt there were dozens of such objects scattered across the landfill, but someone must have set this one up deliberately. And in the last half hour or so, because if there was one thing Peabody was certain about, it had not been here when they’d arrived during daylight …

Hopefully you like the sound of STOLEN. Well, as I say, it’s published on May 16. Two weeks from now …


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – 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.
  
TWILIGHT 
by William Gay (2007)

An open cart is wheeled into a small backwoods town. Not an unusual occurrence, you may think – except that this cart is carrying the bloodied, butchered remains of a family who were apparently murdered alongside each other out in the terrible and mysterious tract of overgrown wasteland called the Harrikin. Weirder still, there is a dead dog alongside the corpses, a dog wearing diamond studs in its pierced ears. The townsfolk are shocked, if at the same time a little blasé. Because this, it would seem, is the sort of thing that happens out in the twilight zone that is the Harrikin.

And this is the opening to Twilight, William Gay’s superb piece of back-country noir, a more than unsettling tale about amoral madness in the depths of the impoverished American South.

We’re in rural Tennessee in 1951, and two young people – Corrie Tyler, and her younger brother, Kenneth – are suspicious that well-to-do local undertaker, Fenton Breece, has cheated their family. On seeing the expensive casket purchased for their late bootlegger father being used elsewhere, they dig up his grave and discover the corpse of their parent not just entombed in a cheap box but sexually violated. Further investigations of other recent burials – in other words, more grave-robbing, performed secretly and by night – uncovers additional evidence that Breece is a fetishist and necrophile. But Breece is a leading citizen who no-one would think the worse of without hard evidence. Kenneth thus breaks into his house, seeking this out, and discovers, among other purloined and highly inappropriate possessions, a whole package of photographs depicting the well-groomed undertaker having sex with a variety of dead women – deceased citizens recently entrusted to him – all now dressed and made-up to look like glamour queens.

Uncertain about the loyalties of local law enforcement, the Tylers attempt to blackmail Breece, thinking that, if nothing else, they can at least escape to a better life. But Breece, who is influential at many levels locally, has already turned to hoodlum-for-hire, Granville Sutter, a skilled and callous killer, to retrieve the evidence. In the ensuing first clash between the vying parties, Corrie dies, and 
Tyler flees into the countryside, Sutter close behind.

Tyler is no expert at this sort of thing, whereas Sutter has done it several times at least. The youngster’s only option, or so it seems, is to head into the Harrikin, that vast and dreamy wilderness, trackless, tangled, littered with eerie buildings and rusted, overgrown machinery, and populated by the strangest, most reclusive people – witches, weirdoes, lost souls, forgotten families – all of whom are more than capable of impeding Tyler in his race against death, as well as in shielding and protecting him. It depends how the mood takes them, it depends on the worsening winter weather, it depends on a great many things beyond Tyler’s control, whether he lives and gains justice, or dies a lonely death and finishes up another plaything in Fenton Breece’s squalid funeral parlour vault …      

There is considerable debate about how the ‘Southern Gothic’ school of literature can actually be defined, though most advocates of the genre would agree that it originated in the American South, having emerged from the chaos and poverty following the defeat of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and that as such it weaves dark, macabre tales about the damaged human condition with bizarre, often grotesque imagery (much of this concerned with waste, decay and violence), and yet, though often Noirish in tone, tends to lean away from the traditional mystery-thriller into the realms of magic realism, where we’re living in a recognisable world but such is the madness and strangeness of it all that an unearthly atmosphere pervades.

However, to indicate how broad a church this is, countless authors are named as practitioners, some of whom, at first glance at least, seem poles apart from each other.

Joe R Lansdale and Harper Lee? Cormac McCarthy and Tennesee Williams?

But there is one thing that firmly unites them. All are supreme wordsmiths, who write richly and lovingly about their native Deep South. Not always approvingly, often damningly, but always colourfully, evocatively and intriguingly.

Very much at home in this diverse but hyper-talented crowd is the late, great William Gay, who sits firmly at the darker end of what is already a pretty dark spectrum – his work usually characterised by ordinary, everyday folk facing desperate moral dilemmas thanks to frightening encounters with evil – with Twilight among the very darkest of his endeavours. 

To start with, it’s exquisitely written. It almost seems like a contradiction in terms when we’re talking about murder and necrophilia and an horrendous journey through a jungle of twisted vegetation and skeletal industrial ruins, but William Gay goes at it in his customary poetic fashion, describing it lusciously and hitting us with one startling visual after another. Never let it be said that beauty can’t be found in waste and decay. Again it seems like a paradox, but we’re almost in the realm of fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz invoked at the same time as The Blair Witch Project, every Germanic woodland fable you can think of (we even have the brother and sister heroes pursued by an ogre!) sitting side-by-side with modern tales of perversion, crime and ruin.

And yet, William Gay does it all with a smile on his face. Though he has much to say about outcasts, loners, the lost and disenfranchised, those who’ve fallen through the cracks even in a depressed economy like rural Tennessee in the early ’50s, and though he is patently disgusted that life is still cheap some fifty years after the Wild West has ended, and sickened by small-town corruption and selfishness, his touch is light. He gives us plenty of laughs along with the screams.

As usual though, none of this would work without characters we quickly get involved with.

Kenny Tyler starts out as the archetypical uneducated country-boy, but inevitably grows in stature during his fight for life out in the world-apart that is the Harrikin, hatching both wisdom and courage, and so giving us a coming-of-age vibe along with everything else.

Fenton Breece, meanwhile, represents a quintessential villain of the Old South, being a snake oil salesman of the most blatant kind, charming, civilised and plausible, all of which nevertheless conceals a truly degenerate soul. The moment he confesses to Granville Sutter that he killed a woman once, and may even – though he doesn’t totally remember it – have killed other women, is quite 
chilling in its shrugged-off matter-of-factness.

Sutter, though a blunt instrument in comparison, is equally complex, because while Breece is rotten to the core, Sutter has no core at all – at least, none that is recognisably human. He initially appears as a typical town bully, another violent brute where women are concerned, but also a confident disposer of men. So, he’s a boor, yes, but he’s also an out-and-out predator, who’s not just good at what he does because he has a streak of innate cunning that goes a mile deep, but because nothing matters to him. He simply doesn’t care about anyone and was probably born with this deficiency; the way some may come into this world lacking an arm or leg, Granville Sutter did so lacking conscience and charity. A madman, then, a psychopath – but as I’ve already said, and as we see through his dreams and reminiscences, a complex one too.

So how do I sum this novel up quickly? Well, in truth, you can’t.

Suffice to say that Twilight is an engrossing, elegiac study of the human darkness at the heart of what once might have been thought chocolate box America. Be warned, it’s not one of those garish hillbilly horror stories, but there is horror here along with humour and intellect, all of it wrapped up in sumptuous southern prose.

So, horror fans … read it. Thriller fans … read it. Literary fiction aficionados … read it. And surrealists and fabulists … you must read it too. This is Southern Gothic at its most haunting.   

Twilight hasn’t, to my knowledge, been adapted for film or TV just yet, and so I’m going to do my usual thing and stick my oar in early, advising any potential movie company who they should be casting when they finally get around to putting this great piece of work on film. Just a bit of fun, of course (like they’d listen to me in real life).

Kenneth Tyler – Ansel Elgort (probably a little older than he is in the book, though not by much)
Fenton Breece – Domhnall Gleeson
Granville Sutter – Michael Chiklis