Friday, 11 August 2017

Unveiling the next Lucy Clayburn enquiry

Okay, I know I’ve been promising his for a little while, but today I’m at last able to unveil the jacket for the next Lucy Clayburn novel, SHADOWS

So, here it is … enjoy (and feel free to tell me what you think).

We’ll be talking a bit more about the next Lucy book shortly (I’ll even let you in on seven things about her that you previously didn’t know). But as we’re focussing exclusively on girl-power this week, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Tess Gerritsen’s remarkable occult/crime thriller, THE MEPHISTO CLUB, which pits two female sleuths against a group who are literally dedicated to doing evil. It’s a real hair-curler, but as always, you’ll find that review at the lower end of today’s post.

Meanwhile, as promised, Lucy is back on the crime-solving trail this autumn, so here’s that little bit extra I promised about the next adventure ... 

In SHADOWS, PC Lucy Clayburn has finally earned herself a permanent position in the CID office of Greater Manchester Police’s notorious November Division (where just about every kind of social deprivation is still an issue, and where criminal activity is rampant).

Lucy, or DC Clayburn as she is now officially known, is already an 11-year veteran on the force, and she thinks she’s seen and done it all … until the arrival in town of a gang of armed robbers who hit their targets with maximum force and extreme savagery, always leaving trails of dead or horrifically wounded victims in their wake.

It’s a real shock to the police system, even in a rough neighbourhood like ‘the N’ - almost a throwback to the days of John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. But Lucy isn’t the only person on the case. As this new gang mainly seems to be preying on the interests of the underworld, in particular the Northwest’s premier crime syndicate, the Crew, infamous gangland trouble-shooter Frank McCracken is also charged with bringing them down. And you can be sure that his methods are going to be a lot rougher and readier than Lucy’s (even if the vying twosome do know each other better than either of them would like to admit).

Random violence

I first introduced Lucy Clayburn in the 2016 novel, STRANGERS, in which she went undercover as a Manchester prostitute in order to catch a deranged working girl who appeared to be butchering her male clients. 

As well as sending her after a relentless serial killer, it brought her into closer contact with organised crime in the city than any person would be comfortable with.

But in SHADOWS, she goes a whole lot deeper, pursuing a bunch of blaggers to whom human life means nothing, and plunging into a world of drugs, guns and random, testosterone-fuelled violence, where no-one – but no-one – is beyond the reach of a knife, a bullet, or even a sword!

But alas, I can’t say too much more about it. If you want to know what actually happens in SHADOWS, you’ve got to acquire the book – which will be published on October 19 this year.

However, also as promised earlier, here is one further item of interest for Lucy Clayburn fans ...    


SEVEN THINGS ABOUT LUCY THAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW:

(These were all plotted before the first book was written, but didn’t make it into the final text. However, in due course, all will come to play their own part in the Lucy Clayburn canon).

1) At the start of STRANGERS, all Lucy thought she knew about her absent father was that he’d worked as a bus driver, and that he had departed the family before Lucy was even born because he found the idea of parental responsibility onerous. As a young child, Lucy was particularly affected by this, and at the age of seven she ran away from home and used her Christmas money to travel the bus routes of Greater Manchester for two days, looking for any driver whose facial features she might vaguely recognise. Lucy’s mother, Cora, was beside herself with worry, but the child was later recovered safe and well when, early one morning, a nurse coming off duty found her sleeping in a bus shelter in Rochdale on the other side of the city from her home-patch of Crowley. Afterwards, when Lucy saw how upset her mother had been, she solemnly promised herself that she would never go looking for her father again.

2) Those who’ve read STRANGERS will be aware that Lucy comes from an economically poor background but that her single mother’s brave and determined efforts ensured that she’d eventually become a model citizen. However, in her late teens, Lucy went through a typical ‘wild child’ phase, and for a brief time was girlfriend to Kyle Armstrong, a member of the Low Riders, Crowley’s resident Hell’s Angels chapter.

Armstrong later rose to be president of the chapter, but when Lucy joined the police – perhaps inevitably – they went their separate ways, and not very amicably. However, Armstrong made an impression on Lucy; she still recalls how lean, mean and fanciable he was, and of course, though she may not admit this to herself, she owes Armstrong big-time for instilling in her a long-lasting street wisdom, not to mention her abiding love of motorbikes (for those not in the know, Lucy still rides a Ducti Monster M900 ‘muscle-bike’).

3) As a child and then as a teenager, Lucy had an extreme phobia of dogs. It all began when, as a toddler, she was playing in the backstreet behind her house when she was attacked and badly bitten by an out-of-control Doberman. For years afterwards, she had an unreasoning fear of canines. However, this was cured one Saturday night in the police, when she was required to arrest two hooligans who were fighting outside a kebab shop.

Lucy was alone at the time, and the moment she grabbed the guy doing most of the beating, the watching crowd turned on her, as did the other combatant. Lucy was about to get a severe kicking herself, when Shuck, a fearsome police dog was let loose further down the road. It tore into the mob and drove them every which way, basically saving her life. Later, she made friends with Shuck by throwing a tennis ball for him for two hours on the car park at the back of the police station, throwing off her phobia in the process.

4) Lucy first came to the notice of senior police officers when, early in her career, shortly after leaving the watchful eye of her tutor constable, she engaged in a car chase with a late-night driver who wouldn’t stop for her. Suspecting because of his erratic driving that he was drunk, she stayed on his tail until he abandoned his vehicle on wasteland close to the River Irwell. It was a December night, very cold and the river was half frozen. The fleeing driver attempted to swim across, got into trouble and screamed for help as he started to drown.

Despite the pitch darkness and the icy cold, Lucy jumped into the river and managed to pull him ashore alive (he transpired to have been under the influence of drugs). Later on, she was severely reprimanded by her supervisors for taking an absurdly dangerous risk. However, when the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester heard about the escapade, she was awarded her first (of several) commendations. 

5) Lucy suffered her first serious injury on duty when she was hit with a baseball bat by one of her own police colleagues. She was involved in public order training at the time, and participating in an exercise called ‘Violent Man’. A burly police PTI had donned body armour and a motorcycle helmet and, armed with a hickory slugger, was stationed inside a derelict house. Lucy and three other PCs had to enter and affect an arrest; the PTI, in the guise of a deranged suspect, had to do everything he could to resist them. Though Lucy and her crew were in full riot gear and armed with heavy Perspex shields, the house was filled with rubble. Lucy stumbled on entry, dropped her shield, and the PTI, who’d already taken a full swing at her with the bat, was unable to pull back. Lucy was hit in the throat, the impact of which broke her collar bone and caused her to swallow her tongue. Revived at the scene, she nevertheless had to spend two days in hospital and was off work for three weeks.

6) Lucy once nearly arrested a famous rock star. In her mid-twenties, she was off-duty in a central Manchester nightclub when a rather dishy but very drunken guy began pestering her for a dance.

The guy wouldn’t take no for an answer; in fact he seemed startled that she would resist him. At length, Lucy lost her patience and gave him a flea in his ear. His response was to turn aggressive and, when he tried to force a kiss on her, she put him in an arm-lock and marched him to the nightclub door, where she intended to get the bouncers to summon police officers to take him into custody. Someone then quietly advised her that she was roughing up Tug Davis, founder member of The Mannequins, a big name Manchester band of the 1990s and one of the Britpop ‘big five’. Lucy still wasn’t inclined to let him go, even less so when a bossy woman identified herself as Tug’s PA and threatened legal action.

However, when a colleague pointed out to Lucy that she’d had a bit to drink herself and that she might be on shaky ground, she finally relented and all parties agreed to forget it so long as Tug “behaved himself in future”, which he sulkily promised to do. 

7) Lucy once made the Crowley newspapers after taking an eccentric local woman seriously rather than dismissing her as a fruitcake. Annie Leary was regarded by the police as a batty old dear, whom no-one should pay any attention to, especially when she made repeated complaints that her terraced house was haunted by a goblin, who constantly stole her money and food. When Lucy was assigned to that beat, she took note of the fact that the house next door to Annie’s was empty, and launched a one-woman investigation, which led her to a hole in the connecting wall between the two attics. It turned out that a homeless child – a feral boy – was living up there, who regularly came down into Annie’s house at night to try and feed himself.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

THE MEPHISTO CLUB 
by Tess Gerritsen (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there is the Mephisto Club itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Darker days: the 60s/70s maniac explosion

We’re lowering the tone to a dangerous level this week, conjuring up memories of a past so dark that many among us who were there at the time have likely blotted them out. We’re going to be recollecting the 1960s and 1970s, and exposing ourselves to some of Britain’s worst real-life criminals and the terrible atrocities they inflicted on us during that turbulent, rough-and-ready age.

In the same spirit, I’ll today be reviewing and discussing BLOOD AXE, Leigh Russell’s unrelenting tale of a criminal gone mad on the streets of urban Britain, and the cop who investigates the case so hard that he sacrifices almost everything he has in the process. As usual, youll find that review and discussion towards the lower end of today’s blog.

Before any of that, I can announce that next week we’ll officially be revealing the cover to my next Lucy Clayburn novel, SHADOWS, which hits the shelves on October 19 this year and puts our feisty female cop on the trail of a ruthless gang of armed robbers who always hit their targets with maximum brutality and bloodshed.

In sync with today’s overarching theme of narcissistic violence in a world devoid of pity, Lucy soon learns that the most frightening thing about opponents this extreme is not their preparedness to kill, but the void where their humanity is supposed to be, the utter absence of any degree of human love or charity.

Which brings us smoothly onto today’s main feature. An article I’ve put together this last week or so, much of it from memory, on the subject of a strange, anarchic age which, by the time it arrived, had seen so many sacred cows cruelly slain that it was inevitable human victims would start to follow.

All you have to do, if you’re old enough, is throw your mind back 30/40 years, to …

DAYS OF INDELIBLE DARKNESS        

If you grew up in the UK of the 1960s and 1970s, as I did, you experienced a world that would be completely unrecognisable to young people today.

Okay … we’ve all heard the usual criticisms about that long-ago (and much defamed) era. Namely, that as a nation we drank too much, smoked too much, ate the wrong things, that we were innately racist, and that, most unforgivably of all in modern eyes, our society as a whole was self-indulgently sexualised: our book covers had never been more lurid, girlie mags were not just confined to the top shelves, our cinemas showed nothing but porn, and blue comedians dominated our TV schedules – I even remember one amazing Saturday morning when the lovely Sally James presented the kids’ show, TISWAS, naked in a bubble bath!!!

Not all of us might consider that latter detail a problem, but there actually was a downside to living in that period. The counter-culture rebels of the mid-60s had ushered in an age of permissiveness, which for some opportunists quickly morphed into something much more unpleasant: a time of misogyny and exploitation. It brought us increased drugs problems too, and quite a bit more ‘angry young man’ violence – and not just on stage and screen; the 60s saw countless Bank Holidays disrupted by mods v rockers incidents, while in the 70s, winter weekends were repeatedly marred by widespread football hooliganism.

But it wasn’t all bad for us youngsters, especially if we liked the fictional scary stuff.

Unlike today, tales of horror and the supernatural were easily accessible through mid-evening network television shows like  THRILLER, BEASTS and SUPERNATURAL, not to mention cheaply-priced paperbacks, which we could afford with our pocket-money and which would be sold to us by cheerful shop-ladies who’d never ask us our age (okay, I’ll admit it, you might have got smacked if your dad found you in possession of some gore-filled movie magazine like MONSTER MAG, or an issue of the uber-violent comic, ACTION, or maybe if he discovered a volume of the PAN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES next to your bed … but you got smacked an awful lot in those days anyway, so it seemed like a price worth paying).

No, it wasn’t too bad if you were a kid back then, so long as you were also a horror freak.

Unless, of course, you considered CRIME a problem … because that is the point at which 60s/70 horror stories stop being funny.

A new age of violence

It would be completely wrong to claim that violent and sexual crimes were inventions of the late 20th century. We all know that we can trace our gangsters, rapists and serial killers back to the dawn of civilisation. But in the 60s and 70s – or so it seemed to me – it was almost as if the entire criminal underworld had suddenly taken its gloves of. Maybe it was just that my generation were finally becoming old enough to pay attention to the news, but suddenly vicious murders appeared to be happening everywhere, often set against dismal urban backdrops, and perpetrated by offenders who were more ruthless, crazed and sadistic than any of those who had gone before them. 

And they were dealt with starkly by the media, newspapers and TV bulletins delivering the full stories to us in the most unstinting fashion, sparing us no cruel or gruesome detail.

And, on reflection … why wouldn’t they?

In an age when the body-counts on DR WHO often matched those on war films, at a time when Bonfire Night was preceded by safety warnings on early-evening TV displaying graphic images of burned children (check out the kid on the right ... who was able to stare at the sunset because he had no eyes!), in an era when it was all too easy for 12-year-olds to sneak in through the unalarmed back doors of local cinemas to catch movies like CLOCKWORK ORANGE, SOLDIER BLUE, STRAW DOGS and THE DEVILS (and again, only at the risk of getting a clip round the ear if caught), why would anyone think we youngsters couldn’t take it?

So … could we?, I hear you ask.

Yeah, course we could. If anything, it made us streetwise, woke us up to stranger-danger, and informed us in no uncertain terms that childhood was over.

And yet now, even having become a thriller writer in my adult years, I still have indelible and sometimes vaguely disturbing memories of the crime in that period: the photofits on the evening news (they never looked even remotely human, which made them all the scarier); the column-inches of darkly luscious prose describing the streets of fear in depressed towns where killers were on the loose; the newsreels showing search-lines moving morosely across desolate wastelands; and then, when these maniacs were finally caught, the grainy footage of their humped and handcuffed forms with blankets thrown over them as they were led by harassed-looking coppers through the baying mobs gathered outside police stations or courts.

Death by hanging was abolished for murder in Britain in 1965, but adults at the time remembered it well enough and many regretted its loss, an opinion that was often expressed loudly when these crime sprees were in progress.

And almost invariably, the faces of the guilty, when they finally appeared in the press, looked as if they belonged on the gallows (check out mass killers Graham Young, left, and Patrick Mackay, right). I don’t think there was ever an era in British history when criminals looked as much the part as they did in the 1960s and 1970s.

But enough of my inane rambling.

To really try and capture the atmosphere of that sleazy time, and the edginess of those streets we all romped through with the backsides hanging out of our jeans, only scattering back home when darkness fell (or not, depending on how fearless we thought we were!), the toughness of the cops (who had very hard hands, trust me!), and the desperate, pre-DNA war they waged against a new age of unspeakable deviancy, here, in no particular order, I’ve selected my 15 Most Shudder-Inducing Memories of 60s and 70s Crime:  


Mary Bell

In an era when children were still held to be innately innocent, the crimes of Mary Bell completely stunned a British society which, by 1968, really thought it had seen it all.

An unknown assailant making random fatal attacks on young children is a crime investigator’s worst nightmare, but when the killer is also a child, it becomes the stuff of nightmares.

Mary Bell, the daughter of a Newcastle prostitute, was only 10 in May 1968, when she lured a neighbouring boy who was only four years old, into a derelict house and strangled him. A short time later, she vandalised a local nursery and left sinister messages claiming responsibility for the murder (above left). The following July, this time with an accomplice, she attacked and strangled another neighbouring child, a little boy who was only three years old – in this latter case, Bell is believed to have returned to the scene of the crime afterwards, to inscribe a letter M on the victim’s body with a pair of scissors, and to mutilate his genitals.

Thanks to the unbridled horror of the case, even though she was only convicted on two counts of manslaughter (on the grounds that she was mentally ill), she was ordered to be detained indefinitely. However, she was released around 1980, and ever since then has lived anonymously under the protection of the courts.  


The Moors Murders

One of the most distressing cases of all time, the Moors Murders occurred between 1963 and 1965 on the outskirts of Manchester, and are often seen as a watershed in the history of UK crime.

Ian Brady, a Glaswegian-born ex-juvenile delinquent, and Myra Hindley, a clerk at the Gorton company where he found work, murdered five children, two girls and three boys, aged between 10 and 17. Four of the victims were sexually murdered, at least one of their torturous deaths photographed and tape-recorded, and the corpses buried on lonely Saddleworth Moor.

Brady and Hindley’s reign of horror ended when they committed their fifth murder in front of an unwilling accomplice, who the next day told all. The devilish twosome were convicted in 1966, missing the death penalty by months only, but receiving full life sentences. Even then, the victims’ families’ pain wasn’t over, the narcissistic Hindley fighting hard to acquit herself.

The fact that a woman had participated in these acts, using her femininity to lure the victims, horrified the world. Little wonder the phrase ‘wicked beyond belief’ was coined in reference to the duo. Few cared when Hindley died in prison in 2002; even fewer cared that Brady lingered on until 2017. 


Bible John

One of those true crime cases which ought to be the script for a horror movie.

A handsome man, clean-cut and well-groomed, introduces himself to young women at a famous old nightclub in the heart of town, using polite language and quoting the Bible to indicate that he is of God-fearing stock. And then, the next morning, those same young women are found in ruined buildings, raped, beaten and strangled with their own stockings.

To complete the terrifying picture, the culprit is never apprehended.

These ghastly events really took place in Glasgow in 1968 and 1969, centred around the Barrowland Ballroom. The murderer, who claimed three victims, was given the nickname ‘Bible John’, and quickly attained urban mythical status.

Despite the biggest police investigation in Scottish history, he was never captured. However, the story doesn’t end there. Speculation has now linked serial killer, Peter Tobin, with the case. Tobin, who was convicted of three murders in the 2000s, is known to have moved from Glasgow to England in 1969, when the Bible John murders stopped. Nothing has been proved, but the similarities between photos of him then, at age 23, and identikits of Bible John, are positively eerie.   


Patrick Mackay

Dartford-based Patrick Mackay learned nothing from his drunken, violent father except how to bully the weak.

When his father died in 1962, 10-year-old Patrick duly took on the role of chief-abuser of his mother and sisters. As he progressed into his teens, he threw his net wider, beating other children, stealing, torturing animals and serving time in juvenile detention. When he entered adulthood in the early 1970s, he moved to London, where he developed such a fascination with Nazism that he nicknamed himself Franklin Bolvolt 1st and started collecting SS memorabilia. It was also around this time when the hulking Mackay is believed to have commenced a series of brutal home-invasion murders, primarily targeting senior citizens.

Mackay was finally captured in 1975, when one of the victims, an elderly Roman Catholic priest, who he hacked to death with an axe, was remembered as being someone he’d had altercations with previously. Mackay bragged that he’d murdered 11 OAPs (including a tramp, who he claimed to have thrown from a railway bridge), was actually suspected of at least 12 such murders, but was only convicted of manslaughter through diminished responsibility. Nevertheless, he received a full-life sentence, which he is still serving.


The Yorkshire Ripper

Bingley-born lorry driver, Peter Sutcliffe, aka the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, started his reign of terror in 1969, when he assaulted a Bradford prostitute with a stone loaded in a sock. Other attacks followed in 1975, Sutcliffe approaching lone women at night, striking them with blunt instruments and stabbing them, though in the first four cases his victims survived, albeit severely injured.

The deaths began that October, when, armed with a hammer and sharpened screwdriver, and having refined his modus operandi – he now struck from behind, fracturing the skull first and then repeatedly puncturing the dazed victim’s body! – he struck down Leeds woman, Wilma McCann. From here, the brutality escalated, at least 12 more women dying in cities across Yorkshire, and even over the Pennines in Manchester.

He was arrested in 1981, when two uniformed officers became suspicious about the false plates on his car. After a case that had panicked the public, which was misdirected by a chilling but hoax taped confession, and which saw the West Yorkshire police severely criticised, the trial was understandably a sensation, Sutcliffe claiming that God had charged him to kill prostitutes, but ultimately failing to avoid a full-life prison sentence.


The Beast of Jersey

In 1960, the holiday idyll of Jersey, in the Channel Islands, was plunged into a living nightmare, when a nocturnal assailant clad in spiked wristlets and wearing a rubber horror mask, began breaking into lone houses, and raping and sodomising the women and children he found there.

In the ensuing terror, false accusations flew thick and fast, and in one instance an innocent French fisherman was hounded off the island, even though police suspicion of him proved to be unfounded.

The Beast’s ferocious rampage continued until 1971, when uniformed officers pursued a car running a red light, and collared Edward Paisnel, a formerly respected islander who’d previously been seen as a pillar of the community. Despite Paisnel’s denials, the evidence was strong: part of the horror costume was found in his car, and later examination of his cottage uncovered a black magic altar in an outbuilding, where rumour held that he’d been sacrificing animals to Satan.

Sentenced to 30 years in prison, he attempted to return to Jersey on his release, but such was the hostility of locals, that he left again, dying on the Isle of Wight in 1994. Stories connecting him with historic child abuse at the Haut de la Garenne children’s home are thought to be wide of the mark.  


The Cambridge Rapist

Peter Samuel Cook was a prolific burglar, an expert house-breaker, who in October 1974 switched to rape when he encountered a young woman in a student’s hostel in Cambridge, and violently overpowered her.

Between then and the following spring, he repeatedly broke into student accommodation in the city which he’d identified as housing single female occupants.

His attacks were appallingly brutal, but were made more terrifying by his method: he used weapons and wore a chilling costume which included a slit-eyed, zipper-mouthed leather mask with the word ‘Rapist’ inscribed across the forehead.

In fact, so much did Cook come to enjoy the monstrous persona he’d created for himself that he began to take risks. For instance, if a proposed break-in failed, he would write messages on the windows of his intended victims’ bedrooms, such as: ‘Sleep tight – the Rapist’. This caused even greater fear in the city, but left the police with evidence of his handwriting.

He made some efforts to protect himself, such as attaching false hair and a beard inside his mask, but ultimately Cook was captured fleeing the scene of his last crime on a bicycle. His life term was fulfilled when he died in prison in 2004.   


Trevor Hardy

One of Britain’s lesser-known serial killers, Trevor Hardy, aka ‘the Beast of Manchester,’ had the potential to rock the country in the same way the Yorkshire Ripper would a couple of years later, but the police were onto him quickly and, though the enquiry was widespread in the city, it was kept relatively low-key.

That said, Hardy, a Manchester native well known for his violent temper (and for his ability to brutalise men, let alone women), still claimed three lives – and in horrible fashion. Between 1974 and 1976, he murdered three teenage girls whom he stalked late at night, battering, strangling and sexually assaulting them, and on two occasions, stripping and mutilating the corpses afterwards.

Though he took pains to preserve his liberty – arranging fake alibis with acquaintances and even filing his teeth down so that bite marks on the bodies could not be connected to him – Hardy displayed many of the signatures of traditional predatory sex killers, which ultimately would provide damning evidence in court: he collected gruesome trophies from the victims, and even gave one to a girlfriend as a love token. Imprisoned under a full-life tariff, he died in jail in 2012.

Suspicion that he may have committed other murders has never been successfully pursued.


The Black Panther

Donald Neilson was a small businessman from Bradford who most people in the mid-70s wouldn’t have looked at twice, let alone imagined was capable of instigating one of the most terrifying crime-waves in British history.

Because Neilson was also the ‘Black Panther’, a polific burglar and armed robber, who always came masked and wielding a loaded shotgun, and who showed no compunction about murder.

He allegedly turned to crime when his business failed, but if so, he seemed to have no qualms about it. In 1974 alone, he shot and killed four men during burglaries or post office robberies. The crimes occurred as far apart as the West Midlands and Lancashire, the whole country soon living in fear of a merciless offender who attacked with commando precision (Neilson was an ex-soldier).

However, his worst atrocity came in 1975, when he kidnapped 17-year-old heiress, Lesley Whittle, and imprisoned her on a platform deep in a drainage shaft with a wire noose around her neck. Whether she was pushed or fell from the platform through exhaustion, Whittle didn’t survive the ordeal.

Captured later that year by two bobbies, who recognised him from a photo-fit, Neilson went to jail as one of the UK’s most hated criminals, dying there in 2011.  


John Childs

It’s tempting to assume that of all the mass murderer ‘types’ currently hiding in the world’s shadows, the contract killers, while undoubtedly among the most dangerous because of their proficiency, are probably the easiest to understand, as their motive – getting rich – is a common one.

While they might be totally ruthless, the general assumption is that they don’t do what they do simply because they enjoy it. But try telling that to the victims of John Childs, a professional bank robber and London-based hitman who between 1974 and 1978, murdered six people in various ghastly ways, shooting one of them three times, transfixing another with a sword and after hacking a third with an axe and bludgeoning him with a pipe, finishing him off with a garrote.

To make matters worse, not all the victims were gangland figures, indeed one of them was a 10-year-old child who just happened to be in company with his father when the killer struck.

The final horror in the John Childs story is the manner of his disposal of the corpses, all of which, incredibly, were dismembered and then cremated in the fireplace of his sordid East End flat (imagine the foulness of that). Childs is still alive, but serving a full-life jail term.  


Bruce Lee

Originally named Peter Dinsdale – he chose his new name, himself, in homage to his kung-fu fighting hero – Lee had a hellish upbringing. Born in a tough part of Manchester, the epileptic, partially paralysed son of a prostitute, he was mocked, bullied and achieved nothing at school.

He was also a pyromanic, who knew when it was time to light a fire because his ‘fingers tingled’.

Naturally, his favourite targets were occupied premises, like houses and rest homes for the elderly, though the fatal conflagrations only began in 1973, when he was 13 and living in Hull. In total, he lit nine fatal house-fires between then and 1980, burning to death 11 elderly men in one attack, and a young mother and her three sons in another. In total, 26 people died at the arsonist’s hands.

His method wasn’t especially clever, the flames often struck after he poured paraffin through letterboxes and the like (on one occasion he poured it over a victim who was sleeping in an armchair!), which means he was lucky that no criminal action was initially suspected.

Even after he was arrested and confessed, the charge of mass-manslaughter seems generous given that some of his victims were people he had grudges against. In the end, Lee was confined to a mental hospital, with the chilling statement: ‘Fire is my master’.    


The Cannock Chase Murders

In the late 60s, with the shock of the Moors Murders reverberating around the UK, a new child-murderer was already on the prowl.

To all intents and purposes, Raymond Leslie Morris was not your typical sex-offender (if such a thing exists).

A handsome, brighter-than-average family man, he had a good job and lived in a suburban corner of Walsall. But he had a secret dark side; he habitually made unacceptable sexual demands of the women in his life, and had an alarming predilection for very young girls.

Between 1965 and 1967, he coaxed three of them – nine, six and five – into his car while they were en route to school, and then assaulted and suffocated them. Their bodies were afterwards abandoned on open land at Cannock Chase, kick-starting a massive police investigation, which saw a facial composite used for the first time ever in a British police enquiry (apparently closely matching the killer’s actual looks).

Traced in 1968 after an unsuccessful fourth abduction, Morris was finally convicted of one murder (but still believed responsible for the other two), and sentenced to life without parole. A fourth child-murder has often been attributed to him, but was never proved. Morris died in prison in 2014.  


Mark Rowntree

As if the West Yorkshire police weren’t having enough trouble in the mid/late 1970s coping with the crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper, a second serial killer was also trawling the same patch at the same time.

In fact, some of the murders committed by paranoid schizophrenic Mark Rowntree were, for a brief period at least, considered to have been committed by the Ripper himself, and at the very least were a distraction to the enquiry.

Rowntree’s specific hunting ground was Bingley, and between 1975 and 1976 he committed four savage but random murders. In two of them, he forced entry to private premises, stabbing to death the occupants, a woman alone and a woman and her three-year-old son, and in another fatally attacking a teenage boy waiting at a bus stop.

When finally apprehended, after people who knew him recognised a description that had been circulated by the police, Rowntree appeared to be resigned to his fate, but expressed regret that he'd only claimed four lives – he had hoped to emulate his idol, the Black Panther, whose total was five.

On conviction, he was confined in Rampton Hospital, and is now one of the longest-serving psychiatric patients in any of Britain’s high-security asylums.  


Graham Young

Ever since his childhood, North Londoner Graham Young had been fascinated by dangerous chemicals, and as part of this obsession, spent many of those years testing poisons on his family.

At first no-one suspected anything, assuming that the Youngs were simply unlucky with stomach viruses. However, when Graham’s stepmother died in 1962, an investigation uncovered belladonna, and the culprit was sent to Broadmoor Secure Hospital. Nine years later, he was pronounced cured and released, even though he had spent his time inside refining his skill to the point where he could extract cyanide from laurel leaves, and even used this method to kill fellow inmate, John Berridge.

It was now 1971, and Graham found work at the John Hadland Laboratories in Hertfordshire, where he promptly began administering thallium via the canteen tea-urn. At least 70 of his fellow-workers became seriously ill, two of them dying. When his home was searched, the police found various toxic substances and a detailed log in which Young kept records of the doses he’d dealt and his feelings about whether those stricken deserved to live or die.

In 1972, ‘the Teacup Poisoner’, as the press dubbed him, went to prison for life, dying in his cell in 1990.


The Monster Butler

In the case of Archibald Hall, the butler really did do it, and more than once.

In a story that sounds as if it comes from a ‘village green’ murder mystery, Glasgow-born Archie Hall, a career criminal, who during his early years in the 1960s specialised in petty theft, had always fancied himself the debonair type, and so in the 1970s found richer pickings by hiring himself to the landed gentry as a butler.

His first murder occurred in 1977, when he shot and killed a rival villain who was endangering his position on the Highland estate where he was working. He moved south, attempting to escape his past, but violence seemed to follow him. Later that year, with the assistance of his on/off lover, Mary Coggle, he beat and suffocated his elderly employers, the Scott-Elliotts, in order to rob them. Later that day, in a row over the loot, he murdered Coggle the same way.

He killed again the following Christmas, this time his own brother, Donald, who was becoming suspicious of his new-found wealth. However, Hall attracted attention while trying to dispose of Donald’s body and was arrested in early 1978.

He died in 2002 at age 78, the oldest prisoner in the UK to still be serving a full-life sentence. 


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

BLOOD AXE
by Leigh Russell (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Imagery: The Moors Murders search pic comes from the Evening Standard; the Bible John pic comes from Media Scotland; the Patrick Mackay screen-grab comes from the Twofour Productions documentary series, Born to Kill; the Ripper crowd image comes from the Huddersfield Daily Examiner; the Black Panther pic comes from the Birmingham Mail. 

Monday, 17 July 2017

At last, the reading season is finally here

Okay, summer is finally turning glorious, and for me that usually means two things, often both at the same time: travelling and reading.

I mean, don’t get me wrong … I read all the time, but for some reason, whenever I’m on my holidays (or vacation, as they call it Stateside), getting my head into a good book seems to come a lot more easily. 

Maybe I’m more relaxed then, I don’t know – but when I’m settled in the sunshine, I can literally motor through novels (14 last August!). For which reason, I thought today might be an opportunity to showcase my planned reads for this summer.

I mentioned 14, so, maybe somewhat ambitiously, I should list the 14 novels coming up next on my reading list, though in one of those cases, Ive already jumped the gun. 

SIEGE, by that master of the explosive action-thriller, Simon Kernick, was supposed to be on the to-read list with all the others, but as I’ve already gone and read it, I’m today going to review and discuss that one instead. 

As usual, you’ll find it at the lower end of today’s column.

But before we get to that, a quick word about one of my own books, which I hope a few folk might be interested in choosing for their own pile of summer reads. 

STRANGERS, my first outing for DC Lucy Clayburn, hit the bookshelves in September last year and is still selling well, I’m glad to say. But just in case you missed it the first time round, here’s a quick reminder that the Kindle version – which you can get HERE – is 99p for the duration of this summer period.

Anyway, back to the books I myself want to read and will be doing very soon. Here they are, in no particular order. I make no apologies for the fact that some of them are not exactly new releases. I discover books and authors all the time, and never have any hesitation picking something up from the past if I like the look of it. You’ll also notice that this list doesn’t just consist of crime, thriller and/or horror fiction. Okay, most of it is, but I like to think I have a reasonably diverse taste, and lots of different boxes which need ticking come the summertime. 

But enough of the prelims, let’s go …

To thoroughly satisfy my cravings for a big, international conspiracy thriller, I’m opting first for Terry HayesI AM PILGRIM. Okay, I know I should have read this modern classic already by now, but what can I say? ... I’m a busy guy. Anyway, what better way to kick off the summer reading season?

Here’s the official blurb:

A young woman murdered in a run-down Manhattan hotel.

A father publicly beheaded in the blistering sun of Saudi Arabia.

A man’s eyes stolen from his living body as he leaves a secret Syrian research laboratory.

Smouldering human remains on a mountainside in the Hindu Kush.

A plot to commit an appalling crime against humanity.

One thread that binds them all.

One man to take the journey.

Pilgrim.

Horror takes many forms these days, and there are always a number of different categories that I find I need to check out. First up, I’m usually in need of at least one psychological horror fix per year, and this year I’m going for another book I should have read by now. It’s Paul Tremblay’s intriguing-sounding 2015 title, A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS.

Here’s the  official blurb:

The lives of the Barretts, a suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia. To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to halt Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show.

Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls the terrifying events that took place when she was just eight years old, long buried secrets and painful memories begin to surface – and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed.

Oceanic horror is another subgenre for which I must seek at least one annual fix, and it’s usually at around this time of year with a holiday abroad beckoning. One of my other favourite past-times when I’m in a hot climate is sea-swimming, and you know, there’s surely no better way to enjoy the chill of deep blue water beneath your feet than when you’re also thinking about the latest book of sea-horror that you’ve read. For this one, I’ve opted for Michaelbrent Collings’s much lauded novel of 2015, THE DEEP.

Here’s the official blurb:

A woman searching for a sister lost at sea.

A man bent on finding lost treasure.

A mother who has lost all hope.

A maniac who believes all life exists for his pleasure.

The man who would keep them all safe.

Together, they will all seek below the waves for treasures long buried, and riches beyond belief.

But those treasures hide something. Something ancient, something dark.

A creature that exists only to feed on those that would enter its realm.

A creature … of THE DEEP.  

On the subject of horror, you can’t beat a good creature feature. Oh yes, I like a monster or two, and this next choice has come highly recommended. If you like your Scandi-noir, but fancy taking it even further into the realms of darkness, check out Sefan Spjut’s STALLO.

Here’s the official blurb:

In the late 1970s, a young boy disappears from a summer cabin in the Swedish woods. His mother claims that he was abducted by a giant. The boy is never found.

Twenty-five years later, an old woman claims that a creature has been standing outside her house, observing her and her five-year-old grandson for hours.

When Susso – who’s dedicated her life to the search for creatures whose existences have not been proved – hears of this, and sees a possible link between the two incidents, she takes the road on a terrifying adventure into the unknown …

Crime thrillers that are dark, dirty and dingy are pretty much home territory for me, so you might think I’d get jaded on the matter, but not a bit of it. No reading list of mine would be complete without at least one piece of Brit-grit to get my teeth into. For that vibe, I’m going to one of the genre’s total bosses, Stuart MacBride, and his 2013 hit, CLOSE TO THE BONE.

Here’s the official blurb:

Sticks and stones may break your bones …

The first body is chained to a stake: strangled and stabbed, with a burning tyre round its neck. Is this a gangland execution or something much darker?

Someone’s leaving little knots of bones on DI Logan McRae’s doorstep, but he’s got bigger concerns. Rival drug gangs are fighting over product and territory; two teenage lovers are missing; someone’s crippling Asian immigrants; and Logan’s been lumbered with an ambitious new Detective Sergeant and gained the unwelcome attention of the new local crime boss.

When another body turns up, the similarities between these murders and the plot of a bestselling novel seem like more than coincidence. And perhaps those little knots of bones are more important than they look …

I absolutely adore frank, tough-talking cop stuff; hard-hitting police stories that are as much about the worn-out personnel as the vicious villains they encounter, and in which no-one is any better than they need to be. This year, there was only one choice on that front, Don Winslow’s epic 2017-release, THE FORCE.

Here’s the official blurb:

Detective Sergeant Denny Malone leads an elite unit to fight gangs, drugs and guns in New York. For eighteen years, he’s been on the front lines, doing whatever it takes to survive in a city built by ambition and corruption, and where no-one is clean.

What only a few know is that Denny Malone himself is dirty; he and his partners have stolen millions of dollars in drugs and cash. Now he’s caught in a trap and being squeezed by the Feds. He must walk a thin line of betrayal, while the city teeters on the brink of a racial conflagration that could destroy them all.

Don Winslow’s latest novel is a haunting story of greed and violence, inequality and race, and a searing portrait of a city on the edge of an abyss. Full of shocking twists, this is a morally complex and riveting dissection of the controversial issues confronting society today.


PENDRAGON

The historical-actioner is a genre I don’t delve into enough, but every so often I come across titles that I know I simply MUST push to the top of my reading list. This summer, there are two in particular that I aim to sample. They come to us almost from the opposite ends of history, but both of them promise battles and bloodshed galore, and really, if you’re still a lad at heart, what more could you ask.

The first of these is the brand new one from James Wilde (aka Mark Chadbourn), PENDRAGON.

Here’s the official blurb:

Winter AD 367, and in a frozen forest beyond Hadrian’s Wall, six scouts of the Roman army have been brutally murdered.

Their mutilated bodies were discovered by an elite unit led by Lucanus. Also called the Wolf, he knows the far north to be a foreign land, a wild place ruled by barbarians, inhabited by daemons and witches – a place where the old gods live on. It is not somewhere he would willingly go and to him this ritual slaughter reeks of something altogether more dangerous.

But when the child of a friend is taken captive, Lucanus feels honour-bound to journey beyond the wall and bring the boy back home. He is not alone. For this is a quest that will span an empire – from the pagan monument of Stonehenge to the kingdoms of Gaul and the eternal city of Rome itself – a search that will embroil a soldier and a thief, a cut-throat and a courtesan, a druid and even the great Emperor Valentinian. And what is revealed will reverberate down the centuries …

From the best-selling author of Hereward, comes an epic new historical adventure of betrayal and bloodshed set during the bleakest of times – a time when civilisation itself was foundering, when the world faced a dark age and was in need of a hero.
The second of my chosen historical reads is likely to take an even grimmer tone, and if anything, is set at a point in history when civilisation was even more likely to collapse in flames. It’s David L. Robbins’ masterly 2004 WW2 novel, LAST CITADEL.

Here’s the official blurb:

One nation taking a desperate gamble of war.

Another fighting for survival.

Two armies locked in a bloody cataclysm that will decide history …

Spring 1943. In the west, Germany strengthens its choke-hold on France. To the south, an Allied invasion looms imminent. But the greatest threat to Hitler’s dream of a Thousand Year Reich lies east, where his forces are pitted in a death match with a Russian enemy willing to pay any price to defend the motherland. Hitler rolls the dice, hurling his best SS forces and his fearsome new weapon, the Mark VI Tiger tank, in a last-ditch summer offensive, codenamed Citadel.

The Red Army around Kursk is a sprawling array of infantry, armour, fighter planes, and bombers. Among them is an intrepid group of women flying antiquated biplanes; they swoop over the Germans in the dark, earning their nickname, ‘Night Witches’. On the ground, Private Dimitri Berko gallops his tank, the Red Army’s lithe little T-34, like a Cossack steed. In the turret above Dimitri rides his son, Valya, a Communist sergeant who issues his father orders while the war widens the gulf between them. In the skies, Dimitri’s daughter, Katya, flies with the Night Witches, until she joins a ferocious band of partisans in the forests around Kursk. Like Russia itself, the Berko family is suffering the fury and devastation of history’s most titanic tank battle, while fighting to preserve what is sacred – their land, their lives, and each other – as Hitler flings against them his most potent armed force.

Inexorable and devastating, a company of Mark VI Tiger tanks is commanded by one extraordinary SS officer, a Spaniard known as la Daga, the Dagger. He’d suffered a terrible wound at the hands of the Russians: now he has returned with a cold fury to exact his revenge. And above it all, one quiet man makes his own plan to bring Citadel crashing down and reshape the fate of the world.

A remarkable story of men and arms, loyalty and betrayal, Last Citadel propels us into the claustrophobic confines of a tank in combat, into the tension of guerrilla tactics, and across the smoking charnel of one of history’s greatest battlefields. Panoramic, authentic, and unforgettable, it reverberates long after the last cannon sounds.

I’ve always been a sucker for demonic/occult horror. It’s a well-trodden path in literary terms, of course, but there is never any shortage of new material. So, to tick this particular box, I’m opting for Jason Arnopp’s THE LAST DAYS OF JACK SPARKS, which came out last year.

Here’s the official blurb:

Jack Sparks died while writing this book.

It was no secret that journalist Jack Sparks had been researching the occult for his new book. No stranger to controversy, he had already triggered a furious Twitter storm by mocking an exorcism he witnessed.

Then there was THAT video: forty seconds of chilling footage that Jack repeatedly claimed was not of his making, yet was posted from his own YouTube account.

Nobody knew what happened to Jack in the days that followed – until now.

MURDER AS A FINE ART

One field that often straddles both the thriller and horror genres is the Victorian murder mystery – you only need to think cloaked, top-hatted forms gliding through gas-it fog, and we’re there, aren’t we? – and though once again, it’s not a literary field I delve into regularly, I certainly couldn’t resist David Morrell’s 2013 novel, MURDER AS A FINE ART.

Here’s the official blurb:

The Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 were the most notorious mass killings of their day. Never fully explained, they brought London and all of England to the verge of panic.

Forty-three years later, the equally notorious ‘opium-eater’ Thomas de Quincey returns to London. Along with his 'Confessions', he is known for a scandalous essay about the killings: ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’.

Days after his arrival, a family is killed in the same horrific way as the earlier murders. It seems someone is using the essay as an inspiration – and a blueprint. And De Quincey himself is the obvious suspect. Aided by his daughter, Emily, and two determined Scotland Yard detectives, he must uncover the truth before more blood is shed … and London itself falls prey to attack.

In Murder as a Fine Art, gas-lit London becomes a battleground between a literary star and a demented murderer - whose lives are linked by secrets long buried, but never forgotten.

TWILIGHT

Another subgenre that straddles several of my interests at once is that of the Rural Noir/Southern Gothic (whatever you want to call it). Often poetic, invariably dark, frequently grotesque, I find myself needing to hit at least one of these normally exquisitely-written novels each year. This year, it’s William Gay’s remarkable 2007 TWILIGHT (not to be confused in any way with all that teen vampire-romance stuff).

Here’s the official blurb:

Suspecting that something is amiss with their father’s burial, teenager Kenneth Tyler and his sister Corrie venture to his gravesite and make a horrific discovery: their father, a whiskey bootlegger, was not actually buried in the casket they bought for him. Worse, they learn that the undertaker, Fenton Breece, has been grotesquely manipulating the town’s dead.

Armed with incriminating photographs, Tyler becomes obsessed with bringing the perverse undertaker to justice. But first he must outrun Granville Sutter, a local strongman hired by Fenton to destroy the evidence. What follows is an adventure through the Harrikin, an eerie backwoods filled with tangled roads, rusted machinery and eccentric squatters – old men, witches, and families among them – who both shield and imperil Tyler as he runs for safety.

Coupling his characteristically poetic and haunting prose with a tightly controlled close narrative, William Gay rewrites the rules of the Gothic fairy tale while exploring the classic Southern themes of good and evil.

THE STARS MY DESTINATION

One area I dip into occasionally (less often than I should perhaps, though more than I used to thanks my never being less than inspired by what I find), is classic-era science fiction. It’s a vast range of titles, of course, so I can only pick from the memories I have of those my late father (a sci-fi buff on an epic scale) personally recommended to me. This summer, it’s Alfred Bester’s big hit of 1956, THE STARS MY DESTINATION (which would make it by far the oldest novel I’ve read and reviewed for this blog).

Here’s the official blurb:

Gully Foyle, Mechanic's Mate 3rd Class.
EDUCATION: none
SKILLS: none
MERITS: none
RECOMMENDATIONS: none

That's the official verdict on Gully Foyle, unskilled space crewman.

But right now, he is the only survivor on his drifting, wrecked spaceship, and when another space vessel - the Vorga - ignores his distress flares and sails by, Gully becomes obsessed with revenge. He endures 170 days alone in deep space before finding refuge on the Sargasso Asteroid and returning to Earth to track down the crew and owners of the Vorga. But, as he works out his murderous grudge, Gully Foyle also uncovers a secret of momentous proportions ...


AN ENGLISH GHOST STORY

Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always had a soft spot for MR James-style ghost stories … yes, those pleasing supernatural terrors that were aired over brandy and cigars in wood-panelled drawing rooms, usually with the Christmas snow falling outside. I’ve written plenty and I’ve read plenty, though it’s difficult to get this kind of stuff at novel length. Perhaps it was inevitable, therefore, that another choice this year was Kim Newman’s 2015 update on the genre, AN ENGLISH GHOST STORY (and no, it won’t bother me that I’ll be reading it in the Mediterranean sunshine).

Here’s the official blurb:

The Naremores, a dysfunctional British nuclear family, seek to solve their problems and start a new life away from the city in the sleepy Somerset countryside. At first their perfect new home seems to embrace them, its endless charms creating a rare peace and harmony within the family. But as they grow closer, the house begins to turn on them, and seems to know just how to hurt them the most – threatening to destroy them from the inside out.

*

THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

SIEGE 
by Simon Kernick (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, this is an absolute corker.

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

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

As I say, vintage Kernick.

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

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

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

Kernick certainly loves his antiheroes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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