Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Murderous mutterings: the city and the sea

Well ... NOIR AT THE BAR at Carlisle last week was a fantastic occasion.

I felt hugely honoured to be invited to participate in the first of these remarkable events ever to be held in England. On arrival, it was no surprise to find myself on the podium (so to speak) with some serious British crime-writing talent, but I was totally blown away by the huge and enthusiastic attendance by local crime fans.

More about NOIR AT THE BAR in a minute, but first a quick note to the effect that my detailed review of Frank De Felitta's terrifying SEA TRIAL can be found at the lower end of this column, so just scroll down to it when you get tired of my usual blather.

Now, back to NOIR AT THE BAR. For those interested, by origin this is an American institution first pioneered by crime blogger Pete Rozovsky (of  DETECTIVES BEYOND BORDERS) in Philadelphia back in 2008 (as shown above), and finally brought to the UK in June last year, when the inaugural event was organised by Brit crime writers, JAY STRINGER and RUSSEL D. McLEAN, in Glasgow.

In concept, it's not especially radical, but it is a tad unnerving: a gang of crime and thriller writers pick a public bar on a specific night, and gather there in the beer fumes and the low-key lighting and, when they are able to call the general clientele to order (folk who can gain admittance free-of-charge and without tickets!), read out selected extracts from their latest works.

The readings can be anything of the writers' choice, but almost invariably the guys and girls in the spotlight go for the moodiest, darkest and, well ... the most noirish thing they have penned.

I was amazed when I first heard about this. I thought: "Suppose there are disturbances caused by drunks? Suppose the local bar-flies just don't want it and get irritable?" But that is the whole point. NOIR AT THE BAR is about edgy stuff: this is crime fiction at its hardest; volatile characters in a dangerous world of rain-wet streets, broken neon signs fizzling on and off, menacing shapes lurking under dripping archways, etc ... 

It takes a bit more planning than all this, of course. You can't just turn up at a pub and expect everyone to drop what they're doing. It needs to be prearranged, and in the case of the Carlisle NOIR AT THE BAR, the plaudits for this must go to three hardened crime-writers in their own right, the legendary trio, Crime Ink-CorporatedMATT HILTONGRAHAM SMITH and MIKE CRAVEN (all pictured here).

The venue was the MOO BAR, smack in Carlisle city centre; a real 'spit-and-sawdust' place, as we used to refer to them, with an enormous range of real ales on offer, a bunch of very hard-working staff, and, as I said before, a smashing crowd, who packed it to the outer doors and remained rapt through every reading. 

The organisers were subsequently delighted with the way the evening went, and rightly so. It was tremendously successful. I shared the platform with some amazing fellow crime-scribes: ZOE SHARP, NEIL WHITE, DAVID MARK, JAMES HILTON, LUCY CAMERON, TESS MAKOVESKY and JAY STRINGER. The line-up also included LINDA WRIGHT, who was the official 'wild card' reader. This latter is a very neat idea, which on each occasion will see a local amateur crime-writer drawn from a hat and invited to pariticpate. Linda more than held her own, but I think each one of us gave it everything we had, every presenation ending on a high note, with cheers and clapping from the gathered crowd. 

There was no particular order of play. We were drawn in lots from David Mark's ever reliable flat cap, and I found myself second-from-last. My chosen extract came from the most recent Heck novel, HUNTED, a sequence which saw Heck snare a Nottingham murder suspect by playing a very nasty trick on him at the back of his girlfriend's run-down council flat. 

I wasn't sure whether this would be the best plan - mainly because this chapter was already in the public domain having been put out by Avon as a taster before HUNTED was even published. But I needn't have worried. The attendance was hugely warm and appreciative. So good was the atmosphere that I didn't even feel vaguely nervous as I stepped up to the microphone (I mean, you can see how relaxed I am here ... honest).

Overall, it was a great event. As I say, it's the first one ever to be held in England, and a very worthy start to what will hopefully be an ongoing series of such entertainments. I was so inspired that it occurred to me to try and mount one in Wigan. We are close to Manchester and Liverpool here, and have no shortage of crime-writing talent in this vicinity.

So this is the question ...

Can we do a NOIR AT THE BAR here in Wigan? I'll be giving it some thought, but feel free to have your own say in the Comments box below.



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

SEA TRIAL by Frank De Felitta (1980)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. I remember seeing that cover as a boy and wanting to buy the book! For some reason, I was convinced it was called MAIDEN VOYAGE (there's a (non-horror) book of that name by Graham Masterton) so I could never found it. And now I have. Off to Amazon...

  2. It's a cracker. I read it in a single sitting.