Thursday, 28 July 2016

Action girls - guts, guile and getting lucky!

Were talking action-girls this week, with particular focus on my new thriller and policewoman novel - STRANGERS - but were going to extend this theme to my weekly book review as well. 

THE MURDER HOUSE by James Patterson is a rather neat tale of female sleuthery, but a good yarn in its own right. I review it towards the end of this column, and if you want to get onto that right now, feel free to scroll down straight away.

However, for those with more time on their hands, you may be interested in a few of my personal views when it comes to pitching members of the fair sex into the gritty mayhem of modern day crime fighting - and thats up next. 

My crime novels are generally known for the exploits for DS Mark Heckenburg, a head down and straight into the fray’ kind of male cop, whose very last consideration is usually his own safety. As one reviewer rather uncharitably put it, Heck wont go through a door if he can jump through a window instead. There are plenty of elaborate action set-pieces in the Heck novels, and for that I make no apologies, as my readers seem to like them. But when I devised this new character, Detective Constable Lucy Clayburn - the star of STRANGERS, and hopefully many more books to come - I thought Id adopt a slightly different tone.


Dont get me wrong. There is always going to be action in the Clayburn books. All my cop characters walk a tightrope through a world of violent crime. They can be affable and intelligent, yes, but theyre also dealing with vicious, verminous opponents who often only understand one language.

So it was never part of the plan that Lucy would adopt the gentle touch, or be a pacifist. Okay, she inhabits a different world from Heck. This is not Scotland Yard, and she has no remit to cover the whole of England and Wales. So therell be no racing from one end of the country to the next. Lucy - though a blue-collar lass, streetwise, tireless and very self-sufficient - lives in a place that is much more local, much more kitchen sink.

Her beat is Crowley, Greater Manchester’s infamous November Division, an old mill district of the city, which is now depressed, run-down, heavily unemployed, suffers a wide range of social ills, and is naturally a den of criminals who like nothing better than to prey on their own people.

So Lucy’s adventures were always going to have a darker edge to them than the norm, and a much grimier aura. But Ill say it again in case anyone missed it the first time - this does NOT mean there isnt going to be action.

Its just action of - dare I say it - a slightly more realistic order.

The action-girl character is nothing new, of course. I grew up entranced by Diana Riggs uber-cool portrayal of Mrs Peel in the The Avengers (65/68), and fell in love at a very early stage with Angie Dickinson as Detective Pepper Anderson (right) in the ground-breaking NBC series Police Woman (74/78), one of the first TV shows ever to follow the day-to-day investigations of a tough-talking, hip-swinging lady cop.

The latter of course, is probably more relevant to the thinking behind Lucy Clayburn, because it was determinedly part of the real world. In modern times, the female action hero, much like the male action hero, is basically invulnerable. In Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), the fabulous Gemma Arterton (one of my favourite female stars) played a leather-clad female bounty hunter who was the deadliest creature youd ever encountered; in Salt (2010), CIA operative Angelina Jolie effortlessly saw off wave after wave of enemy agents.

Such improbable scorecard victories are reminiscent of the massacres inflicted on the underworld by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone back in the 1980s - and though great fun at the time, belong primarily in the world of fantasy.

There has to be some jeopardy to get me interested. There has to be a considerable risk factor, and lets face it - if were talking reality, that risk will be always be higher if the hero is female because it’ll always be a tougher ask of a woman, no matter how well trained she is, to take down a terrorist killer or a brutal armed robber with her bare hands.

So from the very beginning, when I was creating Lucy Clayburn, all I could think was: Dont try selling them Wonderwoman or Batgirl. Those lasses are too slick, too sexy, too perfect, too invincible. Wheres the threat to them? Where are the ordinary difficulties that hamper so many of our everyday lives? For me, its much more of a challenge - and therefore much, much more of a buzz - if my female action hero gets tired as she chases some hoodlum through the urban backstreets, and/or is likely to get hurt if he suddenly rounds on her. Oh, Lucy can go a bit as they used to say in my hometown of Wigan - she comes from a rough, tough background - but shes no Amazon Queen; she wins her fights through a combination of guts, guile and getting lucky. And she picks up plenty of bruises in the process.

Sorry if it sounds like Im getting carried away. I wouldnt be so pompous as to say that this is a new kind of action hero. Weve had lots of tough girl cops in the past, but this is my first - and I cant help but be very, very excited about it.

(Shes also going to be up against some very nasty female villains too: not just a female serial killer, but gangsters, whorehouse madams, the lot - whether for good or ill, the girls definitely have it in STRANGERS, which hits the bookshops, both online and on the high street, on September 22).

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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 MURDER HOUSE 
by James Patterson and David Ellis (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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