Monday, 4 July 2016

Dead men walk again in the mountain mist


There are a few bits and bobs to report today. I'm also happy to include my detailed review of Mark Mills's fantastic wartime murder mystery, THE INFORMATION OFFICER, which as usual can be found towards the lower end of this post. Be my guest and shoot on down there if you wish, but for those who've got a bit more time on their hands ... the main news of the week is that DEAD MAN WALKING, my serial killer novel of 2014, is available now on e-download at the reduced price of 99p (and will remain so until July 11).

For those who don't remember it, or those who are tuning into this column for the first time, DEAD MAN WALKING was the fourth novel in my DS Heckenburg series and is set entirely in the British Lake District during a freezing and foggy winter (check the image above for a taste of what that actually means). It sees Heck and Gemma, his ex-girlfriend now turned boss, more or less marooned in a high mountain village, which appears to be the epicentre of a deranged killing spree, the unknown assailant crossing the fells and rivers and forests from one isolated farm or settlement to the next, hacking and shooting his random victims to death and gouging out their eyes in the process.

Here's a quick extract to whet your whistles:

As with most of the other vehicles, the car’s tyres looked as if they’d been repeatedly sliced, reducing them to ribbons, negating any possibility it could be driven anywhere.
Up close, Heck noticed that the front passenger window had been powered down. Someone had probably appeared on the verge, waving to the vehicle as it had cruised through the fog. It had braked alongside them. Down went the panel as those inside sought an explanation. Bang bang bang went the assassin’s gun.
Heck stuck his head inside.
     It was another abattoir, blood and brain spatter streaking the dashboard, the upholstery, the insides of all the windows, even the ceiling. The officer in the passenger seat, a youngish burly guy with a shaven head, had taken one in the left temple and one in the throat. The officer behind the wheel looked about the same age, but was slimmer; his face was unrecognisable because most of it had been blown away. There was one other officer in the back, an older man with a mop of iron-grey hair. He’d taken one in the forehead and one through the cheek ...

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In other thriller news this week, I was very honoured to be invited to attend the Big Book Bonanza event at the Black Dog Ballroom in Manchester (part of the HarperCollins annual book showcase), where in company with Jo Cannon (the only other author present), I was introduced by my publishers, Avon, to a whole range of Waterstone's folk from all across the Northwest, with whom we socialised, gossiped, drank and generally discussed our work. Also available at the venue was a mountainous pile of uncorrected proofs for STRANGERS, my next police thriller, which is actually published in September - so I'm delighted to be able to report that my book-signing arm was pretty tired by the end of the evening.

STRANGERS is a bit of a deviation for me in that I move away from the Serial Crimes Unit at Scotland Yard, Heck's home base, to the junior ranks of the CID up in Manchester, where a young female cop, Lucy Clayburn, is trying to find her feet in the quest to capture 'Jill the Ripper', a female lunatic who targets and then sexually mutilates and murders men.

Isn't this a bit of a reverse to the norm?, I hear you ask.

Yes, certainly, and well ... why not? One of the most contentious issues in crime thrillers today, particularly those focussing on sexual or serial homicide, tends to be the preponderance of female victims. This reflects real life of course, tragically. Most of the world's real-life sadistic killers appear to be men, and most of the innocents they butcher are women. It's a hideous trend but one that doesn't  necessarily need to be reflected in fiction. 
So in STRANGERS I've tried to buck it. Here's a quick excerpt:

Lucy went left, turning a corner into open space. Nothing stirred in the inky blackness in front of her. Instinctively, she reached for the phone in her pocket, to switch its light on, only to remember that it was in the pocket of the other coat. Not that she was completely blinded; after so long at the bottom of Dedman Delph, her eyes were readjusting quickly. She spied a row of broken windows further to her left, all covered in wire netting. It gave sufficient illumination to show a floor strewn with boxes and piles of old newspapers, and what looked like masses of wood and timber piled against the walls.

     Still there was no movement, neither from Nehwal nor anyone hiding out in here. Even so, Lucy only shuffled forward with caution. ‘Ma’am?
     There was no reply. Until a fierce red light seared through the windows, a loud series of rat-a-tat bangs accompanying it.
      More fireworks … but even so Lucy froze.
     In that fleeting instant, she’d seen a figure standing in a corner.
     Indistinct but tall – taller than she was – and wearing dark clothing, including some kind of hat pulled partly down over its face. It stood very still between an old wardrobe and an upright roll of carpet.
     Lucy pivoted slowly towards it. As the firework flashes diminished again, only its outline remained visible – its outline and its face, which, though it was partially concealed, glinted palely, and, she now saw, was garish in the extreme; grotesquely made-up with bright slashes of what in proper lighting would no doubt be lurid colour ...


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In other news this week, non-crime-related on this occasion (we're strictly into the realms of the weird and surreal with this one!) I was very flattered to be asked to supply a story to top fantasy author Storm Constantine's DARK IN THE DAY anthology.

To quote Storm herself:

"We're used to weird dreams but what about the wide-awake weird? This collection celebrates evocative tales of oddness that span the genres of magic realism, the supernatural, the fantastical and the speculative ..."

I'm in some truly great company in here, as you can see from the list of august names on the cover. My own contribution is a story called WICKEN FEN, which concerns an ill-fated barge trip into the Cambridgeshire fens on a very hot and eerily quiet summer's day.

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THRILLER, 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 INFORMATION OFFICER by Mark Mills (2009)

Malta was no place to be in the summer of 1942.

A British-held strategic fortress in the middle of the Mediterranean, it maintained a vital link between the Allied base at Gibraltar and the Eighth Army in North Africa, for which reason it was hammered by Axis planes, wave after wave carpet-bombing the island indiscriminately, not just killing and maiming members of the garrison, but making life a misery for the natives, filling their graveyards with fresh corpses, their hospitals with casualties and laying waste to their homes and businesses.

This is the remarkable and tumultuous backdrop to Mark Mills's fascinating crime thriller, The Information Officer. It is also one hell of a headache for the book’s main hero, Major Max Chadwick … because Max is quite literally the British authority in Malta’s ‘Information Officer’, aka propaganda chief. He it is who, on a daily basis, must minimise the bad news and find and exaggerate the good, not just to boost the morale of the beleaguered British forces, but to try and keep the islanders onside. This isn’t Malta’s war, after all. Why should the Maltese support the British in this terrible, apocalyptic fight which was never of their making and for which they are now paying such an appalling price?

As you can imagine, Max’s job is a difficult one at the best of times, but it gets a whole lot harder when British doctor, Freddie Lambert, confides in him that he thinks there may be a serial killer of prostitutes on the island, and more worrying still, that it could be a British submariner. Max is stunned, but the facts speak for themselves: it seems that three Maltese hostesses catering to British forces have been found raped and murdered, their deaths disguised as bombing fatalities – and that one of them was clutching a tell-tale military lapel when discovered.

The implications of this are so terrifying – namely that on the eve of a possible German invasion, it could turn the Maltese against the British, which might lead to a complete collapse of Allied operations in the Mediterranean – that the governor’s main priority is to keep the whole thing under wraps. But Max, egged on by Lilian, a feisty Anglo/Maltese girl who edits one of the local newspapers, undertakes to investigate himself.

What follows is a death-defying game of cat and mouse played out among blazing ruins and raining bombs, Max increasingly coming to suspect that not only may the killer be a Nazi agent trying to set the British and Maltese apart, but possibly a double-agent too. Suddenly, he doesn’t know who to trust; the comfy world of the British officer corps no longer feels familiar. Max even suspects that he himself may be in danger, but the die is now cast, and this affable if rather louche young man, finally determined to do something honourable for the war effort, persists in trying to muddle his way to an answer. At the same time, he must navigate the tricky waters of adultery, because, very ill-advisedly, he is currently the lover of Mitzi, a sad but brave Englishwoman who spends every day writing letters of condolence to the sweethearts of airmen recently killed, and yet who is trapped in a loveless marriage herself. Of course, this complex situation is only made a hundred times worse when Max uncovers evidence that may implicate Mitzi’s husband …

The Information Officer is a many-headed beast: serial killer mystery, wartime adventure and espionage thriller all rolled into one, with a big dollop of romance mixed in.

It is also, to use some period terminology, a corking read.

To start with, it benefits from an immense historicity, painting an incredibly evocative picture of life on Malta during those hellish days, juxtaposing the sun-burnished ‘olde worlde’ architecture, the dusty hills and azure Mediterranean seascapes with an endless carnage of burned buildings, heaped corpses and severed limbs – and yet it goes much further even than this into the realms of mind-boggling authenticity. From the outset here, we are steeped in the officer class, a world of clubs, barracks, bunkers and cocktail evenings, all crammed with stiff upper-lip types, not to mention their dutiful wives, who, in the time-honoured fashion of Britain’s colonies, are also spirited, sensual and occasionally wayward. Moments of war-induced craziness abound, drinks parties and love-making sessions going uninterrupted by colossal air raids, some of the chaps practicing their golf swings by lofting high shots at the German fighters cruising low overhead, Max himself roaring around the island and its many craters on a clapped-out motorbike that he cobbled together from the charred and broken parts of lots of others (and finally, inevitably, coming a cropper on it) – and yet all of this stands in sharp, shameful contrast to the empty shops and endless misery of the local people, to the deep, sweaty shelters where the innocent Maltese hide petrified from the endless aerial onslaught.

Some reviewers, those only looking for a crime thriller, have expressed irritation at this constant intrusion into the narrative by World War Two, but I strongly disagree with them, firstly on the basis that this intense wartime atmosphere is so vivid as to be almost intoxicating, but also because such complaints totally miss the point about the possible insurrection this series of heinous murders might ignite. Surely no stakes in a psycho killer story have ever been as high as these?

Meanwhile, in the midst of the chaos, Max Chadwick makes an unlikely and yet likeable hero. An affable young man, though pretty ordinary in many ways, promoted to his position through family connections, he’s never been completely prepared for the daily difficulties of his role, through in that ‘band of brothers’ fashion he manages to keep it together sufficiently to get through. In terms of the other characters, Freddie Lambert, his closest friend, is a different kettle of fish; cut from the same cloth, but a hard-headed customer who remains completely focussed on his own task, which is to patch up the shattered bodies of friend and foe alike, and occasionally taking time out to forensically assess the murder victims. Then we have Elliot, another key player in the drama, an American officer who for various reasons is currently stationed on Malta, but who is much more than a standard wise-cracker – there are many mysterious depths to Max’s US buddy. 

It would be wrong to sign off without mentioning the ladies, though here, I think, lies the only weak link in The Information Officer. Both Lilian and Mitzi, while strong and beautiful, are somewhat underused, though to be fair that is often because we see so much of the action from Max’s own viewpoint (or from the killer’s, who of course is never named until the grand finale) – though this does seem to weaken them a little, Lilian understandably humourless as she witnesses the annihilation of her countrymen, Mitzi whose status as permanently unhappy wife leaves her in a kind of Limbo.

But these are only small criticisms. The Information Officer is one terrific thriller, totally engrossing as a mystery and hair-raising in its depictions of wartime terror and destruction, not to mention in the depredations of Malta’s very own Ripper – and on top of that it all ends with one of the best twists it’s ever been my experience to encounter on the written page.

I consider myself an expert, and I never even saw it coming. 

As always – purely for fun, you understand – here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Information Officer ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (and this one is absolutely begging for it):

Max – Tom Hiddleston
Lilian – Valentina Lodovini
Freddie – Benedict Cumberbatch
Elliot – Robert Downey Jnr
Mitzi – Kelly Reilly

(Thanks to Pixabay Free Images for the shot at the top).

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