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

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).