Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Human monsters from a world of darkness

Okay, we’re talking serial killers this week – not exactly a new experience for regulars on this blog, I suppose. 

But today we’ll be looking at two particular instances of fictional monsterdom: the indescribably terrifying psychopath who haunts the pages of Helen Fields’s new novel, PERFECT REMAINS, which we’ll be reviewing and discussing in full detail, and also the two-handed trail of slaughter and destruction that a pair of rival madmen wreak in my forthcoming Mark Heckenburg novel, ASHES TO ASHES.

I’ll also be reprinting a blog I wrote for GRAB THIS BOOK back in September last year, when I was posed the seemingly simple question: ‘If you had to meet a serial killer, how would you go about it?’

But, first things first. PERFECT REMAINS is a really excellent addition to the fictional serial killer canon. I strongly suspect that its author, Helen Fields, will pretty soon rank among the superstars of the genre. However, as always, my detailed analysis of the book can be found at the lower end of today’s post. Shoot on down there straight away if you wish. But if you’re interested in hearing stuff about Heck as well, hang around here for a bit first.

The most immediately important thing to day about ASHES TO ASHES is that a free sampler – approximately 29 pages of the final, finished text – is now available on Amazon. The book is published on April 6, but if you just can’t wait that long and you want to get a quick snifter of it without having to pay, then I recommend you call in HERE.

For those who are too impatient even for that, here is a quick outline:

The Serial Crimes Unit is hunting a professional torturer called John Sagan, a man who is literally a
travelling roadshow of atrocity. He cruises the country, taking his mobile torture chamber with him, and for a not inconsiderable fee he will happily introduce it to anyone a client nominates – though for the most part those he lures into his ‘Pain Box’, as he calls it, are underworld figures who have defied their paymasters and thus are being officially punished. As such, it’s taken a long time for word to get out that Sagan even exists. However, once Heck and the rest of SCU are informed, they go after him full-tilt – only for their first attempted interception to end in disaster, especially for one highly valued member of the team.

Now doubly determined to nab the highly-paid sadist, they pick his trail up again, but this time it leads them to the very last place Heck would have expected or wanted: his grimy northern hometown, Bradburn.

(As a quick aside, I’ve been asked several times now if Bradburn is my own hometown, Wigan, which occupies a similar place on the border between Greater Manchester and Lancashire. The answer is a simple and straightforward ‘no’. Bradburn, though fictional, is Bradburn. The fact that that I recently did a special introduction to the book, and a reading of it in Wigan Central Library – and here’s the photographic evidence – is entirely coincidental). 

(On a not-unrelated topic, I'll be doing another of these book events at Blackwells bookshop, Edinburgh, on Wednesday Feb 15, in company with HELEN FIELDS herself, so keep that date in your diary free).

Anyway, Bradburn, a drab, post-industrial blot on the Northwest English landscape, is a town already in a state of terror. A gang war has erupted between local drugs-dealers and a more powerful mob from nearby Manchester, resulting in a succession of tit-for-tat killings. In that regard, it’s probably a natural hunting ground for John Sagan, who will hire himself to the highest bidder but who, as he enjoys inflicting horrific and agonising deaths on his victims almost as much as he enjoys getting paid for it, is a serial killer in all but name.

And the frightened town’s problems don’t end there. The underworld battle has also attracted another nightmarish figure who will slay for pay – an armoured and helmeted maniac whose murder weapon of choice is a flame-thrower, which perhaps explains his nickname: ‘the Incinerator’.

Bradburn has never seen anything like this carnage. In truth, Heck has never seen anything like it. Perhaps they can pull together and face this double-headed challenge side-by-side? 

But then again, perhaps not.

As those who’ve read the Heck books prior to ASHES TO ASHES will know, Heck and his hometown don’t get on. There are deep wounds there. More than once in the past, Heck has commented that he wouldn’t mind if the entire place was reduced to ashes. Well, who knows … this could be that very moment.

*

Since the publication of my last novel, STRANGERS, which pitted a young undercover policewoman, Lucy Clayburn, against that rarest of criminals, a female sex-killer, I was grateful to be invited to participate in a number of crime-writing blogsites, to pen a little essay in each case about a different aspect of my work – the way I approach it, my research methods, and so forth. 

This is always an enjoyable experience, but sometimes it can be a challenge. Take, for example, this question I was asked last September by GRAB THIS BOOK.

If you had to meet a serial killer, how would you go about it?

It’s a fascinating question. Where would you arrange to meet a serial killer, to interview him (or her) if you had the opportunity? Well, assuming you ever wanted to do that, the location is certainly something you’d have to give considerable thought to.

Even meeting such a person in the controlled environment of a prison would be no guarantee of safety. Far from it. 

In the 1980s, Robert Ressler (pictured right) was a senior FBI agent who’d investigated a number of  serial murder cases. Around this time, he began to devise what we know today as Vi-Cap (or the Violent Criminal Apprehension Programme), which required him to get into the minds of repeat violent offenders and attempt to understand their motivations. As part of his mission, he interviewed numerous multiple murderers in US jails. One particularly disturbing story he later told involved an encounter with a 6ft9in convict who’d killed and decapitated ten victims. The interview was going swimmingly, the convict seemingly cooperating. Ressler felt perfectly safe. They were in the heart of a maximum security facility, under full and constant surveillance by the prison staff – and yet they were alone. Ressler later said that he only realised how vulnerable this made him when his interviewee’s mood suddenly changed, and he said: “Do you realise … if I attacked you now, I could twist your head off before anyone even gets in here.”

Ressler later described it as a wake-up call with regard to the kinds of people he was dealing with.

This is the important thing, I suppose. Serial killers are not like the rest of us. In fact, they are not like ordinary criminals either. 

By their nature, psychopaths lack empathy with others. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are violent – as long as they get their own way. However, add other factors. Such as narcissism, which involves a reckless pursuit of self-gratification (and wherein any opposition, whether real or imagined, is deemed intolerable), and maybe sexual sadism disorder (which speaks for itself), and you’ve got the devil’s own brew and a fairly typical blueprint for the average serial killer. 

The other thing to say, of course, is that these people are very plausible.

A genius like Hannibal Lecter would be a rarity in real life, but most serial killers are smart enough to know that it will benefit them to conceal their true personality. You only need to look at the numbers of killers who’ve managed to talk their way into people’s houses or have persuaded strangers to climb into their cars, or have used endless other strategies to charm or lure the innocent and gullible.

So, this gift of the gab is something else we’d need to take heed of. Robert Ressler emerged alive from his interview with his 6ft9in nemesis, but for a couple of minutes – because he’d allowed a pleasant demeanour and a glib tongue to fool him – he’d almost become number 11 on the maniac’s butcher’s bill. 

In light of that, how can we take them at their word? How can believe anything they tell us? Why would we even expect them to be truthful?

Hannibal Lecter is a good case in point here. Thomas Harris created in Hannibal such a deadly adversary that even the most experienced detectives had no option but to converse with him either through shock-proof glass or with him strapped to a gurney and wearing a mouth-guard. That would certainly be an attractive idea for our interview, but I’d query if the killer would even talk to us under such circumstances. 

I’d be surprised if any hardcore criminal, even one who hasn’t committed murder, would be prepared to talk to us about anything unless he or she was getting something in return. Consider that, and then bear in mind that the average incarcerated serial killer is almost certainly facing a full life tariff (and maybe even the death penalty) – and you can see how tough it’s going to be. 

At the very least we’d have to be nice to them. So … no straps, no gurney.

And where exactly does that leave us? A rubber room, where there is nothing nasty the killer can put his/her hands on? Maybe, but the killer can still put his/her hands on us … 

Might they be prepared to talk to us on the phone over a long distance?

Well, in that case we’re back to the old chestnut: it depends how much info we want. I remember hearing about a US journalist who regularly spoke on the phone to a serial killer serving life, asking his assistance in other unsolved murder cases. At first, the journo got the impression the killer was being helpful. But then he realised that the guy was playing games, imparting some information but on the whole offering just enough to make his correspondent come back for more. In other words, these phone-chats made pleasant breaks for the killer from his otherwise mundane life inside, and he wanted as many of them as possible.

After this, there aren’t too many options open to us.

Ultimately, I suppose, this is a question I can’t answer. 

In a novel I’ve got planned for the future, Serial Crimes Unit officer, DS Heckenburg interviews an imprisoned serial killer in a quest for information, but in that one I’m opting for the gentler approach (it all takes place in a ‘soft interview room’, with comfy furniture and pictures on the walls). This female felon is showing contrition, you see, and so she’s deemed by her jailers to be lower risk. But she still wants something in return … and she wants it so badly that Heck has made a judgement call that she won’t try anything stupid.

Will she or won’t she? 

At this stage, who knows. 

I’m suppose I’m just glad this terrible business is something I write about rather than something I actually do.

*

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.

PERFECT REMAINS
by Helen Fields (2017)

When ex-Parisian police detective and Interpol agent, Luc Callanach, transfers to Police Scotland, taking up a detective inspector post with the Major Investigations Team in Edinburgh, he isn’t completely a fish out of water. To begin with, Callanach is half-Scottish as well as half-French. He’s also a real bloodhound of a cop, with great analytical skills and a fearless dedication to the cases he is assigned – though on first arriving, it wouldn’t be true to say that he’s completely comfortable with his new environment.

After his sun-drenched days in the Interpol office at Lyon, he finds the Scottish capital windy, wet and dour, and quickly learns that certain officers at his command – the truculent DS Lively in particular – are irritated by his presence because they perceive him to be an outsider who’s been fast-tracked into a plum job.

Moreover, Callanach doesn’t help himself, because rather than attempting to win friends and influence people, he fights back domineeringly against those who seek to undermine him.

The reason for this is simple. Even without his sudden change-of-world, Luc Callanach is a man under astonishingly intense pressure. Back home, he was accused of raping a petulant beauty called Astrid Borde, whose main objection to Callanach was that he showed no interest in her. He wasnt even charged, never mind convicted – but of course this meant that neither was he able to clear his name, so he left France under such a cloud of suspicion that even his family have now disassociated themselves from him.

He is a good cop who focusses intensely on his job, but even now he agonises over whether he could have handled things better, and as such he is filled with self-doubt, and to a degree, self-loathing. 

Ironically, because he needs to be distracted from all this, it’s the perfect time for him to be handed a particularly difficult investigation – on his very first day no less, when what appears to be the burned remnants of an eminent Edinburgh solicitor are found on a Cairngorm hillside. There isn’t much left of the unfortunate woman, but it’s sufficient to reveal who she was and that she died very violently. Callanach throws himself into the case speedily and professionally, but then another prominent local woman – a vicar, no less – is also kidnapped, her tell-tale relics duly found in a drum of chemicals in a dockside warehouse.

Callanach is a by-the-book man. He doesn’t want to look at potential patterns just yet, but it seems increasingly likely that a serial abductor and murderer is at large, his sights fixed squarely on the successful women of the city. Callanach’s methodical approach then faces a serious challenge from within, when DS Lively – badly affected by the second abduction because he knew the victim personally – takes it on himself to call in renowned profiler Edwin Harris, an expert for sure, but a man more interested in promoting his own theories than in catching the actual killer.

Callanach’s protest that this is a breach of protocol falls on deaf ears, because head of the Major Investigations Team, DCI George Begbie, though sympathetic, is currently cash-strapped and has no option but to accept Harris’s assistance as it is being privately funded. 

All of this hampers Callanach massively, both in terms of the enquiry and in terms of his personal recovery. Though he doesn’t feel quite so isolated when his friendship grows with fellow DI, Ava Turner, who, though she is currently investigating a different case, is very open – not just to cross-enquiry consultation, but also to afterhours socialising. 

Meanwhile, in a parallel thread – and it’s no spoiler to mention this because we are hit hard with this intelligence very early in the novel – a certain Reginald King is hatching a truly heinous scheme. King, a sociopathic loner who work as a lowly admin officer in the Department of Philosophy at Edinburgh University, considers that he’s been at the beck and call of Professor Natasha Forge, Head of School, for quite long enough. In short, King regards himself as a genius and feels that Forge only doesn’t recognise this because she’s a stuck-up bitch. In the long run, he’s going to punish her, but he’s also going to punish lots of other women too. Hence the kidnapping, the imprisonment, the terrible torture and of course the murders.

Problematically for Luc Callanach, Reginald King, despite his lowly status, is a genuinely clever man, whose plan does not just involve a series of revenge killings, but is much, much more wickedly ingenious and twisted than that, and in terms of cruelty, is almost off-the-scale.

There’s one other problem here too, not just for Callanach, but all those who work with him. It’s a coincidence but of course hugely advantageous to the murderer that Natasha Forge’s best friend happens to be DI Ava Turner, another strong, independent woman. So this isn’t going to be any ordinary murder investigation, which all members of the enquiry team can go home from in the evening and relax; as King steadily advances his gruesome grand-plan, things start to get very, very nasty indeed, but also very, very personal …

There are plenty of psycho-thrillers set in contemporary Scotland, and Edinburgh seems to suffer from more than its fair share of fictional serial killers. But Perfect Remains is a very different kind of novel from the norm. Perhaps its most outstanding features are how well constructed it is as a story and how well written as a piece of crime literature. I don’t mean to say that other books of this ilk are not well written, but this one is truly of an exceptional calibre.

As a former barrister, Helen Fields clearly knows her legalities and her procedures inside-out, and yet she weaves them all into this complex and lurid mystery with an effortless, non-fussy style, which informs as much as it entertains, creating a real feel of authenticity but never once cluttering the quick-fire plotline with extraneous detail. In addition to that, her quality descriptive work fully conveys both the time and the place, not to mention the people embroiled in the saga, again without sacrificing any of the novel’s pace. Take one particular scene, for example, when DI Callanach, while stressed out of his mind, finds himself in an amorous clinch with an incidental character called Penny. Penny is little more than a walk-on, and as such could easily be a stock character whom we never think about again, and yet in the space of a page and a half, Fields brings her vividly and sympathetically to life – you almost want to cry for her, she is so unfairly treated by our emotionally distraught hero.

And that was only a member of the supporting cast, so imagine how it is with the leads.

The first thing that strikes me about these more prominent characters is that they are, none of them, free of foibles. 

It’s not unusual in crime fiction for our star detective to be damaged, but Luc Callanach takes this to a whole new level. We are told that he is a good-looking guy and at one time he even worked as a male model, and yet none of this info is used to win our favour. If anything, it paints a picture in the reader’s mind of a man who, perhaps back home in his beloved France – which he endlessly and pointlessly yearns for – was rather spoiled. On arrival in Scotland, his initially brusque and rather snippy attitude only adds to this. It’s also the case that what he’s actually on the run from – a rape accusation, for Heaven’s sake! – is the sort of thing that would blemish any police officer’s record for the rest of his career. And after all that, he doesn’t help himself much – at least from the reader’s POV – with a constant, dogged self-analysis which borders on self-obsessiveness. But again, what we’ve got here is a realistically flawed character who needs to work very hard to win his audience over – and, as you might expect, he eventually does so. Firstly, because he’s willing to learn from his errors in order to correct his behaviour, particularly his people skills, and secondly because he’s an excellent detective who doesn’t miss a trick – it is Callanach’s instinct, and his instinct alone, that manage to refocus the enquiry after Lively and Harris send it barking down a blind alley.

In contrast, DI Ava Turner, though another stranger in a strange land (she’s Scottish, but an English-sounding accent born of a private education puts her at a disadvantage), is much savvier in her day-to-day management style, and in the way she handles suspects. She’s an equally tough cop to Callanach, but she’s never less than even-handed: for instance, when she zealously closes down an extremist Catholic sect for brutalising the underage mothers supposedly in their care, her comment to the press that there is “nothing godly about what was happening here” indicates that it isn’t organised religion she has a problem with, but those who abuse it. 

Like Callanach, Turner is also single and, under the surface, maybe a little lonely, but she’s learned to ride with the blows and during her downtime is able to relax with friends – as such, she leads a happier, more fulfilled life. That said, her bosom buddy, Natasha Forge, is perhaps not quite so generous a spirit, and this provides us with a key link in the story. 

Another confident, professional woman, Forge is pleasant and companionable if she decides she likes you, but terse to the point of being discourteous with office administrator, Reginald King, and okay, while King is without doubt a tad pompous and someone whose academic credentials are at the least dubious, there are times when we as the readers feel that his boss could perhaps be a little warmer towards him.

This of course leads me to King himself, and what I consider to be one of the most powerful pieces of characterisation in the whole novel. For me, Reginald King is so neatly observed and multi-layered an individual that he underpins the entire narrative, and on top of that he must rate as one of the most believable psychopaths I’ve ever encountered in fiction – primarily because, like so many real-life killers, his greatest defence is his total anonymity. King is no drooling Mr. Hyde-type madman, nor is he suave and calculating like Hannibal Lecter. Yes, he is secretly and monstrously narcissistic; he is convinced he is a genius and that the only reason he hasn’t advanced further in life is because those around him are hateful and jealous, and are conspiring in his downfall. But apart from this, he is so, so ordinary. He possesses neither Hyde’s brutish physicality nor Lecter’s sparkly-eyed gaze. He is a simple everyman you could pass in a corridor without batting an eyelid. Incredible though it may sound, there is even an element of pathos in King’s makeup. Because for all the awful things he does – and at times they are truly and torturously awful (and the reader is spared almost none of it) – there are other times when we recognise what a lost soul he is, a guy who, despite attempting civility, can’t even seem to earn the most basic degree of respect from his peers.

Helen Fields has done an all-round amazing job with Perfect Remains. It’s even more remarkable when you consider that it’s her debut novel. A terrific premise is executed to full unforgiving effect in a complex yet pacy procedural, which is peopled by living, breathing characters whom you can easily empathise with (both the heroes and the villains), and which is not only adult in tone but also adult in subtext – there is far more on show here than a simple crime/actioner – but which accelerates during its final quarter to an exhilarating, slam-bang climax.

In short, this is superb stuff – not a whodunit exactly, but an intense and deeply intriguing ‘good vs evil’ thriller, which once you’ve started it is quite impossible to put down. But don’t take my word for it. Just read it. You will not be disappointed – and make a note of the author too, because Helen Fields is a name we’ll be hearing about again and again.

And now, as always, here are my personal thoughts re. casting should Perfect Remains make it to celluloid. It’s just for laughs of course – no-one would listen to me anyway – but this could be a very cool cop series indeed, so it’s got to happen at some point. In the meantime, here are my picks for the leads (as always, with no expense spared):

DI Luc Callanach – Pio Marmai
DI Ava Turner – Gemma Whelan
Reginald King – Gray O’Brien
Natasha Forge – Ruth Millar
DCI George Begbie – Gary Lewis
Astrid Borde – Melanie Laurent
DS Lively – Tommy Flanagan
Edwin Harris – Graham McTavish

No comments:

Post a Comment