Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Publication day loometh - and Heck is back

Okay then, it’s publication week, this week, so forgive me if I’m going to be talking rather a lot today about my latest novel, ASHES TO ASHES

However, the ego cant be allowed to run away with itself completely, so it won’t just be about me today. In addition, one of my stable-mates at Avon Books, the irrepressible C.L. Taylor (Cally, to those who know her well, as seen left), has also brought a recent thriller out – THE ESCAPE, which I’m very pleased to be reviewing this week. You can find that full-length review and discussion, as usual, at the lower end of today’s post.

Before we actually get to that, I was with Cally at the HarperCollins building at London Bridge earlier this week, for a couple of very enjoyable forums. First of all, we joined forces to do a live video Podcast for HarperCollins (right), which seemed to go down very well – it received significant numbers of hits while we were gabbling, but for those not able to tune in at the time, you can watch the full recording of it below.


We also did a big Q&A session, a really big one – a full two hours of a job – with a great audience comprising bloggers, reviewers, up-and-coming writers, students and everyday readers. As I expected, it was a great deal of fun, the event chaired by Cally’s and my mutual editor, Helen Huthwaite, who kept the subjects rolling and brought in the audience at every opportunity, ensuring that we were hit with all kinds of questions. I like to think we imparted as much of our knowledge of the business as we could in the time available, and were able to chart in words our own personal journeys to publication, both of which have been long and complex, and occasionally fraught with difficulty, setbacks, etc.

Judging from some of the responses online, I think we hit the spot with it. Everyone seemed to have a good day.

These are certainly the events that make this profession worthwhile. It’s probably true to say that we’ve all done our spells alone in the garret, pursuing that much-mythologised solitary existence, the lone writer slogging for hours and hours in a dingy, low-rent room, maybe working by candle-light as he/she bashes out their latest doomed-to-be-undiscovered masterpiece on some clunky, second-hand typewriter. Oh yes, I think we’ve all been there at one time or other. All I can say is … if that’s your current status, you’ve just got to stick with it, because trust me, the rewards will come, and when they do – when you suddenly come face-to-face with the reality of lots and lots of people liking and knowing your work – it will make every moment of that hardship worthwhile.

But just remember, when it does happen, to socialise with those who read you … at least as much as is practicable. That can be a reward in itself, but I don’t believe any of us can actually afford to be aloof. We’re only ever as successful as our last book, and I suspect the public are far more likely to read it and give it the big thumbs-up if they feel they know us as people as well as authors.

Now, onto the subject of ASHES TO ASHES. I can only say that I’m very happy with it. It’s no exaggeration that this book has been a long time in gestation, pirimarily with regard to Hecks own character. From the outset, I think it’s been plain to followers of this series that our much harassed hero has had deep problems connected to his early home-life in the Lancashire mill-town of Bradburn.

Superficially, we all know what these entail. Heck’s bewildering decision to join the police shortly after a lazy detective framed his older brother for a series of violent burglaries he didn’t commit, which subsequently led to that same brother’s suicide in prison, left the Heckenburg family stunned and appalled. The isolation this created eventually became too much for Heck, and after two years in the Greater Manchester Police, he sought reassignment to the Metropolitan Police in London, where he eventually made a new life and a real career for himself.

But the one question that has always remained unanswered is why Heck did what he did. Why would he betray his family in this way, especially as prior to these terrible events, he’d never shown any interest in joining law-enforcement?

Well … in ASHES TO ASHES, after five books (some of which are pictured left), we finally get to the truth of it. Before this novel commences, Heck has occasionally had cause to visit Bradburn during his career. He has managed, to a degree, to patch up his relationship with his sole surviving close-relative, his older sister, Dana, but there are others who still regard him as a despicable traitor. As such, in ASHES TO ASHES, when pursuing a professional torturer now believed to be participating in a gang war in Bradburn, he has no option but to pitch camp in his old town, Heck won’t just be forced to confront the different deranged killers employed by the various gangs, but also his own demons … which, once and for all, will see him expose the root-cause of the immense, life-changing decision he made all those years ago.

And of course, not unusually for the Heck novels, it’s no easy path getting there. I’ve gone all out to lace this sixth outing with thrills, chills and violence aplenty as he works his way to a solution, encountering almost every kind of viciousness and villainy en route, whilst seeing a home-town that is all but burning around him.

This is one aspect of the book that has already been noted by several reviewers. I particularly like this one in SHOTS MAGAZINE.

If you haven’t got time to pop over there and read it all, reviewer Gwen Moffat gives us a flavour of it, when she writes of Bradburn:

This city, once prosperous, is floundering in the grip of a crime wave. Gang warfare is threatened between an old firm under an established godfather, and a splinter group led by a vicious but charismatic young tearaway. Sagan, employed by the godfather, tips the balance but The Incinerator is a great leveller. And there are the Russians: fearsome jokers in the pack, the Tartarstans from St Petersburg who know no rules. The dilemma facing the cops is a choice between allowing the villains to destroy each other (with all the collateral damage to the citizens) or to find some way to save the city from anarchy.

It’s also summed up very nicely by Wendy of LITTLE BOOKNESS LANE, with:

Ashes to Ashes is uncompromisingly grisly, releasing fearsome opponents from every conceivable angle. Its furious, violent encounters creep a little close to home for our rebellious hero, who relies on gut instinct, backed up by a wing and a prayer. 
     The author makes full use of urban landscapes which become a playground for some ‘killer’ games to be factored in. It has all the intensity that unrestrained action and carnage could possibly deliver.

It’s probably true to say that ASHES TO ASHES is probably a tad more violent than previous books in the Heck canon (though not a great deal, I don’t think). But I make no apologies for that. This is a battle fought on Heck’s home turf, and as we know, those are always the most viciously contested. It’s also a battle he has to wage against two different but deadly enemies both at the same time, in which case it’s surely understandable that he must fall back on the most extreme methods possible.

Anyway, you’ll have to judge for yourselves. ASHES TO ASHES is published on April 6. That’s Thursday this week. Hope you feel like visiting your local bookshop and seeing what all the fuss is about.     

*

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 ESCAPE 
by C.L. Taylor (2017)

Bristol wife and mother, Jo Blackmore, is struggling desperately with her nerves. Bereaved of her first child, Kevin, when he was still a baby, she struggles constantly with depression, and even though she now has another youngster, two-year-old Elise – a happy and healthy child – she is anxious, paranoid and increasingly suffers from agoraphobia.

In this regard, her once-loving husband, Max, is neither use nor ornament. A successful investigative reporter, he’s long felt that his job needs more attention than his family does, and despite Jo’s ailing mental condition, increasingly displays annoyance and frustration with her rather than affection. The twosome are certainly growing apart, but it finally comes to a head when Jo is one day fooled into giving a ride to a blonde-haired woman known only as Paula, who, once she’s in the car, demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of the Blackmores’ personal lives and makes vicious threats.

Jo and Elise emerge unscathed from the incident, but Jo is terrified, and so when Max responds with near indifference, the rift between them widens dramatically … especially as the mysterious Paula now upgrades her campaign of harassment, menacing the fragile Jo at every opportunity. Even when Paula finally reveals that this is all about Max, who apparently owes her something he plainly won’t give, he is blasé about the problem, dismissing the blonde tormentor as a fantasist or mental case, and refusing to entertain the possibility that she may be someone from his past.

Furious to be getting no support from her husband at a time when she needs it more than ever, Jo decides to leave, and starts making secret plans to take Elise to her parents’ home in Cheshire. But this decision, though it affords Jo some relief from her turmoil, and to all intents and purposes has been made in complete privacy, now seems to trigger a whole new wave of ever-more frightening events, which involve, among other things, house-breaking and violent assault.

And at no stage is Jo able to draw reassurance from law-enforcement, because no-one actually believes that she is being persecuted, the Social Services, who have been craftily and nastily manipulated, wondering if Jo, with her history of mental instability, might not be a fit and proper person to look after the one light in her life, Elise. Max, who now feels openly betrayed by his wife, continues to be as unhelpful as possible, prompting Jo to wonder if he too has some kind of agenda.

Eventually, with scarcely a friend in the world to turn to, and growing threats on all sides, the embattled young mother opts to put her child in the car and simply go on the run. It seems unlikely that she’ll find any refuge in the UK, so she heads overseas to the land of her mother’s birth, Ireland.

But even over there, things are not all they may be. Despite the picturesque surroundings of Clogherhead in County Louth, the ever beady-eyed landlady, Mary Byrne, is also a woman with secrets, while the mere fact that Jo’s family originated around here seems to arouse some latent hostility.

Meanwhile, the danger that Jo felt creeping up on her in the UK hasn’t gone away, and it isn’t long before it crosses the Irish Sea in pursuit of her …   

C.L. Taylor is fast emerging as the queen of British domestic noir. With such tales of homespun terror as The Missing and The Accident already under her belt, she now hits us with another one, and in her own inimitable style, manages to make even the seemingly safest of places – leafy Middle England – into a suburban minefield.

I should say from the outset that there are no extremes of horror in this book. We’re not dealing with massacres, rape or rampant child-abuse. But in many ways, The Escape is more subtly harrowing than any of those. Because the enemies here, at least for a good part of the novel, are the very institutions that are supposed to be there to help – they are especially supposed to help people like Jo Blackmore, a woman of good character but emotionally distraught to the point where many aspects of ordinary life are too much for her.

This is brave writing by Taylor. So often in thriller fiction, as in real life in fact, the police, the social services (even the nursery school establishment, for Heaven’s sake!), are firmly with the good guys, but so cleverly constructed is this story, and at the same time so skewed is the reality of things when viewed through the prism of mild mental illness, that they are here projected in a very different light. Jo Blackmore wants nothing more than to be able to live her life and raise her daughter, with or without her self-centred husband – which part of it is very much up to him. Yet there are so many implacable forces ganging up against her; and who the hell do they think they are, anyway, to interfere in the way she conducts her own affairs and raises her own little girl!

I should hastily add that the caring establishment is not the arch-enemy here, but it does present Jo with a wall of faceless and frightening bureaucracy, which not only must she somehow get over in order to find her freedom, but which is also doing a very effective job of shielding the real villains, though needless to say – and what a surprise this isn’t! – it doesn’t prove very effective in preventing them from striking at her.

I don’t think I’ve ever read another book in which the innocent were so up against it as Jo Blackmore is here. There is very little brutality in The Escape, the unfairness Jo faces in this tale is a monster in itself – not that this stops you wondering from time to time if maybe, just maybe, she has finally succumbed to her demons and the fault may lie with her after all. But that’s a question you can only find an answer to by reading the book. And this is another aspect of C.L. Taylor’s thrillers for which she is rightly lauded: the psychological questions she poses. From the very start, we are informed that Jo Blackmore is battling with post-natal depression. But just how far has it actually gone? Could it be that she is seriously mentally ill? How do we know what is real and what isn’t?

This delightful twisty element, which is masterfully blended into the narrative, gives The Escape a real Hitchockian aura, which when you consider that it’s a consciously low-key mystery-thriller – as I say, a ‘domestic noir’ – shows how effectively written it is.

A big book, but a quick read. Another of those famous page-turners. You won’t be disappointed.

And now, as usual, I’m going to be cheeky enough to suggest my own cast should The Escape ever make it to the screen, and given network television’s current fascination with the ups and downs and ins and outs of modern middle-class life, particularly when there’s a darker edge to it, I reckon this one would be idea. Anyway, here we go:

Jo Blackmore – Eleanor Tomlinson
Max Blackmore – Ioan Gruffud
Paula – Amanda Abbington
Mary Byrne – Sinead Cusack

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