Monday, 17 July 2017

At last, the reading season is finally here

Okay, summer is finally turning glorious, and for me that usually means two things, often both at the same time: travelling and reading.

I mean, don’t get me wrong … I read all the time, but for some reason, whenever I’m on my holidays (or vacation, as they call it Stateside), getting my head into a good book seems to come a lot more easily. 

Maybe I’m more relaxed then, I don’t know – but when I’m settled in the sunshine, I can literally motor through novels (14 last August!). For which reason, I thought today might be an opportunity to showcase my planned reads for this summer.

I mentioned 14, so, maybe somewhat ambitiously, I should list the 14 novels coming up next on my reading list, though in one of those cases, Ive already jumped the gun. 

SIEGE, by that master of the explosive action-thriller, Simon Kernick, was supposed to be on the to-read list with all the others, but as I’ve already gone and read it, I’m today going to review and discuss that one instead. 

As usual, you’ll find it at the lower end of today’s column.

But before we get to that, a quick word about one of my own books, which I hope a few folk might be interested in choosing for their own pile of summer reads. 

STRANGERS, my first outing for DC Lucy Clayburn, hit the bookshelves in September last year and is still selling well, I’m glad to say. But just in case you missed it the first time round, here’s a quick reminder that the Kindle version – which you can get HERE – is 99p for the duration of this summer period.

Anyway, back to the books I myself want to read and will be doing very soon. Here they are, in no particular order. I make no apologies for the fact that some of them are not exactly new releases. I discover books and authors all the time, and never have any hesitation picking something up from the past if I like the look of it. You’ll also notice that this list doesn’t just consist of crime, thriller and/or horror fiction. Okay, most of it is, but I like to think I have a reasonably diverse taste, and lots of different boxes which need ticking come the summertime. 

But enough of the prelims, let’s go …

To thoroughly satisfy my cravings for a big, international conspiracy thriller, I’m opting first for Terry HayesI AM PILGRIM. Okay, I know I should have read this modern classic already by now, but what can I say? ... I’m a busy guy. Anyway, what better way to kick off the summer reading season?

Here’s the official blurb:

A young woman murdered in a run-down Manhattan hotel.

A father publicly beheaded in the blistering sun of Saudi Arabia.

A man’s eyes stolen from his living body as he leaves a secret Syrian research laboratory.

Smouldering human remains on a mountainside in the Hindu Kush.

A plot to commit an appalling crime against humanity.

One thread that binds them all.

One man to take the journey.

Pilgrim.

Horror takes many forms these days, and there are always a number of different categories that I find I need to check out. First up, I’m usually in need of at least one psychological horror fix per year, and this year I’m going for another book I should have read by now. It’s Paul Tremblay’s intriguing-sounding 2015 title, A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS.

Here’s the  official blurb:

The lives of the Barretts, a suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia. To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to halt Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show.

Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls the terrifying events that took place when she was just eight years old, long buried secrets and painful memories begin to surface – and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed.

Oceanic horror is another subgenre for which I must seek at least one annual fix, and it’s usually at around this time of year with a holiday abroad beckoning. One of my other favourite past-times when I’m in a hot climate is sea-swimming, and you know, there’s surely no better way to enjoy the chill of deep blue water beneath your feet than when you’re also thinking about the latest book of sea-horror that you’ve read. For this one, I’ve opted for Michaelbrent Collings’s much lauded novel of 2015, THE DEEP.

Here’s the official blurb:

A woman searching for a sister lost at sea.

A man bent on finding lost treasure.

A mother who has lost all hope.

A maniac who believes all life exists for his pleasure.

The man who would keep them all safe.

Together, they will all seek below the waves for treasures long buried, and riches beyond belief.

But those treasures hide something. Something ancient, something dark.

A creature that exists only to feed on those that would enter its realm.

A creature … of THE DEEP.  

On the subject of horror, you can’t beat a good creature feature. Oh yes, I like a monster or two, and this next choice has come highly recommended. If you like your Scandi-noir, but fancy taking it even further into the realms of darkness, check out Sefan Spjut’s STALLO.

Here’s the official blurb:

In the late 1970s, a young boy disappears from a summer cabin in the Swedish woods. His mother claims that he was abducted by a giant. The boy is never found.

Twenty-five years later, an old woman claims that a creature has been standing outside her house, observing her and her five-year-old grandson for hours.

When Susso – who’s dedicated her life to the search for creatures whose existences have not been proved – hears of this, and sees a possible link between the two incidents, she takes the road on a terrifying adventure into the unknown …

Crime thrillers that are dark, dirty and dingy are pretty much home territory for me, so you might think I’d get jaded on the matter, but not a bit of it. No reading list of mine would be complete without at least one piece of Brit-grit to get my teeth into. For that vibe, I’m going to one of the genre’s total bosses, Stuart MacBride, and his 2013 hit, CLOSE TO THE BONE.

Here’s the official blurb:

Sticks and stones may break your bones …

The first body is chained to a stake: strangled and stabbed, with a burning tyre round its neck. Is this a gangland execution or something much darker?

Someone’s leaving little knots of bones on DI Logan McRae’s doorstep, but he’s got bigger concerns. Rival drug gangs are fighting over product and territory; two teenage lovers are missing; someone’s crippling Asian immigrants; and Logan’s been lumbered with an ambitious new Detective Sergeant and gained the unwelcome attention of the new local crime boss.

When another body turns up, the similarities between these murders and the plot of a bestselling novel seem like more than coincidence. And perhaps those little knots of bones are more important than they look …

I absolutely adore frank, tough-talking cop stuff; hard-hitting police stories that are as much about the worn-out personnel as the vicious villains they encounter, and in which no-one is any better than they need to be. This year, there was only one choice on that front, Don Winslow’s epic 2017-release, THE FORCE.

Here’s the official blurb:

Detective Sergeant Denny Malone leads an elite unit to fight gangs, drugs and guns in New York. For eighteen years, he’s been on the front lines, doing whatever it takes to survive in a city built by ambition and corruption, and where no-one is clean.

What only a few know is that Denny Malone himself is dirty; he and his partners have stolen millions of dollars in drugs and cash. Now he’s caught in a trap and being squeezed by the Feds. He must walk a thin line of betrayal, while the city teeters on the brink of a racial conflagration that could destroy them all.

Don Winslow’s latest novel is a haunting story of greed and violence, inequality and race, and a searing portrait of a city on the edge of an abyss. Full of shocking twists, this is a morally complex and riveting dissection of the controversial issues confronting society today.


PENDRAGON

The historical-actioner is a genre I don’t delve into enough, but every so often I come across titles that I know I simply MUST push to the top of my reading list. This summer, there are two in particular that I aim to sample. They come to us almost from the opposite ends of history, but both of them promise battles and bloodshed galore, and really, if you’re still a lad at heart, what more could you ask.

The first of these is the brand new one from James Wilde (aka Mark Chadbourn), PENDRAGON.

Here’s the official blurb:

Winter AD 367, and in a frozen forest beyond Hadrian’s Wall, six scouts of the Roman army have been brutally murdered.

Their mutilated bodies were discovered by an elite unit led by Lucanus. Also called the Wolf, he knows the far north to be a foreign land, a wild place ruled by barbarians, inhabited by daemons and witches – a place where the old gods live on. It is not somewhere he would willingly go and to him this ritual slaughter reeks of something altogether more dangerous.

But when the child of a friend is taken captive, Lucanus feels honour-bound to journey beyond the wall and bring the boy back home. He is not alone. For this is a quest that will span an empire – from the pagan monument of Stonehenge to the kingdoms of Gaul and the eternal city of Rome itself – a search that will embroil a soldier and a thief, a cut-throat and a courtesan, a druid and even the great Emperor Valentinian. And what is revealed will reverberate down the centuries …

From the best-selling author of Hereward, comes an epic new historical adventure of betrayal and bloodshed set during the bleakest of times – a time when civilisation itself was foundering, when the world faced a dark age and was in need of a hero.
The second of my chosen historical reads is likely to take an even grimmer tone, and if anything, is set at a point in history when civilisation was even more likely to collapse in flames. It’s David L. Robbins’ masterly 2004 WW2 novel, LAST CITADEL.

Here’s the official blurb:

One nation taking a desperate gamble of war.

Another fighting for survival.

Two armies locked in a bloody cataclysm that will decide history …

Spring 1943. In the west, Germany strengthens its choke-hold on France. To the south, an Allied invasion looms imminent. But the greatest threat to Hitler’s dream of a Thousand Year Reich lies east, where his forces are pitted in a death match with a Russian enemy willing to pay any price to defend the motherland. Hitler rolls the dice, hurling his best SS forces and his fearsome new weapon, the Mark VI Tiger tank, in a last-ditch summer offensive, codenamed Citadel.

The Red Army around Kursk is a sprawling array of infantry, armour, fighter planes, and bombers. Among them is an intrepid group of women flying antiquated biplanes; they swoop over the Germans in the dark, earning their nickname, ‘Night Witches’. On the ground, Private Dimitri Berko gallops his tank, the Red Army’s lithe little T-34, like a Cossack steed. In the turret above Dimitri rides his son, Valya, a Communist sergeant who issues his father orders while the war widens the gulf between them. In the skies, Dimitri’s daughter, Katya, flies with the Night Witches, until she joins a ferocious band of partisans in the forests around Kursk. Like Russia itself, the Berko family is suffering the fury and devastation of history’s most titanic tank battle, while fighting to preserve what is sacred – their land, their lives, and each other – as Hitler flings against them his most potent armed force.

Inexorable and devastating, a company of Mark VI Tiger tanks is commanded by one extraordinary SS officer, a Spaniard known as la Daga, the Dagger. He’d suffered a terrible wound at the hands of the Russians: now he has returned with a cold fury to exact his revenge. And above it all, one quiet man makes his own plan to bring Citadel crashing down and reshape the fate of the world.

A remarkable story of men and arms, loyalty and betrayal, Last Citadel propels us into the claustrophobic confines of a tank in combat, into the tension of guerrilla tactics, and across the smoking charnel of one of history’s greatest battlefields. Panoramic, authentic, and unforgettable, it reverberates long after the last cannon sounds.

I’ve always been a sucker for demonic/occult horror. It’s a well-trodden path in literary terms, of course, but there is never any shortage of new material. So, to tick this particular box, I’m opting for Jason Arnopp’s THE LAST DAYS OF JACK SPARKS, which came out last year.

Here’s the official blurb:

Jack Sparks died while writing this book.

It was no secret that journalist Jack Sparks had been researching the occult for his new book. No stranger to controversy, he had already triggered a furious Twitter storm by mocking an exorcism he witnessed.

Then there was THAT video: forty seconds of chilling footage that Jack repeatedly claimed was not of his making, yet was posted from his own YouTube account.

Nobody knew what happened to Jack in the days that followed – until now.

MURDER AS A FINE ART

One field that often straddles both the thriller and horror genres is the Victorian murder mystery – you only need to think cloaked, top-hatted forms gliding through gas-it fog, and we’re there, aren’t we? – and though once again, it’s not a literary field I delve into regularly, I certainly couldn’t resist David Morrell’s 2013 novel, MURDER AS A FINE ART.

Here’s the official blurb:

The Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 were the most notorious mass killings of their day. Never fully explained, they brought London and all of England to the verge of panic.

Forty-three years later, the equally notorious ‘opium-eater’ Thomas de Quincey returns to London. Along with his 'Confessions', he is known for a scandalous essay about the killings: ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’.

Days after his arrival, a family is killed in the same horrific way as the earlier murders. It seems someone is using the essay as an inspiration – and a blueprint. And De Quincey himself is the obvious suspect. Aided by his daughter, Emily, and two determined Scotland Yard detectives, he must uncover the truth before more blood is shed … and London itself falls prey to attack.

In Murder as a Fine Art, gas-lit London becomes a battleground between a literary star and a demented murderer - whose lives are linked by secrets long buried, but never forgotten.

TWILIGHT

Another subgenre that straddles several of my interests at once is that of the Rural Noir/Southern Gothic (whatever you want to call it). Often poetic, invariably dark, frequently grotesque, I find myself needing to hit at least one of these normally exquisitely-written novels each year. This year, it’s William Gay’s remarkable 2007 TWILIGHT (not to be confused in any way with all that teen vampire-romance stuff).

Here’s the official blurb:

Suspecting that something is amiss with their father’s burial, teenager Kenneth Tyler and his sister Corrie venture to his gravesite and make a horrific discovery: their father, a whiskey bootlegger, was not actually buried in the casket they bought for him. Worse, they learn that the undertaker, Fenton Breece, has been grotesquely manipulating the town’s dead.

Armed with incriminating photographs, Tyler becomes obsessed with bringing the perverse undertaker to justice. But first he must outrun Granville Sutter, a local strongman hired by Fenton to destroy the evidence. What follows is an adventure through the Harrikin, an eerie backwoods filled with tangled roads, rusted machinery and eccentric squatters – old men, witches, and families among them – who both shield and imperil Tyler as he runs for safety.

Coupling his characteristically poetic and haunting prose with a tightly controlled close narrative, William Gay rewrites the rules of the Gothic fairy tale while exploring the classic Southern themes of good and evil.

THE STARS MY DESTINATION

One area I dip into occasionally (less often than I should perhaps, though more than I used to thanks my never being less than inspired by what I find), is classic-era science fiction. It’s a vast range of titles, of course, so I can only pick from the memories I have of those my late father (a sci-fi buff on an epic scale) personally recommended to me. This summer, it’s Alfred Bester’s big hit of 1956, THE STARS MY DESTINATION (which would make it by far the oldest novel I’ve read and reviewed for this blog).

Here’s the official blurb:

Gully Foyle, Mechanic's Mate 3rd Class.
EDUCATION: none
SKILLS: none
MERITS: none
RECOMMENDATIONS: none

That's the official verdict on Gully Foyle, unskilled space crewman.

But right now, he is the only survivor on his drifting, wrecked spaceship, and when another space vessel - the Vorga - ignores his distress flares and sails by, Gully becomes obsessed with revenge. He endures 170 days alone in deep space before finding refuge on the Sargasso Asteroid and returning to Earth to track down the crew and owners of the Vorga. But, as he works out his murderous grudge, Gully Foyle also uncovers a secret of momentous proportions ...


AN ENGLISH GHOST STORY

Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always had a soft spot for MR James-style ghost stories … yes, those pleasing supernatural terrors that were aired over brandy and cigars in wood-panelled drawing rooms, usually with the Christmas snow falling outside. I’ve written plenty and I’ve read plenty, though it’s difficult to get this kind of stuff at novel length. Perhaps it was inevitable, therefore, that another choice this year was Kim Newman’s 2015 update on the genre, AN ENGLISH GHOST STORY (and no, it won’t bother me that I’ll be reading it in the Mediterranean sunshine).

Here’s the official blurb:

The Naremores, a dysfunctional British nuclear family, seek to solve their problems and start a new life away from the city in the sleepy Somerset countryside. At first their perfect new home seems to embrace them, its endless charms creating a rare peace and harmony within the family. But as they grow closer, the house begins to turn on them, and seems to know just how to hurt them the most – threatening to destroy them from the inside out.

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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.

SIEGE 
by Simon Kernick (2012)

London is a city well-versed in dealing with terrorism, but it’s a sheer impossibility to throw steel around all of its major landmarks. So, when an organised and proficient terrorist outfit launches a military-style attack on the ornate Stanhope Hotel, on Park Lane, the metropolis is taken completely by surprise. 

Already preoccupied by a series of diversionary bomb attacks, the authorities are not even there to intervene when a man known only as Fox, an embittered former British soldier and combat veteran, leads a heavily-armed group in a disciplined assault, which captures most of the hotel’s staff and guests almost immediately, closes the building off with booby-traps and explosives, and starts laying down impossible political demands.

A lot of people die quickly, in many cases killed merely to make a point. It’s plain from the outset that these terrorists are playing for keeps, and pretty soon almost the entirety of the Metropolitan Police, not to mention a specialist SAS rescue squad, have got them surrounded.

A colossal siege then follows, a wide range of hostages awaiting its outcome fearfully.

Among these, Polish hotel manager, Elena Serenko, is the strongest, a diplomatic but authoritative figure, who never once loses her cool in the midst of the crisis, and becomes their unofficial spokesperson. Martin Dalston is there too, a forlorn character who has come to the hotel to die; recently diagnosed with inoperable cancer, he intended to commit suicide that evening, but now realises that he doesn’t just want to live, he wants to live and help those around him.

And then there is Scope … in his first outing (Simon Kernick has since written at least one more book following his exploits). Another disenfranchised ex-squaddie, Scope came to the Stanhope looking for vengeance regarding matters unconnected to this affair, but soon got caught up in the mayhem. He manages to lie low in one of the upstairs rooms, and is not corralled by the terrorists, but you sense almost from the beginning that he’s going to become their John McClane, their fly in the ointment, their ultimate pain in the ass.

Outside the hotel, meanwhile, it’s equally tense. The police are under the control of the normally efficient Deputy Assistant Commissioner Arley Dale, though her position is far from straightforward. Unbeknown to everyone else, Dale’s own family were kidnapped that morning by the same terrorists, and she is now under orders to assist the gang by providing misinformation to the military and sending the inevitable SAS assault team to its destruction. Naturally, she doesn’t want to do this, but what choice does she have? Things are further complicated for her when news arrives that a senior MI6 officer, possessing vital information, is among the captives, and by Detective Chief Inspector John Cheney of the Counter Terrorist Command, a cool but inscrutable figure (and, inconveniently, a former boyfriend of hers) who constantly hovers in the background.

The strongest card Dale can play is Riz Mohammed, a London cop of Middle Eastern origin and an expert negotiator. He makes many gallant attempts to talk the terrorists ‘down’, but gains little. This is partly because their motives are far from clear. Though two Arabic figures have now emerged from the murderous band to take charge - their overall leader, Wolf, and his fanatical female sidekick, Cat - the rest of the team, like Fox, are westerners at odds with the British establishment, and though they are brutal and violent, we soon get the feeling they are less interested in the Islamist cause than they are the fabulous pay-out they’ve been promised if everything goes to plan.

It’s a hellish scenario, the authorities all but paralysed, the armed-to-the-teeth madmen killing at every opportunity, but Arley Dale doesn’t just sit there and accept her fate. Again in secret, she enlists a disgraced former-detective, Tina Boyd (another of Kernick’s very cool recurring characters) and puts her on the case. Boyd, a loose cannon at the best of times, doesn’t understand why she’s been trusted with such a job, until Dale, who expects to go to prison anyway, says that she must do whatever’s necessary to recover her missing family – there are no rules.

Scope meanwhile, who initially takes time off to protect an ailing American tourist and her young son, finally decides that he too must take the gloves off. These vicious, arrogant killers are not going to have it all their own way …

Well, this is an absolute corker.

It’s also vintage Simon Kernick, surely one of the UK’s best thriller-writers when it comes to high-level conspiracies, espionage and terrorism.

Make no mistake, this is a big, big story, involving a monstrous and complex crime which has the potential not just to snuff out multiple lives, but to endanger national security as well, and yet as always, the author handles every part of it with astonishing attention to detail, delivering the entire catastrophe in completely authentic and convincing fashion. He deals with the emergency services response in the same way, not putting a foot wrong as he pulls the police and military together, co-ordinating their various assets, including their technical resources (which in Siege are absolutely up-to-the-minute) in the most believable style. It’s almost as if he has personally memorised the section of the Major Incident Manual concerning mass terrorist attacks on London.

As I say, vintage Kernick.

And yet … all this stuff is no more, really, than the backdrop.

The most interesting thrillers are always about people, focussing on their conflicting personalities and relationships no matter what degree of chaos is unfolding around them. And Kernick doesn’t skimp on this. In fact, he gives us an ensemble cast, throwing all kinds of individuals into this maelstrom of gunfire and explosions.

At first, I wondered if this was going to prove to be a mistake; there are so many living, breathing individuals in Siege that I worried it might fall victim to what I call ‘Towering Inferno Syndrome’: in other words, the author gives us a bit of everyone, but not enough of anyone. But no, Simon Kernick is too much of an expert in his field to make that kind of error. Once we’ve met the cast, we quickly close in on the key players, two of the most exciting being Scope and Tina Boyd.

Kernick certainly loves his antiheroes.

Yes, his work is often filled with straight bats like Arley Dale, and procedures and protocols hot from the Scotland Yard press. But quite often – and it’s certainly the case here – things are resolved by the smart thinking and raw courage of wayward individuals who, usually through misfortune, find themselves at the sharp end with minimal backup.

Don’t get me wrong. Earlier in this review, I alluded to Die Hard. And yes, there is more than a hint of that in Siege. But the action here, though fast and tough, is not quite so OTT. There are bombs, machine-gun battles and knife fights galore. But in this book, when people get shot and wounded, they are severely incapacitated at the very least. When they get put down by a heavy punch, they don’t get up quickly. Scope is not a man of iron. He is handy and experienced, but his main strength derives from his dogged nature and moral compass, which he engages regardless of the fine print. Likewise, Tina Boyd. She has had it rough; despite often doing the right thing in the past, she’s been on the wrong end of some politically correct but nevertheless harsh decisions – she is another who’s always prepared to risk it for the right result, and who isn’t just able to take a beating, but who can (and will) dish one out, herself, if necessary. 

In balance to all this, the non-violent characters in the book – Elena Serenko and Martin Dalston – are intriguing creations, nicely representing ordinary people at their best (and so often, of course, it is ordinary people who must navigate these terrible situations). They may not believe in have-a-go-heroism, but they’ll still do everything in their power to make things easier for those around them.

On top of all that, despite its massive canvas and huge rotation of characters, the novel is done slickly and quickly, the narrative bouncing from scene to scene at breakneck pace, allowing the reader almost no room to breathe – and yet still finding time to surprise us with curveballs. That’s another of Simon Kernick’s strengths. You never know the whole story; there is nearly always something shocking held in reserve, and Siege is no exception to that rule.

A terrific action-thriller, completely credible, totally enthralling and sadly, in our turbulent current age, more relevant now even than when it was first published.

It’s a bold man who’d try, at a whim, to cast a novel like this should it ever be adapted for the screen, but ‘boldness’ is my middle name. So, as usual, here I go (just for laughs, of course):

DAC Arley Dale – Naomi Watts
Scope – Robert James-Collier
Elena Serenko – Izabella Miko
Fox – Clive Standen
Tina Boyd – Gemma Arterton
Wolf – Naveen Andrews
Cat – Shiva Negar
DCI John Cheney – Ray Stevenson
Martin Dalston – Hugh Grant
Riz Mohammed – Cas Anvar

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Hearts of darkness, both fictional and real

We’re talking gangsters this week, and by that I mean serious gangsters, nasty gangsters. 

Firstly, this is because I’ve now delivered my final copy-edit to HarperCollins for the next book in my Lucy Clayburn series, SHADOWS – and I even have a holding-jacket (left) to illustrate it – and gangsters, as you may know, are never far away when Lucy Clayburns on the case.

Secondly, it’s because this week I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Kevin Wignall’s excellent thriller, THE HUNTER’S PRAYER, which takes us along the periphery of organised crime rather than straight into the dark heart of it, and has some very intriguing and even moralistic things to say about the world of the contract killer.

Thirdly, when my last Heck novel, ASHES TO ASHES, was published, I wrote a guest-blog for the CRIMEBOOKJUNKIE website, in which I investigated the FIVE DEADLIEST CRIME SYNDICATES YOU MAY NEVER HAVE HEARD ABOUT. It appeared on the site on April 21 this year, and I’m now pleased to be reproducing it here (with one or two minor modifications to allow for the passage of time).

But more about that in a minute or two. For the time-being, back to Lucy ...

It’s difficult to talk about SHADOWS, and the heroine of the book, Lucy Clayburn, without giving away too many crucial spoilers about her own associations with the urban underworld. On the assumption that not everyone has at this stage read STRANGERS, my first Lucy Clayburn novel, I must therefore, by necessity, refrain from delving too deeply into the background of this tough lady cop from Manchester, though I still want to say a few things about the new book, which is due for publication on October 19 this year.

Since STRANGERS was published last spring, things have improved for Lucy Clayburn. In the first book, she was a uniformed copper in Crowley, Greater Manchester Police’s notorious November Division. She had a decade of service under her belt but was unlikely ever to get promoted (and in some parts of the job still invited ridicule) thanks to a major league foul-up several years earlier, which saw her kicked out of CID during her first week as a detective.

During the course of STRANGERS, many of these wrongs were naturally put right, and Lucy emerged at the end of it physically damaged but with her reputation massively enhanced. When SHADOWS starts, Lucy has resumed the role of detective constable and, though she’s only working Division, has continued to feel collars and impress people. She’s now regarded as one of divisional boss, DI Stan Beardmore’s best assets, and though she has been unwillingly partnered with the sloppy and outdated DC Harry Jepson, has regained all her old ambition. In particular, she has one eye on the elite Robbery Squad, who have relocated to Crowley from central Manchester, and are headed up by the legendary DI Kathy Blake and the fanciable DS Danny Tucker.

But any road to advancement in this neck of the woods is going to be fraught with difficulty and danger. When a series of ultra-violent armed robberies commences, perpetrated by masked individuals wielding sub-machine guns (and not afraid to use them!), the scene is set for any copper in Crowley worth his/her salt to go out there and make a name for themselves. But there’s one problem with this. The unknown gang’s targets are exclusively underworld operations, and those mowed down by them are gangsters – so it’s only a matter of time before there is a massive and brutal retaliation …

And that’s it, sadly. If you want to know more, you’ve got to read the book. But don’t sweat; it’s not too far off. Just go and enjoy your holidays, and when you get home, it’ll only be a matter of weeks. 

Lucy hits the shelves next October, and just to reiterate, the title of this next investigation is SHADOWS.

(And don’t get too attached to the jacket pictured above. As I said, it’s a holding-image, and will be replaced by the real one in due course; just watch this space).


*

And now, as promised, a fleeting glimpse into the infinitely more chilling world of real-life organised crime. Here, as it originally appeared on CRIMEBOOKJUNKIE, are: 

THE FIVE DEADLIEST CRIME SYNDICATES YOU MAY NEVER HAVE HEARD ABOUT ... 

Organised crime has been with us almost as long as we’ve had organised society.

From the crime collegia (thieves’ guilds) of Ancient Rome to the Viking chieftains of the Dark Ages, who only held off raiding when they were paid generous protection money; from the robber barons of the high Middle Ages, who ‘taxed’ travellers, defied their king and waged bloody feuds against each other, to the pirates and corsairs of the Spanish Main … the scourge of gangsterdom has been around for as long as we have.

Its root-causes are often to be found in resistance to a pre-existing form of oppression. The Cosa Nostra, for example, was born in the mid-19th century, when feudal landlords objected violently to the annexation of Sicily by mainland Italy; in the US today, the Aryan Brotherhood, a far-reaching white supremacist organisation which dominates the American prison system, came together initially in defence of whites incarcerated alongside black and Latino gang-members.

Not that any of this excuses these vicious cartels, or the heinous behaviour they indulge in. 

Many modern crime syndicates attempt to put a polite face on their activities. In the 1960s, the Krays’ firm in East London organised charity events and donated to good causes. Many senior mob figures in North America deny the Mafia even exists, and insist on posing as legitimate businessmen. But the reality in most cases is bloody violence, primarily among the syndicates themselves as they fight for control of the rackets.

We, of course, in the world of crime writing, find them utterly fascinating. Even those of us who don’t write or read crime fiction, are often captivated by the near-romance of these dark, dangerous but often suave and charming rogues. 

The names of their leading lights are recognisable the world over: Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, Pablo Escobar. In some cases, they are almost admired. It is often said that Chicago bootlegger, Capone, was merely providing a popular service to a thirsty city. Britain’s Great Train Robbers (though not gangsters per se) attained folk-hero status because of the daring heist they pulled.

But again, the reality of organised crime is often pitiless brutality. Between 2007 and 2014, at the height of Mexico’s so-called Dope Wars, an estimated 164,000 people were murdered. In January this year, a battle between two imprisoned drugs gangs in Brazil’s Manaus jail left over 60 dead, including many who were found decapitated. Capone himself, seen almost as a gentleman by modern standards, didn’t just order the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, but was a former hit-man in his own right, and personally participated in the beating/shooting murders of three rivals.

This kind of wild underworld warfare is very much the backdrop against which my most recent Heck novel, ASHES TO ASHES, is set. Though Heck is part of the Serial Crimes Unit, and primarily hunts lone killers, in this most recent book (published last April) he becomes involved in a horrific case at the centre of which a savage gangster war is being waged. In short, the bulk of the narcotics supply in the Northwest of England was once the sole fiefdom of Manchester kingpin, Vic Ship, but now a breakaway group under the leadership of a charismatic young gun, Lee Shaughnessy, is challenging his stranglehold on the post-industrial, drugs-dependent wasteland that is Bradburn (which lies midway between Manchester and Liverpool).

What can only be described as hellish violence ensues, with a soaring body-count and some ghastly murder methods employed. To say more would be too much of a giveaway, but you don’t need to be a regular Heck reader to know that he throws himself headfirst into this blood-soaked chaos to try and get a result.

However, as ASHES TO ASHES - without doubt the most ‘gangstery’ of all my books - is still in the charts, and as I really don’t want to hit you with any more spoilers, I thought now might be an opportune time to look again at the real world of organised villainy, and pick out what I consider to be five of the deadliest crime syndicates operating today which you possibly don’t know about.

So, forget the Mafia (both the US and Italian versions), the Yakuza, the Triads, the Yardies. Here, in no particular order, are:


BARRIO AZTECA

Once a prison gang, Barrio Azteca formed in El Paso in the 1980s, but have since made good in the cross-border drugs trade between Mexico and the US. Thanks to their unique geographic positioning, they are one of only very few transnational crime syndicates, members often holding both Mexican and US citizenship, which gives them a huge advantage over their drugs-smuggling rivals. They are also notoriously violent, and are responsible for dozens of killings on both sides of the border (though mainly in Ciudad Ju├írez, on the Mexican side) their preferred method being to beat and then burn to death their victims, sometimes in front of cheering crowds of gang-members. The group has been accused of carrying out full-scale massacres of rivals, by machine-gunning them to death in their prison cells (after being admitted by staff!), and on one occasion mowing down 16 innocent teenagers at a soccer party because ‘suspect characters’ were believed to be present. 


MUNGIKI

A semi-religious organisation, Mungiki is seldom heard of outside its native Kenya, but inside the country they are a source of terror. With an anti-western ethos and strong indigenous African beliefs, they model themselves on the Mau Mau militia who resisted British colonial rule in the 1950s, but now are mostly known for organising crime in the slums of Nairobi, where protection racketeering and extortion of ordinary residents are their prime activities. Though considered by some to be on the wane, as recently as 2007 Mungiki sought to reinforce their authority with a wave of decapitations. In turn, Kenyan security forces have been accused of heavy-handedness in their response to Mungiki violence, and leaving many of the gangsters shot by the roadside. However, the counter-argument has been made that a large number of Mungiki deaths are just as likely to be the result of factional infighting among members, as they now believed to have split into rival camps.


NDRANGHETA

One of several southern Italian cartels – indeed, occasional allies of the Sicilian Mafia and the Neapolitan Camorra – the Ndrangheta of Calabria are fast emerging as one of the pre-eminent criminal organisations in the world. Having initially behaved like old style bandits, in the early days they used kidnapping and blackmail to finance contacts with Colombian coke cartels, but these links have since proved very lucrative, putting the syndicate firmly in the big league. In fact, they are now believed to be among the world’s most successful drugs traffickers and money launderers, with an estimated annual revenue of $50-60 billion, and are even suspected of financing political corruption and infiltrating public offices, and not just in southern Italy, but in the north as well. In fact, Ndrangheta influence is now felt beyond Italy, in Northern Europe, the USA and Australia, where, though they still peddle drugs, they have diversified into arms smuggling and human trafficking.


SOLNTSEVSKAYA BRATVA

Perhaps the dominant force in the terrifying world of the Russian Mafia. Moscow-based, and strictly adhering to the normal Russian gangster code that all members must engage in regular fitness and weapons training, in effect turning themselves into a spec-ops of the underworld, the Solntsevskaya, though controlled by a central committee, are organized into warlike brigades and these into smaller but very mobile and highly aggressive ‘wolf-packs’. As such, they have no compunction about challenging rival mobsters, and have successfully extended their arms and drugs-trafficking, money-laundering, assassination and general racketeering businesses into the US and the Caribbean. They have a particularly firm foothold in Atlanta, where they are said to have taken on various other established groups and defeated them in battle. American sources say they are in cahoots with Russia’s Federal Security Service, but this has not been proved.


LOS ZETAS

According to the US Government, Los Zetas are ‘the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, efficient, violent, ruthless, and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico’. An explanation for this can be found in their origins. During the 1990s, the group was formed by former special forces soldiers, who had deserted the Mexican Army looking for better pay. They found it working as muscle for the massive Gulf Cartel, and brought with them extreme mercilessness, but also high-tech weapons and the skills to use them. In 2010, again tired of taking orders, Los Zetas broke away to form their own syndicate. Despite internal instability, they are highly successful drugs traffickers, but are mainly notable for the staggering degree of violence they will use, having instigated numerous massacres of both rivals and civilians alike. Geographically, they are now the largest cartel in Mexico (controlling 11 states!), but their power extends far beyond their traditional homeland, both north and south.



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 HUNTER’S PRAYER 
by Kevin Wignall (2015)

Carefree student Ella Hatto’s happy middle-class life ends horrifically one bright summer morning in Tuscany, where she’s on holiday with her boyfriend, Chris. First of all, back home in the UK, her father, mother and younger brother are murdered in their own home, executed by a skilled assassin. Next, she herself is targeted, caught up in a whirl of unexpected violence as a kill-team closes in on her, only to walk into a storm of bullets itself.

Unbeknown to Ella, a professional bodyguard called Lucas was hired by her successful businessman and part-time gangster father, and charged with shadowing her while she was abroad. Lucas, it seems, has stepped in at just the right moment, and gunned down the killers – but now he must whisk Ella and Chris away before the law arrives and starts asking awkward questions.

The two students are shaken to the core as their unlikely guardian moves them from one safehouse to the next, constantly trying to elude both the police and any further gunmen who might still be on their tail.

In due course, he finds sanctuary for them in the very last place he would normally have chosen: his own isolated and rather spartan villa in the foothills of the Swiss Alps.

As a former contract killer-turned-protector, Lucas is already a far cry from other characters of this ilk whom we may have encountered in different crime novels. He’s good at what he does, but he’s not cold-blooded about it. There is no granite hardness in Lucas, no pitilessness, no icy indifference to the pain of others. Okay, he’s not an especially warm character … but he does start warming to Ella. While Chris is simply frightened and increasingly resentful that he’s been dragged into this disaster, Ella – the real victim, who lost her family (whereas Chris merely lost his holiday!) – handles it better. She’s obviously grief-stricken, but she’s so innocent, so polite and yet at the same time so grown up in the way she deals with her terrible bereavement that Lucas can’t help but admire her and even be influenced by her.

The truth is that this ex-hitman is already, in a way, on the road to redemption. Though he’s still immersed in his murky world – he remains friendly, for example, with another much more callous killer, the likeable and yet utterly ruthless Dan Borowski – he basically wants out. He’s much happier to be a bodyguard than an assassin, but even then, his attempts to save the two youngsters take him far beyond the call of duty, a dedication to preserving their lives which stems not so much from his conscience, perhaps, but from a burgeoning desire to improve himself, a yearning to rejoin the civilised world (which gradual change of heart has already seen him develop an interest in the arts and literature).

Partly, this is down to his own domestic circumstances. His French girlfriend Madeleine, the one genuine love of his life, ditched him a decade and a half ago when she discovered what he did for a living, and ever since has denied him access to their daughter, Isabelle, who is now in her mid-teens; Lucas strongly desires to re-acquaint with the child, and can only hope and pray that she has grown up to be as balanced and sensible as Ella.

And yet here lies the deep irony in this unexpectedly philosophical story, because while Lucas’s initial interactions with Ella have encouraged him to reconnect with his estranged family, Ella is headed the other way.

Once safe in the care of her Uncle Simon, she becomes heir not just to her father’s wealth, but also to all his business dealings, even the nefarious ones, and as she works her way through them, trying to fathom out the identities of those who wanted her family dead, her grief transforms into slow-building rage, which, given that she’s now wealthy, no longer feels impotent. Very quickly, her attempts to rebuild her shattered world morph into an obsessive pursuit of revenge …

The Hunter’s Prayer – a revised version of For the Dogs (first published in 2004) – is not simply a murder mystery or an action thriller. If anything, it’s more of a parable. A metaphorical journey, if you like, into the ultimate futility of vengeance, and at the same time a lamentation at how salvation for some often seems to come at the price of damnation for others.

Unfortunately, I can’t discuss the unfolding narrative in too much detail for fear of giving away some quite remarkable twists in the second and third acts. Suffice to say that Kevin Wignall has done it again. The master of the thoughtful crime thriller presents us here with yet another potential high-octane scenario, and though he delivers the action plentifully, he asks questions of the reader throughout, even if only at a subliminal level.

You can tell where his real interests lie, because though we’re in the world of contract killers and organised crime here, we don’t go into huge detail about the criminal networks and illegal operations that provide the background to that. Nor do we investigate the creation of the hitmen themselves, neither assessing their warped psychology nor plumbing the hellish personal experiences that first put them into this line of work and equipped them with the necessary skills. Instead, the author is more focussed in the personalities of all his central characters as they stand now, their current mindsets, how they lead their everyday lives. 

For example, we watch his hitmen blend easily into the rest of society when it suits them, we watch them go home at night and relax, we see them try to maintain their own codes of ethics even when they’re out on the job, and yet at the same time we’re acutely aware of the coping mechanisms they’ve needed to develop into order to endure the isolation of this strange, stilted existence; we recognise that they live on a mental knife-edge.

Lucas is to the forefront of this, not just because he’s the novel’s antihero, but because he’s actively undergoing change. It’s not that he’s necessarily sickened by the killing, it’s just that he’s tired of being an outsider, and when he encounters a genuinely pure person, who certainly looks as if she had a stable and promising life ahead of her, he is galvanised into fighting his way back to normality. 
This is certainly a cause we can root for, because we never feel that Lucas is actually evil. We can see that he’s damaged and alone, and though he’s done bad things, he’s done brave things too, so we want him on the side of right.

Much more of a challenge is the novel’s other main thread: the disintegration of Ella Hatto’s soul.

From the sweet child we met at the start of the book, she goes on to do horrible things – and again, Wignall, who remains non-judgemental throughout, wonders where we stand on this. Do we at least understand it, even if we don’t sympathise?

She’s suffered appallingly, and because of her innocent nature, only slowly does she come to realise what the massacre of her family actually means: someone she’s never even met (she assumes!) harboured such hatred of she and her people that they made a determined and expensive effort to have them all eliminated. So, is it surprising that, even in the light of her newly acquired wealth – because, and it’s hugely ironic, Ella has gained more financially from this atrocity than anyone else! – she now feels that her life has been ruined? How can she enjoy such wealth? How can she rest while this terrible offence against the Hatto name remains unanswered? And while Lucas has never encouraged this kind of thinking, she’s seen him in action; she now knows how effective a ruthless attitude can be – if you can finally right all wrongs (at least in your own mind) quickly and neatly, without waiting on the wheels of justice, which grind slowly at the best of times but you just know are not going to turn in your favour at all on this occasion, aren’t you justified in doing it?

It’s an interesting question. But another one would be – and again, the author asks us this – just how much leeway should a bad experience give you? Can it really forgive or even explain the complete erosion of all human feeling? And just because you’ve given up on the prescribed concept of right and wrong, and in fact have invented your own, does that mean the original concept no longer exists? Does that mean there’ll be no consequences? Don’t bank on it.

Be under no illusion, The Hunter’s Prayer is a very, very dark novel. But at 210 pages it’s a slim volume too, clearly and concisely written, and as such, it provides a quick, tense read, which, while it wouldn’t be true to call it enoyable - certainly not near the end, at which point it becomes utterly horrific - is more than a little bit thought-provoking.

As The Hunter’s Prayer has already been filmed – it was only released in the US last month – starring Sam Worthington and Odeya Rush – it makes another of my usual ‘this is how I would cast it’ interludes redundant. Suffice to say, I’m glad it made the big screen and am keen to see how it adapts.

Many thanks to all the various sources who’ve provided today’s images. They are, from the top down: Shadows (the holding-jacket only); Strangers; Ivar the Boneless, the most savage of all Viking warlords, as portrayed by Alex Hogh Anderson in the excellent TV series, Vikings; Al Capone; Ashes to Ashes; Barrio Azteca members on trial, pic by NewsWest9; Mungiki suspects menaced by police dogs, pic by Antony Njuguna; an Ndrangheta weapons stash, pic by AP; this one speaks for itself, pic from Voices from Russia; the Zetas, pic from mySA (San Antonio news); The Hunter’s Prayer - in book form; and in movie form.