Thursday, 10 May 2018

New Brit-grit, new journeys into darkness

I’m happy today to be able to reveal in all its glory the cover for the next Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH

Those who follow the investigations of DS Mark Heckenburg of the Serial Crimes Unit at Scotland Yard will likely be aware that this seventh novel in the series will be published on August 9 this year, and though its cover, which I hope you’ll agree is rather eye-catching, has been knocking around for a few weeks on one or two online retail sites, today is the official cover launch, so it’s possible that most of you will now be seeing it for the first time.

I’ll be talking a bit more about it, and the book, shortly. But in addition this week, on the same subject of gritty new cop thrillers, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing BLOODY JANUARY by Alan Parks, a smack-in-the-face slice of tartan noir (and at the same time a period piece), which takes the Brit-grit genre even further into the realms of hardboiled crime fiction.

If you’re only really here for the Alan Parks review, that’s fine. Skip down to the end of today’s post. As usual, you’ll find it there. But if you’ve got a couple of minutes first, I’m sure you won’t mind if I elaborate a little on the subject of KISS OF DEATH.

I will admit to being quite taken by the above cover. I don’t just consider it striking, it’s also relevant to the narrative, and regular readers of modern crime fiction will probably agree that that’s unusual.

So often these days, our thriller novels are jacketed with what are almost standardised images.

Quite often, for example, if it’s a police procedural, we’ll get a diminutive figure silhouetted against either a generic urban backdrop, or, if it’s a police procedural set in the sticks, against a bleak rural backdrop. If there’s a particularly dark tone to the book, we might simply see a run-down cottage set against emptiness, or if we’re in the world of domestic noir, there’ll be a suburban variation on that theme. Then again, if we’re dealing with gangsters rather than cops, we might focus on a figure in an overcoat, maybe wearing shades and hefting a firearm, or perhaps a roulette wheel scattered with jewellery and spent bullet casings.

I’m not being derisory when I make these observations. These are the memes the current marketing crowd go for in order to hit maximum sales, and it works, so who can complain? And yes, the KISS OF DEATH cover, to an extent, fulfils that tradition. It’s a cop thriller, so again we have a small figure silhouetted against an awesome backdrop. But in this case it’s the sea, and that’s the clever part of it.

Because in KISS OF DEATH, one of the many locations Heck visits during the course of his investigation, is Cornwall.

Regular readers of the series will know that Heck is a detective sergeant in the Serial Crimes Unit, which is part of the National Crime Group (before anyone accuses me of pinching ideas from reality, the real-life National Crime Agency, also based at Scotland Yard, was only formed after the first Heck book was published, and so I always say that they pinched the idea from me). And because this gives him a remit to cover all the police force areas of England and Wales, he tends to follow clues all around the country, taking in a host of different venues.

STALKERS, the very first Heck novel, took him from Kent to Manchester to the Midlands. In SACRIFICE, he travelled from London to West Yorkshire, in THE KILLING CLUB he ended up on Holy Island off the Northumbrian coast. DEAD MAN WALKING took him to the Lake District, HUNTED to the Surrey Weald.

It’s the same in KISS OF DEATH, Heck following all leads doggedly, which ultimately will lead him, among other places, to the East End of London, Humberside and yes, as I’ve already promised, the idyllic Cornish coast at the height of a lovely summer.

I obviously can’t give too much of the synopsis away at this stage, but suffice to say that in KISS OF DEATH, the National Crime Group is finally feeling the economic pinch. Police forces all over the UK are having to rationalise their resources and manpower because, in the age of austerity, the funding is simply not there. Even NCG’s most specialist departments, of which the Serial Crimes Unit is only one, are having to take a long, hard look at themselves.

In the Heck book prior to KISS OF DEATH, which was ASHES TO ASHES, you may recall that Heck was on the trail of a professional torturer who rented himself out to the highest bidder. Inevitably, he worked mostly for crime syndicates, and on that occasion, it took him to Greater Manchester, to Heck’s industrialised hometown of Bradburn in fact, where a splinter-group had broken away from the local drugs cartel, resulting in a bloody underworld feud. At the same time, while the torturer happily toured the Northwest with his so-called Pain Box (a caravan filled with torture devices), in the pay of one side, the other brought in their own fearful enforcer, the Incinerator, a crazy killer who used a flamethrower to reduce his targets to ashes. Heck, of course, was caught smack-bang in the middle.

Eventually, as you’d expect, it was resolved (but not without casualities), and the Serial Crimes Unit closed a major case. But when KISS OF DEATH commences, even this hasn’t been enough to ensure their survival. Money is simply too tight, and full-time murder investigation teams are deemed a luxury the British police can no longer afford. As such, Heck’s boss and one-time girlfriend, Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper, is handed a list of the UK’s most wanted felons who are still at large and still believed to be in the country.

Their crimes range across the board of horror; from Terry Godley, who hijacked a car in Nottingham, making the two teenagers inside it kneel before shooting them both in the back of the head, to Christopher Brenner, who chained three sex-workers in his Luton cellar, beat and raped them, and then left them to starve, to Leonard Spate, who strangled a Carlisle prostitute and then burned down the house in which her two children were sleeping – and these heinous specimens are only a few of them. Heck is instructed to focus on Eddie Creeley, a Humberside-born bank robber and kidnapper, who during the course of his ultra-violent career has killed at least two people after taking them hostage and injecting them with drain cleaner and battery acid.

Oh yes, only the worst of the worst figure on this list.

Of course, Heck undertakes the pursuit with his usual gusto, but very quickly uncovers a clue that leaves him bamboozled: a video tape portraying the fugitive in a desperate fight for his life.

The police, it seems, are not the only party in pursuit of Eddie Creeley. In fact, they’re not the only party in pursuit of all the other villains on the list. And, what’s more important, this mysterious other party could already be several steps ahead of the Serial Crimes Unit … so much so that a literal harvest of blood is already being sown.

The big question here, though, is just how far are the British police, and Heck in particular, prepared to go to protect some of the country’s very worst killers?

I actually only finished my final proof-read of KISS OF DEATH yesterday, but I am more than happy with the way it’s turned out, and am very hopeful that readers will enjoy it. Particularly because there are some explosive developments in Heck’s overall storyline here, which could pitch the entire series into a completely new direction …

With luck, you’ll all approve and enjoy.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi 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.

by Alan Parks (2017)

The time is January, 1973. The place is Glasgow.

Change is in the air. Huge slum-clearance programmes are in progress (and grotty high-rise flats being thrown up in their place). Motorway extensions are being built that will bring traffic into the heart of town (and carve up the neighbourhoods). And heroin is set to arrive.

Okay, illegal drugs have always been here, but this is something else. A smack epidemic is about to engulf Glasgow, which will ruin countless lives and at the same time empower the city’s numerous ‘disorganised crime’ elements, turning street-gangs into full-time syndicates who will wage bloody war, not just against each other, but against the forces of law and order.

In this book, those forces are represented by Detective Constable Harry McCoy, a copper who, even though he’s relatively young, has been round the track a few times already. He drinks, takes drugs, sleeps with whores and breaks police protocol without conscience. Now, please don’t immediately switch off, thinking this a total cliché. Because though, yes, we’ve met many cop characters like this in recent fiction, in McCoy’s case there’s something a little more appealing about it.

Primarily, that’s because he’s ordinary.

Yes, he’s damaged. Yes, he mistrusts colleagues and hates criminals. All ‘noir hero’ boxes ticked so far. But McCoy is no man of steel who can knock out six hoodlums with a single punch. He’s no master of the one-liner. He doesn’t draw lustful glances from every femme fatale he meets. He’s basically a normal guy, who works hard but is okay at his job rather than brilliant, and a regular mickey-taker where his fellow detectives are concerned, especially trainee investigator, ‘Wattie’ Watson, and if his morality sometimes seems blurred on the surface, there’s no question that he (usually) will do the right thing; he’s even sympathetic to the underclass, or ‘jakies’ as they are called, which would certainly have marked him out as unusual copper in that time and place.

Harry McCoy is a likeable, lower-class everyman, who ended up being a Glasgow cop rather than set out to be one. But either way, he’s about to undertake one of the most challenging cases of his career.

When old lag, Howie Nairn summons him to the famous ‘special unit’ in the hellhole that is Barlinnie Prison of the early ’70s, he is told that a certain waitress in the city, a girl known only as Lorna, will be subject to a gangland hit the following day. Little additional info is available regarding this. McCoy doesn’t know why this particular waitress will supposedly be killed, when it will happen, or how, and as such he only looks for her half-heartedly. But no sooner has he found her than she is indeed killed, shot dead right in front of him, in the middle of the street, by a seemingly crazed gunman, who also shoots at the police and then turns the weapon on himself.

It’s a perplexing mystery, because despite the warning McCoy was given, it doesn’t feel like an underworld assassination, more like a domestic gone badly wrong. He and Wattie get stuck into it anyway, at the same time as investigating other routine crimes, even additional murders (this is a tough city). Departmental boss, DCI Murray is an ally of sorts, and though he isn’t here solely to cover McCoy’s back and demands results in the most aggressive way, he does give his detectives a considerable amount of leeway; far more than they would enjoy today (laid-back Detective Alaisdair Cowie for example, seems to glide effortlessly through every shift).

Not that this helps in the long run. The puzzle deepens when Nairn is himself murdered, his body left in a prison shower with throat slashed and tongue cut out. After this, McCoy leans back towards the syndicate angle, at which point Murray’s enthusiasm starts to wane. When McCoy discovers that the deceased waitress doubled as a good-time girl once the sun went down, and had connections to the aristocratic Dunlop family, the boss decides that enough is enough. Lord Gray Dunlop and his wild-living son, Teddy, are two of the wealthiest, most influential men in the city. They also have a posse of important friends, one of whom, the psychotic former cop, Jimmy Gibbs (who also happens to be dating McCoy’s ex), behaves as their unofficial fixer. Murray, totally unnerved by this, finally clamps down on the enquiry, leaving McCoy and (somewhat more reluctantly), Wattie, to investigate it off the books.

McCoy eventually turns to Stevie Cooper, a close friend from when they were in care together as children. Cooper, who is bigger and stronger than McCoy, used to defend him back during those terrible days, but he’s now a villain in his own right. What makes this relationship particularly difficult is that, though Cooper has no apparent links to the Dunlops and their secret cadre of highclass weirdoes, his own criminal ambitions are soaring, mainly due to the new-fangled heroin trade. He’s also sampling his own product more than is good for him, which is turning him paranoid, reckless and steadily more violent.

McCoy thus finds himself investigating a complex murder case while having to rely on the most unreliable sort of assistance, in the full knowledge that when he finally gets an answer – assuming he ever does, and isn’t himself killed en route – he isn’t even sure that he’ll dare pass it on to the city’s higher powers …

Long before I got to the end of Bloody January, which from the outset is a vivid recreation of Glasgow in the grimiest days of the early 1970s, lots of comparisons were rattling around inside my head. I thought about stark TV plays of that era, like Peter McDougall’s Just Another Saturday, which focussed on sectarian tensions in the city. I thought about John McKenzie’s seminal A Sense of Freedom, adapted from the biography of East Glasgow gangster Jimmy Boyle. I even thought about Ted Lewis’s remarkable evocation of the post-60s gangland culture in Northern England that was Jack’s Return Home (i.e. Get Carter).

Alan Parks’s Bloody January bears comparison to all these tasty slices of period Brit-grit, not least because it near-perfectly evokes a time when the hopes and fears of the 1960s had leaked away, leaving a residue of drugs and despondency, and a pile of worn-out cityscapes where poverty and unemployment were rife. But also because it depicts a fledgling organised crime scene, wherein yesterday’s nobodies have suddenly become today’s kingpins and yet still only have a few men to call their own, whose product is sparse and poor quality, who rarely even handle firearms let alone possess the stockpile that you’d expect today, and yet who, through the forbidden fruit they can offer, still court the interest of the metropolitan elite, not just corrupt politicians, but entertainers, TV personalities and journalists as well (opinion-leaders who, in their turn, can ensure that understaffed, underpaid and generally under-motivated police forces will largely be ineffective against them).   

In all these things, Alan Parks is right on the money with Bloody January.

Be under no illusion, you are there … in that exact place, in that warts-and-all timezone. Those who experienced the era for real won’t be entirely thankful. The 1970s seemed great to me, but then I was only a teenager and didn’t appreciate just how much a rough-and-ready British society was unprotected from itself. Those who weren’t there meanwhile, will be jolted – because it really was another planet.

Okay, it’s Glasgow. And in fact, it’s not just Glasgow, it’s the worst parts of town – the Gorbals et al – districts which back then were near enough no-go zones for everyone but the razor gangs who controlled them (perhaps not surprisingly, this is one of the first crime novels I’ve read in a long time when I felt genuine relief that it was Harry McCoy doing the investigating and not me). These are neighbourhoods where you have to watch your back at all times, where the underworld – though it aspires to be Al Capone – is still largely cooped up in soulless pubs and austere tenements, and makes up for its lack of wealth and jazz with extreme violence. (And yes, that’s all here too, in graphic, bloodcurdling fashion – you have been warned).

But what did I think of the actual book?

Well, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have one or two minor reservations.

As an ex-copper – and I worked a rough part of inner Manchester – I knew plenty men who would struggle to cope with the job these days, who drank hard and were less than gentle in their dealings with both suspects and the general public. But I knew none who were junkies.

I could be wrong here, but it seems to be the curse of many modern authors that they attach 21st century civilian notions of drugs and drug-taking to police characters, and this especially jars for me when we are talking about coppers of former eras. Because as recently as the 1980s, when I served, while you might have had many poisons of your own, to take the poison of those scumbags laying waste to the same working-class communities you yourself grew up in would have been well nigh unthinkable. I know few other criminal trades so reviled by police officers as drug-dealing; at least, that used to be the case. So, I have my doubts about that aspect of Harry McCoy’s character (though as I say, I can’t boast an all-encompassing knowledge on this).

I’m equally unsure about McCoy’s relationship with hard-man Stevie Cooper. Though, as fellow Catholics, it’s entirely plausible that they came up through the same school of sectarian hard knocks together, it deflated me a little to see McCoy, a hard-nosed detective, so weak in comparison to his hoodlum ‘brother from another mother’. But that doesn’t spoil things too much, if I’m honest. And I can’t deny that it adds an intriguing twist to the plot, which, as I say, interweaves with all the most satisfying tabloid type shenanigans of that era, pop stars and landed gentry hobnobbing with mobsters and hookers (even David Bowie makes an appearance at one point, a great moment in the book, even if the star doesn’t really seem to know where he is – which, given that this was 1973, is probably fairly accurate).

And yet, while we dip in and out of this pseudo glitz and glamour, we see the downside too. Alan Parks is no apologist for inner city villainy. While, in the time-honoured fashion of tartan noir, he looks beyond the evil facades of his criminals (Jean ‘Madame Polo’ Baird, for example, is a whorehouse madame but also a highly complex character), examining the origins of such behaviour and giving us a hero in McCoy who, on occasion, seems to have more in common with the underclass than the ‘polis’, he doesn’t stint in showing us the full fall-out of organised crime – and this makes for some distinctly uncomfortable reading. You don’t join heroin whores in their freezing, bombed-out flats without feeling the hopelessness of their lives and a deep fury at those who have caused it. You don’t experience the utter brutality doled out to everyone and anyone who doesn’t get with the programme without hating and fearing those responsible.

Apparently, Bloody January is Alan Parks’ first published novel. Well, if that’s truly the case, he’s already found his voice, hitting us with a slick, stripped-down narrative, which doesn’t waste a word on extraneous detail and yet still manage to capture the essence of every person and place it introduces us to, and invokes a wonderfully brooding atmosphere. It also hits the mark in its portrayal of the cops. Okay, there might be a degree of exaggeration here, with so many of Glasgow’s class of ’73 depicted as bent, inept or simply uninterested – they may have been a rough lot back, but folk should remember that they were doing a dangerous, thankless job at a very difficult time – but Parks nicely captures the interplay between them, which is endlessly profane, irreverent and amusing and fits right in with the tone of the book.

I can only hope that as Parks presses on with his career, he sticks somewhere close to this fast, gritty style. Take that and the enthralling narrative, and I whipped through Bloody January’s 300 pages as if they weren’t even there. I’m pretty confident that other crime fans will too. If you’re a student of the genre, and you haven’t had a piece of Alan Parks yet, time to rectify that.

And now, as always, I’m going to stick my neck out and to cast Bloody January’s key roles in the hope that it’ll some day soon hit our TV or cinema screens. Just for laughs, of course; as if anyone who matters would listen to my views. But anyway, here we go:

Harry McCoy – Richard Madden
Wattie – Kevin Guthrie
Murray – Robert Carlyle
Jean Baird – Julie Graham
Stevie Cooper – Sam Heughen
Jimmy Gibbs – Kevin McKidd
Lord Dunlop – Mark Strong
Cowie – Craig Ferguson

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