Monday, 8 October 2018

Catch yourself a bunch of killers - for 99p


We’re talking evil killers this week (for a change, I hear you all say). 

But no, seriously … today’s blog is going to focus on heinous murderers and their gruesome deeds. That’s partly because it’s the main theme of the latest Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH, which I have some news about that you may not want to miss. Its also because, name by name, I’ll be bringing you details of the very worst offenders on the actual ‘Most Wanted’ list that features in the new novel. And lastly, it’s because I’ll also be offering a detailed review and discussion of Chris Petit’s brutal and disturbing wartime crime thriller (which is also packed with fiendish killers), THE BUTCHERS OF BERLIN.

If your main interest is the Chris Petit review, don’t worry about it – you’ll find it, as usual, at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Just hasten on down there and get stuck in. If you’re also interested in the Heck news though, then stick around for a bit.

Get it cheap

The first and most important thing to say today is that KISS OF DEATH has done very nicely indeed since its launch in August. As I write these words, it resides in the Top 50 on the Kindle paid-for chart (is No. 1 in ‘Vigilante Justice’ - I know, I didn’t think any such thing existed either), and can boast a 5-star strike rate of 86% thus far. That means I’ve got an awful lot of satisfied customers already, which I’m very grateful for. But of course, I’m even more grateful for those of you who’ve bought the book, even if you haven’t yet reviewed it. For those of you still considering, be advised that it’s now available on Kindle for 99p, and will remain so until the end of this month (October, 2018).

So, if you weren’t sure before, maybe that’ll tip the balance. Get it while it’s cheap.

Worst of the worst

One of the key plot-lines in KISS OF DEATH, meanwhile, is the development of ‘Operation Sledgehammer’, which concerns the creation of a British ‘Most Wanted’ list, comprising the 20 most dangerous British criminals still on the loose and believed to be dwelling somewhere in the UK. The team of which DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is an integral part, the Serial Crimes Unit, who are basically facing the axe thanks to rampant police cuts, are charged with bringing every name on that list to justice in as short a time as possible.

It’s a work of fiction, of course, so this involved me having to come up with my own list of deadly felons. That isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds, but I won’t pretend that it wasn’t a lot of fun doing it - in a strange, dark and twisted kind of way.

Here, for want of a better term, are the ‘stars’ of that list, the sort of individuals who even Heck and all his cronies would be stiffly challenged by. And remember, in KISS OF DEATH, they have to collar ALL of them - no excuses - or it could be their jobs:

Eddie Creeley: A Humberside underworld enforcer who diversified into armed robbery, and
proceeded to hit a number of banks and security vans. In all cases, Creeley’s crimes were noteworthy for the extreme violence he used against bank staff, witnesses etc. In one case, the wife of a bank manager was held hostage and injected with battery acid, which inevitably killed her, while two security guards were beaten and injected with drain cleaner, one dying, the other suffering severe brain damage.

Leonard Spate: A part-time taxi driver in Workington, who raped and beat a woman to death after picking her up at a local nightclub. Arrested on suspicion, he escaped from custody before he could be charged, violently beating a young policewoman in the process. He later raped and strangled a prostitute, after holding her hostage in her own home, and then burned down the house afterwards, which also claimed the lives of her two children, who were sleeping there at the time.

Terry Godley: A lifelong violent criminal, who, while serving time for earlier offences, was classified ‘one of the most dangerous individuals in the UK prison system’. Godley hadn’t been out of jail long when he carried out an armed car-jacking in Nottingham. There were two teenage boys in the vehicle at the time. Both were later found dead, having been made to kneel before being shot through the back of the head, execution style.

Henry Alfonso: Otherwise known as ‘the Creeper’, Alfonso was a prolific burglar from Canning Town, London, who always went about his business wearing a ski-mask and carrying a butcher’s knife. Though he often stole, his main purpose was to commit rape. Targeting student premises and women living alone, all of which he had noted and watched carefully beforehand, he was active for several years before he was identified, hitting as many as 50 targets, maybe many more. 

Patrick Hallahan: A bodybuilder turned heroin addict, whose craving for smack led him into ever more violent crimes, which he often carried out in a semi-crazed state. Such was his condition, when, armed with a pistol and a shotgun, he held up a McDonald’s restaurant in Slough. It was a weekend lunchtime, so the diner was crowded with families. Fearing for their children, two men tackled him. Hallahan responded by shooting and killing both, and then killing a member of staff before fleeing. 

Christopher Brenner: The self-titled ‘Priest of Pain’, Brenner - a former soldier and nurse - was, by his own admission, a sado-masochist, who several times was reported to the police for assaulting and brutalising sex-workers. He eventually went on the run when a severely emaciated woman escaped from the cellar of his Luton house. Responding police found two others chained down there. All had been repeatedly raped, tortured and starved to the point of near-death.

John Stroud: A one-time runner for the Birmingham mob, who later turned enforcer, Stroud was sentenced to 15 years for his part in the botched assassination of a crusading newspaper reporter, but released after serving just over half of his sentence. No longer wanted by his former firm, he took it out on the two uniformed police officers who’d originally arrested him, ambushing them in their patrol car after calling in a fake accident, and shooting both of them dead.

Malcolm Kaye: The only real serial killer on the list, Kaye was already a prolific sex offender when he was charged with strangling four prostitutes in Liverpool, having struck all of them with a hammer first, and attempting to murder a fifth by battering her with a pipe. Suspected of an earlier attack in which a Liverpool housewife was strangled in her own home, he was being escorted from prison to a police station for further interview, when he escaped from custody and went on the run.

A motley crew, to be sure. Maybe too much even for Heck to bite off and chew. You think so? Well, sorry to be boring, but there’s only one way you’re going to find out. As I said earlier, this is a good time to snaffle a copy of KISS OF DEATH. It’s only 99p on Kindle at the moment, but the deal will only last until the end of this month. 


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – 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 BUTCHERS OF BERLIN by Chris Petit (2016)

August Schlegel is a young detective with the Berlin Criminal Police. But this is no ordinary time to be a copper. It’s 1943, and the tide of the war is turning against Nazi Germany. The capital city is now regularly bombed, there is nothing but bad news from the front, and the government is virtually in hiding. The population meanwhile, attempts to lead as normal an existence as possible, but is hungry, weary and increasingly lawless.

Schlegel, himself, is a poor specimen of a police officer. Half English on his aristocratic mother’s side, he’s still a loyal German, but earlier in the war, rather foolishly, he was lured into joining the Einsatzkruppen, a mobile police battalion whose job was follow the army advancing into Russia, under the impression that he’d be rounding up partisans. Instead, he found himself participating in the firing squad massacres of civilians, mainly Jews. So horrendous did Schlegel find this work that he suffered a severe nervous breakdown, his hair turning white overnight. Sent home to recuperate, he was placed on ‘light duties’ in the form of attachment to a low-priority financial crimes unit.

Now, however, somewhat inexplicably, he is summoned by Homicide boss, Stoffel, to a murder/suicide. It’s a curious case, an elderly Jewish war-hero, Metzler, killing his building’s block warden by shooting, and then taking his own life. Stoffel explains that Schlegel has got the job simply because he was in the police station at the time, but that doesn’t explain why the case is being investigated at all. Metzler, the perpetrator, is dead already, and in any case, there are now daily round-ups, those few Jews remaining in Berlin being systematically deported to the east; why bother trying to prove that a Jew was responsible, because it won’t matter either way? Police Chief Nebe will shed no light on it and is vexed when questioned. Even more mysterious, is the arrival of the black-uniformed Eiko Morgen, a member of the SS judiciary, who declares that he’s now Schlegel’s partner in the investigation but declines to explain why or under whose authority.

No sooner has this unlikely duo embarked on their enquiry than further murders follow, both men and women slain, and these killings are infinitely more grotesque, the bodies found flayed, dismembered, and sometimes with money stuffed into their orifices. The convoluted enquiry, which is much distracted by daily events in a near-anarchic city where everyone is corrupt and no-one trustworthy, eventually leads to a hideous old slaughterhouse, where an oddball collection of workers is quick to blame the crimes on a gang of Jewish butchers, who were seeking to sew discord in the city but who now can’t be traced as they’ve all been deported. At the same time, just in case this dead-end doesn’t put paid to the enquiry, Stoffel pulls in a half-witted criminal who is willing to plead guilty to all the crimes, and many more, on the condition that he’ll be sent to a hospital rather than the guillotine.

Morgen, for one, is unconvinced, certain that the suspect is too dim to have carried out so many killings successfully and feeling that he’s been framed for the sake of convenience. When more murders follow, Nebe’s solution is simply to cover them up, Morgen and Schlegel feeling more like undertakers than detectives, but nevertheless continuing to investigate, their suspicions crystallising around a possible smuggling/counterfeiting ring and leading them back, almost inevitably, to that dingy slaughterhouse.

While all this is going on, in a parallel thread, we follow the fortunes of two young German women. Lore and Sybil are not just Jews, but lesbian lovers, which also makes them persona non grata in the eyes of the Nazis. If that isn’t enough, Sybil is a witness to the Metzler shooting, but daren’t come forward because she’s only surviving in Berlin by the skin of her teeth as it is. The duo moves about continually, just below the notice of the authorities, but are in danger all the time and suffer constant harassment and abuse. In due course, they are separated, and Sybil finds herself at the mercy of ruthless Gestapo chief, Gersten, who adds her to his cadre of so-called ‘catchers’, a group of alluring Jewish women – headed up by the ultra cold-hearted Stella Kübler, (‘Blonde Poison’ as her paymasters call her, and as they called her in real-life, because she was an actual person!), who are allowed to live in comfort and safety so long as they inform on their own people.

In a world where only the callous and vicious seem to prosper, Gersten is one of the worst people Sybil has ever met. But she isn’t alone in that assessment. Gersten’s name increasingly crops up in Schlegel and Morgen’s enquiry, neither of the investigators liking him, though both are wary of the power he wields.

Meanwhile, the murder victims pile up, the bombs continue to fall, and all around them the madness of a declining, collapsing society rages on. The mystery deepens steadily, Schlegel increasingly convinced that whatever conspiracy lies at the heart of it will only be exposed under the costliest circumstances. And at this stage, he doesn’t know the half of it …  

The first thing that struck me about The Butchers of Berlin was how harrowing (and presumably how realistic) a portrayal it is of a city teetering on the edge of damnation.

It’s the very height of World War II, but the war itself seems a long way away; German troops are fighting, but still on distant battlefields, there are only two bombing raids (though both are colossally destructive), and there is little discussion about military tactics or the fortunes of the nation, other than a resigned acknowledgement that the armies of National Socialism are finally in retreat. But the consequences of Hitler’s insane policies have bent a once cultured German society out of all shape and recognition. Little has been done to improve the city’s industrial infrastructure since the cash-strapped days of the Weimer Republic (and the bombing has flattened much of that – so, queue some very neat evocation of German cinematic expressionism by Chris Petit, who is also a renowned film-maker!). Wounded and deranged men lurk everywhere. Rationing and shortages have cut deeply into the heart of normal life. Most folk are impoverished, the black market is flourishing, crime rates have soared, and there is violence and rowdiness on the rubble-strewn streets – not everyone, it seems, is cowed by the Nazis. Meanwhile, everyday morality has virtually disappeared. The criminal police are incompetent, uninterested and most of the time drunk. There is widespread prostitution and depravity, racketeering and dishonesty are commonplace, the all-licensed Hitler Youth are running wild (behaving in lunatic and degenerate fashion), and when someone disappears it is simply accepted that they’ve been ‘sent to a camp’, with no-one especially concerned about where or why.

And then of course, there are the pogroms.

Those few remaining Jews who don’t wish to be rounded up and deported indulge in all kinds of chicanery, bribery, concealment and impersonation to remain at liberty, and even then, must tough it out in ways that only a few years earlier they’d have found intolerable. This is nowhere better exemplified than in the traumatised characters of Sybil and Lore, who have come to accept rape and blackmail as a daily occurrence and are more than willing to participate in pornography so long as it buys them a meal. Respectability as a concept no longer has meaning. Instead, survival is all. Even the upper class, as represented by Schlegel’s mother and her friends are faking it, partying, gossiping and affecting a façade of mischievous superiority, while at the same time, lying, cheating and playing constant games of one-upmanship simply to maintain a semblance of the lifestyle they once knew.

Berlin in 1943 is truly a city of ruins. A socio-political Hellscape where the population live like rats in anticipation of the approaching Apocalypse.

Against this Dantean backdrop, August Schlegel is almost an incidental character, partly because Chris Petit consciously imbues him with few redeeming features. He’s not an evil man – that’s about the best you can say for him, but he’s weak and tired and torn by his conscience. He’s also, for much of the narrative, a passenger, confused by the unfolding mystery as he travels on the coat-tails of Eiko Morgen, who is probably the first SS character I’ve encountered in fiction to elicit some degree of sympathy, though this isn’t easily won.

Morgen initially appears as a sinister hardcase, both intellectually and physically; he’s secretive, he’s cold, he’s far from friendly, and though he becomes an ally of Schlegel’s, he never really amounts to more than that – he’s certainly not what you’d call a companion. But it’s often a relief to see him, because whenever Morgen is present, the forces of darkness gathering around our main hero appear to retreat a little. Even so, because we never really know who Morgen works for – it could be Heinrich Himmler himself! – we’re never sure that Schegel should fully trust him, even though we’re glad he’s there.

But this is par for the course in a book where almost everyone is flawed, or at least compromised. We already know about Schlegel’s history as an Einsatzkommando, which, even though he was fooled into it and even though he is tortured by regret, is a ghastly blot on his soul. At least Schlegel has a conscience, though. In contrast, fellow cops Nebe and Stoffel are pathetic examples of public servants who after years of genuine service have now opted for the easier course, towing the party line, subverting the law, framing the innocent, and passing the buck at every opportunity. Even the Jews themselves display vengeful and villainous traits, Metzler shooting one of his persecutors through the eye, Stella Kübler, the senior Jew-catcher, much more then just a femme fatale, a literal black widow who revels in her status as a sexually empowered predator.

Then we have the actual villains, of course, such as Gersten and his lackeys, who are every bit as evil as you’d expect. The Gestapo chief epitomises that weird contradiction of Nazi Germany, wherein apparently civilised but in fact deeply maladjusted individuals used newly acquired power, which they’d never really earned, to pretend they were still pillars of their community while at the same time behaving like raving, demented beasts.

By comparison, heroines Lore and Sybil are almost impossibly innocent, the former tragically overconfident that they will somehow make it through this maelstrom, the latter more easily frightened and thus more circumspect about their chances. I don’t want to say too much more about the female leads, because that would give away an unconscionable amount of story-line. Suffice to say that, despite Schlegel’s best efforts, they are torn from pillar to post, and that much of the terror and suspense, which ramps up dramatically in the second half of the book, comes at the expense of Sybil in particular, whose attempts to preserve her own life are increasingly desperate and miserable.

It’s a grim fact of The Butchers of Berlin that the brualisation of human beings, both in mind and body, is never stinted on – and that doesn’t just end with the mutilation victims.

Not everyone has taken to this, some reviewers commenting that it isn’t so much a wartime thriller as a horror novel, others calling it insensitive to the real atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. My response to this would be that if you’re writing seriously about this time and place, then sugar-coating any aspect of it would be doing a disservice to history. If you don’t think it should be written about at all, that’s a different argument, but we’ve seen action-adventures set during wartime, as well as serious dramas, we’ve seen romances, comedies, musicals – is it really so outrageous to set a murder-mystery in the same milieu? And if it is, does that mean we shouldn’t set fiction and/or drama in Northern Ireland during the Troubles or in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, or even during the plague years of the Middle Ages. All these disasters are part of real human experience which we can’t simply ignore, so the argument doesn’t hold water for me.

Whatever your view on that, I thoroughly enjoyed The Butchers of Berlin, and have no hesitation recommending it to all crime and thriller fans (and yes, probably to horror fans too). It’s about as dark a novel as I’ve ever read. But it’s not just a gore-fest. It’s wonderfully written, very tense and very compelling. It’s also an intellectual exercise. It’ll demand a lot of you if you’re going to fathom the mystery out, so you’ve got to pay attention to every detail, no matter how apparently minor. Do that, though, and you’ll be very amply rewarded – so long as you’ve got the belly for it.

I’ve no idea whether The Butchers of Berlin is under any kind of film of TV option, but as usual on this blog, I’m now going to have a bit of fun by recommending the cast I would appoint should any such wondrous adaptation come about.

Schlegel – Bill Moseley
Morgen – Jared Harris
Sybil – Nina Dobrev
Gersten – Andrew Scott
Nebe – Philip Jackson
Stoffel – Craig Faribrass
Stella Kübler – Carice Van Houten
Heinrich Himmler – Tim Roth
Joseph Goebbels – Danny Webb

2 comments:

  1. Hi Paul, just finished reading Kiss Of Death,really enjoyed it a lot.What an ending,the best climax of all the novels I've read this year.

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    1. Thanks very much. Always glad to be of service.

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