Thursday, 31 January 2019

When crime thrillers push it to the limit

Today, I’m going to be talking about the darkness at the heart of the atypically violent or hard-edged crime novel, always assuming there is darkness at the heart of it – which is a question we’ll need to answer if we can.

On a not dissimilar subject, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Dale Brendan Hyde’s grisly and disturbing debut novel, THE INK RUN. It was only published in 2018 and it’s already attained cult popularity, but good grief, it’s a tough read at times – you’ll need the strongest stomach possible.

If you’re only here for the Dale Brendan Hyde review, you’ll find it as usual at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Don’t hesitate to get straight on down there (and when you’ve finished, let me know what you think – it is a discussion as well as a review, after all).

Before any of that, though, check out the picture topside.

EXIT WOUNDS is an anthology of new crime writing from Titan Books, edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan, which I’m very proud to be part of. My short story, The New Lad, will be gracing its pages. But if that’s not sufficient reason to buy it, look at some of the other (real) heavyweights involved: Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, Dean Koontz, Val McDermid, John Connolly, Joe R Lansdale …

You can’t go far wrong there, I’m sure you’ll agree.

EXIT WOUNDS is published on May 21 this year but is already available for pre-order. (In fact, don’t let reading this blog delay you – buy it NOW; you know you won’t regret it).

Dark at heart

My new novel, STOLEN, which is also my last novel for Avon Books, is published on May 16. It’s a third outing for DC Lucy Clayburn, and along with the usual grotty urban world through which our tired police heroine must make her way, it deals with several especially grim subjects: animal cruelty – to a hideous degree; ultra-violent attacks on the homeless; and the mysterious abduction of several OAPs.

I think that when writing this book, probably more than any other, I became acutely aware how thin the line is between what must be deemed a necessary portrayal of human barbarism and the infliction on readers of self-indulgent gore so graphic that it verges on titillation.

Now, I’ve been censored before – by my own editors, before anyone asks. They dug their heels in with DEAD MAN WALKING, when a scene which originally depicted a decapitation by garden shears was replaced by a simple throat-cutting. Likewise, there was some concern about an attempted rape in SACRIFICE, and some of the choice, non-PC language used by seasoned police officers in my most recent Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH. In both the latter cases, after due consideration, and some minor trimming, the original passages were allowed to stand because a decision was reached that they weren’t OTT, but were simple representations of real life, albeit real life on the seedy and sordid side.

With all that in mind, it’s surprising that some things I’ve written were not questioned. A full bodily impalement (lengthways) in SACRIFICE, for example. Heck’s beating and framing of a known hoodlum to gain information in ASHES TO ASHES. Or the so-called ‘Stranger’ in DEAD MAN WALKING, a serial killer whose victims suffered attacks to the eyes with sharpened pencils. Book editors are all different, of course, each one having his or her own limit of permissibility.

But needless to say, with the three areas I’ve mentioned with regard to the latest Lucy Clayburn book, STOLEN, there have been a few tense exchanges of views. In the end I have made some cuts, but on the whole the admittedly horrific subject-matter remains intact. I guess I successfully tabled the argument that the grimness of the situation needed to be addressed fully. I particularly wanted to show, and indeed I have always sought to show, just how onerous the average police officer’s day-to-day experiences can be.

As a psychologist friend once said to me: ‘The coppers I deal with are often as traumatised as war veterans. They don’t just deal constantly with death, cruelty and danger, but every time they go to work, they meet numerous people for whom it is the very worst day of their lives. That has a massive impact on them after a while.’

Another friend once said to me (though this was many years ago): ‘I wish you’d never become a police officer. It’s made you all hard and horrible.’

Well, there you have it … the cause and the symptom.

As such, it would feel very disingenuous of me to write my cop novels now and not be true to the reality of the police experience (and presumably the experience of those others involved in that world, the offenders too). If there is a darkness at the heart of crime fiction – successful crime fiction, at least – perhaps it’s that unedifying truth.

Maybe that’s why the horror genre has suffered more when it comes to censorship than the thriller genre. Because ultimately, it’s seen as fantasy and so is not taken as seriously. 

In the age of the video nasties, with a wide range of horror material like The Burning, SS Experiment Camp and Cannibal Holocaust (much of it crass, exploitative and embarrassingly low-budget, though the official list also included movies now regarded as horror classics, like The Exorcist, Suspiria and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) forcibly removed from the shelves, other uncompromisingly gritty, adult-themed movies, for the most part urban thrillers – Taxi Driver, for example, Death Wish, Get Carter and Prime Cut – were immediately hailed as the all-time-greats we regard them as today. Primarily, I again suspect that’s because the thriller medium is seen as portraying a form of truth.

But it’s not simple by any stretch of the imagination. The Dirty Harry movies, hardcase crime thrillers of the old school, were seen as divisive and even accused of being ‘fascist’ at the time of their release, while, if memory serves, Straw Dogs – the original version–  was also banned in the UK.

All this shows is that there has long been heated debate about violence on film, and even violence within books. Both the original novel Frankenstein, published in 1818, and the 1931 movie starring Boris Karloff, caused outrage in certain quarters. It goes on just as heatedly today. Quentin Tarantino can’t release anything without it attracting controversy for its inevitable gruesomeness (and that’s even though Tarantino increasingly leans towards the comic-strip). In the world of literature, there are demands that violence against women in particular be toned down; earlier this year, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard about something like this, the Staunch Prize was offered to authors of novels in the thriller genre ‘in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’ (though in the age of the #MeToo movement, this may be a slightly separate issue).

So, as a writer of crime thrillers (and horror, from time to time) where do I stand on banning and censoring and excessive editing?

It’s difficult to be sure, because there are no easy solutions.

I know my books are dark, and I make no apologies for that. Maybe I can comfort myself with the notion that when I write hardcore crime, I’m only telling the truth about the way things are. But I’m also aware that it’s a truth not everyone wants to hear. The counter-argument to that might be that if they don’t want to hear it, they don’t have to buy the book. And yet in the same breath I must admit that I want as many people as possible to buy the book.

What a conundrum.

I don’t know what the answer is. Ultimately, as a writer, you’ve just got to say things as you see them. I can’t write cop stuff that isn’t down, dirty, violent and frank. Because that was my experience doing the job. I can’t talk about psychopaths without highlighting the destruction they cause, though I think (or hope) that I can do it in a non-salacious way.

It’s interesting, though, isn’t it? The above paragraph alone suggests that I’m probably thinking about it more now than I ever used to. Is that the wisdom of age kicking in, or has the disapproval of editors who’ve occasionally had to rein me in finally left its mark?

Seriously, who knows?


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.

by Dale Brendan Hyde (2018)

Schoolboy, Otiss, lives a life that is beyond ghastly, trapped in a sordid existence of inner-city squalor and non-stop parental violence. You may think you know about this kind of thing, and that you’ve heard it all before – but if you want my honest opinion, I sincerely doubt it.

Because the story of Otiss Kites takes it way past anything that you’d imagine an ordinary human being could survive. And I suppose one of the big questions from very early on in the novel is … will Otiss survive?

His main problem, from the outset, is not so much his impoverished life in a decayed corner of the post-industrial North in the uncaring 1970s (though that hardly helps), but his father, Stan, who is not just a drunk, a druggie and a bully, but an out-of-control psychopath and calculating sadist, whose pitiless cruelties verge on the utterly deranged.

For example, on one occasion, he makes his son wash up, having deliberately failed to mention that the dirty water in the sink is full of broken glass. On another, he insists on combing his boy’s hair with a cactus plant. On another, he uses the young un’s toothbrush to clean the toilet bowl (and doesn’t tell him, in the hope that he will brush his teeth afterwards). On yet another, he ties the youngster’s genitals tightly with thread, and then forces him to drink jug after jug of water, denying him any relief. And none of this is the worst of it.

But none of these horrors – which are all done casually and often on a whim (and are nearly always accompanied by roaring, mocking laughter) – can compare to the clever but heinous plan that Stan, not quite the unthinking, toothless brute we are initially led to believe, has really got cooking.

Before we move onto that, it’s essential to consider some of the other characters in young Otiss’s terrible life, not all of whom are total negatives.

For example, he isn’t entirely friendless. His pal, Johnny Sand, suspects that Otiss is being brutalized at home, but can’t really guess at the full extent of it, and at the end of the day can only offer a youthful shoulder to cry on and a few books for his long-suffering school-mate to read. Otiss also pays regular but secret visits to his ailing grandfather, a one-time bare-knuckle boxing champion known as Poleaxe Pedley, but again, the old man is limited in how much comfort he can provide. Despite that, these are about the closest experiences Otiss ever has of normal, caring human relationships. He also finds some solace in the construction of a crude raft and the many hours he spends floating on it in the middle of an abandoned mill-pond, slipping through dream-states as he yearns intensely for a better life. But ultimately none of this will protect him day-to-day.

Someone who maybe could, but doesn’t even try, is Tish, his weary, alcoholic mother.

While a key part of the misery he encounters hourly – mainly because she allows it to go on, but also because, though she doesn’t quite abuse her son the way his father does, she also neglects him (in one heart-rending scene stepping without comment over his beaten-up body while heading out to work) – Tish is more of a disappointment than anything else.

Otiss is certain that she’d be less callous and more concerned for him if his father wasn’t there, though I suspect this owes to wishful thinking rather than reality, because while it is Otiss suffering the brunt of the violence, Tish – who’s been thoroughly victimized herself in the past (and can only unburden herself of this by shrieking insanely at the door several minutes after Stan has gone out) – is simply glad that it’s not her, which implies a degree of selfishness that can probably never be reversed. (She also, on one occasion, turns her rings around when slapping Otiss, to cause maximum damage, even Stan moved to compliment her for using their son’s blood on her fingernails rather than polish ... so, some hope of this witch ever finding her maternal side!).

On the subject of Tish, we now come back to Stan’s real plan – and don’t worry, this isn’t a give-away because it happens relatively early in the narrative.

Stan regularly plays around with other women – pretty unimpressively on one occasion, when Otiss gets to spy on him – and, soon deciding that he can do without Tish in his life, opts to plot her demise, a decision fuelled by the desensitising effects of hulk weed, which the guy smokes increasingly regularly, despite it being a much stronger form of cannabis than the norm. An opportunity to finally start this ball rolling arises when Otiss, who, unsurprisingly, among various other mental aberrations, takes to sleep-walking. Stan frog-marches him to the doctor, adding the lie that the lad is showing increased aggression towards his mother. Otiss is bemused by this, but no more than that. Then, in a later incident, when Otiss mistakenly thinks that Stan has bitten Tish’s throat out, he urges a neighbor to call the police, only to find the whole thing a set-up designed to make him look like a liar and trouble-maker.

So, that’s now two authorities – the NHS and the cops – who are starting to earmark the youngster as a dangerous oddball.

Perhaps inevitably, not long after the neighbour who called the fuzz has mysteriously died (murdered by Stan for sure, Otiss decides), Tish also meets her end, thrown down the cellar stairs with such savagery that she breaks her neck. 

And it’s from this point in the book that Otiss’s life, which, if he thought it was bad before, now plunges dramatically downward, literally into Hades itself.

Found hiding in the attic (hiding from Stan, though the police don’t realise this), Otiss – who’s now a teen and therefore can carry the can – is arrested. Stan’s portrayal of a distraught and despairing spouse appalled by the behavior of his wayward son is Oscar-worthy, and completely wins over the investigating officers, who then use various brutish means to coerce Otiss into signing a confession that he murdered his mother, leaving little hope for him. As a countermeasure, his solicitor, Liberace ‘Liberty’ Kerty, work up a defence of ‘diminished responsibility on the grounds of automatism’ – in other words, Otiss did the foul deed while he was actually asleep – which the judge at the special hearing reluctantly accepts.

Otiss is thus ordered to be detained for a decade under the Mental Health Act, and dispatched to the Faberon institute, a place for the criminally insane that would grace any Batman movie. It all looks modern and professional on the outside, but Otiss quickly suspects this is a front, and he’s correct, because on the inside, he finds himself entombed in an even more abusive environment than his home, confined to an austere, dungeon-like cell, surrounded by maniacs – both patients and staff alike, it seems – and subjected to a trial programme of old-fashioned ‘cure-all’ methods.

These include beds with thick straps on them, heavy and constant medication, padded rooms, electro-shock therapy, and even injections behind the eyeballs.

Yet again, we wonder if it’s even remotely possible that Otiss can survive this ongoing cascade of horrific abuse for the next ten years. And if he does, what kind of adult will finally emerge when the hospital doors are slammed behind him. How will he get his jollies back in the ordinary world then, we wonder, and what in particular will all this mean for the one person whom Otiss has sworn to kill before all others, even though it’s someone who, deep down, he still fears greatly: his own dear ‘Da’, Stanley Kites? …

Lots of crime writers describe domestic abuse and the violence and torment suffered by the young and helpless without, in truth, having ever experienced it at first-hand. Dale Brendan Hyde, who by his own admission, had a troubled early life, may not have experienced it either – at least not to this extent (dear God, I hope he didn’t!). But he certainly writes as if he did. Be under no illusion, The Ink Run is savage stuff from beginning to end, one of the darkest – if not the darkest – novel that I’ve ever read.

At least part of that stems from the author’s unwillingness to hide anything. The reader is right there, on the spot, for near enough every minute of Otiss’s agony. Even the sexual torture is unstintingly displayed. It also stems from our awareness that suffering of this sort is all too real in our world, maybe even in the next street to the one where we live, the perpetrators often able to conceal it from prying eyes and to present a façade of decorum in its place, the rest of us helping this along by pretending that it isn’t going on (because, in truth, we can’t even stand to think about it).

In fact, façades – the pretense of cultured normality – are a big issue in The Ink Run.

Stan Kites, the main villain, despite belonging in a lunatic asylum himself, is able to keep on pretending that he’s innocent even when there is glaring evidence that he’s a degenerate, drug-addled bully. Lazy and incompetent police officers pretend that they’re doing their job even though some of them must at least suspect that Otiss is a victim and his father a wrong ’un. A prejudiced legal system pretends that it has a heart – though it doesn’t pretend very hard in the case of Judge Yama! – by sending the mentally unfit for care rather than punishment, even though unaware and uninterested in what that ‘care’ actually entails. The Faberon hospital pretends that it’s a respectable establishment, while behind its grim walls, medieval methods are employed to forcibly drive mad men sane.

Author Dale Brendan Hyde has other subtexts too. He seems to be almost indecently fascinated by the debasement of the human body and soul. But then that is the key to one of the big questions this book asks: what is the correct response to endless, systematic mistreatment? When you are so wronged, and even the state appears to be in on it (thereby offering no hope of justice!), is ‘morality’ a word that even has meaning anymore? Surely you are justified in retaliating violently yourself? Or are you? Doesn’t that make you as bad as them? Or does none of that bloody matter when it’s all about making something right, at least for you personally?

These are difficult questions for the reader to ponder, let alone answer, after protracted immersion in a narrative this grotesque. Many will opt for the easy and obvious response: do it to them before they do it to you. The cover of the book almost encourages this with its stark message:

You can’t escape your DNA

But that’s a little bit tricky in itself.

If it’s in your DNA, it’s inevitable, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what you think. Otiss will do as Stan did, because his genes are quite simply bad. Which means that violent criminality is more about nature than nurture.

Well, I’m not sure Dale Brendan Hyde believes that. Otherwise, I doubt he’d have written this novel. And indeed, though ultimately all semblance of happiness is finally snuffed out for Otiss – ironically, when he’s taken into ‘care’ – throughout his formative years there are rays of hope for him to cling to. The books that Johnny Sand gives him provide occasional enlightened insights into the human condition, which he can’t glean from his normal life. At the same time, his grandfather is the living memory of a very different kind of tough, working class male; a man of violence, yes, but also a man of honour, whose bare-knuckle exploits were conducted in chivalrous fashion. That better life Otiss dreamed about on his raft was out there; he just couldn’t reach it.

So, while The Ink Run is very violent and gruesome, at times almost to a point where you need to put the book down, it has serious, meaningful depths. Be under no illusion. This is not some just some slice of lascivious goreography.

It’s also an amazing read purely because of the sheer quality of the writing.

It’s a big tome, clocking in at nearly 400 pages, and densely written, but it comes at you rapid-fire. And it’s a compelling story, a real page-turner.

I initially had some reservations when I saw that it was written in a kind of vernacular, and littered with purposeful misspellings and grammatical errors, even though I understood that this was to convey young Otiss’s only semi-educated state. But as the narrative gripped me, and that happened very quickly indeed because it thumps along at pace, none of this came to matter anymore.

Dale Brendan Hyde is a talented wordsmith, who has worked tirelessly at his craft. He writes near-hallucinogenic prose, darkly and dingily poetic, and highly visual. He also packs this debut novel of his with harsh detail gleaned from his own background, his days as a young hoodlum and the jail time he served, enriching the whole novel with an air of authenticity that other crime writers can only dream about.

It’s all the more remarkable an achievement, of course, because of that difficult start in life. It doesn’t surprise me that Hyde has given interviews in which he pays tribute to authors like Jimmy Boyle (A Sense of Freedom) and Noel ‘Razor’ Smith (A Rusty Gun), who turned their backs on lives of crime by opting to write instead, citing them as a huge influence on his personal reformation.

He certainly does those guys proud with The Ink Run. It’s a challenging book, make no mistake, and you’ll need to tough it out – at times you’ll think you’re reading horror rather than crime. But again, this is what it’s meant to be. It’s a slap in the face, it’s been purposely written to knock us all out of our comfort and complacency. It deals with real, serious issues. And for that reason alone, it needs to be read widely. But if you take the chance, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. This is an astonishing debut.

At the end of these book reviews, I often like to indulge myself in a bit of fantasy casting, imagining that the book is being adapted for film and TV and nominating those stars who I think would make it live and breathe on screen. I’m not going to do that here for the simple reason that known names would get in the way. If done properly, The Ink Run would be as tough, gritty and unforgiving a piece of cinema as anyone has ever seen, and I suspect that only a cast of unknowns could make that happen effectively (look at Ken Loach’s movies, if you want the living proof). Even so, I hope it gets made at some point. And if it doesn’t hold back, the way Dale Brendan Hyde refuses to hold back on the written page, it would be a major event indeed.    


  1. A great review, Paul. I read The Ink Run a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it despite its dark and sometimes gruesome content. There are shades of Brendan Behan and James Joyce in Brendan Hyde's almost poetic prose. It's a long book but I read it in a couple of days as I was unable to put it down. It's a novel that stays with you long after you've finished reading. I'd highly recommend it.

  2. Thanks for that comment, Valerie. I completely agree.

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