Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Price slice! Bargain deals on killer thrillers


A ‘get em cheap while you can’ blog this week. Basically, I’m just letting everyone know about some pretty good deals currently available online if youre interested in acquiring any crime titles from my back-catalogue.

For those not in the know, they are old-school Brit Grit; cops hunting killers in the grimmest of circumstances in all corners of the modern-day UK.

At the same time, while we’re on the subject of Brit Grit, I’ll be reviewing and discussing MW Craven’s amazing novel, THE PUPPET SHOW, which is as British and as gritty as they come. If you’re only here for the Mike Craven review, that’s fine; you’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Feel no shame in speeding on down there straight away.

However, if you’re interested in the other stuff too, then stick around for a few minutes and I’ll fill you in on the details.

Bargains … bargains … bargains …

Both my current cop series, the Mark Heckenburg novels and the Lucy Clayburn novels, are currently benefitting from some competitive pricing on Amazon; at least, the ebooks are.

So, if you want to know what all the fuss is about, and you enjoy reading ebooks, now might be the time to take a chance on them. But a quick round-up first.

MARK HECKENBURG

My Mark Heckenburg books follow the investigations of a detective sergeant in the National Crime Group’s elite Serial Crimes Unit. Heck is specialist homicide investigator with a dogged attitude to work, but he is beset by continuing personal problems. He lives virtually in exile from his family due to his having joined the police shortly after his older brother, Tom, was framed by bent coppers for a series of crimes that he didn’t commit (as a result of which, Tom took his own life while he was in prison). Heck also has a ‘fire and water’ relationship with his departmental boss, Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper, firstly because they don’t see eye-to-eye on procedural matters, but mainly because, earlier in their careers, they were boyfriend and girlfriend. They’ve never shaken off the affection they hold for each other or the sexual chemistry between them, and in the kind of hardcore, front-line police investigations that SCU get involved with, that isn’t a good thing. You can presumably imagine the emotional chaos that result.

I’ll list the books now, in chronological order. As I say, the prices are all very reasonable at present, quite a few of them available in ebook form for only 99p.

STALKERS (ebook 99p)

DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is convinced that a sinister reason lies behind the disappearances of 38 women. Gemma Piper and other supervistory staff are less convinced, arguing that adults are allowed to drop out of sight if they wish to. But there is a common victimology here: all of these women were successful and independent, and distinctly not the sort to simply abandon their families and their careers.

Heck’s persistant enquiry soon leads him into the murky underworld of organised crime. It’s not unfamiliar territory to him, but even Heck is shocked when he hears about a mysterious, semi-mythical syndicate called the Nice Guys’ Club, who serve a purpose that is beyond anything he has ecountered to date …

SACRIFICE (ebook £2.99)

The Serial Crimes Unit is unleashed in full force when a ‘calendar killer’ begins to claim random victims. The so-called Desecrator is the worst kind of predator (or more likely, group of predators). Faceless and nameless and, initially at least, motiveless, he/they prowl the length of the country, abducting targets of convenience and, on special days of the year – Christmas Day, Good Friday, St George’s Day etc – sacrificing them in horrific but apparently meaningless rituals.

Heck is only one part of the team despatched to apprehend the maniacs, but he is the first one to deduce that these slayings, gruesome though they are, are only the build-up to something infinitely more terrible …

THE KILLING CLUB 
(ebook £1.99)

Heck is used to attending crime scenes that are bloodbaths, but this new case is something else. Two years ago, dozens of victims were claimed in a series of ghastly abduction murders, massacred by the so-called Nice Guys’ Club, Britain’s most terrifying gang. Now, it seems, the survivors of the gang are back and hellbent on slaughtering anyone they consider a potential danger to their organisation.

The case is thus reopened, and Heck is spoiling to get involved so that he can properly finish the job he started last time. However, for various reasons, Gemma Piper, doesn’t want him anywhere near this enquiry. There is too much bad blood involved, and it has to be dealt with professionally. Heck can’t agree. He is desperate to get to grips with the Nice Guys again, even if it means going AWOL …

DEAD MAN WALKING 
(ebook £1.99)

After a spectacular fall-out with his bosses, in particular Gemma Piper, over their handling of the last case, Heck sought reassignment away from the Serial Crimes Unit, and has been transferred to the Cumbria Police, where he now works as the sole detective in the beautiful but remote Langdale Pikes.

It’s pretty routine work until some teenage hikers go missing, all the evidence pointing to a killer whom UK law enforcement thought dead and buried long ago. The ‘Stranger’ was a whistling madman who used to accost young couples parked up in their cars, raping the women and then killing both them and their lovers. During an undercover sting, Gemma Piper, then a DC, served as an armed decoy and shot and badly wounded the assailant, who was swallowed in a Dartmoor mire as he attempted to flee.

This was years ago of course, and at the other end of the county. Could the killer really have reappeared now, and in the Lake District of all places? Gemma thinks it’s unlikely, but joins Heck in the Langdales to look into the case, just as the thickest, coldest fog of the winter descends.

HUNTED (ebook £1.99)

Readmitted into the Serial Crimes Unit, Heck is despatched to an affluent rural corner of Surrey, where, as a favour to Gemma Piper, he investigates the death of one of her mother’s business colleagues in a bizarre and unlikely accident. However, Heck soon becomes suspicious about the pattern of events surrounding the fatality.

Partnered with spiky local detective, Gail Honeyford, he uncovers a trail of unusual and outlandish fatal accidents that leads all over the south of England: a pair of thieves bitten to death by poisonous spiders, a driver impaled through the chest by a scaffolding tube, etc.

Could a calculating mind be behind these weird events? And if so, why? Surely to God, Heck is not investigating a series of elaborate, life-threatening pranks? 

ASHES TO ASHES (ebook 99p)

John Sagan is a forgettable man. You could pass him in the street and not realise he’s there. But then, that’s why he’s so dangerous.

A torturer-for-hire, Sagan has terrorised – and mutilated – countless victims. He’s also murdered a police officer. And now, with London too hot for him, he’s on the move. Heck must chase the trail, even when it leads him to his hometown of Bradburn, on the industrial outskirts of Manchester, a place that holds nothing but unhappy memories for him.

But John Sagan isn’t the only problem. Bradburn is currently embroiled in a drugs war, which has unleashed another killer on the community, a maniac who burns his victims to death with a flamethrower. When Heck arrives home, a place he never thought he’d set foot in again, it has quite literally become a fiery hellhole …

KISS OF DEATH (ebook 99p)

In a time of swingeing police cuts, Gemma Piper seeks to save her unit by charging them with bringing in 20 of the UK’s most wanted fugitives. Heck and Gail’s target, a notorious bank robber and kidnapper, takes them up to Humberside, but here they uncover a piece of footage which appears to depict their fugitive in a desperate fight for his life.

Heck realises that there’s another player in this game of cat and mouse, and that whoever it is, they’ve not just caught the prize this time, they’ve made sure that no one else ever will.

How far will Heck and his team go to protect some of the UK’s most brutal killers? And what price is he personally willing to pay?

LUCY CLAYBURN

Lucy is a divisional detective constable in the fictional Crowley district of inner Manchester, officially known as November Division. It’s a rough, tough beat, and Lucy, a blue-collar girl through and through, is constantly challenged – but not just by the villains, often by her colleaues as well. Her position is made even more difficult because, though she never knew him during her childhood, she has recently been reintroduced to her estranged biological father, Frank McCracken. He was only a doorman thirty years ago, when Lucy was first conceived, but he’s now advanced through the criminal ranks until he’s becomes a major player in the Crew, one of Northwest England’s premier syndicates. For mutual benefit, both father and daughter keep what they’ve learned about each other secret, but obviously their relationship has changed. Lucy, a good cop at heart, now finds herself walking a tightrope through the world of organised crime.

As with Heck, here is the full series in the correct order, and again, I think you’ll find that they are all pretty reasonably priced.

STRANGERS (ebook £1.99)

Though she’s now been a decade in the police, PC Lucy Clayburn is struggling to make a mark in her job. She dreams of being a detective, but four years earlier, on her first CID assignment, she made a castastrophic error and a fellow officer nearly died.

Now, however, a new chance comes up. An impressive opportunist arrest brings her to the attention of the no-nonsense Detective Superintendent Priya Nehwal, who is covertly investigating the unique case of a female sex predator, possibly a deranged prostitute who has been brutally murdering her male clients. Once the press get hold of the story, they nickname this bizarre killer: ‘Jill the Ripper’.

Lucy joins the investigation team, but in the first instance, must go undercover as working-girl herself, which takes her into a backstreet world of drugs, petty crime and casual sex and violence. It also leads her to SugarBabes, a secret brothel controlled by the Crew, an infamous Manchester firm, where just about anything is available for the right price …

SHADOWS (ebook £1.99)

Now re-established as a detective constable but struggling to deal with the private knowledge that her stranged father, Frank McCracken, is a senior lieutenant in the Crew, Lucy Clayburn still leads a difficult day-to-day existence.

However, very unexpectedly, a case then comes along that, for once, might put she and her father on the same side.

A spate of violent robberies, in which the victims are always shot in the legs afterwards, rocks the borough. It’s a complex case to investigate, even more so because those attacked are invariably members of the underworld. However, whether she likes it or not, Lucy now has a good contact in McCracken, and both have a vested interest in stopping this crimewave.

The problem is … they have very different methods.

STOLEN (ebook 99p)

No one in the higher echelons of Crowley CID believes in the existence of the so-called ‘black van’. Initially held to be an urban myth, the van has supposedly been seen prowling by night across various housing estates in Crowley, and always at a time when local pets have been abducted.

Even if this thing is real, the disappearances of cats and dogs is hardly a major issue for the police. When Lucy Clayburn, acting on a tip-off, cracks a local dog-fighting ring, she thinks she has solved the mystery. However, even on arresting the miscreants and searching their property, there is no sign of the black van or any of the pets reported missing.

Maybe this mysterious vehicle is nothing but a legend after all?

But then there are more abductions. And this time it isn’t animals. This time it is people, firstly the homeless, then OAPs, and finally – after all, the nameless abductors have now got in much valuable practise – the young and able-bodied. And each time, Lucy learns, a strange van has been seen in the vicinity.


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 liked … 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 PUPPET SHOW 
by MW Craven (2018)

England’s beautiful Lake District is not the sort of place where you’d expect a serial killer to start claiming victims. But when it does, given the small local police force and restricted road infrastructure in such a wild and mountainous part of the country, it’s a real nightmare.

The Immolation Man, as he has soon been dubbed, has embarked on a reign of terror, during which he kidnaps seemingly random victims (though all of them are older men), holds them prisoner for weeks in some out-of-reach place, and then brings them to their chosen place of execution – each time a different circle of standing stones on Cumbria’s wind-scoured hills – where he douses them with a cocktail of highly flammable chemicals, and burns them alive.

The last person who ever thought he’d be asked to participate in the resulting enquiry is Lake District native and ex-Black Watch squaddie, Washington Poe, even though he is currently living in embittered, self-imposed exile in a rundown farm on Shap, one of the higher, more remote Cumbrian fells. Until recently, Poe was a detective inspector in Scotland Yard’s National Crime Agency, and a highly regarded investigator whose rough and ready methods have often been overlooked because he gets results. However, even Poe can go too far sometimes, and he is currently suspended and basically disgraced after acting on principle in a previous investigation rather than following procedure, the pending outcome of which may see him discharged from the police force altogether.

Poe, furious with all his former colleagues, probably wouldn’t assist in the enquiry even if he was asked, but then the NCA’s Detective Insepctor Stephanie Flynn turns up and advises him that yet another victim has been found, and even though, like all the rest, this one is middle-aged and male, there is a big difference this time as a name was branded into his chest before he was burned – and that name is ‘Washington Poe’. 

Realising he has no option but to get involved, Poe accepts reinstatement into the NCA (even though not all of its top brass approve), and even takes a demotion in rank from DI to DS (though this latter is because Poe rarely works within the normal structures of high-level police investigations anyway, usually preferring to develop his own leads and run them down under his own steam).

Straight away, however, he finds himself up to his neck in unforseen complexity. To start with, this is no ordinary serial murder case. There is more than just cruelty and sadism on show; ritual elements are in evidence too, while the offender is highly organised and efficient. Given that the most recent victim was a local councillor, Michael James, there may even be a political dimension. It’s therefore quite a relief when he is partnered with NCA civilian intelligence analyst, Tilly Bradshaw, an expert computer programmer and online researcher, though whatever she possesses in intellect is balanced out by her astonishing naivety and distinct lack of people skills. In short, Bradshaw is something of an oddball and, as such, is shunned and/or mocked by her civie colleagues while other police officers, even the kinder ones, would rather not work with her.

However, thrown together in this whether they like it or not, and both of them outsiders to a greater or lesser extent, Poe and Bradshaw find that they are natural allies, and, mainly thanks to Poe’s perceptive approach when it comes to dealing with his curious new partner, they quickly form an effective if somewhat eccentric working relationship. And this, of course, can only be a good thing, because the Immolation Man is clearly not going to stop killing.

Needless to say, the deeper the twosome dig into the case, the more horrible revelations they uncover, the more extensive the apparent conspiracy at the root of it, and the closer and closer to home the enquiry seems to bring them …  

There are three main things that I really liked about The Puppet Show, I mean apart from it being an intriguing, suspenseful and excellently written thriller.

First of all, its setting is marvellously realised. Bleak, rugged locations are not uncommon in crime fiction, especially since the arrival of the Nordic Noir subgenre, but the Lake District, while rugged, is not bleak. It’s astonishing in its Alpine grandeur, its pristine lakes, its enormous skies and awesome weather (sun, snow or rain, you know when you’re in the Lakes). In addition, it’s atmospheric in its ancientness (megaliths, stone circles and prehistoric tumuli are only part of the story), and also in its quaintness; Cumbria’s lakeside towns, in sharp contrast to the fortified farms (a legacy of the reiver clans of old) and tumbledown crofts on its high fells, are ultra civilised, filled with libraries, theatres, art galleries, craft markets, museums, cosy pub/hotels and first-class dining.

And all of this, every aspect of it, is captured in The Puppet Show.

We shouldn’t be too surprised, of course. MW ‘Mike’ Craven hails from that part of the world, and he clearly knows his homeland intricately. And yet, he doesn’t go heavy on all this. The Puppet Show is not a Lake District National Park tour-guide. We do manage to travel all over it during its action-packed 342 pages, but it’s all relevant, and it informs the plot. We’re not just sightseeing here. This is a cop-thriller first and foremost, and yet Lakeland is always there, an extra character, if you like, but an important one too. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve read any book that it is as wrapped quite so effectively and at the same time so non-intrusively in its environment.

The second thing I really liked is The Puppet Show’s authenticity.

Mike Craven was a probation officer before he became a full-time author, so you’d expect him to know his stuff. And he really does.

In this novel, though the Lake District is a remote region, modern policing is to the fore. This is the National Crime Agency after all, possibly the most modern outfit, in every sense of the word, in the whole of the British police service. But again, Craven doesn’t overdo this. All the procedures are there, all the latest methods and the brand-new technical back-up are duly referenced, but none of it gets in the way.

In fact, if anything, through the proxy of Washington Poe, Craven vents his frustration at this. Electronic form-filling, divisional protocols, legal minutiae and other types of 21st century officialdom all feel like unnecessary jobsworthisms to Poe, who’s the kind of cop who just wants to get out there and investigate, to use boot-leather and common sense. He particularly despises the kind of bureaucratic red tape that prohibits officers from exercising judgement and discretion.

Yes, it’s all here in The Puppet Show, the complete present-day police experience. On one hand you have the super-efficient, super hi-tech and yet hidebound world of the National Crime Agency, as exemplified by patrician Director Edward van Zyl and even more so by Deputy Director Justin Hanson. And on the other, you have the lone-wolf detective, Poe, who’s not a maverick – he’ll happily play by most of the rules – but who is so eager to get the job done that he’s as frustrated by the etiquette of modern policing as he is by the villains.

I say it again, Mike Craven was a probation officer, not a cop, but he clearly worked with the cops. Because from this debut novel, he knows his stuff inside-out.

And this, I guess, brings us neatly to the characters, which are the third aspect of this novel that I really enjoyed.

There are two main personalities here, Poe and Bradshaw, and what a unique pairing they are.

Indicrectly, we’ve already assessed some of the most appealing aspects of Washington Poe. He’s basically a man’s man, gruff; self-reliant, a little taciturn, but affable too in the right company. A fairly typical male character, I suppose, in the world of cop writing, but that’s only half of the story.

Because while Poe is the primal creature, the elemental force, the instinct-over-analysis, Tilly Bradshaw is the cerebral side of the equation. And together, they make a near-perfect whole.

But Bradshaw has her own personality, too, and it was a fascinating decision by the author to place at the heart of a story like this, which has the potential to be hugely distressing (to the readers, yes, but also to the characters in the tale, particularly those with some political acumen), a character who is introverted and overly sensitive, who is untrusing of others, has very little self-awareness and is even slightly autistic. And she’s not been brought in purely to be a victim. Far from it. I mean, she is victimised on occasion, as anyone in that situation would be in real-life, but Poe, though he at one point strong-arms someone who’s been relentlessly bullying her, does not fall into the role of permanent bodyguard. Bradshaw does not need that. She is incredibly smart, possessing great deductive powers, and is very computer-literate. In the modern age of policing, these are vital assets.

In purely technical terms, of course, this is a clever device by Craven. In future books, I can easily envisage Poe coming to rely heavily on Bradshaw, not just as his quick hook-up to the internet and personal mine of information, but also as his thinker and adviser. But that’s not all it is. The relationship is charming and works very well at a narrative level, the bullish Poe disarmed by Bradshaw’s innocence, the nervous Bradshaw reassured by Poe’s strength and energy. They’re hardly peas in a pod, but such is the skill of the writing that their relationship develops throughout The Puppet Show in a pleasing and completely convincing way.

Overall, this novel is a long way from being your average serial killer thriller. It’s never what it seems, twisting and turning continually, and moving at great pace. And of course, you’ve got that wonderful backdrop too, and that feeling that this is the real deal – that this could happen exactly as Craven relates it Then you’ve got those characters, whom you empathise with from the word ‘go’.

In short, The Puppet Show is a compelling crime novel, very upbeat in its outlook, very modern, and very entertaining. It needs to sit on each and every bookshelf.  

And now, as always, in anticipation of its inevitable development for film or TV (the Lake District is begging for its own cop show), I’m going to be a cheeky sod and try to cast the main parts in this beast. You never now, at some point, some producer or casting director may take heed of this column. Anyway, just for laughts, here we go:

DS Washington Poe – Nick Blood
Tilly Bradshaw – Ella Purnell
DI Stephanie Flynn – Joanne Froggatt
DS Kylian Reid – Harry Lloyd
Gamble – Ron Donachie
Hanson – Adrian Rawlins
Van Zyl – Mark Gatiss
Bishop Nicolas Oldwinter – Richard Wilson 
Hilary Swift - Maria Doyle Kennedy   

(The image at the top of the column comes to us from the horror movie, THE HILLS RUN RED, and is unconnected to any of these titles. Sorry about that, but you must admit, it fitted the headline).

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