Thursday, 2 January 2020

Early yet but the schedule is already rolling

So, what am I going to be doing this year? 

I suppose that’s something we’re all asking ourselves now that Christmas has passed and it’s suddenly January again. But in my case it mainly applies to the writing game. In other words, what am I going to be writing this year? What are my plans? What is due for publication, etc?

Well, in today’s blog, the first of 2020 – so Happy New Year, by the way! – I’ll endeavour to answer that question, though I’m sure you’ll understand if at this stage I can only give a thumbnail sketch of my schedule, which even then is likely to be full of holes because all kinds of opportunities may arise between now and next December; there are several irons in the fire that could flare to life at any moment – as soon as next week, even! – but let’s not get too excited about things that may also never happen.

In addition today, in keeping with the time of year – brrr! – I’ll be offering another of my detailed book reviews and discussions, focussing this week on Georges Simenon’s strange, bleak wartime crime novel, THE SNOW WAS DIRTY. This is not Maigret in case you were wondering, but a stand-alone and something of a classic, though it was very controversial at the time.

If you’re only here for the Simenon review, then by all means pop straight down to the Thrillers, Chillers section, which, as always, you’ll find at the lower end of today’s blogpost, and get stuck into it straight away. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in my writing exploits too, then stick around at this end for a bit.

2020 schedule

First off – in fact, very first off because, in truth, this one should have gone in at the end of last year rather than the start of this one – I’m making a short story appearance in the Michael Wood-edited, US-published crime anthology, TROUBLE AND STRIFE (see the image at the top).

This is a slightly unusual project considering that it has come from an American stable in that it focusses on Cockney rhyming slang. Every contributing author took a piece of that unique lingo and had to work a chilling story out of it. Mine was ‘Mr Kipper’, which of course is Cockney slang for ‘Jack the Ripper’. Needless to say, the whole thing completely caught my imagination, mainly because I saw in it an opportunity to write something that wasn’t just crime, but was also horror-ish, if such a word exists.

I always like to push my stories to the darkest edge permissible, and the idea I had for this one gave me a chance to try and evoke the unique atmosphere of Thriller. You may recall that wonderful British TV series of the early 1970s. It was helmed by television legend, the late, great Brian Clemens, and adopted an anthology format, each week presenting a different terrifying tale, and yet, as its title indicated, it didn’t go straight for the horror jugular – most of its episodes were concerned crime, though crime of the most murderous and chilling variety.

But I won’t say anymore on this front at present. As usual, if you want know about TROUBLE AND STRIFE in detail, there’s only one thing to do ...

With that publication done and dusted, the rest of January is mercifully free of major events – thank Heaven. It’s always nice to have a fallow period now and then.

February and March are also unassigned, though already we’re far enough into the future for me to put question-marks against that assertion, because, as I’ve already mentioned, you never know what unforeseen opportunities may arise.

This brings us to April, at which point everything starts kicking off big time.

To start with, I’ll be at STOKERCON in Scarborough, April 16-19. For the uninitiated, this is a huge international horror convention, which usually is located in the States, though it’s over here this year, and as it hosts the annual Bram Stoker Awards, is the main social event of the year for the Horror Writers Association. Anyone attending – and you don’t have to be a practitioner, you can also be a fan – can look forward to a packed weekend of panel discussions, interviews, workshops, book launches, readings, and of course the colossal horror bazaar that is the dealers’ room.

Hopefully, I won’t just be there as a punter. I may find my way onto a panel or two, plus a new short story of mine, What Did You See?, is included in the ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS #2, which will be one of many new titles launched at the grand event. Occasions like this only visit British shores rarely, so no one who’s into the horror genre can afford to pass this one up.

May is a free month thus far, but the same warning applies as before. Who knows what may crop up before then? (May is invariably a busy time in the industry, so it’s impossible to imagine that something won’t come along to fill this gap).

Things then get going again in June, for what’s looking like it will be a frenetic summer.

June 4-7, I’ll be at the international crime fiction convention, CRIMEFEST, in Bristol, ‘where the pen is bloodier than the sword’, where I’m on a panel and will be rubbing shoulders with a host of crime and thriller writers both great and small (over 100 guarantee to attend so far!). There will be at least 40 panels, the usual wide range of workshops, and the ever-popular ‘pitch an agent’ session, plus a welter of bar-side activity. This is one of the key events in the crime-writing game, and another opportunity that all hopefuls should grasp with both hands.

Come July, we’re still on the crime-writing front, and this is a truly massive one.

The THEAKSTON OLD PECULIER CRIME WRITING FESTIVAL, now in its 17th year, again returns to the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, July 23-26. I’ll be there, as always, enjoying and hopefully participating usefully in what is now a regular event in the literary calendar, and a convention that celebrates the very best in crime fiction. 

As always, it will boast an incredible array of special guests (though near enough all those writers who regularly attend have impressive back-catalogues and big sales, so it’s a must-visit for readers who simply want their books signed) and a line-up of panels that should wow any crime fan. Seriously, this one is worth going to just for the action in the beer tent (which, for anyone in doubt, is where I’ll be found most of the time).

This brings us to August, which will be by far the biggest month of 2020 for me personally.

It will see the publication of my first novel from Orion. I’m still not in a position where I can talk much about it. For example, I can’t tell you the title yet, or the actual date when it hits the shelves, though I can let it out that it’s a freestanding hardboiled cop thriller set in the south of England, in a deceptively leafy corner of the country where what initially looks like a simple road-crash leads to a explosion of underworld violence and retribution and the unearthing of a conspiracy that has the potential to rock the Metropolitan Police, and maybe the entire country, to its foundations.

But more about that soon, when the publicity embargo is lifted. On top of all that, any plans we devise to have a launch party will be posted on here at the first opportunity.

This brings us onto September, and next autumn, so now we’re seriously getting ahead of ourselves in terms of certainties. 

There are two more major literary events that month. BLOODY SCOTLAND, which is Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival, held annually in the grand old city of Stirling, is likely the first. I have no actual dates for this one yet, though doubtless they’ll be announced imminently. Additionally, there is FANTASYCON, the annual convention of the British Fantasy Society, which this year is in Holloway, North London, from September 25-27. Sadly, I can’t guarantee that I’ll be at either of these exciting events just yet. I mean, there are lots and lots of reasons for crime, thriller, horror and fantasy readers to attend both of them whether I’m there or not (and I am hoping to be!), but both are a little far into the future for me to give any guarantees at this point.

The same applies in October to CAPITAL CRIME, which is held at the Grand Connaught Rooms, London, from Oct 1-3. This is a relatively new event – 2020 will be only its third year – but it has already proved a big draw for some of the world’s leading crime and thriller authors and filmmakers. Make no mistake, this is already an impressive and large-scale event, and it’s getting bigger each year. I am strongly hopeful that I’ll be attending this one. 

After all this, I’d like to say that November and December will be quiet, but even this early in the year, I have big plans for the last two months of 2020. Basically – and this is an ambition rather than a promise, though I think it’s a realistic one – I intend to bring out three Christmas books in time for the festive season. Partly, this is due to the remarkable response to my short story THE MERRY MAKERS, which I posted on this blog on December 17, and which was read an incredible 800+ times in the first few days (so, thanks to everyone for that).

It’s certainly made me realise that there’s an appetite for Christmas spookiness in the weeks leading up to the big day.

Clearly, I need to get as many of my Christmas ghost and horror stories out there as I can. I’ll thus be publishing re-releases of IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, my e-collection of festive chillers, and SPARROWHAWK, my Victorian era Christmas e-novella, but this time in paperback and (hopefully) Audible format as well. In addition to that, I intend to bring out a band-new festive ghost story collection, THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE, with any luck both electronically and in paperback.

As I say, these November/December plans are aspirations at this point rather than absolute certainties, but with a bit of luck, I see no reason why we can’t make them real.

Not that I expect anyone to be awaiting next Christmas with bated breath just yet – not in January. We’ve all got lots of other stuff to get through first. Just remember that as soon as I have updates about any of these plans, or any others I may hatch in the days and weeks ahead, you’ll find them on here first.   


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 SNOW WAS DIRTY by Georges Simenon (1948)

Occupied Europe in the 1940s during a bitter winter.

Well … I say occupied Europe, but in truth none of that is actually specified. All we know – all we ever know – is that we are in a Northern European city somewhere, living under the heel of a brutal military power. We could be somewhere in France or Belgium under the Nazi yoke, or perhaps the author is pre-empting the events shortly due in East Germany, where the Soviet Bloc would establish the German Democratic Republic (Frank Friedmaier is certainly a German-sounding name, as are several others in here, while the Gestapo-like methods employed by the occupiers would be just as believable in the hands of the Soviets and their lackeys).

Either way, the central character in this tale is Frank. A sociopathic teenager, aimless, immoral and utterly without conscience. He’s a petty criminal, we see that from the outset, but he’s more an opportunist than an out-and-out predator, and his motivations are often difficult to fathom.

He lives in a brothel, which is run by his mother, Lotte, who, along with the girls who work for her, pampers him ridiculously. Because this house of ill repute specifically services officers from the occupying force, fuel and food rationing don’t exist for the Freidmaiers – Frank even secures an ‘access all areas’ green card for himself – which is one extra reason for everyone in the outside world, particularly in the soulless apartment block where it is located, to despise them even more. But Frank and his mother don’t care.

Frank particularly doesn’t, at least on the surface. Only two things in life interest him: Sissy, the attractive but innocent daughter of a hardworking, upstanding neighbour, Gerhardt Holst, and his mission to impress a local small-time gangster and murderer called Kromer.

When Kromer, who views Frank as a promising up-and-comer, and someone whose connections through the brothel might be useful, lends the youngster a knife, Frank, almost on a whim, lies in wait for a member of the occupying force, and for no real reason – other than that he wants to know what it is like (and to see if he can live with himself afterwards) – stabs him to death. It turns out to be easy and straightforward, and even though the fatal act is witnessed by Holst, Frank is not worried. Such is his steely arrogance (and the immense privilege he has always enjoyed, which he has never earned) that he feels bulletproof in this wintry, downtrodden city, where the controlling authority seems distant and omnipotent, where the ordinary folk are tired, hungry and dispirited, and where the black-marketeers wield godlike powers. His response to those who don’t like his mother – those like Holst, he imagines, though Holst never speaks to him or to Lotte – is to challenge them with this brazenly lawless and unconcerned attitude.

Once again, Holst neither says nor does anything, and Frank continues on his reckless way, committing one criminal act after another, murdering for a second time during a robbery, and regularly handling stolen goods. Meanwhile, his fascination with Holst grows. Why did the guy not snitch on him? Why does Holst never even register Frank’s existence in the building where they live together?

It’s not just the case that Frank feels slighted by this … he is unconsciously cowed by it. Maybe there is something in Holst – his conscientious, industrious nature, his law-abiding attitude, his stolid response to the occupation of his homeland – that Frank secretly admires. Is Holst the father figure Frank has always needed? Is he the positive male role-model that Frank never had? Either way, Frank resents this, but because he can’t bring himself to actually confront Holst, he switches his attention to Holst’s daughter, Sissy.

A sweet child, she has long had a crush on Frank, and when he shows interest in her, she is amazed and flattered. They go on a couple of dates, during which, though they become amorous – Frank is very aroused and Sissy very compliant – they never actually consummate things, and the girl remains a virgin.

This, Frank realises, is something he can use to get back at Holst. To get back at the whole world, which, though he constantly flashes his money and his green card to it, seems hellbent on either treating him like a rodent, or worst still, ignoring him.

So, Frank makes a plan for Sissy.

A very nasty plan indeed. And though he is certain that he will get away with it, even though he’ll make no attempt in the process to cover up his own involvement, he has no clue that it will be the catalyst to a series of events that will bring down his odious little world in the most dreadful and complete way imaginable …

Even by the standards of Georges Simenon’s other romans durs, or ‘tough novels’, The Snow Was Dirty is something of a curiosity. You may recall that Belgian author, Simenon, was most famous for his series of Maigret stories, which were very much police procedurals set in post-war Paris. In short, these were intelligent, excellently (and sparsely) written, tightly-plotted good v evil capers of the old school, which were so satisfying to crime buffs that they are still widely read today and regularly adapted for television. In contrast, the romans durs were significantly darker forays into European Noir, in which much more ambiguous protagonists wend their way through grimy, crime-infested cities where justice does not always prevail.

But as I say, even in this company, The Snow Was Dirty is a notably disconcerting tale.

I’ve read it twice now, and though I’m still not certain it merits its ‘absolute classic’ status, I still find it disturbing and thought-provoking.

Everything about this new version, which has been very ably translated into English by Howard Curtis, initially appears to be straightforward. We’re immediately among people who are up to no good – the criminal classes of a city under occupation. We meet one criminal antihero in particular, Frank, who’s main aspiration – seemingly – is to win over the local gang-bosses with his daredevil approach to villainy.

So far so good. Looks like we’re in for a traditional urban thriller, perhaps with a wartime background to add flavour. But that doesn’t last for long.

Meanwhile, other things are going on just below the surface. To start with, Simenon’s succinct style is deceptively simple.

The authentic squalor of the post-war city is all there, even if the author doesn’t spend a great deal of time describing it, while the weary, hungry and impoverished wreckage of the town’s populace are completely visible to us, and feel very real indeed, even though we don’t meet many of them. There is huge skill in that alone.

Likewise, we don’t see much in the way of violence. Simenon purposely keeps it off the page, even though it happens all the time: early on, when local hoodlums (like Frank) commit atrocities seemingly at a whim, and particularly near the end, when one firing squad after another dispatches suspects of every hue. And yet, even though we rarely witness it, we completely buy into the conceit that, since the occupying force took over, the criminals are not only seedier now, but deadlier than they ever were before; it really doesn’t pay to get caught in the act or snitched on in this world, and so killing anyone who looks at you the wrong way is usually the preferred action. At the same time, of course, the victorious enemy (who remain unnamed right to the end of the book) are the ultimate bad guys, so completely in charge that they can mete out the most brutal punishments merely on suspicion and won’t bat an eyelid in the process.

In truth, this is hardly the environment in which you’d expect to find an angry young man. In the late 1950s, the likes of Jimmy Porter and Arthur Seaton were much safer thumbing their noses at the conventions of western capitalism than Frank Friedmaier is at the iron fist of a military dictatorship. Nevertheless, that is the vibe we get here, our central character a sulky, egocentric loner whose spirit refuses to be broken as he throws out one rash challenge after another, and yet who is surely smart enough to know that at some point this recklessness will result in his destruction.

You’re some distance into the book before you realise that it’s this weird psychology that Georges Simenon is actually examining rather than the crime story, which in itself is rather banal and low-key. But even then, his conclusions, such as they are, are the opposite of uplifting.

Frank is an amoral killer, but at the heart of it, he’s also a silly child. The naughty boy at the back of the class who’d rather do bad things and get in trouble than be ignored. He hates the fact that people are unimpressed by his green card. He hates the fact that his ‘daring’ criminality has flown under the radar for so long. He hates the fact that Holst responds to the abuse of his daughter by pointedly ignoring him, the perpetrator. And his loyalties and soaring self-confidence are absurdly illogical, to the point of being dangerous – even Timo, the fence, recognises this and eventually takes against Frank. Later on, when faced with the ‘Old Man’ – a prototype Gestapo interrogator, who clearly has all the time in the world – the cocky youngster treats it as a bizarre kind of game, certain that at some point he’ll have proved so problematic that he’ll be taken to the very top floor (or is he certain of this?; is it yet more bravado? … and there’s another question: where does arrogance end and self-loathing begin?). 

But I won’t say too much more about this compelling and consciously disheartening subtext for fear of spoiling the book, which as it only runs to a lean 290 pages is a trip that all literary types should take at some point (you’ll not find it a happy read, but you’ll still be engrossed).

Suffice to say that Georges Simenon wrote The Snow Was Dirty not as a form of entertainment but as an observation. It’s been called ‘a study of the human condition’. I would argue that it’s actually a study of a certain kind of human condition, one which the rest of us, if we value a functioning society, should discourage at every opportunity.

I can’t work out whether or not The Snow Was Dirty has ever been adapted on film. It’s certainly never been adapted in English, and so, as usual at the end of one of my reviews, I’m now going to seek to put that right. Here are the cast I would choose should it ever get the celluloid treatment. Just a bit of fun this, of course, though casting directors should ignore my advice at their peril:

Frank Friedmaier – Alex Pettyfer
Holst – Timothy West
Sissy – Georgie Henley
Lotte – Michelle Fairley
Kromer – Alfred Molina
The Old Man – Timothy Dalton

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