Other Authors N-Z

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and fantasy novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed, authors N-Z. 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.



In the mid-16th century, Prince Vladimir Dracul of Transylvania, son of the vain and greedy king, Xantho, commences his rise to prominence as ‘the Impaler’ and in due course as ‘Dracula the Vampire’, through a series of violent, hair-raising adventures, an intense love affair and a succession of bizarre supernatural events.

All of this is observed and, in fact, noted down and related to us in diary form by the German scholar, Doctor Martin Bellorious, who at the start of this book, along with his companions, sly alchemist-in-training Matthew Verney and good-natured dwarf, Razendoringer, flees the University of Wittenberg before a heresy charge can be levelled, and heads east through ever more dangerous territories.   

It is already difficult to say much more about this astonishing narrative, because almost from the word-go, amazing, delightful and crucially important plot-developments occur – and continue to occur at a rate of at least one a chapter. Suffice to say that this is Europe of the 1570s, a vast, desolate, largely lawless land, where bandits haunt the highways, wolves fill the forests, armies wage endless internecine warfare, noblemen rule as crazy despots, black magic is very, very real and, when night falls, all kinds of evil supernatural beings walk abroad.

Even before Bellorious and his friends reach the ‘safety’ of Castle Dracula, they have several hair-raising escapades in this torturous land of far beyond, narrowly avoiding nasty fates at the hands of various antagonists, including, among several others, two ogre-like cannibals and then Rudolph, the unhinged ruler of Bohemia. And when the dauntless band makes it to Transylvania and then into Castle Dracula, they find themselves immersed in the cutthroat politics of Xantho’s Machiavellian court.

For example, despite a straightforward appointment to school rival princes Vlad and Mircea, Bellorious soon earns the enmity of the ambitious chamberlain, Alexander of Glem, who constantly puts dangers and difficulties in his path, he learns unsavoury things about Queen Eupraxia – things which could easily get him killed, he discovers that Xantho is more interested in acquiring wealth and in mocking his gibbering courtiers than he is in organising matters of state, and he struggles to educate Prince Mircea, whose main interests are guzzling wine and ravishing servant girls.

At the same time, there are countless weird and wonderful things in Castle Dracula. From complete absurdities – like a mechanical eating machine which Xantho forces upon one of his boyar flatterers; to the highly distasteful – like the deranged courtier who lives on a diet of spiders, cockroaches and other vermin; to the truly terrifying – like the vampiristic ghost said to roam the Old Queen’s apartments and the tribe of madmen living in the deepest, most forgotten parts of the castle dungeons. 

Unfortunately for Bellorious, he doesn’t have much time to explore properly in order to assess these curiosities. Because all the time this is happening, the legions of Murad III, Sultan of the immense Ottoman Empire, are massing on the border under the super-efficient leadership of the ferocious Turkish warrior, Grand Vizier Sokolly. Despite the warnings of Ragul, Xantho’s illegitimate son and commander-in-chief of his armed forces, Xantho is strangely unconcerned about any this, so when the attack finally arrives it does so with overwhelming force. By this time, Bellorious has enlightened Prince Vlad sufficiently for him to realise that his homeland is in very serious trouble, and the noble youth participates in the following campaign with almost reckless courage. But both he and his teacher are aware from an early stage that victory, ultimately, is going to elude them, even if it is wrested away from them by skillful negotiation rather than bloody conflict.

Only God knows – or maybe the Devil – what will happen to them after that …    

It’s often said of Reggie Oliver that he is genre fiction’s best-kept secret. I have two immediate thoughts on that. First of all, it’s probably true. Secondly, if it is true it’s an absolute crime.

Oliver, who already had a successful career as an actor, theatre director, playwright and biographer before his writing took a distinctly darker turn in the early 2000s, is by far one of the most talented practitioners of spookiness currently working in the English language. It’s probably true to say that he first came to the literary horror world’s attention with a series of searingly frightening and at the same time very eloquent short stories – ghost stories on the surface, though often much deeper and more complex than that, strongly reminiscent of both M.R. James and Robert Aickman (if you can imagine such a thing!), and yet embracing every kind of nightmare in the weird fiction spectrum: from the restless dead to the demonic, from the spirits of myth to the often even worse aberrations of the human psyche, and invariably wrapping it all up in succinct, readable, and yet delightfully poetic prose.

Of course, not every expert in the short form is able to expand his skill into the much broader realm of the novel; the two disciplines don’t necessarily overlap. However, it was a joy (and somehow no surprise at all) to discover that this does not apply to Reggie Oliver, whose first novel, The Dracula Papers, is just as elegantly written, just as thought-provoking, just as shudder-inducing and just as much a pleasure and an entertainment as any of his short stories.

The first volume in a proposed trilogy studying the origins of Count Dracula the vampire, this is already a phenomenal feat of strange literature and though only one of three, a completely satisfying novel in its own right, which should appeal to a wide readership.

To begin with, The Dracula Papers isn’t specifically a horror novel, though there is much horror on show here: spine-chilling horror of the traditional ghost story variety on one hand, and sensual, shocking horror on the other – nothing explicit, though of such a lurid and Gothic tone that some of it wouldn’t be out of place in the old Dracula movies of the Hammer era. But in addition to all that, the book is written with such an air of authority, delving so deeply and fascinatingly into the culture of the time and place, touching on the many beliefs and philosophies prevalent in that age – everything from long-held superstitions, to late-medieval romances, to the intellectual chaos wrought by changing religion and advancing science – that it reeks of scholarship in its own right.

On top of that, it’s an historical saga on a grand but brutal scale. We see brandings, beheadings and impalements galore, a truly memorable scene wherein an avalanche of severed heads is launched over the walls of Castle Dracula by the besieging Turkish army, and one enormous battle which becomes a literal slaughterhouse.

Again, none of this is graphic or titillating, but it’s all there on the page – which only adds to the vivid portrayal of a terrible world now thankfully lost in time. And yet this itself is a kind of irony, because Oliver, rather bravely, makes no real effort to depict true historical events.

The Dracula Papers owes as much to folklore as it does to genuine history, and not a little amount to fiction. For example, the real Vlad Tepes and his brother, Mircea, lived in the 15th century not the 16th, there was no actual kingdom of Transylvania in this era, rather it was a principality of the kingdom of Hungary, while the lofty position the real Vlad aspired to was not as a king but as Prince of Wallachia, and Elizabeth Bathory (later known as ‘Countess Dracula’) who appears here renamed Nyela and as a deceased but murderous noblewoman of earlier decades, was not even born in 1477, when the real Vlad the Impaler died.

But none of this matters. In fact, it adds to the joy. Because what we’ve got here, rather than a textbook, is a richly-woven fabric of adult-themed fairy tales. For example, not even the well-educated and clear-minded Martin Bellorious thinks it odd that a local village is terrorised by a ‘murony’; in fact it is he who takes it on himself to dispose of the evil sprite. Rumours of the terrifying Black Cathedral – a secret university dedicated to the dark arts – are believed with absolute certainty. When Bellorious encounters Issachar, a vagrant claiming to be the Wandering Jew of apocryphal legend, he is honoured rather than doubtful. Likewise, when the Turkish sorcerer, Zushad, displays necromantic powers, Bellorious is only one of many fascinated witnesses to the dramatic and nightmarish outcome.  

But this is not just a story about myths coming true. Oliver also presents us with the real, functioning and yet terribly unjust world of the Reformation, where the peasantry struggles annually for survival, monarchs seek only to enrich themselves, and seats of intellectualism like colleges and guilds are too busy arguing about heresy to care about everyday affairs. He also concerns himself with military matters. Eastern Europe is now under threat from the Ottomans, the gunpowder-capable armies of the Early Modern Age constantly redrawing the map as they manoeuvre around each other, feinting and sallying, and occasionally clashing full-on to spectacularly bloody effect. At the same time, courtly intrigue is everywhere, both in the magnificent Ottoman capital of Istanbul – ‘Stamboul’, as it is referred to here – but also in the Spartan confines of Castle Dracula, where such is the underhand scheming that no-one, not even Xantho’s unfaithful wife, Queen Eupraxia, feels totally safe.

This brings me onto the characters, which – even those who only make a fleeting appearance – are constructed by Oliver swiftly and yet in full, complex fashion.

Even though we’re immersed in the world of angels and demons, there are few individuals here who are all good and all bad. Bellorious himself makes a fine lead, though he’s very human. Despite his status, he is only in his late 20s, and yet throughout the narrative displays wisdom, probity and empathy – he only takes lives when he has to, and though he’s a scholar and in many ways, an ascetic, his lustful yearning for the beautiful slave-girl, Inanna, is almost painful.

Dracula himself – Vlad in this preliminary volume – though he starts off a wide-eyed youth and an eager student, soon gives hints that he has a darker side: he is petty, he sulks and he will kill in battle with what can only be described as gusto. In addition, he is instantly recognisable as the scion of a noble house, for though he is brave, handsome and dashing, he is also self-centred to an alarming degree.

Other characters are equally colourful, if more briefly handled. Matthew Verney is untrustworthy from the outset, but Oliver paints him slowly and with immense skill, transforming him from ambiguity to villainy with a pace so subtle that it consciously takes up the length of the novel. Others meanwhile are more bound by their stations in life: rival sovereigns, Murad and Xantho, and the latter’s son and heir, Mircea, are distinctly unimpressive men, undeserving of the life-and-death control they exert, and yet so bored by it all that they often neglect their responsibilities, allowing ambitious underlings like Sokolly and Alexander of Glem to grow in power. Meanwhile, below them, better people are eternally doomed by their subservient status: Commander Ragul takes his job seriously, but knows that ultimately he will fail because he lacks the support of his king, and he is very aware that he himself will pay for this failure; star-crossed lovers Razendoringer and dwarf lady-in-waiting Dolabella, though spirited individuals of many talents, will always be servants and/or buffoons because they are dwarfs; while Inanna, the saddest character of all, has accepted her life as a sex-slave to the point where she will trade the abuse of her body to get better deals for her friends.

Despite these melancholic moments, The Dracula Papers, what we have so far seen of it, is a richly textured, meticulously-researched piece of fiction, but also a rolling, comedic, action-packed yarn, filled with magic, mystery and mayhem, romantic and sexual love, wild violence and chilling horror, and dosed throughout with the author’s trademark scholarly asides and scathing humour.

A bona fide treat of a novel that will leave no-one disappointed.

As usual, I’m now going to be bold enough to suggest a cast I personally would select should The Dracula Papers #1: The Scholar’s Tale ever make it to the screen (and how I would love to see that happen). It would be an expensive production for sure, but then so was Game of Thrones, and I’m always hearing how the networks are looking for a like-for-like follow-up to that hugely successful show. Well, guys … here you go.

Martin Bellorious – Darren Boyd (older than written, but itd work)
Prince Vladimir – Will Poulter
Razendoringer – Warwick Davis
Matthew Verney – Iwan Rheon
Prince Mircea – Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Ragul – Alexander Dreymon
Alexander of Glem – Daniel Webb
King Xantho – Vincent Regan
Queen Eupraxia – Patricia Velasquez
Issachar – Rutger Hauer
Grand Vizier Sokolly – Burak Özçivit
Inanna – Hend Sabry
Zushad – Art Malik


THE BOOK OF SOULS 
by James Oswald (2012)

There can be few officers in the Lothian and Borders Police (as they were before ‘Police Scotland’) who’ve had a harder time of it than DI Tony McLean. A veteran homicide investigator whose normal beat is the grimy backstreets of Edinburgh, he thinks he’s seen and done it all, but as this second investigation in the McLean canon opens, the likeable but lonely detective finds himself under intense emotional pressure.

First of all, it’s nearly Christmas, which means the anniversary of the murder of his fiancée, Kirsty Summers, who was the final victim of Donald Anderson, an antiquarian book-dealer by trade and ritual sex-slayer nicknamed ‘the Christmas Killer’ by hobby. Every year for ten years, one of Anderson’s victims – invariably a young female – after being bound and raped in the cellar of Anderson’s shop, was found with her throat cut in one or other of the city’s filthy waterways. Kirsty Summers was only the most recent, and the last girl to die before McLean, then a detective constable, finally put an end to Anderson’s reign of evil. Needless to say, with it now being Christmas again, all the bad memories come rushing back. It’s a minor consolation – of sorts, when McLean learns that Anderson himself has now died in prison, the victim of a brutal attack by a fellow inmate. He even attends the funeral in Aberdeen just to ensure that he’s saying goodbye to bad rubbish.

But then, almost as soon as McLean returns to Edinburgh, another series of murders commences, which is almost identical to the one before: young women abducted, indecently assaulted and deposited in the city’s culverts and streams with throats slashed from ear to ear. To confuse things even more, a couple of occasions follow when McLean thinks he spots the deceased murderer walking the streets of Edinburgh, though of course, despite strenuous efforts, he’s never actually able to lay hands on anyone who looks even vaguely similar.

Despite this, our bewildered hero finds that he has the full confidence of his senior supervisor, Chief Superintendent Jayne McIntyre, but on this occasion he finds resources restricted because the bullish but somewhat empty-headed DCI Charles Duguid, known to his colleagues simply as ‘Dagwood’, has commandeered almost everything as part of the major anti-drugs operation he is running in the city, and deeply resents that McLean is leading a rival investigation.

At the same time, an unknown arsonist has been setting buildings alight all over the place. Most of these are disused industrial units, but then the block of flats in which Tony McLean himself lives is also torched, and several residents die in the process. This, in its turn, reveals that drugs production activity was occurring in McLean’s own building, right under his nose in fact, which is a huge embarrassment for him and deeply frustrates Chief Superintendent McIntyre, who insists that he’s overly stressed and must now attend psychological counselling sessions. This puts McLean in the clutches of irritating police-shrink, Prof. Matthew Hilton, who’s hardly the DI’s favourite person given that he interviewed Donald Anderson on his arrest and later tried to persuade the court that Anderson’s bizarre excuse for his crimes – namely that he was driven to kill by the evil contained in an ancient book – surely proved that he was insane.

In the midst of this seething tension, the copycat killer’s victims pile up, which only adds fuel to the fire in that a local journalist, Joanne Dalgliesh – in her efforts to sell a sensational new book – begins to air suspicions that Donald Anderson, evidently a mentally ill man, was framed by the original investigation team and now has died unjustly.

There will clearly be no rest this festive season for McLean and regular sidekicks like DS ‘Grumpy Bob’ Laird and station archivist John ‘Needy’ Needham. McLean gets some welcome assistance from the attractive DS Kirsty Ritchie, who is drafted in from Grampian Police, but finds he has very little time to devote to the potential new woman in his life, Emma Baird, who works for the police as a crime scene technician, and who, in truth, McLean is not sure he is right for.

It certainly seems as if nothing is going right. Even the glitz of the Christmas season, which is always there in the background, feels far removed from the cold, sterile offices in which McLean and his team must work, or the gloomy, half-empty house of McLean’s lately-dead grandmother, where he now must dwell. To match this mood, the weather switches regularly between snow and rain, constantly and consciously defying the yuletide spirit, creating a near constant aura of winter desolation.

But no evil lasts forever when good guys are on the case. A break finally comes along – but it’s a curious one. McLean first meets elderly cleric, Father Noam Anton, when he arrives at the detective’s door with a bunch of carol singers. But then he receives a second visit on Christmas Day itself, when Anton tells Mclean that he knew Donald Anderson well – the guy was originally a member of his monastic group, the Order of St. Herman, who among other duties, were charged with keeping rare books. Anton claims that Anderson, a tortured individual, stole a number of valuable volumes, including the Liber animorum, or Book of Souls, which legend claims was dictated to a deranged medieval monk by the Devil himself. This, Anton says, became the eventual cause of Anderson’s murderous depravity.

McLean is frustrated by this story – he believes it yet more excuse-making for a sexually degenerate serial killer – especially as there is no trace of the book now. To his mind that probably means it never existed, though an alternative – if somewhat fanciful – explanation could be that the Book of Souls has found its way into someone else’s hands and is now exerting the same malign influence as before, thereby creating another ‘Christmas Killer’.

It’s difficult to say more about the synopsis of The Book of Souls without giving away enormous spoilers, because there are several humungous twists and turns still to come in this complex and alarming tale (including one truly colossal head-spinner right near the end), but suffice to say that, whether he likes it or not, Tony McLean – ever more determined to catch the latest killer, and at the same time prove that he got the right one before – finally opens to the possibility that the answer to this mystery may lie in the occult …

One of the most interesting aspects of the Tony McLean books, at least in my view, is their regular supernatural undertone. Even though these are good, strong police procedurals – and The Book of Souls is no exception to that – you never get the feeling you have strayed very far from ‘the other world’. This intrigues and enthuses me because it’s often been said that horror and crime as rival subgenres simply don’t match, that there can’t be any overlap between the two because the rationale behind both forms of fiction should almost always work to cancel the other out.

If that is your resolute view, then James Oswald is definitely the fly in your ointment, especially when it comes to The Book of Souls. However, at first glance, what we're dealing with here is undeniably a cop thriller.

DI McLean is a little bit of an archetype in that regard: a flawed, tired loner in the midst of a mean city, almost invariably faced by opponents whose depths of wickedness know no bounds. Despite this, he’s an attractive figure; instinctively good at his job and no-one’s fool, but affable with it, trusting of colleagues (at least, those he rates), and yet monstrously unfortunate. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a fictional copper who suffers as much bad luck as Tony McLean does, but he’s very well written too, a weary Scottish everyman, which makes him a character you root for from page one.

So far so familiar, of course. This is solid cop novel territory, especially when McLean and his team get a hint that a copycat murderer is on the loose, leading them a non-too-merry dance from one corner of Edinburgh to the next, and these, it won’t surprise you to learn, are locations distinctly absent from the tourist trail: we’re talking derelict factories, rundown tenements and rubbish-strewn lots where sewer outlets swim with disgusting effluent.

But for all this, we’re aware from an early stage that there’s something curious going on here. McLean’s occasional sightings of the deceased Anderson are an eerie touch, but Oswald handles them most effectively, restricting them to brief glimpses in the thronging city streets. These weird events are so scant that it’s actually quite easy to feed them into Jayne McIntyre’s concerns about McLean’s fragile mental state. Even we, the readers, who are 100% on McLean’s side, might fleetingly wonder if it’s all been a bit too much for him, and if maybe these psychological counselling sessions are actually a good idea – but then of course we dismiss such concerns, because McLean is the hero while police shrink/profiler Matthew Hilton is a pillock of the first order.

So … does this mean that something genuinely strange is happening? Could it conceivably be that what McLean is seeing is Donald Anderson’s ghost? It’s an increasingly unnerving thought given what McLean knows about Anderson’s past: the esoteric bookshop he kept and the foul rituals that happened in its basement. Then add to this the emerging information about the so-called Book of Souls, a demonic tome, which according to Father Anton, does not just possess its owner like an evil spirit, but gradually drains his or her entire soul.

Separate all that stuff from the police procedural, and you are in pure horror story country. But the real strength of this novel is that Oswald doesn’t do that; he splices the two threads together neatly, creating a fast-moving, ultra-dark thriller, which in no way contradicts itself and thoroughly entertains from beginning to end.

Possibly not one to read on a bright, sunny day – I’ll admit that much – but no sooner will the spring and summer be here, than winter will be coming round again in due course, and if you like your crime fiction hard-edged, dark-toned, and you aren’t disaffected by the festive spook story tradition, this could well be one for you.

As always at the end of a review, I’m being cheeky enough to suggest the cast I would choose were this book ever to make it to film or TV. Obviously, as The Book of Souls is number two in the McLean series, it would only be right for the eponymous hero’s previous outing to hit the celluloid first, but this is the bit where we always suspend belief anyway (on that score, wait till you see who I’ve chosen!!!).

DI Tony McLean - Ewan McGregor
Emma Baird - Rose Leslie
DS Kirsty Ritchie - Georgia King
Sgt. John ‘Needy’ Needham - David O’Hara
Father Noam Anton - Peter Mullan
DS ‘Grumpy Bob’ Laird - Tony Curran
DCI Charles Duguid - Peter Capaldi
Ch. Supt. Jayne McIntyre - Tilda Swinton
Donald Anderson – Clive Russell
Joanne Dalgliesh – Zoe Eeles

(Ah, yes … another of those wonderfully expensive cast-lists that only someone of my limitless resources can assemble).



THE GHOSTS & SCHOLARS BOOK OF FOLK HORROR 
ed by Rosemary Pardoe (2018)

An enthralling anthology of macabre supernatural tales, some old and some brand new, but all drawing heavily on folklore, primarily of the British variety, and written in the style and tone of MR James.

Initially, rather than outline all the stories contained here, I’ll let the official Sarob Press blurb do the talking, as it nicely pitches the chills and thrills to come.

Sarob Press is delighted to present a superb collection of Jamesian folk horror tales. Ten have been selected from the pages of editor Rosemary Pardoe’s journals Ghosts & Scholars and The Ghosts & Scholars MR James Newsletter – and seven are newly written especially for this volume. The previously published stories date from as early as 1980 and as recently as 2015.

Here, you’ll find folk horror in a variety of expected and unexpected settings, from ancient burial mounds in Wiltshire and East Anglia to a park in Liverpool, by way of ruins in Ireland and the countryside villages of the Lake District, Dorset, Derbyshire and an unspecified southern county. In the new stories the settings range further afield and include Scotland and Greece. In one case, while the setting is Scotland, the folk horror comes terrifyingly from pre-war Germany.

For the uninitiated, Ghosts & Scholars, which Rosemary Pardoe also edits, is a long-running and very informative magazine, which as well as encouraging scholarly research into MR James (a noted academic as well as a famous writer of ghost stories), includes new fiction written in the Jamesian fashion, articles, reviews and atmospheric artwork.

To my mind, there’s always been a correlation between James’ style of writing and the concept of folk horror, a subgenre that has long been with us, but which has returned to the public’s attention in a big way after the release of recent horror movies like The RitualBorderlandsWake WoodA Field in England etc.

All that said, I don’t think the two forms are necessarily the same thing.

MR James is widely regarded as the architect of the modern English ghost story, focussing on arcane but mainly fictional mysteries, often setting his tales in the world of antiquarians, where scholarly meddlers arouse the ire of supernatural malcontents by seeking out musty treasures of the past. James died in 1936, so invariably the bulk of his stories occur in the first quarter of the 20th century, a period very familiar to traditionalist ghost story fans, and while many modern authors who’ve been influenced by him have set their fiction in our own age, the gentlemanly tone often remains.

James’ stories frequently take us to countryside locations, Lost Hearts and A View from a Hill for example, or isolated stretches of coast, such as in A Warning to the Curious. Though, in my mind this still doesn’t automatically equate with folk horror; sometimes there’s a more occultic feel to his fiction, such as with Casting the Runes or Number 13, or they may be straight tales of vengeance from beyond, like The Mezzotint and, most famously of all, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.

Ultimately, I suppose it depends how you define folk horror, which is also a bit of a conundrum as opinions on that vary widely. To some, it must reverberate with archaic lore and pre-Christian tradition derived from the land and the turning year, whereas to others it’s all things rural, from standing stones and faerie rings to time-honoured village murder mysteries.

To me, it’s simpler still: folk horror is horror fiction derived from recognisable folklore. There needs be nothing more to it than that.

Even then, I can’t see an unavoidable link between folk horror and Jamesian horror. But that’s me being finickity, because, as I also said, they certainly make for very cosy bedfellows, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that Rosemary Pardoe has been able to raid the innumerable back-copies of Ghosts & Scholars for reprints and at the same time acquire some quality new fiction from modern Jamesian writers to put together this very effective and chilling anthology.

In some stories, as you’d expect, James’ favorite theme of vengeful revenants is to the fore: in Geoffrey Warburton’s The Lane for example, where a simple grassy path appears to lead into another dimension controlled by an evil force that was summoned in times past, or in Chico Kidd’s Figures in a Landscape, where an investigation of some old Irish ruins leads to near-disaster.

At the same time, in others we’re talking full florid folk horror. Philip Thompson’s Beatrix Paints a Landscape (1884), sees the Lake District’s most famous resident encounter a menacing woodland entity – the polar opposite of the friendly Lakeland creatures she so lovingly wrote about and drew, in Carole Tyrrell’s Lorelei we’re concerned with a village well, the dark goddess dwelling at the bottom of it, and the terrible effect she has on those who hear her call, while in SA Rennnie’s Out of the Water, Out of the Ground, one of several truly excellent stories contained herein, we face the full terror of what it would mean to be at war with the little people.

This of course is a key factor in any work of horror fiction: how highly did it score on the scareometer?

In that regard, The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Folk Horror is pretty satisfactory. As I’ve already mentioned, Out of the Water, Out of the Ground is especially frightening, but Michael Chislett gets us there too with Meeting Mr Ketchum, in which a hot Lammas Day sees two youngsters casually disturb an East Anglian tumulus, which unfortunately for them, is not undefended, while in CE Ward’s The Spinney, a deceptively simple tale, a motorist stranded in the Derbyshire wilds is inexplicably pursued across a desolate landscape by two increasingly menacing figures.

Possibly the two scariest stories in the entire book, however, are traceable back to my native Northwest: Christopher Harman’s genuinely bone-chilling Sisters Rise, which is centred around an eerie megalith on a lonely Lancashire hillside, and Ramsey Campbell’s short but effective The Burning, set in the depths of urban Liverpool on a cold Bonfire Night. Campbell needs no introduction of horror aficionados, of course, but The Burning is a particularly strong entry because, despite its brevity, it examines the brutal origins of November 5th, the mob mentality of sectarian violence and the victimising of the innocent.

It’s no surprise that we get such an intelligent message from Campbell, but there are other entries in the book that are equally thought-provoking.

Gail-Nina Anderson’s intriguing Variant Versions follows the quest to pin down the truth about an obscure rural ballad, the author balancing the scare factor, which is very subtle, with a genuine academic enquiry into the feminist origins of old country tales. In The Walls, meanwhile, by the ever-reliable Terry Lamsley (whose valuable contributions to the genre sadly seem to have ended years ago now), an attempt to investigate an old lead mine invokes a very different and unusual kind of entity, while in The Valley of Achor, Helen Grant takes us to the Perthshire wilderness, where an ancient pagan site has found a unique and disturbing way to reclaim itself from the new religion imposed on it during the Christian conversion.

There are other stories in the book which I haven’t yet mentioned, but that’s basically because we’re out of room. Put it this way, none disappoint. This is a lively and engaging anthology, filled with often gentle and yet hair-raising tales. What it eschews in terms of excessive blood and guts, it more than makes up for in its intelligence and its undoubted style, and of course, in its air of creeping dread. I feel sure that Dr James would have been delighted to get involved.

And now …

THE GHOSTS & SCHOLARS BOOK OF FOLK HORROR 
– the movie.

Just a bit of fun. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed, if they do.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but they are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for a compendium horror. 

Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories. It could be that they’re all held in separate cells in a mental hospital, eager to tell their individual tales to the new house-man (a la Asylum), or find themselves in an idyllic country home, where a nervous renovator needs reassurance about his various nightmares (as in Dead of Night) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

Sisters Rise (by Christopher Harman): A teacher-turned-local historian spends his retirement at the Forest of Bowland Visitor Centre, Lancashire. When a bunch of schoolchildren are terrified on Sisters Rise, where their tree-rubbings reveal faces in the bark, he investigates, but it’s a fearsome task. At the heart of the Rise stands the monstrous sandstone megalith, Tall Maud…

Rodney – Mark Addy
Ann Allan – Emily Beecham
Marjorie – Miranda Richardson

The Burning (by Ramsey Campbell): Recently rendered unemployed, Liverpudlian lad Blake attends the Guy Fawkes celebrations downtown in a sour and angry state. He yearns to punish those who, to his mind at least, are the cause of his redundancy. But he isn’t the only one out that night looking to scapegoat someone else for their troubles …

Blake – Matt Ryan

The Discontent of Familiars (by John Llewellyn Probert): A middle-aged academic inherits big money and uses it to buy a rural cottage, once allegedly the home of a witch whose familiar was a raven. He soon becomes convinced that an evil presence remains, and is increasingly afraid of the woods across the river, which are filled with ravens …

John Wilson – Tobias Menzies
Doctor – Andy Nyman

Out of the Water, Out of the Ground (by SA Rennie): An art-school guy is summoned to an isolated castle in the Cairngorms, where a friend is living in a state of mortal if irrational terror, convinced that recent blasphemies by his late father, the death of his brother in an overseas war and the rape of the land by industry and technology have aroused the ire of the local dwarves …

James – James McArdle
His friend – Will Poulter


BLOODY JANUARY 
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



THE HANGING CLUB
by Tony Parsons (2016)

Detective Constable Max Wolfe is a single-parent cop attached to the Major Incident Team at West End Central.

Under the steady leadership of his quietly-spoken but firmly authoritative boss, Detective Chief Inspector Pat Whitestone, he divides his time between caring for his beloved young daughter, Scout, and investigating bizarre and disturbing murder cases. The Hanging Club will be the third such case that we readers have joined him on, and it will see him tested to his absolute limits.

The horror begins when a London taxi-driver only recently released from jail after serving time for his role in a grooming gang, is video-taped being hanged by the neck in a dingy cellar and the images fed online. Other similar acts of ‘frontier justice’ now follow.

In rapid succession, a cashed-up boy-racer from the City gets off lightly after mowing down the grandson of ex-gangster, Paul Warboys, and so he too is strung up at an unknown location and the film of it played to the nation. Ditto a junk-head idiot who beat an octogenarian war-veteran into paralysis in order to get drugs money; he too walked away untouched and so also gets the rope.

By this time, Whitestone and Wolfe realise that they are dealing with an organised vigilante group who are apparently determined that they aren’t going to stop until justified violence has been served fully on the endless train of scumbags who seem to pass through the British judicial system with no more than a slapped wrist.

But there is a little bit more to it than this.

Some of the bodies are dumped at Marble Arch, near the site of the old Tyburn gallows, while on each of the hanging videos, a sonorous voice speaks beforehand, asking the victim if he knows why he has been ‘brought to this place of execution’. These guys take themselves very seriously; in their eyes, they aren’t just a gang, they are the new face of law-enforcement in 21st century Britain, an alternative to the official but jaded legal system which even Wolfe thinks has been hijacked by clever lawyers and judges dwelling in ivory towers. (Right at the beginning of the narrative, Wolfe himself is infuriated when one of his own cases fails, the Central Criminal Court going easy on three hooligans who kicked a householder to death and filmed it on their iPhones).

Conventional investigative techniques pay no initial dividends. Warboys, who, during his violent past, shared top billing with the Krays and Richardsons, seems a likely candidate, but he’s old now and past it. He sympathises with the Hanging Club (as the press gleefully proclaim them), but he doesn’t appear to be connected to them. Extensive surveillance of the deposition sites in the West End bears no fruit, and the forensics draw a blank. So, Whitestone calls in various experts.

Professor Hitchens is a historian who knows London inside-out. He’s initially hostile to the police, thinking himself above such mundane activities as crime-fighting, but Wolfe soon brings him down to Earth, though even then Hitchens is only really able to colour in the background (which, in several very enjoyable scenes, drives Wolfe to consult with old sweat, Sergeant Caine, the retiree who curates the infamous Black Museum).

Then there is Tara Jones, a beautiful but profoundly deaf woman who, ironically, is an expert at voice biometrics. By conducting computer analysis of the audio tracks on the video feeds, she is more useful to the team, who need to crack the location of the kill-site, by focussing on the sound of heavy building work nearby – though all this really tells them is that the subterranean location is somewhere in central London.

As if all this isn’t problematic enough, Wolfe finds himself in temporary charge when Whitestone’s son is blinded in an unprovoked nightclub attack, and at the same time, he must babysit Scout, who has now finished school for the summer holidays, and look out for Jackson Rose, a former school-friend turned army deserter and societal dropout, who, considering that he was only a cook when he was in the forces, seems to be remarkably adept at combat (both with and without weapons). Rose is currently lodging with Wolfe, but his oft-voiced support for the Hanging Club sees the copper getting increasingly worried and suspicious.

Of course, the ex-squaddie isn’t the only one to think this way. And here lies the real problem. Even while the enquiry stumbles around in the dark, the murderers’ popularity is growing among the general public, cheap newspaper headlines hailing the killers heroes and creating a mob atmosphere in a city soon sweltering in unusually high temperatures. This incendiary mood only amplifies when the vigilantes next target a Muslim hate preacher, an incident that adds race and religion to the mix.

And just when it seems that things can’t get any worse, Wolfe himself is grabbed. The Hanging Club aren’t just hunting the guilty, it seems, they are also looking to punish those who they see as protecting them …

Tony Parsons, renowned journalist and ‘men-lit’ author, came onto the crime fiction scene several years ago in a blaze of publicity, which left people with very high expectations. When the Max Wolfe series first got going, my expectations were largely fulfilled. The two novels before this one – The Murder Bag and The Slaughter Man – were slick, taut thrillers, which left me wanting much more. However, I’m slightly less sold on The Hanging Club. Not that it doesn’t contain some great stuff. It does, but I might as well get the brickbats out of the way first.

It is filled with procedural exposition, policing-by-numbers if you like, something which, whenever I see it in a book, makes me think that the author is taking up a lot of page-space trying to show how much research he/she has done. In this novel, it’s repetitive and distracting. I also took issue with the way the major investigations team is portrayed (which is ironic, because, as I say, otherwise Parsons has clearly done his homework). Basically, it’s undermanned. Whitestone’s absence leaves DC Max Wolfe in charge, apparently with only the assistance of DC Edie Wren, and trainee detective, Billy Greene. In my own police experience, it wouldn’t be completely unknown for an officer of constable rank to take point on an enquiry if he/she was deemed to have a certain expertise, but tackling the Hanging Club would surely be a massive operation and allocated huge resources, including a deputy SIO, duty DIs, etc?

But ultimately, these are the only problems I had with it.

The Hanging Club is a rattling good read, intriguing and exciting all the way through, and filled with colourful London characters. London itself is one of these, because in this novel we stay firmly in the centre of town, going both above it and below it, but never straying further west than Hyde Park or further east than the Old Bailey. I have a personal interest in the mythology of our capital city, and much of that is examined here, both interestingly and intelligently. I don’t want to say too much more about that, because I’ll risk giving away vital plot-points, but Tony Parsons is clearly in his element in this part of the book, effectively evoking the mysteries and brutalities of the old world, which, in London at least, are only buried under our feet by a few inches of concrete, if that.

He also – and this is a slightly more serious point – gives us a polemic about British justice.

Okay, in some ways, the idea may seem a bit hackneyed: honest cop falls out with system because hoodlums go unpunished, but eventually stands by it because it’s all he’s got. But in The Hanging Club it is elaborated on from various angles and with serious thought. Yes, we do see vile creatures enjoying the torment of their victims’ families in court, mee-mawing to their pals in the public gallery and celebrating when they beat the rap. Yes, we do hear the coppers’ frustration, and listen agog to judges summing cases up purely on the basis of legalese and without a hint of actual humanity. But we also learn about the savagery of the older methods, which so many empty-headed people hark back to; we hear what a verminous pit Newgate Prison was, and how folk could be incarcerated there and even dragged out along Dead Man’s Walk to be lynched in front of a raucous crowd for offences that would seem totally petty even in the 20th century let alone the 21st.

It’s a real conundrum that Parsons hits us with, but it comes with a warning too; namely that when a tide flows inexorably against public opinion, there may be a backlash which could easily get out of control. You don’t let the mob rule, but you must at least pay heed to their wishes.

Don’t let that put you off, by the way. The Hanging Club may be written with a clever subtext, but overall, it’s nowhere near as heavy as that may make it sound. It’s a fast, accessible read, and fans of London crime thrillers in particular will have no trouble enjoying it.

I’d have thought that any novel with Tony Parsons’ name on it would have a better-than-average chance of film or TV adaptation at some point. I’m not sure where the Max Wolfe series stands in that regard, but on the off-chance they need me to give them a little nudge, as usual I’m going to pitch in with my own recommendations for a cast should The Hanging Club ever get the green light. Just a bit of fun of course. Feel free to agree or disagree, as it suits you.

DC Max Wolfe - Richard Armitage
Jackson Rose - Noel Clarke
Tara Jones - Hayley Atwell
DCI Pat Whitestone - Anna Hope
DC Edie Wren - Rachel Hurd-Wood
Professor Hitchens - Russell Tovey
Paul Warboys - Donald Sumpter
Sergeant John Caine - Kevin Doyle



by James Patterson and David Ellis (2015)

7, Ocean Drive is a seafront mansion in a wealthy neighbourhood of the Hamptons, Long Island. In appearance, it is a gorgeous ‘olde worlde’ residence with a white sand beach out front and extensive wooded grounds to the rear. It’s a holiday idyll; East Coast America doesn’t get more upscale than this. There is one problem, though – and not a small one. 7, Ocean Drive is also a shunned and abandoned ruin, known locally as ‘the Murder House’ due to it once having sheltered the deranged Dahlquist family, who, generation after generation, terrorised the district with their depraved and homicidal ways. The Dahlquists are now extinct, but their shadow lingers – even in recent years, unsolved violent crimes have been associated with 7, Ocean Drive and its overgrown environs.

It certainly exerts a strange fascination on one-time resident Detective Jenna Murphy (not to mention causes her several inexplicable nightmares and panic attacks) … only for it then to become the epicentre of a full blown investigation when a brand-new double-slaying occurs there, the two victims – a local playboy and his girlfriend – suffering impalement and torture before death.

Murphy, a streetwise cop from New York City, who has returned home to Long Island after giving evidence against corrupt colleagues back in Manhattan, gets stuck in hard, but is beaten to the prize by her uncle, Chief Langdon James (who gave her this job in the first place), when he arrests and convicts handsome handyman and inveterate womaniser, Noah Walker. Noah’s ex-partner is one of the vics, so it seems like a straightforward case. But of course this is James Patterson country, and all manner of twists and turns now follow.

Walker is found to have been framed, and is subsequently released from jail – but Murphy still isn’t sure about his innocence; then there are more ghastly murders, Chief James himself impaled on a heated spit. It starts to look as if a serial killer is at large – but aside from the signature impalements, the pattern is not clear, the victims differing widely. Links are then made with a horrendous high-school shooting of many years earlier, but the evidence in that case appears to point every which way. And all the while, the house, even though it is empty, seems to lie at the heart of everything, like a grotesque spider in the centre of its web.

Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, Murphy herself comes under scrutiny. Bewilderingly, she is implicated by the forensics, though she has had difficulty from the start with new police chief Isaac Marks – a cop she neither rates nor likes, and to a degree, someone she also harbours suspicions about.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Murphy has only the vaguest recollection of the childhood she spent here, but the panic attacks increasingly seem to indicate that something terrible happened to her, something that may well connect her to these hideous crimes, both the old ones and the new ones – and it is this uncertainty that drives her on relentlessly, even when she is suspended or wanted for questioning. In due course, her very liberty will depend on her discovering the truth behind these murders, because the evidence stacking against her is literally mountainous …  

Though it starts off in near-slasher territory, everything occurring around a ghoulish old house wherein a family of demented murderers once dwelt, this long and complex tale quickly transforms into a vintage James Patterson mystery. A sizeable cast of characters (including oddball loser Aiden Willis and debonair restaurant owner Justin Rivers), many of them likely suspects themselves, provide the backdrop to Jenna Murphy’s investigation, which proceeds in fits and starts as she makes and breaks alliances in her desperation to crack the case, as curve-ball after curve-ball is thrown at her, as she eventually loses track of who she can and can’t trust.

Though a lengthy book (over 100 chapters!), it is a concise and easy read, and an absorbing plotline. The heroine herself is very likeable: tough enough to be a cop but vulnerable too, struggling to come to terms with the bad things in her life – and when the odds are against her, you really feel it; the threat of life imprisonment hangs over the second half of this book like a black cloud. I wasn’t totally sold on every aspect of the novel. The romantic elements felt a tad forced given the awful events unfolding, and the big reveal at the end wasn’t a complete surprise (though that is what you get when red herrings abound – you always end up analysing each one of them in detail). But all in all, this was a fast and enjoyable romp. Definitely more of a thriller than a police procedural, with a few Hitchockian psychological touches en route, and several big dollops of whodunit.

As usual – purely for laughs, of course – here are my picks for who should play the leads if Murder House ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (which has to be likely at some point, given Mr. Patterson’s near-constant occupation of the best-seller lists).

Detective Jenna Murphy – Scarlett Johansson
Noah Walker – Matthew McConaughey
Chief Langdon James – Ray Liotta
Aiden Willis – Walton Goggins
Justin Rivers – Simon Baker
Chief Isaac Marks – Casper Van Dien



by Michelle Paver (2011)

It is London in 1937, and young Jack Miller is something of a lost soul. He was raised in the middle-class, but now has no family or partner, he lives in a cheap, dreary apartment, and despite being a qualified physicist, his career prospects look bleak. He’s also quite clearly suffering from depression, though this isn’t the kind of thing you can talk about in these days of stiff-upper-lips, much less seek treatment for. 

As such, Miller finds life a struggle. In fact, it’s damaged him. He’s become a misanthrope who doesn’t like or trust anybody, especially those he associates with the ruling class – which hardly helps when he volunteers to join a scientific expedition to the High Arctic, and in his first meeting with the organisers, finds them a well-heeled bunch, ex-public school boys who reek of old money.

Personality-wise, they aren’t an entirely bad lot. Expedition leader, Gus Balfour, is a traditional square-jawed hero, an Oxford Blue, a man’s man and all that – but he’s a genuinely friendly chap and is tackling the mission with an air of stolid professionalism. Algernon ‘Algie’ Carlisle is less attractive; pudgy, pompous and inclined to casual cruelty where animals are concerned. Miller initially despises Algie, but eventually weighs things up, and decides that anything must be better than lingering on alone in a bleak, fog-shrouded London, and so he grudgingly joins the trip, the destination of which is Gruhuken, on a remote stretch of the Spitsbergen coast.

When they arrive in Gruhuken the following autumn, it is a beautiful, pristine wilderness, but of course the intense cold here is likely to prove a real challenge, especially with the long darkness of the polar winter rapidly encroaching. Quickly and efficiently, the team set their equipment up, organise their cabin and then explore a little. There is nobody else here now, though there are signs that others have been present in the past: trappers, miners and the like. None of these appear to have lasted long, while hoary old Norwegian skipper, Erikkson, in charge of the team’s transport ship, doesn’t even like it that Gus Balfour’s team have turned up.

Erikkson won’t be specific about his fears, but strongly implies that something dwells on this coast which doesn’t like interlopers. And indeed, Jack Miller also starts to feel this, several times spotting what he thinks is an odd, distorted figure lurking in the vicinity of the camp. At first he is reluctant to let this trouble him, because for quite some time he is almost neurotically obsessed with how much he doesn’t like his expedition comrades, not even Gus Balfour – whom he has an increasing if (earlier on at least) unspoken attraction towards. Equally irrationally, he dislikes their pack of sled-dogs, even the youngest of the huskies, the frolicsome Isaak, who shows a clear disposition to be affectionate towards him.

However, Miller soon comes to learn the value of friends, as, one by one, through illness, injury and bereavement, they are forced to return home. The rapidly diminishing party feels increasingly marooned and ever more embattled by the worsening wintry elements: heavy snow, shrieking wind and deep sub-zero temperatures make for very cold comfort. When Gus Balfour collapses with an appendicitis, it looks as if the mission will end prematurely – because someone needs to escort the patient back to civilisation, which will leave only one person to man the base, and this just as the 24-hour ‘blackout’ of the Arctic Night is finally falling.

Defiantly, Miller – because even now feeling encumbered by his ‘ugly duckling’ status, he is keen to assert himself – volunteers for this task. It is only likely to be for a few weeks before the others return, but no-one thinks this is a good idea, especially not Erikkson. However, Miller insists, so in due course he is left behind at Gruhuken, with the nearest human being two days’ sail away across the ice-clogged Barents Sea, and now facing the winter darkness entirely on his own.

Or so he would like to think. Because the stranded loner is very soon reminded that someone or something else is close at hand, watching his every move, growing steadily bolder as it senses his isolation.

Miller, a methodical sort who has many duties to attend, is bent on working his way through this ordeal by following a tight schedule that is designed to keep him busy. But slowly, his unease about the thing outside becomes full-blown fear, and eventually, with pitch-darkness covering the frozen land, terror. He now knows that he is not alone here. Something truly awful is prowling his perimeter; he hears it regularly, and glimpses it through the flurrying snow. 

Can it enter the cabin? He prays to God not.

It’s possible that the dogs might dissuade this entity from drawing any closer, but then the dogs disappear too. Still, Miller holds on, expecting his companions to return imminently, only to receive another very grave shock: the sea is freezing over. Which means, not only that no boat can dock here and so the others may not be able to return to Gruhuken until spring, but that he can no longer leave even if he suddenly decides that he can’t stand it any longer.

Miller may be stuck here, facing this horror alone, for the entire duration of the Arctic winter …

One thing needs to be clearly understood from the outset with Dark Matter: this is a ghost story. That may be something you’d immediately infer from the teaser outline I’ve posted above, but you must to be under no illusion that this is what you’re dealing with. This is not a psychological thriller, or a tale of polar espionage, or a boy’s own mystery – this is an out-and-out ghost story very much in the tradition of M.R. James, and it’s a pretty terrifying one at that.

But that doesn’t mean to say this novel isn’t also multi-layered. There are all kinds of things going on here. To begin with, a number of different spectres haunt these eerie pages. 

The spectre of World War Two is just around the corner; all the players on-stage are acutely aware of this, even if they rarely discuss it – their madcap mission is in some ways an attempt to run away from all that, because these young, able-bodied men are exactly the sort who, like their fathers before them, will be expected to enlist. Even the distant lands of the Arctic provide no real refuge from this sad reality, because, as we are we reminded several times, the mission itself has been underwritten by both the Admiralty and the War Office, who are looking to gather vital meteorological data.

In addition, we have the spectre of Miller’s latent and yet – at least as far as he’s concerned – unknown homosexuality. It informs his character throughout. He pathologically opposes almost everything the handsome Gus stands for, and so can’t understand his attraction to the guy. This in itself becomes an intangible form of torture for him.

And then of course there is the spectre of class division. Jack Miller doesn’t hail from the lowest stratum of society. He’s a middle-class boy, but he isn’t upper-class, and back in the 1930s – at least to young Miller’s immature mind – this is a big issue. After all, this is the age of the British Empire, an era when the rich weren’t idle, but saw it as their ancestral duty to go out and conquer the world, and if they couldn’t do that, go out and at the very least explore and civilise it. That is Gus Balfour all over, while Miller, in contrast, is part of the ‘nation of shopkeepers’, the everyday folk who, while not exactly poor, have no such hifalutin aspirations, and yet feel unmanned by this limitation of their lives to the eternally mundane.

Michelle Paver showcases this final spectre very neatly indeed, even to the point where it becomes irritating, we 21st century readers, who don’t experience this kind of thing, finally getting fed up with Miller and saying: “For God’s sake, Jack … these blokes are okay! Just do your job and man up!”

Man up, Jack!

Just what the author intends us to say, and exactly the kind of thing the posh boys of the 1930s would have said, had they used such parlance.

As well being a clever piece of work, Dark Matter is also exquisitely written. Michelle Paver, an Arctic traveller in her own right, paints a striking picture of the far, far north, which is all the more remarkable because she rarely references colour: everything up there is either white or grey, and yet the Arctic atmosphere is vividly communicated, as is its air of utter isolation. Early on in the book, this loneliness at the top of the world is exhilarating – we’re deep in the one of the last great wildernesses, a picturesque realm barely hinting at the existence of man. We can see it, feel it, smell it; it’s almost visceral – you literally shiver at the awesomeness of it.

But later on, of course, with the group decimated and the terrible threat of four months of complete and frozen darkness about to fall, everything changes. What was scenic becomes desolate, what was wild and untamed becomes life-threatening, what was merely unsettling becomes nerve-shredding.

Which brings me onto the ghostliness of Dark Matter; the real ghostliness that is – the malevolent thing that actively haunts Gruhuken.

As I mentioned previously, we are in solid M.R. James territory here. Okay, we aren’t talking cathedral cloisters or misty graveyards, we’re in the High Arctic and there is only one person present, but this is every inch a Jamesian-style horror story. 

The undead force menacing Jack Miller is real and deadly. It’s also relentless, and the atmosphere this creates, particularly in the later stages of the book, with Miller trapped in the claustrophobic confines of the cabin, struggling just to keep a single light burning, almost suffering a coronary at every undue sound (not an easy predicament with the polar wind screeching through chinks and snowflakes rattling the window-panes), is quite literally hair-raising.

But the author doesn’t just go full-bloodedly for this. From early in the text, she employs many crafty, low-key devices to disturb her readers: Isaak whimpering, his ears flattening whenever he senses evil approaching; a gruesome bear-hunting post seeming to move around of its own ability; Miller suffering a series of progressively more lurid and horrible nightmares.

Oddly, Michelle Paver has drawn some criticism for her use of these time-honoured methods. One or two critics aren’t impressed that Dark Matter is set in the ‘old world’, the actual time of M.R. James in fact, or that its basic concept is the isolation of an already stressed and nervous character in a terrible environment where the fear-factor will inevitably then crank itself up to an eventual crescendo from which only madness can result. There have been dark mutterings about Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black or Eleanor Vance in The Haunting of Hill House, but as a reader who knew that he was acquiring a ghost story – because it said so on the cover – this is exactly what I wanted.

I have some sympathy with the more measured criticism that Dark Matter, though superbly written and intensely frightening, doesn’t do anything to progress the supernatural horror genre. But again, I suppose it all depends what you are reading it for. If you’re not looking for the cutting edge, and simply want to be terrified out of your wits by some good, old-fashioned scare-fare then this is undoubtedly a book for you.

Usually at the end of these reviews, I like to indulge in some fantasy casting, selecting the actors I myself would recruit if the narrative in question was ever to hit the screens (and this one would make a perfect ‘ghost story for Christmas’ of the sort the BBC used to do so well in the days before they became too sophisticated for all that). This is possibly the first in the series where we’ve not had to look for any ladies, but such is the nature of this particular beast. Anyway, here we go:

Jack Miller – Aiden Turner
Gus Balfour – Tom Bateman
Algernon Carlisle – Tom Hollander
Erikkson – Vladimir Kulich



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



RITUAL by David Pinner (1967)

In the late 1960s, the Cornish coastal village of Thorn is rocked when a young girl, Dian Spark, turns up dead at the foot of an ancient oak tree, apparently murdered in ritualistic fashion. But when idealistic young police detective, David Hanlin, is sent to investigate, he finds that he has entered a world apart.

It is a hot and beautiful summer and Thorn is a remote community, but this is not the picture-postcard Cornwall that we all know and love. 

To begin with, the village itself is in a poor state, dull and impoverished, many of its buildings decayed, while the villagers themselves are odd and unfriendly. Mrs Spark, Dian’s bereaved mother, is a sultry but mysterious presence, courting a reputation for witchcraft and yet on the surface strongly opposed to the ancient rites that she is convinced caused the death of her youngest daughter. Her older daughter on the other hand, Anna – a seductive beauty and wannabe nymphomaniac – captivates Hanlin with her wanton ways, though, as he’s of a puritanical inclination, he also finds her revolting.

Other characters in the village are no less awkward to deal with for the out-of-place copper. Pastor White, the vicar, is patently mad. The penniless squire, Francis Fenn, plays bizarre flute music all day – badly, while out in the woods a homeless weirdo known only as Gypo provides a brawny and threatening presence. Meanwhile, at the rotten heart of the village sits retired local actor Lawrence Cready, an insufferably pompous and camp fellow, who occupies the manor house with his gay man-servant, Martin, and engages in strange and inappropriate games with Thorn’s resident tribe of rumbustious, urchin-like children.

We’ve already touched on Hanlin’s puritanical streak, and this soon becomes a key factor. Ever more certain that satanic practices are at play – especially as we draw closer to Midsummer Eve, for which some kind of secret celebration has clearly been planned – he throws his weight around with increasing anger and righteousness, ignoring the instructions of his superiors back in London, bullying some of the villagers and attempting unsuccessfully to make allies out of others. All the time he suspects that elaborate psychological games are being played with him, and yet, despite the occasional clues he finds and the air of decadence pervading the village (which also extends to the youngsters) he is unable to unearth any hard evidence. 

When another child is murdered, Hanlin finally starts to realise that he’s out of his depth. His physical aversion to strong sunlight hampers him, the sensual Anna is a constant distraction – even he is becoming aware that his own bigotries are leading him to snap and fallacious judgements – and he feels increasingly tired and disoriented. The only remaining option, it seems, is to stick around for Midsummer Eve, to try and catch the malefactors in the act of their profanities … 

The first thing to say about this one-time infamous novel of the occult from celebrated actor and playwright David Pinner, is that it provided a kind of unofficial basis for The Wicker Man, which hit the cinemas six years later. It was not an easy translation from page to screen, however. Though Christopher Lee and Robin Hardy allegedly co-purchased the rites to Ritual in 1971, the story goes that they ultimately found it unfilmable and so screenwriter Anthony Shaffer created his own macabre tale based only very loosely on the original. Some vague similarities are present: the lone policeman investigating an isolated village drenched in esoteric lore; in the midst of it all a controlling and sophisticated man with entirely ignoble motives; and the tauntingly desirable landlord’s daughter, who in the most memorable moment in the book – one scene at least which made it to the film virtually unchanged – dances naked against her bedroom wall, driving her lonely male target on the other side almost crazy with lust.

However, there are also significant differences. The book does not end the way the movie ends, and though Hanlin is unhealthily obsessed with his own cleanliness and upright character, he gives little indication of devout religious belief. There is also more menace in the village of Thorn than we found on Summerisle; no one makes any effort to be reasonable with Hanlin, everyone he encounters demanding that he leave, while several of the oddballs who populate the place, rather than living comfortably in their strange, secluded world, are clearly on the verge of insanity. 

But enough said about The Wicker Man. At the end of the day, that was a completely different animal, and now has legendary status its own right. In comparison, Ritual has largely been forgotten, but it is nevertheless a curious book and bit of a mixed bag.

Pinner’s poetic style and ornate language occasionally feels out-of-date in the 21st century. The ‘moral’ stance has worn badly too. While the corruption of youth through sensual pagan practises understandably horrifies Hanlin and is a precursor to our modern-age zero tolerance of child abuse, he also takes issue with Cready and Martin simply because they are homosexual, and at the same time, while massively turned on by village minx, Anna, he also wants to beat her for her wickedness – not much of a reconstructed man, then, David Hanlin.

There are other problems with the novel too. The portrayal of lackadaisical police procedures is pretty ludicrous, even by the standards of the rural 1960s. And I wasn’t entirely convinced by Hanlin’s methods of detection – there was a little too much instinct and not nearly enough deduction for my liking. But in truth none of this really matters. I was very glad to get hold of Ritual. It was a famous book at the time and has been long out of print, and once I dug into it, my various complaints notwithstanding, I still found it a compelling read.

There are genuine mysteries here, and a growing sense of fear as the clock ticks steadily down to the big event of the summer. But it’s also subtly done. With two children murdered, it would be difficult for anyone to argue there is nothing wrong with this place, but very little of it falls into Hanlin’s lap; there are times when even he wonders if he is imagining the witchery he relentlessly hunts. Hanlin himself makes an unusual hero – I wouldn’t say you empathise with him much, but he strikes an effectively forlorn figure as he battles the largely unseen forces of evil. I also rather liked Anna. The hooker with the heart of gold is something of a cliché in thriller fiction, but Anna is altogether deeper and more complex than that, and makes a mischievous and sympathetic foil to Hanlin’s humourless Cromwellian.   

Overall, an intriguing and enjoyable read, recommended for those who enjoy a touch of blatantly old-fashioned occult horror (and aren’t too worried about a distinct absence of political correctness).

I usually like to end these book reviews with a bunch of actors I personally would cast if the tale in question ever made it to the screen. Well, I venture to suggest that the original Wicker Man is probably the closest that Ritual will ever get to that. But just for laughs – it’s always for laughs of course – here are my picks should Ritual (as oppose to TWM) ever get the full celluloid treatment: 

DI David Hanlin – Kit Harrington
Anna Spark – Lily Collins 
Squire Francis Fenn – Freddie Jones
Lawrence Cready – Ian McKellen
Pastor White – John Hurt 
Mrs Spark – Minnie Driver



THE WEREWOLF OF BAMBERG 
by Oliver Potzsch (2015)

It’s the 1660s, and Schongau hangman, Jakob Kuisl, and his family arrive at the forest-begirt town of Bamberg, Bavaria, to celebrate the wedding of his estranged brother (and local hangman), Bartholomaus. A happy event is in prospect, Jakob’s beautiful and spirited daughter, Magdalena, hoping that her father and uncle will at last make friends and put behind them the mysterious event that split their family apart during their youth.

But all is not well in Bamberg. A series of ghastly murders is in progress, the unknown assailant horribly mangling the victims and scattering their dismembered body-parts. It hasn’t taken long for rumours to spread that a werewolf is on the prowl, though Jakob and Magdalena – a father-and-daughter crime-fighting team (there have been four ‘Hangman’s Daughter’ books before this one) – come to dispute this, noting that most of the gory fragments were severed from the original bodies cleanly rather than torn with tooth and claw.

A werewolf with a blade? It seems unlikely. 

Even more suspiciously, some of the victims, the vast majority of whom are drawn from the town’s patrician class, show marks of the rack and branding-iron.

A werewolf who abducts and tortures his victims before tearing them apart? It seems even more unlikely.
               
But Bamberg is not a town where rhyme and reason exist in abundance. Still haunted by the events of forty years earlier, when a far-reaching witch trial saw hundreds of citizens, most of them innocent, tortured and then burned at the stake, fear and superstition are rife in the flea-infested hovels and narrow, stone-arched streets. The townsfolk aren’t even sure what form their adversary takes: is it a man/wolf hybrid, a warlock who can turn himself into an actual wolf; or a maniac wearing a pelt? – whichever the case, they are certain it’s a creature of the Devil, and that it must be destroyed, along with all its spawn.

Jakob undertakes to investigate the crimes, aided very efficiently by Magdalena, her educated husband, Simon, and his close friend and local physician, Master Samuel. But the situation worsens when Sebastian Harsee, suffragan bishop of Bamberg, sees advantage in stirring up these fears because if terror of the darkness brings the townsfolk closer to God, it can only empower his own position. Further complications then arise when a dangerous hunting dog gets loose outside the city (and this predator does leave his victims mauled and ripped), by an outbreak of rabies (an illness misunderstand by the medical science of the time, and the sufferers of which snarl and froth at the mouth), and by the escape from the prince-bishop’s menagerie of a baboon (a completely alien creature to most Germans of this era).

As the attacks continue, hysteria increases, and accusations fly everywhere. Meanwhile, Jakob and Magdalena find themselves with many suspects to consider. The hideously scarred Jeremias, custodian of a local tavern, is a friendly enough soul, so much so that Magdalena will happily leave her two children in his care, but increasingly, it seems, he has odd and ghoulish interests, and his past is another one that is shrouded in mystery. Aloysius, a solitary individual, both looks and smells like the hunting dogs he tends; he is an odious individual, whom Jakob instinctively dislikes. Then there is Bartholomaus, Jakob’s own brother. The deep enmity between these two partly stems from the fact that, when they were boys, Jakob never wanted to follow their father into the hangman trade, while Bartholomaus, a keen student of the most brutal forms of punishment, positively looked forward to it.

The case finally turns deadly for the Kuisl family themselves, when Barbara, Magdalena’s younger sister, falls for handsome young actor, Matheo, who is part of a travelling troupe visiting the town, only to see him clapped in irons as a suspect. In this case, the evidence is actually rather good. Items associated with black magic are found among the actors’ possessions, along with a number of wolf-skins. Also suspected, Barbara goes into hiding in company with the troupe’s depressed resident-writer, Markus Salter – as much from the baying mobs rampant in the city as from the actual authorities – but it’s clearly only a matter of time before she’ll be found. If Jakob wants to save his daughter from a terrible death, he knows he must crack the case very quickly indeed …

I’d never encountered the Hangman’s Daughter stories before, so it probably wasn’t ideal to come in at volume five. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment of The Werewolf of Bamberg, but I must say – this is one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read.

First of all, it’s an excellent recreation of a turbulent age, a time when the brutality and mysticism of the Middle Ages is slowly and reluctantly giving way to the Enlightenment, but an era when Western Europe is still the epitome of the Third World. Real skills of any sort, unless they are connected to violence and death, are in short supply. Education is thin on the ground. Personal wealth is something to be defended at all costs, but life in general is cheap. Most crimes, even petty ones, are punishable by death or at least a severe whipping. Trials might hinge on the reputation of the accused rather than factual evidence. Some occupations are held to be vastly less honourable than others, including, amazingly, the medical profession. Despite it being an age of faith, basic moralities are skewed, community leaders, including senior churchmen, setting a very poor example with their many and varied vices.

This attention to authentic historical detail is fascinating, invoking a different and distinctly non-chocolate box picture of the near-distant past. I was utterly absorbed in it – much more so, sadly, than I was by the actual mystery.

Oliver Potzsch does an impressive job of setting up a whole range of suspects, while the essential back-story – a political stitch-up of epic proportions – is effectively drizzled through the narrative rather than thrown at us in one lump of exposition, but the pace at times is wearisome. This may partly be down to losses in translation, though I’m not sure it is. Lee Chadeayne does a sterling job of bringing The Werewolf of Bamberg from German to English, leaving us with a very readable text, but there is an awful lot of repetition here, and that must be part of the original writing. I soon got tired of seeing Jakob and Bartholomaus quarrelling over nothing or hearing that the occupation of executioner is badly thought-of (and why would that surprise or outrage anyone?). As such, the novel overall is perhaps twice as long as it needs to be.

In addition, it’s a personal belief of mine that too many characters can get in the way. Jakob and Magdalena are the stars of the book, or they would be if their contributions weren’t obscured by what amounts to an ensemble cast, all of whom jockey for prominence; in fact, so many are the named personages in this book that at times it’s a real challenge keeping up with everyone and remembering what they are doing.

My other main complaint is about Jakob Kuisl himself. I like him as a character – a gruff, middle-aged man who doesn’t look after himself is a rare delight in hero terms – but find it difficult buying into the conceit that, though he’s a long-serving hangman, he feels sorrow for his victims and often acts to reduce their pain. Wouldn’t he get sacked for doing that, or maybe worse? What’s more, when this approach fails, he consoles himself with the knowledge that he’s merely a cog in an unjust machine and that it’s never his personal fault. All very well, but when you consider that his duty has seen him not just string felons to the gallows, but burn them at the stake, break them on the wheel and draw and quarter them between teams of horses, his oft-expressed disgust at those other executioners, his brother for example, who are consciously vicious, rings a bit hollow to modern ears.

But all that said, I stuck with it to the end. So, while I wouldn’t call The Werewolf of Bamberg a real page-turner, its atmosphere and tone did more than catch my interest. In addition to the historical angle, I’ve long been a sucker for werewolf stories, and even though it becomes apparent early on that we’re not dealing with a werewolf here, but a serial killer, it is clearly based on the real-life mystery of the Werewolf of Bedburg, and we still find ourselves on dark, winding streets with a horrific menace stalking us through the shadows. In that regard, it’s as effective a horror story as it is a thriller and having a foot in both these camps is not always a bad thing.

I recommend it to all dark fiction fans, but at more than 600 pages you’ll need plenty time in which to read it.

As usual – purely for the fun of it – here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Werewolf of Bamberg is ever adapted for English-language film or TV (but I still think the main concept would be a tough sell for a modern audience):

Jakob Kuisl – Liam Neeson
Magdalena Fronwieser – Cosma Shiva Hagen
Bartholomaus Kuisl – Danny Webb
Simon Fronwieser – Martin Freeman
Master Samuel – Oded Fehr
Jeremias – Rutger Hauer
Sebastian Harsee – Gary Oldman
Markus Salter – Iwan Rheon



THE SILENT COMPANIONS 
by Laura Purcell (2017)

A nightmare tale told in three parallel strands.

In the 1860s, Elsie Bainbridge, a burned, mute and seemingly deranged woman, lies in a secure ward in St Joseph’s, a lunatic asylum deep in the English countryside. Here, the attentive Dr Shepherd provides her with an empty diary and encourages her to jot down the terrible events that led to the destruction of The Bridge, the stately residence she once called home, and her resulting mental collapse. The doctor is certain that only by giving her own twisted account of these incredible events, can Elsie prove to the authorities that she is clinically insane, and thereby evade the gallows. Despite this, Elsie resists for as long as she can, unable to revisit the horrors that have recently ruined her life, but in due course, inevitably, she succumbs.

Thus begins the second strand in the tale, with Elsie Bainbridge, now half a year younger, but pregnant and recently widowed, arriving at The Bridge, her late husband’s neglected country estate, in company with her self-confident younger brother, Jolyon Livingstone, and the cousin of her late husband, Sarah Bainbridge (who is even more grief-stricken than Elsie, as she has now seen everything that once belonged to her family pass into the hands of an in-law).

The Bridge is a drear, decaying edifice in a remote and desolate location, to which all kinds of unedifying legends are attached. The staff, used to having things their own way, are openly hostile and uncooperative, while the local villagers, who live in a permanently impoverished state, dislike everyone at the local manor house and blame them for all their ills, the direct cause of which, they suspect, is witchcraft.

Already traumatised at having lost her husband, and worn out by her pregnancy, Elsie struggles to adapt to this terrible environment. But when Jolyon returns to London to run the family business, the situation worsens as she and the ultra-timid Sarah begin hearing strange sounds at night. They trace these to a locked attic, which no one seems willing or able to open, though when Elsie manages this, she finds that it contains a 17th century diary, and a so-called ‘silent companion’: a flat, lifesize figure made from painted wood, depicting a child that is alarmingly similar in appearance to Elsie, herself, when she was young. 

From here on, the terrors mount. There are more and more eerie noises in the house, while the silent companions, inexplicably, begin to multiply, appearing all over the building, at the ends of corridors or looking down from internal balconies, always, it seems, watching. The increasingly distraught Elsie thinks she recognises some of the persons they represent, while others are complete strangers, yet all are chilling in the intensity of their stares … and could it be Elsie and Sarah’s imagination, or do these horrible figures actually move around the house on their own when no-one is looking?

The 17th century diary, meanwhile (the third strand in our story), tells its own tale of menace, following the declining fortunes of Anne Bainbridge, whose husband, Josiah, is a country gent of minor importance in the years leading up to the Civil War. His one chance to impress comes unexpectedly, when King Charles I opts to visit The Bridge, the ancestral Bainbridge seat. Anne prepares The Bridge thoroughly, as any good chatelaine should, planning to treat her royal guests to a magnificent masque, but she has a dark and guilty secret: her habitual use of rural magic, which as a Christian woman she is certain will bring retribution on her at some point. Anne has called on the dark arts several times in the past to gain advantage, on one occasion to impregnate herself when she’d supposedly turned barren, the result of which was Hetta, her curious young daughter, who has beautiful ‘pixie’ looks, but is mute and distant, makes friends with outcasts and oddballs (like the local gypsies), and seems to possess a detailed, self-taught knowledge of herbal lore.

This is the age of witch-hunting, of course, but though the local villagers harbour suspicions about Anne and her little goblin, Hetta, they won’t dare say anything. More problematic is the attitude of Josiah, a muscular Christian in his own right, who also hates and fears witches. If he has any concerns about his wife and daughter, he keeps them to himself until the time of the king’s visit draws near, at which point he decides that Hetta is an embarrassment and must stay out of the way.

Anne is heartbroken for her daughter, but also fearful that God’s punishment is now looming, especially when Hetta withdraws into herself, becoming surly, truculent, and surrounding herself with an eerie cadre of brand-new friends, the Silent Companions …  

When I consider the traditional English ghost story, it invariably makes me think isolated manors, cold, misty landscapes, a vengeful entity, and, quite often, some nervous, damaged individual, either male or female, lured far from civilisation to meet this nemesis – and all of it set in that ageless if generic Victorian/Edwardian time-loop.

All these criteria are staples of the classic spooky tale, and whether dated or not in the 21st century – and that’s very subjective! – they surely can’t help but infuse a majority of us with a deep sense of foreboding, picking at what appear to be our deepest fears.

If you include yourself in that majority, then The Silent Companions is a book for you. But be warned from the outset, this is a seriously frightening foray into the genre. When Laura Purcell embarked on this novel, there was no intent to produce a ‘Gothic romance’, a ‘period mystery’ or a ‘supernatural thriller’. The Silent Companions is out-and-out horror.

Yes, it might have the trappings of an archetypical ghost story, something you’d expect to read in a firelit drawing room some snowy Christmas Eve (as I did), but the ghastly evil at The Bridge comes at us and our isolated heroine, Elsie, with a malicious brutality reminiscent of the merciless spirit in Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, the manifestations growing steadily more disturbing (even if the early ones are done ultra-subtly), until it becomes obvious that an appalling crescendo will soon be reached.

Moreover, any suggestion that the malignancy here is perpetrated by a human hand is jettisoned early on by the presence of those awful watching figures, the titular Companions. Though the actual secrets of The Bridge are never given away until the very end of the novel – masterly writing by Laura Purcell, to protract the mystery to that length! – the possibility always remains, mainly due to Elsie’s increasingly unreliable state, that there is a psychological factor here too, the sort found in Shirley Jackon’s The Haunting of Hill House, though readers with faint hearts should take no comfort from this, as it only serves to boost the nightmare.

As a story, The Silent Companions is filled with fascinating characters. No-one here is stock or run-of-the-mill, not even lesser characters like the two maids, Helen and Mabel, who provide realistic portrayals of churlish and impudent ex-workhouse girls, while housekeeper, Edna Holt, instead of being a typical trusty stalwart of the older staff, is another difficult presence, harbouring thinly-veiled resentment of her youthful new mistress.

The book’s three leads are equally well-drawn.

Elsie herself is stronger and grittier than the average Victorian-era heroine, very much a high-handed lady of the period – dressing well, minding her manners and casually ordering her servants around – but also one who is risen from nothing and the daughter of abusive parents. Her father a factory-owner, she grew up amid the smoke and ashes of London’s industrial quarter, an early life from which she bears both mental and physical scars – which, in its turn, has marooned her somewhere between the two worlds of the establishment and the underclass, meaning that she’s able to draw friends and allies from neither. This has toughened her, of course, though not to a silly degree. Elise is a feisty woman by the standards of her time, but when the haunting at The Bridge commences, she wilts like all the rest.

This is all in stark contrast to Sarah Bainbridge, Elsie’s ‘Plain Jane’ cousin-in-law, and a neurotic, self-pitying individual, who, convinced that she has been left on the shelf, cuts a pathetic figure in whose support Elsie simply can’t trust. Of course, as is regularly the case in this novel, the still waters that are Sarah Bainbridge could run deceptively deep. 

Anne Bainbridge meanwhile, the mistress of the house in the 17th century, is a different animal again. A beautiful and respected lady-of-the-manor, she dominates her immediate world with an authority that Elise could only dream of, but nevertheless lives in dread of her even more powerful husband, Josiah, to the point where she can barely raise an objection to his callous mistreatment of their ‘faerie child’, Hetta. She also fears God, certain that he will plunge her into Hell for those dabblings in the dark arts, and perhaps even more so, His servants on Earth – the witchfinders – who will punish her equally severely if her tricks are discovered. Anne, the second most important character in The Silent Companions, is another mother caught between two opposing forces, and another commanding presence who in the end wields such little real command that her world will be consumed by elemental forces beyond her control.

I don’t want to say too much more about The Silent Companions, because this is a book of very well-kept secrets, which will intrigue and enthrall you as much as frighten you, and keep you guessing to the very last page. Suffice to say that the two strands, both the 17th century and the 19th century stories, while running parallel to each other, dovetail repeatedly and perfectly, in the end creating a single narrative which is presented to us in the most sumptuous, readable prose, and filled not just with eeriness, but with moments of spectacular terror.

Overall, one of the most satisfying ghost stories I’ve read in quite a long time.

As always at the end of one of my reviews, I’m going to do my bit to lobby for a TV or film adaptation by nominating the cast I would choose should such a fortunate circumstance arise … and given the dearth of recent Ghost Stories for Christmas productions by the BBC, there ought to be a vacant slot on the horizon soon! So, here we go; feel free to disagree or agree, as the mood takes you.  

Elsie Bainbridge – Tamsin Egerton
Anne Bainbridge – Christina Cole
Sarah Bainbridge – Lily Cole
Josiah Bainbridge – Ben Barnes
Jolyon Livingstone – Freddie Highmore
Dr. Shepherd – Bill Nighy
Edna Holt – Penelope Wilton

One of the most important characters in The Silent Companions is undoubtedly Hetta Bainbridge, but as she’s a very young child, it would be well beyond my ability to find someone adequate for the role. So that’s one part I’ll happily leave to the official Casting Director (he or she will doubtless be glad to know).


THE DEMONOLOGIST 
by Andrew Pyper (2013)

Nothing is going right in the life of Professor David Ullman. He’s an expert in demonic literature, in particular Milton’s Paradise Lost, but he’s also an atheist, so he gets no spiritual fulfilment from this. In addition, his home life is a mess, his marriage falling apart and his 12-year-old daughter, Tess, suffering from depression. Then he learns that his best friend, Elaine O’Brien, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

In an effort to get away from it all, Ullman accepts a curious invitation to travel to Venice and bring his expertise to bear on “a phenomenon”. Taking Tess with him, he embarks on what he hopes will be a short but welcome holiday. However, the phenomenon turns out to be the apparent and rather horrible possession of an unknown man in a dingy backstreet house. Bewildered and distressed, Ullman returns to his hotel, only to find Tess in a similar condition, standing on the roof. Before he can intervene, she throws herself into the Grand Canal, screaming two words: “Find me!”

When the police search, no body is recovered. But Ullman saw the incident with his own eyes, and is certain his daughter is dead. He returns to the States, devastated, but soon embarks on a mission to learn more about the evil spirit he confronted in that grubby old house.

So begins a journey from religious denial to religious conviction for David Ullman. And it’s a very arduous journey indeed, a demonic entity that he’s only previously encountered in fictional work leading him from pillar to post across North America with a series of complex clues. It’s also a journey he must make with an extremely dangerous man on his heels, a proficient killer who calls himself ‘George Barone’ after a famous Mafia hitman. Whoever this guy really is and whoever’s paid him to pursue Ullman are details that remain elusive for the time-being. All that matters initially is Ullman surviving and unravelling the devilish puzzle that has been laid in front of him in the seemingly vain hope that, at the end of it all, he might find Tess, and that she might – just might! – still be alive …

In some ways, The Demonologist is more like a road trip than a horror novel, but be under no illusions. For all its arthouse trappings, it is a horror novel, and in some ways a very traditional one. It’s not even low on gore – there are killings aplenty, while the demon, when it appears, will be very familiar in its motives and manners to those imagined by orthodox religious folk.

And ultimately, at least at subtext level, that’s what this is all about: a soul’s voyage from darkness to light. It’s been suggested that in some ways it mirrors Satan’s journey in Paradise Lost; he too clawed his agonising way out of the pit, though in his case there was no chance of redemption at the end.  

David Ullman is a strange kind of hero – somewhat stiff, somewhat stuffy, quite superior on some occasions, and yet vulnerable and uncertain in others (he’s been dealt a pretty crappy hand, after all!), and for much of the time in this book, he’s terrified, relying on intellect rather than raw courage. For all that, he’s a nice guy in his odd, introspective way. So you can’t help but root for him along every inch of his difficult path.

I personally wasn’t terrified by The Demonologist, even though I first noticed it in various ‘top 10 scariest novels’ lists. But I was intrigued and pleasantly unnerved (the hitman is in many ways your very worst nightmare – an utterly cold, completely unemotional professional murderer), and once I got into it, I found it a damn good read. It’s taut, tense, and while it might not keep you awake at night, it will certainly keep you turning the pages.

As usual, just for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Demonologist someday makes it to the screen (I’ve heard that a movie version is in development, but we’ll have to wait and see):

Professor David Ullman – Brian Cranston
Elaine O’Brien – Mayim Bialik
George Barone – Viggo Mortensen


THE LAST CUT 
by Danielle Ramsay (2017)

DS Harri Jacobs is a cop on the edge.

Okay, lots of police fiction likes to adopt that attitude, but in this case, author Danielle Ramsay really means it. Her central character has been through an ordeal the likes of which few people would recover from. A Newcastle girl by origin, she joined the Metropolitan Police in London, during the course of which service she was attacked and raped with such ferocity that she almost died. Before abandoning her broken body, her anonymous assailant made things even worse by promising her that one day he’d return and finish the job.

As part of her effort to get over this nightmare – not least because, somewhat outlandishly, she suspected that one of her London colleagues, DI Mac O’Connor, was the culprit – Harri transferred to Newcastle, feeling more at home in familiar surroundings. But even then – and this is where the novel actually starts, she is increasingly frightened and paranoid. It hardly seems likely that her attacker will follow her north, but while Harri is a strong, tough character, she is deeply damaged psychologically, and finds that she can’t trust anyone. Not only that, she keeps her new colleagues at arm’s length. In the case of wideboy DC Robertson, it’s perhaps understandable, because he’s a total throwback, but DI Tony Douglas is one of the good guys, and yet Harri is equally cool with him. And after all that, at the end of each trying day, she goes back home to an upper apartment in an otherwise empty industrial building, where she barricades herself in, so increasingly unnerved by the all-encompassing darkness that she sits with her back to the door and a baseball bat in her hand.

Of course, none of this self-imposed isolation really prepares her for the ultra-difficult days that lie just ahead.

A series of horrific crimes commences, when a young woman is found murdered and ghoulishly disfigured. We, the readers, know who is responsible; we don’t know his identity, but we’ve seen him at work in his homemade surgical lab, where he coldly, clinically, crudely, and in eerie, concentrated silence, performs torturous reconstruction on helpless and brutalised female captives. We realise, without needing to be told, that the body already discovered will only be the first of many.

All of this would be difficult enough for the cops to deal with, but Harri’s own troubles are about to get a whole lot worse. Not only has the first victim been left at a deposition site which has personal meaning for her, but she then becomes the recipient of information connecting this latest atrocity to the attack that she herself suffered (including, very alarmingly, photographic images). Convinced that it’s the same perpetrator finally coming back for Round Two, Harri knows that if she was to hand this new intel to her bosses, she’d immediately be taken off the case – and she cannot stand that thought. She’s only just regained control of her life, and to lose it again, so soon – to the same heinous villain – would be more than she could bear.

And so begins one of the most difficult enquiries that any police officer, fictional or otherwise, has ever embarked on, the killer behaving ever more monstrously, Harri agonised with guilt about withholding key evidence from the rest of the team, but determined to stay on the case, because unless she is the one to take this fiend down, she knows that she’ll never have peace, and will never be able to live with herself …

In the modern era, there is an increasingly thin line between crime fiction and horror, and in The Last Cut, Danielle Ramsey crosses it several times. Make no mistake, this story centres around a truly horrific concept.

Conceive, if you can, of a serial killer who abducts his victims, straps them down in the dark and the cold, and then literally goes to work on them over a period of days, if not longer, gradually transforming them through non-anaesthetised surgery into a completely different kind of creature. Scalpels, needles and acid are all applied liberally. He even replaces their eyes with glass baubles, so that in the end only featureless monstrosities remain.

Danielle Ramsay doesn’t lay it on hard in terms of obscene detail, but again, it’s the bone-chilling concept. If you tried to put that idea alone into a movie, it would be 18-rated for sure.

The horror movie atmosphere doesn’t end there, either. The Last Cut isn’t just about a deranged killer and his nightmarish MO. It’s also about the state of heroine, Harri Jacobs’s mind. This is without doubt one of the most effectively traumatised lead-characters I’ve encountered in a crime novel to date. Primarily, that’s because it’s not in the reader’s face, but it’s there nevertheless, lurking constantly in the background.

Harri, as we’re told from the outset, it a rape survivor. Though, in many ways, she hasn’t survived at all. Her intense conviction that the madman who attacked her is not only still out there, but still stalking her, and even murdering other women in the most elaborate, grotesque ways in order to get at her, clouds her thinking to the point where she withholds essential info from her superiors, misjudges fellow officers (almost fatally at one point), and is driven to live like a recluse in a semi-derelict former factory with only a single, heavy-duty lift connecting her residence to the rest of the world.

This excellent latter device is itself hugely effective in creating a sense of fear and alienation. Harri is a lonely soul even during the day, when she’s on duty. She is so convinced that indifference to her plight lurks on all sides that she takes desperate, dangerous measures to ensure that she is kept on the case, which segregates her massively. But at nighttime, this sense of paranoia literally takes physical form. She blockades herself into this terrible old building, which creates a siege mentality, thanks to which she gets almost no rest.

The mere thought of this is blood-curdling. How would you react if, in the darkest part of the night, you heard movement on the other supposedly empty floors? How would you respond if you suddenly heard the lift ascending in the early hours of the morning – and indeed how does Harri respond?, because yes, you guessed it, that’s exactly what happens.  

This is all tremendously effective in creating a dark, ultra-grim police novel.

The authentic Newcastle setting is desolate and gloomy, and again in horror fiction fashion, maintains a subtle but ghostly aura. We’re so focussed on the tight, tense interplay of the central characters that we see very little of the cty’s day-to-day life or its general population (aside from those among them who die so horribly – one gruesome event on the Tyne Bridge lingers long in the memory), so the whole of Tyneside is there, but mostly as a spectral backdrop.

Danielle Ramsay obviously loves her native Northeast, but this is a stark portrayal of the difficulties faced by police teams in the heart of an unfeeling city, especially when they are confronted by particularly violent crimes. It also reminds us that police officers themselves are only human, and likely to be damaged by many of the things they see and do – and quite often are not always the best judges of their own situations.

An intense, brooding psycho-thriller, gritty and dark as hell, and built around a disturbing but intriguing mystery. You can’t afford to miss it.

As I say, I would love to see The Last Cut get the film or TV treatment, even if it could never be sceened after 9pm (not that that would worry me). On the off-chance it will happen, and I so hope it does, here are my picks for the leads: 

DS Harri Jacobs – Emily Beecham
DI Tony Douglas – Robert Glenister
DI Aaron Bradley – William Moseley
DI Mac O’Connor – Christopher Fulford
DC Robertson – Anthony Flanagan


A CROWN OF LIGHTS
by Phil Rickman (2011)

When a young pagan couple, Robin and Betty Thorogood, acquire an old farmhouse in rural New Hindwell, they are delighted to discover the relic of an abandoned Christian chapel in the grounds. Immediately, they launch plans to perform rituals there and to reclaim the ancient site for the ‘old religion’ by celebrating the traditional Celtic feast of Imbolc.

But of course, it isn’t going to be that simple.

To start with, Betty Thorogood – the more tuned-in of the two – senses a dark presence in the ruin and an air of foreboding in the encircling Radnor Valley. If this doesn’t worry her enough, the couple’s plans arouse the wrath of Reverend Nick Ellis, the local evangelical minister, who has brought a hellfire message to the UK from his former parish in the American South. Despite Betty’s charm and beauty, Ellis, a man with great charisma but an increasingly sinister fundamentalist agenda, manages to stir up intense local feeling against the duo – to the point where mob violence soon threatens.

Merrily Watkins, local vicar and Diocesan Deliverance Officer, a woman very experienced in tackling the occult, is sent to keep a watch on the volatile situation. But it soon becomes apparent that this is a vastly more complex and frightening problem than even she anticipated. To start with, there are several other bizarre, possibly interconnected issues in New Hindwell: eccentric lawyer JW Weal can’t seem to let go of his recently deceased wife and may well have used nefarious, if not downright evil, methods to hang onto her soul, while at the same time Merrily is disturbed by the rumour that a circle of medieval churches dedicated to St. Michael, originally built to contain a dragon lurking in Radnor Forest, may actually have been located there to entrap a demonic entity.

Above all though, the main threat to peace in this small community stems from the Rev. Ellis, who is much more than just a zealous preacher. Merrily soon comes to doubt his motives and even his beliefs, and finds his followers – who include several local people of note, including the fearsome councillor’s wife, Judith Prosser – a particularly menacing bunch, whose strict loyalty to each other may be concealing a wealth of sins, including murder. In fact, so worried is she by this gathering storm, that she finds herself siding with the pagan newcomers, though they themselves don’t make this easy for her when a whole bunch of them turns up, determined to desecrate the ancient Christian site with their Imbolc rites …

A Crown of Lights is the third outing in the hugely popular Merrily Watkins series, and for my money one of the best. Not that I don’t have a couple of reservations about it.

One key issue I have with the Watkins stories overall is the central heroine’s apparent lack of conviction. It can’t be easy for her; the loss of her husband while she was still young and the hostility she seems to face at almost every turn from her know-all teenage daughter, Jane, must leave her feeling pretty friendless at times. But even so, Merrily, while not exactly beset with doubts about her faith, is hardly the sort of muscular Christian you’d normally expect to occupy the role of exorcist. She doesn’t seem to like anything about her own Church, and nor is she easily convinced that supernatural forces exist (despite much evidence to the contrary in this series).

That said, these apparent weaknesses work in her favour in this particular outing, as the powers soon ranged against her – from all sides, both pagan and Christian – leave her more embattled than we’ve ever seen before, which quickly wins her over to the readers. You always tend to root for the underdog, especially if she gets bullied as often as Merrily does – one scene in particular, when she is unwillingly drawn into a live TV debate with a bunch of militant witches under the control of arch manipulator Ned Bain, has you on her side in no uncertain terms.

Less easy to reconcile is the other issue, which is Phil Rickman’s general reluctance to plunge fully into the world of the weird. There are several ghostly and demonic elements in A Crown of Lights, though it is essentially a clever and absorbing murder mystery, so they remain on the periphery. This is a personal viewpoint of course, but while this subtle combo of thriller and chiller has worked for some, I found the many signposts to the arcane – the ancient churches, the legends, the folklore, the prehistoric monuments with which the wild landscape is littered, the hints of a devilish presence, etc – disappointing, as there is no real fulfilment of that particular promise.   

However, this is still an excellent read.

To start with, the incendiary atmosphere in the village is hugely well handled. You wouldn’t normally expect the wintry Welsh Marches to play host to a furious war of words between fanatical religious groups, but it happens here in completely convincing fashion, the hostility simmering throughout the book until the threat of violence feels so real that you can’t help but shudder – there is surely nothing more frightening in both fiction and non-fiction than lynch-law.

It also helps to drive the narrative along that it’s such a multi-stranded mystery, which you simply have to get to the bottom of. A Crown of Lights is an intricate tale, at times almost overwhelmingly so, but it’s massively intriguing – and the reader can rest assured that it all gets tied up neatly at the end.

As always with Phil Rickman’s books, the writing is of the highest order. The gorgeous rural region is beautifully realised, its ancientness and mystery (my earlier comments notwithstanding) evoked in loving fashion. By the same token, the book is a mastery of research. The complex mythology of the Marches is brought vividly to life, while the pagan belief system is richly detailed and made to feel like so much more than silly superstition.

Most interesting of all, though, is the clash of cultures.

Paganism is portrayed as a free-spirited faith, only loosely based on genuine pre-Christian beliefs but unfettered by modernism, unlike Merrily’s ‘rational’ brand of 21st century Christianity in which the exorcist is expected to know as much about psychiatry as doctrine. And this is another key aspect of the book: the war between the old and the new – some of which rages inside Merrily, and between her vision of a kinder Christianity and Nick Ellis’s fire and brimstone, but also out in the wider village community of New Hindwell, which, though it’s hardly the back of beyond, is beset with tradition and was never likely to welcome changes enforced on it by outsiders.    

A compelling, thought-provoking novel, very, very readable and highly recommended for lovers of both mystery and mysticism.

As usual – purely for fun, you understand – here are my personal selections for who should play the leads if A Crown of Lights ever makes it to the movies or TV. Thanks to that fine writer, Stephen Volk, Merrily Watkins has already bestridden our television screens in Midwinter of the Spirit, but that was then and this is now, and only a couple of those characters play a role in Crown, so, with the exception of Sally Messham, this is a different cast:

Merrily Watkins – Rachel Weisz
Nick Ellis – Billy Bob Thornton
Judith Prosser – Catherine Zeta-Jones
Ned Bain – Hugo Weaving
Jane Watkins – Sally Messham
Betty Thorogood – Sophie Cookson
Robin Thorogood – Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
JW Weal – Robert Pugh

(I know, I know … this would be an expensive line-up, but in my imagination I have limitless funds, so yah!)


DEAD SILENT 
by Mark Roberts (2016)

Liverpool in the depths of December. Christmas is approaching, but there is little joy to be had in the Sefton Park district of the wintry city.

DCI Eve Clay and her team of experienced homicide investigators are baffled and horrified when they are called to the murder of retired octogenarian college professor, Leonard Lawson, an expert in medieval art. To make the case even more disturbing, Lawson, who was ritually slaughtered inside his own home and then fastened to a stake in the fashion of a game-animal, was discovered by his daughter, Louise, an ageing and rather fragile lady herself, who is so shocked by the incident that she can barely even discuss it.

This resolute silence, whether it’s a natural reaction to the horror of the incident, or something more sinister – and Clay is undecided either way – impedes the police, who are keen to delve into the victim’s past, not to mention his current circle of acquaintances, to try and work out who might harbour such a grudge that they would inflict such sadistic violence on him.

At least Clay can call upon a considerable amount of expertise. DS Bill Hendricks is her strong right-arm, and a no-nonsense but deep-thinking copper who knows his job inside out. DS Gina Riley is the softer face of the job, another experienced detective but a gentle soul when she wants to be, and very intuitive. Meanwhile, DS’s Karl Stone and Terry Mason are each formidable in their own way, as are the various other support staff the charismatic DCI can call upon.

With such power and knowledge in her corner, it isn’t long before Clay is making progress, a matter of hours in fact, though the mystery steadily deepens, leading her first to a care home for mentally disabled men (including the likeable, innocent Abey), and yet run by the non-too-pleasant Adam Miller and his attractive if weary wife, Danielle (who may or may not be more than just a colleague to the young, modern-minded carer, Gideon Stephens).

Yes, it seems as if there are mysteries within mysteries to be uncovered during this investigation. However, Clay and her crew continue to make ground, finally becoming interested in Gabriel Huddersfield, a disturbed loner who haunts the park and makes strange and even menacing religious speeches, and being drawn irresistibly towards three curious if time-honoured paintings: The Last Judgement by Hieronymous Bosch, and The Tower of Babel and The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel.

These garish Renaissance masterpieces were all regarded at the time, and by modern scholars, as instructions for the benefit of mankind, giving warnings about his fate should he stray from the path of righteousness, each one incorporating terrifying and brutal imagery in order to deliver its fearsome message.

But even though these objects inform the case, and Clay and her team soon develop suspects, the enquiry continues to widen. What role, for example, does the rather strange character who was the late Professor Noone have to play in all this, and what exactly was the so-called ‘English Experiment’? All we know about it initially is that it wasn’t very ethical and that it somehow involved children.

Clay herself becomes emotionally attached to the case, its quasi-religious undertones affecting her more and more, because, as a childhood orphan, she was raised by Catholic nuns, though in her case – and this makes a welcome change in a work of modern fiction – it wasn’t all negative; Clay owes her empathetic nature to the love and affection she received from her guardian, Sister Philomena, while the tough but kindly Father Murphy recognised and nurtured the spark of leonine determination that would go on to gird her greatly for the challenging paths ahead.

But all this will be rendered null and void of course if the Selfton Park murderer is not apprehended quickly. Because, almost inevitably, he now strikes again, committing two more equally horrific ritualistic slayings.

Clay and her team find themselves racing against time to end this ghastliness, a race that takes them into and around some very notable Liverpool landmarks, the city’s two great cathedrals for example, and all along the snowy, slushy banks of the Mersey (all of which are generously mapped out for us). And all the while, they become ever more aware that this is no ordinary level of depravity they are dealing with. Nor is it necessarily the work of a single killer. Who, for example, is ‘the First Born’, and who is the ‘Angel of Destruction’? Whoever these ememies of society actually are, however many they number, and whatever their crazed, fervour-driven motives, it soon becomes apparent that they are just as likely to be a threat to the police hunting them as they were to those victims they have already butchered …

Dead Silent is the second Eve Clay novel from Mark Roberts, and a pretty intriguing follow-up to the original outing, Blood Mist.

From the outset, the chilly urban setting is excellently realised. You totally get the feeling that you’re in a wintry Liverpool, the bitter cold all but emanating from its pages, the age-old monolithic structures of the city’s great cathedrals standing stark and timeless against this dreary backdrop, the gloomy greyness of which is more than matched by the mood; the murder detectives certainly have no time for the impending fun of Christmas as they work doggedly through what is basically a single high-intensity shift, pursuing a pair of truly malign and murderous opponents.

And that’s another vital point to make. Dead Silent is another of those oft-quoted ‘page-turners’, but in this case it’s the real deal – because it practically takes place in real time.

The enquiry commences at 2.38am on a freezing December morning, and finishes at 8.04pm that night, the chapters, each one of which opens helpfully with a time-clock, often arriving within a few minutes of each other. This is a clever device, which really does keep you reading, especially as almost every new chapter brings another key development in the multi-stranded tale.

If this sounds as though Dead Silent is exclusively about the enquiry, and skimps on any additional drama or character development, then that would be incorrect. It is about the enquiry – this is a murder investigation, commencing with a report that an apparently injured party is walking the streets in a daze, and finishing with a major result for the local murder team (and a twist in the tale from Hell, a shocker of an ending that literally hits you like a hammer-blow!), with very few events occurring in between that aren’t connected to it. However, the rapid unfolding of this bewildering mystery, and the warm but intensely professional interplay between the various detectives keeps everything rattling along.

Because this is a highly experienced and very well-oiled investigation unit, each member slotting comfortably and proficiently into his or her place, attacking the case on several fronts at once, and yet at the same time operating as a super-efficient whole, of which DCI Eve Clay is the central hub.

Of course, this kind of arrangement is replicated in big city police departments across the world, and is usually the reason why mystifying murders are reported on the lunchtime news, only for the arrest of a suspect to be announced by teatime. As an ex-copper, it gave me a real pang of pleasure to see one of the main offenders here, a cruel narcissist and Pound Shop megalomaniac, expressing dismay and disbelief when he learns how quickly he is being closed down.

And yet, Mark Roberts doesn’t just rush us through the case. He also gives himself lots of time to do some great character work.

As previously stated, Eve Clay is the keystone, the intellectual and organisational force behind the team’s progress, but at the same time, while a mother back at home, also a mother to her troops, someone they can confide in when they have problems, but also someone they have implicit faith will lead them from one success to the next. What is really fascinating about Clay, though, is the way her difficult childhood in a Catholic orphanage has strengthened her emotionally and gifted her with a warmth the likes of which I’ve rarely seen in fictional detectives (and which, at times, is genuinely touching). She makes a fine if unusual hero.

To avoid giving away too many spoilers, I must, by necessity, avoid discussing the civilian characters in the book, except to say that Mark Roberts takes a cynical but perceptive view of the kind of people police officers meet when investigating serious crime.

Ultimately, all those involved in this case, even if only on the periphery, are abnormal in one way or another, while those at the heart of it … well, suffice to say that some kind of insanity is at work here. Because surely only insanity, or pure evil, or a combination of both, can lie at the root of murders like these. Roberts investigates this wickedness to a full and satisfying degree, completely explaining – if not excusing – the terrible acts that are depicted, and yet at the same time using them to underscore the dour tone of the book. Because there is nothing particularly extravagant or outlandish about the villains in Dead Silent, even if they do commit horrific and sadistic murders. They may be depraved, but there is still an air of the kitchen sink about them, of the mundane, of the self-absorbed losers that so many violent sexual criminals are in real life – again, this adds a welcome flavour of the authentic.

To finish on a personal note, I also loved the arcane, artistic elements in the tale. Again, I won’t go into this in too much detail, but I’ve long been awe-stricken by messianic later-medieval painters like Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Though replete with multiple meanings, their lurid visions of Hell and damnation, of a world gone mad (or maybe a world born mad!), are among the most memorable and disturbing ever committed to canvas. It’s distressing to consider that such horror derived from men of artistry and intellect, but then to see these ancient atrocities interwoven with latter-day insanities like the English Experiment (which again has emerged from men with talent and education!), is fascinating, and gives this novel a richness of aura and depth of atmosphere that I’ve rarely encountered in crime fiction.

Read Dead Silent. It’s a class act.

And now, as always at the end of one of my book reviews, I’m going to be bold (or foolish) enough to propose a cast should Dead Silent ever make it to the screen, though most likely that would only happen if Blood Mist happened first. Nevertheless, here are my picks:

DCI Eve Clay – Claire Sweeney 
DS Gina Riley – Tricia Penrose
DS Bill Hendricks – Liam Cunningham
Danielle Miller – Cathy Tyson 
Adam Miller – Paul McGann 
Gideon Stephens – Tom Hughes
Louise Lawson – Alison Steadman
Leonard Lawson – Malcom McDowell
DS Karl Stone – Stephen Graham
DS Terry Mason – Joe Dempsie
Gabriel Huddersfield – Luke Treadaway
Abey – Allen Leech


WITNESS THE DEAD 
by Craig Robertson (2013)

A brand new sex killer is terrorising Glasgow, dumping and displaying his ‘party girl’ victims in ritualistic fashion in the city’s various Gothic cemeteries. 

A seasoned but dysfunctional murder investigation team swings into action, aided and abetted by young crime scene photographer, Tony Winter. But this will be no straightforward enquiry. Retired detective Danny Neilson – Tony’s uncle – is convinced he’s seen this maniac’s hand before. Back in the ’70s, he hunted a Glasgow rape-strangler known as Red Silk, who also picked his victims up in bars and nightclubs. The problem is, the Red Silk murders were eventually pinned on another Scottish serial killer Archibald Atto – and Atto is still inside, serving a full-life sentence.

So what’s going on? Did the original Murder Squad get it wrong? Is this a copycat murderer? Or a student of Atto perhaps? One question definitely needs answering – how is it that Atto, all but incommunicado in the isolation block, knows so much about this latest batch of heinous crimes? …

I have all kinds of reasons to recommend his novel. A Glasgow native, Craig Robertson brings the wintry city to life in glorious, gritty form, using lots of real locations, and painting a vivid picture of its lively and street-smart population – both as it is now, and as it was in the sectarian early ’70s. He also knows his local history, because this fictional case is clearly influenced by the unsolved Bible John murders of the 1960s, a dark chapter in Glasgow’s history, which continues to haunt many of those who remember it.

The police enquiry itself is excellently handled and worryingly authentic – there are lots of stresses and strains in the team, not to mention inopportune moments of realistic error-making, while the sheer griminess of its members’ daily experience has had a brutalising effect on them. There is little love lost here, and almost no political correctness, especially where hard knut boss DI Derek Addison is concerned, but none of this matters because this is not the nice, safe world so many of us inhabit – it is dark, bleak, dangerous, and at the risk of sounding clichéd, the wolves that scour it will only be brought down by wolves of a similar nature.

Robertson is also known for his character work, and it’s never been better exemplified than it is here. Winter himself is a flawed hero, his fascination with the artistry of violent death leaving him open to the wiles of Atto, who, during the course of several tense interviews, starts to recognise a like mind in the young snapper. This makes it all the more difficult for Winter’s on-off girlfiend, DS Rachel Nary, who might once have been the warm heart of this investigation unit had she too not been battered by life. For me though, the star of this show is Danny Neilson, who we see in two parallel narratives, as he was when still a carefree lad-about-town copper back in 1972, and as he is now, old, overweight, grouchy, constantly trying to patch up his many failed relationships, and at the same time obsessed with the case he never managed to solve.

So yeah … this is a bit of an ensemble job, with several lead characters, all of whom go on dark if fascinating journeys. And all the time of course, in the background, the clock ticks down to yet another vile murder.

I’ll say no more except that it’s a tour-de-force. If you like your urban crime fiction grimy, and you enjoy looking a little more deeply into the lives and loves and hates and fears of those caught up in it, then this one is definitely for you.

As usual, just for the fun of it, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Witness The Dead were ever to make it to the screen:

Tony Winter – James McAvoy
DS Rachel Nary – Karen Gillan
Danny Neilson – Brian Cox
Archibald Atto, Red Silk – Ciaran Hinds
DI Derek Addison – Dougray Scott


BLOOD AXE
by Leigh Russell (2015)

It all starts very unthreateningly, when a replica Viking battle-axe is stolen during a semi-comic re-enactment of a Dark Ages battle in the grounds of Clifford’s Tower in the grand old city of York. It’s not the kind of thing that would normally require the deductive skills of an experienced copper like DI Ian Peterson, and in truth, he treats the whole thing light-heartedly.

Peterson is a relatively recent arrival in York, having relocated from Kent to obtain his much sought-for promotion, but while he himself is intrigued by the ancient city, and determined to try and enjoy its many olde worlde treasures, his wife Beverly isn’t quite as sold. She feels a long way from home, she misses her family and friends, and although she and Peterson have been together for quite a while now, she is increasingly uninterested in his job and shows progressively less concern for the responsibilities it demands of him. At present, the duo are living an uneasy kind of truce, though to be fair, this isn’t helped by Peterson’s workaholic nature. Even when there is relatively little for him to investigate, he manages to spend many, many hours at the office, dotting every i and crossing every t.

So, imagine the domestic strife that will ensue when a series of horrific murders suddenly commences. And by horrific, I mean horrific.

Yes, York, that handsome, atmospheric town in the scenic Yorkshire wolds, famous for its history, its archaeology, its excellent shopping, and its fine, old-fashioned English cuisine, is suddenly the hub of a bloody murder spree, wherein the victims – who’ve apparently been chosen indiscriminately – are literally axed to death.

Peterson, acting under the orders of the fearsome DCI Eileen Bullock, is immediately assigned to the case, and tackles it in his usual workmanlike way, aided and abetted by his trusty sidekick, Ted Birling, but impeded a little bit by the impulsive and somewhat overconfident Naomi. The problem though, is not Peterson’s hit-and-miss colleagues, but the killer, who despite his ferocity, comes and goes like a ghost, leaving scarcely a clue and not pursuing any pattern that even hints at his motivation.

In this regard, we readers are one or two steps ahead of Peterson, because we at least have the ‘pleasure’ of witnessing these graphic crimes, on each occasion slipping into the mind of a complete lunatic, who prowls the city’s byways after dark acting out an insane Viking fantasy in which murder and pillage are the only items of interest and where every stranger on the street is fair game. And no, just in case you’ve got a weak stomach, we are not spared the actual destruction that inevitably follows: the swinging of the mighty axe, the sundering of skulls, the lopping of limbs.

This is grim and grisly stuff, which unsurprisingly leads to a frenzy in the once-happy city, increasing Peterson’s workload to the point where it almost breaks him. Even though he makes the connection to the stolen axe at the beginning, and works with helpful staff at the Jorvik Centre, like Ralph Grey and Sophie James, to establish that he’s following a latter-day Norseman, there are so few real leads that – if for no other reason than to keep his spirits up – he consults with former boss and ace detective in her own right, DI Geraldine Steel.

Many crime fans will recognise this name, Steel having been Peterson’s mentor during a former series of books, in which she was the star of the show and he her humble sergeant. However, this is only really a guest-appearance. Blood Axe is very firmly a DI Peterson investigation, and one he’s soon under intolerable pressure to wrap up, not just to save further innocent bodies from the Viking axe – the severed corpses don’t half stack up in this one! – but also to save his own job, and maybe even his marriage, because it’s anyone’s guess how long the self-centred Beverly is going to tolerate the continued absence of her husband in what, at times, seems like a completely futile quest …

One of the most refreshing aspects of the DI Ian Peterson novels is the nature of the hero. Yes, these are solid police procedurals, but Peterson is quite different from the norm. He’s not moody, he’s not a drinker, he’s not damaged in some mysterious, indefinable way which no doubt will all come out eventually. In truth, he’s an everyman, a copper’s copper, one of those methodical, hardworking detectives who most likely account for the majority of real-life CID officers in the UK, and are almost routinely classified as ‘married to the job’.

In Peterson’s case, this hasn’t entirely been to his advantage. For example, he doesn’t have much time for romance or even a social life. So, while he’s sharp-eyed and deeply analytical, his people skills are not the best; he’s awkward in his dealings with the public, he handles suspects and witnesses brusquely, he’s not much fun at parties, and most discomfortingly of all for the reader, he has no clue that his marriage is going downhill fast, even though it’s happening right under his nose.

His wife, Bev, is being neglected on an epic scale. That said, she’s a none-too-sympathetic character in my eyes; she surely knew what she was getting into when she married a copper, and it can hardly have escaped her notice that an axe-murderer is prowling York, and that her husband is charged with capturing him – though this unreasonableness on Bev’s part does serve the useful purpose of making our harassed hero even more vulnerable and appealing.

The story itself runs convincingly and at pace, Peterson and his team working their way with much frustration through a complex web of misleading information, making repeated false starts, heading down blind alleys and the like, while confronted by a range of ‘persons of interest’ and falling out among themselves as to which of these is the most viable – and all of this amid the chaos of bereaved and very credibly distraught relatives, and of course a growing media panic.

It’s all quite effective and believable, the lovely city of York in virtual lockdown by the end of the book, its tourism-based economy seriously imperilled.

And it’s easy to see how that could happen. Any kind of serial killer is a genuine nightmare, not just for the police but for the general population of whichever area is being terrorised, but an axe-murderer who seemingly picks his targets at random has got to be the most awful creature of all. With real-life cases of this sort – the Mad Axeman of New Orleans and the Cleveland Torso Murderer – you only need to look at the newspaper reports of the time to see what a devastating effect they had on local communities, and how people literally would not leave their homes day or night, keeping doors and windows closed and locked despite stifling summer heat.

In the case of York, a great setting for all kinds of reasons, not least its quaintness, and which is rarely the stamping ground of maniacs even in crime fiction, it is all the more portentous – because this scenic old city wasn’t always quaint. In the Dark Ages, when York was called Jorvik, it was the Viking capital of Northumbria, and the city is alive even today with memories of that wild, barbarous breed, who saw war, conquest and the ruthless killing of their foes as the surest way to reach Valhalla. In fact, the 10th century Viking warlord, Eric Bloodaxe – and he wasn’t given that name because of his meek and retiring nature – ruled twice from York as King of Northumbria.

Leigh Russell plays this card very nicely indeed, not delving too deeply into Viking culture or mythology – after all, this is the Viking world as perceived by someone who’s mentally ill – though during those brief interludes when we’re on the road with the killer, we wield our axe with pride, view the local population as sheep waiting to be sheared, and enjoy the violence of our attacks as much, if not more so, than we do the acquisition of our victims’ wealth.

The book first caught my eye because of this unusual premise. In truth, I wasn’t initially sure that it would work – bringing Northman-style violence to a modern UK city – but the moment I got into it, I lost all qualms. This is heady stuff, very scary in parts and also pretty gory. But it makes for a damn good, and I have to say, quite easy and straightforward read. It also ends on a big, unexpected twist, so it comes highly recommended for all fans of murder mysteries and police procedurals.

I’ve heard some gossip that the investigations of Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson have been optioned for TV development, which, if it comes to fruition, will be good news indeed. However, as always, I’m going to try and get there first by nominating my own cast should Blood Axe make it to the screen. Here we go: 

DI Ian Peterson – Andrew Lincoln
DI Geraldine Steel – Kate Beckinsdale
Beverley Peterson – Kelly Macdonald
Ralph Grey – Brian F O’Byrne
Sophie James – Jennie Jacques


DISSOLUTION 
by C.J. Sansom (2003)

The year is 1537, and the Protestant Reformation is picking up pace. England is now a land of informers, interrogation by rack, falsified evidence, and the handing down of death sentences for the simple crime of holding an opinion.

The driving force behind his new tyranny is King Henry VIII, but his iron fist is Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell, a zealous bureaucrat hell-bent on dissolving the Catholic monasteries and dividing their lands and wealth among a grasping nobility. One of Cromwell’s prime agents in this cause is hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake, another committed reformer and a man of razor-sharp intellect. However, even Shardlake now harbours doubts about his master’s increasingly brutal and swingeing methods – more and more are going to the block, torture is ever more frequently used – so when he is assigned to investigate the murder of Robin Singleton, a fellow government official, at the remote, marsh-begirt monastery of Scarnsea, he is initially relieved. 

Here should be an open-and-shut case. The monks are notoriously lax, as well as hostile to the new mood. There is no question about the righteousness of this enquiry, and Shardlake expects there’ll be suspects a-plenty – and indeed there are, because when he arrives there, Scarnsea turns out to be a den of vice and a nest of corruption.

Aided by his handsome young assistant, Mark Poer, Shardlake learns that, in addition to the murder, which involved decapitation by sword, a precious relic has been stolen and the monastery church desecrated in a weird satanic ceremony. He also uncovers evidence of fraudulent land sales perpetrated by some of the monks, dubious dealings with local smugglers, treasonous mutterings, and sexual improprieties (sodomy between men and boys, but also the molestation of serving-girls). At a purely personal level there is much here to question. While certain among the brethren are devoted to their role, others’ vocations are more doubtful: Abbot Fabian lives openly and unashamedly as a country squire; Prior Mortimus disciplines the novices with ridiculous viciousness; Brother Edwig measures everything in pounds, shillings and pence; Brother Gabriel is homosexual (a crime in that era); Brother Guy is a converted Moor; Brother Jerome is an unapologetic Catholic whose torture by Cromwell leads to him condemn the new England more vociferously each day.   

And yet, despite this catalogue of likely candidates, it is a far from straightforward enquiry. Shardlake finds that everyone here has something to hide, while almost no-one, whatever their rank, is straight with him about their true feelings for the Reformation. Even the local townsfolk have reason to be suspect, the commoners eager to curry favour with the King by loudly decrying the papists, their betters eager to acquire the papists’ land. Things are additionally complicated when Shardlake and Poer fall out over a comely serving-wench, Alice, and all the while a deep and bitter winter sets in, heavy snow virtually imprisoning our heroes in the grim and eerie structure at Scarnsea, which creates a brooding atmosphere of terror and evil when suddenly there is another murder, and then another one …

What can I say? This novel works for me on so many levels.

First of all, as a straightforward murder-mystery it makes for compulsive reading. Shardlake and Poer, though possessing authority, are constantly under threat in this isolated locale – tense moments abound – while the investigation, as they work their way through a complex tangle of clues, many of them contradicting each other, is riveting. Always, it seems, there are new questions and yet fewer and fewer answers. Is the killer someone who supports the Catholic cause, or someone who detests it? Was Singleton slain because he represented Cromwell and the King, or was it a personal matter? While on one hand the mystery appears to intersect with financial misdoings, on the other it looks like something sexual. On yet another it may involve witchcraft and Satanism. Is it possible the various murders look different in terms of their motives and modus operandi because they are the work of different murderers?

Though lengthy, the tale cracks on at great pace as Shardlake penetrates determinedly through the intrigue, winning some friends on the way but also plenty of enemies, and often having to dodge danger himself. When the resolution is finally reached, is it not exactly a jaw-dropper, but it is deeply satisfying and requires no suspension of belief given the widespread brutality and injustice of that era.

Shardlake himself is a fine central character. An unlikely hero, though he initially appears as a stealthy, eavesdropping man who insists on asking awkward questions and feels no guilt about foisting his beliefs on others, he is at heart a good soul who genuinely believes that a purer, fairer world can come from the Reformist movement. He has also suffered terribly at a personal level, not just from the physical pain of his crippled body but from the humiliation and mistrust it has brought on him, which makes him hugely sympathetic. In any case, Dissolution – the first of a whole series of Matthew Shardlake novels from C.J. Sansom – sees the Tudor-age investigator commence a long, arduous journey of self-discovery, during the course of which he is ever-more troubled by the new police state he serves and the apparent innocence of so many of its victims. 

The book also provides a fascinating snapshot of English intellectual life at the close of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Early Modern Age, clearly outlining the differences between the factions on either side of the Reformist fence, the Catholics mistrustful of a lay-aristocracy with no remit to do good and aghast that centuries of holy tradition are being torn down, the Reformers infuriated by a monolithic ecclesiastical body that empowers itself by enthralling the populace in ignorance and superstition.

It also issues a stern warning about sanctimonious idealogues who are so certain of the righteousness of their cause that they are prepared to perform vicious deed to bring it about, and that is surely a message as pertinent today as it ever was. 

Dissolution is a multi-faceted tale of great depth and interest. In some ways, it is only superficially a murder-mystery (though as I say, it works compellingly on that level too), because there is so much more to it. But all that notwithstanding, it remains an absolute must for the reading collections of any fans of crime, thriller and/or historical fiction.

As always – purely for the fun of it – here are my picks for who should play the leads if Dissolution ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (it was adapted by BBC Radio in 2012, with Jason Watkins starring as Matthew Shardlake and Mark Bonner as Thomas Cromwell).

Matthew Shardlake – Toby Jones
Thomas Cromwell – Jeremy Irons
Mark Poer – Al Weaver
Alice – Bethany Muir
Brother Guy – Don Warrington
Abbott Fabian – Matthew Macfadyen
Prior Mortimus – Andy Serkis
Brother Jerome – David Bradley
Brother Edwig – Mark Addy 
Brother Gabriel - Phil Davis

(I know … big cast! What are the chances, eh?)


ELEVEN DAYS 
by Stav Sherez (2013)

When a small convent burns down in a quiet corner of West London and the ten nuns who lived there are incinerated alive, there is shock and horror – even more so when it becomes apparent the fire was started deliberately. However, this is not just a tragic case of arson. When DI Jack Carrigan and DS Geneva Miller are ordered to investigate, they quickly uncover a number of bewildering mysteries. Why did the nuns just accept their terrible fate, seemingly making no effort to escape? Why was there an unidentified 11th corpse in the ashes; as it transpires, the corpse of Emily Maxted, an angry and rebellious young woman who normally would never be seen anywhere near a church? And where is the mysterious Father McCarthy, the priest who supposedly tended to the nuns’ spiritual needs and a man with a shadowy past?

Under pressure from their superiors, in particular the narcissistic Assistant Chief Constable Quinn, to close the case quickly, preferably before Christmas – which is 11 days away – Carrigan and Miller embark on a difficult, time-pressured enquiry, which rapidly opens up into something enormous and, as it soon comes to involve South American politics, radical theology and ruthless Albanian gangsters, more perilous than anything they’ve experienced before.

If that isn’t enough, the Machievellian politics of both the Metropolitan Police and the Roman Catholic Church provide numerous distractions and in some cases near insurmountable obstacles. Lots of people have things to hide, it seems, and some have no intention of going down without taking large chunks of the world with them …

This is a labyrinthine tale, but a completely compelling one, so cleverly written by Sherez that almost every chapter either sparks a new revelation or ends on a genuine cliff-hanger. It is also a very mature novel, painted in shades of grey in that, though it does feature some of the nastiest villains I’ve come across in quite a while, there is scarcely a character in it who doesn’t have some angle, some issue, who by personal necessity is failing to follow the straight and narrow. The various political and religious activists, for example, are exceedingly well drawn – portayed largely as idealists, whose motivations are often to be lauded and yet whose zealotry has completely clouded their judgement. In an age of easy targeting, it’s a relief to see so sensitive a subject handled in such a grown-up manner.

On top of that, the whole book is played out in a near-Dickensian atmosphere of heavy snow, bitter frost and the impending Christmas season, which gives it an almost otherworldly feel (and not necessarily a pleasant one, as both our main protagonists think they are facing the festive days alone). 

Carrigan and Miller make great heroes, both still vulnerable after suffering personal sadness and yet stoic and determined, and, despite differing in professional terms, dealing quite manfully with the clear if unspoken feelings they are developing for each other. They are especially challenged in this story, as they are frequently dealing with elite-level opponents to whom their police status is meaningless – which makes you cheer all the more for them as they gradually progress the investigation (though quite often, and very realistically in terms of the frustration caused, it’s often a case of one step forward and three steps back).

One of the most intriguing and suspense-laden police thrillers I’ve read in quite a while, and despite the grimness of the concept, almost poetic in the quality of its penmanship. Hugely deserving of its critical acclaim.

As usual, purely for fun you understand, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Eleven Days ever makes it to the screen (it would be the second in the series, A Dark Redemption coming first, but let’s do it anyway):

DI Jack Carrigan – Clive Owen
DS Geneva Miller – Eva Green
Donna Maxted – Emma Watson
Roger Holden – Ben Kinglsey
ACC Quinn – Tom Wilkinson
Father McCarthy – Ken Stott
Viktor – Jerome Flynn


SUMMER OF NIGHT 
by Dan Simmons (1991)

It is 1960 and the start of summer in the Illinois farming town of Elm Haven. For a bunch of local school-leavers, a tightknit group of adventurous 11-year-olds self-defined as the ‘Bike Patrol’, long months of vacation lie ahead. The sun is high, the corn ripening in the encircling fields, and while the adults have their own issues to deal with – the new decade is already presenting different political challenges! – for the youngsters it’s just another extended playtime.

But then something goes wrong. One of their former classmates, a hillbilly kid called Tubby Cooke, disappears, and the Patrol – level-headed leader Dale Stewart and his younger brother, Lawrence, brave and good-hearted Mike O’Rourke, troublesome roughneck Jim Harlen, super-intelligent Duane McBride and loyal team-player Kevin Grumbacher – take it on themselves to investigate.

And very soon, they wish they hadn’t.

At the heart of Elm Haven stands Old Central, the large, ornate and crumbling schoolhouse they’ve just left, which is now condemned and will shortly be torn down. The guys can’t help but feel there was always something wrong about Old Central – not just the school itself, but its staff too, who behaved increasingly oddly as the end of the semester approached. The kids especially become suspicious when they learn that Tubby was last seen alive in the school toilets.

But it’s a hot summer and there is lots of other fun to be had, and so the investigation is undertaken half-heartedly. Surely there was nothing really wrong with their old school?, and none of them much liked Tubby Cooke anyway, nor his oddball sister, Cortie. Within a few days, the whole thing is put to bed … but now it seems their inquisitiveness has aroused a latent hostile force, which they’d never previously noticed in Elm Haven.

The Rendering Truck, a ramshackle vehicle full of rotting animal carcasses, takes to following them around town and trying to run them off the road, while a weird WWI era soldier begins popping up in their peripheral vision and even chases them when he catches them out in the fields.

Something weird is indeed going on here, and Old Central seems to lie at the heart of it.

However, it is only when Duane researches the history of the school and learns that as well as a legacy to the town from the wealthy and mysterious Ashley family, it was also used to house an arcane artefact shipped over to the States from Europe and associated throughout its long history with sorcery and devil-worship, that Hell is really unleashed.

Nightmare faces appear at the boys’ windows, shadow shapes emerge from under their beds, axe-wielding figures attack their tents, and horrible things stir in the corn.

Amid many other distractions that the Bike Patrol never anticipated this summer – sexual awakenings and the like – they now must battle for their lives against this dark and intangible foe, which can assume a multitude of forms and soon seems to infest every corner of Elm Haven …

So many US horror writers appear to owe it to themselves to at some point produce at least one novel steeped in the Americana of their small-town youth. This furrow has been successfully ploughed by such major names in the genre as Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and Robert McCammon – to name but a few, so it was no surprise to learn that Dan Simmons had done it too, producing in Summer of Night a semi-autobiographical account of his boyhood in the agricultural Midwest, recollecting it as a fun romp for the most-part, but at the same time striving to capture the complexity of that last summer of childhood, that confusing moment in life when we willingly or unwillingly trade everything that went before, even the good stuff, for a completely different mode of existence (and so often find it a raw deal), and then pumping the adventure levels up dramatically with lashings of supernatural terror.

In the hands of all these great writers, this has proved a potent mix, an unashamed juxtaposing of that cosy age of boy-scout camps and Mickey Mantle baseball cards with the looming subliminal fear of something monstrous and unexplainable. Psychoanalysts would no doubt have a field-day, talking about the remorseless approach of adulthood, the end of play and the commencement of work, and maybe even, with the advantage of hindsight, the transition of that relatively comfortable post-WWII era in America to the more unstable 1960s with its social discord and the horrors of Vietnam.

There is probably something in that, though I suspect it’s actually a lot simpler. Summer of Night is clearly a very personal work for Dan Simmons, but its greatest strength lies in the rollicking and hair-raising tale it tells, and its straightforward pitting of good against evil in such easily understandable fashion that it wouldn’t be out of place on the YA shelves were it not for the juicy language and its frank discussion of adolescent sexuality.

It is certainly a lively and worthy addition to the small-town horror cycle. Many familiar motifs are here: the non-too-perfect lives of some of the kids (who even in the midst of cheerful innocence must cope with ill-health at home, low incomes, drunken or absent fathers, etc), the roaming bands of bullies, the grim and rotting building at the heart of town, the aristocratic founding-family now elevated to semi-mythical status, the existence of something ancient and cruel which only was hinted at prior to this book, the adults who stubbornly refuse to believe in it, and of course the endless, sun-soaked landscapes of youthful reminiscence.

One criticism often levelled at Summer of Night is that it’s too similar in tone to Stephen King’s own nostalgic masterpiece, It. I see that, but I don’t consider it a weakness – the two novels are cousins for sure but Summer is in no sense a rip-off, as the narratives diverge noticeably. However, I do think Dan Simmons’s book suffers a little by comparison.

Whereas It bounces back and forth between childhood and adulthood, Summer of Night anchors us in 1960, and to see the whole thing through the eyes of a bunch of 11-year-olds becomes a bit of a strain when you’re hundreds of pages in and yearning for some adult interaction. It also means that you must suspend belief considerably. Even for a supernatural tale, some of the solutions our youthful heroes adopt feel as if they’d be a little beyond the average bunch of youngsters – their proficiency and ruthlessness with firearms for example, their ability to pick clues from distant history, and their overall maturity in the face of a horrific crisis (when at the same time some of them are too frightened of the dark to turn their bedroom lights off, and others are content to step out of the battle to attend birthday parties and dig for bootlegger treasure!!!).

But these are the only real brickbats. The rest of this novel is a whole load of fun.

Typically for Dan Simmons, it’s a lengthy tale, but it’s sweetly written and totally engrossing. Living, breathing characters populate a richly detailed community. An air of the authentic early ’60s sits vividly on the page, and yet the lurking menace, which, while vague in the early stages, never feels out of place – in fact these are the best parts of the book for me: the slow-dawning awareness that something terrible, only glimpsed at first, is coming on apace, threatening to sweep away this idyllic little enclave in a turbulent world.

And of course, when the book finally fires – it fires on all cylinders.

As you’d expect, there is a grand climax at the end, but well before then – throughout most of the second half of the novel – Simmons hits us a with a series of spectacular action set-pieces, each one scarier and more explosive than the one before it. And don’t be lulled into complacency by the extreme youth of our main protagonists – not all these chilling encounters end well for them (though to say any more on that would really spoil things).

Summer of Night is what people used to refer to as an ‘airport novel’ – in other words it’s a big, fat volume, so big that you’d happily buy it on the first day of your holidays and expect it to see you right the way through. That’s most likely what would have happened; at over 500 pages, it’s an absolute whopper. But though reading habits have changed a little since the 1990s, I still recommend this exciting and enjoyable tome. It may transport you back to your own past, it may provide no more than an amusing diversion for an hour each day, but once you get into the meat of it I guarantee you’ll stick with it right to the end.

In normal circumstances with these reviews, I like to close with some fantasy casting, just for fun picking who I’d love to see play the leads if the book in question were ever to make it to the screen. Alas, on this occasion I must stick my hand up and admit to knowing so little about Hollywood’s current A-list of child stars that I couldn’t make any meaningful suggestions. And given that the kids totally dominate the book, it would seem a little crass to try and cast the adult characters when so many of them occupy background roles.


THE TERROR 
by Dan Simmons (2007)

In 1845, the Franklin Expedition set sail from England to forge the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. It wasn’t the first expedition to attempt this, and it wouldn’t be the last. But few better equipped vessels under the control of more reliable and experienced crews would ever undertake the task. It is all the more baffling then that the Franklin Expedition wasn’t just a failure but a catastrophe. Both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, vanished without trace – it was 2014 before the remnants of one of the vessels, the Erebus, were found underwater in Baffin Bay, and though a few pathetic graves were also discovered onshore, the majority of the 200-strong crew were never accounted for.

What actually happened will never be known, but in his blockbusting horror opus, The Terror, US author Dan Simmons gives us his own unique version of events – and it is one of the most enthralling and chilling stories you are ever likely to read.

As if the ravages of hypothermia, frostbite, scurvy and lead poisoning aren’t enough, the ships’ crews, who are already icebound when we join them, must also deal with a ferocious and unstoppable monster drawn straight from the darkest corner of Inuit mythology and now intent upon hunting them to the last man …

But, whatever you do, don’t come at this book under the impression that it’s simply a creature feature. Yes, the monster is relentless and terrifying and one of the main characters in the book – and its attacks are truly horrific, but there is so much more to The Terror than this.

To begin with, Simmons gives us a detail-crammed account of a hugely complex and heroic undertaking, leaving nothing out as he constructs in our mind’s eye the image of an invincible force, the best the Royal Navy’s Discovery Service can offer – the cream of its officers, the pick of its men, and the finest two ships in the fleet, both driven by new-fangled steam engines and ploughing the ice with their armour plated hulls – and then, slowly and sadistically deconstructs it, hitting us blow by blow with its gradual deteoriation in the White Hell of the Arctic wilderness, one thing after another going wrong from the mundane to the unbelievably disastrous … until all that remains is annihilation. Even without the monster, this would be an orgy of hardship, the participants constantly called on to use every scrap of strength and ingenuity they have just to survive for one day more, and so often failing.

It’s an epic of endurance, a saga of suffering. And as such, the book is massive – its prodigious length (an amazing 944 pages!) has supposedly put some punters off. But it’s so well-written and so readable that – for all its colossal length there is scarely no padding, and despite the fact so much of it is spent on the desolate ice-floes or deep in the nauseating dungeons below decks – its pace just bounces along. 

And as I say, it’s more than just a litany of horrors. Before its huge cast of characters gets whittled down, Dan Simmons creates a vivid cross-section of 19th century sea-faring life, from tough, professional seamen to damned rankers, from captains courageous to traitors and mutineers. The life-and-death intricacies of Arctic navigation are also laid out in minute and fascinating detail. It’s a wonder of research. You’d almost believe Simmons had been there himself and experienced it.

And then we have the set-pieces, which are among the best and most savage I’ve ever read. The battles with the ice-beast, the brutal flogging of the seditious, the cannibalisation of slain comrades, and most startling of all, a grand and crazy masquerade on the ice – men driven mad by cold and starvation cavorting in lurid costmes, performing profane rituals from the world of Grand Guignol in temperatures of a hundred below …

I can’t say anymore, except that The Terror is a historical horror masterpiece and must be read to be believed. Whatever you do, don’t let its size put you off. This is a page-turner of the first order.

And now, as usual just for fun, a bit of fantasy casting. My picks for who should play the leads if The Terror were ever to make it to the screen (my latest understanding is that a TV series is in development – probably not enough masked superheroes for it to get the big screen treatment):

Captain Francis Crozier – Michael Fassbender
Doctor Harry Goodsir – Timothy Spall
Lieutenant John Irving – Eddie Redmayne
Cornelius Hickey – Andy Serkis
Thomas Blanky – Robson Green
Lady Silence – Roseanne Supernault
Sir John Franklin – Anthony Hopkins


AICKMAN’S HEIRS
 edited by Simon Strantzas (2015)

An intriguing anthology of weird, open-ended tales, chilling in tone and concept though rarely indulging in blood and gore or utilising standard supernatural tropes, and written in homage to the late, great Robert Aickman, a British author of the 20th century, who specialised in the strange and macabre rather than the out-and-out horrific.

Rather than just tell you everything that happens from one story to the next, I’ll let Undertow provide the intro. Here’s their official blurb, which nicely hints at the enjoyable weirdness to come.

Edited by Simon Strantzas, ‘Aickman’s Heirs’ is an anthology of strange, weird tales by modern visionaries of weird fiction, in the milieu of Robert Aickman, the master of strange and ambiguous stories. Editor and author Strantzas, an important figure in weird fiction, has been hailed as the heir to Aickman’s oeuvre, and is ideally suited to edit this exciting volume. Featuring all-original stories from Brian Evenson, Lisa Tuttle, John Langan, Helen Marshall, Michael Cisco, and others.

Can strangeness in itself be scary? Probably not, though it can certainly be unsettling. And indeed, that was my main reaction to most of the contents of Aickman’s Heirs … a feeling that I was ill-at-ease, that I’d somehow been disturbed without really knowing how or why, and yet at the same time was deeply satisfied.

As that was also my reaction to much of Robert Aickman’s fiction (he wrote 48 short stories in total – many of which have become staples of ‘classic horror’ collections), then I can only conclude that editor, Simon Strantzas, and the numerous writers he has brought together for this book, have hit their main target quite successfully.

We have here an entire range of weirdness, most stories hinting at the grotesque rather than explicitly demonstrating it, and yet, though they rarely hit us with a killer last line or murderous unseen twist, always leaving us deeply discomfited.

Take Brian Evenson’s Seaside Town, in which a mismatched couple visit a French coastal resort where dreariness is the watchword, only for the male of the pair to be inexplicably abandoned by his partner, with no real clue where he is or why. Or Richard Gavin’s Neithernor, which sees a snobbish art critic determined to investigate when he uncovers evidence that his artistic cousin might be a hostage in the grotty little gallery in the next town.

Another key trait of Robert Aickman’s was his relentless merging of the mundane with the bizarre. Very illustrative of this, Ringing the Changes was perhaps one of the great man’s most famous and certainly most oft-reprinted tales, taking another awkward couple to another dull seaside town, this time on the English east coast during the off-season, settling them down in one of the most depressing pubs imaginable, and then filling the air with a clangour of church-bells which literally will not stop until the dead themselves have been wakened. Picking up the torch in Aickman’s Heirs, Nina Allan’s lengthy tale, A Change of Scene, pays direct tribute to the story, in some ways that I won’t mention here as that would be too much of a spoiler, though put it this way, it’s set in the same miserable town (spelled only slightly differently), features another strained couple – two lifelong friends this time, both widowed (again, one of them may have been in the original tale) – and has much to say about the resort’s curious number of church steeples.

Less recognisable, perhaps, but equally disquieting in its clash between the ordinary and the extraordinary is John Howard’s Least Light, Most Night, which sees a reserved, even rather shy office worker reluctantly accept a curious invitation to attend the house of a colleague whom he doesn’t know well for tea and biscuits, at which point he is drawn into a very odd world indeed.

Robert Aickman rarely missed a chance to evoke a dreamlike, often nightmarish atmosphere. And Aickman’s Heirs goes for this too, in a big way.

Take David Nickle’s Camp, which plucks a sophisticated newlywed gay couple out of the city and sends them on a do-it-yourself honeymoon in the Canadian wilderness, where a slow and terrible transformation commences. Or Lynda Rucker’s The Dying Season, wherein another couple trapped in a failing relationship visit a holiday resort so miserably rundown that it scarcely seems possible it could exist in the real world.

With all these stories, of course, and all the others contained herein – there are 15 in total – Aickmanesque ambiguity reigns supreme, solutions often left to the interpretation of the reader. Characterisation typically runs deep (though, at times, is complex – with loneliness and isolation key and repeating themes), while menace arrives subtly, much of the damage self-inflicted, our heroes beset by the results of bad choices and poor personal judgements.

Again like Aickman’s originals, the stories are expertly crafted and exquisitely written. You’d expect that from highly regarded professionals like Lisa Tuttle and John Langan, whose contributions – The Book that Finds You and Underground Economy, respectively, are among the best in the tome. But Camp is a particularly excellent example too, as are The Dying SeasonA Change of Scene, and DP Watt’s deceptively gentle A Delicate Craft.

Don’t just take my word for it, though – check it out for yourself.

In fact, in this case you really should, because Aickman’s Heirs, like most of Robert Aickman’s own work, will probably divide horror fans. Those who always need a clear resolution, or who like to be jump-scared out of their skins, and of course those who consider themselves gore or splatter hounds, most likely won’t be enamoured. In many ways, the stories in here are literary shorts at least as much as they are horror – but if you have any interest in the ‘other’, that strange, outré world of speculative writing, where nothing is necessarily what it appears to be, messages are purposely mixed, and much of the quiet terror stems from frailties of the human psyche, then Aickman’s Heirs could definitely be an anthology for you. 

And now …

AICKMAN’S HEIRS – the movie

Just a bit of fun, this part. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed, if they do.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that they’ve all got lost in an underground catacomb and are then confronted by a mysterious monk (a la Tales from the Crypt) or are the subjects of memoirs related by a vampire to a famous horror author in an elusive and Gothic London club (al la The Monster Club) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

The Dying Season (by Lynda E Rucker): A gentle artist and her bullying corporate husband spend an off-season holiday at a drab seaside trailer park, which is almost empty except for the disturbingly strange couple across the way …
Silvia – Emma Dumont
John – Toby Regbo
Lynn – Ruth Wilson
Gabriel – Miles Jupp

Two Brothers (by Malcolm Devlin): When William’s older brother, Stephen, goes to boarding school, the younger sibling is left to his own devices in their big country house. He yearns for his brother’s return, but when Christmas arrives, and Stephen comes home, he has subtly changed …
Father – Philip Jackson
(Alas, my knowledge of child actors isn’t broad enough to effectively cast either Stephen or William).

A Delicate Craft (by DP Watt): A lonely Polish plumber looking for work in the English East Midlands meets and befriends elderly Agnes, who teaches him the delicate art of lace-making. A rare skill, for which there is a terrible price to pay …
Boydan – Antoni Pawlicki
Agnes – Helen Mirren

Seven Minutes in Heaven (by Nadia Bulkin): A sulky 20-something is fascinated by her hometown of Hartbury’s eerie twin, Manfield, which still stands a few miles down the road despite having been evacuated after a pesticide disaster. In due course, she uncovers a terrifying truth …
Amanda – Jessica Henwick


THE WOLFEN 
by Whitley Strieber (1978)

When two beat-cops are murdered in a Brooklyn scrapyard, ‘fire and water’ detectives Becky Neff and George Wilson are put on the case. But it soon becomes apparent that this is not going to be just another day in Homicide. The murder scene is utterly repellent, the two victims having been mutilated, disembowelled and partially eaten, and then things turn even more bizarre when forensic analysis uncovers traces of unidentifiable ‘canine’ assailants.

Neff and Wilson consider various possibilities. Is a pack of particularly dangerous strays stalking New York? Or has someone trained himself a couple of killer dogs?

And of course, it doesn’t end with these two crimes. Soon there are more unexplained mutilation-deaths, usually in the most deprived corners of the city, the victims invariably drug-users or homeless alcoholics. In fact, it transpires that many Skid Row types have gone missing in the recent past without anyone really noticing.

Has something terrible been living concealed alongside the normal citizenry for decades maybe, feeding on the flotsam of modern urban life?

This ‘something’ is introduced to us in short-order, because a big part of this famous crime/horror crossover novel’s appeal is that it gives us the chance to assess the unfolding drama from both viewpoints – man’s and beast’s.

The Wolfen themselves are a kind of werewolf pack, only they don’t live normal lives and then suddenly grow hairy at night and start howling at the moon. They retain their hybrid form 24/7, and are incredibly strong and ferocious, and very, very agile – when they launch their murderous attacks, which we get to see unstintingly, it is in a blood-spattered blur of immeasurable speed. They are also hyper-sensitive and intelligent, and it isn’t long before they realise the cops are hunting them. As such, they opt to strike back hard, pre-empting their own demise by killing their two main opponents, Neff and Wilson.

When our heroes wise up to the fact they are next in line, they go to ground themselves, but that isn’t easy when the predators on their tail are the most proficient, the most savage and the most relentless the modern world has ever seen …

How to start discussing this superior and extraordinary horror novel of the 1970s without saying that I’m completely bamboozled it ever dropped from sight the way it has? This is partly, I suspect, due to the rather poor movie adaptation made in 1981, which, though it had its moments, strayed a long way from the original, preferring to talk politics and Native American mysticism, and starring Albert Finny as Wilson and Diane Venora as Neff, two good actors but sadly miscast here.

The worst mistake the film made, however, was with the Wolfen themselves, which it basically depicted as large, cute-looking dogs who panted more than they snarled, and whose complex nature and society it completely failed to examine. In the novel, the Wolfen are hellish antagonists for our hapless cop heroes, especially as at first no-one even believes they exist; they are literally a pack of killing machines – as curious Dr. Carl Ferguson, from the New York Museum of Natural History, discovers when he tries to make friends with them – and yet you sympathise with their position. This is their world as much as ours, but they know that if they were to come out into the open they’d be exterminated. Despite this, they are remarkable creatures; not just physically impressive, but reasoning and emotional – they have strong family ties, individual personalities, an order of rank and loyalty, and a strong survival instinct, which naturally resists a world they know would unhesitatingly destroy them.

On top of all this, the original Neff and Wilson are a great pair of down-at-heel heroes, the former a cool and attractive but tightly-wound officer who is constantly having to deal with the fall-out of cop-husband Dick’s dodgy dealings (he is now being investigated for corruption), and who wages a daily personal war against the institutionalised chauvinism that embattles her (this is the 70s, remember – female detectives were few and far between). Wilson, on the other hand, is more an archetype: slobbish, a drinker and a time-served veteran who, though he’s good at the job, is often unmotivated these days. He drives his partner mad with his lackadaisical approach and cynical attitude (not to mention his unspoken desire for her), but on the whole they work well together and trust each other, and you genuinely fear for them as the danger intensifies.

One accusation aimed at The Wolfen was that its hardboiled crime atmosphere jars with the underlying horror story, and that many of its protagonists are too willing to accept the mythical supernatural killers in their midst. But I don’t buy that. To start with, the Wolfen are basically animals – monstrous for sure, but non-supernatural. Secondly, Neff and Wilson only come round to accepting this via a long learning-curve, during which they encounter increasingly persuasive and gory evidence.

Meanwhile, the vast, grimy sprawl of the city has a role too. Yes, superficially The Wolfen is a crime thriller: it goes heavy on the legal speak and the police procedural, and as I’ve said, the cops are real cops with real-life problems – everything in The Wolfen, aside from the beasts themselves, is real. But I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in which any city, least of all the Big Apple, is as dingily and desolately portrayed as it is here.

I swear, it’s almost dreamlike: the endless dirt and garbage, the graffiti, the urban dereliction, the towering hulks of empty, boarded-up buildings – it’s a despair-ridden Hellscape, a darkly fantastical necropolis where almost any type of badness could be lurking. And it is used particularly well in one scene, where the two cops are drawn into the hideous environment of a derelict apartment block by the persistent crying of a baby, only to suddenly get suspicious that this isn’t what they are hearing at all but someone, or something, mimicking the sound in order to lure them. This is easily one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever read in any novel … for which reason I’ll say no more about it because that would really spoil things.

Suffice to say that Strieber corkscrews the tension from this point on, creating fewer and fewer places where our heroes can feel safe, until eventually there is nowhere at all – and what an explosive finale results from that.

At the end of the day, you just have to read The Wolfen yourselves. Okay, it’s an oldish book, but it’s still incredibly fast and taut, and beautiful writing – even when it’s ‘beautifully horrible’ like this – is beautiful writing, whatever its era. 

As usual – purely for fun, you understand – here are my picks for who should play the leads if a more truthful version of The Wolfen ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (the first film was okay in parts, but in my view it made the big mistake of veering way too far from the source material; if it ain’t broken, why fix it?):

Detective Becky Neff – Bridget Moynahan 
Detective George Wilson  David Duchovny 
Dr. Carl Ferguson – Chiwetel Ejiofor


DEADLY HARVEST 
by Michael Stanley (2016)

Detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, Assistant Superintendent of the Gaborone CID, in Botswana, needs a relaxed attitude and a good sense of humour to be able to do his job properly. And that’s not just because he has a procession of heinous crimes to investigate, even though he does, but because he also has to show constant political acumen.

On the whole, Botswana is a well-organised country and a laidback society. Its democratic status is well established and there have been a number of general elections which have been fair and have passed off peacefully. But politics is never an easy issue in this part of Africa; there is often some minor potential for trouble. And on this occasion – when Deadly Harvest opens – it may be worse than usual, because Bill Marumo, charismatic founder and leader of the Freedom Party, looks likely to upset the applecart. He is a strong candidate in the upcoming elections, and if he wins power in Gaborone, it will be a real blow to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party.

A routine event, you might think – politics would not be politics without surprise results now and again. But Marumo appears to be under threat. When bloody graffiti is daubed on his house and a severed dog’s head stuck on a post outside his door, local CID boss, Director Mabaku – a stern but fair-minded individual, constantly frustrated to be at the beck and call of his establishment paymasters – instructs his best detective, Kubu, to get to the bottom of it quickly but also to exercise sensitivity as the last thing they want is suspicion falling on the government.

Kubu thinks his time could be spent more profitably, but he’s a dutiful officer and he recognises that there are issues here which need addressing – and so he takes the case.

Meanwhile, rookie detective, Samantha Khama, the first female officer to join the Botswana CID, has taken it on herself to investigate the disappearances of two little girls from nearby villages. Both incidents occurred years apart, yet the circumstances were highly suspicious, all the evidence indicating that the youngsters, who were engaged in routine chores at the time, were snatched from public places by strangers who approached them in cars. The local rural police have had no real success in tracing them, but Samantha is disgusted to learn that neither have they tried especially hard. To her mind, there could be two reasons for this: standard inefficiency, which still exists in parts of Botswana’s various civil services, and which she has no patience with; or the muti belief, which she reviles but at the same time fears.

Muti, a form of tribal magic, involves the incantation of spells and the preparation of potions made from organic materials such as plants, herbs, animal parts and sometimes – on occasions when the desired effect is huge (such as the acquisition of immense power!) – fragments of human beings who have been ritually sacrificed by a witch doctor. This in itself is pretty horrific, but it actually gets worse; to achieve the perfect outcome, these witch doctors, the majority of whom assure the authorities that they longer practise muti in which humans are harmed (though who would admit otherwise?) need very specific and vulnerable kinds of victims: usually innocent children and/or albinos.

Initially, Khama struggles on alone in this enquiry. No-one else takes it seriously, while her prickly personality – she is a budding feminist – does not win her over to the largely conservative men with whom she must work. Kubu, a larger-than-life character who is so cheerful and upbeat that he is difficult to offend, is inclined to assist when he can spare a moment, but he too is very busy – especially when Bill Marumo is unexpectedly and brutally murdered. As it transpires, Kubu apprehends a suspect in this crime fairly easily, but increasingly he comes to suspect that he hasn’t even got close to the true evil in their midst, only to then make an astonishing discovery – namely that there may be a muti connection to Marumo’s death as well

Immediately, Khama’s investigation is accorded an entirely new degree of importance. Mabaku combines the two enquiries, Kubu and Khama joining forces. But even for two excellent detectives, it is still a monumental challenge, Kubu convinced that a particularly dangerous witch doctor is somewhere nearby, who, even though he is perpetrating horrific crimes, may enjoy the compliance and even the protection of individuals high up in the ranks of Gaborone officialdom. The dauntless duo continues to receive the full support of Director Mabaku, who is currently seeking a big promotion and thus wants results (though he too is distracted as he has a strong rival in the young but super-efficient head of the Diamond Division, Joshua Gobey). But other senior ranks, whom Kubu would previously have trusted implicitly, are now behaving strangely.

Kubu is increasingly fearful that if this case is ever solved, life as he knew it may never be the same again …

The Icelandic author, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, described Deadly Harvest as ‘sunshine noir’, and that is surely the perfect description of what you’ll get when you open this novel.

If such a phrase evokes a pleasing atmosphere of dramatic sunsets, nodding palms and scenic vistas as viewed from deckchairs on warm verandas, then that is absolutely accurate. For though this is indeed a dark story, there is a deep, deep warmth here. It emanates not just from the central characters, who are among the most pleasant I’ve ever known, but also from Botswana itself, both the spirited people who dwell there and its vibrant, post-colonial culture.

This is NOT the savage Africa of old-fashioned adventure novels. There are no jungles here, no ferocious beasts, no warring tribes. Likewise, this isn’t the Africa of so many modern newsreels, with bands of lawless guerrillas terrorising villages, or political despots inflicting injustice at a whim. Instead, what we get here is an orderly society with laidback people leading harmonious lives, and neighbours and families, even if they’re impoverished, respecting each other to a remarkable degree.

Granted, it’s a world ravaged by AIDS, and political and police corruption are key elements in this tale, but Botswana – and that’s the Botswana of real life, not just the Botswana presented here – has long been renowned among sub-Saharan African counties for its stable economy and generally good government. What’s more, much of this appears to stem from the determination of a nation-state to make a peaceful and prosperous future for itself.

Don’t get me wrong, Deadly Harvest doesn’t preach about this. None of this inherent goodness is in-yer-face, but it is certainly embodied in the character of David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, probably one of the most engaging lead-characters I’ve ever encountered in detective fiction. An opera-lover, a wine connoisseur, and a physically immense chap, overly fond (by his own admission) of good food and cookies (‘Kubu’ Translates into English as ‘Hippo’), he is also an expert homicide investigator, not just au fait with all the latest technical knowledge, but, when it comes to identifying hidden clues, possessed of a near-Holmesian instinct. His loving family – which figures large in this novel, and of which his wife, Joy, is the beating heart – only adds to his character, giving him huge emotional depth and appeal.

Be warned, though … this does not mean that Kubu is a soft touch. Far from it. The career copper in him loathes the ruthless criminals he so often pursues, seeing them as enemies of his people and potential destroyers of society. In Deadly Harvest, he is particularly determined to eradicate the muti superstition, which has claimed so many innocent lives in his beloved homeland.

In this cause, he is ably supported by the zealous Samantha Khama, a sometimes spiky individual, whose one Achilles heel may be that she is too quick to view Kubu’s fatherly attitude as patronisation, but who still has lots to learn, and yet whose quick wits and commitment to the job make her an ideal trainee-detective and a tireless ally when things get tricky. At the top of the CID command structure, meanwhile, sits Director Mabaku, a terse man but another likeable individual, who nicely personifies the difficulties so many senior policemen face in law-enforcement cultures the world over when they are torn between moral obligation and political compromise.

Unfortunately, I can’t elaborate too much on the villains of the piece. Because in many ways, Deadly Harvest is an archetypical (and yet at the same time very different kind of) whodunit, and the real baddies stay hidden throughout much of the narrative. Suffice to say, they are colourful and terrifying in equal measure, but they wouldn’t have half the impact if they didn’t combine the worst elements of two entirely different worlds: the arcane devilry of ancient myth, which to believers can reach you at any time and in any place, and the worst wiles of Modern Man, wherein self-advancement is everything and the losers can simply be damned.

Michael Stanley in actual fact is two authors working together: Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both are native Africans, so perhaps it’s no surprise that they handle this ‘black magic’ aspect of the novel with great skill and sensitivity. Muti murders are still a major problem in some parts of Africa, with entire police squads in that part of the world dedicated to locating the missing and bringing those responsible to justice. Despite this being the 21st century, it seems that the pernicious cult has something of a hold on the African imagination: in Deadly Harvest, even the enlightened Kubu occasionally wonders what he’s dealing with. Curious and unexplained things do happen, which in any community at the end of its tether could easily be attributed to supernatural agencies, so it’s no surprise that on occasion he struggles to find allies even among his fellow police officers.

At no stage, though, do you get the impression that this malignancy has its claws deeply rooted in Botswana. Kubu and Khama are the living proof of that, a pair of brave and resourceful cops who are determined to confront this age-old wickedness, knowing (or at least gambling) that their vindication will come when they bring the witch doctor and his acolytes to book through the normal procedures of everyday law.

Deadly Harvest is an inspiring read. Tense but enjoyable, and populated with delightful characters. I guarantee you will never view sub-Saharan Africa in the same way again.

And now, as always, I’m going to suggest my own choice of lead cast should Deadly Harvest ever make it to the screen (though of course, that could only happen if other Kubu stories got there first, this particular novel being the fourth in the series). And what fun they would have shooting it; I mean, you couldn’t do anything other than go to the actual place, could you? Anyway, here are my picks:

Detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu – Nonso Anozie (the role he was born to play, I swear)
Detective Samantha Khama – Nathalie Emmanuel
Joy Bengu – Naomie Harris
Director Mabaku – Djimon Hounsou
Bill Marumo – Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Joshua Gobey – Louis Cordice


AICKMAN’S HEIRS
 edited by Simon Strantzas (2015)

An intriguing anthology of weird, open-ended tales, chilling in tone and concept though rarely indulging in blood and gore or utilising standard supernatural tropes, and written in homage to the late, great Robert Aickman, a British author of the 20th century, who specialised in the strange and macabre rather than the out-and-out horrific.

Rather than just tell you everything that happens from one story to the next, I’ll let Undertow provide the intro. Here’s their official blurb, which nicely hints at the enjoyable weirdness to come.

Edited by Simon Strantzas, ‘Aickman’s Heirs’ is an anthology of strange, weird tales by modern visionaries of weird fiction, in the milieu of Robert Aickman, the master of strange and ambiguous stories. Editor and author Strantzas, an important figure in weird fiction, has been hailed as the heir to Aickman’s oeuvre, and is ideally suited to edit this exciting volume. Featuring all-original stories from Brian Evenson, Lisa Tuttle, John Langan, Helen Marshall, Michael Cisco, and others.

Can strangeness in itself be scary? Probably not, though it can certainly be unsettling. And indeed, that was my main reaction to most of the contents of Aickman’s Heirs … a feeling that I was ill-at-ease, that I’d somehow been disturbed without really knowing how or why, and yet at the same time was deeply satisfied.

As that was also my reaction to much of Robert Aickman’s fiction (he wrote 48 short stories in total – many of which have become staples of ‘classic horror’ collections), then I can only conclude that editor, Simon Strantzas, and the numerous writers he has brought together for this book, have hit their main target quite successfully.

We have here an entire range of weirdness, most stories hinting at the grotesque rather than explicitly demonstrating it, and yet, though they rarely hit us with a killer last line or murderous unseen twist, always leaving us deeply discomfited.

Take Brian Evenson’s Seaside Town, in which a mismatched couple visit a French coastal resort where dreariness is the watchword, only for the male of the pair to be inexplicably abandoned by his partner, with no real clue where he is or why. Or Richard Gavin’s Neithernor, which sees a snobbish art critic determined to investigate when he uncovers evidence that his artistic cousin might be a hostage in the grotty little gallery in the next town.

Another key trait of Robert Aickman’s was his relentless merging of the mundane with the bizarre. Very illustrative of this, Ringing the Changes was perhaps one of the great man’s most famous and certainly most oft-reprinted tales, taking another awkward couple to another dull seaside town, this time on the English east coast during the off-season, settling them down in one of the most depressing pubs imaginable, and then filling the air with a clangour of church-bells which literally will not stop until the dead themselves have been wakened. Picking up the torch in Aickman’s Heirs, Nina Allan’s lengthy tale, A Change of Scene, pays direct tribute to the story, in some ways that I won’t mention here as that would be too much of a spoiler, though put it this way, it’s set in the same miserable town (spelled only slightly differently), features another strained couple – two lifelong friends this time, both widowed (again, one of them may have been in the original tale) – and has much to say about the resort’s curious number of church steeples.

Less recognisable, perhaps, but equally disquieting in its clash between the ordinary and the extraordinary is John Howard’s Least Light, Most Night, which sees a reserved, even rather shy office worker reluctantly accept a curious invitation to attend the house of a colleague whom he doesn’t know well for tea and biscuits, at which point he is drawn into a very odd world indeed.

Robert Aickman rarely missed a chance to evoke a dreamlike, often nightmarish atmosphere. And Aickman’s Heirs goes for this too, in a big way.

Take David Nickle’s Camp, which plucks a sophisticated newlywed gay couple out of the city and sends them on a do-it-yourself honeymoon in the Canadian wilderness, where a slow and terrible transformation commences. Or Lynda Rucker’s The Dying Season, wherein another couple trapped in a failing relationship visit a holiday resort so miserably rundown that it scarcely seems possible it could exist in the real world.

With all these stories, of course, and all the others contained herein – there are 15 in total – Aickmanesque ambiguity reigns supreme, solutions often left to the interpretation of the reader. Characterisation typically runs deep (though, at times, is complex – with loneliness and isolation key and repeating themes), while menace arrives subtly, much of the damage self-inflicted, our heroes beset by the results of bad choices and poor personal judgements.

Again like Aickman’s originals, the stories are expertly crafted and exquisitely written. You’d expect that from highly regarded professionals like Lisa Tuttle and John Langan, whose contributions – The Book that Finds You and Underground Economy, respectively, are among the best in the tome. But Camp is a particularly excellent example too, as are The Dying SeasonA Change of Scene, and DP Watt’s deceptively gentle A Delicate Craft.

Don’t just take my word for it, though – check it out for yourself.

In fact, in this case you really should, because Aickman’s Heirs, like most of Robert Aickman’s own work, will probably divide horror fans. Those who always need a clear resolution, or who like to be jump-scared out of their skins, and of course those who consider themselves gore or splatter hounds, most likely won’t be enamoured. In many ways, the stories in here are literary shorts at least as much as they are horror – but if you have any interest in the ‘other’, that strange, outré world of speculative writing, where nothing is necessarily what it appears to be, messages are purposely mixed, and much of the quiet terror stems from frailties of the human psyche, then Aickman’s Heirs could definitely be an anthology for you. 

And now …

AICKMAN’S HEIRS – the movie

Just a bit of fun, this part. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed, if they do.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that they’ve all got lost in an underground catacomb and are then confronted by a mysterious monk (a la Tales from the Crypt) or are the subjects of memoirs related by a vampire to a famous horror author in an elusive and Gothic London club (al la The Monster Club) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

The Dying Season (by Lynda E Rucker): A gentle artist and her bullying corporate husband spend an off-season holiday at a drab seaside trailer park, which is almost empty except for the disturbingly strange couple across the way …
Silvia – Emma Dumont
John – Toby Regbo
Lynn – Ruth Wilson
Gabriel – Miles Jupp

Two Brothers (by Malcolm Devlin): When William’s older brother, Stephen, goes to boarding school, the younger sibling is left to his own devices in their big country house. He yearns for his brother’s return, but when Christmas arrives, and Stephen comes home, he has subtly changed …
Father – Philip Jackson
(Alas, my knowledge of child actors isn’t broad enough to effectively cast either Stephen or William).

A Delicate Craft (by DP Watt): A lonely Polish plumber looking for work in the English East Midlands meets and befriends elderly Agnes, who teaches him the delicate art of lace-making. A rare skill, for which there is a terrible price to pay …
Boydan – Antoni Pawlicki
Agnes – Helen Mirren

Seven Minutes in Heaven (by Nadia Bulkin): A sulky 20-something is fascinated by her hometown of Hartbury’s eerie twin, Manfield, which still stands a few miles down the road despite having been evacuated after a pesticide disaster. In due course, she uncovers a terrifying truth …
Amanda – Jessica Henwick


THE ASHES OF LONDON
by Andrew Taylor (2017)

It is 1666 and London is burning. Apparently, it ignited by accident, but it’s burning nonetheless … from the Tower to the Temple Bar, the wailing populace struggling to escape as their homes and workshops succumb to the flames.

But even without the fire, these are turbulent times in England. After an exhausting civil war and then years of Cromwellian rule, the Stuarts are back on the throne in the form of the affable Charles II, but enemies of the crown are never far away. Puritan forces linger in the shadows, some more dangerous than others, such as the Fifth Monarchists, a fanatical clique who were not just involved in the execution of Charles I – ‘the Man of Blood’, as they called him – but who are also keen to see his son dead, thus clearing the way for the accession of ‘King Jesus’ and ushering in a reign of Heaven on Earth.

Against this difficult and dangerous background, what is one more death? But even in the midst of the fire, attention is captured by the discovery in the ruins of St Paul’s of a man who has been ritually assassinated, his thumbs tied together behind his back before he was stabbed.

The authorities have a bit too much on their plate to be overly interested in this, but it isn’t simply ignored, the investigation put into the hands of one James Marwood, a young man who on the outside doesn’t seem like much of a sleuth. Ostensibly, he’s an ordinary chap who is simply trying to make his way in the world, with zero interest in the affairs of state, but his is a more complicated path than most. The son of a republican activist who was ruined financially by the restoration of the monarchy, not to mention in terms of his reputation and health, James Marwood now works as a clerk for Joseph Williamson, chief propagandist for the Royal Court, in the pamphleteer office at Scotland Yard, where he is trusted but treated brusquely.

The authorities are well aware of James’s past, of course, and perhaps have employed him on the basis that it’s advisable to keep your friends close and your enemies closer still. But he now becomes even more useful for them. Detecting the hand of republican extremism in the recent murder, they assign James to the case because it’s deemed possible that his family may still have contacts in that secretive world.

At the same time, in what is initially a parallel storyline, we meet Catherine Lovett, or ‘Cat’ for short, the daughter to and heiress of Tom Lovett, a one-time Cromwellian soldier and ‘regicide’ – in other words he was directly involved in the execution of Charles I, and therefore can never be pardoned – who is currently in hiding. Almost oblivious to this background chicanery, Cat, who commences the book as an adventurous but on the whole fairly innocent girl, wants only to design buildings and study architecture, though alas, even these simple dreams are far from being realised. In the absence of her father, she is the unhappy ward of her wealthy aunt and uncle, Olivia and Henry Alderley, the latter of whom wants only to marry her off and be done with her. As if that isn’t distressing enough, Cat’s odious cousin Edward is increasingly interested in her, and when he finally rapes her, and she retaliates by half-blinding him, she flees into what remains of the smouldering city and seeks out a new (inevitably much harsher) life for herself. 

We know these personal journeys are going to entwine at some point, but The Ashes of London is such a plot-driven novel that to give any more detail at this stage would be the ultimate spoiler. Suffice to say that all kinds of skulduggery follows, James and Cat pursuing their own meandering and perilous paths through a world of intrigue as they are drawn steadily together.

In addition, endless fascinating and outrageous characters take the stage. Cat comes under the paternalistic spell of a kindly but ailing draughtsman, Hakesby, who, alongside the legendary Christopher Wren (who also makes an appearance), is charged with re-designing the burned-out cathedral. James, meanwhile, is introduced to the devious William Chiffinch, another real-life personality and one of Charles II’s most accomplished fixers. When the king himself arrives, it is in dramatic and amusing fashion, which is the way it should be, because though his is little more than a glorified guest-appearance, Charles II, as the embodiment of the Stuart royal line, remains essential to the narrative.

While all this is going on, of course, the murder plot thickens, the bodies piling up, Marwood’s suspicions spreading in all directions, particularly where high-end political machinations may be found (yes, this is a conspiracy thriller as much as a murder mystery). And all the way through there is a growing sense of jeopardy. Neither Cat nor James have such status that they command power, and even though James represents power, it is not always around to assist him when he needs it. So, it isn’t just the villains of the piece – an increasingly dangerous and deranged threat, we sense – who provide the menace. Bad things can befall almost anyone, for near enough any reason, if they poke their noses deep enough into the ashes of London …

The Great Fire of London is a disaster that is branded into the psyche of most Britons, even those who are not overly familiar with the historical period. It was a monumental event for all kinds of reasons, and a milestone in the emergence of the Modern Age, not least because it cleared away what remained of the old medieval city and allowed visionaries like Christopher Wren to build something vastly more advanced. But it’s important to remember that just because the city that burned was centuries old at the time, it was not some miniature wattle-and-thatch market-town, some tangle of narrow streets and muddy courts on the banks of the Thames. It was already colossal in size, a megalopolis that was home to 80,000 people, 70,000 of whom were rendered homeless by the 1666 disaster.

Little wonder this event was viewed at the time as a national catastrophe, especially because it came on the coat-tails of the Black Death, and so was viewed by religious extremists as part of a double-punishment imposed by God for the lax morality of the Restoration era.

Britain in the mid/late 17th century was certainly a cradle of fundamentalism, a land divided between various religious groups, (most of them Protestant, while Catholics were regarded as traitors who deserved to be lynched simply for being Catholic!). Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorial rule was over and the Royalists were back in power, but the Puritans had not gone away. Though most had officially been forgiven for their roles in the Civil War, countless gentleman still held positions of authority even though their loyalty was suspect, while remnants of the brutal Roundhead army lurked among the general populace, in some cases functioning like miniature crime syndicates. In a time and place when it was an offence just to hold an opinion, the king’s spies were everywhere. London was a city of informers, and no-one trusted anyone else.

And then the fire came, a conflagration quite literally – or so it seemed – from Hell.

And it is this epic sprawl of religious and political intrigue, not to mention the incendiary atmosphere of a truly pivotal moment in British history, that Andrew Taylor captures so perfectly in The Ashes of London. But don’t for one minute assume that this means it’s a history lesson. From the very beginning, this is a fast-moving mystery, with living and breathing characters striking sparks off each other as they wend their labyrinthine ways through a capital city (what’s left of it!) filled with danger and deception.

And yet the richness of historical detail is all here, blended seamlessly into plot and dialogue. For example, we come to understand the destructive power of the fire because when it’s over, we trudge the desert of cinders for ourselves. We see what a Machiavellian hive the Palace of Whitehall was because we view it, if not simply through the eyes of hero, James Marwood, who only ever receives information on a ‘need to know’ basis, but via the manners and methods of crafty functionaries like Williamson and Chiffinch. We understand what a focal point of English religious life the original Cathedral of St. Paul’s was because we feel the horror of the awe-stricken crowd as it goes up in flames.

This novel is an out-and-out feast for historical fiction fans, awakening that brief window of time more effectively than any number of textbooks I could name. But for those who are simply here for the thrill of an intense, clue-driven investigation, it won’t disappoint on that level either, telling us a fascinating detective story and setting it against a richly-coloured and yet easily accessible tableau of the past.

As alluded to earlier, it would be erroneous of me to give too much away about the plot as that would spoil the reading experience. It’s complex for sure, but deeply engrossing – you literally never know where the next twist is going to come from. And it helps, of course, that the lead characters are so engaging.

James and Cat, are far from being stock historical heroes, both completely aware of their standing in this unforgiving world, and yet each with their own quirks. The former commences the narrative in a lowly position, but he’s inquisitive by nature and inordinately perceptive, and he grows rapidly into his role of unofficial but opinionated Scotland Yard investigator. The latter is ripped from pillar to post by forces beyond her control, and suffers lasting damage as a result –a realistic appraisal, perhaps, of what it would actually mean to be ‘bodice-ripper’ heroine – and yet she remains feisty and spirited throughout, and at times maybe a little more than that; by the end of this novel, one wouldn’t want to cross Cat Lovett unnecessarily. 

The rest of the cast are equally striking, both the real and fictional mingling believably together, all drawn clearly and, perhaps in the way of true life, none of them especially more likeable than the next as they all ultimately look out for themselves. Most interesting of all, maybe, are James and Cat’s two fathers, men who very vividly represent the moral complexities of their age; both are driven by a sincere devotion to an idealised vision of Jesus, but they are heavily politicised too, and so battered by war and oppression that Christian sentiment rarely manifests itself in their actions. Though perhaps the deepest irony where Tom Lovett and old Marwood are concerned is that, given they are both Bible men, neither seems remotely aware of that most prescient warning of the good book: that the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children.

The Ashes of London is an enthralling and informative read. Elegantly written, deeply atmospheric of its period, and yet rapid-fire in terms of its unfolding action and events. I found it utterly compelling, and have no hesitation in giving it my highest recommendation.

As usual, I’m now going to attempt to cast it. This is just for fun, of course (as if any casting director would take note of my views). I have no idea if The Ashes of London is being lined up for film or TV adaptation, but it really ought to be. Here are the actors I would call:  

James Marwood – James Norton
Cat Lovett – Daisy Ridley
Hakesby – Geoffrey Rush
Williamson – Jim Carter
Chiffinch – Charles Dance
Henry Alderley – Jonathon Pryce
Olivia Alderley – Maria Bello
Old Marwood – Patrick Stewart
Tom Lovett – Bernard Hill             
Charles II – Julian Sands


THE ESCAPE 
by C.L. Taylor (2017)

Bristol wife and mother, Jo Blackmore, is struggling desperately with her nerves. Bereaved of her first child, Kevin, when he was still a baby, she struggles constantly with depression, and even though she now has another youngster, two-year-old Elise – a happy and healthy child – she is anxious, paranoid and increasingly suffers from agoraphobia.

In this regard, her once-loving husband, Max, is neither use nor ornament. A successful investigative reporter, he’s long felt that his job needs more attention than his family does, and despite Jo’s ailing mental condition, increasingly displays annoyance and frustration with her rather than affection. The twosome are certainly growing apart, but it finally comes to a head when Jo is one day fooled into giving a ride to a blonde-haired woman known only as Paula, who, once she’s in the car, demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of the Blackmores’ personal lives and makes vicious threats.

Jo and Elise emerge unscathed from the incident, but Jo is terrified, and so when Max responds with near indifference, the rift between them widens dramatically … especially as the mysterious Paula now upgrades her campaign of harassment, menacing the fragile Jo at every opportunity. Even when Paula finally reveals that this is all about Max, who apparently owes her something he plainly won’t give, he is blasé about the problem, dismissing the blonde tormentor as a fantasist or mental case, and refusing to entertain the possibility that she may be someone from his past.

Furious to be getting no support from her husband at a time when she needs it more than ever, Jo decides to leave, and starts making secret plans to take Elise to her parents’ home in Cheshire. But this decision, though it affords Jo some relief from her turmoil, and to all intents and purposes has been made in complete privacy, now seems to trigger a whole new wave of ever-more frightening events, which involve, among other things, house-breaking and violent assault.

And at no stage is Jo able to draw reassurance from law-enforcement, because no-one actually believes that she is being persecuted, the Social Services, who have been craftily and nastily manipulated, wondering if Jo, with her history of mental instability, might not be a fit and proper person to look after the one light in her life, Elise. Max, who now feels openly betrayed by his wife, continues to be as unhelpful as possible, prompting Jo to wonder if he too has some kind of agenda.

Eventually, with scarcely a friend in the world to turn to, and growing threats on all sides, the embattled young mother opts to put her child in the car and simply go on the run. It seems unlikely that she’ll find any refuge in the UK, so she heads overseas to the land of her mother’s birth, Ireland.

But even over there, things are not all they may be. Despite the picturesque surroundings of Clogherhead in County Louth, the ever beady-eyed landlady, Mary Byrne, is also a woman with secrets, while the mere fact that Jo’s family originated around here seems to arouse some latent hostility.

Meanwhile, the danger that Jo felt creeping up on her in the UK hasn’t gone away, and it isn’t long before it crosses the Irish Sea in pursuit of her …   

C.L. Taylor is fast emerging as the queen of British domestic noir. With such tales of homespun terror as The Missing and The Accident already under her belt, she now hits us with another one, and in her own inimitable style, manages to make even the seemingly safest of places – leafy Middle England – into a suburban minefield.

I should say from the outset that there are no extremes of horror in this book. We’re not dealing with massacres, rape or rampant child-abuse. But in many ways, The Escape is more subtly harrowing than any of those. Because the enemies here, at least for a good part of the novel, are the very institutions that are supposed to be there to help – they are especially supposed to help people like Jo Blackmore, a woman of good character but emotionally distraught to the point where many aspects of ordinary life are too much for her.

This is brave writing by Taylor. So often in thriller fiction, as in real life in fact, the police, the social services (even the nursery school establishment, for Heaven’s sake!), are firmly with the good guys, but so cleverly constructed is this story, and at the same time so skewed is the reality of things when viewed through the prism of mild mental illness, that they are here projected in a very different light. Jo Blackmore wants nothing more than to be able to live her life and raise her daughter, with or without her self-centred husband – which part of it is very much up to him. Yet there are so many implacable forces ganging up against her; and who the hell do they think they are, anyway, to interfere in the way she conducts her own affairs and raises her own little girl!

I should hastily add that the caring establishment is not the arch-enemy here, but it does present Jo with a wall of faceless and frightening bureaucracy, which not only must she somehow get over in order to find her freedom, but which is also doing a very effective job of shielding the real villains, though needless to say – and what a surprise this isn’t! – it doesn’t prove very effective in preventing them from striking at her.

I don’t think I’ve ever read another book in which the innocent were so up against it as Jo Blackmore is here. There is very little brutality in The Escape, the unfairness Jo faces in this tale is a monster in itself – not that this stops you wondering from time to time if maybe, just maybe, she has finally succumbed to her demons and the fault may lie with her after all. But that’s a question you can only find an answer to by reading the book. And this is another aspect of C.L. Taylor’s thrillers for which she is rightly lauded: the psychological questions she poses. From the very start, we are informed that Jo Blackmore is battling with post-natal depression. But just how far has it actually gone? Could it be that she is seriously mentally ill? How do we know what is real and what isn’t?

This delightful twisty element, which is masterfully blended into the narrative, gives The Escape a real Hitchockian aura, which when you consider that it’s a consciously low-key mystery-thriller – as I say, a ‘domestic noir’ – shows how effectively written it is.

A big book, but a quick read. Another of those famous page-turners. You won’t be disappointed.

And now, as usual, I’m going to be cheeky enough to suggest my own cast should The Escape ever make it to the screen, and given network television’s current fascination with the ups and downs and ins and outs of modern middle-class life, particularly when there’s a darker edge to it, I reckon this one would be idea. Anyway, here we go:

Jo Blackmore – Eleanor Tomlinson
Max Blackmore – Ioan Gruffud
Paula – Amanda Abbington
Mary Byrne – Sinead Cusack



A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS 
by Paul Tremblay (2016)

Meredith Barrett is an intelligent, sophisticated and seemingly stable young woman, leading a relatively quiet life in a South Boston apartment. However, it’s fairly well known that when she was a child, something appalling happened to her family, something she hasn’t been able to speak fully about for years, in consequence of which the true facts in the case are much-mythologised. When best-selling author, Rachel Neville, arrives to interview Meredith, a loose agreement has been reached that the younger woman will finally, for the first time, tell all.

Rachel is unsure what she is going to get, or whether it will be adequately enthralling for a new book, but the story, when it starts to unfold, astounds her. It concerns a young suburban family entrapped by an intangible but malevolent something, which may have an entirely mundane (i.e. psychological) explanation, or alternatively could be the work of the Devil.

Central to the story are the then-eight-year-old Meredith, known back then as Merry, and her 15-year-old sister, Marjorie. They enjoy a typical sisterly relationship, adoring each other but at the same time adversarial, delighting in catching each other out with naughty, sometimes nasty tricks. Marjorie is the cannier and more dominant of the two, but Merry, while not necessarily adept at this game, is so willing to meet every challenge that Marjorie treats her with a degree of grudging respect, and affectionately calls her ‘Monkey’.

From a reader’s POV, it’s a charming scenario, and something that’s instantly recognisable in happy families everywhere.

The rest of the Barrett clan consists of father, John, a Catholic by upbringing who, since he lost his middle-management job a year and a half ago, is trying to re-energise his religious beliefs, and mother, Sarah, also a Catholic, but one who has grown away from the Church of her childhood and is now skeptical of its teachings.

Worried about their dwindling finances, the parents are going through a difficult patch, but their real problems commence when Marjorie starts displaying erratic behavior. On some occasions, it’s odd but harmless, Marjorie telling her sister some unusually scary and macabre stories, or rearranging her bedroom posters into weird patterns, but on others it’s more sinister, such as when she sneaks into Merry’s room while she’s asleep, and clamps her nose and mouth shut.

Merry, as our main observer, is never quite sure whether Marjorie, a natural mischief-maker, is faking all this bizarre stuff or not. But parents, John and Sarah, have been concerned about Marjorie’s fractious, moody behavior for some time.

Initially, at Sarah’s behest, a psycho-analytical approach is taken, but medical personnel, though they talk to her and prescribe meds (for which they charge handsomely), are unable to fix the older girl’s apparent personality-change, which continues to worsen. One minute she is mocking her father’s belief in Heaven in a cruel, smug way, and the next she is screaming at her parents to get the voices out of her head.

Increasingly fearful that she might be possessed, a worry encouraged in no small fashion by Marjorie herself when she climbs the bare wall of her bedroom with spider-like strength and agility, John finally calls on a Catholic priest, Father Wanderly, who talks to Marjorie, seemingly calming her during a foul-mouthed tirade, but afterward admits suspicion that something evil has taken hold of her. Eager for publicity, the priest then makes an incredible suggestion: that the Barretts put themselves into a weekly television show, in which Marjorie’s deteriorating behavior will be filmed and discussed by various ‘experts’ in the field, from psychiatrists to theologians, with the grand finale the exorcism itself, at which point the heroic priest will cleanse the child of the entity possessing her.

Unsurprisingly, Sarah is not keen on this idea, but when a television company gets involved and substantial cash is offered, everything changes.

Thus, The Possession is born.

In the early stages, the experience isn’t too painful. Merry is intrigued to have TV people living with them. She doesn’t much like producer/director, Barry Cotton, but she gets on well with writer, Ken Fletcher. Marjorie’s antics remain unpredictable, but this is something that Merry, in that traditional way of easy-going eight-year-olds, has got used to. So, everything is cool.

Until Merry sees her sister strapped down on her bed for hardline interrogation. Until she sees her parents’ relationship completely break down, Sarah blaming John for this invasion of their lives, and John, who’s been desperate to find answers in his faith and has failed, losing track of reality and engaging in violent altercations with the crowds of curious onlookers who now attend their house day and night (many openly vilifying the family for this exploitation of their daughter’s illness).

And still there are questions in Merry’s mind about whether Marjorie is faking it. The older sister is a crafty child, even sly. In that tiresome way of all teen rebels without a cause, is it possible that she could be doing this to punish her quarreling mum and dad? Is it that she’s just a silly, naïve child, who, as a form of attention-seeking, is unconsciously allowing a callous media to manipulate her? Or could it be that she’s simply mentally ill? … because from the frightening things we are seeing now – and yes, by this stage of the narrative, it is way past a joke! – we could easily be witnessing a psychological breakdown.

Or alternatively, is it something genuinely evil?

There is no overt indication that a supernatural force is at work, but then … would a demon that wants to do extensive damage reveal its hand so quickly? And despite at one point assuring Merry that she has pretended to be possessed from the beginning in order to win her family the TV deal, Marjorie continues to give the impression that she is under some kind of malign influence, speaking in different, unrecognisable voices, moving around on all fours, and displaying arcane knowledge.

Despite the covert admission made to her, Merry is still unsure what to believe. And so are we, the readers. But one thing is certain. The ghastly turmoil besetting the Barrett family is not going to be resolved easily, or without serious and maybe multiple casualties …

Possession is an old premise for horror stories, these days. But Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts is a very original take on it. Whereas in early classics like William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (not to mention recent movies like The Rite and The Conjuring), the investigators, usually after some doubt, settle on a firm conviction that evil spirits are real, A Head Full of Ghosts takes more of a Shirley Jackson approach, keeping us guessing right to the end of the book. And rather than doing this by locking everyone in a supposed haunted house for the weekend, he throws us into very unfamiliar territory by locating it in a suburban family home, now massively disrupted not just by the elder daughter’s apparent illness, but by the economic stresses that are driving the parents apart, and the unfeeling presence of a TV crew who are mainly interested in securing a ratings hit.

And this is a point where A Head Full of Ghosts becomes a genuine horror show, with every key character tormented in his or her own way, and on various levels.

Non-believing Sarah only goes through with the whole farrago because she knows they need the money (if there’s any demon here, it could be argued that it’s Mammon). But even this leaves her racked with guilt, not just because she fears that she’s giving credence to something she reviles, the paternalistic power of the Church, but also because she can clearly see that Marjorie’s condition is worsening, not improving. This is such a terrible burden that she can’t bear it alone, but of course she can’t put it onto her daughter because she is convinced the teenager is ill, and so she directs it at her husband, treating his religious desperation as a kind of pathetic hysteria.

For John, it’s even more torturous. As head of the family, and former main bread-winner, he would normally be the guy who sorts things out, but on this occasion he can’t – in fact it’s quite the opposite, the burly, bearded Bostonian constantly belittled by his wife and his smart-mouthed daughter (or whatever’s lurking inside her). He’s vulnerable in other ways too: his certainty that they’re facing an infernal foe is terrifying him given that God and his angels seem incapable of intervening; at the same time, he is bewildered and mortified that his Christian beliefs are attracting scorn rather than respect, which in the end leaves him a puppet of a man, easy to manipulate and easier still to blame (and maybe, just maybe, the absolute perfect target for a genuinely malevolent intellect).

And then there is Merry, who, all the way through the book views these events in a mild state of disbelief, internalising the shock because she’s a child, naïvely assuming that one day she’ll simply wake up and find everything back to normal because her mum and dad have resolved it. Overall, Merry is a marvelous creation, Tremblay completely and convincingly getting into the lively and genuinely funny day-to-day world of a bright little eight-year-old.

Not that this reduces the awfulness of the predicament, an effect the author achieves without throwing buckets of gore and vomit over us or hitting us with horrendous blasphemy (though these disturbing elements are not completely absent). He primarily relies on the interplay of these tormented individuals, a once close-knit family brutally broken, and who though they’re now in a virtual goldfish bowl of public attention, are more isolated than they could ever have imagined.

There is such devastation here that I’m not sure it even matters whether a devious intelligence is directing the chaos, or whether it’s just rotten luck; the terror of this tale doesn’t need any such revelation. But even so, the book ends with a savage jolt, which because it again makes you reconsider everything you’ve just read, caps the whole thing off perfectly. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Tremblay enjoys himself immensely in this book, filling it with a host of classic horror references, which has attracted much praise from the genre. We’ve already mentioned The ExorcistThe Turn of the Screw, and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (a study of young woman going slowly mad) is clearly lurking in the background, along with The Amityville Horror (wherein a middle-class family struggling to pay their bills turn to the supernatural as a solution), Paranormal Activity, which also features a pair of quirky children at the root of the disturbance, and even Scream, another postmodern horror outing which trades on sneaky allusions to other works of fiction. If these references aren’t oblique enough in the text itself, you get several of them through an amusingly hyper-critical ‘horror fan blog’ provided by a lively young lady called Karen Brissette, which interrupts the narrative at regular intervals, analyzing the TV show from an uber-cynical ‘keyboard warrior’ perspective – though be warned, even this slice of 21st century normality is deceptive.

Overall, A Head Full of Ghosts is one clever, insightful and darkly entertaining horror novel. Just don’t expect your spirits to be uplifted by it.

It’s usually the case when I complete one of these reviews, that I also try to cast it. But I don’t think I’m going to bother with A Head Full of Ghosts simply because the two main characters are the youngsters, Merry and Marjorie, and as I have no real clue about exciting new child actors, it would utterly self-defeating to cast everyone except the two main protagonists. Either way, A Head Full of Ghosts deserves to be on the screen in some shape or form, and as soon as possible, because it is horror stories like this that will keep the genre alive and kicking at adult and intellectual level.




HARVEST HOME
by Thomas Tryon (1973)

When budding artist, Ned Constantine, his wife, Beth, and young teenage daughter, Kate, leave the hustle and bustle of New York for a quieter, healthier life in the remote Connecticut village of Cornwall Coombe, they believe that they’ve embarked on a new and more positive phase of their marriage.

The Coombe, a farming community where the emphasis is on raising corn, is literally idyllic, especially when the Constantines first set eyes on it one gorgeous summer. However, they have some reservations. To start with, the villagers, though friendly, are stuck in their ways, resisting mechanisation out in the fields and showing little interest in events beyond their borders.

They also have more than their fair share of eccentrics:

Mary ‘the Widow’ Fortune is a dominant force. Something of a grand dame in Cornwall Coombe and hugely knowledgeable about local tradition and the ways of the woods, especially the supposedly haunted Soakes’s Lonesome, she is dour-looking and permanently black-clad, but is initially welcoming to the Constantines and proves a life-saver when, using her prodigious knowledge of herbal remedies, she succeeds in pulling Kate out of a potential fatal asthma attack.

More troublesome is Tamar Penrose, the lusty village post-mistress, who takes a shine to Ned Constantine at an early stage, though she is already the (single) mother of young Missy Penrose, a distant and seemingly disturbed child, who many of the locals regard as a seer. Then there is the Soakes clan, a bunch of hillbilly-type moonshiners who live just beyond the Lonesome, and yet who, though they appear to pose a threat to the picturesque lifestyle of the Coombe, are not especially feared.

For all this, the Constantines are soon comfortable in their newly-acquired 200-year-old cottage, becoming good friends with the blind scholar, Robert Dodd, and his homely wife, Maggie, who live next door, with chirpy local pedlar, Jack Stump, who only comes around occasionally, with a hunky young farmer, Justin Hooke, and his beautiful wife, Sophie, and with young handyman, Worthy Pettinger, who finds himself stifled living here and wants to get out and see the world.

And it is this latter character who, in due course, spells trouble for Ned Constantine.

To begin with, the pageantry of village life – which is filled with fêtes and festivals, all built around rituals designed to keep the crops healthy (the village has terrible memories of barren periods called ‘wastes’) – seems quaint and charming, and the most important of these, Harvest Home, is coming up shortly. Justin Hooke, it seems, is Cornwall Coombe’s incumbent ‘Harvest Lord’, a ceremonial role, which for seven years carries both advantages and responsibilities, while Sophie is his ‘Corn Maiden’. Both will have prominent roles in the upcoming ‘Corn Play’, though these are not openly discussed. As this year’s event will mark the end of Justin’s tenure, Worthy Pettinger is being groomed to take over, though this is an honour he doesn’t seek – in fact, he seems alarmed by the prospect, and when Ned takes the youngster’s side in the argument, he is surprised by the degree of hostility it causes.

Other weird events also distract him. For example, when he finds a curious homemade doll on Justin’s land, he is advised not to speak of it. Likewise, when one evening, both he and Beth are entranced by elfin music out on the fields, and the sight of two curiously clad figures performing a sensual moonlit rite, no one will admit to knowing who they were or what they were doing. More sinister by far, Ned then locates a human skeleton in the Lonesome, and when he goes to look for it again, it has been removed; he can’t help but associate this with the mysterious story of Gracie Everdeen, a former village beauty who, some 14 years earlier, was expected to be the Corn Maiden, only to inexplicably do away with herself (Ned increasingly wonders if she actually did commit suicide, or maybe was murdered). Most shocking of all though is an unexplained attack on Jack Stump, which leaves him with his tongue cut out and his lips sewn together, though what really amazes Ned about this latter atrocity is the way everyone in town – including the constable – casually assume that the Soakeses are responsible, and yet take no further action.

All this time, while Ned finds himself growing apart from the villagers, Beth and Kate are drawn closer to them. Ned’s relationship with his wife isn’t helped when the wanton Tamar makes a move on him and he almost succumbs, Beth becoming mistrustful of him afterwards, seemingly certain that he was the instigator. But things only really come to a head when Worthy, tacitly encouraged in his rebellious behavior by Ned, disrupts a church meeting to loudly damn both the corn and ‘the Mother’, an abstract entity which, up to now, Ned has assumed is nothing more than a nod towards the old pagan concept of the Earth Goddess. However, there is deep consternation at this, and even though Worthy flees the village, he is later brought back by a posse and imprisoned in a room at the back of the post office.

Ned doesn’t actually know what will occur on the upcoming night of Harvest Home – all he’s ever told is that ‘no man may see, nor woman tell’ – but it now becomes apparent that it will be something terrible (as indeed it was with Gracie Everdeen). All alone now, abandoned by his wife and daughter, the ostracized but determined outsider continues his investigation, steadily (and ill-advisedly) drawing closer to the utter horror at the heart of Cornwall Coombe …

Harvest Home is an old book now, and yet still widely regarded as one of the best and most literary horror novels ever written. I wouldn’t completely fall in with that. It’s excellent in many ways, but it’s also a novel of its time.

If the basic concept seems dated, that’s because it is. Nowadays, though folk-horror is making a most welcome comeback, the notion that murderous matriarchal cults may lurk behind the polite façades of scenic British villages or quaint little New England towns is more likely to get you in trouble for being politically incorrect than to win you plaudits.

And in some ways, Harvest Home goes even further than that.

In the genre of the present, we are painfully aware that witchcraft fiction of the late-20th century was often more interested in heaving bosoms and devilish beauty than in examining the awful injustice and cruelty of the witch-hunting era, and was more than ready to believe that village folklore was a sign of Lucifer’s influence rather than a harmless tradition from bygone times. For all these reasons, horror authors of today would likely avoid penning a novel built around the premise of Harvest Home, but they’d also look to avoid some of the less obvious patriarchal attitudes here depicted.

Ned Constantine, for example, is not just handsome, intelligent and talented, he’s really the only moral person present. In contrast, his wife and daughter, Beth and Kate, surrender to their darker impulses far more easily.

Worthy Pettinger is another of the good guys, a kid with common sense, a straightforward all-American boy who yearns to be part of the modern world, which of course he should. And even the rest of the male villagers, while adding muscle to the villainy when it’s needed, are for the most part mulishly indifferent to the wiles of their women, happy to work the fields, drink in the tavern and chat amicably outside the church on Sundays. By comparison, their wives comprise a range of predators, from the happy home-maker, Maggie Dodds, whose everyday exterior conceals a cold-blooded schemer, to village temptress, Tamar Penrose, who is sinfully sexy (Ned Constantine certainly doesn’t hold himself responsible when he finally gives in to her charms – and brutalizes her in the process!), to the Coombe’s crowning evil: Mary ‘the Widow’ Fortune, who embodies all that ancient, forbidden knowledge that witch-hunters were so convinced lay in the grasp of women, and though maintaining a jovial, generous exterior, in actual fact controls and manipulates everyone, particularly the hapless men, who, in truth, she only thinks are good for ‘making the corn’.

Okay … as I pointed out, the novel is over forty years old, and comes to us from an age when sexism was the norm, particularly in the horror and thriller genres. So, while that doesn’t exactly give Thomas Tryon a pass in 2018, unless we are prepared to disown half the books ever written and half the screenplays ever filmed, it’s probably best not to get too upset about it.

The book has also dated a little in terms of its style – though this is less of a brickbat.

Harvest Home is a big novel, and even then, some might argue it takes a long time getting anywhere. But that isn’t to say that it’s not an enjoyable read.

Thomas Tryon has gone out of his way to create a living, breathing, fully functioning farming community, accounting for almost every aspect of its life in completely authentic detail. Unsurprisingly, this takes pages and pages and pages. He’s also fascinated by the folklore he’s investigating, so we get a lot of lectures woven into the dialogue as Ned has things explained to him, which does become a bit tiresome after a while. I’d say you are roughly half way through before Harvest Home finally begins to pick up the pace, and it’s only in the final third when it fully adopts the mantle of horror novel.

But in truth, none of this is unpleasant. Tryon was a classical actor before he became an author, and clearly harks back to a literary tradition. As such, he produces beautifully-crafted prose, which he allows to flow and flow. It’s sumptuous stuff, particularly his descriptive work, which really transports you to rural New England during the early autumn. Though as I say, it goes on a little longer than it needs to. 

But if the quality of the writing is one real positive, another is the narrative itself, which though suffering a little from those old-fashioned issues, is deeply intriguing. Though he drops in the clues slowly and irregularly, Tryon gradually builds a compelling mystery here, which, especially in the second half of the book, rises to some brief but spectacularly horrific climaxes: the deranged child, Missy, guzzling raw chicken guts, for example; Ned’s discovery of the horribly wounded Jack Stump; the appearance in Soakes’s Lonesome of an apparition, which terrifies both him and us; and then the ending of the book, which is without doubt one of the most bone-chilling scenes ever committed to paper.

But it isn’t just the horror. There’s also a freewheeling sensuality in this novel. Justin Hooke and Tamar Penrose portray the extreme ends of the gender spectrum quite fulsomely, he tall, handsome, muscular and, or so we are told, well endowed, she breathless, busty, red-lipped, with dark, lustruous ‘Medusa locks’. The antiquated concept of the virile Harvest Lord and his fertile Corn Maiden doubtless go back to the earliest days of pre-Christian fertility rites, and Tryon successfully re-evokes them in a 20th century setting.

Which brings me to the villain-in-chief, the Widow Fortune.

Everything I said before notwithstanding, the Widow makes for an outstanding antagonist, not least because for so much of the novel she is genuinely genial and wise (when Beth thinks she’s fallen pregnant, she naturally seeks the Widow’s counsel rather than going to see her doctor). It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Hollywood’s own high priestess, Bette Davis, was cast in this role when Harvest Home was successfully made as a TV mini-series in 1978. To be honest, I can’t think of another powerhouse personality who would have been better suited.

Anyway, that’s Harvest Home; to many a folk-horror masterpiece, to others a well-intentioned but dated curiosity. Personally, I found it a little long-winded, but the quality of the workmanship is immense, and the story, though an old one now, in due course becomes deeply involving (and still boasts that most terrifying ending ever). I think it probably does deserve the epithet ‘classic’. 

As you may know, I always like to end these book reviews with some fantasy casting, picking the actors that I myself would like to see portraying the key characters in any film or TV adaptation. However, Harvest Home will have to be another one of those occasional exceptions to the rule, because, as previously stated, it was filmed in 1978 as The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, starring Bette Davis (left). Given that it was quite faithful to the novel, I don’t see any point in having a go at it myself (and again, I can’t imagine anyone taking the role of the Widow who’d do a better job of it than the late, great Ms. Davis).



THE DEATH OF LUCY KYTE 
by Nicola Upson (2013)

The year is 1936, the place Polestead in Suffolk, where successful Scottish writer, Josephine Tey, has inherited rundown Red Barn Cottage from her deceased godmother, Hester Larkspur, a one-time glamorous actress who, towards the end of her life, came to live as a recluse and was inexplicably shunned by most of her neighbours. One of the conditions in the will is that Josephine, who barely knew Hester, must take possession of the house herself, along with all it contains, but in concert with another benefactor, a certain Lucy Kyte, of whom there is no physical trace and whom no-one locally seems to know anything about. 

However, this is only one of many mysteries that enshroud Josephine’s inheritance. The age-old cottage is crammed with curious artefacts, while one upper room in particular, which has a terrible atmosphere, is marked with disturbing and perplexing graffiti. An infamous atrocity, the Murder in the Red Barn – when, back in 1827, village beauty Maria Marten was butchered by her handsome lover, William Corder – occurred only a few dozen yards away, while an eerie ghost story connected to this crime still seems to haunt the village. Enquiries about Hester’s own death indicate that the elderly lady was hiding from someone or something when she expired from natural causes.

Seemingly, there has been much unpleasantness in and around this melancholy house, though no-one now will speak of it.

Isolated, and increasingly threatened by a nebulous but persistent presence, Josephine attempts to unravel the various puzzles, researching the details of the original crime and at the same time establishing the final movements of her godmother, whose death she is progressively more certain was hastened by foul play.

Josephine is a gentle person rather than a fighter. This makes her an unlikely hero, but she is intellectually superior to almost everyone she meets, and this gives her a big advantage, which is something she’s going to need – because even with the Red Barn a distant memory and Polestead now an idyllic summertime hamlet, there is a constant undercurrent of menace here. No one is really happy in this place. The hostility from certain neighbours is palpable, especially when Josephine starts asking questions, and even some of those who initially appear friendly possess an air of alarming superficiality.

Scratch this benign surface deep enough, it seems, and something very nasty may emerge from underneath …

My initial thought on The Death of Lucy Kyte was that it wouldn’t be for me. It had the overall aura of what used to, somewhat condescendingly, be referred to as a ‘woman’s book’. But very quickly I was seduced by Nicola Upson’s expert control of mood, not to mention her exquisite writing. The characters, both living and dead, are vividly drawn, their intricate and complex relationships deftly handled. Hester Larkspur in particular is a wonder. Given that she never appears in the book, we get astonishingly close to her through her property and diaries, and through Josephine’s fond ruminations on her melodramatic life in the Edwardian-era theatre.

But it is Josephine herself, for whom this is the fifth adventure to be novelised, who’s the real star of the show. Based on the Inverness-born mystery writer, Elizabeth Mackintosh, she is a very reserved person, almost to the point of being stuffy, primarily happy when in her own company or with Marta, her upper class lover, and yet easily frightened and affected emotionally by grief and solitude. And yet this apparent vulnerability is deceptive – Josephine has hidden depths of resilience, not least her absolute determination to get justice for Hester.

The investigation this leads to is fascinating.

To start with, there are actually two narratives interwoven here, both of them sprinkled with clues. The secondary thread, the tale of Maria Marten’s death and the execution of her killer by hanging and dissection, is enthralling, its gruesomeness and the general hardship of that age richly evoked by the author and contrasted sharply with the pastoral landscape of the Suffolk Weald in the 1930s. The ‘current’ narrative meanwhile, has an ambience all of its own, and lightens the dark mystery with some nice touches of gentle comedy, including guest appearances by none other than Tod Slaughter, the famous British star of Grand Guignol cinema, King Edward VIII and even Wallis Simpson.

I won’t go as far as to say that I was blown away by The Death of Lucy Kyte – there are times when it felt a little as if it was meandering, but despite its leisurely pace, it is increasingly fraught with danger and finally culminates in the unmasking of one of the most narcissistically nasty villains I’ve ever come across on the written page.

Overall, this is a high quality psychological/supernatural thriller, very much in the style of one of the slower-burn Hitchcocks. Maybe I’d have liked a slightly more conclusive pay-off, but ultimately it isn’t that kind of novel. Besides, the Josephine Tey story-arc is now five books in and counting, so lots of pay-offs, I suspect, are still easily possible.

As always – just for a laugh – here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Death of Lucy Kyte ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (though if it ever does, the series would have to start with An Expert in Murder, which is Josephine Tey #1):

Josephine Tey – Ruth Connell
Jane Peck – Lindsay Duncan
Maria Marten – Rosamund Pike
William Corder – Tom Weston-Jones
Lucy Kyte – Daisy Ridley
Marta Fox – Kate Winslet
Tod Slaughter – Brad Dourif (Controversial choice? Naaah … I think he’d be exceptional)



THE LITTLE STRANGER 
by Sarah Waters (2009)

Rural Warwickshire, the late 1940s. A country doctor called Faraday attends Hundreds Hall, a historic local estate, which he has fond memories of as a child. His mother worked there for a time, as a domestic, and Faraday is still moved by memories of an Empire Day party there back in 1919, when his younger self was so entranced by the 18th century grandeur of the place that he performed a minor act of vandalism, breaking off an ornamental acorn to keep as a memento.

However, things have now changed dramatically. Faraday is shocked to see how badly the house has declined and how overgrown and unkempt its extensive gardens have become, but he keeps this to himself for the time being. He has been called in to treat a maid who has taken a strange dislike to the building and is feigning illness, but he later strikes up a relationship with the widowed aristocratic owner of the property, Mrs Ayres, and her grown-up children, the shabby, eccentric but not unattractive Caroline, and the crippled ex-fighter pilot, Roderick (or Roddie). 

A burgeoning friendship follows, as Faraday uses new methods to successfully treat Roddie’s long-lasting war-wounds, but he is unimpressed by the family’s management of the estate, which, even though his own origins are humble, he considers a grand property and a great landmark in the district. In time he learns that the cause of this lies not so much with Roddie’s ineptitude – though that is also a problem – but with the family’s rapidly dwindling finances. A new era is dawning, complete with a determined and belligerent Labour Government, and what remains of the English rural gentry must diversify into successful business ventures in order to generate new income, or it will simply die out. The ageing Mrs Ayres, ‘a true Edwardian at heart’, regards all this with a fatalistic gloom, as though resigned to her fate, Caroline feels the solution is to sell things off (various family heirlooms and considerable portions of the estate have already gone under the hammer), while Roddie becomes ever more cynical and stressed. 

Faraday, a relative newcomer, continues to observe these unfolding problems rather than participate in their attempted resolution, but he is present when Caroline’s loveable Labrador, Gyp, unaccountably attacks and mauls a visiting child, and in response to strident demands from the authorities – and in a truly heartbreaking scene – assists in putting the animal down.

The tragedy brings Faraday and Caroline closer together, though romance still feels elusive, but Roddie responds by sinking into a trough of drink and despondency. Faraday suspects this is due to self-loathing stemming from the young man’s inability to reverse the estate’s failing fortunes, only for Roddie to then insist that some malign entity invaded his bedroom on the night of the dog-attack and that, if he allows it to, it will switch its hostility to his mother and sister. The rest of the family are bewildered, but then burn marks are discovered on the walls and ceiling of Roddie’s bedroom, and one night, Caroline detects a smell of smoke and finds the entire room ablaze.

Roddie, so drunk that he didn’t even notice, continues to rant that a mysterious, malevolent being regularly visits their home, and in due course, again with Faraday’s help, is committed to an asylum, where he quickly makes himself at home because he can no longer stand the thought of residing at Hundreds.

Caroline and her mother are left so distraught that they struggle to maintain interest in the state of their house and are unconcerned by how the rest of the county views them – both of which were formerly big issues – so Faraday becomes more and more involved, particularly in regard to Caroline, whom he increasingly suspects he has fallen in love with. Caroline responds in kind, though is less enthusiastic overall, at times seeming confused about her feelings rather than enamoured with the new man in her life.

Meanwhile, the haunting – if that is what it is – appears to intensify. Weird, juvenile writing is discovered on the walls, the maids are summoned by bells rung from the abandoned nursery, phone-calls are received in the early hours of the morning – apparently from no-one, and, most chillingly of all, a weird, malformed voice is heard burbling on the other end of a long-defunct communications tube that still runs through the heart of the house.

Faraday is aggressively dismissive, mocking Caroline’s notion that some kind of curse or taint is affecting the family’s fortunes, and openly worried by Mrs Ayres’ belief that the ghost of her long-dead first daughter, Susan (or Suki), has returned to her family home, which he suspects is a sign of mental disintegration. Things almost come to a head when the elderly matriarch has a particularly terrifying experience in the nursery – a hair-raising scene by almost any standards – and is physically injured in her attempts to escape.

Faraday is frustrated, considering much of this a distraction from his new purpose in life, which is to marry Caroline – who is still only vaguely agreeable to his proposal – and take charge of the crumbling estate in order to rescue it.

But even Faraday cannot ignore the next ghostly event. No-one can. Mrs Ayres, who never really recovered from her ordeal in the nursery, and who has now relapsed into a distant, dreamy state, repeats her conviction that the ghost is Suki, who may be unaware that her visits are causing damage, but who is essentially a good spirit, seeking only the love and companionship of her lost mother. 

Mrs Ayres could not be more wrong …

Let’s get to it directly. The Little Stranger is one of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read. But it’s actually a lot more than that. No-one could seriously expect a stylish literary writer like Sarah Waters to pen a supernatural novel with no more intent than to frighten her readers.

When you pick up The Little Stranger – though you will be frightened trust me – you’ll also find yourself immersed in the decaying world of the landed gentry as the second half of the 20th century dawns. This isn’t just to be found in the Ayres family, who for all their wartime service are so incapable of living well in the ‘post feudal’ era of the new modern age that we suspect they must perish, but in the nouveau riche Baker-Hydes, who have the money but not the manners, and in Doctor Faraday, the educated commoner from rustic stock, who, though he initially likes the Ayres, gradually finds his power and influence over them growing, and starts to enjoy it. Throughout, the narrative is dominated by the imposing structure of Hundreds Hall, which initially appears to us in happier times as a grand ‘wedding cake’ of a country mansion surrounded by acres of manicured parkland, but later as a gloomy, dilapidated edifice accessible only through a dank, dreary wood. If that isn’t a metaphor for the collapse of the privileged class in postwar England, then I don’t know what is.

First, though, let’s talk about the actual ghost story.

The ability to inflict a genuine chill on your readers is a rare one. Not every horror or thriller writer possesses it, so I took real pleasure in discovering that Sarah Waters, who hasn’t strayed often into this kind of darkness before, does.

Though the author has a much bigger job on here than merely telling a spooky yarn, none of it would have worked if the ghostly elements in The Little Stranger hadn’t been frightening. Thankfully, in seeking to achieve that effect, she emulates one of literature’s great mistresses of the ghost story, Shirley Jackson, by opting for the ‘less is more’ approach.

When eeriness first arises in Hundreds Hall, it is very subtle, very slight, barely detectable even – especially as all the characters have so many more important issues to content with, but one by one, as they fall victim to it, their unease spreads to the reader.

Questions abound, however.

Is there really a supernatural presence in Hundreds Hall? If so, why is it only manifesting now? Even when an explanation of sorts – the ghost of deceased daughter, Suki – is provided by the dazed and confused Mrs Ayres, the question remains: Why is it so malicious?

Even then, for the longest time, this mystery seems almost inconsequential. The deterioration of the family and their property is a much more serious problem. Faraday’s attempted wooing of the stand-offish Caroline occupies centre-stage, and rightly so; she is the only one who can get things back on track, but only, he suspects, if she will accept his courtship, because she too is scatty in many ways. Even after Roddie’s breakdown, which he squarely lays at the door of an evil spirit, it seems more likely to us – because we witness no supernatural occurrences – that the son of the house has finally succumbed to the combined horrors of his wartime ordeal and his abject failure to restore the family’s pride.

After this, of course, things change, genuine haunted house type phenomena occurring more frequently. The curious writing on the wall is reminiscent of the real-life Borley Rectory, which only burned down nine years prior to the commencement of this story. The ringing of the servants’ bells when there is nobody there may take us back to the opening scenes of A Christmas Carol, but there is no good humour to be had here, because the terrible voice on the communications tube, and the growing conviction that a baleful intelligence is coming and going as it wishes, soon takes us into full-on psycho-supernatural territory, reminding us of classic chillers like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Richard Matheson’s Hell House. It’s certainly the case that by the last quarter of The Little Stranger, you wouldn’t want to be marooned in Hundreds Hall, a gaunt, dreadful relic of the past, seemingly cut off from modern civilisation. When the ‘Little Stranger’ actually appears, it’s a ghastly and harrowing moment, which leaves everyone sickened with fear.

Everyone except Faraday, that is. Which brings me neatly to the characters, and the main two protagonists, Faraday himself and Caroline Ayres.

While Faraday is our central character, he’s not exactly the hero of the piece. If anything, he is more the yardstick by which the decline of the Ayres family and the dereliction of their once magnificent family home are measured. He was the one who attended Hundreds for that wonderful Empire Day celebration so many years prior to the main narrative. He is the only non-Ayres personality who falls in love with the estate – so much so that he even takes a bit of it away with him (which upsets his mother because, though he’s clearly enamoured by the place, such a deed implies covetousness rather than deference).

All that complexity aside, Faraday is a fascinating and multi-layered character. As a doctor, you’d think him a pillar of the community; a well-spoken, well-regarded chap in whom anyone could confide. But the class factor comes into play here too. Faraday, who is not the Ayres’ first choice doctor, attempts to ape the breeding of his hosts, but innately lacks it. He is also an intemperate man; he carries grudges and when he doesn’t get his own way, resorts to private but heavy drinking. He’s an efficient and reliable doctor, but he is also a hardcore rationalist, and this – a deliberate ploy by the author – becomes tiresome as the tale moves on, the entire family soon living in fear of a supernatural adversary, but Faraday continually and testily dismissing the whole thing as nonsense, finding vapid explanations for some of the most mysterious happenings.

He also lacks self-awareness, blissfully unaware that such an attitude is an implied criticism of the family, at the same time as clumsily courting Caroline Ayres, in his own mind very successfully, though to the readers it’s an evident disaster. When on occasion, his frequent presence at Hundreds Hall is queried, he fails to understand why the family might deem him intrusive.

In contrast, Caroline Ayres, is a more traditional but perhaps more-flawed-than-usual heroine. She is all that remains of the great family, but there is no glamour to her, and little in the way of wisdom or spirit. But she is determined and brave, and even when almost everything else has gone, her common sense remains. Towards the end of the book, Caroline, worn almost to the bone, is literally the last bastion of the Ayres family name. It’s quite a responsibility if you care about these things, as we readers have come to at this stage.

She also goes on a similar if opposite journey to Faraday. Even though her growing fear that something evil is dogging them takes much longer to manifest that it does with her mother and brother, she becomes – in a great twist of irony – progressively more realistic than her suitor. He may mock her eventual conviction that they are somehow cursed, but Caroline handles her problems by whittling down her hopes and expectations, and planning a more frugal future, while Faraday’s ambitions grow steadily more preposterous.

The Little Stranger is an amazing piece of writing, and it’s no surprise to me that it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s hard to classify, for sure. I only tend to cover what I call ‘dark fiction’ on this blog, but it fulfils every aspect of that, even if it is many more things besides.

You just have to read it. Whether you’re a ghost story fan, or not, you won’t be disappointed.

I normally sign off on my book reviews with some fantasy casting, selecting the key characters and telling the world – which obviously will pay scrupulous attention – who I’d choose to play them onscreen. But, as I write, a movie version of The Little Stranger is already doing the rounds on the cinema, so any thoughts from me on the matter would be even more irrelevant than they usually are.



THE HUNTER’S PRAYER 
by Kevin Wignall (2015)

Carefree student Ella Hatto’s happy middle-class life ends horrifically one bright summer morning in Tuscany, where she’s on holiday with her boyfriend, Chris. First of all, back home in the UK, her father, mother and younger brother are murdered in their own home, executed by a skilled assassin. Next, she herself is targeted, caught up in a whirl of unexpected violence as a kill-team closes in on her, only to walk into a storm of bullets itself.

Unbeknown to Ella, a professional bodyguard called Lucas was hired by her successful businessman and part-time gangster father, and charged with shadowing her while she was abroad. Lucas, it seems, has stepped in at just the right moment, and gunned down the killers – but now he must whisk Ella and Chris away before the law arrives and starts asking awkward questions.

The two students are shaken to the core as their unlikely guardian moves them from one safehouse to the next, constantly trying to elude both the police and any further gunmen who might still be on their tail.

In due course, he finds sanctuary for them in the very last place he would normally have chosen: his own isolated and rather spartan villa in the foothills of the Swiss Alps.

As a former contract killer-turned-protector, Lucas is already a far cry from other characters of this ilk whom we may have encountered in different crime novels. He’s good at what he does, but he’s not cold-blooded about it. There is no granite hardness in Lucas, no pitilessness, no icy indifference to the pain of others. Okay, he’s not an especially warm character … but he does start warming to Ella. While Chris is simply frightened and increasingly resentful that he’s been dragged into this disaster, Ella – the real victim, who lost her family (whereas Chris merely lost his holiday!) – handles it better. She’s obviously grief-stricken, but she’s so innocent, so polite and yet at the same time so grown up in the way she deals with her terrible bereavement that Lucas can’t help but admire her and even be influenced by her.

The truth is that this ex-hitman is already, in a way, on the road to redemption. Though he’s still immersed in his murky world – he remains friendly, for example, with another much more callous killer, the likeable and yet utterly ruthless Dan Borowski – he basically wants out. He’s much happier to be a bodyguard than an assassin, but even then, his attempts to save the two youngsters take him far beyond the call of duty, a dedication to preserving their lives which stems not so much from his conscience, perhaps, but from a burgeoning desire to improve himself, a yearning to rejoin the civilised world (which gradual change of heart has already seen him develop an interest in the arts and literature).

Partly, this is down to his own domestic circumstances. His French girlfriend Madeleine, the one genuine love of his life, ditched him a decade and a half ago when she discovered what he did for a living, and ever since has denied him access to their daughter, Isabelle, who is now in her mid-teens; Lucas strongly desires to re-acquaint with the child, and can only hope and pray that she has grown up to be as balanced and sensible as Ella.

And yet here lies the deep irony in this unexpectedly philosophical story, because while Lucas’s initial interactions with Ella have encouraged him to reconnect with his estranged family, Ella is headed the other way.

Once safe in the care of her Uncle Simon, she becomes heir not just to her father’s wealth, but also to all his business dealings, even the nefarious ones, and as she works her way through them, trying to fathom out the identities of those who wanted her family dead, her grief transforms into slow-building rage, which, given that she’s now wealthy, no longer feels impotent. Very quickly, her attempts to rebuild her shattered world morph into an obsessive pursuit of revenge …

The Hunter’s Prayer – a revised version of For the Dogs (first published in 2004) – is not simply a murder mystery or an action thriller. If anything, it’s more of a parable. A metaphorical journey, if you like, into the ultimate futility of vengeance, and at the same time a lamentation at how salvation for some often seems to come at the price of damnation for others.

Unfortunately, I can’t discuss the unfolding narrative in too much detail for fear of giving away some quite remarkable twists in the second and third acts. Suffice to say that Kevin Wignall has done it again. The master of the thoughtful crime thriller presents us here with yet another potential high-octane scenario, and though he delivers the action plentifully, he asks questions of the reader throughout, even if only at a subliminal level.

You can tell where his real interests lie, because though we’re in the world of contract killers and organised crime here, we don’t go into huge detail about the criminal networks and illegal operations that provide the background to that. Nor do we investigate the creation of the hitmen themselves, neither assessing their warped psychology nor plumbing the hellish personal experiences that first put them into this line of work and equipped them with the necessary skills. Instead, the author is more focussed in the personalities of all his central characters as they stand now, their current mindsets, how they lead their everyday lives. 

For example, we watch his hitmen blend easily into the rest of society when it suits them, we watch them go home at night and relax, we see them try to maintain their own codes of ethics even when they’re out on the job, and yet at the same time we’re acutely aware of the coping mechanisms they’ve needed to develop into order to endure the isolation of this strange, stilted existence; we recognise that they live on a mental knife-edge.

Lucas is to the forefront of this, not just because he’s the novel’s antihero, but because he’s actively undergoing change. It’s not that he’s necessarily sickened by the killing, it’s just that he’s tired of being an outsider, and when he encounters a genuinely pure person, who certainly looks as if she had a stable and promising life ahead of her, he is galvanised into fighting his way back to normality. 
This is certainly a cause we can root for, because we never feel that Lucas is actually evil. We can see that he’s damaged and alone, and though he’s done bad things, he’s done brave things too, so we want him on the side of right.

Much more of a challenge is the novel’s other main thread: the disintegration of Ella Hatto’s soul.

From the sweet child we met at the start of the book, she goes on to do horrible things – and again, Wignall, who remains non-judgemental throughout, wonders where we stand on this. Do we at least understand it, even if we don’t sympathise?

She’s suffered appallingly, and because of her innocent nature, only slowly does she come to realise what the massacre of her family actually means: someone she’s never even met (she assumes!) harboured such hatred of she and her people that they made a determined and expensive effort to have them all eliminated. So, is it surprising that, even in the light of her newly acquired wealth – because, and it’s hugely ironic, Ella has gained more financially from this atrocity than anyone else! – she now feels that her life has been ruined? How can she enjoy such wealth? How can she rest while this terrible offence against the Hatto name remains unanswered? And while Lucas has never encouraged this kind of thinking, she’s seen him in action; she now knows how effective a ruthless attitude can be – if you can finally right all wrongs (at least in your own mind) quickly and neatly, without waiting on the wheels of justice, which grind slowly at the best of times but you just know are not going to turn in your favour at all on this occasion, aren’t you justified in doing it?

It’s an interesting question. But another one would be – and again, the author asks us this – just how much leeway should a bad experience give you? Can it really forgive or even explain the complete erosion of all human feeling? And just because you’ve given up on the prescribed concept of right and wrong, and in fact have invented your own, does that mean the original concept no longer exists? Does that mean there’ll be no consequences? Don’t bank on it.

Be under no illusion, The Hunter’s Prayer is a very, very dark novel. But at 210 pages it’s a slim volume too, clearly and concisely written, and as such, it provides a quick, tense read, which, while it wouldn’t be true to call it enoyable - certainly not near the end, at which point it becomes utterly horrific - is more than a little bit thought-provoking.

As The Hunter’s Prayer has already been filmed – it was only released in the US last month – starring Sam Worthington and Odeya Rush – it makes another of my usual ‘this is how I would cast it’ interludes redundant. Suffice to say, I’m glad it made the big screen and am keen to see how it adapts.



THE CARTEL 
by Don Winslow (2015)

In 2004, former DEA man Art Keller is a burnt-out wreck after decades of war with the Mexican drugs cartels. Having survived to middle age, and having lost his wife on the way and witnessed the torture and murder of his partner, he now lives in self-imposed exile, working as a bee-keeper at a remote monastery. His days of conflict are over. He’s had enough of the rest of the world. 

But then disaster strikes.

His former enemy and leading drugs lord, Adan Barrera, after serving a short prison sentence that was more like a holiday, secures his freedom and commences where he left off with the aid of Magda, his intelligent ex-beauty queen wife, expanding and strengthening El Federacion, a huge but brittle alliance of Mexico’s most powerful and merciless dope gangs.

Keller knows his retirement is over. 

Initially it’s a matter of being realistic. Barrera has put a huge bounty on Keller’s head. If the former agent doesn’t strike first, his life won’t be worth living. But the moment he gets back into the saddle, it all comes boiling to the surface: the hatred, the fury, the desire for revenge. Within no time, it’s as though Keller has never been out of the service – and the game is back on.

What follows is a ten-year cat and mouse game between two wily, determined individuals who detest each other. On paper, Barrera is far the stronger. He has El Federacion behind him, and a virtual army of gun-toting narcos and sicarios. Keller, by contrast, has a less-than-reliable network of nervous informers and untrustworthy US and Mexican bureaucrats. But Keller also has his skills and his wits, not to mention good contacts among rival syndicates. It isn’t difficult for him to create in-fighting and factionalism. Not that he needs to do this on his own. Because in response to Barrera’s return, the so-called Zetas have emerged under Heriberto Ochoa: a chillingly ruthless paramilitary mob which, while Barrera mainly peoples his organisation with gunmen drawn from the barrios and backstreets, is itself composed of former spec ops soldiers, who will wage a campaign of total annihilation to achieve their ends.

The resulting civil war in the Mexican underworld is almost too horrifying to believe, the Zetas in particular stopping at nothing to terrorise their opponents, not just shooting them, but decapitating, burning, dismembering and burying them alive – and on an industrial scale. Strings of the most incredibly heinous murders occur right in front of our eyes, the victims including men, women and children. While Keller watches, helpless, the appalling violence spreads all across Mexico, engulfing the ordinary population, wiping out entire districts, shocking the country to its core, paralysing it with fear.

Many events in The Cartel are based on real historical incidents, which in the mid-2000s transformed Mexico from a Spring Break paradise to a no-go war zone. But for the most part this is a fictionalised account. Most of the characters Keller encounters come from Winslow’s imagination, but they also serve a valid purpose. Among the villains, ‘Crazy’ Eddie Ruiz began life as the all-American boy, but got drawn into trafficking while still young, naïve and ambitious enough to think he could make it pay – and once in, of course, he found there was no way out. While Chuy, better known as ‘Jesus the Kid’, is a hollowed-out shell of a human being, a slum child so horribly abused that he makes the perfect killer for the crime bosses (and is a genuinely frightening presence, so coldly does he obey their monstrous orders). On the goodies’ side meanwhile, the journalist, Pablo – an everyday family man, who bravely reports on the horrors of the dope war, is representative of the many real life Mexican journalists who were murdered (131 of whom are referenced in the book in a sobering dedication list). Likewise, the moralistic Doctor Marisol Cisneros is much more here than Keller’s love-interest; she is the female face of Mexico’s innocent population, the wife/mother figure we’ve seen in so many conflicts of this type, who fearlessly expresses outrage at the atrocities and contempt for the madmen raping her homeland. 

All of these heroes risk the most terrible reprisals, but ultimately, as Keller knows, the sad truth is that good people standing up for their right to live safe lives, will not be enough to win this war. His feud with Adan Barrera has become personal, and Keller is determined to take him down, no matter what it costs …

Where to start with The Cartel, except to say that it’s far more than a mere crime novel. 

I mean, it is a crime novel. It’s probably one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read; an epic, awe-inspiring tale of one man’s non-stop war against a criminal organisation who, despite the colossal resources thrown at it, remains virtually unassailable, and how, in the process and because he’s already lost everything he values in life, he is brutalised beyond recognition, changing from a well-intentioned, justice-driven lawman into a remorseless, rule-breaking avenger. 

But it’s also much, much more even than this.

Though it’s officially a sequel to Winslow’s previous gangster masterpiece, Power of the Dog, it won’t spoil your enjoyment to start here, because The Cartel is really the big brother of the two novels. It casts an enormous wide-angle lens on the entire tragedy that is Mexico in the era of the drugs wars, not just depicting the syndicates in all their gaudy, gory, soulless, nihilistic, wicked-beyond-belief glory, but also holding to account those government officials and business czars in both Mexico and the US who have kowtowed to them through fear or greed, and slamming the US in particular for a schizophrenic approach to hard drugs, which sees it on one hand spending billions of dollars to try and halt the flow of narcotics across the border, and on the other, through its everyday citizens, spending at least the same amount in efforts to acquire these substances and with no apparent awareness of the ghastly human cost. 

Don’t for one minute assume the ‘Cartel’ the book’s title is referring to is El Federacion. Not a bit of it; in this novel, and clearly in the reality Don Winslow has so carefully and painstakingly researched, the blame for this ceaseless whirlwind of atrocities goes way, way further than that.

As such, it’s a true nightmare scenario, a gargantuan genocidal mess, which the author examines in unstinting and forensic detail. There is little-to-nothing that will uplift you in these 640 corpse-strewn, gunfire-riddled pages. It’s often heartbreakingly sad, and not just because of the endless massacres and executions of the innocent, harrowing stuff though these scenes are – one appalling and pointless slaughter of a bus-load of itinerant workers who have simply strayed into the wrong place is enough to freeze the blood – but it’s the whole calamity of a country once not just famous for its beautiful landscapes and wonderful climate, but also for its vibrant culture and artistry, its architecture and literary tradition, being utterly consumed by a crime-wave which explodes in all directions and without limit, by bloody wars that never end, and by what in truth amounts to wholesale, home-grown, fully militarised ultra-terrorism rather than traditional organised crime.

In the midst of this maelstrom, the ordinary Mexican people, and all the fictional characters who figurehead them, are dragged from pillar to post, battered, beaten and broken down, and yet everyman figures like Marisol the country doctor and Pablo the weary journalist remain defiant, exemplifying courage and common decency, doing everything they can to oppose the banditos and at the same time remain alive. Such is the skill of Winslow’s detailed and emotional story-telling that you get totally sucked in, becoming progressively more terrified for them (not to mention for everyone else – literally, no-one is safe in this book).

If you think this sounds like a glimpse of Hell, you’re basically right. However, there is some light to be had. Art Keller is the embittered focal point of the story, but he makes for an excellent central character. He’s not a young man. He’s tired and careworn, but he’s an expert in his field and a wheeler-dealer from way back, and his fatalistic obsession now is to spend whatever remains of his life hunting down Adan Barrera. This makes him a formidable foe for a crime syndicate who are not used to being nervous about anything, and each time he’s on the page you feel more than a pang of hope that, if anyone can pull this impossible task off, it’s Keller. But he’s a flawed hero for sure, using every trick in the book, both legal and otherwise: making and breaking alliances as it suits him; infiltrating the mob; undermining and double-crossing them; bribing the corruptible; turning former friends into enemies; indulging, if necessary, in the most murderous violence. 

By comparison, his nemesis, Barrera, is not the demented monster you might expect. In fact, in contrast to the uber-vicious Ochoa, he’s remarkably restrained, running his world with a rod of iron, but a diplomat as well as a general, clever and ruthless but a suave fellow who values family life when he’s allowed to have it. He’s like the CEO of a large company rather than a gang boss, though again such is the skill with which he is drawn by Winslow, such are the subtle undercurrents of menace in Barrera’s urbane persona, that you’ve no doubt he’ll pull the trigger on anyone and everyone if the situation demands it.

Overall, The Cartel is more of an experience than a novel. For such a massive book, the pace rattles along – I read it in about three days – and that isn’t just down to the intensity of the shoot-outs or the horror of the murders and massacres; the complex judicial and political scene is also handled deftly, the labyrinthine dealings of all those involved in the dope game, even those not on the frontline of violence, are analysed from every angle, and yet it’s all done quickly and accessibly. There are literally dozens of characters, and yet every one remains vivid in the reader’s eye, proving easily and immediately recognisable. 

The most negative comment I’ve read from any reviewer on the subject of The Cartel is that it’s ‘sprawling’. Well … it is. But that’s because it’s a genuine, bona fide epic. James Ellroy described it as “the ‘War and Peace’ of the dope wars”. I can’t argue with that. It’s grim, dark-hearted stuff, but at the same time it remains an amazing feat of crime/thriller literature.  

At the end of these reviews, just for the fun of it, I usually name the cast I would pick if this book was ever to hit our screens. Apparently, a TV version of The Cartel has been in development for some time now, but I’ve seen nothing solid yet, so here, as always, are my picks for who should play the lead characters:

Art Keller – Leonardo DiCaprio
Adan Barrera – Benicio del Toro
Marisol – Sophia Vergara
Magda – Eiza Gonzalez
Pablo – Jesse Garcia
‘Crazy’ Eddie Ruiz – James Marsden
Heriberto Ochoa – Joaquin Cosio



THE FORCE 
by Don Winslow (2017)

It’s a strange thing, but given that this epic-in-concept and epic-in-execution police thriller fills its 400+ pages with furious action, intense character clashes, crackling dialogue, emotional tangles and moral complexities that basically leave you breathless, not to mention some mind-bending ‘revelations’ about life and death deep in the NYPD, it all kicks off with an event that occurs five months before the book’s main narrative even starts, when the elite Manhattan North Special Taskforce, known simply as ‘Da Force’, pulls off a major drugs bust.

It’s the prize of prizes for streetwise Detective Sergeant Denny Malone, and his cadre of ultra-loyal sidekicks, Phil Russo, Bill ‘Big Monty’ Montague and young Billy O’Neil. Such a prize should have made their names as New York detectives forever. Except that this isn’t the way things work in this neck of the woods. The team, who naturally are corrupt to a man, stand by while Malone calmly executes Dominican cartel boss, Diego Peña, who otherwise would get in the way of their proposed theft of his product – but before they can make off with a very sizable portion of the haul, young Billy himself dies when he accidentally absorbs pure heroin through a series of fresh cuts.

These are the highs and lows of life in Da Force. They’ve lost yet another of their own, but at least the rest of the guys, who are near enough all family men, will have no problem meeting medical bills and putting their kids through college. Unfortunately, the wheels put in motion by this act of criminality don’t stop turning here; in fact, they spin faster and faster and ever more out of control.

We roll forward now to the following Christmas, and find the Manhattan North Special Taskforce freewheeling as always along the high-risk path of keeping the mean streets of Harlem clean and at the same time enriching themselves at the expense of the underworld, always cleverly – admirably so, in fact – but often violently too.

Malone is the heart and unofficial leader of this small, but very efficient crew. An Irish cop descended from a line of Irish cops, heroism and defiance are in his blood – his brother, Liam, a fireman, died on 9/11. Meanwhile, Malone’s estranged wife and kids live in a kind of safe ‘Copland’ enclave on Staten Island and are well supplied with everything they need, because though he’s a badass of colossal proportions, Malone also knows what matters to him.

Little wonder he sees himself as the King of Manhattan North, a kind of backstreet lawgiver, underappreciated for sure, but nevertheless handing down a real brand of justice as opposed to the vanilla stuff you get from the courts.

In truth, Denny Malone is a character we’ve seen before, though in my experience never quite as multi-dimensionally as he is portrayed here. He is an antihero, yes; he is brutal, yes; he is a casual user of profane and racist language, yes. But he is also brave, smart, tough and possesses bags of flawless instinct and low-key political acumen. He is also unswervingly loyal to his brother cops, and though it may seem like a huge contradiction, he genuinely believes that he is doing the right thing.

To Malone, small-scale police corruption is standard behaviour. Its proceeds are only what these men and women are owed in return for the danger and horror they face daily, and represent a small fraction of the reward they know they will never get from the uncaring power-structure above them, the one side of which is too busy acquiring privilege for itself to view them as anything other than expendable pawns in a deadly game of chess, the other side of which, politically motivated in a different way (as embodied by the likes of Black Lives Matter – yes, The Force, though a timeless tale, is a very current novel), views them as scapegoats for an unequal society, who should be made accountable for the establishment’s many sins.

Even so, street-smart and righteous though they may consider themselves to be, the Force’s cowboy lifestyle is never going to be a particularly safe option. They take a big chance with young Billy’s replacement, greenhorn Dave Levin, but the real dangers are posed by the likes of seriously dirty and very stupid cops like Rafael Torres, who are many in number (at least, they are in this novel) and who never cover their backs sufficiently, a folly for which everyone – and that means everyone! – is soon going to pay.

There is one other factor, though, which helps to blind Malone’s otherwise all-seeing eye to this very real weakness in the system: everyone else is as corrupt as he and his buddies are, if not worse.

In The Force, Don Winslow presents us with a world of law enforcement where it’s almost the norm for police officers to put things in their pockets when they attend crime scenes, to only ever hand over half of the drugs they seize, to steal stolen money again rather than return it, to tax the criminal lower orders and take bribes from those who are higher up. And it isn’t just the police. The judiciary and the political administration of the city are up to their necks in dodgy dealing as well. Everyone, it seems, resents those who have power over them, everyone thinks they are undervalued and underpaid, everyone considers that they only purloin what they are fully entitled to, and almost everyone is content to turn a blind eye to the next office along’s countless indiscretions on the understanding that this favour will be returned and the process perpetuated.

Almost everyone. 

And this is the beginning of Denny Malone’s undoing. Because though he’s constantly able to outfox the squeaky-clean but largely uninformed Captain Sykes, a crusading internal investigations unit then turns up, comprising the untouchable feds, O’Dell and Weintraub, who are working under the auspices of the superhot, supercool attoney, Isobel Paz. When they are able to implicate the ne’er-do- well cop in corrupt practises through his attempts to negotiate a crooked legal deal, there is a dramatic shift of power.

Suddenly, Malone finds himself in big trouble. He can get himself off the hook if he will serve up all his corrupt pals, but he obviously doesn’t want to do that – these are fellow cops, his blood-brothers, much closer than the kind of run-of-the-mill buddies that civies have. Through various Machievellian intrigues, he finally brokers a maybe-acceptable deal, in which he will turn over the city’s corrupt lawyers. But even more Machievellian intrigues further up the food-chain contrive to confound this.

Meanwhile, the everyday problems of cop life are also becoming an issue. There is huge racial tension in the city after a white officer shot a black kid. Major disturbances threaten while the Grand Jury deliberates, and even Claudette, Malone’s beautiful black girlfriend, wants to put distance between them both. At the same time, routine turf wars are in the offing between gangs who formerly were at peace. And then there is the uber-ruthless Peña cartel, from whom Malone stole at the very beginning of this dramatic tale. They don’t forgive, or forget …

There is no doubt that Don Winslow is the modern master of the broad-canvas crime story. And yet, his material is never less than completely shocking.

While he apparently worked for months with the NYPD to gain the special insights needed to create this enormous and enormously powerful saga of right and wrong and the multiple grey areas in between, it ultimately casts the New York police in a very bad light. At times, I was gobsmacked by the open assertion that so much of the city’s towering law-enforcement, legal and political structure is bent. The innocent soul within me even came to doubt the accuracy of this, though in the long run, whether it’s a true depiction or not doesn’t really matter, because it gives us a tumultuous backdrop to this most enthralling study of a man (and his world) on the edge of an abyss.

Okay, we may have been here before. Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys is one obvious source of inspiration (Da Force do booze-ups, or rather ‘Bowling Nights’ as they call them, in the most extreme and joyous way imaginable), but I caught more than a few glimpses of The Shield as well (Denny Malone even shares Vic Mackey’s penchant for jeans and black T-shirts!), while in the character of the lovely, heroin-addicted nurse, Claudette, there was a glimpse of the doomed Isabella in Daniel Petrie’s Fort Apache, the Bronx. But really none of that matters, because The Force goes much further along the line than any of those other great pieces of work, with a unique and muscular identity all of its own. In fact, the experience of reading it is so intoxicating, so real, that you’re basically out there on the streets with the guys themselves, kicking tenement doors down, busting the ‘mopes’ and the ‘skels’.

Each page is stacked with completely convincing NYPD detail; the procedures and protocols are all there, the attitudes and language – the language has drawn some criticism for projecting a clichéd New York cop tone, and one brickbat I sympathised with took issue with the cops’ apparent belief that they could do terrible things to and say awful stuff about ethnic communities because they had earned the right – but I still found it completely compelling.

The rooting for the bag guys thing is always something of a challenge. But not here. Not because they are softened by being tough guys with hearts of gold. They haven’t got hearts of gold; but they’ve been sucked into a negative way of life almost from the word-go, which offers no ways out, and yet because it allows them to beat, cripple, blackmail and kill the city’s very worst elements – yes, the vigilante element is strong with this one! – they are persuaded that it’s all okay. And that has a similar effect on us, albeit briefly.

These guys really are the strong arm of the law, we think, the thin blue line, civilisation’s only real defence against a horde of beasts. To deal with violence, you must show … well, violence.

Hardly an ideal scenario, of course. Few of us would actually approve of it. But in The Force you at least see how it happened. In Denny Malone’s own words:

‘How do you cross the line? Step by step.’

After his emotionally-wrenching The Cartel, in which we watched a beautiful society be systematically torn apart by criminals who were more like wild dogs, The Force is a huge change of pace and direction for Don Winslow. Yes, it’s savage, hardbitten and deals with edgy characters at the sharpest end of human experience, displaying both the best of them and the worst, but whereas The Cartel was a very serious statement about the plight of a country competely at the mercy of corrupt officials and organised crime, The Force is more of a personal experience – the progress of a damaged but likeable soul forging his way through a world of darkness, and yet, though constantly seeming to do the wrong thing, gradually edging closer and closer to that redemptive moment when he finally does the right thing (oh, and with plenty of frenzied and explosive action along the way).

Read The Force. That’s all I’m going to say. You don’t have to be a fan of crime, thriller, mystery or cop fiction. As long as you don’t mind being smacked in the face repeatedly by prose as tough as Brooklyn brickwork, you should find this novel a major, major experience. 

And now, as usual, though it’s utterly pointless, I’m going to try and cast it. I say it’s pointless, because the book apparently sold to Hollywood before it was even published, and for no small fee (not jealous at all). But I’ve not heard much about it as yet, so I’m going to try and get my suggestions in first. If Don decides that my ideas are better than whoever gets the casting director gig, he knows where to send the cheque. Here we go:

Det. Denny Malone – Chris Hemsworth
Det. Phil Russo – John Bernthal
Det. Bill ‘Big Monty’ Montague – Forest Whitaker
Sheila Malone – Jessica Chastain
Claudette – Gabrielle Union
O’Dell – Ben McKenzie
Lou Savino – Joe Mantegna
Benjamin ‘Nasty Ass’ Coombes – Tyler James Williams
Stan Weintraub – John C. McGinley
Isobel Paz – Eva Longoria
Gerard Berger – William Fichtner
Det. Dave Levin – Justin Long
Det. Rafael Torres – Javier Bardem
Captain Sykes – Don Cheadle
DeVon Carter – Lance Reddick
Janice Tenelli – Michelle Rodriguez
Insp. Bill McGivern – Jon Voight
Mary Hinman – Ann Dowd
Carlos Castillo – Steven Bauer
Bryce Anderson – James Cromwell
Stevie Bruno – Michael Badalucco
Diego Pena – Luis Guzman

(I know … what a cast that would be. But then … what a novel).



THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY 
by Simon Wood (2015)

In Simon Wood’s heart-stopping thriller, The One That Got Away, PHd student and party girl, Zoe, has some rapid-fire growing up to do when she and her best friend, Holli, are abducted outside Vegas by desert serial killer, the Tally Man. Holli dies, but though Zoe escapes, she is both physically and emotionally scarred by the event, and finds her life in ruins. In fact, it gets worse than that. With one exception, the empathetic Inspector Ryan Greening, the cops are highly sceptical – there is no evidence of the abductions and soon Zoe herself becomes a suspect in Holli’s disappearance.

At the same time, the Tally Man – a deceptively clean-cut and yet highly obsessional psychopath – is very far from being finished with her …

This novel’s greatest strength in my view is its central character. Though initially a cold and distant figure, instinctively mistrustful of all those around her, Zoe remains likeable. A former free spirit, she is distressingly damaged by her experience … so you feel for her, you empathise with her pain. But at the same time, she isn’t cowed by trauma. In fact, she is driven by it to change her life, to become a hardened survivor, and in this you cheer her – because a key theme of this book is that fighting back, while not always desirable, may sometimes be a necessity if you want to make it through (especially when, as in this case, you can find no help among the grey faces of bureaucracy that surround you).

Of course, while Zoe struggles to convince the cops that she is the victim, the real killer – cool, intelligent, resourceful and relentless – gets ever closer, finally launching a protracted and carefully planned assault by which he intends to reclaim Zoe for his collection. Tired and alone, our heroine must face and resist this deranged aggression in almost complete isolation – which, though she is no longer the panic-stricken ‘fraidy-cat she was at the beginning, is a challenge of nightmarish proportions …  

Okay, this is a straightforward and simple idea. And yes, I’ve seen it done before, though rarely as well as this. The only real problem with this novel is finding enough time in which to sit down and read it, because trust me, it’s unputdownable. It starts out at 100 mph, and maintains that rip-roaring pace all the way through, the narrative careering from one hair-raising set-piece to the next. Some minor criticisms have been levelled at it: that it doesn’t possess enough twists and turns (virtually none, if I’m honest); that any cops behaving as some of these guys do would surely lose their jobs. But hey, it’s a great read … it keeps you on the edge of your seat and keeps you turning the pages, and what else is a thriller really supposed to do?

The One That Got Away gets my strongest recommendation, though as I say it’s another one you’ll need to find time for, because once you start you won’t want to stop. 

As usual, and purely for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if The One That Got Away ever makes it to the screen (and in this case, I’d be surprised if that didn’t happen):

Zoe Sutton – Emilia Clarke
Inspector Ryan Greening – Jared Padalecki
Marshall Beck, the Tally Man – Timothy Olyphant

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