Other Authors

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. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.


THE RULES OF WOLFE
by James Carlos Blake (2013)

One of the deadliest of the Mexican crime syndicates is the Sinaloa Cartel. Though their home-base is located on Mexico’s west coast, the power they wield is felt nationwide, a grip of fear which is enhanced by the influence they exert over government offices, both local and national, and multiple police departments.

Fall out with the Sinas, and you’re in big trouble. Controlled by two uber-ruthless brothers, La Navaja and his younger lieutenant, El Segundo, both of whom rose to prominence on a tide of extreme violence, the Sinas are renowned for the horrific punishments they will visit on anyone who displeases them. From decapitation, to burning, to being drowned in barrels of rum, even the slightest infraction against their rock-solid rules can invoke the most draconian reprisals.

So, it probably isn’t a good time for young Eddie Porter, aka Eddie Gato Wolfe, a handsome young syndicate soldier of Mexican/American descent, to be assigned guard duty at one of the Sinas’ pleasure ranches in the desert. If it isn’t bad enough that it’s out in the middle of nowhere, there are yet more of those damn rules: the guards are occasionally allowed to visit the local villages and let their hair down, but when they’re on duty, which is the bulk of their time, there is a strict no-drinking and no-whoring order.

Eddie almost goes crazy as he stands and watches while flotillas of Sinaloan underbosses and their sexy consorts come and go, carousing all night and indulging in swimming pool parties that turn into orgies. He is particularly agonised when he sets eyes on the beautiful Miranda, who seems aloof from the other girls, and on the few occasions when he makes eye-contact with her, proves to be friendlier than most. This is not a good thing, because Eddie, an inveterate womaniser back home, simply can’t resist a lovely young girl. In due course, he contrives to introduce himself to Miranda. He’s an arch-seducer, but though he doesn’t expect that she’ll be an easy catch, she falls into his arms with remarkable speed – because gorgeous though she is, Miranda has led a life of abuse and exploitation, and desperately seeks affection.

The star-crossed duo sense that they’ll soon mean more to each other than a quick lay, but their first tryst ends in disaster when it is interrupted by El Segundo himself, who regards Miranda as his personal property.

In the ensuing fight – because Eddie has no choice but to fight – the Sinaloan No. 2 is killed.

Knowing there will only be one outcome from this, and that it won’t be over quickly, Eddie and Miranda flee the ranch, and head across the sun-scorched badlands of the Sonora desert, optimistically thinking that they just might make it to the Arizona border before their offence is discovered. Needless to say, they are wrong, and pretty soon the full wrath of the Sinas is unleashed in pursuit, including the lethal bounty-hunter, El Martillo, and his sidekick, El Pico, a top-notch tracker and incurable bar-room philosopher.

The odds are stacked against Eddie and Miranda, who from the get-go travel with a fatalistic air, as if it will only be a matter of time before they are snared. However, they do have one advantage. Eddie is related to the Wolfe clan, a smaller crime syndicate, whose main gig is weapons-smuggling, and who are transnational in nature, which means they contain both Mexican and American personnel, and their activities straddle the Border. As soon as Wolfe clan matriarch, centenarian Aunt Catalina, hears about Eddie’s plight, she sends two of her favourite nephews, Rudy and Frank, to assist. They might be less professional than El Martillo and El Pico, but they too are good at what they do.

The Sinas have their rules, and perhaps the most famous is that when someone defies you, he/she dies. But the Wolfes have strict rules too, not least that when one of theirs is in trouble, they bring him safely home …

There is no doubt that the Mexican crime cartels are among the most frightening in the modern world. With their immensely long reach, and a willingness to use unprecedented levels of grotesque violence – not just to enforce their will on rival mobsters, but to terrorise the civilian population as well – they are a crime author’s dream.

It may be a tad insensitive to put it in those terms, but they really are. As monstrous opponents go in crime fiction, the Mexican cartels are a genuinely terrifying presence even on the written page. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen them as deadly as they are here in The Rules of Wolfe.

And it is this which provides the concrete base for this searingly intense piece of border noir.

You can’t help feeling for young heroes, Eddie and Miranda. Though they’ve undoubtedly been naïve idiots by inviting this disaster into their lives, they are up against monumental opposition. Not just because the Sinas are so powerful, but because they also must escape across Mexico’s sun-baked badlands, and then make it over the border, which in itself is a huge thing. The hardships that befall them know no end: dust storms, heat, thirst, highway robbers, corrupt cops.

Despite all this, they manage to maintain their good humour and their love for each other, and such is the skill of James Carlos Blake’s writing that they don’t to this unconvincingly. They get battered and hurt, they’re constantly frightened. Miranda transforms from seductive beauty into exhausted roadside wastrel. Eddie goes from cocky young buck to responsible (but somewhat grizzled) adult, as he isn’t just physically injured, but tortured by the knowledge that he’s been the instigator of this terror. And yet still they press on, looking out for each other, sharing a quick kiss on those few occasions when they get the chance. This stoical determination to spend the rest of their lives together is genuinely heart-wrenching, too – because all the way through you have an overarching suspicion that it’s unlikely to happen.

In comparison, on the US side of the border, trouble-shooting cousins, Frank and Rudy, are less colourfully drawn, but if this is a weakness, it’s only a minor one. In essence, they too are syndicate operatives, but though they regularly do business with Mexican mobsters, their trade is in guns rather than drugs or people. However, in the fashion of the Old West, because Frank and Rudy, and all the rest of the Wolfes, can trace their roots back to a hard-bitten Tex/Mex family who were here in the bad old days, they are no strangers to lawlessness when it suits them. They keep it low key, but they have their own rules and their own family loyalties – as embodied by Wolfe clan matriarch, Aunt Catalina, who is vividly portrayed by Blake despite making only a couple of appearances. Even so, it’s a big thing to challenge the Sinas. They go about it in workmanlike fashion, dealing professionally with each situation (some of which are pretty visceral, so be warned!), and you certainly get the feeling that if anyone can help Eddie and Miranda, it’s going to be Frank and Rudy – but you can’t imagine that even these two will emerge from this conflict unscathed.

And it’s in this driving, ferocious narrative where the book really comes alive.

Blake rattles the action scenes at us like machine-gun bullets, working each violent encounter tirelessly to create non-stop tension and fear. And even when Eddie and Miranda aren’t involved in blazing gun-battles, when they’re waiting in cantina car parks, for example, or moving in slow, heavy traffic, there is an atmosphere of fast-encroaching evil, a sense that even if the nice-looking family in the next car could be sadistic killers just awaiting their moment. But there is also a darker depth to this book, a strand of undercutting despair, because this kind of thing is all-too-real in modern day Mexico, and this is reflected in the deep seriousness with which Blake treats his subject-matter (Kirkus didn’t refer to him as ‘the poet of the damned, who writes like an angel’ for nothing). The killers are depicted through a near-true crime lens, the manner in which they soullessly go about their terrible business – dismembering and beheading with neither deranged glee nor gut-thumping horror, but emotionlessly, doing what they do simply because they’ve following orders and can’t conceive of anything else – more than hints at real life atrocities.

On which subject, Blake also handles the crossing of the US/Mexican border with real expertise, painting a harrowing picture of the dangers that migrants routinely face, primarily from the criminal classes who encircle this sort of activity like sharks, but also from unsympathetic officialdom. It’s a sobering lesson in this era when so many of us are casually annoyed by the sight of migrants attempting to force illegal entry into other countries without any real clue what they might be fleeing.

I really enjoyed The Rules of Wolfe. I’ve seen it mentioned alongside such classics of the dope wars as Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, and while I wouldn’t perhaps go that far, because yes, this is at heart a rollicking action-thriller, it also has those other dimensions of cruelty and darkness which put it up there among the very meanest of its kind.

As always, I’m now going to attempt to put together my own cast on the off-chance The Rules of Wolfe makes it to the screen (and it’s really got to in this age of no-holds-barred TV; I, for one, would bring new meaning to the term binge-watch, if it did). I doubt anyone will listen to my views on this, of course, but I’m going for it anyway, because it’s fun. Here are my picks:

Eddie Gato Wolfe – Diego Luna
Miranda – Ana de Armas
Rudy – David Giuntioli
Frank – David DeSantos
Aunt Cat – Lois Smith
La Navaja – Demian Bichir
El Martillo – Danny Trejo
El Pico – Carlos Espeljel


THE LAST DAYS OF JACK SPARKS 
by Jason Arnopp (2016)

Gonzo journalist and pop culture author, Jack Sparks, is the ultimate embodiment of the Me Generation. Self-important, narcissistic, hugely opinionated, convinced to a self-delusional degree that he’s intellectually superior to everyone he meets, arrogant, rude, you name it, he’s there, only occasionally taking time off from thinking about himself to socialise with roommate and buddy, Rebecca ‘Bex’ Lawson, though he desires her sexually as much as he wants to be her friend, so it’s not a genuine platonic relationship even then.  

However, the big difference between Jack Sparks and many others of his ilk is that he is genuinely talented. A good writer, especially under pressure, scathingly witty, more than prepared to put in torturous hours to complete his assignments, and a powerpack in terms of youthful energy, he should have all the tools to go far.

Jack certainly thinks this. In fact, to Jack Sparks, success is inevitable; it’s his destiny, his entitlement. But what he is not allowing for are the two serious chinks in his armour.

First of all, he lacks discipline; so, for example, when writing the book Jack Sparks on Drugs – which needed to be completed by a ghost-writer! – he became addicted to cocaine, a habit that he’s never really thrown off. Secondly, he lacks objectivity. In many ways, Jack Sparks is not a real journalist. He goes looking for stories with preconceived notions and a determination to find the outcome that he wants, so when he settles on his comeback project, Jack Sparks on the Supernatural, it won’t be an even-handed investigation of the unknown, it will be a thorough debunking of it, a complete trashing of all those who believe.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Jack’s agent and editor are no more than lukewarm about it. But Jack is adamant that he and his hipster audience are going to have a lot of laughs at the expense of the world’s gullible fools. 

As he likes to travel, his first port of call is rural Italy, where he attends the exorcism of a village girl, Maria Corvi, by humourless Catholic priest, Father Primo di Stefano. Jack just about manages to keep a lid on it while the ancient rite unfolds. He’s already on the lookout for fakery, as he continually informs his fans via Twitter, but then, when the seeming heap of mumbo-jumbo becomes too much for him, he bursts out laughing.

As you can imagine, this doesn’t go down too well with those others involved, including the malevolent intelligence allegedly possessing Maria. But Jack isn’t fazed. Warnings from beyond mean nothing to him. But then someone posts an Mpeg on his YouTube account, depicting a curious and disturbing video. On the face of it, it’s the sort of thing that is commonplace online: an amateurish snippet of film depicting an alleged paranormal event – but there is something about this one that upsets everyone who sees it. People think it looks real, including Jack Sparks. The main problem, though, is that he isn’t the one who uploaded it; he doesn’t know what it’s even supposed to be. At the same time, he comes into possession of a mysterious book, which is such a shock to him that he barely mentions it in his notes – not initially.

Jack continues writing, even though he suspects that he’s being scammed by someone. But Jack is no longer quite himself. The unexplained video has unnerved him, and when his quest takes him next to Hong Kong, where, despite the guidance of eccentric Aussie medium, Sherilyn Chastain, he is even further alarmed by some of the things he experiences, an angst compounded by his determination not to accept the supernatrural. He even keeps a list of reasons why people profess belief in ghosts – THE SPOOKS LIST (Sparks’ Permanently Ongoing Overview of Kooky Shit) – and even though he continually finds himself extending it, until at one point it reads:

1) They’re trying to deceive others.
2) They’ve been deceived by others.
3) They’ve deceived themselves.

… while it may appear to represent modern analytical truth dressed in irreverent terms, it mainly perpetuates his narrative of scorn.

We know from the outset that none of this is going to end well. We are told from the start that ‘Jack Sparks died while writing this book’, but what we don’t know is how and why he died (or how horribly).

But neither we nor he could possibly expect it to occur in Los Angeles, where he eventually goes to meet the fat-bellied, woolly-headed Astral Way and his group of total believers, the Hollywood Paranormals, who want to him to document their attempts to create a thought-form. From the outset, and again Jack is almost pre-programmed to scoff, this feels like the biggest load of bunkum yet, but already a nervous wreck, he can’t imagine the mind-bending terror that awaits him …

The first thing to say about The Last Days of Jack Sparks is that it’s not a straightforward novel.

A lot of it is presented to us in linear format as written by Jack while he travels around the world, seeking to expose phonies. But it also contains letters, emails and footnotes written by others, his concerned but disapproving older brother, Alistair, for one. And this throws up some interesting dymanics.

For example, there are actually two Jacks. The one he and his juvenile audience believe in: the cool, smart intellect who is always ahead of the game, who can drink his rivals under the table and take out tough guys if he needs to. And the real one, a coked-out, alcoholic wreck, who fails to impress almost everyone he meets.

Okay, so Jack’s an unreliable narrator, but this device doesn’t just represent some bravura and highly original character-work by Jason Arnopp, it also plays a key role in the development of the story, because it is only gradually and through these secondary communications that we come to understand exactly how much more is going on than Jack will admit to, and how much more frightened he is than his own narrative would have us believe.

For all these reasons, I found The Last Days of Jack Sparks a completely compelling read. It turns and twists mercilessly; you literally never know what you’re going to encounter in the next chapter, and it isn’t as if stuff comes at you totally from left field, because if you read the book carefully, almost every surprise has been flagged beforehand, albeit in subtle, semi-concealed ways. In that regard, it’s an absolute romp of a thriller, but it’s also wildly, unexpectedly funny.

Some reviewers have described The Last Days of Jack Sparks as a comedy rather than a horror novel, but I think it’s probably about half-and-half. Jack’s acerbic asides are uproarious, often to the point where you briefly forget what a jerk he is. Again, this is hugely to the credit of the author, who doesn’t just use it to entertain us, but to keep us on our subconscious toes, because when we’re laughing we’re briefly distracted from what’s going on and are less ready for the next dollop of bad stuff just around the corner (and the scares eventually come thick and fast).

There is a slightly po-faced side to it as well, because in some ways The Last Days of Jack Sparks is an essay on the politics of self, with plenty of acid observations passed on the modern habit of living one’s life in the glare of social media, (or perhaps living a lie that passes for one’s life).

A terrific, highly entertaining new novel from an author who has gone out of his way to do something different with the genre and has comfortably succeeded.  

And now, as always, I’m going to try and come up with a cast that might do a film or TV adaptation of The Last Days of Jack Sparks justice. Just a bit of fun, of course. I have no expertise or authority in this field, and I have no idea whether or not the novel has been optioned, but it’s always an enjoyable exercise. So, here we go …

Jack Sparks – Taron Egerton
Rebecca ‘Bex’ Lawson – Elva Trill
Alistair Sparks – Ben Whishaw
Maria Corvi – Siena Agudong
Sherilyn Chastain – Rachel Griffiths
Astral Way – Haley Joel Osment
Father Primo di Stefano – Tony Sirico


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


KILLER MOVE 
by Michael Marshall (2011)

When the enigmatic John Hunter is released from prison after serving 16 years for murder, we immediately get the feeling that his crime and its repercussions aren’t over. Hunter isn’t a threatening man; quite the opposite – he’s placid and respectful, to the point where the warden of the US jail in which he’s been incarcerated is almost sorry to see him leave. Apparently, Hunter has been an exemplary prisoner, which explains why he’s had so many years trimmed off his original sentence.

But Hunter’s iron-core strength, not to mention his inner darkness, are more than evident to us readers – thanks mainly to the subtle skill with which he is depicted. And when, as soon as he hits the outside world, he goes looking for a gun, we realise that all our unspoken fears about this man are about to come true.

Meanwhile, in the somewhat less ominous environment of ‘the Breakers’, a luxury condo complex in the Florida Keys, ambitious young realtor, Bill Moore, is doing his best to live the American dream. He has a lovely and successful wife, Steph, he makes good money selling top-quality seafront properties, owns one himself, drives a swish car, and enjoys a promising relationship with his boss, Tony Thompson (despite Thompson’s rather disdainful other-half, Marie).

The Moores aren’t even close to being the wealthiest folk on the block. That status, if it doesn’t lie with the Thompsons, may lie with neighbouring widow, Hazel Wilkins, or one of the upscale neighbourhood’s real movers-and-shakers, business mogul David Warner. But Bill and Steph strongly aspire to be part of this racy set, and feel they are well on the way to getting there. Even if they don’t manage it straight away, life here is good; Bill is friendly with local lawman, Sheriff Frank Barclay, though there is minimal crime for the elderly cop to deal with in this idyllic spot.

And then, one day, quite out of the blue, Bill receives a card printed with a single word: MODIFIED. His first reaction is to assume that it’s a joke, but from this moment on his and Steph’s lives slowly start falling apart.

Initially, it’s almost innocuous. A semi-pornographic book arriving from Amazon, which Bill has no memory of ordering. Then a vaguely racist joke circled from his email account, which, fortunately, most of the recipients are amused by – though Bill would never have sent such a message. He and Steph really stop seeing the funny side of things when voyeuristic images of Bill’s gorgeous co-worker, Karren White, are found on his laptop.

Bill investigates but is hampered by further chilling developments. Steph vanishes – whether that’s because she’s still irritated with him about Karren or because of something more sinister, he doesn’t know. And it isn’t easy asking questions around town when the police are on your case – because, quite bewilderingly, he now finds himself implicated in another disappearance, that of David Warner. Despite this, and with the assistance of a spirited young waitress, Cassie, whom he befriends almost by default, he gradually figures out that he’s the become the object of a cruel and relentless game controlled by powerful but faceless individuals.

Even then it might just be tolerable, a bit of harmless fun which while it is undoubtedly inconveniencing Bill Moore, could all be put right by some financial restitution at the end. But then people start dying. If this is a game, Moore realises – still minus his wife, still with the law on his case – it’s a game that may well result in the end of his life …  
For years, Michael Marshall has written sci-fi, horror and fantasy under the not-dissimilar pen-name, Michael Marshall Smith, and he’s done so effectively and successfully. So, no-one should be surprised to pick up a thriller like this and find that it's filled with ultra-dark concepts. That isn’t to say that it’s particularly violent. It’s certainly no more violent than the average crime thriller, but there is a dehumanising brutality of purpose to some of the characters in Killer Move, which, when you sit back and think about it, is quite disturbing.

For example, John Hunter is a man whose life has genuinely been ruined. Even though he’s not especially evil, he enters our awareness as a cold, frightening individual, a guy for whom vengeance is the only reason to live – literally. And you know almost from the outset that it’s going to be extreme vengeance, delivered without qualm or hesitation. Even though Hunter is a man grievously wronged, it’s difficult to root for such a person in a novel as well-written as this, because it’s so easy to picture him in real life as someone you’d run a mile to avoid.

But Hunter isn’t the worst of it, because while a powerful presence, he’s not one of the main characters, and if nothing else at least he isn’t a direct threat to the hapless hero of the piece, Bill Moore. But while the overarching concept – that a bunch of bored richies might seek to fill their empty days by playing cruel games with other people’s lives – may seem vaguely fanciful (would you really get off on this kind of thing so much that you’d actually go to the expense of hiring ex-spec ops people to make it happen?), there is a much deeper darkness here.

The utter soullessness required to turn other people into your playthings undoubtedly rings true. And this for me is the real success of Killer Move.

With the exception of Hunter, who’s clearly deranged, and Bill Moore, who’s introduced to us at first as an annoying go-getter of the sort you can easily imagine packing US realty, but who learns through bitter experience how much he loves his wife, Steph, no-one else cares about anyone, even in an affluent community in southern Florida. The wealthy gamers are so absorbed in their own fun – even though it patently isn’t that much fun, as they are still jaded and bored – that feelings for their fellow men don’t even figure on their radar. But this self-interest extends to others too. Moore’s colleague, Karren White, is only superficially his friend; in reality she’s a rival, whose chief interest are the bonuses she can get at his expense. Even lowly office secretary, Janine, harbours secret resentments, which finally emerge in a scene that I found quite stomach-turning, because even though there is no violence used, a rotten human soul is unexpectedly but very plausibly laid bare to us.

And if that’s the whole of Breakers society written off, then I suspect that’s exactly what Michael Marshall intended. Though more likely he’s actually going further than that, and being cynical about the whole of society, because let’s face it, the truly malevolent force in Killer Move, which lies hidden until the very end of the book, can be hugely confident that this whole disaster, even when played out so full-bloodedly, will soon become yesterday’s news because of our modern-day mindset in which nobody else really matters.

For all these reasons, Killer Move makes increasingly uncomfortable reading, but you’ve got to stick with it and you’ve got to pay attention. Because what gradually unfolds here is a compelling but complex saga. Wheels turn within wheels; there is villainy within villainy, and no shortage of suspects. Bill Moore finally reaches a point where he doesn’t know whether to trust anyone else at all, wondering if he’s the only person on stage who’s not an actor – and we, the readers, ask ourselves the same question. More than once.

On top of that, we spend a not insubstantial portion of time philosophising. And because this is Michael Marshall and this is another thing he does so well, this is always interesting and amusing, especially as in this book it’s done through the mind’s eye of Bill Moore, who we soon realise is a much deeper and less confident character than we first thought, which means that it’s all wonderfully acerbic. The trade-off to this is that Killer Move is no quickfire actioner, but it’s still totally engrossing. As the mysteries pile up, and the obstacles cluttering Moore’s life become ever more insurmountable, you’re literally flying through the pages. You must know how it’s all going to resolve itself, even though it’s soon pretty obvious that that isn’t going to happen easily or without casualties.

One quick warning. Killer Move is a kind of unofficial add-on to Marshall’s remarkable ‘Straw Men’ trilogy. Now, if you haven’t read any of the Straw Men books, never fear. That won’t interfere with your enjoyment of Killer Move, as the author explains in more than adequate fashion just who the Straw Men are and how their existence impinges on this completely separate little drama. It all works perfectly well for me, but if you’re someone who really needs every single i dotted and every t crossed before you reach the last page, it might be an idea to check out those other titles first (it’s not like you won’t enjoy them thoroughly). They are, in this order: The Straw MenThe Lonely Dead and Blood of Angels.

The pre-existence of those other three novels also serves to make my habitual casting session even more meaningless than it usually is. But I’m still going to have a go. I’d like nothing better than to assemble the actors that could bring this taut tale to the screen, and how cool would that be, given that I always have a limitless budget (LOL). But for this one to work, you’ll just have to assume that The Straw Men etc have already hit the cinemas, because I can’t imagine that Killer Move would get this treatment first. Anyway, here we go:

Bill Moore – James Marsden
Stephanie Moore - Renee Zellweger
John Hunter - John Cusack
Cassandra - Erin Moriarty
Karren White – Alison Brie
Sheriff Frank Barclay - JK Simmons
Tony Thompson - Sam Elliott
Marie Thompson - Susan Sarandon
Hazel Wilkins - Charlotte Rampling
David Warner – Don Johnson


JOYLAND
by Stephen King (2013)

It is 1973, and New England-born college guy, Devin Jones, is screwing things up educationally. Head over heels in love with classmate, Wendy Keegan, he just can’t focus on his studies – a problem that worsens when reality starts dawning that her increasing coolness is basically because she doesn’t share his ardour.

As the girl is at no stage kind enough to turn around and tell him he’s dumped, Devin continues to delude himself that Wendy is his, even when he flees into a summer job at Joyland, a second-rate amusement part on the North Carolina beachfront.

Deep down, of course, he’s well aware that the relationship has fractured, probably fatally, but instead of facing the fact, he throws himself into the new alliances he makes at the park, specifically with fellow ‘greenies’ (summer-staff), Tom Kennedy and Erin Cook, but also with hardbitten carney regulars, Fred Dean, Lane Hardy, and even grouchy old Eddie Parks, the latter group of whom, though they are civil enough with Devin on his first arrival, only become his firm pals when they discover that he excels at ‘wearing the fur’, i.e. putting on the costume of Howie the Happy Hound, the park’s mascot, and entertaining the kiddies.

It’s a long, hot, hardworking summer, during which the tireless Devin wins the approval of nonagenarian park-owner, Bradley Easterbrook, ends up being mothered by firm but fair landlady, Emmalina Shoplaw, and even attracts the attention of fortune-teller, Rozzy Gold, who is disturbed to see something bad in the kid’s future.

And this is the thing about Joyland. Though it does exactly what it says on the tin, providing a great afternoon for young families, it has a dark history. There was a murder here in the 1960s, when a girl had her throat cut on the Horror House ride. If that isn’t enough, the case was never solved, and rumour-mongers hold that the victim, Linda Gray, was only one of several attributable to the same maniac.

This macabre story is of growing interest to Devin, especially when he learns that the Horror House is now supposed to be haunted for real, Linda Gray’s sad ghost lingering in its shadows, looking to make contact with anyone she can, so that she can name her killer.

Devin never sees the ghost, himself, or even senses its presence, and is envious when he learns that Tom Kennedy has done, even though Tom doesn’t think this cool at all, and in fact was so frightened by the experience that, once the summer is over, he plans to get as far from Joyland as he can – and intends to take Erin with him, as the twosome are now an item (despite Erin and Devin’s mutual attraction).

Meanwhile, Devin, who’s grown to accept that he’ll never see Wendy again, is cultivating a relationship with another young woman, though this one is far more complex.

Single mother, Annie Ross, is spending the summer in her wealthy evangelical preacher father’s coastal mansion, and is sole guardian to her crippled, dying and yet permanently cheerful son, Michael. It is Michael who initially makes friends with Devin, a relationship Annie tries to discourage because she thinks it will end in tears – though when she actually gets to know Devin, she realises that he’s an okay guy.

But even this arrangement starts to prove difficult. Young Michael is another who possesses second-sight – and in his case it’s genuine. He doesn’t just get vague impressions like Rozzy Gold, so when he too warns Devin that something bad is looming, it needs to be taken seriously.

From a reader’s perspective, of course, it’s impossible not to form a suspicion that this approaching danger must be connected to story of the Funhouse Killer, with which Devin is increasingly fascinated. In fact, at the end of summer, when Tom and Erin go back to college, but Devin stays on – having decided to take a year out – the girl, at Devin’s behest, starts to research the case, and comes up with some compelling clues, which she duly sends back.

The question is will Devin be able to make use of these, and if he can, will that in itself be a problem? Because, if you’re a soulless, many-times murderer, and you learn that someone’s investigating you, aren’t you going to take action to prevent it? And if you’re really and truly wicked, isn’t it also possible that you won’t just draw the line at dealing with him, but maybe with all those he knows and loves as well? …

My first impression on reading Joyland was that it may have started life as a novella, or even a short story. It’s a fairly slight concept, and a very linear narrative, uncluttered by the usual side-tracks and detours that Stephen King’s larger novels are renowned for. Was it originally a shortie, I wonder, and in that inimitable Steve King style, did it simply grow with the telling? That said, it isn’t padded; there’s no issue there, and it’s a very fast read – so no-one must be concerned that Joyland is a bit of nothing.

The second impression I got is that it’s another classic piece of King’s folksy Americana. Once again, we’re in the US of the author’s younger days, his college years perhaps, which are evoked in completely authentic and loving detail. This is a classic Stephen King retrospective on earlier periods of his life. Not content just to tell you how it looked and sounded and smelled, he gets you right into the mindset, helps you capture the zeitgeist. To start with, this is a politer age; everyone, you feel, has less than they do now, yet they are more genteel. People are adults when they hit their mid-20s, and automatically are treated with respect by juveniles. Students work their way through the vacation, and they work damn hard, because they need the money. Rules at rooming houses are there to be obeyed. Children are less streetwise, and yet intangibly tougher than their counterparts today. The simple pleasures of an amusement park are deemed a worthwhile experience for working class families who take nothing for granted.

As for King’s descriptive powers … well, it’s the usual case of every other writer who reads it going green with envy. Everything about Joyland, the park, is vivid. You can hear the whistles and bells of the rides, you can smell the candy-floss and ketchup, can hear the roar of the nearby surf, and feel the tremors of excitement on first sight of the simp-hoister (Ferris wheel), Zamp rides (children’s attractions) and bang-shies (rifle ranges). 

Is it as terrifying as so many of his other works?

No, not a bit of it.

It’s a thriller. Be under no illusion about that, but it’s a low-key thriller. More important to the author on this occasion is the development of some wonderfully believable characters and relationships, and a deep contemplation of the afterlife.

Devin, for example, is only a young man – he rarely thinks about death; but there’s a killer at large, who preys on women younger even than he is. At the same time, little Michael is terminally ill, a fact he’s accepted with numbing bravery and stoicism. Because Joyland isn’t set now, this isn’t a world of atheists to whom death is oblivion. But this isn’t the long past either, so there’s uncertainty, there’s doubt, there’s fear. Annie Ross cannot disassociate the Jesus she learned about and loved as a little girl from the money-grabbing millionaire phoney that is her father. Even though there’s supposedly a ghost at Joyland, physical proof that we’re all spirits, Devin has never seen it, even though he yearns to (he misses his deceased mom terribly, and would love to hook up with her again).

This is all immensely affecting and moving – but there’s no schmaltz or sugar here; this is not a Disney story. And it makes for a hugely satisfying if very different kind of read.

I didn’t know much about Joyland when I picked it up. I tuned in expecting a typical blood-churning Stephen King chiller. I didn’t get that, but what I did get was yet another remarkable (if slightly shorter than usual) reading experience from one of the 20th and 21st centuries’ great masters of the written word.

Amazingly, given that almost everything Stephen King ever writes ends up on film or TV at some point, Joyland hasn’t – as far as I know – been adapted just yet. So (as usual) I’ll take a chance to nominate my own cast straight away. No-one’s going to listen to me, but hell, these guys would be great:

Devin Jones – Zac Efron
Annie Ross – Sienna Miller
Erin Cook – Saoirse Ronan
Tom Kennedy – Kevin McHale
Emmalina Shoplaw – Kathy Bates
Eddie Parks – Billy Drago
Lane Hardy – Clancy Brown
Bradley Easterbrook – M. Emmet Walsh

As usual, the only one I can’t cast is young Michael Ross; I know so little about child actors of those tender years that it would be a wasted exercise.


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.


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


SIRENS by Joseph Knox (2017)

Detective Constable Aidan Waits is facing dismissal from the Greater Manchester Police. The product of a horrendous upbringing in care, he was probably unsuited for policework from the start, not least because it has brought him into contact with all kinds of irresistible temptations. You see, Waits may be a cop, but he is also an alcoholic and an amphetamines freak, who has increasingly let down his colleagues and got into more and more trouble with his supervisors.

However, a chance to redeem himself comes along unexpectedly when the hard-bitten Detective Superintendent Parrs of the Drug Squad decides that he’s the ideal person – a permanently semi-inebriated wreck! – to infiltrate the Franchise, the Manchester crime syndicate headed by London-born drugs kingpin, Zain Carver.

The purpose of this is twofold: firstly, to gather vital intelligence on a cartel who, now that their main rivals, the ultra-violent Burnside gang, have fallen apart, are completely dominating the city’s narcotics trade (and in the process flush out whichever corrupt copper is supplying the intel that’s keeping Carver ahead of the game), and secondly, to locate Isabelle Rossiter, the wayward 17-year-old daughter of bigwig politician, David Rossiter, who has run away from home and has been seen hanging around Fairview, the palatial residence where Carver hosts most of his drugs and prostitute parties.

This would be a dangerous mission by any standards, but Waits manages to ingratiate himself with the Manchester mob – mainly by letting Carver know that he’s an out-of-favour copper who may be useful! – only to be tempted again by the drink and the drugs, and this time by the women too. Carver’s world is only a pseudo-glamorous one, superficially glitzy on the outside while on the inside it’s rotten and abusive, but he has in his employ a bunch of beautiful young women, his so-called Sirens – Catherine and Sarah Jane, for example – who dress as party girls in order to traverse Manchester’s pubs and clubs, collecting his illicit earnings, and where necessary, supplying yet more illegal substances to the various dealers. In truth, these are sad, forlorn creatures – who knows what kinds of lives they were escaping to come and work here? – who Waits, in his few lucid moments, feels pity for as well as lust.

All these girls think they’re in love with Carver, though his attitude to them is more ambiguous; he cares about them to a degree, and is apparently keen to know what happened to Joanna Greenlaw – a former siren who vanished a decade earlier – but ultimately, though they affect the air of femmes fatales, they are nothing more to the callous gang-boss than mules.

Less attractive fixtures in Carver’s domain are Danny ‘Grip’ Gripe, his deformed enforcer, and brutal, bullying barman/dealer, Glen Smithson. In addition, as Waits is on the lookout for bent coppers, several shady lawmen also catch his attention: Special Branch’s Alan Kernick hangs around a lot, ostensibly to look after David Rossiter’s interests, but Waits soon starts to suspect that he has a deeper involvement in these nefarious activities, while DS Jim Laskey, though a refined sort on the surface, is another one making regular, unexplained appearances (and whose police methods when you get on the wrong side of him have more in common with the 19th century than the 21st).

I don’t want to say too much more about the synopsis of Sirens, because it’s a twisting, turning path that Waits takes as he works his way deeper and deeper into the city’s slimy underbelly.

Suffice to say that his judgement is not always the best. An ill-advised affair with Catherine leaves him vulnerable in many ways, not least because it means he takes his eye off the ball, infuriating his superiors at police headquarters, whose response is virtually to abandon him. As such, when Isabelle Rossiter, now a siren-in-waiting is found dead, the victim of a tainted batch of heroin, which claims other victims too – in a particularly graphic and horrible scene! – he can only press on with his enquiry by joining forces with Carver, who finally suspects that some mysterious third party is stalking his operation, looking to do a lot more damage than simply closing him down …

I’m sure Joseph Knox will forgive me if I confess that my initial reaction on hearing that he’s the new Raymond Chandler was that I’d believe it when I saw it. Time and again in noir fiction, we’re advised that a new master or mistress has come onto the scene who’s going to take it by storm. We’re confidently told that London, Liverpool, Birmingham – or in this case, Manchester – will be the next LA, as a new, downtrodden but street-savvy investigator wends his or her way through a world turned dark with corruption and vice.

All these things, and more, have been said about Joseph Knox and his new character, DC Aidan Waits. But the proof is always in the eating, to quote a cliché, and having now eaten, I think I can safely say – as a former Manchester cop and journalist, and as a crime writer who’s also set some of his novels in the northern capital – that a lot of those comments are non-too-wide of the mark.

Sirens is indeed an impressive slice of Manchester Noir.

All the boxes are ticked: it’s a neon-lit and yet gloom-ridden scene, filled with litter-strewn passageways, burned-out warehouses and seedy clubs, the backdoors to which are always lit by lurid red light, and peopled by hookers, addicts, bent cops, corrupt politicians and of course gangsters – lots and lots of gangsters. What’s more impressive is that this sleazy atmosphere doesn’t come at us in dollops of grandiose info-dump, but is threaded throughout Knox’s narrative. Quite simply, it’s always there; this is the world that Aidan Waits moves through constantly, barely noticing it let alone passing judgement. It’s a cynical ploy by the author, really – a frank depiction of a ghastly environment, which, because he totally immerses us in it, we have no option but to accept, but it doesn’t half work.

Some reviewers, rather indignantly, have said that this isn’t Manchester. Others meanwhile have said that it absolutely is. Personally, I’m not sure it matters. It may be accurate in its portrayal of landmark and location, but Sirens is a work of fiction, not a street-guide. In this book, Manchester is as much a character as Waits, and represents a real effort by the author to recreate the kind of urban jungle backdrop that Chandler did so effectively with Los Angeles, and Mickey Spillane with New York.

And of course, at the very heart of it there lies this hugely complex mystery. Ultimately, by crime novel standards, it’s almost something of nothing – no-one’s attempting to unleash a chemical weapon here, or to massacre a record number of the city’s prostitutes. As fictional criminality goes, it’s relatively low-key. But it’s fascinatingly done, and again, very Chandleresque, numerous puzzling threads dangling on every page, the reader haplessly trying to tie them all together as he/she progresses, and yet there’s never a moment when you think ‘this just doesn’t make sense!’, especially as, when you get to the end, it all comes together in the neatest way.

I freely admit to having started Sirens uneasily, wondering how deep and bewildering the case was going to get, and yet pressing on effortlessly because it’s excellently written, and its short-chapter format makes it very readable.

However, there is one way that Knox’s writing does differ significantly from the original masters of noir, and that’s in terms of his characters.

Okay, as I’ve already said, we’ve got every aspect of the city’s lowlife – not all of which is to be found in low places – though I think there are more extremes here than you’d find back in the golden age. The Bug, for example, is a total horror; a bipolar transsexual addict and whore, who salivates at the prospect of corrupting young people and is more than happy to suckle at the injection wounds of diseased heroin-users. I’m not sure that Chandler, Hammett or any of the other guys ever hit us with anything quite as OTT as that, while Sheldon White and the Burnsiders, the most brutish members of the Manchester gang scene, are more like a tribe of orcs: hideous, uncouth dolts, good only for violence, and happy to inhabit a part of town that lies in darkened, Mordor-like ruins.

Don’t get me wrong; it all makes for a terrific read, but personalities like these represent moments of bleakness so intense that it might put off those readers unequipped with strong stomachs and nerves of steel.

(One other brickbat, while we’re on the subject of such: I could have done without the regular quotes from Joy Division; I guess we all went through a time when we had gurus in the rock world, and a doomy, post-punk Manchester outfit probably seemed very appropriate in these circumstances, but I always worry that this kind of thing borders on pretentiousness. However, that’s a personal gripe, and doesn’t really detract from the overall book).

Now back to the characters: Waits himself, the star of the show, makes for an interesting if very flawed hero.

An alcoholic cop, who is also a chronic pill-head (even though he’s still only young) is, on the face of it, not the most attractive lead. He’s also a bit weedy; though Waits is capable of violence, there is no human brickwork here. He’s no Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. He’s cunning for sure, and he bides his time cleverly, but he’s more a fox than a wolf. Give him a good smack and he’ll definitely go down. And this frailty persists throughout the book; there are several occasions when you feel like telling the guy to get his act together. But highly likely this is exactly what Knox intended. A hero who isn’t a square-jawed cliché might be a big change from the norm, but it’s a refreshing change too (and hell, don’t worry too much if you don’t like Waits; no-one in the book does, either!).

Some of the other characters, and there is a literal plethora to pick from, are sketched more thinly, but they are all clear enough to me; at no stage was I confused about who and what they were, and every single one makes his or her own vital contribution to the story. I’d strongly refute the criticism that there are too many people in this novel, because none of them are extraneous.

I’ve also read some reviews complaining that most of the females in this book are victims, and I think that’s probably true (though several of them are willingly involved in crime), but my considered response to that must be, and it’s a sad observation to make, that even in our modern world most prostitutes are female, most victims of sexual harassment are female, and most of those suffering violence at the hands of wild, dangerous men are also female. In this regard, Joseph Knox is only showing us a hard slice of reality (not that it doesn’t sometimes make you embarrassed to be male).

To round up, Knox is without doubt an exciting new voice in the genre, and Sirens – a genuine piece of Manchester noir, fizzing with tension and menace. It’s as good a debut as I’ve seen in many a year. If you like gritty cop stuff, read it or weep.

And now, as ever, I’m going to try and cast it, in case it at some point gets the green light for film or TV development. Just a bit of fun, of course. No casting-director is likely to listen to me, sadly. Here though, are my picks:

DC Aidan Waits – Warren Brown
Catherine – Talulah Riley
Isabelle Rossiter – Katie Jarvis
Sarah Jane – Romola Garai
Zain Carver – Daniel Kaluuya
DSU Parrs – Angus Macfadyen
Detective Alan Kernick – Geoff Bell
David Rossiter, MP – Vincent Regan
Glen Smithson – Joe Gilgun
DS Jim Laskey – Philip Bulcock


THE STARS MY DESTINATION 
by Alfred Bester (1956)

In the 25th century, humanity has developed the power to jaunt, most individuals now able to transport themselves up to 1,000 miles simply by the power of thought. However, life has not improved greatly. Earth society is going through constant social and economic flux as a result, and though the solar system is fully colonised, the Inner Planets (Earth, Mars, and Venus) are in ongoing conflict with the Outer Satellites (the moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune).

One casualty of this is the deep space cargo vessel, Nomad, which belongs to the influential Presteign corporation. Damaged by rocket fire, Nomad is now a drifting, incommunicado wreck with only one survivor on board, crewman Gulliver ‘Gully’ Foyle, an ignorant, uneducated man, who nevertheless stays alive against all the odds. He even manages to signal for help to passing sister-ship, Vorga, also a Presteign vessel, but is astonished when it deliberately ignores him, abandoning him to a terrible fate.

Infuriated beyond reason, Foyle manages to steer the floating scrapheap into the Asteroid Belt, where a little-known tribe called the Scientific People, a cargo cult who have long cut their ties with Earth, imprison him and tattoo his face with tiger stripes.

Still bent on revenge – and now looking the part as well – Foyle steals a ship to escape, and makes it back to Earth, where, in a barbaric state, he rapes a gentle, telepathic woman called Robin Wednesbury, and launches a one-man terrorist attack on Vorga, which fails and puts him in the grasp of the company’s all-powerful CEO, a man simply called ‘the Presteign’, someone who suddenly wants to know all about this errant crewman. It seems that Nomad was carrying a newly-discovered mineral, PyrE, which could change the course of the war – but Nomad is now lost, and only Foyle knows its coordinates.

Foyle is interrogated by a fearsome private security officer, the radioactive Saul Dagenham, but even Dagenham cannot break him, so he is condemned to life imprisonment in the hellish subterranean jail, Gouffre Martel. Here he befriends another convict, the resourceful Jisbella ‘Jiz’ McQueen, who educates him, advises him that it isn’t Nomad he should seek to destroy, but whoever gave the order to ignore him, and finally helps him escape.

Through Jiz’s criminal contacts, Foyle manages to remove the tiger-stripes from his face – though in times of anger they show again – educates himself further and augments his body so that he becomes a lethal fighting-machine. He then treacherously cuts Jiz loose and reappears as the dapper dandy, Geoffrey Fourmyle, bullying the unwilling Robin into helping him penetrate Presteign high society.

Everything is going to plan, but there are still problems. Those Vorga officers he tracks down involuntarily self-destruct before they can tell him anything, while his determination to ruin Presteign is hampered by his growing affection for the CEO’s beautiful daughter, the blind but infrared-sensitive Olivia. Meanwhile, Robin hates and fears him, Jiz is plotting something, and Foyle is troubled by an apparition he sees increasingly often: himself wrapped in flames. At the same time, the Outer Satellites are planning a massive attack, which they hope will win the war for them in one overwhelming blow.

If things have been difficult for Foyle so far, vastly more terrible days lie ahead …  

On first reading The Stars My Destination, it would be quite simple to write it off as straightforward space opera. The incredible adventures of Gully Foyle and the personal changes he undergoes as, through endless stress and suffering, he transcends the status of brute underling, becoming first a wealthy, scheming sophisticate, and finally a godlike intellectual, is more than a little bit reminiscent of Alexander Dumas’ classic adventure, The Count of Monte Cristo. But if, after some protracted pondering, that remains your sole assessment of this visionary sci-fi novel, you need to read it again.

Comparisons between The Stars My Destination and The Count of Monte Cristo are not wrong, and there’s a specific reason for that, Alfred Bester, by his own admission, seeking to snare his audience with what initially seems like a simple, exciting plot-line over which he can lay some complex but wondrous notions.

Though initially an editor and script-writer for comics, by the mid-1950s Bester was regarded as one of the world’s leading science fiction writers (he ‘invented’ it, according to Harry Harrison), and if you need further proof of that, just consider when reading The Stars My Destination that he penned this astonishing story when the vast bulk of the public drew their knowledge of the genre from movies concerned with insects grown to giant size through atom bomb testing and threats posed to Earth by bulb-headed men who spoke in senatorial US voices. That any serious sci-fi prophesying was done by authors writing in that era is quite remarkable, but plenty of them did, and yet Alfred Bester was ahead of the game even by those standards.

The concepts he presents us with in The Stars My Destination were mind-boggling in their day, and in many ways still are, and yet the book is also threaded with mindfulness of what these developments for mankind would actually mean.

For example, in the 25th century (or the 24th, depending on which edition you are reading), Man’s reach might stretch across the solar system, but it isn’t as though Pluto is suddenly in our back yard. The vast distances remain, especially as jaunting between planets is impossible. And so, Earth has lost cultural contact with its colonies. They have become advanced societies in their own right, and barely understand Earthlings, let alone see them as friends, and when war breaks out, there is no empathy between the two sides. Earth and the inner planets aren’t even aware of the outer satellites’ military strength, while the cargo cult that abducts Foyle early in the book is a completely isolated tribe, whose whole world is now the wreckage of ours.

The jaunt itself (named after scientist Charles Fort Jaunte), was an amazing concept to 1950s audiences. Long before Star Trek ever thought of it, the inhabitants of The Stars My Destination jump from A to B via teleportation. But again, Bester ponders the upheavals that stem from this: for instance, valuable high-class women must be kept in jaunt-proof isolation to ‘protect their honour’, while convicts can only be held in jaunt-proof solitary confinement (resulting in hellhole prisons like Gouffre Martel).

More familiar concerns among sci-fi writers of Bester’s era are also on show. Chemically and mechanically enhanced human beings don’t remain human for long. Telepaths are in such demand that they must conceal their talents from almost everyone. The author was also worried about the rise of ultra-powerful corporations, and how in the future they might become empires in their own right. The Presteign, though maintaining an urbane exterior, is utterly ruthless, and has the full cooperation of the government’s own intelligence agency, as represented by Peter Yang-Yeovil.

And yet, despite all this fascination with psi-power and speculative science, the main driving force in the book is that most basic of all human instincts, a yearning for revenge.

It is perhaps a nihilistic concept that the route to godliness may lie with Man’s desire to get even with other men … but you certainly can’t argue with it in The Stars My Destination as it’s given to us so full-bloodedly. It’s illustrated visually in the form of Foyle’s tiger mask, which even after he’s had it superficially removed, blazes to life whenever he’s angry (surely one of the most impressive devices of its sort that I’ve ever encountered in fiction). This vengeful nature is the single thing that constantly drives Foyle, and lies at the heart of his thrilling escapes: from the floating wreckage of Nomad, from the clutches of the asteroid tribe, and even from the jaunt-proof subterranean prison. It is this same motivation which, in due course pushes him to better himself – mainly so that he can infiltrate high society, though unknowingly of course, it also pitches him towards the realm of perfection.

Foyle makes an intriguing anti-hero. Appalling in his behavior at some points – the attack on Robin Wednesbury, for example (which would need to be excised out if ever the book were to make it to film) – but also later on, when he plays the likeable but untrustworthy Fourmyle. But from the outset, he is never intended to be an ordinary person, much less a person of noble character. If anything, he is a metaphor for mankind’s own evolution (and the path that Alfred Bester clearly hoped we would at some point take).

I don’t want to say anything more about The Stars My Destination for fear of giving too much away, except to add that it’s well worth its classic status, and that if some of the concepts seem standard in sci-fi these days, that’s only because forward-gazing writers like Alfred Bester made them so.

Optioned for movie development many times, but never yet made and in fact described more than once as ‘unfilmable’, The Stars My Destination is nevertheless another of those novels I would dearly love to see on celluloid – either the big screen or TV – and so once again, I’m going to pitch in with my own thoughts on a possible cast. (One quick note; it’s currently in the hands of director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who gave us Kong: Skull Island, so you never know – anything is possible). In the meantime, though, here are my picks for the leads:

Gulliver Foyle – Paul Bettany
Robin Wednesbury – Tessa Thompson
The Presteign – Ben Kingsley
Olivia Presteign – Lea Seydoux
Jisbella ‘Jiz’ McQueen – Rhona Mitra
Saul Dagenham – Rufus Sewell
Captain Peter Yang-Yeovil – Mathieu Amalric


A GAME OF GHOSTS 
by John Connolly (2017)

Now is definitely not the ideal time for ex-NYPD cop and Maine-based private eye, Charlie Parker, to find himself embroiled in family-related legal matters, though I suppose there is never a good time for this kind of sadness.

Egged on by her domineering father, ex-partner Rachel has finally decided that Parker’s career is far too dangerous for their young daughter, Sam, and so is looking to the courts to restrict his access to her. Already denied one daughter, Jennifer – who was murdered along with her mother, Susan, (Parker’s wife) in a previous book, and yet whose ghost continually and very tenderly watches over him – the wearied investigator is left horrified by the prospect of this, and yet is helpless to resist. At the same time, he finds himself dragged into a particularly mystifying investigation, when his ever-secretive FBI handler, Edgar Ross, puts him on the trail of another PI, Jaycob Eklund, who dropped out of sight while looking into a series of historic murders and disappearances which have occurred all over the US.

Distracted by these big problems at home, but with his usual thorough professionalism, and assisted by ex-mob associates, Louis and Angel, Parker gets on the case, and almost immediately makes an unusual discovery – all the unsolved crimes that Eklund was investigating appear to be connected to reported hauntings. And that would be ‘hauntings’ in the traditional sense of the word, as in involving ghosts, spectres and the like.

This curious development then draws to his attention to the so-called Brethren, a cult-like group of the 19th century, whose leader, Peter Magus’s determination to live away from society, to rule his clan the way he saw fit, and to provide for them by murdering and robbing any outsiders who wandered too near, ensured their eventual destruction in a Waco-type apocalypse, and their immortalisation by romanticists as the Capstead Martyrs.

Except that the Brethren didn’t totally die out.

Before their final destruction, Magus had invoked what he believed were ‘angelic’ powers to ensure that his people would find the strength to resist punishment in the afterlife, though it isn’t long before Parker starts suspecting that, in actual fact, these powers have originated from somewhere else entirely (and what a moment that gives us, later on in the book). Either way, the Brethren not only still survive in American society today – secretly but murderously, as exemplified by the deadly and incestuous Kirk and Sally Buckner, whose phoney suburban lifestyle masks a truly venomous reality – but also on the ethereal plane, where their tortured spirits remain a real force to be reckoned with, and where they have used their psychic energies to zone in on Parker as a potential threat to their existence.

While all this is going on, Parker meets a pair of more earthly foes in the shape of Mother, the weird but scary matriarch of a declining New England crime family, and her odious son, Philip, who are also determinedly investigating the case and keen to know everything the PI knows. As if this isn’t enough, several villains whom Parker has encountered in previous novels also make an appearance. The Hollow Men, another vicious group of disembodied souls (he first met them in The Unquiet, Charlie Parker 6) and an obsessive serial killer, the Collector, (who first appeared in The Wrath of Angels, Charlie Parker 11) are drawn steadily into the case, piling on the pressure at a time when he really doesn’t need it.    

It isn’t often that Parker feels the odds are stacked against him in a way that may prove insurmountable, but perhaps it was always bound to happen at some point …

Once again, John Connolly disproves the oft-aired maxim that you can’t mingle the modern-day crime thriller with supernatural horror. By my reckoning, A Game of Ghosts is now the 15th outing for super-intuitive private eye, Charlie Parker, and once again he’s walking a narrow line between the real world of organised crime and professional killers and the more nebulous realm of cults, covens and ghosts – but as always, the author pulls off the resulting complexity with his usual aplomb.

If there is any weakness to A Game of Ghosts, I think it’s probably that, 15 books in, the author no longer feels as much of a need to ease the genres together, and so newcomers to Charlie Parker may find it a curious blend.

What’s this? It’s got the air and tone of a hardboiled noir, and yet suddenly we’re talking about the undead!

If that’s the case, the only suggestion I can make is that you’d have been better starting at the beginning of the series rather than coming in so late (so go back to the first book; it’s not like you won’t enjoy it!).

Of course, those already familiar with Charlie Parker’s exploits will feel right at home. It’s not just the intriguing and never-less-than pacey story-telling that makes these novels such a delight, nor the endless right-angle turns in the narrative, which feel purpose-designed to throw you off kilter – it’s the style and verve with which they are written.

John Connolly’s slick prose and crackling dialogue are among the very best in the business, and I don’t say that lightly. In addition, the Parker books are liberally laced with the author’s signature mordant wit, which, certainly in the case of A Game of Ghosts, had me laughing out loud on several occasions, sometimes only a page or so after the hair on my scalp had prickled.

And yet, for all these light-hearted undercurrents, and despite the presence of beings from beyond –which in this one includes some real in-yer-face horrors (just wait till the finale!) – Connolly never loses sight of the fact that he’s writing a serious novel which also concerns itself with vile criminality. Various kinds of human barbarity are on show here, or at least are referred to. At times, the book almost switches into gritty ‘True Crime’ mode, taking us from gangland enforcement and torture (on occasion unstintingly described!) to rape, serial murder and so forth – in all cases, the casual disposal of human beings by creatures who are beyond amoral, and yet dealt with so matter-of-factly that it sets your skin-crawling.

Of course, such starkness hugely underscores the heroism of Parker and his trusty sidekicks, Angel and Louis, all three of whom, despite their many flaws (the latter two comprising a former hit-man and a thief), fearlessly tread these paths in their ongoing war against evil. And yet – and it’s particularly the case in this book – we focus too on the trio’s many vulnerabilities, which endears them to us even more: in A Game of Ghosts, for example, Angel is suffering health problems, which become an increasing cause of concern as the book goes on, both for Parker and Louis, and for the readers (some of these scenes are genuine tear-jerkers), while Parker himself is in the midst of his drawn-out domestic car-crash.

Isolated even more than usual from his estranged family, thanks to the legal shenanigans of his in-laws, and missing his two daughters (one living, one dead) desperately, as well as finally starting to feel the bumps, bangs and sprains of his chosen career, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the tough, two-fisted hero as tired and forlorn. It leaves you rooting for him more than ever, obviously, but the author handles these sequences with great pathos, never once straying into schmaltz.

Connolly is on equally great form when it comes to the secondary characters, especially the villains, who come in all shapes and sizes, though I do think that Mother and Philip, a demonic duo of heirs-apparent to a once-successful but now failing crime faction, are particularly abhorrent. Mother is a monster in almost every sense of the word, except that she’s clear-sighted and has no issue with doing the right thing if it suits her purposes, whereas Philip, equally a monster – a truly weird one – has the added disadvantage of being stupid, which means that he can’t even guess what’s around the next corner, let alone prepare for it: we suspect from the outset, with more than a little eager anticipation, that things aren’t going to go well for Philip.

But all this makes for a wonderful page-turner of a book. Assuming you like a touch of the darker stuff, A Game of Ghosts is John Connolly’s usual – a classy, expertly written thriller, spine-chilling and compelling in equal parts, pitching the reader into a world of supernatural make-believe but pumping up the hard-edged crime factor to a point where you’re absolutely convinced that it’s possible.

And now, as always, I’m going to round things off by trying to cast the book, should it ever make the screen. Frankly, given the success of the Charlie Parker series, I’m amazed this hasn’t happened already, though the last time I heard John Connolly opining on the subject, he didn’t feel that anyone serious had made a viable offer yet (things may have changed since then, of course). On top of that, there’d be the not inconsiderable issue that this is no. 15 in the series, so we must suspend belief and assume that all of the previous books, or some of them at least, have already been adapted, using the same essential cast that we have here. That may be a big ask, but hey! … this is my blog, so I can do what I want, yeah? 

Charlie Parker – Hugh Jackman (surely looking for a new introspective hard-man role now that Logan is finished)
Rachel – Vera Farmiga
Sam – Mia Talerico
Sally Buckner – Reese Witherspoon
Louis – Malcolm-Jamal Warner
Angel – John Leguizamo
Mother – Judi Dench
Philip – Marc Warren
Edgar Ross – Sam Neill
Don Routh – Mark Pellegrino
The Collector – Jared Leto


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


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 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


I AM PILGRIM 
by Terry Hayes (2014)

‘Pilgrim’, aka ‘Jude Garrett’, ‘Scott Murdoch’, ‘Pete Campbell’ and in inner spy circles, the ‘Rider of the Blue’, is the enigmatic man who wrote the ultimate manual on forensic analysis. He’s also the offspring of a murder victim and the adopted son and heir to a New England multi-billionaire, while, career-wise, he’s a US intelligence agent, who, even though he’s still very young, is so formidably skilled and experienced, and boasts such an exemplary track record (which included his termination of a powerful and highly dangerous double-agent based in Moscow) that it has earned him the ear of US presidents.

Technically speaking, however, it’s all over for Pilgrim. He’s done, retired, looking forward to a life of bohemian anonymity in the garrets and backstreets of Paris.

But then, over in Manhattan, Detective Ben Bradley, locates the body of a murdered woman whose corpse has been completely depersonalised by the very same CIA-inspired methods that Pilgrim specified in his seminal book, her teeth removed, her fingerprints and facial features erased with acid, and all traces of the killer’s DNA obliterated by judicious use of antiseptic.

Pilgrim – though he isn’t going by that moniker at this early stage – is a lonely and tortured individual, whose empathetic nature was at the root of his seeking an alternative career, and who yearns to forget his past, though now he is inevitably forced back onto the job to assist Bradley’s investigation. After that, it isn’t long before he finds himself embroiled in a connected but much larger and potentially massively more devastating case … which takes us neatly onto I Am Pilgrim’s other main thread, the personal and political development of an ambitious and determined terrorist, who will also go by a conveniently simple nickname: ‘Saracen’.

After a deprived boyhood in the repressed police state that is Saudi Arabia, which culminates in his having to watch the public decapitation of his father for the unforgivable offence of criticising his nation’s rulers, Saracen finds himself growing up with a fierce hatred for the Saudi royal family, and perhaps inevitably (and far more zealously), for their most committed western ally, the United States of America.

A fully trained doctor by adulthood, but increasingly immersed in the more extremist tenets of Islam, Saracen eventually falls out with what remains of his family (his mother needing to get a job is the final straw!), and he leaves home determined to join the jihadi fight, which he does with a vengeance, soon finding kinship with the Taliban and entering the war in Afghanistan as a soldier of God.

However, Saracen, much like Pilgrim (though this is the only similarity between them), is an obsessive intellectual of his craft, and the winning of minor battles and launching of successful but relatively insignificant terrorist outrages feels like small potatoes. Eager to carry his war into the very heart of his enemy’s domain, and if possible, to destroy it completely, the only solution, as Saracen sees it, is to develop and deploy a bio-weapon of such magnitude that the might of the US will simply collapse beneath its onslaught.

He settles on a new, vaccine-proof and horrendously contagious strain of the smallpox virus (which he unleashes on a batch of human test-subjects in what is surely one of the ghastliest scenes that’s ever been committed to paper).

Back in the States, Pilgrim and his various government informers don’t get wind of this fiendish plot straight away, but when they do, a twisting, turning, continent-hopping duel commences, which ranges from the US to Europe to Asia and the Middle East, taking in a variety of amazing locations en route, including Syria, Switzerland, Bahrain, the bleak, savage mountains of the Hindu Kush, and a hypnotically beautiful Roman ruin on the edge of the glimmering blue Aegean. Ironically, Pilgrim and Saracen don’t meet until near the end of the book, but this doesn’t stop either of them engaging in numerous conflicts on the way, via flashback and subplot and through various proxies, though ultimately we finish up in a shattering, race-against-the-clock, one-on-one climax, which, if I was to say more about it here would be the ultimate spoiler …     

The Guardian said of I Am Pilgrim that it’s ‘the only thriller you need to read this year’. Speaking as a gobbler-up of thrillers, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I do know what they mean. Everything about Terry Hayes’s astonishing debut novel is epic: its size, its concept, its cast of characters, its range of locations, its terrifying and exhilarating action sequences, and even its subtext, which is huge if fairly simple: those with greater power and wisdom than most must shoulder greater responsibility than most, and their not wanting to is basically irrelevant (not that they may necessarily have a choice in the matter).

This is big stuff all the way through, a colossal struggle between two born-to-it masters of their trade, neither of whom will ever take a backward step because they know no other way, and all played out against the majestic canvas of Europe and the Middle East in the age of wide-ranging espionage and terrorism.

On this basis alone, it might be understandable if some readers were put-off exploring this novel any further, perhaps suspecting an all-too-familiar mishmash of James Bond and Jason Bourne. But that would be an error, because I Am Pilgrim is an astonishing, multi-layered tale of conflict and belief, which is vivid, realistic and totally gripping for the entire duration of its 600 plus pages.

It’s no surprise at all that Hollywood has already got its hooks into it.

That isn’t to say that it hasn’t come in for criticism in certain quarters. The sheer length of the book has been described as OTT, while its excessive detail and numerous side-stories have been called self-indulgent and time-wasting. But I take strong issue with that. Despite the length of I Am Pilgrim, the pace never flags, the story never sags, and the suspense is overflowing – Hayes’s writing style is not exactly stripped down, but it makes for a fast, easy read, and I got through the whole novel in three days (in which case, a book can surely be as long as it wants to be).

Likewise, I have no truck with the argument that I Am Pilgrim is a lesson in what might happen if the US isn’t much more interventionist and belligerent in its overseas policies, and more willing to play dirty when it comes to espionage. Unfortunately, we do exist in an age of relentless terrorism, so while it could be argued that this book is alarmist in its tone, it’s a thriller – so it’s supposed to be, and it’s hardly telling us that something terrible could happen which we haven’t already imagined for ourselves. But to call that a demand for much more bullying and rule-breaking by the intelligence services is no more applicable than it would be to Bond movies or superhero comics in which the lead characters ignore almost every rule of law in their pursuit of megalomaniac villains.

Which brings us onto the characters, themselves.  
               
Pilgrim as an unusually vulnerable hero in the world of secret agents. And by that, I don’t just mean that he’s a guy with a faux conscience, one of these unconvincing characters who even in the midst of hardline law enforcement, is continually moved to remind us that he shares the peace-loving, socio-liberal values of the author. Pilgrim is much more rounded than that. Yes, he is regularly forced to make ruthless decisions, many of which he believes in, but he has genuinely always tried to perform his duty in a way that is least destructive, and much of his day-to-day life is overshadowed by memories of the lives he has taken. When he finds himself working side-by-side with the Saudi secret police, he is fascinated and appalled in equal measure by their casual disregard for human rights. Throughout the book, his desire to take an early retirement, to do something more useful with his life, is all-pervading, even though he strongly doubts that someone of his expertise would ever be allowed to. What this leaves us with is a very believable character, who authentically suffers, both physically and emotionally, and who, even though his ‘trust fund’ background has been knocked by certain picky critics – he’s been disparagingly referred to as ‘Bruce Wayne mark II’ – remains much more complex and intriguing than Batman, Bond or Bourne have ever been.  

Meanwhile, as villain-in-chief (though he’s only one of many, in truth), Saracen is also a marvellous piece of writing. Rarely in western thriller fiction have I encountered a Middle Eastern terrorist, who – while it wouldn’t be true to say we sympathise with – we understand as much in terms of his motivations. Saracen’s transformation into a fanatic is a slow, painful process (and we accompany him much of the way), during which the seeds of fundamentalist hatred are not so much sewn into him, as hammered, by countless cruelties and injustices which any rational person would yearn to put right. It’s very easy in our world to dismiss jihadi grievances as an overblown excuse for out-and-out wickedness, but after reading I Am Pilgrim, you’ll think as the hero does: know your enemy – and know him well, or risk paying a deadly price. 

I have no hesitation in declaring I Am Pilgrim one of the best espionage thrillers I’ve ever read. It’s got everything: action, suspense, intrigue, mystery, villains you love to hate and heroes you are rooting for every inch of their breathless journey. An amazing novel.

As I mentioned before, Hollywood is already developing I Am Pilgrim, and in fact – or so the rumour-mongers insist – may even be planning to launch it as the pilot for a brand-new franchise. Ordinarily, that would render any fantasy casting by me completely pointless, but I’ve looked around online, and I haven’t seen a cast-list yet, so as usual, I’m going to be bold (stupid?) enough to suggest my own:

Pilgrim – Edward Norton
Saracen – Murat Yildirim
Det. Leyla Cumali – Beren Saat
Lt. Ben Bradley – Denzel Washington
Marcie Bradley – Angela Basset
David ‘Whispering Death’ McKinley – James Woods
Ingrid Kohl – Alexandra Daddario
Cameron Dodge – Evan Peters
Battleboi – Eric Stonestreet
President James Grosvenor – Stephen Tobolowsky
Bill Murdoch – Paul Giamatti
Dr Sydney – Bryan Browne


JACK’S RETURN HOME 
by Ted Lewis (1970)

It’s the late 1960s in Scunthorpe, and Jack Carter is coming home.

Jack, born and raised in the northern steel town, left home quite some time ago to make his fortune in London, and, being a handy lad and inclined towards pitiless immorality, he eventually found his place as a mob enforcer. Since then, Jack has done all kinds of awful things at the behest of his employers, East End racketeers, Les and Gerald Fletcher, and in so doing, has earned himself a real reputation. Quite often, though, he lets his heart rule his head. For example, the clandestine affair he is conducting with Gerald’s wife, Audrey, is very ill-advised. But even more so is this return to Scunthorpe.

Long estranged from his family, Jack has only two close relatives remaining: his older brother, Frank, and Frank’s daughter, 15-year-old Doreen. But now Frank is dead, killed in an apparent drink-driving accident. The police, or ‘scuffers’, as they are known locally, see nothing suspicious in this. Frank was a barman, after all, and he worked in a particularly rough part of a particularly rough town. However, he was not known to be an unstable character, and in fact, compared to his brother, was a clean-living citizen – and this is the point where Jack becomes curious, refusing to believe that Frank would have climbed into his car having consumed an entire bottle of whiskey.

Though he came north ostensibly for his brother’s funeral, he now begins snooping around, asking questions, and it soon arouses the attention and eventually the ire of a number of local underworld figures.

Chief among these is Scunthorpe’s own godfather, Cyril Kinnear, but there are others who are no less dangerous in their own way: overly ambitious rival gang-boss, Cliff Brumby, for example; not-so-tough-but-well-connected loanshark, ‘Steelworks Thorpey’; ex-teddy boy and pool-room bully, Albert Swift, who became an underworld go’fer; and the ultra sinister Eric Paice, an old enemy of Jack’s, who, though he works superficially as a chauffeur, is mainly valuable to the mob for his ability to seduce and/or snatch young girls from lives of respectability for futures in pornography and prostitution – and Jack soon suspects that this latter is the key to the mystery.

It is only 1968, and blue movies are still taboo, but there is a voracious demand for them on the underground circuit, particularly among those interested in the sex adventures of very, very young females.

Increasingly firm attempts are made to dissuade Jack from continuing his investigation, gentle persuasion gradually giving way to violence, initially directed against those around him, such as Frank’s old mate and fellow barman, Keith Lacey, and Jack’s attractive if earthy landlady, Edna Garfoot, but finally against Jack himself – by which time it is verging on the lethal.

Jack continues to resist, even when he receives direct orders from Gerald and Les, as delivered by a pair of London hitmen, the brutal Con McCarty and camp-as-hell Peter the Dutchman ... and this latter makes him even more suspicious. How is his own firm involved in Frank’s death? And what role does Doreen play? – she may only be 15 and an orphan to boot, but her name crops up increasingly and in ever more lurid circumstances.

The more Jack evades attempts on his life, the more unedifying truths he uncovers, and the more personal this becomes. Soon, it is one man against the combined forces of both the London and the Scunthorpe syndicates, from which point there is no going back …  
     
It’s very difficult to disassociate the novel, Jack’s Return Home, from the seminal Michael Caine and Mike Hodges movie adaptation of 1971, Get Carter. In fact, later editions of the novel were republished under that very title. In truth, there are a lot of similarities, even down to certain lines of dialogue, but there are some differences too.

To start with, Caine, though a mesmerising screen presence in his heyday, was ‘ethnically wrong’ to play Jack Carter, who in the book is a displaced northerner rather than a Cockney. In addition to that, perhaps the most famous liberty the movie took was in its transposition of the story from Scunthorpe to the even more grimily picturesque Newcastle. That said, none of these are really major issues. Where both the novel and the movie are united is in their warts-and-all portrayal of an unforgiving British gangland, setting their narratives against dingy working-class backdrops, and underscoring them with a level of sleaze that has shocking power even today.

In regard to all that, Jack’s Return Home is the original slice of Brit grit, the novel that opened the door to countless generations of Brit-Noir fiction to follow, while Get Carter, the movie, in taking the X certificate as far as it could go, presented us with a serious, grown-up thriller that would usher in a new age of UK-set hard-as-nails crime movies, much the way The French Connection did in the States (without Get Carter, it is doubtful we’d have had VillainThe SqueezeSitting TargetThe Sweeney or The Long Good Friday).

But back to the novel.

In terms of negatives (and there aren’t many of these), Jack’s Return Home may have lost a bit of its authority in the 21st century simply because time and society have moved on. It’s probably true to say that Ted Lewis was never a wizard with words. He could create atmosphere for sure, but he was no poet. Most of the impact his book originally made stemmed from it’s in-yer-face style. And even today, everything I’ve just said notwithstanding, it’s a bit of an eye-opener to see such a stark, matter-of-fact depiction of a rough, tough town, with its depressing rows of terraced houses, its fiery backcloth of factories and steel mills, its backstreet pubs full of drunks and strippers, and its smoke-filled billiards halls where a single wrong word can get you into serious trouble.

I can only imagine the strength of this narrative back in 1968.

That said, Ted Lewis wasn’t ploughing a completely lone furrow even then. Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) had already blazed a trail for blue-collar fiction, with its energised tale of a resentful tough-nut and the lives he either ruins or enriches (but mainly the former!) as he crashes selfishly through post-war Nottingham, while Barry Hines’s wonderful A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) focusses on an unwanted boy from a Barnsley council estate, and his doomed friendship with a hunting bird he rescued as an orphanned chick. In this regard, Ted Lewis’s great innovation was to take the ‘kitchen sink’ template, and pile on the villainy, creating a very difficult reality where near enough everyone is corrupt, including the police and local dignitaries, where eff-words are the norm, where heavy drinking and the use of casual violence are the mark of manliness, and women in particular are treated like dirt.

This latter is perhaps the part where Jack’s Return Home is really at odds with modern thinking. Because at the heart of this tale lies the underworld’s all new money-spinner: hardcore porn. And it’s porn of the sordid, seedy, homegrown variety, in which desperate, cash-strapped actors participate for peanuts, especially the women, and in which almost no age restriction is put on them – in fact, the younger the better.

An accurate depiction of a squalid world, perhaps, but the novel has dated generally in the context of its female cast, almost all of whom are tarts of a sort: Frank’s ex-wife, Murial (who had sex with Jack after getting drunk); Frank’s former girlfriend, Margaret; good-time girl, Glenda; and even middle-aged landlady, Edna, who happily sits across the room from her lodger, with legs apart so that he can see her stocking-tops (and later on gets brutally beaten, to which Jack is stingingly unsympathetic).

It’s no surprise that not everyone these days sings the novel’s praises.

Jack Carter’s character is itself ambiguous. Caine’s appearance in the movie caused a stir at the time, everyone’s favourite cheeky chappie turning hard and vicious in his quest for revenge, but in the novel there is barely a hint of a pleasant side to his personality. On occasion, he reminisces about his early youth – the last happy time he knew, we suspect – when he and Frank got on their bikes and explored the woods and wastelands on the outskirts of town. These are moving sequences and poignant reminders that even monsters once were children. However, later on things changed for Jack, possibly in response to Frank’s gentler nature: Jack idolised his older brother, but as they grew older, Jack came to revile Frank’s habit of turning the other cheek, feeling increasingy betrayed by it. As such, for the bulk of this novel, Jack is a coldly merciless figure. He doesn’t go at it shouting and swearing, because he’s got nothing to prove – all the hoods in Scunthorpe know who he is, and most of them fear him. Even in casual conversation, you suspect it’s only the calm before the storm.

A staple of ‘tough guy’ fiction these days, I suppose Jack was one of the very first who you could say ‘didn’t start fights, but certainly finished them’.

So successful was Jack’s Return Home, that Ted Lewis wrote two additional Carter novels afterwards. But with his sad and premature death at the age of 42, the series ended there. Even so, he created an iconic character in the annals of British crime fiction, one who’s been copied many times since but has rarely been equalled, and set him in a world long lost but utterly unforgettable (even if mostly for the wrong reasons).

I’m in the habit of ending these book reviews with some fantasy casting, putting forward a ensemble of actors who I feel would be perfect in the roles. But given the two major movie adaptations that Jack’s Return Home already has in the bank – the totally awesome Get Carter (1971), and the significantly less awesome, Vegas-set Sly Stallone vehicle, Get Carter (2000), I don’t think there’s much point. 


by S.L. Grey (2017)

Cape Town residents, Mark and Steph Sebastian, are not the most happily married couple.

To start with, there is an age gap between them, Mark considerably older than his pretty young wife, and though this doesn’t trouble them superficially, deep down we suspect it’s been an issue of sorts from early in their relationship. Add to that the trauma Mark suffered in a previous marriage when his first daughter, Zoe, died a terrible death, and the poor wage he earns as an uninspiring lecturer in one of South Africa’s lesser universities, and you can understand why he is so troubled.

Steph is not the perfect spouse, either. A stay-at-home mum with their new baby-daughter, Hayden (when the family so clearly needs a second wage), and attractive enough to catch the eye of, and even flirt with hunky young guys in the neighbourhood, she inevitably wonders if she chose the wrong man to spend the rest of her life with – her parents certainly think she did! – and yet she remains pathologically suspicious of Carla, a sophisticated woman from Mark’s past, whom he never took to bed but is still friendly with.

If all this isn’t bad enough, the couple’s suburban home is then violently burgled while they are present, the trio tied up and terrorised by a gang of knife-wielding bandits. They are not physically injured, but Mark feels unmanned by the incident because he did nothing to defend his wife and child (even though there was patently nothing he could do), while, Steph, we suspect, though she won’t say it in as many words, now thinks even less of him than she did before.

The visceral horror of the episode lingers long afterwards, the couple no longer feeling safe in their home and spending what little cash they have on an updated security system.

When the suggestion is made that they need a holiday to try and rediscover the affection they once held for each other, the Sebastians dismiss it as unaffordable nonsense. But then, a house-swap website is drawn to their attention, and they learn about a French couple, the Petits, who are looking for a place in Cape Town, for which they will temporarily exchange their own luxury apartment in Paris.

It all looks fantastic online, and of course Mark and Steph have always wanted to visit the City of Light. The deal is signed, and things finally seem to be looking up. With Hayden left in the capable hands of Steph’s parents, the duo fly to Europe, eagerly anticipating a much-needed vacation in the cradle of culture and romance.

What they actually find, however, is the exact opposite.

The apartment, when they manage to locate it in the backstreets of the Pigalle, is a seedy dump in what feels like a semi-derelict building. It is gloomy, damp and filled with all kinds of unsavoury mementoes, including items which seem to have relevance to Mark’s own unhappy past (though he won’t admit this to Steph), and there is only one other resident, an eccentric artist called Mireille, who lives in a garret on the top floor. This might at least hint at the old Bohemian Paris we all know and love, except that Mireille appears to be deranged, and lives in such squalor that they soon come to suspect she’s squatting in the building rather than paying rent.

Add to this the terrible weather – it’s a bitterly cold February – the Sebastians being financially unequipped for a holiday in France, and an increasing mystery about the Petits themselves, who never showed up to claim the house in Cape Town and now appear to be out of contact, and we have a rapidly unfolding nightmare.

But this is only the start of it.  

Weird and unexplained incidents in the apartment hint at a supernatural, even malevolent presence, and when Mark finds himself grappling with some ghastly hallucinations, at times losing track of where he is and what he’s doing here, they decide it’s time to head home. But leaving this apartment is not as easy as it sounds, and even if the Sebastians manage it, Steph, for one, fears that they haven’t seen the last of the subliminal evil they’ve encountered here …

The first thing to say is that I’m a bit staggered by the number of negative reviews that this book has received online. Some readers appear to have come at it expecting full-blown horror, as in demons and gore on every page, while others sound resentful that the publicity material accompanying its release – describing it as “a terrifying tour de force,” for example – has misrepresented a book that they clearly expected to leave them quaking under the bedclothes.

Well, the advice I would give to these folks comes in two parts.

1)      Never read too much into publicity material – its job is to entice you, not inform you.

2)      Instead, read what it says on the tin – that’s a more tested method for finding out what’s inside.

If you did the latter, you’d have no problem at all with The Apartment, because, as it says in the blurb, this is a disturbing little psychological thriller, which, no, may not have you screaming in fear by bombarding you with ghost-train effects, but yes, will unsettle you no end by immersing you in an intensely creepy predicament, which gets steadily worse for the main protagonists the deeper into the novel you penetrate.

I safely predict that any readers who are even vaguely sensitive to unpleasant situations will be bemused and unnerved in equal measure, as lead-characters, Mark and Steph Sebastian, first try to fathom out how it is they come to be stuck in this awful place, and then try to establish an escape route, both of which missions are fraught with difficulty.

There are some odious elements in the book too; some real hair-curlers, in fact.

The seaminess of the just-about habitable apartment is wonderfully evoked by joint-authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg (who share the pseudonym, SL Grey), even if it remains largely intangible, deriving mostly from its air of inexplicable abandonment, from its unspoken aura of dread, from the decayed left-overs of nameless former occupants still to be found there even years later. All of this is so well realised by the authors, who at no stage hit you in the face with it, that you couldn’t imagine wanting to spend even a single day and night there, let alone a week-long vacation. The term ‘shudder-inducing’ is often over-used, but it would be perfectly fitting in this circumstance.

In this regard, any resemblance to Roman Polanski’s Parisian-set horror flick of 1976, The Tenant, (itself an adaptation of Roland Topor’s psychological chiller of 1964, Le Locataire Chimérique), owes mainly to the Grand Guignol setting, but The Apartment shares a similarly haunting and claustrophobic atmosphere, and that is no bad thing.

The city itself is used to great effect. Lotz and Greenberg take us all over the place, showing us the sights and immersing us in the magic of this great European capital, and yet it’s a two-edged sword, Mark and Steph remaining distanced from it all because they are so short of money, looking at the glitz through panes of rain-streaked glass, shivering in a wintry wind from which they can’t find shelter.

The impoverishment of the two heroes has drawn criticism from certain reviewers, who’ve expressed annoyance with the Sebastians and have doubted that this could happen, pointing out that they’re an educated couple, who surely have sufficient experience between them to avoid being marooned in a foreign city so short of cash that they can barely sustain themselves let alone buy a ticket home. But I’d argue that they are damaged goods, neither Mark nor Steph functioning at a full-on adult level.

This is given full effect by a clever device wherein the narrative is relayed to us in alternate chapters, one from Mark’s perspective, the next from Steph’s, the next from Mark’s, and so on. Not only does it ram home the message that these guys may be married but are certainly not allies, it also illustrates how unreliable they both are as narrators. Mark is still traumatised by terrible events in his early life; they occupy much of his day-to-day thinking, allowing him no enthusiasm for his job and only a little bit for his new wife and child. Little wonder, the apartment comes to embody all this, leaving him to suspect (or should that be ‘imagine’?) that there’s a malign presence in the desolate building. At the same time, Steph simply thinks the place is horrible and unsafe, for which she mainly blames Mark – somewhat unfairly, I feel, because it ought to be plain to a perceptive wife that her husband is struggling with his mental health – and obsesses constantly about her child, who she didn’t want to leave at home.

On top of that, they are both tortured by memories of the burglary, Mark riddled with regret that he didn’t do more to defend his family (as if that would have been remotely possible for a middle-aged man, though that, of course, exacerbates the main bone of contention between the couple), while Steph, feeling that she came very close to being raped and murdered, now finds the night-time an ordeal, feeling safe nowhere and seeing no protection in her husband.

In fact, so much of the narrative occurs inside the characters’ heads that this is definitely NOT your run-of-the-mill horror story. The gainsayers have got that much right, but I still found it hugely effective. It’s also been written in a readable, paired-down style – never fear, it’s still wonderfully descriptive and richly flavoursome of Paris ‘behind the scenes’ – but it rattles along at pace to an especially chilling climax (which, contrary to some of the more nonsensical reviews I’ve read, wraps the whole thing up both coherently and satisfyingly).

It can’t say that I had nightmares after reading The Apartment, but my skin crept, and I brooded on it long after I’d finished, which has got to be proof of a very worthwhile horror story.

I’ve no clue whether or not The Apartment is destined for any kind of film or TV development, but if not, it ought to be. As such, I’m going to display my usual conceit and nominate the cast I personally would opt for were it ever to get the adaptation treatment. Just for laughs of course – no-one would listen to me anyway – but here we go: 

Steph – Tanya van Graan
Mark – Sharlto Copley
Carla – Antoinette Louw
Mireille – Nathalie Baye


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!)


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 DEAD WOMEN OF JUAREZ 
by Sam Hawken (2012)

Ciudad Juárez is a Mexican border-town where something akin to a national disaster is being played out.

Since the early 1990s (in real life as well as in this powerful work of fiction), at least 5,000 young women, mostly prostitutes, students or assembly line employees in the maquiladoras – US-owned car-making plants where sweatshop conditions are the norm – have vanished. In many cases they have never been seen again, but a significant number have reappeared in shallow graves or on city dumps, murdered and displaying signs of extreme sexual torture.

Whether it’s the work of a serial killer, or multiple serial killers, or dope gangs, or sex tourists, or who knows what, it’s a hideous mystery which endures right to this day.

It’s difficult to understand how something like this can go on unchecked in the 21st century, but Juárez is a town with all kinds of problems, not least the cartels who fight each other daily up and down its bullet-scarred streets, the persistence of corruption in institutions like the police and local government, the prevalence of drugs and drug addicts, and the hordes of reckless American turistas who flood across the border every evening to drink and whore themselves senseless.

It is against this tragic but hellish backdrop that Texas author, Sam Hawken, tells his tale of two deeply-flawed men: Kelly Courter, an American boxer now long past his best, and Detective Rafael Sevilla, an alcoholic narcotics cop who is close to retirement after a career (and a lifetime!) during which he feels he’s achieved nothing.

Courter and Sevilla are as unlikely a pair of heroes as you could meet.

The former fled the States to evade a likely lengthy jail sentence, and now has a heroin dependency, which, though he’s only in his 30s, long ago ruined his boxing career. These days, just to be able to support himself (and buy smack!), Courter rents himself out as a human punchbag to unscrupulous backstreet boxing promoters like the verminous Ortiz – who put him in the ring against eager up-and-comers, where he suffers the unbridled hatred of the crowd and takes some bone-crunching beatings. The one light in his life is Paloma, his girlfriend, a fearless activist with Mujeres Sin Voces, a self-help organisation seeking justice for the legions of murdered women, and whose drugs-dealing brother, Estéban, he occasionally helps by providing a white face by which to lure nervous American customers.

It is through this connection that we first meet the honest but drink-enfeebled cop, Sevilla, who is constantly leaning on Courter to get him to give up his and Estéban’s supplier. Courter resists, of course, and there isn’t much Sevilla can do about that, or even is motivated to do, if he’s honest – because his life too has been irreparably damaged by the plague of ‘feminicide’, which, among so many others, has claimed both his daughter and his granddaughter.

As such, neither Courter nor Sevilla, nor even Estéban lead happy and fulfilled lives, but things get a whole lot worse when Paloma, who on several occasions has stood up to the menacing gangland figures constantly circling Mujeres Sin Voces, also disappears. If this isn’t enough, as neither Courter nor Estéban have adequate alibis – Courter was on yet another drugs binge at the time! – they are taken into custody as suspects by the monstrously violent Captain ‘La Bestia’ Garcia, who, while he’s pretty incompetent when it comes to collaring gangsters and sex-murderers, likes nothing better than to brutalise confessions out of the little fish who drop his way.

Even Sevilla, who by now has developed a reasonably amicable relationship with Courter, can do nothing to help. When he turns to Adriana Quintero, the almost impossibly well-groomed prosecutor attached to the Special Task Force for the Investigation of Crimes Against Women, and pleads Courter’s innocence, he is greeted with utter indifference; Quintero’s real job, it seems, is to make it look as if Juárez is being served by the law.

Sevilla realises that only one route is open to him. Somehow or other, he must do the unfeasible, and bring the real perpetrators of the Juárez ‘feminicides’ to justice …

The first thing that struck me about The Dead Women of Juárez, Sam Hawken’s debut novel, is that it isn’t your typical crime-thriller. I’ve seen it described variously as ‘hard-boiled’, as ‘a border noir’, as ‘a classic murder-mystery’, and while there are aspects of all those in there – hard-drinking detective, Sevilla, and battered boxer, Courter, wouldn’t be out of place in any Chandler or Mickey Spillane – the overwhelming catastrophe that is actually occurring in Juárez basically takes centre-stage.

And that’s the main point. Because this relentless spate of unsolved murders is a real thing, and because the real city in which the novel takes place is every bit as dusty and down-at-heel as Sam Hawken describes it here, it would seem indelicate, if not downright trite, to classify this novel as anything resembling pulp fiction. It’s a rattling good story – there’s no question about that, and Hawken’s lean, mean prose keeps it bouncing along at pace. But the whole narrative aches with a deep-felt sadness, which can only stem from the real life horrors of that woe-begotten burg.

And it’s quite clear that Hawken wrote his book fully mindful of this issue.

His approach is observational rather than judgemental. Whether it be the extreme inequality of wealth on display here (some folk living in ‘cartons’, while super-powered businessmen like Rafa Madrigal, and his vile son, Sebastian, own ranches and private golf courses), the rash crowds of American kids who flock across the border to party and get high, or the armies of dealers, hookers and hustlers who cater to them, he simply describes things the way they are, rather than calling down fire and brimstone on it. Even the ongoing murder spree is brought to us subtly, Hawken not sitting us down to lecture us, but gradually drawing it to our attention via the clusters of wooden crosses we see standing on wasteland now and then, or the flyblown ‘missing’ posters adorning streetlights and telegraph poles.

This, he shows us – without really needing to say it – is the tragedy of modern Mexico.

Poverty and crime are the norm. Murder is so common that people are no longer shocked; they simply live their lives around it, getting on any way they can. Even Mexico’s crime-lords and their roaming gangs of gunmen are regarded as an everyday occupational hazard.

But while that’s the way of normality in Ciudad Juárez, for the rest of us it’s seismically terrifying. You find yourself shuddering more with each page turned, appalled that such injustice and exploitation could ever exist in the modern world. The desolation of all the main characters’ lives is palpable. It extends to the lesser characters too: the scores of bereaved parents and siblings protesting futilely on barren street-corners; the dead-eyed workers trudging in for yet another long shift in hot, dirty factories; those people who live in cartons.

In all these respects, The Dead Women of Juárez is an unforgettable read. It is dispiriting and distressing – just when you think one awful thing too many has happened, another, even worse thing comes along. The violence and cruelty is more visceral and in-your-face than almost any reader could be comfortable with. However, none of this means that there isn’t going to be a reckoning of sorts. It certainly doesn’t mean that Rafael Sevilla, finally galvanised to take a long-overdue revenge on the enemies of his town, won’t get his act together.

To say more on that would be a spoiler, but The Dead Women of Juárez isn’t just a warts-and-all study of modern-day despair; it’s a multi-layered, fast-moving piece of docu-fiction, superbly written and while not exactly entertaining, ultimately very, very satisfying. Okay, it may not be true to call this book a typical crime-thriller, but that certainly does not mean that it doesn’t reach a very thrilling conclusion.

Another one I highly recommend, though with the caveat that it’s more an existentialist nightmare than a murder mystery, and that even in that brutal guise, it pulls absolutely no punches. 

And now, as usual, I’m going to be bold enough to try and cast this one in advance of it ever coming to the movie or TV screen. I’m not sure whether it’s been optioned or not, but hey … this is only an exercise. Like anyone would listen to me, anyway. Here are my picks for the leads:

Detective Rafael Sevilla – Antonio Banderas
Kelly Courter – Wentworth Miller (older than in the book, but he doesn’t look it)
Ortiz – Sergi Lopez
Esteban – Pablo Cruz
Paloma – Angelique Boyer
Captain ‘La Bestia’ Garcia – Alberto Estrella
Adriana Quintero – Blanca Soto
Rafa Madrigal – Miguel Sandoval
Sebastian Madrigal – Gael Garcia Bernal


THE MEPHISTO CLUB 
by Tess Gerritsen (2006)

As usual, on/off partners in crime-fighting, Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner, Doctor Maura Isles, are having difficulties in their personal lives. 

At the start of The Mephisto Club, Isles’s yearning for handsome Catholic priest, Father Daniel Brophy, remains unrequited, but as he is equally attracted to her, how long that status will last is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile Jane Rizzoli, an experienced homicide investigator with the Boston PD, has a happily-married life, but a car-wreck of a family, her brothers useless and her mom and dad increasingly quarrelsome with each other.

With all this going on, and in the depths of a bitterly cold Boston winter, it’s hardly the right time for the twosome to find themselves confronted by a particularly ghoulish ritual murder, the body horribly dismembered and the Latin word PECCAVI scrawled at the scene.

An apparent explanation suggests itself soon enough, the slaying seemingly linked to one of Isles’s former sparring partners, criminal psychologist, Dr Joyce O’Donnell, a woman with whom she has never seen eye-to-eye. It seems possible that the perp is one of O’Donnell’s more disturbed patients, either trying to spook her or leave her some kind of message. But O’Donnell can’t (or won’t) help examine this particular theory, and then more murders follow, with similar mutilations and similar cryptic characters inscribed on and around the corpses. 

It seems that it isn’t just Joyce O’Donnell who’s the object of interest, but the whole of the mysterious Mephisto Club, of which she is only one member.

A group of scholarly individuals headed up by the wealthy ex-college professor, Anthony Sansone, and the bullish Englishwoman, Edwina Felway, the Mephisto Club – or ‘Mephisto Foundation’, to use their preferred title – dedicate themselves to a profound and scientific analysis of evil; not just in its obvious form, as in the violent psychosis displayed by damaged individuals, but also the religious and metaphysical elements of it, i.e. its devilish origins, as described in the earliest archaeological records.

To the ever-cynical Rizzoli, all of this feels like hokum, but she’s frustrated to find that, owing to their fantastical wealth, the Mephisto Club exert huge influence over the authorities, even the FBI, and when they insist on helping with the investigation, tacit permission is given.

They don’t exactly interfere, but Rizzoli soon feels that she’s lost her leadership role, and is particularly frustrated by Isles, who is gradually won over by them, especially by Sansone, a descendent of cruel Italian nobility, and yet a man whose good looks are striking, and whose urbane style and intellectual depths make him a real force to be reckoned with.

In a parallel thread, meanwhile, we follow the fortunes of one Lily Saul, a girl whose family, many years ago, had the misfortune to take into their care her abandoned cousin, Dominic. Dominic was a curious boy with peculiar interests, an unnerving manner and a strange knowledge of ‘forbidden’ things.

We don’t dwell too much on that first summer of young Dominic’s residence at the Saul home in rural New England, but instead flit forward in time to find Lily, now an adult (with no family left to call her own!), on the run in Rome, leading a hippie-like existence, moving from one temporary accommodation to the next, doing things she would never normally have dreamt of in order to make money, and constantly looking over her shoulder for fear that he – or should that be ‘it
’ – won’t be far behind …

Tess Gerritsen’s blood-spattered crime thrillers have often been said to skate along the edge of the horror genre, and while that may not always be true, I don’t think it can be denied on this occasion. But that’s not because The Mephisto Club is a gore-fest. To start with, it’s not. Oh, there are gruesome murders a-plenty, and the author/doctor, as always, demonstrates her medical knowledge with some unstintingly detailed autopsy sequences, but the real horror in this novel – and the title itself is a bit of a give-away – actually comes to us from a more much traditional direction: its aura of Satanic evil.

The surprising implication in The Mephisto Club, namely that a truly malevolent force walks the Earth, an ancient power traceable right back to the Fall of Man, is not the kind of twist we’d expect in a routine crime thriller, but in this novel we get it full-on.

Lily’s flight to Rome serves to underline this almost in itself; Italy, the land of esoteric antiquity, Rome the capital of the Catholic Church.

And then there is the Mephisto Club itself.

For the uninitiated, Mephisto (better known as Mephistopheles) was an arch-demon, a close servant of Satan, who most famously claimed the soul of 15th century occultist, Faust. So once again in this novel we’re working on the basis that evil is not some intangible aspect of corrupted human nature, but a personalised entity, something with a form and a face, which actively seeks the destruction of our world.

The Club, itself, is equally reminiscent of the classic age of horror. 

It’s an amusingly old-fashioned concept, consisting entirely of enigmatic scholars and wealthy intellectuals, who spend their time tracing the movements of the world’s most malign beings, attempting to track their ancestry back to mythological days when fallen angels known as the Watchers spawned monstrous offspring, the so-called Nephilim, who dedicated their existence to the death and misery of mankind. Their tireless research has uncovered all manner of eldritch information: references not just to the Watchers and the Nephilim, but to the Book of Enoch (which is real and in which many of these disturbing legends were first written down) and to Lillith – Adam’s first wife, a wanton temptress who walked the Earth long before Eve (and who modern-day feminists regard as the quintessential demonization of women by a patriarchal church).

With all this in mind, it’s very easy to picture the Mephisto Club in a Hammer Horror movie, perhaps with Peter Cushing chairing the meetings.

The big question is … does it work in the context of a crime thriller?

My view – and I’m aware that it’s not shared by all crime fans – is that it does.

Okay, I will admit to having one or two minor problems with it. I didn’t buy totally into the idea that the Mephisto Club, even through the combined expertise of its members, could wield such influence over government organisations like the FBI. I’m sure these secret societies exist, but I’d imagine more as hobbies for the rich and the bored, whom the police would simply treat as well-meaning amateurs. I also thought that one or two moments were a little bit rushed; for example, after effectively and atmospherically building up the circumstances of Lily’s flight to Rome, not to mention the fear she feels at every turn, and the desperate (ugly-desperate at one point!) measures she takes to protect herself there, this whole part of the book seems to end rather mundanely and abruptly, within a page or so in fact. Compare and contrast that to the protracted and ultimately irrelevant break-up of Rizzoli’s parents’ marriage, and you have a quite noticeable imbalance.

But hell, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this novel.

Whether I’m reading crime or horror, I’m a sucker for ancient puzzles, and The Mephisto Club is riddled with them. From eerie Latin inscriptions to ritually mutilated corpses, from chalk symbols to assailants who move like shadows, this narrative is chocka with arcane symbolism and olde worlde weirdness. It’s also pretty damn thrilling: Rizzoli and Isles, two independent, modern-minded women, talented practitioners of their respective crafts and domineering forces in their personal lives, find themselves eyebrow-deep in a gory and distressing murder case for which no contemporary textbook could have prepared them.

For all these reasons, The Mephisto Club is a fast, riveting read. But then you have Tess Gerritsen’s skilled penmanship, as well – a great sense of time and place (Boston in mid-winter, brrr), fizzling dialogue, rapid-fire action, a range of extreme and even grotesque characters for us to get our teeth into, though none of them are OTT – and you’ve got everything you really need for an enjoyable thriller.

I can understand why certain crime fiction traditionalists found this one hard to take. The concept of evil as a sentient force, embodied by a single devilish being, or even a group of such beings, may on one hand seem naïve of the author, but on the other hand you’ve got to remember that this is fiction, and fun fiction at that. And it’s not as if the supernatural elements hit us on the nose. Like most good authors in this field, Gerritsen basically leaves it open at the end, leaves certain questions unanswered, and leaves her readers – this one at least – wanting more.

An intriguing thriller with an unusual, challenging and never less than uber-dark premise, The Mephisto Club ticked all of my boxes.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for – when I cast this beast. Of course, in the case of Rizzoli and Isles, if their adventures were to be adapted in the correct order, The Mephisto Club would be the fourth in the series, but just suspend belief for a minute or two (which you’ll need to do anyway, if you want to get your head round the idea that someone like me will be picking the actors):

Det. Jane Rizzoli – Jaimie Alexander
Dr. Maura Isles – Julia Stiles
Lily Saul – Emma Stone
Anthony Sansone – Mads Mikkelson
Dr. Joyce O’Donnell – Glenne Headly
Edwina Felway – Emma Thompson



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



SIEGE 
by Simon Kernick (2012)

London is a city well-versed in dealing with terrorism, but it’s a sheer impossibility to throw steel around all of its major landmarks. So, when an organised and proficient terrorist outfit launches a military-style attack on the ornate Stanhope Hotel, on Park Lane, the metropolis is taken completely by surprise. 

Already preoccupied by a series of diversionary bomb attacks, the authorities are not even there to intervene when a man known only as Fox, an embittered former British soldier and combat veteran, leads a heavily-armed group in a disciplined assault, which captures most of the hotel’s staff and guests almost immediately, closes the building off with booby-traps and explosives, and starts laying down impossible political demands.

A lot of people die quickly, in many cases killed merely to make a point. It’s plain from the outset that these terrorists are playing for keeps, and pretty soon almost the entirety of the Metropolitan Police, not to mention a specialist SAS rescue squad, have got them surrounded.

A colossal siege then follows, a wide range of hostages awaiting its outcome fearfully.

Among these, Polish hotel manager, Elena Serenko, is the strongest, a diplomatic but authoritative figure, who never once loses her cool in the midst of the crisis, and becomes their unofficial spokesperson. Martin Dalston is there too, a forlorn character who has come to the hotel to die; recently diagnosed with inoperable cancer, he intended to commit suicide that evening, but now realises that he doesn’t just want to live, he wants to live and help those around him.

And then there is Scope … in his first outing (Simon Kernick has since written at least one more book following his exploits). Another disenfranchised ex-squaddie, Scope came to the Stanhope looking for vengeance regarding matters unconnected to this affair, but soon got caught up in the mayhem. He manages to lie low in one of the upstairs rooms, and is not corralled by the terrorists, but you sense almost from the beginning that he’s going to become their John McClane, their fly in the ointment, their ultimate pain in the ass.

Outside the hotel, meanwhile, it’s equally tense. The police are under the control of the normally efficient Deputy Assistant Commissioner Arley Dale, though her position is far from straightforward. Unbeknown to everyone else, Dale’s own family were kidnapped that morning by the same terrorists, and she is now under orders to assist the gang by providing misinformation to the military and sending the inevitable SAS assault team to its destruction. Naturally, she doesn’t want to do this, but what choice does she have? Things are further complicated for her when news arrives that a senior MI6 officer, possessing vital information, is among the captives, and by Detective Chief Inspector John Cheney of the Counter Terrorist Command, a cool but inscrutable figure (and, inconveniently, a former boyfriend of hers) who constantly hovers in the background.

The strongest card Dale can play is Riz Mohammed, a London cop of Middle Eastern origin and an expert negotiator. He makes many gallant attempts to talk the terrorists ‘down’, but gains little. This is partly because their motives are far from clear. Though two Arabic figures have now emerged from the murderous band to take charge - their overall leader, Wolf, and his fanatical female sidekick, Cat - the rest of the team, like Fox, are westerners at odds with the British establishment, and though they are brutal and violent, we soon get the feeling they are less interested in the Islamist cause than they are the fabulous pay-out they’ve been promised if everything goes to plan.

It’s a hellish scenario, the authorities all but paralysed, the armed-to-the-teeth madmen killing at every opportunity, but Arley Dale doesn’t just sit there and accept her fate. Again in secret, she enlists a disgraced former-detective, Tina Boyd (another of Kernick’s very cool recurring characters) and puts her on the case. Boyd, a loose cannon at the best of times, doesn’t understand why she’s been trusted with such a job, until Dale, who expects to go to prison anyway, says that she must do whatever’s necessary to recover her missing family – there are no rules.

Scope meanwhile, who initially takes time off to protect an ailing American tourist and her young son, finally decides that he too must take the gloves off. These vicious, arrogant killers are not going to have it all their own way …

Well, this is an absolute corker.

It’s also vintage Simon Kernick, surely one of the UK’s best thriller-writers when it comes to high-level conspiracies, espionage and terrorism.

Make no mistake, this is a big, big story, involving a monstrous and complex crime which has the potential not just to snuff out multiple lives, but to endanger national security as well, and yet as always, the author handles every part of it with astonishing attention to detail, delivering the entire catastrophe in completely authentic and convincing fashion. He deals with the emergency services response in the same way, not putting a foot wrong as he pulls the police and military together, co-ordinating their various assets, including their technical resources (which in Siege are absolutely up-to-the-minute) in the most believable style. It’s almost as if he has personally memorised the section of the Major Incident Manual concerning mass terrorist attacks on London.

As I say, vintage Kernick.

And yet … all this stuff is no more, really, than the backdrop.

The most interesting thrillers are always about people, focussing on their conflicting personalities and relationships no matter what degree of chaos is unfolding around them. And Kernick doesn’t skimp on this. In fact, he gives us an ensemble cast, throwing all kinds of individuals into this maelstrom of gunfire and explosions.

At first, I wondered if this was going to prove to be a mistake; there are so many living, breathing individuals in Siege that I worried it might fall victim to what I call ‘Towering Inferno Syndrome’: in other words, the author gives us a bit of everyone, but not enough of anyone. But no, Simon Kernick is too much of an expert in his field to make that kind of error. Once we’ve met the cast, we quickly close in on the key players, two of the most exciting being Scope and Tina Boyd.

Kernick certainly loves his antiheroes.

Yes, his work is often filled with straight bats like Arley Dale, and procedures and protocols hot from the Scotland Yard press. But quite often – and it’s certainly the case here – things are resolved by the smart thinking and raw courage of wayward individuals who, usually through misfortune, find themselves at the sharp end with minimal backup.

Don’t get me wrong. Earlier in this review, I alluded to Die Hard. And yes, there is more than a hint of that in Siege. But the action here, though fast and tough, is not quite so OTT. There are bombs, machine-gun battles and knife fights galore. But in this book, when people get shot and wounded, they are severely incapacitated at the very least. When they get put down by a heavy punch, they don’t get up quickly. Scope is not a man of iron. He is handy and experienced, but his main strength derives from his dogged nature and moral compass, which he engages regardless of the fine print. Likewise, Tina Boyd. She has had it rough; despite often doing the right thing in the past, she’s been on the wrong end of some politically correct but nevertheless harsh decisions – she is another who’s always prepared to risk it for the right result, and who isn’t just able to take a beating, but who can (and will) dish one out, herself, if necessary. 

In balance to all this, the non-violent characters in the book – Elena Serenko and Martin Dalston – are intriguing creations, nicely representing ordinary people at their best (and so often, of course, it is ordinary people who must navigate these terrible situations). They may not believe in have-a-go-heroism, but they’ll still do everything in their power to make things easier for those around them.

On top of all that, despite its massive canvas and huge rotation of characters, the novel is done slickly and quickly, the narrative bouncing from scene to scene at breakneck pace, allowing the reader almost no room to breathe – and yet still finding time to surprise us with curveballs. That’s another of Simon Kernick’s strengths. You never know the whole story; there is nearly always something shocking held in reserve, and Siege is no exception to that rule.

A terrific action-thriller, completely credible, totally enthralling and sadly, in our turbulent current age, more relevant now even than when it was first published.

It’s a bold man who’d try, at a whim, to cast a novel like this should it ever be adapted for the screen, but ‘boldness’ is my middle name. So, as usual, here I go (just for laughs, of course):

DAC Arley Dale – Naomi Watts
Scope – Robert James-Collier
Elena Serenko – Izabella Miko
Fox – Clive Standen
Tina Boyd – Gemma Arterton
Wolf – Naveen Andrews
Cat – Shiva Negar
DCI John Cheney – Ray Stevenson
Martin Dalston – Hugh Grant
Riz Mohammed – Cas Anvar


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 BLACK CORRIDOR 
by Michael Moorcock (1969)

In a future of violence and decay, uncompromising businessman, Ryan, foresees no hope either for himself or for his family. In the midst of social disintegration, societal breakdown, ecological disaster and the impending slaughter of a nuclear war, and with all his close relationships – both personal and business-related – severed, he finds he has no option but to steal an interstellar spaceship, the Hope Dempsey, load it with the handful of people left on Earth whom he actually cares about, and set off for Munich 15040, a habitable world in the constellation of Ophiuchus.

The journey is a short one in cosmic terms – a mere six light-years – but it’s a massive undertaking for human beings. Even so, under his stewardship, Ryan feels they can make it. Once safely landed on their new home, he is confident they’ll be able to start again, get back to basics, live a simple, clean life, and in the process reformat humanity.

At least that’s the plan, but in reality it isn’t going to be anything like so easy.

In The Black Corridor (which term actually refers to space itself), once you’re out there among the stars there is no sense of the wonder and mystery that science fiction readers of earlier decades had been led to imagine. Instead, it is a cold, dead void, a soulless vacuum in which the chances of dying an ugly, lonely death are very high indeed – and in fact this is the note we come in on as the novel starts. Check out this immortal opening passage:

Space is infinite.
     It is dark.
     Space is neutral.
     It is cold.
*
Stars occupy minute areas of space. They are clustered a few billion here. A few billion there. As if seeking consolation in numbers.
     Space does not care.
*
Space does not threaten.
     Space does not comfort.
     It does not sleep; it does not wake; it does not dream; it does not hope; it does not fear; it does not love; it does not hate; it does not encourage any of these qualities.
     Space cannot be measured. It cannot be angered. It cannot be placated. It cannot be summed up.
     Space is there.
*
Space is not large and it is not small. It does not live and it does not die. It does not offer truth and neither does it lie.
     Space is a remorseless, senseless, impersonal fact.
     Space is the absence of time and of matter.

(If you feel you recognise that extract from the annals of rock music, you’re correct – it was utilised on Hawkwind’s classic 1973 album, Space Ritual).

The voyage itself is a nightmarish experience. With the rest of his crew in cryogenic stasis, Ryan alone must run the ship, check the computers, continue to monitor their course, and all the while he talks to no-one but the spaceship’s log, and, outside, sees nothing but the vast and frozen emptiness. Inevitably, his mind begins to wander and, whether he likes it or not, he commences reliving, in vivid flashback, the terrible events on Earth leading up to their departure, at the same time mulling over his own achievements, or the lack of such. For Ryan, it seems, is not a particularly nice guy. It may be that now he heroically leads his suffering people to a kind of promised land, but during his time on Earth he was ruthless, unprincipled, vain and deceitful. Wherever he went, he left damage.

The memories of this torture him unmercifully, but no more so than the sheer, mind-boggling solitude of his limitless journey. Eventually he begins to hallucinate, to fantasise … quickly losing track of what is real and what isn’t, and at the same time infecting the reader with similar doubts.

Did any of these events that Ryan flees from actually happen?

Who is Ryan?

Why is he here on this seemingly deserted spacecraft?

Where is he really headed to? Does that place exist?

And perhaps more frightening still, is it possible that he isn’t genuinely alone? Could there be someone else on board, someone who seemingly is not lying in suspended animation? Ryan certainly finds evidence of this, but who could this interloper be, why does Ryan never see them, and what is their purpose?

You just know, without needing to be told, that none of this is going to end well …

The most obvious thing you can say about The Black Corridor, which is only 126 pages in length, (and unofficially was co-written by Moorcock with his then-wife, Hilary Bailey) is that it was intended as a short, sharp shock to the blasé sci-fi buying public of that era.

It’s a classic example of the ‘new wave’ subgenre popular at the end of the 1960s in that it prophesied a dystopian future of warring, hate-filled tribes rather than an age of technological imperiousness; in that it was written in a consciously stripped-down style; in that it used ripe language and was frank in its depictions of human violence and sexuality – but also in that it was political (even anarchic) in its subtext and scathing about mankind’s reckless mismanagement of the Earth.

But don’t go away with the impression that this novel is an essay or a polemic. It’s certainly experimental in parts. There is curious and often distracting use of ‘alternative’ typography, and there are sections when we are subjected to technical printouts and random streams of consciousness rather than coherent narrative, but despite these tricks – which are a bit irritating, if I’m honest – this is still a rattling good tale, especially if you like your fiction off-the-wall.

Just be warned – there are no space monsters in this novel, no ray-guns. Though that doesn’t mean it isn’t eerie and fascinating, not to say on occasion pretty damn frightening. The growing sense of menace stems entirely from Ryan’s rapidly worsening predicament: the endless isolation of his headlong flight, the uncertainty of what might lie at its end, if anything, and his gradual but inevitable meltdown, which of course perfectly mirrors the meltdown back on Earth, for that too was fermented by ignorance and folly.

Some have accused The Black Corridor of dating badly, of being a typical exercise in ’60s psychedelia and laced with the sort of woolly-headed hippy-think we’d these days scoff at as pseudery. But on reflection, it actually seems rather prescient in today’s volatile climate: world economies collapsing, old alliances breaking, friends becoming enemies, suspicion growing about immigrants and foreigners, fear and paranoia running rampant in the land.

It’s also been said that it’s too slim, too quick a read, and for that reason a bit lightweight in sci-fi terms. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more. If a book does its job in 100 pages rather than 1,000, it’s still done its job. And at least you can’t complain that it’s been padded.   

As always – just for fun – here are my selections for who should play the leads if The Black Corridor ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (and what a fascinating challenge for any screenwriter that would be), but as there’s only one real star of this story, I’m only bothering to cast one person, and for that I’m opting for my main man of the moment. 

Ryan – Tom Hardy


PARIAH
by David Jackson (2014)

Detective Callum Doyle is one of New York’s finest. But he’s not the most popular guy in the station-house. Wrongly accused of once having an affair with a colleague’s wife, who subsequently died in a shoot-out with a worthless hoodlum, there is a distinct lack of support from his work-mates when a faceless and relentless killer targets him for isolation, eliminating anyone he gets close to in the most cruel and horrific ways.

The book starts at a hundred miles an hour with the slaying of two of Doyle’s fellow-cops, Detectives Parlatti and Alvarez, both of whom at the time of their deaths happen to be partnered with him. Letters are then sent threatening the lives of anyone Doyle has contact with – police personnel, family, friends and even those criminals he happens to be investigating.

Initially, the rest of the Detective Squad reacts the way you’d expect, showing determination to crack the case and bring the mysterious madman to justice. However, it soon becomes apparent that this calculating individual enjoys several big advantages over the NYPD and over Callum Doyle in particular.

To start with, he remains bewilderingly anonymous, carrying out his hits with ultra-professionalism, leaving not a clue for his pursuers to work with. He also – and this is the real butt-kicker for Doyle – seems constantly to be two or three steps ahead. It’s inexplicable, but the guy always appears to know exactly where Doyle is and who he’s interacting with, and as promised, he duly obliterates these unfortunates with extreme and elaborate viciousness.

Even Doyle’s most nefarious contacts, regular Internal Affairs opponent Paulsen, and washed-up former boxing pal-turned-informer, Mickey ‘Spinner’ Spinoza, find themselves in dire peril.

No-one, it seems – literally no-one – is safe.

Doyle is certain the answer lies in his own past. It’s just a matter of going through the files and trying to identify if there’s anyone who bears him this much ill will and who is capable of mounting such a campaign of terror. But increasingly, Doyle’s colleagues – especially those who were iffy about him from the start – are hesitant to assist. They’ve got lives to lead too, not to mention families whose welfare they fear for. In truth, Doyle has only one true friend in the department, Lieutenant Mo Franklin, heir to a wealthy estate and husband to the sexy Nadine, who has become a close pal of Doyle’s homely wife, Rachel – but now even Franklin has become concerned that his top detective is a danger to everyone, and so advises him to take an indefinite period of leave.  

Doyle keeps working the case – of course he does; he’s no intention of playing this crazy game. But things get much tougher when the lunatic switches his attention to Doyle’s family (and in one instance in the most harrowing and heart-rending way).

In some ways, Doyle thinks it might be better if this nameless enemy was simply planning to kill him. Because what happens now is infinitely worse: a living death, permanent and complete separation from his fellow men. Doyle literally must bury himself in a roach-motel and sever all contact with the outside world. And how can he fight back in such a predicament? Even the underworld, having lost some of their own to the killer, hold him at arm’s length – with the exception of low-level Mafia hood, Sonny Rocca, who Doyle has had run-ins with before but whom he basically likes, and far more scarily, the Bartok brothers, two major players on the New York crime scene.

For reasons of their own, Rocca and the Bartoks are ready to help Doyle, though of course this kind of help only comes at the sort of price a good cop will struggle to pay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, Doyle now has this nightmare decision to make: does he give up his life as he knew it previously, or does he give up his soul? …

First and foremost, the most impressive thing about Pariah – at least as far as I’m concerned – is the authenticity with which it is written, especially given that David Jackson is a British writer. It completely captures the world of a busy New York City police precinct, with believable dialogue, convincing use of genuine procedures (some serious research on show there, Mr. Jackson!), non-intrusive but atmospheric use of real locations, and lots of the kind of rugged, hard-bitten grotesques you’d expect to meet on the mean streets of the Big Apple.

It’s to the author’s credit that so few likeable characters populate these pages: pimps, addicts, winos, bang-bangers. Not every punter has reviewed this aspect of the book favourably, arguing that it perhaps wallows a little too much in grimness, and that maybe a few nicer personalities would be refreshing. But it works excellently for me and shows that Jackson is determined to immerse us in a version of NYPD life which is as close as damn it to the real thing.

This brings me fully onto the issue of David Jackson’s characterisation, which in Pariah is razor-sharp from the outset, but also pretty merciless.

Far from the oft-depicted police world of white knights and unbreakable brotherhoods, it feels here as if Callum Doyle’s work-buddies let him down disappointingly quickly. Again, this is an effort by Jackson to reflect real life. Let’s face it, Doyle was a guy with baggage and not too many friends to start with, and this confirmed outsider status was never likely to endear him to his fellow cops when it started to look as if he’d suddenly become a walking bullet-magnet.

Doyle, for whom Pariah is the first of several no-holds-barred outings, makes for a traditional flawed hero, his background in boxing giving him ‘man’s man’ kudos, but the suspicion with which he’s held in by certain colleagues even before he’s become the object of the killer’s hatred understandably steers him towards the friendship of lowlife informers like Spinner, Sonny Rocca and even Mr. Unpopular himself, IA investigator Paulsen. Doyle’s a family man, of course, so his home life is comfortable, almost cosy, but then there is still that lingering doubt in the minds of so many who know him about whether he had an affair or not, and the mere presence of loved ones presents its own kinds of difficulties, especially with a ruthless psycho hanging around. So, it’s never cakes and ale for Callum Doyle, not even on the domestic front.

The rest of the cops are convincingly drawn; even good guys like Parlatti and Alvarez have issues, while one particular member of the Detective Squad, Schneider, is an out-and-out hate mobile, one of those archetypical fat-necked, loudmouthed, aggressively opinionated law enforcement bullies of the old school and very much the opposite number to Doyle’s fearless pursuer of genuine justice.     

I was somewhat less sold on Mo Franklin. Not because he didn’t strike me as the real deal – in the workplace he certainly did, but his home life is perhaps a little too gold-plated. I had trouble buying into the huge inheritance, the big house and the kittenish wife. But that’s probably the only brickbat I’ve got for Pariah, and it certainly didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it.

This is a taut, fast-moving detective thriller, based on a singular and intriguing concept. When a cop is completely ostracised – when he literally has no access to any of his normal support networks, neither cop buddies, non-cop buddies, friends, loved ones, and certainly none of those basic departmental essentials like Forensics, Ballistics etc – how can he even start to track down so sadistic and yet sophisticated a maniac?

This is a truly great idea, very well executed, which screams to be adapted for film or TV. It also features some truly hair-raising moments – check out the scene in the nightclub alley! – which lift it well above the average police procedural, certainly in the action stakes, though it has its cerebral moments too; when Doyle is too weary and battered to keep on hitting the streets, he must fall back on that often most underused tool in detective fiction, his brain – though to talk much more about that would be a spoiler for sure.

Suffice to say that Pariah has my strongest recommendation. It’s a high-octane page-flipper, filled with unforeseen twists, which I defy anyone to get through in more than two or three sittings.   

As always, at the end of these book reviews, I’m now going to be cheeky enough to indulge in some fantasy casting and list those actors I personally would pick were this novel ever to make it to the screen. Here, purely for fun you understand, are my selections for who should play the lead characters in Pariah:

Callum Doyle – Jude Law
Rachel Doyle – Jennifer Esposito
Mickey ‘Spinner’ Spinoza – Micky Rourke
Sonny Rocca – Michael Imperioli
Paulsen – Robin Lord Taylor
Mo Franklin – John Turturro
Nadine Franklin – Sarah Michelle Gellar 

(I know, this cast wouldn’t come cheap, but there’s never any point doing this if I haven’t got limitless funds to work with!!!).


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


DEVOUR
by L.A. Larkin (2016)

After a high-risk assignment in Afghanistan’s poppy-growing region, on the trail of a terrorist network, energetic investigative-journalist, Olivia Wolfe – who is no stranger to danger, but even by her normal rip-roaring standards only just returns from this trip with her life and limbs intact – is dispatched by her demanding editor, Moz Cohen, to the even more perilous realm of western Antarctica.

At first, she isn’t keen. It doesn’t sound like her normal field: a team from the British Antarctic Survey drilling down through fathoms of concrete-hard ice in a quest to discover samples of prehistoric life that may still be lurking in subglacial Lake Ellsworth … until she learns that her real mission is to investigate the various ‘accidents’ that are befalling the BAS crew at their research station, including an unexplained and rather horrible death, which more than likely was murder.

This is more up Wolfe’s street, but the situation is complicated by an unseen but menacing presence at home, a mysterious stalker, pursuing her both in reality and online, who barely leaves a trace of himself but is always undeniably there. Who this person is, and why he/she may have a beef with Wolfe is a complex thing to ascertain: there are plenty of people with reason to punish a journalist who has uncovered their dirty dealings in the past. At the same time, of course, Wolfe has to head down to the bottom of the world, to find out whatever she can about the problems facing the BAS.

This, in itself, is no picnic. The difficult conditions of the Antarctic and an engineering/scientific team who, though on the surface they seem quite normal, soon start to reveal stresses and strains among their ranks, combine to make Wolfe’s job a real challenge. While team-leader Professor Michael Heatherton is a time-served professional, dedicated to his cause and with no apparent interests other than a pursuit of knowledge, other members of the group are more secretive, in particular the intense and rather introverted Scottish scientist, Toby Sinclair.

On top of that, she learns that a rival Russian expedition to nearby Lake Vostok, whose mission failed when the lake was polluted by inadequate drilling processes, are now trying to bribe and bully their way into the British effort, which, in Wolfe’s eyes, puts them high on the suspect list – not least the most menacing member of the Russian party, Sergey Grankin, who is almost certainly a government agent. It also raises questions, particularly among the rest of the British team, about naturalised Brit but Russian-born engineer, Vitaly Rushkov; he is one of their own colleagues, at least superficially, but though Wolfe finds him attractive, he also frustrates her because he won’t reveal enough about himself to win her trust.

The tension is ramped up even more – to breakneck pace in fact, when the British team succeed in their quest, breaking through into the subterranean lake – an incredible three kilometres below the ice – and discovering something that hasn’t seen the light of day for millions upon millions of years; something so appalling that it has the potential to completely destroy modern society.

Needless to say, in the time-honoured fashion of greedy world-powers both fictional and real, it isn’t long before various shady forces are competing for control of this monstrous thing.

Even from this relatively early stage of the novel, it is difficult to reveal any more of the actual synopsis for fear of giving away spoilers, but suffice to say that, even when Wolfe returns to London, she finds herself in the midst of a deadly conflict, with numerous vying interests turning the city into a war-zone, and even the little she has already discovered making her into a prime target. Wolfe has developed lots of good contacts in her time, but even two of the best on her home turf – former top cop, Jerry Butcher, something of a father to her, and the infinitely shadier DCI Dan Casburn – are of minimal help; they may even be a hindrance as she tries to battle her way through a tangled web of confusing lies and life-threatening deceit, only to uncover a shocking and terrifying truth …  
              
If you like your thrillers to have an international scope, then this one is definitely for you. Devour is a wide-ranging, continent-spanning adventure played out in tough, no-nonsense fashion against a latter-day Cold War-type atmosphere. But don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re in 007 territory here. There is a high-tech dimension to Devour for sure, but there is also an aura of realism. We’re not talking ridiculous gadgetry, improbable skills and mind-boggling schemes for world-domination. New heroine, Olivia Wolfe, though she herself is a more than competent globe-trotter and thoroughly au fait with all the latest communications devices, is also very human, which is her most appealing aspect.

In fact, Devour’s greatest strength for me – considering that it’s painted on such an immense canvas – is that it’s all very plausible.

I’d go as far as to say that it’s terrifyingly plausible.

To start with, there is a real sense of danger in this book, and I don’t just mean the horrific force lurking in the sub-Antarctic depths (more about that later), but also from our heroine’s various antagonists. Whoever’s on your tail in Devour, whether they be opium lords, terrorists or security service personnel gone rogue (or even not gone rogue – just doing their government’s dirty work at full throttle!) – you soon get to learn that they are experts at what they do; it’ll only ever be a page or so before they catch up with you. It also becomes plain at an early stage that none of these heinous individuals are playing by the rules of chivalry.

Oh yes, there is some real brutality on show here. Everything about Devour is harsh, gritty and real. Its central characters spend much of it in a state of fear, particularly the civilian scientists who never imagined that their ground-breaking research could have caused such chaos, not to mention Wolfe herself, who soon learns that even if she emerges from this adventure unscathed, her life as she knew it will be over. Several times there are references to people who simply disappear, or run the risk of disappearing – in L.A. Larkin’s world, the niceties of international law just don’t apply when such threats as this endanger the planet, and I, for one, am more than prepared to believe that could be true. 

Even routine activities, such as travelling, are given a rugged makeover. We’re talking long plane journeys, soulless waystations, the extreme geophysical conditions of the Arctic, not to mention a drab and wintry London which itself has the potential to endanger life – for example, in one scene, Wolfe gets soaking wet and as it’s December, it isn’t long before she’s struggling with hypothermia. At the same time, death means death; during an early sojourn to Afghanistan, she witnesses the shooting of a young woman, and it haunts her afterwards; she sees it playing through her head again and again.

These are the uber-realistic touches that we simply don’t get in run-of-the-mill thrillers, and Larkin hits us with them repeatedly, as if saying: “This is what it means, this is how it would actually be if you were to genuinely participate in this world”.

And I totally loved it, almost as much as I loved the central character.

Olivia Wolfe is an excellent heroine. She may not be the sort who can take waves of bad guys apart with her bare hands, or jump from plane to train to motorbike and still make it to her favourite restaurant in time for dinner. She may be a martial artist of sorts, but she gets battered, she gets hurt, she gets frightened. However, her main asset is that she is a skilled and highly driven investigative journalist. She hasn’t just got a nose for a great story, no matter how far afield it may lie, she has the determination and wherewithal to get there in time to cover it. But she has a survival instinct too. In anticipation of the dangers she will face, she is technically proficient, and perhaps more importantly, an exceptional judge of character, knowing instinctively who to trust and who to suspect.

In some ways, this may make her a tad unsympathetic. All the way through, she has an on/off romantic relationship with the Russian engineer, Yushkov, and yer she maintains an antipathy towards him too because … well, mainly because he’s Russian, and in this book the Russians are generally up to no good. It reaches a stage where as a reader it almost becomes tiresome, and yet that’s the point. Olivia Wolfe has survived as long as she has because she’s smarter than we are. She has really played this game, whereas we haven’t.

If I’m giving the impression that this is an edgier-than-usual book, that’s probably accurate. It’s no romp, that’s for sure. But this slap-in-the-face factor serves two purposes: it makes you believe it absolutely, and it keeps you glued to the pages – as, of course, does the overarching, and vaguely monstrous – concept. On that subject, it would be easy, if you’d only read the blurbs, to think that what you’ve got here is something akin to John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (filmed as The Thing from Another World). And why not? Something nasty is lurking under the Antarctic ice, a bunch of well-meaning scientists discover it and thaw it out, only to find that it’s a force beyond Man’s experience, which imperils the Earth as a result. And if it sounds like science fiction, there may be an element of that, though I draw your attention to the real attempt by British scientists to drill down to Lake Ellsworth in 2012, which failed (maybe fortuitously, or maybe it was halted – who can say?). But it’s all still incredibly plausible. I’m not going to give out any spoilers concerning the nature of the thing, but it’s truly horrifying because, even if surprises you – which it did me – you can very quickly envisage the colossal destruction that would result.

In addition, the novel is underlined with in-depth research – no B-movie stuff, this. LA Larkin, an Antarctic explorer in her own right, handles the biological and engineering complexities of the mission to the South Pole and the follow-up investigations with the same authority and conviction that she does the political intrigue and secret service chicanery, and yet weaves it all seamlessly into the narrative and the dialogue so that at no point do we feel we’re being hit by a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia.

It all makes for a totally believable and completely enthralling techno/eco thriller, perhaps with a few dollops of psycho horror mixed in for good measure (because let’s not forget that there’s an equally formless, equally dangerous threat to Olivia Wolfe lurking at home).

An all-round, superbly-crafted reading experience, which just screams for your attention.

And now, as usual and just for laughs, I’m going to nominate my own cast should Devour ever make it to the screen (and in this era of conspiracy thrillers and girl heroes, I reckon now would be the perfect time). Anyway, here are my picks:

Olivia Wolfe – Emily Blunt
Michael Heatherton – Tim McInnerny
Vitaly Yushkov – Igor Petrenko
Toby Sinclair – Alan Cumming
DCI Dan Casburn – Mark A. Sheppard
Jerry Butcher – Hugh Laurie
Mozart Cohen – Ian McShane
Sergey Grankin – Vladimir Mashkov


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 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


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



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 (pictured above in his more famous later guise) 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 (right), 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 murderess 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


DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? 
by Philip K. Dick (1968)

The world of 1992 (or 2021 in later reprints) is a nightmare of ruined cities and desolate wildernesses. In the wake of World War Terminus, Earth has largely been depopulated. Those who weren’t killed in the conflict have either abandoned their homes for colonies off-world or are now slowly dying from the toxic dust that permeates the atmosphere. A parody of the human consumer lifestyle continues, those remaining working normal jobs (though very few of these are high-powered), living in apartment buildings (which otherwise are largely empty) and watching television (even though there is only one channel, run by the megalomaniac oddball, Buster Friendly). Everyone is so depressed that they need their ‘Penfield mood organs’ to try and uplift their spirits.

It is a blighted, despair-laden scene, in which the only light is ‘Mercerism’, the worship of Wilbur Mercer, a semi-mythical Christ-like figure, who when humans commune telepathically by means of their ‘empathy boxes’, they envision ascending a steep, rugged slope, at the top of which he is martyred by being stoned to death, leading all those tuned-in to reach a transcendental state.

Even the ‘specials’ and the ‘chickenheads’ find hope in Mercerism, the former because, having been sterilised by the radioactive fall-out, they are considered useless to the human race and thus are prohibited from emigrating off-world, and the latter because, having suffered brain damage, they can perform only the most menial tasks and are subsequently treated with contempt.

Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter employed by the San Francisco police, often wonders why he hasn’t left Earth by now. His wife, Iran, is more depressed than most – so much so that she can barely even rise in the morning, while Deckard himself struggles with his conscience. The police mainly use him to ‘retire andys’, which in a nutshell means hunt down and, by use of a controversial empathy test, the Voigt-Kampff, identify rogue members of the android slave race developed to aid human expansion into the off-world colonies, and then kill them.

Deckard’s problem is that the androids are in many ways like humans; they were biologically-grown rather than constructed, and though they are short-lived (designed to cease functioning after four years), they are excellent physical specimens, particularly the new, improved model, the Nexus-6. When androids go ‘rogue’ it basically means they have come to Earth, which is strictly forbidden; they don’t necessarily need to have committed a crime. Increasingly Deckard finds it difficult to retire these thinking, reasoning beings, though he does agree that they lack the all-important empathy, which means they have no concept of human kindness, even if they are increasingly adept at concealing this. 

Despite his doubts, Deckard is good at his job and earns decent money. One day he hopes to be able to dispense with his pet electric sheep, and buy a real animal. Because one other aspect of the tragicomic existence mankind has descended into is that, with animals so rare, their ownership has now become a status symbol. Anyone who is anyone owns an animal of some sort, and zealously shows it off, though only at immense cost. In this regard, Deckard’s lucky day finally seems to arrive when he is summoned to police HQ and advised that a senior bounty hunter has been badly injured by a particularly dangerous group of Nexus-6 androids, who are newly arrived on Earth. Their leader is the ruthlessly intelligent Roy Baty, who, unable to stand his servile status any longer, has led a miniature rebellion on Mars, which has cost several human lives. If Deckard can retire all six, it will earn him a fortune. But it soon becomes apparent that this won’t be easy.

To start with, enquiries at the central offices of the Rosen Association in Seattle, the corporation responsible for manufacture of the androids, brings him into contact with the alluring Rachael Rosen, whom he finds incredibly attractive – only for him to apply the empathy test to her, and discover that she too is an andy, which confuses him even more with his chosen role.

Meanwhile, the fugitive Nexus-6 have been blending in on Earth. Some successfully impersonate humans, even Deckard’s fellow cops, while another becomes a beautiful opera singer and gains immediate respectability. At the same time, several of those Deckard has targeted, Roy Baty included, are given refuge by the deluded chickenhead, John Isidore, who is both in awe of their perfection and terrified of their heartlessness.
               
If this doesn’t make it difficult enough for Deckard, he is further hampered by Rachael, who, in a mysterious gesture (though she seems to be genuinely attracted to the lonely, world-weary bounty hunter), offers to help him catch the renegade band. Despite being one herself, Rachael expresses a conviction that there is no place for the Nexus-6 on Earth. But Deckard has been an investigator for a long time, and even though he eventually falls into bed with her – because she is the ultimate femme fatale! – he is never sure that he can trust her …

Almost everyone thinks they know the story of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? because they have seen the epic movie version, Blade Runner, made by Ridley Scott in 1983. In truth, there are significant differences between the two narratives, though overall, the subtexts themselves are not hugely dissimilar.

But first things first; the book.

The late Philip K. Dick, while never a great literary stylist, was regarded throughout his life as one of sci-fi’s great visionaries. Famous for his obsessions with decaying worlds at the mercy of dictatorships and corporations, for the human metaphysical experience, for altered states, theology, drug abuse and insanity, the post-apocalyptic hell-scape he creates in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is really one of the most vivid and terrifying ever envisaged simply because it is literally a land without hope. Everything alive is slowly dying; everything that isn’t alive is turning to ‘kipple’ (rubbish). Even off-world in the colonies, we are told that things are only marginally better.

For all these reasons, this book is a hard read. There are moments of wild comedy, for instance Deckard’s burning aspiration to ascend to a level in society wherein he can actually be the proud owner of a goat. But the tone is always bitter-sweet, and ultimately that’s the atmosphere all the way through. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a tale of loss rather than a cop-thriller. Fans of the movie who have never read the book may be expecting a neo-noir, with the weary, overcoated Deckard working his way along the seamy streets like a latter-day Philip Marlowe, and indulging in regular, furious gun-battles with his bear-invincible foes. There is a touch of that, particularly towards the end of the novel, but it isn’t a keystone of the story; for example, at no stage in the book do we encounter the term ‘Blade Runner police’.

Even the androids, who are never referred to as ‘replicants’ or ‘skinjobs’ are nowhere near as deadly as they were in the film. They are not a military caste. Roy Baty, the most dangerous of them, trained as a chemist while on Mars. Though this isn’t to say the menace isn’t present. It very much is, particularly as we approach the climax of the novel – especially when the seductive and intriguing Rachael Rosen injects herself more fully into the story – but again, it was never Dick’s overarching purpose to create an actioner.

Throughout the book, he is more interested in examining issues of individuality, self-perception and what it actually means to be empathetic. For example, the remnants of humanity we encounter all value their individuality, but though it eases their misery, the more they commune with Wilbur Mercer (and each other of course), the less individual they become; they even use technology to impose fake emotions on themselves. At the same time, it doesn’t escape Deckard’s notice that, by the end of the novel, the supposedly soulless androids are empathising with each other, and that he himself has begun to empathise with one of them.

Other issues, which back in 1968 were certainly relevant but must also have seemed like pure science-fiction, are now glaringly current in the 21st century: two examples being Man’s irrational stewardship of the Earth – it’s a deep irony that the bounty hunters are hired to kill relentlessly in a time and place when the real problem is that everything is already dying; and then the whole argument surrounding artificial life, its purpose and development, and the moral (not to mention potentially real-world) ramifications of enslaving it.

While it’s no great piece of literature, this deluge of thought-provoking ideas means that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is these days regarded as a sci-fi masterwork. Some of its essential ingredients are visible in the movie of course, but anyone picking this book up and looking for a ‘novelisation of the film’ is likely to be disappointed.

We regularly end these book reviews with me rather presumptuously selecting the cast I would recruit if the narrative was ever to make it to the TV or cinema. Well … it’s all been done already. Blade Runner may be a very different beast from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but it’s close enough (and a great enough movie, in my view – whichever version of it you prefer) to render any further remakes obsolete. 

Most of the images used in the column today speak for themselves, but I would like to thank Wikipedia for the original DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? first-edition cover as produced by Doubleday. 



PERFECT REMAINS
by Helen Fields (2017)

When ex-Parisian police detective and Interpol agent, Luc Callanach, transfers to Police Scotland, taking up a detective inspector post with the Major Investigations Team in Edinburgh, he isn’t completely a fish out of water. To begin with, Callanach is half-Scottish as well as half-French. He’s also a real bloodhound of a cop, with great analytical skills and a fearless dedication to the cases he is assigned – though on first arriving, it wouldn’t be true to say that he’s completely comfortable with his new environment.

After his sun-drenched days in the Interpol office at Lyon, he finds the Scottish capital windy, wet and dour, and quickly learns that certain officers at his command – the truculent DS Lively in particular – are irritated by his presence because they perceive him to be an outsider who’s been fast-tracked into a plum job.

Moreover, Callanach doesn’t help himself, because rather than attempting to win friends and influence people, he fights back domineeringly against those who seek to undermine him.

The reason for this is simple. Even without his sudden change-of-world, Luc Callanach is a man under astonishingly intense pressure. Back home, he was accused of raping a petulant beauty called Astrid Borde, whose main objection to Callanach was that he showed no interest in her. He wasnt even charged, never mind convicted – but of course this meant that neither was he able to clear his name, so he left France under such a cloud of suspicion that even his family have now disassociated themselves from him.

He is a good cop who focusses intensely on his job, but even now he agonises over whether he could have handled things better, and as such he is filled with self-doubt, and to a degree, self-loathing. 

Ironically, because he needs to be distracted from all this, it’s the perfect time for him to be handed a particularly difficult investigation – on his very first day no less, when what appears to be the burned remnants of an eminent Edinburgh solicitor are found on a Cairngorm hillside. There isn’t much left of the unfortunate woman, but it’s sufficient to reveal who she was and that she died very violently. Callanach throws himself into the case speedily and professionally, but then another prominent local woman – a vicar, no less – is also kidnapped, her tell-tale relics duly found in a drum of chemicals in a dockside warehouse.

Callanach is a by-the-book man. He doesn’t want to look at potential patterns just yet, but it seems increasingly likely that a serial abductor and murderer is at large, his sights fixed squarely on the successful women of the city. Callanach’s methodical approach then faces a serious challenge from within, when DS Lively – badly affected by the second abduction because he knew the victim personally – takes it on himself to call in renowned profiler Edwin Harris, an expert for sure, but a man more interested in promoting his own theories than in catching the actual killer.

Callanach’s protest that this is a breach of protocol falls on deaf ears, because head of the Major Investigations Team, DCI George Begbie, though sympathetic, is currently cash-strapped and has no option but to accept Harris’s assistance as it is being privately funded. 

All of this hampers Callanach massively, both in terms of the enquiry and in terms of his personal recovery. He doesn’t feel quite so isolated when his friendship grows with fellow DI, Ava Turner, who, though she is currently investigating a different case, is very open – not just to cross-enquiry consultation, but also to afterhours socialising. 

Meanwhile, in a parallel thread – and it’s no spoiler to mention this because we are hit hard with this intelligence very early in the novel – a certain Reginald King is hatching a truly heinous scheme. King, a sociopathic loner who work as a lowly admin officer in the Department of Philosophy at Edinburgh University, considers that he’s been at the beck and call of Professor Natasha Forge, Head of School, for quite long enough. In short, King regards himself as a genius and feels that Forge only doesn’t recognise this because she’s a stuck-up bitch. In the long run, he’s going to punish her, but he’s also going to punish lots of other women too. Hence the kidnapping, the imprisonment, the terrible torture and of course the murders.

Problematically for Luc Callanach, Reginald King, despite his lowly status, is a genuinely clever man, whose plan does not just involve a series of revenge killings, but is much, much more wickedly ingenious and twisted than that, and in terms of cruelty, is almost off-the-scale.

There’s one other problem here too, not just for Callanach, but all those who work with him. It’s a coincidence but of course hugely advantageous to the murderer that Natasha Forge’s best friend happens to be DI Ava Turner, another strong, independent woman. So this isn’t going to be any ordinary murder investigation, which all members of the enquiry team can go home from in the evening and relax; as King steadily advances his gruesome grand-plan, things start to get very, very nasty indeed, but also very, very personal …

There are plenty of psycho-thrillers set in contemporary Scotland, and Edinburgh seems to suffer from more than its fair share of fictional serial killers. But Perfect Remains is a very different kind of novel from the norm. Perhaps its most outstanding features are how well constructed it is as a story and how well written as a piece of crime literature. I don’t mean to say that other books of this ilk are not well written, but this one is truly of an exceptional calibre.

As a former barrister, Helen Fields clearly knows her legalities and her procedures inside-out, and yet she weaves them all into this complex and lurid mystery with an effortless, non-fussy style, which informs as much as it entertains, creating a real feel of authenticity but never once cluttering the quick-fire plotline with extraneous detail. In addition to that, her quality descriptive work fully conveys both the time and the place, not to mention the people embroiled in the saga, again without sacrificing any of the novel’s pace. Take one particular scene, for example, when DI Callanach, while stressed out of his mind, finds himself in an amorous clinch with an incidental character called Penny. Penny is little more than a walk-on, and as such could easily be a stock character whom we never think about again, and yet in the space of a page and a half, Fields brings her vividly and sympathetically to life – you almost want to cry for her, she is so unfairly treated by our emotionally distraught hero.

And that was only a member of the supporting cast, so imagine how it is with the leads.

The first thing that strikes me about these more prominent characters is that they are, none of them, free of foibles. 

It’s not unusual in crime fiction for our star detective to be damaged, but Luc Callanach takes this to a whole new level. We are told that he is a good-looking guy and at one time he even worked as a male model, and yet none of this info is used to win our favour. If anything, it paints a picture in the reader’s mind of a man who, perhaps back home in his beloved France – which he endlessly and pointlessly yearns for – was rather spoiled. On arrival in Scotland, his initially brusque and rather snippy attitude only adds to this. It’s also the case that what he’s actually on the run from – a rape accusation, for Heaven’s sake! – is the sort of thing that would blemish any police officer’s record for the rest of his career. And after all that, he doesn’t help himself much – at least from the reader’s POV – with a constant, dogged self-analysis which borders on self-obsessiveness. But again, what we’ve got here is a realistically flawed character who needs to work very hard to win his audience over – and, as you might expect, he eventually does so. Firstly, because he’s willing to learn from his errors in order to correct his behaviour, particularly his people skills, and secondly because he’s an excellent detective who doesn’t miss a trick – it is Callanach’s instinct, and his instinct alone, that manage to refocus the enquiry after Lively and Harris send it barking down a blind alley.

In contrast, DI Ava Turner, though another stranger in a strange land (she’s Scottish, but an English-sounding accent born of a private education puts her at a disadvantage), is much savvier in her day-to-day management style, and in the way she handles suspects. She’s an equally tough cop to Callanach, but she’s never less than even-handed: for instance, when she zealously closes down an extremist Catholic sect for brutalising the underage mothers supposedly in their care, her comment to the press that there is “nothing godly about what was happening here” indicates that it isn’t organised religion she has a problem with, but those who abuse it. 

Like Callanach, Turner is also single and, under the surface, maybe a little lonely, but she’s learned to ride with the blows and during her downtime is able to relax with friends – as such, she leads a happier, more fulfilled life. That said, her bosom buddy, Natasha Forge, is perhaps not quite so generous a spirit, and this provides us with a key link in the story. 

Another confident, professional woman, Forge is pleasant and companionable if she decides she likes you, but terse to the point of being discourteous with office administrator, Reginald King, and okay, while King is without doubt a tad pompous and someone whose academic credentials are at the least dubious, there are times when we as the readers feel that his boss could perhaps be a little warmer towards him.

This leads me to King himself, and what I consider to be one of the most powerful pieces of characterisation in the whole novel. For me, Reginald King is so neatly observed and multi-layered an individual that he underpins the entire narrative, and on top of that he must rate as one of the most believable psychopaths I’ve ever encountered in fiction – primarily because, like so many real-life killers, his greatest defence is his total anonymity. King is no drooling Mr. Hyde-type madman, nor is he suave and calculating like Hannibal Lecter. Yes, he is secretly and monstrously narcissistic; he is convinced he is a genius and that the only reason he hasn’t advanced further in life is because those around him are hateful and jealous, and are conspiring in his downfall. But apart from this, he is so, so ordinary. He possesses neither Hyde’s brutish physicality nor Lecter’s sparkly-eyed gaze. He is a simple everyman you could pass in a corridor without batting an eyelid. Incredible though it may sound, there is even an element of pathos in King’s makeup. Because for all the awful things he does – and at times they are truly and torturously awful (and the reader is spared almost none of it) – there are other times when we recognise what a lost soul he is, a guy who, despite attempting civility, can’t even seem to earn the most basic degree of respect from his peers.

Helen Fields has done an all-round amazing job with Perfect Remains. It’s even more remarkable when you consider that it’s her debut novel. A terrific premise is executed to full unforgiving effect in a complex yet pacy procedural, which is peopled by living, breathing characters whom you can easily empathise with (both the heroes and the villains), and which is not only adult in tone but also adult in subtext – there is far more on show here than a simple crime/actioner – but which accelerates during its final quarter to an exhilarating, slam-bang climax.

In short, this is superb stuff – not a whodunit exactly, but an intense and deeply intriguing ‘good vs evil’ thriller, which once you’ve started it is quite impossible to put down. But don’t take my word for it. Just read it. You will not be disappointed – and make a note of the author too, because Helen Fields is a name we’ll be hearing about again and again.

And now, as always, here are my personal thoughts re. casting should Perfect Remains make it to celluloid. It’s just for laughs of course – no-one would listen to me anyway – but this could be a very cool cop series indeed, so it’s got to happen at some point. In the meantime, here are my picks for the leads (as always, with no expense spared):

DI Luc Callanach – Pio Marmai
DI Ava Turner – Gemma Whelan
Reginald King – Gray O’Brien
Natasha Forge – Ruth Millar
DCI George Begbie – Gary Lewis
Astrid Borde – Melanie Laurent
DS Lively – Tommy Flanagan
Edwin Harris – Graham McTavish



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).



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




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 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


by Peter James (2016)

When well-heeled Brighton couple and self-confessed townies, Ollie and Caro Harcourt, move out into the Sussex countryside, leaving their suburban life behind and taking possession of a rambling 18th century mansion, Cold Hill House, they are determined to make this new phase of their life work even though they expect it to be quite a challenge. Caro, a solicitor, is less than entranced by the place, finding it bleak and isolated, while Jade, their 12-year-old daughter, resents having been made to move away from her friends, but Ollie, a self-employed, home-based graphic designer who has always wanted to lead a rural lifestyle, sees it as a dream come true, and when push comes to shove, the whole family will admit that the grand old manor has great potential: it is a little run-down, a tad decrepit, but as long-term investments go it feels like a fairly safe bet.

But of course things are never quite so simple in the ever-menacing world of Peter James.

To start with, the house has many basic problems. There is a seemingly infinite list of structural defects, while time in general has taken its toll on the age-old property; the wear and tear is vastly more immense than the surveyors reported. Ollie, enthusiastic though he is, soon comes to fear that his new home may actually be a money pit.

Then there are those other, more intangible problems.

Within a very short time, the Harcourts start to suspect they are not alone here. Whose is the spectral female form they occasionally glimpse in the house? Who is the rather unpleasant old man Ollie several times encounters in the nearby country lane and yet whom no-one in the nearby village seems to know? Why is there a brooding atmosphere in this place when it should be so idyllic? And if all this isn’t bad enough, the fear stakes are upped dramatically when the family starts to have problems with their social media: strange figures appear on computer screens; bizarre and eerie messages are left via email, the origins of which are untraceable. Whatever the entity is that haunts this place – because it rapidly becomes clear that this is what they are dealing with here, a haunting – it is soon infesting their laptops, iPhones and other electrical devices.

These contacts are increasingly less pleasant, until eventually they become downright hostile, progressively more callous and damaging acts accompanying them.

Whatever walks in Cold Hill House, it is not some dim and distant memory of a life lived long ago, it is a thinking, sentient being, and quite clearly it isn’t interested merely in distressing and alarming the Harcourts so much as in tormenting, torturing and ultimately destroying them …

I love haunted house books. The bar for me was first set with The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson back in 1959, and raised even higher – in terms of pure terror, if not literary merit – by Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror in 1977. Both these books were particularly intriguing as haunted house stories went, because they presented us with nightmarish supernatural entities, mysterious, unknown beings hell-bent not just on scaring the innocents who had fallen into their clutches, but on terrorising them to death and beyond. As such, The House on Cold Hill was a real surprise for me, as I mainly know Peter James as a writer of superb crime thrillers. But this latest novel of his follows in the ‘Hill House’ tradition and adds comfortably to the canon.

All the author’s usual strengths are on display here. It is slickly and expertly written, which makes for a fast and easy read. The scene is set perfectly; you can picture the ornate but crumbling façade of the venerable old structure; you can smell the dank and stagnant air in its secret upper rooms; the rolling Sussex landscape is sumptuously present.

His characters, while not exactly oddballs, are not your regular heroes – they all have flaws (and very quickly and very cleverly the evil force seeks to gain leverage through these). Ollie Harcourt is the main protagonist, though he’s in some ways a rather effete and ineffectual figure – his initial response to the haunting is to try and shrug it off, in effect hoping that it goes away of its own volition. But it’s important to understand his plight. He has sunk every penny he’s got into this project; and when it suddenly seems like a bad idea it’s too late for him to do anything – certain readers’ complaints that he should just have upped sticks and left simply don’t ring true. Likewise, he is dealing with something utterly beyond his ken. Ollie is your archetypical forty-something ‘Middle England’ guy. He’s never encountered anything horrific in his life, let alone anything paranormal. He is completely steeped in the contemporary world with its huge complexity of electronic gadgets and virtual superhighways – and when all this turns against him, in the most unconventional way, his scientific mind is unable to process it.

Which brings me onto another interesting aspect of the book.

Some reviewers have criticised The House on Cold Hill for not doing anything particularly new with the haunted house milieu. But the supernatural infestation of the online media is something I’ve never seen done before, at least not this effectively. It goes even further than that. Despite the overarching supernatural atmosphere, science is never far away in this book. In fact, this is the first horror novel I’ve read in which the author seeks and explores a genuine scientific explanation for the existence of ghosts. And you know, it’s all pretty plausible. I’ll not give anything away, but Peter James has definitely done his homework. There is one scene in which Ollie Harcourt mulls over the situation with a physicist friend of his, and you can easily picture the author himself, a well-known and very thorough researcher, having exactly the same conversation with someone similarly qualified.

It also helps with the mood and authenticity that Peter James is personally experienced in this kind of scenario, as the lonely edifice at Cold Hill is apparently based on a real house he himself lived in once, and where he apparently had a less-than-comfortable time (though presumably he didn’t experience anything like the horrors on show here – I doubt he’d have emerged sane if he had).

All of this adds up to The House on Cold Hill being a neat little ‘old school’ chiller. It’s no ground-breaker in horror terms, but it’s a good, absorbing read, which, being fairly low on gore – certainly compared to the Roy Grace books – is unlikely to make you scream, but is guaranteed to creep you out repeatedly as you rustle through its traditionalist, doom-laden pages.

As usual – just for the fun of it – here are my picks for who should play the leads if The House on Cold Hill ever makes it to the movie or TV screen.

Ollie Harcourt – Rupert Penry-Jones
Caro Harcourt – Anna Friel


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)


by Graham Masterton (2003)

When the disassembled skeletons of 11 women are uncovered in a farm field near Cork, in southern Ireland, Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire of the Garda Síochána is put on the case, but initially it seems that there is no panic. The bones, which though marked and laid out as if for ceremonial purposes, are old, possibly relating to the disappearances of a number of women and girls back in 1915. No-one can be prosecuted now, and so there is no great pressure – until a rumour starts to spread among local Republicans that the crime may have been committed by British forces in retaliation against IRA bombings, which causes several jitters at government level.

Maguire, aided by her surly sidekick, DI Liam Fennessy, has her doubts about this. These long-ago killings appear to be steeped in druidic Irish lore; by the looks of it, they were human sacrifices made in an effort to raise Mór-ríoghain, a Celtic goddess of extreme power and malevolence. It seems unlikely that even the most demented British squaddie would have possessed the knowhow to perform such a rite. But then, very unexpectedly, the situation takes a turn for the worse – a hitchhiking American girl is abducted in the neighbourhood, and subjected to the same appalling death: she is literally skinned, gutted and dismembered while still alive, and her constituent parts ranged ritualistically on land belonging to the same farm.

Maguire and her team are perplexed. It can hardly be the same murderer, with 88 years passed. Clearly someone else has picked up the gauntlet. An arrest is duly made – a travelling man with a long record of violent, sexual crime and a deep knowledge of witchcraft. He seems a viable suspect until a second abduction occurs while he’s in custody. This time it’s a local college girl. Maguire suddenly finds herself in a race against time to prevent a further atrocity. As if that isn’t difficult enough, her home-life is a mess. Her father, a former ace detective himself, is old, lonely and occasionally vague, while her wheeler-dealer husband, Paul, is constantly in trouble with the local underworld. On top of that, Fennessy turns ever more truculent, convinced that Maguire was promoted ahead of him simply because she’s a woman.

When the beautiful and elegant Lucy Quinn, an academic specialising in mythology, arrives from the States to advise the Garda, Maguire finds a kindred spirit and a like-mind. But Quinn’s revelations about the case offer no real comfort; these current crimes, she concludes, are a continuation of the 1915 murders, and they aren’t complete yet. Whoever the current culprit is, he only needs one more life and then he’ll be able to summon Mór-ríoghain, and who knows what will happen then?

Maguire doesn’t believe in Mór-ríoghain – she is convinced they are dealing with a madman – but Quinn seems genuinely alarmed by the prospect. Each new day, it seems, there are ever more urgent reasons for bringing this sadistic murderer to book as quickly as possible …

One thing you always know you’ll get when reading a Graham Masterton book – or you ought to know it – is that it’ll pull no punches when it comes to the violence and gore. Masterton traded for years as one of Britain’s most successful horror writers, and it was full-on, unashamed horror, beautifully written and meticulously researched (there has often been a mythological content in Masterton’s work), but also filled with explicit sex and intense, visceral gruesomeness.

If that is your thing, or if you simply don’t mind it – then you’ll thoroughly enjoy White Bones. But if it isn’t, then you’ll need to tread carefully.

Because without doubt, this is one of the grisliest crime novels I’ve ever read, if not the grisliest. In fact, I’m not surprised that quite a few reviewers online have described it as a horror novel rather than a crime thriller. That isn’t true – the viciousness displayed by the villains in this book is beyond the pale and the reader is spared not a single detail of it, while there is more than a whiff of the supernatural, but this is still, at heart, a murder investigation and a police procedural.

That said, the scenes in which protracted and barbaric surgery is performed on living people without any kind of anaesthetic are prolonged and torturous, as much for the reader as for the victims. And a couple of times, even I – who have a foot in both the horror and the thriller camps – found it difficult to read on.

But Masterton’s work has never been for the faint-hearted, and from this evidence, he clearly intends to tackle his crime thrillers with the same head-on gusto that he does his horror work. So we’re talking truly ghastly crimes graphically illustrated, outlandish villains who are both mad and bad at the same time – Eamon Collins is one of the scariest gangsters I’ve encountered in crime fiction to date, and he only has a small role – and all of it taking place on a gloomy, despair-ridden landscape. County Cork is a beautiful corner of Ireland, but it’s also bleak (especially in this book), and it doesn’t half rain there.

Did I enjoy it, though?

You bet I enjoyed it.

The goriness aside – which as I’ve said, did disturb me a little – I found it a compelling read. The gradual interweaving of the two mysteries, the murder case from 1915 and the current one, is excellently managed. The cops’ desperate pursuit of a remorseless but bewildering assailant is all quite believable, especially as they are constantly interfered with by politicians, distracted by other equally violent cases, and struggling with domestic difficulties in their homes.

The backdrop of mysticism is taken much further than other crime novels I’ve read that are based around ritual and sacrifice, but it is deftly handled. Though the author is clearly intoxicated by the idea of ‘the Invisible Kingdom’, and very, very tempted to take us there – on occasion he comes infinitesimally close – ultimately he behaves himself and we never stray from the real world. The magic is all in the mood and the atmosphere, but the vein of dark superstition that runs through this book is both fascinating and shudder-inducing.

Meanwhile, Kate Maguire makes for a very appealing heroine. If I had any criticism it would be that towards the end of the book she seems a little weak; given that she’s risen to the rank of Detective Superintendent – the first in Ireland – you might have expected a more robust personality. But to be fair, she suffers all kinds of personal disasters during the course of this narrative, which by the end have left her a shell of the woman she was.

White Bones (formerly published as A Terrible Beauty and Katie Maguire) gets my strongest recommendation. Sure, it makes grim reading and the ending is a bit of a right-hand turn, but it’s completely soaked in the atmosphere of its locations and peopled with grotesque but wonderful characters, while the dialogue is juicy and fast-moving, and there always seems to be a new menace just around the corner – you can’t afford to relax for one minute.

I wouldn’t say I didn’t guess the main culprit beforehand, but it was late in the day and it didn’t put a dampener on my enjoyment. A greatly entertaining if very, very dark crime thriller.

I often like to end these book reviews with my own picks for who’d play the leads if a film or TV version was ever made. If that was the case here, it would strictly be of the X-rated variety, but hell, I hope that wouldn’t put them off. Anyway, just for fun, here are my casting selections:

Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire – Heather Graham
Detective Inspector Liam Fennessy – Cillian Murphy
Lucy Quinn – Tricia Helfer
Eamon Collins – Gabriel Byrne
Paul Maguire – Damien O’Hare

BROKEN DOLLS 
by James Carol (2014)

Consultant behavioural science profiler, Jefferson Winter, has a unique insight into the minds of serial killers … mainly because he himself was fathered by one. When young Jefferson watched his evil genius parent die by lethal injection, he had no idea that his path in life was set.

“We’re the same,” the malevolent old man told his son through the bullet-proof viewing port of the execution chamber seconds before the deadly drugs pitched him into the next world. But this wasn’t entirely true, because, expert though he soon became in the ways of depraved murderers, the adult Jefferson eventually joined the good guys’ team. And though he commenced his career as a profiler with the FBI, he now carries the good fight all over the globe – in short he’s a profiler-for-hire, and a top-gun freelancer when it comes to cracking the psychological makeup of the world’s worst violent offenders.

In Broken Dolls, his very first outing, he’s been summoned to London by an old mate, Detective Inspector Mark Hatcher, who is struggling with a particularly distressing case.

An unknown maniac has been abducting women, shaving their heads, torturing them at his leisure and then lobotomising them, releasing them back onto the streets as wandering relics of the people they once were: broken dolls with no lives left to call their own.

Even Winter, who’d thought he had seen it all, is taken aback by the horror of this enquiry. There are four victims to date – a quartet of truly tragic cases. Obviously none of them are able to help with the details of their abductor. But then another woman goes missing; attractive but bored housewife, Rachel Morris, who disappeared on a blind date with a strange personality she encountered online.

Winter, in company with the beautiful and spirited DS Sophie Templeton, finds himself racing against the clock to prevent the zombification of another innocent victim, though on this occasion it’s entirely possible that the kidnapper may have bitten off more than he can chew – because Morris is the estranged daughter of London mob boss Donald Cole, who is desperate to assist in the search for her any way he can. This certainly interests Winter, but whether it will prove to be a help or a hindrance remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Rachel Morris finds herself imprisoned in a purpose-built torture chamber. The debonair chap she was secretly on her date with, the aptly-named ‘Cutting Jack’ – who has a penchant for unfaithful wives – is determined to put her through a living hell before finally taking her mind and her memories away …

Broken Dolls is a different kind of crime thriller from the norm in that we see things through the educated eyes of a criminal profiler rather than the instincts and street-smarts of a hard-assed detective. Some British reviewers have commented negatively on this; Jefferson Winter – a rather smug character, it has to be said, who doesn’t even carry a badge any more – popping over to the UK and showing Scotland Yard’s best how the job should really be done. But I didn’t get that feeling (and James Carol is a British writer, so I suspect his use of an American hero is more about gaining his books an international profile than about teaching the Brits what’s what). In any case, it all works. Quantico was the birthplace of modern-day offender profiling, and the FBI are still recognised as world-leaders in the field, so in that regard nothing jars for me. Plus, as I intimated previously, the approach in this novel is all quite original.

Instead of seeing doors kicked down, suspects leaned on and forensic clues painstakingly gathered, we see Winter dashing around at breakneck pace but also constructing a gradual and detailed psychological portrait of his anonymous opponent. The author has clearly done his research here – it all feels very authentic as he slowly and convincingly gets into the mind of his demented antagonist.

Which brings me onto the book’s personnel.

Jefferson Winter is an unusual kind of good guy. He’s affable, a straight-talker and driven to do the right thing – all stuff we like. But there are oddities too. Though he’s only young, thanks to a physiological anomaly he has a full head of snow-white hair – and yet he’s no white knight. It is hinted all the way through the book that Jefferson has inherited some of his father’s genes, and he constantly needs to battle against baser instincts. He particularly lusts after Sophie Templeton, though thankfully keeps most of that in check.

Needless to say, this is an aspect of the book that hasn’t been to every reader’s taste – some have even labelled it ‘misogynistic’. But I disagree with that. Winter is a single guy who likes gorgeous girls, which I don’t consider to be particularly offensive. He also admires Templeton greatly for her detective skills, so it isn’t purely a physical attraction between them. However, his horrific start in life has affected him in other ways too. Winter is good enough at what he does to make a lucrative living as he hires himself out to one police force after another, yet deep down he is still frightened and uneasy about the state of his own mind, and his Sam Spade-esque bravado is primarily a disguise. He is nowhere near as self-assured as he may appear.

Templeton meanwhile is so sexily described (it’s a little overdone, if I’m absolutely honest) that you’re tempted to picture one of those impossibly well-coiffured lady cops you get in American TV dramas, but this is offset by her feisty nature and upper class tone, which juxtaposes nicely with the hardboiled Winter, and helps create a cool if somewhat unlikely crime-fighting duo.

As for the villain, Cutting Jack … he is without doubt one of the most twisted criminal lunatics I’ve yet come across in crime fiction, though this does lead me to one slight criticism: there is an awful lot of torture in this novel.

Protracted scenes of cruelty and pain don’t do a great deal for me, but by the same token I don’t think they’re completely unnecessary here. Broken Dolls is essentially a race against time – the killer already has his next victim in chains and is currently playing with her; at some point soon he’s going to hammer his orbitoclast through her eye-socket and it’ll all be over. If we were purely to watch Winter and Templeton as they race about the snowy London streets doing everything they can to close ground on a faceless madman, it wouldn’t be half as effective. As things are, though it isn’t pleasant dwelling on the pain of doomed captives, the terror and tension in these scenes is almost tangible – every time the maniac enters through the dungeon door, you wonder if this is going to be it for housewife Rachel. And it isn’t just torture that Cutting Jack indulges in. Once you’re in his grasp, all kinds of unexplainable weirdness occurs – but I won’t say any more about that for fear of spoiling things. Put it this way, there are surprises galore in this narrative, and very few of them are nice.

I strongly recommend Broken Dolls to lovers of hard, dark crime fiction. It’s no comfortable read – not by any means, but even so I rattled through the pages, all the time hearing an imaginary clock ticking down to what might be yet another ghastly incident. If you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s quite a rush.

I’m reliably informed that a US TV show following Jefferson Winter’s various exploits is already in development, but maybe, if I’m bold enough, I can get in early with some casting suggestions. As usual just for the fun of it, here are my personal picks for the lead roles in Broken Dolls:

Jefferson Winter – Damien Lewis
DS Sophie Templeton – Jenna Louise Coleman
DI Mark Hatcher – Shane Ritchie
Rachel Morris – Katy Cavanagh
Donald Cole – Ray Winston
Cutting Jack – James Frain


RUNNING WILD 
by JG Ballard (1988)

Pangbourne Village is classic ‘stockbroker belt’ suburbia, a gated community in the heart of the English Home Counties; green, clean and exclusively inhabited by wealthy, well-heeled couples on whose pampered, expensively-educated children all the gifts that money can buy are bestowed. In Pangbourne, privilege is an inalienable right but ‘merited’ by the liberal attitudes enforced there. It is a model society for a new middle class and politically correct Britain. And similar purpose-built communities are now springing up all along the Thames Valley. This is the future for those who can afford it.

And then something astonishing and horrible happens.

With swift, commando-like precision, an early morning attack is launched on Pangbourne, and all the adults – not just the residents, but their staff and security guards as well (32 in total!) – are brutally murdered, and all the children (13) are kidnapped. No ransom demands follow, and there is minimum definitive evidence to indicate any obvious explanation.

After a massive police enquiry fails, the Home Office appoints top criminal psychologist Richard Greville to investigate, in company with the dour but very experienced Detective Sergeant Payne.

This ‘chalk and cheese’ and yet unexpectedly like-minded duo launch a very thorough assessment of the crime, both in terms of the forensics and the psychology. Note is taken of the many murder methods employed, which are varied and gruesome – from shooting, to bludgeoning, to electrocution, strangulation and crushing by car – and yet bewilderment prevails that such a swathe of horrendous crimes could all occur in such a short time-frame. How many murderers would it have taken to inflict such intense and targeted and yet widespread violence? What kind of mental state must they have been in? And just how organised and proficient at their craft would they need to be to pull it off so efficiently? And in God’s name, why did it happen?

Greville and Payne pursue all kinds of potential leads: a Hungerford Massacre-type ‘lone wolf’ killer; a crime syndicate assassination team; a terrorist group; a spec ops unit from a nearby army camp gone postal; and even the possibility of enemy agents acting on behalf of a malign foreign power. But none of these increasingly improbable possibilities pan out. The murdered residents of Pangbourne were model citizens in every sense of the word. Deep analysis of their lives uncovers no shady secrets, no hidden agendas.

The baffling case is almost broken when one of the children is found alive, though she is deranged and remains incoherent through shock. But at the same time, several rather curious facts finally start to emerge about Pangbourne Village itself. In many ways, the life its population led – particularly the children – was too good to be true. Everything they wanted they had. Their hermetically sealed world was perfectly ordered and protected by their moneyed parents. They knew nothing in their lives – literally nothing – but love and adoration, and as such, children from neighbouring communities thought them rather closeted and odd. And could it also be relevant that this idyllic little nirvana was imminently to feature in a BBC TV documentary about new modes of living? There was certainly a strange atmosphere in the village as this date approached, as if some kind of countdown had been activated.

Greville, something of a hard-headed calculating machine when it comes to putting facts together, starts to wonder if the secrets of these murders actually lie much closer to the victims’ homes than anyone had previously thought – unthinkably close as far as the previous investigation teams were concerned.

And then, very unexpectedly but with equal violence and ferocity, the killers strike again …

The first thing to say about Running Wild, this famously prophetic mystery from the pen of one of the UK’s most visionary writers, is that it’s no straightforward thriller. Or indeed a straightforward mystery.

Presented in the form of a dry, detailed, almost bullet-pointed account of the investigation from Greville to his Home Office paymasters, this not a traditional novel, nor a particularly long one – more a long novella really – and it doesn’t bother going greatly into character, preferring to concentrate on the means and motivation behind the crime, and of course, as always with Ballard, the subtext.

In truth, it is difficult saying a great deal about that without giving away too much of the plot, but it’s worth adding that the eventual explanation behind the horrific incident is more than a little bit unlikely, though this doesn’t matter because what the author is really addressing here are issues of isolation, elitism, collapse from within, identity loss, social engineering, social decay, neglect of reality by the chattering classes and so forth, and of course addressing them with great eloquence and his trademark touches of sardonic ‘Middle England’ humour.

Without doubt, Running Wild is a modern minor classic, deeply intriguing, easy-to-read and in many ways, if you’ve never read him before, an ideal introduction to the strange, disturbing and yet always coolly-appraised world of JG Ballard.

As usual – just for the fun of it – here are my selections for who should play the leads if Running Wild ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (and I’m amazed it hasn’t already, if I’m honest).

Dr. Richard Greville – Hugh Bonneville
DS Payne – Gwendoline Christie 
(Okay, I know that in the book Payne is a bloke, but that isn’t necessary, and Ms. Christie would still be ideal in the role).


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



THE INFORMATION OFFICER 
by Mark Mills (2009)

Malta was no place to be in the summer of 1942.

A British-held strategic fortress in the middle of the Mediterranean, it maintained a vital link between the Allied base at Gibraltar and the Eighth Army in North Africa, for which reason it was hammered by Axis planes, wave after wave carpet-bombing the island indiscriminately, not just killing and maiming members of the garrison, but making life a misery for the natives, filling their graveyards with fresh corpses, their hospitals with casualties and laying waste to their homes and businesses.

This is the remarkable and tumultuous backdrop to Mark Mills's fascinating crime thriller, The Information Officer. It is also one hell of a headache for the book’s main hero, Major Max Chadwick … because Max is quite literally the British authority in Malta’s ‘Information Officer’, aka propaganda chief. He it is who, on a daily basis, must minimise the bad news and find and exaggerate the good, not just to boost the morale of the beleaguered British forces, but to try and keep the islanders onside. This isn’t Malta’s war, after all. Why should the Maltese support the British in this terrible, apocalyptic fight which was never of their making and for which they are now paying such an appalling price?

As you can imagine, Max’s job is a difficult one at the best of times, but it gets a whole lot harder when British doctor, Freddie Lambert, confides in him that he thinks there may be a serial killer of prostitutes on the island, and more worrying still, that it could be a British submariner. Max is stunned, but the facts speak for themselves: it seems that three Maltese hostesses catering to British forces have been found raped and murdered, their deaths disguised as bombing fatalities – and that one of them was clutching a tell-tale military lapel when discovered.

The implications of this are so terrifying – namely that on the eve of a possible German invasion, it could turn the Maltese against the British, which might lead to a complete collapse of Allied operations in the Mediterranean – that the governor’s main priority is to keep the whole thing under wraps. But Max, egged on by Lilian, a feisty Anglo/Maltese girl who edits one of the local newspapers, undertakes to investigate himself.

What follows is a death-defying game of cat and mouse played out among blazing ruins and raining bombs, Max increasingly coming to suspect that not only may the killer be a Nazi agent trying to set the British and Maltese apart, but possibly a double-agent too. Suddenly, he doesn’t know who to trust; the comfy world of the British officer corps no longer feels familiar. Max even suspects that he himself may be in danger, but the die is now cast, and this affable if rather louche young man, finally determined to do something honourable for the war effort, persists in trying to muddle his way to an answer. At the same time, he must navigate the tricky waters of adultery, because, very ill-advisedly, he is currently the lover of Mitzi, a sad but brave Englishwoman who spends every day writing letters of condolence to the sweethearts of airmen recently killed, and yet who is trapped in a loveless marriage herself. Of course, this complex situation is only made a hundred times worse when Max uncovers evidence that may implicate Mitzi’s husband …

The Information Officer is a many-headed beast: serial killer mystery, wartime adventure and espionage thriller all rolled into one, with a big dollop of romance mixed in.

It is also, to use some period terminology, a corking read.

To start with, it benefits from an immense historicity, painting an incredibly evocative picture of life on Malta during those hellish days, juxtaposing the sun-burnished ‘olde worlde’ architecture, the dusty hills and azure Mediterranean seascapes with an endless carnage of burned buildings, heaped corpses and severed limbs – and yet it goes much further even than this into the realms of mind-boggling authenticity. From the outset here, we are steeped in the officer class, a world of clubs, barracks, bunkers and cocktail evenings, all crammed with stiff upper-lip types, not to mention their dutiful wives, who, in the time-honoured fashion of Britain’s colonies, are also spirited, sensual and occasionally wayward. Moments of war-induced craziness abound, drinks parties and love-making sessions going uninterrupted by colossal air raids, some of the chaps practicing their golf swings by lofting high shots at the German fighters cruising low overhead, Max himself roaring around the island and its many craters on a clapped-out motorbike that he cobbled together from the charred and broken parts of lots of others (and finally, inevitably, coming a cropper on it) – and yet all of this stands in sharp, shameful contrast to the empty shops and endless misery of the local people, to the deep, sweaty shelters where the innocent Maltese hide petrified from the endless aerial onslaught.

Some reviewers, those only looking for a crime thriller, have expressed irritation at this constant intrusion into the narrative by World War Two, but I strongly disagree with them, firstly on the basis that this intense wartime atmosphere is so vivid as to be almost intoxicating, but also because such complaints totally miss the point about the possible insurrection this series of heinous murders might ignite. Surely no stakes in a psycho killer story have ever been as high as these?

Meanwhile, in the midst of the chaos, Max Chadwick makes an unlikely and yet likeable hero. An affable young man, though pretty ordinary in many ways, promoted to his position through family connections, he’s never been completely prepared for the daily difficulties of his role, through in that ‘band of brothers’ fashion he manages to keep it together sufficiently to get through. In terms of the other characters, Freddie Lambert, his closest friend, is a different kettle of fish; cut from the same cloth, but a hard-headed customer who remains completely focussed on his own task, which is to patch up the shattered bodies of friend and foe alike, and occasionally taking time out to forensically assess the murder victims. Then we have Elliot, another key player in the drama, an American officer who for various reasons is currently stationed on Malta, but who is much more than a standard wise-cracker – there are many mysterious depths to Max’s US buddy. 

It would be wrong to sign off without mentioning the ladies, though here, I think, lies the only weak link in The Information Officer. Both Lilian and Mitzi, while strong and beautiful, are somewhat underused, though to be fair that is often because we see so much of the action from Max’s own viewpoint (or from the killer’s, who of course is never named until the grand finale) – though this does seem to weaken them a little, Lilian understandably humourless as she witnesses the annihilation of her countrymen, Mitzi whose status as permanently unhappy wife leaves her in a kind of Limbo.

But these are only small criticisms. The Information Officer is one terrific thriller, totally engrossing as a mystery and hair-raising in its depictions of wartime terror and destruction, not to mention in the depredations of Malta’s very own Ripper – and on top of that it all ends with one of the best twists it’s ever been my experience to encounter on the written page.

I consider myself an expert, and I never even saw it coming. 

As always – purely for fun, you understand – here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Information Officer ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (and this one is absolutely begging for it):

Max – Tom Hiddleston
Lilian – Valentina Lodovini
Freddie – Benedict Cumberbatch
Elliot – Robert Downey Jnr
Mitzi – Kelly Reilly



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


MEG by Steve Alten (1997)

Former US Navy deep-sea diver, Jonas Taylor, is still haunted by the day he plumbed the bottom of the Mariana Trench and thought he glimpsed the long-extinct Megalodon. Few people took him seriously at the time, including Maggie, his ambitious TV reporter wife. Even though Taylor is now a civilian scientist, reasonably respected for his palaeontology work, Maggie knows that people still smirk behind his back and that this is no good for her career. As such, she embarks on a non-too-discreet affair with Bud Harris, Taylor’s former college buddy, who now leads a wealthy playboy lifestyle.

Taylor is thus at his lowest ebb when he is contacted by old friend Masao Tanaka, who runs a marine science operation. Tanaka has lost an earthquake-detecting submersible deep in the Mariana and wants Taylor to retrieve it for him with the aid of his two hotshot aquanaut kids, the adventurous, self-assured DJ and his sister, the uber-cool Terry.

Taylor is not enthusiastic about returning to the Trench, and his proposed assistants give him little confidence, DJ treating the whole Megalodon thing as a joke, Terry jealous and mistrustful that a non-family member is being brought into such a complex and costly enterprise.

Initially the recovery mission goes well. Though the descent into the Trench is horrific, Taylor starts to rediscover his old deep-sea diving touch. But then disaster strikes – DJ is attacked and killed by a colossal bioluminescent fish. The Megalodon …

It comes as no surprise to me that Steve Alten’s famous deep sea action/horror has been under option in Hollywood since 1997, or that it spawned a hatful of successful sequels. Because this is pure escapism at its best. Okay, even though the science sounds good I’m sure it doesn’t add up to much in reality – but who cares about that? Because this book has got everything that Jaws had, and more: clearly defined goodie and baddie characters, a hero with vulnerabilities, an exotic location (endless acres of cobalt-blue water!), and a gargantuan, near-indestructible monster, which according to cryptozoologists the world over could still very likely exist.

It’s also written in that wonderfully slick American style, especially the bone-jarring action sequences, which come thick and fast and at times seem to explode off the page.

A creature feature for sure, an ocean-borne Godzilla in which an ancient beast proves too mighty for all of man’s weapons, meaning that only a truly ingenious solution will fix it (and that solution turns out to be an absolute eye-popper). But great fun and another easy, rapid-fire read. One that anyone can happily get their teeth into (sorry).

As always, and it’s just a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Meg someday makes it to the screen (it’s allegedly been stuck in Development Hell for the last 18 years, somewhat uncharitably referred to as ‘Jurasssic Shark’ – but it’s too good a basic concept not to make it at some point):

Jonas Taylor – Jeremy Renner
Masao Tanaka – George Takei
Terry Tanaka – Anna Nagata
Maggie Taylor – Alice Eve
Bud Harris – Dustin Clare


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?)


THE MAGPIES 
by Mark Edwards (2013)

Love-birds Jamie and Kirsty think they’re living the suburban dream when they acquire a spacious London flat at a knock-down price. The neighbourhood is genteel, the neighbours themselves welcoming. On top of that, both Jamie and Kirsty have good jobs, he a software engineer, she a paediatric nurse. A comfortable middle-class life together beckons.

Until – slowly and subtly – things start to go wrong.

The arrival of dead rats on their doorstep could be the work of an overly industrious local cat, but why does someone keep sending the Fire Brigade to their address, who keeps ordering fast food deliveries they don’t want, and why are they deluged with peculiar and sometimes downright offensive junk-mail? It isn’t long before they start to suspect they may somehow have offended their downstairs neighbours, Chris and Lucy Newton, a slightly older and curiously unsophisticated couple. Initially, there are scant clues that the Newtons are behind this campaign of unprovoked harassment, though they do complain to Jamie and Kirsty rather a lot and often about the most innocuous things.

In the first instance there is no obvious sense of danger, but author Mark Edwards is nothing if not an expert when it comes to slowly and mercilessly turning the psychological screw.

In its most basic sense, the situation the young couple have found themselves in is the stuff of nightmares. These are pleasant, conscientious people looking only to get on with their lives. One thing they are not is adversarial. Jamie is no macho man, and neither he nor Kirsty are streetwise – if anything they are naïve. Quite clearly they’d be easy victims for a determined sociopath, particularly if this warped person decided to make them his/her new ‘hobby’ – and this is the raw and terrible nerve that Mark Edwards now relentlessly plucks.

The violations against Jamie and Kirsty’s happy world become steadily more vicious and personal, soon invading every aspect of their lives, leaving our heroes increasingly frightened and disoriented, especially as the Newtons, whenever they are encountered face-to-face, remain affable and polite, which even puts doubt in the reader’s mind that they may be guilty. But a whole new level of horror is reached when Paul, Jamie’s best friend and sole ally, is terribly injured in a go-carting accident, which again looks as if it might have been engineered by Chris Newton.

This has a devastating effect on Jamie and Kirsty, whose own relationship finally starts to suffer. Isolated and friendless, feeling besieged, the couple try to struggle on, but even this isn’t the end of it. Each new day brings ever more elaborately sadistic outrages, until soon, driven beyond despair, having lost everything, Jamie opts to take drastic action to fight back.

But his invisible opponents are no ordinary neighbours from Hell.

Up until now, civilised man Jamie has only been able to guess at the degree of wickedness that faces him here …

The Magpies is a fascinating and highly intelligent psycho thriller written by an expert in low-key terror, but genuine spice is added to this hair-raising brew because the author himself experienced similar persecution in his earlier life, and that harrowing authenticity is written all the way through. It certainly explains why the torment is piled on so ruthlessly, layer after layer, each ghastly new development superseded by the next – if it isn’t rats it is spiders, if it isn’t damaging computer viruses, it is stage-managed fatal accidents – until it literally becomes overwhelming, until you, the reader, are ready to rip your own hair out, never mind the novel's hapless heroes.

However, there is more to this than mere mental torture. The mystery and suspense run deep. We are never totally convinced that Jamie and Kirsty are correct about the identity of their anonymous foes – there are several other neighbours aside from the Newtons, and some of their normal friends are less than helpful. Their increasing air of paranoia only adds to the mix; they become confused and irrational; so cleverly is the book written that at times you even wonder if anything malicious is actually going on at all.

On top of that, The Magpies is a finely-observed study of a strong relationship cracking under outside pressure. The slow deterioration of Jamie and Kirsty’s partnership is as tragic as it is frightening, and completely compelling because it is so believable. Be warned, the pain and desolation that soon fill the central characters’ lives in this book feel very real indeed. Of course, that also intensifies the reader’s desire to see justice done – or should that be revenge?

By the time you get to the end of this intense and absorbing novel, you won’t really care.

As always, purely as a bit of fun fantasy-casting, here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Magpies ever makes it to the screen:

Jamie – Ben Whishaw
Kirsty – Sophie Turner
Paul – Rupert Grint
Chris – Neil Maskell
Lucy – MyAnna Buring


TIME OF DEATH 
by Mark Billingham (2013)

DI Tom Thorne and girlfriend, DS Helen Weeks, have taken a winter holiday in the Cotswolds, where they intend to spend Valentine’s Day together and enjoy a well-earned rest. But, as you can probably guess, from the commencement of Time of Death, the 13th outing for Mark Billingham’s gruff, no-nonsense hero, it is never going to be quite as easy as that.

Thorne, a veteran of the Murder Squad, is approaching middle-age these days, and still hasn’t entirely worked out his relationship with the relatively new woman in his life, DS Weeks. She is younger than he is, and doesn’t see the world in the same stark terms. However, it is Helen who makes the decision to suddenly interrupt their break and head north into rainy, flood-stricken Warwickshire, where an old school acquaintance, Linda Bates, is in trouble.

It seems that in Polesford, Helen’s rural but far-from-idyllic hometown, two teenage girls have been abducted, and one has now turned up in the woods, brutally murdered. In response, Warwickshire Police have laid their hands on local man, Stephen Bates – Linda’s husband – and look set to charge him with the crime.

Thorne is a little bemused as to why they are getting involved. By her own admission, Helen was not Linda’s best friend when they were kids, though they seem to share some kind of unspoken connection. On top of that, all Helen can really do once they arrive is provide a shoulder for Linda to cry on. And it’s a much-needed shoulder. Linda and her family are distraught and already being ostracised by their neighbours. Moreover, when Thorne looks into the case as an observer, it seems pretty straightforward. Even though Bates maintains his innocence, there is a mass of evidence stacked against him, and his alibi doesn’t stand up – in due course, he is charged with kidnapping and murder.

However, not all in Polesford is exactly as it should be.

Thorne isn’t won over by the loutish townsfolk, by the media who have swamped the place in a search for ever-more sensationalist news angles, or by the local investigation team, who have not been as thorough as he would like and who are increasingly resentful of his presence. When Phil Hendricks, his tattoo-covered but trusty forensics expert, joins him in Polesford, they commence an enquiry of their own – unofficially of course – and quickly start to uncover anomalies in the evidence. 

Pretty soon, Thorne is convinced that Bates is innocent. But the local fuzz will have no truck with that, and in fact complain to his bosses in the Met (who attempt to call him off), while Helen is only marginally more useful. For the moment at least, the level-headed policewoman he knows and loves has vanished, to be replaced by someone who is secretive, snappy and inordinately stressed. Clearly, Helen herself has more than superficial issues with the town of her birth, and there is no guarantee they are unconnected to this enquiry.

But Thorne, the hard-nosed investigator, is now in his element. Amid foul weather and despite a storm of hostility, he battles on determinedly. Because if nothing else, he strongly suspects that the second of the two abducted girls is still in the grasp of the real killer, maybe still alive, and if so, enduring who knows what horrors …

Tom Thorne is an iconic cop character in British crime fiction, and his cases are never less than totally readable. I particularly enjoyed this one, though, because it takes a new approach.

All the usual coolness of Mark Billingham’s crime-writing is there. The slick prose; the polished characterisation; the quickfire, uber-realistic dialogue; the grim tone – yet again the ‘real crime’ feel pervades this book: desolated lives, a non-empathetic public, the countless unsavoury elements that combine to create Broken Britain. This is vintage Thorne territory, but on this occasion the Met’s best bloodhound is not seeking to prove a murder suspect’s guilt, but to establish his innocence.

And it works so well.

Thorne is one of crime fiction’s top good guys, mainly because he’s believable – totally human and fallible – but at the same time he has all the attributes of a hero. He’s no angel, but he knows a dodgy situation when he encounters one, and he doesn’t care whose nose he puts out when he’s on the trail of justice. Hendricks of course – Thorne’s less conservative, happier-go-luckier other self – makes a great sparring partner, but together their combined intellect is a fearsome force. And this is the other thing about Time of Death: it is distinctly NOT a tale of brawn over brain. Don’t get me wrong; Thorne can kick arse if he wants to (and so can Helen Weeks, as this book illustrates), but this time it’s all about the minutiae of forensics, Thorne and Hendricks bouncing ideas back and forth at lightning speed as they strive to save an innocent man and rescue a tormented child.

This is raw, page-turning action, even though much of it is cerebral rather than physical.

And the background to it all is richly atmospheric too, the rain-sodden landscape a last word in winter dreariness, the support-cast almost entirely comprised of gossips and misery-merchants: metal-head taxi-driver Jason Sweeney is particularly odious and a masterwork of slow-building menace; Trevor Hare, the pub landlord and former cop who becomes Thorne’s confidant in the village, is an opinionated know-all; Linda Jackson herself ranges back and forth between sweetness, light and embittered, foul-mouthed shrewiness; even Stephen Bates is a self-centred oddball and someone you wouldn’t ordinarily root for, and yet such is Billingham’s skill that you end up doing precisely that.

This is one of the best and most unusual police novels I’ve read in quite a while, but it’s not just a procedural. Sexual misbehaviour is a key aspect of this story, especially abusive misbehaviour, and not just where extreme examples like homicide are concerned. But Mark Billingham is a serious writer – he doesn’t do pulp fiction – and as such he handles these heart-rending subjects with a deftness of touch and understanding that elevate the entire thing way above the level of routine tawdry suspense thriller.

Time of Death is an intriguing but grown-up mystery, played out at breathless pace and yet never once straying beyond the realms of the completely authentic. An excellent read.

And here again, just for fun, are my selections for who should take the lead roles if Time of Death ever makes it to the screen (Thorne is no stranger to TV of course; Sleepyhead and Scaredycat – Thorne #1 and #2 – both made it in 2010, and for me David Morrissey and Aiden Gillen were perfect in their respective parts, so I’d see no reason to change that now):

DI Tom Thorne – David Morrissey
DS Helen Weeks – Lorraine Burroughs
Phil Hendricks – Aiden Gillen
Linda Bates – Felicity Jones
Stephen Bates – Arthur Darvill
Trevor Hare – Trevor Eve
Jason Sweeney – Cillian Murphy
Aurora Harley – Anya Taylor-Joy


BROKEN MONSTERS 
by Lauren Beukes (2014)

The time is now. The place is Detroit, a city in its post-industrial death throes.

This is a landscape that is not just physically decayed, but morally bereft: where there are more citizens without jobs than with; where the homeless almost outnumber the residents; where over-worldly youngsters drink, take drugs and swear; where underage girls tease online paedophiles just for kicks, and high school kids are more interested in filming their friends being bullied than in helping them out; a place where graffiti and ruin-porn pass for art; where any hipster careerist thinks he/she can be a sculptor, or a musician, or a writer, or a journalist, or a social commentator, and yet somehow all of them finish up being vapid, vacuous wannabes.

In the midst of this urban ooze, cop and single mom Detective Gabi Versado finds herself investigating a particularly distressing case.

The fusing of a dead boy’s torso to the hindquarters of a deer sparks the commencement of a sadistic and gratuitous murder spree – the handiwork of a killer soon known as the ‘Detroit Monster’ because of the grotesque public displays he makes of his victims.

All the monumental complexity of a massive homicide enquiry follows, with various colourful but complex characters getting in on the act. For example, Layla is Gabi’s neglected yet spirited daughter, one of those brattish modern teens who can’t seem to live if she isn’t constantly active on social media, and yet who in this case is irrepressibly likeable; Jonno Haim is a failed New York writer-turned-blogger, a minimally-talented chancer looking to kick-start a career he hasn’t earned by shouldering his way into the Detroit arts scene; Thomas ‘TK’ Keen is an amiable hobo, a father figure to his fellow homeless, but a guy haunted by his own tragic and violent past; and then we have Clayton Broom, another failure – all these lives are broken in this land of broken dreams! – a skilled artist who struggles to support himself when his work doesn’t sell, and as such lives in a slum, absorbedly dwelling on his bizarre visions … which leaves him open to some very pernicious influences.

And this is the point where, for some readers at least, this novel’s wheels have come off.

Fans of Lauren Beukes, particularly those familiar with her stunning tale of magical realism, The Shining Girls, will probably expect Broken Monsters to enter the territory of the unreal at some point, and – well, that’s precisely what it does. Quite unapologetically. So be under no illusion. Despite first appearances, this is NOT a police procedural or even a traditional murder mystery.

At a relatively early stage, the identity of the felon is given away, but he quite literally is not himself. Call it what you will – an alien intelligence, a ghost, a demon, a faerie, an ancient god – but some powerful, unknowable and insane entity has awakened inside this already damaged soul, driving him to commit terrible deeds, each time intensifying the horror and savagery in its vain efforts to create better things, to entrance and heal the suffering public, and usher in a new age of wonder and enlightenment through the chalk doorways it motivates him to inscribe on walls near the scenes of his crimes.

And this is the real narrative, not the internal fantasy of a madman. The closer our various heroes come to resolving this case, the ever more bizarre, lurid and warped the realities they encounter, until we reach a point where you know in your bones that normality can never resume. It builds to such a crescendo of the weird and horrific that the annihilation of some of the good guys – or at least the annihilation of their sanity – seems inevitable …

I hate pigeon-holing in literature, but in this case it serves a valid purpose. Broken Monsters may not be your run-of-the-mill crime thriller. But neither is it your standard urban horror story. In fact, if the vague term ‘dark fantasy’ ever had a living embodiment, this is it. And so what if certain readers were not happy about that? That is down to their own preconceptions – they thought they were reading cops ‘n’ robbers when all the blurbs said otherwise.  

For me, in this case if none other, the quality is more important than the content. Because this is far and away one of the most readable novels I’ve ever picked up. It doesn’t just move at electrifying pace, it is exquisitely written. The loving descriptions of the half-abandoned city are intense and detailed – you can almost smell the oil and filth, the rotted steel, the rain-soaked concrete. The characters are rich and multi-layered, all forlorn, all struggling, all in many ways annoying, and yet on occasion funny and loveable too, and as such, so real that it is easy to form emotional connections with them. Even the killer is the star-turn in one achingly sad scene where, in an unwitting attempt to head off his ghastly future, he tries to reacquaint with the mother of his child, a slatternly ‘roadhouse mom’ – who casually and spitefully rejects him.

For all these reasons, Broken Monsters gets my highest recommendation. Yes, the change of gear (the ‘thriller to horror’ moment) is a bit of a jolt for those who didn’t anticipate it, but this is truly excellent stuff: compelling and fascinating, at the same time both depressing and uplifting. The depth and imagery of the ruined city and the raddled folk living therein is almost seductive; the soullessness of the internet age will horrify you; the constant madness of mass-communication, mass profanity, mass insolence, mass embarrassment – the whole damn thing is amazing and infuriating and scary and intoxicating all at the same time.

You may not love this novel (unlike me – I did, as if you can’t tell!), but I can damn well guarantee that you’ll be totally overwhelmed by it.

And as always – purely for a laugh, you understand – here are my picks for who should play the leads if Broken Monsters ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (which is surely very likely given the adaptation clamour that greeted The Shining Girls). 

Detective Gabi Versado – Salma Hayek 
Layla  – Amandla Stenburg 
Thomas 'TK' Keen  – Chris Chalk 
Jonna Haim  – Jonathan Rhys Meyers 
Clayton Broom  – Peter Stormare


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


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



SEA TRIAL 
by Frank De Felitta (1980)

When adulterous businessman, Phil Sobel, and his married mistress, Tracey, embark on a secret boat trip to the Caribbean, they anticipate it will be the holiday of a lifetime. But they have no concept of the horrors ahead.

Rather than taking an official cruise, Phil and Tracey opt for a private charter run by a Florida couple, Captain Jack McCracken and his almost impossibly hospitable wife, Penny, who, as well as their luxurious motor-yacht (the amusingly named Penny Dreadful) also guarantee excellent seamanship and gourmet cooking.

Everything seems perfect. Captain Jack is a slightly odd fish – a bit distant, a bit philosophical, and he plays up outrageously to his self-image as a salty seadog. But Penny is very capable and can’t do enough for her guests, the sun is blazing and the sea that shimmering ‘swimming pool’ blue, so there’s no reason at all to assume this’ll be anything other than a luxurious experience.

Phil and Tracey feel they’ve finally got away from the stresses and strains of their deceitful life in New York

But only a couple of days in, things start going wrong: minor accidents and malfunctions, which gradually impinge on the couple’s enjoyment. In addition, the further they draw from land, the more their relationship with their hosts subtly changes. At first this is driven by necessity, the yacht’s systems failing and everyone having to pull their weight. But in a short time, Phil and Tracey are being treated less like paying customers on the boat and more like employees, and underpaid, ill-treated employees at that.

And of course by now there is no sign of land, and the two lubbers don’t have the first clue where they are …

If you’re a fan of both sea horrors and psycho thrillers, you can’t do much better than Sea Trial. Okay, it’s an old novel, one that’s been swimming around in the back of my awareness for several decades, and which for some unfathomable reason (alright, enough puns!) I’d failed to take a chance on. Well, now I have – and I’m very glad.

It’s a simple enough yarn, following a very basic premise – innocent couple get lured far from their comfort zone by the falsely charming, and are then plunged into a web of insanity. But it’s written in absorbing fashion, relying initially on brief but ominous hints that things may not be all they seem, and once the downward tilt towards disaster finally begins, accelerating to a rollicking pace, the fear and agony poured on unrelentingly.

De Felitta also achieves the near impossible by transforming the beautiful and serene Carribean Sea – and it never changes from that, there’s rarely a cloud in the sky – into a metamophorical desert where all hopes of rescue and salvation are repeatedly dashed.

This book is also a masterclass in the creation of understated villainy. Fictional baddies who roar and bellow don’t impress me much. Likewise, baddies who scream abuse as they brutalise, or baddies who cackle insanely. You don’t get any of that here. Nontheless, this is terrorising ordeal for the hapless victims caught up in it. How frail we ordinary humans sometimes are when confronted by monsters of the realistic variety. How weak we appear when straying only a few nautical miles from our orderly world and finding ourselves in the realm of savages …  

As always, just for a bit of a laugh, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Sea Trial someday makes it to the screen (I believe Tom Selleck was once lined up for a TV movie version, but whether that ever happened, I’m not sure):

Phil Sobel – John Hamm
Tracey Hansen – Holliday Grainger
Jack McCracken – Iain Glen
Penny McCracken – Rachel McAdams



YOU ARE DEAD 
by Peter James (2015)

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace faces one of his toughest ever challenges when, in the midst of moving house one rainy Christmas, at the same time as having to bury and grieve for a beloved colleague, he finds himself with two very serious crimes on his desk: a young woman is abducted from the garage below the flats where she lives, while elsewhere in the city a body is uncovered by workmen – this too belonged to a young woman, though by the looks of it she was killed at least a couple of decades ago. Initially there is no obvious connection, but then another girl disappears, and another, and it dawns on Grace with more than a smattering of horror that he might be investigating Brighton’s first serial murder case in 80 years.

You’d think the ace investigator with the ultra-reliable and professional team would be well equipped to deal with this. But these are tough times for all involved, Grace in particular – because suddenly there is fresh information about his first wife, Sandy, who disappeared 10 years earlier and who, for a brief time at least, he was suspected of having murdered. This is more than a little bit distracting for him, but never let it be said that any maniac – no matter how sadistic or deranged – can get the drop easily on Roy Grace …

You Are Dead is the 11th outing for Peter James’s popular police hero, and for my money one of the best yet.

Grace is a hugely likable character. Not just a sharp and fearless detective, or the cool hand on the tiller of what is almost always a massive and complex police operation, but an everyman too – life gets in the way for him much as it does for the rest of us mere mortals, he has personal issues and professional issues, things aren’t always great either at home or in the office. As such, we completely empathise with him. (He also has a remarkably warm relationship with his goldfish, Marlon, which I find charming and amusing in equal measure). But despite all this, of course, the killers keep coming – and someone has to catch them. Yes indeed, the Roy Grace novels are a deadly serious business.  

You Are Dead doesn’t just rattle along at the usual frenetic pace, hitting us with twists and curve-balls at every turn, working its way inevitably to another breakneck climax, but more so than almost any of the previous novels, it amply illustrates one of Peter James’s greatest trademarks – his astonishingly detailed research.

From the beginning with Grace, James set himself a difficult task, focussing on the SIO, the guy in command, and thus, with each book, needing to give us a constant and accurate overview of everything happening with the investigation. That would be a mammoth job even without the need to weave it into a fast and intriguing narrative. But James pulls it off in You Are Dead with his usual effortless aplomb. All the authenticity is there – you actually feel you’re in a real Incident Room, surrounded by the most up-do-date crime investigation technology, in company with coppers who look and sound like real coppers – and yet none of it is intrusive. James’s police protocols and procedures are bang-on, his understanding of even minor legalities is superb, his handling of police relationships as realistic as I’ve ever seen – yet this is background stuff; the narrative itself remains uncluttered, its pace relentless. Like all the others, this at heart is a very human story, one man determinedly pursuing an enemy of society with his wits and his courage, and risking life, limb and love in the process.

Another unforgettable entry in the Roy Grace canon. Absolutely terrific. 

As I usually do, and purely for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if You Are Dead at some point makes it to the screen (there’s been talk for years about a TV series – which I personally would love to see, but I don’t think anything’s imminent, and even if it was, it obviously wouldn’t start with You Are Dead, so this one really is just for fun):

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace – Colin Firth
Cleo – Tamzin Outhwaite
ACC Cassian Pewe – Aiden Gillen


NAOMI’S ROOM 
by Jonathan Aycliffe (1991)

Cambridge professor, Charles Hillenbrand’s life comes to a crashing halt one snowy Christmas Eve when his four-year-old daughter, Naomi, is abducted during a shopping trip to Hamleys. When her mutilated body turns up a few days later in Spitalfields, his world ends.

Inconsolable, Charles and his wife, Laura, will never be the same again. They must now eke out a miserable, blame-filled existence in their once handsome townhouse, their formerly close relationship doomed, their careers on hold. But is Naomi really gone? Because the next thing they know, a haunting has commenced – initially little more than bumps in the night, though it soon escalates into far more terrifying phenomena: footsteps in the attic; strange faces peering from windows when no-one is supposed to be home; Naomi’s toys moving around apparently of their own volition. However, it is only when a troubled press photographer called Lewis presents Hillenbrand with a series of snapshots in which curious half-seen figures are visible in constant attendance on the family that it becomes apparent something more is at work here than the spirit of a happy child who doesn’t yet realise she is dead …

As a lifelong fan of supernatural fiction, I always knew that at some point I’d have to check out Jonathan Aycliffe, aka Denis MacEoin’s spine-chilling classic, Naomi’s Room, and for some inexplicable reason it’s taken me this long to do it. However, I got there in the end and I was not disappointed.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot, because basically there is a mystery to be solved here, and a very frightening one – which Hillenbrand, our tortured protagonist, must get to the bottom of (and then survive the horror of its shocking revelation!), or he’ll never find peace of mind again. Okay, that may sound familiar in a cosy ‘English ghost story’ sort of way. But it all really worked for me. The tone of Naomi’s Room is exactly the sort I like when it comes to spooky fiction. There is something of the Gothic about it, something of M.R. James. Hip young academics though they are, the Hillenbrands still live apart from the rest of us, cosseted in the elitist, hermetically-sealed world of Cambridge academia. But as with M.R. James’s best stories, ultimately that provides no protection against the insidious threat of some decidedly malevolent spirits, whose cruel intent becomes more and more apparent the further on you read.

Unlike many stories in this traditional vein, there is quite a bit of gore in this one, while the basic premise concerns the torture and murder of children – and the author makes no effort to conceal those details from us – so it’s a bit more disturbing than the norm. But don’t let that put you off, because if you’re here to be scared, you’re in the right place. By the latter stages of this novel, the atmosphere of dread is immense, the sense of helplessness in the face of the maleficent ‘other world’ overpowering.

Even with its dollops of grue, it may still sound a tad safe and conventional to some of you. I wouldn’t totally deny that, but it’s really an excellent chiller with full potential to keep you awake at night, and so is well deserving of the fine reputation it has gained for itself over the many years of its publication.

Once again, purely as a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Naomi’s Room were ever to make it to the screen. I think it would make a particularly good 'ghost story for Christmas' type drama, if the Beeb ever get around to doing more of them. (I believe it is currently under option somewhere, but then what isn’t?):

Charles Hillenbrand – David Tennant
Laura Hillenbrand – Lenora Crichlow
Lewis – Rhys Ifans
Detective Superintendent Ruthven – Sean Harris



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



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



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



DEVIL’S PEAK
by Deon Meyer (2005)

Devil’s Peak takes us into the heart of Cape Town’s Serious and Violent Crimes Unit, where one of the lead investigators, now a recovering alcoholic, finds himself pitted against the most dangerous opponent of his career.

DI Benny Griessel is an instinctively brilliant detective, a natural hunter of criminals. But hard drinking has destroyed his family life and made him a laughing stock in the department where once he was a legend. Not a good time for him to come up against ‘Artemis’, a vigilante serial-killer targetting child-abusers, who doesn’t just enjoy what appears to be advanced military training but is operating with the tacit approval of many of Griessel’s fellow cops.

One of the most startling thing about this crime masterwork from South African author, Deon Meyer, is that it was originally penned in Afrikaans. All the more credit, then, to translater KL Seegers for producing such a beautifully written and yet blood-pumpingly readable English language version.

But it isn’t just about the action. A far, far cry from your basic ‘cops and robbers’ or blow-by-blow ‘good guys v bad guys’, Devil’s Peak is a grown-up and multi-faceted tale, tough and visceral in tone, but also rich in flawed characters and deeply redolent of both urban and rural South Africa; not just the geographic landscape, but the political and social scene as well.

The three central personalities: drunken cop, Griessel, high class call-girl, Christine van Rooyen, and vigilante avenger, Thobela Mpayipheli, are so well-drawn that you can literally see them in front of you. Griessel in particular is a wonderful creation. You might be tempted to say, “okay, another alcoholic antihero … big deal”, but in this case it’s for real. By this I mean that Griessel’s recuperation from his alcoholism is every bit as gruelling as you’d expect it to be in reality. The reader isn’t spared a single torturous moment of his DTs, or allowed to forget for one minute the devastation his drinking has caused in both his private and public life. It makes him a hugely sympathetic if very conflicted hero, but hardly equips him to face the floodtide of heinous crimes exploding around him.

And yet this is all very serious stuff. The painful realities of an understaffed police force trying to function in the face of corruption, cynicism and spiralling crime rates, and in a society still divided and impoverished in so many ways, are never skimped on. There are times in Devil’s Peak when you really do wonder if there is any hope that good can overcome evil.

Anyway, I’ll say no more, because this novel has to be read cover to cover to be fully appreciated, and once you start you won’t be able to stop. I managed it in only two sittings, if I recall correctly.

A taut but very human crime thriller, which rises to a spectacularly brutal and exciting finale. No wonder Meyer is so highly rated. It’s my first one of his and won’t be my last. He deserves all the accolades.

Just as a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if we’re ever fortunate enough to see Devil’s Peak transferred to the screen (I think an adaptation may possibly be in development):

DI Benny Griessel – Arnold Vosloo
Thobela Mpayipheli, ‘Artemis’ – Idris Elba
Christine van Rooyen – Jessica Marais


THE DEEP
by Nick Cutter (2015)

When the world’s population is decimated by an incurable and rapidly expanding plague, mankind’s last hope rests with maverick scientist Clayton Nelson and his team as they test a possible solution at the foot of the Challenger Deep (40,000 feet below the ocean’s surface). But when all contact with the submarine base is suddenly cut – seemingly at Clayton’s own whim – the only remaining option is to send down his brother, Luke, to try and talk the nortoriously erratic genius around.

But Luke and Clayton, having shared a nightmarish childhood, don’t get on very well, and in any case there are things lurking down there that are beyond the normal comprehension of most human beings.

Make no mistake, the events that follow comprise pure horror – for all sorts of reasons.

Never has the terror of deep sea exploration been as fully and vividly realised as it is here. Nick Cutter takes us down through untold lightless fathoms to a realm that is alien in every sense of the word; an environment where oxygen itself turns toxic, where the tiniest chink in the hull could create an incoming jet of water so intense it will slice a man in half, and yet where native creatures exist that have no place in any sane creation. But it isn’t just the twisting of physics and biology that bedevils the reader’s mind here, it is Man’s helplessness in the face of it. With Hell triumphant on the outside, on the inside of the claustrophobic sea-base the foulness and disarray is horrendous; the sense of besiegement under millions of tonnes of crushing black water is overpowering. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book to which my most overriding response was “thank God I’m not there”.

And if all that isn’t bad enough, then there is the actual enemy – a force of evil crueller and more terrible than anything ever encountered on the ocean floor before (and just imagine what that actually means). A sentient something that will play catastrophic havoc with human minds, not to mention their anatomy, purely for reasons of its own fascination. To say more about this would be a real spoiler, but put it this way, there are some occasions when wickedness knows no bounds – quite literally; neither intellectual, spiritual, nor even physical. There are points in this novel where you must be prepared to be very disgusted indeed.

At the same time, Luke Nelson, a likeable hero in every possible way, is no more than an everyman. A veterinary surgeon, who by pure luck – pure bad luck in this case – happens to know the egomaniac scientist well. He has no skills of his own that he can bring to bear in this demonic zone, no specialist knowledge. His battle-scarred military sidekick, Lieutenant Alice Sykes, aside from being a submersible pilot, is in a similar position. The desperate twosome find themselves completely at the mercy of forces beyond their imagining, and yet somehow they must not just endure, but must save the world with their actions.

This an amazing piece of fiction. Another against-all-odds ordeal for the characters involved,  which races along at whipcrack speed and yet is written with great visual elan, including the complex technical stuff, which Cutter never shirks, but presents to us in quick, slick, easy-to-understand fashion. It is is also both horrifying and terrifying – in that numbing, near-nihilistic way that always seems to earmark those ‘adventures’ occurring on the very edge of human reality. An oceanic horror classic.

As always, and just for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if we ever get to see The Deep transferred to the screen:

Dr. Luke Nelson – David Franco
Lt Cdr. Alice Sykes – Charlise Theron
Prof. Clayton Nelson – James Franco

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