Other Authors A-M

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


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


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


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


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).


BLOW YOUR HOUSE DOWN 
by Pat Barker (1983)

In an industrial city in the Northeast of England in the early 1980s, not long after the crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper, another serial killer is on the loose, a faceless assailant who is slowly working his way through the town’s prostitutes, beating and strangling them, and then hacking them to death with a butcher’s knife.

There is a degree of panic on the streets, but it’s probably not as great as it would be were the victims not sex-workers. Likewise, while the police flood the district with detectives and undercover officers, they make little headway and adopt a distinctly unimaginative approach, waiting and watching from cars on the off-chance the killer will strike again, in other words using the street-walkers as living bait.

In the midst of this horror, a young mother in the neighbourhood, Brenda, is gradually descending into prostitution.

Abandoned by her waster husband with three children to feed and colossal debts to pay, she tries at first to get herself an honest job at what is referred to as the ‘Chicken Factory’, a hideous relic of the industrial past, where the birds, which come in alive, are killed, plucked, gutted and packed for sale (a fairly blunt simile for the working-girls themselves). The work is hard, slimy and sickening, grease covering everything, even getting into the tea, the floors swimming with blood and feathers.  

Brenda tries to stick it out but can’t, especially when she learns that the child-minder looking after her children is abusing them, which means that she must care for them herself during the day (so there goes the job, whether she likes it or not). With nothing else for it – the charity and assistance of neighours will only go so far – she finally takes to the streets.

This, of course, brings whole new degree of grimness to her life: not just the terror of standing in the shadows under the viaduct, knowing that other girls have died nearby, but also having to engage in lewd acts with all kinds of brutish, boorish men, learning to loath both them and herself in the process. It doesn’t even end when a more experienced fellow-prostitute, Kath, offers to show her the ropes. Kath is kind but has many problems of her own, including alcoholism and terrible judgement. Part One of the narrative ends in the most horrific circumstances, Kath falling foul of the prowling killer, being lured into a derelict house and there dying in the most graphic, ghastly and sexually explicit way, but only after the murderer – who remains anonymous in the cloying darkness of the nighttime backstreets – reveals himself to be an impotent nonentity.

Despite this, life for the other prostitutes goes on. Brenda is now part of a close-knit clique, who find comfort in each other’s company, especially when they’re in the pub together, and do the best they can to look out for each other when they’re on the street – even if there is now a new air of fear and despair, the sad face of Kath looking down at them all from billboards and posters.

One of them, Jean, responds slightly differently. Another of the killer’s recent victims, Carol, was her part-time lover, and she takes this loss so personally that she determines to get even with the madman herself. She thus goes out, working the streets alone, hoping that she’ll encounter him, and as she’s secretly armed, fully intending to kill him when he attacks her.

But Blow Your House Down is not a crime novel in the traditional sense, and Pat Barker did not write it to be a melodramatic revenge thriller. It’s very much a slice of brutal authenticity, strongly influenced by the dark tragedy that was the real-life Yorkshire Ripper case, in which the victims turned out to be tired and weary mothers, often struggling for money, rather than the tawdry glamour-pusses we see in the movies, and the villain a pathetic, inadequate nobody rather than some monstrous murdering devil like Hannibal Lecter or Leatherface (and in which, as also happens later in this novel, women were struck down who were not sex-workers, and whose lives and the lives of whose families are devastated as a result). 

As such, for all Jean’s courage, attempting to take the law into her own hands is never going to end well. Blood may well flow, but whose is it likely to be? …

Blow Your House Down was Pat Parker’s second novel, published ten years after the very successful Union Street, which also examined the difficult lives of working-class women in the industrial North of England. Inevitably, the fact that there’s a maniac on the loose changes the tone of this second book, but it’s important to reiterate that Blow Your House Down is not a murder mystery. It’s not a story about a serial killer, and it’s certainly not about those charged with catching him. Even Jean, the prostitute determined to get vengeance, is a sad, forlorn figure, who displays little heroism and almost no common sense at all as she undertakes her dangerous quest.

What’s it really about is the women themselves, the victims and the would-be victims, and when you think about it, that’s incredibly refreshing as, so often in books like this we walk with the killer and wallow in his madness, or focus on the cops, feeling every inch of their stress as they struggle to bring in their man, while the victims are treated like faceless slabs of meat.

Blow Your House Down turns all that on its head.

The police, on the few occasions they appear, are shadowy, ambiguous figures, who offer no comfort or reassurance to the street-women, while, though on occasion we do see things from the killer’s perspective – in that scene, for example, which comes straight out of such gritty cinema classics as PsychoFrenzy or The Boston Strangler – most of the time he’s in the background, little more than a rumour, an urban myth. Instead, for much of the narrative, the fear is caused by other men; not just the layabout boyfriends and drunken, violent husbands (though they do their bit to make the women’s lives even more arduous, one husband, Bill, becoming a police suspect for a time, which destroys his wife’s life in a way that the terrible injuries she survives never could), but the other guys who approach them in the darkness under the viaduct, or behind billboards bearing pictures of the dead, to offer money for sordid encounters – at least, the women hope they’re going to be sordid encounters, and not something a thousand times worse.

What an existence, you may think.

And you’re right. Because even in the more cheerful scenes, when the women gather to joke and drown their sorrows in The Palmerston, a pub in the heart of the red-light district, it’s always undermined by a sense of slow-burning dread, because – though there is a degree of bravado about it – both we and they know that they’re going to have to go out again shortly, and the fear factor is high.

So far so good. In fact, so far so excellent. The book makes for an intense and compelling read. But in character terms, the critics have been more circumspect.

The prostitutes' sorority is strong. They have to look out for each other, because nobody else will. These are people who have nothing, except their kids and each other, and all the while a killer is relentlessly hunting them. But this sisterly closeness is their group response to the crisis. Individually, they’re ghosts. They almost blend into one. You could assume that this is because all uniqueness has been hammered out of them by hardship. However, some readers have criticised Blow Your House Down for not stamping the women with stronger personalities. It’s possible to see them as having been individuals once, even if they aren’t any longer. But whatever the author’s aim, it’s undeniable that none of the characters really shows much depth.

However, if Pat Barker stints on deep character development, one thing she never holds back on is grimness. It would be easier, for the sake of taste and decency, for the author to gloss over the dirty details of this seedy world, but that is not what she’s about here. The dialogue is thick with vernacular and four-letter words. The sex scenes are strictly ‘wham slam thank-you, mam!’, minus romance or even eroticism, while, more often or not, the men are so nervous and embarrassed that they can’t even manage to make them about lust. The sites of these trysts are always backstreets and factory yards, amid filth, beer cans and used condoms.

The murder of Kath, as already mentioned, is one of the most distressing that I’ve ever seen on the written page and is purposely prolonged so that the reader isn’t spared one half-second, and because we are in the murderer’s mind while it happens, we are completely unmoved by any of that. It’s a simple, brutal act, which we perform for our own gratification, and the object of our rage might as well be a lifeless mannequin.

If none of this is enough, Pat Barker reflects the localties where these things happen in vivid detail. The Chicken Factory is a blood-spattered hellhole; the pub – The Palmerston – though noisy and crowded, is a classic example of those dingy street-corner boozers, filled with smoke and often volatile in mood; even the streets themselves are unforgiving. I served as a copper in the Manchester badlands in the 1980s, and lived all through the Yorkshire Ripper rampage, and can honestly say that Pat Barker completely captures the atmosphere of that dreary, post-industrial time when mills were empty shells, houses stood in boarded-up in rows, and everything looked as if it was shortly to be demolished.

Not everything about Blow Your House Down is considered to be perfect. The final sequence, which follows the fortunes of Maggie, a local factory-worker rather than a prostitute, who survives a savage attack that could conceivably be the work of the same killer, has been described as ‘odd’ and ‘out of place’. Though it is clearly intended to bridge the gap between the nocturnal world of sex-workers and the ordinary life of everyday folk, implying that the threat of random violence is to be dreaded across the board, especially when the victims are only chosen out of convenience, it maybe jars a little, and I can understand how it doesn’t provide a satisfactory conclusion to the narrative for everyone (especially if they were expecting the killer to be caught in a definitive, clear-cut way).

However, Blow Your House Down remains a remarkable and thought-provoking little book – it only clocks in at 176 pages – and provides an affecting, highly authentic and at times completely shocking read. Okay, it doesn’t really constitute a traditional thriller, but that was never the intention, and even though I’m a thriller fan, I found myself thinking about it for days and days after I’d finished reading. That makes it a winner for me and one that I have no hesitation in recommending to all fans of uber-dark fiction.  

As always, I’m now going to chip in with my recommendations for a cast should Blow Your House Down ever make it onto TV or film. Who knows whether this will ever happen? I’d love it to, though it would make for tough viewing, let me tell you. Anyway, even though I doubt any casting director would ever listen to me, here we go:

Brenda – Joanne Froggatt
Jean – Eve Myles
Kath – Claire Foy
Maggie – Helen McCrory
Bill – Ian Beattie


by Lindsey Barraclough (2012)

It is 1958, and Limehouse resident, Harry Drumm, decides that he can no longer look after his two daughters. His wife has been confined to an asylum thanks to an ever worsening mental condition, and he is struggling to hold down a job. Hoping, for the time being at least, that his girls will have a better life in the countryside, he sends them to live with their great Aunt Ida, who occupies Guerdon Hall, a moated manor house in the Essex village of Bryers Guerdon.

The children, 14-year old Cora, and her 10-year-younger sister, Mimi, are already disoriented when they arrive in the the remote spot, and this isn’t helped by the state of the Hall, which is a rotted, Gothic pile encircled by overgrown marshland, by the village itself, which is very poor, and especially by Aunt Ida, who is cold, mean-spirited, unflinchingly strict and seemingly determined to send them back to London at the first opportunity. On the few occasions she deigns to explain this, she simply says that Bryers Guerdon is no place for youngsters and promises to write to their father, demanding that he take them back.

This is fine by Cora and Mimi, who find the house dreary, damp and stuffy because all its windows are nailed shut, and filled with frightening paintings which take on new dimensions of terror at night. However, Harry does not come back to retrieve his daughters, and the lonely duo are forced to adapt to life in this mysterious village, making friends with two brothers, Roger and Peter Jotman, who come from a rumbustious but friendly household, and advise her that their aunt has a bad reputation locally. Rumours hold that she is a witch and that she murdered members of her own family, which is why she rarely leaves her home except for necessities, and hardly ever interacts with any of her neighbours.

To fill the long, hot days of summer holiday that lie ahead, the youngsters opt to investigate these rumours for themselves, exploring the village and its surrounding localities, and finally coming to All Hallows church, a shunned, semi-abandoned edifice in the woods, its grounds overhung by the ‘Gypsy Tree,’ where dolls and shoes hang from the branches, and accessible only by a locked lychgate, carved over the top of which are the words, Cave Bestiam, which they soon learn are Latin for the ominous phrase, ‘Beware the Beast’.

The more the children put themselves around and the more people they get to know, the more discomforted Cora becomes. Aunt Ida still hasn’t accepted them, and constantly scolds her for meddling in things that don’t concern her, but in addition to this, there are odd, unexplained events. Both girls feel as if some strange, frightening presence is drawing ever closer, while at the same time they hear whispered voices at night, seemingly trying to warn them, and even spot what look like the ghosts of children in the derelict churchyard.

Piece by piece, through a succession of interviews with garrulous local folk, and their examination of old documents and relics from a troubled past – in which Cora and Ida’s family in particular, the Guerdons, were helplessly entrapped – the story emerges that an age-old curse has awakened; something ancient and evil, which lurks in the encircling marshes, and over the the centuries has stolen away numerous of the Guerdon children. At one time, his name was Cain Lankin. He was a real person who lived hereabouts, albeit hideous to look upon and whose deeds were horrific, consorting with witches not the least of them. Inevitably, centuries later, decayed and foul, as carnivorous as ever, and known by the final name they gave him, ‘Long Lankin’ because he barely even fitted into the gibbet cage, he is now more terrible than ever, and he drools with hunger for four-year-old Mimi … 

As some may already know, the novel, Long Lankin, is based on an Old English ballad of approximately the same name (though there are various names, it has to be said: Long LankynLammikinBalankin, etc), the original author of which is unnamed and the date of composition, though unknown, thought to date back to Elizabethan times at least. It tells the story of a wealthy woman and her baby who are murdered by a malign being, which emerges from the marshy woodland surrounding their country home and is admitted to the residence by an untrustworthy female servant. One version of it is fully quoted at the start of the book, the sinister opening verse reading as follows:

Says milord to milady, as he mounted his horse:
“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.”
Says milord to milady, as he went on his way:
“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the hay.”

In some versions of the song, particularly the older ones, Lankin is a mason who has not been paid for work he performed on the property and is seeking to recompense himself with aristocratic blood. But in others, he is a bogeyman or monster – a Grendel-like figure, though a more modern, internet-age analogy might be with Slenderman – who is evil merely for the sake of it and sustains himself on the life-force of infant children.

Suffice to say that in the novel, Long Lankin, Lindsey Barraclough opts for the second of these explanations, casting Lankin as a dangerous, malevolent villain of supernatural origin. Though she details where he comes from, giving him a near-human backstory, it is flavoured with witchcraft and village superstition. And indeed, rural folklore is very much to the fore in this tale.

As I write, there is something of a renaissance in folk-themed horror stories, wherein the focus lies with mysterious rituals and customs, eerie fables, scary myths and half-told tales that may possess a kernel of unedifying truth. This is an area where I personally have an interest, much of my own written horror leaning towards the mythologies of old Britain, so as Long Lankin satisfies almost all of these criteria, it was hugely attractive to me from the outset.

That said, I initially hesitated because it is marked as a YA novel. It’s not for children by any means, but it is certainly aimed at a slightly younger readership than me. But in the end, I dived in, and I wasn’t at all disappointed. There isn’t much in the way of sex and violence, as you’d expect, but this is one exquisitely creepy tale, its setting beautifully realised.

It’s not just rural England in the 1950s, we’re in the marshlands of eastern Essex, at the height of a hot, sleepy summer, but Great Britain is not a happy land. The destructive impact of two world wars can be felt everywhere: back in smoky London, where city girls Cora and Mimi Drumm hail from, and out here in the swampy greenwood, where villages are poverty-stricken, roads impassable, cottages run down, and most of the adult population tired and cranky. There is also a prominent sense of loss. Many local men died in the wars that have only recently passed, and there is scarcely a family of any class that hasn’t been bereaved to a greater or lesser extent. For a so-called YA novel, this is a painful and grown-up portrayal of a society that has triumphed over Hitler, but as would always be the case after such massive conflict, has paid a terrible price.

Of course, all this embitterment contrasts neatly with the book’s younger cast, who, in the way of children the world over, breeze their way through the summer holidays, oblivious to adult woes, playing and generally having fun (until the nightmare figure of Lankin arrives, of course). This enables Barraclough to indulge in some outstanding character work.

In Cora, Roger, Mimi and Peter, but in the older two children particularly, she creates a bunch of believable, happy-go-lucky youngsters, who, despite the hardships and privations of their everyday lives, are inquisitive, excitable and eager to ramble around the sun-drenched countryside, never letting anything so mundane as low-quality food, hand-me-down clothes, a clip round the ear or even a spooky old graveyard get them down. But these aren’t just the scampering, barefoot urchins of Enid Blyton. There’s a work ethic among these post-war brats, and a sense of duty: they do as they’re told, helping their parents out where they can and taking responsibility for their younger siblings because they live in a real but damaged world, which they know must be rebuilt. At the same time, each one is clearly an individual, with habits and traits specifically designed for them by the different lifestyles they up until now have led; Roger carefree for example, Cora sadder and more serious.

It’s the same with the adults. They are colourful but often multi-layered: Mrs Jotman, the ever-tired country housewife, who nevertheless is more of a mum to Cora and Mimi than their own mother has ever been; Harry Drumm, the Jack-the-lad Eastender, a chirpy character who, despite endless promises, never seems able to live up to his kids’ expectations; Gussie, the mad old cat-lady with her stumpy teeth and foul-smelling home, and a deep knowledge of rural lore forced upon her by terrible experiences during her girlhood; Mr Thorston, the scholarly, university-educated cottager who had so much to offer the world and gave it up so that he could look after his ailing wife; and Ida Eastfield, the stern auntie figure, but also the most complex person in this tale, and the one around whom most pathos is woven – because though she is unfriendly to the children and loses her temper easily, deep down this is through fear and guilt rather than dislike, and because she knows what lurks beyond the manor moat, her own tragic history intricately entwined with it, the horror of which is more than she can stand.

Which brings us at last to Cain Lankin, also a tragic figure, an outcast, a leper, a person so reviled in his day that his apparent death went unlamented. Yes, all the best monsters are able to touch some nerve inside us, to make us feel sorry for them, even if in this case it is only brief. Cain Lankin, we feel, was destined to do evil from his earliest days, and when he appears to us now in the 20th century, he’s adopted that mantle to its fullest extent. Whatever cruelties he and his lady-friend suffered, he has now repaid them a hundred times more often than necessary, and he continues to do so with obsessive, vampire-like relish.

Inevitably, it is Lankin who provides some of the most frightening moments in this book. And, YA or not, they are genuinely hair-raising. There is more than a touch of MR James when his hideous, emaciated form comes creeping in the night, crawling through the undergrowth on all-fours as he closes silently on his unsuspecting prey. But to say any more about that would be the ultimate spoiler. 

If I have any criticism at all, it’s that I’m not massively sold on the novel’s division into three separate and regularly changing, POVs – Cora’s, Roger’s and Ida’s. I’m not sure it adds anything to the narrative, which proceeds at its own stately pace and is all the more compelling because of it, layer upon layer of mystery being added as the story unfolds. But ultimately, it doesn’t spoil anything either, so I’m not really complaining.

The main thing is – don’t be put off by Long Lankin’s YA status. This is an effective and atmospheric horror novel, not exactly pacy, but richly evocative of rural England in the old days, with its long, hot summers, its village spells, its carven lychgates and its ancient, ancestral curses.

If that’s the stuff you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed.

Usually, as you probably know by now, I like to complete my book reviews with a bit of fantasy casting, should the project ever make it to the screen. On this occasion, though, I’m going to pass for two reasons. Firstly, Long Lankin is constructed around its child cast, and I don’t know enough about the current best child actors, so it would be a pointless effort. Secondly, because it has already been optioned for development by a British company … so, here’s hoping for a TV production as good (and as scary) as the source material.


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


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


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


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


RAIN GODS 
by James Lee Burke (2009)

In the dusty southwest Texas town of Chapala Crossing, nine young Thai women, prostitutes by trade but double-hatting as drugs mules, are smuggled across the Mexican border and then machine-gunned to death, their mangled corpses bulldozed into the ground behind an abandoned clapboard church.

One of those participating in the atrocity is scar-faced Iraq veteran and full-time loser, Pete Flores – but Pete genuinely thought this would be nothing more than an illegal immigration job and is so horrified when the shooting starts that he flees town, taking level-headed bar-singer girlfriend, Vicki Gaddis, with him. Inadvertently, this puts both of them on the hit-list of whoever it was ordered and/or perpetrated the horrendous crime, and Pete – a kid who never seems to plan anything in advance – has no clue where they can go to find sanctuary, as he strongly suspects that if he calls the cops, he’s already so involved that he’ll finish up on Death Row.

Meanwhile, the corpses are uncovered by veteran lawman, Sheriff Hackberry Holland. We’ve met Hack before in James Lee Burke’s writing. A relative of Billy Bob Holland, who stars in a trio of his own novels, Hack was the central character in another Burke novel, Lay Down My Sword and Shield, but that was set an amazing 38 years prior to this one, when he was a vain young lawyer, hard-drinking, self-centred and much more immature than he is today. Now, in Rain Gods, he’s a lean, taciturn old-timer, hard-bitten by his job but also by the demons that continue to haunt him. He can’t get over the loss of his wife, and at the same time is tortured by memories of his POW days during the Korean War, when he was brutalised into betraying his comrades.

Despite all this, aided by his attractive and spirited deputy, Pam Tibbs, hindered by the aggressive and bullish immigration official, Isaac Clawson , and unsure whether or not to trust his semi-indifferent FBI contact, Ethan Riser, Hack slowly starts to make ground on the case. He forms a theory that the trafficked women were hijacked by someone whose main interest was the balloons of heroin in their bellies – and in the process uncovers a nest of viper-like criminality in this quiet, isolated place were previously nothing ever happened.

The problems for Chapala Crossing really began in 2005, it seems, when Hurricane Katrina swept a whole host of organised crime figures westward out of New Orleans. Without doubt the most dangerous of these is Josef Sholokoff, a Russian Mafia boss who now resides in Phoenix, Arizona, but who still exerts life and death control over a whole range of verminous criminals (and who was also probably the ‘owner’ of the murdered Thai women and the drugs they were importing). Not much further down the scale of evil comes rival and big-time Galveston pimp, Artie Rooney, who could easily have organised the hijack, and his hardcase enforcer, Hugo Cistranos. Then there is Nick Dolan, a more complex character – a casino and strip-club owner but also a restaurateur with a ‘family man’ side to him. Dolan is less obviously a gangster; he even has a characterful and law-abiding wife, Esther. The evidence increasingly suggests that Dolan was involved in the massacre too, but Holland isn’t totally buying it. Dolan feels like a classic fall-guy to him.

The real fly in everyone’s ointment, though, is Jack ‘Preacher’ Collins, a religiously inclined serial killer who rents himself out to the highest bidder as an ultra-ruthless hitman. Collins was almost certainly the shooter in the Thai killings – that’s no spoiler as you come to this conclusion early in the narrative – and now he is put on the trail of everyone else threatening to upset the apple-cart. Collins is a particularly difficult guy to deal with, even for those who are supposedly on his side; though he appears sane, he follows his own obscure rules, and there are times when almost any comment – no matter how innocent – may be taken by him as a provocation. Though he’s a Bible reader, this doesn’t prevent him regarding himself as the literal scourge of God, and a guy who, though self-admittedly ruthless, is always correct in his beliefs and actions. To complete the all-round maniac picture, he dons a fedora and a trench-coat when he’s on the job, and wields an old-fashioned Thompson submachine gun, so he looks more like a bootleg era gangster than a modern-day assassin – and the blazing, multi-round overkill of his attacks only reinforces this.

Holland and Tibbs, meanwhile, find themselves in one high-risk situation after another thanks to two of Rooney’s less intelligent but still very dangerous sidekicks – Bobby Lee Motree and Liam Eriksson. As if that’s not enough, their investigation gains no real assistance from FBI chief, Riser, who doesn’t really care what happens in Texas so long as the case eventually shows him a way to snare the really big fish in this pond, Josef Sholokoff.

Add to this dust-laden devil’s brew Holland and Tibbs’ repressed romantic relationship, which is causing them no end of problems because it’s distracting them both from their work, and you have a pair of local – to a certain extent ‘hick’ – cops who feel increasingly out of their depth.

Meanwhile, Flores and Gaddis remain on the run, moving from one so-called safe place to the next, but Jack Collins and his crew are only ever a couple of steps behind. There have been plenty of killings up to this point; the badlands of South Texas have surely never seemed badder or bloodier than this (hence perhaps, several references to the nearby Alamo!) – but we know in our bones that this situation is likely to get a whole lot worse before it gets better …

Rain Gods pulls James Lee Burke out of the Louisiana bayou, where his more regular hero, Detective Dave Robicheaux, pursues trigger-happy criminals of the swampland variety, and pitches him into the no less picturesque environment of another iconic Deep South back-country, the Texas southwest, where the landscape is barren and drifting with tumbleweed and the towns desolate and windblown. 
Despite this, comparisons between Hack – who now features in three novels, this being the second – and Robicheaux are going to be inevitable, though this is mainly in terms of the central character.
Robicheaux is also an alcoholic loner cop with a hell-raising background. And though younger than Hack, he’s not younger by a great deal. In addition, the two cops share a similar laconic air, and are often lost in introspective musings. 

But, you know … I don’t care.

If you pick up a James Lee Burke novel, or indeed any novel by an author you admire greatly, it’s hardly the case that you’ll hope or expect that this time he is going to speak to you in a different voice. And anyway, Rain Gods is an exquisite piece of crime fiction. It’s what you’d call a border noir or a rural noir, rather than a Southern Gothic – if such things actually matter – and it’s subsequently soaked with atmosphere. And as you’d expect, of course, it is beautifully written. In many ways, this has become James Lee Burke’s trademark, and the standout difference between him and so many other crime writers, his descriptive prose flowing deliciously and yet non-intrusively. Some reviewers have complained that maybe there is a little bit too much of this, and that it’s all just a touch too colourful and poetic for a hardboiled crime novel. But judge for yourself; check out this early, scene-setting paragraph at Chapala Crossing:

On the burnt-out end of a July day in Southwest Texas, in a crossroads community whose only economic importance had depended on its relationship to a roach paste factory the EPA had shut down twenty years before, a young man driving a car without window glass stopped by an abandoned blue-and-white stucco filling station that had once sold Pure gas during the Depression and was now home to bats and clusters of tumbleweed. Next to the filling station was a mechanic’s shed whose desiccated boards lay collapsed upon a rusted pickup truck with four flat bald tyres. At the intersection a stoplight hung from a horizontal cable strung between two power poles, its plastic covers shot out by .22 rifles.

Intrusive? Overly poetic?

Not a bit of a it.

For me, it’s perfect, dropping you straight into the time and place, totally capturing the heat, the sweat, the dust, the chirping of the cicadas in the creosote bushes, not to mention the rugged, dangerous aura of a wilderness outpost where the law hangs by a thread.

Character-wise, Burke does his usual amazing job, presenting us with a tough but vulnerable hero. Hackberry Holland is your archetypal seen-it-all oldster, a veteran peace-officer whose been in the job almost as long as he can remember and never seems to be off-duty. The result, he’s now a pillar of plain-spoken morality and a shrewd judge of character, who doesn’t suffer fools. Underlying all this, of course, is sorrow and regret for the many errors and losses of his past. He might be a septuagenarian, but Hack is still damaged goods, someone you might in real life find a little bit scary but at the same time someone you can root for. He’s also a survivor, a modern-day Wyaat Earp, the kind of cool, gruff customer who’s emerged from lots of gunfights because he knows to go into them with his gun already drawn.

Pam Tibbs is a perfect foil. Younger than Hack, but not a young woman, she too has been around, done it, seen it, etc. She is now old enough and wise enough to see past her boss’s craggy exterior, and to empathise with and adore the manly heart that is buried somewhere deep inside. She’s also a career cop, long-serving, authoritative, fearless in confrontation and very handy with a firearm. For all that she’s tough on the outside, though, a very pleasant lady lies within, which, thanks to some skilled writing, we learn about through her interactions with others rather than because we are told about it.

The atmosphere between these two literally crackles. It’s not merely that they are attracted to each other, it’s the fact that they are all each other has got in this harsh desert world, and that they become ever more aware of this as the tide of villainy rises around them. 

On the subject of Rain Gods’ villains … well, once again we are in vintage James Lee Burke territory, dealing not just with amoral scoundrels, but with complex individuals too, men who have no concern whatsoever for the fate of anyone other than themselves, but who are still able to function in the real world, who are much more than just Old West-style desperadoes. Some of them think only of the next pay-cheque, but others want to get out of this – they’re become frightened by the craziness of it all and fancy a taste of ordinary life, even if that’s something they’ve never known.

Nick Dolan is a perfect example. A Jewish guy who grew up on the wrong end of racist abuse, he knows what it’s like to be powerless and picked on, and so, though he’s a pimp by trade (among other stuff), he shies away from cruelty and wants to do good things too. He genuinely loves his family, and for their sake wants to start going straight.

At the opposite end of the hoodlum spectrum sits Josef Sholokoff. To a certain extent in crime fiction, Russian mobsters are the villains of the moment. With an unlimited capacity for violence, revenge and intimidation, they are the ogres and giants of the 21st century, the enemies who there’ll never be any option other than to eliminate. Sholokoff is one of the least well-developed characters in the book; he only appears in one scene, but it’s a nerve-rendingly scary moment, the guy living like a deranged king amid his court of murderous madmen. It’s little wonder that Sholokoff is Ethan Riser’s main target, the slaughter of nine drugs mules seeming irrelevant when stacked against his day-to-day acts of routine evil.

If Sholokoff is an uncharacteristically thinly-drawn character in Rain Gods, that’s not a real problem for me. His role primarily is to be the elemental force, the dark storm in the distance. The more immediate war occurs between law officers Holland and Tibbs and Preacher Jack Collins.

Collins is the criminal we spend most time with in Rain Gods and is therefore the most multi-layered in terms of personality. And what a personality it is. He is utterly insane; that is plain, but he’s not a homicidal maniac. His oblique attitude has evolved over many years of involvement in violence and bloodshed. But he adheres to his odd beliefs rigidly, which leads him to spare some you’d expect him to kill and kill others you’d expect him to spare. His daily reasoning is often impossible to penetrate. You might go out of your way to assist him, but don’t expect thanks. Don’t expect anything, because you could do him a really big favour – and his response might still be to pull the trigger on you. I can’t say too much more about Collins for fear of spoiling the story, but this is one wonderful and genuinely chilling bad guy. From the very outset, Hackberry Holland and Pam Tibbs have a real job on their hands with this character, not to mention Pete Flores and Vicki Gaddis, who you imagine could keep on running to the ends of the Earth and they still wouldn’t be safe.

I found Rain Gods a thumpingly enjoyable thriller, and a very, very fast read. Everything is so visible; you can smell it, you can feel it, you can see it. The people in the book are real, the landscapes dramatic, and the situation as frightening as any you’ll encounter in mystery thrillers. James Lee Burke is widely regarded as a literary lodestone, and with very good reason. When it comes to noir, whether it’s deep in the Louisiana swamps, or out on the sun-scorched badlands, his prose lives and breathes – at least, as much as the heat and dust and flying bullets allow it to. Rain Gods yet again proves that he’s an emperor among his kind.

Of course, Burke has been adapted for screen many times, but on the basis that I don’t think Rain Gods has had that pleasure yet, I’m now going to do my usual thing and nip in first with some suggestions for casting. Only a bit of fun, of course – who would listen to me (even though I think all of these actors would be superb in the respective roles)? It would be an expensive production, mind you. But then, as I always say, I have the advantage of a limitless budget. So, here we go:

Sheriff Hackberry Holland – Jeff Bridges
Deputy Pam Tibbs – Jennifer Connelly
Jack ‘Preacher’ Collins – Johnny Depp
Nick Dolan – Adrien Brody
Esther Dolan – Winona Ryder
Hugo Cistranos – Oscar Isaac
Artie Rooney – Robert Patrick
Pete Flores – Diego Boneta
Vicki Gaddis – Selena Gomez
Ethan Riser – Hugo Weaving
Isaac Clawson – Josh Brolin
Josef Sholokoff – Gary Oldman
Bobby Lee Motree – Joel Edgerton


THE GRIN OF THE DARK 
by Ramsey Campbell (2007)

London-based northerner, Simon Lester, feels that he’s on the verge of making a breakthrough in his chosen career of film journalism.

He almost managed it once before when he found himself working for the controversial movie magazine, Cineassed – though all of that went belly-up when Simon and his reckless editor, Colin Vernon, got the mag sued for libel. Since then, Simon’s been employed at a petrol station, with nothing to offer his pragmatic fiancée, Natalie Halloran, other than vague guarantees that all will be well eventually.

But yes … now, at last, it seems to have happened.

High-flying academic, and former tutor of Simon’s, Rufus Wall, offers him a commission to write a film studies textbook for London University’s new line, with a £10,000 advance. Simon finally thinks that he’s arrived, but not everyone shares this viewpoint. Natalie will only believe that her beloved’s career is back on track when she sees it, while her parents – Warren and Bebe, who also happen to be Simon’s landlords – remain steadfastly unimpressed, thinking that Simon should get a proper job, and wishing that their daughter was back with her ex, the smooth and moneyed Nicholas (who also happens to be father to her lively young son, Mark).

Of course, Simon, agog with excitement that someone will finally pay him to do what he loves, brushes all this aside in his quest to find a suitable topic for the new book, settling on the career of one Tubby Thackeray, a British music hall clown turned Hollywood silent era comedian, who eventually was blacklisted because his brand of slapstick was so demented that public order situations arose whenever he appeared (some viewers were even said to have lost their minds).

It isn’t perhaps the wisest choice, because Tubby Thackeray really has been expunged from movie history. Encouraged by young Mark, who catches a snippet of Tubby in action and falls in love with the silent era legend – to an inordinate degree, it seems to us, though Simon, typically, doesn’t notice this – he commences his research, but finds it more of a challenge than he expected. Those who allegedly know about Tubby seem reluctant to talk, and the few bits of written information he can find are located at obscure, antiquarian-type events, where he has to leaf through piles of dead newspapers and deal with increasingly strange personalities.

And that’s another thing about this affair … the strangeness.

From the moment, Simon starts looking into Tubby Thackeray, curious events occur. Any useful intel he finds on the internet seems to change from one viewing to the next. He constantly hears deranged cackling from behind apartment doors or on the other sides of bookstacks. In the corners of his vision, he glimpses creepy, grinning, clown-like men, who seem to find his every move – and especially his mistakes – hilarious. When he finally locates some real footage of Tubby, he thinks it radical and inventive for the time, but also dark and disturbing. Was Thackeray really doing comedy, or something much more sinister?

Meanwhile, there are other distractions. Bebe and Warren Halloran are a constant source of discouragement, while the insufferable Nicholas seems to be showing up ever more regularly, which threatens Simon’s relationship with Mark, though even more so his relationship with Natalie, who is turning progressively cooler with him. It’s also an unpleasant development when Rufus Wall foists a new editor on him – Colin Vernon, of Cineassed notoriety – while Simon also makes the mistake of engaging in a chat-room debate with an anonymous but self-proclaimed expert on the silent comedy greats, who goes by the nickname Smilemime. It’s a futile exercise, but Simon finds himself getting drawn in, wasting more and more time arguing with someone he doesn’t even know, and yet who increasingly appears to know him.

At the same time, the people he meets in real life are no less easy to deal with.

Bolshy Manchester man, Charlie Tracy, appears well informed about Tubby Thackeray, but is an awkward and suspicious individual, who no one would want to rely on unless they had to. And when Simon heads to California, to interview Wilhelmina, the granddaughter of Orville Hart, who directed some of Tubby’s movies, he finds her a coked-out porn queen, whose ranch-like home is populated by nubile females of a distinctly weird and predatory nature (and who – and this is Simon’s real concern, given that Natalie is waiting at home – enjoy putting all their conquests on the internet!). 

All this time, meanwhile, Christmas is coming, and Simon feels that a visit home may be necessary, especially when he learns that his native Preston, in Lancashire, once played host to a famous music hall incident, when Tubby Thackeray roused the crowd to much more than laughter. But Simon’s home has a cloying atmosphere all of its own, his mother in the early stages of senility and his father unable to cope, while the derelict theatre where they eventually take him is a horror story in its own right.

And all the while, that background strangeness intensifies, the hapless Simon shifting through altered states as he determinedly tries to ignore the phantoms dogging him during his quest to fully expose Tubby Thackeray, a comic genius and an apparent prince of chaos …

A warning from the outset: if you like your horror stories cruel, garish and filled with blood and violence, then don’t bother with The Grin of the Dark. However, if you’re a cerebral scare fan, and you don’t mind a slow-burn atmosphere, you can’t really afford to miss this one.

Not that Campbell is overly subtle. Make no mistake, there is a real horror at the heart of this tale, and it leaks out through the pores as you work your way along. Much of it is intensely psychological, even though there is no question that we are dealing with supernatural forces, and malevolent ones at that. Simon Lester’s mental disintegration is unrelenting, taking us into a surrealist netherworld of obsession and paranoia, where his seemingly harmless quest to research a long-forgotten comedian doesn’t just see him encounter hostility at every turn, much of it disturbingly irrational, but literally awakens demons.

In many ways, The Grin of the Dark is vintage Ramsey Campbell. We’re in a bleak urban environment where, even though we flit back and forth between London and Northwest England, everything is faded and decayed, which is populated by jobsworths and functionaries so unhelpful as to be almost obstructive, and yet, only thinly disguised by this aura of the depressingly mundane, we sense constant, simmering evil, a near-Lovecraftian presence of the bizarre, which we regularly glimpse – or think we glimpse, because, in classic Campbell style, we can never be absolutely sure.

Simon Lester himself is a typical Campbell hero: an essentially well-meaning guy, a workaday everyman, a little introverted and intellectually absorbed, whose pursuits are innocent if niche, but at the same time someone who doesn’t connect easily with others and is therefore mistrusted (and who, on occasion, needs to man up in his confrontations). But he has a good relationship with Mark, his stepson-to-be, while the strong and personable Natalie has seen something in him that she wants to marry, so we are firmly in ‘good guy’ territory. On top of that, you can’t help but root for the bloke when he encounters so much opposition. His soon-to-be in-laws, Warren and Bebe, for example, are frankly hateful, so hostile to their daughter’s choice of boyfriend, so belittling of almost everything he does that it’s no wonder he appears to lack confidence.

We’re also in traditional Campbell country in terms of several classy horror set-pieces.

It’s an absolute staple of this author’s fiction that low-key creepiness will abound, and The Grin of the Dark is completely true to that. But in addition to these lesser but ongoing tortures, we are also plunged into some epic scare situations, including a head-trip sequence in a run-down circus in the heart of wintry London, and most terrifyingly of all – and this scene is Ramsey Campbell at his very best! – an exploration of the derelict Preston theatre, where a sense of fear is palpable from the moment the investigators force entry, but soon becomes utterly overwhelming.

Ramsey Campbell is not regarded as ‘Britain’s Greatest Living Horror Writer’ for nothing, of course. And even in other scenes, where the terror isn’t as full-on, the air of menace stems from an increasing dislocation of reality. For example, a straightforward presentation that Simon makes to a Tubby Thackeray fan-club becomes a nightmarish ordeal. Likewise, his journey to California to interview the hedonistic Wilhemina Hart, which seems to crash head-on into a follow-up trip to Amsterdam, is a triumph of drug and porn-induced disorientation.

Campbell also makes excellent use of a very new kind of monster, the internet troll.

Simon Lester’s ongoing duel with the creepy madman, Smilemime, which he gets into initially for the right reasons because he’s trying to learn everything he can about the elusive Tubby, soon becomes a hellish narrative in its own right. Not every reviewer has favoured this aspect of the novel, calling it unnecessary and protracted, but for me it works perfectly. The smugly arrogant Smilemime is only one facet of the malignancy Simon seems to have disturbed, and it’s a very potent one. This part of the book also serves as a sobering lesson to the rest of us about the futility of engaging online with shallow, nameless narcissists who may demonstrate countless shortcomings – spelling, grammar, etc – and yet who will always win because they are content to spend all day/week/month (as long as it takes) doing nothing other than trying to get the better of their perceived opponents.

All through the book, of course, and this is perhaps the real success of The Grin of the Dark, the evil Tubby lurks close by, constantly on the verge of breaking loose – even though he only physically appears in snippets of crackly film or sepia-toned newspapers. Needless to say, on those few occasions when we do see him, he is a demon lord, seeming to combine every strange and menacing aspect of those heavily made-up, wildly gesticulating comics of the gaslight age, performing antics so outlandish that you can easily imagine it having a damaging effect on audiences not used to such onscreen anarchy.      

I should add that not all reviews of The Grin of the Dark have been hugely positive. Ramsey Campbell has a unique style. He conceals clues which, if you miss them the first time around, may mean that you have to roll back a few chapters to check again. Certain readers haven’t appreciated this, though I think it’s an acceptable and clever device. Likewise, others have expressed impatience with the clown factor, calling it a cliché, and indeed there are clowns aplenty in this book, not just Tubby himself, though – and I stress this – these are no axe-wielding maniac clowns of the modern-day slasher variety. All their manifestations are connected to that golden age of comedy, and, once again, to those extreme and harrowing lengths so many silent era practitioners went to in order to immortalise themselves.

At the end of the day, in an age when horror suffers almost permanently from bad press – so many writing it off as gory, derivative nastiness, Ramsey Campbell is still one of the genre’s great breaths of fresh air. A skilled and intelligent writer, he has the ability to lay out deep, macabre mysteries and to invoke genuine chills from the most everyday situations, plucking at nerves we scarcely knew we had, all the while shedding barely a drop of blood.

The Grin of the Dark is a great example of this, recounting a complex but genuinely frightening tale and setting it in a world that closely resembles ours and yet is increasingly and distressingly off-kilter. If you’re a horror fan and you haven’t yet read this one, you really need to. 

It’s one of the great puzzles to me that Ramsey Campbell’s work – and it constitutes a vast body – has never (to my knowledge) received any kind of film or TV treatment. I’ve constantly told myself that some kind of adaptation must only be around the corner. His short stories in particular scream to occupy a ‘Christmas chiller’ slot, but in the absence of that, for the moment at least, we can only fantasise – which is what I’m going to do now. Here, as usual at the end of one of my reviews, is a personal take on who should make up the cast-list should The Grin of the Dark ever hit the screen.

Simon Lester – Jack O’Connell
Natalie Halloran – Ellen Page
Warren Halloran – Gabriel Byrne
Bebe Halloran – Veronica Cartwright
Charlie Tracy – Stephen Graham
Rufus Wall – Dexter Fletcher
Colin Vernon – Chris O’Dowd
Wilhelmina Hart – Jennifer Love Hewitt
Tubby Thackeray – Bill Skarsgård


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


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 PUPPET SHOW 
by MW Craven (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


THE 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


THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP 
ed. by Ellen Datlow (2018)

Widely esteemed editor, Ellen Datlow, the creator of innumerable top-class horror anthologies, finally turns her informed gaze to the ocean. The result is this hugely imaginative and varied collection of chilling tales set around and beneath the sea. 

First of all, rather than outline each contribution on a blow-by-blow basis, I’ll let the official Night Shade blurb prepare the ground, as that nicely hints at the salt-scented horrors you can expect.

Stranded on a desert island, a young man yearns for objects from his past. A local from a small coastal town in England is found dead as the tide goes out. A Norwegian whaling ship is stranded in the Arctic, its crew threatened by mysterious forces. In the nineteenth century, a ship drifts in becalmed waters in the Indian Ocean, those on it haunted by their evil deeds. A surfer turned diver discovers there are things worse than drowning under the sea. Something from the sea is creating monsters on land.

In The Devil and the Deep, award-winning editor Ellen Datlow shares an all-original anthology of horror that covers the depths of the deep blue sea, with brand new stories from New York Times bestsellers and award-winning authors such as Seanan McGuire, Christopher Golden, Stephen Graham Jones, and more.

I’ve always been a lover of the sea. I sail it whenever I can, I poke around its edges, I delve beneath the surface. Its legends, of course, are utterly fascinating, not to mention chilling. Even without them, it would be easy to imagine unspeakable horrors lurking in the fathomless gloom of the deep. No wonder the ocean has hit us with so many tales of ghosts, monsters, mermaids, lost cities, sunken wrecks. With all that in mind, how could I resist this particular anthology, especially as it had been put together by one of my favourite editors?

So … did it live up to my expectations?

In so many ways, yes. That said, its diversity of non-conventional themes also caught me a little by surprise, though it really shouldn’t have done. Ellen Datlow is a horror editor of eclectic tastes. I should have expected from the outset that she’d be less interested in Hodgson-type tales of krakens and gillmen, or sci-fiey trips into the abyss to uncover lost extraterrestrial artefacts, instead preferring much more intellectual and thought-provoking concepts.

Such as Siobhan Carroll’s Haunt, wherein an 18th century cargo ship is damaged by a monsoon and then haunted by the spectral form of a slaver, its crew picked off one by one, even those who regret their former involvement in the infamous trade. Or Ray Cluley’s The Whalers Song, in which a Norwegian whaling vessel is holed below the waterline and its crew washed up on a desolate, mysterious shore, which is strewn as far as the eye can see with the bones of sea-going mammals.

I think it could be argued that not all the stories are essentially connected to the sea. Simon Bestwick’s straightforward and very well-written Deadwater, which follows the fortunes of a habour-side waitress and her determination to investigate the drowning death of her depressed friend, is more about people than the ocean, though the author’s neat prose and ever-perceptive analysis of damaged relationships (not to mention his mischievous and highly effective use of unreliable narrative) creates a fine opening entry for the book.

Even more removed from the roaring reefs and abyssal depths is Bradley Denton’s A Ship of the South Wind, which at first glance is a bit of a cheat as it’s set amid the oceans of grass on America’s great plains of the 19th century and derives from frontier tales about so-called ‘wind wagons’, which allegedly saw pioneers of the Old West attach sails to their wheeled rigs in order to enable swifter travel across the prairie (though there was a real ocean there once too, we are also reminded). Though perhaps the most ambiguous of all the stories in The Devil and the Deep, and the one least concerned with the physical reality of our oceans, is Stephen Graham Jones’ entertaining curiosity Broken Record, in which a shipwrecked traveller is stranded on a comic-strip desert island, and the only ten things he is able to salvage are the ten essential items he was asked to make a list of when he was a child. There isn’t a great deal of horror in this one, but it’s certainly a head-trip.

All that said, this antho is not entirely po-faced and deadly serious. Michael Marshall Smith plays it for laughs (a little of the schoolboy variety, it has to be said) in Shit Happens, the tale of an executive jamboree on the Queen Mary, which finds itself disrupted by a zombie/cannibal outbreak.

At the same time, other stories lean more towards the traditional. Fodder’s Jig by Lee Thomas and What My Mother Left Me by Alyssa Wong concern themselves with monsters, though in unexpected, atypical ways, even though the former touches a little on the Chthuhlu mythos and the latter is a rumination on the legend of the selkie.

There are ghosts too, of a sort. Not just in Haunt, but in Terry Dowling’s The Tryal Attract, which sees an Aussie suburbanite learn a terrible truth from a sea-scoured skull in the upstairs back room of a neighbour’s house, and much more subtly in Steve Rasnic Tem’s achingly sad Saudade, wherein a recently-made widower takes a sea-cruise for senior singles, but, though he initially can’t overcome his grief and longing for the life he has lost, then meets a dangerously alluring woman.

But is there much in the way of real terror to be found here? Is this anthology deserving of the horror shelf? This is a question I need to answer, because some online critics have made the accusation that The Devil and the Deep simply isn’t scary enough.

Well … horror is often in the eye of the beholder when it comes to fiction. As I stated earlier, Ellen Datlow hasn’t opted to include anything too obviously of the schlock school, but that doesn’t mean the nerves don’t jangle now and then.

The Curious Allure of the SeaThe Deep Sea Swell and He Sings of Salt and Wormwood, by Christopher Golden, John Langan and Brian Hodge respectively (and more about these three later), are all built on very disturbing notions, while Seanan McGuire’s Sister, Dearest SisterLet Me Show You Down to the Sea and AC Wise’s A Moment Before Breaking both concern vengeance from the depths, and are distinctly dark at heart, so you don’t get an easy ride from either of those.

At the end of the day, those who read short horror fiction widely, will know Ellen Datlow’s work well, and can be assured that The Devil and the Deep is exactly the sort of book they would probably expect from her, filled with high quality fiction, and boasting a wide range of subjects and a compelling line-up of very accomplished authors, each doing their bit to ensure that you’ll never run blithely into the waves again.

And now …

THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP – the movie

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

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

Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the readers, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories to each other. It could be that they’re all connected to various items available in a seaside trinket shop (as in a nautical version of (From Beyond the Grave) or are marooned on a fogbound cruise-ship and forced to listen to each other’s fortunes as read by a mysterious sea-dog with a pack of cards (in an oceanic version of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors) – but basically, it’s up to you.

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

The Deep Sea Swell (by John Langan): American tourist, Susan, visits Scotland, her husband’s homeland, but is terrified when the ferry they take for a trip across the Hebridean seas hits a winter storm, and even more so when the water-filled suit of a long dead deep-range diver is washed aboard, animated by an eerie life of its own …
Susan – Emma Stone

Fodder’s Jig (by Lee Thomas): In Galveston, a wealthy man comes out of the closet and, to the chagrin of his family, announces his love for a younger guy. At the same time, a series of globsters, hideous lumps of rotting flesh, float inshore, infecting people with a bizarre virus, which causes them first to dance and then to march down to the sea, where a ghastly date with destiny awaits them …
George Caldwell – Colm Meaney
George’s Beau – Sean Faris

He Sings of Salt and Wormwood (by Brian Hodge): Competitive surfer and free-diver Danny is recuperating from injury with artist girlfriend, Gail, in a clifftop cottage on the Oregon coast; it’s an idyllic existence until the serenity is broken by the arrival onshore of carved wooden effigies. They appear to resemble Gail, and have clearly been created deep under the waves …
Danny – Daniel Dae Kim
Gail – Carey Mulligan

The Curious Allure of the Sea (by Christopher Golden): Jenny is left grief-stricken when her father is lost at sea. But when she finds a curiously-marked stone in his empty boat and has its oceanic spiral pattern tattooed on her flesh as a memento, she becomes an object of weird unexplained fascination to all around her. Birds, animals, people, fishes. Even the dead …
Jenny – Natalie Alyn Lind


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


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.


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


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


TWILIGHT 
by William Gay (2007)

An open cart is wheeled into a small backwoods town. Not an unusual occurrence, you may think – except that this cart is carrying the bloodied, butchered remains of a family who were apparently murdered alongside each other out in the terrible and mysterious tract of overgrown wasteland called the Harrikin. Weirder still, there is a dead dog alongside the corpses, a dog wearing diamond studs in its pierced ears. The townsfolk are shocked, if at the same time a little blasé. Because this, it would seem, is the sort of thing that happens out in the twilight zone that is the Harrikin.

And this is the opening to Twilight, William Gay’s superb piece of back-country noir, a more than unsettling tale about amoral madness in the depths of the impoverished American South.

We’re in rural Tennessee in 1951, and two young people – Corrie Tyler, and her younger brother, Kenneth – are suspicious that well-to-do local undertaker, Fenton Breece, has cheated their family. On seeing the expensive casket purchased for their late bootlegger father being used elsewhere, they dig up his grave and discover the corpse of their parent not just entombed in a cheap box but sexually violated. Further investigations of other recent burials – in other words, more grave-robbing, performed secretly and by night – uncovers additional evidence that Breece is a fetishist and necrophile. But Breece is a leading citizen who no-one would think the worse of without hard evidence. Kenneth thus breaks into his house, seeking this out, and discovers, among other purloined and highly inappropriate possessions, a whole package of photographs depicting the well-groomed undertaker having sex with a variety of dead women – deceased citizens recently entrusted to him – all now dressed and made-up to look like glamour queens.

Uncertain about the loyalties of local law enforcement, the Tylers attempt to blackmail Breece, thinking that, if nothing else, they can at least escape to a better life. But Breece, who is influential at many levels locally, has already turned to hoodlum-for-hire, Granville Sutter, a skilled and callous killer, to retrieve the evidence. In the ensuing first clash between the vying parties, Corrie dies, and 
Tyler flees into the countryside, Sutter close behind.

Tyler is no expert at this sort of thing, whereas Sutter has done it several times at least. The youngster’s only option, or so it seems, is to head into the Harrikin, that vast and dreamy wilderness, trackless, tangled, littered with eerie buildings and rusted, overgrown machinery, and populated by the strangest, most reclusive people – witches, weirdoes, lost souls, forgotten families – all of whom are more than capable of impeding Tyler in his race against death, as well as in shielding and protecting him. It depends how the mood takes them, it depends on the worsening winter weather, it depends on a great many things beyond Tyler’s control, whether he lives and gains justice, or dies a lonely death and finishes up another plaything in Fenton Breece’s squalid funeral parlour vault …      

There is considerable debate about how the ‘Southern Gothic’ school of literature can actually be defined, though most advocates of the genre would agree that it originated in the American South, having emerged from the chaos and poverty following the defeat of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and that as such it weaves dark, macabre tales about the damaged human condition with bizarre, often grotesque imagery (much of this concerned with waste, decay and violence), and yet, though often Noirish in tone, tends to lean away from the traditional mystery-thriller into the realms of magic realism, where we’re living in a recognisable world but such is the madness and strangeness of it all that an unearthly atmosphere pervades.

However, to indicate how broad a church this is, countless authors are named as practitioners, some of whom, at first glance at least, seem poles apart from each other.

Joe R Lansdale and Harper Lee? Cormac McCarthy and Tennesee Williams?

But there is one thing that firmly unites them. All are supreme wordsmiths, who write richly and lovingly about their native Deep South. Not always approvingly, often damningly, but always colourfully, evocatively and intriguingly.

Very much at home in this diverse but hyper-talented crowd is the late, great William Gay, who sits firmly at the darker end of what is already a pretty dark spectrum – his work usually characterised by ordinary, everyday folk facing desperate moral dilemmas thanks to frightening encounters with evil – with Twilight among the very darkest of his endeavours. 

To start with, it’s exquisitely written. It almost seems like a contradiction in terms when we’re talking about murder and necrophilia and an horrendous journey through a jungle of twisted vegetation and skeletal industrial ruins, but William Gay goes at it in his customary poetic fashion, describing it lusciously and hitting us with one startling visual after another. Never let it be said that beauty can’t be found in waste and decay. Again it seems like a paradox, but we’re almost in the realm of fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz invoked at the same time as The Blair Witch Project, every Germanic woodland fable you can think of (we even have the brother and sister heroes pursued by an ogre!) sitting side-by-side with modern tales of perversion, crime and ruin.

And yet, William Gay does it all with a smile on his face. Though he has much to say about outcasts, loners, the lost and disenfranchised, those who’ve fallen through the cracks even in a depressed economy like rural Tennessee in the early ’50s, and though he is patently disgusted that life is still cheap some fifty years after the Wild West has ended, and sickened by small-town corruption and selfishness, his touch is light. He gives us plenty of laughs along with the screams.

As usual though, none of this would work without characters we quickly get involved with.

Kenny Tyler starts out as the archetypical uneducated country-boy, but inevitably grows in stature during his fight for life out in the world-apart that is the Harrikin, hatching both wisdom and courage, and so giving us a coming-of-age vibe along with everything else.

Fenton Breece, meanwhile, represents a quintessential villain of the Old South, being a snake oil salesman of the most blatant kind, charming, civilised and plausible, all of which nevertheless conceals a truly degenerate soul. The moment he confesses to Granville Sutter that he killed a woman once, and may even – though he doesn’t totally remember it – have killed other women, is quite 
chilling in its shrugged-off matter-of-factness.

Sutter, though a blunt instrument in comparison, is equally complex, because while Breece is rotten to the core, Sutter has no core at all – at least, none that is recognisably human. He initially appears as a typical town bully, another violent brute where women are concerned, but also a confident disposer of men. So, he’s a boor, yes, but he’s also an out-and-out predator, who’s not just good at what he does because he has a streak of innate cunning that goes a mile deep, but because nothing matters to him. He simply doesn’t care about anyone and was probably born with this deficiency; the way some may come into this world lacking an arm or leg, Granville Sutter did so lacking conscience and charity. A madman, then, a psychopath – but as I’ve already said, and as we see through his dreams and reminiscences, a complex one too.

So how do I sum this novel up quickly? Well, in truth, you can’t.

Suffice to say that Twilight is an engrossing, elegiac study of the human darkness at the heart of what once might have been thought chocolate box America. Be warned, it’s not one of those garish hillbilly horror stories, but there is horror here along with humour and intellect, all of it wrapped up in sumptuous southern prose.

So, horror fans … read it. Thriller fans … read it. Literary fiction aficionados … read it. And surrealists and fabulists … you must read it too. This is Southern Gothic at its most haunting.   

Twilight hasn’t, to my knowledge, been adapted for film or TV just yet, and so I’m going to do my usual thing and stick my oar in early, advising any potential movie company who they should be casting when they finally get around to putting this great piece of work on film. Just a bit of fun, of course (like they’d listen to me in real life).

Kenneth Tyler – Ansel Elgort (probably a little older than he is in the book, though not by much)
Fenton Breece – Domhnall Gleeson
Granville Sutter – Michael Chiklis


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


CAIN’S BLOOD 
by Geoffrey Girard (2014)

DSTI is an ultra-secret biotech division working almost exclusively for the US military, so when things go disastrously wrong there, the problem is kept inhouse, with special operations chief, Colonel Stanforth, sending in one of his best men.

At first, ex-commando Shawn Castillo doesn’t know why he’s been given the job. A combat veteran with much experience in the Middle East (where he was captured by jihadis and viciously tortured), his normal field is counter-insurgency and espionage. On this occasion, as far as he knows, a group of six teenage delinquents being held in an educational facility attached to DSTI have absconded, committing several murders in the process. It sounds more like a job for the police. However, when Castillo arrives, it’s a scene of utter carnage, both institute staff and inmates alike lying slaughtered and dismembered.

But if that’s not enough, an even more terrifying revelation awaits him.

These so-called young offenders are actually cloned replicants of infamous serial killers – the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Albert Fish, Henry Lee Lucas et al – who have finally broken loose, and are now on a rampage, seemingly determined to fulfil the legacies of their genetic predecessors.

Prepared to chase and retrieve these burgeoning maniacs, Castillo is nevertheless suspicious of DSTI, unable to believe that any responsible group of scientists would indulge in such experiments. Though the plan was allegedly to isolate the predisposition towards violence in an effort to eliminate it from our world, he knows that the likes of Stanforth wouldn’t be involved if there wasn’t going to be some military application as well.

Feeling that he isn’t learning as much as he can from DSTI’s reticent Dr Erdman, Castillo pursues his own enquiries, forcing entry to the home of senior geneticist, Dr Gregory Jacobson, who has also gone missing, and there uncovering clues that knock him sick. It seems that, under Jacboson’s direction, certain of the clones were being purposely abused and neglected by their foster parents (mostly redneck DSTI stooges) in order to encourage the development of vengeful and sadistic compulsions. At the same time, he locates Jacobson’s own adopted son, Jeff – who it soon turns out is the clone of mass-slayer, Jeffrey Dahmer, but who has been raised in a loving, caring environment, and so appears to be manifesting no violent urges. In his own way, Jeff – a bright, pleasant young guy – is another example of one of Jacobson’s callous experiments; in this case he’s the positive outcome of careful manipulation, though Castillo isn’t sure that he can trust him.

Aware, that Jeff Jacobson will be ‘neutralised’ – either killer or lobotomised – if handed back to DSTI, Castillo opts to take the youngster with him, though he knows that getting emotionally involved in this way is the last thing he should be doing.

Meanwhile, he starts gathering useful intel. Advised by his old army buddy, Ox, who is a mine of information on the US’s numerous secret human-experimentation projects, Castillo begins to suspect that the real purpose of the cloning programme was to breed a race of testtube supersoldiers who will kill mercilessly when instructed to. He also learns that Gregory Jacobson, who appears to have deliberately released this select bunch of ultra-dangerous subjects, is leaning towards insanity himself, having developed a firm conviction that he’s a descendent of Francis Tumblety, a suspect in the original Jack the Ripper enquiry. At the same time, he gets curious about a mysterious place called SharDhara, where something horrible seems to have happened.

Meanwhile, the pack of young killers roams from state to state, commiting a string of ever-more horrendous crimes (explicitly raping, torturing and killing men, women and children alike). At least this enables Castillo to track them, but it also makes things easier for something else on their tail, something infinitely more savage than Castillo, but at least as efficient when it comes to clandestine soldiering. Only when it’s almost too late, does Castillo begin to wonder if the DSTI supersoldier programme was much more advanced than he realised …  

The first thing to say about Cain’s Blood is that, as ‘high concept’ goes, it’s up there with the best of them. I personally have no idea whether it’s even remotely possible to distill the evil from a bunch of notorious killers into the specially-grown bodies of a new race of synthetic assassins, but it’s a zinger of an idea for a sci-fi thriller.

Geoff Girard attempts to make it sound feasible by literally burying us under a welter of pseudo-scientific detail, not just catching us with it on the hoof while the story unfolds, but hitting us with the occasional lecture about historic advances in the field of genetics, everything from the Austrian monk, Brother Mendel’s experiments with peas during the 1850s, to the ground-breaking ‘nuclear transfer’ that led to the creation of Dolly the Sheep at Edinburgh Univerity in the mid-1990s. Again, I’ve no idea how credible it all is, but the idea alone is so wonderfully twisted that you can’t help but plunge in.

Of course, even then it requires a conspiracy theorist mentality to fully get on board with it. The character of Ox is a walking, talking device in this regard, a paranoid war veteran, one of whose few purposes in the book is to voice suspicion about the US Government’s role in biological experiments that have caused untold damage to countless test subjects, many of whom weren’t even aware that they were participating. It makes for an astounding read, but whether it’s based on provable truth is another matter. If it was, I’d have thought that Cain’s Blood would have been a far more controversial publication. But again, I reiterate that none of this detracted from my enjoyment. And that’s partly because once we get through that quite considerable wall of shock revelation, we are firmly into pursuit-thriller territory, and we remain there for most of the rest of the novel.

Shawn Castillo is a type of hero very popular with modern American audiences: a former spec-ops guy so badly damaged, both physically and mentally, by the many wars he has recently fought for his country that, while he’s not exactly conscience-stricken, it has left him an out-and-out sceptic regarding his commanding officers, and yet, through his innate loyalty to the US flag, taking on new missions anyway (though you get the feeling early on that this could be the final one – Castillo really is that close to the edge). But in the meantime, he does all the things you’d expect from one of these former ‘shadow company’ types: closing down his targets with effortless ease; keeping his emotions in check but suffering constantly from combat nightmares; playing it cool when some barroom brawler is causing hassle, until he absolutely has no option but to go into action, at which point the baddies get strewn across whichever car park happens to be nearest; and finding it difficult to express his true feelings even to the one female in his life, Doctor Kristin, a beautiful, intelligent, empathetic woman, who is the only thing, until now, that has prevented Castillo from slipping into madness.

So far so familiar, I know … but it’s all done very well. Kristin has been criticised by some reviewers for embodying the sexy mother/wife archetype on whom these damaged heroes so often lean. And she does play that role to an extent, but it’s not by any means certain that she and Castillo are meant for each other. Castillo is only one of a number of traumatised vets she’s managed to bring back to normality – and in that regard, their relationship also serves to examine the immoral complexity of a situation where soldiers are trained and conditioned to go out and kill the enemies of their country (enemies, they personally know nothing about), and then are expected to return to society without any kind of hiccup.

But the character who’s probably got more depth than most of the others put together is young Jeff Jacobson, the genetic offspring of a savage serial killer. You might not have thought there’d be much down for this kid, certainly not when so many other of the ‘prodigals’ have immediately begun replicating the worst atrocities of the originals. And yet Jeff Jacobson has a large role to play in this narrative, because, in the end, it is he who’s the living proof that genetic deviance is not unconquerable. It is young Jeff who serves to illustrate that, for all their research into genes, chromosomes, embryology, X&Y and so on, the ‘playing at God’ scientists of DSTI are taking a blind alley in their efforts to isolate wickedness in the lab – and in fact, in their casual mistreatment of anyone and everyone for the supposed betterment of mankind, are themselves exemplifying a far more insidious form of evil.

Jeff Jacobson comes over as a great kid. It’s a bit mind-boggling for the reader when you consider that he’s the mirror-image of a young Jeffrey Dahmer, but he’s also affable, clever and helpful. Though Castillo is initially wary of him – who wouldn’t be, given his patronage? – the twosome gradually become friends, and in fact go further than that, forming a bond in their efforts to track down their devilish prey. Jeff’s not just the living proof that nurture is more important than nature but ends up providing the heart and soul of this otherwise dark novel.

As a final thought, I’ve now learned that Cain’s Blood was published in tandem with a YA version of these same events: Project Cain, told from the POV of one of the youngsters. That does surprise me, because this is one gory outing. Be advised, there is some seriously cruel and brutal stuff in here, which more than captures the horror of the original crimes committed by the likes of Dahmer, Bundy etc. But if you don’t mind that, then Cain’s Blood is a very satisfying thriller, maybe a little far-fetched, but enjoyable nevertheless.     

As always, I’m now going to be bold (stupid) enough to try and cast Cain’s Blood should it ever be adapted for the screen. Just a laugh of course. I doubt anyone who matters would listen to me anyway. But here we go:

Shawn Castillo – Ryan Eggold
Kristin – Keira Knightley
Jeff Jacobson – Garrett Ryan
Gregory Jacobson – David Morse
Colonel Stanforth – Gerard Butler
Ox – Barkhad Abdi
Erdman – William Sanderson


THE SEA CHANGE 
by Helen Grant (2013)

A collection of contemporary and enigmatic ghost stories, strongly reminiscent of MR James, but though thoroughly British in tone, comprising a diverse range of times and places.

Firstly, rather than go through the outlines for the seven tales contained herein, I’ll let the official Swan River Press blurb do the talking, as that more than hints at the spooky pleasures to come: 

In her first collection, award-winning author Helen Grant plumbs the depths of the uncanny: Ten fathoms down, where the light filtering through the salt water turns everything grey-green, something awaits unwary divers. A self-aggrandising art critic travelling in rural Slovakia finds love with a beauty half his age – and pays the price. In a small, German town, a nocturnal visitor preys upon children; there is a way to keep it off – but the ritual must be perfect. A rock climber dares to scale a local crag with a diabolical reputation and makes a shocking discovery at the top. In each of these seven tales, unpleasantries and grotesqueries abound – and Grant reminds us with each one that there can be fates even worse than death. 

I first encountered one-time YA author Helen Grant in the mid-1990s as part of what at the time was referred to in ghost story circles as the ‘James Gang’. This was a particular group of writers, unofficially bracketed together, who were strongly influenced by the writings of MR James. Those unfamiliar with the fiction of Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) – and if there are any, shame on you! – should be advised that he was one of the defining architects of the modern English ghost story, writing in a scholarly tone but with a deadpan wit, and building most of his tales around antiquarian interests: old country churches, archaeological digs and the discovery of ancient objects such as manuscripts, urns and whistles, and yet infusing it all with a sense of creeping dread as some malignant supernatural force invariaby closes on an unwitting and yet nervous protagonist, the eventual outcome often gruesome and violent.

Again, for the uninitiated, classic MR James tales include Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My LadA Warning to the Curious and Casting the Runes (later filmed as Night of the Demon).

Though clearly immersed in this signal ghost story culture, Helen Grant was nevertheless one of the subtlest of the James Gang’s practitioners, serving up a succession of scary tales rich in Jamesian atmosphere but quite often with endings where an Aickmanesque degree of ambiguity left the reader thinking long and hard rather than flipping straight on to the next tale.

The Sea Change, her sole collection of weird tales to date, is a perfect illustration of this.

As I mentioned previously, there is a range of interesting locations here. The title story itself takes us scuba-diving off the Dorset Coast, The Calvary at Banska Bystrica to an eerie village in the Balkans and Alberic de Mauleon to a beautiful medieval town in the heart of rural France, while Grauer Hans moves back and forth between Cologne and Birmingham.

We also jump about amid the time zones. Some of the stories are set now, but Nathair Dhubh is set between the wars, while Alberic de Mauleon occurs in the 1680s and The Game of Bear takes us back to James’s own era, the early days of the 20th century.

Despite this, the spirit of MR James is palpable throughout, the stories often drawing on local folklore, and in each case the sense of terror slowly deepening for reasons that may prove elusive (though it’s usually because the writing is so clever). In Nathair Dhubh, for example, a lone climber ascends a pinnacle of rock through veils of unnatural fog, desperate to get to the top and safety, despite his growing conviction, which we readers share, that he’s going to find something deeply unpleasant when he does. In Self Catering, though on the surface it’s light-hearted, we’re left in no doubt from the start that oddball travel agent Cornelius von Teufel will prove to be more than just a comedy walk-on, and that ‘hero’ Edward Larkin is walking blindly towards complete disaster.

All of this is due in no small part to the atmosphere Helen Grant manages to evoke with a few, well-chosen words, because these stories are nothing if not crisp and succinct. And at no stage does she hit us with anything ‘on the nose’. For example, I doubt that British coastal waters have ever been murkier or more menacing than in The Sea Change, when a pair of sports divers chance them in order to explore a previously uncharted wreck. Grant doesn’t bother to tell us that this is a really bad idea; we can feel it in our bones as they descend through the salty gloom. While in The Calvary at Banska Bystrica, one of the strongest stories in the book, in my opinion (though they are all strong), a lone traveller climbs a steep, overgrown hillside in searingly hot sunshine, passing a series of empty display cases where the Stations of the Cross once stood, determined to reach the mysteriously abandoned church at the top. Once again, the author’s understated style is so effective that the atmosphere of evil becomes overwhelming long before he reaches his target, and yet it’s difficult to pin down exactly why.

But it’s not just about the scares.

Helen Grant is a genuinely intelligent writer. Two of the stories in the book do more than pay homage to MR James. The Game of Bear, for example, is an official continuation of a half-written story by James himself, which was only discovered in relatively recent times by James expert, Rosemary Pardoe. This particular job has been tackled before by two other writers of considerable note, Reggie Oliver and CE Ward, but in The Sea Change, it is Helen Grant’s interpretation of what might have happened in the second half of the story, which proves beyond doubt that she was a student of the old master as well as a fan.

In addition, in Alberic de Mauleon, Grant give us a prequel to another original James story, Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook. Despite this, it works as a perfect stand-alone, though I’m not saying you won’t be sufficiently fascinated to go and look for the ‘follow-up’ (if you haven’t already read it).

It’s also worth noting that Helen Grant is not the kind of writer who simply delights in making us jump. I suspect that none of the stories in the The Sea Change would ever have been written if she hadn’t been using them, perhaps subliminally, to work out some intriguing subtexts.

Grauer Hans, for example, another very accomplished story, is on the surface the tale of a personal haunting, but is also a meditation on the effects of age as our youthful hopes and dreams are gradually eroded by bitter reality, The Sea Change examines the destructive power of obsession, while The Calvary at Banska Bystrica doesn’t just sermonise about personal responsibility, but warns about the dangers of getting too absorbed in one’s work (and there’s a bit of an in-joke there, I think).

Anyway, enough of my longwinded blather. Suffice to say that The Sea Change is a superb collection of concise and thought-provoking tales. They also happen to be deeply chilling and possess an intellectual appeal that goes beyond the Jamesian school in which they were spawned. Seriously, what more could you ask from a bunch of ghost stories? 

And now …

THE SEA CHANGE – the movie.

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

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

Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories to each other. 


It could be that they’re all marooned on a fogbound train and forced to listen to each other’s fortunes as read by a mysterious man with a pack of cards (al la Dr Terror’s House of Horrors), or trapped in a cellar by a broken lift and are awaiting rescue (a la Vault of Horror) – but basically, it’s up to you.

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

Grauer Hans: A poor single mother and her baby daughter are terrorised nightly by a Germanic goblin who comes knocking at their window …
Christa – Mina Tander

Self Catering: A bored office-worker seeks out a special kind of holiday in a genuine haunted house. No one seems to offer such a service until he finds the curious travel agents in the dim backstreet …
Edward Larkin – Rupert Gint
Cornelius von Teufel – Derek Jacobi

The Sea Change: A dive-team breaks up when obsessive Daffy develops a compulsion to visit the same eerie, offshore wreck again and again, at a strange and terrible cost …
Daffy – Tom Felton
Helen – Eleanor Tomlinson 

The Calvary at Banksa Bystrica: When a snobbish art critic vanishes during a trip to Slovakia, his penniless brother’s quest to find him leads to a dingy town and an even dingier church on a lonesome hilltop ...
Montague – Michael C Hall


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


THE CHALK PIT 
by Elly Griffiths (2017)

Professor Ruth Galloway is Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk. She also works regularly for the local Serious Crimes Unit (and its rugged, adversarial boss, DCI Harry Nelson) as a forensic investigator, but this is rural East Anglia, and as the largest nearby towns are Norwich and King’s Lynn, no one would expect Galloway to find herself on regular secondment to the police. However, that isn’t the case. Over the years, she’s had enough involvement in murder enquiries to consider the cops her colleagues, but on this occasion, it is Galloway herself who sets the ball rolling when she is summoned into the chalk workings underneath Norwich to examine some recently discovered bones.

Ordinarily, she’d expect these to be ancient and therefore of greater interest to the university than the local homicide team, only for her initial examination to show that not only are they relatively recent, but that they’ve been boiled clean – which might indicate that the unfortunate victim was cooked and eaten after he/she was killed.

This is hardly music to the ears of handsome architect Quentin Swan, who, though he is the one who called Galloway in, is looking to develop a subterranean shopping mall and food court, and now realises that he must put his obsessive dream on hold. Harry Nelson, meanwhile, is looking into the disappearance of a homeless woman called Babs. It isn’t a high priority, especially as other members of the local homeless community are proving unwilling to talk. But then he gets word – from an unreliable source, admittedly, but it’s unnerving nonetheless – that Babs has been ‘taken underground’.

No one really knows what this means, but further investigation uncovers rumours that a nameless group is dwelling in the labyrinthine passages beneath the city streets, not just the sewers, cellars and crypts, but in the same chalk workings that Ruth Galloway is investigating.

Galloway and Nelson are unsure what to make of this. It could be just a myth, but these stories won’t go away – and now there is the potential cannibal angle. Is it conceivable, as the scholarly Dr Martin Kellerman suggests, that some mysterious branch of the homeless community have not just become troglodytes, but are now hunting humans as food?

It’s almost too horrible to contemplate, but there are other sinister developments that seem to confirm this suspicion. Two of the homeless men who’ve admitted to knowing Babs and who seem to possess knowledge about what happened to her are found brutally murdered, one on the police station steps. In response, the whole machinery of the law swings into action, the division’s very correct Superintendent Jo Archer, determined that, at the very least, they have a serial killer on their patch who must be stopped.

Of course, fear that it may even be worse than that – namely that the killer is protecting a cannibal clan – preys on all their minds, and this is the kind of distraction that no one in The Chalk Pit needs. Because despite all outward appearances, this is quite a dysfunctional unit.

To start with, Galloway and Nelson once had a fling, during the course of which Galloway became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. This is particularly awkward for Nelson, as he already has a wife, Michelle, who now knows about the affair and its illegitimate offspring, and resignedly accepts it, and two older legitimate daughters as well, who are still unaware that they have a half-sister. Nelson finds himself walking this tightrope every time he and Galloway work together, while his most able underlings – Detective Sergeants Judy Johnson and David ‘Cloughie’ Clough – are the opposite ends of the spectrum politically (Judy’s boyfriend, Michael ‘Cathbad’ Malone, is a practising druid while Cloughie likes beer and football!) and are often like fire and water with each other.

And then, as if all this means they haven’t already got enough to deal with, the stakes are raised dramatically, when a young, well-to-do mother vanishes from her own home, and once again rumours start circulating that she has been ‘taken underground’ …

My first thoughts on reading The Chalk Pit was that it doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin. It’s difficult to elaborate on that point without revealing too much of the synopsis. But I’ve said it now, so I’m going to have to offer some kind of explanation.

The blurb for this book provides us with a real hook:

Boiled human bones have been found in Norwich’s web of underground tunnels. When forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway discovers the bones aren’t as old as originally thought, it’s time for DCI Nelson to launch a murder inquiry. What was initially just a medieval curiosity has taken a much more sinister nature …

Local academic Martin Kellerman knows all about the tunnels and their history – but can his assertions of cannibalism and ritual killing possibly be true?

On this basis, it would be very easy to get stuck into this book expecting to find a cannibal tribe lurking under the streets of Norwich. But suffice to say that there isn’t anything like the blood and thunder this might lead you to anticipate. 

Does that mean the book is disappointing?

Well … it all depends on what you were hoping for. Regular readers of the Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, and The Chalk Pit comes ninth in that series, will know that they aren’t for the squeamish, but that there is still a degree of cosiness about them. They are solid procedurals, even though the main protagonist is not a copper. And the crimes that Galloway and her police allies investigate, while often grisly, are rarely OTT.

It’s true that the books often come wrapped in jackets adorned with Gothic imagery, which could easily make you think that we’re in supernatural territory. But we aren’t; Elly Griffiths writes crime fiction, not horror. But such imagery isn’t totally misplaced as her books bounce joyously around ancient borough towns like Norwich and King’s Lynn, which are rich in East Anglian history and can boast their fair share of dramatic and violent events – everything from Celtic resistance to the Romans, to Saxon resistance to the Normans, and on into the witch-hunting era (which saw one poor wretch not hanged or burned, but boiled alive!). All of this gives her novels a richly esoteric flavour, and The Chalk Pit is particularly good in this regard. It concerns itself with many contemporary issues, such as child protection, class distinction, homelessness, but there are also hints of the Grand Guignol, with much to do concerning medieval buildings like churches and guildhalls, and of course that eerie network of long-forgotten tunnels snaking beneath the city streets.

Galloway herself is an archaeologist, whose main interest is antiquity and for whom the discovery of a pile of human bones is usually a source of delight rather than despair. Then there are characters like Cathbad, who harks back to the beliefs of those eldritch days predating Christianity. Oh yes, The Chalk Pit, like all of Elly Griffiths’ work, is rammed with local colour and local lore. Just don’t expect it to be gory or terrifying.

That said, the novel’s criminal investigation is deeply intriguing, and a genuine page-turner, particularly after Cloughie’s girlfriend, Cassandra, is kidnapped. I reckon I flew through the final third of the book. But at least half the jeopardy in this narrative doesn’t stem from the police enquiry, so much as from the tense relationships between characters.

This is particularly effective where Galloway and Nelson are concerned, their unrequited love providing the book’s emotional core. The irony here, of course, is that Galloway is a very modern woman. Independent-minded and successful, she doesn’t need a man in her life, but she wants Nelson. He, already married and with two grown-up daughters, is equally tortured, because while he loves Galloway, he dotes on his existing family too. And it’s all nicely understated. There are no outbursts here, no hysterical tears. The duo just gets on with it, working together quietly in that staid, stiff-upper-lip British way, but secretly enjoying the contacts they have with each other.

The rest of the cops – and The Chalk Pit is very much an ensemble piece, rather than exclusively a ‘Ruth Galloway adventure’ – are instantly recognisable as the sort of people you’d meet in any real-life police station.

Judy Johnson, another modern female, is confident, terse, leaning a little towards authoritarianism, and yet somehow just right for the off-the-wall man in her life, Cathbad. Then there is Cloughie, who is much more ‘old school’, and yet whose working-class origins ensure that he gets a rapport going with the many homeless characters they encounter. (On the subject of the homeless, and there are plenty in this book, I feel the author delivers an idealised picture of them. While they are all clearly damaged, few appear deeply troubled, instead spreading good will and happiness wherever they go – which I’m sorry to say I didn’t buy).

That only leaves us with the villains, though I don’t want to talk too much about them for fear of giving vital stuff away. But put it this way: we have an entire array of suspects by the end of this book. They’re all totally believable – none are slotted in as obvious red herrings, and all emerge under their own steam, Griffiths gradually persuading us without actually needing to say it that any one of them could be the killer.

But no more about that now; as I say, no further spoilers here.

Like all good novels, The Chalk Pit is not just about what’s happening on the surface. All through the book there is an interesting if subliminal discussion about the absence of faith in the modern day. Quite a few of the characters are hostile to religion, but as the case progresses, more and more are drawn to reminisce about their religious upbringing when they were young, and while there isn’t any obvious regret that it’s all gone, some of them start to recognise an emptiness in their lives, and increasingly as they suspect they’re up against a horrific evil, they feel less and less equipped to deal with it. It didn’t escape my notice that two of the most contented characters in the book are Cathbad, the druid, and Paul Pritchard, the born again ex-bank robber. And it won’t go unnoticed by anyone that, towards the end of the book, two characters who previously were planning to get hitched in a registry office, change their plans and opt for a church wedding instead.

The Chalk Pit is a great example of a fast, multi-layered (literally) and very well-written British police thriller, the sort you could easily imagine being put on television. A straightforward murder case, but believably presented and built around characters you care about. As long as you aren’t led by the blurb to expect gaudy displays of Dark Ages carnage, you should enjoy this one thoroughly.

As usual now, in the event that Ruth Galloway does end up on TV sometime, I’m going to try and pre-empt everyone by nominating my own cast. Just a bit of fun of course, but here are my picks for who ought to play the leads should The Chalk Pit ever make it to the screen:

Dr Ruth Galloway – Emily Watson
DCI Harry Nelson – Christopher Eccleston
Michelle Nelson – Jessica Hynes
DS Judy Johnson – Katie McGrath
Michael ‘Cathbad’ Malone – Kevin Doyle
Supt. Jo Archer – Helen Baxendale
DS David Clough – Kevin Fletcher
Cassandra Blackstock – Sophia Jayne Myles
Quentin Swan – Jason Hughes
Paul Pritchard – Patrick Baladi
Dr David Kellerman – Jeff Rawle


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


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


NOS4R2 
by Joe Hill (2013)

A mesmerising horror novel with an air of urban fairy tale about it, though don’t let that fool you. This is one intensely frightening ride.

In a chilling opening scene, we visit a prison hospital in 2008, where Charles Manx, a suspected child killer who has been lying in a coma for years, apparently revives and terrorises a young nurse with stories about a mysterious and terrible place called Christmasland. However, when other staff check on him, he’s unconscious again, his brain function virtually zero.

In one of many leaps back and forth in time, we now move back to 1986, where a feisty youngster called Vic McQueen uses her Raleigh bike and the mysterious Shorter Way Bridge, a semi-derelict structure in the woods behind her Massachusetts home, to travel to the location of whichever object she happens to be looking for, whatever that object may be, wherever the location may lie. She doesn’t know how this happens, just accepts it as magic, even though the more she uses it, the more physical damage it causes to her, particularly to her eye. Vic thinks she’s the only person who enjoys this bizarre privilege, but when one trip takes her all the way to Iowa, she meets a scatty librarian called Maggie, who routinely uses a special bag of Scrabble tiles to answer questions and find missing items in similar fashion. Whereas Vic suffers with her eye, the Scrabble divination causes Maggie to stutter, though both agree that they feel ill generally whenever they’ve worked one of these miracles.

It is while she’s comparing notes with Maggie, that Vic learns about evil Charlie Manx, an older man, who has similar powers to theirs, which he draws through his classic Rolls-Royce Wraith (the registration number of which you can probably guess) and uses them to abduct children.

When Vic heads for home, the Shorter Way takes such a toll on her that she falls seriously ill, losing her Raleigh in the process. Meanwhile, Charlie Manx – a real person, who does indeed kidnap children in his Rolls-Royce Wraith – enlists burgeoning serial killer, Bing Partridge, to assist in his crimes. Partridge works at a chemical factory and steals several tanks of sevoflurane gas with which to overcome the parents of the child-victims (in the process thinking of the gas as ‘gingerbread smoke’ because of its unique smell, one of many instances in which Christmas joy is turned on its head in this book). Ultimately, Partridge is easily recruited because, though sexually depraved, he is childlike in certain ways, and when Manx tells him that he whisks his abductees away to his wonderful secret refuge, Christmasland, where they can do festive things all day and never grow old, it appeals to him immensely.

Flashing forward ten years, we now find Vic McQueen an unhappy teenager, worn out by her even unhappier parents’ constant fighting. After a bitter row with her mother, she uses the Shorter Way to visit Manx’s house in Colorado – a bizarre place high in the pinewoods, where Christmas music plays all day and Christmas ornaments adorn the surrounding trees whatever month of the year it happens to be. Her plan is to get herself abducted in order to punish her mother, but when she finds another young child locked in Manx’s Wraith, she attempts to free it, only to discover that it has transformed into a horrific, vampire-like travesty of the human being it once was. With the child-thing’s assistance, Manx almost captures Vic, his house burning down in the process, but in a desperately tense and superbly crafted scene, she escapes on the back of a motorbike driven by a tubby but startled motorcyclist called Lou Carmody. Even then, Vic isn’t completely safe. The vengeful Manx follows the pair of them to a mountain diner and general store, where he horrifically kills a soldier on leave before other customers overpower him.
               
We now return to 2008, and the current narrative, where the adult Vic has had success as a children’s author and is several years into a relationship with Lou but is again unhappy. The one light in her life is her son, Bruce Wayne Carmody – Lou having named him so because, though lovable, he is also a comic-book geek – but she continually receives phone calls from the vampire children of Christmasland (and very chilling they are!) berating her for the imprisonment of their father, Charlie Manx. Having already spent time in therapy, which has persuaded her that her earlier experience of this was all stress-related fantasy, Vic subsequently lives in terror that she is losing her mind.

Because of all this, Vic separates from Lou, but not on unpleasant terms, returning to New England. As Manx falls into a coma in prison, and finally dies, her life stabilises somewhat. But then, one day in 2012, she is visited by a ragged, drug-addicted version of Maggie the librarian, who tells her not to relax, because while it’s been reported that Manx died in custody, in reality he resurrected himself and escaped from the morgue, and now is on the loose again, this time hellbent on punishing Vic, not so much by killing her, but by abducting her son, Bruce Wayne, and taking him away to the unearthly winter paradise, which, though it exists on no recognisable maps, we readers have seen and experienced for ourselves, so we know that it’s real: Christmasland …    

I read a lot of books that purport to be new takes on the vampire theme, but I don’t think I’ve encountered any that are quite as original and different as this one. When Stephen King, Joe Hill’s father, first wrote Salem’s Lot in 1975, it was one of the books that put him on the map as a horror supremo. But the bloodsuckers in that one were pretty traditional in their form and methods. It was the high-quality writing, wonderfully detailed characterisation and the sheer, unadulterated scariness of it that made Salem’s Lot such a gem.

Well, NOS4R2 has all that, plus a genuinely new kind of vampire antagonist. But that’s actually faint praise, because in truth there is so much good stuff in NOS4R2 that it’s difficult to know where to start.

To begin with, the notion of so-called ‘inscapes’ – fantasy realms constructed through sheer thought, which, though unreachable except via trans-dimensional conduits like the Shorter Way Bridge or Charlie Manx’s Wraith, nevertheless exist in a real time and place all of their own – is wondrous.

I admit that, at first glance, it may not work for everyone. The idea that this little girl can travel across the whole of North America in less than a minute by riding her Raleigh bike through a derelict covered bridge in backwoods New England may sound like something from a children’s fantasy novel, but then there’s the not insignificant matter of Charlie Manx, who uses his mysterious and imperious Wraith as his own conduit, though in his case the car also acts as a form of revival system from out of which he can draw life-energy vampirised from the innocent to heal life-threatening injury and illness and even restore himself to youth. It may all sound nutty and implausible, but in the world of inscapes – especially the way Joe Hill writes about them – you buy into it straight away.

Of course, the concept of inscape is not original to NOS4A2. Hill has played with it before in his two earlier novels, Horns and Heart-Shaped Box. But it is here where he thoroughly investigates and exploits the notion, and though, as I say, it may at first sound like a juvenile concept, in NOS4R2 it is rendered utterly believable and very, very frightening.

Charlie Manx is a key part of that, of course, and an amazing creation. He is first brought to our attention, because we know no better at this stage, as a serial child abductor and murderer, though in due course we realise that he is a lot more complex than that. Manx is one of the best modern variants on the Dracula theme that I’ve ever encountered. Yes, he does capture children and he does transform them into eerie, ghoul-like things. And yes, he is capable of using extreme violence against their parents and other guardians. But he is also a fully rounded individual. We learn about his difficult past and the bizarre philosophy for life that he evolved as a result of it, which leads him to believe that in taking children away to Christmasland and granting them immortality (of a sort) he is genuinely doing the right thing. He is thus playful as well as wicked and develops a great rapport with Bruce Wayne Carmody after he kidnaps the little boy. Manx is almost likable in these scenes, displaying good humour and generosity, while reserving his real disdain for semi-demented Renfield-like servant, Bing Partridge.

Which brings us onto villain number two. Setting aside the obvious Christmas allusions in his name, Bing Partridge is also a very real person and represents more bravura character-work by Hill. To start with, though devoid of humanity, he is no slavering madman, but extremely ordinary in appearance, and though he seems like a dumbass, this is really a shield with which he continually fools the parents of his child-targets, the mothers of whom he then singles out for truly appalling treatment. He even lures the enlightened Vic McQueen at one point, in a scene that, because we readers know about Bing from the beginning, literally reeks of evil.

The good guys in NOS4R2 are equally real and visible.

Vic McQueen is an unusual kind of heroine, first appearing as a spirited youngster mired in a violent and unhappy home – so far so good – but then evolving, perhaps inevitably, into a brattish teen delinquent, and finally reaching her adult incarnation as a scrawny, grungy outsider, scrawled with unsightly tattoos and suffering recurring mental problems. That said, she’s still a looker. Of course, she is; our heroes and heroines must always be lookers. But she’s been through the mill emotionally, and it shows. Even now she has minimal contact with her demolition expert father, who she blames for most of the domestic problems when she was young, and when she finally reconciles with her temperamental mother, the woman is dying from cancer. It’s no wonder that Vic struggles to hold things together even as she does brave and admirable things.

She does have an on/off boyfriend, of course: the affable heavyweight, Lou, with whom, once again, we’re in the realms of superb character-work by Joe Hill. Though a quality mechanic, Lou is an underachiever because he spends whole days with his head in the clouds. He’s brave, though, if a tad dim, and he loves Vic and their son, Bruce Wayne. He’s no hero in the traditional mode but has so many minor redeeming features that we like him all the way through the book.

Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, has inherited traits from both his parents: he’s courageous and inquisitive, possessing his mother’s looks and intellect and his father’s starry-eyed amiability. The youngster is a distinctly warm presence in the second half of the novel, which is a good thing because this section sees Vic tortured even more terribly by the fearsome denizens of Christmasland. In contrast to this terror, Bruce Wayne brings great meaning to her life and cheers us all up every time he appears, at one point even managing to win Charlie Manx over (or at least persuading him to buy them some fireworks, so they can have a bit of non-Christmas fun).

The other thing about NOS4R2 is how well-written it is. Joe Hill is clearly following in his father’s footsteps in producing big tomes – this one clocks in at about 700 pages – but it’s all so readable, and the descriptive work is sumptuous, particularly when we get to Christmasland. It initially appears as a kind of Tyrolean Neverland, where it is always December 25, icicles dangling permanently from lintels, Christmas trees shimmering, snow falling, everyone housed in Alpine ‘cuckoo clock’ lodges, where they spend all day (every day!) in front of hot fires, drinking cocoa and opening presents. And yet there is darkness here too, Hill displaying great skill to subtly show us just how mind-numbingly awful this would in due course become (it’s no wonder the children are deranged monsters).

Ultimately, NOS4R2 is far more than just a horror novel. It’s a haunting tale but an exhilarating one too. There is romance here and wild, escapist fantasy, plus it’s funny as well as frightening, it moves at rollicking pace and is filled with nods and winks to Stephen King’s world as well as Joe Hill’s; there is at least one reference to Shawshank Prison, and one to Derry, the New England town at the centre of It – all of which adds an air of family warmth to the saga, though I don’t wish to give the impression that Hill is some kind of crude imitation of his father. Not a bit of it. There are undoubted similarities – blue collar types in heartland America getting to grip with a fantastically cruel form of supernatural evil is a recurring theme in both these authors’ works – but Hill is perhaps more disciplined than his dad in terms of linear narrative, and at the same time has a slightly more poetic air about his prose. He possesses a strong voice of his own, though I’ve no doubt that his father is very proud of it.

In truth, I haven’t only recently discovered Joe Hill. He was good enough to sign his first collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts, for me at a British Fantasy event many years ago and we chatted briefly. His short form work was impressive way back then, and though he hadn’t written any of his novels at that stage, it was pretty evident that he was going to. Well, now the first batch of them are here, and what a treat they are. I’ve no doubt that NOS4R2 and others like it will have universal appeal, but if there is anyone out there who, like me, particularly enjoys those big summertime blockbusters, the ones that were so massive and yet so engrossing that you’d take them away on holiday with you and they’d last you the entire fortnight, then Joe Hill and NOS4R2 in particular are definitely for you.

Okay, well … I usually like to end these book reviews with a bit of fantasy casting, nominating those actors I’d love to see take the lead roles when or if the book hits the screen. But the good news in this case is that a TV series has not just been commissioned, it has been written and shot – and Joe Hill himself, according to his tweets, is very happy with it. So, hell – forget the fantasy casting this week. Let’s wait and see what the real thing is like.


THE INK RUN 
by Dale Brendan Hyde (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t escape your DNA

But that’s a little bit tricky in itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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!!!).


ABSOLUTE PROOF 
by Peter James (2018)

Ross Hunter only learned about the accident that claimed his brother, Ricky’s life when he was working out in the gym several miles away and was suddenly beset with a bizarre vision, which he could never afterwards explain in any rational way.

This doesn’t exactly persuade him that there’s an afterlife, but it certainly leaves him thinking.

After this, the tragedies in Hunter’s life start to come thick and fast. A few years later, while working as a freelance reporter in Afghanistan, his party are ambushed by the Taliban, and though Hunter survives, he is the only one who does, which leaves him doubly mentally scarred by the experience. On top of that, when he returns home, he discovers his wife, Imogen, in bed with someone else. 

Years pass, and though Hunter forgave Imogen’s infidelity, the trust they once shared is no longer quite there, even though she’s now pregnant again. His career, however, is going from strength to strength. Now widely respected as an investigative journalist, he chases only the biggest stories and gets fantastic spreads in the broadsheets. This is the reason why he is one day approached by ex-RAF officer and retired History of Art professor, Harry Cook, who offers him the scoop of a lifetime.

In short, Cook tells Hunter that he’s recently been given absolute proof of God’s existence, and that he needs a well-regarded journo to help him tell the story. He reinforces this remarkable claim by adding that he also has a message for Hunter from his deceased brother.

Hunter and Cook meet, and Hunter is startled at some of the personal information the old man imparts to him. This makes him take the stranger much more seriously, though even Hunter, with all that he’s been through, is stunned when Cook presents him with a manuscript, which he says was dictated to him by God during a séance, and which he says contains three sets of coordinates, each one relating to an item or place of incalculable religious significance, but all of which, when finally brought together, will be hugely beneficial to mankind.

The first of these – and this apparently will be the least difficult to locate – is the Holy Grail itself. When Hunter recovers from the shock of hearing this, he learns that the second is a personal but non-specified item connected to Jesus Christ, and that the third will have great relevance to the actual Second Coming.

If it wasn’t for Cook’s revelations about Ricky, Hunter would likely as not disbelieve him, but his strange experiences have perhaps primed him to undertake this most momentous of investigations. Even then, Cook is unsure whether or not Hunter is the man for the job, and so at this early stage will only direct him to the possible resting place of the Grail. The rest will follow if this first part of the quest is successful. Before departing, however, he gives Hunter a stark warning that, as their ultimate goal is to bring belief back to mankind, and save all our souls, the power of Lucifer will be unleashed in many forms, no matter how foul, to try and intercept them.

Hunter still isn’t sure if he buys all this – and Imogen certainly doesn’t – but he commences his enquiry anyway, more in hope than optimism. He doesn’t stay tight-lipped about it either, and though, initially, there is bemusement and scepticism – radio presenter Sally Hughes is certainly interested, but Bishop Benedict Carmichael considers the whole thing too risky and attempts to dissuade Hunter from continuing – some powers follow his progress for entirely covetous reasons.

Dr Ainsley Bloor, the CEO of pharmaceutical giant, Kerr Kluge, a committed and aggressive atheist – a guy so committed to this cause, in fact, that he is literally using monkeys and typewriters to try and prove that pure chance was the origin of all things rather than Intelligent Design – is keen to get hold of whatever religious items Hunter can locate to try and make use of them in his development and sale of new medicines. Then there is Wesley Wenceslas, a British-based multi-millionaire evangelist and full-time conman, who would also love to have possession of such holy relics.

Neither of these very dangerous and determined men, among various others – fanatics drawn from all the world’s major religions! – will easily be dissuaded from attempting to possess whatever Hunter uncovers. As such, the first person to die, and only after considerable torture, is Harry Cook, with a high possibility that others will follow in short order.

The stage is truly set for a deadly, continent-hopping adventure, which, in due course, may even take Ross Hunter beyond the realms of this mortal world …

It’s a good thing it was Peter James who undertook to write this book, and not someone of lesser quality. Because when you think about it, a quest to prove the existence of God would likely be the greatest, most challenging mission in history, its outcome of interest to every single man and woman on Earth because there is probably no-one living today who hasn’t at one time or other pondered the existence of an overarching deity, or who hasn’t hoped and prayed that the human experience isn’t solely about our time on Earth.

The question is ... did Peter James succeed? In Absolute Proof, did he do justice to this phenomenal concept?

My personal view is that he did. Not just because this is the most massive novel he’s ever written, in both size and concept, (though it is, clocking in at nearly 600 pages!), or because he suddenly veers away from his more familiar territory of murder mysteries set on England’s South Coast (though he does, venturing clear across the globe), or even because it’s one of his best-written pieces to date (and when you consider that it’s Peter James we’re talking about here, that’s really saying something), but because I found the experience of reading it deeply emotionally affecting.

Ross Hunter is a bit of a neutral character by normal James standards. He’s obviously good at his job, but he’s not much of a fighter: he’s terrified during his sojourn to Afghanistan, he readily forgives his wife’s faithlessness and wordlessly tolerates a nagging fear that the child she is carrying is not his. He’s tough, though, and durable, and prepared to go to great lengths to reach his goal – and that’s the crux of it. Because Hunter, even though he’s no super cool hero, commences this journey on all our behalf, and what a journey it proves to be, taking him across the UK, to North Africa and eventually to America, throwing all kinds of obstacles into his route – both physical and spiritual – and yet increasingly he feels, as do we, that he’s on the trail of something truly amazing.

Though Absolute Proof is a big, big book, it’s a very smooth read, and I found myself accelerating through it, enjoying every page at the same time as yearning to reach a profound resolution.

Was my soul uplifted?

As I say, it’s an emotionally charged narrative – especially for those who actively seek answers of this sort – and yes, I want to know if God is out there as much as the next man, and as this book gets closer to answering that question than any other work of fiction I’ve ever encountered, I wasn’t exactly discouraged.

I should add that it’s not all completely plausible. The notion that one man could make so much ground so quickly when pursuing the most complex questions of all time stretches credulity a little, though to be fair, he does apparently get help from high places. But to make an issue of this would be to miss the point. The real story in Absolute Proof – as it can only ever be in a quest for God – centres around faith. Both believers and non-believers possess it (the former in His presence, the latter in His absence), and yet both sides struggle with these prescribed positions, because no-one can be certain that they are right, and probably never will be until the day of their death, which is why the search for absolute, undeniable proof is the ultimate human goal.

Inevitably, not all reviewers have approved, some suggesting that Hunter should be much more sceptical in his enquiry, despite his apparent religious experience concerning the death of his brother, some objecting to James focussing mostly on the Christian tradition, some grumbling that they bought Absolute Proof expecting a thriller and found themselves with an Indian Jones-type fantasy. But for me, none of these criticisms carry real weight.

First of all, Ross Hunter is not a zealot; he’s a hard-headed journalist looking for a great story, and so his motives are, initially at least, entirely selfish. It’s only as the immense reality of what he’s doing washes over him that he’s drawn further and further into the complexity of religious belief. No controversy there, I feel.

With regard to the mainly Christian angle, I can only argue that an author must be true to his or herself. Most of us in the West are probably more influenced by Christianity than any other faith (and if anyone tries to deny that, I’ll just ask them what they'll be doing on December 25 this year!), so I don’t think it’s especially outrageous that Absolute Proof relies mainly on the Christian tradition. In any case, the book’s far more inclusive than that may suggest, the theories and philosophies woven into the plot ranging far and wide across the belief systems of the world, strongly implying that all groups pray to the same God, if in different ways (though don’t think that means this book is a sermon; far from it – Absolute Proof abounds with false prophets, the author deeply mistrustful of those who aggressively and mendaciously promote their own holiness).

So ... how does it stand as a novel?

The subtext is all there, but do the characters work? Is it well-written? Is it a rattling good story? It’s packaged as a thriller, so does it thrill? Is it explosive, suspenseful, exciting?

In answer to the first question, Absolute Proof is a Peter James archetype, even if it contains very different subject matter from his norm. It’s highly accessible, the flawless, non-flowery prose moving the plot at pace, the very short chapters – some no more than a page themselves – keeping the reader hooked throughout. The author’s easy, reader-friendly style belies the narrative’s great length, so at no stage did I feel tired or bog-eyed, and in fact I was surprised when I found that I’d reached the end, it was that swift a read.

The plethora of colourful characters, many of whom I haven’t had the time to mention here, helped with this.

While the aptly-named Hunter is well-cast as the inquisitive everyman searching for his own salvation, other characters are also representatives. To start with, at either end of the spectrum there are dangerous individuals – like Bloor and Wenceslas – who in a bid to use faith as a means of domination have completely lost their humanity. The pair of them are perhaps overly flamboyant villains, certainly by Peter James’ normal very realistic standards, but they serve a key purpose.

In the middle ground, things are different. There is good and evil there too, but it’s by degrees, the vast majority of the middle-grounders at worst frail, frightened and confused. Egyptian sidekick Medhat El-Hadidy seems like a good man but doesn’t offer help when Hunter needs it most. Wife Imogen is untrustworthy from the outset, but that’s because she's self-centred, which is a very human failing. Bishop Carmichael would love to see evidence that God exists but fears the chaos that might ensue.

And then, in sharp contrast, we have the mysterious Michael Henry Delaney, one of the most memorable figures in all of Peter James’ writing. What a character this is, so well-written that his presence and personality literally exude from the pages. I won’t say more about him than that. You’ve simply got to track him down for yourself.

Absolute Proof is a big change from Peter James’ regular crime-fighting chronicles, but it’s not a nod to his occasional supernatural work either. Readers have likened it to Dan Brown and James Rollins, and yes, it’s that kind of international mystery-thriller, painted on a sweeping canvas and with cosmic undertones. If that’s not your thing, and you try to avoid philosophical or religious thinking – though I say it again, this book does NOT preach – then it won’t be for you. But if you’ve got even half an open mind on these celestial matters, I reckon you’ll find this novel an absolute must.

I’m eagerly anticipating some kind of film or TV adaptation of Absolute Proof at some point, though knowing how long this usually takes, I’m now going to do my usual thing, by sticking my personal oar in on the subject of who should play the leads (just a bit of fun, of course):

Ross Hunter – Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Imogen Hunter – Lucy Griffiths
Dr Harry Cook – Terence Stamp
Dr Ainsley Bloor – Ben Daniels
Pastor Wesley Wenceslas – Michael Sheen
Sally Hughes – Florence Pugh
Michael Henry Delaney – John O’Hurley


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


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


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


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.


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 NIGHTRUNNERS 
by Joe R. Lansdale (1987)

It’s Galveston, Texas, in the mid-1980s, and modern-minded, well-heeled couple, Becky and Montgomery Jones, should be living the dream. Professional academics, they both have good quality of life, a steady income, are a well-matched, physically handsome pair and, as lovebirds since their college days, they care for each other deeply. It should be a match made in Heaven, but in actual fact their blissful life has been ruined by a dreadful incident approximately four months prior to this narrative, when their house was broken into while Monty was away, and Becky savagely raped by a former student of hers, Clyde Edson, who wasn’t just a juvenile delinquent but a fledgling serial killer already known locally as the ‘Rapist Ripper’.

Edson was later apprehended and committed suicide while remanded in jail, but of course Becky’s recovery from such an ordeal was never going to rely solely on the hand of justice. The deep psychological wounds have destroyed her pleasant suburban existence. She now lives in fear of the night, endures harrowing nightmares and bizarre premonitions, is completely unable to enjoy sex, and has ambivalent feelings about her husband because of his previous political stance; before this event, Montgomery Jones was a liberal through and through – he believed in tackling the causes of crime rather than cracking down on it, he looked to rehabilitation rather than punishment, he didn’t regard Galveston’s underage hoodlums as thugs and predators so much as disadvantaged kids who need a helping hand rather than a good smack around the head.

All of this has changed now, of course – except that it’s too late.

Even though Monty wasn’t present at the time of the rape and could have done nothing to prevent it, he now regards his former ‘enlightened’ attitude as a kind of moral cowardice, and is inwardly repelled by his previous pretence of intellectual superiority when in reality he suspects that he has always been unnerved by the prospect of taking a tough stand. He particularly agonises about an incident from his childhood, when he was too frightened to intervene as a local bully force-fed his kid-brother a dog turd. What’s even worse from Monty’s point of view is that he suspects Becky thinks this about him too, even if she won’t say it. Just being in his wife’s melancholy presence now unmans him.

It looks as if their relationship, once so strong, has fatally fractured … until late that October, when in a desperate effort to patch things up, Monty takes Becky out to a friend’s cabin, so they can get some peace and quiet. It’s an idyllic, pine-clad location in the East Texas wilderness, and the crisp autumn weather is beautiful. For the first time in a while, the couple begin to relax again in each other’s company, even though there is still much lost ground to make up.

However, this hesitation to resume their former status is actually the least of their problems.

Because unbeknown to the Joneses, several members of Clyde Edson’s gang – all of them complicit in the Rapist Ripper murders – eluded capture, including his psychopathic second-in-command, Brian Blackwood, and their reign of Hell is far from over.

Blackwood still remains in awe of his deceased ex-leader, viewing him as a kind of Nietzchean superman – primarily because he never let human sentiment hamper him when he was out to get whatever he wanted. Despite this, Blackwood has no initial motivation to go back and finish off Becky Jones, their last victim … until, one feverish midnight, when he receives a nightmarish visitation from his former friend, now reduced to the status of demonic ventriloquist dummy seated on the knee of the satanic ‘God of the Razor’, an horrific being who literally wears a coat made from flayed human flesh and shoes made out of guillotined human heads (and who will go on to appear several times more in Lansdale’s work).

Whether this is a genuine supernatural event or simply a figment of Blackwood’s deranged mind is basically irrelevant, as Edson demands a continuation of their previous crime: a full-scale attack on Becky Jones, culminating – after the gang have sexually defiled her for as long as they care to – in the removal of her heart. If anyone gets in the way, like her husband of course, he/they can also be dispatched.

Impressed by this, and by the promise of dominion in a hellish afterlife – and if ever his enthusiasm for this flags, egged on aggressively by Edson’s damned soul, which now seems to possess him – Blackwood gets the gang back together and they go on the prowl in their distinctive black ’66 Chevy, seeking out the Joneses and slaughtering anyone who even threatens to hinder their progress. They are so bent on this mission, and so ruthless with anyone who might have information for them (strewing carnage every which way), that it isn’t long before they learn about the isolated cabin where the injured couple are trying to recuperate …

It probably isn’t going too far to say that The Nightrunners put Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale on the map. This is a very early novel of his, originally written in 1982 as Night of the Goblins, but since then he’s become a literary landmark in his own right in the overlapping fields of horror, crime, Rural Noir, Southern Gothic etc.

It isn’t a particularly long novel, and nor is it likely to educate or edify you if you’re looking for something highbrow. In truth, this is a long way from Lansdale’s best work; he himself has repeatedly reminded folk that it’s an early effort and has voiced surprise that it continues to draw positive reviews. But what I will say is that, even now, three decades after first publication, it’s one headlong thrust of a narrative and a hell of a page-turner.

It’s also brutal and nasty … and I mean excessively so. Okay, there thankfully isn’t much here in the way of torture-porn. But this is visceral violent crime fiction at its most unforgiving.

The antagonists are beyond the pale in terms of amoral, purposeless depravity, and their main targets almost impossibly innocent and genteel. Other tougher, worldlier characters are introduced on the side of right – streetwise cop, Ted Olsen, and gang-members with a conscience, Jimmy and Angela – but from the very beginning you just know that this southern-fried fury ride is only going to end in one final and massive confrontation between the civilisation-softened Joneses and the walking bunch of disenfranchised aberrations which is all that remains of Clyde Edson’s murder gang.

It’s a dark and horrible atmosphere; I’ll make no bones about that. Even early in the book, when it’s mainly about the Joneses trying to restore their equilibrium in a place that seems beyond danger, the reader’s sense of growing dread is palpable – Blackwood and his boys have commenced the hunt for their prey equipped with nothing more than animal cunning and naked bloodlust, but draw steadily nearer to them with the turn of each page. 

I don’t want to say too much more, certainly not about the explosive finale, which you obviously won’t need me to tell you is not going to end well for any members of our ensemble cast, either the good or the evil. But suffice to say that it hasn’t been likened to the ultra-violent British movie, Straw Dogs, for nothing.

The message of The Nightrunners isn’t an especially complex one. Lansdale isn’t setting out to explore a moral conundrum here. Quite the opposite, in fact. Montgomery Jones’ earlier self – the guy who tried to rationalise the cause and effect of societal breakdown in modern-day America – is soon jettisoned in favour of the raw, frightened and somewhat more dangerous animal he becomes later in the book; and though there are hints that some of these problems are the result of small-town boredom (kids like Jimmy with nothing to do but hang around pool rooms all day) and failure to compromise by those who are supposedly older and wiser (Angela’s mother kicking her out for having pre-marital sex, and thus driving her daughter into the enclave of the gang), the real corruption here is attributed fairly and squarely to an unknowable supernatural force, the Razor God, and though this may be a metaphor for insanity, it is clearly a power beyond Blackwood’s ability to resist and one for which no-one involved can really carry the blame.

The Nightrunners won’t be to everyone’s taste – but it cuts to the quick. With the best intentions in the world, we probably like to believe that violence is not and can never be the only answer to our problems … but, like it or not, there are always going to be occasions when it’s an option, and perhaps, if we are being pushed hard enough at the time, an option we’ll even find desirable.

As usual, here are my thoughts re. casting should The Nightrunners ever get the film or TV treatment. Purely for the fun of it, here are my personal picks for the leading roles:

Becky Jones – Ashley Greene
Montgomery Jones – Jimmi Simpson
Brian Blackwood – Chandler Canterbury
Clyde Edson – Cameron Bright


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


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. 


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


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




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 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 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


MURDER AS A FINE ART 
by David Morrell (2013)

Mention serial murder in Victorian London and most people think Jack the Ripper stalking drunken prostitutes through the fog-shrouded rookeries of the old East End. But in actual fact, Saucy Jack wasn’t the first knife-wielding maniac to terrorise the dismal backstreets of 19th century London. Some 77 years earlier, in 1811, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders shocked the capital and most of England with their brutality, a deranged assailant using the weeks leading up to Christmas to break into two Wapping homes situated one mile apart and slaughtering the families inside, seven people in total, with a mallet and a blade.

However, unlike the Ripper slayings, the Ratcliffe Highway atrocities were solved – at least to a degree, when a disturbed seaman called John Williams, arrested on suspicion, hanged himself in his prison cell before he could stand trial. This was not a satisfactory outcome for everyone; no case had been proved against Williams, but with his death and burial (at a crossroads, with a stake hammered through his heart – as if the case wasn’t ghoulish enough!) the murders stopped. In a world not yet used to titillating ‘true crime’ stories, the sensation lingered only a little while, and in due course the Ratcliffe Highway case was forgotten.

By almost everyone, that is, except the essayist and free-thinker, Thomas De Quincey, whose treatise on the experience of taking opium, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822), had already caused outrage. When his book, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827), expressed fascination with the Ratcliffe Highway killings and described the killer as an artist among his kind, the result for De Quincey was infamy, even though his book had never been intended as a work of admiration for John Williams, but in a pre-Freudian age, was a concerted and intelligent attempt to understand the motivations behind serial murder in an era when such a crime was virtually unknown.

So much is fact, but now we move squarely into the realms of fiction, thriller author David Morrell picking up De Quincy’s discarded pen and continuing the tale in a dramatic ‘what if’ scenario.

When the novel starts, it’s 1854 and the Ratcliffe Highway Murders are part of history, most Londoners having forgotten about them … until the series suddenly recommences (or a least a series that is very similar), an entire family, including a baby and their servants, hammered and knifed to death in their home just off the Ratcliffe Highway.

In 1811, there was no official police force to investigate the slayings, but by 1854 things have changed. The Metropolitan Police are now an extensive, able-bodied operation. Not that they don’t face some drawbacks. For example, their fledgling detective division is still in its infancy. Hard-bitten Irishman, Detective Inspector Sean Ryan, is one of the city’s few reliable investigators, but he is hampered daily by his ethnicity, the Irish being associated with agitators during this period, and by the newness of his role – in the Dickensian age, police officers were supposed to be a highly visible presence, uniformed and available to assist the public at any time, whereas plain clothes officers resembled the hated secret police of Paris.

Despite all this, Ryan investigates the case in company with trusty PC Becker, a young officer who quickly recognises how effective an organised homicide division can be. It isn’t long before they learn about the original murders, and how this case appears to be a copycat. And if that’s the case, they realise, it won’t be long before there is another similar crime.

The job becomes trickier still when word leaks to the press, and the citizens of London, a city that is already a powder keg of revolutionary ferment, are badly alarmed.

Under orders from the fearsome Lord Palmerston to resolve this issue immediately, Ryan thinks that he may have got his man when Thomas De Quincey’s original On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts is drawn to his attention. It is written in such detail that its author might well have been present at the original murders, and as he is still only 69, that does not seem like too much of a stretch. Back in 1811, De Quincey was a robust fellow in his 20s.

However, when Ryan and Becker confront De Quincey, he has withered into a small, frail man, still of great intellect but deeply addicted to opium, which he takes in the form of laudunum. If this isn’t enough to dismiss De Quincey from the enquiry, his daughter, the independent-minded and very attractive Emily, makes a fierce defence of her father, deriding those who mistook his intellectual assessment of the original crimes for an appreciation of them, and advises them that De Quincey’s knowledge of these matters – which derives from psychological evaluation of the crimes, in an age when psychology as a science did not even exist – could be invaluable to the investigators. This helps persuade them that De Quincey might be of use, and the Opium-Eater himself, though he struggles with many demons – his endless, futile quest to find his lost love, Ann, his awful days as a vagrant, and his unyielding addiction – is keen to join the enquiry, not least because he feels a degree of responsibility: whoever the killer is, he quite clearly has studied De Quincey’s book.

Ryan and Becker are not keen to have a civilian on the case, but increasingly it feels as if they’re working against the odds. The London population is ready to take the law into its own hands, especially when further horrific slayings recreate the original murders, and in fact go further, adding more and more victims to the tally.

Lord Palmerston, fearing insurrection, is ever more determined that the killer must be brought to book immediately, but allows himself to be persuaded by his cold, handsome and incredibly brutal chief of staff, Colonel Robert Brookline, that Thomas de Quincey should not be assisting the police but should in fact be a suspect. If the Opium-Eater is to help Ryan and Becker apprehend the all-new Ratcliffe Highway Murderer, he’s going to have to do it incognito, from among the ranks of the ragged and homeless.

Meanwhile, the winter deepens, the fog thickens, and the madman continues to prowl …  

In short, this is a splendid piece of work by US author, David Morrell. It’s a little Sherlockian in tone, an advanced civilian thinker assisting a brave but non-too-intellectual police force in their quest to capture an ingenious killer, helped along the way by a spirited underling (in this case the feisty Emily, as opposed to stolid old Watson). But that’s all part of its appeal.

We are firmly in a world of Dickensian-age melodrama, sulphurous fog swirling around the top-hats and greatcoats, horse-drawn carriages rattling over cobblestones, the brash cries of Cockney costermongers interspersed with drunken guffaws from the taverns and gin houses. And yet again, this is all part of the charm of Murder as a Fine Art. The author puts us firmly in that time and that place, but instead of simply evoking the spirit of Charles Dickens, to whom the average person owes so much of their knowledge about this milieu, taking us much, much further.

It might only have been a century and a half ago, but it’s a society that is now completely alien to us. For example, in London in 1854, prison governors are fully entitled to run their penitentiaries like private fiefs, where all manner of pointless torture and suffering can be imposed on the inmates. At the same time, the London mob is still a thing to be feared; even the police must tread warily when a medieval-type hue and cry is raised and the angry citizens light their torches and roam the benighted streets. At the same time, the population is still reeling from the arrival of staggering new innovations like telegraph, the railways and even indoor toilets, ‘necessaries’ as they are amusingly referred to.

This is all fascinating and convincing stuff, and it paints a vivid backdrop – even if it is often tinged a murky-grey thanks to the all-pervading Thames fog. But there is much fun to be had from the central characters too.

It’s no surprise to me that Thomas and Emily De Quincey have since gone on to star in two other books from David Morrell, Inspector of the Dead and Ruler of the Night. They make a fascinating crime-fighting duo, not least because their mere presence in this situation throws up all kinds of interesting conflicts.

De Quincey was a divisive figure in real life, and he’s a divisive figure here, even his police allies viewing him as a weakling and degenerate. The character himself loathes his near-complete dependency on his ‘medicine’, as he calls it. None of this helps, of course, when he causes the police to doubt him even more by recommending that they seek the murderer through an aberration of his mind rather than by following conventional clues.

Needless to say, he is staunchly defended by his daughter, Emily, who has been dismissed by one or two reviewers as a clichéd Victorian heroine, a fearless free-thinker in an age when adult women were expected to be goddesses of the hearth. But I don’t agree with that; Emily is not a particularly forthright or rebellious girl. She chooses to wear a less restrictive kind of dress rather than the hoops and whorls favoured by other ladies, but that’s merely for reasons of practicality. She puts forward forceful opinions and intriguing ideas, but rarely is pushy or aggressive. For me, this is a neat balancing act by David Morrell. Emily De Quincey is not some feminist of the 21st century transposed anachronistically into the 19th; it’s just that this is an age when prudery is on a high, and though she finds she must buck this trend a little to make progress, that’s all it is – a little.

Ryan and Becker are a bit more typical of their type, the former a hardcase street-ruffian, whose plain clothes persona is a bit too effective for his own good – not many believe he’s a copper when they first meet him, especially when they learn that he is Irish – and there isn’t a beating he can’t and doesn’t take, while Becker, a younger man, is a square-jawed idealist, who believes in policework and detective work in particular, and because he’s a stickler for results is completely open-minded about taking help from civilians (even females and drug addicts!).

Though it feels an unlikely alliance, they soon become an awesome foursome in terms of investigation teams, each member bringing different, well-developed talents into play. And this is a very good thing, because it isn’t just a crazed killer they find themselves having to deal with. It soon transpires that law-and-order as a concept has many dangerous foes concealed in the drifting blanking of fog, just waiting for the moment to strike. But to say any more about that would be too much of a spoiler.

Ultimately, Murder as a Fine Art is a fun romp set in an eccentric, grotesque and yet marvelous era, which it recreates in near-forensic detail. In terms of historical thrillers overall, it may be treading a well-worn path; it doesn’t add anything massively new to the genre – apart from its fascinating use of a controversial real-life personality (who wasn’t known for his detective skills) – but it’s hugely intriguing and entertaining, its driving narrative interweaving action with mystery to produce an absorbing page turner.   

I’ve no clue whether or not Murder as a Fine Art is under option for film or TV development, but in an age when we’ve seen all types of horror/thriller concepts from the Gothic days dusted off and given a brand-new spin, it certainly should be. In case it ever is, here, as usual, are my personal cast-list suggestions: 

Thomas De Quincey – Derek Jacobi
Emily De Quincey – Olivia Cooke
DI Sean Ryan – Jamie Dorman
PC Joseph Becker – Gethin Anthony
Lord Henry Palmerston – Jim Broadbent
Col. Robert Brookline – Mark Strong
Comm. Richard Mayne – Linus Roache
Dr John Snow – Richard E. Grant
Margaret Jewell – Julie Walters

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