Saturday 14 June 2014

How it began: Heck vs the weirdest killers

Anyone following this blog will know that my new Heck novel, THE KILLING CLUB, was published at the end of last month, and that a blog tour accompanied it. What that basically meant was that I was that, at the kind invitation of a number of webmasters/crime thriller fans, I wrote a number of guest posts to appear on various crime-writing blogs. 

In case anyone didn't get a chance to see them at the time, it was always part of my plan to repost these blogs on this site as well. So without further ado, we'll kick off now. 

Here's the interview I gave to CRIME BOOK CLUB, which appeared on June 14 (along with a 5-star review - sorry, had to drop that in). Thanks very much to them for their interest in the new Heck novel.  

Welcome to Crime Book Club Paul and thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions.

No problem. Thank you for having me. I’m delighted.

Congratulations on the publication of ‘The Killing Club’ last week, can you tell our readers a little about it?

Thanks very much. The Killing Club is the third outing for my fictional detective hero, DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg, of the Serial Crimes Unit at Scotland Yard. The Serial Crimes Unit, or SCU, has a remit to investigate serial murder cases, serial rapes, assaults etc, taking place across all the police force areas of England and Wales. And Heck is one of its lead investigators. By the nature of this beast, he can show up anywhere, from Cornwall to the Lake District, from London to Manchester. He is not office-bound, and rarely works with the same bunch of colleagues, though his overall boss is Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper, his former girlfriend (when they were both DCs), so as you can imagine, this leads to occasional complications.

Though The Killing Club is the third in the series, it’s a direct follow-up to Stalkers, the first, which concerned the activities of a brutal rape and kidnap gang called The Nice Guys Club. I won’t give away too much details because it’s possible some folk haven’t yet read Stalkers, but I will say this: while the second in the series, Sacrifice, was a free-standing story, The Killing Club is, in some ways, Stalkers part 2. So you could read Sacrifice before you read either of the other two books, and it would make no difference, but if you want to read The Killing Club, it’s much better if you read Stalkers first. As usual, the book takes us up and down the country – a real trademark where Heck is concerned – and is loaded with action. Though I’m an ex-policeman, I don’t really do police procedurals, at least not under the Heck banner. These are hard thrillers with what I hope is a grimy, authentic feel and urban mayhem by the bucket-load. In The Killing Club in particular, we see a Nice Guys gang hell-bent on massacring their opponents. These aren’t the sort of hoodlums you can sort out with harsh language alone. Heck has no option but to get stuck in … but that’s all I’m going to say about it at present. Don’t want to give any spoilers away.

When you spend so much time writing about someone like Mark Heckenburg do feel you know him inside out or does he surprise you each time?

I’m sure most authors would agree there’s nothing more pleasing than a character who’s so well-developed in your mind that he or she take on a life of their own, and can literally produce their own lines of dialogue. I’ve certainly reached this stage with Heck, though I doubt the development process has run its course yet.

Heck is not an unusual character for me. The lonely, vulnerable hero who makes up for his social flaws with courage, intellect and incisiveness isn’t exactly a revolutionary concept. But I like to think we’ve done all that and a bit more with Heck. On his creation, I produced a notebook full of back-story for him – to the extent where I could actually picture him in my mind’s eye. But the real reason he’s been so familiar from the get-go is because I’ve based him on people I’ve known very well, not just friends and fellow workers, but family members as well.

He has blue-collar origins, and hails from a post-industrial town in South Lancashire called Bradburn, a very thinly disguised Wigan, the town of my birth. But he doesn’t have hang-ups about this. In this respect, there is a lot of my late-father in Heck. He was a dogged, bluff northerner from a typical coal-mining family, but he was never a class warrior – he firmly believed that everyone had issues they needed to overcome in life. He was also self-educated to a high level, which showed great spirit and ambition, and yet this was an ambition to be as good as he could be at what he did, not an ambition to rule and dominate. This is another key aspect of Heck. He isn’t interested in getting promoted. He’s an out-and-out detective; as he says in his own words, he’s “an investigator, not an administrator”.

But he’s also a tricky customer, who can pull a fast one whenever he needs to – like so many of the real-life police detectives I knew – sometimes at the expense of fellow officers as well as criminals. On top of that, thanks to his background, he isn’t averse to strong-arm tactics if they’re absolutely necessary, but he prefers the affable, even-handed approach. And yet he’s a chancer too. In the rugby league parlance so favoured by my dad, if he has the ball and he sees even the slightest opportunity, he’ll go for the line.

These were all part of my original concept. But yes, to answer the second part of this question, he still surprises me. It was always the plan that he’d work hard, putting in long hours by choice, but it’s become increasingly clear to me that it isn’t really by choice. Heck is an obsessive, constantly at war with personal demons stemming from tragedy in his early life, and his stubbornness and unwillingness to give up is a symptom of this, which, Gemma, for one, thinks is very unhealthy. On the subject of Gemma, I never really know where Heck’s hot and cold relationship with her will finish up.

When I first hatched this idea that his senior supervisor was his former girlfriend, I was worried it might turn out to be stock and that they’d basically end up getting it on at every opportunity. But again, as the stories have unfolded, they’ve evolved away from that a little bit. There’s no denying that Heck and Gemma have a strong if unspoken bond of affection, but there are massive differences in their personalities. Gemma is a straight bat and a real spitfire, whereas Heck’s Machiavellian ways, not to mention his high risk-taking, give her endless headaches. It’s become progressively harder for these two to become romantically re-entwined, and yet the possibility always lurks in background. This is something I never planned for, but am enjoying immensely. I know it’s torturing some readers, who tell me they love the sexual chemistry between Heck and Gemma, but ask when is it going to happen? The simple answer is that I don’t know. Because these two are battling ferocious opponents, regularly in danger themselves, they often have bigger fish to fry – but then again, the sheer stress of their daily work will sometimes throw them together in unguarded moments when they genuinely need the solace of each other’s company, so you never, ever know.

Do you have one guilty pleasure that not many people know about?

I wouldn’t call it a guilty pleasure, but I put every minute of my spare and ‘hobby’ time into the editorship of my Terror Tales series. This is a series of all-new horror anthologies (featuring fiction and non-fiction, with a strong folkloric feel), which I edit for an independent label, Gray Friar Press. It’s a world away from Heck, but I love ghost stories and I love mythology, and it’s great fun combining them in this way. It also gives me the opportunity to work with some great writers and artists. To date we’ve done five: Terror Tales of the Lake District, Terror Tales of East Anglia, Terror Tales of London, Terror Tales of the Cotswolds and Terror Tales of the Seaside, with more to follow.

Is your approach to writing different when it comes to a novel compared to your screen writing?

In both cases, I tend to devise my character notes and write my dialogue first, so initially it’s a similar process. In fact, I’ve been told several times that my prose has a very filmic style in that it’s broken up into scenes and is very visual in its content. A flattering review of The Killing Club said the action sequences were “cinematic, so vivid that it is almost as if the reader is there, experiencing it alongside the characters”. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but if so, it may be that my screenplays and novels have influenced each other more than I realise. But, though there may be superficial similarities between them and the initial approach to the writing may be the same, the two processes ultimately diverge.

For example, writing a film or television drama is very much a process by committee. The more drafts you produce, the more people seem to get involved, each with a different opinion you must take into account. The plot may suddenly make an illogical right-hand turn depending on a phone-call you’ve just received, and then may turn back again with the next phone-call. In the midst of all that, it’s easy for the original artistic vision to be lost. It can become very stressful trying to please everyone and at the same time tell the story you started out with. It may even be, at some stage, that another writer is brought in – it’s frustrating, but that’s just the way it happens. As such, I tend to take a much harder, more objective view of screenplay writing, whereas, with a novel, it’s very different. With a novel, it’s yours from beginning to end, and usually you tend only to heed the words of your commissioning editor. This means you can love it more and consider something entirely yours. Of course, writing a novel can be more physically exhausting than writing a screenplay. It tends, on average, to be about five times longer in terms of word-count, so I usually give myself several months rather than several weeks and stock up a lot more on elbow grease.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the same thing. Some of the disciplines required are different, but not too many. You need to pace your screenplay, but you need to pace your novel too. In a movie you’ve no time for introspection, for navel-gazing etc, though a novel will quickly bog down too if you start waffling.
In both cases, you have to tell a story as clearly, excitingly, entertainingly, and concisely as you can. The basic skill-sets apply to both forms.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Don’t spend too much time writing short stories. I love short stories, and they are a great training ground for new and young writers, but on their own they are not commercial enough to give you the writing career you seek. Pen them now and then for sure, but concentrate more on novels and screenplays. Once you’re established, you’ll have lots of time to pick up the short form again.

What was the last book you read that you would consider a must read?

Whenever anyone asks me this, I give the same answer, and yet it’s not a novel that is widely available any more, nor is it within any of the genres where I normally work.

It’s The Saxon Tapestry by Sile Rice, published in 1991. This is a historical fantasy concerning the life and death of Hereward the Wake, the great freedom fighter who gave everything he had, including his life eventually, to liberate England from the Normans. It’s an epic tome, concerning major events in history and involving multiple real-life characters, but with mythological elements interwoven as well. It’s also beautifully and poetically written, though that only serves to enhance the incredible battle scenes, of which there are many, and to underline the increasing heartbreak, as a way of a life, a rich culture, and ultimately a unique people and their society, are systematically and cruelly destroyed. Very few books have ever brought genuine tears to my eyes, but this one did. Whatever your field of literary interest, if you’re looking for a genuine must-read, I unreservedly recommend The Saxon Tapestry. Don’t be put off if you don’t like history, because this is first and foremost about humanity (or a disturbing lack of it).

We know that you have more planned for Detective Sergeant Mark Heckenburg but can you tell us about Heck’s future?

It’s difficult to say a lot about this without giving away any essential spoilers. I think I’ve already mentioned that Heck has no desire to rise through the ranks, plus he’s trodden on so many toes in the past that this would be unlikely anyway, even with Gemma as a benign (if abrasive) driving force behind him. So basically you can expect more of the same as he hunts down the worst elements in our society, disturbing and complex investigations galore as killers and maniacs cross and re-cross the police force boundaries of England and Wales.

It’s early days yet and maybe I’m already saying too much, but I have detailed outlines planned for investigations in Cornwall during an English summer heatwave, in South and East London at the very heart of England’s organised crime culture, and in the leafy lanes of Surrey, the kind of place you’d least expect to find violent offenders, though this one has the potential, I think/hope, to be more hair-raising than most.

Can you tell us what are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on three live projects. First of all, the fourth Heck novel, the working title for which (though I suspect we’ll stick with it), will be Dead Man Walking. This will be published in November, and will take Heck up to the Lake District in the depths of a dank and foggy autumn. No more spoilers about that one just yet. The fifth Heck novel – the working title for which is Hunted – is also being knocked into shape. You may wonder why we’re working so far ahead of ourselves. Well the truth is that Hunted was originally going to be Heck 3, but readership demand to see the Nice Guys again caused us to fast-track The Killing Club forward into third, pushing Hunted a little bit further back down the line.

The third project is completely unrelated to Heck and is a movie script entitled War Wolf. This is a medieval horror/fantasy set during the Hundred Years War, and is filled with knights, battles, beautiful women and terrifying monsters. It was commissioned from an outline I sent to Amber Entertainment, a major film company with offices in London and Los Angeles, and things are now moving on apace. I’m not sure whether I’m allowed to say all this, but casting is underway and we’re hoping to shoot in Europe in September, though anything can happen in the movie world. We’ll have to see how that one goes.

The characters you create can be very dark and intense, where do you get your inspiration from?

I think I can safely say that dark characters are my stock-in-trade. I met many killers, gangsters, robbers and rapists when I was a police officer, and they were, without exception, scary guys. It’s not something to be taken lightly either. I mean, behind every one of these creatures there is a human horror story: abuse, poverty, violence, endless trips to prison, where they only thing they were taught was how to ensure they’d end up there again not long after they’d been released. But you know, we all love impressive villains. It’s important in every genre; even in romance and in family fiction, there are bad guys as well as good guys. On that basis, I think it’s very important to give the audience what they expect, though with Heck I like to go a little bit farther if I can.

From the beginning, I wanted to make the Heck novels frightening as well as exciting. That’s probably a hangover from my horror-writing days, but I want my readers on edge all the time. Don’t ask me why … maybe I’m just a sadist. But if that means taking them into mysterious rural enclaves where unseen evil is lurking, or exposing them to ghastly urban nightmares where almost no-one gets out alive, so be it. It certainly means they’re going to be meeting the baddest of the bad, and I make no apologies for that.
Where do I get these guys from? Well, I’ve already mentioned my real-life experiences, but I also watch the news, and current affairs programmes, and documentaries, and I’m very fond of history. There are lots of prototype villains and madmen out there in the real world. You don’t have to look too hard to find them.
I suppose the dark and intense thing could also apply to some of my good guys. Heck in particular. Well, I guess that’s the hardboiled cop thing. It’s the other part of the equation. Having created heavyweight villains to terrorise the innocent, I don’t believe in going easy on them. It’s absolutely essential that we have a hero you genuinely believe can go round for round with these crazies. Again, I make no apologies for this – these were always intended to be taut, brooding thrillers, filled with darkness and realistic urban violence, but in which the good guys win, though not without suffering significantly in the process.

Lastly, do you have much planned for the rest of 2014?

Well … the three current projects I’ve already mentioned will be my priority, but all need to be finished well before the end of this year, so hopefully, all being well, we’ll be closing out 2014 by going on holiday somewhere. Seriously. There’s been a lot of intense writing in the last few years. It would be nice to take a break and recharge the batteries, though that feels a long way off at present.

Thank you again for your time and we look forward to the next instalment from Heck!