Thursday 22 October 2015

Mystery thrillers in days of smoke and soot

Seeing as there's been a delay on the next Heck novel, I didn't want this autumn to pass without any kind of publication from me. So I've taken the opportunity to club together a bunch of stories that are among my favourites and have now released them as an e-collection, MAJOR CRADDOCK INVESTIGATES, the cover to which you'll find left, superbly illustrated, as always, by Neil Williams.

(Before I say any more about this, just a quick note to the effect that I recently read Stav Sherez's excellent and uber-grim crime novel ELEVEN DAYS, and there's a full review of it at the bottom of this column).

My Major Craddock novellas, which I mostly penned in
the late 1990s and early 2000s, are a combination of police thriller, period fantasy and gothic horror. They follow the enquiries of a Victorian-era copper, the recently widowed Major Jim Craddock, who after he leaves the British Army in India returns to his native Lancashire, now a blackened wasteland of cotton mills, coal mines, squalor and deprivation, to head up the local detective division.

There are many routine police matters to deal with - robbery, murder, rape, 
crimes as common in the 1860s as they are now, if not more so given the extreme poverty that so much of the population was forced to dwell in. But there are other things to deal with too, stranger things. Craddock saw much that was inexplicable during his time in the Raj, a land of magic, mystery and ancient belief. So he is better placed than most to deal with crimes back in Britain that possess apparent occult or supernatural aspects. So it's a very good thing that he's arrived when he has.

There was only one Craddock novella originally: The Magic Lantern Show, which, in his review of it, best-selling US author, Brian Hodge, said: "Finch places considerable stock in atmosphere, and builds fear and unease well with a judicious balance between what is seen, unseen and merely hinted at. A welcome new voice from across the pond."

This was lavish praise indeed from a master of his trade like Hodge, and it helped convince me that in Craddock we had a potentially reusable character. In addition, the background of smoke, fire and soot in Britain's industrial north during the 19th century was just too interesting not to revisit.

The result was three more Craddock novellas, all of which are now included in MAJOR CRADDOCK INVESTIGATES.

Aside from The Magic Lantern Show, which first appeared in The Dark Satanic in 1999, they are: Shadows In The Rafters, which was first published in By The Gas Flame Flickering in 2000, The Weeping In The Witch Hours, which first appeared in Darkness Rising in 2003 (edited by the indefatiguable Maynard & Sims), and The Coils Unseen, which is original to this collection.

They've perhaps been tidied and tightened up a little bit since their original publication, but they still reach a word-count of approximately 70,000, so they've rather neatly formed a complete book. Only one of them, The Magic Lantern Show, is set at Christmas, but I like to think they all have that 'Dickensian ghost story' feel, so they could well be a fun thing to get your hands on as we wind the year down towards the festive season.

MAJOR CRADDOCK INVESTIGATES is available for download now and HERE at a cost of £1.99. In case you still aren't convinced, here are a few excerpts from its contents:

“I’m going to enjoy delivering this bastard to the Assizes,” Craddock said, gazing down on the strangled woman.
     The lanterns of two constables cast a wavering glow on her filthied corpse. She was sitting against a wall at a junction of two alleyways, her head hanging at a hideous angle. Her ragged dress was in disarray, her greying hair in matted locks. Once again, the neck was blackened and torn by fingers of steel. The expression on her muddied face was almost too ghastly to look at.
“Has she been used?” Munro asked of the various constables gathered there. “Has anyone looked?”
Tough and granite-faced as they were, they shrugged sheepishly. It was easy to understand their dilemma. A multitude stared out and down from the surrounding windows; in all adjoining passages, dark groups of locals were being held back. It wasn’t the done thing for peelers to be caught peeping under a woman’s skirt, even if she had just been slaughtered by some demented person.
“The doctor can do that when he arrives,” the major said. He knelt beside the body, his face grave. His voice lowered to a monotone. “Gentlemen – there is a monster among us. We must step very carefully from here on in ...”
The Magic Lantern Show

Major Craddock and Sergeant Rafferty gazed in disbelief at the thing that hung in front of them. It had once been a human, but was now dried-out, crinkled, withered to a papery husk, as if every drop of juice had been forcibly drained. What was nore, it was bound and suspended as though on a gibbet, though no gibbet Craddock recalled had ever been set up in the depths of a railway shed. The ropes binding the skeletal thing were ancient and frayed but ran tautly up into the high, black rafters, form which it was now plain that other atrocities dangled. Rafferty held the lamp aloft in order to see better. Some of them were high, some of them low, but in every case it was the same story: withered skin, exposed bones, shreds of old clothing.
     "Christ loves a Christian," the sergeant breathed. "What evil are we seeing here?"
     Even in his gloves, Major Craddock reached only gingerly to touch the shrivelled face in front of them. Strands of carrot-red hair hung down over empty eye sockets. Though all the features were creased and leathery, it was easy to see that the mouth was disfigured by a gruesome harelip. 
     "This ... this is Fred Childs," he said. "Good God, this boy can only have been dead a few days."
     Rafferty shook his head. "That's impossible!"
     "Something's drunk him dry."
Shadows In The Rafters

The doctor had ordered the dead men photographed specifically because of the expressions they’d been wearing, which were truly horrible: masks of agony and fear, their mouths yawning open, their eyes clenched shut, their brows and cheeks set rigid and furrowed. Only once had Craddock seen such a thing before. In Oudh, on the sub-continent, he’d watched two criminals who’d attempted to assassinate the maharaja be staked out on the ground and then trampled by trained elephants. It had been a gruesome display indeed, but these faces very closely reminded him of it.
“Whatever killed these men was ghastly,” he said, thinking aloud.
“Whatever killed these men did so by acute heart failure,” Doctor Benedict replied. “Nothing more.”
“You performed full post-mortems?”
“Of course.”
“And did either man have a physical condition that might have caused it?”
“The older’s chap’s arteries were bunged up with calcium. I doubt he’d have lived too much longer in any case.”
“And the younger chap?”
Benedict became pensive. “More difficult. He seemed to be in the pink. But one can’t second-guess the human heart. If it stops, it stops … there’s no arguing with it.”
“And what might cause it to stop?” Craddock asked. “Assuming the medical ailments were lacking.”
“Shock would be the obvious thing.”
“That would be physical shock? Trauma?”
“Or emotional shock. But that’s rare. Extremely rare.”
“But it happens?” Craddock said. “There is a possibility that someone could actually be frightened to death?”
Benedict took off his spectacles. “It would have to be terror beyond imagining.”
Craddock considered. That wasn’t an especially pleasant thought.
The Weeping In The Witch Hours

The ballast had finally fragmented, and an immense, gelatinous something was slowly writhing free of its clutches.
It would have been impossible for either man, given the brief time he stood there, to offer a complete description of the abomination they now beheld. But they caught fleeting glimpses of translucent, tentacle-like protuberances oozing up through the rubble, and in the central area – where Krugg had drained his victims, and then died himself – a blob-like focal point, a quivering mound of vitreous flesh slowly forcing itself upwards, palpitating, glistening – and at the same time glowing, for it was from this very thing that the eerie, oceanic light seemed to emanate. Yet, phosphorescence wasn’t the only thing the monstrosity contained. In the very midst of it, in the thickest part, directly below the emergent point – the head, if such a thing could be called a ‘head’ – the two officers saw a human figure deeply embedded. Preposterous though it seemed, this figure appeared to be riding the creature, or at least controlling it; a demonic human agent safely encased at the globular core, issuing commands through malignant thought-impulses.
Of course all this was fantasy, and unhinged fantasy at that.
The enclosed figure was neither riding nor controlling anything. It wasn’t even moving – not of its own accord, for it was no longer sentient. It wasn’t just dead, it was long dead, little more than bones and carrion. Yet it struck the two officers with horror all the same, for though many of its clothes had faded and rotted away, they were still recognisable as the ragged remnants of a French naval uniform.
“Holy Christ!” Munro screamed. “HOLY JESUS CHRIST!”
The Coils Unseen



An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I've recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, 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 about these pieces of work in advance of reading them, then this part of the blog may not be for you. You have been warned.

ELEVEN DAYS by Stav Sherez (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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