Saturday 27 February 2016

Mermaids, murderers and beers at the bar

This is the new cover for the latest book in the Terror Tales series. As you can see, it will be TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL.

The book isn't quite ready yet, so I can't post a direct link to it, or even give you a table of contents or a back-cover blurb. Suffice to say, it will be full of what you expect: roaring seas, jagged coasts, wild moors, lonely tin mines and isolated villages with curses on them. We've got witches, sea serpents, ghosts, faeries, sadistic killers, etc. As I say, it can't be unveiled just yet, but we're looking to publish sometime in late spring or early summer. In the meantime, enjoy the striking cover, provided as usual by the indefatigable Warrington-based artist, Neil Williams.

We've had more hi-jinks than usual with the cover this time. Initially, it was raunchier than usual in that the mermaid - predatory she-devil though she clearly is - was showing quite a bit of flesh. Most observers thought we should go with it anyway to try and capture the erotic allure of this ancient monster, but ultimately I bottled out. These books need wide exposure and we had it intimated to us that several websites might not be able to carry the image as they have a kind of unofficial 'no nipples' policy.

This is a slightly more chaste version. But I'm sure you'll agree, it's still pretty impressive.

(A quick note on the Terror Tales series, by the way. Gray Friar Press are currently between websites. They are constructing a brand new one, so at present there is no direct access to the Terror Tales books via the publisher. Sorry for any inconvenience this may cause, but if you are interested in buying or reading about them, please feel free to follow the links to the Amazon pages and other online retailers, where they can still be purchased. Again, as soon as the new site is up and ready, I'll post all the details here).

On a completely different note, at the end of this column today, I'll be reopening my Thrillers, Chillers, Shockers and Killers feature for 2016, and this week it will focus on Peter James's latest crime masterwork, YOU ARE DEAD. As usual with my book reviews, you will find that at the end of this post.

Still on the subject of crime fiction, if there's anyone up here in the North or on the Borders who fancies a face-to-face chat, I'll be appearing in NOIR AT THE BAR at the Moo Bar on Devonshire Street, Carlisle, at 7pm on Thursday March 10, alongside a bunch of famous crime-writers, including Neil White, Zoe Sharp, Jay Stringer, James Hilton, Lucy Cameron and Tess Makovesky. If you're in the area at the time, why not pop in for a pint and listen to us blather on?

And now, a small diversion. A few months ago, I was approached by Readers Digest, who were looking to do some promotion work for their annual 100-Word Short Story Competition. They asked if I would produce one of my own, a chilling tale of exactly 100 words, to include in the publicity material. I scribbled a few down, and one was duly accepted and went to press.

It follows below. But as a treat - I just know you guys love your treats - the other best four of the bunch I supplied (in my opinion) will follow on from it. Happy (if speedy) reading ...

“Darren,” Sue whispered, “there’s someone in the wardrobe.”
“Go back to sleep,” he muttered. Her nervousness at night had always irritated him.
“No. We must check. That lunatic who escaped from the asylum …”
Grumpily, he climbed from the bed and fumbled his way across the darkened room. “For God’s sake, put the lights on,” he said over his shoulder.
The bedside lamp came on as Darren yanked the wardrobe open – and choked in horror. Sue stood facing him, propped against the compartment’s wooden back, throat slit.
“Is it anyone we know, darling?” came a singsong voice from the bed.

And now, as promised, the rest of them ...

When I went into the prison cell, it was awful. Tiny, dark and damp. The maniac, meanwhile, was waiting in its far corner, arms folded across his barrel chest.
“So you’re the doctor, are you?” he said.
I nodded, immediately wary.
He had a shaved bullet-head, eyes like chips of broken glass and the neck and shoulders of an ox. “You don’t like me already,” he said. “I can tell.”
“I don’t know you yet,” I murmured.
"You soon will.” He grinned as he adjusted the cuffs on his prison officer uniform. “We don’t care for wife murderers in here.”

“It’s your fault, mum,” the vacant-faced young man told the weeping woman. “You’ve been saying for ages it’s time I took a girl out.”
“Of course.” She glanced at the grim-faced policemen standing behind him. “You’re twenty-five. I was getting worried.”
“Well that’s all I did.” He stood stiffly as they applied the handcuffs. “It was Jenny from work. We went for a pizza and then to the cinema.”
“So what on Earth went wrong?” his mother sobbed.
“Nothing.” He shook his head dumbly. “I drove her to the old railway bridge afterwards. And that’s where I took her out.”

The costume shop at the end of the dingy little back alley had always fascinated Miranda.
“Your mannequins are so lifelike she told its thin-faced proprietor. “May I touch?”
“Of course.”
The wax was smooth and cool under her fingertips.
He chuckled. “You must have believed those nasty rumours that I use dead bodies stuffed with straw?”
Shamefaced, she couldn’t deny it.
“Dead skin would never look as real as wax,” he added.
Then she knocked the mannequin over, breaking it. She gasped.
“On the other hand,” and he locked the shop door, “bones and internal organs do just fine.” 

“It’s the Mutilator for sure,” the DI said, grey-faced as he stepped outside the forensic tent.
The Police and Crime Commissioner’s heart sank. This madman had been terrorising the town for weeks now. “Are you absolutely certain?” she asked. “To be honest, I didn’t think there’d be a single body-part left that he hasn’t already collected.”
“There isn’t,” the DI said, loosening his collar. “That’s why this one isn’t missing anything.”
She felt a thrill of horror. “You don’t mean …?”
“We knew he was good with a meat cleaver. Seems he’s also a dab-hand with a needle and thread.”



A series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and fantasy novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

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

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