Thursday, 5 May 2016

No place for a gentle touch in this dark web

I’ve been looking forward for ages to reviewing C.J. Sansom’s amazing crime / history / thriller cross-over, DISSOLUTION, and today is finally the day. As usual, my full review can be found at the lower end of this post. 

But before we get to that, if you’ve got the patience, I’ve got some updates regarding my own novel-writing exploits.

Folk will have seen in my last blogpost that the cover for my next crime novel, STRANGERS, was finally revealed by Avon Books (nicely in advance of its September publication). It’s quite an eye-catcher in my view, but at the same time details were also leaked concerning other projects of mine that are now being translated into German – including STRANGERS, which, as SCHWARZE WITWEN (Black Widow), hits the shelves in January.

But isn’t it fascinating the different ways that various publishers seek to sell their product?

Just compare these two exceptional jackets. They are both exactly the same book and feature the same character – brand new detective, Lucy Clayburn – and yet they could not be more different in tone.

The British edition is clearly aimed at what I suspect is a more female-oriented market, with suggestions of hearth and home under threat, hints that vulnerability can be found in the midst of the cosiest suburban domesticity, and the overall implication that danger is around at all times. And what about that shout-line?

A stranger is just a killer you haven’t met yet …

That reinforces the message big time, as far as I can see.

The cover from German publishers, Piper, however, has a much more action-oriented feel. In fact, when Piper were designing this jacket, their cover artist got in touch with me and asked for a physical description of Lucy Clayburn and various pertinent details from her biography. That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me in terms of a novel, but it gave me the opportunity to explain that, as well as a young trainee-detective based in Manchester, Lucy is also a biker girl, brave, athletic, always up for a challenge, etc.

Is there any concession in Piper’s final composition to gender or femininity? Not much at first glance, I suspect. But look a little closer, and I think you’ll see that there actually is. It’s done in black and pink, after all. And I hope that isn’t taken as a trite remark or even a crass comment. It isn’t intended as such. It’s just that I’ve never seen an action-themed cover done in pink before. Fab or what?

Anyway, I’m one happy wordsmith seeing these two incredible covers, each one presenting a different publisher’s interpretation of the same novel.

On a not entirely dissimilar matter, the jackets to two other German translations of my books are now available for your perusal.

The first of these is the Heck novella, OBSESSION, which though it has not yet been published in the UK, will come out in Germany as BESESSEN later this year (watch this space for the actual date). This is an ‘early days’ adventure from the Mark Heckenburg canon, and is set during his time as a young DC in the East End of London. This one focusses on the disturbing case of a weird neighbourhood creeper.

Here’s a brief except:

‘What you running for, eh?’ Heck demanded.
The prowler, who stank of stale sweat, shook his head dully; lank, unwashed hair swept curtain-like over his eyes. ‘I don’t … I don’t …’ He coughed as he tried to get his breath. ‘I don’t … have to say anything … I won’t be saying anything ’til I have a solicitor.’
‘Oh, you won’t? What’s your name?’
‘Bollocks, I’m not … not saying nothing.’
‘That so?’ With progressively less effort, because the guy was totally shot, Heck muscled him back across the path towards the balustrade. The prowler only realised where they were going when it was too late. He tried to resist, but they were now at the parapet, the rotted stonework falling away when Heck kicked at it, crashing noisily into the abyss underneath. The prowler sucked in a tight, terrified breath as they teetered on the edge. Some twenty feet below, a liquid surface revealed water surging fast along a deep brick channel, most likely a run-through connecting the Hertford Union Canal with the Regent’s.
‘Okay, Mr. Bollocks,’ Heck said. ‘You a good swimmer?’
The prowler said nothing, but he’d stiffened with fear.
‘How’d you reckon you’ll do with your hands cuffed?’ Heck snapped the bracelets into place, brutally locking the guy’s fat wrists in the small of his back.
‘You … you can’t!’ the prowler stammered. ‘I need my solicitor … 
Thats where youre wrong, Bollocks. Heck kicked his legs apart and stamped on the back of his left calf, knocking him down to his knees. What you actually need is a lifejacket!

The second cover is something completely different.

It’s for a translation of my Christmas horror collection of 2014, IN A DEEP DARK DECEMBER. The German version, DAS GESPENST VON KILLINGLY HALL (The Spectre of Killingly Hall, out next October) clearly focusses on the longest novella in the book – The Killing Ground, and tells the tale of Ruth and Alec Whitchurch, a husband and wife detective team hired by a US movie star to protect his family one snowy Christmas from the mythical cannibal hag said to haunt his new hunting estate on the Welsh borderland. But as with the British version, it includes the other four stories too, all of which equally (hopefully) possess the festive fear factor (though it wouldn’t be right to talk too much about that now, as it’s still only May – yah!).

Even so, here is a quick excerpt:

“I’m Ruth,” Ruth said.
Now the child looked at her properly. “Like Ruth in the Bible?”
“Was there a Ruth in the Bible?”
The child looked shocked. “Aww! You don’t know your Bible. That’s bad.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Still, I’m a friend of your daddy’s. Maybe I can be your friend, too?”
Claudette chewed on a pen as she pondered this. “Are you going to be here for the party tomorrow night?”
“Yes. Your daddy’s asked me to stay.”
“Are you in the movies?”
“You should be, you’re real pretty.”
“Why thank you.” Ruth saw that Claudette was drawing what looked like a woman standing in a doorway. “That’s a pretty lady too.”
“She came to see me yesterday,” the child said.
“Is she going to be at the party?”
“I don’t know, she didn’t talk much. I don’t think she’s a regular lady.”
Ruth almost laughed. “Whatever do you mean?”
Claudette recommenced drawing. “She just watched me. Through my bedroom window.”
“Through your …? Sorry honey, what did you say?”
“I was sleepy, so Anita thinks I just dreamed her.”
“My maid. Do you have your own maid?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Really? Who helps you get your stuff?”
“I have a husband for that. Tell me about this lady.”
Claudette chattered on as she drew. “We’d just flown in, so I was real sleepy. Anita says I slept on the plane, but I don’t remember. I went to bed as soon as I got here. My bedroom’s cool. Do you want to come up and see it?”
“Maybe later. This lady was looking in through the window, you say?”
“I think I dreamed it. Because my bedroom’s upstairs and I don’t see how she could have got up there.”
“And she just watched you?”
“Uh-huh. But then Anita came in and called me a sleepyhead. Said I had to get my body to … adjut, adjut, what’s that word?”
“ ‘Adjust’, honey.”
“Yeah. I had to get my body to adjust to the new time-zone. Hey, that’s the first time I got it right. Is that cool?”
At first Ruth couldn’t reply. She was too busy staring down at the picture. Armed with what she now knew, it depicted a woman not standing in a doorway, but on the outside of a tall, narrow casement. She was clinging on with one hand to either side of the frame. Her clothes were long and flowing, yet even through the childs simple sketch work there was a suggestion of dirt and raggedness. Her facial features seemed normal enough, though the dark hair that framed them was thick and matted and hung down past her waist. It was an odd yet clearly deliberate touch that her eyes had a vague hint of redness.

I can only say that I’m delighted with all my new jackets. It’s a great honour to be published in your native language, but when the readerships of other countries embrace it too, that’s a bonus you can normally only dream of.



An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror 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.

by C.J. Sansom (2003)

The year is 1537, and the Protestant Reformation is picking up pace. England is now a land of informers, interrogation by rack, falsified evidence, and the handing down of death sentences for the simple crime of holding an opinion.

The driving force behind his new tyranny is King Henry VIII, but his iron fist is Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell, a zealous bureaucrat hell-bent on dissolving the Catholic monasteries and dividing their lands and wealth among a grasping nobility. One of Cromwell’s prime agents in this cause is hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake, another committed reformer and a man of razor-sharp intellect. However, even Shardlake now harbours doubts about his master’s increasingly brutal and swingeing methods – more and more are going to the block, torture is ever more frequently used – so when he is assigned to investigate the murder of Robin Singleton, a fellow government official, at the remote, marsh-begirt monastery of Scarnsea, he is initially relieved.

Here should be an open-and-shut case. The monks are notoriously lax, as well as hostile to the new mood. There is no question about the righteousness of this enquiry, and Shardlake expects there’ll be suspects a-plenty – and indeed there are, because when he arrives there, Scarnsea turns out to be a den of vice and a nest of corruption.

Aided by his handsome young assistant, Mark Poer, Shardlake learns that, in addition to the murder, which involved decapitation by sword, a precious relic has been stolen and the monastery church desecrated in a weird satanic ceremony. He also uncovers evidence of fraudulent land sales perpetrated by some of the monks, dubious dealings with local smugglers, treasonous mutterings, and sexual improprieties (sodomy between men and boys, but also the molestation of serving-girls). At a purely personal level there is much here to question. While certain among the brethren are devoted to their role, others’ vocations are more doubtful: Abbot Fabian lives openly and unashamedly as a country squire; Prior Mortimus disciplines the novices with ridiculous viciousness; Brother Edwig measures everything in pounds, shillings and pence; Brother Gabriel is homosexual (a crime in that era); Brother Guy is a converted Moor; Brother Jerome is an unapologetic Catholic whose torture by Cromwell leads to him condemn the new England more vociferously each day.   

And yet, despite this catalogue of likely candidates, it is a far from straightforward enquiry. Shardlake finds that everyone here has something to hide, while almost no-one, whatever their rank, is straight with him about their true feelings for the Reformation. Even the local townsfolk have reason to be suspect, the commoners eager to curry favour with the King by loudly decrying the papists, their betters eager to acquire the papists’ land. Things are additionally complicated when Shardlake and Poer fall out over a comely serving-wench, Alice, and all the while a deep and bitter winter sets in, heavy snow virtually imprisoning our heroes in the grim and eerie structure at Scarnsea, which creates a brooding atmosphere of terror and evil when suddenly there is another murder, and then another one …

What can I say? This novel works for me on so many levels.

First of all, as a straightforward murder-mystery it makes for compulsive reading. Shardlake and Poer, though possessing authority, are constantly under threat in this isolated locale – tense moments abound – while the investigation, as they work their way through a complex tangle of clues, many of them contradicting each other, is riveting. Always, it seems, there are new questions and yet fewer and fewer answers. Is the killer someone who supports the Catholic cause, or someone who detests it? Was Singleton slain because he represented Cromwell and the King, or was it a personal matter? While on one hand the mystery appears to intersect with financial misdoings, on the other it looks like something sexual. On yet another it may involve witchcraft and Satanism. Is it possible the various murders look different in terms of their motives and modus operandi because they are the work of different murderers?

Though lengthy, the tale cracks on at great pace as Shardlake penetrates determinedly through the intrigue, winning some friends on the way but also plenty of enemies, and often having to dodge danger himself. When the resolution is finally reached, is it not exactly a jaw-dropper, but it is deeply satisfying and requires no suspension of belief given the widespread brutality and injustice of that era.

Shardlake himself is a fine central character. An unlikely hero, though he initially appears as a stealthy, eavesdropping man who insists on asking awkward questions and feels no guilt about foisting his beliefs on others, he is at heart a good soul who genuinely believes that a purer, fairer world can come from the Reformist movement. He has also suffered terribly at a personal level, not just from the physical pain of his crippled body but from the humiliation and mistrust it has brought on him, which makes him hugely sympathetic. In any case, Dissolution – the first of a whole series of Matthew Shardlake novels from C.J. Sansom – sees the Tudor-age investigator commence a long, arduous journey of self-discovery, during the course of which he is ever-more troubled by the new police state he serves and the apparent innocence of so many of its victims. 

The book also provides a fascinating snapshot of English intellectual life at the close of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Early Modern Age, clearly outlining the differences between the factions on either side of the Reformist fence, the Catholics mistrustful of a lay-aristocracy with no remit to do good and aghast that centuries of holy tradition are being torn down, the Reformers infuriated by a monolithic ecclesiastical body that empowers itself by enthralling the populace in ignorance and superstition.

It also issues a stern warning about sanctimonious idealogues who are so certain of the righteousness of their cause that they are prepared to perform vicious deed to bring it about, and that is surely a message as pertinent today as it ever was. 

Dissolution is a multi-faceted tale of great depth and interest. In some ways, it is only superficially a murder-mystery (though as I say, it works compellingly on that level too), because there is so much more to it. But all that notwithstanding, it remains an absolute must for the reading collections of any fans of crime, thriller and/or historical fiction.

As always – purely for the fun of it – here are my picks for who should play the leads if Dissolution ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (it was adapted by BBC Radio in 2012, with Jason Watkins starring as Matthew Shardlake and Mark Bonner as Thomas Cromwell).

Matthew Shardlake – Toby Jones
Thomas Cromwell – Jeremy Irons
Mark Poer – Al Weaver
Alice – Bethany Muir
Brother Guy – Don Warrington
Abbott Fabian – Matthew Macfadyen
Prior Mortimus – Andy Serkis
Brother Jerome – David Bradley
Brother Edwig – Mark Addy 
Brother Gabriel - Phil Davis

I know … big cast! What are the chances, eh?

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