Wednesday 24 August 2016

When stranger danger becomes all too real

I have a few interesting bits and pieces to report this week.

To start with, we are approximately one month away from the launch of my next novel, STRANGERS, and as such the publicity machine is in full flow. You can expect cool banners, like the one above, to start proliferating across social media in the next few days. In addition, I have several public appearances – chats, interviews, book signings etc – lined up for the months ahead, but more about that shortly. In addition this week, as usual, I’ll be discussing someone else’s dark fiction. Today I’ve opted for JG Ballard’s chilling and prophetic crime thriller, RUNNING WILD. As always, my thoughts on the matter and a full review of it can be found at the lower end of this post.

Before we get to that, I’ve been quite fascinated this last couple of days by some of the mysterious activities indulged in by certain marketing people of my acquaintance. I’m talking about my publishers at Avon Books and HarperCollins, who are nothing if not ingenious when it comes to attracting the interest of bloggers, reviewers and the like when a new book is about to get published.

I’m not entirely sure what kind of Machiavellian minds are at work here, but only this week the charming Celeste McCreesh, who writes the CELESTE LOVES BOOKS blogspot, a big Aston Villa fan, received an intriguing package through the post, which didn’t just contain a review copy of STRANGERS, but also a personalised Aston Villa mug and an anonymous postcard advising her to keep on watching Villa because someone else would be watching her …

Whether you consider such an approach fiendishly clever or just plain spooky, you can’t deny that it will have caught the reviewer in question’s full and unswerving attention.

I can only take my hat off to the crafty characters behind this ploy.

Still on the subject of STRANGERS, here are a few possible dates for the diary if you fancy some face-time with me or don’t mind tuning in to a bit of gossip on the radio. (I don’t expect you to come stampeding to these events, by the way, but you know, if you have the inclination …)

Sometime in early September – I don’t have the exact dates of transmission for either of these yet – I’ll be interviewed on the weekly Book Show on TALK RADIO EUROPE by Hannah Murray, and on BBC RADIO MANCHESTER by Becky Want (pictured). If you fancy listening to either or both of these, keep checking my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I’ll post the exact details as soon as I get them.

Also in September, and again I’m not sure at this moment of the precise date and time of broadcast (so as above, check Facebook and Twitter), I’ll feature on a HarperCollins podcast, during which – in reflection of one of the themes in STRANGERS – I’ll be interviewing a real life former female police detective, who regularly went undercover as a prostitute, looking to snare some of the worst and most violent elements in our society.

And now for those actual dates I promised …

From September 23 to 25 (Fri to Sun), I’ll be at FANTASYCON BY THE SEA at Scarborough. If you’re there and you fancy a chat, don’t be afraid to doorstop me in a corridor or in the hotel lobby (or for guaranteed more positive results, offer to buy me a pint in the bar, hehehehe).  

On Thursday September 29, I’ll be at Waterstones on Deansgate in the very centre of Manchester, where I’ll do a quick reading from STRANGERS (there’ll be copies on sale there too), will chat about it afterwards and then take any questions and sign any books that get put in front of me. This will be a particularly enjoyable and emotional event, I reckon, as STRANGERS is set in Manchester so we should all feel home from home.

In late October, I’ll be appearing two nights in Germany as part of the MORD AM HELLWEG festival. On Saturday October 29, I’ll feature in the international crime thriller night at Hagen, and on Sunday October 30 at the Cultural Centre in Darmstadt with other PIPER crime authors. 
Again, there will be readings, discussions and signings. 

Check out these spiffing covers from PIPER for the German translations of my most recent Heck novel and of course for STRANGERS - thats the one emphasising girl-power. 

On Saturday November 19, we’re back in Manchester, where I’m honoured to occupy the lead author slot at the CHORLTON BOOK FESTIVAL. The event will take place at Chorlton Library (commencing sometime between 7 and 8pm – sorry, nothing firmer on that just yet), and again will include a reading, a chat, a Q&A and any signings the audience deems necessary.

So there we are. A busy autumn beckons. It would be great fun to hook up with a few readers in the process, and maybe put some faces to names at long last.


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 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).