Wednesday, 21 September 2016

New cop Lucy hits mean streets tomorrow

It’s a big week for me, this week. One of the biggest I’ve had in my time as a professional author. In short, my sixth crime novel – STRANGERS (the first in the Lucy Clayburn series) – is published tomorrow. Yes, as the poster says – TOMORROW. So, I thought I’d use this opportunity to give you a bit of a rundown on everything that’s happened so far and is hopefully about to happen. Before we proceed with that, if you’ve tuned in to read my review of James Carol’s truly horrific crime thriller, BROKEN DOLLS, you’ll find it, as usual, at the lower end of this post. But in the meantime, back to STRANGERS ...

I can honestly say that this is a different kind of book for me and a departure from the norm. You might respond with: “No, it isn’t. It’s another dark crime thriller.” Well, there’d actually be a bit of truth in both those assertions. STRANGERS definitely occupies my preferred territory: a lone detective trawling the urban night, meeting criminals and crazies at every turn, with the ultimate goal of defeating and arresting a relentless and deranged killer. But if you take a chance on it, I think you’ll soon find that there is plenty blue water between this one and the Heck investigations. All that said, STRANGERS was originally born from an idea I first pitched to my publishers, Avon (HarperCollins) for a DS Heckenburg novel concerning a murderess known to the press as ‘Jill the Ripper’.

You see, it had occurred to me that for ages we’ve been reading (and writing!) crime novels in which the hapless victims are nearly always female and their cruel oppressors invariably male. In many ways this is a reflection of tragic reality. In real life, most serial sex killers are men and most of their victims women. It’s a horrible and shameful aspect of human ‘civilisation’, but this book is fiction, and from the outset I’d thought: “Wouldn’t it make a change if we inverted things a little … if this time we made men the victims of a merciless female predator?”

It would be newish ground, for sure. There have, of course, been several high profile female serial killers, but usually these tend to be poisoners, baby farmers or ‘black widow’ types. Names like Mary Ann Cotton and Amelia Dyer (left to right in that order) belong in all our halls of infamy. But even so, very few women criminals have ever been convicted as wandering sex-killers.

As I say, this was originally intended to be a Heck novel, but when I pitched the idea to my gaffers at HarperCollins, they thought it would make for an even more interesting twist if a female detective was put on the case.

Well … this was as cool as it got. Because it gave me an opportunity to resurrect a character I’d first devised as long ago as 1993.

Back in those distant days, Lucy Clayburn was the central figure of a TV drama I was trying to sell called DIRTY WORK, which concerned a young woman detective in Manchester who was investigating a series of murders of prominent criminals, only to uncover a web of police corruption and collusion. I was still attached to THE BILL at the time, and so DIRTY WORK got onto quite a few desks. It was optioned fairly quickly, and a Northwest actress who in the early ’90s was the star turn in one of our popular soap operas was very interested in playing the lead. But alas, in the long run it all came to nothing.

In due course, the story itself became obsolete as it had centred around several notorious miscarriages of justice in the UK, which were big news at the time but soon faded into history. But the character of Lucy Clayburn was one I liked very much – a tough Manchester lass from a blue-collar background, not necessarily with a chip on her shoulder but driven by her impoverished upbringing to make a real mark on society, and a good mark too because the most influential person in her life had always been her hardworking single mum.

At the time I filed Lucy away with the intention of bringing her back at some future date, but I could never have imagined that 23 years would elapse before I finally did. But anyway, here we were in 2015, now with a completely different storyline, but one that I felt fitted Lucy like a glove.

I’d like to say that because everything was going so swimmingly, the book wrote itself. But that wouldn’t be true at all (is it ever?). As this new story wouldn’t just see Lucy exercising her investigative muscles, but going undercover as a prostitute to pursue suspects through some of the city’s grimiest backstreets and sleaziest brothels, the first thing I had to do was wise up on what this would actually entail.

I’m an ex-copper myself, but I never did anything of that nature. Thankfully, a good mate of mine, fellow wordsmith Ash Cameron – author of CONFESSIONS OF AN UNDERCOVER COP – did. She was a London detective for many years, and undertook this sordid and dangerous assignment on several occasions. She gave me the full skinny, not just the complex legalities, but also the constant menace and mundane horrors the girls involved encountered on a daily basis, not to mention the personal conflicts they suffered and the way they had to immunise themselves against the misery and hopelessness around them.

It was quite an eye-opener, much of which, I think, has found its way into STRANGERS.

There was a bit of kerfuffle when my first draft was delivered. Avon promptly decided to reshuffle the schedule. The next Heck book in line for publication, at the time titled THE BURNING MAN, was moved back a year (and retitled ASHES TO ASHES). This was a bit of a surprise and a disappointment to some of my readers. However, most, I now hope, are onside, having seen that this was to accommodate a new book, a new character and the commencement of a new series, one I intend to see run parallel with Heck (you haven’t seen the end of Heck yet, so don’t worry on that score).

STRANGERS will hit the bookshelves tomorrow, which date will also see us start out on a massive blog-tour, the first stop of which, as you can tell from the itinerary posted here, will be GRAB THIS BOOK. For regular daily updates on this tour, by the way, just look me up on Facebook and/or Twitter.

In other Lucy Clayburn-related news, I have a couple of radio interviews due very soon: one with Hannah Murray on The Book Show at Talk Radio Europe, and one with Becky Want at BBC Radio Manchester. Both of these have yet to air, but again, if you hunt me down on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll see that I give advance notice about dates, times etc. Equally fun was a podcast I did for HarperCollins with Ash Cameron, in which we discuss the gauntlet of risks she ran while going undercover among sex-workers in her role as a police detective. It’s not all grim and ghoulish, though. If you tune in – and again I’ll give you the heads-up as and when – you’ll hear that we had a few laughs too.

Okay, well that’s it so far. As I say, shamelessly plugging my own book yet again, STRANGERS will be in your local bookshop tomorrow (I hear that certain Asda stores are already selling it!), and will be available from all the usual retail outlets online.

Now, on a not unconnected note, please feel free to check out my thoughts re. another crime-fighter in pursuit of a deadly murderer in this week’s edition 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 James Carol (2014)

Consultant behavioural science profiler, Jefferson Winter, has a unique insight into the minds of serial killers … mainly because he himself was fathered by one. When young Jefferson watched his evil genius parent die by lethal injection, he had no idea that his path in life was set.

“We’re the same,” the malevolent old man told his son through the bullet-proof viewing port of the execution chamber seconds before the deadly drugs pitched him into the next world. But this wasn’t entirely true, because, expert though he soon became in the ways of depraved murderers, the adult Jefferson eventually joined the good guys’ team. And though he commenced his career as a profiler with the FBI, he now carries the good fight all over the globe – in short he’s a profiler-for-hire, and a top-gun freelancer when it comes to cracking the psychological makeup of the world’s worst violent offenders.

In Broken Dolls, his very first outing, he’s been summoned to London by an old mate, Detective Inspector Mark Hatcher, who is struggling with a particularly distressing case.

An unknown maniac has been abducting women, shaving their heads, torturing them at his leisure and then lobotomising them, releasing them back onto the streets as wandering relics of the people they once were: broken dolls with no lives left to call their own.

Even Winter, who’d thought he had seen it all, is taken aback by the horror of this enquiry. There are four victims to date – a quartet of truly tragic cases. Obviously none of them are able to help with the details of their abductor. But then another woman goes missing; attractive but bored housewife, Rachel Morris, who disappeared on a blind date with a strange personality she encountered online.

Winter, in company with the beautiful and spirited DS Sophie Templeton, finds himself racing against the clock to prevent the zombification of another innocent victim, though on this occasion it’s entirely possible that the kidnapper may have bitten off more than he can chew – because Morris is the estranged daughter of London mob boss Donald Cole, who is desperate to assist in the search for her any way he can. This certainly interests Winter, but whether it will prove to be a help or a hindrance remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Rachel Morris finds herself imprisoned in a purpose-built torture chamber. The debonair chap she was secretly on her date with, the aptly-named ‘Cutting Jack’ – who has a penchant for unfaithful wives – is determined to put her through a living hell before finally taking her mind and her memories away …

Broken Dolls is a different kind of crime thriller from the norm in that we see things through the educated eyes of a criminal profiler rather than the instincts and street-smarts of a hard-assed detective. Some British reviewers have commented negatively on this; Jefferson Winter – a rather smug character, it has to be said, who doesn’t even carry a badge any more – popping over to the UK and showing Scotland Yard’s best how the job should really be done. But I didn’t get that feeling (and James Carol is a British writer, so I suspect his use of an American hero is more about gaining his books an international profile than about teaching the Brits what’s what). In any case, it all works. Quantico was the birthplace of modern-day offender profiling, and the FBI are still recognised as world-leaders in the field, so in that regard nothing jars for me. Plus, as I intimated previously, the approach in this novel is all quite original.

Instead of seeing doors kicked down, suspects leaned on and forensic clues painstakingly gathered, we see Winter dashing around at breakneck pace but also constructing a gradual and detailed psychological portrait of his anonymous opponent. The author has clearly done his research here – it all feels very authentic as he slowly and convincingly gets into the mind of his demented antagonist.

Which brings me onto the book’s personnel.

Jefferson Winter is an unusual kind of good guy. He’s affable, a straight-talker and driven to do the right thing – all stuff we like. But there are oddities too. Though he’s only young, thanks to a physiological anomaly he has a full head of snow-white hair – and yet he’s no white knight. It is hinted all the way through the book that Jefferson has inherited some of his father’s genes, and he constantly needs to battle against baser instincts. He particularly lusts after Sophie Templeton, though thankfully keeps most of that in check.

Needless to say, this is an aspect of the book that hasn’t been to every reader’s taste – some have even labelled it ‘misogynistic’. But I disagree with that. Winter is a single guy who likes gorgeous girls, which I don’t consider to be particularly offensive. He also admires Templeton greatly for her detective skills, so it isn’t purely a physical attraction between them. However, his horrific start in life has affected him in other ways too. Winter is good enough at what he does to make a lucrative living as he hires himself out to one police force after another, yet deep down he is still frightened and uneasy about the state of his own mind, and his Sam Spade-esque bravado is primarily a disguise. He is nowhere near as self-assured as he may appear.

Templeton meanwhile is so sexily described (it’s a little overdone, if I’m absolutely honest) that you’re tempted to picture one of those impossibly well-coiffured lady cops you get in American TV dramas, but this is offset by her feisty nature and upper class tone, which juxtaposes nicely with the hardboiled Winter, and helps create a cool if somewhat unlikely crime-fighting duo.

As for the villain, Cutting Jack … he is without doubt one of the most twisted criminal lunatics I’ve yet come across in crime fiction, though this does lead me to one slight criticism: there is an awful lot of torture in this novel.

Protracted scenes of cruelty and pain don’t do a great deal for me, but by the same token I don’t think they’re completely unnecessary here. Broken Dolls is essentially a race against time – the killer already has his next victim in chains and is currently playing with her; at some point soon he’s going to hammer his orbitoclast through her eye-socket and it’ll all be over. If we were purely to watch Winter and Templeton as they race about the snowy London streets doing everything they can to close ground on a faceless madman, it wouldn’t be half as effective. As things are, though it isn’t pleasant dwelling on the pain of doomed captives, the terror and tension in these scenes is almost tangible – every time the maniac enters through the dungeon door, you wonder if this is going to be it for housewife Rachel. And it isn’t just torture that Cutting Jack indulges in. Once you’re in his grasp, all kinds of unexplainable weirdness occurs – but I won’t say any more about that for fear of spoiling things. Put it this way, there are surprises galore in this narrative, and very few of them are nice.

I strongly recommend Broken Dolls to lovers of hard, dark crime fiction. It’s no comfortable read – not by any means, but even so I rattled through the pages, all the time hearing an imaginary clock ticking down to what might be yet another ghastly incident. If you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s quite a rush.

I’m reliably informed that a US TV show following Jefferson Winter’s various exploits is already in development, but maybe, if I’m bold enough, I can get in early with some casting suggestions. As usual just for the fun of it, here are my personal picks for the lead roles in Broken Dolls:

Jefferson Winter – Damien Lewis
DS Sophie Templeton – Jenna Louise Coleman
DI Mark Hatcher – Shane Ritchie
Rachel Morris – Katy Cavanagh
Donald Cole – Ray Winston
Cutting Jack – James Frain

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