Wednesday 25 January 2017

When terror cuts through to our very souls

Uh-oh … it’s all getting personal this week, as we take a long, hard look at Scottish crime superstar James Oswald’s hit novel THE BOOK OF SOULS – because trust me, that is one investigation that takes his Edinburgh detective, Tony McLean, very close to home. But also, because we’re going to be talking about the cover to my new Heck novel, ASHES TO ASHES, which you can see right here – yep, this is the next cover, revealed in all its glory – and because we’re going to be discussing why this book will also be visiting a private Hell on its central character.

Okay, I’m not sure if any of that makes sense. Never mind, all will be explained soon.

In the meantime, if you’re only here for THE BOOK OF SOULS review, you’ll find that, as usual, at the lower end of today’s post. Feel free to skip on down there right away. If, however, you’re equally interested in Heck and keen to know more about the new book, then stick around at this end of the blog.

It’s always difficult when you’ve got a new novel due out, not knowing exactly how much you can and can’t say about it. You obviously don’t want to reveal too much, because that could spoil all kinds of surprises. But by the same token you want to whet as many appetites as possible.

It’s going to be particularly difficult on this occasion, because this unusual cover is likely to excite a bit of debate. And while I want to shove my own oar in, I don’t want to expose too much of the backroom discourse that has gone into the design of this latest novel of mine. That would feel an awful lot like giving away trade secrets.

It’s certainly the case that, in terms of the Heck novels, this cover is very different from everything that’s gone before it. And yet – and this is the really interesting thing – of all the Heck jackets to date, this is the one that I personally think cuts most quickly to the heart of the story (and not just the story, but what I suppose you’d call the subtext of the story).

And there we go – we’re already at a point where I can’t say too much more. You’ll just have to trust me that this cover is very, very relevant to the events in ASHES TO ASHES.

But, on this occasion I think there’s even a bit more to it than that. After all, an effective cover isn’t just about succinctly conveying the meaning of the book. It’s also got to be demography-aware; in other words, it’s got to recognise and respond to its core market. And markets, as we all know, can change on a regular basis.

What I mean is I’m sure that all we writers have our favourite book covers, and we all of us have clear ideas what we’d like to see on the fronts of our books. The problem is: we can’t always have what we want, especially if the marketeers tell us that a more effective alternative is available.

For example, I’ve made it fairly clear over the last few weeks with various Tweets and Facebook posts that one of the main antagonists in ASHES TO ASHES is a ruthless killer whose weapon of choice is a flamethrower. As such, my immediate thought about what I’d like to see on the jacket was something along those lines: a menacing figure in a visored helmet, wearing fireproof armour, perhaps driving a spear of flame right into our faces.

But you know, that wouldn’t have been massively original.

Imagery of that sort has adorned games, comics and movie posters for decades (like this one on the right, from the third-person shooter game,
Tom Clancy’s The Division).

In addition, it tends to be associated more, I would suggest, with war-themed products, or something in the realms of a horror or sci-fi style Armageddon.

So when I heard that we weren’t going to use any such image on the cover of ASHES TO ASHES I was surprised, but only for a short time – before it occurred to me that it wouldn’t necessarily have made our target audience (the crime thriller crowd) looking twice.

And making you look twice is the key thing these days, especially when so many book covers are first seen online, usually as thumbnails (which also explains the big wording, and perhaps the less startling, less garish imagery than we used to see).

We’ve tried all sorts of tricks in the past to get potential audiences to spot our novels on the shelves: from racy pictures of gun-toting babes in heels and stockings, as inspired by 1960s spy thrillers; to more ghoulish subjects – corpses in sacks, dead hands with flies on them, rotted doll faces etc, as driven by the craze for ‘true crime’ books following on from Truman Capote’s seminal In Cold Blood; to the stark photographic images of masked killers, brutal weapons and captives-in-peril that represented the more realistically violent fashions of the 1990s and 2000s.

Even now, we see a wide variation dependent on the booksellers’ experience. Nordic Noir, for instance, often announces itself by portraying cold, desolate landscapes. British urban noir tends to focus on diminutive figures set against the immense backdrops of nighttime cities. Massive gangland sagas, or crime thrillers concerned with international intrigue often use subtle glamour – female beauty, jewelry, diamonds, casinos and the like.

So where does all that leave the cover for ASHES TO ASHES?

Good question. Heck’s been around a bit for sure. He too has done the diminutive figure and the captive-in-fear thing. But this new cover is quite clearly something else. Very different, as we’ve already said. Eye-catching – I certainly hope so. And maybe – just maybe – a tad domestic in tone?

Domestic?, you ask.

Well, I’ve already said that I can’t reveal too many details about this new novel. But as I’ve also said, it’s a particularly personal story where DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is concerned, and it cuts very, very close to home. 


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 Oswald (2012)

There can be few officers in the Lothian and Borders Police (as they were before ‘Police Scotland’) who’ve had a harder time of it than DI Tony McLean. A veteran homicide investigator whose normal beat is the grimy backstreets of Edinburgh, he thinks he’s seen and done it all, but as this second investigation in the McLean canon opens, the likeable but lonely detective finds himself under intense emotional pressure.

First of all, it’s nearly Christmas, which means the anniversary of the murder of his fiancĂ©e, Kirsty Summers, who was the final victim of Donald Anderson, an antiquarian book-dealer by trade and ritual sex-slayer nicknamed ‘the Christmas Killer’ by hobby. Every year for ten years, one of Anderson’s victims – invariably a young female – after being bound and raped in the cellar of Anderson’s shop, was found with her throat cut in one or other of the city’s filthy waterways. Kirsty Summers was only the most recent, and the last girl to die before McLean, then a detective constable, finally put an end to Anderson’s reign of evil. Needless to say, with it now being Christmas again, all the bad memories come rushing back. It’s a minor consolation – of sorts, when McLean learns that Anderson himself has now died in prison, the victim of a brutal attack by a fellow inmate. He even attends the funeral in Aberdeen just to ensure that he’s saying goodbye to bad rubbish.

But then, almost as soon as McLean returns to Edinburgh, another series of murders commences, which is almost identical to the one before: young women abducted, indecently assaulted and deposited in the city’s culverts and streams with throats slashed from ear to ear. To confuse things even more, a couple of occasions follow when McLean thinks he spots the deceased murderer walking the streets of Edinburgh, though of course, despite strenuous efforts, he’s never actually able to lay hands on anyone who looks even vaguely similar.

Despite this, our bewildered hero finds that he has the full confidence of his senior supervisor, Chief Superintendent Jayne McIntyre, but on this occasion he finds resources restricted because the bullish but somewhat empty-headed DCI Charles Duguid, known to his colleagues simply as ‘Dagwood’, has commandeered almost everything as part of the major anti-drugs operation he is running in the city, and deeply resents that McLean is leading a rival investigation.

At the same time, an unknown arsonist has been setting buildings alight all over the place. Most of these are disused industrial units, but then the block of flats in which Tony McLean himself lives is also torched, and several residents die in the process. This, in its turn, reveals that drugs production activity was occurring in McLean’s own building, right under his nose in fact, which is a huge embarrassment for him and deeply frustrates Chief Superintendent McIntyre, who insists that he’s overly stressed and must now attend psychological counselling sessions. This puts McLean in the clutches of irritating police-shrink, Prof. Matthew Hilton, who’s hardly the DI’s favourite person given that he interviewed Donald Anderson on his arrest and later tried to persuade the court that Anderson’s bizarre excuse for his crimes – namely that he was driven to kill by the evil contained in an ancient book – surely proved that he was insane.

In the midst of this seething tension, the copycat killer’s victims pile up, which only adds fuel to the fire in that a local journalist, Joanne Dalgliesh – in her efforts to sell a sensational new book – begins to air suspicions that Donald Anderson, evidently a mentally ill man, was framed by the original investigation team and now has died unjustly.

There will clearly be no rest this festive season for McLean and regular sidekicks like DS ‘Grumpy Bob’ Laird and station archivist John ‘Needy’ Needham. McLean gets some welcome assistance from the attractive DS Kirsty Ritchie, who is drafted in from Grampian Police, but finds he has very little time to devote to the potential new woman in his life, Emma Baird, who works for the police as a crime scene technician, and who, in truth, McLean is not sure he is right for.

It certainly seems as if nothing is going right. Even the glitz of the Christmas season, which is always there in the background, feels far removed from the cold, sterile offices in which McLean and his team must work, or the gloomy, half-empty house of McLean’s lately-dead grandmother, where he now must dwell. To match this mood, the weather switches regularly between snow and rain, constantly and consciously defying the yuletide spirit, creating a near constant aura of winter desolation.

But no evil lasts forever when good guys are on the case. A break finally comes along – but it’s a curious one. McLean first meets elderly cleric, Father Noam Anton, when he arrives at the detective’s door with a bunch of carol singers. But then he receives a second visit on Christmas Day itself, when Anton tells Mclean that he knew Donald Anderson well – the guy was originally a member of his monastic group, the Order of St. Herman, who among other duties, were charged with keeping rare books. Anton claims that Anderson, a tortured individual, stole a number of valuable volumes, including the Liber animorum, or Book of Souls, which legend claims was dictated to a deranged medieval monk by the Devil himself. This, Anton says, became the eventual cause of Anderson’s murderous depravity.

McLean is frustrated by this story – he believes it yet more excuse-making for a sexually degenerate serial killer – especially as there is no trace of the book now. To his mind that probably means it never existed, though an alternative – if somewhat fanciful – explanation could be that the Book of Souls has found its way into someone else’s hands and is now exerting the same malign influence as before, thereby creating another ‘Christmas Killer’.

It’s difficult to say more about the synopsis of The Book of Souls without giving away enormous spoilers, because there are several humungous twists and turns still to come in this complex and alarming tale (including one truly colossal head-spinner right near the end), but suffice to say that, whether he likes it or not, Tony McLean – ever more determined to catch the latest killer, and at the same time prove that he got the right one before – finally opens to the possibility that the answer to this mystery may lie in the occult …

One of the most interesting aspects of the Tony McLean books, at least in my view, is their regular supernatural undertone. Even though these are good, strong police procedurals – and The Book of Souls is no exception to that – you never get the feeling you have strayed very far from ‘the other world’. This intrigues and enthuses me because it’s often been said that horror and crime as rival subgenres simply don’t match, that there can’t be any overlap between the two because the rationale behind both forms of fiction should almost always work to cancel the other out.

If that is your resolute view, then James Oswald is definitely the fly in your ointment, especially when it comes to The Book of Souls. However, at first glance, what we're dealing with here is undeniably a cop thriller.

DI McLean is a little bit of an archetype in that regard: a flawed, tired loner in the midst of a mean city, almost invariably faced by opponents whose depths of wickedness know no bounds. Despite this, he’s an attractive figure; instinctively good at his job and no-one’s fool, but affable with it, trusting of colleagues (at least, those he rates), and yet monstrously unfortunate. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a fictional copper who suffers as much bad luck as Tony McLean does, but he’s very well written too, a weary Scottish everyman, which makes him a character you root for from page one.

So far so familiar, of course. This is solid cop novel territory, especially when McLean and his team get a hint that a copycat murderer is on the loose, leading them a non-too-merry dance from one corner of Edinburgh to the next, and these, it won’t surprise you to learn, are locations distinctly absent from the tourist trail: we’re talking derelict factories, rundown tenements and rubbish-strewn lots where sewer outlets swim with disgusting effluent.

But for all this, we’re aware from an early stage that there’s something curious going on here. McLean’s occasional sightings of the deceased Anderson are an eerie touch, but Oswald handles them most effectively, restricting them to brief glimpses in the thronging city streets. These weird events are so scant that it’s actually quite easy to feed them into Jayne McIntyre’s concerns about McLean’s fragile mental state. Even we, the readers, who are 100% on McLean’s side, might fleetingly wonder if it’s all been a bit too much for him, and if maybe these psychological counselling sessions are actually a good idea – but then of course we dismiss such concerns, because McLean is the hero while police shrink/profiler Matthew Hilton is a pillock of the first order.

So … does this mean that something genuinely strange is happening? Could it conceivably be that what McLean is seeing is Donald Anderson’s ghost? It’s an increasingly unnerving thought given what McLean knows about Anderson’s past: the esoteric bookshop he kept and the foul rituals that happened in its basement. Then add to this the emerging information about the so-called Book of Souls, a demonic tome, which according to Father Anton, does not just possess its owner like an evil spirit, but gradually drains his or her entire soul.

Separate all that stuff from the police procedural, and you are in pure horror story country. But the real strength of this novel is that Oswald doesn’t do that; he splices the two threads together neatly, creating a fast-moving, ultra-dark thriller, which in no way contradicts itself and thoroughly entertains from beginning to end.

Possibly not one to read on a bright, sunny day – I’ll admit that much – but no sooner will the spring and summer be here, than winter will be coming round again in due course, and if you like your crime fiction hard-edged, dark-toned, and you aren’t disaffected by the festive spook story tradition, this could well be one for you.

As always at the end of a review, I’m being cheeky enough to suggest the cast I would choose were this book ever to make it to film or TV. Obviously, as The Book of Souls is number two in the McLean series, it would only be right for the eponymous hero’s previous outing to hit the celluloid first, but this is the bit where we always suspend belief anyway (on that score, wait till you see who I’ve chosen!!!).

DI Tony McLean - Ewan McGregor
Emma Baird - Rose Leslie
DS Kirsty Ritchie - Georgia King
Sgt. John ‘Needy’ Needham - David O’Hara
Father Noam Anton - Peter Mullan
DS ‘Grumpy Bob’ Laird - Tony Curran
DCI Charles Duguid - Peter Capaldi
Ch. Supt. Jayne McIntyre - Tilda Swinton
Donald Anderson – Clive Russell
Joanne Dalgliesh – Zoe Eeles

(Ah, yes … another of those wonderfully expensive cast-lists that only someone of my limitless resources can assemble).