Thursday, 13 July 2017

Hearts of darkness, both fictional and real

We’re talking gangsters this week, and by that I mean serious gangsters, nasty gangsters. 

Firstly, this is because I’ve now delivered my final copy-edit to HarperCollins for the next book in my Lucy Clayburn series, SHADOWS – and I even have a holding-jacket (left) to illustrate it – and gangsters, as you may know, are never far away when Lucy Clayburns on the case.

Secondly, it’s because this week I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Kevin Wignall’s excellent thriller, THE HUNTER’S PRAYER, which takes us along the periphery of organised crime rather than straight into the dark heart of it, and has some very intriguing and even moralistic things to say about the world of the contract killer.

Thirdly, when my last Heck novel, ASHES TO ASHES, was published, I wrote a guest-blog for the CRIMEBOOKJUNKIE website, in which I investigated the FIVE DEADLIEST CRIME SYNDICATES YOU MAY NEVER HAVE HEARD ABOUT. It appeared on the site on April 21 this year, and I’m now pleased to be reproducing it here (with one or two minor modifications to allow for the passage of time).

But more about that in a minute or two. For the time-being, back to Lucy ...

It’s difficult to talk about SHADOWS, and the heroine of the book, Lucy Clayburn, without giving away too many crucial spoilers about her own associations with the urban underworld. On the assumption that not everyone has at this stage read STRANGERS, my first Lucy Clayburn novel, I must therefore, by necessity, refrain from delving too deeply into the background of this tough lady cop from Manchester, though I still want to say a few things about the new book, which is due for publication on October 19 this year.

Since STRANGERS was published last spring, things have improved for Lucy Clayburn. In the first book, she was a uniformed copper in Crowley, Greater Manchester Police’s notorious November Division. She had a decade of service under her belt but was unlikely ever to get promoted (and in some parts of the job still invited ridicule) thanks to a major league foul-up several years earlier, which saw her kicked out of CID during her first week as a detective.

During the course of STRANGERS, many of these wrongs were naturally put right, and Lucy emerged at the end of it physically damaged but with her reputation massively enhanced. When SHADOWS starts, Lucy has resumed the role of detective constable and, though she’s only working Division, has continued to feel collars and impress people. She’s now regarded as one of divisional boss, DI Stan Beardmore’s best assets, and though she has been unwillingly partnered with the sloppy and outdated DC Harry Jepson, has regained all her old ambition. In particular, she has one eye on the elite Robbery Squad, who have relocated to Crowley from central Manchester, and are headed up by the legendary DI Kathy Blake and the fanciable DS Danny Tucker.

But any road to advancement in this neck of the woods is going to be fraught with difficulty and danger. When a series of ultra-violent armed robberies commences, perpetrated by masked individuals wielding sub-machine guns (and not afraid to use them!), the scene is set for any copper in Crowley worth his/her salt to go out there and make a name for themselves. But there’s one problem with this. The unknown gang’s targets are exclusively underworld operations, and those mowed down by them are gangsters – so it’s only a matter of time before there is a massive and brutal retaliation …

And that’s it, sadly. If you want to know more, you’ve got to read the book. But don’t sweat; it’s not too far off. Just go and enjoy your holidays, and when you get home, it’ll only be a matter of weeks. 

Lucy hits the shelves next October, and just to reiterate, the title of this next investigation is SHADOWS.

(And don’t get too attached to the jacket pictured above. As I said, it’s a holding-image, and will be replaced by the real one in due course; just watch this space).


And now, as promised, a fleeting glimpse into the infinitely more chilling world of real-life organised crime. Here, as it originally appeared on CRIMEBOOKJUNKIE, are: 


Organised crime has been with us almost as long as we’ve had organised society.

From the crime collegia (thieves’ guilds) of Ancient Rome to the Viking chieftains of the Dark Ages, who only held off raiding when they were paid generous protection money; from the robber barons of the high Middle Ages, who ‘taxed’ travellers, defied their king and waged bloody feuds against each other, to the pirates and corsairs of the Spanish Main … the scourge of gangsterdom has been around for as long as we have.

Its root-causes are often to be found in resistance to a pre-existing form of oppression. The Cosa Nostra, for example, was born in the mid-19th century, when feudal landlords objected violently to the annexation of Sicily by mainland Italy; in the US today, the Aryan Brotherhood, a far-reaching white supremacist organisation which dominates the American prison system, came together initially in defence of whites incarcerated alongside black and Latino gang-members.

Not that any of this excuses these vicious cartels, or the heinous behaviour they indulge in. 

Many modern crime syndicates attempt to put a polite face on their activities. In the 1960s, the Krays’ firm in East London organised charity events and donated to good causes. Many senior mob figures in North America deny the Mafia even exists, and insist on posing as legitimate businessmen. But the reality in most cases is bloody violence, primarily among the syndicates themselves as they fight for control of the rackets.

We, of course, in the world of crime writing, find them utterly fascinating. Even those of us who don’t write or read crime fiction, are often captivated by the near-romance of these dark, dangerous but often suave and charming rogues. 

The names of their leading lights are recognisable the world over: Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, Pablo Escobar. In some cases, they are almost admired. It is often said that Chicago bootlegger, Capone, was merely providing a popular service to a thirsty city. Britain’s Great Train Robbers (though not gangsters per se) attained folk-hero status because of the daring heist they pulled.

But again, the reality of organised crime is often pitiless brutality. Between 2007 and 2014, at the height of Mexico’s so-called Dope Wars, an estimated 164,000 people were murdered. In January this year, a battle between two imprisoned drugs gangs in Brazil’s Manaus jail left over 60 dead, including many who were found decapitated. Capone himself, seen almost as a gentleman by modern standards, didn’t just order the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, but was a former hit-man in his own right, and personally participated in the beating/shooting murders of three rivals.

This kind of wild underworld warfare is very much the backdrop against which my most recent Heck novel, ASHES TO ASHES, is set. Though Heck is part of the Serial Crimes Unit, and primarily hunts lone killers, in this most recent book (published last April) he becomes involved in a horrific case at the centre of which a savage gangster war is being waged. In short, the bulk of the narcotics supply in the Northwest of England was once the sole fiefdom of Manchester kingpin, Vic Ship, but now a breakaway group under the leadership of a charismatic young gun, Lee Shaughnessy, is challenging his stranglehold on the post-industrial, drugs-dependent wasteland that is Bradburn (which lies midway between Manchester and Liverpool).

What can only be described as hellish violence ensues, with a soaring body-count and some ghastly murder methods employed. To say more would be too much of a giveaway, but you don’t need to be a regular Heck reader to know that he throws himself headfirst into this blood-soaked chaos to try and get a result.

However, as ASHES TO ASHES - without doubt the most ‘gangstery’ of all my books - is still in the charts, and as I really don’t want to hit you with any more spoilers, I thought now might be an opportune time to look again at the real world of organised villainy, and pick out what I consider to be five of the deadliest crime syndicates operating today which you possibly don’t know about.

So, forget the Mafia (both the US and Italian versions), the Yakuza, the Triads, the Yardies. Here, in no particular order, are:


Once a prison gang, Barrio Azteca formed in El Paso in the 1980s, but have since made good in the cross-border drugs trade between Mexico and the US. Thanks to their unique geographic positioning, they are one of only very few transnational crime syndicates, members often holding both Mexican and US citizenship, which gives them a huge advantage over their drugs-smuggling rivals. They are also notoriously violent, and are responsible for dozens of killings on both sides of the border (though mainly in Ciudad Juárez, on the Mexican side) their preferred method being to beat and then burn to death their victims, sometimes in front of cheering crowds of gang-members. The group has been accused of carrying out full-scale massacres of rivals, by machine-gunning them to death in their prison cells (after being admitted by staff!), and on one occasion mowing down 16 innocent teenagers at a soccer party because ‘suspect characters’ were believed to be present. 


A semi-religious organisation, Mungiki is seldom heard of outside its native Kenya, but inside the country they are a source of terror. With an anti-western ethos and strong indigenous African beliefs, they model themselves on the Mau Mau militia who resisted British colonial rule in the 1950s, but now are mostly known for organising crime in the slums of Nairobi, where protection racketeering and extortion of ordinary residents are their prime activities. Though considered by some to be on the wane, as recently as 2007 Mungiki sought to reinforce their authority with a wave of decapitations. In turn, Kenyan security forces have been accused of heavy-handedness in their response to Mungiki violence, and leaving many of the gangsters shot by the roadside. However, the counter-argument has been made that a large number of Mungiki deaths are just as likely to be the result of factional infighting among members, as they now believed to have split into rival camps.


One of several southern Italian cartels – indeed, occasional allies of the Sicilian Mafia and the Neapolitan Camorra – the Ndrangheta of Calabria are fast emerging as one of the pre-eminent criminal organisations in the world. Having initially behaved like old style bandits, in the early days they used kidnapping and blackmail to finance contacts with Colombian coke cartels, but these links have since proved very lucrative, putting the syndicate firmly in the big league. In fact, they are now believed to be among the world’s most successful drugs traffickers and money launderers, with an estimated annual revenue of $50-60 billion, and are even suspected of financing political corruption and infiltrating public offices, and not just in southern Italy, but in the north as well. In fact, Ndrangheta influence is now felt beyond Italy, in Northern Europe, the USA and Australia, where, though they still peddle drugs, they have diversified into arms smuggling and human trafficking.


Perhaps the dominant force in the terrifying world of the Russian Mafia. Moscow-based, and strictly adhering to the normal Russian gangster code that all members must engage in regular fitness and weapons training, in effect turning themselves into a spec-ops of the underworld, the Solntsevskaya, though controlled by a central committee, are organized into warlike brigades and these into smaller but very mobile and highly aggressive ‘wolf-packs’. As such, they have no compunction about challenging rival mobsters, and have successfully extended their arms and drugs-trafficking, money-laundering, assassination and general racketeering businesses into the US and the Caribbean. They have a particularly firm foothold in Atlanta, where they are said to have taken on various other established groups and defeated them in battle. American sources say they are in cahoots with Russia’s Federal Security Service, but this has not been proved.


According to the US Government, Los Zetas are ‘the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, efficient, violent, ruthless, and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico’. An explanation for this can be found in their origins. During the 1990s, the group was formed by former special forces soldiers, who had deserted the Mexican Army looking for better pay. They found it working as muscle for the massive Gulf Cartel, and brought with them extreme mercilessness, but also high-tech weapons and the skills to use them. In 2010, again tired of taking orders, Los Zetas broke away to form their own syndicate. Despite internal instability, they are highly successful drugs traffickers, but are mainly notable for the staggering degree of violence they will use, having instigated numerous massacres of both rivals and civilians alike. Geographically, they are now the largest cartel in Mexico (controlling 11 states!), but their power extends far beyond their traditional homeland, both north and south.


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 Kevin Wignall (2015)

Carefree student Ella Hatto’s happy middle-class life ends horrifically one bright summer morning in Tuscany, where she’s on holiday with her boyfriend, Chris. First of all, back home in the UK, her father, mother and younger brother are murdered in their own home, executed by a skilled assassin. Next, she herself is targeted, caught up in a whirl of unexpected violence as a kill-team closes in on her, only to walk into a storm of bullets itself.

Unbeknown to Ella, a professional bodyguard called Lucas was hired by her successful businessman and part-time gangster father, and charged with shadowing her while she was abroad. Lucas, it seems, has stepped in at just the right moment, and gunned down the killers – but now he must whisk Ella and Chris away before the law arrives and starts asking awkward questions.

The two students are shaken to the core as their unlikely guardian moves them from one safehouse to the next, constantly trying to elude both the police and any further gunmen who might still be on their tail.

In due course, he finds sanctuary for them in the very last place he would normally have chosen: his own isolated and rather spartan villa in the foothills of the Swiss Alps.

As a former contract killer-turned-protector, Lucas is already a far cry from other characters of this ilk whom we may have encountered in different crime novels. He’s good at what he does, but he’s not cold-blooded about it. There is no granite hardness in Lucas, no pitilessness, no icy indifference to the pain of others. Okay, he’s not an especially warm character … but he does start warming to Ella. While Chris is simply frightened and increasingly resentful that he’s been dragged into this disaster, Ella – the real victim, who lost her family (whereas Chris merely lost his holiday!) – handles it better. She’s obviously grief-stricken, but she’s so innocent, so polite and yet at the same time so grown up in the way she deals with her terrible bereavement that Lucas can’t help but admire her and even be influenced by her.

The truth is that this ex-hitman is already, in a way, on the road to redemption. Though he’s still immersed in his murky world – he remains friendly, for example, with another much more callous killer, the likeable and yet utterly ruthless Dan Borowski – he basically wants out. He’s much happier to be a bodyguard than an assassin, but even then, his attempts to save the two youngsters take him far beyond the call of duty, a dedication to preserving their lives which stems not so much from his conscience, perhaps, but from a burgeoning desire to improve himself, a yearning to rejoin the civilised world (which gradual change of heart has already seen him develop an interest in the arts and literature).

Partly, this is down to his own domestic circumstances. His French girlfriend Madeleine, the one genuine love of his life, ditched him a decade and a half ago when she discovered what he did for a living, and ever since has denied him access to their daughter, Isabelle, who is now in her mid-teens; Lucas strongly desires to re-acquaint with the child, and can only hope and pray that she has grown up to be as balanced and sensible as Ella.

And yet here lies the deep irony in this unexpectedly philosophical story, because while Lucas’s initial interactions with Ella have encouraged him to reconnect with his estranged family, Ella is headed the other way.

Once safe in the care of her Uncle Simon, she becomes heir not just to her father’s wealth, but also to all his business dealings, even the nefarious ones, and as she works her way through them, trying to fathom out the identities of those who wanted her family dead, her grief transforms into slow-building rage, which, given that she’s now wealthy, no longer feels impotent. Very quickly, her attempts to rebuild her shattered world morph into an obsessive pursuit of revenge …

The Hunter’s Prayer – a revised version of For the Dogs (first published in 2004) – is not simply a murder mystery or an action thriller. If anything, it’s more of a parable. A metaphorical journey, if you like, into the ultimate futility of vengeance, and at the same time a lamentation at how salvation for some often seems to come at the price of damnation for others.

Unfortunately, I can’t discuss the unfolding narrative in too much detail for fear of giving away some quite remarkable twists in the second and third acts. Suffice to say that Kevin Wignall has done it again. The master of the thoughtful crime thriller presents us here with yet another potential high-octane scenario, and though he delivers the action plentifully, he asks questions of the reader throughout, even if only at a subliminal level.

You can tell where his real interests lie, because though we’re in the world of contract killers and organised crime here, we don’t go into huge detail about the criminal networks and illegal operations that provide the background to that. Nor do we investigate the creation of the hitmen themselves, neither assessing their warped psychology nor plumbing the hellish personal experiences that first put them into this line of work and equipped them with the necessary skills. Instead, the author is more focussed in the personalities of all his central characters as they stand now, their current mindsets, how they lead their everyday lives. 

For example, we watch his hitmen blend easily into the rest of society when it suits them, we watch them go home at night and relax, we see them try to maintain their own codes of ethics even when they’re out on the job, and yet at the same time we’re acutely aware of the coping mechanisms they’ve needed to develop into order to endure the isolation of this strange, stilted existence; we recognise that they live on a mental knife-edge.

Lucas is to the forefront of this, not just because he’s the novel’s antihero, but because he’s actively undergoing change. It’s not that he’s necessarily sickened by the killing, it’s just that he’s tired of being an outsider, and when he encounters a genuinely pure person, who certainly looks as if she had a stable and promising life ahead of her, he is galvanised into fighting his way back to normality. 
This is certainly a cause we can root for, because we never feel that Lucas is actually evil. We can see that he’s damaged and alone, and though he’s done bad things, he’s done brave things too, so we want him on the side of right.

Much more of a challenge is the novel’s other main thread: the disintegration of Ella Hatto’s soul.

From the sweet child we met at the start of the book, she goes on to do horrible things – and again, Wignall, who remains non-judgemental throughout, wonders where we stand on this. Do we at least understand it, even if we don’t sympathise?

She’s suffered appallingly, and because of her innocent nature, only slowly does she come to realise what the massacre of her family actually means: someone she’s never even met (she assumes!) harboured such hatred of she and her people that they made a determined and expensive effort to have them all eliminated. So, is it surprising that, even in the light of her newly acquired wealth – because, and it’s hugely ironic, Ella has gained more financially from this atrocity than anyone else! – she now feels that her life has been ruined? How can she enjoy such wealth? How can she rest while this terrible offence against the Hatto name remains unanswered? And while Lucas has never encouraged this kind of thinking, she’s seen him in action; she now knows how effective a ruthless attitude can be – if you can finally right all wrongs (at least in your own mind) quickly and neatly, without waiting on the wheels of justice, which grind slowly at the best of times but you just know are not going to turn in your favour at all on this occasion, aren’t you justified in doing it?

It’s an interesting question. But another one would be – and again, the author asks us this – just how much leeway should a bad experience give you? Can it really forgive or even explain the complete erosion of all human feeling? And just because you’ve given up on the prescribed concept of right and wrong, and in fact have invented your own, does that mean the original concept no longer exists? Does that mean there’ll be no consequences? Don’t bank on it.

Be under no illusion, The Hunter’s Prayer is a very, very dark novel. But at 210 pages it’s a slim volume too, clearly and concisely written, and as such, it provides a quick, tense read, which, while it wouldn’t be true to call it enoyable - certainly not near the end, at which point it becomes utterly horrific - is more than a little bit thought-provoking.

As The Hunter’s Prayer has already been filmed – it was only released in the US last month – starring Sam Worthington and Odeya Rush – it makes another of my usual ‘this is how I would cast it’ interludes redundant. Suffice to say, I’m glad it made the big screen and am keen to see how it adapts.

Many thanks to all the various sources who’ve provided today’s images. They are, from the top down: Shadows (the holding-jacket only); Strangers; Ivar the Boneless, the most savage of all Viking warlords, as portrayed by Alex Hogh Anderson in the excellent TV series, Vikings; Al Capone; Ashes to Ashes; Barrio Azteca members on trial, pic by NewsWest9; Mungiki suspects menaced by police dogs, pic by Antony Njuguna; an Ndrangheta weapons stash, pic by AP; this one speaks for itself, pic from Voices from Russia; the Zetas, pic from mySA (San Antonio news); The Hunter’s Prayer - in book form; and in movie form. 


  1. Fascinating stuff all round, Paul. I'll defnitely check out The Hunter's Prayer.