Sunday 24 June 2018

Heck's timeline so far, career and love life

I’m going to be talking almost solely about my main cop character, Heck, this week. His background, the timeline of his life and career to date, and some of his forthcoming adventures, such as in the novel, KISS OF DEATH (out in August), and in the novella, DEATH’S DOOR (out next Friday, FREE, hence the unashamed advert just above).

But I say almost solely, because as usual, I will also be reviewing and discussing, in some considerable detail, another piece of dark fiction that I’ve recently read and enjoyed, and today, sticking with the murder detective theme, that’s going to be Tony Parsons’ very intriguing, London-set crime thriller, THE HANGING CLUB.

If you’re only here for the Parsons review, that’s fine. As is normally the way, you’ll find it at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Just skip on down there straight away. But if you can give me a minute or two, perhaps you’ll be interested in letting me take you through the Heck timeline.

Who he is

Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is the star of six of my crime novels to date, with a seventh, KISS OF DEATH, due for publication on August 9 this year. He has also appeared in two novellas thus far, with a third, DEATH’S DOOR, due out, as already mentioned, next weekend.

I’ve already written a lot about the character, what kind of personality he is, where he gets his traits from, who in real life – if anyone – influenced his creation. But it’s recently occurred to me – and I only realised this when someone asked me the other day – that I’ve never sat down and tabulated his chronological timeline. I’ve never listed the order of events in his home-life and career that have led up to the place where we are now.

On reflection, it quickly became apparent that, were I to do this, it would serve as an ideal reference point for me as well as for my readers. I too get lost in the woods sometimes, when I’m trying who remember Heck was with at such and such a time, what he was doing, where he was based, and so forth.

So here we are.

It’s only a thumbnail sketch, of course. I’ve not got the time or space to give you a chapter and verse biography. But here is the main order of developments in the life of Mark Heckenburg, from the moment of his birth to the commencement of KISS OF DEATH.

(But first, a quick warning: take some my dates and the like with a slight pinch of salt. That’s not because I’m unsure about them, it’s because when you’re writing a character who is part of a franchise, their natural ageing process can sometimes become inconvenient. Take James Bond, for instance. To us he’s Daniel Craig, aged somewhere in his mid 40s and still lean and fit, but if Bond was a real person who was born when Ian Fleming originally said he was, he’d now be in his late 80s and without doubt the oldest and most decrepit MI6 agent still in service. Now, obviously we don’t want that, so to us these paragons of fictional heroism must, at some point become, inexplicably but pleasingly ageless. We’re not at that stage with Heck yet, I’m glad to say, but just bear in mind – if he goes on and on into the distant future, there will come a time when we have to start playing fast and loose with ages, dates and so forth – but as I say, and I reiterate, that’s NOT the case at present).  

Heck – the timeline

WARNING – if you’ve not read any of the Heck books yet but plan to, and you’d prefer an unfolding story, with information gradually emerging as you progress from volume to volume, then this timeline will definitely contain some SPOILERS …

Mark Heckenburg was born on January 9 1977 in Bradburn, a Lancashire coal-mining town on the northwest edge of the Greater Manchester conurbation. The third child of a factory worker, George Heckenburg and his wife, Mary, he had an older brother by three years, Tom, and an older sister by six, Dana.

Mark had a traditional working-class upbringing, the family never moving from their terraced house on Cranby Street, in the St Nathaniel’s quarter of Bradburn, a district known as the Old Town and centred around St Nathaniel’s Roman Catholic Church, which they attended every Sunday and where Mary Heckenburg’s younger brother, Pat McPhearson, was the parish priest.

Another fixture in the Old Town was St Nathaniel’s Amateur Rugby League Club, where Mark excelled as a junior player, becoming a schoolboy superstar who was soon deemed good enough to turn professional. His teenage lifestyle came to reflect this, the swaggering youngster hanging out with a bunch of roughneck mates, who loved sport, drank lots of beer and chased the girls.

For all these reasons, George Heckenburg was deeply proud of his youngest son (even though Mark’s education was being neglected), regarding him as a true chip off the old block. George was less enamoured of the older boy, however. Tom, a hippyish metal-head, was studious initially, but threw it all away when he entered 6th form college, got into drugs, dropped out and turned to petty crime in order to feed his habit. All through this difficult time, George Heckenburg punished his eldest son in repeated, heavy-handed fashion, but failed to get him the professional help he needed.

The difficult situation deteriorated rapidly, until it finally turned into a disaster that would change all their lives permanently. It was 1992 and Mark was still only 15, when Tom, by now 18, was arrested on suspicion of being the Bradburn Granny Basher.

In short, a violent burglar had been attacking old people in their homes, stealing what few valuables they possessed, and beating them half to death in the process. Tom Heckenburg, a regular burglar of business premises – but NOT the Granny Basher – was framed for these crimes by a bent police team desperate to get a result, subsequently convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. A drug-addled weakling, he was simply unable to endure what followed, getting raped and assaulted repeatedly by fellow inmates, and eventually, later that year, taking his own life in the prison showers by slashing his wrists and groin.

The Heckenburg family were devastated, especially as a short time afterwards, the real Granny Basher was apprehended in the act of launching another vicious attack. It had a particularly damaging effect on George Heckenburg, who, riddled with guilt about his own inability to fix Tom’s problem, began to take it out on Mark. Once the apple of his father’s eye, Mark now became the victim of a rewritten history in which he had been the bad boy waster and Tom the family’s best hope, a terrible travesty which Dana resisted but Mark’s mother, the mousy Mary, simply went along with.

Eager to win his father round, Heck gave up playing rugby league, even though he was still only 16, and went to college to study for his A-levels. He got good grades, but it wasn’t enough. As far as his father was concerned, he was now the villain, and his brother had been a saint. In one terrible moment, George even went as far as to tell Mark that the wrong one of his two sons had died.

So, in 1995, on his 18th birthday, determined to have revenge against his father, Mark Heckenburg joined the Greater Manchester Police.

His family were obviously appalled. It was GMP who had framed Tom. It was GMP who later defended their actions so vigorously that, though the wronged family received compensation, none of the corrupt coppers involved in the case were brought to book. And now Heck had joined them. Even Dana, his older sister, who had sided with him against their father, considered this an unforgivable betrayal.

Mark was thrown out of the family home, and for a brief time, lived as a lodger with his uncle in the presbytery at St Nathaniel’s, but that couldn’t last long. His entire home town became a hostile zone for him, the word spreading widely among the local community what a traitor he was. Even though Mark, now a uniformed constable nicknamed Heck, worked 17 miles away in Salford, his life was becoming increasingly difficult.

It was around this time – it was 1997 and Heck was still only 20 – that he began catching the attention of his supervisors.

Check out the events of the novella, A WANTED MAN, in which Heck, during a night-shift from Hell, picks up the trail of a predatory rapist called ‘the Spider’ because he scales walls and climbs in through bedroom windows ...

Later that same year, even though he’d got himself a flat in Manchester, Heck decided that the proximity to his family was becoming intolerable. None of them would ever return his phone-calls, much less involve him in family events. But the original plan, which had been to resign once he’d punished his parents a little, was now put on hold, because ... rather unexpectedly, Heck had started to enjoy being a policeman, plus he was proving to be very good at it. He didn’t want to resign, and so, to get away from his family once and for all, he voluntarily transferred to the Metropolitan Police in London.

In the capital, Heck worked initially as a uniformed beat-officer in Kentish Town, but in 1998 joined CID, moving to Bethnal Green, where he came under the tutelage of the excellent and very maternal DI Gwen Straker. At the same time, he met this other incredible girl – Detective Constable Gemma Piper – who was his own age and who had also just moved out of the uniform branch. Gemma was standoffish at first, but gradually, as they worked together through a number of cases, Heck won her over – and by the year 2000 they’d become an item.

The events of Heck and Gemma’s first Christmas as boyfriend and girlfriend can be followed in the novella, BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT, which I posted in three installments on this blog on consecutive Fridays during December 2017. It all takes place one very snowy Christmas Eve, when the duo become concerned about a weird and rather murderous bunch of carol singers ...

Heck and Gemma continued working together and seeing each other, a relationship that in 2001 led them to set up home together in a rented flat in Finsbury Park. However, things were not entirely hunky dory. Gemma, a very efficient officer and a renowned straight bat was marked for promotion from an early age, whereas Heck’s more undisciplined approach to procedure and protocol often threatened to sink his career (and hers, she came to fear, if they stayed together). Heck was still a good cop, who got great results, but he was increasingly seen as a risk-taker and adventurer.

The strain this put on their relationship, even though they were now living together, can be seen next Friday, when the novella,   DEATH’S DOORis published. In short, Heck becomes concerned when he learns that the new female occupant of a house that has long stood empty reports a prowler. This is because another woman was murdered in that same house only six years ago, and that very disturbing case was never solved ...

While Heck and Gemma’s relationship continued to slowly unravel, any relationship remaining with his family at home completely evaporated when he learned that both his parents had died within a relatively short time-frame and that, at their request, he wasn’t informed until after they had been buried, thus preventing him from attending either of the funerals.

Hurt by this, and now at odds with almost the entirety of his home town, Heck pressed on with his career as a London cop, playing ever faster and looser with the rules, and taking ever greater risks. He and Gemma finally parted company in 2005, Gemma rocketing off into the upper echelons of London law enforcement through a series of impressive promotions, Heck continuing to slog it as a detective constable, though, as he would often say, he preferred being an investigator to being an administrator.

In this capacity, he did stints with the Burglary Squad and Robbery Squad in Tower Hamlets, before finally being promoted to sergeant and returning briefly to uniform in Rotherhithe, though he rejoined CID at the first opportunity, less than a year later in fact, taking up the post of detective sergeant at Brick Lane. Six months later, after yet more impressive results, he was joined the Murder Investigation Team in Lewisham, and two years later, in 2006, he transferred to the National Crime Group at New Scotland Yard to work in the Serial Crimes Unit.

The National Crime Group was an elite and specialist police force, entirely separate from the Met, which was FBI-like in its remit, and covered all the police force areas of England and Wales. But it was with some consternation that Heck found Gemma had got to NCG ahead of him, and now, as a detective superintendent, was actual commander of the Serial Crimes Unit.

The twosome were thus reunited, but things were very different between them. In a ‘fire and water’ relationship, they commenced working their way through a series of complex and often very distressing murder cases.

This, of course, is where we pick up with the Heck novels.

In STALKERS, Heck and Gemma, both now 36, find themselves on the trail of the Nice Guys Club, a secretive crime syndicate who abduct female victims to order and provide secure places where their clients can rape and abuse them, the club then disposing of all the evidence afterwards, including the victims ...

In SACRIFICE, a series of brutal and elaborate murders appear to coincide with special feast days in the calendar, which it soon becomes apparent are human sacrifices based on ancient and obscure beliefs ...

In THE KILLING CLUB, what remains of the Nice Guys return to the UK, determined to kill off their former client-list, men who might conceivably give evidence against them in court. A spate of horrific torture-murders thus ensues ...

In DEAD MAN WALKING, Heck, after one massive fall-out too many with Gemma, transfers to the Cumbrian Police, and finds himself in charge of an isolated rural police station during a foggy winter, just at the time when a vicious, unprovoked attack on some hill-walkers proves eerily similar to the crimes of the Stranger, a serial killer who terrorised Devon 10 years earlier, and was never caught ...     

In HUNTED, Heck and Gemma are still partly estranged, but Heck is back in the SCU fold, and heads down to Surrey, where he begins to suspect than a spate of unlikely but fatal accidents might actually have been engineered by someone playing elaborate but deadly pranks ...

In ASHES TO ASHES, Heck almost snags John Sagan, a professional torturer, who rents himself out to the highest bidder. The trail warms up again when new intel suggests that Sagan has headed north, to participate in a violent gangland war (one very gruesome aspect of which is an unknown hitman who incinerates his victims with a flame-thrower!). Gemma authorises Heck to head up there and get involved. There’s only one problem: the epicentre of the violence is Bradburn, the home town that Heck has so utterly disowned ...

Which brings at last us to KISS OF DEATH, due out in August, but available to pre-order right now, if you so wish.

In this one, savage police cuts have finally reached the National Crime Group, and to prove that her unit still has a role to play, Gemma joins forces with Scotland Yard’s Cold Case Team. Together, they put together a list of the 20 worst British criminals still evading justice, in order to hunt and catch them all. Heck pursues a vicious bank robber/kidnapper, but then uncovers a ghastly video, which suggests that many of the UK’s top criminals have not disappeared because they are on the run, but for very different reasons, reasons almost to sickening to comprehend …

So, there you go. That’s where we are at present.

To recap, Heck is now 39 years old, and still in the thick of it, walking a tightrope through a world of ultra-violent crime. Check out DEATH’S DOOR (next Friday), for a 20,000-word novella that will take you back to the very important early days of his relationship with Gemma Piper, and KISS OF DEATH (August 9) for the latest installment in the ongoing series of novels.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – 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 Tony Parsons (2016)

Detective Constable Max Wolfe is a single-parent cop attached to the Major Incident Team at West End Central.

Under the steady leadership of his quietly-spoken but firmly authoritative boss, Detective Chief Inspector Pat Whitestone, he divides his time between caring for his beloved young daughter, Scout, and investigating bizarre and disturbing murder cases. The Hanging Club will be the third such case that we readers have joined him on, and it will see him tested to his absolute limits.

The horror begins when a London taxi-driver only recently released from jail after serving time for his role in a grooming gang, is video-taped being hanged by the neck in a dingy cellar and the images fed online. Other similar acts of ‘frontier justice’ now follow.

In rapid succession, a cashed-up boy-racer from the City gets off lightly after mowing down the grandson of ex-gangster, Paul Warboys, and so he too is strung up at an unknown location and the film of it played to the nation. Ditto a junk-head idiot who beat an octogenarian war-veteran into paralysis in order to get drugs money; he too walked away untouched and so also gets the rope.

By this time, Whitestone and Wolfe realise that they are dealing with an organised vigilante group who are apparently determined that they aren’t going to stop until justified violence has been served fully on the endless train of scumbags who seem to pass through the British judicial system with no more than a slapped wrist.

But there is a little bit more to it than this.

Some of the bodies are dumped at Marble Arch, near the site of the old Tyburn gallows, while on each of the hanging videos, a sonorous voice speaks beforehand, asking the victim if he knows why he has been ‘brought to this place of execution’. These guys take themselves very seriously; in their eyes, they aren’t just a gang, they are the new face of law-enforcement in 21st century Britain, an alternative to the official but jaded legal system which even Wolfe thinks has been hijacked by clever lawyers and judges dwelling in ivory towers. (Right at the beginning of the narrative, Wolfe himself is infuriated when one of his own cases fails, the Central Criminal Court going easy on three hooligans who kicked a householder to death and filmed it on their iPhones).

Conventional investigative techniques pay no initial dividends. Warboys, who, during his violent past, shared top billing with the Krays and Richardsons, seems a likely candidate, but he’s old now and past it. He sympathises with the Hanging Club (as the press gleefully proclaim them), but he doesn’t appear to be connected to them. Extensive surveillance of the deposition sites in the West End bears no fruit, and the forensics draw a blank. So, Whitestone calls in various experts.

Professor Hitchens is a historian who knows London inside-out. He’s initially hostile to the police, thinking himself above such mundane activities as crime-fighting, but Wolfe soon brings him down to Earth, though even then Hitchens is only really able to colour in the background (which, in several very enjoyable scenes, drives Wolfe to consult with old sweat, Sergeant Caine, the retiree who curates the infamous Black Museum).

Then there is Tara Jones, a beautiful but profoundly deaf woman who, ironically, is an expert at voice biometrics. By conducting computer analysis of the audio tracks on the video feeds, she is more useful to the team, who need to crack the location of the kill-site, by focussing on the sound of heavy building work nearby – though all this really tells them is that the subterranean location is somewhere in central London.

As if all this isn’t problematic enough, Wolfe finds himself in temporary charge when Whitestone’s son is blinded in an unprovoked nightclub attack, and at the same time, he must babysit Scout, who has now finished school for the summer holidays, and look out for Jackson Rose, a former school-friend turned army deserter and societal dropout, who, considering that he was only a cook when he was in the forces, seems to be remarkably adept at combat (both with and without weapons). Rose is currently lodging with Wolfe, but his oft-voiced support for the Hanging Club sees the copper getting increasingly worried and suspicious.

Of course, the ex-squaddie isn’t the only one to think this way. And here lies the real problem. Even while the enquiry stumbles around in the dark, the murderers’ popularity is growing among the general public, cheap newspaper headlines hailing the killers heroes and creating a mob atmosphere in a city soon sweltering in unusually high temperatures. This incendiary mood only amplifies when the vigilantes next target a Muslim hate preacher, an incident that adds race and religion to the mix.

And just when it seems that things can’t get any worse, Wolfe himself is grabbed. The Hanging Club aren’t just hunting the guilty, it seems, they are also looking to punish those who they see as protecting them …

Tony Parsons, renowned journalist and ‘men-lit’ author, came onto the crime fiction scene several years ago in a blaze of publicity, which left people with very high expectations. When the Max Wolfe series first got going, my expectations were largely fulfilled. The two novels before this one – The Murder Bag and The Slaughter Man – were slick, taut thrillers, which left me wanting much more. However, I’m slightly less sold on The Hanging Club. Not that it doesn’t contain some great stuff. It does, but I might as well get the brickbats out of the way first.

It is filled with procedural exposition, policing-by-numbers if you like, something which, whenever I see it in a book, makes me think that the author is taking up a lot of page-space trying to show how much research he/she has done. In this novel, it’s repetitive and distracting. I also took issue with the way the major investigations team is portrayed (which is ironic, because, as I say, otherwise Parsons has clearly done his homework). Basically, it’s undermanned. Whitestone’s absence leaves DC Max Wolfe in charge, apparently with only the assistance of DC Edie Wren, and trainee detective, Billy Greene. In my own police experience, it wouldn’t be completely unknown for an officer of constable rank to take point on an enquiry if he/she was deemed to have a certain expertise, but tackling the Hanging Club would surely be a massive operation and allocated huge resources, including a deputy SIO, duty DIs, etc?

But ultimately, these are the only problems I had with it.

The Hanging Club is a rattling good read, intriguing and exciting all the way through, and filled with colourful London characters. London itself is one of these, because in this novel we stay firmly in the centre of town, going both above it and below it, but never straying further west than Hyde Park or further east than the Old Bailey. I have a personal interest in the mythology of our capital city, and much of that is examined here, both interestingly and intelligently. I don’t want to say too much more about that, because I’ll risk giving away vital plot-points, but Tony Parsons is clearly in his element in this part of the book, effectively evoking the mysteries and brutalities of the old world, which, in London at least, are only buried under our feet by a few inches of concrete, if that.

He also – and this is a slightly more serious point – gives us a polemic about British justice.

Okay, in some ways, the idea may seem a bit hackneyed: honest cop falls out with system because hoodlums go unpunished, but eventually stands by it because it’s all he’s got. But in The Hanging Club it is elaborated on from various angles and with serious thought. Yes, we do see vile creatures enjoying the torment of their victims’ families in court, mee-mawing to their pals in the public gallery and celebrating when they beat the rap. Yes, we do hear the coppers’ frustration, and listen agog to judges summing cases up purely on the basis of legalese and without a hint of actual humanity. But we also learn about the savagery of the older methods, which so many empty-headed people hark back to; we hear what a verminous pit Newgate Prison was, and how folk could be incarcerated there and even dragged out along Dead Man’s Walk to be lynched in front of a raucous crowd for offences that would seem totally petty even in the 20th century let alone the 21st.

It’s a real conundrum that Parsons hits us with, but it comes with a warning too; namely that when a tide flows inexorably against public opinion, there may be a backlash which could easily get out of control. You don’t let the mob rule, but you must at least pay heed to their wishes.

Don’t let that put you off, by the way. The Hanging Club may be written with a clever subtext, but overall, it’s nowhere near as heavy as that may make it sound. It’s a fast, accessible read, and fans of London crime thrillers in particular will have no trouble enjoying it.

I’d have thought that any novel with Tony Parsons’ name on it would have a better-than-average chance of film or TV adaptation at some point. I’m not sure where the Max Wolfe series stands in that regard, but on the off-chance they need me to give them a little nudge, as usual I’m going to pitch in with my own recommendations for a cast should The Hanging Club ever get the green light. Just a bit of fun of course. Feel free to agree or disagree, as it suits you.

DC Max Wolfe - Richard Armitage
Jackson Rose - Noel Clarke
Tara Jones - Hayley Atwell
DCI Pat Whitestone - Anna Hope
DC Edie Wren - Rachel Hurd-Wood
Professor Hitchens - Russell Tovey
Paul Warboys - Donald Sumpter
Sergeant John Caine - Kevin Doyle

Friday 8 June 2018

Crossing the country to punish the guilty

I’m going to be talking a bit more about KISS OF DEATH this week. That’s my next novel, which is due out in August. In particular today, I’ll be focussing on some of the sexy locations we visit during the course of it, one of which is an idyllic place on a rural stretch of the English coastline.

On that same seaside theme, though it’s a bit more exotic in this other case, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing, in my usual forensic detail, Michael Marshall’s never less than totally compelling thriller, KILLER MOVE.

Those of you who are only here for the Mike Marshall review, you’ll find it at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Feel free to scroll straight down there. But if you’ve got a bit more time to kill, you might be interested first in the stuff I’ve got to say about KISS OF DEATH.

Coming soon

The marketing drive behind KISS OF DEATH is really picking up now. I’m seeing the book’s cover everywhere. I also note, as pictured above, that the Kindle reviewers are already receiving their e-copies. For those who are really, really excited about this, and just can’t wait until August 9, you may already be aware that DEATH’S DOOR, a brand new 20,000-word Heck e-novella, will come out first on June 29.

You can get that one entirely FREE, though I ought to add that it’s not essential for you to read DEATH’S DOOR in order to enjoy KISS OF DEATH. The former is set at a very early stage of Mark Heckenburg’s police career, when he and girlfriend, Gemma Piper, who is now his ex-girlfriend – and his boss of course! – were setting up home together in North London. But it does a bit of groundwork on the relationship, which newcomers to the series might not know about.

One of the things I like most about writing the Heck books, though, and one thing that is commented on most often by fans and reviewers, is the range of locations we travel through in each story.

Heck and Gemma – he now a detective sergeant, she now a detective superintendent – both work for the Serial Crimes Unit (part of the National Crime Group, based at Scotland Yard – and I had the idea for that before the real UK police service did, so they pinched the idea off me). This operates as a kind of British FBI, its officers consulting and assisting widely across all the police force areas of England and Wales, wherever crimes fitting their particular expertise are being investigated.

Before anyone asks, this was a deliberate ploy on my part. It seems to me that there are lots of fictional detectives out there at present, all of whom have their own patch, which they (and their authors) know inside out. I’d venture to suggest that Lucy Clayburn, my other police character, who is permanently based in Crowley in inner Manchester, is one of these. But with Heck, I wanted to do something very different. I wanted a change of scene as often as possible, and in the six Heck novels prior to this one, we’ve done that a lot.

So, for example, the very first one, STALKERS, took him from London to Manchester to the Thames estuary in Kent. In THE KILLING CLUB, we went from the Cotswolds to Holy Island off the Northeast coast. In DEAD MAN WALKING, it was the Lake District in the depths of a foggy winter, in HUNTED the Surrey Weald at the height of a glorious summer, and so on.

In KISS OF DEATH we are really pushing the boat out (quite literally at one point), Heck visiting places that are poles apart from each other, both in tone and spirit, as well as geography. And here are just some of them:

London (west), as photographed by David Henderson ...

Humberside, as photographed by Bernard Sharp ...

London (east), as photographed by MJ Richardson ...

And Cornwall, as photographed by Richard Law ...

It amused me once when a reviewer referred to this device as “a poor man’s James Bond tactic”. Well, I must admit, Britain’s abandoned buildings and desolate backstreets, and even her splendid countryside can’t compete easily with Miami or Hong Kong or Moscow or Istanbul, or wherever Bond happens to be next. But one thing I do share with Ian Fleming when writing my novels is motivation.

I’ve wanted always Heck to be more than just a local investigator and have tried to draw his stories on a grand canvas, where heinous villains and phenomenal action sequences can all comfortably be found without raising too many eyebrows. But he’s not an SAS man or a rogue MI6 agent, so he can’t continent hop, and must deal solely with those issues falling inside his own jurisdiction.

As I once said to a writers’ group I addressed in Liverpool, you can’t take Heck seriously when he’s riding the roofs of trains, or jumping off motorway bridges onto the backs of lorries, or tackling gangs of Russian drug-traffickers, if every case is set, for example, in my hometown of Wigan. He has to get out there a little bit.

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to reveal about KISS OF DEATH for now … and no, the bit about Russian drug-traffickers is not a hint, though rest assured: in this new one, Heck still goes one-to-one with some of the worst of the very worst.

Just a quick reminder that, while it’s already available for pre-order, it can actually be acquired on August 9, and that the e-novella DEATH’S DOOR, which is completely FREE, will be available on June 29.

In the time remaining between then and now, I’ll be dropping further morsels your way. Just keep checking back here.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – 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 Michael Marshall (2011)

When the enigmatic John Hunter is released from prison after serving 16 years for murder, we immediately get the feeling that his crime and its repercussions aren’t over. Hunter isn’t a threatening man; quite the opposite – he’s placid and respectful, to the point where the warden of the US jail in which he’s been incarcerated is almost sorry to see him leave. Apparently, Hunter has been an exemplary prisoner, which explains why he’s had so many years trimmed off his original sentence.

But Hunter’s iron-core strength, not to mention his inner darkness, are more than evident to us readers – thanks mainly to the subtle skill with which he is depicted. And when, as soon as he hits the outside world, he goes looking for a gun, we realise that all our unspoken fears about this man are about to come true.

Meanwhile, in the somewhat less ominous environment of ‘the Breakers’, a luxury condo complex in the Florida Keys, ambitious young realtor, Bill Moore, is doing his best to live the American dream. He has a lovely and successful wife, Steph, he makes good money selling top-quality seafront properties, owns one himself, drives a swish car, and enjoys a promising relationship with his boss, Tony Thompson (despite Thompson’s rather disdainful other-half, Marie).

The Moores aren’t even close to being the wealthiest folk on the block. That status, if it doesn’t lie with the Thompsons, may lie with neighbouring widow, Hazel Wilkins, or one of the upscale neighbourhood’s real movers-and-shakers, business mogul David Warner. But Bill and Steph strongly aspire to be part of this racy set, and feel they are well on the way to getting there. Even if they don’t manage it straight away, life here is good; Bill is friendly with local lawman, Sheriff Frank Barclay, though there is minimal crime for the elderly cop to deal with in this idyllic spot.

And then, one day, quite out of the blue, Bill receives a card printed with a single word: MODIFIED. His first reaction is to assume that it’s a joke, but from this moment on his and Steph’s lives slowly start falling apart.

Initially, it’s almost innocuous. A semi-pornographic book arriving from Amazon, which Bill has no memory of ordering. Then a vaguely racist joke circled from his email account, which, fortunately, most of the recipients are amused by – though Bill would never have sent such a message. He and Steph really stop seeing the funny side of things when voyeuristic images of Bill’s gorgeous co-worker, Karren White, are found on his laptop.

Bill investigates but is hampered by further chilling developments. Steph vanishes – whether that’s because she’s still irritated with him about Karren or because of something more sinister, he doesn’t know. And it isn’t easy asking questions around town when the police are on your case – because, quite bewilderingly, he now finds himself implicated in another disappearance, that of David Warner. Despite this, and with the assistance of a spirited young waitress, Cassie, whom he befriends almost by default, he gradually figures out that he’s the become the object of a cruel and relentless game controlled by powerful but faceless individuals.

Even then it might just be tolerable, a bit of harmless fun which while it is undoubtedly inconveniencing Bill Moore, could all be put right by some financial restitution at the end. But then people start dying. If this is a game, Moore realises – still minus his wife, still with the law on his case – it’s a game that may well result in the end of his life …  
For years, Michael Marshall has written sci-fi, horror and fantasy under the not-dissimilar pen-name, Michael Marshall Smith, and he’s done so effectively and successfully. So, no-one should be surprised to pick up a thriller like this and find that it's filled with ultra-dark concepts. That isn’t to say that it’s particularly violent. It’s certainly no more violent than the average crime thriller, but there is a dehumanising brutality of purpose to some of the characters in Killer Move, which, when you sit back and think about it, is quite disturbing.

For example, John Hunter is a man whose life has genuinely been ruined. Even though he’s not especially evil, he enters our awareness as a cold, frightening individual, a guy for whom vengeance is the only reason to live – literally. And you know almost from the outset that it’s going to be extreme vengeance, delivered without qualm or hesitation. Even though Hunter is a man grievously wronged, it’s difficult to root for such a person in a novel as well-written as this, because it’s so easy to picture him in real life as someone you’d run a mile to avoid.

But Hunter isn’t the worst of it, because while a powerful presence, he’s not one of the main characters, and if nothing else at least he isn’t a direct threat to the hapless hero of the piece, Bill Moore. But while the overarching concept – that a bunch of bored richies might seek to fill their empty days by playing cruel games with other people’s lives – may seem vaguely fanciful (would you really get off on this kind of thing so much that you’d actually go to the expense of hiring ex-spec ops people to make it happen?), there is a much deeper darkness here.

The utter soullessness required to turn other people into your playthings undoubtedly rings true. And this for me is the real success of Killer Move.

With the exception of Hunter, who’s clearly deranged, and Bill Moore, who’s introduced to us at first as an annoying go-getter of the sort you can easily imagine packing US realty, but who learns through bitter experience how much he loves his wife, Steph, no-one else cares about anyone, even in an affluent community in southern Florida. The wealthy gamers are so absorbed in their own fun – even though it patently isn’t that much fun, as they are still jaded and bored – that feelings for their fellow men don’t even figure on their radar. But this self-interest extends to others too. Moore’s colleague, Karren White, is only superficially his friend; in reality she’s a rival, whose chief interest are the bonuses she can get at his expense. Even lowly office secretary, Janine, harbours secret resentments, which finally emerge in a scene that I found quite stomach-turning, because even though there is no violence used, a rotten human soul is unexpectedly but very plausibly laid bare to us.

And if that’s the whole of Breakers society written off, then I suspect that’s exactly what Michael Marshall intended. Though more likely he’s actually going further than that, and being cynical about the whole of society, because let’s face it, the truly malevolent force in Killer Move, which lies hidden until the very end of the book, can be hugely confident that this whole disaster, even when played out so full-bloodedly, will soon become yesterday’s news because of our modern-day mindset in which nobody else really matters.

For all these reasons, Killer Move makes increasingly uncomfortable reading, but you’ve got to stick with it and you’ve got to pay attention. Because what gradually unfolds here is a compelling but complex saga. Wheels turn within wheels; there is villainy within villainy, and no shortage of suspects. Bill Moore finally reaches a point where he doesn’t know whether to trust anyone else at all, wondering if he’s the only person on stage who’s not an actor – and we, the readers, ask ourselves the same question. More than once.

On top of that, we spend a not insubstantial portion of time philosophising. And because this is Michael Marshall and this is another thing he does so well, this is always interesting and amusing, especially as in this book it’s done through the mind’s eye of Bill Moore, who we soon realise is a much deeper and less confident character than we first thought, which means that it’s all wonderfully acerbic. The trade-off to this is that Killer Move is no quickfire actioner, but it’s still totally engrossing. As the mysteries pile up, and the obstacles cluttering Moore’s life become ever more insurmountable, you’re literally flying through the pages. You must know how it’s all going to resolve itself, even though it’s soon pretty obvious that that isn’t going to happen easily or without casualties.

One quick warning. Killer Move is a kind of unofficial add-on to Marshall’s remarkable ‘Straw Men’ trilogy. Now, if you haven’t read any of the Straw Men books, never fear. That won’t interfere with your enjoyment of Killer Move, as the author explains in more than adequate fashion just who the Straw Men are and how their existence impinges on this completely separate little drama. It all works perfectly well for me, but if you’re someone who really needs every single i dotted and every t crossed before you reach the last page, it might be an idea to check out those other titles first (it’s not like you won’t enjoy them thoroughly). They are, in this order: The Straw Men, The Lonely Dead and Blood of Angels.

The pre-existence of those other three novels also serves to make my habitual casting session even more meaningless than it usually is. But I’m still going to have a go. I’d like nothing better than to assemble the actors that could bring this taut tale to the screen, and how cool would that be, given that I always have a limitless budget (LOL). But for this one to work, you’ll just have to assume that The Straw Men etc have already hit the cinemas, because I can’t imagine that Killer Move would get this treatment first. Anyway, here we go:

Bill Moore – James Marsden
Stephanie Moore - Renee Zellweger
John Hunter - John Cusack
Cassandra - Erin Moriarty
Karren White – Alison Brie
Sheriff Frank Barclay - JK Simmons
Tony Thompson - Sam Elliott
Marie Thompson - Susan Sarandon
Hazel Wilkins - Charlotte Rampling
David Warner – Don Johnson