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

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