Wednesday 22 August 2018

Several months in the life of a crime novel

I’m going to be talking about my writing process today, specifically in reference to my next Lucy Clayburn thriller, (working title SAVAGES), the first draft of which I only finished a few days ago, explaining exactly what it involved, and how it was transformed in relatively short order from basic idea to detailed outline to book.

In addition today, I’ll be considering someone else’s book. A crime thriller yet again, just to keep with the theme: David Morrell’s marvellous MURDER AS A FINE ART, which I’ll be reviewing and discussing in my usual close-quarter detail. If you’re only here for the David Morrell chat, you can find it, as usual at the lower end of today’s blog, so shoot on down there right away.

But if you’ve got a few spare minutes, hang around and we’ll look at SAVAGES, from its inception to its near-completion.

Several months in the life of a crime novel

It’s been said to me a few times that I should write a blog about writing a book. When I reply, ‘What exactly do you mean?’, they say, ‘The mechanics of it. The complexities. What it involves day-to-day.’

Now, it seems an interesting idea on the surface, but the main problem with this is that lots of writers have done it and still do. We all like talking about ourselves, don’t we; that unique thing we do, the particular disciplines we consider we’ve mastered in order to do it? But, in this case wouldn’t there be a danger that I was just retreading familiar ground, or worse still, massaging my teacherly ego at the expense of writing something a lot more ground-breaking?

Well … on the assumption that you probably wouldn’t be here, reading this blog, if you weren’t at least a little bit interested in books and their development, what I thought might be an exercise of wider interest – rather than just me talking in general, airy terms about the novel-writing process – might be to focus on one novel of mine in particular, SAVAGES, the first draft of which I’ve only just sent to my publishers, and assessing the last few months, literally last March to a couple of days ago, and the warts-and-all method that transformed it from a pile of disorderly short-hand notes into a coherent narrative (at least, I hope it’s coherent), which tells the story of DC Lucy Clayburn’s latest nerve-shattering (again, I hope it’s nerve-shattering) investigation.


I should point out that the March-to-August period is the time when I was actually writing the book. It didn’t start then. The seed of the idea was planted much earlier than that, last winter.

But SAVAGES is an unusual case in point, because initially it wasn’t my intention to write it at all.

The last Heck novel of mine, KISS OF DEATH, which was published on August 9 this year, has been, I’m very happy to say, garnering some great reviews (check these out, on JEN MED'S BOOK REVIEWS, FOR WINTER NIGHTS, HOOKED FROM PAGE ONE, THE WRITING GARNET and BOOKISH JOTTINGSamong many others), with much commentary centred around its explosive ending. This is obviously pleasing to me, but it was all part of a plan.

From the outset, it was my intention that KISS OF DEATH, though a free-standing novel, would rise to a shocking climax, which would lead directly to a follow-up book. Now, I have to be careful what I say, here, because nothing is ever set in stone in the world of publishing, and though that follow-up book has been outlined in detail, there was no guarantee – until my publishers gave me the green light – that it would be written. You see, if I’d moved straight onto that one, it would have interrupted my usual publication pattern of Heckenburg novels and Clayburn novels alternating with each other.

It would have meant that number three in the Lucy Clayburn saga would have been delayed. I didn’t initially think this a big issue, but my publishers were very keen to keep the Lucy story going - which is completely sensible because this was what my readers would have expected.

In addition, since then, there’s been increasing TV interest in the character (for those keen to know more, the names mentioned for potential stars of any such adaptation include Michelle Keegan, left, Eleanor Tomlinson and Lenora Crichlow, right – but it’s too early yet, to take all that seriously), so it would have been sheer folly to just put Lucy on the back-burner.

An executive decision was therefore made to maintain the current pattern of publication, not rush into a sequel to KISS OF DEATH and proceed, as originally planned, with the Lucy Clayburn books. Thus, Lucy Clayburn 3 was given the go-ahead before I’d even contemplated a premise for it.

At the time, it seemed like a bit of a test. I already had a Heck story planned out to the nth degree, which I’d wanted to write straight away. But now I had to put that on the shelf until I’d come up with a completely new idea.

All authors have different views as to what constitutes the most challenging part of the writing process, but I think there’d be universal agreement that hatching a premise which doesn’t just grab you but grabs your publisher as well, can be a tall order. In this case, not really having done any prep thinking, it was a taller order than usual.

However, I do have four telephone directory-thick files of ideas (hard copy files, not electronic ones), which I’ve compiled over the years, and which comprise nothing but premises for books, films, stories etc. These often stem from my own experiences as a copper, or from true stories that were told to me by fellow coppers, or things I heard about while working as a journalist. In some cases, they’re nothing more than a few lines, often scribbled unintelligibly because the idea hit me while I was sitting in front of the telly one night with only a pad and pencil to hand. But it was one of these that now struck me for the next Lucy book.

I’m not going to reveal any details yet, but suffice to say that it snagged my attention, because while very grounded in a grim and horrific practise that is all too familiar in the UK today (so, there’d be a real ‘broken Britain’ feel about it, which, to an extent is the Lucy Clayburn stock-in-trade), I also saw the potential for some Gothic horror elements.

Now, don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t mean you’re going to find Dracula or Frankenstein in the next Lucy Clayburn novel, or in fact anything supernatural at all. But so lurid is the nature of the crime that almost immediately I conceived of a lead villainous character who could easily have been played by Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, with all the attendant insanity and ghoulishness that would inevitably involve.

The more I pondered this idea, the more my enthusiasm for it grew. Primarily because it would be so different.

In the first Lucy Clayburn book, STRANGERS, it was all about the sleaze, the young policewoman going undercover as a Manchester prostitute to catch a serial killer of men. In the second one, SHADOWS, the focus was on Brit Grit, Lucy joining the Manchester Robbery Squad in pursuit of a ruthless gang of blaggers called the Red-Headed League for the crimson ski masks they always wore. So the next gook, now tentatively titled SAVAGES, would be about … the Gothic?

Well, that would work for me. Of course, it’s never as simple as just that. You’ve then got to evolve your premise into an actual story, which you can extend to book-length without padding it unnecessarily and in which you can maintain the pace and the mystery until the very last page.

(I’m not complaining, by the way – I’m really not. None of this is truly difficult. Slaving all day on the coal face is difficult. Loading wagons with scrap-iron is difficult. Working A&E surrounded by desperately ill and injured patients is difficult. Walking a beat in the depths of the inner city is difficult. Compared to all that, what I do is a doddle. But I at least must make it sound like I was being pushed to the limits, otherwise there’ll be nothing to keep you here).


Once the idea is in, my usual method is to storyline, which involves creating what I call a chapter-by-chapter. I literally write the story out in skeletal form and then break it up into chapters, no more than a paragraph each, every one of which must not just move the plot along, but which must inform character and/or subtext, entertain the reader (because if it’s boring, what use is it?), and ultimately end on a cliff-hanger (thus providing the hook for the next chapter).

Quite often this is a stage in the process where I personally come unstuck. I can waste days trying to storyline my books, staring at an empty screen, prowling my house, walking the dogs, everything remaining a blank. It can even become a distraction from normal life. I find that I can’t sit in front of the telly, or go to the cinema, or even settle down at night with someone else’s book, without my thoughts straying constantly to that empty space where my own story ought now to be unfolding.

One solution I have is to go for dinner with my wife, Cathy, where we literally bounce ideas back and forth while we’re eating. Bewilderingly, this often works. Several times I’ve made breakthroughs over a good spaghetti. Though I think Cathy is starting to suspect that this is no more than an excuse for me to continue my lifestyle as a bon vivant.

Joking aside, some ideas never evolve into full and effective storylines. For whatever reason, it just doesn’t work. You feel that you’re bending or twisting the concept into something else, you feel that it’s too contrived, or that it just doesn’t make sense. Those ideas don’t go in the bin – nothing goes in the bin! – but back into the file, while you look for something else.

On this occasion, thankfully, after a few days during which I felt I’d achieved nothing, everything suddenly – as it’s occasionally wont to – fell into place. Yet again, I was walking the pooches on the old pit brow, when, one by one, my ducks lined up. I remember running back home, Buck and Buddy, my two springers, gambolling confusedly after me, wondering what the excitement was about. Once I’d got the bones of the plot down on paper, it was a huge relief. But the next thing was to start getting properly into its guts, to literally make it live and breathe.

Before I can write a book, I have to know who it’s going to be about, and that often involves knocking out some character notes. With the exception of my leads, who in the Heck and Lucy books, already exist, I needed to know as much as possible about the new key personalities. This involves sketching them out in rough at first, but then going back to them one by one, enlarging their backgrounds and indulging myself in detailed physical descriptions. This also can be a lengthy process – it certainly was on this occasion, because by the time I’d secured myself a workable storyline and had individualised all those people I’d be writing about, we were several weeks into the schedule.

The job had commenced in March, and I had a deadline of mid-July, but we were now into May, and I still hadn’t commenced writing the book yet, which was scheduled to run to 46 chapters!

At which point, other things began to intrude.

Writing it

At this stage, KISS OF DEATH was still some distance off publication, but the marketing machine was rolling, so I was having to blog and tweet about it a lot. I was also writing articles for my publicity people and for other bloggers. On top of that, I was receiving structural edits, copy-edits and the like for KISS OF DEATH, which had to be dealt with immediately, but which could still be quite time-consuming.

It’s mostly my own fault, this, because I can’t be asked to check my own novel for any reason without giving it a thorough proof-read at the same time. I’ve never believed you can do enough proof-reading. I’m one of those who, if I was as empowered as Stephen King or JK Rowling, would probably tinker for ever and my books would never see the light of day. Thankfully, these edit requests all came with their own deadlines attached, so I had to send them back at some point. It was essential stuff, but weeks of my SAVAGES schedule had been eaten up.

Our beautiful summer of 2018 (at least, the summer that was beautiful until August 1) was now dawning, and I still hadn’t got very far into the book. I cracked on, but our scorching June and July presented distractions of an entirely new kind, a kind we don’t get in the UK very often: sitting in your office, writing, trying to work hard, but with your attention continually drawn to the outside world, where the sky is blue, the woods green, and the sun beating down. Call me indisciplined, but all I wanted to do was go outside and bask in it.

It wasn’t a complete bummer, because as some regular readers of this column will know, I often like to dictate my first draft into a Dictaphone while wandering the woods and fields with my dogs. It all needs to be typed up afterwards, but even this wasn’t too much of a big deal, as I moved my work-station out onto the terrace at the back of the house, and was thus able to gain some benefit from the gorgeous weather.

But the fact remained that I was still way behind. As my July deadline approached, I had 50,000 words to go and was getting what I think of as the heebie-jeebies, in other words finding myself wracked with nerves about missing my target. Even procrastinating on social media became less and less of an option, because I felt guiltier and guiltier every time I did it (though that didn’t stop me).

It was time for drastic measures. I started skipping over bits of the narrative that would need extra research, not to mention bits that required deeper and more focussed concentration – action sequences, for example, or descriptive work – with the intention of coming back to them later (that’s right, leaving glaring gaps behind, where the very stuff that sells the book needed to be!). It was anything just to reach that finishing line. I also started making subtle enquiries about how essential my July deadline was, which I HATED doing – because I’ve always prided myself on meeting deadlines. Much to my relief, though, without any fuss at all – a big thumbs-up to my publishers at Avon here! – the deadine was moved back to August 18. Now, on the surface, this may seem as if it gave me lots of extra time, but with half a book still to go, I had no choice but to work at a rate of one chapter a day, (including Saturdays and Sundays), which was proving onerous.

(Now, again you may be tempted here to start chiding me here, telling me that this is my job and it’s the life I chose. And you’d be absolutely right. I reiterate again, I’m NOT complaining, just explaining how the process unfolds and tick-boxing the snags and hold-ups that can emerge).

Most writers, I suspect, would say that the final run-in towards deadline is the most trying time. Because that’s when the real doubts set in. For example, this is a complex mystery I’m writing here, so is there sufficient clarity for readers to be able to follow? Are these arguments persuasive enough? Is the writing actually any good? Is it not possible that I’ve rushed it and, as such, botched what could have been so much better?

This the point where physical ailments can result, which I won’t go into, but suffice to say that the integrity of your own mind and body might become a distraction all of its own.

Editing, cutting, editing, cutting, editing, cutting …

I’ve regularly said that finishing the first draft is akin to breaking the back of the overall job. That once you’ve got the book down on paper, even if you know you’re going to have to go through it again with a fine-tooth comb, you can adopt a more relaxed approach. Often this is true. I even have mood music that I play to ease me through it. But on this occasion, things were different. I’d completed my first draft in early August, with about a week to go.

But as I’ve already mentioned, KISS OF DEATH was published on August 9 with some considerable fanfare, so there was a bit of a circus to deal with at the same time. On top of that, I had to go back through the copy and fill in those yawning gaps that had been increasingly bugging me. As if this didn’t complicate things enough, my son, Harry, was living back at home, completing his thesis for his Master’s, which meant there were two of us in the house who were highly stressed. So, you can imagine what the atmosphere was like.

When all this was done, I embarked on what I call my ‘character draft’, which is usually quick, but which needs careful attention. It involves my going through the whole narrative again, but this time focussing on each individual character, checking that their voice remains consistent, that they never do or say anything that contradicts anything they’ve done or said earlier, and that their dates and times line up, because you chop and change things constantly while you’re writing (one famous author who I won’t name, once wrote an entire novel, which was a sequel to the one before, in which he featured a central character who he’d forgotten had been killed in the first book). Trust me, this particular part of the job is more challenging than it sounds. When films and TV shows are in production, they have special continuity editors to perform this role. We novelists don’t; at this stage, it’s purely down to us.

When this was done, I embarked on my ‘cutting draft’, which is often the most horrible of all, because I always write more than I need. I won’t give you the actual figures, but with only half a week remaining on the schedule, I needed to reduce my final word-count by 30,000. Now, on the face of it, that may sound very ambitious (not to mention torturous). But in actual fact, it’s never quite as hard as that. Nothing’s ever been written that couldn’t be cut. In the trade we call it ‘trimming the fat’, and when you’ve got some experience and you’re professional enough to know that it’s essential, you’ll do it relatively painlessly. It’s only when you’ve removed the fat and you’ve still got 15,000 words to go, that you need to start trimming the meat – and that becomes a problem. It really is a gritted teeth job, especially when time is not on your side.

Once that was done, and the tears had dried, I had a couple of days left in which to commence my final read-though, which is always done out loud – either onto tape and then played back, or to an audience (whether willing or unwilling – you’ll need to ask my family about that!), just to check for unintentional repetition, clunky structuring, imbalanced syntax etc.

When that was over the job was finally done, and with a touch of a button, delivered … just after 10.30pm on the night of August 18, (with an hour and a half left on the watch).

Then it was time to rest.

Until I get the structural edit back from my publishers in a couple of weeks, which sometimes involves an extensive rewrite, and then the line-edit, which usually involves more intricate changes, then the copy-edit, which involves more, and last of all the final proof-read, which is the bit where you go through the whole manuscript again one last time, even though you’re bog-eyed with it and tormented by the knowledge that if you miss anything this time, that’s it … it’s too late.   

But you know, at the risk of talking in clichés, it’s worth it. Because during that relatively short space of time, which admittedly, while it was going on, felt like the abyss of human experience, a novel has appeared out of nowhere. What previously existed only in your mind has miraculously shaped itself in front of you, and is printed, bound, usually with a beautiful cover, and just waiting to be shipped to the shops.

There’s no job I’ve ever done that’s more satisfying.


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 David Morrell (2013)

Mention serial murder in Victorian London and most people think Jack the Ripper stalking drunken prostitutes through the fog-shrouded rookeries of the old East End. But in actual fact, Saucy Jack wasn’t the first knife-wielding maniac to terrorise the dismal backstreets of 19th century London. Some 77 years earlier, in 1811, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders shocked the capital and most of England with their brutality, a deranged assailant using the weeks leading up to Christmas to break into two Wapping homes situated one mile apart and slaughtering the families inside, seven people in total, with a mallet and a blade.

However, unlike the Ripper slayings, the Ratcliffe Highway atrocities were solved – at least to a degree, when a disturbed seaman called John Williams, arrested on suspicion, hanged himself in his prison cell before he could stand trial. This was not a satisfactory outcome for everyone; no case had been proved against Williams, but with his death and burial (at a crossroads, with a stake hammered through his heart – as if the case wasn’t ghoulish enough!) the murders stopped. In a world not yet used to titillating ‘true crime’ stories, the sensation lingered only a little while, and in due course the Ratcliffe Highway case was forgotten.

By almost everyone, that is, except the essayist and free-thinker, Thomas De Quincey, whose treatise on the experience of taking opium, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822), had already caused outrage. When his book, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827), expressed fascination with the Ratcliffe Highway killings and described the killer as an artist among his kind, the result for De Quincey was infamy, even though his book had never been intended as a work of admiration for John Williams, but in a pre-Freudian age, was a concerted and intelligent attempt to understand the motivations behind serial murder in an era when such a crime was virtually unknown.

So much is fact, but now we move squarely into the realms of fiction, thriller author David Morrell picking up De Quincy’s discarded pen and continuing the tale in a dramatic ‘what if’ scenario.

When the novel starts, it’s 1854 and the Ratcliffe Highway Murders are part of history, most Londoners having forgotten about them … until the series suddenly recommences (or a least a series that is very similar), an entire family, including a baby and their servants, hammered and knifed to death in their home just off the Ratcliffe Highway.

In 1811, there was no official police force to investigate the slayings, but by 1854 things have changed. The Metropolitan Police are now an extensive, able-bodied operation. Not that they don’t face some drawbacks. For example, their fledgling detective division is still in its infancy. Hard-bitten Irishman, Detective Inspector Sean Ryan, is one of the city’s few reliable investigators, but he is hampered daily by his ethnicity, the Irish being associated with agitators during this period, and by the newness of his role – in the Dickensian age, police officers were supposed to be a highly visible presence, uniformed and available to assist the public at any time, whereas plain clothes officers resembled the hated secret police of Paris.

Despite all this, Ryan investigates the case in company with trusty PC Becker, a young officer who quickly recognises how effective an organised homicide division can be. It isn’t long before they learn about the original murders, and how this case appears to be a copycat. And if that’s the case, they realise, it won’t be long before there is another similar crime.

The job becomes trickier still when word leaks to the press, and the citizens of London, a city that is already a powder keg of revolutionary ferment, are badly alarmed.

Under orders from the fearsome Lord Palmerston to resolve this issue immediately, Ryan thinks that he may have got his man when Thomas De Quincey’s original On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts is drawn to his attention. It is written in such detail that its author might well have been present at the original murders, and as he is still only 69, that does not seem like too much of a stretch. Back in 1811, De Quincey was a robust fellow in his 20s.

However, when Ryan and Becker confront De Quincey, he has withered into a small, frail man, still of great intellect but deeply addicted to opium, which he takes in the form of laudunum. If this isn’t enough to dismiss De Quincey from the enquiry, his daughter, the independent-minded and very attractive Emily, makes a fierce defence of her father, deriding those who mistook his intellectual assessment of the original crimes for an appreciation of them, and advises them that De Quincey’s knowledge of these matters – which derives from psychological evaluation of the crimes, in an age when psychology as a science did not even exist – could be invaluable to the investigators. This helps persuade them that De Quincey might be of use, and the Opium-Eater himself, though he struggles with many demons – his endless, futile quest to find his lost love, Ann, his awful days as a vagrant, and his unyielding addiction – is keen to join the enquiry, not least because he feels a degree of responsibility: whoever the killer is, he quite clearly has studied De Quincey’s book.

Ryan and Becker are not keen to have a civilian on the case, but increasingly it feels as if they’re working against the odds. The London population is ready to take the law into its own hands, especially when further horrific slayings recreate the original murders, and in fact go further, adding more and more victims to the tally.

Lord Palmerston, fearing insurrection, is ever more determined that the killer must be brought to book immediately, but allows himself to be persuaded by his cold, handsome and incredibly brutal chief of staff, Colonel Robert Brookline, that Thomas de Quincey should not be assisting the police but should in fact be a suspect. If the Opium-Eater is to help Ryan and Becker apprehend the all-new Ratcliffe Highway Murderer, he’s going to have to do it incognito, from among the ranks of the ragged and homeless.

Meanwhile, the winter deepens, the fog thickens, and the madman continues to prowl …  

In short, this is a splendid piece of work by US author, David Morrell. It’s a little Sherlockian in tone, an advanced civilian thinker assisting a brave but non-too-intellectual police force in their quest to capture an ingenious killer, helped along the way by a spirited underling (in this case the feisty Emily, as opposed to stolid old Watson). But that’s all part of its appeal.

We are firmly in a world of Dickensian-age melodrama, sulphurous fog swirling around the top-hats and greatcoats, horse-drawn carriages rattling over cobblestones, the brash cries of Cockney costermongers interspersed with drunken guffaws from the taverns and gin houses. And yet again, this is all part of the charm of Murder as a Fine Art. The author puts us firmly in that time and that place, but instead of simply evoking the spirit of Charles Dickens, to whom the average person owes so much of their knowledge about this milieu, taking us much, much further.

It might only have been a century and a half ago, but it’s a society that is now completely alien to us. For example, in London in 1854, prison governors are fully entitled to run their penitentiaries like private fiefs, where all manner of pointless torture and suffering can be imposed on the inmates. At the same time, the London mob is still a thing to be feared; even the police must tread warily when a medieval-type hue and cry is raised and the angry citizens light their torches and roam the benighted streets. At the same time, the population is still reeling from the arrival of staggering new innovations like telegraph, the railways and even indoor toilets, ‘necessaries’ as they are amusingly referred to.

This is all fascinating and convincing stuff, and it paints a vivid backdrop – even if it is often tinged a murky-grey thanks to the all-pervading Thames fog. But there is much fun to be had from the central characters too.

It’s no surprise to me that Thomas and Emily De Quincey have since gone on to star in two other books from David Morrell, Inspector of the Dead and Ruler of the Night. They make a fascinating crime-fighting duo, not least because their mere presence in this situation throws up all kinds of interesting conflicts.

De Quincey was a divisive figure in real life, and he’s a divisive figure here, even his police allies viewing him as a weakling and degenerate. The character himself loathes his near-complete dependency on his ‘medicine’, as he calls it. None of this helps, of course, when he causes the police to doubt him even more by recommending that they seek the murderer through an aberration of his mind rather than by following conventional clues.

Needless to say, he is staunchly defended by his daughter, Emily, who has been dismissed by one or two reviewers as a clichéd Victorian heroine, a fearless free-thinker in an age when adult women were expected to be goddesses of the hearth. But I don’t agree with that; Emily is not a particularly forthright or rebellious girl. She chooses to wear a less restrictive kind of dress rather than the hoops and whorls favoured by other ladies, but that’s merely for reasons of practicality. She puts forward forceful opinions and intriguing ideas, but rarely is pushy or aggressive. For me, this is a neat balancing act by David Morrell. Emily De Quincey is not some feminist of the 21st century transposed anachronistically into the 19th; it’s just that this is an age when prudery is on a high, and though she finds she must buck this trend a little to make progress, that’s all it is – a little.

Ryan and Becker are a bit more typical of their type, the former a hardcase street-ruffian, whose plain clothes persona is a bit too effective for his own good – not many believe he’s a copper when they first meet him, especially when they learn that he is Irish – and there isn’t a beating he can’t and doesn’t take, while Becker, a younger man, is a square-jawed idealist, who believes in policework and detective work in particular, and because he’s a stickler for results is completely open-minded about taking help from civilians (even females and drug addicts!).

Though it feels an unlikely alliance, they soon become an awesome foursome in terms of investigation teams, each member bringing different, well-developed talents into play. And this is a very good thing, because it isn’t just a crazed killer they find themselves having to deal with. It soon transpires that law-and-order as a concept has many dangerous foes concealed in the drifting blanking of fog, just waiting for the moment to strike. But to say any more about that would be too much of a spoiler.

Ultimately, Murder as a Fine Art is a fun romp set in an eccentric, grotesque and yet marvelous era, which it recreates in near-forensic detail. In terms of historical thrillers overall, it may be treading a well-worn path; it doesn’t add anything massively new to the genre – apart from its fascinating use of a controversial real-life personality (who wasn’t known for his detective skills) – but it’s hugely intriguing and entertaining, its driving narrative interweaving action with mystery to produce an absorbing page turner.   

I’ve no clue whether or not Murder as a Fine Art is under option for film or TV development, but in an age when we’ve seen all types of horror/thriller concepts from the Gothic days dusted off and given a brand-new spin, it certainly should be. In case it ever is, here, as usual, are my personal cast-list suggestions: 

Thomas De Quincey – Derek Jacobi
Emily De Quincey – Olivia Cooke
DI Sean Ryan – Jamie Dorman
PC Joseph Becker – Gethin Anthony
Lord Henry Palmerston – Jim Broadbent
Col. Robert Brookline – Mark Strong
Comm. Richard Mayne – Linus Roache
Dr John Snow – Richard E. Grant
Margaret Jewell – Julie Walters

Wednesday 1 August 2018

When Heck does it the devil-may-care way

The publication of KISS OF DEATH, my 7th Heck novel, is now only days away. For the uninitiated, it comes out on August 9th, and I can promise my regular readers, and even those who aren’t regular but are perhaps thinking about dipping in, that it contains its usual full-on quota of intrigue, suspense, terror (at times), its trademark irreverent approach to policing, yet more tense, emotional entanglements between Heck and the women in his life, and of course … action.

And indeed, it’s ACTION that is basically in the frame today. In particular, the really dangerous things that Heck occasionally does in order to snag the bad guys. In fact, today I’ve opted to compile a list of HECK’S TOP TEN MOST HAIR-RAISING MOMENTS – so, hopefully we can have some fun with that.

On a not dissimilar subject – raw, pulse-pounding action – I’ll also be reviewing and discussing James Carlos Blake’s remarkable thriller of the Mexican borderland, THE RULES OF WOLFE. If you’re only here for that review, no problem. You can scoot straight on down today’s blog-post; as usual, you’ll find it at the lower end. But if you’ve got a couple of minutes to spare, let’s spend them by looking at a few of my favourite action sequences in the Heck novels …

Action … action … action …

The truth is that I was inspired to do this by the recent promotional material I’ve seen coming out in advance of the new summer blockbuster, Mission Impossible – Fallout, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character performing some of the most astonishing feats of daring ever committed to celluloid.

But I don’t think we can realistically compare notes with the Mission Impossible movies. Ethan Hunt is a continent-hopping espionage guy, who is hugely well trained, resourced and equipped, with the highest of hi-tech teams at his back, whose job is to take on massive, villainous organisations with plans for world domination (or destruction). In contrast, Heck is merely a copper, often going at it solo because his gaffers don’t support him. But while it wouldn’t be true to say that he regularly butts heads with comic-strip super-villains of the type that Hunt and his team encounter, his opponents are usually the worst of the worst in British terms.

This has still meant that there’s always been lots of scope for brutal, visceral action in the Heck novels. And though I’ve been honoured with some exceptional quotes from some truly great writers for the forthcoming KISS OF DEATH (you’ll notice that I’ve used a couple of them in this blog today), one of those most relevant to today’s post is this one from the highly influential crime magazine, Shots, which says:

The action sequences have about them a sweaty and chaotic intensity that adds to their realism!

That pleased me no end. Sweaty and crazy intensity is exactly what I look for in my action scenes. And so, without further preamble, here they are in no particular order. The ten moments in the Heck novels to date, during which our much-battered hero most puts his own life on the line to get the job done:

1) In HUNTED, there is a violent armed robbery perpetrated by a South London gang called the Snake Eyes, which the police intercept. Heck pursues the gang-leader on foot, only for his quarry to steal a heavy goods vehicle loaded with crates of beer. Heck leaps onto the back as the lorry speeds away, while his partner, DC Gail Honeyford, gives chase in a police car. The explosive pursuit takes them from Catford, all the way across Southeast London to the Blackwall Tunnel, during the course of which Heck is hurled about amid deluging beer and broken glass …

2) In ASHES TO ASHES, Heck goes undercover as a hobo in a Peckham apartment building, to try and lay hands on torturer-for-hire, John Sagan, and as such, forces entry to the madman’s third-floor apartment, only to find that the target has escaped from the window by a knotted rope, leaving said rope hanging about five feet away. Because Sagan is already fleeing across the rooftops below and may shortly disappear into the maze of backstreets, Heck has no choice but to dive from the open window, catch hold of the rope – which he just about manages to – and scramble down in immediate pursuit …

3) In THE KILLING CLUB, Heck finds himself on the run from a band of international mercenaries, who must kill him because he’s in possession of damning evidence against them. The chase leads him up the coast of Northeast England, through a vicious gun-fight and into Dunstanburgh Castle, where he scales the inside of a ruined tower, and then sees him drive across the causeway to Holy Island while the evening tide floods in, onto a derelict jetty where he attempts an improvised explosion, and finally out into the North Sea on a small speedboat, in the death-grip of a scarred and deranged assassin …  

4) In ASHES TO ASHES, Heck and a key witness find themselves pursued around the rubble-strewn interior of an abandoned cinema by a gangland contract killer called the Incinerator because he always uses a flamethrower to reduce his targets to cinders. The place is so long empty that all its exits are blockaded, and the duo are thus chased through a hellish labyrinth, with a fiery death only yards behind them. Heck eventually chooses the deadliest escape route possible, edging ten yards along a brick ledge about seven inches wide, approx 80 ft above the alley below, in the midst of pouring rain …

5) In DEAD MAN WALKING, which is set high up in the Lake District mountains, Heck gets involved in a wild chase across the fells with an armed serial killer, the pair of them riding on quad bikes. Heck is subsequently shepherded towards a towering cliff edge, below which lies a pitch-black tarn. He knows that his only chance of survival is to sail as far out over the surface as possible, so to hit the deepest water that he can find, and so floors the accelerator. All he must do then, as he quite literally flies through the air, is survive the inevitable 100 ft plunge …

6) In STALKERS, Heck and a female soldier are trapped by a military sniper on a wooden deck at the base of the south tower to a derelict sea-fort in the outer reaches of the Thames estuary. Knowing that they will imminently be shot, Heck realises that they must swim several hundred yards to the next tower along. This will be with the outgoing tide, so it won’t be hugely strenuous, but the trouble is the tide is so strong that if they miss the next tower, it could push them out to sea, with no hope of reaching shore. They chance it anyway, while a special forces rifleman takes repeated pot-shots at them …

7) In ASHES TO ASHES, Heck is back in his hometown of Bradburn, where he is confronted by a bunch of Russian gangsters who are determined to abduct him for the purpose of gruesome torture. Heck beats a fighting retreat along various industrial alleyways, running across a busy railway junction, with locomotives flashing back and forth, and finally seeking to force entry to a derelict nightclub by scaling down an exterior dumb-waiter and winding his way snake-like along a skin-tight ventilation pipe. The Russians, increasingly frustrated that he’s proving elusive, are soon raging with psychopathic anger …

8) In DEAD MAN WALKING, Heck and Gemma Piper, neither of whom are armed, find themselves pursued by a gun-toting maniac across the isolated Witch Cradle Tarn in motorboats. Shot at repeatedly, and with no other avenue of escape, they have no option but to chance the Cragwood Race, a whitewater rafting route, which tumbles down into Great Langdale far below between sheer cliff faces and over multiple sets of rapids. Needless to say, the insane killer comes on apace, still shooting at them, ready to follow them all the way down to the bottom of the roaring, rock-filled torrent …

9) In SACRIFICE, Heck is targeted by two hitmen armed with automatic weapons. They ambush his vehicle, but by a ruse he eludes them through the backstreets, finally forcing entry to a disused London underground station. The killers give chase, and Heck leads them a terrifying dance through the forgotten bowels of the metropolis, in pitch darkness, smothered in cobwebs and filth, scrambling along pipes and culverts, through more derelict stations, over catwalks spanning drops into abyssal depths, always going deeper. But his machine-gun wielding foes are hyper-fit, and never far behind …

10) In DEAD MAN WALKING, Heck must
shepherd a bunch of frightened fugitives across a via ferrata, a spindly walkway made from little more than steel cable, which spans numerous canyons and gorges, high in the Lake District peaks. The problem is that thick fog has come down, rendering them almost completely blind, while the via ferrata is officially out of use, rotted and broken in many places, and a lunatic is close behind, who is armed and plans to kill all of them. Heck has seen the horrors this crazed killer can wreak on his victims. It’s a no-brainer. They must chance the high-wire walk …

Are there any such scenes in KISS OF DEATH, you may ask yourself. Well, sorry folks, but there’s only one way you’re going to find out …


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 James Carlos Blake (2013)

One of the deadliest of the Mexican crime syndicates is the Sinaloa Cartel. Though their home-base is located on Mexico’s west coast, the power they wield is felt nationwide, a grip of fear which is enhanced by the influence they exert over government offices, both local and national, and multiple police departments.

Fall out with the Sinas, and you’re in big trouble. Controlled by two uber-ruthless brothers, La Navaja and his younger lieutenant, El Segundo, both of whom rose to prominence on a tide of extreme violence, the Sinas are renowned for the horrific punishments they will visit on anyone who displeases them. From decapitation, to burning, to being drowned in barrels of rum, even the slightest infraction against their rock-solid rules can invoke the most draconian reprisals.

So, it probably isn’t a good time for young Eddie Porter, aka Eddie Gato Wolfe, a handsome young syndicate soldier of Mexican/American descent, to be assigned guard duty at one of the Sinas’ pleasure ranches in the desert. If it isn’t bad enough that it’s out in the middle of nowhere, there are yet more of those damn rules: the guards are occasionally allowed to visit the local villages and let their hair down, but when they’re on duty, which is the bulk of their time, there is a strict no-drinking and no-whoring order.

Eddie almost goes crazy as he stands and watches while flotillas of Sinaloan underbosses and their sexy consorts come and go, carousing all night and indulging in swimming pool parties that turn into orgies. He is particularly agonised when he sets eyes on the beautiful Miranda, who seems aloof from the other girls, and on the few occasions when he makes eye-contact with her, proves to be friendlier than most. This is not a good thing, because Eddie, an inveterate womaniser back home, simply can’t resist a lovely young girl. In due course, he contrives to introduce himself to Miranda. He’s an arch-seducer, but though he doesn’t expect that she’ll be an easy catch, she falls into his arms with remarkable speed – because gorgeous though she is, Miranda has led a life of abuse and exploitation, and desperately seeks affection.

The star-crossed duo sense that they’ll soon mean more to each other than a quick lay, but their first tryst ends in disaster when it is interrupted by El Segundo himself, who regards Miranda as his personal property.

In the ensuing fight – because Eddie has no choice but to fight – the Sinaloan No. 2 is killed.

Knowing there will only be one outcome from this, and that it won’t be over quickly, Eddie and Miranda flee the ranch, and head across the sun-scorched badlands of the Sonora desert, optimistically thinking that they just might make it to the Arizona border before their offence is discovered. Needless to say, they are wrong, and pretty soon the full wrath of the Sinas is unleashed in pursuit, including the lethal bounty-hunter, El Martillo, and his sidekick, El Pico, a top-notch tracker and incurable bar-room philosopher.

The odds are stacked against Eddie and Miranda, who from the get-go travel with a fatalistic air, as if it will only be a matter of time before they are snared. However, they do have one advantage. Eddie is related to the Wolfe clan, a smaller crime syndicate, whose main gig is weapons-smuggling, and who are transnational in nature, which means they contain both Mexican and American personnel, and their activities straddle the Border. As soon as Wolfe clan matriarch, centenarian Aunt Catalina, hears about Eddie’s plight, she sends two of her favourite nephews, Rudy and Frank, to assist. They might be less professional than El Martillo and El Pico, but they too are good at what they do.

The Sinas have their rules, and perhaps the most famous is that when someone defies you, he/she dies. But the Wolfes have strict rules too, not least that when one of theirs is in trouble, they bring him safely home …

There is no doubt that the Mexican crime cartels are among the most frightening in the modern world. With their immensely long reach, and a willingness to use unprecedented levels of grotesque violence – not just to enforce their will on rival mobsters, but to terrorise the civilian population as well – they are a crime author’s dream.

It may be a tad insensitive to put it in those terms, but they really are. As monstrous opponents go in crime fiction, the Mexican cartels are a genuinely terrifying presence even on the written page. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen them as deadly as they are here in The Rules of Wolfe.

And it is this which provides the concrete base for this searingly intense piece of border noir.

You can’t help feeling for young heroes, Eddie and Miranda. Though they’ve undoubtedly been naïve idiots by inviting this disaster into their lives, they are up against monumental opposition. Not just because the Sinas are so powerful, but because they also must escape across Mexico’s sun-baked badlands, and then make it over the border, which in itself is a huge thing. The hardships that befall them know no end: dust storms, heat, thirst, highway robbers, corrupt cops.

Despite all this, they manage to maintain their good humour and their love for each other, and such is the skill of James Carlos Blake’s writing that they don’t to this unconvincingly. They get battered and hurt, they’re constantly frightened. Miranda transforms from seductive beauty into exhausted roadside wastrel. Eddie goes from cocky young buck to responsible (but somewhat grizzled) adult, as he isn’t just physically injured, but tortured by the knowledge that he’s been the instigator of this terror. And yet still they press on, looking out for each other, sharing a quick kiss on those few occasions when they get the chance. This stoical determination to spend the rest of their lives together is genuinely heart-wrenching, too – because all the way through you have an overarching suspicion that it’s unlikely to happen.

In comparison, on the US side of the border, trouble-shooting cousins, Frank and Rudy, are less colourfully drawn, but if this is a weakness, it’s only a minor one. In essence, they too are syndicate operatives, but though they regularly do business with Mexican mobsters, their trade is in guns rather than drugs or people. However, in the fashion of the Old West, because Frank and Rudy, and all the rest of the Wolfes, can trace their roots back to a hard-bitten Tex/Mex family who were here in the bad old days, they are no strangers to lawlessness when it suits them. They keep it low key, but they have their own rules and their own family loyalties – as embodied by Wolfe clan matriarch, Aunt Catalina, who is vividly portrayed by Blake despite making only a couple of appearances. Even so, it’s a big thing to challenge the Sinas. They go about it in workmanlike fashion, dealing professionally with each situation (some of which are pretty visceral, so be warned!), and you certainly get the feeling that if anyone can help Eddie and Miranda, it’s going to be Frank and Rudy – but you can’t imagine that even these two will emerge from this conflict unscathed.

And it’s in this driving, ferocious narrative where the book really comes alive.

Blake rattles the action scenes at us like machine-gun bullets, working each violent encounter tirelessly to create non-stop tension and fear. And even when Eddie and Miranda aren’t involved in blazing gun-battles, when they’re waiting in cantina car parks, for example, or moving in slow, heavy traffic, there is an atmosphere of fast-encroaching evil, a sense that even if the nice-looking family in the next car could be sadistic killers just awaiting their moment. But there is also a darker depth to this book, a strand of undercutting despair, because this kind of thing is all-too-real in modern day Mexico, and this is reflected in the deep seriousness with which Blake treats his subject-matter (Kirkus didn’t refer to him as ‘the poet of the damned, who writes like an angel’ for nothing). The killers are depicted through a near-true crime lens, the manner in which they soullessly go about their terrible business – dismembering and beheading with neither deranged glee nor gut-thumping horror, but emotionlessly, doing what they do simply because they’ve following orders and can’t conceive of anything else – more than hints at real life atrocities.

On which subject, Blake also handles the crossing of the US/Mexican border with real expertise, painting a harrowing picture of the dangers that migrants routinely face, primarily from the criminal classes who encircle this sort of activity like sharks, but also from unsympathetic officialdom. It’s a sobering lesson in this era when so many of us are casually annoyed by the sight of migrants attempting to force illegal entry into other countries without any real clue what they might be fleeing.

I really enjoyed The Rules of Wolfe. I’ve seen it mentioned alongside such classics of the dope wars as Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, and while I wouldn’t perhaps go that far, because yes, this is at heart a rollicking action-thriller, it also has those other dimensions of cruelty and darkness which put it up there among the very meanest of its kind.

As always, I’m now going to attempt to put together my own cast on the off-chance The Rules of Wolfe makes it to the screen (and it’s really got to in this age of no-holds-barred TV; I, for one, would bring new meaning to the term binge-watch, if it did). I doubt anyone will listen to my views on this, of course, but I’m going for it anyway, because it’s fun. Here are my picks:

Eddie Gato Wolfe – Diego Luna
Miranda – Ana de Armas
Rudy – David Giuntioli
Frank – David DeSantos
Aunt Cat – Lois Smith
La Navaja – Demian Bichir
El Martillo – Danny Trejo
El Pico – Carlos Espeljel