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 na├»ve 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


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