Thursday, 16 May 2019

The mental aberrations of sociopathic men


Well … it’s publication day for STOLEN, my third Lucy Clayburn novel, so I’m inevitably going to be talking a little bit about that today (but not too much, as I’ve gassed a lot about it recently). But given that there is lots of gangster stuff in STOLEN, including one massive underworld hit (which has certainly got one or two reviewers gossiping), I thought we might also chat a bit about gangland atrocities, and just as an academic exercise, that I’d single out the 10 MOST SHOCKING AND TERRIFYING that I’ve ever come across in real life.

On top of that, because today we’re looking deep into the mental aberrations of evil, sociopathic men, I’ll be reviewing and discussing CAIN’S BLOOD by Geoffrey Girard, which is as grim and disturbing as the modern crime thriller tends to get, but with sci-fi elements interwoven. If you’ve only called in to check out the Geoffrey Girard review, no problemo. You’ll find it at the lower end of today’s blogpost, as always. Feel free to zoom on down there ASAP.

However, if you’re also interested in the other stuff, stick around a little longer, and let’s talk first about …

Lucy Clayburn 3

I’m very happy to see STOLEN, the third novel in my Lucy Clayburn series, published today. This latest installment finds my young police heroine still working cases in Crowley CID, Crowley being the ‘November Division’ of the Greater Manchester Police area (and a rough, tough beat by any standards).

However, she’s also facing a domestic crisis as her mother, Cora, normally a law-abiding citizen, is increasingly looking back to her wild youth, contemplating a possible reunion with her old flame, and Lucy’s estranged father, gangland boss Frank McCracken. As you can imagine, this isn’t going down too well with Lucy, who, when she first discovered that she and McCracken were related – and it was as much a revelation to him as to her – made a deal with him to keep it secret, because if news like this got out, it could be mutually catastrophic to both their careers.

At the same time, there are various heinous things going on in Crowley, which are soon likely to distract Lucy even from this. A number of pets have disappeared in unusual circumstances, and Lucy traces this, or so she thinks, to a dog-fighting ring, only to then learn that she’s off-track – and that now people are disappearing as well.

At first, it’s members of the homeless community, whose absence no one has noticed except Sister Cassiopeia, a drug-addicted former nun, who caters to the Skid Row folk as a kind of self-appointed pastor. Lucy initially takes this story no more seriously than she does the urban myth that a mysterious black van was prowling the housing estates on the nights the pet dogs were abducted … until she learns that this black van is supposedly still on the prowl, and no longer just looking for animals.

Something fiendish is clearly going on. It may be connected to the horrific inner-city wilderness that is the Fairview Landfill site, because weirds things are also supposedly going on out there. But alternatively, it might be linked to the network of disused air-raid tunnels that run underneath Crowley’s many derelict mills. One thing is certain: when an OAP is brutally abducted from his home – and once again there are stories that a van was heard racing away – Lucy has no option but to launch herself into a very complex and distressing investigation.

As I say, STOLEN is out today, from all the usual retailers. 

The worst mob hits ever

I saw a rather concerning headline in the news this last week. It read:

Organised crime in the UK is bigger than ever before

The accompanying story described how Britain has now become the hub of numerous international criminal networks, whose various rackets include prostitution, protection, slave-trading, gun and drug smuggling, murder-for-hire and the laundering of billions of pounds through London every year. Other figures, apparently straight from the National Crime Agency, reveal that there are 4,629 active gangs and syndicates in the UK today, which together employ 33,598 full-time professional criminals.

Stats like these will come as a sobering shock to many, particularly to those one or two reviewers of my Lucy Clayburn novels who have expressed doubt that highly-organised and well-resourced criminal cartels like the Crew – my fictional firm who control the North of England – genuinely exist in Britain today.

I should say straight away that I’m not quoting these sad figures as some kind of ‘told you so’ point-scoring exercise. I mention them simply to illustrate that the terrifying influence and extreme brutality exercised by the Crew in my three Lucy Clayburn novels to date – STRANGERS, SHADOWS and STOLEN – are not too far removed from reality.

The latest of those three novels, the one published today in fact, STOLEN, is particularly worth mentioning in this context because it features what has been described as ‘a horrendous sequence’ in which a major gang hit is carried out with ‘visceral, shocking violence’.

As always, I make no apologies for this kind of stuff. Unlike my Heck novels, which generally involve the pursuit of serial killers, my Lucy Clayburn books always have one foot in the realm of organised crime. And I honestly don’t feel that you’re doing anything other than shortchanging your audience if you fail to depict this fearsome hoodlum world in warts and all fashion.

So, yes … there is victimisation and savagery in these books, and the horror and despair of being caught on the wrong side of merciless gangs, and there is also, as I’ve said, that big, gruesome gang-hit which is carried out with extreme prejudice.

Also relevant to this conversation, I think, is the character of Frank McCracken, Lucy’s estranged father, whom she never knew until she was thirty years old and ten years a cop, and who in her absence has risen through the ranks of the Manchester mob until he now has a seat at the top table.

There are times in the books when Frank comes over as a good guy: affable, approachable, handsome, very urbane. And this is another effort on my part to be authentic. Because all these things are derived from real-life legendary dons who made their bones in the so-called golden age of gangsterism. The likes of Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel (left) were, at first glance, attractive and even charismatic figures. But the comparison doesn’t end there because, like all these infamous real-life villains, Frank McCracken’s seductive appearance conceals a deeply ingrained psychotic nature. He isn’t sweet and kind, he’s treacherous. He isn’t a straight-up businessman, he lies, cheats and breaks every rule in the book. He isn’t just violent, he’s a killer. I should add here that Frank is more progressive than his compatriots in some ways; he doesn’t like killing and doesn’t do it gratuitously. But by the same token, if he deems it necessary, he’ll do it without hesitation. Not only that … he runs an entire subdivision of the Crew, whose most vicious and murderous elements he will happily unleash on anyone and everyone who emerges as a possible threat (whatever their age or gender).

This is surely the most curious crux of the high-level organised crime phenomenon. Its chief practitioners know what decent society is because they yearn to move in it, they seek its validation, they adopt its trappings. It often seems as if they aspire to be part of it themselves, and yet they are often so inherently indecent that taking that final step is nearly always beyond them. They will never be part of the moneyed but respected establishment they seem to be in awe of, and deep down, I suspect, most of them probably wouldn’t want to be anyway.

Why would they? In the words of Henry Hill, the real-life enforcer at the heart of Nicholas Pileggi’s wonderful script for the Martin Scorsesi 1990 Mafia classic, Goodfellas:

… we were treated like movie stars with muscle. We had it all, just for the asking. Our wives, mothers, kids, everybody rode along. I had paper bags filled with jewelry stashed in the kitchen. I had a sugar bowl full of coke next to the bed. Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city. I'd bet twenty, thirty grand over a weekend and then I'd either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies. Didn't matter. It didn't mean anything. When I was broke, I would go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking.

And of course, I say it again, anyone who gets in the way is simply rubbed out. By means and methods that are never considered to be too horrific. Which brings us to the main meat of today’s chit-chat.

STOLEN is already drawing attention because of its brutal gangland vengeance scene, and because a leading character in the series, who up until this point the readers might have started liking, thinks nothing of issuing an extreme bloody sanction against a rival faction.

So now, let’s talk about some real ones.

Just for interest’s sake, I thought I’d draw you a list, in no particular order, of the 10 most shocking and terrifying mob hits (and/or hitmen) in the history of organised crime:

1) St Valentine’s Day Massacre

Still one of the most famous gangland slaughters of all time, the St Valentine’s Day Massacre seems like a relatively small event by modern standards, but it was the culmination of a long and well-publicised underworld war that had terrorised Chicago for much of the Prohibition era, and of course it was ordered by Al Capone (below), who is still regarded today as America’s first celebrity gangster. In short, Capone’s South Side Italian outfit had been in conflict with a gang of Irish hoodlums led by George ‘Bugs’ Moran, whose power base was on the city’s North Side.

The dispute was originally over turf and booze, but by 1929 there’d been so many murders and assaults and the level of hatred was so intense that no kind of peace treaty was ever possible. On the morning of February 14 that year, five members of the North Side Gang and two associates were hanging out at a Lincoln Park garage, well inside their own territory, when the premises were raided by four cops, who lined them all up against a wall, before mowing them down with Thompson submachine guns. Needless to say, the four ‘cops’ were Capone assassins, two wearing stolen police uniforms, the other two claiming to be plain-clothes. Moran himself wasn’t present but was said to have been so unnerved by the massacre that in due course he got out of Chicago, and to a lesser extent, out of the business.

2) Murder, Inc.

Initially formed as the enforcement arm of the US’s National Crime Syndicate, Murder, Inc (pictured at the top of this column) started life as the blunt instrument by which the will of a merciless higher power was enforced, but in due course rose to prominence as an empowered faction in its own right, before falling from grace with amazing speed. When Lucky Luciano created the Crime Commission, the governing arm of the American Mafia, in 1931, Murder, Inc were to serve as its executioners, the idea being that if they only ever struck on the orders of the overarching committee, there would never be retaliation between the Five Families. 

A gang of purposely chosen contract killers, headed up by accomplished hitmen Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter (above), Albert ‘the Mad Hatter’ Anastasia and Abraham ‘Kid Twist’ Reles, they slew regularly for the Commission, utilising every weapon imaginable, from guns to knives, neck-wires to ice-picks, baseball bats to broken bottles, but also began accepting contracts from mob bosses in other parts of the country too, breaking their own rule and subsequently claiming maybe 2,000 victims in the next ten years. 


The writing appeared on the wall in 1940 when Kid Twist became a government witness, the first of several. A succession of arrests followed, leading members facing long prison terms or death, Lepke becoming the first major organised crime figure in the US to go to the electric chair. Anastasia saved himself by having Twist murdered but was shot dead himself in 1957 (above), having annoyed key rivals.

3) Cannibal Stew

Organised crime had always been prevalent in the former Yugoslavia, with Yugoslav criminals particularly active, in fact prominent in some cases, in Western Europe, though in overall terms it was relatively small-time. The big change came during the 1990s, when the Balkan Wars saw Bosnia, Croatia and Herzegovina devastated, and the international community retaliate against Serbia with severe sanctions, which led to an economic crisis and galvanised thousands of young men, including many ex-soldiers, paramilitaries and other combat veterans to join criminal organisations. 

From this point on, the Serbian Mafia spread its tentacles far and wide, involving itself in drug smuggling, arms trafficking, gambling, protection, kidnapping and armed robbery, all of which necessitated the regular use of extreme violence. However, one of the grisliest episodes in anyone’s criminal history occurred in a Madrid flat in 2009, when two Serbian gangsters from the Zemun Clan, Stretko ‘the Beast’ Kalinic (above, left) and Luka Bojovic, punished light-fingered gunman, Milan Jurisic (above, right), by brutalising him with a hammer, skinning him, filleting him and putting him through a mincing machine, before making him into a stew and eating him. Kalinic was later sentenced to life imprisonment for a whole series of such sadistic murders committed in his capacity as a hitman, mainly on the evidence of informers from inside his own organisation.

4) The Iceman Cometh

Probably the most terrifying hitman ever to be associated with the New York Mafia was Richard Kuklinski, the so-called ‘Iceman’ (right). In so many ways, this guy was everyone’s worst nightmare. He stood 6ft5, was built like the Hulk and worked as a freelance mob murderer from 1954 to 1986, in which time he is said to have killed anything from 100 to 250 men, always concealing this horrific truth beneath the respected veneer of a middle-class family man who lived with his wife and children in suburban New Jersey. 

Kuklinski was referred to as the Iceman because it was his habit to freeze his victims’ corpses and only dispose of them long after they’d been killed, thus confounding investigators, but his real usefulness to Mafia bosses was how utterly indifferent he was to human suffering. Kuklinski would kill by any means – knife, gun, bomb and so on – but, if the contract required it, he would torture and kill too, on more than one occasion kidnapping his targets, feeding them alive to a horde of voracious rats, and filming it while it happened, an MO which prompted one gangland underboss to comment that he ‘had no soul’. Kuklinski, who was also a racketeer in his own right, was convicted of six murders in 1986, and died in jail in 2006. He confessed while inside but claimed that he’d lost count of his actual tally as he used to practise on the homeless long before he began accepting contracts.

5) Fatally Chopped

In April 2013, a long and bitter war between the rival halves of an infamous Hong Kong triad society, the Wo Shing Wo, led to an incredibly gruesome and very public murder, in which a notorious local gangster was literally disembowelled alive in front of stunned spectators. Mouse Shing, a 30-year-old underboss of the Wo Shing Wo, was recovering in hospital after receiving leg wounds in an earlier attack. A key figure in the Hau Sai faction, who were attempting to resist infiltration of their territory in Hong Kong’s Sheung Shui district by the infamously violent Yen Chai, Mouse Shing had survived the earlier assault but was till a key target. 

He’d no sooner left the hospital, even though impaired by his wounds – he was said to be walking with a cane – when a car sped up, and two assassins leapt out armed with knives, an axe and a meat-cleaver. What was described as a truly horrendous attack followed, the unarmed and undefended Mouse hacked and chopped, his lower abdomen sliced open so that, in the words of appalled pedestrians on the public street, his intestines were literally hanging out. Other deep wounds later found on his arms and limbs suggested that his assailants had also attempted to lop off his limbs. Rushed back into the hospital, Mouse was worked on frantically by the dismayed staff, but he was too grotesquely injured to survive. 

6) Crates of heads / Hanging Corpses


The violence of the Mexican cartels is renowned. The influence they wield is chilling, their appetite for revenge nightmarish. Almost no atrocity is deemed beyond such ruthless, monolithic power-structures as the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, Los Zetas, La Familia etc. All enforce their authority with extreme terror, and have used their incredible wealth, generated from trafficking coke into the US, to buy off the police, the military, the financial sector, the judiciary, even large sections of the government. As an illustration of the murderous mayhem caused by the Mexican drugs cartels, the so-called Mexican Drug War, which commenced in 2006, has now cost 60,000 lives.

Against a background of such bloodthirsty chaos, to single out any particular hit as an example of rampant criminality would seem ridiculous, but there are certain outstanding incidents that still defy belief. Acapulco, a tourist Mecca of the 1970s and 1980s, became less attractive in 2011, when 15 headless bodies were dumped on the streets, on the apparent orders of the Sinaloa Cartel. The heads themselves were in a nearby crate. If that isn’t enough, in one night the following year, 23 tortured people, including four women, were found either hanging from a public bridge or beheaded and dumped on the street in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, sad relics of the war between the Zetas and the Sinaloans. 

7) Kansas City Massacre


Conspiracy theories abounded in the wake of the terrifying Kansas City Massacre in 1933, and still do today, a range of experts offering different viewpoints regarding the perpetrators and their motives. In short, a small group of cops and FBI agents were in the process of escorting bank robber, Frank ‘Jelly’ Nash back to Leavenworth Prison, from where he’d absconded several years earlier, when, in the car park at the Union Station railway depot, Kansas City, they were ambushed by a posse of gunmen armed with Thompsons. In the following rain of lead, signalled by a cry of ‘Let ‘em have it!’, four law enforcement officials were slain, while Frank Nash died in the car into which he’d just been bundled. 

The killers all escaped – at least initially, but what were their motives? Were they trying to free Frank Nash, or silence him? In due course, the FBI named other robbers, Vernon Miller (left), Adam Richetti and Charles ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd (right), as their chief suspects. This was controversial, many – and not just fellow criminals – claiming that Richetti and Floyd were being framed as it was proving difficult to get them on other charges. Even today, that theory persists with certain crime historians, especially as Miller was later found mutilated in a ditch, a possible mob hit, which suggests the Mafia were involved. Either way, Floyd died in a shootout with cops in 1934, and Richetti was sent to the gas chamber in 1938.

8) Melbourne Killings

One country rarely associated with criminal atrocity, but where there is actually a flourishing organised crime scene is Australia, and in the early 2000s, its southern city, Melbourne, was the venue for a shocking underworld war, a succession of hits and shootouts claiming the lives of 36 prominent figures in the Aussie underworld. It all started when, thanks to the activities of the corrupt Painters and Dockers Union, Melbourne became the country’s capital of amphetamine distribution. Initially, the trade was controlled by one overarching firm, but when its leader, John Higgs, was jailed in 1996, a vacuum formed, and the jockeying for power that resulted transformed into a full-on gangster war, with several factions going at it. 

In all ways it resembled the bad old days in Chicago, with car bombs, drive-by shootings, gun-play in bars, restaurants and so forth ... and of course the more who died, the more places were left vacant, which only intensified the competition and the violence. A specialist police unit, the Puruna Taskforce, eventually brought the vying mobs to heel, but not until after a welter of carnage. Most of the murders remain officially unsolved, though a leading figure in the war, Carl Williams (above), was convicted of three (despite police suspecting that he carried out many more). Williams himself was killed in prison in 2010, the last victim of the war, when he was beaten to death with an exercise bike.

9) Football Face


Among the long, lurid list of drug cartel depredations in Mexico, one fairly small but nonetheless truly macabre incident stands out for all kinds of reasons. It happened in January 2010 in Los Mochis, in the northern half of Sinaloa state. It was so shocking, and so utterly mysterious, that even a drug and war-ravaged country like Mexico was rocked by it, especially as it was believed to be aimed at the powerful Juarez drug cartel in an effort to inflict on them the sort of terror they routinely inflicted on others. A certain Hugo Hernandez, who’d been kidnapped from the neighbouring state of Sonora, turned up several days later on an isolated road, headless and dismembered, his constituent parts in various different boxes. More shocking than this, though, a plastic bag was found near to the city hall. It contained a football, on the front of which Hernandez’s sliced-off face had been crudely stitched. A note that was also in the bag, a so-called ‘narcomanta’ read: ‘Happy New Year. Because this will be your last.’ (Check out the above image of Mexican cops examining a less gory manta – aka cartel warning – which was left at the site where five headless corpses had been dumped).

There was no obvious indication why Hernandez was chosen to suffer in this way, though the fact he came from Sonora could be relevant as that state was well known for its extensive marijuana crops. Whether the threat was followed up is unclear, but to date no evidence has come to light to give any obvious indication which cartel was responsible for this mindless act, even though there are plenty to choose from.

10) Kushchyovskaya Murders

Organised crime in Russia is a phenomenon of the 21st century, the overwhelming power of the Soviet Union having kept it in check for most of the 20th. Of course, the Russian syndicates are now among the most feared on Earth. But while much modern Russian gangsterism is either concentrated in the major cities or exported abroad, what is less well-known is that smaller, but no less brutal criminal gangs hold sway in rural parts of the vast country. This has partly been blamed on Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power in the centre, and his neglect of the provinces. 

Kushchyovskaya is a tragic witness to this. A prosperous farming community in the Northern Caucasus, it was long under the yoke of a local firm, which, with the collusion of corrupt bureaucrats and police officers, had lived like kings in the district, taking cuts of everything bought or sold, raping, robbing and generally terrorising the population. When, in 2010, an affluent farming family, the Ametovs, finally resisted, they paid a ghastly price. 


The farm was attacked by intruders that November, the entire family and their guests, 12 people in total (including four children), tied up and stabbed to death. The corpses were then drizzled with petrol and set alight. The crime shocked even a hardened land like Russia, leading to furious demands that Putin get to grips with the crime and corruption problem. In this case, the authorities responded hard (see above). Four perpetors were arrested and imprisoned, three having since committed suicide.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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.

CAIN’S BLOOD by Geoffrey Girard (2014)

DSTI is an ultra-secret biotech division working almost exclusively for the US military, so when things go disastrously wrong there, the problem is kept inhouse, with special operations chief, Colonel Stanforth, sending in one of his best men.

At first, ex-commando Shawn Castillo doesn’t know why he’s been given the job. A combat veteran with much experience in the Middle East (where he was captured by jihadis and viciously tortured), his normal field is counter-insurgency and espionage. On this occasion, as far as he knows, a group of six teenage delinquents being held in an educational facility attached to DSTI have absconded, committing several murders in the process. It sounds more like a job for the police. However, when Castillo arrives, it’s a scene of utter carnage, both institute staff and inmates alike lying slaughtered and dismembered.

But if that’s not enough, an even more terrifying revelation awaits him.

These so-called young offenders are actually cloned replicants of infamous serial killers – the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Albert Fish, Henry Lee Lucas et al – who have finally broken loose, and are now on a rampage, seemingly determined to fulfil the legacies of their genetic predecessors.

Prepared to chase and retrieve these burgeoning maniacs, Castillo is nevertheless suspicious of DSTI, unable to believe that any responsible group of scientists would indulge in such experiments. Though the plan was allegedly to isolate the predisposition towards violence in an effort to eliminate it from our world, he knows that the likes of Stanforth wouldn’t be involved if there wasn’t going to be some military application as well.

Feeling that he isn’t learning as much as he can from DSTI’s reticent Dr Erdman, Castillo pursues his own enquiries, forcing entry to the home of senior geneticist, Dr Gregory Jacobson, who has also gone missing, and there uncovering clues that knock him sick. It seems that, under Jacboson’s direction, certain of the clones were being purposely abused and neglected by their foster parents (mostly redneck DSTI stooges) in order to encourage the development of vengeful and sadistic compulsions. At the same time, he locates Jacobson’s own adopted son, Jeff – who it soon turns out is the clone of mass-slayer, Jeffrey Dahmer, but who has been raised in a loving, caring environment, and so appears to be manifesting no violent urges. In his own way, Jeff – a bright, pleasant young guy – is another example of one of Jacobson’s callous experiments; in this case he’s the positive outcome of careful manipulation, though Castillo isn’t sure that he can trust him.

Aware, that Jeff Jacobson will be ‘neutralised’ – either killer or lobotomised – if handed back to DSTI, Castillo opts to take the youngster with him, though he knows that getting emotionally involved in this way is the last thing he should be doing.

Meanwhile, he starts gathering useful intel. Advised by his old army buddy, Ox, who is a mine of information on the US’s numerous secret human-experimentation projects, Castillo begins to suspect that the real purpose of the cloning programme was to breed a race of testtube supersoldiers who will kill mercilessly when instructed to. He also learns that Gregory Jacobson, who appears to have deliberately released this select bunch of ultra-dangerous subjects, is leaning towards insanity himself, having developed a firm conviction that he’s a descendent of Francis Tumblety, a suspect in the original Jack the Ripper enquiry. At the same time, he gets curious about a mysterious place called SharDhara, where something horrible seems to have happened.

Meanwhile, the pack of young killers roams from state to state, commiting a string of ever-more horrendous crimes (explicitly raping, torturing and killing men, women and children alike). At least this enables Castillo to track them, but it also makes things easier for something else on their tail, something infinitely more savage than Castillo, but at least as efficient when it comes to clandestine soldiering. Only when it’s almost too late, does Castillo begin to wonder if the DSTI supersoldier programme was much more advanced than he realised …  

The first thing to say about Cain’s Blood is that, as ‘high concept’ goes, it’s up there with the best of them. I personally have no idea whether it’s even remotely possible to distill the evil from a bunch of notorious killers into the specially-grown bodies of a new race of synthetic assassins, but it’s a zinger of an idea for a sci-fi thriller.

Geoff Girard attempts to make it sound feasible by literally burying us under a welter of pseudo-scientific detail, not just catching us with it on the hoof while the story unfolds, but hitting us with the occasional lecture about historic advances in the field of genetics, everything from the Austrian monk, Brother Mendel’s experiments with peas during the 1850s, to the ground-breaking ‘nuclear transfer’ that led to the creation of Dolly the Sheep at Edinburgh Univerity in the mid-1990s. Again, I’ve no idea how credible it all is, but the idea alone is so wonderfully twisted that you can’t help but plunge in.

Of course, even then it requires a conspiracy theorist mentality to fully get on board with it. The character of Ox is a walking, talking device in this regard, a paranoid war veteran, one of whose few purposes in the book is to voice suspicion about the US Government’s role in biological experiments that have caused untold damage to countless test subjects, many of whom weren’t even aware that they were participating. It makes for an astounding read, but whether it’s based on provable truth is another matter. If it was, I’d have thought that Cain’s Blood would have been a far more controversial publication. But again, I reiterate that none of this detracted from my enjoyment. And that’s partly because once we get through that quite considerable wall of shock revelation, we are firmly into pursuit-thriller territory, and we remain there for most of the rest of the novel.

Shawn Castillo is a type of hero very popular with modern American audiences: a former spec-ops guy so badly damaged, both physically and mentally, by the many wars he has recently fought for his country that, while he’s not exactly conscience-stricken, it has left him an out-and-out sceptic regarding his commanding officers, and yet, through his innate loyalty to the US flag, taking on new missions anyway (though you get the feeling early on that this could be the final one – Castillo really is that close to the edge). But in the meantime, he does all the things you’d expect from one of these former ‘shadow company’ types: closing down his targets with effortless ease; keeping his emotions in check but suffering constantly from combat nightmares; playing it cool when some barroom brawler is causing hassle, until he absolutely has no option but to go into action, at which point the baddies get strewn across whichever car park happens to be nearest; and finding it difficult to express his true feelings even to the one female in his life, Doctor Kristin, a beautiful, intelligent, empathetic woman, who is the only thing, until now, that has prevented Castillo from slipping into madness.

So far so familiar, I know … but it’s all done very well. Kristin has been criticised by some reviewers for embodying the sexy mother/wife archetype on whom these damaged heroes so often lean. And she does play that role to an extent, but it’s not by any means certain that she and Castillo are meant for each other. Castillo is only one of a number of traumatised vets she’s managed to bring back to normality – and in that regard, their relationship also serves to examine the immoral complexity of a situation where soldiers are trained and conditioned to go out and kill the enemies of their country (enemies, they personally know nothing about), and then are expected to return to society without any kind of hiccup.

But the character who’s probably got more depth than most of the others put together is young Jeff Jacobson, the genetic offspring of a savage serial killer. You might not have thought there’d be much down for this kid, certainly not when so many other of the ‘prodigals’ have immediately begun replicating the worst atrocities of the originals. And yet Jeff Jacobson has a large role to play in this narrative, because, in the end, it is he who’s the living proof that genetic deviance is not unconquerable. It is young Jeff who serves to illustrate that, for all their research into genes, chromosomes, embryology, X&Y and so on, the ‘playing at God’ scientists of DSTI are taking a blind alley in their efforts to isolate wickedness in the lab – and in fact, in their casual mistreatment of anyone and everyone for the supposed betterment of mankind, are themselves exemplifying a far more insidious form of evil.

Jeff Jacobson comes over as a great kid. It’s a bit mind-boggling for the reader when you consider that he’s the mirror-image of a young Jeffrey Dahmer, but he’s also affable, clever and helpful. Though Castillo is initially wary of him – who wouldn’t be, given his patronage? – the twosome gradually become friends, and in fact go further than that, forming a bond in their efforts to track down their devilish prey. Jeff’s not just the living proof that nurture is more important than nature but ends up providing the heart and soul of this otherwise dark novel.

As a final thought, I’ve now learned that Cain’s Blood was published in tandem with a YA version of these same events: Project Cain, told from the POV of one of the youngsters. That does surprise me, because this is one gory outing. Be advised, there is some seriously cruel and brutal stuff in here, which more than captures the horror of the original crimes committed by the likes of Dahmer, Bundy etc. But if you don’t mind that, then Cain’s Blood is a very satisfying thriller, maybe a little far-fetched, but enjoyable nevertheless.     

As always, I’m now going to be bold (stupid) enough to try and cast Cain’s Blood should it ever be adapted for the screen. Just a laugh of course. I doubt anyone who matters would listen to me anyway. But here we go:

Shawn Castillo – Ryan Eggold
Kristin – Keira Knightley
Jeff Jacobson – Garrett Ryan
Gregory Jacobson – David Morse
Colonel Stanforth – Gerard Butler
Ox – Barkhad Abdi
Erdman – William Sanderson

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