Sunday, 14 July 2019

Festival time again: plenty of fun to be had

It’s that time of year again: the lovely month of July, which means that the Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate, the biggest annual event in so many of our professional lives, is just around the corner.

As always, I’m very honoured to be participating in this, especially as, being a new boy in the Orion stable, I’ve actually got a role to play this year in the legendary Orion Incident Room.

For those interested, however, Harrogate isn’t the only place where I’ll be mingling with friends, colleagues and the public in general before the end of this month. I’ll also be making a guest appearance in a ‘Meet the Writer event at the Brasshouse pub in Birmingham.

More about both of these events in a little while. In addition today, I’ll also be looking at I AM DEATH, the heavyweight crime thriller from Chris Carter, reviewing and discussing it in my usual forensic detail. If you’re only really interested in the Carter review, that’s no problem. Zoom straight on down to the bottom of today’s blogpost, which is the usual place to find my book chats.

However, if you’re interested in hearing about the other stuff first, then here we go …

Getting out there

First off, Harrogate ...

2019 sees the 16th Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival, which is to be held (as usual) at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, from 18-21 July, in other words this coming weekend.

It’s always a major event in the crime and thriller writing world, not least because of the amazing line-up of special guests who grace it each year. This time, for example, attendees will be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Harlan Coben, Ian Rankin, Belinda Bauer, Eva Dolan, Jo Nesbo, Val McDermid, Stuart Macbride, Jeffery Deaver, James Patterson and Jed Mercurio (among many others).

I’ll be going, as always, but this year, as I say, I’ll have a role to play in the Orion Incident Room, which will be located in the Swan Hotel’s Library Room. There are all kinds of events taking place there during Friday July 19, but for my own part it’s a case of ‘Justice a Minute’, a panel quiz show and our own special Harrogate version of Just a Minute, as hosted by Steve Cavanagh, Luca Veste and Craig Sisterton, starring (as well as me) such crime author luminaries as Adrian McKinty, Mason Cross, Stephanie Marland, Marnie Riches, Johnny Shaw, Mark Billingham and Val McDermid.

Be there or be fair game for all of us. It kicks off at 9.30am.

If this isn’t enough of a draw for you, the Theakston Crime Festival offers lots of other intriguing bits and bobs, including panels, chats, interviews, book signings and the like. And as I say, there’ll be the usual august company of excellent crime and thriller authors strolling the hotel grounds just waiting for you to doorstop them …

 Now, The Brasshouse ...

This is a really delightful thing that has come completely out of the blue. In short, I’ve been invited as a guest to attend a very famous hostelry, The Brasshouse pub on Broad Street in Birmingham city centre, mid-afternoonish on Sunday July 28, at a special ‘Meet the Author’ event, which this year is part of the Birmingham Jazz Festival (now in its 35th year).

Now, you may wonder what I know about jazz, and let me tell you, it’s little-to-nothing. However, fortunately I won’t be having much to do with the musical aspects of the event (which is a good thing as I can neither sing nor play a single instrument). This ‘Meet the Author’ is a little extra thing, I’ve now learned, which seems to have been arranged specifically for me. The invitation came about because the pub’s proprietors were delighted to see the following small passage appear early on in SHADOWS, my second Lucy Clayburn novel:    

Tonight, oddly, even though the rest of his mates were well-known on campus as big-time boozers, Keith Redmond had somehow found his way to the last port of call alone.
     It was called The Brasshouse and it was located on Broad Street, where its reputation as a popular watering hole was very well deserved.

To fill you in, something very nasty happens to Keith Redmond about eight pages after this, but if you want to find out exactly what, you’ll need to buy the book. Suffice to say that it sets in motion a procession of violent and terrifying events.

Thankfully, The Brasshouse itself doesn’t get embroiled in any unpleasantness; it just happens to be the last pub to host Keith, who arrives there at the end of a night out with his rugby mates, before setting off home … and meeting his ghastly fate en route.

Anyway, I’ll be reading a bit from the book and answering some questions (and signing some books if anyone wants me to), at The Brasshouse on July 28. Again, I’m very honoured to have been asked to do this. It was an unexpected and unusual invitation, but hugely flattering, and I can’t wait to take part.

Hopefully, I’ll see some of you there …


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 Chris Carter (2015)

Detectives Robert Hunter and Carlos Garcia are close compadres in the LAPD’s Robbery Homicide Division, specifically the Homicide Special Section, which handles ultra-violent or particularly sadistic murder cases. 

In a nutshell, these two have been seeing and dealing for years with the very worst of the worst, so they are well-used to it. Almost nothing has been able to shock them … until now, when a killer, who simply calls himself ‘Death’ begins abducting young women and subjecting them to the most unimaginable suffering before discarding their ravaged corpses. He also writes fiendishly gleeful letters, not just to the cops but to the Mayor’s Office, which inevitably means that this case gets the highest priority possible, and allegedly, or so he says, peppers them with cryptic clues, which the detectives struggle to decipher.

In many ways, it’s the archetypical serial killer scenario, and it comes at us in the way these sorts of tragedies often play out in real life, the killer growing steadily bolder and more brutal and the cops knowing they’ll have to catch the madman quickly, otherwise their department will be embarrassed to the nth degree, a mass panic will manifest, local politicians will run amok, and senior officers take early retirement just to get out of the unflattering limelight.

However, there are certain slight differences here from the blood-soaked norm … just to make things even more difficult for Hunter and Garcia than they already are.

The killer’s MO changes regularly, so no recognisable pattern develops, and he even pays a call on Hunter one very dark night, just to show the detectives that they themselves could be in the firing line if their opponent decides there’s a need for it.

However, Hunter and Garcia are experts in this field and have bags of experience between them. With time-honoured detection methods, they quickly close their target down. Encouraged by the sympathetic and helpful Captain Blake, and when help arrives from Detective Troy Saunders of the Missing Persons Bureau, they finally settle on a viable suspect. Naturally, the guy in the frame has gone to ground beforehand, but they know who he is and it’s only a matter now of locating him and plucking him off the streets, and with every man and woman in the job looking for him, that surely won’t take long.

Except that Hunter starts to wonder if it’s all been a little too easy.

Death is a clever opponent. Would he really let them get this close so soon? There has to be something else, some unseen factor. And if Hunter and Garcia miss it, it’s anyone’s guess what unspeakable acts of horror will follow …

With the exception of one parallel strand, in which we follow the misfortunes of a young loser called Ricky Temple, who is kidnapped on his way home from school, and horribly maltreated by his abductor (who may or may not be Death), who renames him ‘Squirm’ and locks him in a filthy cellar, I Am Death actually reads like the fictionalisation of a real-life murder investigation. Though he spares us any ‘by the numbers’ procedural detail, Chris Carter hits us with what feels like a very real serial killer situation, a typically amoral and narcissistic unsub embarking on a reign of terror by abducting, torturing and slaughtering random young women and then writing gloatingly to the authorities, evidently delighting in the sense of empowerment this gives him.

Yes, all the predatory lunatic boxes are ticked so far.

The same applies to the cops, the obsessive Hunter and the likeable Garcia going about their enquiry in intelligent, workmanlike fashion, uncovering clues, chasing down leads and refusing to be affected by the sensational aspects of the case: there are no over-the-top car chases here, no epic gun battles, and dare I say it – and this hasn’t won the approval of all reviewers, as you can imagine – no female characters shoehorned in as a sop to political correctness. Most of the homicide detectives, with the exception of Captain Blake, are male, while the majority of the women who appear anywhere in the book are victims.

As I say, not every reader has been happy about this, but if you want realism, that’s probably still the way of it in many cases of sexual homicide in the City of Angels.

However, there is one very BIG difference between this book and factual narratives relating real-life murder investigations. And that is the horrific level of violence.

Okay, there’s no doubt that in the real world, some killers will savage their unfortunate victims in similarly ghastly ways to these, but if so, you’re unlikely ever to read the full gory detail when it hits the newspapers. In truth, I’ve never encountered anything quite like I Am Death wherein the torturous deaths of the victims are so intensely and protractedly described. And trust me, they really are harrowing; one poor soul has her face sanded off while she’s still alive (just take a second to think about that!), and the readers are barely spared a moment of it.

That’s not the only sadistic outrage that Carter’s deranged villain perpetrates here. Nearly all the crimes are sickeningly horrible. If you’re able to stomach all that, I Am Death is a very good read, but the violence it’s totally out there … way beyond what you’d expect to find in your average cop novel, and even beyond your average horror novel if I’m honest.

Of course, ultimately this kind of thing is subjective. If you really, really don’t like it, there’s nothing to stop you putting the book down, but someone somewhere in the editorial hierarchy of Chris Carter’s publishers decided that it was essential to the plot, and who am I to argue with that? Carter is known as a US crime author who pulls no punches.

It could be that if you’re really offended by this stuff, you won’t be reading about Robert Hunter in this, his seventh outing, anyway, and so this warning is redundant. On the other hand, if you genuinely don’t mind it – and there are plenty of hardcases out there in Reader Land – you’ll probably find I Am Death a very entertaining police thriller. Though we follow what at times feels almost like a routine investigation from the cops’ POV, it won’t surprise you to learn that it isn’t quite as straightforward as it may appear. Simple answers in a book like this are always going to be deceptive. And if you don’t expect a killer twist at the end – and this novel has one of the biggest of all – you’re possibly reading in the wrong genre.

In short, I Am Death is another big-hitter among adult crime thrillers. A tense and compelling murder enquiry pitting a truly hateful antagonist against two pleasing, everyman heroes, but with mercifully few buddy-buddyisms and zero office politics. Again though, just be warned – when the blood flows in this one, it’s in rivers rather than buckets. 

I’m now going to do my usual fantasy casting thing, picking the actors I’d like to see take the lead roles should I Am Death ever hit our screens. Whether the Robert Hunter investigations have ever been considered for TV, I don’t know, but if it does happen, the producers will obviously have to start at the beginning rather than simply charge in at the seventh novel (like I’m doing), so in that regard you’ll have to suspend your disbelief even more than you normally would at this part of the blog.

Detective Robert Hunter – Chris Pratt
Detective Carlos Garcia – Wagner Moura
Captain Blake – Michelle Hurst
Detective Troy Saunders – Daniel Day-Lewis (I’m sure we could tempt him out of retirement for one final juicy role)


  1. Like you work. I am an ex cop now a psychologist. Just wondering how you came of with the name Heckenburg. Its not a common name. Friend or relative with that name? Just curious.

  2. Thanks. I pinched the surname from an Australian rugby league player, whose nickname also happened to be 'Heck'. It just sounded very cool at the time, and I knew I had to have it.

  3. Incidentally, the books have been featured in the Australian sports press for this very reason.

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