Wednesday 15 April 2020

No despair yet; top books coming your way

Well, these are difficult times indeed, and even if it was appropriate to strike my usual cheery note, I think, being honest, that I’d struggle to do it convincingly. Like most of you, I imagine, I’m currently confined to my house. I mean, I’m a self-employed writer anyway, so working from home is hardly onerous, but having only limited access to the great outdoors, especially as the nice weather is now starting to show itself, is a new and bewildering experience.

Of course, things are much worse for some people in that they’re ill or bereaved (or both); this is certainly a crisis the like of which we haven’t faced in a hundred years. But I’m not going to dwell too much on that at present. The rest of us have a duty, I think, to try and keep things going if we can.

Hence today’s blog, in which, for reasons I’ll shortly be outlining, I’ll be discussing horror anthologies (two in particular: AFTER SUNDOWN, edited by Mark Morris, and more imminently, published tomorrow in fact, the ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS 2, edited by Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards. In that same vein, I’ll offering a detailed review of the original ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS, again as edited by Coleborn and Edwards. You’ll find that review in the usual place at the lower end of today’s blogpost (with my normal bit of fantasy film-making tagged on at the end of it).

Before that though, here’s some relevant information …


For all that I’m trying to be positive, today’s blog, perhaps inevitably, is a kind of damage limitation exercise. Because as recently as early last January, I was boasting about the exciting programme of events that lay ahead in 2020 … and yet now, as you can probably guess, it’s been totally decimated.

Three major events that I was looking forward to – CRIMEFEST in Bristol, STOKERCON in Scarborough, and the THEAKSTON CRIME WRITING FESTIVAL in Harrogate – have all been either cancelled or postponed (more info about what will ultimately happen with these, if there is any, when I get it), and it’s difficult imagining that other events will not go the same way soon, certainly those scheduled to occur in the next two or three months.

CRIMEFEST and HARROGATE were primarily fun things from my perspective, opportunities to hook up with lots of friends and fellow thriller writers, air my views on a couple of panels and basically have a riotous time. But STOKERCON had more of the working day about it in that, as one of the guests, I was due to participate in the launches of two new horror anthologies that I am fortunate enough to have stories included in.

Of course, a whole array of wonderful new novels, anthologies and collections would have been published during that great event on the Yorkshire coast, each at their own special launch party, which would have been attended by hundreds of horror fans who now, sadly, are watching the year go by through their front windows. But on a more positive note, many if not most of those titles will still be launched, only now online.

New titles

Among them are the two books I’m so honoured to feature in – the ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS 2 and AFTER SUNDOWN.

Today therefore, I’m pleased to present the artwork and back-cover blurb for the first of these two new anthologies, and the full (and very mouthwatering) tables of contents for both of them. Seriously guys, check out some of the authors who’ve here been recruited:

ed. by Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards

Published by Alchemy Press. Available from this Thursday (April 16).

Strange stories and weird tales and all of the creeping horrors in between. 

Horrors 2 features seventeen fabulous writers, including Sarah Ash, Paul Finch, John Grant, Nancy Kilpatrick, Garry Kilworth, Samantha Lee … to lead you on a spine-tingling tour from seaside towns to grimy cities, to the lonely and secret places, from the fourteenth precinct to Namibia … and so many places in between.

Table of Contents

Henrietta Street – Gail-Nina Anderson
I Left My Fair Homeland – Sarah Ash
I Remember Everything – Debbie Bennett
Digging in the Dirt – Mike Chinn
What Did You See? – Paul Finch
Every Bad Thing – Sharon Gosling
The Loneliest Place – John Grant
The Primordial Light – John Howard
Black Nore – Tim Jeffreys
Footprints in the Snow – Eyglo Karlsdottir
Promises – Nancy Kilpatrick
Lirpaloof Island – Garry Kilworth
The Secret Place – Samantha Lee
Beneath Namibian Sands – Pauline Morgan
The Hate Whisperer – Thana Niveau
Hydrophobia – John Llewellyn Probert
We Do Like to Be Beside – Peter Sutton

ed. by Mark Morris

Published by Flame Tree Press. Published in October but available for pre-order now

Table of Contents

Butterfly Island – CJ Tudor
Research – Tim Lebbon
Swanskin – Alison Littlewood
That’s the Spirit – Sarah Lotz
Gave – Michael Bailey
Wherever You Look – Ramsey Campbell
Same Time Next Year – Angela Slatter
Mine Seven – Elana Gomel
It Doesn’t Feel Right – Michael Marshall Smith
Creeping Ivy – Laura Purcell
Last Rites for the Fourth World – Rick Cross
We All Come Home – Simon Bestwick
The Importance of Oral Hygiene – Robert Shearman
Bokeh – Thana Niveau
Murder Board – Grady Hendrix
Alice’s Rebellion – John Langan
The Mirror House – Jonathan Robbins Leon
The Naughty Step – Stephen Volk
A Hotel in Germany – Catriona Ward
Branch Line – Paul Finch

So, there you are, short story and horror buffs. There’s no reason to despair yet.

The year 2020 won’t exactly be business as usual, but a lot of industry people are still hard at it, despite being isolated at home, and doing their damnedest to keep bringing you the very best in dark and thrilling fiction.

So, keep reading. And if you’re a writer, keep writing. But more important than any of this, do all those sensible things and stay safe.


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.

ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS ed. by Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards (2018)

A glowing example of the sort of horror anthology we can hopefully expect to see more of in the future. Alchemy are part of the independent press, but you wouldn’t know it from the quality of this latest eye-catching product.

With the major publishing houses seemingly completely uninterested now in putting out collections of short horror fiction, many names from the small press have stepped into the gap. But most of them, Alchemy evidently included, are now well aware that the old-fashioned method of producing ragmag lookalikes in blotchy ink, stapled together unevenly and filled with text that hasn’t even been checked for spelling or literals will simply not do anymore. Hence this very, very fine opening installment in what is intended to be a brand-new annual series.

But Alchemy haven’t stopped simply at creating a beautiful-looking book; they’ve also exercised intense quality control re. its contents because there are some expertly crafted stories in here, from voices both old and new, and each one of them original to this publication.

Rather than simply hit you with a succession of brief short story outlines, I’ll initially let the publishers give you their own official blurb, which drops strong hints about the shocks and shivers to come. And then we’ll discuss them in a little more depth.

Twenty-five tales of horror and the weird, stories that encapsulate the dark, the desolate and the downright creepy. Stories that will send that quiver of anticipation and dread down your spine and stay with you long after the lights have gone out.

Who is Len Binn, a comedian or something worse? What secrets are locked away in Le Trénébreuse? The deadline for what? Who are the little people, the garbage men, the peelers?

What lies behind the masks? And what horrors are found down along the backroads?

With stories by Ramsey Campbell, Storm Constantine, Stephen Laws, Samantha Lee, Stan Nicholls, Tony Richards and many, many others ...

The independent press, both in the UK and the US, has long been the secret hope of horror anthology fans, with fewer and fewer of these types of books coming from mainstream publishing houses. But whereas in the past, the small press was often a byword for low production standards, these days nothing could be further from the truth.

That said, Alchemy, a UK-based outfit run by the editors of this particular tome, Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards, have been trading for some time on the understanding that they only ever bring books out with a high-spec finish. So, I’m absolutely delighted to see that their long-awaited horror anthology series is now at last rolling.

And on a first reading, the Alchemy Press Book of Horrors has been well worth the wait, both looking and feeling amazing. In appearance alone, with a stunning cover by Coleborn himself, it would grace any shelf of classic collections. The big question, though – the only question to many – is how does it read?

Well, like all bunches of stories, there will be some that appeal and some to pass over, and of course it’s all subjective, so for every reader it will be different. However, I personally was very enthused by this anthology as a whole.

My first impression was that it does what I expected in that it cleaves closely to the kitchen sink. I don’t mean that in any detrimental way; I mean that many of its tales concern ordinary people and occur in everyday situations common to working/middle class life. So, we’ve not got much here in the style of MR James’ Edwardian ghost epics or Pan Horror-type essays in extreme ghoulishness. All the contributions to the Alchemy Press Book of Horrors are a tad more surreal than that anyway (and by that I don’t mean experimental), but many also have a strong aura of work-a-day Britain, and could easily happen in your own town, maybe in the next street to yours.

For example, in Some Kind of a Laugh, the ever-reliable Ramsey Campbell introduces us to underpaid waiter, Bernard, who is permanently frustrated by the fact that people confuse him with Lancashire comic, Len Binn. Things get worse, though, when Binn literally dies on stage right in front of him, and Bernard now finds himself adopting more and more of the deceased comedian’s mannerisms. 

Then we have Keris McDonald’s Remember, in which blue-collar tough guy, Mike, is furious when dogs start going missing from the kennels where he works. It’s November 5, so the poor animals are in a state of terror anyway. But Mike opts to keep watch all night, and hopefully catch the thief. He’s unaware that, even though this is a crumby corner of a typical industrial town, he’s about to encounter an ancient and chilling mystery.

The mundane also clashes with the bizarre in Stephen Laws’ superb Get Worse Soon, much of which is set in a thrift store (more about this one shortly), and especially so in Cate Gardner’s The Fullness of Her Belly, in which we meet Ella, a mental outpatient who can only satisfy her constant craving to be pregnant by making cushion babies and stuffing them up her dress. Fellow patients consider this a harmless eccentricity until she one day tells them that the ‘babies’ she’s discarded have now taken over her house and killed her friend.

Not that editors, Coleborn and Edwards, have gone looking solely for glum situations set in Broken Britain. It would be untrue to say that there isn’t also a touch of the exotic in the Alchemy Press Book of Horrors.

For instance, Mike Chinn’s Her Favourite Place has an undersea location (more about that one soon), while Too Late by the recently deceased and already much-missed John Grant is set in central Spain (more about this one soon, as well). Peter Sutton’s Masks, meanwhile, takes us to one of the most far-away places of all, a desert island, where castaways reduced to the level of beasts survive by occasionally donning animal masks and reluctantly hunting one of their own, only for a kind of salvation to arrive in the form of another ship, also wrecked, its unsuspecting survivors swimming desperately for shore.

If that latter story hints at savagery, I would say again that we’re not dealing with Pan Horror-type bloodletting in this book. There is little to no sadism here for its own sake. It happens, but it’s mostly off the page. But then these are horror stories, and there is no shortage of stuff in the Alchemy Book of Horrors to be disturbed about.

For instance, in Phil Sloman’s The Girl with Three Eyes, a disturbed college student is gradually drawn to violence by her obsession with a fellow student whom she is convinced is using a hidden third eye to manipulate all those around her. In Ray Cluley’s extraordinary Bluey, which is set in an urban comprehensive school, there is extreme and graphic brutality, though it’s all done very differently from the norm; despite that, it’s a dark story, this one (again, more about it later).

Many modern horror authors tend by nature to eschew extreme gruesomeness and instead are students of what might be called ‘the strange’. And there is much of that on show here too. I should point out that strange horror stories are not always my favourite, especially if the only thing about them is their strangeness, but combine that with mystery, suspense and the macabre, and you’ll often have a winner. And once again, we find that in the Alchemy Press Book of Horrors.

In this vein, Storm Constantine’s La Trénébreuse takes us deep into rural France, where a young couple attend the palatial home of an old pal. They find it a sprawling country estate, dreamy and mysterious, but who is the female entity said nightly to roam the grounds on the back of a lion?

If that doesn’t sound strange and spooky enough for you, try out James Brogden’s The Trade Up, wherein Charlie, a worn out suburbanite, is heading home late after a conference only to be menaced on the motorway by an apparent doppleganger driving exactly the same make and model of car as his own.

Or how about Stan Nicholls’ Deadline, in which a young woman, April, struggles to balance single motherhood with her writing career, at which point, completely inexplicably, familiar fixtures in her disorderly life start, one by one, to disappear?

Ultimately, of course, the test of any horror anthology is whether or not it scares you, and this is the point where so many of the ones I’ve read over the years have come unstuck. I’ll be honest and admit that it’s now been a long while since I read any antho containing more than one or two stories that really gave me the heebie jeebies, but I’m glad to report that the Alchemy Press Book of Horrors does not let us down in this regard.

Again, I wouldn’t say that we’re looking at extreme terror here – you are unlikely to lose sleep – but this book contains some excellent stories, the mere concepts behind which, let alone the skilled execution of them, will easily be enough to give you the shudders.

In Gary McMahon’s very traditional Guising, a respectable widow is increasingly frightened, not just because she lives alone on a suburban housing estate that is dark and quiet at night, but because as Halloween approaches, she repeatedly sees a strange figure draped in bubble-wrap standing at the end of her street. That one’s a bone-chiller, though it’s run close by Adrian Cole’s Broken Billy, in which we meet Bran, who, out on his remote farm, uses Wiccan magic to animate his collection of scarecrows with a weird kind of half-life. He originally gathered them from other farms to fix them, but now they’ve become his friends … he thought. Because when Tracey enters his life, everything changes, one scarecrow in particular, Broken Billy, taking a strong dislike to the new situation.

For all that – and scarecrows are perennial figures of evil to me – possibly the scariest tale in the book is Gail Nina-Anderson’s An Eye for a Plastic Eyeball, which sees oddment collector, Scott, persuaded by the mysterious Miss Stonecraft to visit the house of an old teacher, now dying in a hospice but with a lifetime of scientific curiosities to her name. He finds the eerie house a treasure trove of the arcane, but there is something about it he doesn’t quite like, and with very good reason.

All round, the Alchemy Press Book of Horrors is an admirable way for one of the busiest independent presses in the game to kickstart what hopefully will be a long-running series of horror anthologies. I found it a fast and suitably unnerving read. Here’s hoping there are many more to come.

And now …


Just a bit of fun, this part. No film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed, if they do.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most cinematic and most right for adaptation in a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances, which require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that they are trapped in a cellar by a broken lift and are awaiting rescue (a la Vault of Horror). Or maybe they first appear as comic-book characters, as read about by young Billy in an eerily quiet town (an English version of  Creepshow, anyone?), but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

Bluey (by Ray Cluley): Struggling teacher, Shaun, attempts to teach his unruly class about inclusivity by cutting Bluey, the lifesize effigy of a human being, out of a piece of blue card and having them damage and insult it. Over the next few days, however, as Shaun progressively loses control, the tortured shape of Bluey becomes a haunting presence in his classroom …

Shaun – Russell Tovey

Her Favourite Place (by Mike Chinn): Married couple Clarrie and Lois have spent weeks on a deep-sea farm, monitoring a crop of genetically modified kelp. But all is not well. The women, whose relationship is abusive anyway, are slowly going stir-crazy. Outside the capsule meanwhile, an unusual swarm of white growths is starting to blight the crop …

Clarrie – Claire Foy
Lois – Samantha Bond

Get Worse Soon (by Stephen Laws): Misanthrope Colin buys everything from the local Quidstore, but when he one day acquires a set of ‘Get Worse Soon’ letters and jokingly sends them to people he dislikes, and those people die, the shop denies ever having stocked such an item. Colin is furious and opts to send a letter to the Quidstore manager to prove his point, but mix-ups happen …

Colin – Michael Sheen

Too Late (by John Grant): Griff and Heidi take a holiday in a villa in central Spain, hoping to repair their failing marriage. But it isn’t working. Lovely Heidi is cool and indifferent to Griff despite all his attempts at romance. Increasingly, however, Griff becomes fascinated by the villa across the valley and the woman who often sunbathes naked and who looks eerily like Heidi …

Griff – Richard Armitage
Heidi – Carice van Houten

Friday 3 April 2020

First glimpse of my latest: ONE EYE OPEN

I’m very proud today to be able to unveil the cover to my next novel, ONE EYE OPEN, which will be out in August. I’ve been hammered with questions about this recently, and in today’s blog shall endeavour to answer the main ones.

However, I will admit straight away that this book marks a bit of a departure for me, in that it’s a free-standing cop thriller rather than part of an ongoing series.

On the subject of departures, also in today’s blog, I’ll be reviewing and discussing Stuart MacBride’s breakneck actioner, HALFHEAD. Most of you will know Stuart as one of Scotland’s premier crime writers, but this one marked a big change for him in that, though it still involves cops and criminals, it is set in a Dystopian sci-fi future.

If you’re only here for the MacBride review, that’s perfectly fine. As always, just jump down to the bottom of the column, where you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Chillers section. However, if you’re interested in my books as well, stick around here for a while and check out …

One Eye Open

Hopefully, you won’t mind me talking about this today and for once completely ignoring the Coronavirus. I’m sure we’re all happy to take a break from the crisis now and then, even if it’s only to talk about my forthcoming new novel.

The first few questions about this one, which quite a few people have put to me, are as follows: ‘Is the new book a Heck or a Lucy Clayburn?’. ‘And if it’s neither of those, why not?’ ‘What’s going on?’

Well … no, it’s neither of those.

ONE EYE OPEN is a freestanding thriller written as my debut for Orion Books, who I joined last year (though already, I’m chuffed to bits to figure on the amazing writers’ wall in their central office’s downstairs lobby, as this image illustrates!).

The new novel introduces a completely different character, Detective Sergeant Lynda Hagen of the Essex Police. Once a police career girl and former hotshot in the CID, these days Lynda is struggling to balance her job with married life. She has two children and an ex-cop husband who’s trying to make it as a writer, failing and thus sliding into depression.

She’s still a detective, but to make things more manageable, several years ago accepted a transfer into the Essex Roads Policing Division (i.e. Traffic), specifically the Serious Collision Investigation Unit, where she spends all day assessing nasty accidents and trying to work out who’s to blame.

It’s steady if unspectacular work, which keeps her occupied Monday-to-Friday, nine-till-five. Then, one cold January morning, the first day back after the Christmas holidays, in fact, she is assigned to investigate what seems like a routine accident in which a nondescript car is utterly smashed and its two occupants left unconscious and brain-damaged. Very quickly, though, anomalies emerge.

Firstly, there doesn’t appear to have been any other vehicle involved … so why did the car leave the empty road at what appears to have been extraordinary speed?

Secondly, the car shouldn’t actually exist. There is no record of it anywhere.

Thirdly, neither should the people who were inside it. Because they too are complete unknowns.

Despite her busy and difficult domestic life, despite the fact that officially she’s only here to investigate RTAs, the seasoned criminal investigator inside Lynda Hagen now wakes up. She knows when she’s been confronted with a genuine and menacing mystery.

Naturally, they want to take it off her and give it to a higher power. But Lynda isn’t having that. This may be more than just a straightforward accident … they have two people on the point of death. But it is still her case, and she’s damned if she’s not going to investigate it until the cows come home, if that’s what it takes.

Of course, even Lynda Hagen might occasionally bite off more than she can chew. She certainly has no concept of the conspiracy she’s about to uncover, or the major underworld players who will soon be getting on her back.

The biggest problem Lynda faces here is not that she’s been out of her ‘serious crime’ groove for a while, but what she’s become since. A housewife. A mum. She’s still a cop, yes, but just being a cop won’t protect you on its own. And when you’ve got dependents who rely on you for care, who need you, who you love more deeply than you ever imagined possible, that might make you very vulnerable indeed.


Okay, so there’s the blurb. I’ve also shown you the new cover. Hopefully, together they’ll whet a few appetites. But now I should address other questions put to me regarding this. Such as, for example, what about the Heck series? What about Lucy Clayburn? Does this mean there won’t be any more?

No, it emphatically does not.

It’s just that, from time to time, as a writer, you want to broaden your scope. Writing continually about characters like Heck and Lucy is very invigorating. They become second nature to you. You know by instinct how they’re going to respond to different situations and predicaments. But there are times when you need to take a break from that, to freshen your ideas.

Also, as an author you don’t want to become known only for two series. Versatility is a virtue in the fiction game, and I don’t think I’d be alone in proclaiming that. Other writers in the crime and thriller field do the same thing (Stuart MacBride for example, as I’m illustrating today). It doesn’t mean they stop writing about their favourite characters; it just means that they take a break now and then.

It’s probably also worth mentioning – and I don’t want to labour this point too much, but it’s relevant – that, just because fans of a series are deeply involved in it, that doesn’t mean the rest of the reading world automatically will be.

The problem with an ongoing series is that the more titles in it you produce, the harder it can often be for new readers to get into it. I’m exactly the same. If someone says to me ‘have you tried such-and-such an author’, and they give him/her a glowing recommendation, I’ll immediately look their stuff up. But if I then find that the latest one is volume 12 in a long-running saga, that can be off-putting. And just saying that you’ll go back and start at the beginning doesn’t always work either. You may go back to the first book in the series, and it might have been published over a decade ago, in which case the author’s style will have been very different, the subject-matter might seemed dated, and so on. 

Again, you could be put off.

All that said, my existing fanbase matters to me a great deal.

First of all, I’m strongly hopeful they’ll enjoy ONE EYE OPEN. Even though this is a self-contained freestander, it still bears what I consider to be all the Finch hallmarks: suspense, action, gruesome crime and tough, antagonistic characters knocking sparks off each other as they battle their way through a complex mystery.

But as I said before, the other two series have NOT ended.

I appreciate that KISS OF DEATH, the seventh in the Mark Heckenburg books, brought us to a nightmarish cliff-hanger. It wasn’t my intention to keep people hanging from that hook for a very long time. But it’s the way the cards fell in terms of my career and the direction it needed to take.

Be assured, Heck will be back in the not-too-distant future, as will Lucy Clayburn, who, if you read  STOLEN, has also reached a critical turning-point in her story.

So, I can only ask, if you’re absolute die-hard Heck and Lucy fans, to show a little more patience. Again, you have my guarantee that neither of those series has ended. I wouldn’t do that to you, nor to myself. It’s an author’s conceit, I suppose, but purely for creative purposes, we don’t like to leave stories half-told.

In the meantime, though, I hope you enjoy ONE EYE OPEN.


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 (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … 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 Stuart MacBride (2010)

The future. Scotland is now an independent country, a republic. But all is not well. The weather systems are awry, periods of scorching dry heat alternating with freezing cold monsoons, while Glasgow has become a vast megalopolis covering a huge stretch of the country. Inevitably, much of it is impoverished, the population crammed into immense high-rise slums called ‘connurbs’, where crime and drug abuse are rife, and only the constant use of virtual reality entertainment, VR, keeps the people distracted from the awfulness of their lives. Though even this can cause problems, VR Syndrome being a kind of contagious psychotic state that leads to wholesale violence and destruction. 

Imposing the law on this concrete Hell falls to two agencies. First of all, the Bluecoats, who, providing both a uniformed service and a detective department, perform a fairly standard police function, but who are under-resourced, under-manned and under-trained, and in the eyes of many are little more than voluntary militia who do their best to keep the streets safe but often fail. Secondly, the Network, a paramilitary FBI-type operation with overarching powers and a remit to deal mainly with serious and organised crime. The two forces interact a lot, but don’t get on especially well, the Bluecoats seeing the Network as elitist, the Network seeing the Bluecoats as carrot-crunchers.

Both are armed with a fascinating array of futuristic weapons, from ‘zappers’, to ‘whompers’, to ‘thrummers’. As such, lethal shootings by police officers are a regular occurrence, but they are not controversial. This is a society constantly on the verge of criminal anarchy, and the law must regularly bare its teeth simply to stay in control. In the same authoritative spirit, condemned felons are ‘halfheaded’, which means they are lobotomised, bar-coded, have their bottom jaw surgically removed, along with any other bits and pieces that might make them human, and are then given orange jumpsuits and menial daily tasks to perform, such as mopping toilets and public concourses. They are, in effect, a brainless slave caste who serve as an everyday warning that crime will not be tolerated. Unfortunately, they are also such a common sight that no one really notices them anymore and so the lesson is often lost.

Halfhead opens with one of these anonymous drudges seemingly becoming aware of itself and discovering that it has just committed a brutal murder in a public toilet.

Technically, halfheads are asexual, but in this case it’s different. Oddly, this one finds itself recovering memories of a past in which she was Doctor Fiona Westfield, a beautiful but deranged medical practitioner who, as well as being a mass murderer in her own right, delighted in using her psychoanalytical skills to turn her patients into killers. Clearly, in this particular case, the halfheading process has failed, though at this stage of the narrative we don’t understand why.

Meanwhile, the hero of our story, Network Assistant Section Director Will Hunter, is adapting to life as a widower. At the same time, he’s struggling to get over a terrifying experience from 11 years earlier, when his team were annihilated during an operation in Sherman House, a towering connurb off Monstrosity Square, one of the most dangerous corners of Glasgow’s inner city. At the time, VR Syndrome rioters were going crazy in their thousands and Will only managed to get one man out, earning a lifelong pal in Agent Brian Alexander, but at the same time developing a very keen fear of Sherman House. Unfortunately, the next murder he’s assigned to investigate is in one of the toilets there (needless to say, it’s the one we opened the book with, though there are plenty of others to choose from). Again, there are violent incidents when the Network arrive, but Hunter sees enough to recognise the handiwork of someone he arrested many years ago … but surely that can’t be so, because Fiona Westfield (who murdered his wife among her many other victims!) was convicted and halfheaded. Not only that, he then learns that she was recently incinerated when a prisoner transport crashed off a city flyover.

So, she can’t possibly be involved. Can she?

At the same time, Hunter has other issues to deal with. Though he has feelings for hard-hitting Lieutenant Emily Brand, who commands one of the Network’s airborne SWAT teams, he develops stronger feelings for Detective Sergeant Jo Cameron, who comes over from the Bluecoats on secondment, and though brave and smart, is inexperienced at this level of law enforcement.  

Hunter struggles to keep everything on track, especially as there are further weird and unexplainable crimes at Sherman House, which necessitates yet more police visits, stirring up the natives to homicidal hostility.

During one such incident, Hunter and Cameron are abducted by a group of urban guerrillas who turn out, thankfully, to be on the payroll of two mysterious government agents, Ken Petai and his supervisor, Tokumu Kikan, who claim to have a secret base underneath Sherman House, from where they are conducting experiments to try and create a vaccine with which to combat VR Syndrome.
At least, this is the story they give out, and yet later on, when Hunter makes checks to try and verify it, he is unable to find any real evidence of this operation. Whoever Petai and Tokumu are, they are clearly off the charts when it comes to ‘classified intel’. Which Hunter doesn’t buy for one minute.

Meanwhile, Fiona Westfield is well on her way to recovery, using various ingenious and utterly ruthless methods to restore her physical appearance (killing and torturing repeatedly in the process), and drawing up an exhaustive list of all those people she intends to make suffer in a way they’ve never suffered before. And top of that list, inevitably, is the guy who put her here in the first place. Assistant Section Director Will Hunter …

I’ve seen a lot of debate online as to whether this amazing effort from Stuart MacBride should be classified as another slice of Tartan Noir, or as science fiction. I would add a further possibility: could it also be classified as a horror novel?, because believe me, Halfhead pulls no punches when it comes to ghoulish concepts and even more ghoulish detail. There is some genuinely nightmarish stuff to be found in here.

Of course, I understand the overall debate. MacBride is a poster child for Scottish crime writing, and rightly so. His books are never less than utterly gripping, and often so intensely dark and gritty that they stray into the realms of thriller/horror. Sci-fi, on the other hand, is something he isn’t known for – or at least he wasn’t until Halfhead came out (hence the B added to his name for this particular publication), and yet the lasting impression I had after finishing this book was that I’d just burned my way through something sitting midway between Blade Runner (the movie, not the novel) and Judge Dredd (the comic strip, not the movie). Though this, it has to be said, is mainly because of the dystopian aura it casts rather than because of advanced scientific concepts (though it does have some of the latter too).

In Halfhead, we are eyebrows-deep in a hellish urban future of soulless tower blocks, where the temperatures sear in summer and acid rain falls in autumn, where criminality of every type is rampant, in fact where zones of such lawlessness exist that even a paramilitary police equipped with heavily armed ‘firefly’ gunships only venture there at their peril, and where investigators like the Bluecoat detectives and Network agents move wearily from murder to massacre, because there is no time even to consider lesser crimes.

Ultimately, though, this is still a cop story. And how.

Because, again typically of Stuart MacBride, it’s the ‘human suffering’ factor that he’s most interested in. And that doesn’t just apply to the depressed, bone-weary law enforcers, but even to the halfheads, that voiceless criminal underclass whom it would have been more humane to electrocute or gas. The former, for the most part divorced or bereaved, socialise only with each other, drink too much, argue, fight, despise their bosses and go home each night to drab, empty apartments with mind-numbing views of the urban sprawl. The latter, though they’ve all committed despicable crimes, are grotesque and yet pitiful zombie-like figures, lepers of the future, dragging themselves mindlessly through every day, completely below the notice of ordinary citizens.

This is one of the things that hit me hardest about Halfhead. Though spirited characters like Jo Cameron, Emily Brand and Brian Alexander liven the gloom with their wisecracking (which is always dark because these are coppers), you know that much of it is bravado. This is an existence rather than a life, and the terrain of our future Glasgow only adds to it. It’s a steel and concrete Pandemonium, the cops chasing suspects or themselves being pursued by mobs along endless brick tunnels, rubbish-strewn underpasses and desolate rooftops. There is no hint of the natural world. Even the air itself needs to be scrubbed clean by great hovering machines, which are invariably rusty and broken. It’s as though everything here is purpose-designed to break the spirit.

This again is vintage Stuart MacBride, whose world-famous Logan McRae series takes place on the concrete meanstreets of Aberdeen. As are the crime scenes, which again are goriness personified, and the investigations themselves, which see brave, isolated cops pitted not just against every kind of verminous criminal, but against hostile and monolithic power structures within the police itself.

It all makes for a dark but compelling narrative, and this is helped by some characteristically blistering action sequences. In Halfhead, the cops expect serious trouble on a daily basis, and not only do they get it, they respond in kind. Violence is its own currency here. We’ve already listed the range of extraordinary weapons the law can call upon, and the villains are just as bad. Inevitably, the body count soars on both sides of the criminal divide (we visit at least two police funerals). And yet an intriguing mystery and potential complex conspiracy still lies at the centre of this story, especially when Hunter and co finally make contact with the secretive cell operating from the bowels of Sherman House, which I obviously can’t say too much more about except to comment that, though it won’t be an unfamiliar one to modern day thriller fans, it’s a very grown-up idea, which is only leaked to us bit by bit, so it keeps us guessing almost to the end (it’s also done as gruesomely as possible, so you’ll need a strong stomach as it all unfolds).

Despite these multiple hardships, MacBride gives us a great set of characters, all of whose attitudes under pressure – to crack bad jokes, to drink hard, to slag off the brass etc – are very reminiscent of the real thing, which makes you enjoy the company of everyone involved.

Will Hunter is the calm heart of the investigation team that gradually coalesces around him. He’s an intuitive and authorative officer, but an all-round good egg rather than a bad ass. Jo Cameron is an excellent foil: beautiful, tough, witty, but a little (and fetchingly) naive, and with an amusingly appalling dress sense. Brian Alexander and Emily Brand are back-up good guys to an extent, but again superbly realised, the latter a spit-and-polish trooper of the old school, who is unfailingly loyal to her crew and can always be relied on to maintain discipline when the lead is flying, the former an unruly roughneck of the type you find in every police station, an arch micky-taker whose approach to life is perhaps not serious enough for the gaffers but who can cheer a room up and is good to have in a corner.

The villains of the piece are equally well-drawn.

You know from the outset that Ken Peitai and Tokumu Kikan are up to no good, but they are purposely kept out of the limelight for much of the narrative, for which reason I won’t discuss them now. Much more central to the villainy in Halfhead is Fiona Westfield. This one’s a real psychopaths’ psychopath, a female Hannibal Lecter, so clever and organised that she is not only able to start reversing the halfheading process, but she actually commences tracking down her old acquaintances, friends, foes and proteges alike, works out the best and quickest way of getting her old programme of maniac-making back on the road, and still takes time out to claim more and more victims for no other reason than the sheer pleasure it gives her to bathe in their blood (you perhaps now understand what I meant when I said that this is a horror story as well as a crime thriller).

Is it possible that Westfield is a bit OTT? Well, yes … but remember this is a Mega-City One scenario. Everything here is over the top: the architecture, the weather, the callousness of the conspirators, the firepower of the police. So, to be the queen of crime in Halfhead, she was always going to need to be something really special. In any case, how does any ordinary person recover from a lobotomy, restore her own severed jaw, transform herself back from the status of lumbering mute into deadly, beautiful predator? Nothing less than a true mistress of evil would suffice.

Not everyone who’s read Halfhead likes it, some crime fans writing that they prefer the dourer, more grounded-in-reality Logan McRae mysteries, some sci-fan readers complaining that it’s just a cop story with a bit of tech added for dramatic effect. Personally, I took it for what I think it was intended to be: an intense, brooding thriller, played at lightning pace, the author throwing blood and grime at you with every turn, and employing constant seat-edge tension. I enjoyed every grisly, hardboiled page of it.

And now, as often, I’m going to try to cast this beast should film or TV ever come to call. Only a bit of fun, of course. I have no real pull in the wider world of moviedom (you’ll be surprised to learn):

Assistant Section Director Will Hunter – Sam Heughan
Detective Sergeant Jo Cameron – Katie Leung
Special Agent Brian Alexander – John Hannah
Lieutenant Emily Brand – Isla Fisher
Dr Fiona Westfield – Erin Richards
Ken Peitai – Claes Bang
Tokumu Kikan – James Cosmo