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?’
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.
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.
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 (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