Sunday 21 June 2020

Cops and killers from page to big screen

Okay, we’re not quite there yet … and no, I’m not talking about the end of lockdown (though it feels closer than it was). I’m referring to ONE EYE OPEN, my next cop novel, which is due for publication across all platforms on August 20. In fact, it’s so close now that today I received my first tweet from a NETGALLEY reviewer about how much they are enjoying it.

Talk about a nice way to start the day.

Of course, one of the things that always enters an author’s mind as the publication of their new novel appears on the horizon is ‘will this be the one?’ Not just the breakout novel, but the one that hits the top of the charts and stays there? The one that means the staff in your local branch of Waterstones actually start to say ‘hello’ to you? The one that gets adapted into a multi-million dollar movie?

We all live in hope of course, but just to prove that it can happen sometimes, today I thought I’d look at some of those awesome cop thrillers that went before me and then hit the light fantastic a second time when Hollywood got hold of them.

In that same spirit, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing IN THE WOODS by Tana French – a superb police novel which, while it didn’t become a blockbusting movie, went on to become a successful TV series (see above).

If you’re only here for the Tana French review, no worries. Get straight on down to the lower end of today’s post. But if you’ve got some extra time on your hands, you might also be interested in …

Screen cops who were on the page first

Though I’ve written lots of movie scripts, two of which actually got made into movies, I’d reserve a special place in my heart for any novel of mine that received the film treatment.

I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s just that with something you hatched yourself and have then lived and breathed for month on end, sweated over, bled over (etc), characters you gave birth to, nurtured and developed (etc), it would just be so damn cool to see someone else’s take on the same story, especially if they were putting Hollywood-type money into it, and even more especially with a major league talent behind the lens.

Of course, whenever this happens, authors aren’t always happy with the outcome no matter how much money it might earn them from the cinema-going public. 

Stephen King famously didn’t like Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 reimagining of his 1977 novel, The Shining, while Gordon Williams was furious when, in 1971, Sam Peckinpah turned his 1969 novel, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, into the controversial and violent Straw Dogs.

I’m not sure how I’d have reacted in either case, given that both movies made a bomb at the Box Office and probably re-energised the sales of the original books to some tune. A bigger issue for me might be the occasionally-heard complaint that a film version has overtaken the book in terms of fame … even to the point where the book itself has all but vanished from public awareness.

A couple of obvious examples of this spring to mind. Most people remember Alfred Hitchock’s 1972 serial killer thriller, Frenzy, but very few even know that it was adapted from Arthur Le Bern’s 1966 novel, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. Likewise, we all remember Hitch’s even more sensational slasher horror, Psycho, but who outside students of the genre is even aware that it came from Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name?

Again, I’m not sure how I’d respond. In truth, I think I’d just be happy that Hollywood was taking a punt. But again, just to prove the point that it can also happen with my genre, here, in no particular order, are …

Ten Major Cop Movies You (Quite Possibly) Didn’t Know Started Life as Novels

1 Bullitt (1968)

Long years have passed but most movie fans still fondly recollect the late, great Steve McQueen’s superb performance as Frank Bullitt (top), a San Francisco police lieutenant, who, when he loses his mob supergrass to hitmen, makes it his personal mission to catch the bigwig who gave the order. They also remember the astonishing car chase, at the time one of the greatest ever committed to film.

Not many know that this cinema cop classic came to us straight from Robert L Fish’s 1963 novel, Mute Witness. Swap a few names and the San Fran setting for New York, and it’s a very similar tale. 

2 Cop (1988)

James Woods puts in a mesmerising shift as amoral LAPD detective, Lloyd Hopkins, whose talent is recognised by his superiors, but who is also considered a risk-taker. As such, when he investigates the death of a politically active call girl and concludes it’s the work of an unidentified serial killer, the top floor won’t trust him. Hopkins, who already has problems at home, has no option but to go it alone.

It sprang from a more famous original novel in this case, James Ellroy’s 1984 classic, Blood on the Moon, the first in a Lloyd Hopkins trilogy. Similar thrills, similar politics, but with an even grittier 1970s setting.

3 Hell is a City (1960)

Stanley Baker is pitch perfect in Val Guest’s famous Brit Noir, in which a tired Manchester DI is so determined to nail an old foe who has recently staged a violent jailbreak and might already be responsible for another robbery, that his failing marriage takes second place. Riding the British New Wave film movement, the producers happily left London and hit us with some real northern grit.

In the original, in 1954, Maurice Procter introduced us to Detective Chief Inspector Martineau in the pacy Somewhere in the City, the first of a whole series of gritty hard-hitting thrillers set in the bleakly industrial North.

4 The Big Heat (1953)

Vintage Noir, as Glen Ford takes on the mantle of small-town cop looking into the suicide of a fellow officer, only to uncover a rat’s nest of intrigue, corruption, prostitution and murder. ‘Master of Darkness’ Fritz Lang added many horrorish moments, including a real shocker in which low level thug Lee Marvin throws scalding coffee into the face of gangland moll, Gloria Grahame.

Originally written by William P McGivern, The Big Heat appeared episodically in The Saturday Evening Post in 1953, only hitting the bookstalls much later as a complete novel. Every bit as tough as the film.

5 Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

Yes, you heard that right. Disney/Amblin’s big ‘live action plus animation’ hit of the late 1980s actually started life as a comedy suspense novel. In the movie, you’ll recall that Bob Hoskins is the down-on-his-luck detective who has spent most of the 1940s drunk but who, when called on to check the suspicious antics of cartoon star Roger Rabbit’s wife, Jessica, uncovers a fiendish conspiracy. 

In Gary K Wolf’s 1981 original, Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, the story differs quite a bit, the toons mostly from comic strips, but sexy Jessica still gets to say that she’s ‘not bad, just drawn that way’.

6 The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

One of the great action movies of the 1970s, Joseph Sargent’s high tension tour-de-force follows the capture of a New York subway train and its passengers by a gang of highly organised hijackers under the control of a ruthless British former-SAS soldier (a steely Robert Shaw) who will kill anyone that defies him, while Transit Lieutenant Walter Matthau coolly attempts to outmanoeuvre them.  A crime classic.

John Godey’s 1973 novel of the same name follows the same course as the film, with some differences in terms of characters but the same ingenious plot twists that would give the movie its wow factor.

7 Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)

Perhaps not strictly a ‘cop movie’, more a ‘psychological thriller’, though Detective Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) is the main investigator and a key character when toddler Bunny Lake goes missing from her London nursery school, the top cop increasingly turning curious about her stressed single parent (Carol Lynley) as there is progressively less evidence that the child ever existed.

Evelyn Piper’s 1957 original is set in New York and focusses much more on the terror and trauma of the shunned single mother as she searches for her child alone. Both however, are regarded as masterpieces.

8 In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective from Philadelphia, is accused of murder while visiting a Mississippi town, but eventually forms an alliance with the racist chief of police, teaching him the error of his ways and at the same time helping him catch the real killer. Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger give unforgettable star turns in this groundbreaking thriller, which was much applauded by the Civil Rights movement.

John Ball’s original novel of 1965 told the same story, though the setting is South Carolina and Tibbs is a cop with Pasadena PD. Its huge success kickstarted a whole series of Virgil Tibbs novels.

9 The Detective (1968)

Frank Sinatra gives what is generally regarded as a career best performance as Joe Leland, a veteran NYPD sergeant, whose ‘no nonsense’ approach to his job holds his team together when a disgusting murder leads them into a world of vice and exploitation. A grown-up and high-quality mystery thriller, one of the first ever to openly confront such new-fangled issues as pornography and gay prostitution.

Roderick Thorp’s original 1966 novel was a cutting-edge slice of Noir in an age when that genre hadn’t yet dated. Concerns a PI, not a cop, but still packed with grown-up material and frank police speak.
10 Die Hard (1988)

Everyone’s favourite Christmas action movie, NYPD reject John McClaine taking on a whole posse of deranged terrorists when they take over LA’s Nakatomi Tower but make the mistake of capturing his exec wife in the process. It made stars of Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman and set a new high bar when it came to full-on Hollywood shoot-em-up. Very few know that it was the sequel to The Detective (above.).

Roderick Thorp wrote Nothing Lasts Forever in 1979, with creaky retiree, Joe Leland, taking on the terrorists in LA’s 40-storey Klaxon Tower. Amazingly, 73-year-old Sinatra almost got the part in the film.


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 Tana French (2007)

During a gorgeous summer in Knocknaree, in the lush countryside outside Dublin, three 12-year-olds sleepwalk into tragedy. A close-knit group of friends, they are Jamie, Adam and Peter, and they are living life as only carefree youngsters can, spending each day of their school holidays romping through the sun-drenched meadows and woods – particularly through the woods.

Where one day something terrible happens.

When the evening arrives and the trio still haven’t come home, their parents get concerned and the police start searching. Of Jamie and Peter there is no trace, but Adam is found dazed and uncommunicative, his shoes and socks soaked with blood. His catatonic state persists, and even when he recovers sufficiently to talk, he has no memory of what happened in the woods. The police, meanwhile, continue to search, but find nothing.

We then rush forward two decades, to a time when the adult Adam, now an English-accented detective with the Dublin Murder Squad, returns to the same place during a sunny summer uncannily similar to that one all those years ago, to investigate with his colleagues, detectives Cassie Maddox and Sam O’Neill, what looks as if it may be the ritual slaying of a 12-year-old girl, Katy Devlin, whose brutalised body has been found on a druidic sacrificial slab at a partially excavated archaeological site.

Adam, who has renamed himself ‘Rob’ in order to put distance between himself and the traumatic events of all those years ago, was partly inspired to join the Gardai because of that unspecified but dreadful incident (and more importantly, by the imposing men who investigated it), but now that he’s back here in Knocknaree, he is increasingly discomforted by his fogged memories and by a brand-new case that in many ways is reminiscent of the old one.

Initially, Rob is ably assisted by Cassie, who in truth is a better all-round copper than he is, and who provides strong personal support because their friendship surpasses professional buddy-buddyism by a big margin. Having originally joined the Squad as misfits, they naturally gravitated together, and their relationship, though strictly platonic, has become extraordinarily close, the twosome getting on so well that they spend most of their off-duty hours together, cooking, drinking, and laughing raucously at each others’ bad jokes, often into the early hours of the morning, at which point they’ll happily crash on each others’ couches.

In terms of the case, they have a number of lines of enquiry. The archaeologists on the site, most of them students, are a mixed bunch, but the shy, nervous Damien Donnelly, who actually found the body, seems like an oddball, while the site’s unofficial ‘foreman’, an angry hippy type called Mark Hanly, is cocksure and irritable, and immediately catches Rob’s eye as someone he doesn’t particularly like. Equally worth investigating, however, is Jonathan Devlin, Katy’s father, who isn’t just the main organiser of ‘Move the Motorway’, a pressure-group looking to divert a new road, which will otherwise devastate the local natural woodland (and obliterate the archaeological dig!), but who Rob remembers from childhood. Jonathan Devlin wasn’t a respectable middle-class man back then, but a local lout, who used to cause trouble in the surrounding district, and who was certainly hanging around in the woods, or so Rob seems to recall, on that day when his young friends disappeared. At the same time, the introverted Devlin family are themselves under pressure from unknown persons, Jonathan claiming to have received threatening phone-calls, while there is even a suggestion that Katy, a promising dance student, might have been the victim of a recent attempted poisoning. The household itself is in flux, the family members constantly at odds with each other, all of them viable suspects in their own way, while the emotionally vulnerable Rob finds the victim’s fetching older sister, Rosalind, a particularly taunting and distracting presence.

No more distracting, though, than his memories of Knocknaree as a child, before the Celtic Tiger, when the area was poorer but quieter and less suburban, or the mysterious fate of his two friends, which, when one of Jamie’s hair-clips is found near the scene of Katy Devlin’s death, he becomes convinced is connected to this present day crime.

Frustrated by this and by the investigation team’s failure to hit paydirt with any of their leads, and under huge pressure from his boss, gruff old-schooler, Detective Superintendent O’Kelly, Rob opts to try and jumpstart his memories by camping out alone overnight in the woods close to the scene of the crime.

Which will prove to be a catastrophic mistake …

Tana French’s debut novel and dark psychological thriller, In the Woods, made a huge impact on first arrival, sparking a popular TV series and a whole list of Dublin Murder Squad mysteries. It has won almost universal acclaim for its detailed study of an outwardly confident but secretly tormented police hero, whose journey through a complex, distressing murder case is compromised by his memories of a similarly harrowing experience during his own childhood.

The book has also won hefty praise for neatly capturing the Irish zeitgeist of the early 21st century, not just disdaining the dewy-eyed American view of Ireland as a rural idyll of green hills and flame-haired beauties, but also criticising the more materialistic era of short-lived affluence during the 1990s and early 2000s, and putting the deluge of financial difficulties spilling from the ensuing property bubble into a real context.

I approached the book well aware of all this praise but have no real quibbles with any of it. In the Woods does all these things very well indeed. It is also sumptuously written (unusually so for a thriller) and is populated by a plethora of memorable characters.

The hero, Adam ‘Rob’ Ryan, has certainly been to Hell and back. His personal dynamic is quite fascinating, the awful truth lurking in his subconscious but his constant and torturous attempts to recollect it fruitless, a personal trouble that grows steadily more intrusive as the narrative progresses. And yet, Tana French doesn’t use this as a device purely to elicit our sympathy. More than once, for example, it is hinted that the younger Rob’s bizarre memory lapse might have been convenient for him, and that, though he was young when this grim event happened, he wasn’t prepubescent, and so it’s not beyond the bounds of possibly that he himself was in some way culpable. Of course, we readers think we know differently because we can see into Rob’s head, and we know that he is indeed a lost and bewildered soul, but if you think about it, that still doesn’t make him innocent.

The juxtaposition to Rob is of course Cassie Maddox, his fellow investigator and best friend, and in some ways, this is where I have one of my few doubts about In the Woods. For me, Cassie is just a bit too perfect: attractive in the best kind of way (i.e without being overtly, daftly sexy), very empathetic, very intelligent, intuitive, analytical and sharp-eyed. In short, an all-round excellent person as well as a quality copper, she seems a little bit too good to be true, and in that regard detracts quite a bit from our main character, who appears weak and incompetent by comparison, and irritatingly inclined to self-pity.

On top of that, while their close friendship feels natural enough – square pegs will always seek each other out when all the others are round – there are times when the duo strike me as being more like matey students than murder detectives, raucously bantering when off-duty, playing silly jokes on each other while putting the world to rights, staying up all night drinking despite being in the middle of a challenging child-murder investigation. It made a nice change to see male and hero leads presented as friends rather than lovers, but from the very beginning, I couldn’t help wondering how long this was going to last.

But despite all that, which I won’t pretend didn’t spoil the book for me a little, the central relationship still works on the whole, the duo forming an effective focal point for the story, and though they are both remarkably young for homicide detectives, investigating the case believably and authoritatively.

By contrast, most of the other police characters are a little bit stock, though I did enjoy rough-edged Detective Superintendent O’Kelly, whose complete disregard for political correctness reminded me persuasively of my own senior supervisors back in the day, at one point casually dismissing a male officer’s headache as ‘womanly shite!’

The suspects, of course, come thick and fast, and as well as adding depths of mystery, form a well-framed microcosm of Irish society, one of the author’s key aims with this novel, I suspect, showing us everyone from the money men at the top of the tree, who are still looking at ways to expand their empires, to the struggling middle-classes left so bereft after the era of prosperity ended, to the scruffy young idealists who still believe that digging up ancient Irish history is more important than the creation of fast roads to stimulate business. The fact that they’re all framed as potential murder suspects is a clever move. It’s certainly the case that very few people here are completely right or completely wrong, and none are cast as being so pure that they’re beyond murder (not even our main hero).

In addition to all this, Tana French has done her research in terms of police procedure. She’s been accused in some quarters of ditching reality altogether by creating a Dublin Murder Squad when there actually isn’t one. But whether this should be a cause for concern is moot. In the Woods is French’s own book, so in truth she can do what she wants with it, and she never pretends that it isn’t a work of imagination. I do feel that she’s been influenced more than she perhaps should be by the American style of cop fiction, wherein the most gruesome murder cases are handled by a couple of plucky detectives virtually on their own, while in reality – certainly in the UK, and maybe in Ireland too – what appears to be a ritualistic child-murder would see the creation of a dedicated taskforce.

But again, it’s all about entertainment. Tana French is not in the business of writing police textbooks. In the Woods is a thriller, a genre that isn’t honour-bound to replicate real life blow-for-blow, and having reduced the number of investigators, and dispensed with most of those by-the-book protocols that sometimes clutter up crime fiction plotlines, it’s a thriller that fulfills one of its key ambitions nicely by rattling along at an enjoyable pace

It’s a big book, running to 600 pages, but I was so hooked that I read it inside a week. Perhaps it’s a tad overwritten. Beautiful descriptions are not to everyone’s taste in a novel like this, while I found the repeated pop culture references a bit unnecessary, but there can’t be any real complaint when a big, solid chunk of a novel keeps you so engrossed that you get through it so quickly. Strongly recommended. 

Regulars on here may know that I often like to round up each of these reviews by casting the work for an imaginary TV adaptation. Well, it’s not required in this case, given the enjoyable Irish television series of 2019.

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