Tuesday 25 August 2020

Terror soon coming to the Home Counties

Okay, well I’ve always believed in striking while the iron’s hot, so even though the dust hasn’t yet settled following the launch of my latest crime novel, ONE EYE OPEN, I’m now going to talk about a new book I’m bringing out in the near future, though this one, even though it’s equally dark, is very different in style and subject-matter. In short, it’s the latest in my series of Terror Tales anthologies, TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES.

I can’t talk too much about it yet, though at least, as you can see, I’ve got the artwork to brag about (courtesy of the amazing Neil Williams) and can fill you in a little bit on the background.

Also this week, maintaining that Brit folk-horror(ish) tone, I’ll be reviewing THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS by Lanyon Jones, a legendary collection of traditional ghost stories from a writer whose contribution to the genre, though always quality, has largely now been forgotten.

If you’re only here for the Lanyon Jones review, then all you need to do is zoom on down to the lower end of today’s blog, where you’ll find it, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. However, if you’ve got a bit more time, there are a couple of other things I want to mention. First off …

Lucy in Germany

My third Lucy Clayburn novel, STOLEN, will be published in Germany in approximately one year’s time, but the official cover is already being publicised, and I have to say, it’s yet another very cool piece of work from Piper Verlag, all of whose jackets for this series, and for the Heck series too, have been hugely eye-catching in my view, and have always – particularly with regard to the Lucy books – leaned strongly towards the action-thriller genre, unlike the British versions, which hinted more at domestic noir.

Anyway, here’s the latest. NACHTE DER HUNDE, which loosely translates as NIGHT OF THE DOGS. With luck, all my readers over there will enjoy it thoroughly.

And now that other thing I want to chat to you about today …

Home Counties horror

Hopefully, lots of ghost and horror story fans will now know about my Terror Tales series, which I’ve been editing – initially under the Gray Prior Press banner, but now with TELOS PUBLISHING – for the last nine years. 

The concept behind this series was to tour the British Isles, each book focussing on a different geographic region and publishing original horror fiction related to the myths or lore of that region, interspersing it with non-fictional (i.e. real life) tales of terror and mystery. The plan was always to draw on folklore and history, to try and create as authentic an atmosphere of each book’s particular district as possible, and to use a wide range of writers (though some, inevitably, have been back for more and more). Not all of the authors had to be native to the region under consideration, but at least they needed to be familiar with it. 

TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES is the latest in the series, and will be out this autumn. Apologies that I can’t be specific with a date of publication yet, or a full table of contents, but the book is now complete and in the process of being proof-read. All that other essential info will be posted here as soon as it’s actually available.

I assure you, contrary to a lot of opinion – and I’ve been greeted by raised eyebrows several times when mentioning this book – the Home Counties are not without their own chilling pantheon of native tales. All sorts of nasty stuff has gone on amid those well-heeled, semi-rural communities. Oh yes, the veneer of sedate prosperity can conceal a wealth of sins. But in addition to that, the Home Counties weren’t always the dormer district to London. Once, there were unbroken tracts of forest and heath where now there are suburban railway stations and blue chip company HQs. Where the stockbroker belt now flourishes, formerly there were sacred groves and woodland pools; and while the scenery might have changed, the occupants of these ancient sites haven’t necessarily gone anywhere.

But I’ll say no more about it at this stage. Hopefully, the blurb on the artwork at the top of this column will serve as a good indicator of TERROR TALES OF THE HOME COUNTIES’ flavour.

This will be the twelfth book in the series thus far. We’ve been all over the UK and even out to sea. And even if I say so myself, we’ve included some masterly pieces of fiction from recognised experts in the field like Peter James, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Gallagher, Adam Nevill, Stephen Laws, Lynda Rucker, Carole Johnstone and Sam Stone (along with many others).

Here are several sample covers from the rest of the Terror Tales series, and the blurbs that accompanied them:

England’s majestic Northwest, land of rain-washed skies, dark forests and brooding, windswept hills. Famous too for its industrial blight and brutal persecutions; a realm where skulls scream and witches wail, gallows creak and grave-robbers prowl the long, black nights …

The hideous scarecrows of Lune
The heathen rite at Knowsley
The revenge killings in Preston
The elegant ghost of Combermere
The berserk boggart of Moston
The malformed brute on Mann
The walking dead at Haigh Hall

Cornwall, England’s most scenic county: windswept moors, rugged cliffs and wild, foaming seas. But smugglers and wreckers once haunted its hidden coves, mermaid myths abound, pixie lore lingers, henges signal a pagan past, and fanged beasts stalk the ancient, overgrown lanes …

The serpent woman of Pengersick
The screaming demon of Land’s End
The nightmare masquerade at Padstow
The feathered horror of Mawnan
The terrible voice at St Agnes
The ritual slaughter at Crantock
The hoof-footed fetch of Bodmin Moor

The rolling blue ocean. Timeless, vast, ancient, mysterious. Where eerie voices call through the lightless deeps, monstrous shapes skim beneath the waves, and legends tell of sunken cities, fiendish fogs, ships steered only by dead men, and forgotten isles where abominations lurk ...

The multi-limbed horror in the Ross Sea
The hideous curse of Palmyra Atoll
The murderous duo of the Messina Strait
The doomed crew of the Flying Dutchman
The devil fish of the South Pacific
The alien creatures in the English Channel
The giant predator of the Mariana Trench

Wales – ‘Land of my Fathers’, cradle of poetry, song and mythic rural splendour. But also a scene of oppression and tragedy, where angry spirits stalk castle and coal mine alike, death-knells sound amid fogbound peaks, and dragons stir in bottomless pools …

The headless spectre of Kidwelly
The sea terror off Anglesey
The soul stealer of Porthcawl
The blood rites at Abergavenny
The fatal fruit of Criccieth
The dark serpent of Bodalog
The Christmas slaughter at Llanfabon

The city of London – whose gold-paved streets are lost in choking fog and echo to the trundling of the plague-carts, whose twisting back alleys ring with cries of ‘Murder!’, whose awful Tower is stained with the blood of princes and paupers alike …

The night stalker of Hammersmith
The brutal butchery in Holborn
The depraved spirit of Sydenham
The fallen angel of Dalston
The murder den at Notting Hill
The haunted sewers of Bermondsey
The red-eyed ghoul of Highgate

The Cotswolds – land of green fields, manor houses and thatched-roof villages, where the screams of ancient massacres linger in the leafy woods, faeries weave sadistic spells, and pagan gods stir beneath the moonlit hills …

The flesh-eating fiend of St. John’s
The vengeful spirit of Little Lawford
The satanic murders at Meon Hill
The ghastly mutilation at Wychavon
The demon dancers of Warwick
The cannibal feast at Alvington
The twisted revenant of Stratford-upon-Avon

If you like the sound of all this, folks, and you fancy dipping into the dark side of the Home Counties, just keep watching this space. As already stated, all the info you’ll need will be posted on here as soon as it’s available.


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.

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS by Lanyon Jones (1979)

Keith Lanyon Jones, an author we haven’t heard much from since the mid-1980s, wrote in his spare time but by vocation was an Anglican vicar, and so inevitable similarities have been drawn between him and MR James, especially as both of them worked within the familiar English ghost story tradition and penned their terrors initially as Christmas entertainments for friends and family. However, while there is some resemblance between the two, that isn’t the whole story by any means, and Jones, while his writing career appears to have been relatively short-lived, was clearly open to other influences as well, not least Arthur Machen and even HP Lovecraft.

In 1979, he presented his publisher, William Kimber, with this ‘concept album’ of a collection: seven completely new supernatural tales, all linked together by the central theme of the Seven Deadly Sins, each story representing one of the sins in particular.

Here’s the blurb that originally appeared on the inside sleeve:

In this unusual book the author invokes a world of the macabre, of evil and the powers of darkness. But his world has a difference. For in it, evil is not brought about by malign outside forces acting with irrational and random blows against mankind, but by mankind’s own weaknesses. Pride, covetousness, gluttony, lust, sloth, anger and envy. To each is devoted a tale of force and power, demonstrating how from little beginnings man can be led down the primrose path to chaos and evil. Writing with perceptions of the working of men’s minds, the author has created seven tales around this ancient conception with modern application.

You’d have thought, perhaps from the outset, that with Lanyon Jones being himself a priest, he’d have a clear and tight grip on the concept of the Seven Deadly Sins, but one immediate weakness that struck me about this book was how irrelevant that central theme becomes once the story-telling actually gets going. The links between the stories and the sins are tenuous in almost every case, virtually invisible in a couple, and while that doesn’t detract from the stories themselves, given that there isn’t much else to the book – there is no encompassing central narrative concerning the Seven Deadly Sins, for example, and no connections between the stories themselves or the characters who appear in them – the overall concept is so undeveloped as to seem pointless.

In fact, I’d go as far as to wonder if Jones handed over a batch of new stand-alone ghost stories first, and possibly after some consultation with his editor, who wanted something a bit different, retitled it The Seven Deadly Sins afterwards, apportioning one sin to each story even if the emphasis of the story itself lay somewhere else.

As I say, though, this has no bearing on the seven stories themselves, which cover a range of subjects and demonstrate a variety of other influences. The quality, as you’d find with any collection of fiction, whether it all stems from the same author or is part of an anthology of tales by many authors, is variable. Some of the stories have dated a little, while others imply a vaguely innocent outlook on life (which the work of MR James never did, despite his scholarly bachelor background), but if the main purpose of a ghost story is to frighten its readers, then on the whole, Lanyon Jones does a pretty good job here, most of these forays into the supernatural packing in several extremely scary moments.

Given that there are only seven stories to consider, and that they are all, notionally at least, connected by the same theme, I won’t do my usual thing with collections of short fiction, which is pick out the handful I enjoyed most and talk about them in detail. Instead, I’ll run through them all in order. And as I always like to do some imaginary casting at the end, I’ll play that game here too, falsifying a Seven Deadly Sins TV series and putting together a minor cast for each episode (just a bit of fun, of course).

The Weirdwood (Pride)

Neilson, a new vicar in a rural parish considers himself too modern to indulge in such antiquated rituals as ‘beating the bounds,’ which alarms his rustic congregation. They have lost livestock recently, the bodies of sheep found torn and covered in slime. They blame whatever lurks in the so-called Weirdwood, a dense area of trees, which grows beyond the parish in a strange and unnatural hollow. Collins, vicar of the next parish along, advises that old customs should be respected, but still Neilson resists. Until one of his aged parishioners tries to beat the bounds himself, and promptly disappears …

A rather lengthy tale to open the collection, Jones immediately hitting us with a folk-horror vibe, implying that certain time-honoured parish rituals might have more than a ceremonial role in the unchanging village life of the English countryside. Lots of stuff about the druids in this one, tree worship and ancient spirits long thought suppressed by Christianity, along with some atmospheric descriptions of menacingly thick, leafy woodland, and a scary and unusual monster. 

In our imaginary TV show:
Neilson – David Tennant
Collins – Timothy Spall

The Collector (Covetousness)

Scheming academic, Casgil, travels to remote Woolminster Cathedral the week before Christmas, where he has convinced benevolent Canon Cedric that he wishes to examine a batch of medieval documents. In reality he is seeking the antique chess set that a former Woolminster canon, who was also a warlock, supposedly used in a match he played against the Devil. Canon Cedric doesn’t seem to know about this, and so graciously allows Casgil to commence his search in the cathedral’s old and eerie library …

The best and most frightening story in the book for me, and easily the most reminiscent of MR James. Lots of monkish terror, a snowy Christmas setting and a musty old cathedral archive that fills with spooky shadows worryingly early on December afternoons all add to the flavour, while the nasty twist at the end is a genuinely horrifying one. All round, an excellent and satisfying tale.

In our imaginary TV show:
Casgil – Lennie James
Canon Cedric – Hugh Bonneville

An Inheritance (Anger)

Old Harold attempts to dissuade his nephew, Mark, from buying an ornate house in his West Country village, claiming that the 16th century property has a troubled past. To try and prove his point, Harold tells Mark the story of Ralph Asher, who inherited the same house many years earlier, and was subjected to bizarre and hostile phenomena …

This one is a story within a story, and, in the first instance at least, is told in a confused, rambling fashion to represent the drifting concentration of Old Harold, but that doesn’t help the narrative much. In fact, it confuses things a little. We get there in the end, partly through dollops of expo, and though once again there are several effective Jamesian scares en route, this piece overall feels oddly imbalanced, which dilutes its impact.

In our imaginary TV show:
Uncle Harold – Michael Palin
Ralph Asher – Christopher Eccleston

Hush-A-Bye, Baby (Lust)

Wealthy husband and father, Roland, brings his mistress, Miriam, to his family’s holiday home on the coast. Miriam has engineered this by deliberately leaving her last abortion late in the full knowledge it would make her ill, thus pricking Roland’s conscience so that he’d want to make it up to her. Miriam is a diehard gold-digger and convinced that all this will soon be hers. But old money isn’t easily available and both the aristocratic living and the aristocratic dead will have their own say on the matter …

In some respects, this story hasn’t aged well. The amoral mistress using the abortion of her married lover’s child to pressurise him into gold-plating her future (while he, though callous and distant, is depicted in a much less sinister light) is unlikely to win support in the age of the #MeToo movement. And this is a shame, because this is a tight and tense little story, sharply written, with believable characters and an effective setting, and once again some disturbing scare moments.

In our imaginary TV show:
Roland – Richard Madden
Miriam – Gemma Arterton

Exorcism (Sloth)

A lower middle-class family buy the home of their dreams in the wilds of Cornwall, but straight away there are problems. The two cats that come with the house don’t like them, furniture moves around on its own, there are cold spots on the back stairs, and then they learn that it once belonged to an elderly lady who was regarded in the neighbourhood as a self-taught witch and who may well have been murdered in the house by her own husband …

The second haunted house story of the collection, but for me the most disappointing tale in the book, because while, like An Inheritance, it lays down an immediately dark and menacing atmosphere, a likeable family finding themselves in the grip of malevolence, their opponent an unknowable and implacable force from beyond that manifests itself in all kinds of bone-chilling ways, it all ends on a ridiculously twee and disappointing note about which, frankly, the less said the better. In addition to that, I still haven’t been able to work out where ‘sloth’ comes in. 

In our imaginary TV show (though the ending would need a complete rewrite to make my TV version):
Clare – Sara Martins
John – Ben Whishaw

The Coastguard (Gluttony)

An enthusiastic young biographer is assigned to work on the life story of a World War Two hero who has recently died. However, a series of weird events leads him to the tale of a mysterious character called Old Harry, and an isolated and mostly empty coastal village, which his desolate and fearsome spirit is still said to haunt …

Melancholy balances equally with supernatural chills in this meaningful and superior ghost story, which, though it deals with complex human weaknesses like failure, regret and guilt, works steadily towards its poignant conclusion, throwing in numerous jolts of terror along the way. Of all the stories in The Seven Deadly Sins, this one probably least deserves its overarching epithet. To talk about ‘gluttony’ in the context of this tale, while it’s not irrelevant, seems almost trite.

In our imaginary TV show:
The Biographer – Dev Patel
The Editor – Martin Clunes
Lady Jeffries – Sheila Hancock

Tempus Memoret (Envy)

Covetous antiques dealer, Pither, is determined to have the miniature replica of the great cathedral clock at Silchester despite the gruesome story that a Tudor-age curse still lies upon it. The smaller clock is currently owned by aged shopkeeper, Norris, but Norris doesn’t appear to have long to live …

A slow-burner of a chiller, which again leads steadily towards a much anticipated climax, with lots of ultra-scary moments along the way, and some wonderfully eerie and atmospheric scenes, particularly inside Norris’s dust-shrouded Aladdin’s Cave of a shop. Sadly, though, despite the establishment of a genuinely intriguing mystery, I don’t think the pay-off is really there. But, as is often the case with weird fiction, satisfaction tends to be in the eye of the beholder.

In our imaginary TV show:
Pither – Phil Glenister
Norris – Patrick Stewart

So, there we are. That’s The Seven Deadly Sins. If I’ve sounded so-so about this one, I still consider it a major stepping-stone in the ongoing drama of the English ghost story tradition. Despite being written in the 1970s, it harks back to an earlier, less cynical age, but most readers, I think, will thoroughly enjoy it. It’s left me feeling sorry that there aren’t lots more Lanyon Jones collections out there to snare my attention (there is one that I know about, When Dusk Comes Creeping In, which I’m on the hunt for next).

Friday 14 August 2020

The big day approaches. Are you ready?

Okay, well I apologise in advance this week. With only a few days to go to publication of my next novel, ONE EYE OPEN, today’s blogpost is mostly going to be about that. I’ll discuss its background a little, but will also be throwing in a few choice quotes from the thirty-plus reviews that are currently sitting on NETGALLEY, along with a snippet or two from different parts of the book (just to hint at what you’re in for).

In addition, to maintain the hardcase crime theme, I’ll also be reviewing Lou Berney’s 1960s-set thriller, NOVEMBER ROAD. You’ve probably heard quite a bit about this one already. It was lauded almost from the day of its release and now has been shortlisted for both the Gold Dagger Award and the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award (which happens once in a blue moon, trust me). It you want to hear my thoughts on it, which I offer in some detail, you’ll find a full review at the end of today’s blog, as usual under the Thrillers, Chillers section.

If that’s the only reason you’re here, I can’t stop you scooting straight down there right now. Alternatively, if you’ve got a bit of spare time first, you might also be interested in …

One Eye Open

After what I like to think was a reasonably successful ten-book tenure at Avon (HarperCollins), I moved to Orion twelve months ago, and agreed with my new editor straight away that what was needed to kick off the new contract was a stand-alone thriller, something unconnected to either my Mark Heckenburg or my Lucy Clayburn series. (NB: That does NOT mean that those series are over. It just means that I’m taking a brief break from them).

After several discussions down at Orion, during which we kicked around a lot of crime/thriller ideas, we eventually settled on the concept that has now become ONE EYE OPEN.

The book is only published next Thursday (August 20), so is still only available for pre-order at present. However, as I’ve already mentioned, over thirty approving reviews now sit on NETGALLEY, and here I thought I’d clip a few juicy snippets from them just to get you going:

Gangland warfare erupts in the English home counties in this dazzling thriller. The twists in the plot come fast and furious and the pace never slackens. Robin P

Breathtaking, shocking and dark! All the things I love most from the fiction world! Samantha L

I’m sad that this is billed as a stand-alone as I really like DS Lynda Hagen who is a woman for our times. She’s smart and effective but stuck in a 9-5 job in Traffic so that she still has time with her kids. She is continually underrated both by her husband, a former Major Crimes detective, and her boss but she shows them here what she can do. You go girl. Elaine T

No spoilers here, just read it and enjoy, you won’t regret reading it. Beverley S

Obviously, responses like these put me on Cloud Nine. But what’s the story behind the new book? Where did it come from? What themes does it concern itself with?

Well, the first thing I wanted to do with ONE EYE OPEN was move away from the tightrope-walking crime-fighters that have featured in my previous works. It’s still a police thriller, but this time I opted to soften the edges a little bit, and so created the character, Lynda Hagen, a long-serving copper but no longer part of CID, because, in an effort to seek more regular hours and make life easier for her husband and children, she joined the Essex Roads Policing Division (in other words, Traffic), to work as an accident investigator.

So, she’s still a cop, still in plain clothes, and is still nominally a detective, but mostly Lynda concerns herself with traffic offences stemming from high-speed smashes. She tends primarily to work weekdays, and leads a fairly suburban ‘working mum’ existence. But then she is handed something completely out of the blue: a very serious but quite baffling accident. A car that shouldn’t exist found crushed to concertinaed wreckage in the middle of a frozen wood, the persons driving it both half dead, deeply unconscious and yet with no IDs on either of them. There are other anomalies too, all of which arouse the detective deep inside Lynda, leading her along a lonely path into a progressively more dangerous world of organised crime, armed robbery and murder-for-hire.

Is she up for it?, you may ask. Is the ace thief-taker she once was still latent within her? Well, I guess you’ll have to read it if you want to find out.

But ONE EYE OPEN doesn’t just focus on Lynda’s journey. For the first time ever in one of my crime novels, I run parallel storylines, taking a criminal’s perspective too, and, I hope, showing that not everyone who ends up on the wrong side of the fence wants to be there or ever intended to be.

Never fear, by the way; I’m not making excuses for bad ’uns. Just pointing out that while my Heck books in particular might be famous for featuring antagonists who are utter grotesques, Batman or Bond-type villains of spectacular dementedness, that is rarely the case in the real world (but don’t worry; there are one or two of those in ONE EYE OPEN as well).

Another question I’m increasingly asked these days concerns the subtext or themes of my writing.

In answer to that, I’m not sure that any of us set out intending to highlight certain themes, but perhaps we do it subconsciously. Most of us are usually writing with key issues in the backs of our minds, and if we bring these out in our work (preferably in non-heavyhanded fashion) then all the better. I suppose the one major theme I touch on in ONE EYE OPEN is the notion of individuals being what they were always supposed to be, or at least striving to achieve that. People of all creeds fulfilling not just their heart’s desire, but the purpose they consider themselves to have been put on this Earth for. If such a thing exists.

Heavy stuff, eh?

Perhaps I should cut the subtext chatter there then. Instead, let’s go to a couple of trailers, which hopefully you’ll find atmospheric:

     ‘One thing that puzzles me,’ Clive said. ‘How can this girl be a stripper and a junkie? Do needle tracks turn blokes on these days?’
     ‘The way I hear it,’ Lynda replied, ‘a lot of them inject between their toes.’
     He grimaced as they strolled along the park path, which now followed a broad curve. About fifty yards ahead, it brought into view a bench on which a figure in a grey hoodie top was sitting alone, the hood pulled up.
     ‘Excellent,’ Clive said. He made to walk forward, but Lynda halted him. ‘What’re we waiting for?’
     ‘Leverage. Real leverage, this time.’ She nodded. ‘And here it comes.’
     They ducked behind some skeletal bushes, watching as a spindly character sauntered from the other end of the path towards the seated figure. He’d come from a battered white van, which waited, exhaust billowing, at a distant gate. He was about sixteen or seventeen, wearing skinny jeans, a black puffer jacket and blue baseball cap. His fluorescent green and orange trainers somehow exacerbated the spider thinness of his legs.
     ‘Can’t be long out of school, that one,’ Clive muttered.
     ‘County Lines shithead,’ Lynda said under her breath.
     The kid stopped at the bench. There was an exchange of words, and then he passed something to the seated girl, she passed something back, and it was over. He strolled back towards the van, the girl pocketing her purchase and standing up.
     ‘Let’s move,’ Lynda said.
     They sidled out onto the path. At first the girl didn’t notice. Even though she was coming in their direction, her hands were in her pockets, her head down. But then, sensing their presence, she glanced up – in response to which Clive made a critical error. He stepped out and away from Lynda, expanding their line in the standard police way when approaching a suspect, though of course in this instance it clearly indicated to the subject who and what they were.
     She ran, veering left onto the grass, heading towards a distant hedge, on the other side of which lay the nearest road. Lynda veered the same way, trying to cut her off. Clive sprinted down the path to try and prevent her doubling back.
     ‘Anja, we’re police officers!’ Lynda shouted. ‘Stay where you are!’
     But the girl turned and cut sharply back the way she’d come.
     ‘Clive!’ Lynda yelled, as she turned to give chase.
     She was briefly distracted by the kid at the far end of the path. He’d twirled around, spotted the police activity and now leapt into the van, which screeched away. Looking back, she saw the diminishing shape of the girl haring towards the far side of the park. In the foreground, Clive climbed to his feet, swearing at the mud streaked down the side of his trousers.
     ‘Clive!’ Lynda complained.
     ‘She’s a dancer!’ he protested. ‘She’s nimble on her toes!’

And now, in a slightly different tone:

      As Elliot had already seen, the cars were draped with green canvas, but the white-haired older guy now whipped the cover off the one at the far end, revealing a sleek Mercedes-AMG in gleaming metallic maroon.
     ‘What do you think?’ Jim asked.
     ‘Beautiful,’ Elliot said.
     ‘Come around the back. I want to show you something.’
     Elliot followed.
     The older guy was waiting at the car’s rear; he opened the boot. Inside, it had been loaded with four paving stones, two on the left, two on the right.
     ‘These slabs weigh fifty kilograms each, so that’s an extra two hundred kilos in this little beauty’s backside,’ Jim said. ‘What do you reckon, Elliot?’
     ‘Tough to handle at high speed, that’s for sure.’
     Jim nodded. ‘Which is what tonight’s all about.’
     He glanced at the older guy, who plodded away across the chamber to the facing wall, where Elliot now noticed there was a large pair of wooden sliding doors. With a heavy clanking, a chain was removed, and the doors were pushed open along their tracks, one after the other.
     Jim slammed the boot. ‘Fancy taking her for a spin?’
    ‘Sounds like fun,’ Elliot replied.
     He opened the driver’s door, seeing a key waiting in the ignition. To his surprise, Jim then climbed into the front passenger seat, Ray Lonnegan into the rear.
     ‘If you want a proper test drive,’ Elliot said, ‘I can’t guarantee anyone’s safety.’
     ‘That’s okay,’ Lonnegan replied. ‘At no stage can we guarantee yours. So it all pans out.’
     Elliot glanced at Jim, who arched a laconic eyebrow.
     They drove forward, trundling through the doorway and down a shallow ramp into a gritty siding, where Elliot braked, fascinated by what he was seeing outside of the car. Three electric floodlights on tall steel poles had been switched on about forty yards to his right, and now cast their silver radiance over what looked like a disused racing circuit. The hangar behind them had obviously been a repair and garage facility, while to the left of that was the boarded-up structure of an old clubhouse or pavilion, complete with an upper balcony. On the other side of that stood a row of decayed, wooden scaffold-like structures. Tiered seating, he realised; bleachers. The track itself swung away from them both to the left and right. As its central area was little more than strewn rubbish, rusty cars and broken-down buildings, it was visible almost in its entirety. It wasn’t a circle, more of a rectangle, but with curved, steeply banked corners, covering maybe a mile and a half’s circumference.
     Elliot marvelled. ‘Is this the old Tunwood Raceway?’
     ‘Should’ve known an ex-Formula One guy like you would recognise it,’ Jim replied.
     ‘Didn’t realise it was still here, let alone intact enough to use.’
     ‘It’s not very intact, as you’re about to find out,’ Lonnegan said.


Now, just to prove that ONE EYE OPEN isn’t keeping me completely preoccupied this week, I also must thank everyone who had good things to say about my short story, The New Lad, which was published a year last May in the Titan Books’ crime anthology, EXIT WOUNDS

It concerns a young bobby, the titular new lad, and his very first duty in uniform, which is to stand guard alone all night over a crime scene in the middle of a wood, quite close to a derelict mental hospital.

Well, I’m delighted to say that it’s now been shortlisted for the Short Story Dagger award by the CWA. This is a huge honour, the first time I’ve got anywhere near one of the Crime Writers Association awards, so I am more than grateful to everyone who had a word or cast a vote on my behalf. Apparently, the prizes are awarded in October, so I’ve no clue yet what the outcome might be, but if anyone’s interested enough to find out more, you just need to watch this space. I’ll trumpet it from the rooftops if I manage to win.

Not that I’m not up against tough opposition. Check some of these competitors out: Jeffery Deaver, Christopher Fowler, Lauren Henderson, Louise Jensen and Syd Moore.


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 Lou Berney (2018)

November, 1963. President John F Kennedy is shot and killed by a sniper while travelling through Dallas, Texas, in his open-topped motorcade. The whole of the US convulses with shock, but half a continent away, in New Orleans, the only things that matter to handsome, smooth-talking fixer, Frank Guidry, is drinking, enjoying life, getting laid, and staying tight with Carlos Marcello, the local Mafia don, for whom he hustles, grifts and evens scores on a daily basis, as a result of which he earns very nicely.

In the first few pages of November Road, we see Guidry at full power but deep in his own world, working both sides of Bourbon Street, watching the comings and goings, having sex with a drunken bar girl whose name he doesn’t even catch, turning over a fellow mob guy to his boss for fouling up (via the ever-cool and untrustworthy Seraphine, Carlos’s able and delectable lieutenant) and finally noticing that the President is dead.

It’s a national disaster, which is also having massive repercussions on the world stage, but even though the authorities already have the shooter in custody, an oddball nobody called Lee Harvey Oswald, Guidry, who has a personal-safety radar second to none, starts to wonder if it might become a problem for him in particular

He knows that his boss had a particular beef with the Kennedy brothers, both Jack and Bobby, for their crackdown on organised crime activities up and down the East Coast, and is now wondering about the blue Cadillac he was instructed to leave in Dallas only a couple of days ago. Even at the time, he assumed that it would be utilised by a hitman making a getaway after whatever job he was there to perform, but of course he could never have assumed that said job would be JFK himself.

Suddenly, this is ultra-serious stuff. If the FBI decide that this guy, Oswald, is a patsy, they might throw their net much wider. They’re already going to investigate far more robustly than if this was a regular hit. In addition, if Carlos was the man who gave the order, he won’t want any trails snaking back to him.

Was this the reason why Mackey Pagano, the fellow soldier  recently served up to Carlos, has now met his end? Was Pagano what might be considered a loose end? Is it possible that Guidry, whose connection to the blue Cadillac may yet be discovered, could also be considered a loose end?

Suddenly, Frank Guidry decides that the Big Easy is about to get a mite too hot for him. But where can he flee to when the South’s boss of bosses is hot on his trail? Who can he trust to offer him cover when his role in the crime of the century is so plainly evident?

Meanwhile, in smalltown Oklahoma, spirited Charlotte Roy has finally had enough of her husband, Dooley. He doesn’t beat or abuse her, but he’s a chronic alcoholic who struggles through life, rarely achieves anything, and has no real hope of ever creating the future she seeks for her two young daughters, Joan and Rosemary. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Charlotte packs the youngsters into the car, and leaves her hapless hubby, heading west, hoping to find refuge, at least temporarily, with a distant aunt who lives out in California and who she barely even remembers speaking to. Of course, it’s never as simple as that, and in due course, car trouble maroons Charlotte and her girls in Nowhereville (aka Santa Maria), New Mexico. Mired in a depressing motel and unsure where she’s going next, if anywhere, Charlotte then meets a good-natured and generous travelling man, who calls himself ‘Frank’ and who is apparently on his way to Los Angeles, and when all other alternatives are exhausted, who offers them a ride in his own car.

Guidry isn’t simply being generous by doing this. Nor is he looking to exploit the pretty young mother, even though he is attracted to her. But he can see the advantage of making the remainder of his journey (which will only be to Las Vegas, where an old underworld acquaintance may help him out) disguised as a homely husband and father. Carlos has eyes and ears everywhere after all, nearly all of which are looking out for Guidry the enforcer, Guidry the unmarried loner.

And it’s even more important to do this now. Because just to make matters much worse, just to raise the stakes dramatically, Paul Barone, the New Orleans’ boss’s deadliest assassin, is close behind him …

November Road has been widely praised since it was published in 2018, and rightly so in my opinion, though that doesn’t mean that it’s been without its naysayers. A couple of reviewers have called it clichéd, the hardbitten gangster who only realises that he’s got a heart of gold when he’s finally smitten by a smalltown girl who believes in honesty and integrity. Others have said that novels about Kennedy’s assassination and the aftermath are ten-a-penny, others that, as conspiracy theories go, this one isn’t particularly inspiring, yet others that the plot is simplicity itself, the book nothing more than a road trip.

Well … strangely, I’d agree with many of those verdicts, but at the same time I’d add that it’s also a whole lot more.

First of all, I always know I’m reading a good book, when, no matter how chunky it feels in my hand, I find that I’ve finished it in a couple of days, having rarely taken a break other than to put it down and say to myself: ‘Wow!’

November Road is slickly and succinctly written, Lou Berney never using a paragraph if a single sentence will do instead, though as sentences go, these are pretty special. Check out this description of Charlotte Foy, which completely illustrates her character in a few short words:

… a smalltown girl, as wholesome and dull as a field of corn, with a dog-eared New Testament in her purse and uncomplicated notions about right and wrong …

And then this portrayal of Nevada’s Lake Mead, as first seen by Charlotte:

Lake Mead was something of a shock, a rude and beautiful slash of iridescent blue in the middle of the dry desert, ringed by chocolate and cinnamon canyons.

And it’s pretty much like that all the way through. Simple, lyrical and lovely. Almost from beginning to end, November Road is economically but immersively written, every person and place vivid and real. It’s also a masterpiece of crisp, punchy character-work. The perfect example of this is Seraphine, who, for most of the narrative we only encounter as a voice on the telephone, but in each case she is silky smooth and deliciously deadly with her husky Creole tone and French Quarter accent.

It’s also a case that less is more with Paul Barone, the hitman, a character possibly based on real-life Mafia enforcer, George Barone (much as Carlos Marcello is the actual Carlos Marcello, a New Orleans kingpin who was genuinely suspected to have masterminded the Kennedy assassination). Berney consciously refrains from describing Barone in any real detail, presenting him to us as an ordinary looking man, who says very little (and rarely, if ever, issues anything so vulgar as a threat) but renders him a terrifying presence all the same, primarily by reputation but also because, somehow or other, the guy’s aura commands instant respect.

Of course, the real stars of the show are Guidry and Charlotte, both of whom embark as much on a voyage of self-discovery as they do a trip from east to west.

Guidry, who had a hellish childhood, has only ever been around mob people. But his natural wits and razor intellect have raised him above the general underworld herd. Additionally, they’ve left him wondering about that ‘other life’, the regular world of private citizens, which he’s always looked down on as something for suckers, though when he glimpses it through the prism of Charlotte’s safe and simple ambitions, looks for the first time as if it might be worth trying out. Of course, Guidry is still a killer. He thinks nothing of sending former buddy, Mackey Pagano, for the chop, and later on, when he makes dire threats to a couple of corrupt deputies in a hick town, you know that he absolutely means it.

So, it would indeed be a cliché if he then fell so head-over-heels in love with Charlotte and her children that his next move was to change sides, but of course life is never that simple. Not in reality and not in November Road. So no, what happens here isn’t a cliché at all. Very far from it.

Charlotte meanwhile goes on an even more complex journey, and like Frank Guidry, her direction changes half way through, and more than once. Yes, she is a hometown girl at heart, but the home she knows is boring, her husband unambitious, her opportunities limited. If she was just to take off and leave all that behind on her own, you might consider her selfish. But she does it with her children, specifically taking them to California, because in all the old stories of pioneers headed west, and in so many tales of drifters seeking the American Dream, California, the so-called Golden State, is their planned destination (even if most of them never make it). Ironically, though she gets to like Guidry a lot, is even smitten by him, the mother instinct will always come first with Charlotte. She’s not really looking for an adventure or romance. She’s looking for a new life for her two girls.

In this regard, the developing relationship between these two characters isn’t just beautifully written, it’s a powerful story all on its own, the intersection of their two roads a life-changing experience for the pair of them, and it’s all done so neatly and concisely that it’d be engrossing even without the underworld factor.

However, the underworld factor is there. And it’s there all the way through, and when you look at November Road simply as a hard-assed thriller, it’s pretty good on that level too.

The assassination of President Kennedy is really only the backstory, but it still unleashes a web of violence and intrigue all across the Southern States. There is tense drama as Frank Guidry makes slow but steady progress but is forever glancing over his shoulder, always wondering if the next person he meets on the trail will be someone looking to whack him.

Charlotte, of course, sails blithely through most of this, which makes you fear for her all the more, especially when she’s hooked up with Frank and yet remains unaware of his real past. And later on, when she’s in Vegas, her future dependent, it seems, on the whim of crazy gangster, Ed Zingle, your heart is in your mouth for her. There is one particularly chilling scene, which I won’t give to you in too much detail, but which sees the Vegas overlord and his minions making a half-hearted pretence of normality even though it is just sufficiently off-kilter to set all of Charlotte’s alarm bells ringing at once. Not to mention ours, the readers, because it’s scary stuff and for at least a couple of pages you really don’t know where it’s going to end.

The ‘live fast, die young’ Mafia lifestyle is nicely encapsulated in November Road. It’s set in the 1960s, when the Italian mob still dominated organised crime in North America, and there are strong reflections all the way through of gangster epics like Goodfellas and Casino: regular references to the bosses back home, constant awareness that in this world murderers come with smiles on their faces (either that, or they’re people you’ve known for thirty years), the idea that to rat out your friends is the worst thing you can do even though it’s painfully apparent that everyone has their price and no one can be trusted.

I’ll round off by saying that November Road is another of these crime thrillers that you just have to read to fully appreciate it. Lou Berney does a remarkable job here. The tone is perfect, the mood, the pace, everything is right on song. It’s much more than a thriller, but it’s taut and exciting and filled with characters you can easily relate to. Though deceptively simple, it’s written in accessible but poetic prose strongly reminiscent of some of the truly great American authors. You will not be disappointed.

As usual, I’m now going to attempt to cast this wonderful tale before a real casting director does it for an actual TV show or movie (one of which, I understand, is already in the works). Just a bit of fun, of course. Who would really listen to me?

Frank Guidry – Matthew Rhys
Charlotte Roy – Kerry Bishé
Paul Barone – Sebastian Stan
Ed Zingel – Val Kilmer
Seraphine – Emayatzy Corinealdi
Carlos Marcello – Chris Bauer