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


  1. I loved November Road, it has that Ellroy feel to it but without the relentless matching gun style of writing that can give you a headache. Great characters and slightly off kilter story of the genre. For me any way.

  2. Don't disagree, Pat. A great story within a great story, and an absorbing read.