Friday, 7 May 2021

Heck back soon chasing worst of the worst

Okay … today I’ve decided that I owe all my Heck fans an update.

I’m currently completing the edits on my second stand-alone thriller for Orion (title and cover art to be revealed in the very near future), but I’m regularly hammered with emails and private messages enquiring about my Heck series and when it will resume. So, it’s clearly high time that we had a chat about that in some detail.

In addition today, on the subject of ongoing detective series, I’m very pleased to be offering a detailed review and discussion of Richard Montanari’s SHUTTER MAN, the ninth outing for Philadelphia crime-fighting duo, Byrne and Balzano.

If you’re only here for the Montanari review, you’ll find it, as is always the case, in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s post. Feel free to rattle on down there straight away. On the other hand, if you want to talk a little about Heck first, stick around a bit at this end.


The last Heck book I wrote, the seventh in the series, was KISS OF DEATH, which was published in 2018. It was described by an online reviewer as ‘a rampage of a novel,’ the central character going through an ‘ordeal of an investigation’, which at the very end ‘leaves the readers as bruised and brutalised as he is’.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think he meant that in a bad way. The book still sits on Amazon with an average rating of 4.5 stars.

Perhaps the biggest talking-point about it, though, was the ending, which appears to have caused shockwaves among my readers and is, I suspect, the main reason behind the plethora of mail I’ve been getting recently. I think it’s also the case that because two and a half years have passed since then, and I’ve had two other books – neither of them Hecks – published in the intervening time, Heck fans have been getting worried that the series has ended prematurely.

‘Surely you’re not going to leave it hanging like that?’ one asked.

‘You’re not going to end the series there,’ came another missive. ‘There has to be more.’

And possibly the best one to date: ‘I command you to write more. It won’t do to finish things like that.’

Without going into too much detail about KISS OF DEATH, because there are bound to be some thriller fans who haven’t read it yet, I purposely let the book end on a big cliff-hanger, the idea being to shake the world of crime-writing with my own personal bombshell.

Okay, I’m not sure that actually happened, but as you’ve seen, it made something of an impact. I should hastily add that it was not my original intention to keep everyone waiting a long time for Heck 8, the direct follow-up, but this period of my writing life coincided with a change of publisher. I moved from Avon at HarperCollins, who had published all the previous Heck books, to Orion, who were more interested in stand-alone thrillers. I’ve always been a stand-alone fan, so I found that new arrangement very satisfactory. However, it was always my intention to get back to Heck at some point.

Therefore, Heck 8, the sequel to KISS OF DEATH, which will pick up the story only a couple of months later, is written and now going through the editing process. It will be published, if all goes to plan, early next year. But I’m aware that this is always a fluid situation, so I’ll continue to post updates on this blog.

In the meantime, if you’re a Heck fan, and you’ve read all the books that are currently out there, you may not be aware that there are also some Heck e-stories and e-novellas you can gobble up. These are primarily set in Heck’s past – i.e. well before the recent calamities that have befallen him – but combine similar levels of action, terror and frank, in-yer-face cop stuff, and include guest appearances by a host of familiar faces from the novels.

First up is A WANTED MAN (2015). 

Here’s the official blurb: 

Get back to where it all started in this race-against-the-clock short story, as a young PC Mark Heckenburg tackles the first in a long line of very bad criminals…

It’s 1997 and PC Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is patrolling the rain-lashed streets of Manchester. In the quiet hours of the early morning, nothing stirs.

Until the crackle of Heck’s police radio signals that all isn’t well out there in the darkness…

‘The Spider’ – a housebreaker notorious for his violent, vicious assaults – has come out to play. And it looks like Heck’s about to become his next prey …

Another you might like the sound of, especially as the ebook in this case is FREE (yes, you read that correctly!), is DEATH’S DOOR (2018).

Here’s the official blurb:

Obsession makes the heart grow fonder . . .

When a stalking case lands on DC Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg’s desk it seems pretty straightforward.

But when Heck discovers that the victim lives in the same house that a young woman was brutally murdered in six years earlier, instinct tells him that it’s not so simple after all.

Before long Heck is entangled in something far more dangerous than he had expected. In a race against the clock, can Heck and Gemma stop history from repeating itself – or will they end up getting caught in the crossfire?

In the above story, Heck has by this time joined the Metropolitan Police, and is working as a divisional CID officer in London, alongside the smart and spirited DC Gemma Piper. 

He’s at the same stage of his career in this next one … although I feel honour-bound to tell you (as it’s May) that this third choice has a Christmas setting, but then again, this too is FREE, and in this case you don’t even need a Kindle to read it.

In BRIGHTLY SHONE THE MOON THAT NIGHT (2017) Heck is still a divisional DC, working in Bethnal Green, but it’s Christmas Eve, a very snowy Christmas Eve, which is causing no end of transport and communications problems. Heck is on duty alone, providing solo CID night cover when Gemma Piper pops in to keep him company.

Which is perfect timing on her part.

Because an horrific crime-spree has just commenced, which is seemingly the work of a very weird bunch of carol singers … 

As I say, you don’t even need an e-reader to check out this one. You can find it here: PART 1, PART 2 and PART 3.

Hopefully, if you haven’t read these extra tales, they’ll be of some interest if you’re a keen Heckie. But if you have already, fear not. As I say, the next novel isn’t too far in the future.



 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 Richard Montanari (2015)

This ninth outing for Richard Montanari’s popular Philadelphia crime-fighting team of Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano takes a three-stranded approach to storytelling, though all these plots quickly entwine. 

First off, Byrne and Balzano are no longer working hand-in-hand. Balzano has left Homicide to join the DA’s office, while Byrne, seeming older and slightly more world-weary, now trudges the murder investigation footpath alone. Not that they won’t be working together again very shortly (as if we would expect otherwise).

When Byrne attends a horrific crime scene where a suburban family have been massacred, the mother, father and son duct-taped to chairs and shot, the mother’s face peeled off as though for a trophy, he suspects that this won’t be the last he hears of the killer (or killers) and it seems highly likely that the Homicide division and the District Attorney are going to be focussed on this case together.

The second attack follows in short-order, an elderly man tied up and shot in his own home, his face also removed. Clues now begin to emerge; for example, both the primary victims have had their birth certificates stolen, and in the second case, a handkerchief is found written on in blood. Even more disturbingly, reports are now coming in that, in the latter case, a mysterious woman in white was seen singing close to the crime scene at roughly the time when the slaying occurred.

Byrne can’t help wondering if some kind of occult ritual is being enacted here, though – and this happens early in the plot, so it isn’t a spoiler – further evidence increasingly links the murders to the Farren clan, a notorious family who for decades have tormented the population of Philly’s tough Irish neighbourhood, Devil’s Pocket.

Which brings us to the second strand of the novel.

Jumping back in time to 1976, we find Devil’s Pocket a poor but lively district. The Farrens, an innately lawless breed, who arrived here from the Old Country decades earlier, are still governed by their fearsome matriach, Moira, but while carefully polishing a reputation for being a bunch of likeable rogues, the reality is that one generation of Farren men after another, all taking their lead from the amoral grandmother they idolise, have scrounged, stolen and used violence and even murder to impose their will on their neighbours.

Local slum kids – like Kevin Byrne, for example – are very wary of them, but still, on the whole, enjoy their rough-and-tumble lives. However, on July 4 that year there is an eruption in the neighbourhood when Catriona Daugherty, a beautiful and delicate 11-year-old (and daughter of the homely but handsome local housewife, Angelica Daugherty, later to remarry as Angelica Leary), is sexually murdered. Kevin Byrne’s gang, who were particularly fond of Catriona, suspect Desmond Farren, a simple-minded, seemingly innocent member of the notorious clan because for a time there’ve been indications that he has unhealthy interests in young girls. Shortly afterwards, perhaps inevitably, Desmond Farren is also murdered, executed by a single gunshot to the back of the head, and a tidal wave of brutality is expected in response.

Back in the modern age, the third strand of the story introduces us to the youngest member of the Farrens, Michael. A good-looking and mostly polite young man, Michael harbours a deep and unusual secret. He suffered a car accident as a child, which afflicted him with the ultra-rare condition, prosopagnosia, alternately known as ‘face blindness’, which means that he is unable to recognise faces, even those of his loved ones, and therefore must carry photographs around all the time. This is something of a problem for all those who deal with him given that Michael, for all his outward charm, is also a cold-blooded killer, not just following in his family’s villainous tradition, but having emerged from his catastrophic injuries with a psychotic alter-ego, Billy the Wolf.

As these various threads gradually weave together, it isn’t long before Byrne and Balzano realise that they aren’t just pursuing an everyday serial killer, though the closer the investigation leads them to the double-tragedy of 1976, the more uneasy Kevin Byrne in particular becomes … 

There is a reason that Richard Montanari is regarded as one of America’s best crime writers, and it is books like Shutter Man, what may at first seem like it’s going to be just another creepy serial killer story very quickly expanding into an epic, generations-spanning crime saga with cops, criminals and multiple intriguing storylines interweaving, all kinds of clearly-drawn characters coming and going, the whole thing centred around the rough, tough real-life neighbourhood of Devil’s Pocket in the Irish quarter of Philadelphia.

It’s actually not complex. Though we move back and forth in time and change perspective regularly, the narrative bounces along at a jaunty pace, every segment dovetailing nicely with the one before and afterwards so that clarity remains at all stages, the tension increasing steadily as the grande finale approaches.

Characterwise, we’re in completely safe territory. As I mentioned earlier, this is the ninth outing for Byrne and Balzano, a pair of chalk and cheese investigators who, rather ingeniously by Montanari, both feel as if they’ve aged as the books have gone on, and yet nevertheless still speak the same language professionally and are both experts in their own fields. As relationships go, this one is completely platonic, though the duo are closely united in their drive to maintain law and order in a city known for its ‘brotherly love’ but which often – at least from a police POV – proves to be otherwise.

Byrne is an instinct cop, who, though lacking the spiky persona of Harry Bosch or the slick, organisational backup of Charlie Parker, is a steady, dependable worker, the sort you can always rely on to close a case quickly, while Balzano is the analytical brain and legal genius who perhaps was always destined for the top table. Both make for compelling characters because they are no frills ‘everymen’ and yet, thanks to Montanari’s trademark psychological analysis of his more maladjusted characters, are regularly called upon to tackle extraordinary opponents.

Even by Montanari’s normal standards, the primary antagonist in Shutter Man, Billy the Wolf, is particularly worth talking about. In some ways, he’s probably more interesting than either Byrne or Balzano, because, despite some titillating revelations about Byrne’s wild youth, our two heroes are mostly straight bats, whereas in comparison, Billy’s face-blindness gives him a unique place among fictional villains. I’ve certainly never before encountered a key character who, from one minute to the next, cannot recognise those around him and is just as likely to draw his gun and fire on friends as foes.

Aside from this condition, he has other mental frailties – severe ones. To start with, he is a psychopath, lacking any kind of rational or questioning mind when it comes to his own family, which allows him to become engulfed in the Farrens’ age-old superstitious beliefs to a point where it completely subsumes and dehumanises him, though (again typically of Montanari, whose villains are rarely 100% evil) this is done so subtly that it never removes the genuine air of pathos the author manages to evoke for this confused young man, not least because, though he has given in to his own darkness, Billy is also, quite clearly, a pawn being used in a larger, more Machievellian game.

I think it’s safe to say that Richard Montanari is not impressed by criminal clans, especially those like the Farrens who came to the United States in the belief that escaping from poverty and injustice gave them a blank cheque to employ violence and dishonesty as their new way of life. This, I feel, is the actual subtext of Shutter Man: when the sins of the past are not purposely erased, they will come back at some point to hurt you. And if they’re actually celebrated, in due course you and everything you hold dear may be destroyed by them.

But don’t worry. Montanari doesn’t go too heavy on this. It’s all layered into the story and characters without you having to put your thinking cap on. Equally subliminally, he juggles issues of justice and revenge, wondering if you can ever have one without the other and concluding, after some soul-searching, that justice, while it must remain blind, can never – whatever the provocation – be a blunt instrument by which the innocent may be punished alongside the guilty.

Again, I stress that Shutter Man is not an overly deep crime thriller, but it’s hugely intelligent and a real cut above the normal ‘psycho on the loose’ story.

If it has any weaknesses, they are minuscule. Some reviewers have complained about the plethora of police protocol detail. The same charge could be levelled at other crime writers, of course, to varying degrees, but for my money it’s not intrusive in Shutter Man and it helps create a real feeling of authenticity. Others, meanwhile, have claimed that the jumping between time zones has fuddled them, but if that’s the case, many modern novels in all genres must have the same impact, so that’s pretty much their problem.

The only criticism levelled at Shutter Man that I lean towards a little bit, is that the history of the Farrens is given to us in unnecessarily detailed exposition, so many thugs and hoodlums passing through the book’s pages that they all tend to blend into one, while at the same time, particularly in these sequences, it rises to several terrifyingly gory and sadistic climaxes, which, woven in, as they often are, with atmospheric scenes of mid-20th century Americana, hark straight to the more visceral Mafia movies that we’ve seen in recent years. But in truth, neither the extensive nature nor the melodrama of this massive backstory are unimportant when the author is looking to tell such a big story. I can’t really see that merely dropping hints about it or dealing with those issues via glimpses of faded memory would have sufficed.

It’s all subjective, of course, but I found Shutter Man an invigorating, large-canvas thriller, carefully constructed around two highly likeable (and deeper than usual) central characters and a superbly mysterious and yet sympathetic villain.

And now, here we go again, I’m going to be dumb enough to try and cast the main characters myself in the event that Hollywood, or someone like that, comes a-knocking. I don’t think they have done yet, but you never know, it may only be round the corner (and what a treat that would be).

Kevin Byrne – Patrick Wilson
Jessica Balzano – Alyssa Milano
Michael ‘Billy the Wolf’ Farren – Jamie Dornan
Anjelica Leary – Laura Dern
Moira Farren – Fionnula Flanagan

(The image of the Christmas killers comes to us from DeviantArt and has no actual connection to any of these publications. Likewise, the pamphlet at the top, which was circulated in New York in the 1970s, a time when the city was suffering an epidemic of violent crime, not least the Son of Sam killings).


  1. Thought the Yorkshire story would have been one by Simon Clark, who always has an element of Yorkshire in most of his work.

    1. Guess this one is in response to the English Counties blog? Simon's written some great stuff, and some of it is in Yorkshire for sure. We'll defo get him into the next one.