I’m very pleased to announce that my next stand-alone crime novel, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, is now available on Amazon for pre-order. As you can see here, it’s sitting under a holding cover at present. But hopefully that position will shortly change. Keep checking in and I’ll let you know.
I’ll tell you more about it in a sec or so, but in addition to that, because NEVER SEEN AGAIN is a British-set crime thriller and it all happens in the pastoral landscape of the Suffolk/Essex borderland, I thought it might also be fun to check out some polar opposites from that. So, today, on top of my own news, I’ve also cobbled together a list of superb thriller novels that happen to be set in (and take full advantage of) some of the most extreme environments you can imagine.
In that same mood, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Tom Harper’s extraordinary novel of Amazon exploration, BLACK RIVER.
Now, as usual, if you’re only here for the book review, feel free to zoom on down to the lower end of today’s blogpost and the Thrillers, Chillers section, where all my reviews are posted.
However, if you’re interested in any of those other items too, then stick around here and let’s discuss …
Never Seen Again
This is my latest crime novel, and it’s due out from Orion next March. Officially, it’s a stand-alone, which means that it isn’t part of any ongoing series. However, as all my crime novels exist in the same universe, readers will notice cross-over characters, familiar police units and references to crimes and outrages committed in other books.
I make no apologies for that. I like all my writing to be as cohesive as possible.
(By the way, for anyone wondering when the next Heck or Lucy Clayburn novels will be coming out, I promise I’m not neglecting you. The next Heck novel is already written, and as soon as I have a publishing date, I will post it on here).
NEVER SEEN AGAIN meanwhile focusses around new, non-cop characters, in particular one David Kelman, a formerly ace crime reporter who six years ago blew a police confidence, which led directly to the disappearance of a kidnap gang along with their two latest victims, one of whom was later found zip-tied and shot, the other of whom has never been heard from since.
All this time later, David is still a pariah … not just washed up in career terms, but alienated from his friends and even his family, and regarded by the Essex Police, with whom he once worked hand-in-hand, as a scumbag who’d sell his own soul for a good story.
The only work David can get these days is in the lowest levels of the gutter press, where it doesn’t matter what kind of sensationalist sleaze he writes because his name is already mud.
However, when he one day comes into the illegal possession of an old mobile phone, he hears a frantic message on it, placed by the other kidnap victim, the one who’s now been missing for six years.
And yet the call only dates to two weeks ago!
It’s David’s chance to get back in the game. But how do you search for someone who’s been missing for so long, with no clues, no leads and no law enforcement back-up?
It’s a challenge that most folk wouldn’t even know how to start. But most folk are not David Kelman …
And that’s as much as I can give you at the moment. As I say, NEVER SEEN AGAIN is published next March, but available for pre-order right now. Just follow the link.
And now for something that in some ways is similar, but in others is …
At one time, there was nothing unusual in thrillers being set at the ends of the Earth. In the great days of adventure fiction, when the world seemed to centre around the Anglosphere and everywhere else was dark and unexplored, writers lured their readers into distant and fabulous lands almost routinely, pitting their square-jawed heroes against elemental forces so savage and alien to the occupants of libraries and sitting rooms in London and New York that they might as well have come from other planets, and indeed some of them did.
For example, the steaming jungles of the world were first experienced by most white westerners through the gentlemanly but imperialistic gaze of Rudyard Kipling (The Jungle Book, 1894) and in the fantastical writings of Tarzan creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan of the Apes, 1914), while the snows of the South Pole came to life unforgettably in 1936 in HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Jules Verne meanwhile took us deep into the ocean in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and deep underground in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864).
There were many others of course. H Rider Haggard took us across Africa’s deserts and savannahs in King Solomon’s Mines (1882), while HG Wells took us to the actual Moon in The First Men in the Moon (1900).
Ultimately, of course, all these classics were written long, long ago, when many corners of the world were unknown to western culture and were inhospitable to those not acclimatised. They are much better known now, though that doesn’t mean they’re any less of a challenge. Which is why exotic and dangerous localities still provide excellent backdrops for thrillers if for no other reason than we authors (hopefully to the delight of our readers) can never find it in us to stop dumping trouble and strife on the heads of our intrepid heroes.
Here are a few choice examples (both of the sort of places we are talking about, and the sort of books that tackle them head on) …
ICY TUNDRA ... What could be more inimical to human survival than the most frozen reaches of the world, the sort of places where mere exposure to the air can turn your very eyeballs to lumps of sightless rock?
Who Goes There?
John W Campbell (1938)
The archetypical ‘cold shock’ sci-fi horror thriller, as a bunch of scientists isolated at a research base deep in Antarctica discover what appears to be a flying saucer encased in the ice, and when they try to free it with a thermite charge, uncover the frozen body of an alien creature, which when they unintentionally thaw it out, starts to consume them one by one …The Terror
Real-life history meets full-blooded chiller fiction as the Royal Navy’s Captain John Franklin leads explorer vessels HMS Erebus and HMS Terror into the Arctic of 1845, where he must contend with incredible cold, starvation, unshifting pack-ice, mutiny, cannibalism, and most frightening of all, a monstrous and relentless creature unleashed against them by the Inuits …
Michelle Paver (2011)
When in 1937, a band of Oxbridge scholars trek north to an isolated part of the Spitsbergen coast, odd-man-out Jack Miller is determined to prove himself as good as the others. But as illness and injury slowly decimates the party, he never bargained that on reaching their destination, a derelict cabin at the end of a frozen fjord, he’d be facing the Arctic winter alone. Especially as he gradually becomes sure that someone (or something) else is lurking close by …
SWELTERING JUNGLE ... It might look pretty on the David Attenborough films, but no one can seriously pretend that Earth’s equatorial regions aren’t deadly. There are lots of things hidden deep in that lush greenery that can kill you very nastily indeed.
Joseph Conrad (1899)
When Marlowe, a British seaman, takes work with an African-based ivory trading company, he is sent inland via steamboat along the Congo River towards the Congo Free State, where he must make contact with a successful but unstable ivory trader called Kurtz. En route, he encounters increasing hardship and savagery, and some of the worst examples of imperialism gone mad …
Dragon of the Mangroves Yasuyuki Kasai (2006)
Fictionalised account of the real life World War II catastrophe when, in 1945, 1,000 Japanese troops, hemmed in by British forces on Burma’s Ramree Island, sought to escape via the inland mangrove swamps and found themselves battling hundreds of gigantic saltwater crocodiles. Only a handful survived, and one of them was Private Minoru Kasuga. This is his story …
Scott Smith (2006)
Bored during a slow holiday in Mexico, a bunch of US tourists set off in pursuit of a friend, who took a trip down the Yucatan peninsular to investigate a semi-mythical Mayan ruin. The friends’ journey takes them deep into the rainforest, where they are ambushed by hostile locals, who imprison them in the ghostly ruins, a sacrifice to the man-eating plants that infest it …
BURNING DESERT ... Most humans will die after only two days’ denial of water. Just think about that. Two days. That’s all the time you’d have to find yourself an oasis, never mind deal with whatever other horrors your author creator has heaped on you.
Cormac McCarthy (1985)
In the Texas/Mexican badlands of the late 1840s, a nameless youngster falls in with the real-life Glanton Gang, a mercenary posse who, under the leadership of John Glanton, a military veteran and former Texas Ranger, and the even more frightening Judge Holden, have morphed into a band of ruthless scalp-hunters, who initially kill and torture for money but eventually for fun …
Jane Harper (2016)
In the sun-scorched Australian outback during the midst of an even more severe drought than usual, a Federal police detective returns to his home town, a place that totally rejected him many years ago, for the funeral of an old friend who allegedly killed himself and his entire family. Once there, however, he finds that the case hasn’t been fully investigated, and thanks to a wall of silence that owes to much more than his personal unpopularity, starts to suspect a web of conspiracy …
Boston Teran (1999)
In the desert of Southern California, a peace-loving desk-cop must throw aside all he holds dear when a gang of drug-dealing Satanist freaks slaughter his ex-wife and kidnap his daughter. Accompanied only by a reformed addict who was once the cult’s sex slave, he sets out into the blistering waste determined that, if he can’t have justice, he’ll at least have revenge …
HARSH WILDERNESS ... The woods, moors and valleys of the temperate zone. Oh so scenic. And so safe, you may think. Except …, no, they aren’t. Just being away from civilisation for a day or so can be a problem for most of us. So how about being far away from it for weeks and weeks?
James Dickey (1970)
When four businessmen take a canoe trip along a backwoods river in deepest Georgia, they initially enjoy the break from the hustle and bustle of city life, though stresses in the group soon cause a rift, mainly because experienced but arrogant outdoor sportsman, Lewis, has automatically assumed leadership. The division gets worse, however, when members of the group are assaulted and stalked by a gang of violent hillbillies …
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
Stephen King (1999)
A nine-year old girl is separated from her unhappy family during a walk in the forest, mistakenly following a river, thinking that will take her back home. While her loved ones and the police search frantically, she draws farther and farther away, exposed to all the elements and gradually retreating into a hallucinogenic fantasy world wherein both good and evil characters abound …
Adam Nevill (2011)
When a bunch of old uni mates reunite for a walking holiday in the North Swedish woods, they find they have grown apart, falling out over the least little thing, including which footpaths they should take. As such, they get lost, inadvertently wandering into a dark, pagan world, and finding themselves hunted by a creature from their very worst nightmares …
DEEP OCEAN ... The intense pressure of a deep water environment starts causing physical stress to the human body at roughly 10 feet down. And yet the deepest ranges of the ocean are 36,000 feet and counting! And then there is the bizarre array of animal life that dwells there ... along with other more nameless things.
Michael Crichton (1987)
American scientists assemble at sea when probes discover a colossal spacecraft lying on the abyssal floor of the South Pacific ocean, having apparently landed there over 300 years ago. The journey to the bottom of the sea is difficult enough, even though a deep ocean habitat has been prepared, but from there the mystery increases, the vessel displaying lettering written in English …Goliath
Steve Alten (2002)
When the US fleet is destroyed by Goliath, a super-tech battle platform, which attacks from underneath, the world convulses. An American design now in the hands of terrorists, Goliath then takes refuge in teh deep sea. But it isn’t the madman in charge whom the US spec ops must somehow oust, it’s Goliath’s nano-brain, which is already learning the art of war for itself …
Lincoln Child (2007)
A navy doctor is summoned to a North Atlantic oil rig to treat bizarre psychotic symptoms afflicting the staff. But when he learns the rig is only the surface feature of a major scientific installation, Deep Storm, the bulk of which lies far below, he journeys into the depths. And is stunned to find the team working on the ruins of an undersea city, which may even be Atlantis …
MOUNTAINS HIGH ... Soaring peaks, frozen rocky ridges, thin air, lowering cloud. Don’t go up into the mountains if you don’t know what you’re doing. Because ten to one you won’t come down again.
Hemlock, an ex-commando and skilled mountaineer who doubles as a counter-assassin for the CIA, specifically targetting threats to the USA, is put on the trail of a kill-team hunting American agents. One of the shooters is ‘sanctioned’ easily, but the second joins a team planning to climb the north face of the Eiger. Hemlock has no choice but to join the climb too …The Hunger
Alma Katsu (2018)
An effectively fictionalised account of the fate of the Donner Party, a group of pioneers who in 1846 attempted to cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range, encountering multiple disasters and finally falling into cannibalism to survive. In this version of the tragic tale, horror follows horror, with witchcraft suspected as the root of the evil and a supernatural menace waiting just ahead …
An avalanche on Turkey’s Mount Ararat opens the entrance to a cave, which turns out to be the hold of a gigantic boat long buried under rock and ice. Archaeologists are thrilled, assuming that the remains of Noah’s legendary Ark have at last been found. An international team braves horrific weather to get there, but once inside, they uncover much more terrifying relics …
UNDER THE EARTH ... from the ‘Hollow Earth’ theory to the ‘Well to Hell’ hoax, mankind has long refused to believe that the underworld is empty. And with good reason. So many legends tell us there are things down there. And few of them are pleasant.
Jeff Long (1999)
A series of gruesome clues leads investigators under the Earth into a global labyrinth of unknown tunnels and caves, where they expect to find the wealth of the ages, though instead they discover the existence of another race, entirely different from mankind, hostile to all intrusion and aggressively resistant to sharing the secret and forbidden knowledge they guard …The Luminous Dead
Caitlin Starling (2019)
A tour de force of confinement paranoia as a female adventurer lies her way onto an expedition to map mineral deposits deep in an off-world cave system, only to find herself alone and enclosed in a bio-mechanical suit under the command of a heartless controller whose prime concern is the mission. At the same time, inevitably, something else is down there …
Dmiktry Glukhovskhy (2011)
In a post-nuclear future, the inhabitants of Moscow live in clan-like enclaves in the complex maze of the city’s great underground system. With the surface world no longer viable, the space below is at a premium, which leads to regular violent conflict. But now a new threat emerges, which if the survivors don’t unite in order to fight it together, will end the story for all of them …
OUTER SPACE ... No space opera here. No voyages where no man has gone before. The plain brutal reality of what travel into the star-spangled void actually means, especially when there’s some kind of horrendous crisis to deal with.
David Pedreira (2018)
2072, the Sea of Serenity. The boss of a lunar mining facility, charged with producing adequate material to fuel the fusion reactors vital for Earth’s survival, must hold it together when a bomb kills one of his engineers. He’s well aware that political intrigue surrounds the base, while he’s also sitting on a powder keg of worker discontent. And now he has the first ever murder in Outer Space to solve …Project Hail Mary
Andy Weir (2021)
An astronaut awakens from prolonged unconsciousness on a small vessel heading into deep space, with only corpses for company. Something’s clearly gone wrong, as not only are his friends dead, his memory has been wiped. He has no clue who he is or why he’s here … except for vague, fuzzy recollections about some kind of mission to save mankind ...
The first in the author’s masterly ‘Mars’ trilogy and the first attempt by any fiction writer to seriously assess the complexities involved in terra-forming the Red Planet, not just the scientific and logistical impossibilities, but the political fall-out of any such plan, and the intense stresses and potentially fatal divisions forming even among the heroic colonists charged with the duty …
URBAN HELLSCAPE ... Dark streets, blind alleys, rotting tenements. We know these districts well and avoid them like the plague if we can. But what if we can’t? What if we work there, or even worse, must live there? Don’t dismiss the idea. Someone has to.
The original novel behind the movie, in which a Brooklyn street-gang attend a pow-wow in the Bronx, only to see their host assassinated, and then, unfairly blamed, must flee back the entire length of New York, fighting off challenges from many rival gangs. Unlike the movie, the novel examines gang culture deeply and delves into the tortured lives of its many protagonists, who are mostly portrayed as troubled teens rather than heroes with film star looks …
James Ellroy (1990)
LA in the 1950s, as viewed through the all-seeing eye of scandal mag, Hush-Hush. It’s a sordid realm of racketeering, pornography, prostitution, murder and police and political corruption. Against this seething background, three cops gradually come together in their quest to tackle a massive and vicious conspiracy. Ultra bleak portrait of a world minus morality …2666
Roberto Bolano (2004)
A quest to track down a reclusive author leads a group of journalists to the dingy desert city of Santa Teresa, which sits on the Mexican/Texas border, but where most of the population live in poverty and labour in appalling sweatshops. At the same time, women are being murdered in astonishing numbers. Bolano’s epic, angst-ridden assessment of the Ciudad Juárez tragedy …
And now, just for the sake of having something completely and radically different:
COSY ENGLISH VILLAGE ... Hardly an extreme environment. I’m only adding this section for a laugh, you assume. Everyone loves village green communities. Nothing bad ever happens there. You reckon? …
John Wyndham (1957)
When a Wiltshire village is briefly cut off by an unknown unconsciousness-causing agent, all the women of child-bearing age are impregnated through a bizarre form of xenogenesis. As such, 31 children are born who are virtually identical to each other, blonde-haired, golden-eyed and telepathically connected. They clearly aren’t human; nor are they especially friendly …The Murder at the Vicarage
Agatha Christie (1930)
No list of cosy rural thrillers could ignore this first appearance in a novel by spinster detective Miss Marple, who investigates a churchwarden’s murder in her village of St Mary Mead. It isn’t long before our heroine has narrowed the suspect list down to seven candidates. Not the first village green whodunnit, but perhaps the most quintessential …
Ramsey Campbell (1989)
Movie fanatic and talented film editor Sandy goes in search of The Tower of Fear, a mythical British horror film of the 1940s, which, though it allegedly starred Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, is now long lost, with curious rumours holding that strange events happened on set and that many of those connected to the film came to untimely ends. Increasingly stalked by unknown, scarecrow-like entities, Sandy’s search finally takes her to the deceptively benign village of Redfield …
THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …
An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.BLACK RIVER
Middle-class Scottish doctor Kel MacDonald is bored with comfy holidays. Though he has a wife and young daughter to think about and a responsible position as a senior consultant at a London hospital, he increasingly finds trips to luxurious resorts unchallenging, considering everything too safe and pristine. As such, during a visit to Mexico, and a day-trip to an isolated Mayan cave complex, where the bones of sacrificial victims can be viewed at the bottom of a deep underwater grotto, Kel takes it on himself to make a ill-advised dive – and immediately gets into trouble. However, on the verge of drowning, he is saved by an athletic young American called Anton and his beautiful and intelligent girlfriend, Drew.
Kel is desperate to accompany Anton and Drew, but they initially resist his involvement until they learn that he is a doctor. The mission, thus far, is lacking medical expertise, and so, all of a sudden, Kel is invited along. His wife, Cate, doesn’t like the idea, but he is deadset on going.
However, his first reality checks arrive before he even sets off, Cate drawing his attention to several past expeditions to find Paititi that ended in disaster, some of them wiped out by wild Indians, others simply vanishing into the unexplored realm, none of their participants ever heard from again. The most recent, the Menendez Expedition, was a medical mission, but this too disappeared into the depths of the Peruvian jungle, never to re-emerge, and this catastrophe occurred only six months previously.
The next shock to Kel’s ‘wealthy white westerner’ system comes when he actually arrives in South America. The journey in-country from Lima to the expedition’s unofficial base camp of Puerto Tordoya is long, difficult and exhausting, the quality of the facilities deteriorating the further inland he travels. When he arrives at Tordoya, he finds it a tangle of dirt streets and shacks. No one he meets is especially friendly, particularly not the local police, who immediately have the air of violence and corruption about them.
Even his fellow explorers are a motley crew. Drew and Anton are as welcoming as they were before (Drew seems even more alluring now that Cate is not present), but there is also Tillman, Anton’s enforcer and a guy cut from the roughest cloth imaginable, Howie, who’s even more a fish out of water than Kel, but has the air of wealth and possesses several bags that no one may look inside, and Fabio, their official guide, who evidently knows his stuff but is vaguely untrustworthy. Already it is dawning on Kel that he isn’t here for anything that might resemble a holiday, Tillman spending their first night antagonising a gang of local criminals while haggling to buy guns, and Kel and Nolberto, the expedition’s cook, caught up in a drive-by shooting, the latter severely wounded and subsequently needing to be replaced by the taciturn Zia, who is connected in some way to the ill-fated Menendez expedition but says little and displays constant hostility to everyone.
I was first drawn to reading Black River because I’m a sucker for adventure stories, particularly those set in exotic and dangerous locations. As a youngster, growing up on classic movies like Green Hell and reading books like Tarzan of the Apes and The Lost World, I was captivated by tales of derring-do in untamed lands where Europeans had rarely ventured before and were exposed to everything from cannibals to volcanoes to dinosaurs.
Well, Black River doesn’t go quite as far as any of those, set firmly in the 21st century. Tom Harper is a fine exponent of the modern-day adventure novel, but that’s the key phrase here: ‘modern-day’. Though Kel MacDonald and co end up hacking their way through an equatorial jungle in order to find a fabled lost city, the skies overhead are often crisscrossed by American predator drones on the lookout for drugs traffickers. Though we learn at an early stage that wild Indians may pose a threat, we are informed in no uncertain terms that the natives of this gorgeous land are usually the victims when outsiders arrive; there is much illegal logging, deforestation and pollution, while simple and even friendly contact with the outside world can lead to deadly pandemics among tribes who are out of reach of routine health care. In Black River, our bold band are more likely to die from the machine guns of narcos, bandits or terrorist guerrillas than the blowpipe darts of unknown peoples.
There are wild animals of course. Some of the wildest imaginable in this perilous place: jaguars, alligators, 30-foot anacondas. But in Black River, as in the real world, the wild animals are mostly frightened of human intruders (though they do pose a danger, and a memorable one at that in certain parts of this novel). Of course, some things about jungle adventures will never change: the stultifying heat and humidity, the poisonous plants, the swarms of biting insects, the torrential downpours that can cause flash-flooding, the vast, intractable nature of a primeval landscape, which, once you’re out in the middle of it, if you lose your kit – and you can guarantee this will happen at some point – will quickly become the most inhospitable place on Earth, and where rescuers are concerned, the most unreachable.
All that and more is crammed into Black River’s eminently readable 338 pages, as well as an excellent, pulse-pounding storyline, which twists and turns like the Amazon itself as Kel Macdonald, the ultimate innocent abroad, faces ever-mounting (sometimes near impossible) hardships.
The idea of pitching an ordinary man into this crucible of pain and endurance was a stroke of genius by Tom Harper. Kel might be an accomplished doctor, but out there in the impenetrable forest none of that really means anything. He’s a reasonably fit guy, but he’s no athlete and that in itself becomes a problem as he must dig deeper and deeper just to withstand the elements, never mind to keep forging on against soul-destroying odds. None of which is helped by the shifting pattern of alliances within the group itself, Kel never sure whom to trust as the motivations of his colleagues become progressively more mysterious.
The final third of the book is a particularly vivid piece of writing by Harper. I won’t go into the details for fear of spoiling it, but put it this way: it’s a modern man reduced to his most basic level in his battle to survive a primordial world, and it’s all done so intensely and utterly believably that you find yourself hanging on every page. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Tom Harper has visited the Amazon personally, because this novel, while a great feat of action-adventure imagination, is also a lesson in how to perfectly recreate a unique environment on the written page.
Black River is not an old-fashioned novel, even at first glance when it might sound like it: yes, it concerns white westerners hacking through unexplored jungles; yes, they are seeking a lost city of gold; yes, they are mostly greedy and amoral. But this is not the colonial age; this book is very much of the now, its issues and subtext scrupulously updated to the 21st century.
Tom Harper has here given us a thoroughly grown-up actioner, which shouldn’t just entertain those with a specific interest in this kind of adventure fiction, but ought to appeal to all thriller fans in general. As always, Man is the main adversary of Man. Only, on this occasion, it’s happening in one of the most fascinating and farthest flung places on Earth.
And as usual, I’m now going to try and cast this beast. I don’t know if it’s been optioned for movie or TV development, but it definitely should be. In case that happens, but just for a bit of fun, here is my opinion on who should play who.Kel – Hans Matheson
Anton – Daniel Webber
Drew – Dakota Johnson
Tillman – Wes Chatham
Zia – Mia Maestro
Fabio – Yancey Arias
Howie – Domhnall Gleeson