Monday 24 January 2022

Scare yourself to death with a book in 2022


As most people who read this column will already be aware, my next novel, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, is published this spring, on March 17 in fact. It’s a stand-alone crime thriller, which I spoke about in a little more detail on January 21 (so please don’t hesitate to scroll back and check, if you missed it). But of course, I’m not the only author whose new work will hit the high streets this year. A plethora of exciting looking ‘dark fiction’ titles are due out in 2022, a whole grab-bag of them in the first six months.

For that reason, as I often do when the New Year comes around, I’ll be profiling a few of them here first. These are my own personal choices of course, and I won’t be able to include all the ones I’d like to, but hopefully my selections will at least give you a favour of what’s due.

You’ll find them a little way down; as usual, I’ve divided my choices into the three main categories that make up my beloved ‘dark fiction’: CRIME, THRILLER
and HORROR.

On a not-dissimilar subject, today’s Thrillers, Chillers choice is representative of all three of those subgenres at the same time. BRIMSTONE is yet another epic actioner from the tireless pens of Doug Preston and Lincoln Child, and it ticks just about every box in the ‘dark fiction’ classification. You’ll find my detailed review, as usual, at the lower end of today’s post.

Before then though, let’s chat about some …

Top 10s for January to June

It’s only January and already I could produce a directory-thick catalogue of book titles due out in the next 12 months that I’m really looking forward to. But the truth is that I don’t have either the time or the resources. As such, I can only talk about a limited number, the top 10 works in each of the Crime, Thriller and Horror subgenres that I am most impatiently awaiting.

That’s 30 books in total, which may seem like a lot but it still means that plenty have had to miss out.

I apologise unreservedly if anyone is disappointed to find that their book, or someone else’s they really like doesn’t figure in any of the lists below. It may be that I wasn’t aware of it, or just that I didn’t find its concept quite as compelling as others. It’s also the case that we just can’t accommodate everything here, and it’s possible if not highly likely, that lots of really good books will still be published in 2022 that I never even mention on this blog … so my word is not by any means Gospel. Don’t despair just because I’ve not referred to it.

Anyway, here we go.

As I say, I’ve divided them into three categories, Crime, Thriller and Horror (the titles posted in order of expected publication). Just for your info, in today’s post I’ll only be looking as far forward as June; I’ll post similar selections for the second six months of the year in July. As I’ve obviously not read all of these books yet, I won’t be offering opinions on anything, just reprinting the jacket art and the back-cover blurbs.

Hope you find this interesting and informative.

CRIME


THE CHRISTIE AFFAIR
by Nina de Gramont
(pub in hb on Jan 20)


In 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days. Only I know the truth of her disappearance.
I’m no Hercule Poirot.
I’m her husband’s mistress.


Agatha Christie’s world is one of glamorous society parties, country house weekends, and growing literary fame.

Nan O’Dea’s world is something very different. Her attempts to escape a tough London upbringing during the Great War led to a life in Ireland marred by a hidden tragedy.

After fighting her way back to England, she’s set her sights on Agatha. Because Agatha Christie has something Nan wants. And it’s not just her husband.

Despite their differences, the two women will become the most unlikely of allies. And during the mysterious eleven days that Agatha goes missing, they will unravel a dark secret that only Nan holds the key to ...


ONE FOR SORROW
by Helen Fields
(pub in pb on Mar 3)


One for sorrow, two for joy
Edinburgh is gripped by the greatest terror it has ever known. A lone bomber is targeting victims across the city and no one is safe.

Three for a girl, four for a boy
DCI Ava Turner and DI Luc Callanach face death every day – and not just the deaths of the people being taken hostage by the killer.

Five for silver, six for gold
When it becomes clear that with every tip-off they are walking into a trap designed to kill them too, Ava and Luc know that finding the truth could mean paying the ultimate price.

Seven for a secret never to be told…
But with the threat – and body count – rising daily, and no clue as to who’s behind it, neither Ava nor Luc know whether they will live long enough to tell the tale ...


NEVER SEEN AGAIN
by Paul Finch
(pub in pb on Mar 17)


Jodie Martindale and her boyfriend were kidnapped six years ago. Her boyfriend was found dead the next week. Jodie was never seen again.

Journalist David Kelman, once a hotshot but now washed up, illegally comes into possession of Jodie’s brother's old phone. And on that phone is an unheard voicemail from two weeks ago. The voice is unmistakeably that of Jodie Martindale.

The message begins an obsession for Kelman - which takes him down a rabbit hole of lies, to a dark and deadly truth ...


THE BLOOD TIDE
by Neil Lancaster
(pub in hb on Mar 31, pb on Jun 23)


You get away with murder.
In a remote sea loch on the west coast of Scotland, a fisherman vanishes without trace. His remains are never found.

You make people disappear.
A young man jumps from a bridge in Glasgow and falls to his death in the water below. DS Max Craigie uncovers evidence that links both victims. But if he can’t find out what cost them their lives, it won’t be long before more bodies turn up at the morgue…

You come back for revenge.
Soon cracks start to appear in the investigation, and Max’s past hurtles back to haunt him. When his loved ones are threatened, he faces a terrifying choice: let the only man he ever feared walk free, or watch his closest friend die…


THE DARK HOURS
by Michael Connelly
(pub in pb on Apr 5)


There’s chaos in Hollywood at the end of the New Year’s Eve countdown. Working her graveyard shift, LAPD detective Renée Ballard waits out the traditional rain of lead as hundreds of revellers shoot their guns into the air. Only minutes after midnight, Ballard is called to a scene where a hardworking auto shop owner has been fatally hit by a bullet in the middle of a crowded street party.

Ballard quickly concludes that the deadly bullet could not have fallen from the sky and that it is linked to another unsolved murder, a case at one time worked by Detective Harry Bosch. At the same time, Ballard hunts a fiendish pair of serial rapists, the Midnight Men, who have been terrorizing women and leaving no trace.

Determined to solve both cases, Ballard feels like she is constantly running uphill in a police department indelibly changed by the pandemic and recent social unrest. It is a department so hampered by inertia and low morale that Ballard must go outside to the one detective she can count on: Harry Bosch. But as the two inexorable detectives work together to find out where old and new cases intersect, they must constantly look over their shoulders. The brutal predators they are tracking are ready to kill to keep their secrets hidden.


THE DARK FLOOD
by Deon Meyer
(pub in hb on Apr 14)


One last chance. Almost fired for insubordination, detectives Benny Griessel and Vaughn Cupido find themselves demoted, exiled from the elite Hawks unit and dispatched to the leafy streets of Stellenbosch. Working a missing persons report on student Callie de Bruin is not the level of work they are used to, but it’s all they get. And soon, it takes a dangerous, deeply disturbing turn.

One last chance. Stellenbosch is beautiful, but its economy has been ruined by one man. Jasper Boonstra and his gigantic corporate fraud have crashed the local property market, just when estate agent Sandra Steenberg desperately needs a big sale. Bringing up twins and supporting her academic husband, she is facing disaster. Then she gets a call. From Jasper Boonstra, fraudster, sexual predator and owner of a superb property worth millions, even now.

For Sandra, the stakes are high and about to get way higher.

For Benny Griessel, clinging to sobriety and the relationship that saved his life, the truth about Callie can only lead to more trouble.


NO LESS THE DEVIL
by Stuart MacBride
(pub in hb on Apr 28)


‘We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.’

It’s been seventeen months since the Bloodsmith butchered his first victim and Operation Maypole is still no nearer catching him. The media is whipping up a storm, the top brass are demanding results, but the investigation is sinking fast.

Now isn’t the time to get distracted with other cases, but Detective Sergeant Lucy McVeigh doesn’t have much choice. When Benedict Strachan was just eleven, he hunted down and killed a homeless man. No one’s ever figured out why Benedict did it, but now, after sixteen years, he’s back on the streets again - battered, frightened, convinced a shadowy 'They’ are out to get him, and begging Lucy for help.

It sounds like paranoia, but what if he’s right? What if he really is caught up in something bigger and darker than Lucy’s ever dealt with before? What if the Bloodsmith isn’t the only monster out there? And what's going to happen when Lucy goes after them?


MAY GOD FORGIVE
by Alan Parks
(pub in hb on Apr 28, pb on May 3)


Glasgow is a city in mourning. An arson attack on a hairdresser’s has left five dead. Tempers are frayed and tensions running high.

When three youths are charged the city goes wild. A crowd gathers outside the courthouse but as the police drive the young men to prison, the van is rammed by a truck, and the men are grabbed and bundled into a car. The next day, the body of one of them is dumped in the city centre. A note has been sent to the newspaper: one down, two to go.

Detective Harry McCoy has twenty-four hours to find the kidnapped boys before they all turn up dead, and it is going to mean taking down some of Glasgow’s most powerful people to do it ...


THE SILENT CONVERSATION
by Caro Ramsay
(pub in pb on May 26)


When DNA evidence links a present-day murder to the disappearance of a young boy four years earlier, detectives Anderson and Costello are plunged into a baffling mystery.

It’s been four years since four-year-old Johnny Clearwater disappeared without a trace one hot summer afternoon. Now, a new TV documentary series is revisiting the case, dredging up memories perhaps best left forgotten.

On the night the TV show is broadcast, detectives Anderson and Costello are called out to investigate the murder of a female police officer. On arriving at the scene, they discover that nothing about this death is as straightforward as it would appear. What was the victim doing in the garden of the exclusive gated residence where she was found? How did she die? Why is the key witness so reluctant to speak to them? Even the off-duty police officer who was first on the scene isn’t telling them everything.

The pressure intensifies when a link is discovered between the dead woman and the disappearance of Johnny Clearwater four years earlier. What secrets are lurking behind the closed doors of this small, exclusive community ... and what really happened to little Johnny Clearwater?


THE BOTANIST
by MW Craven
(pub in hb on Jun 2)


I swear I’m one bad mood away from calling it black magic and going home ...’

Detective Sergeant Washington Poe can count on one hand the number of friends he has. And he’d still have his thumb left. There’s the insanely brilliant, guilelessly innocent civilian analyst, Tilly Bradshaw of course. He’s known his beleaguered boss, Detective Inspector Stephanie Flynn for years as he has his nearest neighbour, full-time shepherd/part-time dog sitter, Victoria.

And then there’s Estelle Doyle. It’s true the caustic pathologist has never walked down the sunny side of the street but this time has she gone too far? Shot twice in the head, her father's murder appears to be an open and shut case. Estelle has firearms discharge residue on her hands, and, in a house surrounded by fresh snow, hers are the only footprints going in. Since her arrest she’s only said three words: 'Tell Washington Poe.’

Meanwhile, a poisoner the press have dubbed the Botanist is sending high profile celebrities poems and pressed flowers. The killer seems to be able to walk through walls and, despite the advance notice he gives his victims, and regardless of the security measures the police take, he seems to be able to kill with impunity.

For a man who hates locked room mysteries, this is going to be the longest week of Washington Poe’s life …


THRILLER


OMEGA CANYON
by Dan Simmons
(pub in hb on Feb 1)


The location and mission of Omega Canyon were top secret. During World War II, it served as the most restricted area on the Los Alamos atomic-bomb research and testing grounds.

Paul Haber was a physicist banished by the Nazi party during the war. Like many academics in Germany, he came to America to help with the war effort and to avenge the loss of his wife and child to a Nazi concentration camp. But after being approached by a German spy, he is presented with proof that his family is alive. And to keep them so he must become a spy for the Nazis and betray the country that has given him asylum and purpose.

OMEGA CANYON is America's greatest war fear realized: The Los Alamos project was compromised and someone was sneaking valuable information to Nazi Germany. The race for the nuclear bomb is heating up, and Paul has to decide between the family he loves and the country who has saved his life.


TAKE YOUR BREATH AWAY
by Linwood Barclay
(pub in hb on Feb 3)


It’s always the husband, isn’t it?

One weekend, while Andrew Mason was on a fishing trip, his wife, Brie, vanished without a trace. Most people assumed Andy had got away with murder, but the police couldn’t build a strong case against him. For a while, Andy hit rock bottom – he drank too much, was abandoned by his friends, nearly lost his business and became a pariah in the place he had once called home.

Now, six years later, Andy has put his life back together. He’s sold the house he shared with Brie and moved away for a fresh start. When he hears his old house has been bulldozed and a new house built in its place, he’s not bothered. He’s settled with a new partner, Jayne, and life is good.

But Andy’s peaceful world is about to shatter. One day, a woman shows up at his old address, screaming, ‘Where’s my house? What’s happened to my house?’ And then, just as suddenly as she appeared, the woman – who bears a striking resemblance to Brie – is gone. The police are notified and old questions – and dark suspicions – resurface.

Could Brie really be alive after all these years? If so, where has she been? It soon becomes clear that Andy’s future, and the lives of those closest to him, depends on discovering what the hell is going on. The trick will be whether he can stay alive long enough to unearth the answers…


WHERE BLOOD RUNS COLD
by Giles Kristian
(pub in hb on Feb 24)


Erik Amdahl and his spirited daughter, Sofia, have embarked on a long-promised cross-country ski trip deep into Norway’s arctic circle. For Erik, it’s the chance to bond properly with his remaining daughter following a tragic accident. For Sofia, it’s the proof she needs that her father does care.

Then, far from home in this snowbound wilderness, with night falling and the mercury plummeting, an accident sends them in search of help - and shelter. Nearby is the home of a couple - members of Norway’s indigenous Sami people - who they’ve met before, and who welcome them in. Erik is relieved. He believes the worst is over. He thinks that Sofia is now safe. He could not be more wrong. He and Sofia are not the old couple’s only visitors that night - and soon he and Sofia will be running for their lives ...

Beneath the swirling light show of the Northern Lights, a desperate fight ensues - of man against man, of man against nature - a fight for survival that plays out across the snow and ice.


NINE LIVES
by Peter Swanson
(pub in pb on Mar 3)


If you’re on the list you’re marked for death.

The envelope is unremarkable. There is no return address. It contains a single, folded, sheet of white paper.

The envelope drops through the mail slot like any other piece of post. But for the nine complete strangers who receive it - each of them recognising just one name, their own, on the enclosed list - it will be the most life altering letter they ever receive. It could also be the last, as one by one, they start to meet their end.

But why?


INSOMNIA
by Sarah Pinborough
(pub in hb on Mar 31)


In the dead of night, madness lies…

Emma can’t sleep.

CHECK THE WINDOWS

It’s been like this since her big 4-0 started getting closer.

LOCK THE DOORS

Her mother stopped sleeping just before her 40th birthday too. She went mad and did the unthinkable because of it.

LOOK IN ON THE CHILDREN

Is that what’s happening to Emma?

WHY CAN’T SHE SLEEP?


THE FOOT SOLDIERS
by Gerald Seymour
(pub in hb on Mar 31)


Defectors are not always welcome. Is the information they bring worth the cost of protecting them for the rest of their lives? Is it even genuine? Might they be double agents?

These are some of the questions facing MI6 when a Russian agent hands himself in to them in Denmark.

As a team begins to assess his value, his former employers in the Kremlin develop a brutal plan to show that no defector will ever be safe.

And they know where to find him. Which means there must be a mole in MI6.

So it is that the cavaliers of Six find themselves being interrogated by nondescript Jonas Merrick of Five - the man called back from retirement and his beloved caravan, the man the young guns call the Eternal Flame because 'he never goes out’.

But while he may be grey, Jonas is also ruthless. As he quietly works through the suspects in London, and violent mayhem breaks out in Denmark, Jonas plans not just to unmask a traitor, but to hit back at the Russians with deadly force.


FIRST BORN
by Will Dean
(pub in hb on Apr 14)


THE LAST THING A TWIN EXPECTS IS TO BE ALONE ...

Molly lives a quiet, contained life in London. Naturally risk averse, she gains comfort from security and structure. Every day the same.

Her identical twin Katie is her exact opposite: gregarious and spontaneous. They used to be inseparable, until Katie moved to New York a year ago. Molly still speaks to her daily without fail.

But when Molly learns that Katie has died suddenly in New York, she is thrown into unfamiliar territory. Katie is part of her DNA. As terrifying as it is, she must go there and find out what happened. As she tracks her twin’s last movements, cracks begin to emerge. Nothing is what it seems. And a web of deceit is closing around her.


DEVIL HOUSE
by John Darnielle
(pub in pb on Apr 14)


Gage Chandler is descended from kings. That’s what his mother always told him.

Chandler is a true crime writer, with one grisly success ― and movie adaptation ― to his name, along with a series of subsequent lesser efforts that have paid the bills but not much more. But now he is being offered the chance for his big break: to move into the house ― which locals call ‘The Devil House’ ― in which a briefly notorious pair of murders occurred, apparently the work of disaffected 1980s teens. He begins his research with diligence and enthusiasm, but soon the story leads him into a puzzle he never expected ― his own work and what it means, the very core of what he does and who he is.


CITY ON FIRE
by Don Winslow
(pub in hb on Apr 26)


Providence, RI, 1986.

Twenty-nine-year-old Danny Ryan is a hard-working longshoreman, loving husband, loyal friend, and occasional “muscle’ for the Irish crime syndicate that oversees much of the city. He yearns for something more and dreams of starting over fresh, someplace far away.

But when a modern-day Helen of Troy triggers a war between rival mob factions, Danny is embroiled in a conflict he can’t escape. Now it is up to him to step into the breach to protect his family, the friends who are closer to him than brothers, and the only home he’s ever known.


by Ragnar Jonasson 
(pub in hb on Apr 28)

In the swirling snow of a deadly Icelandic storm, four friends seek shelter in a small abandoned hunting lodge. Miles from help, and knowing they will die outside in the cold, they break open the lock and make their way inside, hoping to wait out the storm until morning.

But nothing can prepare them for what they find behind the door . . .

Inside the cabin lurks a dangerous presence that chills them to their core.

Outside, certain death from exposure awaits.

So with no other option, they find themselves forced to spend a long, terrifying night in the cabin, watching as intently and silently as they are being watched themselves.

But as the evening darkens, old secrets are beginning to find their way to the light.
And as the tension escalates between the four friends, it soon becomes clear that the danger they discovered lurking in the cabin is far from the only mystery that will be uncovered tonight.

Nor the only thing to be afraid of . . .


HORROR


MESTIZA BLOOD
by V Castro
(pub in hb and pb on Jan 25)


A short story collection of nightmares, dreams, desire and visions focused on the Chicana experience. V.Castro weaves urban legend, folklore, life experience and heartache in this personal journey beginning in south Texas. 

A bar where a devil dances the night away; a street fight in a neighbourhood that may not have been a fight after all; a vengeful chola at the beginning of the apocalypse; mind swapping in the not so far future; Satan who falls and finds herself in a brothel in Amsterdam; the keys to Mictlan given to a woman after she dies during a pandemic. The collection finishes with two longer tales: The Final Porn Star is a twist on the final girl trope and slasher, with a creature from Mexican folklore; and Truck Stop is an erotic horror romance with two hearts: a video store and a truck stop.


THE ROAD OF BONES
by Christopher Golden
(pub in hb on Jan 25)


Surrounded by barren trees in a snow-covered wilderness with a dim, dusky sky forever overhead, Siberia’s Kolyma Highway is 1200 miles of gravel packed permafrost within driving distance of the Arctic Circle. A narrow path where drivers face such challenging conditions as icy surfaces, limited visibility, and an average temperature of sixty degrees below zero, fatal car accidents are common.

But motorists are not the only victims of the highway. Known as the Road of Bones, it is a massive graveyard for the former Soviet Union’s gulag prisoners. Hundreds of thousands of people worked to death and left where their bodies fell, consumed by the frozen elements and ploughed beneath the permafrost road.

Fascinated by the history, documentary producer Felix Teig’ Teigland is in Russia to drive the highway, envisioning a new series capturing Life and Death on the Road of Bones with a ride to the town of Akhust, the coldest place on Earth’, collecting ghost stories and local legends along the way. Only, when Teig and his team reach their destination, they find an abandoned town, save one catatonic nine-year-old girl - and a pack of predatory wolves, faster and smarter than any wild animals should be.

Pursued by the otherworldly beasts, Teig’s companions confront even more uncanny and inexplicable phenomena along the Road of Bones, as if the ghosts of Stalin’s victims were haunting them. It is a harrowing journey that will push Teig beyond endurance and force him to confront the sins of his past.


VALANCOURT BOOK OF WORLD HORROR STORIES #2
edited by James Jenkins and Ryan Cagle
(pub in pb on Feb 15)


The first volume of The Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories was hailed as ground-breaking’ (Publishers Weekly), stellar from top to bottom’ (Library Journal), pioneering’ (Washington Post), and a veritable feast for horror lovers’ (British Fantasy Society). The book was enthusiastically welcomed by horror readers, earned nominations for the World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson Awards, and has already been adopted as a textbook at several universities.

Now the editors have delved even deeper into the unexplored world of international horror fiction, discovering brilliant new stories from twenty countries on five continents, from Brazil to Iceland to Japan and all points in between. This volume introduces readers to award-winning authors whose work is legendary in their own countries but totally unknown in America, making it essential reading for anyone interested in horror fiction or contemporary world literature.


BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR #13
edited by Ellen Datlow
(pub in pb on Feb 17)


For more than four decades, Ellen Datlow has been at the centre of horror. Bringing you the most frightening and terrifying stories, Datlow always has her finger on the pulse of what horror readers crave. Now, with the thirteenth volume of the series, Datlow is back again to bring you the stories that will keep you up at night. Encompassed in the pages of The Best Horror of the Year have been such illustrious writers as: Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Stephen Graham Jones, Joyce Carol Oates, Laird Barron, Mira Grant, and many others.

With each passing year, science, technology, and the march of time shine light into the craggy corners of the universe, making the fears of an earlier generation seem quaint. But this light creates its own shadows. The Best Horror of the Year chronicles these shifting shadows. It is a catalogue of terror, fear, and unpleasantness as articulated by today’s most challenging and exciting writers.


DEAD SILENCE
by SA Barnes
(pub in hb on Feb 28)


A Ghost Ship.
A Salvage Crew.
Unspeakable Horrors.


Claire Kovalik is days away from being unemployed - made obsolete - when her beacon repair crew picks up a strange distress signal. With nothing to lose and no desire to return to Earth, Claire and her team decide to investigate.

What they find at the other end of the signal is a shock: the Aurora, a famous luxury space-liner that vanished on its maiden tour of the solar system more than 20 years ago. A salvage claim like this could set Claire and her crew up for life. But a quick trip through the Aurora reveals something isn’t right.

Whispers in the dark. Flickers of movement. Words scrawled in blood. Claire must fight to hold onto her sanity and find out what really happened on the Aurora, before she and her crew meet the same ghastly fate.


FIGUREHEAD
by Carly Holmes
(pub in pb on Mar 7)


Ranging from flash fiction to novelette, these stories are in turn chilling, playful, and melancholy. The bonds of family and of community, both in their fracturing and their healing states, the uneasy relationship between living in the present and yearning for the past, are themes that thread their way through Figurehead. 

Every tale is rich with landscapes haunted by loss and longing. In this debut collection of stories Carly Holmes peers into every corner of the strange fiction genre: from rural gothic through to traditional ghost stories and the uncanny. Mothers turn into trees when the sun goes down; Russian Dolls mourn their missing sisters in rotting houses; men offer sacrifices to the monsters who embody their inner wildness; and murderous demons protect young girls’ virginity.


SUNDIAL
by Catriona Ward
(pub in hb on Mar 10)


You can’t escape the desert. You can't escape Sundial.

Rob fears for her daughters. For Callie, who collects tiny bones and whispers to imaginary friends. For Annie, because she fears what Callie might do to her. Rob sees a darkness in Callie, one that reminds her of the family she left behind. She decides to take Callie back to her childhood home, to Sundial, deep in the Mojave Desert. And there she will have to make a terrible choice.

Callie is afraid of her mother. Rob has begun to look at her strangely. To tell her secrets about her past that both disturb and excite her. And Callie is beginning to wonder if only one of them will leave Sundial alive...


THE WAY OF THE WORM #3
by Ramsey Campbell
(pub in hp and pb on Mar 22)

Book 3 in the Three Births of Daoloth trilogy.

The present day, or something very like it. Dominic Sheldrake has retired from lecturing and lives on his own. His son Toby is married with a small daughter. The occultist Noble family are more active than ever. Their cult now openly operates as the Church of the Eternal Three, and has spread worldwide. The local branch occupies the top floors of Starview Tower, a Liverpool waterfront skyscraper. To Dominic’s dismay, Toby and his wife Claudine are deeply involved in it, and he suspects they are involving their small daughter Macy too.

Dominic lets his son persuade him to attend a meeting of the church, where he encounters all three generations of the Nobles. Although Christian Noble is almost a century old, he’s more vigorous than ever – inhumanly so. The family takes turns to preach an apocalyptic sermon that hints at dark secrets masked by the Bible and at the future that lies in wait. In a bid to investigate further Dominic undergoes the rite the church offers its members, which confers the ability to travel psychically through time. Before he’s able to flee back to the present he has a vision of the monstrous fate that’s in store for the world.

Dominic discovers a secret he’s sure the Nobles won’t want to be made public. Although he has retired from the police, Jim helps him establish the truth, and Roberta publishes it on her online blog. It’s the subject of a court case, the results of which seem to defeat the Nobles, only for them to return in a dreadfully transformed shape. Now Dominic and his friends are at their mercy, and is there anywhere in the world to hide? Even if they manage somehow to deal with the Nobles, there may be no escaping or preventing the alien apocalypse that all the events of the trilogy have been bringing ever closer...


JUST LIKE MOTHER
by Anne Heltzel
(pub in hb on May 17)


A girl would be such a blessing...

The last time Maeve saw her cousin was the night she escaped the cult they were raised in. For the past two decades, Maeve has worked hard to build a normal life in New York City, where she keeps everything - and everyone - at a safe distance.

When Andrea suddenly reappears, Maeve regains the only true friend she’s ever had. Soon she’s spending more time at Andrea's remote Catskills estate than in her own cramped apartment. Maeve doesn’t even mind that her cousin’s wealthy work friends clearly disapprove of her single lifestyle. After all, Andrea has made her fortune in the fertility industry - baby fever comes with the territory.

The more Maeve immerses herself in Andrea’s world, the more disconnected she feels from her life back in the city; and the cousins’ increasing attachment triggers memories Maeve has fought hard to bury. But confronting the terrors of her childhood may be the only way for Maeve to transcend the nightmare still to come...


SCREAMS FROM THE DARK
edited by Ellen Datlow
(pub in hb on Jun 7)


From werewolves and vampires, to demons and aliens, the monster is one of the most recognizable figures in horror. But what makes something, or someone, monstrous?

In Screams From the Dark, award-winning and up-and-coming authors like Stephen Graham Jones, Richard Kadrey, Cassandra Khaw, and Gemma Files attempt to answer this question. These stories run the gamut from traditional to modern, from mainstream to literary, from familiar monsters to the unknown and unimaginable.

This bone-chilling collection has something to please - and spook - everyone, so lock your doors, turn off your lights, and try not to scream.

When it comes to HORROR, I’m going to cheat and add one extra. That’s because there doesn’t appear to be an absolutely certain publication date for this one yet, though I’ve no doubt it will be out soon and therefore will safely fall into our January-to-June category. Also, because this one deserves a special mention as, rather sadly I have to say, it’s going to be the last in what has been an exceptional horror series.

BEST NEW HORROR #31
edited by Stephen Jones
(pub SOON)

In this latest edition of THE WORLD’S LONGEST-RUNNING ANNUAL SHOWCASE OF HORROR AND DARK FANTASY you will find cutting-edge stories by such authors as Ramsey Campbell, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Alison Littlewood, Jonathan Carroll, Michael Marshall Smith, Angela Slatter, Reggie Oliver and Richard Christian Matheson, amongst many others. You'll also find the usual Introduction: Horror in 2019 and Necrology of those who have left us.


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.

BRIMSTONE 
by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (2004)

Outline
Southampton, Long Island.
An upmarket neighbourhood is the scene of a horrific incident when Jeremy Grove, a famously rich and vicious-tongued art critic is found in a barricaded bedroom at his palatial residence, burned to a crisp seemingly from the inside out. The ghastly and inexplicable scene might be written off as a case of spontaneous human combustion, bizarre though that would be, were it not for several very baffling and unnerving details.

For one thing, a metal cross has melted into his chest, while the polished wooden floor in the bedroom bears what appears to be the charred imprint of a gigantic cloven hoof. The air in the room meanwhile is pungent with the stench of sulphur, or as it used to be known, brimstone.

The local small-town cops have rarely encountered a murder like this, especially one with such overtly Satanic tones. Even Sergeant Vincent D’Agosta, a former NYPD detective and unsuccessful crime writer, is flummoxed. He doesn’t have much religion, but this crime scene has all the hallmarks of a visitation by the Prince of Darkness himself.

Assistance arrives in the shape of FBI special agent, Aloysius Xingu Leng Pendergast, who is holidaying at the time, but gets himself assigned to what he considers a fascinating case.

D’Agosta knows Pendergast already, and likes him, and is especially grateful when the agent secures his attachment to the case as an FBI liaison, as this will get him off routine duties. Initially, however, even when Pendergast applies his outlandish intellect to the investigation, the evidence still points to some kind of dramatic supernatural event.

Apparently, Jeremy Grove spent his last few hours seeking divine intervention via the services of a semi-retired Catholic priest, who recalls the critic as a former religious-minded man but also someone who was continually angry, a guy who turned his full wrath on God in revenge for his wife’s infidelity, purposely going on to live a life of sin in order to offend Heaven. And yet shortly before his death, it seems, Grove, frantically repentant, sought out priestly assistance, clearly terrified that some kind of unstoppable demonic force was pursuing him.

Even in the 21st century, the story here seems to be that Jeremy Grove, who reputedly came by his fabulous wealth entirely fortuitously, had sold his soul to Satan, but when the time came to pay that awful price, he was less than willing.

Initially, of course, the investigators remain hard-headed and hold interviews with Grove’s immediate circle of well-to-do friends, several of whom were present at the last dinner party he hosted. One of these, a charming but corpulent and almost obscenely wealthy Italian nobleman, Count Fosco, explains that Grove seemed distracted and nervous throughout that final meal, as though something was troubling him deeply.

The case breaks open a little when a second murder occurs, this one in Manhattan, where an uber-rich record producer, Nigel Cutforth, an associate of Grove’s, dies an identical death in his penthouse apartment, though in this case the impression of an evil face is burned into the wall near the corpse.

The NYPD now join the hunt in the trim shape of tough, clever Homicide boss Laura Hayward (an old colleague of D’Agosta’s and someone with whom he still shares much unspoken chemistry), but at the same time, thanks to the efforts of ambitious tabloid hack, Bryce Harriman, word gets around that Satan is claiming the souls of those who owe him, and disparate groups of rootless people – some seeking salvation from God, some from Lucifer – pitch camp close to Cutforth’s home, causing a real headache for the cops as their numbers swell by the day. As if that isn’t difficult enough, a paroled murderer with the gift of the gab, Wayne Buck, sets himself up as a messianic preacher and slowly wins the mob over, persuading them that the End of Days is nigh and fuelling an increasingly dangerous mood.

D’Agosta meanwhile has problems of his own. Pendergast is an enigma to him. As well as being an FBI agent with an impeccable record, the guy is independently wealthy in his own right, very well-educated and has exquisite if frugal tastes, and yet, though he could live just about anywhere, he has chosen a run-down corner of Harlem, occupying a secure but decayed mansion, where he minds a vast, priceless library and looks after his pleasant but mysterious young ward, Constance. On top of that, D’Agosta’s enquiries have made him a dangerous enemy in Locke Bullard, yet another of Jeremy Grove’s circle of incredibly successful associates. On the surface, Bullard is a prominent industrialist and weapons manufacturer, though he’s clearly got many nefarious deals in place and most of the time behaves more like a mob boss. When D’Agosta gets on his case, Locke hires, firstly, a couple of goons to take care of him, and when that doesn’t work, one of the world’s deadliest hitmen, not just to kill D’Agosta now, but to kill Pendergast too.

The murders themselves might have all the trappings of Faustian pacts gone badly wrong, but there are an awful lot of verminous individuals, most of them very human and very mortal, who want to put an end to this investigation …

Review
Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast was already well-established as a character by the time Doug Preston and Lincoln Child wrote Brimstone in 2004. In fact, Brimstone is the character’s fifth outing, though previously he didn’t always play the central role. And the ‘action thriller verging on horror’ tone of this book isn’t widely different from the previous ones.

In Relic (1995), for example, he and D’Agosta tackle a cryptid beast lurking in the cellars of the New York Museum of Natural History, which turns out to be a monstrous genetic mutation. Likewise, in The Cabinet of Curiosities (2002) he finds himself investigating two separate strings of murders one hundred years apart, though he’s increasingly convinced that the same culprit is responsible. But Brimstone was published only one year after Dan Brown had his global hit with The Da Vinci Code, and so technological terror colliding head-on with antiquity was in vogue. All of a sudden, readers the world over couldn’t get enough of ancient puzzles, secret cabals, mysterious messages coded into indecipherable maps, eroded statues and the like. If Preston and Child were going to hit their cultured but secretive hero with an international mystery that spanned the centuries and included archaeology, mysticism and mass murder, this was the ideal time. But Brimstone was also, I suspect, at least partly a product of Doug Preston’s ongoing fascination with Italy, a country he would shortly move his family to, and where, along with top Italian crime reporter, Mario Spezi, he would pen his widely acclaimed ‘true crime’ investigation, The Monster of Florence (which also had much to do with secret cults, antique buildings and eerie crypts).

Of course, from the truncated synopsis I’ve given here, it might be difficult to see how any of these points can be relevant. But because I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, you’ll just have to trust me that what starts out as a straightforward double-homicide co-investigated by cops from both Long Island and New York City, soon crosses the Atlantic and spins out into an epic tale of international conspiracy, art theft, industrial espionage, weapons-smuggling, murder-for-hire and diabolism … oh yes, there is lots and lots of diabolism.

And that latter detail is the one that really marks Brimstone out as a Pendergast novel, because for much of its 752-page running time, our heroes encounter a range of unusual opponents, everything from Chinese spec-ops assassins to robot animals, from a madman armed with a futuristic ray-gun to a pack of killer dogs, while throughout the narrative the atmosphere remains firmly in the realm of the occult.

But before we get into discussing the novel’s positives in detail, I can’t pretend that there weren’t a couple of negatives too, and primarily these involve the novel’s length.

Seven-hundred plus pages is okay by me if the narrative doesn’t sag at any point, and indeed, the plot-strand concerning Pendergast and D’Agosta rarely sags at all. But there are a couple of sub-plots in Brimstone that really don’t need to be there. An elite hitman, for example, is built up enormously in the chapters leading to his arrival, but really doesn’t prove particularly special or add anything to the story other than a few moments of tension.

At the same time, Laura Hayward, who (and I hate to say this), I wasn’t entirely convinced by as the older and more grizzled D’Agosta’s love-interest, finds herself bogged down in a sub-plot that is almost completely superfluous. The apocalyptic prophecy delivered by Wayne Buck, and the apparent astrological promise that New York is due to be obliterated might have remained potent for longer had Locke Bullard’s scheme to sell super-stealth weapons to the Chinese actually gone ahead, but it peters out unsatisfyingly, which ultimately means that, while D’Agosta and Pendergast race around the Tuscan countryside, chasing a musical instrument so perfect that it surely can’t exist, being shot at by bikers in blood-red leathers, tipped into a bottomless ‘well to Hell’, invited to explore improbably Gothic castles and even getting bricked up alive, Laura’s main role in the book is crowd control in Central Park.

On top of that, while Buck is written well and has believable charisma, it eventually becomes clear to us that he’s a conman and petty criminal, which means that this whole section of the book amounts to nothing more than a time-consuming distraction with no real pay-off. (In addition, I’m not sure I bought it that a noisy gathering in the centre of the city could menace the entire NYPD to the point where they would literally be hesitant to confront it).

But that aside, I’m really not complaining. Because even though it’s a long read, Brimstone is so sweetly written that it hooked me immediately and entertained me constantly.

One thing you have to compliment Doug Preston and Lincoln Child for is the meticulousness of their style. First of all, they research everything incredibly thoroughly. Whether it be Italian opera, the craftsmanship of the great instrument-makers like Antonio Stradivari, the intricacies of Italy’s many dialects, or even the technicalities of weapons devised for the Space Age, in Brimstone you know they are speaking with absolute authority.

And this doesn’t get in the way of the story. Okay, throughout this book there are moments of exposition, but often in the form of lectures given to D’Agosta by Pendergast, but it rarely gets intrusive, and it’s all interesting anyway.

But there’s much more to Preston and Child than their encyclopaedic knowledge of all things. There’s such a richness to their writing. Their descriptive work, though succinct, is delicious, capturing time and place to perfection. Brimstone, for example, once our heroes arrive in Italy, is overwhelmingly redolent of Tuscany. You are completely enchanted by the lush countryside, by the cramped, cobble-streeted towns and villages, by the Florentine boulevards and fountains, by the elegant palazzos, by the predominance everywhere of age-old artistry. It’s astonishingly vivid. You are actually there.

The characters are equally deep. Though Pendergast comes straight from the American pulp tradition of the 1940s, a latter-day Doc Savage if you like (though without the physical attributes), a polymath rather than a superhero, but hugely competent, reliable, and almost always one step ahead, he needs to be all this and more because the opponents he routinely faces (especially so in Brimstone) are several cuts above the norm.

D’Agosta, meanwhile, is a more familiar figure for crime fans. With his broken family, his unfairly soiled reputation, and often with only his wits and his instinct to protect him against some truly vile enemies, he wouldn’t be an atypical character to find in Noir fiction. Of course, because he’s tired and underpaid and unlucky in love (and just about everything else), you root for him from the start. In many ways, he’s the polar opposite of the self-confident genius that is Pendergast, and often – dare I say it – more interesting to read about.

But perhaps the most towering personality in Brimstone belongs to neither of the two heroes.

Count Fosco, near enough a straight lift from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859) – a device admitted to and explained by the authors in an essay at the end of the novel – is an obese but urbane Italian nobleman of fabulous wealth and unsullied aristocratic lineage. He is charming, intelligent, highly educated, exceptionally well-connected (to a range of secret societies) and of course, very, very dangerous. I’m not quite sure how I feel about him having been lifted from elsewhere, especially when he’s already a character with high standing in the world of fantastic fiction or ‘sensation novels’ (or whatever phrase you wish to use), but one thing is for certain, Fosco lights up every chapter he appears in. With his pompous style and pithy remarks, there is much humour to be had, but the understated menace is always there and it’s very effective. Preston and Child might have pinched him from somewhere else, though the admission is fully made, so it might be fairer to say that they’ve resurrected him in tribute to the original. Either way, it works.

In Brimstone, he is elevated to ‘Bond villain’ status, which rounds off this epic, continent-spanning fantasy thriller very nicely indeed.

You don’t need to have read the previous Pendergast outings to get the best out of this one; it would probably be better if you did, but even without that, Brimstone is a massive, all-in-one fusillade of intelligent, hugely enjoyable escapism. A romp of the very best sort.

Brimstone hasn’t been turned into a film or TV series yet, as far as I’m aware. However, an earlier Pendergast novel has. Relic was filmed as The Relic in 1997, and saw Tom Sizemore very neatly cast as Vincent D’Agosta, though, possibly for reasons we’ve already underlined (i.e. because he’s too good to be true), Pendergast doesn’t appear in that one at all. This was hardly the end of the world as Pendergast had a lesser role in that novel, but as he’s the star of the show in Brimstone, I think it’s safe to do my usual fantasy casting thing now, picking out the stars I reckon would be perfect fits for the lead characters in any screen adaptation for the 21st century. So here we go (and this time, because this is a big project, we go BIG budget) …

Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast – Matthew McConaughey
Sergeant Vincent D’Agosta – Joe Bernthal
Captain Laura Hayward – Emayatzy Corinealdi
Locke Bullard – Joel Edgerton
Count Fosco – Vince Colosimo
Bryce Harriman – Jesse Plemons

Wayne Buck – Cory Michael Smith

Friday 21 January 2022

Check out my latest: NEVER SEEN AGAIN


I’m really made up today to be able to share this with you all. It’s the finished jacket art for my next novel, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, which will be published by Orion on March 17 this year.

Obviously, this new title will be the main subject of my conversation today, but in keeping with the spirit of what I hope you’ll find a very dark thriller, I’ll also be reviewing ANTWERP, a macabre but very cool murder mystery from the pen of Nicholas Royle.

If you’re only here for the Nick Royle review, that’s absolutely fine, as always. You’ll find it, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s post.


First though, why don’t we talk a little bit about …


Before I say any more, here’s the official back-cover blurb, which I hope you’ll find interesting.

Jodie Martindale and her boyfriend were kidnapped six years ago. Her boyfriend was found dead the next week. Jodie was never seen again.

Journalist David Kelman, once a hotshot but now washed up, illegally comes into possession of Jodie’s brother's old phone. And on that phone is an unheard voicemail from two weeks ago. The voice is unmistakeably that of Jodie Martindale.

The message begins an obsession for Kelman - which takes him down a rabbit hole of lies, to a dark and deadly truth....

NEVER SEEN AGAIN is a my brand new stand-alone crime novel, though the eagle-eyed among you may notice one or two characters and institutions from earlier novels (all my thrillers take place in the same universe). Like my last novel, ONE EYE OPEN, it’s set on the Essex/Suffolk borderland, a district where stretches of beautiful countryside intersperse with towns that are not exactly blots on the landscape, but in social terms are a bit of a mess (a sort of microcosm of England itself, you might say).

Here, we follow the fortunes, or misfortunes, of one David Kelman, a former crime reporter for the Essex Examiner, a daily newspaper read county-wide, where, many years ago, after breaking a sensational story about local police corruption, he was instrumental in setting up Crime Beat, an office of investigative journalism, the operatives of which prided themselves on getting deep into the guts of the Essex criminal fraternity, a group that included every kind of malefactor, from gangsters to ex abusers to serial killers.

For a brief time, Crime Beat was the bane of the Essex underworld. And then, from out of the blue, a budding young business tycoon and wealthy heiress, Jodie Martindale, was kidnapped along with her boyfriend. A few days later, the boyfriend was found on a refuse site, hands zip-tied at his back, a bullet in his skull. However, of Jodie there was still no trace.

Energised by the horror of the crime, David Kelman and his associates got on the case, David, as always, attempting to circumnavigate the police enquiry, and on this occasion making a horrific mistake, which had devastating consequences.

When we join the action, six years have passed, Jodie Martindale hasn’t been heard of since and the Essex Examiner is defunct. David Kelman is still an investigative reporter, but now chasing dirty stories – which celeb is secretly sleeping with who, etc – for the gutter press. Former colleagues revile him, the cops mistrust him, and after falling out with him as a direct result of all this, his wife, Karen, left and took his kids with her (though David doesn’t consider himself much of a role model anyway), so now he lives alone, short on cash and minus respect.

And then, one day, while sniffing around the edges of another family tragedy, he finds himself in illegal possession of a battered and barely functioning mobile phone. More important than this is the unanswered voice-message it contains. It was placed there by none other than Jodie Martindale, begging for someone to come and save her … and it was sent only two weeks ago!

Out of nowhere, David Kelman, the once-ace investigator, has a chance to redeem himself. But he knows that simply reporting this precious find won’t be good enough. If he wants to restore his reputation, and maybe do something good for a change, he has to find Jodie herself.

But it isn’t going to be easy. Because David Kelman is now on his own, with no back-up, no resources, and next to no money, and whoever the people are who’ve got her, they are stone cold killers …

Here, for your delectation, are a couple of choice excerpts:

It might be summer, but the pitch darkness was dank and chill. A stench of urine engulfed him; his feet kicked bottles and loose planks. He clicked his phone-light on, but the subterranean gloom only retreated a short distance. Every two yards, he paused to listen, but it was deathly quiet. When he came to a T-junction, the passage on the left ran about ten yards to the foot of a flight of concrete steps with a hint of daylight shimmering down. He ascended warily, reaching a switchback landing, where a single burned spoon lay in one of the corners.
     ‘Great place to spend your final days, Freddie.’
     On the next floor, there were windows, but again they’d been covered by steel hoardings, which allowed in minimal daylight. From here, passageways led off in two different directions. The one in front led to more stairs, but the one on the left travelled a significant distance, passing various battered-open doorways. David waited again, listening.
     He hadn’t planned what he was going to do once he got in here. Probably go from one flat to the next, looking for clues. Most likely, they’d show signs that vagrants had been living in them. Even here, on the landing of the first floor, there were tell-tale signs: crack phials, the occasional used syringe, but if there was anywhere where it was obvious the police had been, that would be the starting point.
     After that, though, it was anyone’s guess what he might glean from this.
     He went along the main corridor, steel-clad windows on his left, broken doorways on his right. There was nothing telling behind any of the latter. Fire-damaged walls, piles of masonry where ceilings had collapsed. His eyes were now attuning, however, and he came to an abrupt standstill when he saw what he thought was a figure waiting at the far end. He advanced again. Slower than before. The figure didn’t move, but the closer David drew, the more distinct it became.
     Whoever it was, they were wearing black. But had they also painted their face white? …


*

HMP Brancaster, or Gull Rock, had terrifying renown. Britain had no death penalty, but most of the inmates there had no hope of release. Not only were they all lifers, in many cases they’d had tariffs imposed, minimum sentences to be served: thirty years, forty years, even fifty, while in several notorious cases no parole date would ever be granted at all. Horror stories had thus spread far and wide about a regime of ultimate punishment, the damned souls trapped there suffering as they did in no other prison in the UK …
     A sharp electronic buzz broke Norm from his reverie. He peered up the towering slab of rivetted steel that was HM Brancaster’s inner gate.
     He huddled deeper into his anorak, not that it was offering great protection against the swirling gusts of rain, and glanced irritably at the heavy cloud cover as another zigzag of lightning split it end-to-end. To think that all the way north from Colchester he’d seen nothing but blue skies and summer sun. How quickly, as he’d neared his destination, all that had changed.
     With a hefty clunk, a single-door section of the gate swung inward.
     Norm stepped through into semi-darkness. Bare brick walls stood to either side; damp paving stones lay under his feet. He pulled back his hood and unzipped his anorak as two unsmiling officers emerged from a side office, checked him over with a portable metal detector and then subjected him to a vigorous body search. He’d already been advised not to bother bringing a notebook or pen, as both would be taken off him. Instead, he’d equipped himself with his Dictaphone, which, despite having told the authorities about it beforehand, the officers regarded with grave suspicion before handing it back without comment.
     One of them withdrew into his office, while the other indicated that Norm should accompany him. They left the gatehouse, passing along a covered corridor, on top of which the rain thundered. Through its high letterbox windows, he saw the glare of moving spotlights.
     ‘This the way prisoners are brought in?’ Norm asked.
     The officer, a tall, angular, lugubrious sort, seemed surprised to have been addressed.
     ‘They come in round the back, by secure transport,’ he said. ‘They only see this side of the prison if they’re being released. And that almost never happens.’
     ‘So, all this stark functionalism …’ Norm tried to sound as if he was being light-hearted. ‘That’s purely for the visitors?’
     ‘Visitors?’ The officer cracked a smile.


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.


ANTWERP 
by Nicholas Royle (2004)

Outline
Johnny Vos is an arthouse moviemaker from the US with a deep fascination for the works of Belgian expressionist painter, the late Paul Delvaux. Perhaps inevitably, he isn’t the sort who attracts big funding for his projects, but this doesn’t stop him travelling to Antwerp, where he intends to make a documentary that will be the last word on a mysterious artist whose specialism was the creation of urban dreamscapes populated by naked, somnambulant women.

Vos, who is the kind of filmmaker that we suspect makes plans as he goes along, intends to reconstruct some of these surreal tableaux on celluloid, but in order to find sufficient women who are prepared to pose naked in public, hires prostitutes and exotic dancers from the city’s red light areas. We’re in liberated Belgium, of course, so this doesn’t cause too much of a stir … until two of the women are brutally murdered in apparent ritualistic circumstances, their ravaged corpses left in situ with video tapes of films made by cult Belgian director Harry Kümel (who, like Delvaux, is actually a real person).

Enter Frank Warner, a British film writer who has appeared in other Nick Royle works. Warner arrives in Antwerp with his personable girlfriend, Siân, looking for an opportunity to interview Vos, but finds a country still overshadowed by the crimes of another real-life personality, maniac Marc Dutroux, and reeling from the revelation that a new serial killer is on the prowl. The police are actively on the case in the guise of Detectives Bertin and Dockx but seem less than capable, which implies that Belgian officialdom has not learned a great deal since the Dutroux scandal of the 1980s and 1990s.

Though we readers meet the killer relatively early in the book, we don’t learn his identity but join him as he roams the city’s districts of post-industrial dereliction, particularly around the port area, dementedly planning further atrocities while reminiscing on a childhood from Hell.

While all this is going on, the author dangles several potential suspects in our path.

Vos himself is an obvious one, especially as he makes himself scarce after the police instruct him to stay put, while Harry Kümel, who would have been about 64 when this book was written and still very active, also makes a couple of guest appearances – not exactly as a potential murderer, though his movies are clearly held in some kind of reverence by the miscreant, so he’s a person of interest. Much more suspicious is the amoral diamond merchant and pornographer, Wim De Blieck, whose so-called ‘Last House on the Left’, a backstreet webcam house, has provided several of the sex workers cast by Vos, not to mention the odious Jan Spitzner, a former freakshow exhibit himself, now turned provider of ugly oddities through his own gruesome website, and someone who seems to be particularly besotted with certain of the ‘Last House’ housemates.

Initially, of course, our central protagonist, Frank Warner, is mainly interested in the works of Johnny Vos, though he is intrigued by the seeming connection between the murders and the two filmmakers. However, it takes a turn for the much more personal when Siân, who never really wanted to join Warner on this trip because she regards Vos as a chauvinistic conman, suddenly goes missing.

Warner is left bereft in the foreign city (‘foreign’ in so many ways, he now learns), hampered by unknowable bureaucracy, while the woman he loves – he didn’t realise how much until now! – has quite possibly been abducted by a relentless and deranged killer …

Review
Nicholas Royle first came to my attention back in the early 1990s as the author of countless readable but challenging short stories. Readable because they were so smoothly and beautifully written. Challenging because they were of a strongly surrealist bent, and while they were nominally horror stories, tended to go much, much deeper than that. His tales were also richly textured in terms of time, place and atmosphere, for all of which reasons I’m completely unsurprised that the first novel of Royle’s that I’ve ever read, Antwerp, is so engrossing.

To start with, the novel is well named, because Antwerp itself is a character in this narrative, if not the character. While the majority of the ensemble cast pursue each other at breakneck pace through the intricacies of the murder-mystery plot, the overarching presence, even though not every part of the story is set there, is the totemic titular city, which Royle doesn’t just describe in methodical, street-by-street detail, giving us far more than even the average tour-guide would, he also assesses in terms of its history, its culture, its many social and political upheavals, ultimately viewing it as a microcosm of Belgium overall, a small but compact country, which through the eyes and mouths of the book’s characters, most of whom are native (even Vos is of Belgian descent!) seems to be confused not just about its past, but about its present, and which is divided in terms of language and politics, and constantly seeking to establish a recognisable identity.

These are the author’s views, of course, or at least are the impression he was given after what must have been numerous exhaustive trips to Antwerp, because he writes about it as effortlessly, affectionately and familiarly as the rest of us might write about our home towns.

The Paul Delvaux factor is another indication of Royle’s interest in Belgian culture, the avant-garde painter well-regarded in his homeland. But the pursuit of the elusive Delvaux spirit, by the author and several of the protagonists in Antwerp, also underlines another of the author’s fascinations: the Euro art scene, not least European cinema, which, in an eerie fusion with the erotic horror-fantasies of Delvaux, plays a prominent role throughout this haunting tale.

However, Royle doesn’t immerse us in these interests of his just for the sake of it.

Voyeurism is a key theme throughout, particularly the voyeurism of women by men. And not just in the Delvaux paintings, but in Frank Warner’s endless trampings around the red light quarters of Antwerp (and other towns), wherein sad, scantily-dressed prostitutes tap on the windows to attract his attention, in the existence of the Last House on the Left, whereby men all over the world can watch selected women go about daily routines, which includes undressing and going to the lavatory, and even in the revered films of Harry Kümel, such as 1971’s Daughters of Darkness, a decadent vampire thriller about the modern day depredations of lesbian blood-drinker, Elizabeth Bathory, and Malpertuis, in which a mad genius manipulates his nubile victims through a vast and torturous maze.

Rather nicely, though, and perhaps a tad mischievously, Royle throws us an alternative viewpoint in the persona of Siân, who is unimpressed by all this intellectualisation of what she considers to be nothing more than sordid mysoginy, and doesn’t hesitate to say it.

But Antwerp is not just about its subtext. It is also a serial murder story, and though few of us, even in fiction, are unlikely ever to encounter a killer who wraps his victims in video tape or buries them in rubble with the cassettes of art-horror classics, there is a distinct air of the grimly real about it all. The bleak corners of Antwerp, the derelict shipyards, the burned-out factories, the empty, labyrinthine shells of buildings where business and commerce once thrived (dead zone, Doel, for example, is marvellously realised as one of the last places on Earth!) are ghoulishly reminiscent, to my mind at least, of Northern England during the scourge of the Yorkshire Ripper, and make the perfect hunting ground and deposition site for an urban predator of the 21st century, particularly when his chosen prey, though they might briefly stimulate the male gaze, will never be anything more to most men than a disposable pleasure.

(To Royle’s immense credit, by the way, he ascribes names and faces to many of these poor victims, describing to a degree their torturous everyday experiences so that we at least feel something as life leads them to the lion’s den. In my view, too many serial killer stories lack any kind of compassion for the victims).

Yes, there’s a dark, stark and very scary aura around the murder case itself, the blundering local police juxtaposed with a phantom figure, who is never seen and only heard from whenever his victims are found. The desperation Frank feels as he searches for Siân is painful to experience. The hopelessness of his cause as he scours the wearisome cityscape, mostly just following his nose as a journalist, feels utterly dispiriting.

On top of all this, of course, and without going into too much detail for fear of providing spoilers, Royle shows his horror-writing chops by spicing the whole thing with several taut, nerve-wracking sequences, again relying heavily and successfully on strange and terrible derelict structures, creating an atmosphere of jeopardy and despair.

All round, Antwerp is an excellent and enthralling thriller, quite arty in some of its ambitions, but only in the best kind of way, and though never terrifying, exacting in terms of the stress its complex and chilling storyline puts you through. Strongly recommended for all those with an interest in the darker side of fiction (and the arts).

And now, as usual, on the off-chance that Antwerp gets a sniff of a film or TV deal, I’m going to be ill-advised enough to try and get my casting suggestions in first. Only a bit of fun, of course. Who would listen to me anyway?

Frank – Timothy Innes
Siân – Millie Brady
Johnny Vos – Matthew Lillard
Jan Spitzner – Carel Stuycken
Harry Kümel – Jeroen Krabbé
Wim De Bliek – Walter Baele