Wednesday 16 February 2022

Counting down the days with my top five

I can’t pretend that I’m not getting very excited about the publication of my next novel, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, on March 17. So excited in fact that I’ll be focussing primarily on my own writing today (so, sorry about that in advance). In short, I thought today might be the ideal opportunity to look back through my crime thriller output of the last few years, and select what I consider to be my best five novels to date, with a little bit of info attached to each one just to illustrate why and how I came to this conclusion.

It isn’t going to be totally about me, though. On the subject of hard-nosed crime thrillers, particularly those featuring journalists rather than cops (in keeping with 
NEVER SEEN AGAIN), I thought today would also be the perfect time to review and discuss the late, great Mo Hayder’s exceptionally frightening and intriguing mystery, PIG ISLAND.

If you’re only really here to read about that, it’s no problem. You’ll find that review/discussion, as usual, at the lower end of today’s blogpost in the Thrillers, Chillers section.

Again as mentioned at the top of this page, and I’m particularly stoked about this, publication of my twelfth crime novel to date, but only my second with Orion Books, is imminent. Anyone who’s interested in this stuff will have noticed a slight change of tone since I went to Orion, though as I keep reiterating to the many readers who continue to get in touch (for which I’m very grateful, by the way), the Heck and Lucy Clayburn series are far from finished – it’s just that my focus of the last few years has been on stand-alone thrillers rather than series.

ONE EYE OPEN was the first of these, and NEVER SEEN AGAIN will follow in that tradition, though all my crime novels are set in the same universe. Throughout them, you’ll spot references to the National Crime Group, the Organised Crime Division, the Serial Crimes Unit, and so on, while characters who have background roles in some will have foreground roles in others etc.

But NEVER SEEN AGAIN brings us an entirely new investigator in the shape of David Kelman, and for once he’s not a cop.

A disgraced crime reporter, Kelman’s life has gone to pieces over the last few years. Basically, he blew a confidence, which had catastrophic results; not just for him personally and professionally, but for his newspaper and for the life of a young heiress who’d been kidnapped. Six years have rolled by since then, and David, no longer respected in the industry, can only scratch a living by writing celebrity shockers for the scandal mags. Which macho and married TV personality is currently courting male prostitutes? Which respectable film star has a criminal past that she’d rather forget? And so on.

Until, very unexpectedly, he is offered an opportunity not just to redeem himself, but to save the life of someone he thought long ago murdered. But the problem is that no one trusts him and no one will work with him. So, he’s going to have to do this all on his own, and follow a path that will take him into a dark, dangerous world of racketeering, crooked cops and professional killers.

I’ve often traded on the fact I was a cop before I became a full-time author. But I had another job between the two. I was a journalist working for a range of newspaper titles across the Northwest of England. I want to stress right now that the real me was no more a David Kelman than he was a Mark Heckenburg. In reality, journalism is a responsible job, where the onus is on you to impart the news without prejudice and to get your facts right, rather than to sensationalise every bit of tittle-tattle that comes along in an effort to sell papers.

Okay, I get it that some of our more recent media darlings seem to have forgotten this message. But that was the jist of the role, as I knew it.

But as with police officers, the life and work of a journalist can be very intense and even dangerous. The possibility is always lurking that, if you get something wrong – badly wrong – it could have dire consequences. While the big difference between a cop and a journalist is that, if you’re going to get into the guts of some very bad people, the journo has very little muscle to call on as backup. He/she going to be walking a lonely and high-risk path.

This, in a nutshell, was the thinking behind NEVER SEEN AGAIN. I’m very proud of it, even if I say so myself, but the proof is only in the eating. So, I am still eagerly awaiting March 17 and to see the first responses from neutrals.

By the way, if there’s anyone who’s really desperate to get their hands on a copy before then, the NetGalley option is open as always. Just go HERE.

And now, as promised …

My favourite five

In chronological order.


This was my first crime novel to hit the mass-market, courtesy of Avon at HarperCollins. STALKERS introduced my primary cop character, DS Mark Heckenburg. A loner detective working for Scotland Yard’s elite Serial Crimes Unit, Heckenburg, or Heck, a northerner displaced to London to escape a tragic past, which has left him almost friendless in his homeland, is now part of a specialist team that tracks serial offenders, mainly rapists and murderers, across all the police force areas of England and Wales. He is tough and resourceful, an habitual risk-taker and rule-bender, but in many ways he’s quite vulnerable too, not least because of the sexual chemistry he shares with Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper, a by-the-book officer but his former girlfriend when, back in the day, they were detective constables together, though now she’s his boss and someone he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with on most law-enforcement techniques.

In STALKERS, Heck’s first outing, he pieces together a confusing number of disappearances by uncovering the presence of the Nice Guys, a secretive crime syndicate whose racket, to be blunt, is a rape club. At the behest of high-paying clients, they kidnap named individuals to order and then provide a private location in which they can be sexually attacked and murdered, before undertaking to dispose of all the evidence.

STALKERS is still one of my best-selling novels, and it produced a lead character who proved to be very popular with my readership (over 260,000 copies sold thus far). Such was its success that it directed me firmly into crime-thriller territory, whereas previously I’d written widely within horror, sci-fi and historical fantasy.


This was the second Mark Heckenburg novel, and to date it remains Heck’s main contribution to the folk horror genre. In it, Heck, Gemma and the rest of SCU go in pursuit of a ‘calendar killer’, an unsub (or group of unsubs) nicknamed the Desecrator, who abducts people at random and sacrifices them in gruesome ways to celebrate ancient folk festivals, many of which have become little more in the 21st century than fun nights out: a drunk burned alive on a bonfire on Guy Fawkes Night, for example; a tramp dressed in a Father Christmas suit and walled into a chimney on Christmas Eve; a pair of young lovers shot through their respective hearts by a single arrow on Valentine’s Day. I think you get the drill.

A horror buff from years back, I was really delighted when the staff at Avon went for this idea. It allowed me to let rip with some truly ghastly murders and to delve deeply into the mysterious rites, some of them quite sinister, that lurk behind many of our most innocent traditions.

Funnily enough, my initial plan was to run this story from late summer, through the autumn and into the winter, but having scoured the calender for meaningful days, it soon became apparent that there were far more to choose from in the spring. The killing spree thus starts at Christmas and extends to May.

There’s quite a high body-count in this one, and I like to think some spectacularly twisted baddies. It remains my favourite Heck novel to date.


This novel first appeared at the request of Avon, who, while they were happy with the Heck novels, were keen to see a parallel series featuring a female protagonist. Although Lucy Clayburn already existed, at least on paper.

Well over a decade earlier, I’d speculatively written a television drama called Dirty Work, centred around a young female police detective in Manchester, who was blue-collar in origin and highly competent but regarded with suspicion by many of her male colleagues because she’d blown the whistle on a bunch of corrupt officers early in her career. The main investigation in Dirty Work was into a series of torture-murders of underworld figures, which, it later transpired, was the response of another cadre of corrupt cops who were looking to cover up past indiscretions and avert the exposure of a significant number of miscarriages of justice.

Miscarriages of justice were big news at the time, the early/mid-1990s, but they weren’t by 2016, when HarperCollins were looking for their own Lucy Clayburn series. The story had to be changed, as did certain aspects of Lucy’s personal circumstances, owing to these having (mysteriously, in my view) appeared on another TV cop show (after Dirty Work had been touted around for quite a while). As such, the Lucy who appeared for the first time in STRANGERS was still a junior police detective in Manchester, came from a poor background, was the child of a single mother etc, but now there were additions, and these, for my money, were a huge improvement. She rode a Ducati M900 because she had a Hell’s Angel past, there were still problems with some of her colleagues, this time because she’d made a mistake during her first week in CID, which had seen her DI shot and wounded. But the real complication in her life – though it doesn’t come to the fore in STRANGERS until later in the story – is that only long after she’d joined the police did Lucy learn that she was the estranged daughter of Frank McCracken, a major organised crime figure in Northern England.

In STRANGERS, she gets the chance to redeem herself by going undercover as a streetwalker to try and snare a female serial killer known as Jill the Ripper, a deranged prostitute responsible for the sex murders of a number of her male clients.

Though a dark tale indeed, STRANGERS turned the traditonal murder mystery on its head in that men were the targets for a female slayer, and involved lots of research on my part, mainly with policewomen and ex-policewomen friends of mine who had done this very job (i.e. getting into their scanties and going out on the backstreets at night to catch bad uns). Thankfully, all these efforts seemed to pay off, as STRANGERS remains one of my most successful novels to date, having made the Sunday Times Top 10.


My latest Heck novel, though there are more coming (trust me). This one takes note of the recent wave of police cuts, and sees the Serial Crimes Unit in grave danger of being disbanded as many of the top brass consider it a luxury. Gemma Piper, in an effort to save her unit, agrees to take on Operation Sledgehammer, the pursuit of the UK’s twenty most dangerous fugitives from justice who are still believed to be in the country. These are mass murderers all, gangsters, hitmen, serial rapists and the like. Heck and his new partner, the spiky but efficient Gail Honeyford, are put on the trail of a bank robber who often kidnaps and murders, but soon find evidence that a much more terrible game is in play.

Many of these men, it seems, are not missing because they are on the run, but because they themselves have been abducted for some nefarious purpose, and straightforward vigilanteism does not seem to be the explanation. In due course, Heck breaks open a conspiracy so horrific that even the Serial Crimes Unit hasn’t seen its like before. And finds it the work of a power so fiendish that even the UK’s worst criminals are little more to it than pawns in chess.

I consider KISS OF DEATH to be the most action-packed and violent of the Heck novels, but it’s become more famous since it was published for it’s so-called WTF ending (as I hoped it would at the time), which unfortunately I wasn’t able to follow up straight away because I was in the process of changing publishers.

I can only assure my readers that this story has not ended, that Heck will return, and that the next novel following on from this one is already written and now awaiting its publication slot.


My first novel for Orion, and one of my favourite pieces of work to date. It starts on a quiet road in Essex, where DS Lynda Hagen, a Serious Collision Investigation officer, enquires into a bizarre road accident in which a cloned car has veered off a highway into the woods for no apparent reason, severely injuring the two people on board, neither of whom are initially identifiable.

Lynda is a former CID officer who once dealt exclusively with crime. She only moved into Traffic because having two kids to raise and a husband struggling to recover from a nervous breakdown necessitated ordinary nine-til-five hours. But she still has well-honed detective instincts, and increasingly starts to suspect that this is no common-garden RTA. She can’t expect at this stage though, that it will lead her into a deadly world of armed robbery, organised crime and an underworld resource deemed so valuable by England’s various vying crime syndicates that they will kill and kill and kill to get their hands on it.

ONE EYE OPEN took me right out of my comfort zone. It was the first crime novel I’ve written that didn’t also double as an action thriller. It does include a heist and a police pursuit sequence that one reviewer described as ‘the best I’ve ever read’, but it’s much more of a complex mystery, involving unreliable narration and non-linear time zones. Don’t let that put you off, though. It still features moments of what I hope are extreme suspense, even terror, and finally reaches what another reader described as ‘a great ending’.

I feel a bit self-conscious singing my own praises here, but that’s what today’s blog is all about (and you were warned in advance).

Anyway, these are the five crime novels that I consider I’ve done my best work on. Hopefully more will follow, maybe starting with NEVER SEEN AGAIN, which I reiterate is published on March 17. At the end of the day, of course, only you readers can be the final judges.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Mo Hayder (2006)

Joe Oakes is a rough-cut Liverpool-born investigative journalist, who specialises in exposing supernatural hoaxes and bringing charlatans to public ridicule. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it doesn’t pay brilliantly well, and this, along with his self-employed status, is a constant problem for his attractive, middle-class wife, Lexie, who loves her hubby in her own way, but is increasingly tempted to stray towards the good-looking Harley Street doctor for whom she works as a receptionist.

Despite Oakes’s hit-and-miss reputation, he does have one very successful job under his belt. Back in the day, he travelled to the States and blew the gaff on British-born Evangelical faith-healer, Malachi Dove, who was conning people out of millions by performing fake life-saving surgeries ‘through prayer’. But that was in the past. The pickings have been leaner since then. However, very unexpectedly, Oakes gets a chance to revisit this glory when he learns that Dove has not disappeared into complete obscurity.

When mutilated body-parts, identified as having come from pigs, wash up on Scotland’s west coast, suspicion turns towards the small community on the isolated isle of Cuagach, better known as Pig Island. Oakes gets interested when he hears that the small group, who recently set up there as the ‘Psychogenic Healing Ministries’, are a satanic cult, and even more so when he learns that their pastor is one Malachi Dove.

The mystery deepens when shoddy video evidence taken by a tourist on a fishing boat appears to depict a half-human / half-animal hybrid walking on the Pig Island beaches. Local people on shore are convinced that the cult on the island, probably having performed sacrificial ceremonies which afterwards involved disposal of the animal parts, have raised a demonic entity: Pan, or maybe the Devil himself. Oakes is not so sure about that, but very sure that if Malachi Dove is involved, it will need to be investigated.

Rather to his surprise, when he contacts the Psychogenic Healing Ministries, they invite him to the island, saying that they abhor the rumours circulating and that they hope, if he comes for a visit, he will afterwards write about their activities, showing that they are not Satanists, just ordinary people looking for a new, simpler direction in life.

Oakes arrives on the island and at first glance sees only what the community spokesmen describe: friendly villagers, small, cheaply-constructed cabins, a meeting hall, and a chapel built into the rockface of a cliff, though it seems a little odd that this chapel possesses high-level security. What he doesn’t find is Malachi Dove, and when he enquires about this, he is told that the pastor has lost his mind and now lives in seclusion on the other side of the island. Oakes wants to go over there, but is advised not to by the nervous community.

This is a red rag to a bull, and at the first opportunity, the journalist attempts to cross to the other side of Cuagach, only to find that the area where Dove allegedly lives has been barricaded off by a ditch filled with drums of toxic waste and a tall, electrified fence along the top of which pigs’ severed heads have been set as warnings.

Despite these alarming fortifications, he manages to infiltrate Dove’s domain, even entering the exile’s squalid hovel of a house. When he discovers evidence that the madman has been butchering pigs as part of a ritual, having first attempted to exorcise demonic souls into their bodies the way Jesus did with the Gadarene Swine, he thinks he’s seen it all.

But he hasn’t. Oakes doesn’t know it yet, but there is much, much worse to come …

The late great Mo Hayder had a reputation for infusing her thrillers with gruesome detail, often pushing them over the dividing line into the horror genre. This is very much in evidence with Pig Island. However, appearances can be deceptive, because first and foremost this novel is a crime story, albeit a gory and disturbing one.

But you know, you have to admire an author who so fearlessly tackles the sordid realities of life on humanity’s fringes. Forget the half-human creature, forget the rumoured witch-cult, forget the flyblown pig’s head totems on the boundary fence … much of the horror to be found here is of the grimly authentic kind: the squalid interior of the dwelling where an isolated misanthrope has been eking out a solitary, embittered existence; the rundown, needle-strewn housing estate where a police safehouse allows government witnesses to hide in plain sight (and to feel lonely and cut off from the world they knew); the grotesque details of the medical procedures required to repair the body of a young woman who has not just been beaten and sexually assaulted, but also burned; the day-to-day existence of a badly disabled girl who has found herself an object of scorn, fear and twisted sexual desire.

Yes, this is Mo Hayder country for sure. No taboo is too unsettling for her to examine it in unstinting detail.

But does it work as a thriller?

Well, we’re already in the world of hybrids. We have a hybrid creature lurking on Pig Island, and as I say, a hybrid narrative. It starts out with a near-Weird Tales feel, the intrepid journalist venturing to an eerie isle where a monster allegedly roams and the locals worship Satan, but then morphs into something – dare I say it – a little more mundane: a murder mystery filled with taut investigative police detail.

Does that spoil it?

Well, it jars a little on first reading, but all in all, Pig Island remains a very satisfying story, which is filled with tension, suspense and, when necessary, violence, and which ends on a real high note if you enjoy being shaken out of your wits.

It’s a stand-alone, having no connection with Hayder’s successful Jack Caffery series, and so the author clearly felt that she had free rein with the characters in this one, and she uses it very well.

With the exception of honest copper, Danso, nobody is really good in this tale. Even the central character, Oakes, is an antihero rather than a hero: a scruffy, irreverent hardcase who doesn’t believe in anything, but knows his craft and follows his leads doggedly at the expense of everything and everyone else in his life. His married relationship inevitably suffers. Wife Lexie hails from a completely different background, but is self-centred in a different way. She wants a better life, but is not sure that Oakes will provide that, or can even be part of it, and so is gradually edging her way out. There is a bond between them, however, which we see laid bare later in the book in a tear-jerking but also horrifying moment. But again, they are both guilty of deeply selfish behaviour, which makes a nice change when it comes to the good guys.

I can’t say too much about the other characters for fear of giving things away, though Angeline is also an intriguing creation: a seemingly abused and neglected child, so reviled by the narrow minds she is used to on the edges of civilisation that she has no confidence she’ll be accepted by the broader ones at its centre. Of course, still waters run deep, and Hayder does a great job here, giving little away about Angeline’s hidden depths while at the same time hinting that she has a stronger personality than initially appears.

I enjoyed all of that. I also hugely enjoyed the descriptive work. Without overdoing it, in Pig Island, Mo Hayder demonstrates a genius for contrasting the beauty of nature (that wild Scottish coastline with its heaving seas and rugged crags,) with the physical (and spiritual) grime and garbage that accumulates at the edges of an uncaring society.

Perhaps a less appealing part of the book, but important nonetheless in terms of atmosphere, is its air of sleaziness. This isn’t thrown at us in purpose-written dollops; it arises gradually from the text, like a bad smell. And not just from the carnage and perversion on the island, or the dingy pubs, dirty houses and litter-strewn backstreets on the mainland, (though all of this helps), but from the spiritual ugliness of so many of the characters.

The one thing I didn’t especially like is the laddish tone in which so much of this novel is written. Personally, I can do without an authorial voice that is itself littered with f-words. I don’t mind it in the dialogue between characters, but when the writer swears continually as well, it starts to feel a little forced to me (in this case I understand that it’s an attempt to get into the head of streetwise Joe Oakes, though even then it feels like a clumsy device).

But that’s the only black mark I give to Pig Island.

As I say it’s an odd one – horror/murder/suspense – but don’t let that put you off. If you like well-written and uncompromising fiction concerning dark, brutish subject-matter, you’ll be well served here. As you will, of course, if you just like good quality thriller fiction (though fainter hearts might be advised to steer clear).

And now, as always, I’m going to imagine a cast on the off-chance some TV bigshot reads this review and decides to put Pig Island on TV. Just a bit of fun, of course, not that I wouldn’t love to see it done in reality, not least because it would be a monumental challenge

Joe Oakes – Leon Lopez
Lexie Oakes – MyAnna Buring
Angelina – Annalise Nicole Basso
Malachi Dove – Jeffrey Combs (in a guest-star role, adding great horror movie pedigree)
Commander Peter Danso – Ian Grieve
DS Callum Struthers – Robin Laing