Thursday, 5 May 2022

Big fun in prospect as festival season starts

Well, Easter is past and spring is well and truly underway. Hope it’s looking promising for everyone so far (international calamities aside, of course). All I can say is thank Heaven the festival and convention season is almost upon us. Today’s blog therefore, is all about that.

I’ll be telling you where I am as the big events unfold, what I’ll be doing and who I’ll be doing it with. I’ll also be reporting on the current status of my new novel, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, which seems to be going down well (and is currently ONLY 99p on Kindle).

In addition, and because my festival schedule, as usual, winds its way across the darker end of the literary spectrum, focussing mainly on crime, thriller and horror fiction, I thought that for today’s review I ought to find a novel that perhaps has a foot in every one of those camps. As such, I settled on Ian McGuire’s extremely dark and chilling THE NORTH WATER.

It’s the sort of novel you might sometimes find on the literary fiction shelf and maybe, for that reason, ignore it. If that’s the case, don’t ignore today’s review. You’ll find it, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section in the lower end of this blogpost. Seriously, no fan of dark fiction can afford to pass this novel by.

Of course, if you’re only here for the Ian McGuire review, that’s absolutely fine. Zoom on down to it straight away. Before then though, you might be interested in …

Let the conventions commence

The literary festival season is one of the joys of the writing life. Literary events, as I like to think of them, can be held at any time and in almost any place, though for the most part they tend to come thicker and faster from mid spring through to late autumn, the majority tending to congregate in the warmest months of the year, which only adds to the holiday atmosphere that often surrounds them.

I’m leery of getting too excited about this year’s agenda, primarily because I don’t want to tempt fate. In 2020 of course, it was all but cancelled due to the Covid pandemic, while last year, with the virus still around, it was really only a shadow of its normal self. This year, thus far, we have what promises to be a full programme, though of course you can’t be too confident.

But if this year’s schedule actually comes to pass, and fingers crossed it will, it promises an awful lot. And I hope to be participating as fully as everyone else.

For the uninitiated, these events, which mostly tend to be held over carefully selected weekends, at specific venues – usually hotels in city centres where there is lots of immediate access to pubs, Indian restaurants and kebab shops – while not exactly centred around book-talk, usually have lots of book stuff going on because they are attended primarily by writers and readers. Invariably, there are panels, workshops, readings from new books, ‘pitch an agent’ sessions, quizzes and the like. Plus, there is almost always a Book Room, where all kinds of new releases, overseas imports and independent publications that you’re unlikely to have read about in the trade press can be had at reasonable prices.

Of course, the centre of all activity tends to be a bar, where the atmosphere ranges from genial to raucous (and everywhere in between) … but never underestimate the importance of this. The whole idea of these events is to bring authors into direct contact with their public. And when I say authors, I mean big names, major international sellers, wordsmiths who you can guarantee would sell the film rights to their laundry list if they actually have one. So, if you’re there, even if you’re just a reader or a fan, you shouldn’t be afraid to doorstop these guys and gals as they hold up the bar or wander the hotel corridors, and chat to them. Because that’s why they’re there. They attend these events specifically to socialise with those who read and enjoy their work.

As I say, these are special occasions. So, if you’ve never popped onto this circuit, even for a day or so, you’re missing a treat.

My schedule

My own involvement this year will, perhaps inevitably, be based around my 2022 publication, NEVER SEEN AGAIN

For those unaware (and if you exist, shame on you), it’s an urban thriller built around a cold case kidnapping, and featuring a disgraced investigative reporter who, when he unexpectedly receives a vital clue, goes all out to discover what happened to an heiress abducted over six years earlier, and who might – though it seems incredible – still be alive.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to be attending these functions purely to hawk my latest novel around. That would be a tad unsavoury. But there’ll be plenty copies at most of them, and I’ll be there, with pen in hand, so, you know …

Anyway, the events worth mentioning (thus far, because others may join the list as the weeks roll by), in chronological order, are:

CRIMEFEST, Bristol, May 12-15

One of the major crime-fiction events in the calendar, often one of the earliest in the year and always (to date, at least) held in the grand old city of Bristol. This year, the host venue is the Mercure Bristol Royal.

This is another of my favourite weekends of the year, because the atmosphere is always superb but also very literary. In my experience, this one tends to be colonised by writers, agents, editors and publishers rather than readers, though readers are welcome to attend, and quite a few do. There is often much industry chat, but plenty amber nectar goes down too … it’s a great social occasion, and located right in the heart of one of the most interesting cities in Britain.

I’ll be there, as I say, and am fortunate enough to be participating on a panel on the Saturday afternoon, called TRYING TO FORGET: WHEN THE PAST COMES BACK TO HAUNT YOU, with some serious company, CL Taylor, Alex Dahl and Robert Scragg, while the moderator is the one and only Alison Bruce.

If that doesn’t grab you, there are lots of other interesting events to be had over the weekend, ranging from examinations of crime scene procedures to crime-fighting technology, from spies and assassins to sweet old ladies who also happen to be serial killers. Big names attending include Ann Cleeves, Robert Goddard, Catriona Ward, Sarah Pinborough, Steve Cavanagh and Maxim Jakubowski, among many others.

CHILLERCON, Scarborough, May 26-29

Previously StokerCon and having been cancelled twice already due to the pandemic, ChillerCon, now with its own particular identity, has at last nailed down a slot for itself at the end of May and is already looking like one of the major horror fiction events of the year.

It’s going to be so big in fact that it will straddle two of Scarborough’s grandest and quirkiest hotels, the Royal and the Grand, which conveniently are only a matter of 50 yards apart, and occupy high ground overlooking the roaring surf of the North Sea.

If there’s anyone toying with the idea of attending but perhaps is concerned that horror as a genre is a tad too extreme for their taste, ChillerCon also features much to do with thriller and crime fiction, though it will all be strictly of the darker variety.

For example, check out some of the big names attending: Alexandra Benedict, Mike Carey, Mick Garris, Robert Lloyd Parry, Gillian Redfearn, James Brogden, Ramsey Campbell, Grady Hendrix, Stephen Jones, Tim Lebbon, Kim Newman and Catriona Ward.  

Personally, I’ve got quite a bit of involvement at this year’s ChillerCon.

I’m delighted to announce that on the Saturday, May 28, I’ll be a guest on the panel, CRIMINAL MINDS: CRIME/HORROR CROSSOVER, which I’m guessing will do what it says on the tin, investigate the points where the two sub-genres meet and perhaps where they counter each other. It’ll be moderated by a master of ceremonies who’s well-known to all involved in both these fields (and adored by most), though I can’t name him yet, while sitting alongside me will be some serious luminaries of crime and horror (again, their names are embargoed at present, but watch this space).

It should be a fun event, but that won’t be the end of my duties on the Saturday. A little later in the day, 5pm to be precise, in the Cocktail Bar at the Grand Hotel, I’ll be signing and selling copies of my novel, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, for a fiver each, all proceeds to go to humanitarian aid for Ukraine. There is obviously only a finite number of copies available, so it will need to be done on a first come first served basis. There will be complimentary drinks too, so you can always just come along for a chat.


Closely following Scarborough, the next day in fact, I’ll be in Kendal in the lovely Lake District, where, in a special event organised by Waterstones in Kendal, held at 7pm at the Waterstones shop in the Westmorland Centre, I’ll be in conversation with MW Craven, a powerhouse crime writer and fellow craggy north-of-Englander, whose Washington Poe series has taken the crime and thriller world by storm in recent years.

His next novel, THE BOTANIST, sees Poe and his innocent civvy sidekick, Tilly Bradshaw, pursue a highly skilled poisoner, while at the same time having to cope with a convincing murder accusation levelled against one of their own colleagues.

Mike and I will be discussing this, along with my own new book, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, in our usual nonchalant manner, plus anything else that comes up, cracking jokes, taking questions from the audience and the like.

If you’d like to get a ticket, just follow the link.


Speaking of Mike Craven, I’ll also be guesting alongside him at this one-day event in my home town, Wigan. Mike will be celebrating publication of THE BOTANIST, but at the same time the day will focus on British crime writing in general.

I’ll be honest, there’s nothing I enjoy more than getting involved in events like these on home turf. There’s an old saying: ‘You can never be a hero in your hometown’. That’s undoubtedly true, but I feel I’ll have a chance to buck that trend if Wigan’s arts crowd continues its efforts to put their town on the crime-writing map.

This is the latest of several such events, and already it boasts an attractive line-up of guests. Aside from myself and MW Craven, also present will be Malcolm Hollingdrake, RC Bridgestock, Caroline England (left) and Patricia Dixon. Tickets for this one go on sale next week.

The event will run from 12 noon until 6pm in the evening, and will feature authors in conversation, books for sale, book signings, various of the sessions hosted by Caz and Sam from UK Crime Book Club. There’ll also be a licensed bar and refreshments. For ticket information, watch this space.


This is one of the biggies, as they say. Even last year, when several regular events were still under cancellation due to Covid, the Harrogate festival – one of the most eagerly awaited and best attended in the annual crime fiction calendar, and now regarded as the largest celebration of the genre in Europe – made a very welcome comeback.

A part of the furniture in the genteel Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate since 2003, this grand occasion doesn’t just host the much-covetted Dagger Awards (as annually decided on and awarded by the Crime Writers’ Association), it presents panels, chats, readings, signing sessions, workshops, TV and radio interviews and the like, most of the action taking part in the historic Old Swan Hotel, and its beautiful and extensive gardens, and, all in all, is a phenomenal opportunity for fans and readers to mingle shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the true grandees of the industry, publishers, editors, agents and of course, the authors themselves.

In fact, after the non-event in 2020 and last year’s somewhat reduced convention, I suspect there’ll be even more of the latter this year than usual. Check out this list of the special guests who’ll be in attendance: Denise Mina, Lynda la Plante, Paula Hawkins, Tess Gerritsen, Michael Connelly, Lucy Foley, Charlie Higson, John Connolly, CL Taylor and Kathy Reichs … and there are likely to be more added to that list as we get closer to July.

For my own part, I’ll be doing my usual thing of propping up the bar, sitting in the sun and happily talking to anyone who feels like saying ‘hello.’

The second half of 2022 is not likely to be event-free, though it’s probably a little early in this uncertain world of ours to talk as though things from August onward are already set in stone. One thing I can definitely announce, though many details are yet to be ironed out on this one, is SFW XIII (the ever-popular – and I mean hugely popular – SCI-FI WEEKENDER) at Great Yarmouth, November 10-13. It’s a full weekend of panels with authors and media guests as well as great evening entertainment, and inevitably will go heavily on the themes of Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror.

I’m not sure what my role will be at this one, but I’ll definitely be attending and it’s yet another big event in 2022 that I can’t wait for.


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 Ian McGuire (2016)

In 1859, Hull, on England’s Humberside coast, is a rough, tough whaling town where many dregs of humanity have washed up simply because there is nowhere else for them to go. One of these is Henry Drax, a loutish, drunken harpooner, who also happens to be a serial rapist and murderer of young boys. Not long after he’s shown up, Drax strikes again, firstly killing a fellow whaler in a pub fight and then attacking another child, raping and brutalising him to death, but feeling no concern that either of these crimes will have consequences as he’ll shortly be aboard the whaling ship, Volunteer, bound for the so-called North Water, the vast stretch of semi-frozen ocean that lies between Greenland and Canada in northern Baffin Bay.

At the same time, a desperado of a different sort arrives, also looking to join the crew of the Volunteer. Patrick Sumner is an Irish-born surgeon recently cashiered out of the British Army for some unspecified offence committed during the Siege of Delhi. Sumner, who came home from India wounded and with a laudanum habit, is here simply because he can’t find paid medical work anywhere else, and has no real idea what he is letting himself in for, having to live and work below decks among whalers, in a part of the world where the temperatures are so low that the sea itself freezes solid.

As if this isn’t going to be problem enough, the voyage of the Volunteer already feels as though it may be ill-fated. Brownlee, the skipper, while superficially efficient, has a reputation for being unlucky. His last vessel, the Percival, was ‘crushed to matchwood by a berg’, a full 18 of his crewmen dying in the process. The owner of the whaling company, Baxter, doesn’t fill Sumner with confidence either, and with good reason. Though only Brownlee is initially aware of it, this whole voyage is an insurance scam. Baxter has fallen on hard times. There are still plenty of whales in the sea, but paraffin is now replacing whale oil, and the whaling industry is dying out in towns like Hull. The shipping boss has thus instructed Brownlee to sink the Volunteer, but only when they are far into the Great White North, where the crew can be rescued by another ship of the fleet, the Hastings, but where there’ll be no possibility of an investigation discovering the truth.

As the voyage gets underway, other villains on board are drawing their own wicked plans. Having searched Sumner’s trunk, Drax and first-mate Cavendish, another reprobate, discover that he is in possession of a valuable ring that he possibly acquired in India. They have no doubt it would bring them a pretty penny if they could get hold of it themselves, but before then they must find a way to dispense with Sumner. Their first attempt to kill him misfires, when, during a sealing expedition on the pack-ice, he falls through a crevasse into the freezing water, and they leave him, only for the Irishman to prove doughtier than they expected, and live long enough to be saved by another crew member.

Debilitated through frostbite, Sumner has no option but to remain on board as the ship heads further into the frozen seas, now catching, killing and stripping down whales, which is a heartless, gruesome process, though in this desperate world the only interest anyone has is how much money they can make from it.

While the crew works, Sumner treats a cabin boy complaining of stomach problems. Giving him a full examination, the doctor discovers that the lad has been anally raped, though he is too frightened to name his attacker. Sumner reports to Brownlee, who, though he’s at heart an immoral man and knee deep in the prospective insurance fraud, is suitably angered by this to commence questioning the crew. Not long afterwards, the same boy goes missing, but is eventually found dead, strangled and stuffed into a barrel. It seems obvious that his rapist is the culprit, and Henry Drax spreads suspicion to a misanthropic ship’s carpenter called McKendrick, whom he claims he regularly saw in the boy’s company.

Convinced that he’s caught the villain, Brownlee throws McKendrick in the brig, but Sumner is less certain. For various reasons, he suspects Drax, though no one else will listen to him. Drax is amused by that, but now recognises the doctor as a potential foe as well as someone he wishes to kill for the purpose of robbery, while Brownlee is too preoccupied by the forthcoming disaster he must somehow manufacture to think this thing through. And all the while, as this incendiary atmosphere brews in the damp, muggy confines of the blood-soaked ship, the Volunteer sails further and further into the constant dark of the Arctic winter, and the perilous climes of the North Water …

Though marketed as historical adventure fiction, The North Water is without doubt one of the darkest novels I’ve ever read. Ian McGuire is classified by many as a practitioner of ‘realist literature’, which, in a nutshell, means describing things the way they are, or were, on a warts and all basis.

So when you picture the grime and squalor below decks on a 19th century commercial whaler, particularly when it’s regularly awash with the blood, blubber and bone of the prey it has so mercilessly harpooned and then protractedly slaughtered, that is precisely what you get here. It is grim stuff, leaving no ugly detail to the imagination. And we are treated to similar when it comes to McGuire’s portrayal of an industrial northern port like Hull in the 1850s, where everything is smoky and grimy, where there is horrible dereliction, where human wrecks occupy the taverns and brothels, where violence happens all the time, where children sell themselves, and where a murderous animal like Henry Drax can blend in so comfortably. Even more affecting, we get similar with the Siege of Delhi, which we see in flashback; here, Britain’s war against the Indian uprising is depicted as a near-apocalypse, neither side showing mercy, multiple innocents caught up in the maelstrom, square-jawed British soldiers unrepentant at the carnage they’ve wreaked.

So yes, while this one is billed as a historical adventure, don’t be getting into The North Water anticipating some Boys’ Own yarn.

The star of the show, for me at least, is Henry Drax. A wolf in human clothing, he’s a predatory killer several decades before Jack the Ripper popularised such a notion. One might argue that such characters aren’t uncommon in scary fiction, but I’d riposte that it’s uncommon they’re as frightening as Henry Drax is. Ian McGuire demonstrates immense skill in his creation of a fictional person who you are literally unnerved by whenever he is on the page.

To start with, there is nothing charismatic or likeable about Drax. He’s not one of these loveable rogues, he’s not someone you ‘understand’ because of his hard background. He’s just a horror, and when you get into his mind, you can see that he’s utterly insane; he doesn’t understand why he rapes and murders, he doesn’t even enjoy it, but he knows that, when he does it, for a brief time at least he’s elevated to godlike status, which in serial killer terms, makes him as close as damn it to the real thing.

But it’s not just that he’s convincingly evil. At no stage, even when this guy is in chains, do you imagine that he’s not going to turn the tables and do something terrible all over again. In fact, as this narrative proceeds, your dread certainty increases that Drax won’t just prove difficult to dispose of, he’ll likely be the last man standing.

In sharp contrast, the hero of the book, Patrick Sumner, is a weak, rather diffident character. Again though, this is Ian McGuire being true to his realist agenda. Sumner is only here because he’s a failure. While he might essentially be on the right side of civilisation, he’s lost everything: his fortune, his reputation, his family, his home, his employability. Though there are quirks in his character even then. His precious ring was loot from the Mutiny, so Sumner made sure he got his share while others were dying. He was then infuriated with himself, not for doing what he did, but for trusting fellow officers who later betrayed him. Much of the time now, he lies in his bunk, drugged, feeling sorry for himself. And isn’t this exactly the way we’d expect one of those pink young men born of the upper classes in the Age of Empire to behave?

Later on in the narrative, when a missionary priest tries to help him, he is sullen and uncommunicative, and he justifies this to himself through his mistrust of religion (even though the religious man is out there providing medicine to the Inuits, while the great intellectual powerhouse of the world, the British Empire, is busy exploiting their homeland).

Ultimately though, we cling to Sumner as one of the few good men in this frozen hell. We have to root for him because, as the odds mount, there is literally no one else to root for.

At the end of the day, we’ve been on adventures in the polar regions before. But I don’t think many that I’ve read have been as visceral as this one. The cold bites you, you can smell the stink of blood and gangrenous flesh, the grime and brutality is all around us, and then, as I say, there is Drax, who stands out as a figure of evil even in this company.

The whole thing is incredibly well-written by Ian McGuire, who has an astonishing eye for the detail of an era now long and thankfully passed. It’s an adventure story, yes, but a bruising, brutal one that you won’t forget for many a year.

At this point in my book reviews I usually indulge myself with some fantasy casting for some imaginary movie or TV adaptation. That is impossible this week because The North Water has already been dramatised by the BBC, with Colin Farrel as Drax, Jack O’Connel as Sumner and the irrepressible Stephen Graham as Brownlee. I haven’t seen the TV series yet, but if it’s half as good as the novel, I’m in for a treat.

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