Tuesday, 31 May 2022

The face-to-face season is fully underway

The ‘making an appearance’ season is now in full swing. These last few days alone, I’ve been a guest at two such events. Most recently, I had the pleasure of doing a one-to-one with close friend and superb author, MW Craven, this one at Waterstones in Kendal, as seen above. You’ll note that even my dogs, Buck and Buddy, got in on the act. I also got onto a panel at ChillerCon in Scarborough. Though ChillerCon was a particularly big event for me because, in addition to that, I managed to get my very own Book Aid for Ukraine thing going.

A bit more about these various items further down, because another big event is now due in the near future. CRIME AT THE OLD COURTS, in my home town of Wigan. More about that one shortly too.

On top of all this, and seeing that MW (Mike) Craven appears several times in today’s blog, it’s clearly a timely occasion for me to review his brand new novel, THE BOTANIST, which is just out in hardback. You’ll find that review, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the bottom end of today’s column.

Before any of that, though …

Appearances count

It was very gratifying to hook up with old mucker and top quality crime author, Mike Craven, at Waterstones in Kendal the other night, a venue where, thanks to local lad (and very fine author in his own right) Simon Kurt Unsworth, we’ve both been guests several times now, and where I’d certainly be happy to appear again.

This was a particularly good event, as we were faced by a fun and knowledgeable crowd of readers, who were genuinely interested in our books, were warmly responsive to our jokes and banter, and who asked lots of intelligent questions.

I obviously can’t speak for every author, but I can certify that I personally love meet-the-readers nights like this, and will always try to make the effort to attend if I’m invited.

It’s flattering and very gratifying to encounter people who’ve enjoyed your books enough to want to talk to you about them. Authors tend to pursue a solitary profession. In work terms, there are long periods when we have contact with no one. You can be hammering the keyboard up there in your office, or back-bedroom, or attic, or wherever it is you work, and then you suddenly stop and wonder “it’s been so long since I’ve heard from someone … am I actually part of anything here? Is there anyone out there who knows I exist?”

Even when your manuscript has been accepted for publication, it can be months before you hear something. Some of the Kendal folk who attended the other night were surprised to learn that both Mike and I struggled to recall details from our two most recent books (THE BOTANIST in Mike’s case, and NEVER SEEN AGAIN in mine), because they’d left our desks for the last time quite a considerable time ago and we haven’t really had any involvement with them since.

But it’s nice to meet people who appreciate your work. So nice that I’ll say it again: speaking for myself, I’ll always endeavour to participate in events like these if I’m fortunate enough to continue to be invited.

Coming soon

This brings me to the next big event due in my diary for 2022: CRIME AT THE OLD COURTS, Wigan, on June 11 (i.e. a week Saturday).

Now, Wigan is known by most people as something of a post-industrial blot on the hinterland between Manchester and Lancashire. In the eyes of many, it’s mainly famous for George Orwell, Rugby League and Northern Soul. But while all those items have done their bit to put Wigan on the cultural map (along with many others: tomato sausages, pies, clog-fighting), there are other things going on here too.

In recent times, the Old Courts, the venerable old Victorian court building in the heart of town, from whence felons of every sort were once despatched either to the gallows or the prison ships, has become an arts and entertainment centre, and crime fiction events (somewhat appropriately, I suppose) are now a staple of its annual itinerary.

Several times now, I’ve had the honour of being invited to participate in Noir at the Wigan Bar in the Old Courts, which usually involves several crime writers reading their latest piece of work in public, answering questions for local radio, mingling with their readers and sampling a few beers. However, on June 11 this year, a slightly bigger event, CRIME AT THE OLD COURTS, is scheduled to take place, and yet again I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be getting involved.

Celebrating the publication of THE BOTANIST, not to mention British crime and thriller writing in general, and hosted by Caz and Sam from the UK CRIME BOOK CLUB on Facebook, the programme will mainly comprise an afternoon of conversation with some of the bestselling authors in the crime genre, with a line-up that includes two 2022 CWA Dagger nominees, past CWA Dagger winners, Top 10 ‘The Best Crime & Thriller Authors of All Time’ (WH Smith Customer Poll), UK Crime Book Club book of the year winners, and a two-times British Fantasy Award winner.

As well as myself, the rollcall of writers who’ll be attending will include MW Craven, Caroline England, RC Ridgestock, Malcolm Hollingdrake and Patricia Dixon, all of us available to sign books (which can be bought there on the day).

For tickets, follow this LINK. But there’s also a chance to win yourself a freebie.

Coming very soon via Wigan Libraries, pick up a book by any of the authors named above for a chance to find this ‘dagger in the library’ FREE entry.  

We’re all very excited and anticipating a grand event in an atmospheric surrounding. 

Of course, exactly the same thing was hoped for ChillerCon in Scarborough last weekend, and it fulfilled that expectation admirably.

Beside the seaside

ChillerCon was a slightly different beast from those other festivals I’ve so far mentioned in that it focussed primarily on horror fiction, rather than crime or thrillers (though all these disciplines, in my view, are horns on the same demonic goat). And this time in particular, certainly where I was concerned, there was a strong crime and thriller element. I was a guest on the Crime and Horror panel for example, which was great fun, especially as it was moderated by author, journalist and broadcaster, Barry Forshaw, a recognised expert on both genres. In addition to that, when ChillerCon was originally due to be held last March, it seemed like a good opportunity to launch my latest crime novel, NEVER SEEN AGAIN, as it was due for publication that same week.

You may wonder why a horror group would be interested in a crime novel, but through my helming of the TERROR TALES series, my own horror stories, my horror movie, THE DEVIL’S ROCK and my horror novel, STRONGHOLD, I like to think that I’ve got lots of friends and contacts over on that darkest side of all (plus, let’s be honest … it’s not like crime fiction and horror fiction don’t overlap regularly; it’s only the marketing people who try to sell them as completely different animals).

Anyway, the latter thing didn’t happen. You may remember that, back in March, the pandemic briefly threatened to rear its ugly head again, and so ChillerCon was delayed until last weekend, though thankfully, on this occasion it went ahead and was a genuinely splendid event. 

There were all kinds of illustrious horror people there, including Robert Lloyd Parry, whose one-man MR James shows really are something to behold (he’s pictured here alongside me). To add to the mix, there were lots of books launched, lots of readings, and a massive amount of genial bar-side chat.

It was one of the best events of its kind that I’ve attended, but it worked out especially well for me because, instead of launching NEVER SEEN AGAIN, which obviously couldn’t happen two months after it hit the shops, I opted to hold a charity event instead, signing and giving away as many copies of the book as I could for a £5 donation each, all proceeds to humanitarian aid for the Ukraine.

This went better than either I or my lovely wife, Cath (pictured here), who is so continually supportive, could have anticipated. Dozens of people attended, there was an electric atmosphere, and of the 40-odd books I had available, only four were left afterwards. We raised the total sum of £237.50, which even as we speak, is winging its way towards the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.

I owe huge gratitude to everyone who came along, either to acquire a book or simply to offer moral support. It made an already really good weekend even better.

The future

Well, that’s it in terms of spring and early summer events, though some folk will be aware that once we get into high summer, mid-July to be specific, there is the Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate, one of the biggest on the circuit and an occasion that no aspiring crime or thriller author can ever afford to miss, and much later in 2022, November in fact, SFX XIII, which is primarily a sci-fi and fantasy convention. I’ll be at that one too, on that occasion probably wearing my DR WHO and TERROR TALES hats (not literally, of course), though I have to say that during the last one of these sci-fi weekenders I guested at, I signed many more of my crime novels than on lots of other occasions all rolled together, so you can never assume that everyone who attends these massive occasions will be hidebound by the subject-matter of the day.


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 MW Craven (2022)

Kane Hunt, a misogynistic TV pundit who specialises in baiting feminists, is involved in a live television debate when he mysteriously collapses and dies. Shortly before this occured, Hunt revealed that he had received several death threats, including a letter containing a pressed flower and an odd but sinister poem.

Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Washington Poe and civilian back-up, Tilly Bradshaw, key operatives in the National Crime Agency’s specialist Serial Crime Analysis Section, are on a stakeout to try and capture a Watford rapist known as Spring Heeled Jack for his ability to free-run across rooftops. Halfway through the case, Poe is distracted when he learns that Professor Estelle Doyle, the brilliant but adversarial forensics expert who has helped him during previous investigations, and one of his few close personal friends, has been arrested on suspicion of murdering her wealthy father in his palatial residence in Northumbria.

Poe immediately heads up there to get the facts, though the SIO responsible for Doyle’s arrest, Detective Chief Inspector Tai-young Lee, proves hostile, deeply resenting his questioning of her expertise. However, the problem for Doyle (and Poe) is that the evidence against her is overwhelming. Old man Doyle was shot dead in an armchair at his home, and his daughter, who has never denied being present, had gunfire residue on her hands. On top of that, it was snowing at the time, only one set of footprints were found leading to the house and these belonged to Doyle. It looks like an open-and-shut case, though Poe still refuses to believe that his friend is a murderer.

For her part, Doyle claims that she was invited to the house for lunch by her father, the twosome attempting to rebuild relations after years of estrangement, and found him in the armchair, already dead. Unfortunately, the fact that she and her father have long been at daggers-drawn provides motive in the eyes of her accusers.

While all this is going on, Tilly Bradshaw works out that the flower sent to Kane Hunt is part of a deliberate attempt to clue the police in about the rare poison used to kill him. Clearly, the murderer likes to play games and set his opponents riddles. None of this bodes well, and there is real concern when another flower, and another oblique poem, are sent to notoriously corrupt MP, Harrison Cummings.

Like Hunt, these ‘gifts’ are clearly intended to warn Cummings beforehand that he’s been marked for death, which seems bizarre as it obviously gives the cops an advantage. The MP is thus put under full-time protection and assumed from this point on to be safe.

The assumption proves incorrect.

Cummings is also killed by a lethal substance, the clue to the identity of which, only belatedly, become evident in the flower and the poem he was sent.

The NCAS now know they have a serial poisoner on their hands, whose ability to handle and administer extremely unusual and deadly materials, and who can get to his intended victims wherever they may be sheltering – ‘toxins for toxic people’, as it becomes apparent – are almost uncanny.

It would be a challenge for any police unit to tackle such a case, but Poe must continually divide his time between this enquiry and his attempts to work out who has framed Estelle Doyle, perhaps dedicating more time to the latter than he should, because he finds it utterly baffling and increasingly feels that Doyle is heading for a lifetime in prison.

In terms of the poisoner, the team is briefly diverted by a potential suspect who actually works for the Parliamentary Protection Corps, though this proves to be a red herring because then the real killer – ‘the Botanist’, as he is now known – makes actual contact with them.

He insists that he only kills narcissists whose presence in society is damaging it, and demands that a once-famous but now disgraced and burnt-out journalist, Henning Stahl, be brought out of retirement to tell his story. He also promises that he will keep on killing.

Stahl, a long term alcoholic, is a sad mess and has no clue why the Botanist has chosen him to be the conduit, but he is prepared to attempt to get himself together as he can sense that this may be his way back to the limelight.

Meanwhile, a prominent internet influencer, Karen Royal-Cross, appears online, taking a break from her usual tirades against illegal immigrants, and those ‘libtards’ who support them, to laugh about the fact that she’s just received a pressed flower through the post and a slightly crazy poem.

Clearly, the Botanist intends to continue with his work, publicly singling out those he considers unworthy of life, and then successfully eliminating them wherever they are hiding, by means that are almost undetectable …

There is simply no way to dislike the Washington Poe series.

MW (Mike) Craven has done fantastically well with these books for all sorts of very good reasons. I’ll try to assess these one by one as we talk about The Botanist, because despite the high bar that Craven set for himself in previous volumes, The Puppet Master, Black Summer, The Curator and Dead Ground, this one, the fifth in the series to date, is the best, and exemplifies everything the author is doing right with these books.

First of all, we have the characters.

Washington Poe himself (the name alone is instantly memorable) is everyone’s idea of what a good copper should be. He has a soul and a conscience, he strives always to do the right thing, but at the same time he is pleasingly unforgiving when it comes to violent criminals. An ex-soldier, Poe is in many ways ‘old school’, even though he works for the super politically correct National Crime Agency. He knows there is all kinds of tech at his disposal, but he prefers to work his cases with boot-leather. He can be blunt, gruff and to the point, is good with his fists (and sometimes quick) but he’s not a violent cop. He’s affable with the general public and a warm presence among friends and neighbours (it’s also the case that his dog, Edgar, adores him, always a giveaway that this is one of the good guys). He lives frugally in a reclaimed croft high on Shap Fell, making him one of the lowest-maintenance heroes I’ve thus far encountered in fiction.

However, his most attractive traits are his failings. Poe has long been unlucky in love (up until now, maybe), in personal terms leads a lonely existence, and deep down is plagued by self-doubt. He’s not always au fait with the most modern police techniques and is often frustrated by them, but he’s not a maverick, he’s a team-player, who trusts and relies on his colleagues. Like other real people, he also makes mistakes, though more often than not, when this does happen, he still tends to work his way through to a result.

But Washington Poe is only one half of this ultra-effective crime-fighting team. The other is Tilly Bradshaw, who is the polar opposite of her rugged male colleague. Her official role is as intelligence analyst and online researcher, and yet she’s inordinately naïve, verging on being autistic. She possesses zero people skills, a sense of humour that no one else understands, and is often frightened and bewildered by the dreadful extremes of evil that she encounters in her job. But all this is the key to her relationship with Poe, who, over the course of several tense enquiries, has morphed into the parent/sibling and, most important of all, friend, she never previously had. But while Poe is mostly instinct, Bradshaw is primarily brain. She has an incredible facility to retain information across a range of disciplines, while her grasp of logic is astonishing, and her ability to calculate quickly and accurately, mesmerising; she is undaunted by the seemingly most complex problems.

This is what makes the two-handed team so formidable, but also such a delight. These are buddy-buddy cop stories of a very different ilk, not so much relying on wisecracks and banter, but on MW Craven’s ability to find genuine but often gentle humour not just in Bradshaw’s innocence, but in the often awkward and even embarrassing questions that it poses for Poe.

The secondary characters in The Botanist are equally interesting. DI Stephanie Flynn is Poe’s line-manager, an archetypal no-nonsense gaffer who will back her team and bollock them in equal measure. She’s by-the-book but not rigidly so, especially where Poe is concerned, because she’s been around long enough to know that law enforcement can’t always be like that. Then we have Estelle Doyle, the cool, clipped and beautiful forensics specialist, whom the team rely on continually, and who, once, she’s been accused of murder, Poe seems to grow an extra arm and leg in his efforts to rescue. Clearly, he’s long carried a candle for her, even though superficially they are chalk and cheese, and maybe on occasion she’s hinted at returning the chemistry … though that’s all I’m going to say about that (yes, there are some crucial developments in this relationship).

This brings us to the book’s next big asset … its villain.

It’s always difficult to talk about villains when reviewing a thriller, for the simple reason that you don’t want to give anything away. I thus can’t reveal too much here, but I will say that while Mike Craven has always employed majestically villainous villains, the Washington Poe novels are also reminiscent of the real world. You won’t find the Joker in these stories, or Auric Goldfinger. Poe deals with criminals whose prototypes genuinely exist (mostly serving life sentences in supermax prisons around the world). Realism is everything. Though that doesn’t stop them plumbing the depths of wickedness, and in The Botanist, even given those strictures, he takes us as close to super villainy as it’s possible to imagine.

It’s all the more effective, because when the killer here is finally unmasked, and because Craven has yet again indulged in his meticulous research, we find ourselves confronted by an individual whose insanity is as compelling as it is terrifying, and yet who is entirely believable. With the assistance of real life scientist, Brian Price, who is credited at the end of the book, Craven has also given us a poisoner of such ingenuity that no one appears to be safe from him, anywhere, at anytime – at one point, Poe declares that it’s almost like black magic – and yet it’s not a fantasy, it’s all scientifically possible. At the same time, the titular Botanist ticks all the correct psychological boxes for a convincing member of the criminally insane fraternity. We genuinely know that such a malformed personality could exist, because we’ve all seen them on True Crime programmes.

Authenticity is always – but always – the key for Mike Craven.

Washington Poe might almost be a figure from the Wild West, but this is not that place. In police terms, this is a world of hard rules and high technology. It’s a time when crimes are no longer solved simply by kicking doors down, but by attempting to read the unhinged mind, where medicine and forensics are artfully used in the pursuit of justice, and where there are no grey areas when it comes to procedure; procedure can be an ass, but you’ve got to be clever to get around it, not just bull-headed.

Craven sprinkles The Botanist with all these contemporary details, and yet none of it gets in the way. There’s an unwritten rule in crime-writing: don’t let the facts spoil the story. Ultimately, you’re telling a yarn and you want to excite and intrigue your readers; informing them about modern policing culture and technique is a secondary consideration. But if you can hit that button too, and not interrupt the narrative, in fact maybe even bolster it (because legal minutiae and the like can often create fortuitous and unforeseen twists in the narrative, and certainly does here), you’re doing an even better job.

And this is the whole story with The Botanist. You get immersed in detail, and yet it remains nail-bitingly tense. This maniac can genuinely strike anyone anywhere … and that becomes an overwhelming factor as you read. He welcomes pursuit by the police because he likes to show off how cunning he is, and this device alone works tremendously, hitting us with ticking clocks aplenty and one compelling scenario following another, though each time the villain is two steps ahead. At the same time that all this is going on, you’re completely hooked by the ‘locked room mystery’ that has seen Estelle Doyle charged with murder. You know she hasn’t done it; she’s a recurring character and a paid-up good guy, but the evidence seems insurmountable. Eventually, you have no choice but to contemplate the unthinkable …

The Botanist is second-to-none. It’s been a great series so far, but this is the best volume to date. A fast, enthralling and superbly executed read, which deserves to be read by every crime fan out there.

When a book is the fifth in the series, it hardly seems sensible to talk about who you’d love to see playing the leads should it ever get a film or TV adaptation. Surely that should be reserved for the first one? Well, The Puppet Show was the first in the Washington Poe series, and I did exactly that when I reviewed it several years ago. Therefore, I’ve got no hesitation in nominating a cast for this one too, utilising the same actors in the same roles that I did the first time round, and adding yet more talent for this latest outing. (It’s only a game of course, but it’s fun):

DS Washington Poe – Nick Blood
Tilly Bradshaw – Ella Purnell
DI Stephanie Flynn – Joanne Froggatt
Professor Estelle Doyle – Claire Foy
DCI Tai-young Lee – Han Hyo-joo
Henning Stahl – Paul Kaye
The Botanist – Arthur Darvill
Douglas Salt – Jason Isaacs

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