Sunday 26 June 2022

Yet more book scares heading your way

Well, midsummer has now passed, incredible though that may seem, and the second half of 2022 is looming. As I promised way back at the start of the year, I’ll today be offering another round-up of forthcoming attractions in the world of dark fiction. Namely, ten crime novels, ten thriller novels and ten horror novels (though some of these latter may be anthologies) all due for publication in the next six months, all of which I’m anticipating with lip-smacking eagerness.

On the subject of horror, I haven’t reviewed a horror novel for a few months now, so perhaps today is an opportune moment to offer my thoughts on Simon Raven’s unusual but enjoyable supernatural classic, DOCTORS WEAR SCARLET. It’s got some cop stuff in it too, this one, so it ticks more than one box. Yep, I love it when crime fiction crashes into horror fiction.

If you’re interested, you’ll find the Raven review, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of this column.

Before that …

Next up

I’ve got something going on myself that I’d like to chat about quickly.

First of all, I’m really chuffed to be on the first panel of the day in the Orion Incident Room on July 22 at the Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. As you can see from the above artwork, I’ll be in the august company of Simon Beckett, John Sutherland and Adam Simcox, and we’ll be discussing The Previous Life of a Writer: How Past Careers Inform Compelling Crime Fiction.

John Sutherland is an ex-cop like me, Simon Beckett was a journalist and Adam Simcox is a commercial film-maker, so I think we’ll have plenty to talk about.

In addition to all that, I was hoping to share some rather good news this week about future novel-writing plans of mine, but the actual confirmation of this is still proving elusive. So, rather than put this particular blogpost on hold any longer, I will hopefully be in a position to talk about that the next time around.

Now for today’s main event …

Top picks: the second half of 2022

Here’s a selection of books I’m looking forward to that are due out between July and December this year. As always, I apologise in advance if I’ve left anyone out, or if I’ve neglected to mention someone’s favourite author who also has a forthcoming publication due, but I can’t extend these lists indefinitely. So, once again, I’m restricting myself to 10 Crime, 10 Thriller and 10 Horror. That doesn’t mean there are not lots of others due out as well that will also wow their readerships. Keep scanning the internet, and you’ll find them all in due course.

Here are the picks, plus the artwork, plus, in each case, the publisher’s own blurb ...  
by Graham Bartlett 
(Out Now in hb)

How far would you go?

The murder of a promising footballer, son of Brighton’s highest-ranking police officer, means Detective Superintendent Jo Howe has a complicated and sensitive case on her hands. The situation becomes yet more desperate following devastating blackmail threats.

Howe can trust no one as she tracks the brutal killer in a city balanced on a knife edge of vigilante action and a police force riven with corruption.

by Robert Bryndza 
(Jul 7 in hb and pb)

How do you find a killer who has destroyed all the evidence?

Detective Erika Foster is on a late-night walk near her new house in Blackheath when she stumbles upon the brutal murder of Vicky Clarke, a true-crime podcaster.

Erika is assigned to the case and discovers that Vicky had been working on a new podcast episode about a sexual predator who preys on young female students around South London, staking out his victims in their halls of residence before breaking in at the dead of night.

When Erika discovers that Vicky’s notes and sound recordings were stolen from her flat at the time of her murder, it leads her to believe that Vicky was close to unmasking the attacker, and she was killed to guarantee her silence.

The case takes on a disturbing twist when the body of a young Bulgarian student doctor is discovered in the same building, and this makes Erika question everything she thought she knew about Vicky. With very little evidence, the clock is ticking to find the killer before he strikes again.

by Leigh Russell 
(Aug 30 in pb)

A wheelchair-using woman is strangled and her son, Eddy, is arrested. When his alibi falls apart, the police are satisfied that he is guilty. Only Detective Geraldine Steel doubts whether Eddy is cunning enough to kill his mother and cover his tracks so successfully.

The situation becomes more complicated when the girlfriend Eddy claims he was with at the time of the murder denies having met him. Shortly after the girl thinks she is being stalked, her dead body is discovered outside Eddy’s house.

As the body count grows, the investigation team become confused, putting Geraldine under almost unbearable pressure.

by Helen Fields 
(Sept 1 in pb)

In search of a new life, seventeen-year-old Adriana Clark’s family moves to the ancient, ocean-battered Isle of Mull, far off the coast of Scotland. Then she goes missing. Faced with hostile locals and indifferent police, her desperate parents turn to private investigator Sadie Levesque.

Sadie is the best at what she does. But when she finds Adriana’s body in a cliffside cave, a seaweed crown carefully arranged on her head, she knows she’s dealing with something she’s never encountered before.

The deeper she digs into the island’s secrets, the closer danger creeps – and the more urgent her quest to find the killer grows. Because what if Adriana is not the last girl to die?

by Nick Oldham 
(Sept 6 in hb)

Secrets, lies, murder ... and planning permission. 

Henry Christie is pulled into two chilling murder investigations and uncovers dark secrets dating back to the Second World War in this unflinching thriller.

Henry Christie is focused on running his pub, the Tawny Owl, where he learns of the Kendleton protest group’s fury with James Twain, a local property developer, and the keen desire of some residents to solve a murder that stretches back to the Second World War.

When James is viciously killed in his barn, and another body is found in similar disturbing circumstances nearby, Henry is drawn into the investigations and the villagers’ dark wartime secrets. Pulled out of retirement once more to lead a double murder inquiry for Lancashire police, can he uncover the truth behind chilling events both past and present?
by Peter James 
(Sept 29 in hb)

Harry and Freya, an ordinary couple, dreamed for years of finding something priceless buried amongst the tat in a car boot sale.

It was a dream they knew in their hearts would never come true – until the day it did.

They buy the drab portrait for a few pounds, for its beautiful frame, planning to cut the painting out. Then studying it back at home there seems to be another picture beneath, of a stunning landscape. Could it be a long-lost masterpiece from 1770? If genuine, it could be worth millions.

One collector is certain it is genuine. Someone who uses any method he can to get what he wants and who will stop at nothing.

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace finds himself plunged into an unfamiliar and rarefied world of fine art. Outwardly it appears respectable, gentlemanly, above reproach. But beneath the veneer, he rapidly finds that greed, deception and violence walk hand-in-hand. And Harry and Freya Kipling are about to discover that their dream is turning into their worst nightmare ...

by Neil Lancaster 
(Sept 29 in hb)

He’ll watch you.

A lawyer is found dead at sunrise on a lonely clifftop at Dunnet Head on the northernmost tip of Scotland. It was supposed to be his honeymoon, but now his wife will never see him again.

He’ll hunt you.

The case is linked to several mysterious deaths, including the murder of the lawyer’s last client – Scotland’s most notorious criminal ... who has just walked free. DS Max Craigie knows this can only mean one thing: they have a vigilante serial killer on their hands.

He’ll leave you to die.

But this time the killer isn’t on the run; he’s on the investigation team. And the rules are different when the murderer is this close to home.

He knows their weaknesses, knows how to stay hidden, and he thinks he’s above the law ...

by Roger A Price 
(Nov 1 in ebook)

An informant goes missing after disclosing to DS Martin Draker, of the Northwest’s Regional Organised Crime  unit, that a corrupt police official is importing heroin from India.

Field analyst Cath is investigating an upsurge in deaths caused by a new drug with similar effects to cocaine.

A body, believed to be that of the missing informant, is discovered in a burned-out car, along with a note threatening further deaths if the police don’t back off.

Cath launches a TV appeal warning of the dangers of Sky White. The gangster, Dan Manning, is incensed; she could kill the new drug’s market before it gets going.

Before Manning has a chance to stop her, the police must catch him before the body count rises.

by Michael Connelly 
(Nov 8 in hb)

LAPD detective Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch work together to hunt the killer who is Bosch’s ‘white whale’- a man responsible for the murder of an entire family.

A year has passed since LAPD detective Renée Ballard quit the force in the face of misogyny, demoralisation, and endless red tape. Yet, after the chief of police himself tells her she can write her ticket within the department, Ballard takes back her badge, leaving ‘the Late Show’ to rebuild the cold case unit at the elite Robbery-Homicide Division.

For years, Harry Bosch has been working a case that haunts him but that he hasn’t been able to crack - the murder of an entire family by a psychopath who still walks free. Ballard makes Bosch an offer: come work with her as a volunteer investigator in the new Open-Unsolved Unit, and he can pursue his ‘white whale’ with the resources of the LAPD behind him.

The two must put aside old resentments to work together again and close in on a dangerous killer.

by David Baldacci 
(Nov 10 in hb)

Memory man FBI agent, Amos Decker, returns in this action-packed thriller to investigate the mysterious and brutal murder of a federal judge and her bodyguard at her home in an exclusive, gated community in Florida.

Things are changing for Decker. He’s in crisis following the suicide of a close friend and receipt of a letter concerning a personal issue which could change his life forever. Together with the prospect of working with a new partner, Frederica White, Amos knows that this case will take all of his special skills to solve.

As darkness falls, evil comes to light ...

Judge Julia Cummins seemingly had no enemies, and there was no forced entry to her property. Close friends and neighbours in the community apparently heard nothing, and Cummins’ distraught ex-husband, Barry, and teenage son, Tyler, both have strong alibis. Decker must first find the answer to why the judge felt the need for a bodyguard, and the meaning behind the strange calling card left by the killer.

Someone has decided it’s payback time.


by Phoebe Wynn 
(July 7 in hb)

Amidst the glamour of the French Riviera lies the crumbling façade of Chateau de Sètes, a small slice of France still held by the British aristocracy. But this long since abandoned chateau is now up for sale, and two people are desperate to get their hands on it despite its terrible history.

Summer, 1985: Ruby has stayed at the chateau with her family every summer of her twelve years. It was her favourite place to be, away from the strictures of her formal childhood, but this year uninvited guests have descended, and everything is about to change...

As the intense August heat cloaks the chateau, the adults within start to lose sight of themselves. Old disputes are thrown back and forth, tempers rise, morals loosen, and darkness begins to creep around them all. Ruby and her two young friends soon discover it is best not to be seen or heard as the summer spirals down to one fateful night and an incident that can never be undone ...

Summer, 2010: One of the three young girls, now grown and newly widowed, returns to the chateau, and in her fight to free herself from its grip, she uncovers what truly happened that long, dark summer.

With riveting psychological complexity, The Ruins captures the glittering allure of the Mediterranean, and the dark shadows that wait beneath the surface.

by Steve Cavanagh 
(July 21 in hb)


The Sandman killings have been solved. Daniel Miller murdered fourteen people before he vanished. His wife, Carrie, now faces trial as his accomplice. The FBI, the District Attorney, the media and everyone in America believes she knew and helped cover up her husband’s crimes.


Eddie Flynn won’t take a case unless his client is innocent. Now, he has to prove to a jury, and the entire world, that Carrie Miller was just another victim of the Sandman. She didn’t know her husband’s dark side and she had no part in the murders. But so far, Eddie and his team are the only ones who believe her.


Gabriel Lake used to be a federal agent, before someone tried to kill him. Now, he’s an investigator with a vendetta against the Sandman. He’s the only one who can catch him, because he believes that everything the FBI knows about serial killers is wrong.


With his wife on trial, the Sandman is forced to come out of hiding to save her from a life sentence. He will kill to protect her and everyone involved in the case is a target.

Even Eddie Flynn ...

by Alex Shaw 
(Jul 21 in pb)

The target doesn’t exist

When cyber terrorist Fang Bao abruptly reappears after years in hiding, MI6 agent and former SAS trooper Jack Tate is sent to bring him in – but when Fang is assassinated by an unknown assailant, Tate realises he was only a pawn in a plot that threatens to put the whole world in danger.

The mission is impossible ...

Now Tate has to uncover a lethal conspiracy that stretches all the way from Germany through the United States and into the dark heart of the jungle in Myanmar. As the enemy hunt down the owners of military secrets that would make them indestructible, Tate must race to identify not only their next target, but the enemy themselves.

The war is about to begin …

Soon he learns the dark truth at the heart of the global conspiracy. The enemy doesn’t want to just assassinate a world leader; they want to make war – and Tate is the only one who can stop them.

by Gabino Iglesias 
(Aug 2 in hb)

‘Sometimes God is your copilot, but it’s the Devil who takes you home.’

It was never just a job. Becoming a hitman was the only way Mario could cover his young daughter’s medical expenses. But before long his family is left in pieces, and he’s barely even put a dent in the stack of bills.

Then he’s presented with an offer: one last score that will either pull him out of poverty forever or put a bullet in the back of his skull. A man named Juanca needs help stealing $2 million dollars from a drug cartel.

Together, they begin a journey to an underworld where unspeakable horrors happen every day. He’s a man with nothing to lose, but the Devil is waiting for him.

Wrestling with demons of our world and beyond, this blistering thriller charts the unforgettable quest of a husband and father in search of his lost soul.

by Val McDermid 
(Aug 18 in hb)

There’s nothing like a killer story ...

1989. The world is changing, and Allie Burns is still on the front line, covering the stories that count.

Although Allie is no longer an investigative journalist, her instincts are sharper than ever. When she discovers a lead about the exploitation of society’s most vulnerable, Allie is determined to give a voice to those who have been silenced.

As Allie edges closer to exposing the truth, she travels beyond the Iron Curtain, to East Berlin on the brink of revolution. The dark heart of the story is more shocking than she ever imagined. And to tell it, Allie must risk her freedom and her life ...

by Lucy Foley 
(Sept 29 in pb)

Welcome to No.12 rue des Amants

A beautiful old apartment block, far from the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower and the bustling banks of the Seine. Where nothing goes unseen, and everyone has a story to unlock.

The watchful concierge

The scorned lover

The prying journalist

The naïve student

The unwanted guest

There was a murder here last night.

A mystery lies behind the door of apartment three.

Who holds the key?

by Howard Linskey 
(Sept 29 in pb)

You will inherit everything. The house. The money.

There’s just one condition.

You have to catch a killer first ...

Sarah always had a soft spot for her Aunt Evelyn, a famous writer, but she’d always assumed the elderly woman was penniless.

But when Evelyn dies, Sarah gets a shock.

Evelyn has a significant fortune, including a foreboding mansion, Cragsmoor, on the outskirts of a small Northumberland town. She wants to leave it to Sarah. But that's not all she wants.

For most of her life, she’d been haunted by a cold case. Many years ago, her childhood friend Lucy went missing. She was last seen in the house Evie has now left to Sarah. Evie spent years searching for the truth, desperate to find out what really happened the day Lucy disappeared.

Now, her final wish is for Sarah to go back to the house where it all began, and uncover the truth. If she does, she will inherit everything.

But if there is a secret at Cragsmoor, someone has benefitted from it remaining hidden. Someone who has already killed once before ...

by Erin E Adams 
(Oct 4 in hb)

A young black girl goes missing in the woods outside her white rustbelt town. But she’s not the first-and she may not be the last ...

It’s watching.

Liz Rocher is coming home ... reluctantly. As a black woman, Liz doesn't exactly have fond memories of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a predominantly white town. But her best friend is getting married, so she braces herself for a weekend of awkward, passive-aggressive reunions. Liz has grown, though; she can handle whatever awaits her. But on the day of the wedding, somewhere between dancing and dessert, the couple’s daughter, Caroline, disappears - and the only thing left behind is a piece of white fabric covered in blood.

It’s taking.

As a frantic search begins, with the police combing the trees for Caroline, Liz is the only one who notices a pattern: A summer night. A missing girl. A party in the woods. She’s seen this before. Keisha Woodson, the only other black girl in Liz's high school, walked into the woods with a mysterious man and was later found with her chest cavity ripped open and her heart removed. Liz shudders at the thought that it could have been her, and now, with Caroline missing, it can’t be a coincidence. As Liz starts to dig through the town’s history, she uncovers a horrifying secret about the place she once called home. Children have been going missing in these woods for years. All of them black. All of them girls.

It’s your turn.

With the evil in the forest creeping closer, Liz knows what she must do: find Caroline, or be entirely consumed by the darkness.

by Lee Child 
(Oct 25 in hb)

Gerrardsville, Colorado. One tragic event. Two witnesses. Two conflicting accounts. One witness sees a woman throw herself in front of a bus - clearly suicide. The other witness is Jack Reacher. And he sees what really happened - a man in grey hoodie and jeans, swift and silent as a shadow, pushed the victim to her death, before grabbing her bag and sauntering away.

Reacher follows the killer on foot, not knowing that this was no random act of violence. It is part of something much bigger ... a sinister, secret conspiracy, with powerful people on the take, enmeshed in an elaborate plot that leaves no room for error. If any step is compromised, the threat will have to be quickly and permanently removed.

But when the threat is Reacher, there is No Plan B ...

by Derva McTiernan 
(Dec 8 in pb)

No one is innocent in this story.

First Rule: Make them like you.

Second Rule: Make them need you.

Third Rule: Make them pay.

They think I’m a young, idealistic law student, that I’m passionate about reforming a corrupt and brutal system.

They think I’m working hard to impress them.

They think I’m here to save an innocent man on Death Row.

They're wrong. I’m going to bury him.


by Paul Tremblay 
(Jul 5 in pb)

1988, Art Barbara is a painfully shy/socially awkward teenager, underweight, acne-ridden, and suffering from scoliosis when he starts the Pallbearers’ Club. 

Members volunteer as mourners for the homeless and lonely, those with no one else to bury them. Art recruits his former bully, Eddie Patrick, a fellow slacker Cayla, and the mysterious Mercy Brown. Art and Mercy quickly form an intense friendship, but one day Art takes a photo of Mercy, and captures a strange parasitic creature wrapped around her ...

by Rus Wornom 
(Jul 8 in pb)

Sheriff Buddy Hicks doesn’t like hippies in his town ... especially not long-haired hippie bikers.

As soon as the sheriff saw him, he knew the biker was trouble. Now something feels different in Stonebridge - something he doesn’t understand - and he's not going to put up with radicals in his town ... not some biker, and not some smart mouth like Summer Moore.

There are secrets in the woods.

Ben Castle, who summoned the biker with a note scrawled in blood ...

Louise Moore, who refuses to lose control of her daughter like she lost her husband ...

Summer and the biker, locked in a dance, an embrace of shadows that has lasted for centuries ...

And even the mountains themselves hold secrets ...

It’s a rock and roll Grand Guignol.

It’s a death-dance in the moonlight.


It’s a love story. With blood.

by John Connolly 
(Aug 4 in hb)

The Furies: mythological snake-haired goddesses of vengeance, pursuers of those who have committed unavenged crimes. Now, private investigator Charlie Parker is drawn into a world of modern furies. In The Sisters Strange, the return of the criminal Raum Buker to Portland, Maine, brings with it chaos and murder, as an act of theft threatens not only to tear apart his own existence but also that of Raum’s former lovers, the enigmatic sisters Dolors and Ambar Strange. 

And in The Furies Parker finds himself fighting to protect two more women as the city of Portland shuts down in the face of a global pandemic, but it may be that his clients are more capable of taking care of themselves than anyone could have imagined ... Two novels in one from the master of the modern supernatural thriller.

by Stephen King 
(Sept 6 in hb)

Charlie Reade looks like a regular high school kid, great at baseball and football, a decent student. But he carries a heavy load. His mom was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was ten, and grief drove his dad to drink. Charlie learned how to take care of himself - and his dad. Then, when Charlie is seventeen, he meets a dog named Radar and her ageing master, Howard Bowditch, a recluse in a big house at the top of a big hill, with a locked shed in the backyard. Sometimes strange sounds emerge from it.

Charlie starts doing jobs for Mr. Bowditch and loses his heart to Radar. Then, when Bowditch dies, he leaves Charlie a cassette tape telling a story no one would believe. What Bowditch knows, and has kept secret all his long life, is that inside the shed is a portal to another world.

by Ramsey Campbell 
(Sept 13 in hb and pb)

Fellstones takes its name from seven objects on the village green. It’s where Paul Dunstan was adopted by the Staveleys after his parents died in an accident for which he blames himself. The way the Staveleys tried to control him made him move away and change his name. Why were they obsessed with a strange song he seemed to have made up as a child?

Now their daughter Adele has found him. By the time he discovers the cosmic truth about the stones, he may be trapped. There are other dark secrets he’ll discover, and memories to confront. The Fellstones dream, but they’re about to waken.

edited by Dan Coxon 
(Sept 13 in pb)

A chilling horror anthology of 18 stories about the terrifying fears of isolation, from the modern masters of horror.

Featuring Tim Lebbon, Paul Tremblay, Joe R. Lansdale, M.R. Carey, Ken Liu and many more.

Lost in the wilderness, or shunned from society, it remains one of our deepest held fears. This horror anthology calls on leading horror writers to confront the dark moments, the challenges that we must face alone: hikers lost in the woods; astronauts adrift in the silence of deep space; the quiet voice trapped in a crowd; the prisoner with no hope of escape. Experience the chilling terrors of Isolation.

Featuring Paul Tremblay, Joe R. Lansdale, Ken Liu, M.R. Carey, Jonathan Maberry, Tim Lebbon, Lisa Tuttle, Michael Marshall Smith, Ramsey Campbell, Nina Allan, Laird Barron, A.G. Slatter, Mark Morris, Alison Littlewood, Owl Goingback, Brian Evenson, Marian Womack, Gwendolyn Kiste, Lynda E. Rucker and Chikodili Emelumadu.

by Josh Malerman 
(Sept 20 in hb)

It’s the last summer for Kit Lamb: the last summer before college. The last summer with her high school basketball team, and with Dana, her best friend. The last summer before her life begins.

But the night before the big game, one of Kit’s players tells a ghost story about Daphne, a girl who went to their school many years ago and died under mysterious circumstances. Some say she was murdered, others that she died by her own hand. And some say that Daphne is a murderer herself. They also say that Daphne is still out there, obsessed with revenge, and will appear anytime someone thinks about her to kill again.

After Kit hears the story, her teammates vanish, one by one, and Kit begins to suspect that the stories about Daphne are real ... and to fear that her own mind is conjuring the killer. Now it’s a race against time as Kit searches for the truth behind the legend and learns to face her own fears. Or else the summer of her lifetime will become the last summer of her life.
by Brian McAuley 
(Oct 4 in hb)

Scream meets The Shining in this page-turning horror tale about an ageing actor haunted by the slasher movie villain he brought to life.

Decades after playing the titular killer in the 80s horror franchise Night of the Reaper, Howard Browning has been reduced to signing autographs for his dwindling fanbase at genre conventions. When the studio announces a series reboot, the ageing thespian is crushed to learn he’s being replaced in the iconic role by heartthrob Trevor Mane, a former sitcom child-star who’s fresh out of rehab. Trevor is determined to stay sober and revamp his image while Howard refuses to let go of the character he created, setting the stage for a cross-generational clash over the soul of a monster. But as Howard fights to reclaim his legacy, the sinister alter ego consumes his unravelling mind, pushing him to the brink of violence. Is the method actor succumbing to madness or has the devilish Reaper taken on a life of its own?

In his razor-sharp debut novel, film and television writer Brian McAuley melds wicked suspense with dark humour and heart. Curse of the Reaper is a tightly plotted thriller that walks the tightrope between the psychological and the supernatural, while characters struggling with addiction and identity bring to light the harrowing cost of Hollywood fame.

edited by Mark Morris 
(Oct 18 in hb and pb)

Close to Midnight is the third volume in an annual, non-themed horror series of entirely original stories, showcasing the very best short fiction that the genre has to offer, and edited by Mark Morris. 

This new anthology contains 20 original horror stories, 16 of which have been commissioned from some of the top names in the genre, and 4 of which have been selected from the 100s of stories sent to Flame Tree during a 2-week open submissions window.

by T Kingfisher 
(Oct 18 in pb)

When Alex Easton, a retired soldier, receives word that their childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying, they race to the ancestral home of the Ushers in the remote countryside of Ruritania.

What they find there is a nightmare of fungal growths and possessed wildlife, surrounding a dark, pulsing lake. Madeline sleepwalks and speaks in strange voices at night, and her brother Roderick is consumed with a mysterious malady of the nerves.

Aided by a redoubtable British mycologist and a baffled American doctor, Alex must unravel the secret of the House of Usher before it consumes them all.


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 Simon Raven (1960)

It’s the mid-1950s, and war veteran and academic, Anthony Seymour, is leading a comfortable if relatively uneventful life, when, one pleasant evening, he is called on in his rooms by a Detective Inspector John Tyrrel from Scotland Yard, who is looking for information concerning an old friend of his, Richard Fountain. Seymour shared digs with Fountain at public school and they later studied together at Lancaster College, Cambridge (a thinly-disguised King’s).

After a rather coy conversation, in which neither party seems willing to reveal his full hand, Seymour explains a little about his and Fountain’s shared past, while Tyrrel divulges that Fountain, a budding archaeologist, currently on a research trip to the Greek islands, appears to have fallen foul of the Greek authorities, who won’t specify what he’s done to annoy them but insist that he leave their jurisdiction straight away. Tyrrel, as a concerned copper, is now wondering what will be Greece’s loss and Britain’s gain.

Seymour wonders too, and now we learn a little more about the mysterious Richard Fountain.

Though he hails from a lower middle-class background, he has benefitted throughout his education from scholarships and has become something of a star student, especially now that he’s at Cambridge, though Seymour, who knows him better than anyone, has always felt there was an edge to Fountain’s character, something vaguely menacing, though he’s never been able to define it to his own satisfaction.

One person who sees nothing but good in Fountain is the Cambridge Fellow, Doctor Walter Goodrich, who’s long been charmed by the young man’s promise, has self-appointed himself as his main adviser and generally attempted to control his career (even to the extent of seeing that a book of underwhelming poems penned by the youngster received wide publication). Goodrich appears to regard Fountain as the son he never had, and is unashamed about his long-term goal, which is to see him married to his plain but spirited daughter, Penelope.

Anthony Seymour has observed these events over several terms, as have one or two others, an effete fellow-student but good friend of Fountain’s called Piers Clarence, and gossipy old don, Marc Honeydew, and none of them feel it will end well, all suspecting that Fountain, who, though he’s weak in some ways (impotent, or so Clarence says), won’t be manipulated indefinitely.

In fact, Fountain has already displayed hints of rebelliousness, breaking away from his studies into ancient cults to do his own stint in the military (fighting the Mau Mau in Kenya, at no little risk to himself) and later on resisting Goodrich and Penelope’s attempts to persuade him to move into their family home by embarking on his two-year research trip to Greece and the Aegean islands (during which, according to Clarence, he hopes to finally find some kind of ultimate freedom).

When Seymour and Clarence learn that Fountain, still being sought by the Greek police so they can throw him out of the country, has now gone to ground, and that no one knows where he is, they opt to go over there and try to find him themselves.

Seymour first recruits an old army buddy of his, a hardy combat veteran, Major Roddy Longbow, who he knows he’ll be able to rely on in a tight spot, and they commence their own expedition to the Greek islands. Not long after arriving, they hear weird stories that Richard has taken up with a beautiful but enigmatic woman (the wonderfully-named Chryseis), whom he’s accompanied, she as the controlling influence, in the commission of a series of atrocities that no one seems to want to go into in any detail, though the Greeks are adamant that these two destructive people must be dealt with.

None of this sounds like the Richard Fountain known to Seymour and Clarence, and they can’t help wondering what kind of baleful influence this Chryseis woman has exerted. Finally, they pick up Fountain’s trail, and it takes them to the small island of Hydra just off the Peloponnese (in legend, home to the monster of the same name), where enquiries at a remote monastery reveal that Fountain was present but has now departed. The monks say simply that they treated him for a disease of the blood, but refrain from going into detail.

Only now does Piers Clarence start to wonder what kind of woman Chryseis actually is, or if she’s even a woman. It’s no ordinary disease of the blood, he tells the others, reminding them about the unnamed atrocities the elusive twosome have committed.

It is something much, much worse …

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who regularly reads this column, and it certainly isn’t much of a spoiler (not to anyone who knows anything about literary horror) that Doctors Wear Scarlet is essentially a vampire story.

That said, it’s a very strange one, and it’s approached from a very oblique angle.

To start with, the word ‘vampire’ only appears in the book about three quarters of the way through, and it’s not really vampirism as we would understand it. Though there’s a hint of the supernatural, and though several characters in the novel refer to it as a ‘disease’, including a bunch of so-called experts in the shape of the monks on the isle of Hydra, the desire to drink an opponent’s blood is actually depicted as a kinky kind of psychological impulse, which is partly brought on by stressful situations but only after the subject has been vampirised by someone else (in other words infected, though a medical line of enquiry is never really approached).

In truth, Simon Raven stays curiously quiet on this core subject, neither he nor his characters, apart from a stuffy anthropologist who we meet briefly later on and who is mainly there to provide basic information, discussing it in any kind of explanatory detail. Even Piers Clarence, a key actor in Doctors Wear Scarlet, and the one who works out what they are dealing with first, refuses to put a name to it for several chapters, keeping both us and his fellow characters in the dark for far longer than I personally felt was necessary.

I won’t pretend that my irritation with the book wasn’t profound at this stage. Though not so much when I actually sat down and considered it.

You see, though Simon Raven drifted into supernatural fiction later in his career, he didn’t start out that way. Regarded as a great literary stylist, but also a wayward son of the privileged class, his initial output focussed on satirising the British establishment of the mid-20th century, and was often notorious for its pompous tone and unapologetic enjoyment of the elite lifestyle. So, in other words, when he wrote Doctors Wear Scarlet, he was aiming at a readership that wasn’t remotely interested in vampires, and probably knew nothing about Greek mythology, with which, I have to say, this book is subtly but effectively flavoured. They would probably have been both surprised and titillated when the concept of blood-drinking, not just as a fetish but as a form of personal control, finally raised its head.

And really, it’s that latter detail that this novel is about. The possession of others by any means possible.

For example, the main vampire, Chryseis, remains a frustratingly vague figure (the author barely commenting on her, even on those scarce occasions when she’s actually on the page), but that’s because the main villain is Doctor Walter Goodrich, the retired Cambridge don, who, having very little else to do now, has set himself a new goal: the full-time manipulation of Richard Fountain.

Is there a hint of implied homosexual desire in Goodrich’s attitude to the handsome and athletic young Fountain? If so, it’s better hidden than it is with other key characters in the book such as Piers Clarence and Marc Honeydew, though neither of them openly indulge in a lifestyle which, back in the mid-1950s, when this novel is set, was illegal under British law. It’s more the case with Goodrich that, while he superficially wishes to provide a suitable husband for his unattractive daughter, he is darkly determined to be much more than this young man’s mentor and benefactor, seeking to make the lad his creature, to exert such a controlling influence that through Richard Fountain, Walter Goodrich himself will live again (in effect, stealing his soul).

Goodrich is a deceptively complex and sinister individual, and it’s no surprise to me that in the movie adaptation of 1971, it was Peter Cushing who landed this plum role.

It’s another indication of how different this book is from the usual kind of horror novel that the very dramatic events in the mountains of Crete, which include one genuinely horrific and chilling sequence, which I won’t spoil by describing here (though it honestly shocked me), and which conclude when Chryseis is finally confronted, form the middle portion of this novel, while the big climax occurs back at Cambridge, during the Michaelmas Feast, though by this time I was really buying into the exquisitely written tale, so any alteration to normal narrative structure didn’t bother me. In fact, the big finish is all the more effective because it happens at Cambridge, not just a university but a world apart, a hotchpotch of arcane festivals, traditions and pageantry (the title ‘Doctors Wear Scarlet’ refers to the brilliant red gowns sported by the college dons at formal events), and a place where Simon Raven’s writing really comes into its own, filled with sumptuous and fascinating detail, and spiced with his trademark waspish humour.

It is this, you feel, that the author really enjoys writing about, and it shows so evidently. It also provides a very satisfying finale to a thoroughly strange but completely readable novel.

I won’t deny that, overall, there are some weaknesses here. Tyrrel, though initially presented as a sparring partner for Seymour, is primarily a plot device. He’s too intellectual and doesn’t seem to have enough investigating to do for a 1950s police detective (or anything to do at all in terms of helping to move things along), while the idea that the entire senior staff at a respected institution like Cambridge University would, on the word of the provost, conspire to keep a murder ‘in-house’ verged on the ridiculous.

But these things aside, I recommend Doctors Wear Scarlet.

It’s unashamedly a dark mystery and a disturbing horror novel. And though the author is known first and foremost as a literary writer and satirist, and this strongly informs the approach he takes, it stands comfortably among many other greats of the field. Yes, it’s something of a curiosity, but it’s not off-puttingly long, and all fans of the genre (and beyond) should have no problem enjoying it.

Sadly, mine and your favourite part of the review is not going to happen this week. I normally hit you all at this point with an imaginary film or TV adaptation, nominating my own cast. 

But as I’ve already mentioned, a real adaptation has already happened with Doctors Wear Scarlet. It was made in 1971 as Incense for the Damned (aka Blood Suckers and Freedom Seekers), starring, as well as Peter Cushing as Goodrich, Patrick Mower as Richard Fountain, Alex Davion as Tony Seymour, Patrick Macnee as Longbow and Imogen Hassall as Chryseis. Intriguingly, the director, Robert Hartford-Davis, was so disappointed in the finished film, citing post-production interference, that he had his name removed from it. That may be one reason at least why it is so rarely screened these days.