Sunday, 10 September 2017

Just how cool are those great book covers?

The focus is squarely on crime fiction today.

A timely thing, I suppose, with the publication of my next crime novel, SHADOWS, just around the corner. But we’re also going to have a bit of a chat this week about book covers – and what makes a good one. To illustrate things, but also for a bit of fun, I’ve put together a gallery of my 25 best ever crime novel covers. You can find that a bit further down. 

Also on the subject of crime fiction – but at the really hard end of the spectrum – I’m offering a detailed review of Sam Hawken’s amazingly bleak and chilling debut novel, THE DEAD WOMEN OF JUAREZ. As usual, you can find that at the lower end of today’s column.

Cover story

The first thing to say is that it’s amazing how divisive book covers can be. They don’t just divide fans and readers, they can divide writers from agents and agents from publishers.

Essentially, a book cover is a work of visual art, so there is always going to be a degree of dispute. It’s in the eye of the beholder; it’s a purely subjective exercise. Of course, this doesn’t stop writers being upset when their books are allocated artwork they don’t like, though by this stage of the operation, the publishers are generally more interested in what the readers think, and they’ll have attempted to anticipate this by taking detailed reports from their market-research people beforehand, will have studied the sales figures for recent similar products, and so forth (something the writer will almost never have done).

Of course, it it all goes wrong then, and the public don’t buy, the publishers can still fall back on that timeless and excellent adage: You can’t judge a book by its cover … which will likely do nothing to placate the disgruntled writer who hated the cover in the first place, though the irony is that this famous old saying so often reflects reality.

You really CAN’T judge a book by its cover, even though we’re all regularly guilty of doing exactly that. It’s astounding how often a poor book is ‘bigged up’ by an extraordinary cover, though maybe it’s more frequently the case that a incredible book is lost behind a rather ordinary cover.   

To get to the root of this knotty problem, the real question that perhaps needs addressing here is what purpose does a book’s cover actually serve?

Well, to start with – and this is purely my own opinion, of course (though I always welcome others) – the cover’s job is not to paraphrase what’s in the book. Nor is it to tease you about what’s in the book. It’s not even to try and sell the book.

The book’s cover has one purpose only: to attract your attention while you’re wandering the endless aisles of books-for-sale; to literally make you stop in your tracks, take the book from the shop shelf and examine it more closely. At that point, the cover’s job is done. From here on, the back-cover blurb takes over. Yes, it’s the blurb, not the cover, whose job it is to make you buy.

But the upshot of all this is that the best book covers must, at the very least, be eye-catching. An effective cover has got to depict something that will hook you in an instant. And that doesn’t have to be something totally relevant to the book, though I think most publishers would consider it a bit naughty if the cover was completely irrelevant. In my view – and again it’s only my personal view – that would be mis-selling the book.

For example, check out this famously outrageous Brazilian edition of Stephen King’s The Shining. Now, there is a strong and attractive woman in the The Shining – Wendy Torrance, but I don’t remember full-on glam and glitzy jewellery having much part to play.

Only the good stuff

But I digress. We’re less interested today in trashy covers, and more interested in really good ones. I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to date to have had what I consider to be some pretty effective artwork gracing the covers of my novels. I think my favourite is still SACRIFICE (2013), the second Mark Heckenburg novel, which concerns a series of kidnappings followed by sacrificial murders occurring in concert with certain dates in the calendar. The original Avon cover can be viewed at the top of this column, and strongly hints at the crime/horror combo which made this book the fastest selling pre-order in HarperCollins history at the time. 

But I’m also a big fan of the jacket to my new title, SHADOWS, which can be seen here. This is number two in the Lucy Clayburn series, and has perhaps a more down-to-Earth emphasis, throwing a young female cop into the tough male world of the Manchester Robbery Squad and pitting her against a gang of relentless and ultra-violent blaggers.

But I don’t want to use this blog just to talk about me all the time, and, as I mentioned at the top, I thought today might be an opportunity to throw the net more widely and focus on some of the other truly excellent book covers that I’ve encountered over the years. This blog normally concerns itself with what I call ‘dark fiction’ – which is a general term for a very big field. So today, for the sake of brevity, we’re going to concentrate on crime fiction covers. My intent, in a couple of weeks or so, is to look at the best thriller covers, perhaps after that the best horror covers, and then maybe the best fantasy, the best science fiction and so forth.

But, as I said, for today, we’re sticking solely with what in my opinion, in no particular order, are …   

The best 25 crime fiction covers ever …

(One quick point: I’ve only selected this gallery from English language editions – if I was to scour the whole world of published works, I couldn’t even get close to assembling a realistic list within an acceptable time-frame).

1. POPPET - Mo Hayder 
(Bantam, 2013)

One of the creepiest crime covers ever jackets this seventh outing for DI Jack Caffery, in which he investigates a series of ghastly incidents occurring inside a secure hospital for the criminally insane. It’s every bit as disturbing as its cover suggest, but what can I say?, Hayder doesn’t do vanilla crime ...

2. NIGHT DOGS - Kent Anderson 
(Bantam, 1998)

Sheer savagery promises from this jacket, and that’s exactly what you get when a battle-scarred Vietnam vet trades his combat fatigues for a badge with Portland PD, only to find the gunfire-riddled North Precinct one of the most dangerous beats in the city, especially when not every other cop you’re working with has got your back ...

3. THE HOODS - Harry Grey  
(Crown, 1952)

A very to-the-point illustration makes no bones about what you’re going to find in this largely fact-based study of a crime syndicate’s rise to power in New York City of the bootlegger era. Controversial on its release, and very hard to find now, though most crime fans will know it from the epic movie adaptation: Once Upon a Time in America ...

4. HALLOWEEN PARTY - Agatha Christie 
(Fontana, 1980)

Originally published in 1969 by the Collins Crime Club, this later but famously horrific cover from Fontana nicely encapsulates an equally horrific premise, one of the most chilling ever in fact, with ex-Brussels police detective-turned-PI, Hercule Poirot, called on to investigate the deliberate drowning of a child in an apple-bobbing tub during a tempestuous Halloween party ...

5. THE AXEMANS JAZZ - Ray Celestin 
(Pan, 2015)

As you’d probably expect from this amazing artwork, the New Orleans of 1919 - the sights, the sounds and even the smells - come vibrantly to life in this amazing debut novel. It also pits a trio of disparate individuals against the true life maniac who terrorised the city during that long hot summer, the notorious Mad Axeman ...

6. ENTER THE DARK - Chris Thomas 
(Bloodhound, 2017)

Just in case you needed reminding about those faceless enemies of civilisation who always seem to lurk in the dark places of the internet, up steps Chris Thomas with a cover that more than does his new book justice. Mix advanced proficiency online, high-level cybercrime and a frightened world’s unspoken desire for vigilante justice, and you have a real terror tale. Here is is ...

7. GET CARTER - Ted Lewis 
(Soho Syndicate, 2014)

Originally published as the seminal Jacks Return Home in 1970 by Michael Joseph (and that was a pretty spiffing cover too), this is the latest re-issue of the crime classic, and my favourite to date. Grimy northern England of the late ’60s is the setting as London enforcer Jack Carter returns home to investigate the mysterious death of his brother ... 

(Doubleday, 1947)

An odd cover given the premise of the story, but undeniably eerie and eye-catching. The novel, now recognised as a classic of crime fiction’s ‘golden age’, features a bunch of military men on a remote base, and sees them passing the time by piecing together a murder mystery, and its solution, from fragments of newspaper packaging. Ingeniously clever ...

9. DIRTBAGS - Eryk Pruitt 
(Immortal Ink, 2014) 

More than a hint on offer here of the Southern Noir nightmare that erupts when two trailer trash losers, each one a violent psychopath in his own right, dream of being serial killers, and one day get the chance to make fantasy reality when they are hired to carry out a brutal assassination. Yes, it’s absolutely as hard and gritty as this jacket will lead you to expect ...

10. THE DOLL MAKER - Richard Montanari 
(Sphere, 2015)

If this one implies that you’re in for a tale of ‘crime meets body-horror’, then you aren’t far wrong, as Montanari’s regular detectives, Byrne and Balzano, scour Philadelphia in pursuit of the charming, erudite and completely crazy Mr Marseille, who will do anything for his beloved Anabelle, no matter how horrifying ... 

11. HOW THE DEAD LIVE - Derek Raymond 
(Melville International, 2011)

First published by Secker and Warburg in 1986 as Book 3 in the Factory series, but repackaged here, this is a suitably oblique cover for a rather oblique novel. Philosophy and violence entwine as an unnamed but very hard-boiled detective sergeant investigates a disappearance from a scenic English village which, in truth, is rotten to the core ...

12. THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY - Patricia Highsmith 
(WW Norton, 2008)

Known by many for the 1999 movie version starring Matt Damon, this classic 1955 psychological thriller still stands the test of time, hence the above re-issue and its rather marvellous new cover. Originally published by Coward-McCann, it tells the tale of a young conman who murders a rich playboy, assumes his identity and settles back to enjoy the good life. Except it can’t be that easy ...

13. THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE - George V Higgins 
(Picador, 2010)

A ‘says it all’ jacket for the 40th Anniversary edition of this underworld masterpiece. Originally published in 1972, it tells the distinctly non-glamorous tale of a small-time gunrunner working for the Irish mob, who, to save his own skin, turns informer for Boston law-enforcement, making himself plenty of deadly enemies in the process ...

14. THE BONE KEEPER - Luca Veste 
(Simon & Schuster, 2018)

A sneak peek of what is likely to be one of next year’s big releases. Luca Veste steps away from his Murphy and Rossi crime series to produce a stand-alone nightmare (the horror elements of which are clearly signalled by the image above) in which Liverpool cops gather gory evidence suggesting that semi-mythical bogeyman, the Bone Keeper, might actually be real ...

15. THE DEVIL - Ken Bruen 
(Minotaur, 2010)

A suitably infernal cover for no. 8 in the Jack Taylor series. For the uninitiated, anti-hero Taylor, a hard-drinking, self-loathing mess of an Irish PI, finally meets his ultimate nemesis when his investigation following a crazed killing leads him into conflict with an enemy who may be the Dark One himself ...

16. THE ASHES OF LONDON - Andrew Taylor
(HarperCollins, 2017)

As a history buff, this is one of the best covers I’ve ever seen. For the very first time, Scotland Yard - in this case a propaganda office in the Palace of Whitehall - is called on to investigate a chilling ritual murder. The main problem though, is that it’s 1666, and London is burning to the ground. A classic mystery, set against a backdrop of sedition, sectarianism and simmering revolutionary fervour ...

17. MISSING - Sam Hawken
(Serpents Tail, 2014)

You want Satanic levels of evil, don’t read books about the Devil, check out the Mexican cartels. The voodoo-esque cover here, richly redolent of gang violence, pseudo-religion and nihilistic horror, makes a perfect jacket for this amazing effort by the author featured in today’s ‘Thrillers, Chillers’. A Texan searches for his wayward stepdaughters when they go missing over the border. Utterly grim ..

18. VILLAIN - Shuichi Yoshida
 (Pantheon, 2010)

Great metaphorical image for a book that I, personally, would have had no idea how to illustrate. When a young saleswoman is murdered, an entire town comes under scrutiny - and is found lacking on almost every level. An Asian Noir by a very acclaimed Japanese writer, but at the same time, a ‘no prisoners’ slice of penetrating social commentary ...

19. THE HOLLOW MAN - John Dickson Carr 
(Hamish Hamilton, 1935)

If this one doesn’t make you buy the book, we might as well all go home, but I shall try to encourge you anyway. Carr, known as one of the greatest suspense authors of his generation, presents us with a bamboozling conundrum, which, even now, is regarded as so clever a ‘locked room’ mystery that it is widely seen, even in the 21st century, as a textbook for crime writers ...

(William Morrow, 1991)

If this image makes you think that whatever the outcome of this novel, it ain’t going to be an easy ride ... well, you’ve guessed it. Another outing for Matt Scudder, Block’s tired but morally upright NYPD-turned-PI, who here investigates the murder of a depraved rich man’s wife, a case that takes him on a warts-and-all tour of the Big Apple’s sex-for-sale underground. Strong stomachs required ...

21. MURDER AS A FINE ART - David Morrell
(Mulholland, 2013)

Top hats, gaslights and ghoulish slayings in Victorian London. That’s what you expect with a cover like this, and yes ... that’s exactly what you get. David Morrell takes us convincingly back to the mid-Dickensian era in this first Thomas de Quincey novel, evoking the horror of the true life Ratcliffe Highway Murders with a series of fictional copycat crimes decades later. Totally immersive mystery.

22. RUPTURE - Ragnar Jonasson
(Orenda, 2017)

Another slice of Icelandic Noir from an author who is rapidly becoming the master of that form. Every box is ticked: a bleak world, a small, isolated community, a long-ago mystery which has never been resolved, a current crime spree echoing it, lots of unspoken secrets and a growing terrible threat that may render all of this redundant. It does exactly what it says on the tin ...

23. MURDERABILIA - Craig Robertson
(Simon & Schuster, 2017)

With his detective partner in bed, pregnant, Glasgow crime reporter Tony Winter (a Robertson regular) takes centre-stage when another horrible murder needs investigating. This time, though, the case touches on levels of darkness previously untapped, specifically the gruesome trade in crime memorabilia as perpetrated on the Deep Web. Yet again, the cover tells you all you need to know ...

24. GREEN RIVER RISING - Tim Willocks
(Avon, 1994)

A fearful insider’s view of a terrifying prison riot, as engineered by a madman in one of the toughest jails Texas has to offer. Probably the most intense novel on this list, but very human too, the various maniacs given to us in full 3D rather than as evil cardboard cut-outs. (Not sure if this was the original hardback cover, or a later version. Perhaps some kind soul can enlighten me?) ...

25. RED HARVEST - Dashiell Hammett
(Alfred Knopf, 1929)

Hammett’s first crime novel, and still one of his best. The legendary ‘Continental Op’, a tough-as-teak private eye tackles the various goon squads who have taken charge of an industrial city on America’s West Coast. As hard-boiled as it gets, unstinting in the matters of murder, violence, drugs, alcohol, etc. But if this awsome period cover doesn’t draw you in, frankly, nothing will ...



An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – 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 … 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 Sam Hawken (2012)

Ciudad Juárez is a Mexican border-town where something akin to a national disaster is being played out.

Since the early 1990s (in real life as well as in this powerful work of fiction), at least 5,000 young women, mostly prostitutes, students or assembly line employees in the maquiladoras – US-owned car-making plants where sweatshop conditions are the norm – have vanished. In many cases they have never been seen again, but a significant number have reappeared in shallow graves or on city dumps, murdered and displaying signs of extreme sexual torture.

Whether it’s the work of a serial killer, or multiple serial killers, or dope gangs, or sex tourists, or who knows what, it’s a hideous mystery which endures right to this day.

It’s difficult to understand how something like this can go on unchecked in the 21st century, but Juárez is a town with all kinds of problems, not least the cartels who fight each other daily up and down its bullet-scarred streets, the persistence of corruption in institutions like the police and local government, the prevalence of drugs and drug addicts, and the hordes of reckless American turistas who flood across the border every evening to drink and whore themselves senseless.

It is against this tragic but hellish backdrop that Texas author, Sam Hawken, tells his tale of two deeply-flawed men: Kelly Courter, an American boxer now long past his best, and Detective Rafael Sevilla, an alcoholic narcotics cop who is close to retirement after a career (and a lifetime!) during which he feels he’s achieved nothing.

Courter and Sevilla are as unlikely a pair of heroes as you could meet.

The former fled the States to evade a likely lengthy jail sentence, and now has a heroin dependency, which, though he’s only in his 30s, long ago ruined his boxing career. These days, just to be able to support himself (and buy smack!), Courter rents himself out as a human punchbag to unscrupulous backstreet boxing promoters like the verminous Ortiz – who put him in the ring against eager up-and-comers, where he suffers the unbridled hatred of the crowd and takes some bone-crunching beatings. The one light in his life is Paloma, his girlfriend, a fearless activist with Mujeres Sin Voces, a self-help organisation seeking justice for the legions of murdered women, and whose drugs-dealing brother, Estéban, he occasionally helps by providing a white face by which to lure nervous American customers.

It is through this connection that we first meet the honest but drink-enfeebled cop, Sevilla, who is constantly leaning on Courter to get him to give up his and Estéban’s supplier. Courter resists, of course, and there isn’t much Sevilla can do about that, or even is motivated to do, if he’s honest – because his life too has been irreparably damaged by the plague of ‘feminicide’, which, among so many others, has claimed both his daughter and his granddaughter.

As such, neither Courter nor Sevilla, nor even Estéban lead happy and fulfilled lives, but things get a whole lot worse when Paloma, who on several occasions has stood up to the menacing gangland figures constantly circling Mujeres Sin Voces, also disappears. If this isn’t enough, as neither Courter nor Estéban have adequate alibis – Courter was on yet another drugs binge at the time! – they are taken into custody as suspects by the monstrously violent Captain ‘La Bestia’ Garcia, who, while he’s pretty incompetent when it comes to collaring gangsters and sex-murderers, likes nothing better than to brutalise confessions out of the little fish who drop his way.

Even Sevilla, who by now has developed a reasonably amicable relationship with Courter, can do nothing to help. When he turns to Adriana Quintero, the almost impossibly well-groomed prosecutor attached to the Special Task Force for the Investigation of Crimes Against Women, and pleads Courter’s innocence, he is greeted with utter indifference; Quintero’s real job, it seems, is to make it look as if Juárez is being served by the law.

Sevilla realises that only one route is open to him. Somehow or other, he must do the unfeasible, and bring the real perpetrators of the Juárez ‘feminicides’ to justice …

The first thing that struck me about The Dead Women of Juárez, Sam Hawken’s debut novel, is that it isn’t your typical crime-thriller. I’ve seen it described variously as ‘hard-boiled’, as ‘a border noir’, as ‘a classic murder-mystery’, and while there are aspects of all those in there – hard-drinking detective, Sevilla, and battered boxer, Courter, wouldn’t be out of place in any Chandler or Mickey Spillane – the overwhelming catastrophe that is actually occurring in Juárez basically takes centre-stage.

And that’s the main point. Because this relentless spate of unsolved murders is a real thing, and because the real city in which the novel takes place is every bit as dusty and down-at-heel as Sam Hawken describes it here, it would seem indelicate, if not downright trite, to classify this novel as anything resembling pulp fiction. It’s a rattling good story – there’s no question about that, and Hawken’s lean, mean prose keeps it bouncing along at pace. But the whole narrative aches with a deep-felt sadness, which can only stem from the real life horrors of that woe-begotten burg.

And it’s quite clear that Hawken wrote his book fully mindful of this issue.

His approach is observational rather than judgemental. Whether it be the extreme inequality of wealth on display here (some folk living in ‘cartons’, while super-powered businessmen like Rafa Madrigal, and his vile son, Sebastian, own ranches and private golf courses), the rash crowds of American kids who flock across the border to party and get high, or the armies of dealers, hookers and hustlers who cater to them, he simply describes things the way they are, rather than calling down fire and brimstone on it. Even the ongoing murder spree is brought to us subtly, Hawken not sitting us down to lecture us, but gradually drawing it to our attention via the clusters of wooden crosses we see standing on wasteland now and then, or the flyblown ‘missing’ posters adorning streetlights and telegraph poles.

This, he shows us – without really needing to say it – is the tragedy of modern Mexico.

Poverty and crime are the norm. Murder is so common that people are no longer shocked; they simply live their lives around it, getting on any way they can. Even Mexico’s crime-lords and their roaming gangs of gunmen are regarded as an everyday occupational hazard.

But while that’s the way of normality in Ciudad Juárez, for the rest of us it’s seismically terrifying. You find yourself shuddering more with each page turned, appalled that such injustice and exploitation could ever exist in the modern world. The desolation of all the main characters’ lives is palpable. It extends to the lesser characters too: the scores of bereaved parents and siblings protesting futilely on barren street-corners; the dead-eyed workers trudging in for yet another long shift in hot, dirty factories; those people who live in cartons.

In all these respects, The Dead Women of Juárez is an unforgettable read. It is dispiriting and distressing – just when you think one awful thing too many has happened, another, even worse thing comes along. The violence and cruelty is more visceral and in-your-face than almost any reader could be comfortable with. However, none of this means that there isn’t going to be a reckoning of sorts. It certainly doesn’t mean that Rafael Sevilla, finally galvanised to take a long-overdue revenge on the enemies of his town, won’t get his act together.

To say more on that would be a spoiler, but The Dead Women of Juárez isn’t just a warts-and-all study of modern-day despair; it’s a multi-layered, fast-moving piece of docu-fiction, superbly written and while not exactly entertaining, ultimately very, very satisfying. Okay, it may not be true to call this book a typical crime-thriller, but that certainly does not mean that it doesn’t reach a very thrilling conclusion.

Another one I highly recommend, though with the caveat that it’s more an existentialist nightmare than a murder mystery, and that even in that brutal guise, it pulls absolutely no punches. 

And now, as usual, I’m going to be bold enough to try and cast this one in advance of it ever coming to the movie or TV screen. I’m not sure whether it’s been optioned or not, but hey … this is only an exercise. Like anyone would listen to me, anyway. Here are my picks for the leads:

Detective Rafael Sevilla – Antonio Banderas
Kelly Courter – Wentworth Miller (older than in the book, but he doesn’t look it)
Ortiz – Sergi Lopez
Esteban – Pablo Cruz
Paloma – Angelique Boyer
Captain ‘La Bestia’ Garcia – Alberto Estrella
Adriana Quintero – Blanca Soto
Rafa Madrigal – Miguel Sandoval
Sebastian Madrigal – Gael Garcia Bernal

Friday, 11 August 2017

Unveiling the next Lucy Clayburn enquiry

Okay, I know I’ve been promising his for a little while, but today I’m at last able to unveil the jacket for the next Lucy Clayburn novel, SHADOWS

So, here it is … enjoy (and feel free to tell me what you think).

We’ll be talking a bit more about the next Lucy book shortly (I’ll even let you in on seven things about her that you previously didn’t know). But as we’re focussing exclusively on girl-power this week, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Tess Gerritsen’s remarkable occult/crime thriller, THE MEPHISTO CLUB, which pits two female sleuths against a group who are literally dedicated to doing evil. It’s a real hair-curler, but as always, you’ll find that review at the lower end of today’s post.

Meanwhile, as promised, Lucy is back on the crime-solving trail this autumn, so here’s that little bit extra I promised about the next adventure ... 

In SHADOWS, PC Lucy Clayburn has finally earned herself a permanent position in the CID office of Greater Manchester Police’s notorious November Division (where just about every kind of social deprivation is still an issue, and where criminal activity is rampant).

Lucy, or DC Clayburn as she is now officially known, is already an 11-year veteran on the force, and she thinks she’s seen and done it all … until the arrival in town of a gang of armed robbers who hit their targets with maximum force and extreme savagery, always leaving trails of dead or horrifically wounded victims in their wake.

It’s a real shock to the police system, even in a rough neighbourhood like ‘the N’ - almost a throwback to the days of John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. But Lucy isn’t the only person on the case. As this new gang mainly seems to be preying on the interests of the underworld, in particular the Northwest’s premier crime syndicate, the Crew, infamous gangland trouble-shooter Frank McCracken is also charged with bringing them down. And you can be sure that his methods are going to be a lot rougher and readier than Lucy’s (even if the vying twosome do know each other better than either of them would like to admit).

Random violence

I first introduced Lucy Clayburn in the 2016 novel, STRANGERS, in which she went undercover as a Manchester prostitute in order to catch a deranged working girl who appeared to be butchering her male clients. 

As well as sending her after a relentless serial killer, it brought her into closer contact with organised crime in the city than any person would be comfortable with.

But in SHADOWS, she goes a whole lot deeper, pursuing a bunch of blaggers to whom human life means nothing, and plunging into a world of drugs, guns and random, testosterone-fuelled violence, where no-one – but no-one – is beyond the reach of a knife, a bullet, or even a sword!

But alas, I can’t say too much more about it. If you want to know what actually happens in SHADOWS, you’ve got to acquire the book – which will be published on October 19 this year.

However, also as promised earlier, here is one further item of interest for Lucy Clayburn fans ...    


(These were all plotted before the first book was written, but didn’t make it into the final text. However, in due course, all will come to play their own part in the Lucy Clayburn canon).

1) At the start of STRANGERS, all Lucy thought she knew about her absent father was that he’d worked as a bus driver, and that he had departed the family before Lucy was even born because he found the idea of parental responsibility onerous. As a young child, Lucy was particularly affected by this, and at the age of seven she ran away from home and used her Christmas money to travel the bus routes of Greater Manchester for two days, looking for any driver whose facial features she might vaguely recognise. Lucy’s mother, Cora, was beside herself with worry, but the child was later recovered safe and well when, early one morning, a nurse coming off duty found her sleeping in a bus shelter in Rochdale on the other side of the city from her home-patch of Crowley. Afterwards, when Lucy saw how upset her mother had been, she solemnly promised herself that she would never go looking for her father again.

2) Those who’ve read STRANGERS will be aware that Lucy comes from an economically poor background but that her single mother’s brave and determined efforts ensured that she’d eventually become a model citizen. However, in her late teens, Lucy went through a typical ‘wild child’ phase, and for a brief time was girlfriend to Kyle Armstrong, a member of the Low Riders, Crowley’s resident Hell’s Angels chapter.

Armstrong later rose to be president of the chapter, but when Lucy joined the police – perhaps inevitably – they went their separate ways, and not very amicably. However, Armstrong made an impression on Lucy; she still recalls how lean, mean and fanciable he was, and of course, though she may not admit this to herself, she owes Armstrong big-time for instilling in her a long-lasting street wisdom, not to mention her abiding love of motorbikes (for those not in the know, Lucy still rides a Ducti Monster M900 ‘muscle-bike’).

3) As a child and then as a teenager, Lucy had an extreme phobia of dogs. It all began when, as a toddler, she was playing in the backstreet behind her house when she was attacked and badly bitten by an out-of-control Doberman. For years afterwards, she had an unreasoning fear of canines. However, this was cured one Saturday night in the police, when she was required to arrest two hooligans who were fighting outside a kebab shop.

Lucy was alone at the time, and the moment she grabbed the guy doing most of the beating, the watching crowd turned on her, as did the other combatant. Lucy was about to get a severe kicking herself, when Shuck, a fearsome police dog was let loose further down the road. It tore into the mob and drove them every which way, basically saving her life. Later, she made friends with Shuck by throwing a tennis ball for him for two hours on the car park at the back of the police station, throwing off her phobia in the process.

4) Lucy first came to the notice of senior police officers when, early in her career, shortly after leaving the watchful eye of her tutor constable, she engaged in a car chase with a late-night driver who wouldn’t stop for her. Suspecting because of his erratic driving that he was drunk, she stayed on his tail until he abandoned his vehicle on wasteland close to the River Irwell. It was a December night, very cold and the river was half frozen. The fleeing driver attempted to swim across, got into trouble and screamed for help as he started to drown.

Despite the pitch darkness and the icy cold, Lucy jumped into the river and managed to pull him ashore alive (he transpired to have been under the influence of drugs). Later on, she was severely reprimanded by her supervisors for taking an absurdly dangerous risk. However, when the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester heard about the escapade, she was awarded her first (of several) commendations. 

5) Lucy suffered her first serious injury on duty when she was hit with a baseball bat by one of her own police colleagues. She was involved in public order training at the time, and participating in an exercise called ‘Violent Man’. A burly police PTI had donned body armour and a motorcycle helmet and, armed with a hickory slugger, was stationed inside a derelict house. Lucy and three other PCs had to enter and affect an arrest; the PTI, in the guise of a deranged suspect, had to do everything he could to resist them. Though Lucy and her crew were in full riot gear and armed with heavy Perspex shields, the house was filled with rubble. Lucy stumbled on entry, dropped her shield, and the PTI, who’d already taken a full swing at her with the bat, was unable to pull back. Lucy was hit in the throat, the impact of which broke her collar bone and caused her to swallow her tongue. Revived at the scene, she nevertheless had to spend two days in hospital and was off work for three weeks.

6) Lucy once nearly arrested a famous rock star. In her mid-twenties, she was off-duty in a central Manchester nightclub when a rather dishy but very drunken guy began pestering her for a dance.

The guy wouldn’t take no for an answer; in fact he seemed startled that she would resist him. At length, Lucy lost her patience and gave him a flea in his ear. His response was to turn aggressive and, when he tried to force a kiss on her, she put him in an arm-lock and marched him to the nightclub door, where she intended to get the bouncers to summon police officers to take him into custody. Someone then quietly advised her that she was roughing up Tug Davis, founder member of The Mannequins, a big name Manchester band of the 1990s and one of the Britpop ‘big five’. Lucy still wasn’t inclined to let him go, even less so when a bossy woman identified herself as Tug’s PA and threatened legal action.

However, when a colleague pointed out to Lucy that she’d had a bit to drink herself and that she might be on shaky ground, she finally relented and all parties agreed to forget it so long as Tug “behaved himself in future”, which he sulkily promised to do. 

7) Lucy once made the Crowley newspapers after taking an eccentric local woman seriously rather than dismissing her as a fruitcake. Annie Leary was regarded by the police as a batty old dear, whom no-one should pay any attention to, especially when she made repeated complaints that her terraced house was haunted by a goblin, who constantly stole her money and food. When Lucy was assigned to that beat, she took note of the fact that the house next door to Annie’s was empty, and launched a one-woman investigation, which led her to a hole in the connecting wall between the two attics. It turned out that a homeless child – a feral boy – was living up there, who regularly came down into Annie’s house at night to try and feed himself.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – 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 … 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 Tess Gerritsen (2006)

As usual, on/off partners in crime-fighting, Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner, Doctor Maura Isles, are having difficulties in their personal lives. 

At the start of The Mephisto Club, Isles’s yearning for handsome Catholic priest, Father Daniel Brophy, remains unrequited, but as he is equally attracted to her, how long that status will last is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile Jane Rizzoli, an experienced homicide investigator with the Boston PD, has a happily-married life, but a car-wreck of a family, her brothers useless and her mom and dad increasingly quarrelsome with each other.

With all this going on, and in the depths of a bitterly cold Boston winter, it’s hardly the right time for the twosome to find themselves confronted by a particularly ghoulish ritual murder, the body horribly dismembered and the Latin word PECCAVI scrawled at the scene.

An apparent explanation suggests itself soon enough, the slaying seemingly linked to one of Isles’s former sparring partners, criminal psychologist, Dr Joyce O’Donnell, a woman with whom she has never seen eye-to-eye. It seems possible that the perp is one of O’Donnell’s more disturbed patients, either trying to spook her or leave her some kind of message. But O’Donnell can’t (or won’t) help examine this particular theory, and then more murders follow, with similar mutilations and similar cryptic characters inscribed on and around the corpses. 

It seems that it isn’t just Joyce O’Donnell who’s the object of interest, but the whole of the mysterious Mephisto Club, of which she is only one member.

A group of scholarly individuals headed up by the wealthy ex-college professor, Anthony Sansone, and the bullish Englishwoman, Edwina Felway, the Mephisto Club – or ‘Mephisto Foundation’, to use their preferred title – dedicate themselves to a profound and scientific analysis of evil; not just in its obvious form, as in the violent psychosis displayed by damaged individuals, but also the religious and metaphysical elements of it, i.e. its devilish origins, as described in the earliest archaeological records.

To the ever-cynical Rizzoli, all of this feels like hokum, but she’s frustrated to find that, owing to their fantastical wealth, the Mephisto Club exert huge influence over the authorities, even the FBI, and when they insist on helping with the investigation, tacit permission is given.

They don’t exactly interfere, but Rizzoli soon feels that she’s lost her leadership role, and is particularly frustrated by Isles, who is gradually won over by them, especially by Sansone, a descendent of cruel Italian nobility, and yet a man whose good looks are striking, and whose urbane style and intellectual depths make him a real force to be reckoned with.

In a parallel thread, meanwhile, we follow the fortunes of one Lily Saul, a girl whose family, many years ago, had the misfortune to take into their care her abandoned cousin, Dominic. Dominic was a curious boy with peculiar interests, an unnerving manner and a strange knowledge of ‘forbidden’ things.

We don’t dwell too much on that first summer of young Dominic’s residence at the Saul home in rural New England, but instead flit forward in time to find Lily, now an adult (with no family left to call her own!), on the run in Rome, leading a hippie-like existence, moving from one temporary accommodation to the next, doing things she would never normally have dreamt of in order to make money, and constantly looking over her shoulder for fear that he – or should that be ‘it
’ – won’t be far behind …

Tess Gerritsen’s blood-spattered crime thrillers have often been said to skate along the edge of the horror genre, and while that may not always be true, I don’t think it can be denied on this occasion. But that’s not because The Mephisto Club is a gore-fest. To start with, it’s not. Oh, there are gruesome murders a-plenty, and the author/doctor, as always, demonstrates her medical knowledge with some unstintingly detailed autopsy sequences, but the real horror in this novel – and the title itself is a bit of a give-away – actually comes to us from a more much traditional direction: its aura of Satanic evil.

The surprising implication in The Mephisto Club, namely that a truly malevolent force walks the Earth, an ancient power traceable right back to the Fall of Man, is not the kind of twist we’d expect in a routine crime thriller, but in this novel we get it full-on.

Lily’s flight to Rome serves to underline this almost in itself; Italy, the land of esoteric antiquity, Rome the capital of the Catholic Church.

And then there is the Mephisto Club itself.

For the uninitiated, Mephisto (better known as Mephistopheles) was an arch-demon, a close servant of Satan, who most famously claimed the soul of 15th century occultist, Faust. So once again in this novel we’re working on the basis that evil is not some intangible aspect of corrupted human nature, but a personalised entity, something with a form and a face, which actively seeks the destruction of our world.

The Club, itself, is equally reminiscent of the classic age of horror. 

It’s an amusingly old-fashioned concept, consisting entirely of enigmatic scholars and wealthy intellectuals, who spend their time tracing the movements of the world’s most malign beings, attempting to track their ancestry back to mythological days when fallen angels known as the Watchers spawned monstrous offspring, the so-called Nephilim, who dedicated their existence to the death and misery of mankind. Their tireless research has uncovered all manner of eldritch information: references not just to the Watchers and the Nephilim, but to the Book of Enoch (which is real and in which many of these disturbing legends were first written down) and to Lillith – Adam’s first wife, a wanton temptress who walked the Earth long before Eve (and who modern-day feminists regard as the quintessential demonization of women by a patriarchal church).

With all this in mind, it’s very easy to picture the Mephisto Club in a Hammer Horror movie, perhaps with Peter Cushing chairing the meetings.

The big question is … does it work in the context of a crime thriller?

My view – and I’m aware that it’s not shared by all crime fans – is that it does.

Okay, I will admit to having one or two minor problems with it. I didn’t buy totally into the idea that the Mephisto Club, even through the combined expertise of its members, could wield such influence over government organisations like the FBI. I’m sure these secret societies exist, but I’d imagine more as hobbies for the rich and the bored, whom the police would simply treat as well-meaning amateurs. I also thought that one or two moments were a little bit rushed; for example, after effectively and atmospherically building up the circumstances of Lily’s flight to Rome, not to mention the fear she feels at every turn, and the desperate (ugly-desperate at one point!) measures she takes to protect herself there, this whole part of the book seems to end rather mundanely and abruptly, within a page or so in fact. Compare and contrast that to the protracted and ultimately irrelevant break-up of Rizzoli’s parents’ marriage, and you have a quite noticeable imbalance.

But hell, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this novel.

Whether I’m reading crime or horror, I’m a sucker for ancient puzzles, and The Mephisto Club is riddled with them. From eerie Latin inscriptions to ritually mutilated corpses, from chalk symbols to assailants who move like shadows, this narrative is chocka with arcane symbolism and olde worlde weirdness. It’s also pretty damn thrilling: Rizzoli and Isles, two independent, modern-minded women, talented practitioners of their respective crafts and domineering forces in their personal lives, find themselves eyebrow-deep in a gory and distressing murder case for which no contemporary textbook could have prepared them.

For all these reasons, The Mephisto Club is a fast, riveting read. But then you have Tess Gerritsen’s skilled penmanship, as well – a great sense of time and place (Boston in mid-winter, brrr), fizzling dialogue, rapid-fire action, a range of extreme and even grotesque characters for us to get our teeth into, though none of them are OTT – and you’ve got everything you really need for an enjoyable thriller.

I can understand why certain crime fiction traditionalists found this one hard to take. The concept of evil as a sentient force, embodied by a single devilish being, or even a group of such beings, may on one hand seem naïve of the author, but on the other hand you’ve got to remember that this is fiction, and fun fiction at that. And it’s not as if the supernatural elements hit us on the nose. Like most good authors in this field, Gerritsen basically leaves it open at the end, leaves certain questions unanswered, and leaves her readers – this one at least – wanting more.

An intriguing thriller with an unusual, challenging and never less than uber-dark premise, The Mephisto Club ticked all of my boxes.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for – when I cast this beast. Of course, in the case of Rizzoli and Isles, if their adventures were to be adapted in the correct order, The Mephisto Club would be the fourth in the series, but just suspend belief for a minute or two (which you’ll need to do anyway, if you want to get your head round the idea that someone like me will be picking the actors):

Det. Jane Rizzoli – Jaimie Alexander
Dr. Maura Isles – Julia Stiles
Lily Saul – Emma Stone
Anthony Sansone – Mads Mikkelson
Dr. Joyce O’Donnell – Glenne Headly
Edwina Felway – Emma Thompson

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Darker days: the 60s/70s maniac explosion

We’re lowering the tone to a dangerous level this week, conjuring up memories of a past so dark that many among us who were there at the time have likely blotted them out. We’re going to be recollecting the 1960s and 1970s, and exposing ourselves to some of Britain’s worst real-life criminals and the terrible atrocities they inflicted on us during that turbulent, rough-and-ready age.

In the same spirit, I’ll today be reviewing and discussing BLOOD AXE, Leigh Russell’s unrelenting tale of a criminal gone mad on the streets of urban Britain, and the cop who investigates the case so hard that he sacrifices almost everything he has in the process. As usual, youll find that review and discussion towards the lower end of today’s blog.

Before any of that, I can announce that next week we’ll officially be revealing the cover to my next Lucy Clayburn novel, SHADOWS, which hits the shelves on October 19 this year and puts our feisty female cop on the trail of a ruthless gang of armed robbers who always hit their targets with maximum brutality and bloodshed.

In sync with today’s overarching theme of narcissistic violence in a world devoid of pity, Lucy soon learns that the most frightening thing about opponents this extreme is not their preparedness to kill, but the void where their humanity is supposed to be, the utter absence of any degree of human love or charity.

Which brings us smoothly onto today’s main feature. An article I’ve put together this last week or so, much of it from memory, on the subject of a strange, anarchic age which, by the time it arrived, had seen so many sacred cows cruelly slain that it was inevitable human victims would start to follow.

All you have to do, if you’re old enough, is throw your mind back 30/40 years, to …


If you grew up in the UK of the 1960s and 1970s, as I did, you experienced a world that would be completely unrecognisable to young people today.

Okay … we’ve all heard the usual criticisms about that long-ago (and much defamed) era. Namely, that as a nation we drank too much, smoked too much, ate the wrong things, that we were innately racist, and that, most unforgivably of all in modern eyes, our society as a whole was self-indulgently sexualised: our book covers had never been more lurid, girlie mags were not just confined to the top shelves, our cinemas showed nothing but porn, and blue comedians dominated our TV schedules – I even remember one amazing Saturday morning when the lovely Sally James presented the kids’ show, TISWAS, naked in a bubble bath!!!

Not all of us might consider that latter detail a problem, but there actually was a downside to living in that period. The counter-culture rebels of the mid-60s had ushered in an age of permissiveness, which for some opportunists quickly morphed into something much more unpleasant: a time of misogyny and exploitation. It brought us increased drugs problems too, and quite a bit more ‘angry young man’ violence – and not just on stage and screen; the 60s saw countless Bank Holidays disrupted by mods v rockers incidents, while in the 70s, winter weekends were repeatedly marred by widespread football hooliganism.

But it wasn’t all bad for us youngsters, especially if we liked the fictional scary stuff.

Unlike today, tales of horror and the supernatural were easily accessible through mid-evening network television shows like  THRILLER, BEASTS and SUPERNATURAL, not to mention cheaply-priced paperbacks, which we could afford with our pocket-money and which would be sold to us by cheerful shop-ladies who’d never ask us our age (okay, I’ll admit it, you might have got smacked if your dad found you in possession of some gore-filled movie magazine like MONSTER MAG, or an issue of the uber-violent comic, ACTION, or maybe if he discovered a volume of the PAN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES next to your bed … but you got smacked an awful lot in those days anyway, so it seemed like a price worth paying).

No, it wasn’t too bad if you were a kid back then, so long as you were also a horror freak.

Unless, of course, you considered CRIME a problem … because that is the point at which 60s/70 horror stories stop being funny.

A new age of violence

It would be completely wrong to claim that violent and sexual crimes were inventions of the late 20th century. We all know that we can trace our gangsters, rapists and serial killers back to the dawn of civilisation. But in the 60s and 70s – or so it seemed to me – it was almost as if the entire criminal underworld had suddenly taken its gloves of. Maybe it was just that my generation were finally becoming old enough to pay attention to the news, but suddenly vicious murders appeared to be happening everywhere, often set against dismal urban backdrops, and perpetrated by offenders who were more ruthless, crazed and sadistic than any of those who had gone before them. 

And they were dealt with starkly by the media, newspapers and TV bulletins delivering the full stories to us in the most unstinting fashion, sparing us no cruel or gruesome detail.

And, on reflection … why wouldn’t they?

In an age when the body-counts on DR WHO often matched those on war films, at a time when Bonfire Night was preceded by safety warnings on early-evening TV displaying graphic images of burned children (check out the kid on the right ... who was able to stare at the sunset because he had no eyes!), in an era when it was all too easy for 12-year-olds to sneak in through the unalarmed back doors of local cinemas to catch movies like CLOCKWORK ORANGE, SOLDIER BLUE, STRAW DOGS and THE DEVILS (and again, only at the risk of getting a clip round the ear if caught), why would anyone think we youngsters couldn’t take it?

So … could we?, I hear you ask.

Yeah, course we could. If anything, it made us streetwise, woke us up to stranger-danger, and informed us in no uncertain terms that childhood was over.

And yet now, even having become a thriller writer in my adult years, I still have indelible and sometimes vaguely disturbing memories of the crime in that period: the photofits on the evening news (they never looked even remotely human, which made them all the scarier); the column-inches of darkly luscious prose describing the streets of fear in depressed towns where killers were on the loose; the newsreels showing search-lines moving morosely across desolate wastelands; and then, when these maniacs were finally caught, the grainy footage of their humped and handcuffed forms with blankets thrown over them as they were led by harassed-looking coppers through the baying mobs gathered outside police stations or courts.

Death by hanging was abolished for murder in Britain in 1965, but adults at the time remembered it well enough and many regretted its loss, an opinion that was often expressed loudly when these crime sprees were in progress.

And almost invariably, the faces of the guilty, when they finally appeared in the press, looked as if they belonged on the gallows (check out mass killers Graham Young, left, and Patrick Mackay, right). I don’t think there was ever an era in British history when criminals looked as much the part as they did in the 1960s and 1970s.

But enough of my inane rambling.

To really try and capture the atmosphere of that sleazy time, and the edginess of those streets we all romped through with the backsides hanging out of our jeans, only scattering back home when darkness fell (or not, depending on how fearless we thought we were!), the toughness of the cops (who had very hard hands, trust me!), and the desperate, pre-DNA war they waged against a new age of unspeakable deviancy, here, in no particular order, I’ve selected my 15 Most Shudder-Inducing Memories of 60s and 70s Crime:  

Mary Bell

In an era when children were still held to be innately innocent, the crimes of Mary Bell completely stunned a British society which, by 1968, really thought it had seen it all.

An unknown assailant making random fatal attacks on young children is a crime investigator’s worst nightmare, but when the killer is also a child, it becomes the stuff of nightmares.

Mary Bell, the daughter of a Newcastle prostitute, was only 10 in May 1968, when she lured a neighbouring boy who was only four years old, into a derelict house and strangled him. A short time later, she vandalised a local nursery and left sinister messages claiming responsibility for the murder (above left). The following July, this time with an accomplice, she attacked and strangled another neighbouring child, a little boy who was only three years old – in this latter case, Bell is believed to have returned to the scene of the crime afterwards, to inscribe a letter M on the victim’s body with a pair of scissors, and to mutilate his genitals.

Thanks to the unbridled horror of the case, even though she was only convicted on two counts of manslaughter (on the grounds that she was mentally ill), she was ordered to be detained indefinitely. However, she was released around 1980, and ever since then has lived anonymously under the protection of the courts.  

The Moors Murders

One of the most distressing cases of all time, the Moors Murders occurred between 1963 and 1965 on the outskirts of Manchester, and are often seen as a watershed in the history of UK crime.

Ian Brady, a Glaswegian-born ex-juvenile delinquent, and Myra Hindley, a clerk at the Gorton company where he found work, murdered five children, two girls and three boys, aged between 10 and 17. Four of the victims were sexually murdered, at least one of their torturous deaths photographed and tape-recorded, and the corpses buried on lonely Saddleworth Moor.

Brady and Hindley’s reign of horror ended when they committed their fifth murder in front of an unwilling accomplice, who the next day told all. The devilish twosome were convicted in 1966, missing the death penalty by months only, but receiving full life sentences. Even then, the victims’ families’ pain wasn’t over, the narcissistic Hindley fighting hard to acquit herself.

The fact that a woman had participated in these acts, using her femininity to lure the victims, horrified the world. Little wonder the phrase ‘wicked beyond belief’ was coined in reference to the duo. Few cared when Hindley died in prison in 2002; even fewer cared that Brady lingered on until 2017. 

Bible John

One of those true crime cases which ought to be the script for a horror movie.

A handsome man, clean-cut and well-groomed, introduces himself to young women at a famous old nightclub in the heart of town, using polite language and quoting the Bible to indicate that he is of God-fearing stock. And then, the next morning, those same young women are found in ruined buildings, raped, beaten and strangled with their own stockings.

To complete the terrifying picture, the culprit is never apprehended.

These ghastly events really took place in Glasgow in 1968 and 1969, centred around the Barrowland Ballroom. The murderer, who claimed three victims, was given the nickname ‘Bible John’, and quickly attained urban mythical status.

Despite the biggest police investigation in Scottish history, he was never captured. However, the story doesn’t end there. Speculation has now linked serial killer, Peter Tobin, with the case. Tobin, who was convicted of three murders in the 2000s, is known to have moved from Glasgow to England in 1969, when the Bible John murders stopped. Nothing has been proved, but the similarities between photos of him then, at age 23, and identikits of Bible John, are positively eerie.   

Patrick Mackay

Dartford-based Patrick Mackay learned nothing from his drunken, violent father except how to bully the weak.

When his father died in 1962, 10-year-old Patrick duly took on the role of chief-abuser of his mother and sisters. As he progressed into his teens, he threw his net wider, beating other children, stealing, torturing animals and serving time in juvenile detention. When he entered adulthood in the early 1970s, he moved to London, where he developed such a fascination with Nazism that he nicknamed himself Franklin Bolvolt 1st and started collecting SS memorabilia. It was also around this time when the hulking Mackay is believed to have commenced a series of brutal home-invasion murders, primarily targeting senior citizens.

Mackay was finally captured in 1975, when one of the victims, an elderly Roman Catholic priest, who he hacked to death with an axe, was remembered as being someone he’d had altercations with previously. Mackay bragged that he’d murdered 11 OAPs (including a tramp, who he claimed to have thrown from a railway bridge), was actually suspected of at least 12 such murders, but was only convicted of manslaughter through diminished responsibility. Nevertheless, he received a full-life sentence, which he is still serving.

The Yorkshire Ripper

Bingley-born lorry driver, Peter Sutcliffe, aka the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, started his reign of terror in 1969, when he assaulted a Bradford prostitute with a stone loaded in a sock. Other attacks followed in 1975, Sutcliffe approaching lone women at night, striking them with blunt instruments and stabbing them, though in the first four cases his victims survived, albeit severely injured.

The deaths began that October, when, armed with a hammer and sharpened screwdriver, and having refined his modus operandi – he now struck from behind, fracturing the skull first and then repeatedly puncturing the dazed victim’s body! – he struck down Leeds woman, Wilma McCann. From here, the brutality escalated, at least 12 more women dying in cities across Yorkshire, and even over the Pennines in Manchester.

He was arrested in 1981, when two uniformed officers became suspicious about the false plates on his car. After a case that had panicked the public, which was misdirected by a chilling but hoax taped confession, and which saw the West Yorkshire police severely criticised, the trial was understandably a sensation, Sutcliffe claiming that God had charged him to kill prostitutes, but ultimately failing to avoid a full-life prison sentence.

The Beast of Jersey

In 1960, the holiday idyll of Jersey, in the Channel Islands, was plunged into a living nightmare, when a nocturnal assailant clad in spiked wristlets and wearing a rubber horror mask, began breaking into lone houses, and raping and sodomising the women and children he found there.

In the ensuing terror, false accusations flew thick and fast, and in one instance an innocent French fisherman was hounded off the island, even though police suspicion of him proved to be unfounded.

The Beast’s ferocious rampage continued until 1971, when uniformed officers pursued a car running a red light, and collared Edward Paisnel, a formerly respected islander who’d previously been seen as a pillar of the community. Despite Paisnel’s denials, the evidence was strong: part of the horror costume was found in his car, and later examination of his cottage uncovered a black magic altar in an outbuilding, where rumour held that he’d been sacrificing animals to Satan.

Sentenced to 30 years in prison, he attempted to return to Jersey on his release, but such was the hostility of locals, that he left again, dying on the Isle of Wight in 1994. Stories connecting him with historic child abuse at the Haut de la Garenne children’s home are thought to be wide of the mark.  

The Cambridge Rapist

Peter Samuel Cook was a prolific burglar, an expert house-breaker, who in October 1974 switched to rape when he encountered a young woman in a student’s hostel in Cambridge, and violently overpowered her.

Between then and the following spring, he repeatedly broke into student accommodation in the city which he’d identified as housing single female occupants.

His attacks were appallingly brutal, but were made more terrifying by his method: he used weapons and wore a chilling costume which included a slit-eyed, zipper-mouthed leather mask with the word ‘Rapist’ inscribed across the forehead.

In fact, so much did Cook come to enjoy the monstrous persona he’d created for himself that he began to take risks. For instance, if a proposed break-in failed, he would write messages on the windows of his intended victims’ bedrooms, such as: ‘Sleep tight – the Rapist’. This caused even greater fear in the city, but left the police with evidence of his handwriting.

He made some efforts to protect himself, such as attaching false hair and a beard inside his mask, but ultimately Cook was captured fleeing the scene of his last crime on a bicycle. His life term was fulfilled when he died in prison in 2004.   

Trevor Hardy

One of Britain’s lesser-known serial killers, Trevor Hardy, aka ‘the Beast of Manchester,’ had the potential to rock the country in the same way the Yorkshire Ripper would a couple of years later, but the police were onto him quickly and, though the enquiry was widespread in the city, it was kept relatively low-key.

That said, Hardy, a Manchester native well known for his violent temper (and for his ability to brutalise men, let alone women), still claimed three lives – and in horrible fashion. Between 1974 and 1976, he murdered three teenage girls whom he stalked late at night, battering, strangling and sexually assaulting them, and on two occasions, stripping and mutilating the corpses afterwards.

Though he took pains to preserve his liberty – arranging fake alibis with acquaintances and even filing his teeth down so that bite marks on the bodies could not be connected to him – Hardy displayed many of the signatures of traditional predatory sex killers, which ultimately would provide damning evidence in court: he collected gruesome trophies from the victims, and even gave one to a girlfriend as a love token. Imprisoned under a full-life tariff, he died in jail in 2012.

Suspicion that he may have committed other murders has never been successfully pursued.

The Black Panther

Donald Neilson was a small businessman from Bradford who most people in the mid-70s wouldn’t have looked at twice, let alone imagined was capable of instigating one of the most terrifying crime-waves in British history.

Because Neilson was also the ‘Black Panther’, a polific burglar and armed robber, who always came masked and wielding a loaded shotgun, and who showed no compunction about murder.

He allegedly turned to crime when his business failed, but if so, he seemed to have no qualms about it. In 1974 alone, he shot and killed four men during burglaries or post office robberies. The crimes occurred as far apart as the West Midlands and Lancashire, the whole country soon living in fear of a merciless offender who attacked with commando precision (Neilson was an ex-soldier).

However, his worst atrocity came in 1975, when he kidnapped 17-year-old heiress, Lesley Whittle, and imprisoned her on a platform deep in a drainage shaft with a wire noose around her neck. Whether she was pushed or fell from the platform through exhaustion, Whittle didn’t survive the ordeal.

Captured later that year by two bobbies, who recognised him from a photo-fit, Neilson went to jail as one of the UK’s most hated criminals, dying there in 2011.  

John Childs

It’s tempting to assume that of all the mass murderer ‘types’ currently hiding in the world’s shadows, the contract killers, while undoubtedly among the most dangerous because of their proficiency, are probably the easiest to understand, as their motive – getting rich – is a common one.

While they might be totally ruthless, the general assumption is that they don’t do what they do simply because they enjoy it. But try telling that to the victims of John Childs, a professional bank robber and London-based hitman who between 1974 and 1978, murdered six people in various ghastly ways, shooting one of them three times, transfixing another with a sword and after hacking a third with an axe and bludgeoning him with a pipe, finishing him off with a garrote.

To make matters worse, not all the victims were gangland figures, indeed one of them was a 10-year-old child who just happened to be in company with his father when the killer struck.

The final horror in the John Childs story is the manner of his disposal of the corpses, all of which, incredibly, were dismembered and then cremated in the fireplace of his sordid East End flat (imagine the foulness of that). Childs is still alive, but serving a full-life jail term.  

Bruce Lee

Originally named Peter Dinsdale – he chose his new name, himself, in homage to his kung-fu fighting hero – Lee had a hellish upbringing. Born in a tough part of Manchester, the epileptic, partially paralysed son of a prostitute, he was mocked, bullied and achieved nothing at school.

He was also a pyromanic, who knew when it was time to light a fire because his ‘fingers tingled’.

Naturally, his favourite targets were occupied premises, like houses and rest homes for the elderly, though the fatal conflagrations only began in 1973, when he was 13 and living in Hull. In total, he lit nine fatal house-fires between then and 1980, burning to death 11 elderly men in one attack, and a young mother and her three sons in another. In total, 26 people died at the arsonist’s hands.

His method wasn’t especially clever, the flames often struck after he poured paraffin through letterboxes and the like (on one occasion he poured it over a victim who was sleeping in an armchair!), which means he was lucky that no criminal action was initially suspected.

Even after he was arrested and confessed, the charge of mass-manslaughter seems generous given that some of his victims were people he had grudges against. In the end, Lee was confined to a mental hospital, with the chilling statement: ‘Fire is my master’.    

The Cannock Chase Murders

In the late 60s, with the shock of the Moors Murders reverberating around the UK, a new child-murderer was already on the prowl.

To all intents and purposes, Raymond Leslie Morris was not your typical sex-offender (if such a thing exists).

A handsome, brighter-than-average family man, he had a good job and lived in a suburban corner of Walsall. But he had a secret dark side; he habitually made unacceptable sexual demands of the women in his life, and had an alarming predilection for very young girls.

Between 1965 and 1967, he coaxed three of them – nine, six and five – into his car while they were en route to school, and then assaulted and suffocated them. Their bodies were afterwards abandoned on open land at Cannock Chase, kick-starting a massive police investigation, which saw a facial composite used for the first time ever in a British police enquiry (apparently closely matching the killer’s actual looks).

Traced in 1968 after an unsuccessful fourth abduction, Morris was finally convicted of one murder (but still believed responsible for the other two), and sentenced to life without parole. A fourth child-murder has often been attributed to him, but was never proved. Morris died in prison in 2014.  

Mark Rowntree

As if the West Yorkshire police weren’t having enough trouble in the mid/late 1970s coping with the crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper, a second serial killer was also trawling the same patch at the same time.

In fact, some of the murders committed by paranoid schizophrenic Mark Rowntree were, for a brief period at least, considered to have been committed by the Ripper himself, and at the very least were a distraction to the enquiry.

Rowntree’s specific hunting ground was Bingley, and between 1975 and 1976 he committed four savage but random murders. In two of them, he forced entry to private premises, stabbing to death the occupants, a woman alone and a woman and her three-year-old son, and in another fatally attacking a teenage boy waiting at a bus stop.

When finally apprehended, after people who knew him recognised a description that had been circulated by the police, Rowntree appeared to be resigned to his fate, but expressed regret that he'd only claimed four lives – he had hoped to emulate his idol, the Black Panther, whose total was five.

On conviction, he was confined in Rampton Hospital, and is now one of the longest-serving psychiatric patients in any of Britain’s high-security asylums.  

Graham Young

Ever since his childhood, North Londoner Graham Young had been fascinated by dangerous chemicals, and as part of this obsession, spent many of those years testing poisons on his family.

At first no-one suspected anything, assuming that the Youngs were simply unlucky with stomach viruses. However, when Graham’s stepmother died in 1962, an investigation uncovered belladonna, and the culprit was sent to Broadmoor Secure Hospital. Nine years later, he was pronounced cured and released, even though he had spent his time inside refining his skill to the point where he could extract cyanide from laurel leaves, and even used this method to kill fellow inmate, John Berridge.

It was now 1971, and Graham found work at the John Hadland Laboratories in Hertfordshire, where he promptly began administering thallium via the canteen tea-urn. At least 70 of his fellow-workers became seriously ill, two of them dying. When his home was searched, the police found various toxic substances and a detailed log in which Young kept records of the doses he’d dealt and his feelings about whether those stricken deserved to live or die.

In 1972, ‘the Teacup Poisoner’, as the press dubbed him, went to prison for life, dying in his cell in 1990.

The Monster Butler

In the case of Archibald Hall, the butler really did do it, and more than once.

In a story that sounds as if it comes from a ‘village green’ murder mystery, Glasgow-born Archie Hall, a career criminal, who during his early years in the 1960s specialised in petty theft, had always fancied himself the debonair type, and so in the 1970s found richer pickings by hiring himself to the landed gentry as a butler.

His first murder occurred in 1977, when he shot and killed a rival villain who was endangering his position on the Highland estate where he was working. He moved south, attempting to escape his past, but violence seemed to follow him. Later that year, with the assistance of his on/off lover, Mary Coggle, he beat and suffocated his elderly employers, the Scott-Elliotts, in order to rob them. Later that day, in a row over the loot, he murdered Coggle the same way.

He killed again the following Christmas, this time his own brother, Donald, who was becoming suspicious of his new-found wealth. However, Hall attracted attention while trying to dispose of Donald’s body and was arrested in early 1978.

He died in 2002 at age 78, the oldest prisoner in the UK to still be serving a full-life sentence. 


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – 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 … 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 Leigh Russell (2015)

It all starts very unthreateningly, when a replica Viking battle-axe is stolen during a semi-comic re-enactment of a Dark Ages battle in the grounds of Clifford’s Tower in the grand old city of York. It’s not the kind of thing that would normally require the deductive skills of an experienced copper like DI Ian Peterson, and in truth, he treats the whole thing light-heartedly.

Peterson is a relatively recent arrival in York, having relocated from Kent to obtain his much sought-for promotion, but while he himself is intrigued by the ancient city, and determined to try and enjoy its many olde worlde treasures, his wife Beverly isn’t quite as sold. She feels a long way from home, she misses her family and friends, and although she and Peterson have been together for quite a while now, she is increasingly uninterested in his job and shows progressively less concern for the responsibilities it demands of him. At present, the duo are living an uneasy kind of truce, though to be fair, this isn’t helped by Peterson’s workaholic nature. Even when there is relatively little for him to investigate, he manages to spend many, many hours at the office, dotting every i and crossing every t.

So, imagine the domestic strife that will ensue when a series of horrific murders suddenly commences. And by horrific, I mean horrific.

Yes, York, that handsome, atmospheric town in the scenic Yorkshire wolds, famous for its history, its archaeology, its excellent shopping, and its fine, old-fashioned English cuisine, is suddenly the hub of a bloody murder spree, wherein the victims – who’ve apparently been chosen indiscriminately – are literally axed to death.

Peterson, acting under the orders of the fearsome DCI Eileen Bullock, is immediately assigned to the case, and tackles it in his usual workmanlike way, aided and abetted by his trusty sidekick, Ted Birling, but impeded a little bit by the impulsive and somewhat overconfident Naomi. The problem though, is not Peterson’s hit-and-miss colleagues, but the killer, who despite his ferocity, comes and goes like a ghost, leaving scarcely a clue and not pursuing any pattern that even hints at his motivation.

In this regard, we readers are one or two steps ahead of Peterson, because we at least have the ‘pleasure’ of witnessing these graphic crimes, on each occasion slipping into the mind of a complete lunatic, who prowls the city’s byways after dark acting out an insane Viking fantasy in which murder and pillage are the only items of interest and where every stranger on the street is fair game. And no, just in case you’ve got a weak stomach, we are not spared the actual destruction that inevitably follows: the swinging of the mighty axe, the sundering of skulls, the lopping of limbs.

This is grim and grisly stuff, which unsurprisingly leads to a frenzy in the once-happy city, increasing Peterson’s workload to the point where it almost breaks him. Even though he makes the connection to the stolen axe at the beginning, and works with helpful staff at the Jorvik Centre, like Ralph Grey and Sophie James, to establish that he’s following a latter-day Norseman, there are so few real leads that – if for no other reason than to keep his spirits up – he consults with former boss and ace detective in her own right, DI Geraldine Steel.

Many crime fans will recognise this name, Steel having been Peterson’s mentor during a former series of books, in which she was the star of the show and he her humble sergeant. However, this is only really a guest-appearance. Blood Axe is very firmly a DI Peterson investigation, and one he’s soon under intolerable pressure to wrap up, not just to save further innocent bodies from the Viking axe – the severed corpses don’t half stack up in this one! – but also to save his own job, and maybe even his marriage, because it’s anyone’s guess how long the self-centred Beverly is going to tolerate the continued absence of her husband in what, at times, seems like a completely futile quest …

One of the most refreshing aspects of the DI Ian Peterson novels is the nature of the hero. Yes, these are solid police procedurals, but Peterson is quite different from the norm. He’s not moody, he’s not a drinker, he’s not damaged in some mysterious, indefinable way which no doubt will all come out eventually. In truth, he’s an everyman, a copper’s copper, one of those methodical, hardworking detectives who most likely account for the majority of real-life CID officers in the UK, and are almost routinely classified as ‘married to the job’.

In Peterson’s case, this hasn’t entirely been to his advantage. For example, he doesn’t have much time for romance or even a social life. So, while he’s sharp-eyed and deeply analytical, his people skills are not the best; he’s awkward in his dealings with the public, he handles suspects and witnesses brusquely, he’s not much fun at parties, and most discomfortingly of all for the reader, he has no clue that his marriage is going downhill fast, even though it’s happening right under his nose.

His wife, Bev, is being neglected on an epic scale. That said, she’s a none-too-sympathetic character in my eyes; she surely knew what she was getting into when she married a copper, and it can hardly have escaped her notice that an axe-murderer is prowling York, and that her husband is charged with capturing him – though this unreasonableness on Bev’s part does serve the useful purpose of making our harassed hero even more vulnerable and appealing.

The story itself runs convincingly and at pace, Peterson and his team working their way with much frustration through a complex web of misleading information, making repeated false starts, heading down blind alleys and the like, while confronted by a range of ‘persons of interest’ and falling out among themselves as to which of these is the most viable – and all of this amid the chaos of bereaved and very credibly distraught relatives, and of course a growing media panic.

It’s all quite effective and believable, the lovely city of York in virtual lockdown by the end of the book, its tourism-based economy seriously imperilled.

And it’s easy to see how that could happen. Any kind of serial killer is a genuine nightmare, not just for the police but for the general population of whichever area is being terrorised, but an axe-murderer who seemingly picks his targets at random has got to be the most awful creature of all. With real-life cases of this sort – the Mad Axeman of New Orleans and the Cleveland Torso Murderer – you only need to look at the newspaper reports of the time to see what a devastating effect they had on local communities, and how people literally would not leave their homes day or night, keeping doors and windows closed and locked despite stifling summer heat.

In the case of York, a great setting for all kinds of reasons, not least its quaintness, and which is rarely the stamping ground of maniacs even in crime fiction, it is all the more portentous – because this scenic old city wasn’t always quaint. In the Dark Ages, when York was called Jorvik, it was the Viking capital of Northumbria, and the city is alive even today with memories of that wild, barbarous breed, who saw war, conquest and the ruthless killing of their foes as the surest way to reach Valhalla. In fact, the 10th century Viking warlord, Eric Bloodaxe – and he wasn’t given that name because of his meek and retiring nature – ruled twice from York as King of Northumbria.

Leigh Russell plays this card very nicely indeed, not delving too deeply into Viking culture or mythology – after all, this is the Viking world as perceived by someone who’s mentally ill – though during those brief interludes when we’re on the road with the killer, we wield our axe with pride, view the local population as sheep waiting to be sheared, and enjoy the violence of our attacks as much, if not more so, than we do the acquisition of our victims’ wealth.

The book first caught my eye because of this unusual premise. In truth, I wasn’t initially sure that it would work – bringing Northman-style violence to a modern UK city – but the moment I got into it, I lost all qualms. This is heady stuff, very scary in parts and also pretty gory. But it makes for a damn good, and I have to say, quite easy and straightforward read. It also ends on a big, unexpected twist, so it comes highly recommended for all fans of murder mysteries and police procedurals.

I’ve heard some gossip that the investigations of Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson have been optioned for TV development, which, if it comes to fruition, will be good news indeed. However, as always, I’m going to try and get there first by nominating my own cast should Blood Axe make it to the screen. Here we go: 

DI Ian Peterson – Andrew Lincoln
DI Geraldine Steel – Kate Beckinsdale
Beverley Peterson – Kelly Macdonald
Ralph Grey – Brian F O’Byrne
Sophie James – Jennie Jacques

Imagery: The Moors Murders search pic comes from the Evening Standard; the Bible John pic comes from Media Scotland; the Patrick Mackay screen-grab comes from the Twofour Productions documentary series, Born to Kill; the Ripper crowd image comes from the Huddersfield Daily Examiner; the Black Panther pic comes from the Birmingham Mail.