Friday, 16 March 2018

Horror meets Crime in a new twilight zone

To celebrate the paperback publication earlier this month of John Connolly’s masterly A GAME OF GHOSTS, which I’ll be reviewing and discussing further down in today’s column, I thought I’d also talk a little bit about the horror and thriller genres - once seen as rivals, but now more like bedfellows - and that mysterious twilight zone where they meet.

Very relevant to this, I’ll also be chatting about PARTNERS IN CRIME at The Quad in Derby in a week’s time, on March 24, where with various other authors, I’ll again be discussing this same subject.

If you’re only here for the A GAME OF GHOSTS review, then feel free to scoot down to the bottom of today’s blogpost – you’ll find it in the usual place. However, if you’re interested in a broad-range discussion about the horror/thriller cloth from which this latest Charlie Parker outing is cut, then stick around for a bit (and by all means, have a say in the comments section).

First off, PARTNERS IN CRIME – and this isn’t just a plug for an event I’m attending as a guest; it’s totally relevant to today’s topic. It’ll be a ground-breaking occasion, which will feature appearances from such crime-writing luminaries as Stuart MacBride, Fiona Cummins, AK Benedict, Steph Broadribb, Barry Forshaw, SJ Holliday, Jo Jakeman, David Mark and Roz Watkins. Okay, so far so familiar if you like crime fiction festivals, but I’m sure you’ll admit that all these names operate primarily at the darker end of the crime-writing spectrum, and look at who’s organising this event – it’s not the CWA, but the HWA, in other words the Horror Writers Association!

What’s more, the panels are completely in synch with this. The two I’ll be participating in, I, Monster: Has the Serial Killer Replaced The Monster in Dark Literature? and Taboo! How Dark is Too Dark? (at 3pm and 4pm respectively), are also, each in their own way, looking at the overlap between the two genres.

In fact, the overall purpose of the event is to thoroughly examine this overlap, and ask has it always been there or is it something relatively new (perhaps spawned by the lack of new horror novels that mainstream publishing in the UK now seems willing to put its money behind)?

Personally, I’ve long contended that there isn’t a great deal of difference between the two genres, and in fact have wondered if there is any difference, might it simply be the choice of labels allocated by various marketing departments?

When I was moderating a panel at CrimeFest in Bristol last year, James Carol, author of many a brutal serial killer tale, said something similar to: ‘I write horror novels, but my publishers call them crime’.

Now, I wouldn’t say that I write horror novels. Not any more. But I think readers of my Heck and Lucy Clayburn books would agree that they contain strong horror elements. STALKERS, for example, concerns the hunt for a rape-club, the clients of which can nominate any victim, the operators then abducting said victim, providing a private venue where the attack can take place, and then disposing of all the evidence afterwards, (including the victim).

Similarly grim, STRANGERS follows a policewoman working undercover as a prostitute to try and catch a fellow streetwalker who is sexually murdering her male clients, and experiencing every kind of late night urban terror you can imagine.

It seems to me that, in reality, there is no such thing as ‘too dark’ in modern crime writing.

But perhaps this fusion between the two forms has always actually been there.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, an era when mainstream publishing was not embarrassed to use the H word, the Pan Books of Horror Stories were incredibly gory and disturbing, but for the most part told tales of hardcore crime.

Okay, they rarely featured mysteries or whodunnits, but there were very few ghosts there, and even fewer vampires and werewolves, while conversely there were lots of rapists, serial killers, torturers and sundry other demented madmen. Herbert Van Thal, who initially edited the series, and some of the star names he acquired material from – like Charles Birkin, Dulcie Gray, Patrica Highsmith and Mary Danby – had no qualms at all about producing uber-dark crime thrillers when they were asked to provide horror.

Even earlier anthology series, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories for Late at Night, were the same, mingling full-on horror with hard-boiled cop and PI stuff. To the editors and readers in those days, there was almost no distinction between the two. It was unapologetically the nerve-wracking end of the fiction spectrum. That was the sole criteria, and if you were uncomfortable when you got there, it was your own fault for straying in.

Modern masters have adopted a similar approach.

Stephen King became a global sensation with his early horror novels. In more recent years, he’s tended to write crime – but it often includes at least a pinch of traditional horror. Misery, published in 1987, is essentially an abduction plot but it features a terrifying antagonist in the shape of Annie Wilkes, a lunatic fan capable of almost any level of violence. Joyland (pub. 2013) is a proper crime novel, but it’s set in a rundown amusement park, a staple of the horror genre, and includes a ghost and a serial killer.

And there are plenty of others.

Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter series totally straddles the two genres. In the Repairman Jack novels, F Paul Wilson introduced us to a hero who one week might be battling mob racketeers in the heart of Manhattan, and the next could be on the run from a horde of Bengali demons. The same is true of the previously mentioned Charlie Parker, John Connolly’s soldier of fortune in a world constantly on the edge of tipping into supernatural madness.

Joe R Lansdale and other Southern Gothic and rural noir writers like William Gay and Donald Ray Pollock frequently pitch us into otherworldly crimescapes, and often hit us with characters so deranged that they’d certainly have found a home in the old Pan Horrors. Here in Europe, James Oswald, Sarah Pinborough, Mark Edwards and Iceland’s Yrsa Sigurdardottir write crime but often with chilling supernatural subplots.

And it isn’t just the written word. Check out the movies.

Back in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock blazed something of a trail by putting Robert Bloch’s 1959 cross-over chiller, Psycho, on film. In later years, David Fincher’s Se7en walked a tightrope between horror movie and hardboiled crime thriller (it works perfectly on both fronts). What about even more recent efforts like The Strangers, Shutter Island, Identity, Vacancy, Wolf Creek, Don’t Breathe?

Again, they tick plenty boxes on both sides of the fence.

So, PARTNERS IN CRIME is not going to be looking at some radical new direction in dark writing. It’ll be examining a furrow that’s been nicely and neatly ploughed for some considerable time.

(Of course, it’s not all cakes and ale. To return briefly to a point I touched on earlier, I ask the question again: are more horror writers migrating into crime and thriller fiction these days because they can’t make a living otherwise? I suspect there may be something in that. There are all kinds of pressures on professional writers in the 21st century. The advent of self-publishing and the huge exposure it finds through online retail means there are more titles out there now than ever before. Prices have gone down as a result, and so it’s harder for pro writers to obtain the ‘living wage’ advances that once were standard.

That affects everyone in the game, but if you’re a horror writer, there are other burdens to bear alongside this. Horror readership was once dominated by young men, and it seems to be a new rule that young men don’t read much any more, but play computer games instead. Horror movies, meanwhile, remain as popular as ever, but this rarely translates into popularity for horror novels – which I suspect is also an age and culture thing).

But you know, there is also a lot of good news here, from what I can see, and not just because I like writing crime fiction with a very dark edge, but because it means we have a whole new generation of crime/thriller wordsmiths who will always take the gloves off.

Sarah Pinborough (above) and Yrsa Sigurdardottir (below) may look as if butter wouldn’t melt, but their material is edgy and terrifying, and judging from their endlessly rising star statuses, the reading public fully appreciates that.

On which subject, time to move on now, and check out the latest paperback from another of the cross-genre’s absolute maestros …   


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 John Connolly (2017)

Now is definitely not the ideal time for ex-NYPD cop and Maine-based private eye, Charlie Parker, to find himself embroiled in family-related legal matters, though I suppose there is never a good time for this kind of sadness.

Egged on by her domineering father, ex-partner Rachel has finally decided that Parker’s career is far too dangerous for their young daughter, Sam, and so is looking to the courts to restrict his access to her. Already denied one daughter, Jennifer – who was murdered along with her mother, Susan, (Parker’s wife) in a previous book, and yet whose ghost continually and very tenderly watches over him – the wearied investigator is left horrified by the prospect of this, and yet is helpless to resist. At the same time, he finds himself dragged into a particularly mystifying investigation, when his ever-secretive FBI handler, Edgar Ross, puts him on the trail of another PI, Jaycob Eklund, who dropped out of sight while looking into a series of historic murders and disappearances which have occurred all over the US.

Distracted by these big problems at home, but with his usual thorough professionalism, and assisted by ex-mob associates, Louis and Angel, Parker gets on the case, and almost immediately makes an unusual discovery – all the unsolved crimes that Eklund was investigating appear to be connected to reported hauntings. And that would be ‘hauntings’ in the traditional sense of the word, as in involving ghosts, spectres and the like.

This curious development then draws to his attention to the so-called Brethren, a cult-like group of the 19th century, whose leader, Peter Magus’s determination to live away from society, to rule his clan the way he saw fit, and to provide for them by murdering and robbing any outsiders who wandered too near, ensured their eventual destruction in a Waco-type apocalypse, and their immortalisation by romanticists as the Capstead Martyrs.

Except that the Brethren didn’t totally die out.

Before their final destruction, Magus had invoked what he believed were ‘angelic’ powers to ensure that his people would find the strength to resist punishment in the afterlife, though it isn’t long before Parker starts suspecting that, in actual fact, these powers have originated from somewhere else entirely (and what a moment that gives us, later on in the book). Either way, the Brethren not only still survive in American society today – secretly but murderously, as exemplified by the deadly and incestuous Kirk and Sally Buckner, whose phoney suburban lifestyle masks a truly venomous reality – but also on the ethereal plane, where their tortured spirits remain a real force to be reckoned with, and where they have used their psychic energies to zone in on Parker as a potential threat to their existence.

While all this is going on, Parker meets a pair of more earthly foes in the shape of Mother, the weird but scary matriarch of a declining New England crime family, and her odious son, Philip, who are also determinedly investigating the case and keen to know everything the PI knows. As if this isn’t enough, several villains whom Parker has encountered in previous novels also make an appearance. The Hollow Men, another vicious group of disembodied souls (he first met them in The Unquiet, Charlie Parker 6) and an obsessive serial killer, the Collector, (who first appeared in The Wrath of Angels, Charlie Parker 11) are drawn steadily into the case, piling on the pressure at a time when he really doesn’t need it.    

It isn’t often that Parker feels the odds are stacked against him in a way that may prove insurmountable, but perhaps it was always bound to happen at some point …

Once again, John Connolly disproves the oft-aired maxim that you can’t mingle the modern-day crime thriller with supernatural horror. By my reckoning, A Game of Ghosts is now the 15th outing for super-intuitive private eye, Charlie Parker, and once again he’s walking a narrow line between the real world of organised crime and professional killers and the more nebulous realm of cults, covens and ghosts – but as always, the author pulls off the resulting complexity with his usual aplomb.

If there is any weakness to A Game of Ghosts, I think it’s probably that, 15 books in, the author no longer feels as much of a need to ease the genres together, and so newcomers to Charlie Parker may find it a curious blend.

What’s this? It’s got the air and tone of a hardboiled noir, and yet suddenly we’re talking about the undead!

If that’s the case, the only suggestion I can make is that you’d have been better starting at the beginning of the series rather than coming in so late (so go back to the first book; it’s not like you won’t enjoy it!).

Of course, those already familiar with Charlie Parker’s exploits will feel right at home. It’s not just the intriguing and never-less-than pacey story-telling that makes these novels such a delight, nor the endless right-angle turns in the narrative, which feel purpose-designed to throw you off kilter – it’s the style and verve with which they are written.

John Connolly’s slick prose and crackling dialogue are among the very best in the business, and I don’t say that lightly. In addition, the Parker books are liberally laced with the author’s signature mordant wit, which, certainly in the case of A Game of Ghosts, had me laughing out loud on several occasions, sometimes only a page or so after the hair on my scalp had prickled.

And yet, for all these light-hearted undercurrents, and despite the presence of beings from beyond –which in this one includes some real in-yer-face horrors (just wait till the finale!) – Connolly never loses sight of the fact that he’s writing a serious novel which also concerns itself with vile criminality. Various kinds of human barbarity are on show here, or at least are referred to. At times, the book almost switches into gritty ‘True Crime’ mode, taking us from gangland enforcement and torture (on occasion unstintingly described!) to rape, serial murder and so forth – in all cases, the casual disposal of human beings by creatures who are beyond amoral, and yet dealt with so matter-of-factly that it sets your skin-crawling.

Of course, such starkness hugely underscores the heroism of Parker and his trusty sidekicks, Angel and Louis, all three of whom, despite their many flaws (the latter two comprising a former hit-man and a thief), fearlessly tread these paths in their ongoing war against evil. And yet – and it’s particularly the case in this book – we focus too on the trio’s many vulnerabilities, which endears them to us even more: in A Game of Ghosts, for example, Angel is suffering health problems, which become an increasing cause of concern as the book goes on, both for Parker and Louis, and for the readers (some of these scenes are genuine tear-jerkers), while Parker himself is in the midst of his drawn-out domestic car-crash.

Isolated even more than usual from his estranged family, thanks to the legal shenanigans of his in-laws, and missing his two daughters (one living, one dead) desperately, as well as finally starting to feel the bumps, bangs and sprains of his chosen career, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the tough, two-fisted hero as tired and forlorn. It leaves you rooting for him more than ever, obviously, but the author handles these sequences with great pathos, never once straying into schmaltz.

Connolly is on equally great form when it comes to the secondary characters, especially the villains, who come in all shapes and sizes, though I do think that Mother and Philip, a demonic duo of heirs-apparent to a once-successful but now failing crime faction, are particularly abhorrent. Mother is a monster in almost every sense of the word, except that she’s clear-sighted and has no issue with doing the right thing if it suits her purposes, whereas Philip, equally a monster – a truly weird one – has the added disadvantage of being stupid, which means that he can’t even guess what’s around the next corner, let alone prepare for it: we suspect from the outset, with more than a little eager anticipation, that things aren’t going to go well for Philip.

But all this makes for a wonderful page-turner of a book. Assuming you like a touch of the darker stuff, A Game of Ghosts is John Connolly’s usual – a classy, expertly written thriller, spine-chilling and compelling in equal parts, pitching the reader into a world of supernatural make-believe but pumping up the hard-edged crime factor to a point where you’re absolutely convinced that it’s possible.

And now, as always, I’m going to round things off by trying to cast the book, should it ever make the screen. Frankly, given the success of the Charlie Parker series, I’m amazed this hasn’t happened already, though the last time I heard John Connolly opining on the subject, he didn’t feel that anyone serious had made a viable offer yet (things may have changed since then, of course). On top of that, there’d be the not inconsiderable issue that this is no. 15 in the series, so we must suspend belief and assume that all of the previous books, or some of them at least, have already been adapted, using the same essential cast that we have here. That may be a big ask, but hey! … this is my blog, so I can do what I want, yeah? 

Charlie Parker – Hugh Jackman (surely looking for a new introspective hard-man role now that Logan is finished)
Rachel – Vera Farmiga
Sam – Mia Talerico
Sally Buckner – Reese Witherspoon
Louis – Malcolm-Jamal Warner
Angel – John Leguizamo
Mother – Judi Dench
Philip – Marc Warren
Edgar Ross – Sam Neill
Don Routh – Mark Pellegrino
The Collector – Jared Leto

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Cruel, savage - and that's only the women

I came into possession of an intriguing stat this last week, which has provoked today’s main line of thought. 

In short, I’ll be considering the differences, if there are any, between the sexes when it comes to both reading crime/thriller fiction and writing it. In addition today, because it’s very pertinent to that discussion, I’ll be reviewing and discussing in my usual microscopic detail, Danielle Ramsay’s bone-chilling murder mystery, THE LAST CUT.

As always, you’ll find that review at the lower end of today’s blog. If that’s all you’re here for, be my guest and zoom on down to the bottom to check it out. But if you’ve got a few minutes to spare first, perhaps you’d like to hear my views and thoughts on the battle of the sexes in crime fiction – though, as I’ve already hinted, and as I will now endeavour to explain, I don’t actually think there is one.

It all started when I was advised this week that 66% of my crime/thriller readership is male.

Now, I’m not entirely sure how those responsible arrive at these figures, but I must assume they know what they are doing and that it’s more than just an informed guess. In which case, I’m actually bucking the national trend, because in the UK at least, the audience for crime/thriller fiction is weighed 60/40 in favour of females.

Am I a one-off, then? Am I an aberration?

It may be explainable by my Mark Heckenburg novels being slightly more action-led than the average British police procedural, and if word of that has got out, more male readers might have plumped for Heck than would be the norm. But more likely, I think, the real answer lies in that old adage: there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.

I have no doubt that certain genres appeal more to certain genders. 
Conventional wisdom holds that the demise of horror novel writing in the UK in the last 30 years is down to a dwindling readership, which, in its turn, can be put down to young males – who used to be voracious for that kind of fiction – being more interested now in playing computer games (like Silent Hill, above right). Likewise, romance, which is still a hugely saleable commodity, is generally regarded as being written and purchased mainly by women (though I’m sure that neither of these ‘facts’ are applicable across the board).

In contrast, crime and thriller fiction is thought to occupy a kind of middle-ground, and I’m not entirely sure why. 

Apparently, there are some distinctions within that small central zone, with spy novels, for example – the domain of classic names like John le Carré, Len Deighton and Ian Fleming, and current practitioners like John Lawton, Philip Kerr and Mick Herron (left) – selling more to men, along with military actioners of the sort produced by Chris Ryan, Andy McNab, Duncan Falconer and Lee Child

However, murder mysteries and police novels, as written by such modern mistresses of menace as Ann Cleeves (right), Elly Griffiths, Kate Ellis and Mari Hannah are allegedly bought more by women.

You may ask yourself why (as I have done several times). Is this because female readers (and writers) are put off by overt violence more than their male counterparts? Or is it simply that, for females, reading is a more cerebral exercise, with the emphasis on solving a puzzle, than it is a blood-pumping physical experience in which brawn and gunfire ultimately triumph.

If I was to say yes to all that, I fear I’d be reinforcing some pretty old-fashioned stereotypes, and it’s not something I’d believe anyway … because my personal experience in this field is entirely different.

When I developed the idea for my first Heck novel, STALKERS (at that early stage known as THE NICE GUYS CLUB), various advisers expressed strong concern about its potential highly disturbing content. You see, STALKERS is all about a rape-club, which is operated by a secretive crime syndicate who charge their male clients huge amounts of money, in return for which they will secure any female victim of choice, provide a secure location in which the attack can occur, and then afterwards dispose of the evidence, including the victim.

I too thought it was a disturbing concept. In fact, when I first hatched the idea, I thought it would only work in a horror context. At first glance at least, it seemed far too strong for a police thriller. Though after some discussions with my other half, Cathy, we eventually concluded that it wouldn’t be if I was to write it – not exactly delicately, but as non-gratuitously as possible, approaching it mainly from the angle of the police investigation. Even then, certain people I spoke to were wary because, I was told, the majority of crime readers in the UK are female, as are the bulk of the editors in the major publishing houses.

Nevertheless, the novel was acquired and published by Avon, an imprint at HarperCollins, which again is staffed primarily by women (who actually asked me to up the violence and menace!), and went on to become a best-seller, with plenty of reviews, many by female readers, praising how grim and frightening they found it.

Now, the reality is that you don’t have to look very far to find lots more evidence of this. We have some great male crime/thriller novelists in the UK, who rarely pull their punches when it comes to violence, gore and generally horrifying concepts, Peter James, Stuart MacBride, James Carol and Mark Billingham, to name but a few.   

But the first ladies of British crime are no strangers themselves to merciless subject-matter.

We’re all pretty familiar with Val McDermid’s famous Tony Hill novels, in which a variety of fiendish crimes are perpetrated by various twisted maniacs against the run-down backdrop of the post-industrial Northeast. Also in the Northeast, but in Newcastle rather than Bradfield, Danielle Ramsay (left, also featured in today’s Thrillers, Chillers, Shockers and Killers) has recently unleashed an equally gruesome and traumatic new series in the DS Harri Jacobs books.

Across the country in Manchester, meanwhile, local lass Marnie Riches (right) explores the seamiest sides of gangland, never holding back on its grit and profanity. Further north in Edinburgh, Helen Fields repeately pitches her French-born cop, Luc Callanach, into an environment more brutally hostile than any he’s experienced before (and that’s only the weather – sorry, Helen!); but joking aside, cruel and savage murders aren’t the only horror he has to contend with.

There are plenty more of this ilk, and it’s not just here in the UK. Over in the States, Tess Gerritson, a medical doctor no less, tells stories so blood-curdling and so graphically gory that you’ll think you’ve strayed into a horror novel. Karin Slaughter notoriously doesn’t restrain the grue either – her concepts are regularly described as ‘horrific’. While Aussie author, LA Larkin (left), creates international, globe-trotting thrillers that are every bit as action-packed as the stories spun by our favourite ex-SAS writers (they also contain plenty of tech – another so-called male strength), and Iceland’s Yrsa Sigurdardottir has no qualms about threading her plots with supernatural terror.

So come on, guys … where does that leave me with this conundrum about 66% of my readership comprising men when the evidence would suggest that it’s the women (yep, both the writers and the readers) who are the real gorehounds?

The only solution you can realistically come to is that figures can be misleading (especially those on which huge assumptions are so often made) and that in truth … we’re all as barmy as each other.


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 Danielle Ramsay (2017)

DS Harri Jacobs is a cop on the edge.

Okay, lots of police fiction likes to adopt that attitude, but in this case, author Danielle Ramsay really means it. Her central character has been through an ordeal the likes of which few people would recover from. A Newcastle girl by origin, she joined the Metropolitan Police in London, during the course of which service she was attacked and raped with such ferocity that she almost died. Before abandoning her broken body, her anonymous assailant made things even worse by promising her that one day he’d return and finish the job.

As part of her effort to get over this nightmare – not least because, somewhat outlandishly, she suspected that one of her London colleagues, DI Mac O’Connor, was the culprit – Harri transferred to Newcastle, feeling more at home in familiar surroundings. But even then – and this is where the novel actually starts, she is increasingly frightened and paranoid. It hardly seems likely that her attacker will follow her north, but while Harri is a strong, tough character, she is deeply damaged psychologically, and finds that she can’t trust anyone. Not only that, she keeps her new colleagues at arm’s length. In the case of wideboy DC Robertson, it’s perhaps understandable, because he’s a total throwback, but DI Tony Douglas is one of the good guys, and yet Harri is equally cool with him. And after all that, at the end of each trying day, she goes back home to an upper apartment in an otherwise empty industrial building, where she barricades herself in, so increasingly unnerved by the all-encompassing darkness that she sits with her back to the door and a baseball bat in her hand.

Of course, none of this self-imposed isolation really prepares her for the ultra-difficult days that lie just ahead.

A series of horrific crimes commences, when a young woman is found murdered and ghoulishly disfigured. We, the readers, know who is responsible; we don’t know his identity, but we’ve seen him at work in his homemade surgical lab, where he coldly, clinically, crudely, and in eerie, concentrated silence, performs torturous reconstruction on helpless and brutalised female captives. We realise, without needing to be told, that the body already discovered will only be the first of many.

All of this would be difficult enough for the cops to deal with, but Harri’s own troubles are about to get a whole lot worse. Not only has the first victim been left at a deposition site which has personal meaning for her, but she then becomes the recipient of information connecting this latest atrocity to the attack that she herself suffered (including, very alarmingly, photographic images). Convinced that it’s the same perpetrator finally coming back for Round Two, Harri knows that if she was to hand this new intel to her bosses, she’d immediately be taken off the case – and she cannot stand that thought. She’s only just regained control of her life, and to lose it again, so soon – to the same heinous villain – would be more than she could bear.

And so begins one of the most difficult enquiries that any police officer, fictional or otherwise, has ever embarked on, the killer behaving ever more monstrously, Harri agonised with guilt about withholding key evidence from the rest of the team, but determined to stay on the case, because unless she is the one to take this fiend down, she knows that she’ll never have peace, and will never be able to live with herself …

In the modern era, there is an increasingly thin line between crime fiction and horror, and in The Last Cut, Danielle Ramsey crosses it several times. Make no mistake, this story centres around a truly horrific concept.

Conceive, if you can, of a serial killer who abducts his victims, straps them down in the dark and the cold, and then literally goes to work on them over a period of days, if not longer, gradually transforming them through non-anaesthetised surgery into a completely different kind of creature. Scalpels, needles and acid are all applied liberally. He even replaces their eyes with glass baubles, so that in the end only featureless monstrosities remain.

Danielle Ramsay doesn’t lay it on hard in terms of obscene detail, but again, it’s the bone-chilling concept. If you tried to put that idea alone into a movie, it would be 18-rated for sure.

The horror movie atmosphere doesn’t end there, either. The Last Cut isn’t just about a deranged killer and his nightmarish MO. It’s also about the state of heroine, Harri Jacobs’s mind. This is without doubt one of the most effectively traumatised lead-characters I’ve encountered in a crime novel to date. Primarily, that’s because it’s not in the reader’s face, but it’s there nevertheless, lurking constantly in the background.

Harri, as we’re told from the outset, it a rape survivor. Though, in many ways, she hasn’t survived at all. Her intense conviction that the madman who attacked her is not only still out there, but still stalking her, and even murdering other women in the most elaborate, grotesque ways in order to get at her, clouds her thinking to the point where she withholds essential info from her superiors, misjudges fellow officers (almost fatally at one point), and is driven to live like a recluse in a semi-derelict former factory with only a single, heavy-duty lift connecting her residence to the rest of the world.

This excellent latter device is itself hugely effective in creating a sense of fear and alienation. Harri is a lonely soul even during the day, when she’s on duty. She is so convinced that indifference to her plight lurks on all sides that she takes desperate, dangerous measures to ensure that she is kept on the case, which segregates her massively. But at nighttime, this sense of paranoia literally takes physical form. She blockades herself into this terrible old building, which creates a siege mentality, thanks to which she gets almost no rest.

The mere thought of this is blood-curdling. How would you react if, in the darkest part of the night, you heard movement on the other supposedly empty floors? How would you respond if you suddenly heard the lift ascending in the early hours of the morning – and indeed how does Harri respond?, because yes, you guessed it, that’s exactly what happens.  

This is all tremendously effective in creating a dark, ultra-grim police novel.

The authentic Newcastle setting is desolate and gloomy, and again in horror fiction fashion, maintains a subtle but ghostly aura. We’re so focussed on the tight, tense interplay of the central characters that we see very little of the cty’s day-to-day life or its general population (aside from those among them who die so horribly – one gruesome event on the Tyne Bridge lingers long in the memory), so the whole of Tyneside is there, but mostly as a spectral backdrop.

Danielle Ramsay obviously loves her native Northeast, but this is a stark portrayal of the difficulties faced by police teams in the heart of an unfeeling city, especially when they are confronted by particularly violent crimes. It also reminds us that police officers themselves are only human, and likely to be damaged by many of the things they see and do – and quite often are not always the best judges of their own situations.

An intense, brooding psycho-thriller, gritty and dark as hell, and built around a disturbing but intriguing mystery. You can’t afford to miss it.

As I say, I would love to see The Last Cut get the film or TV treatment, even if it could never be sceened after 9pm (not that that would worry me). On the off-chance it will happen, and I so hope it does, here are my picks for the leads: 

DS Harri Jacobs – Emily Beecham
DI Tony Douglas – Robert Glenister
DI Aaron Bradley – William Moseley
DI Mac O’Connor – Christopher Fulford
DC Robertson – Anthony Flanagan

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Vampires, ghouls and mad, cursed clowns

We’ve been up in the Lake District this week, purely for a holiday, you understand, but perhaps unavoidably it ended up turning into a whistle-stop tour of Cumbria’s spookiest and most mysterious places. Anyway, that’s going to be the theme of today’s chit-chat, and more about it shortly.

Also on the subject of folk-themed horror, I thought I’d take the opportunity this week to review and discuss – in my usual forensic detail – Thomas Tryon’s time-honoured rural chiller, HARVEST HOME. As always with my book reviews, you’ll find that at the lower end of today’s blogpost. Head on down there if that’s what you’re looking for. But if you’ve got a bit more time, let’s talk first about the Lake District’s spookiest places.

Tales of Lake District terror

Readers of my regional TERROR TALES series, which I’ve been editing since 2011, will most likely be aware that it all started in the Lake District, and was inspired by my childhood memories of the Tales of Terror series (as edited by R. Chetwynd-Hayes) which I read during family holidays up there in the 1970s.

As I intend to try and get another volume of the series out this year, I reckon it was probably inevitable that my recent trip to the Lakes with my wife, Cathy, would turn into a retrospective on the region’s scariest localities.

We found ourselves rattling around as many of these as we could, visiting numerous places originally immortalised – either in fictionalised form or as factual anecdotes – six years ago in TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT.

Here are a just few of them.

The village of Croglin is a bleak and rather isolated place in northeast Cumbria, and quite difficult to get to (unless you’ve got a four-by-four). We visited it anyway but were unable to gain access go Croglin Low Hall (formerly Croglin Grange), as it is now privately owned. This, of course, was the venue for the famous legend of the Croglin Vampire.

In short, three siblings, two brothers and their sister, rented remote Croglin Grange for an extended holiday, but it turned into a nightmare as, for night after night, they were forced to fend off the attentions of a ghastly revenant, which approached the building from a nearby derelict chapel and continually attacked the young woman in her bedroom.

Even today, the origins of this curious story are shrouded in mystery. Some say it dates from the late 19th century, which was when Victorian journalist Augustus Hare first wrote about it (very colourfully), though that possibly owes to a reawakening of interest in the concept of vampirism after the first publication of Dracula. As the chapel in the story did not exist in the 19th century, I put more credit in an earlier version I read, which dated it to ‘30 years after the Great Rebellion’. This could refer to the Jacobite Rising of 1745, but more likely means the Civil War, thus locating the Croglin Vampire in the 1680s (check out the 17th century lithograph, illustrating a classic vampire hunt of that era, at the top of this page).

If you want to know the full story of the Croglin terror, you can easily find it online (or you can buy TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT).

Also locked up for the off-season was Muncaster Castle, once home to the legendary Mad Clown of Muncaster. This completely true story refers to Tom Skelton, better known as Tom Fool (left), a jester in the service of Ferdinand Pennington, the ruthless lord of the manor during the late 1500s. Whether or not Fool’s comical antics genuinely amused his employers is not recorded by history, but his crimes are, because Lord Ferdinand also used him as an assassin. Fool is known to have murdered at least a couple of his master’s enemies, including one whom he decapitated, and to have accounted for several foes of his own in various gruesome ways (including his personal favourite, drowning). His damned soul is still said to haunt the castle (one of many, apparently), where it allegedly creates a malignant atmosphere. Ghost story officianados will probably recognise Tom Fool as the inspiration for Geoffrey Warburton’s rather excellent and very scary short story, Merry Roderick (which I should add, does NOT appear in TTOTLD).

Once again, you won’t have to look hard online to get the full details on Fool.

As I mentioned before, we couldn’t get into Muncaster Castle, but  the grounds were at our full disposal, and they are pretty spectacular, overlooking the amazing Esk Valley, which on a fine wintry day resembles a vista from Middle Earth. While perusing the otherwise deserted woods, we encountered some rather astounding and unearthly vegetation – imported from the Himalayas, or so I’m told – but sadly, at no stage felt the presence of an undead jester capering clumsily through the trees behind us.

One of the most famous esoteric attractions in the Cumbrian fells, of course, is the Neolithic stone circle, Long Meg and Her Daughters. An oval of 59 ancient stones, some 27 of which have now fallen over and lie half-buried in the lush turf (as Cathy here illustrates, taking a breather on one of them), it runs to 360 feet in diameter at its widest point, encompassing a local farm road, though the largest stone, Long Meg herself, stands aloof from the others, as though watching over them, and still bears semi-decipherable Bronze Age inscriptions.

All kinds of legends are attached to this enigmatic site, the most famous being that a female druid and her acolytes were engaged in a pagan ceremony, which the Christian God found so repulsive that he retaliated to it by turning them all to stone. It was certainly regarded as a place of evil by local God-fearing communities in the Middle Ages, and even now – on the day we visited – there is evidence that arcane rituals are still practised there, which is impressive, because yet again, it isn’t an easy place to get to, or even find (just out of interest, try following some of these unmarked, unmapped roads that lead into the great frozen emptiness of Northern England at this time of year; it really is a wild moorland wilderness).

I have to say that Long Meg doesn’t feel like a sinister place to me, but then I’m a veteran visitor to Britain’s most ancient and mysterious sites. The atmosphere is more of timelessness and grandeur than anything else, but in TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, author Anna Taborska went at it full-throttle with her wonderfully chilling Night of the Crone.

Eerier by far, and not too distant from Long Meg is the much-avoided Cross Fell, a geological formation of such ill repute that even today no road leads to it, and almost no one ever attempts to hike over it. To put things into clearer perpective, I should explain that Cross Fell has only been called Cross Fell since 1608, when a large stone crucifix (now long lost) was erected on the summit to thwart the activities of evil spirits. Prior to that, throughout the entire history of local folk naming hills and mountains, it was known as Fiend’s Fell.

As you can probably guess from this aeriel picture (thanks to Simon Ledingham), we didn’t get up to it, but we did come within sight of it, and it rightly earns its reputation for being a gloomy spot, standing covered in snow and fog throughout the winter, and looking as ominous as any land-form I’ve ever seen.

In medieval times, it was said to be home to Peg Sneddle, a witch who rode the very wind in order to bring destruction on local villages, while in later centuries, various exorcisms were held on its upper slopes, all of which failed because they were either bombarded with heavy stones from the mists high above, or the ministers were disturbed to the point of flight by the sound of shrieking voices and hysterical laughter.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Fiend’s Fell story is that no one knows (nor apparently ever did), why it has such an evil reputation. Nothing dreadful is known to have happened there in history, though it has been conjectured that goblins, sprites and other pre-Christian beings might have fled to the fell during the gradual conversion of Northern England in the Dark Ages, and now hold it as a last redoubt. Whatever the truth, it has the aura of a genuinely ‘bad place’.        

Another allegedly evil spot we didn’t quite get to – we only had so much time – but which I’ve visited before, are the Fairy Steps near the village of Beetham, in the South Lakes. Accessible in the limestone cliffs on the border between Cumbria and Lancashire, this is a natural staircase which has formed inside a crevice in a rock face overlooking Arnside Knott. The mythology attached to it is at first glance charming, but it becomes eerier the more you delve into it.

According to the legend, if someone is able to descend the Fairy Steps without touching either of the sides, a door to the faerie realm will open before them, and all the treasures and learning of the ‘other world’ will be available. Needless to say, the passage becomes narrower and more crooked the further down you descend, until eventually it’s impossible to go on without touching the rock. But if that isn’t difficult enough, folklore also tells how, sometimes when you are halfway down, a so-called ‘shade’ will commence to ascend from the other end, a horrific being who, not only will cause you to forfeit your prize by stepping aside to allow it to pass, but may also seize you and drag you down into the faerie realm as a hostage. You might only be kept there for a few days, but on release, you will inevitably find that hundreds of years have passed in the upper world.  

Can you blame us, perhaps, for not bothering with this one?

(In TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, that fine writer Steve Savile tackles this chilling bit of local lore with his very disturbing story, Walk the Last Mile).

Finally, though, as far as I’m aware, it figures on no official spook map of Cumbria, here are a few shots of St. Brigitte’s at Parton, near Whitehaven, which is easily one of the most ‘Jamesian’ places of worship I’ve ever seen.

It stands on a spit of land, on a crumbling clifftop, overlooking the roaring Irish Sea – the wind from which on the February day when we visited added new meaning the phrase ‘bitterly cold’. The church itself – I’m not entirely sure what denomination it is – is stark and austere, and though it may be wonderful on the inside (again, we couldn’t get in to check), looks more than a little bit ominous from the outside.

The Victorian graveyard encircling it, which also contains fragments of earlier chapels, comes virtually to the cliff edge, and is filled with wonderfully old and eroded carvings on the headstones and sepulchres.

The overriding atmosphere was one of bleakness and isolation, which, while I’m more than happy to admit may be completely absent on a fine summer day with lots of parishioners around, reminded me on the day we were present of almost every MR James tale I’ve ever read.

Most of these uncanny places, and many others – not to mention other terrifying mysteries of the region, such as the Claife Crier, the Tawny Boy, Little Mag’s Barrow and the Cockatrice of Renwick – are fully covered in TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT. Sorry, to keep plugging this, but I have to mention it because as I say, this was a very atmospheric trip which has strongly inspired me to make room in my busy schedule for 2018 to get the next book in the series out as soon as possible.

Because we took a shed-load of pictures, here - totally gratuitously, I will concede - are a few more. In order of descent they are:

The 'Jamesian' edifice of St Brigitte's, at Parton.

Arrival at Muncaster, Buck and Buddy eager to get looking for that cursed clown.

The eerie woods, into which Tom Fool lured so many of his victims.

We made it out again, but the castle doors remained closed.

The valley of the River Esk - as I say, Middle Earth.


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 Thomas Tryon (1973)

When budding artist, Ned Constantine, his wife, Beth, and young teenage daughter, Kate, leave the hustle and bustle of New York for a quieter, healthier life in the remote Connecticut village of Cornwall Coombe, they believe that they’ve embarked on a new and more positive phase of their marriage.

The Coombe, a farming community where the emphasis is on raising corn, is literally idyllic, especially when the Constantines first set eyes on it one gorgeous summer. However, they have some reservations. To start with, the villagers, though friendly, are stuck in their ways, resisting mechanisation out in the fields and showing little interest in events beyond their borders.

They also have more than their fair share of eccentrics:

Mary ‘the Widow’ Fortune is a dominant force. Something of a grand dame in Cornwall Coombe and hugely knowledgeable about local tradition and the ways of the woods, especially the supposedly haunted Soakes’s Lonesome, she is dour-looking and permanently black-clad, but is initially welcoming to the Constantines and proves a life-saver when, using her prodigious knowledge of herbal remedies, she succeeds in pulling Kate out of a potential fatal asthma attack.

More troublesome is Tamar Penrose, the lusty village post-mistress, who takes a shine to Ned Constantine at an early stage, though she is already the (single) mother of young Missy Penrose, a distant and seemingly disturbed child, who many of the locals regard as a seer. Then there is the Soakes clan, a bunch of hillbilly-type moonshiners who live just beyond the Lonesome, and yet who, though they appear to pose a threat to the picturesque lifestyle of the Coombe, are not especially feared.

For all this, the Constantines are soon comfortable in their newly-acquired 200-year-old cottage, becoming good friends with the blind scholar, Robert Dodd, and his homely wife, Maggie, who live next door, with chirpy local pedlar, Jack Stump, who only comes around occasionally, with a hunky young farmer, Justin Hooke, and his beautiful wife, Sophie, and with young handyman, Worthy Pettinger, who finds himself stifled living here and wants to get out and see the world.

And it is this latter character who, in due course, spells trouble for Ned Constantine.

To begin with, the pageantry of village life – which is filled with fêtes and festivals, all built around rituals designed to keep the crops healthy (the village has terrible memories of barren periods called ‘wastes’) – seems quaint and charming, and the most important of these, Harvest Home, is coming up shortly. Justin Hooke, it seems, is Cornwall Coombe’s incumbent ‘Harvest Lord’, a ceremonial role, which for seven years carries both advantages and responsibilities, while Sophie is his ‘Corn Maiden’. Both will have prominent roles in the upcoming ‘Corn Play’, though these are not openly discussed. As this year’s event will mark the end of Justin’s tenure, Worthy Pettinger is being groomed to take over, though this is an honour he doesn’t seek – in fact, he seems alarmed by the prospect, and when Ned takes the youngster’s side in the argument, he is surprised by the degree of hostility it causes.

Other weird events also distract him. For example, when he finds a curious homemade doll on Justin’s land, he is advised not to speak of it. Likewise, when one evening, both he and Beth are entranced by elfin music out on the fields, and the sight of two curiously clad figures performing a sensual moonlit rite, no one will admit to knowing who they were or what they were doing. More sinister by far, Ned then locates a human skeleton in the Lonesome, and when he goes to look for it again, it has been removed; he can’t help but associate this with the mysterious story of Gracie Everdeen, a former village beauty who, some 14 years earlier, was expected to be the Corn Maiden, only to inexplicably do away with herself (Ned increasingly wonders if she actually did commit suicide, or maybe was murdered). Most shocking of all though is an unexplained attack on Jack Stump, which leaves him with his tongue cut out and his lips sewn together, though what really amazes Ned about this latter atrocity is the way everyone in town – including the constable – casually assume that the Soakeses are responsible, and yet take no further action.

All this time, while Ned finds himself growing apart from the villagers, Beth and Kate are drawn closer to them. Ned’s relationship with his wife isn’t helped when the wanton Tamar makes a move on him and he almost succumbs, Beth becoming mistrustful of him afterwards, seemingly certain that he was the instigator. But things only really come to a head when Worthy, tacitly encouraged in his rebellious behavior by Ned, disrupts a church meeting to loudly damn both the corn and ‘the Mother’, an abstract entity which, up to now, Ned has assumed is nothing more than a nod towards the old pagan concept of the Earth Goddess. However, there is deep consternation at this, and even though Worthy flees the village, he is later brought back by a posse and imprisoned in a room at the back of the post office.

Ned doesn’t actually know what will occur on the upcoming night of Harvest Home – all he’s ever told is that ‘no man may see, nor woman tell’ – but it now becomes apparent that it will be something terrible (as indeed it was with Gracie Everdeen). All alone now, abandoned by his wife and daughter, the ostracized but determined outsider continues his investigation, steadily (and ill-advisedly) drawing closer to the utter horror at the heart of Cornwall Coombe …

Harvest Home is an old book now, and yet still widely regarded as one of the best and most literary horror novels ever written. I wouldn’t completely fall in with that. It’s excellent in many ways, but it’s also a novel of its time.

If the basic concept seems dated, that’s because it is. Nowadays, though folk-horror is making a most welcome comeback, the notion that murderous matriarchal cults may lurk behind the polite façades of scenic British villages or quaint little New England towns is more likely to get you in trouble for being politically incorrect than to win you plaudits.

And in some ways, Harvest Home goes even further than that.

In the genre of the present, we are painfully aware that witchcraft fiction of the late-20th century was often more interested in heaving bosoms and devilish beauty than in examining the awful injustice and cruelty of the witch-hunting era, and was more than ready to believe that village folklore was a sign of Lucifer’s influence rather than a harmless tradition from bygone times. For all these reasons, horror authors of today would likely avoid penning a novel built around the premise of Harvest Home, but they’d also look to avoid some of the less obvious patriarchal attitudes here depicted.

Ned Constantine, for example, is not just handsome, intelligent and talented, he’s really the only moral person present. In contrast, his wife and daughter, Beth and Kate, surrender to their darker impulses far more easily.

Worthy Pettinger is another of the good guys, a kid with common sense, a straightforward all-American boy who yearns to be part of the modern world, which of course he should. And even the rest of the male villagers, while adding muscle to the villainy when it’s needed, are for the most part mulishly indifferent to the wiles of their women, happy to work the fields, drink in the tavern and chat amicably outside the church on Sundays. By comparison, their wives comprise a range of predators, from the happy home-maker, Maggie Dodds, whose everyday exterior conceals a cold-blooded schemer, to village temptress, Tamar Penrose, who is sinfully sexy (Ned Constantine certainly doesn’t hold himself responsible when he finally gives in to her charms – and brutalizes her in the process!), to the Coombe’s crowning evil: Mary ‘the Widow’ Fortune, who embodies all that ancient, forbidden knowledge that witch-hunters were so convinced lay in the grasp of women, and though maintaining a jovial, generous exterior, in actual fact controls and manipulates everyone, particularly the hapless men, who, in truth, she only thinks are good for ‘making the corn’.

Okay … as I pointed out, the novel is over forty years old, and comes to us from an age when sexism was the norm, particularly in the horror and thriller genres. So, while that doesn’t exactly give Thomas Tryon a pass in 2018, unless we are prepared to disown half the books ever written and half the screenplays ever filmed, it’s probably best not to get too upset about it.

The book has also dated a little in terms of its style – though this is less of a brickbat.

Harvest Home is a big novel, and even then, some might argue it takes a long time getting anywhere. But that isn’t to say that it’s not an enjoyable read.

Thomas Tryon has gone out of his way to create a living, breathing, fully functioning farming community, accounting for almost every aspect of its life in completely authentic detail. Unsurprisingly, this takes pages and pages and pages. He’s also fascinated by the folklore he’s investigating, so we get a lot of lectures woven into the dialogue as Ned has things explained to him, which does become a bit tiresome after a while. I’d say you are roughly half way through before Harvest Home finally begins to pick up the pace, and it’s only in the final third when it fully adopts the mantle of horror novel.

But in truth, none of this is unpleasant. Tryon was a classical actor before he became an author, and clearly harks back to a literary tradition. As such, he produces beautifully-crafted prose, which he allows to flow and flow. It’s sumptuous stuff, particularly his descriptive work, which really transports you to rural New England during the early autumn. Though as I say, it goes on a little longer than it needs to. 

But if the quality of the writing is one real positive, another is the narrative itself, which though suffering a little from those old-fashioned issues, is deeply intriguing. Though he drops in the clues slowly and irregularly, Tryon gradually builds a compelling mystery here, which, especially in the second half of the book, rises to some brief but spectacularly horrific climaxes: the deranged child, Missy, guzzling raw chicken guts, for example; Ned’s discovery of the horribly wounded Jack Stump; the appearance in Soakes’s Lonesome of an apparition, which terrifies both him and us; and then the ending of the book, which is without doubt one of the most bone-chilling scenes ever committed to paper.

But it isn’t just the horror. There’s also a freewheeling sensuality in this novel. Justin Hooke and Tamar Penrose portray the extreme ends of the gender spectrum quite fulsomely, he tall, handsome, muscular and, or so we are told, well endowed, she breathless, busty, red-lipped, with dark, lustruous ‘Medusa locks’. The antiquated concept of the virile Harvest Lord and his fertile Corn Maiden doubtless go back to the earliest days of pre-Christian fertility rites, and Tryon successfully re-evokes them in a 20th century setting.

Which brings me to the villain-in-chief, the Widow Fortune.

Everything I said before notwithstanding, the Widow makes for an outstanding antagonist, not least because for so much of the novel she is genuinely genial and wise (when Beth thinks she’s fallen pregnant, she naturally seeks the Widow’s counsel rather than going to see her doctor). It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Hollywood’s own high priestess, Bette Davis, was cast in this role when Harvest Home was successfully made as a TV mini-series in 1978. To be honest, I can’t think of another powerhouse personality who would have been better suited.

Anyway, that’s Harvest Home; to many a folk-horror masterpiece, to others a well-intentioned but dated curiosity. Personally, I found it a little long-winded, but the quality of the workmanship is immense, and the story, though an old one now, in due course becomes deeply involving (and still boasts that most terrifying ending ever). I think it probably does deserve the epithet ‘classic’. 

As you may know, I always like to end these book reviews with some fantasy casting, picking the actors that I myself would like to see portraying the key characters in any film or TV adaptation. However, Harvest Home will have to be another one of those occasional exceptions to the rule, because, as previously stated, it was filmed in 1978 as The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, starring Bette Davis (left). Given that it was quite faithful to the novel, I don’t see any point in having a go at it myself (and again, I can’t imagine anyone taking the role of the Widow who’d do a better job of it than the late, great Ms. Davis).

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Out and about in 2018: the big diary dates

Okay, we’re well into 2018 now, and that semi-surreal period around Christmas and New Year feels as if it’s a long, long way behind us. Time now to get on with this year’s events. So, today I intend to talk about my calendar for the next few months, and the various public appearances I’ll be making, and the circumstances surrounding them. Sorry, if that sounds a little self-indulgent, but quite honestly, it’s in response to questions I get asked a lot – about when I’ll be out and about, when I’ll be able to sign books for people, and the like.

Also today, I’ll be reviewing and discussing a very different kind of crime thriller, Andrew Taylor’s compelling historical murder mystery, THE ASHES OF LONDON.

As usual, you’ll find that review towards the lower end of today’s blogpost. Before we get there, as I threatened, here are some dates and venues that might be of interest if you ever feel like saying ‘hello’ face-to-face.

Be aware that this is probably an incomplete list at this stage. There may well be one or two cancellations, and there will certainly be one or two additions. In that regard, the only advice I can give is stay tuned, watch this space, etc etc.

On March 24, I’m honoured to be a guest at The Quad in Derby, where the Horror Writers Association will present PARTNERS IN CRIME.

Through exclusive interviews, informative panel discussions and expert talks, attendees will be able to learn more about crime fiction’s edgier side, examining how thrillers have become darker, how serial killer fiction now tends to form a natural bridge between the two genres, and asking the question is there a place for the supernatural in crime fiction?, and if so, how can authors can benefit from this ever more visible overlap?

There will also be the usual opportunities to purchase books and get them signed, and to socialise with authors and publishers.

At this stage, I’ll be involved in the following panel chats: I, Monster: Has the Serial Killer replaced the monster in modern dark literature? And: Taboo! How dark is too dark?

But of course, Partners in Crime isn’t just about me. Other guests include some fairly hefty names in the industry. Check these out: Stuart MacBrideFiona Cummins, AK Benedict, Steph Broadribb, Barry Forshaw, SJ Holliday, Joe Jakeman, David Mark and Roz Watkins.

May 17-20, I’ll be at CRIMEFEST in Bristol. For the first time in what seems like ages, I’m neither guesting on a panel nor chairing one during this festival, so I guess that means I’ll have more bar-time if anyone wants to chat.

For anyone who’s not been to CrimeFest (where the pen is bloodier than the sword), it’s a great event if you’re interested in crime fiction, either as a reader or a prospective writer – and it’s for occasional fans too, not just the die-hard fanatics. It’s certainly now become one of the biggest crime fiction events in Europe, and it’s no surprise that every year it draws top crime novelists, editors, publishers and reviewers from around the world, giving all delegates the opportunity to celebrate the genre in a friendly, informal and inclusive atmosphere.

The two guests-of-honour this year will likely have copies of their books on almost every crime enthusiast’s shelves: Lee Child and Jeffery Deaver.

On June 14, I’ll be at the CROSSING THE TEES Book Festival. This is a large-scale literary event organised by the library services of Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Redcar & Cleveland, and Darlington. It’s early days on this one so far, so I’ve not got any detail about my own role in this grand event yet, or a comprehensive list of the other guests, but  can guarantee that it will be worth attending at some point if you enjoy books. It runs from June 9-24, and includes all kinds of author events, workshops, lectures, readings, competitions and the like.

July 19-22, I’ll be making my annual trip to Harrogate for the THEAKSTON OLD PECULIAR CRIME WRITING FESTIVAL.

In short, this is one of the biggest of them all, and is a massive celebration of the genre, which has deservedly won huge international acclaim. The event is also known for its no barriers approach, as fans, writers – both newcomers and established superstars – agents, publishers and editors mingle in the hotel bar, bookshop and the huge pavilions set up in the grounds of the historic Swan Hotel in the leafy heart of Harrogate (pictured above).

Again, there’ll be panels, discussions, author interviews, interactive events and all kinds of activities in the bar areas. Perhaps the most attractive feature of the Harrogate event is the accessibility it provides to some of the biggest names in the business. For example, the first headliner announced for this year is powerhouse US author, Don Winslow (right).

That alone should be reason for many crime fans to flock there. But the main thing is, you can doorstop these guys and girls and simply chat to them. If they weren’t prepared for that, they wouldn’t be there. And of course, this can be even more useful if you’re a new writer looking for an agent or a publisher – because they are there to, and, whereas in real life, it’s often difficult to get any kind of meeting with these folks, at Harrogate all you need to do is say hello.

And say it to me as well, if you wish – because as I say, I’ll be mingling there with everyone else.

Two crime fiction events coming up in the latter half of the year, which I’m hopeful of attending – but not absolutely certain of this stage – are BLOODY SCOTLAND, the annual Caledonian Crime-Writing Festival, which is held in Stirling from September 21-23, and MORECAMBE & VICE, at the incredibly atmospheric venue of the Morecambe Winter Gardens on September 29-30.

Last on the diary (so far), but not by any means least, we have a slight change of pace, with FANTASYCON at Chester, October 19-21, when I’ll be wearing my horror hat.

For those not aware, Fantasycon is another of the great annual literary events, attended by writers both great and small, agents, editors, publishers and the like, though this one concentrates on fantasy fiction (which also includes horror and sci-fi). Given that this is late October, it’s a little early in the day for me to provide any details – either concerning guests of honour, specific events, book launches and the like, or what I myself will be doing there (most likely I’ll just be an everyday delegate, happy to hold up the bar and chat). Again, for more info, watch this space.


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 Andrew Taylor (2017)

It is 1666 and London is burning. Apparently, it ignited by accident, but it’s burning nonetheless … from the Tower to the Temple Bar, the wailing populace struggling to escape as their homes and workshops succumb to the flames.

But even without the fire, these are turbulent times in England. After an exhausting civil war and then years of Cromwellian rule, the Stuarts are back on the throne in the form of the affable Charles II, but enemies of the crown are never far away. Puritan forces linger in the shadows, some more dangerous than others, such as the Fifth Monarchists, a fanatical clique who were not just involved in the execution of Charles I – ‘the Man of Blood’, as they called him – but who are also keen to see his son dead, thus clearing the way for the accession of ‘King Jesus’ and ushering in a reign of Heaven on Earth.

Against this difficult and dangerous background, what is one more death? But even in the midst of the fire, attention is captured by the discovery in the ruins of St Paul’s of a man who has been ritually assassinated, his thumbs tied together behind his back before he was stabbed.

The authorities have a bit too much on their plate to be overly interested in this, but it isn’t simply ignored, the investigation put into the hands of one James Marwood, a young man who on the outside doesn’t seem like much of a sleuth. Ostensibly, he’s an ordinary chap who is simply trying to make his way in the world, with zero interest in the affairs of state, but his is a more complicated path than most. The son of a republican activist who was ruined financially by the restoration of the monarchy, not to mention in terms of his reputation and health, James Marwood now works as a clerk for Joseph Williamson, chief propagandist for the Royal Court, in the pamphleteer office at Scotland Yard, where he is trusted but treated brusquely.

The authorities are well aware of James’s past, of course, and perhaps have employed him on the basis that it’s advisable to keep your friends close and your enemies closer still. But he now becomes even more useful for them. Detecting the hand of republican extremism in the recent murder, they assign James to the case because it’s deemed possible that his family may still have contacts in that secretive world.

At the same time, in what is initially a parallel storyline, we meet Catherine Lovett, or ‘Cat’ for short, the daughter to and heiress of Tom Lovett, a one-time Cromwellian soldier and ‘regicide’ – in other words he was directly involved in the execution of Charles I, and therefore can never be pardoned – who is currently in hiding. Almost oblivious to this background chicanery, Cat, who commences the book as an adventurous but on the whole fairly innocent girl, wants only to design buildings and study architecture, though alas, even these simple dreams are far from being realised. In the absence of her father, she is the unhappy ward of her wealthy aunt and uncle, Olivia and Henry Alderley, the latter of whom wants only to marry her off and be done with her. As if that isn’t distressing enough, Cat’s odious cousin Edward is increasingly interested in her, and when he finally rapes her, and she retaliates by half-blinding him, she flees into what remains of the smouldering city and seeks out a new (inevitably much harsher) life for herself. 

We know these personal journeys are going to entwine at some point, but The Ashes of London is such a plot-driven novel that to give any more detail at this stage would be the ultimate spoiler. Suffice to say that all kinds of skulduggery follows, James and Cat pursuing their own meandering and perilous paths through a world of intrigue as they are drawn steadily together.

In addition, endless fascinating and outrageous characters take the stage. Cat comes under the paternalistic spell of a kindly but ailing draughtsman, Hakesby, who, alongside the legendary Christopher Wren (who also makes an appearance), is charged with re-designing the burned-out cathedral. James, meanwhile, is introduced to the devious William Chiffinch, another real-life personality and one of Charles II’s most accomplished fixers. When the king himself arrives, it is in dramatic and amusing fashion, which is the way it should be, because though his is little more than a glorified guest-appearance, Charles II, as the embodiment of the Stuart royal line, remains essential to the narrative.

While all this is going on, of course, the murder plot thickens, the bodies piling up, Marwood’s suspicions spreading in all directions, particularly where high-end political machinations may be found (yes, this is a conspiracy thriller as much as a murder mystery). And all the way through there is a growing sense of jeopardy. Neither Cat nor James have such status that they command power, and even though James represents power, it is not always around to assist him when he needs it. So, it isn’t just the villains of the piece – an increasingly dangerous and deranged threat, we sense – who provide the menace. Bad things can befall almost anyone, for near enough any reason, if they poke their noses deep enough into the ashes of London …

The Great Fire of London is a disaster that is branded into the psyche of most Britons, even those who are not overly familiar with the historical period. It was a monumental event for all kinds of reasons, and a milestone in the emergence of the Modern Age, not least because it cleared away what remained of the old medieval city and allowed visionaries like Christopher Wren to build something vastly more advanced. But it’s important to remember that just because the city that burned was centuries old at the time, it was not some miniature wattle-and-thatch market-town, some tangle of narrow streets and muddy courts on the banks of the Thames. It was already colossal in size, a megalopolis that was home to 80,000 people, 70,000 of whom were rendered homeless by the 1666 disaster.

Little wonder this event was viewed at the time as a national catastrophe, especially because it came on the coat-tails of the Black Death, and so was viewed by religious extremists as part of a double-punishment imposed by God for the lax morality of the Restoration era.

Britain in the mid/late 17th century was certainly a cradle of fundamentalism, a land divided between various religious groups, (most of them Protestant, while Catholics were regarded as traitors who deserved to be lynched simply for being Catholic!). Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorial rule was over and the Royalists were back in power, but the Puritans had not gone away. Though most had officially been forgiven for their roles in the Civil War, countless gentleman still held positions of authority even though their loyalty was suspect, while remnants of the brutal Roundhead army lurked among the general populace, in some cases functioning like miniature crime syndicates. In a time and place when it was an offence just to hold an opinion, the king’s spies were everywhere. London was a city of informers, and no-one trusted anyone else.

And then the fire came, a conflagration quite literally – or so it seemed – from Hell.

And it is this epic sprawl of religious and political intrigue, not to mention the incendiary atmosphere of a truly pivotal moment in British history, that Andrew Taylor captures so perfectly in The Ashes of London. But don’t for one minute assume that this means it’s a history lesson. From the very beginning, this is a fast-moving mystery, with living and breathing characters striking sparks off each other as they wend their labyrinthine ways through a capital city (what’s left of it!) filled with danger and deception.

And yet the richness of historical detail is all here, blended seamlessly into plot and dialogue. For example, we come to understand the destructive power of the fire because when it’s over, we trudge the desert of cinders for ourselves. We see what a Machiavellian hive the Palace of Whitehall was because we view it, if not simply through the eyes of hero, James Marwood, who only ever receives information on a ‘need to know’ basis, but via the manners and methods of crafty functionaries like Williamson and Chiffinch. We understand what a focal point of English religious life the original Cathedral of St. Paul’s was because we feel the horror of the awe-stricken crowd as it goes up in flames.

This novel is an out-and-out feast for historical fiction fans, awakening that brief window of time more effectively than any number of textbooks I could name. But for those who are simply here for the thrill of an intense, clue-driven investigation, it won’t disappoint on that level either, telling us a fascinating detective story and setting it against a richly-coloured and yet easily accessible tableau of the past.

As alluded to earlier, it would be erroneous of me to give too much away about the plot as that would spoil the reading experience. It’s complex for sure, but deeply engrossing – you literally never know where the next twist is going to come from. And it helps, of course, that the lead characters are so engaging.

James and Cat, are far from being stock historical heroes, both completely aware of their standing in this unforgiving world, and yet each with their own quirks. The former commences the narrative in a lowly position, but he’s inquisitive by nature and inordinately perceptive, and he grows rapidly into his role of unofficial but opinionated Scotland Yard investigator. The latter is ripped from pillar to post by forces beyond her control, and suffers lasting damage as a result –a realistic appraisal, perhaps, of what it would actually mean to be ‘bodice-ripper’ heroine – and yet she remains feisty and spirited throughout, and at times maybe a little more than that; by the end of this novel, one wouldn’t want to cross Cat Lovett unnecessarily. 

The rest of the cast are equally striking, both the real and fictional mingling believably together, all drawn clearly and, perhaps in the way of true life, none of them especially more likeable than the next as they all ultimately look out for themselves. Most interesting of all, maybe, are James and Cat’s two fathers, men who very vividly represent the moral complexities of their age; both are driven by a sincere devotion to an idealised vision of Jesus, but they are heavily politicised too, and so battered by war and oppression that Christian sentiment rarely manifests itself in their actions. Though perhaps the deepest irony where Tom Lovett and old Marwood are concerned is that, given they are both Bible men, neither seems remotely aware of that most prescient warning of the good book: that the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children.

The Ashes of London is an enthralling and informative read. Elegantly written, deeply atmospheric of its period, and yet rapid-fire in terms of its unfolding action and events. I found it utterly compelling, and have no hesitation in giving it my highest recommendation.

As usual, I’m now going to attempt to cast it. This is just for fun, of course (as if any casting director would take note of my views). I have no idea if The Ashes of London is being lined up for film or TV adaptation, but it really ought to be. Here are the actors I would call:  

James Marwood – James Norton
Cat Lovett – Daisy Ridley
Hakesby – Geoffrey Rush
Williamson – Jim Carter
Chiffinch – Charles Dance
Henry Alderley – Jonathon Pryce
Olivia Alderley – Maria Bello
Old Marwood – Patrick Stewart
Tom Lovett – Bernard Hill             
Charles II – Julian Sands