Saturday, 14 May 2016

Most terrifying mysteries of the real world


There’s definitely an air of ‘the truth is out there’ this week, as we assess some strange and bewildering things that may actually exist in our world … though then again, they may not.

To start with, today’s book review will focus on Steve Alten’s epic action/horror tale of cryptozoology gone mad, MEG. It already enjoys classic status, but if you haven’t yet heard of it, think blue water and an unfeasibly massive dorsal fin cutting a bloody wake along a sun-drenched but worryingly depopulated coastline, and you won’t go far wrong.

For those who’ve only come here for the review, you’ll find it, as always, towards the lower end of this post. Be my guest and zoom on down. However, for those who’ve got a little more time on their hands, I first I thought it might be fun to trawl through my top 10 weird and scary photos from the internet and, where possible, offer real-world explanations for them.

Yes, you’ll most likely have seen several of these images before, if not all of them, but I dug around a bit and tried to come up with some relevant background info. Most, as you’ll see, are not actually as mysterious as they may initially appear, but one or two still defy understanding.
 
1. MEGALODON …


Megalodon, or Carcharodon megalodon, was the apex predator of the prehistoric ocean. In essence, a gargantuan shark, a 60 foot long, 50 ton killing machine, it is probably more deserving of the epithet ‘sea monster’ than any other aquatic creature that has ever lived.

It flourished primarily in the Cenozoic Era, and though there are fragments of archaeological evidence to suggest that specimens of Megalodon might have lived on until as recently as 10,000 years ago (a blip in evolutionary time between then and now!), the clever money is on them all being gone by the year 1,000,000 BC. 

However, when this incredible photograph first emerged in the early 2010s, purporting to show an image captured by German naval forces during World War Two just off Cape Town, it set the cryptozoological community’s head spinning.

Rumours had circled for years that Megalodon might still exist; the ocean’s extreme depths are largely unmapped, there have been many unexplained sinkings of ships, occasional so-called sightings, and so forth. But this picture looked like the first piece of real, solid evidence.

Except, sadly, that it wasn’t.

It was first presented as proof on Megalodon, The Monster Shark Lives, a mockumentary first aired by Discovery Channel in 2013, to which disclaimers attached to the programme before it was aired admitted that some of the evidence about to be screened was fictional.

As such, it is most likely to be a professionally-made fake.

German military forces never used the swastika watermark on their photographic records, the sepia-toning was unknown in military reconnaissance photography at that time, and the titanic dorsal fin, somewhat suspiciously, is leaving no wake. One independent researcher has even claimed to have found the actual footage from which this still was taken, and assures us there was no shark there beforehand, of any size.


2. THE LAST PHOTOGRAPH OF CHARLIE NOONAN …


This now famous American legend tells the tale of a roaming folklorist in the 1920s/30s called Charlie Noonan. According to the tales, Noonan would travel from state to state, seeking out strange and wonderful stories and looking to capture evidence for them on his box-camera. His final trip took him to Oklahoma at the time of the Dust Bowl. He was on the trail of a mysterious old woman who allegedly lived in an area of farmland that had completely died, and who supposedly “was not entirely human”.  It was never specified what the latter actually meant, but she was also said to be accompanied by a demonic hound.

Even then, in a time of despair, the whole thing sounded fanciful, but Noonan eventually got in touch with his wife and told her that he’d met a farmer who’d directed him to a shack where he believed the old woman lived. Noonan apparently set off, but was never heard from again. Several months later, news of his disappearance made the papers, and a Tulsa pawnbroker remembered an itinerant coming into his shop a few days earlier and selling him an old box-camera.

When the pawnbroker examined the camera, it was engraved with the name ‘Charles Noonan’. It also contained a roll of film, which the authorities subsequently developed. The above picture was the only image on the film.

This is certainly a spooky story, and while investigators have never uncovered anything to prove that it really happened – for example, Charlie Noonan is untraceable as a historical person – they have never been able to disprove it either. It first appeared online on a Creepypasta webpage, which may weaken its provenance in the eyes of some, though the author of that page asserted that he came into possession of it when an anonymous correspondent attempted to sell a clutch of supernatural images to a publishing house he was employed by at the time.
 

3. THE BLACK KNIGHT SATELLITE …



The ‘Black Knight Satellite’ is possibly our most well-known legend of outer space.

In essence, it is an unknown UFO which has reputedly been circling Earth in a near-polar orbit for the last 13,000 years, and from time to time beaming down indecipherable signals.
Conspiracy theorists claim that NASA astronauts have located and examined this elusive extraterrestrial object and, rather suspiciously, have kept the data to themselves. It is shrouded in mystery – even the origins of the name are unknown, but the scientific establishment denies its existence, putting the ‘sightings’ down to a combination of misidentified natural phenomena and science-fiction stories masquerading as truth.

The image above, one of several allegedly depicting the anomaly, is dismissed as a normal piece of space debris, probably connected to one of Earth’s own rocket or satellite launches.


4. THE EJDALLIM WITCHES …


Sometime in the early 2010s, a New Orleans photographer got creative with the wedding he was covering. With the happy event taking place in the city’s attractive French Quarter, the imaginative snapper decided to get some really memorable pix by going airborne (most likely by using a drone). The resulting shots were certainly different from the norm, especially these two, which were uploaded onto the internet from a photobucket account called ‘Edjallim’, and appear to depict a whole row of uninvited guests: weird, masked and hooded figures standing in a row on a balcony overlooking the ceremony.

Amazing theories soon abounded. Had some kind of cult attended the wedding in secret, perhaps to work a spell or maybe profane a Christian ritual? Was it possible the photographer had captured a bunch of ghosts? After all, this was at the rear of the Brulatour House, which was built in 1816 and had witnessed many real-life melodramas over the passing centuries.

Unfortunately, the truth is more mundane. The Brulatour House is an adjunct of the Historic New Orleans Museum, and the eerie figures were part of an installation created by artist Dawn DeDeux.


5. EDWARD MORDRAKE …



The mysterious and distressing case of Edward Mordrake has long been thought to be true. Not least because of this famous photograph of him, which has circulated the internet for years, but also because the most detailed reference to his case can be found in Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, a distinguished publication of 1896, penned by doctors George Gould and Walter Pyle.

According to this august account, Mordrake was heir to a lavish estate in England in the mid-19th century, but he was also born with a second face on the back of his skull. What was more, this second face was actually alive. Most of the time it was inert, though close examination revealed that some changes in its expression occurred when Mordrake was in an emotional state: it inclined towards a smile when he was happy (which wasn’t very often), and to a sneer when he was sad. However, Mordrake begged the medical men of his age to surgically remove it, as he claimed that each night, when he was in bed, it whispered hideous things to him “such as are only heard in Hell”.

When this dangerous treatment was refused, Mordrake became progressively more deranged, finally taking his own life at the age of 23. While such a birth defect is not impossible – modern medicine concludes that Mordrake was stricken by craniopagus parasiticus, a rare form of parasitic twinning – there is still every chance that his story is pure fiction.

Gould and Pyle admitted to never having examined him, and drawing all their conclusions from an earlier article written by a layman who they didn’t name, though modern researchers think that layman was Charles Hildreth, a poet and fantasy author, who in the Boston Post of 1895 quoted the non-existent Royal Scientific Society as proof of famous hybrids like the ‘Fishwoman of Lincoln’ and the ‘Half-Human Crab’ (of whom there are no records anywhere), and of course, ‘Edward Mordrake, the two-faced man’. Meanwhile, the sole physical evidence for Modrake’s life – the above photograph – actually depicts a wax model made long after he supposedly died, though where it resides today, nobody knows.


6. THE FALLING BODY …


Texan family, the Coopers, moved into their dream home sometime in the mid-1950s. On the first night in the new property, the father took this photograph of his wife, two children and mother-in-law. When the picture was exposed, this ghastly falling form appeared, even though the family swore that no-one else was present when the picture was taken, much less someone hanging upside down or falling from the ceiling.

It certainly looks ghostly and no completely convincing explanation has ever been offered, but attempts to track down the Cooper family in modern times have noticeably failed – which seems odd, and in addition analysts have pointed to minor details apparently indicating Photoshop activity.

It has also been suggested that this is a double-exposure, or even that the entire set-up is fake, the family nothing more than models posing for a contemporary ‘horror art’ exhibit. The only problem with this latter, more prosaic theory is that there’s no record of that ever happening either.


7. SKUNK APE …


In 2000, this image was mailed anonymously to the Sheriff’s Department in Sarasota County, Florida, and purports to show the terrifying ‘Skunk Ape’, an unknown hominid said to roam the swamplands of the American South. 

As weird and mysterious photographs go, this one is certainly impressive. The person who sent the picture withheld their name, but claimed to be a local female resident, who caught the image in her own back garden and said that that on three separate occasions the monstrous ape had approached the house in search of apples scattered in the yard. She herself thought it might be an escaped orangutan.

The picture’s origin has now been traced to the vicinity of the Myakka River, and though it may seem suspicious that the photographer has still not come forward, the official explanation – that this is an everyday black bear – seems unrealistic to me. This is like no black bear I’ve ever seen.


8. THE FACES OF BELMEZ …


From 1971, the Pereira house in Andalusia, Spain, became the scene of a famous so-called paranormal event, when human faces began to form naturally in the concrete on the main floor.
Sensation followed sensation when the floor was torn up and re-laid, and yet more faces appeared, only to disappear later and then reappear again. Some were said to have aged, others to have changed their expressions depending on the mood of the Pereira family.

Excavations later revealed that the house was constructed on an old burial site, which in the eyes of many parapsychologists confirmed that this was a genuine supernatural incident, though scientists also got in on the act, claiming to have found various traces of paint which suggested that it might have been an elaborate hoax.


9. MIDWESTERN MATRICIDE …



This legendary Halloween photograph depicts the Buckley Family, hardworking Midwest farm folk, whose happy life came to a grisly end sometime in the late 19th century.

The story goes that, as part of a Halloween prank, local kids decided to make dummies, behead them and then pose for photographs. The Buckley children – somewhat disturbed, it would seem – opted to join in the fun by decapitating their own mother. The photographer only realised that he had captured a real murder scene on film later on, when the plate was developed.

The police were quickly called and attended the house, only to find the children missing. They were never seen again, though the mother’s remains were still on the premises, partially eaten.

So goes the story, though sadly it’s another classic hoax. In actual fact, the original photo depicted a normal rural family; it was modern day Halloween artist, Edward Allen, who craftily and skilfully adjusted it into the scene of Victorian horror you see here and called it ‘Midwestern Matricide’.


10. THE WHOPPER HOPPER …



This infamous image is another curiosity that’s been making rounds of the internet for years, and is allegedly a record of a 1937 incident when a Montana farm labourer brought down a gigantic grasshopper near Miles City with a single blast of his trusty shotgun.

No further details have ever been made available: who the farmhand was, who the photographer was, what happened to the bizarre creature’s carcass afterwards, why it hadn’t been blown apart by his Winchester 12-gauge, etc.

As you may have guessed, the reasons for this are because the whole thing is a fake.

Comedic ‘whopper hopper’ images were quite popular in the American Midwest in the 1930s, a time and place when grasshopper hordes were posing a particular problem for agriculture and the local community did their best to put a brave face on it. Most of these images were sold as postcards or for advertising promos, and were never intended to be taken seriously.
Frank Conard of Garden City, Kansas, may well have been the genius behind this one. He made several such, using carved wooden grasshopper models as props.

*

THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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.


MEG by Steve Alten (1997)

Former US Navy deep-sea diver, Jonas Taylor, is still haunted by the day he plumbed the bottom of the Mariana Trench and thought he glimpsed the long-extinct Megalodon. Few people took him seriously at the time, including Maggie, his ambitious TV reporter wife. Even though Taylor is now a civilian scientist, reasonably respected for his palaeontology work, Maggie knows that people still smirk behind his back and that this is no good for her career. As such, she embarks on a non-too-discreet affair with Bud Harris, Taylor’s former college buddy, who now leads a wealthy playboy lifestyle.

Taylor is thus at his lowest ebb when he is contacted by old friend Masao Tanaka, who runs a marine science operation. Tanaka has lost an earthquake-detecting submersible deep in the Mariana and wants Taylor to retrieve it for him with the aid of his two hotshot aquanaut kids, the adventurous, self-assured DJ and his sister, the uber-cool Terry.

Taylor is not enthusiastic about returning to the Trench, and his proposed assistants give him little confidence, DJ treating the whole Megalodon thing as a joke, Terry jealous and mistrustful that a non-family member is being brought into such a complex and costly enterprise.

Initially the recovery mission goes well. Though the descent into the Trench is horrific, Taylor starts to rediscover his old deep-sea diving touch. But then disaster strikes – DJ is attacked and killed by a colossal bioluminescent fish. The Megalodon …

It comes as no surprise to me that Steve Alten’s famous deep sea action/horror has been under option in Hollywood since 1997, or that it spawned a hatful of successful sequels. Because this is pure escapism at its best. Okay, even though the science sounds good I’m sure it doesn’t add up to much in reality – but who cares about that? Because this book has got everything that Jaws had, and more: clearly defined goodie and baddie characters, a hero with vulnerabilities, an exotic location (endless acres of cobalt-blue water!), and a gargantuan, near-indestructible monster, which according to cryptozoologists the world over could still very likely exist.

It’s also written in that wonderfully slick American style, especially the bone-jarring action sequences, which come thick and fast and at times seem to explode off the page.

A creature feature for sure, an ocean-borne Godzilla in which an ancient beast proves too mighty for all of man’s weapons, meaning that only a truly ingenious solution will fix it (and that solution turns out to be an absolute eye-popper). But great fun and another easy, rapid-fire read. One that anyone can happily get their teeth into (sorry).

As always, and it’s just a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Meg someday makes it to the screen (it’s allegedly been stuck in Development Hell for the last 18 years, somewhat uncharitably referred to as ‘Jurasssic Shark’ – but at last there are rumours that movements are now afoot, which is no surprise if true, as it’s too good a basic concept not to make it at some point):

Jonas Taylor – Jeremy Renner
Masao Tanaka – George Takei
Terry Tanaka – Anna Nagata
Maggie Taylor – Alice Eve
Bud Harris – Dustin Clare 

(PS: I've no idea who to credit for the marvelous image I use at the top of this column - no name was mentioned on the site where I found it. If the snapper responsible would like to get in touch, I'll happily credit him/her, or even, if they so wish, take it down).

Thursday, 5 May 2016

No place for a gentle touch in this dark web

I’ve been looking forward for ages to reviewing C.J. Sansom’s amazing crime / history / thriller cross-over, DISSOLUTION, and today is finally the day. As usual, my full review can be found at the lower end of this post. 

But before we get to that, if you’ve got the patience, I’ve got some updates regarding my own novel-writing exploits.

Folk will have seen in my last blogpost that the cover for my next crime novel, STRANGERS, was finally revealed by Avon Books (nicely in advance of its September publication). It’s quite an eye-catcher in my view, but at the same time details were also leaked concerning other projects of mine that are now being translated into German – including STRANGERS, which, as SCHWARZE WITWEN (Black Widow), hits the shelves in January.

But isn’t it fascinating the different ways that various publishers seek to sell their product?

Just compare these two exceptional jackets. They are both exactly the same book and feature the same character – brand new detective, Lucy Clayburn – and yet they could not be more different in tone.

The British edition is clearly aimed at what I suspect is a more female-oriented market, with suggestions of hearth and home under threat, hints that vulnerability can be found in the midst of the cosiest suburban domesticity, and the overall implication that danger is around at all times. And what about that shout-line?

A stranger is just a killer you haven’t met yet …

That reinforces the message big time, as far as I can see.

The cover from German publishers, Piper, however, has a much more action-oriented feel. In fact, when Piper were designing this jacket, their cover artist got in touch with me and asked for a physical description of Lucy Clayburn and various pertinent details from her biography. That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me in terms of a novel, but it gave me the opportunity to explain that, as well as a young trainee-detective based in Manchester, Lucy is also a biker girl, brave, athletic, always up for a challenge, etc.

Is there any concession in Piper’s final composition to gender or femininity? Not much at first glance, I suspect. But look a little closer, and I think you’ll see that there actually is. It’s done in black and pink, after all. And I hope that isn’t taken as a trite remark or even a crass comment. It isn’t intended as such. It’s just that I’ve never seen an action-themed cover done in pink before. Fab or what?

Anyway, I’m one happy wordsmith seeing these two incredible covers, each one presenting a different publisher’s interpretation of the same novel.

On a not entirely dissimilar matter, the jackets to two other German translations of my books are now available for your perusal.

The first of these is the Heck novella, OBSESSION, which though it has not yet been published in the UK, will come out in Germany as BESESSEN later this year (watch this space for the actual date). This is an ‘early days’ adventure from the Mark Heckenburg canon, and is set during his time as a young DC in the East End of London. This one focusses on the disturbing case of a weird neighbourhood creeper.

Here’s a brief except:

‘What you running for, eh?’ Heck demanded.
The prowler, who stank of stale sweat, shook his head dully; lank, unwashed hair swept curtain-like over his eyes. ‘I don’t … I don’t …’ He coughed as he tried to get his breath. ‘I don’t … have to say anything … I won’t be saying anything ’til I have a solicitor.’
‘Oh, you won’t? What’s your name?’
‘Bollocks, I’m not … not saying nothing.’
‘That so?’ With progressively less effort, because the guy was totally shot, Heck muscled him back across the path towards the balustrade. The prowler only realised where they were going when it was too late. He tried to resist, but they were now at the parapet, the rotted stonework falling away when Heck kicked at it, crashing noisily into the abyss underneath. The prowler sucked in a tight, terrified breath as they teetered on the edge. Some twenty feet below, a liquid surface revealed water surging fast along a deep brick channel, most likely a run-through connecting the Hertford Union Canal with the Regent’s.
‘Okay, Mr. Bollocks,’ Heck said. ‘You a good swimmer?’
The prowler said nothing, but he’d stiffened with fear.
‘How’d you reckon you’ll do with your hands cuffed?’ Heck snapped the bracelets into place, brutally locking the guy’s fat wrists in the small of his back.
‘You … you can’t!’ the prowler stammered. ‘I need my solicitor … 
Thats where youre wrong, Bollocks. Heck kicked his legs apart and stamped on the back of his left calf, knocking him down to his knees. What you actually need is a lifejacket!


The second cover is something completely different.

It’s for a translation of my Christmas horror collection of 2014, IN A DEEP DARK DECEMBER. The German version, DAS GESPENST VON KILLINGLY HALL (The Spectre of Killingly Hall, out next October) clearly focusses on the longest novella in the book – The Killing Ground, and tells the tale of Ruth and Alec Whitchurch, a husband and wife detective team hired by a US movie star to protect his family one snowy Christmas from the mythical cannibal hag said to haunt his new hunting estate on the Welsh borderland. But as with the British version, it includes the other four stories too, all of which equally (hopefully) possess the festive fear factor (though it wouldn’t be right to talk too much about that now, as it’s still only May – yah!).

Even so, here is a quick excerpt:

“I’m Ruth,” Ruth said.
Now the child looked at her properly. “Like Ruth in the Bible?”
“Was there a Ruth in the Bible?”
The child looked shocked. “Aww! You don’t know your Bible. That’s bad.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Still, I’m a friend of your daddy’s. Maybe I can be your friend, too?”
Claudette chewed on a pen as she pondered this. “Are you going to be here for the party tomorrow night?”
“Yes. Your daddy’s asked me to stay.”
“Are you in the movies?”
“No.”
“You should be, you’re real pretty.”
“Why thank you.” Ruth saw that Claudette was drawing what looked like a woman standing in a doorway. “That’s a pretty lady too.”
“She came to see me yesterday,” the child said.
“Is she going to be at the party?”
“I don’t know, she didn’t talk much. I don’t think she’s a regular lady.”
Ruth almost laughed. “Whatever do you mean?”
Claudette recommenced drawing. “She just watched me. Through my bedroom window.”
“Through your …? Sorry honey, what did you say?”
“I was sleepy, so Anita thinks I just dreamed her.”
“Anita?”
“My maid. Do you have your own maid?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Really? Who helps you get your stuff?”
“I have a husband for that. Tell me about this lady.”
Claudette chattered on as she drew. “We’d just flown in, so I was real sleepy. Anita says I slept on the plane, but I don’t remember. I went to bed as soon as I got here. My bedroom’s cool. Do you want to come up and see it?”
“Maybe later. This lady was looking in through the window, you say?”
“I think I dreamed it. Because my bedroom’s upstairs and I don’t see how she could have got up there.”
“And she just watched you?”
“Uh-huh. But then Anita came in and called me a sleepyhead. Said I had to get my body to … adjut, adjut, what’s that word?”
“ ‘Adjust’, honey.”
“Yeah. I had to get my body to adjust to the new time-zone. Hey, that’s the first time I got it right. Is that cool?”
At first Ruth couldn’t reply. She was too busy staring down at the picture. Armed with what she now knew, it depicted a woman not standing in a doorway, but on the outside of a tall, narrow casement. She was clinging on with one hand to either side of the frame. Her clothes were long and flowing, yet even through the childs simple sketch work there was a suggestion of dirt and raggedness. Her facial features seemed normal enough, though the dark hair that framed them was thick and matted and hung down past her waist. It was an odd yet clearly deliberate touch that her eyes had a vague hint of redness.
     

I can only say that I’m delighted with all my new jackets. It’s a great honour to be published in your native language, but when the readerships of other countries embrace it too, that’s a bonus you can normally only dream of.

*

THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS

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.


DISSOLUTION 
by C.J. Sansom (2003)

The year is 1537, and the Protestant Reformation is picking up pace. England is now a land of informers, interrogation by rack, falsified evidence, and the handing down of death sentences for the simple crime of holding an opinion.

The driving force behind his new tyranny is King Henry VIII, but his iron fist is Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell, a zealous bureaucrat hell-bent on dissolving the Catholic monasteries and dividing their lands and wealth among a grasping nobility. One of Cromwell’s prime agents in this cause is hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake, another committed reformer and a man of razor-sharp intellect. However, even Shardlake now harbours doubts about his master’s increasingly brutal and swingeing methods – more and more are going to the block, torture is ever more frequently used – so when he is assigned to investigate the murder of Robin Singleton, a fellow government official, at the remote, marsh-begirt monastery of Scarnsea, he is initially relieved.

Here should be an open-and-shut case. The monks are notoriously lax, as well as hostile to the new mood. There is no question about the righteousness of this enquiry, and Shardlake expects there’ll be suspects a-plenty – and indeed there are, because when he arrives there, Scarnsea turns out to be a den of vice and a nest of corruption.

Aided by his handsome young assistant, Mark Poer, Shardlake learns that, in addition to the murder, which involved decapitation by sword, a precious relic has been stolen and the monastery church desecrated in a weird satanic ceremony. He also uncovers evidence of fraudulent land sales perpetrated by some of the monks, dubious dealings with local smugglers, treasonous mutterings, and sexual improprieties (sodomy between men and boys, but also the molestation of serving-girls). At a purely personal level there is much here to question. While certain among the brethren are devoted to their role, others’ vocations are more doubtful: Abbot Fabian lives openly and unashamedly as a country squire; Prior Mortimus disciplines the novices with ridiculous viciousness; Brother Edwig measures everything in pounds, shillings and pence; Brother Gabriel is homosexual (a crime in that era); Brother Guy is a converted Moor; Brother Jerome is an unapologetic Catholic whose torture by Cromwell leads to him condemn the new England more vociferously each day.   

And yet, despite this catalogue of likely candidates, it is a far from straightforward enquiry. Shardlake finds that everyone here has something to hide, while almost no-one, whatever their rank, is straight with him about their true feelings for the Reformation. Even the local townsfolk have reason to be suspect, the commoners eager to curry favour with the King by loudly decrying the papists, their betters eager to acquire the papists’ land. Things are additionally complicated when Shardlake and Poer fall out over a comely serving-wench, Alice, and all the while a deep and bitter winter sets in, heavy snow virtually imprisoning our heroes in the grim and eerie structure at Scarnsea, which creates a brooding atmosphere of terror and evil when suddenly there is another murder, and then another one …

What can I say? This novel works for me on so many levels.

First of all, as a straightforward murder-mystery it makes for compulsive reading. Shardlake and Poer, though possessing authority, are constantly under threat in this isolated locale – tense moments abound – while the investigation, as they work their way through a complex tangle of clues, many of them contradicting each other, is riveting. Always, it seems, there are new questions and yet fewer and fewer answers. Is the killer someone who supports the Catholic cause, or someone who detests it? Was Singleton slain because he represented Cromwell and the King, or was it a personal matter? While on one hand the mystery appears to intersect with financial misdoings, on the other it looks like something sexual. On yet another it may involve witchcraft and Satanism. Is it possible the various murders look different in terms of their motives and modus operandi because they are the work of different murderers?

Though lengthy, the tale cracks on at great pace as Shardlake penetrates determinedly through the intrigue, winning some friends on the way but also plenty of enemies, and often having to dodge danger himself. When the resolution is finally reached, is it not exactly a jaw-dropper, but it is deeply satisfying and requires no suspension of belief given the widespread brutality and injustice of that era.

Shardlake himself is a fine central character. An unlikely hero, though he initially appears as a stealthy, eavesdropping man who insists on asking awkward questions and feels no guilt about foisting his beliefs on others, he is at heart a good soul who genuinely believes that a purer, fairer world can come from the Reformist movement. He has also suffered terribly at a personal level, not just from the physical pain of his crippled body but from the humiliation and mistrust it has brought on him, which makes him hugely sympathetic. In any case, Dissolution – the first of a whole series of Matthew Shardlake novels from C.J. Sansom – sees the Tudor-age investigator commence a long, arduous journey of self-discovery, during the course of which he is ever-more troubled by the new police state he serves and the apparent innocence of so many of its victims. 

The book also provides a fascinating snapshot of English intellectual life at the close of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Early Modern Age, clearly outlining the differences between the factions on either side of the Reformist fence, the Catholics mistrustful of a lay-aristocracy with no remit to do good and aghast that centuries of holy tradition are being torn down, the Reformers infuriated by a monolithic ecclesiastical body that empowers itself by enthralling the populace in ignorance and superstition.

It also issues a stern warning about sanctimonious idealogues who are so certain of the righteousness of their cause that they are prepared to perform vicious deed to bring it about, and that is surely a message as pertinent today as it ever was. 

Dissolution is a multi-faceted tale of great depth and interest. In some ways, it is only superficially a murder-mystery (though as I say, it works compellingly on that level too), because there is so much more to it. But all that notwithstanding, it remains an absolute must for the reading collections of any fans of crime, thriller and/or historical fiction.

As always – purely for the fun of it – here are my picks for who should play the leads if Dissolution ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (it was adapted by BBC Radio in 2012, with Jason Watkins starring as Matthew Shardlake and Mark Bonner as Thomas Cromwell).

Matthew Shardlake – Toby Jones
Thomas Cromwell – Jeremy Irons
Mark Poer – Al Weaver
Alice – Bethany Muir
Brother Guy – Don Warrington
Abbott Fabian – Matthew Macfadyen
Prior Mortimus – Andy Serkis
Brother Jerome – David Bradley
Brother Edwig – Mark Addy 
Brother Gabriel - Phil Davis

I know … big cast! What are the chances, eh?

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The two Marks knock it out of the ballpark

Today we’re going to start on a completely self-indulgent note as I have no intention of missing this opportunity to show off the new cover for STRANGERS, my next crime novel (due for publication in September). 

Regular followers of this column will know that the German-language cover has recently been publicised as well - in fact there are two other German covers newly released aside from STRANGERS (or perhaps that should be SCHWARZE WITWEN!), but I'll discuss the new book and its various different and exciting jackets in a separate post, as the main emphasis today is to heap praise on two other novels - from the ever-trusty pens of MARK EDWARDS and MARK BILLINGHAM - which have completely caught my imagination during this month of April.   

They are both crime novels, so there is an ongoing theme here, but they amply illustrate the incredible range of styles and subject-matter that fall within the crime/thriller medium, and very adequately show just how good modern British crime-writing can be. 

So here, without further ado, is this week's ...


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS ...

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.


THE MAGPIES 
by Mark Edwards (2013)

Love-birds Jamie and Kirsty think they’re living the suburban dream when they acquire a spacious London flat at a knock-down price. The neighbourhood is genteel, the neighbours themselves welcoming. On top of that, both Jamie and Kirsty have good jobs, he a software engineer, she a paediatric nurse. A comfortable middle-class life together beckons.

Until – slowly and subtly – things start to go wrong.

The arrival of dead rats on their doorstep could be the work of an overly industrious local cat, but why does someone keep sending the Fire Brigade to their address, who keeps ordering fast food deliveries they don’t want, and why are they deluged with peculiar and sometimes downright offensive junk-mail? It isn’t long before they start to suspect they may somehow have offended their downstairs neighbours, Chris and Lucy Newton, a slightly older and curiously unsophisticated couple. Initially, there are scant clues that the Newtons are behind this campaign of unprovoked harassment, though they do complain to Jamie and Kirsty rather a lot and often about the most innocuous things.

In the first instance there is no obvious sense of danger, but author Mark Edwards is nothing if not an expert when it comes to slowly and mercilessly turning the psychological screw.

In its most basic sense, the situation the young couple have found themselves in is the stuff of nightmares. These are pleasant, conscientious people looking only to get on with their lives. One thing they are not is adversarial. Jamie is no macho man, and neither he nor Kirsty are streetwise – if anything they are na├»ve. Quite clearly they’d be easy victims for a determined sociopath, particularly if this warped person decided to make them his/her new ‘hobby’ – and this is the raw and terrible nerve that Mark Edwards now relentlessly plucks.

The violations against Jamie and Kirsty’s happy world become steadily more vicious and personal, soon invading every aspect of their lives, leaving our heroes increasingly frightened and disoriented, especially as the Newtons, whenever they are encountered face-to-face, remain affable and polite, which even puts doubt in the reader’s mind that they may be guilty. But a whole new level of horror is reached when Paul, Jamie’s best friend and sole ally, is terribly injured in a go-carting accident, which again looks as if it might have been engineered by Chris Newton.

This has a devastating effect on Jamie and Kirsty, whose own relationship finally starts to suffer. Isolated and friendless, feeling besieged, the couple try to struggle on, but even this isn’t the end of it. Each new day brings ever more elaborately sadistic outrages, until soon, driven beyond despair, having lost everything, Jamie opts to take drastic action to fight back.

But his invisible opponents are no ordinary neighbours from Hell.

Up until now, civilised man Jamie has only been able to guess at the degree of wickedness that faces him here …

The Magpies is a fascinating and highly intelligent psycho thriller written by an expert in low-key terror, but genuine spice is added to this hair-raising brew because the author himself experienced similar persecution in his earlier life, and that harrowing authenticity is written all the way through. It certainly explains why the torment is piled on so ruthlessly, layer after layer, each ghastly new development superseded by the next – if it isn’t rats it is spiders, if it isn’t damaging computer viruses, it is stage-managed fatal accidents – until it literally becomes overwhelming, until you, the reader, are ready to rip your own hair out, never mind the novel's hapless heroes.

However, there is more to this than mere mental torture. The mystery and suspense run deep. We are never totally convinced that Jamie and Kirsty are correct about the identity of their anonymous foes – there are several other neighbours aside from the Newtons, and some of their normal friends are less than helpful. Their increasing air of paranoia only adds to the mix; they become confused and irrational; so cleverly is the book written that at times you even wonder if anything malicious is actually going on at all.

On top of that, The Magpies is a finely-observed study of a strong relationship cracking under outside pressure. The slow deterioration of Jamie and Kirsty’s partnership is as tragic as it is frightening, and completely compelling because it is so believable. Be warned, the pain and desolation that soon fill the central characters’ lives in this book feel very real indeed. Of course, that also intensifies the reader’s desire to see justice done – or should that be revenge?

By the time you get to the end of this intense and absorbing novel, you won’t really care.

As always, purely as a bit of fun fantasy-casting, here are my picks for who should play the leads if The Magpies ever makes it to the screen:

Jamie – Ben Whishaw
Kirsty – Sophie Turner
Paul – Rupert Grint
Chris – Neil Maskell
Lucy – MyAnna Buring


TIME OF DEATH 
by Mark Billingham (2013)

DI Tom Thorne and girlfriend, DS Helen Weeks, have taken a winter holiday in the Cotswolds, where they intend to spend Valentine’s Day together and enjoy a well-earned rest. But, as you can probably guess, from the commencement of Time of Death, the 13th outing for Mark Billingham’s gruff, no-nonsense hero, it is never going to be quite as easy as that.

Thorne, a veteran of the Murder Squad, is approaching middle-age these days, and still hasn’t entirely worked out his relationship with the relatively new woman in his life, DS Weeks. She is younger than he is, and doesn’t see the world in the same stark terms. However, it is Helen who makes the decision to suddenly interrupt their break and head north into rainy, flood-stricken Warwickshire, where an old school acquaintance, Linda Bates, is in trouble.

It seems that in Polesford, Helen’s rural but far-from-idyllic hometown, two teenage girls have been abducted, and one has now turned up in the woods, brutally murdered. In response, Warwickshire Police have laid their hands on local man, Stephen Bates – Linda’s husband – and look set to charge him with the crime.

Thorne is a little bemused as to why they are getting involved. By her own admission, Helen was not Linda’s best friend when they were kids, though they seem to share some kind of unspoken connection. On top of that, all Helen can really do once they arrive is provide a shoulder for Linda to cry on. And it’s a much-needed shoulder. Linda and her family are distraught and already being ostracised by their neighbours. Moreover, when Thorne looks into the case as an observer, it seems pretty straightforward. Even though Bates maintains his innocence, there is a mass of evidence stacked against him, and his alibi doesn’t stand up – in due course, he is charged with kidnapping and murder.

However, not all in Polesford is exactly as it should be.

Thorne isn’t won over by the loutish townsfolk, by the media who have swamped the place in a search for ever-more sensationalist news angles, or by the local investigation team, who have not been as thorough as he would like and who are increasingly resentful of his presence. When Phil Hendricks, his tattoo-covered but trusty forensics expert, joins him in Polesford, they commence an enquiry of their own – unofficially of course – and quickly start to uncover anomalies in the evidence.

Pretty soon, Thorne is convinced that Bates is innocent. But the local fuzz will have no truck with that, and in fact complain to his bosses in the Met (who attempt to call him off), while Helen is only marginally more useful. For the moment at least, the level-headed policewoman he knows and loves has vanished, to be replaced by someone who is secretive, snappy and inordinately stressed. Clearly, Helen herself has more than superficial issues with the town of her birth, and there is no guarantee they are unconnected to this enquiry.

But Thorne, the hard-nosed investigator, is now in his element. Amid foul weather and despite a storm of hostility, he battles on determinedly. Because if nothing else, he strongly suspects that the second of the two abducted girls is still in the grasp of the real killer, maybe still alive, and if so, enduring who knows what horrors …

Tom Thorne is an iconic cop character in British crime fiction, and his cases are never less than totally readable. I particularly enjoyed this one, though, because it takes a new approach.

All the usual coolness of Mark Billingham’s crime-writing is there. The slick prose; the polished characterisation; the quickfire, uber-realistic dialogue; the grim tone – yet again the ‘real crime’ feel pervades this book: desolated lives, a non-empathetic public, the countless unsavoury elements that combine to create Broken Britain. This is vintage Thorne territory, but on this occasion the Met’s best bloodhound is not seeking to prove a murder suspect’s guilt, but to establish his innocence.

And it works so well.

Thorne is one of crime fiction’s top good guys, mainly because he’s believable – totally human and fallible – but at the same time he has all the attributes of a hero. He’s no angel, but he knows a dodgy situation when he encounters one, and he doesn’t care whose nose he puts out when he’s on the trail of justice. Hendricks of course – Thorne’s less conservative, happier-go-luckier other self – makes a great sparring partner, but together their combined intellect is a fearsome force. And this is the other thing about Time of Death: it is distinctly NOT a tale of brawn over brain. Don’t get me wrong; Thorne can kick arse if he wants to (and so can Helen Weeks, as this book illustrates), but this time it’s all about the minutiae of forensics, Thorne and Hendricks bouncing ideas back and forth at lightning speed as they strive to save an innocent man and rescue a tormented child.

This is raw, page-turning action, even though much of it is cerebral rather than physical.

And the background to it all is richly atmospheric too, the rain-sodden landscape a last word in winter dreariness, the support-cast almost entirely comprised of gossips and misery-merchants: metal-head taxi-driver Jason Sweeney is particularly odious and a masterwork of slow-building menace; Trevor Hare, the pub landlord and former cop who becomes Thorne’s confidant in the village, is an opinionated know-all; Linda Jackson herself ranges back and forth between sweetness, light and embittered, foul-mouthed shrewiness; even Stephen Bates is a self-centred oddball and someone you wouldn’t ordinarily root for, and yet such is Billingham’s skill that you end up doing precisely that.

This is one of the best and most unusual police novels I’ve read in quite a while, but it’s not just a procedural. Sexual misbehaviour is a key aspect of this story, especially abusive misbehaviour, and not just where extreme examples like homicide are concerned. But Mark Billingham is a serious writer – he doesn’t do pulp fiction – and as such he handles these heart-rending subjects with a deftness of touch and understanding that elevate the entire thing way above the level of routine tawdry suspense thriller.

Time of Death is an intriguing but grown-up mystery, played out at breathless pace and yet never once straying beyond the realms of the completely authentic. An excellent read.

And here again, just for fun, are my selections for who should take the lead roles if Time of Death ever makes it to the screen (Thorne is no stranger to TV of course; Sleepyhead and Scaredycat – Thorne #1 and #2 – both made it in 2010, and for me David Morrissey and Aiden Gillen were perfect in their respective parts, so I’d see no reason to change that now):

DI Tom Thorne – David Morrissey
DS Helen Weeks – Lorraine Burroughs
Phil Hendricks – Aiden Gillen
Linda Bates – Felicity Jones
Stephen Bates – Arthur Darvill
Trevor Hare – Trevor Eve
Jason Sweeney – Cillian Murphy
Aurora Harley – Anya Taylor-Joy