Thursday, 16 March 2017

In your face crime and grime, British style

This week we’re on the dark, rain-wet streets and grimy urban landscapes of the British crime thriller. Firstly, because we yet again are going to be talking about my forthcoming new release, ASHES TO ASHES, which is now only four weeks away. Secondly, because I thought this would be an opportune time to pick out and highlight the TEN BEST BRITISH CRIME MOVIES YOUVE POSSIBLY NOT SEEN, and thirdly, because I’m also going to be reviewing and discussing Mark Roberts’s gritty and tension-riddled, Liverpool-set crime novel, DEAD SILENT.

As always, that book review can be found at the lower end of today’s post. In the meantime, as mentioned above, ASHES TO ASHES, the sixth DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg novel, is due to hit the bookshelves on April 6. This time, we’re taking the lonely hero home to Bradburn, the Lancashire mill-town where he was born and raised, and which has haunted him all his life because of certain dreadful things that happened there.

But in ASHES TO ASHES, Heck goes back to Bradburn not so much unwillingly – he never likes returning ‘home’ – but determinedly, because the town of his birth is now overrun by criminals and drug-addicts, and at the same time being terrorised by two rival killers, who seem to be running up scorecards of victims in defiance of each other. And these are not run-of-the-mill stranglings or throat-cuttings. One of the killers is a professional torturer, who uses the most ingenious and protracted methods to despatch his subjects, while the other, known by the press as ‘the Incinerator’, wears heavy body-armour and wields a flame-thrower.

Yes, it gets nasty … which has often been a hallmark of British crime fiction, and especially British crime movies.

By their very nature, I’ve long found these a fascinating animal. Certainly, up until the more recent age of the mockney/cockney antics we started seeing in romps like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Layer Cake (2004) and Sexy Beast (2000), British crime cinema took its main inspiration from the American noirs of the 1940s, telling dour, downbeat tales of weary individuals trying to forge their way through cities blighted by squalor and vice, featuring lead-characters – be they cops, PIs, or even villains – who were often no better than they had to be, establishments that were inherently corrupt, and an underworld that was all-consuming.

The tone was bleak throughout, and they rarely ended well.

Most students of the genre will be familiar with the classics in this field. Brighton Rock (1947), Get Carter (1971) and the Long Good Friday (1980) are still in many ways the benchmark, but it also seems to me that there has been a whole swathe of British crime thrillers which rarely get a mention these days, and yet which tick all the boxes and stand up very well indeed.

And so here, just for the fun of it, and in no particular order, are …


The Squeeze (1977): Alcoholic Scotland Yard detective Stacy Keach has to throw off the DTs when his ex-wife is kidnapped by gangsters as part of a plan to pull a massive heist. Stephen Boyd and David Hemmings add kudos as the lead blaggers.

The Reckoning (1969): Nicol Williamson is the northern-born executive, successful at business, but whose inner loutishness isolates him from the London middle-classes. When his elderly father is beaten to death by Hell’s Angels, he heads back home looking for revenge.

The Internecine Project (1974): James Coburn is the London-based spy chief, who opts to clean house by arranging for his operatives to kill each other all on the same night. Rousing support from a cast of old reliables like Ian Hendry, Harry Andrews (left), Lee Grant and Michael Jayston.

Hell is a City (1960): Manchester DI Stanley Baker’s life falls apart as he goes all out to catch an old lag who has busted out of jail and is determined to reclaim the loot from his last job. Brit noir at its most intense, at the dawn of the swinging 60s.

The Offence (1973): Detective Sergeant Sean Connery struggles to contain his inner beast when he collars suspected child molester, Ian Bannen. Trevor Howard and Peter Bowles are his fellow detectives. Unrelentingly bleak cop drama, way ahead of its time.

Villain (1971): Vicious East End gang boss Richard Burton over-extends his reach when he joins forces with a rival firm who neither trust nor like him. Ian McShane is the underworld fixer who can’t prevent his gaffer from making this final, fatal mistake.

Sitting Target (1972): Psychotic killer Oliver Reeds busts out of prison, but eschews the escape route his gang have laid out, by looking to get even with the wife who betrayed him. Edward Woodward is the cop determined to nail him.

The Psychopath (1966): London cops investigate a string of murders in which the horribly mutilated victims all have dolls left by their corpses. Blood and guts from the ‘Pan Horror’ era of crime thrillers. Patrick Wymark is the DI with the least enviable job in town.

Eastern Promises (2007): Midwife Naomi Watts falls fouls of the Russian Mafia when she comes into possession of a baby, the mere existence of which proves they are trafficking underage prostitutes into the UK. Vincent Cassel and Viggo Mortensen are the menacing mobsters.

The League of Gentlemen (1960): A bunch of former WWII commandos, unable to reintegrate into society, reconvene to carry out a complex and violent bank robbery  (pictured top). A host of classy talent includes Jack Hawkins, Bryan Forbes and Richard Attenborough.


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 Mark Roberts (2016)

Liverpool in the depths of December. Christmas is approaching, but there is little joy to be had in the Sefton Park district of the wintry city.

DCI Eve Clay and her team of experienced homicide investigators are baffled and horrified when they are called to the murder of retired octogenarian college professor, Leonard Lawson, an expert in medieval art. To make the case even more disturbing, Lawson, who was ritually slaughtered inside his own home and then fastened to a stake in the fashion of a game-animal, was discovered by his daughter, Louise, an ageing and rather fragile lady herself, who is so shocked by the incident that she can barely even discuss it.

This resolute silence, whether it’s a natural reaction to the horror of the incident, or something more sinister – and Clay is undecided either way – impedes the police, who are keen to delve into the victim’s past, not to mention his current circle of acquaintances, to try and work out who might harbour such a grudge that they would inflict such sadistic violence on him.

At least Clay can call upon a considerable amount of expertise. DS Bill Hendricks is her strong right-arm, and a no-nonsense but deep-thinking copper who knows his job inside out. DS Gina Riley is the softer face of the job, another experienced detective but a gentle soul when she wants to be, and very intuitive. Meanwhile, DS’s Karl Stone and Terry Mason are each formidable in their own way, as are the various other support staff the charismatic DCI can call upon.

With such power and knowledge in her corner, it isn’t long before Clay is making progress, a matter of hours in fact, though the mystery steadily deepens, leading her first to a care home for mentally disabled men (including the likeable, innocent Abey), and yet run by the non-too-pleasant Adam Miller and his attractive if weary wife, Danielle (who may or may not be more than just a colleague to the young, modern-minded carer, Gideon Stephens).

Yes, it seems as if there are mysteries within mysteries to be uncovered during this investigation. However, Clay and her crew continue to make ground, finally becoming interested in Gabriel Huddersfield, a disturbed loner who haunts the park and makes strange and even menacing religious speeches, and being drawn irresistibly towards three curious if time-honoured paintings: The Last Judgement by Hieronymous Bosch, and The Tower of Babel and The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel.

These garish Renaissance masterpieces were all regarded at the time, and by modern scholars, as instructions for the benefit of mankind, giving warnings about his fate should he stray from the path of righteousness, each one incorporating terrifying and brutal imagery in order to deliver its fearsome message.

But even though these objects inform the case, and Clay and her team soon develop suspects, the enquiry continues to widen. What role, for example, does the rather strange character who was the late Professor Noone have to play in all this, and what exactly was the so-called ‘English Experiment’? All we know about it initially is that it wasn’t very ethical and that it somehow involved children.

Clay herself becomes emotionally attached to the case, its quasi-religious undertones affecting her more and more, because, as a childhood orphan, she was raised by Catholic nuns, though in her case – and this makes a welcome change in a work of modern fiction – it wasn’t all negative; Clay owes her empathetic nature to the love and affection she received from her guardian, Sister Philomena, while the tough but kindly Father Murphy recognised and nurtured the spark of leonine determination that would go on to gird her greatly for the challenging paths ahead.

But all this will be rendered null and void of course if the Selfton Park murderer is not apprehended quickly. Because, almost inevitably, he now strikes again, committing two more equally horrific ritualistic slayings.

Clay and her team find themselves racing against time to end this ghastliness, a race that takes them into and around some very notable Liverpool landmarks, the city’s two great cathedrals for example, and all along the snowy, slushy banks of the Mersey (all of which are generously mapped out for us). And all the while, they become ever more aware that this is no ordinary level of depravity they are dealing with. Nor is it necessarily the work of a single killer. Who, for example, is ‘the First Born’, and who is the ‘Angel of Destruction’? Whoever these ememies of society actually are, however many they number, and whatever their crazed, fervour-driven motives, it soon becomes apparent that they are just as likely to be a threat to the police hunting them as they were to those victims they have already butchered …

Dead Silent is the second Eve Clay novel from Mark Roberts, and a pretty intriguing follow-up to the original outing, Blood Mist.

From the outset, the chilly urban setting is excellently realised. You totally get the feeling that you’re in a wintry Liverpool, the bitter cold all but emanating from its pages, the age-old monolithic structures of the city’s great cathedrals standing stark and timeless against this dreary backdrop, the gloomy greyness of which is more than matched by the mood; the murder detectives certainly have no time for the impending fun of Christmas as they work doggedly through what is basically a single high-intensity shift, pursuing a pair of truly malign and murderous opponents.

And that’s another vital point to make. Dead Silent is another of those oft-quoted ‘page-turners’, but in this case it’s the real deal – because it practically takes place in real time.

The enquiry commences at 2.38am on a freezing December morning, and finishes at 8.04pm that night, the chapters, each one of which opens helpfully with a time-clock, often arriving within a few minutes of each other. This is a clever device, which really does keep you reading, especially as almost every new chapter brings another key development in the multi-stranded tale.

If this sounds as though Dead Silent is exclusively about the enquiry, and skimps on any additional drama or character development, then that would be incorrect. It is about the enquiry – this is a murder investigation, commencing with a report that an apparently injured party is walking the streets in a daze, and finishing with a major result for the local murder team (and a twist in the tale from Hell, a shocker of an ending that literally hits you like a hammer-blow!), with very few events occurring in between that aren’t connected to it. However, the rapid unfolding of this bewildering mystery, and the warm but intensely professional interplay between the various detectives keeps everything rattling along.

Because this is a highly experienced and very well-oiled investigation unit, each member slotting comfortably and proficiently into his or her place, attacking the case on several fronts at once, and yet at the same time operating as a super-efficient whole, of which DCI Eve Clay is the central hub.

Of course, this kind of arrangement is replicated in big city police departments across the world, and is usually the reason why mystifying murders are reported on the lunchtime news, only for the arrest of a suspect to be announced by teatime. As an ex-copper, it gave me a real pang of pleasure to see one of the main offenders here, a cruel narcissist and Pound Shop megalomaniac, expressing dismay and disbelief when he learns how quickly he is being closed down.

And yet, Mark Roberts doesn’t just rush us through the case. He also gives himself lots of time to do some great character work.

As previously stated, Eve Clay is the keystone, the intellectual and organisational force behind the team’s progress, but at the same time, while a mother back at home, also a mother to her troops, someone they can confide in when they have problems, but also someone they have implicit faith will lead them from one success to the next. What is really fascinating about Clay, though, is the way her difficult childhood in a Catholic orphanage has strengthened her emotionally and gifted her with a warmth the likes of which I’ve rarely seen in fictional detectives (and which, at times, is genuinely touching). She makes a fine if unusual hero.

To avoid giving away too many spoilers, I must, by necessity, avoid discussing the civilian characters in the book, except to say that Mark Roberts takes a cynical but perceptive view of the kind of people police officers meet when investigating serious crime.

Ultimately, all those involved in this case, even if only on the periphery, are abnormal in one way or another, while those at the heart of it … well, suffice to say that some kind of insanity is at work here. Because surely only insanity, or pure evil, or a combination of both, can lie at the root of murders like these. Roberts investigates this wickedness to a full and satisfying degree, completely explaining – if not excusing – the terrible acts that are depicted, and yet at the same time using them to underscore the dour tone of the book. Because there is nothing particularly extravagant or outlandish about the villains in Dead Silent, even if they do commit horrific and sadistic murders. They may be depraved, but there is still an air of the kitchen sink about them, of the mundane, of the self-absorbed losers that so many violent sexual criminals are in real life – again, this adds a welcome flavour of the authentic.

To finish on a personal note, I also loved the arcane, artistic elements in the tale. Again, I won’t go into this in too much detail, but I’ve long been awe-stricken by messianic later-medieval painters like Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Though replete with multiple meanings, their lurid visions of Hell and damnation, of a world gone mad (or maybe a world born mad!), are among the most memorable and disturbing ever committed to canvas. It’s distressing to consider that such horror derived from men of artistry and intellect, but then to see these ancient atrocities interwoven with latter-day insanities like the English Experiment (which again has emerged from men with talent and education!), is fascinating, and gives this novel a richness of aura and depth of atmosphere that I’ve rarely encountered in crime fiction.

Read Dead Silent. It’s a class act.

And now, as always at the end of one of my book reviews, I’m going to be bold (or foolish) enough to propose a cast should Dead Silent ever make it to the screen, though most likely that would only happen if Blood Mist happened first. Nevertheless, here are my picks:

DCI Eve Clay – Claire Sweeney 
DS Gina Riley – Tricia Penrose
DS Bill Hendricks – Liam Cunningham
Danielle Miller – Cathy Tyson 
Adam Miller – Paul McGann 
Gideon Stephens – Tom Hughes
Louise Lawson – Alison Steadman
Leonard Lawson – Malcom McDowell
DS Karl Stone – Stephen Graham
DS Terry Mason – Joe Dempsie
Gabriel Huddersfield – Luke Treadaway
Abey – Allen Leech

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Fancy a little touch of terror in the night?

I’m pleased to be able to report that the TERROR TALES series is back on track. If you look left, you’ll see that the final proof of TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL has arrived. 

After months of unavoidable delays and disruption, it suddenly feels very real again.

I’ll fill you in on the latest situation a bit further down in today’s post. Very relevantly to this, I’ll also be offering a detailed discussion and review of Reggie Oliver’s amazing novel, THE DRACULA PAPERS – it’s relevant because a new story by Reggie appears in the Cornwall book, but also because it’s horror and horror is the theme of the day.

But as usual, you’ll be able to find that review at the lower end of today’s post. If you’re happy to stick around here a little while first, there are some other bits and bobs to talk about ...

First of all, I’ll be appearing at the Mill Forge Hotel, just outside Gretna Green, this coming Saturday (March 11) as part of the CRIME AND PUBLISHMENT weekend, to make a presentation and talk animatedly (at least, I hope I'll be animated) about HOW TO PUT HORROR INTO YOUR CRIME WRITING.

I won’t be the only attraction at the Mill Forge this weekend, of course. LIN ANDERSON (left) will be there to talk about the use of forensics, and TOM HARPER (right) to discuss suspense, among several other immeasurable talents.

My own subject was chosen for me by GRAHAM SMITH, Mill gaffer and crime-writer extraordinaire, so I owe him a big debt of thanks for that. He was very keen to hear me impart any wisdom I may have gleaned during my gradual transformation over the years from horror writer to crime novelist.

I will admit, I was a bit nervous initially. My two-and-a-half hour slot is considerably longer than any previous slot of this sort that I’ve been allocated, but I think (hope, pray!) that I’ll have prepped my stuff sufficiently to make this an interesting time for all those planning to attend.

If you are heading to the Mill this weekend, I look forward to seeing you. And if you’re a regular on this blog, or on Facebook or Twitter, or whatever, please introduce yourself to me. It’s always great to put names to faces.

Now … onto the subject of the TERROR TALES books.

It was a personal mission of mine for several years to edit anthologies of original horror fiction, specifically in reference to folklore, mythology and real-life paranormal or occult-related mysteries, of which we have an absolute plethora here in the UK.

The result was the TTs, as I like to call them.

Originally published by the late lamented Gray Friar Press, the series started out spiffingly with TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT and then ran on through THE COTSWOLDS, EAST ANGLIA, LONDON, THE SEASIDE, WALES, YORKSHIRE, THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS and THE OCEAN (yes, we’ve gone further and further afield the deeper into it we delved – it quickly became apparent to me that there were plenty other places in the world replete with eeriness and the arcane, so it was never the plan to draw the line once we’d covered the UK … not that we’re even close to that yet).

My motivation behind each book was not just to tell a bunch of scary stories from a particular geographic region, but to try and tap the zeitgeist of that district; to really get a feel for its culture and beliefs, its legends and curiosities.
As such, taking a leaf out of R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s TALES OF TERROR series from the 1970s, as published by Fontana, I opted to intersperse the fictional stories with non-fictional anecdotes – true terror tales if you like, supernatural occurrences, bizarre mysteries, horrific events, unexplained but ghastly crimes.

So for example, while in TERROR TALES OF THE OCEAN, we have Steve Duffy’s fictional account of a sea-rescue from Hell in ‘Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed’, we also examine the true life mystery of the Palmyra Atoll curse. Likewise, while in  TERROR TALES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS, we join Peter Bell on an ill-fated climbing expedition to a mountain-top rock form called ‘The Executioner’, we also investigate the incredible true facts in the case of the killer and cannibal, Tristicloke the Wolf.

This format was replicated throughout the series, and went on to win quite a bit of praise from various corners.

Anyway, as many are now probably aware, early last year, when half way through production of the 10th book in the series, TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL, the publisher, Gray Friar, through no fault of their own, were forced to cease trading. It was a sad event in the independent press, not just because of the TTs, but because GF had been a hugely productive outfit and a very adventurous publisher of British weird fiction.

All good things come to an end, but I was determined that TERROR TALES was going to continue. I needed to look around for a new publisher of course, and this coincided with the ever more time consuming process of writing of my own crime novels, which seemed to reduce the hours available to the bare minimum.

But despite this, we’ve got there in the end.

The new book is coming out from TELOS PUBLISHING, a hugely well-regarded independent publisher here in the UK. And it’s with every likelihood, and a firm intention on both our parts, that more volumes will follow.

But don’t just take my word for it. As you saw above, the final proof of TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL arrived at my office only yesterday.

So yes, after a long hiatus, the series is finally up and running again.

We don’t have an actual publication date or pre-order page as yet, but if you keep your eyes glued to this blog, Facebook, Twitter etc, I shall endeavour to post that information as soon as I get it, along with the full jacket, including the back-cover blurb, and a detailed table of contents.


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.

In the mid-16th century, Prince Vladimir Dracul of Transylvania, son of the vain and greedy king, Xantho, commences his rise to prominence as ‘the Impaler’ and in due course as ‘Dracula the Vampire’, through a series of violent, hair-raising adventures, an intense love affair and a succession of bizarre supernatural events.

All of this is observed and, in fact, noted down and related to us in diary form by the German scholar, Doctor Martin Bellorious, who at the start of this book, along with his companions, sly alchemist-in-training Matthew Verney and good-natured dwarf, Razendoringer, flees the University of Wittenberg before a heresy charge can be levelled, and heads east through ever more dangerous territories.   

It is already difficult to say much more about this astonishing narrative, because almost from the word-go, amazing, delightful and crucially important plot-developments occur – and continue to occur at a rate of at least one a chapter. Suffice to say that this is Europe of the 1570s, a vast, desolate, largely lawless land, where bandits haunt the highways, wolves fill the forests, armies wage endless internecine warfare, noblemen rule as crazy despots, black magic is very, very real and, when night falls, all kinds of evil supernatural beings walk abroad.

Even before Bellorious and his friends reach the ‘safety’ of Castle Dracula, they have several hair-raising escapades in this torturous land of far beyond, narrowly avoiding nasty fates at the hands of various antagonists, including, among several others, two ogre-like cannibals and then Rudolph, the unhinged ruler of Bohemia. And when the dauntless band makes it to Transylvania and then into Castle Dracula, they find themselves immersed in the cutthroat politics of Xantho’s Machiavellian court.

For example, despite a straightforward appointment to school rival princes Vlad (pictured above in his more famous later guise) and Mircea, Bellorious soon earns the enmity of the ambitious chamberlain, Alexander of Glem, who constantly puts dangers and difficulties in his path, he learns unsavoury things about Queen Eupraxia – things which could easily get him killed, he discovers that Xantho is more interested in acquiring wealth and in mocking his gibbering courtiers than he is in organising matters of state, and he struggles to educate Prince Mircea, whose main interests are guzzling wine and ravishing servant girls.

At the same time, there are countless weird and wonderful things in Castle Dracula. From complete absurdities – like a mechanical eating machine which Xantho forces upon one of his boyar flatterers; to the highly distasteful – like the deranged courtier who lives on a diet of spiders, cockroaches and other vermin; to the truly terrifying – like the vampiristic ghost said to roam the Old Queen’s apartments and the tribe of madmen living in the deepest, most forgotten parts of the castle dungeons.

Unfortunately for Bellorious, he doesn’t have much time to explore properly in order to assess these curiosities. Because all the time this is happening, the legions of Murad III (right), Sultan of the immense Ottoman Empire, are massing on the border under the super-efficient leadership of the ferocious Turkish warrior, Grand Vizier Sokolly. Despite the warnings of Ragul, Xantho’s illegitimate son and commander-in-chief of his armed forces, Xantho is strangely unconcerned about any this, so when the attack finally arrives it does so with overwhelming force. By this time, Bellorious has enlightened Prince Vlad sufficiently for him to realise that his homeland is in very serious trouble, and the noble youth participates in the following campaign with almost reckless courage. But both he and his teacher are aware from an early stage that victory, ultimately, is going to elude them, even if it is wrested away from them by skillful negotiation rather than bloody conflict.

Only God knows – or maybe the Devil – what will happen to them after that …    

It’s often said of Reggie Oliver that he is genre fiction’s best-kept secret. I have two immediate thoughts on that. First of all, it’s probably true. Secondly, if it is true it’s an absolute crime.

Oliver, who already had a successful career as an actor, theatre director, playwright and biographer before his writing took a distinctly darker turn in the early 2000s, is by far one of the most talented practitioners of spookiness currently working in the English language. It’s probably true to say that he first came to the literary horror world’s attention with a series of searingly frightening and at the same time very eloquent short stories – ghost stories on the surface, though often much deeper and more complex than that, strongly reminiscent of both M.R. James and Robert Aickman (if you can imagine such a thing!), and yet embracing every kind of nightmare in the weird fiction spectrum: from the restless dead to the demonic, from the spirits of myth to the often even worse aberrations of the human psyche, and invariably wrapping it all up in succinct, readable, and yet delightfully poetic prose.

Of course, not every expert in the short form is able to expand his skill into the much broader realm of the novel; the two disciplines don’t necessarily overlap. However, it was a joy (and somehow no surprise at all) to discover that this does not apply to Reggie Oliver, whose first novel, The Dracula Papers, is just as elegantly written, just as thought-provoking, just as shudder-inducing and just as much a pleasure and an entertainment as any of his short stories.

The first volume in a proposed trilogy studying the origins of Count Dracula the vampire, this is already a phenomenal feat of strange literature and though only one of three, a completely satisfying novel in its own right, which should appeal to a wide readership.

To begin with, The Dracula Papers isn’t specifically a horror novel, though there is much horror on show here: spine-chilling horror of the traditional ghost story variety on one hand, and sensual, shocking horror on the other – nothing explicit, though of such a lurid and Gothic tone that some of it wouldn’t be out of place in the old Dracula movies of the Hammer era. But in addition to all that, the book is written with such an air of authority, delving so deeply and fascinatingly into the culture of the time and place, touching on the many beliefs and philosophies prevalent in that age – everything from long-held superstitions, to late-medieval romances, to the intellectual chaos wrought by changing religion and advancing science – that it reeks of scholarship in its own right.

On top of that, it’s an historical saga on a grand but brutal scale. We see brandings, beheadings and impalements galore, a truly memorable scene wherein an avalanche of severed heads is launched over the walls of Castle Dracula by the besieging Turkish army, and one enormous battle which becomes a literal slaughterhouse.

Again, none of this is graphic or titillating, but it’s all there on the page – which only adds to the vivid portrayal of a terrible world now thankfully lost in time. And yet this itself is a kind of irony, because Oliver, rather bravely, makes no real effort to depict true historical events.

The Dracula Papers owes as much to folklore as it does to genuine history, and not a little amount to fiction. For example, the real Vlad Tepes and his brother, Mircea, lived in the 15th century not the 16th, there was no actual kingdom of Transylvania in this era, rather it was a principality of the kingdom of Hungary, while the lofty position the real Vlad aspired to was not as a king but as Prince of Wallachia, and Elizabeth Bathory (later known as ‘Countess Dracula’) who appears here renamed Nyela and as a deceased but murderess noblewoman of earlier decades, was not even born in 1477, when the real Vlad the Impaler died.

But none of this matters. In fact, it adds to the joy. Because what we’ve got here, rather than a textbook, is a richly-woven fabric of adult-themed fairy tales. For example, not even the well-educated and clear-minded Martin Bellorious thinks it odd that a local village is terrorised by a ‘murony’; in fact it is he who takes it on himself to dispose of the evil sprite. Rumours of the terrifying Black Cathedral – a secret university dedicated to the dark arts – are believed with absolute certainty. When Bellorious encounters Issachar, a vagrant claiming to be the Wandering Jew of apocryphal legend, he is honoured rather than doubtful. Likewise, when the Turkish sorcerer, Zushad, displays necromantic powers, Bellorious is only one of many fascinated witnesses to the dramatic and nightmarish outcome.  

But this is not just a story about myths coming true. Oliver also presents us with the real, functioning and yet terribly unjust world of the Reformation, where the peasantry struggles annually for survival, monarchs seek only to enrich themselves, and seats of intellectualism like colleges and guilds are too busy arguing about heresy to care about everyday affairs. He also concerns himself with military matters. Eastern Europe is now under threat from the Ottomans, the gunpowder-capable armies of the Early Modern Age constantly redrawing the map as they manoeuvre around each other, feinting and sallying, and occasionally clashing full-on to spectacularly bloody effect. At the same time, courtly intrigue is everywhere, both in the magnificent Ottoman capital of Istanbul – ‘Stamboul’, as it is referred to here – but also in the Spartan confines of Castle Dracula, where such is the underhand scheming that no-one, not even Xantho’s unfaithful wife, Queen Eupraxia, feels totally safe.

This brings me onto the characters, which – even those who only make a fleeting appearance – are constructed by Oliver swiftly and yet in full, complex fashion.

Even though we’re immersed in the world of angels and demons, there are few individuals here who are all good and all bad. Bellorious himself makes a fine lead, though he’s very human. Despite his status, he is only in his late 20s, and yet throughout the narrative displays wisdom, probity and empathy – he only takes lives when he has to, and though he’s a scholar and in many ways, an ascetic, his lustful yearning for the beautiful slave-girl, Inanna, is almost painful.

Dracula himself – Vlad in this preliminary volume – though he starts off a wide-eyed youth and an eager student, soon gives hints that he has a darker side: he is petty, he sulks and he will kill in battle with what can only be described as gusto. In addition, he is instantly recognisable as the scion of a noble house, for though he is brave, handsome and dashing, he is also self-centred to an alarming degree.

Other characters are equally colourful, if more briefly handled. Matthew Verney is untrustworthy from the outset, but Oliver paints him slowly and with immense skill, transforming him from ambiguity to villainy with a pace so subtle that it consciously takes up the length of the novel. Others meanwhile are more bound by their stations in life: rival sovereigns, Murad and Xantho, and the latter’s son and heir, Mircea, are distinctly unimpressive men, undeserving of the life-and-death control they exert, and yet so bored by it all that they often neglect their responsibilities, allowing ambitious underlings like Sokolly and Alexander of Glem to grow in power. Meanwhile, below them, better people are eternally doomed by their subservient status: Commander Ragul takes his job seriously, but knows that ultimately he will fail because he lacks the support of his king, and he is very aware that he himself will pay for this failure; star-crossed lovers Razendoringer and dwarf lady-in-waiting Dolabella, though spirited individuals of many talents, will always be servants and/or buffoons because they are dwarfs; while Inanna, the saddest character of all, has accepted her life as a sex-slave to the point where she will trade the abuse of her body to get better deals for her friends.

Despite these melancholic moments, The Dracula Papers, what we have so far seen of it, is a richly textured, meticulously-researched piece of fiction, but also a rolling, comedic, action-packed yarn, filled with magic, mystery and mayhem, romantic and sexual love, wild violence and chilling horror, and dosed throughout with the author’s trademark scholarly asides and scathing humour.

A bona fide treat of a novel that will leave no-one disappointed.

As usual, I’m now going to be bold enough to suggest a cast I personally would select should The Dracula Papers #1: The Scholar’s Tale ever make it to the screen (and how I would love to see that happen). It would be an expensive production for sure, but then so was Game of Thrones, and I’m always hearing how the networks are looking for a like-for-like follow-up to that hugely successful show. Well, guys … here you go.

Martin Bellorious – Darren Boyd (older than written, but itd work)
Prince Vladimir – Will Poulter
Razendoringer – Warwick Davis
Matthew Verney – Iwan Rheon
Prince Mircea – Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Ragul – Alexander Dreymon
Alexander of Glem – Daniel Webb
King Xantho – Vincent Regan
Queen Eupraxia – Patricia Velasquez
Issachar – Rutger Hauer
Grand Vizier Sokolly – Burak Özçivit
Inanna – Hend Sabry
Zushad – Art Malik