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 TEN BEST BRITISH CRIME MOVIES YOUVE POSSIBLY NOT SEEN:   

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.


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.  

DEAD SILENT 
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

4 comments:

  1. Glad to see THE SQUEEZE get a mention. I tell people about it. I've not seen this movie in forever and I want to rewatch it. Thanks for a nod to LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN. Great film. Always felt Ocean's 11 kinda ripped it off. :-)

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  2. I think Ocean's 11 definitely ripped it off, Simon, but I see how it worked in the Rat Pack era. Some of the stuff in The Squeeze seemed mind-boggling back when it first came out - it was like The Sweeney on steroids.

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    1. Definitely!! THE SQUEEZE was definitely THE SWEENEY turned up to 11. The only thing I remember being bad was Stacey Keach's accent being poor and Stephen Boyd being frightening.... The Internecine Project was another film I really liked because of the setup.

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