Sunday, 7 May 2017

Making our gory mark in far distant places

Fast on the heels of my last blog, I’m posting a new one today, and this is mainly in anticipation of CRIMEFEST at Bristol, later this month. 

In addition, in rather timely fashion, I’ll also be reviewing L.A. Larkin’s international conspiracy tour de force, DEVOUR (it’s timely in the sense that Ms. Larkin will be chairing one of the panels on which I’m sitting at Bristol … an event I can hardly wait for, though Im always a tad nervous about these things).

As usual, you’ll find that review towards the lower end of today’s post. But before we get down there, I want to talk a little bit about the Bristol event, but also – and maybe you can treat this as a kind of ‘thought for the week’ – about the many benefits that writers can draw from reading and reviewing their rivals’ work.

That may sound like a contradiction in terms, but just bear with me for a couple of secs …

If you look above, you’ll see a billboard advert for Chris Ould’s very enjoyable Killing Bay; you’ll also see that it’s carrying a quotation from my good self. Now, that billboard is located on London Bridge, one of the most heavily utilised thoroughfares in the capital. It’s a truly great showcase for Chris Ould, but it’s not a bad showcase for me either. In fact, this has been happening quite a lot in the last few months. As you’ll see, just to make the point, I’ve liberally peppered today’s blog with advertising graphics professionally produced by publishers for their authors, which all carry snippets from reviews I’ve given them.

I’m sure you can all envisage the advantage I gain from this.

Of course, we don’t review fellow authors’ works specifically because we hope this will happen. It isn’t, and can never be, a guaranteed way to get your name into the public eye, because quite often you’ll never hear about said review again, let alone see it on a giant billboard in the heart of London. But as you can see, if/when that does happen, even though the main focus is on another writer’s book, it certainly helps get the message out that you too are a person of note.


But even if you don’t even get close to such an honour, posting positive reviews about works you’ve enjoyed is never a waste of time. It’s to all our advantage if our genre of choice is healthy and busy, and if the public are enthusiastically buying the kinds of books we write. And then, if there is a symbiotic offshoot, because other authors and their editors are so grateful to see our positive comments that they return the compliment, all the better, eh?

It’s not as if leaving reviews is a difficult procedure these days. We don’t all have to do what I do, which is write lengthy blogs. Online retailers like Amazon, and review sites like Goodreads, enable us to leave quick, short paragraphs in praise of those books we’ve enjoyed. And it frustrates me no end when I talk to fellow authors who somehow can never find the time to do this. Ultimately, I feel certain that their own careers would benefit if they could only make this minor effort a little more often.


Anyway, that’s my lecture for the week over with. Let’s concentrate next on CRIMEFEST 2017, which as always, is located at the Marriott Royal in Bristol, and this year runs from May 18-21.

For those not in the know, Bristol CrimeFest is one of the biggest and best crime-writing events in the UK. In short, it’s a convention for crime and thriller readers – not just the fanatics, but those with a passing interest as well – and it provides a big draw for novelists, publishers, editors, agents, reviewers and bloggers from around the world.

As well as the annual gala dinner, its programme comprises interviews with guest authors, one-to-one manuscript assessments, pitching sessions with agents, and over 40 panels featuring crime fiction figures from all corners of the genre. But the tone is never less than informal, friendly and very inclusive. You pop along there as a reader and you spot your favourite crime/thriller author in the hotel corridor, don’t hesitate to stop him/her for a quick chat – that’s what we’re there for. 

Special guests this year include authors Ann Cleeves, Anthony Horowitz and Peter Lovesey, artist Tom Adams and Agatha Christie expert and archivist, John Curran.

I attend CrimeFest every year these days, but have more responsibility than usual in 2017, as I’m participating in two panels. First of all, on Thursday May 18 at 3.50pm, I’ll be in the more than capable hands of L.A. Larkin (see today’s book review!), when she moderates The Hunter Hunted: Running For Your Life. And I’ll be on that panel in some very august company: Stefan Ahnhem, Felix Francis and Antti Tuomainen. But more nerve-rackingly still, I’ll be chairing my own panel on Friday May 19, at 9am: How Many Deaths? The  Appeal of the Serial Killer in Crime Fiction. On the table with me for this one are Helen Fields, James Carol, Mark Roberts and Leigh Russell.

If nothing else, I can safely predict that we’re going to have a lot of fun.

Not everyone can make it to Bristol, I know … but if you are there and you fancy a quick natter, just nudge my shoulder and I’ll be happy to gossip for a bit.


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.

DEVOUR
by L.A. Larkin (2016)

After a high-risk assignment in Afghanistan’s poppy-growing region, on the trail of a terrorist network, energetic investigative-journalist, Olivia Wolfe – who is no stranger to danger, but even by her normal rip-roaring standards only just returns from this trip with her life and limbs intact – is dispatched by her demanding editor, Moz Cohen, to the even more perilous realm of western Antarctica.

At first, she isn’t keen. It doesn’t sound like her normal field: a team from the British Antarctic Survey drilling down through fathoms of concrete-hard ice in a quest to discover samples of prehistoric life that may still be lurking in subglacial Lake Ellsworth … until she learns that her real mission is to investigate the various ‘accidents’ that are befalling the BAS crew at their research station, including an unexplained and rather horrible death, which more than likely was murder.

This is more up Wolfe’s street, but the situation is complicated by an unseen but menacing presence at home, a mysterious stalker, pursuing her both in reality and online, who barely leaves a trace of himself but is always undeniably there. Who this person is, and why he/she may have a beef with Wolfe is a complex thing to ascertain: there are plenty of people with reason to punish a journalist who has uncovered their dirty dealings in the past. At the same time, of course, Wolfe has to head down to the bottom of the world, to find out whatever she can about the problems facing the BAS.

This, in itself, is no picnic. The difficult conditions of the Antarctic and an engineering/scientific team who, though on the surface they seem quite normal, soon start to reveal stresses and strains among their ranks, combine to make Wolfe’s job a real challenge. While team-leader Professor Michael Heatherton is a time-served professional, dedicated to his cause and with no apparent interests other than a pursuit of knowledge, other members of the group are more secretive, in particular the intense and rather introverted Scottish scientist, Toby Sinclair.

On top of that, she learns that a rival Russian expedition to nearby Lake Vostok, whose mission failed when the lake was polluted by inadequate drilling processes, are now trying to bribe and bully their way into the British effort, which, in Wolfe’s eyes, puts them high on the suspect list – not least the most menacing member of the Russian party, Sergey Grankin, who is almost certainly a government agent. It also raises questions, particularly among the rest of the British team, about naturalised Brit but Russian-born engineer, Vitaly Rushkov; he is one of their own colleagues, at least superficially, but though Wolfe finds him attractive, he also frustrates her because he won’t reveal enough about himself to win her trust.

The tension is ramped up even more – to breakneck pace in fact, when the British team succeed in their quest, breaking through into the subterranean lake – an incredible three kilometres below the ice – and discovering something that hasn’t seen the light of day for millions upon millions of years; something so appalling that it has the potential to completely destroy modern society.

Needless to say, in the time-honoured fashion of greedy world-powers both fictional and real, it isn’t long before various shady forces are competing for control of this monstrous thing.

Even from this relatively early stage of the novel, it is difficult to reveal any more of the actual synopsis for fear of giving away spoilers, but suffice to say that, even when Wolfe returns to London, she finds herself in the midst of a deadly conflict, with numerous vying interests turning the city into a war-zone, and even the little she has already discovered making her into a prime target. Wolfe has developed lots of good contacts in her time, but even two of the best on her home turf – former top cop, Jerry Butcher, something of a father to her, and the infinitely shadier DCI Dan Casburn – are of minimal help; they may even be a hindrance as she tries to battle her way through a tangled web of confusing lies and life-threatening deceit, only to uncover a shocking and terrifying truth …  
              
If you like your thrillers to have an international scope, then this one is definitely for you. Devour is a wide-ranging, continent-spanning adventure played out in tough, no-nonsense fashion against a latter-day Cold War-type atmosphere. But don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re in 007 territory here. There is a high-tech dimension to Devour for sure, but there is also an aura of realism. We’re not talking ridiculous gadgetry, improbable skills and mind-boggling schemes for world-domination. New heroine, Olivia Wolfe, though she herself is a more than competent globe-trotter and thoroughly au fait with all the latest communications devices, is also very human, which is her most appealing aspect.

In fact, Devour’s greatest strength for me – considering that it’s painted on such an immense canvas – is that it’s all very plausible.

I’d go as far as to say that it’s terrifyingly plausible.

To start with, there is a real sense of danger in this book, and I don’t just mean the horrific force lurking in the sub-Antarctic depths (more about that later), but also from our heroine’s various antagonists. Whoever’s on your tail in Devour, whether they be opium lords, terrorists or security service personnel gone rogue (or even not gone rogue – just doing their government’s dirty work at full throttle!) – you soon get to learn that they are experts at what they do; it’ll only ever be a page or so before they catch up with you. It also becomes plain at an early stage that none of these heinous individuals are playing by the rules of chivalry.

Oh yes, there is some real brutality on show here. Everything about Devour is harsh, gritty and real. Its central characters spend much of it in a state of fear, particularly the civilian scientists who never imagined that their ground-breaking research could have caused such chaos, not to mention Wolfe herself, who soon learns that even if she emerges from this adventure unscathed, her life as she knew it will be over. Several times there are references to people who simply disappear, or run the risk of disappearing – in L.A. Larkin’s world, the niceties of international law just don’t apply when such threats as this endanger the planet, and I, for one, am more than prepared to believe that could be true.

Even routine activities, such as travelling, are given a rugged makeover. We’re talking long plane journeys, soulless waystations, the extreme geophysical conditions of the Arctic, not to mention a drab and wintry London which itself has the potential to endanger life – for example, in one scene, Wolfe gets soaking wet and as it’s December, it isn’t long before she’s struggling with hypothermia. At the same time, death means death; during an early sojourn to Afghanistan, she witnesses the shooting of a young woman, and it haunts her afterwards; she sees it playing through her head again and again.

These are the uber-realistic touches that we simply don’t get in run-of-the-mill thrillers, and Larkin hits us with them repeatedly, as if saying: “This is what it means, this is how it would actually be if you were to genuinely participate in this world”.

And I totally loved it, almost as much as I loved the central character.

Olivia Wolfe is an excellent heroine. She may not be the sort who can take waves of bad guys apart with her bare hands, or jump from plane to train to motorbike and still make it to her favourite restaurant in time for dinner. She may be a martial artist of sorts, but she gets battered, she gets hurt, she gets frightened. However, her main asset is that she is a skilled and highly driven investigative journalist. She hasn’t just got a nose for a great story, no matter how far afield it may lie, she has the determination and wherewithal to get there in time to cover it. But she has a survival instinct too. In anticipation of the dangers she will face, she is technically proficient, and perhaps more importantly, an exceptional judge of character, knowing instinctively who to trust and who to suspect.

In some ways, this may make her a tad unsympathetic. All the way through, she has an on/off romantic relationship with the Russian engineer, Yushkov, and yet she maintains an antipathy towards him too because … well, mainly because he’s Russian, and in this book the Russians are generally up to no good. It reaches a stage where as a reader it almost becomes tiresome, and yet that’s the point. Olivia Wolfe has survived as long as she has because she’s smarter than we are. She has really played this game, whereas we haven’t.

If I’m giving the impression that this is an edgier-than-usual book, that’s probably accurate. It’s no romp, that’s for sure. But this slap-in-the-face factor serves two purposes: it makes you believe it absolutely, and it keeps you glued to the pages – as, of course, does the overarching, and vaguely monstrous – concept.

On that subject, it would be easy, if you’d only read the blurbs, to think that what you’ve got here is something akin to John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? (filmed as The Thing from Another World). And why not? Something nasty is lurking under the polar ice, a bunch of well-meaning scientists discover it and thaw it out, only to find that it’s a force beyond Man’s experience, which imperils the Earth as a result. And if it sounds like science fiction, there may be an element of that, though I draw your attention to the real attempt by British scientists to drill down to Lake Ellsworth in 2012, which failed (maybe fortuitously, or maybe it was halted – who can say?). But it’s all still incredibly plausible. I’m not going to give out any spoilers concerning the nature of the thing, but it’s truly horrifying because, even if surprises you – which it did me – you can very quickly envisage the colossal destruction that would result.

In addition, the novel is underlined with in-depth research – no B-movie stuff, this. LA Larkin, an Antarctic explorer in her own right, handles the biological and engineering complexities of the mission to the South Pole and the follow-up investigations with the same authority and conviction that she does the political intrigue and secret service chicanery, and yet weaves it all seamlessly into the narrative and the dialogue so that at no point do we feel we’re being hit by a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia.

It all makes for a totally believable and completely enthralling techno/eco thriller, perhaps with a few dollops of psycho horror mixed in for good measure (because let’s not forget that there’s an equally formless, equally dangerous threat to Olivia Wolfe lurking at home).

An all-round, superbly-crafted reading experience, which just screams for your attention.

And now, as usual and just for laughs, I’m going to nominate my own cast should Devour ever make it to the screen (and in this era of conspiracy thrillers and girl heroes, I reckon now would be the perfect time). Anyway, here are my picks:

Olivia Wolfe – Emily Blunt
Michael Heatherton – Tim McInnerny
Vitaly Yushkov – Igor Petrenko
Toby Sinclair – Alan Cumming
DCI Dan Casburn – Mark A. Sheppard
Jerry Butcher – Hugh Laurie
Mozart Cohen – Ian McShane
Sergey Grankin – Vladimir Mashkov

2 comments:

  1. Paul, thank you for such a great review and I am delighted at your comment about Devour's plausibility and Wolfe being a real person who may be resourceful, but who gets hurt. Truly insightful. And I absolutely agree with your cast of actors if Devour were a movie, especially Emily Blunt as Wolfe, except perhaps the character of Moz Cohen who I see more as a Rupert Everett role. He's tall and would do a great job of the biting sarcasm!

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  2. Godo shout, Louisa re. RE. Thanks for the response. Glad you enjoyed the review.

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