Sunday, 14 January 2018

Seeing 2018 through should be a real blast


Okay, I hope everyone had a great Christmas, and happy New Year to you all. I trust you’re all ready to tackle 2018 with the vim and vigour required. Personally, I’m looking for an explosive year, this year – though, by that, I should state that I mean in book terms.

KISS OF DEATH, the seventh DS Heckenburg novel, is published in August this year, and I can promise you now, it’s going to be a big ’un – in every sense of the word. But more about that in a few paras. Also on the subject of explosive thriller fiction, I’m kicking off the New Year by reviewing Terry Hayes’s mesmerising I AM PILGRIM, one of the best international actioners I’ve read in a long, long time.

As usual, you’ll find that review towards the lower end of today’s blog. If that’s all you’re here for, be my guest and skip down there to check it out straight away. But if you’ve got a few minutes to spare first, hang around here, because I’ll also be including a guest-blog I wrote for the FOR WINTER NIGHTS blog back in April last year, in which the question was put to me: What Seven Things Should You Know if You Want to Write Crime Fiction?

But before that …

Though I say it, myself

Even though I say so, myself, KISS OF DEATH is going to be a major event in the Mark Heckenburg story.

Those who’ve followed Heck’s investigations from the beginning (the first one, STALKERS, was published by Avon at HarperCollins way back in February 2013) will be aware that he is now at the end of his thirties, but still, despite some jumping about en route, a detective sergeant with the Serial Crimes Unit, which in its turn is part of Scotland Yard’s National Crime Group.

It wouldn’t be true to say that Heck has had a chequered career, thus far; he’s had some great results, but there’ve been fireworks too. This is partly down to his penchant for going it alone, bending the rules and taking chances. However, if you haven’t read Heck yet, don’t go away from that under the impression that he’s a British version of Dirty Harry. Heck is not some humourless bully or cold-blooded killer. He’s affable and easy-going, but only with ASHES TO ASHES (the sixth outing), did we fully become aware just how affected and damaged he is by events in his early past.

Fortunately, he’s always had Gemma Piper to lean on. His ex-girlfriend, who once worked with him as a fellow detective constable at Bethnal Green police station, Gemma has since rocketed to police superstardom and is now the detective superintendent in charge of the Serial Crimes Unit (SCU). They still care a lot for each other, but they don’t often show it, this unspoken chemistry leading them to fight like cat and dog over matters of procedure and morality. Gemma, the ultimate straight-player, is adamant that she will keep Heck on the straight and narrow, while Heck is equally adamant that what Gemma doesn’t get to know about his more ‘out there’ investigations will never actually hurt her.

From an authorial point of view, it’s a relationship between my two lead characters which has worked very well, and which I think has given the ongoing story-arc depth and impetus. Whether two people in real life could exist in this constant state of love/war, especially when they are pursuing some of the most vicious and relentless killers in Britain, is another matter, but hey, this is fiction.

When we get to KISS OF DEATH, though, the whole of the Serial Crimes Unit, not just Heck and Gemma, is under a degree of pressure it has never known before.

It’s 2018 of course, and the austerity that has denuded the police service of so many front-line officers and whittled away at specialist departments has finally come to the National Crime Group. NCG Director, Joe Wullerton, argues daily with the National Police Chief’s Council for the continuation of his department, which does not just track serial killers through SCU, but also contains the Kidnap Squad and the Organised Crime Division. When he puts it to the powers-that-be that to close NCG would be to drastically reduce the police forces of England and Wales’ effectiveness in their fight against the most heinous criminals and their gangs, there is sympathy – but sympathy alone doesn’t pay bills.

Feeling that some pro-action is required on her part, Gemma Piper opts to join forces with the Metropolitan Police’s Cold Case Team who are also facing the axe, and proposes the creation of a temporary task-force dedicated to pursuing the twenty worst British offenders still on the loose, with a remit to get rapid and impressive results.

With the clock ticking, Heck finds himself in partnership with Detective Constable Gail Honeyford, a new recruit to SCU (though he worked with her once before in HUNTED, 2015), and someone he likes for her spirit and nous, but whom he also finds bolshy and hot-headed. Their particular target is Ed Creeley, a notorious bank-robber and many-times murderer, who went to ground in 2014 and hasn’t been seen since, though he is still believed to be at large in the UK. Their pursuit of this pitiless hoodlum takes them all over the country, from Humberside to the East End of London, and eventually even to Cornwall, all the way encountering ever more reprehensible villains, ever greater dangers, and increasingly, uncovering clues that something absolutely appalling is happening the United Kingdom – as yet unknown to the British authorities, but which, when they finally discover it, will literally rock SCU (and most other police agencies) to the foundations.

*

And now for something a little bit different …

As I mentioned earlier, I wrote a guest blog-post for FOR WINTER NIGHTS last April to accompany the publication of ASHES TO ASHES. It seemed to go down very well, so, for those of you who didn’t see it the first time, here is is again:

What seven things should you know if you want to write crime fiction?

Well, it’s an interesting question, and certainly one I haven’t been asked before. Off the top of my head, I can think of seven things it might be useful for you to know. I wouldn’t say that these are the seven most important things, but it probably wouldn’t do you any harm to be forearmed, as they say. So here we go…

1) Guilt goes with the territory

This may seem a curious thing to say, but it reflects reality. By its nature, crime and thriller writing deals with the darker end of the human experience. It won’t just be routine wickedness you are exploring. Whether your lead characters are heroes or villains, they’ll be dicing with danger, skating along the edge of the abyss, doing all kinds of things that law-abiding citizens in normal life never would. Now, if you want your writing to be authentic, you’ve got to go the extra mile to ensure that you get the facts of these matters correct.

That will entail lots of online research into areas you wouldn’t usually go anywhere near, such as the formation and organisation of criminal empires, the methods and modus operandi of serial killers, the anatomies of the world’s most successful bank robberies and/or assassination plots, the use and availability of illegal firearms, the impact upon human bodies of poison, nerve gas, biological weaponry, the formation of police investigation teams and the emergency procedures they follow, the complexities of drugs-trafficking, the risk and probability of terrorist attacks, and the depth and breadth of those security shields that protect western cities against such catastrophic threats.

All of this is going to make fascinating reading, of course, for a security expert should he/she ever have call to examine your online activity. You will have the excuse that you’re a crime writer and that it’s all part of the game, but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel a tad nervous when you’re indulging in it.

2) You’ll be challenged on facts

Never has the phrase ‘facts matter’ been more relevant than it is to the average crime/thriller writer. One of the most basic problems you have as an author in this field is that you’re straying into a fascinating, complex world which also, rather inconveniently, happens to be real. So, for example, you may be delving into law enforcement with all the procedures, protocols and legalities inherent to that. If you think that’s tough, you may also find yourself concerned with military matters, or security issues involving international law, the intelligence services and/or spec ops deployment. Medical and forensics questions will almost certainly arise; you may need to discuss weapons, explosives and the like. But the real problem is that you’ll likely encounter real-life people in your everyday world who have expertise in these fields, and if you get things wrong, they may call you to account – sometimes in public.

While it’s not incumbent on you to become a guru in these matters, it would certainly help if you did some basic research. Whatever you do, don’t wing it.

(I will add that it won’t matter quite so much with the likes of MI6 and/or the SAS, as they’ll never comment anyway, and almost certainly will be delighted if you spread misinformation about their techniques).

3) You can chat to those who know

Library and internet research may help you factually, but it’s often a dry process and is unlikely to hit you from left-field with cool new ideas. In contrast, speaking to someone who’s actually done unusual things in his/her life can be much more fruitful. And the good thing is, with the exception of those ultra-secret organisations I mention above, most members of the security services are happy to chat about it, though they only tend to do so if approached … so don’t feel awkward about trying to pick their brains.

Police officers or ex-police officers are particularly good in this regard. I have a slight advantage here as an ex-copper, in that they may feel they can trust me more with the really juicy stuff, but I’d be surprised if the majority weren’t willing to have a chat with any writer. There may be certain areas they won’t go if they don’t already know you, but on the whole I think they’ll be willing to talk widely and informatively about their job. Never make the assumption that they’ll think you’re silly. They won’t. Many coppers I know also read crime fiction, while others would like to write – to immortalise their own exploits – but can’t, and so become very protective of writers they form relationships with, as they see that as the next best thing.

4) It is not a solitary profession

The semi-mythical image of the writer slugging on alone in his/her attic, virtually penniless and with no one to call a friend, particularly does NOT apply to the crime/thriller writer. I mean, I can’t comment on the ‘penniless’ bit – that all depends on your personal circs, but you DO have friends.

In all the literary fields, I’ve never known anywhere where the networking between practitioners is quite as vibrant as it is in crime and thrillers. There are literally hundreds of authors writing this material at professional level, both at home and overseas, and they’re all doing exactly the same things you are: hammering away at their keyboards, proof-reading, flipping through websites on the research trail, chatting things over with their agents and editors – and not always to their personal satisfaction. More importantly, thanks to the internet, most of these men and women are now connected. There are all kinds of online crime-writer clubs you can join, places where friendships are made, experiences aired and info shared (including info about which publisher has a new slot available, or which editor is looking for what, which can be very useful indeed). This is a great way to relieve pressure, because it shows that you aren’t the only person struggling with writer’s block, or character development, or just with the sheer physical effort of trying to finish a full-length novel inside a tight deadline. Likewise, there are many crime fiction conventions and festivals you can attend, and crime-writing societies you can join. A burden shared is a burden halved and all that, on top of which a lively social life, especially when it’s crammed with folk who all share the same interest as you, can only improve your quality of life.

5) Readers can take as much as you can give them

Don’t be lulled into thinking that, just because certain sub-genres within the overarching genre of crime writing are cosier than others – a good example being the ‘village green murder mystery’ – you have to handle your readers with kid gloves. In short, it’s quite the opposite.

One of the best examples of village green-style crime fiction in the modern day is the TV series, Midsomer Murders, and look at the body-counts in that, not to mention the various methods of dispatch. We’ve seen people killed with farm-tools, sliced, diced, decapitated, churned up by combine harvesters. One poor chap was beaten to death with cricket balls fired at him out of a batting machine. Crime readers, whatever style they prefer, are generally speaking a ghoulish bunch, who are here to enjoy a dalliance with the darkness. So, don’t hold back. As long as you don’t deal with death in juvenile fashion, you can, on the whole, pile on the grimness and violence. I mean, personally I’m a great believer in less being more, but I don’t think you can pussy-foot around the subject of murder, especially in this modern age when ‘true crime’ is so popular – and there ain’t nothing gorier than ‘true crime’.

So, if you feel you need to lay it on, don’t worry about the sensibilities of your readers. Lay it on.

6) Crime writing is a very broad church (no pun intended)

So many people who don’t read crime/thriller fiction have complete misconceptions about it. They immediately think Agatha Christie and the traditional English whodunnit. That is undeniably there and is very popular.

Sidney Chambers, the crime-fighting village vicar of James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries, still embodies something of that atmosphere, and his adventures sell widely. But there are other fields too. Our fictional crime-fighters, like crime-fighters in real life, vary across the spectrum – from sticklers for procedure and crusaders of correctness to embittered louts who are never any better than they need to be and subsequently walk tightropes through a world of crime and sleaze. It doesn’t even stop there; often we use hardboiled PIs as our models, the smart-mouthed heroes created by James Crumley, Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler, who are no strangers to the seediest worlds imaginable and will play by any rules to win. Sometimes the villains themselves are our central characters. The violent gangland thrillers of Ted Lewis, Malcolm Mackay and Howard Linskey perfectly exemplify this.

So, there you have it; we range from those quintessential leafy villages in the heart of Middle England to urban hells populated by addicts, prostitutes, contract killers and corrupt politicians. Oh yes, we’ve got it all. Feel free to explore at random.

7) There is no requirement to write on the side of good

As I intimated in earlier paragraphs, we are not, as authors, bound by real-world morality.

For my money, one of the best crime thrillers ever written is Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis, which was published in 1970 but filmed in 1971, perhaps more famously, as Get Carter. It tells the tale of a mobster from the North of England who makes good in London, but when his brother is murdered back home, gets on a train in a quest for gangland justice. What follows is a brutal, gritty noir filled with anger and darkness, and in the character of Jack Carter, it gives us an amoral and uncompromising hero, a cold-blooded hardman who is only different from the evil hoodlums he finds himself gunning for because his personal code of ethics is marginally more admirable than theirs.

But hey, this again reflects reality. You’ve doubtless heard the phrase ‘it takes a wolf to catch a wolf’. Well, we crime authors mustn’t be ashamed of putting that into practice. Morally ambiguous heroes are often far more interesting than those goodie two-shoes of the old school. In any case, as I say… this is fiction, not real life, so it doesn’t matter anyway. If that’s what you want to do with your book, go for it.

*

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.

I AM PILGRIM 
by Terry Hayes (2014)

‘Pilgrim’, aka ‘Jude Garrett’, ‘Scott Murdoch’, ‘Pete Campbell’ and in inner spy circles, the ‘Rider of the Blue’, is the enigmatic man who wrote the ultimate manual on forensic analysis. He’s also the offspring of a murder victim and the adopted son and heir to a New England multi-billionaire, while, career-wise, he’s a US intelligence agent, who, even though he’s still very young, is so formidably skilled and experienced, and boasts such an exemplary track record (which included his termination of a powerful and highly dangerous double-agent based in Moscow) that it has earned him the ear of US presidents.

Technically speaking, however, it’s all over for Pilgrim. He’s done, retired, looking forward to a life of bohemian anonymity in the garrets and backstreets of Paris.

But then, over in Manhattan, Detective Ben Bradley, locates the body of a murdered woman whose corpse has been completely depersonalised by the very same CIA-inspired methods that Pilgrim specified in his seminal book, her teeth removed, her fingerprints and facial features erased with acid, and all traces of the killer’s DNA obliterated by judicious use of antiseptic.

Pilgrim – though he isn’t going by that moniker at this early stage – is a lonely and tortured individual, whose empathetic nature was at the root of his seeking an alternative career, and who yearns to forget his past, though now he is inevitably forced back onto the job to assist Bradley’s investigation. After that, it isn’t long before he finds himself embroiled in a connected but much larger and potentially massively more devastating case … which takes us neatly onto I Am Pilgrim’s other main thread, the personal and political development of an ambitious and determined terrorist, who will also go by a conveniently simple nickname: ‘Saracen’.

After a deprived boyhood in the repressed police state that is Saudi Arabia, which culminates in his having to watch the public decapitation of his father for the unforgivable offence of criticising his nation’s rulers, Saracen finds himself growing up with a fierce hatred for the Saudi royal family, and perhaps inevitably (and far more zealously), for their most committed western ally, the United States of America.

A fully trained doctor by adulthood, but increasingly immersed in the more extremist tenets of Islam, Saracen eventually falls out with what remains of his family (his mother needing to get a job is the final straw!), and he leaves home determined to join the jihadi fight, which he does with a vengeance, soon finding kinship with the Taliban and entering the war in Afghanistan as a soldier of God.

However, Saracen, much like Pilgrim (though this is the only similarity between them), is an obsessive intellectual of his craft, and the winning of minor battles and launching of successful but relatively insignificant terrorist outrages feels like small potatoes. Eager to carry his war into the very heart of his enemy’s domain, and if possible, to destroy it completely, the only solution, as Saracen sees it, is to develop and deploy a bio-weapon of such magnitude that the might of the US will simply collapse beneath its onslaught.

He settles on a new, vaccine-proof and horrendously contagious strain of the smallpox virus (which he unleashes on a batch of human test-subjects in what is surely one of the ghastliest scenes that’s ever been committed to paper).

Back in the States, Pilgrim and his various government informers don’t get wind of this fiendish plot straight away, but when they do, a twisting, turning, continent-hopping duel commences, which ranges from the US to Europe to Asia and the Middle East, taking in a variety of amazing locations en route, including Syria, Switzerland, Bahrain, the bleak, savage mountains of the Hindu Kush, and a hypnotically beautiful Roman ruin on the edge of the glimmering blue Aegean. Ironically, Pilgrim and Saracen don’t meet until near the end of the book, but this doesn’t stop either of them engaging in numerous conflicts on the way, via flashback and subplot and through various proxies, though ultimately we finish up in a shattering, race-against-the-clock, one-on-one climax, which, if I was to say more about it here would be the ultimate spoiler …     

The Guardian said of I Am Pilgrim that it’s ‘the only thriller you need to read this year’. Speaking as a gobbler-up of thrillers, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I do know what they mean. Everything about Terry Hayes’s astonishing debut novel is epic: its size, its concept, its cast of characters, its range of locations, its terrifying and exhilarating action sequences, and even its subtext, which is huge if fairly simple: those with greater power and wisdom than most must shoulder greater responsibility than most, and their not wanting to is basically irrelevant (not that they may necessarily have a choice in the matter).

This is big stuff all the way through, a colossal struggle between two born-to-it masters of their trade, neither of whom will ever take a backward step because they know no other way, and all played out against the majestic canvas of Europe and the Middle East in the age of wide-ranging espionage and terrorism.

On this basis alone, it might be understandable if some readers were put-off exploring this novel any further, perhaps suspecting an all-too-familiar mishmash of James Bond and Jason Bourne. But that would be an error, because I Am Pilgrim is an astonishing, multi-layered tale of conflict and belief, which is vivid, realistic and totally gripping for the entire duration of its 600 plus pages.

It’s no surprise at all that Hollywood has already got its hooks into it.

That isn’t to say that it hasn’t come in for criticism in certain quarters. The sheer length of the book has been described as OTT, while its excessive detail and numerous side-stories have been called self-indulgent and time-wasting. But I take strong issue with that. Despite the length of I Am Pilgrim, the pace never flags, the story never sags, and the suspense is overflowing – Hayes’s writing style is not exactly stripped down, but it makes for a fast, easy read, and I got through the whole novel in three days (in which case, a book can surely be as long as it wants to be).

Likewise, I have no truck with the argument that I Am Pilgrim is a lesson in what might happen if the US isn’t much more interventionist and belligerent in its overseas policies, and more willing to play dirty when it comes to espionage. Unfortunately, we do exist in an age of relentless terrorism, so while it could be argued that this book is alarmist in its tone, it’s a thriller – so it’s supposed to be, and it’s hardly telling us that something terrible could happen which we haven’t already imagined for ourselves. But to call that a demand for much more bullying and rule-breaking by the intelligence services is no more applicable than it would be to Bond movies or superhero comics in which the lead characters ignore almost every rule of law in their pursuit of megalomaniac villains.

Which brings us onto the characters, themselves.  
               
Pilgrim as an unusually vulnerable hero in the world of secret agents. And by that, I don’t just mean that he’s a guy with a faux conscience, one of these unconvincing characters who even in the midst of hardline law enforcement, is continually moved to remind us that he shares the peace-loving, socio-liberal values of the author. Pilgrim is much more rounded than that. Yes, he is regularly forced to make ruthless decisions, many of which he believes in, but he has genuinely always tried to perform his duty in a way that is least destructive, and much of his day-to-day life is overshadowed by memories of the lives he has taken. When he finds himself working side-by-side with the Saudi secret police, he is fascinated and appalled in equal measure by their casual disregard for human rights. Throughout the book, his desire to take an early retirement, to do something more useful with his life, is all-pervading, even though he strongly doubts that someone of his expertise would ever be allowed to. What this leaves us with is a very believable character, who authentically suffers, both physically and emotionally, and who, even though his ‘trust fund’ background has been knocked by certain picky critics – he’s been disparagingly referred to as ‘Bruce Wayne mark II’ – remains much more complex and intriguing than Batman, Bond or Bourne have ever been.  

Meanwhile, as villain-in-chief (though he’s only one of many, in truth), Saracen is also a marvellous piece of writing. Rarely in western thriller fiction have I encountered a Middle Eastern terrorist, who – while it wouldn’t be true to say we sympathise with – we understand as much in terms of his motivations. Saracen’s transformation into a fanatic is a slow, painful process (and we accompany him much of the way), during which the seeds of fundamentalist hatred are not so much sewn into him, as hammered, by countless cruelties and injustices which any rational person would yearn to put right. It’s very easy in our world to dismiss jihadi grievances as an overblown excuse for out-and-out wickedness, but after reading I Am Pilgrim, you’ll think as the hero does: know your enemy – and know him well, or risk paying a deadly price. 

I have no hesitation in declaring I Am Pilgrim one of the best espionage thrillers I’ve ever read. It’s got everything: action, suspense, intrigue, mystery, villains you love to hate and heroes you are rooting for every inch of their breathless journey. An amazing novel.

As I mentioned before, Hollywood is already developing I Am Pilgrim, and in fact – or so the rumour-mongers insist – may even be planning to launch it as the pilot for a brand-new franchise. Ordinarily, that would render any fantasy casting by me completely pointless, but I’ve looked around online, and I haven’t seen a cast-list yet, so as usual, I’m going to be bold (stupid?) enough to suggest my own:

Pilgrim – Edward Norton
Saracen – Murat Yildirim
Det. Leyla Cumali – Beren Saat
Lt. Ben Bradley – Denzel Washington
Marcie Bradley – Angela Basset
David ‘Whispering Death’ McKinley – James Woods
Ingrid Kohl – Alexandra Daddario
Cameron Dodge – Evan Peters
Battleboi – Eric Stonestreet
President James Grosvenor – Stephen Tobolowsky
Bill Murdoch – Paul Giamatti
Dr Sydney – Bryan Browne

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