Sunday, 11 February 2018

Out and about in 2018: the big diary dates

Okay, we’re well into 2018 now, and that semi-surreal period around Christmas and New Year feels as if it’s a long, long way behind us. Time now to get on with this year’s events. So, today I intend to talk about my calendar for the next few months, and the various public appearances I’ll be making, and the circumstances surrounding them. Sorry, if that sounds a little self-indulgent, but quite honestly, it’s in response to questions I get asked a lot – about when I’ll be out and about, when I’ll be able to sign books for people, and the like.

Also today, I’ll be reviewing and discussing a very different kind of crime thriller, Andrew Taylor’s compelling historical murder mystery, THE ASHES OF LONDON.

As usual, you’ll find that review towards the lower end of today’s blogpost. Before we get there, as I threatened, here are some dates and venues that might be of interest if you ever feel like saying ‘hello’ face-to-face.

Be aware that this is probably an incomplete list at this stage. There may well be one or two cancellations, and there will certainly be one or two additions. In that regard, the only advice I can give is stay tuned, watch this space, etc etc.

On March 24, I’m honoured to be a guest at The Quad in Derby, where the Horror Writers Association will present PARTNERS IN CRIME.

Through exclusive interviews, informative panel discussions and expert talks, attendees will be able to learn more about crime fiction’s edgier side, examining how thrillers have become darker, how serial killer fiction now tends to form a natural bridge between the two genres, and asking the question is there a place for the supernatural in crime fiction?, and if so, how can authors can benefit from this ever more visible overlap?

There will also be the usual opportunities to purchase books and get them signed, and to socialise with authors and publishers.

At this stage, I’ll be involved in the following panel chats: I, Monster: Has the Serial Killer replaced the monster in modern dark literature? And: Taboo! How dark is too dark?

But of course, Partners in Crime isn’t just about me. Other guests include some fairly hefty names in the industry. Check these out: Stuart MacBrideFiona Cummins, AK Benedict, Steph Broadribb, Barry Forshaw, SJ Holliday, Joe Jakeman, David Mark and Roz Watkins.

May 17-20, I’ll be at CRIMEFEST in Bristol. For the first time in what seems like ages, I’m neither guesting on a panel nor chairing one during this festival, so I guess that means I’ll have more bar-time if anyone wants to chat.

For anyone who’s not been to CrimeFest (where the pen is bloodier than the sword), it’s a great event if you’re interested in crime fiction, either as a reader or a prospective writer – and it’s for occasional fans too, not just the die-hard fanatics. It’s certainly now become one of the biggest crime fiction events in Europe, and it’s no surprise that every year it draws top crime novelists, editors, publishers and reviewers from around the world, giving all delegates the opportunity to celebrate the genre in a friendly, informal and inclusive atmosphere.

The two guests-of-honour this year will likely have copies of their books on almost every crime enthusiast’s shelves: Lee Child and Jeffery Deaver.

On June 14, I’ll be at the CROSSING THE TEES Book Festival. This is a large-scale literary event organised by the library services of Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Redcar & Cleveland, and Darlington. It’s early days on this one so far, so I’ve not got any detail about my own role in this grand event yet, or a comprehensive list of the other guests, but  can guarantee that it will be worth attending at some point if you enjoy books. It runs from June 9-24, and includes all kinds of author events, workshops, lectures, readings, competitions and the like.

July 19-22, I’ll be making my annual trip to Harrogate for the THEAKSTON OLD PECULIAR CRIME WRITING FESTIVAL.

In short, this is one of the biggest of them all, and is a massive celebration of the genre, which has deservedly won huge international acclaim. The event is also known for its no barriers approach, as fans, writers – both newcomers and established superstars – agents, publishers and editors mingle in the hotel bar, bookshop and the huge pavilions set up in the grounds of the historic Swan Hotel in the leafy heart of Harrogate (pictured above).

Again, there’ll be panels, discussions, author interviews, interactive events and all kinds of activities in the bar areas. Perhaps the most attractive feature of the Harrogate event is the accessibility it provides to some of the biggest names in the business. For example, the first headliner announced for this year is powerhouse US author, Don Winslow (right).

That alone should be reason for many crime fans to flock there. But the main thing is, you can doorstop these guys and girls and simply chat to them. If they weren’t prepared for that, they wouldn’t be there. And of course, this can be even more useful if you’re a new writer looking for an agent or a publisher – because they are there to, and, whereas in real life, it’s often difficult to get any kind of meeting with these folks, at Harrogate all you need to do is say hello.

And say it to me as well, if you wish – because as I say, I’ll be mingling there with everyone else.

Two crime fiction events coming up in the latter half of the year, which I’m hopeful of attending – but not absolutely certain of this stage – are BLOODY SCOTLAND, the annual Caledonian Crime-Writing Festival, which is held in Stirling from September 21-23, and MORECAMBE & VICE, at the incredibly atmospheric venue of the Morecambe Winter Gardens on September 29-30.

Last on the diary (so far), but not by any means least, we have a slight change of pace, with FANTASYCON at Chester, October 19-21, when I’ll be wearing my horror hat.

For those not aware, Fantasycon is another of the great annual literary events, attended by writers both great and small, agents, editors, publishers and the like, though this one concentrates on fantasy fiction (which also includes horror and sci-fi). Given that this is late October, it’s a little early in the day for me to provide any details – either concerning guests of honour, specific events, book launches and the like, or what I myself will be doing there (most likely I’ll just be an everyday delegate, happy to hold up the bar and chat). Again, for more info, watch this space.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

THE ASHES OF LONDON
by Andrew Taylor (2017)

It is 1666 and London is burning. Apparently, it ignited by accident, but it’s burning nonetheless … from the Tower to the Temple Bar, the wailing populace struggling to escape as their homes and workshops succumb to the flames.

But even without the fire, these are turbulent times in England. After an exhausting civil war and then years of Cromwellian rule, the Stuarts are back on the throne in the form of the affable Charles II, but enemies of the crown are never far away. Puritan forces linger in the shadows, some more dangerous than others, such as the Fifth Monarchists, a fanatical clique who were not just involved in the execution of Charles I – ‘the Man of Blood’, as they called him – but who are also keen to see his son dead, thus clearing the way for the accession of ‘King Jesus’ and ushering in a reign of Heaven on Earth.

Against this difficult and dangerous background, what is one more death? But even in the midst of the fire, attention is captured by the discovery in the ruins of St Paul’s of a man who has been ritually assassinated, his thumbs tied together behind his back before he was stabbed.

The authorities have a bit too much on their plate to be overly interested in this, but it isn’t simply ignored, the investigation put into the hands of one James Marwood, a young man who on the outside doesn’t seem like much of a sleuth. Ostensibly, he’s an ordinary chap who is simply trying to make his way in the world, with zero interest in the affairs of state, but his is a more complicated path than most. The son of a republican activist who was ruined financially by the restoration of the monarchy, not to mention in terms of his reputation and health, James Marwood now works as a clerk for Joseph Williamson, chief propagandist for the Royal Court, in the pamphleteer office at Scotland Yard, where he is trusted but treated brusquely.

The authorities are well aware of James’s past, of course, and perhaps have employed him on the basis that it’s advisable to keep your friends close and your enemies closer still. But he now becomes even more useful for them. Detecting the hand of republican extremism in the recent murder, they assign James to the case because it’s deemed possible that his family may still have contacts in that secretive world.

At the same time, in what is initially a parallel storyline, we meet Catherine Lovett, or ‘Cat’ for short, the daughter to and heiress of Tom Lovett, a one-time Cromwellian soldier and ‘regicide’ – in other words he was directly involved in the execution of Charles I, and therefore can never be pardoned – who is currently in hiding. Almost oblivious to this background chicanery, Cat, who commences the book as an adventurous but on the whole fairly innocent girl, wants only to design buildings and study architecture, though alas, even these simple dreams are far from being realised. In the absence of her father, she is the unhappy ward of her wealthy aunt and uncle, Olivia and Henry Alderley, the latter of whom wants only to marry her off and be done with her. As if that isn’t distressing enough, Cat’s odious cousin Edward is increasingly interested in her, and when he finally rapes her, and she retaliates by half-blinding him, she flees into what remains of the smouldering city and seeks out a new (inevitably much harsher) life for herself. 

We know these personal journeys are going to entwine at some point, but The Ashes of London is such a plot-driven novel that to give any more detail at this stage would be the ultimate spoiler. Suffice to say that all kinds of skulduggery follows, James and Cat pursuing their own meandering and perilous paths through a world of intrigue as they are drawn steadily together.

In addition, endless fascinating and outrageous characters take the stage. Cat comes under the paternalistic spell of a kindly but ailing draughtsman, Hakesby, who, alongside the legendary Christopher Wren (who also makes an appearance), is charged with re-designing the burned-out cathedral. James, meanwhile, is introduced to the devious William Chiffinch, another real-life personality and one of Charles II’s most accomplished fixers. When the king himself arrives, it is in dramatic and amusing fashion, which is the way it should be, because though his is little more than a glorified guest-appearance, Charles II, as the embodiment of the Stuart royal line, remains essential to the narrative.

While all this is going on, of course, the murder plot thickens, the bodies piling up, Marwood’s suspicions spreading in all directions, particularly where high-end political machinations may be found (yes, this is a conspiracy thriller as much as a murder mystery). And all the way through there is a growing sense of jeopardy. Neither Cat nor James have such status that they command power, and even though James represents power, it is not always around to assist him when he needs it. So, it isn’t just the villains of the piece – an increasingly dangerous and deranged threat, we sense – who provide the menace. Bad things can befall almost anyone, for near enough any reason, if they poke their noses deep enough into the ashes of London …

The Great Fire of London is a disaster that is branded into the psyche of most Britons, even those who are not overly familiar with the historical period. It was a monumental event for all kinds of reasons, and a milestone in the emergence of the Modern Age, not least because it cleared away what remained of the old medieval city and allowed visionaries like Christopher Wren to build something vastly more advanced. But it’s important to remember that just because the city that burned was centuries old at the time, it was not some miniature wattle-and-thatch market-town, some tangle of narrow streets and muddy courts on the banks of the Thames. It was already colossal in size, a megalopolis that was home to 80,000 people, 70,000 of whom were rendered homeless by the 1666 disaster.

Little wonder this event was viewed at the time as a national catastrophe, especially because it came on the coat-tails of the Black Death, and so was viewed by religious extremists as part of a double-punishment imposed by God for the lax morality of the Restoration era.

Britain in the mid/late 17th century was certainly a cradle of fundamentalism, a land divided between various religious groups, (most of them Protestant, while Catholics were regarded as traitors who deserved to be lynched simply for being Catholic!). Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorial rule was over and the Royalists were back in power, but the Puritans had not gone away. Though most had officially been forgiven for their roles in the Civil War, countless gentleman still held positions of authority even though their loyalty was suspect, while remnants of the brutal Roundhead army lurked among the general populace, in some cases functioning like miniature crime syndicates. In a time and place when it was an offence just to hold an opinion, the king’s spies were everywhere. London was a city of informers, and no-one trusted anyone else.

And then the fire came, a conflagration quite literally – or so it seemed – from Hell.

And it is this epic sprawl of religious and political intrigue, not to mention the incendiary atmosphere of a truly pivotal moment in British history, that Andrew Taylor captures so perfectly in The Ashes of London. But don’t for one minute assume that this means it’s a history lesson. From the very beginning, this is a fast-moving mystery, with living and breathing characters striking sparks off each other as they wend their labyrinthine ways through a capital city (what’s left of it!) filled with danger and deception.

And yet the richness of historical detail is all here, blended seamlessly into plot and dialogue. For example, we come to understand the destructive power of the fire because when it’s over, we trudge the desert of cinders for ourselves. We see what a Machiavellian hive the Palace of Whitehall was because we view it, if not simply through the eyes of hero, James Marwood, who only ever receives information on a ‘need to know’ basis, but via the manners and methods of crafty functionaries like Williamson and Chiffinch. We understand what a focal point of English religious life the original Cathedral of St. Paul’s was because we feel the horror of the awe-stricken crowd as it goes up in flames.

This novel is an out-and-out feast for historical fiction fans, awakening that brief window of time more effectively than any number of textbooks I could name. But for those who are simply here for the thrill of an intense, clue-driven investigation, it won’t disappoint on that level either, telling us a fascinating detective story and setting it against a richly-coloured and yet easily accessible tableau of the past.

As alluded to earlier, it would be erroneous of me to give too much away about the plot as that would spoil the reading experience. It’s complex for sure, but deeply engrossing – you literally never know where the next twist is going to come from. And it helps, of course, that the lead characters are so engaging.

James and Cat, are far from being stock historical heroes, both completely aware of their standing in this unforgiving world, and yet each with their own quirks. The former commences the narrative in a lowly position, but he’s inquisitive by nature and inordinately perceptive, and he grows rapidly into his role of unofficial but opinionated Scotland Yard investigator. The latter is ripped from pillar to post by forces beyond her control, and suffers lasting damage as a result –a realistic appraisal, perhaps, of what it would actually mean to be ‘bodice-ripper’ heroine – and yet she remains feisty and spirited throughout, and at times maybe a little more than that; by the end of this novel, one wouldn’t want to cross Cat Lovett unnecessarily. 

The rest of the cast are equally striking, both the real and fictional mingling believably together, all drawn clearly and, perhaps in the way of true life, none of them especially more likeable than the next as they all ultimately look out for themselves. Most interesting of all, maybe, are James and Cat’s two fathers, men who very vividly represent the moral complexities of their age; both are driven by a sincere devotion to an idealised vision of Jesus, but they are heavily politicised too, and so battered by war and oppression that Christian sentiment rarely manifests itself in their actions. Though perhaps the deepest irony where Tom Lovett and old Marwood are concerned is that, given they are both Bible men, neither seems remotely aware of that most prescient warning of the good book: that the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children.

The Ashes of London is an enthralling and informative read. Elegantly written, deeply atmospheric of its period, and yet rapid-fire in terms of its unfolding action and events. I found it utterly compelling, and have no hesitation in giving it my highest recommendation.

As usual, I’m now going to attempt to cast it. This is just for fun, of course (as if any casting director would take note of my views). I have no idea if The Ashes of London is being lined up for film or TV adaptation, but it really ought to be. Here are the actors I would call:  

James Marwood – James Norton
Cat Lovett – Daisy Ridley
Hakesby – Geoffrey Rush
Williamson – Jim Carter
Chiffinch – Charles Dance
Henry Alderley – Jonathon Pryce
Olivia Alderley – Maria Bello
Old Marwood – Patrick Stewart
Tom Lovett – Bernard Hill             
Charles II – Julian Sands

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