|Name: LEIGH RUSSELL
Author of: COLD SACRIFICE (2013)
On the web: www.leighrussell.co.uk
On Twitter: @LeighRussell
Readers in the UK know me as an author of crime fiction, while for readers in the US I write murder mysteries. All the labels, classifications, categories and subcategories, are very confusing. Should I introduce myself as an author of murder mysteries or crime thrillers? detective novels or whodunnits? Do I write police procedurals or psychological thrillers? Like most crime novels, my books are a combination of all the subdivisions of the crime genre, all thrown into the melting pot: take one dark psyche, mix with a generous dollop of suspense, lace with mystery, throw in a detective, season with thrills, add a dash of police procedure, and leave to marinate.
What interests me is the wider question that lies beyond these specific categories. Why are some books classified as crime, when so many others are not identified with the genre. The division between crime writing and literary writing is so arbitrary. This was highlighted for me during the course of this blog tour, when I was asked to describe my ten favourite books.
‘Funny that none of these are crime fiction,’ my publicist responded.
At first I agreed, but looking at my list again, I wasn’t so sure. From Hamlet, with its eight murders including fratricide, and Macbeth with at least ten murders including regicide and infanticide, right up to The Kite Runner with its murder, paedophilia and genocide, almost all of the ten books on my list revolve around, or at least include, one or more serious crimes.
‘Funny that none of these are considered crime fiction,’ I replied.
This arbitrary division between the detective novel and literature is by no means peculiar to the crime genre. Other genres, like romance and sci-fi, are similarly regarded as somehow less worthy than literary novels like Wuthering Heights – no, sorry, that’s a romance, or Frankenstein – oh no, that’s sci-fi.
So should I introduce myself as a genre author at all? Perhaps I should just say that I make a living from killing people. I might be mistaken for a hitman, or a modern day James Bond! That could work – if you ignore the fact that I’m well past my prime, have never held a real gun, and would prefer to miss a bus rather have to run for it (I can’t remember the last time I actually ran… ) Admittedly it’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination, but I do write fiction. So there you have it, what I do for a living. I write fiction. Or is it literature? or novels? or books?
Perhaps I should stick with telling people I write crime fiction… or murder mysteries…
|Name: ALIYA WHITELEY
Author of: THE BEAUTY (2014)
On the web: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com
On Twitter: AliyaWhiteley
If stories are a way of finding a start point and an end point in something that has no framework, then post-apocalyptic fiction promises the big full stop more than any other genre. But I’ve always thought it rarely brings itself to deliver on that promise. There’s always hope, isn’t there? The Road gives us the boy and Blindness eventually lifts the dark. The world as we know it ends, but a new one starts to emerge through the rubble; we see it poking out its shoots in the final pages of most post-apocalyptic novels.
Well, you don’t get that in On The Beach. First published in 1957, it’s about the last people left alive after an exchange of nuclear weapons that irradiates the planet. Winds are carrying radiation to these final survivors, in Melbourne, Australia, and they know it. It creeps a little closer on every page.
US Submarine Captain Dwight Towers meets an Australian Commander, Peter Holmes, and is invited to weekend party. Peter has a wife, Mary, and a baby girl. His wife’s friend, Moira, attends the party too, and the plot follows the four adults living out their last months without much fuss. Quiet conversations take place, and the nature of their group relationship changes.
Why is it considered less truthful to imagine that people would cling to order in such a situation? Shute’s novel, much like the science fiction novels of other writers of the 1950s such as John Wyndham and John Christopher, imagined that in catastrophic situations people organise themselves and attempt to find structure. That doesn’t seem particularly old-fashioned to me. Rules are made and roles assigned – written, spoken, or sometimes never discussed at all – and the drawn-out goodbye at the heart of On The Beach comes with good manners, maybe because that is simply easier when the adrenaline has faded.
I think my favourite moment in the novel happens between the two women, Mary and Moira. Mary is generally sheltered from life by her husband, but he has been sent away on military business. He has tried to explain to her that she might have to accept the responsibility of killing their baby girl to spare her from radiation sickness, and she has refused to listen. But as she sits with Moira, drinking brandy late into the night, she suddenly faces the situation. She asks Moira to help her kill the baby when the time comes. Moira holds her hand, and agrees. The responsibilities shift without great fanfare. Although Shute quotes TS Eliot at the beginning of the novel, it’s Yeats that I remember in their conversation. A terrible beauty is born.
When I came to write my own post-apocalyptic novella, The Beauty, it was that element I wanted to draw on – the group with no hope, but that had not given into hopelessness. The End is a concept that fascinates us all, in stories and in life, but it does not have to come in pain and fear. It can come in quiet words, in a sudden acceptance of what needs to be done and who we need to be. In On The Beach it comes with the acknowledgement that killing the baby might be the most humane thing you ever do, even as it means the end of humanity.
Aliya Whiteley (aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com)
Unsung Stories (www.unsungstories.co.uk)
The Group have made the Valley of the Rocks their home. Each of them has a role to play: William, the leader; Ben, the doctor; Nathan, the storyteller and keeper of the Group’s history. Like every other settlement on the planet, the Group is made up exclusively of men; every single female has been wiped out by a mysterious illness. Mankind is in its final days: with no way to procreate, this is the final generation of humanity. Until one day Nathan discovers a strange fungus growing on the womens’ graves that will change everything.
We meet the members of the Group through the eyes of twenty-three-year-old Nathan, who lives up to his role as keeper of their collective memory, and the storyteller. There are no women left in the world – or at least that small part of it to which the Group are now, voluntarily, confined – and the men have begun to make peace with the fact that they are the end of the human race. There is a sense of hopelessness that pervades everything they do, and yet they continue to gather, to remember, to spend the final days of humanity with some semblance of civility. When Nathan discovers the strange fungus, and later the Beauty that grows from it, things inevitably change. Here is some hope for the continuation of the race, and the Group begins to split into different factions, some with violence on their minds.
In Aliya Whiteley’s short novella, the focus is very much on the relationships and interactions between the men and the Beauty, as well as a close examination of the dynamics within the Group itself. Jealousy and fear are pitted against love and hope, with no definitive answer concerning who is right. Should the Beauty be trusted, or do they have ulterior motives? Whiteley leaves it up to the reader to decide, giving us enough information to come down on one side of the argument or the other. There are no explanations as to what happened to the Earth’s female population, or what the Beauty are or where they came from, primarily because we only get Nathan’s side of the story and, like the other members of the Group, he has no idea of the answers to either question.
The Beauty is a short piece, and all the more powerful for its brevity. Beautifully written, it’s a disturbing and though-provoking vision of one possible future for mankind. While it’s unlikely to give the reader nightmares, there is plenty here to leave us feeling more than a little uncomfortable. With hints of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Aliya Whiteley presents an old-fashioned science fiction/horror story that could easily have sprung from the imagination of the great John Wyndham, and stands alongside The Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes as a fine example of the genre. This short (not quite 100 pages long) tale is enough to leave the reader wanting more, and hoping for something more substantial in the near future from Ms Whiteley.
A brief digression to talk about the package itself: The Beauty is one of the first two books from new publisher, Unsung Stories. It’s a beautiful package, from the striking front cover to the internal design, the perfect complement to an excellent story. The publisher’s aim is to get "weird stories, beautifully told" out into the world. The Beauty is an excellent start, and I will be waiting with excitement to see how they plan to follow it.
Short but deeply affecting, The Beauty is a wonderfully written piece of post-apocalyptic fiction that you won’t want to put down once you’ve picked it up. If this short sample is anything to go by, Aliya Whiteley is an exciting new talent and it’s a dead cert that we’ll be hearing much more from her in the future. I, for one, can’t wait to see what she has up her sleeve next. For now, though, this is one you won’t want to miss.
James Ellroy (jamesellroy.net)
William Heinemann (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/william-heinemann)
December 6th, 1941: four members of a Japanese family living in Los Angeles are found dead in their home in what, at first glance, appears to be a ritual Japanese suicide. Hideo Ashida, the only Japanese employee of the Los Angeles Police Department, finds evidence that suggests that all is not as it seems, and affects the direction that Sergeant Dudley Smith’s investigation takes. A day later, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into the Second World War. As the internment of Los Angeles’ Japanese population begins, pressure mounts to prove that this was an intraracial crime, while all involved are focussed on the best way to turn a profit from the war and the ensuing chaos.
After a brief (fifteen-year) hiatus during which he brought his unique brand of historical storytelling to the wider American canvas (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s A Rover), James Ellroy returns, in Perfidia, to the city that he loves, and which forms the backdrop of the vast majority of his work: Los Angeles. Set in the dying days of 1941, Ellroy returns to locations and characters that we know well, to tell the story of how the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent entry of America into the War, affected the people and the country.
As usual, Ellroy is unashamed in his portrayal of the times, and does nothing to soften the blow for his modern audience. It’s a very refreshing approach to storytelling in these days of political correctness gone wild and Ellroy makes no attempt to retrofit history to appease our seemingly delicate sensibilities. This is apparent from the outset: while section headings like The Japs and The Chinks don’t pack the visceral punch of Blood’s A Rover’s opening Clusterfuck, they’re still a very powerful indication of exactly what to expect within the pages of this seven-hundred-and-some-page novel.
Bringing together characters from his earlier L.A. Quartet (here’s Buzz Meeks and Bucky Bleichert, for example; Lee Blanchard and Kay Lake) and the Underworld USA trilogy (meet a much younger Ward J. Littell, J. Edgar Hoover and Ruth Mildred Cressmeyer, to name but a few), Ellroy weaves the individual strands together to tell the story of the murder of the Watanabe family and almost-too-coincidental bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. It’s a story of corruption and greed, but also of love and patriotism. And it would not be complete without Ellroy’s masterful creation, Sergeant Dudley Liam Smith.
When it comes to truly evil, despicable characters, Smith is hard to beat. His Irish charm coupled with his ever-calculating brain make him one of the most memorable characters of modern crime fiction, all the more frightening by virtue of the fact that he carries a badge and is, ostensibly, one of the good guys. In Perfidia, we meet a much younger Smith, but readers of Ellroy’s earlier L.A. Quartet will be pleased to see that little has changed about the character in the intervening years. Ellroy drops something of a bombshell early in the novel which shines a completely different light on that earlier quartet and, in particular, the account of the Black Dahlia murder. It’s a testament to his power as a writer that this bombshell feels almost throwaway, a brief mention, then moving swiftly along to the business at hand. Long-time fans will most likely end up in a similar state to me, slack-jawed in amazement, stuck on the fact that this single line of text changes everything.
Perfidia marks the start of James Ellroy’s Second L.A. Quartet and bears all the hallmarks that set those books apart from the majority of crime fiction. He seamlessly merges fact and fiction to produce a gripping and often disturbing story: here we find casual racism (often at the expense of poor Hideo Ashida, the only Japanese left on the police force’s payroll), sexism and homophobia on almost every page; there, Ellroy’s fictional creations rubbing shoulders (and, often, more intimate body parts) with the likes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And all told in the staccato, telegrammatic style that Ellroy has made his own, and which seems, after the first few pages, like the only way to tell the story that the author wants to tell.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Ellroy creates a conspiracy theory that makes his version of the Kennedy assassinations look like child’s play, and does so in such a way that leaves the reader wondering if it has any basis in fact. Around this, he constructs an excellent murder mystery and, at the same time, examines the possibility of Fifth Column activity, and the constant threat of Japanese submarines off the west coast of the US, pulling all the threads together in a neat package that is next to impossible to put down once you’ve made a start. Chronologically, Perfidia is an excellent place to start, but those coming from the seven novels to which it forms a prequel will be coming on board with a greater understanding of the world Ellroy’s characters inhabit, giving a much richer experience all round.
James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, is one of those writers who has long been a must-read for me. With Perfidia, he proves that he still has what it takes to keep his place on that list: dark and sinister, it is a look at the city of Los Angeles from the point of view of the immoral – and often outright evil – men who are supposed to keep it safe and enforce its laws. When he’s on form, very few writers can equal the writing of James Ellroy. With Perfidia, Ellroy is top of his game, and the promise of three more novels in this sequence, with Dudley Smith pulling strings at the centre of an intricate web, is enough to fill this reader’s heart with immense joy. An excellent introduction to anyone who has yet to discover this incredibly talented writer, Perfidia builds on a long-established base to ensure that long-time readers will come away fulfilled and hoping for more. If you only read one crime novel this year, it should definitely be this one.
|Name: EDWARD COX
Author of: THE RELIC GUILD (2014)
On the web: edward-cox.tumblr.com
On Twitter: @EdwardCox10
|Name: AMY BIRD
Author of: HIDE AND SEEK (2014)
On the web: amybirdwrites.com
On Twitter: @London_writer
To celebrate the launch of her latest novel, Hide and Seek, I’m delighted to welcome Amy Bird to Reader Dad to talk about her influences. Amy’s publisher, Carina UK, are running a competition to win a trip to Paris, so be sure to check out the end of the post for details. And don’t forget to check in on the other stops of the blog tour all this coming week.
There are some writers who refuse to read any fiction, lest their style be influenced. I am not such a writer. I always have a book on the go and I read as widely as I can. I like to indulge in plots and words, characters and ideas – both to learn from other writers’ technical skill, but also for the sheer joy of reading. I trust my own style to remain strong, or even get stronger, in the process. For this post, I was asked to write about the influences for my third novel, psychological thriller Hide and Seek. I thought about letting you just have a list of a few books that influence me. But really, I think the question of influence is subtler and runs deeper than that. So I came up with six categories instead.
1. The contemporary psychological thriller – Before I Go To Sleep, Gone Girl, The Dinner and even books like The Secret History are a master-class in plot twists, unusual structure, warped characters, and claustrophobic relationships. These are all key features of the modern psychological thriller. As a writer in the genre, I have to be aware of the expectations of readers, and what really works to turn a page. All four of these books kept me up until 1am. I hope Hide and Seek will have the same effect on you.
2. The classic work of suspense – In this category I would group Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene, and most Hitchcock films. Their hallmarks are setting up a sense of unease before we know what is wrong, and then with the subtlest of details here and there building and building to a danger we know is going to befall the main characters, but we don’t know when or how. In Hide and Seek, we know that something isn’t right in Will’s apparently perfect life. Little by little we understand what that is – and, more alarmingly, what he is going to do about it.
3. Moody, unusual books – I love books that have a dark weirdness to them, when you are plunged into another world that your senses struggle to comprehend. So here I’m thinking of Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway, Busy Monsters by William Giraldi and even Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. The way I deal with that in Hide and Seek is to use first person, so that you are immediately thrown into the mind of a stranger and have to orientate yourself. As you get to know the characters, they become less strange. Just as you become comfortable with them, their thoughts start to shock and disturb you, as the extent of their obsessions become clear.
4. Detective and crime fiction – I spent a thrilling three months of my Creative Writing MA studying detective and crime fiction. This ranged from Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler (a personal favourite) to quirkier books such as In the Cut by Susannah Moore and The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer. All those books were linked by a quest for truth and a need to uncover secrets that someone else is determined should remain hidden. Hide and Seek isn’t a detective novel in the ‘pure’ sense, but there is the same obsessional search for an answer and the willingness to risk everything in pursuit of the truth.
5. Music – at the heart of Hide and Seek, there is a piano concerto that holds some of the secrets Will is searching for, and which fuels his obsession with his past. I’ve structured the novel as a concerto – it falls into the three parts of exposition, development and recapitulation, plus everything from the motifs to the voices feed back into that structure. I therefore listened to a lot of piano concertos while I was writing Hide and Seek, to get the mood and the pace of my fictitious concerto and the book just right. Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Alkan and Beethoven emerged as the clear favourites. Mostly in a minor key, of course.
6. Everything else – I am always reading with my writer’s hat on. So even if I am enjoying the novel for its plot/ pace/ language/ bizarre characters, I am absorbing interesting sentence structures or devices – or reminding myself never to write like that writer does. At the moment, I’m reading three books: a contemporary crime thriller, a historical comedy-drama, and a real-life Second World War spy story. There’s a brilliant quote by Haruki Murakami: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” I hope that the result for readers of Hide and Seek is a novel that goes beyond the confines of its genre, and provides an original reading experience. But you will have to judge that for yourself.
Having moved all over the UK as a child, she now lives in North London with her husband, dividing her time between working part-time as a lawyer and writing.
Emily St. John Mandel (www.emilymandel.com)
Within days of the first case, the Georgia Flu sweeps across the surface of the globe, infecting billions and killing them within hours. For those that are left, the world is a strange new place, and as resources dwindle or go stale, the world becomes a much larger place where new communities spring up in the unlikeliest of places: airports, shopping malls and roadside services. Twenty years after the disaster, the Travelling Symphony follow a long-established route, bringing music and Shakespeare to the communities that they encounter, in an attempt to keep some of what was good about the pre-Flu world alive. When the Symphony pass through St Deborah by the Water and run afoul of the mysterious "prophet", they find themselves travelling beyond the boundaries of their safe zone.
As Emily St. John Mandel’s latest novel, Station Eleven opens, it is difficult not to make comparisons with countless end-of-the-world novels that have come before it – Stephen King’s The Stand or Terry Nation’s Survivors being two of the most obvious in terms of what causes the downfall of humanity. But it doesn’t take long for Mandel to make her mark and present a completely fresh and original take on the post-apocalyptic novel. While the Travelling Symphony’s flight from St Deborah by the Water is the focus of much of the novel, it is far from the only story we’ll hear on our journey.
Mandel’s novel opens on the eve of the apocalypse and we learn within the first handful of pages that the Georgia Flu – so-called because of its origin (the eastern European country, rather than the American state) – has already crossed the oceans and people are already dying in Toronto’s hospitals, and doubtless many other hospitals across the North American continent, and the world. From here, the story jumps between a number of different time periods, as we learn about the central characters in this beautifully-written and immediately-engaging story; while the bulk of the tale takes place twenty years after the Flu – Year Twenty in the new way of counting such things – we are also given glimpses of these peoples’ lives in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, and also years before it happened.
The focus of Station Eleven is on the people, and how they cope with the new state of the world. In some ways, by advancing the timeline twenty years into the future, Mandel has negated the need to talk about the inevitable violence and power grabs that are often the focus of these types of post-apocalyptic stories. Here, the fuel has long since gone stale, so people have reverted to four-legged transportation options, and ammunition has long since run out. The time period also gives the author the chance to examine how the new world looks to different generations. Within the Travelling Symphony alone, there are those (the nameless conductor, for example) who are old enough to remember the time before, and those who were born into the new world and know nothing else. Then there is the generation in the middle, people like August and Kristen, who was nine years old when the Georgia Flu struck, and who remembers very little of the time before, and absolutely nothing of that first year of this brave new world.
The book takes its title from a fictional comic book that is one of the few treasured possessions that Kristen carries with her. Written and self-published by an unnamed author, the comic is one of the few constants throughout the story: we, the reader, learn of its genesis and meet its creator and watch how it affects the development of two of the novel’s central characters (it’s difficult to say more without introducing spoilers). The other constant is a beautiful paperweight whose history we also learn as the story progresses. At the centre of the story, the lynchpin around whom everything revolves, stands the actor Arthur Leander, a man who dies on the very first page of the book. Each of the central characters is in some way related (though not necessarily in the familial sense) to Leander and his influence is still very evident twenty years after his death.
Without doubt one of the most original takes on the post-apocalyptic world that I have come across in some time, Station Eleven is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Mandel has created a world like none we’ve ever seen and populated with characters who, for the duration of the story and beyond, will become the most important people in your life. With references to everything from Shakespeare to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Mandel examines the ways in which we make our mark on the world and on the people around us, both in the macrocosm (how the shredded remains of humanity continue to survive and thrive in this new world) and the microcosm (the effect that Arthur Leander, however briefly he may have touched their lives, has left on the central characters of the novel). Mandel has left the perfect set-up for a sequel (or several), and it will be interesting to see if she returns to the post-apocalyptic world of Year Twenty, or if our imaginations will be left to their own devices. Either way, Station Eleven is not to be missed, one of the finest novels of recent years and one that is destined to stand (pun most definitely intended) proudly alongside the giants of the genre.
|Name: Philip Kerr
Author of: FIELD GREY (2010)
On the web: www.philipkerr.org
July saw the publication of Philip Kerr’s latest standalone novel, Research, a thriller that takes more than a passing poke at the British publishing industry (we’ll have a full review of the novel tomorrow). John Houston, the bestselling author at the centre of Research likes, as the title suggests, to do as much research on the subject of his latest novel as he possibly can. To celebrate the novel’s publication, I’m very pleased and excited to welcome Philip Kerr to Reader Dad to talk about the research that went into the novel’s creation.
I did a lot of research for the book as you might expect from the title. I had a very pleasant few weeks visiting Monaco and the South of France in general and driving around, much as the two characters in the book do. I also visited Switzerland. Oh, and I used to live in Putney and Cornwall as Don Irvine does in the book. So these are all places that are very familiar to me.
I have wanted to do an in statu quo novel about the book business for a while. I have been a full time writer for 25 years and felt I could comment on the publishing business in a way that was both amusing and critical. Much of what the two leading characters say in the book reflects my own opinions about the state of the novel. That was fun to do. It’s set up to be a little like Sleuth, the Anthony Shaffer play that was a great film with Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. You never really know who is who or why. That seems to me to be the essence of a good mystery story.
The two characters come from the world of advertising and that is my own background. I worked in advertising for eight years, and at several large agencies including Masius, and Saatchi. I was not a diligent copywriter. I spent much of my time writing novels. Masius was very convenient for the London Library; and Saatchi was equally convenient for the British Library, which, in those days, was in the British Museum – a ten minute stroll from Charlotte Street. (I hate the new one). Both of the characters are versions of me – extreme versions of myself. I like to imagine grotesque versions of myself in certain situations. These are Jekyll and Hyde characters, of course. With the difference being that, like most people, each man is both Jekyll and Hyde, and the mystery is working out which one is the real Mr Hyde, if such a thing can be said to exist at all.
I spent most of my years as a copywriter wanting to be a novelist and trying to make it happen. A lot of copywriters had novels in their drawers, so I wasn’t unusual in that respect. I got lucky in the same way that John Houston got lucky, although with rather less success than he had. I don’t know what I would have done if Penguin hadn’t bought my first novel (which was actually the fourth one I’d written) back in 1988.
The book business has changed enormously since then. When I was first published in 1989, it was all about the writer, not the book. Publishers felt they were in it for the long term, to build an author. There’s less time for that now. It’s all about the book. Paradoxically, however, I think we’re moving to a place where the author becomes paramount again, but for all the wrong reasons. Increasingly we require authors to be celebrities; and if not celebrities, personalities who can masquerade as celebrities. It’s no longer enough to write a book, you have to be prepared to support it in person with appearances and talks and stand-up routines. I do an annual American book tour that lasts about three weeks. During that time I become a one-man show. Not every author can or wants to do that. But if you’re not prepared to do that kind of thing, the business will leave you behind.
|THE HOUSE ON THE HILL
Jonathan Cape (www.randomhouse.co.uk/about-us/about-us/…/jonathan-cape)
Still on extended leave following the Rozaki case, DCI Billy McCartney is surprised when a girl barely out of her teens turns up on his doorstep and claims to be the daughter of Moroccan drug magnate Hassan El Glaoui. The girl’s appearance, and cry for help, takes Mac back to the last time he had dealings with El Glaoui. Ibiza in 1990; a bad batch of Ecstasy tablets has already killed a handful of kids, and Mac’s job is to ensure that they’re taken off the market before the season kicks off. Along with colleague, DS Camilla "Millie" Baker, he sets up as a potential buyer and dealer, and insinuates himself into the company of John-John Hamilton, a Liverpool-based dealer who has the Ibiza market more or less sewn up. But things take a turn for the worse and it is only now, twenty-three years later, with the arrival of this girl at his house, that Billy McCartney has a chance to set things right.
The second DCI Billy McCartney novel, The House on the Hill, features two stories in one, both inextricably linked to form a single narrative spanning twenty-three years. Opening in London in 1990, we meet a much younger Mac than in The Killing Pool, as he prepares to embark on an undercover mission to Ibiza to try to infiltrate the island’s drug trade. This Mac, perhaps because of the age difference, or because those of us who have read the first book have a better understanding of who he is, comes across as a lot less ambiguous, more idealistic, someone who is, undeniably, on the side of what is good and right. Alongside UDYCO chief, "Jus" Roig, whose motives are questionable at best, and Ibiza’s Chief Molina, who is outright corrupt, McCartney is almost a saint, albeit one who is a little bit too sure of his own abilities. It’s this cockiness that leads to disaster, and shapes the man McCartney will become.
The second half of the novel takes place in present day, and sees McCartney once again taking on the role of drug user and dealer to infiltrate El Galoui’s Red Fort in the mountains of Morocco, following the arrival of the young Yasmina at his door. This time around, we find ourselves in the company of a much more circumspect Mac, a man who is well aware that he has been given a rare second chance to put things right, and who is determined not to mess things up.
The House on the Hill is a much different beast from McCartney’s first outing. Told in the third person, rather than from multiple first-person viewpoints, the action seems much less intense (probably due to the longer timescales), even if the consequences are just as dire. Sampson – very successfully – avoids any mention of the bombshell that closes The Killing Pool, though Mac does have some telling mannerisms that will be obvious to those who have read the first novel. This fact, coupled with the earlier setting, means that The House on the Hill works as a standalone novel, but one that provides extra rewards for the returning audience.
Aside from McCartney himself, very few of the supporting characters appear in this latest instalment. The Rozaki brothers, whose operation is at the centre of The Killing Pool, put in brief appearances, as young men just starting out in the business, employees of John-John Hamilton. The biggest difference, perhaps, is the shift of location from Sampson’s native Liverpool to the tourist-infested Ibiza, and the arid mountains of Morocco. Happily, Sampson manages to transport the reader to both places, his sense of place no less powerful for the change of scenery, evoking especially the sleaze and heavy bass beat that drew hordes of (mainly) British tourists to the White Island in the early nineties. It’s a risky move, taking the character from his established milieu so early in the series, but it works well, and fleshes out some of McCartney’s background, as well as giving us a more in-depth look at what drives this man than the frantic pace of the first book allowed.
Unusually for a noirish piece of this ilk, Sampson spends some time examining social issues through the eyes of his characters. As with the first novel, sexism plays a large part in the first half of the novel – especially where the Spanish policemen are concerned – while the latter half of the novel allows Sampson to examine the Arab Spring, and the question of sexual orientation and gender in Islamist regions.
A carefully-constructed plot, well-rounded characters and pitch-perfect locations make this beautifully-written book the perfect follow-up to one of last year’s best novels. Kevin Sampson proves that when it comes to dark, character-driven crime fiction, he is in a league of his own. The House on the Hill is crime fiction at its finest, with a broad appeal regardless of whether or not you’ve read The Killing Pool. DCI Billy McCartney continues to engage, and it is clear that there is still much to this character left to discover. I can’t recommend this – and its predecessor – highly enough, and I, for one, will be on tenterhooks waiting for the third instalment.
|Name: KEVIN SAMPSON
Author of: THE KILLING POOL (2013)
On Twitter: @ksampsonwriter
To celebrate the launch of Kevin Sampson’s latest novel, THE HOUSE ON THE HILL, the second book in the DCI Billy McCartney series (which will be reviewed here tomorrow), I asked him to talk about the books that have influenced his own crime writing. His – rather eclectic – list follows.
I would like to thank Kevin for taking the time to put this list together, and would urge you to check out the other stops on the THE HOUSE ON THE HILL Tour.
1. Greenmantle by John Buchan
Buchan is of course best known for his first Richard Hannay adventure, The 39 Steps. But it was Hannay’s second escapade, Greenmantle that captivated me as a young reader. Hannay is a true Brit, true grit, Edwardian maverick espionage action hero, taking on complex cases and nefarious villains who threaten world peace. Greenmantle was the first novel that transported me to exotic destinations – Lisbon, Budapest, Belgrade, Constantinople – via the old-fashioned medium of the ripping yarn. Greenmantle gave me an avid wanderlust, but its 5-D characters and sheer exuberant storytelling made me want to write about these places, too. Perhaps some of this has filtered down into the McCartney books. In Mac’s latest, The House On The Hill, he undertakes fearsome challenges in Ibiza and Morocco – and many of the characters he encounters – like “Jus” Roig and Honest Ahmed could have come straight from the pages of Buchan.
2. Papillon by Henri Charriere
I read Papillon as a 13 year-old and it blew me away. It was the first book of its kind – a novelised True Crime memoir – to plug the reader into a gritty, dark, living, breathing underworld. The opening pages, set in the criminal community around 70s Montmartre in Paris, still live with me today – portraits of petty crooks, pimps, drunks and gamblers, low-life chancers who are “good with a knife.” An ex-con himself, Charriere does not ennoble or romanticise his world. Characters are presented for what they are – grifters trying to get by in an unforgiving city.
It’s as real a depiction of a big-city underworld as you’ll encounter in print, but the way the book opens out after Papillon’s conviction, into an adrenaline-charged escape thriller set against a Caribbean/Venezulan backdrop is a page-turning bonus. Concealing money in the sphincter, confronting leprosy, bartering for a boat, springing a leak, being chased by the coast guard, eating your first meal in days…everything is vividly rendered, like a badlands travelogue. Yet, for all the vivid descriptions of life among a remote native community and the sheer thrill of the many chases, it was those early descriptions of the Big City underbelly that made their mark, and still live on in my imagination.
3. A Sense Of Freedom by Jimmy Boyle
A few years after discovering Papillon, A Sense Of Freedom had a similar impact. I was 15, enduring a rainy fortnight on a caravan site in North Wales, browsing the paperback carousel in the campsite’s shop. Based on a promising blurb about thug life in 60s Glasgow, I started leafing through A Sense Of Freedom. Jimmy Boyle’s autobiographical account of growing up in the late 50s/early 60s Gorbals at the height of its gang culture had me gripped from the start. I’d read most of the New English Library titles like Skinhead, Suedehead etc but this was the real thing. In a similar way to Papillon, Boyle’s story went way, way beyond the clichéd hard-man tales of the time. Yes, it’s a chilling, unflinching account of how a kid can be socialised into a life of crime and violence, but A Sense Of Freedom opens out into a rigorous polemic about the penal system, and a moving philosophical tract about the nature and the essence of freedom. First published in 1977, it is thoroughly deserving of a 40th Anniversary re-issue, and re-evaluation.
4. LA Confidential by James Ellroy
A Noir masterpiece, plain and simple. I have read LA Confidential 10 or 12 times, and with each new reading still uncover nuances I’d previously missed. For me, this is a definitive and uniquely brilliant crime book – one that extolls complexity as a virtue. The third in Ellroy’s Los Angeles quartet, LA Confidential is comfortably (or uncomfortably) my favourite. Weaving its many narrative threads using multiple points of view alongside a clever National Enquirer-style front-page splash device, LA Confidential transports us to the corrupt and decadent heart of America’s most fabled city. Embracing – or exposing – themes of child abuse, drug addiction, racism, prostitution, hypocrisy, corruption, bribery, underhand building contracts, blackmail, racketeering, murder, vote-rigging and police brutality in its first 30 pages or so, LA Confidential uses the City of Angels as both pungent backdrop and potent symbol of the quintessential struggle between Good and Evil. As with any classic noir, the reader is left to decipher which is which.
5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Returning to the question of Inspiration – that vitamin-blast to your creative muse that turns the kernel of an idea into something that you act upon and realise – the Stieg Larsson phenomenon was the final motivating factor that transformed the notion of a mordant, Liverpool-based drug crime specialist into the fictional reality of DCI Billy McCartney. Each of the other books I’ve mentioned here had an influence; each of them left its mark. So, too, did TV dramas like The Sopranos, The Wire, Spiral, The Killing…but it was Larsson wot made me do it, guv.
I thought Liverpool was as evocative a setting for a crime series as any major port city and the skeleton of Billy Mac began to form. Initially, I fastened upon this idea of simultaneously publishing the four distinct “chapters” of The Killing Pool or Gangsterland as it was, back then. But, in spite of my own reverence for complex plot and storytelling, I was nervous that McCartney’s first instalment might be tough-going all in one, dark hit.
Then I read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and marvelled at its scale, its ambition and its sheer darkness. Like Ellory, Stieg Larsson takes on the bleakest and blackest worlds. In the wake of chilling revelations about institutional abuse and cover-up in children’s homes, TGWTDT is horribly prescient – yet it is never sensationalist or overtly graphic, partly as a result of Larsson’s creating a cast of magnificent characters to guide his readers through his darkest alleyways.
I’ve never read a novel and come away, thinking – I can do that. But there are definitely principles you imbibe via osmosis from reading great books. With all the books I’ve highlighted here, there’s a common thread: if you can devise an ingenious and engaging story, set in an intriguing place peopled with flawed but memorable characters who the reader relates to, or sides with, or strenuously takes against then your fictional world stands a chance of coming to life. That such a physically huge book as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo succeeds in engaging you from Page 1 and transports you on a trans-Nordic express right to the last page is a testament to Larsson’s absolute command of his oeuvre. A bestseller by right, and a factor in the shaping of McCartney.