Sarah Pinborough (sarahpinborough.com)
Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)
It is October 1888 and the people of London are already reeling from the series of murders committed by the man who has styled himself “Jack the Ripper”. When the rotting torso of a young woman is found in the vault of the building site that will eventually become New Scotland Yard, the immediate assumption is that it belongs to yet another victim of the Ripper. But police surgeon Dr Thomas Bond doesn’t agree – this is a much colder killer, without the fiery passion that defines Jack’s kills. As more body parts – from this victim and others – wash up on the banks of the Thames, panic sets in across the metropolis and Bond finds himself joining forces with a mysterious Italian Jesuit and an unwashed immigrant with an unwanted “gift” in an attempt to find and stop this new killer.
Pinborough takes, as the starting point for her latest novel, a series of unsolved murders that occurred in London around the same time that Jack the Ripper was operating, and a handful of historical figures who would likely have been involved in their investigation. At the centre we find Dr Thomas Bond, Police Surgeon, who plays both detective and biographer in this distinctly Holmesian tale. Bond is an insomniac who has found solace in the opium dens of Whitechapel and beyond. It is here, in the guise of a stranger who watches the addicts as they dream, that he believes he has found a connection to the murders. When Bond follows the man, he finds himself drawn into a search for the killer that is at odds with his role as Police Surgeon but which, he quickly realises, might be the only chance they have of catching this man before any more young women die at his hands.
Told, in the main, from the point of view of Bond, Pinborough also intersperses third-person narratives focusing on some of the other key players, as well as newspaper clippings from the period to create an engaging – moreish, even – read. Impeccable research and wonderful narrative styling combine to place the reader in the centre of the melting pot that was London towards the end of the nineteenth century. In choosing to ignore the more famous Ripper murders in favour of the lesser-known Thames Torso murders, Pinborough has given herself some room for manoeuvre and sets Mayhem apart from countless other novels set in the same period. The focus on Thomas Bond allows the Ripper murders to make a cameo appearance – Bond was involved in their investigation – and the author finds a perfect balance that allows them to become landmarks for the reader without ever becoming the focus of the story.
For the first half of the novel, Mayhem reads like a straightforward mystery novel with more than a little influence from Conan Doyle. At this stage, anyone and everyone is a suspect, and Pinborough introduces one character after another who may have had a hand in the murder and dismemberment of these women. Towards the middle portion, there is a slight shift; as we learn the identity of the killer, our suspicions change from the “did he do it?” to the less-tangible “what are his motives for being involved?”. It’s a deft piece of writing that leaves the reader satisfied that the who was never really important and, if anything, manages to increase the suspense we encounter from this point onwards. At this point, too, a supernatural element creeps into the story, the transition from “crime” to “horror” made all the more palatable by virtue of the fact that we see it through the eyes of Thomas Bond, a man of science faced with something he cannot explain.
Mayhem is the first in a series of books featuring Dr Bond. Instantly likeable, despite his flaws, he’s the perfect leading man. As one of the lesser-known members of the Ripper investigation team, Pinborough has the freedom to tweak his personality to suit her dark plots (for which she apologises in her short but informative Preface), safe in the knowledge that the majority of readers will be meeting the man for the first time, without the preconceptions that they might bring to, say, Frederick Abberline. It is difficult to imagine that anyone wouldn’t be looking forward to 2015’s Murder following their first encounter with Dr Bond.
Sarah Pinborough’s latest novel is the perfect mix of historical fact and fiction, Caleb Carr with a supernatural twist. Careful plotting, spot-on pacing and a sharp ear for the language of the period combine to make the reader want to come back for more. The use of the Ripper murders to provide context, without ever detracting from the importance of the Thames Torso murders, is the perfect device to place the reader in the middle of the smog-filled London of the late 1880s. Mayhem is a novel that obliterates genre boundaries, and is a must-read for fans of Sherlock Holmes, of the various legends of Jack the Ripper, and of crime and horror fiction in general. It’s a major showcase for the talents of Sarah Pinborough, who proves, once again, that she deserves a spot on everyone’s must-read list.
Photograph © Alexander James
|Name: CHRIS MORGAN JONES
Author of: AN AGENT OF DECEIT (2011)
On the web: www.chrismorganjones.com
On Twitter: @chrismjauthor
Chris Morgan Jones’ first novel, An Agent of Deceit, was published in 2011 to widespread critical acclaim, with many outlets comparing his work to that of John Le Carré. Before setting pen to paper, Jones spent eleven years in the shoes of his protagonist, Ben Webster, working for one of the world’s largest business intelligence agencies.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Chris. For me, An Agent of Deceit, comes across as an old-fashioned spy novel, of the type you don’t really see any more, in a very modern setting. But it still has a very “Cold War”, east versus west, feel to it. Can you talk us through where the idea came from, and how you set about constructing the complex plot?
The very first idea I had, revolving in my head in a quiet way for years, was the predicament of one of the main characters, Richard Lock, who has almost inadvertently signed away his identity, and in the process his life, to hide the criminal gains of a sinister Russian bureaucrat. In my old work I used to come across Locks almost every day – lawyers and accountants whose job it was to set up complex networks of companies offshore. Some of them, like Lock, sell themselves completely and pretend to own things on behalf of others nastier and more powerful than them. I began to wonder who these people were and how they had become what they had become, and slowly one particular such person began to form in my head.
As for the plot: I knew where it began and roughly where it ended, and so the work came in filling out the middle. First I thought through the central story, the relationship between Lock and the investigator who pursues him, and then I introduced the other characters, imagining how they would affect and be affected by events. At one stage I drew up a large chart with the characters across the top and time running down the side and worked out how everyone would interlock. Strangely, it was much easier to plot than my second book, even though in many ways it was more complicated.
That old-fashioned sense is helped along by the fact that Ben Webster, the novel’s protagonist, makes his way through the story – for the most part – without the aid of gadgets, gizmos or even modern technology. With the exception of the frequent mention of mobile phones, this is a story that could have happened prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Was this a conscious decision you made at the outset and, if so, why?
No, strangely. It developed like that. I knew that London and Moscow, the home cities of the two protagonists, would be the two poles of the book, and toyed with various ideas for the location of the book’s final third. Then it became clear that it had to be Berlin – partly because it made sense in plot terms, but also because Berlin is neither east nor west, and was therefore the perfect place for Lock’s dual allegiances to be tested. So I became aware of the old-fashionedness late on.
An Agent of Deceit takes a slightly unusual approach to the spy novel in that it devotes equal airtime to the points of view of both hunter (Webster) and hunted (Richard Lock). Did you find one character more difficult to write than the other, and how much of each character were you able to build from your own experience in the business intelligence community?
Webster was more difficult to write. As you suggest, the book is written from the two protagonists’ perspectives, which alternate throughout. It turned out that this was an excellent structure for a first book, because it established a steady rhythm, but its one flaw, I now realise, was that because Webster is so busy hunting, and making the action of the book happen, we get to know him less well. We get to observe Lock in a more natural state, in a way, and I think he feels more rounded as a result. This is something that with luck the second book addresses.
And while what Webster does is a pretty accurate amalgam of what people in my old world do, the characters themselves aren’t drawn from a single model. They’re both fictional creations, and to be honest neither particularly resembles anyone I know in life.
There have been plenty of comparisons between your work and the novels of John Le Carré, which is presumably not a bad thing for a first-time author to hear. As I read the book, I found myself comparing Webster to that other great fictional spy, Bernie Samson – more everyman than Old Boys’ Network, the obsession and doggedness. Can you talk about the influence these two giants of the genre – Le Carré and Deighton – have had on your own writing?
I’m not sure it’s possible to unpick one’s influences. Le Carré and Deighton are both writers I enjoy enormously, and admire, but I think others might be better placed to spot the correspondences. One very nice reader compared the book to Eric Ambler, which was another tremendous compliment. What they all have in common is the sense of a secret world occupying a dimension right next to but invisible from our own, which is definitely something worth emulating. They’re probably all in there somewhere, along with some writers of detective fiction. Rex Stout, a name not heard often in the UK, definitely had an influence on the structure, even though his books – brilliant comic detective novels – are entirely different.
And before we move on to more general questions…are we likely to see Ben Webster again? Can you talk about what you’re working on at the minute?
I’ve finished a new Webster novel. It’s called The Jackal’s Share and will be published in hardback early next year. As I said, this time we spend more time with him, and his trials are rather different and more acute. The story is entirely new, though – it isn’t strictly a sequel.
For the third book I’m planning to write about the same world, but to shift the focus to a different character within it. And Russia hoves back into view.
What other authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
Rex Stout, as mentioned above. James Lee Burke, a brilliant writer of crime thrillers, for want of a better word (he’s much too good to need a genre tag). Then there are all the writers I’d like to think I might be influenced by in some small way. Robert Louis Stevenson is probably top of that list. Line by line I’m not sure he’s ever been bettered, and his stories and plotting are sublime. There’s a reason that Treasure Island is still such a thrilling book.
And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?
Heavens. Apart from Treasure Island, probably The Count of Monte Cristo, which is probably the most compelling story I’ve ever read. It makes a thousand pages seem like fifty.
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Chris Morgan Jones look like?
That’s an excellent question. The ideal writing day involves getting up early, around 5.30, writing for a couple of hours before the children wake up, going back to it from 9 until lunchtime, and then squeezing in another three hours or so from 4 till 7 (in the middle of the day my brain stops). In reality all sorts of things get in the way, and when they don’t, I do.
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
Carve out some time. This is easier said than done, of course. The luckiest break I got was being able to write the first few chapters of the book while looking for a new job, and without the uninterrupted work that allowed I’m not sure I’d have completed the task.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
I’ve been reading an extraordinary book about parallel universes by a brilliant writer on physics called Brian Greene. The book is The Hidden Reality. It sounds ridiculously difficult, and it is – every morning I’ve forgotten what I read the night before. But it’s truly fascinating and has the advantage of having no characters and plots in it, which is sometimes a relief.
Would you like to see An Agent of Deceit make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
I’ve thought about it, but to be honest not to that degree of detail. There’s Tomas Alfredson, who directed the brilliant vampire movie Let The Right One In, but then he went and directed the equally good Tinker Tailor, and he might feel he’s had enough spies.
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
Now that’s fun. M. R. James, the ghost story writer. We’d have to meet in an empty house somewhere on the Suffolk coast and we’d talk about his most terrifying creations. I would need whisky.
Thank you once again, Chris, for taking time out to share your thoughts.
Chris will be appearing at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival on Friday 20th July.
|AN AGENT OF DECEIT
Chris Morgan Jones (www.chrismorganjones.com)
Pan Books (www.panmacmillan.com)
There seems to be cyclic nature to the popularity of certain, seemingly long-dead, genres. In recent years we have seen upsurges in the popularity of westerns and pirates, for example, while the most recent rebirth, helped along greatly by Tomas Alfredson’s big screen adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is in the spy fiction genre. Not since before the fall of the Iron Curtain have we had so much choice in this area, and Chris Morgan Jones is one of the new names making waves. An Agent of Deceit is his first novel, and takes the somewhat unusual approach of constructing a spy novel around a spy who works in the business intelligence community, rather than a government-run institution.
Richard Lock has spent almost fifteen years constructing and running a network of companies which form the external face of Russian oligarch Konstantin Malin’s empire. Lock has done his job well – none of the companies can be traced back to their true owner – and has been paid well for his efforts. When a Greek oil tycoon hires Ikertu Consulting to look into the affairs of Malin, investigator Ben Webster finds that the best place to start looking is the network of companies outside of Russia, and that the weakest link in Malin’s chain is Richard Lock. Spurred on by personal reasons, and by the murder of one of Malin’s retired lieutenants, Webster attempts to secure the defection of a man looking for a way out from under one of Russia’s most dangerous men.
An Agent of Deceit has the feel of an old-fashioned spy novel. With the action focussing on London, Moscow and Berlin, it certainly fits the mould of the Cold War-era spy thrillers. Jones takes the novel of approach of alternating chapters between hunter (Webster) and hunted (Lock), giving us both sides of this complex but engaging story. Webster, ex-journalist turned corporate spy, is a strong lead, and comes across as something of an “everyman”, more Bernard Samson than George Smiley. His position as investigator in business intelligence consultancy Ikertu makes more sense in this post-Cold War world than a similar position in MI-6, but the Russian element, and the Berlin setting of much of the action harks back to an older time, a more divided Europe. Lock is a man out of his depth and struggling to find an escape route. As investigators close in, and focus their attention on his businesses, he starts to panic, wondering just how indispensible he is to Malin. He is a surprisingly likeable character, and we find ourselves rooting for him as his world begins to unravel.
The plot is as complex as Lock’s network of companies, but Jones’ fresh approach and somewhat brusque writing style ensure that proceedings are kept moving, and that the reader is never left confused by jargon or details. As the various threads begin to interweave, and the story moves towards its climax, the pace kicks up a notch and the reader is left breathless and wanting more. The climax, when it arrives, is as tense and thrilling as it is unexpected – the pieces of this finely-constructed mystery fall into place, and the bigger picture is revealed to the reader – and the protagonists – for the first time. It’s an accomplished coup de grace, a very pleasant surprise from a freshman writer who seems already to be on top of his craft.
With the exception of mobile phones – which play a large and important part of the plot – Webster manages to proceed with his investigation without the aid of the gadgets and gizmos that the Bond films have led us to expect from spy adventures. It’s a nice touch (although an unplanned one, according to the author) that gives this novel its old-fashioned feel, and provides us with a story that could well have happened prior to the fall of the Berlin wall. It’s perfect, then, for fans of Le Carré and Deighton and brings a fine tradition into the twenty-first century, giving it a new lease of life in the process.
Chris Morgan Jones brings with him a wealth of real-life experience in the field in which he writes, and this shines through in the details. An Agent of Deceit is a wonderful start to his writing career: it’s an old-world spy adventure that is at once intelligent and thrilling. In Ben Webster we find a sympathetic character – a family man, a man of principles – who forms the heart of the narrative and makes us care about what happens next. There is no doubt about it: spies are back, and Chris Morgan Jones is at the forefront of the push, an exciting young writer with fresh new ideas for an old, but extremely popular, genre.
|IN HER BLOOD
Annie Hauxwell (www.anniehauxwell.com)
William Heinemann (www.randomhouse.co.uk/…/william-heinemann)
Catherine Berlin is an investigator for the Financial Services Authority, working as part of a task force whose remit is to clamp down on London’s illegal loan shark businesses. Working with an informant she knows only as ‘Juliet Bravo’, Berlin continues an investigation into East End shark Archie Doyle despite the fact that her superiors have closed the case and warned her off. Berlin’s life is complicated by the fact that, aged 55, she’s a registered drug addict, and receives daily doses of pharmaceutical heroin from one of the few doctors left in Britain with a license to prescribe it. When both her informant and her doctor are brutally murdered, Berlin finds herself in the middle of two investigations in which police consider her as a major player. With seven days before her stash of heroin runs out – and any clarity of mind that the drug brings with it – Berlin is up against the clock not only to find her next fix, but also to find the killer and clear her own name.
Hauxwell’s first novel takes no time in getting to the point. As the book opens, we find Berlin standing at the edge of the Limehouse Basin, watching her informant floating in the water below. We quickly get a feel for the character, and the people she is dealing with – the talkative Dempster, the quiet Thompson and the almost farcically stupid Flint. Berlin is a character that is difficult to like, but as the ever-luckless antihero, we find ourselves rooting for her nonetheless, as she moves from one bad day to the next. She’s a woman on the edge, impending withdrawal driving her as hard as the need to know, to find out the truth. And behind it all a black sense of humour that usually serves to rub people the wrong way, but which makes her more human in the eye of the reader.
The plot is complex and involved, but not so much that it will turn the casual reader off. Characters are interconnected in myriad unexpected ways, and a web of relationships, and of cause and effect, forms as the novel progresses. Despite the complexity, and multiple strands, the author manages to maintain complete control – no obvious plot holes or dangling story arcs here; Hauxwell weaves the threads into such an accomplished and coherent whole that it’s easy forget that this is the work of a first-time novelist.
Characterisation is the only area where the book doesn’t quite reach its full potential. While Berlin comes to us fully formed, some of the other characters can be a bit lacking in original personality, cardboard cut-outs from a thousand gritty dramas set in and around the East End of London: the wheeler-dealing gangster; the bent cop; a handful of others. What’s interesting, and what makes the novel stand out from many of those others, is the ambiguity built in to all of these people. There is no black and white here, but varying shades of grey that serve Hauxwell’s purpose well: these are all ordinary people acting under extraordinary circumstances; no-one, least of all the reader, can anticipate how these people will react in these situations, and as a result they sometimes do so in unexpected ways, with surprising consequences.
Dark and gritty, Hauxwell’s debut combines wonderful sense of place (and cold), interesting (if somewhat stereotypical) characters, and a complex and moreish plot into the perfect example of what was once called (and may still be, though it’s not a phrase I’ve seen in a few years) “Brit noir”. There’s enough humour to keep it from being dreary and depressing, and enough action to keep it moving at a good pace. Catherine Berlin, demons included, makes for a surprising and bold choice of central character, but ultimately has the charisma to carry it off and leave the reader hoping for her return in future instalments. Hauxwell is an author who evidently takes great delight in putting her characters through the mill and, on several occasions throughout the book, we find ourselves wondering “what can she possibly throw at this poor woman next?”. In Her Blood is a fine crime novel, and a wonderful debut from a writer who looks set to give the cream of British crime fiction a run for their money.
Kim Newman (www.johnnyalucard.com)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
Is there a more interesting and populated place and time in recent history than London in the twilight years of the nineteenth century? Peopled by a huge cast of people real and fictional, it is a location and period ripe with opportunity and ideas for any artist willing to do a little research. Anno Dracula, Kim Newman’s cult 1992 horror/romance/alternate history novel takes advantage of this and gives us a view on what London might have been like in 1888 had Dracula not only survived the events of Bram Stoker’s seminal novel, but married Queen Victoria and taken the title of Prince Consort. Published by Titan Books, this cult classic has once again been made available to a wide audience.
The book diverges from Stoker’s novel at the point where Dracula is interrupted in his attempt to “turn” Mina Harker; instead of fleeing, he kills Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris, scattering the rest of the group and finishing his business with Mina. From there, his rise to power is unstoppable, culminating in his marriage to the queen, and England’s move towards being the foremost vampire nation. As the novel opens, it is 1888, and Jack the Ripper has claimed his third victim. In this alternate universe, the Ripper is exclusively a killer of vampire prostitutes, which has the effect of forcing ever deeper the wedge between vampire and warm (humans). This is a very different London to the one we know: vampires occupy almost every position of power and a full-blown dictatorship is in effect. Dissenters and threats to the crown have been shipped off to concentration camps in the middle of the English countryside, where they will ultimately serve as cattle for the ever-growing vampire population.
Newman’s encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema and horror shines throughout. Only a handful of the characters we meet are original to the author. As well as the remnants of Dracula’s enemies – Dr John Seward and Arthur Holmwood, now Lord Godalming – we encounter, amongst others, the creations of Arthur Conan Doyle (Mycroft Holmes (his brother Sherlock ensconced in one of the aforementioned concentration camps), Moriarty), Sax Rohmer, H.G. Wells, Charles Dickens alongside the likes of Florence Stoker (her husband, Bram, sharing a compound with Sherlock Holmes), Oscar Wilde and Fred Abberline. Into this mix, Newman introduces Charles Beauregard, agent for the shady Diogenes Club, and Genevieve Dieudonne, a four-and-a-half century old vampire who is older even than Dracula.
Beauregard is a sort of nineteenth century John Steed, sword-cane and all: a man about town with a sinister and dangerous background and the skills to ensure his own survival at the expense of an enemy’s. Instructed by the cabal that runs the Diogenes Club (an institution that originates in the work of Conan Doyle) to investigate the Ripper murders, he meets the young-looking Genevieve and together they comb Whitechapel for clues to the identity of the murderer. All around them, the country is falling apart as growing dissent greets the ever tightening grip of the Impaler.
To use Newman’s own phrase, Anno Dracula is an ‘overpopulated period-set “romp”’, and a great deal of time can be spent – and fun had – trying to identify the origins of characters. Despite that, it’s a tightly-plotted and brilliantly-conceived novel that pays homage not only to Stoker’s Dracula, but to the vampire genre in general. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this novel is the fact that Dracula himself is absent for the vast majority of it, putting in a short appearance at the very end in a wonderful and wholly unexpected climax. Despite the subject matter, Newman presents us with a conceivable alternate London: the tensions between vampire and warm, between rich and poor; a city where the rule of law exists hand in hand with the ways of Vlad the Impaler and his kind; a city terrorised by an infamous murderer (the identity of whom is revealed to the reader in the first chapter) whose motives have been shaped to fit this new world order.
If, like me, you missed Anno Dracula the first time around, then this is the perfect opportunity to read one of the finest modern vampire novels ever written, up there with what I consider to the be the “big three”: Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Robert McCammon’s They Thirst and George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream. Once done, you can take comfort in the fact that Titan will be publishing several other books in the series, so you won’t have to wait too long for your next fix.