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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

Extract: IF WE WERE VILLAINS by M.L. Rio

If we were Villains small IF WE WERE VILLAINS

M.L. Rio (mlrio.com)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

I sit with my wrists cuffed to the table and I think, But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison-house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul. The guard stands by the door, watching me, like he’s waiting for something to happen.

Enter Joseph Colborne. He is a graying man now, almost fifty. It’s a surprise, every few weeks, to see how much he’s aged—and he’s aged a little more, every few weeks, for ten years. He sits across from me, folds his hands, and says, “Oliver.”

“Joe.”

“Heard the parole hearing went your way. Congratulations.”

“I’d thank you if I thought you meant it.”

“You know I don’t think you belong in here.”

“That doesn’t mean you think I’m innocent.”

“No.” He sighs, checks his watch—the same one he’s worn since we met—as if I’m boring him.

“So why are you here?” I ask. “Same fortnightly reason?”

His eyebrows make a flat black line. “You would say fucking ‘fortnight.’ ”

“You can take the boy out of the theatre, or something like that.”

He shakes his head, simultaneously amused and annoyed.

“Well?” I say.

“Well what?”

The gallows does well. But how does it well? It does well to those that do ill,” I reply, determined to deserve his annoyance. “Why are you here? You should know by now I’m not going to tell you anything.”

“Actually,” he says, “this time I think I might be able to change your mind.”

I sit up straighter in my chair. “How?”

“I’m leaving the force. Sold out, took a job in private security. Got my kids’ education to think about.”

For a moment I simply stare at him. Colborne, I always imagined, would have to be put down like a savage old dog before he’d leave the chief ’s office.

“How’s that supposed to persuade me?” I ask.

“Anything you say will be strictly off the record.”

“Then why bother?”

He sighs again and all the lines on his face deepen. “Oliver, I don’t care about doling out punishment, not anymore. Someone served the time, and we rarely get that much satisfaction in our line of work. But I don’t want to hang up my hat and waste the next ten years wondering what really happened ten years ago.”

I say nothing at first. I like the idea but don’t trust it. I glance around at the grim cinder blocks, the tiny black video cameras that peer down from every corner, the guard with his jutting underbite. I close my eyes, inhale deeply, and imagine the freshness of Illinois springtime, what it will be like to step outside after gasping on stale prison air for a third of my life.

When I exhale I open my eyes and Colborne is watching me closely.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m getting out of here, one way or the other. I don’t want to risk coming back. Seems safer to let sleeping dogs lie.”

His fingers drum restlessly on the table. “Tell me something,” he says. “Do you ever lie in your cell, staring up at the ceiling, wondering how you wound up in here, and you can’t sleep because you can’t stop thinking about that day?”

“Every night,” I say, without sarcasm. “But here’s the difference, Joe. For you it was just one day, then business as usual. For us it was one day, and every single day that came after.” I lean forward on my elbows, so my face is only a few inches from his, so he hears every word when I lower my voice. “It must eat you alive, not knowing. Not knowing who, not knowing how, not knowing why. But you didn’t know him.”

He wears a strange, queasy expression now, as if I’ve become unspeakably ugly and awful to look at. “You’ve kept your secrets all this time,” he says. “It would drive anyone else crazy. Why do it?”

“I wanted to.”

“Do you still?”

My heart feels heavy in my chest. Secrets carry weight, like lead.

I lean back. The guard watches impassively, as if we’re two strangers talking in another language, our conversation distant and insignificant. I think of the others. Once upon a time, us. We did wicked things, but they were necessary, too—or so it seemed. Looking back, years later, I’m not so sure they were, and now I wonder: Could I explain it all to Colborne, the little twists and turns and final exodos? I study his blank open face, the gray eyes winged now by crow’s-feet, but clear and bright as they have always been.

“All right,” I say. “I’ll tell you a story. But you have to under­stand a few things.”

Colborne is motionless. “I’m listening.”

“First, I’ll start talking after I get out of here, not before. Second, this can’t come back to me or anyone else—no double jeopardy. And last, it’s not an apology.”

I wait for some response from him, a nod or a word, but he only blinks at me, silent and stoic as a sphinx.

“Well, Joe?” I say. “Can you live with that?”

He gives me a cold sliver of a smile. “Yes, I think I can.”

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DO NOT BECOME ALARMED by Maile Meloy

34839317 DO NOT BECOME ALARMED

Maile Meloy (www.mailemeloy.com)

Viking (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk)

£8.99

Cousins Liv and Nora have decided to take their families – a husband and two young children each – on a cruise down the western coast of the Americas. The giant ship on which they find themselves has everything they could possibly want, and it seems that this could be an idyllic time for the two families. When the ship docks in a small, unnamed, Central American country, the husbands are invited ashore for a game of golf. The wives, meanwhile, decide to take the children on an adventure, just not the adventure that ultimately awaits them. Following an accident involving their bus, their guide takes them to a small, secluded beach to spend the afternoon until alternative transport turns up. Nora heads off into the trees with the guide, ostensibly to look for birds, while Liv takes a nap on the beach. When their attention returns to the water, where the children have been playing, they discover the children are gone, carried downstream by the river’s powerful currents to a rendezvous that might mean their disappearance is permanent.

It’s clear from the outset that Maile (pronounced MY-lee) Meloy’s new novel is not your average psychological thriller to be consigned to the beach bag and read in brief snatches when you’re not in the water, or working through that latest pitcher of sangria. There’s a hard edge to Meloy’s voice, and a sass to the central characters that makes them stick in your head, and demands that you pay them the attention they deserve. I read Do Not Become Alarmed in two short sittings, which is something I can only claim for a small handful of the most gripping novels.

When we meet Liv and Nora, as they board the cruise ship that will be their home for the next two weeks, it’s immediately clear how close they are – cousins who spent most of their formative years as close as sisters, forming a seemingly unbreakable bond that, thankfully, seems to have spread to their husbands and their children. Outgoing and friendly, they instantly hit it off with an older Brazilian couple who are travelling with their two teenage children. There’s a natural feel to the group make-up, and so we don’t question the separate paths that husbands and wives take when they eventually decide to go ashore. The short-lived bus trip to a zip-line tour will be recognisable to anyone who has ever booked a tour in a foreign country, and is enough to make you think twice about booking any more in the future. There are parallels with Scott Smith’s The Ruins here, as we head in-country, towards an unknown disaster waiting to strike.

Do Not Become Alarmed is not a police procedural, and while there is a police presence, it’s not what the story is about. The main detective seems to give only a half-hearted performance – it’s Christmas, and she is covering someone else’s shift – and this forces the reader’s attention back onto the main characters. Alternating between the points of view of the adults and the children, Meloy examines the different ways in which we respond to crises. Tensions immediately arise between the adults, first between Nora and Liv – one of whom was being unfaithful while the other napped – and soon between the wives and their husbands. Recriminations are bandied about as they casually inflict wounds upon each other, home truths revealed as tempers fray and patience grows thin.

The children, meanwhile, are the complete opposite, forming stronger bonds as they deal with this new and frightening situation. Taken by a small group of people when they stumble upon an impromptu burial, they find themselves in a large house in the middle of nowhere, in the care of a cruel man and a small group of thugs. The one saving grace comes in the form of the cruel man’s brother, a man determined to find a way to return the children to their parents without incriminating himself, his family, or the criminal network that they run, because it’s easier on his conscience than killing them and making them disappear. It is interesting to watch this man, George, and his developing relationship with the children, and their opinion of him.

[[Penny’s] heart sank a little when she saw June sitting on George’s knees at the breakfast table. June had been upstairs for like two minutes! And George was really Penny’s discovery. But no one was ever going to take Penny on their lap on first meeting her.]

Each of the characters, both adult and children, leap fully-formed from the page. We can, and do, identify with each of them at different points in the narrative, including George, even though we should be baying for his blood. Meloy has her finger on the pulse of human emotion, and captures the atmosphere brilliantly in her sparse descriptions and clipped dialogue. The contrast between the parents falling apart and the children finding strength in each other’s company is striking. There are times when we question whether the children being returned to their parents is the best possible outcome – the selfishness and horror on show from the so-called mature people leaves a sour taste in the mouth, and leaves any parent hoping that they might care more for their children, and less for themselves, should they ever find themselves in the same situation.

Immediately gripping, Do Not Become Alarmed demands that we read on regardless of what else might be going on around us. It’s a beautifully-written and plausible thriller that is full of heart and humour, with very dark undertones. Powerful and disturbing, it takes us from one shock to the next, building tension towards an ending that could go either way, the real beauty lying in the fact that Meloy keeps us guessing from one page to the next all the way to the final scene. This is the first book I’ve read by Maile Meloy (I’m ashamed to admit that I had never heard her name before Do Not Become Alarmed dropped through my letterbox). It certainly won’t be the last, and I can only urge you to take a chance and possibly find yourself a new favourite author.

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THE LUCKY ONES by Mark Edwards

Edwards_The Lucky Ones (300dpi) THE LUCKY ONES

Mark Edwards (www.markedwardsauthor.com)

Thomas & Mercer (www.amazon.com)

£8.99

Ben Hofland has moved from London back to the small Shropshire town where he grew up, with his eleven-year-old son, following the discovery that his wife was having an affair with one of Ben’s old friends. DI Imogen Evans has fled her own demons in London and is now fighting a sleepier variety of crime with the West Mercia Police. Until, that is, bodies begin to show up, and both Ben and Imogen find themselves at the centre of a string of murders that are seemingly unrelated, but which have all, obviously, been carried out by the same man. In a race against time, Ben and Imogen must pool their resources before one or both of them ends up as the next victim of the so-called Shropshire Viper.

There has, for several years now, been a lot of hype surrounding Mark Edwards and the edge-of-the-seat thrillers he produces at a fairly regular rate. It’s hype that I’ve largely ignored, despite owning copies of some of Mark’s earlier novels. And I have to say, now that I’ve taken the time to read The Lucky Ones, it’s hype that I have ignored at my own cost.

The Lucky Ones takes us to small-town Shropshire, and presents us with two central characters who don’t really belong here: on the one hand, we have Ben, who fled to London as soon as he was able, and has now returned in the hope of giving his young son something approaching a normal life; on the other hand, Imogen is a complete outsider, a detective who has fled her high-profile London Met position to fight crime in the rural West Midlands. Interestingly, it is the outsider who is having more luck settling into this new life, while Ben struggles to find work; is dealing with the slow deterioration of his mother’s health; and dealing with the difficulties of raising a child as a single parent when that child is hostile to his new environment, and the developing situation between his parents.

Into this mix comes the Shropshire Viper, a man who has already killed three times, pumping his victims full of morphine and leaving them in the open to be found, with a smile on their faces. Here Edwards proves to be a master of sleight-of-hand, using the fact that morphine is a controlled drug to immediately suggest a small group of potential suspects. To help with this distraction, Edwards presents the story from a number of points of view: that of Ben Hofland, whose very presence in the story makes him, in the mind of the reader at least, a potential suspect; through the eyes of the killer, though in a way that never reveals his or her identity; and from the point of view of Imogen and her team of detectives as they try to piece together the scant clues they can find to identify the killer or, at the very least, a list of potential suspects.

Edwards’ writing style is engaging and makes The Lucky Ones difficult to put down once you’ve started. The inevitable sexual tension between the newly-single Ben and career-focussed Imogen is, I felt, overplayed and distracts from the story’s main driving force, though never to the extent that it becomes unworkable. In many ways, The Lucky Ones is about human relationships, as becomes clear as the motives of the killer begin to reveal themselves, and while the relationship between Ben and Imogen makes sense in the grander scheme of things, it is Ben’s relationships with his son and his estranged wife that feel most vital.

What is most impressive about The Lucky Ones is the way in which Edwards can construct a mystery that leaves the reader completely in the dark until the big reveal at the end. It’s a pleasant surprise to reach the end of a book like this only to discover that the author has managed to guide you to the wrong path from the outset but still leave you satisfied with the end result.

So, what have we learned? Well, sometimes the hype is true, and that is definitely the case with Mark Edwards. The Lucky Ones is an engrossing and thought-provoking puzzler that manages to get under your skin. Clever and deftly-plotted, it’s one of the better crime novels you’ll read this year, and leaves the reader wanting more. I, for one, will be dusting off Mr Edwards’ backlist while I await his next offering. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

INFLUENCES: Japanese Influences by MARK EDWARDS

EDWARDS 7 TS 28 MARK EDWARDS

Author of: THE LUCKY ONES (2017)
                      THE DEVIL’S WORK (2016)
                      FOLLOW YOU HOME (2015)

On the web: www.markedwardsauthor.com

On Twitter: @mredwards

I lived in Japan for a year, back in the early noughties, teaching ‘English conversation’. This involved sitting in a cubicle with three or four people – salarymen and schoolgirls, construction workers and surgeons – and chatting. It was harder than it sounds.

But my interest in Japanese culture started years before I ever visited the country. In 1995 or ‘96 my then-girlfriend, a library assistant, brought home a battered hardback of a novel called A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami. Back then, hardly anyone in the UK had heard of him, but I was entranced by this book. It was weird and surreal and creepy, the language crisp and elegant. I scoured book shops for his other novels but was only able to find one, Dance Dance Dance.

In the meantime, I read and loved the slim, strange Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, while waiting for more of Murakami’s books to be translated. As his fame in the English-speaking world grew, he became my favourite author. I vividly remember the sensation of reading his epic The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (in two sittings), stunned by his ability to convey complex ideas and emotions in such simple, everyday language. I found a similar stripped-back style suited the stories I was writing, especially The Magpies, the first draft of which was completed around this time.

By the time I moved to Japan in 2002, I had discovered Japanese horror. The subject of books and films came up often in my conversation classes, but I was surprised to find that the majority of my Japanese students hated horror movies – possibly because so many of them really believe in ghosts and spirits – which frustrated my attempts to talk about my favourite films. Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water and Battle Royale. I loved the icy urban setting of these films, terrifying things happening in familiar settings, horror invading real life.

But the Japanese horror film that most influenced me was Audition, which was adapted from a novel by Ryu Murakami (no relation to Haruki). A middle-aged man is looking for love but doesn’t like modern girls with their independent ways. He sets up a fake movie and auditions young women who don’t realise the role is really that of his girlfriend.

For the first half of the movie it seems like a drama, a comment on relationships in contemporary Japan. And then something happens – a moment that is subtle and quiet but utterly chilling. From that point on we hurtle towards the most horrifying climax you will ever see and a scene that remains with me to this day.

Audition taught me that when you’re writing dark tales – and all my psychological thrillers borrow from the horror genre – you don’t need to start with a bang. The slow creep of dread, the gut-churning realisation that there is something sinister happening just out of sight, can be far more effective.

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LEOPARD AT THE DOOR by Jennifer McVeigh

Leopard at the Door LEOPARD AT THE DOOR

Jennifer McVeigh (www.jennifermcveigh.com)

Viking (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk)

£7.99

Eighteen-year-old Rachel Fullsmith has returned to Kenya after a six-year exile following the death of her mother. But the colony to which Rachel is returning is significantly changed from when she was twelve. Her father is now living with another woman and her son; her childhood friend, a Kikuyu boy named Michael is now a grown man, and the tone of their relationship is much darker and more intense; and it is 1952, and the Mau Mau are rebelling against the British Empire, openly fighting with soldiers and killing English farmers and their families as they sleep. Not everyone is happy to see Rachel back in her childhood home, and as tensions grow within the wider community, so too do the tensions between Rachel and her father, and the other strangers who now live in the place she once called home.

Leopard at the Door is another one of those books that doesn’t, at first glance, look like the type of book you normally see here on Reader Dad, but once again it’s the examination of the darker side of the human condition that drew me to this one. Rachel Fullsmith’s story plays against the backdrop of a time of great upheaval in Kenya, as native forces begin attacking the British occupiers, both the soldiers and the settlers, while at the same time fighting a brutal civil war. The changes in Rachel’s life, and the enmity that she finds in the place she once called home add a further layer to this backdrop so that it’s difficult to determine whether we should be more worried about the Mau Mau on the outside, or from the so-called friends of her father who are now regulars at the farmhouse where she grew up.

Rachel is, herself, not a particularly likeable character, a bit too much of the rich spoiled brat to be wholesome and a bit too much the damsel-in-distress stereotypical 1950s-woman-in-Africa. With few exceptions, however, she is the character for whom we feel the most empathy, especially when we discover what awaits her in the Rift Valley, where she spent her formative years. Her father has moved a new woman into the house, a woman he has failed to mention in six years of correspondence, and her familiarity with the local district officer immediately sets Rachel on edge. Her father’s coldness, and seeming disinterest at her return do little to make her feel welcome, and so she seeks solace in the people and routine of her childhood – the local native village which provides much of the house’s servants and workers has also changed, as have the attitudes of the white settlers to these natives who were once taught and nursed by Rachel’s mother, who were essentially part of the family, despite the social and racial differences that separated them from their English employers.

Where McVeigh excels is in her ability to evoke Kenya of the early 1950s, from the feeling of oppressive heat, through the danger of sharing this piece of the planet with dangerous animals (leopard are not the only thing at the door, as we encounter elephants and lions during our visit to the Rift Valley), to the political dangers of occupying a land whose natives want it back, and will stop at nothing to take it from you. The tensions between the English and the Kikuyu are particularly well rendered, and we feel the shock of their reality as we discover them through Rachel’s eyes: here are tensions that did not exist six years earlier, racist attitudes and a feeling of supremacy that would have been unheard of when her mother ran the house. This forms the solid core of the novel around which al else feels, at times, almost incidental.

As the story progresses, and the threat of violence becomes ever more real, Rachel’s grip on what should be begins to falter, and she finds herself questioning everything. The reader becomes her only witness, powerless to help her despite the overwhelming desire to shake her and force her to see the reality of her situation. The result of her doggedness to believe in her father leads to scenes of horror that are so intense they leave the reader almost breathless. These are the scenes that will stay with us long after we have finished the book, regardless of what comes after, and it is this that elevates Leopard at the Door from merely good fiction to something excellent and frighteningly insightful.

Jennifer McVeigh takes us on a guided tour through Kenya in the latter days of its status as British colony and, in so doing, examines the concept of human relationships on every level from the microscopic to the microcosmic. Insightful and at times disturbing, Leopard at the Door is a book that works itself under the reader’s skin, making it one of the more memorable books you’re likely to read this year, even if it’s unlikely to find its way into your list of favourites. Either way, it’s certainly worth the effort.

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ALL THE GOOD THINGS by Clare Fisher

 

ATGT.jpg ALL THE GOOD THINGS

Clare Fisher (clarefisherwriter.com)Viking (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk)

£12.99

Beth is 21 and in prison, her life ruined by a bad thing that she feels there is no atonement for. Her counsellor, Erika, gives Beth a notebook and asks her to write down all the good things in her life.

“But what if…I can’t think of any?”

If you’ve never seen a sad smile, you should’ve seen hers just then. “You will.”

And Erika is right. As Beth approaches the bad thing she has done, carefully, creeping up on it by way of the things that make her happy, a portrait of a troubled young life emerges, proof that even the “worst” people are never all bad.

I know what you’re thinking: Clare Fisher’s debut, All The Good Things, is not at all the type of book you expect to see featured here on Reader Dad. And you’re right, yet there was something about this slim tale of twenty-one-year-old Bethany that captured my attention and made this a must-read. Like many of the books I enjoy, Fisher’s story examines the darkness at the heart of the human soul; unlike many, though, it finds many redeeming qualities, a well-timed message that we’re not all as horrible as all that, at least not all of the time.

All The Good Things is structured as a kind of diary, Beth’s list of good things with explanatory notes. What emerges as we spend time with this young woman is a portrait of a stereotypical teenager with more than their fair share of bad luck, and an overwhelming sense of “wrong place, wrong time”. Beth has grown up in the British foster care system, shifted from one set of temporary parents to another, often for the most mundane of reasons: a young couple who have finally gotten pregnant and feel that the presence of an older foster child will somehow negatively impact the relationship with their natural child; an older parent who dies. As Beth grows, and the list of parents grows longer, so too does her impatience with the system, so that she ultimately rebels and ends up looking like the stereotypical problem child.

Beth pulls no punches, using the notebook as the perfect excuse to be brutally honest with herself, safe in the knowledge that no-one will ever read it unless she gives them permission to. Her problems haunt her as she enters the prison system, an aloofness born from the desire to have no ties, but which marks her out as someone who thinks she is better than everyone else. As she learns from her past experiences, her relationships inside begin to flower, too. Fisher places us squarely in the middle of Beth’s head, and that’s no mean feat: what do I, a 41-year-old man, know about being a 21-year-old girl who is a product of a failed foster care system? And yet, I feel an empathy with Beth, a sense that “there but by the grace of god”.

The story focuses on the simple pleasures in life: reading, running, “a soft ear in hard times” or “[s]melling a baby’s head right into your heart”. Beth writes for herself, and for her baby, and this approach breeds an honesty that is at times touching, at others almost difficult to witness. Yet there can only be one outcome, and the fact that this is a prison diary of sorts is a constant reminder of just what that outcome is. “The bad thing”, when it is finally revealed towards the novel’s end, comes as no great surprise, as horrific and heart-rending as it is, and our witnessing it as we do, through Beth’s eyes, leaves us with a sense of deep sympathy, rather than the self-hatred that is eating the young protagonist from the inside, a sense that what happened was inevitable, unavoidable and, as such, should not be the sole responsibility of this lonely young girl.

All The Good Things lives up to its title if not its subject matter, and succeeds in being an upbeat and strangely life-affirming tale. Fisher breathes life into Bethany, giving her a unique and affecting voice and a story that gets under the skin and demands that we have an opinion, that we are more than a casual observer. Beautifully told, this tale of a life only half-lived will stay with the reader for a long time and will ultimately leave us with a much sunnier outlook on life. You can’t afford to miss it.

GWENDY’S BUTTON BOX by Stephen King & Richard Chizmar

Gwendys Button Box - King Chizmar GWENDY’S BUTTON BOX

Stephen King (stephenking.com)
Richard Chizmar (richardchizmar.com)

Cemetery Dance Publications (cemeterydance.com)

$25.00

Gwendy Peterson is just twelve years old when she meets Richard Farris at the top of the Suicide Stairs which lead from Castle Rock to the playground on Castle View. Richard Farris gives Gwendy a box and tells her that she is now its custodian – Farris has been watching her for a while, as he does with many others, and has decided that the responsibility must be hers, for as long as he wishes to leave it in her possession. The box has two levers and eight buttons, six of which correspond to the planet’s continents. The red button is for whatever the box’s owner wishes, and the black one is for everything, “The whole shebang”, as Farris tells Gwendy. Then he disappears, leaving her with the box, and only a tiny inkling of what the buttons might do. It remains largely hidden as Gwendy grows, though it will ultimately bring tragedy; how much, only Gwendy can decide.

“Take care of the box. I advise you not to let anyone find it, not just your parents, because people are curious. When they see a lever, they want to pull it. And when they see a button, they want to push it.”

Gwendy’s Button Box, a collaboration between Stephen King and long-time friend, publisher of the wonderful Cemetery Dance magazine and author, Richard Chizmar, presents a short and bittersweet glimpse into the teenage and early adult years of Gwendy Peterson, and the burden that has been placed on her by this mysterious man with his strange black hat that turns up in the most unexpected places. The novella gives King and Constant Reader a chance to revisit one of his most enduring creations, the Western Maine town of Castle Rock, but this is not a visit to the modern-day town; this is the Castle Rock of Sheriff George Bannerman and the Castle Rock Strangler; the Castle Rock which is home to a rabid St Bernard; the Castle Rock before Leland Gaunt came along with his must-have knickknacks and his thirst for destruction. Gwendy’s story runs in parallel to King’s earliest novels and while, surprisingly, there are few references to the events going on in the wider town, it still feels like something of a homecoming.

Constant Reader will also recognise Richard Farris as one of the many pseudonyms of King’s Dark Man, Randall Flagg. Here his role seems somewhat more benevolent than we might expect, even though he is placing an artefact of unimaginable power and, essentially, the fate of humankind, into the care of a twelve-year-old girl in a small backwater town. We can only imagine that this is some kind of game for the man who represents the ultimate evil in King’s universe, a way to place temptation in the path of a weak-willed race, and see how long they can refrain from satisfying their curiosity.

For much of the story, the box lies hidden in various places, Gwendy having taken Farris’ advice, full of threatening potential. Gwendy’s Button Box is, essentially, a coming-of-age tale, following Gwendy from pre-teen to young adult, placing her in positions where the box might have an impact, and watching as she decides whether to use it or not. The authors sum up the question at the heart of the novella in an early scene:

“What if you had a button, a special magic button, and if you pushed it, you could kill somebody, or maybe just make them disappear, or blow up any place you were thinking of? What person would you make disappear or what place would you blow up?”

It’s an age-old question, one that has been examined in fiction many times before, going as far back as W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” and beyond, given the Stephen King treatment and placed in the familiar surroundings of a universe where Constant Reader will always feel at home. The collaboration is seamless, Richard Chizmar holding his own alongside one of the genre’s greatest writers, and exposing his name to the much wider readership that his writing deserves.

Here’s something you don’t hear about a Stephen King book too often: it’s too short! There’s material aplenty here to turn novella to novel, but that may just be me being greedy. It’s long enough to keep us going until Sleeping Beauties, making this the year of King collaborations, a small, perfect gem of a story that will make you stop and think, force you to consider the question of what you would do if you had that special magic button. It’s beautifully packaged, as you might expect from the perfectionists at Chizmar’s Cemetery Dance Publications, and illustrated throughout by the excellent Keith Minnion.

Gwendy’s Button Box is likely to be one of King’s lesser-known stories, given its small-press origins, but it is definitely worth hunting down a copy. “Classic” King, it’s filled with the insight and humour that we’ve come to expect, as well as the distinctive narrative voice that lures the reader into the story. It’s also a wonderful showcase for Richard Chizmar, an excellent author in his own right, who deserves to be much more widely-read than he currently is. Thought-provoking and chill-inducing, this is a wonderful addition to the King canon, and the perfect excuse to go back to the start, and revisit the small town of Castle Rock.

Extract: TIME TO WIN by Harry Brett

Time To Win TIME TO WIN

Harry Brett (www.henrysutton.co.uk/harry-brett)

Corsair (www.littlebrown.co.uk)

£16.99

There was a time when the sound of rain was comforting, calming. Now it pissed her off. It was autumn already, she remembered. September 1. It was not her favourite month. She let the patter swirl around her head for another few minutes, realising she was listening out for something else. Breathing, snoring. But it wasn’t there. She lifted her head, opening her eyes. Propped herself on her elbows. Rich wasn’t there.

Tatty flung back her side of the duvet and climbed out onto the soft carpet, peering through the gloom for her dressing gown. She got to the blinds before spotting it in its own silky puddle, having slipped off the back of the chaise longue. Rich was forever castigating her for leaving her clothes lying around, clothes he’d spent a lot of money on.

She opened the blinds, taking in the wet grey slapping against the huge French doors. In only her nightie, short, also silk, she had an urge to open the doors, step out onto the balcony and feel the wet and cold on her skin. She needed to wake up, shake the Zimovane from her system. Looking out across the stretch of wide, dull grass that made up the top of Gorleston’s tired esplanade to a short stretch of gunmetal grey sea, which all too rapidly merged with sky, she thought better of it. She reached down for her dressing gown, stood, noticing a couple of figures, directly across Marine Parade.

They were not facing her way, not moving either, but hunched together on the pavement by the entrance to the last car park on the front, like the world they hated owed them everything. They were wearing scum gear, as Rich would call it. Hoodies, tracksuit bottoms, cheap trainers. None of which, she suspected, had ever been near a washing machine, or paid for. Smoke began swirling around their covered heads. A car, a long, light brown Lexus, rolled from the car park, seemingly nudging them out of the way, and they set off, in an absurd loping gait, towards Yarmouth, from where no doubt they had come.

Relieved, Tatty stepped back from the French doors and slipped her gown on, realising how dim the bedroom still was. Lights, she needed lights, warmth, on this most dull of early autumn mornings. She made her way straight to the en-suite, pressing the control panel as she entered. With a ceiling of halogen beating down on her she keyed the shower buttons, and caught herself in the mirror as the water gained heat. Her tan was fading fast. The air in this part of the world stripped you like sulphuric acid. Sun rarely happened.

Rich had said she shouldn’t bother coming back with him from Ibiza. She could spend another month by the pool. No, she couldn’t. There was the Smokehouse project nearing completion, her elder children to see, the house to get ready for Zach’s return, before he was off again. ‘You’ll not be seeing much of me, sweetheart,’ Rich had said. ‘We’re that close to getting the Americans on board. And I expect I’ll have to be in Athens at some point soon.’ He always wanted her out of the way. She never saw much of him. He hadn’t even come home last night. It wasn’t the first time.

Slowly the shower restored some feeling, some clarity. Stepping out, wrapping the towel around her paling body, she felt a tired, dull anger growing. He could have rung. He could have left a message. ‘I didn’t want to disturb you, sweetheart. Not in the middle of the night. I don’t know where the time went. But we made great progress. It’ll be signed within days.’ Those would be his shady words, when he did show up, she could imagine all too well. He rarely surprised her.

To check once more she walked back through to the bedroom, to her bedside table, the mobile on it. No texts or voicemails from Rich. Or email, not that that was his style. He never emailed her. He emailed his kids, but not her. She wasn’t sure he even knew her email address. Wrapped in a towel, she picked up the phone, shook it, as if that might somehow refresh the apps. Nothing changed. She wasn’t going to ring him.

Throwing it on the mound of duvet in the middle of the bed, she then picked up her watch, which until recently was his watch – a heavy white gold Rolex. He now had an Apple Watch, the 18-carat rose gold one, which he barely knew how to use. It was just past nine. Late for her, but she was still on holiday time. She put the chunky Rolex on and, edging towards the French window, she thought about what she was going to wear today. What could you wear to protect yourself against that? Not some shitty tracksuit, for sure. Oilskins. The word came to her, as if from another country. Another century anyway. Did people still wear oilskins? Did they still exist?

The scum were not in sight, anywhere up Marine Parade, but someone was at the door. The front door. She could hear the bell, ding-donging away downstairs. That sound was from another century, because the bell had been there when they’d bought the place, nearly thirty years ago now. It was the only thing they hadn’t changed. Rich thought it quaint.

Who the hell could be ringing it at this time? Her mind was now clear enough to process information, to think more rationally. It was too early for the post or a parcel delivery. It was not the kids, having forgotten their keys, which used to be such a common occurrence, because Sam and Ben were in London, where they’d been all summer, and Zach was in the Atlantic. Could Rich somehow have forgotten or lost his? It had never happened before. Besides, he wouldn’t use the bell, he’d thump on the door, and shout when no one came quick enough.

She was out of the bedroom and hurrying along the landing when she realised she was still wrapped in nothing more than a towel. But it was a far more modest piece of cloth than her dressing gown. She continued down the wide, softly carpeted stairs and along the hard oak floor of the hallway, lit only by the poor natural light seeping through the smoked security glass panel at the top of the door. She thought she could make out a head, in a hood. Just before she reached the door she felt something shift deep inside her. A small tremor.

She had a sudden, terrible urge to confront life, full on, sod any precautions that Rich was always so insistent upon. She flung open the door, not thinking whether the security chain was in place, anger and aggression coursing through. She knew it was not going to be good news. It never was when people visited them out of the blue. ‘Hello?’ she said, though faintly, short of breath.

‘Mrs Goodwin?’ A woman stepped forward.

She was shorter than Tatty, rounder and far paler, and stuffed into a too-tight dark waterproof. That’s what people wore now, waterproofs, made from high-tech synthetic fabrics. Zach had loads. ‘Yes?’ Tatty said.

‘I’m Detective Sergeant Julie Spiros, family liaison officer for Norfolk Constabulary, West Yarmouth branch, and this is Detective Inspector Peter Leonard.’ She was holding out her ID. Scum of a different sort.

The man next to her nodded, his lips shut tight in a grimace. His waterproof was hanging off him by the hood. He was tall and skeletal. He was not holding out his ID. He didn’t need to.

‘May we come in?’ Spiros said, stepping closer. ‘Perhaps we can go somewhere where you can sit down. Is anyone else in the house?’

Tatty must have nodded a yes, and then shook a no, her confidence already shot, because she found herself walking backwards with the two police officers. A chunk of cold wet cloud came inside with them. Their wet shoes squeaked on the oak flooring, and Tatty was pleased Rich wasn’t there because he would have been livid with them for not wiping their feet properly.

‘Would you like to put some clothes on?’ Spiros said. ‘I can come with you.’

Tatty looked down at the white towel. She was still damp from her shower. The air in the hall was now damp too, and cold. She would like to get dressed. But it was never quick. She was not going to let someone she didn’t know come with her either. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m OK.’

At the end of the large hall, to the left of the staircase, tucking the towel tighter around her, she didn’t know which way to go, into the sitting room, or the kitchen. Would they want tea, coffee? Was she meant to make them a drink? Rich had always treated the police with as much courtesy as he could muster. She thought she needed a coffee at least. It was the right time in the morning, so she led them that way.

In the huge kitchen, which once upon a time had been a double garage, she made straight for the marble-topped island, reached out for its thick, firm edge, turned to face her unexpected visitors, realising she was not going to make any coffee until they told her why they were there. They knew it too.

‘Would you like to sit down?’ said Spiros, glancing around the cold airy place, at the acres of glass looking out onto thick drizzle.

There were bar stools around the island, and over in a corner the glass-topped dining table, around which stood some steel chairs. It was not a comfortable kitchen. It was rarely warm, despite the under-floor heating. ‘Why are you here?’ Tatty said, a voice, her voice coming back.

‘I’m sorry, but we have some bad news,’ said Spiros. ‘Please, sit down.’ The man, Leonard, had still to say a word.

‘No,’ Tatty said. Not sure whether she was saying no to the idea of bad news, or no to the order to sit down. Her mind flashed to her children. Ben would be at work, in the City. Sam would be at work, down the road in Holborn. Zach would be being tossed around in the Bay of Biscay. It could get very rough, so she’d been told. Even at this time of the year. Had the boat capsized? Sunk? How would anyone know, so soon? An emergency signal set off? A tiny beacon in monstrous waves, Zach clinging to a life raft. He was a strong, tough kid.

‘There’s been a fatal incident,’ said Leonard.

So he did speak, when it mattered. And Tatty felt like she was in a bad TV show. She shook her head, found she was still clinging, not to a life raft but the marble top of the kitchen island. His voice was as thin and grave as his stature.

‘A car, your husband’s car, went into the river by Fish Wharf, the back of his offices,’ Leonard continued.

‘I’m afraid your husband’s body was found in the car this morning, by police divers,’ said Spiros.

‘Oh,’ said Tatty. ‘Oh.’

‘An operation is underway to retrieve the vehicle,’ said Leonard.

‘What about him – Rich?’ said Tatty. ‘Where’s he?’

‘The body has been recovered from the water,’ said Spiros, her face colouring. ‘There was nothing anyone could do. I’m so sorry.’

‘How? How did it happen?’ Tatty said. She found she’d let go of the marble top. She also found she could breathe. Zach’s boat had not sunk. He had not drowned. Rich had drowned.

‘We don’t know yet,’ said Leonard. ‘Obviously we’ll be doing everything we can to get to the bottom of what happened. Have you found any notes?’

‘Notes?’ said Tatty, feeling her mouth move in ways she knew were not appropriate.

‘Explaining perhaps why he might wish to take his life?’

‘You think he committed suicide?’ She almost laughed.

‘We’ll need to look at everything,’ Leonard continued. ‘There’ll be a post-mortem.’

‘It’s definitely him, is it?’ Tatty said, quite calmly.

‘We believe so,’ said Spiros. ‘If you’d like to see the body, we can arrange that.’

‘Yes,’ said Tatty. That was the thing to do, wasn’t it? She looked down once more at her towel, at her shins, her feet poking out and now looking rather brown against the white marble. She tried harder not to smile. ‘When?’

‘We’ll make the arrangements, and let you know.’ Spiros again. ‘Is there anyone you’d like to call, who you’d like to be here with you, this morning? Can we call anyone for you?’

There was, but Tatty was not going to say who. She felt her heart rushing forward.

‘I’m afraid,’ said Leonard, ‘that given who your husband was, we’re not sure how long his death will remain out of the media.’

‘We urge you,’ chipped in Spiros, ‘to contact family members, friends, those people who need to know, as soon possible.’

There weren’t many. Ben, Sam, Megan perhaps, Nina too – she’d be upset. ‘But Zach’s in the middle of the Atlantic,’ she said. ‘His phone won’t be working.’

‘Can I make you a cup of tea?’ said Spiros.

Tatty hadn’t noticed her accent before.

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INFLUENCES: Why I Write Crime Fiction by CANDICE FOX

9781784758066 Name: CANDICE FOX

Author of: CRIMSON LAKE (2016)

On the web: candicefoxauthor.com

On Twitter: candicefoxbooks

There was a lot of crime in my childhood, so my interest in crime began there, even if I wasn’t writing it as a young’un. My mother fostered 150+ kids who generally came from abusive, neglectful and criminal backgrounds. My father worked at a prison and my mother was a true crime nut who told real-life crime stories to us as kids. I used to peruse true crime mags and books in her bedroom from an inappropriately young age, which has probably desensitised me.

When I started writing I was trying to emulate the stories I liked, so I wrote gangster stories because I was a huge Martin Scorsese fan. But I didn’t have a good idea of structure, and found vampire stories (which are essentially just romances at times) easier when I was 16 or so and fell into Anne Rice and the like. A lot of those gothic influences linger, certainly most obviously in the Bennett/Archer series. I swung back toward Australian crime when I started reading Peter Temple in my early twenties.

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