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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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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GUEST POST: Osbert and Me by GAVIN SCOTT

Age of Olympus final front cvr Name: GAVIN SCOTT

Author of: THE AGE OF TREACHERY (2016)
                      THE AGE OF OLYMPUS (2017)

On the web: gavinscott.co

On Twitter: @gavinscott942

Osbert and Me

Gavin Scott

The first character to speak in The Age of Olympus is Osbert Lancaster, who was, in real life the press attaché to the British Embassy in Athens in 1946 when the events of the novel take place. I am a great fan of Osbert Lancaster, and have been since before I knew who he was. This was because of a book published in 1948 that I came across in the home of my best friend, Conrad Pharazyn, in Havelock North, New Zealand, in 1962.

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It told the story of William de Littlehampton, who was guilt-tripped by his mother into going on Crusade (that’s him leaving in the picture on the left) and came back a hero (there he is on the front cover) and I found it was very, very funny. This is the somewhat bloodthirsty and quite politically incorrect drawing I loved best.

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Osbert was born in 1908, (looking rather less fierce, one hopes, than he does in this picture) during that golden Edwardian era before World War One, and went the famous Charterhouse school, whose headmaster kindly described him as “irretrievably gauche” and “a sad disappointment.” But at Oxford his friends included such future luminaries as Beverly Nichols, Cecil Day-Lewis, Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton, Randolph Churchill and John Betjeman. Whether despite or because of this galaxy of soon to be famous friends, he graduated with a fourth class degree, but found his true métier (and his wife, Karen) when studying drawing and design at the Slade School of Art. He then began a prolific career as an illustrator of other people’s books, a writer and illustrator of his own, a stage designer and a cartoonist for the Daily Express for which he drew over 10,000 cartoons, which gave the British people great cheer during the war.

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Osbert appears in The Age of Olympus when the Foreign Office sent him to Athens as a press attaché in 1946, where he claimed to have saved the life of Winston Churchill from a communist sniper in the garden of the British Embassy. In the picture below, which I think was taken in that very garden, Osbert is the natty-looking character on the far right, looking quizzically at the gigantic figure of Archbishop Damaskinos, the regent of Greece, who also features in the story, together with his silver-topped cane.

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In fact it’s through Osbert that Duncan Forrester and Sophie meet the Archbishop and most of the other characters who are to play a role in the drama, and for my depiction of life in Athens at the time, I drew heavily on his wonderful description of Greece in 1946, Classical Landscape With Figures.

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His friendship with John Betjemen and their mutual delight in traditional English architecture and contempt for most contemporary buildings resulted in a series of magnificently witty books in which Osbert not only drew beautifully clear pictures of every imaginable architectural style, but gave them magnificent names which have tended to stick – such as Wimbledon Transitional and Stockbroker’s Tudor.

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To say nothing of Carpenter’s Gothic.

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You can find them in a series of books on architecture, culminating in the highly illuminating Cartoon History of same.

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Then there is his work for the stage, and for the Festival of Britain, and two delightful volumes of autobiography, All Done From Memory (1963) and With an Eye to the Future (1967). He was knighted in 1975, one of the few cartoonists ever to receive the honour, and died in 1986 at 77 in Chelsea. His obituary in the Times said he was "The most polite and unsplenetic of cartoonists, he was never a crusader, remaining always a witty, civilized critic with a profound understanding of the vagaries of human nature."

But I will always remember him for the wonderfully bloodthirsty drawings in The Saracen’s Head, and the pleasure they gave me as I sat in the shade of the Pharazyn’s porch below the Havelock Hills when I was twelve years old.

And of course, as well as Osbert himself, there’s a crusader in my book, too.

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GUEST POST: Cosenza by THOMAS H. COOK

Thomas Cook Name: THOMAS H. COOK

Author of: TRAGIC SHORES (2017)

On Twitter: @thomashcook

Thomas H. Cook, an author best known for his crime novels, turns his pen to describing his many travels in his latest book, Tragic Shores, which examines some of the darkest places on the planet. It is available now from Quercus Books priced £20.00 and is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, well worth the read. I’m very pleased to welcome Thomas to Reader Dad with a brief excerpt from the book.

One day nearly twenty-five years ago, my family and I were travelling through Italy. It had been a very long day, and the weather was very hot. My wife, who was always the driver in our family, was tired. She wanted to take a nap before going on.

She was good at naps. She could take a ten-minute one and wake up fully restored. My daughter Justine and I couldn’t nap at all. So while Susan snoozed happily behind the wheel, Justine and I went for a walk.

We were in the town of Cosenza, on Italy’s western coast. There is not much to recommend Cosenza. It didn’t even have what Justine had come to call “broken pot museums.” The river that runs through the town is equally nondescript. It is the Busento, and it is short and brown, and not at all lovely.

Justine and I ended up strolling along the banks of the Busento. Justine was twelve years old, and although she was a wonderful travelling companion, always curious and adventurous, and never one to complain, on this sweltering afternoon, I could tell that she was both mentally and physically exhausted.

We stopped in a mercifully shaded area along the river and peered down at it.

There wasn’t much to see. The Busento was not the Tiber, the Thames, the Hudson, or the Seine. Predictably, Justine was unimpressed.

I had not expected anything to happen that day. Certainly, I hadn’t expected anything to happen that would so vividly confirm a proposition that had been building in my mind. As we’d travelled about Europe, using Madrid as our base, I’d come to notice how much deeper our experience as a family was when we visited dark places. We’d been to Disneyland as a family, as well as the huge water park outside Madrid, but it was at sights of grim renown that we’d had our best conversations. Could it be that the most valuable family vacations, and the most memorably, were had not in amusement parks, no matter how extravagant, but in sites where tragic events had taken place?

Tragic ShoresAt Cosenza, I tested this theory.

As we stood in the shade, I nodded toward the poor little Busento, then related a tale I’d probably picked up from the travel guide.

“Alaric is buried in that river,” I said. “He was the last pagan emperor of the Roman Empire.”

Justine seemed barely interested. “How do you bury somebody in a river?” she asked.

“Well, in this case, slaves were used to dig a channel,” I answered. “The river was then rerouted to flow into that channel. Then Alaric’s grave was dug in the old riverbed. Once he was buried, the slaves filled in the channel they’d dug and the river resumed its original course.”

I saw that this story had made the Busento a bit more interesting to Justine, but not all that much. So what if some emperor was buried here? It was still hot, and she was still tired.

And so I added, “And after the river was back in its channel, all the slaves were put to death so that none of them could reveal the exact place where Alaric lies.”

It was then I saw the unique light that comes from darkness, that feeling of empathy that is the distinguishing mark of human beings.

It was an empathy for human life we wanted to encourage and broaden and share. And so after Cosenza, my family and I made a point of visiting some of the darkest places on earth. We went to Auschwitz together, to the salt mines outside Krakow, to Elmina, the great holding cell of slavery, in Ghana, to Waterloo, as well as many other dark places around the world, travels that taught us both individually and as a family, that there is much to be gained where much has been lost.

As a father, I encourage other families to do the same.

An Interview With DAVE HUTCHINSON by George Sandison

61b127488e3dc8bfdaca50ccc7ccc062_original 2084

Unsung Stories (unsungstories.co.uk)

Currently on Kickstarter: unsungstories.co.uk/2084

Indie publisher Unsung Stories are currently running a Kickstarter project to fund the release of 2084, an anthology of dystopian fiction from some of the biggest names in the genre. Fully funded within the first 24 hours, the anthology is now heading towards its third stretch goal. You can find out all the information you need, and back this awesome project, here. In case you need any further encouragement, check out the current list of contributors:

    • Jeff Noon
    • Christopher Priest
    • James Smythe
    • Lavie Tidhar
    • Aliya Whiteley
    • David Hutchinson
    • Cassandra Khaw
    • Desirina Boskovich
    • Anne Charnock
    • Ian Hocking
    • Oliver Langmead
    • Courttia Newland
    • Irenosen Okojie

To celebrate the birth of this ambitious anthology, Unsung Stories publisher, George Sandison, has interviewed author Dave Hutchinson about his story, the anthology and lots more. So, sit back, relax and enjoy the video below.

An Interview with ANTONIN VARENNE

image003 (1) Name: ANTONIN VARENNE

Author of: BED OF NAILS (2012)
                      LOSER’S CORNER (2014)
                      RETRIBUTION ROAD (2017)

Antonin Varenne was awarded the Prix Michel Lebrun and the Grand Prix du Jury Sang d’encre for Bed of Nails, his first novel to be translated into English. His second, Loser’s Corner was awarded the Prix des Lecteurs Quais du polar – 20 minutes and the Prix du Meilleur Polar Francophone. Retribution Road, translated into English by Sam Taylor and published by MacLehose Press is now available.

Thank you, Antonin, for taking the time to chat with us.

The scope of Retribution Road is vast, ranging from the East India Company’s campaign in Burma to the fledgling American West almost a decade later. What sort of research was involved in ensuring you got all the detail correct?

Research materials come from all sorts of sources, books, movies, documentaries, the internet and a few blogs. I read hardly any novels about this time period and the places in the book, only studies, biographies, even a bit of Darwin’s theory that I had studied at the university years back. I read the books that the main character, Arthur Bowman, discovers along his journey; Irving Washington, Thoreau… but they were not novels either. Reading a contemporary historian like Howard Zinn was inspirational too. The scene of the arrival of Bowman in New York, in the middle of a demonstration of female workers, is a tribute to Zinn’s historical work and political engagement. Sometimes, I read to get material for a scene, sometimes reading gave me the idea of a scene. It goes both ways.

And how does this compare to the research involved in writing a contemporary French-set thriller such as Bed of Nails?

The freedom of imagining a story is comparable for two books as different as these two, but in a contemporary universe, a lot of things don’t have to be checked: I know the speed of the cars, the name of the train stations, I know the towns… In Retribution Road, I had to check everything: how fast does a rider on his horse travel, when does he have to change the horses, was there a town or waterway on his itinerary, could you drink a draft beer in London in 1858? Take a train to Liverpool and be back the next day? How long did it take to sail from Madras to Rangoon? How many soldiers were there on a war ship of the East India Company? Were there worker unions in the US in 1859? And so on. To be accurate, you sometimes spend two or three hours to fine-tune a little detail, which is something you don’t have to think about when writing contemporary fiction. But it is part of the pleasure as well, to immerse yourself into the research. As I mentioned before, it is fuel for the imagination.

One of the most striking things about the novel is that we never learn the whole truth about what happened to Arthur Bowman and his team during their six months of captivity in the jungle. We catch little more than glimpses of the horror they experienced as the story progresses, and through the map of scars on Bowman’s body. Can you talk us through the logic behind this decision?

It came from a decision I made after I published my very first book in 2006 (not translated). I didn’t think too much about the impact it could have, and it had almost none since it sold only a few hundred copies! But it was very violent, a serial killer story. Then I realized that violence had become an industry in the thriller genre, that if I was to really become a writer, I had to take a position on that matter. So I decided not to not write about violence, but to not do it lightly. No blood for the thrills, but to talk about something with more importance, like war and its traumas (Bed Of Nails), torture (Loser’s Corner). When I chose a veteran as the main character of Retribution Road, both executioner and victim, I still decided be careful with the treatment of violence; in this book there is another serial killer, but the causes that induce his behaviour are more important than the creation of yet another killer, just for the sake of it. So the descriptions of the murders are rather elliptic, and the same goes for the torture in Burma. Another thing that I had discovered writing Loser’s Corner, about the institutionalization of torture during the Algerian war, is that sometimes not seeing is as scary and potent as telling everything.

What are you working on now? Should we expect more sweeping historical epics (and maybe even a return of Arthur Bowman), or are we likely to see a return to the Gallic noir through which we first encountered you?

Well, I just published a book named “Equateur” in France, not really a sequel to Retribution Road, but a story starting where Arthur Bowman’s ends, in the USA, in 1872. But this time the travel doesn’t follow the sunset in the west, but goes down south, in Central America, then French Guyana where I spent a year with my family. And I am now writing a story whose principal character is related to Arthur Bowman (I don’t want to spoil his story), in 1900, at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. I think this third book would be the end of this cycle. After that, I think about something completely different.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

It’s hard to just mention a few names, and to know which ones really have been influential on my writing: but in France I would say Jean-Patrick Manchette, and one of the first American writers I discovered, James Ellroy, but my admiration for him is fading (he never went past his obsessions, and his creativity kind of dried out, or it’s me who’s not into that kind of reading anymore, I don’t know); same kind of lost love for Cormac McCarthy (I thought he was the king of using the least amount of words necessary, then I realized that in fact he was sometimes very, very talkative; I could never finish reading Blood Meridian; he is a fabulous writer, but I just got bored, or I had something else to do…).

And as a follow-on, do you have a favourite book, something that you return to on a regular basis?

That would be We Come Back As Shadows (don’t know if it is the title chosen in English) by the great Mexican author Paco Ignacio Taibo II. He is an historian by trade, and an eternal creator of amazing adventures in different time periods of his home country. He is a political activist, a heavy smoker, a man who cultivates friendship and love.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Antonin Varenne look like?

A writing day must start early in the morning, without a hangover and without too much sun, because then I go ride my motorcycles. If it is a good day for writing, I will skip lunch, human communication with my family, and come out of my office like a zombie, wondering what is that strange unreal world surrounding me.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Wow. To pursue fiction writing, you need to like and want to write before thinking about making a career out of it. It seems sometimes that success in literature comes from a recipe, ingredients well mixed and good marketing; but it is because somebody somewhere started something and usually did it sincerely, genuinely; then it became a trend and the others followed and copied. So to make a career, you start by writing what you want. And if it is different, it might take a while to find its readers, but if it is good, it will take off. If you worry about what people will think and want of your books, your personality is dead. It’s like starting to wonder: what people will think about Antonin Varenne after reading this interview? Is he spontaneous or a pretentious prick who says Ellroy and McCarthy aren’t that good? If I asked myself the question, I would write and rewrite my answers indefinitely till I turn crazy trying to please every reader. And the only way to do that is to write platitudes. The truth? I’m in the middle of an insomnia, it is dawn and I’m awake since 3 in the morning and my brain runs on its own weird sugar. Probably a good time to start a new book!

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

Purely business! A biography and engineering piece: Rudolf Diesel, The Man And The Engine!

If Arthur Bowman’s story should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

Argh. I’m sure Bowman’s role can seduce lots of actors (strong, broken, heroic, romantic too, on his way to redemption), and I have no doubt lots of them have the talent, but it will take an actor with wide and strong shoulders to do it, because he is carrying a whole world on them, the colonial 19th century, plus all his personal idiosyncrasies!

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)?

Well, I would have a few drinks of any sort with Jack London. Probably, the first few rounds would be friendly, but later in the evening we’d have to discuss why a clever, talented and adventurous human being like him was such a racist pig. Him being a much stronger boxer, it would end up badly for me, but it could as well be the beginning of a real friendship, no?

Thank you once again, Antonin, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

RETRIBUTION ROAD by Antonin Varenne

image001 RETRIBUTION ROAD

Antonin Varenne

Translated by Sam Taylor (samtaylorwriter.wixsite.com/sam-taylor-writer)

MacLehose Press (www.maclehosepress.com)

£18.99

Sergeant Arthur Bowman is a fifteen-year veteran of the East India Company’s private army when he and his team are taken prisoner in Burma in 1852. Six months of torture leave him mentally and physically scarred when he is released along with nine of the men who were captured with him, and he returns to London. Working as a policeman, he finds a body in the sewers, a body whose mutilation is uncannily like his own, with the word “SURVIVE” daubed in blood beside it. Only ten men could have perpetrated this horrific crime, and Bowman is determined to find out which one before the crime is pinned on him. From Burma, through Nineteenth Century England and the burgeoning New World, we follow Arthur Bowman is his search for a killer, and for a reason to live.

Antonin Varenne’s new novel is a wild departure from his earlier, noirish offerings, but anyone who has read those earlier works will immediately recognise the author’s skilful hand in this Patrick O’Brian meets Arthur Conan Doyle meets Larry McMurtry epic of one man’s search for retribution and redemption in both the beautiful narrative style and the intense, gritty world that Arthur Bowman inhabits.

Bowman himself is a hard character to like, a man who speaks little and seems to hold those around him in contempt for much of the time. When he is tasked with picking a group for a special mission that he will then lead, he finds himself facing capture or death, and shows – in no uncertain terms – what he is prepared to do in order to survive. Varenne places us, very early in the story, in the middle of a pitched river battle in which we get to see the true Arthur Bowman, a man for whom we have had very little empathy up to this point, but whose actions and interactions endear him to us as violence rages around him.

His time in England, just another damaged war veteran, builds upon this stoic character to show us how far he will go to obtain justice. One of the men he chose that day in Burma is now a murderer, and Bowman feels no small measure of blame for it and so, pulling himself together, getting his life into some sort of order, he sets out to find which one and make him pay, going so far as to follow the series of murders first to America’s East Coast and then out west to where many are attempting to make their name and their fortune in fabled lands riddled with gold.

As Bowman’s story progresses, our opinion of him changes as we watch him come out of his shell, a man of integrity and a sense of duty who carries on despite the pain it might cause him. Bowman is obviously damaged, both in terms of the physical scarring that covers his body, and of the less-visible emotional scars, but is not so damaged as to still understand that what he suffered has no place outside the jungle camp that was his home for six months. What’s interesting here is Varenne’s decision not to focus on the violence, not to describe what Bowman went through, nor for that matter, what the killer’s corpses look like. It is somehow more harrowing knowing that something happened, even if we only catch brief glimpses of the details in a throwaway line here – about Bowman’s facial scarring – or there – about memories of other men being taken from their cages.

Retribution Road feels like three distinct novels in one: the historical epic covering the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852; the detective novel set in the grimy streets of Victorian London and England; and a story of rebirth as Bowman reaches the vast plains of the wild West. It’s beautifully written, Varenne’s distinctive style shining through Sam Taylor’s wonderful translation, and impeccably researched. While Bowman stands firm at the centre of the story, he comes into contact with many other people who leap from the page, regardless of how briefly they appear therein, or of how much impact they have on Bowman’s journey, on his transformation from automaton-like soldier to human being, lover, father, friend.

A stunning, epic tale from an author who is not afraid to step outside his comfort zone, Retribution Road is an entirely engrossing read that, despite its heft, will still leave the reader wishing for more. It’s a dark story with a surprisingly warm heart, the tale of a man who we should never come to like yet who, against all odds, settles himself comfortably into the reader’s consciousness, staying with us long after the story has finished. With Retribution Road Antonin Varenne proves that he is an author who deserves to be on your “must-read” list, and offers his work to a much wider audience than his earlier novels might. If I could only recommend one book this year, this would probably be it.

An Interview with SIMON BECKETT

Simon Beckett Name: SIMON BECKETT

Author of: THE CHEMISTRY OF DEATH (2006)
                      WRITTEN IN BONE (2007)
                      WHISPERS OF THE DEAD (2009)
                      THE CALLING OF THE GRAVE (2010)
                      THE RESTLESS DEAD (2017)

On the web: www.simonbeckett.com

On Twitter: @BeckettSimon

To celebrate the release of Simon Beckett’s fifth Dr David Hunter novel, The Restless Dead, I’m very pleased to welcome Simon to Reader Dad to talk about his books.

Simon Beckett worked as a property repairer, taught English in Spain and played percussion with several bands before becoming a novelist and freelance journalist. The Restless Dead is the fifth novel in the series starring forensic anthropologist, Dr David Hunter.

Thank you, Simon, for taking the time to chat with us.

As a newcomer to the David Hunter books, the first thing that struck me was the mention of his time spent at Tennessee’s infamous Body Farm. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences there, and how it influenced (assuming it did) the development of David Hunter?

I went to the Body Farm in 2002, when I was working full time as a freelance journalist. I’d heard about a research facility in Tennessee that used human cadavers to investigate the process of decomposition, and managed to get a commission to go there from the Daily Telegraph Magazine. They were carrying out a highly realistic training course for US police officers and CSIs, where crime scenes had been staged using real human bodies. One of them was a mock serial-killer scenario and involved excavating corpses that had been buried six months earlier. I thought I was only going to observe but on the last day one of the forensic scientists suggested I should get my hands dirty as well. So, I found myself in protective coveralls, mask, gloves and boots, helping the police officers recover one of the bodies from a woodland grave.

It was a grim but fascinating experience, and even after I’d returned home I couldn’t get what I’d seen out of my mind. Over the next year or so I developed the idea for The Chemistry of Death, the first in what would become my series about David Hunter, a troubled British forensic anthropologist who trained at the Body Farm and now worked in the UK. So my visit there had a very direct influence on both his character and the book itself.

The book necessarily contains a fair amount of technical detail about the process of decomposition. How much research is typically involved in writing one of the David Hunter novels?

The Hunter novels need a lot of research. Obviously, since I’m not a forensic anthropologist a lot of work goes into making David Hunter sound convincing. And as well as the forensic aspects each book involves finding out about a variety of a different subjects, from police procedure to what sort of aquatic scavengers live in salt marshes.

Some information is easily found online, and I’ve acquired a respectable collection of forensic text books I use as starting points. But I’m a great believer in asking real life experts for advice, because they can draw on actual experience and expertise. That gives the books a greater sense of authenticity, so I’m very grateful to these people for helping out.

The actual research itself is only part of it, though. The really hard part comes in trying to incorporate it naturally into a story, without it either sounding dry or taking over. A lot of material never gets used, but that’s better than weighing down the story with pages of factual information, no matter how fascinating it might be.

Geography plays an important part in The Restless Dead: the estuary and the isolated nature of the area driving the story and the nature of the local characters. How important do you feel geography/location is when writing?

The settings of my books are very important, particularly the Hunter series. I try to create a realistic sense of place that’s unique to each story – an isolated region of the Norfolk Broads for The Chemistry of Death, a Hebridean Island for Written in Bone, and so on. A good setting can help create atmosphere and mood, but it’s about more than just creating a backdrop. Until I can clearly picture where a book or scene is set I find it hard to start writing, so being able to visualise these places is crucial.

The majority of settings in my books are fictitious. I’ll generally locate them in a real area, such as Dartmoor, which means I’ll have to do research to make sure I capture the feel of wherever I’m writing about. But rather than restrict myself to describing an actual place, I prefer to create a landscape to fit the story. For me, the main thing is for readers to be able to ‘see’ these places and scenes, so it’s almost as if they’re there themselves. In that respect I treat the settings in the same way as I do my characters. Although they don’t actually exist, I want people to believe they could.

The Restless Dead blog tour bannerConsidering David Hunter’s bleak history, The Restless Dead has something of a surprise ending. What’s next for the forensic anthropologist? Have you planned much in advance, or do you take each book as it comes?

As a rule, I take each one as it comes. I’m usually wary of ‘surprise endings’, unless it’s something that’s been carefully set-up in the narrative. I’m all for twists and shocks – I do my best to try and wrong-foot readers so they don’t know what’s coming. But the seeds of it need to be sown well in advance. If a book throws up something that leaves the reader feeling perplexed or short-changed – especially at the end – then the author hasn’t done their job properly.

For The Restless Dead I had the final scene in my head for a long time, so I was able to construct the story very much with that in mind. And since some events from this book will carry on to the next, I thought it was a good note to end on. Hopefully readers will feel the same way.

As for what’s coming next, I’ve already started the next book and have a good idea where it’s going. But I’m not giving anything away at this stage…

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

When I was younger I was very impressed by American writers like Hemingway and Irwin Shaw, who both could put volumes of nuance and story in the space of a few lines. But I also owe a debt to Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe. He was the first crime writer I read and really opened my eyes to the possibilities a first person narrator.

And as a follow-on, do you have a favourite book, something that you return to on a regular basis?

Probably Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, which saw an older and very different Marlowe from the brash young private eye of The Big Sleep. It’s a very poignant book, with its main character world-weary and vulnerable, but still not beaten. In fact, it’s high time I re-read it again.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Simon Beckett look like?

They tend to vary, depending what stage a book is at. When I’m pushing to finish I’ll work eleven or twelve hours a day and have to force myself to leave my desk. But in general I try to keep to office hours, so I’ll start at around nine in the morning and finish at five or six. I have a small study at home but I do most of my writing in an office about half-an hour away. I enjoy the walk, because it allows me time to clear my head and get into the right frame of mind. There’s a computer there but no internet, so there are no distractions and nothing for me to do but work. It felt very strange at first but now I really appreciate the peace and quiet.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Try to be thick-skinned about criticism and rejections, because you’ll get them. Be disciplined, get the first draft down and then edit your own work to death. And don’t give up.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I have two books on the go at the moment. One is a biography of Irwin Shaw, which is a fascinating if cautionary account of a hugely talented and successful twentieth century writer. The other is The Adjacent, by Christopher Priest. I’ve only just started that (I’ve just finished Lee Child’s Never Go Back) so I can’t say too much. But Priest is a genre-defying writer – I loved The Prestige, which was adapted into a film by Christopher Nolan – so I’m looking forward to it.

If David Hunter and friends should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

I don’t have any favoured directors but there are several actors I can see as Hunter. I’m not going to say who they are, though, because I’m careful not to describe Hunter in the books. I’d rather readers form their own image, and if I name an actor it might spoil that.

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)?

Oh, I think that would have to be Ernest Hemingway. We’d talk writing and fishing – though not bullfighting – and drink chilled beer in a waterfront bar in Spain. He’d probably be on something stronger, but I know my limitations.

Thank you once again, Simon, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

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