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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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Crime Fiction

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.

Time To Win blog tour banner

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.

GUEST POST: World Building in the RELICS Universe by Tim Lebbon

TimLebbon Name: TIM LEBBON

Author of: COLDBROOK (2012)
                      THE HUNT (2015)
                      RELICS (2017)

On the web: www.timlebbon.net

On Twitter: @timlebbon

I love world building. A few years ago I wrote a series of fantasy novels for Bantam in the USA, and also a couple for Orbit in the UK. Four of these––the Noreela novels––all took place in the same alternate world, and so the world I created grew and expanded with each novel, histories filling out, landscapes becoming more real, religions and politics more complex. When I then wrote two standalone fantasy novels (Echo City and The Heretic Land) I was faced once again with creating whole new worlds with magical systems, politics, backgrounds … and it got a bit exhausting.

Deals came and went, my interests shifted, and most of my recent work has been set in our world. But that doesn’t mean that the world building is any less important. Easier? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

Relics is set in contemporary London. Instantly the reader knows the setting, might very well have been there, and so the solid foundation of my world is set. Unlike my alternate world fantasy novels I didn’t have to build the world from the ground up (and down).

But in reality every fantastical novel or story––Earthbound or not––is set in an alternate world.

Check out The Walking Dead. It’s set in a world where zombies don’t exist … in folklore or fiction. No one in that show uses the word ‘zombie’, so it’s based in a world a few stops around the multiverse wheel from our own.

Relics-Blog-Tour-BannerSo the London of Relics isn’t quite the London we all know, and building that world was a lot of fun. The human part of the Relics London is pretty much as we know it. It’s the world of the Kin––those mythological creatures that used to exist many years ago during The Time––that I have to introduce, carefully constructing a system that allows them to exist within and beneath the human world of London that most readers will recognise.

They needed somewhere to exist. Let’s face it, if you see a satyr on the 14:22 from Paddington, you’d probably remember. Or would you? London’s a wild, wacky place, and as in any big city like this, eyes rarely meet, conversation with strangers is rarely entered into. By their very nature the Kin are covert, so their homes are either underground or hidden away in plain sight. They have a system of communications and warnings in case they’re spotted.

More than the here and now, the Kin needed a history and a wider mythology. For me this is the most effective part of world building––not the obvious, overt facets of a new world, but the hidden things only hinted at. The wider world, one that we don’t perhaps touch or use that much, but whose existence gives our story a much more rounded, realistic feel.

One of my favourite recent movies for world building is John Wick (and its brilliant sequel). It’s ultra-real, a contemporary story with a clever, whole new world interwoven into and through our own. What makes it so effective is the hints at a wider, deeper history, some of which we see a little of, most of which is implied or mentioned in a line or two. The sense of wide and deep history in those movies is exquisite, and that’s the effect I was aiming for with Relics.

This is our world. But it’s one in which a fallen angel can live in the tower block next door.

RELICS by Tim Lebbon

Relics RELICS

Tim  Lebbon (www.timlebbon.net)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

Angela Gough’s life is happy and normal until the day her boyfriend, Vince, leaves for work and doesn’t come back. Mysterious notes through the door, which may be in his handwriting tell her to stay away, not to look for him, but Angela isn’t about to let him disappear out of her life without so much as an explanation. As she digs, she finds that her boyfriend is not the man she thought he was. He works for one of London’s biggest crime bosses and seems to have a secret life outside the one he shares with Angela. As she finds herself digging into the dangerous black market for ancient relics, pieces of creatures that should never have existed outside the pages of myth and legend, she soon discovers that there is more to London than the domain of humankind.

Relics is the start of a new urban fantasy series from genre legend Tim Lebbon. It’s a familiar plot – partners keeping secrets from each other, until one discovers that the other works for a criminal overlord, or is a Russian sleeper agent, or whatever the twist happens to be. In this instance it’s the gangster, but Lebbon twists slightly further, adding a dash of the supernatural to what might otherwise be described as gritty Britcrime. All of the ingredients are here: the man with a deep secret; the mob boss that he works for, and the rival mob boss who wants his special skills. It all sounds like your run of the mill London noir, until you factor in what exactly Vince does for Fat Frederick Meloy: he’s a relic hunter, a man with a special talent for finding old, rare artefacts, things which should not exist, and for which rich people will pay a fortune in order to add it to their collection.

At the centre of the story is Angela, a Bostonian living and studying in London. She shares a compact flat with her boyfriend Vince, and life is good, at least until Vince disappears and her world begins to fall apart. What makes Angela’s persistence and temerity believable is the fact that her study is focused on gangs and gang warfare. It also gives Lebbon the chance to give us some background on the darker figures – Meloy and Mary Rock – in a natural fashion, without the need for pages of backstory and exposition. While Angela is the central character, the story is told from the points of view of several other characters as well – Vince himself takes centre stage for much of the book; and Lilou, a nymph whose life Vince saved, gives us some insight into the state of mind of London’s lesser-known inhabitants, a group of so-called mythical creatures who call themselves collectively, the Kin.

Surprisingly, one of the book’s most engaging characters is gangster Fat Frederick Meloy, a man whose nickname no longer fits the bill. When we first encounter Meloy in the narrative, he comes across as a stereotypical London gangster. Lebbon, however, builds him into a larger-than-life character who, for many of the scenes where he is present, steals the show. A collector of the ancient relics himself, we see many sides of this complex man, despite the reputation that has grown up around him: at once the childlike glee whilst in the presence of his collection and the barely-contained violence that simmers beneath the surface. Meloy’s opposite number, Mary Rock, is a much more sinister character and we soon discover that she is not content to deal in ancient relics; she has discovered that the Kin still exist, and has developed a thirst – and a client-base – for something a little more fresh, something harvested from the fresh corpse of an angel, or a nymph, or a satyr.

Despite the supernatural elements, Relics does still feel like something of a contemporary crime novel. The London of Relics is, for the most part, the London of our own world, though Lebbon does explore a lesser-known face of the city, presenting a side of it that might fit well with the location of Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Mieville’s King Rat. Yes, there are creatures here that shouldn’t exist, but the story feels grounded in the real world through the evocation of London, and the realistic, empathetic characters that populate it.

Tim Lebbon is the quintessential genre author (which genre? All of them!) and Relics is the latest in a long line of unmissable books. Darkly thrilling, with more than a dash of black humour, it’s a novel that could easily be devoured in a single sitting, and is probably best enjoyed in this way. An excellent start to a promising new series, this is Lebbon at the top of his game.

GUEST POST–PARALLEL LINES: On Heroes by ADAM SHAW

Parallel Lines_high res Name: STEVEN SAVILE

Author of: PARALLEL LINES (2017)

On the web: www.stevensavile.com

On Twitter: @StevenSavile

Steven Savile’s latest novel, PARALLEL LINES, is published in the UK on 14th March by Titan Books. To celebrate the launch, Reader Dad is very pleased to welcome the book’s protagonist, Adam Shaw, to talk about heroes.

I find heroes strange beasts. I’ve always had trouble with the square-jawed Dan Dare, Roy Race type. They’re inherently dull. The heroine might shout Flash, I love you but we only have twenty-four hours to save the earth, but no matter the stakes, Flash is always going to win. The same way that the Lone Ranger is always going to ride into town just in time to save widow at the homestead. I always preferred my heroes broken, probably because I’m broken, too. I think most of us are in one way or another. Me, I grew up thinking ‘everybody leaves me’ and that coloured most of my interactions with women probably until deep into my thirties. Letting someone through those self-erected walls ain’t easy when you’ve been building them for the best part of your life.

I guess for that reason Trainspotting’s Mark Renton was always more fascinating when he asked me to Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and all of those other things right up to the notion of choosing to rot away at the end of it all resonated so strongly. Broken people can’t be counted on to do the right thing when the shit hits the fan. And even if they try, there’s so much personal baggage to overcome there’s no guarantee it’ll work out for the best, or even how they intended.

That said, there’s as much room for Don Quixote and his windmill tilting in the world of heroes as there is for the more mysterious Joseph K marching relentlessly towards his own death.

31865-Parallel-lines-blog-tour#3On a personal level, fresh out of university in the 90s I found myself living the rootless life of Generation X’s Andy Palmer, shuffling from meaningless McJob to meaningless McJob and like him trying to make sense of the world I was stumbling into while everything around me was changing fast. And boy, those jobs… burglar alarm salesman, double glazing salesman, fish packer, mortgage rate advisor, classified ad salesman, the one thing they all had in common, I lasted less than a full day at any of them. I had a glorious habit of saying screw this for a game of soldiers and walking away because I wanted to do something else. Be someone else. I wanted to be the hero of my own life, not a bit part player in someone else’s.

Maybe that’s why I’ve never really been that interested in the hero rides into town stories, come to save the day, screw the dame and move on to the next town. I want flaws. I want a hero who’s afraid of heights walking a tightrope between tower blocks. I want Adam Shaw, a guy with a disease that plays havoc with his muscular control, holding a gun in a high stress situation that just exacerbates his condition. I love the tragic inevitability of it. That gun, once it’s been pulled, is always going to go off. Him being a square-jawed hero, that’s not interesting. Him being broken man, battered by life, realising that hope is a bastard but unable to stop hoping, that’s interesting. Plus it’s much more fun torturing damaged heroes…

Adam Shaw is a family man at heart. Yesterday his world consisted of two things, his disabled son Jake and statistical probabilities. Today his body is his worst enemy. His diagnosis? ALS. Now tomorrow holds no surprises. That’s why he walked into the bank with a gun and a plan. To safeguard Jake’s future.

INFLUENCES: Finding My Own Voice by MATT WESOLOWSKI

image001 Name: MATT WESOLOWSKI

Author of: SIX STORIES (2017)

On Twitter: ConcreteKraken

It’s taken me years to find my own voice.

I’ve spent the majority of my writing life mimicking; from a bargain-bin Enid Blyton when I was a kid, a teenage cut-price James Herbert to a snide Stephen King or else 50% off all Lovecraft, eldritch savings that will loose the trappings of your puny earthly ideals of sanity!

It’s only been in the last 5 or 6 years that I’ve felt my own writing voice has really emerged. I imagine this must be fairly common; as writers, we’d love to think we’re true mavericks but in reality we have no choice but to climb the shoulders of the literary giants that have strode the land before us. I am not ashamed of this mimicry and even now, I’ll turn a phrase that sounds Lovecraftian, or King-ish and that’s ok.

I do feel like I am still learning my craft, that my voice is still evolving, changing, synchronising a little with every good book I read. It is as the great man himself says

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King.

Without reading, and reading widely, I feel like I just cannot write with any degree of integrity; it feels like a day without a cup of tea (tantamount to criminality in my opinion.). When a book hits me where it hurts, its language sinking and dissolving inside your brain like linguistic effervescence, it raises the bar, galvanises me to strive to that level of quality.

When I started writing my first tentative short stories as a just-teenager, James Herbert and Clive Barker’s mastery descriptions of the grotesque were revelatory. Back then I read little else but horror, forever trying to slide the fear in between the words like these masters, their stories underpinned by longing, love, things I was not mature enough to fathom…most girls didn’t like long-haired oddballs who wore black nail varnish and wrote stories back then…

Then in my late teens I discovered the work of Jon King – ‘The Football Factory’, the subject perhaps not befitting of a teenage goth, yet the sheer command of language astounded me and showed me a new way of writing, stream-of-consciousness brutality that enveloped me utterly. I longed for more like this and found the work of Kevin Sampson – ‘Awaydays’ was both savage and beautiful and Niall Griffiths whose ‘Grits’ and ‘Kelly and Victor’ still haunt me today.

Through my 20s, I read all of Stephen King’s back catalogue, everything by Lovecraft (I was a latecomer to Cthulhu) and now as I read more (and much more expansively), every book that does something to me emotionally, helps weave another thread into the voice that has emerged from inside. Lauren Beukes and Yrsa Sigurðadottir were more of those revelatory writers that pushed at genre conventions; straddling the places between crime and the supernatural and gave me a galvanic push to try the same.

Karen Sullivan, the phenomenon behind Orenda Books guided me to more of the Nordic noir, namely Kati Hiekkapelto and Antti Tuomainen whose work had a profound influence on my own. Like their Scandinavian neighbours, the Finns have a way with words that I cannot put my finger on; something to do with telling it simply, yet with profound poetry hanging from every phrase.

I feel like my own voice, my influences are in a constant state of flux; I just recently read ‘The Girls’ by Emma Cline and ‘Girls on Fire’ by Robin Wasserman…writing is often a difficult pursuit, there are times when you feel a little hollow and word-weary yet reading the above titles were like bellows to the flames.

I guess influences don’t stop, as much as learning doesn’t stop. I can’t wait to see what inspires me next!

SIX STORIES BLOG TOUR POSTER

RAGDOLL by Daniel Cole

Ragdoll - Daniel Cole RAGDOLL

Daniel Cole

Trapeze (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

One body, six victims, body parts sewn together and strung from the ceiling of a London flat like a puppet. Immediately christened the Ragdoll Killer by the press, it is up to Detective Sergeant William Fawkes and his team at New Scotland Yard to identify the constituent parts. When Fawkes’ journalist ex-wife receives a list of six more people who are going to die – a list that includes Fawkes himself – the connection to the Cremation Killer, the case that made Fawkes a household name, is immediately obvious. But as Fawkes’ appointment with death approaches, the team must look to his past for answers and what they find there might not be what they expected.

Daniel Cole’s debut novel opens with a brief glimpse at the case that made William Oliver Layton-Fawkes, nicknamed Wolf, famous, and which also shaped the man he has become four years later. As a result, the reader goes into the main storyline with their eyes wide open, Wolf’s questionable approach to policing promising an intriguing investigation. Intriguing it most certainly is, and from the point that that opening courtroom scene fades to black, Ragdoll is the type of book that is almost impossible to put down.

There are many points that set Ragdoll apart from your average serial killer thriller, the dark central character and the rich vein of comedy being two of the most obvious. A cross between Boris Starling’s Messiah and Sky’s “A Touch of Cloth”, Cole manages to combine the best parts of both into something completely new and fresh. From the outset, it’s clear that the comedy won’t get in the way of an intense story, as it so often can. Ragdoll is gruesome and frightening, a real sense of menace plaguing the reader through its pages. The murders are startlingly original, usually completely unexpected and constructed in such a way that even the comic moments don’t relieve the tension.

The central cast of characters are memorable and go a long way towards making the reader feel comfortable in this world, drawing us completely into the story and, in many ways, giving us a stake in the outcome. From Wolf, damaged and downtrodden to smart-mouthed Baxter, a confident woman making a man’s world her own, and Edmunds, young and new to the squad, smart and keen to learn, despite the constant haranguing from more senior colleagues. Around this core are a set of lesser characters, no less well-developed: Finlay Shaw, a couple of years from retirement, with no desire to make any big splashes; Wolf’s ex-wife Andrea Hall, a bloodthirsty journalist who will do anything to be first with the story, regardless of what danger it places people in; and Elijah Reid, her Piers Morgan-like editor-in-chief, a man with no moral compass for whom nothing is too sensationalist.

This is an old-fashioned serial killer story where the reader is kept as much in the dark as the detectives. Nothing is told from the killer’s point of view, so Cole plays the motives close to the chest until the novel hits the three-quarters mark, at which point everything kicks into high gear. In many ways its adherence to the tried and trusted formula makes it feel fresh and new again, the power of the novel in the story itself, not in the ways in which it attempts to subvert the genre. While the comedy sometimes feels forced (although my own personal preference is to avoid outright humour, because what works for one person is likely to fall flat on its face for many others), it is never overplayed to the point that it feels annoying. For the most part, it’s a natural comic feeling, stemming from the characters themselves, much of it the sort of gallows humour we’ve come to expect from crime fiction.

Ragdoll started life as a pitch for a television show, and its origins are plain to see. There is a very cinematic feel to the story which, coupled with a sense that something is always happening somewhere in earshot, gives Cole a very distinctive voice. One of the most interesting aspects of his debut is the sense that we have walked into the middle of someone else’s life: there are no introductions, little in the way of backstory on any but the central characters, leaving us with a sense that these people have known each other for a long time, and that we’ve stepped into their lives for a very brief moment to watch one specific episode. So well is this managed that for one brief moment, I had to check that I wasn’t jumping into the middle of a series. It’s disconcerting, but it is a mark of the author’s confidence that he doesn’t feel the need to slow the story down to introduce us to the players.

Dark, funny, gripping. There is no easy way to sum up Ragdoll, except to say that it is an excellent debut, an accomplished and satisfying story that immediately boosts Daniel Cole into the ranks of “must-read”. With compelling characters and a story that grips from the outset, Ragdoll is guaranteed to be one of the best crime novels you’ll read this year, and Daniel Cole a name we’ll hopefully be hearing a lot more of in the near future.

RAGDOLL Blog Tour Poster

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