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Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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Thriller

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.

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SPOOK STREET by Mick Herron

SPOOK STREET - Mick Herron SPOOK STREET

Mick Herron (www.mickherron.com)

John Murray (www.johnmurray.co.uk)

£14.99

When the Berlin Wall fell, David Cartwright was one step away from First Desk, the pinnacle of the British Intelligence Services. Now suffering the onset of dementia, the “Old Bastard”, as he is affectionately known by his grandson, River, may be in danger of revealing secrets that he has kept for over twenty years. When a young man turns up dead on his bathroom floor and David’s grandson disappears, River’s boss is called in to identify the body. It’s obvious that Cartwright has survived a botched hit, but with no idea if it was sanctioned by the Service, Jackson Lamb must play his cards very close to his chest, at least until he can find out exactly what is going on. And with only the “slow horses” to call on, who knows how long that might take?

Spook Street is Mick Herron’s fourth visit to the realms of Jackson Lamb and the assorted misfits and no-hopers that the Intelligence Service assigns to Slough House, out of harm’s way. It’s my first encounter with Herron’s work in general, and the Jackson Lamb series in particular, which is all the answer you need to the eternal question: do I need to have read the first three books? Spook Street presents Herron’s regular cast of characters with a brand new, standalone case, and anything else you need to know to enjoy this smartly-constructed thriller you’ll pick up within the first couple of chapters.

Slough House is a ramshackle building as geographically remote from the Service’s Regent’s Park headquarters as its inhabitants are operationally remote. This is the domain of Jackson Lamb, a drunken, slovenly excuse for a secret agent with questionable hygiene who would be an embarrassment to the Service, assuming he was at liberty to disclose the fact that he worked for them. Over the years, Lamb has amassed a small team, people whose operational readiness ranges from “not anywhere close” to “psychotically keen”, a group of people known to the wider community as the “slow horses”, a play on the name of the building they call home. One of these people is River Cartwright, and it is his connection with the legendary David Cartwright that gives Lamb all the reason he needs to get involved in this latest case.

From the opening pages, Spook Street comes as a pleasant surprise. With its tongue firmly in cheek, the narrative takes a less-than-serious approach to telling the story. The tone is only one of the many features that leads to inevitable comparisons with Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May series, Slough House doing for Britain’s spies what Mornington Crescent has long done for the Metropolitan Police. Readers expecting the next LeCarré or Morgan Jones will likely be disappointed, though as a fan of both, I would urge those readers to stick with it, as they’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by the result: there is a dark heart to Spook Street, a hard-core mystery that belies the light tone, the frequent bouts of comedy. There is a sense of real danger from the beginning that leaves the reader in no doubt that none of these characters – many of whom have shared page space for three books so far – are safe, that no-one is guaranteed to survive until the end, and that a happy ending is far from likely.

The strength of Spook Street – and doubtless, the entire series – lies in Herron’s characters, and their interrelationships. For the book’s first half, Lamb appears as little more than a shape in the background, but there is little doubt that he is the heart and soul of the story. Instantly unlikeable, Lamb wears his odiousness as a badge of honour, but there is no doubt as to where his loyalties lie: this is a man who will do whatever it takes to protect his people, a close-knit group that often feels like the world’s most dysfunctional family. Newcomer J. K. Coe gives the new reader a character to connect to, someone with whom to learn the ropes of this strange new working environment. Herron also widens the scope to examine the wider Intelligence community, introducing a new First Desk and a new head of the Service’s enforcement team, policewoman-turned-spook Emma Flyte, both of whom find their worldview challenged by the existence of Lamb’s team at Slough House.

I very nearly dismissed Mick Herron’s Spook Street as just another spy novel that I could do without. Luckily for me, I ignored my first impressions and find myself richer for the experience. Herron’s irreverent look at the world of spies breathes new life into the genre and his stories deserve recognition alongside the greats of spy fiction. Already preparing to read the first book in the series, Slow Horses, I can recommend Spook Street unreservedly and assure new readers that it’s the perfect jumping-on point for anyone wishing to become familiar with Jackson Lamb & Co. It’s also the perfect alternative for fans of more serious spy fiction and crime thrillers.

Extract: A HARVEST OF THORNS by Corban Addison

9781784295233 A HARVEST OF THORNS

Corban Addison (corbanaddison.com)

Quercus Books (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£13.99

Millennium Fashions Factory, Dhaka, Bangladesh

November 4 2013, 8:53 p.m.

The sparks danced like fireflies in the semidarkness of the storeroom. They emerged from the wall outlet in a shower of white-gold radiance, casting a flickering glow across the concrete slab beneath them. The sounds they made, the snapping and crackling of suddenly electrified air, were drowned out by the rattling of three generators across the room, whose whirling magnetic coils were straining to satisfy the demand of hundreds of lightbulbs and ceiling fans and sewing machines on the floors above.

The cause was elementary, as the investigators from Dhaka would later discover – an aging circuit, copper wire exposed through melted sheathing, a worn-out breaker box, a peak load the factory’s designers had never anticipated, and the gentle, inexorable persuasion of time. A short, the investigators would say. A common fault in a building so poorly maintained.

But what happened next was far from commonplace. The fire that started to burn in sacks of cotton jute – the leftover cuttings of T-shirts, sweatpants, and children’s apparel destined for Chittagong piers and American closets – would sweep farther and faster than any fire before it.

This fire would ignite the world.

…………………………………………..

Old Ebbitt Grill, Washington, DC,

February 11 2015, 9:12 p.m.

Even at nine o’clock on a Wednesday evening, the restaurant was bustling. Waiters scurrying. Glasses clinking. Bartenders pouring. Gaiety erupting. And conversations – the central currency of this supremely political town – drawing heads down and faces together, translating ideas into speech, aspirations into asks, in an endless quest for an angle, a vote, a promotion, or that most liquid of Washington assets – a favor. Josh loved it, the multidimensional poker game of personality and power. For fifteen years, he had been a regular at the table, here at Old Ebbitt, a century-old, mahogany-and-brass eatery steps away from the White House, and at places like it in Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and London. He had mastered its nuances, cultivated quid pro quos, and built an enviable reputation as an international journalist, netting him two Pulitzer Prizes and a book that hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list. But all of that was gone now. A single error in judgment had laid waste a lifetime of achievement. His colleagues at the Washington Post were colleagues no longer.

‘Joshua Griswold,’ said Tony Sharif, slipping into the green velvet booth across from Josh and draping his arm across the top. ‘It’s been too long.’

Josh shook his head. ‘I know it. Half the people in here are strangers.’

Tony’s face – a mélange of his Indian father and Anglo-American mother – remained impassive, but his eyes were alive with humor. ‘You’re getting old. I see gray in your beard.’

Josh gave a sarcastic laugh. ‘That’s purgatory for you. I feel like the Old Man of the Mountain. One day you’re a fixture. Everybody wants a picture. Then the earth moves, you disappear, and no one remembers what you looked like.’

Tony grinned ironically. ‘Could be worse. Nobody ever wanted a picture with me.’

‘You should ditch the news and try Bollywood,’ Josh jested. ‘With a mug like that, you could be the next Shah Rukh Khan.’

Tony put out his hand, and Josh clasped it. ‘It’s good to see you again, my friend.’

‘That makes two of you,’ Josh said.

Tony raised an eyebrow. ‘Who’s the competition?’

‘Reggie, the homeless guy at my old apartment building.’

Tony shook his head, and his eyes grew thoughtful. ‘It’s a shame what they did to you. The stories you wrote are some of the best in American journalism. The thing with Maria, it could have been any of us. She deceived a lot of people. It doesn’t change your reporting.’

She didn’t mean to deceive anyone, Josh thought. She did what she had to do. But he couldn’t say that. Not even to Tony Sharif, the man who had been at his side when shrapnel from an exploding IED sliced through their Humvee in Sadr City and buried itself in Josh’s thigh. Tony was the closest thing he had to a brother. But Tony would never understand Maria. She was a riddle in the flesh. Even Josh didn’t understand her, and he had spent years trying.

‘Don’t sweat it,’ Josh said. ‘Shit happens. It’s what makes our world go round.’

‘I’ll drink to that,’ Tony replied, raising his bottle of Sam Adams. ‘To shit. May it survive long enough for me to earn a pension and for you to get back on your feet.’

‘Cheers,’ Josh said, taking a sip of Heineken, his beer of choice not so much for its flavor as for its ubiquity across the globe.

‘So you’re in town again,’ Tony said. ‘That means you’re working. What’s the story?’

‘Corporate malfeasance,’ Josh replied. ‘Apparel supply chains. A body count. The underside of American business.’

Tony’s face lit up. ‘Sexy. Who’s the target?’

Josh lowered his voice. ‘Presto.’

Tony leaned back against the booth, clearly intrigued. ‘The Millennium fire. We reported on that, you know. A lot of people did. That photo was like Napalm Girl in Vietnam. But this time the girl in the picture disappeared. We couldn’t track her down.’

Josh nodded but didn’t reply, allowing Tony to interpret his silence.

‘Wait a minute,’ Tony said. ‘You have a source.’ He let out a grunt, then began to grumble. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. You found someone willing to talk.’

It was the response Josh had expected. For five years, Tony had been the Post’s bureau chief in India. Last year he had taken a senior editorial position in Washington, but his network in South Asia remained as far-reaching as the Ganges. Josh was intruding upon his territory.

‘I’ve got to hand it to you,’ Tony went on, struggling to be generous. ‘My guys would have given anything to keep that story alive.’ For a moment, he looked like he was going to probe, but then he didn’t. ‘So what can I do for you? You obviously got further than we did.’

The corners of Josh’s mouth turned upward. He still found it hard to believe. The e-mail had arrived in his in-box two days ago, its provenance untraceable. I have information about the Millennium fire, it read. It relates to Presto Omnishops Corporation. Hours later, when the rest of DC was asleep, Josh had met a man at the Lincoln Memorial who gave him the names of workers and factories in three countries, including the name of the girl in the photograph. The man had divulged nothing of his motives, but his seniority inside Presto was beyond question, as was his charge: he wanted Josh to make Presto pay.

‘This thing dropped into my lap,’ Josh said. ‘That’s all I can say. But I need your help. I need to find a fixer in Dhaka with high-level contacts in the apparel industry.’

Tony spoke without hesitation. ‘Rana Jalil. Except he’s in Los Angeles these days.’

Josh gave him a confused look, and Tony clarified, ‘Rana’s a mutt like me. His father owns one of the oldest garment companies in Bangladesh. His mother is Bangladeshi, but she was born in California. He has a law degree from UCLA. Dhaka’s his backyard. He helped us cover the Rana Plaza disaster. He’s an ace, and 100 percent trustworthy.’

Josh took another swig of beer. ‘What’s he doing in LA?’

Tony chuckled. ‘Shining a light into the dark hole of American fast fashion.’

Josh made no attempt to disguise his ignorance. ‘Explain.’

‘You know those teenybopper stores in the mall, the ones that dress their mannequins like hookers and make you want to keep Lily under lock and key?’

Josh nodded. Lily was his eight-year-old daughter and the light of his life. He was an absentee father, but not completely derelict.

‘A lot of the clothes they peddle are made in sweatshops in LA. The fashion companies know about it, but they don’t give a rat’s ass. So long as they keep feeding American teens a fad a week, they see it as the cost of doing business. Rana freelances with a public interest group called La Alternativa Legal, or “LA Legal.” They represent the workers in court. California has a labor law that gives them firepower against the brands. I don’t really understand it. But I know he’s nailing them to the wall.’

‘I’ll take him,’ Josh said. ‘Can you make the introduction?’

Tony whipped a smartphone out of his jeans and started typing.

‘He’ll be tickled. The great Joshua Griswold. He might even give you a discount since you’re out of work at the moment.’ After he transmitted the message, he got the waiter’s attention and ordered another round of drinks. Then he stared at his watch intently. ‘I’ll give him one minute, then I call.’

‘What?’ Josh didn’t know anyone that quick on the draw.

‘Wait. Ha! There he is.’ Tony held out his wrist and showed Josh his smartwatch. On the screen was a text from Rana. ‘He’s thrilled, as promised.’

Josh shook his head, marveling at the speed of new media. ‘I owe you one.’

Tony’s eyes sparkled, his lips askew in a beer-tinged smile. ‘You owe me nothing. I want this as much as you do. You break this story, I mean really break it, and I’ll see what I can do about getting your job back.’

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Extract: THE GIRL BEFORE by J. P. Delaney

9781786480293 THE GIRL BEFORE

J.P. Delaney

Quercus Books (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

To celebrate the release of J.P. Delaney’s The Girl Before, I’m very pleased to host a brief extract from the book. Be sure to follow the full Blog Tour. Yesterday’s post can be found at www.heatherreviews.com and tomorrow’s will be available at off-the-shelfbooks.blogspot.co.uk. You can find full details of the whole tour in the image at the bottom of this post.

Then: Emma

It’s a lovely little flat, the letting agent says with what could almost pass for genuine enthusiasm. Close to the amenities. And you’ve got that private bit of roof. That could become a sun terrace, subject of course to the freeholder’s consent.

Nice, Simon agrees, trying not to catch my eye. I’d known the flat was no good as soon as I saw that six-foot stretch of roof below one of the windows. Si knows it too but he doesn’t want to tell the agent, or at least not so soon it’ll seem rude. He might even hope that if I listen to the man’s stupid patter long enough I’ll waver.

The agent’s Simon’s kind of bloke: sharp, laddish, eager. He probably reads the magazine Simon works for. They were exchanging football chat before we even got up the stairs.

And here you’ve got a decent-size bedroom, the agent’s saying. With ample—

It’s no good, I interrupt, cutting short the charade. It’s not right for us.

The agent raises his eyebrows. You can’t be too choosy in this market, he says. This’ll be gone by tonight. Five viewings today, and it’s not even on our website yet.

It’s not secure enough, I say flatly. Shall we go?

There are locks on all the windows, he points out. Plus a Chubb on the door. You could always install a burglar alarm, if security’s a particular concern. I don’t think the landlord would have any objection.

He’s talking across me now, to Simon. Particular concern. He might as well have said, Oh, is the girlfriend a bit of a drama queen?

I’ll wait outside, I say, turning to leave.

Realising he’s blundered, the agent adds, If it’s the area that’s the problem, perhaps you should have a think further west.

We already have, Simon says. It’s all out of our budget. Apart from the ones the size of a teabag.

He’s trying to keep the frustration out of his voice, but the fact that he needs to riles me even more.

There’s a one-bed in Queen’s Park, the agent says. A bit grotty, but . . .

We looked at it, Simon says. In the end, we felt it was just a bit too close to that estate.

His tone makes it clear that we means she.

Or there’s a third-floor just come on in Kilburn—

That too. There was a drainpipe next to one of the windows.

The agent looks puzzled.

Someone could have climbed it, Simon explains.

Right. Well, the letting season’s only just started. Perhaps if you wait a bit.

The agent has clearly decided we’re time-wasters. He too is sidling towards the door. I go and stand outside, on the landing, so he won’t come near me.

We’ve already given notice on our old place, I hear Simon say. We’re running out of options. He lowers his voice. Look, mate, we were burgled. Five weeks ago. Two men broke in and threatened Emma with a knife. You can see why she’d be a bit jumpy.

Oh, the agent says. Shit. If someone did that to my girlfriend I don’t know what I’d do. Look, this might be a long shot, but . . .

His voice trails off.

Yes? Simon says.

Has anyone at the office mentioned One Folgate Street to you?

I don’t think so. Has it just come on?

Not exactly, no.

The agent seems unsure whether to pursue this or not.

But it’s available? Simon persists.

Technically, yes, the agent says. And it’s a fantastic property. Absolutely fantastic. In a different league to this. But the landlord’s . . . To say he’s particular would be putting it mildly.

What area? Simon asks.

Hampstead, the agent says. Well, more like Hendon. But it’s really quiet.

Em? Simon calls.

I go back inside. We might as well take a look, I say. We’re halfway there now.

The agent nods. I’ll stop by the office, he says. See if I can locate the details. It’s been a while since I took anyone round, actually. It’s not a place that would suit just anyone. But I think it might be right up your street. Sorry, no pun intended.

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DEEP DOWN DEAD by Steph Broadribb

DEED DOWN DEAD BF AW.indd DEEP DOWN DEAD

Steph Broadribb (crimethrillergirl.com)

Orenda Books (orendabooks.co.uk)

£8.99

Against her better judgement, bounty hunter Lori Anderson takes the only job Quinn can offer. Overdue rent and sky-high medical bills conspire to leave her with no choice. The fugitive? Robert “JT” Tate, Lori’s former lover and mentor, a man now involved in a child exploitation racket run out of one of Florida’s most famous theme parks, a man who knows her deepest, darkest secrets, and one she hasn’t seen for almost a decade. To make matters worse, lack of childminders means that Lori has to take Dakota, her nine-year-old daughter, along for the ride. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer: everything. Which is excellent news for the reader, because Deep Down Dead grabs you almost from the word go, and keeps you on the edge of your seat for the duration. The action moves at lightning pace, jumping from one explosive set-piece to another, leaving the reader little time to breathe in between, let alone try to second guess what’s coming on the next page, in the next chapter. Steph Broadribb’s debut novel introduces the world to Florida-based bail runner Lori Anderson, and leaves us gasping for more as we turn the last page.

Anderson leaps fully-formed from the page when we first meet her, a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails protagonist with a quick tongue and a narrative voice that makes it difficult to put the book down once it’s been opened. While her job may be more dangerous than most, Lori comes across as a real, grounded person, because she’s facing the same trials and tribulations that many do: trying to balance work with life as a single mother; constant debt; relationship woes. It is perhaps this grounded nature more than anything else that endears her to us, and makes us want to find out more about her. Her relationship with her daughter is wonderful, Dakota in many ways a miniature version of her mother; her relationship with JT is something else, and its history is revealed to us in drips and drabs as the story progresses.

From the moment JT enters the story, things take a turn for the dark, leaving the reader in no doubt that something is not quite what it seems. What should have been a straightforward pick-up and return to jail turns into a deadly cat and mouse chase that will test Lori’s loyalties and her strength to the limit. Chased by not one, but two groups intent on ending JT’s life, regardless of the collateral damage, Lori’s small group makes a break for Florida, a deadline to meet and countless obstacles between them and their destination.

While much of the action takes place outside of Florida, the Sunshine State plays a central role in the proceedings, but not the version that is open to tourists. Broadribb delves into the darker side of the state and of the theme parks that are its biggest attraction, in the form of the fictional Winter Wonderland. Fictional or not, the criminal activity being run in the park is both frightening and horribly plausible, the sort of plot point that will cause any parent to stop and think about just how easy it would be. Broadribb takes an unflinching approach to telling the story, and its gritty realism is only one of the many selling points of this excellent debut.

Like all the best thriller writers, Broadribb doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to character development, and certainly doesn’t let the bad guys pull any punches when they’re beating up her protagonist. There’s an almost sadistic glee as Lori – and to a lesser extent, the other characters – gets put through the mill and ends up bruised and battered in the course of the story. The resulting novel is dark, intense and action-packed though filled with the wit and charisma of a fresh new author and her lifelike creation.

Fellow book blogger Steph Broadribb’s debut novel is one of the finest you’re likely to read this year. A great introduction to a wonderful new series character, Deep Down Dead is a suspense-filled, action-packed thriller that leaves the reader wanting more, and proves that this debut author has the chops to stand alongside the giants of the crime thriller genre. Expect Steph Broadribb and Lori Anderson to be household names in the near future; in the meantime, get on at the ground floor. I can guarantee you won’t come away disappointed.

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GUEST POST: Inspiration for Devour by L.A. LARKIN

Devour LA Larkin - jacket image Name: L.A. LARKIN

Author of: DEVOUR (2017)

On the web: lalarkin.com

On Twitter: @lalarkinauthor

To celebrate the launch of L.A. Larkin’s latest novel, Devour, the first in a series featuring journalist Olivia Wolfe, I am very pleased to have the author at Reader Dad as part of the #DevourTheBook Blog Tour, to talk about her inspiration for the novel.

Thanks so much for having me on your blog!

Devour is the first book in the Olivia Wolfe thriller series. It is an unusual action and conspiracy thriller for two reasons: firstly, it has a female central character, and secondly, it is set in a part of the world where very few thrillers have been set – Antarctica.

More often than not, the lead character in this style of thriller is male. Think James Rollins, Lee Child, Matthew Reilly, Clive Cussler, and most assassin-thrillers such as those by David Baldacci and Tom Wood. In my character, Olivia Wolfe, I wanted to create a dynamic, intriguing and credible female protagonist, who could hold her own in dangerous situations. I also wanted this character to have a legitimate need to travel all over the world so that each book could offer a new and exhilarating location.

I have always been a huge fan of The Sunday Times’ investigative journalist, Marie Colvin, who strived to reveal the truth about what was happening in war zones. She was an incredibly brave woman who tragically died in the bombardment of Homs in Syria in 2012. It was her courage that inspired the creation of investigative journalist, Olivia Wolfe, in Devour, although everything else about Wolfe has come from my imagination.

I have been lucky enough to go to Antarctica and I was so mesmerised by its savage beauty and the ever-present threat that such a dangerous location provides, I knew it was the perfect setting for a chiller thriller.

Scientific developments often fuel my stories. I also follow news on expeditions to Antarctica. One particular mission was to become the premise of Devour. In 2012, a British team set up camp above sub-glacial Lake Ellsworth in a very remote part of Antarctica. Their mission was to drill down through three kilometres of ice in the hope they might discover life in an ancient lake cut off from the rest of the world for centuries. Sadly, the team did not manage to reach the buried lake and called off the expedition. But, the question remains: what if there is ancient life down there, and, what if it was catastrophic to bring it to the surface?

L.A. Larkin’s thriller, Devour, is published by Constable at the end of January 2017. Peter James, says Devour ‘delivers action and intrigue in spades,’ and Culturefly says, ‘If you are only going to read one novel in 2017, I suggest you make it Devour.’

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INFLUENCES: My Influences by NICHOLAS SEARLE

NICHOLAS SEARLE Name: NICHOLAS SEARLE

Author of: THE GOOD LIAR (2016)

On Twitter: @searlegoodliar

It’s difficult to list the influences on my writing. There are too many and several of them are subliminal rather than conscious. Plus, there’s a risk when you cite influences that you’re inviting comparisons. Definitely not, in my case: I’m looking up at people not seeking to emulate them or imagine I’m on the same level.

Let’s start with the obvious: John le Carré. His key espionage books – apart from the wonderful The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – were published in my adult formative years and seemed to sum so much up for me. I loved the serpentine plots but for me it was the characters and the integral cynicism – concealing idealism – and world-weariness that won me over. And, of course, the prose. I do think that spying is a rich vein for writers to mine, so long as they can do so convincingly. It contains a multitude of our most primal concerns in life. Who can I trust? Am I being disloyal myself? How can I make the right choice when faced with what looks like a range of bad ones? How do I balance heart and head? To see them distilled on the page in this setting can be very enriching. In common with several others, I think that when le Carré attempts to write ‘literary’ fiction (whatever that is) the end result can look mushy – The Naïve And Sentimental Lover being a prime example – and that recently he’s become a bit ‘shouty’ at times. But le Carré off form is often better than many others at the peak of their achievement, and it’s hard to beat the trio of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

Likewise Graham Greene, who like le Carré breaks the rules and straddles the boundary between what he calls ‘entertainments’ and serious fiction. I think he makes a false distinction and admit to being confused about the differentiations between genres: there’s as much truth for me in The Third Man or Our Man In Havana as there is in The Power And The Glory. If there is one book though that distils the darkness it’s Brighton Rock, still as vividly terrifying and cruel, and modern, as it was back in 1938. And you can trace the lineage back to Conrad: not so much the overblown seafaring epics like Lord Jim, but the much tighter stories that plumb our souls such as The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness.

THE GOOD LIARI studied languages, so was fortunate enough to have been able to read some of the European classics of the mid-20th century in the original; and I loved their despair and desolation. I’ve a special place for Heinrich Böll and particularly Die Verlorene Ehre Der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour Of Katharina Blum) and Ansichten Eines Clowns (a pretty poor English translation is long out of print). And I love Camus: the opening of L’Étranger (The Stranger) is possibly the best beginning sentence of any novel I’ve read.

I could go on. It seems perhaps scattergun but I admire immensely P.D. James, Richard Ford and Ian McEwan for the cool precision of their language that somehow conveys emotion. Kent Haruf’s brevity seeps feeling in each gap in the dialogue. And Kate Atkinson. Wow. In Life After Life and A God In Ruins she gives a masterclass in subtlety and complexity conveyed in the simplest of terms. She doesn’t treat the reader as a fool who needs to be led by the nose but challenges all the time and in the course of doing that tells fundamental truths, both about the thing that is fiction and about us.

And I haven’t even begun to describe my influences away from books, in film, TV, theatre and music!…

Nicholas Searle’s novel The Good Liar is out now from Penguin.

INFLUENCES: On ‘The Rock’ by GINA WOHLSDORF

Wohlsdorf-Gina-©-Rachel-Sundheim_2MB
Photo © Rachel Sundheim
Name: GINA WOHLSDORF

Author of: SECURITY (2016)

On the web: www.ginawohlsdorf.com

I was wracking my brain about which influence to discuss in this post. The truth is, everything I’ve read, watched and lived has had an influence on my fiction. I think that’s why I started writing to begin with, way back when I was too young to understand the relief I felt when I put my excess fascinations on paper. I retain too much. I need the outlet.

But don’t worry. As I debated how to consolidate my myriad artistic role models for your reading enjoyment, I dished some pot roast, flipped on DirectTV, and found The Rock playing on cable.

I’ve known a great many artists who are selective in the extreme about what they will permit themselves to learn from. Few of them would consider a scenery-chewing action film from 1996 as a proper place to gain storytelling skills. But as I said, I can’t help it. I’m an inveterate lover of a tale well-told. I decided this single film and the reasons I enjoy it could explain a lot about why I wrote a book like Security — a hybrid horror/mystery/romance with a narrator who pontificates on death and a heroine who makes a pretty good Sartre joke — as well as why I intend to write many more novels whose insouciant insistences on character and theme do not negate a concomitant devotion to thrills.

It’s all but impossible to argue that The Rock is in any way subtle. Firstly because Nicolas Cage is in it. His acting is a study in foregoing subtlety, and that’s its charm, its vividness. He’s a great match for Michael Bay, for whom this movie represents a fantastical departure from the digitally enhanced, narratively anorexic filmmaking he would embark upon later.

The plot: a legendary general takes over Alcatraz and threatens a poisoned gas attack on San Franciso. Cage is an FBI chemical weapons specialist tasked with disarming the rockets. He’ll be escorted in by a team of soldiers, and that team of soldiers will be led by the only convict who ever escaped the notorious American prison.

Enter Sean Connery. As with any movie he stars in, he is this one’s ace in the hole — a calm, wry presence who anchors the car chases, gun fights and explosions. He is also, undoubtedly, the greatest possible foil for Nicolas Cage, whose zany flights of improvised dialogue ring true and grounded and balanced in The Rock, more so than in any other work he’s done. My favorite line delivery in all of cinema is delivered in this movie, and it is delivered by Nicolas Cage.

“I drive a Volvo. Beige one.”

That line and the way he says it tells Connery’s character — and us — everything we could hope to know about Stanley Goodspeed, an unwilling hero who, of course, winds up going it alone with the grizzled escape artist, saving San Fran one scary bomb at a time.

It’s wonderful to have intriguing heroes. It is imperative to have interesting villains. That’s why Ed Harris is here, eminently buyable as a battalion commander with an axe to grind about soldiers killed in covert ops. He’s not just a maniac after money. The bad guys’ meltdown toward the finale reveals schisms within the ranks that distinguish the banally evil from the morally misguided.

Yet, for all that, what really makes The Rock a home run is The Rock itself. Alcatraz — the impenetrable, inescapable fortress that housed Capone, Doc Barker, and the first Public Enemy #1, Alvin Karpis. Who? Exactly. Alcatraz is where the worst of the worst were sent to disappear, and Bay actually filmed there. His taste for overkill color, off-putting in most of his projects, makes Alcatraz throb with age, reek, decay, danger. It’s like a decrepit playground for the dream cast to play on.

And yes, the slow-mo is overused. And yes, the set-up drags too long. Yes, lines like “You breathe, he breathes with you. You piss, he helps,” suggest the screenwriter took testosterone supplements to sound manlier. The music is overwrought (though the Irish flute is well-placed) and women are non-existent (except a meek daughter and a flighty fiance for the men to fret about). But when I went to this movie at age fifteen, I perfectly recall exiting the theater with my dad. The ground was soaked, the gutters flooded. A tornado had blown through while we were inside. There’s a joke in here about Michael Bay’s well-established love for loud, but had I been aware of the risk, I’d have probably just moved to a lower row. The finished cohesion of the story’s elements is that propulsive, alive, exciting, wild, and fun.

The Rock is not my favorite movie. I don’t think it cracks the top twenty. But it taught me lessons worth learning, and so have romance novels, and so have silly TV series about conflicted superheroes or melodramatic vampires. So has sitting in a coffeehouse on Sunday morning while the church crowd shows up for their after-worship mochas.

Writing is everywhere. Until you learn that, as well as how to swallow your pride and admit that Michael Bay once inspired you, your writing is nowhere.

Ergo . . .

Choose a setting pregnant with possibilities. Grow characters who spark off one another, challenge each other. Inhabit the big moments with shameless abandon. Allow wise voices to speak, but let the wiseasses have their say, too.

And resolve to fight — always, for all you’re worth — to be more compelling than a tornado.

Security is out now in Hardback and Audio CD

SECURITY by Gina Wohlsdorf

Security low res jacket SECURITY

Gina Wohlsdorf (www.ginawohlsdorf.com)

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (algonquin.com)

£17.99

The grand opening of Manderley Resort, an eyesore on the Santa Barbara Beach, is rapidly approaching. Hotel manager Tessa and her team of chefs, cleaners, and restaurant managers are preparing the hotel and the ballroom for the celebratory gala, while locked away on the impenetrable top floor, the security team watches everything through the secret and not-so-secret cameras that cover the vast majority of the hotel, including the guest rooms. But tonight, the staff will have more to deal with than the displeasure of Charles Destin, the hotel’s owner; there’s a killer in the hotel, a man in a mask who has already started killing, and who won’t stop until Manderley Resort contains nothing but corpses.

If you have ever watched and enjoyed a slasher film by the likes of John Carpenter, or Wes Craven, or Dario Argento, or any of the hundreds of other directors who practiced the art during the 70s and 80s, then Gina Wohlsdorf’s debut novel, Security, is the book for you. If you’ve watched one of those films and been turned off by the blood and gore, then it might also be the book for you since, let’s face it, it’s easier to imagine the blood than see it splattered across the screen.

The story starts slowly, introducing us to the main players. It doesn’t take long for us to realise that we’re watching the events unfold through the eyes of the head of security, who sees everything on his myriad monitors, when Tessa breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the reader:

She turns around in the reception driveway, looks directly into Camera 3, and says, “You know how Charles is. Don’t take it personally.”

At this point, much about Wohlsdorf’s strange narrative style begins to make sense: we are watching the events unfold through the cameras, and through the eyes of the nameless security chief locked away on the top floor. The flow from one character’s point of view to another’s – in which the author breaks all conventions – is down to his attention shifting from monitor to monitor. Shortly afterwards, the we find the first instance page splitting briefly into two columns, and we watch events fold in parallel through the lenses of two different cameras, before his attention is once again consumed by a single camera. This literary equivalent of the split-screen works very well, and serves to ratchet up the tension, particularly towards the story’s climax.

Why, we are forced to ask ourselves, if the chief of security can see the man he has dubbed “the Killer”, can see his terrible crimes, and the trail of blood he leaves as he moves around the hotel, why doesn’t he do anything about it? Is he complicit? Is his lair so well-protected that it makes more sense to stay put and hope for the Killer to finish his work and disappear into the night? It’s a question that plagues us throughout the book, and Wohlsdorf keeps us guessing, tell-tale signs in the narrator’s language forcing us to reconsider one way or the other as the story progresses.

At the centre of the story is Tessa herself, and her foster brother Brian, a man she has loved since childhood and who has visited Manderley Resort on this auspicious night to clear the air between them. It is, at heart, a love story, and the narrator’s obvious jealousy of the developing relationship does little to allay our fears that he is somehow involved in the blood spilled by the Killer. The characters all have their own secrets, they’re all damaged in some way, from the restaurant managers whose marriage is on the rocks, to the cleaner with an unhealthy (though well-deserved) dislike for men, from the ice queen Tessa to the high-strung chef whose reputation rests on the strength of his cherry coulis.

Security is like nothing you’ve ever read before, despite the similarities to everything you’ve ever seen in the slasher subgenre. Wohlsdorf’s writing style is unique, straight and to the point, wonderfully engaging and, while not quite as telegraphic as the likes of Ellroy, its short, sharp sentences pull the reader in and take us gleefully through this macabre evening of love and violence. The homages to the horror genre come thick and fast, from Carpenter’s Halloween (“It’s the same mask from the Halloween movies, the ones with Jamie Lee Curtis.”), to Daphne du Maurier, Stephen King (some of the action takes place in Room 1408, which is actually on the thirteenth floor, since no numbered thirteenth floor exists) and Ira Levin (Sliver, anyone?). The story, very cinematic in style due, in part, to the nature of how we view it, contains all the suspense and violence we expect from a slasher, all the stupid things the characters in such films inevitably do (“don’t go in there,” you’ll find yourself yelling at one character or another, or “why are you splitting up?”) and serves it up with a healthy dose of black humour that infuses every word.

One of this year’s gems, Security is one of the finest horror novels to be produced in quite a while. Slick, clever and with a clear, engaging voice it should put author Gina Wohlsdorf firmly on the map, alongside some of finest young writers working in the genre today: Lebbon, Keene, Littlewood, Langan. It’s a book that cries out for a second read, if only to plug the inevitable gap until the author’s second novel, and is a must-read for anyone who enjoys intelligently-written horror fiction. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

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