Search

Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

Tag

London

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.

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.

DUST AND DESIRE by Conrad Williams

DUST AND DESIRE - Conrad Williams DUST AND DESIRE (A Joel Sorrell Novel)

Conrad Williams (conradwilliams.wordpress.com)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

London-based private investigator Joel Sorrell has gotten himself entangled in a most bizarre missing person case. Hired to look into the disappearance of his client’s brother, Sorrell begins to believe that he may be on a wild goose chase, especially when his client vanishes into thin air. When the body-count starts to rise – most notably the man who cuts his own throat on the landing outside Sorrell’s apartment door – Joel discovers that there are ties here to his old stomping grounds in Liverpool. As he investigates, he begins to understand that someone from a past Joel would much rather forget is out for vengeance, and Joel is the target. But why him?

In a departure from his usual horror fare (Williams, in case you haven’t read him, is one of the most exciting British horror writers since, say, Ramsay Campbell or James Herbert), Conrad Williams finds himself in the guise of downtrodden London PI Joel Sorrell as he faces a case that will test him to the limits, and force him to examine his life so far. From the outset, it’s obvious that Sorrell is a man with a tough-guy reputation protecting a soft inner core, a damaged character with a history that haunts his every move and decision: his wife was murdered when he was still a trainee policeman, and his teenage daughter disappeared several months later, apparently unable to cope with her father’s approach to grief.

Sorrell is hired by Kara Geenan to find her brother who has disappeared, and Sorrell accepts the case despite his better judgement. In typical hard-boiled fashion, it isn’t long before he finds himself beaten and in trouble with the police in the form of a humourless man with whom he trained. The man he is trying to find seems not to exist, and when he attempts to get in touch with Kara, he discovers that she has disappeared. His investigation brings him into contact with a host of colourful characters, from the hulking doorman Errol, to the self-important Knocker, and a handful of ex-girlfriends, all the while attempting to maintain some semblance of normal life with his cat Mengele and the beautiful vet who is as lonely as he is.

The first-person narrative allows Joel’s personality to shine through in his strong voice. The writing is stylish, but not at the cost of substance, full of wit, yet tinged with the sadness that is a constant in Joel’s life. From the opening lines, there is a very definite hard-boiled feel to the narrative, something familiar, yet far from clichéd, a fresh take on an age-old voice. Often laugh-out-loud, there is a natural feel to the writing that leaves the audience feel less like a reader, and more like a listener.

I came out of the Beehive on Homer Street and trod on a piece of shit. Big surprise. I’m always doing it. It was the end of a pretty rough day, and the noble gods of misery obviously didn’t fancy me toddling off to bed without pissing in my pockets one last time. I looked down at my shoe. The piece of shit said: ‘Can you get off my face now?’ I lifted my foot and let him stand up.

While Dust and Desire (a reworking of Williams’ 2010 novel, Blonde on a Stick, released by Titan in anticipation of a second and third Joel Sorrell thriller next year) is a departure from the author’s horror roots, there is a darkness here that belies those roots and blurs the lines between the two genres. The occasional violence is shocking in its intensity and graphic in its execution. The frequent side-trips into the mind of the serial killer leave the reader feeling disturbed, somehow unclean, at once understanding his twisted logic and wishing that we didn’t. His status as a “leapling” gives him added dimension and makes him, somehow, even more disturbing – it’s not every day we come across a four-year-old serial killer.

Dust and Desire is Conrad Williams doing what he does best, regardless of genre: crafting a story that we want to read, and that draws us in from the first page. Beautifully-realised characters and an engaging plot combine to make this one of the must-read crime novels of the year. The prospect of more of the same in next year’s Sonata of the Dead and Hell is Empty fills this reader with joy and excitement. Conrad Williams brings a wealth of experience to the genre, yet gives us a fresh new voice that immediately places him at the front of the burgeoning Brit Noir scene.

SORCERER TO THE CROWN by Zen Cho

9781447299486 SORCERER TO THE CROWN

Zen Cho (zencho.org)

Macmillan (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

Regency London in a time of magical upheaval. The Sorcerer Royal is dead, his staff passed on to his successor, but his familiar gone. His successor has split opinion within the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers: Zacharias Wythe is Sir Stephen’s son in all but blood; he is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, a slave bought by Sir Stephen, granted freedom and raised as a son, his magical abilities as great as those of any English thaumaturge. In an attempt to discover the cause of the decline in England’s magic, Zacharias heads to the border of Fairyland. On the way he visits Mrs Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches where he discovers Prunella Gentleman, an Asian girl who may well have found the future of English magic in a small valise left by her father before he took his own life. Heading back to London together, Zacharias is determined to change the course of English magic, despite the many attempts on his life by those jealous of his position.

Part Regency drama, part magical fantasy, Zen Cho’s debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, appears to have a little something for everyone. There is something light-hearted about the novel’s tone, despite the important themes on which the author touches, and while comparisons to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are warranted, Cho’s world feels much more substantial, much more grounded in reality than that of Susanna Clarke.

When we first meet Zacharias Wythe, he has been Sorcerer Royal for a matter of months. His predecessor is dead, though still manages to offer advice to Zacharias when required. There is, we discover, much tension in the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers for a number of reasons: Zacharias may now hold the staff of the Sorcerer Royal, but his predecessor’s familiar, Leofric disappeared at the same time that Sir Stephen Wythe died. Rumours abound that Zacharias has murdered his father, and his father’s familiar, in order to take control of the staff for himself. Of course, this is just an excuse: the Regency period is not renowned for its tolerance and open-mindedness, and Zacharias’ heritage – a slave bought and freed by Sir Stephen when he sensed the boy had great magical potential – is more than enough to condemn him in the eyes of these fine English gentlemen.

For the same reason, Zacharias now bears the burden for England’s declining magic, despite the fact that it was declining long before he took his position. On a trip to the border of Fairyland, from which the country’s magic flows, he discovers that the Fairy Court have deliberately stopped the magic and, as he investigates, discovers that the fault lies not with him, but with one of the men who wishes to take his place at the head of English thaumaturgy.

Thrown into this already explosive mix is Miss Prunella Gentleman, a young lady whom Zacharias meets on his way to Fairyland, and who convinces him that he should take her back to London with him. Prunella is in possession of a secret that could determine the future of English magic and Zacharias is now faced with fighting discrimination on two fronts: first the racism directed at both him (an African) and Prunella (a girl who is obviously of Asian origin) and second, the sexism that dictates that women cannot practice magic or become members of the Royal Society. Here Cho has a tough task: to progress the story and discuss the implications of the diversity she has introduced without resorting to lecturing or potential alienation of readers. This she manages with a great deal of style, putting the question of diversity front and centre without sacrificing anything about the world she has already built, or the fantasy she is constructing around these characters.

Cho’s use of language is an important aspect of the novel, and gives it a singular voice that sets the tone I have already mentioned. She plays with sentence structure and word usage to make the book feel “of its time”, both in terms of the narrative and of the dialogue. Despite the book’s serious edge, there is plenty of wit here, and the chemistry between the central characters – Zacharias and Prunella – is something special. The supporting cast are no less interesting or memorable, and it quickly becomes clear that not everyone is who they seem to be. Beyond England, Cho gives us a brief glimpse of Fairyland, and of the massive host of creatures that populate it. One of the most interesting characters is the old witch, Mak Genggang, who drives much of the story along, and who acts as an oracle of sorts, giving both Prunella and the reader enough background to understand where both she, and this unforgettable world, have come from.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the sort of story that captures the reader purely because we have never seen anything quite like it. It is a beautifully-written fantasy romp with an important underlying message that is still as relevant today as it was during the story’s setting. While much of the novel feels like it is building towards the much larger story promised by the prospect of a second book (and, perhaps, more), it also works as a self-contained story, and gives all of the characters the room they need to show us who they are and what they are capable of. Zen Cho’s extraordinary debut novel feels very mature, and shows a writer who is comfortable in her own ability to create whole worlds from thin air. Cho’s is a name we’ll be hearing much more of in the future; now is the time to find out what all the fuss is about.

A SONG FROM DEAD LIPS by William Shaw

A SONG FROM DEAD LIPS - William Shaw A SONG FROM DEAD LIPS

William Shaw (williamshaw.com)

Quercus (www.quercusbooks.co.uk)

£7.99

When a young woman is found strangled and naked yards away from the recording studio on Abbey Road made famous by The Beatles, the case falls to Cathal Breen, a member of the Met’s D Division. Still recovering from the death of his father, Breen is far from popular with the men with whom he shares his office. Assigned Temporary Detective Constable Helen Tozer – an unheard-of development in the Metropolitan Police of 1968 – Breen sets out to identify the dead girl and bring her murderer to justice. As their investigation progresses, the body-count mounts rapidly, and it quickly becomes clear that there is more to this case than meets the eye.

William Shaw’s debut novel, A Song From Dead Lips, transports us back to London at the latter end of the swinging sixties. Casual sexism and racism are rife, and the incident room from which Cathal Breen works is a smoke-filled boys’ club with all that that implies. This is a scene we’ve seen before – think Life On Mars, for example – but here it forms little more than the launch pad for a clever and engaging mystery, and a reminder that these were much less enlightened times than we are used to today.

Cathal Breen – born in London, but with enough Irish heritage to warrant the nickname Paddy is the obvious choice for protagonist in this bunch of misfits. He is disliked by his colleagues for the very qualities that make him appeal to the reader: he is a clean policeman, an incorruptible and dedicated investigator whose duty is to the victim, and not to the whims of those higher up the food chain than himself. He’s something of a morose character – understandable given his recent history – and prone to finding himself in humiliating situations. Breen takes a beating at the hands of the author over the course of this first novel, but he becomes a more realistic and relatable person as a result.

Helen Tozer is Breen’s polar opposite – talkative and outgoing (‘Do you ever stop talking?’ Breen asks her early in their relationship), there is an immediate clash of personalities when the two begin working together. Breen seems almost incapable of coping with this new whirlwind force in his life, constantly on the back foot, defending his actions and statements. Tozer is an essential ingredient in the novel, providing, as she does, some useful insight into the case – the potential link to The Beatles who frequent the nearby recording studio on Abbey Road; the contacts in that much younger community that Breen would not have had otherwise. Shaw uses Tozer to highlight the sexist state of affairs that existed in 1968, but does so obliquely, ensuring that there is enough reason for her existence beyond illustrating a point.

Breen, perhaps because of his immigrant history, comes across as ahead of his time. When he questions the people in the flats where the girl’s body was found, fingers inevitably point towards the black man who has recently moved into a nearby house. Unlike most of his colleagues, the man’s colour is not enough to put him high on Breen’s list of suspects, though it quickly becomes clear that there is something less than savoury in the man’s past. In Samuel Ezeoke, William Shaw takes the opportunity to examine some wider issues: the brutal civil war in Nigeria and the formation of Biafra; the British role in the oppression of this new nation. These two second-generation Englishmen – one from an Irish heritage, the other from a Nigerian – provide us with some insight into national identity and zealotry that is as relevant in today’s society as it was in 1968.

A Song From Dead Lips is not without its problems, but they’re minor niggles in the grander scheme of things: there is a sexual tension between Breen and Tozer that often leaves Breen looking like a love-struck teenager. While it’s an extra insight into this complex character’s persona, it does tend to grate from time to time. And there is, I feel, too much emphasis on the smoking culture that was prevalent at the time. Everyone smokes. With few exceptions, every character to whom we’re introduced will be smoking at some point during their stint on the pages (including,for example, a server at a carvery). While it may have been the case, the constant references do nothing but distract from what’s going on and leaves the reader wondering if as much attention would have been drawn to such a trivial fact had the book actually been produced at the end of the sixties. Minor niggles that shouldn’t detract from the story, in the grand scheme of things.

In all, William Shaw has produced an excellent first novel and given us a pair of detectives that are unlike any others in the genre. A Song From Dead Lips is a beautifully-written and cleverly-plotted piece of fiction that is sure to keep readers engaged from start to finish. Shaw’s sense of place (not just London, but Devon and Cornwall) and time (Nobby Pilcher’s arrest of John Lennon and Yoko Ono on drugs charges plays an important role in the development of the story) are perfectly tuned and enhance the reading experience. The most important aspect of the book, though, are the two characters who form its heart and soul, and the – often fraught – relationship that exists between them. These are characters we want to visit with again and again, and that, for this kind of novel, is the key to success.

LIKE THIS, FOR EVER by Sharon Bolton

LIKE THIS FOR EVER - Sharon Bolton LIKE THIS, FOR EVER

Sharon Bolton (www.sharonbolton.com)

Corgi (www.transworldbooks.co.uk)

£6.99

Barney Roberts is 11 years old and obsessed with two things: finding his mother, who walked out on him and his father while Barney was still too young to have much of a memory of her; and understanding the series of murders of five London boys, all exactly his own age, that have gripped the city for almost two months. As Barney begins to see patterns in the murders, he suspects the worst and enlists the help of his next door neighbour, the troubled Met detective Lacey Flint. Meanwhile, Detective Inspector Dana Tulloch has theories of her own, and Lacey Flint’s role in the case awakens her suspicions immediately. When a sixth boy disappears, these women find themselves in a race against time to find the identity of the killer and stop him before he claims another life.

Like This, For Ever is Sharon Bolton’s seventh novel, and sees a rebranding of the author from the familiar S.J. Bolton, including a complete re-release of the entire back catalogue. It’s my first Bolton read and, not knowing what to expect, was pleasantly surprised with what I found inside. Bolton puts us inside the head of young Barney from the outset, switching to established series characters as and when necessary. Barney is the lynchpin of the novel, and Bolton grooms him perfectly: an intelligent young boy with serious emotional problems, the most obvious of which is the almost-crippling OCD that plagues his every action. As we follow his journey, and see life through his eyes, we become sucked into his way of looking at the world, so his logic seems sound when he reaches the, perhaps, obvious conclusion as to the possible identity of the killer. We’re also given enough rope to believe that Barney might, somehow, be involved in the murders himself – after all, why, out of all the eleven-year-old boys in London, should we be most interested in this one?

From the start, Like This, For Ever captures the attention and imagination of the reader. As we follow Barney from one seemingly logical conclusion to the next, it’s impossible for us to start formulating our own theories, but each fresh twist, sleight of hand, stunning misdirection has us constantly scrambling to keep up, re-evaluating our options almost as often as we turn a page. The book is a slow starter – when the story opens, five boys have already been murdered, and this will remain the case for the majority of the novel. Around the halfway mark there is a sudden sense that Bolton has shifted gear and, from that point on, it is impossible to set this book down, even for the briefest of moments. As we approach the climax, everyone is a suspect and our emotional bond with these characters compels us to know what happens next?

The pages of this slick, clever novel, are littered with clues for the eagle-eyed reader, so while all of the suspects are plausible, the final reveal is intensely satisfying and entirely logical. Having read Like This, For Ever, it is impossible not to come away a fan of Ms Bolton. For me, too, the disappointment that I hadn’t discovered S.J. Bolton long before now.

The novel is an interesting starting point for the first time reader of Bolton’s work. While the story is self-contained, it is part of a larger series, and there is a lot of background that tended to go over my head for the most part (what, exactly, happened to Lacey during her time in Cambridge, and why has it had such an effect on her? And who is the mysterious, and unnamed, prisoner that she visits from time to time?). While I appreciate that authors in this situation need to find a balance between pleasing their existing fan base, and attracting new readers, there is a definite feeling that Like This, For Ever forms part of a more tightly-integrated series that requires the reader to have knowledge of what has gone before. It seems a fairly minor complaint, and is my own fault for reading the books out of order, but for me the series characters – Lacey Flint, Dana Tulloch, Mark Joesbury – seemed less important, more of a diversion than an integral part of the plot, than those introduced for the first time in this volume. Which, considering the book’s genre, is far from ideal. Which isn’t to say that the experience was spoiled as a result; far from it: not only did I thoroughly enjoy Like This, For Ever, but I now have a burning desire to answer the questions I asked earlier in this paragraph.

Sharon Bolton’s latest novel is designed to keep you on your toes, and awake long into the night. Its subject matter is intense and timely, and should strike a particular chord with parents in the audience. Tightly-plotted, perfectly-paced and with enough twists and deliberate misdirection to always keep the reader on uneasy footing, Like This, For Ever is the perfect example of the modern British crime thriller. For me, an absolute winner, it adds Sharon Bolton to my must-read watch-list for the future.

MAYHEM by Sarah Pinborough

mayhem MAYHEM

Sarah Pinborough (sarahpinborough.com)

Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)

£14.99

It is October 1888 and the people of London are already reeling from the series of murders committed by the man who has styled himself “Jack the Ripper”. When the rotting torso of a young woman is found in the vault of the building site that will eventually become New Scotland Yard, the immediate assumption is that it belongs to yet another victim of the Ripper. But police surgeon Dr Thomas Bond doesn’t agree – this is a much colder killer, without the fiery passion that defines Jack’s kills. As more body parts – from this victim and others – wash up on the banks of the Thames, panic sets in across the metropolis and Bond finds himself joining forces with a mysterious Italian Jesuit and an unwashed immigrant with an unwanted “gift” in an attempt to find and stop this new killer.

Pinborough takes, as the starting point for her latest novel, a series of unsolved murders that occurred in London around the same time that Jack the Ripper was operating, and a handful of historical figures who would likely have been involved in their investigation. At the centre we find Dr Thomas Bond, Police Surgeon, who plays both detective and biographer in this distinctly Holmesian tale. Bond is an insomniac who has found solace in the opium dens of Whitechapel and beyond. It is here, in the guise of a stranger who watches the addicts as they dream, that he believes he has found a connection to the murders. When Bond follows the man, he finds himself drawn into a search for the killer that is at odds with his role as Police Surgeon but which, he quickly realises, might be the only chance they have of catching this man before any more young women die at his hands.

Told, in the main, from the point of view of Bond, Pinborough also intersperses third-person narratives focusing on some of the other key players, as well as newspaper clippings from the period to create an engaging – moreish, even – read. Impeccable research and wonderful narrative styling combine to place the reader in the centre of the melting pot that was London towards the end of the nineteenth century. In choosing to ignore the more famous Ripper murders in favour of the lesser-known Thames Torso murders, Pinborough has given herself some room for manoeuvre and sets Mayhem apart from countless other novels set in the same period. The focus on Thomas Bond allows the Ripper murders to make a cameo appearance – Bond was involved in their investigation – and the author finds a perfect balance that allows them to become landmarks for the reader without ever becoming the focus of the story.

For the first half of the novel, Mayhem reads like a straightforward mystery novel with more than a little influence from Conan Doyle. At this stage, anyone and everyone is a suspect, and Pinborough introduces one character after another who may have had a hand in the murder and dismemberment of these women. Towards the middle portion, there is a slight shift; as we learn the identity of the killer, our suspicions change from the “did he do it?” to the less-tangible “what are his motives for being involved?”. It’s a deft piece of writing that leaves the reader satisfied that the who was never really important and, if anything, manages to increase the suspense we encounter from this point onwards. At this point, too, a supernatural element creeps into the story, the transition from “crime” to “horror” made all the more palatable by virtue of the fact that we see it through the eyes of Thomas Bond, a man of science faced with something he cannot explain.

Mayhem  is the first in a series of books featuring Dr Bond. Instantly likeable, despite his flaws, he’s the perfect leading man. As one of the lesser-known members of the Ripper investigation team, Pinborough has the freedom to tweak his personality to suit her dark plots (for which she apologises in her short but informative Preface), safe in the knowledge that the majority of readers will be meeting the man for the first time, without the preconceptions that they might bring to, say, Frederick Abberline. It is difficult to imagine that anyone wouldn’t be looking forward to 2015’s Murder following their first encounter with Dr Bond.

Sarah Pinborough’s latest novel is the perfect mix of historical fact and fiction, Caleb Carr with a supernatural twist. Careful plotting, spot-on pacing and a sharp ear for the language of the period combine to make the reader want to come back for more. The use of the Ripper murders to provide context, without ever detracting from the importance of the Thames Torso murders, is the perfect device to place the reader in the middle of the smog-filled London of the late 1880s. Mayhem is a novel that obliterates genre boundaries, and is a must-read for fans of Sherlock Holmes, of the various legends of Jack the Ripper, and of crime and horror fiction in general. It’s a major showcase for the talents of Sarah Pinborough, who proves, once again, that she deserves a spot on everyone’s must-read list.

An Interview with CHRIS MORGAN JONES

Morgan Jones, Chris credit Alexander James
Photograph © Alexander James
Name: CHRIS MORGAN JONES

Author of: AN AGENT OF DECEIT (2011)

On the web: www.chrismorganjones.com

On Twitter: @chrismjauthor

Chris Morgan Jones’ first novel, An Agent of Deceit, was published in 2011 to widespread critical acclaim, with many outlets comparing his work to that of John Le Carré. Before setting pen to paper, Jones spent eleven years in the shoes of his protagonist, Ben Webster, working for one of the world’s largest business intelligence agencies.

Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Chris. For me, An Agent of Deceit, comes across as an old-fashioned spy novel, of the type you don’t really see any more, in a very modern setting. But it still has a very “Cold War”, east versus west, feel to it. Can you talk us through where the idea came from, and how you set about constructing the complex plot?

The very first idea I had, revolving in my head in a quiet way for years, was the predicament of one of the main characters, Richard Lock, who has almost inadvertently signed away his identity, and in the process his life, to hide the criminal gains of a sinister Russian bureaucrat. In my old work I used to come across Locks almost every day – lawyers and accountants whose job it was to set up complex networks of companies offshore. Some of them, like Lock, sell themselves completely and pretend to own things on behalf of others nastier and more powerful than them. I began to wonder who these people were and how they had become what they had become, and slowly one particular such person began to form in my head.

As for the plot: I knew where it began and roughly where it ended, and so the work came in filling out the middle. First I thought through the central story, the relationship between Lock and the investigator who pursues him, and then I introduced the other characters, imagining how they would affect and be affected by events. At one stage I drew up a large chart with the characters across the top and time running down the side and worked out how everyone would interlock. Strangely, it was much easier to plot than my second book, even though in many ways it was more complicated.

That old-fashioned sense is helped along by the fact that Ben Webster, the novel’s protagonist, makes his way through the story – for the most part – without the aid of gadgets, gizmos or even modern technology. With the exception of the frequent mention of mobile phones, this is a story that could have happened prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Was this a conscious decision you made at the outset and, if so, why?

No, strangely. It developed like that. I knew that London and Moscow, the home cities of the two protagonists, would be the two poles of the book, and toyed with various ideas for the location of the book’s final third. Then it became clear that it had to be Berlin – partly because it made sense in plot terms, but also because Berlin is neither east nor west, and was therefore the perfect place for Lock’s dual allegiances to be tested. So I became aware of the old-fashionedness late on.

An Agent of Deceit takes a slightly unusual approach to the spy novel in that it devotes equal airtime to the points of view of both hunter (Webster) and hunted (Richard Lock). Did you find one character more difficult to write than the other, and how much of each character were you able to build from your own experience in the business intelligence community?

Webster was more difficult to write. As you suggest, the book is written from the two protagonists’ perspectives, which alternate throughout. It turned out that this was an excellent structure for a first book, because it established a steady rhythm, but its one flaw, I now realise, was that because Webster is so busy hunting, and making the action of the book happen, we get to know him less well. We get to observe Lock in a more natural state, in a way, and I think he feels more rounded as a result. This is something that with luck the second book addresses.

And while what Webster does is a pretty accurate amalgam of what people in my old world do, the characters themselves aren’t drawn from a single model. They’re both fictional creations, and to be honest neither particularly resembles anyone I know in life.

There have been plenty of comparisons between your work and the novels of John Le Carré, which is presumably not a bad thing for a first-time author to hear. As I read the book, I found myself comparing Webster to that other great fictional spy, Bernie Samson – more everyman than Old Boys’ Network, the obsession and doggedness. Can you talk about the influence these two giants of the genre – Le Carré and Deighton – have had on your own writing?

I’m not sure it’s possible to unpick one’s influences. Le Carré and Deighton are both writers I enjoy enormously, and admire, but I think others might be better placed to spot the correspondences. One very nice reader compared the book to Eric Ambler, which was another tremendous compliment. What they all have in common is the sense of a secret world occupying a dimension right next to but invisible from our own, which is definitely something worth emulating. They’re probably all in there somewhere, along with some writers of detective fiction. Rex Stout, a name not heard often in the UK, definitely had an influence on the structure, even though his books – brilliant comic detective novels – are entirely different.

And before we move on to more general questions…are we likely to see Ben Webster again? Can you talk about what you’re working on at the minute?

I’ve finished a new Webster novel. It’s called The Jackal’s Share and will be published in hardback early next year. As I said, this time we spend more time with him, and his trials are rather different and more acute. The story is entirely new, though – it isn’t strictly a sequel.

For the third book I’m planning to write about the same world, but to shift the focus to a different character within it. And Russia hoves back into view.

What other authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Rex Stout, as mentioned above. James Lee Burke, a brilliant writer of crime thrillers, for want of a better word (he’s much too good to need a genre tag). Then there are all the writers I’d like to think I might be influenced by in some small way. Robert Louis Stevenson is probably top of that list. Line by line I’m not sure he’s ever been bettered, and his stories and plotting are sublime. There’s a reason that Treasure Island is still such a thrilling book.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

Heavens. Apart from Treasure Island, probably The Count of Monte Cristo, which is probably the most compelling story I’ve ever read. It makes a thousand pages seem like fifty.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Chris Morgan Jones look like?

That’s an excellent question. The ideal writing day involves getting up early, around 5.30, writing for a couple of hours before the children wake up, going back to it from 9 until lunchtime, and then squeezing in another three hours or so from 4 till 7 (in the middle of the day my brain stops). In reality all sorts of things get in the way, and when they don’t, I do.

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

Carve out some time. This is easier said than done, of course. The luckiest break I got was being able to write the first few chapters of the book while looking for a new job, and without the uninterrupted work that allowed I’m not sure I’d have completed the task.

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

I’ve been reading an extraordinary book about parallel universes by a brilliant writer on physics called Brian Greene. The book is The Hidden Reality. It sounds ridiculously difficult, and it is – every morning I’ve forgotten what I read the night before. But it’s truly fascinating and has the advantage of having no characters and plots in it, which is sometimes a relief.

Would you like to see An Agent of Deceit make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

I’ve thought about it, but to be honest not to that degree of detail. There’s Tomas Alfredson, who directed the brilliant vampire movie Let The Right One In, but then he went and directed the equally good Tinker Tailor, and he might feel he’s had enough spies.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Now that’s fun. M. R. James, the ghost story writer. We’d have to meet in an empty house somewhere on the Suffolk coast and we’d talk about his most terrifying creations. I would need whisky.

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

Chris will be appearing at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival on Friday 20th July.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑