Missing out…

Last week I was invited to two separate writing events, both of which looked fantastic. Annoyingly, I didn’t manage to get to either of them.

The first was the latest in the series of Noir at the Bar: North East, held every few months at the Town Wall bar in Newcastle. I’ve been to one there (and another in Carlisle) and it was excellent – high quality readings, great fun, a really good night out. I’d have loved to go along again, not necessarily to read this time but just to soak up the atmosphere, listen to some great crime writing, and enjoy putting faces to the names I meet every day on social media.

But it wasn’t to be, because it more-or-less clashed with my good friend Les Morris’s book launch, held in Carlisle the very next night. Newcastle is a three-hour train journey away from home which means having to stop in the city overnight, and I simply wouldn’t have had time to travel home, get everything ready, and set out for the next event again. So, regretfully, I said no.

51uWmD4CEPLI was determined to get to Les’s launch. He’s a good mate from early Facebook days; it’s thanks to him that I discovered Crime and Publishment, and you might even say because of that it’s thanks to him that I’m published at all. ‘Desperate Ground’ is his debut novel so all the more exciting, and I really wanted to be there to help him celebrate.

But that wasn’t to be either. I’d had a bug all week which meant I lost my voice (no cheering, please) and then on the day the local trains decided not to run. Actually, they’ve been deciding not to run, on and off (but mostly off) for several weeks, and it’s starting to get annoying. The train company run replacement buses, but there’s virtually no schedule, they take twice as long to get anywhere, and they only run one 60-seat bus to take up to 300 train passengers at a time. Needless to say, it descends into chaos. I couldn’t see how to get to the mainline station in time to make my connection, and more worryingly, I couldn’t see how to get home again. Especially as I wasn’t feeling a hundred percent. So, even more regretfully, I had to send Les my apologies.

I’m sure he had a fantastic time (I still remember the excitement and sheer terror of my own launch party for ‘Raise the Blade’) and I hope that he’ll forgive me eventually. As for his book, you can find all the details here. Do go and check it out, because it sounds like a real page-turner. In fact, it’s described as explosive. So if you order a copy, just be careful when you’re opening up the parcel from Amazon!

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Elephants, giraffes and crocodiles, oh my

P1000219Elephants loose in Birmingham? And not in one of my books?

Well, yes and no. Like the ones in my books, these aren’t actual elephants. Unlike the ones in my books, they are at least concrete – or rather, metal – and often life-sized. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Akamba.

Back in the day this was a small, exotic garden centre selling a range of sub-tropical plants like ferns and bamboo from a small sliver of land in the suburb of Acocks Green. It was deeply mysterious, with trees lacing overhead and a network of ‘paths’ created through the jungle-like undergrowth, plus tribal music playing quietly on hidden loudspeakers, and a tiny shop selling African crafts.

It was one of those hidden gems that only the locals know about, but it was obviously very popular because soon after we first visited, it closed its Acocks Green premises and moved to a much larger site on the southern fringes of Birmingham, near to the new town of Dickens Heath. And here it remains, although there have been big changes recently (and I’m not just talking about the elephants).

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Nowadays the garden centre part of the business is something of an afterthought, and this is primarily a ‘venue’. There’s a large café/restaurant with a stage area which can be hired out for events; there’s a vast outdoor beer garden/cocktail bar area; there’s a tropical house and bird walk for the kids. And everywhere you look there are metal sculptures of animals, looming out of the bushes in a quirkily entertaining way.

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As an unusual venue it must be right up there at the top of the list. Perfect for book launches, was my first thought – especially anything set in Africa, the jungle or the tropics. Even the restaurant is done out like a colonial tea-house, with lamps formed from (metal) antelope heads and pendant lights designed to look like weaver-bird nests. It’s very atmospheric, and tremendous fun. And if you’ve got a spare few thousand pounds, you can even buy an elephant.

“Brilliantly dark humour”

Raise the Blade FrontI’m extra happy today, because the wonderful Jen of JenMed’s Book Reviews has tackled ‘Raise the Blade’ – and loved it!

She’s been particularly complimentary about the book’s ultra-dark humour, and also about the Birmingham locations, which I’d only just started to blog about in detail on here.

If you’d like to see more about what she liked and why, then head over to the review. (And have a good rootle around her site while you’re at it, because it’s simply stuffed with books.)

If you’d like a bit more information on those settings, then check out my most recent post, and keep your eyes peeled because I’ll be adding more in the next few weeks.

Raise the Blade locations: 1 – Edgbaston Reservoir

It occurred to me recently that I’d never really blogged in depth about the Birmingham settings in ‘Raise the Blade’, which is a shame for two reasons. One, Birmingham is full of amazing – and often surprising – locations, and two, they’re really important to the book. So, to set the record straight, and hopefully provide something of a guided tour around the city’s less-well-known nooks and crannies, I’ll be writing about various locations over the next few weeks.

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The first is Edgbaston Reservoir, which forms the backdrop to the discovery of the very first body in ‘Raise the Blade’. I first came across the reservoir in the mid-1980s, soon after I’d moved to Brum, when a couple of friends took me there for a walk. I was pretty cynical at first; the suburb it’s set in is leafy enough, but tends towards streets lined with houses rather than huge open spaces that you can use for long walks. Just how much of a lake could there be in such a relentlessly urban location, I naively thought. Well, it just shows how wrong you can be. A short stroll down a path between two properties took me to a whole new world. A world of wide open vistas stretching out all the way to the city centre skyscrapers and beyond; a world of yachts and ducks and great-crested grebes; a world of trees that feels a million miles from the busy, traffic-choked streets just a few hundred yards away.

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The reservoir was built (or at least commissioned – I don’t suppose he lifted a shovel himself) by Thomas Telford, the great canal engineer, in the early nineteenth century, and it was built for one purpose – to provide water for Birmingham’s vast network of canals. A small stream was dammed, and water was also piped from another reservoir around three miles away, and together they formed a lake covering some 58 acres – although the overall site including a round-the-lake footpath, grassland, woodland, and the dam, covers as much as 70 acres.

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Although the reservoir itself is open to the cross-city views and skies, the surrounding trees give it an enclosed, secluded feel, particularly in summer when the leaves are fully out. At the end furthest from the dam, large houses back onto the site, their gardens barely visible over high fences, often topped with wire. It was this location in particular that I used in ‘Raise the Blade’. Rotton Park Road, with on-street parking, is only a few hundred yards away, and the path from there slopes downhill, so it would be easy enough for a strong murderer to drag a body into the undergrowth. In the book, one of the fences has been damaged – enough for the foxes to get through – and this is presumably where the murderer gains access to Mrs Rai’s garden, and where hapless victim Brian finds the body and decides to hide it, setting the book’s characters off on a chain reaction of their own.

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This is just one of Birmingham’s many hidden gems. Dashing past on the surrounding streets you’d barely know it was there, which is another reason why it might be useful for disposing of unwanted evidence. All that nice deep water (40 feet, apparently); all those trees. And when the leaves are out, it’s barely overlooked. Of course, I’m not condoning leaving dead bodies there myself, but all things considered you can see why Duncan did!

You can find out more about the reservoir, its facilities, and the various events it hosts at the Birmingham City Council webpage here. And to find out more about ‘Raise the Blade’, its victims, and the other locations I used, head for my webpage here.

All photos in this article are my own. Thanks for reading – there’ll be another unusual location along soon.

The Right to Remain Silent

Dark_Side_of_the_MoonI didn’t remain silent, and perhaps it’s just as well. Nope, nothing to do with getting myself arrested (yet!) but a brilliant interview with a fictional (honest) introduction over at Jason Beech’s blog.

The interview is fairly standard although some of the questions really made me think. But the fictional bit is amazing. How Jason came up with the whole thing armed with only a few snippets of information I shall never know. Pink Floyd, murder, urban legends, they’re all in there. And if he can do that with just my bio, imagine what he’s like with a whole book!

Do head over to his blog and check the interview out. After all, it’s not every day that you’re in the presence of an urban legend. Cough. And while you’re at it, have a look at some of his other willing victims, because there are lots of them and they’re all just as good. And then have a look at his latest book, City of Forts, because that looks brilliant too.

A plague on cliffhangers!

TV drama series – and especially crime series – have always depended on cliffhangers for suspense – small ones at the end of every episode, larger ones at the end of a season. The small ones, such as who the hooded figure in the shadows is, or whether a victim is dead or alive, keep us tuning in  the following week. The larger ones build loyalty to a brand and give us a hook to tempt us back next month, next year, or whenever the next series is shown.

Usually those end-of-season teasers have involved something that doesn’t affect the current plot. Frequent favourites are whether two major characters are going to have a relationship or not, or whether the particular team/squad/company is going to be closed down.

Just lately, though, I’ve noticed a sudden outbreak of cliffhangers that do involve the plot, and sometimes in quite a major way. The first of these was the Spanish series ‘I Know Who You Are’. I waded through ten episodes of melodrama and family arguments to find out whether the main suspect was guilty and whether the victim was going to be released in good health to the loving arms of her family, only to find that half of the entire plot wasn’t resolved. (I’m deliberately keeping this light on detail in case anyone still hasn’t seen the series.)

It was a bit irritating, and I was left feeling cheated, somehow – that the whole reason for watching the series was being denied to me. That was bad enough, but then ‘Babylon Berlin’ came along. Again, ten episodes, with a wildly convoluted plot involving pornographic films, Russian spies, the smuggling of war weapons and gold, and a young woman who desperately wanted to join the police. It was clever, it was breathless, it kept you on the edge of your seat. And then in the final episode of the series, only one small piece of that huge jigsaw puzzle had been clicked into place. All the rest was left hanging, presumably to trap viewers into watching another ten episodes of the second series which followed soon afterwards.

But what if the second series doesn’t answer the questions either? Do we have to sit through three or four series, or more, before we find out what the answers are? Much as I enjoyed the first lot, I’m not sure I can invest another ten hours in something only to be disappointed again.

And now the practice has even crept into the otherwise reliable (and hugely enjoyable) ‘Shetland’. The last series wrapped up last week… with a sudden and completely unexplained death that should have warranted a major investigation, but didn’t – and again, no real answers. Again, presumably, we have to wait until the next series to find out what happened and why, but by then I’ll probably have forgotten most of the details and won’t really care. I want to know now, dammit!

So come on, TV production companies. Please stop cheating us by not revealing the answers at series end. It isn’t really fair on your viewers to deny them the very thing they’re watching your series for…

Crime and Publishment 2018

This weekend was the sixth annual Crime and Publishment crime writing weekend, held as ever at the Mill Forge Hotel just north of Gretna Green.

As you might expect, the hotel is normally a wedding venue, but for one weekend a year they put aside the champagne and glitter and break out the pen and paper – and gore! – instead. The course lasts for two and a half days, with a wide range of speakers and subjects, this year covering everything from research to making your characters believable to how to succeed on social media. Not only do you learn heaps, but it’s also lots of fun.

This year was my fifth in succession (I didn’t find out about it until the second year) and I loved it just as much as ever. It’s always nice to meet up with so many old friends (some have been going even longer than I have) and this time there were lots of new faces as well, all of them friendly and all just as passionate about writing as the rest of us. And then on the Sunday we all get the opportunity to pitch to a well-respected figure in the industry, be it publisher or agent. This year was the turn of Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books, who spoke entertainingly but passionately about the business of publishing, and of supporting authors throughout their careers.

For me the highlight was probably Michael J Malone’s session on building character, which made me realise that the main character in my current work-in-progress needed some serious attention. Not quite to the point of re-writing the whole ruddy book, but better to realise at this stage than after it’s been submitted somewhere. I spent half an hour on Saturday morning scribbling ideas and nearly missed the start of the first session!

A new feature this year was an unofficial book-swap, where we took along crime novels we’d finished with, to swap around for free. I took a couple that had been cluttering up my shelves – and came home with four more, which wasn’t quite the point…

Next year’s programme looks equally interesting, so I’ll almost certainly be heading back to Gretna for another dose.

The weather wasn’t especially kind, but here’s a couple of photos of the hotel and grounds, showing the pretty landscaping and wonderful attention to detail for couples getting married (and perhaps for hiding the odd dead body or two…!)

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Bingeing on TV crime

There are simply loads of crime drama series on TV at the moment, and although there aren’t enough hours in the day to watch all of them, I’m busy working my way through quite a few. Here’s a pick of the most recent:

Loving:

Shetland: always a breath of fresh air with great performances from Douglas Henshall and the rest of the cast, some good dialogue, an interesting story arc about a man newly released from prison who may (or may not!) be innocent of the murder he was sent down for, and on top of all that, stunning Shetland scenery. And this time round, part of the series is set in Bergen in Norway, which adds an international flavour. I’ve been to the city a couple of times so it was good to spot all my favourite landmarks again.

Babylon Berlin: A really interesting and original series set at the time of the Weimar Republic in Germany (ie, between the two World Wars). The recreation of the period feels thoroughly authentic, with some chilling reminders of what was to come for the country, a lot of cloak and dagger stuff that you suspect will turn into straightforward crime eventually (less weird politics, more jealousy and greed), and a wonderfully noir atmosphere where every character is deeply flawed and there are probably no happy endings.

Brotherhood: I’m watching this series from a couple of years ago on Catch-up, and really enjoying it in spite of the occasional wobbly accents from the two leads, Jason Isaacs and Jason Clarke – one Brit and one Aussie but both playing Irish Americans. The series is set in Providence, Rhode Island, and unlike most dramas was actually filmed there, which gives it an authentic feel straight away. It’s allegedly based on the real-life relationship between gangster Whitey Bulger and his younger, politician brother. I love the noir feel, the expose of the corrupt nature of American politics, and the way neither brother is wholly good or wholly bad.

Liking:

Endeavour: This is always a stalwart with solid performances from Shaun Evans and Roger Allam, but the current series seems better than the last, with more believable plots (no more escaped tigers!) and an ongoing story arc about racism in late Sixties Oxford. There are also lots of in-jokes and nods to celebrities and TV programmes of the time – like the dodgy hotel in one episode that was called the Crossroads Hotel!

I Know Who You Are: I finished watching this marathon Spanish crime series a few weeks ago, with mixed feelings. Overall it was interesting to see a Spanish ‘take’ on crime drama, and the central performance by Francesc Garrido as a lawyer with amnesia who may have been responsible for the disappearance of his niece was nuanced and utterly believable. In the end it went on a bit too long, was much too melodramatic, and had a really unpleasant ending which I felt exploited the suffering of a young woman (a frequent gripe these days). But it was good to try.

Not so much:

Vera: This seems to have lost its way since the episodes stopped being based on the Ann Cleeves novels. It’s turned cosy, which the original never was, and the dialogue is terrible. I watched one, two-hour episode of the most recent series and found it dreary and dull, with a telegraphed plot, ‘don’t care’ characters, and far too much reliance on catch phrases. Vera now calls every single character ‘love’ or ‘pet’, every single time she talks to them, and after a while it grates. Not a patch on the production values of Shetland, even though both series are based on books by the same author.

 

Banksy hero

banksy_hullA new Banksy artwork appeared recently in Hull – which is appropriate given that it’s currently UK City of Culture. It was stencilled on a bridge in the river which is kept permanently raised, and included a small boy wielding a giant pencil and the message ‘drawing the raised bridge’. Typical Banksy mischief, and a wonderful play on words which really made me smile.

Sadly, not everyone appreciated it. One local councillor demanded that it was ‘destroyed’ (he obviously has no idea how valuable Banksy art can be…), and shortly after that, it was completely painted over with a coat of thick white paint.

Whether those two facts are connected or not I have no idea. But one local chap saw not white but red, and rushed out to help restore the artwork to its former glory. Even better, he’s a window cleaner, so could throw in all the ladders, buckets, cloths and whatever else might be needed to scrub paint off yet more paint. In the end, plain water didn’t work and he had to resort to chemicals, and the underlying mural suffered slightly as a result. Still, as he himself said, better a faded Banksy than no Banksy at all – and now the local council have offered to protect the whole thing with a sheet of Perspex, which is good news all round.

You can read more about the story – and the Banksy hero – in the Guardian’s report here.

Podcast!

Shure_mikrofon_55SThanks to an invitation from Eric Beetner and the nice folk at Writer Types, I have suddenly become Tech Girl.

Well, not exactly, but after much battling with software and microphones, I did manage to record two minutes of myself talking about the locations in my upcoming novel ‘Gravy Train’, which has now been included in Writer Types’ latest podcast.

You can find the podcast here – and don’t worry, it’s not just me waffling on, but includes loads of other cool stuff too including fellow debut novelists Aimee Fix and Michael Pool, plus music, plus author interviews, plus… well, head over there and you can see for yourselves!

In my case I’m talking about Birmingham’s canal network, which is a real hidden gem of the city and provides a major part of the backdrop for ‘Gravy Train’.

I’ve never done this recording/podcast stuff before, so I’m oddly proud of the result!

Broadchurch series 3 review

broadchurchhI suddenly realised that I’d never blogged about this. We were horribly late watching the series; we recorded the whole thing but then got involved with other programmes and didn’t catch up with it for several months. But I have to say it was worth the wait, because the series was right back to its Broadchurch-y best, with more cracking performances from David Tennant and Olivia Colman as detectives Hardy and Miller, and an intriguing and thought-provoking plot.

I’d been concerned about the main storyline which involved an unpleasant rape, but in the end I needn’t have worried. Very little if anything was shown of the assault, or even of the aftermath. It was all done by suggestion, in often surprisingly subtle ways, in a wonderfully moving performance by Julie Hesmondhalgh as victim Trish. This brought to life all too vividly the shock, numbness and humiliation caused by such a devastating life event, which I felt was far more effective than showing the attack in a more graphic way. I also liked the way Trish gradually changed from being ‘just another victim’ to being a real, human person – someone’s Mum, someone’s ex-wife, someone’s lover – with her own foibles and faults, and her own strengths.

As before there was some excellent banter between Tennant and Colman, a slightly bewildering array of suspects, all with good reasons to have carried out the assault, and a seemingly authentic look at the procedures involved in a rape case. The eight episodes passed all too quickly and I enjoyed pretty much every minute… right up until the last few  scenes.

In series 1 of Broadchurch writer Chris Chibnall threw in a blinder of a last-minute twist, with a suspect who simply hadn’t been on the police’s – or our – radar up till then. It was highly effective, because of the way it caught the detectives ‘on the hop’ – and because the murderer, in that case, proved to be much too close to home. In series 3, Chibnall had gone for a similar effect, with another completely disregarded character proving to have done the deed. Sadly, this time it was less convincing, both because it’s starting to seem like a trademark device (pick the least likely suspect and he/she will have done it) and also because, in this case, the motivations were so unlikely. I don’t want to go into details because of, you know, spoilers, but I will just say I wasn’t convinced that what was suggested was physically possible.

Added to that, the whole strand with the Latimers, still reacting to events from series one, stretched on far too long. Having Beth Latimer become a rape counsellor was a nice touch, except that she didn’t seem to actually do an awful lot, whilst husband Mark’s disintegration was probably all-too true to life, but took up too much time in such a relatively short series.

And can somebody please explain the thing with the breakdown service – and the cricket bat, which appeared to have been found in two places at once?!

That said, after the major disappointment of series two, it was great to have this back on form, and Tennant and Colman as Hardy and Miller are so utterly believable and engaging that they fully deserve another series – maybe not of Broadchurch itself, but of something that can showcase their talents. A spin-off “Hardy & Miller” show, perhaps? Now that would be something to look forward to!

Canal tour of Birmingham

These days I don’t get back to Birmingham all that often. However, we were in the area over the Christmas break so I took the opportunity to visit the city centre. The weather was freezing (there was still snow lying on the ground in the suburbs) but the sun was shining and the light was perfect for photography, and I wanted to try out my new camera on some of the sights. Most of all, I wanted shots of the area around Gas Street Basin, which is where large chunks of my new novel ‘Gravy Train’ are based.

And I wasn’t disappointed. I wandered all over the city centre, snapping away, and ended up at the back of the International Convention Centre, where Brindley Place meets Broad Street and where the canal network suddenly blossoms into the vast and picturesque Gas Street Basin.

It’s an amazing sight at the best of times, and very unexpected for the centre of a city that sadly, doesn’t have the best reputation for heritage, architecture, or anything much else. It’s not a reputation it deserves, as you can see from some of these photos. The area around Gas Street has recently been tidied up and the wonderful juxtaposition of old and new buildings, bridges, wharves, hoists, tower blocks and walkways gives it an atmosphere that’s hard to find anywhere else.

And if you believe the events in ‘Gravy Train’, it’s perfect for hiding the odd body or two as well!

Here’s a taster of the scenery:

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Gas Street Basin through the Broad Street bridge. The main thoroughfare of Broad Street, complete with Victorian buildings, runs straight across the top of this bridge; if you’re walking along the street you’d hardly know this was there.

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Picturesque canal-side buildings – many turned into bars and restaurants – line the towpath, which as I mention in ‘Gravy Train’ is edged in places by no more than a line of different coloured bricks.

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A view across the barges to the old Canal House (complete with hoisting gear) and some of the city’s swankier office blocks.

I took a whole heap of photos of other parts of the city and will hopefully share those over the next few weeks.