Crime and Publishment time again…

I’ve had a super time in Gretna Green this weekend, at the annual Crime & Publishment writing weekend. It’s hard to believe this one is my fifth in succession, but the event is such good value that it keeps many of us going back time after time. Partly that’s for the “crack”, of course – a chance to natter with like-minded authors, published or otherwise, about the whole business of writing books. Partly it’s the talks, on a wide range of crime-related subjects including choreographing fight scenes, making characters believable, getting information about police procedure, or sources of new ideas. And partly it’s the chance, every year, to meet a different but well-known publisher or agent, find out what they’re looking for, and then pitch a book (or even an idea) to them on the Sunday morning.

This year, owing to a sudden outbreak of workmen, I couldn’t make the full weekend, so I just dashed up for the Saturday and Sunday. It made it feel like more of a rush – I’d no sooner arrived than I seemed to be packing to come home again – and I didn’t get a chance to chat to everyone I wanted to. But it was still a rewarding event, with old friends to catch up with, new people to meet, and a load of useful information from the sessions run by organiser and author Graham Smith, author Doug Johnstone, and agent Mark Stanton.

As usual I’ve come away inspired, with ideas for at least two new short stories as well as vague thoughts on how to unblock my latest work-in-progress. And as usual, I’m thoroughly looking forward to next year and whatever gems of subject matter Graham decides to throw at us! (And hopefully next year it won’t chuck blizzards at us on both the journey up and the journey back home again…)

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The ABC of Brilliance

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Every now and again you come across an acting performance so good it takes your breath away. This has just happened to me, and not in the least where I expected it. Hollywood blockbuster? Indie movie? Nope, it was a quiet, dark TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders which aired on the BBC over the Christmas/New Year holiday.

I didn’t get a chance to watch it then but recorded the three episodes, not because I was particularly looking forward to it but because it was Christie, and crime, and well… why not? My main concern was that they’d cast John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot, which seemed like a decision so odd as to border on insanity. And indeed I saw several reviews of the series which said he was terrible, wooden, emotionless, and pretty much every other negative adjective you could think of. So I wasn’t expecting much. Until I started watching the first episode.

I last read the book over 30 years ago and couldn’t remember much about it, beyond the basic plot points and characters. The deaths, the typed letters sent to Poirot, the trail that seemed to follow the letters of the alphabet. So when those same reviews mentioned that the new series had strayed massively off-piste from Christie’s novel, I wasn’t too bothered. And apart from one or two suggestions of er, unusual sexual preferences and one kinky sex scene that I could quite easily have done without, I honestly couldn’t see where the joins were. If the writer, Sarah Phelps, did make wholesale changes, I didn’t spot them and the main storyline seemed to follow events in the book pretty closely. It was dark, it was gritty, it was gripping, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

But the revelation, and the element that will stay with me long after I’ve forgotten the rest of it, was Malkovich’s performance. It was absolutely brilliant. He didn’t need to be overly emotional, to shout and scream and rave or chew holes in the scenery to get his message across. It was all in his eyes, his demeanour, his utterly believable quiet dignity, and it packed a punch that walloped me right between the eyes. In the process, he turned Poirot from a borderline caricature, ‘funny little man with a moustache’, into a hurting, driven human being. And he’s the first actor I’ve ever seen who’s managed that.

I won’t give away the plot because of spoilers, and because I’m recommending watching the series if you haven’t seen it yet. There were one or two niggles towards the end, and I was left wondering how Poirot had worked out some of the details that it didn’t seem he could have known about. (I will just mention the backgammon.) But overall this was top-class drama and a fascinating adaptation of a much-loved classic. And if Malkovich doesn’t get a Bafta for his performance I’ll be very cross!

Gravy Train review

GT v5I logged off the computer for a few hours earlier today to go for a walk in the unusually mild spring sunshine – and got back to find my Twitter feed had gone mad! The reason? This amazing review of ‘Gravy Train’ on the Chat About Books review site, posted by the lovely Kerry Parsons.

I’m genuinely overcome by the review, and delighted Kerry enjoyed the book so much. What a lovely surprise – and so much nicer than my usual round of spam, bills, and adverts for dubious “gentlemens’ products”!

Don’t forget the book is still fully available in both digital and e-book formats, so to find out more or to get your hands on a copy please jump on board the shuttle to my website where you’ll find an excerpt and a complete list of places you can buy it.

Putting faces to names…

On Saturday I spent a day in sunny Stoke-on-Trent (yes, really!) at one of the regular author/book blogger meet-ups organised by Kerry Parsons and Steph Lawrence.

The meet-ups, held roughly every six months or so, are designed to help authors and book bloggers get to know each other – a fantastic idea since we have so much to do with each other online, but tend not to meet in real life. Kerry and Steph book in advance at the North Staffs hotel in Stoke – a great venue since it has parking and is literally metres away from Stoke-on-Trent railway station – and a bunch of us take over the bar and spend several hours networking, putting faces to names and just chatting, about writing, books, and pretty much everything else besides.

I went to the first event a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and if anything this one was even better. Many of the people who came along had been to one before so everyone knew someone, we were all a bit more relaxed, and as word gets round, the event gets bigger with more new folk turning up as well.

It was lovely to chat to some familiar faces (including Noelle Holten and Jen Lucas, both of whom I met at the annual Crime and Publishment writing courses, and Sue Flint who was at the first of these meet-ups). It was also great to meet so many new people, including Midlands-based authors John Pye and Mick Williams, and crime-writer Rachel Sergeant. Unlike some other author events, this one isn’t restricted to any one genre so I found myself talking to writers from the sci-fi and romance worlds as well as my more familiar crime ‘scene’. But whatever we write, or read, we still seem to have the same things in common which always helps to break the ice.

Huge thanks go to Kerry and Steph for all the hard work getting the event off the ground, providing name badges and introductions, and making sure everyone gets fed! I had a lovely day, and although it’s a bit too much of a haul to get to every single event, I know I’ll be back at some point in the future.

This time, I remembered my camera. Here’s a shot of the impressive frontage of the hotel, with its statue to famous local potter Josiah Wedgwood, and a strange hand sculpture on the platform at Stoke station.

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Darke by name…

darkeThe other day I finished reading Matt Hilton’s latest crime novel, ‘Darke’, and wanted to let everyone know how much I’d enjoyed it.

On the surface this is a gripping crime thriller about an apparently senseless drive-by shooting, which brings echoes of a past personal tragedy for the investigator, DI Kerry Darke, who lost her sister to a Cumbrian serial killer (the Fell Man) as a child.

There’s lots of breathless action and a good attention to police procedural detail (the author served as a police officer so he knows what he’s talking about). There’s also a more emotive take on the effect the case has on Kerry’s somewhat fragile mental health. And it’s here that the book diverges sharply from a standard detective novel, because like the young kid in The Sixth Sense, Kerry can “see dead people”. Whether these ghosts are real or a product of her imagination she’s never quite sure (although I have my own opinion on that) but they lead her on two separate quests – first to solve the current case, and then to shed light on the victims of the serial killer in her old childhood haunts.

This is a really intriguing ‘mash-up’ of crime novel and the supernatural, and thanks to the author’s skill it really works. I had two minor gripes – one, that I found the identity of the Fell Man a tad confusing and two, that Kerry was perhaps at times a little too disturbed to function as a serving police officer. But I loved the almost Gothic descriptions and the sense of melancholy that pervaded the narrative, and the ending was a good, satisfying tying-off of all the loose ends. So if you like your crime fiction seasoned with the odd ghost or two, I can thoroughly recommend this book.

And now the interview

Col’s Criminal Library also interviewed me recently, and Col has kindly posted the result to coincide with his review of Gravy Train yesterday.

He describes the process as “gentle questioning”, but pitch-forks and cattle-prods spring to mind! However, I had tremendous fun answering his questions on a variety of subjects from favourite books and movies to my typical writing day to the difference between short stories and novels. You can find the answers here, and feel free to check out his review if you haven’t already seen it, because it’s a tremendously entertaining resume of the book.

Collisions, comedy and collusion

GT v5There’s a terrific new review of Gravy Train at Col’s Criminal Library today, courtesy of its owner and one-man crime-reading sensation Colman Keane. Col knows pretty much everything there is to know about reading crime fiction so I was delighted that he enjoyed my book so much.

In particular he’s been complimentary about my characters, and about the zanier aspects of the plot. (The title of this post is his as well, in his summing up of the book as “Collisions, comedy and collusion, decisions, dreams and delusion” – an absolutely wonderful phrase.

Col also makes an interesting point about the size of the betting payout that kicks off all the action in the book. He hits the nail on the head: that £80,000 is a really odd amount, and perhaps not quite big enough to get excited about. However, it was a deliberate choice, for various reasons that I’m happy to chat about.

The first is simply that I wanted to avoid that old cliché of £1 million, which turns up with monotonous regularity in heists, ransom demands, lottery wins, and pretty much everything else. Secondly, I wanted an amount that was large enough to tempt people into nefarious acts, but small enough to slither under the authorities’ radar. Vast payouts from betting are still relatively unusual, and tend to come with their own added layers of publicity and security, which was no good for the plot. Lenny would have found it hard to steal the cash from Sandra and Mike if there’d been a queue of paparazzi outside the betting shop door. Lastly, with that much money in their grasp, characters would have been able to buy their way out of trouble – and I didn’t want to make things that easy for them. It’s much more entertaining to make them squirm a little.

So, did I get it right? Would it have been better if the payout had been larger after all? In the end, only the readers can decide. But there was some method to my madness at any rate!

And I’m forever grateful to Col, both for his super comments about the book and for forcing me to think about my reasoning.

Black, white or shades of grey?

Fellow crime writer and aficionado Margot Kinberg read my review of Brotherhood at Punk Noir magazine the other day and it set her thinking. In particular, the bit where I mention my theory that US drama tends to be morally ‘cut and dried’, whereas the British equivalent is more ambivalent.

I’m the first to admit that the statement is a. only my opinion and b. a shocking generalisation! It’s also probably more appropriate to film and TV than to books, which tend to have more space to develop their characters and plot lines. But Margot has brought her encyclopaedic knowledge of crime writing to bear on the subject, and come up with an excellently-researched blog post of her own, liberally illustrated with examples.

It makes for fascinating reading, and is much more well argued than my original blog post ever was. So do go and see what she has to say on the whole subject, and whether she agrees with me or not (I’m taking the fifth on that one, but it seems to have generated some healthy debate). I’m delighted that my wafflings sparked her, er, little grey cells into action.

What price brotherhood?

brotherhoodThose nice folks at Punk Noir magazine have reprinted my review of the TV series Brotherhood, which I originally posted on here last year.

If you missed it first time round and want to see what I liked (quite a bit, actually!) about this raw, gritty US crime drama based on the real-life figures of gangster Whitey Bulger and his politician brother, then head over to Punk Noir now. And while you’re there, take time to have a good poke round, because the zine is full to bursting with Good Stuff (TM) – fiction, poetry, news, reviews and book recommendations, all with a noir-ish theme.

A small helping of gravy…

41psoxo7d7lI realised the other day that I’ve never posted a good, solid, proper extract from ‘Gravy Train’ – something you can really get your teeth into, and that gives you a good flavour of the book. So, without further delay, here goes. This bit is from Chapter 27, when Lenny the mugger has lost the bag of money and is desperately hunting for clues to try to get it back.

Apologies for any salty language, by the way, but I hope you enjoy the ride.

***

Lenny shook the aerosol can one last time before pressing the button to release a steady stream. A neat outline: four feet, a swelling back. Black, as always. He only ever used black. True street artists went for subtlety. They got their message across with the barest minimum of colour and line. You didn’t catch Banksy using virulent pink, or acres of yellow and green. Banksy was Lenny’s hero; he’d love to meet him some time. They’d have a lot in common, he liked to think, and could swap notes about buildings conquered, walls and bridges scaled. Fat chance of that in reality, though. Lenny knew all about Banksy – how he was a maverick, how nobody knew who he was. It really wasn’t likely that the bloke would give up his anonymity , drop his disguise, just to come and talk to him.

He sighed and added whiskers to his giant rat, then a long and sweeping tail. It was hard to get the details right when he could hardly see the wall. The sun had set nearly an hour ago; dusk was hanging on by its fingernails but the nearest street light was a hundred metres away. Around it, a glowing pool of light. Here in the shadows, gloom. It’s why he’d chosen to place his artwork here – fewer prying eyes. But the rat’s eye was almost certainly too close to the end of its nose.

He pocketed the aerosol and stood back for a better look. Not Banksy’s standard, of course, but it wasn’t bad. It made its point. The rat represented ordinary people everywhere. Around its neck, a leash. Holding the leash, a few two-dimensional paces back, the robot Todd, with metal arms and an antenna on his head. The masses held back by technology. Something he’d been longing to draw ever since he first set eyes on Todd. He made a great subject, even if he was just a glorified chauffeur. A pity the rat wasn’t perfect. But Lenny wasn’t here for the art tonight. As a bonus, it would do.

He peered at his watch, but it was too dark to see the hands. And he’d left his phone at home. Thanks to the cow who’d nicked his van, he was having to make do with a bike, and the mobile dug into his backside when he pedalled his feet up and down. He spat into the litter around his feet. Bloody bitch. It was thanks to her he was here at all. Trying to get Ball off his back, trying to track her down. His usual contacts had been a bunch of useless jerks. He was hoping for better from his mate Jack. The lad worked for some fucker called Symons, who ran a ringing scam. And in order to ring cars, you needed to steal them first. And in order to steal cars, you needed to use people who, well, made a living stealing cars. It wasn’t much to go on, but hopefully Jack could give him a name. Assuming he ever turned up.

“All right, mate.”

Lenny spun and reached for his knife, but it was just Jack. The lad had his hoodie up and pulled around his face, but he’d recognise that hooter anywhere. Like an eagle’s beak, Jack’s mother had always said when they were kids. And I’m pleased to say you took after your dad. Not exactly a ringing vote of confidence, but then Lenny’s own parents had often said worse about him.

“Good to see you, mate. How’s things?”

“Okay. You know.” Jack shrugged.

Lenny did know, only too well. Stuff Jack had told him, coupled with word on the street. Fair enough Symons wasn’t as bad as Ball, because he left the girls and the gambling and the protection rackets alone. Concentrated on cars. But that didn’t make him a softie by any stretch. Word on the street also said he got all his lads hooked on smack so they’d be easier to control. Lenny had never quite dared to ask Jack if it was true, but Jack’s appearance had suffered over the years. He always looked pasty and thin, arms like matches, legs too skinny to hold him up. Like a zombie who never got the chance to eat. Time was when he’d have talked to Jack, questioned him, tried to find out more. Not now. Too long in prison had soured him inside. Leave well alone, that was his mantra now. Don’t go sticking his nose in other people’s business. He’d probably just make things worse. “Want to go for a pint?”

“Better not.” Jack shivered inside his hoodie even though it wasn’t cold. “What did you want?”

“I just needed a word. Your bloke Symons. I heard he’s into nicking cars?”

Jack’s face lost another few shades, going from pasty to pure mercury white. “Not so fucking loud. He’s got ears everywhere.”

“What, here?” Lenny looked round at the scruffy alleyway, the trade waste bins, the squashed cardboard and discarded bags. There was nothing else here except an unpleasant smell.

***

And that’s it for now. But if that helping of gravy tickled your taste buds, you can find the rest of the book on the Down & Out Books store. And thanks for taking the time to read my stuff.

Noir on the Radio

mikrofonSaturday was quite a ground-breaking day for me, as I recorded my first ever full-length podcast interview for Noir on the Radio. I was pretty nervous about the process and it could have been daunting, but luckily my host, fellow noir author Nick Kolakowski, held my hand (figuratively speaking since he was about 4,000 miles away at the time) and provided tremendous support.

He gave up a chunk of his Saturday morning, phoned me all the way from New York, and asked a heap of challenging but really thought-provoking questions which got us chatting about not just my book ‘Gravy Train’ (the main reason for the podcast) but also whether we write by the seat of our pants, what influences our work, and why the movie Hot Fuzz is so much fun.

You can now hear the results over on Authors on the Air, on Soundcloud. I may be biased but I do think it’s quite interesting… so feel free to head over there and have a listen. And while you’re there, check out the complete list of Nick’s previous victims, oops I mean participants. They’re all fantastic crime or noir writers with a great grasp of their craft, and they all seem to have much more meaningful things to say than I ever could!

A ‘wheel’ man?

webdrag-noirThose of you with long memories may remember my short story ‘Wheel Man’, published in the fantastic Drag Noir anthology from Fox Spirit Books.

Well, now it’s in the news again, for two reasons.

First, this is where the story first started for car thief Justine and her on-off lover Fred from my novel ‘Gravy Train’. So if you enjoyed reading about them in that, you might be interested to find out more. Like how their boss Symons’ dislike of women affected them, why they weren’t even on speaking terms by the start of ‘Gravy Train’, and why the story’s title is so appropriate for Justine.

And the even better news is that you can now buy the e-book of Drag Noir, hassle-free and for the incredibly good value price of only £3.99, direct from the Fox Spirit catalogue. Just follow this link to find Justine and Fred, plus a whole bunch of really terrific drag-tinged noir stories. And happy reading!