The Equalizer 2 review

81CwZDa+dwL._RI_I settled down to watch this on Saturday night. Although I can remember the original show starring Edward Woodward it was never regular viewing, and I hadn’t seen the previous outing for Denzel Washington either. But I knew enough to expect lots of high-octane action, a dash of revenge, and perhaps not too much emphasis on plot.

The first half of the film was surprisingly enjoyable. I liked Washington’s portrayal of the main character, Robert McCall, clearly damaged by past traumas but still able to care about the people around him. His interaction with garden-mad neighbour Fatima, and young punk Miles, was touching. And the action bowled along, with various apparently random brutal murders that I assumed would all be connected by the end.

Well, they were. Sort of. But half way through, things stopped being convincing. McCall found out who the main bad guy was far too soon, and the plot pretty much vanished in favour of a lot of very standard “stalk and shoot”. Plot strands weren’t so much connected as chucked together in a ‘see, that explains everything’ way. The moral ambiguity of a character killing people for money being the good guy while other characters who killed people for money were bad was never really resolved. And the action scenes were surprisingly poorly handled.

The final climactic shoot-out took place in a coastal town that was being evacuated in the face of an in-coming hurricane. Bits of scenery tore past from time to time and there were some good wind and wave sound effects – but oh dear! The characters’ clothes and hair were pretty much undisturbed, even when the baddie climbed some kind of look-out tower to get a better view (through a curtain of debris) and proceeded to shoot with remarkable accuracy (in a Force 11 gale). Not so much hurricane, more light breeze, and that was the overall impact of the film as well.

Too much of the early action wasn’t explained – who exactly were the Frenchman (?) and his wife who were butchered near the beginning, and why were they killed? What did Miles add to the plot, other than as a useful device to get McCall to where he needed to go? And where on earth were the police whenever someone else was bumped off? It could all have been so much better with a less muddled approach and some decent direction. As it was, Washington’s performance stood head and shoulders above anything else (as you might expect from such a classy actor). Overall, I thought it was a good way to pass time on a dull Saturday evening when there wasn’t much else going on, but I was relieved not to have paid to go and see it at the cinema.

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My favourite noir book…

2087286A while back, fellow crime/noir writer Jason Beech asked me to participate in the long-running and popular ‘Books I Wish I’d Written’ feature for his blog. I said yes, and promptly panicked, because I couldn’t think of a book I knew well enough to talk about in enough detail to be interesting.

And then Joel Lane came to the rescue. I read his noir gem ‘From Blue to Black’ a good many years ago now and was blown away by it. I remember thinking it was exactly the sort of noir book I’d love to be able to write, if only my facetious sense of humour didn’t keep getting in the way. So I settled down to re-read it to refresh my own memory, and then subjected myself to Jason’s questions.

Unlike most interviewers, he didn’t send all of these at once. Instead, he asked one, and then let my answer influence his next query, so it became more like a conversation with ideas batted back and forth. It was hard work, but really stimulating, and made me examine in much greater depth what exactly it is that I love so much about Joel’s book. The language, for sure; the descriptions; the amazing colour palette; the sense of doom. The setting in Birmingham. The sense of unease, of otherworldliness, that occasionally pervades the narrative. Jason managed to tease out all of this and more.

I was lucky enough to meet Joel Lane several times (we were on the same writing circuit in Birmingham in the early 2000s) and he was very supportive of my own writing efforts, particularly in the noir genre. I could never hope to understand – or write – noir as well as he did, but I owe him a huge debt for helping to foster my own enthusiasm for the genre.

You can find my spiel on ‘From Blue to Black’ at Jason’s Messy Business blog here. Hope you enjoy it – and  if my responses encourage you to go out and read any of Joel’s books, then good. If you like noir, you really won’t regret it.

Banksy or not Banksy? You decide!

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banksyhairWe saw these two pieces of street art in the bustling Devon fishing port of Brixham recently and couldn’t tell if they’re by Banksy or not.

Although they have his trademark stencilled style and slightly bizarre sense of humour, they’re not signed – and a quick search online shows that nobody else seems to know for sure whether they’re genuine, either.

Either way, they’re great fun. The second one shows a barber cutting Chewbacca’s hair; I didn’t notice if it was on the wall of a hairdresser’s or not but that would explain a lot. And the top one? Well, it’s priceless: an urban commando all set to chuck a large fish into the fray, with the caption ‘let them eat fish’. And it’s on the side wall of the fish market, right next to the trade counter/window.

The town isn’t a million miles from Banksy’s home stamping ground of Bristol and there have been previous artworks attributed to him popping up in the back streets – including a version of the famous image of a small girl holding a red balloon. So it’s possible that these really are by the great man himself. I hope so. We certainly enjoyed spotting them, in what felt like a rather unlikely location.

 

Gravy Train locations #2: Vernon Ball’s lair

Unlike many crime bosses, Vernon Ball (or Ballsy McBollockface as he’s known by at least one of his underlings) doesn’t have a swish office in the city centre, or even a converted garage or factory unit. Instead, he works from home. And what a home. A large, detached, Victorian residence in one of the more prosperous suburbs of Birmingham, with a garden that overlooks the local park and space for a whole apartment in the basement where Todd the chauffeur-cum-bodyguard lives. And he’s very proud of that house:

Ball stood at his office window and stared out at the garden beyond. It was one of the perks of working from home – that and not having to join the daily commute. It was a nice garden, too – long and shady and manicured. A green oasis amongst the city streets. His pride and joy. He certainly paid the gardeners enough to keep it looking smart.

But today, not even the garden could help. Cynthia had been on the attack again. Not literally – he wouldn’t have let her get away with that. But right through breakfast he’d had to endure the endless whine of a slighted wife. Why hadn’t they moved to Edgbaston yet? All the really successful people lived in Edgbaston. All of her friends had houses there. She’d seen a wonderful house only the other day. When was he, Vernon, going to look at it?

The trouble was, he didn’t want to move to Edgbaston, even if it was smarter and more expensive and only three miles away. He liked it here. Moseley was a decent place to live. The house was huge, with plenty of space for his work, and the garden sloped down to the private park, with views over Moseley pool. Show him a swanky house in Edgbaston that could do all that.

I wrote this with a specific location in mind, and as you might have guessed from this excerpt, it’s in the prosperous, leafy suburb of Moseley. Moseley is unusual for a city suburb. It’s only about five miles from the city centre, but you could easily be in another world. The locals refer to it as a village, which seems daft in a settlement of around ten thousand residents, but you only need to go there to see what they mean. There’s a medieval church and rows of shops around what would have been a market place, and there’s still a sense of community. But it’s a long way from suburbia, and has its own slightly ‘hippy dippy’ atmosphere with a thriving café culture, health food shops and galleries. I once saw a district of Paris described as ‘Bobo’ or ‘bohemian bourgeois’ and thought that fitted Moseley perfectly.

I lived in Moseley for many years and know the area pretty well, and there’s one road I thought would be perfect for nefarious goings-on. It’s called Chantry Road, and it runs roughly perpendicular to Moseley’s high street in the general direction of Edgbaston. And it’s posh. Seriously posh, lined with a variety of large Victorian and Edwardian houses which get steadily bigger the further you go down the hill. Some are absolute monsters, with three or four stories, separate coach-houses and other outbuildings, and on one side of the road they do indeed look out over Moseley park.

parkgateThe park is unusual too, since it’s privately owned, and only accessible to residents of the suburb. When I lived there you quite literally picked up a key; now I believe it’s all done electronically. In spite of living there I only ever visited once, when the Mostly (Moseley… geddit?) Jazz Festival was in town, and found it’s a pretty little oasis of trees, hidden paths and a lake with ducks. Most folk who live in Birmingham probably don’t even know it’s there, or if they do it’s only the locked gates they walk or drive past on the way to work. And because I’ve only been once, I’m with the rest of them – I only have a photo of those same locked gates.

chantryThere are probably around a dozen to fifteen houses which fit the description of Ball’s home, and I couldn’t possibly say which one I chose to base his lair on. But the above picture (which I took last year) shows a selection of possible candidates, and gives a good overall impression of what the road looks like. Although I should stress that Ball himself is one hundred percent imaginary and as far as I know all the residents of Chantry Road are upright citizens who don’t run organised crime networks from their homes!

Gravy Train locations: #1 Sandra’s pub

Tonight the usual group have retreated as far as they can to a table near the back. It’s so far from the windows it’s a wonder they can see the dominoes — and a three mile hike to the bar. Not that the windows help much anyway. Too small to let much light into the place, too grimy half the time. Mike’s supposed to keep them clean, but she’s given up asking him. He can’t reach half of them, can’t even clamber on a stool.

She peers at the nearest window now, wincing at the smears. She should probably clean them herself, but it’s just one more job to add to the endless list. And it’s not like the view is anything to write home about. Parked cars, dustbins, buses rumbling past…

This is one of the descriptions of Sandra’s pub, near the beginning of the book. I wanted to conjure up the image of a typical back-street city boozer, rather drab and down on its luck – which many of them are these days thanks to more people preferring to drink at home.

jewelquarterThe pub itself doesn’t exist, of course, but the area it’s based in does. Hockley is an inner city area roughly divided into two distinct sections by a busy main road (the A41 Great Hampton Street, if anyone is interested). To the south, slightly nearer the city centre, is the world-famous Jewellery Quarter (left) with its bustling streets of shops, cafes, the odd museum or two and a wealth of jewellery-making workshops. To the north is a quieter zone comprising terraced houses, back-street boozers and factories, crouched in the shadows of the vast Hockley flyover.

And it’s very much in the latter setting that I saw Sandra’s pub. Too far out of town to benefit from the tourist crowds; not far enough to be suburban and cool. Instead it inhabits a twilight world of buses and factory workers and trade waste bins, of punters who take up tables but never quite spend enough.

Anywhere but Hockley, she thinks. She hates the way people talk about it now, as though it’s paradise. It’s all the Jewellery Quarter this and the clubs and bars that, but she knows there’s Hockley and Hockley — and this is the wrong end. Besides, after dark it all looks the same. The kids getting drunk and falling down, the broken glass, the endless pools of sick. And she and Mike are stuck with this: a dead-end hole in a dead-end part of town.

To be fair to Hockley, it really isn’t as bad as I suggest. But Sandra’s had a bellyful and you can’t blame her for wanting to move to a better area of town with smarter properties and customers who spend more.

churchinnhockleyThe building itself is a mash-up of two or three different premises that I’ve either visited myself, or driven past on the bus. One, the Church Tavern (left, not my picture) in Hockley itself, used to be known for its colossal burgers and I went for lunch once with a work colleague – but it’s a little too spick and span for Sandra’s place. Others, such as the Railway Inn (also Hockley) and the Moseley Arms (further afield in the Highgate area) have more of the right look, if not the right location. And the bit about the old codgers playing dominoes comes from something I actually saw, at the Crooked House near Dudley before it got modernised.

I’ve realised that I never gave Sandra’s pub a name. If I had, it would probably have been something grungy like the Brown Cow, Spotted Dick’s or the Mangy Dog, to conjure up the grime and gloom of the area’s back streets. Although I suspect Sandra herself would refer to it as the Arsehole of Nowhere. But who knows, even she might actually come to like the place…

The drapes are pulled, the main lights turned down low, even though it’s a nasty night outside. Dark and beginning to spit with rain. Buses hurtling past. A typical Tuesday in a typical week in autumnal Birmingham. But they don’t need lights for what they’re doing. Just a couple of spotlights on standby, to illuminate their work. One aimed at the banquette by the door, one for where Mike will stand. She turns, and jumps. He’s already there, and with the gloom and the way he’s dressed — black jacket, white tux — it’s enough to give anyone the creeps.

GT v5Want to find out more about Sandra, her pub, and what happens to them both? ‘Gravy Train’ is available in print or digital from the Down & Out bookstore, or from Amazon and other retailers.

Embers of Bridges inches closer

burnbridgeI’m feeling oddly chuffed with myself this morning, because I’ve just typed those two important words on my latest work-in-progress: The End.

This is quite a milestone because the book in question is ‘Embers of Bridges’, which I first started writing a good six years ago. At the time it was quite a short novella, and over the years I’ve had many attempts at rewriting it into something longer, none of which seemed to work. Finally, late last year, I decided to have One. Last. Go. and called the file embersofbridges500 because it felt like the 500th time I’d rewritten the thing.

Like my two previous books, ‘Raise the Blade’ and ‘Gravy Train’, it’s set in Birmingham, this time around the canal network and the famous Jewellery Quarter, and involves a gang of petty criminals and the idea of honour amongst thieves. Or lack of it.

I’ve taken it back to something closer to the original, but speeded up, with more action right from the start and less of the characters sitting round in pubs chatting to each other. I’ve also tried to add more backstory for the main characters. And it’s worked. Well, sort of. There’s still a ton of work involved in polishing, editing, rewriting, making sure it all actually makes sense, and more rewriting. But that’s for the days ahead. Right now I’m sipping a celebratory cup of tea and basking in a warm fuzzy glow of achievement. Long may it last…

Blue Lightning review

bluelightning‘Blue Lightning’ is one of Ann Cleeves’ well-known Shetland series, set on the Scottish islands and featuring the detective Jimmy Perez. Interestingly I watched the most recent TV series whilst reading this earlier book and it was good to find out more of Perez’s backstory, and see where and how things have changed.

I’d seen the TV adaptation of ‘Blue Lightning’ as well, but not for several years so I couldn’t remember enough about the details to spoil the read. And I really enjoyed the book. Yes, the storyline is incredibly sad in places and yes, it could have done with an extra edit here and there, but overall it’s taut, dramatic and clever, and kept me gripped right to the last page.

Unlike most of the series, this one is actually set on Perez’s home island of Fair Isle, some distance from the rest of the Shetlands and even more remote. I loved the descriptions of the island, which reminded me of a recent-ish trip to Hoy in Orkney, and I also loved the background theme of birdwatching. The part where a fat, slightly hopeless twitcher called Dougie found a rare swan was both hilarious and heart-warming, and I rather liked Dougie, who felt flawed but very real.

I also like Perez, of course, and not just because he’s played by Douglas Henshall in the TV series. My only slight criticism, and I found this with other Shetland books I read, is that the narrative isn’t always from his point of view, so I don’t feel as connected to him as I might. However, finding out more about his home life, his family and the tragedy that comes to affect him personally helped me understand him better as a character, both in this book and in the overall Shetland universe.

The ending packed a real punch and tied up all the loose ends (or feathers!) perfectly. Of all the Ann Cleeves books I’ve read so far, I think this counts as one of my favourites.

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…)

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.