Innocent review

This was the second season of a series by Chris Lang, the same writer responsible for the other recent ITV crime series Unforgotten – but involving an apparent miscarriage of justice rather than a cold case.

Like Unforgotten, it focussed on a seemingly unconnected group of characters and events, which all eventually wove together into one coherent whole. As with the original series (from 2018 and starring Lee Ingleby) someone previously found guilty of murder is released from prison and sets about getting their life back together while trying to understand why they were accused and who else might have done the dastardly deed. That makes it sound like a private-detective type thing but actually both seasons were more realistic than that, with the lead characters taking a secondary role in any investigation to the local police.

In this version, young teacher Sally, played by Katherine Kelly (above), is re-tried and found not guilty of the murder of one of her pupils, a bright sixteen-year-old with his whole life ahead of him. The irony was nicely played as the drama showed just how Sally’s own life had been ripped away from her too: she’d lost her job, her friends, her home, her husband, and even, in a particularly cruel twist, their baby in a miscarriage brought on by the original trial.

Unsurprisingly left angry and scarred by her experience, she set about trying to claw back what she saw as rightly hers: blagging her way back into her old job, and trying to tempt her husband (Jamie Bamber) away from the new love in his life. I had a slight problem believing in his character; it seemed shocking that he’d accepted the case against his own wife with so little questioning and hooked up with one of her old school friends soon afterwards. It turned out there was a good reason for all that, though, which led to a nice satisfying explanation at the end.

Less satisfactory was the idea that a sixteen-year-old could successfully hide their sexuality in this age of social media, online ‘outings’, and the vast onrushing machine that is school gossip. Other than that, though, this was a well-written mystery with involving characters and a sense that it really could have happened to almost anyone. My only other complaint was occasionally clunky, daytime-soap-opera-level dialogue, which even a good cast of actors struggled with from time to time. But the added bonus of spectacular Lake District scenery more than made up for that.

Enough with the callous…

I got a flyer through the letterbox the other week from a local chiropodist, advertising amongst other things, the service of “callous removal”. It made me giggle, but it also made me think that maybe I could do with this after all, because it’s partly why I’ve struggled with crime drama, movies, and books during the pandemic.

This has nothing to do with feet, and everything to do with creating some kind of sympathy or empathy between characters and audience. And in many cases, it’s been lacking, to the point where I’ve had to give up watching. This happened with two recent series, both of which I was looking forward to. One was Bloodlands (above, with James Nesbitt as an embittered Northern Irish police officer); the other was Tin Star Liverpool, a slightly crazy sequel to the Tin Star series showing on Sky Atlantic. Bloodlands was critically acclaimed, TSL less so, but I couldn’t cope with either.

I watched TSL mostly for the Liverpool setting as it’s my home city, and sure enough there were some great shots of the waterfront and the city centre, although much of the action was centred on the town of New Brighton on the other side of the River Mersey. I’d never seen the original series set in America, but I knew enough to realise that the main character (played by Tim Roth) and his family had been set up by some AC-12 style “bent coppers”, and were heading home to exact their revenge.

The first few episodes bowled along with a mix of action, dark moments and quirky comedy: so far, so noir. But then, without warning, it took a turn into pure unadulterated nastiness, with the sort of horrific, collateral-damage savagery I’d normally expect from x-rated gangster films. And worse, after a brief moment of reflection and the acting equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders, the main character, and his wife, and his young daughter, simply walked away without a shred of remorse. I was upset for days; switched off instantly, and deleted all the remaining episodes without bothering to watch another second – and probably never will.

I assumed it was a one-off and that I simply hadn’t understood enough about the series canon to know what to expect, but then Bloodlands came along. Again, I watched the first couple of episodes and thoroughly enjoyed them: the atmosphere was dark thanks to the background of the Irish “troubles” of the 1970s and onwards but the storyline was gripping and the characters believable. And then the Nesbitt character did something so apparently unforgiveable that I lost all sympathy for him and couldn’t bear to watch any more.

Those of you who’ve read my work know that I don’t exactly expect characters to be squeaky-clean do-gooders. I like a bit of reality, a bit of grey-scale in between the black and white of good and bad. But it has to be balanced. Characters, especially main characters, have to engage my interest; I have to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I also have to believe that in the end, they’re better than the people they’re chasing – or that if not, they suffer the consequences.

Too often, lately, those last aspects seem to have been missing. I’ve used Bloodlands and Tin Star as examples, but they’re by no means the only ones. And at the moment, with so much bad news, misery and depression around in the world, I’ll be choosing my crime drama very carefully, and leaving the callous, hard-hearted characters in the box where they belong…

Raise the Blade walking tour #1

My first book ‘Raise the Blade’ was also set in and around Birmingham. Unlike ‘Gravy Train’ the locations tend to be more widely scattered so it’s harder to gather them together into tours, but I’ve come up with a handful that should take an hour or so and will hopefully be quite interesting. The first is a circuit of Edgbaston Reservoir, which was constructed in the 1820s as a canal feeder for the city’s many, many miles of canal.

Walk #1: Edgbaston Reservoir

Distance: just under 2 miles

Route:

There used to be a car park at the Reservoir Road entrance but it may have been closed due to ‘antisocial behaviour’. Instead, you can park at or near one of the other entrances on Rotton Park Road, Gillott Road or Icknield Port Road. I’m going to start the walk from Rotton Park Road simply because that’s the one I’m most familiar with.

At the entrance to the reservoir there’s a fence, gate, and slightly worrying sign listing all the things you’re not allowed to do during your visit. I’m assuming it’s been altered by someone with a sense of humour…

Walk down the slope to the water’s edge, then turn right. A short distance further on, a high fence marks the garden boundary of several large houses that back onto the reservoir. It was one of these that I used as a location for Brian’s gruesome discovery, although another set of houses on the other side of the lake would work just as well. Watch out for great crested grebes on the water along here.

Keep following the path around the lake shore past the Birmingham rowing club and various sets of parallel bars and other outdoor activity equipment. Just beyond the Reservoir Road car park is the Tower Ballroom, a nightclub and local landmark which used to cater for gay men and was known by one and all as the ‘Gay Tower’. It’s possible that the club is called after the famous tower at Edgbaston Waterworks a short distance away, which was the inspiration behind one of the Two Towers in The Lord of the Rings.

At the edge of the reservoir dam pause for some spectacular views out across the city (see first photo above). Then walk along the dam, which is 330 metres long and 10 metres high with a sluice part way along. This feeds the Icknield Port Loop, which in turn keeps the levels up in the rest of the canal network.

Just over the dam, turn left again and pass by the Midland Sailing Club. If you’re lucky (and the weather is good enough) there might be some yachts out on the water, which makes it look very scenic.

Keep walking along the western shore, past some steps up to Gillott Road and one of the small streams that feeds the reservoir. I don’t know if they’ve cleaned this up but it used to smell very chemical-y and odd! After a large gentle bend through semi-open woodland the path runs behind the houses I’ve already mentioned above and returns to the entrance onto Rotton Park Road.

This is a nice ‘Sunday morning’ stroll taking about an hour. If you really want to push the boat out (sorry) you can leave the reservoir by the Icknield Port Road entrance, turn left and follow the road for just over a mile for a view of HMP Birmingham (Birmingham Prison, originally known as Winson Green Prison). This is where Cheryl visited convicted killer Eric Suggs. Return by retracing your steps, or by turning right into Gillott Road, then taking the footpath back to the reservoir shore.

I hope you enjoy the walk but please remember that lockdown means we’re still being asked to stay in our ‘local areas’. And if you fancy learning more about Brian, Cheryl, Suggs and the other characters who are linked by serial killer Duncan, then you can find ‘Raise the Blade’ here.

New interview

I’m popping in to mention my latest interview, courtesy of Hannah at the Dorset Book Detective blog. She asked me all kinds of questions about my writing processes and background, and I discuss not just where my love of crime fiction came from, but also how I got my first book deal (with Caffeine Nights) and what I hope might be coming next.

Do pop over to Hannah’s blog to check out the results. I hope it gives you some insight into what makes me tick.

Saucerful of Sky Arts

I’ve been posting on here, on and off, about the Saucerful of Secrets concert we were due to go to last year, which has been postponed at least twice thanks to Covid. Currently it’s scheduled for about April but unlikely to go ahead, and it may well be autumn or even next year before we finally get to see it.

However, as a small chink of light in the general gloom, we recently discovered that Sky Arts (newly available on Freeview here in the UK) showed an hour-and-a-half long concert by Nick Mason and his fellow musicians. The band now consists of Mason himself on drums, Gary Kemp (of Spandau Ballet) on guitar and lead (ish) vocals, and three other excellent musicians on guitar, bass and keyboard. And they’re good. Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not so surprisingly given the calibre of talent – but at times you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the original Pink Floyd line-up performing.

The material is mostly drawn from Floyd’s earlier albums (up to and including Wish You Were Here) with less emphasis on Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, and The Division Bell. There’s clearly still plenty to choose from and the concert was an eclectic mix of really early Sid Barrett songs like Arnold Lane and See Emily Play, and more obviously “Floyd-like” tracks – Echoes, Heart of the Sun, Astronomy Domine to name but a few.

It’s great to see these tracks getting the airplay they deserve. As Mason himself said in a brief ‘intermission’ interview, too often Pink Floyd tributes stick to the same five albums and great though that is, it’s good to have some variety. We enjoyed every second, and are looking forward to the ‘real thing’ even more now that we know how professional it all is.

If you’re a fan of Floyd, or of prog rock in general, and can get Sky Arts on Catch-Up, then do look out for this programme, entitled Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets. It’s well worth an hour and a half of any music fan’s time.

Gravy Train walking tour #2

And here’s the next in the series of walking (or cycling) tours taking in the locations I used in ‘Gravy Train’. This one is longer and you might well need to bike it rather than walking the whole thing, especially as you’d have to come back again!

Walk #2: Hockley to Edgbaston

Distance: approx 5 miles each way. I say approx because Google Maps had a major conniption when I tried to change the preferred route, which was for cars and didn’t take in half the places I needed it to. The wonders of technology…

Route:

1. Start at the Hockley flyover/Great Hampton Street. The area to the left as you walk towards the city centre is where I had in mind when I described Sandra and Mike’s public house, and there are examples of the type of pub (though nowhere near as rundown as theirs!) in the surrounding streets.

2. Continue along Livery Street, then turn right into Great Charles Street Queensway and follow this to Paradise Circus. This area is currently undergoing major roadworks to install a tram line and road and footpath closures seem to change on a daily basis, so find the approved route to take you across the island to Broad Street.

3. Once on Broad Street walk a short distance until you come to Gas Street, and turn left down here. There are some nice old buildings, now mostly cafes and bars, which back onto the canal basin. Find a cast-iron archway with a path that leads to the canalside towpath and have a good wander round. The area of the Gas Street Basin is fascinating and well worth exploring. I used the arch, the bridge and the towpath in the final showdown between crime boss Vernon Ball and Sandra’s “uncle” George, over the bag of money that Ball’s underling Lenny had stolen.

4. Retrace your steps to Broad Street and continue to Five Ways Island, a vast gyratory traffic system enclosing a green open space, with subways to various roads, offices and shopping centres. This island is central to the action in ‘Gravy Train’; it’s here that Sandra and Mike visit the betting shop to collect their winnings and get mugged by Lenny; and it’s on one of the roads leading to the island that Justine’s car breaks down and she nicks Lenny’s van to get herself home. Here’s a couple of pics of what might have been the betting shop, and the subway where Lenny froze his nuts off.

5. You can end your tour here, but if you’re feeling particularly energetic, take the subway up and onto Hagley Road and carry on walking for about a mile, until you come to the junction with Norfolk Road. There are a handful of clubs and casinos in this area which helped to inspire the Roller Club which Justine breaks into.

6. Retrace your steps, or catch one of the many buses that head along Hagley Road back into the city centre.

And that’s it. Once again I hope it gives you some new areas to discover and a bit of fun poking about. But again, don’t forget that Covid regulations mean we’re all expected to exercise within our local areas, so if you’re not already in Birmingham please don’t make a special trip yet.

And again, if you like the sound of the book then feel free to grab a copy here, and thank you!

The Makovesky elephant

It’s official! There really is a Makovesky elephant! Anyone who’s read my books knows I try to insert at least one elephant in each (several in ‘Raise the Blade’). And now it’s started following me about, and appearing at random where I least expect it. Apparently it’s standing on the banks of a lake, and you can see the reflection underneath its feet.

(Cough. For the practically-minded, this was actually a random water pattern on our garage door after rain. But I rather like the idea of a fictional, mystical elephant popping up every now and again…)

Gravy Train walking tour #1

Stuck in Birmingham during lockdown and sick of pounding the same old streets? Then why not try discovering some of the locations in my books? This is one of several walking (or cycling, for the longer ones) trails that I’ll hopefully be posting on here in the next week or two, with routes, distances, and interesting things to see along the way. I hope they help to inspire you.

To start off, a nice easy stroll centred on the suburb of Moseley. This forms one of the main locations of my dark crime caper ‘Gravy Train’ and the walk includes the settings for Fred’s courtyard workshop, Vernon Ball’s criminal HQ, and the bench where grass Todd meets his police contact Suzanne.

Walk #1: Moseley to Cannon Hill Park

Distance: approx 1.5 miles (and the same back!)

Route:

  1. Start in the centre of Moseley. If you’re not local and on foot, there’s parking in a small car park off the Alcester Road or in some of the surrounding streets plus a good bus service (no 50) which passes right through the ‘village’ centre. Head along Alcester Road as far as Woodbridge Road and turn down here. A short distance on the right is a gated archway leading to a courtyard of apartments. There was a dairy operating out of the courtyard at one time and it’s one of the models I based Fred’s car mechanics business on.

2. Retrace your steps, cross over Alcester Road and head down Chantry Road (opposite Woodbridge Road). This is a fascinating street full of large, late Victorian houses, many of them uniquely decorative and some so vast they have their own coach-houses. The ones on the left-hand side back onto the private Moseley Park; there’s a locked gate into the park near the bottom of the hill. It’s one of these houses that forms the lair for crime boss Vernon Ball, with its basement flat, its garden, and its view over the park and pool. I couldn’t possibly say which particular house, but here’s a general street view to give you some idea.

3. At the end of Chantry Road turn left into Park Hill, past more impressive Victorian houses, then find a safe place to cross either Salisbury Road or Edgbaston Road until you’re on the diagonally opposite corner. From here walk a short distance along Edgbaston Road to one of the main entrances to Cannon Hill Park.

4. Cannon Hill Park is a vast city park donated to the people of Birmingham by Miss Louisa Ryland and opened in 1873. It covers over 80 acres – more if you add the woodland, conservation areas and nature reserve next to it, and there are lots of different walks and paths to choose. Look out for the foundations of the old glasshouse, the boating lake, the scale model of the Elan Valley reservoirs which provide the city’s water supply – and the bench where Todd met Inspector Suzanne Charlton, and got pecked by a duck.

5. After a good mooch round the park (and a takeaway coffee from the cafe, assuming it’s open and assuming you’re allowed to) retrace your steps to Moseley.

I hope the walk inspires you to explore this historic and interesting corner of Birmingham but please bear in mind that current restrictions mean you can’t travel outside of your ‘local area’ (whatever that means) for exercise. So if you’re based outside the city, please bookmark this for another day! And if you’d like to read about the various locations of ‘Gravy Train’ in more detail, why not treat yourself to a copy of the book? You can find it here.

Review of 2020 – such as it was…

I don’t need to tell anyone what a strange and unpleasant year 2020 has been. Lockdown after lockdown; concerts, trips away and writing events postponed, postponed again then cancelled; hardly even able to meet friends for a cuppa; it’s been depressing, demoralising, and (quite frankly) crap.

We’ve got off lightly compared to many, but even so I’ve found it increasingly difficult to watch or read crime, let alone write it. I’ve taken refuge in the comforting fluffiness of romance, and Tess has got rather neglected in the process.

It hasn’t been a complete washout. I got the rights back on my dark novella ‘Raise the Blade’, re-edited it, designed a spiffing cover (if I do say so myself) and self-published it during the summer. It’s here, if you haven’t yet tried it yet and fancy giving it a go. I hope you like it! I’ve also written one short story – a sequel to Singing From the Same Sheet, which was published in the Rogue anthology by Near to the Knuckle – which I’m hoping might see the light of day at some point next year. And I’ve also been working, at times, on editing a new novella, probably called Embers of Bridges (yes, more Pink Floyd I’m afraid!), which follows a gang of petty thieves as they rob and bicker their way round the hot tubs and canals of Birmingham. There’s a long way to go on it yet, but again, I’m hopeful it might put in an appearance at some point next year.

In terms of TV we’ve tried various new drama series, and given up on several of them. Mystery Road 2 was a particular disappointment (filled with unrealistic scenarios and procedural WTFs), and The Valhalla Murders was just… hysterical. For all the wrong reasons. But there’s a new series of Spiral coming soon which ought to be good, and I’m determined to finish catching up on Brassic 2, Tin Star: Liverpool and The Vienna Blood.

But while this wretched virus continues to run rampant around the world, it just might not be any time soon…

Sloggers vs Peaky Blinders

Has anyone else been watching the BBC series Britain’s Biggest Dig, about the archaeology ahead of the new HS2 railway line between London and Birmingham? It’s been fascinating, not least in describing how excavations of two huge burial grounds, one in either city, have provided a wealth of detail about working people’s everyday lives.

There’ve been three episodes so far, one about London, one about Birmingham, and one split half-and-half between the two. All three were great, but obviously the Brum ones appealed more to me, because I know the area of the city they were working in quite well: it’s on the edge of the city centre, and my bus trundled past one end of the Park Street burial ground most Saturdays on my way back from shopping trips. It was a quiet green backwater lined with trees and dotted with Victorian headstones, and it’s sad to think it’s now gone and will soon be replaced by a vast railway terminus building. But hey ho, that’s progress I suppose!

The third episode concentrated wholly on Birmingham, and revealed all kinds of detail about the people flooding into the city to find work in the new factories and workshops (often in the jewellery and metal-working trades). One of the most fascinating insights was from the occasional use of ‘grave goods’ (things buried with the bodies), which is unusual in Christian burials but hinted at the places the people had come from. Several were buried with dinner plates, for instance, which suggests a Welsh background, and others had crucifixes and were almost certainly the fore-runners of the strong Irish community that still exists in the city to this day.

Best of all, though, was the segment on the street gangs running rife in these areas, known originally as Sloggers and later on as… wait for it… Peaky Blinders! These were made up of young, working class men who used their brief moments of leisure time to gather on waste ground and fight each other, using fists, boots, belts with heavy metal buckles, and knives.

The programme interviewed the well-known Brummie historian Dr Carl Chinn, who revealed that his own great-grandfather belonged to one of these gangs. And he also cast doubt on the theory that the Peaky Blinders got their name from their habit of stuffing their cap brims with razor blades. Apparently the name has less to do with blinding victims, and more to do with fashion – the angle they wore their hats to show off their quiffs!

All in all this was a brilliant series and I wish there’d been more episodes. The tv guides all say there are four but there’s no mention of the fourth anywhere, even on the BBC’s own website. A shame. I’d like to know more.

A funny thing happened on the way to the canal…

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I just had to dash in and share this hilarious news item from (where else?) Birmingham. Looks like even the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police could have lifted his evening’s work straight from the pages of ‘Gravy Train’.

I swear this is a genuine incident and not something I’ve made up. Although given that it involves fishing bags out of canals, I might well have… Just shows those canals really are handy receptacles for all manner of junk!

Wish You Were Here…?

masonband

The title of this blog post is particularly ironic. I’ve realised that tonight we were meant to be in Birmingham for the Nick Mason / Saucerful of Secrets concert.

For anyone who doesn’t follow rock music, Nick was the drummer in Pink Floyd. He’s put together his own prog rock band, Saucerful of Secrets, and together they’ve been on tour performing some of Floyd’s earlier music.

As a mega fan of all things Pink Floyd I was really looking forward to the event but thanks to Covid-19 it’s had to be postponed. Currently it’s scheduled to take place in October but there are no guarantees and it may have to be put off until some time next year.

I absolutely understand the reasons, but you could say I’ve gone from ‘High Hopes’ to ‘Wish You Were Here’ in one sad step…