Happy accidents…

List-of-King-Arthur-and-the-Knights-of-the-Round-Table

All this week I’ll be over at the International Thriller Writers ‘Roundtable’ discussion, talking about “happy accidents while doing research”. Which in my case is less about spilling hot coffee in my lap, and more about discoveries in my chosen location of Birmingham.

This includes recent visits to the city, and several new discoveries. But I’m also interested to hear if other writers like finding out about the places they use in their books, and whether readers enjoy that kind of detail in a crime book.

The chat is open to all so do come along to join in, heckle or throw fruit (just no tinned peaches thanks). All you need to do is follow the link above, scroll down past the potted author biographies, and click on “x comments” to open up the comments section. See you there!

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Wet money and ducks

P1000417No, not my Christmas wish list, but a few of the things mentioned in my latest interview. And it’s an interview with a notable (perhaps even bonkers) difference, because I’ve been interviewing myself!

This is all thanks to fellow crime writer Nigel Bird, who runs a feature on his blog called ‘Dancing with Myself’, where authors both ask, and answer, their own questions. It’s a fun way of getting us to talk about ourselves, and previous victims have included Lisa de Nikolits, David Simms and Tom Leins, all of them worth checking out.

In my case I chatted (wittered?) about where the idea for ‘Gravy Train’ first came from, whether the characters were based on real people or not, what the link to Pink Floyd is, and what I’m working on now.

The picture shows the actual (ahem) bench that I used, in Birmingham’s Cannon Hill park. You can follow the trail at Nigel’s blog. Just watch out for that duck!

Giving as good as you get…

angelfaceThere’s a wonderfully dark little tale in this week’s Radio Times, about the background to filming the classic noir movie Angel Face.

Apparently during one particular (somewhat notorious) scene, director Otto Preminger insisted that Robert Mitchum slap star Jean Simmons across the face over and over again, in the interests of ‘authenticity’ and getting the footage right.

Simmons was probably getting upset (I know I would) and the story goes that Mitchum snapped, turned round and whacked Preminger with exactly the same amount of force. The director promptly fled, and later tried to insist that Mitchum should be sacked. Luckily saner voices prevailed, Mitchum stayed, and the film is, of course, brilliant.

Even the experts at the Radio Times don’t know if the tale is apocryphal or not. But it makes a nice point about being prepared to take what you give out, as well as giving us some eye-opening behind-the-scenes details of the process of creating a classic movie.

Where the Heck Wednesday: Jason Beech

This week the spotlight lands on Jason Beech. His location is a little hard to pin down accurately on any map! But no less vivid and atmospheric for that. I grew up in 1970s Liverpool and his descriptions of Sheffield in the same era brought back a lot of memories…

Book title: City of Forts

Setting: Blue collar America meets Sheffield, England!

Author: Jason Beech

http://www.Jdbeech.wordpress.com / Twitter

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City of Forts is set in an unspecified part of America – a mush-up of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and a bit of Georgia, especially their rougher, working class parts. The atmosphere I wanted to recreate is one of fighting the breadline, working multiple jobs to get by, grabbing pleasure where you can get your hands on it, and holding on to a past which people feel is slipping by. I wanted to put a harder mark on the Spielberg ideal of childhood, put a little more grey into the sepia.

But it’s actually Sheffield, England, which inspired the setting. I started the book in Yorkshire, where I grew up. I remember Sheffield in the late 70s and 80s two ways. I grew up in a very leafy council estate surrounded by acres of woods and fields we ran wild across as kids. You’d go out after school, or in the holidays, and not come back home until you heard your mum holler that she had tea ready. Green surrounded us on all sides. But my dad worked as a union man in the steel works and when he took me to the city’s industrial areas such as Attercliffe and Carbrook it’s as if I’d stepped into the aftermath of a nuclear blast. A few factories and rows of terraced housing looked like sorry boats in a sea of bricks from demolished buildings. Smack in the middle sat a classic boozer, The Royal, full of characters, the smell of beer and dehydration competing against each other. City of Forts swims in that kind of post-industrial atmosphere of decay and before transition into something new, with the added intensity of American summer heat.

So why did I set City of Forts in America? I’ve lived here for sixteen years now and the kid’s voices came out all American. I think the world views of the characters came out stronger in that setting, too, along with the wide-open spaces. I wanted that contrast between those working hard to survive, those hustling at the edges to also survive, and the Darwinian view from above, to hit each other hard. I’ve travelled through all of the east coast, north to south, and much of the Midwest, stayed with dozens of Americans in their homes, ate food at their tables, and listened to all kinds of viewpoints from uber-liberals to hard-right conservatives who believe anybody should be able to own an automatic machine gun. But every single place was so friendly and welcoming you couldn’t rut against any of them. That friendliness would make a rubbish novel, mind, so I used some of the viewpoints and turned them dark for dramatic effect, adding gangsters, betrayal, family tension, murder, and a bit of ancient Mediterranean history.

 

Return of the dumb criminals

bankvaultThis time it’s the turn of this pair of would-be robbers, who broke into what they thought was a bank vault. Trouble is, it turned out to be a fake vault used by a company who specialise in staging… fake bank robberies.

The robbers got away with £1,000 – a relatively small sum made even more worthless by the fact that they left an expensive camera behind. To add to their woes, they also left an empty drinks can daubed with their DNA… and they managed to get themselves filmed on CCTV, one wearing a mask on top of his head but with his face clearly visible.

Neither the police nor the company involved know whether the robbers ever ‘twigged’ that this was a set-up, or that they’d fallen for it. The joke is definitely on them… but there is a more serious question behind all the sniggering. The article describes the fake vault as a “panic room”. I don’t know how accurate that is, but if it’s true then it raises doubts about the security of panic rooms in general because the robbers seem to have broken into it with relative ease. Not a happy thought for anyone who’s installed one because they’re worried about their own safety…

What a thrill!

GTcropThe latest issue of The Big Thrill (the monthly magazine for International Thriller Writers members) has just dropped into my inbox with a clatter and caused some excitement – because for the first time ever, I have an interview in it!

My interrogator Tim O’Mara asked some great questions about ‘Gravy Train’ and the way I write, and I had a huge amount of fun answering them. Thanks to Tim for making the whole process, which could have been quite daunting, so enjoyable. Topics include why I used present tense for one of the characters, why there’s an element of optimism in such a noir book, and whether I think there’s a difference between crime fiction in the UK and America.

You don’t seem to need to be a member of the ITW in order to read the interview so do head over and take a peek. Hopefully you’ll be glad you made the trip!

 

Gravy Train sets off

GT v5Exciting news today – my novel ‘Gravy Train’ has just set off on its travels, courtesy of All Due Respect (Down & Out Books).

£80,000. Seven people want it. Will any of them get it? That’s the tag line for the book, which features a bunch of losers chasing a bag of money (the aforementioned £80,000 no less) around the back streets of Birmingham. All of them are good at nicking it, but not so much at hanging onto it. And when it all blows up into a watery showdown on the banks of the local canal, it’s more a case of whether any of them can keep their hands on it at all.

To follow the adventures of barmaid Sandra, fat husband Mike, streetwise mugger Lenny, car thief Justine, crime boss Ballsy McBollockface and the rest, head for a station near you. The gravy train will be calling at Amazon US, Amazon UK, and all good book shops and suppliers. So hop on board and shunt your engine over there now. Just make sure you get off at the right stop, and mind the gap between the train doors and the platform…

Where the Heck Wednesday: Tom Leins

To get my own back on Tom Leins for the rusty pliers yesterday, I made him do a slot for Where the Heck Wednesday. In spite of the cattle prod, he’s come up with a great piece about, of all the surprising places, Paignton in Devon! Over to you, Tom (and I think I might have been in a pub like that, in Colne):

Book title: Repetition Kills You! (and others)

Setting: Paignton, Devon

Author: Tom Leins

https://thingstodoindevonwhenyouredead.wordpress.com/

Wish You Were Here TOM LEINS - Paignton Noir

My latest book, Repetition Kills You, is a literary jigsaw puzzle set it the south west coastal town of Paignton, England. Together with the neighbouring towns of Torquay and Brixham it forms the borough of Torbay, which was created back in 1998. Torbay – often referred to as the ‘English Riviera’ – relies heavily on the tourist industry during the summer months, and has an unsettling ‘ghost town’ quality during the winter.

In 2017 Torbay was identified as one of the coastal communities with the worst levels of economic and social deprivation in the UK, as well as being ranked as the local authority with the ninth lowest average wage in the entire country. Last year the synthetic drug Spice arrived in Torquay, and the situation degenerated so quickly and hideously that the mini-epidemic even piqued the interest of the national media.

Paignton Hospital was shut down in 2017, and Paignton Police Station was bulldozed six or seven years ago for a property development that never materialised. (Note: I have preserved both locations for storytelling purposes!) The increasingly lawless, poverty-stricken environment detailed above forms the backdrop for my books. Cheerful stuff, right?

Unsurprisingly, Joe Rey – the unlicensed investigator protagonist in my books – doesn’t spend much time on the beach or in family-friendly pubs; he trawls derelict industrial estates, decrepit caravan parks, halfway houses, welfare hotels, crack-dens and pubs. Lots of pubs! Grim, distrustful places where the sun never shines. Establishments which survived the recession with a cockroach-like tenacity, where dark secrets continue to lurk! Some of the location names have been changed (to avoid legal action), but the landscape and geography of Paignton have been preserved.

Rey’s client base are generally middle-aged men with murky pasts – arguably the only people with disposable income in this town – and he does what it takes to survive as society starts to fray at the edges. (If you want a brief idea of local people’s capacity for poor decision-making, Torbay voted 63% in favour of Brexit!) Suffice to say, during the course of my books, Rey encounters plenty of violently dispossessed people who are way out of their depth.

Paignton is a small town, with a population of around 50,000, but it can still be divided up into very recognisable areas, and each one of these will get its own book in due course. This overarching plan is an attempt at mapping my version (and I suppose my vision) of Paignton. Seaside resorts like Paignton still have their own peculiar brand of retro Englishness, and I like to fuse this sun-faded view of Blighty with my own fascination with abandoned spaces and places to create my own warped take on Psychogeography.

All of this can be seen in my collections Repetition Kills You and Meat Bubbles & Other Stories and my e-books Skull Meat, Snuff Racket and Slug Bait. I’ve been writing about Rey for twelve years now, and I’m still not entirely sure if he is a good man with bad intentions, or a bad man with good intentions. Either way, he will be your tour guide when you visit the Wild Westcountry. Pay him a visit if you dare!

***

Tom Leins is a disgraced ex-film critic from Paignton, UK. His short stories have been published by the likes of Akashic Books, Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, Horror Sleaze Trash, Spelk Fiction and Close to the Bone. He is the author of three novelettes, SKULL MEAT, SNUFF RACKET and SLUG BAIT, and two short story collections, MEAT BUBBLES & OTHER STORIES (Close to the Bone) and REPETITION KILLS YOU (All Due Respect, an imprint of Down & Out Books).

Less interview, more interrogation!

interrogation-room-tess-makoveskyI’ve been interrogated! But don’t worry, there wasn’t a roll of gaffer tape or a pair of rusty pliers in sight – it was just fellow crime writer Tom Leins asking me some good hard searching questions about my books, my writing and pretty much everything else besides over at his blog The Interrogation Room.

Tom grilled me on all kinds of topics including how I’d pitch ‘Gravy Train’, what I hope readers will take away from the book, which other Birmingham crime writers I can recommend, and which other current crime writers I ‘grew up’ with. Head over to Tom’s blog to read my replies – or just to pick over my poor dead carcase. Just mind you don’t trip over the trailing flex from the cattle prod on your way in…

While you’re at it, you might like to check out the first review for ‘Gravy Train’, courtesy of another crime writer, Jason Beech, over at Goodreads. I realise the book isn’t even out yet but this isn’t cheating – Jason was one of the readers I sent advance copies out to – and he loved the book so much he couldn’t wait to post the review! Do pop along and have a quick look…

A tasty treat?

skinbonesHere’s something to get your teeth into: the brand new cannibal-themed anthology, Skin & Bones, is out from Down & Out Books today.

Featuring a whopping twenty-one macabre and grisly stories including my own offering ‘Rabbit Stew’, it might give you a few ideas for Christmas. That’s presents, by the way, not new and imaginative ways to serve up your least favourite relative!

The book also features a variety of noir stalwarts including the editor Dana Kabel, Marietta Miles, Patricia Abbott, Angel Luis Colon, Joe Clifford, Thomas Pluck, Richie Narvaez, Lawrence Block, and the late Bill Crider. Clearly all people of excellent, er, taste.

So if you fancy a late-night snack then grab a knife and fork and head over to Amazon to buy a copy now.

More harm than terrorism

NationalCrimeAgency-copy“…organised crime harms more people than terrorism.” This is the staggering but very real statistic quoted in a piece in the Guardian today on the work of the UK’s National Crime Agency.

The Agency was set up five years ago to amalgamate the work of various other departments and organisations including the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Agency, and has a remit to tackle virtually any and all organised or large-scale crime, from smuggling to child sex via prostitution and bank fraud. And thanks to a chronic lack of funding and the archaic policing system in the UK, it’s finding it very hard work.

Part of the problem is that crime, and the gangs that run it, develops constantly, taking advantage of new technology and the opening up of international routes for global trade. The other part is the odd, inherited structure of the UK police force, which is divided into lots of local (county) units and a few national ones, many of which duplicate each others’ work.

The article, titled “Organised crime in the UK is bigger than ever before. Can the police catch up?”, is a lengthy and somewhat depressing read. But it’s essential material for anyone interested in, or writing about, the police response to organised crime in this country. Just don’t expect any easy answers.