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!

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

Words on words

hqdefaultI know, I know, I said I wouldn’t be back on here for a few days and you all thought you were safe. But I had to pop in to mention that Dee Arr’s live review of ‘Gravy Train’ is now available as a standalone piece on YouTube. So if you didn’t get to see the original broadcast, or didn’t have time to listen to the whole show, then now’s your chance. All you need to do is follow this link to Eclectic Storm radio and the snippet involving my book is right there for you.

It’s great fun and should give you a flavour of the book in no more than a couple of minutes. And watch out for the deliberately mischievous false start and the blindfold.

Now I’m disappearing again, probably until after the New Year. So have a good one and I’ll see you all in 2019!

New interview

Just dashing in, covered in glitter and sellotape, to mention that Chris Rhatigan of All Due Respect has interviewed me for the ADR blog.

You can find my replies on a raft of topics, including why I wrote ‘Gravy Train’ from several different points of view, why I don’t write about spies and billionaires, and which other UK crime writers I can recommend, over at the blog. I hope you enjoy it!

Now, where did I put that gift tag?

The most dangerous review on the internet

eclecticstormI woke to some unexpected but lovely news this morning, which is that ‘Gravy Train’ has been featured in a book review… on radio!

Eclectic Storm Radio, a YouTube based station which showcases new indie music alongside amusing tales and banter, also includes a review slot called Words on Words. Described (not altogether seriously!) as “the most dangerous book review on the internet”, it’s done in a maximum of 60 seconds, live and uncut, and in this particular case, blindfold!

Even in such a short time, and without his notes, co-host Dee Arr has the dizzying plot and whirl of characters down to a “T”, and says some lovely things about the book too.

Want to listen? Head over to Eclectic Storm Radio and check it out. It’s free, the music’s good and it’s a lot of fun, too.

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!