Word on the Wire

Month: February, 2016


I am a huge fan of John Hart’s novels. If my house were burning down, ‘The King of Lies’ would be snatched from the flames. As we’re in Oscar winning mode, I’d definitely hand Hart a trophy.   Yes, I admire his work that much, which is why I picked up ‘Down River’.

‘Down River’ features Adam Chase, a young man exiled for a murder he didn’t commit. His stepmother, who originally testified against him, has very different ideas, and when Chase returns home, predictably, he isn’t made to feel that welcome. Especially as, no sooner than he touches base, the body count coincidentally rises.

These are the bare bones of the novel and you’ll have to get hold of a copy to find out what transpires but suffice to say, that, in common with much of Hart’s work, this is a story about family, betrayal, human frailty and unrequited love.

As Hart himself says, family provides a rich hunting ground for the writer. For it’s within the close confines of family that the greatest pain is inflicted and received, and the scope for treachery and double-cross boundless. In this regard, I was reminded of Phillip Larkin’s famous quote about what your mum and dad do to you: ‘They f***k you up…’ Hart’s complex characterisation and his portrayal of destructive family dynamics is observed with such acuity and depth of psychological insight, I was pretty convinced that he must have endured a troubled childhood. However, after reading Acknowledgements, I’m glad to flag up that Hart’s mum and dad, to whom he pays tribute, are wonderful, as are his in-laws, wife and children. It exemplifies even more strongly, if that’s possible, what a fine writer he is.

And it’s not just about the compelling nature of his storytelling. Hart is one of those rare writers whose sentences I’ll often read at least twice. Beautifully constructed, sometimes spare, his prose conveys how someone really feels about a situation, how someone would genuinely react. There is no artifice, no false emotion to suit the requirements of plot. Master of the complex up/down ending, there is nothing cosy or false about his final scenes.   Apart from encouraging any reader to buy John Hart’s books, I have one final word on the subject: Sublime.

‘Down River’ is published by John Murray



Hot off the proverbial press, I’m absolutely thrilled to see that Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, ‘The Unseeing’ is to be published in July with Tinder Press.

Now I openly confess a sneaky satisfaction because I was sent an earlier draft, via Writers’ Workshop, a couple of years ago and I recognised, when working on it, that it was a stunner.  Of course, since then, Anna and, no doubt, a fleet of editors have woven their magic to create the finished book.

Set in London in 1837, ‘The Unseeing’ is based on a true story and tells the tale of Sarah Gale, a seamstress sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding.  Elegantly written by Mazzola, a criminal justice solicitor, rich in historical detail, the novel exudes atmosphere and authenticity.  Needless to say, there is much more to Sarah’s story and you’ll need to buy the book to find out.  Glorious news and I wish the novel great success.


It’s that special time of year again and I’m thrilled to be taking part in this year’s writerly auction to raise money to support children and young people with cancer. Bidding begins on Friday February 25th at 8 pm and lasts for ten days. Apart from doing your bit for an extremely worthwhile cause, you could be given the opportunity to have the opening chapters of your novel critiqued by professional writers or, if you fancy your name written in lights in a famous author’s novel, this could be your magic moment. For details, check out the website:

Whatever you decide, please give it a go. The charity really does help those in the most testing of circumstances and when it’s needed most.


According to latest PLR (Public Lending Right) figures, crime fiction dominates lending in libraries.   Great news, but what’s also intriguing is that US authors lead the market in the lending field, with James Patterson reigning supreme. It’s been suggested that his short (sometimes extremely short) chapters hold particular appeal for readers who, in our time-sensitive, pressurised 24/7 lives, prefer to read a book in double-quick tempo and then (speaking softly) chuck it away. Hmmm.

Musing on this put me in mind of something Kazuo Ishiguro, (The Remains of the Day) said some years ago in an interview.   He questioned whether people read quite as many books as they claim. When I heard it I wanted to cheer because, although I read a lot of books, as you might expect, they are not confined to crime fiction. Are there gaps in my crime repertoire? You bet.

Let’s be clear, even if I weren’t a writer, I don’t consider reading a book a chore, degenerate activity or an excuse for not cleaning the kitchen. It rates as one of the most satisfying and pleasurable, occasionally challenging, activities on the planet. When I wrote book reviews for the Cheltenham Standard newspaper, I read a book a week (and I mean really read it, not skipped through) in addition to working as a freelance editor for Writers’ Workshop and writing my own novels. Despite this, for all the ‘must reads’ I’ve consumed, there are plenty I haven’t. Initially, this became apparent when I took part in my first crime quiz at a literary event almost a decade ago. Was I really this ignorant, I thought as I sloped off to the bar afterwards to bolster my wounded pride. To be fair, it didn’t help that the walking encyclopaedia of crime, author Martin Edwards, was on effervescent form that evening.   Anyway, determined to smarten up, I set myself a target to plug any glaring literary gaps. My self-imposed crash course included an array of contemporary crime novelists and, somewhat oddly and in a rush of blood to the head, Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, not exactly your average ‘easy reading’. Am I better informed now?   Hard to say because every year new and exciting novelists take the crime writing arena by storm and, of course, I have my favourite authors to whom I return again and again.   In this regard, Mariella Frostrup in her book programme once made a comment that resonated with me. She said that of all the books one reads, it’s hard to remember every storyline. For me, of all the books one reads only the best stories remain forever.

And they certainly don’t get chucked away.


I love staying in hotels. They can be ultra-modern city gaffes with spa and pool, seaside establishments that lean more towards shabby chic, or, my very favourite, historic splendour. I don’t deny that a mini-break generally doesn’t come cheap but for a writer who doesn’t really do conventional holidays (two weeks in the wherever) they are the perfect antidote to the vicissitudes of life. It was in this frame of mind that I took advantage of a very generous birthday cum Christmas cum New Year present given to me by one of my brothers, and booked into Wood Norton Hotel.

As always, my other half treated the experience as a great opportunity to ‘power down’ and spend ‘quality time’ together while knowing that the chances of me staying awake long enough to have a bath and eat dinner and breakfast were not a dead cert. For ‘power down’ read ‘conked out’ because something exceedingly strange happens when I step off the world, as I know it. If I also combine it with a digital detox (no I-Pad, no phone, in short, no communication), I can literally glide into a hotel room, test the firmness or otherwise of the mattress and, before I know it, sleep the clock round.   Unfortunately, I ran true to form this time too.

But I digress. Built in 1897 by Duc D’Orleans, Wood Norton is a triumph of 19th century architecture outside and oak wood panelled rooms and ceilings inside.   It stayed within the French family for a number of years and during the Second World War, the BBC bought it when it shifted operations from London. Although it was sold again, the BBC still retains a training facility next-door and, on the night we stayed, there was a party of ‘Beeb’ personnel filling their boots in the bar.

From the moment we strolled into Reception, it felt as if we’d briefly entered a less pressurised world. It’s one of those places where there are lots of nooks and crannies in which you can take afternoon tea, which we did, or slope off to have a quiet conversation and drink. The vibe is comfortable meets old world glamour. It’s dead easy to imagine all those French aristocrats chugging on cigars and pouring themselves another measure of Cognac.

Our room was spacious and, joy unconfined, cool – I mean this in the literal sense.   (Who wants to eat dinner, have a few drinks and then sweat the night away in an overheated hotel room resistant to any kind of ventilation?) The five course tasting menu, part of the package, was outstandingly good and far exceeded our expectations. Just in case you think, ‘greedy pigs’, each course was tiny and perfectly pitched to create plenty of room to move onto the next course without feeling overly full. Vaguely alarmed by the smell of old bonfire before we’d eaten a mouthful, we soon discovered that the source emanated from a glitzy Heston Blumenthal influenced ‘amuse bouche,’ containing smoked apple and pyrotechnics. The duck and fig starter was a fabulous taste explosion. For a main, I ate turbot, a fish I haven’t consumed in years, and my other half had rabbit, but bunny not as you’d recognise it. This was a glorious concoction, his words, not mine, of firm and smooth lapin. Had it not been for ‘Fatal Attraction’ looming large in my psyche, I would have ventured a taste. The wine menu was extensive and well priced. Again, part of the deal, we had a lovely bottle of Pinot Noir. If I had one criticism, the lighting throughout the restaurant (and, indeed the rest of the hotel) would have made the average glow-worm seem dazzling by comparison. Often, dingy illumination signifies that there is something to hide – not at all the case – so it was a real pity that magnificent food didn’t receive the full glare of publicity that it deserved.

And the staff? From the manager and receptionists to bar and waiting staff, it was professional, friendly and ‘can do’.   What more could you ask for? Perhaps a spa with pool, I wondered, but that, I’m glad to report, is a work in progress.   Can’t wait for the next big sleep there.

DSC_1291Wood Norton Hotel is just outside Evesham, Worcestershire