Word on the Wire

Category: Drama


I have absolutely no idea how or why I missed ‘The Sopranos’ first time around, although a second marriage and five kids (my stock excuse) might have had a bearing.   As the saying goes, ‘better late than never’ and all the more poignant because James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano so convincingly, is very sadly no longer with us.

So it was with a sense of fevered anticipation that we prepared to devour 4,567 minutes or seventy-seven hours worth of viewing. And, my goodness, was it worth it. I can now see how ‘The Shield’ and ‘The Wire’ were spawned, both fabulously addictive series.

But back to David Chase’s ‘The Sopranos.’ It’s not easy to encapsulate six seasons, except to say that, as complex and credible characterisation goes, it doesn’t get much better. At various times, I hated Tony Soprano, top-dog crime lord. I hated his nephew Christopher, played fabulously by Michael Imperioli, I wanted to scream at the screen when ‘Sill’ dispatched Christopher’s girlfriend, Adriana. I loathed Pauli, one of Tony’s henchmen for his racism and mindless ruthlessness, and yet, at other times, I warmed to them, pitied them, found them endlessly amusing. If you could chart my emotions running through the entire series, the graph would dip deep, climb a bit, drop a bit, and soar, only to return to the bottom when character after character, to my mind, got their own kind of karma in spades. In many ways, my emotional journey with Tony Soprano mimicked that of his shrink, played with great style and class by Lorraine Bracco. Even she, in the end, realised that she was dealing with a self-serving sociopath as adept at manipulating her as his enemies and cronies.

Through it all, family was the glue that held it together, and I’m not just talking about ‘our thing’.   This is where the wives, girlfriends and widows played their greatest role. They saw the kids through school and advised on career choices, cooked huge dinners, ensured the refrigerator, (which had a minor part all its own in the Soprano household) was full, took care of their husbands’ every need while, on a personal level knowing said husband was banging some broad.  They did it all, while also knowing on an unpalatable, secondary level that the only reason they were able to live in style, eat out, holiday as and when, receive expensive gifts of jewellery and clothing, was because it came from ill-gotten gains and murder.   In spite of it, I found it hard not to feel respect for Carmella Soprano, played superbly by Edie Falco, for treading a fine path through the mayhem.

And the final climactic scene in the diner about which there has been much debate? Yes, I was reminded of The Godfather when Michael Corleone heads for ‘the john’ to pick up a gun. The man who casually glances across at the Soprano family definitely pricked my foe-detector. From a visual perspective, Hopper’s famous painting ‘Nighthawks’ sprang to mind. The final moment was not so much fade out as pitch black, indicating, for me, that Tony Soprano died as he lived. But what do I know?

A strong test of a series is the length of time it stays with you afterwards. I reckon this will take a long while to fade. In a lighter aside, I’m now in danger of asking any visitor to the house: ‘Do you want corfee?’ in that wonderful Noo Joirsey accent.


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


First off, apologies for my spelling malfunction yesterday when referring to Ben Whishaw – what was I thinking?!  Clearly, not thinking at all.

Moving swiftly on, you may remember I gabbed on about the pure brilliance of London Spy and stand by my comments about superb acting and Ben Whishaw’s outstanding performance.  Masterful storytelling was a hallmark of the series until midway through the finale in which I skidded to a dirty great halt.

It’s common knowledge that, if the big climactic scene, the one the audience has waited hours for doesn’t deliver, the preceding story is screwed.  I wouldn’t go this far because it would be grossly unfair.  There were plenty of big revelations to sustain attention, and the way in which Danny’s every effort to reveal the truth was thwarted with chilling ease ratcheted tension to fever pitch, but the fact that, in the final analysis, there were more questions than answers says a lot.

Who were all those people holed up in Alex’s attic with listening devices and cameras?  I assumed that they were intelligence officers carrying out a dastardly form of torture that would give the most deranged terrorist a run for his or her money.  (As a claustrophobe, there was one point when I almost ran out of the room screaming).  Why, instead, wasn’t Alex offered a deal from the lonely bowels of an interrogation room in SIS HQ?  If he refused, why wasn’t he let go and left to the tender mercies of a ‘Wet’ team?  Why was Charlotte Rampling, Alex’s alleged mother, dragged in to reason with Alex in his dying moments when the intelligence service thought so little of her?  Why on earth did she throw her hand in with Danny in a doomed endeavour in the final seconds of the episode when previously she had so stoutly defended her position?

If I were Tom Rob Smith, I’d be tempted to respond with the ultimate put-down:  his novels have sold in millions and been made into a film.  Precisely, but that’s why I expected so much more.




Almost eight years ago, I was at a lunch in Smithfield. It was part of a promotion organised by my publisher for my novel, ‘The Last Exile’.   I had the pleasure of sitting between the lovely Chris Simmons (Crimesquad) and Maxim Jakubowsi, renowned bookshop owner of Murder One in Charing Cross. The big buzz was neither my novel, nor me, but one Tom Rob Smith. ‘Had I read his stunning debut, Child 44?’ they both asked. No, I hadn’t, but I soon did.

As I said in my last post, I love a great tip-off. Set in Russia during the 1950’s, Child 44 is based on the Rostov child serial killer, Andrei Chikatlo.   I love novels based on true-life events and, to say I was blown away with it, is an understatement. A few months later, I wound up on a BBC Radio programme with Kate Saunders arguing why Child 44 would make a good inclusion on the Booker Prize list. But that was then. I read Tom Rob Smith’s follow-up novels, but I’d no idea he’d made the transition to screenplay writing until recently. As soon as we had our aerial sorted last week, we ‘binge-watched’ four episodes of ‘London Spy.’ I’m thrilled I did.

Again, Rob Smith weaves a compelling story from a real life event, the mysterious case of the ‘Spy in the Bag’ about which all kinds of theories were trotted out in the grim aftermath, including the fact that the MI6 officer was into sadomasochistic gay sex, a theme explored in the series. But the screenplay is so much more than this.

In true spy fashion, there are codes and mathematical formulae – the only part where I got slightly lost, possibly because numbers is not my strong suit. Performances are fabulous, particularly from Jim Broadbent in a role that is not his usual (no pun intended) bag, and Edward Holcroft is superb as Alex, the contained, strange and offbeat spy and mathematical genius.

As for Ben Wishart…

He is simply mesmerising as bewildered Danny, fitting the part so well it honestly feels as if he isn’t acting at all. His grief at the death of his lover is as searing as his fearlessness for finding the truth at whatever cost. It’s his quest to go into all the darkest corners of the establishment and beyond that drives the narrative.

There are many memorable scenes in this drama but one sticks in my mind.  Danny comes face to face with Alex’s mother, played by a very sinister Charlotte Rampling. Towing the party line that her son was into sadomasochism, ticking off all the reasons why she believes it to be so, and arguing that his death was an unfortunate accident, Danny puts her down with one ‘take that’ sentence. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t watched the series. Safe to say, I’ll be tuning in for the finale tonight. I’m not a fan of hyperbole, but this drama is genuinely pure brilliance.




Remember that fab song from ‘Garbage’ with the chorus: “Pour your misery down”? Even if you don’t, the track definitely resonates with me, and particularly this morning as I tap away to the sound of heavy rain battering the roof of my hideout. Don’t get me wrong, solid and persistent rainfall with high winds usually conjures up images of flood and chaos, horrible for those badly affected, I realise, yet I always view it with relish, as a chance to bunker down and write my socks off.   ‘Good working weather,’ I mutter, eyeing up the next dark cloud as it heads our way.

Perhaps it’s connected to genre. If you’re a writer of frothy chick-lit or rom-com, do you yearn for wall-to-wall sunshine? Maybe romantic novelists are turned on by seductive misty mornings (think hero or heroine striding out of the murk). Does an impressive solar eclipse provide inspiration to sci-fi writers?   Does tempest and tornado do it for horror writers?

But back to rainclouds: I reckon it’s connected to light, or rather absence of it. It’s harder to write dark ‘goings-on’ in blazing sunshine and seventy-degree heat, somehow. You may rightly point out: “What about those novelists, (usually famous) who take off to pen their entire novel in foreign (hot) climes?” Well, I guess if you’re that talented, you don’t need a helping hand from Mother Nature.

So, taking advantage of our current weather pattern, I’m writing a much shorter post this week. Got a novel to write…


Since our move, we haven’t got around to having an aerial fitted for our television. With so much other stuff to sort, it didn’t seem a priority. I really thought I’d miss it but, after a day of unpacking boxes, lugging furniture and critiquing authors’ manuscripts, I’m fairly pooped. My Twitter and Facebook activity similarly has taken a back seat over the last few weeks, although, clearly, I’m now back ‘on message,’ so to speak.

So what have I been doing instead? Catching up on old favourite films. The quirky thing about watching films for a second or even a third time is that you notice things you didn’t cotton on to before.   Clocking up a film a night, one stood out from the crowd: ‘The Last Samurai’. With an epic quality, it’s a serious film about Japanese honour; the clue to how the story unfolds in the title.   Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe act their socks off (without seeming to) and, if you’re into battle scenes, (I am) it’s worth watching for these alone. One look at the credits reveals the vast numbers of stunt men and, that speciality breed, stunt riders.   The soundtrack seemed more memorable, somehow, second time around. No wonder: Hans Zimmer wrote the score.

But, just in case, you think I’ve switched off from the world, the radio remains my best chum. I have an almost telepathic sense of ‘on the hour’ news which is when I invariably tune in. A lousy Broadband service has been defeated by that wonderful creation: Mobile Wi-Fi. As for books, I’ve got a fine selection just ready and waiting for me to dive into. Currently, I’m reading Clare Mackintosh’s intriguing ‘I Let You Go.’   It’s spent far too long on my bookshelf. More of this anon…


No, I didn’t get drunk last night but I did spend my evening tearing through Stephen Leather’s ‘Black Ops.’ To put this in context, I posted a tweet about a week or so ago mentioning that I’d just raced through a 130 pages of a novel in a sitting. Then real life intervened and I wound up reading ‘Black Ops’ in fits and starts – never a good way to read a book – which always makes me feel faintly guilty on behalf of the writer. Anyway, I put things straight last night by saving the final furlong for a thumping good read.

Part of the Spider Shepherd series, Spider is given one of his most testing missions to date: to spy on his boss, Charlie Button, who it’s feared has gone rogue. Things aren’t much better on the personal front when Spider’s sixteen year-old son is caught with drugs.  To ‘get him off’ a custodial sentence, Spider is forced to unmask a dealer for the police. Oh, and did I mention the grieving father who holds Putin responsible for the downed Malaysian plane over Ukraine? Well, Spider is tasked to prevent the assassination of the foreign head of state on UK territory. Throw in an assassin or two and a couple of Real IRA terrorists, and you get the picture: it’s a rollercoaster of thrills, surprises, double dealing and real politic. Only a writer of Leather’s calibre can juggle so many plot lines without confusion and dropping pace. For me, what also sets him aside is his amazing topicality. He really is ‘on the button’ and I can only dare to imagine from where he gets his information. Either that or the guy has a crystal ball. A couple of times I closed the book (briefly, you understand) muttered the equivalent of ‘Crikey’, thought about what I’d just read in black and white, told myself it was fiction, wasn’t it? And, dazed, read on. I love it when a writer does this. Leather makes you think. He challenges what often is taken for granted when it comes to the ‘powers that be’. Whether they are police, spooks or politicians, even our hero, nobody emerges without dirt on their hands. If you want a cosy, rosy-tinted view of the world with good guys and bad guys, forget it, but for realism, insight and sheer blood and guts, it doesn’t get much better than this.

‘Black Ops’ is published by Hodder and Stoughton.


A couple of weeks ago I asked the question: ‘Are writers social oddballs?’ This elicited quite a response so I thought I’d expand on it. In the last piece, my closing comment was this: The only extra thing to chuck into the mix is that individualism, tenacity and determination are hallmarks shared by the best main protagonists. The brain behind the pen also shares those attributes because, without them, writers would do something a lot more safe and sensible. So are writers a breed apart? Do they feel more deeply, get exercised about injustice more frequently? Do they have soaring highs and unfathomable lows? In other words, are they programmed on a different emotional setting to ‘civilians’?

I once heard Nicci French say that the reason crime fiction is so popular is that everyone believes his or her own life is like living in a thriller. I’m not sure the ‘everyone’ tag applies. I know plenty of people who seem to puddle along untroubled by the vicissitudes of life and barely break a sweat when, for example their house sale/holiday/business deal falls through. ‘Seem’ is probably the operative word, but this brings me straight back to the disposition of the individual concerned. If you’re of a benign persuasion, you’ll weather stormy events a little better than those who won’t bend with the proverbial breeze. Good for your mental health, for sure, but where’s the drama in that?

You see, I think only those with a strong dramatic streak can write great drama. Put another way, you have to care and be seen to care. Some might argue that a robust moral compass is a pre-requisite for writing crime fiction.   I actually think a strong grasp of psychology is more important. An understanding of the wide spectrum of human behaviour, all those (not fifty) shades of grey and the motivation behind why people do what they do, is essential if you’re going to strike that essential note of authenticity. So does that mean that science fiction writers are more cerebral and romantic fiction authors are more in touch with their passionate side? Are comedy writers a laugh a minute? Do writers of Westerns don cowboy boots and Stetsons, and spy writers grey raincoats and strained expressions to get into the writerly groove? And, ahem, where does that leave those writers who pen X-rated sex romps? Nobody is suggesting for one second that, in order to craft crime fiction, you have to rob a bank, or worse, although I dare say it would definitely lend a healthy dose of credibility to a story if one did.

I firmly believe that writers really do have heightened senses. It probably accounts for the high rates of depression suffered by those who create. Only the truly confident escape feelings of low self-esteem and the occasional sense that, not only is your work trash, but you are too.   The trick is to translate those inner feelings of self-doubt, rage or disillusionment at the world and make them work for you. Faking it won’t wash. Sure, cool-headed individuals can and do write powerful fiction, but I bet they are in the minority.


With my book doctor hat on, I’m fond of saying to writers: ‘If you want a masterclass on how to write an action adventure/spy fiction/psychological thriller, read no further than Lee Child, Gerald Seymour or Nicci French.’ With plenty of top flight authors from which to choose, I don’t always name these writers but they often come top of my list. Well, I’ve just got a new ‘Mistress’ to add to the genre and, for me, she’s in a class all of her own: Tana French.

I read her debut novel, ‘In The Woods’ when it was first published and loved it, but I can be horribly fickle when it comes to keeping faith with writers so I hadn’t read her subsequent novels. I blame it on too many authors and not enough time, not that this deterred me when I was sent a review copy of ‘The Secret Place,’ French’s latest novel.

The basic outline is as follows: Chris Harper is a senior schoolboy murdered in the grounds of a girls’ boarding school. One year on, the case has gone cold until Detective Stephen Moran is handed a photograph with a message written on it: ‘I know who killed him.’ It’s down to Moran and his boss Antoinette Conway to have a last shot at nailing a killer.

Honestly, it’s difficult to know where to start with French. Her writing is so astonishingly brilliant that you want to munch up every word and read every sentence at least three times.   The way in which she captures the way in which teenage girls behave, taunt and speak en masse is a triumph in its own right. Deeply unsettling, I was unsettled – particularly as I’d had a lousy time at boarding school myself, admittedly ‘back in the day’. French knows exactly how to create that particularly febrile hothouse atmosphere peculiar to close-knit educational establishments; her grasp of the strange intimacy that bonds young women, with vows made and broken, are faithfully portrayed. She maintains suspense with a vice-like grip. Finely plotted, her story oozes psychological insight. Police procedure is given a seriously new twist while remaining utterly authentic. She puts creep into creepiness and sparkle in the craic. In short, French doesn’t put a foot wrong and I found myself helplessly flipping those pages and wishing my train journey – where better to read – would last until I turned the blistering and exquisitely written final page.  Another storming novel from Hodder…


Often you’ll hear writers admit that they are bad at maths. Occasionally, it’s trumpeted as a badge of honour, as if, by being lousy with numbers, one is de facto a whiz with words. Well, I’m genuinely embarrassed to confess that I’m rubbish at sums, always have been and always will be, without making great claims of literary prowess. The very mention of the word ‘percentage’ has me breaking out in a sweat. I hyperventilate at ‘algebraic equation’. Don’t get me started on mathematics’ close cousin, quantum physics because it elicits nausea, spots before the eyes and, finally, fade out. I put it down to consistently receiving a verbal thrashing from my father who, and without trying to go all Jeremy Kyle on the subject, found maths a doddle and couldn’t understand why his daughter was such a dimwit. My lifelong aversion to numerals explains why I’ve given Oscar winning ‘The Theory of Everything,’ based on the life of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, a wide berth.

Until last week.

And what a fool I’d been.

If only I’d had Jane Wilde (played by Felicity Jones) as my teacher. In a memorable scene, involving potatoes and peas, she explains an aspect of quantum physics in a way that even I got it. But what blew me away, and explains why Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar was so richly deserved, is the way in which Redmayne, who plays Stephen Hawking, physically transforms from a healthy twenty-one year-old to a man in thrall to Motor Neurone Disease that robbed him of pretty much everything bar his ability to procreate and think.

In our image-conscious society, where so many of us worship the body beautiful, the film and Hawking throw up fundamental questions about attitudes to disability, the emphasis on what we look like versus who we are, and what we rate as important in a human being. I love films that make me think. And the Brits are very good at it.

And does a man who is physically bent out of shape by a disease cease to be sexy? Not a bit of it. The women in his life adore him because Hawking’s mind, along with his mischievous sense of humour, provides the big turn-on. It’s no accident that the most observant contemporary female writers allude to ‘bad sex’ as much as ‘good sex’ in the lives of their main protagonists because they recognise that a tight arse, rack of abs and pecs to die for, or the most beautiful features are not essential to attract members of the opposite sex.  I expect a smart bod will tell me that there’s a mathematical equation for falling in love too.