evseymour

Word on the Wire

Category: Storytelling

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

January proved to be such a brutal month for many and, with continued restrictions, I wasn’t much in the mood for writing a blog post, but time moves on and I thought I’d share a few reasons to be cheerful in February.

Obtaining agent representation is harder than ever but three authors, who I worked with on their stories, have defied the odds and done just that. In no particular order, Daniel Scanlan is now represented by Ian Drury at Sheil Land Associates, Rob Burnett is represented by Jemima Forrester at David Higham Associates and Charlotte Owen is represented by Nicola Barr at The Bent Agency. Congratulations to all and best of luck with their books and careers.  

Over Christmas – seems so long ago – I finally read ‘The Salt Path’ by Raynor Winn. As I’ve often said I tend to read best sellers long after the hype has died down. In this instance I wished I hadn’t waited so long. A true story, utterly inspirational, and a massive testament to fortitude in adversity, it proved the perfect read for our time. It’s grounding. It recognises the fragility of life. It also makes you realise that bad things do indeed happen to anyone and it isn’t wise to take what we have for granted.  And yet, this is no misery memoir. It’s uplifting and life-affirming and one of those rare books I might well return to.  But not before I plough through my ‘TBR’ pile, which has spectacularly increased after I took receipt of hardback versions of ‘The Burning Girls’ by CJ Tudor and ‘Slough House’ by Mick Herron a few days ago. Don Winslow’s, ‘The Force’ has also joined the ranks after my other half raved about it. An epic tale of corruption in the New York Police Department, with a highly morally ambiguous main protagonist, sounds just my bag. Can’t wait to dip in once I’ve finished Bill Bryson’s extraordinary ‘At Home.’ To describe and do it justice, I’m going to quote from the blurb: ‘What does history really consist of? Centuries of people quietly going about their daily business… And where do all these normal activities take place? At home.’  It’s a history of private life, of invention, of habit and convention. While it’s not so laugh out loud funny as his other works, it’s no less entertaining. The sheer volume of information and fascinating detail is astonishing. Bryson’s true talent is his ability to unearth and flag up the endeavours of the ‘little people,’ those inventive souls who failed to be recognised for their achievements in the age in which they lived, often through some quirk of history or humanity.  His love of language is a joy for a wordsmith. Who knew that, for example, that the word ‘bedroom’ was first used by Shakespeare in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ or that the word ‘Buttery,’ a room in a grand house, has nothing to do with ‘butter’ but ‘butts’ as in butts of ale? I love this kind of minutiae.  

On the literary front, ‘SIX’ will be published on March 4th as trade paperback and digital, the mass-market paperback released in August.  The story begins when successful criminal defence lawyer, Jon Shaw, comes face to face with, Danny Hallam, the man he tried to murder twenty-five years ago.  To find out why, how and what, you’ll need to grab a copy!

Meanwhile, Apple audio has released ‘A Deadly Trade’ and ‘Final Target’ with Ben Onwukwe’s deliciously deadly voice capturing Hex perfectly. For those unfamiliar with Hex, he’s a hitman turned good guy who, in ‘A Deadly Trade’ becomes embroiled in uncovering a criminal conspiracy involving biological weapons. In short, it’s a tale of espionage meets action adventure. In ‘Final Target,’ Hex discovers that the past is not so easily left behind and is quickly pulled back into the game by glamorous, MI5 intelligence officer, Inger McCallen, with an operation in Berlin. It contains all the typical Hex trademarks: high body count, intrigue, and highly intelligent women.  

I need no excuse to binge-watch, but the pandemic has made my love affair with the small screen more respectable. How I missed ‘The Americans’ when it first came out, I have absolutely no idea. A spy thriller set in 1980’s America, it follows the story of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two KGB deep cover intelligence officers, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who pose as an all American couple. Both sides of the spy divide are brilliantly explored when an FBI agent, Stan Beeman, specialising in counter-terrorism, moves in opposite (played by Noah Emmerich). Characterisation is superb, surpassed only by the acting. Frank Langella puts in a compelling performance as ‘Gabriel’, the Jennings’s handler. Plot lines are authentic and dramatic. Again, it’s a series I may well return to at a later date. 

I have a small number of CD’s bought from buskers around the country. A few years ago we were passing through Chester. Walking down the main drag, the haunting sounds of  a violinst playing ‘Schindler’s List’ stopped us dead.  We were not alone. Quite a number of people had stopped to listen to what turned out to be a sublime set of film scores. The man playing was none other than Phillip Chidell, a highly regarded musician and one time child prodigy, although we didn’t know it at the time. For some reason our CD was added to our collection but never opened until this Christmas when we were hunting around for something a little different to play. And what a treat. Production values are superb – not something that can always be said when you buy work  ‘off the pavement’. If you love film music or you simply love to hear a musician playing at the top of his game, go out and buy. Shakespeare had a point when he said that ‘If music be the food of love, play on.’  

Lastly, and continuing with a music theme, remember Conchita Wurst – and her Eurovision Song Entry, ‘Rise Like A Phoenix?’  Well, I was given the sheet piano music for the song at Christmas. For those who don’t know it it’s a big gutsy power piece about hope and optimism.  If I’m feeling glum, I take to the keys and belt it out.  If not cheerful before, I certainly am after.   

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

January proved to be such a brutal month for many and, with continued restrictions, I wasn’t much in the mood for writing a blog post, but time moves on and I thought I’d share a few reasons to be cheerful in February.

Obtaining agent representation is harder than ever but three authors, who I worked with on their stories, have defied the odds and done just that. In no particular order, Daniel Scanlan is now represented by Ian Drury at Sheil Land Associates, Rob Burnett is represented by Jemima Forrester at David Higham Associates and Charlotte Owen is represented by Nicola Barr at The Bent Agency. Congratulations to all and best of luck with their books and careers.

Over Christmas – seems so long ago – I finally read ‘The Salt Path’ by Raynor Winn. As I’ve often said I tend to read best sellers long after the hype has died down. In this instance I wished I hadn’t waited so long. A true story, utterly inspirational, and a massive testament to fortitude in adversity, it proved the perfect read for our time. It’s grounding. It recognises the fragility of life. It also makes you realise that bad things do indeed happen to anyone and it isn’t wise to take what we have for granted. And yet, this is no misery memoir. It’s uplifting and life-affirming and one of those rare books I might well return to. But not before I plough through my ‘TBR’ pile, which has spectacularly increased after I took receipt of hardback versions of ‘The Burning Girls’ by CJ Tudor and ‘Slough House’ by Mick Herron a few days ago. Don Winslow’s, ‘The Force’ has also joined the ranks after my other half raved about it. An epic tale of corruption in the New York Police Department, with a highly morally ambiguous main protagonist, sounds just my bag. Can’t wait to dip in once I’ve finished Bill Bryson’s extraordinary ‘At Home.’ To describe and do it justice, I’m going to quote from the blurb: ‘What does history really consist of? Centuries of people quietly going about their daily business… And where do all these normal activities take place? At home.’ It’s a history of private life, of invention, of habit and convention. While it’s not so laugh out loud funny as his other works, it’s no less entertaining. The sheer volume of information and fascinating detail is astonishing. Bryson’s true talent is his ability to unearth and flag up the endeavours of the ‘little people,’ those inventive souls who failed to be recognised for their achievements in the age in which they lived, often through some quirk of history or humanity. His love of language is a joy for a wordsmith. Who knew that, for example, that the word ‘bedroom’ was first used by Shakespeare in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ or that the word ‘Buttery,’ a room in a grand house, has nothing to do with ‘butter’ but ‘butts’ as in butts of ale? I love this kind of minutiae.

On the literary front, ‘SIX’ will be published on March 4th as trade paperback and digital, the mass-market paperback released in August. The story begins when successful criminal defence lawyer, Jon Shaw, comes face to face with, Danny Hallam, the man he tried to murder twenty-five years ago. To find out why, how and what, you’ll need to grab a copy!

Meanwhile, Apple audio has released ‘A Deadly Trade’ and ‘Final Target’ with Ben Onwukwe’s deliciously deadly voice capturing Hex perfectly. For those unfamiliar with Hex, he’s a hitman turned good guy who, in ‘A Deadly Trade’ becomes embroiled in uncovering a criminal conspiracy involving biological weapons. In short, it’s a tale of espionage meets action adventure. In ‘Final Target,’ Hex discovers that the past is not so easily left behind and is quickly pulled back into the game by glamorous, MI5 intelligence officer, Inger McCallen, with an operation in Berlin. It contains all the typical Hex trademarks: high body count, intrigue, and highly intelligent women.

I need no excuse to binge-watch, but the pandemic has made my love affair with the small screen more respectable. How I missed ‘The Americans’ when it first came out, I have absolutely no idea. A spy thriller set in 1980’s America, it follows the story of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two KGB deep cover intelligence officers, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who pose as an all American couple. Both sides of the spy divide are brilliantly explored when an FBI agent, Stan Beeman, specialising in counter-terrorism, moves in opposite (played by Noah Emmerich). Characterisation is superb, surpassed only by the acting. Frank Langella puts in a compelling performance as ‘Gabriel’, the Jennings’s handler. Plot lines are authentic and dramatic. Again, it’s a series I may well return to at a later date.

I have a small number of CD’s bought from buskers around the country. A few years ago we were passing through Chester. Walking down the main drag, the haunting sounds of a violinst playing ‘Schindler’s List’ stopped us dead. We were not alone. Quite a number of people had stopped to listen to what turned out to be a sublime set of film scores. The man playing was none other than Phillip Chidell, a highly regarded musician and one time child prodigy, although we didn’t know it at the time. For some reason our CD was added to our collection but never opened until this Christmas when we were hunting around for something a little different to play. And what a treat. Production values are superb – not something that can always be said when you buy work ‘off the pavement’. If you love film music or you simply love to hear a musician playing at the top of his game, go out and buy. Shakespeare had a point when he said that ‘If music be the food of love, play on.’

Lastly, and continuing with a music theme, remember Conchita Wurst – and her Eurovision Song Entry, ‘Rise Like A Phoenix?’ Well, I was given the sheet piano music for the song at Christmas. For those who don’t know it it’s a big gutsy power piece about hope and optimism. If I’m feeling glum, I take to the keys and belt it out. If not cheerful before, I certainly am after.

READ ALL ABOUT IT!

Nothing much to report from me, or at least nothing I can talk about, BUT I have terrific news about an author who I was lucky enough to team up with, via Jericho Writers, and I’m going to share in his glory just a little.

In short, ‘STEEL FEAR’ landed on my desk last year. There was much to admire but, in common with a lot of authors who have successfully written non-fiction, there was a problem with making the transition to writing fiction. In short, a ton of ‘tell,’ superfluous and pace-slowing exposition and no central main protagonist. Tough love was required.

Now this can go one of two ways for an editor: either the author can seethe quietly, or even noisily, and then come back and say, ‘Thank you very much. I’ll take suggestions on board,’ and do nothing, or they actually embrace suggestions that resonate with them, allow ideas to percolate and process, and then revise. (Occasionally, an author will cut up rough but, mercifully, this is rare.) Anyway, John was very much in the ‘Right, time to get stuck in ‘ mentality and it worked.  A two-book deal followed and now – gasp – the ‘folks’ from Hollywood are actively looking at film scripts.

John very kindly attributes much of his success to me, which, after ten years working as a freelance editor, is deeply rewarding and satisfying. And if you don’t believe me you can read all about his journey: The Rewriter’s Journey by John David Mann/Jericho in an eloquently written piece that pulls no punches about the realities of the ‘writing game’, my words, not his. Best of all, it’s funny.  Once the cover has been finalised, I’ll be posting it on my website under ‘Success Stories.’

THE WAY WE WERE

October is my favourite month. I love the colours. I love the light and I love that distinct autumnal smell of apples and hops and harvest. During the pandemic I’ve spent a great deal more time outside. There’s something deeply reassuring about nature continuing to do its thing and often in spite of human activity. In this slightly wistful frame of mind, I picked up – correction, I nicked from my other half – Bill Bryson’s ‘The Road to Little Dribbling.’ 

I’m a bit of a Bryson fan. I read ‘Notes from a Small Island’ years ago and ‘Dribbling’ marks the twentieth anniversary. An American who has lived here for many years is now a naturalised British citizen, his observations of the British at work and play are laugh out loud funny. Admittedly, he can be fairly brutal about people (particularly those whose grasp of punctuation and grammar is questionable) and institutions.  But he’s also keen to point out his own ‘idiosyncrasies.’ This is a guy who, although he has serious thoughts, does not take himself too seriously. I lost count of the times he referred to either his wife or a kindly friend gently taking hold of his elbow and leading him away before he got into a serious bundle with some hapless and stubborn soul, with whom he’d taken issue. But I digress. His love of Britain shines through even if he isn’t blind to its faults and failings.  In fact, it’s these same faults and failings that he finds strangely endearing.  What stood out for me most, and some may disagree, is the fact he mourns the Britain of twenty years ago and is not altogether impressed by Britain as it is today.

To my delight, Bryson mentions many places I know so well, like Kingsbridge, where I once lived, Salcombe, Start Bay and Dartmouth in South Devon and, in the more distant past, Birmingham. Randomly, this got me thinking. Years ago, when I was a ‘wannabe’ writer and in the days before the self-publishing revolution, I did the thing that everyone did: I submitted my then story to publishers. (Back then it was possible to submit direct.) Receiving my umpteenth rejection, the tone of the hand-signed letter  (yes, letter) was, nevertheless, kind and encouraging. Amazingly, a book, ‘Funeral Music’ by Morag Joss, was also sent. The sender was none other than Kate Lyall Grant, currently publisher at Severn House. She has no idea how much this meant to me at the time. It felt as if someone was, at last, taking me, and my writing, seriously. It certainly spurred me to continue to write and, not long afterwards, I obtained agent representation.  I wonder if small acts of kindness like this still occur and whether this says more about the way we were then than how we are now. 

DARK AND DIRTY

‘Dark and dirty’ appears to sum up my viewing and reading over the past couple of months. A huge fan of Gerald Seymour’s work, (as I’ve said many times before) ‘Beyond Recall’ was utterly outstanding for its brilliant characterisation, hard-hitting storyline – a massacre in Syria instigated and carried out under the watchful eye of a senior Russian soldier – and its unusually poignant, upbeat ending. (Not something Seymour is particularly noted for). This time, Seymour’s main protagonist, Gaz Baldwin, is a ‘watcher’.  Witnessing an atrocity breaks Gaz mentally, spiritually and emotionally. Scratching out a life of sorts on the Orkney Isles, Gaz is recalled to service when the Russian officer responsible is spotted in Murmansk. It’s down to Gaz to identify him. Seems simple enough? But, of course, things do not go according to plan. It’s crammed with all Seymour’s trademark literary attributes, but, for me, this went beyond. Not only is it a story about love and loyalty, it reveals the price paid by those invested in protecting us. When old ways are abandoned by the ‘higher-ups’ in pursuit of the narrow and new, the heavy stench of betrayal clings to every page.

Similarly, in the first season of ‘Deep State,’ former MI6 field officer, Max Easton (played by Mark Strong) is reluctantly lured back into service.  This isn’t simply a story about an intelligence operation gone wrong; it’s about the difficulty of leading a lonely double life and the price paid by a spy’s nearest and dearest. Things turn very sour and quickly when everyone Max knows and loves, specifically his new wife and young family, is threatened.

Having got the ‘Strong bug,’ I was delighted to come across ‘Low Winter Sun.’ With a fabulous cast, including a mesmerising Lenny James, this is a ‘grab you by the throat’ thriller of police corruption and utter mayhem. Set in Minnesota against a backdrop of hard drinking, prostitution and drug dealing, there are definite shades of ‘The Wire’ to be found. As for the ending, it’s all too horribly real and credible. Loved it.

I thrill when discovering new writers and Michael Farris Smith is no exception. I read ‘Desperation Road,’ long listed for a CWA Gold Dagger Award, in a couple of days. The clue to the story is in the title. Farris Smith writes about individuals caught up in the grimmest circumstances, often through no fault of their own, with heart breaking honesty. At first, I wondered how his disparate cast of characters were going to connect and then, with some deft plotting, their roads cross and wonderfully collide to create the most dramatic and emotionally literate of storylines. Writing is to die for and, at times, I was reminded of John Hart and Dennis Lehane. You can literally feel the heat of the deep South enveloping you as you read. Revenge and redemption are my favourite themes. They don’t disappoint here. 

GETTING TO KNOW YOU, OFFICER

Just a quick intro from me: this is the first ever guest post to appear on my blog and I couldn’t be more delighted. If you’re serious about writing crime, former Chief Superintendent, Graham Bartlett, is the ultimate go-to man. Vastly experienced, he’s also skilled in recognising the dramatic imperative, which is so important for crime and thriller writers.

Let’s get a couple of things straight from the start. No police officer has ever ‘proceeded in a northerly direction,’ nor arrested a hapless burglar called ‘chummy.’

Now we’ve got that out of the way, as with any profession, cops are part of a structure, they have a certain way of talking, addressing each other and a very distinctive sense of humour. Now, as crime writers (I mention that here so if you are penning the next great dystopian sci-fi blockbuster, I’ll waste no more of your time) you might like a little insight in to the coppers’ mind and what happens when they open their mouths.

First of all, though, here’s a huge caveat to everything that follows. In all my advising, teaching and critiquing I bang on about how it’s your story, they are your characters and everything I say needs to fit your WIP. Unless you want to bore your readers to death, never (ever, ever) copy and paste a procedure in to your manuscript. Wear your research lightly.

Right, health warning out of the way, here goes.

Ranks, but not as you know it

The police service is a hierarchical, disciplined organisation where officers all have a rank and are crystal clear where they are in the food-chain. That said, it’s not the army. Sure, senior (not superior) officers give orders – sometimes – and junior officers (not subordinates) carry them out. But, as police powers are invested in individual officers, rarely can they be ordered to make an arrest, search anyone or use force, on paper at least. They are operational decisions for that officer, and that officer alone. It doesn’t mean in the real and fictional world bosses can’t cajole, encourage and very strongly ‘suggest’ their staff use their powers, but in most circumstances,  they don’t instruct them to.

When I was a Chief Superintendent running firearms raids or the policing of protests or football matches, I’d deliberately surround myself with junior officers who were comfortable questioning my decisions and offering up alternatives. Tactical Advisors, for example are Police Constables – the entry rank – but with far more training and experience of guns and shields than I had. All the decisions were mine but each and every one would have been mulled over with these sages who had been there, seen it and got the tee-shirt. So, don’t invest all the knowledge and wisdom in your senior officers, or if you do make sure they have the background or make it go wrong.

All friends together – sometimes

Many of the people I joined with chose different career paths to me. Some stayed constables, either as detectives or uniformed officers  and some gained a couple of promotions and settled there. One of my closest friends was Detective Inspector Bill Warner. An ex-boxer and cabbie, he was a formidable cop but one of the funniest and most talented people I knew. When I was running a briefing, he would address me as ‘sir’, ‘guv’ or ‘boss’ and to others he would refer to me as ‘the Chief Superintendent’ or ‘Mr Bartlett.’ Behind closed doors though, one to one, it was Bill and Graham. And, believe me, if he disagreed with something I was doing he would tell me – loud and clear.

Use these dynamics to add depth to your characters. So often, senior officers – such as my old rank – are shown as being penny-pinching, operationally inept, career chasers. Some are – not me obviously (!) – but most have rich operational histories and equally complex relationships with officers of all ranks. Think of Peter JamesRoy Grace and Glenn Branson characters. They go back a long way and the way they are in public versus private is very similar to Bill and I. Glenn is forever ripping into Roy about his taste in clothes, music and just about everything else, while Roy gives as good as he gets when it comes to Glenn’s driving and success with women.

What’s in a name?

Here’s something else about rank dynamics. No one ever bellowed ‘Bartlett. My Office,’ across a crowded incident room at me. In fact, I can’t remember ever being called only by my surname. It just doesn’t happen. Leaving aside the public v private relationships juniors and seniors who are mates, most senior officers address their juniors by their first name. And junior’s call anyone senior to them – above the rank of inspector – ‘sir,’ ‘ma’am,’ ‘guv’ or ‘boss.’ PCs call sergeants ‘Sarge,’ ‘skip’ or ‘sergeant.’

And, while we are at it, detectives never just refer to themselves as ‘detective.’ It’s meaningless and the equivalent of a police constable calling themselves ‘police.’ How daft does that sound? It’s the rank that’s important, so they say ‘detective constable’ or ‘DC’, ‘detective sergeant’ or ‘DS’ etc. Oh and, to avoid confusion Detective Superintendents are never referred to as ‘DS’ – that’s for the real workers; the sergeants. They are D/Supts or Det Sups. Have a look at this chart to help navigate your way round the ranks.

Laughing policemen/ women

Let’s end on a lighter note. Gallows humour is and always has been the safety valve for a profession whose stock in trade is human evil and misery.

Some of the acronyms that describe the various states or liabilities of those involved in road crashes may seem insensitive. FUBAR BUNDY – F*&$£@d Up Beyond All Recovery But Unfortunately Not Dead Yet and DODI – Dead One Did It are both examples of the dark wit of all emergency service workers, but they serve a purpose in keeping them sane amid the horrors we face.

In the mortuary, both police and morticians describe the cadaver, mid-post mortem, as being ‘canoed’. Why so? Well, that is what a human body resembles when it’s been slit from neck to groin and all its internal organs removed.

More generally, police officers never miss a chance to share their colleagues’ faux pas with the team. That could range from being late for work or an assignment, mistaking someone’s gender, right through to allowing a prisoner to escape or bumping a police car in the back yard. Some of these indiscretions have formal sanctions but all are punished with more summary justice – the provision of cakes. Fines are paid in doughnuts – or other more luxurious pastries – and are due within the same shift or the following one, at the latest. The penalties double on default. If no one has erred for some time, the sergeant might invent a lapse by one of the team and fine them anyway. Cops have to eat you know.

The deeper the better

There is nothing worse in a great crime novel than a cliched or shallow cop. Police officers are human beings with the same strengths, weaknesses and relationships as anyone else. Both of my non-fiction books, Death Comes Knocking – Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton and Babes in the Wood, specifically show what it feels like to police a busy city.

Cops experience fear, dread, pain and PTSD the same as everyone. They also have to show gargantuan restraint to stem the giggles and they take the mickey out of each other to get through the day.

You will want your readers to really care about your characters so showing these states, maybe through ‘close point of view’, is essential. Don’t be afraid for them to laugh, cry, get angry or make mistakes. They all have and that’s what makes them fascinating.

Matt Jackson in G.S. Locke’s Neon is a fabulous example. The situation he finds himself is a shocking as it is bizarre. His wife has been murdered and he hates Browne, his replacement. Despite the extraordinary series of murders he finds himself investigating, then being personally involved in, his character, the way he operates and behaves is genuinely authentic in those circumstances. The author has made the reality fit with the story. It’s a masterclass!

For more on making your characters authentic, have a look at my #bartlettsbloopers or contact me through my website at https://policeadvisor.co.uk/contact/

WRITING IN THE CURRENT CRISIS

In the light of revealing my new G.S. Locke author name, I’d got a blog post all lined up to talk about pseudonyms, including the fact that, quite peculiarly in my immediate family, neither my brothers nor me have ever been called by our first Christian names by our parents, and this is not the only weird thing about me and ‘identities.’ I’ll save it, maybe, for another post. What seemed more pressing: how are writers continuing to write in the current crisis? Let’s face it, we’re only a little way into an appalling situation and sight of the ‘new normal’ looks a long way off.     

Authors, more or less, appear to split into two camps: those that welcome the opportunity, while acknowledging the crisis swirling around them, to hibernate and write, and those that are more bunny in headlights and find that they can’t concentrate at all. I’m caught in between. My next novel is with my editor so, in theory, I have nothing to create. Strangely, although the majority of the story was penned back end of last year, there’s an offbeat, much loved character that stockpiles cans of food ‘for a pandemic’. I don’t know whether this will stay in the final cut because I can’t work out whether references like this will resonate with, or turn off readers.

Similarly, a couple of authors have already been on Twitter asking whether their next novel should be written against the background of the pandemic, or pretend it never happened. It’s a really tricky one.  At times like this that I wished I felt skilled enough to write romantic fiction because I reckon this genre lends itself to a story without a single mention of Covid-19. 

Before the pandemic really took off, it was suggested that a ton of crime writers would be penning pandemic fiction. There’s a school of thought that those who’ve endured tragedy find resonance in art depicting the same. With what we’re all facing, I’m less certain. I reckon a good dollop of escapist stuff will be required, which is why I’m immersed in reading historical fiction right now.

FABULOUS BOOKS AND FILM

With coronavirus and floods, (and locusts plaguing Pakistan and parts of Africa), February has been a dismal month. But, on the reading and dramatic front, there has been no shortage of talent to shout about.

‘The Split’ led me to four straight hours of binge watching. Written by the brilliant Abi Morgan, it features a family of sisters who are divorce lawyers. The narrative follows them through the trials and tribulations of their professional and personal lives. For anyone who has had the misfortune to go through divorce, it will ring true; the script never puts a foot wrong. Acting is superb, with a strong cast that includes Nicola Morgan, Stephen Mangan and Deborah Findlay. Watch out for the genius scene in which a warring couple bellow at each other, but with the sound turned off. No need for words when their faces say it all. Be advised to have a box of tissues ready for the finale.

Late to the party, I read M.W. Craven’s rather brilliant ‘The Puppet Show.’ I loved this on so many levels. It’s dark. It’s brutal. But Craven’s original characters, in Poe and Tilly, lighten the load. It’s a totally worthy and deserving winner of the CWA Golden Dagger Award 2019. Published by Constable.

Next up, another author, Gerard O’ Donovan’s ‘The Doom List.’ Old style Hollywood glamour combined with blackmail and historical, larger than life characters, what’s not to like? I loved Tom Collins, a former cop turned PI and, naturally, of Irish descent. He’s the perfect fixer to the stars and those in a tight spot. If you want to disappear into the 1920’s, without mobiles or computers, this comes highly recommended. Published by Severn House.

Former Chief Superintendent, Graham Bartlett, has written a first-hand account of the investigation into the murders of two little girls in 1986, with best selling author, Peter James. Providing dramatic insight into the mechanics of a murder investigation, it also highlights the dogged pursuit of the police to bring a killer to justice. Published by Pan.

I had the pleasure of working with James Ellson on his novel, ‘The Trail,’ although he needed absolutely no help when it came to police procedure, as he’s a former serving police officer with Greater Manchester. Featuring beekeeper DCI Rick Castle, a missing person enquiry leads him to Nepal. What seems straightforward is anything but and Castle is faced with an unenviable moral decision. Published by Unbound Digital.

On the film front, check out ‘Hostiles’. Hands up, apart from some stunning exceptions, I’m not a massive fan of Westerns. (Perversely, I rather enjoy Western novels, notably stunners like ‘Nunslinger’ by Stark Holborn). Anyway, my other half strong-armed me to give it a go. I’m so glad he did. Cinematography is sensational, creating a picture of beautiful landscape at odds with the raw savagery that takes place within it. If you can get past the deeply upsetting inciting incident, brilliantly conveyed by Rosamund Pike when her entire family is wiped out by Rattlesnake Indians (a psychotic tribe despised by other tribes) then you are in for a powerful and thought-provoking piece of drama. There are no good guys versus bad guys. Through Christian Bale’s character, (he plays a captain tasked to take an old dying chief back to his homeland in Montana) we witness a dramatic and emotional change in his once deeply held beliefs about the enemy. It’s the kind of story that stays with you long after the credits have rolled, and comes very highly recommended.

Finally, Orion released the e-book and audio of Neon by G S Locke, the paperback to follow in July. The cover alone is enough to whet a reader’s appetite. If you’re looking for a serial killer thriller set in Birmingham, with an antagonist who writes his signature in lights, this could be just the story for you.

SLOW START

I had a slow start to 2020 for all the right reasons. I’d sent the first draft (mentioned in my last post) to my agent, which was nothing short of a miracle. Editorial work was steady and of exceptional quality, but I wasn’t rushed off my feet. A rarity, I had time to stand and stare, except I didn’t. When not walking, visiting and generally catching up on all things domestic, I read several novels, two of which stand out like shooting stars on a dark night: ‘London Rules’, by Mick Herron and the utterly sublime, ‘A Treachery of Spies’ by Manda Scott.

Already a committed fan of the ‘Slough House’ crew, I had moments during London Rules’ when I laughed out loud, but don’t be fooled by the hilarity and elegant writing. With terrorism and assassination attempts, there is plenty here that feels serious, contemporary and chilling. Plotting, as ever, is meticulous. Herron is a dab hand at persuading you to look one way when you should be staring at what’s right in front of you. Fast-paced, it’s the kind of story that you can polish off in an uninterrupted day.

‘A Treachery of Spies’ is a different beast. The story begins with a very old woman found dead in a car in France. The gruesome and puzzling circumstances of her death leads Ines Picaut, a lead detective, on a trail that travels back to the Second World War. The dual narrative is one of the brilliant aspects of the story as it switches from present day France to the activities of the British and the Maquis during the French resistance. To say I was gripped was an understatement. The story resonated more strongly as I’d read Damien Lewis’s ‘The Nazi Hunters’ last year.

As the title suggests, betrayal and the difficulties of who to trust in a situation, in which one false move can mean a swift death sentence, (if you’re lucky) powers the narrative. Consequently, Scott’s cast of characters are intriguing and complex, and tension is on a knife-edge throughout. At times, I wanted my imagination to shut down such is the brutality displayed towards those caught by the Nazis, as well as those French deemed to be collaborators by their countrymen. It’s a massive tribute to Scott’s writing that she tells it how it was, without gratuitousness or sensationalism. While the story may be fictional, the courage and commitment of those who fought against occupation and a cruel invader are never in doubt. But this is not a tale of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Human frailty on all sides is laid bare in unflinching detail. If espionage is your thing, go and buy.

DISPATCHES FROM THE WRITING SHED

This blog post should really be called ‘Vive la France’ because there’s a whole French thing going on, starting with the French cop drama ‘Spiral,’ which returned to our screens with a seventh season this month. It seemed grittier and more gripping (not easy to say) than ever. If you haven’t already caught it, I urge you to do so. The characters leap off the screen and the plot lines are always varied, twisty and compelling.

As mentioned last time, ‘The Nazi Hunters’ by Damien Lewis was next on my reading list. As the title suggests the story is about a secret SAS unit and the quest to track down Hitler’s war criminals, many of which had flouted the Geneva Convention and executed captured SAS soldiers. But this is not simply a tale of ‘derring-do’. The extraordinary courage and heroism shown by the French who did so much to protect the British during the invasion and occupation of their country is astonishing – and for which they paid an extraordinarily heavy price. Of some 1,000 villagers in Moussey and its surrounding valley, who were seized and shipped off to concentration camps, 661 would never return. It’s a sobering tale but it’s also one that leaves you with the conviction that, whatever madness and cruelty is inflicted, good people will always triumph.

In my last blog post, I promised to give you a little more information about my brief (very brief) foray into TV. In November, I’m appearing in ‘Everything is Connected – George Eliot’s life,’ a new Arena documentary directed by artist Gillian Wearing on BBC 4. Transmission time has yet to be revealed so my lips are sealed, especially as I have absolutely no idea how much of my participation will actually translate to screen. More anon.

Other than this, I’ve been flat out writing, which is why this post is so brief. However, attending an art exhibition in a church some weeks ago, we glanced up and spotted the order of hymns. 007, huh? Surprising ‘The Saint’ didn’t put in an appearance!