There has been plenty of captivating fiction that I’ve enjoyed this year, in the crime genre and beyond. Some of my favourites were new releases and others a little older, but here’s a rundown of what gripped me the most, in no particular order…
Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, by Adrian McKinty
The latest Detective Sean Duffy thriller, this is a real page-turner and one of the best in this deeply atmospheric series set in Belfast during the height of The Troubles. The best thing about the Duffy books is that McKinty’s not afraid to age his main characters and evolve their lives, and there was a very different dynamic to this sixth instalment with Duffy’s baby daughter, Emma, along for the ride.
Black Widow, by Chris Brookmyre
It’s been a while since I’ve read any Chris Brookmyre and this novel sees the return of his famed protagonist, discredited hack Jack Parlabane. This time he’s being asked to investigate the suspected death of a recently married IT guru by the victim’s sister, as domestic noir meets intriguing mystery. There are many twists, some more convincing than others, as the plot unravels but Parlabane’s tenacity and human intelligence gives the story real drive.
Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout
This is a wonderful collection of intertwining stories set in the same Illinois rural town as Strout’s previous novel, My Name is Lucy Barton. Revisiting some of those characters, including the narrator, we’re treated to a fuller understanding of incidents given a passing mention in the previous book and a wider scope of these people’s dramatic, disturbing and sometimes surprising lives. Each story comes across as genuine and poignant, with elegant touches of light humour and dark sorrow timed to perfection.
In Sunlight or in Shadow, edited by Lawrence Block
Now this is something truly original – an anthology of short stories, each inspired by a particular painting of the great Edward Hopper. Contributors include Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Connelly, Megan Abbott, Jeffery Deaver, Lee Child, and Block himself. Each story comes illustrated with a colour reproduction of the painting that instigated it, with authors given freedom to interpret Hopper’s ambiguous and stirring narratives as they see fit – and the results are awesome.
Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
Lehane, a doyen of urban crime/mob writing, turns his hand to more of a psychological and domestic thriller this time, following the downward spiral – and spirited recovery – of a former TV newswoman, Rachel Childs, who marries someone she goes on to fundamentally distrust. It’s something of a departure from Lehane’s back catalogue but it works, the main character’s complex history adding a rich layer of context and drama to a powerful tale.
Eureka Dunes, by Philip Davison
I’ve been a fan of Philip Davison since his Harry Fielding quartet in the early noughties, and this novel is a moving tale of Magnus Sparling, a high-powered Whitehall civil servant who’s called home to Dublin after his father, Edwin, is accused of attempting to poison his wife. The narrative flits between the present day and Magnus’ childhood, including an eloquent depiction of a road trip taken by Edwin and a 14-year-old Magnus through the deserts of California, as the bonds of family life are delicately exposed and tested.
Race to the bottom, by Chris Rhatigan
Rhatigan has a real gift for portraying troubled characters whose choices go on to make their lives spectacularly worse. In this sharp and humorous read, Roy – a borderline alcoholic trapped in a menial job – is dragged into the middle of a murder investigation after a night out with his drug-dealing friend Banksy goes awry. Rhatigan’s visceral prose and rapid plotting makes for one hell of an entertaining read.
All the Old Knives, by Olen Steinhauer
I’d been meaning to get around to this one since its release in 2015, and I’m glad I finally did as it’s another triumph from a talented spy novelist who does a magnificent job of bringing out the human details of espionage. CIA case officer Henry Pelham pays a visit to former colleague and lover, Celia Harrison, who’s since quit to lead a quiet family life in California, in an effort to discover more about a terrorist-hostage crisis in Vienna that ended disastrously six years ago. The tension as they relive the past over dinner in a fancy restaurant is exquisite, and the twist ending sublime.
Green Hell, by Ken Bruen
The 11th in the Jack Taylor series, Bruen’s bitter, alcohol-fuelled PI is back for more, this time taking on a respected but violent professor of literature at the University of Galway. He gets a little help from Emerald, an edgy young goth woman who makes an extravagant appearance. No one writes with such wickedly poetic prose as Bruen, a unique master of the crime fiction trade.
The Highway Kind, edited by Patrick Millikin
We finish off with a thrilling batch of short stories based around cars, driving and the open road – a vibrant, and not to mention uncomfortable, study of American life through its national obsession of the automobile. Contributors such as C.J. Box, George Pelecanos, Diana Gabaldon, James Sallis, Sara Gran, Willy Vlautin and Joe Lansdale give us tales of a car salesman facing the wrath of a psychotic customer, desperate con men, lost youths, wild Apache youth, astonishing road rage and a Mexican drug lord who drives a modified VW bus.
But a couple of years now after shelling out on a Kindle Paperwhite, I’ve learnt to appreciate the benefits and accept the drawbacks of digital reading.
With surveys highlighting a recent decline in ebook sales in the UK, the impact of digital reading is becoming a lot more interesting now we’re past the initial ‘new wave’ phenomenon. So now seems an appropriate time to reflect on my pros and cons of ebook and paper reading…
Ebooks – the pros
Storage: I no longer have to sweat about the prospect of squeezing yet another bookcase into the spare bedroom.
Portability: The days of allowing enough space – and weight, if flying abroad – in the suitcase for books when packing for a holiday are over.
More flexible reading experience: When lying in bed or reclining on a sun lounger, an ebook is without doubt easier to hold than a paper book that is typically twice as wide and usually requires two hands.
Cost: They’re cheaper than traditional books (although in many cases not as cheap as they used to be).
Ebooks – the cons
Imagery: They’re black and white, diluting the important pleasure of fully admiring the front cover or any images inside.
Checking back: I just need to go back a couple of chapters – or was it a few more? – to remember an incident or minor character that’s returned to the action. I use the scroller at the bottom of the page to guess where it is I need to jump back to, but it takes time – I’m hopping around only able to see one page at a time. Flicking back through physical pages seems to give me a quicker and firmer steer of a narrative’s history.
Sifting through the archives: I often delve into books I may have read months or years before just to recall a particular passage. It’s much nicer (and easier, I find) to browse the spines on the bookshelves, pluck out the book I need and skim through the pages rather than scroll through my electronic library of previous books in order of purchase. Searching through previously read books on an e-reader just feels like a more laborious, soulless process.
Progress just isn’t a percentage thing: Mmm, I’m 63% of the way through a book. Although I appreciate the mathematical accuracy, I much prefer to gauge how far I am through a story by judging the weight of the tome in my hands, or closing it with a bookmark in place and checking out the top-of-the-page edges.
Paper books – the pros
Physicality: Any paper book is an actual thing that was printed, bought and sold (perhaps many times over), and is in your possession for however long you wish. Each and every book is an artefact, with its own look, feel and smell; each mark, blotch, fade or fold making it unique. It’s also available for you to consume whenever you like, just by flipping the cover. There are no batteries to run down or technical hitches. Once my e-reader froze and wouldn’t re-start properly for a couple of days.
Screen break: Like many of us, I spend all of my working day in front of an electronic screen. Yes e-readers come with a smart light setting that can be dimmed in dark rooms to help your eyes, but there’s nothing quite like reading for pleasure while giving yourself a screen break.
Sharing: You can swap and share favourite or recommended reads when meeting up with friends and family, adding a social element to your reading experience.
Casual ownership: If you’re on the beach and fancy a dip in the sea, you feel pretty easy about leaving a paper book by your lounger while you wander out of sight. It’s difficult to take that casual approach with a £100+ device that holds much of your library.
Paper books – the cons
You need light: At night, you have to turn on a light or bedside lamp and risk disturbing your partner.
No choice on presentation: Some books just seem to come with an ugly font or a too small/large type size – and you can’t do anything about it. With ebooks, you can adjust all of that to suit your liking.
The waiting game: Unless you’re in a bookshop (and there’s obviously not many of those left), you can’t just decide to buy a book and then have it seconds later, unlike when ordering an ebook with literally just one click. When ordering a paper book online, more often than not you’re waiting a few days, or sometimes weeks, and at the mercy of the mail delivery companies.
Bad for the environment: There’s no getting away from the fact that, even in these times of sophisticated recycling schemes, the production of paper and ink for printing has a harmful effect on the environment. How this compares to the greenhouse gas emissions of e-readers, however, is up for debate.
Which side are you on? Drop me a line at @PaulJGadsby to discuss the ebook v hard copies debate.[Top]
I like this: anarchic crime fiction publisher Fahrenheit Press has launched an open – and I mean truly open – short story competition.
The ‘hot punk’ (its own words) publishing house launched with a swagger in 2015 and is doing a mighty fine job of releasing fresh, invigorating titles with a dashing verve to its marketing – just when an attitude like that is so badly needed in global publishing.
As well as taking a punt and giving brand new authors a spotlight, Fahrenheit is also doing its bit for the crime genre business in general – rescuing some of the books left for dead by the now defunct 280 Steps, giving them a new lease of life.
Founded by international publishing veteran Chris McVeigh, the company’s approach is nicely summed up in the final bullet point of its submission guidelines: If you want to be treated like a delicate little snowflake we’re definitely NOT the publisher for you – try Faber & Faber, they’re lovely.
And now Fahrenheit is running a competition open to anyone – yes, anyone – with the top 12 short stories to be published in a collection titled Noirville. The five-strong judging panel is made up of four independent bloggers and Fahrenheit author Jo Perry.
This is the kind of thing that could easily have been set up on the inside – Fahrenheit has published and established some mega-talented authors and would be well within its rights to circulate this concept to them and get the anthology done more swiftly through an invitation-only process with known and trusted contributors.
But true to its innovative ideals, the gig is open to any writers who fancy taking a chance and submitting a story. Interested? Full details and submission guidelines can be found here.[Top]
If you appreciate words, stories and style, there’s nothing quite like sitting down and reading Ernest Hemingway, who died on this day in 1961. His opening passages in particular were simply masterful – so here are 6 of his best, and why…
Revered for his economy of words, Hemingway’s writing style has been widely imitated over the years but never quite matched.
In much the same way that an elegant Roger Federer backhand makes playing tennis look easy, Hemingway’s polished, understated prose makes the art of creative writing look simplistic, when of course it’s anything but.
The deceptive ease and rhythmic control he had over his craft is evident from how he started his works. The beginnings of his short stories and novels give you an instant feel that you are about to read something special from a unique and authoritative voice. Here are my top 6 Hemingway opening lines:
It was late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. A Clean, Well-lighted Place
This graceful short story, first published in the New York-based periodical ‘Scribner’s Magazine’ in 1933, depicts how two waiters – one old, one young – gossip about a deaf old man who doesn’t want to leave their café as closing time passes. The haunting loneliness of the old man, and the intrusive scrutiny his life is about to come under from the waiters who want to close up for the night, is immediately made clear, igniting a vivid narrative to come.
It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened. The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
Wow, something clearly has just happened (an event which threatens to mark the proud, high-society protagonist as a coward, as it turns out) in this safari trip tale laced with fear, adultery and tragedy. Hemingway, who loved hunting in Africa, knew all the technical details to make this fascinating but vicious terrain his natural home, and in this short story he lets the pressure build to an exquisite climax.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. The Old Man and the Sea
So we have the central protagonist, his main problem and his objective all in the first line. Not bad, eh? This is a prime example of Hemingway’s economical style. Each word is given its appropriate weight as he cuts to the bone of the story and the human condition about to be explored. What Hemingway often had to say wasn’t simple – but had to look it, and this unembroidered opening line is a perfect way of introducing us to what unfolds as a nuanced, emotive struggle of a Cuban fisherman. This short novel, the last major fictional work of Hemingway’s published in his lifetime, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and a year later was a contributing factor to him being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The attack had gone across the field, been held up by machine-gun fire from the sunken road and from the group of farmhouses, encountered no resistance in the town, and reached the bank of the river. A Way You’ll Never Be
What I love about this intro is the simple picture it paints, and although it’s in the past tense it feels charged with motion. Hemingway liked to cut the adverbs and any superfluous flourish in order to detach himself from his stories, to let them radiate purity and speak for themselves. This opening line to a short story set in World War One achieves a beautiful balance of the descriptive and the plain. Even in tales like this where Hemingway dealt with the impact of war and violence, springing from his military experience (he served in the Great War for the ambulance service on the Italian front aged 18), he managed to use few words – terse ones at that – to convey themes of life and death.
He came into the room to shut the windows while we were still in bed and I saw he looked ill. A Day’s Wait
A fine example of an intriguing opening line that hooks us into a story of a nine-year-old boy’s escalating illness during a cold winter, and his father’s difficulty in convincing his son that he will recover. Once again each and every word delicately states its own case. Like much of his work related to death, Hemingway’s writing in this piece carries no sentiment whatsoever, the prose always lean and hard (but never stretching into hard-boiled) and leaving so much of the father-son relationship unsaid, thereby intensifying the emotion.
It wasn’t about anything, something about making punch, and then we started fighting and I slipped and he had me down kneeling on my chest and choking me with both hands like he was trying to kill me and all the time I was trying to get the knife out of my pocket to cut him loose. After the Storm
Hemingway often liked to repeat the word ‘and’ in close succession rather than employ a comma. The effect this had was to convey immediacy and to portray a series of startling images at pace, which is particularly the case in this starkly visual opening line. The almost childlike vigour of this sentence leaves us little room to breathe, heightening the drama and the curiosity.
Another link to Ernest Hemingway on this site can be found in my article 7 of the most underrated short stories ever, which features his work, The Killers.[Top]
While it’s never a resounding shock to hear of an independent publishing company shutting down, it was nevertheless a pretty hefty kick in the teeth to hear about the recent closure of 280 Steps.
This savvy and ambitious indie launched in 2014, specialising in a range of crime fiction from hardboiled noir to mysteries and thrillers. As well as publishing established writers and re-issuing out-of-print pulp classics from around the globe, it made a sterling effort to scour the shadows for the rising stars, the fresh new voices that would inspire the next generation.
And boy did those new voices come; Eric Beetner, Andrew Nette, Jake Hinkson, Josh K Stevens, Rob Kitchin and Eryk Pruitt among them, lighting up the contemporary crime fiction scene with their crisp, gritty stories that gorged readers’ appetites for original themes that defined the times.
Not only was the writing taut and absorbing, the books came wrapped in dishy, retro cover art that 280 Steps made its mantra. They didn’t just stick to novels either, never afraid to take a punt on short story collections and novellas, in traditional and e-book formats.
The 280 name was a reference taken from Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely, the second outing of iconic LA private eye Philip Marlowe. “It was a nice walk if you liked grunting. There were two hundred and eighty steps up to Cabrillo Street.”
Will we see their like again? Well there’s a few small indie publishers that carry the same ideals still about or have recently come aboard (All Due Respect, Down and Out Books, Fahrenheit Press – the latter’s savoir-faire use of social media is a particular standout delight), and hopefully more still will emerge, but there’s no doubt that the fall of 280 Steps leaves a gaping hole.
It comes off the back of another crime indie loss, Blasted Heath, the digital publisher in Scotland that shut up shop in March after a proud six-year run. The publishing industry is always changing; patterns are forever emerging and disappearing – it’s just a shame to see so many important creative businesses and talented writers fall victim to economic woes.
In today’s cut-throat world of big-boy spending power, retail domination by the (very) few and, it has to be said, people’s buying habits, especially here in the UK where many people’s idea of doing their bit for the publishing trade is splashing out on a celebrity autobiog or cook book for a relative’s Christmas present, there’s not much room for bold publishers to open their doors to unsolicited submissions, follow their gut, put their faith in unheralded names and release outstanding material.
At least everyone behind the 280 Steps venture can claim they did that.[Top]
But here are 10 fine examples where the sequel does full justice – or even enhances – a fantastic crime novel that caught the imagination. Huge success stories in their own right, you could say…
David Peace’s evocative debut novel, Nineteen Seventy-Four, made a big impact on the British literary crime scene and his follow-up, Nineteen Seventy-Seven, gave us more of his vivid depictions of a corrupt Yorkshire police force and bleak, northern communities terrified and bewildered by the Yorkshire Ripper murders. This sequel was a standout slice of what turned out to be a four-part series labelled The Red Riding Quartet, featuring several recurring and connecting characters, the flaws and fights of all them beautifully described in relentless, unyielding fashion.
The Big Nowhere
If The Black Dahlia turned James Ellroy into one of the hottest crime writers around in 1987, his sequel to it a year later, The Big Nowhere, elevated his status to one of the most powerful literary voices in crime fiction history. An engrossing tale of disgraced detectives, alcoholic anti-heroes, Hollywood Communists and a brutal sex murderer set against the backdrop of a post-war Los Angeles smeared with greed, deception and paranoia, this is a disturbing masterpiece.
I describe James Sallis’ scintillating short novel Drive elsewhere on this site as ‘a work dripping with existential minimalism, taut plotting, brutal hostility and sharp-witted dialogue’ and the book’s main character, the ‘Driver’, a Hollywood stunt driver by day and a wily getaway wheelman for the LA criminal underworld by night, returns in Driven. This is a classic sequel that, set seven years later, digs deeper into the instinctive make-up of this cryptic hero while taking the reader on a glorious ride. Modern noir at its finest.
The Dead Yard
Adrian McKinty’s stunning novel Dead I Well May Be introduced us to Belfast-born Michael Forsythe, an ambitious and resourceful lackey for a New York mob who, after being double-crossed big time, grows up fast into a cool and cunning killer. Five years later in The Dead Yard Forsythe is infiltrating an IRA sleeper cell in New England, living by his wits, falling in love and killing time and time again in order to stay alive. Few thrillers, if any, are written with such convincing action sequences as this rip-roaring read.
Ripley Under Ground
Patricia Highsmith’s wonderful follow-up to The Talented Mr Ripley is a fantastic psychological thriller and also a fine example of re-visiting a defining character in a very different setting to how they were introduced. The days of posing as Dickie Greenleaf behind him, Ripley is now living with a stylish – and of course wealthy – wife in rural France and running an art forgery scam, but after being exposed faces an enthralling battle to maintain his lavish Continental lifestyle and his freedom.
Farewell, My Lovely
Raymond Chandler brings back LA private eye Philip Marlowe in this 1940 sequel to The Big Sleep. This glorious book oozes style with an array of dazzling dialogue as Marlowe gets dragged into a murder that leads to a gang of jewel thieves, city corruption and a whole lot more murders. No wonder it was adapted for the screen three times.
Live and Let Die
This second James Bond book is a classic that builds on the momentum of Ian Fleming’s debut hit, Casino Royale. A lightning quick plot taking in striking locations such as Harlem, Florida and Jamaica together with some sharp characterisation allows readers to get deeper under the skin of this fascinating secret agent. The tone of this book, released in 1954, is heavier than the first as Fleming does a terrific job of placing Bond at the heart of these formative Cold War years, as well as in the middle of tense Anglo-American relations.
Irish writer Philip Davison introduced reclusive MI5 understrapper Harry Fielding in The Crooked Man in 1998, and three years later brought him back in McKenzie’s Friend, a delightful novel exploring Harry’s complex relationship with his arrogant employers, his dementia-stricken father and his old mate Alfie, a bent cop who’s about to drag Harry deep into the mire.
Live by Night
Dennis Lehane’s epic follow-on to The Given Day, this is heavyweight crime fiction at its hard-hitting best. Joe Coughlin turns from small-time thief to big-time outlaw in 1920s Boston in this sprawling journey of violence, betrayal, love and pain. One of those rare examples of a long book that’s quick to read.
Cal Innes, our damaged hero from Saturday’s Child, has left his PI business behind to take on a caretaker’s job at a Manchester boxing club in this cross-Atlantic classic by Ray Banks. Shepherding/babysitting promising amateur pugilist Liam to a tournament in Los Angeles, Innes gets more than he bargained for when he discovers the competition is fixed by the kind of sinister underworld types he thought he’d left behind in the gritty north.
Honourable mentions must also go to the following sequels – some outside of my treasured crime fiction genre – that nearly broke into the top 10 (and funnily enough make a top 20):
Closing Time, Joseph Heller’s follow-up to Catch 22
The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy’s sequel to All the Pretty Horses
Imperial Bedrooms, the follow-up to American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
The Killing of the Tinkers, Ken Bruen’s sequel to The Guards
The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend’s follow-up to the best-selling The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole
The Sicilian, regarded as Mario Puzo’s literary sequel to The Godfather
Porno, Irvine Welsh brings Renton and Co back 10 years after Trainspotting
Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s sequel – or earlier draft, depending on your take – of To Kill a Mockingbird
The Lost World, Michael Crichton’s follow-up to Jurassic Park
Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s sequel to Wolf Hall.
I see the Irish crime novelist as one of the finest modern noir writers around, and although he’s won some prestigious international awards (two Shamus gongs, a Macavity and a Barry Award) he deserves to be acclaimed on a much wider scale, way beyond the kudos of the crime fiction elite. If anyone’s writing should be breaking through into the mainstream to be enjoyed by a lot more people all over the globe, it’s his.
Born in Galway in 1951, Bruen was an early reader but it was a while before he got published. After completing a PhD in metaphysics he spent 25 years teaching English in Africa, South East Asia and South America, his time in the latter marred by an incident that has haunted him – and his creative output – ever since. In Brazil he was wrongly imprisoned, tortured and raped. When a traumatised Bruen was released, he weighed six stones.
Put on a plane to London, he set up roots in Brixton and blended his rich, stark experiences with a long-nurtured edgy writing style and black humour to create his debut novel, Funeral. Bruen harnessed his craft and in 2001 released The Guards, the first Jack Taylor novel, his most well-known series.
An alcoholic ex-Guard (fired from Ireland’s police force in disgrace of course), Taylor is a private detective by default and, through a mixture of tenacity, luck, intuitive investigative skills and a heartfelt loyalty to his clients, often rundown and desperate themselves, he becomes dangerously good at it. Bruen really gets Taylor, the authentic first-person prose making Taylor’s drunk-philosopher-slash-vengeful-anti-hero persona appear preposterously real. In fact, a more genuine, flawed character you’re unlikely to find.
Bruen eventually moved back to Galway, where the Taylor books are set, and has since created the Brant series, based on a psychotic London-based cop and penned several exceptional standalone works, the highlights being American Skin, Tower and London Boulevard, the latter adapted into a film starring Colin Farrell and Keira Knightly.
Bruen’s narratives are dripping with hard-boiled intent from the off. Some of his intros go way beyond hooking the reader in, they damn near weld your eyes to the page. Here are just a few examples that carry terrific bite as well as disturbing intrigue:
“Am I dying?”
Answer that. Do you lie big and say, like in the movies, “Naw, it’s just a scratch”? Or clutch his hand real tight and say, “I ain’t letting you go, bro’,”? (The McDead)
The blast took her face off. (Her Last Call to Louis MacNeice)
Griffin coughed blood into my face when I made to slip the chains under his shoulders. (Tower)
It took them a time to crucify the kid. (Cross).
The intensity rarely dips, his chapters short, his sentences rapid and his prose muscular, his output always wonderfully original. Bruen’s habit of defining his protagonists by their cultural tastes – often declared through listing their favourite music, films, books, clothes or cuisine – has also won him many fans.
The glowing reviews will keep coming, but it’s high time this champion of the crime genre was hailed as a great of modern fiction worldwide.[Top]
It’s been another year of cracking reads and scintillating crime fiction, so I thought I’d share my favourite books – some new, some not so new – that I’ve read during 2015. In no particular order and all that…
Love you to a Pulp, by C.S. DeWildt
This for me was one of the hits of the year – a bold, quick-fire slice of American rural noir that never stops for breath. Neil Chambers, a glue-sniffing, hard-hitting private detective scythes and stumbles his way through the Kentucky countryside trying to solve the murder of Hoon, the boyfriend of a client’s daughter. Competing with an assortment of scammers and thugs – not least his former colleagues at the local police station – to get to the truth, Chambers drags himself through the depths of despair on a colossal journey. Interspersed with some graphic flashbacks to Chambers’ cruel and violent upbringing, Love you to a Pulp is a haunting and chaotic classic that has drawn fair comparisons with noir master Jim Thompson.
Hidden, by Emma Kavanagh
A stirring psychological thriller, this book is a triumph thanks to the author’s choice of format in unravelling a compelling story. A gunman goes on a shooting spree in a hospital canteen. We then rewind a week and experience the build-up to this tragedy not just inside the head of the killer but also from a journalist, a psychologist and a firearms officer. Multi-viewpoint fiction doesn’t always maximise the drama of a narrative, but in this case Kavanagh pulls it off in style.
The Axeman’s Jazz, by Ray Celestin
Based on the true story of a serial killer who terrorised New Orleans in 1919, this atmospheric novel is a fine example of a specific time and place being explored in such intricate detail that the setting becomes a vivid and absorbing character itself. This charismatic city is harnessing the art of jazz music against the backdrop of WW1-returning soldiers, frayed race relations on the vibrant streets and the rise of the mafia. We follow three very different detectives all vying to unmask a violent killer who strikes at random, gleefully slicing apart innocent families. Who’s going to crack the case becomes more interesting than who the murderer is in this ambitious, evocative debut. And there’s even a place for a young Louis Armstrong.
Matador, by Ray Banks
Ex-bullfighter Raf survives life-threatening injuries to come back and take on an ageing British gang of mobsters who thought they’d finished him off in the Costa del Sol. I love Ray Banks; he writes gritty crime with such authority and strikes at the heart of what’s really personal about each of his characters, making their actions always seem truly believable because they’re utterly in line with their gut fears and aspirations. He nails the Spanish setting (a far cry from his traditional northern England locations), the Tarantino-esque quest for revenge and the cat-and-mouse thrills, while the massacre at the end is just glorious.
The Deepening Shade, by Jake Hinkson
A wonderful collection of thought-provoking short stories, Hinkson explores not just the dark side of humanity here but also the resilient one. His range of damaged, hardy and farcical characters include a heartbroken alcoholic cop trying to prevent Dick Cheney-masked gunman robbing a petrol station, a lesbian couple running a homeless shelter aiming to save a tragic young woman controlled by a self-proclaimed prophet, and a stripper prepared to kill a man in order to protect her sister from going to jail. Hinkson isn’t afraid to tap into heavyweight themes, religious fundamentalism being a recurring one, but he skilfully manages to give his stories a moral punch without laying the righteousness on thick.
The Drop, by Dennis Lehane
Regular readers of this site will know I’m a big fan of Lehane, and here he returns to his native streets of Boston to give us the taut tale of unassuming barman Bob Saginowski, who finds himself at the heart of a robbery gone awry at the Chechen mob-run bar where he works. The Drop is also a touching love story, and no one does unspoken emotion better than Lehane, who adapted this book from a screenplay he wrote for the film of the same name, which became famous for being James Gandolfini’s final movie.
Munich Airport, by Greg Baxter
I adored Baxter’s previous novel, The Apartment, and was delighted to see the same reflective, lyrical prose produced in this book, the story of the impact a young woman’s suicide through anorexia has on her brother (the unnamed narrator) and father. The two, now off food themselves, are stranded at Munich Airport waiting for bad weather to clear in order to fly her body home to the States. The young woman, Miriam, had been living estranged from them in Germany and the story backtracks over the last few days as the two of them search for reasons why Miriam’s life deteriorated as well as their own memories of her childhood. Gloomy, intense, but most of all rich in character, this is a beautiful work.
Two Bullets Solve Everything, by Ryan Sayles and Chris Rhatigan
A nice little collection of two briskly-paced novellas here; one good, the other outstanding. In Disco Rumble Fish, Ryan Sayles guides us through a SWAT team’s dramatic operation to home in on a criminal who aided a mobster’s violent jailbreak, in which an officer was killed. In Chris Rhatigan’s A Pack of Lies, corrupt local newspaper reporter Lionel Kasper gets in way too deep after being forced into a badly-hashed murder in order to protect his crooked methods. Kasper is a resourceful but sly loser of the highest order, and the powerful voice that Rhatigan gives him works a treat.
The Rainbird Pattern, by Victor Canning
Winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 1972, I read this charming and intriguing caper for the first time this year and loved it. Wealthy old spinster Miss Rainbird offers her spiritual medium Blanche Tyler a wad of cash to locate her long-lost illegitimate nephew, Edward Shoebridge. Blanche and her boyfriend George Lumley take the job on, only to find Shoebridge is making a ton of money for himself by kidnapping high-profile people across southern England and collecting tidy ransoms for their safe return, and he’s in no mood to be discovered by two chancers. The story was later adapted for the screen as Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot.
11:22:63, by Stephen King
Time travel isn’t really something that has gripped me before within the realms of literature, but this book is a striking exception. King is a genius, of course, but in this tale his writing scaled heights I’ve never witnessed from him before as he lifts this story vividly to life. As ever, it’s all in the tiny details, and his creation of a time portal in the pantry of a diner that sends people back to 1958 is a wonderfully persuasive piece of imagination. Bored school teacher Jake Epping sets himself the task of travelling back in time to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating JFK in Dallas in ’63, which is a heck of a plot to draw anyone in. The only downside is, like much of King’s work, it’s too long and he could have cut 200 pages out of this dense tome and not lost a jot of drama.
One of the most important aspects of fiction writing, dialogue is an area that often sorts the wheat from the chaff in authors.
Many can excel in areas of plotting, character development or harnessing elegant prose, but all too often it’s the dialogue that trips them up, that takes that crucial edge away from their otherwise carefully drawn characters.
But not for Leonard. Never. The guy always seemed to know exactly where to drop what words in to each line of dialogue for maximum effect. He played with speech in technical ways that no one else could, using comma splices, stark tension shifts, mangles of half-truths and cross-purposes that enriched his characters and brought their voices – together with their fears and dreams – to life.
For many writers, their dialogue ends up – at best – backing up their character creations, enforcing what they predominantly express through their prose. But Leonard used speech in itself as a sheer driving force to hook readers in, to move a story forward, to build suspense, to spring a surprise or to fashion a knockout ending.
He started out publishing westerns in the 1950s, not because he desperately wanted to write them but because he saw it as an under-crowded genre where he could carve out a reputation for himself and build a platform for his career. Thankfully his confidence – and growing talent – led him to concentrate on the natural flows and spurs of his writing rather than any commercial considerations and he turned his hand to crime writing.
1974’s 52 Pick Up was an early classic along with Unknown Man No. 89 (1977) and City Primeval, published in 1980. Leonard’s major breakthrough came five years later with the sublime Glitz, and he went through a period in the late 80s/early 90s when he was simply untouchable. Adored by his readers and revered by his peers, he sold millions of his books while earning constant respect from the literary elite, his standout hits being Freaky Deaky (1988), Get Shorty (1990) and 1992’s Rum Punch, later adapted into the Tarantino gem Jackie Brown.
Many of those crime novels were set in Detroit, where he spent the prime years of his life, and he later earned the nickname ‘The Dickens of Detroit’ for his accurate and intimate portrayals of people from that vibrant city.
One of the most popular and prolific writers of all time, Leonard had chalked up 45 novels along with dozens of screenplays and short stories before his death in 2013.
He could do gritty, funny, plucky and nasty in roughly equal measure, and he offered a glimpse into his creative insight when publishing his ‘10 Rules of Writing’ which included the delightful nuggets ‘Never use the word suddenly’ and ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’.
Nice one, Elmore. We miss you.[Top]
Where would crime fiction be without all the murders, eh? Those dead bodies turning up don’t just give our rugged detective heroes a reason to get out of bed, they also serve as a catalyst, in one way or another, for a destructive journey to hell for those most alluring of fictional characters – the killers themselves.
Whether it’s shrewd spies, hardened PIs, cocky mobsters, vile serial killers, ice-cool marksmen, good guys caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or outright psychos, captivating killers keep us turning the page.
So here’s a quick rundown of my most fascinating fictional killers – taken from an assortment of works from classic crime novels and gritty noir cynicism to an eclectic range of modern thrillers.
Okay then, let’s start off with a biggie. Thomas Harris went long and deep to create a truly three-dimensional character here, with Lecter’s backstory, charisma, intelligence, passion and repulsive scope of evil feeling utterly convincing every time you read any of the four novels he features in. The various screen portrayals of the main man, from the chilling Anthony Hopkins to the enthralling Mads Mikkelsen, have only added to the legend.
One of the greats of modern noir, Forsythe is the hero – or anti-hero – of Adrian McKinty’s trilogy of books Dead I Well May Be, The Dead Yard and The Bloomsday Dead. We first meet him as a young illegal immigrant working for a New York crime boss, having fled the Troubles in his native Belfast. But through a series of ruthless double-crosses, global-wide revenge missions and cruel heartbreaks, Forsythe grows up fast. His cunning, coolness and bravery (not many can survive having a foot amputated in a Mexican jungle), not to mention his razor-sharp survival instincts, make him one of the most fascinating protagonists ever created.
Horrifying, shocking… and ultimately transfixing, in American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis introduced us to one of the most brutal and bizarre serial killers of all time – as well as providing an effective social commentary on life amongst New York’s wealthy executive elite in the 1980s. Bateman is one sick, frenzied dude – a sadistic monster in a designer suit in fact – and it all makes for gripping reading.
Immortalised by Michael Caine in the film Get Carter, Jack Carter was the creation of Lincolnshire author Ted Lewis, first appearing in the 1970 British noir novel Jack’s Return Home and later featuring in two prequel novels. Carter leaps out of these stark books that wonderfully depict criminal life and attitudes to respectability within a hardened sub-section of society in the north of England. An uncompromising mob enforcer seeking revenge for his brother’s murder, Carter’s style is swift and merciless – and we’re with him every step of the way. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me is still talked about today as one of the finest literary examples of a warped mind constructed in the first person. Lou Ford, a 29-year-old deputy sheriff in a small Texas town, does an impeccable job of presenting himself as a regular, unremarkable cop to the locals. Impeccable because beneath that façade he’s an absolute nutcase – a depraved sociopath with sadistic sexual leanings who can’t stop killing people in order to cover his tracks.
One of the most skilled snipers in fiction, the unnamed English professional assassin codenamed ‘The Jackal’ – hired by French right-wing militant group OAS to kill Charles de Gaulle – was the most riveting component of Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal. Skilfully woven by Forsyth, who keeps the assassin’s background intriguingly sketchy, the Jackal is patient, methodical, multi-lingual, not to mention tough, as effective with his bare hands as he is with a rifle. His character is explored with perfect brevity by an author who executes the ‘show don’t tell’ technique with aplomb.
One of the most iconic villains in the history of fiction, Corleone grows from a youngster with an honest American dream to the head of his family’s mafia empire in Mario Puzo’s 1969 classic The Godfather. He later plays a secondary role in The Sicilian, while Al Pacino obviously took the character to legendary status in the movie trilogy. One of the most compelling factors about Corleone is that he never wanted to be a mob boss in the first place, wanting to lead a simple life with his girlfriend, Kay, but destiny took him to the big gig and in turn gave him a tragic hero appeal.
Martin Michael Plunkett
The frightening first-person protagonist of James Ellroy’s introspective thriller Killer on the Road (initially published in America as Silent Terror in 1986), Plunkett is a child genius who comes from a broken home and graduates from disturbing fantasist to peeping Tom to fetish burglar to schizophrenic serial killer over the course of several years. Many elements of his young adult life, especially the peeping Tom sections, are based on Ellroy’s own criminal experiences, and the unnerving intimacy of the writing results in a powerful read.
The brooding, tragic, indignant, sporadically violent but ultimately tender-hearted recurring lead character of Irish author Ken Bruen’s fine hard-boiled series, Jack Taylor is a private eye who sticks up for society’s lost and beaten souls, solving mysteries with a burning sense of justice and a deft splash of human intuition.
We sign off with a serial killer of a different kind – Serge Storms, the star of Tim Dorsey’s wacky satirical thrillers set in Florida. Inspired by fellow Florida-based comic writer Carl Hiaasen, Dorsey launched his Serge Storms series in 1999 and if you haven’t already it’s well worth joining the ride. Serge, who has been diagnosed with several mental illnesses, bursts into a fit of rage whenever he sees people abuse what he is intensely passionate about – namely the environmental backdrop of his beloved Florida – and promptly dispatches his scrupulous sense of justice. An impulsive vigilante, he commits several creative and intricate murders, many of his victims being disrespectful lowlife criminals, making him one of the most flawed but magnetic murderous character around.
Think I’ve missed anyone? Let me know at @PaulJGadsby[Top]
My debut crime thriller, a fictional account of the real-life theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy from Westminster Central Hall in 1966, was reviewed by footballbookreviews.com, a website that delivers passionate coverage of original, thought-provoking and independent football-related literature in various forms.
The review adds to the overwhelmingly positive reception Chasing the Game has received since its release in 2014. A summary of how the novel has been received by literary critics, including media reviewers and established crime fiction bloggers, can be found here, while a round-up of what readers think of the book is available by clicking here.
The full review of Chasing the Game by footballbookreviews.com can be found here, but segments of it are below:
“In Chasing the Game Paul Gadsby provides a fictional account of the events around the robbery and the subsequent recovery of the trophy. As such the football element is only a minor thread in a book which is essentially a crime thriller.
“Gadsby provides an atmospheric depiction of London in the 1960s, where gangster Dale Blake is battling with discontentment amongst the ranks and an unhappy home life. The theft of the trophy and the hoped-for ransom money are seen by Dale as a way to sort out the problems he is encountering in his life.
“This is a read which is in parts gritty as it explores the murky world of gangsters, but which also has a softer side as it explores through the central character Dale a number of areas including family relationships, leadership, power and respect… Gadsby provides an entertaining and well-paced read in relation to a fictional exploration of the events in London before England’s finest footballing hour.”[Top]
Not only did he maximise a natural flair for storytelling, Fleming wrote with a finely-tuned grasp of creative prose that was by no means appreciated prior to his death in 1964, and was in fact often ridiculed by the high-brow literary elite of the day, which even included his close friends and his wife, Ann Charteris.
So, in a brief tribute to the creator of James Bond, here are five works where I feel Fleming best encapsulated his vivid mastery of espionage, betrayal and adventure, as well as his deep understanding of the human disposition.
1. Casino Royale
Fleming famously said of his work “while thrillers may not be literature with a capital L, it is possible to write what I can best describe as ‘thrillers designed to be read as literature’.”
Unfortunately not everyone agreed, and the release of Casino Royale, Fleming’s 1953 debut novel and the moment British secret service agent James Bond strode imperiously into the world, was met with mixed reviews.
Set in the opulent fictional casino town of Royale-les-Eaux in northern France, Bond takes on charismatic gambler and Russian agent Le Chiffre with the help of Vesper Lynd, one of the most conflicted female characters Fleming ever crafted, the CIA’s Felix Leiter and French intelligence operative Rene Mathis.
Skilfully utilising his wartime experiences as a prominent member of the Naval Intelligence Division, Fleming blended a breathtaking plot and sharp writing style with an authoritative voice on the sinister, fascinating life of a spy.
Dealing with themes of deception, fear and not to mention torture (one standout scene in particular), Casino Royale also casts an astute light on Britain’s position in the world at that delicate time, particularly its tense relationships with the USA and Russia in those formative Cold War years.
It’s a slick, gripping read that I’d heartily recommend to anyone yet to read Fleming’s work. Alan Ross in The Times called it “an extremely engaging affair” while The Sunday Times likened it to the style of Eric Ambler and Time magazine to that of Raymond Chandler.
The Manchester Guardian called it “a first-rate thriller” but also labelled it “schoolboy stuff” while The Listener dismissed the champagne-guzzling, wise-cracking Bond as an “infantile” creation. Not for the first time, Fleming’s intense and emotive output was unfairly looked down upon by some as populist fodder.
2. From Russia With Love
The fifth book in the James Bond series, From Russia With Love, was released in 1957 and further explored Britain’s declining position of influence in the world as the Cold War intensified.
The Soviet counterintelligence agency SMERSH plans to assassinate Bond in a way that humiliates the British Secret Service. No fools, they send a beautiful cipher clerk in as bait to draw Bond in.
Fleming’s decision to place much of the action in Istanbul and on the Orient Express gives the book an exotic edge, while further background to Bond’s private life, including his surprising levels of self-doubt, is subtly added to enhance character development.
The taut plot also includes a cliffhanger finale, with Rosa Klebb, SMERSH head of operations, kicking Bond with a poisoned blade hidden in her shoe, causing him to lose consciousness and collapse to the floor clinging for life as the book ends.
Once again there was an air of snobbery in the reviews, Anthony Boucher describing the book as having “a veneer of literacy” but US president John F Kennedy later listed From Russia With Love as one of his favourite books, not only leading to a surge in sales, but also cementing Fleming as a major author of note Stateside.
3. The Spy Who Loved Me
This 1962 novel was a huge creative gamble by Fleming, and one that he wasn’t given enough credit for. Courageously abandoning Bond for much of the book, The Spy Who Loved Me is told by a female narrator, with Bond making a late appearance in a supporting role. Needless to say, the 1977 film version starring Roger Moore contains no elements of the book whatsoever.
The gamble was even larger considering the fact that the public’s appetite for reading about a male super hero spy, and Bond in particular, had never been higher, and the Bond franchise was about to reach astronomical levels with the release of the debut film, Dr No, that summer.
But, with his health deteriorating, Fleming decided to go for broke and lead with the voice of a female stranger, perhaps with half a mind on securing that elusive intellectual acclaim.
The story centres around Canadian Vivienne Michel who, after being educated in England, returns to North America in her early 20s and embarks on a leisurely road trip. In the Adirondack Mountains in the north of Upstate New York, she spends a stormy night looking after an empty hotel shortly to close for the winter. Two thugs arrive, and are in the midst of attacking her when Bond appears, having suffered a puncture on route from Nassau to Toronto, to save the day.
The depth of characterisation Fleming achieved with his new lead protagonist was one of his finest literary successes, and he even went as far as giving Vivienne a fictional co-author credit in the prologue.
But the brave departure from standard Bond formula jarred many fans and reviewers, and Fleming’s confidence took such a knock from the book’s poor initial reception that he attempted to block all reprints as well as a paperback edition in the UK, although such a version was published after his death. Over the years public opinion surrounding this work has become decidedly warmer.
4. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
By far the most interesting of the ‘Blofeld trilogy’, sandwiched between Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, this unique 1963 novel stands out for Fleming’s deeper unravelling of Bond’s persona.
After tracking Blofeld down to his mountain-top clinical research institute in Switzerland, Bond attempts to destroy both the centre and the resourceful villain. But the charm of this book lies in what is revealed about Bond. We read about him visiting the grave of Vesper Lynd, who had such an effect on him in Casino Royale, and he later meets and falls in love with Contessa Teresa ‘Tracy’ di Vicenzo, the daughter of a powerful crime boss.
An emotional Bond asks Tracy to marry him and so, for the only time in the Bond canon, the heroic spy ties the knot. While driving away from the ceremony, Blofeld shoots at the car from distance, killing Tracy. Bond escapes injury but is mentally scarred forever.
I’m going to finish off with a short story – Fleming wrote nine of them in the Bond series, and because I’ve already covered the best of these, The Living Daylights, in another piece on this site (7 of the most underrated short stories ever) for the sake of variety I’ll discuss the next best here – Octopussy.
Penned in 1962 but published posthumously in 1966, this intriguing story finds Bond tasked with apprehending former operative and World War Two hero Major Dexter Smythe, who’s wanted for questioning over an unsolved murder involving a stolen cache of Nazi gold.
Turning up at Smythe’s lavish Caribbean home, Bond, like us, is told the story in flashback as Smythe, sensing his time is up, tantalisingly unravels his involvement in the case. Fleming does a wonderful job of portraying a man of high standing unburdening himself, the years of guilt slipping away, and then strikes a fine and perfectly plausible connection between Bond and the murder victim, clarifying for the reader why MI6’s finest has been sent to make this arrest.
Smythe, knowing his comeuppance is due and that Bond won’t be shaken off, commits suicide by allowing his pet octopus to attack him in his own swimming pool, bringing on a fatal heart attack.
An absorbing read that carries a peculiar edge, Octopussy is a fine example of a major character dominating a short story even with a minor role – Bond’s mere presence forces Smythe’s hand.[Top]
The author has the responsibility to ensure the twist comes as a genuine surprise, but they must also deliver it in a plausible and elegant way that falls consistent with the story and characters the reader has bonded with.
The crime genre is a natural home for such a literary device, so here are my top 5 plot twists – or sudden shifts of momentum – that caused a revelation and propelled the books concerned to a higher level of critical and public acclaim.
Oh, and there are spoilers galore here…
Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk
Quite simply one of the most shocking twists ever. This 1996 novel, reaching a far wider audience following the 1999 film adaption starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, delivers a sucker punch out of nowhere that leaves the reader reeling.
The unnamed protagonist/narrator, struggling with insomnia, finds relief by impersonating a seriously ill person in several support groups. He later meets charismatic extremist Tyler Durden, whose radical facade and mysterious charm fascinates him. When the narrator’s condo is destroyed in a gas explosion, he moves in with Tyler. Discovering they enjoy a fist fight as an intense form of male psychotherapy, they establish an underground bareknuckle fighting club that soars in popularity with men of similar character.
As the club evolves into a militant, anti-establishment pursuit named Project Mayhem, the narrator resolves to stop Tyler and his loyal followers from engaging in their violent sabotage operations. But his mission gets complicated when the narrator realises that he is in fact Tyler. During his bouts of insomnia, his mind had created a separate personality, Tyler becoming active whenever the narrator was ‘sleeping’. It was the Tyler persona that blew up the condo, that set up the fight club. But is it too late to stop Project Mayhem?
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie
This 1926 novel is one of Christie’s most controversial mysteries, its pioneering twist at the end shaking not only the book’s readers but also the crime fiction genre itself.
Set in the fictional English village of King’s Abbott, narrator Dr James Sheppard is invited to dine at the home of country gentleman Roger Ackroyd, who is distressed by the recent death of his lover, Mrs Ferrars. After returning home that evening, Sheppard receives a telephone call informing him that Ackroyd has been murdered.
Belgian detective Hercule Poirot comes out of retirement to investigate, Sheppard becoming his assistant. The pair discover several characters whose own distinctive secrets point the finger of suspicion at them. Poirot calls them all together to discuss the case (sound familiar?) but later dismisses them. Because he knows Ackroyd’s killer is still in the room – Sheppard.
The idea of a narrator being the murderer wasn’t entirely new, but in the hands of an expert technician like Christie, her gifts for analytical stimulation and formidable storytelling ensured the concept had never been unravelled in such a breathtaking fashion.
Before I go to Sleep, by S. J. Watson
A debut novel that became a best seller on its 2011 release, this story is beautifully crafted with a graceful finale that lives long in the memory.
In a similar premise to Hollywood blockbuster Memento, Christine Lucas wakes up every morning thinking she is a twenty-something woman with a bright future. In reality she is forty seven and suffered a terrible attack eighteen years ago that has left her unable to retain new memories.
The man she wakes up with is her husband, Ben, who tells her every morning they have been married for many years, and reminds her about her accident.
Dr Nash, a specialist in memory disorders, encourages Christine to keep a journal that helps piece her past together. As more flash memories emerge, the details appear inconsistent with what Ben and Dr Nash are telling her. During a short vacation with Ben, Christine finds some pages torn from her journal in his luggage. It turns out that Ben is not Ben, but a man named Mike with whom Christine had a brief affair with eighteen years ago. Christine suddenly remembers that it was Mike who attacked her.
Watson makes the reader question each of the characters throughout, while the smart use of the journal allows us to discover things at the same pace as Christine. The author weighs the balance perfectly between portraying Christine’s emotions and relaying the conspiracy theories that keep the story motoring along.
Tell No One, by Harlan Coben
This 2001 book was a major breakthrough for Coben, his first novel to appear on The New York Times Best Seller list and adapted into a French film in 2006.
Paediatrician David Beck receives an email that makes him believe his wife Elizabeth is alive, eight years after they were both attacked by two men, leaving David seriously injured in a lake and him thinking Elizabeth had been killed.
As he tries to find out if she really is alive, David discovers that Elizabeth had been wrongly blamed by a local man, Griffin Scopes, for the death of his drug dealing son. Griffin had then paid two men to kill Elizabeth and David, who after the attack was pulled from the water by a homeless man hiding from the authorities.
David then learns that Elizabeth’s father, Hoyt, killed the two men who attacked them and convinced Elizabeth to leave the country for her safety, leading authorities to believe she was the victim of a serial killer.
When the bodies of the two hired killers are discovered, Elizabeth realises Griffin will question her death, so she returns to the USA hoping to reunite with David. But she’s discovered and the situation hurtles towards a brutal conclusion.
Twists and turns on this scale are very challenging to pull off, but in Coben’s hands the action unfolds with a deft sense of drama and credibility.
Psycho, by Robert Bloch
A renowned 1959 thriller that was eclipsed by Alfred Hitchcock’s movie adaptation a year later, this novel deserves to go down as a crime classic.
Mary Crane is on the run after impulsively stealing $40,000 from a client of the real estate company she works for. She stops at a small motel in Fairvale, California, run by middle-aged bachelor Norman Bates and his temperamental mother. While Mary takes a shower that night, a figure resembling an old woman sneaks in with a kitchen knife and butchers her to death.
Mary’s sister, Lila, and boyfriend Sam Loomis investigate. At the Bates family home overlooking the motel they discover Mrs Bates’ mummified corpse in the fruit cellar. A figure rushes into the room wielding a knife – Norman Bates, dressed in his mother’s clothes.
A psychiatrist examines Bates and learns that, years before, he had poisoned his mother and her lover in a jealous rage. To suppress the guilt he had developed a split personality in which his mother became an alternate self, which abused and dominated him as Mrs Bates had done in real life.
The novel is fast-paced, terrifying and utterly disturbing, capped off with this shocking twist that captivated readers and opened America’s eyes to serious mental health issues.
Enjoyed reading about stunning plot twists? Here are some more books with great surprises that nearly made my top 5 list:
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
London Boulevard, by Ken Bruen
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
The Sicilian, by Mario Puzo
Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane
March 11 is a significant date in my world – not least because it’s my wedding anniversary, but it also marks the birth of one of the most important British crime writers of the last 15 years, Jake Arnott.
Today Arnott turns 54, and I can still remember the buzz I felt when reading his 1999 debut novel The Long Firm that sparked a magnificent – and much-needed – revival in quality, thought-provoking British crime fiction.
Arnott was never going to be a writer who would provide us with another clichéd, world-weary detective that would run on and on for years in cosy annual instalments. And boy we were tired of those. No, The Long Firm was a rousing one-off (just like his other five books since), exploring the tale of charismatic, homosexual nightclub owner and racketeer Harry Starks through the eyes of five people that knew him in 1960s London.
Those five different points of view gave us a finely executed deep character analysis of Starks, all woven within a subjective, forceful, tender and ultimately convincing narrative. Those perspectives came from a young boyfriend of Starks, a female singer and love rival, an old-school backbencher in the House of Lords, a wayward criminal on the edge of darkness, and finally a sociologist in the 1970s, giving the overall story a diverse, grand scope.
The characterisation was sublime, as was the period detail (it included perceptive references to some real-life personalities of the time including Judy Garland and the Kray twins), Arnott excavating the cultural minutiae of the era to give us an evocative feel for the bleaker side of the swinging sixties.
But it was The Long Firm’s magnetic, lyrical prose that made the novel stand out, that took the gritty British gangster genre to a higher level, blending a gripping storyline with genuine splashes of literary fiction. Good literary fiction, that is. Worthy, skilful fiction spawned from the soul and aimed at the heart.
Crime fiction was no longer just about a haggard, vulnerable cop having several stones thrown at him by professional enemies and being weighed down by personal demons before bravely exposing – and defeating – the arrogant criminal. No longer about conventional plot-led tales (albeit well-written and tension-fuelled ones) constructed to be read on long flights.
The literary ambition of The Long Firm served as a groundbreaking text for both writers and readers, possibly even agents and publishers as well. It gave writers who wanted to explore a world beyond another Rebus or a serial killer the chance to reach that brave new territory, that higher plane where character and prose – in terms of length and style – could be the preserve of their imagination, and engineered to however their particular story demanded. Not bound by the industry guidelines and perceptions of what sells and what doesn’t.
Not that those guidelines aren’t valuable (any industry needs to rely on past buying habits to build for the future), but the timing of Jake Arnott’s breakthrough was important. It allowed writers that followed the opportunity to forge their own creative path, to trust their own instincts and senses, and encouraged agents and publishers to take a chance on more decadent, quirky crime fiction that didn’t necessarily fit into a style and format they were previously committed to.
After The Long Firm we saw a wave of idiosyncratic British and Irish crime writers – authors who dedicated themselves to crafting and maintaining a powerful writing style faithful to their own tastes and desires – break through. The likes of Adrian McKinty, David Peace, Ray Banks, Allan Guthrie, Stav Sherez, Simon Lelic and Neil Forsyth all launched successful careers, while authors such as Ken Bruen, Nicholas Royle, Peter Guttridge and Gene Kerrigan achieved higher recognition. The range of contemporary crime writing had expanded way beyond the formulaic detective mystery – existential noir, irony, humour, ferocity, fact-fiction intrigue and horror all stood loud and proud as major pulse points within this fascinating genre.
Arnott’s second book, He Kills Coppers, was released in 2001 and carried much of the intimate verve and sensual swagger we saw in The Long Firm. Based on one of Britain’s most infamous true crimes, the 1966 murders of three Met police officers in Shepherd’s Bush (the name of the real killer, Harry Roberts, was changed to Billy Porter), He Kills Coppers was a huge critical and commercial success and paved the way for Arnott to carve a successful career that has been carried out largely at his own pace and to his own liking.
Not one to put himself under undue pressure by signing a contract that committed him to churning out a new release every year, his third book, True Crime, came out in 2003, telling the story of a dead gangster’s daughter seeking the truth surrounding her father’s murder (linked to The Long Firm). Arnott left the criminal underworld behind in Johnny Come Home (2006) to write about a 1970s glam rock star and the anarchist group ‘The Angry Brigade’, and shifted focus even further with The Devil’s Paintbrush (2009), detailing a 1903 encounter in Paris between the occultist Aleister Crowley and former British Army officer Sir Hector MacDonald, under threat of court martial following allegations of homosexuality, on the eve of the soldier’s suicide.
In 2012 Arnott released The House of Rumour, a conspiracy tale involving WWII spies (featuring Ian Fleming), science fiction writers in 1950s California and the new wave music scene in 1980s Britain. Again the mixture of real-life figures and fictional characters resulted in a dazzling, if sometimes baffling, effect in a book that was hailed as a time-spinning, genre-fusing, continent-hopping classic.
Who knows what’s next, but one thing is for sure – Jake Arnott is an author who has made full use of his intellect and passions to skilfully explore the themes of masculinity, class, sexuality, ambition and repression. And through his gifts for characterisation and innovative prose, he has given us some smart, enjoyable literature that proved forceful and eloquent writing can merge as one.[Top]
The reading public always passes the ultimate judgement on a book, so I thought I’d highlight some of the comments left by readers on the Amazon review page of my debut novel, Chasing the Game.
For those of you who would like to see how the book was received by literary critics, please click here to see what media reviewers and established crime fiction bloggers thought of Chasing the Game.
But here are some quick snippets from a selection of verdicts from those all important readers…
“Fantastic 1960s detail . . . can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a debut novel more.
Too many gangster books can slip into caricature, but the highest praise I can give is that so much of the authentic period detail and Gadsby’s sharp dialogue evoked memories of when I discovered Jake Arnott’s series of books more than a decade ago.
It would be interesting if it could be dramatized for the 50th anniversary of the theft in 2016.”
“What a fantastic book . . . The amount of research put in is immense, to nearly every detail. 60s gangsters and the rest of the trimmings, but with a clarity to the story, and writing. I can’t recommend it enough.”
“The characters’ personalities all come alive and keep you guessing at what their fate will be. The story moves along at a good pace and makes the book difficult to put down. This is not just for the guys.”
“Compelling, original and eminently readable. The story skilfully merges fiction and the real life events surrounding the actual theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1966. This is a fast paced mystery with an atmospheric setting that succeeds in depositing the reader into the vibrant, rapidly changing London of the 1960s. The book will appeal to all mystery and crime aficionados.”
“I loved this book. It’s a real page turner. Beautifully plotted, with lots of twists and turns. The characters are very well drawn. The dialogue crackles and fizzes. The mixture of tension, humour and, at times, almost farce is really deftly judged and pulled off. Highly recommended!”
“A great read, couldn’t put it down. As I was in my late teens at the time of the ‘66 World Cup and the theft of the World Cup is still vividly etched in my memory. Paul’s account of the theft and subsequent recovery of the iconic trophy, whilst fictional, is very plausible given the gangland culture that existed in East and South London at that time. Brought back to life those black and photos that graced the tabloids the day after Pickles discovered the package in the hedge of that front garden. A brilliant first offering from a talented writer.”
“Well worth a read! Full of well researched detail, and the twists in the story keep you gripped until the very end. It’s not just a book about a football trophy, it’s so much more and I would highly recommend it to everyone.”
“Fantastic book, I couldn’t put it down. Well written and researched and a great twist in the book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Hope it’s not too long before the next one!”
“Paul Gadsby has created a very authentic 60s London and a crime firm that feels as though it really could exist. You will want the main character to succeed, despite being a criminal! And it ties in very well to real life events. A brilliant read.”
“A very plausible storyline depicting a historical moment of British history.
A fantastic read. Not only a very imaginative depiction of what could have happened when the World Cup was stolen but also an excellent underlying story of a criminal firm led by Dale. I was really impressed with how I could empathise with each of the characters in their own right.
This would make an excellent television drama which I feel would appeal to not only football fans but a wider audience.”
The short story is often regarded as an under-appreciated art form. The mainstream publishers have habitually baulked at supporting them in the face of sales figures that compare unfavourably with those of traditional length novels. This has often led authors, particularly crime and mystery ones, to only pen short stories on commission rather than write them out of pure creative enjoyment.
But that hasn’t stopped many of them rising to the challenge of expressing themselves through brevity. Creating a snappy, compelling tale with fascinating characters and quickly weaving it all into a striking conclusion that stays with the reader is no mean feat, and deserves high praise. But some excellent short stories have received more recognition than others, so this feature is to champion my favourite short pieces of fiction that have been underrated – or even criminally neglected – over the years.
The Five Orange Pips, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Many of Conan Doyle’s 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories have of course received glowing acclaim and been adapted in some way for the screen. The likes of ‘The Speckled Band’, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and ‘The Final Problem’ top many people’s favourite lists, but for me ‘The Five Orange Pips’ has always been left, undeservedly so, in the shade.
First published in The Strand magazine in 1891, this is an off-beat tale laced with fascinating elements. The case – or bizarre mystery – is presented by the client, John Openshaw, who has just received a letter with ‘K.K.K’ scrawled on the inner flap of the envelope and five orange pips enclosed. His father received a similar letter three years previously, as did his uncle five years ago. Each of them died in a suspicious accident a few days after receiving the pips. The day after visiting 221b Baker Street to see Holmes, a newspaper report reveals that Openshaw himself has been found dead in the River Thames. Shaken by the death, an emotional Holmes tells Watson: “I shall be my own police. When I have spun the web they may take the flies, but not before.”
The showcasing of Holmes’ deductive skills that follow is particularly divine, and the ending is wonderfully elegant. Interestingly, this is one of only two Holmes short stories where the detective’s client dies. The 1945 film Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear was partly based on ‘The Five Orange Pips’ while a 2014 episode of the TV show Elementary took some facets of the story.
The Birds Poised to Fly, by Patricia Highsmith
A story of a deranged man whose disappointment in love sparks an irrational reaction that leads to a cruel deception, this is Highsmith at her neurotic best.
Obsessed with dark subject matter throughout her writing career, this story was heavily inspired by a painful moment in Highsmith’s own love life. After engaging in a blissful affair with English doctor Kathryn Cohen during a holiday in Italy in the summer of 1949, Highsmith returned to New York and wrote to her. Each day she awaited a reply from Kathryn that didn’t come, suffering inner torment.
In ‘The Birds Poised to Fly’, Don returns from a holiday romance smitten with Rosalind and writes to her proposing marriage. When she doesn’t respond he convinces himself that her letter was delivered to his neighbour by mistake. He breaks into his neighbour’s mailbox, finds a letter written to him by a lovesick woman called Edith. Don assumes his neighbour’s identity and replies to Edith, arranging to meet her at Grand Central station. Eventually Rosalind replies, refusing Don’s marriage offer. A dejected Don still goes to Grand Central to meet Edith. “The story is so much K and myself” Highsmith later wrote in her diary.
It wasn’t published until 1968, in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, before being released as part of Highsmith’s short story collection, Eleven.
The Living Daylights, by Ian Fleming
James Bond is captured in a rare morose mood during this dark, counter-espionage tale that was first published in The Sunday Times supplement of 4 February 1962. Assigned to prevent a prolific KGB sniper – codenamed ‘Trigger’ – from killing a fellow British agent who’s due to make a street crossing between East and West Berlin, Bond waits patiently at his hiding post for three days and nights, contemplating his mission to take out the KGB assassin. A killer killing a killer.
Fleming delves into a corner of Bond’s psyche we’d never quite seen before as he broods over the concept of committing a cold, calculated murder (with no high-octane build-up), something he’s clearly uncomfortable with. Each night he sees an orchestra arriving and leaving a building opposite for practice, a beautiful blonde cellist among them. When the agent is finally ready to cross over to Bond’s side of the street, Bond peers through his rifle scope to see the Russian sniper take up position in the building opposite. ‘Trigger’ is the blonde cellist. Faced with an instant decision and his finger on the trigger, Bond switches aim, shoots the stock of her sub-machine-gun, wounding her hand.
The relieved agent makes it back into MI6 hands safe and sound, but Bond gets an earful from top brass for failing to execute the kill. Bond is always at his most compelling through the theme of disobedience, and Fleming exploits that beautifully in this short work.
ICU, by Dennis Lehane
Intrigue lays at the heart of this tale, which formed part of Lehane’s collection of short stories titled Coronado, released in 2006.
Tension is present from the off when the protagonist, Daniel, is told by a woman regular in his local bar that a couple of guys were in earlier asking after him. Wearing smart suits and ties. A worried Daniel visits his ex-wife, who describes the same guys stopping by earlier looking for him. The mysterious well-dressed men (possibly federal agents, although it’s never revealed) are soon pursuing Daniel in a car chase. He takes refuge in the grounds of a large hospital, shifting from one specialist area to another before settling in the vast ICU unit.
Daniel, seemingly ignorant of his offence, remains in hiding there, becoming acquainted with family members of critically ill patients in the waiting room, and pretending to be a relative of one himself. His world is now one of helplessness, quiet anticipation and confinement.
Lehane’s exquisite turn of phrase and tight prose comes to the fore here, unravelling the character at his own pace and always keeping the reader guessing – not to mention engrossed. The story, more than a passing nod to Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, depicts one man’s journey to grasping the concepts of empathy and humanity, but without making any moral judgements. A fascinating read.
The Killers, by Ernest Hemingway
This 1927 story is an immaculate piece of writing but, perhaps due to its style (minimalist to the core, there is hardly any plot), never attracted as much praise as some of Hemingway’s more famous short pieces such as ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ and ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’.
Two hit men walk into an Illinois diner looking for Swedish boxer Ole Anderson, who they plan to kill ‘for a friend’. The duo tie up the proprietor, George, the cook, Sam, and the lunchroom’s only customer, Nick Adams (a recurring character in Hemingway’s short fiction), and wait for Anderson, who they’re expecting to walk in. But he doesn’t show up and the frustrated duo leave.
George knows the boarding house Anderson is staying at and sends Nick over there to warn him. When told about what happened, Anderson is resigned to his fate and tells Nick there is nothing to be done.
Having spent his younger years in Chicago during Al Capone’s rise to power, Hemingway had a strong knowledge of prohibition-era organised crime and weaves this understated story with an authoritative voice and from a marvellously objective viewpoint.
Duffers of the Apocalypse, by Victor Gischler
Part of the 2006 Damn Near Dead anthology, a collection of invigorating short stories based around senior-aged criminals, this story is dripping with smart, black humour.
Set on a golf course in the grounds of an Oklahoma retirement community (“the land of broken hips and strokes and backs thrown way, way out”), three old timers, narrator Roscoe Carter and friends Tony DeLuca and Pete Dexter, are having a round. A wayward tee shot from Tony strikes a course groundskeeper in the skull, killing him as he’d been raking a bunker. Tony, hinting that he has a bad history with cops, convinces Roscoe and Pete to help bury the guy in the sand.
Roscoe, a retired army veteran who’s just been told he has four months to live with stomach cancer, wants to spend his remaining time playing golf, not seeing the course closed down as a crime scene.
News of a major fire sweeping through the state towards them causes many of the panicked residents to flee, but Roscoe has no relatives who’ll take him in and is in no mood to go anywhere. “All I had was a set of Ping irons and a tee time.” He gets in his cart, takes to the course, flames swirling in, smoke burning his eyes, the course record for the over-65s the only thing on his mind. Gischler’s riveting prose makes this a darkly perverse, hilarious yarn.
The Shooter, by Irvine Welsh
The first entry in Welsh’s 1994 short story collection, The Acid House, this taut, stark thriller set in Hackney is a classic example of what makes a gripping short story.
An underlying sense of unease is present throughout as the narrator Jock sits through an uncomfortable meal with his bad-tempered mate Gary, his wife Marge and their young daughter. Later, Gary, recently out of prison for theft, and Jock talk through a plan to scare Tony Whitworth, who owes them two grand. They agree to pay Whitworth a visit that night. Jock turns up with a baseball bat, Gary brings a sawn-off shotgun.
Gradually that sense of unease turns into outright menace as Welsh skilfully cranks up the tension, the anxiety and curiosity peaking within the reader, until laying out a shocking and valiant ending where everything is at stake.[Top]
A crime novelist, poet and musician, Sallis, younger brother of philosopher John Sallis, cultivated a reputation as an influential writer in the 1990s with his Lew Griffin series of books set in New Orleans. But it was his 2005 neo-noir thriller Drive that catapulted him to global literary acclaim and was adapted into a 2011 film of the same name, starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks.
Sallis’ inimitable talent comes from a precious devotion to his craft. For many years he has combined his own work with teaching novel writing at Phoenix College in Arizona, while he also keeps his creative juices flowing by playing with his string band, Three-Legged Dog, his instruments of choice including the guitar, French horn, fiddle, mandolin, sitar and ukelele.
His work first came to my attention courtesy of the terrific support he has received from astute British indie publisher No Exit Press, who published his ex-con-turned-cop John Turner series as well as his Griffin books, a spy novel Death Will Have Your Eyes, along with Drive and the sequel to that classic, Driven.
Often referred to as ‘a crime writer’s crime writer’, Sallis is admired for his Hemingway-esque economy of language and the emotional depth of the fictional worlds he creates, amplified through the engaging philosophical outlook of many of his characters.
His back catalogue deserves to be swamped with praise, but it’s Drive that I’d like to focus on here. A gripping story of a young man abandoned from an early age and searching for an identity, he utilises his one passion – driving (the character is only ever referred to as ‘The Driver) to become a prolific Hollywood stunt driver by day and a wily getaway driver for the LA criminal underworld by night.
Paying homage to the successful style conventions of the noir genre, Sallis uses just 157 pages to pen a work dripping with existential minimalism, taut plotting, brutal hostility and sharp-witted dialogue, the actions of the intensely conflicted characters driven by the heart and a longing for their sense of place in the world.
One tool that Sallis maximises in a unique way is backstory. Interspersed at relevant points throughout the book, pieces of The Driver’s past are delicately presented to the reader in a way that skilfully hooks the reader in. Some of these passages aren’t as terse as you’d expect in a noir novel, but Sallis’ ability to always cut straight to the heart of the matter means you don’t feel like you’re being dragged away from the central narrative.
Although the book has its violent outbursts, none of this is graphic. The rich, flowing narrative, reminiscent of 50s noir but also laced with a 70s cult movie feel, keeps the pages turning. And despite the sharp detail offered in the flashbacks, The Driver remains a mysterious protagonist – like the book itself he is compelling, stark and beautiful.
‘I find Driver fascinating,’ Sallis once told GQ. ‘I wanted to make him this iconic, almost mythic American character . . . he accepts that the violence is who he is, what he does and he learns to embrace that.’
For me Drive remains James Sallis’ finest work; quaintly witty and utterly readable, it’s a literary masterpiece that elevates Sallis into the ranks of noir legends such as Jim Thompson, Graham Greene, James M Cain, Cormac McCarthy and even the Coen brothers.
As Sallis himself wrote in his essay, Standing by Death: ‘The deepest, most engaging and damaging moments of my life become notes, then pages and, finally, books. This is the purpose my life has taken. Maybe in the end it’s only that I want to leave a mark, something to show that I’ve been here.’[Top]
Both the paperback and ebook versions of the book have seen a sharp increase in sales, with people seeing the book as an ideal stocking filler Christmas gift.
It beats toiletries or a naff pair of socks, anyway.
Chasing the Game is a unique fictional depiction of the real-life theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy (the original football World Cup) in London in 1966, a crime which remains unsolved. To read more about the book and the true-life crime that sparked its narrative, please click here.[Top]
As a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, I’ve always been fascinated as much by the novels that inspired his directorial work as I have his famed skills for generating treasured moments of cinematic suspense.
With that in mind, I have compiled my favourite – and what I consider the most accomplished – novels that Hitchcock later used as a basis to make a film. For the sake of sincerity, I’ve included some of the bigger-name titles that Hitchcock became best known for and just can’t be ignored, but I’ve also dug a little deeper to highlight some more unfamiliar works that deserve a mention.
10. Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square
Written by journalist and crime reporter Arthur La Bern in 1966, this relentless novel was used by Hitchcock as the basis for his 1972 classic Frenzy.
The book tells the story of Bob Rusk, a sexual predator and serial killer in central London, but circumstantial evidence leads the police to prosecuting Rusk’s friend, Dick Blamey, for the string of crimes known as ‘the necktie murders’. Always partial to a tale of an innocent man getting stitched up, it’s easy to see what attracted Hitchcock to the story.
The movie represented an important chapter in the director’s legacy, seen as a triumphant return to Britain in what was his first film set there for more than 20 years (and only this third made in Blighty since moving to Hollywood in 1939). It also ended up being the penultimate film of Hitchcock’s career.
He asked Anthony Shaffer to adapt it for the screen, and there were some significant changes made from the book’s narrative. The light-hearted domestic scenes between the meticulous Inspector Oxford and his wife were entirely new creations (presumably Hitchcock wanted them to serve as a change of pace and tone from the brutality of the murders). The film was set in the era it was made – the early 1970s – while the novel takes place shortly after the Second World War (hence the title, taken from a line in the song ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’) and Blamey has an interesting backstory ignored in the film. In the novel he is a Royal Air Force veteran who feels guilty about his active role in the fire-bombing of Dresden, and his drunken references to his ‘killing’ past when first being interrogated by police about the necktie murders contributes to his unjust arrest.
La Bern was not a fan of what Hitchcock and Shaffer did with his story. In a letter to The Times, he called Frenzy a ‘distasteful film’, criticising the dialogue as ‘farce’ and adding: ‘I would like to ask Mr Hitchcock and Mr Shaffer what happened between book and script to the authentic London characters I created. Finally: I wish to dissociate myself with Mr Shaffer’s grotesque misrepresentation of Scotland Yard offices’.
9. The Manxman
One of writer Hall Caine’s greatest successes, this 1894 novel sold more than half a million copies and was translated into 12 languages.
Set on the Isle of Man, the book depicts a powerful love triangle between Kate Cregeen and her two friends, the illiterate but good-hearted Peter Quilliam, and the well-educated and sophisticated Philip Christian.
Notable for its regular use of Manx dialect unique to the Isle of Man, faithfully executed by Caine through unusual Manx Gaelic spellings, grammatical structure and phrases, the book received widespread critical acclaim, especially from high society. Britain’s Prime Minister of the day, Lord Rosebury, said: ‘It will rank with the great works of English literature’.
The novel was adapted twice for the stage and turned into a silent film by George Tucker in 1917 before Hitchcock developed it into his final silent movie in 1929.
Filmed almost entirely in the small Cornwall fishing village of Polperro, Hitchcock’s version was highly praised, his gripping portrayal of the love triangle emitting some of his most emotive characterisation and strongest imagery to date. Which is more than what the man himself thought of this work. Hitchcock later told Francois Truffaut it was ‘a very banal picture’, adding the ‘only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one.’
8. The Thirty-Nine Steps
Now we’re on to one of the big hitters. This high-octane, pacey novel with its lethally sharp prose reads as smoothly as any sparse, contemporary thriller – Christ knows how rapid it must have felt on its release in 1915.
By far the most famous novel by Scottish author John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps has never been out of print since. It was in fact Buchan’s 17th published book, and catapulted him from a promising 39-year-old writer into a best-selling author of highly-acclaimed thrillers and adventures over the following two decades.
Despite the book perhaps being most remembered for its glorious evocation of the rolling Scottish countryside, of its 10 chapters only three and a half are actually set in Scotland. Main protagonist Richard Hannay (wonderfully played by Robert Donat in Hitchcock’s 1935 adaptation) offered the reading public in the first year of WW1 something relatively fresh; a physically dynamic anti-hero, cool and brave with the intellectual and emotional prowess that enabled him to turn detective under pressure (skills that earned him a leading role in four further Buchan books) while still maintaining a stiff upper lip.
Although the book was a pioneer of the ‘man-on-the-run’ archetypal thriller that would become a much-used plot device, Buchan’s enthusiasm for inserting unlikely events into the plot that the reader would only just be able to believe does give the book a somewhat fantastical edge, but it’s a barnstorming read nonetheless.
Hitchcock’s film does divert somewhat from the book, creating the music hall scene and the two major female characters for cinematic effect. In the book the 39 steps refer to literally that, while in the movie the 39 steps is a clandestine group of spies.
7. The Lodger
Prolific London-born novelist Marie Belloc Lowndes is said to have gotten the idea for this story after overhearing a dinner conversation where a guest was telling another that his mother’s butler claimed to have once rented a room to Jack the Ripper. That was the spark that eventually led in 1913 to her releasing The Lodger, a fictional take on the gruesome Whitechapel murders of 1888. It sold more than a million copies.
The style of the story is pure Hitchcock – the horror builds slowly and skilfully as landlords Richard and Ellen Bunting gradually begin to fear that a recent lodger they’ve taken on upstairs in their home, a Mr Sleuth, could be the mysterious killer of several local women.
Using the story, as well as the play ‘Who is He?’, a comic stage adaption of the novel co-written by Belloc Lowndes and playwright Horace Annesley Vachell, Hitchcock delivered one of his finest silent movies in 1927, titled ‘The Lodger: A story of the London Fog’. Oozing with psychological suspense, menacing camera angles and claustrophobic lighting, the film was also Hitchcock’s first foray into sexual fetishism and psychodrama.
Interestingly, Hitchcock wanted the film to end with ambiguity over whether the lodger was the serial killer, but he later claimed the studio, Gainsborough, wouldn’t let popular leading man Ivor Novello be considered as a villain. ‘We had to change the script to show that without a doubt he was innocent,’ Hitchcock said.
6. Before the Fact
Written in 1932 by Anthony Berkeley, under the pen name Francis Iles, this bold novel was adapted by Hitchcock into his 1941 film Suspicion.
Far from penning a popular whodunit, Berkeley ensured the readers of Before the Fact knew who the villain was pretty early on. Johnnie Aysgarth has married Lina McLaidlaw for her family’s money. Over the years that follow Lina gradually learns that Johnnie is a compulsive liar, thief, embezzler, adulterer and in fact plans to murder her. At the end of the novel, which has spanned 10 years, Lina, flu-stricken and mentally unhinged but still desperately in love with her husband, swallows a cocktail she knows Johnnie has poisoned. Her death is imminent, but not conclusive, when the book ends.
Hitchcock’s film covers much of this dark and suspenseful mood, but differs from the book in that Johnnie’s ‘murderous’ intentions are portrayed as a product of Lina’s imagination. In a similar predicament to The Lodger, there was also apparent studio interference with the plot ending, with RKO Radio Pictures said to be not all that keen on having one of Hollywood’s most heroic actors, Cary Grant, being shown on screen as a devious killer. Despite not being able to play Lina in the emotionally complex and compelling ending described in the book, Joan Fontaine’s depiction of the character in the film was strong enough to earn her the 1941 Academy Award for Best Actress.
I suppose it’s fair to say the film has eclipsed the novel on this one. Robert Bloch’s 1959 book was an instant hit, influenced from the pulp principles of the day – Psycho is fast-paced, terrifying, captivating and utterly disturbing, all laced with a healthy dose of murder, madness and mayhem.
Hitchcock’s seminal movie of the same name came out just a year later, the speed of the adaption perhaps an indication of how powerful a novel Hitchcock regarded it to be (‘Psycho all came from Robert Bloch’s book,’ he said, albeit nine years later). It’s one of the director’s most faithful adaptions, the narrative skeleton of the book retained throughout the feature, with suspense, mystery and horror leading the way.
One difference was Hitchcock’s clarity of focus when it came to driving the story through certain characters’ perspectives. Bloch was happy to shift the point of view throughout his narrative; the opening chapter is from Norman’s perspective, the second Mary’s (who was called Marion in the film), the third is split between the two of them, and we’re back in Norman’s head in chapters four and five. Some of the latter chapters are written in the style of neutral third person. Hitch had a clear agenda of who he wanted the audience to bond with; we’re solely with Marion from the start until she meets her maker in the shower; then it’s largely Norman.
In Bloch’s chapters written from Norman’s POV, the writing is exceptional. His blackouts appear so genuine that the reader is compelled to believe that his jealous mother truly is Mary’s killer.
Another example of great, daring literature, Winston Graham’s psychological thriller Marnie is a hugely suspenseful and captivating read.
A prolific author well known for his series of Poldark historical novels, Graham released Marnie in 1961 to great acclaim but also a fair bout of controversy. The title character is a beautiful embezzler (played by Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s 1964 film) whose life of crime was sparked by a traumatic incident in her early childhood that she and the audience only get to truly understand at the end of the story.
After getting caught stealing from her employer, Mark Rutland, who also happens to be in love with her, Marnie is forced into marrying him in order to avoid jail. The marriage evolves into a complex but gripping web of deception, misinterpretations, mistakes and disputes, including a rape scene. Mark feels he loves her and is doing the right thing to get Marnie over her psychological problems; Marnie feels she was blackmailed into the marriage.
As the plot thickens, the book becomes a crime novel less centred around crime but by the mystery of Marnie’s secret past (and that of her mother’s), her core identity, and the complex issues of psychiatry. Written as a first person account by Marnie, the book is a finely-tuned introspective character piece that Hitchcock was fascinated by.
So determined to keep the divisive rape scene in his 1964 movie, Hitchcock dismissed screenwriter Evan Hunter from the project, who pleaded that the sequence be dropped because the audience wouldn’t bond with the male lead (played by Sean Connery). Replacement Jay Presson Allen shared Hitchcock’s keenness to include the scene.
There were some alterations made from the book though; Hitchcock changed the setting from England to the USA, thus losing the quintessential English ambience of the book according to some critics, a key character from the book, a lechy executive who pursues Marnie, is omitted altogether and the unravelling of Marnie’s childhood trauma that became the source of her emotional problems is a lot more simple and optimistic than the darker, more complex version in the novel.
3. The Rainbird Pattern
Plymouth-born thriller writer Victor Canning published 61 books in his lifetime, but one is widely regarded as by far and away his best – The Rainbird Pattern, winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 1972.
Elderly spinster Grace Rainbird, trying to bring missing elements of her family together before her time is up, promises spirit medium Blanche Tyler a large sum of money to locate her illegitimate nephew Edward Shoebridge. Blanche and her boyfriend, George Lumley, go desperately looking for Edward, who so happens to be living under a different name and co-ordinating several kidnappings of prominent officials, with his next project likely to rake in his largest ever ransom – the abduction of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
This split-level story is woven together with deft skill, Canning building the suspense and heightening the violence beautifully before unleashing an unpredictable ending. The plot is so seamless and commanding that it’s fair to say this is a prime example of a book triumphing over a Hitchcock film.
Titled ‘Family Plot’, Hitch’s 1976 movie turned out to be his final motion picture before his death four years later. The setting was switched from the south of England to southern California, and the charismatic features of Blanche and her jack-of-all-trades quirky partner Lumley were magnified so the tone of the film came across as more of a black comedy. Although personally I’ve always thought Family Plot an invigorating and much under-rated film, its reception in no way matched the glowing reviews attributed to The Rainbird Pattern.
When it comes to linking Hitchcock with fiction, Daphne du Maurier is pretty much literature royalty. Her short story ‘The Birds’ went on to provide the basis for one of the director’s most iconic hits, but her glorious 1938 novel Rebecca goes down as a genuine literary masterpiece.
An outstandingly evocative opening sentence (‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…), the razor-sharp description of a haunting fictional estate, a compelling combination of lead characters and a fascinating mystery all add up to a classic gothic romance thriller.
‘Very roughly, the book will be about the influence of a first wife on a second,’ wrote du Maurier in her notes. ‘Until wife 2 is haunted day and night… a tragedy is looming very close and crash! Bang! Something happens.’
Her tale of jealousy, bitterness, identity, mystery and secrets broke the mould of themes being explored by her contemporaries of the day. She sidestepped issues such as war, religion, poverty, art and existentialist streams of consciousness to thread together a more simple narrative about love, adventure and mystery and the reading public lapped it up, its appeal enduring to this day.
Hitchcock did a marvellous job adapting it for the screen in 1940, his first project after moving to America. As well as being technically brilliant (it won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Cinematography) the film largely maintained the emotional drama of the book. There was one plot detail change though; in order to comply with the Hollywood Production Code, which outlined that the murder of a spouse had to be punished, the book’s revelation that Max killed Rebecca had to be altered. He considers killing her as she taunts him into believing that she’s pregnant with another man’s child, but she is in fact suffering from incurable cancer and has a motive to commit suicide and punishing Max from beyond the grave, so her death is declared a suicide.
1. Strangers on a Train
Before Patricia Highsmith famously created the anti-hero Tom Ripley, she penned the breathtakingly sharp, taut and dark ‘Strangers on a Train’ in 1950, which remains one of the finest blueprints of noir fiction to this day.
Architect Guy Haines is desperate to divorce his unfaithful wife, Miriam. While on a train he meets coarse alcoholic Charles Anthony Bruno, a sociopath who suggests they ‘exchange murders’. Bruno will kill Miriam if Guy offs Bruno’s father; neither of them will have a motive and the police will have no reason to suspect either of them. Guy thinks it’s a joke, but the deranged Bruno moves first and kills Miriam. Panic, guilt, a chaotic game of cat and mouse, and further tragedy all follows.
Highsmith flourishes in drawing the reader in by stacking complications on top of each other as the stakes rise, while the book also serves as a skilful examination of the allure of chance meetings, and of why it seems so much easier for us to unburden ourselves to strangers, to let our guard down in unexpected moments of intimacy.
Hitchcock’s 1951 adaption received deserved praise as a creative force in its own right, but there were flaws. Hitch later admitted to Francois Truffaut that casting Farley Granger as Haines was a mistake (‘I would have liked to see William Holden in the part because he’s stronger’). The character of Bruno, meanwhile, was softened into more of a dandy charmer, while he also dies in a climactic scene on a merry-go-round rather than in a boating accident as he does in the book.
The homoerotic subtext – hinted at in the novel – is expressed more vividly in the film, possibly because Hitchcock thrived in subtly developing gay characters in his 1948 feature Rope (also starring Granger), and enjoyed presenting his audiences with sexually ambiguous characters.
Highsmith praised Robert Walker’s performance as Bruno, but wasn’t best pleased with the decision to turn Guy from an architect into a tennis player, nor with the fact that Guy does not, as he does in the novel, go through with murdering Bruno’s father.[Top]
As you can see from my influences page, many of my favourite books are standalone novels, but there are also some works that form part of a series.
Many a literary agent/editor/publisher will tell you that, particularly with crime fiction, long-running serials sell much better than standalones. Beginner writers are continually told by industry insiders that, if they want to break into the market, they stand a much better chance if they pen a manuscript ensuring the main character will return (preferably on many occasions) rather than fashion a one-off tale.
But why is this? Why are the series more appealing to readers and therefore more successful in the marketplace? Here are my thoughts, analysing the pros and cons of both standalones and series.
Standalones – the pros
By their very nature, standalones generally depict a very passionate story. The author has composed the tale based on a burning theme they wanted to pursue, a poignant story they wanted to unravel and a certain message they wanted to transmit to the reader. And they have been free to express that story in any way they see fit, tying up any loose ends (to an ultimate conclusion) if they wish, exploring any theme or location to the very limit, knowing they or their characters will never go down this road again. The shackles aren’t as much off; they were never on in the first place.
Authors can also lead their main protagonist down any dark alley they want to, even if the outcome proves fatal. The reader is on edge because they know that the character they’ve related to and connected with faces any degree of peril. The writer is doing it their way; they are pulling all the strings because they are under no pressure to sustain any part of the story or a character for a future instalment.
The authors are writing with their hearts, holding nothing back. Fire is in the belly as well as the fingertips as they unleash their saga. Whenever a media outlet releases a list of the greatest (or most popular) novels of all time, standalones are always there standing proud. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Catch 22, David Copperfield, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Day of the Jackal, The Killer Inside Me, The Great Gatsby, American Psycho, Scoop, Disgrace, Libra, The Road, No Beast so Fierce and many, many more. Works that carry a central emotive core and bare the author’s soul; unbridled creations and unique artefacts.
Standalones – the cons
Imagine if Ian Fleming, having written his heart out on his debut novel Casino Royale, had left James Bond at that point and moved on to another project, 007 confined to history in 1953. Standalone books provide us with great high-stakes tales but there’s the downside that stopping at one story prevents further development of a fascinating character, denying us the prospect of enjoying this protagonist taking on more challenges and allowing us to bond with them further. There’s no doubt that the huge cultural impact certain recurring characters have had on the world (Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe et al) has done wonders for crime fiction and duly rewarded their authors with much deserved adulation.
Another point to consider here is that sometimes a standalone can be too long (Don DeLillo’s Underworld breached into this territory, as did Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon), possibly to the extent that you feel the author probably considered splitting it into a mini-series somewhere along the way but stuck with it anyway. And sometimes the total freedom an author enjoys with a standalone can lead to self-indulgence and a story/theme that winds out of control, but in a trade that depends on huge reserves of creativity and bravery, that’s often a small price to pay.
Series – the pros
Within the context of a series, particularly a long-running one, absorbing characters can be further enriched so they become legends, both literary and cinematic. There is plenty of room in standalones to develop and focus on characterisation (as there is setting and plot) of course, but with a series we just get to spend more time with our heroes, or at least people we’re fascinated by and have formed a connection with.
Another good thing about serials, especially in crime fiction, is that the cream of writing talent often rises to the top; series formats have allowed some magnificent writers to forge thoroughly deserved successful careers. Not many publishers dish out multi-book deals to poor writers. The likes of Patricia Highsmith (Thomas Ripley), Ian Rankin (Rebus), Mark Billingham (Thorne), Ken Bruen (Jack Taylor), James Sallis (Lew Griffin & The Driver), Adrian McKinty (Sean Duffy & Michael Forsythe), James Lee Burke (Dave Robicheaux), James Crumley (Milo Milodragovitch & C.W. Sughrue) and Ray Banks (Callum Innes) have all developed as writers over the course of sticking with their returning characters, the pressures of meeting their regular instalments perhaps forcing them to harness their craft in a quicker – and ultimately more confident way – than they otherwise would have done.
Serials also offer authors the opportunity to write a smartly conceived mini-series based mainly on theme rather than one principal character. With these each book is often significantly different in terms of timeframe or minor characters becoming major ones in the next book and vice versa. David Peace’s Red Riding quartet would fall into this category, a wonderful series that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as powerful as a standalone, nor a long-running series. James Ellroy’s LA quartet and Underworld trilogy also spring to mind here, as do Scott Phillips’s The Ice Harvest and The Walkaway, the narratives of those two connected works separated by 10 years.
Series novels also tend to get talked about more in social circles (so I’ve noticed anyway), allowing more opportunities for readers to share their experiences. An extensive, consistent body of work seems to bring people together more than standalones appear able to, and anything that gets people talking about reading, whether it’s at home, work, the beach or on social media, is a positive thing.
Series – the cons
The downside of an author under pressure to publish an annual instalment of a long-running series is of course the danger that they end up just churning them out. Just as their main character may have helped that author achieve fame, the process can also push them over the edge, their creative forces crashing and burning. Pumping out a novel a year to meet marketplace pressure can be a trap to penning prose unworthy of the writer and their initial ambitions, and that’s a real shame.
There’s also the danger of too many new writers feeling they have to launch their career with a main character that has ‘plenty of legs’, which all too often leads to the creation of a cliché-ridden detective we’ve all read enough of. You know the type; divorced, has a troubled relationship with his teenage son/daughter who’s growing up too fast, puts his work before his health and lifestyle, he’s the only one who despises corporate suits and bureaucracy, he unwinds in the winter evenings by listening to music anyone under 35 would scoff at, with a stiff drink in his hand. And the evil activities of each particular rival he encounters eventually results in the duo facing off in a duel, where the arrogance of the criminal leads to victory for the humble hero.
The readers lose out big time here. Not only can the returning character lose their appeal, but the plot can also lose its punch. Let’s face it, as the stakes rise in the final third we always know the main character will get out of this latest scrape relatively unscathed because they’ll be back for another adventure next year.
An example of an author who made his name with a solid series but broke free of the format to express himself in standalones is Dennis Lehane. After five instalments of blue collar detective duo Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, he pulled himself away to write Mystic River (later adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster) and then Shutter Island (ditto), two superb one-off thrillers that were both critically acclaimed and commercially successful.
Series are obviously easier to market. The industry loves them, often to the extent that a new release is promoted as a series right from the off. The first time I saw publicity for Malcolm Mackay’s debut novel The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, it was labelled as the first instalment of ‘the Glasgow trilogy’. Almost as if his agent pitched the debut manuscript to a publisher who said “Forget it – unless your guy’s got two more up his sleeve, then I can call it a trilogy and I’ll have something to sell”.
David Peace’s ‘Tokyo trilogy’ was marketed as such on the release of the first instalment in 2007. After releasing the second in 2009, Peace drifted away from the concept and wrote Red or Dead, his standalone football novel about the late Bill Shankly. At the time of writing (September 2014) there’s still no sign of the final part of the Tokyo trilogy. Perhaps a sign that the desire for a series is more pressing for the marketing people than it is for the authors.[Top]