Ah, this old chestnut. Discussion amongst writers, agents and publishers (but rarely readers, I find) often swings around to word count. How long should a book be? Has this changed over the years, and, if so, why?
Firstly, this will depend on the type of book (fiction/non-fiction/narrative non-fiction) as well as the genre. Each category has, over time, been pegged with certain word lengths determined by industry insiders attempting to gauge audience wishes and expectations. For the sake of this article, let’s talk about fiction books. There was a post recently doing the rounds on social media that I found interesting, where a New York-based literary agent advocated a ‘suggested word count chart’ published by Writer’s Digest.
In short, the suggestions ran as follows:
Below 70,000 – you’re too short
70-80K – it’s ok, may be short
80-90K – sweet spot
100-110K – probably ok, might be long
110k+ – unless you’re sci-fi or fantasy, you’re too long.
The post gained a fair bit of traction, with many stating that these word counts are too long and need refining. Chris Black, Senior Editor of indie publisher Fahrenheit 13, responded by saying: ‘Harsh. I’ve known plenty of greats in the 50-60K range. Take 40k off each category and it’s about right.’ Other comments such as ‘Love a nice tight story’ and ‘60-65k is gold’ were also commonplace.
I must say I sided with this view. Modern readers now have their book reading time seriously compromised by the constant consumption of the (entirely relevant and individually defined) information available on their mobile phone, as well as other bespoke entertainment options such as Netflix. Not to mention, in many cases, increased commuting times – and for those outside of London, that means driving. Few people have many chances to regularly sit down and read big chunks of a work at a time. To suggest below 70,000 is too short is crazy, especially in my preferred genres of crime/noir/mystery.
Some of my favourite contemporary writers such as Ken Bruen and Scott Phillips are often in the 60-70,000 range and sometimes below that. It’s also easy to forget that many classics didn’t subscribe to the ‘big is best’ theory. A Clockwork Orange was approximately 59,000 words long, while Ian Fleming’s debut Bond novel, Casino Royale, came in at 44k. Try these others for size: The Big Sleep (55k), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (61k), The Great Gatsby (48k), Fight Club (49k), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (47k).
I enjoy a sprawling James Ellroy as much as anyone, but if I want to get through 15-20 books a year to give myself a variable literary experience, I need plenty of reads where brevity was the author’s watchword.
There is too much emphasis within the publishing industry (I’m mainly looking at the big 5 here) on length, and conforming to the belief that readers associate a thick book with value for money. Are they really that bothered? The ones I speak to aren’t; they just want something they feel they’ll enjoy. A blurb with a strong hook is surely more powerful than bulkiness?
The same could be said for films. Want to plan the rest of your day around watching a new movie? Most of them are over two hours now, many towards or over three, as the companies want to justify the rising cinema ticket prices. I’m a big 90-minute fan. I want the story to be the experience, not the ‘cinematic experience’ to be taking up half my day with ads, trailers and a bloated main feature.
Going back to social media, I see many posts from writers (new and established) who are putting themselves under pressure by tracking their progress purely to word counts. ‘Phew, 5,000 words done today, target met!’
Yes it’s important to gather momentum when taking on such a sizeable project, but bashing out words for the sake of numbers can lead down a dangerous path. While the saying of ‘you can’t edit a blank page’ is obviously true, editing 5,000 crap words can take a whole lot longer than focusing on quality from the start. I’d rather spend a day writing 500 beautiful words than 5,000 churned-out ones.
Word counts are still important because they serve as a guide to how much of our investment, in terms of time, is required. However, don’t let this detract from more powerful factors such as organic pacing and storytelling. If you’re penning a novel, just focus on telling the story you want to tell in the first draft and consider those marketing-based word-count formulas later if you must. If you’re a reader, just continue enjoying the stories.
It’s fair to say that he accomplished a fair bit in his life, becoming a respected lawyer, college professor, journalist, and author of 29 books. But I’d like to talk about an early marker he laid down which I think remains his finest work, and certainly my favourite – his 1970 debut novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
The tale gets off to a typically cynical, uncompromising start: ‘Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns. “I can get your pieces probably by tomorrow night”.’
What follows is a well-founded chronicle of desperate urban lowlifes all out to get their own – from cold-blooded thieves and black market sellers to lying cops and dodgy politicians. The title character, a small-time criminal turned informant, is hustling hard to set up a gun purchase deal as a middle man so he can give the cops a buyer’s name that may reduce serious jail time coming his way after being caught trucking stolen booze. The story unfolds amongst shabby streets, seedy bars and sullen diners – there’s no Godfather glamour here.
The book’s lucid and atmospheric depiction of the city of Boston received widespread acclaim, to the extent that it was credited with establishing the powerful ‘Boston noir’ subgenre of crime fiction that influenced the style of heavyweight writers like Dennis Lehane and Robert B. Parker, as well iconic films such as The Departed and The Town.
When piecing The Friends of Eddie Coyle together, Higgins already had an impressive knowledge base to draw inspiration and detail from. The Massachusetts native had a law degree from Boston College under his belt, was working as an assistant attorney within anti-organised-crime units, and had written for publications including the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press (for whom he covered a lot of mafia trials) as a reporter and columnist. Oh, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle was his 15th completed novel, the others never getting into print and he ended up destroying them.
His grip on the day-to-day realities of law and order, as well as the principles of crime writing, was therefore already tight, as was his ability to weave convincing characterisation around his plotting.
Higgins, like another favourite author of mine, Elmore Leonard, was a purist when it came to stylising his dialogue. He had a gift for evoking accurate, hardened street-talk and editing it into a stringently compressed form. This method sharpened the tension in a way that often implied the action to come (or that had been) rather than stating it, creating true voices rather than mere words. He loved using dialogue so much that he ended up exploring story and character through it. Here’s another snippet:
“You gotta do something,” Coyle said. “I want you to do something for me, all right?”
“First I want to hear what it is,” Foley said. “Then I want to know why. You got this problem remembering what’s in the deal and what isn’t, I seem to recall.”
“Look,” Coyle said, “never mind that shit. I want you to call New Hampshire and ask him, would it be enough if I was to give you the guys that’re robbing the banks there?”
“What guys,” Foley said, “what banks?”
“You know what guys and you know what banks. I’m not saying I’m gonna do it, now, you understand. I just wanta know, would that do it if I did?”
“Suppose it will. Are you gonna do it?”
“I dunno,” Coyle said.
Critics and readers latched on to Higgins’ beautifully crafted prose and the panoramic scope in which he framed Eddie’s story (spoiler alter: turns out he didn’t have any friends) as well as the inner workings of law enforcement and the Irish-American underworld within the Boston milieu. The book became a bestseller and was adapted into a cool film starring Robert Mitchum.
After the success of his debut release, Higgins went on to have many novels published, but continued with the day job. He entered private law practice in 1973 and later became a professor at Boston College and Boston University. He died of a heart attack seven days before his 60th birthday, on 6 November 1999, at his home in Milton, Massachusetts.
Despite his prolific fictional output and its undoubted quality, Higgins’ work unfortunately never received high-level media attention. However, The Friends of Eddie Coyle remains a cult classic and an influential text amongst the noir fiction fraternity. Let’s keep spreading the word to ensure it stays that way.[Top]
American author Elizabeth Strout is one of my favourite writers, and the imminent return of her most compelling character is a delightful prospect for any reader who enjoys smart, nuanced storytelling.
Olive, Again is being released next month, a follow-up to Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 novel Olive Kitteridge, and I can’t wait to get my copy.
The PR blurb reads: ‘Olive, Again follows the blunt, contradictory yet deeply loveable Olive Kitteridge as she grows older, navigating the second half of her life as she comes to terms with the changes – sometimes welcome, sometimes not – in her own existence and in those around her.
‘Olive adjusts to her new life with her second husband, challenges her estranged son and his family to accept him, experiences loss and loneliness, witnesses the triumphs and heartbreaks of her friends and neighbours in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine – and, finally, opens herself to new lessons about life.’
Rarely do characters come as multi-layered as Olive. Strout used all her creative expertise and deep understanding of human relationships to craft a powerful and quirky persona. Olive, an ill-tempered junior high school maths teacher who gives her husband short shrift at pretty much every opportunity, is brusque, flawed and fascinating in roughly equal measure.
Intellectually sharp yet lacking emotional intelligence, she is conflicted by, among many other things, feelings of guilt over an affair she has with a colleague at the school and severe frustration at her inability to show love and openness, particularly when in the company of her son.
Not one for social niceties, Olive’s bluntness and absence of self-awareness leads her down several rough and difficult paths. The character reached iconic status when portrayed by the mesmeric Frances McDormand in HBO’s 2014 TV series based on the book, the actress nailing the emotional complexity of Olive’s nature with exquisite compassion and discord.
It’s hard to believe that Olive Kitteridge was only Strout’s third published novel, considering the masterful poise and elegance of the writing style. The richness and authenticity of the title character is woven into a collection interrelated stories within the book, allowing the multiple perspectives to add wider context (a technique Strout echoes in the sublime Anything is Possible, released in 2017).
Olive, Again looks set to reaffirm Strout’s status as an extraordinarily gifted novelist whose place as one of the very best storytellers is already assured. Her vision and fully-rounded grasp of human behaviour – and her ability to translate that to the page – has given us an array of convincing characters – and they don’t come any more convincing than Olive Kitteridge.
“It turns out – I just wasn’t done with Olive,” Strout says. “It was like she kept poking me in the ribs, so I finally said, ‘Okay, okay’…”[Top]
Heavyweight authors such as Stephen King, Don Winslow and Dennis Lehane, together with a deluge of publishing insiders, critics and bloggers, have been waxing lyrical about the novel over the last few months having received their advanced reader copies – so many in fact that I was getting worried for McKinty that there wouldn’t be many readers left to actually buy the book following its release.
Fear not, for the buzz hasn’t stopped since its publication a couple of weeks ago and my purchase is another contribution to the royalty coffers. Readers of this site will know that I am a huge fan of McKinty, loving the rawness and nostalgia that comes from his Sean Duffy series and the brutal noir of his Michael Forsythe trilogy.
The Chain is a departure from his previous work, written more in the style of a commercial thriller to capture a wider scope of readers. The premise in a nutshell: Your phone rings. A stranger has kidnapped your child. To free them you must abduct someone else’s child. Your child will be released when your victim’s parents kidnap another child. If any of these things don’t happen, your child will be killed. You are now part of the chain.
A chilling start, and the best thing about the first half of The Chain is how McKinty’s trademark pace and tempo drives the story along. Rachel O’Neill, a mid-30s divorcee who is recovering from cancer, is the one who gets that dreaded phone call, informing her that her 13-year-old daughter Kylie has been kidnapped. Rachel acquires the support of ex-brother-in-law Pete, an Iraq war vet who has the weaponry and IT software knowledge to help her take on the people behind the chain.
Some reviewers have remarked about McKinty’s shift from crime novel to mainstream thriller here, but I’ve never been a fan of pigeon-holing books into genres that cover such vast material. The crossovers are inevitable. I’ve regarded all McKinty’s novels as ‘thrillers’, in that they are thrilling reads packed with thrilling action, and this work is no different.
It is heavily plot-driven of course, but it doesn’t come at the cost of losing any depth of characterisation. McKinty gives us short bursts of detail that bring the protagonists to life, that sharpen the edges. This is especially the case in the second half of the book that delves into the backstory of how the concept of the chain was formed and the people behind it. Although I won’t give much away for fear of spoilers, it is these darker elements to the story that really give the book that punchy, visceral McKinty feel.
The plot is reliant on several parents from a non-criminal background taking on, in turn, a string of unfamiliar and life-threatening tasks. Scouting and prepping a suitable hideaway, planning and successfully carrying out the ruthless kidnapping of a child, becoming proficient in the use of firearms, hiding evidence of their identities in all communications, covering their tracks physically and digitally, convincingly threatening the next parent in the chain, etc. In the hands of some authors, this might come across as slightly implausible, but McKinty is a safe pair of hands. His years of quality writing experience allow him to paint a vivid picture of what motivates his characters, in this case demonstrating that the besieged parents, suffering from the gut-wrenching pain of having their child taken from them, are driven by that very despair – and the guilt they will have to live with if they don’t pull this off – to stoop to whatever level is necessary to get their child back. A primeval force takes over.
As Rachel herself surmises: ‘Even an imbecile knows you don’t get between a grizzly-bear mama and her cub’
The Chain is a breath-taking read worthy of the hype surrounding it and no writer deserves the success more than McKinty (Paramount have already bought the film rights in a seven-figure deal). In recent interviews McKinty has revealed that – despite the critical acclaim and awards that his backlist has received – he was on the verge of quitting writing due to a lack of monetary return. This came as a surprise to me as I was under the impression that his standing as one of the top British crime writers meant he was doing pretty well earnings wise.
It says a lot about the state of the current publishing industry that such a talented and relatively high-profile author, whose books received coverage in the national press, was struggling to earn a living from the trade. No wonder he wanted to go down the route of producing a more commercially-orientated standalone – and thankfully it’s a belter.[Top]
Aside from the day job and promoting my noir thriller Back Door to Hell in recent months, I’ve still been finding time – as always – to read some riveting books.
So to give you a flavour of what I’d recommend at the cutting edge of contemporary crime fiction, below are some reviews I’ve posted for some of my favourite reads of 2019 so far…
Last Year’s Man, by Paul D. Brazill
I’ve always been fascinated by the ageing gangster/hitman theme and this slick and stylish noir thriller from Paul D. Brazill is a barnstorming success.
Tommy Bennett, feeling heat from the London law after a botched job, returns to his native north east (a nice nod to Get Carter) to lay low and regroup. But reconnecting with old underground acquaintances and family members is no easy thing, nor is dealing with a weakening bladder and increasing medication routines, and Tommy needs to show all his grit and resourcefulness to steer clear of dangerous old ghosts haunting him.
Structured within an easily digestible novella length, this is a breezy tale filled with Brazill’s familiar sharp, clipped dialogue. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud one-liners, while the cultural references are relevant and the violence is vivid. The free-flowing narrative makes this a really enjoyable read and a standout addition to this author’s extremely credible back catalogue.
Dread: The Art of Serial Killing, by Mark Ramsden
This smart, sharply observed thriller is a thoroughly entertaining and rewarding read.
Few main protagonists are as entrancing and depraved as the Dickens-obsessed Madden, a spy and a serial killer who’s spinning more than a few plates as he infiltrates a right-wing nationalist group.
Aside from the charismatic and twisted hero/anti-hero, the prose style is a real highlight to this book. Shifting in tone from despair to graphic with a slick rhythm and a healthy dose of perfectly pitched dark humour throughout, the author is effortlessly in control of where he’s steering you.
The tempo and style reminded me of the brutal yet eloquent noir of Matthew Stokoe in places. This is a read that you won’t forget in a hurry – highly recommended.
Townies: And Other Stories of Southern Mischief, by Eryk Pruitt
I love short story collections and I’ve come across some of Eryk Pruitt’s writing in a few crime anthologies, but this was my first experience of a whole book of his work.
His range is impressive – in terms of subject matter, characters and setting – and there’s something here for every fiction fan, from a humorous take on a vengeful tale about profiting via fantasy football to a cruel battle over a lawn mowing route.
The dialogue in every story is convincing and the themes explored – whether it’s violence, the threat of violence, desperation or redemption – are delivered with care an aplomb. Lots of showing not telling, lots of brutality and second guessing, this author has a lot of control over his writing and the stories had me entertained and, in some cases, spellbound.
Dead is Beautiful, by Jo Perry
The Charlie and Rose series has captured the hearts and imagination of many readers, and with this latest instalment it’s easy to see why.
Charlie and his ghostly canine companion Rose, both dead and existing in a surreal afterlife, return to LA in this new mystery crammed with hardened prose, dry humour, and of course dark, dark noir.
A mature tree is felled illegally, throwing the two protagonists into an investigation that leads to a murder and into the path of Charlie’s brother, who’s in danger and needs help. Charlie, who never got on with his sibling, is trapped in a state of melancholy for much of this tale and needs the good-natured and perceptive Rose by his side more than ever if he’s going to power through.
Exploring the city’s homelessness as well as its luxury mansions, this book has great range of setting and character. The profound tone of the story is complemented by the brusque writing style and existential backdrop, all played out with a shrewd, ironic edge.
Fahrenheit Press deserve great praise for putting their faith in this brave and accomplished series. ‘The coolest collection of hardboiled and experimental crime fiction on the planet’ is the blurb of imprint Fahrenheit 13 – on this evidence, that claim is being fulfilled in spades.
Death of an Angel, by Derek Farrell
Danny Bird’s fourth adventure, this book is woven with a delightfully smooth and engaging writing style that really hooks you in from the start.
The stakes are high for the main protagonist, a bar manager/amateur sleuth, as he attempts to solve a multi-layered mystery that is intricately plotted and laced with polished humour. Danny’s exploits see him exposed to a wide range of characters and settings, up against high-powered corruption as well as domestic and personal strife.
The prose has a gorgeous, warm flow to it that particularly appealed to me, while the story is skilfully structured as it builds to a fitting crescendo.
Like all good series books, Death of an Angel also works as a standalone, with the various twists and turns – all driven from, or towards, the heart of the main character – unravelled with masterful elegance.
Broken Dreams, by Nick Quantrill
Down-at-heel PI Joe Geraghty, scraping a living in the northern, isolated city of Hull, is hired by a local businessman to investigate a staff member’s unexplained absenteeism. The case soon leads Geraghty into the heart of a murder investigation that carries links to Frank Salford, a key businessman central to the city’s regeneration scheme who is also a ruthless gangland boss.
The pace of this book is strong from the start and the drama heightens nicely as the story unfolds and the stakes rise. Geraghty is a very well-drawn character, the naturalness of his mannerisms, behaviour, outlook and dialogue really flesh out the believability factor in him. So many authors try to make their characters appear real by homing in on their ‘normal’ qualities to make them likeable and it can feel too contrived, but everything about Geraghty – the good and the bad – comes across as authentic in an effortless way.
But there’s another major character that deserves a mention here – Hull itself. Reading the book from the perspective of someone who has never been there but has felt enriched by visiting many northern cities, including living in one for four years, I felt this was a real bonus in Broken Dreams. Getting to know the many parts of Hull, from its past as a fishing fortress to its modern-day cultural renaissance, and feeling its gritty core and warm soul contributes significantly to the success of this urban tour-de-force.[Top]
Highly revered author and jazz musician Mark Ramsden, writer of eight novels including The Sacred Blood and Dread – The Art of Serial Killing, gave Back Door to Hell a full five stars in his review on Goodreads.
He wrote: ‘Thrills, spills, emotional depth. Back Door to Hell’s fugitive couple have rightly drawn some comparisons with True Romance . . . this is as exciting as a Quentin Tarantino script.’
‘Events unfold realistically rather than for effect or as an homage. There’s accurate social commentary, good sense of place. This does not take place in an alternative comic book universe: Back Door to Hell is real,’ he added.
‘Very soon after starting you have to know what happens next. Which isn’t what you thought it would be yet makes perfect sense. Highly recommended.’
Another review written by US-based crime fiction aficionado Nicola Parry said: ‘This is a great read.’
‘Paul Gadsby reeled me into this story with a relaxed writing tone that kind of left me feeling like I was an onlooker in it, watching the crime play out . . . I dare you not to be rooting for this crime duo as they trip around England, trying to avoid the consequences of their actions.’
‘I don’t know why, but all the way through this book, I could hear Pulp’s ‘Common People’ playing in my head.’
‘Overall, it’s brilliant, harrowing, and poignant. It’ll definitely leave you wanting more.’
Another reviewer on Amazon wrote: ‘Back Door to Hell takes us on a journey from South London to The Lakes, The North Sea Coast and back again at breakneck speed in the company of two engaging young anti-heroes.
‘If George Pelecanos had come from this side of the Atlantic, his prose would sound like this … Gadsby’s attention to detail and character development within a crisply executed story cannot be faulted.’[Top]
More rave reviews have been flooding in for my noir thriller Back Door to Hell.
After an initial burst of positive feedback from critics and fans on publication by Fahrenheit Press, the novel has received a further batch of excellent reviews from all corners of the globe.
Critically-acclaimed crime author Aidan Thorn called the book ‘A very British True Romance’ in his review posted on the Fahrenheit website.
‘So much to enjoy here,’ he added. ‘The relationship between the two young thieves, reminiscent of Clarence and Alabama in True Romance, the depth to the often neglected bad guy, Crawford, with a glimpse into his home life. All of that is wrapped in a cat and mouse that despite the depth remains tense and interesting.’
Over on AustCrime, a website based in Australia that focuses on Australasian crime fiction as well as books from around the world, Gordon Duncan wrote: ‘Back Door To Hell really stands out.’
‘The story of boy meets girl, boy is convinced by the girl to take part in a robbery, all does not go to plan and boy and girl go on the run seems on the surface to be a familiar one, there are however many more layers to this excellent noir novel.’
‘Nate and Jen . . . not only need to trust each other, they must also decide who else to trust if they are to survive. I highly recommend reading Back Door To Hell to find out if they do.’
On The Irresponsible Reader blog, based in Idaho, USA, HC Newton said of the novel: ‘This is a fast-moving book, and the pages just melt away . . . It’ll draw you in and keep you riveted through all the twists and turns. And each time you start to think you know what’s going to happen, Gadsby will tell you that you’re wrong. And then he’ll throw a curveball at you.’
‘This is a treat folks, you’d do well to indulge.’[Top]
The #Fahrenbruary online festival, a spontaneous brainchild of book bloggers @laughinggravy71 and @thatmattkeyes, ran throughout February and encouraged fellow bloggers as well as authors and crime fiction fans of any description to get involved by reading a Fahrenheit book and posting a review, whether that be on their own site or on Fahrenheit, Amazon, Goodreads etc.
As well as spreading the word about all things Fahrenheit and celebrating the company’s glorious and daring output, the campaign achieved a wider scope of promoting the efforts and importance of indie publishers in general.
I contributed by writing a guest post on the Laughing Gravy blog titled ‘Couples on the run that inspired Back Door to Hell’ which ran through some compelling and famous books that I used as inspiration for the plot behind my noir novel Back Door to Hell.
I discussed further details about the book and also talked about my writing background and my thoughts on the independent publishing sector in a Q&A article on the Laughing Gravy site.[Top]
The piece, titled ‘The best cat-and-mouse chase thrillers in crime fiction’, explores 10 examples of captivating stories – ranging from the classic to the modern – that feature a significant chase as part of the plot, from police pursuing criminals to villains hunting after each other.
Take a look and let me know at @PaulJGadsby if you think I’ve missed any crackers out.[Top]
My newly-released noir thriller Back Door to Hell is going down a storm with crime fiction critics and fans.
Early reviews have praised the novel’s pace, characterisation and the tense storyline which keeps readers on the edge of their seat until the end.
American freelance writer and book reviewer Brian Greene posted a review on the highly revered website Criminal Element, labelling Back Door to Hell ‘an exhilarating thriller’ and ‘a novel that seems ripe for film adaptation.’
He adds: ‘What sets Back Door to Hell apart is its naturalness… While other contemporary crime fiction scribes go out of their way to make sure their books have the fashionable noir qualities, there’s no such affectation in Gadsby’s work. His characters are believable, his storylines are interesting, and his writing is organic. And he excels at revealing the multiple dimensions of his characters’ life situations and internal makeup.’
Meanwhile on another illustrious crime website, Crime Fiction Lover, reviewer Louis Bravos said the novel was a ‘brilliant slice of British noir which packs a lot of punch and says a lot about modern-day Britain.’
His review adds: ‘Back Door To Hell is as tense and edge of your seat as any heist novel, packing a lot into 200 pages plus change. What really separates it from others in the genre is how believable and contemporary it is.’
Over on Goodreads, one reviewer said: ‘The action & plot twists alone are enough to keep you turning the pages… The prose is smooth & clean with enough detail to provide atmosphere but never at the expense of pace… As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think ahead & wonder how it would end. There are several choices, at least one of which would have been disappointingly unrealistic. Thankfully, the author chose an ending that is sobering yet oddly hopeful. And now I have a new (to me) author to follow.’
The reviews on Amazon have also been extremely positive. One review said: ‘Fast moving story well written. Couldn’t put it down for wanting to find out the next twist and turn. Lots of action with plausible characters.’
Another wrote: ‘What a great book, fast, pacey, I couldn’t put it down. I would highly recommend it, you won’t be disappointed,’ while another said: ‘A fabulous read! I was engrossed in the story and really rooted for the main 2 characters. I highly recommend this book.’
‘A thrilling read from start to finish,’ wrote another. ‘A great plot and moments of genuine tension throughout with a climax that plays on the emotions. Gadsby sets the scene from the mean streets of south-east London to a cross-country chase superbly. A real page-turner.’
The popular, award-winning ‘Beardy Book Blogger’ also loved the novel, saying it was ‘a true rollercoaster of a book. It is short and to the point and really draws you into the story. There is no dead air here; Paul Gadsby keeps the pace high and the tension is palpable throughout.’
Click here for more details about Back Door to Hell and how to buy direct from publisher Fahrenheit Press.[Top]
My new noir thriller Back Door to Hell has just been released by Fahrenheit 13.
The publisher of the coolest collection of hard-boiled noir and experimental crime fiction on the planet (their words, but independently verified by several sources as absolutely true) publishes a new book on the 13th of every month, and January 2019 is the turn of my second full-length novel.
Back Door to Hell is a lean and pacey thriller that follows a young couple on the run after they steal a shedload of cash from a South London underworld crime boss.
It’s available at a fantastic price as well, from just £1.69 on ebook and £8.95 on paperback as a special new-release offer – so get in quick while the generosity lasts.[Top]
I’m delighted to reveal that my new crime novel, Back Door to Hell, will be published by Fahrenheit 13 in the New Year.
The publisher’s senior editor, Chris Black, and I have been working on the edits over the last few months and the book is all set for release in January 2019.
Fahrenheit 13 is an imprint of Fahrenheit Press, one of the coolest, bravest and most important independent publishers around, devoted to providing readers with the finest and most original crime fiction on the planet.
Back Door to Hell is a fast-paced noir thriller that follows a young couple who, desperate to improve their lives, embark on an audacious cash robbery that results in a cat-and-mouse chase around the country.
The book is my second full-length published crime novel, after Chasing the Game, and my second collaboration with Fahrenheit Press after my short story Washed Up was selected to be included in their groundbreaking Noirville anthology following an open competition.
More news about Back Door to Hell will be announced here in due course. Watch this space and all that…[Top]
With the comfort of home or familiarity of work out of the equation as a setting, hotels are natural havens for dark reflection, for brewing trouble.
They are places to set up an illicit rendezvous, to seek shelter in an emergency, to lay low and heal wounds, to hatch a plan, to break up a defining journey, to let loose on holiday, to discover a secret.
And they generate change. Characters rarely check out in the same state or mood as when they arrived…
No Country for Old Men
Let’s kick off with this Cormac McCarthy cracker that treats us to hotel scenes aplenty. There’s Llewelyn Moss holing up with a satchel containing $2.4m in stolen cash that hired hitman Anton Chigurh nearly snatches from his grasp in a Texas motel, not to mention Chigurh patching himself up from bullet wounds later on as the brutal chase spills south. But my abiding memory of this book is a recovering Chigurh taking out rival hitman Carson Wells, who is also on the trail of the loot, in Wells’ hotel room near the Mexican border. The two share some candid words in the darkened room as a poised Chigurh holds his shotgun at Wells, McCarthy’s pitch-perfect dialogue making it feel like a privilege to eavesdrop on this private discourse between two pro killers as death looms.
Just do it.
Yes, they always say that. But they don’t mean it, do they?
The Eye of the Beholder
A rogue PI follows Joanna Eris, a scheming serial killer, in this creepy cross-state thriller from Marc Behm. Fascinated by her actions, the PI, unbeknown to Joanna, cleans up after her murders as she vaults from city to city seducing rich men and killing them. During a stay in New York, an off-duty NYPD sergeant sees her fleeing the scene of a minor road accident and follows her back to her hotel room. Inside, he asks her questions and is met by a wall of evasiveness as the tension rises. Sensing she has something to hide, the cocky officer threatens to arrest her. For the first time we sense Joanna’s world falling apart, but she gathers herself and identifies the sleazy officer’s weakness. As he moves closer suggesting a sexual bribe, she swipes his pistol from his holster and shoots him dead. The snooping PI, having bugged the room, hears everything and is relieved that his voyeuristic adventures can continue.
Stephen King in his pomp, creating one of the most haunting settings ever with the isolated Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. Winter caretaker Jack Torrance is starting to suffer from cabin fever in the vast and vacant hotel, his erratic state putting his wife and son in danger. Out of all the chilling scenes, the most telling in which our view of Jack changes forever is when he walks into the huge ballroom where the bar, as we well know by now, has no alcohol. But in a flash the shelves are lined with bottles of liquor and a bartender, Lloyd, is serving Jack drinks. Jack talks about his woes, Lloyd is a good listener. The presence of another character brings a new dynamic to the story, the fresh voice penetrating the mind of the reader. King makes it clear that Lloyd is a ghost and the drinks are imaginary, leaving us in fear of Jack’s sanity as Lloyd, speaking on behalf of the hotel’s malicious spirit it seems, advises Jack to ‘correct’ his family. There’s no turning back now.
The Motel Life
This 2006 debut novel from Willy Vlautin is a taut and compassionate tale of two destitute high-school-dropout brothers, Frank and Jerry Lee, set in Nevada. Forced to go on the run after Jerry Lee, drink driving one night, accidentally hits and kills a teenage cyclist, they head for Montana, sleeping in their car on some nights and in cheap motels on others. Vlautin skilfully explores the fears, frustrations and faded dreams of two low-income young men left behind by society and desperately short of luck. Riddled with guilt from the fatal accident, Jerry Lee shoots himself in the leg. While in hospital recuperating, he persuades Frank to break him out so they can continue their journey. In a motel in Elko, the brothers spend the night talking about their lives and fight to raise each other’s spirits in a heartrending scene, as Jerry Lee’s wounds worsen.
The Day of the Jackal
The Jackal, on a hired mission to assassinate Charles de Gaulle in 1960s Paris, has the French police on his tail and is starting to feel the pressure in this Frederick Forsyth classic. During a brief stay in a swish hotel in the south of France we see a different side to him as he seduces an older French woman. Although his survival instincts are part of the exercise (he later takes refuge in the woman’s chateau before he is forced to kill her when she discovers his rifle amongst his belongings), the scene stands out as it shows the Jackal acting on a motivation other than his ultra-professional drive to complete his mission. After the killing, the Jackal is no longer seen by the reader as unflappable.
Couldn’t really miss this one out now, could I? Robert Bloch’s 1959 hit is one of the most absorbing mysteries ever written and served as a blueprint for how to weave deep psychological analysis into the flow of a thriller. My favourite scene in the Bates Motel is when Norman spies on Mary through the drilled hole in his office wall that runs into her bathroom after they’ve just shared an awkward dinner at the house following her late arrival with no open restaurant nearby. Drunk, confused, angry and excited, Norman gets dizzy at the sight of Mary undressing (she was swaying back and forth . . . and she was wavy, and he couldn’t stand it, he wanted to pound on the wall, he wanted to scream at her to stop) and, we’re led to believe at this stage, passes out in the office chair just before Mary enters the shower.
And another 6 that almost made it…
The Spy Who Loved Me, by Ian Fleming.
Pessimist, by Chris Rhatigan
Galveston, by Nic Pizzolatto
Jack’s Return Home, by Ted Lewis
1980, by David Peace
Those Who Walk Away, by Patricia Highsmith
Released on 15 August 1988, this extraordinary novel blends historical fact and fictional speculation to offer a mesmerising account of the infamous murder of President John F. Kennedy in his motorcade in downtown Dallas 1963. The tale is told purely from the perspective of the man predominantly – and officially at least – held responsible for the killing: Lee Harvey Oswald.
Whether Oswald was the lone assassin is still open to fierce dispute, with many ballistics experts, historians and witnesses still offering to this day conflicting accounts of what transpired during that fateful November lunchtime.
Despite the government-backed Warren Commission report concluding that Oswald acted alone in firing three shots from his rifle from the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository, there is no universal consensus on several details. The number of gunmen involved, the calibre of the weaponry used, the quantity of rounds fired and from which location(s), as well as the overriding motive, are all still up for debate.
In Libra (the title being Oswald’s astrological sign), DeLillo explores what he regards as the most likely possibility: that the hit was instigated by disgruntled CIA operatives carrying deep anti-Castro ideology that Kennedy was failing to prioritise. In this version of events Oswald’s shots were – unbeknown to him – supplemented by more deft marksmanship from the grassy knoll, a controversial spot many have claimed to be the most realistic source of the fatal headshot captured so vividly and brutally in the Zapruder film.
“I could perhaps have written the same book with a completely different assassination scenario,” DeLillo said in a Rolling Stone interview in 1991.
But the technical details of the hit are not why people should read this book. They should read it for DeLillo’s unflinching yet visceral depiction of Oswald’s painful and pitiful journey.
Starting with a haunting scene of him riding the subway through the Bronx during a turbulent two-year stay in New York in his early teens, we get an immediate sense of this misfit searching for meaning. Standing pressed against the window taking the curves, jerks and pushes of the train, he finds that the drunks, pickpockets and dark tunnels of the bowels beneath the city hold more allure for him than the glittering streets above. It’s so real you feel you can almost reach out and touch him.
The book follows Oswald’s adolescent years followed by a failed stint in the US Marine Corps, an ultimately failed defection to the old Soviet Union and his violent marriage. Then it cranks up, covering his desperate but fruitless struggle to leverage his passionate communist views into a position of authority within high-ranking pro-red social circles on his return to the USA.
DeLillo skilfully paints a picture of this vivid outcast – intellectually, socially, physically and emotionally – as he constantly strives to find his place, to earn the respect he craves.
There is no effort to portray Oswald sympathetically, or even critically. He is carved open and exposed for readers to draw their own conclusions of the man as the narrative weaves towards Dealey Plaza. The internal conflicts and self-contradictions Oswald battles with pull him closer to the surface, sharpening the hazy sketches of his personality provided by numerous documentaries.
We learn that Oswald loves his young Russian wife yet hits her, he would do anything for his children but hatches a plan that draws him away from their clutches. He is well-read but dyslexic, he is thoughtful yet not smart, he is driven but also confused.
No one has analysed the complex and infuriating character that is Oswald through such a deep lens. The inner intensity of Oswald’s escape from the depository, his subsequent shooting of a police officer in the street and his arrest in a nearby cinema, and his final hours that follow is gloriously seamless and utterly compelling.
Libra won The Irish Times’ first International Fiction Prize and, three decades on, is still a classic example of how to get under the skin of a multi-layered persona in the public eye and truly dissect every sense of their being.[Top]
Some books impress you for their slick writing style or their gripping story. Or their well-drawn characters or the captivating world they carve into your imagination. Dodgers doesn’t impress you. It chisels itself into you. It overpowers you. It stays with you.
Bill Beverly’s debut novel, published in 2016, came out of nowhere. The author, Associate Professor of English at Trinity University in Washington DC, doesn’t appear to be your average breakthrough novelist. At the time of writing he has yet to release another work of fiction, so cashing in while his name is hot isn’t on his agenda. According to interviews, he took his time penning Dodgers. It was worth the wait.
Giving himself no deadline as he wrote, he went against what many new writers are encouraged to do by agents in the modern publishing climate: plan everything with a long-running series in mind. Culminating far too often in a stale, recurring main character doing the same things again and again. No, Dodgers is purely a standalone tale – as all the great works of literature are.
Relayed in meticulous and economical third-person prose, we follow the journey of 15-year-old LA ghetto soldier East in what can be described as both a crime caper road trip and a coming-of-age saga, a contemporary thriller in dialogue and place with the stylistic undertones of a classic fable.
East, the eldest son of a troubled single mother, works for a drug peddling crew, just like pretty much everyone else he knows on the streets of the bleak African-American suburban landscape he has been raised, where the prospect of a violent death is constant. Resourceful, watchful and earnest, he has a natural flair for survival – and he’s going to need it.
The crew’s boss, Fin, needs a Wisconsin-based witness killed before the guy can testify against his nephew in an upcoming trial. Fin tasks East, his trigger-happy 13-year-old half-brother Ty, and two other young crew members – the overweight Walter and the cocky Michael – with travelling across America to carry out the hit.
Hopping on a flight is deemed by Fin as too traceable, so he sets them up with a van kitted out with sleeping quarters and money for petrol and basic leaving expenses. The gang of four are forced to ditch their IDs, cards, phones and weapons so they can’t be identified if caught. They are all given LA Dodgers baseball jerseys to wear as cover, hence the title.
East has never been outside his home city before, and the country and terrain is alien to all of them. It’s not long before the quartet are at odds with each other as well as the job, and it turns out that Ty is carrying, having hidden a small pistol in his trousers. It’s okay, he’s only the most unstable of the four in that van.
Things don’t go to plan. The four of them have to improvise under pressure as things fall apart amidst a backdrop of the Midwest heartland rusting to a slow death. Characters are tested as the drama heightens. The van is vandalised and spray-painted with a racial slur. The mission flips. East and Michael have a vicious punch-up, the group splits in stages.
East, wise but with plenty still to learn, naïve yet world-weary, carries so much weight and humanity. He is one of the most original and heartrendingly authentic characters I’ve ever read.
The book is sharp and taught, while everything that happens is driven by a convincing rationale. These characters don’t have many choices to make, if any at all. The plot is simple and tense; there is no need for coincidences or twists. The observations Beverly draws are insightful and relevant, the visuals he paints in your mind are startlingly real.
Dodgers has drawn merited comparisons to HBO gem The Wire and picked up Golden Dagger Awards for both best crime novel and best debut. For me, nothing has matched it for many years. We had some great releases in the noughties and Dodgers is, so far, the best book of the 2010s (is that what they’re calling this decade?).
Check it out. If you already have, read it again.[Top]
This doesn’t happen very often: there has been a small victory for independent bookshops over one of the big boys this week…
National bookselling chain Waterstones was forced to backtrack on its intention to open one of its unbranded stores in the same Edinburgh suburb that is already home to an independent bookshop.
The retail giant caused controversy last year when it announced it was opening three outlets in Southwold, Harpenden and Rye without the company’s traditional branding and with different names. The move led to accusations that the stores would surreptitiously appear to shoppers as independent bookshops (surely not?), with just a handwritten notice in the window declaring the true identity of the owners.
Waterstones chief executive, James Daunt, said at the time: “They are very small shops in towns that had independents and very much wish they still had independents but don’t.”
But plans emerged earlier this week that Waterstones was going to open a further unbranded store in the Edinburgh district of Stockbridge where – lo and behold – an independent, Golden Hare Books, is indeed trading, and has been for four years.
The shop’s not-best-pleased manager Julie Danskin told The Guardian: “This will be masquerading as an independent bookshop.”
“James Daunt talks a lot about an even playing field and working with independent brands, but this is essentially backtracking on his previous statements,” she added.
“We don’t have plans to go anywhere and really hope that people will choose to support us, but if more chains open up then we are going to see a homogenisation of streets.”
Daunt was quoted in the Bookseller as saying: “We will be calling it Stockbridge Books and look forward greatly to its opening.”
However, after a swift public backlash following the announcement, Waterstones was forced to change its tune and declared the new Stockbridge store would now display the Waterstones name and familiar branding. Daunt said: “We messed up.”
Yes, you did James – now how about reversing your original sleazy plan and uncovering all your unbranded shops?
There was always something sinister about the tactic of a chain opening unbranded stores under different names; deliberately posing as something you’re not in order to make more cash is simply not on. These shops are just trying to fool people into thinking that they’re bringing much-needed vibrancy to the high street, when in fact all they’re doing is homogenising it.
Do the right thing, Waterstones – claim what you own and work with it.[Top]
The crime fiction publisher launched an open short story competition towards the end of 2017 in order to showcase the most exciting, noir-themed writing from around the globe.
An independent panel of judges – consisting of authors and bloggers – whittled down the many hundreds of entries to the 15 exhilarating stories published in the anthology.
The book is now available in paperback and e-book formats.
You can order Noirville direct from Fahrenheit here while it is also available on Amazon. Anyone who likes bitesize, gripping crime fiction that packs a punch they can’t see coming should grab their copy now.
Noirville, which has the tagline ‘Tales From the Dark Side’, contains stories written by the following authors:
- Steve Bailey
- Sarah M. Chen
- Patsy Collins
- Russell Day
- Jen Delozier
- Paul Gadsby
- Joe Guglielmelli
- Chris Hyatt
- Scott Miles
- John Scheck
- John Schreier
- Jeff C. Stevenson
- Alex Shaw
- Marc Sorondo
- Glenda Young.
I’m thrilled to announce that a short story of mine, Washed Up, will be published in the highly anticipated ‘Noirville’ anthology soon to be released by Fahrenheit Press.
Hundreds of entries were assessed blind by an external and independent panel of judges, who were given no clues about the identity or writing experience of the authors.
The judges were:
Jo Perry (author)
Kate Moloney (blogger at Bibliophile Book Club)
Gordon McGhie (blogger at Grab This Book)
Janet Emson (blogger at From First Page to Last)
Verity Wilde (blogger at Verity Reads Books)
David Nemeth (blogger at Unlawful Acts)
‘Noirville’, which is carrying the tagline ‘Short stories from the dark side’, will be published in paperback and ebook formats in March. Watch this space for further details and how to grab your copy as the release date nears.
Find out more at https://fahrenheit-press.myshopify.com/products/noirville-paperback
When you’re honing your story writing craft, for a book or a script, there’s nothing quite like reading a quality screenplay to get the juices flowing.
The taut, compact nature of a finely tuned screenplay carries an effortless flow, sparkles with clarity and motion. The truly great screenplays, those born from an ambitious yet clearly defined vision and written with a visceral focus and relentless courage, are priceless gifts of inspiration.
So if you’re developing a concept for a story, or have hit a logjam in the writing process, run your eye over these top five movie screenplays that are readily available online. They sure have worked for me…
1. Lost in Translation, by Sofia Coppola
This is a prime example of how a series of soft and seemingly inconsequential scenes can drive a narrative along while maintaining interest and intrigue throughout. Coppola’s masterful use of understated dialogue and her development of two main characters at a poignant and relatable crossroads in their lives makes for a charming and moving story set in colourful Tokyo. Of course it helps when Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson absolutely nail the leading roles.
2. Good Will Hunting, by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck
This duo’s big Hollywood break came in the form of this spellbinding script that served to launch their acting careers. Sharp dialogue and lively snippets of untamed youth give the story early momentum, before the drama really bounces off the page when the relationship between Will and his therapist – wondrously portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie – is fully explored.
3. The Usual Suspects, by Christopher McQuarrie
One of the more plot-driven screenplays in this shortlist, McQuarrie worked with director Bryan Singer on thrashing out a story about five criminals meeting in a police line-up and came up with this scintillating script. Every page is bursting with high-octane action or deep tension, while the canny twist ending is pulled off in exquisite fashion, turning Keyser Soze into one of the most iconic legends of 20th Century cinema.
4. The Big Lebowski, by Ethan & Joel Coen
‘This was a valued rug?’
‘Yeah man, it really tied the room together.’
There’s writing and then there’s the writing of the Coen brothers. Unique, hilarious and always utterly compelling, they construct characters like no other writer. At the heart of their films is the quirky dialogue of their leading protagonists, perhaps no better crafted than here with The Dude. Even if you’re not writing a comedy, the slick and effortless prose of this screenplay is a must-read.
5. Reservoir Dogs, by Quentin Tarantino (background radio dialogue by Roger Avary)
Another script famed for its peerless dialogue, it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking Tarantino’s debut film was considering his seminal future output and how many writers have tried and failed to imitate his style. So much more than a jewellery heist gone south, the searing pace and fluent exposition of this story results in a standout screenplay that any writer should draw inspiration from.
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.