Thursday, 11 October 2018

An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

This is a novel that is tangentially about the brutal murder of a twenty-five year old woman. In life, Bella Michaels was beautiful and vivacious, the kind of woman who’s killing dominates the news media. Some people reading this description might be tempted to sigh, for crime fiction is full of beautiful young women - often blonde with blue eyes - butchered by violent serial killers. The treatment of women in crime fiction has come in for a lot of criticism over the years, some complaining their portrayal is tittilation, others like the crime writer Val McDermid, arguing it reflects the violence women all too often face. Regardless of where one sits on this argument, reading An Isolated Incident one quickly comes to realise that Bella Michael’s death isn’t actually the novel’s focus at all. Instead, this book can best be seen as a meditation on grief.

An Isolated Incident is told from the perspective of two women: Bella’s sister, Chris, and May Norman, an aspiring crime reporter. Chris is a barmaid at the local pub who’s still deeply in love with her ex-husband, Nate. May works for a website and has persuaded the editor to let her work the Bella Michaels’ story, hoping it will be her big break. As the novel unveils we learn much about both women - that Chris drinks too much and takes men home with her, many of whom leave money on the dresser the morning after; that May has been having an affair with a married man who she’s only just realised will never leave his wife, that she’s bulimic. As May tries to investigate the crime, we also learn that Nate has a conviction for beating up a former partner and is a prime suspect for Bella’s murder.

As indicated, all this is in many ways beside the point. The real power of An Isolated Incident comes from seeing events pan out from Chris’s perspective. Chris and her sister were extremely close and she is devastated by her sister’s death. Through deeply moving and beautifully poetic prose we see this etched out painfully. This is not a depressing tale, though at times it is difficult to read, the sheer emotion of someone so bereft by loss speaking from the page. 
May Norman is a more ambiguous character than Chris. In some way she is sympathetic, but her journalistic ambitions make her prey on Chris’s vulnerability. She’s not the bloodsucking journalist of cliché, the author is too accomplished a writer to opt for easy stereotypes, but it’s true to say that the media are invasive into the lives of those who suffer tragedy and May, while not as cynical as some of her colleagues, is determined to get the story.

There are other elements to the novel; a light touch of the supernatural, Chris convinced she is hearing from Bella’s spirit, but whether she is or suffering the madness of grief, the reader is left to decide; the small town of Strathdee where the murder takes place is blue collar, the kind of place that in the US might be dismissed as redneck by suburbanites. The misogyny and male chauvinism that both Chris and May face is vividly portrayed. 

This is a poignant novel, more an examination of the consequence of violent death, rather than the death itself and subsequent investigation. Indeed, when the killer is revealed it is almost irrelevant, Chris making clear herself that it won’t bring her beloved sister back. Regardless of how one views the violence portrayed in crime fiction, it’s undoubtedly true to say that too few examine the aftermath, the effect such events have on those left behind. An Isolated Incident does this and is well worth a read.

4 out of 5 stars

Trust No One by Anthony Mosawi

If one looks at the Amazon listing for this title, it get’s surprisingly ambiguous reviews. At last glance it had 15% 5 Star reviews, 35% 4 Star, 39% 3 Star, and 11% 2 Star. I point this out because I don’t understand it, having considered gripping and great fun.

Trust No One can best be described as a sci-fi conspiracy thriller. The book blurb describes it as I Am Pilgrim meets Orphan X. I’m yet too read Orphan X but it’s bit more in the sci-fi camp than I Am Pilgrim which was straight up espionage thriller.  The protagonist of Trust No One is Sara Eden a woman who can remember nothing of her past. The book flips between timelines, Sara as a young girl where we see her in a dilapidated house in a sensory deprivation tank guarded by a drug addict, and as an adult where she tries to discover why her memories were wiped.

Throughout both timelines she’s chased by forces she doesn’t not understand, men who want to do her harm. As the narrative plays out we discover Sara has almost supernatural powers, speed, strength and combat abilities that make her a match for almost anyone, intuition that is almost psychic in it’s foresight.

A lot of people reviewing this title have argued that it’s chronology is confusing, the twin timelines are disjointed and that seemingly unconnected events take a while to fit in to the wider plot and the whole thing come together. Personally I didn’t find any of this a problem and felt it was incredibly well written. Some scenes, such as one with feral dogs (I’ll resist divulging spoilers) are jaw-dropping in their intensity and extremely cleverly put together.

Personally I found this a gripping read, a real rollercoaster of a ride. My only concern is that it is clearly meant as the start of a series and I’m not sure whether the concept can carry it. The ending of Trust No One in particular felt like a cop out and I fear as the series continues my ability to sustain disbelief will be stretched. That said, I enjoyed this so much I will certainly pick up any sequel with eagerness.

4 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

An Inconvenient Death by Miles Goslett

In 2003 I was working as a researcher on the now defunct Jonathan Dimbleby Programme, produced by Granada and broadcast on ITV on Sunday, the programme was a Question Time type format (indeed, Question Time was hosted by Jonathan’s brother David) with a panel of political figures taking questions from a live audience. 2003 was an eventful year, the war in Afghanistan still ongoing after the US invasion of 2001 and the drumbeats of a new war on the horizon, with the administration of George W Bush set on a controversial invasion of Iraq. In July of that year, Dr David Kelly died, setting the scene for the Hutton Inquiry and all the fall out that came after, an event that was the focus of many an edition of the Jonathan Dimbleby Programme.

One thing I well remember is the drama of waiting outside the Royal Courts of Justice on 28thJanuary 2004 for the Hutton Inquiry report to be officially published, collecting multiple copies for the office and carrying them back, the team then proceeding to pour over the 750-page volume. So, perhaps then I can be forgiven for being fascinated with the case ever since.

Others are equally fascinated, for Miles Goslett’s An Inconvenient Death is in fact the third book to be published on the death of Dr David Kelly. The first, titled The Strange Death of David Kelly, was written by then-Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, and hit the bookshelves in 2007. The second, Dark Actors by the novelist Robert Lewis, was published in 2013. Finally, there’s An Inconvenient Death by Miles Goslett, a respected journalist who’s written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Telegraph and Mail on Sunday.

Apart from their subject, all these titles share one overarching theme: a scepticism of the official narrative. Indeed, as yet, there is no book published that supports that narrative. Of course, critics might explain this by arguing that conspiracy theories sell, which might well be true. One can fill bookcases with tomes suggesting JFK was killed by the CIA, the Cubans, the Russians, the mafia; just a shelf with those that lay the blame at the door of a lone, deranged gunman. But while this point has some justification, it also reflects something wider: a widespread concern in both cases that the official story just doesn’t stand up.

Dr David Kelly was a scientist and leading authority on biological warfare. He had been a weapons inspector in Russia and Iraq (indeed, the book Dark Actors by Robert Lewis goes into some depth on his work as a weapons inspector) and was due to return to Iraq with an inspection team. Most recently, he had been advising on the dossier being drawn up by the Joint Intelligence Committee regarding the threat of Iraq’s WMD programme and it was this work that was to seal his fate.

Kelly regularly met with journalists and he briefed the journalist Andrew Gilligan on the dossier. Gilligan, in a radio broadcast for the BBC Today Programme, went onto claim that a source had said that Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor, had “sexed up” the dossier. Campbell took this badly and in the ensuing protracted showdown between the government and the BBC, Kelly was outed as Gilligan’s source. Interestingly, Dr Kelly always denied being Gilligan’s source, something which Goslett examines and gives credence to. I have to admit to having never seriously considered the prospect that Gilligan might have had a second, more authoritative source, and the author makes a good case that this might in fact have been so

In the following weeks, Kelly’s home was besieged by journalists, he was compelled to give evidence before two select committees - one of which was televised - and if one believes the official narrative, finding the pressure too much to bear, coupled with a belief that he would never again be allowed to continue work as a weapons inspector, he made his way to nearby Harrowdown Hill, where he took an overdose of Co-Proxamol tablets and slashed the ulnar artery of his left wrist.

Goslett’s book outlines all this in fair detail before going onto discuss the problems with this story. First and foremost, he takes issue with the Hutton Inquiry itself, which stopped an inquest from ever being held into Kelly’s death. Inquests in UK law are supremely independent bodies with the power to summon witnesses and have them give evidence on oath, conversely the Hutton Inquiry was entirely voluntary, with no actual legal powers. I have to confess to not having realised that at the time, so this was a revelation. Goslett implies that this was why the inquiry was set up in the first place, to ensure a less than adequate examination of Kelly’s death.

Goslett also discusses all the inconsistencies with the evidence, the fact that many medical experts’ query whether slashing the ulnar artery would be sufficient to bleed to death (it’s very thin, like a fine thread, and might well clot) and whether he had enough Co-Proxamol in his system to cause a fatal overdose. Combined with the evidence that he had difficulty swallowing pills and that due to an arm injury he had such weakness in the right arm that he found it difficult to cut a steak, let alone cut through the flesh, muscle and tendons of his left wrist (Kelly was right handed), it is not difficult to understand why Goslett and others have doubts.

A book review doesn’t give one enough space to go through all the evidence that Goslett marshals to support his case, for that one needs to read the book, but needless to say there is much more. But does it all mean that Kelly did not in fact take his own life? And if not, how did he come to die? Frustratingly, the author does not reveal his beliefs on the matter, preferring to argue that there is a need now for a proper inquest to discover the truth. This feels unsatisfactory in the extreme. Bearing in mind that most people who read this title will have followed the case to a greater or lesser extent, will have an opinion either way, the least Goslett can do is put his forward.

While his arguments for the need for an inquest are sound (would it not put the matter to rest, at least? Surely, regardless of whether one believes Kelly committed suicide, all can agree the Hutton Report was flawed) I personally feel he overstates his argument that the Hutton Inquiry was an effective means of silencing the matter. For surely coroners and inquests can be got at? The Hutton Inquiry became an international televisual spectacle, something that came to define Blair’s legacy, and it was obvious this was going to be the case at the time. Would it not have been easier to have the inquest and try and fix the result, perhaps by influencing what witnesses would say? That said, as he points out, Blair ordered the inquiry the very night Kelly’s body was discovered, and the Hutton Inquiry - both its commission and process - were curious to say the least. 

For the record, I’m personally in two minds as to whether Dr David Kelly committed suicide or was murdered, and if the latter, by who. I do agree with the author that there should be an inquest and that the Hutton Inquiry was a whitewash, but equally I am both doubtful that this will ever come to pass or that we will ever definitively have the truth, not least due to the fact that Lord Hutton ordered much of the evidence - including Dr Kelly’s post-mortem report - be sealed for seventy years.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, 24 September 2018

Mason Ball Q&A

The 35 Timely and Untimely Deaths of Cumberland County is a brilliant supernatural historical thriller, which I recently had the pleasure of reviewing (see here: I asked the author, Mason Ball, for a Q&A for my blog so that I (and fellow writers who read my blog) might glean some of his writerly magic.  So without any further ado, over to you Mason:

Where did you get the idea behind 35 Deaths?

The initial idea came many, many years ago in my early teens. I was in my local library and saw a collection of horror stories, the cover of which was a monster breaking free from a wall of ice. The idea prompted by this image floundered for decades and was all but forgotten, but when in my thirties my wife bought Doctor Bischoffberger’s medical record from eBay, as I read through it, parts of that old idea came back to me and 35 Deaths, though completely unrecognisable from that initial idea, began to take shape in my mind.

Your novel has a tremendous sense of time and place, how did you achieve that?

I think one of the things that helped was purchasing a book of old photographs of the area, seeing the clothes they wore, the streets they walked, and just trying to think myself into the era. The more I did so, the more it felt like really not so long ago or quite so alien.

I think something that’s important to acknowledge is that while a certain amount of accuracy in setting is important, what I was doing wasn’t painting a picture of 1930s Maine to the exact historical detail, but a picture of my Maine, as much I was painting a picture of my Dr Bischoffberger; both versions crafted to fit my means and to serve my purpose.

I can only describe 35 Deaths as a brilliant historical/supernatural/crime thriller. What made you want to tell the story that way and have you always been attracted to stories that crossover genre in that way?

I think to a large extent genre exists for salesmen, not writers. The idea really decided the form that the book would take. Once I’d settled on the idea, the dual narrative structure, together with the chapter introductions by Joseph, things were set in motion and it was going to be what it was going to be.

How do you get your ideas? What’s the process and how do they go from vague inspiration to fully fleshed out notions?

I think if I knew the answer to the first question that I’d get more ideas. Anything can trigger an idea, but you get that idea, or a concept in your mind, maybe a scene, a way perhaps of doing something differently or from an angle or perspective you’ve not read before, and things start to grow. For a long time nothing is written bar the barest of notes, and it exists only in my head: the set-up, perhaps a few characters, a scene or two. Then if you’re lucky, it grows. A strong first line is always good to get you off and running too.

Tell me about the research that goes into your writing?

Due to its unfamiliar historical and geographical settings, in writing 35 Deaths I embarked on far more research than for anything else I’ve ever written.

Finding a book called Now I Will Tell You… The Story of Naples, Maine, Its History and Legends compiled by Robert Jordan Dingley for the Naples Historical Society was a gold mine of information and minutiae: anecdotes, names, incidents etc. that I imagine exist nowhere else. True details from Now I Will Tell You… are peppered throughout the novel, my favourite of which is probably the story of the Chinese idols (the book even has photographs on them!).

I did a little digging into John M. Bischoffberger, however, as stated above, only in so much as it served the novel.

Geographically speaking, the internet, most importantly period maps I found online, and Google Earth were invaluable, helping me place towns and areas, lakes and waterways, their locality and whereabouts in relation to one another.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I’d say by nature I’m definitely more of a pantser. I once tried to novelise a theatrical show I’d written and directed but because I knew exactly where it was headed, my interest and enthusiasm soon waned, and the project stalled.

Once I have an idea, I usually have a vague notion of where the piece I’m writing is going, which of course grows stronger as I go, and usually at a certain point an ending or resolution begins to make itself known (which of course can mean a rewrite of earlier passages); but never do I know every plotted point ahead of time. I like to surprise myself as I go and give the opportunity to improvise.

However, as much of 35 Deaths was preordained for me, i.e. the order and nature of the deaths themselves all there in black and white in Biscoffberger’s medical record, I found myself ‘pantsing’ around the plotted elements proscribed by the concept of the novel itself.

How do you make sure you don’t go off on wild tangents? 

If any wild tangents don’t serve the original idea, then I steer my way back to the path. But of course, if any tangents suggest a new idea better than the original then I’m happy to go exploring, making sure to keep an eye out so the tangent doesn’t become an end in of itself.

Tell me about your writing, do you write full time?

In a sense I do, or almost full-time. However much of the time what I’m writing is for my other job, which is in cabaret. As well as hosting other shows, as Benjamin Louche, I co-produce and host a monthly cabaret show The Double R Club, inspired by the work of David Lynch. For each act I write 200 words, often including poems and or stories; the second compendium including material written for The Double R Club, Further Voices In The Red Velvet Elsewhere will be published later in the year.

When is your most productive period of the day?

I’d say usually early afternoon, post lunch. I am not a morning person.

Is any part of your writing biographical or are any of the characters inspired by real people? 

I’m a writer who believes that all art is, at least in some way, autobiographical. I think bits and pieces of the artist are all over his or her work, just not necessarily in any cogent or easily definable way; I’m not sure it can be helped.

I like to use the analogy penned by another writer (I think it was Stephen King but forgive me if I’ve misremembered), to paraphrase:

Writing is like a game of handball. When the ball strikes your hand, that’s you, autobiography. When the ball hits the wall, that fiction, utterly invented. But of course, for the majority of the time the ball isn’t in your hand or on the wall, for the majority of the time the ball is in the air.

I have in the past started to write characters based on real people, but they never stay true to the person they’re based on, I find they twist and change, becoming their own thing, again, proscribed the idea itself and the world it creates.

What writing projects are you working on now? 

I’m currently working on a ‘spiritual sequel’ to my 2015 fairy tale The Menagerie, which is similarly dark and strange in tone, and which mirrors to some extent the former’s structure and format but is otherwise unrelated and involves a whole new setting and cast of characters. It’s entitled Princess Of The Asperous Reach.

Unbound is a unique and new publishing novel. How did you find the process of crowdfunding your book?

Daunting and a hard slog. Convincing people that they were pre-buying a book and not simply giving a feckless writer some of their hard-earned money for no good reason could be a struggle; the concept of crowdfunded publishing is new and tricky for some to grasp. Was the book even finished?Were they simply funding me to sit around all day drinking tea and writing?No and no!

Ultimately it was a rewarding experience though and I am incredibly proud of the finished book.

How has your experience with Unbound contrasted with that of publishing your previous books?

Before Unbound I had only self-published shorter works and any longer form pieces, despite my best efforts, had remained rejected by agents and publishers, and unpublished.

So, the experience of Unbound could not have been more different. The simple fact of Unbound selecting for their site, and being supportive of, my novel was incredibly heartening.

Finally, I’m going to shamelessly poach two questions the author Mark Hill (author of His First Lie and It Was Her) used to put to writers on his blog. Like me, Mark was a book blogger before he became a successful author and I like to think that the answers to these questions helped him glean valuable help for his own writing. Certainly, reading them on his blog is helping me. So here goes:

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Edit without mercy.

Give me some advice about writing?


Sunday, 16 September 2018

The Thirty Five Timely and Untimely Deaths of Cumberland County by Mason Ball

This is the second book published by Unbound, an innovative new publisher with a radical new publishing model, that I’ve read and reviewed, the first being Sam Haysom’s The Moor (see here for my review of that title: ). Like Sam, Mason Ball is an author who’s new to me, and like The Moor, Thirty Five deaths has a strong supernatural element. The similarities don’t just end there however, for both books are extremely good reads.

Thirty Five Deaths is set in 1930’s Maine, the “dying years of the Great Depression” as the blurb puts it. John Bischoffberger, a doctor from the big city of Pennsylvania, has moved with his wife to the small town of Naples, Maine, where he runs a medical practice and is employed as the Medical Examiner for the surrounding area. In his medical practice he treats the living, as the Medical Examiner he issues death certificates for those who’ve passed in unusual or suspicious circumstances. 

John is plagued by his experiences of the First World War, one mortally wounded soldier who died in front of him particularly haunting his dreams. He and his wife have never had children, a disappointment for them both which weighs on him heavily. Coming from a big city to a town where many have resided their entire lives, he also feels an outsider regardless of how much he’s welcomed. John is a rational man, though he has many a demon. This leads him to lose his faith in God, something that troubles his wife almost as much as their inability to have children. Paradoxically, this also leads him to proscribe his patients homeopathy alongside conventional medical remedies and this dichotomy, of his loss of faith in God yet reluctant, almost superstitious belief in something his scientific mind tells him cannot be so, is one of many conflicts that plague John’s troubled mind. Finally, this allows him to see what is hidden from others: namely that many of the deaths he is witnessing are in fact murders, homicides committed by a trio of supernatural beings in the guise of vagrants.

35 Deaths then is both a historical crime novel and a story of the supernatural. The historical setting is adeptly handled, the author really bringing to life the rural Maine town and its environs: the poverty of many, the absolute and grinding destitution of the vagrants who reside in the woods - not least the three beings, whatever they may be. In fact, the woods themselves, endless forest which stretches out around the small pockets of civilisation, become a character in and of itself, oppressive and threatening.

As John becomes more and more obsessed with the three beings killing spree, and the deaths come closer and closer to those he knows and love, the author ratchets up the tension and sense of foreboding perfectly. The supernatural element of this novel is extremely well done, as is the conflict John feels in response, knowing as he does that should he speak of it to others he’ll be thought insane. His impotence in the face of something he cannot understand, yet inability to look away and do nothing, brings out the essential characteristics of his nature perfectly and the author has created in his protagonist a deeply good and likeable hero.

35 Deaths is an incredibly well written book and one that will stay with me for a long time to come. Mason Ball is an incredibly talented writer and I look forward to reading more from him. Finally, once again I’ve been hugely impressed by an Unbound author; this is a publisher who’ve found some serious talent and their catalogue is one to watch.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, 10 September 2018

City Without Stars by Tim Baker

Tim Baker burst onto the crime fiction scene with an outstanding debut, Fever City, a conspiracy thriller about the assassination of JFK. His follow up, City Without Stars, is in many ways a step change, focusing as it does on the Mexican drug wars. That said, there are similarities between the two, both being steeped in conspiracy, corruption and paranoia.

City Without Stars follows a Mexican police officer, Fuentes, and Pillar, a union official, as they both investigate the murder of women in the city of Ciudad Real. There have been 873 murders and all of them remain unsolved. If this story line sounds far-fetched, horrifically it is very much grounded in fact. Since 1993, the city of Ciudad Júarez has seen hundreds of murders of young women. Between 1993 and 2005 it is estimated that 370 women have been murdered, and while there have been some arrests, the murders have continued, and many Mexicans believe the real perpetrators remain undetected. So, this is the basis for City Without Stars, Baker’s protagonists trying to discover once and for all who is responsible for the mass femicide. 

Alongside Fuentes and Pillar, we have Ventura, a privileged American journalist also investigating the killings, Padre Marcio, a corrupt archbishop, and the psychopathic El Santos, who heads the local cocaine cartel. Throughout the novel their threads remain separate but move inexorably closer and the reader just knows that when they collide the results with be shattering. Without giving away spoilers, the author doesn’t disappoint and the denouement of all this is intense

The plot of City Without Stars, while primarily focused on femicide, encompasses two underlying threads: the corruption sown by the drug trade and the maquiladoras – the warehouse factories where women endure back-breaking work for pitiful wages and which are a product of the NAFTA agreement. Baker shows how each are two sides of the same coin of exploitation, symbiotic forces that grind down ordinary Mexicans, particularly women, between them. So as with Fever City, City Without Stars is a deeply political novel with much to say about the society within which it is set.

In less able hands this complex story of five inter-connected character arcs might become confusing, but Baker handles it all with assured aplomb. Under the pressure of tying all the strands together, a lesser author might have created clichéd or cardboard cut-out characters, but Baker gives us a set of three-dimensional protagonists and antagonists who come alive on the page. 

The Mexican drug wars have been the focus of great American writers – Sam Hawkens and the towering figure of Don Winslow to name but two – and City Without Stars is a worthy companion to the canon. Baker really encapsulates the sense of a state and society captured by the corruption engendered by the cocaine cartels, the fear that their impunity infects into every strand of everyday life. This is an assured follow up to the author’s debut and secures his place as one of the great crime novelists writing today.

5 out of 5 stars

Weeping Waters by Karin Brynard

Inspector Albertus Markus Beeslaar is new to his posting in a backwater town in farmland bordering the Kalahari Desert. A one-time big city cop in Johannesburg, he packed that all in for a quieter life after his life and career was waylaid by trauma. Now an outsider in this close-knit community, struggling with the oppressive heat, he is called to a farm where an artist and her daughter have been brutally murdered. The homicide comes at a time of rising tension in the area, a roving band of stock thieves spreading fear through the neighbourhood. 

Weeping Waters is a topical crime thriller, and likely to become more so as time passes. Farm murders are a contentious subject in South Africa, and increasingly so in the wider world. The Boer – Afrikaans farmers of Dutch descent – are synonymous in many people’s imagination with Apartheid. Indeed, as mentioned in the novel, a popular song amongst the youth wing of the ANC contains the lyrics “kill the farmer, kill the Boer”. This perception of the Boer as being unreconstructed racists responsible for the Apartheid regime might not be fair, but it is widespread. The spate of Boers killed on their farms has been blamed by many on economic factors – the perpetrators when caught almost exclusively being poor – but some have sought to weaponise the subject, pointing to Mugabe’s farm seizures across the border in Zimbabwe and suggesting that the murders are the beginning of something more sinister in the Rainbow Nation. The idea that South Africa might follow its neighbour and turn on its white minority is one that has been feared in some quarters ever since the fall of Apartheid. Indeed, the alt-right internationally has started to jump on the bandwagon and even Donald Trump has tweeted about farm murders. So, the author has chosen a subject of much controversy to centre her plot around.

This is a long novel, running to 512 pages and a number of threads run through the main plot. As well as the farm murders and the stock thefts, there is the historical treatment of the Griqua people, one of South Africa’s mixed-race ethnicities, superstition and the belief traditional magic, racial tension and corruption. It all comes together nicely and at no point did I feel the story stall or lose pace and it kept my interest throughout. Karin Brynard has been compared to Stieg Larson and Weeping Waters is her first novel to be translated into English from her native Afrikaans. I don’t know if future novels follow on from this or stand alone, but wither way I look forward to reading more from her soon

4 out of 5 stars