Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Detriment by David Videcette

This is the second novel of the author’s and once again we’re with Detective Inspector Jake Flannagan of the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command. The author, David Videcette, is himself a former police officer who spent much of his career in anti-terror; as with his first novel, The Theseus Paradox, The Detriment sticks very closely to real life.

There are quite a few former police officers writing crime fiction and thrillers these days, but where David has carved out a niche for himself is through fictionalising real-life past investigations, cases he came across while working on the Counter Terror Command. Whereas David’s first novel tackled the 7/7 bombings, The Detriment deals with the attempted bombing of the Tiger Tiger nightclub in London and the Glasgow Airport bombing, both of which occurred in the space of a short time in 2007.

David’s first novel, The Theseus Protocol, was a brilliant thriller. Apart from being well-written, it had at its core one of the most traumatic events of recent British history, the horrific bombings of 7th July 2005. This gave the book a compelling narrative drive that pulled the reader in. Due to this, when I began reading The Detriment, I was a little concerned to find the focus on a relatively minor event (I accept of course that these bombings were only “minor” in the sense that they were botched and injuries were minimal). I couldn’t help but wonder whether the author was suffering from the well-known writing dilemma of “second book syndrome”. This is when an author achieves such success with their first novel, that expectations for their second are impossible to match, and through no fault of their own they fail to deliver.

I needn’t have worried, for The Detriment soon delivers the goods. In fact, I would argue that The Detriment is a stronger novel than the author’s first. This I think, ironically enough, is due to the factor I identify above and which had me concerned in the first place. The 7/7 bombings were such a major event that the author’s first novel naturally enough focused in its entirety on the event. The Detriment on the other hand, through dealing with a comparatively less serious event (once again, if the bombings had been successful, they might have equalled 7/7) allows the author to have his protagonist branch out and explore a whole plethora of issues. The Detriment quickly proves to be a labyrinthine conspiracy thriller, with Jake having to deal with Islamic Fundamentalism, Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, the international arms trade and espionage. If this all sounds confusing, it’s not, rather the book is incredibly well-plotted and at no point does the author get lost in the intricacies of it all.

As with any author who writes so closely from what they know, there are lots of minor aspects to the novel that ring with authenticity and are incredibly illuminating. One such aspect I most enjoyed with The Detriment was relationship between the Met’s Counter Terror Command and the UK’s intelligence agencies – the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, better known as MI6). The relationship, the author shows, is characterised by so-called Chinese Walls. Information is not shared freely, instead Jake must book an appointment, ask specific questions (the intelligence officers only answering what they are actually asked and nothing more), basically, he has to almost beg for the relevant information. One might ask why the lessons from 9/11 haven’t been learnt (the official 9/11 commission report identified the lack of communication between the CIA, the FBI, and other US agencies as a major factor for failing to prevent the attacks) and Jake’s frustration at this state of affairs is vividly portrayed by the author.

The best aspect of The Detriment however is a more broader affair. As a former current affairs journalist who worked across a plethora of programmes (Channel 4’s Dispatches, various BBC programmes) I’m used to coming across conspiracy theories. Every other day someone would contact our offices with some outlandish theory as to who or what was behind some event of global import. Most of these people were obviously loons – anti-Semites who laid everything at the door of the Jews, the tinfoil hat brigade who believed aliens or shape-shifting lizards stalked the corridors of power. Some theories however were more plausible. Saudi Arabia really has spent years funding a virulently anti-western strand of Islam; the British Government and British Aerospace (Bae) really were involved in a massive and murky arms deal, the effects of which are still being felt today; foreign powers really do assassinate people in our capital city, as amply demonstrated in the Litvinenko affair. By delving into some of this, the author has the reader reassess recent history, wonder just what is true, question whether one has dismissed things too easily.

In conclusion, The Detriment is a brilliant conspiracy thriller. It really is an excellent read and I can’t recommend it enough.

5 out of 5 Stars

Sunday, 25 June 2017

A Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBride

A Dark So Deadly is a standalone novel by the successful Scottish crime writer, Stuart MacBride. I suspect that it will prove to be the start of a new series. The basic premise is that there’s this department, unofficially titled The Misfit Mob, where disgraced police officers are dumped. They’re given crap cases and generally it’s hoped they’ll go away, perhaps resign through boredom and frustration. One day they happen across a murder and due to the rest of the force being overstretched they’re allowed to get on with it.

I’m a massive fan of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series of spy novels. The premise is similar: a department of MI5 where disgraced intelligence officers are put out to fallow, given crap jobs in the hope they’ll go away. Herron’s novels are brilliant, so given that A Dark So Deadly had a similar premise, I thought I would give it a go. That said, I did have my doubts. Stuart MacBride is one of Scotland’s most successful crime writers and as such I know of his work. He generally writes serial killer thrillers and that’s a sub-genre I’m not a fan.

The first thing to say about this book is that the author can certainly write. That’s not a surprise, considering his pedigree, but he really can write very well. This is important because A Dark So Deadly is a long novel, coming in at a whopping 609 pages. This brings me to my first criticism, the novel is simply too long. I wonder if MacBride has reached that stage of his career that some successful novelist’s reach, where they can literally write what they want, where there’s no one at the publishing house anymore who can reign them in. Stephen King springs to mind as a good example of this. To my mind, some of King’s novels are far too long and reading them I’ve wondered whether earlier on in his career an editor might have trimmed the manuscript down, made it a better novel as a consequence. A Dark So Deadly is like that, the story could easily have been told in less words. In fact, a couple of times I almost put the book down. I didn’t because the writing is so good and MacBride always managed to pull me back in. Even so, I think it’s never good when a reader feels the narrative start to drag.

Despite the dark themes covered in the novel (more of this in a minute) MacBride injects a good dose of humour into the narrative. In fact, at points it’s almost a dark comedy. This again is reminiscent of the Mick Herron spy novels I referred to. As with the Herron novels, the humour in A Dark So Deadly helped me warm to MacBride’s Misfit Mob and the characters he draws are certainly memorable. I would like to say that I would like to spend time with the Misfit Mob again, that I look forward to the next novel in the series, but I can’t. That’s because of my second criticism.

I understand that I’m in a minority of crime fiction readers here, but I just can’t stand serial killer fiction. To my mind it’s just so tired, unimaginative and clich├ęd. It doesn’t help that having studied Criminology at university, and with various friends in the police, I know serial killers to be extremely rare. And those that do exist don’t generally kill people in the ludicrously fiendish ways that they do in film and books. In A Dark So Deadly the serial killer does just that, slaughtering his victims in a grisly way. While there have been a few serial killers like this – Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein - the majority have just dispatched their victims in not so dramatic a fashion. This insistence by writers of serial killer fiction to come up with ever more devilish a manner of dispatching their victims has always struck me as not a little prurient and exacerbates my dislike of these novels.

Of course, a valid criticism of this review might be that I knew what type of novel MacBride writes, that lots of people like it, that no one forced me to read A Dark So Deadly. And such criticism would be perfectly legitimate. In my defence, I wouldn’t have chosen to read the book had the premise of the Misfit Mob not sounded so intriguing. Basically, despite knowing that MacBride tends to write serial killer fiction, I was hoping for something different and was disappointed when that’s what I got. But just to be clear, I know many people reading this review won’t share these thoughts. In fact, it might be the case that someone reading this review will be attracted to the book, thinking that they like serial killer thrillers and thus why not give it a go. And I’m fine with that. It’s just personally, I would have preferred the author try something else.

So, in conclusion there’s lots to like about this book. It’s well written, it has a good touch of humour, the characters are well drawn. While what didn’t work for me – the length of the novel, the fact that it’s yet another serial killer thriller - may well be to other’s taste.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Imran Mahmood Q&A

Imran Mahmood is a practicing criminal defence barrister and the author of the excellent debut You Don’t Know Me. If you haven’t read it already, you should. You can read my review of You Don’t Know Me here:

I wanted to know a bit more about Imran’s writing process, in the shameless and undisguised hope that some of the magic that made You Don’t Know Me so special, might rub off on me. Luckily for me, he was happy to oblige.

Where did you get the idea behind You Don’t Know Me?

I have written jury speeches for years. But in every speech what I find that I have to do is to filter the defendant’s story through my own lens. I have to re-frame and re-tell the story. I must bridge the gap that lies between the jury and the defendant.

So, I wondered what it might be like if a defendant who had the skills to tell a persuasive story ended up telling it himself. What would it sound like? Where relevance and evidence matters to me, what would matter to him? So, the idea was born, and I thought I would give the chap some challenges to overcome in communication to see how he would resolve them and also give him some race barriers to grapple with. And in the end, it produced some interesting questions about the nature of truth and the nature of the narrative tradition – some of which was unexpected

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

It varies. Sometimes I get them from my wife. Other times I find myself listening to a snippet of conversation on a bus and my mind runs away with it and by the end of the journey it has become a story. Usually though it starts with a character I might have met. Then I imagine a life for him. And then make something interesting happen.

I know much of You Don’t Know is inspired by your work as a barrister. It is an amazing court room drama, as well as being a real insight into the challenges faced by young men in our inner cities. How much of it was based/inspired by true events/real people?

I think most of it. The issues that young men in particular have in their lives that bring them into the Criminal Justice System are those that I tackle in the book. There is a problem with poverty – social and educational and financial. There are pockets of the UK which have concentrations of under resourced populations and that usually leads to problems which find expression in crime. The book I wrote, although fiction, has its feet firmly in a reality that I see in my job every day.

Other than the cases you’ve come into contact with, did you conduct any other research for the novel?

To get the voice right I had to immerse myself in the home of the voice and the people who speak in it. That meant that I became very attuned to the voice when I heard it and would dissect it again and again so I understood the tone, the rhythm and the musicality of it. So, the research consisted of listening to clients but also witnesses and to youngsters on the bus when I was on the way to work

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I’m more a ‘by the seat of the pants’ guy. At least, that’s what I thought, because I do not ever plot out story lines on a piece of paper. However, what I found when I paid attention to the process was that in fact I do plot – but only in my head and only in small chunks. So, I have a skeleton of an idea and then I plot each night when I should be sleeping!

Tell me about your writing, how do you fit it around your work as a barrister?

I write whenever I can. On the train to court. When waiting for juries to deliver verdicts. At the weekend. At night. When I’m not in court, I write in chambers. There’s always a way to find the time if you have the need as I do to write.

You Don’t Know Me is obviously a standalone piece of work. It’s hard to imagine a direct sequel? Or am I wrong?

A sequel as you say is pretty hard to pull off. BUT I have started to write a ‘spin-off’ which shares some characters from You Don’t Know Me. But I will have to wait and see if there is an appetite for that.

What other writing projects are you working on?

We are in discussion, my agents and publishers and I, we are working on some ideas. Despite that I write every day that I can still. There are 3 or 4 books I am working on and I am enjoying the process of bringing more ideas to life

Finally, I’m going to shamelessly poach two questions the author Mark Hill (author of The Two O’Clock Boy) used to put to writers on his blog. Like me, Mark was a book blogger before 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?

That sometimes a great idea just doesn’t work on paper no matter what you try. But ultimately you have to keep trying in order to find that out

Give me some advice about writing?

I don’t feel qualified as a debut author to advise…
But if I have to, I would say, write the thing that excites you. If you don’t get up every day desperate to write a bit more of your story then it probably isn’t the right story to write. I knew mine was right simply because I kept getting the sensation that it was writing itself. If you get that – then you’ve found the magic spot!

Monday, 12 June 2017

Untold: The Daniel Morgan Murder Exposed by Peter Jukes and Alastair Morgan

Private detective, Daniel Morgan, was brutally murdered on the night of the 10th March 1987. He was killed in the most horrific manner imaginable – axed to death, a hatchet buried in his face. So violent was this assault – three blows in all – that the final blow, delivered as Daniel lay helpless on his back, severed his brainstem.  

Murder in the United Kingdom is thankfully rare. In the year ending March 2016, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) records there to have been 571 homicides in England and Wales. This figure has remained remarkably stable, so that for 1987, the year of Daniel’s death, a Parliamentary Research Paper published in 1999 gave the recorded number of homicides in England and Wales as 599. The British police have a good track record for solving such crimes. Figures are difficult to come by – suspects might come to trial many months after the crime was committed, meaning that it is tricky to make yearly statistical comparisons between, say, the number of homicides detected in any given year and the number of convictions. That said, the same Parliamentary Research Paper records 515 convictions of homicide in 1987 (these include the full gamut of convictions:  homicide, manslaughter, infanticide, etc). Obviously, as pointed out above, not all these 515 convictions will correspond to offences committed in the same year. However, like the homicide rate, the clear up rate has remained relatively stable, giving some indication that the police in England and Wales are generally adept at solving, to some degree at least, crimes of homicide.

So what does this mean for the Daniel Morgan murder? Well, going on the statistics alone, one might expect his murderers to have been rapidly identified, apprehended, tried, convicted and imprisoned. And indeed, to a certain extent that occurred. As with the murder of Stephen Lawrence, suspects were identified relatively quickly. Very early on, Daniel’s brother, Alistair, was alerting the inquiry to his suspicions regarding Daniel’s former business partner, Jonathan Rees. And it wasn’t long before a member of the murder inquiry, Sid Fillery, was discovered to have worryingly close links to Rees. Indeed, Fillery himself fell under suspicion, leading to his retirement from the police, where he subsequently took Daniel’s place at the detective agency.

These links between an officer on the murder inquiry and one of the leading suspects were deeply troubling to Alistair and it wasn’t long before the first murder inquiry was irretrievably compromised. That said, the police could have recovered from this. If the police corruption which damaged the first inquiry had been honestly grappled with, a second inquiry could have stopped the rot and brought Daniel’s killers to justice.  Tragically this was not to occur. Yes, the police tried again. In fact, to date, there have been five further inquiries into Daniel’s murder. Yes, you read that right. Five further homicide inquiries. And the result? Not one conviction.

So investigated has this murder been in one form or another, that the authors claim, quite convincingly, it to be the most investigated homicide in modern British legal history. And yet the offenders continue to walk free and hardly anyone, until now at least, has heard of it. The question must be, Why?

I recently read another reviewer’s take on Untold Murder. This review claimed the reason for the case’s relative obscurity was down to Daniel’s Welsh heritage. The reviewer, a highly-respected journalist and documentary maker, who has covered the story himself and struggled to get others to do likewise, says that the Welsh media were happy to cover the case but London-based journalists in the national press treated it with indifference. He claims that this is in part due to a historical bias English people have against the Welsh. Perhaps he’s right, perhaps that played a part. I myself, however, would put the emphasis elsewhere: laziness and fear.

I worked for many years in current affairs television: first in BBC West Midlands, then for Granada Television where I worked on the Jonathan Dimbleby Programme, and then for a good ten years in documentaries, where I worked across Channel 4 Dispatches, for PBS and National Geographic. While I enjoyed my time, met many fine people, I also saw first-hand how risk averse management often was. And lazy. Seriously, a story generally had to be clear cut. It needed to be quickly explainable. These people don’t do nuance.

Let’s return to the Stephen Lawrence murder as means of example. White racists stab to death a young black man. Police mess it up due to institutional racism. Easy to understand. No complexity. There’s a reason that the police corruption surrounding that case – almost certainly a strong contributory factor - has only now begun to get traction. The media likes its tales to be simple. This argument is in no way meant to downplay the racism the Lawrences’ were up against, or belittle their achievements in dragging the police and judicial system from the darks ages of prejudice. But the fact is the Lawrences themselves suspected corruption and tried to draw attention to it but the odds at the time were insurmountable. 

Now turn back to Daniel Morgan’s murder. A murky tale of organised crime and police corruption, political malfeasance and dodgy tabloid journalists. You can see why people shied away. Now note those last two points. Political malfeasance and dodgy tabloids and you reach that second element I talked about for the media’s silence: Fear.

My first run in with tabloid bully boy tactics was back at the turn of the century when I studied broadcast journalism at City University. On the neighbouring newspaper course was a young lad who was on a News of the World scholarship. The newspaper people and the broadcast students used to share the odd classes – media law, Government, etc – and me and this guy used to butt heads. Now remember the timeframe, this was back when the Screws and its ilk was at the height of its power. Mazher Mahmood, the Fake Sheikh, was still running around, and the paper was basically ruining lives at will. As journalism students, we all knew the power of the News of The World, we all heard the whispers of their alchemy – the so-called Dark Arts. Anyway, one day me and this lad got into a row about something silly and after the class he threatened me. A throwaway line about speaking to someone at the Screws to sort me out. Now to be clear, he was almost certainly joking. And I had done nothing wrong so even if some hack had gone through my bins, he or she wouldn’t have found anything. But the point is, at the time I couldn’t help but feel a shiver run down my spine. Years later, working in current affairs TV, I regularly saw this: a wariness of the tabloids, a sense that these people needed to be handled carefully, like they were dangerous animals which might bite at any moment.

Reading Untold Murder, or listening to the podcast, is a revealing experience. Back then the tabloid “Dark Arts” were little understood. But this book reveals what exactly they entailed, and there’s just one word for it: criminality. Daniel’s former business partner, Jonathan Rees, took Daniel’s company and turned it into a one-stop shop for corrupting police officers. Cops were paid by Rees and co to access the Police National Computer and other sensitive databases. Rees and his wider circle of dodgy PI’s, corrupt cops, and amoral tabloid hacks, engaged in voicemail hacking, computer hacking, blagging personal information from banks and utilities, and then selling it on. And their main clients? Step forward the tabloids, and in particular, the News of The World.

So, the reason Daniel’s murder has never been solved? The reason that the London based media were always hesitant to cover it? The same reason reading this book is so compelling, so shocking. I’ve left journalism behind, am now an aspiring novelist, and there’s an adage: stranger than fiction. And it’s true, there are things in real life that if you made up people wouldn’t believe. This case is one of them. Before the phone hacking scandal, before Leveson, if one had spun a tale of a murdered private eye, a detective agency wrenched from his dead fingers and steered rogue, of corrupt cops, amoral tabloid journalists, leading politicians selling their souls to media barons or else destroyed in tabloid stings, what would have been the response? Would readers have bought it? I suspect it would be dismissed as far-fetched, as conspiracy theory. But it’s all true. And at heart is the tale of a good man struck down and his brother, Alistair, indefatigable to the last.

In conclusion, this is a terrible true tale, albeit brilliantly told. This is one of the most important non-fiction titles published in a very long time. Anyone who cares about justice, about the society we live in, should read this book. I can’t recommend it enough.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, 1 June 2017

You Don’t Know Me by Imran Mahmood

There are very few books written entirely as a monologue. In fact, I can think of just one other, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamed. No doubt there are other examples, but it’s fair to say that it is rare. Whereas the Reluctant Fundamentalist has the narrator sitting in a cafe in Lahore, telling his story to a lone American, You Don’t Know Me has the narrator addressing a whole court room. For the entire narrative of this novel is a defendant – having sacked his barrister at the end of his trial for murder – standing up and delivering his own closing speech.

Our narrator is an inner-city young black man, portrayed by the prosecution as being a gang member. He stands accused of gunning down a man in the street. The evidence the prosecution has marshalled appears damning: mobile phone cell sites put him in the locale at the same time the victim was shot, he was seen arguing with the victim days before, upon arrest a Baikal handgun was found in his flat, gunshot residue was found on his hands and clothes, finally, a large sum of money was found in a bag in his kitchen.

You Don’t Know Me starts off with our narrator explaining why he sacked his barrister, why against his brief’s advice, he has decided not only to deliver his own closing speech, but to tell the jury what he claims to be the whole truth, leaving out nothing. He warns the jury that some of what he is about to tell them will not be flattering, that rather than portray him in a good light, it will damn him. But, and here’s the crux, if the jury – and by extension us, the reader – will just bear with him, his innocence of the murder he stands accused of will become apparent.

And so, our narrator launches upon his explanation. He starts by going through the evidence ranged against him, rebutting it and giving alternative explanations, but as he progresses he can’t help but get side-tracked down narrative alleyways of explanation. What results is a fascinating tale of a young man’s existence on the periphery of gang life in modern urban Britain. As he tells it, slowly, inexorably, he’s sucked into the orbit of vicious gangsters and organised crime bosses, a state of affairs that leads to beatings, shoot outs and dead bodies.

Imran Mahmood, the author of You Don’t Know Me, is a barrister practising in criminal law. He has defended many a defendant accused of being in gangs and having committed serious crimes. He says that he was motivated to write You Don’t Know Me to explore these issues and how young men get pulled into such a life. To my mind he’s done this admirably and I felt real empathy for someone who in the real world it would be all too easy to demonise. How many times does one open a newspaper, read the latest court reports of an offender sent to prison for stabbing or shooting somebody, dismiss them as evil, criminal scum? At no point does Mahmood glorify these crimes, but he does humanise the offender, show that often they are victims in their own right.

You Don’t Know Me is not some social justice rant however. While forcing the reader to confront some thorny social issues, it is also a damn fine read, a whodunit almost. A great aspect of this book is that the verdict is not given at the end, rather, we the reader are the jury and it is up to us to conclude in our own minds whether he is guilty or not.

The apotheosis of this comes with the final twist at the end. I won’t give away spoilers, but at first this strained credibility for me, had me thinking the narrator had gone too far. But then he says to the jury – us, the readers – strange things happen in life, there are deaths which appear to be the result of conspiracies, and is it too much of a stretch that he is the victim of another? Immediately my mind turned to the deaths of Dr David Kelly, Alexander Litvinenko, even famous assassinations like those of John F Kennedy and I thought perhaps I should give the narrator the benefit of the doubt.  

I won’t say whether I judged our defendant-narrator guilty or not guilty once I had read the final page. What I will say is that anyone reading this review who hasn’t read You Don’t Know Me should read it and judge for themselves!

Brilliant and original, this is a definite 5 star read!