Category Archives: Crime

The Case of the Bogus Detective

Imagine the joy of finding that the trilogy you liked so much didn’t, in fact, end with the third book. There is a fourth! The last one, from what I’ve heard, but very nice all the same. (And I don’t think we should rule out more from the way things were left…)

Caroline Lawrence, The Case of the Bogus Detective

Caroline Lawrence’s very likeable aspie detective PK Pinkerton is back, in The Case of the Bogus Detective. We now know what sex Pinky is, but that only adds to the fun. PK’s long lost dad, the famous Pinkerton detective turns up, and together they set out to solve the robberies on stage coaches carrying valuables. Pinkerton Sr wants PK to dress as a girl, and goes so far as to teach Pinky how to act like one, how to walk, and so on. He doesn’t appear to have much dress sense however, which is so like a man.

Jace seems to have let PK down and the relationship with Ping sours somewhat, and Mark Twain, as he now calls himself, sets off for San Francisco. Pinky isn’t far behind, on the trail of the stage coach robbers.

So this time we have a true western adventure on a stage coach, followed by more adventures in San Francisco. We’ve heard so much about the city, and now PK can see what it’s like, as well as solve a mystery. Things are tied up most satisfactorily.

I have loved these westerns with a difference, and would happily read more. And I’ll have my own Sioux outfit now, thank you. I’ve always wanted one.

Books To Die For, again

Hot on the heels of Bloody Scotland comes the paperback version of Books To Die For. You know, the book about crime writing by crime writers for crime readers that I love so much. (I’ll tell you a secret. When I picked the books I just had to have with me during my temporary home displacement, BTDF was one of the few I simply had to have by my side. It is that wonderful.)

So two years after John Connolly and Declan Burke travelled round talking about their beautiful collaboration, here it is for anyone who managed to miss it first time round. Who wouldn’t want to hear about Sara Paretsky’s favourite, or find out whose favourite Sara herself is? And so on and so on.

The main danger as always, is finding more people whose books you must read than you have time.

And that leads me to the – slightly horrifying – thought I had on Sunday when listening to Sophie Hannah talk about her admiration for Agatha Christie. Because a lot of the writers in BTDF started their careers in crime by liking Christie’s work.

Like me, Sophie began reading Christie around the age of 12. It was the natural thing for people that age with a taste for reading and that inexplicable spare time we all seemed to have, to do. You looked at your parents’ shelves, or maybe the neighbours’ shelves or anyone else among close grown-ups. And you’d find Christie and you’d try her and most likely be hooked.

After that, you’d go on to more crime, and more, and more.

We didn’t have all those books children today have, and I’m all for pointing the 10-year-old reader in the direction of Artemis Fowl. But will the Artemis Fowl fan grow up to be a fully paid up member of crime reading? Do 20-somethings read a lot of crime today?

I have no idea, and I’m the first to admit I’ve not been pushing Agatha Christie at young people, either. Offspring know her through television. Will she be known mainly for ‘screenwriting’ for Joan Hickson and David Suchet? And what will happen to that natural progression towards all kinds of – written, fictional – crime?

Books To Die For could take over from those parental bookshelves. I hope it will.

Demon rules and the Glasgow underground

Did you know there are rules for summoning demons? And that crime writers all refer to the same rules?

I trust I didn’t imagine this. Michael J Malone chaired the Bloody Scotland Sunday afternoon supernatural event, talking to Alexandra Sokoloff, Gordon Brown (the other one) and James Oswald. Actually, I don’t suppose the event was supernatural. It was the topic. Although, Alexandra was described as the daughter of Mary Shelley, so I don’t know.

After a ‘warm bloody welcome’ Michael asked the three to blame someone or something for what they are doing. Gordon Brown didn’t know he wanted to write crime, but worked out that he could do a lot of horrible things to people if he did. He described a Glasgow pub fight he’d witnessed once, where one man was sitting reading a book, completely oblivious to the fighting going on around him.

Alexandra Sokoloff

Alexandra said that although she had a past working with juvenile crime in Los Angeles (where she’s from), it was the Scottish who led her to crime. Hearing Denise Mina and Val McDermid talk at BoucherCon one year, she realised that crime writing was the best way to address social issues, tired of the endless slaughter of women in books, and she wanted to turn that around, writing about a female Jack Reacher type.

James blames (hey, that rhymes…) Stuart MacBride. James was writing his epic fantasy series when Stuart told him to stop doing that. So James wrote a few short stories to see if he could write crime, but he hasn’t been able to totally shake off the fantastic element. Hence the demons.

James Oswald

Is evil a noun or an adjective? It can be both, but James uses it as an adjective. And he says that publishers want something different, as long as it’s the same as everything else. Gordon has a plan for putting two politicians into the same room, having the First Minister murder another Minister…

Sex? Well, Gordon doesn’t think he could write it very successfully. And can you let your mother read it? James doesn’t believe the reader should know about the detective’s sex life. They can have one, but you don’t need the details. Whereas Alexandra likes sex and so do her characters. She wants the stories to have erotic suspense, and besides, the books go on for too long for the characters not to have sex. But James said he feels the suspense can still be there with clothes on.

Have they met evil people? Gordon said you can’t possibly know. Alexandra thinks you can, and she has encountered many evil people in the past. James has led a sheltered life, but has come across evil intent, even if people are not evil.

Gordon Brown

Gordon said that if something feels gratuitous, then it probably is. It’s better to imply than to describe. It’s harder, but better, to get inside people’s heads. Alexandra gave up screenwriting because she didn’t like the ‘torture porn’ she was expected to write. She writes about violence, but doesn’t like to read about extreme violence. Humour, according to James, is true to life, so you need it in a book. If there is none, it makes the book hard to read.

Writing series – Alexandra has written two books, and is working on the third, but doesn’t know how long she would continue. Feedback from readers is a good thing. Gordon will write more if he likes the characters, but if he tires of them it’s hard to make it fresh. James doesn’t know. He’s got a contract for six McLean novels, and since his detective doesn’t die at the end of book six, there is scope for more. He gets to know him better with each book, so could go on forever.

Have they researched the supernatural? Well, there seems to be some ground rules about demons. Alexandra has read up on the rules. James relies on Buffy, and Gordon talked about getting the Glasgow underground wrong. The trains might go round and round, but you could still be on the wrong platform.

Sophie Hannah on Poirot

Sunday morning at Bloody Scotland just had to mean Sophie Hannah on writing the new Poirot. As Alex Gray who talked to Sophie said, it’s the kind of thing that will make you very excited. There had been a lot of serendipity involved in her getting the job, which involved Sophie’s crazy maverick of an agent (a man with hints of Sophie’s mother, Adèle Geras), a HarperCollins editor, Agatha Christie Ltd, and the fact that Sophie already had an idea for a plot that she simply couldn’t make fit into her own novels.

A life-long Agatha Christie fan, Sophie knew the books very well (and hearing her talk about them made me want to rush home and start re-reading), and like Poirot she is rather OCD (in her case about the tassels on her Persian rug). She reckons that David Suchet is Poirot, but she didn’t write with him in mind. There is a strong film interest in her book, The Monogram Mysteries, but as she pointed out, David Suchet has said he won’t do more Poirot.

Sophie Hannah

The novel is set in 1929 in the gap between The Mystery of the Blue Train and Peril at End House. Poirot has gone on holiday, to temporary lodgings opposite his own flat (which seems to have been inspired by Sophie’s father, Norman Geras), in order to be free from people seeking his help. The story is told from the point of view of a young detective called Catchpool, to avoid Sophie having to try and imitate Agatha’s style of writing. Catchpool is there to offset Poirot, to be bright, but obtuse.

One of the many coincidences in her being given the task of writing the book was that long before this she had booked a family holiday staying at Agatha Christie’s house, Greenway. Another odd thing was that the week they were there, the filming of Dead Man’s Folly took place on the property. Sophie worked every evening, and by the time the holiday was over, she had the whole novel in her head. She is ‘very serious about crime fiction’ which is the best kind of fiction.

She accidentally invented a new way of writing while jotting down her ten page plan, when it became 100 pages with every detail of the book. Sophie found that this meant she could forget worrying about plotting while also trying to write nicely, as the job had already been done. (She has since written her latest novel in this way as well.)

Before Sophie was allowed to go public with the news about her book, she discovered on Twitter that feelings go very deep when it comes to people taking over writing somebody else’s work, and she was shocked but not worried. She sat down and thought about it and came to the conclusion it wasn’t morally wrong, and that real fans would want to read a new book, and others were free to not read it. Most of her Twitter followers have since come round, with the help of tea and scones, except for Troy in Minnesota.

There was no reason to list what had to be in the book; she knew instinctively what it needed. She’d be happy to write another Poirot, but does not feel she should be the one to write about Miss Marple – a shrewd old bat – but this would be better done by someone else, like Lee Child…

Her Christie favourites keep changing, but Murder on the Orient Express remains on top, along with Sleeping Murder, and more recently Lord Edgware Dies (it’s got the best murderer in it) and After the Funeral (best motive) and Appointment With Death (psychological tyrant).

People who say Agatha was not a terribly great writer are wrong. There’s a reason Agatha Christie sold more books than anyone else, apart from the Bible and Shakespeare. The books can be read by a 12-year-old ill in bed, or a middle aged professor. They are the perfect blend of simple and complex; funny but filled with darkness, suffering and torment. Sophie reckons that people who say the books are no good ‘might just be a bit stupid.’

Sophie Hannah

The last question of the morning came from ‘Troy  in Minnesota,’ or so he claimed. Probably here for his tea and scones. Sophie said she likes rules, whether for poetry, crime or Agatha Christie. And her own next book has a bit of Golden Age Mystery in it, now that her appetite for such things has been awakened.

Alex Gray spoke for all of us when she said that we would happily have stayed another hour. At least. I feel sorry for anyone who didn’t get out of bed early enough to hear Sophie talk Christie.

Into the unknown

The day had its ups and downs. Twice, in fact. I’d carefully chosen my morning event at Bloody Scotland to be down at the Albert Halls, so you can work out what had to happen. Had to collect my ticket at the Stirling Highland Hotel first, way up where I was on Thursday. The Resident IT Consultant drove me there, and while I got the tickets and hobbled down the hill again, he drove home, parked the car and walked back to the Albert Halls. (Because, yes, I had given him permission to join me.)

Sharon Bolton, Helen Fitzgerald and Julia Crouch

Apart from venue, I had chosen events with people I don’t know. Leaving your comfort zone and all that. The day began with Domestic Noir as written by Sharon Bolton, Helen Fitzgerald and Julia Crouch. They each read a short piece, and that was pretty chilling stuff. I’m not sure I’d have the guts to read the whole book, by any of them.

All three believe in starting with a punchy first sentence, because you can’t afford not to. The reader should be able to tell it’s not chick lit, but hard-hitting crime. It’s the editor’s job to tell them when there is too much housework in a book. Well-ordered tins of food is very scary, and so is an unreliable narrator. Sharon even has an unreliable main character.

Helen Fitzgerald

None of them reckon they need to write about feminism. It’s obvious from their books. Helen spoke of Australian radio announcements when there are bushfires. If you can see flames, don’t leave your house. It’s too late. Sharon talked about snakes in Midsomer country, and Julia has a past travelling in Greece that involved drunken, unseemly behaviour. (She looked so nice, too.)

Helen Fitzgerald and Julia Crouch

They find their children useful as sources of information and style, and while Julia had borrowed a friend’s Cath Kidston type house for a book, Sharon went out of her way to find a ‘skanky’ riverside setting.

Helen works part time, having gone crazy, alone in her attic. Sharon said she’s an unsociable creature who works best alone, with the dog to tell her it’s time for lunch. Although Twitter is good to check when things aren’t going so well.

Sharon Bolton

Both Sharon and Julia know how their books should end, but will often change as they go along. Helen knows where she is going, and even has a last line that she aims for. Humour is necessary and contact with readers is good. They all listen to their editors, and writing can be ‘sheer hell to go through, but worth it in the end.’

Afterwards we repaired to the bookshop for signings, and I enjoyed a mug of tea and cake, and a good read. As I left, I found Peter Robinson, whose event came next, sitting incognito-ish in the foyer. I think that meant he wasn’t really there, but his fans recognised him and came up to chat.

I climbed up the hill, having sent the Resident IT Consultant home, wondering why the Back Walk gave me vertigo going up, when down had been OK. My afternoon event was about Glasgow Gangsters with Andrew Davies and Bryan McLaughlin, chaired by Douglas Skelton. Andrew is a crime historian, specialising in street gangs,  and Bryan is a retired Glasgow detective, who has written a book about his work.

Andrew Davies

Street gangs happen because of poverty, over-crowding and unemployment. Andrew compared the smaller number of gang members in places like Coronation Street, small streets of terraced housing, with the Glasgow tenements, where you could literally be on the wrong side of the street, on someone else’s turf, and be killed for it.

Bryan, who hails from Easterhouse, reckoned the 1960s weren’t as dangerous as the 1920s or 30s, and that it was mainly territorial fights rather than other crimes. Andrew has scoured newspaper libraries for everything on crime and gangs in Glasgow, including moving there for six months to learn more. Chicago crime featured heavily in the papers, and both authors reckoned newspapers could have been partly to blame for the reputation of gangs and individual criminals.

Bryan McLaughlin

According to Bryan, Manchester’s Moss Side is worse than Glasgow is now. There is less violence, now that it is mainly drugs, because you’d be stupid to attack a potential customer. Questions from the audience covered things like human trafficking and what gangsters did in the war.

Then there was more signing, in yet another bookshop, with people doing literary chairs to fit in behind the available tables. I did that thing I rarely do, which is buy a book. (For tomorrow. James Oswald. Thought I’d better be prepared. As I exited the bookshop I found myself face to face with James. As you do.)

Came across Bloody Scotland’s Lin Anderson, who had been collared by someone outside the Ladies (which might not be the best of places to waylay people). After which it was time for me to make my second descent of the day. I won’t be able to keep this up…

The Sun Is God

The end of Adrian McKinty’s The Sun Is God is unlike most crime novels. I won’t say how, but it’s hardly surprising that an unusual crime story ends in a somewhat unorthodox way.

Adrian McKinty, The Sun Is God

It wasn’t at all as I had imagined, even when I did visualise something the complete opposite of Adrian’s Northern Irish crime. Set in German Neu Guinea in 1906 it is very different, but at the same time quite normal, while also rather insane. I hope that describes it?

Will Prior is a most Duffy-like character, and you will feel right at home with him. I found it harder to feel at home in this South Pacific German setting from before WWI, because it’s unlike anything I’ve come across. Much rougher than other exotic crime novels, and probably much truer for it.

There is an island near Herbertshöhe where Will lives, where a group of – frankly lunatic – German nudists have settled. They live off coconuts and bananas, and they act pretty bananas too. One of them has died in mysterious circumstances and Will’s past as a military policeman means the Germans ask him to go and investigate.

Adrian has mixed a few fictional characters like Will, with the crazy Cocovores and with real people from Herbertshöhe, and written a story based on deaths that actually occurred in real life.

Full of nudity, this is a story that I can’t see being made into a film (as the movie-minded Resident IT Consultant reluctantly decided once he’d got some way through the book). But it’s different; I’ll grant you that. And the end is, well, thrilling.

(Today they’d all die of skin cancer…)

Finding Critical Mass

It must have been towards the end of our holiday, shortly before the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I was going over in my head the things I needed to do and remember before getting to Charlotte Square. Especially knowing I’d have less time once I returned to the new house.

And there’s the crux, dear readers. New house. What do new houses have? Or more accurately, not have?

Precisely. No well-ordered rows of books on shelves. And one of my ‘must remembers’ was that I wanted to take Sara Paretsky’s Critical Mass to have her sign it. I’ve got a lot more relaxed about this, and can actually contemplate seeing people in the flesh without arriving equipped with scores of books to have signed.

But this was Sara and it was Critical Mass. And where was the book? Packed in a box, along with the other 80 or so metres of books. Where was this box? On the floor in the living room piled against the wall with no more than another forty boxes. (The other boxes are/were in other rooms.)

That was enough to make me not get back to sleep. OK, I could buy another copy. But this was the one I wanted signed.

I waited until the Resident IT Consultant seemed to be in a relaxed mood and asked him how likely he thought it would be that the book could be found, in the week we had available. Without either of us going crazy.

Once he realised what I was saying, and could get his head round my description of where the book used to be and how the box was likely to be labelled, he reckoned it was doable.

And it was. It only took him about five ‘wrong’ boxes (plus a lot of heavy lifting), and there it was!

Phew.