Top 6 Psychological Thrillers
I hadn’t realised until I put this list together that the authors are all women! There are some brilliant books out there at the moment – fiction, yes, but be warned – the twisted, dysfunctional relationships portrayed are not far removed from real life. That, perhaps, is part of their appeal… It’s something these and many other women write about so well
- Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
Surprising, damaged characters, clever plot, twists I didn’t see coming.
- I Let You Go – Claire Mackintosh
I loved everything about this book – the believable characters, the emotional pull, a brilliantly twisty plot and phenomenal ending. Oh, and it’s brilliantly written too.
- The Book of You – Claire Kendal
A compelling read – so creepy and disturbing so that you have to keep reading until you know how it ends…
- Afterwards – Rosamund Lupton
I have read this so many times. The writing is beautiful, lyrical even. The story is moving, the emotions so real. It’s about ordinary people – and a terrible crime.
- Kind of Cruel – Sophie Hannah
This was the first book of Sophie’s books I read. I remember devouring it – I just had to find out what had happened.
- Killing Me Softly – Nicci French
Another page turner… Gripping and disturbing.
Blake and Avery and how their relationship has developed through two books.
I first had the idea for Jeremiah Blake, my inquiry agent (the prototype of the modern private eye) about 14 years ago. I was in the midst of a huge non-fiction tome about World War One, and writing a detective novel with a made-up plot seemed unbelievably alluring. I knew exactly where I wanted to put him: in London in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, when the chaotic, morally easy-going Georgian era gave way to the more uptight, energetic Victorian one, and when London became the biggest and most cosmopolitan city in the world.
I knew from the start that my protagonist would be working class, self-educated, and clever, too clever not to see through the injustices and prejudices of his period, yet forced to kowtow to his social superiors in order to make a living.
It was a good nine years until I actually got round to writing my first mystery, The Strangler Vine. By then I’d decided that I wanted to write about the Thugs —the gangs of murderous bandits who haunted the roads of India in the 1820s and 30s, befriending, then strangling, unwary travelers. So the book had to be set in India which I reckoned was a good place for a sort of origins story. At the frontiers of the British Empire people from unconventional and modest backgrounds often found opportunity and reinvented themselves. I decided that Blake (he now had a name) had come from a lowlife criminal background and had been transported to India when very young by the East India Company. There he had been spotted by the Company’s intelligence department and trained up to be a spy.
Then I realised that not knowing anything about India might be a bit of a problem. I couldn’t be an omniscient narrator because I would never know enough. I couldn’t write from Blake’s perspective because I felt he needed to be mysterious and inscrutable. I couldn’t use an Indian character because again they’d know more than I ever could. I needed someone to tell the story who was new to India and a bit clueless: my ignorance could be his ignorance. Problem solved.
That was how Blake’s sidekick William Avery came about. He was a young provincial gentleman-turned-soldier, naïve, conventional and full of the prejudices of his class, but with a hidden, less straightforward side: a secret passion for books, an instinct for taking care of others, an eye for a telling detail.
The strange thing was that Avery’s voice, which started out as a response to a structural need, came to me at once: he seemed easy to write, maybe because he was so fallible and reminded me a bit of me. Blake came slower. Taciturn, cool, revealing very little about himself, but with a big hinterland that could only emerge slowly, I found it much harder to get him right.
I’d planned to kill Avery off at the end of The Strangler Vine, but as I wrote the book, I realized that I’d written a real, awkward and—I thought—touching relationship that I wanted to develop. I liked the notion of the older working-class man leading the younger posher subordinate—a relationship unusual and not altogether approved of in Victorian England. At the start Avery feels utterly humiliated by Blake and hates him. But gradually he begins reluctantly to admire him and ends by feeling intense loyalty to him. Blake, meanwhile, has convinced himself he needs no one, especially not a silly, innocent young officer. But his long suppressed humanity is brought out by Avery, whom he comes to recognize maybe ignorant and innocent but is utterly honest and loyal.
In the second book, The Printer’s Coffin, the two meet in London after three years apart. Avery still nurses a powerful admiration for and loyalty to Blake. I think he regards him as the older brother/father mentor he never had, though he disagrees with many of Blake’s views. He hopes they will pick up where they left off, but both have changed. Blake is cool and difficult, and even angrier and at odds with Victorian society. He is determined to keep the world at bay. Avery meanwhile has been traumatized by his experiences in the Afghan war, and his marriage has not been a success. Ironically, it seems to me, each one needs the other more than ever.
I am lucky enough to live in one of the most beautiful parts of world – Alderney, in the Channel Islands – and in a stunning property, a restored Victorian fort. I only live in one part of it as it’s divided into a number of apartments, but it is unique and has great character.
Apart from the magnificent building, the views themselves are breathtaking, and my sitting room and bedroom both look out over a beautiful bay. I am able to watch the sea and all its moods, from a calm, limpid blue, to a maelstrom of white-crested waves crashing onto the rocks below my window.
I used to work in my sitting room, but then a room adjoining the apartment became available and we had it gutted and refurbished so it makes a fabulous office, separate from, but adjoining my home.
The image below shows the entrance to my apartment on the left, but the door straight ahead at the bottom of the stairs leads into my office. It couldn’t be more perfect.
Inside the office it’s a bit shambolic at the moment. There is just so much to do as we prepare for the launch of Kill Me Again. I would prefer to show a photo from the opposite end of the room, because then you would see all the lovely bookcases. But sadly you would also see all the cardboard boxes waiting to go to recycling, and the pile of stuff that has to be started once my book launch is complete. I tend to just keep copies of my own books in the office so they’re accessible if we need to send any out. And I have a full selection of all the foreign language translations too – I love seeing them on the shelves.
I have two homes – although I am in Alderney for most of the time, we also have a small farmhouse in the Le Marche region of Italy onto the courtyard.
For about two months of each year, I take myself off to Italy, where I continue to write, but usually on the terrace of our home there. My days in Italy are less strict. I still get up at around 7, but take more time over breakfast and often take a nap in a hammock after lunch. Despite working fewer hours when I’m there, I am actually very productive.
It’s peaceful, and life is slightly less frenetic than it is here in Alderney, where – despite its size – there is a huge amount going on. In Italy, we tend to go out for the occasional meal, or invite friends round, but for the most part we just relax and enjoy it. There seems to be something about sitting looking out at the view that inspires me to write, and it is there that I wrote my first novel – Only the Innocent – so it’s special from that point of view.
I consider myself to be very luck to have such lovely places to work, and I’m sure they contribute to any inspiration that I may have.
When I began to write my Quirke stories, first as a television mini-series back around the year 2000—yes, Christine Falls, the first Quirke novel, was adapted from a script that was never going to be filmed—I did not realise how fortunate I was to be able to remember Dublin in the 1950s, and use it as a background. Indeed, the city is more than background, it’s one of the main characters in these books.
In the 1950s, the 8th of December, Feast day of the Immaculate Conception, no less, was a holy day and a public holiday, and the day when people from the country came to town to do their Christmas shopping. It also happened to be my birthday—I doubt mine was an immaculate conception—and every year on the 8th I was brought to Dublin from Wexford, my home town, as a birthday treat.
I vividly remember those trips. I would board the train with my mother in a freezing, pre-dawn hour—I can still smell the smoke from the engine, for this was in the days of steam trains—and wait sleepily for the pink light of morning to come creeping across the frost-white fields as we trundled northwards. We would alight at Westland Row station, and I would feel that I had arrived at the Gare du Nord.
Dublin in that time was dark, dank and Dickensian: it looked, and smelled, like a city of the 1850s rather than the 1950s. Yet I was thrilled by it: even yet, there are moments when a whiff of diesel fumes from the back-end of a double-decker bus will transport me straight back to those December days of long ago. We had no double-deckers in Wexford . . .
Of course, the magical city, as I imagined it to be, was entirely a façade, where a veneer of devout respectability covered all manner of crimes and misdemeanours that never got reported in the newspapers. While I was happily tucking into a Knickerbocker Glory ice cream in the Palm Beach Café on O’Connell Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, around the corner children were starving in some of the worst slums in Europe. For most Dubliners, the only relief from poverty—financial and spiritual—was alcohol. The place reeked of porter, cigarette smoke and horse dung. What more could one ask, setting out to write noir fiction?
Later on, in the 1960s, I lived with an aunt in her flat in a decaying Georgian pile in Upper Mount Street, one of the loveliest thoroughfares in the world, and still untouched by the hand of the developer. Quirke lives in that house, number 39, hard by St Andrew’s Church, known fondly as the Pepper Canister, and near the canal, the banks of which are his favourite haunt. When my novel The Sea was filmed, by coincidence the last day of shooting took place directly opposite number 39. Life has its eerie moments.
Even the Dead is published on the 28th January, 2016.
Visit Benjamin Black on his website at benjaminblackbooks.com
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and why do you write?
As I get my narrator to say in my very first book, The Herring Seller’s Apprentice, I have always been a writer. I can’t really remember a time when that wasn’t what I wanted to do, though it then took me a few decades to actually produce a publishable full length novel. What keeps me writing is people saying that they enjoy reading the books. If they ever stopped doing that, then I’d find something sensible to do with my time.
What kind of relationship do you have with your protagonists?
Ethelred and John Grey couldn’t be any different could they?!! Ethelred is a rather conservative, pessimistic, middle aged, mid-list author. He wishes it was 1957. John Grey is young and idealistic. He’s happy with modernity, though modernity to him is of course 1657. I think it’s difficult to write any character, or any main character, who isn’t, deep down, a little bit like you; otherwise, how can you understand what they do? But you draw on different aspects of your own personality for each one. Personally, I’d be quite happy living in 1957 or 1657.
How would you describe yourself in one sentence?
The sort of person that it takes at least two sentences to describe.
How long did it take you to write A Masterpiece of Corruption and did you find it different from writing your first historical novel A Cruel Necessity?
About a year. Books always seem to take about a year. The first book in a historical series tends to be fairly research-incentive. You’re constantly having to check whether petticoat breeches were in fashion in the 1650s or what people ate for breakfast or indeed whether they ate breakfast at all. And you want to show people you’ve done your research – you make sure you describe petticoat breeches in detail. You never stop researching of course, but later you feel you have to put less of it in the actual book. You and the reader now know stuff like that.
If you could send one person to a remote desert Island with no internet access, mobile phones or email who would it be and why?
Me. I might get some work done.
What do you wish you’d known when you started writing?
I wish I’d understood that you need to keep in mind both the plot of the book you’re writing and the story arc of the series. It’s all too easy to create problems for yourself two or three books down the line. Of course I had no idea that the first book would develop into a series so, even if I’d understood all that, I wouldn’t necessarily have done anything different.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
P G Woodhouse. How to make your prose sound effortless, even when it clearly isn’t!
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing A Masterpiece of Corruption?
Until I started to read up on it, I’d been unaware that there was a theory that Cromwell had been murdered. A Masterpiece of Corruption centres around the attempt to foil just such a plot. Obviously, it’s not much of a spoiler if I admit that Cromwell dies eventually, because a quick look at Wikipedia will confirm that he is dead and has been for quite a while. But was it malaria, as was announced at the time, or something more sinister?
How different is your approach to writing the Herring series and the historical fiction series?
With any historical series, you are working to some extent with actual historical events. So key points in the plot are already mapped out for you. I suppose therefore that I have a better idea of the outline of the book when I start. The Ethelred and Elsie books could go pretty much anywhere they want. I also don’t have Elsie’s sarcastic commentary on events with the John Grey series, though Aminta (John’s sidekick) is beginning to develop her own line in helpful criticism of John’s methods.
Which fictional character would you most like to meet in real life?
What makes you keep picking up and reading books?
Because there are so many great books being written. We’re living through something of a Golden Age.
How has being a published author changed your life?
You no longer get that sense of dread on Sunday afternoon that it is Monday tomorrow.
If you could quote a line or paragraph from your work what would it be and why?
It is early on Tuesday and I am not yet dead (Masterpiece of Corruption)
Friday night in the Tyler home, you get to invite three people to dinner, past or present. Who would they be and why?
Samuel Pepys, Aphra Behn, Lady Castlemaine. They’d have all the seventeenth century gossip …
When my fictional 18th century coroner, Titus Cragg of Preston, investigates a suspicious death, he takes into account all the different kinds of evidence available to him, which means establishing the physical facts of a case and making deductions from those facts. When thinking like this, he is in effect practising an early form of what we call “forensic science”, in which he’s much encouraged by his modern young friend and informal assistant Dr Fidelis. But Cragg is a man of his time, in which hundreds of years of pre-scientific lore, of folk traditions and superstitions, also has to be reckoned with.
Enquiries by coroners in Cragg’s time were still governed to a considerable extent by popular belief in divine intervention. The old adage that “mordre wol out”, chillingly evoked by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, derives from the idea that murder was so abhorrent in the eyes of God that sooner or later he always exposed and punished the murderer. Long ago physical trials by water or fire had been ways of hurrying the process up: if the suspects floated, or were not burned, they were not guilty, and vice versa. By the 18th century such procedures had long fallen out of use, but popular superstition remained a factor in any body of evidence.
Reports that a ghost had appeared to someone could be taken as proof that the dead person was haunting his murderer, just as Banquo’s ghost returns to accuse Macbeth. As psychological side-effects of guilt, such hallucinations may be plausible evidence, but another technique, the bleeding corpse trial, had rather less basis in reality. Here a suspect would be made to grip the hand of the body under inquest and, if this caused the corpse’s wounds to bleed anew, it was taken as the touch of the murderer.
Careful examination of the body, and the position it was found in, had always been essential to the coroner’s procedure. Sometimes this has a modern ring to it, as in the way wounds were precisely mapped and measured. The famous 1593 inquest into the violent death of the playwright Christopher Marlowe was very specific in finding “a mortal wound over the right eye of the depth of two inches and of the width of one inch”. However the coroner’s examination also took note of less tangible things, such as the expression on the victim’s face. Some believed this was a significant pointer towards the manner of death: a placid face would rule out a violent murder whereas a look of stark terror made it an open and shut case for homicide.
One forensic experiment, devised in the late 17th century, had a quasi-scientific basis. This was used to answer a question that had always been of special interest to coroners: whether the death of a new-born baby occurred before or after its birth. A piece of the infant’s lung was dropped into water. If it sank, that was taken as an indication that the lung had never been inflated; if it floated, it was taken that the baby had breathed before it died. This test remained in use for most of the 18th century.
Increasingly ideas in “natural philosophy”, based on observation and experiment of a kind beloved of Dr Fidelis, competed for credibility with a vast core of pre-existing beliefs and superstitions that had accumulated over thousands of years. Coroners like Cragg were therefore working at the very cusp of change between traditional and scientific forensics. It is what makes them such interesting figures.
(Robin Blake’s The Scrivener, the third Cragg and Fidelis mystery, is published by Constable in the UK. In the United States it appears under the imprint of Minotaur Books with the variant title The Hidden Man.) Follow Robin Blake on Twitter and for more information on his books visit robinblake.co.uk
PD Viner, Crime writer: Year One. Serial killings.
In a few days my second novel (Summer of Ghosts, pub August 14th 2014) will be released and I am nervous. Is this going to be my Godfather II or Exorcist II? (If you don’t know them – let me just tell you that Godfather II is arguably the best sequel ever. Exorcist II: the Heretic is not. It is so NOT).
Now a part of my nerves is the fact that the step-up from part-time writer, taking three years to finish a novel while I juggled work, childcare and the procrastination Olympics, to being a full-time writer (nine months writing time for a novel from scratch) is immense. But bigger than that is the question – have I pulled it off? You see Summer of Ghosts is the middle part of a trilogy (okay a trilogy of three novels, four novellas and a short story that may or may not turn into a graphic novel) and I have always thought that the second novel of a series was the tough one. It separates the wheat from the chaff – or at least the Pass the Dutchie one hit wonder (Musical Youth) from the multi-hit makers, with the goal being to have as many number ones as the The Beatles (John being Ian Rankin and Paul is PD James. I will leave you to debate your ideas for George and Ringo). A main character can hold one book. To hold a series – that is much tougher. Many writers work this trick by making each book a different case and eeking out details about their main detective. I haven’t gone down this path though – there is one case, the death of Dani Lancing, that stretches across all three books even though Summer of Ghosts is predominantly about two other crimes; the beautiful skin murders and the abduction and murder of Pia Light.
My first novel dealt with a single act of violence and how that causes a ripple that destroys many other lives around it. As Mark Billingham said, it was not about violence but what violence does to people. Well, with book two I wanted to look more closely at violence and the book is violent in an often distressingly casual way. It deals with characters who trade in violence and one character, Gulliver, who enjoys causing violence and pain. The book looks at violence in war too as some scenes occur in the bushwars and later civil wars of Zimbabwe. Into this world where life is cheap I parachute Tom Bevans (AKA The Sad Man) and the parents of the murdered girl, Patty and Jim Lancing to test their mettle. I also attempt, with Franco – a minor character in the opening novel, but now at the forefront of the narrative, to show a man who most see as black and white – but who is as subtle and nuanced as any man can be. The book is once again about moral ambiguities and moral imperatives and that is like walking a tightrope over Niagara falls. Have I got the balance right?
That has been difficult to judge as the pressure of writing two novellas and a novel in nine months (plus editors comments and copy edits etc) meant that I was working more in isolation than ever before. With my first novel I had been enrolled on a writing course and my fellow classmates and tutor gave me feedback every week. As a professional writer it is just me and a vat of espresso reflecting my dark, dark soul.
So I am nervous about the balance and tone but also for my new readers – have I given you enough overview (or worse, too much)? For my series I have attempted to write for an ensemble cast, and I did not want to start the second novel as if the catastrophic events of the first had not affected them all deeply. But – and here is the tricky part – each book needs to stand alone, and be read without any pre-knowledge of what has gone before. So I have tried to set the scene with events from the first book being revealed in a therapy session. The idea is that if you have read the first one then it will remind the reader what happened and give them a nice thrill of association – but new readers get all they need without feeling like they have missed something (though of course I hope they will go back and want to read The Last Winter of Dani Lancing). Within the crime genre there are so many styles and sub cultures that I wanted, within one series, to look at many different forms of writing. The idea is that the landscape can shift under the feet of the characters and they can be thrown into really different experiences – but if I write true to those protagonists I can make each story different and exciting while remaining true to the series. The novellas also segue in style (and I urge you to check them out, especially as they are FREE to download from all good ebook stockists). The Sad Man is set in 1999 and is the case that makes Tom Bevans career and allows him to set up Operation Ares to investigate multiple victim sex/murder cases. The novella is a serial killer piece with a little Thomas-Harris-like-action. The second novella, The Ugly Man is set in the heatwave of 1976 and involves Patty Lancing on the track of a killer. It is the case that makes her reputation and is a big city journalist trying to crack a case in a close knit rural community. Next year there will be two more novellas – one a supernatural thriller and the other a deliverance-style cat and mouse chase as well as the final novel – a prison break. All feature Tom, Patty, Jim and Dani. So on September 1st I get to follow in the footsteps of the Krays and go to Lewes prison. I am looking forward to it. I am nervous – and I am proud – and I just need to keep writing.
Character development – the early years…
I blame Kingsley Amis. In my early twenties, my favourite novel was ‘Lucky Jim’. Drunken escapades, silent fury towards the fools who fail to appreciate your worth – the classic book for the wannabe writer trapped in a career he doesn’t enjoy. People tell you to write what you know, but I decided to write what I liked. What would happen, I wondered blithely, if I blended the comic style of ‘Lucky Jim’ with the most exciting of genres, the crime-thriller?
Enormous success, I quickly concluded – probable membership of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, cult status in America, pallet-piles of books in Waterstones. Time to get cracking.
As a trained lawyer, I gave my protagonist the same profession; to give him access to exotic colonial skulduggery, I stuck him in Gibraltar. Balding, down on his luck, cursed by a propensity to drink to the point of oblivion, then lose a vital legal document, Spike Sanguinetti came into being. The novel started promisingly – lots of laughs, veiled hints that the plot was about to kick into thrilling action. But then things began to go awry. I needed excitement, danger, but the character I had created was too useless to handle it. Either he had to blunder accidentally towards victory (a la Big Lebowski), or transform himself suddenly into a savvy and courageous hero. The first route needed a deftness of touch I lacked; the second involved a level of implausibility fatal to the reader’s attention. I worried about it a bit, before deciding to press on and hope for the best.
So I sent the book out to agents; miraculously, one liked it enough to take it on. We had a stab at rewriting, but never quite got there. I asked the agent to send it out anyway (the confidence of youth); he did so, resulting in a cascade of rejection letters.
A little older, but not much wiser, I spotted a competition on the internet: the ‘Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award’. I entered the book, entitled ‘The Hollow Mountain’. The rules required entrants to post the first 5000 words online, then progress via public voting and professional judgments towards victory and a US publishing deal. The book moved through the early stages of the competition, then made it to the semi-final. My bruised ego received a temporary boost. Then came the rub – the need to submit the rest of the manuscript. History repeated itself and once again Spike’s adventures hit the dust.
An intense, late-night discussion with my wife (the years were rolling by) ensued. I needed to make a choice. Either keep the character and change the genre, or change the character and keep the genre. I went for the latter. Spike Sanguinetti needed to have the tools to survive in a world of murder, conspiracy and injustice. Rather than incompetent, he needed to be capable. Rather than bald and hungover, attractive and able to hold his drink. Aspects of his character remained – his career, his homeland, his aged and cantankerous father – but to bring him fully to life, I had to move him away from myself and employ a hitherto underused faculty: imagination.
The first Spike Sanguinetti book, ‘Shadow of the Rock’, was finally published some fifteen years after I’d first started to write about him. People stress the importance of character development on the page, but a character can be born, live and learn from his mistakes years before a book is even plotted, let alone written. The follow-up, ‘Sign of the Cross’, came out last year. And the title of the third novel? ‘Hollow Mountain’. Same name (minus the definite article), completely different book, but one that couldn’t exist without its curious comic predecessor.
© Thomas Mogford, 2014
“Do you want the good news or the bad news?”
This is how THE DYING HOURS ends and pretty much where Tom Thorne’s latest outing, THE BONES BENEATH begins. Those who have already read the new book will know that the bad news is not so much a ‘what’ as a ‘who’ and is just about the worst news Thorne could receive. Stuart Nicklin, the most dangerous killer he has ever put away is ready to reveal the whereabouts of one of his earliest victims. The price Thorne must pay for rejoining the Murder Squad is that he must escort Nicklin to a remote location and bring back the body.
If the body is there to be found, of course.
The location in question was always going to be hugely important. I needed somewhere isolated, that would be hard to reach; somewhere a long way outside Thorne’s comfort zone that would perfectly suit some of the unpleasant things I had planned for him when he got there. After racking my brains for weeks, my wife suggested an island she had heard about growing up in North Wales. An island with a lighthouse which she had seen winking at her across Cardigan Bay as she stared out of her bedroom window. Using my wife’s Welsh connections (The Taffia, if you will) and her ability to speak the language, we secured a crossing in the depths of Winter, 2013. Within a few minutes of setting foot on Bardsey Island (Ennis Ynlli), I knew I had found the perfect place to set the book.
The island is a mile and a half long and a mile wide and I spent the day walking every inch of it. I explored the damp cottages, the uninviting stretches of beach, the rocks crowded with seals. I climbed the lighthouse and clambered into the caves. I took photos and I scribbled in a notebook…
For most of the year, Bardsey is all but uninhabited and remote in many senses, with its own micro-climate. The mountain renders the mainland invisible, the waters around it are treacherous and if you’re lucky, on a clear night, you might just glimpse the lights of Dublin. Its amazing marine and birdlife make it a place of Special Scientific Interest. It once had its own King. The absence of light pollution have given it Dark Sky Status. It is also a place of pilgrimage and said to be home to the bones of 20,000 saints, though Thorne of course is looking for remains that are rather more recent.
Bardsey is a tricky place on which to conduct a high-security police operation and is not exactly conducive to complex forensic investigations. There is no mains electricity or running water. Accommodation is basic at the best of times. It is a place where Thorne feels uncomfortable in every sense, well aware that the man he is escorting knows it very well; that a dangerous opponent has the advantage.
An isolated island that rings to the screams of seals when darkness falls. A killer who knows the territory and a copper out of his depth.
Bones beneath their feet…
Oh, and one another thing that make Bardsey Island the perfect place to set a mystery. The nearest CCTV camera is a long way away and there is mobile phone signal.
For a crime-writer, that is seriously good news.
The Bones Beneath is published in the UK on the 22nd May.
To find out more on Tom Thorne and Mark Billingham, please take the time to visit Mark’s website.
If I don’t hang on I will die. My fingers are curled into claws. So cold and numb they feel like they’re frozen to the ledge. The blackness comes … recedes again, but leaves only panic and confusion. Is this high, freezing place a mountaintop? I don’t remember climbing it. But then I can’t even recall my name right now above the wind’s howl.
Memories flicker out of the darkness like fragments caught on celluloid, briefly illuminated. A door made of plastic. A man in orange overalls. The insolent swish of something heavy through the air. Ducking – too late.
I try to brace my legs, to keep from falling. But the tremors are so bad, they’re useless. In a blinding surge of rage I vow: Somebody’s going to die for this. Then a great wind screams in my face and tears my fingers from their grip.
And I realise the somebody is me.
Detective Constable Natalie Kershaw sat on the outdoor terrace of Starbucks in the lee of the Canary Wharf tower, treating herself to an overpriced and underpowered cappuccino. In her chalk stripe trousers and black wool jacket she could have passed for another of the City workers getting their early morning fix of caffeine.
Kershaw was celebrating the last day of her secondment to Docklands nick: the stint in financial crime would look good on her CV, but after three months navigating the murky channels of international money laundering, she was gagging to get back to some proper police work. And not just the routine stuff – the credit card frauds, street robberies and domestic violence that had dominated her career so far. No. In two days’ time she’d finally become what she’d first set her sights on at the age of fourteen – a detective on Murder Squad.
Drinking the last of her coffee, she shivered. Despite the morning sun a chill hung in the air, and a light icing on her car windscreen that morning had signalled the first frost of autumn.
As she stood to go, something drew her gaze towards the glittering bulk of the tower less than twenty metres away.
Suddenly, she ducked: an instinctive reflex. The impression of something dark, flapping, the chequerboard windows of the tower flickering behind it like a reel of film. Then a colossal whump, followed by the sound of imploding glass and plastic. There was a split second of absolute silence before a woman at the next table started screaming, a thin high keening that bounced off the impassive facades of the high-rise office blocks surrounding the café.
Fuck! Kershaw took off running towards the site of the impact – a long dark limo parked nearby that had probably been waiting to pick someone up. There was a metre-wide crater in its roof and the windscreen lay shattered across the bonnet like imitation diamonds. She could hear an inanely cheery jingle still playing on the radio. The car was empty, the guy she presumed to be the driver standing just a few metres away, still holding the fag he’d left the car to smoke. His stricken gaze was fixed on the man-sized dent in the car roof – the spot where his head would have been moments earlier. Kershaw filed it away as a rare case of a cigarette extending someone’s life.
Three or four metres beyond the limo, the falling man lay where he had come to rest, in a slowly spreading lake of his own blood. He’d fallen face down, his overcoat spread either side of him like the unfurled wings of an angel. By some quirk of physics or anatomy, the fall had twisted his head around by almost 180 degrees, so that his half-closed eyes appeared to be gazing up at the wall of glass and concrete, as if calculating how many floors he had fallen.
At the risk of appearing Scrooge-like in this season of Merry, Happy and Ho-Ho-Ho, I’d like to add my two cents to a kerfuffle over book reviews that’s been brewing both in the print media and on the Internet for the past month or so.
If you haven’t been following it, the brouhaha started when a popular website called BuzzFeed hired Issac Fitzgerald who used to work as the Publicity Director for Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s Publishing Company, to serve as the editor for its Books Section. Fitzgerald accepted the job because, as he says, “I was missing what I do best, which is talk about books online.”
However, Fitzgerald apparently only likes to talk about books positively, following what he calls The Bambi Rule: “If you can’t say something nice then don’t say nothing (sic) at all.” (Fitzgerald acknowledges that the line originally came from Thumper). While the Bambi Rule, whether mouthed first by a rabbit or a fawn, may a good one to follow when one is generating publicity for a book as Fitzgerald used to do but it’s not one legitimate critics or reviewers should be encouraged to follow.
The problem with “nice” is that few, if any, works of fiction are perfect and it is the job of competent reviewers to point what doesn’t work in a book as well as to lavish praise on what does. Reviews should do more than just try to convince people to read the books Fitzgerald or his reviewers fall in love with.
Whether we’re talking about crime fiction, literary fiction or non-fiction, legitimate reviewers should give us a sense of what the author intended and how well they achieved their goals. It should discuss in what ways the book didn’t work as well as the ways in which it did. Reviews should also provide insights into both the style and quality of the writing.
If the reviewer does their job well, he or she can help people intelligently decide what they want to buy and read. Just offering an unending stream of nice, as Fitzgerald suggests, isn’t criticism or analysis. At its best, it’s marketing and should be identified as such. Most of the reader reviews on Amazon and B&N generally fall into this category. At its worst it’s meaningless pap.
Predictably reaction in both online and traditional media was vociferous. Both Maureen Dowd and Bob Garfield wrote stinging op-eds on Fitzgerald’s Bambi Rule in the New York Times. Garfield sarcastically ended his piece by noting:
“BuzzFeed’s heroic initiative will succeed even if it merely eradicates the depressing negativity that has for so long kept literary criticism from becoming a full-fledged economic sector, like agriculture, transport and erectile dysfunction.
It also brings us one step closer to my two lifelong dreams: first, a newspaper that delivers only good news; and second, diet bacon.”
While I agree with Dowd, Garfield and others who think Fitzgerald is doing readers a disservice, I have to say I also agree that some book reviews and reviewers are unnecessarily––if amusingly––nasty. I’ve always loved Dorothy Parker’s oft-quoted line, “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
On a decidedly nastier note, Garfield’s column points out that “The Hatchet Job of the Year Award” went to a reviewer named Camilla Long of the London Times who described a writer named Rachel Cusk’s memoir of her marital breakup as “a needy, neurotic mandolin solo” written by “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist.”
That kind of barbed and personal mud-slinging is both nasty and unnecessary. Legitimate constructive criticism shouldn’t be. Like any writer, I love getting good reviews and hate getting bad ones. While I’ve never been the target of anything remotely as ugly as Ms. Long’s poison pen, I would still prefer getting a thoughtful negative review that points out legitimate flaws in my work to one that mindlessly praises it. Constructive criticism can help me improve my writing and my books. Empty praise serves no purpose other than to puff up my ego (which admittedly makes me feel good) and to flim-flam potential readers which doesn’t.
A good friend of mine, now in his eighties and a compulsive reader, once asked me how many years I thought I had left in my life. I offered an optimistic number. He then asked me to multiply that number by the number of books I usually read in a year.
Even if I made it to the ripe old age I predicted, I was shocked by how few books I’d have time to read before they carried me out. Given the small number, I’ll continue to depend on good reviewers and thoughtful criticism to help me decide which ones to choose.
I suppose the ultimate problem with “nice” is that it smacks of the philosophy that impels adults to give every kid who participates in a race, even the one who finishes last, equal praise and maybe even a trophy. In literary criticism that simply won’t cut it.
The Reason I wrote The Istanbul Puzzle
I have been fascinated by Istanbul since my first visit there in 1995. I had met the woman who became my wife, a Turkish fashion designer, in London and went to Istanbul to meet her family. I was struck when I went there not only by how friendly everyone was, but also by how prosperous the city was and by its stunning historical sites, on par in my view with anything in Rome or Cairo.
The Istanbul Puzzle, the opening novel in the Puzzle series I created after many visits to the city, features Hagia Sophia in many of its scenes. Hagia Sofia is the iconic symbol of Istanbul. It is also, without doubt, one of the most important and mysterious, yet largely unknown, buildings in the world.
Not only has it been in continuous use since the seventh century, it has also been the headquarters of both Sunni Islam, the seat of its last Caliphate, and before that the seat of a major Christian denomination, Orthodox Christianity.
Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum by the first President of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, in 1935. Imagine the impact of Mussolini turning the Vatican into a museum to assess the impact of Atatürk’s decision. The goal of many Islamists, almost eighty years later, is the reestablishment of the Sunni Caliphate, which was removed from Hagia Sophia by Atatürk.
The building was originally named after Sophia, Holy Wisdom, a Greek Orthodox concept that reaches back to a time before Christianity. Its present incarnation is largely the structure dedicated on the December 27th 537AD. This version, which you can still visit, was, for almost a thousand years, the largest church or cathedral in all Christendom.
Hagia Sophia has survived earthquakes, riots and war. The purpose of this article however is not to reiterate a litany of facts about Hagia Sophia, but to explore one of its greatest mysteries; what lies beneath it?
Hagia Sophia is the only building designed as a great church not to have extensive and well-explored underground areas, whether they be crypts, burial chambers or catacombs.
Both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, constructed at a similar time to the earliest incarnation of Hagia Sophia, in 326-330, and Old St. Peter’s in Rome, constructed 330-360, have original and extensive underground areas. The Church of The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has multiple underground areas. St Peter’s in Rome includes the underground tomb of St Peter and the catacombs within its boundaries. A crypt is a common part of the design of a great church.
St. Paul’s in London has a crypt. Notre Dame in Paris has a crypt. Seville cathedral in Spain has a crypt. I could go on.
The underground areas are the most sacred parts of these buildings. It seems odd to me that there are no underground areas that the public is aware of, aside from a few drainage tunnels, under Hagia Sophia.
One possible explanation, of course, is that the ground Hagia Sophia is built on is unsuitable for underground construction. But that argument is blown out of the water, literally, by the existence of the Basilica Cistern, 150m away from Hagia Sophia. The Basilica Cistern is one the largest and most extensive ancient underground sites in the world. It is a vast underground chamber of almost 10,000 square metres containing a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 metres high.
So did the famous designers of Hagia Sophia simply forget to design underground levels for Hagia Sophia? Or is there another explanation?
The Black Death was one of the most destructive epidemics ever to strike humanity. It raged in Europe around the year 1350AD. Constantinople was one of the largest cities on the European continent. It fell victim to the Black Death in 1347, probably due to maritime contacts with the Crimea, which was under siege then by the Mongols.
It is reported that over fifty per cent of the population of Constantinople died that year, including a son of the then Byzantine Emperor.
One of the first places to be used to bury victims, especially senior members of the clergy and the aristocracy would have been in any underground crypts in the Hagia Sophia complex. The complex included the hospital of Sampson, where some underground tunnels have been revealed within metres of Hagia Sophia.
I suggest that any original crypts under Hagia Sophia may have been used for the burial of prominent plague victims. Such crypts would then have been sealed up, for obvious reasons. But what happened next?
Hagia Sophia fell to the Ottoman Turks when the city around it, Constantinople, fell on the 29th of May 1453.
Mehmed the Conqueror’s Sufi instructor, Ak Semseddin was a physician as well as a mystic poet. Ak Semseddin preached the first Friday sermon at the former cathedral of Hagia Sophia after it was converted into a mosque. He would have understood the consequences of opening up the plague crypts under Hagia Sopha and would have been well placed to persuade Mehmed not to search too hard under the building.
A proper modern investigation, a geophysical survey using ground penetrating radar and the latest magnetometer equipment would likely reveal significant underground areas at Hagia Sophia. So far the Turkish authorities have not permitted such a project.
It is true that there has been some limited small-scale explorations under Hagia Sophia, a few narrow tunnels and cisterns have been discovered, but I believe it is time for the whole area to be properly explored and documented.
The publicity, and increase in tourists alone, would justify the costs. What is everyone afraid of? Hagia Sophia has been a museum for seventy five years.
Now is the time for a modern investigation of the likely underground areas at Hagia Sophia. We don’t know what they will find. But it is possible that there is something significant down there.
One rumour states that the Byzantine Imperial tombs under Hagia Sophia contain great treasures. Another states that the Devil is buried under there. Whatever the truth, this mystery is something that fascinated me since my first visit to the city. It also forms a key part of the mystery I created with The Istanbul Puzzle, the first novel in the Puzzle series.
The author of this piece, Laurence O’Bryan, had his first Puzzle series novel published in 2012. It is called The Istanbul Puzzle. His second, The Jerusalem Puzzle, was published in January 2013. His third, The Manhattan Puzzle, continuing the story, was published October 10, 2013. Follow Laurence on twitter for more.
The ground that holds the sacred bones of the fallen
must forever be in the protection of their brothers
and the soil that covers their blessed skin
must be touched in equal measure by the sun and the moon.
– from the Arthurian Bible –
2013 certainly isn’t the Age of Chivalry.
Drive to work and you’ll get cut up – plenty of times. Try to park – someone will steal the space you’re carefully reversing into. Walk into a store; the person in front will seldom hold the door for you. Hold it for other folk – you’ll be lucky to get a thank you.
‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ are becoming as rare as rocking horse shit. Road rage is turning a trip to the supermarket into a lap of Rollerball.
And that’s just the minor stuff.
We live in the Age of Disappointment not Chivalry.
An age when money in a building society is no longer safe. When banks go bust but bosses still collect bonuses. When stock markets crash but traders still cash in. When the job that you thought was yours for life, is just about to be taken off you in the name of this year’s balance sheet. When the pension you paid into isn’t going to pay out anything like what you hoped – and you’re going to have to wait even longer to draw it.
And we’ve still not reached the serious shit.
This is the age when the government spies on you – with cameras on the streets, with listening devices on your phones and electronic eyes all over your email, but the same politicians prevaricate over what to do about real threats to life and liberty represented by the aggressive shifts of power in Syria and Egypt.
Sadly, we live in the Age of Duplicity and Dishonor. When there is no longer Good and Bad. Right or Wrong. There is only what is politically desirable. When the ballot box is truly more powerful than the bullet.
We need heroes. Knights in Shining Armor. Champions of Decency. Ideally, the greatest heroes of all time – the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. A ruler who was not only a mighty warrior – he was a gentleman, an enforcer of decency and respect. He oversaw the Codes of Chivalry. Oaths. Sworn allegiances. He was a leader who ushered in an age when a man’s word was his bond and a lady’s honor could result in duels at dawn.
And so was born the flight of fancy that lead to me writing ‘The Camelot Code’ – an almost anachronistic tale of honor, valor, bonds, allegiances and integrity. A story about people who don’t just believe in fairness and protecting the poor and weak – they’re prepared to die for it.
Like all boys, the Arthurian legends are stories I’ve grown up with. I’ve wielded a plastic sword, slain mystical beasts and fought countless battles for the glory of England and St. George. I’ve pulled Excalibur from the stone and in headier moments even made some sacrifices for fair maidens as well.
Researching the many versions of Arthur and his Knights made me realize the enormous popularity of the much-traveled legend, so I decided the book had to work on three levels. Firstly, for the uninitiated, it had to be a great read, a classic historical thriller with ancient mysteries that reach out from their creaking tombs to grab at the ankles of modern heroes.
Greatness had been within his grasp
If he hadn’t been greedy, this would never have happened and he’d have closed a deal that the antiques world would have spoken about for centuries. His name would have ranked alongside those of Gildas and Malory, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes. The big secret would have been out.
And Amir Emmanuel Goldman would have outed it.
Which, he guesses, is why he’s dying.
And then, for the Arthurian aficionados, there had to be something subtler – a layer of hidden richness that only they would recognize. Beyond the more obvious puns, the plays on names such as the Frenchman Lance Beaucoup, there had to be modern twists on old deceptions – ones that I hope Arthurian scholars enjoy unearthing.
They sit at the top, where thousands of years ago there was a monk’s retreat and then a sacred chapel. From here they can see Great Breach Wood, Polden Hills, Brent Knoll and West Mendip Hills.
But Owain and Jennifer see much more. They see the ghosts of Shamans, Druid priests and necromancers. They see St Patrick strolling the land looking for converts. Saxon hermits hiding in the hillsides. Celtic tribes massing. Roman armies marching. The roots of civilization growing. And they see Arthur and his Queen arm-in-arm, the Knights of the Round Table assembling and the holy goddess Fortuna stretching her hand up from the cold water of the lake.
Thirdly, I had to make it an exciting vehicle for Mitzi Fallon, a plain speaking Californian cop and mother of twins who apparently has won the hearts of many readers.
A murky fog rises from beneath the Bay Bridge and crawls toward the giant federal buildings crowded near the choppy waters.
Mitzi Fallon stares out from the glass belly of the FBI skyscraper, ‘Some weather,’ she says to no one at her side. ‘I move from LA, for what? To start my morning in the mist like a freakin’ gorilla? Sheesh.’
So without giving too much away (which I suspect I may already have done!), The Camelot Code is a clash of new and old worlds as well as new and old ‘values’.
It opens with an old mystic (Myrddin) in a Welsh castle having a vision about a murder in America (the New World). The man being killed owns an antiques store and he’s been involved in a deal he shouldn’t have been. This ‘Keeper of Time’ as he becomes known, is murdered and so begins a chain reaction of events that threatens to topple a secret society that has for centuries been working for the greater good, without even wanting public acknowledgment.
Our heroine, Mitzi, has just transferred into the Historic Religious & Unexplained Crimes unit and this is the first case that hits her desk. It’s a trail that will take her all the way from Maryland back to ancient Britain and it will be the bloodiest and most emotional investigation she’s ever been involved in. It will test her personal beliefs, loyalties and code of life to the limit.
Along the way, she’ll encounter Welsh history, British royalty, Celtic legends and organized crime. And she will also encounter Sir Owain Gwyn – a man whose family history is older than America itself. A man who has remarkable connections to the legends of King Arthur – so many, that some people believe he really could be him. But that of course is just nonsense. Arthur never even existed. He was only a myth. Wasn’t he?
To separate great men from the great myths that surround them, you must understand the forging of the Circle of Iron. For the King of Kings is a Man of Iron. Belief is the mould and generation by generation a new man is poured into it. Century by century, those who stand around him point him out and say he was the one, is the one, or will be the one.
And, so it is, that to those who chronicle such feats, it seems at times that there are either many of him, that he lived for ever, or that he never lived at all.
– The Arthurian Bible –
All extracts from The Camelot Code, published by Little, Brown
From teaching FBI agents how to detect and recover human remains, to separating and identifying commingled body parts in her Montreal lab, as one of only seventy-seven forensic anthropologists ever certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, Dr Kathy Reichs has brought her own dramatic work experience to her mesmerising forensic thrillers. For years she consulted to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina, and continues to do so for the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale for the province of Québec. Kathy Reichs has travelled to Rwanda to testify at the UN Tribunal on Genocide, and helped exhume a mass grave in Guatemala. As part of her work at JPAC she aided in the identification of war dead from World War II, Korea, and Southeast Asia.
Kathy Reichs has written sixteen bestsellers featuring Dr Temperance Brennan, the most recent being Bones of the Lost and Bones are Forever both available to buy now. For more information on Kathy’s books and the author behind the US TV hit Bones, please visit her website kathyreichs.com.
Kathy joins me for a quick-fire round of questions………..
Why do you write?
Food costs money. So does psychotherapy. Plus I love it.
What kind of relationship do you have with Temperance Brennan?
A complicated one. Decades together can cause any two people to cross swords — especially if they share a single headspace — but generally we see eye to eye. Tempe has been suffering from split personality syndrome for the last nine TV seasons, which has been hard.
Are the names of the characters in your novels important?
Very. They help the reader tell the characters apart.
How would you describe yourself in one sentence?
I like what I like, but that’s about it.
When you began writing Deja Dead did you think you’d still be writing about Temperance now?
Never. I just wanted to get published. Period.
Could you explain your role in the TV Series Bones and how it came about?
The series is based on my books. And I’m a producer, which means I get to review the scripts and generally be involved. The series came about when Hart Hanson and Barry Josephson became intrigued with the Tempe character and wanted to make the show. The rest is history.
Did you have an idea in your mind who you wanted to play the leading role?
Yes, but I’m extremely glad we got Emily instead.
What do you wish you’d known when you started writing?
How much work it really is. And that someone was going to buy it.
What’s your favourite word?
Which fictional character would you most like to meet in real life and why?
Han Solo. That guy knew how to enjoy the universe. Not bad looking, either.
What makes you keep picking up and reading books?
Because they are there.
Sometimes I watch a movie or read a book and spot myself in random characters, have you ever read or seen yourself as a character in a book or a movie and panic? (Bones not included!!)
I haven’t before, but now I’ll never watch movies the same way again. Thanks.
How has being a published author changed your life?
People know who I am. That’s not something I’ll ever get used to.
Going back to your childhood, what was the greatest thing you learned while at school?
Go to class. It’s 80% of the battle.
If you could quote a line or paragraph from your work what would it be and why?
The End. Because that’s when I get to rest.
What do you see as the main purpose of your writing? If there was no such thing as literature, how would your life differ?
To entertain. Pure and simple.