Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Chalk Man Cometh

I had been struggling with large reading commitments, when a proof copy of THE CHALK MAN arrived in the mail. I put it to one side [leaving it for later] due to lack of time.

The hype surrounding it – the fierce bidding war from various publishing houses, international rights, allusions to Stephen King and James Herbert, and a Crime / Horror Debut novel plucked from ‘the slush pile’, breathless ‘blurbs’ from other writers – well – the hype had the opposite effect.

Despite being an enthusiast of Horror Fiction and The Weird the hype put me off the book.

How wrong could I have been?

Massively so.

I soon discovered when I finally cracked the spine of this remarkable novel that it is extraordinary. I also received word from several of my US reviewing colleagues who were equally impressed including Larry Gandle the Assistant Editor of Deadly Pleasures Magazine [a literary critic renowned for his no-nonsense approach, and a reader who is hard to impress].

Apart from being an elegant narrative split between the 1980s and current day, it also is written with an assured voice, which contains insight, and makes one reflect upon reality, as this paragraph below illustrates.

Rather than tell you too much, why not watch the short promotional film from Penguin Randomhouse

So it was a delight to find myself invited to the launch party organised by Gaby Young of Penguin RandomHouse in Islington, North London. I bumped into celebrated writer and critic Barry Forshaw, Shots Ayo Onatade, former Chair of The Crime Writers Association writer / critic Natasha Cooper, Jon Coates from The Express among an eclectic array of guests.

So as the canapés and wine flowed, the advance word about this debut was very exciting, so we chatted to the author, the editorial and marketing team from Michael Joseph imprint at Penguin RandomHouse, and soon it was time to hear more, so we present a short clip [recorded in gonzo-style] from the party.

And we present a few photographs from the launch party.

What makes this debut so intriguing is best explained by the author in this clip

We would urge you to seek out The Chalk Man, before he knocks on your door. 

Borderland by Tim Baker

As a deadly war between rival cartels erupts in Mexico, and a shocking sequence of serial killings continues unabated, a female activist and a renegade cop form an uneasy alliance to try to bring down the narcos. Tim Baker discusses the borderland where his new epic crime thriller, CITY WITHOUT STARS, is set . . .
For a landscape so often associated with violence and crime, the border region between Mexico and the United States is surprisingly beautiful. True to the complexities of its history, the area is rich in natural diversity. There are huge dunes of “singing sands” that hum eerily in the wind, dense “sky island” type mountain ranges with a spectacular array of flora and fauna, and remote, blue-hued canyons.
This stark beauty is in contrast to the region’s narrative over the last two decades: desperate immigrants exploited by vicious people smugglers; ruthless criminals trafficking narcotics one way and guns the other; and the devastating scourge of hundreds of women kidnapped and murdered by unknown killers.
When starting out on my novel, I struggled to reconcile these contradictions until the day I came across a legend that captured my imagination. In 1911, a group of Mexican volunteers answered the revolutionary call of Pancho Villa and crossed the dunes to join his irregulars.
Only they never made it. They were found dead weeks later, their lungs full of sand despite there being no record of any windstorms. They had literally drowned in sand.
The more I thought about it, the more incredible it seemed. And yet that impossibility helped me to embrace all the other paradoxes that I would encounter researching my novel. I began to understand that the greatest wall of all is not the one that runs along a border but the one that our minds put up against stories that challenge our own sense of reality.
It was an insight that prepared me for what was to come – the realisation that in el mondo narco – the insane narco universe – anything and everything was possible, and that the writer’s duty was not to question but to embrace those extremes . . .
Tim Baker’s debut thriller, FEVER CITY, was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger and the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award.

CITY WITHOUT STARS is published by Faber & Faber in January (£12.99)
In Ciudad Real, Mexico, women are being thrown into the trash - raped, murdered and mutilated. The police have reported 300 deaths of young maquiladora girls from the factories, yet not found a single clue or suspect. But union agitator Pilar knows the number of deaths is more like 800, and that the lazy and corrupt police are the least likely to resolve the situation.  Fuentes is a different kind of police officer. When his colleagues start shutting down his investigations into the deaths, he knows the roots of this mass-murder cover-up must stretch wide – into his own force. Some of his colleagues are definitely on the payroll with narco thugs like El Santo. But why is Padre Marcio, Mexico’s hallowed orphan rescuer, appearing in the investigation too?  The more Fuentes and Pilar learn, the more they find themselves in danger. Can the two of them expose the truth when so many around them want to bury it?

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Sorted! Who killed the Rave Scene?

One of the joys of writing books set in the 1990s is that I get to indulge in nostalgia dressed up as research – for a living!

For ‘Games with the Dead’ I needed to explore the whole ‘rave scene’, as one of the book’s major storylines is the Ecstasy-related death of a teen girl.

First, a confession! I pretty much missed the whole ‘rave’ thing. Despite being optimum age - born in 1969 – I spent the late eighties in rave-free Ireland gazing at my Doc Martens while listening to indie. In fact, I resented the growing popularity of ‘dance music’ which, to my MDMA-deprived head at least, sounded like someone pushing a keyboard through an industrial threshing machine.

I finally attended my first rave in Brixton in 1991, baulked at the fact they didn’t sell booze and spent the rest of the night sulking / grimacing at half-wits blowing whistles and shouting ‘acieeed’. Of course, to ‘get into it’, I needed to lay off the sauce and take an E. But I’m Irish for God’s sake, and thus unwilling to go dry even to take drugs!

So, to get to the bottom of this mystery known as Rave (I realise I’m beginning to sound like Rees-Mogg here), I bought a stash of non-fiction books on the subject, including the brilliantly-researched Altered States by Matthew Collin. What I learned is that the birth and death of the ‘rave’ scene between the mid-80s and mid-90s uncannily mirrors the rise and fall of counterculture in the 1960s. Somewhat depressingly, both movements saw idealism usurped by criminality and greed.

The ‘Summers of Love’ of 1987 and ’89 sound as pure as the MDMA people were taking. With the country sinking into deep recession, young people had found a way to suspend normal transmission, if only for a single night, by becoming part of a life-affirming movement.

Of course, it wasn’t all love, hugs and baggie clothes. People died from taking E, but the casualties numbered tens not hundreds. Bearing in mind that, each year in the UK alone, 30,000 people die from alcohol-related conditions, E could be considered virtually harmless. Some supporters claim E is safer to consume than bay leaves!

But that’s not how the Tory government and the tabloid press saw it in 1989. ‘Evil Ecstasy – deadly drug sweeping the nation’ blared the headlines and hysteria took hold immediately. Sir Ralph Halpern banned Smiley t shirts from his Top Shop retail chain; Top of the Pops declared a moratorium on all records containing the word ‘Acid’.

Perhaps inevitably, the demonising of E and the rave scene acted as an almost gilt-edge invitation for criminality to weigh in. According to Customs, E coming into the UK increased 4000 per cent between 1990 and ‘95. Criminal gangs became involved in importing the drug, running clubs as outlets for drug dealing and charging dealers to get in. To boost their profits further, they soon started producing their own pills, cutting or adulterating the MDMA with cheaper speed, LSD and who knows what.

By the early ‘90s, speedy E had changed the whole vibe of rave culture from celebration to a
sort of aggressive euphoria known as Hardcore. Now, dancers’ faces seemed contorted with weird expressions, midway between snarl and smile. Ravers were dubbed Cheesy Quavers and seen as downmarket, scuzzy, underclass youth who attended clubs like Raquel’s in Basildon.

Cut to November 1995 and the death of 18-year-old schoolgirl Leah Betts four hours’ after taking an Ecstasy tablet bought at Raquel’s. Five days’ later, her grieving family turned off her life support machine and launched a 1500-site poster campaign warning about the perils of E. Under a photo of a smiling Leah, the caption read ‘Sorted. Just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts’.

Weeks later, in December 1995, three criminals who ran Raquel’s nightclub were shot dead in a Range Rover, execution-style, having been lured to a rural laneway in Rettendon, Essex. The sordid headlines that followed gave politicians and police the impetus they needed to introduce Draconian licencing laws that killed off what was left of rave culture. But like all good crime stories, this one has a few unexpected twists…

What many people perhaps don’t know is that Leah Betts did not die of Ecstasy. The inquest into Leah’s death found that she died from water intoxication. Perhaps heeding government warnings about MDMA causing dehydration, Leah drank 12 pints of water after taking the pill, causing her brain to swell and slip into a coma.

I also had no idea that the ‘Sorted’ poster campaign had been part-funded by three advertising agencies. Why would these advertising companies help out a grieving family? Could it be connected to the fact that these agencies’ biggest clients back then were alcohol and energy drink companies?

After all, the rise of rave culture had severely damaged the alcohol industry. And certain energy drinks were aggressively advertising themselves as ‘safe’ alternatives to MDMA. Some suggest that both booze and energy drink companies were keen to exploit any opportunity possible to demonise Ecstasy – and the death of Leah Betts offered just that.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Tony White: You are What you Read.

The Fountain in the Forest is a detective novel set in contemporary London, in the South of France in the mid-1980s, and at Stonehenge on 1 June 1985. It’s the first of three novels exploring the immediate aftermath of the Miners’s Strike: the 90 days between the end of the strike and the Battle of the Beanfield, the largest civilian mass arrest in British history outside of the Second World War.

The Fountain in the Forest was partly inspired by the French Revolutionary Calendar: a radical non-hierarchical system of ten-day weeks created by the playwright Sylvain Maréchal and implemented during the French Revolution, which offered a new and revolutionary way to experience and think about time. The Revolutionary Calendar did away with days dedicated to saints and royalty. Instead each day celebrates an item of everyday rural life: honey, rake, blueberry, pigeon, alder, etc. Looked at through the lens of the Revolutionary Calendar with its ten day weeks, those 90 days of defeat and despair following the Miners’ Strike become nine revolutionary weeks, which for me begs the question: revolutionary how? To investigate this I needed a man or woman on the inside, as it were. So Detective Sergeant Rex King of Holborn Police Station’s Homicide and Serious Crime Command was born. The novel opens with DS King hurrying down Lamb’s Conduit Street to a serious incident in a nearby London theatre, where a body has been found backstage.

This is my first detective novel. I’m not sure why it should have taken me so long, since I love the movement and the lightness (in a good way) of a well written detective story, and have been a fan of the form since childhood loans of Agatha Christie from Farnham Library – graduating by the mid-1970s to the superior Ellery Queen mysteries, having recognised the name from the US import TV series that I enjoyed at the time.

Later, in my twenties, I’d devour as many of Ed McBain’s ‘Precinct 87’ novels as I could lay my hands on. While briefly working at Foyles on Charing Cross Road in 1989, I once excitedly took a couple of dog-eared, second-hand paperbacks to a signing the great man was doing at the old Murder One bookshop down the road. He was very gracious about it.

But I’m also interested in a different kind of literary detective. One that goes back to the author Gertrude Stein’s avant-garde true crime story Blood on the Dining Room Floor, which recounts a summer of strange events in a village in the South of France that culminate in the death in suspicious circumstances of neighbouring hotelier Madame Pernollet. Stein presents these events over and over, from different viewpoints, like a Cubist painting, but the whole remains as light and airy as a lace shawl.  This more experimental lineage of detective fiction would include Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. And Samuel Beckett, in whose compelling and terrifying masterpiece Molloy, the detective Moran and his eponymous quarry seem at the very least to reflect each other, or even (once the reader is forced to imagine the novel’s two chapters reversed) to be the same person.

All of which might be another way of saying that you are what you read. And with The Fountain in the Forest I was looking to bring both traditions together: Ellery Queen’s laying bare of the machinery of the thriller, and the lightness and experimentation of Gertrude Stein. But writing a novel is not just about genre and influences, it’s not just about starting the engine, but keeping it going: finding something that generates enough of a spark, enough momentum or velocity to get both story and writer through the year or two that it can take to complete the task. With The Fountain in the Forest this was provided by the ten-day framework of the Revolutionary Calendar, with its rich daily imagery and observances. A litany of everyday rural life, which of course includes medicinal plants, as well as tools that can easily be repurposed as weapons: valerian, nightshade, hemlock, henbane, sickle, spade, knife…

The Fountain in the Forest by Tony White is published by Faber & Faber in January 2018 (£14.99)
When a brutally murdered man is found hanging in a theatre, Detective Sergeant Rex King becomes obsessed with the case. Who is this anonymous corpse, and why has he been ritually mutilated? But as Rex explores the crime scene further, the mystery deepens, and he finds himself confronting his own secret history instead. Who, more importantly, is Rex King? Shifting between Holborn Police Station, an abandoned village in rural 1980s France, and Stonehenge's Battle of the Beanfield, The Fountain in the Forest transforms the traditional crime narrative into something dizzyingly unique. At once an avant-garde linguistic experiment, thrilling police procedural, philosophical meditation on liberty, and counter-culture bildungsroman, this is an iconoclastic novel of unparalleled ambition.