James Raven Interview: “my experience working in television has provided a wealth of story ideas”

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Writer James Raven, whose varied career spans newspapers, TV and riveting crime novels, discusses his work, including his latest book, The Alibi, which is already climbing the Amazon charts and looks set to be a hit. He’s also a fan of this blog so he clearly has excellent taste! 

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction and mystery writing?

I’d describe my writing style as simple and straightforward, and it owes a lot to my career as a journalist. I was taught to always keep my prose short and punchy so that the pace is maintained and readers are never left confused and frustrated by long-winded sentences and descriptions. I happen to believe that this is the best approach to a crime novel and it’s what drew me towards this genre in the first place.

My late mother was a big fan of Agatha Christie and Mickey Spillane, and she encouraged me to try their books at an early age. I found them so exciting and easy to read that I was immediately hooked. Through my teenage years I read at least one crime novel a week and when I decided to become a writer I knew exactly what sort of books I would write.

What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally? How do you draw on your past when writing fiction?

I was born in London and when I left school at sixteen my ambition was to be a journalist. I went on to report for local and national newspapers before moving into television. The first book I wrote was submitted to publisher Robert Hale who picked it up and then went on to release another seven of my novels. After running my own TV company for a number of years I decided to pack it in and write full-time. It’s what I enjoy most.

During my newspaper days I reported on a great many crime stories and the experience has proved invaluable. While writing my latest book, The Alibi (Avon/Harper Collins), I returned to my roots and even re-visited my old haunts in south London which form an integral part of the story.

How does your work in TV help you in your writing? How do you use the experience you have producing television and channel it into your writing?

Again, my experience working in television has provided a wealth of story ideas. In fact one of my books, Stark Warning, is the story of a TV chat show host who is told by an anonymous caller that every time she appears on screen someone will be murdered. She suddenly faces a terrible dilemma after the first body turns up. Several TV presenters I used to work with rang me up to say they hoped the book did not give some fanatical TV critic the wrong idea!!

Stark Warning was published several years ago but earlier this month it entered the top 100 Amazon chart in Canada, which came as a pleasant surprise.

Please tell me about your books. Why do you believe they have become so popular?

The Jaime Raven books – The Alibi and The Madam – have been compared to those of Jessie Keane and Kimberley Chambers. It’s a genre that’s very popular in the UK. Both books feature a strong female lead character.

Under my own name I’ve written five books in the DCI Jeff Temple series – The Blogger, Rollover, Dying Wish, Random Targets and Urban Myth. They’re all stand-alone thrillers and are published by Robert Hale/Crowood Press. The books are all set in and around Southampton, including the New Forest National Park.

Stark Warning and its follow up, The Depraved, are published by Endeavour Press and feature the so-called Celebrity Crime Squad, which investigates crimes against the rich and famous in London.

One of my most successful books is Malicious, which was downloaded 70,000 times over one weekend following an Amazon promotion. This features a female detective in the US who is addicted to online porn and gets into trouble when her web cam is hacked!

I like to think that I’ve had a degree of success because I try to come up with original ideas and don’t populate my books with too many characters.

Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?

Most of my ideas come from newspapers. Every day I spot a story that has the potential to be developed into a book. I keep a cuttings file and it’s filled with hundreds of newspaper articles about everything from, court cases to unsolved murders.

I rarely experience writer’s block but when I do I just write the first sentence of a chapter regardless of whether it’s any good. This usually inspires me to carry on even though I will almost certainly go back and change what I’ve written.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

If I could collaborate with anyone on a project it would be thriller writer James Patterson, who is thankfully very much alive. I know he co-authors books with various writers and I’d jump at the chance to be among them. I like the way he writes and the fact that he doesn’t waste his words.

Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

I’ve just finished a new book that is currently with my agent. I’m therefore very excited about it. I can’t give too much away but I can say that the concept is pretty unusual and involves child abduction.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up? 

The books and writers I’m mostly looking forward to reading in 2017 are those that I haven’t even heard of yet. I’m forever checking Amazon and blogs such as The Dorset Book Detective to see what’s new in crime fiction. Hardly a week goes by when something doesn’t catch my eye – be it a great cover or a glowing review. There’s never been a more exciting time for both readers and writers.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I would like to add how grateful I am to The Dorset Book Detective for giving me the opportunity to do this interview. It’s not often that I get the chance to talk about my writing or to express my views. So a big thank you and a happy New Year…

Thanks every so much to James for taking the time to speak to me, it has been enlightening and I’m glad you like the blog! You can find out more about his work HERE and his alter-ego Jamie HERE

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Trains in Crime Fiction: What’s the Fascination?

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From the iconic Murder on the Orient Express through to modern day thrillers, Crime Fiction as a genre is saturated with depictions of trains. They act both as a conveyor of characters, as regularly portrayed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as an ideal setting for a ‘locked room’ mystery, with characters often becoming trapped on board with a dead body and only a handful of potential suspects, such as the aforementioned Murder on the Orient Express.

Even contemporary novels, such as the bestselling The Girl on the Train incorporate the more modern transportation we are used to; sans compartments, trains still hold a fascination and act as a superb trope for the genre.

This, to me, has always seemed a strange phenomenon. Why not buses? Or plains? Neither is so heavily involved in crime fiction as a genre than the humble train.

Central to this plethora of trains in Crime Fiction is the changing space trains have held in the genre. When first introduced they were a new, exciting way to travel, and they represented a great way for both the wealthy and those with less money to travel, leading to an unheard of social combination. Many trains, such as the Orient Express, were designed for pleasure, in the form of a sort of over-land cruise.

With the scenic nature of the train, combined with the mixture of social classes that it created, made it the perfect setting for clandestine crimes and genteel investigations held by intrepid detectives. Many Crime Fiction writers right from the beginning used the train in their writing, but it became a true symbol during the Golden Age; everyone from Christie through to Sayers used the train, usually to convey their detectives and companions to a new destination whilst allowing for exposition in the form of conversations during the journey.

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Nowadays they represent a very different social situation; typically, as with The Girl on the Train, they are now seen as a purely functional means of transportation, reserved primarily for school children and professionals travelling to and from work. Writers such as Greenwood, who write novels set in the past, in her case the 1920s, draw on the same notions of old fashioned wonderment at the train as a mode of transport and social collision.

Anonymity is also vital to the modern fascination with the train in Crime Fiction. The Girl on the Train leverages this as its central plot point, with the protagonist merely a passing face on a fast moving train. In a world that is increasingly difficult to escape from, with cameras tracking our every move and technology following every click we make and every call we take, it makes sense that the idea of being a faceless, nameless passenger on a fast moving train makes for a creepy contrast to the more intrusive outside world.

Going forward, as the trend for digitalisation makes trains even more anonymous, with passengers often buried in anything from books and newspapers through to laptops, iPods and tablet computers, the next wave of Crime Fiction could remain on the tracks as writers depict their characters’ crimes as being masked by this deliberate avoidance of human contact. After all, it would be startlingly easy to hide a murder in plain sight on a packed tube carriage with every listening to their headphones or yelling into their mobiles. As such, it is my opinion that trains in Crime Fiction are not going anywhere.

The Devil’s Brew Review: A Tense Thriller That Desperately Misses London

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The upcoming sequel to Pennies for Charon (read my review HERE) sees the return of Charlie Bars, although this time he is transplanted to Northumbria as he escapes the demons he left behind in London.

The narrative is interesting, as it switches frequently between Bars’ first person narration and a dramatic third person depiction of various atrocities. Initially the central crime is horse mutilation, and for a moment I, as a West Country girl who knows better than most the stupid notion that everyone from the countryside is a farmer with farmer problems, was scared that this would be another one dimensional portrayal of daft farmers and suspicious locals whose initial theories revolve around aliens.

However, my fears were quickly assuaged as Charlie is plunged headlong into a campaign of terror, with the horses acting as the beginning for far worse atrocities.

Author Benedict Jones’s real skill here is dialogue, and protagonist Charlie in particular is vivid and realistic, with the rough, natural tone providing an antidote to the overly slick parody such a character could easily be. Jones is also a deeply interesting man with many great opinions on the genres he writes across, and you can read the interview he did with me last year HERE.

Overall, I enjoyed The Devil’s Brew, although I missed the real depth of plotting and the richness that the involvement of London lent to Pennies for Charon. Somehow the countryside does not participate in the same way London does, and I missed the addition of the setting as a character. Despite this I would recommend this as a gritty thriller with a psychotic villain and some genuinely repulsive, intense portrayals of human beings at their worst.

Tony Knighton Interview: “Most of my work is written from the point of view of the criminal”

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This week I caught up with Tony Knighton, a short story writer who has recently moved into longer pieces and who specialises in noir writing. It was really great to hear from him, and he was keen to discuss his work and the importance of reading for the imagination.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards noir fiction?

My writing tends to be spare. I try for density of information – saying a lot with as few words possible.

I’d always read crime fiction, mostly the darker stuff. I try to write the sort of things I would like to read.

Most of my work is written from the point of view of the criminal. It’s just how my imagination works. I don’t know enough about police work to write a procedural.

What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally? How do you draw on your past when writing fiction?

I’ve spent most of my life in Philadelphia, and have been a member of the Philadelphia Fire Department for the last thirty-one years. It’s essential for firefighters and cops to know where they are and where they’re going, so we tend to be obsessed with a city’s geography – what it’s like and who lives there. This obsession plays a big part in my stories.

I’d thought about writing for a long time, most often when I’d read something that was poorly written. I’d think to myself that I could do better.

I started to write during a prolonged struggle with insomnia; I needed to do something that was quiet and productive. After writing a few short things, I found myself working on a piece that wasn’t anywhere near finished at sixty pages and realized I was writing a novel. You can’t put that much time into something and keep it to yourself, so I began to submit work.

Having previously published short fiction, how do you adapt your writing style when creating longer pieces?

I think the story itself determines how long it will be. I don’t make a conscious decision to change style.

Do you find the word limit on short stories restrictive or freeing?

Definitely freeing. I like to set parameters – impose limiting factors on much more than just length. Once certain decisions are made, you can let imagination take over.

How do you define noir fiction and why do you enjoy writing this particular genre?

Duane Swiercznski spoke about the difference between Hard Boiled and Noir. He feels the major difference is the ending; in Noir, the protagonist is fucked.

While I think that is a good rule of thumb, I don’t necessarily agree that a tragic end is essential. Any crime story that is dark and/or seamy can qualify.

With regards to the books you read, do you have any particular favourite writers or series?

I read and re-read the Richard Stark books compulsively.

I think that George V. Higgins The Friends of Eddie Coyle should be required reading in every English class.

Hammett, Jim Thompson, Ross MacDonald, James Ellroy, Thomas Perry – all of them great.

While not strictly crime fiction, I couldn’t do without Flannery O’Connor, Pete Dexter or the greatest short story writer of all time, John O’Hara. In their work, the stakes are always high. There are many others.

How important do you believe variety in reading material is for a writer?

We gotta read – it’s the reason we got into the game. Variety is a good thing as long as you enjoy it.

I have a pile of books to be read on the table next to my bed. There are two kinds of books in the pile. One is books that I know I should read because they are important – great literature – they will make me a better person. The other books will be fun. Guess which are always on the top of the pile?

Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?

More than reproducing specific places or incidents, I do my best to recall what I thought or how it felt, and try to invoke those thoughts and feelings through a character’s dialogue and actions. As I said, my writing tends to be spare, with little or no interior stuff, so I don’t know how much of that a reader picks up on.

When I get stuck I go back and edit. If I wait until I’m in the mood, I’ll never get anything done.

If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

I’ve never written with anyone, so I’m not sure how that would work, but I’d love to hang out with any of the writers I’ve mentioned.

Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

Yes. I’m friends with Peter Rozovsky, from the blog Detectives Beyond Borders. I told him about a story idea I was messing around with that would essentially be homage to Slayground. He thought that would make a cool anthology – stories inspired by specific Richard Stark books. That’s as far as we’ve gotten – maybe as far as we’ll ever get – but it’s exciting. 

Are there any new books or writers that you are excited about going forward?

This year I found out about Ray Banks – amazing stuff. I’m roaring through his titles.

Over the last couple years I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some people who are involved with crime fiction –writing, reviewing, etc. – and doing interesting things with it – Andrew Nette, Sam Starnes, Dana King, Scott Adlerberg, Jed Ayres and the wonderful Lou Boxer. I’ve made friends with other guys in the life through email and Facebook – guys like Norman Prentiss, Ben Jones and Greg Barth. And I always look forward to reading the work of my old friend, the fabulous Jon McGoran.

They’re all doing cool stuff.

 Is there anything you’d like to add?

The nicest thing that I’ve discovered about writing crime fiction is that there is a real scene, and it’s incredibly welcoming. The people in it are generous to a fault.

I want to thank you again for giving me this opportunity.

Thanks to Tony for taking the time, it’s been really fascinating. Find out more about Tony and his work HERE.

The Top Five Fictional Women Detectives

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I have already done The Top Ten Women Crime Writers, so I figured for my first Top Five of 2017 I should discuss the best women detectives out there. Whilst men wrote some, women created most of these characters, all of whom are daring, intelligent and break at least one stereotype, if not several. Representation is crucial and offering women detectives allows women and girls to see that we can join in the action too! So have a look through my pick of the five fictional best women detectives and see what you think.

  1. Precious Ramotswe: Big, brash and brainy, this Botswana based detective makes a refreshing change thanks to her independent nature and focus on the people rather than the crimes themselves. Ramotswe’s intuition is not the sole focus, which also makes a great change, as this is usually a sly way for writers to build upon the misconception that women are less action orientated and more emotional than their male counterparts. Often Ramotswe’s cases are solved through sheer hard work as she doggedly tails suspects, stakes out possible hideaways and raids private property in a bid to solve anything from murder to theft.
  1. Rebecka Martinsson: Unlike the others Åsa Larsson’s protagonist is not a detective by profession: a Stockholm based Attorney, she repeatedly finds herself drawn back to her home town, Kiruna which, much like Ystad in Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels, acts as an additional character. Scandinavian Crime Fiction at its finest, Larsson’s Martinsson series are tense, ruthless and utterly gripping. Exhibiting many of the traditional tropes of a tough, world weary and emotionally scarred detective Martinsson shows that even in a sub-genre defined by the viciousness of its plotting and the dismal nature of its narrative women can still flourish as central characters.
  1. Miss Marple: Christie’s genteel, elderly detective is witty and sharp, offering readers great dialogue even if some of the plots are a little predictable. Her shrewd, quick thinking detective style has been emulated, with varying degrees of success, throughout the genre making Marple a truly exemplary woman detective. As the go-to character when you think of women detectives she simply had to be on this list, and there is not an author in Crime Fiction writing a woman detective who does not, in some way or another, draw on this twee old dear and her devilish detective skills in some way.
  1. Nancy Drew: One of the most prolific detectives in any series, Nancy was an inspiration to many young girls who grew up realising that they could do anything they wanted, including solving crimes. As stated previously, representation is vital to ensuring that young people understand that they are not limited because they are not the same as others, and Nancy was a highly relatable character with many great traits that made her both likeable and an ideal role model.

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  1. Miss Phryne Fisher: As my previous POST may have indicated I am a newfound fan of Kerry Greenwood’s feisty flapper detective. The TV series is visually stunning and exciting, and the books offer a truly innovative take on traditional Golden Age crime fiction. With references to Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie (many of the character names are similar and many tropes these writers popularised are copied), Greenwood’s books are great twists on the traditional genre, incorporating sex, swindling and some truly before their time women. Another female detective who is shown not to be merely overemotional, Miss Fisher is never far from her trusty revolver and can always be relied upon to keep her head in a crisis. A great place to start is the first book, Cocaine Blues, although my recently discovered favourite, Urn Burial is also a great read and there is a sex scene in there that will blow all others out of the water.

Miss Christie Regrets Review: Unique, Unnerving and Utterly Absorbing

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The second in the Hampstead Murders series, Miss Christie Regrets offers an inventive take on the classic whodunnit. The plotting is deft and subtle, and there are many classic tropes from some of the great crime fiction writers, including Christie herself, who plays an intriguing part in this fascinating mystery.

Set in the present day, the novel has strong links to traditional Golden Age crime fiction, with even the names of the detectives, which include Detective Inspector Metcalfe, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Allen and Detective Sergeant Willis sound vaguely Poirot-esq.

The novel centres around the murder of Peter Howse, Researcher and Manager of the Burgh House Museum and Gallery, who is beaten to death at his workplace. The story follows the basic pattern until the detectives, aided by a profiler with a personal link to the Sergeant, learn of a surprising link to a historical murder from many years previously.

Author Guy Fraser-Sampson, famed for his Mapp & Lucia novels, has a good eye for detail and strong characterisation skills, making even the most insignificant characters much more vivid than mere plot points and allowing the seamless integration of various traditional genre tropes to go almost unnoticed.

It has been remarked that the book also bears a resemblance to a John Le Carré thriller; whilst I wouldn’t go that far, the integration of the ever ominous Special Branch is slick and not as clumsy as it is in other novels.

Overall this is another novel that certainly is not emulating Christie as you might suspect, but it does offer a fascinating take on the genre, and although it has been compared to the work of just about everyone else by other reviewers I would have to say that you are best off enjoying this book for what it is; a very solid crime novel with a striking twist.

Print Publishing: The Surprising Contender to Topple the Kindle

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Recent figures show that Christmas trading for the UK book market saw its strongest sales in 10 years, highlighting that despite predictions following the creation of the Kindle and the increased prevalence of online copies of books, consumers still prefer physical copies. According to reports from Nielsen BookScan, £83.3m worth of print books were sold in the run-up to Christmas, which marks the highest figure seen since 2007.

This boost in sales of physical copies of books can be put down to a number of reasons. Partially this is because books are convenient; they don’t require batteries or brightness settings, and it is well known that whilst reading before bed is very soothing, reading on an electronic device can disrupt your sleep.

Switching off is, in my opinion, a key factor here. Many people spend all day reading articles and blog posts online through their phone or computer, and as such when they read for pleasure they enjoy the novelty of a real book. It gives them a feeling that they are relaxing and chilling out, for the same reason many people still keep TVs, despite the fact that they have online streaming services and Youtube, which have now surpassed anything a traditional TV package can offer.

Book shopping itself also acts as an experience, as highlighted by another recent news story about a Yorkshire based bookshop owner who charges customers a 50p fee to browse.  Searching through a bookshop is therapeutic and enjoyable- a good bookshop is more than just a place to buy something. Many people make it their hobby to spend their weekends riffling through the selection in their local independent bookshop, and the feeling of anticipation and invigoration you get reading the blurbs on any book that catches your eye cannot be replicated in any online store.

Actual books also make a far better gift than ebooks; the figures show the increase is in pre-Christmas book buying, with the majority of these presumably ending up under the Christmas tree as presents. It is much more exciting to unwrap a hardcover of the latest bestseller than a receipt showing it has been sent to your Amazon account in pdf form!

These news stories make one thing abundantly clear: print books are here to stay. You can keep your Kindle, the public has spoken and we want more books.