Ellis Shuman Interview: “My first book was based on my years living on a kibbutz”


Ellis Shuman, author of The Burgas Affair, discusses his work and how his experiences have shaped it.

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

I don’t know if I would classify myself as an author of crime fiction. I enjoy writing suspenseful novels, thrillers that keep you turning the pages. Invariably, in the stories I tell a crime has taken place and must be solved. This crime is central to the plot so maybe my writing is crime fiction after all.

What is your career background and how did you get into writing full time?

I wish I were able to write full time! I have had many careers and each of them has provided background to my writing. I worked on a dairy farm milking cows, and I was employed in a five-star hotel as a front desk clerk. For the past twelve years I have worked in online marketing and for a two-year period, my job was relocated from my home in Israel to Sofia, Bulgaria. Each chapter of my career has featured in my writing at some stage.

I still have a day job so finding the time to write is a challenge. I solved this problem and added an extra hour to my daily routine by sitting down in a coffee house each morning for an hour of writing before going to work. I find that I am the most creative in the early hours and by the time I report to the office, I have already accomplished quite a bit. Still, it would be great to be able to write full time!

Please tell me about your books. What defines your writing style?

My first book was based on my years living on a kibbutz—a collective settlement in Israel’s southern desert. The cows I milked and the tractors I drove to plough the fields feature in the short stories of The Virtual Kibbutz.

Living in Bulgaria introduced me to a fascinating country, rich with culture, history, and nature. When I returned to Israel, I found that I missed living in Sofia and I wanted to share my experiences in Bulgaria. I found that I could do this in my writing. My debut novel, Valley of Thracians, is set in modern day Bulgaria but also highlights the time when mysterious warlike tribes—the Thracians—ruled the region before they were conquered by the Romans.

Two years after my return to Israel, a terrorist bombing at Burgas Airport in Bulgaria took the lives of five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver. Having grown up in Israel, I was quite familiar with terror attacks and suicide bombings but I had never imagined that something like this would occur in Bulgaria. As those responsible for the bombing were never brought to justice, I began to imagine a joint Bulgarian-Israeli investigation, and this led to my novel The Burgas Affair. It’s a fictional account of the aftermath of a very real event.

Are there any particular mediums or narrative troupes you like to use in your writing and why?

I enjoy writing short chapters that leave the reader reluctant to put down the book. Possibly this is because a lot of my reading is done during a train ride on my daily commute to and from work. As I speed through a book, I hardly notice my fellow passengers or the stations passing by. This is the experience I wish to share with my readers as well.
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What do you enjoy reading and how does this influence your writing?

I read a wide variety of fiction, but I am particularly drawn to novels written by Israeli and Bulgarian authors when they are translated and published in English. I enjoy reading suspense thrillers. The books I read definitely influence my writing. I write book reviews, travel reports of the places I’ve visited, and fiction that hopefully comes across as suspenseful and thrilling as the books that keep me turning the pages.

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

I have never yet collaborated with anyone on a writing project so doing that would really be a challenge for me! I have to admit that I enjoyed reading the novels of Dan Brown. I remember starting to read The Da Vinci Code when I boarded a plane in Tel Aviv and finishing it just as I got off the plane in New York. What attracts me to Dan Brown’s novels is the details that play background to the main story. I appreciate the amount of research Brown puts into his writing and in my opinion, the background didn’t slow down the pace of the story.

Have you got any exciting new plans or projects coming up that you’d like to share with me?

I am working on my third novel. Similar to The Burgas Affair, it is set in both Bulgaria and Israel, but it approaches its subject in an entirely different way. I have completed the first draft but the novel is far from finished. I will be going back to the manuscript soon to begin rewrites and revisions.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to in the New Year?

My tablet is full of books on my to-be-read list. Many of them are debut novels that attract me because they have unusual settings, or stories. And many of them would be considered classic crime fiction. I look forward to reading them all!

Anything you’d like to add?

In many ways I consider my novels to be travel fiction. The locations and settings are almost as important as the characters of the story. Many readers of Valley of Thracians were introduced to Bulgaria for the first time. I hope The Burgas Affair will similarly introduce readers to both Bulgaria and Israel.

Thanks for taking the time to tell me your thoughts, it’s been fascinating. You can learn more about Ellis and his work HERE.

Claire MacLeary Interview: “English was my first love throughout my schooling”

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Author of the thrilling Cross Purpose Claire MacLeary provides me with a fascinating overview of her work and how she creates thrilling plots and memorable characters.

What is your career background and how did you get into writing full time?

English was my first love throughout my schooling, I read English at university, and I’ve always written, be it advertising copy, training manuals or short stories.

I first worked in newspaper and television advertising, then in HR. After the birth of my first child I became an antiques dealer, a baby under one arm, then started my first business. Raising a family and a business career diverted my attention. It was only when my children were at senior school that I returned to writing, first attending P/T classes then pursuing a MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Dundee.

Please tell me about Cross Purpose.

Cross Purpose is a present-day crime duo: its protagonists, Maggie and Wilma, non-professional women thrown together by circumstance. They’re an unlikely pair: Maggie petite, conservative, lacking in confidence; Wilma big, bold, brash and a bit dodgy.

Maggie, a stay-at-home mum of two teenagers, is devastated when ex-policeman husband, George, is found dead in his struggling detective agency. Divorced Wilma, recently moved in next door, rides to the rescue, persuading Maggie to take on George’s business as a conduit both to paying the bills and restoring his good name.

When a crudely mutilated body is discovered in St Machar kirk-yard, the two women are drawn into an unknown world of Aberdeen’s sink estates, clandestine childminding and drug dealing.

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What drew you towards crime fiction?

I had developed a literary novel from my MLitt dissertation and been urged by my professor, acclaimed New Zealand novelist, Kirsty Gunn, to send it to a publisher. The feedback was that the writing was accomplished, but the domestic subject matter wouldn’t sell. So I researched the market, found that crime was popular, and set out to develop a crime series.

What defines your writing style?

My writing style is spare, pared down. I try to make every word count, and leave a lot to the reader’s imagination.

It’s strong. Cross Purpose, is generally described as ‘dark’ both in its subject matter and language.

It’s funny. I feel it’s important to leaven the darkness with humour. Wilma, one of my two main protagonists, is larger than life, and has attracted a fan following.

Are there any particular mediums or narrative troupes you like to use in your writing and why?

I use alliteration to help the flow, though I’ve learned to curb my enthusiasm. It can create tongue twisters when I’m reading passages aloud at book launches and festivals. That’s why it’s so important not just to revise, but also to read your work aloud pre-publication.

I employ very short sentences to add drama, particularly at the beginning or end of a scene. Again, these have to be offset by longer, more involved, sentences, as overuse is hard on the reader.

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What do you enjoy reading and how does this influence your writing?

My reading preferences have evolved over time and been subject to many influences: Dickens and Dostoevsky in my teens, Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver in my twenties through to Edith Pearlman and Carol Shields in the present day.

Writers I aspire to include: Chekov, Katherine Mansfield and Lorrie Moore for their short stories, William Boyd for his breadth of vocabulary and empathy, Alice Munro for close observation, Jayne Anne Phillips for dense, lyrical prose.

I didn’t read crime until I decided to write a crime series. Nowadays I tend to read crime at bedtime and a short story in the morning to inspire me before I start writing.

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

It’s hard to pin down just one individual from the giants of literature, or one woman from the many, dating from Jane Austen onwards. But I’ll opt for William Boyd who, for me, personifies all that is admirable in a writer: acute observation of the human condition, elegance of style, wry humour, and compassion in spades.

Have you got any exciting new plans or projects coming up that you’d like to share with me?

2017 has been a roller-coaster: first novel launched, first book signing, first festival appearance. Cross Purpose was short-listed for Harrogate New Blood and long-listed – amidst the giants of Tartan Noir – for Bloody Scotland’s McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year.

I’m looking forward to Glasgow’s book festival Aye Write the following week and Newcastle Noir in May. Somewhere in there I’ll have to factor Book 3 in the series. I’ve also been accepted for a Scottish Book Trust mentoring programme for another project entirely. Watch this space!

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to later in the New Year?

My wonderful publisher, Sara Hunt, has a discriminating list of new titles scheduled for 2018 under the Saraband banner and its dedicated crime imprint, Contraband. This year’s favourite reads have included Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker Prize shortlisted His Bloody Project and Louise Hutcheson’s The Paper Cell. Names to look out for in 2018 are Ever Dundas and Olga Wojtas.

Anything you’d like to add?

To those of your readers who aspire to write, or are already working on a project, I’d say keep chipping away. When I first produced a short story for a creative writing class, I’d never have believed I could sustain 100,000 words of a novel, far less see it in print. So join a writing group or class, start to think like a writer and persevere.

Thanks to Claire for taking the time, it’s been great to hear from you. You can read more about her work HERE.

The Top Five Best Spy Novels to Bring Out Your Inner Spy

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Everyone loves a good spy novel. Although James Bond will always be the classic spy, there are so many exhilarating thrillers out there to enjoy.

As the nights continue to roll in and bookworms seek the warmth of their armchairs to enjoy a good book, why not tuck up and enjoy a good a good spy novel to get you in the mood for the massive dinner you’re undoubtedly going to devour shortly?!

5. Our Man In Havana: Graeme Greene’s fascinating insight into the secret services is a surreal portrayal of events eerily similar to actual happening which occurred after the novel was published (the Cuban Missile Crisis). The novel portrays the secret services as easily swayed and quick to believe any intelligence, and as such it becomes comic in places. Despite this, there is a great tension throughout the book as it delves into the stupidity of human nature and man’s quest for adventure, as well as the issue of telling seemingly small lies.

4. The Man Who Was Thursday:
Chesterton’s creative thriller explores the fears and ideals of the time. Christian allegory, anarchism and poetry all combine to offer a thought-provoking tale. The title refers to a covert council, each member of which is named after a day of the week. Undercover detectives battle to infiltrate the council and put an end to the anarchy they aim to unleash, but tensions, lies and deceit abound in this tantalising thriller that will have readers on the edge of their seats.

3. The Night Manager: John le Carré’s riveting thriller was recently made into a popular TV series, which has only served to make this gripping book more popular. This, in my humble opinion, can only be a good thing. The tale of a hotel Night Manager’s move from hospitality to espionage, in a bid to take down a corrupt criminal whose villainous empire consists of arms and drugs. This globe trotting adventure sees the hotel worker trade in changing beds for chasing criminals as he assists the security services in bringing down the corrupt arms dealer.

2. Live and Let Die: The top of my Top Five Best James Bond Novels, Live and Let Die is a riveting nail-biter that keeps readers on the edge of their seats, as Bond takes on a fiendish villain with the aid of a beautiful and beguiling woman. The great thing about this novel is that it involves a variety of twists and ingenious characters, all integrated into a fast and exciting plot.

1. The Thirty-Nine Steps: John Buchan’s classic thriller is a great fugitive spy narrative that will keep you entranced from the very first page to the moment you close it. Short and sweet, the novella is a perfect quick weekend read to get you pumped for the week ahead, and has become the template for loads of Hollywood films and TV shows. Great characterisation, a fast paced narrative and stunningly described settings all make for a great espionage book.

John Knock Interview: “I’ve been involved in story making all my life”

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Scottish Crime Writer John Knock talks me through his work and the many books and authors that have inspired him.

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

As a reader, I read Ian Rankin’s excellent Black and Blue, which my father and I were excited about because he remembered the Bible John killings. I then read a lot of the Rebus series and particularly liked Let It Bleed, which had a really well plotted conspiracy thriller that impacted on ordinary people’s lives. I think that is what Rankin does well, drawing on the Raymond Chandler tradition of the corruption of power.

I love thriller movies or great TV series that have a great plot that really makes you work as an audience. I remember as a kid being so disappointed with Colombo. Peter Falk was a fine actor and the character of Colombo so brilliantly created and yet the plots are all open, they require no effort on the part of the audience, which I feel really disrespects them. When I watch or read a thriller, I want to guess it out as I go. When I came across Christopher Brookmyre, I guess that’s what got me really excited because here was someone who had worked for Sight and Sound and got movie plotting. What he did was to give it a great comic voice. A lot of crime writers get their work adapted for the screen, what I think Chris did was to adapt the screen for the novel.

I’ve always been able to work out plots but I needed to find the voice. The skill to give each character a voice and to write with those voices. It took me a while to get there. When re-writing, I always let the voice dominate. What was the character’s experience? What did they know or not know? What did they regard as important or not? That way the reader acts as detective. Bram Stoker did that with Dracula. He’s a mystery writer. The reader has to work out whether to believe the evidence presented to them.  He’s an action thriller writer as well. In fact, until he came across the legend of Vlad the Impaler was going to set the story in Scotland.   Just imagine if you’d asked Irvine Welsh to write it today, that I’ll be close to the style. It’s hybrid. I’m writing a whatdunnit rather than a whodunit.

What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally?

I’ve been involved in story making all my life. I’ve worked in education, working on group creating, analysing structure and narrative and all that stuff. Therefore, plot and structure and roles etc. was something I naturally can grasp. I just decided to do it for myself.

What took time was the prose, getting it right. I just took the decision to take time to write and re-work bits of material I had being pulling together. Confidence that what you have is good and the feedback from test readers and now readers that what I was trying to do has worked.

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

Inspiration is a bit of a misnomer. Writing is a job like any other, it’s task driven. I have to deliver. I have a clear task in my head when I write. Then I might do some research, make a visit, go for a walk and clear my head of all the distractions so I can find a voice, find a plot point or character idea. By setting a wider goal it makes it clear what I have to do. Then I can work to that. Lee Child is great on this; he makes it clear that you are writing for an audience and that you owe them a service. Once you put these two rules together the tension helps to create.

I’m lucky to live somewhere where I can just get out into the countryside and walk. I find listening to radio shows, dramas, comedy, documentaries etc. a great resource. I shelve the block until I do this. So, I’m working on several books at a time plot wise. I get stuck on one, I can just jump to the other. I might hear something I can use and I’ll just mentally shelve it to be drawn on later. It’s all nebulous filled away in the creative cloud, just a feeling and then later I can draw on it. I can’t find my glasses or car keys but I can recall something that clicks into place while I’m trying to get out the door.

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

I have to say Terry Pratchett. I like the way his later Discworld novels were going, dealing with issues that we face but giving them the prism of a fantasy setting. That’s what Brecht was trying to do. So, I have an idea for a Discworld novel and I’d like to write it. He and Neil Gaiman worked on Good Omens together and I’d like to do that. I loved the Sandman series and Neverwhere by the way. He said that it was a proper partnership that they wrote it together not him writing the plot and Terry making it funny.

Anyway, I would like to work with Terry. I get why his daughter has said no more Discworld to protect his legacy. I would want him to keep that focus on his creation and get to the big debates that he was trying to provoke.

I would love to work with Neil on a TV project both my daughter and I are fans. She loves Coraline. Maybe a radio project., it has more scope. I’d also like to work with Agatha Christie. To really play with the genre she created.

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

I’m currently working on the next novel. It’s going to be set in Glasgow and will feature Craig Miller. I really don’t want to say too much about it until I reach Chapter Five or Six, just in case I end up going off in a different direction. I also want to get the Glaswegian voices right and don’t want to end up being too stereotypical. Glasgow has been very good to me and I want to do it justice.

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

I’m looking to read the latest Brookmyre series. I stopped reading him a while ago and I want to get into his newest work. He killed off Jack Parlabane and then brought him back. I agree with him that the hero of a series can get very unbelievable and I always found the other characters much more interesting.   I’m going to find time to read his Jasmine Sharp series.

I am currently trying to read both Lee Child’s Echo Burning and The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connolly. They are two writers that I really admire and I want to enjoy their work. I’m finding crime writers the most interesting bunch as much for them as for their work. I really love the podcast A Stab In The Dark and the interviews are inspirational. It’s great to find writers talking to writers. The crime writing community is a very supportive one. I would like to find the same for the horror community. HP Lovecraft was great in that respect, he supported and mentored other writers including Bloch, who wrote Psycho. I’m looking to get into both communities.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just to invite readers to give me feedback. Go to the site John Knock Author or email me on johnknock@gmail.com.

Thanks for speaking to me, it has been really interesting to hear your thoughts.

A Cute Christmas Read for Children

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This sweet festive poem, complete with adorable illustrations, would make the perfect Christmas gift for the small person in your life. The story is sweet, the illustrations bold and the narrative engaging.

The story starts with three siblings Claire, Ben and Daniel, building a snow queen in the garden, as all children do. Claire begins to create a story around the evil snow queen and before long she explains how Elaine Gale – the evil snow queen has placed a spell on all children to be naughty so that when Santa checks his naughty and nice list no-one has been good and thus no presents are needed.

Happy with their days work they head back in for tea, but soon realise that their story is unfolding in front of their eyes. Realising they are the only ones who can stop Elaine Gale they start about a journey to overcome her evil plan and restore Christmas before it’s too late.

There are issues with the meter, and in some places I suspect that the poem would have been better written as a short story, but I very much doubt its intended audience, small children, are going to notice, and the rhythm and rhyme make this a great bouncy bedtime story.

You can check it out HERE.


The Continued Relevance of Sherlock Holmes in Modern Crime Fiction

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Recently, following the release of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, (read my review of the film HERE), I’ve been on a bit of a Golden Age binge. Alongside my usual re-read of some of the best Christie novels (not Murder on the Orient Express, because it’s not a great novel with a really crappy ending), as well as some more modern novels which either mimic or eco the era.

These include Guy Fraser-Sampson’s enticing novel A Death in the Night, (my review can be found HERE) and a number of Kerry Greenwood’s brilliant Phryne Fisher mysteries (my top five can be found HERE). It was whilst reading Greenwood’s most recent Miss Fisher novel Murder and Mendelssohn that I realised the influence that Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s eccentric detective.

In Murder and Mendelssohn, Greenwood depicts two characters who are obviously based on Sherlock and Watson; Rupert Sheffield, an enigmatic mathematician lecturing about the science of deduction, and his travelling companion, Dr John Wilson, a former army Doctor who was invalided during the war. Sound familiar?

I thought the similarities only coincidental until I read the following passage, in which Dr Wilson tells Phyne’s family about how he came to be Sheffield’s roommate and travelling companion:

‘I was slowly dying of boredom. And grief. My friend said he knew I was looking for an apartment to share and this Rupert Sheffield, a mathematician, was looking for a roommate. They were very nice rooms, we have a housekeeper, and he warned me that he played the piano all night long, and didn’t speak for days on end, and writes equations on the wall, and I didn’t mind those things, because I was moody and still so sad, and angry, because Arthur had left me after only a few years.’ Murder and Mendelssohn page 191.

It was then that I realised just how far Holmes has infiltrated into modern Crime Fiction. Later in the novel, Greenwood depicts a sex scene between Wilson and Sheffield that must have been incredibly fun to write, and is so utterly bizarre that I can’t decide if it’s genius or a contender for the Bad Sex Awards.

In the micro-essay at the back of the novel, Sherlock Holmes and me (a love/hate relationship), Greenwood discusses the fact that she believes that the deductive powers Holmes posses are akin to women’s intuition, and that the idea of Holmes and Watson’s homosexual relationship stemmed from her reading of other books which touched on the subject, as well as some of the inferences made in the stories, such as in The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, in which Watson gets shot during the investigation and Holmes becomes distraught at the prospect of harm coming to his dear friend.

Kerry Greenwood is not alone in her desire to bring Holmes and Watson into modern literature and cinema. Not only are many authors and filmmakers still reinventing the character today, but also he is often integrated, in some way, into detective novels. The character remains a key influence in detective fiction, despite the fact that he was created in the Victorian era, and therefore could be considered out of date.

The character of Sherlock Holmes is based on C. Auguste Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe’s detective who appears in three short stories. Despite this, Dupin is not the popular figure in pop-culture that Conan Doyle’s character has become.

This got me thinking about why Holmes and Watson remain such popular influences whilst Dupin is often forgotten. Granted, Dupin is the inspiration for Holmes, but Poe’s stories are not referenced so obviously in modern fiction as Doyle’s are. Partially, this could be put down to the number of Sherlock Holmes stories Doyle wrote, which far outstrips Poe’s three Dupin novellas, but there is also more to it than that.

Fundamentally, it is my belief that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson embody key characteristics that everyone sees in themselves, and have, thanks to these characteristics, achieved the excitement and adventure that many readers crave. After all, Holmes is a bizarre, often unconventional detective, whilst his companion is a reliable Dr who is as baffled by his friend’s brilliance as Doyle’s readers.

Also, the pair make for the perfect template on which many writers can base their detectives. Duos often consist of one bumbling action man and one awkward eccentric; think of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings, Bulldog Drummond and James Denny, and, in television, the likes of Jonathan Creek and his various female companions. This is because each member of the pair offers skills that the other lacks, with the more reliable companion usually relaying the narrative and translating the detective’s actions for both the reader through the guise of doing so for other characters.

Ultimately, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson remain entrenched as cult figures in the Crime Fiction space, and as the media continues to remember and reinvent them they will continue to grow and evolve as characters. Although I always lament the loss of fresh ideas to reinvention (Hollywood and the constant remakes), it is always interesting to see new interpretations of classic characters.

Blood Rites Review: Grizzly, Gritty Greatness

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Having previously enjoyed his novel The Scarlet Coven, I expected great things from Blood Rites, the newest Inspector Paul Snow novel by David Stuart Davis. I wasn’t disappointed.

Set in 1980s Yorkshire, the novel dictates the work of Detective Inspector Paul Snow, a closeted homosexual battling both personal and professional demons.

His case is that of a serial killer charting an uncertain course, with his victims seemingly chosen at random. As he navigates a world full of deceit and violence, he is forced off the case by his dubious superiors who are dismayed at his lack of progress and unconventional methods. Desperate, the detective disappears underground, where a killer is lurking in the shadows.

The inner turmoil of this fascinating and deeply troubled protagonist is what drives the novel, with his dogged determination to unmask the murderer and prove his own worth sending him into some of some of the darkest recesses of human depravity.

Slightly stilted dialogue is the only factor that lets this otherwise dark and tense novel down- it can be hard to follow and it all but ruins otherwise exceptional characterisation. Everyone in the novel seems to speak as if they are narrating a children’s story, in that breathy, posh sort of English that does not ring true with the otherwise gritty, varied vagabonds that the author portrays.

This is earthy, Northern British Crime Fiction at its finest. Blood Rites shows you the very worst of human nature and puts our fears on full display, creating an chillingly atmospheric thriller that you’ll want to reopen as soon as you reach the final page.