Riding Shotgun Review: American Story Telling At Its Finest

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Riding Shotgun and Other American Cruelties is an inventive collection of three novellas by the multi-talented Andy Rausch who is, alongside being a writer, is also an American film journalist, author, screenwriter, film producer, and actor.

This selection of three novellas pays homage to a range of genres, offering the reader a glimpse into the crime market in the USA. In the opening story, Easy-Peezy, the reader is transported to into an innovative take on a western as a group of outlaws pull off daring heists as they seek the riches stored in the country’s banks. The titular story, Riding Shotgun, is a pulp fiction esq caper featuring some superb examples of swearing in action (of which I thoroughly fucking approve).

Finally, Rausch portrays the exploits of a criminally minded hip-hop crew as they seek riches by sticking two finger to the established music scene in $crilla. Each novella is uniquely tailored to its setting and set-up, making for a consistently strong portrayal despite the varied styles Rausch employs.

Dialogue, something that, if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I am a massive fan of when done right, is expertly utilized here, particularly in Easy-Peezy’s wild west setting, where the characters are each given a individual voice to allow their status as establishment or out law to shine through. As mentioned before, the swearing Riding Shotgun is expertly crafted, and shows a great knowledge of how to really exploit voice in a story to heighten both the internal tension and the reader’s interest.

Overall, drawing on his vast and varied experiences, Andy Rausch has created three unique stories, each of which is an individual representation of America’s Crime Fiction history. From the wild west through to urban thrillers at their best, this creative selection of stories has something to please everyone.

Jackie Baldwin Interview: “I see criminals as real people”

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Former criminal lawyer turned Crime Fiction Author Jackie Baldwin talks to me about her writing, her inspiration and her enduring love for Agatha Christie.

Tell me about how the books you write. Why do you have such a passion for crime fiction in particular?

Like a lot of crime novelists I grew up in an era where there was no young adult genre, so when you were 12 you were let free in the adult library. There, to my delight, I discovered crime writers like Agatha Christie and thriller writers like Alistair MacLean. Although I read quite widely across various genres, I came to enjoy crime fiction in particular as for many years I was a criminal lawyer so I knew that world. I also love that nowadays there is such diversity within the genre. Anything goes, from hardboiled to psychological thrillers to cosy mysteries. They all have something interesting to offer the reader.

What was the first crime fiction novel you read and how did it draw you into seeking out more books of this genre?

I always loved mystery books like The Secret Seven and The Famous Five but I think my first adult crime novel was by Agatha Christie. I read them all one after the other but can’t remember which one I started with. I remember I was always getting into trouble for reading too much as I was always desperate to keep going and find out who did it. My catchphrase was, ‘I’ll just finish the chapter.’ It used to drive my mum crazy!

How do you draw on your background as a lawyer when writing?

Well, I suppose first and foremost I see criminals as real people. I also think you have to view people who commit crimes within their entire context and not in a two dimensional way. Nobody is all good or all bad. Most of us inhabit some shade of grey. During my time as a lawyer I met very few people who made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up although there were a handful. Mostly it was people who made bad choices in difficult circumstances, were reared in a family culture of criminality, or had spiralled down into offending through drug addiction.

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

I write in the third person but I like to focus in very closely on the internal life of my main characters at times of pressure. I’m fascinated by psychology and people’s inner life. Often that is so different from the image they present to the world. I wanted to avoid the trope of the alcoholic hard- bitten detective with a failing marriage and offer the reader something a little different so my lead character, DI Frank Farrell is a former practising RC priest who suffered a devastating mental breakdown as a young priest but recovered.

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

The weird thing is that since I was published I seem to have a lot less time to read than I used to and I do love to read. On the crime front, I enjoy books by Sophie Hannah, Susie Steiner, Robert Bryndza and Peter James. All of these have influenced me to the extent that they create memorable characters who feel very real to me and have a complex inner life which is what I have tried to create in my own work. I also love science fiction, particularly Asimov and Alisdair Reynolds. The only thing I tend not to get along with is romance!

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

I would love to work with Sally Wainwright on a TV drama. I recently watched Happy Valley for the first time and was completely blown away. I admire her tremendously. It was so immersive. One night, I found myself screaming ‘Run!’ at the TV to the great consternation of my husband and daughter. Isn’t it infuriating when people say to you, ‘It’s just a TV show’?

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

At the moment I am nearing the end of book 2 in my DI Frank Farrell series. After that is submitted I have plans for a commercial fiction novel and then a sci-fi crime novel. It’s going to be a case of write, eat, sleep, and repeat for some time! I was late getting off the starter’s block with my writing so I feel I’m playing catch up to some extent.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to later in the year or in 2018?

Mike Craven has a new series coming out next year which I’m looking forward to as I loved his Avison Fluke one. Felicia Yap’s crime novel Yesterday sounds terrific and is out in August 2017. I’ve also just downloaded The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond which came out this month. There have been so many exciting new books released recently that I’m struggling to keep up with the ones I’ve bought so I haven’t really had time to contemplate what’s happening next year yet.

Thanks to Jackie for speaking with me, it has been fascinating. You can learn more about Jackie and her work HERE.

Merlin at War Review: An Enticing Historical Thriller

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As a rule, historical novels aren’t my thing, but I was intrigued by the concept of Mark Ellis’s Merlin at War, which I first encountered when I interviewed him for a blog tour recently. Set during the Second World War, the novel follows the exploits of detective Frank Merlin, who works to solve the numerous crimes that abound despite the escalating global violence.

The crimes in question are various but all, coincidentally, connected. First, the body of a young Irish woman who died as the result of a botched abortion is investigated; later, the abortionist himself is found killed at his boarding house. Merlin, who also has to deal with the bureaucracy of having one member of staff removed for fraternisation and replaced by an American, takes on both cases simultaneously.

Later, his friend, having just returned from fighting in Crete, visits him with a small problem, on which Merlin advises. Shortly afterwards this friend is also murdered, and so the detective and his team come up against corporate deception as they unravel his problem, which is linked to a case of embezzlement in a massive international bank.

History never has been my strong point, and as such I am not entirely certain if the depictions of the various historical figures in Merlin at War are even remotely accurate, but the characterisation overall is excellent. Everyone, from the snobbish bank employees through to Machiavellian officers in the various military and security services, are superbly depicted, with the dialogue carefully catered to their personalities to ensure both consistency and realism. Seedy, untrustworthy men are Ellis’s strongpoint and he does them well, with numerous characters from across the story portrayed with such skill that they make your skin crawl.

The novel flits around the world, from depictions of the Creation retreat to intrigue-ridden Buenos Aires, but it is London where the majority of the action takes place, and the city is bought to life thanks to Ellis’s stunning depictions. His seamless integration of setting into the narrative entices the reader and draws them further into this fascinating story.

As I mentioned, I have never been a big history buff, but I truly enjoyed Merlin at War. The one small issue I have is that I’m not entirely sure that attitudes in 1940s London would have been so relaxed, and as such the lack of prejudice on all fronts feels slightly unrealistic. Bernie Goldberg, the American detective who is placed with Merlin’s team, as well as the various other foreigner characters the reader encounters throughout the novel, seem to face very little racial backlash despite the hostile military situation and the general ignorance of and distrust towards other races that abounded at that time. I also find it incredibly hard to believe that widowed Merlin’s unmarried relations with his Polish girlfriend Sonia, who lives in his flat, would be tolerated so easily, with even the uptight Assistant Commissioner and his wife welcoming the unconventional couple with open arms.

Incorporating a wide variety of genres, including detective fiction, thriller, espionage and historical novel, Merlin at War is a truly spellbinding page turner that keeps you hooked right until the end.

Tom Claver Interview: “When reading a thriller I enjoy seeing what authors do with the built-in tropes”

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Tom Claver, author of the popular thriller Hider/ Seeker, discusses his fascination with detective fiction and dark films and how it influences his writing.

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

My style of writing tends to be quite direct with plenty of dialogue. I think my economy with words comes from being a journalist and keeping the word count as low as possible when writing news. When I was young I had ambitions of working in films and made some shorts, which helped me gain a visual sense of storytelling. This led me to write some feature length scripts, one of which interested the BBC, but nothing came of it. Some thirty years later, I decided to re-write that particular script into Hider/Seeker, my first novel.

Why crime fiction? As a young film buff I was mad on Hitchcock although I never thought at that time of writing a novel. I was too focused on cinema and enjoyed all film genres, although thrillers excited me the most. In the 1970s while I was studying for my economics degree, I went to a creative writing class that had just been set up by Dr Rod Whitaker, an American professor from the Department of Radio, Television and Film at the Austin School of Communications in Texas. He arrived late to the first class because he’d just come off the phone from speaking to Clint Eastwood, who was going to turn his debut novel, The Eiger Sanction, into a film. After that entrance, he had my full attention. 

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

I’ve had a long career in business journalism, both in print and television. One lunchtime I was browsing in a bookshop and I came across The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. I realised that I had seen the Humphrey Bogart films many times, but had never read the novel. After devouring that book, I began to read other classic thrillers to see how much they varied from their film version. Books such as Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain, Point Blank, by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) and Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. This rekindled my desire to try again to write a novel as I enjoyed so much reading these books. I read books on writing and taught myself to put 90,000 words together in a comprehensive way.

I had already been writing for more than 10 years when I decided to go full-time. I just wanted to see how I would fare in an entirely different sector of the publishing industry. I think that during those years of writing part-time, I knew I was repositioning myself towards a new type of career ahead.

Please tell me about your novel, Hider/Seeker.

Hider/Seeker was published originally as an ebook in April 2015 and after three months it had broken into Amazon’s British top 100 paid ebooks. It reached No.11 in the Kindle Store and ranked No.2 in Crime Thrillers in the UK. Last year, it reached No.48 in paid ebooks on Amazon.com in the US and was No.3 there in Crime Thrillers. The paperback version is due out shortly.

The story is about Harry Bridger, who makes his living helping people disappear from their enemies by teaching them how to avoid detection in the digital age. But when he helps a woman disappear from her violent husband, little does he know he will need to find her again for his own survival. The story opens in London, but it soon shifts to Central America and there are plenty of twists and turns on the way.

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

That’s the whole fun of writing a thriller. Bertolt Brecht, who was a fan of thrillers, was once quoted as saying that the aesthetic quality of the detective novel is derived from the variation of its fixed elements. When reading a thriller I enjoy seeing what authors do with the built-in tropes. It’s like watching an escapologist getting out of chains while in a burning box. Every time I pick up a thriller, I think, how is the author going to pull it off this time around?

When starting a novel, I always create a hero with plenty of baggage who is reluctant to get involved in an adventure. Then I engineer it so that he has a lucky escape from death towards the end. It is the basic chassis to build any story upon. As long as I can torture the hero along the way, I’m happy because the reader needs to experience directly the dilemmas and anxieties facing the protagonist.

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

You’ve probably guessed that I prefer reading thrillers from an older era, partly because they are less horrific, but mainly because they have such a wonderful style of writing. I read recently Rebecca for the first time, having seen the Hitchcock film on numerous occasions and found that I enjoyed it more than the film. I’m currently reading My Cousin Rachel, also a Daphne du Maurier novel, and am totally absorbed by her clever storytelling. Similarly, I like Patricia Highsmith for those reasons. But the trouble with writing is that you can only do what you can do however much you dream of writing like your favourite author. You have to work with the material you’ve got and know your limitations. I tend to introduce humour into my thrillers as I feel it brings more realism to the characters and also helps to bring a greater contrast when things go wrong for them. I’m probably most drawn to authors such as Hammett, Chandler and Deighton because their dry wit is so appealing.

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

I strongly believe it is a mistake to meet your heroes, as they can never live up to your expectations. After all, it is their work that we love, not them, as they are complete strangers with their own private lives and complications. So, I don’t think I would be attracted to collaborate with anyone as writing a novel is not really a collaborative art form like filmmaking. But if I had a time machine and had a chance to work on a film script with a director, it would have to be Hitchcock, because I would be able to learn how to extract the nub of a story in such a cinematic way. He would always seek a story where he could explore its emotion rather than its detail. Daphne du Maurier didn’t like what he did to her novella, The Birds, but he had the good sense to focus on the horror she had created based largely on her descriptive writing.

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

Yes. I am publishing my second book, Scoop of the Year, at the end of October. It’s a suspense novel with a healthy dose of humour and is quite a departure from Hider/Seeker. It’s about a young hapless journalist called Martin who becomes jealous of the meteoric rise into television by Tom, a fellow reporter. But when he lands a scoop that would allow him to outshine his rival, he discovers his malfunctioning family gets in the way.

It is written in the first person from Martin’s POV and shows a positive side to envy. Martin is a luckless hero you can’t help but root for as he aims for greatness. Both the ebook and paperback will be available on Amazon from 28th October.

Thanks ever so much for your time Tom, it’s been really interesting to hear your thoughts. To find out more about Tom and his work, click HERE.

The Top Five Miss Marple Novels To Get You Back Into Agatha Christie

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Miss Jane Marple is a very underrated female detective. She remains the archetypical female sleuth, and every female detective who has ever come after her is compared to this legendary female crime expert whose powers of deduction are second to none.

As you may have noticed, following Kenneth Branagh’s latest trailer for his upcoming film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (you can read my thoughts on that HERE), I have been on a Christie binge, revisiting old favourites and exploring just what it is that drives my love with the Queen of Crime. Therefore, I thought I would share my top five favourite Miss Marple novels. Although she is always second in my affections beneath the Belgium super sleuth Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple is a truly excellent character and one whose novels make for fascinating studies in the very best of Golden Age detective fiction.

5. The Murder at the Vicarage: The first full length novel to feature the waspish and determined Miss Marple, The Murder at the Vicarage is a great place to start if you’ve yet to sample the delights of these intriguing mysteries. Set in Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead, the plot revolves around the murder of the highly despised local magistrate in the vicarage, with a vast array of suspects all close at hand. Miss Marple, a local busybody, soon involves herself in the investigation and works tirelessly to find out the truth.

4. A Caribbean Mystery: Transplanted from the traditional setting of a Christie novel, A Caribbean Mystery is Set on Caribbean island of St Honore, offering a new space in which to enjoy this elegantly constructed story. Miss Marple, on holiday to recover following an illness, has an ominous conversation with a fellow guest at the resort, who tell her of a man who got away with multiple murders. Later, the man himself is killed, leading our detective to uncover a tangled web of lies, deceit and dishonesty.

3. The Body in the Library: This novel is worth a read for the inventive, almost Dickensian name of Inspector Slack, who is called in to investigate the murder of an unknown young girl, done up as if she were going to a party, found in the library of an ancestral house. The lady of the house is an old friend of Miss Marple, and as such our ammeter detective is roped in to help solve this fiendish mystery and uncover the identity of both victim and killer.

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2.At Bertram’s Hotel: As is often the case with Christie, it is the characters that make this novel really remarkable and worth a read. The befuddled Canon Pennyfather, the repugnant Michael Gorman, the scheming Bess Sedgwick, as well as her calculating daughter Elvira Blake, and of course, the shrewd Miss Maple, all amplify the mystery thanks to their cunning and conniving throughout the plot, which centres around Blake and her mother’s reunion at Beteram’s Hotel, where Miss Marple is visiting to relive old memories.

1. 4.50 from Paddington: Dark, twisted and exceptionally well-plotted, this is the ultimate Agatha Christie novel. The plot is so exceptionally well thought out and complicated that I defy anyone to guess the conclusion. Miss Marple is assisted by friends as she works to uncover the mystery of a woman being strangled on a train, seen from afar by her friend, who is swiftly disbelieved by everyone except the ever wary Miss Marple. Full of scheming characters and mountains of social envy and greed, this exhilarating novel explores the darker side of human nature that Christie was committed to portraying at its very worst.

Mark Ellis Interview: “I have always been an avid reader with a particular fondness for detective fiction”

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On this fine Sunday Mark Ellis talks me through his work, particularly the latest novel in his creative historical Crime Fiction series.  

Tell me about how the books you write. What drew you to thriller writing?

I am the author of a detective mystery series set in World War 2 London and featuring Scotland Yard detective Frank Merlin. The plan is to follow Merlin through the war with books set at six to nine month intervals between 1940 and 1945. I have written three Merlin novels so far, including the latest, Merlin At War, which is out on July 6th. I have always been an avid reader with a particular fondness for detective fiction, mysteries and whodunits. It felt natural to commence my writing career in the thriller arena. 

What was the first thriller novel you read and how did it draw you into seeking out more books of this genre?

The first adult thriller I read was The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan. I couldn’t put the book down and read it in a day. Of course I was keen to find more books that would grip me in this way.

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

I studied law at university and became a barrister. After a short period in practice I went into business, first working for other people and then, in my thirties, for myself. With a friend I started a computer services company that grew into a multimillion pound enterprise and was eventually sold to a major American corporation. I had always had ambitions to write, and the sale of the business afforded me the time to give it a go.

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

My books are detective thrillers set against what I hope is an accurate portrayal of the wartime background. My research is meticulous and I enjoy mixing real characters in with my fictional ones. Churchill, De Gaulle and Marshal Pétain are some of the historical figures that feature in my new book which is set in June 1941, just after the Battle of Crete and before Hitler’s invasion of Russia. My first book, Princes Gate, is set in January 1940, the so called ‘Phoney War’ period, and the second, Stalin’s Gold, is set in September 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain and in the early days of the Blitz. I believe some of the popularity of my books derives from the large and growing public fascination with British life during the war years.


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How did you come to create DCI Frank Merlin and why do you believe readers enjoy reading about his exploits?

My family and I spend much holiday time in Spain. When I was trying to create the hero of my series, it occurred to me to give him a slightly exotic background as the son of a Spaniard. So, his father, Javier Merino, came into being as a Spanish sailor who had settled in London and married an English shopkeeper’s daughter in the East End. Tired of mispronunciation of his name he anglicised it to Harry Merlin. Likewise his children’s names were changed and his eldest boy, Francisco Merino, became Frank Merlin. Why do readers enjoy Merlin’s exploits? I hope their enjoyment owes something to quality of plot and characterisation, but I think the wartime conditions of Britain and its capital also have much to do with it. London in the war was a dangerous place not just because of dropping bombs. Recorded crime in the war years grew massively. The blackout, the chaos of the Blitz, the booming black market and other factors contributed to the city becoming a criminal’s paradise – or in other terms, a wonderful, broad and exciting canvas for a crime fiction writer.

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

One idiosyncrasy is that each chapter of my books is set on a specific day of the war. Thanks to the voluminous literature on the war as well as the wonders of the internet, I can find out the exact nature of the weather on any day, the numbers of bombs dropped or fighters in the air, and a myriad of other minor or major facts which add to the authenticity of the story.

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

Favourite writers include Simenon, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Le Carré, Christie, Alan Furst, Michael Connelly, and William Boyd. I could go on and on, there are so many wonderful thriller writers alive or dead. In terms of influence, Simenon is an author I particularly admire. I love his direct, spare and simple style and bear him in mind when I feel my prose might be becoming a little overwrought. I have too many favourite books to list but if I confine myself to recent thrillers, I absolutely loved Don Winslow’s The Cartel and I have been devouring his other books

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

Of the dead authors, Simenon for reasons above. Of the living, Le Carré or Boyd as they are masters of their trade and within easy reach.

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

The next project is Merlin 4, which I shall start in September, after Merlin At War has been launched in the U.K. and I take a summer break. I do have one other book idea that I have been contemplating for some time. It is a spy/detective series set in the late 17th century featuring a character based loosely on Daniel Defoe, who was a spy himself as well as a brilliant author. How I make the time for this as I continue taking Merlin through to 1945, I am not quite sure.

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

I am looking forward in particular to the new books from Le Carré, Winslow and Joseph Finder.

Do you have anything to add?

Thanks for having me!

Thanks for taking the time, Mark, it’s been a pleasure.