N. M. Brown Interview: “I spent most of my teenage years gleefully devouring horror novels”

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With a focus on serial killers, Norman M Brown’s writing takes readers deep into the heart of a mystery. I invited him to talk me through his work and how he crafts his often terrifying narratives.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards serial killer books?

My writing style is very much an extension of how I speak. I try to keep my novels short enough to read on flight or on a couple of hours, but still pack a punch in terms of plot. My typical narrative voice is conversational, but that is intentionally designed to ease readers in a world that is brimming with dangers. I try to keep the descriptions lean, and reduce chapters down to the most relevant information. If my writing were compared to painting I’d be more of an impressionist than a realist. This is mainly because, I often feel a little cheated when I pick up a book that is packed with superfluous description of every object in a room, or if there’s a ten-page explanation of the coffee shop in which the protagonist briefly pauses. I love writers who can establish an atmosphere or scene through a couple of key descriptions or objects. That leaves space for the reader to add elements from their own imagination.

In regard to my interest in Serial Killer fiction, like many crime writers, I spent most of my teenage years gleefully devouring horror novels– from the Gothic vampires and undead of Victorian classics, to the contemporary monsters of Stephen King and Clive Barker. Later on, as undergraduate, I learned how these monsters often serve as mirrors reflecting the fears and anxieties of the society which spawned them. In that respect, serial killers-whether real or imagined- are our 21st century monsters. The problem is that they are no longer so easily identifiable by their hideous appearance on their sprawling castle in the mountains. The work in our offices, live in our streets and smile to us as we pass them. That’s what fascinates and scares me. My novels are my attempt to exorcise those fears.

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

I have written fiction throughout my entire adult life, but my interest in writing a Crime Thriller was a direct result of forgetting to take my Kindle on holiday two years ago. I arrived in the villa and sighed with genuine relief when I discovered a fully stocked bookcase. However, the books were almost all Crime Thrillers One the first books I read was The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. I enjoyed the book so much that I decided to set myself a personal challenge – to create my own detective and take him on a journey that people would hopefully want to experience. Having taught high school English for a couple of decades, I knew the elements of setting and character that appealed to me, so it was simply a case of sitting down with my laptop and tapping it out.

Tell me about your books. How did you come to write them and what was the inspiration behind them.

The Girl on the Bus has an element of personal experience: about twenty years ago, I took a bus from Stirling to Inverness in the Highlands , a journey of over three hours through the picturesque but isolated Cairngorms National Park. The trip was lovely and the scenery stunning. Stirling merged into Perth then Perth into Pitlochry. As I sank into my bus seat, complete with curtained window and a complimentary cup holder, I lost myself in the pages of a cheap paperback book. Occasionally, I would drift off and wake with my face sliding on the cold glass of the window.  But at some point, as the bus weaved its way through the rugged mountains, I realised that the dramatic landscape outside was quite devoid of civilisation. If anything happened to the coach party out there, no one would ever know. Then, in the typically morbid spirit of any crime fiction fan, I considered how terrible it would be if anyone on that solitary bus was actually a killer. Glancing nervously around at my fellow commuters, I studied their faces for traces of psychopathy, and concluded that they all had potential (it was Scotland after all). I then hit on an even more worrying possibility. What if everyone on the bus, including the driver, were actually killers? It would be a mobile crime scene. And what if that bus picked up a naïve passenger who felt safe because there were plenty of other people on the bus with them? That idea grew into my first published novel.

Carpenter Road was the result of the research I had carried out for the first book. The story was inspired by the setting. When writing the first Leighton Jones novel – The Girl on the Bus- I wanted to make the central character as real as possible, without getting too tangled up in backstory. I therefore tried to include just enough details from the past to give the reader a sense of the Leighton’s history, and hopefully make him a little more three dimensional.

In that capacity, there are a couple of times in the book when police officers make references to a historical incident at Black Mountain involving Leighton Jones. We never find out what this incident was, but some of Leighton’s colleagues seem impressed by it. We are also told that the incident also resulted in Gretsch becoming Chief of Oceanside P.D. In his typical style, Leighton is reluctant to speak about it. Carpenter Road is the story of that incident.

I got the seed of the idea when I was originally researching the San Diego area whilst writing the first novel. As I poured over the maps, I made notes on any places of interest. Most of the time I was looking for good places to hide a sinister old bus. However, sometimes I would simply notice an intriguing place name. One such name was Black Mountain. When I first read those two words, my mind was flooded with images. It sounded like the perfect place for the climax of that novel. To me, the name conjured up images of a craggy place – some fusion of Tolkien’s Mount Doom and Castle Dracula.  After pouring a cup of coffee, I sat down at my computer and began looking at images and street views of Black Mountain. I felt my heart sink…

Rather than some sinister location, Black Mountain was actually a rather picturesque area of California, complete with a private development of luxury homes. However amongst the many images, I discovered one that hinted at a darker side to this beautiful part of the country. It was a picture taken from the fascinating website: hiddensandiego.net, featuring an old mineshaft in Black Mountain Canyon. Obviously, there was no way to take my scary old bus into a mineshaft – although I did eventually use the idea of it tumbling into a canyon – so I saved the images in a folder of potential locations.

In that same folder were images relating to a second place name that had also struck a chord with as I read it was Carpenter Road. For some reason it reminded of the absolutely terrifying The Walrus and the Carpenter by C.S. Lewis – you can easily find it online if you’re brave enough. I had read the narrative poem at university and it gave me nightmares. In the poem, the eponymous characters are described walking along a beach where they encounter a group of little oysters. The seemingly respectable convince compliant little oysters to accompany them on a walk to some distant rock. Upon stopping for a rest, the oysters look in horror as their two new friends produce bread and vinegar and begin to feed. Many academics have debated the significance of these two characters, but to me they were simply killers.

Once I had completed The Girl on the Bus, I sat down in front of the computer to write the prequel and opened the folder of locations. Seeing images of both Black Mountain and Carpenter Road together was enough to ignite my imagination. I therefore decided to write a story involving a character that shows up – like the Walrus and the Carpenter– in desolate places to kill whoever they want. Fortunately, for me, Carpenter Road in Oceanside is a fairly deserted place at night and fits the idea well.

As for Black Mountain and the old arsenic mines, I decided that this would serve as the belly of the beast for Leighton Jones. A mineshaft is dark and remote. Not the sort of place you want to enter to confront a serial killer.  So the settings helped inspire the story. Of course I still had to consider how a traffic officer – as Leighton was at the time – would become embroiled in the case. I figured that the simplest way would be to start off with a car, a missing person, and a witness that nobody would believe. At that point I knew I had a story that even as the writer had me hooked. Hopefully it will have a similar effect on some readers too.

When choosing books to read, what style of writing do you enjoy yourself? Are there any particular writers you admire?

I like Cormac McCarthy. He has a wonderful for voices, and his prose is sometimes so sparse that it almost seems like poetry. I also like the old masters – especially Ray Bradbury who imbued much of his writing with a feeling of real affection for all aspects of life. In terms of my own genre, Michael Connelly gets my respect for his meticulous research, and the scale of the world he has built around Detective Harry Bosch.

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

Michael Connelly for the reasons given above. I would love to see how Leighton Jones would cope with working alongside Harry Bosch.

Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

Yes, my third Leighton Jones novel, Toys in the Dust takes my protagonist to his first unofficial missing persons case. It is loosely based upon two of the oldest, most disturbing cold cases in history: Maria Ridulph and The Beaumont Children. However, I wanted to write about an abduction case in which the child escapes from their captor, and has to rely on their wits to survive.

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

I have been looking forward to Leave No Trace by Mindy Mejia. I have always been drawn to stories involving woods and forests. Add a disappearance or two and you have me ready to turn those pages.

Anything you’d like to add?

Just my thanks to you for taking an interest in my work.

It’s been great to hear from you, thanks ever so much for answering my questions. You can find out more HERE.

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Gazelle In The Shadows Review: A Sizzling Portrayal of Spying in Syria

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Former Foreign Office employee Michelle Peach offers a truly gripping thriller that draws on her own personal love of travel, in particular Arabia and Syria, where the novel is set. Thanks to an educational background focused on the region, and time spent at an embassy there, Peach is able to offer a fascinating story that expertly weaves an evocative setting into a breath-taking adventure.

The plot centres around a young woman named Elizabeth who, having excelled at Arabic studies at University in England visits and falls in love with the region and settles into an amazing life in Damascus. Kind and caring, she makes new friends and soon comes to love this beautiful country and the people who call it home.

However, it isn’t long before things take a dark turn and she is thrown into a world of lie, deceit and espionage, with no idea who to trust and danger lying in wait around every corner. Intense and fast-paced, the novel is packed with intrigue and brings readers into contact with a myriad of unique characters who capture the imagination and drive the plot forward.

From the very first sentence Peach creates an atmosphere of tension that permeates throughout the novel, and with many exhilarating plot twists readers will find it difficult to put this engaging thriller down.

Accurately capturing President Hafez al-Asad’s Syria, the novel takes readers on a journey through this beautiful land, and as such, as much as it is a coming-of-age novel and a thriller, it could also be seen as a postcolonial depiction of the region. Sensitively navigating the difficult issues of class, race and gender, Peach packs a lot into one beautifully crafted narrative.

With such strong plotting, tense narrative and cleverly constructed characters Gazelle In The Shadows is a great thriller to keep you entertained as the nights draw in and you find yourself in need of an exciting story to keep you entertained.

Rona Halsall Interview: “I’ve always had writing at the heart of my work”

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This week I caught up with thriller writer Rona Halsall to find out more about her debut novel and upcoming projects.

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

Well I didn’t start off writing psychological thrillers, although they’re one of my favourite genres. I didn’t think I’d be able to work out plot twists and plant little clues – all that planning! So I started writing romance. I finished writing my first book and pitched it to an agent at a literary festival. She said she really liked my writing style but didn’t think the story was commercial enough. So I put that to one side and started again. This time I wrote more of a mystery/suspense. When I finished I sent it to the same agent who said she thought my voice would be better suited to psychological thrillers and she suggested a re-work of the story. So, with her help to work out a suitable plot, I did a complete re-write and I so enjoyed it, I realised this was the genre I wanted to write.

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

I was a business adviser and management consultant for twenty-five years, which involved a lot of writing in the form of business plans and grant applications and notes from meetings. So I’ve always had writing at the heart of my work. When I turned fifty, I decided that I’d better get a move on if I was going to write a novel and when my husband took early retirement, I had a career break to do a bit of writing and this has been my work ever since.

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

I have had quite a nomadic life, living in lots of different places and I think I have been through quite a wide range of life experiences – lots that can be spun into stories.

Inspiration also comes from news stories or things that friends say, bits and pieces online and personal experience. Also, once you start researching an idea it can lead you weird and wonderful places!

If I find I’m stuck with a storyline, I tend to take the dogs out for a walk and let my mind sort things out while I get a bit of fresh air and exercise. Or, if the weather’s really horrible, I’ll read the news or do a bit of admin and let my mind wander.

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

I think it would be Lisa Jewell. I love her characters. They are always so fresh and real and different and that’s such a hard thing to achieve. I also admire her writing style, which flows so easily and is a joy to read.

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

My second book, Love You Gone has just gone on pre-order and is going to be published on 15th November. I’m really happy with the way it has shaped up and the cover is just gorgeous!

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

The new one by Fiona Barton, The Suspect. I love her books – they are so interesting, seeing things from the view of a journalist. Her plots are really twisty and her writing is a joy to read.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

My debut novel Keep You Safe is out now. This follows the story of Natalie, who has been separated from her baby son for three years. She was wrongly accused of a crime and imprisoned. Now she is free she knows that her son’s life is in danger and she is desperate to get him to safety. But who can she trust?

Readers can keep up to date on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RonaHalsallAuthor/

And on Twitter:@RonaHalsallAuth

It’s been a great pleasure hearing your thoughts and learning more about your books Rona, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

Truth and Lies Review: A Nail-Biter From Start To Finish

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Another awesome Blog Tour post for you today! This time I checked out Caroline Mitchell’s latest novel Truth and Lies, in which the hunt for a kidnap victim turns sinister when it links to a decades old case and a manipulate psychopath who is trying to use her knowledge of the burial places of her victims as leverage.

Drawing on the author’s background in the police, the novel focuses on DI Amy Winter, who is still reeling from the loss of her beloved father when she learns a shocking revelation: she is in fact the daughter of renowned serial killer Lillian Grimes. Grimes leverages her position as Amy’s mother and the wife of a serial killer to manipulate her and those around her, and as Amy battles this and fights to uncover the truth behind a high profile kidnapping startling truths are revealed.

Much like Emelie Schepp’s brilliant debut novel Marked for Life, Truth and Lies revolves around Amy’s struggle to keep her past from destroying her present, and in so doing entering into a web of deceit that threatens to upend everything she has worked so hard for. Her relationships with her adoptive family and her friends are tested, and Mitchell’s exceptional characterisation shines through here, as we see many well-honed, multi-dimensional characters and relationships being put to the test by both this latest kidnapping and Lillian Grimes’ shocking revelations.

There are twists throughout the novel, and whilst at first I was annoyed that certain revelations were made too early, I gradually came to realise that the novel is so deviously plotted that it would have been difficult to confine all the twists to the final pages.

Being so hard to put down, this book is one to consume quickly, and as such I would thoroughly recommend Truth and Lies to anyone embarking on a late holiday, or anyone who simply fancies a gripping page-turner. There’s also a great cliff-hanger ending, so I’m definitely looking forward to the next instalment and can’t wait to find out what will befall DI Winter in the future!

South by Southwest Wales Review: A Nice Try Let Down By Inconsistencies

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There’s something about thriller writing that leaves authors partial to creating absurd titles for their work. I’ve noticed it a lot over the years since I started studying crime fiction and thrillers at University. It’s a great idea, as a catchy, truly different title draws the reader in. Unfortunately, this does also give the reader high expectations, which aren’t always met.

A great example of this is David Owain Hughes’ novel South By Southwest Wales, which offers the promise of a humorous thriller and gives only confusion and disinterest. I should start by saying that Hughes is a really lovely guy, and a great writer of horror stories, but in this novel he loses the reader in a big way.

What quickly becomes apparent quickly to the reader, is how inconsistent the novel is. Whilst Hughes tries hard to get across his message that Cardiff is not Chicago, and it doesn’t need a Private Eye like Valentine, we are quickly confronted in the first few pages with a jazz joint and a scene in which a man sleeps with a hooker in an alleyway next to an tramp who is injecting heroin into his arm. All of this would suggest not only that the Cardiff Hughes is portraying is remarkably similar to Chicago, but that it could really use a decant PI to have a whip round and clear it up.

Much like J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike novels, in South By Southwest Wales readers swiftly notice the difference between what the author tells us and what they are actually portraying, and in this case the difference is stark. As a result, the novel offers an unnerving, unbelievable undertone that makes it hard to take seriously.

Now, I agree, with a title like South By Southwest Wales there is room for argument that Hughes never intended the novel to be taken seriously, but that is definitely up for debate. Neither fish nor fowl, neither entirely funny nor thrilling, the novel often comes up short.

Whilst the dialogue is sharp and the one-liners, many of which are not entirely original, are ever-present, there is definitely something lacking in protagonist Samson Valentine. He’s no Sam Spade, and he’s certainly no Philip Marlowe, and frankly he’s a bit of a let down. Underneath all that bravado and tough talk is a very boring character with delusions of grandeur. In hardboiled detective fiction, which I believe this is aiming to be, the central detective is everything, and as such the novel lacks an anchor and as such floats along blindly attempting to be both satirical and enticing, and failing at both.

Overall, being neither incredibly funny nor breath-takingly thrilling, South By South Westwales is a let down on all fronts, but with some witty one-liners and a not-bad plot there is something for you to get your teeth into if you are so inclined.

Peter Boland Interview: “I like reading fast-paced novels”

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It’s rare that I get to talk to someone who does what I do, or in this case did, for I had the exciting opportunity of interviewing Peter Boland, former Copywriter and Advertising Creator turned thriller writer, who gives me the low-down on his work!

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

I like reading fast-paced novels. I guess I have the attention span of a five-year-old on Haribo, so my writing style is the same. I don’t like hanging around and want things to be happening on every page, pulling the reader along. Writing action thrillers was a natural choice. Entertaining action thrillers would be the name for it, I suppose.

Please tell me more about your background and how you came to be a full time writer.

I started off studying architecture, but was fairly useless at it, as I couldn’t make things stand up, which is a bit of a handicap in a profession that likes keeping things upright. So I decided to become an advertising copywriter (the building industry breathed a sigh of relief), coming up with ideas for TV ads and writing press ads and brochures. Advertising used to be very creative, but I think it’s lost its way. I can’t remember the last time I saw and ad and thought wow, that’s really clever. Being a bit disillusioned with it all, I changed to writing thrillers where I pretty much have free reign. And can put in the odd brutal murder, which for some reason, never caught on in advertising.

Talk me through Savage Lies. Why do you believe the book has become so popular?

That’s very kind of you to call it popular, but I’m not sure I’m there yet! Early days. Savage Lies is my first thriller and came out in June this year. However, feedback from reviews is very positive and suggests that readers like the grittiness mixed with moments of dark humour. I guess that’s my USP. Thrillers are known for being very serious and grisly, and mine are too, but I like the contrast of shocking the reader one minute and making them laugh the next. Also, my main character, John Savage is a lot more vulnerable than say, Jack Reacher. Don’t get me wrong, he’s as tough as nails but he has PTSD, and hears a voice in his head that’s always criticising and mocking him. Savage is also quite sarcastic and has that British sense of humour, especially around the bad guys.

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

There’s something about walking that always gets my creative juices flowing. If I’m ever stuck on something I take a walk and suddenly everything slots into place. Usually if I’m planning a new novel, I’ll go over the Purbeck Hills with a notebook and just walk for hours, letting ideas drift into my head. Must be something about the amazing scenery that is conducive to the creative process. Although, it all goes wrong once I stop at the Scott Arms and order my first pint of pale ale.

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

For living, I’d say Lee Child because I think he’s the master of the genre I write in; lone wolf, vigilante justice. For dead, I’d say Terry Pratchett. Firstly, because of the humour, and secondly, even though he wrote fantasy, some of his books were out and out crime thrillers. They just happen to be set on a flat world.

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

I’m currently working on the follow up to Savage Lies, which is called Savage Games. In this one a body is found hidden 50 feet up a tree in a creepy part of the New Forest called Dead Maids. Savage and Tannaz try to find out how it got there, and in doing so uncover some sinister happenings. Can’t say any more or it’ll spoil it!

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

I have such a big backlog of books I want to read that I haven’t even looked at anything new. Still playing catch up. But here’s a few books that I’ve recently read that have impressed the hell out of me: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (not really a thriller but extremely dark, brutal and also beautiful), Tideline by Penny Hancock, The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood, and Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

If everyone could buy thirty copies of Savage Lies that would be really helpful (just kidding, twenty will be fine).

Thank you Peter; it’s great to hear from a former fellow copywriter, and your book is awesome too!

 

Five Great Books To Read In The Heat Wave

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Apparently the hot weather is set to last until October, so I’ve created a list of five great books for you to read as you laze about and recuperate. If you’re lucky enough to have the holidays off then here’s your chance to get some quality reading in, if not then you’ll have something to read on your days off, or when you’re having trouble getting to sleep in the heat. Either way, have a look at my selection of the top pick for you to enjoy this summer!

5. Money In The Morgue: Stella Duffy’s finished version of Ngaio Marsh’s final Inspector Allyen novel is a triumph, and is ideal for any Golden Age crime fiction fans. As I mentioned in my review HERE, Marsh’s unique style seeps through, and the novel’s unique plot makes for a gripping page-turner that will keep you entertained throughout the summer and beyond.

4. Fingers In The Sparkle Jar: For those who prefer non-fiction to novels, this honest memoir is the perfect beach read. Nature expert Chris Packham shares an intimate portrait of his childhood through the story of his relationship with a hawk he trained as a young boy. His vivid descriptions of his upbringing and surroundings during this time are the perfect anecdote to the sticky summer heat.

Now You See Her Hi-Res Cover Image3. Now You See Her: For fans of a really good juicy thriller, you can’t go wrong with Heidi Parks’ novel which charts the disintegration of a friendship when a young child disappears whilst in the care of her mum’s best friend. I’ve already reviewed the novel HERE, and I was incredibly impressed by how intense and gripping it is, making this ideal for keeping you occupied as you lounge around the pool or sip sangria on the beach.

2. Mythos: Stephen Fry’s retelling of the Greek myths is a great sunny weather read, transporting readers to Greek climes of times gone by. Fry puts his expertise to good use, and the result is a great way to learn more about this fascinating culture and history.

1. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: Not the style of novel I’d usually pick, but this is a great book that is captivating from the get-go, and as relatable as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Charting a small section of the life of the titular character, Eleanor, the book explores her fixation with a singer and the understanding this gives her of her own life and situation. It’s a great read and one I would thoroughly recommend.