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.

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Pigeon Blood Red Review: An Interesting Gangster Novel With Nothing to Do With Birds

BOOK COVER

Despite the frankly ludicrous title, this book is actually an enticing and fascinating thriller with absolutely nothing to do with dead birds (the name refers to the novel’s innovative description of the colour of rubies).

The novel has everything you need in a thriller, from gangsters such as the protagonist, enforcer Richard “Rico” Sanders, a missing jewel belonging to his thuggish boss, a chase around the world and a group of innocent bystanders who get caught in the crossfire.

Then Rico goes and spoils it all by falling in love, and the next thing we know there is a great deal more emotion going around than I like in my thrillers. I prefer more tension and fewer adoring adjectives, although the chase more than makes up for the mushiness and there are some truly tense passages that give the novel an air of suspense.

Author Ed Duncan is a lawyer, and that made this novel even more interesting, as it is not the legal procedural I was expecting. He provides a unique insight into the novel and the reason he enjoyed creating it.

“It’s always been said that you should write what you know. I am a lawyer – as is a pivotal character in the novel who is being pursued by a hit man – and I’m excited to be able to use my legal training creatively as well as professionally.”

Overall a solid thriller, Pigeon Blood Red loses momentum in places, but benefits from evocative description, a wealth of interesting characters and an interesting plot.

Trading Down Review: Financially Sound But Fictionally Flawed

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In my day job I write corporate copy for a number of publications, including many specialist financial magazines, therefore I was greatly very excited to read ex-CIO of RBS Stephen Norman’s debut novel Trading Down, which explores the threat of cyber-crime on the modern world from the perspective of an insider at a major financial institution.

It is clear from the very first sentence that Norton has a wide understanding of financial practices, strong technical know-how and all the jargon to go along with it. Drawing on 20 years’ experience at the forefront of investment banking IT, Norman delivers a strong debut that offers a great insight into the financial world.

The novel follows Chris Peters, who works in IT at a major investment bank. As Chris climbs through the ranks he finds himself in the midst of a massive international crime of epic proportions. His investigations lead him to Yemen, and the parallel plot of a family as they race against time to save their captive father from execution. Every aspect of the novel comes together as Chris wrangles with the issue of unmasking a criminal could be much closer to home than he would like.

Despite introducing many incredibly complicated technical concepts into the novel, Norman is skilful and manages to avoid the issue of ‘information dumping’, and as such Trading Down is a great way to learn really interesting information about the financial IT space in a fun and enjoyable way.

Whilst factually this is a well-written dramatization, it lacks the depth to be a full novel. Many of the characters are one dimensional, and frankly, there are too many of them. The main criticism I have of this otherwise gripping and fascinating novel is that it is simply too long. There is a good 200 pages worth of material that could have been removed without the reader even noticing, and this would drastically cut down the length of the book and made it a far more pleasurable reading experience.

Fundamentally, Trading Down would have benefited from being a fictionalised account of a real event, rather than a novel in itself. Norman’s skill is in his vast knowledge of the global financial markets and the role IT plays in them, not in storytelling. I would be more than happy to read more of his writing, providing he hones his narrative and tidies up his plot in any future novels. Overall an interesting if tough read, this book is ideal for anyone looking for a real thought-provoker that they can get their teeth into.

Trading Down by Stephen Norman is published by Endeavour Press on 9th November.

The Top Five Best Short Reads to Spook You Out On Halloween

the raven

Happy Halloween!! I love this holiday, as it incorporates all my favourite things; food, dressing up and being a bit pratty. OK, so there’s not as much food as Christmas, but it’s still a bit of fun, and as such I thought I’d show you my top five favourite short stories and novellas to scare any bookworm. I already had a look at the best horror stories last year, so this year I thought I’d try something a bit different. I hope you like it and encounter an old favourite or find something new to try!

5. The Thirty Nine Steps: OK OK, I know that this isn’t technically a scary story, but it is a really awesome novella, and what’s more scary than having your whole life turned upside down? A thrilling spy story, if you’re looking for something that’s thrilling in a different way this Halloween, or you’re too scardie to try out anything truly frightening, then give this a go and you will not be disappointed.

4. The Withered Arm: I’ve been a fan of Thomas Hardy’s work for a long time, particularly his less renowned short stories, such as this creepy tale of a woman whose arms begins to bruise and become disfigured following the discovery of a secret about her new marriage. She is advised of a strange and vaguely sinister cure which leads her to her spectacular downfall.

3. The Boogeyman: As you may have noticed from my recent post, I am a big fan of Stephen King and his work. Whilst everyone tends to focus on his novels or the stories that have been adapted into successful films or TV shows, there are some truly great short works that have gone neglected, which deserve more credit than they get. The Boogeyman, the story of a man whose family is plagued by a mysterious, terrifying, child killing creature that haunts them even as they travel the country, is definitely one of them, and is the ideal tale to scare you witless this Halloween.

2. The Raven: Every year, at Halloween, I re-read Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem about a man being terrorised by a mysterious bird. Psychologically this creepy poem is brilliant, and the atmospheric description invokes a feeling of pure terror, as the reader and the protagonist are both engaged in a battle of wits with the raven, which draws the narrator slowly into madness. Intelligent, witty, and stunningly crafted, this is perfect for creeping you out and making you think on the scariest day of the year.

1. The Aspern Papers / The Turning of the Screw: I was completely unable to pick which of these two excellent Henry James stories should be top, so I chose both! My edition contains both and each is not particularly long so it’s easy to devour them both quickly and they make for great scary bedtime stories. James is excellent at imbibing even short descriptive paragraphs with real horror, and as such these are really condensed frightens that wills stay with you for years to come.

Roger Keen Interview: “I find the best kind of inspiration comes from unexpected things”

Roger Keen Author Pic

Roger Keen, filmmaker and psychological thriller writer, discusses his work and the influences behind it.

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

When I started writing, I was initially drawn to literary fiction, particularly American countercultural writers such as Kerouac, Burroughs, Henry Miller and Richard Brautigan. But I also liked classic crime and noirish fiction, ranging from Poe and Conan Doyle to Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. Later, I decided to write dark horror-type short stories, because there was a market for them in small press magazines, and literary stories were harder to place. The types of stories I liked to write were more psychological rather than supernatural, and more rooted in the real world than in the realms of Gothic fantasy. I was always interested in aberrant psychology and read about it widely, including true crime books, and in the stories I explored psychopathy, psychosis, obsession and various personality disorders. Characters such as Highsmith’s Tom Ripley appealed to me, as did Hannibal Lecter, and indeed Annie Wilkes in Misery!

I’ve attempted several psychological thrillers over the years, each with a central deranged protagonist, but such ideas really gelled with Literary Stalker, because the setting allowed me to indulge my propensities as a horror/crime book-and-film buff, and the backbone thread of an obsessed, enamoured fan, becoming progressively unhinged, made for an ideal psychological exploration.

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

I went to art college from school, and at first I studied painting and then moved on to photography and film. After that I worked in television, but I always wrote in my spare time. The first paid writing work I did consisted of magazine articles and interviews, and focussed mainly on genre and surreal literature and film, which became something of a speciality.

When writing fiction, I sometimes use the world of film and TV as a setting, and I often plan out action scenes in a filmic way, thinking about viewpoints, angles, effects and eye lines as if they were to be filmed by a camera. Also I tend to put a lot of film content and references into my work – which is particularly true of Literary Stalker. One of the central ideas is that the novel-within-the-novel (The Facebook Murders) is a film pastiche, using the 1970s Vincent Price horror film Theatre of Blood as a template, and having murders enacted according to the plots of various other genre movies, such as Reservoir Dogs – also a lot of the treatment is deliberately ‘Tarantinoesque’, pastiching a pasticher. So, I’m having fun in a kind of ‘nudge-wink’ way with movies references, which others will pick up on.

Lit Stalker Cover 1000

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 find the best kind of inspiration comes from unexpected things which happen to me in life, weird and uncanny coincidences, and the kind of quirky incidents that sometimes occur that make you say: ‘You just couldn’t make that up’. I usually write down such things without knowing how I’ll use them, and then, sometimes years later, I will find an opportunity. If I’ve got writer’s block, I don’t try to force myself to write but instead I’ll do something else to take my mind elsewhere. Country walking helps with freeing up the mind and regaining inspiration, I’ve always found. I particularly like the West Country, where I used to live, including Dartmoor and the Devon and Cornwall Coast. I also like the Cotswolds, which is less rugged and more ‘typically English’. I use the Cotswolds as a setting for a later section of the novel, involving ‘country stalking’, making a contrast to the earlier urban scenes.

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

I never have collaborated with another writer, and it’s hard to imagine doing so, but if I had to pick one writer from the past that I would hypothetically like to collaborate with, it would be William Burroughs. I’ve always admired his experimentalism and the way he plays with different genres in a postmodern way, be it hardboiled crime, horror, fantasy or science fiction. He himself has collaborated with several other writers and filmmakers, and David Cronenberg’s movie version of Naked Lunch is a weird mash up of both of their styles. It would certainly be an adventure to write something with Burroughs!

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

Again on the subject of film, there is a non-fiction book that I’ve planned out and hope to get the time to work on soon. It’s a broad study of weird and countercultural film, concentrating on the 1960s and ’70s to a large extent but also going back into the distant past and the silent era to explore transgressive filmmaking there, and closer to the present, showing how these same tendencies have influenced science fiction and fantasy films – especially the cyberpunk sub-genre, in which writers such as Philip K. Dick played a large role. I’m also working on another novel that is more literary than genre-related, but continues with similar ideas that occur in Literary Stalker, such as nested narratives – novels within novels. All I need is more time, because so much other stuff gets in the way!

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

I’ve never written police procedural fiction, but I enjoy reading it a lot, and I also find it educational when it comes to working out noir/psychological plots in general. I’m a huge addict of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series of novels (and TV shows), and the latest – Two Kinds of Truth – is due out very soon, so that’s exciting. There’s also the new Stephen King, Sleeping Beauties, which is just out but I have yet to read. It sound intriguing, and it’s also a collaboration with one of his sons. His more famous son, Joe Hill, also has a new book out in November – Strange Weather – which again looks a bit different and enticing: a collection of four short novels. I met Joe at a convention in 2006 when he was largely unknown (alluded to in Literary Stalker) and I bought his first collection of short stories, which was extraordinary, so superior to the run-of-the-mill output; and the community of horror insiders all knew then he was going to become massive, like his dad. Which shows, amongst other things, that talent is in the genes!

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just to say thank you very much for the support and the opportunity to ramble on a bit about myself and my interests. And good luck with your excellent blog!

Thanks for taking the time Roger. You can find out more about Roger and his work HERE.

Dead Lands Review: A Great 1970s Police Procedural

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Following on from my exploration of truly great historical crime fiction novels, I review a novel which evokes a restless time in the UK’s history. Historically the novel is set during a period of unrest and distrust in the police, making this an ideal space in which to showcase the story of two police detectives with potentially ulterior motives and a tough case to crack.

As part of his blog tour, I’ve had the privilege of reading Lloyd Otis’s Dead Lands, which is set in the 1970s and creates an exceptional setting. London at the tale end of the 70s is portrayed as a bleak space in which tough, varied characters flourish. Witty dialogue and well-crafted description characterise this novel, and the story is both fast-paced and intriguing. The politically volatile world of the 70s acts as an ideal space for an adventurous book, packed with violence, intrigue and unrest.

Detectives DI Breck and DS Kerns slog through a gruelling case following the murder of a highflying Finance Director whose body is discovered in a gruesome state. A suspect is quickly identified and arrested, however a daring escape is followed by a questioning of everything the detectives thought they knew. Kerns develops her own personal agenda, which threatens to derail the already rocky and complicated investigation, offering plenty for the reader to delve into as they navigate a vast list of suspects and a tense political background.

It is this complexity that provides a great space for an exhilarating thriller with enough twists to keep the reader hooked from page one. The victim and suspects all lead complicated lives that derail the detectives’ quest for answers, whilst personal problems colour their view and ramp up the tension.

The sole criticism I have for this otherwise thrilling and exhilarating novel is that the chapters are simply too short. As a result of reading chapters that are sometimes as short as two pages, the reading experience is disrupted regularly, and as such the novel often feels stilted and distorted. Slowing down such an intense, complicated novel with short chapters and a narrative that often jumps from place to place like a grasshopper on speed is a real tragedy, but despite this there is a lot to go on with this exceptional cross between a thriller and a police procedural.

This creative combination makes for an enjoyable and gripping read, and although the short paragraphs break up the narrative there is great potential in experienced blogger and journalist Otis’s debut novel, which is definitely worth checking out.

The Top Five Best Historical Crime Fiction Novels to Get You Reminiscing

The Yard

History has never been my strong point; regardless, I have always enjoyed reading about the past, especially in fiction, where the narrative is able to place a strong perspective on the way that characters react to their surroundings, rather than those surroundings themselves. As such, I have decided to choose my top five favourite Crime Fiction novels set in the past.

In this list ‘Historical Crime Fiction’ is defined as a novel written recently but set in the past. I love a bit of Golden Age Crime Fiction, but I’m not filling this list with Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. The beauty of historical novels is the research that and skill that the writer employs to ensure that their book is accurate and engaging. There are some old favourites of this blog here, as well as some novels that I haven’t had time to mention yet, but that definitely deserve a place on any reading list.

5. The Yard: Alex Grecian’s historical thriller is set in Victorian London, charting the murder of a police detective not long after Scotland Yard’s failure to apprehend the infamous Jack the Ripper. Introducing the yard’s first forensic pathologist, the team, known as ‘The Murder Squad’ sets out to unravel this fiendish crime and, in the process, exposes the seedier side of their city.

4. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House: Based on a real life case, Kate Summerscale’s book is a combination of fact and fiction, seamlessly blending the real life facts of the case with a fictionalised narrative of how Whicher may have felt and behaved. The murder of a three year old boy at his father’s country estate was a scandal at the time, and the eventual culprit proves to be embroiled in a web of malice and angst, all of which is depicted beautifully by Summerscale in her enlightening, empathetic book.

3. The Silent Death: As my previous review testifies, I am a recent convert to Volker Kutscher and his tough, rebellious detective Gereon Rath, whose dubious connections and even worse love life lead him into conflict with his superiors as he battles against a fiendish killer. The beautifully depicted setting of 1930s Berlin provides the ideal landscape for a furious race against time as Rath and he teamwork to catch a murderer with a fixation for actresses. As he begins the grizzly task of removing the vocal cords of screen icons in order to keep the industry away from the advent of talkies, the reader is led on a fascinating journey through this atmospheric, historical city to a dramatic conclusion.

2. Dead Man’s Chest: I am, as my previous post attests, an ardent fan of Kerry Greenwood’s mesmerising and unconventional female detective, the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher. Set in the 1920s, Greenwood’s novels highlight the less published, seedier side of life, and whilst all of her books are excellent, Dead Man’s Chest offers a truly fascinating insight into the society of the time. The novel contains a number of subplots which provide a glimpse of various facets of life in the 20s, including parenting, servitude, and the upper classes.

front cover Merlin at War1. Merlin at War: As part of author Mark Ellis’s book tour, I recently reviewed this exceptional novel, and promptly went out and ordered the first two novels in the Frank Merlin series, Princes Gate and Stalin’s Gold. All three are equally well plotted, fast paced and exhilarating, however it is Merlin at War that is a true masterpiece. Skilfully executed, the novel is evocative and, whilst I am no historian, it is my understanding that it is accurate to its Second World War setting. Whether this is correct or not, Merlin at War remains an exceptional piece of fiction with strong characters, an intriguing plot and an finale that will blow your socks off.