Can’t Keep Up With La Carre? That’s Kinda The Point

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The first few episodes of the BBC’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl, adapted for TV by the same team who did the astonishing The Night Manager a couple of years ago.

Many watchers who fancied seeing something similar have since switched off, but for those that really enjoy a good spy drama from Director Park Chan-wook. There are some truly awesome performances, particularly from Hollywood favourite Michael Shannon, whose slimy spymaster is equal parts hilarious and intense, with his regular yells of ‘Shimon’ and his disconcertingly fraught and changeable conversations.

Alright, so you do have to suspend disbelief at times, but still The Little Drummer Girl is an exquisite drama. However, many watchers on Twitter have complained about how complicated the show is. To this I say: If you want something easy, go watch Pingu. The Little Drummer Girl is a spy drama; spies, by their very nature, live complicated lives, and portraying these is bound to be a little confusing.

Also, you have the issue of creative licence. I’ve just bought the book of The Little Drummer Girl, as I’ve never read it before and the series has wet my appetite, but having been a fan of Le Carre for years I know that he often uses characters with multiple identities and pseudonyms, as well as narrative devices such as flashbacks and swift transitions between time and place. In televising the novel Chan-wook has utilised a number of filming techniques to keep his viewers entranced. This can confuse some, but it’s designed to keep you watching and make you really pay attention.

That’s the key problem, in my opinion: in a world of easy watching, where shows can be paused and re-joined quickly and easily, viewers are turned-off by the idea of having to really pay attention. You can’t go off and call your sister, make yourself a snack or check Facebook before returning to The Little Drummer Girl. By the time you get back they’ll be using different names, in a different country and they’ll be a completely different threat.

Previously there was also a film version, and I’ve not seen this, but I suspect that the issues remain largely the same; this is a grown up drama that you cannot tune in and out of easily.

Look at the end of the day, I reckon a big part of the problem is that there’s no Tom Hiddleston equivalent in this adaptation. Alexander Skarsgård is no substitute, and as such viewers can’t stare at his arse whilst not following the plot. Let’s face it, both dramas were equally confusing and deceptive, but the introduction of a Hollywood star made many keep watching The Night Manager long after they lost interest in the plot. The Little Drummer Girl does not have this benefit, but as a stylish, beautifully crafted adaptation there’s nothing currently on TV that can hold a candle to it.

 

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Hugh Fraser Interview: “I’ve always enjoyed the gritty American crime writers like Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy”

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This week I’ve got an awesome treat for fans of the Rina Walker novels, as I talk to Hugh Fraser, Actor and Writer extraordinaire, who offers me an insight into his books and how his experiences influenced them.  

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

I’m not aware of having a particular writing style but I’ve always enjoyed the gritty American crime writers like Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy and I imagine I must have been influenced by them in terms of style and also as to my choice of genre.

How do you draw on your time acting and how does it inspire your writing?

When I was a student at drama school in the early 1960s I lived in Notting Hill when it was a much poorer and rougher area than it is today and so I was able to observe the deprived conditions that Rina Walker grew up in and the criminality and racial prejudice that existed then. When I had no acting work in the early days I also worked as a musician in the kind of Soho hostess clubs that Rina frequents with her girlfriend Lizzie.

Tell me all about the Rina Walker series. What was your inspiration?

I have always collected the black and white photographs of Roger Mayne and Bert Hardy who captured so many evocative images of the poverty and dilapidation of the post-war inner cities. Roger Mayne’s series depicting the street life of Notting Hill and North Kensington in the 1950s I found particularly evocative, with Teddy Boys in their drainpipe trousers and drape jackets, and Teddy Girls in pencil skirts and tailored jackets with velvet collars, strutting their stuff, while raggedy little kids in threadbare clothes play football and hopscotch, or gather on the steps of the tenements.

It was in this neighborhood and this kind of poverty that I imagined my heroine Rina Walker growing up, the daughter of a recently murdered gangster and alcoholic mother, forced into a life of crime at an early age in order to care for and support her two younger siblings and all too soon acquiring the skills and expertise of a contract killer.

What books do you like to read yourself and how do they impact on your own writing?

I have just finished the wonderful Love Hurts by William Boyd and I’m about to start Milkman by Anna Burns, which has just won the Booker Prize. I’m afraid these kind of beautifully written novels, which make us consider our lives and how we live them, have little or no impact on my own writing. My books are no more than entertainment of a very basic kind.

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

What an interesting question. I think it would have to be Marcel Proust – but only if he’d let me share his Madeleines.

What’s next for the Rina Walker series? Have you got any exciting plans to develop it that you can share with us?

I have no plans to start another outing for Rina at the moment but I won’t be surprised if she gives me a nudge sometime soon.

Is there any other work you’ve got coming up that you would like to tell me about?

I’m going to Iceland in a couple of weeks to appear in the Icelandic Noir Festival, which I’m really excited about.

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

I heard Edith Eger on Woman’s Hour this morning talking about The Choice, her harrowing account of surviving Auschwitz and slave labour in Germany. I was deeply moved by her heroism and optimism after enduring such unbelievable hardship and I can’t wait to read it.

Anything you’d like to add?

Thank you for asking me to join you.

It’s been awesome hearing from you, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. You can read more about Hugh and his work HERE.

Stealth Review: Rina Walker Is As Deadly and Dastardly as Ever

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Hit woman Rina Walker returns in another breath-taking novel from actor turned author Hugh Fraser.

After taking on a job, Rina discovers that there is much more to it than she previously thought. Failing to undertake the contract, she gains the unwanted attention of both Military Intelligence and the Broadmoor inmate who issued the order. While she deals with the difficult task of cleaning up her own mess, Fraser’s protagonist is also perused by a group of mercenary gangland heavies thanks to another kill she carried out from her conscience.

With her naturally dangerous working life in disarray, Rina has to work hard and fast to stop it colliding with her private one and keep those she cares about safe. Fraser has a real skill in creating a multi-dimensional character whose life is both complicated and, at the same time, not too syrupy. His protagonist is always perfectly balanced in every respect, and this is seen again in Stealth, which despite being the fourth book in the Rina Walker series, remains every bit as brilliant as the first three.

One of Fraser’s real triumphs, which I have remarked upon in previous reviews of his work, is his dialogue, and Stealth lives up to its forebear’s names in this regard too. The dialogue is crisp and sharp, and is used as both a characterisation tool and a plot driver, keeping the narrative flowing so that readers gain vital information quickly, without what I call ‘info dumping’, where writers dump huge chunks of information on their readers so they just end up trawling through endless paragraphs of exposition. By integrating this information into his dialogue Fraser keeps his reader hooked throughout, and draws them in as the novel speeds through to its nail-biting conclusion.

In all, Stealth is another great addition to the already spectacular Rina Walker series, and I’m looking forward to the next one even though I’ve only just finished this one!

She Chose Me Review: A Brilliant Psychological Thriller

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Another exciting blog tour article for you today! This time it is gripping thriller She Chose Me by Tracey Emerson, which was only published a few days ago. Hot off the press, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this thriller, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself hooked only pages in.

Having lived abroad for many years, protagonist Grace comes back to London to deal with her Mum, who is now dying. She then starts receiving disturbing Mother’s Day cards, despite not having any children herself.

She Chose Me Blog Tour Banner

That’s when things start to get really eerie. Emerson paints a chilling portrait of a woman driven to the brink of insanity by someone clearly out to torment her, with silent phone calls causing flashbacks to a past that Grace thought she had managed to outrun.

With the truth closing in on her, Grace becomes a disturbed mess and readers get to see Emerson’s exceptional characterisation in action. The author paints a remarkably astute and accurate picture of a woman on the brink, all the while keeping her readers guessing and giving them teasing clues that lead them piece by piece to the final, nail-biting finale that leaves readers on the edge of their seats.

I’ll be honest here: generally speaking, these psychological thrillers where human nature and personal conflicts are at the centre is not really my bag. Give me a good serial killer any day. But She Chose Me really is in a league of its own. This novel has style and class in abundance, and Emerson drives the narrative forward at a startling pace, giving the reader no time to dwell in what may or may not have happened. There’s no time for boredom in this fast-paced thriller.

Written in the first person, the novel shifts between past and present, giving the reader an intriguing insight into both Grace’s current situation and the events that led to it. This alternating narrative is done well, and is not clumsy as some attempts often are.

Overall I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this tightly wound thriller, and I will be looking out for more of Emerson’s writing in the future- and I would suggest you do the same.

In Her Shadow Review: Another Insightful Thriller From Mark Edwards

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Having loved The Retreat earlier this year, I was keen to see how Mark Edwards’ latest novel would turn out, and if it could live up to his previous success.

Spoiler alert: it did.

For the blog tour to celebrate the book’s release, I took a look and have concluded that this latest outing is every bit as good as his previous novel.

With its innovative take on the perfect life that’s not all it seems to be, In Her Shadow explores the complexities of human relationships and the issue of whether or not you can really know and trust anyone.

Protagonist Jessica is still coming to terms with the death of her seemingly perfect sister Isabel, even after several years. Then, when Jessica’s young daughter starts offering up details about her aunt’s life that she could not possibly know, Jessica becomes suspicious that her death was more than just a tragic accident.

As she delves into her sister’s seemingly idyllic life, Jessica finds herself uncovering secrets she never even dreamed of, as she comes to terms with the fact that her young daughter is intrinsically linked to the tragedy. With members of her family called into question, the protagonist sets out on a harrowing journey to uncover the truth.

Integrating the vulnerability of a child and the intense emotions of adults, the novel crafts a rich narrative that is both compelling and engaging. The characters are relatable and their responses to the tragic plot is relatable and understandable, something that is often lost in thrillers where characters behave in implausible ways and react uncharacteristically to tragedy.

In all, with its gripping plot and strong characterisation, In Her Shadow is a cracking thriller that stays with you long after you put the book down, which, in my humble opinion, is more than enough reason to pick the book up in the first place.

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.

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.