C.J. Abazis Interview: “I think of writing as a simulation inside this simulation”

Crime fiction author and software developer talks to me about his work and the influences that drive him.

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

You know about the simulation argument? It’s the idea that, based on an infinite amount of outcomes, we most probably all live in a computer simulation. Well, I think of writing as a simulation inside this simulation. As authors, we simulate alternate realities and characters to prepare our readers for alternate outcomes. Writing “darker fiction” – as you call it – is doing this very knowingly, as if reaching out to the master simulation and trying to mess up its algorithms. It’s the only conceivable freedom.

What is your career background and how did you become a professional writer?

I mostly manage a software development firm. Software development and novel writing share many characteristics. You pick a language, choose frameworks/styles and set down requirements of what needs to be done. In novels it’s “the feel” of the work, what it wants to say, what it leaves behind. Then you write to assemble the plot and go sub-plot by sub-plot, feature-by-feature to make the thing work. Because it has to work. And performance counts in a novel, the same with software, you can never “consume” unnecessary resources, the readers are there to be transported in different worlds, not to play with widgets or investigate your moods. No one cares about your moods except for Spotify.

Where do you take your inspiration? Are there any rituals you do to get yourself in the mood for writing?

I’m a deep conformist; I wear different clothes every day, but they’re of the same brand, same colors and designs. I love doing the same things early in the morning, when I write. Driving to work at exactly the same time. Getting coffee at the same time. We are all Melvin Udalls (As Good as It Gets) in this business, we esteem ritual and sameness and are basically extremely boring people. Otherwise it wouldn’t work. You can never allow drama to spill from the page on to your life and especially vice-versa.

What style of writing do you enjoy yourself? Are there any particular writers you admire?

I keep a safe five-year distance from publication to reading and I expect that your smart readers will be doing the same and ignore The Machine Murders until 2026. A book needs to grow organically, you cannot boost it like a Facebook post. So looking at the past five to ten years, I love what Liu Cixin has done with his The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. The scope is tremendous. I don’t think any other writer can expand the scope, like him. A daring guy. Beyond literature, I’ve been blown away by Nick Bostrom and his Superintelligence. Couldn’t you tell I’m a Bostrom fan?

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

Well, I’d love to work with Bostrom for the third novel of The Machine Murders. He has thought and deeply understands our challenges with artificial intelligence and where we should focus our attention in dealing with the control problem. Sometime in the future, it’s going to be a writer, a philosopher and a developer in front of an AGI (artificial general intelligence) agent, trying to save us from turning into paper clips. The politicians and the generals will be useless. We may begin simulating options on this from now.

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

Currently, I’m working on The Machine Murders: Desert Balloons, which will be the second book in the Manos Manu series. It feels better than the first.

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

As I said, I rarely follow the publishing cycle because I think it’s going to be the long tail bringing up marvels like a gold mining pan, that will define my choices. But sometimes I get carried away. And I’m never disappointed by authors like Nassim Taleb, Yuval Harari, Ian McEwan and Kai-Fu Lee – I have pre-ordered his latest, AI 2041 and can’t wait to read it. Ambition is not in shortage in the writer species and these people always deliver on their ambition.

Anything you’d like to add?

I want to thank you Hannah for this interview. Your hands move steadily with the mining pan and the role of great blogs such as the Dorset Book Detective is more important than ever.

Huge thanks to C.J. for answering my questions and writing amazing books: without artists like you we’d have never gotten through the past few months!

Mo Hayder Obituary

It’s with a heavy heart that I share the news that novelist Clare Dunkel, who wrote under the pseudonyms Mo Hayder and Theo Clare, as died at the age of just 59, after battling Motor Neurone Disease.

Mo Hayder, as she was most commonly known, worked around the world, before her debut novel Birdman was published at the end of 1999. It was a shockingly graphic tale of the investigation into the ritualist murders of multiple women in London. The novel was revered as refreshingly intense and deeply thriller by both readers and critics alike.

In book she introduced her main protagonist, Jack Caffery, who appears in several of her novels. He’s a driven detective inspector who’s not phased by anything. He’s often called to the scene of gruesome crimes. Many of Hayder’s books involve despicable crimes and horrendous crime scenes, or difficult topics, such as paedophilia.

As well as the Jack Caffery novels, the author also wrote four standalone novels and put together the screenplay for a Dutch language version of her novel The Treatment. A versatile writer and supportive member of the writing community, Hayder contributed a great deal to the world of literature and thriller writing. Her work inspired many other dark crime fiction writers, and helped to define the modern thriller market.

Despite having left school at just 15 years old to become a waitress, then working around the world, including in Tokyo, a city which she eventually named a novel after, Hayder later returned to the world of education and earned herself two Master’s degrees; one in film making from the American University in Washington DC and the other in creative writing from Bath Spa University. She also had jobs as a waitress, security guard and international English teacher before she started writing professionally and making a name for herself in the thriller writing community.

These jobs and degrees helped her to hone her writing skills, enrich her already extensive life experiences and get the confidence she needed to start writing professionally. Her first book was beloved by readers and critics alike, and all of her subsequent works have achieved similar success.

Her work is most notable for being gripping and gruesome, without being overly gory. Hayder got the balance just right, making her work appealing to a wide variety of readers. The author created amazing characters who did crazy and often terrible things. Every book was a roller coaster of emotions, and the author crafted beautiful narratives that kept readers hooked from start to well after they were finished reading.

As well as being international bestsellers, many of her novels also won accolades, including the coveted CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. Her contribution was noted through the winning of these awards and by many reviewers who regularly pointed out the gripping nature of her work. Her work is often seen as similar to the very best Scandinavian crime fiction, as it uses many of the same tropes and similar plot devices to grip the reader and really shock them to the core.

Although Hayder’s bibliography isn’t exceptionally extensive under any name, she has made a lasting impact on the crime fiction and thriller genres thanks to her imagination and amazing skill with words. She helped to pave the way for many other writers to incorporate dark themes into their work and highlight the gruesome side of human nature.

Drawing on her extensive and varied life experiences as well as the people she knew and loved, Hayder created rich narratives and unique plots that would haunt readers long after they put her books down. Her second husband, to whom my thoughts go out at this difficult time, was a retired policeman, and presumably she drew on his past experiences, as well as her own, when writing her novels.

Shortly before her unfortunate demise, Hayder completed a new novel, The Book Of Sand, which was written under her second pseudonym, Theo Clare. The book is set to be released posthumously next year.

Ultimately, this latest novel will be an exciting addition to Hayder’s legacy of writing gripping, tense thrillers that show the very worst that humanity has to offer. It’s such a colossal shame that the thriller industry has lost such a celebrated writer, but Hayder’s work will live on and be loved by many generations to come. She’ll always be known as a master of suspense and turning difficult topics into engaging narratives. She died too soon but her work remains and will be a lasting reminder of her commitment and unique creative mind. My thoughts are with her family and loved ones, and I can only hope that her success in her profession brings them some small comfort as they grieve for their loss. It’s always a shame to lose a talented individual so soon, but she made an impression on millions of readers, as well as those lucky enough to know her and spend time with her in person.

Death In Daylesford Review: Another Inventive 1920s Crime Caper

Since the announcement that Kerry Greenwood was writing another of her excellent novels about the flapper turned sleuth Miss Fisher and her merry band of misfits, I’ve been excited to read it. It took some time for Death In Daylseford to be published in the UK, where I live, but now it’s here I’m really pleased that it is.

I’ve been a massive fan of Kerry Greenwood and her amazing Miss Phryne Fisher novels for a long time now. There are over 20 books in the series, which has been turned into a successful TV series and also a film. The series is progressive and gives great visibility to many often-overlooked communities, such as LGBTQIA+, Asian and indigenous Australian individuals.

The book begins with Miss Fisher and her faithful companion Dot embarking on a holiday. They’ve been invited to a spa that’s designed to support wounded veterans and help them to recuperate safely and properly. It seems like a great opportunity for the pair to relax and unwind, but as ever, trouble isn’t far behind.

In fact, it’s actually ahead of them: as soon as the intrepid duo arrives they’re informed of mysterious disappearances of women around the town, as well as a young child who went missing alongside his mother. These mysteries soon pale in comparison to the murderous intent of one of the villagers, who uses ingenious methods to murder an individual, seemingly at random, during a Highland Games event.

The disappearances continue, and soon Miss Fisher and Dot find themselves tangled in a potentially deadly web, with many different strands and a list of suspects a mile long. Many of the townsfolk are acting suspiciously and have secrets that they’d rather keep hidden, so the pair has a lot of sleuthing to do and not a lot of time. The killer keeps going, leaving our intrepid duo to unravel the threads of this tangled web and uncover the truth in the lead-up to another event that could spell yet more murder.

Meanwhile, in her Melbourne home, Sergeant Hugh Collins is staying over while his own home is being renovated. Just as he moves into his temporary home, his boss, DI Jack Robinson, is moved onto a new taskforce to help take down one of the city’s most renowned criminals, known as Barry The Shark. The Shark is well connected in the criminal underworld, and most of those who oppose him end up either being dismissed on fake corruption charges or, worse, dead in the river.

With Collins now under the temporary leadership of a deeply incompetent acting detective inspector, he’s given a new case that links him to Miss Fisher’s household. Tinker, her adoptive son, finds a body floating in the river while he’s out fishing with Miss Fisher’s communist wharfie friends, Bert and Cec. The body is of a young woman who went to school with Miss Fisher’s adoptive daughters, Ruth and Janie.

Both girls were fond of the murdered girl, so they’re determined to uncover the truth. When Tinker thinks that the killer could be one of the boys at his school, the group hatches a plan to ensure that the rightful killer is unmasked and that an innocent man isn’t convicted by the spineless and lazy acting Detective Inspector.

While the plot might start slowly, it evolves into multiple mysteries that both Miss Fisher and her Melbourne cohort have to unravel. The information is slow in coming, but once it does, the reader quickly becomes invested in the outcome and eager to find out more about the various characters and their murky backgrounds.

Almost every character from the series is involved in the story in some small way. Miss Fisher’s long-term lover meets with her at the beginning of the story. Bert and Cec appear at the beginning only briefly, and Mr and Mrs Butler also dip in and out of the novel. However, none of these characters are actually essential to the plot, so Greenwood quickly moves on from them, making them feel a little shoe-horned into the book. Jack Robinson and his taskforce are only mentioned at the beginning and the end of the novel, which is a shame as it sounds like it could’ve made for an interesting addition to the tale.

It might’ve been better for the author to focus on fewer characters, and not slot the rest in. This would have allowed the reader to see more of the important individuals who drove the plot forward, rather than getting a little of everyone, but as a fan of the series it is good to see them appear, however briefly. Clearly Greenwood is focusing on giving fans of the TV show what they want, but it might be at the expense of the book itself. One minor inconstancy I found is that Ember, Miss Fisher’s cat, becomes female, where previously he had been male. It’s a small thing, but it bugged me more than it probably should have done.

However, for the most part Death In Daylesford is a triumph that’s easy and fun to read, making it ideal for summer. It’s a unique cosy crime novel with a truly ingenious ending that even the Queen Of Crime herself, Agatha Christie, would’ve been impressed by. Everything ties up nicely in the end- if it were a modern book, then it would almost be too perfect, but cosy crime novels rely on this slightly unbelievable style of ending, making this a perfect example of the genre.

Ultimately, I feel the same about Death In Daylesford the same way I do about the full-length film Miss Fisher And The Crypt Of Tears. It’s a great read, but I wouldn’t let it be your initial introduction to the series. Start at the beginning, or go in with a amazing book like Dead Man’s Chest. This book is an intriguing and interesting addition to the series, but it doesn’t show Greenwood’s skills at their fullest. So, in all, if you’re looking for a nice summer read, then a cosy crime fiction book like Death In Daylesford could be the ideal choice for you, but if you’re new to the series, start somewhere else.

Why Golden Age Crime Fiction Is A Great Choice For Summer

Despite what you might think, summer is a great time for reading. While you’re relaxing on the beach or making your way to a fun outing in the sun, you’ll need something fun to keep you occupied.

That’s why reading is a great pastime- in the summer, it’s easy to do and doesn’t require you to get sweaty or wear any fancy protective gear. It’s also a cheap and accessible way to spend your time. Whether the weather outside is frightful even in the summer (I live in the UK, so it usually is), or it’s finally giving us a blast of sunlight, you can enjoy a good book.

Buying books for winter is a lot easier than for summer. When reading in the winter, you’re looking for something unique and gripping that will give you thrills. In the summer, however, you’re looking for something comforting and interesting, that will mean that you don’t have to think too much, especially when it’s hot and you don’t want to have to strain your brain.

If you’re looking for books to read in summer, then I’ve found the perfect solution: Golden Age crime fiction is the way to go. It’s the perfect blend of cosy fiction and instantly familiar stories.

As you might have guessed from my recent post about my favourite underrated characters from Agatha Christie novels, I’ve been on a bit of a Golden Age crime fiction binge lately. Primarily I’ve been re-reading old faves, but I’ve also checked out some exciting new books in this genre.

That’s because, as the sun finally starts to come out in the UK (it’s only June after all), I’ve found myself delving back into the arms of my old Golden Age crime favourites. I’ve enjoyed a lot of these books and stories in the past, and now I’m happy to be re-reading them now that the sun’s out.

For me, Golden Age crime fiction is the ultimate in summer reading. When you’re looking for comfort and something to cheer you up, a rip-roaring thriller is the ideal way to bring yourself out of your shell. As long as it’s not too gory, a police procedural or a modern thriller usually fits the bill for cheering me up.

When it comes to sunshine, I need something fun and calm, and I want something that’s set during a sunny period. Many Golden Age crime fiction writers wrote books and short stories set in sunny climates, so I can usually find something sunny and bright.

That’s particularly important when you live somewhere like England: where we get like four hours of sunshine every year, usually in bloody May. Right now, we’ve been very fortunate to have some nice weather, and I want to make the most of it by reading books that transport me to a sunny place, even in the evenings when it goes dark.

Still, I don’t want to read those awful romance books that some of my friends take on holiday with them. I want something that still interests me and is gripping, rather than just some soppy book that’s simply set in sunny climes.

That’s why I love reading Golden Age crime fiction during the summer, particularly when we get rare bouts of sunny weather in the UK, or if I travel to another country with decent weather. Books by classic authors from the period, including my old favourites Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers are great for taking on holiday, or a staycation, or to simply enjoy at home.

There are also Golden Age style novels, written today, that can give you the feel of traditional, quaint cosy crime fiction. One of my favourite modern series that feels like traditional Golden Age crime fiction is the Phryne Fisher novels by the amazing Kerry Greenwood. These amazing books are set in the 1920s, and feature an incredible female protagonist who’s unconventional detective style allows her to uncover the truth about a range of sordid crimes and murders.

If you want to check out something that feels familiar, then you could consider some reimagined version of your favourite Golden Age crime fiction serials. There’s plenty of incredible reimagined crime series out there, including Sophie Hannah’s amazingly authentic Poirot stories and Jill Paton Walsh’s version of the Lord Peter Wimsey books. Whatever you like, you’ll be able to find something that you love that extends your enjoyment of your favourite Golden Age book series this summer.

So, if you’re searching for a new book or a series of novels that will help you to enjoy the summer sunshine, then I think you should check out Golden Age crime fiction. Whether you’re a die-hard fan or you’ve never even read an Agatha Christie novel (how I don’t know, but I’m sure there must be at least one of you out there somewhere), you should try reading Golden Age crime fiction this summer.

Steven Powell Interview: “I would encourage all readers to return to their local bookshops”

I’ve been privalleged to speak to Steven Powell, an acedemic and author of several studies on crime fiction, including 100 American Crime Writers and several books about James Ellroy. He discusses his passion for all things crime fiction and how he came to study the topic for a living.

Talk to me about your scholarly work. What drew you towards studying crime fiction?

I have always loved the written word, and I was studying a Victorian Literature MA at Liverpool University when I realised, as fascinating as that period is, it was not something I wanted to pursue in further research. The course was heavily slanted towards poetry and the realist novel and ignored say, Penny Dreadfuls, and other elements of Victorianism which we now recognise as the harbingers of detective fiction.

With the encouragement of my future wife Diana, I decided to do a PhD on the author I have always been the most fascinated, even obsessed with – James Ellroy

What drew you towards James Ellroy? Why are you so passionate about his work?

I remember spotting a copy of Ellroy’s American Tabloid in a bookshop in my early teens and just getting hooked immediately. His portrayal of history is so urgent, visceral and immediate. When you read him, it feels like you’re there: whether he is portraying 1950s Los Angeles or the Mob hatching deals to build casinos in the Caribbean in the 1960s. He has experimented with various prose styles and persona and found a formula which, as he might put it, ‘will leave you reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned, tied, dyed, swept-to-the-side, screwed, blued, tattooed. These are books for the whole fuckin family if the name of your family is the Manson family’

What’s your approach to researching your books?

Over the past twenty years or so, there has been an expansion of scholarly interest in crime fiction, when previously genre works could be dismissed as not worthy of critical attention. It’s exciting, but it also leaves significant room for development in how we can conduct research into the genre. I read a heck of a lot: novels, critical material, contemporaneous material. Personally, I love interviewing authors, editors, agents, anyone involved in the publishing biz. For Ellroy, I have visited his archive at the University of South Carolina and know him well personally. He has been very generous and cooperative with my research. I’ve written and/or edited three books on James Ellroy so far.

When you wrote 100 American Crime Writers, who were your favourite authors in the collection?

One of the most difficult challenges of editing that book was to narrow the list of writers down to one hundred names and still do justice to the long history of the genre and experiments in sub-genre. Of the ‘newer’ writers I’m a big fan of Megan Abbott and James Sallis. My personal favourites would be the great Charles Williams and David Goodis.

Did you learn anything interesting that you’d like to share while researching that book?

Crime writers have suffered for their art and many of them paid a heavy price to pursue the craft they love. It’s no secret that getting published is difficult today and even harder to make a full-time living out of, but it was no easier back in the days of Black Mask magazine and Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks. I really grew to appreciate the sacrifices writers make, and the sacrifices made by the people who love them. I loved putting that book together and still receive great feedback about it. Recently, a companion volume titled 100 British Crime Writers, was published, edited by Esme Miskimmin. I contributed a few chapters to that edition.

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

I do, but I’m currently sworn to secrecy about it. I would expect my next book to be published in late 2022, and when it is, you will be the first to know Hannah!

What’s your personal opinion on the future of the crime fiction market?

Whichever way you look at it, the future is bright. Crime fiction is so naturally popular, whether it be dark Scandi tales or vintage British Golden Age Detective Fiction, and it lends itself so well to film, television, theatre and music. COVID has presented its challenges but lockdown has, I feel, proved the wellbeing benefits that come from reading, and someone out there must be writing a great (lockdown) room mystery. I would encourage all readers to return to their local bookshops, be it Waterstones or independent businesses. They deserve our support, especially as we ease our way out of lockdown.

Anything you’d like to add?

Only to thank you Hannah for inviting me on and for everything you do for the written word. Worship the book and spread the word!

Huge thanks to you Steven it’s been great to learn more about you and your work. If any of my fabulous readers are interested in finding out more about his work, you can check out his website HERE.

My Favourite Underrated Agatha Christie Characters

When you think of the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, you probably remember her most notable detective, the Belgium private sleuth Hercule Poirot.

If you’re a bit more of a fan of the undisputed Golden Age crime fiction genius, then you might also love her homely, elderly amateur detective and general busybody, Miss Marple.

While this pair characters are, indisputably, amazing, there’s a lot more to the Queen of Crime than just these two.  Christie was a prolific author, who wrote 66 full-length novels, as well as hundreds of short stories that were published in over a dozen collections and many newspapers and periodicals over the years.

Her work defined the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, and became a source of inspiration for writers and artists from around the world. Her work is popular everywhere, and it’s even been turned into animated series in Asia and major blockbusters in Hollywood.

While Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple novels are renowned around the world, and even the sight of a set of dark moustaches invokes an image of her famed detective, the Queen Of Crime also created many other memorable and intriguing characters.

Many of these characters aren’t given the attention and renown that they deserve. During the pandemic, I’ve been turning to Golden Age Crime Fiction and old favourite authors like Christie to bring me comfort, and I’ve found myself revisiting some of her amazing, yet underrated, characters.

That’s why I’ve put together this brief list of some of my favourite and, in my opinion, under appreciated, Christie characters. It’s not a definitive list, and I’m sure other fans of the author might not agree with all of my choices, but hopefully this list will inspire you to check out some Christie characters that you’ve not investigated before.

Parker Pyne: Parker Pyne is a sort of consultant life coach, who aids private individuals in everything from relationship issues through to suspicious deaths and almost everything in between. He advertises in the newspapers with short, cryptic ads that entice many individuals from all walks of life to reach out to him and embroil him in their mysteries and lives. The character appears in a selection of short stories that are really interesting. He also appears in a short story entitled Death On The Nile, which later became the name of one of Christie’s most famous Poirot novels. The story is an early incantation of the novel, but it’s very different in plot, with only a few small similarities. This progression shows how Christie used short stories as a creative springboard.

Ariadne Oliver: Appearing in several Poirot novels and a couple of standalone short stories, Mrs Ariadne Oliver was Christie’s literary self-portrait. The character is an eccentric author who created a Finnish detective, who she’s sick of- similar to Christie herself, who told many of her friends and fans that she was tired of writing about Hercule Poirot. Ariadne Oliver also adores apples, and is generally just a funny and witty character who’s great fun for readers, as well as being a useful foil for the detective. I love her TV portrayal in the ITV Poirot series and the character is definitely undervalued in the books. She’s wacky and funny, while also being intelligent and she has the ability to command the attention she deserves, rather than getting dismissed as so many similar characters are in books. She’s funny but also droll and makes acute observations about the human condition, which is again a refreshing change.

Luke Fitzwilliam: This ex-policeman character returns from India in the novel Murder Is Easy and meets an elderly lady on a train. She states that she’s going to report a serial killer to the police. Before she gets to Scotland Yard, she dies in mysterious circumstances. Unable to let the matter lie, Luke Fitzwilliam decides to investigate. The character isn’t a reoccurring one, but he does stick with me because he’s deeply compassionate and has an intuitive understanding of human nature. He’s also wrong many times, and is open and honest about his lack of knowledge, which is refreshing as many of Christie’s protagonists are very arrogant and proud of their abilities.

Superintendent Battle: While Inspector Japp, the character inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade is perhaps the best known of Christie’s policemen characters; Superintendent Battle is arguably the most interesting. Battle appears in five of Christie’s full-length novels, including standalone tales and Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot books. He also appears in several short stories. The character is related to several others who turn out to be instrumental in other Christie mysteries. He’s also a lot more in-depth and insightful than some other police characters, who simply act as an official counterpart to private detectives. Battle is intelligent in his own right, and brings a lot of information and useful ideas to the investigation, even if, ultimately, the protagonist detective is the one who eventually gets the glory of actually solving the case in the end. 

Miss Lemon: Hercule Poirot’s secretary who also appears in a selection of other short stories, including a couple of Parker Pyne tales is also a funny character in her own right. Christie’s description of the character, who is portrayed as having no imagination and being dedicated exclusively to the creation of the perfect filing system, is droll and witty. It’s also an interesting commentary on the way that many detective novels at the time portrayed working women as sexless, dull people who have no lives outside of their work. Miss Lemon has a sister, and the novel Hickory Dickory Dock contains funny passages about how Poriot doesn’t realise that the character would ever have a family and that she was born as a secretary with a desire to improve filing. The character is a funny commentary on the portrayal of women in literature and a useful soundboard for the eccentric Belgium sleuth.

Mr Satterthwaite: In The Mysterious Mr Quin short story collection, and a few other tales, Mr Satterthwaite and Harley Quin muse over a selection of unusual and seemingly unsolvable crimes. While Harley Quin might be the titular character in the series, he’s merely a plot device used to prompt his friend, Mr Satterthwaite, into uncovering the truth. While his name appears in the title of the book of short stories, Quin not a two-dimensional character, whereas the elderly and old-fashioned Mr Satterthwaite is a fully-fledged character with inventive ideas and witty repartee. He’s an avid and astute observer of the human race who uses his insight to help him to find out the truth in even the most unsettling and confusing cases. The character also appears in the Poirot novel Three Act Tragedy and the short story Dead Man’s Chest, which shows how useful a foil and observer he is.

Guilty Review: A Shocking Thriller With A New Twist In Every Chapter

Having recently interviewed author Jane Hobden, I was eager to check out her book, Guilty.

It’s billed as a unique version of a traditional crime novel, and it’s easy to see why as soon as you turn the first page. The narrative is divided into sections, so that the reader sees the case from multiple perspectives. It offers almost Gone Girl esq perspective flips, but more of them, so that the reader is constantly unsure about whose version of the truth is the real one.

The plot follows the strange case of Megan Sands, a young mother whose six-year-old daughter is taken into care following a fall down some stairs. The teaching assistant who took the child to hospital and urged the staff there to call social services is also a mother with a daughter in the same class; indeed, the two young girls are friends.

Not long after Lola Sands is taken into care, someone breaks into the teaching assistant’s home and throws acid over her husband’s face, before tying her up and berating her before letting her go. The teaching assistant, Becky Thurston, recognises the assailant and identifies her as Megan Sands. She tells the police that Megan had threatened her before and been abusive prior to the devastating attack.

When the police go to visit Megan at her flat to quiz her about the attack, they find a bottle of acid and a blanket out in the hall on the floor below where she lives. It’s this coincidence, and Megan’s lack of alibi and shifty behaviour that leads the police to arrest and charge her with the crime.

The novel details the court case, as well as the events leading up to it and in between. Skipping from different perspectives and narrative styles, Hobden creates an enthralling tale that’s very difficult to put down. The reader is thrust into this captivating story and soon finds themselves wondering who to believe.

Many of the characters that narrate chapters, and deliver witness statements that Hobden uses to change up the writing style, are unreliable, with their versions of events differing drastically from other people’s accounts. So, the reader is left on tenterhooks and you’re unable to guess what’s going to happen next.

Thanks to Hobden’s diverse writing style, which includes witness statements, court dialogue and first person, character narrated chapters, the reader gets a complete perspective over the case. As mentioned, several of the characters are, at specific times throughout the story, unreliable, meaning that we see the action unfold slowly. The tale becomes increasingly complicated as Megan gives her evidence in court, and twisted versions of the truth start to come out.

The book is great, but it’s not without its flaws. The main issue I find is that the witness statements, used at the beginning of the novel to break up the narrative, feel a little samey. For those that are supposed to be written by characters in professional jobs, they don’t quite hit the right note. The same goes for the court proceedings: at times, the lawyers just don’t sound right. I’m not a lawyer or an expert myself, but I’ve read enough crime fiction to know that some of the text isn’t quite accurate.

That being said, accuracy isn’t everything, and while these minor issues might impede the narrative slightly, they don’t change the fact that this is an incredible book that keeps you hooked to the very end. Hobden structures the novel well, so that you feel compelled to keep going to get to the next twist and uncover the next fact.

It’s this propulsion that drives the reader through the novel and makes Guilty such a great read. You’ll be surprised how quickly you finish this compelling read. Once you’ve finished it, you’ll be haunted by the plot. It’s not just the plot that’s unforgettable; the characters are also engaging and memorable. Megan Sands, whose first-person account is interspersed with her witness testimony, is a relatable and understandable character who inspires both pity and understanding.

Her supposed victim’s wife, Becky Thurston, is also relatable and is both suspicious and subtly threatening. Even small, minor characters are intriguing and memorable, including Megan’s lawyer. He’s a robotic career man who has no compassion for his client and is neither sympathetic nor particularly competent. Through characters like him and the unsympathetic policemen who interview Megan, Hobden makes a point that the legal system in the UK is often incredibly prejudice, particularly towards single mothers living in social housing. 

When all’s said and done, Guilty is a unique thriller that works on many levels. It’s not without its flaws, but those don’t detract from the novel. It’s still a great read that will keep you riveted for a long while to come. The book also makes you question the truth and how every story has more than one side. So, if you want to enjoy a gripping summer read, then this could be the perfect solution for you.

The Top Five Travis McGee Novels For Fans Of The Seafaring Sleuth

After discovering the amazing Louis L’Amour through watching Westerns, I fell back into my love of crime fiction, but managed to find a series that was adapted and features my new favourite actor.

This time, it’s the Travis McGee books by renowned thriller writer John D. MacDonald.

Another recent find I learned about through my newfound love of Sam Elliott movies, MacDonald’s droll seafaring sleuth appealed to me for a number of reasons.

For one, Travis McGee, known as Trav, lives on a barge called the Busted Flush. That’s an amazing name, and I’ve always wanted to live on a boat myself, so the series immediately caught my eye.

Also, the character is witty in the hardboiled manner, and clearly modelled on classic pulp fiction detectives such as Philip Marlowe.

Elliott plays him in a film named Travis McGee, and there was also an earlier film adaptation featuring Rod Taylor.

I’ve only seen Elliott in Travis McGee, and it’s safe to say that, while a good watch, the film does nothing to prepare you for the incredible wit and dry worldliness of the books. These novels are full of insightfulness and deep descriptions of the baseness of the human condition.

MacDonald, the author of this intensely gripping series of books, was already a prolific thriller writer before he created McGee, but the creation cemented his reputation as a creator of innovative detective stories.

The series protagonist, McGee is a bit different from traditional private eyes, but in many other ways he’s also incredibly similar.

Unlike many hardboiled private detectives, he doesn’t really style himself as such. Instead, he views himself as a ‘salvage expert’, who will find whatever you’ve lost in return for half of it.

He calls himself retired, stating that instead of retiring at 60 like others, he’s taking his retirement in chunks. He works when he needs money, then he takes some time off until he starts running low on funds.

While all this might make him sound like a glorified beach hippy, he’s as fast-talking, hard-hitting and generally unconventional as any other hardboiled private sleuth.

He’s also a smooth talker who’s great with women, and who frequently finds himself entangled with questionable ladies. When it comes to violence, McGee isn’t afraid to use it and is handy with his fists, but he has a moral compass like many hardboiled private eyes, which often leads him into questionable situations.

So, if you’re looking for a crime fiction series that offers something a little bit different, then MacDonald’s Travis McGee series could be the perfect choice for you.

Many of the newer editions of these books, which were first published throughout the 1960s to the 1980s, come with an introduction by Lee Child, so there’s even more of an incentive to read them.

There are more than 20 novels featuring Travis McGee, each one including a different colour in the title. All of them show the detective uncovering a new and more ingenious case, with a cast of phenomenal, often oddball characters.

These books are often overlooked by hardboiled crime fiction fans, who focus on the traditional names. If you’re looking to check out this series, then here are my top five picks.

5. The Dreadful Lemon Sky: In the early hours of a perfectly ordinary morning, Travis McGee is awoken by an old girlfriend with a favour to ask. She requests that McGee stashes her suitcase, which is filled with $100,000 dollars of suspicious cash. She asks him to keep it safe for two weeks, and to send it to her sister if she’s not back by then to collect it. In return for this simple favour, McGee can keep $10,000, which is less than his usual fee of half the loot, but the job is much simpler than his normal commissions. He reluctantly takes on the role, and after two weeks he goes snooping around to see why his friend still hasn’t returned to collect her case of cash. He learns that she’s died in what’s described as an accident, but McGee isn’t so sure. Feeling upset about his friend’s death, the sleuth sets out to uncover who staged the accident and is led into the seedy underbelly of organised crime. MacDonald keeps the reader guessing throughout this novel, which is why I enjoyed it so much.

4. The Empty Copper Sea: A wealthy businessman disappears off his luxury boat, and the accident is blamed on the vessel’s captain. He’s believed to have fallen overboard and drowned, and as the captain is accused of being drunk in charge of the cruiser when his employer went over the side. Van Harder, the captain of the boat, is a proud man who wants his reputation restored to him. He’s convinced that his boss is alive and well, and has gone into exile in Mexico to hide his unscrupulous business dealings and ill-gotten gains. Harder goes to his old pal Travis McGee, and asks him to help him prove that the accident wasn’t his fault and that his boss faked his own death. Seeking to prove his friend to be a capable seaman, McGee goes off in search of the missing man, and soon uncovers a tale of deception, deceit and devious financial dealings. This is the book that was the basis of the TV movie Travis McGee, which starred the iconic Sam Elliott, with the location moved from Florida to California. The film doesn’t do the book justice; while Elliott makes an excellent smooth-talking sleuth, he doesn’t quite embody the deceptive beach bum energy of the real McGee. The character is supposed to disarm women and adversaries with his deep tan and languorous demeanour. Once they’re suitably disarmed, he is able to extract their deepest secrets. Elliott is too much the hero to play McGee, and the script lacks the dry edge that MacDonald uses in all his books. Don’t let that put you off from reading The Empty Copper Sea: it’s a truly spectacular story that any hardboiled detective fiction fan will enjoy.

3. A Deadly Shade Of Gold: When an old friend of McGee’s drops by and asks to see him, they agree to meet at the man’s motel room. He left after breaking up his relationship and ruining the life of a young woman, and now he seeks redemption by cashing in on his scheme to make money from gold statues. After stating his plan to his old friend, they agree to another meet up. When the private eye arrives, he’s greeted by the sight of his pal’s murdered corpse. All that’s left behind is his old friend’s vengeful ex- girlfriend and the ancient Aztec idol that leads to a lot of trouble. This is the first book in the series to feature the enigmatic playboy economist Meyer, who features in later novels as McGee’s friend who often helps him to recover valuable items for his clients. This novel takes the reader from the Florida beaches where he lives on his houseboat to the expatriate society in Mexico as he searches for other icons in the series.

2. A Nightmare In Pink: Like all good hardboiled private detectives, Travis McGee was in the army. When the sister of an old friend from his days in service, who got injured when he stayed behind while McGee was on leave, comes to him for help, the professional finder feels compelled to assist her. Her fiancé has been murdered in what the police claim was a normal mugging, but she suspects differently. The murdered man was digging in some unsavoury places and seemed to have uncovered a scandal at his real estate firm, and a lot of money has gone missing. Just as McGee is getting nearer the truth, he’s sedated and trapped in a mental hospital. MacDonald keeps the thrills coming in this fast-paced and innovative thriller, which goes from simple search to gripping crime thriller in just a few short chapters.

1. The Deep Blue Goodbye: As I’ve said over and again, the first book in a series is always a great place to start. In this case, The Deep Blue Goodbye is an amazing place to begin, and makes for a perfect introduction to Travis McGee, beech bum extraordinaire, and his unique way of life. He’s got Miss Agnes, which might be the only Rolls Royce in the world to have been made into a pickup truck. He’s also got the Busted Flush, and his whirlwind life on board her. When his dancer friend, Chookie, introduces him to a friend who’s been raped and had an unknown treasure stolen from her by a two-bit smooth-talking conman, he sets out to recover the treasure. Quickly, McGee discovers the depths of the conman’s depravity, and his sense of morality kicks in and he begins a desperate, nationwide search for this rapist turned thief.

Have A Very Norwegian Easter By Reading A Crime Novel

Happy Easter weekend to all the lovely Dorset Book Detective readers!

If you’re looking for a new tradition for Easter this year, when things are a bit weird, then I’ve got the perfect idea for you: read crime fiction.

Hear me out: I know crime fiction doesn’t sound very Easter-y, but in some countries it actually is a time-honoured tradition to read thrillers at this time of year.  

At Easter here in the UK, traditions include hiding chocolate Easter eggs for kids to find, eating a cake made with marzipan balls meant to symbolise the apostles and cooking an oversized roast dinner.

While the holiday retains some religious symbolism for some Christian households, most of us just enjoy having the time off, seeing our loved ones and stuffing our faces with tasty treats.

One international tradition that I think we should adopt in the UK is the Norwegian habit of Påskekrim, or reading crime novels at Easter.

At Easter, in this beautiful and chilly Scandinavian country, people cuddle up with a gripping thriller or binge watch a Scandi crime film or TV show.

The tradition allegedly started when two Norwegian crime writers took out an advert in the newspapers that convinced readers to read their new novel. The advert was so persuasive that many readers thought the tale was true.

Thanks to the success of the stunt the book was a huge success. As well as literary success, the publicity strategy started a tradition where readers would seek out new thrillers and mystery novels to read at Easter.

As a result, publishers started timing the releases of new crime fiction novels to coincide with the religious holiday. That meant that there were even more awesome thrillers for readers to check out at Easter every year. It also meant that it’s become a time-honoured tradition to read them over Easter.

Personally, I think that reading crime fiction at Easter is the perfect tradition for the UK. It’s a great way to reinvigorate yourself over the long weekend and expand your mind, while being lazy at the same time. Crime fiction is gripping and great for helping you to escape tough times.

It’s safe to say that there haven’t been too many times that have been tougher than these. That’s why crime fiction is particularly useful for this Easter. After all, we’re probably going to all being feeling a bit of FOMO (fear of missing out) as we’re not able to meet up with as many people or do the fun Easter activities that we’re used to enjoying. But reading, particularly gripping mysteries and thrillers, is a great way to feel exhilarated even while you’re stuck indoors, or in the garden if the weather stays fine.

Really well written crime fiction novels can take you out of your home, or garden, and transport you to a new time, place and situation. There’s a type of crime fiction for every writer, ranging from quaint cosy crime fiction through to terrifying political thrillers and more. That means that whatever you’re into, there’s a mystery for you to enjoy this Easter.

Also, reading crime fiction is one of the few Easter traditions that doesn’t involve food. Don’t get me wrong: food is really good. Everyone needs food, and most of love eating it (except for people who just eat those weird Huel meal replacement things, and they’re weird). However, Easter is a lot about food for most Brits. From the cake with the marzipan apostles to the classic crème egg, hot cross buns to the all-important roast dinner, there’s just so much traditional Easter food to choose from. So, it’s nice to have a new tradition that’s not edible.

While I know some people who do use this time to read, or re-read, the Bible, as it’s a religious holiday, most of us don’t believe and therefore choose not to read it.

If that’s the case, then Påskekrim could be the perfect solution. By making this a yearly tradition, we can feel comforted by the familiarity and get the chance to read shiny new crime fiction novels. It’s a win-win situation if you ask me!

Going one step further with the tradition and giving crime fiction books at Easter could be the UK’s way of stepping up this tradition, and I for one am all for it! While we give out loads of edible gifts, mostly in chocolate form, we could start giving out a longer lasting reminder of the awesomeness of Easter. Whether you’re religious or not, this is an amazing time of the year. We get time off and the sun is shining. There will soon be cute baby animals for us to fawn over and pretty flowers. The days are getting longer and the weather’s getting better, and this year, we’re also beating a pandemic.

Being reminded of all that with a shiny new mystery novel would be ace. I for one have already treated myself to a few new thrillers over the past couple of weeks, and I’ll be reading them over the long weekend to celebrate Easter. I think in the future, getting one wrapped in egg covered wrapping paper would make me a very happy reader!

In all, I hope the weather does stay fine for us all this Easter weekend, and that everyone gets the opportunity to read an engaging thriller. It’s even better if you can eat some yummy chocolatey treats while you’re reading too! It’s been a tough year of lockdown, and while it’s getting easier, life is far from back to normal. So, please, be kind to yourself this Easter and consider adopting a new tradition: self-case and reading your favourite crime fiction.