Monday, 29 August 2011

Sam Carver - Blowing up bankers: however did I think of that?

Today’s guest blogger is Tom Cain the pseudonym for an award-winning journalist, with 25 years experience working for Fleet Street newspapers, as well as major magazines in Britain and the US. Carver is the fifth book in the series to feature Samuel Carver as he takes on financial terrorism.

The story that became my latest book Carver began with a simple thought. A modern day Auric Goldfinger, who wanted to become insanely rich and screw the system while he was at it wouldn’t go to all the trouble of nicking the gold from Fort Knox. Why waste time and effort trying to kill the guards, break into the vault, remove and transport all the bullion and then flog it on the black market? These days it’s much easier to steal gigantic amounts of money just sitting at a computer terminal.

I had this thought at a time when the bankers of London and New York were doing precisely that. The Eighties, Nineties and Noughties were decades in which grossly overpaid, shamelessly greedy, utterly unprincipled men in suits carried out a series of gigantic frauds whose sole purpose was to generate false profits from which they could derive undeserved bonuses. The simple truth is that in recent years governments have spent far too much money bailing out banks. And not nearly enough jailing bankers.
Bernie Madoff was the most blatant billion-dollar criminal, if only because his particular fraud was an old-fashioned Ponzi Scheme – using new investors’ money to pay bogus returns on previous investors’ deposits – and he didn’t have the wit to try anything more modern.

Others weren’t so dumb. They created financial derivatives - notably those based on ‘sub-prime’ mortgages taken out by people who couldn’t afford the repayments, buying properties that weren’t worth the sale-price – that were patently unsound, and were recognized as such by the few punters brave enough to bet against them. Then they sold them to idiots (the fact that the fraudsters who created these products and the idiots who bought the belonged to precisely the same banks was crucial: they were all making money at both ends of the deal). Then they treated these sham transactions as if they represented genuine creations of added value, accounted for them as such, and paid themselves gigantic bonuses based on entirely imaginary turnover and profits.

These bonuses represented the only actual cash anywhere in the process … apart, of course, from the huge amounts of money extracted from ordinary taxpayers whose future prosperity was raped to pay the bills run up by these boardroom and trading-desk criminals. There has been a massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle-class to the very richest members of society, a transfer that has seen a chasm open up between the decreasing living standards of the great majority and the pampered privilege of the tiny, pseudo-meritocracy of bankers, commercial lawyers, senior corporate executives and top-ranking State employees. And you don’t have to be left-wing to feel that this is an outrage. When a multi-billionaire like Warren Buffet says that it’s wrong that he should be the least-taxed employee in his company, then even the doughtiest of capitalists has to admit that something’s going badly wrong.

I saw this coming a fair way off. Unfortunately I wasn’t nearly smart enough to profit from my insight. I didn’t have the first idea about the ways in which I could have placed bets on the inevitable collapse of the whole rotten house of cards. And even if I had known, I wouldn’t have had the guts to put down my stake (assuming I had the spare cash to fund it, which I didn’t, not being a banker). Instead, I did the one thing I know how to do. I wondered how to make a story out of this appalling whole situation.

This was back in late 2006 and early 2007. I was rushing to finish my first Sam Carver book, The Accident Man, and coming to terms with the requirement to come up with a sequel. So as I was finishing one story I was trying to decide what to do for the next one. And because I was obsessed by this gigantic con-trick I could see being played out all around me, I thought that maybe I could place Carver in the middle of it somehow.

But how? Carver is an old-world kind of hero. What he does is physical. He actually kills actual bad guys with actual weapons. He uses fists, guns, wrenches, poisons, and slabs of plastic explosives. He doesn’t just sit at a terminal, clicking the keys. So he’s like a metal-bashing factory worker in a virtual, digital, online world.

Plus, there weren’t too many potential readers who shared my weird obsession. In 2007, there wasn’t a lot of interest in sub-prime mortgages, short-selling or shady financial derivatives. Then 2008 came along, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the whole global banking system went tits-up and suddenly there was a lot more interest.

But I still didn’t have a story. And to be honest, I’m not quite sure precisely how I found one. Normally I can point to ‘Eureka!’ moments when I see a picture in my head and know I’ve got the key moment in a book; or when I encounter the person who inspires a crucial character. But in the case of Carver, it was much more amorphous. There was a story in Vanity Fair about the way in which Lehman Brothers demanded total devotion not just from their executives, but also the executives’ families. There were conversations with friends who knew about how the City really worked. Having had a grossly misshapen, malevolent villain in my previous book, Dictator, there was a sense that I wanted one this time who was actually likeable, a an who might seduce readers into seeing things from his point-of-view, just as he seduces the fictional characters around him.

From this came the character of Malachi Zorn, a financial genius who hates the system that has made him rich, because (for reasons revealed in the book) it also made him an orphan. He wants revenge on the institutions that destroyed his family and he really doesn’t care who else has to suffer n order to help him get it. Naturally, the specific form of revenge he seeks is financial: he knows that there is no blow as painful to a rich man as one that hits him in the wallet. So far, so good … even I found myself rooting for Zorn at this point. But then he started behaving very badly. People started dying in large numbers and it was time for Sam Carver to sort him out. But do the financiers who populate Carver get away entirely unscathed? Ah, well, you’ll have to read it to find that out …

Monday, 22 August 2011

St Hilda's Crime & Mystery Weekend - Anatomy of Justice

(Val McDermid & Ayo Onatade - Picture © Marcia Talley)

I thought that I was going to have the opportunity to blog about the conference over this weekend but alas not. It is a testament to how much fun I was having over the weekend that I did not manage to do any blogging.

If you have never managed to attend St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference then you have missed a treat. Unlike Crimefest or Harrogate St Hilda’s is a lot more academic. The weekend is always based around a theme that is chosen and agreed by the organisers at the end of each previous conference. This year the theme of the conference was Anatomy of Justice and the papers that were presented all used this as the main background to their talk.

As an attendee you know that St Hilda’s has started when everyone gathers on the lawn overlooking the River Cherwell for a champagne reception early on Friday evening. It is not only a chance for everyone to meet up before the conference starts in earnest on the Saturday morning but it is also a chance to renew friendships, see which of the stalwarts are back again and generally catch up amongst the spires of Merton and Magdalen College. The drinks reception is always followed by the first of the two conference dinners and by tradition those that are giving a paper on the Saturday get to sit at the top table. Thus I found myself on the top table alongside Kate Charles, Val McDermid, Cath Staincliffe, Triona Adams, Natasha (NJ) Cooper who was Chair of the conference this year, Frances Fyfield and Ann Granger. Both Val McDermid and Triona Adams are former students of St Hilda’s. In fact Val is now a Fellow of the college as well. After the dinner there is always a conference dinner speaker. This year it was Triona Adams who spoke about remembering the late Sarah Caudwell with whom she was a great friend. Sarah Caudwell had in fact been a speaker at the very first conference back in 1994. After dinner everybody wandered down to the Senior Common Room (SCR) and spent the rest of the evening just talking and catching up with one another. This was enlivened by the added fact that Eileen Roberts the co-organiser kindly added to the jollity of the occasion by supplying wine.

The conference well and truly started on Saturday morning after breakfast. One of the things that I like about St Hilda’s is the fact that you all stay together on the College grounds. It is very reminiscent of being back in boarding school but it is such good fun that one does not worry too much at the basic facilities. Some people may but I certainly do not. It always adds to the fun. The first papers that were given were by Val McDermid and myself. My paper was entitled Life along the Judicial Corridor whilst Val’s paper was entitled Making the Law work for you: an author’s guide. I don’t normally talk about my day job and this was one of the few times that I spoke about working with senior members of the judiciary for the last 12 years. Val spoke eloquently about how making the law work for authors. What generally tends to happen is that after two papers are given then the speakers answer questions from the audience.

After a brief break for tea and coffee the second round of papers were given. This time Frances Fyfield spoke about Peculiar Trials and after listening to a radio programme that she had done on BBC World Service about animals going on trial for offences that they had committed she also spoke about why this happened. Cath Staincliffe who gave a heartfelt, thought provoking and moving paper about assisted dying and the way in which it is dealt with by the law, followed Frances Fyfield. A lively discussion took place afterwards and this included P D James who was attending the conference for part of the day who commented on the difficulties surrounding assisted dying.

After lunch the first two papers that were given were by Jane Finnis who spoke about Laws and Sausages: Justice in the Roman Empire and Ann Granger who spoke about Newgate Prison and whether or not it was a symbol of its times? Following a brief break again for tea Andrew Taylor and Martin Edwards were the next two to give the final papers of the day. Andrew spoke about Willkie Collins and the women in his life. Andrew Taylor’s talk was most interesting as he highlighted the rather strange relationship that Willkie Collins with the two main women in his life and the way in which he managed to balance the two together. When he died he even split his possessions equally between the two families. Martin’s talk was about British lawyers who are also authors. Martin himself falls into this group along with Rankin Davies, Dexter Dias and the late Cyril Hare. He also discussed Tragedy at Law, which is the book that Cyril Hare is best known for. It was interesting listening to both Andrew Taylor and Martin Edwards as they answered questions afterwards. They make a very good double team.

(Martin Edwards & Andrew Taylor - Picture © Ayo Onatade)

You always pick up snippets of interesting information whilst you are at St Hilda’s and this year was no exception. Did you know that the late Michael Gilbert was once Raymond Chandler’s legal advisor? I didn’t!

After the final papers on Saturday there is always a signing session for all the authors that are present. This takes place in the SCR and it is always and opportunity for attendees to get their books signed by authors that are present whether or not that author is actually giving a paper. It is also an opportunity for photographs to be taken and conversations to take place between attendees and the authors in a much more relaxed atmosphere.

The after dinner speech on the Saturday evening is always given by the conference Chair and this year NJ Cooper gave a speech on recalling Trish Maguire. What has now become a tradition; Mystery Women hosted a drinks reception in the SCR. Those of you that know me are aware of the fact that I have no qualms in staying up late at these things. However, I was remarkably restrained and found myself back in my room just after 12:00am on Friday and Saturday.

Sunday is always slightly different and after breakfast there is the opportunity to do whatever you like. Whether it be go to Church, punt or just relax. This year I made the most of the opportunity and wandered up the Cowley Road with my friend and fantasy author Juliet McKenna to have a relaxing morning catching up with her and would you believe to do so work as well!

(Bernard Knight - Picture © Ayo Onatade)

The talks began mid-morning with a fascinating Conference Lecture by the Conference Guest of Honour Professor Bernard Knight CBE. His lecture was on The Coroner: Medieval Relic or useful institution? In essence it was a history of the work of the Coroner. He explained that Coroners only came into being around 1194 partly due to Richard the Lionheart. Their job was varied and multifaceted but always had a financial backdrop. It was not until 1282 that Coroners were established in Wales. Bernard Knight’s talk covered a wide broad spectrum of the work of the Coroner from its original beginnings to the present day. He touched on some of the more unusual aspects of the early work of a Coroner, which included the fact that they used to have to attend all hangings. Only a Coroner could declare someone an outlaw if they did not turn up to court after three chances. They were appointed by the King to do anything. He also pointed out that police programmes often got the role of the Coroner wrong. As he explained, they could call for a Doctor but a post-mortem could not be done without the permission of a Coroner. Rather sadly this is not the impression that is given on police programmes.

Professor Knight is a former Home Office Pathologist who has dealt with some rather high-profile cases. He is also the author of the Crowner John Mysteries a series of 12th Century historical mysteries featuring Sir John de Wolfe Coroner of the Verge. So far there are 14 books in the series. He is also the author of the Dr Richard Pryor series, which is set in 1955 Wales.

(Penny Evans - Picture © Ayo Onatade)

After lunch the final session of the day started. Penny Evans spoke on the topic of provocation and how it is dealt with by the law under the title Wicked Mr Boyce and the slow burn: A talk about why it is better to kill your husband when he’s awake… As she pointed out, women are most certainly given a rough deal when provocation is raised as a defence in court compared to men. The final paper of the day was given by Keith Miles (aka Edward Marston) who spoke wittily and extremely funnily about the character Rumpole of the Bailey. It was a fitting end to the conference.

One cannot thank Eileen Roberts and Kate Charles enough for organising such a wonderful conference. Furthermore having a wonderful Chair adds to the lustre and NJ Cooper was absolutely wonderful. She is so good at putting people at ease and she does it with such charm and style.

So what about next year?

The dates have already been agreed and the theme chosen. Next year St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference will take place between 17th and 19th August 2012 and the theme is Stop You’re Killing Me: Humour in Crime Fiction. So note the date and I look forward to seeing many of you there!

Friday, 19 August 2011

Shortlists Announced For The Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards 2011

Brutal, bloodied and with a forensic approach to detail, the CWA Daggers shortlist contains a powerhouse of literary talent. For all their detective ability and searing insights, even the authors themselves cannot be expected to work out how these plots will end. The winners for eleven awards will be announced at The Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards on Friday 7 October at the Grosvenor House.

The awards include the CWA Gold Dagger for the Best Crime Novel of the Year, the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the Best Thriller of the Year, and the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger for the Best New Crime Writer of the Year, along with the Film and TV Daggers.

Can Man Booker nominee A.D. Miller beat off the competition to take home one the most illustrious prizes in the crime writing world – the CWA Gold Dagger for the Best Crime Novel of the Year? He faces a struggle of Cold-War proportions as Snowdrops, his grim tale of life in Putin's Russia, sizes up to Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, set in the Deep South.

It is by no means a two horse race, with The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina bringing a strong female protagonist into the mix. A complex look at the dehumanisation of victims in an increasingly divided society, The End of The Wasp Season suggests that as a society we use 'evil' as a means to disengage from our problems. But could she perhaps lose out to one of the most disengaged characters seen in fiction in recent years – Mike, in Steve Hamilton's The Lock Artist is an elective mute who can pick locks and break safes. The question remains, however, whether Hamilton himself has cracked the code in writing prize winning crime fiction.

The shortlists are as follows:


Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (Pan)

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (Atlantic Books)

The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina (Orion)

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton (Orion)


Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson (Doubleday)

Cold Rain by Craig Smith (Myrmidon)

The Good Son by Michael Gruber (Corvus)

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton (Orion)


Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson (Doubleday)

Kiss Me Quick by Danny Miller (Robinson)

The Dead Woman of Juárez by Sam Hawken (Serpent's Tail)

The Dogs of Rome by Conor Fitzgerald (Bloomsbury)


David Baldacci - The Sixth Man (Macmillan)

Lee Child - Worth Dying For (Bantam)

Mark Billingham - Good As Dead (Little, Brown)

Peter James - Dead Man's Grip (Macmillan)

Peter Robinson - Before the Poison (Hodder)

These five authors are also the subject of the 2011 season documentary series The A-Z of Crime, which will be shown at 9pm on ITV3 from 1st September.

In the weeks running up to The Crime Thriller Awards 2011, viewers will be encouraged to vote for their favourite by following this link: The winner will be presented with the ITV3 People's Bestseller Dagger at the awards ceremony on 7th October.

TV and film are the perfect media for crime fiction, and some of the genre's best-loved detectives – from Marple to Morse – have been immortalised in this way. This year's Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards will honour the stars of the small and silver screens, as well as the films and series they feature in. The nominees include actors Idris Elba, last year's Best Actress Dagger winner Maxine Peake, Brenda Blethyn, Rufus Sewell and Rafe Spall, and the shortlists are as follows:


True Grit (Paramount Pictures)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Momentum Pictures)

Brighton Rock (Optimum Releasing)

Source Code (Optimum Releasing)


Case Histories (Ruby Films, BBC One)

Luther (BBC One)

The Shadow Line (Company Pictures, BBC Two)

Zen (Left Bank Pictures, BBC One)

Vera (ITV Studios, ITV1)


The Killing, (Arrow Films, BBC4)

Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

Castle (ABC Studios, Alibi)

Dexter (Showtime Networks, FX Channel)

Spiral (Son Et Lumiere, BBC 4)


Sofie Gråbøl for The Killing (Arrow Films, BBC4)

Brenda Blethyn for Vera (ITV Studios, ITV1)

Maxine Peake for Silk (BBC One)

Olivia Williams for Case Sensitive (Hat Trick Productions, ITV1)

Sue Johnston for Waking the Dead (BBC One)

Kelly Reilly for Above Suspicion (La Plante Productions, ITV1)


Idris Elba for Luther (BBC One)

Lars Mikkelsen for The Killing (Arrow Films, BBC4)

Steve Buscemi for Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

Jason Isaacs for Case Histories (Ruby Films, BBC One)

Rufus Sewell for Zen (Left Bank Pictures, BBC One)


Rafe Spall for The Shadow Line (Company Pictures, BBC Two)

Bjarne Henriksen for The Killing (Arrow Films, BBC 4)

Søren Malling for The Killing (Arrow Films, BBC 4)

John Lithgow for Dexter (Showtime Networks, FX Channel)

Aidan Gillen for Thorne (Stagereel / Cité Amérique, Sky One)


Ann Eleonora Jørgensen for The Killing (Arrow Films, BBC 4)

Kelly Macdonald for Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Sky Atlantic)

Ruth Wilson for Luther (BBC One)

Amanda Abbington for Case Histories (Ruby Films, BBC One)

Tara Fitzgerald for Waking The Dead (BBC One)

The Executive Producer for the Awards and the Crime Season, Cactus TV's Amanda Ross said: "We are absolutely delighted with the success of The Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards last year. With Marcus Brigstocke returning as our presenter and the high quality of this year's Book, Film and TV shortlists I am confident this year's awards will be even better."

Peter James, Chair of the Crime Writers' Association, commented: "To arrive at the shortlist for any award is inevitably a hard and very subjective task. But this year's Daggers shortlists really do represent a very broad cross-section of the highest talents in our beloved genre, and I'm personally feeling very thrilled - and deeply privileged - to have been selected amongst them."

Richard Holmes, Specsavers marketing director, said: "Last year's Crime Thriller Awards were another great success and we're very proud to be involved in this annual showcase of world class writing. It must have been extremely difficult to create this shortlist from the wealth of crime fiction talent out there and I'm really looking forward to hearing the results of the awards. As ever, I can't wait to find out how it all ends."

It would be interesting to hear from you who you think should win in the many categories. I have my favourites for sure.

Anatomy of Justice at St Hilda's Crime & Mystery Weekend

The 18th Annual Mystery and Crime Weekend is due to start this evening from 6:45pm at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. St Hilda’s is not like Crimefest or Harrogate. It is a lot more academic. Each year it has a theme and those giving a talk must use the theme as the background for their paper.

Those giving a talk this year on Saturday are-

Francis Fyfield who will be talking about Peculiar Trials and Cath Staincliffe whose talk is entitled When mercy is murder: a look at the law and assisted dying. Jane Finnis and Ann Granger will be talking about Justice in the Roman Empire and Newgate Prison: A symbol of its times? Respectively.

Andrew Taylor will be talking about Wilkie Collins and Little Women. Whilst Martin Edwards talk is entitled The British Lawyer-Author.

I shall be sharing the very first talk on Saturday morning alongside the ever-delightful Val McDermid. Val will be giving a talk on Making the Law work for you: an author’s guide whilst my paper is called Life along the Judicial Corridor.

On Sunday talks will be given by Penny Evans who will be talking about Why it’s better to kill your husband when he’s awake and Keith Miles on Rumpole of the Bailey.

There will also be two conference dinner speeches. The first will be given by Triona Adams who will be remembering Sarah Caudwell and the second will be given by Natasha Cooper (who is also chairing the conference) who will be recalling Trish Maguire.

The Conference Guest of Honour this year is Professor Bernard Knight who will be giving the conference lecture on The Coroner: Medieval Relic or Useful Institution?

St Hilda’s is a really unique conference. It has been going on for 18 years now and there are a lot of die hard fans that regularly attend. Everybody stays on the college grounds. I shall be hopefully blogging about the weekend whilst I am there.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

According to Sophie Hannah No One Would Ever Do That!

Today’s guest blogger is award winning author and poet Sophie Hannah. Her novel The Other Half Lives was shortlisted for the 2010 Independent Booksellers’ Book of the Year Award and is currently shortlisted, under its US title The Dead Lie Down, for a Barry Award. Her first novel was adapted for television under the title Case Sensitive in May 2011. A second series has been commissioned. She is currently working on her seventh novel featuring Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer entitled Kind of Cruel and it is due out in February 2012. Sophie is fascinated by properties and spends a lot of time looking at property sites.

Here’s what I find implausible: that time and time again, intelligent people will read a crime novel with an unusual plot, or watch a thriller at the cinema with an outlandish storyline, and say, ‘But no one would ever do that’, or, ‘But that would never happen’. That’s right – I can't believe that anyone can't believe that bizarrely improbable things happen in real life. Take my sister, an otherwise rational person. For years, she and I have disagreed about the Hitchcock film Vertigo. We both love it, but whereas I love it unconditionally, my sister thinks it’s flawed. ‘There’s no way Jimmy Stewart wouldn’t recognise Kim Novak when he bumps into her on the street and she’s got dark hair and a different name,’ she says. ‘He wouldn’t be entranced by her resemblance to his dead beloved; he would know, straight away, that she was the same person.’ For years, my counter-argument went something like this: ‘Oh, well, maybe you have to suspend your disbelief a bit, but so what?’ Then something happened that changed my mind. I was in Crete, in a tiny place called Loutro, and I went swimming in the sea. Treading water beside me was a man who looked very much like a good friend of mine, someone I’d known for fifteen years and saw regularly. Instead of thinking, ‘Oh, look, there’s Giles’, what I thought was, ‘How odd that a stranger in Loutro looks so much like Giles’. I was convinced that he couldn’t be Giles; there was no connection in my mind between Giles and Loutro, and it would have been too huge a coincidence for both me and Giles to be swimming in Loutro at the same time. I said nothing to this man and carried on swimming. Next time I swam past him, I heard him cough. In a distinctive way. I thought, ‘That’s Giles’ cough – an exact copy of it.’ Tentatively, I swam up to him and said, ‘Excuse me, you aren’t by any chance...?’ Even then, I wasn’t convinced enough to say, ‘Hey, Giles! What a coincidence!’ Even then, if he’d said, in Giles’ voice, ‘I’m terribly sorry, my name’s Duncan and I’ve never seen you before in my life’, I’d have believed him and apologised for bothering him. ‘Sophie!’ he said. ‘I wondered if it was you, but I didn’t think it could be.’ Each of us trusted our own incorrect assumption that the other one couldn't possibly be in Loutro more than we trusted the evidence of our own eyes. I remember thinking it odd that he started to look so much more like Giles as soon as I knew he was Giles – before that point, the resemblance wasn’t quite so overwhelming, because I was viewing him through the lens of what I thought I knew.

All of which convinces me that a) my sister is wrong about Vertigo and b) people talk about suspension of disbelief when they shouldn’t; there should be no disbelief to suspend. If I asked a hundred people, ‘Has anything implausible ever happened to you?’, most of them would say yes. If I’m right, and if we allow ourselves to extrapolate from the past to predict the future, that surely means there’s a strong likelihood of coincidental, unlikely things happening all the time. People say ‘That would never happen’, when what they mean is, ‘I’ve never heard of that happening, and therefore I am choosing to believe that it couldn’t happen, because I’m an unimaginative person.’ Take the true story of the man who has come to be known as Canoe Man. He and his wife pretended he was dead, even to their two sons. Especially to their two sons, you might say. Meanwhile, he’d cut a hole in a bedroom wall and put a cupboard in front of it, and when anyone turned up at the house, he would climb into the wardrobe, through the hole, and into the house next door which (and if it were fiction people would say, ‘Oh, how implausible’) was a) owned by him and b) conveniently empty. Later, after getting away with it, he and his wife allowed their photograph to be taken for a website (‘Oh, come on! If you’d faked your own death, would you really let someone photograph you for a website?’) and the whole story came out: a fascinating, unique story, just as Vertigo is a brilliant, gripping story, and one that could happen. Can anyone prove, categorically, that it couldn’t? Can anyone say for certain that no one man would ever meet a former lover he believed to be dead and take her to be a different person? For something to be plausible, it only needs to be possible for it to happen once, in a particular and often unique combination of circumstances. This is the yardstick that I believe all writers of crime fiction - or indeed any fiction - should use.

The onus should be on the disbelievers, whenever they say, ‘No one would ever do that’, to prove they’re right. In the absence of concrete proof, we have to choose: do we dismiss possibilities or embrace them? Do we only want to write and read about people behaving in commonplace, likely ways? Well, probably only if the protagonists’ reactions to those ordinary events are in some way unlikely or unusual. A novel about a man who left his wallet at home and then went back to pick it up later would be boring; a novel about a man who forgot his wallet and, as a direct result, decided to give away his vast fortune to the poor, or suffered a complete breakdown and came to believe that he was a gerbil – that might be more interesting. And the disbelievers would carp that it was implausible.

Let’s assume the carpers are right: no one would ever do those extraordinary, seemingly impossible things they refuse to believe in; the only stories that are possible are the ones that strike us as probable. In that scenario, wouldn’t it be the duty of writers to invent things that ‘would never happen’, as the only way of extending our imaginations and experience? If it’s really impossible for something staggeringly unusual to happen, thank God people make up implausible stories that show us what we might do, even if we haven’t done it yet and might never do it. It is the events in which we become embroiled and entangled that define us as people. Or, to put it another way, without plot there is no character. Devising unusual, even far-fetched plots is the proper way for a writer to explore the extreme possibilities of character. Contrary to what many creative writing manuals tell us, characterisation is not about your protagonist's favourite breakfast cereal or make of car. It's about how your fictional heroine will react when she finds herself in a predicament that she didn't foresee, because it was so unlikely to happen.

Information: -

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Bite Sized Daniel Polansky

Daniel Polansky was our guest blogger yesterday but we managed to get our hands on this exclusive quick bite sized Q&A. There will be a fuller interview over in the main website in the next few days.
What is the difference between Low Town and Baltimore?
Fewer swords.

Pixie’s Breath, Choke or Wyrm: which would you recommend?
Depends on what you're holding.

Why winter? Is it a mood thing ...?
It's meant to evoke a certain atmosphere, sure.

How do you view the marriage of classic crime and high fantasy - and was it easy to pull off?
I felt like a lot of what is great about well done in crime novels, in terms of a fast pacing and realistic motivations, could be effectively introduced into a high fantasy mold. As far as the degree to which I did it successfully, I'll leave that to the reader to decide.

You have traveled a lot - do any of the strange places you have visited find their place in SRC?
In a sort of oblique way, I suppose. I've spent a lot of time in different cities, from Washington D.C. to Belgrade to Delhi, so that gets you thinking about the way these places are set up, and how an imaginary metropolis might behave. And sometimes you meet somebody or see some particular sight that you can wholesale thieve from reality and write up in your book. That's a lot of fun.

Do the names of places and things in the book come to you as you write about them, or do they come in the middle of the night, or whenever it is that you dream?
Getting a decent naming convention down is one of the more difficult parts of writing speculative fiction, and one I've struggled with. Sometimes things just come naturally, but usually it requires research and contemplation.

Your literary heroes, please, authors and characters
Heroes is kind of a loaded word. Obviously the archetypal noir hero as exemplified by Dashiel Hammet's continental op and Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe were a big influence on the Warden. In terms of authors that I've strongly connected with, really the list could run on -- everyone from Rudyard Kipling to Hannah Arendt to John Keegan to V.S. Naipaul.

Should the book be made into a film - who would you have direct it?
What is John Ford doing these days?

What would be on the accompanying soundtrack to Straight Razor Cure?
Ghostface Killah, Johnny Cash, and of course, J Dilla.

Who are your sci/fi and fantasy influences?
I'm sort of bearish about a lot of high fantasy. Like the rest of the planet, I love George R.R. Martin. I think Gene Wolfe has written some real classics. Jorge Louis Borges is a true genius, and someone I've probably cribbed from in a lot of ways.

Can you tell us anything about what’s coming next for The Warden?
Without going into to much detail about a sequel still in development, I would say very bad things are coming for the Warden. We'll see if he survives them.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Slums of the Shire with Daniel Polansky

Our guest blogger today is Daniel Polansky whose debut novel Low Town is published in the US today (16 August 2011) and in the UK under the title The Straight Razor Cure on 18 August 2011. He talks about being a history buff, not understanding fantasy and hopefully using his novel to answer some quesions.

Occasionally you'll be with a group of people and they'll get to talking about their favorite historical epochs, nostalgic for lives they never led. One person will talk up their childhood love of the Wild West, another reveal a penchant for Victorian England. This last one just has a thing for corsets, but it's better not to call them on it.

When my turn rolls round I take a sip of whatever we're drinking and look at my shoes. “The mid 90's were pretty good,” I say lamely. “Slower internet and everything, but at least we had penicillin.”

Perhaps it's my being a history buff, but the past sucked. For about a millennium and a half after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe just seems like a real shit place to reside. Lots of rooting in filth until you die at thirty a half mile from where you born. Nominally the nobles had it better, but still, your fever would have been treated with the application of leaches and your pretty young bride had like a one in two chance of surviving child birth.

This probably is why I don't understand fantasy—that is to say that collection of high medieval tropes collected by Tolkien and gleefully reproduced by two generations of descendants.

Take elves for instance—though perfectly capable of imagining a world where higher intelligence evolved in a species separate from humanity, my powers of make believe fail when positing that the relation between said species would be anything beyond unceasing warfare. Even a cursory glance at human history reveals our collective willingness to commit genocide on fellow homo sapiens—how much quicker would we have been to eradicate a separate species competing for identical resources? If elves existed, our ancestors would have hunted them down to extinction and erected a monument to the accomplishment.

But I digress.

Even when nestled comfortably in a quest to kill a dragon or overthrow a dark lord or what have you, strange thoughts plague me. What does the shady side of Gondor look like? How many platinum coins would a dime bag set me back? What is the point of hobbits? They're just short, fat people. People are plenty fat as it is.

Low Town is sort of my attempt to answer some of those questions (not the last one). It's the story of the Warden, a former intelligence agent and current drug dealer, whose gradual slide into self-destruction is briefly checked by the discovery of a dead body in the neighborhood he runs. An ill-timed bout of conscience rattles the easy cage of venality he's built for himself, and leads him on a collision course with the life he'd left behind. The Warden is a guy trying to survive the next few days, and not particularly squeamish as to what that requires—the sort of person more likely to populate a classic crime novel than to be found stocking the fantasy section of your local Borders (RIP).

More broadly, Low Town is an attempt to meld the best aspects of noir with a low fantasy setting—a meeting of tastes which I think complement each other nicely. The spare language and fast pace of good noir offers a pleasant counterpoint to the sprawling—one might even say bloated—length of much modern fantasy. On a somewhat broader level, the tendency of fantasy to focus on world shaking events often renders it irrelevant to the average reader, whose life relatively rarely devolves into single combat against vaguely satanic analogs. By contrast, noir is concerned with the individual, with greed and lust, sins all of us can comprehend to some degree. Low Town centers on the conceit that a world with magic wouldn't be altogether different from a world without it. People are still (on the whole) selfish, stupid creatures, focused almost exclusively on the immediate satisfaction of their basic desires, only now some of them can shoot fire out of their hands.

That's the idea at least. It comes out today (August 16th) in the US and Canada, and on Thursday (August 18th) in the UK and Commonwealth. I hope you check it out and see if I've succeeded, or if I'm just a pretentious clown. Or both.


Monday, 15 August 2011

Catching ‘Spartan’

I have been rather enthused by a debut thriller novel entitled ‘Spartan’ [aka ‘Spycatcher’ in the US] which was released last week. It excited me so much that I lost a night’s a sleep as the powerful journey was relentless. I have no hesitation in proclaiming it as the best thriller debut I’ve read this year. I have Spartan / Spycatcher featured in a review at January Magazine thanks to my editors Jeff Peirce and Linda Richards; and here's an extract -

My favorite section of this yarn focuses on the storming of a German terror cell. It nicely illustrates the differences between how the Brits and Americans now want to look at torture (as an alternative means of extracting information from thuggish anarchists), and the more liberal German way of enforcing human rights, even for terrorists. This dichotomy poses a problem, when Cochrane wants to keep one of the terrorists alive for “enhanced interrogation.” The Germans forbid it, saying their security team was operating under strict orders to ensure that the terrorists were all killed in the operation; if there are survivors, there will be human-rights implications and media questions that pose political problems back home. The sheer drama of this scene, coupled with the political and ethical issues involved, makes for excruciating tension. And Dunn’s bold, hard and logical writing style made me feel I was actually there, attacking the building.

Will saw a body lying on its side. It was rocking back and forth. A hand clutched to one leg. Will checked the surroundings but could see no weapon. He moved closer and put the muzzle of his Glock against the body’s neck before slowly pulling it onto its back. A woman looked up at him. Will glanced down at her leg and saw that she had been shot in the thigh. Her trousers were torn and covered in blood. The bullet had clearly done severe damage.

Will bent to the woman’s face and said loudly, “Who sent you?”
The woman’s eyes blinked rapidly. She looked terrified. Tears were streaming across her face, and they were clearly caused by pain, fear, tear gas, or all of those. She looked very young.
“Who sent you?” he asked her.

The woman began coughing, and the sound instantly told Will that she had gas in her throat and lungs. He knew that he could not allow her to suffer like this. He ripped off his respirator and fixed it over the woman’s head.

He said to her, “It’s okay. I’m going to get you out of this place.”

The real cat-chasing-mouse part of Spartan/Spycatcher begins as Cochrane enlists a quartet of tough sidekicks to help him protect Lana, while they dangle her enticingly in front of Megiddo. A series of letters sent back and forth between Lana and Megiddo serves to lure the prey, and leads to assorted varieties of surveillance games. I was delighted by Dunn’s conscious chapter-length planning, as he measured out just enough plot to keep you hooked -- not the James Patterson-like chapters of one or two pages, nor 30-page Eric Ambler chapters, but something in between.

Read More and I urge you to seek this debut out

I have an upcoming interview with Matthew Dunn coming shortly; and asked him to tell Shots Readers a little about his life and how an ex-SIS / MI6 Field Operative moved to the ruthless world of thriller writing -

Matthew Dunn: Reading, Writing & Spying

I grew up in a peaceful, semi-rural, and largely uneventful part of England. My childhood couldn’t have been happier, though I craved escape and adventure and became a voracious reader of obscure novels about 18th and 19th century sea-faring adventures and early 20th century spies. These books helped fuel the fire in my belly to the extent that reading is largely responsible for my subsequent employment as a British intelligence operative.

I was talent spotted to join MI6 while at university, though I positioned myself to be noticed by the spooks. I wanted to live the adventures and lives of the characters I had read about in my books. But the real world of MI6 turned out to be quite different. When I was a spy, not one day passed when I did not feel the incredible weight of responsibility on my shoulders and the importance of the work that I and other officers did. Missions were sometimes ferociously rapid, sometimes agonizingly protracted, always intense, but never playful. And in the real world of espionage, real people die. For me, being a spy never felt like an adventurous escapade. Instead, I was in a relentless war.

Spies operate in a secret world that is all around us but can only be seen by those who are trained to spot it. When I was on missions overseas I would move through cities and other locations with the confidence of an experienced predator. And when I was at home in London I would walk in its streets, eat in its restaurants, drink in its cafés and bars, but all of the time look at people around me. I had nothing in common with them because my world was not their world. I had, to some extent, become detached from humanity. The only people I could relate to were my fellow officers, and my secret foreign agents.

When I left MI6 I was a very hard man, a million miles away from the innocent wonderment of my youth. I knew that I should try to reintegrate back into the normal world but did not know how to do so because once you’ve operated in the secret world that place stays around you forever. Most people who leave MI6 are high-achievers who go in to top jobs in industry, commerce, government, or the arts. But all of us struggle to adapt. We’ve seen and done too many unusual things.

For ten years after leaving British intelligence, I walked a solitary path between the secret world that I could still see but no longer touch and the normal world which seemed foreign. But then I started writing Spartan and the process resulted in something unexpected – I regained the same desire for adventure that I had when I was a boy. In tandem, I felt that I was weaving aspects of the secret world into the normal world. I now live and write in the place where they are interwoven.

My novel’s protagonist, Will Cochrane, is wholly fictional. However, his character, decision-making, and actions, are inspired by the man that I used to be. Happily, I am no longer someone like Will Cochrane. But it is great to write about him.

© 2011 Matthew Dunn

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Latest Crime News Round-Up

A rather long over due round up of crime fiction news –

Congratulations to the nominees announced this past weekend for the annual T. Jefferson Parker Book Award for Mystery & Thrillers, presented by the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association:

  • The Sentry by Robert Crais (Putnam)
  • San Diego Noir edited by Maryelizabeth Hart (Akashic Books)
  • Savages by Don Winslow (Simon & Schuster)
  • The Informant by Thomas Perry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

There is an excellent interview in the Guardian with CWA Diamond Dagger Author Val McDermid. Certainly worth reading as she talks about football and phone hacking amongst other things!

Not sure where to start when it comes to Nordic crime authors? Well have done a eally good job of rounding up 10 examples that you could do well to take a look at. Of course Stieg Larsson is on the list!

The Irish Times have an excellent review of Declan Burke’s latest novel Absolute Zero Cool. This is one book that I am dying to get my hands on sooner rather than later. If you have not made Declan’s blog Crime Always Pays your one stop shop for all things relating to Irish crime writing then you are missing a treat.

With Bouchercon 2011 on the horizon in just over a month’s time there is a timely article in the Riverfront Times as to why you should be attending this august convention. The Shots crew will of course be there in force and I shall hopefully be doing some blogging and tweeting as @shotsblog as time permits. If you are still dithering as to whether or not you should attend, then hopefully the article will persuade you to do so. On the Friday at 8:30am I shall be on a panel Bad Blood: Celebrating Agatha Christie. The other members of the panel are Val McDermid, G M Malliet and Caroline Hart. The moderator will be Ted Hertel. At 11:30am on Saturday I shall be moderating the panel The Dead Line:Behind the White Picket Fence. The panel members are Megan Abbott, Daniel Woodrell, Thomas H Cook, Paul Doiron & P L Gaus. Ali Karim will be moderating the panel Falls the Shadow: Globalization of Crime Fiction on Saturday at 11:30am as well. The members of his panel are Mark Billingham, Sarah Blaedal, Karin Slaughter, Deon Meyer and Martyn Waites.

Interesting article on the Criminal Minds blog from one of my all time favourite authors Gary Philips on how much modern technology Ivan Monk would actually embrace.

There is an excellent article on Peter Rozovsky blog Detectives Beyond Borders where he talks about humour in Swedish Crime novels. He specifically mentions Three Seconds by Roslund and Helström. This has been followed up by a further article on the blog The Game’s Afoot where Arnaldur Indridason’s humour is discussed.

The Montreal Mirror also has an article on Nordic crime. The article discusses how Larsson’s popularity has pushed other authors into the limelight such as Henning Mankell, Analdur Indriðason and Jo Nesbø.

With the terrible massacre that took place in Utøya Brian Oliver in the Observer wonders how Nordic crime writers will deal with the incident in their writing.

In a feature at NPR Norwegian author Anne Holt says politicians would do well to read crime fiction, a mirror on society. She is also interviewed at PBS.Org where she talks about the lessons of Oslo.

Writing in the Guardian author Jo Nesbø discusses the fact that the attacks in Oslo and Utøya have changed Norway forever and it will never again be the innocent, trusting place it once was.

Excellent blog post by Maxine over on her site Petrona about crime fiction from Norway! She has also posted an equally brilliant one about crime fiction from Sweden. Certainly worth reading by those who think that Stieg Larsson is the only author who writes Swedish crime.

Not sure how I managed to miss this but there is an excellent piece in the Guardian that came out around the same time of the Harrogate Crime Festival about Partners in Crime Fiction. Authors such as Lee Child, Benjamin Black and RJ Ellory choose their favourite characters by other crime writers.

Rohan Maitzen has over at the Los Angeles Review of Books written an excellent article on the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

So are you interested in the top ten crime writers that you should be reading as a fan of the genre before you die? I am sure you would be. First versions of this list by John Connolly and Declan Hughes were presented at the Dalkey Book Festival back in June 2011, and at the world mystery convention, Bouchercon in San Francisco. It is reproduced on the Writing i.e blog. But do you agree with all their suggestions? As a matter of fact I do. Bearing in mind the books on the list one would find it rather difficult not to.

There is an excellent review in The Independent by Boyd Tonkin on South London author Alex Wheatle’s novel Brenton Brown that is particularly on topic in the light of the recent disturbances that have taken place in London.

Tony Thompson whose novel Outlaws: Inside the Violent World of Biker Gang is published by Hodder & Stoughton writes an interesting article in The London Evening Standard about growing up in Tottenham in the light of the recent riots. Makes for interesting and sobering reading. How times have changed!

There is a round up of in the Guardian of thrillers by John O’ Connell. His choices include Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross and Burned by Thomas Enger. There is also an interview in the Guardian with Neil Cross who explains why he does not get on with novelists.

Jake Kerridge of the Telegraph interviews Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine.

Absolutely cool interview in the Independent on Dennis Lehane by James Kidd. He talks about his life, writing and bankers!

On her brief trip to the UK the Daily Express managed to nab an interview with Megan Abbott.

According to USA Today (Books) Author Jamie Freveletti is to continue writing Robert Ludlum’s Covert One series. Her first novel Running From the Devil won the International Thriller Writers award for best first novel. The third novel in the Emma Caldridge series The Ninth Day is due to go on sale on 27 September 2011. Furthermore David Baldacci books may also be coming to television.

As part of its Crime in the City feature NPR talk to Michael Harvey co-creator of A&E's real-cop TV series, Cold Case Files. Harvey is also the author of 4 crime novels The Chicago Way, The Fifth Floor, Third Rail and We All Fall Down. His main protagnonist is Michael Kelly, a former Chicago cop.

In another feature they also talk to George Pelecanos about racially divided Washington DC. Pelecanos has a new book out The Cut which features a new protagonist Spero Lucas an Iraq veteran who is a special investigator for a criminal attorney. George Pelecanos also talks to CS about his new novel.

According to the Bookseller Polygon have bought a novel by Private Eye writer and cartoonist Bruce Fantoni. The book has been described as "an intoxicating blend of Raymond Chandler and Woody Allen", is about the world's oldest private eye, who is based in modern-day Miami. It will be published as a small format hardback in summer 2012.

The American Culture have an interesting article on Raymond Chandler by Curt Evans where he looks at Raymond Chandler and British Detective Fiction. Part one can be found here and part two here.

Interesting article at about series that have been continued by other authors after the death of the original author.

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting profile on author James Sallis whose 2005 novel Drive is due to be released shortly in the cinema on September 16. His latest novel The Killer is Dying is also due to be published later on this year.

John Grisham has been awarded the inaugural Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction for his work in The Confession. The new literary award is co-sponsored by The University of Alabama School of Law and the ABA Journal, the flagship magazine of the American Bar Association. The judges included David Baldacci and Linda Fairstein.

According to the Bookseller Random House have produced an app to go along with the Wallender series. The app “In the Footsteps of Wallander", is available to download in English, Swedish and German through an iPhone or Android phone.

According to the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight and Sound Scorsese’s Shutter Island which is based on the best selling novel by Dennis Lehane is as much as it is being an excellent film as it is a testament to the cinema era of the 1940s and 1940s. There is a spoiler in the essay so you might want to give it a miss if you do not want it to spoil your enjoyment of the film.

Film News

According to Deadline News after a bidding war 20th C Fox have nabbed the rights to a series of books by renowned Swedish criminologist and novelist Leif G.W. Persson for Stephen Gaghan to develop as a TV series. The TV project will be based on the central character in Persson's books -- Evert Backstrom. The full article can be found here. Meanwhile Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series and Three Seconds, by Anders Roslund & Borge Hellstrom have been sold to Working Title and Shine/New Regency respectively.

For fans of the new Sherlock Holmes series Mark Gatiss talks about the second series over at

And more things Sherlock Holmes, director Guy Ritchie popped down to Empire Presents… Big Screen on 13 August and revealed some titbits about Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows the sequel to Sherlock. A trailer can be seen below-

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is due out in the UK on 16 December 2011.

Fans of Spooks will be disappointed to hear that the BBC have cancelled the spy drama after a decade. The full reason can be found here in the Guardian article.

According to John C McGinley who is best known for playing insult-flinging medical genius Perry Cox on Scrubs is joining the cast of I, Alex Cross.

According to The Australian a number of Hollywood’s leading ladies are scrambling to play the lead character in the film version of S J Watson’s overnight success of a novel Before I Go To Sleep. The full article can be found here.

I am sure that I am not the only one looking forward to the remake of Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy which is based on John le Carré's novel. A further trailer has been released and can be seen below –

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy is due out on September 16 2011.

According to the Hollywood Reporter Millennium Films have bought the film rights to Noah Boyd’s debut novel The Bricklayer. Actor Gerald Butler is set to star as former FBI Agent turned bricklayer Steve Vail. He is called on by his ex-colleagues to help stop a criminal group that is demanding increasingly high series of ransom payments and finds himself working alongside a female deputy director of the FBI.

Variety News reveal that ABC have ordered a script from Lionsgate that could convert "The Lincoln Lawyer" feature film into a drama series.

Robin Collin of the Telegraph in his article does not sound to keen about the prequel of Morse that is due to be shown on ITV. The one-off drama is called Endeavour. A further article about the prequel can also be found here. The press release from ITV can be found here.

According to ABC Entertainment News John Cusack claims that Edgar Allan Poe was something of a rock star in his day. The actor is due to play Poe in the film The Raven that is due out next year. His comments were made at Comic-Con San Diego where the film was previewed for fans.