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Crime Files is a reading community bringing together avid crime and thriller fans. We’ll be sharing the latest releases from big-name authors and undiscovered talents, bringing you exclusive extracts and videos of new books, getting our authors to share their inspiration for writing, and offering fantastic prizes!
In the first chapter, Chris Hammer places us with Martin in Riversend. What were your initial thoughts of the town? How did Martin’s initial descriptions of Riversend impact your ideas about the people who live there and the events that took place?
Despite being set in a fictional town, Scrublands has a strong sense of place. What elements does Chris Hammer include to achieve this?
Martin provides the reader with an insight into the life of a journalist. What did you learn?
What did you think of the arrival of more media in Riversend and their response to Martin?
Who was your favourite character in the book and why? (Check out Chris Hammer’s response to this question here https://bit.ly/2LyN97P).
How do you think Martin’s own demons impacted his time in Riversend?
What assumptions at the beginning of the novel did you think could not be true?
Did any of the twists and turns surprise you?
What did you think of the ending of the book? Were all your questions answered?
Time was, the lights and bustle and sheer busyness of the place gave me a buzz as good as any drug. Growing up in the countryside, with parents still happily living in an earlier century, I leapt at the chance to come to the big city. Even Edinburgh, where I spent four glorious student years, felt small and provincial in comparison. Which is why I joined the Met rather than what was then Lothian and Borders police, I guess. London’s been my home for long enough that I might even kid myself I’m a local, but lately the shine’s gone off its attraction.
There’s the endless, unmoving traffic, for one thing. I never had a car before. Never needed one. Now I remember why that was, as I sit and watch the engine temperature gauge on my old
Volvo creep slowly towards the red. Every so often a fan somewhere under the bonnet roars into life like a jumbo jet hauling itself into the air from Heathrow.
It’s dark by the time I pull into my street, my trusty car still holding on. Against all the odds, I manage to find a parking space too. Someone up there must be smiling on me. There’s a familiarity to the block, the concrete stairs climbing up to my floor, the open walkway that is almost a communal balcony for all the flats on this level. Light spills from some of the windows, but the curtains are closed on whatever lives are being lived behind them.
My front door’s a little grubbier than it was when I last closed it, although still cleaner than a year ago. I smile at the realisation that it was Roger DeVilliers who had it repainted and a new lock
fitted, but the amusement is short lived. He’s the reason I’ve been away, and the reason I glance over my shoulder as I slide the key into the lock. The press have had a field day with what will likely be the trial of the decade, and I’m right in the middle of it. If I’d wanted to be photographed wherever I went, I’d have been a model or something. Not an undercover police officer.
The flat is dark as I step over the threshold and a massive pile of mail, then close the door behind me. For a moment it’s just as I remember it, and then the smell hits. Something sour and rotten, as if the drains have backed up while I’ve been away. Has it been long enough for the toilet bowl to dry out? Do London sewers smell that bad?
I work my way swiftly through the rooms, opening windows despite the chill and damp outside. There’s still a little water in the toilet, but I flush it anyway. Then run the taps to fill the U-bends in the basin and shower. It doesn’t help. Whatever it is, it’s worst in the tiny kitchen. The bin’s empty, I did that before I left, remember it well enough. Then I spot the dark stain on the floor tile beneath the fridge door. Shit. Did I leave something in there?
It’s only as I open the door that I realise what a dumb idea that is. There’s a magnetic seal all around it keeping the worst of what’s in there inside. No light comes on, confirming my suspicion that the damn thing’s broken down. Even so, I knew I’d be away a while, didn’t think I’d left anything to go off. Something brown and unidentifiable lurks in the salad box at the bottom, though, emitting a smell so noxious I have to run to the front door and open it wide, paparazzi be damned. Saliva fills my mouth and I can feel the bile rising, but I fight back the urge to vomit. That would be some headline in the Daily Mail.
The first trip back inside I can hold my breath just long enough to find a roll of bin liners under the kitchen sink before I have to rush out again. I steel myself for the second trip, cursing
that I’ve no police-issue latex gloves to pull on as I take out the entire salad box and shove it into the bag. I leave it by the door and lean out over the parapet for fresh air, gulping down lungfuls
of London’s finest until the worst of the nausea has passed.
I figure there’s no way anyone’s going to go in and nick stuff with the flat the way it smells, and besides, I’ve nothing in there worth stealing. So I leave the front door propped open to let a breeze blow through while I take the stinking bag down to the communal wheelie bins at the back of the building. The narrow space is poorly lit, and I’m a bit dazed from the smell. It’s been a long day, too, with a lot of driving. As ever, most people have just piled their rubbish alongside the bins, too lazy to lift up the lid. I’m tempted to do the same just to get rid of the stench, but I was raised better than that. Which is why I’m standing close enough to hear the quiet whimper of pain.
‘The hell?’ I’ve spoken the words before I realise. It could have been a wounded animal, but there was an all too human edge to the noise. Something shifts in the pile of abandoned rubbish beside the nearest bin, and I hear that moan again. I pull out my phone, swipe it into torch mode and play the pale light over the bags.
That’s when I see the foot, naked and grubby and still very much attached to a leg.
I was alone with twenty-five prisoners, teaching a Creative Writing class in the library of a male cat B prison, when the fire alarm went off. The jolting wail of an unexpected alarm is always unnerving, doubly so when you hear it inside a high security jail.
I’d been inside when alarms had gone off before. Once on one of the biggest prison wings in Europe, when a fight broke out. Then the alarm had heralded the arrival of a mass of booted feet, as the response unit thundered past on the metal walkways, and I was inelegantly thrust into the apparent safety of a civilian area. But most of the time, sadly, prison alarms signalled someone had tried to hurt themselves. The Prison Reform Trust report there were 49,565 incidents of self-harm in prisons in 2018. An unimaginably high number, that represents the pain and suffering that goes on behind bars in this country.
When I first entered a prison, I had a number of misconceptions about prisoners, probably fed by a life-long love of crime thrillers. The notion of evil crops up a lot in crime mysteries, right from Golden Age classic’s like Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, to the enigmatic evil genius serial killer’s popular since Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector. Read a lot of crime fiction, or watch a lot of crime shows, and you’d be forgiven for thinking prisons must be stuffed full of terrifying killers. Or at least, that’s my excuse. The reality is very different. The Prison Reform Trust report seventy percent of prisoners are serving time for a non-violent offence. And almost half, forty six percent, were sentenced to serve six months or less. Delve deeper into the facts about prisoners, and things look less clear cut than there are good, and there are evil people in the world. Forty two percent of male prisoners have a history of mental health issues. Sixty five percent of female prisoners do. Many people I’ve met inside have had tragic lives, or have made one stupid mistake, or have been failed by an underfunded and understaffed justice system. And yes, some have done awful things that they should be punished for. But more than once, I’ve come away from a class thinking a number of the inmates needed help, rather than incarceration.
But when the alarm sounded in the library that day I felt something new. The genuine fear of being trapped behind bars. Because, this wasn’t a fight kicking off, or someone trying to hurt themselves, this was a fire alarm.
From nursery age up, everyone knows that when a fire alarm sounds you evacuate. You move to a place of safety outside. You get away from the dangerous flames and smoke. But as the alarm rang out, the men in the room with me didn’t react at all. There wasn’t even any uncomfortable shuffling in their seats. I glanced nervously at the barred windows (which only open to 10 centimetres). ‘Shouldn’t we leave?’ One inmate, a young lad who was particularly good at writing comic scripts, was still leaning back in his chair, his hands clasped behind his head like he was reclining on a beach rather than in a prison library with an alarm sounding. Without altering his chilled position, he said, ‘Where you gonna go?’ And then, what the men were already resigned to, hit me. I’d been escorted through six locked doors to reach this room. The windows were barred. There was no way out. We were locked, six doors deep, in what could be a burning building. Just last week we’d watched as an inmate, suffering from a mental health episode, managed to set fire to a blanket in the courtyard outside. What if someone had done that again? What if they’d done it inside? And as we stood there, trapped, the fire was taking hold, filling the place with smoke, the flames surging toward us. I’ve always been equal parts fascinated by and frightened by fire, after I visited a neighbour’s gutted kitchen from a chip pan fire as a young child. Was this the moment my phobia was about to become a terrifying reality? Anxiety obviously showed on my face, as the same chilled lad from before added, with a grin that garnered a chuckle from the group; ‘Don’t worry, someone’s probably just smoking Spice in their cell.’ And the alarm stopped.
That sensation of animal fear at being cornered, and being unable to escape stayed with me. The fire alarm was the spark for my story. The ultimate worst case scenario, where you have lost everything, including your own autonomy. The true horror that lurks in prison cells.
Imagine this. You open the newspaper to read the headline. ‘Murder at isolated country house.’ You read on with interest – especially when you discover that the large and rambling house in question had been cut off from the outside world for forty-eight hours by a terrible storm, the likes of which had not been seen for over a hundred years. Not only had all the phone lines, mobile coverage and electricity supplies been temporarily thrown out of action, but also that the single bridge giving access to this house had been washed away by the surging storm waters. Your interest only increases as you then discover that the house had been temporarily home to a group of mis-matched individuals, each with a secret to hide, who had come together only to find that one of them was a murderer. Then to complete the bizarreness of this story, it transpires that one of the party happened to possess the skills of a seasoned detective, and was able to deduce the identity of the murderer and then confront him or her with their crime, all before communications with the outside world were restored.
Of course, you would never read this story in a newspaper – because it has never (to my knowledge) happened in real life. I have to own up here – the above scenario is pretty much the plot of my latest book The Bone Fire. But I’m not alone in telling this story. Since finishing my novel, I’ve noticed that many contemporary writers are also telling versions of this same tale. In Hanna Jameson’s The Last the victims are holed up in a Swiss hotel with a murderer, as the outside world is being destroyed by nuclear war. In Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party they’re in a Scottish hunting lodge, cut off by a snow-storm, as a serial murderer strikes. In Jane Harper’s The Lost Man they’re divided off from civilisation by thousands of miles of Australian outback, as one of the family mysteriously loses his life. And in my own book The Bone Fire the victims have fled from the ravages of plague to a remote castle, only to find that they have locked themselves inside with a killer.
It is a trope made most famous by Agatha Christie, particularly in her novels And Then There Were None and Murder On The Orient Express, but its popularity has never gone away. The contemporary novels mentioned above, including my own, might take place in medieval castles, hunting lodges, or even Australian cattle stations, but they are treading most firmly into Christie territory.
So why is this story popular, when it seems to bear so little resemblance to reality? How often are we genuinely cut off from the rest of the world? Even in the time when my books are set, which is the fourteenth century, it would have been fairly difficult to achieve. And what about the way in which the crimes are portrayed in these stories? Murder in the real world is mostly senseless, ugly and random – often prompted by a moment of rage or desire, or a mixture of the two. Sometimes it’s even just an irrevocable blunder. A punch that was too hard, or a car that was driven too quickly. More often than not, it is perpetrated by somebody who has neither planned their crime, nor does a very good job at covering their tracks. Whereas the murderer in Christie territory is a different beast entirely. He or she is clever, adept and brimming over with plausible motive. His or her crimes are never impulsive or sloppy.
And then what about the victim? For the most part they are quickly forgotten, as the plot moves relentlessly forward, often onto the next murder – because there is rarely just one killing in these stories. It seems there isn’t time for lamentation or feelings of loss at the victim’s death. As P.D James wrote of Christie’s victims, ‘we feel that at the end of the book the victim will get up, wipe off the artificial blood and be restored to life.’
So what draws an author to write these books, you might ask, if it is such a work of invention? From my own point of view, I was intrigued by the challenge of writing a murder mystery with all the constraints of this sub-genre – the limited cast that must include both a murderer and victims, all taking place within an intimate environment that cannot be escaped. It pushed my skills at plotting to the limits. It also focused my mind, more than ever before, on the nature of my characters – for the claustrophobic setting of the closed-circle mystery only serves to hold an enormous magnifying glass over their motives. If your characters are acting in an unbelievable and contrived way just to serve the plot, then the novel will ultimately fail.
At times, writing The Bone Fire made my brain ache more than any of the other books I’ve written. I often felt as if I were lost inside a web of looping paths, constrained within the highest, tightest walls of the most devious maze. Ultimately it was a challenge that I enjoyed, and one in which I hope to have succeeded, but straying into Christie territory is never easy. As she said herself, in her author’s notes for And Then There Were None: ‘The person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been.’
So, if it’s a challenge for the writer, then what is the appeal for the reader? I’ve come to the conclusion that the major shortcoming of these closed-circle mysteries – their contrived reality – is, in fact, their main appeal. This is crime in a closed container. A piece of Tupperware that can be opened and then shut away again. A puzzle that is designed to be solved by the reader like a game of Cluedo, but which doesn’t tend to intrude upon or even pollute their imagination, in the way that reading about gangland crime, people trafficking or serial murderers might. After reading these books, we don’t worry about being murdered by our fellow guests on a weekend break to the Lake District. It is murder in a controlled, laboratory environment. It might be violent. It might be dark, but it is still safe. And that’s exactly why we continue to consume and enjoy it. In our chaotic and unsure world, it is crime with rules and standards.
‘Could challenge CJ Sansom for dominion’ Sunday Times
London, 1656: Captain Seeker is back in the city, on the trail of an assassin preparing to strike at the heart of Oliver Cromwell’s Republic
The Commonwealth is balanced on a knife edge. Royalists and disillusioned former Parliamentarians have united against Oliver Cromwell, now a king in all but name. Three conspirators, representing these factions, plan to assassinate the Lord Protector, paving the way back to the throne for Charles Stuart once and for all.
Captain Damian Seeker, meanwhile, is preoccupied by the horrifying discovery in an illegal gambling den of the body of a man ravaged by what is unmistakably a bear. Yet the bears used for baiting were all shot when the sport was banned by Cromwell. So where did this fearsome creature come from, and why would someone use it for murder?
With Royalist-turned-Commonwealth-spy Thomas Faithly tracking the bear, Seeker investigates its victim. The trail leads from Kent’s coffee house on Cornhill, to a German clockmaker in Clerkenwell, to the stews of Southwark, to the desolate Lambeth Marshes where no one should venture at night.
When the two threads of the investigation begin to join, Seeker realises just what – and who – he is up against. The Royalists in exile have sent to London their finest mind and greatest fighter, a man who will stop at nothing to ensure the Restoration. Has Seeker finally met his match.
Girl at Midnight has sold over a million copies in Poland and Katarzyna Bonda has become her country’s undisputed Queen of Crime.
For seven years, Sasza Zaluska has lived with her little girl in the north of England. Far from her previous job as an undercover cop, far from her dependence on alcohol and the traumatic case that made her flee from the police, her family and her native Poland.
But now she is coming back.
This time, Sasza is looking for a quieter life. She has studied to become a psychological profiler and she soon picks up a freelance job to check out some threats made against the owner of a nightclub.
But no sooner has Sasza visited the club than a man is murdered there and Sasza finds herself drawn back towards the world she left behind.
The dead man is a musician – famous for one song in particular: Girl at Midnight. Both the song and the crime seem to be connected to a double tragedy of years before, when a brother and sister both died on the same day.
Now Sasza Zaluska must follow a crooked, complex trail from a violent past to a more sophisticated criminal present, in which the gangsters have corrupted every level of society.
‘Can you really be a Private Investigator in the UK?’ I asked my husband one morning. I was contemplating the future character arch of my librarian sleuth, Kitt Hartley over a bowl of cereal, and was toying with the idea of her doing a bit of official PI work.
My husband is a digital historian and thus knows a thing or two about typing just the right terms into the Google search bar. Within a minute he’d found a day workshop entitled ‘PI Experience Day’. Within a fortnight I was enrolled on the course in the name of book research and within the month I was sitting in a pub basement in West London, pen and notebook in hand.
Here are five things I learnt that day about a job that had long intrigued me:
A PI has no more authority than the average UK citizen. They do not have the right to break and enter, look at people’s private records or do any of the 101 other dubious activities you see them engaged in on TV. It is legal under certain circumstances to track people via GPS but there are harassment laws in place that all PIs need to be aware of. Oh, and by the by, private investigation is currently an unregulated industry, which means you could set up shop tomorrow without any formal training. This is not a course of action the course leader in anyway endorsed.
PI work is more than just surveillance. Work might include serving papers on behalf of a local solicitor, researching background information on a person or company, tracking down a missing person and taking statements so you don’t get to play with the Filofax fitted with covert audio recording technology every day. Sorry.
Private Investigators tend to use specific terms for the sake of clarity and concealment. For example, a PI is likely to use the phonetic alphabet in the same way the police might. They also use terms like ‘subject’ to talk about a person they are following, the clock directions to describe to other colleagues watching the subject where they are in a shop, café or bar and words like ‘housed’ and ‘mobile’ to describe whether the subject is in a vehicle or inside a building. Using these words on the workshop almost made me feel like I knew what I was doing… almost. A delusion that leads on nicely to my next point.
A PI cannot have butter fingers. Not only is it likely to draw attention to you at the worst possible moment on a surveillance operation, it’s not helpful when you’re trying to operate a camera disguised as a coffee cup lid. On the mock-surveillance operation we took part in, I managed to take a compelling 7 second video of the ceiling in Westfield shopping mall, while one of my team mates wound up with a twenty minute video of his groin.
Surveillance is not a one person job. The second the subject moves into a crowd, there is a very good chance you’ll lose them if you’re on your own. Ditto if they turn a corner, walk into a subway, board a train further down the platform and so on. You need eyes on that person from as many angles as possible. Without the support of a team who knows what they are doing, you’re likely to go back to the client empty handed, with a video of the inside of your handbag, and little else.
My third book in the Dani Lewis series, The Coldest Blood, has been out in shops for a few months now. It was always going to be the conclusion of a three-book arc, and we see Dani and Hamilton’s relationship reach its resolution. Now comes the time where I start to think about book four and what will happen to Dani next…
Looking at messages from the readers that correspond with me by email and on Facebook, there is a lot of interest in Hamilton (why do people so love the baddies??) and I often get messages asking about the time when Dani and Hamilton were partners in the Royal Navy’s Special Investigation Branch. This, and some ideas that have been bubbling away for many years, always make me think about a prequel, a story that sees what it was like when Dani was, unknowingly, partnered with a serial killer. But it also makes me think about who would best be suited to partner with Dani in an investigation, particularly if I had all the detectives that crime fiction has to offer. So, here I present to you the three fictional characters that I believe would pair brilliantly with my own Dani Lewis.
In third place, is one of my favourite on-screen detectives of all time, written by one of my favourite authors of all time, it is Val Mcdermid’s Carol Jordan of the Wire in the Blood series. I’ve always enjoyed Carol Jordan’s pragmatism, mixed with dry humour, but also her humanity and the way that she can remain strong when she needs to but is a human and vulnerable and real as any of us. I could see a relationship between Carol and Dani based on trust and shared values. I could also see them being able to have some heated discussions, but still being able to recognize and respect what each brings to the party. I believe they’d be friends. I also believe they’d be a formidable crime-fighting team. So in third place, but not by much, I recommend Carol Jordan.
In second place, and someone who I think would make an amazing partner for almost any detective, would be Lisbeth Salander. A fearless investigator who’s prepared to colour outside the lines if necessary. I think Lisbeth would bring another dimension to Dani’s single-minded focus. If I were a criminal and I knew that I had Lisbeth Salander paired with Dani Lewis focused on bringing me to justice, I know that I would feel very precarious in my prospects for enduring freedom. Online or in the real world, nowhere would be safe. So second place goes to Lisbeth Salander.
And in first place, my top pick to partner Dani Lewis, is perhaps a tiny bit of a cop-out. I wanted a literary partner and my first pick seemed to only be on television. But, Neil Cross, the creator of Luther, has bailed me out by commencing a brilliant series of books based on his character, John Luther, and as such, I believe Alice Morgan is fair game to be my number one pick to partner Dani Lewis.
I’ve mentioned the Dani is driven by an insatiable quest for justice, and that she is often willing to walk the narrow path between the right thing to do, and what needs to be done… to my mind, teaming her with a mind and will like Alice Morgan would create the most formidable crime-fighting force the literary world has ever seen. My only concern would be knowing who would be the stronger of the two characters. Whether Alice would pull Dani closer and closer to the edge, and into that grey area between right and wrong, or whether Dani’s moral compass would keep Alice tethered. Either way, this is a duo I’d love to see in action. So, my number one pick to partner Dani Lewis for an investigation would be Alice Morgan.
Frequently described as the heir to John le Carré, Henry Porter has written six bestselling thrillers, including Brandenburg, which won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, A Spy’s Life and Empire State, which were both nominated for the same award.
His most recent thriller was the universally praised Firefly. The hotly anticipated sequel, White Hot Silence, is landing in bookshops near you at the end of June.