Post originally published on Literarily Speaking on 13th November 2017 (link).
The Book That Changed Everything
I grew up in Croft, a small village in the north west of the UK, a stone’s throw from Manchester. Only 3,000 people lived there, and it was a sleepy community bordered on all sides by farms. Once a year, they had a village carnival that the whole calendar seemed to revolve around, and the village sports field was covered in small tents of bricabrac sellers, tombola stands, coconut shies, donkey rides, candy floss machines and a beer tent. When I was 12, I had two pounds pocket money from my Mum and Dad, and after gorging on sweets and pop, I ended up at a charity book stand, where stacks of tattered paperbacks sat, each stickered with a price tag.
I saw a copy of Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws’ for 25p, and having seen the film, I grabbed it (along with a copy of Tom Clancy’s ‘Patriot Games’, which I hadn’t seen and still haven’t got round to reading). Two years previously, Jurassic Park had come out and had blown my mind to smithereens, and I’d watched all the Spielberg movies I could get my hands on. Jaws was one I’d re-watched fairly recently, so the chance to read that same story was one I was not going to miss. I remember that same Saturday night, reading it in bed.
It changed everything, for all sorts of reasons. It was so apparent from the opening paragraphs that this was a different kettle of fish to what I’d been reading previously (no pun intended but I’ll take it). This was an honest-to-God grown up book, for adults. Not for kids. And at twelve I was reading it – I felt like an utter king. I had never read an adult fiction book before, but I knew my thirst for reading had taken me almost to the limits of what kids fiction at the time had to offer.
Two pages in, and it had gone hugely visceral. There was an unapologetic openness to the blood, the matter-of-factness to the carnage that had me reading it three or four times in sheer disbelief. ‘You can actually write that?!’ I kept asking myself. My eyes were opening.
The story was going off in a different direction to the film too, and the characters were changed. The story was fundamentally the same, and again I was asking questions, knowing that the book had come before the film: ‘was Stephen Spielberg allowed to change things!? Can you do that?!’ My expectations of the fiction world was being blasted to bits.
And then, in the book, Ellen Brody had an adulterous moment with Hooper. I almost dropped the book – that was not in the film at all, but the way that the characters and their relationships had been drawn to this point actually had me feeling a tad sympathetic towards her. I was reading and learning about marital strife and alcoholism, and the darker corners of people’s characters that seldom see light. I am blessed to have had a very peaceful, very reliable and love-filled childhood, and this was eye-opening in the grandest of ways. It’s like the blinds to the rest of the world were slowly peeling back, and I could see certain things for the first time.
And then there was a sex scene. An actual sex scene, with the description of anatomy and actions and good Lord all the rest. As a late bloomer, this was pretty watershed. I hadn’t a clue what I was reading, the quaint images of what I’d learned in the rather stuffy sex education classes at school rendered utterly obsolete by Hooper’s frantic tryst with Chief Brody’s wife. I still shake my head with laughter thinking about reading that for the first time, reading the page with my jaw hanging and my eyes widescreen.
By the end of the story, and Quint had used a dead dolphin foetus as bait for the great white (again, way way more than what I had bargained for), all bets were off in terms of what fiction could give me. I could never go back to reading kids books, never. A new world was
opened to me, a world where darkness was explored and talked about, where happy endings weren’t a given, and the physical, bare reality of life was given voice. I was writing a lot myself at the time, but I know that nothing was ever the same after that. I still have that book, the one that means everything to me, and I’m sure every reader does too.
And you never know – if I had bought an extra stick of rock or bag of penny mix, I might not have had enough coins to take to the book stand in the first place, and may never have even written a book at all.
I think, when discussing the origins of A Wanted Man, it is important to establish a timeline. I’m now 34, and I first put pen to paper on a crime story set in Manchester when I was 17. I was a cinema nut, a real action movie junkie, and I loved to write. My English teacher at the time told me that my prose was too description heavy, and my writing was suffering because of it. That got me thinking about screenplays, and the economical style in which screenplays are written – I felt that the best way for me to tell stories, given my problems with over-description, was to go down that avenue. So age 17 I wrote a screenplay called Murder In The Name, which was a crime caper set in Manchester, with a family at war within itself.
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Can’t believe I’m in a list with such incredible crime fiction heavyweights! So happy to be there, and even happier that people are enjoying ‘A Wanted Man’!
The crime files are over-flowing right now with big-name blockbusters and outstanding indie authors. In fact there’s too many to fit into this round-up of ten intriguing titles, so come back in a fortnight for more gripping criminal activity. In the meanwhile we’ve a superb selection of police procedurals, serial killers, Nordic noir, vengeful vigilantes, ice-cool assassins, supernatural sleuths, mystery, murder… and the long-anticipated new novel from one of the acclaimed kings of crime fiction. Plenty here to read over the summer holidays!
WATCHING YOU by Arne Dahl
Arne Dahl – the pen-name of accomplished Swedish author Jan Arnald – already has one outstanding Scandi crime series to his credit in the shape of the Intercrime series which are painfully slowly being translated into English. But if that’s not enough (and it’s not… well, not for us) a new Nordic noir series starts this summer with Watching You.
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Every now and then a thirst for a scary story rears its ugly head, and I take a break from my usual crime novel inhaling to satisfy it. The last two I’ve read have both been so good, yet so markedly different, in the way that the authors have decided to set up their fictional world, and deliver the hauntings themselves. Sometimes when I read ghost stories etc, I feel a little deflated that the same old tropes have been fallen upon again, and rarely am I surprised. Both of these books elevated way beyond this, were original, fresh, beautifully written and very unsettling, and were the best two ghost stories I’ve read in quite some time.
Dark Matter is set in the 1930s and the period vibe provides an authentic, antiquated setup to proceedings. It’s a very real world, muddling along in between World Wars, the class divides as pointed as they have ever been, before the action moves from London to Norway, up in the arctic circle, where the light is fading fast and months of darkness approach. The haunting itself is gradual, teased, suggested, and ultimately beautifully told by Michelle Paver.
This is the story of a man so gripped by the desire to prove himself to his peers that he’d rather encounter the worst in order to do so, and before long, the worst indeed comes to find him. The spirit or force is a wonderful creation, and the story behind it genuinely affecting. The descriptions of the apparition itself are a wonderful mix of vivid and suggestive, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks around a few very unsettling details. Between a genuinely interesting force of evil, and a unique setting and time period that creates its own set of problems and parameters for our protagonist to overcome. The overall impression I was left with was of an expert, economical, unique ghost story that was unlike anything I’ve come across, told with a near hypnotic control of the reader. I couldn’t look away, nor did I want to. Superb.
On the other hand Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, takes a tried and tested formula (or at least the formula that worked so well for The Blair Witch Project) and throws the reader a monumental curve ball. Yes, the ghost witch exists. Yes, the protagonists know. Yes, the town of Black Spring is haunted.But they all have to get on with their lives somehow, and eke out a modern existence in a small town with a giant haunting secret. The witch could show up at any time, ruining your dinner. If the witch appears in an inconvenient spot, just put a sheet over her and go about your business. It’s a setup that I’ve not come across – one where the characters are almost jaded/bored by being haunted. This isn’t the world of ‘is there anything out there?’ – it’s more the world of ‘we know there is something out there but we just have to carry on’.
As a story set in the modern era, Heuvelt brings a laterally thought approach to how an acknowledged legitimate haunting might work, if people had to accept it and carry on with their lives. It’s the secret of the town and it always has been. If the rest of the world were to find out, all hell would break loose. But the town needs trade – it needs visitors and commerce in the area, and that involves outsiders. So the council of Black Spring have created a thoroughly believable smartphone app, managed by an in-town security setup, that lets residents log witch sightings/behaviour so that the town can plan their lives appropriately. It’s nothing short of genius, and exactly what you can picture happening if this were to actually happen in the real world. In that sense, it’s wonderful to see the story play out in such a well-thought out setting, because everything from there feels real and believable – something not always achieved in ghost stories. The motivations of the witch, and the behaviour of the witch, is as unsettling as anything I’ve ever read I think, yet Heuvelt still manages to make her a sympathetic figure. In doing so, he creates a fable about acceptance, social responsibility, love and bullying. It was another storming read, one which I couldn’t recommend high enough.
So you’ve got Dark Matter which takes a more traditional approach of creating a normal world that has elements of the supernatural invading it, then Hex which takes an all new (at least that I’ve come across) approach by having the supernatural elements very much a part of the world we live in (while it being delivered not remotely like a fantasy novel). Both were enthralling, both hugely believable on their own terms (with the help of a little imagination) and both just what I wanted when it came to scratching that ghost story itch. Recommend them both highly, and would love to hear about more fresh ghost story novels out there.
One of the problems of days only having 24 hours in them is that it doesn’t possibly give you enough time to get everything done. I’m not talking about the mundane day to day stuff, but more like, well… I thought I’d have mastered at least fifteen languages by now, and be a 7th dan black belt in something obscure and dangerous. And it means that oftentimes things slip the net.
Getting stuck into the works of Ian Rankin is one of them, I’m ashamed to say. A name that is essentially a byword for peak British crime writing, and I haven’t managed to get there yet… but thankfully I’ve managed to put it right.
I’m so glad I did. Rankin’s words have been dissected by hundreds of much worthier voices (and much more on-the-ball voices) but I can easily see Rankin’s work nestling in alongside my all time favourites and biggest influences. There is a bravery, a poeticism, an economical forthright darkness that had me enthralled. One of my favourite descriptions of Adrian McKinty’s work is ‘this is hard boiled crime fiction with a poet’s touch‘ (Peter Blauner), and that felt resonant here too – and it was reading Rankin’s praise of McKinty that reminded me I had to get onto Knots and Crosses, the first of Rankin’s iconic Rebus series.
In doing so I have found another mesmerising literary voice whose work I can’t wait to press right through. I have ordered the next ten Rebus books as a start. It’s not often I’ll be so impetuous but on this occasion I’ve no doubt it’s the right move.
Wait, is that the doorbell? Please be the postman with a sizeable book-shaped parcel…
When Deep Down Dead was first published as an ebook in October, I managed to convince myself to wait for the paperback in early January. I was very excited to read it, and had been for years – so I thought a couple more months couldn’t hurt.
Then the reviews started coming in – five stars upon five stars, with some of the biggest names in crime writing on both sides of the Atlantic weighing in with heavy praise and before I knew it, I was bursting to read it even more. The paperback couldn’t arrive quickly enough.
The reason I was so excited is because I was actually present when the book was pitched as part of the Pitch Perfect contest at Bloody Scotland 2014 (a hell an event, by the way). I sat there (having just signed with my own literary agent, tentatively dipping my little toe into the literary waters) and listened in awe as Steph Broadribb span a fascinating yarn about a female bounty hunter in Florida, drawing from her own experiences training as a bounty hunter in California – I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was a book I wanted to read immediately.
Prior to that event, and for a good year after, I never once made the link that Steph was in fact Crime Thriller Girl, the popular crime blogger whose reviews, articles and recommendations I had always followed and enjoyed. It was only when word started to get out about ‘the book with the female bounty hunter in Florida’ that the penny began to drop. I was thrilled and delighted to hear that I was actually going to get to read that exciting story, that Steph was going to be published, and that that same story that got me hooked in that pitching contest was going to be her debut.
Regarding the book itself, there are far more eminent crime writers out there whose words carry far more weight than my own – but I just love what Steph has done, how she has delivered it, and what a great series (I hope!) she has set up. I’m fully invested in Lori Anderson, JT and Dakota, and am so excited to see what happens next. If you like your thrillers fast, urgent and gripping, with a great, fresh, relatable protagonist, in a setting that drips with intrigue and genuine authenticity, then Deep Down Dead will be right up your street.
As I’m learning, in crime publishing you tend to find just the nicest people – and Steph is no exception. She has been so kind, generous and encouraging towards myself, in ways that I never expected or assumed. Make no mistake, Crime Thriller Girl is one of the good guys… and to see this book go from beginning to such a spectacularly successful end is so very pleasing.
I’ve been quiet for the last month, much to the chagrin of my resolution to keep blogging once or twice a week. The hiatus wasn’t enforced, rather it was stumbled upon and I guess I needed a break. I only ever talk about bookish and story-related topics on here, but I’ll venture to tackle something altogether different and a little personal. Life is for living, so back in August 2016, I embarked on a 17 week training and dieting program in an effort to raise money for Cancer Research UK by taking part in a boxing match. I’d never boxed before… and I’m not remotely ashamed to say that it utterly consumed me.
It was all in the memory of my dear Auntie Sheila who we sadly lost in early August 2016 after a short battle with cancer. To say this was sudden is a total understatement, and the shockwaves are still barreling through my family as I write. It strikes me as so unfair, so unnecessary, so pointless to take someone’s life like this, and I was angry. I bottled it up. I wanted to pour myself into something meaningful to try to find some kind of silver lining to the horrible madness the family suddenly found itself in.
Auntie Sheila was beset by ill health for over half her life, and never ever did I hear her moan about it. She only spoke about it if asked, and even then it was with a positive spin, or a ‘you know me’ wink. She fought one thing after another with such zeal and backbone, that I wanted to find something that would reflect her own unrelenting spirit and zeal. So I found myself signing up for the toughest thing I could find – boxing.
Now Auntie Sheila would have hated me boxing – just despised it. But I found a company in Ultra White Collar Boxing that is safe, regulated and fights exactly what took Auntie Sheila from us – cancer, with full support to Cancer Research UK. For me, it was a perfect match – plus Auntie Sheila would be the first person up on her chair shouting ‘hit him, Robert!’ when the bell rang.
I started at 191lb give or take. If anything, I think it might be a touch more because I used some dodgy bathroom scales to start with. That is only 9lb off heavyweight, which was a stark reminder that in recent years, I had let myself go a bit. Having kids and lifestyle changes will do that to you. Life runs away with you, and before you know it you are cutting corners. I’m 5’10” and being nearly 14 stone was not where I wanted to be. So I looked at boxing weight brackets, picked something I felt was doable and respectable, and aimed for it. I went for light-heavyweight, at 175lb. So I had three and a bit months to lose 16lbs. I thought that would be tough but I went for it.
Training to begin with was a slog. Lethargy was crippling, but breaking through it was worse. The diet was uninspiring, and too much. Greens, protein, lean meats. Get it down you, and get in the gym again. Ugh, it was knackering, time consuming, and boring.
But after 2-3 weeks, something significant changed. I remembered why I was doing it. I remembered the spirit I wanted to embody, and suddenly word was out amongst my friends and family. The support was huge, and came from all sides. Tickets to fight night started to sell, and the other fighters who’d signed up started chatting on Facebook in a private admin group dedicated to getting the ball rolling. There was a buzz.
And there was a physical change, which was a real shot in the arm. I can’t really define it, but there was something. And there was a bounce in my step that hadn’t been there before. I took my kids to a soft play centre in mid-September, and I had a ball – I could chase them everywhere, be a daft dad, and still felt raring to go. It was empowering and seductive. It was around this time that a veil dropped over my eyes, and my motivation became ironclad and unshakable. Whatever was happening to me, I loved it. And every time like I felt like I hated the whole world for what happened to Auntie Sheila, I channeled it into my training.
By mid-October, a stone had gone, and I was in the best shape I’d been in in years. I was healthy, ready and raring to go – and the boxing training itself hadn’t even started yet. That was to start first week of November – an intensive 8 week training programme to turn beginners into fighters. I wanted to arrive at that in decent nick, and having been a fan of boxing for years, I knew how serious the sport is. I had to give the situation respect and due diligence. So I contacted the gym to get some private sessions in before I got going with the proper fight training, and ended up working with Pele Hall, ex-kickboxing champion, and began conditioning training.
The first session ended with me in the corner of the gym trying not to throw up. It was unreal. I felt I’d come a long way since August, but this reminded me of just how far I had to go to be ready for fight night. We arranged another session, and went at it. I trained myself six days a week with no diet cheat days, and was building muscle. Pele pushed me hard, but I loved it. I could feel my body and mind responding. I wanted more, and I pushed back.
Progress rumbled onwards until I left to go on holiday with my family, which had been planned long before any boxing training had been arranged. I didn’t want to undo anything I’d already achieved, but I’d been so excited for the trip that I wanted to enjoy it fully and have a few beers with my family. So, I gave myself a beer allowance. No more than 4-5 pints in a given day (sounds ridiculous writing that, but I do admittedly enjoy a beer with my family!) and vowed to stick to the diet while I was away. I had a blast, and the only thing I really missed was joining in on the bacon butties in the morning or traditional pub grub when we went out together. But my goal was always in my mind. I went away at 181lb, and came back at 178 – and I drank pretty much what I wanted and when I wanted. I was made up, and threw myself into proper training again as soon as I got back.
The organised training sessions were underway, and were a hit from the beginning. Pele and Dave Jackson, gym owner of Cheshire Martial Arts Centre, were superb in creating a gym atmosphere that was collaborative, encouraging and competitive. It made for an intoxicating mix, and I found myself waiting for Tuesdays and Thursdays to tick round again so I could get back in. Respect was key, and there was a lot of it flying around between the fighters. Bonds were forged. It was great.
With six weeks to go, I hit 174lb, and decided not to stop there. I wanted to press on and lose as much weight as I could while building myself for fight night. Super-middleweight is 168lb, so I aimed for it. Another six pounds could go, surely?
Sparring was ramping up in intensity, and there was a buzz in the gym as fight night grew nearer. There was always the possibility that the person you were talking to or sparring with might be named your opponent on fight night, and that lent a real edge in the gym. I found myself watching people, in terms of who I fancied fighting and who I thought might be a real handful. All the while the weeks flew.
Suddenly, it was fight week, and our opponents were announced with a traditional face-off in the gym. I was announced to be fighting a cracking bloke called Scott, with whom sparring had always been competitive and who had joked from early on in the process that we would probably end up fighting each other. But sadly, Scott broke his foot three days before the fight. I was gutted for him, because like everyone else, he had put in eight weeks training for the fight. I was told I’d have a fight, and the organisers were brilliant in finding a replacement. Unsurprisingly, boxers who have trained for exactly 8 weeks don’t grow on trees, so a fighter from the gym was called, Lee. Lee had trained for two years and was undefeated in four such fights, not to mention a bit bigger than me – but I didn’t care. I had a fight, I was buzzing, I felt better then I’ve ever felt. Lee was a complete gentleman, and the fight was set.
I was 170lb in the days leading up to the fight, and was a bit gutted that I wasn’t going to make 168 – but the morning of the fight itself, I checked the scales. 167.4lb. Made it, somehow. And it took my total weightloss to almost 24lbs. I was, and am still, delighted with that result. I enjoy life much more being almost two stone lighter.
The organisation of the event was superb, and at the venue (Halliwell Jones Stadium in Warrington) we were treated excellently with medicals and facilities at our disposal. Here we saw the ring being built – and it was tiny. Postage-stamp tiny. There was nowhere to run in there at all, if that happened to be your game plan. All you could do, was stand and fight. Adrenaline was coursing, the music was blaring, and before I knew it, I was heading to the ring.
I felt invincible, unstoppable, unbeatable… right up until I got hit. Testament to Lee’s skills – he hits like a train. He was unlike anyone I’ve ever faced in sparring, and I was quickly learning also just how different sparring and fighting actually is. Nothing hurt, because of the sheer adrenaline, but the stopping power behind Lee’s shots was incredible. We went toe to toe, and I gave everything I had, exchanging shots at a high pace.
I made it back to the corner at the end of round one, and could barely speak to Pele, who was my cornerman. He looked at me and said something along the lines of ‘surprised you that, didn’t it’ and told me to take my time and breathe. I still couldn’t say anything.
The second round started, and we were back at it again, but Lee was pulling away from me now. I could feel it. My arms were leaden, his shots were taking their toll, and he looked fresh still with real snap in his punches. I managed to get him back against the ropes, and gave him a right hand – to which he responded with a one-two that unleashed a white light at the corner of my vision. The room started going sideways, and the blue of the canvas was coming up. All I could think of was ‘this is not the plan, this is not the plan’ and the next thing I see is the ref waving his arms over my head. It was over, and I had been beaten by KO.
I was hoisted up, and waved to my family, then embraced Lee who was ever the gent. We were both given trophies, and we were suddenly out in the cold stadium with our bloody noses and jangled senses, walking back around to the changing rooms. We had our medicals, swapped war stories, and wished each other a merry christmas. It was most civilised!
I got showered, and went out to meet my family, while a beautiful black eye was blossoming on my face. We had a great night, spent time with the fighters and their families, and I watched the remaining fights from ringside. What struck me from watching as a spectator was just how much effort everyone was giving. All the fighters have their own families, jobs, their own bills to pay, their own life stories in the background – yet here they were laying it all on the line in a function room just before christmas, getting their noses busted and their eyes blackened so they could raise money for Cancer Research UK. I’ve got huge respect for each and every one of them. You don’t have to do this. There are other things you can do. But these people chose this and just went for it.
I went home, explained to the kids my black eye was from falling over (not a complete lie), and had a wonderful family christmas with this beautiful shiner around my left eye. I contemplated on what I learned.
- The body is powerful, but your mind is even stronger. Get it into your head you are going to do it, then just jolly well do it. You can do it. YOU CAN.
- Anyone who steps into a boxing ring deserves respect. Watching it is one thing, but stepping into the ring so a bloke can try to take your head off? There’s guts in that. Big guts.
- Combat sports and gyms are incredible places to learn about respect, control, sportsmanship and discipline.
- Setting yourself goals is brilliant.
- Leaving your comfort zone is better.
- Boxing is a hugely skilful sport, make no mistake.
- The key to achieving things like weight-loss is control. Self-control. Listen to yourself. Make yourself proud. You can do it.
- People change their lives doing this. I’ve met them, and they’re doing much bigger things than losing a few pounds like I did. Their stories are theirs to tell but they are nothing short of inspiring and I admire them hugely.
- I would do it all again.
I’m so proud of the money we raised for Cancer Research UK – almost £2000. I am so grateful to everyone who helped support me through this, be it through sponsorship or kind words. This is a fantastic way to raise money for a charity that is doing so much to help KO cancer for good. Ultra White Collar Boxing and their staff and trainers looked after us so well, prepared us and advised us wonderfully, and gave us all an experience I’ll never forget. They have raised almost £7 million for Cancer Research UK – think about that. What they are doing, and in turn what these boxers are doing, is actively changing people’s lives. I was delighted to be a part of it…
And I’m doing it again. I’m hooked. March 25th. My motivation is still here, and still iron clad. I want to raise more money in the memory of Auntie Sheila. I want to help beat this awful disease – and I love that this is pushing me to places that I didn’t know I could get to. Bring it on.
You can sponsor me here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Robert-Parker11
Or if you’re feeling brave, you can sign up here: http://www.ultrawhitecollarboxing.co.uk
It has been pointed out to me more than a few times that I can be a bit OTT when it comes to explaining things I liked or enjoyed. A particularly good episode of The Apprentice can quickly become ‘the best thing I’ve ever watched’, and a fresh piece of melon is sometimes ‘the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted’. It means that when I describe something I tend to throw in the big guns so quickly that they lose all meaning – and it’s something I think a lot of people are guilty of, to some extent. I’m all for being positive, but here I’m going to try not to rely on my old tropes. Words like unbelievable and incredible are banned here (for this post at least). Here goes…
Discovering a new author is a joy, and it always has been. Discovering a new author whose work thrills you and seems to connect with you time and time again is a step further than that. When writing too, finding that someone who inspires, informs and delights is also a watershed moment. That’s how I feel at the moment with Dennis Lehane.
Yes, I’m years too late. Quite literally decades too late. I know his books have already been dissected and pawed over by millions of readers already, but that means nothing to me, aside from confirming to me that I’m in the right place, and that I’m not the only one who feels this way.
I’ve read a handful of Lehane’s books now, and have been more and more taken with each novel – and the last one I read, Darkness, Take My Hand, has immediately become one of my favourite books of all time. And no, I’m not resorting to my old outlandish descriptions for things that perhaps don’t deserve it. I genuinely see it as a cornerstone book in my own development as both a reader and a writer.
It is the second book in the Kenzie & Gennaro series, about two private investigators in Boston and their adventures. On this occasion, the past has come back to bite Patrick Kenzie in the form of a serial killer, who gruesomely terrorises Patrick’s old neighbourhood as part of a grander historical plan.
It was published in 1996, but it reads like the top crime fiction bestseller of 2017. Or 2018. Or 2019… Point is, there’s a freshness, a timelessness, a pointed transient quality that lifts the book out of a place in time and puts it in the here and now of whenever the here and now happens to be. I’ll read it again in a few years and still be taken by it.
Something I’m trying to learn about putting into my own work is layers, and I think I try to hard at it to get it right. Lehane’s work is full of layers, and it all feels so effortless yet so keenly worked. Social commentary, existentialism, politics, life, love, the hereafter… It’s all here, and the work feels so enriched and multi-faceted because of it. The result is challenging and rewarding for the reader. Something I constantly despise is the snobbery in the literary world towards crime books and their merits in being able to tackle bigger things. I assure you, my thoughts were more provoked, teased, prodded and bullied during this novel than with anything of a supposedly more literary nature – the only difference being that Lehane doesn’t seem so keen to point out how clever and high-brow he is being. Lesson for me to take on board here – you don’t need to sound like a patronising windbag in order to tackle themes you might think you shouldn’t.
And on this topic, Lehane doesn’t shoehorn it in. He doesn’t bring up the socio-economic differences between race and class because he’s making a grander point off the page – it is here because it benefits the story and the world our characters exist in. It makes it more nuanced, more varied, more real. Layers.
On the topic of his world, it is a meticulously detailed landscape which is just as much a character as any human voice in the novel. The streets, the neighbourhood, the atmosphere, are all very much a part of the story. I’ve never been there, but I feel like I’ve never left. It’s a testament to Lehane’s powers of both observation and descriptive talent that I feel as embedded in the Dorchester neighbourhood of Boston as the characters. And again, you’re never bludgeoned with it. It’s just… there. And it’s just… happening.
The characters are typically varied, rounded and masterfully drawn, and again it is that testament of getting the reader to know and understand that characters without bashing you ever the head with it. Histories are shared and explained without you noticing. Personalities are shown but never told. The reader falls into it all and becomes part of the cast of characters, a Houdini-like sleight of hand trick that has happened before you know it has. Kenzie & Gennaro are unlike any characters I’ve come across. They are bold, brave, sensitive and damaged, but in ways that don’t rely on old conventions or lame pointers. Layers again. Another trick author’s try so hard to pull is to make the audience care for the protagonist – Lehane manages this here again like David Copperfield with a pen. It’s done before I know it. A little misdirection here, and hey presto, I’m following Kenzie & Gennaro until the bitter end.
Plot. It’s surprising and terrifying. I’ll give nothing away, but it’s an unravelling onion of the darkest corners human beings have, and what pushes people into them. Every time you think our characters have a handle on things, the rug isn’t so much pulled as detonated with a case of C4. It moves at such a speed that managing to evoke the care for character and environment as already mentioned is a miraculous achievement. I’d finished the book before I even got to grips with how much I was enjoying it, and I didn’t want it to end – but I hoped the end would bring safety to the characters and neighbourhood.
I’m going to call it a day there, but the third Kenzie & Gennaro book is sitting on my shelf behind me. I’ll be into it before the week is out I’m sure. But I’ve learned so much from reading this one, lessons I hope to take forward myself. With your writing, you can go for it, in every sense of the word. There’s no point otherwise. Don’t idle in neutral. Take it to the readers. Ignore convention and snobbery. Find that voice in you that won’t shut up, and make it impossible to ignore. If you do you might just write something that someone will call the best thing ever. Whoops. Couldn’t help it.