Delighted to share that the paperback edition of A WANTED MAN is now available for preorder through the links below – coming 18th December – can’t wait to see it in the flesh.
I’ve waxed lyrical on here before about my love of Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson books, and am working my way steadily through the stories. Each one seems better than the last, which is quite some feat, but there is no doubt this is crime writing of the highest order, with a cast of characters that I now find utterly indispensable. However, while reading The Broken Places, the third in the Quinn Colson series, Atkins managed to do something rare, unexpected and, I would imagine, damn difficult – and that is to create a villain who is so awful yet so pitiable, that you can’t help feeling sorry for him.
There be spoilers ahead, so fair warning….
The book opens with two convicts (Esau and Bones) escaping prison, and heading off for Jericho – the town where our hero, Quinn Colson, is the sheriff. They’ve got business with Dixon, a convict turned preacher, who just so happens to be seeing Quinn’s sister Caddy. In basic terms, Esau and Bones pulled off a bank heist, and told Dixon where the money is hidden while inside. They head off to get their money, but believe Dixon has screwed them and taken the money for himself. So far, so very good indeed.
Esau is a foul, fascinating creation: a stinking, nihilistic hulk who shoots people in cold blood for next to no reason. He’s a user, a man of extreme violence, a thief and a bully… BUT… his character is multi-layered in the darkest of ways. I can’t recall him doing a single ‘nice‘/redemptive thing in the entire book, but I still couldn’t help feeling sorry for him in a way at the end.
He has principles, that in his warped mind he thinks are enough to live by. He’ll kidnap a woman and child, hold them at gunpoint, but apologise for it. He still does the foul deed, but he doesn’t necessarily have to feel good about it.
He repeatedly accuses his ‘woman’ Becky of cheating on him and trying to screw him out of the money too, but soon apologises and shows genuine affection for her.
He looked after Dixon in jail, because he was being worked to death in the fields at the penitentiary, and Dixon got him a job in the cafeteria, thereby saving him. He worked with Dixon in prison while he started to preach, and began to feel close to God himself – all the while planning to bust out to get his money back.
He beats Dixon to a pulp when he thinks he’s holding out on him, even shoots him in the leg, but stops short of killing him, aware of how much Dixon helped him in jail.
He is a myriad of the nastiest contradictions, a man who exists solely on his own jet black terms. He navigates life according to a moral compass that only has the tiniest sliver of morality to it. As a villainous creation he is one of my utter favourites, in that he was wildly unpredictable, yet somehow relatable, on the most base levels possible.
This is no mean feat, and my favourite part about the book. A villain like this, who has conflict, is so much more interesting than a one dimensional ‘baddie‘, and it’s the little things like this that elevate books and crime writers to other levels entirely – not to mention inspiring other writers to try to bring something new to the table, and to challenge themselves and their readers. It has certainly done that to me.
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.
It has become a very happy yearly tradition, every March. Spring is springing and a new Joe Pickett book arrives. Such a welcome return that with each visit brings something new, I’m hooked and happy again. As readable as ever, I feel a genuine pang of happiness to be reunited with these characters – and this is the 16th book in the series! If you’ve not come across the Pickett books before, do get it sorted. You won’t regret it.
Just got back from a stag trip to Budapest, and finished James Lee Burke’s The Neon Rain by the time I got home. It was sublime, and the next in the series should be arriving any day now (I hope). As soon as I got home and got back to my bookshelf, I started The Book of Souls by James Oswald. Been looking forward to this since finishing Natural Causes, the first in his McLean series, and wondering exactly how I’m going to be twisted inside out this time.
Happy New Year, you filthy animals! Hope Christmas and New Year approached you in pack formation and pincered you in a joint headlock of glee.
The holiday period has been so jammed that I haven’t been able to read as much as I’d like BUT…
Finished the luxuriously nuanced tale of An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman, and went straight into Carnosaur by Harry Adam Knight (John Brosnan’s pseudonym). The tonal shift could literally not have been more severe, but I found Carnosaur an absolute RIOT. As a big fan of dinosaurs in fiction, non-fiction and film, it kind of appealed to me on all sorts of different levels, but my word was it fun. Light, fast and easy to read, you’re thrown straight in at the deep end and the book just whizzes by. I’m going to have to dig out the film now…
Moved straight from that to the much-vaunted Long Way Home by Eva Dolan, which I’m now about halfway through. I assure you, the fuss is justified. It’s gripping in all the right ways, and surprising and enthralling to boot. It feels like the work of an old literary hand, sure and steady, but this is Dolan’s debut. What a career she has ahead of her, and her releases will surely be ones I will look out for for years to come.
Now reading this little beaut. Enjoying it thoroughly so far. Always enjoyed Kim’s writing in Empire Magazine, among other things, and this is no exception. More thoughts to follow!