Search This Blog

Saturday 19 December 2009

Christmas Short Story – Inn Time

This story is printed in the bumper Christmas issue of the Costa TV Times, together with a plug for my psychic spy thriller The Tehran Transmission. The story features Leon Cazador, who is a private investigator. ‘My allegiance is split because I’m half-English and half-Spanish,’ he says. ‘Mother had a whirlwind romance with a Spanish waiter but, happily, it didn’t end when the holiday was over. The waiter pursued her to England and they were married.’ A somewhat longer version has been prepared for the Leon Cazador collection, tentatively titled Spanish Eye.


Just my luck, snow had started to fall the day before I left and, by the time I drove my Seat into the mountains, it was lying thick. Not the most auspicious start to the Christmas holidays, I thought, as the windscreen wipers beat a monotonous rhythm.

The road climbed and twisted. Oncoming traffic lights glared, blinding. My heart lurched. I instinctively touched the brake. If I’d been driving a little faster in these conditions, I’d have hit the rear end of the parked car.

I let the engine idle. I was late and the weather was hell. Drive round and move on. I fished in the glove compartment for a torch, switched off the engine, switched on the hazard lights, shoved the shift into gear and ratcheted the handbrake another notch. I opened the door and stepped out.

The snow stopped.

The interior light was on and the windows were steamed up. Not the best place for courting couples. The electric window lowered and a young man peered out. ‘Thank God, you stopped,’ he said. ‘The car won’t go and my wife’s pregnant. We were going to the hospital!’

I shone the torch inside. She was half-lying, half-sitting on the rear seat. One hand rested on her bump, the other gripped the headrest post. She blinked and glanced away. ‘Sorry.’ I lowered the torch.

‘We need to push your car off the road or it’s going to cause an accident,’ I told him. ‘Then we’ll see about getting your wife to the hospital.’

‘Yes, of course.’

I walked to the back of the car. I pocketed the torch and braced myself, ready to push. The road surface was firm enough to give me purchase. ‘Handbrake off!’ I called.

After a few seconds of intense effort, the car started to move forward and gradually it turned off the road.

At that moment, a lorry bore down on my Seat, horn blaring, brakes squealing. The crunch was deafening, my car jammed under its front bumper. Sparks flew as the heavy vehicle dragged mine and slewed across the road. It demolished the crash barrier. Both vehicles tumbled over the edge, leaving only a flurry of snow in their wake.

My mouth was dry. I glanced at the expectant father. He stared in shock at the gap in the road barrier. I took out my mobile, but there was no signal. I enquired but the husband’s phone was inoperative as well, so we couldn’t alert the emergency services.
Suddenly, there was an enormous explosion and flames briefly spouted up from the fallen vehicles. In the fleeting flash of light, I thought I saw something that gave me hope.

Now, the snow started up again, but this time it hit us horizontally, driven by the cierzo, the cold dry wind from the northwest. I moved round and opened the door, slumped into the passenger seat. I explained that we could sit in the car and slowly freeze to death, or try to get to some shelter. ‘Not the greatest options,’ I said, ‘especially in your condition, Señora…’

‘Maria Delacruz,’ she said. ‘My husband, he is Jacinto.’

I nodded. ‘Leon Cazador.’

‘But we don’t know of any shelter,’ said Jacinto. ‘I don’t recall passing any building.’

‘When the truck blew up, the flames highlighted a rooftop over there.’ I pointed down a rough track. ‘Maybe somebody lives there.’

‘They might have a phone!’ Maria said.

‘Very well, we’ll risk it,’ Jacinto said.
The sloping track led to a double gate with a chain and padlock, which opened to useful skills I learned some years ago. Jacinto whispered, ‘How’d you…?’

‘Don’t ask,’ I said.

For a further ten metres the track curved towards a two storey building, its roof covered in snow. The door sign read: Posado del Belén. Inviting enough. I rang the doorbell. The trees were snow-laden, the gardens virgin white. I hoped there wasn’t a frustrated writer acting as a caretaker with a penchant for axing doors. I was relieved there was no answer. I paced to a bay window; it revealed a lounge, an empty hearth. A window on the right showed a bar area, dance floor, stacked tables and chairs. ‘Closed for the season,’ I said.

‘What do we do now?’ Jacinto wailed, stamping his feet, an arm round Maria.

I picked the lock. ‘This way.’ I shut the door behind us and shepherded them into the lounge on the left. Logs were piled to one side. ‘Let’s get a fire going.’

It didn’t take long to warm the place. Maria removed her coat and lay on the leather sofa in front of the roaring fire. Jacinto and I raided the kitchens and found in-date lamb in the fridge and made sandwiches. While Jacinto heated some vegetable soup, I checked out the rest of the building, in search of towels and blankets for Maria.

The reception desk phone didn’t work. I pored over the guest book. The last visitors left two months ago. The inn didn’t have a musty smell and seemed to serve as a hotel, with eight double rooms, the furniture in all of them draped by dustsheets.

In one wardrobe I found a cache of weapons and explosives, but I decided to keep the discovery to myself.

‘The baby,’ shouted Jacinto, ‘it’s coming!’

I raced downstairs and asked Maria about her contractions.

She nodded and wheezed, taking great breaths.

‘There’s still time to eat,’ I told Jacinto. ‘But you must abstain, Maria.’

A couple of hours later, I said, ‘Jacinto, now it’s time. Hot water. Towels.’ He got up and hurried towards the kitchens. It was a few years since I’d delivered a baby, but I told myself it was like riding a bike. As long as no wheels came off, I thought.
Maria gave birth to a lovely boy, without any complications. I’d left Jacinto with his wife and newborn while I cleaned up and took the towels and cloths to the kitchen.

I was on my way back to the lounge when the front door was opened with a key. Most civilised, I thought. Two men and a woman stood in the doorway. I was surprised to see anybody; their expressions reflected more shock than surprise.

They exchanged glances with each other then the woman demanded, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Her voice echoed in the lobby.

‘Hola,’ I said. ‘We took shelter from the storm.’ I gestured at the half-open lounge door that emitted a warm glow. ‘It was an emergency.’

‘Emergency?’ she said.

‘We’ve just delivered a baby – come and see.’

With some reluctance, the three of them followed me inside.

‘We’ve got visitors,’ I said.

Jacinto stood up and Maria hugged her son to her.

I eyed the woman. ‘Are you the owners?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m Melita Reyes and this is my husband, Beltran and my brother-in-law Casimiro.’ She looked at the empty plates.

‘We’ll pay for what we’ve used,’ said Jacinto.

Melita smiled. ‘No need – it can be our gift.’

Her husband tugged at her sleeve and gruffly whispered something. She shook her head. ‘You go with Casi,’ she said, dismissing him.

The two Reyes brothers turned and left the lounge.

‘I’m just going to the kitchen,’ I told Melita. ‘Do you want a drink?’

She sat on the edge of a seat and studied the mother and child. ‘No, thank you,’ she said without looking up.

I eased the door back and was in time to observe the brothers climb the stairs. I sighed, because I knew where they were headed.

There was an alcove under the stairs. I pulled out from my ankle holster the lightweight Colt Officer’s ACP LW automatic. The Astra A-100 automatic was amidst the burnt-out wreckage of my Seat. I had an uninterrupted view of the door to the lounge and the foot of the staircase. I waited.

Ten minutes later, Casi and Beltran descended the stairs, their hands full. I stepped out, my gun levelled on their chests. ‘Is this the new version, eh? Instead of frankincense, myrrh and gold, you bring the babe explosives, detonators and bullets…’

‘What are you talking about?’ Beltran snapped.

Melita emerged through the doorway. As she noticed my weapon, she reached inside her parka.

‘Don’t,’ I warned. ‘I’m a good shot.’

‘You cannot shoot all three of us.’

‘I don’t want to shoot any of you, but I can’t let you leave here, either.’

‘This is our property, Señor. You have no right to…’

‘You’ve no right to blow people up, either.’

‘It is what we believe in,’ said Beltran gruffly.

‘Then it’s about time you got a new belief system.’

‘We want self-determination and territoriality,’ said Casi. ‘This is how we will get it.’

‘No, it isn’t,’ I said.

‘We fight injustice and tyranny,’ said Beltran.

‘Franco’s been dead over thirty years. Open your eyes to the world. If you and Melita ever decided to have children, no dictator is telling you to restrict yourselves to one child. You’re free to follow any religion or none, without persecution. If you’re law-abiding, you need not fear the knock on the door at three in the morning. You have drinking water on tap, and shops filled with food and clothing. You can read any material you wish without censorship. Need I go on?’

‘The government tramples on our aspirations!’ snapped Casi.

‘Your bombs kill innocent people,’ I said.

‘They’re not innocent. They work for the government!’

‘Those Guardia Civil men and women were fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. They were not government tyrants.’ I gestured at the lounge doorway. ‘Inside there is a mother and baby. Innocents.’

‘What would you have us do?’ Melita said, her tone sombre.

‘Give yourselves up. Renounce violence. If your aims are just and legitimate, fight for them by peaceful means. Don’t create orphans and widows.’

Beltran laughed. ‘You’d have us surrender, for the sake of that one baby in there?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and why not?’

‘It’s absurd!’ said Casi.

‘Is it? Just over two thousand years ago, another baby boy came into the world to spread the word. Peace to mankind. His word’s been diluted over the centuries, maybe, but it still holds true today, tonight. This is Christmas Day, after all.’

‘It’s just a baby,’ said Casi.

Beltran pursed his lips and looked at his wife. Her eyes were moist and she nodded briefly. Then he lowered the weapons and bags to the floor.

‘Your weapon, please.’ I held out my hand to Melita.

Carefully, she took out the revolver, gave it to me and I shoved it in my pocket.

Casimiro swore. ‘This is stupid! We’ve sworn to fight together till…’

‘Until one or more of you are dead?’ I said and shook my head. ‘Your so-called cause has gained you nothing but it has killed over eight hundred people, including women and children, and maimed hundreds more, ruining so many lives. Lives that are for living…’ I could easily have been talking to godless killers, but I’d seen the look in Melita’s eyes when she sat with the mother and child, and I believed her maternal instinct had been deeply stirred.

Melita glanced at the lounge doorway again then moved over to her brother-in-law. ‘Bury the hate and love life,’ she whispered. ‘It’s a good belief system, I think.’ She laid a hand on his arm. ‘Please, Casi.’

Casimiro glared at me then flung his bundle to the floor. I flinched as the bag made a noise but nothing exploded. Melita hugged him then went back to her husband.

‘What will you do with us now?’ she asked.

‘Give yourselves up when the snow stops.’

‘Very well.’

At that moment, Jacinto stepped out of the lounge. He trembled as he stared at the discarded weapons and explosives. ‘Madre de Dios!’

I nodded. ‘Maybe this time there won’t be any death of the innocents. Let’s go in and look at the Christmas child.’


Spanish translation note: posado= inn; Belén = Bethlehem; rey = king; reyes = kings; Madre de Dios = Mother of God.

Saturday 12 December 2009

A Fistful of Legends - progress report-04

Although the book A Fistful of Legends is now 'published', due to the vagaries of online setup etc, you can't order this until 31 January 2010. Its ISBN is 978-0-557-19954-9. But it's worth the wait and starts the new year and new decade with several bangs! Here are the front and back covers.

The introduction is by James Reasoner. He has written over 200 novels, including ten books in the Civil War Battle series; he's renowned for the mystery Texas Wind and his latest two books are Death Head Crossing and Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity. Visit him at his blog and also at

As was proven in the previous anthology, Where Legends Ride, and reiterated by James Reasoner in this book’s Introduction, the western can cover all manner of storylines relevant to today’s readership. And this collection endorses that belief in spades.

The line-up and page-numbers...
DEAD MAN TALKING Derek Rutherford 7
BILLY Lance Howard 20
LONIGAN MUST DIE! Ben Bridges 29
HALF A PIG Matthew P Mayo 51
BLOODHOUND Courtney Joyner 56
BIG ENOUGH Chuck Tyrell 78
ON THE RUN Alfred Wallon 117
THE GIMP Jack Martin 125
VISITORS Ross Morton 134
THE NIGHTHAWK Michael D George 147
DARKE JUSTICE Peter Avarillo 165
CRIB GIRLS Kit Churchill 193
MAN OF IRON Chuck Tyrell 206

Legends ride again.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Midnight Street

A new story of mine - 'A Gigantic Leap' is featured in Midnight Street magazine #13. It can be obtained at:

The story begins:

I remember the date well - June 30, 1971 – as that was when my world changed forever.

A little less than a month earlier, I, Kolya Volkov, had been one of the proudest children in the Soviet Union. Anxious but proud. My father, Vladislav Volkov, was a cosmonaut. Now, it is hard to comprehend the primitive nature of our nation’s space-craft in those days. As my father joked once over dinner, ‘we went into space by the seat of our pants!’ He was a charming handsome man with gentle features, small eyes and dark hair.

An indescribable mixture of emotions ran through me when my mother and I learned that the designated crew for Soyuz 11 had to step down as one of them had suspected tuberculosis. My father, with Georgi Dobrovolski and Viktor Patsayev, were the stand-by crew. Four days before the launch, they took over the mission.
He was confident and never doubted his ability as the flight engineer. After all, this wasn’t his first journey into space as he’d been there before in Soyuz 7.

The preceding mission, in Soyuz 10, had been a failure as they had been unable to dock with Salyut 1, the world’s first space station. Now that honour rested with Soyuz 11 and my father.

My mother and I were transfixed as we watched from the secure buildings of Baikonur Cosmodrome. She nervously twisted her lace-bordered cotton handkerchief with one hand, a habit I had observed more than once. She had a box of these handkerchiefs and I recalled her saying in exasperation, ‘My grandmother gave them to me. She laughed at what she called our silly village superstitions. Remember, Kolya, you never give handkerchiefs or knifes as a gift.’

There were other odd things she inculcated into me, such as never celebrating a birthday early – as if you would; and never show your newborn baby to a stranger until it’s forty days old. (I abided by that with my little baby Nessa, foolish man that I am.)

My mother gripped my arm tightly with her free hand as the blast off turned our vision red and yellow. I felt my insides surging with joy and immense pride as the spectacular flame rose into the sky on that day on June 6. D-Day, they call it in the West. Was that for ‘Doom’, ‘Destiny’ or something else? I’m sure I knew but now I forget.

The day following the launch, Soyuz 11 successfully docked with Salyut 1. How the cheers exploded around the mission planning centre. I know now that you must grasp those moments of body-thrumming pleasure because they are rare. The effusive joy was short-lived as bad news came into the centre and within seconds everyone’s face looked downcast.


Tuesday 1 December 2009

A Fistful of Legends - progress report-03

I'm pleased to announce that this anthology's publication date is 12 December 2009.

Due to the setup requirements for online retailers etc, it won't be available to the general public till 31 January 2010.

All contributors can obtain copies any time after 12 December by contacting the publisher, Ian Parnham.

The full cover, ISBN number and price details will be released on 12 December also.

Nik Morton (Editor)

Thursday 19 November 2009

Writing the Breakout Novel - Review

Donald Maass, Writer’s Digest Books

Donald Maass, the author, founded his literary agency in 1980 and since then he has represented hundreds of fiction writers. He also sold fourteen novels. So he knows what he’s talking about.

A breakout novel is that rarity that goes beyond a writer’s normal output to scale the heady heights of bestsellerdom. The hard part about writing a novel is not simply getting published, it’s staying published. Many published authors are being dropped simply because their name doesn’t move enough units (books) off the shelves. One way to avoid this is to write a breakout. First novelists can write a breakout too – it breaks away from the pack, in effect, so much of what Maass advocates also applies to first time novelists.

Bigger, better, deeper could be the mantra for the breakout novelist. A useful start: Devise a plausible premise, with inherent conflict within the fictional world you’re creating. Strive for originality – hard, of course, but this can be done by switching gender from the norm, turning to an unexpected slant on a standard theme. The premise and story has to have gut emotional appeal. That’s the depth of characterisation, so the reader feels she is living with the main protagonist and is concerned for the outcome.

Brainstorming has its uses at the beginning, to validate the premise. Will it stand up? Has it got the legs for a full-length book? Jettison the obvious as you examine the ‘what ifs’.

A breakout novel has high personal stakes. These are relevant to the main character; so the writer has to build high human worth, as Maass terms it: the characters espouse such qualities as honesty, integrity, loyalty, kindness, bravery, respect, trust, for example. If any of these ideals are threatened, then there’s conflict. As well as making the stakes personal, try to make them public, so that failure will affect not only the main protagonist but also other worthy and innocent individuals

Remember, he says, that ‘trials and tests are the stuff of character building, of conflict.’ In effect, keep the danger immediate and make the characters suffer.

Place and scene are important too, and often neglected as mere backdrop by new authors. The place where the characters interact may have an effect on them and it can certainly evoke mood and atmosphere. Convey a sense of the time as well as the place. Don’t neglect the details; these add verisimilitude.

Breakout characters are larger-than-life, inevitably, but they shouldn’t be caricatures. Self-belief, strength of purpose, fortitude, going against the flow – these traits signify a larger-than-life character. Deepen the character with inner conflict or a troubled or hidden past. But never ignore humour and wit, either, though it’s probably advisable to ditch the puns! Maass suggests there are two character qualities that leave a deeper, more lasting and powerful impression of a character than any other, and I tend to agree. You’ll have to read the book to find out what they are, though. Villains are characters, too, and should be given due attention to make them rounded, with some redemptive trait.

Plot is not neglected, of course, and he advocates that sequential plotting is not always the best approach; again, I agree: my novel Pain Wears No Mask gained more depth by avoiding a chronological sequential plot. This way, certain past events can be concealed until they have a powerful resonance.

Every book hammers at the fact that the essence of story is conflict. There are different degrees of conflict, but it should be there – even if below the surface. Tension on every page keeps the pages turning. Maas outlines the five basic plot elements. Effective breakout conflict has to be deep, credible, complex and universal enough to be recognised by many readers. Any book is improved if it possesses layers of understanding and meaning. Breakout novels have to possess layered plots.

Viewpoint choice and consistency, forward-moving subplots, narrative pace, voice and endings are all examined and play their crucial part in any book but are essential for a breakout novel.

Whether the story is a novel or a short piece, it will have a theme; even if the writer hasn’t consciously decided upon one! Novels are moral entities, reflecting the morality of the age they’re written in or they’re written about. Theme invariably engages the emotional side and can be strengthened by circumspect use of symbols and a character’s passion. Don’t spell out the theme, however, let it emerge from the story and the characters.

That, briefly, is an overview of a guidebook any serious writer will find of interest. At the end of each chapter is a Breakout checklist and it might pay off to copy down those salient points and refer to them during the development and writing of your novel. They’re guidelines. The story still has to evolve from you over the weeks, months and possibly years. But by following these guidelines, your novel is liable to be a richer, more satisfying and more attractive book for any prospective publisher.

It’s clear that Donald Maass lives and breathes his work, as can be gleaned from two interviews on the web in 2007. You can access them here:

Nik Morton

Tuesday 17 November 2009

A Fistful of Legends - progress report-02

The book complete with cover is with the printer. A proof copy will be sent to me in the next week and after checking for any errors, it will be all systems go and a publication date will be set.

Watch this space...

Friday 13 November 2009

Writing Guide-02 - Beginnings revisited

Last time, I covered beginnings for short stories. They are crucial, because every word has to count in a short story. With a novel, while there's more scope with more words, those first few paragraphs or pages still have to pull the reader in. The methods are no different to those suggested for a short story - create a mystery the reader wants to solve, pose a question that needs answering, immerse the reader in the narrator's or main character's world and mind...

Here are samples from my novels.


THE $300 MAN
‘$300 – that’ll do nicely!’ said Bert Granger as he finished thumbing through the billfold Corbin Molina had been encouraged to hand over. As added persuasion, Bert held a revolver in his other hand.

Here, I'm having fun with the modern phrasing of advertisers and shopkeepers. But there's an immediate threat posed to the main character.

James Thorp eased his sorrel horse to a halt on the outskirts of the small town of Bethesda Falls, which nestled at the base of the mountain’s foothills. He was dressed entirely in black. Black because he was in mourning. Mourning the men he had killed.

I'm not merely describing what Thorp wears, I'm saying that he doesn't relish killing. I'm also providing an image of him on the outskirts of the town where most of the action will take place, setting the scene.

When the stagecoach eased over the brow of the hard-packed road that ran between two massive boulders, the driver Alfred Boddam grinned. Mid-morning and, by God, they were almost two hours early. He gentled the four horses to a stop and applied the brake. One of the passengers enquired gruffly, ‘Driver, why have we stopped?’ But he paid him no mind. From the box he sat looking down over the wide lush valley, a hard callused hand rubbing his chin’s bristles as he admired the view. Nestling on the east of Clearwater Creek was his destination, the town of Bethesda Falls. He chewed his lip, recalling his last visit. Miss Kitty Riley had taken a shine to him with her winsome smile and this time around he fancied pursuing that fine shapely figure of womanhood.

Rather a long intro, but very visual. Alfred is a minor character who bookends the novel. It offers amorous hope for Alfred, so the reader might be wondering if he will get his girl. (The stage holdup happens very soon after this intro, by the way...)

The agent who called himself Mr. Swann entered the Queen’s Hotel bar at 2PM, just as he had promised. In my business I’d met a few spies and all of them were nondescript. After all, to be a good spy, you need to blend in, be unmemorable. Swann just didn’t fit that category, so I wondered if I was wasting my time on this mysterious appointment…

Chapter 1: August, 1968
Six Soviet officers stood on the balcony overlooking St. Wenceslas Square and the definition through the sniper-scope was so good that Tana Standish could detect the black-heads round their noses and the blood-shot eyes that testified to late-night celebrating with alcohol. She had ten 7.5mm rounds, more than enough to kill all of them.

The books in the Tana Standish series always begin with me receiving the latest secret manuscript from an agent. A bit flippant beginning, but also posing a question about the mysterious Mr Swann.

So, chapter one of each of the three Tana Standish novels features Tana or someone else viewing a target through a sniper's scope (see below). But each poses different questions.

We were in our usual booth, where we couldn’t be overheard. ‘We can’t keep on meeting like this,’ I said.

Chapter 1: Friday, September 8

Dressed in his sinister black SAVAK uniform, Captain Hassan Mokhtarian looked every inch the evil man he was. A man who deserved to die. Tana Standish could see him quite clearly through the telescopic sight, even making allowances for the poor light as dusk descended over Tehran and the city’s surrounding mountains, turning the overshadowing snow-capped cone of Mount Damavand a delicate shade of mauve. At least today the city smog didn’t obscure the peak of the volcano which still belched out sulphurous fumes from time to time and killed the odd stray sheep.

Another hosepipe ban loomed. Still, I was glad to be back in stifling grime- and crime-ridden London, even if sweat pooled in the small of my back. Sweat that caused my scars – and there were plenty – to itch.

We know from the blurb that the narrator is a nun who used to be a cop. We're left wondering after this brief intro - why does she have 'plenty' of scars? We know it's London, too.

So, try to create an intriguing or interesting beginning, it just might pull your reader and publisher into your story.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Remembrance Day short story

Born of Joy

‘Sorrow is born of excessive joy’ – Chinese proverb

Quite a few years ago our vicar wrote down on slips of paper the many names of the war dead listed on the memorial plaque in the church. During that Remembrance Sunday service he handed out these slips to the congregation and asked that each recipient remember the named person in their prayers.

Although the paper is hiding somewhere, I have never forgotten the man’s name – Edwin Hamilton.

This very short story is dedicated to him – and to thousands like him.
Lydia Ballard was one hundred-and-six years old but didn’t look a day over seventy-five. Why this should be, she had no idea. She had no Wildean painting in the attic and used to smoke until her fifties – when she saw the sense of stopping. And she still enjoyed a tipple or two.

The residential home’s coach trip through the hedgerow lined lanes of Hampshire finished here in Southsea. The council had done the town proud, she thought, the flowers were gorgeous – yellows and reds and bright mauves. Though she felt they had gone mad with the plethora of road-signs.

While the hotels and boarding houses were no longer so imposing or well-cared for, they brought back memories of long ago, when many of these residences had belonged to the rich and powerful, when she had lived here.

Maureen, one of the carers, wasn’t looking, so Lydia slipped behind their group and hid in a shop entrance. An impulse, but she felt drawn. She stood still for a moment to get her breath.

After all these years, she found that the place was garish now. Shops with appalling colour schemes and lacking in the art of window-dressing, which she had excelled in during the 1950s. Her nose twitched – the smells were familiar, of candyfloss and seaweed, of chips and vinegar.

Nostalgia beckoned and she slowly followed some day-trippers along the boardwalk on to the pier. Her dainty feet trod carefully over the timeworn wooden boards.

Two boys were attaching bait to the hooks on their fishing lines. Over to her right was Madam Crystal’s gaudy tent. Lydia smiled, remembering her own visit as an impressionable sixteen-year-old. Then it had been Madame Zara, Palmist Extrordinaire! She had promised Lydia a full happy life with the man she loved.

With a liver-spotted hand she brushed tears from her cheeks, making quite a mess of her thick layer of Max Factor powder.

Out of nowhere an unseasonal fog enveloped the pier. It was eerie and she faintly heard several shrieks and the pounding of retreating feet.

But Lydia was past being afraid. She let go of the handrail and as the damp mist cleared from her eyes and the pier, she recognised him standing there, looking at her. Edwin Hamilton. Still dressed in his smart 1917 Khaki uniform, looking really fetching, bright blue eyes glinting. She had worn her best frock for their last day together.

Of course he had never returned – until now.

Monday 9 November 2009


DO THE BIRDS STILL SING IN HELL? by Horace ‘Jim’ Greasley

Appropriately, I finished reading this book on Remembrance Sunday. Long after I closed it, I’d remember Horace Greasley – and this story is a testament to his mates, those who survived with him but especially the many who succumbed to Nazi and German brutality.

I grew up with the plethora of war books in the 1950s, all of them memorable – Boldness Be My Friend (Richard Pape), The Wooden Horse (Eric Williams), The Great Escape and Escape or Die (Paul Brickhill), The Colditz Story (Pat Reid) and The Naked Island (Russell Braddon) to name a few. This book, a late contender, ranks up there with those classics. A number of those books were written in a novelistic style, but their stories were still true. Ghostwriter Ken Scott has chosen to follow that style of narrative here and it works splendidly with a well-structured and riveting story, penned from the lips of Horace whose arthritic fingers are not capable of writing or typing.

At the outbreak of war, gentlemen’s barber Horace Greasley joined the 2nd/5th Battalion Leicesters and in 1940 he was shipped to France. His combat days were deadly and dangerous but few as they were captured when their sergeant major surrendered rather than fight his way to freedom.

Horace was to spend the rest of the war as a prisoner. Nothing particularly different about that; this kind of story has been related often. But Horace is quite a character, it seems, and he has a mind of his own, and it’s his obstinate stubborn brave approach to his captors that enthrals the reader. Horace doesn’t like bullies and stands up to them – and often he gets a good beating for his trouble.

He suffered a terrible death march, where his comrades fell by the wayside and were despatched with Teutonic efficiency. He made friends with a few good strong men who saved his life more than once, but he’d repay them tenfold as their captivity stretched over the years. Because Horace was a staunch friend.

The privations of prisoner of war camps have been told before, but they need telling again. Each new generation should understand what war means. The inhumanity of warfare is troubling. After the concentration camps of the holocaust were discovered, the cries went up that this must never happen again. Sadly, it has, several times in our living memory.

At his first POW camp, Horace meets Rosa, an attractive Silesian girl acting as interpreter. Before long, the pair enjoy sex, snatching their moments of bliss virtually under the noses of the German guards. Then Horace and his comrades are moved to another camp. Yet Rosa follows and Horace effectively escapes at night, time and again, to prolong their liaison that develops from carnal passion to powerful love. Rosa risks all to help her Englishman and in turn Horace repeatedly puts his life in jeopardy to bring sustenance and even radio parts to his fellow prisoners. Both are made of the stuff of heroes. These are not superficial heroes of entertainment or sport. A hero is someone who knows he or she might die but willingly risks life and limb to help others in the name of love or humanity. The world needs more Horaces and Rosas.

When the classic war stories were published, public sensitivity was different to that of today. Now, Horace’s story contains graphic language, violence and sex, but it comes across as very real. Movingly real. By opening his heart and memory, Horace has found, in modern parlance, a form of closure. But he has done something else, too. He has ensured that his fallen comrades live on.

Footnote: Since I wrote this review, sadly Horace has died (25 December 1918 – 4 February 2010). There is a Wikipedia entry -

If you enjoyed reading this short review, maybe you'll enjoy reading my book of 16 short stories, some of them prize-winners, and many based on true events; indeed, two are about the French resistance in WWII: When the Flowers Are in Bloom by Nik Morton -


Friday 9 October 2009

A Fistful of Legends - progress report-01

The followup anthology to Where Legends Ride officially has a title: A FISTFUL OF LEGENDS.

James Reasoner has done everyone proud with an excellent Introduction to the 21 new tales of the Old West.

The editing, page-setup and proof-reading is all completed. So the book moves on to the next stages of the process.

Still some way to go before a cover and publicity will be available.

Watch this space.

Nik (Editor)

Saturday 3 October 2009

The book of the film: Angels and Demons

Though this was written before the million-bestseller The Da Vinci Code, and features the same hero, Robert Langdon, it was filmed after Da Vinci. Naturally, since Da Vinci was Dan Brown’s breakout novel. I’ve come to Angels and Demons after reading Da Vinci, so my observations are affected by that.

Angels and Demons is a better book, and more original in concept. In essence, Da Vinci seems to be utilising the same template of Angels. A bizarre death complete with arcane symbols requires the presence of Langdon. There are seemingly endless expositions on various aspects of the symbols and the history pertaining to them. Langdon teams up with a young woman who is ‘related’ to the deceased. The person who calls in Langdon becomes a strong suspect. A final twist reveals a seemingly ‘good’ individual to be the actual perpetrator behind the scheme and the deaths.

Most books – and films – tend to rely on setting one deadline for the protagonists to beat. Brown isn’t content with one deadline – he has six. Cleverly orchestrated, they get the reader turning the pages.

Langdon is called in when it’s discovered that physicist Leonardo Vetra has been murdered, the sign of the Illuminati burned into his chest. The Illuminati organisation was presumed extinct some 400 years ago. The murder takes place in CERN, of all places. The DG, Maximilian Kohler wants Langdon to get to the bottom of the mystery and hasn’t called in the police yet, as he’s worried about the bad publicity. Vetra’s adopted daughter Vittoria has worked on antimatter with the physicist and they now discover that a considerable quantity of that devastating material has been stolen. As she is the only person who can make the material safe, Vittoria teams up with Langdon as their trail takes them to Rome – where else?

The Vatican is beginning the process of electing a new pontiff. Meanwhile, to mind the shop, Carlo Ventresca, the late pope’s camerlengo runs the show. Soon, they learn that four cardinals, the favourites for selection, have been kidnapped and will be killed at hourly intervals at specific but unnamed spots in Rome. It’s up to Langdon and Vittoria to find the cardinals as the deadlines count down…

The tension rarely lets up – despite the dense paragraphs of exposition. Yes, the whole thing is contrived, but it works. And the film is better in many respects, eschewing some of the more fanciful escapades of Langdon, while amalgamating characters and dropping some characters’ involvement with red herrings.

Considering Brown has taught creative writing, his prose sometimes lapses. When Langdon is shown to a private jet, he is ‘motioned up the gangplank’ – shiver my timbers, perhaps steps or gangway, but not gangplank!

I lost count of the times Langdon’s eyes performed surreal acts; here are two examples: ‘Langdon let his eyes climb.’ And, ‘Langdon’s eyes crossed the courtyard…’ And his characters don’t look up, they look ‘skyward.’

He has the annoying knack of author intrusion – way beyond the information dumping. ‘He never suspected that later that night, in a country hundreds of miles away, the information would save his life.’ As we’re reading this chapter from his point of view, he can’t know he never suspects…! And, ‘The horrifying answer was only a moment away.’ These insertions are not foreshadowing but blatant attempts to provide cliff-hanging ends of chapters.

Written in 2000, Brown might have been prescient. He mentions Woodrow Wilson’s warning in 1921 of a ‘growing Illuminati control over the US banking system. Beside the fact that 1921 isn’t 400 years ago, it begs the question, were the Illuminati involved in the sub-prime collapse of 2008? He also had praise for the BBC, where ‘every story they ran was carefully researched and confirmed.’ Despite a certain bias, of course…

These are mere quibbles. If you haven’t read Angels, give it a try. It’s fast-paced, intriguing and never lets up. Great entertainment with dashes of eloquence and poignancy.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Writing Guide-02 - Beginnings

Whether a short story or a novel, the beginning is very important. It's probably the most edited and changed aspect of any written work. It has to do several things at once: pull the reader in, create character or atmosphere or scene, or ask a question...

Both beginners and readers often ask ‘How do you start?’ How isn’t so important as just sitting there and doing it; as they say, apply bum to seat and write. Anthony Burgess said: ‘I start at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop.’ While Mickey Spillane commented: ‘I write the ending first. Nobody reads a book to get to the middle.’

A writer has to read to understand story structure – whether in a novel or a short story. Many stories begin half-way through then you get the beginning as a flashback or through memories or character disclosure. Ideally, you should start at a dramatic high-point, though not the most dramatic high-point – you leave that for the end. The most important thing is to pull the reader into your story – because if you don’t, then you’re likely to lose the reader. The reader only has to close the book, after all. There are plenty of books out there, all vying for readers. The writer has to grab the reader so that once involved in the book’s world and characters, the reader won’t let go until the end.

There are countless stories and articles in magazines seeking the reader’s attention. People only have a limited time to devote to reading. They will cherry-pick what interests them. The same goes for books in shops. A browser will look at the cover, perhaps the blurb on the back and maybe the first page. If that first page doesn’t grab the browser’s interest, the book is replaced on the shelf. The words you’ve sweated over for days or weeks or even years, even if they get published, may only merit an initial sixty seconds of consideration from a book-buyer. Make those first words count, make them say, ‘You’re going to enjoy this book and love the characters and marvel at the plot.’ Easier said than done, true.

What kind of hook can you employ? That depends on your story. The story’s theme, place and characters can all pull the reader in. Raise a question in the reader’s mind – a question that demands an answer, which means having to read on to find out. That question can be literal, from the mouth of a character, or hinted at by the narrative, suggesting that everything is not what it seems.

Starting a story with characters speaking is a good idea, as the reader gains a great deal through speech – the character reveals himself by the way he talks, there’s interaction between people, and there’s even a hint of eavesdropping in the character’s world.

Two classic beginnings spring to mind, one from a novel, the other from a short story.

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ – Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell.

To begin with it seems as though we’re getting a boring weather report then we’re brought up short by the significance of the clocks striking not twelve, but thirteen. What on earth is going on? we ask and read on to find out more.

‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’ – The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka.

Clearly, it must be a fantasy, but it demands the reader’s attention as we learn about Gregor’s nightmarish feelings of isolation and sacrifice.

Not surprisingly, both authors have contributed words to the English language: Orwellian, Big Brother, Kafkaesque, for example.

Of course you’re not always going to manage to seduce the reader in the first sentence. But you should be trying to use every one of those early words and paragraphs to intrigue the reader, to pique her interest.

Yes, you’re bound to find published examples where the beginnings are bland or even quite ordinary. Usually, these are written by established writers who can indulge themselves because they have a ready readership. Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with a philosophical viewpoint about the times of the French Revolution and started Bleak House with an atmospheric description of fog. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because a famous author does things his way, you can emulate him. You’re fresh, new and unpublished – and need every trick in the book to get noticed. That means writing a good beginning that quickly hooks the reader.

Don’t sit in front of a blank sheet of paper, though, just because you can’t think of a good beginning. Get the story – or first chapter – written. The beginning can always be changed and improved afterwards.

The following beginnings come from a selection of my published short stories.


The stench was overwhelming, a mixture of mildewed fast-food, feces, rotten fruit, used sanitary towels, crumpled tabloid sheets of the New York Daily News and God knows what. I gagged and fought back the bile that threatened to lead a revolt of my stomach as I crawled over trash in the shadows. If my husband could see me now, he’d have a fit.

(Published in Beat to a Pulp ezine. This tells you the narrator is a female, probably in New York, and she's married. It also assaults the senses)

Up to that time I thought we could cope with anything. Until the snow struck. It wasn't the predicted heavy snowfall but a freak intense blizzard: ice spicules pummelled the canvas-covered trucks, sent up a deafening rataplan from the vehicle bonnets; the temperature plummeted to minus ten degrees. I used my black habit's voluminous sleeve to wipe a circle of visibility in the misted glass and peered out the lead truck's windscreen. Seconds ago there had been a road up ahead, with the prospect of another two hours' drive in these hostile Bosnian Mountains to the Mirvic Orphanage. Now there was just a white wall.

(Prize winning story published in Rom-Aid News and subsequently in Costa TV Times. We experience the threat of intense cold and it's a nun narrating. We know it's Bosnia and she's on a mission of mercy.)

All the churches in the world were full. And the synagogues. And the mosques. As an atheist I wasn’t surprised that all this prayer wasn’t working. Unfortunately, nothing else was, either. Science had no explanation. For five years now there hadn’t been a single baby born. Not one. Plants and flowers no longer bloomed. They didn’t die, they just never blossomed into flower, their leaves a dull grey.

(Published in the December issue of the Coastal Press. It's the future and disaster has struck our planet. A question is posed, and hopefully the reader will stick around to find out if there's an answer...)

Not long now. My tenacious hold on this mortal coil is weakening but I have no regrets as I look down and for the first time in sixty years see myself, lying there, still trapped within that faithful, old husk. There is no bitterness in me; the poor body served me well enough, impaired as it is: it kept me going until I met her and fifteen years beyond.

(A prize winning short story based on a real life, attempting to step into another person's shoes. Published in a number of places, including this blog. Again, it poses questions and the reader should be wondering what happened to make the narrator so sanguine about his plight...)

She came out of the godforsaken planet's seasonal mists, struggling under her immense weight. She wasn't welcome.

(A Christmas story commissioned for the Gatehouse Magazine. Transposing Christmas Eve to an inhospitable planet. Why wasn't she welcome?)

Purple was etched beneath her wide eyes. The slightly built girl in the shadowy doorway wore an eggshell-blue dress and apparently nothing else. Some people answer and look as if they're truly at home, in body and spirit; somehow, she didn't seem to belong, not here in this dilapidated house, not in shadow.

(Published in Dark Horizons. A character who begs to be understood. Why is she there? Questions that require answers.)

A mountainous landscape populated by dragons strode out of the swathes of sauna steam and approached me. Hiroki Kuroda was tattooed over his entire torso and down to his wrists and calves; at a glance he gave the impression that he was wearing long johns, instead of which he was a walking exhibition of yakuza body art. As a member of the yakuza, a Japanese criminal organization similar to the Mafia, he endured hundreds of hours of pain simply to show that he could. Hiroki waved with his left hand; the little finger was missing at the first knuckle.

(A Leon Cazador story, published in the Coastal Press. Surreal image that creates a mysterious character and potential threat.)

He had large eyes, big ears and, surprisingly, his middle finger was very long on each hand. ‘He looks cute,’ I said, lowering the photograph of the little aye-aye. His hair was black and he had a long bushy tail. His eyes seemed to be expressing surprise at finding himself in a cage rather than the diminishing rain forests of Madagascar. Perhaps the daylight conditions affected him too, which wasn’t strange really, as his kind is nocturnal. ‘But,’ I added, shaking my head in mock-concern, ‘my fiancée wants something a bit more exotic. Know what I mean?’

(A Leon Cazador story published in the Coastal Press. Again, slightly surreal till the reader realizes the description is not a man. Starts to ask questions - why the mock concern? What's going on here? Read on, I hope it says...)

Next time, I'll look at some novel beginnings.

Wednesday 30 September 2009

Leon Cazador, private investigator in Spain

I've just completed my 21st short story featuring this guy; it's a story I've been wanting to write for a couple of years but didn't have an angle on... The previous Leon Cazador story was written about 18 months ago and it was great to get reacquainted.

Nineteen of his stories have been published commercially and a couple earned prizes in competitions. At present I'm going through the collection and beefing up the stories for a collection; most commercial word counts don't allow for much in the way of atmosphere, character description and detail that provides additional realism; I'm hoping that my editing can enhance the existing stories. The collection is tentatively called Spanish Eye. I expect I'll be writing another four or five stories to get to an appropriate wordcount. Here's the Introduction to the Collection:


In the middle of 2005, I received a telephone call from a Spanish private investigator, Leon Cazador. He’d heard of my efforts with a novel, Pain Wears No Mask, and wanted me to write about some of his cases in a similar vein – first person narrative. I’ve lost count of the number of approaches I’ve had from people wanting me to ghost write their autobiographies; it’s gratifying but any such venture entails many months of intense work and distracts me from other planned projects. I was inclined to turn down Señor Cazador, until he said, ‘I thought you captured the voice of Sister Rose perfectly. I feel you could do it for me, too.’ Suitably flattered, I arranged a meeting. I found that he was a fascinating raconteur and, more importantly, he had a good story to tell. As a result, I began writing Leon Cazador short stories, all of which seem to have been well received.

For thousands of years, evildoers conducted their business during the dark hours. Night offered concealment. The innocent and god-fearing slept in their beds while unsavoury characters went about their nefarious business under the cloak of darkness. But in recent memory all that seems to have changed. Now, muggers are quite blatant, attacking their victims in broad daylight. Burglars boldly break in during the day when the house owners are out at work. The law’s sanctions against criminals no longer appear to be a deterrent.

Darkness not only obliterates light, it permeates the mind and soul too. Is this an enlightened society we’re living in or one that’s about to implode? I don’t know, but I do feel that the silent majority will only stand for so much and when that limit is reached they will turn like the proverbial worm and rebel. Until that time, the world needs brave souls like Leon Cazador who is not afraid to bring the ungodly to justice and so help, in his own words, ‘to hold back the encroaching night of unreason.’

‘My allegiance is split because I’m half-English and half-Spanish,’ he says. ‘Mother had a whirlwind romance with a Spanish waiter but, happily, it didn’t end when the holiday was over. The waiter pursued her to England and they were married.’

Leon was born in Spain and has a married sister, Pilar, and an older brother, Juan, who is an officer in the Guardia Civil. Leon Cazador sometimes operates in disguise under several aliases, among them Carlos Ortiz Santos, his little tribute to the fabled fictional character Simon Templar.

As a consequence of dealing with the authorities and criminals, Leon has observed in his two home countries the gradual deterioration of effective law enforcement and the disintegration of respect.

At our first meeting, he said, ‘When I was growing up in England, I never imagined there would be no-go areas in those great cities, places where the shadow of light falls on streets and minds. Now, at weekends, some sections of many towns seem to be under siege.’

Now that he has returned to live in Spain, he finds that it is not so bad here, though he admits that he has seen many changes over the last thirty years, most of them good, yet some to be deplored. ‘It is heartening to see that family cohesion is still strong in most areas; but even that age-old stability is under threat. Yet some urbanizaciones more resemble towns on the frontier of the Old West, where mayors can be bought, where lawlessness is endemic and civilised behaviour has barely a foothold. Even so, most nights you can walk the streets and feel safe here in Spain.’

Leon has led an interesting life. As Spain’s conscription didn’t cease until 2001, he decided to jump rather than be pushed and joined the Army, graduating as an Artillery Lieutenant. About a year later, he joined the Spanish Foreign Legion’s Special Operations Company (Bandera de operaciones especiales de la legión) and was trained in the United States at Fort Bragg, where he built up his considerable knowledge about clandestine activities and weapons. Some months afterwards, he was recruited into the CESID (Centro Superior de Informacion de la Defensa), which later became the CNI (Centro Nacional de Inteligencia). Unlike most western democracies, Spain runs a single intelligence organization to handle both domestic and foreign risks.

He is one of those fortunate individuals who is capable of learning a foreign language with ease: he grew up bilingual, speaking English and Spanish, and soon learned Portuguese, French, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese. Part of his intelligence gathering entailed his transfer to the Spanish Embassy in Washington, DC. Here, he met several useful contacts in the intelligence community and at the close of the Soviet occupation he embarked on a number of secret missions to Afghanistan with CIA operatives. By the time that the Soviet withdrawal was a reality, Leon was transferred to the Spanish Embassy in Tokyo, where he liaised with both intelligence and police organizations. Secret work followed in China, the Gulf and Yugoslavia.

In 1987, Leon was attached to a secret section of MI6 to assist operatives in Colombia. Although he has been decorated four times in theatres of conflict, reports suggest his bravery justifies at least another four medals.

A year after witnessing the atrocity of the Twin Towers while stationed with the United Nations, he returned to civilian life and set up a private investigation firm. During periods of leave and while stationed in Spain, he had established a network of contacts in law enforcement, notably the Guardia Civil. One of his early cases resulted in him becoming financially set up for life, so that now he conducts his crusade against villains of all shades, and in the process attempts to save the unwary from the clutches of conmen, rogues and crooks.

These then are some of Leon Cazador’s cases, in his own words.

Nik Morton, Alicante, Spain

The beginning of the latest story goes something like this:


Fireworks in daytime are not particularly spectacular, but that doesn’t deter my Spanish compatriots from setting them off. The clear blue sky was momentarily sprayed with silver and red stars as the single rocket exploded above the town square. Minutes afterwards, a profusion of colours darted above our heads, but this display wasn’t the transient starburst of another firework. The palette that soared in the sky came from garishly painted pigeons released from patios, balconies, rooftops and gardens. In the next few minutes the number of male birds increased to perhaps seventy.

‘My prize bird has been stolen!’ a man shouted from a balcony on the opposite side of the street. He gestured at us and added, ‘Pilar, tell your brother I need his help!’

Sunday 27 September 2009

Book of the Film: The Shawshank Redemption

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is one of four novellas in the book Different Seasons by Stephen King, published in 1982. The film was released twelve years later. When I was studying scriptwriting, I was bowled over by the sheer perfection of Frank Darabont’s script, from the brilliant opening sequence through to the wonderfully emotional end. Indeed, while the novella is a virtuoso performance, King getting into the skin of the narrator ‘Red’, the movie surpasses the book in its storytelling power and characterisation. That doesn’t take away anything from the original source, however: the book deserves to be read and certain passages will move most readers, even when they know the story behind the Rita Hayworth poster…

I’m not a fan of prison movies and it was quite a while before I got round to watching the film. And I read the novella much later. As a writer myself, I can see that King cleverly has his cake and eats it too. Although the story is told in the first person, we see a lot of events where Red was not a participant or observer, thanks to the canny comment that the prison grapevine provided him with all the salient details.

As with a number of films, several characters are blended together, and successfully so. The fates of Tommy Williams and Brooks Hatlen are different in the book. The book’s ending shows merely the promise of what is actually revealed in the film.

Just in case some readers haven’t seen the film, the story goes something like this: In 1947, Andy Dufresne was charged and sentenced for murdering his wife and her lover. He never contested the prosecution’s facts. Andy became a new inmate in the Shawshank facility and was taken under the wing of Red, the prison fixer who could get almost anything smuggled in – except women, drugs and guns.

The prison regime was brutal and unpleasant, with the warden and his men wangling deals to feather their own pockets at the expense of the cons. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a gang of so-called ‘sisters’ who were brutish rapists targeted Andy, and though he fought back, he suffered many defeats and humiliations. But they never broke his spirit or dented his hope in one day walking out of the prison. Red admired Andy and they became firm friends.

Red the narrator is humorous, worldly wise and very observant, and totally believable in King’s hands. In the book’s Afterword, King states that his prose style is ‘fairly plain, not very literary, and sometimes downright clumsy.’ He considers his work to be the ‘literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald’s.’ I’m sure that many of his critics would agree with him. And yet, he taps into the hearts and minds of thousands of readers with that same prose. As he writes at the beginning of the book, ‘It is the tale, not he who tells it.’ And the story is all – comprising vivid characters, a fraught situation, raw emotion and the small guy hoping and working to beat the odds. That comes through in the book.

So, if you’ve seen the film but haven’t read the book, make that journey. You’ll be rewarded by finding a lot of nuggets plucked by Darabont to enliven his masterpiece film, and you’ll come away knowing that the naysaying critics of Stephen King are so wrong.

Sunday 13 September 2009

Book review: Mission by Philip Spires

MISSION, Philip Spires, Libros International, 428pp

If you enjoyed Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, I suspect that you’ll like this book too. The Jewel in the Crown was about a lot of things, but essentially a rape and how that affects a number of interlinked individuals. Mission covers a great deal in 1970s Kenya, but is essentially about a death and how the lives of several people are entwined. The writing style is similar, too. Another author Spires favourably reminds me of is Louis Bromfield, especially his classic The Rains Came.

The man killed is Munyasya, a retired army officer who devoted his life to his colonial masters. The book is divided into five sections, related from the viewpoints of Michael, Mulonzya, Janet, Boniface and Munyasya. Time shifts from the instant of the death to the past and also forward to the present, showing the incident’s repercussions. As Michael says, some thirty years later, ‘Sometimes things happen to you in life which are so momentous, so mind-blowing, that you never forget them. You live with them forever, vivid and clear in your mind. It’s as if you can relive them moment-by-moment.’

We begin with the death. Father Michael, a mission priest, accidentally drives his vehicle over the ageing Munyasa, who is a derelict and a drunk. Yet the old man’s demise galvanizes the local politician James Mulonzya into making political capital from the tragedy. Father Michael’s blooding occurred earlier in Biafra, and his quite shocking memories are powerfully described. Now, officiating in the village of Migwani, he strives to do good and has a dedicated helper, Boniface. Michael finds himself in conflict with many folk who prefer the ‘old ways’ and is openly accused by Mulonzya of politicising school lessons. Michael is a staunch friend of Janet Rowlandson, a volunteer working there for two years.

James Mulonzya is not only at loggerheads with Father Michael. He is against the efforts of John Mwangangi, who has returned from UK to his homeland to improve the lot of Migwani farmers. John has a wife, Lesley, who prefers the city life of Nairobi rather than that of the village. John’s problems are manifold: he becomes distant to his wife, he is too absorbed in the village project, and he cannot easily get on with his old father, Musyoka, with tragic consequences.

We meet Janet thirty years after the death of old Munyasa when she is a headmistress of a girls’ school in London and by chance she encounters someone from her past, a past that is not buried far beneath the surface because of what she witnessed. While in Kenya, she embarked on an affair with John Mwangangi, but it was destined to end when her two years were up… Here, in Janet’s school life we are treated to some wonderful one-liners – ‘… middle class families who could do without patronising advice about their diet from a politician with certainly questionable morals.’ And a truism: ‘… knowing a language was not the same as teaching it…’ The mannered meal with guests and her family is splendidly done, with telling flashbacks and surprises and a marvellous put-down for her husband, David.

Boniface showed much promise as a young man and was destined for the church. Unfortunately, he allowed hubris to dominate him and fell foul of his father who had scrimped and saved to further Boniface’s education. The family rift was merely the beginning, however, as Boniface becomes involved with Josephine. Later, Boniface and Josephine are beholden to Father Michael for giving blood that saved their child’s life. Fate decrees otherwise, however, as the child later becomes ill and Michael makes an abortive mad dash to the hospital.

Munyasya gained his education and experience from the King’s African Rifles. A respected officer in his day, he was ousted when Kenya gained independence. He was seen as a traitor to his people, more interested in adopting a European name and lifestyle. Single and without issue, he descended into a schizophrenic life where his dead stepfather talked to him and he mumbled back incomprehensively. He developed the habit of tying pieces of string to his thumb as reminders of things he’d never remember, then the string seemed to be a part of him, at times sloughed off and renewed like a snake’s skin. ‘It was a fool trying to untie another fool’s knot.’ This phrase is echoed in the title of Spires’s second novel, A Fool’s Knot, which examines in more detail the life and death of John Mwangangi. At this point we discover the real reason why Munyasya died under the wheels of Father Michael’s car.

Despite the events being trodden over by several people, there’s always something fresh to discover, a new insight into a character, a shocking revelation, and even though you think you know everything already, you read on, wanting to understand the individuals and their inner worlds, and still learn more.

The narrative is coloured by the sights and smells of a small town in Africa, the petty tribal disagreements and the long-lasting resentment of past ignominies under colonial rule. It is not a light read, but it is rewarding. It’s obvious that these characters lived with Spires for several years, he knows them so well, and by the end of the book, we do too. A memorable and quite remarkable book.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Book of the film: Zulu

Well, sort of. The book is ZULU – WITH SOME GUTS BEHIND IT! By Sheldon Hall

The subtitle of this book is ‘The making of the epic movie”, which says what it means. Sheldon Hall has comprehensively accomplished just that, describing in fascinating detail the research for the original article by author John Prebble, the development of the screenplay, the creation of the film’s characters, the casting, finding the locations in South Africa, the actual filming and editing, the music, plus the final release and the reviews and criticism. Released in 1964, the film has remained popular for over forty years and this book goes a long way to explaining why.

The events in the film took place in January 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu War on the day following the British defeat at Isandhlwana, later filmed as Zulu Dawn. The small mission at Rorke’s Drift consisted of six hundred square yards of poorly defensible land and was manned by eight officers and ninety-seven other ranks with thirty-six sick and wounded men in the mission hospital. Moving against Rorke’s Drift was a force of four thousand Zulu warriors. Eleven Victoria Crosses were won in a single day in the battle of Rorke’s Drift. Reprinted for the first time is the entire article, Slaughter in the Sun, written by historical author John Prebble and published in the Lilliput magazine for 1958.

Inevitably, film producers and writers are criticised when they tamper with real-life historical characters. These critics tend to forget that the film isn’t a documentary but a dramatic representation and, in Hall’s words, ‘I believe it is not only defensible but necessary to reinvent real-life figures for their new role in a drama.’ If viewers of these films confuse the drama with actual history, then that’s not the fault of the producers. Several descendants of the soldiers at Rorke’s Drift were upset over the portrayal of their relatives in the film.

Hall quotes at length from contributors to the website and one in particular (Diana Blackwell) comments, ‘Despite its historical basis, Zulu is a work of art, not a documentary. It takes a few liberties with the facts, but always in the interest of strengthening the story.’ Diana points out that the film has drawn more attention to the battle than all the other sources combined and serious historical studies have resulted directly from the exposure given by the film. Much more is known about that conflict now than at the time when Prebble did his initial research.

Stanley Baker was co-producer and main star of the film. During the filming he and his wife made friends with Prince Buthelezi. Baker was awarded a knighthood in Wilson’s resignation honours and before receiving it from the Queen he contracted pneumonia in Malaga and died, aged forty-eight. His Zulu friend sent a wreath to ‘the finest white man he had ever met.’ Baker kept a secret cheque-book, discovered after his death, from which he gave money to out-of-work actors and broken-down boxers.

The book would have been interesting simply covering the making of the film, but it is immeasurably better because of snippets like the above scattered throughout.

Although Zulu is considered to be Michael Caine’s first film role, it wasn’t. But this was the movie that gave him prominent billing, even if his fee was only a mere £4,000 – a lot to a struggling actor in those days. What is quite striking is the generous encouragement and fostering of Caine – Jack Hawkins said he’s ‘the best thing in this film’ while Baker deprecates, saying the film didn’t make Caine a star, it only helped – Caine ‘made himself into a star.’ James Booth received mixed reviews about his part as the ne’er-do-well Private Hook. He enjoyed it immensely. Ironically, he appeared in the Newcastle upon Tyne Theatre playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan. At least he’d been promoted!

(The drawing is a sketch I made from a photo in 1964, when I was 16 - ye Gods, that's a long time ago...!)

One of the most memorable characters was Colour-Sergeant Bourne played by Nigel Green who was coincidentally born in South Africa. Some actors received mixed notices but Green was praised from every quarter. This part gained him recognition and more film roles. Subsequently, he appeared in two Michael Caine movies, The Ipcress File and Play Dirty. The voice-over narration was done by an old friend of Baker’s, Richard Burton, who refused to take a fee.

The location filming couldn’t take place at the original site of Rorke’s Drift since a modern school and monuments to the battle had been erected over the mission and the battlefield. Besides, from an aesthetic point of view, the scenery wasn’t that great. They eventually settled on Drakensberg mountain range about 160km from Rorke’s Drift.

Many real Zulus were employed as extras and stunt men. Chief (Then Prince) Buthelezi played the Zulu chief King Cetewayo. He went on to become Minister of Home Affairs in the new South Africa and was even appointed Acting President of the Republic by Nelson Mandela, who had previously been his political rival. He is particularly sad that so many people involved in the film ‘are no more.’

The biggest problem for the director was not arranging the fight scenes but actually getting the Zulus out of the shade – they didn’t care much for the sun. The working relationship between the white crew and the Zulus was good and memorable, despite the dark shadow of inhuman apartheid regime. My ship called in at Durban in the late 1960s and we were appalled at the way the blacks were treated. Indeed, Caine vowed never to return to South Africa while apartheid was still in force. Although hundreds of Zulus had worked on the film and appeared in it, because of apartheid they weren’t allowed to see it at all: Stanley Baker kept his promise, however, and arranged a secret special viewing for all those involved in the film.

The haunting film score by John Barry is covered in depth, too: he has written over 120 film scores and believes that music should be doing a very specific thing. He doesn’t want background music, he wants foreground music.

There were many special premieres throughout the country. At Glasgow five Scottish holders of the VC were accompanied by a guard of honour from HMS Zulu, a tribal class frigate due to be commissioned on the Clyde. In April 1967 I joined the ship’s company of HMS Zulu and we eventually sailed to Durban and visited Zululand and attended a tribal dance ceremony as guests of honour. (I left the ship in October 1969).

The film Zulu surpassed the previous highest grossing British release From Russia with Love. However, Bond came back to overtake that record with Goldfinger...

Zulu wasn’t glorying in warfare or jingoism or racism. It was simply a ‘straightforward celebration of valour, tenacity and honour among men’ from both sides. Many self-serving critics have tried to pillory the film-makers for not explaining the historical context or showing more from the Zulu viewpoint. They forget that the film was a drama about eleven men winning the Victoria Cross in one day.

There is a chapter about myths, gaffes and spoofs, even the Beyond Our Ken’s parody. There are appendices on the production schedule, the budget, the complete cast and crew listing, as well as a useful bibliography for further reading on the period and the Anglo-War of 1879 in particular. Some armies actually use the film as part of their training in leadership.

The book’s title is taken from a comment by Colour Sergeant Bourne near the end of the film, explaining their miraculous victory was not only due to the rifle but also the bayonet. ‘With some guts behind it, sir.’

The Zulu warcry is Bayete! - Thy will be done!

Friday 4 September 2009


Saddened to learn that Keith Waterhouse died today, aged 80. He’d been ‘unwell’ for some time, doubtless emulating his friend Jeffrey Bernard… He was one of my writing idols. Waterhouse came from humble beginnings in Leeds but had the gift of words laced with humour. He was a great advocate for protecting the apostrophe from Philistines, ignoramuses and lazy officialdom, long before Lynne Truss adopted his standard.

Many years ago, I used to buy the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. They gave me two politically biased views of the world where news was concerned, so I could more or less work out that reality was perhaps somewhere in between. But I liked the Mirror for two special reasons: it contained the strip cartoon ‘The Perishers’ and at the time a Keith Waterhouse column. Later, Waterhouse moved to the Mail.

He was a consummate puncturer of pomposity. I have many books by him, besides his most famous, Billy Liar (1959); he wrote a sequel, Billy Liar on the Moon (1975). My two favourites are Waterhouse at Large, being samples of his columns from the Mirror, the Times and the Observer, and English, Our English (and how to sing it). Anyone who appreciates the written word will find joy in these books. He was prolific and versatile. I have two of his autobiographies, City Lights and Streets Ahead. He loved playing with words but respected the English language. It doesn’t matter which of his books you pick up – whether on Travel, Lunch or Newspaper Style, you’ll enjoy them at several levels.

In his later years, his facial features seemed to fit what many of his pieces may have been considered to be: curmudgeonly; it's as if the word was invented solely for him... He was inventive, funny and generous of nature. A great wordsmith has gone, but his words linger on.

He was known to drink champagne every day – he didn’t drive at all. So, to toast his memory tonight I shall open a bottle of Cava (heresy of heresies, but it’s cheaper yet as good as many champagnes). Cheers, Keith.

Thursday 27 August 2009


Editor: Nik Morton
Co-editor: Charlie Whipple

At long last, here is the lineup for the next Legends anthology. About ninety-eight thousand words. Twenty-one new stories of the Old West. Listed in no particular order:

DEAD MAN TALKING – Derek Rutherford
LONIGAN MUST DIE! – Ben Bridges (David Whitehead)
BILLY – Lance Howard (Howard Hopkins)
HALF A PIG – Matthew P Mayo
BLOODHOUND – Courtney Joyner
BIG ENOUGH – Chuck Tyrell (Charles T Whipple)
ONE DAY IN LIBERTY – Jack Giles (Ray Foster)
ON THE RUN – Alfred Wallon
THE GIMP – Jack Martin (Gary Dobbs)
VISITORS – Ross Morton (Nik Morton)
THE NIGHTHAWK – Michael D George
DARKE JUSTICE – Peter Avarillo (Chantel Foster)
ANGELO AND THE STRONGBOX – Cody Wells (Malcolm Davey)
THE PRIDE OF THE CROCKETTS – Evan Lewis (Dave Lewis)
CRIB GIRLS – Kit Churchill (Andrea Hughes)
MAN OF IRON – Chuck Tyrell (Charles T Whipple)
CASH LARAMIE AND THE MASKED DEVIL – Edward A Grainger (David Cranmer)

Congratulations to all. Still to be determined, the cover picture and the title. Watch this space.

(I drew the above picture in the late 1960s; Ursula Andress in Four For Texas.)

Thursday 20 August 2009


Some 18 months ago, my wife Jennifer’s choir, Cantabile Singers, was looking for a pianist when into their lives walked Larissa Yvonne Snarli, who was born in Russia but was now a Norwegian citizen living in Spain’s Costa Blanca. In her mid-fifties, Larissa was a diminutive package with a prodigious talent. She wasn’t an accompanist, but a concert pianist. The choir felt blessed indeed.

Last November Larissa was diagnosed with cancer and since then she lived for the music every blessed day, courageously performing on stage and teaching her devoted pupils at the piano. This photo shows her at the end of a fantastic performance this June. Though Larissa seemed to be winning after severe surgery and traumatic treatment, sadly additional cancer cells were detected. Eleven days after her birthday, she succumbed, leaving a bereft husband of twelve years, Roger, and a beautiful daughter, Elena.

Any death is sad. Yet it somehow seems particularly cruel when such formidable talent is swept away. Larissa was a linguist, cultured, humorous and highly intelligent.

When Larissa Yvonne, 56, and Norwegian Roger Snarli, 71, met on the Internet nearly twelve years ago it was love at first sight. Just a few months later, Larissa moved from Siberia to Oslo. Naturally, the life, the people and the culture in Russia were totally different from Norway. “But Larissa’s good command of English counterbalanced a great many cultural differences between us,” said Roger. “She had a great flair for languages and she quickly learned to speak Norwegian. She also started right away teaching new pupils at her private piano school in Oslo.”

“I learned the language from my pupils,” Larissa reminisced, “and by watching TV and reading newspapers.” She had a charming Russian-tinged accent when speaking English.

Larissa, or Lara as the family members called her, grew up with a sister eight years older in a privileged and highly educated family in the town of Tomsk, Siberia. Her father was a physicist and an engineer. Their mother worked as an English teacher, so the girls learned the language at their mother’s knee. They had a piano in the house and both sisters were attending music classes after regular school time. Larissa was only six when she took her first piano lessons and it soon became apparent that she had an exceptional talent. At the age of twelve, she held her first piano concert with the philharmonic orchestra.

Later, she extended her studies at the music college and completed her musical education by graduating from the Novosibirsk Conservatory. At 24, she started working as a leader of the orchestra (concertmaster) at Tomsk music theatre and worked there for seven years.

During this period she also performed a number of recitals, one of them being Beethoven’s piano concerto, with Tomsk symphony orchestra on tours in different parts of Russia. She received many awards and prizes from the city council – the highest acknowledgement available in the Soviet Union. In 1983 she was employed as a piano-teacher and an accompanist/concertmaster at Tomsk music college; she was awarded with the highest distinctions both as a teacher and an accompanist. Later on, she was twice chosen to participate in the international music festival for piano-duets.

Larissa became a Norwegian citizen and received her Norwegian passport. Their dream for warmer climes finally turned into reality when they finally got into the car on the first day of March 2006 and headed south. An enormous feeling of freedom engulfed them.

Even though Spain conquered Larissa’s heart, she maintained her bonds with both Norway and Russia. Larissa’s daughter Elena moved to Norway following her mother and has married and settled there; she is now busy studying Chinese at the University of Oslo. Larissa’s 88-year-old mother still lives in Russia.

Her personal motto was: “I wish to plant a seed of music into my pupil’s soul, and hope that it will bring joy and pleasure to their lives.”

Teaching piano gave Larissa the greatest joy in her life. She loved her pupils and they also showed that they appreciated her. The young musicians were of various nationalities: English, Russian, Chinese, Swedish and Norwegian, among others.

Throughout her medical treatment, Larissa tried to maintain a very positive attitude and believed that music would help her through the pain. For such a small lady, Larissa had a big heart and enormous talent to share with audiences and pupils alike. Now she is gone, but for all those whose lives she touched, her music will live on.

Larissa Yvonne Snarli, Norwegian citizen, born in Seversk, Russia, 8 August 1953, died Orihuela Costa, Spain, 19 August 2009.

Sunday 9 August 2009

Beat to a Pulp - I Celebrate Myself

Beat to a Pulp is a webzine that features a great variety of stories in a number of genres. You'll find a broad range and a lot of good writing. Each week a new story is featured; earlier tales are still accessible, either on the page or in the Archive. The writers also benefit from feedback from the readers, which is a real bonus.

This week's 'punch' is one of my short stories, 'I Celebrate Myself' - the title is taken from Walt Whitman; his poetry lends itself to story titles, I reckon. Anyone reading The $300 Man will know that he - along with Christina Rossetti - is quoted by the two main characters.

Anyway, 'I Celebrate Myself' is about a NY cop faced with an unusual dilemma and it can be found at

complete with readers' comments; feel free to drop in, read and leave a comment.


Friday 7 August 2009

Last Chance Saloon - Large Print edition

On 1 August, F A Thorpe published my second western under their large print imprint, Linford Western Library. The cover image still doesn’t appear on Amazon or the book depository but is on the Ulverscroft website. Retails at £8.99. Today, I received my free author's copies.

The blurb

The Bethesda Falls stage is robbed and Ruth Monroe, the stage depot owner, is being coerced into selling up by local tycoon, Zachary Smith. Meanwhile, Daniel McAlister returns from gold prospecting to wed Virginia, the saloon’s wheel of fortune operator. Daniel hits a winning streak but is bushwhacked, his winnings stolen.

Virginia sees this romance with Daniel as her last chance of happiness and no matter what, she’s determined to stand by her man, ducking flying bullets if need be. Daniel and Virginia side with Ruth against Smith and his hired gunslingers.

A deadly showdown will end it, one way or another.

Cover art
This cover tends to reflect the story, which is a nice change. Interestingly, the artwork is attributed: Boada. Sebastia Boada has been around for many years and was big in comics; his paintings and sculptures fetch high prices, as do his art prints. He was born in Barcelona in 1935. I'm honoured to have one of his paintings grace my book cover!