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Thursday 31 October 2013

Halloween-3 – become sacred dust

I got fed up waiting for a publisher to grab this book after it was out-of-print, despite the good reviews, so have self-published it as a paperback and e-book under the new title Chill of the Shadow. (amendment: 27/10/2017)

 In this partial chapter excerpt from Death is Another Life, we meet Maria’s antagonist – or will it be fellow protagonist? Unlikely, considering his behaviour. Still, vampires are known to mesmerize those they would seduce…

CHAPTER 2: An urgent hunger

A month ago

Zondadari never ceased to be filled with dread anticipation before the transformation.
            In the privacy of his secluded Maltese villa he stood on the stone balcony, dressed in black leather, his shoulders draped with a cloak of the same colour and material. Very theatrical, but appropriate. As the pains filled his chest and raked across his back, he hunched forward, his fingers grasping the stone hand-rail for support. Mediterranean fir-pine trees cast their deep velvet shadows onto the balcony, concealing most of the pale yellow moon. Shadows were his friend.
            Slowly the organic material of his clothing pressed against him, even into him, taking on the contours of his large muscular body. A straying wild bird flew over and shrilled and then darted away quickly, discouraged by the unholy smell that emanated from him during his change.
            One day, he feared, his heart wouldn’t hold out against the battering it took.
            Coherent thought shimmered. He started seeing double; then multiples of everything. Disoriented, he lowered himself down on one knee. It would be a few minutes more before he would be able to control the numerous images.
            Small gaping flesh-red mouths, with razor-sharp teeth, appeared on the surface of his body. Disproportionately large furry ears flicked out at all angles and black beady eyes glistened all over him, like a constellation of the devil.
            Five minutes of harrowing pain passed and already he was separating, literally coming apart. With an unpleasant sucking sound, dark shapes peeled off from the form that had been a man. But he was a man no longer.
            With a flick of thin yet deceptively strong leathery wings, the freed bats broke away from each other and landed on the balustrade.
            The shape-shifting was complete. His mind was the sum of these forty-six creatures. He could see through the eyes of a single animal or perceive separate images through all of them. They did his bidding – because they were him in every sense. Every sense.
            The hunger was upon him again.
            As one, the bats flew up into the night sky.

* * * *
His body aching in every bone, he straightened in the front pew and rubbed his strained eyes. Recovery from each transformation was the same: excruciating.
            He remembered his pains with a shiver; then gulped the revitalizing warm blood from the church’s golden chalice and licked red dribbles from fleshy lips.
            Ever so slowly, the draught would do its arcane work and heal the agonizing ache and give him new life. Not for the first time, Zondadari cursed Theresa. Still, there were compensations: and blood-lusting Desiree was just one of many.
            He turned in the high-backed wooden seat to eye Father Pont, sprawled lifeless at the base of the choir stalls. The fool’s vacant eyes reflected no beatitude at abruptly and prematurely meeting his Maker and perhaps because of this they stared at him accusingly. And with good reason. The poor man’s heart must have stopped for a fleeting second as he saw a cloud of bats swoop down from the belfry. Father Pont’s eyes were almost extended on stalks as he viewed the creatures in front of him clustering together, as if purposefully forming into a seemingly pain-racked leather-clad man. Suffused with agonizing pain, the man glared and then smiled, grabbing the nearest piece of silver to hand. The priest stayed rooted to the stone flags, an easy target. No wonder his eyes stared accusingly.
            Zondadari shrugged. Even after all these years, he wondered how he could have been taken in by such an empty religion. Of course, in those distant days, superstition reigned supreme.
            He stood and hung the plastic crucifix round his neck.
            In a moment he would drag the dead priest down to the catacombs to join his ancient brethren. With great will-power, Zondadari refrained from draining the blood from the priest; he would return for the rest later, a cool libation, after which the body would moulder and become sacred dust.
            Taking his time – of which he had plenty – he donned the dead priest’s round-brimmed hat. He paused to check his reflection in the shining silver ciborium, its rim smeared with blood and hair where he had clubbed the kappillan.
            He lifted his head, accentuating the line of his aquiline nose. His steely grey eyes shone mischievously. Quite the local vicar, he mused, but he still preferred to see himself in his ancient knight’s helmet.
            Licking the silver clean, he smiled. Today, he would have a little amusement.

This book is now out of print - until further notice...

NB – Kappillan is Maltese for parish-priest. I can recommend Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Kappillan of Malta.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Halloween-2 - the sepulchral place

I got fed up waiting for a publisher to grab this book after it was out-of-print, despite the good reviews, so have self-published it as a paperback and e-book under the new title Chill of the Shadow. (amendment: 27/10/2017)
Closer to Halloween still. This excerpt from Death is Another Life introduces the heroine, Maria. The scene in the autopsy room is a good 1,000 words longer than shown here, comprising back-story blending in with more character-building; I’ve excised it (without scalpel) in an attempt to keep this blog relatively short. The next excerpt will introduce the villain – or hero perhaps…
Map of Maltese islands

Story so far: a woman's body fished out of the sea...

CHAPTER 1: The deprived womb

Maria Caruana had been covering a child’s hit-and-run death for her newspaper when the ambulance crew brought in the young woman’s body.
            Hit-and-run was rare on Malta. Yet, even with a speed-limit in built-up areas of 25 – and 40mph elsewhere – and the sorry state of most roads mitigate against high speeds, fatal accidents were quite frequent. The islands boast about one car for every three people and at times they all seem to converge at the same destination at the same time, and that’s usually when she’s approaching a junction or roundabout in a hurry. And she was usually in a hurry. Panel-beating and car-repairs were growth industries in Malta.
            The only witness to the hit-and-run thought the culprit had been driving a blue Morris 1000. This information had made her friend Detective Sergeant Attard, the police investigator, blanch – Morrises were very common on the island. The police had begun calling in all cars answering the description when Maria stumbled upon a suspect vehicle in the grounds of a foreign Consulate in Floriana. While the political implications caused dithering, Maria, enraged by the diplomatic considerations, visited the morgue to see the dead child. She had every intention of writing a sensational and damning account for her paper, Niggez.


            The morgue always affected her the same way, as though she had been immersed in a freezing cold bath and was only now drying out. Outside it may be a sunny mid-April day, but in here it was perpetual winter, uncompromisingly chilly ­– cold, appropriately like death. Air conditioning hummed from the ceiling. The white coverall over her peach embroidered cotton blouse and white skirt didn’t help, either. As she strolled down the sloping corridor, the rubber boots flapped noisily as they were two sizes too large. Fortunately, she didn’t have far to walk in them.
            She pushed open the swing door of the autopsy room.
            Dressed in green scrubs, the tall bony figure of her father Dr. Nicholas Caruana stood beside the woman’s waxy pale body on the metal table. He lifted up his weary gaze and the overhead strip-lights glared whitely on his spectacle lenses, concealing his eyes. He smiled a brief welcome to Maria as she entered.
            A smile seemed out of place here, she thought.
            He waved a bony hand distended with the blue tracery of tired old veins, beckoning.
            Seeing the naked woman’s corpse already slit open, Maria felt her skin crawl and her stomach tightened. Bile rose to the back of her throat but she swallowed her distaste and offered, “Sorry I’m late, Dad.”
            He snapped on a pair of sterile latex gloves and said in his cultured soft voice, “No problem. I haven’t started yet.”
            Maria did a double-take. The woman was cut from the upper chest down to the crotch. Now she realized that it was not her father’s usual ‘Y’ incision that extends across the chest from shoulder to shoulder and continues down the front of the abdomen to the pubis. The shape of the cut appeared to be reversed, in fact, and this alone made her blood run cold.
            Dr. Caruana directed his assistants to the next table where the little girl from the hit-and-run lay. He eyed them over his glasses and sighed, and then turned to her and whispered, “Take a good look here, Maria.” He shook his balding head, leathery lined features drawn, pallid. “Here, you’ll find all the evidence you need of our waning culture, the tide of violence besetting our Islands. Write it all, show the people the blood and gore!”
            His astringent tone surprised her but she shrugged it off, accepted his invitation and looked at the corpse.
            Stark lighting was not flattering and had little need to be. Under the harsh lights, the marred beauty of the woman touched Maria.
            The dead woman was in her mid-twenties, her long black hair lank and wet. Congealed blood glistened darkly all around the gaping wound. Her flesh was bloated, as if she had been immersed in water for some time, and there were many bruises, doubtless caused by the rocks and the buffeting of the waves.
            “Where’d they find her?” The croak in her voice sounded unnatural. This was her fourth visit to the mortuary yet the effect was no less traumatic for all the familiarity.
            He grunted, professional eyes scanning the corpse. “Fishermen off Delimara Point. About three hours ago. They hauled her in on their nets and radioed the police.” He peeled back the woman’s lips and shone a torch into the dead mouth; light glinted on the faultless white teeth.
Delimara Point

            The smell of formaldehyde and disinfectant clogged her nostrils, but could not completely relieve the stench of faeces, bodily gases and brine. She picked up a tube and squeezed out some cream and spread it on her upper lip to combat the bad odours.
            While his finger searched the mouth for any blockage or seaweed, he added, “The local policeman’s apparently having some difficulty getting any sense out of them. Very superstitious, those fishermen–”
            “Superstitious? What about?”
            “Suicides – a mortal sin, some of them think. And while I wouldn’t be so doctrinaire, I tend to agree with them. She’s been dead a good day and a half, I should say.”
            Maria nodded. She had a good memory, which was just as well for she doubted if she would be able to hold a pencil steady enough to make notes.
            He switched on the micro-recorder on his lapel and measured the size of the incisions in the woman’s stomach and chest and read out the details. He checked the scales by his side. “Lungs, 1.2 kilograms,” he read out, and placed the lungs in a plastic bag at the base of the table.
            Then he glanced up and said, “I see you’re wearing your mother’s necklace.”
            She fingered the crucifix. “Her dying wish, remember?” She added defiantly, “It doesn’t change how I feel about religion.”
            “Maria, Maria, you were always too hard on her beliefs.” He removed the victim’s heart and placed it on the scales. “Heart: 280 grams.” Automatically, he switched off the recorder. “I envied her deep faith, you know. As a scientist, I’ve lost that simplicity, that sureness.”
            “But, Dad, you were never close.”
            He shook his head, lifting the heart and bagging it and putting it alongside the lungs. “We were, my dear. You were too young to notice. When she left, taking you to America, a light went out in my world.” Now it was the liver’s turn for the scales and he switched on the recorder. “Liver: 1.4 kilograms.”
            “But you never came after us!”
            “I wanted to, but my work–”
            “You were always bringing the smell of death home.”
            “So – I’m grateful you brought her back, even if only to die here.”
            “It’s what she wanted.” She felt tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. “All I wanted was for you two to get on again. Make her last days happy...”
            He shrugged. “I tried, but–”
            “Those big cuts – they’re almost like knife–” She stopped in mid-sentence as he lifted up a long cord-like appendage from the gruesome gash. It resembled a bloodless worm, engorged with fat and speckled with dried blood.
            With sudden, sickening realization, she backed away. “Oh, the umbilical cord – good God, Dad, she was pregnant!”
            “Not here, Maria.” he said urgently. His face was red. He glanced at his assistants ministering to the child victim: they seemed to accept his eccentricity and kept busy and out of his way.
            “Where’s her baby?” Maria whispered, her brow fevered and hot, her stomach squirming.
            He turned back to the corpse and concealed the gaping womb with his angular body.
            “Oh, God, the baby was cut out of her, wasn’t it?”
            “Dad, I don’t deal in probabilities – only facts!”
            “I don’t want to discuss this here,” he said softly, faintly. “I’ll speak to you later.”
            Maria shivered. She looked around at the sepulchral place. On the shelves were bottles, retorts, burners, periodicals and notebooks, journals and logs. The assistants had logged this woman in – Maria had watched them follow a set routine more than once – complete with her toe-tag resembling a luggage label, just like a mail office, or her paper’s dispatch room.
            The bizarre image of the deprived womb held on her retina, wouldn’t go away.

This book is now out of print - until further notice!
NB - Niggez is Maltese for 'sting'

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Blog guest – Gary M. Dobbs

Today, my blog guest is Gary Dobbs who also writes as Jack Martin and Vincent Stark. Gary is also an actor and has appeared in Doctor Who, Torchwood, Gavin and Stacey, Moonmonkeys, Larkrise to Candleford, The Reverend, and The Risen. Gary is just recovering from an operation that excised a cancerous tumour from his forehead. Some say it was to remove his 'third eye' while others believe an alien artefact was inserted.

My review of THE BALLAD OF DELTA ROSE by Jack Martin

Grim stuff, this. After more than 20 years away, Delta returns to the ranch he started with Etta James. He upped and left, itchy to make it rich elsewhere. He always planned on coming back – but it took him over two decades to get around to it. The main reason probably had something to do with the bullet lodged in his chest, working its way towards his heart. Delta was on borrowed time.

When he learns that he has a son by Etta, and the boy’s running with the wrong crowd, Delta finds a reason for living. If only for a little while longer – so he can seek redemption and turn the boy away from the road of crime.

Jack Martin’s third novel is sombre affair about lost chances. There’s some good writing in here, too:

“With death peering over a man’s shoulder, its icy breath felt on the back of a man’s neck, everything was enhanced. The cobalt sky was saturated and the landscape vividly exaggerated.”

Etta has problems, it seems, not only from her wayward son. Despotic Maxwell King owns half the town and now wants to own her. Which isn’t too surprising, since Etta’s “beauty was more than physical. It came from within, a radiance that positively shone in her eyes.”

There’s also a humorous cross-reference to the earlier novel, Arkansas Smith.

Delta is a man of few words, but, despite his days being numbered, he won’t compromise on right and wrong. He’ll fight for what is right. Which makes him a dangerous man – since he has nothing to lose. Recommended.

Q & A

Your first book The Tarnished Star was published in 2009 and since then you’ve had 9 books published.

Arkansas Smith

The Ballad of Delta Rose

Wild Bill Williams

The Afterlife of Slim McCord

Savage Slaughter

Granny Smith Investigates

Granny Smith and the Deadly Frogs

The Dead Walked book 1 – Outbreak

The Dead Walked book 2 – Dead Days
 Most debut novels take a long time to gestate. How long did you work on The Tarnished Star?

Strangely enough Tarnished Star didn’t take long to gestate but rather arrived in my mind almost fully formed. I’d tried several novels before but these were usually in the crime/thriller genre and none seemed to work and yet as soon as I decided to write a western the character of Cole Masters, who I saw as a kind of cross between John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, popped into my head and I knew what the basic idea of his story would be and the rest just came as I wrote. I re-read the novel recently and although I think I’ve progressed a bit since that first one I think the story still reads well and the tale holds together. I’ve a lot of respect for Cole Masters and do have plans to revisit him one day but then again I’ve had those plans for a long time so maybe he’ll return and maybe he won’t.

In many ways, second novels are easier, because you’ve learned a lot from the first. (Some feel cursed by the expectations implicit in a second novel after a successful first one). You quickly produced a second book, featuring Police Inspector Frank Parade in The Welsh Ripper Killings. Was the second one easier?

I think the second book was a lot more difficult but only because the story was much more complex and I was dealing with a lot of historical fact. I had to get the details of the Ripper Killings correct and work these facts into my own fiction so that my story made sense. I must be honest and admit that I don’t think the book’s done as well sales-wise as I expected. I think it’s yet to really find its audience. I’m very proud of that book and will certainly be writing about Inspector Frank Parade again. Perhaps I’ll tackle his second story when readers discover the first book. The answer the book gives to the Ripper killings is, I think, unique and may even be the truth. Who can say?
How long have you been writing? 

Forever and a day. I used to write novels, or at least what I called novels, when I was a kid. In longhand in school exercise books and although these so-called novels rarely went longer than ten pages, they certainly felt like books to little old schoolboy me. I think I started writing seriously in my twenties but it took until I was forty to have my first novel accepted. Though before that I had managed to place a story with BBC Radio Four as well as selling to magazines like Interzone, Samhain, Skeleton Crew and several others. I’ve always wanted to tell stories and I love the art of writing, the way when you enter that special zone the world around you ceases to exist and you become one with the story.

What influenced you to start?

My mother taught me to read and my grandfather used to tell me wild stories of his own invented adventures – between them they gave me my love of reading and storytelling. There’s nothing finer than looking at a blank page and then filling that space with words that magically work together to create something where there was nothing.

There is also the fact that I devoured comic books when I was a kid, and I was also a big TV viewer. I learned very early in life that great excitement could be had from fictional stories, that all things could be explored. In many ways I think comic book writers like John Wagner and Pat Mills have influenced me as much as authors like Louis L’Amour, George Gillman, Raymond Chandler, Donald Westlake, Tom Sharpe and Ian Fleming. On the face of it, they may seem like very different writers but they all have one thing in common, and that is the ability to create a world that becomes utterly real to the reader. And that’s what I want to do – I don’t want to be a serious writer in the sense of literary writers, but rather to entertain, to grip readers as tightly as say Stephen King does. I want to create beauty on the page and I want to somehow work my way into my readers’ hearts.

How do your family/friends feel about your writing?

I think you’d have to ask them about that but to be honest my family are really supportive, while my friends think I’m the same dickhead I always was. But seriously, friends and family are important and I love and cherish each and every one of them. And that’s including the community of friends I’ve gathered from my writing and online life. Love you all and hope my Facebook status messages entertain you.

You write in more than one genre: you’ve published western, crime with humour, and horror. Is there a genre you haven’t tried but would like to?

I’m due to publish another Granny Smith adventure so at the moment I’m working in the humour/crime genres, but I’ve another western on the backburner too. I don’t think there’s any genre I particularly want to try nor is there one I think I wouldn’t try. I suppose it comes story to story and, who knows, I may one day end up writing erotic industrial thrillers, but I think that whatever genres I work in, there is a good deal of humour.

My last western Wild Bill Williams contained much humour and my next one (published this November) The Afterlife of Slim McCord contains a lot of gentle character driven humour. I do like humour and think that maybe the fact that I’ve done some stand-up comedy means that I tend to see the funny sides of the blackest of situations. That’s not to say I pepper my work with jokes but I think that fully drawn characters will often bring humour with them. We all like to smile and I hope my work brings as many smiles as it does thrills.
Tell us a little more about THE AFTERLIFE OF SLIM MCCORD
I really do think that this is a different kind of western. For one thing, that main character plays a very active part in the story, despite being a mummified corpse. The book is told through the point of view of two aged outlaws who come across the mummified remains of Slim McCord, the man they once rode with, and after stealing his mummy in order to give him a decent burial, end up involved in the most audacious robbery of their careers. The three outlaws are together again but one of them is dead. Though you’d never tell from the way he plays out his part in the story…

Hale loved the book and I do too.  I think it may even bring a tear to the eyes as well as telling a pretty traditional western tale. You know, in terms of imaginative storytelling I think this book will take some beating.

The new Granny Smith is due this December. Tell us about it.

I love Granny – that pipe smoking Miss Marple on steroids, that Batman with dentures. The new book’s called The Welsh Connection and sees Granny on holiday in Disneyland Paris and having to solve a murder. It’s another fast-paced, fun-filled read in the farcical tradition of Tom Sharpe with just a twist of Agatha Christie and a smattering of Conan Doyle.
The Granny series grows with each book and the lives of the secondary characters are built upon. In many ways, I think the series is a satire of both crime thrillers and soap operas. I also love the fact that Granny doesn’t give a shit for political correctness and is not afraid to say the things than we all think from time to time. She’s an anti-establishment figure and someone who won’t take growing old lying down. What, after all, is age? You can be an old twenty-one-year-old and a young seventy-five-year-old. Granny’s also been very popular and continues to be so with pretty strong sales.

A tall order, I know, but what is your favourite book? And why?

This answer would change from day to day. Wow, that’s a difficult one to answer. In fact that’s an impossible question since I’ve got so many favourite books. I think that maybe the book I’ve read more times than any other is Casino Royale by Ian Fleming and I think that grim little story contains most of the elements common to all of my favourite books. In this book Ian Fleming gave the reader a pace that is truly breathtaking, and at the same time managed to create this world that is tremendously larger than life and yet somehow seems utterly realistic. The character of James Bond here truly is the man every man would want to be and every woman would want to be with. You can’t get better than that. It’s a totally escapist story and that’s what I think all great fiction should be – an escape from the mundane realities of this world we live in.
Where do you hope to be in 5 years?

Sitting at a nicer desk, in a nicer house with a bigger readership. I just hope that in five years time I’ve created at least half a dozen new worlds and entertained many more readers with those imagined worlds. I also want to be the next Doctor Who, the creator of something really addictive and an aging sex symbol…
Your blog Tainted Archive has been around since 2008. Can you tell us how this came about?

I’m proud of the Archive. It started out as somewhere to pimp my books but it developed into some kind of anarchistic blog-cum-magazine that covers pretty much everything. I think it’s somewhere where anything can crop up and I think that for all the nonsense on there you will often find something that will raise a smile… I’ve spent my life trying to make people smile.

Where can readers find you?

Thank you, Gary.


How could I be so low? - Solo-2

Interesting. I’ve been taken to task regarding a part of my review of Solo:

The first part is uneventful and is unlikely to hook modern-day thriller readers. The tone and style are leisurely, like some of the Bond works, but they held the attention, this barely does that. Apart from a bloody dream/risen memory of D-Day events in France, Bond is not involved in any action. He meets an attractive woman and inadvertently becomes a voyeur. Boyd’s writing a novel, it would seem, not a thriller. I’ve read Boyd’s books and they’re good. This is a disappointment, in contrast.
Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and not everyone is bound to agree with everyone else; reading – and writing – are inevitably subjective. Still, reviewing what I wrote, it seemed fair comment on my part. To paraphrase, the writer says that I was mistaken when stating ‘the first part is uneventful’, since there was 'heaps happening', adding that this section was setting up the story and Bond books shouldn’t be confused with the pyrotechnics of the cinema version. If I seem to yearn for the all-action scenes of the films, I fail to see where I do so in this review…

In truth, by showing the dream/flashback Boyd was attempting to provide a little background to his Bond, but it didn’t ring true. There was no event in the story to trigger the memory of so long ago. Yes, it was the first time he faced almost certain death. But he’d confronted death so many times since, that particular instance would pale into insignificance. There was no conflict, suspense, genuine intrigue or tension in the present (1969). Story without conflict of some kind is no story.
In Solo, Boyd finally links Bond to M in the third chapter (p32).

A hasty glance at Fleming’s books can be instructive.

Casino Royale (1953) begins with the mission already in flow, the intrigue spelled out, and we’re privy to spycraft techniques. M shows up in Chapter 2 (p14).
Live and Let Die (1954) thrusts Bond straight into a combined mission with the Americans against a certain Mr Big. The interview with M is in Chapter 2 (p11).

Moonraker (1955) does begin with a slight yet highly interesting departure from the previous two books. We glean more insight into the spy’s tradecraft and daily office routine, and there is no actual conflict, though a measure of intrigue. M is introduced in Chapter 2 (p12).
Diamonds are Forever (1956) begins not with Bond but the diamond smugglers, the death of a scorpion and intrigue. Bond and M are introduced in Chapter 2 (p12).

From Russia with Love (1957) again departs from the formula. The first part – some 70 pages – doesn’t actually feature Bond, though he is mentioned. Instead, we meet Red Grant in Chapter 1; it’s tension, character conflict, intrigue all the way, however, for the entire part. (A pedantic aside. Fleming gets it right. The book is separated in parts, but the chapter numbers continue throughout, from 1 through to 28. Boyd gets it wrong. He breaks up Solo into parts but begins each part with Chapter 1. If he had broken up Solo into Books, then yes, the chapters could begin with 1 for each ‘book’.) Bond finally meets M in Chapter 12 (p84).
Dr. No (1958) is back to the old routine and begins with the death of Strangways in Jamaica. In Chapter 2 (p12) M confronts Bond about his near fatal confrontation with Rosa Klebb in the previous assignment. (Boyd makes no mention of Bond’s previous assignments, ostensibly in You Only Live Twice). Then Bond is sent off to Jamaica on a ‘personnel problem’.

Goldfinger (1959) sees Bond again thrust into action straight away, combatting a drug smuggling Mexican and settling a score. We learn about Goldfinger in Chapter 2 (p20) and finally get to see M in Chapter 5 (p40).
Thunderball (1961) begins with just over six pages with M telling Bond he needs a rest at a health resort, Shrublands; conflict over his health. Intrigue about another attendee Count Lippe is raised in Chapter 2 and in the next chapter Bond is almost torn apart on the rack, thanks to Count Lippe… (p31).

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) again starts with threat and intrigue – Bond and his girl Tracy being abducted by armed men on the beach of Royale-les-Eaux. (Incidentally, here Fleming lets Bond visit the grave of Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale). While M doesn’t appear till p71, he is in Bond’s and our minds as 007 writes a letter of resignation, feeling he’s wasting his time hunting Blofeld and SPECTRE (Chapter 2, p17); again, there’s a reference to the preceding adventure).  
You Only Live Twice (1964) begins with Bond being entertained by Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese Secret Service and the chapter ends with Tiger warning Bond that the information he is about to glean is deadly serious. Then it’s a flashback to two months before, with Bond liable to get the sack as a result of the terrible trauma of the last episode, though M is inveigled by the service doctor to give Bond one last mission, in Japan (Chapter 3, p28).

As can be seen, for all the novels there is a formula that is hardly ever greatly altered: conflict either direct or implied, with M interviewing Bond early on. The biggest departure is in From Russia With Love, but there’s a good measure of intrigue and the promise of conflict to keep the pages turning. The rest tend to create conflict of one kind or another for Bond – not non-threatening flashbacks. The conflict can be physical, from criminals or villains, or psychological, due to his stress and health. In Solo, there is a plot reason for Bond getting involved with Bryce Fitzjohn, though it’s rather outlandish; but having him break into her empty house on the pretext given is very contrived. And that is the only actual event in the first Part (up to p30), if you discount Bond’s displeasure with the painters and decorators of his Chelsea home. [Throughout this and my earlier review I have been at pains not to provide any spoilers. This is my opinion, after all, and I have no wish to spoil another's reader enjoyment].
Solo, Chapter 2 (really the fourth chapter, p42) is titled ‘Homework’. Sadly, while I feel that Boyd did some homework on Bond, he didn’t do enough. And I see no reason to alter my review.


Monday 28 October 2013

Halloween-1 - canker of the soul

I got fed up waiting for a publisher to grab this book after it was out-of-print, despite the good reviews, so have self-published it as a paperback and e-book under the new title Chill of the Shadow. (amendment: 27/10/2017)

As the nights draw in, yes, even here in Spain, Halloween swiftly approaches and with it all manner of horror characters and tales emerge from crypts and cemeteries to send a frisson of thrill or fear down our spines. Here, for your delectation, is the prologue of my horror novel Death is Another Life (as written by Robert Morton). I have also written the screenplay (in other words, I wrote the novelization first!) More excerpts and comments on the book and its setting will follow up to the ‘witching eve’.

Death is Another Life by Robert Morton

Death is another life. We bow our heads

At going out, we think, and enter straight

Another golden chamber of the King’s,

Larger than this we leave, and lovelier.

Festus – P J Bailey (1816-1902)

PROLOGUE: Canker of the soul

A red and white painted eye stared out of a blue background, its black brow arching. It was wide open, an ever alert eye. The eye of Osiris was painted on the prow of three fishing boats that bobbed in the sea as dawn gilded the cliffs of Malta. The eyes on the boats were an old superstition, to ward off evil, and they did not work. Evil was already on the islands.
            Huge lamps hung over the sterns of the boats; their white glow was now no competition for the dawn spreading its golden light across the Mediterranean.
            Seagulls circled, their screeching noise accompanying the muted chugging of the motors and the constant lapping of the sea.
            Two fishermen with cigarettes dangling from their mouths struggled to haul in their net. It was just another day; another catch for the restaurants and early-bird wives to buy fresh fruit of the sea at the dockside. Water sluiced off their pungent-smelling harvest and both men suddenly gasped, their cigarettes dropping onto the deck.
            A human arm protruded through the net. The two men looked at each other in concern. They realized that they had little choice but to bring in their catch, whatever it contained.
            As they swung their haul inboard, they glimpsed bare flesh amidst the glistening fish.
            Hastily crossing themselves, the fishermen swung the catch inboard. As the net opened and disgorged the fish, the naked woman slithered out onto the brine-covered deck.
            The dead woman’s eyes stared up at the men and the sky.

 * * * *

The view of the land from the Air Malta aircraft was stark – parchment coloured, more like jaundiced skin. Bryson Spellman returned his attention to his book, the treasured Malleus Maleficarum, bound in the hide of a martyred witch. The pages were gossamer thin but would not or could not tear. Published in 1486, this handbook became known as the ‘Hammer of Witchcraft’ and received the papal seal, though Spellman was amused to recall that nowadays the Catholic Church disavowed it. It had been written as a direct result of a wave of European paranoia concerning witchcraft, vampirism and werewolvery, and became the justification for crushing evil-doers and heretics. Spellman read it partly for amusement and partly to know the thought processes of his enemies. The book’s two authors had been disturbed individuals who abhorred the entire female sex, laying the blame for all evil on women. Indeed, the ‘Hammer of Witchcraft’ contributed to superstition and was taken up with glee by Grand Inquisitor Torquemada and his blood-thirsty zealots, using it to condemn thousands of innocents to torture and horrific death. The Inquisition cost Satan many true adherents, but far more innocent souls were forever cast into Purgatory, an irony that mightily pleased the horned god. And, Spellman mused, times hadn’t changed all that much in the intervening half-millennium or so. Though, often, the persecutors now were not of the Church but the media, literally hounding people to death.
            The little old lady sitting next to him continued to snore, as she had done for the last hour. From time to time she broke wind, releasing a cloying smell, not unlike sulphur, which made Spellman feel quite at home.
            A young blonde stewardess – or, he allowed in these silly times, cabin-crew member – leaned over, clearly attracted to him. She wrinkled her nose and smiled, too polite to comment. “We’ll be landing in ten minutes, Mr. Spellman.”
            “Thank you, my dear.” He waved his hand to fan the air and returned her smile. “Truly, it has been a wonderful flight.”
            She beamed, pleased and amused.
            As he clicked his belt on again he dropped the book in the aisle and she stooped to retrieve it. He took the opportunity to eye her cleavage, which was tanned and full of promise. She straightened up, flicking through the pages, still smiling. “Your book–” But she lost her smile and the colour drained from her face when she noticed a selection of the graphic illustrations.
            “Just a hobby, my dear.” He snatched the book from her and she turned away and hurried down the aisle to another passenger, her tight skirt emphasizing firm buttocks.
            Silly ignorant bitch. Nothing could affect his good mood. He was leaving behind yet another new coven, this time in Louisiana – that was the fifth in the southern States alone. The Sicilian convention had proven most useful too: they were very interested in his visit to Malta. Canny witches and warlocks that they were, they’d detected something was in the air. Something pleasurable and profoundly satisfying.
            Unbridled pleasure fed the horned god and increased his power. While politics was the ideal soil in which to plant future talent, politics for Spellman lacked true pleasure. He felt it was a meagre substitute, these days: it merely offered a semblance of power. Real power was only savoured by dictators and murderers.
            Still, this latest power-takeover would not fail, Magus Spellman vowed, and closed the book as the plane began its descent. The islands may be small in the scheme of things, but they had influence and played host to all kinds of people. Malta could become an important centre of corruption, spreading the horned god’s canker of the soul in all directions. Besides, he had a three years’ old score to settle.
            He closed his eyes and hauntingly delicious images passed across his lids, memories of his successes in the African continent. There, he’d been able to take full advantage of the political mess and inter-tribal slaughter. He was biding his time for South Africa to implode. Sombrely, he admitted that he was not always successful – Romania, Serbia, Iraq and Afghanistan – yes, his power-takeovers had failed in these countries, but the death and destruction, the torture and deceit that caused so much misery had been worth all the effort, as in the final analysis it all fed evil. 
            The magus felt sure that his master was most pleased. It was only a matter of time before Iran came into the devil’s fold. Axis of Evil? The American president doesn’t know the half of it, Spellman mused with a sanguine smile.

This book is now out of print - until further notice!

Saturday 26 October 2013

Writing tips - Begin late, leave early

No, I’m not offering advice to party-goers. This phrase – or variants of it – is used by screenwriters.

There are two reasons for advocating enter a scene late and leave it early.

One: a screenplay has a limited length of time – roughly 150 minutes.

Two: by following the guideline, the dramatic sense is maintained or even heightened. In other words, there’s no room for flab.

One scene tends to lead to the next. In order to move the story forward. And, remember, an author is in effect writing scenes in a reader's head.
Therefore, the same applies to genre fiction. There should be no room for flab – and often the word-count or page-count is limited too. Genre books are meant to be fast reads, spurring on the reader to keep turning the pages. That doesn’t mean they can’t be contemplative when necessary, or varied in pace as the characters’ mood dictates.

One way to maintain the fast pace is to be judicious where scenes and chapters begin and end.

I’ve seen it time and again. A writer lingers at the end of a chapter, or even a scene, writing inconsequential detail that doesn’t move the story forward.
Beginning the book, new scene or new chapter is just as relevant. Enter just before a dramatic highpoint, rather than a lengthy lead up to it. (Exceptions will be suspense stories where what is being said is not what is going on between the lines.)

Here’s a rough example of a chapter ending that involves two main characters.

“Right, now listen. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll phone in sick for work and we can go together, eh? You sort out your work and then come over tomorrow and I’ll show you where the swine lives.”
            As luck had it, tomorrow was my day off, so I agreed.
            The next morning, with jumbled thoughts of Marcus, the swine, infesting my mind, I picked her up and we set off.
             I drove for about half an hour and followed her directions, turned into a street of run-down town houses.
            "Slow down, pet, we’re here,” Grace exclaimed suddenly. “Find a parking spot here. His place is just around the corner.”
            I switched off my thoughts and slowed down, and then eased into a convenient gap of parked vehicles. Grace opened the passenger door and stepped out onto the pavement. I gathered up my belongings, locked the doors, and then together we made our way down the street.

[end of chapter]

The red-highlighted text doesn’t tell us anything. The ending works just as well if all that red-highlight was deleted. The beginning of the next chapter has the two characters approaching the front door of the town house, or better still, confronting the character Marcus - doing away with the introductions at the door etc. (Begin late...).

The above example’s at a chapter end. The same applies to the end of a mid-chapter scene. Cut out superfluous wording; it isn’t really precious, is it? End on a note of anticipation, rather than a fade out. For example, ‘so I agreed’ in effect says to the reader, turn the page and find out what happens next; ‘made our way down the street’ is just tedious. (If the reader knew there was a killer waiting, then yes the walking down the street would raise the tension!)

The end of a book presents the same problem. How to leave it. The writer has been living with these (surviving) characters for ages - months or even years. There’s an understandable tendency not to let them go, just keep writing a bit more, tie up those not really essential loose ends. Does the story ending have more power when the ending meanders to a close with everyone chatting and getting all the I’s dotted?  There are many authors who know how to close, and do it well. Adam Hall with his Quiller books didn’t linger. You arrived at the end breathless, and then you were left alone, gasping! The ending of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is memorable because it’s abrupt, and final for Leamas.
Quiller Solitaire - Adam Hall
The ending should be satisfying, but shouldn’t linger.

As Mickey Spillane said, “The beginning sells this book; the ending sells the next book.” If you leave the reader wanting more, then you’ve done your job.

I discuss the opening and closing scenes in Write a Western in 30 Days (pp142-144).