Thursday 31 October 2013

Across The Pond: Wilsky, Whisky and Bird


What follows is something a little different. An attempt at offering something a little new for readers and authors. It's a fictionalised interview between two authors who live on opposite sides of a very big pond.

The idea is to help authors and publishers to get a leg up internationally and to allow readers to meet some great writers from all over the place.

If you're a writer and would like to take part, here's what to do.

First off, read this interview and get a feel for the idea.

Secondly, pair off with an author who's across a pond from you (it doesn't matter which pond - the Channel, the Pacific, the Atlantic, as long as you've read at least on book or story by the author/publisher concerned).

Thirdly, intertview each other in the fictional setting of your choice.

When it's over the 1000 word mark and below the 5000 word mark, edit and send it here ( and we'll get it up as part of the series.

If it's really great, it may end up as something of a collection, but it's early days yet. Let's see how it goes.

For now, let's pick up with Jim Wilsky as he settles down in a Scottish pub after an exhausting virtual flight...

Wilsky, Whisky and Bird

So here I am sitting in Scots Pub on Rose Street in Edinburgh. Purposely, I’m drinking a whisky I’ve never had. When in Rome, and all that right? It’s called Famous Grouse. Ol’ Declan behind the bar over there recommended it. He’s a big boy. Full beard and big. I guess I already said that.

Seems to be a nice enough fella, but he’s sure looking at me funny. Like he doesn’t know whether to throw me out or pour one for himself. Probably a little of both. I think it was the Texas accent. And my boots.  

Place is starting to fill up and I’m glad for it. The added body heat is welcomed. Someone taps my shoulder.

I turn sideways and see the reason I’m here.

“Hey! You made it.” Nigel Bird says and slaps me on the back.

“Damn its cold here Nigel. I’ve lost the feeling in my extremities. It’s a hundred and four back home.”

“Yanks. Always bitchin’ about something.” He grins at me, then holds a finger up to Declan. “Are you hungry Jim or are we just drinking?”

“They got brisket here Nigel?”

“Not the kind you’re thinking of. How about some haggis, neeps and tatties?”

“Some who?”

“Never mind. Let’s just drink.”

“Sounds good to me, I’m warmin’ up to this Famous Grouse liquor.”

Declan sits down a McEwans Indian Pale Ale in front of Nigel and gives him a friendly nod. Then he slides a look over at me. One of those, I’m not so sure about you, looks.  

“Declan’s okay, just cautious. Well listen, we might as well get to this then before we get tanned and start slurring too badly eh? Who’s going first in this little exercise?”

“You can Nigel, because I have no idea what I’m asking you yet … but I’ll come up with something, don’t you worry.” 

“Alright then. You wrote Blood On Blood with Frank Zafiro.  Now I have enough of a problem writing alone, so I’ve no idea how a true collaboration might work.  How the hell did you keep it all together in a way that worked so very well?”

“I don’t have a clue either. Hell I can’t even spell collaboration without using spell check. I do know one thing, there has to be a certain connection with the other writer from the get go. It doesn’t just grow. It was pure luck for me to be able to work with him. He was the veteran, I was the old/new guy. Blood on Blood was challenging but really not that bad. Queen of Diamonds, the second book that’s out now, was much smoother in terms of coordination. The third book, which we just completed was probably somewhere in the middle.”

I finish my drink and look at Declan. I think I’ll be patient and wait for him to get closer. I glance back over at Nigel. “Now Frank however, would probably tell you that with me as a writing partner, all three books have been like a damn never-ending nightmare. 

"Me and an old pal had a connection once – fist to jaw.  His fist!  I really jawed him something special that night.  Wasn’t any good for writing – we never talked since, which was a good job for as speaking hurt like hell.  So I reckon it must be better to pair up with a veteran.  Less power in the punch, huh?

“Yeah, but Frank was a cop until his retirement about a month ago. They know when and where to hit you.” I look down and there’s a new drink in front of me. Declan is a tricky one and he’s already pouring a draft for somebody down the bar a few stools. I give him a silent toast down there and he nods.

“Declan’s okay like I said.”  

“Alright Nigel, here’s the first question for you. If I was payin’ for my drinks with the U.K. Amazon revenue sales I’ve had in two to three years…you’d be buying already. I’ve been lucky enough to make some great friends over here but damn my U.K. ranking is like #2 billion. And dropping. Have you had any luck in the U.S.? I mean it might just be that I suck. Tag on question, of the 10 different challenges and hurdles there are, which is the biggest for you? Language, style, book setting, familiarity, etc.?”

“Hell, that’s a shame about the ranking.  You deserve better.  Thing is, I reckon it’s just one of those things.  I have the same problem in the US, though I’m lucky enough to have a great community over there who help by liking my work and buying it from time–to-time.”

Nigel sips his beer.  Tells me it’s the first beer he’s sipped in 8 years and doesn’t taste as good as he remembers.  I see him shudder as it goes down, then he says,  “There’s something in the style thing, definitely.  Someone should experiment with the form.  I mean, a couple of Brits and a couple of Yanks who have had some success on their own side of the pond swap things over.   Translate the story from one place to another.  It might be that a New York story found itself written in Preston, say.  Or Edinburgh.  I think it might work and if it didn’t, I don’t think it would be so hard to do that it wouldn’t be fun.” 

Our conversation is brought to a standstill by the thud of the double doors.  Hell, the whole pub freezes up like a waxwork museum. 

In from the street comes the gang from hell.  Edinburgh Capitals fans in their long, white tops with the cross of St Andrew and the lion of Scotland. 

According to the guide book I bought, the chances of meeting a group of Capitals fans anywhere in the city are slim as hell.  Last home game, I read, there were only 200 home fans watching them push the puck around the ice everywhere but into the net.

Nigel leans over and laughs. "They can’t be celebrating a win - that just never happens.  They can’t be drinking off a defeat, either – that’s just the way life is.

When Nigel sees the sticks they’re holding, I see a glint in his eye that suggests we might have a new horror on our hands. Let's face it, an ice hockey stick could probably take out an eye or the odd testicle if they’re not careful with them.

He looks over to me and tries to explain, but the words are lost in the chants of the squad. 

He counts them as they swarm around the bar.  5, 6, 7, 8, 9.  Too many for the locals to handle.

Declan doesn’t raise an eyebrow. 

When the mob ask for the drinks, he pours them like a pro.  18 pints of lager and 18 double shots of Glenmorangie.

The sight of the beers filling the glasses seems to quieten the crowd. 

“Could turn nasty,” Nigel says and takes a gulp of his beer.  This time, there’s no shudder.  “But we’ll see.  See them ordering Guinness, I’m wondering about the choice of an Irishman and a Pole in Blood On Blood.  You have any connections that way?”

“Well, I’m a Pollack with a little Ukranian mixed in there for some extra trouble. Frank is a retired cop so that was a natural too.”

The hockey boys at the bar start up a chant, or a cheer, or a war cry. Some damn thing. One old guy, a regular no doubt, gets shoved half off his barstool. I look across the bar at a big bastard and we lock eyes for a moment. I look away but come back to him. Guy is staring a hole through me. He’s got fresh game blood on his eyebrow.

Uh-oh. I’ve seen that look before but I’ll be damned if I’ll be the one to look away again. I’m just not real smart that way.

I talk to Nigel without breaking off the little staring battle. “Now, in Queen of Diamonds we developed our main characters based on a fairly good knowledge of people and place, what they did for a living and where they were from. I think that’s important. Writing fiction is hard enough."

"Ain't that the truth, lad."

“Like the old saying, write what you know. Smoke had to be that way for you right? Had to be a natural in terms of people and place. Were the characters loosely - or maybe not so loosely, based on real acquaintances here in Scotland?”

The hockey player looks away when a drink is put into his hand. He takes it down in one along with the rest of them and slams his glass onto the bar, first to finish in the race. Must be the leader of the pack.

Nigel seems unconcerned about the game over there. Just sips away like this is an everyday occurrence.

“Yeah, I guess.  Smoke’s about a town up the road. The place I work. Though it’s changing, it’ll never be one of the soft-centres in the chocolate box. Mostly there’re stones and rocks inside the Tranent confectionary. I work with kids and want to offer hope and Smoke’s about how hard hope is to find in such communities.”

The hockey players settle down a little.  Declan gives me a wink as he fills up the next round for the team.  Makes it look like he’s under control. I reckon there’s an ace or two up the guy’s sleeve.

“That’s true, brother,” I say to Nigel.

“But someone’s got to try, right?” I can tell he’s a teacher the way he won’t let reality cloud his vision.  “What you know helps as a starting point, but where the noir goes isn’t somewhere I’d want to live any more than I have to – there are things better left to fiction, right?”

“I know what you’re saying.”

“Like your guys in Queen Of Diamonds. I see you’ve got Ania as the femme fatale in this one. Wow she’s hot. Is that written from personal experience? Or is it just the cards?”


“Ania is a complex patchwork creation of Frank and I. There is certainly something real about her, based on our separate experiences. She’s a dangerous one. I’d imagine you’ve known an Ania or two yourself eh?”

“I will neither deny or acknowledge it lad.”

I smile at Nigel and knock back another drink. The whisky goes down smooth, spreading it’s warmth.

“The cards? Boy, I do love the cards. There’s a danger there too, not unlike Ania in a way. There is always the threat of losing it all. Demise is always sitting there on your shoulder in cards. Threatening you.” 

We both look up and over at a sudden outbreak of shouting between two of the Capitals fans. A group roar rises up and then boisterous laughter fills the tavern.

“So anyway, threatening, yeah. I always think that threat and tension are just as good as the bad deed itself if it’s written well. Impending doom and all that. You agree Nigel?”  

“Isn’t there that thing about showing the bomb? You know, that if no one knows there’s a bomb on the bus, there’s no tension. Soon as the cat’s out of the bag, there’s a little rise in the temperature. Like with the guys hotting up at the bar. I can practically feel the accident waiting to happen.”

The smell of sweat and testosterone takes over from the aroma of alcohol. It’s a tell-tale sign that the action’s not far away. Declan seems to have picked it out. He’s working under the bar where his hands can’t be seen. Working a little magic, no doubt.

“I liked an article by Lee Child recently about keeping readers hungry. Planting seeds and growing their appetite. You’ve got the big seeds in Diamonds – the dangerous woman who could turn on a pound coin and the cards that can ruin a life in a moment. Not to mention a cast of desperate men.”

A glass breaks over in the ice-hockey quarter. Shatters musically like a piano being dropped from a great height.

Nigel keeps at it. Ignores the tune. “The tension in this place right now? How do you reckon Cord and Casey would handle this?”

“Well, they both were gamblers and both had talent with the cards. The thing that separated them, in my mind anyway, was the way they saw themselves…when they looked in the mirror.”

“Cord saw a winner, plain and simple. He was arrogant, over confident, conceded and massively self-absorbed…but he’d admit that gladly. Casey though, Casey looked at himself as the constant underdog, un-respected and there was always a little self-doubt creeping around the edges.”

“Okay so, like I said, how would they handle this?” Nigel waves his hand over at the Capital’s boys.

“Cord would buy everyone in the place a drink and then ask if anyone wanted to play some cards. Not really giving a rat’s ass whether he won or lost with this bunch. If he started winning, he’d find a blonde. If he started losing, he’d find a blonde, and then graciously excuse himself.”

“And our boy Casey, how about him?

“Casey would sit at a table, start dealing cards and try to prove himself, even here. Serious as hell. All or nothing. Desperate. He’d look pissed off and about ready to puke at the same time. If he started losing, he’d bet more and more. When he couldn’t pay, he’d get his eyes permanently crossed by a couple of those boys over there.”

From over in their corner, there's a deep bellow and a chair's kicked over. I look at Nigel and grin.

“The important question is right now though is how are we going to handle this?”

“Well, neither one off us has a blonde hanging on our shoulder.”

“True. True. You know I used to like to mix it up a little. Then again that was about a hundred years ago. I could go about one hard round now.” I point at the unruly mob. “But that looks like a lot more than one round.”

“I think we’re both past clearing out a barroom, but it’d be fun dropping at least one of them.” Nigel stands up and looks over to the mob in time to see the first punch. A big boy has thrown a roundhouse at one of his own.

He looks back at me now. “Cord was the smarter of the two don’t you think?”

“Yeah. I’m biased because he was my character, but yeah, I think so.”

“Well then, minus the blondes, let’s graciously excuse ourselves.”

As we move to the exit, tight to the wall and taking on the blending-in characteristics of chameleons, Declan makes a move.

Through the swinging door I see something rising above the 42 inches of the bar. I can’t pick the make, but it sure as hell has been sawn off.

The bang doesn’t explode until we’re in the fresh air, lost now in the Rose Street crowd like starlings swirling in formation.


Wednesday 30 October 2013

Joe has had many surnames. He changes them as he drifts from one place to the next, but always keeps his first name so that he’ll never be caught out.

When we meet him, he’s working on a barge and moving across Scotland shifting goods between Edinburgh and Glasgow. In a sense, it recalls a time when the industrial landscape and transport networks were changing enough for this to be at the end of an era.

At the opening of the book, Joe and his boss Leslie are fishing the bloated corpse of a woman out of the canal. What intrigues the police about their discovery is the fact that the girl is wearing nothing but her underwear and therefore they feel the need to investigate further.

The discovery of the body ignites a lust in Joe for Leslie’s wife and it’s not long before they are having an active affair that only seems to lack romance.

Eventually Joe, the narrator, explains how all the pieces of the jigsaw fit together, all the way up to the court case where justice is to be seen to be served.

It’s a very good read. The prose flows and the surprises are introduced extremely well. The plot is well drawn out and the subject is always fascinating.

In some ways, the narrative has a cold feel. The characters are really well rounded, each sharing the common feature of being human. They create difficult situations and respond to cause with resignation, moving on from one life to another as others impact on their homes, relationships and economic circumstances.  Much of the changes are matter of fact, as is the sex and the murder of a young woman.

The sex is matter-of-fact in the way it’s described, but loses nothing for the lack of erotic detail.

There’s also a growing guilt in Joe that he discusses openly as he considers how he might move forward in life, summing up all the possible consequences and then deciding to take on the one that seems to suit him best at the time.

It’s a powerful, short read and I recommend it to the house.
Young Adam

A little aside. If you're interested in trying your luck for a copy of Sweetheart via the Goodreads Giveaway, you still have time (but not much).


Friday 25 October 2013


This is my first Hutton novel, but not my first Doug Lindsay book – that pleasure went to his most excellent creation, Barney Thomson.

For those of you who have read the work from the Barney series (and if you haven’t you should), you’ll be aware of the amazing shades of darkness that Lindsay can create as well as the tremendous use of humour and character that are as much part of the sandwich as the butter and the bread.

What’s different about the Hutton story in ‘A PlagueOf Crows’ is that it exists in the more mainstream world of the police procedural, not that it’s an entirely conventional setting.

For the fans of the police detective and the ins and outs of the process of finding a killer, there’s plenty here that will satisfy the appetite. There’s also a huge amount more that is likely to leave fans of the genre expecting something extra from their next choice, simply because of the extra layers and dimensions Lindsay offers.

Hutton has been rediscovering himself after a suspension from the force, a suspension brought on by his super-strong sexual desire, his lack of care for what others think about him, his love of danger and his hard-as-nails fists. He’s spent his time in a tent in the Scottish countryside and has reached a place of inner-peace, giving up the women, the cigarettes and the booze. When he’s called back into operation to help out on a very particular case, it’s inevitable that he’s going to find his way back to his old habits and that things will spiral out of control. Him being an ex-war journalist who has seen plenty, it’s also easy to find some sympathy with him for his unabridged behaviours.

The thing is, the case is hugely different to most you’ll come across. More macabre and intelligent than the majority of those you’ll find in other novels. It involves woodland and crows, saws and cement and a very particular kind of psychopath.  I’d tell you more, but think you should find out for yourself. I found it hilarious and disturbing in equal measure – the humour of the situation seems to magnify the power of the crime and to allow for such barbarity to become palatable.

In terms of the plot, the journey is one you should take for yourselves. What I can offer here is to suggest that you’re likely to fall completely for the first-person voice that has no frontal-lobe editing and moulding phrases and thoughts into the politically correct. His ideas might have had me cringing, but also got me laughing at the way he seems able to say things with elements to which I couldn’t help identify (damn). There are lots of laughs, but that doesn’t mean this book doesn’t have a deeper thrust. There’s also the tension and mystery that you’d want from any book. It leaves plenty to be thought about and should take enough hold that you’ll likely to have with you for a good while after finishing; the book’s still with me and I can imagine I’ll have it lurking around for a good while yet.

This novel emphases my notion that Douglas Lindsay is a fine Scottish export that should be hailed in the same way as whisky, Rankin, haggis, tartan and those Jimmy hats that you can pick up from the Royal Mile.

Super stuff.
What's more, if you're quick off the mark, you'll get this one at a special, introductory price from Amazon (US)

Saturday 19 October 2013


There are books that I can’t really fully explain in terms of why they were so enjoyable or had such an impact. ‘Lean On Pete’(US) is one of them. I’m going to try and unpick that for myself in this here in this review.

The work seems really simple in the structure as a whole and in the clean style of writing, yet the impact it had on me was far more powerful than this simplicity might normally allow.

Before the novel begins, there’s a quote from John Steinbeck:

‘It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth.’

I mention this because it has been perfectly selected for a book that reflects something of that tone all the way through.

Charley Thompson has grown up in a single-parent family with his father at the helm. His father, a loving and kind one in many ways, is unreliable, unpredictable and liable to leave Charlie for days on end to fend for himself. This leaves Charley with the TV and the movie screen for company, cans of food to eat and a desire to run and keep fit so that he can keep alive his hopes of playing football. Football seems to allow Charley to feel part of something bigger than himself. To provide him with a family that works together. It’s important.

This immediately resonates and creates emotional waves. As human adults need sex, shelter and food to exist and surely human children need food, shelter, companionship and nurturing to survive; because Charley has been stripped of some of these, it’s impossible not to feel for him from the outset.

As he moves through the days, he stumbles into a job at the track working for a shady trainer and his horses. Of the horses, it’s Lean 
On Pete who captures Charley’s affections and it’s not long before 
Charley and Pete take off on a trip across country to Wyoming where there might at last be a haven for them.

As they go, Pete absorbs Charley's feelings for his father. Protects him from the pain through some kind of magical transference. The horse becomes the surrogate - friend, companion, father, mother, purpose and child.

I really don’t want to give away anything about the story in the hope that you’ll go and find out for yourself. I think you’ll thoroughly enjoy it, whoever you are.

Rolled up in this adventure are many scenes that would work as self-contained pieces. When put together, there’s a real sense of movement and hugely conflicting measures of hope and despair; it’s that ever-tipping balance between these two that offers the story its energy and had me completely captured as a reader. Like that quote in the beginning suggests, there’s good and bad in everyone and there’s enough of the latter to keep the species going. People react to Charley and his situation in many ways. There are the randomly generous, the needy, those who switch from generosity to bitterness without warning, the slippery and the aggressive. All of them are human and many of them are living in situations that all-too-often the media and those in power either have forgotten about or are busily sweeping under the carpet.

Charley is no exception to the rule of good and bad. He’s a survivor, whether he knows it or not. He’s learned enough from his father and from his time surviving alone to get by. In order to do so, he has to turn to crime and violence. One of the things I loved about the piece is how much I excused all of these acts in Charley because of his needs, whether to eat or to defend himself. That shows the power of the writing for me. There’s also one moment when he’s acting purely out of pride and from anger and I know that if I’d been in his position I’d have done the same, so I was still on side even then. In fact, the blur between good and bad goes far enough to remind that these are relative terms in themselves and will be defined differently by every nation, culture and individual (and that’s impressive in a book).

Half way through, I started to worry for the ending. I was hoping all the way that everything would finish with a scent of roses and Charley and Lean On Pete would live forever on the Big Rock Candy Mountain. That tore me. Much as I wanted it to be so, I couldn’t bear the idea that such an epic book might turn out to be a mushy fairy story. The hard edges of life and of Charley’s existence, even though they’d been handled with subtlety and dexterity, couldn’t allow for such a shiny finish. Thankfully, and it can’t have been an easy job, Vlautin’s denouement is superb, capturing something of the bitter sweet conflict of the whole book.

I also had a wonderful occurrence with this story that doesn’t happen often. I’d be walking in the countryside or washing or cooking and I’d catch myself wondering how Pete and Charley were doing. I’d picture them on the road, getting by and enjoy the moments of their safety while worrying for them all the while.

To summarise, I loved the book and am extremely grateful to the friend who recommended it for doing so. It has a real power and a stunning sense of reality that makes me want to be more observant and more generous in the world.

I’ve also bought the previous 2 novels by Vlautin and I’ll be picking up the next as soon as it’s out early next year.


Wednesday 9 October 2013


March Violets (US) is the first part of the trilogy Berlin Noir (US)and I enjoyed it so much that there’s no doubt
I’ll complete my reading in the near future.

Bernie Gunther is the central character and first-person narrator. As a fan of the hard-boiled detective, this man had everything I could have asked for and he can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any others
I’ve really enjoyed in the past.

In order to make a private eye stand out, creating a wonderful character isn’t enough. There also needs to be a gripping plot that’s going to test them to their limits (as humans and as investigators) and a setting that will provide more than just a backdrop; Philip Kerr has both of these in Spades (couldn’t resist).

Selecting Hitler’s Germany in 1936 at the time of the Olympic Games is a master-stroke. Kerr clearly did a lot of research on the subject and would seem to know it inside out. Better still, he manages to add flavours and nuances of this research without intruding into the narrative too much with the proverbial crowbar, or at least he does that for the majority of the time.

In the process of the investigation, Gunther gets to roll his sleeves up and rubs shoulders with the high and the low in German society of the time. His wisecracks are sharp and witty, he can’t resist a beautiful woman, he’s hard but not indestructible and he has a heart that we hear pumping from time to time. He’ll even get to visit
Dachau and come out with a line that might help to illustrate his ability with the understatement:

‘Dachau was no place to be a Jew.’

It wasn’t such a good place for a private investigator either as it turns out.

Thoroughly enjoyable and I’ll be back for seconds and thirds.

Saturday 5 October 2013

One Man's Opinion: GUN by RAY BANKS

Just what I needed to get me out of a little reading trough. I picked up my kindle and found Gun to fill a few minutes and didn't put it down again until I'd reached the end. Cliché or what? Only it's not a cliché that usually applies to me beyond the short story.

Here we have a day in the life of Richie, fresh out of prison and looking for money in the only places he understands. He goes along to see Goose, a man with the reputation Mike Tyson would have in the North East if he were to wind up there. Only problem is it was by working for Goose that he was sent down in the first place.

Goose is really well written. He's not around for long, but the enormity of his menace is clear by the time he's said his piece. And his piece involves the collection of another piece - the gun of the title. It'll take him to another part of town where everyone's hard and down on their luck. He'll get to meet Florida Al, another nasty character. It'll push Richie to his limits and expose the natural cruelty and desperation that lies not too far beneath the surface which he seems unable fully understand.

The settings are bleak, the characters and bit-players superbly drawn, the tension's always present and grows as steadily as a prisoner being tortured on the rack and the dialogue is so sharp it makes a mark.

A thoroughly enjoyable read from a writer who always produces the goods.

Gun's available for Kindle (US) and also as a paperback from the excellent Crime Express.