Sunday 28 October 2018


'Me and Frankie M., we got balls.
I just gotta blow Frankie's off.'

Everybody loves Frankie Machianno, aka Frankie theMachine, aka Frankie the Bait Guy. The fishermen, the Little League kids, the students from the drama club, the soccer kids, the surfers, ex cops, his ex wife, his lover, his daughter, the basketball players and the local Vietnamese community.

And I love Frankie, too.

Frankie's past is more colourful than most. He has been a hitman, amongst other things, for the mob and has earned the reputation for being the toughest and the best that is well-deserved. Not that you'd know it from the opening chapters. For the first forty pages, we just get to know the guy. There are tasty hints of what might lie ahead, but in the main we find out about is his daily routine and about the things he cares for the most in life. It's a crucial section of the novel as it lays down the foundations of the man and gives us all the material we need to want to root for him all the way to the end. What is so impressive here is the way that this introduction is never dull. There may not be anything explosive to latch on to, but the smoulder is a pleasure.

I'd have been happy to carry on in the same vein for a lot longer, wondering how he was going to pay for his daughter to go to medical school and maintain order on the pier, but that wasn't to be. Instead, in chapter seven, Frankie returns home to find an unfamiliar car in his alley. He's been waiting for such a visit for many years and is prepared to deal with whatever appears before him.

What he finds is Mouse Junior, son of the boss of the local family, who asks for Frankie's help. Vince Vena, new member of the ruling council of the Combination, wants a heavy slice of Mouse Jr's porn pie and Mouse Jr needs someone to help him out. Frankie is obliged to offer his support no matter how much he dislikes the idea. He agrees to go to a meet, but only on the condition that he's there to help with the negotiations. He knows how things work and comes up with a plan that should please all sides.

Unfortunately for Frankie, this is no ordinary meeting. He's been set up with bait as good as the stuff he usually sells, while Vena awaits him offshore ready to gut him and send him off to sleep with the fishes.

But this is Frankie the Machine we're talking about. It would take a hell of a surprise to bring him down. Needless to say, he gets himself out of the problem. In doing so, he opens himself up as a target for the mob and goes into hiding. What he needs to find out, and quickly, is who ordered the hit, who sanctioned it and why. If he can do that, he can either clear up any misunderstanding or wipe out the problem in a different way.

The remainder of the book works by shifting from flashback to the present. We get to know how Frankie earned his nickname and also to follow his increasingly tense foray into saving his life.

Those forty pages at the beginning earn their salt as the story unfolds. Without them, the strength of bond to the protagonist wouldn't be there. It would still be a great read, but the power of the connection elevates it even beyond that.

The Winter of Frankie Machine (US) is a class act. It brings in all the warmth, romance and nostalgia of the mafia while also reflecting upon it and pulling it apart as a pile of bullshit. In the end, what seems to be important to all the people who lived through the period of time covered is that everyone had their day. It's only Frankie who seems to understand that it's not enough to live in the past and that it's the present and the future that mean everything. 

This one's a real winner. A real delight. A guaranteed hit. 

Friday 26 October 2018

Dancing With Myself: TOM LEINS interviews TOM LEINS

Paignton, UK.

It’s a hot, unpleasant day, but then again, at this time of year, aren’t they all?

I look up at the pub sign to check I’m at the right place. The Dirty Lemon. The hanging sign tilts slightly in the dank breeze. Someone has spray-painted a massive cock across the lurid citrus logo.

I walk up the wheelchair ramp, past a bloodied man who has been manacled to the railings by his throat with a dog chain. He reaches out, pleadingly, and I accidentally tread on his fingers.

Fucking Rey, no doubt. His reputation precedes him around here.

Inside the pub, I see him straight away. He is partially obscured by the cigarette machine.

The barmaid – Spacey Tracey – rolls her eyes, and goes back to watering down the house spirits with a jug of pissy-looking tap water. Shit, this place is even worse than I remember.

Two pints of lager sit on the table in front of my contact, sweating in their chipped glasses.

“Kronenbourg alright for you?”

I shrug.

“It’ll have to be.”

He doesn’t offer his hand, and neither do I. He doesn’t look hard, but he’s big enough to make me not want to find out. I drink an inch off the top of my pint, keeping an eye on the door.

“Spit it out then, mate.”

He clears his throat.

People say they picture you when they read the Joe Rey stories. How do you feel about that?

I used to be surprised, but then I started to play up to it. It still makes me laugh when people make that observation, but now I compose myself and incorporate another random personal detail into whatever I’m working on! We currently share the same age, height, drinking tastes and the lack of a driving licence. This approach probably peaked with my mocked-up mugshot on the back cover of the Meat Bubbles & Other Stories paperback, but I’m sure it will re-emerge. As I keep telling people: just don’t expect me to win a knife-fight with a sex offender after ten drinks!

The common perception is that short story collections don’t sell, and yet you have published two this year. What’s wrong with writing a fucking novel, like everyone else?

Easy, mate! Firstly, I’m a big believer in playing to my strengths, and – line for line – my short fiction is definitely stronger than my novella-length material. I’d rather introduce myself to the book-buying public with a pair of strong collections than with a pair of stunted novels.

Case in point: I’ve just finished a Joe Rey novella that I started ten years ago – a truly ridiculous time-frame for a short book. I revisited it last year, with a view to making it the first book in the Paignton Noir series, but then I accidentally wrote and published three novelettes and two short story collections instead! I’ve learned that I can’t force it when things don’t click, so I will just crack on with an alternative project, and try not to sweat the constant continuity headaches!

Personally, I like it when short story collections drag you into a sustained environment – either mood-wise or in terms of narrative voice – and that is what I was striving for with my books. Hopefully the over-arching narratives of Repetition Kills You (US) and Meat Bubbles (US) provide an extra hook for readers who are normally reluctant to read short story collections. I’d love these two books to find an audience straight away, but I’m also comfortable with them being rediscovered further down the line, after the novellas emerge. Most of my favourite authors didn’t find an audience straight away, so I have no qualms with undiscovered status.

Repetition Kills You  is an experimental book. Is that a one-off, or do you have more leftfield ideas up your sleeve?

I’m obsessed with subverting the storytelling process. Experimental work, interlinked collections, collaborations, serialised work – everything is on the table. I’ve got a couple more curve-balls up my sleeve, but Joe Rey will always be the lynchpin that binds the ideas together.

Whichever order you read them in, my stories are designed to complement each other, but I really don’t want to write the same book twice. For now, I don’t even want to write in the same format twice. There are thousands of standard issue pulp-crime thrillers out there – I want to rework the blueprint each time and try and stand out from the crowd.

I don’t want to give away any specifics, but I have some really offbeat ideas I want to explore. I’m used to working with open-minded publishers, but some of these ideas will be a genuinely tough sell until my commercial prospects sync better with my ambition!

This book is dedicated to your children, but you warn them that they can’t read it until they are 18. What were you reading when you were 18, and how does it compare to this subject matter?

The sheer number of books I’ve read over the last 20 years makes this very difficult to recall. I definitely remember reading Ecstasy by Irvine Welsh while working as a hut-jockey at Roundham Pitch & Putt that summer. I got it at the Old Celtic Bookshop on Hyde Road after trading in some music biographies – which definitely formed the bulk of my reading activity back then.

I also read the first couple of John King books around that time (Football Factory and Headhunters). Next up on my radar was Bret Easton Ellis. American Psycho cropped up early on in my English Literature degree, as part of a module of transgressive fiction. All of these authors have influenced me to some degree, although it probably isn’t particularly obvious. Is my work more intense than the work of those authors? I would say ‘no’, but others may beg to differ.

Do you think it stretches credibility to write about a PI – that most American of characters – in a small-town UK setting?

To be honest, it has never really weighed particularly heavily on my mind. Right now, it would stretch credibility further to write a crime story about a police officer set in Paignton. They bulldozed the local police station several years ago for a property development that never happened, but I have kept the building intact for the purpose of my Paignton Noir stories, and it continues to feature prominently.  

In storytelling terms, having Rey dragged into the basement interrogation room at Paignton cop-shop by a deranged middle-aged cop is far more effective than having him invited into the lobby of the library by a nervous PCSO!

I hope readers consider Rey to be a refreshingly down-to-earth protagonist. His PI status is pretty flaky, and I hope he isn’t too much of a cliché. Fans of hardboiled crime fiction aside, I’d really like my books to appeal to people who want to read thrillers, but are discouraged by the surfeit of ‘sexy-yet-troubled female FBI agent’ and ‘taciturn middle-aged detective’ stereotypes. Granted, my mysteries need a bit of refining, but hopefully there is an audience in the UK for a working-class protagonist investigating crimes in a working-class environment.

Ultimately, this series is intended as escapist Brit-pulp with a little bit of social commentary sprinkled on top. I’ll leave po-faced character studies to…

I don’t get the chance to finish my response.

A man who looks like me – only a lot fucking harder – steps towards my companion and bounces his head off the cigarette machine with a dull thud.

“If I wanted your arse there, I’d pay you for a fucking lap dance, mate.”

Fucking Rey.

I spill my Kronenbourg over my jeans in my haste to get away from him, and stumble down the wheelchair ramp as quickly as possible – careful to avoid the bleeding man who is still chained to the railings. I hit the pavement and I don’t look back.

This fucking town.

Friday 5 October 2018

Dancing With Myself: DAVID SIMMS interviews DAVID SIMMS

We're sitting down to interview David Simms, the author of the historical thriller, Fear The Reaper, out this summer from Crossroads Press. We find him hiding in the corner, avoiding the four or five jobs he has because of that whole teacher equals poverty thing. Hopefully, he'll have a free moment between teaching high school classes, tutoring every subject imaginable, counselling teens at a military school, giving disturbingly funny ghost tours, reviewing books and giving guitar lessons. By the way, there's a ferocious fiver year-old gnawing at his leg. 

Your first novel was a YA dark fantasy. Why take a U-turn to historical fiction?'

Mental hospitals always pop up in my life, They're inexpensive vacations for teachers and usually in convenient locations.
When I moved to the Shenandoah Valley, I went on a ghost tour and discovered I now lived less than a mile from one of the most infamous hospitals in the history of this country. Well into the writing of a novel that had nothing to do with this topic, I found myself entranced by the dark history of the place. I mean, hell, the most powerful businessmen in America jumpstarted the Nazi movement and nearly caused a similar holocaust right here in the states? How in the hell did I not know this? The more I dug into it, the more I rediscovered my love of history. Yet I doubted I could pull it off. I nearly gave up on it until I talked to David Morrell about it in New Orleans. Neither of us could recall a novel that ever focused on the eugenics movement in America, He told me if I could write a decent story about it , it could be talk show material. You never doubt Rambo's daddy.
Six months later, I still couldn't find a fictional account of this dark chapter in history so I dove deep and researched harder than I did for my Master's thesis. Glad I did. Thanks, Mr. Morrell!

How much of the story actually happened and how much is fiction?

Honestly, about 90% of the events in the novel occurred in history. Of course, the character interaction is fiction and Sam Taylor's family is fictional, as is his girlfriend.  Of course, the sex scenes never happened - most of that is pure fiction. I'm working from memory there, really stretching my own experiences, save for the ghost sex and the bit with the train in the park. I've never defiled anything in my park in Staunton, I swear. Other states and cities, I plead the fifth.
But seriously, many of the scenes were built upon historical accounts from various texts, interviews with former staff (psychologists, doctors, nurses, teachers, etc( of Western State Hospital. There's one major plot point that stretched the truth, but only stretched. The evidence behind it is secure.

What's more frightening, living up the hill from one of the most infamous asylums in America or surviving New Jersey?

Have you ever been to Jersey? I'm kidding. I absolutely love New Jersey - just hated living there. Chris Christie, The Jersey Shore show, and the taxes. I prefer to live in a state where a teacher can afford a decent house and not pay $1500 for a one bedroom apartment. Nothing beats the music scene, pizza, bagels, and my friends.
But, try driving there for a few months and tell me how much it ages you - if you survive. I'll take the asylum any day.

Staunton, Virginia is always on the best small towns list. What's been the reaction from the citizens there towards the book?

Schizophrenic. Many in this amazing town want the story to be heard. Many have had relatives who were patients in the hospital, operated on, experimented on, tortured, etc. They've been trying to have their stories told for decades. Yet the old guard keeps sweeping the truth under the rug so much until the mound is bigger than the Blue Ridge Mountains that surround the town. I've had two reviews that were obviously written by disgruntled bingo players who are pissed that I'm not driving a pickup with confederate flags, wearing a MAGA hat, and keeping my mouth shut like they prefer the townsfolk to do. I'm curious to see the reactions to the three book events I've been invited to in town. I thank the many people who own the history and want it to come to light. Years ago, I visited Dachau. The people there own what happened and want to ensure history never repeats itself. Staunton, for the most part, has the same mindset, at least when bingo isn't in session.

You give a historical ghost tour in town. Did that play a role in the development of the novel?

Of course. Paranormal people rock. When I became a tour guide for Black Raven Paranormal, I hung with the best people. I also had to learn a ton about the town's history, and not the stuff that's found in books. I spoke to several business owners, townspeople who have had generations of their families here since Dejarnette was torturing people. I didn't want to add the element of the supernatural into a thriller but it may have crept in... just a hair, or two.
6. What was the most challenging aspect of writing something that history has spent nearly a century hiding?
Convincing people that this actually happened. The contingent in town who still believe life was best when separate water fountains and schools ruled frothed at the mouth when word got out. I interviewed a few people who flat out denied the events happened. When I showed them photos, they cried (what else?). "fake news." That tells you a lot about the mindset. Thankfully, much of Staunton is pretty modern, especially the thinking. Those who fight the results of the Civil War and go to church armed to the teeth typically reside outside the town limits.  The sad part came when I met with a few agents who thought it was a cool story but refused to believe it really occurred. I asked one guy to Google it, since we were in a pitch session. He refused and said I was lying. You can't fight ignorance.

What was the wildest thing you learned while researching FEAR THE REAPER?

That people used to party on the asylum grounds.  Western State Hospital was the best looking property in town. Families came to picnic there. It annoyed the patients so much that the iron fance was built to keep people OUT. Also, the mass graves out back. Seeing rows upon rows of unmarked tombstones, knowing each plot held up to six corpses is enough to give anyone chills.

You've played lead guitar and helped form an interesting band. The good, the bad, and the surreal?

Yikes. First of all, it was the best experience of my life. The Killer Thriller Band, formed in 2006 for the first ever Thrillerfest came together on a whim. I snuck into the band thanks to a special writer friend who convinced the powers that be that I had some skills. She was telling the truth. I also play a decent guitar.
When we hit the stage in front of several hundred people in Phoenix, and then NYC a year later with David Morrell, F. Paul Wilson, Heather Graham, Michael and Daniel Palmer, John Lescroart, Blake Crouch, Alexandra Sokoloff, Harley Jane Kozak, and Scott Nicholson, I don't think my feet ever hit the floor.  The good? Playing the House of Blues in Disney World or the Brighton Pier in England.  The bad? Having only a few hours to practice with each other before hitting the stage.  That never bodes well. One time in Burbank, we were kicked out of the hotel, then Yahoo (corporate office) called the cops on us, so we were kicked back INSIDE (which was good since a thunderstorm had began), and then to a room where most of the outlets didn't work. Thankfully, most of the audience drank heavily that night and didn't hear well.  The surreal? Signing autographs in Disney because a crowd thought we were Guns N Roses (they were playing the big stage at the venue). We obliged, of course.

Everyone has a quirky writing routine or superstition. What's yours?

I've learned to write just about anywhere. Having multiple jobs and a 5 year old will do that to you. However, when I sit out on the porch (a screened in treasure that looks out into the mountains). The world melts away out there. 

You've given music therapy workshops for a long time. How the hell does that fit in with writing?

Writers can be pretty messed up people, psychologically speaking. Not all, just many. I wrote my Master's thesis on how music can help de-stress back in 2002 and quickly discovered that most teachers are over-stressed. Then I discovered writers. Amazingly, when you find the right groove, usually between 60-80 beats per minutes, regardless of the genre, your body adapts to the tempo, completely. I've had writers come to me afterwards and tell me they've found more rhythm to their stories after a few days of listening while on their laptops. The science is nothing new but it's fascinating how it turns stories into works of music.

What's next?

Checking into that fine mental hospital for a little vacation. I think it's where all teachers wind up. Actually, I pitched two novels I've completed to agents this summer at Thrillerfest. One is a middle-grade adventure series for my little guy and the other is thriller with a bit of black comedy about a teacher who moonlights as an assassin. That's mostly fiction.

You manage to carve out time to review books. Why bother? Cloning yourself, hiring minions, or just reading the cover flaps and lying? 

Free books! What can be better than that? I love to discover new writers, help get the word out about great books, and simply read for fun. Now, if only some of those writers could review my books... Actually, some have and have helped out tremendously. I have one rule about reviewing. I won't write up a bad one. If it sucks or just doesn't work for me, I don't share it. There are plenty of others too willing to go there. A book is a living part of the author. My subject taste shouldn't be used to tear someone apart.

Some people are expecting you to spontaneously combust one day from overextending yourself. What are the odds you'll wind up in Western State Hospital one day yourself?

They've got a room ready for me. I just need my guitar and books and I'll be ready to check in.