Anybody who has read previous pieces I wrote on here or on the various other websites I've contributed to, will have noticed my posting has dried up quite some time ago. The reason for this is partly due to a death in the family but more so due to a serious illness in the family which has placed huge demands on my time. This is very hard piece to write because I wish I had the time to dedicate to the craft, but I do not.

 

This website should effectively just be considered an archive at this point until I have the time to put back into this craft that I love. There are still a number of pieces of work which are half finished. Maybe one day in the next few years I will be able to sit down and finish them. Until that time, I shall simply say thank you to everyone who has helped or supported me on my journey. It's been really challenging and I've enjoyed myself. The writing community is a funny old bunch. I wish only the best for the friends I've made along the way. Maybe I will see you again, until then, ciao!

 

Bristol held the annual Crimefest for 2016 last weekend and I thought I’d use this Bank Holiday evening to write a little reflection. It was great fun and very relaxing at the same time. Every year the people behind the scenes run the events smoothly while providing any and all help attendees need in a friendly manner. They can’t be thanked enough for this. One of the other things which is becoming a bug of mine at these events... there’s never enough time! Already I’ve been on Twitter apologising to friends I didn’t get to chat with. It’s crazy. We had a whole weekend for goodness sake!

 

Now, in TotalBiscuit style, I will proceed to blather on for several paragraphs about what I enjoyed in a vaguely chronological order. Upon arrival one of the hotel staff complimented my hair. An excellent start! (In my experience, you can never say enough good things about somebody’s hair.) He proceeded to suggest I looked like Kurt Cobain. Since I like Nirvana, I’ll take that as a compliment. I’d been looking forward to this festival because Ian Rankin would be interviewed and I thoroughly enjoy most of what he writes. I’m probably the only person who, despite liking both Rebus and Fox, actually prefers Fox to Rebus.

 

"We got to hear Hugh Fraser give a heartfelt plug for the chocolate digestive biscuit."

 

Friday was quite a chilled day. Nothing really appealed to me until around late morning. The panel on political machinations and crime in high places was very thought provoking. However my highlight for the day came just after lunch in the morality panel chaired by the forever-joking Kevin Wignall. It was standing room only, with much of the back of the room filled, as we got to hear Hugh Fraser give a heartfelt plug for the chocolate digestive biscuit. I later discovered that he was particularly pleased to have done this. The panel, described by Kevin as a collection of leftovers who they didn’t want on other panels, still gave a very interesting discussion on the more serious implications of morality. Emma Kavanagh made a point that really stuck with me about how morality was a separate issue to the creation of a well rounded character. She talked about how the character’s own problems would shape the character and define their own morality, while in their imperfections demonstrate that, regardless of moral imperative, they are just human.

 The Morality Police - Supporting Choc Digestives since 1950

 

I reflected on this later as something I seemed to be inadvertently doing with my own protagonist, Victor Trimm. Typically we dismiss psychopaths as merely horrible people, and while I think Victor is quite vile and unfeeling in some respects, he demonstrates his humanity in other ways. That ability to compassionately empathise with others is something he lacks, but it’s something I can use to relate to the humanity within someone who lacks it.

 

After that panel I ducked out for a bit to do my workout and grab a snack before the evening. The facilities for exercising were very poor in my opinion and the cost was a total rip off. I might find a local gym that allows for an individual session (without sign up) next time. The announcement reception was another highlight for me as I got to meet one of the gentlemen who was shortlisted for the short story competition. I got to know him a little bit and wished him the best of luck. Unfortunately he didn’t win. The award was taken by Peter Guttridge. He seemed a little down about this and I tried to remind him that there was no shame in being beaten by one of the professionals. I went on to point out how simply being on the shortlist was a tremendous achievement in its own right. It didn’t seem to dull his disappointment much. I wonder why we can feel so defeated despite making great achievements? I suppose that’s a question for Spurs fans too.

 

"Rebus is finally suffering some of the health effects of his poor life choices!"

 

Later on I nabbed some dinner from the fish and chips place across the road. The food there is good, so I’d recommend it to anyone next year as somewhere to check out. They’re very professional, and the place itself looks really modern and new. Then the kid behind the counter who looked like a skater proceeded to ask me “I’m sorry, but has anyone ever told you that you look like Kurt Cobain?” I’m seeing a trend here. I only changed it last month and this is the third time that’s happened. Not sure if I should rethink this.

 

Saturday proved to be a wonderful day. Well, apart from the weather... though we did get some sunshine. Anyway, the day really got going for me during the panel on spy thrillers. They tend to say many of the same things each time with these panels but I still enjoy hearing people discussing the murky world of espionage. With all trappings of characters who have a sliver of ice in their heart and a morally dubious outlook that is justified for the greater good, it tends to make cracking reading and conversation. What struck me about this panel was the diversity of opinion on justification for moral actions within the community. Helen Giltrow was absent, but Messrs Conway, Cumming and Heron didn’t struggle to fill the time. Simon Conway, in particular, had some very interesting tales to share from his extremely varied history. A wealth of experience like that tends to provide great inspiration for stories.

Rankin's Reading

So then it was the first of the big events. Ian Rankin treated us to a reading of the opening few pages of his forthcoming book “Rather Be the Devil.” Rebus is finally suffering some of the health effects of his poor life choices! I was glad to hear him talk about his wife pointing this one out. It’s something that’s been in the back of my mind as I’ve followed the series. Since Rebus doesn’t seem to exercise since his army days while smoking and drinking with great abandon (though never to alcoholic levels... though I have heard some people oddly refer to him as an alcoholic – despite the fact he shows none of the signs of an actual alcoholic), I would have thought by the time he hit 50 he’d be suffering some of the nasty effects of aging without taking care of himself. I look forward to seeing where this goes.

 

After this, I learnt something new. The reorganisation of the Scottish police force has altered the way murder investigations will be run. A brief explanation from Rankin told us that local forces wouldn’t run these investigations and would put up a team sent from the headquarters where the top brass are located. This has subsequently pissed off every procedural crime writer who bases their detective in Scotland. Never fear! Ian will be having a dinner with the Chief Constable shortly to sort all this nonsense out. Or maybe he’ll just have the dinner.

 

"It’s no wonder there are some writers who simply set up shop next to the bar"

 

So I caught up with a few friends at this point, emphasis on the “few.” One of the things about these festivals is that there never seems to be enough time to speak with everyone. The number of Twitter messages I sent after getting home this time was crazy. While some were to new people I’d met for the first time (not all of whom are on Twitter) the majority were to those I’d missed the chance to catch up with. It’s no wonder there are some writers who simply set up shop next to the bar and only go to the panels they participate in. After catching up, I’d previously organised dinner and a night out with some old university friends. Returned late and hit the hay.

 

Sorry I haven't a cluedo
Susan Moody was the only one with a clue

Feeling up authors is wrong

 

Sunday is always the short half day to round things off. An interesting Indie Alternative panel, followed by breakfast and packing up ready to go sorted me out until lunchtime. Then, the grand finale – I’m sorry I haven’t a Cluedo. Based upon the popular I’m sorry I haven’t a clue, the spectacle of this farcical “quiz” provided laughs all around for everyone. Of particular note was the round in which two members of a team would try to identify a mystery author through feel alone. After all the jokes, the ladies came out victorious and rightly so as Susan Moody seemed to answer all the questions. I also got one of the charades for the audience so I was quite chuffed about that. (The Talented Mr Ripley for those who were wondering.) Alas, after this, it was time to leave. Goodbyes were said and all that remained was the long drive home.

 

Oh, and at some point before that I bumped into Captain Hastings. Tremendous chap! Kept talking about chocolate digestives...

The Chocolate Digestive Advocacy Group
Kurt Cobain and Captain Hastings

 

Another year, another Crimefest. (This is just my highlights of the festival. I'm sure I've missed things, haven't included other good panels I went to and have added a good helping of my own opinion on what I enjoyed. Feel free to share your opinions in the comments.)

 

"It's great to hear that the public's morbid fascination with psychopaths continues to rise"

 

There were some particularly interesting panels this year and it felt to me like I gained just as much from a few serious discussions as I did from these panels. (I know, I know... I'm normally laughing and joking about everything because I take things so lightly. Occasionally I will have a serious discussion, honest, and this was such an occasion.) There were multiple panels on psychopaths this year and you'd think that since I write about one, I'd be straight along to those. You would be wrong. It's great to hear that the public's morbid fascination with psychopaths continues to rise (good news for me), but I spend my days knee deep in the research, trying to get into the head of one so I can accurately portray my detective. So, quite frankly, that topic is the last thing I want to be thinking about!

 

A few of the highlights for me included: James Runcie's speech at the dinner on Saturday night, his interview on Sunday, the panel on realism in crime fiction, Rosie Claverton's spotlight address on "Mental health and murder" and the independent authors panel on Sunday. With all of these interweaved with some interesting discussions and immature jokes, it added up to a thoroughly enjoyable (but packed) weekend.

 

"It was a whirlwind twenty minutes and I felt like such a short time was really selling Rosie's expertise a bit short."

 

On the Friday morning (I arrived too late on Thursday. Insert rant about traffic and weather.) I saw Rosie Claverton's twenty minute spotlight called "Criminal insanity? Mental Health and Murder." It covered a few topics from the changes in mental health care, through the improved diagnosis for mental health disorders we now have available, to the overused clichés that appear in modern crime. It was a whirlwind twenty minutes and I felt like such a short time was really selling Rosie's expertise a bit short. Having had the good fortune to be able to speak with her one-on-one last year, this short talk showcased the breadth of her knowledge but unfortunately left her unable to really get into the sort of depth I know she's capable of. I, and others (given the packed room with people sitting on the floor at the front like they were back in preschool), demand more of this next year Crimefest! Perhaps a fifty minute session or interview? I think it'd be a crowd-pleaser.

 

 

Later in the afternoon I went along to the panel (above) on how realistic crime fiction is. This panel was a real treat thanks to the preparation of the moderator, Steve Mosby, who astonished the audience with unlikely tales of real life crimes. With the line between reality and crime novels so blurred by this, it was genuinely fun trying to guess if the improbable stories were real life or fiction. Apparently all these absurd things happen in Iceland according to Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Who knew?

 

That evening I heard that my friend Vicky Newham had won third place in the flashbang competition (never got to congratulate her in person and I'm still disappointed about that.) As she said in her own review of the festival: "Sadly, there were a few people I wanted to say ‘hello’ to over the weekend but either didn’t see or it wasn’t the right time." I can definitely relate to that. Still, I was really pleased to hear the news and it added a little cherry of happiness to my cake that was the evening.

 

"Every time anyone sees her speak or spends any time around her, they come away invigorated and motivated in a way that I've yet to see replicated."

 

The next day had a plethora of panels I went to, but it was the evening which was the real highlight for me. James Runcie gave the best after-dinner speech in history. A witty deconstruction of crime fiction versus literary snobs that explored a satirical list of ways to turn your crime writing into literary fiction. He had a rapt room that was almost in hysterics. I'm certain that, despite the success of his Sidney Chambers Grantchester Mysteries, this speech further increased the attendance to his interview the following lunchtime. He needs to come back next year! I hope the organisers can convince him.

 

Sunday morning saw me make it to the indie authors (pictured above) panel to hear a wide ranging discussion, punctuated by the everlasting enthusiasm of Joanna Penn. Every time anyone sees her speak or spends any time around her, they come away invigorated and motivated in a way that I've yet to see replicated. This panel seemed to have more involvement of the audience than any other. It wasn't surprising since the authors were all very positive about interaction with their readers. The big point from this discussion which I saw repeated several times across twitter was "your definition of success should determine the choices you make." Good advice! Hopefully I will follow it.

 

"you're required to keep drinking bourbon milkshakes until you like them according to the medical advice of Fergus McNeill." 

 

With the traditional Criminal Mastermind event cancelled, the final big event was Jake Kerridge from The Telegraph whispering questions to James Runcie. Once more Runcie serenaded a room with stories, whimsy and outrageously funny "indiscreet" confessions. (Not going to write those publically... but the audience is still expecting three hundred pounds in therapy fees.) This interview was a remarkable event, ending the festival on a big high for me, as I felt like I knew Runcie personally by the end of it. My only disappointment is that I never had the opportunity to speak to him without looking like a fanboy.

 

Despite this, I enjoyed mingling with the crowd each evening. I met old friends and made some new ones. The highlights from this were easier to remember: Steve Cavanagh has the finest set of funny stories ever to reach England, Luca Veste is still crying over the loss of Stevie G, Stav Sherez is possibly the finest example of humanity we have (intellectual discussion or knob jokes, he's got it covered), I was lucky enough to meet Crime Thriller Girl Steph this time around, there are more NUFC-induced depressives attending these things than I first thought, and finally, you're required to keep drinking bourbon milkshakes until you like them according to the medical advice of Fergus McNeill.

 

Roll on Harrogate!

 

 

"I'd say Harris's first two books in the Hannibal Lecter series set the gold standard for psychopath serial killer characters in fiction."

 

So with the third series of Hannibal due to premiere today, I felt the urge to write a little about it since I've been enjoying this interpretation of Thomas Harris's classic characters. I've done my best to avoid spoilers for those who haven't seen this. (Some of my vague references should be enough for those who have.) Hopefully I've walked the fine line between the two well enough for everybody to enjoy this.

 

Anybody who knows me will know that I recommend Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs to anyone who'll listen to me. I enjoyed Red Dragon so much that I began researching how Thomas Harris put the book together. I didn't need to do this, I just wanted to know more about it. It's like that when a book really gets under your skin. You know? I discovered that Harris had put a phenomenal amount of research into the book. Interviewing killers and the FBI's new Behavioural Sciences Unit (now known as the Behavioural Research and Instruction Unit.) So you knew from the outset that Harris was basing his work on the absolute cutting edge of knowledge when it came to serial killers and psychopaths. (I heard that the term serial killer was actually coined by the BSU.) As a result, I'd say Harris's first two books in the Hannibal Lecter series set the gold standard for psychopath serial killer characters in fiction.

 

From these two masterpieces we were given three amazing characters in Will Graham, Clarice Starling and the now legendary Hannibal Lecter. With great books and great characters come movies and television series. We all know that Anthony Hopkins was praised for bringing the cold and calculated genius to the big screen, so it was always going to be a tough act to follow. For this reason I was naturally sceptical, as I'm sure many others were, about whether the choice of actor would be good enough for the television series Hannibal. When you're basing the show in the period before the books Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs take place, you know that having an active-serial-killing Dr Lecter requires... nay, demands, that you get the performance needed from the actor playing Hannibal. I was pleasantly rewarded by Mads Mikkelsen (above) who demonstrated a flawless understanding of combining the cold and callous nature of the character with his ability to blend and explain away his slightly odd behaviours and views.

 

When I first began watching, I was pleased with the innovative approach that the writers and directors had taken with Will's profiling ability. Playing scenes in his mind of his attempts to empathise with the killers he was hunting worked very well. Particularly when they began to demonstrate his struggle with psychosis later in the first series through similar scenes from his PoV. The chemistry between Hugh Dancy (below), playing Will Graham, and Mikkelsen was gripping. Exactly what was needed for a suspense-filled crime thriller series. This hugely satisfying first season was followed with a second in 2014.

 

"By freeing themselves from the canon, we genuinely have no idea where this could go and I find that quite exciting."

 

Again it was heavy on the suspense with more excellent performances by the lead actors. A fresh storyline arc for the series was explored and made me think that there's no way this could tie in with actual canon of the books. However, it was intriguing enough to see the unique direction they chose to take... so I'm not too bothered by the divergent track they've chosen. Particularly with the season 2 finale bloodbath! From my point of view it was unexpected and almost a little forced. However, with the third season starting, I'm still looking forward to seeing where they choose to take things. By freeing themselves from the canon, we genuinely have no idea where this could go and I find that quite exciting. Though in all honesty, I think we all expect the series to go on until Lecter is finally apprehended.

 

Both seasons felt like they had upped the gore-factor for shock value a little which might put some people off. Purists will definitely not like the way this prequel series couldn't possibly be reconciled with either the films or the books. Those who dislike high body-counts and bizarre mutilations on the grounds of cliché should steer clear. (Personally I believe you can't watch crime without suspending disbelief to a certain degree when the topic is serial killers. They are exceptionally rare, so meeting a new one every week is complete nonsense in reality. Frankly, when you're watching this sort of thing, you've always had to work with the writers a little.) However, if you are none of the above, and enjoyed the books and/or movies then I'd heartily recommend this series to you.

 

After all, the scenes involving the kitchen preparation of Dr Lecter's dinner parties are divine and should appeal to the foodie in you... unless you're quite squeamish about eating long pig.

 

"People "love a good murder." I imagine them saying that over a pot of tea and cake, with a huge grin on their face."

 

I've always found characters in fiction to be fascinating. From the larger than life superheroes you'll find in comics and graphic novels, to those truly despicable murderous villains in my own crime genre. I love them all... or should I say, I either love them or love the way I can despise them. I've never understood people who complain about the bad nature of a character or say that the character's nature needs to change from being mean or nasty in order for them to be liked. That's the joy of fiction. I've read and heard from a few people recently who have some smart/sharp things to say, and I wanted to draw all this together around the topic of characters in crime fiction. In a recent interview I did with Howard Linskey, he noted that "it's quite nice to be bad for a while knowing that there aren't any actual consequences because none of it is real." I loved this approach and it's one I wholeheartedly agree with. However I'd also caveat it with my own experience of disturbing myself when I've thought through the twisted logic of truly evil characters. Some of the violence I've written has made me feel a little sick.

 

So I suppose you're now wondering, why would I create a character who makes me feel sick? I can't really give a simple answer to that because it's not straightforward from my perspective. Crime novels tend to involve murder. Murder (from a realistic point of view) is not a remotely nice topic. All the realities of it are quite sickening for the average person. To then create a character who intends to commit murder, you've got to get past the sickening response. However, keeping things realistic, it means you can't skip out the nasty stuff. This leaves only one option: exploring the sort of character who is willing to wade through all the things that would make us feel sick if we had to experience them for real. For my writing, I try my best to make my work as believable as possible, so part of the work for me is to wade through all the same sick, nasty, messy side of murder... while trying to figure out how someone so awful would view it. It's quite morbid really... but I think it's the only way to keep a character within the realms of possibility.

 

Recently, Leigh Russell wrote a short blog on why we love crime fiction. More specifically, how people "love a good murder." I imagine them saying that over a pot of tea and cake, with a huge grin on their face. Naturally this raises the whole issue of glamorisation of murder, but I don't want to get into that today. Leigh concludes that there's a love for the timeless battle between good and evil, along with the excitement of suspense and a bit of a chase. I fully agree with this and there's got to be something underlying the success of the genre and the love of characters who seem like normal humans. In other genres there'll typically be some kind of larger-than-life aspect to key characters. This tends to make them more engaging, yet we still love the detective who doesn't really have much of a social life, probably enjoys a drink or two and supports a football team.

 

Ultimately, it all seems quite normal to me. (So much so that some people even complain it's a cliche. Are we just a parody of ourselves these days?) It begs the question, that when other genres will make their characters so much more than the norm... why do we like normal? Average? Ordinary? Nothing special? Perhaps it's easier to identify with such characters. A connection like that is a big deal for some readers. I'd posit that it is more to do with the limitations of the genre. There's a huge amount that can be done within the genre, but we've got to accept that there is a limited number of ways we can kill fictional people. (Though I remember reading about a writer who would kill their neighbour as a character in every book... is that normal? Perhaps they're waiting to find that limit?) There's a limitation on laws that can be broken because there are a finite number of laws. With this in mind, you can probably accuse most modern crime books of being unoriginal in one way or another if you wanted to be picky. After all, it does boil down to three parts of the story which can't really be sidestepped in the murder investigation book: someone is murdered, someone investigates this, the killer is revealed and is caught/escapes.

 

"Style that is unique to the author provides that uniqueness to the character in the same way a normal person's personality is still unique"

 

I must confess at this point that I'm a big fan of the procedural with one of these so-called "ordinary" coppers who're just single minded about their work and don't really have much of a social life. While I've heard some people call cliche at the sight of the loner detective, I've got to say... it seems almost a necessity to keep the focus on investigation. That's not to say it can't be done with a very sociable investigator. For my money, it just fits. So with that in mind, how do we have so many original characters out there? My guess would be subtlety. Take Rebus and Bosch as characters. Both very well known and have quite a bit in common. Ex-soldiers with a stoic aura and a single minded attitude towards their work. Tend to behave like a bit of a maverick, ignoring the instructions of the boss when it suits them. Likes a drink or two after work. Follows a gut instinct at times but focuses on using the different pieces of information they gather to solve a puzzle. When you read them, do you see these characters as the same person? I know I don't. The only explanation I can come up with is subtle differences in the characters which come through in the writing. Style that is unique to the author provides that uniqueness to the character in the same way a normal person's personality is still unique (despite being normal.)

 

I could write for days about the detectives I like. From Poirot, through Dalgleish to McLean. They're all puzzle solvers. Is it a cliche to be a puzzle solver in crime fiction? If so then the only original character I've come across is Inspector Frost. He'd much sooner pass his work to someone else instead of solving the puzzle.

 

With the success of the more normal character within crime fiction, it's logical to suggest I was a bit silly to go with Victor Trimm as my protagonist. For anyone who hasn't read the novel, originally all I wanted to do was write a procedural which could be solved. Something which would appeal to the armchair detective in me. Then another idea struck me one day. I'd read a few books in which the serial killer is a psychopath. While that does happen in real life, the research by Kevin Dutton at Oxford University was suggesting that the majority of psychopaths will lead normal professional lives without going on a killing spree. (The financial and legal professions tend to attract these types of people.) After reading about this, I wondered how it would work if I made the detective in my novel a psychopath. I'd never heard of this being done before and couldn't think of a detective from my own reading who was remotely like this. The idea festered for a while, but then the morbid curiosity in me decided to give it a go.

 

I was torn over this decision many times. Every time I re-read some of the less pleasant things he'd do, I'd be filled with a sense of revulsion. As my dad understated "he's not very nice, is he?" A complete contrast to my own personality and nothing like my favourite detective, Frost, I was left wondering at times whether I was simply trying to be original for the sake of being original. After all... who on earth would like someone so cold, manipulative and uncaring? Someone who has his own morality based upon a level of self-aggrandising that would make a narcissist blush. Even with this in the back of my mind, I pressed on. I tried to remind myself that characters like Hannibal Lecter, Annie Wilkes and Gordon Gecko have gathered many fans despite their nature.

 

As the chapters progressed and I grew more familiar with his rather cold and bleak view of the world, my dislike turned to pity for a while. His world without a connection and without the understanding of others would probably make the rest of us quite bleak. The people who know him best regularly tell him they can sense there's something wrong with him. It's a wonder that he can carry on. I don't think I'd be strong enough to do that. It was at this point I started to see something I really liked: His lack of fear or interest in the opinions of others, epitomised by his outdated dress sense and dismissal of anyone who disagreed with it. Just as I quoted at the beginning of the article, it's nice to do things we wouldn't normally do, without the consequences.

 

With the negativity which came with Trimm's vantage point, there was a pleasure in that strength of character. He might not get everything right, but he still had the strength of his convictions. For me, that turned everything around. It's nice, just for a little while, to disregard all other opinions and just do what you want to do in all your imperfection. I suppose this is something most of us wish we could do without consequence. If I'm honest, I'm glad I can see this happening without consequence to me. The price Trimm pays for this benefit is too high in my opinion. This is why I love characters of all kinds in crime fiction. I can see a variety of worlds without ever having to pay the price. Well... except the price of the book.

 

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