Catering to the Romantics

‘Dream Café’ by RJ Gould

“Why on earth am I here?” David wonders as he observes the juvenile antics of ex-classmates at the twenty-five year school reunion. Then he sees Bridget.

David draws up a list of all that he hopes to achieve to kick-start a new life now that his wife has moved in with his best friend – his ex-best friend. A relationship with Bridget is top of the list, opening an arts café is a close second.

Formidable women – an unfaithful wife, a reckless teenage daughter, a boss from hell, a disapproving policewoman – seem like insurmountable obstacles.

But it’s still OK to dream, isn’t it?

I don’t think I’m giving too much away to confess that I have a birthday coming up in the next couple of weeks. A “big” one. One with a zero at the end.

As it happens, it is a “big” birthday which puts me in close proximity to David, the lead character of ‘Dream Café’. Having decided against attending my own school reunion (to paraphrase a friend’s response, he’d rather defecate in his hands and clap) I really felt for the character as half remembered school contemporaries lunge at him as the novel opens.

As the book progresses, we learn that poor David has quite the complicated back story, with all sorts of unpleasant behaviour having been dealt to this rather nice, if vague, protagonist.

Personally, I think a nice romantic comedy which nips along with ease of reading and light touch charm and ‘Dream Café’ has this in abundance. David is a hero we can root for and, even including the necessary ups and downs which must befall all characters in this genre, it is comforting to know that all will – up to a point – turn out right with the world.

Incidentally, I too have a secret dream to abandon my career and relaunch ala David – but perhaps I’ll have to wait until nearer his age to do so 😉

Purchase Links –

Author Bio –

Richard writes under the pseudonym R J Gould and is a (rare male) member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA). His first novel was shortlisted for the Joan Hessayon Award following his participation on the RNA New Writers’ Scheme. Having been published by Headline Access and Lume Books, he now self-publishes.

He writes contemporary literary fiction about relationships, loosely though not prescriptively within the Romance genre, using both humour and pathos to describe the tragi-comic journeys of his protagonists in search of love. ‘Dream Café’ is his sixth novel, following ‘The Engagement Party’, ‘Jack and Jill Went Downhill’, ‘Mid-life follies’, ‘The Bench by Cromer Beach’ and ‘Nothing Man’. [It is a rewrite of ‘A Street Café Named Desire’].

Ahead of writing full time, Richard led a national educational charity. He has been published in a wide range of educational journals, national newspapers and magazines and is the co-author of a major work on educating able young people. He lives in Cambridge, England.

Social Media Links –

Website:                           http://www.rjgould.info

Twitter:               https://twitter.com/RJGould_author

Email:                                news@rjgould.info

Facebook:                         https://www.facebook.com/RJGouldauthor

Instagram:                        https://www.instagram.com/rjgould_author

Exckusive Extract: ‘Rat Island’

This is the opening passage of Rat Island. It captures how I experienced the maelstrom of 1995 42nd Street in Manhattan and gives a pen-picture of the novel’s protagonist, Callum Burke, and his past.

For a review of John Steele’s ‘Rat Island‘ click HERE

Callum Burke was late for the Chinese taxidermist’s murder. He shoved a Camel between cracked lips and sparked his Zippo then leaned against the wall next to the subway entrance on 42nd. He lit the cigarette like a fuse. His watch read eight-twenty.

A handsome drunk black guy in khaki pants and a busted-up jacket caught his eye and sauntered over, flexing and weaving through pedestrians like the booze in his system had liquefied his bones.

‘Excuse me, man, you got thirty cents?’ Alcohol fumes seeped through Callum’s tobacco cloud.

‘No, I don’t have any change.’

‘Thirty cents, man. I just need thirty cents for my bus to Chester.’

‘Sorry. No change.’

‘Alright. God loves you anyway, man.’

The drunk lurched off as a Latino girl in a PVC miniskirt with a sweet face and glazed eyes strolled up.

‘Hey, baby. You all by yourself?’

‘Just like the song.’

‘You want some company? I got a half hour to spare.’

‘Not tonight.’

A wired, scrawny white youth made a move after the girl tottered away.

‘Hey, man, you got the time?’ His voice was drowned by the stream of traffic heading to and from 8th Avenue. Callum cocked his head toward the youth as a siren howled from somewhere behind Port Authority.

The youth leaned closer. ‘You got the time?’

Callum checked his watch. ‘Uh, it’s – ’

‘I got blow, speed, crack, H. What you need?’

‘No, I’m good.’

‘It’s aaaaall good, man’

Callum pinched the bridge of his nose. A cop was standing on the corner fifteen feet away working hard not to notice the wicked business going down on his patch. The buildings of midtown rocketed skyward, swallowed by low rags of cloud oppressing the early evening bustle of the streets. A tide of gossip, questions, information and bawdy profanity assaulted him. Before, in the other metropolis of Hong Kong, it had been just as raucous but most of it was Cantonese backwash, white noise he filtered out. Now it was rushing him, penetrating his skull and cannoning around in his head.

‘Thirty cents, man? Port Authority’s just across the street.’

The black man reappeared on his right, face bathed in yellow from a neon sign declaring, In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him.

‘I told you already,’ said Callum.

‘Hey baby, you busy?’

‘I’m fine.’

‘You wanna’ get high?’

‘You wanna’ fuck?’

‘What time is it, brother?’

‘Thirty cents?’

Callum dropped the spent smoke on the sidewalk and ground it out with his boot. He sparked up another and imagined himself through their eyes: the hustlers, the hookers and pushers. He looked younger than his twenty-nine years, despite the dark two-day growth on his face. A thatch of unruly black hair cut short and a nose skewed by a couple of prime shots in the ring. A wide mouth and a funny accent, maybe Irish but not like that comedy Top-O’-The-Mornin’ brogue people put on for St. Paddy’s. Heavy black brows over affective hazel eyes that were tender or playful or flinty at the whim of his moods.

Those eyes were his greatest tell.

The cop had crossed 42nd Street and disappeared downstream among the mass of citizens heading toward Penn Station on 8th Avenue. Callum took in the parking lot opposite, Port Authority Bus Terminal diagonal, the huge Camel mural across 8th to his right, and wondered how long he could live with this noise and fury.

Amid the chaos, a beautiful woman dragged a small child by the arm toward the subway entrance where Callum stood. Her hair was darker than shadow, her skin amber under the lights of the city, like she was sculpted from gemstone. She was East Asian but looked nothing like Irene Chu. Yet her face as she swept the child into her arms pulled Callum back to Hong Kong and his estranged wife. The child burrowed her head deep by her mother’s neck and Callum felt the memory leave a cold crater in his chest as he thought of his daughter, how Tara would do the same. Tara’s hands could barely meet as they encircled his neck back then.

The mother and child passed him by on 42nd and disappeared down the steps to the subway and he felt a part of him descend with them.

Callum pulled hard on the cigarette. That was his problem – he always went hard. Drank too hard. Gambled too hard. Maybe he loved too hard, now that his family was gone. He’d blown it with them and almost blown it with his job.

And now he was in New York.

He’d been here once before, a short trip with Irene but that had been the Empire State Building, Central Park and museums. This, tonight, was low cloud crawling through midtown, the buildings monoliths scattered with pinpricks of light. Rain was close. He dropped his smoke.

He scratched his head. No one likes to watch a man murdered but Callum couldn’t duck this one, so might as well get it over with. It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen plenty of bodies. But this time, he’d watch the Chinese taxidermist’s life snuffed out while he sat with a coffee and a cigarette. As he turned to enter the subway, he checked the change in his pocket and snorted.

Thirty cents.

PRAISE FOR RAT ISLAND AND JOHN STEELE:

‘A nonstop thrill ride… a lyrical, super read filled with plenty of intrigue, action and suspense and sent against an exotic and seldom explored corner of crime fiction’ Gerald Posner

‘RAT ISLAND speeds and thrashes with the dangerous energy of the Manhattan streets which are so vividly recalled’ Gary Donnelly

‘John Steele writes with grit, pace and authenticity’ Claire McGowan

Purchase Links

Author Bio –

John Steele was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland. In 1995, at the age of twenty-two he travelled to the United States and has since lived and worked on three continents, including a thirteen-year spell in Japan. Among past jobs he has been a drummer in a rock band, an illustrator, a truck driver and a teacher of English. He now lives in England with his wife and daughter. He began writing short stories, selling them to North American magazines and fiction digests. He has published three previous novels: ‘RAVENHILL’, ‘SEVEN SKINS’ and ‘DRY RIVER’, the first of which was longlisted for a CWA Debut Dagger award. John’s books have been described as “Remarkable” by the Sunday Times, “Dark and thrilling” by Claire McGowan, and “Spectacular” by Tony Parsons. The Irish Independent called John ‘a writer of huge promise’ and Gary Donnelly appointed him ‘the undisputed champion of the modern metropolitan thriller’.

Social Media Links –

Twitter: @JohnSte_author

Work of Steele Proves to be King Rat

To read an exclusive extract selected by John Steele for this blog, click HERE

Rat Island by John Steele

‘A REAL CONTENDER FOR CRIME BOOK OF THE YEAR’ David Peace

‘FANS OF DON WINSLOW WILL LOVE THIS’ Claire McGowan

New York, 1995. Cop Callum Burke arrives in New York from Hong Kong, drafted in as part of an international investigation into organised crime.

With the handover of Hong Kong to China only a couple of years away, gangsters are moving their operations out of the territory and into New York ahead of the looming deadline.

Burke’s experiences with East Asian crime and the Triads’ links to the Irish Mob make him the perfect man to send in undercover.

But as he infiltrates these vast and lethal criminal networks, bodies start to pile up in his wake and his conscience threatens to send him over the edge.

And when Burke’s NYPD handlers push him to continue the investigation at all costs, he may have to cross the line from cop to criminal just to stay alive…

Readers of Don Winslow, Michael Connelly, Steve Cavanagh, Richard Price and John Sandford will love this dark and morally complex novel which presents a searing portrait of mid-1990s New York as you’ve never seen it before.

Reviewers of novels, especially novels in this milieu, should be exceedingly careful about bandying around what I call the “Winslow Card”. Don Winslow is a giant of the sprawling novel, reflecting society back on itself and using the contemporary Escher nightmare of the facile “War on Drugs” to reflect our complicity in its pointlessly prolonged form.

That’s a big card to drop on anyone’s desk as they make their name. But, what we absolutely do have in John Steele’s novel Rat Island is a writer who has produced a tautly atmospheric portrait of New York at that tipping point in its history as it moved from pimps and hoes, No-Go Zone to the sanitised tourist trap it was to become.

And Steele certainly comes equipped with the writing chops to sustain our interest and intrigue across its nearly 400 page span. He writes with a cinematic eye. As his narration scans a street, a character chancing to pass, has hair “darker than shadow”.

Likewise, he has that sardonic touch that Ian Rankin rings to the best of his work. “The DEA had wanted to greet the Hong Kong policemen…but they were swamped with guys on temporary assignment from Miami playing Crockett and Tubbs with the Colombians.”

All of this is played out against a complicated investigation which brings to mind the best of ‘The Wire’ while Callum Burke juggles enough demons to put McNulty to shame.

Overall, this is powerfully rendered period piece in the pre-9/11 age where the good guys wear black as much as the bad and no one’s motives can be left unquestioned.

PRAISE FOR RAT ISLAND AND JOHN STEELE:

‘A nonstop thrill ride… a lyrical, super read filled with plenty of intrigue, action and suspense and sent against an exotic and seldom explored corner of crime fiction’ Gerald Posner

‘RAT ISLAND speeds and thrashes with the dangerous energy of the Manhattan streets which are so vividly recalled’ Gary Donnelly

‘John Steele writes with grit, pace and authenticity’ Claire McGowan

Purchase Links

Author Bio –

John Steele was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland. In 1995, at the age of twenty-two he travelled to the United States and has since lived and worked on three continents, including a thirteen-year spell in Japan. Among past jobs he has been a drummer in a rock band, an illustrator, a truck driver and a teacher of English. He now lives in England with his wife and daughter. He began writing short stories, selling them to North American magazines and fiction digests. He has published three previous novels: ‘RAVENHILL’, ‘SEVEN SKINS’ and ‘DRY RIVER’, the first of which was longlisted for a CWA Debut Dagger award. John’s books have been described as “Remarkable” by the Sunday Times, “Dark and thrilling” by Claire McGowan, and “Spectacular” by Tony Parsons. The Irish Independent called John ‘a writer of huge promise’ and Gary Donnelly appointed him ‘the undisputed champion of the modern metropolitan thriller’.

Social Media Links –

Twitter: @JohnSte_author

Exclusive Extract: ‘Porno Valley’ Chapter Three

You can read a review of Philip Eliott’s second novel, ‘Porno Valley’ you can find it here: Review

It’s the year 2000 and 78-year-old Mickey O’Rourke has been a Los Angeles PI for a very long time. He’d thought he’d seen it all until the disappearance of porn star Jeffrey Strokes sends him from the sex-filled studios of the San Fernando Valley to the desperate streets of Compton where Mickey’s final case becomes his biggest test.

Flash back to 1998 and struggling hair salon employee Jemeka Johnson, suspecting boyfriend Ray-Ray of infidelity, follows him one night from their East Compton home to what turns out to be a drug deal gone sour where a twist of fate finds Jemeka tossed onto a dark and dangerous path—one that offers huge reward for someone bold enough to seize it.

Meanwhile, in 1999, tired of robbing small-town diners and shooting bad dope in filthy motel rooms, newlyweds Richie and Alabama return to LA in search of the perfect score.

Paths cross and past meets present as bad decisions hurtle toward worse consequences—and no one will ever be the same. (Synopsis courtesy of http://www.philipelliottfiction.com)

Chapter Three

Shaking Bethany’s hand as he bid her goodbye, Mickey was again struck by her petiteness and how it contrasted with the aura of confidence she emitted, that confidence visible in her movements and clear comfortability in her choice of career, her seeming lack of self-doubt. “Strokes, Jeffrey Strokes,” she’d said when Mickey had asked her for Jeffrey’s full name, so Mickey had said, “I mean his real name,” thinking it was a stage name, and Bethany had giggled, enjoying this clashing of worlds. “That is Jeff’s real name,” she had said. “Guy was born to do porn.”

Mickey pushed through the front doors of MidnightPussy Productions into the blinding sunshine, mountains rippling on the horizon.

Born to do porn. An interesting way to describe the man who, according to a couple newspaper articles and dozens from underground zine Sleaze, had been the male star of the Los Angeles porn scene, multi-award-winning with legions of fans, until his sudden disappearance a year ago. LAPD had investigated without much success and the case had soon fizzled out. Jeffrey Strokes, it seemed, had simply vanished.

“Yo, Mickey Rourke,” a voice said. Mickey glanced toward the source: Riccardo, Bethany’s lover, sucking on a cigarette in the shade of the studio. “Can I’ve an autograph?”

Riccardo grinned at his own joke and swaggered toward Mickey. “Listen, no hard feelings about earlier. I didn’t mean to suggest you couldn’t do your job or nothing like that. I just never heard of an eighty-year-old fuckin’ PI before, you know?”

“Seventy-eight.”

Riccardo took a drag. “Sure.”

“Are there any seventy-eight-year-old porn stars, Riccardo?”

“I don’t know if star is the right word, but, sure, a few.”

“Well then, if we can pull that off, I think we can manage a bit of detective work.”

Riccardo tossed the cigarette into the dirt. “You got a point there.”

“Finished work for today, Riccardo?”

Riccardo nodded, exhaling smoke.

“Jeffrey Strokes. You know him?” Mickey said.

“Yeah, everyone knew Jeff. He was a bit strange but we got along.”

“Was?”

“What you mean?”

“You’re speaking about him in the past tense.”

“Figure of speech, old man. Figure of speech.”

“Why do you say he was strange?”

Riccardo squinted into the distance. “You see that Coen Brothers movie came out last year?”

The Big Lebowski.”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“I saw it, yes.”

“You know Jeff Bridges’ character, The Dude? Well, imagine The Dude as a porn star who wins an AVN Award every year and you won’t be far off.”

“AVN?”

“Adult Video News. The Oscars of porn.”

“A big deal?”

Riccardo shrugged. “To us.”

“And so Jeffrey—”

Riccardo held up his palm. “This is a lot of questions.”

“I have a few more.”

“Yeah, well, I’m busy.”

“Busy doing what? You said you’re finished work.”

Riccardo eyed Mickey suspiciously. He smirked. “You got me.”

“Just a few more questions and I’ll let you go.”

“Okay Mickey, but not here.”

“Not here?”

“I need a drink,” Riccardo said, “and you’re buying.”

**********

Riccardo, it turned out, owned a Harley-Davidson. Mickey, in his Pontiac Catalina, followed Riccardo on the Harley for ten minutes to a dark and smoke-filled dive bar. A hand-painted, slightly lopsided sign above the door declared the establishment “Bloody Mary’s.” A dozen choppers sat parked in a line outside, gleaming under the sun.

Inside, Riccardo slapped hands with some of the patrons—all heavily tattooed bikers dressed in leathers—while Mickey choked on the fumes, eyes stinging. The walls were decorated with graffiti, American flags, framed photographs of motorcycles and groups of men posing around them. Aggressive rock music throbbed out of speakers. Two men who had been playing pool were staring at Mickey now, along with everyone else. Was Riccardo hoping to intimidate him, bringing him to a biker bar?

“Hey Mary, how you doin’?” Riccardo said to a skinny woman behind the bar.

“Better now that you’re here.” Mary’s dyed-red hair and colorful tattoos appeared at odds with her weathered face and somewhat emaciated figure. “You gonna take me down the back alley today? I could use a seeing to.”

“One of these days, Mary. I promise.”

“You been sayin’ that for two years. A woman has needs.”

“I got my friend here today.”

Mary appeared to notice Mickey for the first time. She looked him over. “Your friend can take me with you, if he can still get it up. I like an older man.”

Mickey couldn’t believe his ears.

Riccardo clapped a hand on Mickey’s back. “You hear that, old man? What you think? You wanna take Mary out the back, show her a good time?”

“I think the lady ought to get to know me first.”

Riccardo grinned. “You’re funny. For an actor.”

“You’re in porn too?” Mary said, eyeballing him with interest.

“Not that kind of acting, Mary,” Riccardo said. “Hollywood acting. You might know him. This here is Mickey Rourke.”

“Not that Mickey Rourke . . .” But she sounded unsure.

“The one and only,” Riccardo said.

Mary frowned, looking Mickey up and down. “You’re lying.”

“I wouldn’t do that, Mary. Mickey here wants to get us a couple drinks.”

“What can I get for you boys?”

“Bottle of Bud for me,” Riccardo said.

“I’ll have a cranberry juice, if you have it,” Mickey said.

Mary raised an eyebrow and glanced at Riccardo.

“Actors,” Riccardo said.

********************

“Yeah, Jeff’s a unique guy,” Riccardo said, sitting opposite Mickey at a small table in a corner. “Enjoys too much of the ganja, if you know what I mean.”

“He smokes marijuana?”

“Like a fuckin’ Rastafarian.”

“Does he use other drugs?”

“Most of ’em, probably.”

“Could be he got himself into trouble with some drug dealers, had to disappear?”

“Doubt it,” Riccardo said.

“Why’s that?”

“Jeff’s so chill he’s practically horizontal. Couldn’t see anyone having a problem with him.”

“Bethany seems to think Jeffrey may have decided to disappear.”

“Wishful thinking,” Riccardo said. He drank from his beer. “Much better to think the guy’s laying low than dead in a ditch somewhere.”

Mickey nodded. The smoke was less concentrated in this part of the room, but still his eyes burned, throat dry, the deathly taste of it in his mouth. Bloody Mary’s clearly paid no heed to the smoking ban.

“Bethany loved him?” Mickey said.

“She tell you that?” Riccardo was looking into his eyes.

“She did.”

“What she tell you about me?”

“Your name didn’t come up.”

Riccardo’s eyes narrowed. “Can’t say I’m surprised. Even with the guy gone all anyone talks about is Jeff.”

Mickey wrote “Jealous” beside Riccardo’s name in the Moleskin.

“By all accounts, Jeffrey was something of a star in the pornography world?”

“An understatement, if anything. Jeff won three Best Male Performer of the Year AVNs in a row, probably would have kept winning ’em too. He was the highest paid guy in the business before he vanished. I’m assuming you’ve never been to a porno convention. You should go to one sometime, get the blood flowing. It’s the women who are the stars at these things. I mean, no shit, right? But Jeff would have fans lining up to meet him. I never understood the attraction. Guy would be standing there, swaying, eyes drooping out of his head, talking like Keanu Reeves on tranquilizers. Even had a line of dildos modeled on his cock. A bestseller, apparently. But whatever.”

Mickey underlined the “Jealous.”

“But you think he’s dead?”

“Why would a guy at the peak of his career choose to disappear? You’re the PI—in your experience are missing people usually dead or in hiding?”

“Usually, no one ever finds out.”

Riccardo picked up his beer. “Ain’t that the truth.” He downed the last of it.

“When did you and Bethany become romantically involved?”

Riccardo glanced away. “About a year ago, probably.”

“Before or after Jeffrey went missing?”

Riccardo met Mickey’s gaze. “After.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, old man, I’m sure.”

“So a year ago at most then?”

“Must be.”

Mickey scribbled “Affair?” in the notebook. Out of the speakers a man was yelling about the ace of spades to a background of snarling electric guitars and lightning-speed drums.

“One final question and I’ll be off,” Mickey said.

“Shoot.”

“Why pornography?”

“What, like, why do it?”

Mickey nodded.

“I dunno. I couldn’t much stand doing anything else. Plus I like fucking. I’m good at it.”

“Does it bother you that Bethany has sex with other men?”

“No, old man, it’s like that. It’s a job. Just like yours.”

“If Bethany had sex with another man, privately, not for her job, would it bother you then?”

“It would tear me apart.”

“Funny, isn’t it? The subtle distinction.”

Riccardo shook his head. “It’s not subtle at all. You’re talking about two different things—work, and betrayal. Sex, and love.”

“Poetic.”

“For you maybe. For us, it’s life.”

Mickey stood up. “All right. Well, thanks for answering my questions, Riccardo. I’ll be seeing you.”

“I’m sure you will.”

Mickey pulled out his chair and turned to find Mary coming toward him with a camera in her bony hands.

“Sorry to bother you, Mr. Rourke, but before you go, do you think I could take your picture to put on the wall? It’s not every day we get a celebrity in here.”

Mickey looked at Riccardo, who shrugged at him, smirking. “Sure. Just so long’s you catch me on my good side.”

*******************

They walked up a driveway in West LA stinking of sweat, in dire need of showers and fresh clothes, each lugging a sports bag containing all their worldly possessions. The Greyhound had dropped them off near Skid Row shortly after midnight and they’d spent the night shooting up there in their own corner of that little section of Hell, keeping their heads down and waiting for morning.

Richie passed an expensive-looking Audi on one side of the drive and a tacky water fountain on the other and rang the bell of a large suburban home, big bay window on the left. It being Saturday, Richie hoped the person he was looking for was home. Alabama hadn’t said a word to him since he’d sent the deaf guy into the desert, not even when he’d explained that this neighborhood was where he had grown up, believe it or not, spending more time in Stoner Park around the corner than his house, saying the park was perfectly named because all he and his friends had ever done there was get high and skateboard—friends like Scotty Browning whose very house they were outside right now. But Alabama wouldn’t even look at him. He’d pushed her too far beating up the deaf kid like that. He’d have to play it safe for a while, get her back on his side.

The door opened and Scotty Browning stood looking at them with his mouth hanging open, spectacles crooked on his face.

“Scotty! My main man. How you doin’? This is my wife, Alabama. We’re in town, thought we’d drop by and say hello.”

Scotty just stood there, stupefied.

“Can we come in?”

The Browning family home was exactly as Richie remembered it: comfortable and lived-in, wooden floors and wooden stairs—wood all over the place—mass-produced kitsch on the walls, such as the phrase in thick sans-serif font hanging on a frame in the kitchen: “Having Somewhere to Go Is Home. Having Someone to Love Is Family. Having Both Is a Blessing.” The insincerity of it made Richie sick.

“Listen Richie,” Scotty said, standing hunched by the boiling kettle, “just so you know, my mom’s gonna be home soon.”

Richie stared at him. “Fuck is that supposed to mean?”

Scotty glanced at the floor, adjusting his glasses. “Just thought it was worth mentioning . . . How’d you know I still live with my parents?”

Richie frowned, the wooden chair bruising his ass. How had he known that? “You know what, Scotty, it simply never occurred to me that you would ever leave here. You’re not that kind of guy.”

“What kind of guy is that?”

“Normal.”

Scotty held his gaze on Richie for a moment, then glanced away, sinking into himself like a sack of flour.

Alabama scowled at Richie. “This is a very nice house, Scotty. You live here your whole life?”

Scotty looked at her as if trying to decipher if she was being sincere or setting him up to fall. “Yep . . . since I was a baby.”

“You twenty-five like Richie?”

“Twenty-four.”

“Scotty was the baby of the group,” Richie said.

“What do you do for work, Scotty?” Alabama said. “If you don’t mind me askin’ ’bout your business, that is.” She flashed one of those disarming smiles at him.

Scotty loosened like a used condom. “Computer programming. Nothing too interesting.” Quiet, shy about it.

Alabama said, “Oh, I love computers. They’re just like big brains that can do anything.”

“Well, I guess they are pretty fascinating,” Scotty said, adjusting his glasses.

“I read somewhere it’s the best industry to be in right now, and only getting bigger,” Alabama said. “You got the right idea, Scotty.”

“Yeah, it’s really taking off. Actually, I just got offered a job down in Palo Alto with a company called Google, you probably haven’t heard of them but they’re growing fast, really taking over.” He looked at Richie. “I’m thinking about taking the job and moving there.”

“Well shit. Look at Scotty, finally growing a dick.”

“We’re not kids anymore, Richie. You shouldn’t talk to me like that.”

Richie sniggered. “Take it easy, Scotty, I’m just playing. I’m happy for you doing well for yourself. You were always the one of us who was gonna make it, we all knew that.”

Scotty touched his glasses, looking a little surprised, as the kettle started screaming. He switched the gas off and poured boiling water into three cups.

“We only have green tea,” he said. “You know my mom . . .”

“I’ll never forget her,” Richie said.

Scotty ignored him. “You want regular or lemon-infused?” he asked Alabama.

“Oooh, lemon please.”

“Me too,” Richie said.

Scotty rooted inside a cabinet and dropped teabags into the cups and placed the cups on the table, pale-gold liquid swirling inside them, the scent of it like citrus and honey.

Richie blew on top of his and put it to his mouth, nearly melting the lips off his face. “Fuck, that’s hot. Damn, tastes good though.” Sweet and very slightly sour.

“It’s very healthy, you should drink it more often,” Scotty said, not moving from the stove. “Or are you still set on destroying yourself?” The little fucker growing a backbone.

“Don’t worry about me, Scotty. I’ve done things you couldn’t even dream.”

Silence seized the kitchen. The cuckoo clock beside the doorway counted the slow march toward death.

Scotty said, “So, are you going to tell me why you’re here in my house, after, what is it, seven years?”

“Could be. I’m here because I want to ask you, as my good friend from the good old days—my best friend—I want to ask you if I could borrow your car for couple days. Just while we get on our feet. Three days, tops.”

Scotty had a face on him as if Richie had just rolled down his jeans and shat on the floor. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Also, I was hoping we could crash here for a few days. The basement is fine if it’s still got that sofa and TV down there.”

Scotty shook his head. “I can’t believe this.”

“Hey, what’s the big deal? We were friends—”

“Friends? Is that what you think? Friends?” Scotty stood up straight, gazing down at Richie with a hard look in his eyes that Richie had never witnessed in them. “You’ve never been a friend to anyone, Richie, least of all me. No, you can’t borrow my car and you can’t crash here.” He pointed at the doorway. “Get out of my house.”

Richie jerked his neck back. Who does he fucking think he is? The little twerp could barely make eye contact with strangers last time Richie had seen him, now he was giving orders?

Richie glanced at Alabama’s knuckles turning white on the table. He could play it safe, or risk losing her.

His moment of glory behind him, Scotty didn’t look so confident anymore, doubt creeping into his expression. Yeah, starting to regret it, about to shit his pants.

“For old time’s sake, Scotty, I’m gonna let that slide.” Richie could practically feel Alabama’s ass cheeks relaxing beside him. “But you’re gonna have to give me one thousand dollars along with your car.”

Scotty stared at him, back to looking stupefied.

“And this time,” Richie said, pulling the Smith & Wesson out of his jeans and banging it onto the table, “I’m not asking.”

******************

“Didya have to take his mama’s jewelry?” Alabama said, in the passenger seat of Scotty Browning’s Audi, which, she supposed, was no longer Scotty Browning’s. “You got the car, a few hundred in cash. Taking the jewelry just seems mean.”

Richie sped the Audi toward the end of Scotty’s street and turned the corner too hard, swerving to avoid a fire hydrant.

“I told him to give me a thousand bucks or I’d shoot him,” he said. “I had to get him to make it up somehow. A man’s only as good as his word.”

Alabama rolled her eyes. She’d remember that next time Richie promised he’d take her out to a romantic dinner if she’d suck his dick.

“And besides,” Richie said, “Scotty’s mom is a class A cunt. One time, when we were real young, she slapped me with a spatula. A fuckin’ spatula. Bitch. She was hot, though.”

Richie slowed the car as they approached a fenced grassy area. He glanced at Alabama, a coy expression on his face. “I was thinking one of those necklaces would look pretty good on you.”

She shook her head. “No Richie.”

The Audi slowed almost to a stop.

“You really think so?” she said.

“Yeah, to go with those gorgeous green eyes.”

Her heart damn near melted every time Richie paid her a compliment, and it became impossible to be mad at him.

“Here, lemme show you.” Richie brought the car to a stop along the sidewalk next to the fence, behind which was a public swimming pool with changing rooms, a small skate park where kids drifted around on skateboards and smoked, and patches of well-trimmed grass lined by benches. He grabbed the plastic bag he’d shoved under Alabama’s feet and fished through it.

“Yeah,” he said, grinning, “I remember this one.” He withdrew his hand. A silver chain hung from his finger, a smooth jade stone dangling at the end.

Alabama’s breath caught. “It’s beautiful.”

“It’s real jade. I remember Scotty’s mom saying that before. I always knew I was gonna steal this one day, I just needed to meet the right woman to steal it for.”

Alabama touched the stone. Smooth, almost slippery, and firm.

“Turn your head,” Richie said.

Alabama twisted her neck and felt the jade bounce against her chest as Richie placed it over her, cold on her skin, but weighty. Worth something.

“Show me,” Richie said.

She faced him.

His eyes opened up. “Wow. Look’s incredible on you. I was right, it goes perfectly with your eyes.”

“Really?”

“Look.” Richie swung open the sun visor above Alabama’s head and slid open the mirror.

Alabama angled the visor, glimpsing the jade resting above her cleavage and glinting in the light like something magical. She flicked the visor and gazed into her own eyes. They were almost the same color. Richie was right: the necklace had been made for her.

“I love it,” she said.

“Me too. And I love you.”

The surprise of it quickened Alabama’s heart. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard it.

Richie said, “I know that sometimes you don’t agree with the things I do. And I know that sometimes I can get a bit . . . frustrated.” He swept his long dark hair behind an ear. “I’m just trying to do what’s best for us, give us the life we deserve. ’Cause, babe, nobody’s gonna give it to us, no one’s ever given us a damn thing. We gotta take it. Understand?”

Alabama nodded, feeling a little heat between her legs, wanting him to stop talking and kiss her.

Richie squeezed her knee, looking past her out the window now. “This is Stoner Park I was telling you about.” Onto the next thing. “What a perfectly stupid name, right?”

“Richie?”

“What?” Still staring at the park.

“Richie?”

He looked at her. “What?”

“Kiss me, you idiot.”

Author Bio

Philip Elliott’s debut novel ‘Nobody Move’ won Best First Novel in the Arthur Ellis Awards. Follow-up Porno Valley is out in August, 2021. Feature-film screenplay The Bad Informant is currently in development with Passage Pictures. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Philip lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his wife and spoiled pug where he is never not listening to rock ’n’ roll. (Biography courtesy of http://www.philipelliottfiction.com)

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Desperadoes and desperate souls in the City of Angels

It’s the year 2000 and 78-year-old Mickey O’Rourke has been a Los Angeles PI for a very long time. He’d thought he’d seen it all until the disappearance of porn star Jeffrey Strokes sends him from the sex-filled studios of the San Fernando Valley to the desperate streets of Compton where Mickey’s final case becomes his biggest test.

Flash back to 1998 and struggling hair salon employee Jemeka Johnson, suspecting boyfriend Ray-Ray of infidelity, follows him one night from their East Compton home to what turns out to be a drug deal gone sour where a twist of fate finds Jemeka tossed onto a dark and dangerous path—one that offers huge reward for someone bold enough to seize it.

Meanwhile, in 1999, tired of robbing small-town diners and shooting bad dope in filthy motel rooms, newlyweds Richie and Alabama return to LA in search of the perfect score.

Paths cross and past meets present as bad decisions hurtle toward worse consequences—and no one will ever be the same. (Synopsis courtesy of http://www.philipelliottfiction.com)

I reviewed Philip Elliott’s debut novel ‘Nobody Move’ when it came out in 2019. At the time, I described it as “a love letter to the crime thriller movies of the 90s and is packed with enough sleazy motels, 80s punk rock and characters making questionable life choices to make you want to ask, “Whose chopper iz dis?’”

It was one of those slow burning books for me. When I had begun it, I had been sampling the movie references like a wine connoisseur ticks off flavour notes on the tongue:  there’s a Heat, here comes a Reservoir Dogs. Do I detect a soupcon of Jackie Brown? I do. Notes of Pulp Fiction laced with The GodfatherBaby DriverNo Country for Old Men and Get Shorty? It arrives on the tongue with gusto. 

It is then interesting to read the second in Eliott’s Angel City series which also arrives with a Pulp Fiction-esque series of disparate storylines swirling and coalescing around the same milieu of pimps and whores and drug deals gone wrong.

What is also clear is that Eliott has also taken the time to really continue building his craft. What ‘Nobody Move’ did so well was make you care about the characters once you got past the movie spotting tapestry game. What ‘Porno Valley’ does here is subtler – it is an initially slower moving novel which swirls to a crescendo – and takes the time to reflect on the effect of poverty and violence on these communities.

I’m not going to lie: for all the slick dialogue, believable bathetic characters and evocative setting, especially early in the novel, I did find the three timelines a little hard to keep track of at times. However, the characters are so visceral that it is better to just let the story sweep you along and let all be revealed in the fullness of time.

In short, this is an excellent read from a writer brimming with confidence and with something to say. The continuation of the Angel City series is becoming a highlight of the literary calendar for me and I look forward to following Eliott’s progress with interest.

It you want to read an exclusive extract from ‘Porno Valley’, selected by the author, you can find it here: Extract

Author Bio

Philip Elliott’s debut novel ‘Nobody Move’ won Best First Novel in the Arthur Ellis Awards. Follow-up Porno Valley is out in August, 2021. Feature-film screenplay The Bad Informant is currently in development with Passage Pictures. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Philip lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his wife and spoiled pug where he is never not listening to rock ’n’ roll. (Biography courtesy of http://www.philipelliottfiction.com)

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Question and Answer with Andrew Lownie

If you would like to read a review of ‘The Traitor King’, you can read about it here

Between Stalin’s EnglishmanThe Mountbattons and now The Traitor King you have investigated and peeled away layers of the twentieth century British establishment. What do you think it is which attracts you to this sort of topic?

I’m interested in revisionist biography, taking a well-known subject and looking at them with a new angle – a portrait of a marriage as in The Mountbattens , the consequences of a seismic event such as the Abdication in the case of Traitor King – and based on fresh  sources. That can be private archives or  interviews with people who knew the subject but largely it depends on public archives and using FOI requests. This was crucial with regard to the Guy Burgess biography and, never a natural  rebel, I was shocked by the way government departments failed to adhere to Freedom of Information requests or honour the various Public Record Acts. I became increasingly enraged by the lies and obfuscation but also the fact that cover ups have simply continued. The White Paper into Burgess & Maclean’s disappearance was known as the Whitewash Paper and I became increasingly interested in how the narratives were shaped by subject or government. This became very apparent with the way Mountbatten curated his life by cooperating with tame journalists and writers and denying access to anyone who might be sceptical of his PR line. It was a pattern repeated by the Windsors. For a biographer this is fascinating. Here’s the story they want you to believe , such as we lived happily ever after, and here’s the reality.

I understand that this might seem flippant, but I mean it seriously: how do you get the time? Not only to write, but also to do the archival research necessary to produce books of this level of detail, especially when maintaining a difficult day job and then mounting various campaigns.

It is time-consuming because, as you say, I spend a lot of time on research , which I do almost entirely myself unless another language is required, yet have a demanding day job representing some 200 authors as a literary agent. The answer is I work long hours every day and I work quickly. I tend to write the books in a few months without few revisions because my research is thorough and I know exactly how I’m going to tell the story. I think the fact that I write against tough deadlines gives a certain narrative pace to the books. The research has been particularly difficult for Traitor King because archives were closed and many remain so which is very frustrating but US archives, in particular, but also the Churchill College Archives in Cambridge, provided digital access .

What is a typical writing day for you?
There is no typical day. About six months before the book is due, irrespective of where the research is because one can always do more,  I sit down to aim to write 4-5,000 words, a chapter, each day. Usually that’s after a day’s work at the agency  and I’ll write into the night. During this period I’ll try not to do agency work at weekends so I can have a clear two day run to immerse myself properly in the chapter. If I’m struggling at one point, I’ll just keep writing leaving a gap to be filled.The key is to keep putting words on the page even if it doesn’t look very fluent. One can always polish later.

As well as your writing and literary agency, you have been a vocal campaigner for Freedom of Information, counteracting measures by the UK government to destroy documents as well as latterly, for the University of Southampton to release the diaries of the Mountbatton. What are the latest on this and what can people do to help?

I feel very strongly that our history is being censored and we cannot tell the truth about the past unless we know the full picture. I’m very concerned that all the documents which by law should be in the National Archives  – we now have a 20 year rule – are not there, that many are ‘temporarily retained’ by departments for years and when sent  to the archives have been heavily weeded and that a high proportion of documents are destroyed without any record of their contents being kept.. Much of this has nothing to do with national security but rather with an over-cautious  culture of secrecy in Whitehall and to cover up embarrassment. In this country the attitude of those dealing with research requests is ‘how can we keep this secret’, in the US it’s ‘how can I help you in your research’.

I’ve just mounted a six year campaign to ensure that the diaries and letters of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten, bought for £4 million with public monies or in lieu of tax on the basis they would be ‘available publicly to all’ , are released. The Information Commission ruled in 2019 that they should be opened but Southampton University and the Cabinet Office appealed and managed with excuses to delay a hearing  until November this year. Their approach was to hope I would give up because my book was finished and that their pockets were deeper than mine. I refused to be bullied into submission. So far it has cost me £250,000 in legal fees – all my earnings and savings- so heaven knows what public funds were spent  by the Cabinet Office.

In May this year, after another delaying tactic by Southampton and the Cabinet Office,  I had to crowdfund another  £50,000 to ensure I could go to the hearing. People, most of whom I didn’t know, contributed because they could see the important principles at stake – freedom of speech, access to archives, the abuse of State power.

A media and parliamentary campaign, alongside pressure from my lawyers, has meant that some diaries from 1920-1960 have been released but they have been redacted and there is no sign of the diaries to 1980 or the couple’s correspondence. There also remain missing files in the inventory in the Mountbatten papers and no sign of the Edwina-Nehru correspondence. Much still needs to be done and those interested can help by joining the Campaign for Freedom of Information, lobbying MPS, writing letters to the paper and sharing the various horror stories on social media.

I’m not a natural conspiracy theorist but the destruction of documents and the restrictions placed upon academics to access records does seem Kafkaesque in its sinister implications. How structured and explicit do you think these policies are?

I think it is very calculated. Freedom of Information officers in government departments are trained in how to use exemptions to deny accessthey deliberately confuse requestors  by changing reference numbers or simply don’t answer.The stock response from the Met asking for files on the inter-war period is they don’t know if they have them because almost a hundred  years later they have still not been catalogued. We know for a fact that material going back to Victorian era is still held in the Hanslope archive outside London and it was only a court case that forced the Foreign Office to admit to the ‘migrated’ archive there relating to Mau Mau terrors of the 1950s. Another problem is the regulator for Freedom of Information, the Information Commissioner, reports to the Cabinet Office who are one of the worst offenders for failing to answer FOI requests. The Cabinet Office simply cuts the ICO budget so they can’t do their job properly.

The Government use the excuse of resources but I would suggest they use their resources to open up papers rather than suppress them – we know the QCs used by the Cabinet Office and Southampton in our hearing cost £33,000 for a few days’ work.

I’ve heard you speak elsewhere of the way there seems to be a two tier system for historians and researchers in this country. Those willing to “tow the line” rewarded with access to releases, advanced sight and invitations to events beneficial to them whilst others labelled “difficult” are excluded. Do you think this is still the case?

Absolutely and it refers to both archivists and writers. It is noticeable that the archivists with gongs are those who ‘cooperate’ with the Government and I know plenty of well-known historians who are convinced they will be enobled  or knighted if they write supportive articles about the Royal Family, cosy up to the government of the day and diss anyone who takes a more independent line. It was revealing that no historian  came out in support of my campaign to open the Mountbatten diaries for everyone though it went to the heart of historical scholarship. Nor incidentally did many of the organisations set up to support free speech, support writers or academic. The two exceptions were EnglishPen and the Royal Historical Society.

Where are you on choosing your next project?

I have started a new book but am keeping quiet about it. With Traitor King, I told one of my authors and he promptly went and tried to do it himself hence the need to deliver quickly.

Author Biography

Andrew Lownie was born in 1961 and was educated in Britain and America. He read history at Magdalene College, Cambridge where he was President of the Union. He went on to gain an MSc at Edinburgh University and spend a year at the College of Law in London. After a period as a bookseller and journalist, he began his publishing career as the graduate trainee at Hodder & Stoughton. In 1985 became an agent at John Farquharson, now part of Curtis Brown, and the following year became the then youngest director in British publishing when he was appointed a director. He set up the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency in 1988.

Since 1984 he has written and reviewed for a range of newspapers and magazines, including The Times, Spectator and Guardian, which has given him good journalistic contacts. As an author himself, most notably of a biography of John Buchan, a literary companion to Edinburgh and a prize-winning biography of the spy Guy Burgess, he has an understanding of the issues and problems affecting writers.

He has acted as the literary agent to the international writers’ organisation PEN. In 1998 he founded The Biographers Club, a monthly dining society for biographers and those involved in promoting biography, and The Biographers’ Club Prize which supports first-time biographers. He has had a regular advice column in the writing magazine Words with Jam, written the entries on submitting to agents for The Writers Handbook and The Writers and Artists Yearbook, contributed to The Arvon Book of Life Writing and regularly gives talks on aspects of publishing.

Questions and Answers with Simon Conway

You can read a review of Simon Conway’s new novel, ‘The Saboteur’ here

PAJNewman (PAJN): Jude Lyon is back and, once again, confronted with his nemesis Guy Fowle. I know last time you spoke about these characters representing your principled side and your inner psychopath and, this time out Fowle is even more dastardly than before. Do you see a long-term Bond/Blofeld, Smiley/Karla ying and yang relationship between these two?

Simon Conway (SC): It all depends whether one of them kills the other. I haven’t decided.

PAJN: Guy really is a villain – do you ever find yourself writing a chapter featuring him and think, “what’s wrong with me?!?” He certainly seems to be getting more evil as the books go on. I can’t see an emotional heart opening change in his behaviour any time soon but perhaps I’m being too harsh?

SC: Never. I refer you to the narrator of my second novel Rage who says: “There were so many things wrong with me I’d become frightened of drawing up a list of them, for fear of what I might learn.”

I like to believe in the possibility for redemption but for Guy Fowle it is hard to see what form that might take.

PAJN: The novel obviously has echoes of Covid with the vast majority of London being confined to their homes. Will Covid play a part in your future work do you think? And was it quite nice to play with parts of it, like the lockdown, but not have to deal with the dreary reality so much.

SC: I think that there is a place for COVID drama but I’m not sure that it’s what my readers are looking for. If it plays a part in my writing it will either to be through deliberate echoes – empty streets, deserted airports and overcrowded hospitals – or as a recent historical event.

PAJN: When we spoke last, you had taken about 18 months to write The Stranger. This novel is appearing much sooner and a great chunk of it was (I believe) written in combat zones. Would you mind speaking a little about how that works for you and how you manage to concentrate when doing such a difficult and dangerous day job?

SC: It’s not easy to balance a job that would consume very waking hour if you let it and the dogged business of writing novels. When it works, writing is a good way of switching off and relaxing. When it doesn’t, I can go days or weeks without writing and I feel like I’ve become slack and unmoored. I am fortunate that my job has allowed me to travel to some very interesting locations and meet memorable people. It is clear that has influenced my writing.

I did some of the final edits of The Saboteur in the evenings when I was in Libya last October. It’s not safe to go out at night so perfect for editing.

PAJN: In terms of Jude and Guy, do you think they will be back for a third outing? If so, do you have anything planned yet or are you working on anything different at the moment.

I’m working on a third instalment.

PAJN: The Saboteur is (I think this is correct) your seventh novel. Are you finding it easier to write as you get further in or is each a challenge in a different way?

SC: Yes, I think that it is becoming easier to write. I’m more confident of my skill. I spend less time agonising over the edit and as a consequence I’m more assured with the knife.

PAJN: The Stranger garnered some outstanding reviews and this must have been really pleasing. Has that changed how you approached the sequel and are you now under greater pressure for this instalment?

SC: I suppose I feel some pressure to keep up the pace.

Simon Conway has worked for The Halo Trust since 1998 clearing landmines all over the world.

PAJN: Does seeing landmines which have been placed indiscriminately by both governments and non-state actors, sometimes just to terrorise a populace, colour your view of human nature? Can you maintain a positive view of the world with the things you see in this role?

SC: It’s not an easy question to answer. By nature, I’m an optimist. I believe that it is possible to make the world better with sustained effort. I’ve seen evidence of that but my writing seems to tap into a more cynical and world-wearier vein. I worry that most people would burn their neighbour’s house down if goaded into it. That’s why those in power carry such a huge responsibility not to feed peoples’ worst prejudices.

PAJN: June this year saw an appalling loss of life in your team in Afghanistan. I was obviously so sorry to read about it and can only imagine how difficult it must have been. Is there anything practical that readers of yours can do to help and how are things out there now?

SC: In June this year eleven of my colleagues died in an attack on a remote demining camp in Baghlan Province. Later Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack although it was more likely an armed robbery that went wrong.

We are all very concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and the safety of the two and half thousand HALO staff there, however we have been clearing mines and saving lives in Afghanistan for thirty years, including under Taliban rule, and we have weathered tough times before. Just because we don’t have troops there anymore doesn’t mean that the west can just give up on Afghanistan. No good will come of that. It is important that our government recognises that. Tell your MP!

Slightly less serious questions:

PAJN: What colour is Monday?

SC: Monday is blue, obvs

Who had the idea of coming up with a whisky to go with the advanced reader copies? Because it’s a superb idea!

SC: My editor at Hodder, Nick Sayers, is responsible for the whisky. He is being mysterious about how he acquired them.

PAJN: Last time I asked you what was the question you wished interviewers and readers would ask but never do and your answer was “is it possible to entertain and inform”. Has lockdown and the success of The Stranger altered the questions you get asked and how readers treat you?

SC: I have no idea why I thought that was a good question. I certainly don’t know the answer.

Author Bio

Simon Conway is a former British Army officer and international aid worker. He has cleared landmines and the other debris of war across the world.


As Co-Chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition he successfully campaigned to achieve an international ban on cluster bombs.


He is currently working as Director of Capability for The HALO Trust.


He lives in Edinburgh with his wife the journalist and broadcaster Sarah Smith. He has two daughters. (Biography courtesy of http://www.simonconwaybooks.com)

Death, Destruction and the Best Spy Novel of the Year


You can read an exclusive Q&A session with Simon Conway here

The terrorist Guy Fowle has escaped from prison.

Jude Lyon of MI-6 has been saved from a Syrian ambush by his lover – and enemy? – Julia Ermolaeva.

A mysterious Russian has been murdered in London and his thumb cut off.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has made an unfortunate social connection at a party, which he hopes he can keep secret.

And suddenly, the world is literally going up in flames.

Jude needs to start putting together the pieces of this jigsaw and quickly, because someone is putting into play a terrifying Russian plan to disable and destroy the UK. Once it has begun, it is designed to be impossible to stop.

Bad enough if that someone is the Russian government. Worse if it is the psychopathic genius Fowle, otherwise known as The Stranger. (Synopsis courtesy of www.hachette.co.uk)

When I reviewed Conway’s initial instalment in this series, ‘The Stranger’ in August 2020, I wrote that it “should propel Conway into the very first rank of thriller writer’s working today.”

I went on to include Conway amongst the top triumvirate of thriller writer’s working today alongside Charles Cummings and Jeremy Duns. Unarguably, ‘The Saboteur’ both confirms this position and propels him further to the very pinnacle of espionage writer’s working today.

Conway’s plot begins in the aftermath of the destruction wrought by psychotic sociopath Guy Fowle on an unprepared London at the end of ‘The Stranger’.

After a daring escape, Fowle manages to get hold of a Russian Doomsday teeing up the most deadly of foes to continue wreaking havoc and also setting up a confrontation with the ying to his yang, our own damaged hero, Jude Lyon.

The main characters of ‘The Saboteur’ are drawn into an exciting death waltz, like John Le Carre’s Smiley and Karla filtered through a big budget Hollywood action thriller from the good old days when Tony Scott was tilting cameras and spraying bullets around.

There is also more crash, bang, wallop than in the first novel too, for those who enjoy that sort of thing. The original outing was a slow burn with a horrifying twist of explosive violence spattered throughout it: this adventure sees reams of blood flowing from day one with Lyon struggling against a ruthless enemy and almost all the decks stacked against him.

Conway’s background allows him to write about the violence with predictably bone-jarring verisimilitude but – and perhaps more importantly from a character development and depth of reading enjoyment point of view – is equally strong on the aftermath of terrible acts on people forced to endure unimaginable suffering.

This is quite simply the spy thriller release of the year so far and I strongly urge you to get hold of a copy as soon as you can.

If you are interested in learning more about Simon Conway, you can read an exclusive Q&A with the author here.

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Simon Conway is a former British Army officer and international aid worker. He has cleared landmines and the other debris of war across the world.


As Co-Chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition he successfully campaigned to achieve an international ban on cluster bombs.


He is currently working as Director of Capability for The HALO Trust.


He lives in Edinburgh with his wife the journalist and broadcaster Sarah Smith. He has two daughters. (Biography courtesy of www.simonconwaybooks.com)

A Quick Chat with ‘Dead Man’s Grave’ Author Neil Lancaster

Former policeman turned crime writer, Neil Lancaster

You can also read a review of Dead Man’s Grave from me, here:

This novel began with a chap called John Fisher telling you a story. What was it about that story, do you think, which struck you so strongly?

It just grabbed hold of me almost instinctively. The wild and remote tumbledown graveyard, literally miles from anywhere in Caithness and then a grave that simply says, “This Grave Never To Be Opened.” What a way to grab a readers’ attention. I write contemporary thrillers, but the place just reeked of history, so I wanted to find a way of writing my kind of book, but with it’s feet in the 1830s. It was fun.

I love how the novel begins in one way and then shifts on its axis very quickly to be something a reader might not expect. How important is that for you as a writer to not allow your readers to be ahead of the plot?

I’m never quite sure how these things work. I just set out to write a book that I’d like to read. I hadn’t really considered how the book morphs from a procedural into a full on thriller. I let the characters decide how the story goes, and I just like to see how the narrative progresses. Maybe I should plan a little more, but I’m not sure my books would be any better if I did.

You are based on the Black Isle now. Did setting great chunks of the novel in and around areas familiar to those of us who live and work here – Rosemarkie, Berriedale Braes, Latheron – add an extra frisson for you?

Very much so. Scotland is home now, and I love it deeply. I want to tell stories set in areas I know well. I think readers get a kick of a story being told in their back yards.

The novel obviously exists pre-Covid. I know a lot of writers are grappling with this dilemma but will Covid play a part in your future work, do you think?

I’ve taken a decision to ignore COVID. I just don’t want to talk about distancing, masks and tests, I want to give readers escapism. Once we are well past it, maybe I’ll give it a mention, but for now, the novels are set in what ever time people think they are, whether it’s before or after. My books are a COVID free zone.

Max Craigie has a similar(ish) background to both you and Tom Novak in terms of a military beginning before service with the Met, as well as Scotland being in the mix. Are those autobiographical echoes touchstones you begin with in the writing or is a way of ensuring that you make the novels appear as true to life as possible?

Well, the link is really vague. We are all ex-servicemen turned cops, but that’s kind of it. Much of it is because I don’t have to research backstory too much. There is such a vibrant crime writing scene in Scotland that I really wanted to be part of, so I chose to write about the country I live in. Plus, the scenery is so staggering that it can be deployed almost as an extra character when giving the book a sense of place. I think it allows me to add a real sense of atmosphere that is pretty unique to Scotland.

The cover of Neil Lancaster’s latest novel, Dead Man’s Grave

A further echo I notice from your previous work is the role of police corruption. Obviously, the success of Line of Duty has raised the profile of this issue again in the recent past but you’ve been there for a long time. How important an issue is it in terms of Police Scotland and what can be done to improve the situation?

Serious, organised crime needs corruption to function. Not just in terms of law-enforcement, but with the legal profession, banking, solicitors, money laundering. They operate hand-in-hand. It is thankfully very rare, but a tiny proportion of corrupt officials can cause disproportionate damage to policing and the legal system. I don’t actually watch LOD, not really my cup-of-tea, but the theme of corruption is fascinating. I’m interested in the route to corruption. What makes previously good people become corrupt? What is the backstory? Taking a single tenner from a criminal at the start of your career can define the rest of it.

Dead Man’s Grave is your fourth novel. Are you finding it easier to write as you get further in or is each a challenge in a different way?

Well, I’ve written two others in this series already, so it seems not. The follow up to Dead Man’s Grave is undergoing edits right now, and the third is with my agent. I love writing both series, but you do need a little time to let the creativity come back and leave you fresh to write some more. I’ve written essentially 3 books in 12 months, so a little break before I start again to let the ideas breathe will be a good thing.

I’m making the assumption that this is going to be a series of books as it has all the hallmarks of being set up that way. How far ahead have you planned if this is the case and how long would you like the series to run for?

As long as people want to read them, I’ll keep writing them, always assuming that I keep getting the ideas. I’ve assembled a little cast of characters, you’ll meet them when Craigie 2 comes out next year, so I can see me writing more.

What is a typical writing day for you?

It varies enormously. I write for probably 4 hours a day if I’m in the groove, but it can be more or less. I’m lucky that I don’t have a day job, so I can devote my time to writing. There’s always other stuff to do, particularly on the run up to publication regarding publicity etc.

What are your long term goals with the writing?

Just to keep writing, as long as folk want to read what I produce, I’ll keep doing it.

Was Dead Man’s Grave’s long listing for the William McIvanney Prize a complete surprise or had you had an inkling beforehand? How has the nomination affected you and what will you do to celebrate if you win?

I had no idea whatsoever. I knew that I’d been entered for it, but didn’t expect to get longlisted. It’s been really flattering and to be mentioned in the same breath as Val McDermid, Chris Brookmyre, Stuart MacBride and Denise Mina is just so cool.

What colour is Monday?

When I was commuting 3 hours a day, 6 years ago it was blue. Now it’s all multi coloured, same as every other day.

Having followed you on social media, I love the videos of Peggy dancing for the bin men. Was she pleased to be featured as Nutmeg in this novel or has the attention gone to her head?

Peggy was actually in 2 of the Novak books. Nutmeg is a real dog, that belongs to my great friends. I’ll probably take her along to book signings. She’s a really sweetie.

What is the question you wished interviewers and readers would ask but never do?

Do you fancy a pint?’

Many thanks to Neil for taking the time to answer some questions about his latest novel. You can find more about Neil and his work at https://neillancastercrime.co.uk/

Wider Horizons

‘The Legacy’ by Alison Knight

An unexpected inheritance. A web of deceit. A desperate escape. 

London, 1969.

James has his dreams of an easy life shattered when his aunt disinherits him, leaving her fortune to her god-daughter, Charlotte. He turns to his friend, Percy, to help him reclaim his inheritance – and to pay off his creditors. But when their plans backfire, James becomes the pawn of Percy and his criminal associates.

Charlotte is stunned when she is told of her windfall. After an attempt at cheating her out of her inheritance fails, James tries to intimidate her. But she is stronger than he thinks, having secrets of her own to guard, and sends him away with a bloody nose and no choice but to retreat for now.

Resigned, James and his spoilt, pampered girlfriend, Fliss, Percy’s sister, travel across France on a mission that promises to free James from the criminals for good. But James isn’t convinced he can trust Fliss, so he makes his own plans to start a new life.

Will James be able to get away, or will his past catch up with him? Will Charlotte’s secrets turn the legacy into a curse?

Purchase Link –  mybook.to/legacy

When I reviewed Alison Knight’s debut novel, ‘Mine’, in November of 2020 (https://pajnewman.com/2020/11/30/fate-and-the-effects-of-mine/) I did not expect to be reviewing her next instalment in the sixties universe she created so soon.

However, here I think I may have underestimated the industry of Knight who has produced this entertaining novella in short order.

Also existing in the Eastender-meets-the-Krays milieu of the full length novel, this takes a relatively minor event from that story and spins out the event offering a fresh perspective and Knight’s usual classy writing.

An enjoyable amuse bouche of a novella which can be gulped in a nourishing afternoon.

Author Bio

Alison has been a legal executive, a registered childminder, a professional fund-raiser and a teacher. She has travelled the world – from spending a year as an exchange student in the US in the 1970s and trekking the Great Wall of China to celebrate her fortieth year and lots of other interesting places in between.

In her mid-forties Alison went to university part-time and gained a first-class degree in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and an MA in the same subject from Oxford Brookes University, both while still working full-time. Her first book was published a year after she completed her master’s degree.

The Legacy is a drama set in 1960s London. Like her previous book, Mine, it explores themes of class, ambition and sexual politics, showing how ordinary people can make choices that lead them into extraordinary situations.

Alison teaches creative and life-writing, runs workshops and retreats with Imagine Creative Writing Workshops (www.imaginecreativewriting.co.uk) as well as working as a freelance editor. She is a member of the Society of Authors and the Romantic Novelists’ Association.

She lives in Somerset, within sight of Glastonbury Tor.

Social Media Links –

www.facebook.com/alison.knight.942
https://twitter.com/Alison_Knight59  
www.imaginecreativewriting.co.uk
www.darkstroke.com/dark-stroke/alison-knight/