Review: ‘Firewatching’ by Russ Thomas

A body is found bricked into the walls of a house. From the state of the hands, it’s clear the dead man was buried alive. Soon, the victim is linked to an old missing person’s case and DS Adam Tyler is called.

As the sole representative of South Yorkshire’s Cold Case Review Unit, Tyler recognises his role for what it is – a means of keeping him out of the way following an ‘incident’. When this case falls in his lap, he grabs the opportunity to fix his stagnating career.

And then Tyler discovers he has a connection to the case that hopelessly compromises him. He makes the snap decision not to tell his superiors, certain that he and only he can solve the crime. But now Tyler must move carefully to find out the truth, without destroying the case or himself.

Meanwhile, someone in the city knows exactly what happened to the body. Someone who is watching Adam closely. Someone with an unhealthy affinity with fire. . .

Ok, so if the summary above didn’t entice you (it really should have, by the way), here’s why you should read ‘Firewatching‘ by Russ Thomas:

Firewatching introduces us to a fresh new take on the police procedural, featuring an original protagonist. For me, hinting at Tyler’s backstory while racing to stop more deaths, felt really natural and kept a realistic balance to the story. Thomas’s writing is taut and compulsive, hitting the right balance of plot and visceral descriptions.

The plot is strengthened by the cast of characters, particularly Lily who can’t remember the secret she’s keeping on account of the dementia that’s ravaging her mind. The characterisation in ‘Firewatching‘ is absolutely perfect, with Thomas portraying Lily’s dementia accurately and sensitively.

Thomas pulls the reader in and creates empathy for his protagonist by laying bare the bigotry that Tyler faces regularly. By pairing Adam with PC Rabbani, Thomas is also able to explore institutionalised racism. Again, he does this with a light touch that leaves the reader in no doubt about the difficulties these officers have to deal with – and that’s before you factor in the crimes they’re investigating.

The descriptions of the arsons are terrifyingly real and, while the person responsible taunts the police with cryptic blog posts, readers are presented with the sense of the urgency felt by Tyler and his colleagues.

If you’re looking for original characters, a strong plot and vivid descriptions, ‘Firewatching‘ is the novel for you! I can’t wait to read ‘Nighthawking‘, the next in the DS Adam Tyler series.

Vic x

Review: ‘The Point of No Return’ by Neil Broadfoot

After more than a decade of being in prison for the brutal murder two Stirling University students, Colin Sanderson has been released after his conviction was found to be unsafe.

Returning home to a small village not far from Stirling, Sanderson refuses police protection, even in the face of a death threat. But the PR firm that has scooped him up to sell his story does know of a protection expert in Stirling. They want Connor Fraser.

Connor reluctantly takes the assignment, partly as a favour to DCI Malcolm Ford, who is none too keen to have Sanderson on the loose, particularly as he was involved in the original investigation that saw him imprisoned. 

When a body is found, mutilated in the same way as Sanderson’s victims were, all eyes fall on the released man. But how can he be the killer when Connor’s own security detail gives him an alibi?

As Connor races to uncover the truth, he is forced to confront not only Sanderson’s past but his own, and a secret that could change his life forever.

Having read ‘No Man’s Land‘ and ‘No Place to Die‘, I was really looking forward to reading the next instalment in the Connor Fraser series – and I wasn’t disappointed. ‘The Point of No Return‘ is a tight, pacey thriller that develops recurring characters within the context of another intriguing mystery.

Broadfoot has a knack of writing taut prose, with not one word wasted and that really helps me envisage the action unfolding. The action at times actually left me breathless. I genuinely can see Connor Fraser coming to a screen near you (hopefully soon).

The unflinching violence in this series is not for the faint-hearted but, with characters like Duncan Mackenzie and his henchman Paulie in the mix, it never feels gratuitous or unnecessary. In addition to the menace provided by Mackenzie and Paulie, Colin Sanderson genuinely gave me the creeps.

Setting the series in Stirling gives Broadfoot’s series a fresh feel to it, putting Scotland – and its political conflicts – at the heart of every story. It’s great to see recurring characters being given space to develop and gain depth. As much as I like Connor, I love Donna Blake and the divided loyalties she experiences on a daily basis.

The third in Neil Broadfoot’s Connor Fraser series is his strongest yet. Readers get not only a barnstorming mystery, they’re also treated to a glimpse into Connor’s own backstory which makes it much easier to understand his motivations and behaviour. However, you don’t have to have read the previous two novels in this series in order to enjoy ‘The Point of No Return‘ – but I recommend that you do anyway!

I can’t recommend ‘The Point of No Return‘ highly enough.

Vic x

#BlogTour #HerHusband’sGrave by @PLKane1

It’s my pleasure today to be taking part in the blog tour for PL Kane’s ‘Her Husband’s Grave‘ by P L Kane.

A hint of gold glistened in the sand. It was a watch, no doubt about it. A watch… attached to a body.

Criminal psychologist Robyn Adams is at breaking point after a previous case resulted in an attempt on her own life. But as she sits in the car about to head home, she receives a phone call from her long lost cousin, Vicky.

Vicky’s voice cracks as she explains to Robyn that her husband, Simon, has been found buried on Golden Sands beach. Desperate to help and determined not to let her last case get the better of her, Robyn returns to the coastal village where she spent summers with Vicky as a child.

Robyn knows that she has let Vicky down in the past and is set on making up for lost time. Throwing herself into the case, she combs through evidence, intent on discovering a lead that will help the local police.

But there is clearly someone who wants Robyn gone. She is convinced someone is watching her and when she begins to receive threatening notes, Robyn knows that she could be risking her life…

But Robyn won’t leave again – she owes it to Vicky to stay.

I’ve been treated to the prologue of this exciting new thriller – and here it is for you all to enjoy!

Vic x

Her Husband’s Grave
Prologue

He’d been looking for something else when he made the shocking discovery. The grisly, stomach-churning discovery that would change everything…

He had been walking along, here on the beach, looking for treasure no less – buried or otherwise – if you can believe such a thing. And he did, had done all his life. Believed the tales his father had told him about this place when he was young, about the smugglers and the pirates. Loved it when his old man had read Treasure Island to him at bedtime when he was little. 

Jeremy Platt had only recently moved back to the area, partly to keep an eye on his ageing dad now that the man’s wife, Jeremy’s mum, had passed away; partly because his own marriage to Alice – who he’d met at college in the nearby town of Mantlethorpe – had fallen apart. Now, here they both were… alone, together. 

They’d joke about it sometimes, over a pint in their local, or a game of dominoes, though their laughter would fade quite quickly. But at least they had each other, the roles reversed from when Jeremy had been little; now he had to read to his father because of his failing eyesight. Something that had put paid to the old bloke’s hobby of amateur writing, and one of the reasons why he liked to stand at the window with those binoculars, looking out over the sea. Or had done, until a couple of days ago. 

Until the heart attack. 

Jeremy had been the one to make the discovery then too, calling round early because he couldn’t reach him on the phone; all the while telling himself it was just lines down because of the storm. Instead, finding him collapsed on the floor, phone off the hook after clearly trying to reach it and ring for help. Jeremy had rung for an ambulance instead, straight away. They’d whisked him off to hospital, and there had followed an anxious few hours, waiting to hear the worst. 

When the doctor came out and told Jeremy his dad had stabilised, he’d almost hugged the fellow. ‘What he needs now, more than anything, is rest,’ the physician had said to Jeremy, ‘time to recover.’ He’d been allowed to sit by the bedside, even though Mr Platt snr was still pretty out of it – wires running in and out of him, like some kind of robot. And Jeremy had cried, watching him, realising just how frail he was for the first time. How he might lose another parent before long. 

To be honest, he’d come here today to give himself a break more than anything. The hospital had promised to call if there was any change and he could be back in no time.

So here he was, on said beach, looking for excitement, looking for treasure. Just like his old man had promised. All part of a hobby he’d taken up, something to occupy his time while he looked for – and had failed so far to find – work in the area. So, with what was left over from the redundancy package and the marital savings, he’d treated himself to a metal detector. 

Jeremy had often spotted people wandering up and down the sands, sweeping those things from left to right, and thought it looked like fun. Well, you never knew what you might find out there. The guy in the shop, that fellow with the beard and cargo trousers – front pockets bulging, so full Jeremy wondered how he walked without falling over – had done nothing to dissuade him. Had been a self-confessed expert on the subject, happy to give him lots of tips… Not to mention sell him the best detector on the market, or so he claimed: the Equinox 800 with the large coil, perfect for places like beaches. 

It had continued to rain off and on since the storm, and that made for perfect conditions as far as detecting was concerned. ‘When everything’s wet,’ the bloke from the shop had told him, ‘it soaks into the ground and helps you spot anything that’s deeper down. Ground’s had a drink, see?’

He’d also advised Jeremy not to be in a rush, to expect lots of trash. ‘95% of what you’ll find,’ cargo guy had said, simultaneously showing him how to swing the machine – not too fast and not in great arcs – ‘it’ll be junk.’ 

He hadn’t been wrong. In the months he’d been doing this, Jeremy had found enough bottle-tops to pebbledash a house, old-fashioned keys, the backs of watches, tin cans, safety pins, bits of shiny metal that looked like mirrors…

However, he’d also found enough to encourage him to carry on: toy cars (a couple of which had actually ended up being collectors’ items); an old whistle once (which he hadn’t dared blow, recalling an old ghost story he’d read in his teens); a few lighters; a couple of rings; and, though they weren’t doubloons as such, quite a few pound coins that must have fallen out of wallets, purses or pockets. The point was, he had fun while he was doing it – and at the moment he needed that, needed to take his mind off things. Off his dad lying there in bed looking like C3-PO. 

He stopped when the beeping in his earphones intensified. Jeremy stared at the screen in front of him: 12… 13… no, 14! A pretty good reading, he thought, pulling the ’phones from his ears to wear them around his neck. Bending and taking out his trowel from his pack, he placed the detector down and began digging in the spot it had indicated. What would it be this time, a gold chain perhaps? Down, down, and further down…

Jeremy stopped when he saw the metal, couldn’t help grinning to himself. The last few bits of sand he dug out with his gloved hands, fingers clawing, eager to see what it was he’d uncovered. 

He stopped when he reached it, plucked the item out and held it up in front of him – where it glinted in the early morning sun. His smiled faded. ‘Just an old ring-pull,’ he said to himself, the kind you wouldn’t get these days because they were fixed to the lid. Sighing, he bagged it anyway, to stop another hunter from making the same mistake – and to keep those beaches clean, of course. They were a far cry from what they’d been when he was a kid, or indeed when his father had been a boy, and Jeremy wasn’t even sure they deserved the name that had been given them now, their colour dull even when it hadn’t been raining. 

But it was as he’d contemplated this that he spotted it. Something in that dull sand, along the beach. Something not that well buried at all, sticking out in fact – just ripe for the taking. He looked around him, the beach deserted – though to be fair you wouldn’t really get many tourists on this stretch of it anyway. They’d stick to the main beach for swimming and so they were closer to the pier and shops. Grabbing his stuff, he clambered to his feet and started over. He couldn’t be sure what it was really, but it was glinting. 

It was metal. It was gold… Golden at any rate. 

Didn’t even need his detector this time, which was real irony for you. All that sweeping, all that beeping. The closer he got the more he saw of it, some kind of strap… a watch strap! Looked like it belonged to an expensive one, too. Just a bit of it sticking out, but there it was. 

Jeremy got down again, started to uncover the find as he had done with the ring-pull. He hadn’t been digging for long, perhaps only a few seconds, when he pulled back sharply. It was a watch strap all right, with a watch attached. But there was also skin there too.

And a wrist. 

Swallowing dryly, he moved forward again. His imagination surely, eyes playing tricks on him. He dug a little more, pulled back again. 

There was a hand attached to that wrist. A human hand. 

Jeremy hadn’t uncovered much of it, but he could tell now – and though it was at an angle, it looked for all the world like a much dryer version of The Lady in the Lake’s hand reaching up for Excalibur. Except there was no sword to catch. And this was no lady’s hand. 

He scrabbled backwards again, felt the bile rising in his mouth. That was a body, no doubt about it – and his mind flashed back to when him and his mum used to bury his dad when they went on the sands (might be burying him for real soon, a little voice whispered and he promptly ignored it). But surely nobody would have done that by accident? Left a relative here, especially in this isolated spot. 

Jeremy frowned, then reached into his pocket for his mobile. Began to dial a number. 

There you go, that same voice had told him, you wanted excitement. An adventure. He shook his head again, shook those thoughts away too. 

‘Yes, hello,’ he said when the ringing at the other end stopped and voice came on the line. Not asking for an ambulance this time, because it was far too late for that. Instead: ‘Yes, could you give me the police please.’ 

Her Husband’s Grave‘ is available now.

Review: ‘Far From the Tree’ by Rob Parker

Brendan Foley has worked to balance the responsibilities of a demanding job and a troublesome family. He’s managed to keep these two worlds separate, until the discovery of a mass grave sends them into a headlong collision. When one of the dead turns out to be a familiar face, he’s taken off the case. 

Iona Madison keeps everything under control. She works hard as a detective sergeant and trains harder as a boxer. But when DI Foley is removed from the case, her loyalties are tested like never before. 

With the Warrington 27 plastered over the news, Madison and Foley set out to solve the crime before anyone else. But as Madison steps into the ring for the fight of her life, the criminals come to them. It’s no coincidence that the corpses have been buried in Foley’s hometown. The question is, why? Foley might not like the answer…

Far From the Tree‘ is an Audible Original, narrated by Warren Brown who is absolutely perfect for this fast-paced, twisty police procedural set in Warrington.

Setting ‘Far From the Tree‘ in his hometown of Warrington, Rob Parker has captured an oft-forgotten town in between Liverpool and Manchester perfectly, using Warrington’s piggy-in-the-middle characteristics to create tension.

By using references to familiar landmarks, Parker transports the audience to a new location – full of dirty deeds and complex family relationships.

I loved the nuances in the relationships between characters. From the beginning, where Foley is called away from his son’s christening to attend the gruesome crime scene, Parker sets up a complex family whose divided loyalties will cause all manner of upsets throughout the story.

Parker’s descriptions left me with vivid mental images – he has a real knack for creating atmosphere through his choice of language. Listening to this story was honestly like watching a move in my mind.

With Warrington-born Warren Brown on board to narrate, Audible have scored an absolute screamer – the compelling story coupled with an actor who has the same accent as the characters is a total winner.

I’m already looking forward to the next (audio) book from Rob Parker.

Vic x

Review: ‘If I Can’t Have You’ by Charlotte Levin

Samuel, the day we met I knew I’d finally found what I’ve been waiting for.
You.
Happiness, at last.
Then you left me.
And now I am alone.
Everyone I love leaves in the end.
But not this time.
I’m not giving up on us.
I’m not giving up on you.
When you love someone, you never let them go.
That’s why for me, this is just beginning.

Today is publication day for ‘If I Can’t Have You‘ by Charlotte Levin. My advice? Drop everything and read this book immediately.

Constance, a receptionist at a private medical centre in London, fancies Samuel – the new doctor – immediately. When he returns her affections, Constance is thrilled but when he cuts their affair short, Constance’s affections don’t wane, taking her deeper into obsession.

Although I was initially put off by the marketing materials that accompanied this proof, I was hooked from page one. I can’t recommend ‘If I Can’t Have You‘ highly enough. Although some may see comparing ‘If I Can’t Have You‘ to ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine‘ as a positive, I actually think ‘If I Can’t Have You‘ was far superior.

I love the way in which Charlotte Levin balances real drama and dark misdeeds with a dry sense of humour, her writing fizzes on the page and I didn’t want my encounter with Constance to end.

Constance Little is the most compelling, realistic character I think I have ever read. I love that Charlotte Levin has managed to create so much nuance in Constance that reading ‘If I Can’t Have You‘ is literally like spending time listening to a friend. Sometimes you want to step in and say “Constance, you’re being used” or “You’ve totally misread this” or “Maybe you’re going too far” but that doesn’t mean you don’t care about her. In all honesty, to some extent or another, I really think most of us have been in a similar position to Constance at some time in our lives.

If I Can’t Have You‘ is my book of 2020, I genuinely don’t know how any other book will top it.

Vic x

Noir From the Bar: The Story of the Stories

Video by Simon Bewick of Bewick Consulting.

#BlogTour #TheWaitingRooms @EveCSmith @OrendaBooks

Having had the pleasure of hosting Eve Smith at Virtual Noir at the Bar many weeks ago, I am delighted to be hosting her as part of her blog tour for ‘The Waiting Rooms‘.

Here’s Eve to tell us how she appeared to preempt the COVID-19 crisis we find ourselves facing.

Many thanks to Orenda Books, Anne Cater and Eve for having me on this blog tour.

Vic x

The Waiting Rooms: When Fact comes uncomfortably close to Fiction
By Eve Smith

I first had the idea for the The Waiting Rooms around five years ago, after reading some terrifying facts about antibiotic resistance. We don’t really hear much about this issue, which is why WHO calls it “the silent pandemic”. But the shocking reality is that over 700,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections each year, which is almost as many as malaria.

The predictions are that ten million a year could die by 2050 if we don’t start doing something about it. And I thought, what would happen, if these drugs did stop working?

If there was a limited supply of new antibiotics, and only certain people could get them, what would happen if society had to choose?

The trade proofs for my novel arrived near the end of January. Around the same time, the Chinese authorities conceded that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission of a novel coronavirus and WHO convened an Emergency Committee to assess whether the outbreak constituted a public health emergency of international concern. A Cobra meeting called to assess the threat in the UK lasted an hour and Matt Hancock bounced out saying the risk to the UK was “low”. Less than six weeks later, prompted by both “the alarming levels of spread and severity”, and by “the alarming levels of inaction”, WHO characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic. 

Whilst my book is obviously set in a fictional world, in the advent and aftermath of an antibiotic crisis which triggers a pandemic, the increasing links between the two is unsettling. Obsessive handwashing and hygiene; masks worn in public places. Handshaking being a thing of the past. Emergency hospitals and quarantine. Enforced isolation. Segregation of the elderly, as social distancing continues. 

The premise of my novel is that, after the antibiotic crisis, no one over seventy is allowed new antibiotics, in a last ditch attempt to keep resistance at bay. In reality, antibiotic use by age group is a U-shaped graph: the highest number of prescriptions go to the young and to the old. In the UK, the over-75’s account for a quarter of all antibiotic prescriptions. The over-65’s account for a third. Which is why, in my book, the elderly are sacrificed to protect the rest of the population. Denied treatment, they are sent to hospitals nicknamed ‘The Waiting Rooms’: hospitals where no one ever gets well.

Such an abhorrent concept seemed unthinkable, at the time. And yet, as Covid-19 rampages across the globe, we hear of terrible choices imposed on doctors in hospitals and workers in care homes facing inadequate supplies of protective equipment, ventilators and ICU beds. At these times, I take comfort in the fact that, at a global level, society has made a decent, unselfish choice. To slow the spread of this disease, we have isolated ourselves to protect the elderly and the vulnerable. We have made that sacrifice, to protect them.

The uncomfortable fact however remains that antimicrobial resistance will increase both the frequency and the severity of pandemics like this one. Early estimates attribute around half the deaths from Covid-19 to secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia and sepsis, despite effective antibiotics being administered. The WHO have warned of a surge in antibiotic resistance due to the sheer volume of drugs being used.
How much worse would this pandemic be if none of those drugs worked?

After the powerful recent serialisation of her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which Margaret Atwood wrote back in 1984, she was often asked if the misogynistic society she invented was a prediction. She replied: “No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.”

My hope is that, after witnessing first-hand the destructive force of disease on a global scale, governments, farmers and industry will stop abusing or taking for granted the miraculous drugs we already have and start treating them with the respect they deserve. Thereby ensuring that The Waiting Rooms remains a speculative work of fiction.

The Waiting Rooms” is available to order as an ebook on Kindle, Kobo, Hive and iBooks, paperback available from 9th July. For more about the book and Eve herself, visit Eve’s blog, or you can follow Eve on Twitter.

#BlogTour #TheCurator #MWCraven

I’m delighted to bring you a sneak peek of the latest in the Washington Poe series, ‘The Curator‘, by M.W. Craven.

As many of you already know, I loved ‘The Puppet Show‘ and ‘Black Summer‘ so I’m really excited to get stuck into ‘The Curator’. I know that, after reading this extract, you will be too.

My thanks to Little Brown for including me in the blog tour for this brilliant author. If you missed M.W. Craven at Virtual Noir at the Bar, check out the archives.

Vic x

‘The player who understands the role of the pawn, who really under- stands it, can master the game of chess,’ the man said. ‘They might be the weakest piece on the board but pawns dictate where and when your opponent can attack. They restrict the mobility of the so-called bigger pieces and they determine where the battle squares will be.’

The woman stared at him in confusion. She’d just woken and was feeling groggy.

And sore.

She twisted her head and searched for the source of her pain. It didn’t take long.

‘What have you done?’ she mumbled.

‘Beautiful, isn’t it? It’s old-fashioned catgut so the sutures are a bit agricultural, but they’re supposed to be. It’s not used any more but I needed the “wick effect”. That’s when infection enters the wound through the suture. It will ensure the scar stays livid and crude. A permanent reminder of what has happened.’

He picked up a pair of heavy-duty rib shears.

‘Although not for you, of course.’
The woman thrashed and writhed but it was no use. She was bound
tight.
The man admired the exacting lines of the surgical instrument.

Turned it so the precision steel caught the light. Saw his face reflected in the larger blade. He looked serious. This wasn’t something he particu- larly enjoyed.

‘Please,’ the woman begged, fully awake now, ‘let me go. I promise you, I won’t say anything.’

The man walked round and held her left hand. He stroked it affectionately.

‘I’ve had to wait for the anaesthetic to wear off so this is going to hurt, I’m afraid. Believe me when I say I wish it didn’t have to.’

He placed her ring finger between the blades of the rib shears and squeezed the handles together. There was a crunch as the razor-sharp edges sliced through bone and tendon as if they weren’t there.

The woman screamed then passed out. The man stepped away from the spreading pool of blood.

‘Where was I?’ he said to himself. ‘Ah, yes, we were talking about pawns. Beginners think they’re worthless, there to be sacrificed – but that’s because they don’t know when to use them.’

He removed a coil of wire from his pocket. It had toggles at each end. He placed them between the index and middle finger of each hand. In a practised movement he wrapped the wire around the woman’s neck.

‘Because knowing when to sacrifice your pawns is how the game is won.’

He pulled the garrotte taut, grunting as the cruel wire bit into her skin, severing her trachea, crushing her jugular vein and carotid artery. She was dead in seconds.

He waited an hour then took the other finger he needed.

He carefully arranged it in a small plastic tub, keeping it separate from the others. He looked at his macabre collection with satisfaction.

It could begin now.

The other pawns were in position. They just didn’t know it yet . . .

Chapter 1

It was the night before Christmas and all wasn’t well.
It had started like it always did. Someone asking, ‘Are we doing Secret Santa this year?’ and someone else replying, ‘I hope not,’ both making a pact to avoid mentioning it to the office manager, both secretly planning to mention it as soon as possible. And before anyone could protest, the decision had been made and the office was doing it again. The fifteenth year in a row. Same rules as last year. Five-quid limit. Anonymous gifts. Nothing rude or offensive. Gifts that no one wanted. A total waste of everyone’s time.

At least that’s what Craig Hodgkiss thought. He hated Secret Santa.

He hated Christmas too. The yearly reminder that his life was shit. That, while the colleagues he outwardly sneered at were going home to spend Christmas with their families and loved ones, he’d be spending it on his own.

But he really hated Secret Santa.

Three years ago it had been the source of his greatest humili- ation. Setting himself the not unreasonable Christmas target of shagging Hazel, a fellow logistics specialist at John Bull Haulage, he’d wangled it so he was the one who’d bought her Secret Santa gift. He reckoned buying her a pair of lace panties would be the perfect way to let her know he was up for some extracurricular activities while her husband long-hauled across mainland Europe.

His plan worked.
Almost.
It had been the perfect way to let her know.

Unfortunately she was happily married, and instead of rushing into his bed she’d rushed to her husband, who was between jobs and was having a brew in the depot. The six-foot-five lorry driver had walked into the admin office and broken Craig’s nose. He’d told him that if he ever so much as looked at his wife again he’d find himself hogtied in the back of a Russia-bound shipping container. Craig had believed him. So much so that, in front of the whole office, he’d lost control of his bladder.

For two years everyone had called him ‘Swampy’. He couldn’t even complain to Human Resources as he was terrified of getting Hazel into trouble.

For two years he hadn’t made a dent in the girls in the office.

But eventually Hazel and her brute of a husband had moved on. He took a job driving for Eddie Stobart and she went with him. Craig told everyone that Hazel’s husband had left the com- pany because he’d caught up with him and given him a hiding, but no one had believed him.

Actually, one person seemed to.

By Craig’s own standards, Barbara Willoughby was a plain girl. Her hair looked like it had been styled in a nursing home, her teeth were blunt and too widely spaced, and she could have done with dropping a couple of pounds. On a scale of one-to-ten Craig reckoned she was a hard six, maybe a seven in the right lighting, and he only ever shagged eights and above.

But there was one thing he did like about her. She hadn’t been there when he’d pissed himself.

So he’d asked her out. And to his surprise he found they got on really well. She was fun to be with and she was popular. He liked how she made him feel and she was adventurous in bed. He also liked how she only wanted to do things at the weekends. During the week she would stay in and study for some stupid exams she was taking.

Which suited Craig just fine.

Because, after a few weeks of dating Barbara, he’d got his swagger back. And with it he began carving notches again.

To his amazement he discovered it was actually easier pulling the type of woman he went for when he told them he was in a long-term relationship. He reckoned it was the combination of his boyish good looks and the thought of doing over someone they didn’t know. Which gave Craig an idea: if those sort of women enjoyed the thrill of being with someone who cheated, they’d go crazy for someone who had affairs . . .

So Craig Hodgkiss, at the age of twenty-nine, decided he would ask Barbara to marry him. She’d jump at the chance. She was in her early thirties, had some biological clock thing going on (but was unaware he’d had a vasectomy two years earlier) and would almost certainly be left on the shelf if she said no. And then he’d reap the rewards. A faithful doormat keeping his bed warm and a succession of women who’d happily shag a man wearing a wedding band.

And because he wanted everyone in the office to know he was about to become illicit fruit, he’d decided to put past experiences behind him and propose during the office Secret Santa.

Arranging it hadn’t been straightforward. He’d got Barbara’s ring size by stealing her dead grandmother’s eternity ring, the one she only wore on special occasions. While Barbara turned her flat upside down looking for it, he’d been asking a jeweller to make the engagement ring the same size and to recycle the diamonds and gold. The whole thing had only cost him two hundred quid.

The next thing was to think of a cool way of proposing.

Something that would get the office girls talking about how romantic Craig was. A rep like that could only help. He decided on a mug. It was the perfect Secret Santa gift as it met the five- quid limit set by the office manager and, although half the gifts under the cheap fibre optic Christmas tree looked like they were mugs, half the gifts under the tree didn’t have ‘Will You Marry Me?’ printed on the side.

When Barbara read the message and then saw what was inside . . . well, he reckoned she’d burst into tears, shout yes and hug him for all she was worth.

The office floor was strewn with cheap wrapping paper. All reindeer and snowmen and brightly wrapped presents tied with ribbons.

Barbara was next. She picked up her parcel and looked at him strangely.

Did she know?

She couldn’t. No one did. Not even the girl he’d persuaded to swap with him so he was the one buying for Barbara.

Tiffany, Barbara’s best friend, began recording it on her mobile phone for some reason. That was OK, though. Better than OK actually. He’d be able to post it on Twitter and Facebook and keep a copy on his phone. Ready to show girls at the drop of a hat. Look at me. Look how nice I am. Look how sensitive I am. You can have some of this . . . but only for one night.

Craig caught Barbara’s eye. He winked. She didn’t return it. Didn’t even smile. Just held his gaze as she lifted the wrapped box from one of his old gift bags.

Something wasn’t right. The wrapping paper was thick and white with black pictures; he thought his had been cheap and brightly coloured.

Barbara ripped it off without looking at it. The mug was in a polystyrene box. He’d taped the two halves together to increase the suspense. Barbara ran a pair of scissors down the join before separating them.

She pulled out the mug and Craig’s confusion intensified. It wasn’t his. He hadn’t seen this one before. Something was printed on the side but it wasn’t proposing marriage. In inch- high black letters it said: #BSC6

Barbara didn’t know she’d opened the wrong parcel, though. Without looking inside the mug, she glared at him and upended the mug’s contents.

‘Cheating fucking bastard,’ she said.

Craig didn’t protest his innocence. He couldn’t. He was unable to tear his eyes away from the things that had fallen on the floor. They were no engagement ring.

He recoiled and gasped in revulsion.

A familiar and unwelcome warmth began spreading from his groin.

And then the screaming started.

Getting to Know You: M.J. Arlidge

Hope you’re all keeping well. If you’re looking for something new to read, M.J. Arlidge’s eighth Helen Grace novel ‘All Fall Down‘ is due out next week (Thurs, 11th June) .

Matt has joined us today to give us a little insight into his work as a writer and some advice for those of you out there who’d like to give it a go yourselves.

I’m hoping to host Matt at a Virtual Noir at the Bar in the coming weeks so make sure you’re first to find out when he’ll be appearing. Sign up to our newsletter now.

Big thanks to Matt and Orion Books for making this happen.

Vic x

M.J Arlidge

What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?

I love the escapism of it. I never get tired of sitting down at my desk and opening up my laptop. There are dozens of different characters and numerous interweaving stories in each of my books, meaning I have a whole host of different people to climb inside and bring to life. I love working out what makes characters tick, what’s important to them, what would drive them to do reckless or desperate things. It’s so enjoyable to escape from my normal life, especially so during lockdown! 

There’s not much I dislike, though there’s no question writing a novel is a hard slog. I’ve just written the first chapters of a new one this morning and the road ahead seems long!!!

What inspires you to write?

Anything and everything. Just life really. I find ideas come to me unbidden and at the strangest times – in the middle of the night, when I’m in the shower, when I’m shopping in the supermarket. And once a really good idea pops into your head, it has you, you have to write it. 

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?

Yes, of course! I love reading and always find time, usually at the end of the day. Generally I read novels, but at the moment I’m making use of lockdown to consume the works of Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens, Homo Deus etc. I find his work absolutely fascinating. 

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?

So many authors to choose from. Thomas Harris, James Patterson, Harlan Coben…but I think I’ll have to plump for Stieg Larsson. When I was writing Eeny Meeny (my debut novel), Lisbeth Salander was very much in my mind. She was the most unusual, most interesting crime fighter I’d ever come across. There are shades of Lisbeth Salander about Helen Grace – I was desperate to make her as unconventional and intriguing as Larsson’s brilliant protagonist. 

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

Wow. Good question. I would have loved to have been a photographer. Or a chef. I still harbour fantasies about the latter, but I’m probably too old…

What do you think are your strengths and weaknesses?

That’s probably not for me to say! I’d say I work hard and am very committed to my writing and my readers – to the extent that when I’m writing a novel I find it hard to resist creeping back to my office late at night or as the sun is rising.  

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve literally just started writing Truth or Dare, the ninth novel in the Helen Grace series. Usually the first few chapters are utterly terrifying, but actually I’ve really enjoyed starting this one. 

Where can we find you online?

At my Facebook page or on Twitter.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

To borrow a phrase from Nike, just do it. Don’t spend too long prevaricating – pretending to research stuff, when actually you’re just putting off writing. Just be disciplined and get that first draft done. Only then do you have something you can work with, something you can potentially sell. When I was writing my first novel, I still had a day job, but managed to carve out one hour a day (5pm-6pm) to write. It was slow progress, but I got there in the end, and, boy, was it a good feeling!

What’s been your proudest moment?

The day Eeny Meeny was published by Penguin. To have joined the ranks of authors at such an impressive and important publishing house blew my mind!

What was the best writing advice you received and who was it from? 

When I delivered the first draft of Eeny Meeny to my agent, she declared that it was good, but needed “more emotional cruelty”. It was sage advice and something I bear in mind every time I’m penning a new Helen Grace novel!

ALL FALL DOWN by M.J Arlidge is published by Orion Fiction and out in hardback on 11th June 2020.

**Bones in the River Blog Tour**

I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour for Zoë Sharp’s “Bones in the River“. I’ve known Zoë for many years now but here’s a little bit of background to the enigmatic writer.

Zoë Sharp began her crime thriller series featuring former Special Forces trainee turned bodyguard, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox, after receiving death-threats in the course of her work as a photo-journalist. Zoë opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve and wrote her first novel at fifteen.

Zoë’s work has won or been nominated for awards on both sides of the Atlantic, been used in school textbooks, inspired an original song and music video, and been optioned for TV and film.

When not in lockdown in the wilds of Derbyshire, she can be found improvising self-defence weapons out of ordinary household objects, international pet-sitting, or crewing yachts in the Mediterranean. (It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.) Zoë is always happy to hear from readers, reader groups, libraries or bookstores. You can contact her via email.

My thanks to Zoë for having me on her blog tour.

Vic x

Don’t Quit the Day Job:
Zoe Sharp

I suppose there was half a chance that writing fiction might have been my day job, right from the start. After all, I penned my first novel at the age of fifteen—and I do mean ‘penned’. I wrote the entire thing, long-hand, in a month, and gave myself the most appalling writers’ cramp in the process.

That early effort did the rounds of all the major publishers, where it received what’s known in the trade as ‘rave rejections’—everybody said they loved it but nobody actually wanted to publish it.

Looking back, I’m rather glad about that.

Because, in order to be a writer, you need different experiences under your belt. At the age of fifteen, I’d had few worth mentioning. Apart from living aboard a catamaran from the age of about seven and leaving school at twelve. But that, as they say, is probably another story.

Having failed at my first attempt to be a novelist, I became side-tracked by a variety of jobs in my teenage years, including crewing boats and learning astro-navigation. I was mad keen on horses, rode competitively, and once even took part in a rodeo. I learned to shoot—did a little competing there, too. Long guns, mostly. I considered myself an average shot with a handgun but, as I discovered on my last visit to a US indoor gun range, most people can manage to miss the target entirely at less than ten feet.

As for jobs, I became a freelance motoring writer at the height of the classic car boom of the late 1980s. That quickly transmuted into being a photojournalist, having taught myself both how to write commercial magazine articles and also how to take images good enough for numerous front covers and centre spreads.

It was hardly surprising, then, that eventually I’d have to start writing a character who was a photographer. Enter Grace McColl, first in Dancing on the Grave and now in Bones in the River. Grace started out as a keen amateur photographer, who became involved in providing evidence for the defence in a court case. She was then approached by the Head CSI at Cumbria police, who asked her if she’d ever thought of joining the side of the angels. Always nice to be able to write any parts of the story concerning photography without having to do lots of research.

My time spent writing about cars also played a part in Bones in the River, which begins with a hit-and-run incident. Understanding how the mechanics of a vehicle work makes writing scenes with them in so much easier and, I hope, more accurate.

Plus, all that time spent with horses came in very useful for a book that takes place during the largest Gypsy and Traveller horse fair in Europe. There were still plenty of times when I had up to a dozen different scientific research books laid on the table at the side of my desk as I wrote, though. Fortunately, forensic science and pathology are such fascinating subjects.

They tell you to write what you know. I disagree. I think you should write what you’re desperate to find out instead.

Bones in the River“, the second book in the Lakes crime thriller series, was published worldwide on May 26 2020 by ZACE Ltd. You can grab a sneak peek of the first three chapters, and is available from all the usual retailers.