A close friend of mine decamps from the UK every year to Italy in order to get any writing done. You might think the climate had something to do with it, although it can be just as cold in the wilds of Tuscany as it is in the wilds of the Derbyshire Peak District.
I’ve managed to get quite a bit of work done over the first half of this year. Nevertheless, when I set off for the Aveyron area of southern France at the beginning of July for a month’s house and cat-sitting, I had hopes that my own writing retreat would prove fruitful.
One of the reasons for this was the company I was keeping. I travelled down from the UK through France with my American friend and fellow crime author, Libby Fischer Hellmann. Libby was on a deadline for a book she needed to finish. I really wanted to come back with a decent start made on the next in the Charlie Fox series.
At the same time, we wanted to get out and see something of the surrounding area. Libby had spent time in France years before, and her French came back to her like she’d never been away, whereas I’m a stumbling linguist at the best of times. We agreed that we would spend the mornings chipping away at the word-face, and the afternoons out and about, part exploring and—for me, at least—part researching locations where I’d like to set the book I’m working on right now.
I confess to a certain apprehension. This is the first time I have taken my own, right-hand-drive car onto Continental European roads. Fortunately, coming from the States, Libby found it natural to remind me to stay on the correct side of the road.
We took the traditional Dover-to-Calais route and our first stopover was a short hop down the coast, arriving at the Normandy beaches in thunder, lightning and flash-flooding. I was doubly glad I’d remembered to use Rain-X on all the glass in the car. Call me old-fashioned, but I do quite like to be able to see where I’m going when I’m behind the wheel of a vehicle. With that, and Mrs Google doing sat-nav duties and sending us into fits by mangling the French place names—“périphérique” became “perry-ferricker”—we arrived in good time and good temper.
The following morning was the Fourth of July. We visited the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. A stunning setting for a sobering experience. Row after row of white grave markers looking out over the tranquil beach they died to secure. That place, on that date, brought home the true price of independence.
There are certainly themes here that resonate with the new book, and after visiting I wanted to try to include them in the story.
We were not the only ones making a trip through France. In Tours, heading south, we chanced upon a Slovenian-registered big Honda, so laden down with luggage it was hard to spot the make, never mind the model. No doubt the rider, too, had stopped off to see the beautiful cathedral.
The place we were looking after is in a small town in the Aveyron area between Toulouse and Rodez, lovely open roads with little traffic, winding down to river valley bottoms with narrow stone bridges. Villages with medieval architecture of picture-postcard prettiness.
Belcastel was one such example. Set on a steep hill by the side of the Aveyron river, the ancient castle began life in the ninth century before falling into disrepair at the end of the seventeenth century. It was purchased by a French architect in 1973, who restored and extended it to the current building.
Today, the Château de Belcastel houses exhibitions and art, and it’s even possible to stay there. Not wildly expensive, either, considering the views, not to mention the fact guests have their own moat.
Working in someone else’s house, both Libby and I discovered, certainly has its advantages. For me, the temptation to renovate was removed from me. For Libby, deeply engaged with current American political shenanigans, the lack of twenty-four-hour news channels was a boon to her creativity and productivity.
I found a shady spot in the garden that appealed to me, with the butterflies flickering over the lavender and two cats to keep me company.
So, has our French writers’ retreat proved successful? Well, by the time I took Libby across to Toulouse to catch her train for Paris, where she spent a few days before flying home, she was a few pages away from the final chapter of her latest novel. And this was something she’d feared at the outset she would not be able to complete in time to meet her deadline.
As for me, I’d cautiously hoped to end my sojourn with perhaps a 15,000-word opening to the next Charlie Fox book. As I write this, I have already reached 17,000 words and should have a solid 20,000 done by the time I head up-country again next week for my return ferry.
So, having another writer—or maybe even other writers—present to encourage or lead by example, is clearly very good for me. I shall definitely be repeating this method of working. And the sunshine, lovely fresh food, and open roads of southern France proved a very good place to do so.
This week’s Word of the Week is peradventure, a Middle English word from the French par aventure, meaning perhaps as an adverb. As a noun, it means to have doubt that something is indeed the case, and is often used (when it’s used at all, as it’s a fairly archaic word) in a humorous or slightly mocking context.
Today is also the final installment of the #BlogTour for DANCING ON THE GRAVE. Thank you to everyone who joined me along the journey, and especially to those who invited me to contribute an article, or interview, or who reviewed the book to celebrate the launch at the start of July.
The story started on June 23 2018, when a group of 12 boys finished football (soccer) practice and went, with their assistant coach, into Tham Luang Nang Non, (which translates to ‘Great Cave of the Sleeping Lady’) a cave system in the Chiang Rai Province of northern Thailand, almost on the border with Myanmar.
The reason the boys, aged 11 to 17, from the Wild Boars junior association football team, decided to go into the cave isn’t clear—maybe for them it was the equivalent of a trip to Alton Towers. And it does look to be a natural wonder. A huge karstic cave system beneath the Doi Nang Nom mountain range.
Unfortunately for the boys, the monsoon rains arrived earlier than they expected. As the water levels inside the cave rose, the boys and their 25-year-old coach found themselves marooned on a small plateau almost two miles underground.
There they remained, undiscovered, for nine days.
Read the full story of the Thai cave rescue, step by step, over on Murder Is Everywhere
They reckon that the ten greatest fears people have are:
- Flying (aviatophobia)
- Public speaking (glossophobia)
- Heights (acrophobia)
- The dark (lygophobia)
- Intimacy (aphenphosmphobia)
- Death or dying (thanatophobia)
- Failure (atychiphobia)
- Rejection (is there a proper phobia name for this?)
- Spiders (arachnophobia)
- Commitment (philophobia)
When you’re an author, you have to overcome your fear of failure and of rejection fairly quickly, although I think they never really go away. You also have to overcome catagelophobia (fear of being ridiculed) and possibly autophobia (fear of being alone) as well. Writing is, after all, a pretty solitary existence most of the time.
Most of the time it’s just you at your desk in your pyjamas (possibly with supervisory cat in attendance.) And on the occasions when it isn’t just you, such as going to writing conferences or conventions, the chances are you’d have to face your aviatophobia—which I suppose takes in acrophobia at the same time. The alternative would be to battle past either siderodromophobia or amaxophobia (fear of travelling by train or by car) before you set out.
And then we come to one of the most widespread fears, that of speaking in public, or glossophobia, which seems to be one many people have nightmares about. I’ve known writers who literally shake with fear before going on stage to talk about their work. This is when they know full well that the interviewer or moderator is not about to ask them difficult or combative questions, and that the audience has probably come specially to hear them talk and will, therefore, not be hostile in the slightest.
But deep in every author’s psyche, there is still a hint of fear to the occasion. I don’t know if there’s a specific phobia to describe it, but the technical term is Imposter Syndrome. We fear that as we begin to speak about our latest novel, somebody in the audience will suddenly stand up, point an accusatory finger, and shout, “You’re not a real author! You’re a FRAUD!” And that this will be followed by a moment of stunned silence, and then everyone else will take up the same cry as we scurry off stage to the accompaniment of loud booing and the thud of rotten tomatoes landing about our feet.
The usual time to feel the onset of Imposter Syndrome is, I feel, at the start of writing a new book. You open up a blank document on your computer and type in ‘Chapter One’ at the top of the screen and then…
All you have is an empty page with a small cursor flashing at you reproachfully in the top left-hand corner. And you can’t for the life of you remember how you got past this point last time around. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s is your second book or your twenty-second. That evil little voice in your head is whispering that you were just kidding yourself if you thought you could do this.
I don’t know if every author goes through this crisis of confidence, but all the ones I know well enough for us to be candid with one another certainly do. One of the things that helps ease us out of this state is hearing from readers, either by email or on social media. We must seem like a very needy bunch, but keeping faith with something that is, essentially, the jumbled up pickings from the inside of your head—a made-up story, about people who never were, in a world that does not exist—is sometimes a big ask.
And when you consider that we live with this story often for the best part of a year, to see it from initial concept to published novel, by the time it’s done we have no judgement on its quality or worth. Our close friends and family are usually encouraging. Those with a professional interest—agents, editors, publishers—will offer guarded praise balanced by constructive (one hopes) criticism.
But that’s not quite the same as the first reader review, the first enthusiastic email, from a comparative stranger with no vested interest in anything other than enjoying a good book. It really helps allay our fears and sends us back to the word-face to chip out nuggets of gold with renewed vigour.
This weekend finds me in France with fellow mystery author, Libby Fischer Hellmann, closeted away for the rest of July to try to finish a novel, in Libby’s case, and to start one in mine. I’ve had the outline for the next Charlie Fox novel on the back burner for several months now, but have been distracted by the launch of the latest standalone, DANCING ON THE GRAVE, and getting things sorted for the blog tour, which kicks off on Monday, July 9th. (I’m excited by the questions I’ve been asked by my various hosts, and I hope you’ll be as interested in the answers.)
Meanwhile, the time has come to get on with the new Charlie Fox. I’ve had the drive down country to anticipate how I’m going to leap back into her life—or how she’s going to leap back into mine. I know my start point, and it should take you straight into the action. And I’m ready, even eager, to get cracking on the story.
If only I can get past that blank page and that reproachful cursor…
This week’s Word of the Week is hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, meaning (as you might expect) a fear of long words. The original word for the fear of long words is sesquipedaliophobia, which comes from the Latin word sesquipedalian, which literally means ‘one and a half feet long’. This longer, perhaps less-than-serious version includes the addition of parts of hippopotamus and the Latin monstrum, meaning monster, just to make all the hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobiacs out there sweat.
I make no secret of the fact that it was the Washington Sniper incident from 2002 that gave me the original idea behind my new standalone crime thriller, DANCING ON THE GRAVE. But, although I was aware of the story, I didn’t research it in detail because I knew from the start that my take on it was going to be very different.
It’s only recently, therefore, that I’ve gone back over the events. They make horrifying reading. The basic facts are that between February and October 2002, the partnership of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo killed a total of seventeen people across the States, injuring a further ten. Events culminated in the incidents that became known as the Washington Sniper or the Beltway or D.C. Sniper in October of that year.
Malvo was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1985. His mother, Una Sceon James, met Muhammad in Antigua and Barbuda around 1999, and he and the young Malvo formed a strong bond. James left her son with Muhammad when she came to the States, and the two followed in 2001.
Both mother and son detained by Border Patrol in December of that year, and in fact Malvo had just been released on a bond in January of the following year, just before the killings began. It’s hard to define the exact relationship between Muhammad and Malvo. The certainly stayed together for over a year. At one point Muhammad enrolled the boy in school claiming to be his father. Malvo later claimed that he’d been brainwashed and sexually abused.
Muhammad was born John Allen Williams in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His mother died when he was three and his father left him in the care of his grandfather and an aunt. He served in the National Guard and the US Army, serving in the Gulf War, and was a noted expert shot. He mustered out in 1991 with the rank of sergeant, after seventeen years’ service, during which, in 1987, he converted to Islam. He changed his last name in 2001.
It was initially claimed that Muhammad’s motive for the killings was that he wanted to kill his ex-wife and regain custody of his three children, but there was insufficient evidence to prove this. He had indeed kidnapped his children in 1999 and taken them to Antigua, which was when he met Malvo.
Read more of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.
Confession time. I last worked in an office environment more than thirty years ago. All I had on my desk back then was an electric typewriter and a landline telephone. The answering machine still had tape cassettes in it. I got to work in the mornings, worked all day, ate lunch at my desk, and went home at five-thirty.
OK, it was not without its occasional moments of drama, like the time I accidentally got locked into the building one night and had to climb out of an upper-storey window and then scramble across rooftops to freedom. Or the time, one week into a new job, when the boss said, “Right, we’re off on holiday next week. If the bailiffs arrive while we’re away don’t let them take anything…”
But generally, the biggest no-nos were arriving late or sneaking off early. People didn’t even leave their desks to smoke. In fact, I used to work sandwiched between two people who both chain-smoked and would leave cigarettes burning in their ashtrays while they nipped out on some errand. They didn’t like it when I stubbed out their cigs in their absence. My excuse was if I had to smoke passively while they were around, then I was damned if I was going to do it while they weren’t.
My how things have changed. (Eeh, I remember when all this were fields, etc.)
And when I set up in business on my own as a freelance photojournalist back in 1988, my word processor was an Amstrad 9512 that had no internal memory and required the insertion of a Start-of-Day disk to remember what it was in the mornings.
If there was a mouse anywhere near it, it would have looked like this:
I was pretty technologically advanced by owning a computer at all, I can tell you! Not to mention my Motorola brick phone. Groovy, man.
Distractions were simpler in those days. They involved staring out of the window:
And a game of solitaire meant shuffling the deck before you began:
Early computer games were not exactly Fortnite:
But now we’re overwhelmed with daily distractions. Not to mention four-legged ones:
But that can sometimes be a good thing, as at the moment when I confess to anxiety in the run-up to my new standalone crime thriller, DANCING ON THE GRAVE, coming out next week. I need something to take my mind off it, and I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite sites for getting sidetracked:
For the weirdest would-be detective pairings, just click the link. This one brought up: “He’s a hate-fuelled devious inventor from the Mississippi Delta She’s a chain-smoking hip-hop safecracker with a flame-thrower. They fight crime!”
I’m hopeless at crossword puzzles, but somehow I can’t leave this one alone.
Mine came out as Full Metal Darkshadow, or the Diva alternative was Titanic Callgirl. How about you?
But just in case wrestling is not your thing, how about your Blues Name? Mine’s Steel Eye Davis.
So help me out here—or sink me deeper—what procrastination aids do you use to while away the help you concentrate while you’re mulling over a storyline?
This week’s Word of the Weekis ultracrepidarian, meaning one who is presumptuous and offers opinions or gives advice on matters of which they have no knowledge. It supposedly comes from the Greek artist, Apelles, who overheard a shoemaker criticising the shape of a foot in one of his paintings. The phrase became, “Ne ultra crepidam judicaret.”Which can be literally translated as, “Do not judge beyond the sandal.”
Today is Father’s Day, something that originated in the United States in the early years of the last century. It seems that two women independently came up with the idea. One was Grace Golden Clayton, in Fairmont, West Virginia, who suggested such a day in 1908, to honour 361 men killed in a mine explosion. In Spokane, Washington, on June 19th two years later, a woman called Sonora Smart Dodd celebrated her father, a Civil War veteran called William Smart, who had raised six children after his wife died in childbirth. Ms Dodd felt that it was time fathers were as equally acclaimed as mothers.
Lobbying for the third Sunday in June to be made a national holiday started up almost immediately, and in 1924 President Calvin Coolidge recommended such action was taken. However, it wasn’t until Lyndon B Johnson signed an executive order in 1966 that the date was designated, and not until 1972, under Nixon, that the date was officially recognised.
Father’s Day has since been taken up around the world, although the date varies enormously, with Iran using March 14th, and Thailand December 5th.
Read more of this blog, including my non-fiction book recommendations, over on Murder Is Everywhere.
I know, it’s a bit of a shocker, isn’t it? And this is not something I’ve come to lightly, but nevertheless, the decision remains—I’m going to tell people not to read my books.
OK, let me be clearer about this. I’m going to tell people not to read some of the books in my Charlie Fox series, depending on what they’re looking for from the series and the character. That sound better?
You see, I started writing the first novel in the Charlie Fox series back in the mid-1990s. That first book, KILLER INSTINCT, took a long time to come to publication, and when it did I never realised what the character was going to grow into.
I’ve always said that when you write a series, you choose either to let the character change and develop as time goes on, or you keep them in stasis, unchanging from the first book to the tenth, to the twentieth. Robert B Parker managed this brilliantly with his Spenser PI series, and Lee Child does it equally well today with his Reacher series. It doesn’t really matter what order you read the books, because you won’t really be missing any pieces of the overall story.
On the other hand, I really wanted to watch my character’s journey, to see her go from self-defence teacher to close-protection specialist with all the hazard-bumps in between. Charlie is a product of her nature and her experiences, and that fascinated me as much as the situations in which she found herself.
And change she has, over the course of the twelve books in the series so far. She is not the same person at the end of FOX HUNTER: #12 that she was at the start of KILLER INSTINCT: #1. Or even at the end of RIOT ACT: #2.
So, if someone who hasn’t read any of the series before decides to see what Lee Child was talking about when he said, “If Jack Reacher were a woman, he’d be Charlie Fox,” then the kind of character they’re likely to be interested in is the one who first makes her move into the world of close protection.
And although Charlie is training for that work during the events of HARD KNOCKS: #3, it’s not until the start of FIRST DROP: #4 that she’s actually on her first real job in Florida, minding the teenage son of a successful computer programmer.
TRIPLE SHOT comprises the first three books in the series, plus a bonus short story, Last Right—a tale of betrayal and revenge set on the Mexican border.
ANOTHER ROUND comprises the next three—FIRST DROP: #4, ROAD KILL: #5, and SECOND SHOT: #6, plus another bonus short story, Tell Me, featuring CSI Grace McColl who takes centre stage in the new standalone, DANCING ON THE GRAVE.
If you want to read about Charlie in bodyguard mode, then my advice in the future will be to start with ANOTHER ROUND. These three books really show Charlie getting into her stride as far as close-protection work is concerned.
But if you want to meet the character in the raw, when she’s still on her way back from events that brought about the end of her military career, when she’s still rough around the edges, has yet to discover her real killer instinct and is even, yes, more vulnerable, then TRIPLE SHOT will reveal that side of her and more. It also introduces her relationship with Sean Meyer, her former army training instructor who became her lover and her boss.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still very proud of the early book in the series. When KILLER INSTINCT first came out, the Yorkshire Post declared it, “the best crime debut for years”. The New York Times said, “The bloody bar fights are bloody brilliant.” But I am aware that the storylines and settings are simply very different from Charlie’s later exploits. So if that’s the character you want to read about and enjoy, try joining her at book three or four instead.
Because let’s face it, there is a pretty good precedent for starting at episode four and working your way backwards…
This week’s Word of the Week is bleeding edge, meaning at the very forefront of technological development. The phrase has its origins in the 1980s, and is used to describe something right on the cutting edge of innovation.
Tonight (Sunday) is the final episode of a three-part BBC drama written by the excellent Russell T Davies, called A Very English Scandal, starring Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw, about the Thorpe Affair of the late 1960s/early 1970s. As I write this, I have so far watched only the opening instalment, but will certainly be catching up on the rest.
For a start, Hugh Grant’s performance as Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal Party politician embroiled in a scandal of sex and politics, is a revelation. Gone are the foppish tics and verbal fumbling that have (let’s be honest) characterised just about Grant’s entire career to date. In their place is an acting tour de force of sleazy intensity.
Maybe Grant had no choice but to up his game, appearing as he does opposite the excellent Ben Whishaw—an actor whose previous credits include Q in the Daniel Craig Bond movies, and the voice of Paddington Bear. Whishaw plays Thorpe’s gay lover, Norman Josiffe, who became better known as Norman Scott.
Much of their affair was conducted at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, but it was Thorpe’s alleged attempt to have his inconvenient and troublesome ex done away with that led to them both appearing at the Old Bailey in May 1979.
Jeremy Thorpe joined the Liberal Party whilst he was studying law at Oxford and was later adopted as a prospective candidate, successfully being elected to Parliament in 1959 as one of a handful of Liberal MPs.
He met Norman Josiffe, as he was then, while Josiffe was working as a groom at stables owned by Norman Vater, a friend of Thorpe’s. When Thorpe came to visit in 1961 the two met and Thorpe told the young man to contact him if ever he needed to.
After Josiffe lost his job with Vater, had a mental breakdown and spent some time in psychiatric care, he visited Thorpe at the House of Commons, homeless and seeking help. Thorpe took Josiffe and his dog to the home of Thorpe’s mother, Ursula, for the night and, it’s alleged, there began the affair.
Although it was relatively short-lived, all this took place before homosexuality was legalised in 1967, and would have spelt the end of Thorpe’s political career. He was the Liberal Party’s leader from 1967 until 1976.
For a short while, Thorpe put Josiffe up in a flat and bought him clothing, introducing him to friends. Josiffe had various jobs working with horses but always seemed to end up out of a job. He was prone to bouts of depression and attempted suicide.
One recurring problem, which also features in the dramatisation, was that Josiffe had mislaid his National Insurance card, which he needed in order to claim any state benefits, and a replacement card appears to have been withheld by Thorpe.
Josiffe changed his last name to Scott in 1967. By this time he had been through a variety of horse-related jobs, as well as periods of depression and mental illness. Throughout this period, he continued to contact Thorpe on occasion. The higher Thorpe’s political kudos rose, the more of a threat Scott became to his ambitions, until in 1969 Thorpe called two colleagues into his office and apparently first began to suggest the idea of having Scott killed.
This continued, waxing and waning according to how much of a nuisance Thorpe and his people believed Scott had become. After a promising showing in the 1974 General Election (when it looked for a time that the Liberals might hold the balance of power in a coalition) this became an even more sensitive issue.
With the threat of Scott’s embarrassing re-emergence once again on the horizon, a large amount of cash was supposedly siphoned off from a political donor and used to pay an airline pilot called Andrew Newton to kill Norman Scott.
Scott botched the job, only succeeding in shooting dead Scott’s Great Dane, Rinka. Newton was caught and claimed Scott had been blackmailing him. A piece in the December 1975 issue of Private Eye by Auberon Waugh ended: “My only hope is that sorrow over his friend’s dog will not cause Mr Thorpe’s premature retirement from public life.” It would seem that most of the newspapers had heard the rumours concerning Thorpe and Scott, but were wary of being sued for libel.
Scott continued to contest that his life had been ruined by his relationship with Thorpe, even doing so in court during the case against Newton. Thorpe was finally convinced to resign from his position as Liberal leader, although he claimed to have done nothing wrong. Newton was convicted of destruction of property (Rinka) and sentenced to two years in prison.
In May 1979, Thorpe and his co-conspirators were put on trial, during which Thorpe elected not to give testimony. After the Not Guilty verdict, satirist Peter Cook performed a version of the somewhat controversial summing-up as stand-up at The Secret Policeman’s Ball.
Despite being acquitted, Thorpe’s reputation was beyond redemption. He resigned and remained on the sidelines. An attempt to appoint him to a high profile position with Amnesty International in the early 1980s was met with such public outcry, the job offer was rescinded. Jeremy Thorpe withdrew almost entirely from public life after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He died in 2014.
Now, it has just been announced that the police are reinvestigating the case. Apparently, it was incorrectly assumed that Andrew Newton was dead, and there are various other factors that could lead to a rather different verdict this time around. It may have been a long time coming, but Norman Scott might get his vindication after all.
This week’s Word of the Week is cacoethes, meaning the urge to do something inadvisable. It dates back to the mid 16th century and comes via Latin from Greek, kakoēthes, meaning ill-disposed, from kakos, bad, and ēthos, disposition.
No events on the horizon, but I do have a new book coming up at the beginning of July. Dancing On The Grave is a standalone crime thriller featuring CSI Grace McColl and DC Nick Weston. It’s my take on the Washington Sniper incident, but set in the English Lake District, and is now available for preorder.
Last weekend was the annual CrimeFest convention, held as always at the Marriot Royal Hotel in Bristol. This year was the tenth anniversary, which meant some of the most popular authors from the last decade turned out to help celebrate. These included Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, Martina Cole, Peter James, and Simon Brett, as well as a host of other crime and thriller writers of all sub-genres.
I thoroughly enjoy events like CrimeFest, not simply for the opportunity to appear on panels, but for the general mixing and conversations you get to have with other writers, editors, bloggers, reviewers, publishers and, of course, with the most important section of those present, the readers.
As I was getting out of a lift in the hotel, someone made the comment that they were “just a reader.” I was quick to correct them. “Oh no, you’re never JUST a reader!” They’re our reason for being. Without readers, after all, us scribblers would be left muttering to ourselves in an empty room.
Fortunately, there were no empty rooms last weekend. It was standing room only in many of the panels, including the ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’ classic thrillers panel, but I suspect that was largely because Lee Child was on it, along with reviewer Jake Kerridge in the moderator’s chair, CJ Carver, Mike Ripley and myself. The panel title was taken from Mike Ripley’s latest book,
After this panel, I was fortunate enough to be approached by celebrated biographer and fiction author, Sally Cline, who is writing a book about female thriller authors. She wants to include me in her latest work, which is hugely flattering. Had I not been there and she had not heard me speak, it’s doubtful our paths would have crossed.
The bookroom, which at CrimeFest was run by Edouard Gallais and Adam Weeks from Waterstones at Bristol Galleries, is a valuable opportunity to see tables full of crime and thriller novels all laid out side by side. I always find this incredibly useful to look at the different styles of cover design and read the jacket copy descriptions.
Plus I brought home a few, too, to keep me occupied, including Lee Child’s latest, the first in the Marc Portman series by Adrian Magson, and an extra copy of the CrimeFest anthology, Ten Year Stretch. As so many of the contributors to the anthology were attending the event, the organisers had a group signing for all those who wanted to grab signatures. (I’ve always said I’ll sign anything except a blank cheque or a confession.)
Not only do they write a wide selection of books, from straight thriller to cosy village mystery, and cross-genre to alternative history (rhyming not intended) but they were all knowledgeable and informative about the indie publishing route they’d taken. Ian has started his own company, Book Reality, and Debbie particularly mentioned the Alliance of Independent Authors for their expertise and assistance.
I talked to another author a couple of days after CrimeFest, who had not attended as they hadn’t been able to get a panel. “You missed a treat,” I said. Writing is a solitary occupation most of the time, and the chance to get together, to compare notes, to catch up on the latest trends in both publishing and marketing, is invaluable. Not to mention the thrill of meeting and talking to readers. What’s not to like?
This week’s Word of the Week is egregious meaning outstandingly bad, although it used to be a compliment, as the word also has an archaic meaning of something that is remarkably good, coming from the Latin egregius meaning preeminent, excellent, extraordinary. The literal translation is ‘Rising above the flock’ from the phrase ex grege. Ex meaning ‘out of’ and grege, from grex ‘herd, flock’. In a legal context, egregious refers to actions or conduct that is wrong beyond any reasonable measure.
May 12th 2018 saw the death in prison of notorious British serial killer, Dennis Nilsen.
For those of you who don’t know the story, Nilsen was arrested in February 1983 and eventually convicted of killing six men between December 1978 and January 1983. It is thought he actually murdered as many as fifteen, mostly homeless young homosexuals, who he lured back to his home and strangled, drowned or hanged.
Born in Fraserburgh in November 1945, from all accounts Nilsen had a relatively happy and stable childhood. The son of an Aberdeenshire woman and a Norwegian soldier who had travelled to Scotland to fight with the Free Norwegian Forces.
Nilsen, together with his older brother and younger sister, saw little of his father during his childhood. The couple divorced when he was three, but the young Dennis had a close relationship with his maternal grandfather and was apparently devastated when the old man died of while out on his trawler in 1951, when Nilsen was only six.
At puberty, he claims he began to realise his homosexuality and was mocked by his older brother. His mother remarried and had another four children with her second husband, but it is reported that, after a rocky start, Nilsen got on well with his stepfather.
He joined the army in 1961 as a member of the catering corps. During his military service, he was posted overseas to West Germany, Cyprus, Norway and South Yemen. While in Aden, he witnessed the deaths of fellow soldiers in ambushes and was kidnapped by a local taxi driver, who beat him unconscious and put him in the boot of the car. Nilsen fought back and survived the attack.
It was in Aden that Nilsen claimed to have had his first sexual relationship, with an Arab youth. He also stated that he began to fantasise about having sex with a partner who was either unconscious or dead. He experimented with female prostitutes while serving in Berlin but apparently was not impressed by the experience.
Nilsen left the army in 1972 and lived back at home with his family briefly, before deciding to join the Metropolitan Police. He moved to London to begin training and was posted to Willesden Green station the following year. When his father died, leaving him a small legacy, Nilsen decided to resign from the police and became a civil servant in May 1974. He worked at two employment centres, where his main task was to find employment for unskilled labourers.
In November 1975, Nilsen helped prevent a 20-year-old man, David Gallichan, being beaten up outside a pub and took him back to his room in Cricklewood, where Nilsen learned that Gallichan was gay and unemployed. The two decided to look for a flat together almost at once, and moved into the ground floor of a property in Melrose Avenue in Cricklewood, where they also had exclusive use of the garden.
The pair redecorated the property, with Gallichan doing much of the work while Nilsen was the breadwinner. For a while the couple appeared contented, but the relationship began to show signs of strain, and in 1977 Gallichan moved out.
Nilsen admitted to loneliness and excessive drinking. On December 30th 1978, he encountered 14-year-old Stephen Holmes in a local pub, where the youngster had been attempting to buy alcohol. Nilsen invited him back to Melrose Avenue, where the two drank heavily. The following morning, Nilsen woke to find Holmes asleep on his bed and claimed he was frightened the youth would leave him alone over New Year. He strangled Holmes unconscious and drowned him in a bucket of water, then hid him under the floorboards for eight months. Eventually, Nilsen burned the body on a bonfire in the garden in August 1979.
In October 1979, Nilsen attempted to strangle a Hong Kong student named Andrew Ho, who had gone back to Nilsen’s flat for sex. Ho managed to escape and Nilsen was questioned by the police, but Ho did not press charges.
In December 1979, Nilsen met Canadian student Kenneth Ockenden in another pub. The Student was on a tour of England, and Nilsen offered to show him the sights before inviting him back to Melrose Avenue. Nilsen claimed he did not remember exactly when he strangled Ockenden, using the wire from a pair of headphones while Ockenden listened to music. Afterwards, he photographed the body in various poses before bagging it up and hiding it under the floorboards.
Several times over the next few weeks, Nilsen retrieved Ockenden’s corpse and sat next to it watching TV and drinking.
In May 1980, Nilsen met 16-year-old Martyn Duffey, a catering student who was sleeping rough near Euston Station after hitchhiking to London from Birkenhead. Duffey was tempted back to Nilsen’s flat by the offer of food and a bed for the night, at which point Nilsen strangled him with a ligature while sitting on his chest, and then drowned him in the kitchen sink. He bathed with the body, moved it around the house, and then kept it in a cupboard before stowing it, yet again, under the floorboards.
Nilsen killed again in August, and again every month until February 1981, although only one of these victims was identified—26-year-old William Sutherland. Using some of the butchery skills Nilsen had learned during his army catering career, began dissecting the bodies and disposing of the parts on regular bonfires in the garden, adding old car tyres to try to disguise the smell of burning flesh. Indeed, the flat itself was starting to smell by this point, and Nilsen reportedly had to spray constantly to try to get rid of the insect infestation caused by the decomposing bodies.
In September 1981 Nilsen found 23-year-old Malcolm Barlow slumped against a wall outside Melrose Avenue. He called an ambulance for Barlow, who was released from hospital the following day and called round to thank him. After plying Barlow with food and drink, Nilsen manually strangled him and hid the body under the kitchen sink—presumably, there was no more room under the floorboards.
In mid-1981, Nilsen’s landlord required him to move out so renovations could be carried out on the property. The day before, Nilsen got rid of the parts of his last five victims on his final bonfire, again topped with car tyres.
Nilsen moved to a top-floor flat at Cranley Gardens in Muswell Hill in September 1981. Here, he had no under-floor hiding space and no garden access, so for two months he tried not to kill any of his visitors. Then in November 1981 he attempted to strangle 19-year-old student, Paul Nobbs, but did not kill him.
In March 1982, he brought 23-year-old John Howlett back to the flat and, when Howlett fell asleep on Nilsen’s bed and could not be roused, Nilsen attempted to strangle him with an upholstery strap. This caused a huge struggle, during which Howlett almost succeeded in strangling Nilsen before being overpowered himself, although not killed. Nilsen later finished Howlett off in a bath full of water.
He tried to kill 21-year-old Carl Stottor by strangling and drowning him, but Stottor survived. Nilsen convinced the youth that he had become entangled in the zip of his sleeping bag during a nightmare, and that Nilsen had revived him.
In September 1982, Nilsen met 27-year-old Graham Allen while hailing a taxi. Invited back to Muswell Hill for a meal, Nilsen strangled Allen while he was eating an omelette Nilsen had prepared for him, then stored his body in the bath for three days before dissecting him on the kitchen floor.
Nilsen’s final victim was 20-year-old Stephen Sinclair, strangled with a tie-and-rope ligature when he fell asleep listening to rock opera in Nilsen’s flat after heavy drinking in January 1983. Nilsen slept alongside the body before dissecting it, storing various parts in plastic bags about the flat. As with the previous victims at this address, he tried to dispose of some bits by flushing them down the toilet, even boiling the hands and heads to remove the flesh.
Inevitably, this method of disposal played havoc with the drains. In February 1983 Nilsen wrote to the letting agent to complain that the drains at Cranley Gardens were blocked. When Dyno-Rod were called in, they discovered human flesh and small bones. The police were called in and the remains traced to the pipes leading from the top-floor flat. One of the small pieces of skin recovered revealed evidence of a ligature mark.
Nilsen was quickly arrested after body parts were discovered still in plastic bags in his flat. He confessed to the killings and was initially charged with the murder of Stephen Sinclair. Other charges followed—another five counts of murder and two of attempted murder. Nilsen was convicted at the Old Bailey in November 1983 and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years. This was replaced by a whole-life tariff by the Home Secretary in 1994, a punishment Nilsen apparently accepted.
He died in HMP Full Sutton in Yorkshire, aged 72.
This week’s Word of the Week is sanguinary, meaning involving or causing much bloodshed, bloodthirsty, or flowing or stained with blood. From the Latin sanguinarius, meaning bloody, from which we get exsanguination, a severe loss of blood. Not to be confused with sanguine, meaning cheerfully optimistic, hopeful or confident.