I was delighted to be invited by Barbara Bos at the Women Writers Women’s Books website to write a piece on my Road to Publication, from an early longhand novel to my foray into indie publishing, and everything in between.

I have been in this writing game long enough to have started out in an entirely analogue world.

When I wrote my very first novel there was no internet, no social media, no email, no mobile phones, and precious little by way of computerisation.

(I should point out here that I was only fifteen at the time.)

I penned the whole manuscript longhand and my father, bless him, typed it up for me on an electric typewriter—with carbon copies. It did the rounds of the major publishing houses, where it received what is known in the trade as ‘rave rejections’. Everybody loved it. Nobody wanted to publish it.

I temporarily shelved my idea of becoming a novelist and went on to a variety of jobs in my teenage years. But the compulsion to write never quite left me. So, when I learned to drive and bought my first car, an elderly Triumph Spitfire, this led me into the classic car world. And, more particularly, into the classic car magazines.

It wasn’t long before I realised that there were a lot of car magazines on the market in the UK—about 120 at that time—and they were all desperate for good copy. I gave up my job, turned freelance, and discovered I had more work on than I could handle. It wasn’t long before editors starting asking for pictures to go with the articles. So I borrowed a camera and taught myself to use it.

That all began in 1988. I’ve been making a living from words and pictures ever since.

I may have found early success with non-fiction, but I never lost that urge to create my own story rather than retelling other people’s. For much of the 1990s I was kicking around the idea for a crime thriller. Mainly because that was the genre I most liked to read but also because, in the thrillers around at the time, I couldn’t find a female character who really satisfied me.

Mostly, the women in such books were there as the hero’s love interest, or to cook, tend to the wounded, scream in a firefight, or twist their ankle at an inappropriate moment and need to be rescued.

I wanted to read about women who were quite capable of doing their own rescuing, thank-you-very-much.

Enter ex-Special Forces trainee turned self-defence expert and close-protection operative, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox. I finished my first novel featuring Charlie back in 1999. After picking up my copy of the WRITERS’ AND ARTISTS’ YEARBOOK, and searching for Agents (Crime) I began at A. The second agent who requested the full typescript offered to represent me.

With hindsight, I should have spent days in my local library, going through the Acknowledgements sections of my favourite crime authors’ works, looking for the ones who thought highly enough of their agents to name-check them.

If I were starting out now, of course, I’d look at author websites, which often list the author’s literary agent on the Contact page. Or simply resort to Google, or—better yet—go and hang out in the bar at CrimeFest or Harrogate.

But, back then I was a novice, and there wasn’t the plethora of advice, forums, and support groups there is now. Even with the mistakes I made in my early decisions, KILLER INSTINCT came out in 2001.

Since then, I have written thirteen books in the Charlie Fox series, the latest of which is BAD TURN—out in Sept 2019. I’ve also written more than twenty short stories, which have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. I’ve penned a couple of standalone crime novels, one of which is now the first of a trilogy set in the Lake District and featuring CSI Grace McColl and Detective Nick Weston. The second book, BONES IN THE RIVER, came out in May 2020.

When my first publisher was swallowed up by a larger fish in the pond, my early works fell out of print. I reverted the rights and, in 2011, decided the eBook bandwagon was something I ought to be on. I self-published, with immediate success. Ever since, I’ve been a hybrid author with a foot in both independent and traditional publishing camps.

I’ve learned to handle the layout and content side of indie publishing, as well as cover design, editing, marketing, social media strategy, blogging, and advertising. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. But the upside is total control and information flow in an industry not noted for providing the average author with either commodity.

It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning at any one time. Especially when you consider that there’s also the small matter of actually writing the books…

But there is a good deal of satisfaction to be had in knowing what you’re going to be writing next, regardless of whether that’s part of an existing series, branching out into another, or even trying something new.

When I wrote the first book in what has become the Lakes Crime Thriller Trilogy, DANCING ON THE GRAVE, it was intended purely as a standalone title. Then reviewers hinted that they thought Grace and Nick had legs. Soon, readers joined that cry, and I knew I just had to go again. So far, I’ve committed to a trilogy that can all be read independently. After that, well, it’s up to my readers.

But, with Charlie Fox fans clamouring for more—allied to the fact the series was recently optioned for TV—plus another standalone bubbling inside my head, and another series to launch into, who knows what might happen next?

There’s one thing about being an author—it’s never dull.

Read and comment on this article over on Women Writers Women’s Books.

A couple of weeks ago, I resigned myself to the horrors of a new computer.

This is always a nightmare of acclimatising to upgraded operating systems, trusty programs that are no longer available, and incompatible files.

I hate it.

It’s one reason, I confess, that I finally went over to the Dark Side with my last computer and bought a MacBook Air. It’s been absolutely wonderful, and has served me faithfully for the past seven years—far longer, I have to admit, than any of my previous PC laptops lasted.

And it’s not ready for the great parts bin in the sky quite yet. Removing all the accumulated rubbish and rebooting the operating system will apparently see it keep going for quite a while longer. At least, I hope so…

The real problem is that when I first gave myself MacBook Airs and graces, I was not doing nearly as much photo manipulation as I am now, having taken a deep dive into cover design. I need something with a faster processor and now seemed the ideal time to go back to a desktop. So, I’ve bought myself an iMac and, once I stopped cursing at it and threatening to throw it out of the window—and when I discovered how to switch off the dreaded Cloud that seemed to be eating all my files and regurgitating them in corrupted guise—I think I’ve finally made friends with it.

The almost blank desktop screen is strangely calming.

But, I did say ‘almost’ there. Because already four or five folders and icons have crept onto the right-hand side and I know I won’t ever get a better time to bring some organisational order to the way I work.

The question I face is…how?

At the moment I have, for example, a folder marked FICTION. That leads to more folders titled things like CHARLIE FOX SERIES, LAKES TRILOGY, SHORT STORIES, STANDALONES, etc.

Those in turn lead to more folders, one for each title. So, in the case of the latest Charlie Fox novel, I have a pathway that goes FICTION > CHARLIE FOX SERIES > BAD TURN.

So far, so good.

In the {TITLE} folder live all the peripheral documents, such as:

Acknowledgements. There’s nothing worse than the book coming out and you realise you’ve forgotten to thank someone who provided vital information right at the start of the project. I keep a document on the go and drop names into it as soon as they occur.

Jacket Copy. This is the brief book synopsis that normally appears on the back of the book jacket, or on the retailer page. I usually write this before I even start on the book itself, to keep myself tuned to the basic idea. It can be very helpful to run this by interested parties and watch their reactions carefully. If they look intrigued, you know you might just have something…

Metadata. By the time I’ve finished a book and it’s ready to upload, this file usually runs to about 25 pages. It contains every piece of information on the book that I need in order to register the ISBN number and upload it, including keywords, categories, page counts, descriptions, etc. Trying to go through this process without a giant crib sheet is incredibly difficult. I can’t believe it took me so long to put together a template for this file.

Outline. Sometimes this is the kind of thing I could show a publisher but more often than not, it’s my own personal writing outline, with a full character list, back story, and what happens off-camera to explain how the elements of the story slot together. It changes—a LOT—during the course of writing the book. I will usually also have:

Story Breakdown. This is more like a conventional publisher synopsis, with the plot divided into three acts and the turning point of each act noted. This is more of a note on structure than story.

And then I have my Summary. Even if you don’t plot beforehand, I always recommend keeping a summary of the book as you write it. Just a paragraph on each chapter with the main point of action, dialogue and character development. If structural edits are needed afterwards, I note them on the summary to work out how best to incorporate them into the book as a whole.

Other folders in the {TITLE} folder are BOOK, which is where I actually keep my work-in-progress documents. I’ve always written each draft chapter in a separate document, then dropped it into the overall book doc when it’s done.

There’s also a COVER folder, where I keep different versions of the final cover images, including the spine and back cover, hi-res for print use, and lo-res for website or internet use.

Another folder is called EDITS AND FEEDBACK, which is fairly self-explanatory. It’s where I keep all the emails and notes from beta readers, my Advance Reader Team, copyeditor, and proofreader.

A further folder is marked RESEARCH, where I store any articles on related topics, and images that might come in useful while writing, such as this one of the layout of a truck braking system, which anyone who read BAD TURN will realise the significance of.

I also keep any pictures of actors, etc, who have the look of characters in the book. I labelled this one of Everett McGill as ‘Conrad Epps’:

And this one of Oded Fehr as ‘Khalid Hamzeh’:

I also keep a folder for REVIEWS, although I try not to look at them too much. That way, madness lies…

And then there are the folders for book production—PRINT and VELLUM & EBOOK.

PRINT contains the content pdfs for the paperback, hardcover and large print editions, the cover templates and actual full-wrap cover files, and the downloaded proofs. If I’ve used any special fonts, they’ll be in another folder in this folder.

The VELLUM & EBOOK folder contains the Vellum document, which is the program I use to convert a Word doc to ebook formats and print-ready pdf, plus the mobi and epub files for both the ARC and the final versions, and the Vellum-produced cover images to upload.

And that’s about it.

What you have to bear in mind is that BAD TURN is book 13 in the Charlie Fox series. I have another 12 {TITLE} folders in the CHARLIE FOX folder, each of which contains all those elements. Often, when I’m putting together a metadata file for one book, I check back to see how I did something on the last. It involves quite a bit of hopping about and I regularly have so many folders open on the desktop I struggle to work out which is which.

It’s not enough to label a folder COVER, I have to call it BT-COVER just to be sure I know which folder I’ve found. Because, that’s not the only place I keep covers…

In the main FICTION folder, I then have another called COVERS. This is where I keep the PhotoShop files of all the covers I’m working on, the jpg images of the final cover, the original images that make up the different covers, their attributions and picture credits, as well as all the draft versions, and covers I played about with that didn’t quite make the cut. I also keep versions with and without a border. The latter feature is something I realised I needed when I started having covers that were either black or white, to make sure the cover edges are visible on all backgrounds, as you can see from the image below.

The reason these are all together like this is because, when I’m building one cover it’s very important to get the elements lined up with those that have come before it. I need to make sure the author name and series indication is in the same size font and in the same position on the cover. For that, it’s easier to keep everything in one place.

Or, at least, I think it is…

Things have become a little easier since I discovered how to use an Alias on a Mac desktop, which is basically a shortcut. (And I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to work that one out.) But I’m still left wondering, is there a better way to do this? A more logical layout? A better critical path analysis?

What do you use? All advice gratefully received!

This week’s Word of the Week came courtesy of EvKa. It’s trophallaxis, meaning the mutual exchange of regurgitated liquids between adult insects and their larvae. It also means the transfer of food or other fluids among members of a community through mouth-to-mouth or anus-to-mouth feeding. Along with nutrients, trophallaxis can involve the transfer of molecules such as pheromones, organisms such as symbionts, and information to serve as a form of communication.

(Note to self: if asked to ‘communicate’ with EvKa, ask questions on method before agreeing…)

You can view and comment on this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.

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On Friday, June 5, I received one of those out-of-the-blue phone calls. The kind where, as soon as you pick up the receiver and realise who’s calling, you know why, and you know it’s not going to be good news.

My friend of more than 35 years, Andrew W Neal, had died during the night.

He was not in good health, but this was unexpected news. I’d been planning to see him on my usual trip south for CrimeFest in Bristol (it should have taken place this very weekend). Then the UK went into lockdown because of Covid-19 and all such travel was out of the question.

Now I was too late.

A former pilot, Andrew flew just about anything with wings or rotors, and one or two things where such vital bits had dropped off. His stories were amazing, flying in the bush in Africa with a missing rotor blade, landing on train tracks in South America, crashing after hitting wires strung between trees in Australia. I always tried to persuade him to write some of them down.

And now I was too late for that, too.

Whenever I needed advice for my writing on flying (or indeed, crashing) Andrew was the person I went to. He gave me such help with the helicopter scenes in DIE EASY: Charlie Fox #10, that eventually I made him the pilot in the book. As my tribute to Andrew, here are those three chapters:

Sixteen

The helicopter Tom O’Day had hired for the sightseeing tours of New Orleans was a six-seat Bell 429 corporate model, dressed in the discreet livery of a local oil company. I say “hired” but in fact he probably talked them into lending it for nothing. All in aid of a good cause.

The flights were taking around thirty minutes, taking off from the open top floor of the parking structure next to the hotel, beating north over the city towards Lake Pontchartrain and then circling back over the network of canals and levees that protected the city’s eastern side.

I’d heard the rapid thrum of the rotor blades as the helo came and went all morning, starting around nine-thirty and running straight through like continuous flight ops from a carrier deck. The only break was a short one to refuel, then it was back on station.

The pilot was laid-back about the whole thing. Sean and I had already met him. The guy was a former US Army captain called Andrew Neal, who spoke little and missed less. Although he never mentioned it, we knew from the standard background checks that Capt Neal had actually been at the controls of a Sikorsky Black Hawk that fateful day in 1993 over the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

I assumed his reluctance to discuss his experiences was very much like the members of the SAS assault team who stormed the Iranian Embassy in London many years previously. There are a thousand pretenders to that particular crown. Those who really were there rarely talk about it.

Blake Dyer was booked for the last flight before lunch. We took the elevator up to the roof where O’Day’s Foundation people had set up white marquees to keep potential donors from letting the sun go to their heads. Uniformed wait-staff circulated with trays of canapés and yet more champagne. I wondered if O’Day had bought up an entire vintage to give away over the course of the weekend.

News teams and reporters were among the guests, mingling and interviewing. Must have been one of the few times everybody was happy to see them.

Dyer had a few words with the front man from the local news channel, a bouffanted guy whose expanding waistline was mostly concealed by careful tailoring. He was in full make-up that was wilting slightly even out of direct sunlight. Despite the electric fans blowing from every corner, the marquee was coming up to a midday high temp.

Sean and I stayed out of the way and let Blake Dyer circulate unmolested. He seemed to be enjoying himself, chatting to Tom O’Day himself like the old friend he professed to be, as well as taking Jimmy aside in a godfatherly kind of way. I don’t know what he said to his godson, but Jimmy didn’t look any happier afterwards.

Not that he looked happy before. Maybe he’d finally got wise to that snake Vic Morton, who was constantly by his elbow. I wondered if the bodyguard had been told to stick close and make sure the kid didn’t screw anything up.

Or it might have had more to do with the state of Jimmy’s hangover battling against the smell of jet fuel and the constant noise of the Bell cycling through its turnaround routine. Land, unload, reload, take off again. Efficient and neat. No fuss.

It was apparently left to Jimmy to keep things running to schedule on the ground. He swung by to collect Blake Dyer about ten minutes before our designated flight-time, took him over to gather with Ysabeau van Zant as if unaware of the tension between them. Mrs van Zant was coldly immaculate in a pale blue dress suit that reminded me vaguely of the former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Mrs van Zant was alone, apparently confident that her status would protect her. She and Dyer studiously ignored each other. I stayed nominally between them, just in case.

Behind Jimmy O’Day’s shoulder, Vic Morton’s eyes volleyed back and forth between me and Sean as if trying to spot the cracks he’d undoubtedly caused. I reckoned I had them pretty well plastered over by that point.

You know exactly what you’re trying to do, don’t you, you little bastard?

Sean and I were filling two of the available seats on the Bell. The remaining pair had been earmarked for an old-money banking couple from Boston, but when I looked round I couldn’t see them on the roof.

“Where are the others?” I asked Jimmy O’Day. “They’re cutting it fine.”

Jimmy kept throwing me little sideways glances without turning his head to look at me directly, as if afraid I’d turn him instantly to stone if he did so.

“Um, they’re not coming—heat’s too much for them I guess,” he said, but he sounded as if he was taking no-shows as a personal affront. “Looks like you guys will be able to really stretch out.”

I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.

Because at that moment I felt a ripple through the crowd. I turned. The young baseball star Gabe Baptiste had just stepped out of the elevator. The stunning blonde, Autumn, was on his arm again. I wondered how Tom O’Day felt about their sudden palliness. She was wearing a white dress covered with a huge red poppy motif that should have looked gauche amid the sophistication, but came across as fresh and simple.

Maybe she was part of the reason the newsman abandoned another guest in mid-sentence and swam for the pair of them like a shark aiming to keep ahead of the pack.

Baptiste sidestepped the newsman with practised agility. Instead, he headed in our direction. His bodyguard stuck to his shoulder like a conjoined twin. The guy was built like a gun emplacement in a pinstripe suit.

And where were you last night, hmm?

“Mr Dyer,” Baptiste greeted our principal, a little hesitant. “How you doin’?”

“Good, Gabe, thanks. And please, it’s Blake.”

Baptiste ducked his head in acknowledgement, but his gaze had shifted over to me, and to Sean.

“Just wanted to say thanks, you know?” he said. “For saving my ass last night up here.”

He still had a small dressing just above one ear. I let my gaze drift to his bodyguard. “You’re welcome,” I said, keeping my voice neutral.

Sean didn’t respond. He was frowning as if the inside of his skull was being tickled by a memory he couldn’t quite grasp. After a few moments he shook his head, let it go.

“Been a long time, Sean,” Baptiste said, voice sober. “Didn’t think we’d ever see each other again, huh?”

“I’m afraid I don’t…remember you,” Sean said stiffly. “I’m sorry.”

“No shit—that for real?” Baptiste checked our faces like we were all in on some massive joke at his expense.

“Sean’s recall of names and faces is the only thing affected by his recent injury,” I put in, filling an awkward silence. I added a tight smile. “But, as I’m sure you realised from the…incident last night, he’s as effective an operator as he ever was.”

It might have been stretching the facts a little, but there was no way I was going to admit to anything less in front of a client—past or present.

Baptiste continued to eye Sean for a moment longer, then grinned. “Sure,” he said. “That’s cool. So, we good?” He offered a hand bearing more gold and diamond rings than most of the women present—and that was saying something considering the company.

“Looks that way.” Sean answered the smile with a cooler version of his own—but a smile nevertheless—and gave the ball player’s hand a perfunctory shake.

“Well, shit, that is cool. In that case, I am so riding with you guys.” He glanced at the stoic bodyguard. “That cool with you, Frankie?”

John Franks—the gun emplacement—gave a fractional twitch of one massive shoulder. It might have been a shrug, or he could simply have been troubled by insects. It was hard to tell from his blank expression. I guessed Franks had been employed more for his size than his skillset.

Well, you can’t have everything—where would you put it?

“It OK with you if we take the next ride?” Baptiste asked Jimmy O’Day. And just before Jimmy could answer, Baptiste added casually, “Oh, and Autumn’s coming with me, of course.”

If Jimmy O’Day didn’t like Autumn dancing with Baptiste at the van Zant reception, he liked the prospect of her taking a pleasure flight with the ball player even less. He frowned, almost a scowl. It took a brief look from the blonde, almost too fast to register, to have him backing off, flustered.

He muttered an excuse about needing to redo some calculations—probably the fuel load taking Franks’s sheer bulk into account—and scurried off. Baptiste ignored him with the air of someone who takes it for granted that whatever he wants will miraculously happen.

It made me wonder again about Autumn’s role in the proceedings, though.

Meanwhile, Ysabeau van Zant had been sizing up Autumn with zealous intensity. I could almost see the calculations forming inside her head. If it came to photo opportunities, she knew she would be better to stand as far away from the younger, taller, thinner woman as she could manage.

Baptiste’s face when he realised that Ysabeau van Zant might be on the same aircraft with him was a picture of consternation. I watched him weighing up how much offence was likely to be caused if he backed out now because of it. Too much, clearly.

Ysabeau van Zant came to the rescue of both of them. She showed her teeth briefly to Autumn. “My dear, you must take my place. I’ll go this afternoon. I insist.”

Autumn flashed a sunny smile and thanked her with grave politeness that, in someone with more apparent depth, might have been mocking.

Jimmy O’Day fussed around us, making furious notes on his crumpled list, the deeply scarred pencil notations a visible sign of his inner frustration. I put my hand in my pocket and found a strip of paracetamol still lurking there. With a sudden burst of sympathy, I handed the painkillers to Jimmy. He glanced at them for a moment, frowning, then gave me a fleeting, weary smile.

Overhead came the sudden fast chop of rotor blades as the Bell circled the rooftop and dropped down for another centimetre-perfect landing. After the last round of passengers had been disgorged, the group of us walked out onto the sun-baked concrete towards the waiting helo sitting with its main rotor still turning lazily. We ducked instinctively below the blades as we approached.

“Mind your heads,” Jimmy shouted over the whine from the twin turbines. “And please don’t go aft of the doors when you’re boarding. Wouldn’t want to lose anybody in that tail rotor before you’ve had a chance to let my father talk you out of all your money tomorrow night, huh?”

It sounded forced, like he’d been making the same joke every time, all morning. Dyer and Baptiste gave dutiful laughs the rest of us didn’t feel the need to emulate.

I looked at the mixed emotions on the faces surrounding me. This was not, I realised, going to be quite the fact-finding pleasure flight it was meant to be.

Inside the rear cabin the plush leather seats were laid out in rows of three, facing each other. There was a slightly undignified rush for the honour of helping Autumn up into the cabin. The poppy dress only reached about halfway down her thighs and all the guys in the party jostled for the best view.

I climbed up unassisted and took the centre of the rear seats between Autumn and Blake Dyer. There was a noise-cancelling headset on a hook by the headrest. I put the cans on, adjusting the flexi-boom mic so I wouldn’t heavy-breathe into everyone’s ears.

Alongside me, Autumn strapped herself in. She looked less than thrilled at the prospect of messing up both her hair and her dress in one hit, but managed to don both the harness and headset without anyone needing to push her chest in and out while she thought about it.

Then she settled back and crossed those spectacular legs. The move was followed in minute detail by three pairs of male eyes on the other side of the cabin.

Gabe Baptiste had slumped into the seat by the far window, while his bodyguard, Franks, had folded himself awkwardly into the middle seat directly opposite me, probably because he recognised that his bulk might make us fly round in circles if he sat to one side. He was too big for the harness to fasten around him, even in the land of six-XL clothing as a standard size. He left the thing unfastened and fiddled with his headset.

Sean climbed in last. Jimmy O’Day gave Autumn one last worried look and slammed the door behind us. He looked terrible, but maybe that had something to do with the fact he’d been performing this duty all morning with the mother of all headaches and no ear defenders. He’d know better next time.

Once the door was closed I buckled my harness like a good little airline passenger, pulling the lap-belt tight and low across my hips.

The pilot twisted in the left-hand seat. “’Morning folks,” he said. “We good to go?”

It was clearly a rhetorical question. Even as he spoke the Bell was lifting off as if of its own accord, rotating effortlessly onto a new heading as it rose.

Show-off.

Just before we cleared the edge of the rooftop I glanced out of the door window and saw Jimmy O’Day still standing on the concrete below. There was something a little mournful in his rounded shoulders—the big man’s son reduced to playing the kind of role that normally netted minimum wage and a uniform with a name-tag attached.

By Jimmy’s shoulder stood his bodyguard, Vic Morton, who was staring up at the departing helo with his hand shading his eyes, almost in a parody of a final salute.

I shivered and looked away, meeting Sean’s eyes across the cabin. They were cold and distant.

What further damage was Morton going to do to the pair of us, I wondered, before the day was out?

 

Seventeen

“This is the Lower Ninth Ward,” Capt Neal said, half over his shoulder. “Katrina hit the whole city hard, but I’d say she hit here hardest of all.West of here, the parishes of Jefferson and St Tammany got away pretty lightly. But they reckon that here in St Bernard parish, only three houses were left standing.”

He brought us in low over an area to the east of the Industrial Canal, which he’d been using for his own personal equivalent of a Dambusters run south from Lake Pontchartrain.

“If you stick to the tourist areas—the French Quarter and the Garden District—you don’t get a true picture of how bad things were,” Capt Neal went on. “And how bad they still are.”

As we overflew industrial buildings I thought I could make out water marks still remaining on some of the exterior walls, like a badge of honour.

“It’s the kids who get the worst of it. Hardly any place safe to play. There’s only one school remaining for the whole parish, and fewer buses running means they can’t get to schools further out.”

With our forward speed slowed to a crawl, we craned to look down out of the cabin windows. Seeing the place from the air was effective in a way no ground-based trip would ever have been. In a city where housing tended to be packed in close, here there were only empty concrete slabs to show where houses had once stood. They were surrounded by overgrown lots as nature clawed back what was rightfully hers.

“They’re rebuilding slowly now. But in some cases the insurance companies paid out a fraction of what the houses were worth, and then only after the work’s been done. Not many folks can afford to pay up front.Pretty much the whole of this neighbourhood—everything north of Claiborne—has been derelict since.”

I thought of Ysabeau van Zant’s reconstructed mansion. Charity, it seemed, did not begin at home.

“Why was this area so badly affected?” Blake Dyer asked, leaning forwards in his seat.

“Poverty,” Capt Neal said bluntly. “Most of the folk here didn’t own a car, couldn’t afford a bus or train ticket. Katrina hit at the end of the month—a time when money’s always thin on the ground. So a whole bunch of them decided to stay put and ride it out, like they’d done before. Only, ground level round here can be as much as four feet below the level of the Gulf, and the houses were mostly single-storey homes. Then the storm surge came in, and the flooding, and when the levees broke they were under water. People drowned in their attics.”

He lowered the Bell towards an abandoned house, its front façade delicately adorned with wrought-iron railings. Weeds choked the approach to the gaping front door. Only darkness showed inside, like a mouth opened to scream.

Keeping a wary eye out for overhead power wires, Capt Neal inched the Bell forwards and the engine note rose in pitch and volume. In plaintive harmony I heard the cries of an underclass betrayed, of victims brushed aside and forgotten. It seemed to resonate with the beat of the engines, flung back from the few remaining derelict houses that were still standing. As we gazed down from our air-conditioned, cushioned luxury it wrapped itself around us like a taunt.

“With half the police force gone, New Orleans has one of the highest crime rates in the country,” Capt Neal said. He did not sound proud of the achievement. “We got half the police force and a population down by two-thirds, but there’s still the same number of arrests. Times like these, seems only the lowlifes prosper.”

I skimmed the other faces. Their expressions were largely turned inward, sombre.

“This was a tragedy,” Gabe Baptiste said, as if a news crew was there to record his concern for posterity.

If you care so much, why haven’t you been back before now?

Blake Dyer leaned forwards to catch Baptiste’s eye. “Son, look around you,” he said. “It still is.”

Capt Neal started to take us up, guiding the helo onto a new course.

“I’ll take you out over what’s known as the funnel,” he said. “The storm surge came up the Mississippi about fifteen feet high, as well as into the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and through Lake Borgne, and it all converged in the funnel. Then as the eye passed over, it pushed colossal storm surge down Industrial Canal from Lake Pontchartrain as well.” He shook his head. “This area got hit every which way.”

I peered out of the far window. Below I could see the wide canal, just beyond what looked like the world’s largest scrapyard.

And just as we started to pass over it, Sean—sitting by the near window—went rigid and let out a yell.

Just one word—possibly the word nobody in a low-flying helo ever wants to hear. I certainly didn’t.

“INCOMING!”

You can’t shout something like that to a pilot with combat experience and not expect an instant, visceral response. Capt Neal was a decorated veteran who had lost none of his instincts when he’d returned to civilian aviation. He jinked, almost a nervous twitch of hands and feet on the controls. The cabin tilted wildly and lashed sideways.

I looked left. The view through the side window was almost straight down into the street below. I was just in time to see the streaking exhaust of the shoulder-launched missile heading straight for us.

 

Eighteen

Time slowed, the way it does for me at moments of high-intensity stress. The rocket-propelled grenade seemed to hang in the air, climbing so slowly I was almost certain the pilot’s split-second reaction would get us clear.

It didn’t, of course.

Shoulder-fired RPGs have a relatively low muzzle velocity—around three hundred metres per second. Half the speed of an average rifle bullet.

Still much too fast to miss a large, near-static target less than a hundred metres away—barely a quarter of the weapon’s maximum effective range.

Capt Neal’s manoeuvre saved us a direct hit, but didn’t turn it into a miss.

There was an explosive impact somewhere aft of the cabin. The whole airframe shuddered like a harpooned whale, staggered to the side and went into a violently uneven lateral spin.

This close to the ground there wasn’t much anyone could do, least of all the pilot. He fought gravity and physics all the way down, yanking up on the collective just before contact to bring us in as gently as he could. It was a losing battle.

We made a rough landing—worse than any bike crash I’ve ever had. And I’ve had one or two.

I’d already jammed my head back against the rest to protect my neck, and wrapped my arms tight across my body, but even so we impacted with an almighty buckling whumph that jolted the breath right out of me. I was aware of screaming, male and female, and unsecured limbs jerking around in my peripheral vision.

The Bell continued to spin viciously, ripping the skids loose. The sheer rotational force of the main rotor dragged us round in a horrendous graunching scream of tearing metal on the stony surface. The aircraft kept turning even after we hit, as if trying to screw the wreckage right into the earth. Dead and buried all in one move.

The Bell was wrenched across the ground. It lurched onto its right-hand side. As the rotor blades hammered into the earth and debris they shattered in all directions like flashing daggers in a psycho circus act. One piece sliced through the skin of the cabin right in front of my face. I swear I felt the swish of hot displaced air as it hissed past.

For a second after impact nobody moved. It took that long to recognise we might just have made it down alive, if not exactly unscathed.

The cabin was at almost ninety degrees to vertical, canted over onto its starboard side. I was hanging suspended from my seatbelt and I stretched out my feet onto the cabin wall before releasing the buckle. The turbines were still shrieking and the slop-slop of spilling jet fuel was an acid chemical burn on the back of my tongue. The potential for fire reared up in my mind with nightmare intensity, an intuitive response to a primal fear.

I ripped the useless cans from my head and twisted up towards Dyer, still hanging half-above me. I hit the release for his belt and half-caught, half-slid him onto his feet next to me, then ran fast hands over him looking for obvious injuries. There weren’t any. He was shaken but basically unhurt.

“Blake, you with me? Blake! We need to get you out, sir, right now!”

He baulked. “But, the others―”

“Sir, with respect, they can go fu―”

“We’ll get everyone out.” It was Sean who cut harsh across the pair of us. “Nobody gets left behind.”

He’d cut himself loose. Before I could argue, he’d gripped the interior grab handles and jacked his body, using both feet to punch the upward door open like a giant flip-top sunroof.

The action drew instant automatic weapons fire from outside. He ducked back immediately and swore under his breath.

From what little I could see of the outside world, we’d come down in the middle of the giant scrapyard I’d seen just before we crashed. Ahead of us was a small mountain of crushed cars and twisted trucks. There were even a couple of old yellow school buses.

At a rough guess, the direction of fire was away to our left, which put the helo’s floor between us and our attackers. The 429 model’s corporate spec included a lot of bells and whistles, but I very much doubted battle-hardening the under-shell was one of them. We were sitting ducks.

“Hey, guys—a little help here?”

It took me a moment to realise the calm voice came from the blonde, Autumn. I glanced down, found her crouched against the far door, which was now the lowest part of the cabin. She was leaning over the inert form of Baptiste’s bodyguard, John Franks. He was crumpled against the frame, pale and unconscious, lying half on top of Baptiste. I’d known he was loose in the cabin during the crash, but my responsibility was to my principal, so I’d blanked him out.

Baptiste himself was pale and silent, eyes closed. There was a little blood trickling from a cut above his eyebrow, though, so I judged he was unconscious rather than dead.

But Franks had been the only one not wearing his seatbelt at the time of the crash and had been thrown around the cabin like a medicine ball as we went in hot. The rest of us were lucky he hadn’t crushed us to death in the process.

As it was, to begin with I thought Autumn’s poppy-covered dress had acquired a few more flowers than I remembered. Then I saw the belt she was heaving tight around Franks’s thigh just above the knee, both hands wrapped in the leather, tanned arms taut.

As she shifted position I saw he’d clearly suffered a double compound-fracture of his tib and fib, the jagged ends of the bone jutting out from the lacerated flesh of his lower leg. Even with Autumn’s makeshift tourniquet, he was losing blood fast—too much of it. The broken bones must have severed an artery. He had minutes—if he was lucky.

I met Sean’s eyes. Franks must have weighed a good two-hundred-and-fifty pounds. We didn’t have the sheer muscle available to move him, but—if we wanted to survive—we couldn’t stay put either.

“You’re going to have to leave him,” Sean told her roughly.

“He’ll die.”

“So will we all if we don’t get us the hell out of here,” said Capt Neal. He was still dangling half sideways from his harness in the pilot’s seat. “I don’t suppose one of you boys has a spare pistol, do you? Only, I left mine in my other pants and we got hostiles a’coming in.”

I reached down and took Franks’s gun off his hip. He wasn’t in any state to use it. The gun was a Glock nine. I couldn’t see a pro carrying it empty or safe, but as I handed it past the forward row of seats I checked the weight and slid a finger across the loaded-chamber indicator just to make sure.

“There’s one up the spout all ready to go,” I told the pilot.

“Much obliged,” Neal said, like I’d just passed him the salt. “Might want to cover your ears, folks.”

With that, he swung the gun towards one of the plexiglas windows in what had been the floor of the cockpit beneath his feet and kept pulling the trigger until the action locked back empty—standard US military operating procedure. The Glock held seventeen rounds and one in the chamber. Even with the warning, it was horribly loud inside the tin can cabin.

“That should keep their heads down a little longer,” Neal said with a tired smile. “I’d appreciate an assist with debussing, though. I think I busted both my ankles when we set down.”

Die Easy

Does the name Worzel Gummidge mean anything to you? Worzel was a scarecrow who could walk and talk, and who befriended two children who came to stay at Scatterbrook Farm, with resultant adventures.

If you were growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, you possibly remember the TV series with Jon Pertwee in the title role, and Una Stubbs playing life-size fairground attraction, Aunt Sally.

Far more recently, actor Mackenzie Crook—better known for his appearances in the UK version of The Office and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise—took up the mantle. Two episodes were broadcast in the UK over last Christmas. And a pure delight they were, too.

I know everybody didn’t quite get on with the look they gave the scarecrow—some unkind references were made to Freddie Krueger. Claims were made that some younger viewers were ‘left terrified’ but that simply makes me wonder who allowed them to see the horror movies from which the Krueger character originates in the first place?

But the history of Worzel Gummidge goes back much further than you might think. The stories were written by Barbara Euphan Todd, with the first published in 1936. A couple of years later, the rights were acquired by Puffin Books and WORZEL GUMMIDGE: THE SCARECROW OF SCATTERBROOK became the first fiction title published by that imprint.

Ms Todd wrote ten Worzel Gummidge books in all, with the last—DETECTIVE WORZEL GUMMIDGEpublished in 1963, and illustrated by a number of artists. She also collaborated on turning the stories into radio plays for children in the 1950s. Five of the stories were narrated by Gordon Rollings for the BBC children’s TV programme, Jackanory.

The first time Worzel appeared on television was in 1953 in Worzel Gummidge Turns Detective. Another series—with Pertwee and Stubbs—ran from 1978-1981. It was revived six years later, based in New Zealand, as Worzel Gummidge Down Under and ran for another two years.

Barbara Euphan Todd

Mackenzie Crook’s decision to revive the character now may seem strange but in fact it reflects a growing trend in TV drama to approach the subject of the climate crisis. The latest series of the long-running sci-fi drama, Dr Who, with Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, has had catastrophic climate meltdown at the heart of several episodes.

And the first of the latest Worzel Gummidge incarnation saw the countryside stuck in the perpetual heatwave of summer, with crops refusing to ripen and the seasons unable to change without some otherworldly intervention. This involved getting two old adversaries to work together for the greater good. A moral lesson, for sure, but delivered with a light touch.

It seems that TV drama is slowly starting to move away from the bad guys wanting to dominate the world and instead focusing on the good guys trying to save the planet. Is this a trend we’re going to see more of in novels as well? I wonder what influence it might have? And will it all be too late anyway…?

I’ve only had environmental issues as the focus of one of the Charlie Fox series so far—FOURTH DAY. At the time I wrote it, I wondered if anyone would believe that such a fuss might be made about the extraction of oil shale. And we know how that one has turned out!

This week’s Word of the Week is inchoate, which means something just begun and which is still rudimentary or not yet fully formed or developed. It is often confused with incoherent, meaning lacking in clarity. Only when the inchoate thing is completed can it be judged to be truly incoherent.

Today is the finale of the Blog Tour for BAD TURN. Day 10. Thank you for sticking with me this far. Today I’m honoured to have the book reviewed by the fabulous Noelle Holten of Crime Book Junkie. Noelle is a best-selling author in her own right, so it’s a little bit like asking a professional builder to give their opinion on the work you’ve carried out on your own house…

Set mainly in New Jersey in the US, Charlie Fox is back and takes the reader on an adventure filled with fear, control, protection, anger, payback, manipulation, power, corruption and a search for the truth…but there is so much more!

Hells BLOODY Bells! With an explosive opening that instantly grabs the reader, Bad Turn will have you racing through the pages! The premise of this novel was intriguing and I loved how the reader learns a little bit more about Charlie Fox’s backstory which is then sprinkled throughout the novel—teasing you to carry on if you want to know more. Full of suspense and tension, the author once again has nailed it—a brilliant narrative and action packed read—it was like watching a movie in my mind! Superb!

I absolutely ADORE Charlie Fox—and you see a little bit more of a vulnerable side to her in this novel which makes you like her even more! Charlie is doing what she does best and accidentally uncovers a sinister ploy to kidnap a wealthy woman—the wife of an arms dealer. If she was hoping for the quiet life while house-sitting, she should have known better…after all, she IS Charlie Fox!  Determined as ever to see the job to the end, she comes up against some of the toughest characters, but they are no match for Ms Fox!

Read the whole of this review on Crime Book Junkie.

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For the past ten days since the new Charlie Fox novel, BAD TURN, came out, I’ve been on the road—virtually speaking. I’ve travelled halfway around the world without ever leaving my desk. I’ve been Blog Touring—or perhaps that should be Tour Blogging?—rather than the physical kind of touring. And it’s been fun.

Of course, in the past I’ve travelled all over the place to libraries and bookstores for the publication of various books in the series, quite often using a trip to the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention to kick things off. As Bouchercon is held in a different city/state every year (even making it over to the UK several times) it means that the starting point has also always been different.

But, this time around I knew I wasn’t going over to Bouchercon and work-in-progress projects are beginning to pile up. So, doing another blog tour, ably organised by the fearsomely efficient Ayo Onatade, seemed like a good choice.

I’m told that sometimes authors rely on their blogger hosts doing a series of reviews but I hesitate over this way of doing things. What happens if one of the reviewers involved really doesn’t like the book? After all, I would have thought they have far too many books on their teetering TBR piles to read it first, just to make sure.

So, I prefer to do guest posts and articles on topics related to the book, mixed in with a few reviews where blogger/reviewers are happy to do them.

Read the whole of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.

For Day 9 of the Blog Tour for the launch of BAD TURN, I’m with the superb Sharon Bairden of Chapter In My Life. For this, I wrote a guest post on HEroes vs SHEroes, particularly in those old thrillers where the women were more decorative, shall we say, than useful.

I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Bad Turn, the latest in the Charlie Fox series from the brilliant Zoë Sharp. And I think we need to give praise to that cover! Isn’t it stunning!

Thanks to Ayo Onatade for inviting me to take part. I’ve got a cracking guest post lined up for you all.

Guest Post

HEroes vs SHEroes

BAD TURN: Charlie Fox #13

Zoë Sharp

I’ve always loved to read thrillers, starting back with Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, and Arthur Hailey and reading just everyone in the genre from there onward.

The only problem I found was with the women portrayed in those old books. They tended to be a bit on the passive side. And even today, if you read action/adventure novels, you still come across female characters who seem to have no role other than to be rescued by the hero, scream in a firefight and tend to the wounded.

I wanted to read about women who would do their ownrescuing. If they screamed in a firefight it would be more by way of a war cry, and they would be more likely to deal outwounds than have to deal with them, thank you very much.

That was when the character of Charlie Fox really started to come to life in my head. I wasn’t sure, when I first began to write about her, that other people would have the same desire to read about such a strong, no-nonsense heroine. Fortunately, they did and still do—BAD TURN: Charlie Fox #13 is just out. So far, the series has seen Charlie go from teaching people to defend themselves in a northern English city to working for a top New York close-protection agency. Although, this time out her employer—as well as her motivations—are a little harder to fathom.

It bugs me a little that I have to use the word ‘strong’ to describe Charlie. To me, she’s a capable woman who happens to work in a very male-dominated field. To succeed, she’s got to be not simply as good as the men, but demonstrably better. There’s no reason why she can’t be as skilled with weapons or why she can’t have the same mind-set as the guys she works alongside. No reason why she can’t fight on equal terms, either.

Read the whole post over on Chapter In My Life.

Today is Day 8 of the Blog Tour for BAD TURN, and today is another review stop, this time with the excellent Jen Lucas of Jen Med’s Book Reviews. And wow, what a great review! I’m thrilled by her take on the character and the story.

Today it is my great pleasure to be taking part in the blog tour for the thirteenth Charlie Fox nove from Zoë Sharp, Bad Turn. My thanks to Ayo Onatade for inviting me to take part and to the author for providing an advance copy for review.

My Thoughts

Oh how I do love a good action/thriller story, and one with a strong female lead is always an added bonus. Charlie Fox has to rate up there as one of those brilliant characters I can’t wait to hear more about. She is strong, determined, principled, sometimes helped along by a little luck, but more often than not saved by her own quick thinking and ultimate skill. I may have been late to the party, but I’m enjoying catching up. So when I heard that there was a new book on the horizon, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. And what a book it is.

Everything has changed for Charlie and when we meet up with her again she is down on her luck. Out of a job, she is living the . relative quiet life as a house sitter. Quiet that is, until she happens upon an ambush in the middle of nowhere and finds herself caught up in an unexpected gun fight. One thing leads to another and Charlie’s quick thinking and fast action leads to a job offer that she cannot afford to turn down. But nothing is quite as it seems with either Charlie, or the woman she is employed to protect and what follows is a mixture of mystery, action and high tension thrills that kept me hooked from the start to the finish of the book.

I really love the character of Charlie Fox. Author Zoë Sharp has created such a believable and, ultimately, likeable character that you absolutely want to go on an adventure with her. She is not infallible, capable of making the same mistakes as any other woman on the planet, especially when it comes to her feelings, but she is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to her skills in protection and defence. You can tell the author’s own experience, training and research has been put to perfect use here, giving you just enough explanation to put you, as the reader, in the heart of the action, but not so much as to bore you with the detail. It makes the action sequences more thrilling. Heightens the tension as you can practically feel every blow, hear the ticking of the cogs as Charlie works out how she is going to get out of the mess she is invariably in.

Read the whole of the review over on Jen Med’s Book Reviews.

My Day 7 stop on the Blog Tour following the publication of the thirteenth Charlie Fox crime thriller, BAD TURN last week, is with the splendid Karen Cole at Hair Past A Freckle. Karen read the book to review for today’s post. I always wait for the verdict with bated breath…

I think it’s safe to say she quite liked it!

I’m thrilled to be hosting the blog tour for Bad Turn today, many thanks to Zoë Sharp and to Ayoola Onatade from for inviting me and for my advance digital copy of the novel.

I loved the previous Charlie Fox story, Fox Hunter and have been eagerly awaiting her return in Bad Turn. This is the thirteenth book in the series but Zoë Sharp certainly hasn’t let her protagonist stagnate and I was looking forward to discovering what she would be up to this time around.

At the start of the book she has reached a crossroads in her career having quit her job in close protection with Armstrong-Meyer. Unfortunately the position also came with an apartment—and her former boss, Parker Armstrong had rubber-stamped her Green Card and firearms licence. Having been essentially blacklisted from the world of close protection, she is house—and cat—sitting in rural New Jersey. However, trouble has a habit of finding Charlie and when she becomes involved in the attempted kidnapping of Helena Kincaid, the wife of billionaire arms dealer, Eric, she quickly realises she has little choice but to accept the position she is offered working with the Kincaids as Helena’s protection.

It soon transpires that although the world of arms dealers is a shady one, the major players had at least reached an agreement to not involve their loved ones in their dealings. Therefore, the foiled ambush on Helena could trigger a war between some very dangerous people. Helena’s response to her new bodyguard is intriguing and not what I expected at all. After a terrifying encounter which resulted in bloodshed on both sides, it would have been understandable for her to be grateful for the reassurance of a highly trained companion but the situation with Mrs Kincaid isn’t that straightforward. At first she isn’t a particularly likeable character but revelations about her upbringing and her past experiences help to explain her attitude and I thought the relationship between the two women was absolutely fascinating.

Read the rest of Karen’s review on Hair Past A Freckle.

Today is Day 6 of the Blog Tour, and I’m over at By The Letter Book Reviews, the guest of the marvellous Sarah Hardy. I’m talking about changes that have taken place through the series.

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I’ve always said that when you write a continuing protagonist in a long-running series, you have to make a choice right from the beginning how much you’re going to allow them to change.

Keeping them static does have its distinct advantages, I must admit. For one thing, it doesn’t matter which book a new reader picks up first, as they’re not going to encounter any big spoilers for earlier stories. It’s also a lot easier for the character not to age significantly, although I think most readers accept that book-time works at a far slower rate than real time.

When I began writing the Charlie Fox series, I knew right from the outset that Charlie herself was going to develop and grow from book to book. Part of the fascination with the character for me is being able to set her personal as well as professional challenges in each story. I like to take her on a personal journey—one that she will learn from and grow in some way—quite apart from the dramatic events of the book.

At the beginning of the series, in KILLER INSTINCT, Charlie was not yet working as the close-protection specialist she later becomes. She was still very much an amateur when it came to her involvement with crime. By that I mean that she didn’t work for any kind of agency, private or government, who were paid to investigate. She gets caught up in events and has to deal with them as best she can to find a way out, protect the people she cares for, and to survive. It turns out to be very good training for what comes later.

Charlie is a little more raw at that point in her life, she’s still looking for direction and purpose after being kicked off the Special Forces training course she’d fought her way onto, and then being thrown out of the army altogether. At the start of that story she’s on the way back up from her lowest ebb, and I included a nod to her then-job working nightclub security in the latest outing, BAD TURN.

Read the rest of this article over on By The Letter Book Reviews.