OMOHO

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Marathon Man

Lancaster University, 1993. I’m in a class. It’s the creative writing MA. My tutor is Alan Burns. He wrote Europe After the RainBabelDreamerika! He was one of a group of experimental writers knocking around in the 1960s which included BS Johnson. Alan used to talk about cut-ups a lot. And he was fond of this exercise: choose a word and don’t say anything but, all day. See how it makes you think. See what it does to the word. How does it change your perception of what words mean. Fishpaste. He spent all day walking around saying nothing but fishpaste. He had a dream once, in which he was playing in an orchestra and he was sweating because he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. But then he looked to one side and there was Picasso on the cello, so then he knew everything would be fine. Interesting guy, Alan Burns.

Alan Burns

Alan Burns

So this class. I remember he was talking about the OMOHO. The dread of the OMOHO. The impossibility of it. One Man On His Own. He was arguing that you can’t have it in fiction. It does not exist. It should not exist. You try to write a novel containing just one character and you are dead in the water. You need obstacles, you need opposition. You need an ally. You need an antagonist. He referred to Europe After the Rain, in the embryonic stages of which he had created a character moving through a post-war terrain. The idea for the book wouldn’t form. What was his protagonist doing? And then Alan realised, he was looking for his sister. Now he had a story. OMOHO is no story.
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That was over twenty years ago. The OMOHO stayed in my thoughts, nagged at it. I wanted to to have a crack, to prove Alan Burns wrong. I wrote short stories about single men in dreary urban dwellings struggling with relationships while the supernatural loomed. Was it any surprise that I would be lumped in with the other glass half-empty slipstream writers that came to be known as the Miserablists in the early 1990s? I even toyed with using OMOHO as the title of a novel. I decided, when I wrote my post-apocalyptic novel One, that I would try writing an OMOHO. But Alan was right. You just can’t get along without other people, even when most of the people are dead. I ended up introducing survivors, until the novel was populated by quite a healthy cast list. So much for OMOHO. I couldn’t even manage it in a world depleted by a catastrophic natural disaster…
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In Dust and Desire, Sonata of the Dead and (coming in November 2016) Hell is Empty, I’ve reached a compromise. Of course Joel Sorrell, my PI, is not One Man On His Own. He lives in London for Pete’s sake. But in many ways, he’s completely isolated. His wife is dead. His daughter has deserted him. He couldn’t hack it in the police force and got out, not without rubbing plenty of people up the wrong way, people he now needs to get on side if he’s going to get anywhere with his MisPer cases. Even his own cat treats him with contempt.
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I’ve always liked the lone wolf, in both literature and film. Put me in front of any number of 1970s paranoia thrillers and I’m a happy boy. The main characters in these films are not strictly OMOHOs… But… they kind of are. That’s the point of them. Who can they trust? Nobody. Three Days of the Condor (Robert Redford, OMOHO by lunchtime), The Parallax View (Warren Beatty, OMOHO on a bomb-laden airliner), Marathon Man (Dustin Hoffman, OMOHO jogging through NYC), The Conversation (Gene Hackman, OMOHO bugger). And on the page too I prefer the mavericks, rather than the police procedurals. Especially the unnamed Detective Sergeant from Derek Raymond’s Factory novels. Yes, he works in the Force, but he’s in limbo, stuck at his rank because of his obstinacy; out on a limb working at A14: Unexplained Deaths.
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I like the romance of the loner. The helpless introspection and attendant self doubt. The vulnerability. I like to see them skating on thin ice and sailing close to the wind. The desperation. I like how the rogue element will push the boundaries of what’s legal in order to make a breakthrough. Not for me the conventional interrogation with a tape recorder and an officer keeping tabs. Good cop, bad cop? No thanks. I prefer questions on the lam, and actual harm if the answers don’t pass muster. Search warrant? No time for that. Rough justice rather than a by-the-rulebook prosecution. My boy isn’t in it for the collars and the kudos. It’s personal for him. He’s in it for the result. The permanent solution. Dead men can’t get off on a technicality. Sometimes you really are on your own.

Sonata of the Dead: Teaser #3

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‘Joel, I think you need help.’

I need help? I’m not the one who killed in cold blood. I’m not the one who took photographs of naked women in changing rooms and then tossed off over them back in his sad pad.’

‘No. But it’s a sunny day. And you chose to come and sit in a cold room in a prison miles away from where you live. Shepherd’s Bush, isn’t it? Or did you move? I’m guessing you would have moved. Somewhere smaller. You’d have been rattling around that old place, wouldn’t you, Joel? You and perky tits… what was her name?’

I’d stood up without realising it. The guards in the room stepped closer. One of them rested his hand on the Taser in his belt. I’d come in here determined to control myself, to control him, to control the situation, and within seconds he had the upper hand. He was playing me like a knackered trombone.

‘What did you think you could do, Joel? Why did you even come here?’

I was shaking my head. I was digging my nails into my palms. I could feel the adrenaline from my kidneys, a hot liquor that was slowly poaching me from the inside out.

‘May I offer an hypothesis?’

A peeping Tom. A guy who scraped shit off toilet bowls. A coward. A thief. I remember word for word how the judge had referred to him just before passing sentence: a pathetic, tragic alien living among us, the antithesis of everything good in his victim.

‘I think you came here because you consider me the strop that keeps your edge keen. You came to see me because you’re losing your grip on who you are and what you feel your point in life is. Rebecca was your anchor. She kept you grounded. And now you’ve been cut adrift, there’s nobody to steer you into safe waters, is there?’

He licked his lips. His face hosted boles of deep shadow, like the cross-hatchings in a bleak political cartoon. His eyes were pale crucibles of cold flame. In the dock he had stood bowed, like an S, like something defeated, burdened with a weight only he could feel. A grey man, his hair thinning, apparently being eaten away by something more deleterious than the most aggressive of cancers. Now he was loose-limbed and lissom. Muscles shifted like oiled rats against each other under his clothing. His skin was pink. He gleamed.

He rubbed his hand over his mouth. His nostrils flared. His fingernails were like polished slivers of almond.

‘So Joel, how’s the search for your daughter going?’

Sonata of the Dead: Teaser #2

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I was on the M6 within twenty minutes. The motorway was uncommonly quiet, just a smattering of lorries and cars, maybe a dozen or so in total. It was getting on for seven o’clock. Clouds were piled like wet grey towels.

My dad died when I was twelve years old. He dropped dead in a car park in Southampton while he was attending a conference, some work-related training course; he was an office manager for a stationery business based in Penrith. Aneurysm. The technical name for it – subarachnoid haemorrhage – gave me nightmares. I thought his head had split open under the weight of a skull filled with spiders. I bore the fear of that for years; a time bomb in the brain he had carried from birth.

I remember little things about him, although I suspect I’ve also dreamed some of them into perceived reality. The way he drank instant coffee exclusively with hot milk and lots of sugar; his penchant for big coats with big pockets so he could line up his pens in a row; a love of Dylan and Mitchell (I remember singing along to Blue in a Christmas living room smelling of vinyl seat covers and tangerines and Harveys Bristol Cream). I remember going to the swimming baths with him, and clinging on to his shoulders in the deep end, where the water was always colder. He would buy me crisps and chemical-green pop from the vending machines afterwards, and we’d sit on plastic chairs while I ate and he tied my shoelaces.

What’s the difference between a duck?
I don’t know, Dad.
One leg’s both the same.

My foot on the parapet. The crack of stone. The drop.

How fast you’d go. A sense of freedom, of flight. Shackles off. A release for ever from worry and fear and responsibility.

I bore down on the accelerator.
70… 80… 90…
I lifted my hands from the steering wheel and closed my eyes.

007 – The Films

I was six years old when Dr No was aired on UK television in October 1975 – the first appearance of James Bond on the small screen. I was seven when From Russia with Love and Goldfinger were shown. Chances are one of those was my first meeting with 007. I was smitten, although I can’t put my finger on the reason why. It was likely due to a combination of factors. The cars. The exotic locations. The fights with the henchmen. The banter with the baddie. Not the women though… not then. Like any healthy young chap, I’d cover my eyes when there was any kissing and cuddling nonsense going on. And the music. What music. John Barry was a genius. And then there was the way the films began. That terrific gun barrel sequence and the accompanying assault of brass. The_Living_Daylights_-_Gun_Barrel

Having written about my favourite 007 novels recently, I thought it only right I should turn my attention to the films. So here are my top 5 cinematic Bonds.

5. Licence to Kill (1989)
I want my Bond to be like the bastard in the books. Mean, thuggish; a guy who looks capable of very nasty behaviour. Pierce Brosnan caught my attention in Goldeneye (which loiters just outside my top 5), but he was always a little too smug, and he looked as if he’d overdone it with the hairspray. Roger Moore? Roger Less, in my view. He played 007 as a clown (literally in Octopussy) and seems so uncomfortable in his skin. I didn’t believe in him at all, and hated the double-takes and the sheer buffoonery (the gondola through Venice in Moonraker, the Beach Boys music as he surfs across snow in A View to a Kill, and the Tarzan cry in Octopussy – the nadir). If I was to have to nominate one Moore Bond it would be The Man with the Golden Gun. But only for Christopher Lee and a cracking score. No. Connery had that cruelty, along with the glibness. Daniel Craig has it in spades. And so did Timothy Dalton, perhaps the finest actor to be in possession of the Double-O licence. Dalton was the right man at the wrong time.

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The Living Daylights was a major return to form after Roger Moore creaked his way through A View to a Kill. And, as Dalton insisted, this was a return to the books. He played it straight: here was a Bond to believe in, and to fear. However, Joe Don Baker, though an excellent actor, was a rather pallid villain, and the cello case ride across the Austrian border seemed like something Dalton’s predecessor would have done.

Dalton made the role his own with Licence to Kill, which sees 007 stripped of his Double-O privileges when he takes off on a revenge mission against Robert Davi’s ruthless drugs baron, Franz Sanchez. Benicio del Toro is menacing in an early screen role. Unfortunately, due to a number of problems (failing box office clout in the face of hits of the day including the Die Hard franchise, Lethal Weapon, Batman and Indiana Jones‘ third outing; MGM’s sale resulting in legal wrangling over TV rights), it would be six years before 007 returned to the big screen, and by then Dalton had moved on.

4. Goldfinger (1964)
The last of the great Connery Bonds. A brilliant film with a strong female lead (albeit with a dubious name), an engaging villain and an imposing henchman. One of the best John Barry scores. And a genius plot: Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) intends to detonate a nuclear device inside Fort Knox to irradiate the US gold supply, thus driving up the value of his own stock. Some great lines: “Auric Goldfinger? Sounds like a French nail varnish.” And one of the most iconic scenes in movie history: Shirley Eaton’s character Jill Masterson on a hotel bed, coated in gold paint.

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3. Casino Royale (2006)
A much-needed reboot after the dreadful Die Another Day. Daniel Craig’s Bond crashed on to the screen like a bristling bull, a face and physique meant for dirty work: you believed this guy could kill with his bare hands. SMERSH paymaster Le Chiffre (brilliantly portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen) has embezzled his employer’s funds, and is in a bit of a panic to make it all back on the poker table; 007 is there to make sure he doesn’t. It’s a simple plot, and a welcome break from the quest for world-domination. There’s no underground lair to blow up, which is nice. And in Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, there is a confident, sassy foil for a change, who brooks no nonsense from our randy English spy.

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2. From Russia with Love (1963)
A tense pre-credit sequence introduces us to Red Grant, played by Robert Shaw, a KGB thug who provides 007 with one of his toughest challenges. James Bond willingly walks into a honeytrap set by the Soviets, who want this pest of a secret agent killed. The potential prize is a Lektor code-breaking machine. The film is studded with great set pieces, including a gunfight at a gypsy settlement and a showdown on board the Orient Express, one of the most brutal in Bond history. Along with Grant, Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) is a memorably nasty villain.

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1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
The best theme tune bar none. An absolute pulse-pounding classic. I spent far too long wishing Sean Connery had been in this film, but after a lot of thought, I don’t think it would have been as good without George Lazenby. He infused the film with an uncertainty, a vulnerability that Connery did not possess. If he had been persuaded to stick around for this, mightn’t he have phoned in a performance, as he did in Diamonds Are Forever? Telly Savalas plays Ernst Stavro Blofeld, hiding out in Switzerland and trying to claim for himself a title of nobility. Bond, disguised as a genealogist from the London College of Arms, flies in to ostensibly check Blofeld’s credentials and unveils a plot to distribute biological warfare ingredients around the world. Diana Rigg provides steely support as Tracy.

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Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know…

Detail from 'Red Dragon'

Detail from ‘Red Dragon’

Thanks to the excellent My Bookish Ways, who agreed to host a blog by me this week on the heels of Dust and Desire‘s publication. You can read it here, a little piece about creating a memorable villain.

The Napoleon of Crime

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Lionel Atwill as Moriarty in ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon’ (1943)

Yesterday I discovered that my story, Rosenlaui, will be included in Constable & Robinson‘s forthcoming The Mammoth Book of Professor Moriarty Adventures, edited by the venerable Maxim Jakubowski. The story concerns events in Meiringen, Switzerland, on the eve of that momentous confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls.

This is only the second time I’ve ever written a story containing someone else’s creation (I had a story in Stephen Jones’ Dracula anthology – another ‘Mammoth’ book – back in 1997), and I had enormous fun with it. I would certainly consider doing something similar in future (are you listening, Ian Fleming Publications?).

Fancy meeting you here…

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Getting certain characters together in fiction without any hint of contrivance is a challenge for any writer. In Sonata of the Dead, my WIP, I’ve got my lead character, a PI named Joel Sorrell, who needs to link up with another character, a woman with whom he will develop a strong working relationship (and maybe more besides). I don’t want them to meet during some arranged get-together because there are many such incidents where Joel has to talk to a number of different people in a formal setting. I want this one to feel random. But what is good random, and what is bad random? I suppose the bad random is cliché. So out goes the collision in a corridor (especially if she’s carrying a mountain of papers), or the mild flirtation in a lift, or an argument over the last taxi in the rank.

I suppose to a certain degree all genre fiction is contrived (perhaps crime fiction above all) which is where suspension of disbelief in readers becomes important, but writers can smooth the path to some extent by clearing out the obvious moments of coincidence, and any laboured or far-fetched sequences. A scene that is hard to swallow will yank the reader out of the well-oiled, absorbing story you’re striving to create.

Getting characters away from each other is equally important, especially if you’re writing a horror novel, but again, you have to manage it credibly… Okay guys, there’s an axe-wielding psychopath out there somewhere… let’s split up!