It’s a privilege to appear once on a year’s best list, so to have two books on Crime Fiction Lover’s top 5 books of 2016 is a real treat. Joel Sorrell isn’t the easiest man in the world to get along with, and he leads his readers into pretty bleak territory, but Sonata of the Dead (no. 3) and Hell is Empty (no. 1) both make the grade. CFL reckons ‘There is no more fascinating recurring character in crime fiction that Joel Sorrell,’ and Joel’s sitting in the corner of the room here, sipping a sherry (‘What the glittering fuck is this shit? Haven’t you got any Stoli?’) and yes, I think there’s the rumour of a smile on his lips…
Big thanks to Michael Parker at CFL and everyone else who ran with Sorrell over the past 18 months.
Hell is Empty is officially published today, apparently (although it seems to have been available on Amazon for a few days already). To accompany the launch of the novel, I’m privileged to be involved in a blog tour. Details are below. Big thanks to all the hosts. I hope you’ll dip in to see what’s on offer…
I headed back to the car. Gone two a.m. I felt as if my internal clock had been overwound and dropped on the floor and kicked against a wall a few times. I wasn’t even sure what day it was. Only the Christmas lights shining in the houses parted by the M1 gave me any kind of clue as to where we all were.
I thought of wrapping presents on Christmas Eve with Rebecca and trying, and failing, every year to get her to do it in the nude. While wearing a Santa hat. I would always write a letter from Father Christmas to Sarah after I’d had a few Bristol Creams, disguising my handwriting best I could. You’ve been very good this year. You know that Mummy and Daddy love you very much. Maybe next year you can sit on Rudolph… I’ve been very busy, you know. And then I’d scarf the mince pie and toss back the glass of brandy and put the carrot back in the salad crisper.
I might have wrapped presents with you in the nude if you didn’t get so piss-pants drunk.
It’s Christmas Eve. What else are you supposed to do?
But that’s your excuse for everything. Christmas Day. New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Day. The first daffodil of spring. Having a shave.
You’re being dramatic. And more than a bit unfair.
Just think on the number of times you could have spent truffle time with my magnificent norks. But you forwent that because you had your gob around a bottle neck.
That was then, Becs.
Yeah, well, I was then, too.
The wipers keeping beat to the sad song that always played. The rain. The splintering of all those red lights on wet tarmac. So much blood. There had been so much blood. The amount we carry in these fragile vessels. And it had all flowed so feverishly for me, as mine had for her, all those years ago. Now it felt like cold porridge in my veins. What was left of hers was soaked into the fibres of the floorboards on Lime Grove or turned to ash by the flames at the crematorium.
A stiff breeze, riddled with winter, tore through the exposed bones of the building. There were other giants rising in concert with this one. London, irked by the knowledge that it was a global shortarse, had decided to tilt for the heavens. Across the way the Splinter was nearing completion. Nearly 800 metres of glass and steel fitted together with the kind of top-level engineer-fu that ensured there were no visible joins. There seemed to be no window frames, just a uniform smoked-glass look throughout, as if it had been fashioned from one stupendous layer. It was beautiful and terrifying and it felt as though I could just reach out from where I was standing to touch its gleaming, polished shoulder. The summit of the Splinter would be a jagged thrust of reinforced glass. Something playful the architect had come up with, to offset the dreary pursuit of money that would go on in all the floors beneath it. He wanted to replicate the shattering of some boiled sweet or other that had caused him to lose a tooth. Work was ongoing; the building was due to open officially in the first quarter of the New Year.
I admired it for a while and then tried to imagine a struggle and a person being thrown over the edge. Was there any chance, I wondered, that the Skylark had finally lost one of these skirmishes and plummeted to his death instead of his intended target? I made a mental note to check the details of the final victim, thinking that whoever had been in charge of the investigation back then ought to have done so as a matter of course.
I got so high that I ran out of building. Steel rods reached up from concrete cores. A guy stood there, slouched against them, observing my trespass. My heart pounced but it was just a hi-vis gilet and a hard hat jammed on a strut. Christ it was cold. Wind buffeted the heights – it probably did so most of the time, no matter if it was completely still at street level. I was about to go – cursing myself for not rocking up in hat and gloves – when I saw light on the uppermost levels of the Splinter.
I might not have been so surprised at that of course, in this metropolis of megawattage, but for the way the light arrived, and the nature of it. It bloomed into being and was softer, a buttery light next to the harsh burn of the halogen. It flickered and leaned as it was moved across the floors. A security guard whose torch had let him down, relying on a candle? Highly unlikely. Kids then. BASE jump researchers. I kept my eyes on the flame. Now it ascended. When it had risen as far as it was able I thought I saw something just beyond its reach: the pale round of a face most likely, looking out, as I was, on the yawning muddle of roads and buildings that meant home. I fancied, with a chill of recognition, that he, or she, was looking straight at me, though surely I was concealed by the dark. It didn’t stop me from moving back into deeper shadow, or whomever it was from suddenly extinguishing the flame.
I sipped my coffee while I flicked through the sheets, glimpsing ghosts. Nearly known names and addresses. Tip-of-the-tongue stuff. Slant-rhymes in a dissonant memory. Many of these people dead now. Many of these addresses turned to rubble or morphed into millions of tons of gleaming glass and steel. The misdemeanours on their criminal records, some of them almost laughably old- fashioned; cute, even. Ernest Percival, fifty-two, of 6 Walmer Road, London W11 had apparently, at midnight on the night of 20th December 1961, stolen two frozen turkeys from Pyrkotis Butchers in Camden and then tried to hide them in a tree when approached by police officers.
Jesus. I trawled through three or four envelopes until I realised I was sitting in an uncomfortable position on the kitchen stool and cultivating a cricked neck. I stood up and stretched and took the pile through to the living room and stretched out on the sofa. It was old shit, but it was interesting, in the way any document from the past is interesting. A window on a world you used to know but is now so alien it seems drawn from dreams.
One envelope in particular caught my eye. The word Skylark was written upon it. I tore it open and out poured a glut of horror. I saw the photographs first. Large monochrome prints of what at first seemed to be pictures of carelessly spilled black paint. But paint didn’t contain body parts: fingers and faces. These were bodies that had been obliterated. What could do such a thing? But I knew full well it had nothing to do with weaponry. This was catastrophic injury sustained in a fall from a great height. This was what we used to describe in the police as ‘pancaking’. We had to collect what didn’t stay inside the bodies with a scraper. I’d dealt with one, a couple of months before I threw my serge uniform and tit helmet at the Chief Superintendent and walked out. A Russian couple who had thrown themselves off the top of a multi-storey car park in West Kensington. They didn’t look too bad, all things considered. They were lying on their backs in the snow. They were still holding hands. Blood had leaked from their ears, the only hint of fatal damage, until we tried to transfer them to the ambulance. It was like trying to heft an octopus. There was no structure to the corpses, the bones having been pulverised. It helped, in a freaky way. You could believe that what you were wadding into the body bags was anything but human. Lover’s leap. Hellish romantic.
‘Skylark’ was apparently the nickname given to an evil bastard who’d been getting his jollies pushing construction staff from the top of skyscraper building sites in the early 1980s. London was enjoying a boom back then, and in-demand architects were sketching their erect pricks, passing them off as blueprints and pocketing acres of green. The capital was going up in the world in more ways than one. There was no obvious motive for what Skylark was doing, but there were a few theories written down on memos. Political activist? Anti-capitalist? Protesting against the verticalisation of London? Worth looking into. Anybody on file?
Presumably not, because nobody had ever been caught.
My publisher, Titan Books, is running a Twitter competition to win copies of both Dust and Desire and Sonata of the Dead. But be quick. The competition closes on 30th August. Check out their Twitter feed @TitanBooks.
Lancaster University, 1993. I’m in a class. It’s the creative writing MA. My tutor is Alan Burns. He wrote Europe After the Rain, Babel, Dreamerika! 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.
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.
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…
In Dust and Desire, Sonata of the Deadand (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.
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.
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.
‘An inventive and beautifully written new take on the encounter of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach, told by a wheelchair bound boy who communicates only through blinking, but who is a keen, if perhaps unreliable, observer. Williams’ control of the narration keeps the story both thrilling and reflective, and casts an unusual shadowy light on crime fiction’s most famous showdown.’
It’s a great thrill to be in the running against such strong competition (including old chum and Watson, Little stablemate, Chris Fowler). The awards ceremony is in London on October 11th.