Best of Year 2016

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 Teaser #2

dsc_0009-2008-03-04-at-16-43-50A 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.

Hell is Empty Teaser #1

wtrloobridgeI 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.

Sonata of the Dead: Teaser #5

train copyShe wasn’t coming. Nobody was coming. Nobody I wanted to see, at least.

All the lights went out. The departures board stuttered and died.

I felt my back bristle. I moved out from behind the ticket machine and heard the consternation of staff on the platforms, and passengers cheated of their information. A fire alarm went off. People began moving towards the exit. I stayed put, shrinking into the deep shadow of an entrance corridor. I heard the clatter of roller shutters as they crashed down.

About a hundred metres away, a figure moved out of a thick darkness that was wadded up against the far wall. I kept losing it in the gloom. It wasn’t Sarah, that was for sure. It was like a magnet shifting through iron filings. It coalesced and disintegrated. The absence of light, or of anything on the figure that might have reflected it – glasses, belt buckles, polished leather – meant that it sometimes shrank from view. I couldn’t track it. And then it would be over there to the left, a little closer now. It was ranging from side to side. I had the horrible feeling that it was trying to sniff me out. I imagined something blind, something monstrous with unhinged jaws sucking in the flavour of my warm body, homing in. But now I did see something gleaming, and it was a broad blade. I thought it might be a machete, but that could have been fear enlarging it. I was torn between running for my life and sticking around in the hope that I might catch a clearer glimpse of my stalker and put a face to the threat, level this playing eld. Maybe even disarm him, finish it tonight.

But fear was a series of tiny eggs hatching in my gut. The last time I’d fought a man with a blade, I’d almost ended up with a new mouth. I felt weak and tired, the comedown from a jag of adrenaline at the thought of being reunited with my daughter once again. And maybe this wasn’t about me. Maybe this was a guy coming to rob Paddington Station. With a machete. Yeah, right. The shakes intensified when I thought of that weapon piercing Gower, Treacle and Taft, making steaks of them, life spraying in trajectories created by a millimetre-thick edge of steel.

I got moving myself, but not before I decided to match the figure’s trickery. I slid my watch off my wrist and into my pocket. My wedding ring too. Buttoned my jacket and turned up the collar. I headed for the edge of Platform 1 and dropped on to the tracks as quietly as I was able. Hugging the wall under the lip, I made for open air, crouched low alongside the rails.

I passed under Bishop’s Bridge Road, and waited for a while in its shelter. The space under the roof of the station was utterly black. How hard could it be to replace a fuse? And then a footfall on track ballast; the harsh music of crushed stone. The weapon was fully brandished now; it swept the air before it in broad, slow arcs. I backed away, ready to run if need be. The sight of the steel made the scar on my face ache.

Sonata of the Dead: Teaser #4

She poured and I drank. She held her glass with both hands, like a child, and closed her eyes when she took her first mouthful.

‘Oof,’ she said. ‘That’s good.’

‘That was the drink of a person who has just walked out of the desert,’ I said.

‘Feels like it. Had a tough couple of days.’

‘I know how that feels.’

‘So I watch football to unwind.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘It doesn’t relax me. I end up swearing at the set.’

She took another drink, leaned back in her seat. On the screen, ex-players in panic-inducingly expensive suits and fuck-me haircuts bantered around a pitch-side table.

‘That’s because you’re partisan. You’re invested.’

‘You’re not?’

She shook her head. ‘Itinerant upbringing. Didn’t stay in one place for long enough to swear allegiance. I’m as neutral as it gets. I just like to watch. The patterns. The shapes. The flow.’

‘So what’s on tonight?’ Screens upon screens. Giant screens. Tiny corner screens. Personal screens on tables. So many screens you’d be hard pressed not to catch the match at all, even if you were a dwarf with cataracts. In a different bar.

‘Champions League semi-final, first leg.’

‘Who’s playing?’

‘No idea.’ She looked at my clothes. ‘Red versus blue. France versus England. Expansive versus cautious.’

‘You could be describing us.’

‘Experience versus youth.’

‘Very good,’ I said. ‘Very funny.’

‘So how come you’re out on a school night?’ she asked.

On the screens overpaid, oily-haired prongs stood in the tunnel. And that was just the match officials. Smoke from a flare turned the stands into a ghost-red battle zone. The bar management ramped up the volume and the Champions League theme shook our glasses.

I’d gone through my beer as if it were water. I realised I was nervous. She poured me another glass. ‘I’ve been looking into a death. Someone was murdered a couple of days ago. In Enfield. He knew my daughter.’

‘I don’t know what I can do to help.’

‘Possibly nothing. It doesn’t matter. But I was wondering if there was someone at the museum who could look at some documents for me.’

‘You mean me?’

‘Of course I do. I’m rubbish at being direct.’

‘What sort of documents?’

I pulled the pages from my jacket and handed them over.

She took another deep drink and studied them.

‘My uncle would have been all over this,’ she said.

‘Your uncle?’

‘He was involved in the Zodiac killings back in the sixties and seventies.’

‘No kidding.’

‘Yeah. He was one of the team who studied the notes Zodiac sent to the San Francisco Chronicle.’

‘And you got into palaeography because of him?’

‘Kind of. But I’m more involved with manuscript dating.’

‘You just haven’t met the right man yet.’

‘Very good,’ she said. ‘Very funny.’

Sonata of the Dead: Teaser #3

cwtu1_22

‘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?’