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.
In the mid-90s I read all five of Derek Raymond’s pitch black Factory novels: He Died with His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home on Leave, How the Dead Live, I Was Dora Suarez and Dead Man Upright*. I’d been of a mind to write a crime novel of my own for some time, and had dabbled with the odd short story here and there, but I wasn’t sure how to attack it. Reading Raymond unlocked the handcuffs. His nameless, profane (but intensely compassionate) Detective Sergeant was the grit in the grease of the police force, but he ground out results, identifying with the victims and immersing himself in the psychology of their killers to an uncomfortable degree.
I didn’t want to get bogged down in the politics of police procedurals, and decided my rogue element would be an ex-copper with a weakness for missing persons. I wanted it to be gritty and grimy, harrowing and horrific, and Derek dark.
I wrote Blonde on a Stick in 2003, the first in a planned series in which my protagonist would come to terms with the violent death of his wife and the subsequent disappearance of his teenage daughter.
I struggled though, to find a publisher, despite the enthusiasm of my then agent. The rejections were full of encouragement, however, and one or two houses had almost bitten, which kept me optimistic. But it wasn’t until my wife noticed a Facebook post by Maxim Jakubowski referring to the news that he was overseeing the launch of a new crime imprint – MaxCrime – at John Blake Publishing, that I felt my confidence return. Maxim had known Derek Raymond; indeed he had acted as Raymond’s agent for a spell (and still represents his estate). The stars were in alignment, it seemed.
I was thrilled when Maxim bought Blonde for his list and my mind turned to future books. At last Joel Sorrell was on his way…
Alas, more bad fortune was to follow. John Blake is a publisher of repute, but its bread and butter is in non fiction. This first foray into novels lasted less than eighteen months before the list was cancelled. However, they had only purchased UK rights so it was not inconceivable I might be able to resurrect the series with another publisher. Luckily Titan Books showed an interest in Joel Sorrell towards the end of 2013. They agreed to publish two more books in the series, but they also wanted to reprint book one, albeit under a new title.
I was very attached to that original title, but Titan’s argument was that it didn’t quite sit comfortably with the content. It needed a more elegant name, so I came up with one and they produced a striking cover to go with it. I was happy with the decision (all three novels in the series so far are quotes from literary sources – William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare) and excited that finally, over ten years on from his conception, Joel would be able to reopen the file on his missing daughter.
I worry a little that people who have read Blonde will pick up Dust and Desire thinking it is a new book. It is not. It has been revisited, spruced up, modernised, but it is not substantially different. A brand new Joel Sorrell story – Do Not Resuscitate – set shortly after the events in Dust and Desire is included, along with a Q&A. Not that many people would have chanced upon the initial MaxCrime version – I only ever saw one copy in one bookshop and that was positioned ‘spine on’ – so I doubt much confusion can arise given that there was no worldwide or e-book release.
I believe the novel deserves a second chance and I’m grateful to Titan Books for granting it.
The splendid Ali Karim has posted an in-depth interview he conducted with me for The Rap Sheet, the essential, award-winning resource for readers seeking information about what’s new and interesting in the world of crime fiction. You can read it here. Thanks to Ali and The Rap Sheet for their interest and support.
October 1977. I’m eight years old. Dad’s at work. I’m sitting at home hunched over a chessboard waiting for him. White and black plastic. Pawns and pieces on a foldout board fraying at the edges and along the central crease. Knights in profile facing the King and Queen. I’ve been teaching him to play.
A radio on in the kitchen. Mum’s getting ready to go out. She has a part-time job at the Imperial pub on Bewsey Road, a five-minute walk away, serving pints of mixed and pints of tan and black to wire-factory workers: No-Danger Joe, who has his own chair by the door. Nodding Kenny, who’ll agree with anything his boss says. Varley, the pisshead with eyes the color of verdigris, trying it on with the barmaids. She serves them all until they’re too drunk to speak, at which point the manager, a gruff Belfastard, points to the door.
Dad works at the police station in Chester. Top floor. I’ve been to the canteen there. You can look out at the river Dee and the Roman wall while you eat your pie and mash and tea (two sugars). This was in the days before healthy eating. Healthy anything. This was smoker’s cough with your cake and a pall of undigested whisky fumes at breakfast. Bring the lad in to work for the morning. Nice treat while Mum’s in hospital. The receptionist — Brenda or Beryl or Olive — asks if I want a Quality Street sweet while I hide behind Dad’s legs. He’s all smiles and muttonchop whiskers. The clatter of typewriters vibrates through the building. I can smell carbon paper and Quink ink and wet dog and leather. Hoops of sweat under armpits, rings of grime on loosened collars. Brylcreemed hair and Hamlet cigars in top pockets. The world is filled with villains and slags and bastards. Some of them work here.
That radio. Chat and comment and opinion. All buzz. All background. Dad comes in. Winter’s breath full of bonfires and petrol fumes. Kiss, kiss. Dinner’s in the oven, cold lips. Mum goes out into crystallizing darkness. Dad and his brown, steaming hot pot, slashed through with red cabbage. I can’t look at his plate. Newspapers. Can of beer. I wait. I listen. Newsflash. This just in. The body, as yet unidentified, was found on wastelands behind Manchester’s southern cemetery…
Dad puts his fork down. On the phone. He’s here then, he says. He’s come over to Manchester.
I know he’s talking about the Ripper. It’s all you hear about in the school playgrounds. Brian Trent got into trouble with the headmistress for starting a game called Dead, where he pretended to be Jack, felling girls, and how many could he get on the floor before the coppers stopped him? Manchester is twenty miles from here. If the Ripper can leave his hunting grounds of Bradford and Leeds to travel across the Pennines, then he can nip along the M62 to Warrington. Mum will walk home alone this night.
This is where much of it started for me, this business of horror and crime. Siamese genres that share the same diabolical heart. A faceless killer with a northern accent. Pictures of policemen on their knees in allotments and alleyways combing the area for clues. Everything black and cold and filthy. Desperate women torn apart on cobblestones. Doorstep horror. A wraith evading capture and grinning at the plods in their abject failure.
My parents were both in the police force. Mum left when she became pregnant with me. Good was instilled in me as intractably as the marrow in my greenstick bones. I behaved. I was shy to the point of becoming wallpaper. Spock hair. National Health Service glasses. If it weren’t for the blue serge and silver pips in my family I’d have been bully fodder. As it was, I was overlooked. I witnessed casual violence in the playground, observed the rhythms and reactions. I learned about preemptive strikes, grudges, breaking points. Some of these kids would go on to be ugly criminals. There was a rapist among them, it turned out. There was a murderer and a victim. It was a rough old school.
I lived in a pub, too. Once Dad had finished his twenty-five-year stint and picked up his carriage clock and index-linked pension, he did the usual where bobbies were concerned and took over management of the Wheatsheaf Hotel on Orford Lane. What might a quiet boy deep into solitude see here? Time, gentlemen, please. Gentlemen. Oh, really? I’ve seen drunk men threaten each other with the bare fangs of broken beer glasses. Hiked skirts, dirty thumbs hooking into knicker elastic against back alley garbage hoppers. Dad with a black eye and a split lip thanks to a “gentleman” who took umbrage at a request to drink up now, please.
I found echoes of all of this in the black novels of Derek Raymond and waded into the filth after the unnamed Detective Sergeant to the dank, stinking hellholes where bad men met their ends. I fell for the grand guignol of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and the existential tension in James Sallis’s Death Will Have Your Eyes. Later, David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, which was punishing but magnificent, offering up great swathes of my own childhood panic in its red, steaming fists.
All of this has directed where I go in everything I write, but most of it comes from the lonely places from which I viewed the world, and those that I disappeared to inside myself.
Eight years old and I wanted to make sure Mum would be all right walking across Lovely Lane at closing time. Imagining her wrapped in her coat, chilled by that Warrington winter, while fear, and maybe something else, hastened her heels. It still frightens me now. More so than the endless scrutiny of faces as men poured out of the factories at quitting time : Is it him? Is it him? Is it him? More than the “I’m Jack” tape. More than the conjecture about what the Ripper did to his victims in the blanket secrecy — details jealously kept by the police — that followed his attacks.
People ask me why I’ve made the transition from horror to crime and I think: “Transition? Seriously? What the hell are you talking about?”