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