i know who did it

Posted by on September 18th, 2015

So! I have a new book coming out next week. The official publication date is Thursday 24 September, but publication dates are moveable feasts: there were copies available at Bloody Scotland last weekend, and I’m sure there will be some lurking in bookshops before too long. If not, it will at least be available as an ebook from next Thursday.

Here is what it is about:


The hardest crimes to acknowledge are your own…

Charlie Matheson died two years ago in a car accident. So how is a woman bearing a startling resemblance to her claiming to be back from the dead? Detective Mark Nelson is called in to investigate and hear her terrifying account of what she’s been through in the afterlife.

Every year Detective David Groves receives a birthday card for his son…even though he buried him years ago. His son’s murder took everything from him, apart from his belief in the law, even though the killers were never found. This year, though, the card bears a different message: I know who did it.

Uncovering the facts will lead them all on a dark journey, where they must face their own wrongs as well as those done to those they love. It will take them to a place where justice is a game, and punishments are severe. Nelson and Groves know the answers lie with the kind of people you want to turn and run from. But if they’re to get to the truth, first they’ll have to go through hell…

Now, I never usually worry too much about publication dates. For one thing, I’ve been in the game long enough by now that I know what to expect: ultimately, a day like any other. You may or may not spot copies in your local bookshop on the day, but even if you do, it’s just one novel sitting amidst many other hopefuls. It’s lovely to see it out in the wild, of course. But books live or die on longer timescales, and none of my books have ever emerged into the world doing elaborate commercial gymnastics on day one.

That said, I’d obviously like it to do well. For two reasons. The first is that this book has been a long time coming: over three years since I started writing it, in its first failed form. The second is that I like it. That might sound like a strange thing for a writer to say about his or her own work, but for me, it’s certainly not always the case. I’m proud of my back catalogue, but it usually takes a couple of years for me to appreciate the books for what they are without just seeing the disparity between my expectations when I started them and the reality of how they actually turned out. That isn’t the case with I Know Who Did It. I like it – quietly – already.

And I’m pleased to say that others seem to as well. It’s very, very early days, but the book is currently standing at five reviews, all five stars on Goodreads. That will change, of course. But in the meantime, here is a handful of samples from early reviews. I genuinely appreciate each and every one of them. Very much indeed.


“Strange and powerful, this is Mosby’s best.”
(Marcel Berlins, The Times)

“Mosby has become renowned for thrillers that reach into dark places where most British crime writers are afraid to go, while the low-key lyricism of his style makes his books moving as well as terrifying.”
(Jake Kerridge, Express)

“Meaty issues, violence, and a well realised blend of police procedural and psychological thriller. Highly recommended, and quite deservedly my book of the month.”
(Raven Crime Reads)

“Those who know their crime fiction have long been aware that Steve Mosby is one of the most idiosyncratic and ambitious of current UK practitioners, and this new book is well up to his customarily impressive standard.”
(Barry Forshaw, Crime Time)

“If you don’t mind a touch of wild gothic in your police procedurals, you’ll find this one highly entertaining. And, as ever with Mosby, it’s stylishly written.”
(Mat Coward, Morning Star)

“It is without doubt one of the top crime novels of the year for me so far. Possibly even one of the top novels in any genre … And if that’s not enough to get you reading, there is also a completely jaw dropping moment that had me throwing the kindle aside and letting out a yell … I Know Who Did It is an emotionally resonant, multi-layered crime drama with some characters so full of depth and reality that they pop off the page and one that will stay with me for a long long time.”
(Liz Loves Books)

“And now for something completely different …. and that’s exactly what you get with Steve Mosby’s sequel to The 50/50 Killer … it’s a totally unique read, there’s a moment where everything you thought you were reading suddenly gets turned on its head, I’ve read it twice now and it was just as good the second time with hindsight.? If you like something that’s just that little bit different from your average crime novel this is the book for you. I’m off to read it again.”
(Angela Oatham)

“I have used the words ‘strange’ and ‘slipstream’ when reviewing his work. I now think that I need to add another word to my vocabulary: I Know Who Did It is his cleverest to date.”

“A gripping seventh novel from the talented Mosby whose reputation has been growing steadily … Neat storytelling, coupled with Mosby’s sure touch for characters that demand our sympathy, help make this one of those crime novels that linger in the mind long after the final page.”
(Geoffrey Wansell, Daily Mail)

“Mosby’s writing speaks to the human condition with sophistication, subtlety and insight … I highly recommend I Know Who Did It. It crackles with menace, there’s plenty at stake, and the plot is unlike any other I have read. I seriously challenge you to guess its resolution! I think Mosby is one of the best male crime writers around.”
(Vicky Newham)

“I can’t believe how great this novel is … this really stands out amongst the crowd as an excellent, fast-paced novel that keeps you guessing until the end … It is more complex, more exciting and more clever than many crime novels I’ve read … Though its storyline is, at times, quite dark and disturbing, it’s certainly an enjoyable and intriguing read that I’ll be strongly recommending to any crime lovers.”
(Snazzy Books)


Today, Jonathan Jones at the Guardian set the internet on fire with his article about Terry Pratchett. I’m bored, so here are my thoughts…


“It does not matter to me if Terry Pratchett’s final novel is a worthy epitaph or not, or if he wanted it to be pulped by a steamroller. I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to. Life’s too short.”

Life is indeed short. Many would argue that it’s too short, in fact, to read the facile and superficial observations of a supposedly professional arts critic opining on the works of an author that he hasn’t read. As we shall see.

“No offence, but Pratchett is so low on my list of books to read before I die that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him.”

Well, at the rate of reading one book a week, that means Jones considers there are 52,000,000 books that are superior to Pratchett’s output – or at least books that are preferable to read for his purposes. It is impossible to know for sure what percentage of published books that amounts to, but an estimate in 2010 suggests there were around 120,000,000 books available at that point, which I believe includes non-fiction. The number will have increased. Let’s say it’s currently 200,000,000 fictional books. Jones is still placing Pratchett’s output in the lower quarter of all published novels: a catalogue as a whole that includes a significant number of self-published novels about people having sex with dinosaurs. I suggest he thinks again.

And of course, I understand that the original quote is an example of rhetoric and hyperbole, but sometimes pedantry is the only appropriate response to such things. We’ll get more serious shortly.

“I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary.”

Right. So. What exactly is ordinary prose? (Never mind very ordinary – if you’re going to criticise someone else’s prose, it’s probably a good idea not to use qualifiers that make little sense in context). Pratchett writes in sentences, presumably, with clear meanings and no obvious linguistic fireworks. But that is – of course – not necessarily a problem. Let’s take this example from Night Watch, describing an upcoming riot:

As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up. What would run through the streets soon enough wouldn’t be a revolution or a riot. It’d be people who were frightened and panicking. It was what happened when the machinery of city life faltered, the wheels stopped turning and all the little rules broke down. And when that happened, humans were worse than sheep. Sheep just ran; they didn’t try to bite the sheep next to them.

That is straightforward, simple language that delivers a punch of recognition at the end. There are a couple of metaphors in there, but they’re not laboured or elaborated on at length. It’s a get-in and get-out kind of paragraph, and it’s artistically sound. Just because you’re not purpling your language at length doesn’t mean that plain and relatively unadorned prose can’t lead to a clear and precise understanding of quite complicated issues.

We’ll come back to the “flicking through” in a moment or two.

“I don’t mean to pick on this particular author, except that the huge fuss attending and following his death this year is part of a very disturbing cultural phenomenon.”

“Very disturbing”. Really? I think there was a huge outcry of grief about Terry Pratchett’s death for a number of reasons. He was an extremely talented and much-loved author, who died before his time as we see it, and whose death was, to some extent, detailed in the public domain. He wrote eloquently, passionately and intelligently about death as he faced it. Those who saw him at later events observed a diminished man who, nevertheless, retained the same commitment to his fans and his community as they had when he was first starting out. People loved him for his writing, amongst other things, and they really loved it. It is hardly surprising that his death affected hundreds of thousands of people very deeply indeed.

“In the age of social media and ebooks, our concept of literary greatness is being blurred beyond recognition. A middlebrow cult of the popular is holding literature to ransom.”

These two sentences are basically offcuts from a better article with a coherent argument behind it. As they stand, they are meaningless and unsupported here. Let’s give them a pass.

 “Thus, if you judge by the emotional outpourings over their deaths, the greatest writers of recent times were Pratchett and Ray Bradbury.”

No, it really just says that they were two much-loved writers who touched many lives. There have been others. There have actually been many others.

“There was far less of an internet splurge when Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014 and Günter Grass this spring. Yet they were true titans of the novel. Their books, like all great books, can change your life, your beliefs, your perceptions.”

Indeed, but there is an implied premise here that Pratchett’s works did not do those things, or at least did so in some lesser or less substantive manner than the authors mentioned. It may well be true, but it is an ambitious argument to attempt to make by someone who admits to not having read him, and indeed, does not then bother to make that argument in any meaningful manner anyway.

“Everyone reads trash sometimes, but why are we now pretending, as a culture, that it is the same thing as literature? The two are utterly different.”

Yes, indeed. But significantly lacking here is any attempt to differentiate the two. The question of what counts as “literature” (distinct from “literary) is not settled.

What do we value in artistic works? There are numerous possible answers. We value entertainment of some kind; we value an emotional connection; we value being moved; we value seeing the world anew as a result of experiencing the text in whatever form it takes. The latter seems most important to me, although opinions vary. Regardless, all are true with regard to Pratchett’s work.

People often assume that literary judgements are either objective (ie there are qualities that are somehow measurable) or entirely subjective (ie anything you like must be good), but while there are elements of both that are correct the real truth lies somewhere in between. As a society, we establish our touchstone texts intersubjectively, based on the cumulative and conflicting judgements of readers, reviewers, critical assessments, sales, cultural dialogue, academic discourse, cross-referencing with other work, and so on. It’s an ongoing discussion. But the fact that an apparently professional arts critic is writing an admittedly piss-weak article on an author, following a lengthy review and analysis of his last novel by A. S. Byatt, in itself suggests that the writer in question warrants a little more than simply writing off.

And what on earth does “trash” mean here? Trash. Seriously. However much you might differentiate between higher and lower works in the arts, is that an appropriate word to use? Roll it around your mouth. Trash. It’s a harsh word to use about anything somebody has spent a year of their life working on, and which other people have enjoyed. There are many books I haven’t enjoyed. I’d never call them trash.

“Actual literature may be harder to get to grips with than a Discworld novel, but it is more worth the effort. By dissolving the difference between serious and light reading, our culture is justifying mental laziness and robbing readers of the true delights of ambitious fiction.”

There is a great deal to unpack and potentially argue with in these two sentences. There are some underlying assumptions to untangle and make plain and shine a harsh light on. I won’t do that today. Again, they belong in a better article, probably written by somebody else.

“Because life really is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers. I am not saying this as a complacent book snob who claims to have read everything. On the contrary, I am crushed by how many books I have not read. This summer I finally finished Mansfield Park. How had I managed not to read it up to now? It’s shameful. But at least now it’s part of my life. The structure of Jane Austen’s morally sombre plot, the restrained irony of her style, the sudden opening up of the book as it moves from Mansfield Park to Portsmouth and takes in the complex real social world of regency England – all that’s in me now.”

Well, here we return to the initial criticism Jones made of Terry Pratchett. He “flicked through” one of his novels in a bookshop and found the prose “very ordinary”. You wonder if he would find a comparable level of criticism of Mansfield Park convincing. Leaving aside all other possible criticisms, you certainly won’t understand the virtues he recognises and appreciates in the novel if you take such a lacklustre approach to the text itself. Structure, style, progression, plot. You don’t get those by skimming. How astonishing that when you read whole books you find yourself in a position to appreciate them as a whole and understand what they have to offer? It’s not astonishing at all, of course. It’s blindingly, teeth-grindingly obvious.

 “Great books become part of your experience. They enrich the very fabric of reality. I don’t just mean 19th-century classics, either.”

Well, that’s a relief. Because, to be honest, the reality depicted in Mansfield Park represents my lived experience about as much as a world similar to our own that is balanced on top of four enormous elephants, in turn balanced on the back of a gigantic turtle. Which is to say: potentially, quite a lot. People are people, after all.

“I also read Post Office by Charles Bukowski this summer. My God, what a writer. Bukowski is a voice from hell with the talent of an angel. I must read every word by him.”

I will make no judgements on Bukowski, beyond the fact that it seems weird to me that Jones is just getting into him now. And that “a voice from hell with the talent of an angel” is a terrible sentence, and either a self-censor or an external one should have intervened.

“But Terry Pratchett? Get real. It’s time we stopped this pretence that mediocrity is equal to genius.”

We should abandon that pretence when it comes to literary criticism too. I suspect, after today, we won’t have to when it comes to Jonathan Jones.


epic endings

Posted by on June 12th, 2015

Another reason for me to look forward to this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival – the Dead Good books awards are announced there, and I’m thrilled to have made the shortlist for The Reichenbach Falls Award for Most Epic Ending. (Although obviously, it’s actually The Nightmare Place that has made the shortlist, not me personally).

It’s an ace shortlist, with fine company for me to be amongst. It’s also a public vote, so if you get the chance to vote, then please do. (And I don’t mean necessarily for me). There are other categories with equally great writers listed too, and I’m very happy to be part of it. Thanks to everyone who put me there.


what i have been and will be up to

Posted by on June 2nd, 2015

It’s been a long while since I posted an update here on actual writing and events, so I figured it was about time. Part of the reason for that silence is that I’ve been hard at work on the next book, which is now finished and due to be released in September this year. And … drum roll … this is it:

i know who did it (forthcoming 2015)

The hardest crimes to acknowledge are your own…

Charlie Matheson died two years ago in a car accident. So how is a woman bearing a startling resemblance to her claiming to be back from the dead? Detective Mark Nelson is called in to investigate and hear her terrifying account of what she’s been through in the afterlife.

Every year Detective David Groves receives a birthday card for his son…even though he buried him years ago. His son’s murder took everything from him, apart from his belief in the law, even though the killers were never found. This year, though, the card bears a different message: I know who did it.

Uncovering the facts will lead them all on a dark journey, where they must face their own wrongs as well as those done to those they love. It will take them to a place where justice is a game, and punishments are severe. Nelson and Groves know the answers lie with the kind of people you want to turn and run from. But if they’re to get to the truth, first they’ll have to go through hell…

I’m enormously pleased about this on a number of levels. The first is that out of all the books I’ve written this one has been the hardest. It began life about three years ago, as a novel that Orion and I decided between us wasn’t quite right. At that point, I shelved the material – all 90,000 words of it – and wrote The Nightmare Place instead. But I was reluctant to abandon the earlier work entirely, and over time I gradually worked out how to split the various strands up and then twist them together again.

The resulting book is very different from the one I submitted back then, but I really like it. It is also – yet another reason for my excitement – my first ever sequel. I’ve only ever written standalones up until now, and while I Know Who Did It works perfectly well as a standalone, it also follows up on characters from The 50/50 Killer, revisiting them a year and a half on from the events of that book. I should probably have done this a while back, all things considered, but sometimes you have to wait for the right idea. Perhaps in another eight years, I’ll make it a trilogy…

But not yet! Because in the meantime, I’m making a start on the next book, which will be something else entirely, and which I’m already looking forward to pulling my hair out over the coming months.

In addition to that, I have a few events coming up.

Not strictly an event, as such. I’ve never been to Crime in the Court before, but it seems like it’s basically an informal gathering of writers and readers in the courtyard outside the wonderful Goldsboro Books in London on 25 June. This is the third year of it, and it’s always looked like a lot of fun from the photos and reports that have appeared online. So this year, I thought I’d make the trip down to mingle and chat and have a laugh. There are already loads of authors listed as coming along, and it looks like it’ll be a really great evening. Here’s the website with more information. If you’re going, then please do say hello.


The Walk of Art is a totally awesome community-based arts project in Horsforth, where I live. Over the weekend of 4/5 July, there will be loads of activities, displays, pop-up galleries, talks, performances and so on, celebrating the huge amount of artistic talent to be found in the village. I feel really lucky to be a part of that. There’s a huge amount going on, as a brief look at the website will prove, and I’m going to be doing a talk at 11am on Saturday 4 July at Horsforth Library. I’ll be dealing with that dreaded question of where ideas come from by talking about my own books, the events that inspired them, and how I developed the final stories from those initial seeds. Probably, anyway. There may be waffling. It’s free though! Regardless, the whole weekend looks pretty cool to me, and my hat is off to the organisers, who have worked so hard to create something so ace.


Always the highlight of the crime fiction calendar, I will – of course – be at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, from 16 to 19 July. I would be there anyway, but this year will be especially nice for a couple of reasons. As much as I really enjoyed being Chair in 2014, I’m looking forward to being able to relax a little more this year. But not entirely! I’m going to be on a panel called ‘Yorkshire Pride’, along with Frances Brody, Lee Child and Peter Robinson, and moderated by Nick Quantrill, on Friday afternoon – which I’m very much looking forward to. And again, panels aside, it will be lovely to see loads of people there, and catch up with friends old and new.


I’ve never been to Bloody Scotland before, and I’m really excited to be a part of this year’s programme. The whole itinerary is absolutely awesome, and takes place from 11-13 September in Stirling. On Sunday 13 September, I’ll be in conversation with Sarah Pinborough about crime and horror and probably all kinds of other stuff. This is brilliant for me, as I love Sarah’s writing – and if you haven’t checked out her most recent novel, The Death House, then you really should. But it also looks like an excellent weekend all round, and I’m thrilled to be appearing there.

Of course, all this – as per my last post here – depends on me not ending up like poor old Hector. It seems fairly unlikely though, I think.


How quickly love can turn to hate. Less than three years ago, bestselling Hodder & Stoughton author and “eBook superstar” Stephen Leather was admiringly telling me “you’ve a lot going for you … you could be selling tens of thousands a month”, and now … well, we all know where we are. In addition to bragging foolishly on stage about using sock puppet accounts to promote his books, Mr Leather has been revealed as a bully and a creepy stalker, and oooh, he has not liked being called out on it. There are numerous accounts detailing his behaviour. Here’s one, by Nick Cohen, which also includes the Press Complaints Commission’s outright rejection of the objections Mr Leather raised to a previous article.

I actually had no intention of blogging about Mr Leather again – it’s very boring; he’s very boring – but circumstances compel me slightly, as we shall see at the end. In the comments below that two year old Nick Cohen article, I noticed he had recently replied to an ancient comment of mine. Here are both:


Which is interesting on a few levels. If anybody’s interested, the interview where Leather talks about the Thai bar girls he was meeting not being as pretty anymore, it’s here; it quite clearly makes no sense for him to be referring to my mother in the reply he made, although I’m genuinely not sure why he would consider that any better. I’ll just note that he accepts his own ‘Tick tock’ comment is a direct reference to me, or at least some member of my family.

Most bizarre of all, of course, is the time lag, which I was surprised enough by to mention it on Twitter:


Well. He did not like this.


This may be entirely coincidental, of course; he may not be meaning it in connection to me and my tweet. But it does tie in with the content of comment on the Cohen piece, and it’s difficult to imagine who else he might be replying to.

It’s an interesting approach, incidentally. One of the things that narcissists find difficult to do is to avoid personal projection in their attacks on others. In terms of the overall argument, what has been in dispute is Leather’s personal and professional behaviour. His sales, looks, writing talent and the number and quality of his sexual partnerships have never had any bearing on the matter. But it is reasonably clear from his attacks on myself and others that he cares very deeply about these things. A psychologist I am not. But: he is vain and insecure about his looks; he worries about his status, particularly with regard to other men; he views women as objects and trophies; he derives self-esteem from external and often random means of validation rather than any sense of inner confidence. And because the comments he makes would hurt him, he assumes they will hurt others. Even after numerous failed attempts, he remains unable to understand that I am completely oblivious to these lines of attack. He simply can’t comprehend it.


Because I directly name and link to people, I am somehow passive aggressive. And because he subtweets snide little asides without mentioning names, he is not. Which is obviously nonsense – it’s the opposite of the truth – and again, it’s likely projection. He associates passive aggression, correctly, with cowardice, and so is unable to accept he is guilty of it, whereas I very clearly am not. I have never written anything I would not say to his face. He barely dares to write my name.

Anyway. He did not like this. Read from the bottom up.


To which I responded:


As you can probably guess, he did not like this.


That’s a link to a website for acne cream … oh, please don’t look at me with those eyes – I’ll survive. But it ties back to his initial comment below Nick Cohen’s article. Despite still being too afraid to mention me by name, it is perfectly clear that he is directing these tweets at me. Which makes the follow up, a few hours later, all the more disturbing:


From the chronology above, and the correlation of the “you” in his various tweets with the comment on the Cohen piece (amongst others), and the direct reference to “Tick tock” (which he has admitted is a specific response to me, and which he may well be regretting placing on the end of that tweet), his tweet is clearly directed at me. It very likely falls foul of Section 16 of the Offences Against the Person Act:

“A person who without lawful excuse makes to another a threat, intending that that other would fear it would be carried out, to kill that other or a third person shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.”

While I highly doubt that Mr Leather is physically capable of carrying out such a threat in person, Steve Roach made reference to Mr Leather’s powerful friends, and Mr Leather is certainly both a very strange and a very wealthy man, and apparently very proud of both things. So yes, I absolutely believe he intends me to “fear it would be carried out”. For what other reason would he say it? And so I shall be considering my legal options with care. In the meantime, I’m still not so much of a coward as to avoid naming Mr Leather and calling him out for what he is.


the 2015 election

Posted by on May 8th, 2015


So. A small handful of pros:

1) Seeing Farage and Galloway’s faces as they lost. The former is more important, of course, but the latter was probably more amusing, as Galloway is so pompous and serious, in addition to being an awful human being. There was some small joy in seeing him smashed into insignificance by the woman he’d smeared during the campaign. I don’t think Bradford is going to miss him.

2) With a slightly heavy heart, the evisceration of the LibDems. They conjured such goodwill in the run up to the 2010 elections as a genuine alternative. They then basically threw all that away to sit for five years beside the throne, enabling the Tories in so, so much. Whatever their alleged mediating effect, it simply wasn’t enough for me, and I find it impossible to forgive them for that. I’m glad that the oh-too-predictable outcome has come to pass, albeit sad for the many party members whose desires may not have been reflected by the actions of the leadership. They’ve been wiped out as a credible political force for a generation. They asked for it, and they deserve it. I hope the last five years have been worth it for Clegg, because anyone with the slightest amount of sense could have seen this coming.


Well, pretty much everything else, from a personal perspective. There’s little more to say than that.

I know I have friends who will be pleased with the result to some degree, and look: there’s no denying the Tories won, and that Labour fumbled the ball in umpteen ways. They were unfocused, and they let the Tories dictate the narrative without ever successfully challenging it. Even given the fact that Ed Miliband comes across as a decent man, and the weight of the media was often against him in ridiculous ways – who doesn’t look stupid for at least one second while eating a sandwich? – it’s clear Labour lacked a coherent overall picture to present that differed enough from the Tories’ to reach voters.

Trying to look on the bright side, for my own views, the Tory majority is relatively slim, and perhaps this will give Labour the chance to reinvent itself that I think it desperately needs. But to be honest, for the moment, that bright side is fairly hard to find. Gah. Today, the rain outside feels entirely appropriate.


free speech

Posted by on February 16th, 2015

This weekend, an open letter on the subject of censorship and free speech – “We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals” – was published in the Observer. It stems mostly from the cancellation of a recent gig by the comedian Kate Smurthwaite at Goldsmith’s College, but also touches on other cases where political pressure and no-platforming have allegedly been used to silence individuals, including Germaine Greer, Rupert Read and Julie Bindel.

The letter, which has over a hundred signatories, many of them notable, suggests that universities “have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying”, and links to an earlier article by Nick Cohen, in which he argues that universities “must end the censorship of debates that provoke no violence beyond the violently hurt feelings of the thin-skinned”.

A campus should be a place of debate and disagreement, in other words, where ideas can be exchanged, attacked and defended. I find little to disagree with in this idea. As a general rule, I like a heated argument: if I stick an opinion out there, I’m happy for it to be challenged, and perhaps even to change my mind as a result. Because I presume it’s just my ideas that are being kicked around, and my ideas are a constant work-in-progress, I never take disagreement personally, however vehemently it might be expressed in the moment. And where is that a more appropriate approach to debate than on a university campus?

There have been objections to the letter, though, largely because of its context. The letter has an explicitly feminist edge, and the examples given are individuals who have expressed views that are perceived as negative, and who have been protested against, by sex workers and the trans community. If you follow these arguments on twitter, a number of individuals on both sides are familiar from the respective trenches, but particular attention has been directed towards signatories such as Mary Beard and Peter Tatchell, who had previously been seen as allies. In a blog responding to criticism, Beard said she had gone to bed in tears and explained:

“Anyway since the letter was posted on the Guardian website first thing on Saturday, for two days I have been bombard by tweets (and a few emails). Some tweeters have been very polite in their disagreement; for which, thank you. Others not quite so (i should be clear, though, there have been no threats of violence). I mean bombard. I got 60 tweets in the space of about an hour from one person alone.”

There are a few obvious points that can be made. Having free speech does not entitle you to a platform on a university campus upon which to express your views, and you are not being censored if a booking is retracted, or not offered in the first place. You may still publish your views in the myriad of places available to you, including the Observer, without fear of arrest and in anticipation of debate. If a booking is made at a particular place, and people object to that, the concept of free speech allows them to protest. And more basically, the cases the letter references are perhaps more nuanced than they might at first appear.

Leaving most of that aside, I’m not quite sure what I think overall. My own views on free speech fluctuate a lot. I like to say I believe in it absolutely, which means I believe anyone should be able to say anything at all, with the exception of outright threats and extremely direct incitement to violence. At the same time, I’m aware that – with pretty much every privilege box checked – I’m highly unlikely to encounter speech that attacks me for what I am, or which strikes at my very existence, so it’s a very painless theoretical position for me to take. I can argue that a Holocaust denier should be allowed to express his stupid and ignorant views, say, but I’m never going to be a victim of anti-Semitism. I can say someone using the N-word is just saying a word, but I’m not the one who has to deal with it being directed at them, over and over. And so on.

The damage done by language is difficult to quantify. One famous example is that free speech does not include the right to shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre, but the reason for this (assuming there isn’t a fire) is that someone hearing you shout that has no real way of evaluating the claim. They simply have to act, which results in a violent stampede. That is direct incitement; there is no realistic mental space for the individual to make an informed decision. And that’s where I generally draw the line, as to do otherwise seems to me to deny individual autonomy and responsibility. But of course, speech can contribute to and build a general atmosphere of violence, so while a particular utterance may not directly result in harm, it might still be harmful. So where do you draw the line, and who chooses? I don’t know. I’m aware that my absolutist position is perhaps just an attempt to avoid the knot of the problem altogether, but I’ve also never seen a solution that successfully untangles it, and so for the moment it remains my position. The distance between an example of speech and an example of an actual act of violence feels key.

Which means, I think, that I have to part company with the letter:

““No platforming” used to be a tactic used against self-proclaimed fascists and Holocaust-deniers. But today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists. The feminists who hold these views have never advocated or engaged in violence against any group of people. Yet it is argued that the mere presence of anyone said to hold those views is a threat to a protected minority group’s safety.”

Reading it, there is no evidence that the signatories believe in unfettered free speech. This passage indicates they would restrict it when it came to certain difficult views, just not their own difficult views. And I find that problematic. Now, I can see that giving a platform to the far right (for example) risks violence, and while I wouldn’t personally count that as direct incitement (the individuals in the crowd remain in control of, and wholly responsible for, their own actions), I guess it’s close enough that I can just about see the argument. At the same time, I remain unconvinced that many far right speakers and Holocaust deniers are no-platformed solely because of a realistic fear of immediate violence. And I can also appreciate the responses of trans people to the letter, which argue that the points and language used by some potential speakers cultivate an atmosphere that allows or encourages real violence against them. Overall, I think my absolutist position forces me to side with the signatories on the examples given. But I’m not remotely sure they would side with my absolutist position on others, or that their arguments against them would convince me.

Regardless, all that said, I certainly can’t condemn any of the people disagreeing (mostly politely, albeit in great numbers) with Mary Beard on Twitter. It’s an imperfect, overwhelming medium for such things, of course, but that is still free speech in action. Let positions be made, and let others disagree, and let very few be censored and silenced. Julie Bindel commented: “This is how the bullies do it: Mary Beard left “wanting to cry””, apparently not realising that her own views may well have felt like bullying to other people, and maybe even made them cry too. But of course, I’m sure we’d all agree that you can’t dispense with free speech just because it makes someone cry. As Mary Beard herself observes:

“I do believe that if you sign a public letter, you should be there to respond to the interlocutors (it’s debate after all)”

It is indeed.


my 5 favourite books of 2014

Posted by on December 27th, 2014

I didn’t read as much as I wanted to this year, and once again, that’s something I’m determined to rectify next year. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why I couldn’t average out reading at least one book a week, and yet for some reason I never manage it – the second half of this year has been fairly intensive in terms of writing, but that’s really no excuse. Reading is important. So my aim for 2015 is to read at least one book a week, and watch at least one film, but I expect I’ll be making much the same promise in 12 months, just as I probably did 12 months ago.

Anyway – here are my five favourite books this year, in the order I read them.

The Violent Century, by Lavie Tidhar

violentcentury(I wrote this for The Murder Room website recently. You can read it here, and see the links to other authors’ choices, and I’m just reproducing the text below).

I’ve seen it described a number of times as being like a John le Carre novel with superheroes, and while that’s a fair description, it’s also an inadequate one, which points to how hard this brilliant book is to summarise.

The story posits that in the early 1930s, a German scientist named Vomacht performs an experiment that unleashes a quantum wave of possibility on the world’s population. Most people are unchanged, but some gain superpowers. While they do not age, they can be killed like anyone else, and the novel follows several of them from the events of World War 2 to the conflicts of the present day. That account takes us to many important places: Minsk, Leningrad, Auschwitz, Romania, Berlin, Laos, Afghanistan, New York in September 2011. The whole time, the overarching present day story builds to a conclusion that may or may not tie everything together.

What makes a hero? It’s a question the book asks on more than one occasion, and to which it provides no easy answers. The alternative history described in The Violent Century is all but indistinguishable from our own. The same wars and events occur, with the superheroes on each side of the various conflicts effectively cancelling each other out. Late on in the book, one of the main heroes encounters Osama bin Laden, who stares through him “as if he’s not there”. For all his powers manage to change, he might as well not be.

Regardless of the title, The Violent Century does focus primarily on World War 2, the implication being that it’s the conflict that acted as its own Vomacht wave on the 20th Century, the repercussions spreading out, changing many people, and feeding inexorably into the wars that followed in the years afterwards. But the book is much more than a study of the cause and effect of conflict. The superheroes don’t age externally, but they do inside, and The Violent Century is ultimately a love story, not between two people (although there is that, and more besides) but between a man and an ideal. It’s a story about a man living through the absolute worst humanity has to offer, and still clinging on to a belief in love and innocence.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

weareallI’m such a lazy reader that it always surprises – and secretly pleases – me when I’ve read and enjoyed something that ends up on the Booker short list. But We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves arrived on a wave of ‘can you guess the twist on p77?’ hype, and I’m a sucker for a good twist, so I read it immediately. The twist itself is unnecessary and somewhat forced, a fact acknowledged by the narrator, but by then I was so entranced by her engaging and unusual voice that I didn’t care. And anyway, I had – of course – spoiled it for myself long before I started. Which didn’t matter a jot, as there is far more to the story than that.

The book’s been so successful that it hardly seems worth explaining what it’s about, but I found it a funny, sad, touching exploration of a quirky family – or rather, a normal family in which the quirks all families have are given clear and overt manifestations. Okay, there’s certainly an element of manipulation to the whole thing (at times, I was a little too aware of my levers being pulled, my buttons being pushed), and it’s a book with a very unambiguous viewpoint (certain factions of the animal liberation movement come off as slightly cuddlier than in reality, for example), but these are churlish complaints. It packs a wallop, this book. I laughed, I cried, I pressed it onto others. I liked it a lot.

With A Zero At Its Heart, by Charles Lambert

azeroI have a friend who did Fine Art at university. At the time, I found him horribly pretentious, although with hindsight that’s unfair. I did Philosophy, after all; our arguments were presumably insufferable. So: sorry, Ben. A few years afterwards, he showed me some paintings he was working on: various triptychs, all the canvases exactly the same small shape. I assumed there would be some piffly, high-minded reason why he had chosen the same size canvases in sets of three – form mirroring content, or whatever – but I asked, and he told me there wasn’t. He just had so many other things to think about for the compositions that setting the structure in advance gave him a point to start from. I’ve mentioned this little quasi-anecdote before in interviews, because I think there’s an important grain of truth in it: that perhaps paradoxically, by setting yourself strict boundaries, you can often free yourself up, or at least force yourself to be creative in ways you might not otherwise have considered.

But I digress (albeit only slightly). With A Zero At Its Heart is a short, and I believe autobiographical, novel arranged into 24 different sections, each devoted to a particular theme – Death, Language, Sex, Money, and so on. Every section contains 10 passages, all of which are 120 words long. (There is also a brief coda). Structurally, it would seem difficult to give yourself more in the way of constraints than that, and I imagine that me-at-university would have found the whole idea horribly pretentious and quickly put it back on the shelf. Me-now, however, thought it was brilliant. It’s a lovely book, in fact: moving and intelligent and exceedingly well-written. The short passages are obviously very more-ish, but the prose is so delicious, with so much detail packed and folded into the sentences, so much meaning between the lines, that it’s preferable to linger. The narrative flits around, leaving the reader to piece together (or not) the scrambled fragments of various experiences, and the image of a life gradually reveals itself. Something about it mirrors the way it feels we look back on the events of our lives: not in chronological order, but darting here and there, making connections between the disparate things that are important to us and finding meaning there. The way we observe things around us too: bits and pieces; a jigsaw of experience. “Consciousness is a cut-up; life is a cut-up,” as Burroughs observed, he says pretentiously. I can see myself revisiting this book – or just individual pieces from it – over and over again.

The Exit, by Helen FitzGerald

theexitA book that comes festooned with many blurbs, one of which is from me, claiming that if there were any justice in the world, FitzGerald’s previous novel, The Cry, would be a Gone Girl moment for her. It wasn’t, of course, and it strikes me now as a bit of a stupid thing to have said: that kind of lightning strike is down to so many imponderables in addition to quality. I know this. And yet here we are, a year later, and I’m tempted just to repeat myself.

The Exit is another example of what FitzGerald does really, really well, which is to use a crime of sorts as a springboard for exploring the minds of her characters. If you believed the back cover, The Cry was about what had happened to a missing baby – except the reader was in on the secret from the start, and the book was really about the worlds and psychological defences of the various characters being picked slowly apart and watching them adjust, or not, to the unfolding circumstances. The Exit has a more obvious crime and mystery element – possible nefarious deeds going on at a care home – but if anything, the crime here is even less central to the story. Instead, for most of the journey, we’re taken into the minds of two main characters: Rose, an 82-year-old children’s author suffering from dementia, who frequently regresses to a traumatic episode from her childhood, and Catherine, a pretty, amiable and slightly vacuous 23-year-old, forced into work at the end-of-life care home in which Rose is a resident. Initially far more concerned with her social media status and escaping on holiday than the small number of patients under her supervision, Catherine slowly establishes a bond with Rose, and then begins to investigate the older woman’s claims of potential wrong-doing at the home.

FitzGerald brings a real authenticity to both women’s voices: Catherine and Rose are thoroughly believable characters – fallible and prickly, likeable and funny – and it’s a pleasure to see the younger character change as she’s forced to confront a number of very grown up situations throughout the book. It’s a progression, a character arc, that feels natural and unforced and, because we like Catherine a great deal, especially welcome. And I don’t want to downplay the crime element, by the way – The Exit goes to some very dark places indeed. But like The Cry before it, it’s also powerful and moving – almost unbearably so in places (although it never descends into anything cloying; there is just the right amount of cynicism and grit mixed in with the sentiment here, and every single bit rings true) – and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. I had a minor quibble with the ending: for perhaps the first time ever in a novel, I wanted less ambiguity, which is a measure of the affection I came to have for the characters. But put very simply, this is a superb book. If there’s any justice in the world, etc etc … well, let’s just say that if there’s any justice, you’ll buy it when it comes out in February, and leave it at that.

Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel

station11Survival is insufficient, a quote from Star Trek: Voyager, is written on the side of one of the carriages of the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians touring a post-apocalyptic landscape, staging productions of Shakespeare in the ramshackle communities they pass through. The setting is Year Twenty – which is the number of years since a virulent strain of flu wiped out 99% of the population, leaving the survivors with none of the trappings of civilisation we take for granted (useless iPods, passports and other items are displayed in a makeshift museum that forms a destination for some of the characters). But that description is not strictly true, as although the novel begins at Year Zero, the moment of the flu outbreak, the narrative moves back and forwards through time, and a substantial amount takes place before the disaster strikes. The story in Year Twenty isn’t satisfying for what happens, as such (it’s fine, but the events themselves would barely fill a single episode of some standard dystopian drama), so much as for how it ties the rich, decades-spanning strands and themes of the book together.

The central figure is Arthur Leander, a famous actor, who dies of a heart attack on stage during a performance of King Lear. Days later, most of the audience will be dead too. Along with Arthur, we follow various characters his life has touched in some way, both before and after the apocalypse. Eventually, connections emerge. Some are not hard to guess, some seem slightly contrived, and yet despite that, and despite the furniture of the future world being somewhat familiar – but then, how could it not be by now? – the novel as a whole still feels fresh, surprising and remarkable. The writing is gorgeous. There are moments of real beauty here, internal and external, and the characters are vividly rendered – something which can also be said of the apocalyptic landscape itself. It always seems horribly credible but strangely hopeful: a dystopia populated more by carefully, nervously caring human beings than marauding monsters, people who aren’t simply surviving. I was trying to think what these sections reminded me of, and eventually I figured it out: immersing myself in the world of Fallout for the first time, encountering all those abandoned villages with their scavenged houses, nobody shooting at you, while oddly-beautiful old-timey music played in the background. You might think I could offer higher praise than that comparison, but you would be wrong. I loved this book.


more problems with amazon reviews

Posted by on November 18th, 2014

The conventional wisdom has always been that authors should never respond to reviews. It’s good advice. I replied to one once. My first ever review was long and brutal, and included the implication that I was a misanthropic young man who had issues with women. On the grounds that the book is not the writer, I emailed the editor asking for that single line to be removed. He replied by nailing the flag of integrity to the mast of his publication and gesturing pointedly at it. They would publish a response, he told me, but warned that it seldom looked good. He was right, of course, and I left it there. These days, I wouldn’t have bothered emailing in the first place, but this was back in 2003 or so, when I was still young and naïve.

Fast forward a decade or so, and we come to the various scandals and problems with the Amazon review system, which, given the enormous number of titles available, has become increasingly important as some kind of filter, however flawed and inadequate it may be. From sockpuppetry to bulk-buying positive reviews, the star system has always been, and remains, eminently gameable. Two years ago – back when this all flared up briefly in the news – one suggestion was to do away with the star system altogether and rely purely on the written reviews, which would require more effort to fake and game. Obviously, that was never going to happen. But in truth, it wouldn’t solve much.

One of my novels has an Amazon review (average, star-wise) that details the main plot beats for about three quarters of the book, giving away at least two major twists. Someone (not me) has commented under it, complaining about spoilers, and the original reviewer has replied, saying simply “Wrong”. Well, sorry, it’s not wrong. Those are spoilers. I wrote the fucking thing, and I ought to know. They’re developments I didn’t reveal until about 75% of the way through, and I didn’t do that by accident. Knowing them going in means you’ll get an entirely different reading experience from the one I intended. And yet I’ve never complained about or reported this review. I’m no longer quite so young and naïve, and ultimately, any damage done is relatively trivial.

But this is not about me. An author friend of mine has recently received a review on Amazon that’s somewhat more problematic. Since it’s possible the book might be on your to-be-read pile, I’m not going to identify the author or title – or indeed, the reviewer. It’s a three-star review, and the full text is exactly as follows, beyond me redacting the character name:

“Fascinating at times especially the Television background part of the story .Too early I realised the villain was [xxxxx].so the conclusion left no surprises ,really.”

And nor will it now for anyone else. The reviewer has sixteen other reviews, most of them equally short and oddly punctuated, and at least one other also contains a spoiler (again, name redacted):

“Thrilling,a good mystery and a good read.Plenty of suspense until the end .however it was obvious [xxxxx] was the good guy.”

I tend to differentiate between reviews and criticism, in that reviews are intended for readers who haven’t bought a book, while criticism is a deeper discussion and analysis for people who have, and so may well include spoilers. Obviously, this distinction is a tad inadequate; there is overlap between the terms, and there’s no reason a review won’t often involve careful critical analysis, or a lengthy critical essay influence a purchase. But I think it’s clear that the Amazon review system is geared towards the former: readers giving a rating, along with their thoughts, in order to help other readers decide whether they wish to buy the book.

Now, while reading a crime novel offers a myriad of pleasures, I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb by saying that revealing the identity of the bad guy is going to spoil the reading experience for many, and that in fact a large number of potential readers are going to decide not to bother. The details given in these reviews won’t help readers in their purchasing decision; they will effectively make that decision for them.

My friend has asked Amazon to remove the review, and Amazon have refused. There are a number of possible reasons for them doing so. The first is that they genuinely see the review as legitimate and useful and fair game, which I suppose is possible. The second is a stance based on some kind of spurious misthinking around free speech, which, given their removal of reviews in the past, is extremely unlikely. More likely by far is that the sheer number of reviews in their databases means that authors demanding this kind of specific attention en masse is a potentially huge ballache for them, and it’s easier just to tell individual people no. Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that Amazon probably don’t care that much. After all, authors and publishers have a vested interest in people buying, reading and loving specific books, whereas Amazon don’t care so long as people buy something, and it doesn’t really matter what. If one book is spoiled, a browser will just buy another, and Amazon get paid regardless.

However, it should be obvious that a review like the one above is enormously disadvantageous to readers browsing the site, arguably even more so than all the fake five- and one-star fuckery. And while there is no reason to attribute malice to this particular reviewer, if Amazon’s policy is to not remove reviews containing egregious spoilers, there’s no obvious reason a malicious reviewer couldn’t sabotage the books of a rival in such a manner. After all, such malicious authors do exist. Reader beware, in other words. It’s one more reason not just to take Amazon reviews with a pinch of salt, but to ignore them altogether. Assuming everybody with any sense isn’t doing so already.


a blurry first draft

Posted by on November 14th, 2014

Two whole months since an update here! I think that might be a record even for me, but not one I intend to try breaking any time soon. The truth is that the last few months have been a whirlwind of work – or as close to work as writing can be described as – and I’ve had to concentrate on hitting the deadline for next year’s novel. I missed it by two weeks, but I guess that’s not bad going for me, especially as it’s been written in about half the time it usually takes me to pull a draft together.

And it is a draft. Some writers do claim to get it right first time; I’m not one of those writers who claim that. My books tend to build up slowly over time, with the iterations of different drafts adding layers and ironing out wrinkles. The final book comes together gradually, like a slowly developing photograph. The draft I’ve just sent off is the first I’m prepared to allow my agent and editor to look at, but to run with the photograph analogy for a moment, it remains blurry in places, some of which I know about and some of which I probably don’t. But it’s certainly reached the point where it can be read as a coherent book – you can tell what it’s meant to be, looking at it – and so now I want to get some feedback on the problems I can’t see.

What is it? My first sequel. A follow up to The 50/50 Killer. It takes places roughly a year and a half after the events of that book, and follows several of the characters from it. It has strong ties with the first novel, but can – hopefully – be read as a standalone too. The working title is currently Let No Wrong Be Done. It’s scheduled for release next June. And here’s the blurb, copied from Amazon.

Charlie Matheson died two years ago in a car accident. So how is a woman who bears a startling resemblance to her claiming to be back from the dead? Detective Mark Nelson is called in to investigate and hear her terrifying account of what she’s endured in the ‘afterlife’.

Detective David Groves is a man with an unshakeable belief in the law, determined to bring his son’s killers to justice. But Groves’ search will mean facing someone with an altogether more ruthless approach to right and wrong.

Former Detective John Mercer is slowly recovering from the case that nearly destroyed his life, but a connection to Charlie Matheson brings the realisation that he still has demons left to face.

And at the centre of it all, are two brothers with a macabre secret. They’ve been waiting. They’ve been planning. They’ve been killing. And for Mark Nelson, David Groves and John Mercer, they’re about to unleash hell on earth.

Which is what I submitted beforehand, and which is pretty much what it turned out to be. Another small miracle. But anyway – that blurry first (actually about fifth) draft has been sent, and now I wait to see what people think. And with my head still in intensive work mode, I get to feel at a loose end for a while.

*loads up the new Call of Duty*