news and updates

a fatal lack of talent

Posted by on March 22nd, 2017

You can set your watch by certain things in the publishing world: the bittersweet pain of a book coming out; the sad punchlines at the end of those bulky biannual royalty statements; the debates around violence in fiction, or self-publishing, or literary versus genre, or whatever. Today, we wearily turn our attention to the (penultimate) latter of the latter. Literary versus genre. Brace yourselves, because it is That Time again.

It all started with this article William O’Rourke penned about Michael Collins, a writer who may well have spent the intervening time cringing himself into a small point. O’Rourke’s article contained the following comment:

“Michael, unfortunately, had, has, too much talent to succeed as a crime writer. He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required. He asks too much of a reader.”

This understandably caused some consternation in the crime fiction community, with several members responding here. I say “understandably”, but apparently Mr O’Rourke does not understand, because he has written a follow-up article. You can read that here. Do so, and then we will work our way through it, in much the same way that you might brush clumps of matted fur from a cat while wondering what in God’s name the creature has been rolling in.

We’ll start slightly above the article.

“Here he seeks to clarify his remarks.”

Well, let’s be clear: here he fails. It is an act of intellectual generosity to a reader to present your argument as clearly and concisely as possible, and a failure to do so tends to indicate either an inability to do so or an an attempt to obscure flaws in your argument. Or even, as in the word salad that O’Rourke has produced here, both.

“I am pleased that my “aside” prompted so many, in the main, thoughtful responses – and surprised that there are so many self-described “crime writers” at the ready. When I use the term I am, was, thinking of those formulaic, genre writers, who turn them out yearly, if not monthly. I worked in New York City publishing when I was in graduate school way back when and proof-read and copy-edited quite a few.”

Writing is possibly the only field in all of human endeavour where delivering something quickly is frowned on. It simply wouldn’t happen in any other line of work. “I want the figures on my desk within the hour – oh, you’ve done them already. That’s great. You’re excellent at your job.” But with books, there remains this pernicious idea that the longer you take, the better it must be (and, conversely, that writing accomplished in a short timescale must be hacked out and frivolous). Here’s a wild thought: why not judge the quality of the finished product rather than the time it took to complete it? Crazy, I know.

(Also, “yearly”. I mean, fucking honestly. I’m a slow writer, but come on).

Anyway, what he’s basically saying here is “I didn’t necessarily mean these crime writers, or even actual crime writers, more just some vague idea of a crime writer I had in my head.” Which is understandable. When John Banville disagrees with you on this particular issue you can be fairly sure you’ve lost the rest of the room too.

“My remark – “He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required” – is the sentence, actually the phrase, everyone seems to object to.”

Look, just say “phrase” in the first place. This isn’t a maths test, and you’re not getting any points for showing your working.

“Though, given the literate audience involved, I would have thought that such a description – “fatal lack of talent” – would alert the reader (since it is a mixture of direct statement and hyperbole) to the realisation that I might be aware of its provoking ambiguities.”

Yeah, whatever.

“This particular notion – fatal lack – is a perennial hobby-horse of mine, though I have never written about it.”

It’s not much of a hobby-horse, then, is it?

“As an old friend said to me long ago, the non-crime writer Irini Spanidou, “Genius is a gift and talent is a curse”.”

There are two obvious ways to interprate Spanidou’s comment.

The first is that genius and talent are entirely distinct: you can be incredibly talented and never reach the level of genius, because genius is something separate. Under this first interpretation, you could also be a genius while lacking any discernible talent whatsoever. Hmmm. That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

The second interpretation would be that talent and genius are on a scale: at zero, you’re basically nothing; at 5, say, you’re talented; at 10, you’re a genius (go you!).

Obviously, the second interpretation is better, although in that case “talent” really needs quantifying for the aphorism to make sense – talent alone clearly isn’t a curse, because genius requires it. The latter is a subset of the former: genius is the bull’s-eye on the talent target, if you like. Although this is better, I think it needs more work, but I digress.

“Michael Collins, if one reads the phrase in context, is the one bereft of the fatal lack of talent, saddled with the curse, in other words, hampered by too much talent. Not the mob of crime writers out there.”

Well … yes. And no? On the one hand, this is precisely what people were objecting to, isn’t it? Michael Collins is bereft of the fatal lack of talent, meaning he has a lot of talent, whereas crime writers possess the fatal lack of talent, meaning they have less talent. Fatally, for them. Under the second interpretation above, O’Rourke is saying that Collins is a genius, whereas crime writers lack the talent to be. They’re at 5; he’s at 10. More than that, the original statement implies Michael couldn’t write crime fiction because he was too talented. And yet Michael is also apparently “saddled with the curse”, not the gift, which suggests he has talent not genius, so…? Well, who knows.

(I return to my original comment about making arguments clear. I apologise, but we are where we are).

“Everyone is a crime writer, in the largest sense.”

Everyone is a literary writer, in the largest sense. Everyone is a chef, in the largest sense. Everyone is an elephant, in the largest sense.

“Shakespeare is a crime writer. I published a novel titled Criminal Tendencies; there is a crime in it. The novel I have just completed has a crime in it – adultery, though most people no longer consider adultery a crime.”

Yeah, whatever.

“Let us be reasonable here. I am too old and have published too much to be thought ignorant enough not to be aware of the objections put forward by the miffed 13.”

You aren’t, apparently. And you haven’t, apparently. But yeah, whatever.

“But, I contend, writers who publish are always writing at the top of their form. No one writes down. It’s difficult, almost impossible. Writers cursed with too much “talent” are unable to stoop to conquer.”

It’s natural to read “form” here as akin to “game” – as in the idea that no writer publishes below their best efforts; as in that they want to do the best they can – and so we nod along, because we can probably all agree with this. But let’s remember: O’Rourke’s argument is not that Collins can’t or won’t write below his ability, but that he is unable to write crime fiction because he is too talented. He can’t “stoop” to doing so. His genius simply won’t allow it.

Has O’Rourke presented any evidence to support his position that someone with an excess of talent would be unable to write crime fiction, whereas crime writers are forced to do so because of a lack of talent? No. He has not. Will he? Place your bets.

“The crime writers I was thinking of are the sort whose principal object is not to get the reader to stop in his or her tracks and ponder some remarkable aperçu, or paradox of the moment, be stunned to stop and think, but to keep turning the pages.”

Yeah – because any writer really wants their readers to stop and not read the whole thing.

Oh, but anyway: here we are, sort of. Standing in the dust of skirmishes past at the entrance to the arena of the philosophy of aesthetics. Why and how do we value art? As entertainment – a way to pass the time? Evoking emotion? Being beautiful in some way – perhaps a pretty little paragraph or two? Forcing us to see the world anew? Do we value poetry of prose over poetry of plot and theme and character? Is any “paradox of the moment” as impressive as it sounds at first? What even is that? And so on.

It’s all part of an interesting discussion, but note that O’Rourke makes no argument that any of these different approaches to art is more valid than others, and more importantly, makes no argument that crime fiction is incapable of doing any of them, or even that crime fiction is less capable of doing them than other modes of fiction. That’s because it isn’t true.

“At my university I am part of a College of Arts and Letters. Though in our age it is mainly Arts and Entertainment. I am not on the side that thinks awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan (né Zimmerman) is an appropriate thing, even though it is certainly of the moment and is the epitome of the mix of high and low culture that reigns, evidently, everywhere. But, as a Yank, in a jingoist mode, I certainly think his winning preferable to giving it to some author I’ve never heard of residing in one of the Baltic states.”

Yeah, whatever.

“The examples of writers of announced stature who write, allegedly, superior crime novels under pseudonyms, is a matter of judgment. In any case, there are a number of counter-examples. Here are three, all by happenstance female: Doris Lessing, Joyce Carol Oates and JK Rowling. All published in different genres under pen names and those books went nowhere, until the actual celebrity author was revealed. And, in Oates’ case, it was revealed pre-publication.”

I confess: I’m not entirely sure what this means or what relevance it’s supposed to have to the overall argument that crime writers write crime because they lack the talent to do better. On that level, we hope in vain at this point.

“I am not bothered by the success of others. In fact, it’s one of my few good traits. But I am well aware of the limitations of writers and if one is addicted to metaphor, prose residing in the neighbourhood of belles lettres, it is difficult, if not impossible, to go cold turkey and write otherwise.”

Because crime writers don’t use metaphor, or rich language, or any of the other million techniques open to literary writers. Get in the sea.

“As one of the respondents (Barbara Nadel) pointed out, I, too, categorise writing as either fiction or nonfiction and, secondarily, whether it is good or bad.”

Yeah – that’s true, isn’t it. I’m not putting a question mark there, because it’s obvious. Good fiction can take many forms. It will be well-written, but the embellishment of the language might suit, and arguably even mirror, the subject matter. There might be metaphors in the sentences, but also more broadly in the themes and ideas. A good book rhymes – or deliberately doesn’t. A good book dances. A good book entertains you (there are numerous ways to be entertained). A good book will leave you thinking and feeling. A good book will leave you throwing it against the wall or desperately pressing it on to someone else.

Read what you want. Write what you want. Listen: you can list all the possible virtues of a good book, and not everyone will recognise them in the same text, but I guarantee you that the purported genre will have no bearing on this. Crime can do everything literary fiction can do, and it does, and writing the best of it takes every bit as much talent. (For “crime”, there, you can substitute any other genre and it’s just as fucking true). The end.

We’re not quite done, but the rest is all a bit “yeah, whatever”, so let’s skip straight to the finish.

“It proves the central point of my article on Michael that there is an active and vibrant and cohesive literary community across the pond, but not in the USA. Such a display of insults and ire would never happen in America, because I am not a celebrity. The chief reaction to perceived literary rebuke by an unfamous author in the States is not to be bothered. Neglect has always been the preferred weapon of choice here.”

If only.


my five favourite books of 2016

Posted by on December 28th, 2016

A quick bit of housekeeping to begin with. I’ve posted very little this year, and can’t see myself posting all that regularly in future, so I suppose I finally have to face facts. This isn’t really a blog anymore. So I’ve renamed this page as “news and updates”, and I’ll see how that works in 2017.

(Having done this, maybe I’ll find myself wanting to post several times a week and start treating it as a blog again – but somehow I doubt it. For better or worse, blogs increasingly feel outdated, and I’m far more active on the standard social media accounts these days. I’ll most likely keep this bit of my website for what it now says on the tin.)

But! I do want to post about my five favourite books of the year. As usual – and despite my best intentions – I haven’t read as much as I would have liked to. And as usual – once again – I’m determined to do much better next year. I probably won’t. It does seem strange to me, the reading lull that always occurs in the middle of each year, but maybe that’s just my nature, and around 25 novels a year is my limit.

Regardless, these were my five favourite books of 2016. They’re in no particular order, and there’s the standard caveat that my favourites do not necessarily represent what I thought was strictly best. And as always, I could – and probably would – have picked a different five on a different day. Trust me: everything I read this year has much to recommend it from my point of view, not least because I simply abandoned lots of books that aren’t on that list (and there was nothing wrong with them either). But these five stand out for me, at least today, and I recommend them to you highly. If you like these sorts of books then I think these are the sorts of book you will like.


The Poison Artist, by Jonathan Moore

We meet toxicologist Dr Caleb Maddox – an expert in pain – just after a violent breakup with his girlfriend that has left him bleeding from his forehead. On the boozy, absinthe-fulled night out that follows, Maddox encounters a mysterious woman and becomes obsessed with tracking her through the late-night bars and secret clubs of a misty, rain-drenched San Francisco. At the same time, bodies are being pulled out of the bay, each bearing marks of torture by poison. The Poison Artist is a beautifully-written, woozily erotic nightmare of a book, full of quiet horrors, evocative settings and a mounting sense of outright dread. By the time the pieces have come together at the end, you’re not sure whether you want to drink absinthe or if you might already have.


The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts

While many SF novels deal in physics, Roberts’s latest novel is an adventure that hinges more on metaphysics. It effectively begins with a pun – two scientists at an Antarctic research station bang heads and bicker about Immanuel Kant’s theory of ‘the thing in itself’ and then experience what may be an alien encounter – before splitting into strands. Alternate chapters describe the fallout from that initial event, while flashbacks and flashforwards give us glimpses into a distant past and faraway future all influenced by the central idea: that Kant’s theory is right, and that access to the real world beneath our perceptions and measurements – the thing itself; A/K or “Applied Kant” – has astonishing and dangerous consequences. The central strand at times feels Bond-like and humorous, at others dense with debate, and – occasionally – horrifying. The other sections are written in individual styles, and feel like self-contained short stories that gradually bind the book together. All told, it’s an incredibly ambitious novel – demanding; intelligent; full of ideas and arguments – and it concludes with a quiet coda that’s easily one of the loveliest passages of writing I’ve read this year.


A Head Full Of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay

A superb, multi-layered psychological horror story about possession. The Barrett family suffers difficulties when one of their daughters, Marjorie, begins to show escalating signs of mental disorder. Finding no medical solutions, they unwisely invite both an exorcist and a reality television crew into their home. Fifteen years later, their other daughter, Merry, recounts her own memories of the events that took place. The horrors here build slowly – the story helped along by Merry’s compelling and appealing narration – before ending with one of the cruellest twists I can remember in recent years. Throughout, the whole novel is slyly self-aware: there are knowing references to the standard tropes of the genre, easter eggs galore, and sections where the book even takes time to dissect not only aspects of the story that have been presented to you but the way they have been. Events remain ambiguous and open to interpretation. And yet none of that stops the book gathering a chilly, terrifying pace, before that ending delivers an unforgettable final shiver.


Watch Her Disappear, by Eva Dolan

While many crime writers choose to locate their series characters in the murder squad or some other ‘extreme crime’ unit, to give them gritty and viscerally exciting investigations to undertake, Dolan chooses a quieter approach: her novels are set in the Hate Crimes unit in Peterborough. The setting allows her not only to deliver well-structured and grounded crime novels with superbly-realised characters, but also to explore timely and important social issues. It’s a thing she does with real sensitivity. Watch Her Disappear, about the murder of a trans woman, is not only smart, compassionate, beautifully written and completely compelling, it also takes its characters and subject matter into areas you wouldn’t necessarily expect. I was lucky enough to get an ARC, and this is a highly recommended read for when it’s released next year.


Slow Horses, by Mick Herron

Slow Horses is set in Slough House, a departmental dumping ground for various fuck-ups from MI5, ruled over by the odious Jackson Lamb. Lamb is a wonderful creation: obnoxious, astonishingly ill-mannered, and described as looking like Timothy Spall gone to seed – but also more than capable, and loyal to his own (admittedly well-hidden) moral compass that he’ll “never leave a joe in the lurch”. The other characters, mostly bitter and hating each other, are equally well-drawn and compelling. When a boy is abducted, his beheading scheduled to appear live on the internet, the slow horses end up involved. This is an incredibly funny book – cynical and twisted – but also a serious one with genuine heart. Not to mention the fact that it’s beautifully written with twists and turns galore. I’m not particularly a fan of spy thrillers – or series characters, when it comes to it – but the second I finished Slow Horses, I went straight to the bookshop and bought the next two Jackson Lamb books. I could easily have included either of them (Real Tigers especially) on this list instead, but figured I’d start at the beginning.



Posted by on July 4th, 2016

Today, I learned that Carolyn, my agent for the last 14 years, has died.

It took me a (relatively) long time to get published. I began submitting to agents when I was 17, and had a number of books justifiably rejected over the 8 years that followed. Carolyn was someone I kept submitting to. She would always offer constructive feedback on everything of mine she turned down, until eventually it got to the point where she was the only person I was submitting to. I still remember the phone call I had from her when, rejecting my latest offering, she jokingly wondered if I’d ever considered writing a children’s book. Obviously, I never took that particular piece of advice, and in the end she took me on with a book I’d called Untitled but Finished. That title was one of the many things she talked me out of over the years. It eventually became The Third Person, which was published in 2003. I can’t believe, writing that now, that it was so long ago.

She was my agent from that moment on. It’s fair to say there was an amount we didn’t see eye to eye on over the years. Her instinct was always to rein in my more … way out there material. But she was pretty much always correct, and I valued her judgement and expertise a great deal. There was always a moment of fear when she called to discuss whatever new book I’d sent her, because she had no interest in telling me how great I or the book was. Instead, with almost no preamble, we would begin an hour long conversation in which she’d finely detail every single fault and problem she’d found in the manuscript. She would rip the thing to pieces. And then, at the end – when I was little more than a puddle of despair – in her cheerfully laconic drawl she’d say “it is very good though!” And I knew that she meant it. Which is everything a sensible writer could ask of an agent.

The news of her death was not unexpected. She had been ill for some time, and while I was determined to stay with her as long as she felt able to continue, it was clear when I spoke to her in May that she’d reached that point. I was glad to have the chance to tell her then how important she had been to me, and what a difference she had made to my life. (Carolyn, still typically bullish even then, was having absolutely none of such sentimentality). It is very sad news indeed. I will miss her. She was absolutely one of a kind, and my thoughts are with her friends and family.


It’s been a long time since I’ve posted an update here. I’ll try to do a proper one soon – although in truth there isn’t much to say. I’ve mostly been working on Book Ten (still due for publication in February 2017) and plotting out ideas for Book Eleven (more on which anon). In the meantime, I wanted to write something about the EU referendum, which is taking place in a few short days.

Not so long ago, I’d no doubt have been chomping at the bit to have my say, but I feel a genuine sense of weariness right now – and also, is there any real point in adding to the noise? But I wanted to write something. With that in mind, here are some links to posts and arguments that I’ve found articulate, insightful and persuasive. These are short extracts. In each case, the whole is very much worth reading.

Nicholas Barr of the LSE calmly addresses the various practical arguments and presents the reasons he’ll be voting for Remain:

“This article, written for many friends who have asked for a reasoned view of why I will vote Remain, summarises a longer article which sets out the supporting arguments more fully. I include links to evidence from credible sources, none (with the essential exception of the Financial Times) behind a paywall.”

Nick Harkaway writes a quiet and sensible letter to a friend thinking of voting Leave:

“From where I stand, it seems that we put a tiny fraction of our annual national spend (and get back more) towards membership of a vital trading bloc which is also a landmark project in the effort to prevent neighbouring countries with a history of violence from warring on one another?—?and that bloc, that project, is not an exogenous given. That is to say that it’s not guaranteed to continue to exist if we Leave. Our departure could bring it down. I think that would be a tragedy?—?the end of something that was begun in fear and hope, that is supposed to be about making a better world, its demise coming in response to a sustained campaign of aggressive hectoring whose positive side I cannot find.”

Laurie Penny argues – back in 2015 – that the real threat we face isn’t immigrants but creeping fascism:

“The behaviour of the British and wider European elite towards migrants is not simple inhumanity. It is strategic inhumanity. It is weaponised inhumanity designed to convince populations fracturing under hammer-blows of austerity and economic chaos that the enemy is out there, that there is an “us” that must be protected from “them” … All of this has happened before. All of this, in fact, is precisely what the European Union was established to prevent.”

John Rickards discusses the various arguments and explains why he’ll be voting to Remain:

“If we vote Leave, I think it’s widely known Johnson will challenge for the Tory leadership and will likely win. This will give us a prime minister than no one, other than about 20,000 people in Uxbridge, voted for, representing a party that a vast majority voted against in the last election, passing policy in a system which requires no vote in Parliament so long as no laws or national budget allotments are changed, in which the cabinet producing those policies is not subject to parliamentary approval or vote in the first place, and in which one entire house?—?the Lords?—?is completely unelected and over which we have no influence at all.

Tell me, what control do we get exactly? And how is that less than we have by working in Europe? What extra representation do we have in an isolated system with so much that’s unrepresentative by default?

No, it’s not us that will get control if we leave the EU. It’s those fronting Leave.”

Nick Cohen talks about the poisonous and anti-intellectual tone of some of the Leave campaign:

“As so often in the past, those who claim to be fighting the elite on behalf of the masses are the most manipulative of all. Baffled broadcasters, who do not understand the new world, have politely wondered why Johnson and Gove are claiming pensioners will be left to suffer as the NHS is overrun by 77 million Turks, when there is absolutely no prospect of Turkey joining the EU. The answer is simple: they do it because they know that playing on racial fear works. They do it because they are confident that any “expert” the BBC can put on air to contradict them can be dismissed with Govean scorn as a liar and a fraud.”

And J.K. Rowling discusses stories and monsters here:

“In a few days’ time, we’ll have to decide which monsters we believe are real and which illusory. Everything is going to come down to whose story we like best, but at the moment we vote, we stop being readers and become authors. The ending of this story, whether happy or not, will be written by us.”


Look, I wasn’t going to write anything myself, but I will say something. As a Labour voter, I don’t see any real point in blaming Cameron, Gove, Johnson, Duncan-Smith and Farage – or any of the rest of that shower of shit – for where we are now. But I do find myself, rightly or wrongly, blaming Labour a little bit. In the run up to the 2015 election, as Ukip shifted the debate to the right, Labour failed to argue that austerity was an ideological choice rather than an economic necessity, and they failed to present the positive case for immigration. On those two absolutely key issues, they failed to offer themselves up as a coherent opposition and ended up presenting themselves as Tory-lite. Cameron then found himself with an unexpected majority and was thus forced to follow through on a promise he’d only made – massively ironically as it turns out – to dampen down a division within his own party in the run up to the general election. There’s more to it than that, of course, but it’s infuriating.

But anyway: here the rest of us are now – forced to deal with a referendum that has not only proved divisive, stupid and ugly on both sides but which is wholly unnecessary. On Friday, we’ll have a result one way or the other, but that won’t be the end of it. It really does feel like we’ve pulled the cork out of a particularly hate-filled bottle right now, and I doubt it will go back in easily any time soon. And whatever the ultimate decision, it won’t be any of the high-profile politicians currently arguing so passionately for either side that feel the full force of its consequences.

And on that note, I’ll end with a link to this piece by Chris Brosnahan, which basically sums up how I feel right now.

“I wish I had a more hopeful point to end this on. Maybe tomorrow, I will. But right now… right now, I’m out of hope. I’m just scared.”


a general update…

Posted by on March 12th, 2016

1. book ten

Which is the only title the poor thing has right now. The working title has always been The Red River, but as I mentioned in my last update, nobody has any real love for that and it will most likely change before publication. But anyway! Book Ten is the reason I’ve been absent from here for the last couple of months, as I’ve been racing to hit the end of February deadline (which I ended up going over, but only by a few days). The first draft went off to my editor earlier this week. It’s always a strangely anti-climactic moment: you wrestle with the book; you dream of finishing it; and when it actually happens … it kind of feels like nothing at all.

But it’s good to get it sent. As always, I’m expecting there to be changes in the next draft (if nothing else, there are a couple of bits I know I personally want another run at), but in general I think it’s okay. Or at least, I’m not unhappy with it for this stage in the process.

90,000 words, anyway. Serial killers. Grief and love. Stories within stories. Twists and turns. Tears before bedtime. You know the drill by now.

2. I know who did it

It’s a real pleasure to report that I Know Who Did It will be coming out through Pegasus this September in the US, with a new title – The Reckoning On Cane Hill – and, as you can see to the left there, a nice new cover. From my point of view, Pegasus have been fantastic to work with, previously publishing both Dark Room (as The Murder Code) and The Nightmare Place, and I’m thrilled they’re going with this one too. The title change, if you’re interested, may be the first time anybody’s been worried I might be confused with O J Simpson.

I’m also very pleased that it has been taken on by Lithuanian publisher Sofoklis, who liked the book so much that they took The 50/50 Killer too. (IKWDI is a sequel to 50/50, although both work as standalones). I’ll post more about that as and when I know more detail.

3. a night of crime

I had a great time attending this evening down in London in February, as Orion gathered ten of its crime writers together and let them loose in a swanky room full of journalists, bloggers and – we’re all adults here, so let’s be frank – a vast amount of booze. It was a really fun event. As part of it, all ten of us were required to give a one minute pitch about our latest book. And as what might be described as the opposite of an act of kindness, these pitches were filmed. Shotsmag Confidential has the videos, along with a comprehensive report on proceedings. Thanks to everyone who organised it and everyone who came along.

4. some interesting links

There have been several that I’ve failed to take note of over the past couple of months, but here are a few.

I really enjoyed this article on disguised drinking dens. It resonates with that sensation we all have from time to time that there are secrets hidden in the cities around us. Because, of course, there are.

This is an older article on the Tamám Shud mystery, but new to me. A year or so back, I moderated a panel on how realistic crime fiction was, and I broke it up by presenting the authors and audience with strange and bizarre scenarios and asking them to decide whether they were real or made-up. This was one of the examples I used.

This long read on the ‘death of a troll’ is intriguing, twisty and very much worth your time.

And finally, this article on the unsolved case of the Long Island serial killer is fascinating and disturbing in equal measures, and a good piece of true crime writing.


onwards and upwards

Posted by on January 20th, 2016

Okay – some quick updates as to what’s going on with me.

1. I Know Who Did It

My ninth book came out last September, and I’m generally very pleased with the reception it’s had. I’ve collated most of the reviews I’ve found on the page for the book here, and they’re pretty much universally positive. For what these things are worth, at the time of writing, it has average scores of 4.5 on Amazon and 4.32 on Goodreads. It was also really nice to see it hit a few ‘best of’ lists at the end of the year, including The Times here(£), Vicky Newham’s here and For Winter Nights here.

I’ve no idea how well it’s sold as yet, but I suspect it’s more or less in line with my previous books, which, as always, doesn’t amount to world-beating figures. But there seems to be a lot of good will for the book out there, and hopefully more people will discover and enjoy it when the paperback comes out (which I think is currently scheduled for June).

In the meantime, a massive thank you to all the people out there who have bought it, enjoyed it, reviewed it and commented on it either online or in person to me. It means a great deal to me, I promise.

2. The Next Book

The next book – Book 10! – is what is currently occupying most of my waking hours. The working title is The Red River, but that will likely change, as it sounds a little too much like a Western. And the book isn’t a Western, of course. It’s the usual mix of psychological thriller, police procedural and … well, I don’t know how to put this. Slight weirdness? Maybe. Regardless, while it’s too early to say what it’s about right now, imagining a cross between The 50/50 Killer and Black Flowers will give you some idea of what to expect. A serial killer story, basically, but one that’s also about stories themselves.

It’s due to be delivered by the end of February, so I’m flat out on that at the moment. The current word count stands at about 60k, which sounds a little slack, but: a) there were a couple of false starts; and b) I was always the type to desperately cram most of my revision in the night before the exam, and that’s generally how I write too. So I’m pretty happy with that progress, and I’m enjoying seeing all the fragmented ideas and chapters beginning to come together pretty well right now.

3. Yeah, about the Leather thing…

So. Yes. I’m not going to bang on about this too much – or at least, not for the moment – but it would seem remiss and even odd not to mention what’s happened in an update. Following my last post, the author Jeremy Duns wrote a blog of his own about Stephen Leather, which received a great deal of attention, including coverage in the Independent, Guardian and Times. I was pleased to read the initial response from Hachette (our mutual publisher), and while Leather hasn’t publicly responded to any of the allegations yet, I’m also pleased to report that the site has at least been taken offline for the moment. So that’s a good start.

4. Some interesting links

And finally, since I’m going to try and blog a bit more this year, I thought I’d flag up any articles or posts that I’ve found particularly interesting recently. If nothing else, it means I won’t lose them.

I found this two part piece on The Tragic Tale of Mt Everest’s Most Famous Dead Body fascinating and moving. At first, there was something almost bizarrely intriguing about an environment so extreme that a dead body might be used as a waypoint – an actual landmark – but then both parts of the article do a good job of humanising the individuals involved and exploring the mindsets of the people driven to risk, and often lose, their lives attempting the climb.

And secondly, A Brief History Of Books That Do Not Exist, a great article that appeals to me for a load of probably very obvious reasons.


Posted by on January 4th, 2016

In the weeks before Christmas, this site about me finally went live.

I say finally because the web address was bought some time ago, but the site itself has only just been populated. It’s a site dedicated to exposing my bad language on Twitter, and encouraging people not to buy my books on that basis. I am “a vile and unpleasant little man”, apparently. To which I can only say: look – vile and unpleasant I may well be but, at six foot three and over fifteen stone, you’ll forgive me for taking umbrage at that “little”.

But no, seriously, I swear a bit on social media (although not nearly as much as that site implies; it’s all been culled – amazingly; almost psychotically flatteringly – from tweets going back to 2009), and I make no apologies for my language. Picture me shrugging right now – it’s a fucking enormous shrug, trust me. I swear. You swear. He, she or it swears.

Anyway. It’s reasonably clear that bestselling author, ebook superstar and fellow Hachette author Stephen Leather is responsible for this website. I won’t say how I know that; I’ll save all the screenshotted internet incompetence for later potential laughs. But I’m amused that, following his vague baseball bat threat last May, he promised to ignore me (as I then did him) and yet, clearly, he can’t. I’m also amused that he still doesn’t have the courage to attach his name to his activities. How pathetic. Three and a half fucking years ago, it was revealed how he cyberbullied a writer named Steve Roach into submission. Three and a half fucking years later, he’s still imagining the same tactics will work on me. They won’t. When I saw the obsessive content of the site, I laughed. When it was briefly replaced by an advert for acne cream, I laughed even harder.

It was actually a wonderful Christmas present. I’m looking forward to a lot more laughter in 2016.


my five favourite books of 2015

Posted by on January 3rd, 2016

It has – once again – been a lacklustre year for me in terms of reading: 22 books read in 2015 in total, which is a much smaller number than I would like. So I feel a little … guilty, almost, in selecting a top five. It doesn’t feel earned. I’m going to anyway, obviously, but I’ll be having some stern words with myself and attempting to correct this in the year ahead.

In the meantime, these were my five favourite books of 2015. They’re in no particular order, and they’re presented with the usual caveat that my favourites do not necessarily overlap perfectly with what I thought was best. Best is a trickier term to pin down; favourites is considerably easier. But even then, it was difficult to choose. There are several other books that could easily have made this list.


Here we are…

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August, by Claire North

Harry August is born in the early 1900s in difficult circumstances. He lives a relatively undistinguished life until his first death in 1989. At that point, he is born again – into the exact same circumstances, and with the full knowledge of the life he led before. That second life understandably does not go well, but as his lives pass, he makes contact with the supportive Cronus Club, and realises he is a ‘kalachakra’: one of many individuals who relive their lives thousands of times over without forgetting the previous ones. Harry learns to explore and exploit this ability until, at the end of his eleventh life, he receives a message from a little girl about the state of the future.

There are almost too many joys to be found in this novel. It is beautifully written, for one, but the real fun is in the exploration: the way it takes a single, relatively simple idea and runs with it, following every aspect of the concept to its natural limits. And so – of course – it is possible for ideas and messages to be passed back and forth through time over eons, either as warnings or as jokes. It feels obvious and natural that secret clubs and communities of such individuals will evolve, that rules will be established and that shortcuts and helplines will be created. It’s the ultimate secret society, and the idea is fleshed out and made real. So it’s the world, filled to its edges, that enchanted me here, even more so than the plot (which is rewarding and clever) and the depth of character (which is great). I was trying to think why I responded so positively to it all, and I realised I can give it the highest compliment: it reminded me of reading The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones for the first time as a teenager. That was the first time I was this transfixed by a world so simultaneously neverending and wonderful and sad and moving. A fantastic book.

The Way Inn, by Will Wiles

Neil Double is a professional conference attendee. He’s happy to be paid to replace you at all those boring, anonymous business conferences you can’t be bothered to go to but your work says that you should. He loves all the badges and tote bags and random people. And most of all, he loves The Way Inn: the chain of cheap, identikit hotels that make him feel at home (or at least in exactly the same place) wherever he might be in the world. But on his latest assignment – at a conference for conference organisers – he meets a strange woman in the hotel, and follows her into the increasingly surreal netherworld that lies below the surface of the Way Inn chain.

What starts off as a wonderfully funny satire on the culture in question (anybody who’s attended a conference or stayed in a similar hotel will laugh frequently, generally in painful recognition) descends quickly into a kind of (still very funny) Lovecraftian horror. This book puts the ‘psycho’ into ‘psychogeography’. An awful description, I know – but really, not far off. From the moment Double meets the mysterious woman, who is trying to photograph all the abstract art in the various hotels and find meaningful patterns in them, you know you’re in safe hands, and the feeling never falters. Filled with great one-liners and set-pieces, and ultimately real feeling, it’s a pitch perfect novel. Like Harry August above, The Way Inn stretches and explores its crazy conceit to its limits, while still managing a very human landing.

The Death House, by Sarah Pinborough

The Death House has hit a fair number of ‘Best of 2015’ lists – and for good reason – but in many cases, the genre of the book has been touched on. Is it SF, for example? Or perhaps horror? Is it YA? What exactly is it? But Pinborough is a prolific writer who has spent years flitting successfully between many different genres, and who now seems to have found her feet combining aspects of whichever ones she wants into beautifully crafted stories that defy genre expectations and simply work on their own terms. So the truth is that this is just a Sarah Pinborough novel.

It’s a futuristic setting: the ‘Death House’ is a hospital-cum-boarding-school to which children who have been identified as defective in some way are taken by force. When they show signs of illness, they are taken to the Sanitorium, from which they never return. The main characters are Toby, a teenage boy, and Clara, the teenage girl whose arrival transforms his world. But there are many others. The relationships are skillfully drawn: none of these teenagers are heroic, as such, and many of the expected confrontations play out in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Obviously, the Death House is a metaphor for life itself – we’re all stuck with each other; we’re all about to die at any time – and as the tagline suggests: “Everybody dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts.” There are no happy endings in life; there are just happy, if transient, presents. And just as the novel explores the cruelty and uncertainty of the situation, it also conjures up several moving and beautiful moments that reinforce that point.

Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell

I wrote about this for The Murder Room:

“Abducted children are a long-standing trope in crime fiction, and it’s easy to understand why: a missing child immediately creates urgency and tension and a mystery to be solved, along with intense emotional engagement. The trope seems very popular right now, but if Pretty Is – the excellent debut novel by Maggie Mitchell – sounds at first like it will be ploughing familiar territory, it swiftly becomes clear that it’s working much more fertile and interesting ground…”

Read my full thoughts here.

Viral, by Helen FitzGerald

This is the third year that one of Helen FitzGerald’s books has appeared on my list of favourites, and yet the population at large still somehow refuses to give her the huge sales figures her work deserves. Go figure. But perhaps that will change in February, when Viral is released, because from its attention-grabbing first line, through a story drawn straight from the headlines, it’s a novel that plays to all of FitzGerald’s strengths, and which is engaging and charming to the very end. (More of which in a moment).

Su-Jin is a strait-laced seventeen year old Korean girl, adopted as an infant by the Oliphant-Brotheridge family. On a holiday to Magaluf with her infinitely more experienced sister, Leah, and her friends, Su-Jin gets drunk and is filmed performing a sex act on a number of men in a nightclub. The video goes viral. Su-Jin is villified by the media and her life is gradually destroyed. As her mother, Ruth – a respected court judge – seeks justice here, Su-Jin goes into hiding from the hounding press attention abroad, and then on the run.

The anger here, at least to start with, is palpable. We’ve all seen similar online stories be appropriated by the media, with the attention and blame generally focused on the drunk women in question rather than the men participating or the people filming. Here, FitzGerald tells the story from the other side (and indeed, the right side). But that’s really just the starting point for a tale of a young woman learning to reject various pressures to conform to expectations, whether social or familial, and instead using a moment of personal trauma as a springboard to leap out into the world and form her own identity on her own terms. Stylishly written, this is an incredibly funny novel, and ultimately a very touching one. That first sentence is certainly memorable – I’ll leave it to you to discover it – but it’s a testament to the strengths of the story in between that the last sentence, beautifully judged, is the one that will stay with you.


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.