news and updates

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*


About eleven and a half years ago, long before it became socially acceptable, never mind fashionable, I tried my hand at internet dating. It was a fairly successful experience, to say the least. I met a handful of people, some of whom I ended up in relationships with for a while, others that just became friends, and – eventually – my wife. And contrary to the concerns and admonishments of several friends at the time, nobody I met tried to murder me.

One of the people I met, in early 2003, was called Tori (or rather will be for the purposes of this post). I went out with Tori for about two months, after which we decided that there wasn’t enough of a spark between us, and that it would be much better to continue as just friends, which is what we did. I was glad about that, as even if we didn’t work as a couple, I knew that I still very much wanted Tori in my life. Anyone who got to know her would tell you the same: there was something about her that drew you in, that made you want her to be part of your world. She was beautiful, funny, kind, quick to laugh, incredibly well-read and – above all – fiercely intelligent. Probably the smartest person I’ve ever met.

She was also bipolar. I don’t think I ever saw her in a depressive state, but I did see her several times during a manic phase. One time, I visited her in hospital. Her boyfriend at the time was a bitter, obnoxious control freak, and he’d convinced her that taking lithium was a sign of weakness on her part. The outcome was predictable, and when she became ill, he got angry and beat her up. When I went to see her, she’d been sectioned, and it was heartbreaking to see my friend, usually so articulate and full of life, in that condition. It was still her, of course, but her mind was clearly at angles with the world, and the conversations were impossible to follow as they took seemingly random turns. The drugs she was taking had dialled her everyday vibrancy down to shades of grey. It’s such a cruel condition. I left the hospital that day feeling angry and upset and protective and powerless.

A while later, I wrote about the experience in a book called Cry For Help, calling the character roughly based on her Tori. I asked her permission first, of course, which she waved away almost without thinking; it was fine, she said, and with a typical degree of insight told me I wouldn’t be writing about her anyway, but myself. She was right about that, but I still wish I’d dedicated the book to her; I should have done.

But then, she was always remarkably forthright about her mental illness, and even while she fought constant battles with it over the years, she also fought it on a different front as well. She worked her way up through academia, culminating in a PhD on ways of destigmatising mental health issues amongst the young – a PhD that was passed on the spot without changes. She produced numerous papers on that and other issues, always readable, always thoughtful and insightful. That intelligence permeated her social life too. Whenever I had a problem, including issues with my own mental health, I knew I could talk to Tori and get exactly the right piece of advice, or even a smart analysis of the situation from a direction I hadn’t even considered. It was as though she’d spent so long understanding the elaborate clockwork of her own mind that other people’s simple mechanisms had become child’s play for her.

She moved away. We always kept in touch, although it was intermittent: sometimes we’d see each other five or six times a year, others only once. She was at my wedding. The last time I saw her was early in 2013. We met for a drink, but she was reasonably manic, and had double-booked, and we only spoke for half an hour or so. She emailed me a few months later, suggesting we meet up, but it was close to Harrogate and I couldn’t make it, and after a few back-and-forth messages the suggestion fizzled out. Again, I wish I had met her; again, I should have done. Not because it would have changed anything, but just for the sake of seeing her again – although I suppose the sadness of seeing someone for the last time will always be the what and why of it, not the when.

She was ill during the summer of 2013, but seemed to be improving. There was talk of her returning to work, but it wasn’t to be, and in September last year she took her own life. It was hard to accept at the time; it remains hard to accept now. Because of the nature of our friendship, it can sometimes feel like it’s been one of those periods where we simply didn’t catch up for a while, and there’s a moment of painful realisation when I remember that we never will. She was always so supportive and proud of my writing, even though it was – frankly – way too lowbrow for her usual tastes, and yet I realised I’d never explored much of her own. After her death, I read through the various papers and articles available online, and then downloaded her PhD thesis. In the acknowledgements, amongst many others, I saw my own name and burst into tears.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I’m not going to say anything as facile as that everything can be dealt with, all problems solved, but if your feelings are taking you in that direction then please remember that you’re certainly not alone, and that there is help out there. Here is a list of some charities and organisations that can offer either confidential advice or other resources:

08457 909090

Young Minds

0845 7678000

0300 123 3393

Rethink Mental Illness
0300 5000927

The Mental Health Foundation




Posted by on July 31st, 2014

The latest missile in the ongoing Amazon/Hachette dispute: Amazon have posted a blog giving the clearest insight yet into the nature of the negotiations. It’s worth reading all of it, and possibly some of the reactions (which aren’t hard to find). It clarifies certain things, while leaving others out, but I want to concentrate on one particular aspect of it in this post.

“It’s also important to understand that e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.”

For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. That’s a fairly unequivocal statement, isn’t it? But firstly, despite the confidence of the assertion, I wonder how accurate it can really be. After all, publishing a book is an experiment without a control; you can’t go back in time and reprice it during that busy first month to see what might have been. Overall, 9.99 books might outsell 14.99 books 1.74 copies to 1. If they were mops or toasters then it would be reasonable to extrapolate from that – because mops and toasters are fairly interchangable items and the demand for them probably doesn’t fluctuate much over time – but I’m not convinced books are the same.

It reminds me a little of the pro-self-publishing argument that, had you self-published, you would have made x% more money, which is a flawed argument as it assumes you would have had the same sales numbers. This seems a similar attempt to re-run history changing only one variable, and I can’t really imagine how it can be supported.

But then, I don’t have a background in statistics, or access to Amazon’s extensive data and algorithms. For now, let’s assume it’s simply and literally true that a book priced at 9.99 sells 1.74 the number of copies of the same book priced at 14.99. If so, then as Amazon asserts in its post, the revenue is impacted accordingly. A book that sells 100k copies at 14.99 generates 1,499,000. Sold at 9.99 instead, it would generate 1,738,260, an increase in revenue of roughly 16%. Everybody – the consumer, the retailer, the publisher – appears to win. Fat bank! Big pie! Tuck in! Etc.

So 9.99 is the winner then? Hooray! Except, wait, please, hold those horses; put down those knives and forks. Because as others have pointed out, there are only two price points being compared here. What about other prices? In comparison to 14.99, we now know that 9.99 sells 74% more copies, resulting in a 16% increase in revenue. To get that same 16% increase at 10.99, 11.99, 12.99 and 13.99 we would need, respectively, an increase in copies sold of roughly 58%, 45%, 34% and 24%. Do those increases occur at those reduced prices? Only Amazon knows, and they haven’t said. But we can’t realistically decide whether 9.99 is the optimum balance of price, volume and revenue – the sweet spot, if you like, of supply and demand – without that additional data. Taken at face value, all we know is that 9.99 is better than 14.99, not that it is best.

But let’s say it is the best. Amazon’s data is drawn from a world where some books are sold at 9.99 and some at 14.99, while others are priced lower or higher still, and conclusions from that world obviously don’t map neatly onto a world where all books are suddenly being sold at 9.99. But let’s enter that world. Let’s imagine all those repriced books really are seeing an increase of 74% in sales. And let’s try to explain how the fuck that could actually happen.

Reason Number One: More Books Sold!

It’s simply people buying more books than they used to. Instead of 50 million books being sold in a year, or whatever, it’s now 75 million, or whatever. What a joyous thought! There’d be a 74% increase in bunting sales that year too. And bridges. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced it’s entirely realistic. Cheaper ebooks have no doubt contributed to some tottering digital to-be-read piles, but there’s no buffet so long that the table doesn’t end. People only have so much time. I imagine ebooks will continue to expand the market, but not quite to this extent. You may believe otherwise, which is obviously fine.

Reason Number Two: Different Books Sold!

People see bestselling traditionally published authors at 9.99 and buy those books instead of the cheaper- or same-priced book they would previously have bought by a lesser known author. In this view, the market doesn’t massively expand, more rearranges itself internally. The 74% increase in sales for those repriced 14.99 books comes at the expense of sales for midlist and self-published authors.

Reason Number Three: Less Books Sold Elsewhere!

Here, I think, we get to the crux of the matter. The 74% increase in book sales, the increased revenue, the big pie – this is solely through Amazon. (And only ebooks at that). And this seems to be the crucial point, and one possible reason why publishers (and some authors) might be responding with less enthusiasm to the apparently unshakeable (to some) logic of Amazon’s recent post. Maybe the 74% increase is at the expense of other outlets: sales sucked away from other retailers, ones that actually rely on book sales and might go under as a result, eventually leaving Amazon as a virtual monopoly for book-buyers and a monopsony for publishers.

You will have your own feelings about the latter possibility, everything it entails, and the possible effects and repercussions of ending up in such a situation. Regardless, it’s fair to say that – for me – Amazon’s latest revelations don’t really change anything. And despite the apparently impeccable logic, I understand why it doesn’t for publishers either.