Book Review: Tijuana Donkey Showdown by Adam Howe


Author: Adam Howe

Publisher: Comet Press

Release Date: December 2016

Adam Howe has been probing the dark recesses of Americana with his sweaty British fingers for some time now, and he earned plaudits last year with his grisly triple-threat novella collection Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet. The wonderfully titled Tijuana Donkey Showdown plucks hapless hick hard-man Reggie Levine out of the previous book’s opening story, Damn Dirty Apes, and plunges him into a similarly reckless adventure.

Recruited by a down-at-heel used car salesman to retrieve a Chinese crested terrier from a fleapit roadside zoo – where the spectacularly ugly dog has been improbably mistaken for the Chupacabra – punch-drunk ex-boxer Reggie soon finds himself embroiled in a deadly criminal conspiracy involving sadistic neo-Nazi drug smugglers and a freakishly endowed adult entertainment donkey named Enrique. Unable to extricate himself from his increasingly sticky predicament, reluctant hero Reggie has no choice but to see his bizarre mission through to its explosive conclusion.

Of the three stories that made up Die Dog, Levine’s adventure was arguably the one crying out for a sequel, and this is a bigger, ballsier follow-up. Funnier and nastier than its predecessor, in Tijuana Donkey Showdown, Howe spoon-feeds you unsavoury content and then cranks up the ‘80s action movie theatrics to disorientate you. If you like your crime fiction laced with twisted humour, surreal violence and animalistic urges, then Howe’s work is definitely worth investigating further.

Great title. Great cover. Great story. (And a great cameo from Nicolas Cage!)

Reviewed by Tom Leins


The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Benedict J. Jones

Benedict J. Jones has carved a reputation as one of the most compelling British crime writers to emerge in recent years. Tom Leins caught up with him to discuss his new Charlie Bars thriller, The Devil’s Brew.

Firstly, for readers unfamiliar with your Charlie Bars series, can you tell us a little bit about his back story, and how he ends up in Northumberland at the outset of this book?

Charlie “Bars” Constantinou is an ex-con with three-strikes to his name. At the end of a stretch that saw him spend his thirtieth birthday inside he decided to give the straight life a go. His love of painting, that he picked up inside, didn’t get him too far and after looking into attacks on a pair of drug dealers for their boss (“Real Estate”) he found himself working in his uncle’s kebab shop for minimum wage. From there he got himself working as the leg-man for private investigator Mazza Toshak in a kidnapping case, which featured in the novella “Skewered”.

After that the two of them formed a partnership of sorts that saw Charlie investigating a blackmail case (“Dirty Pictures”) and a lost book, bound in human skin (“The Book of Skin”).

A case involving a missing call-girl took on a darker bent and saw the two knocking heads with a deranged killer using the city as his playground (“Pennies for Charon”). “The Devil’s Brew” starts with Charlie struggling to deal with the fallout, both mental and physical, of the cases he has thus far been involved in. “Pennies for Charon” saw him pushing the limits of what he was capable of and that has to have an effect on him.

After a string of stories set in London, were you nervous about extracting Charlie from his natural habitat for The Devil’s Brew?

Very. I’d always thought of London as one of the main characters in its own right in the earlier stories and have always wondered how well Charlie could work away from his usual backdrop. That said I was also intrigued by the idea of throwing him into an environment that was somewhat alien to a city-boy like him and seeing how he would deal with the challenges. That said I have written outside London before – not least with my Westerns, but this was really about splitting Charlie from his city.

Do you see Charlie Bars as your signature character, or does he have a use-by date? Some crime writers are keen to tell a character’s story within a trilogy, others like to chart the character’s evolution over time…

He’s definitely a signature character of sorts and is also the one who has stuck with me the most. If he stopped “talking” to me then the stories would dry up but he shows no signs of stopping yet.

Right from the off I wanted Charlie to be a character who evolves. The things that he experiences have to colour how he moves forward. I don’t think that I would be staying true to the character if I didn’t do that. The things he sees affect him and through that they change his character – I’d like to think he is already different from the ex-con we first saw in the short story “Real Estate”.

I don’t really have a set plan for his story arc in terms of anything definite but there are a few places I want to take him. I’d like to think we will just keep going and see where the story takes us.

Speaking of series characters, who are your favourites to read?

I’ve been a big fan of the Bernie Gunther books (Phillip Kerr) since the initial Berlin Noir trilogy, the Charlie Parker (John Connolly) books, and the Jack Taylor (Ken Bruen) series. I also really enjoyed the “Shardlake” series by CJ Sansom for a complete step back in time. There’s probably a few others that I have forgotten, and I do wish Gary McMahon would give us a few more Thomas Usher books.

The Devil’s Brew is a defiantly British story – who are your favourite British writers – crime or otherwise? How have they influenced your own writing?

One of the big influences on the development of Charlie Bars were the “Cal Innes” cycle from Ray Banks. They’re a quartet of four really gritty UK private eye novels, partially set in Manchester, and as well as those Ray’s other work is well worth checking out. Ken Bruen’s “R&B” series were likewise very formative being set around south east London and helped in making me believe that it would make for a decent backdrop.

A lot of my influences also come from the horror genre, people like; Adam Nevill, Gary McMahon, Gary Fry. They all have a dark quality to their work that I like to try and inject into my own.

I’m a big fan of Graham Greene and the ambiguous morality that he shows through his characters. I’m currently rereading a lot of his stuff at the moment. I think he shows that the main character doesn’t have to be a “hero”, in fact no one does, and that can be quite important when attempting to ground your work in realism.

In addition I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention David Peace; his Red Riding Quartet was hugely influential to me in regarding the “secret history” that can lurk beneath the surface. If people haven’t read those I would urge them to dig them out.

In terms of contemporary fiction, the British private eye character still feels underexplored compared to its American equivalent. Do you have any homegrown influences or recommendations? 

There’s a few people doing it well but it does seem like the UK market, outside the small presses, is more dominated by the police procedural and the like. I do think that is perhaps because the PI as an archetype is more of an American concept – even Sherlock Holmes is a consulting detective rather than a private one.

As I mentioned before Ray Banks was quite formative. Victor Headley and his Yardie books made me see that you could do nasty low-key British crime fiction that didn’t need to be a parody of times past. I like the humour in Paul Brazill’s stuff and the bleakness in Gareth Spark’s work. There’s a tonne of really good small press stuff out there at the moment.

Outside of crime fiction, I know that you have dipped into other genres, such as westerns and horror. The Devil’s Brew seemed to channel this: Charlie fulfils the role of the brooding, troubled outsider figure often seen in westerns, and the Thirlwell Family’s dark arts drive the story into unashamed horror territory. Was this deliberate? Is genre fluidity a benefit when writing crime fiction?

Oh, yes. I love blending genres and crossing over into others. I’ve often thought the most effective way of subverting genre tropes and the like is if the reader doesn’t know what they’re reading. But in today’s world where books are pigeon holed into genres that can be difficult. If you are reading a “horror” book you are expecting the supernatural and the like and I really feel that can lessen the impact.

For me there has always been the idea of lifting things from one genre and placing them in others. Although I don’t think that I am in anyway unique in this. Especially with regards to using Western motifs in Crime fiction (and vice-versa). It’s something you see quite a lot – I’m a big fan of trying to identify non-Western Westerns, a good example of that is the film Copland which really pushes that idea of using tropes from one genre within another,

How much research went into the ritualistic aspect of the Thirlwell Family’s behaviour?

I wanted to try and get their psychological make-up right. They’re a pretty damaged bunch of people, and with a family history like theirs there doesn’t seem to be much hope that that will ever change.

The costumes they wear were influenced by a few different things; mummer plays, the Morris, and a large dose of my own imaginings. In terms of their “remembering” I think that was more coloured by general ideas about past lives but also the reincarnation/genetic memory stories by people like R E Howard and Henry S Whitehead which people don’t seem to write as much today as they once did.

Quite a bit of research was need in regards to the dog fighting which features in parts of the book as that was a world I knew little about – some reading and a couple of documentaries put me straight in that regard. I can’t say that it was easy reading, or watching, but I’m not one to turn away – this stuff happens in the real world and if I was going to put it in then I wanted it to be right.

Violence is clearly a way of life for Charlie, and there are a lot of gratuitous scenes in The Devil’s Brew. How did your amp yourself up to write those sustained rampage scenes at the end of the book, and maintain the aggressive tempo?

Violence does seem to follow Charlie, doesn’t it, and no matter how much he rails against it he is awfully good at it when he has to be. That in itself opens up some interesting questions about Charlie and his use of violence, and also just how reliable he really is when telling us his thoughts.

In part being able to unleash violence was what the book was about; The Devil’s Brew inside of us that we can tap into as and when we need it. I suppose I try to channel that when writing. “Straw Dogs” was a big influence on certain scenes in “The Devil’s Brew” and ever since my first watch of that one thing really stuck with me – if you ever drive a thinking man to violence you had better be prepared to be on the receiving end of a man who has thought and considered what he is going to do. In a way I think that sums up a writer and what he should be doing if he is going to try and show violence, especially realistic ultraviolence, on the page.

One of the most difficult parts I find is after the frenetic action to try and show the kind of damage caused. I really try to shy away from people being, say, clubbed unconscious and just having a lump on their head for a couple of days. I’d like to think that I try and show the effects that violence of this kind can have on people and the lasting damage that it causes.

Finally, what is next on your agenda? Can we expect any more Charlie Bars stories in the near-future?

As ever I seem to have a lot on the go at the moment. I’m trying to finish off a couple of longer horror projects as well as quite a few shorts that are in various degrees of completion.

In regards to Charlie I am redrafting a follow up to “The Devil’s Brew” as well as beating a few more short stories into shape so hopefully it won’t be too long before he returns.


Book Review: The Devil’s Brew by Benedict J. Jones


Author: Benedict J. Jones

Publisher: Crime Wave Press

Release Date: November 2016

The Devil’s Brew, Benedict J. Jones’ follow-up to Pennies for Charon, sees ex-con-turned-private investigator Charlie ‘Bars’ Constantinou retreat to the Northumbrian countryside in an effort to put some space between him and London – where so much bad blood has already been spilled. Befitting a man with his chequered past, Charlie finds himself plunged headlong into the affairs of a local family, whose horses are being mutilated by unknown assailants. Little does he realise, the culprits are the Thirlwells, a rural clan to whom savagery is a way of life. With personal redemption on his mind, Charlie wades into the dispute, and ends up embroiled in a vicious game of wits with a deadly set of opponents…

The Devil’s Brew is a well-judged, self-assured follow-up, which simultaneously consolidates Charlie Bars’ credentials and demonstrates that the character can function away from his usual South London stomping ground.  The British private eye novel is a notoriously awkward beast, and while The Devil’s Brew doesn’t follow a typical PI narrative, it drops Charlie into an unpleasantly gripping situation without missing a beat. To Jones’ credit, Charlie Bars already feels like character who can be readily redeployed in leftfield scenarios, not one that will be hamstrung by well-worn genre tropes.

Get Carter, Straw Dogs and The Wicker Man have all been – accurately – cited as influences on The Devil’s Brew, while other, more recent, cinematic touchstones that come to mind include the likes of Dead Man’s Shoes (rustic vengeance) and Eden Lake (feral youth). The violent, extended climax is nerve shreddingly accomplished, and the book left me sweaty-palmed as the central conflict spiralled out of control. Tense, atmospheric and aggressively compelling, The Devil’s Brew is a top-drawer slab of contemporary Brit-crime.

Reviewed by Tom Leins

Under The Influence – Tony Hancock – by Paul D Brazill

They say that all small boys are influenced by their big brother’s music collection, and while that may well be true of me, I was also influenced by my family’s taste.  Luckily I grew up in a time when television and radio weren’t as youth focused as they are now and I could enjoy the same shows as my parents and siblings. Will Hay, Ealing Comedies and, of course, Tony Hancock. During the miners’ strikes in the ‘70s there were power cuts. Which meant no telly. Reading comics by candle light and listening to an old transistor radio. Radio 2, usually, since my parents were of that age group. The Navy Lark, Round The Horne and, of course, Hancock.

Tony Hancock – the easiest comedian for charades – and I share the same birthday, May 12th. Whether or not we share the same death day remains to be seen, of course, and let’s just hope we can put that little fact-finding mission on hold for a while, eh?

One of the UK’s major television and radio stars throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s, British actor and comedian Tony Hancock killed himself on 25 June 1968. He overdosed on booze and pills and left a suicide note that said:

‘Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times’

Indeed, Hancock’s eponymous character on radio, on television, and in film, regularly tried his hand at countless activities and endeavours that invariably failed.

One episode – The Bedsitter – teeters dangerously on the precipice of bleak existentialism. The Bedsitter is a one-room set, one-man-show, where Hancock endlessly flips through a Bertrand Russell tome trying to find meaning in life, but fails, of course.

In the most famous episode of his radio- and later television- show The Blood Donor,  ‘the lad himself’  proudly donates a pint of his particularly rare blood only to end the episode by cutting himself so badly on a breadknife that he needs a transfusion of his own blood. The radio broadcast was a resounding success but recording of the television version of The Blood Donor proved to be problematic as Hancock had recently been involved in a car accident and suffered from concussion so that he had to read his lines from autocue.

After the American failure of his film debut The Rebel, Hancock broke with his long time writing team of Galton and Simpson, who were responsible for most of the great writing in Hancock’s shows, as well as ditching his long-term agent, the splendidly named Beryl Vertue. This pretty much led to his career decline.

Disappointment was always breathing at the back of Hancock’s neck, it seemed.

Hancock, and other character actors, are regularly in my mind when I’m creating characters. Quigley, the hit man in my yarn The Bucket List, was partly inspired by the image of Tony Hancock stalking the streets with a gun.

Hancock could be said to be the perfect noir comedian, in fact. I’ve said before that crime fiction is about bringing order to chaos and noir is about bringing chaos to order, and Tony Hancock’s comedy is pure noir. A natural loser. When I started writing I wanted to write small odd stories about small odd people.

And so was ‘the lad himself’, unfortunately.

Like his fictional incarnation, he was prone to introspection, a concoction of egotism and self-doubt which he bared when he was interviewed in the BBCs Face To Face programme in the early 1960s.

Spike Milligan said of Hancock that he was a ‘Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he’s got rid of everybody else, he’s going to get rid of himself and he did.’

As Hancock said: ‘Stone me, what a life!’

Bio: Paul D. Brazill‘s books include Too Many Crooks, Guns Of Brixton, A Case Of Noir, and Kill Me Quick! He was born in England and lives in Poland. His writing has been translated into Italian, Finnish, German and Slovene. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including three editions of The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime. His blog is here.

Book Review: Too Many Crooks by Paul D. Brazill


Author: Paul D. Brazill

Publisher: Near To The Knuckle

Release Date: January 2017

When high-class fence Leslie Hawkins meets Peter Rhatigan in a sleazy London pub, he offers her the chance to get her hands on the Totenkopfring – a legendary piece of World War Two Nazi memorabilia – which she believes she can flog on to a degenerate collector for a tidy profit. Their meeting ends in chaos, however, following a bloody altercation with a member of a biker gang – an event that sets the tone for the chaotic violence that follows.

Meanwhile over in Poland, Dr Anna Nowak finds an amnesiac Englishman half-dead in the snow, and her commitment to helping him unravel his past leads them into surprising – and similarly dangerous – territory. Eventually, the various plot strands congeal like spilled blood, and old scores are settled once and for all.

Paul D. Brazill’s Anglo-Polish caper occupies the murky middle-ground between thriller and farce. If you can imagine a Guy Ritchie film re-cast with Carry On actors, you will come close to understanding this book’s offbeat charm! Chock-full of memorable characters, and engaging set-pieces, Too Many Crooks unfolds at a frantic pace. Regular readers of Brazill’s work will lap up the wise-cracking, booze-swilling, bone-snapping story, but this novella also boasts an accessible mainstream quality that should help him tap into a wider audience.

Pay your pound, slurp the Brit-grit broth and rub up against the Slippery Pole! Great fun!

Reviewed by Tom Leins

Under The Influence – Elmore Leonard – By Tom Leins

I was 25 when I picked up my first Elmore Leonard novel. The Big Bounce.

I plucked it off the communal bookshelf at a hostel in Tulum, Mexico, during a thunderstorm. The hostel was opposite a strip club, presumably very popular with truckers because the road outside was lined with 18-wheelers. For reasons I will never truly be able to explain, the hostel manager was listening to Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, on repeat. I was giving my liver a break from drinking games for the night, and this slim, battered volume grabbed my attention. At this point in my reading life, crime novels were still something of a novelty, and The Big Bounce was like nothing I had ever read at that time. The deceptively simple plot and effortless delivery hooked me in from the get-go, and I tore through the book in a couple of sittings.

It kick-started an obsession with crime fiction that gets stronger with every passing year. I remember following up The Big Bounce with a late period Matt Scudder novel in a collapsed armchair in a Mexican border town, waiting for an early morning bus to Belize… I read a Henning Mankell novel on a dilapidated coach in Guatemala, with a local farmer eating a Styrofoam container full of fried chicken over my head, his holstered machete clattering into me every time we hit a pothole… I read The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn in the hammock of a bare-brick El Salvador motel, guts churning with some unspecified ailment…

All great books, but it was the Leonard one that made the biggest impression on me and my writing. I had enjoyed the movie versions of Jackie Brown and Out of Sight years earlier, but never really considered tracing those movies back to the source – an oversight I duly corrected when I returned home. From the gritty, booze-swilling Detroit stories through to the more colourful Florida-set novels and beyond I envied the casual way he gently nudged bad situations into even worse ones. I envied the way that his taciturn tough-guy protagonists were always the smartest guys in the room. I envied the way his stories were cooler than everyone else’s.

Elmore Leonard is the kind of writer that forces you to get better. There were several occasions, after finishing a Leonard book, when the sheer impressiveness of what I had just read derailed my own writing attempts for weeks. Leonard’s influence on my own writing is probably difficult to detect, but he schools me every time I pick up one of his books.

Over the last decade, since picking up The Big Bounce, I’ve read dozens of Elmore Leonard novels, and never encountered a dud. How many authors can you say that about?


One of the strangest memories I have relating to The Big Bounce happened a couple of months down the line. We rolled into Honduras on Boxing Day after spending a rum-soaked Christmas at a vegetarian commune in Guatemala. When I’m on the road for an extended period, my first reaction is usually to switch on the TV – mainly to check that it works! I switched on the TV, cracked open my can of Salva Vida, and slumped on the bed. I thought I had lost my mind, as I saw Vinnie Jones, Owen Wilson and Charlie Sheen clad in Hawaiian shirts, appearing recreate a 40-year-old book I had read for the first time a few weeks earlier! (It was years before I watched the movie in its entirety, and it was every bit as bad as the reviews made it sound. Leonard was no stranger to bad movie adaptations, but this one plumbed new depths! A topic for another blog post, if ever there was one…)

The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Gary Duncan

As the editor of top-notch UK flash site Spelk, Gary Duncan has probably read more short fiction in the last few years than most people encounter in a lifetime. He steps away from the editorial hot-seat to bring us a new collection of his own flash fiction, You’re Not Supposed to Cry, which blends the surreal, the macabre and the everyday to great effect. Cheeky, playful and thoroughly British, this well-judged collection is crammed with small but perfectly formed delights. Tom Leins caught up with Gary to discuss his new book.

Firstly, congratulations on the release of your new story collection You’re Not Supposed To Cry. What draws you to flash fiction as a medium?

Thank you! Why flash? The short answer, if you’ll pardon the pun, is that I like brevity. I like short sentences and short books, so flash was always going to be a good fit for me. I’ve always been into short stories, so flash was probably a natural progression — how short can you go and still tell a story?

Time is another main reason, of course. I’m pretty busy with my day job (I edit market research reports, rewrite press releases, etc., etc.), but I still like to write something every day. I usually do it in short bursts — 20 minutes, half an hour — and that lends itself to flash. I like to get a first draft down in an hour or so, maybe 500 words, and then go back to it over the next few days, chopping it and rewriting it till I’m happy with it and ready to send it out. I like the editing side of things — more so than the actual writing in fact — so that’s another plus for flash for me. Because they’re so short, I can go through the same story over and over.

I also think you need to write to your strengths. I’m not the best plotter — I’ve done a few longer pieces but tend to get stuck after a few thousand words. All that plotting and all those narrative arcs and such … I usually end up going back to flash, my tail between my legs.

I also happen to spend a lot of time just thinking about stories and scenes and snatches of dialogue. I do come up with a lot of ideas and flash, for me, is the easiest and quickest way to get them out of my head and down on paper while they’re still fresh and before the next idea pops into my head and demands to be written. Maybe I just don’t have the patience or the stamina — I’m not sure I’d want to stick with the same story for months or years or however long it would take me to write a novel.

Where does the title come from? What kind of things are likely to make you cry? What kind of stories are likely to make you cry?

The title was suggested by Dana Keller at Vagabond Voices, my publisher. It’s from a line in one of the stories in the collection, about a bereaved dad struggling to come to terms with the loss of his child and his frustration that his counsellor is breaking down right in front of him: “The counsellor’s eyes are wet, and he thinks this is all well and good, sharing the pain and everything, but then he thinks, hang on a fucking minute, I’m the one who’s supposed to be crying, not you. Me. Not you.”

The original title was Snap. Dana came up with a few other ideas but I knew it had to be You’re Not Supposed to Cry as soon as I saw it.

What makes me cry? Nothing! I’m a no-nonsense northerner and we don’t cry. Never. Having said that, I do have a soft spot for John Steinbeck and that scene at the end of Of Mice and Men … well, that always gets me. But that’s just between the two of us …

As a writer — and indeed a reader — what makes you tick flash-wise?

That’s a tough one. With flash it’s the challenge of writing something in as few words as possible that still speaks of a bigger story. You’re trying to catch a moment, or something glimpsed — you don’t need to know the whole story, but you still need to show enough to engage the reader at some basic level. The best ones are those that need to be read again and again, the ones you find yourself thinking about the next day when you’re in the car or standing in line to pay for your shopping.

A good flash should be just the right number of words — if it’s 400 words, then 400 is what it is and it can’t be improved by adding another hundred words. It should be self-contained and complete, but always hinting at something more.

The content in your collection ranges from the mundane to the macabre. Within which genres do your own reading tastes lie?

I’ll read anything, and I’m a mess of contradictions. I’m reading Alan Bennett’s diaries at the moment, and Justin Cronin’s The Passage (all 800 pages — so much for brevity). I also like to have a short story collection on the go, and right now that’s Tom Franklin’s Poachers (which is brilliant). It’ll probably be something crimey next — I’m a huge fan of Don Winslow and James Ellroy, and I read a lot of Dennis Lehane, Lee Child, Harlan Coben and David Morrell.

I also have a stable of writers I keep going back to for inspiration — Martin Amis, Raymond Carver, Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis.

Your stories are all undercut with a very British sensibility. Who are your favourite British writers? And who are your favourite short story writers?

Funny you should say that because I tend to read more Americans than Brits nowadays. Most of my early influences were British though — I remember reading the likes of Stan Barstow and Alan Sillitoe, a lot of “northern” working-class writers like that, and just “getting it” — thinking I can really relate to this, the whole “write what you know” thing. That’s probably why I’m drawn to the mundane, the everyday things. Magnus Mills does it very well, and David Gaffney too.

My favourite short story writer is Donald Ray Pollock — Knockemstiff is my favourite book (short stories or otherwise). But there are so many others — Raymond Carver, Michel Faber, Annie Proulx, Helen Simpson, Jonathan Ames, A.L. Kennedy, Charles Bukowski.

Turning our attentions towards Spelk, the flash site you have edited since 2014. What prompted you to set up Spelk, and how has having an editorial role improved your own writing?

I’d had a few (mostly crime) stories published at places like Near to the Knuckle, Shotgun Honey and Out of the Gutter, and I wanted to set up something similar at first. You look at those sites though, how good they are, and you think it’s going to be pretty hard to compete head-on, considering I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. Round about then (2013, 2014) I was also beginning to write more “quirky” stories, some of which would eventually go into You’re Not Supposed to Cry.

So when it came to the site, I thought it would be cool to create a platform for crime and the “other stuff” — just throw it all together and see what happened. And that’s more or less how it has panned out — I built the site in WordPress, sent out an email begging for submissions and that was about it. I was more than a little surprised when people actually started sending me stuff. Some really good writers too, people I’d been reading on these other sites — Gareth Spark, Ryan Sayles, Aidan Thorn, Paul Brazill, Bill Baber and Darren Sant.

I even managed to get something from RJ Ellory, one of my favourite writers. I’d just read A Quiet Belief in Angels and City of Lies and I don’t know what I was thinking, but I just tweeted him and asked if he’d like to submit something for this new site I’d set up. I thought I’d get a snotty reply from his agent or publicist, or no reply at all. But within hours he got back to me and said, “Yes, of course.”

Working with people like that can only be a good thing in terms of your own writing. By having your own site, you get to see what everyone else is up to, and what works and what doesn’t. I see how others “package” their stories — how they lay them out, how they approach submissions, how they handle rejections etc. You get a sense of the bigger picture too — the themes, the ideas, the different approaches.

I have discovered some great writers through Spelk. Has it been heartening to see former contributors develop over the years? Which Spelk writers do you think are stretching the boundaries of what flash fiction can offer?

Yes, it is heartening. We’ve had quite a few first-timers on Spelk and it’s great to see their names popping up on other sites later. It’s a win-win if they then help spread the word about Spelk — flash is still a fairly small community and I think we should all be doing more to promote it.

It’s hard to define the boundaries because there are so many people doing so many different things with flash.

Style-wise, I think Sophie van Llewyn is doing something really exciting — she’s very lyrical and her stories are always beautifully written. We recently published A Conversation between the Spice Trader’s Daughter and her Lover, a Fortnight after She Burned at the Stake and it’s already one of my favourites on Spelk. And that title — how could you not like that? (I love a good title, and we’ve had some cracking ones — Love in the Time of Expectoration, The Woman Who Waltzed With Ulysses S. Grant, Enea Wants the Venice Water, Role Playing for the Early Patricidist, You Must Eat Your Boots First. I’d never accept a story just for the title, of course, but something along these lines, that sets the story up and makes you want to dive straight in, certainly doesn’t do any harm.)

Paul Beckman is always worth reading because he manages to come up with something different every time, whether it’s the point of view, the theme or the basic mechanics of the story (all-dialogue, bullet form, etc.). I love Howie Good’s elliptical stories — they’re at the shorter end of the flash range, but they’re dense with detail and great imagery.

Finally, what is next on your agenda? Do you have any upcoming publishing plans you can share?

I’m working on another batch of flash stories at the moment. They’re darker, these ones — miserable, but in a good way! I’ve sent a few out but I’m holding on to the rest for now — I’m still not sure if they’re going to be standalone or part of a bigger, themed story. I like the idea of doing a novella in flash, so they might evolve into something like that. I also write as Jack Larkham, nasty little crime stories, so I have a few ideas for him too. Time permitting, of course.

You can order You’re Not Supposed To Cry here.

The Interrogation Room – An Interview With S.W. Lauden

In recent years LA crime writer S.W. Lauden has surged to prominence with a series of compelling novels and short stories. Tom Leins caught up with him to discuss his Greg Salem thrillers, Bad Citizen Corporation and Grizzly Season.

Grizzly Season pretty much picks up where Bad Citizen Corporation left off, but transplants Greg Salem into a drastically different environment. After going to such lengths to develop a convincing backdrop in the form of the Bay Cities, were you worried about comprehensively uprooting your protagonist?

Thanks for having me, Tom.

Great question. I think that going into the second Greg Salem book, I was much more concerned about writing the same story again. I really wanted to challenge him and his sidekick, Marco. So I was willing to take some risks, but I always knew they would get back to The Bay Cities eventually. They can never stay away from the beach for very long without going a little crazy.

Grizzly Season felt like a big step forward from Bad Citizen Corporation. How important is it to up your game with each book, and not re-tread old ground?

I always thought of these three books—including “Hang Time” (coming this Oct. from Rare Bird Books)—as more of a trilogy than a series, so I wanted to go somewhere else with this cast of characters in the middle adventure. I needed them to evolve in order to prepare them for what I had in mind in the third book. Staying at the beach wasn’t going to accomplish that in a radical enough way.

I hope that each of the books can be read and enjoyed on their own, but there are also some over-arching narratives that are intended to tie them all together. Matt Morgan at Crimespree Magazine likened “Bad Citizen Corporation” to an Indie album, and “Grizzly Season” to a major label debut. If that’s the case, “Hang Time” is shaping up to be the introspective solo album that comes after things have inevitably fallen apart. Rock and roll!

Which series characters do you enjoy reading?

The biggest influences on the Greg Salem books came from Don Winslow’s Boone Daniels (I wish he’d write more of them), Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole, and Arnaldur Indridason’s Detective Erlendur. I usually focus on story when reading—and those authors are obviously amazing storytellers—but I’d devour almost anything about those three characters.

In Bad Citizen Corporation – through the experiences Greg and his friends – there seemed to be a sub-text about aging, but remaining relevant. Is there any truth in that assessment?

Absolutely. I wanted Greg Salem to be vulnerable, and aging is his Achilles heel. So he has a bit of Peter Pan syndrome, but instead of flying he rides around on skateboards and surfboards. The Bay Cities is his Neverland. All of that is very much tied up with his history as a punk musician. It’s no secret that rock and roll is a young man’s game (at least from a commercial perspective), which can be hard to reconcile if it’s what you’ve organized your life around. We’ve all seen the old man in the slam pit, and it isn’t pretty.

Has crime fiction proven to be an adequate substitute for music in your life? Can book launches and Noir at the Bar events come close to replicating the thrill of a live performance?

They’re different thrills, but share some things in common. I was mostly a drummer, so being a writer is actually akin to “going solo” for me—I’m the one standing up at the mic now, with no cymbals to hide behind. That’s its own kind of thrill and it’s really unique to this period of my life. I’m doing my best to appreciate for what it is.

The biggest similarity to music so far is in the supportive community of writers and readers I have gotten to know. I can’t tell you the number of club shows I played to other musicians. That gives the crime writing universe a certain familiarity that, honestly, is one of the main things that keeps me hustling despite all of the usual challenges that writers face. That and this insane need to tell other people about the stories in my head.

You are a proactive member of the independent crime scene. Do close friendships make it harder to stand out in a crowded field, or do your peers keep you on your toes?

That’s an interesting question. I definitely feel more secure in a pack, which might be a drummer thing, but I do think there’s a need for up-and-coming writers to help each other out. And I love it when I hear about successful authors helping newcomers out.

As far as I can tell, commercial success in publishing might be even more elusive than in music—but neither is a cakewalk. So we might as well have some fun together while we’re toiling away. At least until Hollywood comes knocking, because then it’s every author for themselves!

Of the current crop of writers on the independent scene, who in particular inspires you?

I definitely have to tip my hat to Eric Beetner. The guy is a great writer, incredibly prolific, and probably one of the most supportive people on the Indie crime scene. He has given me and countless other new authors the opportunity to read at Noir at the Bar events in LA and at Bouchercon, and now that I’m working with him on the Writer Types podcast I finally understand just how hardworking and committed he is. Beetner is a force of nature and I’m lucky to call him a friend.

You have put out three books in the relatively short time that I have known you (with another on the way). Can you tell us a little bit about your writing routine? Is it tough to stay disciplined?

I’m not a “write everyday” guy. My family and my day job don’t allow for it and, to be honest, I’d just burn myself out. But that’s me. Plenty of other authors write every day and definitely seem to benefit from it. These days I write early in the morning and late at night—times when the house is quiet. The pace increases as the word count goes up, but that’s the general routine. By editing along the way, I eventually get to a first draft that I’ll read myself and mark up. Rinse and repeat two or three or eight times, and then I lean on a couple of trusted beta readers and an editor to help me make sense of it all. Slash and burn, suffer insomnia for a week or two, eat too much sugar/drink too much coffee, ponder the nature of existence, ride my bike around the neighborhood in a daze, slash and burn some more until—hopefully—I have something to submit. Then I hold my breath until the notes come back from the publisher before starting all over again.

Your books have an enviable mainstream sheen. Is a commercial sensibility part of your blueprint, or are you just telling the stories the way you want to?

Thanks! I really enjoy making stories up and trying to translate my thoughts onto the page in a way that is somehow entertaining—but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t care about selling books. I’m just not sure that it’s anything you can do consciously or we’d all be bestsellers.

Finally, what are your future publishing plans? Can you feed us any Greg Salem tidbits? 

As I mentioned above, “Hang Time” is the final book in the planned Greg Salem trilogy. That one will be published by Rare Bird Books in October of this year. Before that, the second novella in my “Tommy & Shayna Crime Caper” series will be published by Down & Out Books in May. That one’s called “Crossed Bones,” and it’s the follow up to “Crosswise.” Beyond that? I’m cooking up something new right now that I hope will see the light of day in 2018.

Thanks for having me!


Book Reviews: Bad Citizen Corporation + Grizzly Season by S.W. Lauden


Author: S.W. Lauden

Publisher: Rare Bird Books

Release Dates: October 2015 + September 2016

Bounced out of the police force after a dubious shooting, punk-turned-cop Greg Salem – whose cult ex-band gives Bad Citizen Corporation its title – finds himself assuming investigative duties once more when a beloved ex-bandmate is murdered at a show. Accompanied by his flaky drug-addict drummer Marco, Salem tries to keep his personal demons at bay long enough to track down the killer, and redeem his ravaged reputation. The bullet-strewn back-story – and indeed Salem’s battle with alcohol dependency – may recall a So.Cal Scudder, but Lauden’s book actually follows in the sandy, surf-noir footprints of writers such as Don Winslow and Kem Nunn. Like his predecessors, Lauden manages to give the story an impressively claustrophobic feel, which is defiantly at odds with the sun-kissed, beach-side backdrop.

Bad Citizen Corporation is a highly enjoyable series opener, but Lauden kicks the series up a notch with Grizzly Season, which proves to be a creepier, more malevolent follow-up, in which illicit pornography shoots, rural drug farms and mutant drug cocktails loom large. In the sequel, Salem and Marco retreat to a remote cabin in the backend of the Angeles National Forest, only to have their peaceful sojourn shattered after stumbling across an expansive marijuana farm called Grizzly Flats. Charismatic drug lord Magnus Ursus is a great antagonist, and the character of Salem actually functions better when on a collision course with a menacing adversary, rather than chasing shadows, as in the first book.

Lauden is a smart writer with an enviable mainstream sensibility, and given the impressive step up in quality between the first and second books, I’m expecting big things from the third Greg Salem book, Hang Time, which is due later this year.


Book Review: Remission by Ed Chatterton


Author: Ed Chatterton

Publisher: Caffeine Nights

Release Date: September 2016


Remission is the third book in Ed Chatterton’s Frank Keane series, following A Dark Place To Die (2011) and Down Among The Dead Men (2013). When morally compromised Liverpool cop Keane returns from the United States with $25 million worth of dodgy money, he is dealt a double blow: not only is he diagnosed with cancer, he quickly learns that an unknown enemy is trying to kill him. While his colleagues find themselves consumed with a routine traffic accident that develops into a murder enquiry, Keane drops out of sight in an attempt to manage his illness at a bolthole in the country. Little does he realise, a chain of events have already been set in motion that will see him dragged into the centre of a horrifying neo-Nazi terror plot…

Given its status as the third book in an ongoing series, Remission is understandably front-loaded with Frank Keane’s back-story. While this initially feels alienating (to new readers, such as myself), it quickly fades into the background as the multi-layered narrative hits its stride. The police procedural aspect may give the book its structure, but the story isn’t tethered to this set-up, and effectively combines the initial whodunit hook with an increasingly dark storyline about a merciless German neo-Nazi organisation – and its plans to send shockwaves through Europe.

The Anglo-German narrative adds a welcome cosmopolitan edge to the Brit-crime proceedings, and the story never lingers in one place for too long, with Keane desperate to outrun the men hunting him. Indeed, the chapters that step away from the Liverpool-based investigation are the most compelling: bodies pile-up throughout, and the neo-Nazi antagonists give the story a genuinely sinister edge – especially when tensions bubble up between the co-conspirators, and their threats take on a stomach-churning psychological edge.

To his credit, Chatterton avoids following well-trodden narrative paths throughout, and Keane’s story has a bleak, unremitting quality that serves it well. There are no easy resolutions – far from it – and this book boasts some genuinely shocking scenes.

Reviewed by Tom Leins