Thriller of the Month – Dark Fragments, by Rob Sinclair

An unreliable narrator isn’t often used in a thriller, perhaps because it requires a great deal of skill to keep a reader engaged once it’s clear the “hero” is anything but. John Grisham did it well in “The Racketeer”. Now British writer Rob Sinclair joins him with “Dark Fragments”.

Dark Fragments” is a departure for Sinclair, who has previously written tense third person spy thrillers about secret agent Carl Logan. This, his first book for crime publisher Bloodhound, is told in the first person by Ben Stephens. At first, management consultant Ben seems a nice, ordinary guy. He adores his children and his wife. Yes, he’s down in the dumps, but who wouldn’t be in his situation? After all, he’s being threatened by gangsters over a soured business deal, he’s haunted by the unsolved murder of his first wife, and his career has plateaued. We can all imagine struggling with that kind of baggage.

This is where Rob Sinclair is very clever. Having made us sympathise with the man, perhaps even identify with him, alarm bells ring as Ben takes extreme actions to solve his problems. Rash and impulsive, he resorts to infidelity and violence, all the while seeing himself as a victim. The level of self-justification is such that the dramatic finale of the book is easy to believe, although it still comes as a surprise.

Sinclair’s style is pacy, energetic and liberally punctuated with cliff hangers. In consequence, “Dark Fragments” is a quick read, which leaves the lingering feeling that the ordinary people you meet every day may not be quite what they seem.

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Dark Fragments” is set in Birmingham, England. I also write crime thrillers that are (at least partly) set in the city and I very much enjoyed Rob Sinclair’s descriptions of its swanky and seedy areas. Do you like to read about places you know? Email me at aaabbottstories[at]gmail.com.

Thriller of the Month – Trouble with Product X, by Joan Aiken

The late British writer Joan Aiken is best known as an author of supernatural children’s stories, but her adult tales are worth seeking out too. This thriller is like a Formula 1 car, racing along at breakneck speed with many twists on the way. It’s a period piece, written about fifty years ago and set in a world my parents would recognise, when a train from London to Penzance took nine hours and you could avoid rush hour traffic jams in London.

Just as TV’s Mad Men showcased the US advertising industry in 1960s Manhattan, “Trouble with Product X” sheds light on their counterparts in London. Product X is a wonderful new perfume, expected to take the market by storm. Certainly, manufacturers Gay* Gal think so, and ad agency Salmon and Bucknell is delighted to win the account. It’s all hands to the pumps and Martha, a young copywriter, is despatched to Cornwall to produce ads for TV. She’s accompanied by colleagues, cameramen and assorted hangers-on, including a creepy client and his unpleasant chums. The trouble with Product X, as she rapidly discovers, is that the formula has been lost – or has it?

Tension rapidly mounts as the rich and beautiful are revealed to be feckless kidnappers and murderers. Luckily, Martha finds some good eggs on whom she can rely, including stalwart colleague Tom and a community of brusque monks with hearts of gold.

The book is a fun, quick read, and could almost be approached as historical fiction given that the events take place five decades ago. Joan Aiken worked as an advertising copywriter herself, and writes amusingly of the flattery employed to sell unprepossessing products. There too many twists and turns in the plot to describe, but all are believable (just!), and the book is well-written. Hats off to The Murder Room for republishing it for the Kindle. Note that old paperbacks are available for pennies on Amazon under another title, “Beware of the Bouquet”.

 

*The word “gay” is used a lot in the book in a very old-fashioned sense, basically describing a desire to go drinking and dancing.

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I’m also a writer of fun, fast thrillers – read The Gap, a “5 minute crime thriller” set in modern London, FREE, here.

Missing A Writer…

There are many compelling reasons why new and established authors should join a writing group (look out for a blog about this soon!). A quite unexpected, but delightful, benefit is the new friends who enter your world. Eileen Elsey, proud redhead, gin connoisseur and writer of deliciously quirky stories, was one of them. She turned up at the same writing group five years ago and sprinkled fairydust in my life ever since. Her solstice parties were a legend, her friends were fun, and the improvements she suggested to my stories were fabulous.

I miss her, and I’m not the only one. Friends say there’s an Eileen-shaped hole in their lives. Her funeral last week captured her spirit perfectly – a stylish ceremony in a woodland chapel (see the picture above), with jazz, wine, food and interesting friends. Best of all was the greatest gift a writer can give: her latest short crime story, Handbagged, was published in a limited edition by her family and handed to everyone on the day. 

Three of Eileen’s wondrous stories have been published in an anthology under her pen name, DA Allen. You can see actor Alun Robins read one of them here (warning: there are four letter words) – it’s wickedly funny.

A beautiful spirit, much missed. I’m dedicating my next crime thriller to her.

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I’m a British writer. As well as three full-length crime thrillers, I’ve written many short stories – you can read some here.

Thriller of the Month – The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

When nights are long and there’s a bottle of whisky to hand, a vintage American crime thriller really hits the spot. It doesn’t get much more classic than Dashiell Hammett. Although of its time, his style is half a world away from the arch aristocratic novels of British writers like Agatha Christie. Instead, eyes are hooded, women alluring and men are as likely to reach for a gun as they are to light a cigarette.

The Maltese Falcon opens with a bang. San Francisco private eyes Sam Spade and Miles Archer are given a case, and far too much money, by a beautiful girl. It doesn’t take a genius to suppose it will all go horribly wrong. Sure enough, a mere few pages later, Archer is dead.

Sam Spade’s loyalties are tested as he sets about cracking the case. More corpses swiftly emerge (a wounded man even staggers into his office to expire in front of him). He faces more hindrance than help from the forces of law and order. As always, the San Francisco fog seeps into his bones. Indefatigably, he rolls another cigarette.

With myriad twists and shifting alliances, it’s anyone’s guess who did it right until the final chapter, although Sam probably has a shrewd idea.

Despite being a period piece, the book’s pages just keep turning. Dashiell Hammett’s style is an easy read. You’ll undoubtedly know The Maltese Falcon became an atmospheric film starring Humphrey Bogart. Whether you’ve seen it or not, you’re bound to enjoy the suspense and entertainment offered by the book. Secondhand copies can be picked up for pennies on Amazon, and there’s also an Audible version borrowing heavily from Bogart.

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Like crime thrillers? Read my very own 5 minute crime thriller, The Gap, free, here. While it’s distinctly British, like The Maltese Falcon, it hints at darkness beneath the surface…

Gunpowder, treason and plot! They’re still with us…

While we British remember the 5th of November, it’s easy to forget it’s a local tradition. The rest of the world don’t care that Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1606. Who knows what Britain might have looked like today if the plotters hadn’t been betrayed by a spy? Other coups of the past have had a massive impact on the shape of the world today – the American War of Independence, and the overthrow of monarchies in Russia, China and France, for example.

Intrigue simmers below the surface of big business too. While the Volkswagen emissions cover-up is in the news right now, the company’s been caught up in scandal before. In 1993, General Motors accused the German car maker of stealing its secrets. It cost VW over $1bn to settle, although it never admitted any liability.

The Matt Damon film, The Informant, was actually based on a true story of industrial espionage. The FBI used an inside man within the food industry to prove that an illegal cartel was fixing prices. The Insider, starred Russell Crowe in a similar role, as a whistleblower uncomfortable with his cushy executive job in Big Tobacco. It’s even harder, of course, to keep secrets in the digital age. They can be stolen at the touch of a button. Hackers recently attempted to blackmail British company Talk Talk – how many other companies have been clandestinely held to ransom?

Plotters and spies will always be with us. On Bonfire Night, we celebrate their failure. How very British – and what a great excuse for a fireworks party!

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I’m a British writer of short stories and crime thrillers. My first full-length book, Up In Smoke, features two corporate spies with totally different goals – one driven by money, the other by revenge. With counterfeiters, murderers, drug smugglers and a letter bomb or two, there are enough twists to rival the original Gunpowder Plot!

Great Ghost Stories

Rumour has it that ghosts walk abroad on Hallowe’en, the night before All Souls Day. While garish Hallowe’en goods have been on sale for months, a good old-fashioned ghost story is surely the best way to mark the unquiet night. Here are a few that will send a shiver down your spine…

The Greatcoat, by Helen Dunmore. Beautifully written like all of Dunmore’s books, unease building gently until the shocking finale.

Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come For You, My Lad, by Wilkie Collins. A classic British Gothic chiller, and available in an anthology of Classic Ghost Stories by other leading Victorian fiction writers like Charles Dickens and the marvellous J Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu wrote Carmella, the first vampire story. and one of the best – it has a fabulous dreamlike quality.

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. Although a supernatural thread runs through the novel, what sets it apart from others is its focus on class tension. A bestseller, and deservedly so.

Edgar Allan Poe is the grandfather of horror, and all his poems and short stories are available on the Kindle for just 99p! The Tell Tale Heart is an exquisite tale – but the stuff of nightmares…

…and from the grandfather of horror to the modern world’s undisputed maestro – Stephen King. The Shining, a story of a haunted hotel, sets hairs on end. The film was awesome too!

Ghost stories are even better when they’re told live in the best campfire tradition. I’ll be joining Twitter’s @TheCultureHour for an evening of ghost and horror stories at Brewsmiths in Birmingham on 26th October – tickets are free and spinechillers guaranteed!

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Although I usually write crime thrillers, I’m taking a break to bring a ghost story along to Brewsmiths! I hope you’ll be there – book your free tickets here.