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.

Characters I Love, and Why

As it’s St Valentine’s Day (read my thoughts in last year’s blog about it), I’m penning a tribute to the characters I really love. They may not share my values, but boy, these people were fun to write about. Here are the ones I love – and why:

Alicia, the amoral merchant banker in Up In Smoke. She has two aims in life – climbing the corporate ladder, and having fun. If a fling ticks both boxes, she’ll go for it. Never self-pitying, always resourceful, she’s hardly a role model, but she’s always interesting.

Tony, also from Up In Smoke (hear a chapter from the crime thriller here) is a textbook villain. A womaniser and a homophobe, he runs a tobacco company and uses his power to seduce every woman who catches his eye. Bad boys are just so entertaining…

…but the good guys are too. Jed Gardner, the autistic hero of After The Interview is my favourite character ever. Deeply flawed, struggling to understand and be understood, he makes mistakes and loses everything – but bounces back. As does Andrew Aycliffe, who would be my ideal boss.

Crime thriller The Bride’s Trail, on the other hand, stars strong women – orphaned Kat and her loyal flatmate, Amy. Both have a dry sense of humour, an excellent foil to the arrogant men they meet. I deliberately chose to keep Kat’s point of view hidden and reveal her personality through the eyes of others. That will change in the sequel planned for release this summer…

Although hardly characters in the conventional sense, buzzy Birmingham and frenetic London feature in all three crime thrillers – and many of my short stories, available free on this website.

I aim to build empathy for all my characters, but I don’t love them all. Some are simply too challenging. Find out more next week, when I tell you which characters I hate – and why!

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I’ve been a British crime thriller writer for several years, and an occasional writer of short stories for many more. If you like my blog, why not invite me to speak at your book group, social circle or business network? Please drop me a line at aaabbottstories[at]gmail.com!

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…