All posts by Richard Cox

Lose the bodies, and find the plots – Derbyshire crime fiction

Derbyshire has a reputation for producing some of the most exciting crime fiction by authors who live there or use the county as their central location. The big question is – why?
Perhaps there will be answers on August 17 at Chesterfield Library at the very first Derbyshire Noir Festival. It’s a long overdue event, but ferociously welcome. These authors know where the bodies are buried and how they got there.
Derbyshire is a cauldron. There’s mining and mills; high peaks, bleak moorland, deep, dark valleys and subterranean caverns; derelict hovels and some of the country’s most elegant and wealthy country homes and palaces; and a literary heritage that includes Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, DH Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe – and that’s before the present crop kicks in. Politically, we have landed gentry, left wing firebrands and right wing Tories, and middle-of-the-roaders. Industrially and commercially, there’s Rolls-Royce making aero engines, and a warehouse full of zero hours contract workers. Yes. Derbyshire does extremes.
Choosing the right location for a crime novel will capture and hold readers; if it then uses these environments to add drama and emotion then even better, and Derbyshire has them everywhere.
Real life is a good starting point for fiction. If death is your menu choice, Derbyshire will cook up an exotic array. Children were forced to work, and die, in Litton Mill in the north; coal miners in the north, east and south have been crushed in pursuit of a living wage; and in recent memory ‘Mad Axeman’ Billy Hughes created terror and committed appalling murders.

While location is important, murders are not committed by places, but by people, and Derbyshire harbours a rich gamut of characters who find their way into some of the most intriguing and enthralling crime fiction. I spent seven years at school in Buxton and later, seven years as a reporter in Derby and Ilkeston covering the county. I have met murderers, drug dealers, robbers, burglars, rapists, but mostly their victims (not the murdered, though). What stands out is the diversity and isolation. For the good people of Glossop looking down on Manchester, the natives of Shardlow and its canal and river are in a foreign land.
Derbyshire’s Peak District gets acres in print, but there is so much more. Repton was a large Viking settlement and they knew a thing or two about violent death; and at the other end of the county is Hayfield, often home to Agatha Christie. It is a beautiful, disparate county. When torrential rain washes the blood of the latest victim from the Peak District into the River Wye, children in Darley Park, Derby, can be swimming in the sunshine-dappled river Derwent unaware of the bodies that have floated downstream – mostly in fiction.
From the southern edges of Saddleworth Moor, infamous for its link to the Moors Murders by Brady and Hindley, to the northernmost reaches of the National Forest, overlooking the National Arboretum Memorial where so many tragic deaths are remembered, Derbyshire is a fount of plots and stories, of evil deeds and courageous heroes. It’s really no wonder that great crime writers allow their imaginations full rein in this remarkable county.

References. if required:
Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventure of the Priory School an d The Man With The Twisted Lip. Plus, his publisher, George Newnes, came from Matlock Bath.
Jane Austen: “No finer county in England than Derbyshire,” she said. And Pride and Prejudice was filmed in the county.
Agatha Christie: Brother-in-law James Watts lived in Cheshire and owned land in the Peak District. She stayed, and write, at Upper House on the Kinder Estate.
D H Lawrence: Lived near Wirksworth for a while (after he and his wife Frieda had to leave Cornwall because she was accused of spying – she was German and a cousin of Baron von Richtofen), and Women in Love was filmed partly at Elvaston Hall.
Alan Sillitoe: Always associated with Nottingham, but many of his books – including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, see his characters escaping the city to go fishing and seducing near where the M1 motorway divides the counties.

The joy and pain of beta-reading

A ‘Beta Reader’ is the very first person to be handed a manuscript and asked to read it with a critical eye. There are often two problems: 1. The author is relinquishing their ‘baby’, a creation that mustn’t be touched; and 2. The reader has a tremendous responsibility and must disassociate themselves from any personal feelings.
The result can be an unmitigated disaster and the death of a friendship, or it could be the cement that seals a personal relationship with trust and respect.
As a reader, how do I tell the author that a character needs to be filled out and given a much bigger role? How do you look at a timescale, scratch your head, and have the temerity to tell the writer that it simply doesn’t work?
Beta readers are not professional editors, nor are they simply proof-readers: both of which require separate and additional skills. My belief is that the beta reader must stand back and see the bigger picture, a la that famous Rolf Harris comment: ‘Can you tell what it is yet?’
My crime thrillers under the name Tony R Cox, are beta-read and part-edited by Tony Moss, my former boss as Chief Sub-Editor at the Nottingham Evening Post. Tony is a long-time friend and a dedicated, proven and successful professional in the newspaper and magazine world. Most of the time friendship is the prime mover; with my books, his professional skills come top. Tony is encouraging and helpful, often amusing, as well as being eagle-eyed and incisive. He likes a complete book to ‘attack’.
I have just finished beta-reading a close friend’s novel. We met five years ago when I went to his debut novel’s launch in a bookshop – and coincidentally won a copy of his book, Heartman. I read it, was astounded by the quality of the work and the different slant he took in a literary world of police procedurals. Gradually we realised that my comments were constructive as well as lightly critical. His fourth in the series is the manuscript I have just finished, chapter by chapter – which suits me as a reader and allows me to home in on a few thousand words, not be faced with 350 pages.
It has been a remarkable few months. Mark Wright is one of the most lucid authors writing today. He grasps the importance of action but also gets deep into the mind of the reader so that they are led, encouraged and almost physically tossed into a maelstrom. Such a stream of consciousness, no matter how controlled and managed, is bound to incur mistakes: I see my role as highlighting those, perhaps offering simple solutions, and ensuring that each character remains three-dimensional.
It has been an honour. He says he owes me a pint; I say it’s the other way round. The satisfaction of ‘Job Done’ is shared.
I believe that no manuscript should be submitted to a literary agent or a publisher unless it has been beta-read. As with a work of art, which it is, get as near to perfection as possible before you set it free.

What a gay day! – Fiction now based on real life 50 years ago

I write historical crime thrillers set in the 1970s and one of the key factors is balancing today’s accepted norms with those from nearly 50 years ago. No mobile phones, no internet, no personal computers and a reliance on personal contact are among them.
One key factor, especially when writing about the world of entertainment, is the way in which homosexuality has become a normal part of life. It is now fully understood – by intelligent people – that no-one chooses to be gay or bisexual, no-one decides their sexuality, and there is no ‘cure’ for something that isn’t an illness. But this wasn’t always the belief.
Take religion, for example, for nearly two thousand years all the world’s major religions, whilst offering moral guidance and even political direction, stated that homosexuality was a sin. Fifty or sixty years ago the reality of being gay began to be accepted. That’s nearly two thousand years of denial and steadfast teaching to be switched, volte-face, at almost a stroke. No wonder it’s difficult to accept.
I was a teenager in the 1960s and I can vividly remember the jibes and insults, even bullying, at a time when boys were going through the difficult stage of puberty. They’d had parental and possibly sibling love; they’d made deep and emotionally binding friendships with other boys; and then came the series of thunderbolts that shook the very foundation of their souls … girls. It was difficult for everyone, but a lot easier for people like me, who were attracted to girls for their shape and animal allure. How horrendously awful must it have been for boys who did not have those feelings and found that they were sexually aroused by maybe one or two other boys.
How did we – who were lumped together as heterosexual, even if we didn’t know what that meant – react? By joining in the sniping and bullying, of course: we were teenagers. That’s what we did.
Now, as I rapidly approach my three score and ten, I am writing about an era and environment that has to accept those attitudes were wrong, almost criminally wrong.
I was, in retrospect, lucky. I frequented nightclubs where some of the great rock bands played before they became stadium and festival bands, and in those clubs we, lovers of music, encountered all sorts of different people. Among them I knew gay guys and, while lesbianism was not commonly mentioned (apart from the wonderful Dusty Springfield, and even that some years down the line), gay girls. What drew us together was music, not the animal wish to sleep together.
In First Dead Body, my self-published debut under my pen name of Tony R Cox, a key character is semi aggressively queer, and he is based on someone I knew. A Fatal Drug hints at perversity, and Vinyl Junkie is a full-blooded look at teenage abuse as well as a more nuanced and understanding expose of broad homosexuality as a fact of life, just as heterosexuality is.
The dichotomy, as a novelist, is writing for the time in which the book is set as well as accepting today’s standards. I’m lucky. I’ve always felt fine with people who have different directions for their sexual lives. It’s not a conscious thing: it’s just realising that my persuasion – which happened then and now to be girls – are just that … mine, no-one else’s.
So read on. Straight, gay, bi-sexual or confused. Crime thrillers are for everyone.

Great rock music and the Simon Jardine thriller series

One of the most respected Book Bloggers, Matt Keyes who blogs under the name It’s an Indie Book Blog, asked me to write as a guest on his sight about the influence of music on my Simon Jardine crime thriller series. It got me thinking …
Rock music: It’s more important than life and death

The late, great Bill Shankly said about football: ‘It’s not a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that.’ For me, music is the same with my writing and it’s rock – pub rock, folk rock, prog rock, just make it rock.
Bands of the late 60s and early 70s played a massive role in my life. I’d got a job as a reporter on a regional newspaper and, within a very few weeks, a jazz drummer and sub-editor spotted my talent for hailing great music from little-known groups. A year or so later, Derby’s Saturday Page was stated by Tony Stratton-Smith, founder of Charisma Records, to be the best regional music page in the country. (They had to widen the doors to fit my head after that.)
The amazing clubs, where approaching the dance floor was like treading across gluey treacle without the sweetness, were the centres of life for young people. They brought together the good, the very bad, the nervously unattractive, and some of the most impossibly beautiful people.
The era was cataclysmic. The Pill was swiftly moving into rustic market towns offering girls the chance to control their own bodies. Alcohol was no real detriment to any physical activity, including, I admit, driving. Drugs had made their way from the US and London out to the provinces, and I can state quite categorically that some of the best joints ever rolled were by accomplished musicians, who were also very generous.
Some forty years after I’d left the music scene – a wife and family required cash, not late nights, early starts, and loud lead guitar riffs – I met up with a former radio reporter who suggested I pen a memoir of what we used to get up to. Two thousand words later I stared at a wonderful piece of libel. I’m fortunate in many ways, particularly with a publisher who is supportive and honest. All publishers will say they like the authors’ choice of art, music etc.; Fahrenheit Press shares a near obsession with rock and punk. In abbreviated parlance: when it comes to crime fiction and music, Fahrenheit ‘gets it’, and in spades.
Musicians, writers, artists are all creative people and it is hardly surprising that so many autobiographies (a lot with historically tweaked facts) have been written. In the early 70s two guys I knew well – a bassman and songwriter, and the chief roadie were on one of those endless tours of America. To pass the time they had Scrabble competitions … very rock ‘n roll. In general, and unlike the stories bandied about, being in a successful band was a bit like being in the army, at war. Long, long periods of hard work practising, writing and travelling interrupted by brief bursts of frenetic energy.
My Simon Jardine series, starting with the self-published First Dead Body, then, with Fahrenheit Press, A Fatal Drug and Vinyl Junkie, has a thread of rock music and clubs running through, and Vinyl Junkie is a fairly excoriating and fictitious expose of record companies, but the central themes are based around an era, an extended epiphany, and rock music, bands and the clubs they played in serve the storyline.
For the future, rock music will be a foundation. There is no better location for seedy characters, gang bosses and their acolytes to meet innocence. My reporter, Simon Jardine will always be bounced between justice and naivety to the sound a pounding electric bass line.

Fahrenheit Press – a bloggers’ month

Fahrenheit Press authors are a stellar bunch of writers. We support each other; we help promote each other’s books; and we buy books direct from www.fahrenheit-press.com. Writing is a subjective way of life: some readers like our work, some prefer other books – that’s freedom of choice. I’ve reviewed some Fahrenheit Press books – and the four below are, in my opinion, amongst the very best of any publishing house.

Black Moss by David Nolan
A bleakly brilliant and stretched finale

Danny Johnston is a disaster – jobless and with no future after pressing the alcoholic self-destruct button that so many young journalists, caught up in the exciting, unreal world of real news reporting, fall into. Nolan captures the very essence of regional journalism, where reporters have to stick with the story and dig out new angles, day-in, day-out.
He also nails two elements of writing where so many fail: 1. The complexity of the characters is handled coherently and simply; and 2. The historical switches are clear and obvious, removing any confusion for the reader.
The plot has an unnerving reality to it. I was a teenager during the Moors Murders; I was an adult with a fascination for hard news at the time of the Strangeways prison riots. Nolan weaves his lively, compulsive story through the riots and with hints of child abuse constantly present. From the heady early 90s to the EU referendum.
The finale is stunningly well written. It takes time to build, but every sentence, every word is made to work its keep and fit together in a jigsaw, where the finale picture is hinted at, but never quite completed until the final page. There are more twists and turns than a cross-Pennine minor road, and many more opportunities to gaze into a mountain-side abyss.
Black Moss is one of those crime fiction novels where, even though you know the ending, you will want to read again, and again.

Stoned Love – by Ian Patrick
An undercover cop with his own moral compass

Sam Batford is an unlikely hero. In normal people’s ideas of decency, he’s a thoroughly dangerous bloke and best avoided, but that suits Sam. He leaves a string of bloodied and broken noses, and dead bodies in his wake, as he follows his own, very individual, moral code.
Stoned Love is the second in the Sam Batford series, following Rubicon. They are standalone thrillers, but I’d suggest Rubicon first as a scene-setter. Both are fast-paced, excellently driven and paced books, but Stoned Love seems to have an extra dollop of maturity. Batford is a complex but straightforward character. His moral compass may be set due north as far as his police ‘handlers’ are concerned, but it quickly spins to fit his chosen directions.
Ian Patrick is an ex-copper, and his knowledge and experience keep the plot on track and within the bounds of reason and possibility. There are, necessarily, a variety of characters, but Patrick has mastered the technique of narrowing the main ones down – admittedly this involved writing some out through dramatically and bloodily dying – so that the key people are well rounded and have their own intrinsic back stories.
This book is far from being a traditional ‘police procedural’, and it is refreshing to have officers without a CV that includes alcoholism, marital break-ups, and sundry angst. The characters in Stoned Love stick to the storyline, and it’s a very, very good plot. Patrick is a story teller with a firm grip on the world of violence that clings inexorably to drug dealing.

Disorder – by Paddy Magrane
There’s a psycho in Downing Street – and not just the hero of Disorder

Author Paddy Magrane has one of those life histories heroes of fictional thriller heroes would give their last full stop for, but Paddy’s is for real – and his debut thriller Disorder takes the reader on a wonderful and literary journey.
Sam Keddie is a psychotherapist who gets drawn into a complex web – mainly consisting of psychological, and sometimes real, high walls and seemingly insurmountable barriers. As in the very best fiction, Magrane makes the unbelievable become reality without stretching the imagination of the reader.
Disorder is fast-paced and takes us through the highest echelons of the UK government to the souks of Tangier and back to Downing Street, where the author’s obviously intimate knowledge (or great story-telling) transports us into stately rooms and back door constriction. Magrane brings fictitious characters to life, and leaves the reader with the uncomfortable thought that perhaps today’s current crop of politicians are as dangerous and slippery as his creations.
The plot is straightforward. Keddie and Eleanor Scott go on an unlikely hunt for a truth that everyone wants to avoid. They build an investigation in the face of constant danger and open threats to their safety and lives.
Paddy Magrane has a page-turning, easy reading style without making the overall book a simplistic cartoon. His career in psychotherapy, freelance journalism for some of the Fleet Street nationals, interest in art, and travel has clearly helped to fashion a flowing style that brings a host of disciplines together.
Disorder gallops along, but at a pace that is also carefully modulated. Magrane avoids jumps in time and place and, despite the swift changes in location, continuity is cleverly maintained so the reader is carried along with the current and doesn’t have to readjust. It’s great bloodthirsty book and it, has the most unsettling and vicious villains and killers. The separate strata of finales keeps tension at a very high level.
I’m late to the party with Paddy Magrane’s books. That will be rectified.

When The Music’s Over – by Aidan Thorn
Know your murderer – and then the plot begins

Benny Gower is a murderer, a cold blooded-one at that, but in the dark and sinister world of drug-addled and dealing, punk rock and vicious gangsters, his crime must be seen in some perspective. But the contract’s out: he’s a dead man walking.
Thorn’s short novel – it’s not a novella – has a deep and wide thread of poignancy running through it that is uncomfortably natural in a plot that is both dispassionate and up-close and personal with the seedy side of life.
There are two intriguing storylines that sometimes run parallel and often intersect. There’s the hard life of a devoted musician trying to break into the big time with a record contract, which gets fatally harder when the mix includes other members of the band. Add a hypodermic syringe and you get a tinderbox of clashing talents and emotions. Then there’s the separate, almost divorced world of low-rent gangsterism, with the spectre of easy money from drug dealing hanging ever closer over the heads of the main characters.
When The Music’s Over is crammed full of flowing menace and careless violence. There’s familial destruction, death, drugs and devilment and it’s written by a great wordsmith.