Sunday 18 December 2011

Review of Sheriff Without a Star

There's a review of Sheriff without a Star at Western Fiction Review, which is a nice double as I received my complimentary copies yesterday. The cover has instantly gone towards the top of my list of favourite covers.

Despite his four years of distinguished service Sheriff Cassidy Yates lost the confidence of Monotony’s townsfolk because his error of judgement led to the death of Leland Matlock’s son. But when the star Cassidy had worn with pride was removed from his chest, Leland claimed he knew something that would shed new light on the sheriff’s downfall.

Before Leland could reveal what he knew he was shot, but Cassidy still had the instincts of a lawman. He believed Leland’s shooting was connected to the death of his son and that if he could uncover the link it would restore the townsfolk’s confidence in him. So Cassidy embarked on his greatest challenge: to get the star pinned back on his chest where it belonged.

Read more here.

Monday 12 December 2011

Death in Paradise

The last episode of detective series Death in Paradise is on tv tomorrow and I hope it gets a second series. British cosy murder mystery tv series are usually made by ITV (badly) while the BBC usually make grittier series about rabid serial killers slaughtering people in ever more gruesome ways that recreate the Biblical plagues, or some such nonsense. And that's just the cop assigned to catch the killer. I don't enjoy that sort of thing. So I was pleased that the BBC have made a detective series that is about as old-fashioned as tv can get these days. It doesn’t try to be modern or ironic and it's not filmed with a wobbly camera and high-speed editing. In fact Death in Paradise wouldn't have looked out of place in the 1980s as a sort of cross between Bergerac and Murder, She Wrote.

The series details the exploits of Richard Poole, a British cop sent into exile on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie, a place that time forgot where modern police techniques are unavailable and crimes are solved by using the little grey cells. Richard is stuffy, pedantic and hates living in a hot climate while his team of detectives are chilled out, casual and enjoy island life. What follows is a mixture of the inevitable character clashes amongst the detective team along with a rigid story formula that lets the viewer, as much as the detectives, solve the crime. Every week there's a murder before the title credits roll and a selection of suspects are identified, all usually British ex-pats played by familiar actors. They all have a story to tell, shown through flashbacks, that build up a picture of the events, while each clue is revealed in such an unsubtle way that 'Clue number 1' might as well scroll across the bottom of the screen in big, red letters.

The detectives collect these clues with Richard making inspired deductive leaps while drinking tea and with the rest bumbling around drinking cocktails and going to beach parties. Then, with fifteen minutes to go, enough of these clues have been collected for Richard to connect everything, after which he calls all the suspects into the drawing room (sometimes he actually does this) to explain his brilliant deductive process and finger the killer. Everyone is duly amazed at his brilliance, except for the viewers who will have usually worked it out shortly after the opening titles credits rolled, but that's the charm of the series and the entertainment comes from watching a mystery that can be worked out from the on-screen clues. Everything is played straight with few red herrings and no unreliable narrators and although several of the murders involve locked room situations, the show doesn't cheat in the way that most tv mystery series do by hiding key information. As a result everything connects in a satisfying way.

What doesn't work as well as it could do is the interaction between the characters, although if the show gets a second series I'm sure that'll improve. The lead actor does well to sell the fact that he hates living in paradise, but his grumpy by-play with the rest of the cast sometimes feels forced. He's supposed to be awkward around his sultry second in command Camille, but the two actors don’t have chemistry so their scenes are more awkward than they are designed to be. As their interaction improves later in the series, this perhaps proves that actors have to have chemistry to be convincing as people who lack chemistry. What works better from the start is the by-play between the other two detectives Dwayne and Fidel, with Dwayne as the laid-back cop who wants a quiet life and Fidel as the young and enthusiastic one. Dwayne, as played by Danny John-Jules, is particularly good and his character's name alone is sure to make Red Dwarf fans chuckle. Curiously although it's claimed the role wasn't written with the actor's character of the Cat in mind, he's a cool, vain, ladies man who doesn't realize he looks silly riding around on his motorcycle combination.

Completing the cast is Don Warrington in the thankless role of the shouty boss and better is Camille's mother who owns the restaurant around which many of the scenes play out and who gets to hand out cocktails and wise advice in equal measure. The episodes are uniformly entertaining with the only weak note for me being a bizarre guest performance by Shirley Henderson, which I thought was a candidate for the worst written and worst acted performance in the history of tv. Other than that, for undemanding and gentle drama this series worked for me, especially when there was snow on the ground.

Monday 5 December 2011

Black Mirror: The National Anthem

Charlie Brooker is one of the few writers whose material I'll read or watch even if I have no interest in the subject matter. His grumpy newspaper articles ranting about the media are always fun, and his grumpy appearances on tv in Newswipe and Screenwipe ranting about the media pick their targets well. His previous attempts to cross over to the other side and write drama have been less successful, although I've always found it strange that critics haven't been more critical of a poacher turned gamekeeper.

Nathan Barley was a sitcom that laboured the fairly obvious point that people in the media are idiots. And Dead Set was a zombie version of Big Brother that laboured the fairly obvious point that people on Big Brother are idiots and the people who watch it are zombies. Black Mirror is his latest drama, which in its first episode asked the important question: is it always wrong to have sex with animals? As cutting edge questions go this isn’t all that cutting edge as The Vicar of Dibley dealt with this issue about ten years ago in an early evening popular piece of family entertainment, but nevertheless this time the answer was a resounding no.

The idea behind the title was an excellent one, that the black flat screen sitting in the corner of your living room is like the enigmatic monolith from 2001 and so a series of Twilight Zone dramas will explore what goes on behind the black mirror. Except of course when you switch off the tv, all you'll see in the black mirror is yourself, only darker. The National Anthem was the first story and it was heavy on good ideas, which is rare on British tv these days, and so close to being brilliant it was well worth watching, but it wasn't as well written as it could have been and so it wasn't as provocative as it reckoned it was.

Taking the episode as a journey into the twilight zone where you suspend disbelief was the best way to enjoy it, as the plot holes, even for a fantasy satire, were wider than a 56 inch flat screen. A member of the royal family has been kidnapped and the ransom demand is simply that the Prime Minister must appear on live tv and re-enact a scene that you'd never get to see in Peppa Pig. The Prime Minister reacts as expected and tries to silence the story, but in these days of the Internet that proves impossible. Within minutes the story is on youtube, twitter, and facebook, while the 24 hour rolling news service does its best to work out how they can break a suppressed story everyone already knows without revealing the lurid details everyone already knows.

Starting with that excellent premise the drama that unfolded was an odd one that for me failed to say anything original about the modern media and our strange mixture of disgust in and encouragement of lurid stories while the secondary aspect of the story of the Prime Minister's descent into a dark world beyond his control was riveting. Brooker first came to prominence writing with Chris Morris, who explored the world of stupid media people churning out depraved material for an even stupider general population in a surreal and shocking manner some ten to fifteen years ago. This didn't say anything that Morris didn't do better back then or for that matter, for example, Ben Elton's Popcorn did in the early 90s. All I got from the story was that news travels fast on the Internet and media people will sell their soul for a story, which isn't much of a revelation from a black mirror. Even less riveting is the satirical point that the entire population of the world is so media-obsessed and desperate for crude entertainment that we'll drop everything just for the chance to sit in front of the tv and watch the Prime Minister pork a porker.

What did work though was Roy Kinnear's dignified and compelling performance as the Prime Minister in a role that required him to lose all dignity when events spiral out of control. With his advisors and press secretaries, he's the most powerful man in the country and yet slowly as the day goes on he gets to understand that in reality he's the most powerless. Surrounded by bad advice, focus groups, spin doctors, and trends on twitter he faces the classic dilemma that no matter what he does he's doomed. Either he saves a life but destroys his marriage and his career, or he takes the risk that someone he doesn't know will die and yet he'll still destroy his marriage and his career. And all the people who are supposed to help him can do is advise him that he shouldn’t risk looking like he's enjoying himself with the pig.

As this was a Twilight Zone type fantasy there had to be a twist at the end and it was a groan inducing one when it's revealed the set up was a Turner Prize winning piece of conceptual art. It all went wrong for everyone involved as the member of the royal family was released early, but with everyone indoors cheering on the pig nobody noticed. The only deep and disturbing irony in that is that anyone would think it deep and disturbing. I reckon the real Twilight Zone would have provided a better twist and Rod Serling's narration would surely have been funnier. Although I enjoyed the first episode, with next week's episode looking pretty dire I think I'll pass on the rest of the series and start looking forward to Brooker's news summary of the year instead.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Cover for The Search for the Lone Star

I've just noticed that amazon have posted the cover for my 24th Black Horse Western The Search for the Lone Star.

The cover is different to any of my others, as I've usually had outdoor scenes and bright colours, so I like the change of style. It nicely claustrophobic and suggests plenty of conflict, and the fair-haired bloke looks a bit like Chuck Connors. Anyhow, the book will be published April 2012 and my suggested blurb was:

It had long been rumoured that the fabulous diamond known as the Lone Star had been buried somewhere near the town of Diamond Springs. Many men had died trying to claim it, but when Diamond Springs became a ghost town, the men who went there had many different aims. Tex Callahan had been paid to complete a mission, Rafferty Horn wanted to put right a past mistake, George Milligan thought he knew what had happened to the diamond, and Elias Sutherland wanted revenge.

All were united by their hatred of Creswell Washington, a man who had cast a dark shadow over all their lives during his search for the diamond. Only after violent retribution will the truth be finally revealed about the Lone Star.

On the other hand, it's been a year now since I wrote those words and I can't believe I wrote that horrible last line. I hope it gets changed!

Monday 14 November 2011

A review of The Finest Frontier Town in the West

Tender Valley is a clean, friendly and law-abiding frontier town. In fact, it is such a fine town that an enterprising businessman might just designate it as the official Finest Frontier Town in the West, an award with a thousand-dollar prize...

Read more about by 2003 title at Western Fiction Review.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

A bunch of people living together

Channel 5's first attempt to stage Big Brother ends on Friday, an event that is sure to be of mild interest to the several dozen people still watching. As I'm one of those die-hards I suppose I should comment, especially in the light of my not-very-enlightened article I wrote before the series started in which I predicted that not much would change from Channel 4's version. In some ways I was right: the music is the same, the logo is still an eye, professional Geordie Marcus Bentley still narrates, and every big twist fails badly. Most importantly it's still about a bunch of people living together, but curiously a lot has changed because now it is just about a bunch of people living together. I'll explain that comment later.

12 weeks ago, in what now seems like another lifetime, the celebrity version started to a collective cry from the audience of: who are these people? This used to happen every year, but somehow the celebrity bar was lowered to such an extent that the only person I recognized was an actor who got two lines in episode 3, series 8 of New Tricks. After 3 weeks of watching these stars, I'm hard pushed to remember who actually won. Thankfully after those non-entities had departed, the non-celebrity version started with a group of people who were slightly more well-known, including various models, reality tv stars, dancers, wrestlers, musicians, and an actress who died horribly in a popular horror movie franchise.

For the last 9 weeks these characters have done their best to rekindle the old Big Brother magic with the usual arguments over the shopping budget while in fancy dress, pretend romances, and contrived drama over hair straighteners. At its best it has provided moments that explore issues realistically in a way drama never can such as the glorious moment when housemate Aaron found out what his girlfriend's mum thought of him. She nominated him for eviction because he was messing around with her daughter, an uncomfortable scene with repercussions that only the most worthwhile reality tv show of them all could provide. Sadly excellent drama like this was in short supply and I reckon there are several obvious reasons why the show isn't as compelling as it was during its long run on the bigger station :

New host Brian Dowling's tight suits. As a housemate Brian was caustic and entertainingly camp, but as a host he isn't quick-witted or comfortable enough for live tv, although at least he isn't Davina.

The gormless editing. The show is now edited so a six-year-old can understand with constant repetition and explanations for the hard of thinking. I long for the old, deadpan style of '2.44pm, the housemates are in the garden eating jaffa cakes' rather than the new over-informative 'Jay is angry with a jaffa cake and this montage of last night's show set to music will show you why' style.

The lack of live feed. The decision not to show events 24 hours a day was inevitable as these days the OFCOM generation watch programs just so they can complain about minor things such as people taking dumps in freezers. But that's left the editors free to provide one-dimensional views of the characters and something vital has been lost. So Harry was comedy gold for 7 weeks until he came out and acted like an idiot, while Faye appeared an emotional wreck for 8 weeks until she came out and acted calmly.

Demographic targeting. An age limit of 30 was imposed on housemates with the intention of attracting young folk, thereby alienating half the audience. The lack of variety in life goals combined with people without any life experience has limited the scope of the show.

Lack of intellectual stimulus. The show used to have a fascinating psychological aspect with spin-off shows devoted to reading body language and the subtle aspects of character and language. Now the spin off shows feature swearing, rudeness and idiots.

Too media savvy. Even in 2000, some of the housemates knew what was required of them to further their media careers. Now everyone has been media trained and housemates are so self-aware of how they'll be perceived that you have to doubt everyone, especially the ones who aren’t self-aware.

They are no longer a number. The show borrowed its ideas from Orwell and The Prisoner with people challenging and being challenged by an authoritative Big Brother character. Big Brother always won and after 3 months people would emerge from the prison experience looking and sounding like a gibbering wreck, but hopefully having learnt something about themselves. Now the little media darlings get parties every night and soothing words every day, and they come out of the hotel as content as they went in to read a statement from their PR agent having learnt nothing about themselves.

I could list more issues that I hope they'll address later, but the biggest reason for the show being less absorbing now is one I don’t think they'll change as it involves a statement of intent made by Channel 5's program director Jeff Ford. He reckoned Channel 4's problem was that their version always had to be about something. His version would be freed of that constraint so that it could be just about a bunch of people living together.

I kept thinking about that statement while watching, wondering what Big Brother used to be about if it wasn't just about a bunch of people living together. 12 weeks of the new version that isn’t about anything has helped me to realize that the main selling point of the old Big Brother was that it was a wry commentary on the state of celebrity obsessed Britain. It used to display all the worst excesses of celebrity, with faded stars hoping to rekindle their careers and normal people doing anything to get their few moments of fame. But it let celebrity obsessed viewers get their fix of shallowness, while at the same time it let discerning viewers distance themselves from the unsavoury antics on screen because the format invited us to be cynical.

So we could enjoy watching Michael Barrymore end his comeback with one non-pc comic routine, or George Galloway destroy his political career with a cat impersonation. And we could delight in watching Katreya's comic cookie monster persona crumble over 3 months and enjoy seeing her evicted in her nightgown to a baying mob revelling in her distress.

It was cruel; it was cynical; it was a freak show. But it was unique and it was about something. It put up a mirror to society and that reflection was often an uncomfortable sight when it forced us to consider our opinions on race, gender, class, disability. Now that element has gone leaving something that's not vastly different to most of the other shows that celebrate the vacuous and promote the inane in the name of selling magazines. You can still find interesting insights into human behaviour, but you have to look hard because the cynicism has gone, and now we're supposed to be impressed by celebrities and the desire to be famous no matter how little talent you have.

So this year the five people who are left in the house all dream of being a celebrity despite having no talent and, like most years, they're all repellent in their own ways. In my view the least likely to win is Tom, who followed the classic under the radar approach and so who has done nothing for 9 weeks other than grin. He could be the most instantly forgettable housemate ever.

Next out will be Louise, who ploughed the tedious furrow that most glamour models have trodden post Imogen, BB7 of keeping your head down, have a pretend romance with the stupidest bloke in the house, and then when you come out bag a footballer or nine. She could well be the dimmest housemate they've ever had and she has only gone to prove that the housemates who act dim are acting because when people are really dim, they are just plain dull.

Next out will be Jay, who I had pegged for the winner on opening night, something that's irritated me ever since. Jay went for the classic warts 'n all approach in the hope of proving he was an ordinary working class bloke from Up North. His warts have provided most of the jaw dropping moments including his tales of his romantic exploits in Thailand and his bizarre obsession with bodily functions, bodily secretions, electrical appliances, and courtship rituals usually only seen on nature programs. His chances were probably ruined by his decision to use a mug in a manner it wasn't designed for (I missed that episode, thankfully), to use a freezer in a manner it wasn't designed for (the alleged dump was edited out to stop OFCOM going into meltdown), to use a pillow in a manner it wasn't designed for (I wish they'd edited out his revolutionary new bottom wiping technique), and to use Louise in a manner she had been designed for but which nobody other than Louise's agent would have expected her to tolerate for the sake of securing a magazine deal and a potential advertising contract with Andrex.

With those out of the way, it'll come down to a battle between Alex and Aaron, who are both keen students on the art of winning Big Brother and who have both employed perfect winning game plans. Alex has used a combination of several previous housemates' methods. From Sophie, BB10 she's gone for pretending you're not a glamour model by dressing in chunky sweaters, telling everyone you're not a glamour model and never will be one, and befriending the gay one. From the twins, BB8 she's pretended to like Barbie and from most winners she's pretended to be so terminally stupid she can't move and talk at the same time. This has provided some unintentionally amusing moments such as her discussion with Harry about post-renaissance Dutch painters until she remembered her character wouldn't know about such things.

Viewers love dumb blondes and they'll probably vote for her to stop Aaron winning. He's the only one who has shown vulnerability and been tested by the challenge. In fact he's probably the first housemate to show some complexity of character on the show in the last decade and without him I'd have stopped watching on launch night the moment the housemates started forgetting how their characters were supposed to behave. After 9 weeks I still don’t know what to make of him, his sweaters, his interest in boy bands, his mood swings, his long silences, his bad dancing, but for the simple fact that I don't understand him, I hope he wins. He won’t though.

After that, it's a long 8 week wait until the next celebrity version starts and I can wrestle again with the probably unanswerable question of: why on earth do I keep watching this nonsense?

Tuesday 25 October 2011

The Secret of Devil's Canyon to be published in Large Print

I've received the welcome news that my Black Horse Western The Secret of Devil's Canyon, which was published in April, will be reprinted next year in Large Print. It will be my 16th Linford Western.

When Mayor Maxwell and his daughter are brutally murdered, feelings in Bear Creek run high. Even when the killer is caught and sentenced to life in prison, the townsfolk demand a lynching. So Sheriff Bryce calls in Nathaniel McBain to spirit the killer away through Devil's Canyon to Beaver Ridge jail.

At first, Nathaniel manages to stay one step ahead of the pursuing mob; but as he loses ground, he realises he faces an even bigger problem: his prisoner may be innocent after all...

A dark secret about what really happened is buried in Devil's Canyon. Will Nathaniel be able to uncover the truth before the mob reaches him?

Wednesday 19 October 2011

The Outlawed Deputy

Hardback published - Aug 2001: 978-0709069553
Large Print published - Mar 2003: 978-0708994382

Through narrowed eyes, Cassidy stared at the three playing cards clutched in his right hand. He held an ace and two jacks, and with two aces on the table, he knew that his poker hand was strong. After playing for two hours, he could read the worried expressions of his three opponents, and knew that from the final deal, they didn't have anything to beat his hand. With everything being equal, he should risk betting whatever it took to win the pot.

Unfortunately, Cassidy knew everything wasn't equal….

So began my first published novel. I look back on those opening lines with a mixture of joy that something I created actually got published and horror that something I created actually got published.

The Outlawed Deputy was my second attempt to write a western. The first one started life as an sf / horror novel set on an airless asteroid where a mutant cyborg holes up in an abandoned space station and fights off a gang of crazed, zombie aliens. About half way through writing this masterpiece it dawned on me that the story might not be the classic I'd hoped it would be and, in one of those blinding flashes of logic that occasionally hit me, I worked out why. I was trying to write a version of the film Aliens, except I was sure I'd once read that when James Cameron made that movie he claimed he had tried to make Assault on Precinct 13 in space. And John Carpenter, when he made Precinct 13, said he was trying to make Night of the Living Dead in a police station. And George Romero had said that when he made Living Dead he was trying to make Rio Bravo with zombies.

This meant that the problem with my story was that I was trying to write a western in space and so if I got rid of the space bits, I'd have a better story. It turned out that I was half right. I changed my mutant cyborg to a marshal, changed the space station to a ghost town, and changed the zombie aliens into an outlaw gang. The story then made more sense, although sadly it was still a terrible one. I decided I needed to read more westerns.

I hadn't read a western since the early eighties when they'd disappeared from bookshelves in the UK, but I found to my delight that the library was full of Black Horse Westerns. I picked some at random, loved them, and then, fuelled on with enthusiasm, I tried again to make my mutant cyborg turned U.S. marshal tale work. I then hit another problem that was bigger than the fact the story was rubbish; it was already 50,000 words long and I'd only just started writing the middle bit. As this was already longer than a western's length, I decided to try the second, more sensible option.

I put that story aside and started again with something that got to its point slightly quicker. I instantly had a vision of a lawman who had been locked in his own jail cell. I didn't know who he was and why he was there, but I decided to start writing and answer those questions. Two seconds after starting writing he got the name Cassidy Yates, as I was watching Deep Space 9 at the time and I liked the name of the character Kasidy Yates. Shortly after starting writing he got a sidekick Nat McBain, named after a character who got shot up in Once Upon a Time in the West, although I later found out I'd remembered that wrong and the character didn't get named.

The story that developed involved a lawman getting wrongly accused of a crime and then going on to clear his name. It was an uninspired story and, looking back, I find it irritating that I wrote something that was so linear with few plot twists. I also tried to copy the style of several western authors rather than write with my own, albeit basic, style. But on the plus side it got published and the image on the cover happened to be quite close to how I'd envisaged Cassidy to look. Either way, I remember the novel as being messy and long-winded, but I like to think I learnt a lot from the process and the next one was a bit better.

Next month: The Last Rider from Hell.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Marshal Jake T. Devine will ride again.

I was pleased to get the news that my cuddly, great big softy of a lawman Marshal Jake T. Devine will return next year in a new adventure.

Devine last appeared in 2004 in Devine's Law and I've been keen to write about him ever since, but I had a lot of trouble finding another story for him. He's an anti-hero character (I was joking about him being a softy. He's a brutal sadist who's nastier than the outlaws he shoots up.), and he's an uncomprising destroyer of plots. Whenever I pointed him at an interesting situation in chapter one, he would merrily slaughter the entire cast in about two pages and leave me with the problem of what to write about in chapter two.

Anyhow the new book will be my 26th Black Horse Western, and it's entitled Devine. I'm pleased to say that time hasn't mellowed the uncompromising lawman and his catchphrase is still: 'Nobody threatens me and lives.'

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Hope and Glory

I recently watched the school-based BBC drama Hope and Glory again for the first time since it was shown in the 1990s. I was pleasantly impressed and it was well worth the fiver it cost on amazon. Obviously a show about teachers doesn't sound like a promising idea for interesting drama, and it seems even less promising when you realize it features the standard school-based story. A bunch of work-shy, no-hope, delinquent dropouts (and the pupils aren't much use either) in the worst school in the country are helped to find their full potential by a brilliant, charismatic new headmaster. Luckily it's more enjoyable than that sounds, mixing drama with gentle comedy while just about avoiding becoming a soap opera.

The charismatic teacher in question is Ian George, played memorably by Lenny Henry. I was again amazed that this show didn't lead to him taking on more straight acting roles. Lenny was a popular comedian in the 1980s, but his old-fashioned style of comedy became outdated quickly. As a funny man I doubt anyone has laughed at his material in decades, but as a straight actor he's a revelation. His character is compelling and unusual, but always convincing. Ian is a high-flyer in the education world, who turns down a government post to become a headmaster and nothing will stop him turning his school around. He's arrogant, bossy, self-absorbed, brilliant in bursts but also prone to terrible mistakes, and he's awful with relationships, treating his several girlfriends through the show badly just because being nice might interfere with schoolwork.

Most of his teachers provide the same sort of complexity with characters that are flawed but likeable. His deputy Phil Jakes was my favourite. Played by the dependable Chris Russell, Phil is paranoid, melancholic and frequently out of his depth, but he's also had his dedication beaten out of him by decades of disappointment. At times he's the hero of the story and at other times he's the villain, making his character arc interesting to follow. The same is true of the full-blooded villain Jan Woolley, a teacher who fails to get swept along by the new headmaster's reforms. She's always the last to arrive, the first to leave and she has no interest in bonding with the little darlings. I found myself rooting for her.

The other main teacher is Debbie Bryan, who probably is an interesting character. Unfortunately she's played by Amanda Redman and she uses exactly the same voice, mannerisms and responses as she does in New Tricks, so I was frequently left confused wondering why Sandra Pullman was now pretending to be a teacher. There are also surprisingly good performances from a variety of stage school brats pretending to be tough inner city yobs, while the rest of the cast are made up with stereotypes such as the macho PE teacher and the insecure trainee. These two embark on the most underwhelming romance I reckon I've ever seen, but these minor problems don't detract from the well-played drama, for series 1 anyhow, in which the classy feel is helped by the musical score, which extensively uses familiar classical pieces.

For the first series alone the show is worth watching, although sadly it's downhill after that. The classical music ends and one by one the original cast leave, usually after falling out with Ian George, and every time they get replaced with less interesting characters. Woolley gets replaced by the annoyingly perfect Kitty Burton. Debbie gets replaced by the usually dependable actress Phyllis Logan, except her role doesn't have much to do, and Phil Jakes gets replaced by a posh and annoying new deputy. Worst though, the stories settle for providing the expected formula for a school-based drama, which the first series avoided through clever writing. So every week a new problem pupil is on the verge of being ejected, but luckily they have an as yet undiscovered talent for English, music, sport, art etc and so the dedicated teachers help them achieve their goals and avoid getting expelled. On the plus side, every week you can play spot the problem and spot the special talent.

One other thing that amused me was that the first series featured an entertaining blokey friendship between Ian George and his best mate outside school. Series one ended with the not unexpected amendment to the format of Ian employing his mate as his new deputy, except when series two starts his best mate is nowhere to be seen and he never gets mentioned again. I presume the actor left at the last minute as, with no build up, Ian's best mate suddenly becomes the school janitor, who he never spoke to in series one, and curiously all of the janitor's dialogue provides observations that his previous best mate would say.

Towards the end the show improves and breaks free of the shackles of the weekly formula story until it ends surprisingly with a dramatic final episode that restores faith in the show and makes it feel that it was a journey worth taking. If you're minded to see the show and don’t want to know how it ends, don’t read on.

The dramatic ending chosen for the show is an unusual one, although it was flagged up in the first few minutes of episode one. Either way it is effective. Having devoted the whole show to demonstrating that Ian George will do anything to help his school, he pays the ultimate price when he ignores his health warnings to avoid all stress. The actual circumstances leading up to his death are a bit weak and start when a new teacher on the edge punishes his pupils by keeping them in for five minutes after the bell. Back in my day this used to happen at least once a week, but apparently these days this is too traumatic for the little darlings and it sets off a chain reaction of events. The last few minutes are emotional and tragic with hardly a line of dialogue uttered, thereby providing an odd ending that gives not a shred of hope for the future, which is odd for a show that was all about hope and less about glory.

I was pleased to see that youtube has a classic moment from episode 1 in which Peter Davison as the outgoing headmaster loses control in his final school assembly. Hands up if you reckon we wouldn't have so many riots if we had fewer touchy-feely Ian George type headmasters and more straight-talking Peter Davison type headmasters!

Thursday 8 September 2011

A Dance with Dragons: a slow dance presumably.

This review will be about the 5,439th posted on the Net in the last two months of the most eagerly-awaited fantasy novel in recent memory, A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin (Book 5 of A Song of Ice and Fire). I hate writing negative reviews and this one won’t say anything different to what 99% of reviewers are saying but, as I've been waiting ten years for this book, I feel an urge to add my ten cents' worth. I'll include mild spoilers although, if you've read the book, you'll know it's easy not to give much away in a review.

In short this novel isn't quite the worst I've ever read, but it is the most disappointing. Fifteen years ago, when I started Ice and Fire, disappointment was furthest from my mind. Martin appeared to be a rare author who would avoid the pitfall that often ruins fantasy of the endless series syndrome, in which trilogies become 4 volumes, become 5, 10, 20 volume epics. More quests are attempted, more parts of the map are visited, more characters are added, more sub-plots are woven in, more description is used until the story grinds to a halt.

A Game of Thrones stomped all over that attitude. Here was the first book in a projected 4-volume epic whose story was big enough to fill four volumes. It was epic fantasy without the dull bits, a high-adrenaline romp through a version of medieval history. It featured charismatic bad guys, flawed good guys and a story in which it was anyone's guess where it'd go and who would survive to the end. This was fantasy for adults, not just because of its adult content, but because it had a character based plot. Before Martin, most epic fantasy used the Tolkien model of the plot-based story in which everyone chases around a map for no good reason other than that the story says they should. But Thrones let the characters drive the story. People weren't just good or bad, they were shades of grey, like real people. Greed, lust, envy and worst of all love could motivate people to destroy a kingdom. It was compelling stuff and it's no surprise that this year's tv version was popular. I never watch filmed versions of novels I like, but I can imagine how good it was. I can also imagine that this book will annoy old and new fans so much that the tv version will ignore it and restart the story at book 6.

The warning signals first appeared in books two and three when the number of characters grew, but they didn't raise concern as the narrative was so much fun. Every time you started to see where the story was going, main characters got slaughtered and the story veered off in another direction. By the end of book three we'd reached only the end of act one of the three act main narrative as the Ice and Fire elements were only then becoming relevant. So even the inevitable news that the series was to be a five, six and then seven volume series was well-received.

Book four started the story's second act and, as often happens in middle sections, the plot stalled. Sticking your hero up a tree in act one is often easy and getting him out of the tree in act three is also often easy. But the middle bit is where you throw rocks at him, and making that interesting can be tricky. The solution chosen in this case was to slow the narrative down to the speed you'd expect from an asthmatic ant carrying a large bucket of swill up a steep hill. To add further strangeness, the story ignored the main characters and detailed the lives of the bit-part characters. And then it added in new characters who lived in ignored parts of the kingdom. Then it sent them off on long and uneventful journeys to irrelevant parts of the map to do uninteresting things.

As an exercise in risk taking and not giving readers what they expect book four should be applauded, but few readers welcomed the change of pace. It was like waiting ten years for a new Star Trek tv series and then instead of it being set on the bridge of the Enterprise, it's set in Starfleet's admin department. And it relates the adventures of a group of filing clerks in their mission to discover filing systems that are not as we know them, seek out new income and expenditure spreadsheets, and boldly track down missing paper clips that nobody has ever missed before. And then when you try it, you find it's even duller than you expected. That was book four. Book five is worse.

First, here's the spoiler that all the reviews say: I can't spoil the story in A Dance with Dragons because there isn't one. This book has no reason to exist beyond the fact that it'll sell. Like with the previous books, it's character based, but unlike with the first three in which the characters drove the plot, this book is just about characters. And they do nothing other than observe passively while thinking about how great it'd be if someone were to film what they can see and make miniature collectibles out of everyone they meet and computer games out of the scenery they pass. Which would be bad enough, except the characters act differently than the way they've acted before. Jon is Up North worrying about the ice zombies beyond the wall, but he does nothing about it. Dany is Down South ignoring her dragons while she tries to get into a slimy new character's pants. And Tyrion is going from Up North to Down South while worrying about what he did in book three, a lot.

Worse, the bold moments that filled the narrative before have been replaced with nervous cop-outs that feel as if the writer was giving himself an easy ride. I won’t spell them out, but whenever something decisive is close to happening, it fizzles away. Characters get killed, but then we find out they're still alive. Characters get clapped in irons, but their captors release them. Characters act brutally, but they were only acting. Characters face a problem, but they ignore it. If the early books had been written in this style, then with a single bound Eddard would have avoided the chopping block, the Red Wedding would have ended with a jolly sing-song, and Tyrion would have invented the Heimlich manoeuvre at Joffrey's wedding. Most annoyingly for me, it's likely that all the insoluble problems will be resolved with magic. Previously I had loved reading about a fantasy world without boy wizards and swords of power and ancient races of elven lords. But all those unreal solutions are slipping into the story to stop anyone having to make tough decisions. Admittedly there's a few compelling sections such as the return of the bit-part, in all ways, Theon, who went missing presumed chopped to bits 3,000 pages ago. But a handful of mildly interesting events isn't good enough in a book that's pushing half a million words, or as I kept thinking while forcing myself to read on, fifteen Black Horse Westerns.

I should say something positive as I wanted to enjoy this book and I tried to accept the story on its own terms. The best I can manage is that Martin can still write a well-constructed chapter. They all start with an arresting image, then they fill you in on the back story, develop with introspection and dialogue, and end on a cliff-hanger. But sadly, they have no tension. Suspense was one of the many things that made A Game of Thrones unmissable. A typical Tyrion chapter would start with the dwarf about to have his head chopped off. He'd talk his way out of that only to be thrown in a dungeon without food or water where he'd be offered a way out, but only if he completes an impossible task in which he's sure to be killed. And so it'd go on with everyone always in danger and with the suspense unbearable because anyone can get the chop.

In A Dance with Dragons a typical chapter starts with Jon worrying that the stores are running low on toilet paper. He meets the storeman who gives him an inventory of every item in the store, and the chapter ends with the cliff-hanging revelation that they might get short of sausages in three years. I accept that the novel is providing introspective angst and descriptive world-building instead of mounting up problems for the main characters with swordfights aplenty. But the ennui and the lack of anything that I reckon most readers find entertaining highlights the annoying writing style that didn’t matter before when the story was compelling in which 20 words (and often 200) are used when 10 would do, and when 10 would be more effective. For example, I longed for someone to just once have a sumptuous feast or a frugal meal rather than having to read about every item in every course of every meal. If the characters ate off-screen instead of breaking their fast every chapter, this book would be about 50 pages shorter.

I could say more to make the pain in my arms seem worthwhile after supporting this monster for so long while hoping it'd lead somewhere, but I'll give up. I still hope that the author or an editor or a tv producer accepts that this once great story has gone astray and drags it back on course. There's still time. I'd recommend that everyone involved prepares for book six by reading a western to see what a story is, and to see how books can tell that story in a twentieth of the length this one used. I know I intend to.

Wednesday 31 August 2011

Happy Birthday to me!

Today my 22nd Black Horse Western The Prairie Man is published and I've only just realized that this marks ten years to the day since August 31, 2001 when my first BHW The Outlawed Deputy was published.

So, as this blog is my only presence on the Net and, as there has to be a small chance that one day someone, somewhere will tap the title of one of my books into a search engine, I've decided to be self-absorbed and post some information about my past titles. From next month, I'll start posting a monthly article on my titles, starting with the first one and carrying on until I get to the most recent. I'll look at what I was trying to do with the story, whether I was happy with the result, and what I think about the story now.

If I manage to keep this up and find something new to say about each story, I should get up to date around about 2014!

Monday 22 August 2011

Dead by Sundown to be published on Kindle

Following on from the news I announced in June, I'm now pleased to announce that Hale will publish my 2006 title Dead by Sundown in Febuary 2012 as an e-book. It will be available on all the usual formats and will retail at £3.99. This will be my second Kindle title after The Gallows Gang, which will be published in December 2011.

Dead by Sundown was my 11th Black Horse Western and I always quote it as having my favourite title and my favourite cover. Below is the blurb:

When Galen Benitez killed Mike Donohue's wife, Mike vowed to get his revenge that very day. But it took five long years before he tracked the outlaw down to the inhospitable region known as the Cauldron.

Here, Mike meets the beguiling Lucy Reynolds who is searching for the legendary lost city of Entoro, a place rumoured to have its streets paved with gold. As Mike suspects that Galen might also be searching for the treasure, he decides to help her.

With Galen still at large, and now Lucy's jealous admirer determined to kill him, Mike will need his trusty six-shooter to ensure that he isn't the one who is dead by sundown.

Friday 19 August 2011

A review of The Prairie Man

A very welcome review of my 22nd Black Horse Western, which is published later this month, is available at Western Fiction Review.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Big Brother got back to us, after all.

A year after Channel 4 buried the reality show Big Brother for ever with the mixed signals of a funeral and the words 'Big Brother will get back to you', the hoped for resurrection on the other side has materialized. To the disdain of the chattering classes, who all claim they've never watched the show, this Thursday it claws its way back on to our screens on everybody's least favourite main station Channel 5. Whether it finds an audience there is a good question that only the next 17 weeks can answer.

The initial signs are good. Channel 5 is owned by Richard Desmond, a media tycoon who inhabits the murky parts of the media that are too disreputable for even the Murdoch family to delve into. I gather Desmond made his fortune publishing magazines such as the pottery periodical Big Jugs monthly and the premier magazine for cat-lovers Asian Pussies. After that he developed several magazines devoted to celebrities nobody has ever heard of. Then he took over two newspapers, which give new meaning to the word in that they are printed on paper but they don't actually contain news. Whenever I've seen one of the headlines on his tabloid I've never been able to work out what it actually means as it usually says something like: 'Loos looz Roos booz.' Presumably some people know what this means as it sells well. The only news item in his other paper is about the twists and turns in the Lady Di conspiracy story, an editorial policy that at first sights is a bizarre one as there hasn't been any new developments in this non-story for a decade, except strangely it's popular too.

Recently he branched out into television ownership. He took over the most downmarket and loss-making station in the country and promised to turn it around by taking it even more downmarket. A year on, the station makes money and so now he hopes Big Brother will aid his ascent. Based on his past triumphs, the expectation is that he'll fill Big Brother with screeching glamour models whose only interests in life are fake tan and hair straighteners, and brain-dead hunks whose only interest in life is getting into celebrity magazines by pretending to have a romance with a glamour model who likes fake tan and hair straighteners. Accordingly, reports from the auditions suggest that rejections were handed out to anyone who had more than one brain cell or who could do simple tasks like moving unaided or finding England on a map of England. This all promises that Desmond's version of Big Brother won't be the place to go to hear interesting debates on such matters as the Eurozone crisis. Or in other words, he won’t change a thing.

My prediction, for what it's worth, is that the show will succeed. The one thing that was obvious throughout the ten year run on Channel 4 is that the station hated the show and they did everything in their power to kill it off. Many anecdotes have been told over the years of the Nathan Barley types who run the station and their disgust at having their media chums associate them with the most brain-numbingly inane show in British tv history. Sadly they'd prefer to be known as the station that transmits such glitteringly intellectual shows as, er, It's me or the Dog celebrity special, Come Dine with me celebrity special, and My two-headed transplant celebrity special. Of course, as anyone who actually likes Big Brother knows, the show was never brain-numbing or inane. In a world where reality shows avoid reality in favour of scripted talent shows for viewers with low expectations and even lower attention spans, one show bucked the trend and was about something, namely people. Desmond is astute enough to know that and, unlike the Channel 4 bosses, he needs the show to be a success.

So hopefully he won't kill off the things I liked about the show in his quest to rebrand the format, and at first glance the initial celebrity version sounds promising. For a start I've not heard of most of the leaked names, which is comforting, and even after I'd read up the explanation of who they are, I still can’t see why they might be deemed celebrities. The only one I do know about is Sally Bercow, a politician who makes Sarah Palin seem normal. There's something called Jedward (this week's pop sensation amongst the under 12s apparently) and there's several people who have slept with people who would like to be famous. And there's the mum of someone who is famous for being famous. Also, Charlie Sheen and Mike Tyson probably won’t appear. As I said earlier, it looks as if Desmond hasn't changed a thing.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

A Very Peculiar Practice

This month sees the long-awaited release on dvd of the 1980s drama A Very Peculiar Practice. Like most of the BBC's finest dramas, this series appears to have been forgotten about. To my knowledge it was never repeated and a dvd of the complete series has been an age coming. Series 1 was released about 7 years ago, but series 2 just never appeared.

The show is an unusual one that isn't like anything else, being an occasionally surreal political, black comedy-drama. Unlike most shows that were made in the 1980s and which were about life in the 1980s, it hasn't dated as it concentrates on its memorable characters rather than making political points. The story of its creation is a good one and I hope it's true. The writer Andrew Davies opened his post one morning and found he owed the BBC £17,000. Apparently he'd been paid an advance to write a TV adaptation, but the show had been cancelled and they wanted their money back.

Unfortunately he'd spent the money. So his only hope was to pitch them another idea and, seeking inspiration, he used the writer's traditional method of looking out the window. As he was a lecturer in a depressing inner-city university, all he could see was life coming and going in a depressing inner-city university and so he pitched that idea and, surprisingly, it was commissioned.

The end result was what sounds like a very unpromising format for riveting drama of: life in a doctors' surgery as a metaphor for the state of Britain. Thankfully, it's more entertaining than that sounds. The hero is Doctor Daker, a new recruit to the university's medical staff. He's a painfully shy, naïve idealist who's out of touch with real life because he has this strange notion that doctors are supposed to make sick people better. He arrives without any ambition other than to do a good job, to care for his patients, and to get through the day without embarrassing himself too often. I don't think Peter Davison has ever been better and, to this day, I reckon he's the only actor I've ever seen who has the ability to go bright red with embarrassment.

The show relates how his idealist ways are tested by his fellow doctors, who all have no interest in wasting their time with sick people. The boss of the surgery is the decrepit Old Jock, played gloriously by Graham Crowden. I enjoy watching this actor in anything and so I was saddened when I just checked up and found out that he died only recently, although that was at the ripe old age of 87. As Jock spends the whole show seemingly at death's door, this is a testament to his acting. As a doctor, these days he'd be a walking lawsuit. He's the sort of doctor who'd recommend taking a lie down to a patient who's just died and most episodes feature him missing obvious ailments like broken legs and appendicitis. Instead, Jock spends his time plotting against the vice-chancellor Ernest Hemingway, who he's convinced is plotting against him, although in reality the vice-chancellor is a corrupt money-grabber who is more interested in fleecing foreign students. And when he's not ignoring patients and drinking himself to death, he dictates his magnum opus, the sick university, a rambling and incoherent treatise on everything that's wrong in society.

What he should be spending his time on is stopping his subordinates stabbing him in the back. The first of which is Doctor Rose Marie, played by Barbara Flynn. She's a familiar actress on British TV and again I reckon this is her best role. Rose Marie is a radical feminist lesbian who has no interest in doctoring, but who has worked out what's wrong with the world, and that's men. No matter what illness her female patients have, it's the fault of men, and her vulnerable patients are ripe for being converted to her world view.

She's a saint when compared to the final, and best, character in the show, the force of nature that is Bob Buzzard. Played by David Troughton, Bob is a man without a single redeeming factor. He became a doctor for the money and the social standing, and he'd never soil his hands by actually looking at a patient. His consultations last about 10 seconds and go like this: 'Got yourself a dose of the old clap there, matey. Must have stuck your John Thomas where you shouldn't, you randy sod. Well, take these two times daily and it won’t drop off. Any questions? No. Next!'

Instead of helping patients, Bob spends his time wrestling with his rinky-dinky computer, playing golf, glad-handing pharmaceutical reps and taking backhanders. He's a character whose every line is crass, arrogant and ridiculous and he's one of my favourite characters in anything.

There are several other running joke characters, including a fourth wall breaking writer who wakes up one morning to find he owes the BBC £17,000 and who can predict every twist in the story as he's writing a drama series about life in a university surgery. And there's two nuns who are always rooting around in bins, joy-riding and getting drunk. The only weak elements are that the show apparently gave Hugh Grant his first acting role, and Daker's girlfriend, who is supposed to be arch and witty, but who comes over as annoying, but then again when the actress played a pathologist in Inspector Morse she annoyed me too. Thankfully she gets replaced in series 2 by a Polish girlfriend, although as I haven't seen series 2 for over 20 years, I'll reserve judgement on whether she's annoying. The only thing I remember about series 2 is that it was more surreal and funnier than series 1, and so I'm looking forward to seeing these episodes again.

Sadly, the show's perfection was tarnished by a weak spin-off film set in Poland and featuring Daker's continued adventures riding the European gravy train, but that aside, the 14 episodes of Peculiar Practice are a quirky and original tv series. And for good measure it had a superb original theme song sung by Elkie Brooks. Here's the trailer for series 2, as shown on the BBC a long, long time ago. You can tell it was made a long time ago as there aren’t about five cuts a second!

Monday 1 August 2011

It's Poddamaquassy, no, Paquamasoddy, no, no, Passamamassy?

The following article appears at The Tainted Archive's Wild West e-Monday.

'Get out, you quack, and don't bring those phoney remedies here again!'

Two months ago Fergal O'Brien returned for his sixth western adventure The Miracle of Santa Maria. As with the previous books, I was asked several times about the inspiration behind the stories and luckily I had a ready answer. But recently I became aware of another source of inspiration, and it's an embarrassing one. Today, I reckon the time is right to share my embarrassment.

Fergal O'Brien is a snake-oil seller. He sells a tonic, which he claims will cure all ills. Not surprisingly, its only effect is to make the victim run to the toilet, although in one book he did make a pig happy. His partner Randolph McDougal helps him convince sceptical customers to part with their money by drinking the tonic and then being 'cured' of various fictitious ailments. Over the years he's been cured of lameness, a wooden leg, an extra leg and, if the publisher likes the seventh book, a severe attack of death. In short, Fergal is a devious, double-crossing snake and I love writing about him.

''I've been bringing cures from Pilgrim Heights to Province Town. Treated rabid fever down on Queen Anne Road. Gout or gastritis, mumps or bronchitis, bites and burns and blue abrasions, got a pill for all occasions!'

Fergal first came to mind when I mused about whether the popular 1980s BBC sitcom Blackadder would ever return for a fifth series. In the four series the devious, double-crossing snake Blackadder and his dangerously stupid sidekick Baldric had lived through Medieval times, Elizabethan times, Georgian times, and finally the First World War. I wondered what would happen if Blackadder and Baldric ended up in the Wild West...

Baldric: 'Ooh, Mr B, that nasty gunslinger says he'll be waiting for us outside the saloon at high noon.'

Blackadder: 'Right, Baldric, that means one of us will have to strap on a six-shooter, go out on to that windswept street and get filled with more lead than a particularly thick pencil. And let's face it, Balders, that man's you.'

Baldric: 'Wait, I have a cunning plan!'

Blackadder: 'Baldric, your last cunning plan was to sell toys to Billy the Kid, which was the worst cunning plan since Wyatt Earp thought the O.K. Corral sounded like a particularly quiet place for a vacation…'

I amused myself with this nonsense until the thought came that I might be on to something. Two idiots who arrive in the Wild West and try to make their way sounded like a story I'd like to write and for some reason I thought about a medicine showman.

'I wiped out impetigo on the banks of Buttermilk. Flu is under firm control in Powderhole!'

I had a clear vision of this man, his clothes, his stature, his features, the way he walked, the way he talked. I assumed I must have seen him in a film or a tv series, but I didn't know where. As I'd already decided Fergal was Irish, I was free to ignore that vision, but enough of it remained to give me a start and so Fergal, the devious snake-oil seller, was born.

Over the next ten years I wrote a Fergal adventure every other year and each time, as I got into a Fergalesque frame of mind, I'd ponder on the question of who was that medicine showman. As the snake-oil seller is a stock, colourful western character I hoped he'd appeared in a good film, perhaps a less familiar John Ford western, and that a great character actor had played him. But I felt doomed to never resolve the mystery until, that is, I did, and then I wished I hadn't.

'My specialities are Audiology, Mycology, Sarology, Teritology, Embryology, psychology, zoology! And every other 'ology you can think of!'

I won't detail the process as it involved dead ends, Internet detective work, and much wailing when I finally found my man on youtube. It turned out that the actor I'd envisaged was the legendary western star Jim Dale, who had first come to the attention of western fans with his well-crafted performance as Marshal P. Knutt in the existentialist western Carry on Cowboy.

Ten years later, he returned to the western genre to play Doc Terminus, a snake-oil seller who with his sidekick Hoagy, played by Red Buttons, plies his trade in Passamaquoddy. I can't say any more as I can't remember seeing the movie, but I guess I must have caught a scene. I hadn't remembered Terminus's beard, Fergal favours green, and Randolph McDougal isn't Red Buttons, but the Fergal O'Brien in my mind is Jim Dale.

'It's Poddamaquassy, no, Paquamasoddy, no, no, Passamamassy, uh, Quoddamapoddy, p...p...Passamadaddy, q...q...q... Quoddamapassy..., Quoddamaddy, Dappadaddy, Dappamossy, Quoddapossy, Quassapossa, Passaquossa.'

And the embarrassing thing that made me bang my head on the desk and cry, 'Why oh why did it have to be him?' Well, the classic western movie that gave me the inspiration for a character I've spent more time writing about than anyone else was… Pete's Dragon, a Disney musical about an annoying freckle-faced orphan and his cute pet dragon.

Passamaquoddy, my arse.

Monday 18 July 2011

Sheriff Without a Star

I've just received an advance sighting of the cover for my Black Horse Western Sheriff Without a Star, and I have to say I really like the composition for this one with its two pictures for the price of one. The book will be published in December.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Separated at birth?

I'm a big fan of the covers that the Black Horse Western series and the Linford Western Library provide for their books. One of the fun games to play is spotting the film actor (it's usually Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood). But this month's batch of Black Horse Western covers made me scratch my head.

I was sure I'd seen the main character who appears on the cover of Greg Mitchell's Crooked Foot's Gold before, but I just wasn't sure where. Then, I suddenly got it. He featured on my The Gallow's Gang.

I now can't help but see this bloke as being like one of those amusing animals that suddenly pop up in the foreground before the camera in people's holiday snaps. I wonder which picture he'll jump in front of next!

Friday 8 July 2011

Cryptic Friday #10

Last month's clue was: Local ranch where Incas ate perhaps. 8 letters.

And the answer is... actually I've forgotten. It was clearly an anagram of Incas ate, but I hadn't heard of the word back then, and I can't remember it now!

Anyhow, this month's clue is one I was extremely ashamed not to get (but which I have remembered) :

They never get miscast in Westerns. 7 Letters and begins with L.

Saturday 2 July 2011

New Tricks - Series 8

I was pleased to see that my favourite ongoing tv cop show New Tricks returns on Monday.

For anyone unfamiliar with the show, it's a cold case series in which a group of retired cops have been hired to solve long-forgotten cases using modern forensic techniques, although in reality they use the old fashioned techniques of experience, knocking down doors, and drinking beer. The show is an excellent piece of cosy light entertainment that features actors who have been around since the days of Black and White tv, and good writing with stories that make sense and characters who act in consistent, believable ways. Having recently made the mistake of trying to watch an episode of Luther, a cop show that prides itself on its lack of plot, substance or anything that'll live in the memory for more than a nanosecond, it's heartening that these virtues are still allowed on the BBC.

Despite this, last year I reported that I wasn't particularly looking forward to series 7 as the previous series had been lacklustre with a distinct feeling that the format had run out of steam. But thankfully that turned out to be a blip and series 7 was one of the strongest since the early days. Not everything was perfect though, as the stories still didn't feature enough of the characters' private lives. Gerry's extensive family didn't appear again. His numerous wives, kids and grandchildren used to torment him continually, but now his real life daughter (playing a woman who isn't his daughter although she once thought she was) is the only part of his family we see. Jack's house only appeared briefly in the final episode and Sandra hasn't had a bad date, an argument with her mother, or a massive curry in years. Even Brian's long-suffering wife Esther had fewer appearances than usual, although she got the year's best scene and best lines in an amusing aside featuring Brian and his perfectly innocent experiments with condoms.

Having said that there wasn't a poor episode out of the ten with the particularly good ones being Brian going all obsessive, for a change, at a library and the final episode featuring corruption in the police. The series also got its gentle comedy back on top form. I particularly enjoyed Brian discovering twitter and getting more excited about picking up new followers than solving the crime. When Jack reckoned he could sum up what Brian had achieved today on twitter in three words, I decided then that I'd never waste another moment of my existence at that place, and I haven't. But the drama also ratcheted up a notch with the highlight being Jack in Dirty Harry mode trampling all over a poor criminal's human rights, and then best of all not having even a moment's pang of guilt afterwards. The cast even spent time in the pub again and Sandra's dog shooting joke from the pilot episode had a welcome return.

Hopefully this year can continue to be strong and the good news is that there isn't a cliff-hanger to resolve. The show has many strengths, but end of series cliff-hangers isn't one of them. They started in series 3 with Jack finding his wife's killer and deciding to kill him. Series 4 started with the rest of the gang arriving in time to stop him. That poor resolution turned out to be the show's best one. Series 4 ended with Jack destroying his friendship with Sandra by revealing a terrible secret about her father, thus making it impossible for them to work together again. Series 5 forgot about this until episode 4 where Sandra and Jack had a chat in a car and decided it wasn't serious. Series 5 ended with Brian going back to the booze, thus destroying his career and ending his marriage, except he was cured by series 6 and it was never mentioned again. Series 6 ended with Sandra discovering she had a secret evil twin brother, but in series 7 she decided that wasn't important. I cheered when series 7 had a non-cliff-hanger ending and I'll cheer again when series 8 begins.

Monday 27 June 2011

The Gallows Gang to be published on Kindle

I am delighted to announce that later this year my 2008 Black Horse Western The Gallows Gang will be made available for downloading through all the major devices such as Kindle, Sony Reader etc. The novel will be published by Robert Hale Ltd through the Faber Factory. I understand that I'll have plenty of company with several other Black Horse Western e-titles being published at the same time.

This exciting development follows on from the publication earlier this year of BHW: Collection No 1 featuring 4 novels by Tyler Hatch, Abe Dancer, Scott Connor and Dean Edwards. This collection is available here.

More details will of course be announced later.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Review of The Legend of Shamus McGinty's Gold

It is a short read as well as an easy page turner. I have not read much of the western fiction genre. Most of my experience would be from non-fiction and from Hollywood movies. Therefore I cannot compare this to other fiction writers works. I can say it was a pleasant read...

Read More at Gnotions.

Now that unexpected review cheered me up!

Saturday 11 June 2011

Bleached Bones in the Dust

I was pleased to get the news that Bleached Bones in the Dust will be published in Large Print. It'll be my 15th Linford Western and I assume it'll be out next summer.

For twenty years, bounty hunter Montgomery Grant searched for Lomax Rhinehart, desperate to make him pay for an atrocity he committed during the dying days of the war.

So when Grant's friend, Wallace Sheckley, told him that he had found Lomax, Grant followed him to Sunrise, but Arnold Hays and his gunslingers were holding the town in the grip of fear. Nobody would help him and, worse, Wallace had gone missing and Lomax was nowhere to be found.

With Arnold Hays the key to Grant finding out what has happened to both his friend and his enemy, he must turn to his gun to get the answers he needs...

Friday 10 June 2011

Cryptic Friday #9

Last week's clue was: Layer backs a horse for example. 6 letters.

The answer was: Lamina (You might need a dictionary for that one. I did!)

This week's answer was a new word for me :

Local ranch where Incas ate perhaps. 8 letters.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Silver Horse Western

I've received a contract for my 25th Black Horse Western Beyond Redemption and it should be published later in 2012.

As I'd reported a few months ago, the title slipped into my mind after writing The Search for the Lone Star, and as I couldn’t get the phrase out of my mind I had to see if I could make a story out of it. The story bumbled along slowly for a while with several unrelated plot threads that refused to find a connection. Then Booklife asked me to do an interview and in answering a question about my attitude to writing bad guys I mentioned that I was pleased with an editorial comment I'd once had that my bad guys were never beyond redemption. In one of those dolly zoom moments I realized why the phrase had lodged in my mind and instantly I knew what the story was about, namely whether or not my bad guys were really beyond redemption. Anyhow here's my suggested blurb:

As a child Jeff Dale witnessed the terrible aftermath of an atrocity. Elmer Drake killed three members of a family and when the surviving girl Cynthia went missing, Jeff vowed that one day he'd find her, no matter how long it took.

Ten years passed and the adult Jeff had become a bounty hunter when he found his first clue about Cynthia's fate by recovering her locket from the thief Wilfred Jarrett. So Jeff followed the clues to the frontier town of Redemption where stalked a gunslinger who carried a gun in one hand and a cross in the other, a man with a rope burn around his neck called Elmer Drake.

Monday 30 May 2011

Dalziel and Pascoe - Demons on our Shoulders

Demons on our Shoulders is an episode from the 12th and final series of my favourite cop show Dalziel and Pascoe, and I'd like to celebrate it for its unrelenting entertainment value while poking some fun at it for its role in bringing the show to a premature end.

Demons was the 44th movie length episode of Dalziel and Pascoe. The previous 43 featured a bluff Yorkshire cop solving routine murders in the small mining town of Wetherton while scratching his nuts and trading insults with his partner. The makers of Demons somehow missed the previous eleven years of the show and they appeared to be under the impression they'd been hired to remake Cannibal Holocaust, except with a bigger budget and more gore. The result is a movie that starts off as a cozy Murder She Wrote type tale develops into Silence of the Lambs, takes a detour through the more surreal corners of Twin Peaks and ends up having a shot at Night of the Living Dead.

For such a delirious story, the episode starts quietly to lull the viewer into a false sense of security. A man blasts his wife in two with a sawn-off shotgun, with the crime being reported while Pascoe is celebrating his birthday with his best friends, which means he hasn’t invited Dalziel. For the next twenty minutes Pascoe devotes little time to the murder as he tries to stop Dalziel finding out about the party leading to the feeling that this episode will feature the usual D&P mixture of blokey friction and cop procedural. Then Richard E. Grant appears and everything spirals out of control. From that moment on, every time you think the plot can’t get any more bizarre, it promptly wrongfoots you with yet another jaw-dropping twist.

The story, as best as I can piece it together, goes like this: Wetherton's leading hypnotherapist, who is a devil worshipper specialising in curing smoking, was dumped by her boyfriend 20 years ago while at university. This ex-boyfriend, played by Grant, is now a famous tv magician, while she's stuck in Wetherton having to cope with the indignity of being only a beautiful, glamorous, rich, successful businesswoman living in a mansion. After a nervous breakdown, experimental drugs give her a psychological condition with a long name that makes her plot revenge against Grant. And so she comes up with a cunning plan to commit the perfect murder. She tracks down a secret medieval grimoire (as Pascoe says in one of the many quotable lines - you don’t get to see many grimoires in Wetherton) that was written back in the days when witches were real witches and which includes a forbidden text to contact the dark side. This text calls for her to roam around Wetherton armed with a blood-soaked chainsaw dismembering people. She collects a body part from each victim. Then she plans to stitch the body parts together and reanimate the corpse. When she reads the forbidden text, her soul will transfer into the creation and turn her into a demon. Then she can kill Grant.

Fans of the cozy cop show genre will already have spotted that this plan has a small flaw: it's just too simple. So to complicate things she tracks down a man who took part in a trick on Grant's tv show. In this trick Grant hypnotised the man and made him shoot his wife with a toy gun he thought was real. Strangely, this hasn't affected their marriage because the couple are the leaders of Wetherton's second most popular white-collar devil-worshipping cult and they enjoy that sort of thing. The killer hypnotises him again, but this time she makes him shoot his wife for real. This has two results. It fools Dalziel into thinking that Grant's original hypnotic suggestion caused the murder, and it incurs the wroth of the devil worshippers who plot their own revenge against Grant. The devil worshippers are a fun bunch with suicidal goths, several embezzlers (although that plot strand mysteriously disappears) and a great bloke who speaks only in Latin and who keeps his embalmed wife in a glass case in the living room. He's a bit of nutter that one, Dalziel decides.

Although to the untrained eye the devil worshippers just like getting naked and chanting, they cast a spell that actually works and it turns off the lights in Grant's house, which spooks him so much he hides in the middle of a runic pentangle made with luminous paint. With the killer's plan working she steps up the psychological warfare by systematically chainsawing to bits the devil worshippers who are ruining her nemesis's life, on the basis that this will make Dalziel think Grant is killing them.

This leads to a classic scene in which Dalziel and Pascoe stand in the middle of a murder scene that looks like a slaughterhouse and quiz a camp pathologist, who appears to be channelling Larry Grayson, about how the victim died. The camp pathologist reports that the victim was electrocuted, drugged, had a massive dose of mercury injected into her eyes and brain. Her lungs and heart were removed and runes carved into her body. Her spinal column was cut out and she was sliced in half with a chainsaw. But that's not what killed her. She actually died from being injected with an overdose of top secret breathable water specially imported from America. The cops debate if they know of anyone in Wetherton who has been importing top secret breathable water from America recently and it turns out that Grant has been doing just that to use in his act. Grant is a master of illusion and his big trick is to 'drown' himself in a vat of water while hiding the fact that the water isn't really water but is actually breathable water. Dalziel deems this trick to be bollocks and arrests him (Dalziel's reaction to just about everything in this episode is bollocks and I can’t blame him.).

Things are looking bad for Grant. But with every scrap of evidence pointing to him being the crazed chainsaw killer, the real killer makes Dalziel release him by manipulating Grant into planting a post-hypnotic suggestion in Dalziel's mind to follow the station's new health and safety procedures and give up smoking. This makes Dalziel seek out Wetherton's leading smoking hypnotherapist, the crazed psychokiller herself.

While curing him of his smoking habit, the killer takes over Dalziel's dreams and makes him dream of incorrect solutions to the murder mystery that leads him back to the devil worshippers. The cops arrive at their coven just as the devil worshippers are having another go at turning off Grant's electricity. Their spell goes awry (I think the killer swapped grimoires, but I'm not sure) and it makes one of the members turn into a zombie with massive glowing eyeballs. Dalziel calls for an ambulance and in other classic scene where you wonder how the actors kept straight faces he quizzes a nurse as to whether she's seen many zombies with massive glowing eyeballs in Wetherton. And it turns out she has. It's quite a common medical condition in fact called anti-hysterical metabolic syndrome in which the accepted cure is a dose of prescription drugs and the only side effect is that the victim is left paralysed and blind even though they can move and see. It's at this point that the story gets seriously strange.

I could describe what happens next, but as I have no idea what was going on, I probably shouldn’t try. Ever more gruesome body parts turn up, bloody chainsaws whirr, Dalziel drives along in the day time, gets out of his car in the dark and then walks along in daylight. He has dreams and then dreams within dreams about things that have happened, things that didn’t happen, and things that will happen or then again perhaps not while the surviving devil worshipper has naked fun on his own. In the end Dalziel gets so confused he gives up and goes down the pub. Grant arrives and promises to solve the crime. Pascoe refuses, but then Grant proves how clever he is by reading his mind and then giving him the names of several characters who left the show about five years ago. Pascoe is so impressed he lets Grant lead the investigation - I think the makers put that in to prove they had watched the show before. It didn’t work.

Grant's technique for solving the crime involves sitting in his glowing pentangle and waiting for the murderer to phone up and confess while his new girlfriend seeks the truth with tarot cards that all have death written on them. Amazingly this works when the killer sends him a video showing him where to find her. Grant heads off into Wetherton's darkest wood at midnight where he finds fires forming a circle, runic symbols and lots of body bits. He phones up Dalziel and tells him he's cracked the case, but by then it’s too late.

The killer leaps out from behind a tree and whips off her disguise of a dark wig, which is perhaps the most inexplicable event in the whole episode as she hasn't worn a disguise before. She then delivers the immortal line, 'twenty years ago you refused to give me you hand, and so now I'll take your head, your head, your head, mwhahaha!' She gives Grant the chainsaw treatment, stitches up her patchwork body creation, and then tries to turn into a demon. Sadly she fails and when the cops arrive she's a broken woman, gibbering and foaming at the mouth.

The cops decide that when her stitched-up corpse failed to re-animate and help her take on demonic form, the trauma was too great and it completely unhinged her mind. Everyone agrees and they wander off to get ready for next week's case (which incidentally involves Wetherton's leading maverick bio-chemist who has discovered the secret of eternal life. This involves injecting nanobots into the small titanium molecules in zinc sun cream, except there's a catch that if the nanobots get into the large titanium molecules your skin explodes, so she decides to become a serial killer specialising in animal activists.)

In an episode as excellent as this one, it's churlish to find fault, but I must admit I was disappointed that there wasn't a Night of the Demon type ending, but that would have made the show perfect and having small flaws to pick at makes it more enjoyable. There's also the strange fact that the dvd version cuts out the original twist ending in which it's revealed that in reality the killer was innocent all along. Every event in the whole episode was an elaborate illusion designed to hide the truth that she was being manipulated with tarot cards by Grant's girlfriend, who is the leader of Wetherton's third largest devil worshipping cult. Oh, and during the zombie with massive glowing eyeballs scene my wife pointed out that Dalziel's plan to get the Charity Commission to investigate the devil worshippers was doomed to fail. Apparently, the financial irregularities committed by the latin-speaking zombie with the embalmed wife in his living room weren't severe enough to warrant a special audit. But that's always the way, writers who aren't careful with their research are destined to be let down by the small things.

Anyhow, shortly after the demon episode, the eternal life episode and the really weird one where Pascoe starts killing off suspects, the BBC cancelled the show, and to this day I have no idea why.