March 22, 2018


by Si Spurrier, Conor Boyle, Giulia Brusco and Rob Steen
128 pages, Titan Comics

Review by Pat Black

Hook Jaw’s the man. Or so I thought…

Actually Hook Jaw’s a fish, a great big one, who found fame and notoriety in the pages of the British boys’ comic, Action, in 1976. The story was too nasty to live, but once experienced – like a love-bite from Jaws – it’s never forgotten.

After 40 years in the doldrums, Hook Jaw is back. I was more excited for this five-issue run from Titan than I was for the past two Star Wars movies.

IPC Magazines took advantage of the Jaws craze by making a great white shark the focus of Action’s most popular strip. Even for the time, Action was extraordinarily violent, and Hook Jaw boasted the worst of it every week.

The fish was part environmental crusader, part maniac, and he chomped his way through oil rig workers, modern-day pirates and holiday island tourists - the good, the bad and the merely unlucky alike - in rich red detail, every single episode.

Hook Jaw’s gimmick? A gaff stick protruding through his mouth, placed there by a sports fisherman who very quickly rued his rashness. The shark went on to use this appendage to shish-kebab his prey.

After a hysterical media reaction, the strip was neutered by editors before Action was swallowed up by Battle – but its punk rock aesthetic sowed the seeds for 2000AD, which is still going strong to this day. Despite its short run, Hook Jaw lingered long in the memory, so much so that Titan commissioned a fresh run of comics, coinciding with Action’s 40th anniversary.

Hook Jaw was before my time. My first brush with the big guy was in old annuals which belonged to my brother in law. I was goggle-eyed at the gushing red blood and the body parts, as well as the gleeful nihilism on show as Hook Jaw munched his way through most humans in the vicinity. Even the heroes got eaten. I grew obsessed with reading the strips. When they surfaced online, they were as nasty as advertised.

There’s a special collected edition of the original Hook Jaw out now, and I’ll get round to reviewing it – but, entirely separate to that, there’s this reboot from Titan.

Like the original sevenpenny-nightmare, this Hook Jaw is full colour – much of it nice, rich claret. The story is set off the coast of Somalia, where our heroine, the young American, Mag, is helping tag great whites for a research project. There is a female pack known as the Sisterhood which congregates around the same area year after year, and Mag and her assortment of oceanographic oddballs are hoping to find evidence of co-operative behaviour among these eighteen foot monsters.

Somali pirates are operating in the area, and they routinely board the researchers’ boat – and then leave, finding nothing to steal and no-one particularly valuable to kidnap. The scientists merely shrug this intrusion off, utterly blase.

This well-scripted pantomime (there’s a few jokes when the ship’s cook turns out to be related to the pirates, openly insulting his bosses in his own language) is disrupted by a team of Navy SEALs, led by the obnoxious American Klay Clay. Many of the pirates are shot and dumped overboard. This spilled blood and raw meat attracts the attention of a fishie a bit bigger than 18 feet.

Si Spurrier’s script has a decent plot involving the pirates, a missing geoengineering device at the bottom of the sea which might save the world, the CIA and environmental campaigners. The old Hook Jaw had plots, too, but these were a bit of a sideshow compared to what Action’s readership really wanted to see – kills.

Hook Jaw does kill a lot of people in this new version, but, strange as it might sound, there’s some subtlety involved in how the ocean giant dines. In Action, you usually saw characters making their exit inside the shark’s jaws, with full-frame shots showing these victims in the process of being diced. It makes what you saw in Jaws look as tame as an old pub dog. There are gore shots in this book, but nowhere near as much utter carnage as the old Hook Jaw mustered week in, week out. (“It delivers,” as Pat Mills told me of the original).

Instead, you’ll be given hints and flickers, signposts of the shark. One character lost at sea, clinging to a piece of wood, sees something sticking out of the water. Could it be a ship or something? he wonders. Actually no, it’s a gaff stick.

In the next frame, there’s just an empty plank of wood.

It’s cleverly done. One kill featuring two environmental campaigners smoking a doobie as they trail their toes in the sea was utterly brilliant – but I should warn people thirsting after the sheer nihilistic carnage of the 70s edition Hook Jaw that there’s not quite as much of it in the 2016 update. I do worry that people up for a bit of bloody mayhem and not much else might be a little bit disappointed. That said, there is one extraordinary kill in the fourth issue which is probably the best of any in Hook Jaw – and you are spared no details.

There is some ret-conning – always a risky affair. First of all, the story makes Hook Jaw out to be a long-standing myth like the Loch Ness Monster, a seafarer’s tale stretching back decades, which turns out to be real. Some people might suck their teeth a little when they read that the legend “even spawned comic books” – and then you’re shown a panel of a little boy in the 1970s reading Action.

So, the Hook Jaw you know isn’t quite the one you see here. This is most apparent in the shark’s appearance – the gaff stick isn’t wedged under its lower jaw, as in the good old days, but protrudes at an awkward angle through the mouth. One element of this I really liked was that the fish’s piercing isn’t merely for cosmetic effect – it is used to explain the shark’s bad attitude and catholic tastes at mealtimes. The metal stuck in its mouth interferes with how it processes sensory information, in effect driving it mad.

And, for any environmentalists present who feel the need to bite down on something when they see a dangerous predator rendered as a dangerous predator: although this comic thrives on the idea of sharks devouring people, it repeatedly stabs home the message that these creatures don’t really hunt humans or acquire a taste for their flesh.

There is one other change which might get a few male readers of a certain age’s claspers in a twist - though again, it made perfect sense to me…

In real life, the girls are a lot bigger.

Indeed, the new Hook Jaw openly invites a feminist reading. The main character, Mag, isn’t a victim, but she has been battered by her experiences, usually at the hands of men. It’s not heavy-handed, just something she refers to here and there. If there’s a way to tidy up the world’s messes, she says, the solution must be driven by women. “Every time I try to do something in my life, some guy comes along and breaks stuff!” she observes.

Another break with tradition is Hook Jaw’s stream of consciousness, near-subliminally represented in the same way as sound effects within the frame of the story, separate from speech bubbles. These are usually things like WRONG FLESH… GOOD FLESH… REND… FIRE IN BRAIN...

This sharky narration slyly places us on team Hook Jaw. The point of the original strip was that the fish was the hero, not the villain, after all.

One complaint – the &*^in’ swearing. If you’re going to swear – swear. As in, write the words down. Or maybe have one little asterisk here and there. But if you’re not going to properly swear, and insist on putting this kind of (*&$in’ thing all the way through the text *&”$%^$!* then maybe next time, don’t &^$£(“) swear at all. It doth offend mine eyes.

The artwork was superb, in particular Giulia Brusco’s colouring. I loved the night-time scenes, the play of light on the water, the sense of gloom and threat beneath the waves, and the glorious bright red blood clouds. Conor Boyle’s sharks are things of beauty – but also authentically-rendered sharks. Massimo Belardinelli’s wonderful monsters from the first run of Hook Jaw were brilliant, but exaggerated – posturing, snarling leviathans, as the medium of the time dictated. Conor Boyle has depicted the real thing, and Hook Jaw is improved as a result. A real shark wouldn’t pose for its close-up all the time, and the same is true here. I think it’s scarier as a result. The underwater sequences where divers are menaced by the giant hunter try to take you close to what it must be like to be stalked in the gloom by a great white shark – one of nature’s greatest ambush predators. A fin here; a tail there; shadows all around. Then, all of a sudden, the jaws.

Not the jaws!

This may seem like a daft thing to say, but aside from the needs of the front covers, we don’t always see Hook Jaw’s teeth, or its mouth agape. So this heightens the effect when we do see the great fish’s tools of the trade, at their bloody work.

And what a craftswoman she is.

February 27, 2018


by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore
144 pages, Image Comics

Review by Pat Black

I’ve written the title and the authors and the number of pages and the publisher and finally my own name, but here’s a question: Why bother reviewing The Walking Dead? I can’t add anything. Should I review breathing next? Should I review existence?

You probably know lots about this graphic novel or its TV adaptation without having actually seen or read it, like me. It’s the story of American everyman copper Rick Grimes, who emerges from a coma in hospital after getting shot tackling a bank robber, only to find the world has ended while he was sleeping. He gets out of bed, puts his clothes on, and tries to find his family, encountering difficulties along the way.

Specifically: zombies. The groaning, shuffling, rotting undead, hungry for living flesh. Rick has to look lively. He escapes the video-game-level nightmare in the hospital – just - and then hits the road.

He eventually journeys to an Atlanta teeming with zombies. After a narrow escape or two, he hooks up with a community which includes his missing wife and son, and led by his fellow copper and best mate, Shane. Living in the woods just outside the city in their cars and camper vans, the community tries to survive as the zombies close in around them. Not everyone makes it, but you already knew that…

The Walking Dead seems to have been going on so long that it’s practically dead on its feet – series after series, shock after shock, more soap opera than horror story. The media gets everywhere now, so you can hardly have missed it, or references to it. You’ll probably know about people like Negan from only the briefest skim of online entertainment news. Ditto the shocking deaths, the gore, and the fact that Egg from This Life has been turned so convincingly into an American policeman. Hey, remember when you had to actually watch shows to know things like that? You had to sit down with This Life in order to know who Egg was, back in the day. You don’t need to have watched or read The Walking Dead to know who Rick Grimes is. I’m the proof.

But this is a general whinge, and nothing to do with Robert Kirkman’s work. 

I’ve read it now, or at least the first part of a sprawling comic book epic, comprising six issues. As a story it’s hard to fault – exciting, scary, sad, poignant, and gory. As you’ll have spotted it’s not original, though. Man in a coma waking up to find the world changed? We’ve already seen that in a zombie(ish) story, 28 Days Later. Before that, we saw it in Day of the Triffids. And the zombies abide by the modern rules of the genre. But this is to be expected; few fictional constructs are more rigidly defined than zombie lore. Rules get bent or broken in werewolf stories or vampire stories, but sometimes you’ll get a vampire who walks during the day or a werewolf who changes without recourse to lunar cycles, and snorts at the idea of silver bullets in that way only old dogs can. You get little deviation with zombies, though. The late George A Romero didn’t invent the idea of zombies, either, but he surely perfected it, so much so that people rarely mess with the furniture half a century on from Night of the Living Dead. So, The Walking Dead’s Zombies eat human flesh; they can die – for good - via a bullet to the head, or just a general interruption in their brain tissue. They transmit the virus by biting you, after which you die, then un-die. And just as in Romero’s work, the surviving humans, with all their faults, prejudices, lusts and jealousies, must band together to survive as the undead close in. The Walking Dead has plenty of those bits.

Speaking of bits (the kind that drop off), there’s one gruesome novelty in this story that I liked: artist Tony Moore’s walking dead rot properly. I‘ve often wondered – and hopefully It’s Not Just Me – what would happen with zombies regarding insect infestation, if the undead were to exist in real life. Surely beasties and larvae would help the natural processes along, and you wouldn’t get too much trouble from a disarticulated skeleton. In the warm months, there’d be a zombie mass die-out (or die-die-out) as mother nature gets busy on that smorgasbord of decomposing meat. But you rarely see this in zombie films, even though it’d be a really horrific effect to perfect on screen, and a perfectly achievable one with state-of-the art make-up and computer graphics.

Max Brooks, in his Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, explained that the zombie virus repels insects and slows down the work of bacteria, which I believe was the first time anyone’s actually tried to solve the paradox of rotting zombies which don’t rot properly.

But I’m happy to say The Walking Dead goes the other way; you’ll see the monsters’ skin seething with vermin here. “Give us a kiss!” you would say, before puckering up. In fact, few details are spared in this book, whether that’s in showing you decomposition, spurting blood or the effects of a bullet to the head.

There’s a statement about gun use and gun ownership when one character saves another who hadn’t wanted him to have weapons by killing a zombie with a headshot. The Walking Dead saga comprises 176 issues and counting at time of writing, so this outcome may well be rendered ironic thanks to subsequent episodes. And without guns you’d have a lot less drama in zombie stories, I get that… Just, God spare us a world where owning a firearm is a necessity.

Another great strength to this story is its sense of action underpinned by solid drama and believable characters. Little wonder it translated so well to a long-running TV show, flesh-eaters and flying brains aside. First you’ve got Rick trying to find his family. Then, once he finds them, it turns out they’ve been looked after by his mate, Shane. And not only looked after, in his wife Lori’s case… Always, the test isn’t just family loyalty – it’s got a lot to do with the moral choices Rick Grimes makes, and how much he can hold onto his essential decency while the world goes to hell around him.

What really inspired me to put the words down here was the most frightening thing about this frightening book: the blurb on the back. It goes something like: “When was the last time you really had to do something for yourself? When was the last time you had to find and prepare your own food? When was the last time you had to fight to stay alive?”

These are troubling questions. I can see myself reporting for duties after the army shows up to save us during the undead apocalypse. “What can you do, son?” the guy at the desk would ask. “You got any skills? You build things? You put up houses? You fix fences? You do any farming? Animal husbandry? Hmm. Can you fire a gun? Do you have a gun? Handle guns at all? Even once? No? Have you got any skills we could use? Typing, you say. Well. Think you can adapt to using a shovel? Get shovelling, then. You’re on latrines duty.”

What real skills do you have? It’s a sobering question. And with the passage of time, lack of skill isn’t merely restricted to mechanical matters and nuts n’ bolts practicalities, or even survivalist fantasies. Think about coding, computers, and the digital world. This is everywhere, but how much do you really know about computing? Here we find a new frontier of technical knowledge, and I freely admit I know nothing about it beyond zeroes-and-ones. Most of us would have to phone someone if something goes wrong (and hopefully not with our phones). Or – admit it – we’d simply buy more hardware to replace whatever conked out.

Here is my sum knowledge about coding:

10 Print “bugger all”
20 Goto 10

Who knows when the breakdown will come? Not to go all Chicken Little on everyone, but cities, city states, empires and whole societies fail. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again. There may come an age when London is ruins, or underwater, or a desert. The ancient Babylonians thought they were the bees’ knees, too, but they’re a long time out of the game. The curtain might come down sooner than we think. As I said, it’s a sobering thought.   

February 6, 2018


by Gerry Finley-Day, Eric Bradbury et al
98 pages, Rebellio

Review by Pat Black

In 1984, a horror comic called Scream! hit the UK market. This was the height of the video nasties era in Britain, when hype and hysteria helped create something of a sub-cultural boom in all things scary and bloody.

The pattern typically went like this: tabloids hate thing; thing makes money. IPC magazines saw its chance.

I was seven years old. A 10-second TV advert transmitted on a Saturday morning showed Dracula and other horrors hiding behind a sofa, waiting to pounce on a boy reading the comic.

“Don’t buy Scream!” shrieked adverts in other funny pages. “You have been warned!”

Did I fall for it? You betcha.

It was brilliant – aiming for something between a period Hammer Horror and 1950s B-movies, with a few Addams family-style comic cuts thrown in. It had Victorian cryptkeepers, one-off Twilight Zone-style shockers, killer cats, psychic investigators, mutant sea beasts, monsters in the attic, giant spiders, bats, werewolves – and what a werewolf! - graveyards, skulls, cobwebs, tombs, ghosts and ghouls… And who could forget Max the Computer and his 13th Floor? (That’s coming in October… cackle!)

It hit right home - bullseye. I absolutely adored it. If you want a more detailed precis, I’ve extolled its virtues in some depth already, right here

The comic sold very well, but lasted just 15 issues before mysteriously disappearing from Britain’s newsagents. Theories persist that it was a little too near-the-knuckle for a children’s paper, and it had been cancelled as a result of the furore over video nasties then prevalent in the tabloids. Memories of Action! comic’s death-by-media experience were still relatively fresh in the public eye; IPC editorial staff wouldn’t have wanted to take chances.

Other commentators point to a more prosaic fate, with a printer’s strike having caused production on Scream! to stop for two weeks, after which the decision was taken to cancel. Although if that’s the case, why weren’t Roy of the Rovers, Eagle, Whoopee, Whizzer and Chips and all the rest from the IPC stable cancelled, too? Even temporarily? Why did it only kill Scream?

Wherever the truth lies, Scream! was not long for this mortal coil (its top strips ran for a bit longer after they were absorbed into the Eagle), but its black star burned very brightly. In the 34 years since it has enjoyed a charmed afterlife, being very well regarded by serious collectors and casual fans alike. The prices certainly creep up and up on eBay; seeing this, I curse myself for having had the entire collection in my hands before sending them to the cowpp one dark afternoon 15 years ago. Some of those summer specials are going for silly money now.

That said, I would never have sold my copies. If you read Scream! as a child, you never, ever forgot it.

Having bought IPC’s rich back catalogue from Egmont, 2000AD publisher Rebellion is reprinting its Treasure Trove Of British comics in collected form. This means Scream! can look forward to a joyful resurrection.

The Dracula File is a complete collection of strips from all 15 issues of Scream! as well as four holiday specials. It features Scream!’s cover star and its lead story in each issue… Yes, it’s Dracula. The Count sports a timeless look, borrowing from classic screen incarnations, and yet with a style all of his own - hair swept back from his skull, widow’s peak, dark hair, fangs, a cape, a medallion… and scary eyes.

The Dracula File brought the Count into present day England in 1984. It starts with someone defecting from the East German side in Berlin, somehow surviving being zapped with a machine gun as he makes a break for it in no-man’s land.

It soon becomes clear that the defector isn’t your regular Soviet spy come in from the cold. We don’t get into the reasons why Dracula doesn’t just change into a bat or a dog and try to get across that way, or even why he bothers with stealing a uniform when he has a spooky supernatural costume of his own. Logic is dispensed with many times in these stories.

The Count has used his defection as the perfect cover to get back to England and take up residence in the streets he knew 100 years before. After turning two humans into his servants, he is soon out for blood on those 1980s mean streets…

I’ll make a confession. Although I loved Dracula as a kid, I didn’t love The Dracula File. It wasn’t what I really looked forward to every issue. This is because Dracula wasn’t scary to me, the same was as Bruce the Shark or Darth Vader weren’t scary to me either – I saw them as heroes (anti-heroes might be a better term, although they were proper heroes to me). I’d have been happy with posters of them above my bed – and I was.

I’m not saying I identified with Dracula or anything, although I do recall lying in a cardboard box at my folks’ and pretending it was my coffin. Should I admit to that in public? Shit, I just have.

So, as I loved Dracula rather than feared him, I was more intrigued by the things which I did find scary about Scream! - such as the Library of Death anthology series, or The 13th Floor.

Looking at it with fresh eyes but an older head, I’m struck by how fantastic The Dracula File was – particularly Eric Bradbury’s artwork. Scripted by Rogue Trooper creator Gerry Finley-Day, this is a cheesy old Dracula, but he wasn’t rendered cheesily. In the front covers – in particular the unforgettable image snarling at you from the 1986 Holiday Special – he could be horrific, with greenish skin and blood smeared over his fangs. Bradbury paid particularly close attention to Drac’s eyes – his scariest feature. In these stories, you’ll see Drac morph into a bat or wolf, you’ll see him stalking people in the dark, and you’ll see him turn into smoke and choke people.

In one brilliant frame, Dracula waits inside a postbox, his eyes blazing forth from the slot when a luckless blood donor passes by one night.

I should have been more scared than I was, if that makes sense. And although you’ll never see Drac with his mouth fixed on anyone’s throat (there’s nothing remotely sensual in his blood-sucking, an understandably puritanical rendering of the vampire mythology), you’ll see him do some surprisingly nasty things. The worst graphic death by a mile is the punishment he metes out to a street hooligan he finds bullying a young boy in an alley – instant death with one swipe of his clawed hands.   

Of course, Drac is no white knight. After killing or scattering the bullies, he gluts himself on the boy they were picking on.

See? It’s nasty. You remember these things.

That aside, it’s pleasingly tongue-in-cheek. Let loose in London, Dracula stalks victims in a cinema, as they watch a horror movie entitled Dracula’s Death. Drac pounces at the same moment his on-screen depiction does the same to a victim in the film, with the very real screams drowned out by the audience. Then, even more deliciously, Dracula is invited to a Hallowe’en costume party by people impressed by his get-up. People offer him a drink, and he smiles sardonically. You almost don’t want this episode to end.

The prince of darkness is stalked by a man called Stakis (har de har), a tough KGB defector with a briefcase full of vampire-killing goodies… but you’re never quite on his side. He gets close to Dracula – at more than one point his stake is poised, waiting for the hammer to fall - but never close enough. A few flashback episodes show you an English vampire hunter who succeeds in making a killing stroke on his undead quarry back in Transylvania… but if Hammer Horror has shown us anything, it is that Dracula always comes back.

This handsome hardback collection is a bargain, and I treasure it already. It has the full bhoona (the full black pudding might be a better description) – absolutely everything Dracula-related from Scream!, including the full serial, all the one-off holiday special strips from 1985-88, a Dracula quiz, Dracula readers’ letters and artwork, all the front cover images and a quick essay detailing IPC’s horror output. If you were in the same sweet spot as me, a comics fan aged 7-12 in 1984, then you probably have this already. If you don’t, you should.

Creature feature Ant Wars from 2000AD (I encountered it in a 1980s reprint in Eagle) is out now from Rebellion; Scream! stalwart The 13th Floor is coming in October, and I cannot wait for that.

If anyone out there is listening, can we please, please have Bloodfang the tyrannosaur?

I dunno how successful this relaunch is, but I can tell you that it’s got my money safe. HookJaw the shark, another reprint from Action!, will be reviewed soon… after that, we’ll check out fellow Scream! alumni Uncle Terry, from Monster. Do tune in…

If you dare…  

January 25, 2018


by Sarah Lotz
352 pages, Hodder & Stoughton

Review by Pat Black

Ever wondered about those cruise ships? I love the sea, and I love boats, but cruise ships? Not sure. We’ve all heard horror stories. Here’s another one.

Day Four is Sarah Lotz’s loose follow-up to The Three, the kind of airport novel that you shouldn’t read at an airport, far less on a plane. I’d hesitate to call it a sequel as it works perfectly well on its own, but it references the Black Thursday plane crash events of the previous book and, maybe, takes place in the same universe.

Our setting is The Beautiful Dreamer, a liner that loses power and then its bearings in the Caribbean. It seems impossible that a ship could get lost in the modern age, with satellites, wi-fi, mobile phone technology, spotter planes or just plain old compasses, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s something a bit weirder going on in the wider world. Meanwhile, the food starts to run out, the sanitation turns into something out of Clive Barker, and the behaviour of the passengers follows suit, possibly even down to the demons.

As the crisis escalates, we move through the viewpoint of several characters. These include an assistant to a professional psychic, a diligent, dutiful security officer, a cynical cleaner who works hard but is only in it for the money, the ship’s doctor, who has a secret addiction to pethidine, a woman who is one half of a suicide pact, and a lunatic who has killed a fellow passenger. Through their eyes we experience all manner of weirdness as ghosts haunt the reeking lower levels of the ship.

Lotz gives good creepy. First of all, the sole resident of the ship’s morgue won’t stay quiet; then the psychic, a fairly obvious charlatan, seems to develop real powers, knowing things about the people she encounters that can’t be accounted for by cold reading alone. The characters see and hear odd things, but rarely directly – it’s more that maddening corner-of-your-eye syndrome, the sort of apparitions that might cause you to reach for the light switch if you wake up during the night. The ones that have the cheek to linger for a split second, just before you scream.

The sense of escalation and societal breakdown could have turned into pure schlock in many other writers’ hands, but Lotz addresses this chaos in a cannier, more confident way. Although you’ll see order break down and episodes of violence, we never quite engage full atavistic end-of-days mode, with people slaughtering each other. That was a plus point for me. Things get just horrible enough. People form little tribes, with their own territories. But we don’t travel all the way back to the Stone Age. It’d have been so easy to turn this book into a Lord of the Flies-style essay on how savage we all are at heart, but people remain, for the most part, civilised. Ultimately, people want to survive, rather than triumph. During moments of crisis, particularly near the end when the ship’s masters completely relinquish control, people make mistakes rather than become evil (with one or two notable exceptions). There are a couple of fights in the food queue, but at least there’s still a queue.

You are also shown how people would simply muddle through in a situation like that. You’d think, right up until the end: well, things can’t be that bad. Someone would come and help us, if things were that bad. You might even sit there in your cabin, and watch the waves lap against the porthole. Then creep into the room.

Lotz also show us that things are a bit wrong, all over. Those bobbing plastic bags crowding the stricken ship like jellyfish; people throwing themselves into a cult as a substitute for good order and certainty in life; the smug drone of the bleached-out cruise director, chirping away while everything else on board heads for the flusher; it all felt relevant. Day Four is a work of fantasy but – much like The Three - it plays in the same key as what we see in the news.

Something’s just a bit off. Maybe it smells funny. Or perhaps, as my father would tell me, my nose is too close to my own arse.

Or maybe it’s just January. Maybe I need to get away somewhere warm, with a nice beach. But not necessarily on board a ship.

Day Four is an excellent modern horror story.   

January 11, 2018


by Jeffrey Archer
324 pages, HarperCollins

Review by Pat Black

A long time ago, I was staying at the house of some people I didn’t like. Having a nosey at their bookshelves, I noticed Jeffrey Archer’s The Eleventh Commandment.  

To date, they are the only people I know who have given Jeffrey Archer houseroom. It figured; join the dots to connect the smirk on my face. 

Out of curiosity, I had a look at page one, and upgraded my smirk to a sneer. The novel opened with a burglar making a mistake (is the Eleventh Commandment “thou shalt not get caught”? Oof, irony). This is a guy who doesn’t make mistakes, we’re told, because “he was the professional’s professional”.

I thought this sounded cheesy. It had the tone of a cover blurb, a buzzword, a cliché. I mentioned this to a friend, later. What constitutes “good writing” is an unending argument, usually between arseholes. But we were in agreement for once: this wasn’t good writing.

We were prejudiced, of course. Bigoted, even.

Over the years, I’ve wondered about the literary career of Jeffrey Archer. Politically we are opposites, so I won’t waste anyone’s time examining his record as a Conservative MP and peer, his stunning downfall and perjury conviction, or any number of controversies he was involved in during his, let’s say, colourful life as a public servant.  

In terms of his books, I wondered why he was so successful – and he is un-f***ing-believably successful. His sales are bigger than just about anyone’s. It’s hard to reconcile these numbers with any other living writer. They make Stephen King’s figures look modest. Every single book has sold millions of copies. What’s the secret? I wondered.

One night, I saw a Kindle offer, and cracked.

Twelve Red Herrings is a short story collection. The breathless testimonials tell you that Archer is “the master of the twist in the tale”. So, I was expecting something along the same lines as Roald Dahl’s short stories, but perhaps not as deftly penned; that’s exactly what I got.

Curiously, Archer asterisks some of his stories on the contents page – denoting tales he has adapted from real-life situations he’s heard about. I couldn’t decide if this was ultra-honest, or very odd. I can’t think of any fiction writer in history who didn’t draw upon real life in some way for their work. Why make the distinction?

My first proper dip into the fictional world of Jeffrey Archer was “Trial and Error”, running to some 80 pages. Here, a British businessman lines up a deal potentially worth millions after entering an arrangement with a partner. Things go off the rails somewhat when he gets home early one night, to discover his would-be business partner entering his wife.

One trusty British right cross later, and his rival is on the floor, unconscious. The cuckold (conservatard cuck?) spins on his heels, and makes a stiff-upper-lipped exit.

To his surprise, he is subsequently arrested for murder. There’s no body, but the scene of his earlier confrontation looks very like a crime of passion has taken place there. The businessman is sent down, but of course, he’s been set up – made to look like he killed his wife’s lover in a jealous rage, before hiding the corpse. All the while, the conspirators wait to collect his share of the money from the original deal.

So, he gets a private investigator to track down his rival-in-hiding, hires top lawyers to challenge his conviction, and seeks revenge on both his duplicitous business partner and his money-grabbing spouse. Naturally, there’s a wee twist in store before the final curtain falls.

In “Trial and Error” we are introduced to elements which will repeat in the rest of the stories. This book was first published in 1994, but it arrived at the marketplace post-mortem; its stories have all died and gone to Yuppie Heaven.

They feature people pocketing incredible sums of money in the world of big business, city trading and the law. They also have a very stiff spine of conservatism – families, property, titles, Oxbridge degrees, inherited money. There are a lot of illicit affairs, with women usually seen as part of some elemental horse-trading between powerful men. And usually, a con is involved - rip-offs, double-crosses, tables turned.

Many of these elements took me back to those people I didn’t like, all those years ago. Their interests and conduct dovetailed with Jeffrey Archer’s fiction so neatly, they might as well have had a framed portrait of him adorning their walls. Or maybe one of Jeffrey and Mary, the perfect couple, big smiles, his hand on her shoulder; cracking haircuts. This would be displayed in the foyer to the Thatcher Annex, of course.  

But I’ll say this: I rattled through “Trial and Error” at pace. There was nothing particularly distinguished about the writing, but perhaps that’s Archer’s secret. These are simple stories, told well. I was sleeping with the enemy.

“Cheap At Half The Price” sees a different type of deception, as a wife sets her sights on very expensive jewellery – but it’s out of her husband’s price range. Luckily, she has a few irons in the fire to help her get what she wants.  

This was a domestic con, centring on a cheating wife who will do pretty much anything to get her hands on the sparklers. This woman ostensibly has no independent power, money or influence barring what her good looks can get her. Some people might see this as a realist reading of her situation.

Even without any erotic content, this tale had sidestepped into the realms of eighties porn – wearing high heels, pearls, big hair, and not much else, unless you’re counting a vast, dense bush; entirely unsurveyed territory, a great blank space in teenage spotters’ guides. It’s funny how that sort of topiary is viewed as a feminist statement nowadays. “Cheap At Half The Price” most certainly cannot be regarded as a feminist statement.

I didn’t like anyone in this story, or their lifestyles. But I still cut through it like number one clippers.

“Dougie Mortimer’s Right Arm” involves another bluff, blustery supper club tradition – rowing for Oxford or Cambridge. It’s Cambridge in this case (although Archer went to Oxford in the 1960s). This story looks at a modern-day student searching for the artefact in the title – a bronze cast of an arm belonging to a rowing legend, someone who died in murky circumstances. I found the subject matter of this tale tedious, but… I read it. Double-time. My cox set a very fast pace, and I kept up.

“Do Not Pass Go” was even more gripping – the story of a former Iraqi minister living in exile, who ends up back in his homeland thanks to some terrible luck on board a diverted plane. There’s a considerable price on his head in Baghdad; a glance at the passenger list sets off an alert among the authorities. Again, this one was all about the con – how is the wanted man going to escape the Iraqi agents, while they search for him? A fair premise for a cheap thrill in a book – but for some interesting real-life tangents regarding Iraq and Jeffrey Archer, I would direct readers towards the story behind the author’s Simple Truth charity, which raised a fortune for the Kurds during their time of persecution by Saddam Hussein.

“Chunnel Vision” featured another con, and one every writer secretly dreads. That great idea you’ve got, that spark which will turn into a surefire bestseller – what if someone else got there with it first? Our twist, facilitated by another vengeful partner, was predictable, but the sadism underpinning it was fun, if you enjoy that sort of thing.

And now we come to the jaw-dropper.  

Set in the seventies, “Shoeshine Boy” sees a British diplomat stationed in one of those colonies it’s possible to forget still flies a Union flag - somewhere remote, and not necessarily tropical. Rather than a reward for a distinguished parliamentary career for our hero, this place seems to be a bit of a two-bob waystation. Still, one must keep buggering on. That’s the British way. One simply can’t get the funds to put on one’s finery in the colonies these days, one finds.  

But then – der-derrr! – it turns out Lord Mountbatten is coming to visit. Every effort must be made to put on a bit of spit and polish for this most esteemed royal visitor and war hero. At 24 hours’ notice, the diplomat and his formidable wife effect a bargain basement makeover in order for the island to pass muster for this uniformed doll in a box. Tasks range from hastily stitching the red carpet Mountbatten’s sainted boots will meet straight off the plane, to laundering and primping his very bedsheets.

This sycophantic carnival includes Dad’s Army-style military volunteers with cobbled-together uniforms and borrowed weapons, a spit n’ sawdust local baker who gets cracking with the catering, a retired butler forced back into service for “one last big job”, a cleaner hired to spruce up the colonial residence, silver service on loan from the scrubby family down the street… you get the idea.

No-one gets paid for this. Such is the deference, you half-expect the diplomat to place his wife at their esteemed guest’s disposal in the bedroom. But it’s a fairly good-natured farce, if you ignore the politics of it - which I cannot.  

If Archer hadn’t already been ennobled at the time of publication, I’d be tempted to speculate that he wrote this in the hope of securing a knighthood. It features brutal subservience and craven kow-towing to someone we are meant to automatically assume is our superior in every single respect; an individual wielding authority on a par with Ming the Merciless, whom you should displease at your peril.  

It is told in the tone of a wuffly after-dinner anecdote at a club that won’t let you in without at least an MBE. Here, at last, I found a fat white whale to prick with my prejudices.

The conclusion to the story made me feel even worse – centring on the act of cleaning Mountbatten’s boots. This honour fell to the diplomat, exhausted after a day’s crazy wheezes, in order to maintain his grand pretence.  Ooh, the irony – a diplomat performing the task of a menial skivvy! Just imagine!

And then we arrive at the “twist”. You see – ha! capital! - Good Old Mountbatten was in on the great deception all along. He found it rather amusing and jolly. Ha! What-what?


“Shoeshine Boy” was near-diabolical… but nowhere near difficult to read. And I did read it all. You’ve got to give the author that, however grudgingly. The person who penned this story has talent, if not quite flair. Archer knows exactly what he’s doing. You’re eating from his hand, like it or not.

“You’ll Never Live To Regret It” sees an insurance con, as a man takes out life policies despite his lover dying of Aids.

“Never Stop On The Motorway” must be one of those asterisked stories, because you’ll have heard urban myths resembling it. After doing what the title tells us she shouldn’t, a woman is tailgated by an aggressive driver on her journey home down a lonely backroad. The radio tells her a rapist and murderer is on the loose. Can she return to the safety of her house before the honking van driver can do her a mischief?

This one was an excellent thriller, though, as I said, most readers will see the twist in the tale coming from a long way off.

“Not For Sale” sees a woman struggling to make her way in the world of high art - an interesting jaunt, albeit with money on its mind.  

“Timeo Danaos” was the most Roald Dahl-esque story in the book, with an unpleasant penny-pincher trying to find himself a bargain on a Greek holiday – with predictable and pleasing results.

The final effort, “One Man’s Meat”, sees Archer at his most playful. It looks at a man struck dumb by a beautiful woman – and going to incredible lengths to win her. It falls into that strange zone beloved of classic romantic comedies, where the protagonists engage in behaviour which we can now identify as morally dubious, at best, under the guise of amorousness. This guy’s painted as a romantic free spirit, but reading him in 2017, he is effectively a stalker.  

However, Archer surprises us with four separate alternative endings to his story, all corresponding to how one likes one’s steak cooked. These cover a variety of scenarios and outcomes, which it’d be a shame to spoil. Not a bad effort at all – even experimental. A fine riposte to the author’s many critics.

So, it’s the morning after. We’ve slipped out before the milkman - perhaps not even bothering to shower first. We’ve all been there. What’s the verdict, as we report back to our friends over coffee and spite?

Good, I have to say. We could feather Lord Archer with arrows all day over elements of character, cliché and plotting, and set up just about any literary pitfall in his path. But there’s no denying Twelve Red Herrings is an engrossing read.  

Every dial on my dashboard is flashing red, but I’ve gone back for more, securing his New Collected Stories for fresh Kindling.

Fair’s fair; the person who wrote this book is a skilled storyteller. 

December 8, 2017


Inspector Adam Dalgliesh

Cover Her Face, by PD James
288 pages, Faber & Faber

Review by Pat Black

What do the English do better than anyone else? That’s a question for our age.

I’ll start the bidding with “country house murder mysteries”. Cover Her Face, PD James’ debut in the Inspector Adam Dalgliesh series, is a perfect example of the genre. It was first published in the early 1960s, but its spiritual home is England between the wars.

The novel’s basic framing follows an exact template for this type of story. There’s a country manor; there’s a well-to-do family; there are secrets, lies, animosities and jealousies; of course, there is a body; and then, an inspector calls.

A maid for the Maxie family, Sally Jupp, has been murdered in her bed. She was strangled in the night, but it seems she was drugged first. It looks as if the killer could only have gotten in and out via a window. There’s little evidence to go on, but Scotland Yard’s man, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, is sure of one thing: the killer was someone staying at the house that night.

There’s a fair cast of characters to choose from, within and without the Maxie family, all with a motive for killing the young, unmarried mother. There’s number one son Steven Maxie, the doctor, who proposed to the girl the night before she was killed - to everyone’s surprise. There’s his sister, Deborah Riscoe, nee Maxie, who confessed to hating the girl because “she has a child, and I do not”.

There’s Mr Maxie, the family patriarch – confined to his bed, but is he as much of an invalid as he seems? Then there’s Martha, the no-nonsense housekeeper who takes a dislike to the beautiful intruder on her patch. Felix Herne, a rakish, sardonic figure and friend of the family who was tortured by the Gestapo during the war, was also staying there that night. He’s so memorable and stylish, and so involved in the investigation, I imagined that he might have been the detective in an earlier draft of the story. Nigel Havers would have been a good bet to play him on the TV, at any stage of his career; Hugh Grant actually did play him in a radio adaptation.

Beautifully, there’s even a vicar, Mr Hincks. With this addition, you feel as if you’re reading a novelised version of Cluedo. These beats are so familiar that they’re cosy. This is a book to curl up with in your dressing gown as you sup a nice hot cocoa, despite its central subject of foul murder.

However, PD James writes in deadly earnest; this is no pastiche or parody. For the first few chapters she outlines the family and other satellite suspects, establishing motive and opportunity for the crime. The story really catches light when Adam Dalgliesh appears on the scene. He’s tall, dark and handsome, but also douce and somewhat humourless. What the inspector might lose in charisma he makes up for in method. Dalgliesh always has control.

There are sly moments – particularly the part where some of the characters make inquiries of their own, taking on the role of investigator as they try to clear up the various mysteries and sub-plots connected with the crime. Whose ladder was left outside the dead girl’s window? Who was the mysterious man seen hanging around the house during the village fete earlier that day? Why did Steven Maxie propose to a girl he hardly knew? And does the unknown father of Sally’s baby have anything to do with her death?

There’s also something I’ve noticed in many detective novels – a part where one or more of the characters dismiss some theory or other as being unrealistic, as if it was part of a whodunnit. “This isn’t some silly crime novel,” they say – resisting the urge to turn and wink at the camera, no doubt.

At the top I asked what the English could do better than most. Ironically, Dalgliesh has a very similar name to a Scottish footballer who was arguably the most famous of them all in the 1970s and 80s: Kenny Dalglish. Just as with the spaceman Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dundee United’s tough-tackling midfielder of the 1980s and 90s, it’s hard to resist drawing parallels between the two similarly-named heroes. So I won’t.

Like his near-namesake, who was famous in the shirts of Celtic and Liverpool, Dalgliesh shields the play well, before spinning and dispatching his finish with lethal accuracy. But unlike Kenny Dalglish, the inspector is a bit of a tart – calling all the suspects into the manor house’s drawing room, at eight o’clock sharp, perfectly punctual and precise, in order to outline exactly who killed Sally Jupp, and how.

The full cast list of suspects awaits judgement on plush cushions, with Dalgliesh orchestrating great tension, shifting suspicion several times before providing the answer. It’s so cute, like how a kid would stage the final act of a murder mystery. This is precisely how I’d have executed the denouement when I was 11.

Dalgliesh calmly throws back all red herrings, exposing and discounting motives and alternative theories. By the time he finally identifies the killer, we are made to understand that they are the only person who could have done it. Logically, there was no other conclusion. If you’ve paid close attention and filtered out the extraneous noise, you’ll know this. I’m happy to say I didn’t guess the killer, but I’ve come to understand that to dedicate serious thinking time to a mystery story is to spoil it a little, even to risk disappointment, like peeking at your Christmas presents.

Cover Her Face is as much of a machine as it is a story – a perfectly planned and constructed engine, making for a very smooth ride indeed. In a sporty little MG, I imagine, brand new, racing green, buffed to a glassy sheen. For a debut novel, PD James’s command of her craft is enviable.