Category Archives: Guest Posts

Guest Post: Siobhan MacDonald

twisted-river-canelo-crop-smallSome of the best crime fiction is about what happens when you step out of your door and into another person’s space, into their personal domain. Because, as we all know, in crime fiction other people are trouble.

And let’s face it, we expose ourselves to a lot of Stranger Danger, these days. Airbnb, house-sitting and holiday swaps — we’ve never had so many opportunities to step into the shoes of other people, to discover the dark secrets of other families.

Siobhan MacDonald’s novel Twisted River, published by Canelo, is about just that: what happens when two families swap lives.

Kate and Mannix O’Brian live in a lovely Limerick house they can barely afford. Their autistic son is being bullied and their daughter Izzy is desperately trying to protect him. When Kate spots a gorgeous New York flat on a home-exchange website, she is convinced her luck is about to change…

Hazel and Oscar Harvey and their two children live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Though they seem successful on the surface, Hazel’s mysterious bruises and Oscar’s secrets tell another story. With Hazel keen to revisit her native Limerick, the house swap seems almost too perfect.

When Oscar discovers the body of a woman in the boot of his hosts’ car, he realises this will be anything but a perfect break. And the body is just the beginning.

Irish writer Siobhan’s debut novel is inspired by her own experiences of holidays gone wrong. In this fascinating guest post, she talks about how entering someone else’s space can have dangerous consequences…

Siobhan_author_photoIsn’t it ironic that adults are so often at pains to warn children of the hazards of speaking to strangers and yet so many are heedless of their own advice?

“Never talk to strangers,” “Never get into a car with a stranger”, “Never take sweets from a stranger” – all warnings given to children. At the time of writing, ‘The Guardian’ is reporting multiple sightings of strangers stopping to offer lifts to children on their way to schools in Southwest London. Parents have been alerted to caution their children about this alarming activity.

However, that same advice doled out to children is often ignored by the adult community. There was a time when on-line dating was regarded as the preserve of the desperate and bewildered. Not so now – it’s commonplace with many happily using such services.

A number of years ago a journalist friend joined a dating site as a research exercise. Despite professing online to being unattached, most of the men she encountered were married. Hardly a crime, but it does go to show how people misrepresent themselves and their intentions online.

Sadly, in the past few years there have been a number of high profile incidents involving young women coming into contact with predatory strangers in nightclubs, only to meet their end after a single brief encounter. All the more tragic as nightclubs should be places where people can relax and have fun. Precisely too why such strangers prowl here, seeking out those who’ve let their guard down.

In one tragic case in Ireland, one such woman was killed in a hotel bedroom by a man -who unknown to her – was out on bail for violent offences. She’d met him in a nightclub earlier.

There is also the recent tragic story of the student nurse who became separated from her friends in a nightclub only to fall foul of the deadly intentions of a stranger who lured her to her death.

Stranger-danger is not confined to unusual situations. Indeed, malign intent often lurks behind a comfortable and familiar façade. Our guard drops and we relax when a situation seems familiar and unthreatening. Antennae are dulled and warning signs are missed.

A teacher friend recently recounted how to her shame, she blatantly ignored the advice she regularly metes out to the children in her care. As she went jogging in a familiar neighbourhood, an elderly man flagged her down on the pavement. He said his wife had recently died and he had a problem with his washing machine. He reckoned a sock was stuck in the filter and his hands were too large to release it. Would she take a look?

Although it was an unusual request, she felt sorry for the bereaved man and thought of the good Samaritan. As the door shut behind her, she felt a shudder of unease. The road had been quiet and no-one had seen her enter the house.

The elderly man had been right. There was indeed a sock stuck in the filter that she managed to free. As she handed it to him, he remarked how he’d been watching her from an upstairs window as she jogged down the road, and thought she looked like a person with small hands. Following that remark came noises from upstairs. “That’s my son getting up,” said the man. “Like the side of a house, he is. His hands would never do. I’ll call him down to meet you.”

Instantly, she regretted her decision and thought how foolish she’d been. Tripping over piles of laundry in the hallway, she made for the front-door, rushing past the man who she’d assumed was living alone.

Out on the street, she thought to how she’d scold any child in her class were they to do anything similar. It was a seemingly innocent request but it only struck her afterwards how differently things could have turned out.

Whether it’s the pub, the nightclub, online, the daily train commute, or even in what may be a familiar neighbourhood, we should heed the sage advice we give to children – strangers should be treated with caution.


Twisted River is published by Canelo in ebook, priced at £1.99.



Guest Post: Catherine Ryan Howard

9781782398387Catherine Ryan Howard’s nautical thriller Distress Signals, which came out yesterday, has been picking up all kinds of fabulous reviews.

It’s about Adam Dunne’s investigation into the disappearance of his girlfriend Sarah. Adam, frantic with worry and dread, connects Sarah to a cruise ship called the Celebrate — and to a woman, Estelle, who disappeared from the same ship in eerily similar circumstances a year before. To get the answers, Adam must confront some difficult truths about his relationship with Sarah. He must do things of which he never thought himself capable. And he must try to outwit a predator who seems to have found the perfect hunting ground…

Distress Signals is literally a holiday page-turner. Adam’s hunt for Sarah throws up all kinds of questions about a place we would consider a safe space — a  sunny cruise liner full of happy people. But, of course, the enclosed confines of a ship a long way from land is the perfect  place for a murderer to make merry hell among people with their guard down…

Catherine, who is based in Dubin, has worked in the leisure industry, so she’s seen for herself the dark side of the holiday dream. In this amazing guest post — it’s one hell of an eye-opening read — she talks about how her experiences shaped Distress Signals, and about how camp sites, hotels, cruise liners and theme parks teem with potential danger…

Catherine Ryan Howard_BW credit Steve LanganI loved the years I spent working in hospitality, but it wasn’t all fun in the sun. In fact, it was almost never fun in the sun, at least not for me – and that was the problem. In hotels and resorts, you work hard and you work long hours, but the guests and customers you interact with aren’t, for the most part, working at all. They’re all on holiday.

Back in 2005 I worked as a campsite courier on the Western Mediterranean coast of France. Each morning I would pull on my uniform – a fetching green shorts and red T-shirt combination that made me look like one of Santa’s elves only dressed for a warmer climate – and stumble out of my “live tent” (live as in I live here, not live music), heading for the shower block. The sky would be blue, the early morning sun warm and glorious and, en route, I’d pass family after family sitting on the decks of their mobile homes, sipping coffee and pulling apart flaky croissants fresh from the campsite’s bakery. On my way back, I’d pass these same families heading for the pool or the beach, lugging inflatables, towels and parasols. Ahead of me was typically five or six hours of cleaning the mobile homes and tents that had been vacated that day (in thirty-degree heat), and then another four or five hours of checking new customers into them after that. It could be depressing.

There was a darker side to being “on site” too. I’d been on numerous self-drive/campsite holidays in France growing up, both with the brand I now found myself working for and others, and I’d always loved them. The adventure of the mobile home or tent; the freedom to roam around the campsite; the fun hours spent at the swimming pool or in the playground or at the Kids’ Club. As a courier, my perspective was very different. The tents we lived in were dirty and broken, as was the “live area” in which they’d been erected. (Scabies was a known scourge on several sites.) As an aspiring crime writer, I always did what I called my Serial Killer Check whenever I stayed somewhere new: I counted how many locked doors a potential serial killer would have between him and me while I slept. On that campsite there were no doors at all, only zips. Anyone could come into or go out of your tent in the night.

Couriers frequently got themselves into trouble: taken to hospital in an ambulance with alcohol poisoning, or to the police station in a squad car because they’d been caught attempting to abscond with the petty cash box. Most were hired straight out of school and had never been away from home before. They barely knew how to look after themselves, let alone the customers.

I don’t think our customers appreciated that if something happened on their holiday, they were dependent on a motley crew of couriers, typically aged from 17 to 22, who didn’t speak the local language. During my stint there was a biblical storm which sent trees crashing into the roofs of the tents and flooded most of the campsite. Customers packed up their cars and fled during the night.

This was before wi-fi was everywhere and phones got smart; as the campsite was out in the middle of nowhere, we were so isolated we may as well have been on the moon. I remember one day catching sight of the cover of a British tabloid newspaper a customer had brought with them. There was a picture on the front taken outside the Superdome in New Orleans which showed a dead body floating in a flooded street. I was so confused. Bodies in the streets of a major U.S. city? What was happening out there in the world?

I hadn’t spent much time staying in hotels when, not long after my stint on the campsite, I moved to Orlando to work in one with more than 2,000 rooms in Walt Disney World. Here, the staff/guest divide was worse than ever. I’d come on shift at the front desk mid-afternoon, facing eight hours of standing in heels and practicing “aggressive friendliness” (Disney’s preferred employee manner), to greet families who’d been saving for years and years and were now fizzing with the excitement of finally being on their dream vacation. It was hard not to catch their enthusiasm. I almost always did.

But even in the happiest place on earth, darkness falls. One morning a huge team of us cast members (employees in Disney-Speak) were assembled to do a safety check: to knock on every single door in the hotel. In the early hours of the morning, a woman had called security in despair, saying she had hurt her children. As the call was made from a mobile phone, the room number couldn’t be traced. Now, we were trying to find her. If I got no answer to my knock I had to let myself into the room with a master key, bracing myself for what I might find. After several hours of this, we found nothing. It seemed like the call had been a prank.

On another occasion, we at the front desk noticed that someone had left a bag behind in the lobby. When we went to pick it up, we saw a handgun – a loaded handgun, it turned out – sitting inside. Even if you have a license to carry one, personal firearms are not allowed on WDW property. A major security alert ensued, and we eventually identified our very apologetic (and evidently forgetful) gun-toting guest.

Our training also including numerous doomsday scenarios, what with WDW being one of the biggest terrorist targets in the United States. September 11th 2001 was the only day since it opened in 1971 that WDW closed its gates, hand-holding employees forming a human wall that gently herded guests out of the parks while air force jets flew overhead. The cast members were told not to tell guests why unless they asked directly. What a disconcerting event that must have been, especially when you consider that there wasn’t the instant access to real-time events, e.g. Twitter and Facebook, that we have in our pockets today.

More generally, hotels are often the site of events the average guest would rather not think about. They’re a popular location for suicides, for instance. Housekeepers are trained to close and lock guest room doors behind them as they work – there have been numerous incidents of violent and sexual assaults on housekeepers by guests or other passers-by who happened to see them working in a room, went in and closed the door behind them, leaving only the housekeeper’s master key registered in the lock’s activity. As a housekeeping inspector, I also had to have hepatitis shots and special biohazard training in order to deal with “protein spills” – more Disney-speak. These ranged from a pool of not-quite-digested clam chowder in a bed to a streak of human faeces leading from the door of a guest room all the way down the hall to the elevator bank. (A wheelchair-user had unwittingly wheeled through it.)

People also hide in hotels – from authorities, from abusive spouses, or just from their lives. In one memorable incident I checked in a guest dressed like a character from a Jackie Collins novel, all coiffed and tucked and glossed, who refused to take off her sunglasses and only spoke in a hushed whisper while casting furtive glances over her shoulder. ‘I don’t want anyone to know I’m here,’ she told me. ‘Don’t give out my name, or put through calls to my room, or anything like that.’ No problem, I said. What’s the name on the reservation? ‘Marilyn Monroe.’ Um, okay… Perhaps not the best choice of fake name when you’re trying not to draw attention to yourself?

Hotels can be the site of all sorts of weird and unnerving activity. I myself have stayed in a haunted hotel room here in Dublin, and one of the strangest stories I ever heard was the tragic case of 21-year-old Elisa Lam, found drowned in a water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles back in 2013. CCTV footage from inside one of the hotel’s elevators is the last trace of Lam alive, and it shows her behaving very oddly, darting in and out as if hiding from someone unseen in the corridor. Moreover, her body lay in the tank for a fortnight and was only discovered after guests complained about the strange colour of water coming out of their sink taps and shower heads. Her death is still unexplained.

Although I’ve never worked on a cruise ship, I drew on these experiences in the hospitality industry – as a campsite courier, a front desk agent and a housekeeper supervisor – to lend some authenticity to Distress Signals, my debut thriller that explores the dark side of these colossal floating hotels and the idea that there are, effectively, no police at sea. Because if you think campsites and hotels are bad…

Well, just wait until you board the Celebrate. She’s waiting for you.


Distress Signals, by Catherine Ryan Howard, is out now, published by Corvus in paperback and ebook.



Guest Post: Paddy Magrane

Fahrenheit cover DenialSam Keddie is back. The therapist hero of Paddy Magrane’s novel Disorder returns in its high-octane sequel, Denial, which is once again a startling blend of psychological and political thriller. In Denial, a riot breaks out at Creech Hill Immigration Detention Centre. Zahra Idris, a terrified Eritrean detainee suffering with amnesia, escapes.

That evening, Zahra’s psychotherapist, Sam Keddie, finds his girlfriend lying unconscious in their home – the victim of a brutal attack. When Zahra’s solicitor is found dead, drowned in the waters of the Regent’s Canal, Sam becomes convinced that his connection with Zahra is significant – and that someone wants them both dead.

He tracks down a frightened, confused Zahra in Amsterdam. But their pursuers are close behind, and Sam and Zahra are soon on the run. As they’re hunted through Europe, Sam races against time to piece together Zahra’s fragile memories and discover why she and those close to her are being picked off – one by one.

So it’s safe to say that psychological thrillers are a *thing,* these days. As readers, we’re as much interested in what goes on inside the heads of the characters as we are in the mechanics of the plot. And Paddy, an old friend of this blog, has got a head-start on most novelists in this respect: he’s a psychotherapist.

In this fascinating Guest Post, Paddy talks about how he puts this own therapeutic skills to use as a novelist and how digging deep into our troubled psyches can often produce dramatic gold…

Author picWhen people twig that I’m a novelist and psychotherapist, they often assume that being a shrink guarantees a rich, steady source of material. I have to gently explain that what clients tell me in the counselling room is confidential. And even if I was the unscrupulous type to mine their inner lives, most of them are not involved in murder and big government cover-ups.

That said, my psychotherapeutic knowledge and skills come in very handy when writing. Take ‘unconditional positive regard’, for example. This is what Rogerian therapists call a core condition – one that ensures shrinks of his persuasion offer a non-judgmental stance, whatever a client talks about or presents with. It’s particularly useful when writing villains. It helps me focus on the whole human, rather than on a ‘bad’ trait. The point is, real-life baddies – unless they’re psychopathic – feel and suffer much like the rest of us. They’ve often just made terrible errors of judgment or spur-of-the-moment mistakes. These might be truly heinous acts, but not their sole defining characteristic. They’re sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters, not just panto villains.

The other area of knowledge that’s really valuable is psychoanalysis, particularly the work of the daddy of it all, Sigmund Freud. Freud was constantly by my side while I was writing Disorder. As we all know, he was interested in early childhood development, which he believed is crucial to the formation of adult personality. This was key to my understanding of Aidan Stirling – the Prime Minister’s son. And Freud’s Oedipal theory – which explores the idea that a man is unconsciously attracted to his mother while feeling hostility towards to his father (that’s the potted version, by the way) – was also pivotal. Aidan Stirling is, in effect, a Freudian construct, though it’s fair to say I pushed the envelope a little with the poor lad.

Freud was also interested in repression – how we humans compartmentalise pleasurable instincts, often because of shame or anxiety. Repression, he believed, could lead to self-destructive or even anti-social behaviour. This theory really helped me when I was writing the character of Harry Tapper in Denial, whose repressed desires are literally his downfall.

Stepping away from my own work, I’ve always loved reading writers who empathically understand what it’s like to suffer a mental illness or disintegration. On that note, I’d highly recommend Patrick McGrath. The author’s father was a superintendent at Broadmoor and McGrath grew up in the grounds of the prison. His novel, Asylum, is a chilling but masterful tale of an inmate who falls in love with the superintendent’s wife.

And then of course there’s Thomas Harris, who gave Hannibal Lecter such extraordinary depth. Lector is violent and incredibly dangerous, yet a man of refined tastes in art, cuisine and music. Harris offers his hero plenty of unconditional positive regard and seeks to understand the ghastly childhood experiences that have forced the shrink to absorb and normalise barbarism. Harris is an exquisite writer whose dark, complex villain comes alive through deep psychological insight. Those who, like me, write about psychological issues, toil in his formidable shadow.


Denial, by Paddy Magrane, is available in ebook from Fahrenheit Press.

Guest Post: J.S. Law

Tenacity PB jacket.jpgSo J.S. Law’s heart-pounding submariner thriller Tenacity has been, heh, making all sorts of waves, picking up acclaim from reviewers and some of the biggest names in the crime fiction business.

Tenacity is the first in an exciting new series featuring Royal Naval Investigator Danielle Lewis. Dan finds herself in the claustrophobic confines of the HMS Tenacity investigating the supposed suicide of a sailor. Dan must interrogate the tight-knit, male crew and determine if there’s a link.

But it’s a sweaty, deadly environment in a tin can several fathoms below the ocean. Standing alone in the face of extreme hostility and with a possible killer on board, Dan soon realises that she may have to choose between the truth and her own survival.

The pressure is rising and Dan’s time is running out…

Crime Thriller Fella is delighted to be taking part in the Law’s Naval Toasts Blog Tour to celebrate the Headline paperback publication of Tenacity this Thursday, April 21st. The man knows his stuff, big time. He joined the Royal Navy in 1993 as an apprentice and went on to serve for twenty years, the majority of that time spent in the Submarine Service.

In this fascinating Guest Post – entitled Our Ships At Sea – he discusses just what means to spend months below the surface for months at a time – and the effects of the body of serving on a nuclear submarine. Look away now, those of a nervous disposition…

JS Law Author Photo C Simon John.jpgIf you’ve followed my blog tour at all, you’ll know that at mess dinners in the Royal Navy, immediately after the Loyal Toast of ‘The Queen’, the youngest officer present will normally offer the traditional drinking toast of that day.

The toast for Monday is “Our Ships at Sea” where we toast those operational vessels that are deployed away from home. I’m often asked what it’s like being at sea on a submarine, and I’ve blogged several times on the topic, but one things that is often misunderstood, is how bad submariners smell when we come back. You see, the atmosphere on subs gets quite stale and, with all the equipment and machinery, it has oil and diesel and other particulate in the air. The result is, that after many months away the smell is in your skin, like embedded there, and it takes effort to get it off.

I remember once when we arrived into Rio. All of us who weren’t duty (nuclear submarines are manned 24/7) piled onto the buses and headed for our hotels. The wardroom (officers mess) on that submarine was ‘dry’ which meant we hadn’t had a beer for many months and so when we got to the hotel we went straight to the bar, dropped our bags and grabbed a few rounds. It was only a few minutes later that we realised we’d cleared the entire ground floor of other guests, and the hotel staff were doing their very best to be polite, but we were smelly. That much was obvious.

When I came home I used to have to strip butt naked at the back door and walk straight up to the bath. We’d put these fizzy things in the water to make it smell nice and I’d have to soak for a good while to get the worst of it off. My clothes would remain in the back garden until they were brought directly in to the washing machine and after this, I was allowed hugs and free movement around the house.

It’s not just the atmosphere either, as Dan finds out on board Tenacity, a submariner’s shower is one minute of water! You turn on the shower – 15-20secs to get wet – turn it off – soap and wash – then 40-45secs to rinse and out you get. You get this once a day (once per watch if you’re a machinery space watch keeper or a chef) so it’s no wonder that Dan believes something doesn’t smell quite right on board Tenacity…


Guest Post: David Young

Stasi ChildLife in the shadow of the Berlin Wall has been a fertile ground for writers such as Len Deighton, John le Carre and Ian McEwan. David Young’s acclaimed new novel Stasi Child, published by Bonnier, takes us once again to the DDR and deep into the brutal heart of its infamous secret police apparatus, and introduces us to a startling new protagonist, Oberleutnant Karin Müller.

When murder squad head Müller is called to investigate a teenage girl’s body found riddled with bullets at the foot of the Berlin Wall, she imagines she’s seen it all before. But when she arrives she realises this is a death like no other: it seems the girl was trying to escape – but from the West.

Müller is a member of the People’s Police, but in East Germany her power only stretches so far. The Stasi want her to discover the identity of the girl, but assure her the case is otherwise closed – and strongly discourage her asking questions.  The evidence doesn’t add up, and it soon becomes clear that the crime scene has been staged, the girl’s features mutilated. But this is not a regime that tolerates a curious mind, and Müller doesn’t realise that the trail she’s following will lead her dangerously close to home.

Young’s Cold War procedural, the first of a trilogy, is picking up a lot of heat – it’s already been optioned for television – so Crime Thriller Fella is delighted to kick off the Stasi Child Blog Tour with a Guest Post by the author.

He gives us the history of the sinister state apparatus, the Stasi, and how it spread its tentacles across the whole of the DDR, more often than not recruiting children to be its informers…

David YoungWhere do book titles come from? The current flavour seems to be to mix up the words ‘Girl’, ‘Train’ and ‘On’ and either tack on or leave off the definite or indefinite article.

As I write, two different books occupying the Amazon Kindle top 20 are ‘Girl On A Train’ and ‘The Girl On The Train.’ It’s enough to put anyone off girls and trains for life…

When I plumped for Stasi Child, I was fully expecting accusations that my novel’s title was a rip-off combination of Anna Funder’s Stasiland and Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44. There’s actually an element of truth in that. The novel was inspired by reading Stasiland, and the parallels with Child 44 are that it features a state police detective, in a communist country, whose search for the truth is hampered by the secret police.

In my case, the secret police in question are the Stasi: agents of East Germany’s feared – and occasionally ridiculed – Ministry for State Security. It’s a term I’m really using as a shorthand for East Germany, and I expected everyone to know that. This isn’t the case, however, as was brought home to me at a recent Guardian masterclass in marketing for authors. Showing the draft artwork to the only other novelist in the room with a book deal, she responded by saying: ‘It looks lovely. But what does that word Stasi mean?’

So who were the Stasi? Here’s a potted guide.

The name Stasi is an abbreviation derived from these letters in bold in the official German title: Ministerium für Staatssicherheit. It was formed in February 1950 – just a few months after the creation of East Germany (more properly the German Democratic Republic, or Deutsche Demokratische Republik – hence the abbreviation DDR which older readers will remember seeing on television emblazoned on the shirts of chunky bearded shot putters — and not only male chunky bearded shot putters).

One of the Stasi’s main roles was spying on the DDR’s own citizens, to root out counter-revolutionary and fascist sympathisers and prevent them from undermining the state. In other words, anyone who disagreed with the ruling party line.

From its early beginnings, the Stasi became a vast network of agents controlled from its main headquarters in Normannenstrasse in East Berlin (or in the DDR’s terms the Hauptstadt der DDR) using covert methods – the full extent of which only became apparent when the Berlin Wall was torn down and the two Germanies reunited (the 25th reunion anniversary was earlier this month).

And from the start, Stasi agents modelled themselves on the original Soviet secret police, the Cheka. Most officials would have a bust of the Cheka’s leader, Felix Dzerzhinsky, on their desks and would think of themselves as ‘the German Cheka’.

As an organisation, it grew exponentially during the 70s and 80s – by 1989 it had more than 90,000 full-time employees. But just as important to the way the Stasi worked were its unofficial informants – more than 170,000 strong by the time the Wall fell. These could be friends, neighbours – and even lovers, as many former East Germans were shocked to find out from Stasi files after 1990. The mammoth job of piecing together the vast quantity of files the Stasi shredded when East Germany collapsed is still going on today – and will continue for many more years – a giant jigsaw puzzle of state snooping.

What’s little known about and particularly shocking (and relevant to the plot of Stasi Child) is the number of Stasi informers who were children or youths. It’s estimated that by 1989, six percent of those 170,000 unofficial informers were under the age of eighteen. Their recruitment had begun in the mid-1970s, when Stasi Child is set.

The Stasi was split into a number of departments serving different functions. It had its own criminal investigation division which worked in parallel to – but rarely with – the detectives of the People’s Police, the Volkspolizei, the employers of my main character, Oberleutnant Karin Müller.

The Stasi would take over cases from the People’s Police when there was a political element to the investigation, as there is in my initial murder scene, by the Berlin Wall. They would almost always never work on the same team as the police, although all police units would have official Stasi liaison officers (as well as, no doubt, plenty of unofficial informers). So my story – where I do have the two organisations at least partly working together – is to some extent authorial licence. But I have, I hope, created a credible explanation for it.

Intriguingly, very few former Stasi officials have any regrets about what they did. For most, their actions were seen as a necessity to defend the revolution, to defend socialism and protect the integrity of the DDR. And many former East German officials – not just those in the Stasi – still insist that those who attempted to escape over the Wall (officially the Anti Fascist Protection Rampart/Barrier), and those who were held captive in Jugendwerkhöfe (youth workhouses) must have been guilty of some form of criminality. Occasionally it was true. More often than not, it wasn’t.


Stasi Child by David Young is out now in ebook. The Paperback will follow in February 2016.

Guest Post: V.M. Giambanco

The Devil has all the best tunes. You know that, I know that – it’s why we read crime fiction. A good protag is nothing without an evil antag. A deliciously evil – and yet vulnerable – villain can elevate a good crime book to something great. Just ask Thomas Harris, Stephen King or our old friend Conan Doyle.

V.M. Giambanco knows that as well as anybody. In her Alice Madison series she’s earned herself a reputation for specialising in complex and dangerous bad guys.

In the latest, Blood And Bone – which is out today! – Seattle detective Madison finds herself tracking an elusive killer whose brutality is legendary even among high-security prisoners. If you’re a crime reader or writer, you’re going to want to read Valentina’s terrific guest post for Crime Thriller Fella about what makes a satisfying villain. She talks Hannibal, Ripleys Tom and Ellen, and careless dentistry…

What do I want from a villain?

Valentina Giambanco

As I write this post I’m working on the fourth book of the Alice Madison series and when the issue of a subject for this piece came up I had little doubt that I wanted to talk about: villains. Why? Because, more than in any other genre, villains define the crime fiction novel and it is by what villains do that the other characters come alive.

Where would Clarice be without Hannibal? Or Holmes without Moriarty? Or even Nick without ‘Amazing Amy’? The best villain is the one who gets the best out of the hero and by that I mean that it is the character who pushes all others around him to act in ways that make the story compelling, revealing, multi-layered and memorable. And it’s not a small task, which is why – and I’ve only realised this as I started to think about this piece – I generally start each story by working out who the villain is and why he does what he does. Only when I’ve found something that feels suitably gripping does the story really begin.

I have a theory – and obviously it might just be something that works for me and no other writer or reader – but when I’m trying to build an effective villain I need four elements; a couple are pretty obvious, the others maybe not.

First, and it’s no big surprise, my villain has to give the story a real sense of danger which translates into urgency and keeps the clock ticking. Examples are almost unnecessary but for the sheer creepiness of it I’ll mention Annie Wilkes in ‘Misery’, whose mood swings and inner workings are as terrifying as any serial killer out there.

Second, there has to be a motive, something strong enough that the villain can hang his whole behaviour on it and it has to be so powerful that it can carry him throughout the story. By the way, I keep saying he for ease of writing but, as I have just mentioned, crime fiction villainy is an equal opportunity employer – ever met Chelsea Cain’s Gretchen Lowell?

Third, and here things get more complicated, I really enjoy seeing the story through the eyes of the villain. Take Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley for example, he is the central character and what he does appears merely as a string of necessary actions to further his very reasonable needs. That’s all.

Blood And BoneWhen Thomas Harris inhabits Francis Dolarhyde’s mind in ‘Red Dragon’ he is so skilled at building character that we can’t help feeling a tiny sting of compassion for him even at his most frightening and amoral. I’ve read once that Harris said he was always glad when he knew he was writing a chapter with Hannibal Lecter in it but was also glad when Lecter left and he didn’t have to see the world through his maroon eyes anymore.

Four, I’m intrigued when I can see the humanity of the villains: the unstoppable serial killer without weaknesses does not really interest me because it moves through the story in a similar manner to the alien creature in ‘Alien’ – slaughtering everyone in its path until it gets blasted out of the ship, and where’s the fun in that? I absolutely love ‘Alien’: if we’re talking about slowly building menace and claustrophobia and terror, it’s a classic – and the unusual hero of the series is a resourceful, stubborn woman who can operate heavy machinery. But that’s not where I go if I want a complex, multi-layered villain.

So, I have my four elements: physical danger, motive, a different way to look at life and an ember of humanity – this is what I look for in a villain. Sometime they are all found in one character, sometimes the story will give us more than one straight villain to play with and then we can split these elements. Recently I watched ‘Marathon Man’, written by William Goldman from his excellent novel, and the villain is an old man with a lethal blade hidden in his sleeve and dentist’s tools in his satchel. Szell, the Second World War Nazi, is one of the most terrifying villains ever created because he is a little guy who certainly couldn’t run after the protagonist to catch him but, once he has him tied up on a chair, there is no end to the pain he is prepared to inflict to achieve his end. His age, vulnerability and cruelty make him human and real and more repulsive than someone like Lecter could ever be because we know Nazi existed and we know what they did while a cultured, engaging, sociopath with a perfectly replicated middle finger and a taste for murder is yet to be born.

As a crime writer I’m always looking for a great fictional villain and yet sometimes it is reality that is too extreme to be believed: I’ve read online today that a pharmaceutical company has raised the price of a life-saving pill from $13.50 to $750, not even Hannibal Lecter can match that kind of evil.


Blood And Bone is available now, published by Quercus Books, in hardback, and also in ebook.