Tag Archives: Ira Levin

The Intel: Andrew Shantos

Andrew ShantosAndrew Shantos has turned to some of the biggest names in show business, Elvis, Jimi, Marilyn, that fellow from The Doors, to populate his debut novel – but wait, you cry, surely they’re, you know, deceased.

Turns out they’re not. In Dead Star Island, they’re living in blissful anonymity on a remote island and still partying like there’s no tomorrow. That is, until someone starts killing them off for real. Greece’s former top cop Mario Gunzabo is called in to solve the mystery of the Déjà vu Killer. But can the part-time tennis coach and full time alcoholic stop the killer in time to save the rest of the superstars?

Andrew’s comic thriller is a high-concept romp and a rock ‘n’ roll rollercoaster which combines his love of music, dead rock stars and ferrets.

In the the latest stop of his Blog Tour, Andrew gives us the intel on his one-armed detective, which music icon he’d love to perform on stage with – and he earns some extra Intel brownie points by mentioning the undisputed king of high-concept, Ira Levin…

Tell us about Dead Star Island…

It’s a spoof murder mystery. Dead Star Island is home to sixteen superstars the world thinks are dead, but who faked their deaths to live in tranquil anonymity on a secret island paradise. Until now, that is, because there’s a killer on the loose, taking them out one by one in repeats of the deaths they staged to leave the real world.

Your alcoholic, one-armed detective Mario Gunzabo comes with a ferret up his sleeve – tell us about him!

Gunzabo came about from a silly game on holiday in Cyprus. My wife and I were trying to outdo each other with ideas for outlandish detectives. I suggested a one-armed detective called Mario Gunzabo. And she immediately said, with a ferret up his sleeve.

So that was the starting point, but Gunzabo evolved into a fully formed character over many drafts and rewrites, and in him is a mixture of many relatives in Cyprus, long dead, that I remember vividly from my childhood. An important part of the backstory is how he lost his arm, why Didi exists (or not), and how this continues to affect his life and the investigation.

Dead Star Island is a fascinating idea – where did you get the inspiration?

About five years ago, I was listening to LA Woman by The Doors, feeling a bit sad and thinking, “Oh, I wish Jim Morrison wasn’t dead.” Then I thought, “Maybe he isn’t. Maybe he’s hanging out with Elvis on a desert island somewhere… Of course, Jimi would be there. Marilyn too…” And I found I couldn’t stop thinking of people who’d be there with them – basically anyone who was on my bedroom wall as a teenager.

So that’s how the idea came to me. But I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot, in particular about why I had the idea, which I’ve written about in more depth on another leg of my Blog Tour, in a piece called ‘The Psychology of an idea’.

Dead Star IslandOn your website, there’s a quiz you can do about the island, a music playlist, a map and even a graph on which details how many hours you spent writing the novel – how important is it for authors to provide extra content for readers?

To begin with I just had the idea to put an application form on my website, so that people could apply to go and live on the island. It was just a bit of fun, but it made me laugh doing it and I kept on adding new pages, like the quiz to try and guess who the residents are, based on the crazy caricatures my mate Joel did (it’s a tough quiz, no one’s managed full marks yet, not even anyone at my publisher).

But yes, there is an ulterior motive: I want to find and engage new readers, so my hope is that when people see the website, they’ll want to come back, and they’ll tell their friends that they’ve found something worth reading – hopefully much like the book itself.

Mostly though, I just really like the idea of a book living outside the confines of its pages. So that what you’re reading is an excerpt, a particularly interesting episode in the universe someone has created.

You’ve played the Hammond organ in lots of bands – which deceased musical icon do you wish you could have played alongside?

Jim Morrison, every time! The keyboard player I look up to the most is Ray Manzarek of The Doors, so I guess the ultimate would to have been in his piano stool, shaking my head in a stoned trance while playing a ten minute solo during Light My Fire at the Hollywood Bowl, Jim shrieking and doing some kind of crazy tribal dance in front of me. At the after party we’d hang out with Jimi, probably get drunk (definitely get drunk), sing a few sea shanties, and talk pseudo-philosophical nonsense. This would last several days until one of us got taken to hospital.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Probably what I talk about in my blog post “How many hours does it take to write a novel.” I remember finishing my first draft (written at night in the odd hour when our newborn baby actually decided to sleep), and giving it to carefully selected friends and family, naively thinking that the concept alone would be enough to wow everyone. That most definitely was not the case, and slowly, realisation dawned: I had only just started. I suddenly knew how much work was ahead of me, and I nearly didn’t carry on.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

There are loads; it’s tough to pick out any in particular, like it’s tough to pick your favourite bands. In general I’d say the authors I admire most are those who write with economy and clarity, but also with flair and imagination. I’m never that bothered about genre, I’ll read anything by anyone, so long as they meet these criteria.

As for names, well of the old favourites, I like Hemingway and Orwell best. They’re the literary equivalent of The Stones and The Beatles for me. I’m gradually working my way through Elmore Leonard’s work (I finished Freaky Deaky last week, which I loved and recommend to any crime lover).

Someone who is slightly forgotten these days is Ira Levin, who was massive in the fifties and sixties. Pretty much every one of his novels has been made into a film, some of them several times over. Most are absolute classics: A Kiss Before Dying, The Boys From Brazil, The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby. They often have a crime element, all are amazing ideas, full of tension and suspense, and inevitably you find yourself devouring them in a single sitting.

Give me some advice about writing.

Work hard and be open to criticism. These two things make you a better writer.

Writing is one of the few crafts people expect to be good at immediately. There’s the old joke about asking an Australian if they can play the violin, and the Australian replying, “I dunno, I’ve never tried.” But really, you have to practise, practise, practise, and you have to actively seek criticism. Plus you have to read lots too. I often forget that, and have to remind myself: read, read, read!

Mostly we’re blind to our own faults, but see them more easily in others. It’s like anything: if you want to be good at it, you have to work hard. Above all though, have fun. Enjoy it. Otherwise what’s the point?

What’s next for you?

I’ve got lots of ideas. If anything too many. It’s a nice problem to have though, so I’m going to use a few of them in a collection of short stories, which will have the additional benefit of being good practice for the next novel.

I do have three or four ideas for full-length novels, but knowing now how much work it is, I’m taking my time and want to let them stew away in my head for a few months. I read a fascinating piece in the Guardian the other day, where author William Boyd talks about his writing process. He spends about three years writing each of his books, the first two years of which is research and planning.

That’s a long time, and I hope I’ll be quicker, but then again Dead Star Island took three years… can I book a slot in autumn 2018 for my next blog tour?


Dead Star Island, published by APP, can be ordered through Amazon priced £4.99 for Kindle and £8.99 paperback right here.

To get in touch visit Andrew at his website andrewshantos.com or on Twitter @andrewshantos

Magic – William Goldman

MagicWhen the sad news of Richard Attenborough’s death was announced, I’d just started reading William Goldman’s Magic.

Adapted for the screen in 1979, Magic proved to be an obscure  footnote in Attenborough’s directing career, wedged into the cracks of a CV crammed with sumptuous epics such as Gandhi, A Bridge Too Far and Cry Freedom.

I remember some random images from the movie – mostly of the ventriloquist doll Fats, with those bulging dummy eyes, red cheeks and neat centre parting. Anthony Hopkins played the deranged protagonist a full decade before he was launched to stardom thanks to some similar onscreen lunacy.

At the time, William Goldman, the writer of Magic, both the book and the movie, was one of the first screenwriters to stick his head above the parapet. His non-fiction memoir/writing manual Adventures In The Screen Trade was an unlikely bestseller – and remains still one of the best books about the business.

This was the guy who wrote Butch and Sundance, All The President’s Men and Harper for the screen – and many others. But I remember as a kid being absolutely blown away by the first shocking chapter of his novel Control – a thriller which is, mind-bogglingly, out of print these days. He also adapted his own novels Marathon Man and, of course, The Princess Bride.

So I was interested to see what I made of Magic all these years later… and, hell, what a novelist that man was – sadly, Goldman’s last fiction was written in 1986. It’s almost impossible to discuss without giving some of the game away, so here goes…

Corky is a talented but failed magician, whose  career only takes off when he incorporates a dummy called Fats into his act. When he’s offered a TV show, Corky goes on the lam, frightened that executives will discover that it’s Fats who increasingly calls the shots in Corky’s head. He heads back to the Catskills where he meets his old childhood crush Peggy Ann. Throw in Corky’s wizened agent and Peggy Ann’s oafish husband, and things start to get murderous in the woods as Fats’s true nature is revealed.

As you can tell, Magic is a book which is very much in the Psycho mould, a claustrophobic chamber-piece. It takes a couple of chapters to warm up, but when it does it really delivers as a portrait of a damaged personality. Despite his, er, homicidal issues (and some hints that he’s got previous in this area) Corky is a hugely empathetic character in the George Harvey Bone mould.

Fats gives Corky confidence, he gives him a voice, and he give him an act with which to present his beloved Magic. But one part of Corky’s brain is increasingly fighting a disastrous rearguard action against the other half. We root for Corky to pull himself together and yearn for him to find happiness with his lost love even as we know that the worst is yet to come.

As you’d imagine from a screenwriter, Goldman’s dialogue is to die for. It just zings off the page and straight into your brainstem. Magic is tight and focused and would make Ira Levin proud, with some nail-biting set-pieces, including one fabulous scene where Corky’s agent, alarmed by his relationship with the dummy, challenges Corky not to speak as Fats for five minutes, just five minutes…

If this book was written now, or filmed as a movie, the chances are, the publisher would want more shocks, more out-and-out horror moments, but like all the best horrors, Magic is absolutely rooted in character. And the biggest character of them all is Fats, a malevolent little guy with tiny wooden legs. His voice, charismatic and sarcastic, rings fully-formed in your head as you read.

Research – Philip Kerr

researchPhilip Kerr’s new standalone thriller Research is as cynical and disillusioned as a boozy publishing lunch. The novel takes two authors on the road when one of them – the super-rich, super-successful John Houston – is accused of murder.

The blurb has regrettably decided to fire its agent:

The rolling strip across the bottom of the screen shouts the news:


Houston is the richest writer in the world, a book factory publishing many bestsellers a year – so many that he can’t possibly write them himself. He has a team that feeds off his talent; ghost writers, agents, publishers. So when he decides to take a year out to write something of quality, a novel that will win prizes and critical acclaim, a lot of people stand to lose their livelihoods.

Now Houston, the prime suspect in his wife’s murder, has disappeared. He owns a boat and has a pilot’s licence – he could be anywhere and there are many who’d like to find him.

First there’s the police. If he’s innocent, why did he flee? Then again, maybe he was set up by one of his enemies. The scenario reads like the plot of one of Houston’s million-copy-selling thrillers…

There’s not a huge amount you can say about Research without giving its twisty game away, but we’ll give it a go.

They say write what you know and Kerr, a crime writer with many years experience, has chosen to poke a sharp stick at his own industry. Research is a sly, psychological thriller about writers and writing, and the seething resentments that fester when creative isn’t given its due. It’s virtually a two-hander, in the spirit of Schaffer’s Sleuth or Ira Levin’s Deathtrap.

John Houston is a wildly-successful international hit machine – an amalgam perhaps of James Patterson, Robert Harris and Wilbur Smith. He’s got the beautiful actress wife, a fleet of classic cars, homes all over the shop – including a pad in Monaco – and a mistress in every town.

Houston has recently dismantled what he calls his atelier, a group of long-suffering authors who anonymously pen his never-ending torrent of novels. Houston writes the extraordinary plot outlines – he long ago realized that his readership keep coming back for his stories – and employed a team of bitter underlings to churn out the prose, long before it became a standard industry procedure. Subsequently, a lot of people have become rich on the back of Houston’s success – his publisher and agent among them – and not long after Houston disbands the atelier he goes on the run with one of his authors, Don Irvine, after being accused of shooting his wife.

A playful morality tale, Research has a lot of fun with its central, toxic relationship between Houston and his resentful friend/minion, Irvine. The pair open bottle after bottle of fine burgundy and smoke cigarettes at exclusive restaurants as they roar across the south of France in a borrowed Bentley in a bid to clear Houston’s name. Houston in particular is a terrific character, arrogant and complacent and oddly sympathetic. Imagine Kingsley Amis and Jeremy Clarkson in a remake of Thelma And Louise and you’re in the ballpark.

It’s hugely readable, at times it’s blackly funny, and the dialogue is a particular treat. Kerr fills his story with gossipy literary references and name-dropping tidbits – and there are a few choice asides about the state of the industry. Research is a bitter fairytale – what writer hasn’t dreamed of the kind of super-rich lifestyle enjoyed by Houston? – and its narrative unravels with the kind of delicate precision that would have made Ira Levin proud.

The bland title Research does the book no favours, I think, and I was expecting one more twist along the way, but Kerr delivers an enjoyably spiteful little tale – decidedly more Roald Dahl than Bernie Gunther.

Kerr’s louche protagonists, two seedy examples of the haves and have-nots in publishing, will not be to everybody’s tastes, and if you’re the kind of person who goes puce with rage at fruity language – or if you’re sensitive about your Cornish heritage – it may be a book you want to avoid. But if you like bitter morality-tales in which high-handed super-rich people are brought down a peg or two, you can do worse than take this to the beach with you.

Research is an easy read, which leaves an enjoyable vinegary aftertaste like the sediment at the bottom of that last glass of fine burgundy.

Many thanks to Quercus for the review copy of Research.

Breed – Chase Novak

UnknownSometimes you can flip along the titles on your kindle and have no idea how some of those books got there. Breed, by Chase Novak, was one of those for me. I suspect I was elated by rereading Ira Levin’s seminal New York horror Rosemary’s Baby and wanted more of the same. One button-press later it was on my device and I immediately forgot about it.

But this week, looking for something different, I stumbled upon Breed, prodded it open and began to read.

The blurb wants to eat you up:

Alex and Leslie Twisden told each other they would do anything to have children. The price didn’t matter. But the experimental procedure they found had costs they couldn’t foresee.

Adam and Alice Twisden’s lives seem perfectly normal. Except that, every night, without fail, their parents lock them into their rooms.

And the twins know that the sounds they can hear are not just their imagination. They’re real. And they’re getting louder…

Breed is a clever little book – too clever, perhaps – an urban fairytale about those most-ferocious of creatures, Manhattan pushy parents.

Alex and Leslie Twisden enjoy a life of wealth and privilege. He’s a partner in a top law firm and she’s in publishing, and they live in a big townhouse by the park. But, try as they might, they can’t have kids. Their obsession leads them to Slovenia and the unethical practice of Dr Slobodan Kis, whose painful treatment involves injecting them both with all manner of animal hormones, including those of the Gobi fish, which has a tendency to eat its young. By the time Alex and Leslie get  back to their hotel room, they’re already beginning to become more animalistic.

Ten years later, jobs gone, their splendid home gone to seed – and with keening noises coming from the basement – Alex and Leslie struggle to hold on to the last vestiges of their humanity. Every night, they lock their children in their rooms so that they can’t eat them. Adam and Alice have had enough of this and go on the run, where they meet a pack of kids who also live in fear of their parents.

I liked the prose in Breed very much. Novak is a classy writer, there’s no doubt about that, and has plenty of satirical fun with the Freudian conceit. The imagery is good – Central Park is packed with feral boys and girls hiding from their dangerous parents – and there are some genuine thrills in the extended chase sequence that powers the middle section of the book.

But the horror in Breed isn’t quite on point. There are one or two narrative twists that make you blink in surprise, but Novak ensures we pity, and even like, the monstrous Alex and Leslie, who never quite live up to their cannibalistic marquee billing. The parents are so self-aware about their own degradation, so forlorn about their lack of humanity, and in a funny way to boot, that the menace is undermined somewhat. There’s little doubt that their escaped kids Adam and Alice will be eaten. And when you sympathise with the antagonists, the danger, the horror of the situation, slips away.

Saying that, Breed is an enjoyable ride, full of sly humour and clever observation. And the characters are enjoyable. Alex and Leslie, both before and after their transformation – are a real treat.

With its upper west side setting, it’s bound to draw comparison with Rosemary’s Baby – hell, I’ve already done it – and any horror book is going to come off poorly in that regard.

It turns out that Chase Novak is a pseudonym of Scott Spencer, a well-regarded literary novelist who wrote, among other books, Endless Love – congratulations, now you’ve got that song going round your head. The word is that Novak is working on another horror, Brood.

The Intel: Peter James

Peter James author photoAs you know, we love writers here, so I can’t think of a better way to begin the week than with an interview with one of the biggest names in the crime-writing business – Peter James.

As his latest Roy Grace novel went into paperback, topping  the  bestseller charts within three days of its release, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to speak to Peter about writing, research and killer first lines.

In your latest Roy Grace novel, Dead Man’s Time, you entwine the events of a double-murder committed in Brooklyn in 1922 with a vicious robbery in modern-day Brighton – what was the inspiration for the story?

The historical murders in my book were based on a real-life killing. A cop friend in New York, Pat Lanigan, who works for the Mafia-busting team in the city, told me a story about three years ago about his family history. At the beginning of the last century the Irish and the Italians had these massive gang turf wars in New York. The Irish were the White Hand Gang and the Italians were the Black Hand Gang. Pat’s Great Uncle, Dinny Meehan, was head of the White Hand Gang, and in 1920 he and his wife were shot in bed in front of their four-year-old son, who went on to become a famous basketball player.

I was fascinated by the story, and have always been interested in that period of history, as featured in the Martin Scorsese movie Gangs Of New York, and wanted to write a novel which used elements of it.

You’re renowned for the extraordinary amount of research about police procedure you do for your novels – how important is it that everything is authentic for you?

I’ve always been like that. If I go to a party I’m the one who sits watching everybody else, studying how they behave. Wherever I’m travelling in the world I’m always on the lookout for research for the two or three stories that I have in my head, always thinking two or three books ahead.

In 1981 I was burgled and the detective who came to my house saw that I’d just published a book – my first, Dead Letter Drop – and asked if I wanted any help with research. I got to know him well and, as a result met other cops and asked them about their work. I realized, as someone who wanted to write about human nature, why people do the things that they do, in particular the bad things, that nobody sees more of human life than a cop – sometimes even going in a single day’s work, from domestic abuse to cot deaths to murder. Everything.

When I was a young writer I would write the story and then give it to my police contacts to read. I remember one time I’d finished a book and a homicide detective pointed out something that would have meant a major change to the story. I thought about leaving it, but I couldn’t. I don’t think you can kid your readers that something is authentic when it isn’t. However, in the real world Roy Grace, as a Detective Superintendent, would be more deskbound, perhaps, and not so active. I take slight poetic licence with what his role would be in real life.

In a novel, there needs to be an inseparable trinity of character and research and plot. It is vital to have your readers care about your characters, and part of that process is to make them believable. I use psychologists – I have one on a permanent retainer to help me – and run my characters, their backgrounds and all that they do by them. For my next book Want You Dead I’m working with a psychologist who specializes in domestic abuse victims – I think it’s that if you’re dealing with sensitive subjects, you have even more of a responsibility to get things right.

Unknown-1The novels work as stand-alone novels, but there’s a thread –  Grace’s missing wife, Sandy – that runs-through them.

When I was asked by Macmillan in 2001 to create a cop for a series it seemed to me that every fictional cop had a broken marriage and a drink problem – and in reality, no cop with a drink problem is going to last 24-hours in today’s British Police force! What detectives like to do more than anything is solve problems and I thought it would be interesting to have a cop who has a personal problem that he can’t solve.

When we first meet Roy Grace he is coming up to his 39th birthday, and we learn that 9 years earlier, his wife, Sandy, who he loved and adored, has vanished off the face of the earth.  Although functioning as an effective homicide detective, Roy has been looking for her ever since, and dogged by the puzzle he has not yet been able to solve.  Did she run off with a lover?  Get abducted and murdered?  Have an accident?

I’d intended for the Sandy story to run for three or four books but readers told me how much they enjoyed it and were eager for it to continue. Sandy’s story will end at some point, and I have an ending in mind.

What’s the hardest lesson you’ve ever had to learn as a writer?

I wrote a novel in 1993 called Alchemist, a thriller about the pharmaceutical industry, but when I got to the end it didn’t flow, and it took me two-and-a-half years to rewrite. It was like a tapestry, from which I removed one thread and it all fell apart. It was after that book that I began to plan my books carefully. I got it right eventually, but it was a hard lesson. A book that should have taken eight months took three years.

So how important is planning for you before you write a book?

Planning is important, but so is spontaneity. I used to play a lot of chess when I was a kid. My Grandfather, who was an amateur Chess champion, taught me. I think writing a book is almost like playing chess against yourself. You’re always thinking 20 moves ahead. But often I’ll get halfway through a book and a better ending will occur to me. I love that feeling of satisfaction you get when something unexpected happens – you didn’t see a plot development coming – and the ending comes together. If you don’t surprise yourself as a writer, you won’t surprise the reader.

What have you discovered on your journey as a writer?

The most important thing is to write about characters that you care about. As a writer you need to love all your characters, the villains included. If you think about the greatest and most successful books in the genre, you care about the characters. In Silence of the Lambs, for example, you grow to like the hideous Hannibal Lecter, and you  even care a little for Buffalo Bill because he must be a little human, because he loves his dog! Frankenstein’s Monster didn’t want to be created, there’s pathos there. Endearing characters – that’s what people connect to. In all of literature it’s said there are only seven stories, but it’s the characters that makes them different, and it’s the characters that you remember.

What’s the best advice you can give to a new writer?

Read. What I did when I started out was to read – and reread  – books that were in the genre I wanted to write. I remember reading Brighton Rock by Graham Greene and I was just blown-away by it, so I deconstructed it to discover how he had made it work. I read Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby again and again – nothing seems to happen in that book but there’s a sense of dread that’s horrifying – and another book that I learned a lot from was Stephen King’s The Shining.

Another important lesson is you have to grab the reader straight away with a terrific first line, because if they’re browsing in the store and pick up your book and the first sentence doesn’t grab them, they’ll more than likely buy somebody else’s. I’ve talked to agents who’ve had authors say to them ‘Ignore the first 50 pages, it gets exciting after that!’

These days everyone has so much choice. Grab your readers and never let them go! We all learn from past writers, and from our peers.  My greatest thrill is to  go into a bookshop,pick up a book by an author I’ve never read before, and then be utterly riveted by it, so that when I put it down, I think to myself, “Wow, I wish I’d written that!’