Friday, 11 October 2019

Why I wrote What She Saw Last Night

What She Saw Last Night is published in paperback in the UK on 26 November. To whet your appetite, here's a piece I wrote for the Suze Reviews blog earlier this year.




Why I Wrote What She Saw Last Night

I’ve always loved reading and watching thrillers set on trains – from The 39 Steps, Murder on the Orient Express, From Russia With Love, right up to Girl on the Train, there’s something very appealing about a train-set mystery.

I had already dipped my toe in the Train Mystery subgenre with The Time to Kill, part of which takes place aboard the Empire Builder train from Seattle to Chicago, but when I read an article about the planned launch of the new Caledonian Sleeper train, I got the idea for a standalone mystery that opens aboard the train. It opens with a woman discovering a dead body, and realising a young child she saw last night is missing… except that all the evidence says there never was a child.

The Caledonian Sleeper is one of only two sleeper services in the UK, and it connects one of the world’s biggest cities to the sparsely populated and rural Scottish Highlands. We think of Britain as pretty small in comparison to America or mainland Europe, but if you go north and south, there’s a lot of ground to cover. I was sure somebody would have had the idea to set a book on this particular sleeper train before me, but was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t seem to have been done.

That juxtaposition between the bustle of London and the wide open spaces of the Highlands was a big appeal for me. I love both areas. I’m definitely a city guy at heart, so I’m always at home in London, but sometimes it’s nice to be the only person for miles around. The sheer scale of the Highlands, the beauty of the landscape, gives you such a fantastic canvas. It’s similar to why I write about America, that sense of enormous space and isolation.

I had always wanted to travel on a night train, and the book gave me a great excuse to take the trip a few times for research. The people at Caledonian Sleeper were really helpful, answering all of my obscure questions and even giving me a tour of one of the trains.


The old sleeper carriages that they’re phasing out date from the 1980s, which means there’s no wifi, no air conditioning, and very importantly, no onboard CCTV cameras. And, of course, the other bonus for a crime writer is when you get far enough north, you lose phone signal too.

I really enjoyed starting with a completely blank slate on this book, and particularly getting to create an entirely new hero. Jenny, the protagonist of What She Saw Last Night, is an interesting character, because she’s not an action hero, nor is she an unbalanced, unreliable narrator. She’s a normal person flung into an extraordinary situation, and has to come up with a way to deal with it.





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A secret that could kill her.
A truth no one believes...

Jenny Bowen is going home. Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper, all she wants to do is forget about her upcoming divorce and relax on the ten-hour journey through the night.

In her search for her cabin, Jenny helps a panicked woman with a young girl she assumes to be her daughter. Then she finds her compartment and falls straight to sleep.

Waking in the night, Jenny discovers the woman dead in her cabin ... but there's no sign of the little girl. The train company have no record of a child being booked on the train, and CCTV shows the dead woman boarding alone.

The police don't believe Jenny, and soon she tries to put the incident out of her head and tells herself that everyone else is right: she must have imagined the little girl.

But deep down, she knows that isn't the truth.



Monday, 16 September 2019

Author Confessions - Scottish Book Trust

I will have actual new book news soon, I promise! I can't tell you much about 2020's book but here's a clue as to where it's set...



In the meantime, here's another Q&A from the archives. This one is from Scottish Book Trust, who grilled me on some author confessions...

Do you ever mentally edit someone else’s work while you read?

Yes, I can’t help it. Not just while reading books, either. I’m always thinking about how I would have handled a particular film, TV show, song lyric or commercial differently, despite not knowing the first thing about directing, songwriting or advertising. Basically I’m just an incorrigible back-seat driver.

What’s your opinion on reading in the bath?

I’m very much in favour. In fact a nice hot bath or a nice quiet train carriage are the two best places for reading a book, because there are no interruptions.

How do you react to bad reviews?

With surprise. Just kidding. I probably have the same initial reaction as most people – I get huffy and defensive. I do genuinely appreciate constructive criticism, though. If a negative review hits on some points that ring true, I try to take it on board for the next piece of work. I’m fairly harsh on myself as an editor, so I’m usually not too surprised by the specific things people don’t like so much about my work. Especially if I’ve already had my wife’s feedback, because she is brutal.

Where do you stand on spinebreaking?

I’m relaxed about it – books are for reading. Water damage from reading in the bath is a bigger risk for any books in my possession. Break the spines on any of my comics though, and I’ll rip your head off. I’m a man of contradictions.

Which author or fictional character would you most like to party with?

Jay Gatsby is the obvious answer – not just because he throws lavish Jazz Age parties in his sumptuous Long Island mansion, but because I’m the type of guy who likes to stay on the fringes of a party having a conversation with somebody interesting… and Gatsby certainly fits the bill.

Author-wise, I’d have to say Neil Gaiman. I’m a huge Sandman fanboy, and Neil seems like he knows how to have a good time.

How do you arrange your bookshelf?

Pretty randomly, although I make a half-hearted effort to group books into genres and authors. A shockingly large proportion of my books are nowhere near the shelves, and are instead arranged in stacks beside the bed waiting for me to get to them.

Do you judge books by their covers?

I think everyone does, to some extent. A great cover means I’m far more likely to pick up a book by someone I’ve never heard of, just as a terrible cover makes it less likely. Having said that, if the book has other things going for it (an interesting title or endorsement, for example), I’ll give it a chance regardless of the jacket.

Have you ever pretended to have read a book to impress someone?

No, but I have pretended to like a book that I didn’t.

Do you ever turn to the back of a book and read the end first? If not, what would you say to such people?

Actually yes, all the time, but never to spoil the ending. I just love to read the first and last lines of a novel. I think you can learn a lot about an author from their first and last lines.

Is there a book by someone else that you wish you’d written?

No, because I’d have written a different book, and the book I like would no longer exist. Occasionally I read something where they’ve started with a fantastic idea and I haven’t liked the execution, so I guess in those cases I might like to have a stab at it.

What’s the worst/trashiest book you secretly love?

I don’t really believe in ‘guilty pleasures’, and if a book’s enjoyable on any level then to me it isn’t a bad book. To paraphrase Duke Ellington, there’s only two kinds of books: good books and the other kind.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Five Underappreciated Classics - Scottish Book Trust

Another blog from the archive - this one was written for the Scottish Book Trust, who asked me to pick 5 underappreciated thriller gems.

***



Like many crime writers, I'm also a music lover. As any music lover will tell you, while it's sometimes nice to enjoy a massive stadium act along with everyone else, it's even more gratifying to be into a more obscure band that feels like your little secret.

Books are like that too. Every once in a while you'll pick up an interesting-looking thriller in a charity shop because the cover looks intriguing. Sometimes you’ll try a new author because someone else you admire once namechecked them in an interview. If you’re lucky, you discover an underrated gem.

Some of the books on my list of forgotten crime classics are like that. A couple of them inspired films that went on to eclipse their literary source in the public consciousness. Others are the kind of books that have been well-kept secrets for so long that they're probably not really secrets, or forgotten. But it's safe to say you probably won't find any of these in your average airport bookshop.

So while it's great to read the Rebus series or LA Confidential or Gone Girl and appreciate them with the rest of crowd, here are some alternative picks that are a little off the beaten path, but no less rewarding for that.

And you'll be able to impress people at parties with your offbeat tastes. As long as the parties you go to are populated with people who read thrillers, that is. But let's face it – aren't they the best people to party with?

1) John D. MacDonald - The Lonely Silver Rain

2) Geoffrey Household - Rogue Male

3) Ira Levin - A Kiss Before Dying

4) William Hjortsberg - Falling Angel

5) Walter Wager - 58 Minutes

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Q&A with Book Addict Shaun

While carrying out an intensive review of my web presence (okay, procrastinating), I noticed that some of the links to older articles and interviews have become broken. I'm going to start reposting old material here so it doesn't disappear into internet oblivion.

Also yay, recycling.

This was from the sadly-defunct Book Addict Shaun page - Q&A first, and his generous review of my second novel The Samaritan below.




1. Can you introduce Carter Blake for those readers who are yet to meet him?

Carter Blake is a free agent who specialises in finding people who don't want to be found. He has a shadowy background in intelligence and special operations which has furnished him with the skills and experience to make him the best at what he does. As we read more about him, we start to get a bit more detail about his past.

2. The Carter Blake series is set in the US. Why do you think so many UK authors choose to set their thrillers outside of the UK? 

Good question, and I think there are a few reasons. One of the most important for me was the fact that I've always loved American books and films, and it's always a good idea to write the kind of thing that you enjoy. I also think there is an advantage for UK authors writing about America because we share a language and many of the same cultural touchstones, but we bring an outsider's perspective as well. That's a good thing for writing any fiction, but particularly crime.


3. How much research did you do before writing The Killing Season and The Samaritan? What struck me is how authentic they felt in terms of their setting...

Thank you! I do some general research before I start writing, but only enough to get me started. A lot of the real detail is added as I write and in subsequent drafts. I find it easier to come up with the characters and the big scenes and then try to ground them in reality as far as possible. In some ways that was easier for The Samaritan because it's mostly set in Los Angeles and I've spent some time there.

4. Was it a lot of pressure having to follow up a successful first novel? What was it like getting a quote from Lee Child?

I was actually really lucky with timings on that, because The Samaritan was finished before Killing Season was published. It felt like I had the warm glow of having done my homework ahead of time. It was a different sort of pressure for the second book, because on the one hand I had a deadline and the expectations of my publisher, but on the other I had the confidence of knowing
 that they liked the first book, so I had clearly done something right.

The Lee Child quote was a fantastic boost, as he's one of my literary heroes. I got the chance to say hi to him at Crimefest this weekend, and he was really approachable and encouraging about the book.


5. Without going into too much detail we often learn a lot about Carter Blake's past, in The Samaritan especially, is he a character that you have fully plotted out or do you yourself learn more about him as you write?

I have a pretty good idea of his background and where he's going, but I definitely do learn more about him as I write. I think it's more fun that way, because I get to find out more about him and flesh out his character and history over several books. Without giving anything away, you find out more about his past in The Samaritan, and even more in the third book, but there
 are still things about him I don't know yet. Like his real name...


6. What does a typical writing day look like for you?

I tend to write at night time. I have a day job and young children, so a typical day tends to mean putting the kids to bed and then typing away until midnight or so. Right now I'm editing the third book, so basically every spare moment is taken up with that.


7. This series is one of the most exciting new thriller series I have read in recent years. Can you reveal anything about the future of Carter Blake? Can we assume this is hopefully going to be a long-running series?

Thank you, that's really encouraging to hear! The big thing in his immediate future is that his past is about to come back to bite him in book 3. The ramifications of what happens in that book will spill over into the next one. I certainly hope it will be a long-running series, and I have ideas for another few Blake books after the fourth one. The great thing about the character is he can go anywhere and get involved in a lot of different types of adventures.


8. Having worked incredibly hard to become a published author, what have you found to be the most exciting thing about the whole process? 

It probably won't come as a big surprise, but the single most exciting thing has to be walking into a bookshop and seeing a real book on the shelves with words inside that you wrote. I'm really glad that physical book retailing is surviving so far in the 21st century, because while seeing your book listed on Amazon is nice, it's not the same thing. In general I feel incredibly lucky to have such a great agent and publisher, and to be so supported in what I'm doing.




Book Addict Shaun's review of The Samaritan (May 3, 2015):

The Killing Season - the debut novel from Mason Cross - was a great success and certainly one of the more enjoyable books that I have read this year. I was incredibly relieved to have a review copy of The Samaritan to read rather than having to wait after the thrilling conclusion delivered by Mason in The Killing Season. Mason proves in The Samaritan that the comparisons to the various bestselling authors are not just marketing tools, he has created a character in Carter Blake that can easily stand alongside the likes of Jack Reacher.

In The Samaritan the mutilated body of a young woman discovered in the Santa Monica Mountains points LAPD detective Jessica Allen in the direction of a serial killer - the MO being the same as one she witnessed a couple of years ago on the other side of the country. 'The Samaritan' preys on lone female drivers who have broken down, and with no leads or traces left behind, the police are stumped. Enter Carter Blake, a skilled manhunter with an ability to foresee the Samaritan's next moves but a man who leaves Jessica and her colleagues with a couple of suspicions. Blake has his work cut out attempting to stop the Samaritan, and might just find his life once again on the line not least because he also recognises the MO as that of a man from his past.

The opening establishes to the reader just the kind of person Carter Blake is, as well as giving a little bit of background and insight as to what his 'job' is. What I especially enjoy is how refreshing he is as a character, making this series one of the most exciting new thriller series I have read for a long time. In The Samaritan Mason Cross tells the story in the present day, but interweaves Blake's past to add to the overall mystery and the story here is incredibly strong. If someone asked you to describe what you expect from a thriller I'm sure most people would list: fast-paced, relentless, action-packed etc and whilst it is a bit of a cliche to describe books in that way, that is exactly what is delivered in The Samaritan.

What struck me first in The Killing Season and again in The Samaritan is how truly American these books feel. Being written by a British author, you hope that they can bring to the story that authenticity, and Mason Cross definitely does. Add in some brilliantly vivid descriptions both of the setting and the scenes themselves and this is an incredibly exciting read. In terms of plot it is once again difficult to talk further than the blurb, but what I most enjoyed was learning more about Blake's history, and the way that it was used throughout the story. I actually thought I had a couple of the twists worked out, but I have to admit I failed to see a couple of killer twists that were revealed right before the conclusion. The Killing Season had a heart-stopping, thrilling ending and this was delivered again in The Samaritan and then some.

Thriller fans looking for something fresh, and to feel that excitement you get upon discovering an author such as Mason Cross would be well-advised to check out this series.



Thursday, 18 July 2019

Audiobook special offer

I love audiobooks - I listen while running, doing housework, on trains, basically anytime I can put in my earbuds. It's a great way to reclaim time.

So of course I'm really pleased that my own books are all available in audio, and the latest, What She Saw Last Night is on special this week in the Kobo sale.

It's narrated by the fantastic Carolyn Bonnyman, and UK listeners can get it for only £6.99 this weekend (usually £19.99).

Enjoy!



Saturday, 13 July 2019

The Incident Room



Very pleased to say that I'll be appearing in the Orion Incident Room at Harrogate again this year, this time recording a Two Crime Writers podcast with a Just a Minute twist! I'm pretty good at talking for a minute, but deviation, repetition and hesitation is usually a major feature of my public speaking, so I'll have to do my best to rein it in...

Lots of other cool stuff going on in the Incident Room and at the wider festival (see below). Hope to see you there if you're in Harrogate next weekend.


Friday 19th July, Library Room, Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate

9:30-11:00: Two Crime Writers Play ‘Just a Minute’ (Steve Cavanagh, Luca Veste, Mason Cross, Adrian McKinty, Stephanie Marland, Marnie Riches, Paul Finch)

11:30-12:30: A Journey to Publication with Tracy Fenton (Rob Sinclair, Alison Belsham, AJ Park, Amy McLellan, Louisa de Lange)

13:00-13:30: The Wreckage Proof Signing and Giveaway with Robin Morgan-Bentley

14:00-14:55: Desert Island Crime (Isabel Ashdown, Mari Hannah, Emma Kavanagh, Tim MacGabhann, Chris McGeorge, Oscar du Muriel)

15:30-16:45: Crime Girl Gang Podcast Live Event (Elle Croft, Niki Mackay, Victoria Selman, Emma Rowley, Lara Dearman, Elisabeth Carpenter, Isabel Ashdown)

17:15-18:00: Orion author meet and greet (All welcome)

18:30-19:15: One Night with Ian Rankin


Saturday, 6 July 2019

On libraries




I've just finished a mini-tour of libraries for What She Saw Last Night (also available in all good bookshops, since you asked) and had a brilliant time, visiting eleven libraries at my last count, including Dundee, Strathaven, Saltcoats, East Kilbride, Lanark and lots more.

It was lovely to meet so many people and talk to them about the new book, and it was cool to hear about other people's experiences of taking the sleeper train to London - almost without exception, somebody in every crowd had taken the trip, and had opinions on it.

Everywhere I went, I was struck by how uniformly awesome librarians are, going above and beyond the call of duty to drum up attendance, make posters, do the social media blitz, provide home baking, arrange displays, offer lifts from stations, and even organise cheese and wine at one event.


It reminded me of an article I wrote for a newspaper a few years ago about how important libraries are to me, and how vital they are to local communities.

Unfortunately, the piece was spiked when they ran out of room, as is the way, but I dug it out and thought I would post it here for anyone who's interested.

You'll have to imagine your own punning tabloid title, I'm afraid...

***


"I know a lot of people who say they're writing a novel or a script, but what they're actually doing is sitting in Starbucks with a laptop talking to everyone about writing a novel."

I was part of an audience of several hundred people. Despite that, I had the uneasy feeling that comic book legend Mark Millar was talking specifically about me.

It was October 2008, and I was attending Mark's packed event at the Encounters festival, hosted by North Lanarkshire Libraries. Encounters runs every year. It's a fantastic free festival which brings big name speakers to libraries across North Lanarkshire. People who would never normally consider attending a literary festival can see a Booker Prize winner or a celebrity chef speak at their local library, absolutely free.


I was working two jobs at the time, and on a tight budget with a young family and an impending wedding, so the free ticket was very welcome. The local libraries were a lifeline to me in other ways. They meant I had access to all the books I could read without having to worry about finding extra money in the budget. Airdrie Library had a particularly good audiobook selection, and I listened to dozens of novels while delivering pizza in the evenings. The libraries also provided a quiet, indoor space to get some writing done.

Only that was the part I wasn't really taking advantage of.

I had wanted to be a writer for as long as I could remember. I had penned a few short stories, submitted some magazine articles, and had even started work on a novel a couple of times.


Actually writing a whole book, however, was one of those resolutions that gets renewed in vain every New Year. I wasn't worried, I knew one day soon I would knuckle down and start writing that book.

But sitting in that audience, I suddenly realised I was kidding myself. I was the guy Mark Millar was talking about. The guy sitting in a coffee shop thinking about writing a book without ever actually doing it.

I didn't want to be that guy.

 Mark's words really spurred me on. I had an idea for a novel, so I started writing a bit of it every day – 500 words at a time. I began submitting stories to competitions and magazines. Within six months, I had a literary agent. I kept writing. Three years later, I had a book deal.

I don't know if I would be a published author without that gentle kick in the ass from Mark Millar, but I'm almost certain I wouldn't be a writer without libraries. A room full of books that you can take away and read with no restrictions is an amazing concept that we sometimes take for granted – just ask any smart eight-year-old. It's why it's incredibly important that libraries are protected as a public resource, particularly the smaller community libraries that reach people who might not be able to make it to a bigger town.


Flash forward seven years to October 2015. I've published two novels and there's another on the way. I've just found out The Samaritan has been selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club. I've been booked for big literary events like the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Bloody Scotland. But I'm just as pleased about my invitation to appear at Airdrie Library to speak as part of Encounters. Back where I started.

I read a chapter from my next novel, talk a little bit about myself and wait for the first question.

"How does it feel to be a proper writer?"

It feels pretty great.

***

If you'd like me to visit your library, just ask them to get in touch. If your library is located in Scotland, funding for author events is available through the Scottish Book Trust's excellent Live Literature programme.



What She Saw Last Night opens with a night train, a dead body, and a missing child. You can read more about it here, and it's available in the UK now:

Trade paperback (large format)

ebook

Audio