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Please Welcome Featured Author MICK HERRON!

[ Edited ]

I'm excited to welcome MICK HERRON to B&N's Mystery Forum! I recently discovered Mick's books, but after reading Book One (DOWN CEMETERY ROAD), I'm already a fan! I'm working my way through all of his books now. I was tempted to mark all the pages where I liked a particular turn of the phrase, but there were too many of them! Suffice to say, I think you're going to like Mick's books!

 

Check out Mick's website here: http://www.mickherron.com/

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Re: Please Welcome Featured Author MICK HERRON!

This is from Mick's website:

 

mick-clrDLATLD

Mick Herron is a novelist and short story writer whose books include the Sarah Tucker/Zoë Boehm series, the standalone novel Reconstruction, and Slow Horses, which has been called the “most enjoyable British spy novel in years”* and was shortlisted for the 2010 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award.

His short stories, the Barry-nominated “Proof of Love” among them, regularly appear in 
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and anthologies including The Crime Writers’ Association’s M.O. and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime, Volumes 7 and 8. His novella “Dolphin Junction” was joint winner of the 2009 Ellery Queen Readers Award.

Mick was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, and now lives in Oxford.


* John Williams, Mail on Sunday

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Re: Please Welcome Featured Author MICK HERRON!

The Q&A


Where do you get your ideas from?

Has anyone ever been able to answer that? Plots gather around tiny details, the way crystals grow in suspension. I usually start with a character and a situation, and work backwards – the plot is an excuse to put the character in that situation. And there’ll be a recurring theme that runs through the book and helps bind it together. In 
The Last Voice You Hear, this was love; in Smoke & Whispers, it’s identity. At the most basic level, this means that Sarah Tucker’s task in the novel is to identify a body. In the broader sense, it’s about wondering how well you can ever know anybody.


Why did you set Smoke & Whispers in Newcastle upon Tyne?

Newcastle’s where I grew up, and I’ve long wanted to set a novel there. Now seemed the right time, not least because it’s changed so much over the past few decades. From being a city in decline – it suffered during the last recession, and was brutalised by the city planners – it’s bloomed again in recent years. Down by the River Tyne itself, the Sage and the Baltic – a concert hall and modern art museum respectively – have put Newcastle firmly on the country’s cultural map. (In the novel, Sarah is somewhat disrespectful of the Baltic’s exhibits, but if she’d seen Yoko Ono’s 
Between The Sky And My Head, she’d have been more enthusiastic.) Not long ago, the city appeared on a list of the ten coolest places on the planet, not something anyone would have predicted back in the eighties. None of which is to suggest that it doesn’t still have its dark places. Sarah gets to visit them too; the little pockets of old Newcastle that no amount of gentrification or urban regeneration will, thank goodness, ever do away with. 

For all this, I was well aware that Newcastle is not my home any more; and besides, with genuinely local crime writers like the fine Martin Waites on the scene, it would amount to poaching to pretend to insider knowledge. So Sarah’s only a visitor to Newcastle, which allowed me to see it through a stranger’s eyes, and enjoy its tourist side as much as its grimier realities.

And besides, my niece and nephews’ bands – XYZ and Last Orders – are based in Newcastle, and it was a great opportunity to namedrop them.


Your series novels sometimes focus on Sarah Tucker; sometimes on private detective Zoë Boehm. Why two characters? And why both women?

The two women are very different, I hope, so shuttling between them allows me to indulge opposing viewpoints. Sarah is the more feeling of the pair, and I sometimes claim that I’m getting in touch with my feminine side when writing about her. The more likely truth is that, when writing about Zoë, I’m trying to bolster my masculine nature. Zoë is pretty stubborn, and doesn’t much care whether people like her or not so long as she gets the job done. Sarah’s more concerned about doing the right thing, and other people’s emotions matter to her. On the other hand, I had thought she’d given up having adventures, and hadn’t expected to be writing about her again. So maybe she’s got a stubborn streak too.

As for why I choose female protagonists, my answer changes depending on what mood I’m in, but I think the truth is that it keeps me on my toes. It’s not much of a stretch to decide what a male response to a situation might be – I just have to decide what I’d do if it was me. With a female character, I have to think a little harder. Plus, they make for good camouflage. When I feel like smuggling the odd chunk of autobiography into a book, I can generally get away with it without anybody noticing. 


Is crime fiction in a healthy state?

Yes. Every year new names appear, while established writers carry on producing excellent work. It's surprising, too – and encouraging – how often writers who’ve been quarrying away for years can be suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Peter Temple’s a good example: long feted in Australia, he’s only recently been published in Britain, to immediate and well-deserved acclaim. In the US, Laura Lippman is a shining example of what good genre writing can achieve, while back in the UK, John Harvey shows that a career can maintain an upward trajectory on an apparently indefinite basis. The same holds true of Reginald Hill, whose work is an enduring delight.


Do you have a strict routine when you write?

Absolutely. The important part of being a novelist is the bit where you actually sit down and put the words on the page, which is something most of us would go to great lengths to avoid. So making it part of a routine is crucial. For me, the magic number is 350 – that’s how many words I set myself to write every evening. (A pitiful amount, I know, but I do have a full-time job.) Music helps. Right now, I’m listening to the (sorely missed) Esbjörn Svensson Trio. 

As for the actual business of structuring a book, when I start a novel, I usually have a scene-by-scene breakdown of the first chapter, but nothing much after that. By the time I get to the end, I'm about a page ahead of the reader. 


How much research do you do?

I’m a firm adherent of the school of Making Stuff Up. 


What do you think’s the most important element in writing?

The sad truth is, when sitting down to write, the most important goal is the daily word-count. At that moment, I’m 350 words away from being able to get up again. But once I start, word-count becomes an administrative detail: what matters then is that the sentences take shape, and flow cleanly, one from the other.


What advice would you give an aspiring novelist?

There are only two pieces of advice any would-be writer needs. The first is “Give up.” Those who heed that don’t need to hear the second, which is “Don’t give up.”


What are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a long, complicated novel about unsuccessful spies, and wishing I were writing a short, romantic one about almost anything else. Perhaps next time.
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Naming names by Mick Herron

Not far from where I used to work, and just yards from the tube station I’d arrive at every morning, there’s a row of what probably used to be town houses, back when that area of London boasted such things. Nowadays, the block’s mostly convenience stores and dingy restaurants, above which are what I suppose are offices: gazing upwards from the other side of the road you can glimpse strip lighting within, and filing cabinets, and calendars pinned to walls. A red and silver banner reading “Merry Xmas” was propped for years against a window, and to me this smacked of a particular desperation; of inmates with just enough will to put a decoration up, but not enough to take it back down. More than anything, that banner made me thank god I didn’t work there. The building looked like where you’d end up once you’d failed everywhere else.

Even so, its colonisation of my imagination was a slow-burn process, and by the time I’d realised I was going to use it as a setting – for a down-at-heel department of the British Intelligence Service; an “administrative oubliette” staffed by failures and burn-outs – my own London office had relocated. From a more upmarket postcode I plotted the doings of a crew of misfits, but stalled on what to call my protagonist (I was a long way off thinking him a hero). His surname was Cartwright, a sturdy enough English tag, but what preceded it gave me trouble, though I knew it had two syllables. I must have tried every name in common usage, but he remained semi-anonymous. My notes were full of stuff like: “Lamb summons 
XXXX upstairs by banging on floor.” 

I was on a train when “River” popped into my head. I’m still not sure why; it’s not your everyday name. But as soon as it was there, that became the point – not being standard, it trailed a backstory: “River” was a handle only a hippy parent could bestow. And given that your average flower-child doesn’t end up working for the Intelligence Services, there had to be more to his upbringing than that… Within moments of his name arriving, I had River Cartwright’s whole history: a grandfather who’d been a Cold War spook; a mother who rebelled and became a middle-class drop-out (all Chelsea squats and Laura Ashley dresses); an abandoned child brought up by his grandparents on a diet of 
Kim and le Carré…

Character is plot. Once River was River he had sound reasons for becoming the person he is, and, exiled into the losers’ department – after a disastrous encounter with a rush-hour “suicide bomber” – he was always going to be champing at the bit; primed to go off-reservation, thus propelling himself and his fellow outcasts to the centre of the action.

As for the book itself, at this stage it was called 
Dolphin Junction, a title chosen for its disconnect – Dolphin Junction, rather than the sandy promontory into a wine-dark sea its label suggests, is a junction box on a dismal stretch of railway track just outside Slough (possibly the point my train was passing when River’s name popped into my head). But sometime round about then I read Don Winslow’s The Winter of Frankie Machine, in which a gambler’s poverty is ascribed to his “fondness for slow horses”, and I thought: I’m having that. So ideas morphed and sandwiched: the decrepit office block became Slough House, to allow for its incumbents to be dubbed Slow Horses (when they’re not being called sly whores); and “Dolphin Junction” was shunted aside and coupled to a novella instead. When this won the 2009 Ellery Queen Readers’ Award, my own name morphed too; the story’s credited online, everywhere except EQMM itself, to “Mike Herron”, who isn’t me. Still, I’m not the only one with problems. Don Winslow shares his name with a pornographer – just check his Amazon page. To commiserate, and to thank him for the title, there’s a hat-tip in the novel’s first line, which echoes several of his own openings: “This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses.”

My firm moved yet again last year, and I’m regularly using that tube station once more. Slough House, whatever its real name may be, is still standing, and as of this morning – it’s April as I write – its Merry Xmas banner remains in place. I hope life there isn’t as desperate as I’ve imagined; and I can only assume it’s not as dangerous as the one my slow horses lead – not all of them make it to the finishing line. But the survivors are saddled up again, along with some newcomers to fill those empty desks. And all I need now are their names.

2010

 

 
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These books will change your life

by Mick Herron

This was written at the request of my American publishers, who stipulated “About 700 words on a topic of your choosing.” To which, when I sent them this, they added: “So long as it’s about your new book.”

It’s not a strapline you see so much these days, but it’s still out there. “This book will change your life.” The kind of claim issued by professional hucksters and amateur critics; the former generally promising to make you rich, thin and happy; the latter imagining it a useful criterion for assessing a book. “It won’t change your life or anything, but it’s quite good,” went an online review I read recently. I took this as further evidence that the blogosphere is maintained by and for 12-year-olds.

But there’s change and then there’s change. I was preparing some leeks the other day – sweating them in butter, with a pinch of nutmeg – when it struck me that this was a recent development in my kitchen skills. Left to my own devices I’d use olive oil, with maybe a little wine vinegar. Nutmeg wouldn’t have occurred to me. But last year I read a story by Patrick Gale – “Cookery”, from his brilliant collection 
Gentleman’s Relish – in which the narrator adopts just that method, and almost without noticing it, that’s how I’ve been cooking leeks since.

Okay, so this isn’t a major remodelling of my lifestyle, but it got me thinking: what else have I picked up from books recently – what am I doing that I wouldn’t be, if I hadn’t read about it first? And it wasn’t difficult to find examples because, like most writers, I don’t actually do very much. The following’s from Michael Connelly’s 
Nine Dragons, which I read in January: LA cop Harry Bosch is in his car, keeping tabs on a suspect’s house, and staying awake thanks to his CD system, loaded with his latest musical discovery:

“Tomasz Stanko was a Polish trumpeter who sounded like the ghost of Miles Davis. His horn was sharp and soulful. It was good surveillance music. It kept Bosch alert.”

Now, I don’t listen to music to stay alert, but I’m always grateful for a heads-up. And once an internet search had revealed that Stanko’s on the ECM label, home to Bobo Stenson, EST, Keith Jarrett and other notables, Bosch’s – sorry, Connelly’s – recommendation was a no-brainer: 
Lontano is playing as I key this, and I’m guessing the Miles comparison is to later Miles, because it’s from a different planet to Kind of Blue, but Stanko plays trumpet the way Stenson plays piano – his music’s subtle and melodic, with moments of captivating beauty – and that works for me.

But the degree to which I am, frankly, a puppet in the hands of whoever I happen to be reading at any given moment only really hit me halfway through Sue Grafton’s 
T is for Trespass, in which a character Kinsey Milhone is interviewing is busy mending a toaster. Conversation ensues:

“Most of the time, the problem’s as simple as people not bothering to empty the crumb tray.”
“What, the sliding thing underneath?” Kinsey asks.
“Yes, ma’am.”

And reading this I thought, sliding thing underneath? What sliding thing underneath? For years, I’ve adopted the traditional means of rebooting a toaster: I turn it upside down and rattle it until the crumbs fall out. And now I’m told there’s a sliding thing underneath? Not on my toaster, lady. 

It’s a good job I was at home, or the suspense might have killed me. As it is, I marched straight into the kitchen, morally certain 
my toaster boasted no so-called “crumb tray”, because that, well, that would make a mockery of my established toaster-maintenance protocols. But guess what? My toaster has a sliding thing underneath … It’s disguised as a decorative embellishment – if we were talking architecture rather than toasters, I’d reach for a word like “valance” – but it does indeed slide out, carrying all the crumbs with it. So effectively, in fact, it might have been designed for the purpose.

Well, I’m not too proud to admit I’ve been using the crumb tray ever since. Sometimes without making toast first (it’s the novelty). And while the above are only small changes – a new taste, a new sound; a less abusive relationship with a kitchen appliance – they’re changes nonetheless, and writing this has made me wonder if I should be doing more to wield a benign influence over my own readers. I’ve never expected a book of mine to change anyone’s life, my own excepted, but perhaps I’ve been setting the bar too low. Maybe I should be doling out lifestyle suggestions, or plotting readers’ holiday itineraries. Or offering fashion tips – now there’s a thought. Fashion tips …

You’ve been warned.

2010

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Where I get my ideas from
by Mick Herron


There’s probably little more dangerous a writer can do than reveal the origins of his or her novel – too much information exposes the gap between intention and achievement, and reveals the finished work for the ragbag of incomplete patterns and secondhand notions the author secretly fears it is. Best to keep all that under wraps. The reason why “Where do you get your ideas from?” is a recurring question is that no self-respecting writer dares answer it properly. Don’t expect me to, either.

But, given that books happen, ideas presumably occur. Philip Larkin wrote that when a poem suggested itself to him, it brought with it a hint of how it should be written – usually its first or last line, and the form it would take: quatrains, free verse, whatever. (I’m paraphrasing madly here.) Similarly, before I started 
Down Cemetery Road (a title borrowed from Larkin), I knew it would be about a woman called Sarah, and that the whole story, though not in the first person, would be told from her perspective. I knew that Sarah would take it upon herself to solve some mystery or other – details to follow – and in so doing would unravel her own life, and wreak havoc on those around her. And I knew that the opening words would be taken from the list of fire instructions pinned to my door in college, years ago.

None of this counts as an idea. It’s more like picking up a ball without yet knowing what game you’re going to play. Though, of course – give or take the results-skewing variable of drunken enthusiasm – the game settled on is largely determined by the ball’s size and shape. The choice is not infinite.

And the same goes for plots. Because, in order to have the time and inclination to look into whatever mysterious incident happened, it was obvious that my Sarah was going to have to be (a) bored and (b) not have (i) a job or (ii) children, but (c) not be desperate about (b)(i) (though (b)(ii) might be an issue) and therefore (d) must have a husband/partner earning enough for both of them, and unbothered that she wasn’t working. This in itself indicated that (e) he must have a pretty hefty job (and therefore that (f) they’d live in a nice neighbourhood), and also, perhaps, that (g) he’d have views on (b)(ii), which meant she had to have opposing views, otherwise it wouldn’t be an issue. And the hefty job would be another one, because Sarah was naturally going to (h) resent his being the money earner, because of (i) the control thing, plus (j) having to entertain his rich clients. (This was always happening in 
The Good Life, I remember.) And whatever happened to shake all this up was going to have to be (k) pretty noticeable, but at the same time (l) able to be passed off by “them” – whoever “they” turned out to be, which was not a Chapter One problem – as an unfortunate accident (because otherwise there’d be proper, uniformed people investigating it).

By the time I’d realised that the opening scene was going to involve a somewhat tense dinner party interrupted by a nearby house exploding, no other course of events seemed possible. And since whatever happened next was ideally going to explain what had already occurred, the remaining choices grew more limited with every paragraph.

I’ll skip the details of the following eighteen months or so. They’re lost to memory, anyway. I’ve always been impressed by the way Goscinny & Uderzo kept count of how many bottles of beer they drank, and pencils they wore out, and sheets of paper they got through, while writing 
Asterix and Cleopatra, but chiefly by how many bottles of beer they drank. But since I can’t drink and keep count at the same time, a similar statistical analysis was never going to happen.

What I do remember, though, is that betrayals were made along the way. It became impossible to tell Sarah’s story from her viewpoint alone, if the reader weren’t to spend the whole journey as confused as she was. The opening words got pushed aside, to make room for a prologue. And, perhaps equally importantly, the original plot was binned on the second draft, and a new one shunted into place. There were other lessons learned too, of course; for example, that prophecy’s a doddle, provided you stick to the big picture – it was no great feat to foretell another Gulf War. But I never imagined there’d come a time when it would no longer be possible to walk onto the railway platform at Oxford without a ticket. And that really does stuff the plot’s credibility.

For the second book, 
The Last Voice You Hear, the starting point was, again, less an idea than a given. I wanted to write about love – death too, obviously, but mostly love. Not a love story, mind, but one about a man who insinuates himself into the lives of lonely women, promising them love, but removing all hope of it instead. And the woman investigating this would be someone for whom love had become a forgotten language; one she had to learn again along the way. It would be kind of moving, and pretty deep. The reader would have plenty of opportunity to nod sagely, and maybe a little sadly, while turning a page.

But I didn’t want it to be a one-note book, so I thought I’d put some ostriches in too. I like ostriches. On my incredibly detailed plan, I wrote “Chapter five – ostriches”, and even did some research (and when I hear that word, I reach for my security blanket). But this was easy: my very first website hit told me that ostriches stand about nine foot tall and weigh a lot. That’s the kind of heavy data we thriller writers thrive on. The rest, I could legitimately wing. Significantly less than seven seconds later, I had my ostriches: there would be three of them, and they would be called, um … Gwyneth, Nicole and Mr O. I’ll let you guess where I got the first two names. Mr O, though, was the one to watch: the answer to a friend’s remark that there were No Dependable Males in my first book. Nine foot tall and weighing a lot? How dependable can you get? Mr O was the real deal. (The girls, frankly, were fluff.)

Anyway: a long year later, four and a half sevenths of the way through the novel, and it was time to bring the ostriches in. And 
on the same day I started writing that scene – and I am not making this up – there it was, front page of The Times: the results of some research which showed that female ostriches tend to fixate – and we’re talking amorously, here – on their male keepers. You cannot buy this kind of luck. It was like the press was conspiring to promote thematic unity, and how often does that happen? In it went: an ostrich in love. Gwyneth was the lucky girl, though I’m using the word “lucky” loosely. Love – and I’m possibly not the first novelist to have brought this up – doesn’t always end happily.

Happily, though, novels do end. When this one did, I sent it off to my wonderful agent, who in turn sent it to my charming editor (I’m practising my Oscar speech, you’ll notice), and both liked it, I’m happy to report – but neither seemed to want to comment on my finely nuanced aperçus on the nature of love. (I can’t swear, in fact, that they’ve registered them.) Because mostly, they’re taken with the ostriches. And more specifically, with Nicole and Gwyneth – the eye candy.

It’s like Mr O doesn’t exist.

Which brings me full circle: it’s dangerous to reveal what your original idea was – if the word’s even appropriate – because you’ll look like an idiot when it turns out nobody noticed. Essentially, if anybody notices anything at all about your novel, even the fluff, you’re ahead of the game. So if, once 
The Last Voice You Hear is published (next July, by the way: Constable & Robinson), anybody remarks on Gwyn or Nicci, I plan to say “Yeah, I’d been looking for the right vehicle for the girls for a while,” and let it go at that. But if I find a particularly sympathetic ear, I might draw attention to those finely nuanced aperçus I mentioned, if I can remember where in the text I hid them. Or, at the very least, point out that it’s Mr O who’s the important ostrich.

That was the idea, anyway.

2003 (This article first appeared in Shots)

 

 
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REMOTE CONTROL
by Mick Herron

It starts on a train. Maurice’s fault. Maurice is about my age, but since his divorce, he’s let himself go: his suits overdue a dry-cleaning; his shirts frayed at the cuff. Some days, he could stand a little closer to the shower. To hear him tell it, though, he’s better off.
“Finally I get a little peace,” he says. “That woman could talk for England. They should record her phonecalls for training purposes.”
But for all the spin, it’s not just his cuffs that are frayed lately. Small things rattle Maurice’s cage. Some days we don’t get a seat – it’s a busy service – and once he’d have grinned, and deployed those origami skills commuters develop for reading newspapers upright in a crowd. Now he seethes instead, staring grimly out of the window as if, instead of fields and dormitory towns, we’re flashing through a post-nuclear landscape. His hair needs attention. He still has good teeth, though.
“Jesus,” he tells me. “They should make it a crime.”
“Make what a crime, Maurice?”
“Coming into the capital without due purpose,” he says. “Some of these dumbbells, they’re going shopping, can you believe it? They get on a train, 8.10 in the morning, they’re going shopping on Regent Street. So us poor working stiffs have to stand. Hell of a way to prepare for the day ahead.”
“Most of them have jobs, Maurice.”
“The ones that don’t should be stuffed in the luggage racks.”
I have a job. I work in corporate finance, and earn nicely without causing outrage. And Maurice has a job. His company operates CCTV systems. I sometimes wonder if it’s the vaguely Hollywood flavour of this that has tinted his speech with Americanisms. And, too, he sees a lot of bad behaviour. Maurice doesn’t monitor screens himself, but what he calls the showstopper stuff gets spliced onto tapes and shown at parties. His outfit has a security contract which puts cameras along the South Bank, all the way to the Isle of Dogs. He’s seen people screwing against the wall in broad daylight, and not just professionally either. Muggings, of course; rapes, fistfights, stabbings. Politicians arm in arm with local gangsters. Last year he seemed happy in his work, but as the days grind by, the wells we draw from sink deeper. Maurice has a new boss, and this is a travesty of justice. Maurice should have been the new boss – not this punk, which is how Maurice refers to him. “This punk,” he says. “This goddamn kid.” This goddamn kid is ten years younger, two stone lighter and fifteen grand a year richer than Maurice is right now. Maurice feels he’s been gazumped. “That was my job,” he says. “Goddamn punk came out of nowhere.”
Remain detached, I want to tell him. Stay in control. Or you will rupture one day; burst one of those complicated valves that keep the heart pumping. Once you let the rage inside, it’s hard to get it out. Trust me. I know about this.
Maurice hasn’t mentioned the boss in a while. New angers blossom daily.

 

Read the rest of this story here: http://mickherron.com/page13/page13.html

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Dead Lions  

 

Overview

 

 

London's Slough House is where the washed-up MI5 spies go to while away what's left of their failed careers. The "slow horses," as they’re called, have all disgraced themselves in some way to get relegated here. Maybe they messed up an op badly and can't be trusted anymore. Maybe they got in the way of an ambitious colleague and had the rug yanked out from under them. Maybe they just got too dependent on the bottle—not unusual in this line of work. One thing they all have in common, though, is they all want to be back in the action. And most of them would do anything to get there─even if it means having to collaborate with one another.

 

Now the slow horses have a chance at redemption. An old Cold War-era spy is found dead on a bus outside Oxford, far from his usual haunts. The despicable, irascible Jackson Lamb is convinced Dickie Bow was murdered. As the agents dig into their fallen comrade's circumstances, they uncover a shadowy tangle of ancient Cold War secrets that seem to lead back to a man named Alexander Popov, who is either a Soviet bogeyman or the most dangerous man in the world. How many more people will have to die to keep those secrets buried?

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Here's an Excerpt from DEAD LIONS:

 

A fuse had blown in Swindon, so the south-west network ground to a halt. In Paddington the monitors wiped departure times, flagging everything ‘Delayed’, and stalled trains clogged the platforms; on the concourse luckless travellers clustered round suitcases, while seasoned commuters repaired to the pub, or rang home with cast-iron alibis before hooking up with their lovers back in the city. And thirty-six minutes outside London, a Worcester-bound HST crawled to a halt on a bare stretch of track with a view of the Thames. Lights from houseboats pooled on the river’s surface, illuminating a pair of canoes which whipped out of sight even as Dickie Bow registered them: two frail crafts built for speed, furrowing the water on a chilly March evening.
          All about, passengers were muttering, checking watches, making calls. Pulling himself into character, Dickie Bow made an exasperated tch! But he wore no watch, and had no calls to make. He didn’t know where he was headed, and didn’t have a ticket.
          Three seats away the hood fiddled with his briefcase.
         The intercom fizzed.
         “This is your train manager speaking. I’m sorry to have to inform you we can’t go any further due to trackside equipment failure outside Swindon. We’re currently—”
         A crackle of static and the voice died, though could faintly be heard continuing to broadcast in neighbouring carriages. Then it returned:
         “—reverse into Reading, where replacement buses will—”
         This was met with a communal groan of disgust, and not a little swearing, but most impressively to Dickie Bow, immediate readiness. The message hadn’t ended before coats were being pulled on and laptops folded; bags snapped shut and seats vacated. The train shunted, and then the river was flowing in the wrong direction, and Reading station was appearing once more.
         There was chaos as passengers disgorged onto crowded platforms, then realised they didn’t know where to go. Nor did Dickie Bow, but all he cared about was the hood, who had immediately disappeared in a sea of bodies. Dickie, though, was too old a hand
to panic. It was all coming back to him. He might never have left the Spooks’ Zoo.
         Except in those days he’d have found a patch of wall and smoked a cigarette. Not possible here, which didn’t stop a nicotine pang twitching inside him, or a sudden wasp-sharp sting pricking his thigh, so real he gasped. He gripped the spot, his hand brushing first the corner of an oblivious briefcase, then an umbrella’s slick damp nastiness. Deadly weapons, he thought. Your nine-tofivers carry deadly weapons.
         He was crowded onwards, like it or not—, and suddenly everything was okay, because he’d secured visible contact once more: the hood, a hat shielding his bald head, his case tucked under an arm, stood near the escalator to the passenger bridge.
So, corralled by weary travellers, Dickie shuffled past and up the moving stairs, at the top of which he sidled into a corner. The main exit from the station was across this bridge. He assumed that was the route everyone would take, once instructions about buses were issued.
         He closed his eyes. Today was not ordinary. Usually by this time, just after six thirty, all sharp edges would have been smoothed away: he’d have been up since twelve, after five hours’ stormy shut-eye. Black coffee and a fag in his room. A shower if needed. Then the Star, where a Guinness and whisky chaser would either set him right or serve him notice that solids were best avoided. His hardcore days were over. Back then, he’d had his unreliable moments: drunk, he’d mistaken nuns for whores and policemen for friends; sober, he’d made eye-contact with ex-wives, no recognition on his side, and only relief on theirs. Bad times.
        But even then, he’d never had a gold-standard Moscow hood shimmy past without clocking him for what he was.
         Dickie became aware of action: an announcement about buses had been made, and everyone was trying to cross the bridge. He hung by the monitor long enough for the hood to pass, then allowed himself to be carried forward, three warm bodies behind. He shouldn’t be this close, but there was no accounting for the choreography of crowds.
         And this crowd was not happy. Having squeezed through the ticket barriers on the other side, it hassled the station staff, who placated, argued, and pointed at the exits. Outside was wet and dark, and there were no buses. The crowd swelled across the forecourt. Crushed in its embrace, Dickie Bow kept both eyes on the hood, who stood placidly, waiting.
         An interrupted journey, thought Dickie. You played the odds in this line of work—he had forgotten he was no longer in this line of work—and the hood would have finished processing them before getting off the train; he would go with the flow, make no
fuss; continue on his way by whatever means presented. Where this might be, Dickie had no idea. The train had been Worcesterbound, but made plenty of stops before then. The hood could be getting off anywhere. All Dickie knew was, he’d be getting off there too.
         And now there were buses, three of them, pulling round the corner. The crowd tensed, pressed forward, and the hood sailed through the mass like an icebreaker carving an Arctic field, while Dickie slipped through spaces in his wake. Someone was calling instructions, but didn’t have the voice for it. Long before he’d finished, he was drowned out by the muttering of people who couldn’t hear.
         But the hood knew what was what. The hood was heading for the third bus, so Dickie sidled through chaos in his wake, and boarded it too. Nobody asked for a ticket. Dickie simply trotted on and headed for the rear, which boasted a view of the hood, two
seats ahead. Settling back, Dickie allowed his eyes to close. In every operation came a lull. When it did, you shut your eyes and took inventory. He was miles from home, with about sixteen quid on him. He needed a drink, and wouldn’t get one in a hurry. But on the upside, he was here, it was now, and he hadn’t known how much he’d missed this: living life, instead of easing through it on the wet stuff.
         Which was what he’d been doing when he’d spotted the hood. Right there in the Star. A civilian’s jaw would have hit the table: what the hell? A pro, even a long-defunct pro, checked the clock, drained his Guinness, folded the Post and left. Loitered by the bookies two doors down, remembering the last time he’d seen that face, and in whose company. The hood was a bit player. The hood had held the bottle, poured its contents directly into Dickie’s clamped-wide mouth; strictly a non-speaking role. It wasn’t the hood who sent electric shivers down Dickie’s spine . . . Ten minutes later he emerged, and Dickie fell into step behind him: Dickie, who could follow a ferret through a wood let alone a leftover ghost. A blast from the past. An echo from the Spooks’ Zoo.
         (Berlin, if you insisted. The Spooks’ Zoo was Berlin, back when the cages had just been unlocked, and frightened thugs were pouring from the woodwork like beetles from an upturned log. At least twice a day, some sweating would-be asset was at the door claiming to have the crown jewels in a cardboard suitcase: defence details, missile capability, toxic secrets—and yet, for all the flurry of activity, the writing was on the newly dismantled Wall: everyone’s past had been blown away, but so had Dickie Bow’s future. Thanks, old chap. Afraid there’s not much call for your, ah, skills any more . . . What pension? So naturally, he’d drifted back to London.)
         The driver called something Dickie didn’t catch. The door hissed shut and the horn was tapped twice; a farewell note to the lingering buses. Dickie rubbed his thigh where the edge of a briefcase or umbrella-tip had nipped him, and thought about luck,
and the strange places it dragged you. Such as, from a Soho street into the tube and out the other end; into Paddington, onto a train, then onto this bus. He still didn’t know whether that luck was good or bad.
         When the lights went out the bus briefly became a travelling shadow. Then passengers switched overhead bulbs on, and blue screens gleamed upwards from laptops, and fists wrapped round iPhones grew spectrally white. Dickie fiddled his own phone from his pocket, but he had no messages. There were never any messages. Scrolling through his contact list, he was struck by how short it was. Two seats in front, the hood had rolled his newspaper into a baton, wedged it between his knees, and hung his hat upon it. He might be asleep.
         The bus left Reading behind. Through the window, dark countryside unfurled. Some distance off, an ascending sequence of red lights indicated the mast at Didcot, but the cooling towers were invisible.
         In Dickie’s hand, the mobile was a grenade. Rubbing his thumb on its numberpad, he registered the tiny nipple on the middle button that allowed you to orient your fingers in the dark. But nobody was hanging on Dickie’s words. Dickie was a relic.
The world had moved on, and what would his message be anyway? That he’d seen a face from the past, and was following it home? Who would have cared? The world had moved on. It had left him behind.
         Rejection came softer these days. Dickie heard occasional whispers on the Soho songlines, and these days even the useless were given a chance. The Service, like everyone else, was hamstrung by rules and regulations: sack the useless, and they took you to tribunal for discriminating against useless people. So the Service bunged the useless into some godforsaken annex and threw paperwork at them, an administrative harassment intended to make them hand in their cards. They called them the slow horses. The screw-ups. The losers. They called them the slow horses and they belonged to Jackson Lamb, whom Dickie had encountered, back in the Spooks’ Zoo.
         His mobile gave a blip, but there was no message; only a warning that it was running out of power.
         Dickie knew how it felt. He had nothing to say. Attention wavered and refocused elsewhere. Laptops hummed and mobiles whispered, but Dickie had no voice. Had no movement, bar a feeble flexing of his fingers. The tiny nipple on the keypad’s middle button scratched beneath his thumb: scratch scratch.
         There was an important message to deliver, but Dickie did not know what it was, nor to whom it should be sent. For a few luminous moments he was aware of being part of a warm, humid community, breathing the same air, hearing the same tune. But the tune slipped out of earshot, and became beyond recall. Everything faded, save the scene through the window. The landscape continued unrolling one black fold after another, dotted with pinpricks of light, like sequins on a scarf. And then the lights blurred and dimmed and the darkness rolled over itself one final time, and then there was only the bus carrying its mortal cargo through the night, heading for Oxford, where it would deliver one soul fewer than it had gathered, back in the rain.

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becke_davis
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Re: Please Welcome Featured Author MICK HERRON!

Please welcome MICK HERRON!

 

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MickH
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Re: Please Welcome Featured Author MICK HERRON!

Hi, Becke

Thanks for the welcome, and the wealth of material up above - I'm delighted to be your featured author this week (and particularly happy that the site is now allowing me to post messages...).

I'll be checking in a couple of times a day for the next week, ready to answer all & any questions. Very much looking forward to it... So: Good morning, everyone. A happy Monday to you all.
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Fricka
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Re: Please Welcome Featured Author MICK HERRON!

Welcome, Mick, to our forum. If becke says your books are good, that's enough to make me want to check them out. Glad you were able to "avoid the gnomes" and actually manage to get a post up in here, as the computer glitches have been wreaking havoc here lately. Happy Monday to you, too.

" A murder mystery is the normal recreation of the noble mind."--Sister Carol Anne O' Marie
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MickH
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Re: Please Welcome Featured Author MICK HERRON!

Thanks, Fricka. Gnomes, I can cope with. It's trolls that worry me.,
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becke_davis
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Re: Please Welcome Featured Author MICK HERRON!


MickH wrote:
Thanks, Fricka. Gnomes, I can cope with. It's trolls that worry me.,

Ogres and trolls - I think we have a few of them, too!

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becke_davis
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Re: Please Welcome Featured Author MICK HERRON!


Fricka wrote:

Welcome, Mick, to our forum. If becke says your books are good, that's enough to make me want to check them out. Glad you were able to "avoid the gnomes" and actually manage to get a post up in here, as the computer glitches have been wreaking havoc here lately. Happy Monday to you, too.


I HIGHLY recommend DOWN CEMETERY ROAD. I'm not sure whether to wait for the next book to arrive or to jump right in and read DEAD LIONS.  I'm not very patient!

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MickH
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Re: Please Welcome Featured Author MICK HERRON!


becke_davis wrote:

I HIGHLY recommend DOWN CEMETERY ROAD. I'm not sure whether to wait for the next book to arrive or to jump right in and read DEAD LIONS.  I'm not very patient!


Patience is an overrated virtue, isn't it? I'm happy for anyone to start with DEAD LIONS. While it's the second in this particular series, I'm sure there are no spoilers in it. 

 

And thanks for the kind words about DOWN CEMETERY ROAD. There are two main ways an author can look back on his or her first novel: they can either view it fondly, or wish it buried in quicklime. I'm of the first party, and DCR's protagonist, Sarah Tucker, remains a character I'd happily meet again (though she's not as much fun to write as Jackson Lamb).

 

 

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becke_davis
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Re: Please Welcome Featured Author MICK HERRON!


Fricka wrote:

Welcome, Mick, to our forum. If becke says your books are good, that's enough to make me want to check them out. Glad you were able to "avoid the gnomes" and actually manage to get a post up in here, as the computer glitches have been wreaking havoc here lately. Happy Monday to you, too.


I HIGHLY recommend DOWN CEMETERY ROAD. I'm not sure whether to wait for the next book to arrive or to jump right in and read DEAD LIONS.  I'm not very patient!

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becke_davis
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Re: Please Welcome Featured Author MICK HERRON!


MickH wrote:

becke_davis wrote:

I HIGHLY recommend DOWN CEMETERY ROAD. I'm not sure whether to wait for the next book to arrive or to jump right in and read DEAD LIONS.  I'm not very patient!


Patience is an overrated virtue, isn't it? I'm happy for anyone to start with DEAD LIONS. While it's the second in this particular series, I'm sure there are no spoilers in it. 

 

And thanks for the kind words about DOWN CEMETERY ROAD. There are two main ways an author can look back on his or her first novel: they can either view it fondly, or wish it buried in quicklime. I'm of the first party, and DCR's protagonist, Sarah Tucker, remains a character I'd happily meet again (though she's not as much fun to write as Jackson Lamb).

 

 


I'm not going to name names, but you definitely surprised me (hint: dental floss!) about halfway through this book. So am I okay to jump ahead to Dead Lions? I've ordered the other books and downloaded one for Nook, but your lovely publisher sent me a copy of Dead Lions. I wanted to get a feel for the series before I read it, and now I don't know whether to hold off until I've read the others or jump right into this one. I often read series books out of order so I don't think that will be a problem.

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becke_davis
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Re: Please Welcome Featured Author MICK HERRON!

Due to the time change, Mick is signing off for the day, but he'll be back tomorrow!