Monday, 30 January 2012

The days of sunshine and hunting big cats

There's a black and white picture I meant to upload for this blog, but it seems to have vanished somewhere so I'll try to describe it. At the top, on a high stone plinth, stands a tall, shirt-sleeved young man with a vaguely aristocratic air and floppy fair hair that hangs over his eyes. He's holding what looks like a lead, which in turn is attached to a truly enormous lion who lies sleeping with his great maned head pillowed by paws the size of beach balls. In front of the plinth is a slightly rougher character also in shirt sleeves, but with dark hair, a dodgy moustache and an air of mischief in his eyes.

The one with the dodgy moustache is me, aged about 27, and the chap at the back is my friend and then journalistic jedi apprentice, Benjie. The picture was taken in the 80s, when we still had proper summers, and reminds me of the carefree days of local newspapers. Benjie was fascinated by the recurring sightings of 'big cats' and I'd promised that I'd find him one, so one day off we went into the blue, safe in the knowledge that nobody would mind as long as we came back with a story. Then, as now, I put such sightings on a par with alien kidnappings and Scotland World Cup qualification, events so unlikely as to be preposterous, but I knew I'd find a big cat at fascinating Monteith's Aisle, otherwise known as the Douglas Mausoleum (you can see some excellent pictures here), which stands on Lilliardsedge, north of Jedburgh. The Aisle houses the tomb of General Sir Thomas Monteath Douglas, 1787-1868, who now lies forever beneath a domed roof pierced with stars, with a tall angel at his head and feet. Sandstone lions, one asleep and the other awake, guard the entrance.

Benjie very sensibly left journalism to become a merchant banker in London, where he now doubles as the Makar or poet in residence to the City. I loved working for the local papers in Jedburgh, Kelso, Melrose and Gala, because you were in a unique position at the very heart of the community and if you knew what you were doing you could get a story out of just about anything. You never worked nine to five, you spent most Saturdays on a muddy touchline, and you never knew what you were doing from one day to the next.

Occasionally reporters from 'the nationals', hoary, grizzled creatures who smoked too much and spent most of their time in the pub working out how to maximise their expenses, would descend on your patch. They'd pick your brains, file their stories and if you were lucky buy you a pint. Their one universal piece of advice was 'stay where you are, son. Better off in the locals'. Of course, they were right, national papers are just one long grind of constant pressure, tight deadlines and demands for more and better stories, punctuated by the occasional bollocking when you get something wrong. But there's also a magic to them, an illusory glory that meant the advice just had to be ignored. I spent longer in nationals (Scottish variety) than in local papers, but my fondest memories are not of great scoops, or incredible news days like 9/11 or Dunblane, but of days like the one with Benjie, covering the unchanging rituals of the Jethart festival, or delivering competition prizes up in the Cheviots on a rutted one-way track that started in Scotland and ended somewhere in England.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The skeleton in my cupboard

Although I've published four historical novels and a thriller, I keep banging on in these blogs about my, as yet unpublished, crime books. There are a few reasons for that. I think Brothers in Arms and War Games are as good as any of my other books. They were fun to write, because there was no pressure. I learned a lot from them that I was able to inject into the thrillers. And the main protagonist is the only one of my characters who actually talked to me.

It's true. When I finished the first draft of The Emperor's Elephant, the book that would become Caligula and Claudius, I had no idea where to go next. I knew it was good, but not quite good enough, but I didn't have the knowledge or experience to rewrite it. So what should I do? The obvious answer was write another book. I can't remember whether I decided it should be a crime novel, or whether he started creating himself in my head, but I remember getting up in the middle of the night to write everything down. The result was a book in the first person, told with a kind of Chandleresque commentary running through it. I read them again the other day when I finished the latest rewrite of Avenger of Rome, and they felt fresh and new. Who knows if, when or how they'll be published, but I think they will. The people who inhabit them are real to me and I think they deserve to be introduced to a wider audience.

The lead character is a Falklands War veteran with a special talent and a dirty secret, a wife with problems of her own, and nowhere to run when the members of his old platoon start getting knocked off one by one. 

I thought I'd give you a taste. Here's a flavour of Brothers in Arms.


Failure isn’t unusual in my line of work. It’s not an exact science. Sometimes the dead call out to me, sometimes they don’t.
We stood among wet heather on a patch of bare hillside overlooking a quarry where a canary-yellow earthmover worked steadily to shift rocks and mud. My companion was silent, but I knew what he was thinking. This hill was indistinguishable from the others we had investigated. The quarry could have been the same quarry. Why should he believe me this time? 
‘She’s here.’
‘I said she’s here,’ louder this time, raising my voice above the howl of the wind and the machine-gun rattle of rain against Gore-Tex.
The Scots have a word for this weather. Dreich. But even it struggled to convey the dull, impenetrable leaden grey of an April afternoon when the rain came off the hills horizontally and so thick you could catch salmon in it. I stamped my feet to try to get some feeling back into them, but only succeeded in splashing mud over the top of my newly-acquired green wellies - the kind I always associate with people called Jeremy who slaughter grouse for fun. My companion gave me a look I’d come to recognise over the years. The sort of look you keep for the man with the manic twitch who sits down next to you on the train. I gave him what passed for a reassuring smile. I always feel vaguely guilty about letting people down, especially people like Assistant Chief Constable Johnny Gordon, who aren’t in it for the glory and who have put their faith in me. Most people question what I do; I’ve learned to live with that, but I don’t have to like it. I also resent the knowing ‘I told you so’ smirks on the faces of the sergeants and the constables who didn’t want me here in the first place. Bastards.
It hadn’t been a murder investigation at first. Only missing persons. An anonymous middle-aged conwoman who’d booked into a back street bed and breakfast had walked out without paying the bill. So what’s new? The B&B owner was brassed off and not a little let down. She may have been a little frayed around the edges and she liked a bit too much of the sauce, but Jennifer Doyle had seemed a nice lady, who made pleasant conversation and complimented the owner’s missus on her cooking. She just didn’t seem the type. But you live and learn.
A few days later they found the blood soaked towel down a drain in the guest house car park and the missing woman’s suitcase in a nearby builders’ skip.
The disappearance was mysterious enough to make front page news for a while, but, as the weeks passed, the investigation slipped down the priority list until it fell off the bottom. But not for Johnny Gordon. Johnny is one of your old-fashioned cops who doesn’t like loose ends and is more interested in people than targets. With retirement staring him in the face, giving up wasn’t an option. So he called me.
           In other circumstances, I would have been flattered - any business is good business, right? In this case I should have run a mile.    
 I looked around at what little was visible through the smears of squall sweeping down the valley on a sharp east wind. When people think of Scotland, they see the saw-toothed skyline of the Cairngorms or the majestic grandeur of the Trossachs. This was different. The Cheviot Hills can’t match the Highlands for scale, but their bleak, tree-stripped heights and spectre-shadowed valleys have a brooding aura that, in certain lights, can be ominous in the truest sense of the word. They were ominous now. The electricity of Jennifer’s presence was everywhere around me on the hill. I could feel the pulse of it through my body from the soles of my feet and it pounded in my brain like a roadman’s jackhammer. But there was something else, too. Something I didn’t fully understand. A sense of terrible foreboding that filled the air like a thunder cloud and was so obvious I wondered why the others couldn’t feel it.
A shout echoed around the quarry and the digger driver cut his engine.
‘They’ve found something.’ Johnny’s voice betrayed his relief. He moved off downhill, his boots squelching noisily in the damp peat. I stayed where I was.
My hand strayed to the round piece of metal deep in my pocket, worn smooth by the touch of her fingers so that the symbols on the surface were barely visible. I’d recognised that piece of metal the moment I’d seen it because I have one that’s just about identical at home. It was easy to imagine her rubbing obsessively at the silvery cupronickel as she sat in front of the fire in the drab little front room of the last place she would call home. In its own mysterious way, that little piece of metal had led me here. I took no joy in being proved right. Success would not make Jennifer Doyle’s heart beat even one more time, or fill her lungs with a single breath. All the same, I felt that familiar old flutter of relief. It hadn’t deserted me.  
Call it a gift.  Call it a curse. I’ve had it since I was ten years old.
The white-suited forensics officers worked steadily in the quarry below. There was no urgency in the way they moved. Why should there be? Jennifer Doyle wasn’t going anywhere. They picked their way meticulously over the ground, photographing anything that might be evidence, and then carefully bagging it. Half an hour passed before Johnny Gordon struggled his way back up the hill towards me. I could hear him swearing under his breath.
‘The animal,’ he spat, the hot blood of his anger mottling his face purple.
‘What is it?’ I had been expecting thanks or at least appreciation, but not this. Gordon had led a dozen murder investigations and seen a hundred bodies. He had an old-time copper’s acceptance of death, but what he had seen down in the quarry had shocked even him.
‘Is this some kind of fucking joke?’ The hand he held out to me shook, so it was difficult at first to see what was in the little plastic evidence bag. Then he thrust it in my face. I couldn’t read everything that was on the soggy, blood-smeared, once-white business card, but then I didn’t have to. It was mine.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Thought for the Day

I haven't gone away, I've just been very busy with my rewrite of Avenger of Rome. I will write a new blog soon and it WILL be interesting!