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Friday, 24 March 2017

Give the police guns

The latest terrorist atrocity in Westminster rightly evoked anger, compassion for the injured and the bereaved families, and inevitably calls for all British police to be armed.
            This latter consideration strikes a memory chord. In my novel The Bread of Tears, my heroine Sister Rose dwells on that subject:

The Abbess was kneeling with her back to the door, praying in front of a rack of lit candles. She turned her head slightly towards me. ‘Please be patient, Sister Rose, while I finish my prayers for our dear Sister Leocritia.’ Her New York accent was still very strong even after many years in England.
            I nodded agreement and she turned back to the candles.
            When I joined Northumbria Police I was Maggie Weaver – though Mike called me Meggie – and I had still attended church services about once a month. For two years I was in their armed response unit and when I shot dead my first criminal – David Paul Duggan, a name I wouldn’t forget, it was like remembering your first love’s name – I lit a candle for him. At the time I had no doubt that as a multiple murderer he deserved to die, but I still hoped his soul might find peace. Then my weapon was seized and sealed for forensic checks and swabs impregnated with a chemical preservative were taken from my hair, face and hands and my clothing packaged and sealed. This was to verify that it was my bullet that took Duggan’s life; perhaps the rule-makers had seen the film The Man who shot Liberty Valance. I then waited for the inquiry to look into the shooting – self-defence, with two senior officer witnesses – losing my sleep and some weight in the process. When I was cleared, I was reassessed to remain an ‘authorised shot’.
            For my second killing – Morgan Sugden – I also lit a candle and offered a prayer. After more months of inquiry, I was in the clear again. At that point the post-traumatic stress was getting to me so it was mutually decided that I’d leave the ARU and continue my police work without a weapon.
            Even in these violent times, when thousands of British bobbies find themselves armed for one call-out or another, most gun-carrying police officers rarely draw their weapons and in fact do not kill many criminals. It was just my bad luck, to be in a situation where the gun was mightier than any words I could muster. I was commended on both occasions, because I saved other people by snuffing out the lives of two men, lives extinguished as easily as a candle.
            Some months later, I was chasing an armed robber, Bill Reavley, over the rooftops when he fell and was seriously maimed. That was the day when I decided to keep away from the church. I convinced myself that I could do without that added angst. The priest, Father Collins, telephoned me once, and then we lost contact. Staying away was easier than going back with excuses after a long lapse: that guilt thing again.
            If someone had told me then that I would become a nun, I’d have sent for the men in white coats.
            The Abbess stood and faced me, her large pectoral cross glinting in the candlelight. ‘I believe you neglected to turn the other cheek earlier this evening, Sister?’ Shining brown eyes sparkled, either with anger or amusement. I didn’t know which, though under the circumstances it was probably the former. (pp45-47)

The Bread of Tears

Available as paperback and Kindle on Amazon sites here

Before taking her vows, Sister Rose was Maggie Weaver, a Newcastle policewoman. While uncovering a serial killer, she suffered severe trauma, and after being nursed back to health she becomes a nun. In her new calling she is sent to London to run a hostel for the homeless. Here, she does good works, and also combats prejudice and crime.
            As she attempts to save a homeless woman from a local gang boss, events crystallise, taking her back to Newcastle, the scene of her nightmares, to play out the final confrontation against drug traffickers, murderers and old enemies in the police.
            She finds her spiritual self and a new identity. She is healed through faith and forgiveness. It’s also about her surviving trauma and grief – a triumph of the human spirit, of good over evil.

Some review excerpts

This is a gritty and at times downright gruesome thriller. Written in the first person, Morton has achieved a true sense of feminine appeal in Maggie, the narrator, and despite her religious calling, she comes over as quite a sexy woman… I found myself totally empathising with this full-blooded, gutsy woman... All the characters and horrific events in this crime thriller are extremely visual and well-drawn, making this a riveting read. It would make a brilliant TV series! – Jan Warburton, author of The Secret, A Face to Die For

… Don’t think that once you’ve recovered from the grim murders of the opening chapters you can settle down to a straightforward detection model… As sadistic as Hannibal Lector, this killer will scare you – be warned! – Maureen Moss, author of More to Life.

Nik Morton knows how to write a thriller. The characters are all well drawn, especially Sister Rose… There is a serial killer who will make your spine tingle in Jack the Ripper fashion... I think this is a first rate crime thriller, which also delivers a strong message. – Keith Souter, author of Murder Solstice

… The stuff of all male fantasies rolled into an incredible bundle. And what a novel! Mr Morton skilfully delivers a well-crafted thriller with more than a little intrigue, a love story in the making and some subtle twists from start to finish. The final fifty pages or so seemed to turn by themselves such was the pace of the climax of the story. I for one have fallen for this deep thinking female. – Ken Scott, author of Jack of Hearts, ghost-writer of Do the birds still sing in Hell?

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Book review - The Veteran

Frederick Forsyth’s collection of five stories, The Veteran (2001) is definitely worth reading. [Beware that there is a single story with this title on offer too, and some readers have been caught out by this.]

If you haven’t read his breakout novel The Day of the Jackal (1971) or any of his other works, you might not appreciate his writing style. He’s an ex-journalist, so his tales – long and short – are mostly ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ from a writing perspective. That doesn’t matter, however, as he’s an engrossing storyteller (that is, not a storyshower!)

Whatever profession he writes about – the law, espionage, customs and excise, piloting an airbus etc. – he provides a wealth of insider information that puts you there. It’s as if we’re reading a slightly intimate documentary.
‘The Veteran’ is about an old soldier who is mugged on the street in London. The police are fortunate: they have an eye-witness and soon arrest the alleged culprits, who are to be defended by the lawyer Slade at the expense of the tax-payers. It looks like an open-and-shut case; they’ll get banged up for some years, at least. And then a high-flying barrister gets wind of the case and offers his services pro bono. Although the subject matter is grim, we’re given plenty of amusing authorial asides, too: ‘… two local men who were “helping the police with their inquiries.” This is one of those much-used phrases comparable with hospital bulletins that describe people in absolute agony as being “comfortable”. It means the opposite and everyone knows it.’ (p34) Forsyth’s writing, despite being omniscient, generates anger at the thugs who attack the old man and evokes frustration at the slipperiness of practitioners of law. This is an excellent twist-ending story.

‘The Art of the Matter’ was previously published as a single Original story (2000), the title playing on words. We soon get to the heart of the matter when we realise that the impecunious bit-part actor Mr Gore and the knowledgeable art assistant Benny Evans are taken for a ride by the duplicitous Peregrine Slade at the auction firm of House of Darcy. Here, too, we have an artwork blurb being broken down into layman’s terms: ‘… would include phrases like “charming”, meaning “if you like that sort of thing”, or “unusual”, meaning “he must have done this after a very heavy lunch”.’ (p95) There must have been a fixation on the surname ‘Slade’ since this also features that moniker. A superb twist-ending con artist scam story.

‘The Miracle’ takes place in Siena in 1975 during the famous horse race. (The Stewart Grainger 1962 film The Swordsman of Siena depicts this well, in colour!) Two American tourists are accosted by a stranger who relates a compelling and poignant tale of the siege of the city at the close of the Second World War, and the miracle that occurred in the courtyard where they find themselves. This is virtually all narrative from the stranger, interspersed with journalistic descriptive observation of the horse race that has no bearing on the tale. I found this moving yet ultimately unsatisfactory; the ending left me feeling cheated, as one might feel when a tyro writer ends with ‘and then I woke up, it was all a dream’. A magical story, spoiled by a cynical manipulative ending. (It would have worked with a double-twist ending, I reckon…)

‘The Citizen’ gives us an insight into the life of an airbus pilot and a Customs officer. The twist ending didn’t quite work, I felt, as the author had blatantly misdirected the reader with one character. Interesting, nevertheless.

The fifth story is a novella, ‘Whispering Wind’ and this too was published separately as an Original single (2000). Forsyth tells us about frontier scout Ben Craig, 24, who survived the massacre of the Little Bighorn on 25 June, 1876. Intriguing. It begins realistically enough, with in-depth reportage of the events leading up to Custer’s defeat, introducing Ben, who witnesses the indiscriminate slaughter of an undefended Indian village. Ben is instrumental in saving the life of a squaw, Wind That Talks Softly. Forsyth’s realisation of the situation, his description of the cavalry and the characters is, as you’d expect, well researched. It would be unfair to relate more, save that though history tells us that there were no survivors at the battle, Ben survived to live another day – and that phrase is significant, as the tale has fantasy elements. This is a bitter-sweet love story, handled with aplomb, and is suspenseful right up to the end. Worth the purchase price of the book on its own.

If you like short stories, these fit the bill. If you prefer longer pieces, then ‘Whispering Wind’ will serve very well.

Since this release Forsyth has published four more novels and an autobiography.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Book review - Time will darken it

William Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It (1948) is a quite haunting tragedy of manners and relationships. Set in the small town of Draperville, Illinois in 1912, this literary novel mainly concerns the lawyer Austin King, his wife Martha and their daughter Abbey.

Maxwell employs the omniscient point of view, understandably, as he is depicting several denizens in this small township, and entering into many of their heads. It’s a slow, measured narrative, words and phrases clearly considered over months if not years, certainly not rushed out in a few weeks or months; he probably allowed the characters to gestate and conduct their monologues in his mind over time.

Austin King has reluctantly invited the family of foster ‘cousins’ from Mississippi to stay in his house, against his wife’s wishes. They have never met the Potter family, but Austin feels he must do the right thing. He is plagued by that condition, and is hostage to always wanting peace. With the first paragraphs we appreciate the tension between the married couple. This is not the first time they’ve been at loggerheads.

There are several instances where Maxwell gives us an authorial aside (and a number of these asides are surreal, observations made by furniture and such like!); not from any particular character’s viewpoint: ‘It was not his failure entirely. Women are never ready to let go of love at the point where men are satisfied and able to turn to something else. It is a fault of timing that affects the whole human race. There is no telling how much harm it has caused.’ (p12) This is a telling conclusion to a chapter, excellent foreshadowing of harm to come.

Mrs Potter’s first appearance is colourful and described with amusing wit: ‘… so small, so slight, here dress so elaborately embroidered and beaded, her hair so intricately held in place by pins and rhinestone-studded combs that she seemed, though alive, to be hardly flesh and blood but more like a middle-aged fairy.’ (p14)

Maxwell is good at conveying mood, too. ‘… and the clock threatened once more to take possession of the room.’ An awkward silence fell between them and the clock’s ticking again intruded. Another example: ‘The front stairs creaked, but not from any human footstep. The sunlight relinquished its hold on the corner of an oriental rug in the study in order to warm the leg of a chair. A fly settled on the kitchen ceiling. In the living room a single white wheel-shaped phlox blossom hung for a long time and then dropped to the table without making a sound.’ (p71)

Time will darken most things, perhaps; or fade them, if left out in daylight. Take this description, for example: ‘The rooms were large and opened one out of another, and the cherry woodwork, from decades of furniture polish, had taken on the gleam of dark red marble.’ (p1`59). Good visualisation, indeed; you can almost smell the age, and the polish, of course.

Austin’s father was ‘the nearest the town of Draperville had come to producing a great man.’ Unfortunately for Austin, he was forever in the dead man’s shadow, but acquiesced, rather than ruffle feathers and change things.

There’s a clever piece of flashback employed, too. When Martha spends time unpicking the sewing of her dress, an expressed favourite of her husband’s, she unpicks her courtship with Austin and her running away from him when he first proposed. ‘Although so much time and effort have gone into denying it, the truth of the matter is that women are human, susceptible to physical excitement and the moon.’ (p75) She yearned for a man ‘who would give her the sense of danger, a man who would look at her and make everything go dim around her’ (p73). But finally she settled for staid upstanding Austin.

While the township gives the appearance of being genteel, it isn’t. Another aside tells us ‘The world (including Draperville) is not a nice place, and the innocent and the young have to take their chances…’ (p53)

To the local townspeople, the Potters seem almost exotic, and before long Mr Potter is inveigling certain prominent folk into investing in his cotton business. Their daughter Nora is besotted with Austin and declares her love for him, and instead of telling her not to be foolish, he does nothing save allow her to stay behind with neighbours when the rest of the family return south. The neighbours have their own fascination, whether that’s deaf Dr Danforth who feels cut off because of his affliction and then finds companionship and marriage unexpectedly, or the middle-aged spinster sisters Alice and Lucy Beach, dominated by their mother, or Austin’s senior partner, the relatively idle pompous Mr Holby, or the rumour-mongering card club ladies, or the Kings’ Negro maid and cook, Rachel, who suffered domestic violence.

Slowly, inexorably, a crisis approaches as Martha’s pregnancy comes to term, as a disastrous accident occurs, and as a possible suicide looms.

The world and characters created linger long after the last page has been absorbed.

A highly regarded author, Maxwell was a famous fiction editor of the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975. He wrote six novels and a great many short stories. He died in 2000, aged 91.

Minor editing comments

Surprisingly, even an accomplished editor and writer such as Maxwell uses the dubious phrase ‘His eyes rested uneasily on the design…’ (p2) Nowadays, we try to avoid eyes doing these surreal things. His gaze rested uneasily, perhaps. Later, ‘Austin’s eyes wandered to the clock…’ (p10). Minor quibbles; in this latter scene we’re easily caught up in the strained relationship, only lightened by the appearance of little Abbey.

‘On the mantelshelf there was a brass clock with the works visible through panes of thick bevelled glass, and several family photographs.’ (p159). Perhaps it would read better thus: ‘On the mantelshelf there were several family photographs and a brass clock with the works visible through panes of thick bevelled glass.’

Many of the most dramatic events are off-stage, and that can frustrate some readers, but on reflection I don’t believe it matters too much, as it is the consequences these individuals have to deal with, not the actual occurrences that drive the narrative.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Writing - 'well written guide'

My non-fiction genre writing guide Write a Western in 30 Days is still picking up 5-star reviews.  The latest is:

'A definitely well written guide to help you through the writing process.' review, dated 7 March 2017. Thank you, Brian L. Smith. 

That was my intention, to help in the writing process. 

There are 17 positive reviews on and 9 on Amazon.UK. (1 month ago, C Mitchell said, 'Thank you Nik for pointers, inspiration and focus. Great read.'

Whether paperback or Kindle, the book has proved to be useful to beginner writers and even old hands who want to try a different genre.

                                                                    Available here

Just released: third volume of my collected short stories, Visitors... 9 stories about the Old West.

Available here 

A fourth volume will be released soon, with a fifth to follow in due course.