Thursday, 29 October 2015

'Mockingbird Songs': The Past Cannot Be Buried Forever - Review

The first Roger Ellory novel I read was 'The Anniversary Man'. That was several years ago. After such a stunning discovery I did not lose much time and read his previously published works. And ever since the release of 'Bad Signs' in 2011, I have been looking forward (and not without a high degree of impatience) to getting hold of each new book, and immersing myself into them, devouring the fine prose and marveling at the slow burning and always uniquely-told stories. 'Mockingbird Songs' (2015) is no exception, it's simply addictive.

'Mockingbird Songs' tells the stories of two men: Evan Riggs, a former country music star in the 1940s who ends up serving life without parole for the murder of a stranger; and Henry Quinn, a young guitarist whom he meets thirty years later and protects in prison. Upon his release Quinn promises Riggs to deliver a letter to a girl called Sarah, the daughter that Evan has never seen. Quinn's mission takes him to Calvary, East Texas, where Evan's estranged brother, Carson, serves as sheriff and is determined to complicate Henry's task and make sure that the Pandora's Box remains closed.

I enjoyed 'Mockingbird Songs' for various reasons. Stylistically, I was once again hooked from the very beginning. Ellory somehow captures the eeriness and desolation of small-town Texas in the 1940s-70s and introduces us to astutely fleshed-out and complex characters who keep us emotionally-involved. There is juxtaposition in style between sharp, yet beautiful prose and slang Americanisations, which only Ellory seems capable of pulling off. You get the feeling that he has lived in Calvary, Texas his whole life and knows the townsfolk like his next door neighbors. He makes them real and believable.

Like Ellory's other novels, 'Mockingbird Songs' is very much character driven. Henry Quinn, the main protagonist, takes us along with him on the ride and into to the heart of the matter: small town politics, power struggles, but also conflicting jealousies, human bitterness, tangled with a highly emotional love story - and all accompanied by a country music vibe which highlights Ellory's passion for literature as well as music. The characters evolve as the plot jumps between the past (1940s) in which we are given the necessary background and the present (1972) in which Henry is determined to deliver the letter he has been trusted with while gradually discovering the skeletons in the closet of the past.

The dual story unfolds at a wonderful pace and you reach an eventful conclusion that has considerable impact - a sort of inevitable catharsis where the worlds of the past and present clash once and for all, leaving little room for survivors. What goes around certainly comes around. And I turned the last page of the book with a feeling of joy and satisfaction for having witnessed something raw and thought-provoking - a story whose characters will linger in my mind and continue to haunt me for the near future. And that's always a wonderful sensation to have after reading a book!

Although I was mesmerized by 'Mockingbird Songs', I did however find that it lacked somewhat the punch of Ellory's previous novels. Henry Quinn or Evan Riggs seemed to possess less inner demons than the main protagonists of his other books. Detective Ray Irving in 'The Anniversary Man', Frank Parrish in 'Saints of New York' or Vincent Madigan in 'A Dark and Broken Heart' were truly consumed by theirs. But then again the story here is perhaps a little more subdued than in his other novels as the primary focus is family matters in a small town in rural America, and not a relentless pursuit of a sadistic killer nor a man's survival in the world of organized crime.

Overall this was another great achievement by Roger Ellory, and now I await the 2016 book with even more eagerness.

Monday, 26 October 2015

'The Perfectionist': The Book Cover

The launch period for 'The Perfectionist' has been chosen. Drums rolling... It's going to be mid-January 2016. The book will be available in paperback and in ebook at the major retailers.

All is more or less ready; the promotional plan will soon be in full swing, and last week I was proud to receive a copy of the proof paperback. Impressed with the result, I am now in a position to publically-disclose the book's layout and cover artwork.

So without further ado, here is an exclusive sneak peek at the book cover. Thank you to my trustworthy and insightful collaborators, Oscar Sanchez and Bertrand Raes. You don't change a winning team!


Here's the back cover blurb:

"Iowa, 1988. An unidentified severed head is found rotting in a corn field. Confronted with this gruesome discovery, Gerry Stokes – an arrogant and obnoxious newspaper reporter – agrees to cover up the affair. But the truth can't be concealed forever.

More than twenty years later, Stokes must finally atone for his errors as the past returns with a vengeance. Forced into an investigation to discover what happened all those years ago, he stumbles upon a sordid truth: the victim is one of many; people seemingly chosen at random across America by a serial killer at large for more than two decades; a killer with a unique and horrific modus operandi who’s flown under the radar. Still at large the killer seeks to achieve artistic perfection in his methods of execution. He is "The Perfectionist".

While tracking the killer under the cloak of FBI suspicion, Stokes sets himself an ambitious target and potential path to fame: write a book that leads the police to the killer, a first in the history of publishing.

The stakes are high and the pressure is on. Stokes is in the race of his life to discover The Perfectionist's identity and publish his bestseller, while forced to bend the notion of what is ethically right."

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Exploring Evil

I recently attended a roundtable held during the 7th edition of the Toulouse Polars du Sud crime fiction festival (9 October 2015), during which participants RJ Ellory* and Donato Carrisi** asked the questions, "Is evil external to the human condition?" and "Can you be born evil?"

While there is no consensus on our inherent nature, one may be concerned about man's genetic predisposition towards evil behaviors like selfishness, violence, and cruelty. Is evil inherent, or is it an unfortunate side effect of our society? It is understood that personality comes early and is influenced by outside circumstances and upbringing. We enter this world as innocent children. However, we all have the potential to descend into evil over the years. As Ellory puts it, "evil is an additive."

Carrisi looked no further than at a man who has been coined as one of the most evil men in history: Adolf Hitler. When you look at the popular photo of Hitler taken when he was a toddler, it is hard to fathom that he started off so innocent-looking.

Fortunately for the human race, only a tiny percentage of people turned out to be figures of evil or what one may call evil geniuses. Yet these people are subjects of our fascination. We are drawn to them, yet we can't really justify such attractions. Why is this?

Through his novels, Ellory touches upon the incomprehensible nature of evil, a concept that can be described and discussed, but never completely understood. Although we condemn rapists, thieves, or people who kill out of rage or jealousy, we can fathom the coherent and human thought processes behind such acts, for we too are human. "But why don't we understand pure evil?" Ellory asks. "It's because we don't really understand ourselves," he says in answer.

The behavior of the evil geniuses or less genius serial killers is seemingly inexplicable and without a coherent motive which we can relate to. Serial killers are driven by inner demons that even they may not comprehend. We are drawn to these killers, not really by disgusting morbidity, but more because we cannot understand their violence. We thus feel compelled to understand, and by doing so we side with evil. It's basic human curiosity.

Besides the killer himself, many of my characters in 'The Perfectionist' are linked to this fascination we can have in serial killers. I carried out some research into profiling and criminology. I even looked at some forensics science. But above all I looked at factual data about these evil men. Be reassured, real serial killers generally do not possess unique or exceptional intellectual skills (think of David Berkowitz - aka Son of Sam - who in the 1970’s, terrorized the people of New York City, murdering six people and prompting a police operation known as Operation Omega, comprised of 200 detectives trying to stop him before he could kill again. What caused his downfall and subsequent capture? ... A parking ticket!) The image of the evil genius serial killer is mostly a Hollywood invention - think of Kevin Spacey's character in 'Se7en' or Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter in 'Silence of the Lambs.' This makes the intelligence of serial killers a popular culture stereotype, but it sure does make great entertainment. Wouldn't you agree?

It is understood that it isn't intelligence, cunning or genius that makes real serial killers successful. No, instead, it is obsession, meticulous planning and a decent amount of cold-blood to operate, outsmart law enforcement authorities and to remain at large. 'The Perfectionist' takes all that and all we know about the serial killer persona and goes an extra step.

The killer whom my main character (Gerry Stokes, a veteran journalist working at the Chicago Tribune) tracks has flown under the radar for more than 20 years. His unique modus operandi and his inner demons or ambitions make him hard to fit into any category of killer seen before. In 'Level 26: Dark Origins', authors Anthony E. Zuiker and Duane Swierczynski explore this fictitious notion of killer classification. In the book, law enforcement quantifies evil and murderousness on a scale of 1 to 25, with naive opportunists at Level 1 and organized, premeditated torture-murderers at Level 25. However, the killer in the book is so awesome, that a level 26 has to be considered. The killer in 'The Perfectionist', meanwhile isn't subject to such classification because he simply doesn't exist in the eyes of the law. It takes an unfortunate set of circumstances and a lot of reporter's flair to put Gerry Stokes on his trail. My killer simply got unlucky.

Can the Perfectionist be considered the ultimate serial killer? You'll soon find out. Significant progress has been made and most of the pre-publication work is over. Finally, cover artwork is close to being finalized. All is on track for an early-2016 launch. I expect to share more news soon on this blog in the coming weeks. Additionally you can follow me on Twitter at @SimonGDuke and/or on Facebook at

'The Perfectionist' touches upon the evolution of the serial killer. And similar to the killers who are its messengers, evil has evolved too. It has become more cunning and comes under many shapes and disguises. But evil remains evil, true to form.

Dare enter the mind of the ultimate killer? 'The Perfectionist' is out soon.

* RJ Ellory's 'The Anniversary Man' has been released in France. French title: 'Les Assassins.'
** Donato Carrisi's 'Il Cacciatore del Buio' has been released in France. French title: 'Maléfico.'