Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Sorted! Who killed the Rave Scene?

One of the joys of writing books set in the 1990s is that I get to indulge in nostalgia dressed up as research – for a living!

For ‘Games with the Dead’ I needed to explore the whole ‘rave scene’, as one of the book’s major storylines is the Ecstasy-related death of a teen girl.

First, a confession! I pretty much missed the whole ‘rave’ thing. Despite being optimum age - born in 1969 – I spent the late eighties in rave-free Ireland gazing at my Doc Martens while listening to indie. In fact, I resented the growing popularity of ‘dance music’ which, to my MDMA-deprived head at least, sounded like someone pushing a keyboard through an industrial threshing machine.

I finally attended my first rave in Brixton in 1991, baulked at the fact they didn’t sell booze and spent the rest of the night sulking / grimacing at half-wits blowing whistles and shouting ‘acieeed’. Of course, to ‘get into it’, I needed to lay off the sauce and take an E. But I’m Irish for God’s sake, and thus unwilling to go dry even to take drugs!

So, to get to the bottom of this mystery known as Rave (I realise I’m beginning to sound like Rees-Mogg here), I bought a stash of non-fiction books on the subject, including the brilliantly-researched Altered States by Matthew Collin. What I learned is that the birth and death of the ‘rave’ scene between the mid-80s and mid-90s uncannily mirrors the rise and fall of counterculture in the 1960s. Somewhat depressingly, both movements saw idealism usurped by criminality and greed.

The ‘Summers of Love’ of 1987 and ’89 sound as pure as the MDMA people were taking. With the country sinking into deep recession, young people had found a way to suspend normal transmission, if only for a single night, by becoming part of a life-affirming movement.

Of course, it wasn’t all love, hugs and baggie clothes. People died from taking E, but the casualties numbered tens not hundreds. Bearing in mind that, each year in the UK alone, 30,000 people die from alcohol-related conditions, E could be considered virtually harmless. Some supporters claim E is safer to consume than bay leaves!

But that’s not how the Tory government and the tabloid press saw it in 1989. ‘Evil Ecstasy – deadly drug sweeping the nation’ blared the headlines and hysteria took hold immediately. Sir Ralph Halpern banned Smiley t shirts from his Top Shop retail chain; Top of the Pops declared a moratorium on all records containing the word ‘Acid’.

Perhaps inevitably, the demonising of E and the rave scene acted as an almost gilt-edge invitation for criminality to weigh in. According to Customs, E coming into the UK increased 4000 per cent between 1990 and ‘95. Criminal gangs became involved in importing the drug, running clubs as outlets for drug dealing and charging dealers to get in. To boost their profits further, they soon started producing their own pills, cutting or adulterating the MDMA with cheaper speed, LSD and who knows what.

By the early ‘90s, speedy E had changed the whole vibe of rave culture from celebration to a
sort of aggressive euphoria known as Hardcore. Now, dancers’ faces seemed contorted with weird expressions, midway between snarl and smile. Ravers were dubbed Cheesy Quavers and seen as downmarket, scuzzy, underclass youth who attended clubs like Raquel’s in Basildon.

Cut to November 1995 and the death of 18-year-old schoolgirl Leah Betts four hours’ after taking an Ecstasy tablet bought at Raquel’s. Five days’ later, her grieving family turned off her life support machine and launched a 1500-site poster campaign warning about the perils of E. Under a photo of a smiling Leah, the caption read ‘Sorted. Just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts’.

Weeks later, in December 1995, three criminals who ran Raquel’s nightclub were shot dead in a Range Rover, execution-style, having been lured to a rural laneway in Rettendon, Essex. The sordid headlines that followed gave politicians and police the impetus they needed to introduce Draconian licencing laws that killed off what was left of rave culture. But like all good crime stories, this one has a few unexpected twists…

What many people perhaps don’t know is that Leah Betts did not die of Ecstasy. The inquest into Leah’s death found that she died from water intoxication. Perhaps heeding government warnings about MDMA causing dehydration, Leah drank 12 pints of water after taking the pill, causing her brain to swell and slip into a coma.

I also had no idea that the ‘Sorted’ poster campaign had been part-funded by three advertising agencies. Why would these advertising companies help out a grieving family? Could it be connected to the fact that these agencies’ biggest clients back then were alcohol and energy drink companies?

After all, the rise of rave culture had severely damaged the alcohol industry. And certain energy drinks were aggressively advertising themselves as ‘safe’ alternatives to MDMA. Some suggest that both booze and energy drink companies were keen to exploit any opportunity possible to demonise Ecstasy – and the death of Leah Betts offered just that.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Tony White: You are What you Read.

The Fountain in the Forest is a detective novel set in contemporary London, in the South of France in the mid-1980s, and at Stonehenge on 1 June 1985. It’s the first of three novels exploring the immediate aftermath of the Miners’s Strike: the 90 days between the end of the strike and the Battle of the Beanfield, the largest civilian mass arrest in British history outside of the Second World War.

The Fountain in the Forest was partly inspired by the French Revolutionary Calendar: a radical non-hierarchical system of ten-day weeks created by the playwright Sylvain Maréchal and implemented during the French Revolution, which offered a new and revolutionary way to experience and think about time. The Revolutionary Calendar did away with days dedicated to saints and royalty. Instead each day celebrates an item of everyday rural life: honey, rake, blueberry, pigeon, alder, etc. Looked at through the lens of the Revolutionary Calendar with its ten day weeks, those 90 days of defeat and despair following the Miners’ Strike become nine revolutionary weeks, which for me begs the question: revolutionary how? To investigate this I needed a man or woman on the inside, as it were. So Detective Sergeant Rex King of Holborn Police Station’s Homicide and Serious Crime Command was born. The novel opens with DS King hurrying down Lamb’s Conduit Street to a serious incident in a nearby London theatre, where a body has been found backstage.

This is my first detective novel. I’m not sure why it should have taken me so long, since I love the movement and the lightness (in a good way) of a well written detective story, and have been a fan of the form since childhood loans of Agatha Christie from Farnham Library – graduating by the mid-1970s to the superior Ellery Queen mysteries, having recognised the name from the US import TV series that I enjoyed at the time.

Later, in my twenties, I’d devour as many of Ed McBain’s ‘Precinct 87’ novels as I could lay my hands on. While briefly working at Foyles on Charing Cross Road in 1989, I once excitedly took a couple of dog-eared, second-hand paperbacks to a signing the great man was doing at the old Murder One bookshop down the road. He was very gracious about it.

But I’m also interested in a different kind of literary detective. One that goes back to the author Gertrude Stein’s avant-garde true crime story Blood on the Dining Room Floor, which recounts a summer of strange events in a village in the South of France that culminate in the death in suspicious circumstances of neighbouring hotelier Madame Pernollet. Stein presents these events over and over, from different viewpoints, like a Cubist painting, but the whole remains as light and airy as a lace shawl.  This more experimental lineage of detective fiction would include Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. And Samuel Beckett, in whose compelling and terrifying masterpiece Molloy, the detective Moran and his eponymous quarry seem at the very least to reflect each other, or even (once the reader is forced to imagine the novel’s two chapters reversed) to be the same person.

All of which might be another way of saying that you are what you read. And with The Fountain in the Forest I was looking to bring both traditions together: Ellery Queen’s laying bare of the machinery of the thriller, and the lightness and experimentation of Gertrude Stein. But writing a novel is not just about genre and influences, it’s not just about starting the engine, but keeping it going: finding something that generates enough of a spark, enough momentum or velocity to get both story and writer through the year or two that it can take to complete the task. With The Fountain in the Forest this was provided by the ten-day framework of the Revolutionary Calendar, with its rich daily imagery and observances. A litany of everyday rural life, which of course includes medicinal plants, as well as tools that can easily be repurposed as weapons: valerian, nightshade, hemlock, henbane, sickle, spade, knife…

The Fountain in the Forest by Tony White is published by Faber & Faber in January 2018 (£14.99)
When a brutally murdered man is found hanging in a theatre, Detective Sergeant Rex King becomes obsessed with the case. Who is this anonymous corpse, and why has he been ritually mutilated? But as Rex explores the crime scene further, the mystery deepens, and he finds himself confronting his own secret history instead. Who, more importantly, is Rex King? Shifting between Holborn Police Station, an abandoned village in rural 1980s France, and Stonehenge's Battle of the Beanfield, The Fountain in the Forest transforms the traditional crime narrative into something dizzyingly unique. At once an avant-garde linguistic experiment, thrilling police procedural, philosophical meditation on liberty, and counter-culture bildungsroman, this is an iconoclastic novel of unparalleled ambition.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Books to Look Forward to From Faber and Faber

January 2018

When a brutally murdered man is found hanging in a theatre, Detective Sergeant Rex King becomes obsessed with the case. Who is this anonymous corpse, and why has he been ritually mutilated? But as Rex explores the crime scene further, the mystery deepens, and he finds himself confronting his own secret history instead. Who, more importantly, is Rex King? Shifting between Holborn Police Station, an abandoned village in rural 1980s France, and Stonehenge's Battle of the Beanfield, The Fountain in the Forest transforms the traditional crime narrative into something dizzyingly unique. At once an avant-garde linguistic experiment, thrilling police procedural, philosophical meditation on liberty, and counter-culture bildungsroman, this is an iconoclastic novel of unparalleled ambition.  The Fountain in the Forest is by Tony White.

City Without Stars is by Tim Baker.  The only thing more dangerous than the cartels is the truth...In Ciudad Real, Mexico, a deadly war between rival cartels is erupting, and hundreds of female sweat-shop workers are being murdered. As his police superiors start shutting down his investigation, Fuentes suspects most of his colleagues are on the payroll of narco kingpin, El Santo.  Meanwhile, despairing union activist, Pilar, decides to take social justice into her own hands. But if she wants to stop the killings, she's going to have to ignore all her instincts and accept the help of Fuentes. When the name of Mexico's saintly orphan rescuer, Padre Marcio, keeps resurfacing, Pilar and Fuentes begin to realise how deep the cover-up goes.

The Doll Funeral is by Kate Hamer.  My name is Ruby. I live with Barbara and Mick. They're not my real parents, but they tell me what to do, and what to say. But there are things I won't say. I won't tell them I'm going to hunt for my real parents. I don't say a word about Shadow, who sits on the stairs, or the Wasp Lady I saw. Or that I'm a hunter for lost souls. I'm going to be with my real family. And I won't let anyone stop me.

February 2018

When Angela met Jason Powell, while catering a function in the Hamptons, she assumed their romance would be a fling. But, Jason, a brilliant economics professor at NYU, had other plans, and they married the following summer. The marriage meant a fresh start, a chance for Angela and her young son to move to Manhattan where no one knew of her tragic past. Six years later, her husband has become a successful and celebrated liberal figurehead, but when a college intern and then another woman come forward with allegations against him, their perfect life begins to unravel. Jason insists he is innocent, but Angela is forced to ask how well she ever really knew her husband, and if she can afford to stand by him and risk her own past being revealed.  The Wife is by Alafair Burke.

The Blinds is by Adam Sternbergh.  Imagine a place populated by criminals - people plucked from their lives, with their memories altered, who've been granted new identities and a second chance. Welcome to The Blinds, a dusty town in rural Texas populated by misfits who don't know if they've perpetrated a crime or just witnessed one. All they do know is   For eight years, Sheriff Calvin Cooper has kept an uneasy peace - but after a suicide and a murder in quick succession, the town's residents revolt. Cooper has his own secrets to protect, so when his new deputy starts digging, he needs to keep one step ahead of her - and the mysterious outsiders who threaten to tear the whole place down. The more he learns, the more the hard truth is revealed: The Blinds is no sleepy hideaway, it's simmering with violence and deception, heartbreak and betrayal, and it's fit to burst.
that they opted into the programme and that if they try to leave, they will end up dead.

March 2018

What kind of woman walks out on her family? Gregg knows. The kind of woman he picked up in a bar three years ago precisely because she had that kind of wildcat energy. And now she's vanished - at least from the life that he and his kid will live. We'll follow her, to a new town, a new job, and a new friend, who thinks he has her figured. So who is this woman who calls herself Polly? How many times has she disappeared before? And who are the shadowy figures so interested in her whereabouts? Sunburn is by Laura Lippman. 

Disaster, Melanie Barrick was once told, is always closer than you know.  It was a lesson she learned the hard way growing up in the constant upheaval of foster care. But now that she's survived into adulthood - with a loving husband, a steady job, and a beautiful baby boy - she thought that turmoil was behind her. Until the evening she goes to pick up her son from childcare, only to discover he's been removed by Social Services. And no one will say why. A terrifying scenario for any parent, it's doubly so for Melanie, all too aware of the unintended horrors of 'the system'. When she arrives home, her nightmare gets worse - it has been raided by Sheriff's deputies, who have found enough cocaine to send her to prison  for years. If Melanie can't prove her innocence, she'll lose her son forever. Her case is assigned to Amy Kaye, a no-nonsense assistant Commonwealth's attorney. Amy's boss wants to make an example out of Melanie, who the local media quickly christens 'Coke Mom'. But Amy's attention continues to be diverted by a cold case no one wants her to pursue: a serial rapist who has avoided detection by wearing a mask and whispering his commands. Over the years, he has victimized dozens of women in the area - including Melanie. Now it's this mystery man who could be the key to her salvation. or her ultimate undoing.  Closer Than You Know is by Brad Parks.

April 2018

On the eve of his college graduation, Harry is called home by his step-mother Alice, to their house on the Maine coast, following the unexpected death of his father.  But who really is Alice, his father's much younger second wife? In a brilliant split narrative, Peter Swanson teases out the stories and damage that lie in her past. And as her story entwines with Harry's in the present, things grow increasingly dark and threatening - will Harry be able to see any of it clearly through his own confused feelings?  All the Beautiful Lies is by Peter Swanson

May 2018

What You Want to See is by Kristen Lepionka.  Shaken by the outcome of her last big case, PI Roxane Weary is keeping a low profile. When she takes on a new client who suspects his fiancee is cheating on him, Roxane is happy to have landed a run-of-the-mill surveillance job. Until, that is, Marin Strasser, the woman she's been tailing, turns up dead.  The police are convinced her client is the one who pulled the trigger. Certain - and scared - that things aren't so straightforward, Roxane starts to follow a paper trail that gets more dangerous the farther it goes. So who really was Marin Strasser? Who could have wanted her dead? And how can Roxane stop her work from once again pushing away the few people she thinks she can trust?

Cold Desert Sky is by Rod Reynolds.  No one wanted to say it to me, that the girls were dead. But I knew.  Late 1946 and Charlie Yates and his wife Lizzie have returned to Los Angeles, trying to stay anonymous in the city of angels. But when Yates, back in his old job at the Pacific Journal, becomes obsessed by the disappearance of two aspiring Hollywood starlets, Nancy Hill and Julie Desjardins, he finds it leads him right back to his worst fear: legendary Mob boss Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel, a man he once crossed, and whose shadow he can't shake.  As events move from LA to the burgeoning Palace of Sin in the desert, Las Vegas - where Siegel is preparing to open his new Hotel Casino, The Flamingo.  With Charlie caught between the FBI and the mob, can he possibly see who is playing who, and find out what really happened to the two girls?

Friday, 12 January 2018

Jane Robins talks about Obsession

White Bodies is my first novel and right at the beginning, when I was staring at a blank piece of paper, I knew I wanted to write up something dark and suspenseful. I thought hard about how to create that through twisty plotting; but I knew that it was equally important to have a compelling theme and intense atmosphere. I spent ages thinking about this; hours every day as I walked in my local park, made myself a cup of coffee, put washing into the machine. It turned out, in fact, that I was living my own theme – obsession.

Some of my favourite novels are about obsession. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is wonderful, and I’ve read it several times. The rather bland narrator is seemingly weak, and doesn’t even have a name of her own. We know her only as the new wife of Maxim de Winter who, through her own lack of confidence, falls into obsessing about Rebecca– the extraordinary and beautiful first Mrs de Winter, who is now dead. I love that juxtaposition of a perceived weakness and strength, inhibition and social confidence, blandness and vitality – and I used a lot of these ideas in White Bodies.

Most important though, is the contrast between ‘knowing’ one character, whilst another seems ‘unknowable’. In Rebecca, the reader is inside the narrator’s head, privy to her every thought, as she observes with wonder the fundamentally ‘unknowable’ and enigmatic Rebecca. Much of the tension in the novel comes from the changing relationship between the observer and the observed. I attempted something similar in White Bodies, realising that effective pacing of this narrative of discovery was vital.

I guess that envy is often at the heart of this sort of obsession; the central thought being ‘she has all the things that I lack. She has the good looks, the self-confidence, the glamour.’ I refer to the movie Single White Female in the novel. It’s a wonderfully intense portrayal of that sort of envy. We watch Hedra played by Jennifer Jason Leigh becoming increasingly envious, then resentful and malignant as she observes her flatmate Allison played by Bridget Fonda.

It’s not quite like that with Callie and Tilda. As I started to write as Callie I realised that whilst she’s weird, she’s also sweet and caring, and not prone to envy. It’s more that she is overawed by a sense of wonder as she watches Tilda obsessively, and struggles to understand her. Also, she loves Tilda to a fierce and frightening degree, and much of her obsession is borne out of a kind of passion that burns within her.

Callie isn’t well-educated, but she’s an intelligent person. Despite that she’s incredibly confused by her strong feelings. She has sleepless nights as she struggles to protect Tilda from harm, and at the same time she’s desperate to stop herself being totally overwhelmed by her sister. It’s this latter part of Callie’s obsession that explains her strange behaviour. She starts eating things that belong to Tilda because that gives her a small, fleeting moment of feeling in control. It starts with corners of Tilda’s diary and bits of her hair – and gets worse. A few readers have found this side of Callie alienating. That wasn’t the case for me. It felt like authentic behaviour, and my heart went out to her because I knew her actions were a response to the suffering she felt as her obsession became too hard to control – too dominating. As Callie grew increasingly obsessive about protecting Tilda, I found myself wanting to protect Callie.

White Bodies by Jane Robins (Published by HarperCollins)
He's so handsome and clever and romantic. I just wished he hadn't forced Tilda under the water and held her there so long. 'Callie loves Tilda. She's her sister, after all. And she's beautiful and successful.  Tilda loves Felix. He's her husband. Successful and charismatic, he is also controlling, suspicious and, possibly, dangerous. Still, Tilda loves Felix.  And Callie loves Tilda. Very, very much. So she's determined to save her. But the cost could destroy them all. Sometimes we love too much.