The Beasts Beneath


Some years ago, I was sitting in a Soho taxi late at night when its driver was violently attacked by two drunk businessmen who walked across his path. I agreed to act as the driver’s witness, but outside the courtroom the police persuaded the plaintiff to drop his case in exchange for cash. The driver had shouted at the men, who were filled with drunken anger and beat him up while I was locked in the back of the cab.

It was decided between all of them that court proceedings would only cause everyone more trouble. It was a reasonable solution, if an unexciting one. The men agreed to pay all costs – they had damaged the taxi and hospitalised the driver – but it felt wrong to me. They should have been punished for what they did, because they were very likely to do it again.

If you’ve ever been the victim of a crime, you’ll know that it’s a very different experience from its fictional equivalent. Police stations are like hospitals; they go by the playbook and most of what happens is behind the scenes. The rest is just waiting around and trying to reconcile your anger and frustration with the orderly procedures you have to face. If crime fiction accurately reflected this, it would be a moribund genre indeed.

Yet publishers are keen to convince us that their latest murder mysteries are grittily realistic and true-to-life. They’re not, never were and never will be. How many killers are captured while they’re still in the middle of their slaughter sprees? How many have ever planned a series of murders according to biblical arcana? How many leave abstract clues for detectives and get caught just as they’re about to strike again?

Crime fiction is a construct, a device for torqueing tension, withholding information and springing surprises. Every month dozens of crime novels appear that promise us new levels of realism, when they patently supply the reverse. We’ll happily believe that the murder rate in Morse’s Oxford equals that of Mexico City if the story is told with conviction.

The Bryant & May books are sometimes dismissed as a kind of fantasy hybrid. I get put on panels with SF authors by people who haven’t read the books. Yet to me they exist in heightened reality, a style I employed in both ‘Paperboy’ and ‘Film Freak’. Accuracy is not truth, but heightened reality can sometimes dig out truths better than a slavish adherence to accurate detail.

All of my books are based on kernels of truth. In the next one, ‘Hot Water’, a group of middle-class friends end up in a holiday villa in southern France, where they proceed to destroy their world. It was based on a real holiday I took where the main events in the book actually occurred, but to tie it all together I needed another real event that personally involved me, on a different earlier trip.

I conflated the two sets of circumstances, pulled forward the consequences, added to them, changed them and made everything more disastrous. The real-life knock-on from the first holiday lasted three years. I tie up my fictional events over the space of two weeks.

I’d thought the reality was less heightened in ‘Hot Water’ and more real. And yet…the wonderful crime writer Ann Cleeves reckons I’ve written ‘a fable for our time’. She says; ‘I loved that simmering, relentless tension between apparently civilized people.’

That’s what I was aiming for, to strip away some of the civilisation to reveal the beats beneath. I’m hoping this book, out from Titan in March, breaks out of a crowded field.


42 comments on “The Beasts Beneath”

  1. Paul+C says:

    As a victim of crime (a very long time ago) I agree that it’s a frightening and depressing experience that stays with you for years and the police do what they can in an impossible job. My experience of serving on a jury was also bleak : the sheer waste, the last minute deals, witnesses failing to turn up and on and on.

    I prefer slightly fantastical crime plots and characters in a convincing realistic setting rather than straight realism altho I do enjoy Ed McBain and Kent Anderson (Night Dogs, Green Sun).

    Like the word torqueing !

  2. Rachel Green says:

    I’ve given up reporting crime. The local police are probably fed up with sending me ‘no action taken’ emails.

  3. Davem says:

    On pre-order and looking forward to it

  4. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Praise from a fellow writer – especially one whose work you respect – is to my way of thinking, the sprinkles on the frosting on the cake. Well done!

  5. SteveB says:

    It sounds a bit like a mixture of HighRise and Lord of the Flies 😉

    Anyway – Looking forward!!!!

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    Your cardinal sin with ‘Hot Water’ — and you undoubtedly have been an unrepentant sinner in this regard for some time — is that you again wrote what you wanted. Tsk,tsk. It’s no wonder your American agent stopped reading the manuscript halfway through, as you previously mentioned, thinking he was reading a ‘regular’ thriller, but determined it was really ‘an incredibly dark English social comedy.’ How could you!?

    You unconscionably breached the ‘sixth wall’ — the expectations or, more like, the hard and fast requirements of the arbiters and enforcers of the Genre Purity Laws. Crime fiction is all about storytelling and, in the end, retribution. Its arc need not be linear so long as there enough bits left on the diversion to allow the reader to find their way back to the main path. You can divert, digress and dally all you want with B&M since, to all intents and purposes (as I see it), the series is its own genre, bearing only a faint family resemblance to its literary cousins. But not so, I suspect, with work eliciting more mainstream expectations. Back stories and the explication of inner lives are hallmarks of the ‘more than meets the eye’ school of crime/mystery fiction, of which you are a prominent faculty member. But for the average reader (and mind you,we here are presumably not in that category) they can too easily disrupt the required, inexorable storyline and with that in mind, offend the commercial sensibilities of agents and publishers. Reality currently sucks whether on the page itself or among those who would produce it. Happily, someone at Titan read more than half of ‘Hot Water’ and decided its reality was worth reliving in print.

  7. MartinT says:

    You appear to be in mixed company on the Amazon page with the title ‘Hot Water’. Not only PG Wodehouse,also set in France,but also ‘A BBW Small Town Romance’ whatever one of those is? Interesting company. Glad to see that yours is at the top of the page!

  8. Debra Matheney says:

    Sounds interesting. The veneer of civilization grows thinner by the minute and is producing deeply dispairiting consequences for us all. I fear for democracy when we can no longer agree on simple truths and lies flow unimpeded. Look no further than politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin For a moment there, on seeing the title of this post, I thought you were going to add to the preceding discussion on the Underground mice.

  10. Jan says:

    You weren’t on your own there Stu!

  11. admin says:

    Actually there’s something I did forget to add. When I showed the finished jacket of Hot Water to an art director friend, he said, and here I am merely reporting verbatim, ‘Where is there a c*nt on the cover?’

  12. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I would say his knowledge of female anatomy could be improved upon. If he insists, it looks more like a uterus and Fallopian tubes to me, probably removed from the previous owner for a very good reason.

  13. Peter+Dixon says:

    Believe me, this is true.
    A friend of mine lives in an upstairs flat on a side street about a quarter of a mile away from me.
    About 3 months ago he woke up in the early hours to some odd sounds in the street outside. Looking from his window he saw a man sitting on the pavement opposite and, dismissing him as a drunk, went back to bed only to hear knocking at the downstairs flat and some sort of commotion. About 15 minutes later the street was full of an ambulance and several police cars. It turns out that the couple in the lower flat are gamers and play late at night so they had a light showing. A man knocked at their door and, when they answered, fell in covered in blood. He’d been stabbed in the stomach so badly that his intestines were falling out. The woman remembered some first aid from being in the Girl Guides and managed to hold his stomach together until a team of paramedics arrived. Police were knocking on all the doors in the street for any information – they found a trail of blood through a nearby park where they thought the crime might have taken place. The victim was unconscious and it was some days before he was able to talk to the Police. It took a few days before the story was reported in the local press; the man had survived and the papers interviewed the couple who had saved his life – Mr and Mrs Werewolf. It turns out that some years previously the pair of them had decided that their names were too normal for the heady world of online gaming and had changed their names, officially, to Werewolf. Of course, it could have been worse if they had actually been werewolves – or, in that case, would anyone have found out?

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin As for the lack of a scantily clad female on the wrapper of ‘Hot Water’ your art director friend wondered about — at least I assume he was speaking figuratively, but with art directors you never know — you probably gave him the standard high concept plot summary. Something like, boy meets girl; blunt instrument meets boy.

    Although your (now former) friend was no doubt being smart arsed — with art directors, you do know — his reaction points up the dangers of writing something off the beaten genre. It may look like a duck and sound like a duck but is actually “an incredibly dark English social comedy” (as your American agent would have it). Either that or art directors are now under orders by  beleaguered UK publishers to put a scantily clad female on the wrapper of every book.

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Before I’m figuratively grabbed by the cojones by angry female commenters, permit me to modify my last comment by changing ‘…scantily clad female on the wrapper of every book,’ to ‘…scantily clad female or male on the wrapper of every book.’ Whew! Glad I caught that in time. I did, didn’t I ? (warily looks around…)

  16. Peter+Dixon says:

    I thought the only image allowed on mystery type book jackets was the back of a figure walking towards a slightly blurry photoshopped background……

  17. Richard says:

    Stu: You might have caught that in time if you’d written “grabbed by the cojones by angry commenters” instead of “. . . angry female commenters.”

  18. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Richard Thought about that after the comment went off into the ether. Ah well — it is hereby amended to include ‘all appropriately indignant commenters.’ I suppose I was subconsciously trying to keep down the possible number of commenters who might be prompted to figuratively attack my nether region.

  19. Helen+Martin says:

    Cornelia, your comment will forever colour my perception of that book cover, or at least until I have read the book itself.
    Chris, I agree that that art director should be a former friend. If he was correct then your books would have sold nothing. I know you are disappointed that there haven’t been larger sales but adding sexually specific drawings to the covers will not add sales numbers and certainly not repeat sales. If you want sex (of any sort) would you recommend a Chris Fowler book to a friend?

  20. roxanne g reynolds says:

    i’m with cornelia in her assessment of the cover artwork!

  21. Helen+Martin says:

    Excuse a diversion into somewhere else. I enjoy cooked beets and beet tops, pickled beets and harvard beets but I had never tried a beet sandwich until ten minutes ago. Enough mayonnaise to keep the slices between the bread and that’s all. Really great. I’m with Arthur.
    Our public health head is watching what is happening in the UK among other places before putting rules in place but New Year parties are now banned along with dancing and singing. You’d think the Puritans were back in charge. Let’s hope we live till the new year.

  22. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen Share your beet-o-mania. Particularly fond of roast beets with citrus. Also — to date, small studies indicate beet juice imay be helpful in lowering blood pressure, esp. the upper or systolic number over a 24 hr period. Again, small studies — no large randomized controlled trials, which are the ‘gold standard’ for research, yet that I know of. Knew Quakers were early Canadian settlers in Ontario and the Maritimes, but didn’t know Puritans made their way north in any numbers from New England as well.

  23. Jo W says:

    #Cornelia Appleyard
    Spot on! I have a feeling that mine may have looked like that, after all the trouble it caused.
    # Helen Martin
    Oh beetroots, I’m salivating now at the thought and it’s early breakfast time here. How are you and yours these days?

  24. Roger Allen says:

    A friend’s variant on Waldorf Salad (beetroot instead of carrots) is one of my favourite and easiest (not physically – there’s a lot of grating in involved) recipes. Add beetroot and apple soup to begin with, roast beetroor and potatoes and liquidised beetroot and citrus juice as a drink and you’ve got a sort-of-balanced diet.

  25. Paul+C says:

    Beetroot and citrus juice as a drink ? Blimey, I think I’ll stick to beer……….

  26. Martin Tolley says:

    With you Paul C. Beetroots are meant to be eaten. If you have to liquidise a solid to consume it – avoid. A mentor of mine, many years ago said the rules are (1) Never eat anything bigger than your head. (2) Never eat anything blue. (3) Never drink anything green, and (4) If it’s wet, and not yours, don’t touch it.

  27. Peter T says:

    I’m confused. Was it “Where is the …” or “Why is there …”? I can understand both.

    Stu – I’m sure female commenters will support your views. Remember the Gorilla Girls: do women have to be naked to get into an art museum?

  28. Peter T says:

    Your public health head may have seen the first scene of horrible histories horrible historic Christmas Parties on you tube. Not even going to church is allowed. As for watching what’s happening here in the UK, he would do better to decide by coin tossing. Our infections are soaring, though deaths remain flat (due to inherent lag or the advantages of Oxford-AstraZeneca?).

  29. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Unless it’s somehow for effect — the eagle-eyed Syntaxpolizei may take you to task for the double negative ‘she saw everything, but can’t say nothing’ line at the top of the wrapper image (assuming it exists in the final version).

  30. Joan says:

    I find beets sort of bland, but pickled heavenly! Fond memories of stained hands pickling them. Next favourite is red cabbage pickled.

  31. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Apologies. Forgive my last comment about a double-negative. The line in question was a bit soft focus on my screen and I saw what I thought was the offending contraction. On what should have originally been closer inspection, I see it is just fine, nay superb, if not spine-tingling. Since I can’t possibly ‘gild the lily’ enough in recompense, I will now beat myself about the head with ‘London Bridge’ and burn my copy of Richard Osman’s latest that some benighted relative thought I might enjoy.

  32. Paul+C says:

    Nice one, Martin – I did once drink a pint of bright green Guinness on St Patrick’s Day which tasted the same but was almost impossible to choke down.

  33. Stu-I-Am says:

    Spoiler alert (as in may spoil your tea/supper) — gag inducing green Guinness or beetroot and citrus notwithstanding — there exists (or existed in one case) tipples both eye-watering to read about and stomach-churning to imbibe (except for the already well spifficated). Do not ask for these at your local. You have been warned.

    Smoker’s Cough: A mixture of mayonnaise and Jägermeister. May be the worst looking drink of all.

    Cement Mixer: Made from Bailey’s and lime juice. You drink the Bailey’s and hold the shot in your mouth, then take the shot of lime juice and swirl the mixture around.The lime’s acidity causes the Bailey’s to rapidly curdle, so that you have to chew the congealed mass.

    Full English Cocktail (not to be confused with the English Breakfast Cocktail): On offer for a very limited time in celebration of St. George’s Day at the East London pub, Victoria Mansions. Think of a Full English. Now think of the baked beans, eggs, bacon, toast, black pudding, Worcestershire sauce and tomatoes blended in a mixie with Black Cow, the Dorset vodka made from milk. Add a spot of Colman’s mustard, some HP sauce and even a touch of Marmite. Set it all off with a garnish of streaky bacon, toast, tomato and a pickled quail’s egg. Serve in a baked bean tin —et voilà ! And btw — these are among the more benign of worldwide ‘imbiberies.’

  34. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Thank you Mr. Fowler for the photo and the poem. I took a similar one yesterday morning where I live – miles away – and will add the poem to it.

  35. BarbaraBoucke says:

    On Twitter – also the Sondheim info.

  36. Helen+Martin says:

    I apologize deeply and most sincerely for triggering this latest thread. Thinking laterally before posting is an excellent rule.
    Jo – we’re all fine, fully vaccinated and symptom free although I am still feeling the results of falling over a milk crate; nothing broken and “only” soft tissue damage. The two of us are joining our son and Ken’s sister for a restaurant dinner on Boxing day – unless Covid ups its speed and has even restaurants closed. All the best to you and your family.

  37. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen+Martin Helen: Don’t kick yourself. You performed a public service. You released what was a clearly — but previously undetected — pent-up demand for the contemplation of beetroot.

  38. Roger Allen says:

    Stu-I-Am: you are Mr Creosote in disguise!

  39. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Roger Allen Roger: Have we had dinner together ? Thought you would have forgotten about it by now. I assume you’re referring to my ‘alternate’ tipples. My feigned sense of propriety (and health and safety regulations) prevents me from including other even more ‘gut-wrenching’ options from places where a G&T is considered mouthwash.

  40. andrea yang says:

    Serving 6 months on a Grand Jury was the most enlightening and depressing experience. I wish it had happened sooner because it really changed my view of the world and the inadequacy of the justice system. Can’t wait to get a copy of Hot Water!

  41. Alan Radmall says:

    Stripping away civilisation may reveal beats that leave us reeling in shock and awe.
    As a civilised Londoner coming to live in South Africa many years ago, if you would accept Dalston as civilised, the civilisation I accepted as the norm was quickly stripped away after a midnight visit to the emergency department at Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town. An unfortunate young 16-year-old had found himself up to his armpit in the rollers of a large web-offset printing machine at my place of work. After a very painful extraction from the machine, he also found it to be very unpleasant, it was deemed better that I drive him straight to the hospital rather than wait for an ambulance.
    The A&E waiting room we walked into looked like a scene from a WW1 hospital newsreel. To go into details would put me off my boxing Day leftovers lunch, but to give you a clue, there was one staff member whose sole responsibility was to continuously wipe the floor with a mop and bucket. And he struggled to keep up. I wondered about the length of his canines. Anyway, I’ll skip to the chase.
    Living within the small group of South Africans we called friends, we were not exposed to the real day to day civilisation the majority of this country considered normal. 57 murders a day was considered normal in SA. Gun violence in Gauteng and knife violence in Cape Town was part of their daily life. But I would guess they believed themselves to be living in a civilised society.
    It took a long night of negotiating with hospital staff to get the best care for our young man Finally sat outside the hospital entrance in my car watching the ambulances arriving in a steady stream, smoking a Rothmans waiting for my legs to stop shaking so that I could drive home that night, I realised civilisation has many layers and is dependent on our own reality. One of my layers was stripped away that night. I had experienced the horror of a new layer of civilisation operating not more than a few minutes from my front door.
    I wondered what type of civilisation existed if one of the layers of the new civilisation I had experienced that night was stripped way. And how many layers did modern civilisation, as we know it, have? And why was the mopper-upper at the hospital that night, smiling so much.

    But back to civilisation as we know it.

    Please don’t tell me you forgot to get pickled onions, Bisto and Branston to go with the cold turkey, soggy spuds and Brussels today. What is the world coming to? And please hurry up. I don’t want to miss the Queen’s speech.

  42. Wayne Mook says:

    Well you can keep the beetroots I’ve been eating parsnips, honey glazed and baked in the oven. I remember the first time beetroot changed the colour of my wee to red, panic, luckily something I’d heard echoed from the deep slumbering mass of my memory. I then did the most sensible thing and asked my wife who confirmed the beetroot side effect.

    As to the hot water cover I see a length of red cloth floating in a swimming pool, the back light and shadows indicate a wall. I wonder what you’re friend saw on the Rorschach cards.

    Alan – there is a piece on the BBC new website Fear and Loathing in South Africa, it’s about migrant in South Africa, racism but fear of crime and the lack of identity cards which means no bank account and problems getting a job. Still most say it is better than Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and the other places the migrants come from. Crime is the biggest worry, hopefully the new regime can slowly turn things around. Sad to see the loss of Desmond Tutu, a critic of the previous president and a from outside he seemed a voice of reason.

    Actually after being mugged once I ended up in the back of a car with a mob of Salford CID chasing round Hulme looking for the culprit and only stopped when we ended up seeing a film crew filming someone on a white horse.


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