An aging hitman is embittered by his career choice at the point of no return. A shell-shocked soldier in World War Two finds hope through death, reflected in the eyes of his enemy. A serial killer confesses in veiled, lurching prose. A mobster unravels at the zero hour of this mortal coil. A man reevaluates existence after discovering a suicide. These are some of the twenty-nine dark, twisted, and gritty stories by Stephen J. Golds collected here for the first time — bound taut with thirty poems of loss, love, and other thoughts that haunt you after last call.
Sometimes you just need a break. A break from the seven hundred page tomes, or the four hundred page crime mysteries, and pick up a lighter read. A book that keeps you engaged, but won’t leave you feeling fried for days afterwards. That is exactly what Stephen Golds new collection Love Like Bleeding Out With An Empty Gun In Your Hand provides. It is a read that immerses you from the first sentence. Yet at the same time lets you know that if you follow the writer into his cleverly constructed dark corners for a few moments you will be rewarded when you reach the end.
This collection of poems and short stories is a beautiful mashup of grit and poetic writing that carries you on an adrenaline fuelled bender that you don’t even realise you’re experiencing until you’re halfway through, and questioning what time of day it is. This collection is unique because it isn’t just short stories that cross a range of genres. But a masterclass on how to make poems carry a narrative structure. It’s wasn’t something I was excepting as I read the short stories about corrupt gangsters, staring your own death in the face, and other taboo subjects. But it worked wonderfully. As I read the lines of the poems I found myself smiling. They bought a different angle to Stephen’s writing that enabled him to explore many methods of storytelling that helped immerse the reader deeply in his themes, as well as giving us a glimpse into how he views the different levels of darkness that exist in our world.
The poems created almost a bitter sweetness between the pages. Every one leading you to the true horrors of crime. They allowed you to breathe as you went from one hard hitting story to the next. But helped maintain your interest throughout. Yet as the pages turned I found myself getting lost in the language used. Stephen in this collection isn’t afraid to faithfully describe how some of these harrowing events would occur in the shady corners of society with blood curdling accuracy. He doesn’t shy away from how these events would not only effect the individuals involved, but also the environment in which they are committed. He goes into depth on the ripples caused by tragedy on an emotional level that I haven’t seen reached by any other author this year. Even though each story is separate they all seemed to carry a universal message. That every crime leaves a scar no matter how small. The reason this collection will be in my books of the year is because Stephen makes you care about every tiny detail that he is able to smuggle into his writing. Whether that’s the ex gangster down on his luck, to a droplet of blood tarnishing the pavement as a victim falls. You feel it all, and it will leave you scarred as you close the cover.
This collection is a celebration of what I would call Dirty Noir. Every page felt as if it had been dripped into the grime of the streets. The graffitied walls, the bars drowning in their own shit, and backrooms that only a select few know exist to whisper their dirty deeds. Stephen gets down in the trenches. The ink in his pen is the blood under the fingernails of every killer mention. This book should carry a warning when you finish reading. It should say take a long hot shower because like his carefully crafted words you can’t quite wash away the stains of the street. Love Like Bleeding Out With an Empty Gun In Your Hand is a collection every crime fan should be reading. Stephen is a rising star. I can’t wait to plunge into his blacken mind again soon. It receives five stars, and is currently sitting at number six in my reads of the year. It is going to take something spectacular to change that. Congratulations Stephen. It’s a highly accomplished read.
I received a copy from the author in exchange for an honest review. This doesn’t my views.
DS:Today I am delighted to welcome Gary Donnelly author of the DI Owen Sheen Series to my blog. Thanks for joining me Gary.
GD: My pleasure Dan. Thanks for having me.
DS:What made you decide to write crime fiction?
GD: In many ways it chose me rather than the other way round! I certainly did not set out with an express intention of writing crime or noir, but looking back it made a lot of sense for me to hang my hat there. I love reading crime fiction, and when Sheen was first forming as a character and the series was slowly taking shape, I was reading a lot of Michael Connelly (especially the Harry Bosch series), Peter Robinson’s understated and musical DCI Banks novels, Mo Hayder’s creepy tales, Ian Rankin and of course Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville’s Northern Irish crime work. So, having explained this, it probably made a lot of sense for my own novel to be (largely) a crime story.
In saying that, Blood Will Be Born set a tone for the Sheen series by also smudging those clean genre lines a bit, adding dabs of Stephen King’s supernatural eeriness, playing with romantic themes and exploring the tensions of personal issues and relationships on a wider canvas of historical, political and conspiratorial big backgrounds (my youthful love of Frederick Forsyth, Robert Lundlum and of course King and Dean Koontz).
DS: How long did it take you to write the first DI Owen Sheen book Blood Will Be Born? What was the hardest obstacle when trying to complete that dreaded first draft?
GD: I started writing in a serious way after attending an online novel writing class with the City Lit, London in, I think, mid-2014, but it was only in 2015 when I made an active decision to change my job (all-consuming and never satiated up until this point) that I found the mental space to engage and really begin. At that point I also had the impetus of knowing I had downsized my professional prospects and therefore knew that I wanted a novel to show for it! Mind you, I was still working pretty much full time so it took the guts of a year (it’s feast or famine when it comes to writing for me) before I had knocked out a first draft by August 2016 (in time for my BIG 40 which was no doubt also in the mix on some level).
So Blood Will Be Born took about a year but the learning curve was steep, and that was far from the end of it. The first draft had the bones and structure of the story as it stands but it was a hefty, overweight beast of a thing that had been written with no plan or plot until about half-way (amazing to think that as I look back at the process, but that’s the truth) and then herded into shape from that point until the end. Amazingly this process worked and worked pretty well, but not, at that point, as a crime thriller. At some level I think I was aiming for something closer to Stephen King’s The Stand meets Ulysses (pass me my smoking jacket and cravat)! To use a phrase which the journalist David Roy coined while speaking to me this week, I’d created a Sheeniverse, but fun as that was, it needed to be edited, sculpted to allow the real story to emerge.
So that process, following feedback from first readers and prospective agents, took me into early 2017. It’s something they rarely teach you about in writing classes, but it is the equally essential counterpart to hacking out the first draft. By the time I was done, I knew the book was so much the better for it, and I could say with confidence where it ought to sit on a crime thriller shelf. So the hardest part? For the first draft it had to be (and probably still is) starting with a commitment that the book is on and then writing consistently, doubts and fears be damned, until that draft is finished.
DS:What I love about the series is that Belfast becomes a character in its own right. What made you decide to set the series there? And how on earth do you make it so vivid?
GD: Thank you, I am so pleased it is brought to life for you. I am always minded of that phrase that we do not live in the past but the past lives in us, when I think about this question. The Belfast of my childhood and youth is long gone and I live in London, so I rely on the sensory memories of the past and from my visits. The freshness of the air, the ever present guarantee of rain, the crispness of the light and the beauty of the encroaching countryside as well as the sometimes dreary and sinister bleakness of parts of the urban landscape. I close my office blinds and ignore the London sunshine (so abundant when I was drafting the third book, Never Ask The Dead, it was torture), and I try to see through Owen Sheen’s eyes. I also employ little tricks when needed. An online search will give me an instant image of a place, and sometimes having it dated is even better as it summons the atmosphere I want. Sheen’s Belfast also has the feel of risk and edginess and this is something I think I turn inward to find.
I left Belfast when I turned nineteen and when I arrived in Cambridge I felt like I’d been dropped into a toy town. I could walk home after a few drinks at night and my furtive glances over my shoulder were wasted, strangers asked me questions about politics and religion with genuine interest, and with no agenda attached. Which was an eyeopener. But I suppose to quote another well-used adage, you can take the boy out of Belfast, but at some level, you will never take Belfast out of the boy.
DS:In the series Northern Ireland’s dark past is ever present. I am wondering was this a conscious decision as you can truly imagine the reality of the troubles as you read?
GD: Yes, I think of it as a ghost in the works, perhaps represented most tangably by The Moley, John Fryer’s tormenting demon that he must feed with fresh blood in book one. As mentioned above, I remember many things first hand, though unlike Sheen, who was subject by the worst kind of personal trauma, my experience like so many, was more cumulative. A stone added to a sack that was carried daily and to which we had become so accustomed, the weight was not consciously felt, perhaps, until it was finally lifted. Indeed, there is also a kind of trauma from watching others become victims, the sense of the near miss, attending the funeral of a friend’s father, eating my school packed lunch in a park where soldiers were stripped, beaten and murdered. These things must have an effect. And the proof of that is there in the books.
In the same way I did not set out to write crime fiction to begin with I also did not consciously begin with a view to engaging with legacy issues, but there they are! I am proud of the Sheen series for the way in which (I hope) this has been managed and cautiously navigated. Ian McEwan wrote about the importance of empathy and imagination as the essence of our humanity after 9/11. I am sure politicians, historians and others have their part to play in coming to terms with the dark past which we all shared. As a writer I have a wonderful licence to create, challenge and explore as well as entertain.
DS:In the series Owen seems to be feeling his way back into his own forgotten past, almost as if he is an outsider looking into the shadows waiting to see what will jump out. How much of Owen’s backstory did you know before you began writing, and how much grew organically as you wrote? As I love his voice throughout.
GD: Thank you again. Sheen arrived pretty much fully formed. I knew I wanted an outsider of sorts to arrive in Belfast to start up the SHOT (Serious Historical Offences Team) and Sheen was a perfect vehicle for this. In doing so, Sheen had some built in neutrality and gave me the licence I needed to engage my home town afresh. Plus, I now know North London as well as I ever knew Belfast so I was sure I could find his voice quite easily. Then, as I introduced him, and I searched for his layers, I thought about how sweetly weighted and apt it would be that he had once lived in Belfast, but has no concrete memories of that time. It was then that I had the eureka moment.
What if Sheen is back in Belfast for more than police work? What if he wants the truth about a personal issue, something that caused his family to break and leave their home in the first place? And so it went. But this did not take long. He really did come to me when I called, wearing that God awful leather jacket and simmering with anger and secrets and questions.
DS: How much of your personality do you put into your characters? Which character would you say is most like you?
GD: This is a tough question. They are all my dark progeny! Of course the obvious answer is that Sheen is closest to me. A me reinvented and turned inside out perhaps, but I never really saw it that way. To do so risks self consciousness, having my ego conflict with his journey and that would be bad. I think by definition I bring parts of myself to every character, but it is more accurate to say that they become the expression of going beyond the parameters of myself and playing like we used to when we were children. ‘Just pretend,’ we used to say before telling our siblings and friends how we wanted to imagine the game. For me, it is very much the same and when it works it really is child’s play, the characters give me the freedom to go elsewhere. When they’re good, they are better than I could hope to be. When they are horrid, it has nothing to do with me! I just tell their story. 🙂
DS:Which 3 books do you believe everyone must read in their lifetime and why?
GD: Sheen 1, 2 and 3. Haha, not really. I don’t really count myself as well read, it has always been a bit of an insecurity for me, so great question! I’ll dodge this a bit by saying read Dickens, for the love of language and his love of everyday people. Read House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski because it is reality warping, mind blowingly original. Read Dubliners By James Joyce, as a reminder of how so much quality can be distilled into a small volume.
DS: What is your comfort read and why?
GD: I will return to my favourite Stephen King time and again. ‘Salem’s Lot and It especially. There is something about King’s ranging, landscape spanning style that is so accessible, and also so intimate that it feels like a literary warm bath, like telepathy without effort. He also writes about what matters to him and what he loves in a context that is local and parochial. Favourites from my youth and the former has at least one little homage in Sheen book 2, Killing In Your Name. I wonder if you can spot it?
DS:Is there anything in your series that you would change if so why?
GD: I always want it to be better. Better written, better paced and making better use of the past as a context and character. But, I have also learned the importance of being thankful. That I wrote the series at all, that it has been published and that so many readers actually ‘get’ it and want more.
DS: Finally, what is next for Gary Donnelly?
GD: Well, I knocked out a little stand alone during Lockdown 1 which I have just edited and I will be interested to see what may come of it. Very different from Sheen is all I can say. But Sheen is not done yet, I am working on the fourth in the series and I need to crack on and do what’s needed (refer to question 2!). I always have the nets cast though, even as I work on deck. Patience is a virtue, but from experience I know I will see the lines twitch soon. And when they do, I’ll strap into the chair once more, scary as it is, and see what I can land from the deep.
Cover for the third book in the series doesn’t it look glorious.
This interview was conducted over email. I can’t thank Gary enough for taking the time to answer my questions. I adore the DI Owen Sheen series. Why not buy it now and find out why.
DS: Hi David thank you for agreeing to do the interview.
DF: My pleasure Dan. Thanks for having me.
DS:How did you first get into writing?
DF: I first started writing way back in primary school. I grew up in Belfast during the Troubles, which was a tough time. Our teacher encouraged us to write stories to help understand what was going on around us. Something clicked when I started writing, and this became a significant turning point.
DS:How did the idea for The Art of Death come about and can you provide a spoiler free description of what to expect?
DF: The killer in The Art of Death uses social media to catfish and capture his victims. This is a subject I really wanted to explore because it is current. Also, it reveals all of us as potential victims because of the data we show to others. An an added twist, my killer is also an artist and exhibits the corpses of his victims. Nice chap. One to introduce to your mother.
DS: The Art of Death features a strong but troubled female detective. What made you decide to write a female character, and how difficult did you find writing a female character from a male’s perspective?
DF: I write all my characters as honestly as I can regardless of their gender. All the emotions that the protagonist, Grace Archer, goes through are emotions I have experienced. Also, I’ve always loved reading and watching female leads triumph over adversity in environments that men think they control. A female detective was the right fit for this novel, pitting her against a savvy serial murderer. I couldn’t resist it.
DS: The Art of Death is the beginning of a new detective series for yourself what can we expect in the next dose?
DF: I’d love to succeed in making readers as unsettled with the book 2 as they were with book
DS: Who was your favourite character to write in The Art of Death and why?
DF: Definitely Grace Archer. Archer has a troubled past that I really enjoyed writing. You get a taste of it in the first book and more will come in the next.
DS:How much of your own personality did you put into your characters, and did you learn anything new about yourself from writing Art of Death?
DF: As mentioned earlier, some of Archer’s emotions are from my own experience and I hope I have done them justice. My partner thinks I have written myself as Archer’s sidekick, Harry Quinn. He loves to tell people that. Perhaps there is an element of truth in it. I suppose I have a similar sense of humor to Quinn.
DS: What is the best and worst writing advice you have received?
DF: Possibly the best advice is read lots of books of all genres and learn how other authors write character, story, emotion, etc. Worst writing advice is “write everyday”. Can’t agree with that one. Writing is a job that can suck the life from you. There are days when you will need to step away and do other things. Grab them when you can.
DS:Who is your comfort read?
DF: At the moment, George RR Martin, Game of Thrones. I can leave his books for months and come back to where I left off and know exactly where I was in the story. Granted, this may be largely down to the TV adaption. I also really admire his writing style and get all nerdy over it while I’m reading.
DS: Who are your influences when it comes to writing?
I’m not sure I have influences that I am aware off. Like most writers I try and keep as individual a style as I can, but who knows. Authors whose work I love include Stephen King, Thomas Harris, Ian McGuire, John Connolly, to name a few.
DS: Which three books do you think everybody must read in their lifetime and why?
DF: Three books that stand out for me are:
Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien
During my teens I read these books over and over again and always found something new that I had missed. I could not get enough of Middle Earth and its mind boggling range of characters, locations and stories. I will always love these books for what they gave me during those troublesome teenage years.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
I think I was in my thirties when I read Wuthering Heights. A late age (I know!) to pick up one of the greatest novels ever. And it really is. I did not know what to expect when I started it and was instantly drawn into the unforgiving world of Heathcliff and those around him. It ignited a lot of emotions: anger, pity, sorrow, disgust, happiness. It has it all. One of my favourite books of all time.
I am Legend, by Richard Matheson
Richard Matheson’s post apocalyptic thriller about the last man on an earth populated with vampires is a classic sci fi novel that spawned four different movie versions and was the inspiration for many zombie films. At its core, it’s the story of Robert Neville dealing with loneliness and fighting for survival against a violent new race of people who will not leave him alone. Some are his neighbours risen from the dead! I found it both terrifying and moving. There is also a terrific twist at the end and great final line. No spoilers. Although I expect everyone has seen one or more of the movies.
DS: What advice would you give to writers?
DF: See answer 7 😉
This Interview was conducted over email. I can’t thank David enough for taking the time out to answer my questions. I learnt so much from this interview. I hope you did aswell. You can buy The Art of Death today from all good bookstores.
THE PAST. Fourteen years ago, the police caught a notorious serial killer who abducted two victims during the month of February. He was safe behind bars. Wasn’t he?
THE PRESENT. But when another body is discovered, the race is on to catch the real killer before he abducts his second victim. Neuropsychologist Kyra Sullivan fights to use a new technology that accesses the minds of the witnesses.
THE FUTURE. Will Kyra discover the person behind the murders, and if so, at what cost? And how far will she go to ensure justice is served?
This is the story of how Kyra tries to save a past she cannot change and a future she cannot allow. A genre-bending thriller for readers who enjoy books by Clare North, Stephen King and John Marrs.
I finished Witness X in a frenzy. I feel almost compelled to reread it just to enjoy the complexity of the plot all over again. Sarah has establish a world that is as smooth as a V8 engine. Every word specifically engineered to stir your imagination. I can’t put this book into a genre. It flows like water touching on many genres that it is impossible to contain. From deranged serial killers to high tech futuristic crime solving machines this book has something for everyone.
Don’t worry though this book isn’t another dystopian novel where the world burns. So if you’re looking for zombies, deadly viruses, or mazes full of creatures then I am sorry to disappoint you. However if you like soft sci fi concepts with some gruesome murders then pull up a chair and find out why I couldn’t get enough of this sci-fi noir.
The book follows Kyra Sullivan a neuropsychologist who invents a new cutting edge technology in 2035. This technology allows her to access people’s memories. To witness a scenario through their eyes. When we are introduced to her she is desperately trying to get the technology approved to be used in the criminal justice system. However she is being blocked at every turn. Plus to complex matters further the military are involved looking into ways the machine can be used for their own perverted agendas.
Unfortunately for Kyra these complications aren’t the only difficulties she has to manage in her daily life. The constant shadow of her sister’s graphic murder looms over her. Even though her killer was arrested fifteen years ago and found guilty. Kyra can’t shake the feeling that they may of got the wrong man. Furthermore she has become the guardian of her sister’s daughter Molly. An unruly teenager who causes her stress throughout the narrative as they both struggle to process their grief. Some of their scenes are my favourite in the book. The reason being is because they are both head strong, and push eachother’s buttons creating an incredible tension throughout when they come onto the page. Making you wonder who was going to snap first. However at the same time they deeply care about eachother’s wellbeing. Sarah handled their scenes with a delicate tenderness that made you powerless against not sympathising with both characters. Unfortunately for Kyra her complicated relationship with Molly is put on the backburner when her worst fears are realised. A scenario she hoped would never happen her sister’s killer David Lomax escaping from prison. Soon she is pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind. As the bodies start to pile up time is of the essence. However when evidence surfaces that Lomax was nowhere near the latest murder site. Kyra’s doubts from the original investigation take on a whole new meaning.
Kyra is forced to face her fears returning to a job that almost destroyed her, a former lover in the shape of her superior Tom Morgan which causes no end of problems as she hasn’t forgiven herself about how their relationship ended. As well as confronting her feelings about her sister’s murder and how it impacted her entire family. We are shown both her inner and external strengths. As these situations hold many painful memories for her and yet she faces them head on. Her strength is truly put to the test when Lomax is recaptured and he says he will only talk to her. As their interactions unfold we are taken into a dark mind. A mind fixed on one thing revenge. Without Kyra realising she is soon drawn into the centre of a twisted game of cat and mouse, where she is the prey and the hunter is breathing down her neck. Could Lomax truly be innocence? Has he been rotting in a cell for fifteen years for crimes he didn’t commit? Or is there something deeper that Kyra is missing? Kyra is the only one who can make sure that justice is served.
This book never stopped asking questions. There were so many times where I thought I had it all figured out, and then Sarah would throw a curve-ball. Either by putting a clue on the bodies you won’t expecting, or something I wish was used more often in this type of genre. Which is adding a chapter from the killer’s perspective. This was a massive plus point for me as it let the reader experience his motivations, and feelings as he carried out these horrific crimes. Whether the chapter focuses on his stalking of the women to reveal their routines, or written when he carries out the kill itself. Sarah takes the reader into his warped mind as effortlessly as riding a bike. She writes her villains superbly. Even though he was pure evil. In his deranged mind there was a purpose to everything he did. I looked forward to his chapters the most the closer we got to the conclusion. The reason being was because of how Sarah wrote the chapters you could almost feel him unraveling as the net closed in.
My only criticism was the relationship between Tom and Kyra. Unfortunately for me I found myself becoming frustrated with their dynamic as the story continued. I don’t know if its because I have read some other relationships that followed similar patterns recently, but I would of preferred their past relationship to be toned down. They are well fleshed out characters and had more to offer to the story than their relationship allowed. I would of preferred a more supportive angle applied to the narrative instead of them butting heads over past mistakes. This is only personal opinion and the relationship is well written.
If you’re looking for hard sci-fi with complex futuristic technology, strange alien spacecrafts, or a crime thriller where Jack Reacher would be happy to take a leading role. Then this doesn’t hit the mark. However if you want some lighter futuristic concepts with a multi-layer murder investigation that results in a mashup that reminds me of Final Cut meets City of Bones. Then this is for you. Well Done Sarah. It receives four stars on the rip-roarer scale.
I received a copy of the book from the author in exchange for an honest review. This doesn’t effect my views.