Late Checkout – out now (and a competition or two)

Walters_LateCheckout_Banner1-1Well, it’s finally here. Publication day. And to celebrate the publication of Late Checkout we have, not one, but two book giveaways for you.

We’re giving you two chances to win signed paperbacks of my first two Alex Walters novels, Trust No One and Nowhere To Hide.

In my previous post here, I set out a few quirky facts about Stockport, the setting for Late Checkout. To enter the competition, I just want you to leave a comment telling me the most obscure or interesting fact about your home town (or the town where you currently live).

You’ve got until the end of Sunday and we will pick a winner on Monday morning

On Helen M. Walters’s (relation) blog there is a separate competition where we are looking for your oddest or most humorous experience of staying in a hotel. Anything from fire alarms going off in the middle of the night, to locking yourself out of your room in your pyjamas (or worse still, I suppose, not in your pyjamas). You can find the blog post here.

Oh, and you can buy Late Checkout here. Did I mention that it’s out today?

For more news about Late Checkout don’t forget you can follow my Alex Walters Facebook page here, or follow me on Twitter at @MikeWalters60.

We are also having a Thunderclap to publicise the book on 14 June. For anyone who doesn’t know what this is, it’s just a way of getting as many mentions of the book on social media as possible at the same time in order to give the book a boost. It only takes a couple of clicks and just means that you’re allowing your FB and/or Twitter to put up a one off promotional post. If you’re willing to help, you can sign up here.

‘Thou hart more than ‘atmakers…’

Walters_LateCheckout_Banner1The cover of Late Checkout shows a gritty-looking urban landscape. Rather than just picking a cityscape at random, those excellent people at Books Covered remained true to the book and selected a shot of Stockport where much of the book’s action is set. Those who know the area will recognise the church as St Mary’s and the building to the left as Bank Chambers, both just off Stockport Market.

Although there are numerous examples of crime fiction set in Manchester, I’m not aware of much set specifically in Stockport. My first two Marie Donovan books had some scenes set in Stockport, but ranged more widely around north west England. Much of Late Checkout, though, is set in the town and wider borough of Stockport, and that will also be true of its forthcoming sequel, Dark Corners.

Stockport’s an oddly atmospheric place, although parts of it are just odd. The ‘heart’ of the town is an anonymous shopping precinct built literally over the top of the River Mersey (for years, a reliable pub quiz question was which Football League ground was closest to the Mersey, but Stockport County kiboshed that through repeated relegations). Beyond that, though, a network of streets wind up through different levels, so that your perspective on the place always feels slightly out of kilter. Joy Division recorded Unknown Pleasures here. We have a Unicorn Brewery which brews Unicorn Bitter. We have one of the largest brick-built edifices in the world in Stockport viaduct. We have a Hat Museum. And we have our own pyramid, just off the M60.

I was once the intended victim of a spectacularly inept attempted mugging in one of the alleyways connecting the lower and upper parts of the town. I was already walking away when the two teenage assailants were interrupted by an elderly lady with a shopping trolley. They both fled. I don’t know if that’s typical, but I don’t imagine there’s any more crime in Stockport than in other similar urban areas.  Even so, we’ve had our share of killings over the years, sometimes gangster-related. One or two of those I’ve appropriated, in suitably fictionalised form, in past books—including in one case transposing the murder to the Mongolian steppe. The killings in Late Checkout, though, are entirely fictional. So are the locations in which they occur, but I’ve tried throughout, as I did in the two Marie Donovan books, to set them in a real and recognisable landscape. And however fictional they may be, they’re still probably no less likely than a Unicorn Brewery or a motorway-side pyramid.

Oh, and the title of this piece? That comes from some glorious sleeve-notes written by the ever-entertaining former Beatles publicist Derek Taylor for an album recorded in Stockport by the Liverpool group Scaffold. The notes conclude: ‘Good old Stockport. Thy ‘eart beats strong and thou hart more than ‘atmakers.’ So now you know.

In the next room…

Walters_LateCheckout_Banner1My new book, LATE CHECKOUT (out this coming Thursday, 9 June, by the way) was inspired in part by all the nights I’ve spent in hotels during my working life. I spent much of my day-job career in roles that involved extensive business travel. Business travel sounds exciting—and occasionally it can be—but mostly it involves traipsing, in some combination, from airport to railway station to to office to anonymous hotel and back again. Over the years, I became more adept at finding hotels with a little more character and charm, generally cheaper and more friendly than their chain equivalents. But often you’ve little practical choice about how you travel or where you stay, and you just have to make the best of what the fates land you with.

Sometimes the outcome can be positive. I’ve discovered a few excellent places over the years through accidents of geography. But often the results are—well, mixed. I recall staying in a small hotel in Paris where the built-in wardrobe smelt so disgusting that I was convinced there must be a body, human or otherwise, bricked up behind it. There was a hotel in the south-west where the menu offered a ‘melody of fish’—all frozen and breaded, even though the hotel was minutes from the sea, and with no trace of any tune. And then there was the hotel on the edge of a safari park (no, me neither) where I was woken in the night first by the sounds first of some big cat roaring immediately outside my window and second of an, um, over-excited couple in the next room. I don’t think there was any link between the two disturbances.

Of course, as a writer, you mostly spend your time in hotels watching and speculating about the other guests. I spent several weeks staying in a bleak budget hotel in an industrial suburb of Paris where, for a number of days, my dinner was enlivened by two earnest Gauloise-smoking young men sitting nearby. They looked like characters from a Godard film and I began to envisage them as professional hit-men, whisperingly preparing their next job in that anonymous place. When they ceased appearing in the restaurant, I imagined that they had completed their work and moved on into the trans-European twilight. They no doubt worked in IT. But their fictional equivalents have made more than one appearance in my subsequent books.

Mostly, though, I’ve just been fascinated by the whole hotel experience. If you’re in the right (or wrong) frame of mind, there’s sometime uniquely eerie about hotels—particularly soulless business hotels. They have the same feel across the world. A pretence of luxury that’s often barely functional. The knowledge that, in many cases, the illusion is  being maintained by staff who are poorly paid and often badly treated. Above all, the mystery of quite who might be living, only a few feet away from you, in the identical room next door.

It was that last question that provided the genesis of LATE CHECKOUT. The hotels in the book are a varied bunch. They are all, I should stress, entirely fictional, though inspired by countless places I’ve stayed in over the years. In all of them, though, someone is waiting just along the corridor…


Far-Fetched Stories

A while ago, Clive James stirred up a minor controversy with a New Yorker article which argued, or at least asserted, that many contemporary crime novels are simply ‘guide books’ and that ‘finally there is nothing left… in the memory except the place they are set in’.  James concluded sardonically  that ‘ideally, an author should turn out a sequence of detective novels that will generate a bus tour in the city where they are set’.  While James’s judgement is perhaps a little harsh, he does have a point.  Much of the best crime fiction, whatever its other merits, tends to be grounded in a strong sense of place – whether it’s an indigenous writer exploring his or her own terrain or an outsider delving into the less familiar.  The delights of literary tourism may be an ancillary aspect of good crime fiction, but they can be potent nonetheless.

The great Maxim Jakubowski, never one to duck a challenge, has now taken Clive James at his word and produced a literal guide-book to accompany a choice selection of the best crime writers. Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction is a beautifully produced book that takes us from Rebus’s Edinburgh to Sam Spade’s San Francisco, covering extensive ground in between.  The book comprises a series of essays describing the authors in question, their books and characters, and the key locations in which the stories are set, including maps of the relevant cities or areas.  In general, each essay focuses on a single writer and his or her chosen setting, but where appropriate also picks up other relevant authors along the way – so, for example, Barry Forshaw introduces us to Henning Mankell’s Sweden but takes time, in passing, also to alert us to the wealth of other Scandinavian crime writing out there.

If this were just a well-produced coffee-table book, it would be worth a browse, but typically Jakubowski has made it much more than that.  The real value of the book lies in the array of writers that have been assembled to provide commentary on their selected authors – not just experts, but experts who can be relied on to write interestingly and entertainingly, including a number who have pioneered outstanding coverage of crime fiction through their blogs and websites,  So we have names like J Kingston Pierce, Peter Rozovsky, Sarah Weinman and Declan Burke, alongside leading writers and critics such as John Harvey, Martin Edwards, David Stuart Davies and Barry Forshaw.  All of the essays are interesting, even for those familiar with the books or locations concerned (I tested this with John Harvey’s piece on Nottingham, which I know both from Harvey’s own splendid books and because I grew up there – he was still able to provide me with some surprising insights).  More importantly, though, the book provides an excellent inducement for readers to explore new literary and geographical territories.

I should conclude by declaring a small interest. Alongside the major names featured in the body of the book, Jakubowski also includes a graphical overview of more far-flung international crime fiction, and has been kind enough to include a reference to Mongolia and the Nergui books.  Given the quality and range of the rest of the book, I can only feel privileged to be in such august company.

The book is published by New Holland Publishers at  I’m told that you can save 20% on the normal price of £17.99 and get free P&P by quoting Walters at the checkout (this offer ends 31st January 2011.).  I can think of no other context in which you’re likely to obtain a discount by quoting my name (quite the opposite, I should imagine) so I’d suggest you make the most of it.

Drama by numbers

It’s often argued that the 1960s were the golden age of television in the UK.  I’m not convinced by that.  A quick glimpse at any TV schedule from the decade shows that there was as much dross as there was treasure – for every Kenneth Clark there was a Hughie Green (or worse).  But I do think that, in one area at least, modern television struggles to compete – the field of popular drama.  I don’t just mean much-lauded single plays – the Dennis Potters and the Ken Loaches – but also the basic prime-time fillers.  Watching old episodes of, say, The Avengers, I’m often staggered by the wit and imagination evident in what was a mainstream Saturday night show (which appealed to me as a young child as much as it does now as an adult).  Even the second-rate stuff, the Adam Adamant Lives or Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), seem to me to surpass most of the formulaic material that’s foisted on us today.

These thoughts were brought to mind by the launch of ITV’s remake of perhaps the most remarkable of those 1960s series, The Prisoner.  I was a little too young to appreciate the series on its first showing, but I remember being transfixed by a re-run sometime in my teens.   It was an insane series, the brainchild of its star, the late Patrick McGoohan, which, despite its often manic experimentalism, somehow managed to tap into the spirit of the time. In part, it reflected the growing sense of individualism and rebellion that characterised the late 1960s – the lone hero battling against the overwheening power of the state, striving to retain his identity in a world that wanted to reduce him to a mere number.  Seen a few years later, though, as I first saw it, it also seemed a prescient series, not just capturing the spirit of the 1960s but also prefiguring its demise.  Particularly in its last chaotic episode, the series seemed as pertinent in the 1970s of Watergate paranoia as it had a few years earlier.

Like a number of a best creations of the time (I’ve written before about my enthusiasm for The Wicker Man),  the series has in part the feel of a happy accident.  That’s not to underestimate McGoohan’s vision or his persistence in realising it – but simply to recognise that some of the series impact stems from a confluence of factors that simply might not have been available at any other point.

For that reason, I’ve never really understood the desire to remake it, and I had few expectations of the new version, particularly since, as the current edition of Private Eye points out, it’s sat unshown by ITV for a year.  Sadly, even what little hope I had was disappointed.  Like so many remakes, it seems, incomprehensibly, to have been made by someone with no feel for or understanding of what made the original remarkable.  For me, it failed even at the most basic narrative levels.  The original may at times have been baffling, but its basic premise was clear even from the first few seconds, leaving the drama free to explore the implications of the hero’s position.  Here, even by the end of the first interminable episode, it was difficult to know what was going on.  And, frankly, even harder to care.

The remarkable dreamscapes of Portmeirion have been replaced by what looks like a particularly uninviting holiday camp.  McGoohan’s enigmatic cool has been replaced by a forgettable performance from James Caviezel (who, in fairness, seems to have little to work with).  The episodic nature of the original, which allowed the series to play with genres and expectations, has been replaced by a narrative arc which, so far, has remained resolutely ungripping.  The only bright spot is Ian McKellan’s Number 2, but even he struggles to make much of the dull dialogue.

I’m probably being unfair.  If the series had tried to replicate the qualities of the original, it would have been even more pointless and would inevitably have fallen short (at least in the minds of those who loved it the first time).  Instead, the makers have tried to reinvent the concept for the 21st century,  but the effort feels mechanistic rather than visionary.  Maybe it’ll improve – there are five episodes to go – although reports from the US, where it was aired last year, suggest perhaps not.  I’ll stick with it for a while longer, but I suspect I’ll end up digging out the DVDs of the original before long.