This is a novel which announces the advent of a new protagonist for Martyn Waites. If The Mercy Seat is anything to go by, then we are all in for one hell of a rollercoaster ride! The pace is fast and the book starts book with someone being tortured, which is uncomfortable to say the least.
Fast-forward to the present day and we have a boy, Jamal, running for his life. He has just stolen a minidisk from someone and he has no idea how dangerous it is to keep the item. Jamal escapes on a train heading for Newcastle. He just knows that he needs to lie low for a while, but still doesn’t realise how much danger he is in.
The action moves from London to Newcastle, a place the author is very comfortable with as his roots are based in the city. Such dark subjects as child prostitution, their pimps and the drugs racket do not put off Waites. It could all get very depressing with this sort of material, but although they are sensibly touched upon, the subjects themselves are never dwelt upon too heavily. However, there are some very nasty characters in this novel. Hammer is a grotesque who loves inflicting pain on others just for the buzz it gives him. Keenyside is another abomination. He is a bent copper who is determined to make something of himself at all costs.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and hope it will be the one to send Waites
into the literary stratosphere. The Mercy Seat should certainly be optioned
for TV, it’s a natural for the medium. I have my own ideas as to
who should play the characters that are within the covers of this book!
It would be truly frightening to see Hammer and Keenyside personified
on the small screen. Let’s hope it won’t be too long before
The Mercy Seat is on our screens. Until then, I strongly urge you to read
Reviewed by C.S.
1) How would you describe the kinds of books you write?
I like to employ all the tried and true Dickensian methods: character, atmosphere, interesting prose and good, strong, storytelling. They’re quite dark but not gratuitously so. But they’re honest. They’ve been described as noir and it’s true they’re more in the tradition of American crime fiction. Like the writers I admire there are sometimes big questions asked but no easy resolutions, no pat answers. And they’re damned entertaining, of course.
2) What is your favourite crime read of all time?
I doubt I could narrow it down to one novel. There have been certain books along the way that have fired me up, been signposts for me. Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. Red Harvest and The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett. Blue Belle by Andrew Vachss. He Died With His Eyes Open and I Was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond. And just about everything by James Ellroy and James Lee Burke.
3 ) Would you describe yourself as a Crime fan and if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
I’m a fan of what I consider good writing and the majority of the writers I love overlap with the crime genre but I’m not a fan of crime writing for its own sake, full stop. I like the hardboiled stuff, the noir novels. The social realists. Chandler, Hammett, Thompson, Day Keene, Daniel Woodrell, James Sallis, George Pelecanos, Domenic Stansberry, Walter Mosely, Nelson Algren, Hemingway, Russell Banks, Hubert Selby Jnr. Those kinds of authors. I’ve no time for airport novels or cosies or the latest overhyped and badly written bestseller. That shit just numbs the eyes and the brain. I like writing that has a strong voice and a leanness of prose that begets a certain kind of poetry. Graham Greene is my all time favourite writer. He went genre hopping and was brilliant at everything. Likewise James Lee Burke, who I reckon is the best novelist writing today in any genre. They’re all writers who have a unique worldview and an instantly recognisable prose style. No one else could write their books the way they do - there’s an air of no compromise about them and real passion. You can tell when a writer cares about how the words hit the page rather than just trotting out some hackneyed old story. Instead of just blandly passing a few hours, they reward the time and patience the reader invests in them.
4) Who, in your eyes, is pushing the boundaries of crime fiction today – and why?
I think that for the first time in our conjoined cultural history, writers from this side of the Atlantic are ahead of their American counterparts. We’ve got people like Ken Bruen, Cathi Unsworth, Joolz Denby, Jake Arnott, David Peace. Writers taking risks with form and content. Giving a voice to those usually denied one. More concerned with creating great books than bestsellers (even though some of them have become bestsellers). America crime writing is now, to me, stuff like Harlan Coben, Robert Crais. Bland and boring. The kings of the airport novel. Bush’s America writ large. There is still some good stuff coming from over there but it tends to be from the established authors. There are hardly any exciting, great, new voices coming through. No engaged, dissenting voices either. Not like there are over here.
5) Without giving away the plot, which book included your favourite plot twist of all time?
I don’t actually have one. Plot to me is where story and character come together so I don’t tend to take much notice of twists, just accept them as part of the story. However I do like that scene in Silence of the Lambs where the SWAT team go to knock on the serial killer’s door and we see him go to open it and there’s Clarice standing there. In fact I like it so much I’ve done something similar in my next novel. But it’s reference, darling, (as ABC’s Martyn Fry used to say) not regurgitation.
6) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
Double Indemnity. It just shades the runners up ( LA Confidential, Get Carter, The Maltese Falcon, Point Blank, Night Of The Hunter ). It’s a work of pure genius. I never get tired of watching it. It sparkles like a very dark diamond.
7) This is the first in the ‘Donovan’ series. What made you start a series with a journalist as the main protagonist?
First off, I didn’t want a policeman as a protaganist. There are too many hard-bitten, heavy drinking maverick cops out there to start with and I didn’t think I had anything amusing or prescient to add to an overcrowded scene. Plus I couldn’t be bothered to do all that tedious research. I wanted someone who had a natural knack for investigating but who also has a dark and damaged side. That’s how Joe Donovan was born. An investigative journalist whose life has broken down as a result of the disappearance of his young son. In The Mercy Seat he has to confront some of his personal demons in order to save the life of a fugitve teenage street kid. As the series progresses, the over-riding story arcs will be Joe trying to put his life back together as well as searching for his son. There are going to be some interesting developments in that department.
8) You always write about very dark subjects. In The Mercy Seat you confront child abuse and male prostitution. What makes you want to tackle such serious subjects?
I write about things that anger me, or engage me in a passionate discourse. I actually think The Mercy Seat’s quite light in a way - it has a more upbeat ending. My previous books have looked at the brutal legacy of the miners’ strike and the child killer Mary Bell. And at the risk of sounding arrogant, I know what I’m writing about. I work with these people, or have worked with them, on a day to day basis.
9) You base The Mercy Seat in Newcastle. Your previous novel, The White Room was also based in that area. What makes you set your novels in Newcastle?
Well, it’s where I’m from and it’s still probably the city I know best. I get sick of seeing novels set in London all the time and I’m sure people get sick of reading them. But to me the city has to be more than a backdrop, it has to become a character in its own right. And I love writing about this city in particular. This is my sixth novel and I think I’ve now successfully managed to claim Newcastle for myself in the same way Ian Rankin has claimed Edinburgh, David Peace claimed Leeds and James Lee Burke New Orleans.
10) Where do you see Crime fiction going next?
Anywhere it wants to. Like I said, my previous novels have been about the miners’ strike, Mary Bell, homelessness and child abuse. Contemporary crime fiction is the perfect vehicle for taking themes that were once the exclusive province of mainstream literary novels and exploring them in ways that cast an altogether different light on the subject as well as giving voice to those usually denied it. The downside of this is that it will make crime fiction more respectable and accepted. And I’ve always been happier throwing in my lot with the outsiders.