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Author of the Month

Name: Cathi Unsworth

First Novel: The Not Knowing

Most Recent Book: The Singer

'… the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll meets punk-noir crime novel ever!'

Synopsis:
Twenty years after their brief dalliance with fame, Eddie Bracknell discovers the punk band, Blood Truth. Not only were they one of the up and coming bands of the late seventies/early eighties but there is also mystery surrounding the lead singer of the band. The vocalist, Vince, eloped with another singer, Sylvana. Six months after their marriage, she was dead from a drug’s overdose and soon after Vince vanished, never to be seen again.

When Eddie hears of this tragic and mysterious tale, he is determined to find out exactly what happened all those years ago. Once he gets his book contract Eddie begins to contact the people who were in the middle of it all twenty years ago. As he begins to scratch the surface he finds that there was a lot of anger, love, hate and jealousy swirling around the group. Many of the casualties were caused by Vince’s betrayal.

Are people as innocent as they would like others to think they are? Was Sylvana really such a manipulative bitch? Was Vince the great Adonis people thought he was – or were they right about his dark side sometimes peeping through? Through a haze of drinks, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, Eddie begins to find out that by trying to chronicle the ascent and decline of Blood Truth he may have bitten off more than he can chew…

Review:
Once again Cathi Unsworth leads us back in time to our recent cultural past. An era that is still, to this day, steeped in myth and legend. Punk. Unsworth draws from her knowledge of the music scene and her background in music journalism to bring together a kaleidoscope of characters that are as colourful as they are menacing. It seems that everyone who Eddie interviews has some secret to hide and they are not always comfortable with the truth - or the part they took in the tragedy that followed.

In grim and gritty details the author evokes the sense of the late seventies and early eighties and, as in The Not Knowing, really makes the reader feel that they are actually there during those heady days. The Singer shines a harsh light on the darkest alleys of characters minds and examines their actions as they are played out against the brooding ever-present backdrop of the city of London - brought vividly to life by Unsworth’s dark and sensual prose.

The author litters her fiction with fact. Whether it is to detail what band was playing at a specific venue, or inserting a historical event which took place during the years covered in The Singer. These insertions are not just the author showing she has been doing her research, they involve the characters within the actual events, giving credibility and a few wry smiles to her writing.

The Singer is a multi-layered piece with a wonderful, carnival cast of characters, stragglers and misfits who were the darlings of their day but now feel that life has given them a very raw deal. Don’t be put off by these monstrosities. In the present day we discover the truth through Eddie - endearing in his innocence and naivety - as he struggles along a path he shouldn’t have started walking down in the first place. The Singer is just as much a voyage of discovery for Eddie as it is about finding what happened to Vince over two decades ago. Like a moth to the flame, the reader can only stand by and watch as Eddie starts to crash and burn…

For a second novel, this is an extremely complex and impressive book. Unsworth takes everything she knows of the rock ‘n’ roll genre and puts it to good use within the covers of this novel. You don’t need to know anything about punk to enjoy this book. Sure, it is about the music - but it’s also about so much more than that. Ultimately, we witness the brutal way the music industry allows people, regardless of their status, to be discarded and tossed aside like used syringes. We urge you to read The Singer - it’s the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll meets punk-noir crime novel ever! A stunning follow-up to this author’s brilliant debut.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating



Questionnaire

1) As it slowly evolves and increases in popularity, crime fiction seems to be organically sub-dividing into a number of widely diverse categories. Which genre (or sub-genre, even…) of crime novel would you say you write in?
I would say Noir, or as Derek Raymond defined it, the Black Novel. There is also a social realism element to it and a debt of gratitude to Peter Ackroyd for the way he writes about London as a character – that the same crimes will be committed in the same places over and over again. Of course, there is also a lot of pop culture in my books as that is where I am coming from. I think that a lot of the modern British writers I admire have all been affected by growing up at the time of punk – you definitely find its indelible influence in David Peace, Martyn Waites, Joolz Denby, Jake Arnott, Stewart Home, Dreda Say Mitchell, Jerry Sykes and Nick Stone.
2) The Singer is a very substantial second novel. Did you intend the book to be such a multi-layered affair - or did it take on a life of its own?
I had no idea it would turn out to be such an epic but I guess these ideas have been growing inside me for about 20 years, since I got my first job at Sounds, which was the first of the music weeklies to cover punk properly. I kept listening to 6 Music and hearing songs that I thought must have come from the post-punk era that I somehow missed out on, only to find out that they were new bands singing new songs, so there is a whole, weird, parallel universe going on that I tried to put into the novel, when Eddie keeps experiencing moments that feel like wormholes in time. Seeing The Filth & The Fury, and hearing Johnny Rotten’s poignant reminisces on how he was fucked over by Talcy Malcy and the dirty music business really cemented a lot of ideas in my head. But this book really did seem to write itself and some characters, in particular Donna, I didn’t feel I had invented so much as channelled.
3) Sections of The Singer cover the Punk era from 1977 to 1981. Did you try to use much source material and real-life events from that decadent time period?
There are some real events in it, like the Pistols gig in Doncaster. I don’t know anyone who went to it, and couldn’t find out anything more than a bootleg tape of the performance, so what they play is correct, but what the venue looks like is conjecture coupled with Dennis Morris’ Destroy book of photographs from that time and the aforementioned TF&TF – along with my own memories of what a gig that really changes your life feels like. I was luckier with The Damned’s ‘farewell’ gig at The Rainbow as my friend Richard Newson had written it up for his school magazine and still had a copy of it which I gratefully borrowed! All the details about Blair Peach’s murder at the NF march through Southall are as reported on the BBC at the time. I did try to keep it as historically accurate as possible, while also blending in my own youthful memories of how exciting and inspirational that whole post-punk period was. When Lynton sees Johnny Rotten for the first time and thinks of him as an alien, that is a precise recreation of how my nine-year-old self saw the Pistols playing ‘Pretty Vacant’ on a Nationwide programme about how terrible punk was.
4) The Singer also encompasses the present day, featuring a journalist researching the career of Blood Truth and the band’s lead vocalist, Vince Smith, who vanishes soon after his wife’s suicide. Having been a journalist yourself for a number of music magazines, did you draw from your own life experiences to bring the character of Eddie Bracknell to life? Do you see anything of yourself in Eddie?
Many of the situations Eddie gets into, with people being surly and hostile to see how he reacts to them I have been through myself. Interviewing bands can be quite painful (especially when Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers offers persistently to sit on your face) but luckily I was never set on fire or horsewhipped like some journos were by The Damned, The Stranglers and even lovely Marc Almond! I can just imagine that if I was a music journalist now I would feel like I missed out on a golden age, as when I started my career there were three vibrant music weeklies and a whole underground of fanzines and now there is just the NME which is so industry controlled it makes the Smash Hits of 1981 look dangerously radical.

I had to make Eddie a man, though, because one of the main points of the book is how deeply and casually misogynistic the music world is. I don’t believe a female journalist would ever have got the access to Blood Truth’s inner sanctum in the first place. Nor would she have heard the same views about women as Eddie gets to hear. I do see something of myself in Eddie and I am very fond of him. I do have that obsessive side to my nature that is normally seen as a male characteristic and can quote you all the Goodfellas lines that he does. Well, Eddie is a funny guy…
5) You met the great writer, Derek Raymond, at an influential stage in your career and he obviously made a great impression on you. So much so that you have kindly agreed to write a piece on him for our new Classic Crime section. How much do you credit him with giving you the confidence to write an epic novel such as The Singer?
I met Derek Raymond at a really crucial time in my life, when my career as a music journalist was just about to come to an end and I wanted and needed to do something different. I didn’t realise that a crime novel could be like I Was Dora Suarez, and actually, very few of them are. Reading that book was as exciting to me as seeing a brilliant band and he was such an inspiring person to be around – I have never met such a rapier mind before or since. I can honestly say he changed my life. But as for getting the confidence to write a novel, well that didn’t come until ten years after, ten years of solidly reading Noir novels and hoping some of their brilliance rubbed off on me. Then I was blessed by the help of Ken Bruen, who basically told me I had to write my first novel, and Martyn Waites, who hooked me up with my agent and supported my efforts the whole way through. I have been very lucky to know such people.
6) Last year you edited a collection of stories published by Serpent’s Tail called London Noir. Like many Londoners, you seem to have a love/hate relationship with the city. Is London a place that inspires you to tell stories showing the dark side of the city we love so much?
I love London. I think it is the greatest city on earth and the only place where I have ever felt comfortable. I couldn’t wait to get away from smalltown England, an experience I am sure is shared by many, because I was free to be who I wanted to be here. But I don’t know what is happening to the place any more. It has got immeasurably darker and more authoritarian since 7/7, the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and John Reid’s increasingly maniacal clampdowns on civil liberties. Trying to reintroduce the equivalent of the sus laws, that even the police don’t want and haven’t asked for, can really bring the great race relations of the Seventies back into style. Then we have our supposedly socialist mayor with his C-Zones and his Get an Oyster Electronic Tag or pay £4 for a single tube fare – he seems to be acting like everyone he used to hate in the days of the GLC.
7) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
It has to be LA Confidential as I am still amazed that such an immense, complex novel – and also parts of the preceding Big Nowhere and White Jazz that comes after – can be so deftly incorporated into such a stunning, coherent and beautiful film.
8) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
I am a huge fan of a certain type of Noir fiction and I have already mentioned a lot of the authors I love. But I also owe a huge inspirational debt to the work of Nelson Algren, Des Barry, Ed Bunker, Harry Crews, James Ellroy, Patrick Hamilton, Lydia Lunch, Patrick McCabe, Cormac McCarthy, George Pelecanos, Chris Petit, Jim Thompson, Hubert Selby Jr, James Sallis, Charles Willeford, John Williams and Daniel Woodrell. Because their work tells the truth and is hauntingly beautiful.
9) What is your favourite crime read of all time?
It has to be I Was Dora Suarez for changing my life.