Author of the Month

Name: F G Cottam

First Novel: The House of Lost Souls

Most Recent Book: The Magdalena Curse

'...a fast paced thriller of terrifying intensity.'

In the depths of the Bolivian Amazon, SAS captain Mark Hunter embarks on a secret mission. Part of an international team sent to root out a possible drugs cartel, the plan is to go in, eliminate the targets and get out again. But the mission goes disastrously wrong, with an unnatural number of men left dead Mark is left with a curse that his progeny will ‘commune with the dead.

Years later Mark has left the SAS following the death of his wife and young daughter. He and his son Adam have relocated to Scotland but his son is plagued by disturbing dreams which Mark believes are related to the curse. He seeks the help of Dr Elizabeth Bancroft who despite her medical training soon becomes convinced that Adam is indeed under the influence of malevolent forces.

With the life of his son in danger, Mark must find the woman he encountered in Bolivia, a Miss Hall who is more good than bad. Only she has the power to overcome the work of the malign Mrs Mallory, the initiator of the original curse. But at home in Scotland, Elizabeth must confront her own part in the drama. The healing power of her family has been a blessing and a curse for generations but may prove to be only way to prevent the annihilation of the remaining Hunter family.

F G Cottam has legions of fans who have been gripped by his standalone supernatural thrillers. This latest book brings all the promise of his previous books together to present a fast paced thriller of terrifying intensity. Cottam interweaves the supernatural and the thriller parts of his book so that it is impossible to separate them out.

The idea of a malevolent Mrs Mallory out there in the world dispensing malcontent and evil is so believable that at times you wonder how the narrative can possibly be resolved. Without totally giving the game away the ending is left relatively open and the reader can decide the likelihood of her return.

Cottam always writes strong female characters who are instrumental in bringing about redemption. Men, although physically strong, often have a fatal flaw that render them incapable of tackling the forces of evil alone. This tension makes for interesting characters and complex relationships that go beyond the normal man-meets-woman scenario. These relationships are also an important glue for the book which spreads itself across a wide distance geographically. But Cottam has a very good sense of place and his vivid descriptions from the Amazonian jungle to edgy Kennington conjure up an already off-kilter world that could easily tip into chaos.

My only slight criticism is that I wanted this book to be longer and I felt bereft after I had finished the book. I am sure that all Cottam’s fans will feel the same.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) What makes a truly great crime/thriller novel?
All sorts of qualities, if you think of just how varied they can be. With crime it can often be a great detective and they can be as different in character as Travis McGee and Easy Rawlins. Or it can be a great villain, like the Tooth Fairy in Red Dragon or with a thriller, the great white shark in Jaws. It can even be location; which it certainly is in much of Raymond Chandler. I like mystery, a question so intriguing it absolutely demands an answer be provided that will solve it in a completely satisfactory way. But in order to achieve and deliver that, the author has to create a very high level of belief in the reader; a conviction that the characters are real and the plot not just plausible, but true.
2) Now that the crime/thriller genre represents the largest section of fiction sold in the UK and Ireland, do you think we do enough to celebrate the quality and diversity of the writing?
Absolutely not. I'm reading The Private Patient at the moment and having read all the P.D. James Dalgliesh books, cannot understand why she has not won every prize for naturalistic fiction going. Her plots are intricate and compelling, the characters convincing and the writing consistently superb.

In Big Ger Cafferty, Ian Rankin created the most magnetic, ambivalent and disturbing villain imaginable. He combines charisma and pure menace in exactly the way that gives the most successful real-life gangsters the fascination they have for us. And the Edinburgh Rankin writes about is its own darkly authentic universe.

Obviously James and Rankin are hugely popular in terms of sales. But they don't just write first-rate crime fiction, they write first-rate fiction and in ways that are worlds apart. How can two such diverse and brilliant writers be shoe-horned into the same narrow genre? And American crime fiction is hardly short of literary quality either. The Dave Robicheaux novels have great plots and plenty of vivid and sometimes brutal action; but I cannot think of a prose stylist writing any kind of American fiction to better James Lee Burke. He seems incapable of a single bad sentence.
3) All of your books are widely spread geographically. Is this intentional or do the locations become clear as you develop the plot?
They all have different time-frames too. The switch in location (and sometimes period) is dictated by the fact that telling a story is the strongest imperative I have in writing these novels. The reader is obliged to travel through the lansdscape of the story to understand its events and repercussions and reach its conclusion. They have to appreciate the ordeal the protagonists endure and in order to do that, they have to go with them. I hope it is an odyssey and an adventure for the reader. But I could never write a novel set in a single location or over the course of a single day. That's probably why I've never been able to finish anything written by Virginia Woolf, even at university when it would have been a set book.
4) Was it a conscious decision to have a woman as the evil character in this book after male malevolence presence in The House of Lost Souls and Dark Echo?
She had to be a woman because one of the principle weapons in her formidable armoury is her glamour. The only lethaly glamorous man I can think of in fiction is Dorian Gray. Maybe James Bond, at a push. To me, glamour in a person is an overwhelmingly female characteristic. I was intrigued by the idea of how much bad behaviour a glamorous woman can get away with just by possessing that superficial but seductive and sometimes deadly attribute. Mrs Mallory in The Magdalena Curse is irredeemably bad. But she is also intelligent and stylish and witty and beautiful. It's human nature to think well of good looking people; including vampy, femme fatale type women. We are apt to forgive them a lot. But with Mrs Mallory, in this story, that's a fatal mistake.
5) Have you ever been tempted to continue a character into your next book?
I've sometimes speculated in my own mind on what happened to Paul Seaton after the revelation about himself he underwent in the final chapter of Souls. But the truthful answer is not really, no. I like the creative challenge of beginning with a blank page (or in my case screen) and conjuring characters from nothing in whom the reader invests hope or dread or whatever it is in between I try to encourage them to feel. Writing a novel without a pre-determined cast is a bit like constructing a building without a blue-print, though. It could end up a dog kennel with a huge conservatory attached. Hopefully, none of mine has ... or will.
6) How would you describe your novels – supernatural thrillers or ghost stories?
I'd call them literary thrillers with an occult element. But no one should read them in expectation of an explanation of the events in the story that dismisses the supernatural. You don't get that Scooby Doo moment where the monsters are unmasked. They are not for readers who think that Hogwarts should be more like Grange Hill. They have an internal logic and I stick to the rules. I don't pull rabbits out of hats in my fiction. But it is based on the premise that ghosts exist and magic can be contrived. The Magdalena Curse concerns witchcraft. At one point, having given him a modest demonstration of her considerable power, a sorceress asks the main character; 'Are you arrogant enough to think you people have this world to yourselves?' There's a bit in one of the Patrick O'Brien series that sums up my own attitude pretty well. Maturin, the physician and rationalist, is incredulous that his friend Captain Aubrey can suspect one of the sailors aboard his ship might be a Jonah. 'Not everything is in your book, Stephen,' Aubrey responds. Exactly, I thought, when I read that.
7) Do you ever get spooked when writing your books?
There's a bit in Souls where Seaton visits a lavatory in a haunted university building. He sees the reflection of a grinning flapper in the mirror by the uncertain light of a revolving glitterball. At least, he thinks he does. Then he looks under the door of one of the stalls and sees a pair of feet, with wrinkled grey spats worn over the shoes. Then the stall occupant speaks to him. That spooked me. There's a bit in The Magdalena Curse where the protagonist finds an old home movie that demonstrates to him Mrs Mallory's true age and some of the insalubrious company she has kept over the course of her long life. That was pretty sinister, as was his eventual visit to her house. I've just finished writing a novel called The Waiting Room, which scared me senseless in places. It's ridiculous really.
8) What made you decide to include the supernatural in your plots?
I've always been fascinated by the supernatural. Excluding shopping mall zombies and vampires as a metaphor for adolescent sexual yearning, which I find silly and boring, the subject intrigues me. It's a pat answer, but true, that I write the sort of novels I'd like to read. Novels exploring this subject matter can also be very good. I think that King's The Shining and Straub's Ghost Story are both outright masterpieces. There's also the commercial aspect of the matter - readers everywhere like to feel a frisson of fear inspired by something that has no real rational explanation. Souls has been published in countries as disparate as Russia and Indonesia and came out in Germany at the beginning of this month. I'm as vain as any other writer of fiction. I want to be read.
9) What do you think drives a story best – plot or characters?
I hope it isn't a cop-out to say a combination of the two. In The Magdalena Curse, the protagonist is a special forces soldier who stumbles into something horrific on a clandestine military incursion into a remote part of Bolivia. His experience - and actions - have fearful repercussions for his family a decade on. By the point where the source of the danger and its reasons became clear in the story, Mark Hunter was a character dictating his own way of dealing with it to his creator. There was only one way for him to confront matters and situations authentically. He just wasn't a multiple choice sort of bloke. I don't think you can have a convincing plot without convincing characters and without the plot, they can't evolve convincingly. That's a chicken and egg question, really, to which I've given a rather convoluted chicken and egg answer.
10) In a dream scenario who would you like to direct and star in a film/TV adaptation of your book?
I'd like the film of The Magdalena Curse to be directed by Ridley Scott. Blade Runner is one of my favourite films and Alien one of the best horror movies I've ever seen. If you get Scott, you usually have to have Russell Crowe, who would be pretty much perfect in the role of Mark Hunter. If Russell wasn't available, I'd be very happy indeed with Liam Neeson. My pick for Lavinia Mallory would be Rachel Weisz. And as Elizabeth Bancroft, Cate Blanchet would round-off a dream cast.
11) What is your favourite movie adaptation of all time of a crime/thriller novel?
That's a hard one. Easier to say the worst, which is Gorky Park. The novel is an atmospheric tour de force and the film was just insipid. Probably my favourite is Three Days of the Condor. Conspiracy theory thrillers were all the rage in the Watergate aftermath but this film stands the test of time. Why wouldn't it? Sydney Pollack directing Redford and Dunaway was about as good as Hollywood got in the mid-seventies. More recently, I thought The Bourne Ultimatum outstanding, an improvement on the rather turgidly written book that inspired it.
12) What is your favourite crime/thriller novel of all time?
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. But tomorrow I'd probably give a different answer because, thankfully, there are many contenders.