Review: Rag and Bone by J.S. Cook (Inspector Raft Mysteries #2)

Rag & Bone is #2 in the Inspector Raft Mystery Series.

Scotland Yard Inspector Philemon Raft arrives on the scene of a deadly fire in Whitechapel, only to find a much more sinister force at work, destroying lives with swift abandon – and a lunatic may help Raft capture the master criminal known only as “The Master.”

Review by Erastes

This is the follow up to “Willing Flesh” which we reviewed a while back. It’s taken me a disgustingly long time to get around to reading and reviewing the sequel and for that I apologise.

What I like about these two books (and I hope that there will be many more of them) is that they started out as rewrites of her two Inspector Devlin novels but instead of being faithful copies, they have been re-written to make them only vaguely reminiscent of their ancestry. If you’ve read book two of Devlin I think I can safely say that you will be happy about the denouement of Rag and Bone…

What I admire about J.S. Cook’s work is the sense of the grotesque–in a very good way. She takes a blending of Dickens, a touch of King, a taste of Peake and blends it all in in her own inimitable style. I absolutely adore her character description.  It’s not overdone in a Noir style, but she manages to give us an absolute certain description with a few deft sentences.

Raft was sitting is Sir Newton Babcock’s office, gazing at the floor and constructing patterns out of the carpet’s tortuous motif while the police commissioner wallowed up and down, looking very like a rhinoceros forcing its way through thick river mud.

What stops the book getting a five star from me is that fact that I wish JS Cook would trust her own talent and would create truly original characters as I know she is capable of doing. There’s too much Renfield in Rennie the lunatic, too much Holmes and Hare in Hoare, too much Dracula in “The Master” and so on and so on. Raft–who I believe JSC was modelling on David Tennant–develops a 3rd heartbeat and while I know all of these details could simply be labelled as an admiring nod to characters that JSC admires, for me it was irritating and kept dragging it back towards fanfic, and the book deserves much better than that. Perhaps thought it’s just I have too much inside knowledge and other readers wouldn’t even notice.

The editing leaves something to be desired, too – misused homonyms were picked up here and there manner born/manor born, reign/rein and the like and it needed a harsh eye looking over the plot, as things happened which hadn’t had any set-up, and some elements seemed rush,  pasted on and in the end weren’t really explained to my satisfaction. However it’s hoped there will be more of the series, so explanations may come later.

However, some authors with less talent would have a whole point taken off for these problems, J.S. Cook only loses half a point because of her consummate skill in her writing as a whole.

What shows clearly is Cook’s research. I know that she does much of her forensic research at home, making fake skulls, filling them with fake blood and then shattering them to study blood spatter–and other such home pursuits! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s almost impossible to imagine that she’s not only not as English as Miss Marple, but lives in a remote location on another continent. The way she covers police procedure and the forensic knowledge of the time rings very true. If I had one quibble it’s about her dialogue for some of the characters. At the beginning of the book two children are talking, children from the Whitechapel area, completely poor and uneducated. Their speech patterns are off, sadly–one of the children actually says “There aren’t any more” rather than “There ain’t none.” The dialogue of the children is very wobbly, careering from east end dialect and back again. A good English beta-ing would have been sensible, but then perhaps only English people would spot it.

The ending is not your typical romance ending, but then these books aren’t romances – they are crime drama, and while the horror that happens in the earlier incarnation of this book doesn’t happen, JS Cook doesn’t let her protagonists off lightly and the ending left me heartbroken in a good way and on tenterhooks for book three of the series.

You can read this as a stand-alone, despite it being part of a series, it works fine as it is, but I urge you to try out Willing Flesh first–if you are a fan of Victorian crime drama you can’t help but be impressed by Rag and Bone.

Author’s Website

Amazon UK Amazon USA (Print and ebook)

JS Cook’s Book Swap

Am willing to swap ELECTRONIC VERSIONS of:

Inspector Raft Series 1: Willing Flesh by JS Cook

Inspector Raft Series 2:  Rag and Bone by JS Cook

As You Despise Me by JS Cook

————————-

What to if you want any of these books

REPLY to this post with suggestions of what you have–it doesn’t matter if you’ve already had a post on the community, you can also offer your books on the replies. The owner of the post will then choose what they want (probably will take a day or so) and then I’ll connect the two of you and you can arrange your swap or gift.

Review: Willing Flesh by J S Cook (Inspector Raft Mysteries #1)

When a series of bizarre murders occur in London’s notorious East End, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Philemon Raft is called on to solve the crimes, but even he is powerless to explain why the victims are displayed in public places — or why the killer insists on drilling burr holes in their skulls. With little to go on except the strange red dust found on the victims’ palms, Raft must scour the city looking for an explanation. Aided only by his newly-appointed constable Freddie Crook, Raft’s investigation takes him into London’s most dark and dangerous places, where human predators wait to devour and destroy.

But Raft has an even bigger problem: a casual acquaintance is blackmailing him, and what she knows about his secrets could tear Raft’s life to pieces

Review by Erastes

This is a grown up murder mystery. Don’t go into without an ability to read unpleasantness. This is Victorian London in all its gothic nastiness where life is extremely cheap and grotesque is the name of the game. In fact grotesque would be a good sub-genre for this, but that’s not an insult. This faces the dark, dingy and seedy London of the 1880’s head on and finds it covered it gore. If you liked The Alienist this will be right up your dark , cobbled street.

I’ve read JS Cook before and I know her from the internet. She is, although some of you will find this hard to countenance, even more obsessed with total accuracy than I am. She’s a perfectly nice looking woman who you would not think capable of experimenting with “Kensington gore” and fake paper mache skulls to see how brain and blood might spatter across a wall. She’s Dexter, but without the irritating habit of wrapping people in clingfilm. She takes her crime extremely seriously, and that echoes beautifully in her creation of Inspector Philemon Raft.

He’s a dour obsessive with a keen eye for observation. But he’s no idiot savant or genius and good job too. He can’t look at flowerbed and know that a drunk sailor stood there before travelling to Tahiti. What he finds out he finds out either by hard graft, sending someone else to do hard graft or by outside information. In this I found him to be extremely believable because even today most of police successes are based on outsider information. He’s ably assisted by the lovely Constable Freddie Crook who is not all he seems, and a lot more besides.

I found Raft a little uneven. I like detectives to have quirks–Poirot had OCD (must have had, surely!), Holmes took coke, and so on,and in that vein, Raft seems a little unhinged when he’s deep in thought, and I liked this rather frenetic side of him, but this device wasn’t regular enough to be a quirk. He’s also mildly clairvoyant, and I haven’t let this aspect of him preclude this book from review–because he may simply be hallucinating–or it could be his subconscious helping his detetcting. It’s good that this is not fully explored because he pushes it down and that works well.

I absolutely loved the Dickensian feel when it comes to the names. They were lush and rolled around the mouth like honey. Featherstonehaugh, Breedlove, Butter and so on. In fact it’s wrong to say “Dickensian” because Cook has her own style, her own voice and although there are tones picked up from others it comes over as entirely hers.

It needed a really tough and experienced edit, though. Not for typographical reasons but because one or two facts contradict themselves and that’s a shame and spoils an otherwise good effort. For example there’s a point where a thumb injury is pertinent to the plot and the first time Raft sees it he recognises what caused it because he’s seen something very similar before. BUT later in the story it’s said “Raft had never seen anything like it.” There are a couple of these continuity problems which probably wouldn’t matter in any other genre but did in this–it just made Raft seem rather stupid, and he’s certainly not that.

Where Cook really excels (aside from her medical knowledge) is her immersive description. Every scene is 3 dimensional–from the feel of the cobbles on the street, to a musty coat on a hook, to the smell of rotting flesh to the sounds of carriages passing by the window. It’s fantastically real and very addictive.

The story itself is deep, twisty, plotty and at times you feel that all the threads are going in different directions. It’s not the sort of cosy mystery that you’ll like if you want your detective to be following one lead which leads to another. It’s more like the time of TV drama where the detective is bombarded with conflicting and confusing theories and characters and information–and none of it seems to tie up. So you need to concentrate with this book, you can’t coast and let the author hand feed you the clues.

Yes, there is a gay plotline, but it’s not at all the main theme of the book. The crime’s the thing–and Raft and Crook will have to work out their relationship in the midst of another gruesome set of circumstances, which they will in “Rag and Bone” which I’ll be reviewing later.

Overall, I highly recommend this if you are lover of gritty detective fiction. It gets a very solid four from me and I look forward to more of Philemon Raft.

Author’s Website

Amazon UK     Amazon USA

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Author Interview: JoAnne Soper-Cook

Aleksandr Voinov interviews JoAnne Soper-Cook, author of Because You Despise Me, Heartache Café and sixother novels.

Speak Its Name: Hi JoAnne, thanks for agreeing to the interview, I’m glad to have you here. Can you give short introduction about yourself?

JoAnne Soper-Cook: I was born at a very early age (*groan*) in a small fishing village in Newfoundland, in the middle of the worst blizzard (I’m told) that they’d had in decades. I think that probably was an indication of things to come. I published my first short story in 1975, when I was 8 years old. It was called “The Magic Elf” and was, if I remember correctly, a work of surpassing literary brilliance…actually, it made me famous on the playground for exactly 2.5 days, and then the other kids went back to beating the snot out of me as usual.

I edited my high school paper, and wrote syndicated op-ed pieces for the now-defunct Robinson-Blackmore newspaper chain, which published all the local papers for the whole island. My first novel, WAKING THE MESSIAH, was published by Breakwater Books in 1999, and was followed by an entirely forgettable fictional biography of Napoleon. I’ve had various ups and downs since then, but I’ve been lucky in that I seem to be able to find an audience for my work these days, which hasn’t always been the case.

SIN: You’re one of those writers who are active both in the m/m & gay genre as well as the literary genre, having published 4 literary novels before you joined the m/m fray. How did that happen?

JSC: I had recently gone through a very long, dry spell when I hadn’t been able to get anything published. I suffer from major depression and so I was convinced this was the death knell. I’d always written slash fanfiction – usually in the Due South and CSI fandoms – and so, when my friend Jennifer LeClaire suggested I try a novel, I decided to take her up on it. She was wonderfully supportive, reading what I wrote as I went along, offering suggestions and improvements. I’d have never written an m/m romance if it hadn’t been for her.

Then I met a wonderful, generous and incredibly talented author who writes under the name Erastes. When she found out I’d just completely my very first m/m romance – the unlikely love story of two Prohibition era gangsters, entitled BUT NOT FOR ME – she encouraged me to submit it for publication. She stood by me throughout the entire process – hand-holding me, encouraging me, propping me up, and giving me pep talks. I owe my m/m publications to her, as well as to some of the wonderful people I met on LiveJournal – such as Alex Beecroft, Chris Smith. I’m always encouraged and inspired by the level of support and good fellowship I’ve found among the m/m writing community.

SIN: Is the writing, that is, the process/preparation between literary and m/m any different?

JSC: Not for me. I mean, everybody’s process is different. I won’t go into it, because nothing is more boring than listening to someone talk about their writing process, but for me, it’s still writing. I still do the same research, and where I write mostly historicals, there’s usually a lot of research to be done. But I don’t mind that. I used to be an academic, so research is par for the course and I’ve always enjoyed it.

SIN: When it comes to historicals, which periods interest you the most? Why?

JSC: I have always been fascinated by the Napoleonic period – Napoleon I – and mostly that’s because of the man himself. I think he had to have been an incredibly dynamic personality, the sort of person you either hate on sight or fall madly and passionately in love with, forever.

World War Two is another time period I enjoy. My grandfather served in the artillery in the British army, and so there was that military tradition in my family. I was exposed to a lot of what they call “men’s adventure” novels when I was still a teenager, written by people like Hammond Innes and Alistair MacLean – these gritty, come-hell-or-high-water sort of novels where you have a group of heroes who are pitted against incredible odds and anything that can go wrong, will. In fact, that was the first type of novel I ever attempted. I wrote it on an Underwood typewriter that my parents had given me for Christmas when I was 13. It was about 40 pages long – a real epic piece, you know – and had to do with Major Kesselring and the Brenner Pass. I had all these maps spread out – I absolutely have a map fetish, love maps and atlases and of course Google Earth – and I plotted out where they were going, the terrain and such. That one got passed around my classroom during maths lectures, I can tell you. 🙂

The late Victorian period is another favourite, and this goes back to my love of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by A.C. Doyle. The period around the Whitechapel murders up to the early Edwardian era interests me quite a lot. I think the Victorians – the fin-de-siecle Victorians, I mean – were quite advanced in terms of the technology they had and the sorts of goods and services they had access to. I write crime novels set in this period – the Inspector Philemon Raft series is set to debut this June, with WILLING FLESH – and so the forensics of it interests me. I mean, they certainly didn’t have what you see on CSI. Fingerprinting was in its infancy – they were still measuring people’s limbs to determine their potential for criminal behaviour. Phrenology was considered a science, for God’s sake!

I’ve recently developed an interest in the Great Depression era in the United States – before and after Prohibition – and the mythos of the ‘beer baron’, these bootleggers who were really just murderous hoodlums with a lot of money behind them. John Dillinger is a figure of great fascination to me: he was something of a folk hero to many people. He was seen as a Robin Hood type. Right now I am working on something which has a Dillinger-esque character, a man who sees himself as a hero because he takes what he wants – really, he’s a very damaged person who desperately needs the kind of unconditional love we all dream about. He’s being chased by someone who is just as clever as he is. I have an idea where that one is going and I know the ending already, and it’s unconventional and happy. It’s a happy ending.

SIN: You get to host a dinner party with 3 historical people of your choice. Who’s at the table, and why?

JSC: Napoleon Bonaparte, John Dillinger, Vlad Dracul, a.k.a. Vlad Tepes. They all fascinate me in different ways. I think it’s the power. I do appreciate and I think at some level understand the allure of power – the power to enact enormous changes. I don’t know if I’d want that sort of power myself, but I am always interested in what makes such people tick. I mean, there is such a mythology that’s grown up around Napoleon, but I think personally he was rather different than people have come to expect. Most of the biographies you read concentrate on his considerable skill as a military leader and, later, an administrator; one wonders what he was like as an individual. I wonder what sorts of things he laughed at, what he might have found funny. He did apparently have quite a puckish sense of humour that extended to practical jokes on many occasions, and he wasn’t above laughing at himself. I think power changed him, but I also think that, once he had lost that power forever, he regained something of the person he truly was. You can see this in his interactions with young Betsy Balcombe during his final exile on St. Helena. He became a playmate for her and she really, truly adored him.

Dillinger, as I’ve said, because of this Robin Hood perception of him. He is someone, like Napoleon, who excites enormous debate. He endured horrible abuse as a child and I wonder how far that might have contributed to who he eventually became.

Vlad Dracul – I’m writing a fictionalised ‘treatment’ (I don’t know any other word for it, really) of Dracula that’s set in a steampunk universe – for many of the same reasons. Who was he, really? Much of the “vampire” mythos ascribed to him can be attributed to Bram Stoker, but I’m interested in whether such ideas existed about Vlad before Stoker got hold of them, and to what extent. The novel I’m writing has him cast as a sin eater – you know, the person who was the community scapegoat, who came and performed a certain ritual over the corpse that was believed to take the dead person’s sins away. There was an enormous amount of superstition and fear around such a person – who would have been a pariah in the community. Doubtless a critical theorist would argue that Vlad Dracul’s Othering at the hands of scholars is a fait accompli, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. I suppose in all these cases I am looking for a reason why the person became who they were.

SIN: You can ask a historical person of your choice three questions that they have to answer truthfully. Who would that be, and what are the questions?

JSC: Napoleon, probably. Would you have done anything differently, and if so, what? What is your biggest regret? Did you have sex with Tsar Alexander I? (LOL)

SIN: (I bet they did!) What are you currently working on?

JSC: Right now I am trying to get the sequel to HEARTACHE CAFE finished, a novel called VALLEY OF THE DEAD. We – my publishers and I – hope to continue the story of Jack Stoyles and his cafe. HEARTACHE CAFE introduced him, and now we’re asking readers if they’d like to accompany him on some new adventures. In this book he takes an unexpected journey to Egypt, but I won’t give it away. Jack is a hard-boiled kind of guy. He’s sort of a cross between Casablanca’s Rick Blaine and Sam Spade. He’s always getting beaten up! But he keeps coming back for more – and there are always sexy men waiting in the wings.

In addition to VALLEY OF THE DEAD, I’m writing a thing called FAMOUS LAST WORDS which is a cops-and-robbers caper set in the 1930s. I like to call it “one fucking thing after another.” 🙂 I’m also at work on THE LOVELY BEAST, a steampunk reimagining of the Dracula legend, with some original twists. Victor Frankenstein is one of the Brides.

SIN: Writers very often struggle getting the work/life balance right – how do you manage?

JSC: I was laid off from my regular day job in June of last year, so that helps enormously. Ultimately I will have to get another job, unless I win the lottery or something. I’m a great believer in ‘write while you can’ and so I’ve become expert at grabbing little bits of time throughout the day. I am always on the lookout for those little windows of time. I have no children, and my husband is enormously supportive, a better cook than I am, and he enjoys doing housework. You could say I’ve got it made. 🙂

SIN: Which are authors you admire? What’s the book you would have wanted to write which was written by somebody else?

JSC: Margaret Atwood was the reason I started writing. Her work just leaves me speechless with admiration. I would have loved to have written “Oryx and Crake” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” There’s a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stuff that just moves me to tears. The last line of “The Great Gatsby” is, I think, one of the most perfect lines ever written. Erastes’ “Tributary” just blew me away, utterly. Her work manages to be solid and yet incredibly beautiful at the same time, which is so very, very difficult to accomplish. Kazuo Ishiguro’s” Never Let Me Go” is definitely a book I would have loved to have written.

SIN: Unfair question, I know, but which is the favourite book of yours and why?

JSC: This changes from time to time but right now it’s a currently unpublished book called Em. It was inspired by Peter Lorre’s character Hans Beckert in the 1931 Fritz Lang film M. My character is a chemically castrated child rapist/murderer and it’s told from his point of view, but this is no Dexter. I’m not asking readers to identify with him. The novel is about the ways in which we treat our children, and how this affects human society. A recurring line, spoken by Hans (a survivor of the most heinous childhood abuse you can possibly imagine) is “This is how we make monsters.” It’s set in my home town and the city of St. John’s is a huge presence in the book – always looming above people, always very forbidding, very urban and gritty, full of dark spaces, which is something you get in German Expressionist film a lot. I’m very proud of this book.

SIN: How do you get characters to “talk” to you?

JSC: My problem isn’t in getting them to talk; it’s in getting them to shut up! At any given time I’ve got several dialogues going on in my head, not to mention the new characters who come along tapping on my subconscious going “Hullo? I have a wonderful story you need to tell.” It’s rather like that opening scene in Karin Fossum’s novel “Broken”, where all the characters are stood up in her driveway, waiting for her to tell their stories. I write the way Method actors act, by becoming the character – so if I’m writing an Inspector Raft novel, then I am Philemon Raft. I mean, I go about as if I were him; I see the world through his eyes. This morning I went for a walk as Jack Stoyles from the HEARTACHE CAFE series. He notices things I don’t. So it’s very Method for me. It’s Method writing. 🙂

SIN: How long does the planning take compared to the overall writing?

JSC: I don’t traditionally plan novels, with the exception of the crime novels, sometimes – if it’s a particularly thorny murder or series of murders with overlapping elements, then I make enormous charts that get posted on the walls of my study. I use sheets of white bristol board (poster board) for this, but recently I found out you can get wallboard that’s actually that whiteboard stuff? What is it? Greaseboard? You know, you write on it with erasable markers and you can wipe it off and start over – so I haven’t stopped pestering my husband to redo my study with that on the walls. I usually write up the names of the main protagonists, the murder victim(s), the most likely suspects, along with forensic evidence found at the scene, etc. I ‘process’ the murder scene mentally and then write out what was there, and I do my own forensic experiments. For my literary novels I don’t plan them. I prefer to let them unfold organically. I’m a great believer in what Alice Munro said, that when we begin to write “things rise up and attach themselves.”

SIN: Do you research as you go along?

JSC: I research as I go, yes. The only reason for this is my absent mindedness. If I don’t research as I go I will forget about it. My editor usually goes over my research very carefully and will give me notes on any extra research that needs to be done. I have a really, really amazing editor, Judi David, who catches everything I miss.

SIN: Best and worst piece of writing advice you ever got?

JSC: Best piece of advice I ever got: perseverance rewards talent. This was said to me by a literary agent who ultimately declined to represent me, but that piece of advice has stood me in such good stead. I really appreciated that he said that.

The worst probably came from a professor when I was in my second year at uni. She told me that I couldn’t write worth a damn and would never be able to write. She refused to give me an “A” in her course no matter how hard I worked. She said that unless I wrote the way she herself wrote, it wouldn’t be any good.

SIN: Thank you for the interview and good luck with your current projects!

JoAnne’s website

Aleksandr Voinov interviews J S Cook, author of Heartache Café, reviewed at Speak Its Name (LINK)

Hi Joanne, thanks for agreeing to the interview, I’m glad to have you here. Can you give short introduction about yourself?

I was born at a very early age (*groan*) in a small fishing village in Newfoundland, in the middle of the worst blizzard (I’m told) that they’d had in decades. I think that probably was an indication of things to come. I published my first short story in 1975, when I was 8 years old. It was called “The Magic Elf” and was, if I remember correctly, a work of surpassing literary brilliance…actually, it made me famous on the playground for exactly 2.5 days, and then the other kids went back to beating the snot out of me as usual.

I edited my high school paper, and wrote syndicated op-ed pieces for the now-defunct Robinson-Blackmore newspaper chain, which published all the local papers for the whole island. My first novel, WAKING THE MESSIAH, was published by Breakwater Books in 1999, and was followed by an entirely forgettable fictional biography of Napoleon. I’ve had various ups and downs since then, but I’ve been lucky in that I seem to be able to find an audience for my work these days, which hasn’t always been the case.

You’re one of those writers who are active both in the m/m & gay genre as well as the literary genre, having published 4 literary novels before you joined the m/m fray. How did that happen?

I had recently gone through a very long, dry spell when I hadn’t been able to get anything published.  I suffer from major depression and so I was convinced this was the death knell. I’d always written slash fanfiction – usually in the Due South and CSI fandoms – and so, when my friend Jennifer LeClaire suggested I try a novel, I decided to take her up on it.  She was wonderfully supportive, reading what I wrote as I went along, offering suggestions and improvements.  I’d have never written an m/m romance if it hadn’t been for her.

Then I met a wonderful, generous and incredibly talented author who writes under the name Erastes.  When she found out I’d just completely my very first m/m romance – the unlikely love story of two Prohibition era gangsters, entitled BUT NOT FOR ME – she encouraged me to submit it for publication.  She stood by me throughout the entire process – hand-holding me, encouraging me, propping me up, and giving me pep talks.  I owe my m/m publications to her, as well as to some of the wonderful people I met on LiveJournal – such as Alex Beecroft, Chris Smith.  I’m always encouraged and inspired by the level of support and good fellowship I’ve found among the m/m writing community.

Is the writing, that is,  the process/preparation between literary and m/m any different?

Not for me. I mean, everybody’s process is different.  I won’t go into it, because nothing is more boring than listening to someone talk about their writing process, but for me, it’s still writing. I still do the same research, and where I write mostly historicals, there’s usually a lot of research to be done.  But I don’t mind that. I used to be an academic, so research is par for the course and I’ve always enjoyed it.

When it comes to historicals, which periods interest you the most? Why?

I have always been fascinated by the Napoleonic period – Napoleon I – and mostly that’s because of the man himself.  I think he had to have been an incredibly dynamic personality, the sort of person you either hate on sight or fall madly and passionately in love with, forever.

World War Two is another time period I enjoy.  My grandfather served in the artillery in the British army, and so there was that military tradition in my family. I was exposed to a lot of what they call “men’s adventure” novels when I was still a teenager, written by people like Hammond Innes and Alistair MacLean – these gritty, come-hell-or-high-water sort of novels where you have a group of heroes who are pitted against incredible odds and anything that can go wrong, will.  In fact, that was the first type of novel I ever attempted.  I wrote it on an Underwood typewriter that my parents had given me for Christmas when I was 13.  It was about 40 pages long – a real epic piece, you know – and had to do with Major Kesselring and the Brenner Pass.  I had all these maps spread out – I absolutely have a map fetish, love maps and atlases and of course Google Earth – and I plotted out where they were going, the terrain and such.  That one got passed around my classroom during maths lectures, I can tell you. 🙂

The late Victorian period is another favourite, and this goes back to my love of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by A.C. Doyle.  The period around the Whitechapel murders up to the early Edwardian era interests me quite a lot.  I think the Victorians – the fin-de-siecle Victorians, I mean – were quite advanced in terms of the technology they had and the sorts of goods and services they had access to. I write crime novels set in this period – the Inspector Philemon Raft series is set to debut this June, with WILLING FLESH – and so the forensics of it interests me. I mean, they certainly didn’t have what you see on CSI. Fingerprinting was in its infancy – they were still measuring people’s limbs to determine their potential for criminal behaviour.  Phrenology was considered a science, for God’s sake!

I’ve recently developed an interest in the Great Depression era in the United States – before and after Prohibition – and the mythos of the ‘beer baron’, these bootleggers who were really just murderous hoodlums with a lot of money behind them.  John Dillinger is a figure of great fascination to me: he was something of a folk hero to many people. He was seen as a Robin Hood type.  Right now I am working on something which has a Dillinger-esque character, a man who sees himself as a hero because he takes what he wants – really, he’s a very damaged person who desperately needs the kind of unconditional love we all dream about.  He’s being chased by someone who is just as clever as he is. I have an idea where that one is going and I know the ending already, and it’s unconventional and happy. It’s a happy ending.

You get to host a dinner party with 3 historical people of your choice. Who’s at the table, and why?

Napoleon Bonaparte, John Dillinger, Vlad Dracul, a.k.a. Vlad Tepes. They all fascinate me in different ways. I think it’s the power. I do appreciate and I think at some level understand the allure of power – the power to enact enormous changes.  I don’t know if I’d want that sort of power myself, but I am always interested in what makes such people tick.  I mean, there is such a mythology that’s grown up around Napoleon, but I think personally he was rather different than people have come to expect. Most of the biographies you read concentrate on his considerable skill as a military leader and, later, an administrator; one wonders what he was like as an individual.  I wonder what sorts of things he laughed at, what he might have found funny.  He did apparently have quite a puckish sense of humour that extended to practical jokes on many occasions, and he wasn’t above laughing at himself. I think power changed him, but I also think that, once he had lost that power forever, he regained something of the person he truly was.  You can see this in his interactions with young Betsy Balcombe during his final exile on St. Helena.  He became a playmate for her and she really, truly adored him.

Dillinger, as I’ve said, because of this Robin Hood perception of him.  He is someone, like Napoleon, who excites enormous debate.  He endured horrible abuse as a child and I wonder how far that might have contributed to who he eventually became.

Vlad Dracul – I’m writing a fictionalised ‘treatment’ (I don’t know any other word for it, really) of Dracula that’s set in a steampunk universe – for many of the same reasons.  Who was he, really? Much of the “vampire” mythos ascribed to him can be attributed to Bram Stoker, but I’m interested in whether such ideas existed about Vlad before Stoker got hold of them, and to what extent.  The novel I’m writing has him cast as a sin eater – you know, the person who was the community scapegoat, who came and performed a certain ritual over the corpse that was believed to take the dead person’s sins away. There was an enormous amount of superstition and fear around such a person – who would have been a pariah in the community. Doubtless a critical theorist would argue that Vlad Dracul’s Othering at the hands of scholars is a fait accompli, but that’s not what I’m trying to do.  I suppose in all these cases I am looking for a reason why the person became who they were.

You can ask a historical person of your choice three questions that they have to answer truthfully. Who would that be, and what are the questions?

Napoleon, probably. Would you have done anything differently, and if so, what? What is your biggest regret? Did you have sex with Tsar Alexander I? (LOL)

(I bet they did!) What are you currently working on?

Right now I am trying to get the sequel to HEARTACHE CAFE finished, a novel called VALLEY OF THE DEAD.  We – my publishers and I – hope to continue the story of Jack Stoyles and his cafe.  HEARTACHE CAFE introduced him, and now we’re asking readers if they’d like to accompany him on some new adventures.  In this book he takes an unexpected journey to Egypt, but I won’t give it away.  Jack is a hard-boiled kind of guy.  He’s sort of a cross between Casablanca‘s Rick Blaine and Sam Spade.  He’s always getting beaten up! But he keeps coming back for more – and there are always sexy men waiting in the wings.

In addition to VALLEY OF THE DEAD, I’m writing a thing called FAMOUS LAST WORDS which is a cops-and-robbers caper set in the 1930s.  I like to call it “one fucking thing after another.” 🙂 I’m also at work on THE LOVELY BEAST, a steampunk reimagining of the Dracula legend, with some original twists. Victor Frankenstein is one of the Brides.

Writers very often struggle getting the work/life balance right – how do you manage?

I was laid off from my regular day job in June of last year, so that helps enormously. Ultimately I will have to get another job, unless I win the lottery or something.  I’m a great believer in ‘write while you can’ and so I’ve become expert at grabbing little bits of time throughout the day.  I am always on the lookout for those little windows of time.  I have no children, and my husband is enormously supportive, a better cook than I am, and he enjoys doing housework.  You could say I’ve got it made. 🙂

Which are authors you admire? What’s the book you would have wanted to write which was written by somebody else?

Margaret Atwood was the reason I started writing. Her work just leaves me speechless with admiration. I would have loved to have written Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale.  There’s a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stuff that just moves me to tears.  The last line of The Great Gatsby is, I think, one of the most perfect lines ever written.  Erastes’ Tributary just blew me away, utterly. Her work manages to be solid and yet incredibly beautiful at the same time, which is so very, very difficult to accomplish.  Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is definitely a book I would have loved to have written.

Unfair question, I know, but which is the favourite book of yours and why?

This changes from time to time but right now it’s a currently unpublished book called Em.  It was inspired by Peter Lorre’s character Hans Beckert in the 1931 Fritz Lang film M.  My character is a chemically castrated child rapist/murderer and it’s told from his point of view, but this is no Dexter.  I’m not asking readers to identify with him.  The novel is about the ways in which we treat our children, and how this affects human society.  A recurring line, spoken by Hans (a survivor of the most heinous childhood abuse you can possibly imagine) is “This is how we make monsters.”  It’s set in my home town and the city of St. John’s is a huge presence in the book – always looming above people, always very forbidding, very urban and gritty, full of dark spaces, which is something you get in German Expressionist film a lot.  I’m very proud of this book.

How do you get characters to “talk” to you?

My problem isn’t in getting them to talk; it’s in getting them to shut up! At any given time I’ve got several dialogues going on in my head, not to mention the new characters who come along tapping on my subconscious going “Hullo? I have a wonderful story you need to tell.”  It’s rather like that opening scene in Karin Fossum’s novel Broken, where all the characters are stood up in her driveway, waiting for her to tell their stories. I write the way Method actors act, by becoming the character – so if I’m writing an Inspector Raft novel, then I am Philemon Raft.  I mean, I go about as if I were him; I see the world through his eyes.  This morning I went for a walk as Jack Stoyles from the HEARTACHE CAFE series.  He notices things I don’t. So it’s very Method for me. It’s Method writing. 🙂

How long does the planning take compared to the overall writing?

I don’t traditionally plan novels, with the exception of the crime novels, sometimes – if it’s a particularly thorny murder or series of murders with overlapping elements, then I make enormous charts that get posted on the walls of my study.  I use sheets of white bristol board (poster board) for this, but recently I found out you can get wallboard that’s actually that whiteboard stuff? What is it? Greaseboard? You know, you write on it with erasable markers and you can wipe it off and start over – so I haven’t stopped pestering my husband to redo my study with that on the walls. I usually write up the names of the main protagonists, the murder victim(s), the most likely suspects, along with forensic evidence found at the scene, etc.  I ‘process’ the murder scene mentally and then write out what was there, and I do my own forensic experiments. For my literary novels I don’t plan them.  I prefer to let them unfold organically.  I’m a great believer in what Alice Munro said, that when we begin to write “things rise up and attach themselves.”

Do you research as you go along?

I research as I go, yes. The only reason for this is my absent mindedness. If I don’t research as I go I will forget about it. My editor usually goes over my research very carefully and will give me notes on any extra research that needs to be done. I have a really, really amazing editor, Judi David, who catches everything I miss.

Best and worst piece of writing advice you ever got?

Best piece of advice I ever got: perseverance rewards talent. This was said to me by a literary agent who ultimately declined to represent me, but that piece of advice has stood me in such good stead. I really appreciated that he said that.

The worst probably came from a professor when I was in my second year at uni.  She told me that I couldn’t write worth a damn and would never be able to write.  She refused to give me an “A” in her course no matter how hard I worked. She said that unless I wrote the way she herself wrote, it wouldn’t be any good.

Thank you for the interview and good luck with your current projects!

Review: Heartache Cafe by J.S. Cook

J.S. Cook debuts haunted American expatriate Jack Stoyles, whose numb exile in an unexpected Atlantic outpost is suddenly brightened by a stranger who kisses him — and then dies. Betrayal, graft, a lost girl, and too many deaths. With good reason Jack called his place Heartache Cafe.

This short story in ebook format part of the Partners in Crime #5 Committed to Memory print series.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

The version of the e-book I received features two stories, “Don’t Look Back” by Josh Lanyon and “Heartache Café” by J.S. Cook. Only “Heartache Café” is historical fiction, which I realized halfway into “Don’t Look Back”—I just had too much fun with Josh Lanyon’s story to really care about that I only want to read historicals and my recreational reading was supposed to wait. Best-laid plans. So, I’d definitely recommend reading the two-author anthology; also because Lanyon and Cook have two very distinct voices which fit together very well for the purposes of this book that explores memory and memory loss.

Heartache Café is set in St John’s, Newfoundland, in the early 1940’s. The American Jack has just set up a new life for himself in the town and opened the eponymous café, when his peace is shattered by shady dealings. His bartender, Chris, gets involved with a lady and tied into a larger intrigue, which leads to people getting murdered and Jack investigating the mysteries of the harbor town. I don’t want to give too much away, and it isn’t really necessary to talk all that much about the plot, because I found the writing and the voice of our first person narrator Jack most compelling. This is one of those texts that aren’t easy, but it’s intense and engrossing; J S Cook shows her literary roots again clearly here. Just like in “Because you Despise Me”, it’s the language that compels about the story:

It was dark when I woke up, and the face looking back at me from the rearview mirror had a five o’clock shadow and then some. A little warning voice in the back of my brain was telling me that this was bad, this was really bad, this was worse than anything, and maybe I shouldn’t get out of the car, maybe I should just call the cops.

I didn’t listen. I never do. I went up that filthy, stinking little alley, and I opened his office door, but I was much too late, and he was gone. There was blood everywhere.

I stopped my car just before the bridge and walked on. The sun was rising, the first rays creeping over the city a little at a time. I looked up at the great steel span of the bridge, and I began to climb. The cables cut into my bare hands, and I was almost weeping with the cold, but I kept climbing. I’d climb so far that it would never touch me. I’d climb until I could forget that awful little room and the stink of blood and all the rest of this sordid mess. I’d climb till I was free. I stood there looking down into the icy water and wondering if the drop would be enough to kill me, or if I’d drown first…or die of cold. I saw the weirdest thing — a small sailboat coming down the river, tacking into the wind — a ridiculous little thing, no bigger than a minute, sailing down the Delaware like it had every right to be there. I thought about pictures I’d seen of graceful feluccas on the Nile River in Egypt, and as I watched the little boat tacking into the wind, something occurred to me. I climbed down from the bridge, walked to where my car was parked, got in and drove away.

Jack is a deep guy, seemingly private, but also readily makes friends. Much remains under the surface, not because Jack attempts to hide anything, but because he mostly keeps his own counsel and rarely shows his hand, unless he has to. What lies underneath is poignant loneliness which isn’t really resolved with sex (and he finds a couple casual ‘lovers’) or friendship. At the bottom of it, Jack is, I think, a romantic looking for the one true love, a man who can fascinate and enrapture him and sweep him off his feet to break through all his protective layers. One such man presents himself in a mysterious Egyptian who appears almost more like a fairy-tale creature than a man of flesh and blood at first. While Jack solves the crime and survives danger and distress, his heart gets stolen in the course of the story, but this love story isn’t resolved (yet).

“Heartache Café” is the first part of a series, or connected to an upcoming novel called “Valley of the Dead”, which will take us to Egypt on the quest for the vanished lover.

In terms of history, I saw no flaw, but I didn’t expect any—the writing is smooth and engrossing, I read this in two sittings and completely forgot everything else around me. Closing the book (or the file) I felt I knew that world and its inhabitants and Jack. And that’s really the point of reading, isn’t it?

Review: Because You Despise Me by J S Cook

When Feldwebel Horst Stussel is murdered in Jake’s Plenty’s brothel, local police chief Captain Nicholas Renard suspects Jake’s involvement in the crime – but with an Allied invasion of North Africa mere days away, Jake and Renard must combine their wits, their cunning and their courage to defeat the Nazis for once and for all.

Review by Vashtan

It’s hard to review a friend’s book. Any quick Google search would reveal that J S Cook and me chat a lot, are “friends” on Goodreads and Livejournal, so I tell it as it is. I know the writer, and I like what she does.

I’ve been struggling with whether to review her books at all, and a case could be built either way. The more I interact with other writers, the more people I get to know and like. In several cases, I’ve sent them the review first, we started chatting…and there’s
another writing friendship/contact made. I can’t help it, it happens.

Now, I don’t want to cut myself off from my peers and other writers to stay “impartial”. But I also want to keep my integrity as a reviewer. I am the critique partner of several writers, and those can all attest that I will tell them “this sucks, do it again” if I honestly believe it does suck. I expect no less from them when they critique me. Yet, under no circumstances, would I review a book I’ve critiqued – that kind of involvement is totally different to that of a reader and my objective eye would be totally blind. But if I wouldn’t review any books by people I know in one capacity or other, I will pretty soon be in the position where I can’t review at all.

However, these relationships happen after the fact in most cases. It’s the prose that catches my eye first, not the writer. And since I’m terribly picky in my private reading, I tend to hang out with people whose work I enjoy and like.

That’s the background. Feel free to read anything I write about this book with a few pinches of salt. I’ve been thinking about how to do this for two weeks, and I still might not be totally impartial, but here goes.

The reason why I wanted to read this book is the setting. “Because You Despise Me” is set the fictional town of Maarif in WWII-era Morocco, and since my non-fiction reading at the moment is all about WWII and research for the same time period, I was very curious how Cook handles the era.

She handles it exceedingly well – I found the period detail and people overall historically believable, and Cook seems to have researched details meticulously well. It’s the kind of setting I can relax into, knowing that the author won’t let me down with a reference that catapults me into the ‘modern’ age. There are a few things that don’t
match up, however. The evil guy’s name, Aleksander Danzig, has a very uncommon spelling of the first name for a German – it looks rather like a strange hybrid between the German and Russian spelling of the name, and as a German, I found the German sentences used in the book to be mostly nonsensical. A non-native speaker of German would probably not have noticed, but it did throw me in one scene (proof that I haven’t critiqued this book). There’s an editing issue as well – the murdered whore, Yvette, becomes Yvonne once or twice in the book.

Those niggles aside, what we are reading with this book is probably best described as “the gay ‘Casablanca’”. The set-up of the plot, the setting, the time, and the overall feel reminded me strongly of ‘Casablanca’, and what I remember of that film after about fifteen or twenty years seems to match up. A little research on http://www.imdb.com
unearthed the full range of parallels; we have the police officer, the Nazi plot, the resistance fighters desperate to leave, and a love story, but the love story in “Because You Despise Me” naturally happens between two of the men rather than the heterosexual couple in the 1942 classic.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this would have turned into a gay rip-off of a classic tale, but Cook plays with the reader and gives us a whole level to explore and hints to discover. The title of the book is from a famous line in the film, and rather than rip the tale off wholesale, she mirrors the story, distorts it, re-imagines key scenes and the two men driving her tale. There are many clever allusions, such as very similar names and quotes from the film, so that this becomes less ‘fan fiction’ or ‘rip-off’ and more a homage, skirting the edge of a meta story. However, the woman who parallels the film’s love interest Ilsa felt like she didn’t really serve a purpose in the book, and I wonder if it hadn’t been better if she had been removed from the cast altogether.

For all the inspiration drawn from the film, “Because You Despise Me” stands on its own, and can be enjoyed both by those who know the film and always wondered about the chemistry between the two male actors, and those who are unaware of the classic. There is also the murder investigation that draws the two men together and which is seamlessly
worked into the plot.

What we then have is a tale about living on the edge of civilisation, in a place where the scoundrels, riff-raff and assorted adventurers congregate, and, if they are lucky, find themselves and each other.

It’s romantic, but the love story is not the be-all and end-all of the book; while the love story is central to the story about espionage, deceit and mistrust, Cook balances it well with the rest of the tale. So few gay romances have a world and plot built around the characters; too often, they serve as window dressing in the couple’s bedroom.

Another thing I really enjoyed about this (and the writer in general) is that Cook is an accomplished craftswoman, and I really enjoy her clear, evocative and subtly nuanced style. Here’s a great writer who has previously published literary fiction and transfers those skills into adventure and romance fictio, which makes her clearly stand out. Exactly what I want to see more of. I would love to be entertained more often by a writer that knows their craft and uses it and that strives and works hard on their prose so that it looks effortless.

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