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Peter Laws

POSSESSED . . .Between the covers

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Possessed coverPeter Laws introduced us to Matt Hunter in Purged (2017) and we learned that he is a former priest whose total loss of faith coincided with tragic personal events. Now, he lectures in the sociology of religion and belief systems, and has a reputation (one which does not sit lightly with him) for being the go-to guy when the police have a case which is ‘not dream’t of in our philosophy’.

When a good old fashioned milkman, driving his ecological sound electric milk float, makes an horrific discovery in a suburban greenhouse, the result is that the police have an apparently raving madman on their hands. He is emaciated, disheveled and both frightened and frightening. This creature from hell does, however, have a day job. Tom Riley is the chef at a local pub and has, apparently, a Shepherds’ Pie to die for. When the baffled police summon Matt Hunter to talk to this fellow he finds him manacled to a chair and spitting out Exorcist-style obscenities.

H redunter discovers that Riley is a devotee of a local church, one which, depending on your view might be termed either ‘charismatic’ or ‘a bunch of eyeball-rollers’. Things take a dramatic turn for the worse when Riley’s wife is discovered, horribly mutilated, in one of the customer chairs of her home hairdressing salon.

As the case begins to attract lurid national interest, Hunter is roped into a no-holds-barred reality TV show, to be one of the talking heads in an investigation into demonic possession. While stoutly sticking to his sceptical opinions Hunter is swept along in the flood-tide of the media frenzy, and comes face to face with an infamous American evangelist who makes a living from casting out demons. The TV company, cameras eagerly devouring every second of the interplay between the apparently tormented victims of demonic possession and their potential saviour, book a rural retreat for a blockbuster special which will see Good and Evil come face to face, interrupted only with tasteful ads from the show’s sponsors.

W redhat happens next is violent, bloody, improbable – but totally gripping. Of course, Matt Hunter survives to return to his delightful wife and children, but not before he is forced to question his firmly-held disbelief in ‘ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night.’

There are two interlinked paradoxes in Possessed. The first is that Matt Hunter is a disbeliever in all things paranormal and in any possibility that there are any beings or forces outside man’s own imagination and mental state. He is, however,the creation of an ordained church minister whose own sense of the spiritual life is, I assume, central to his faith. Secondly – and do read the afterword to Possessed which is separate from the usual authorial Oscars speech thanking all and sundry – behind all the comic book gore and satirical swipes at the grossness of TV reality shows, Laws makes a serious point about troubled people searching desperately for supernatural answers to problems which come from within themselves.

LawsLaws (right) doesn’t exactly play it for laughs, but amid the knockabout spookery and Hunter’s own predilection for making wisecracks, there is serious stuff going on. It is worth comparing Matt Hunter with another fictional investigator of strange things – Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins. Like the real life Peter Laws, Merrily Watkins is a priest. Like Matt Hunter, merrily doesn’t necessarily believe in the supernatural, but she is totally convinced that some folk do.

Possessed is evidence that Peter Laws goes from strength to strength as a story teller, and that his tales of Matt Hunter’s encounters with possible demons are cast iron certainties to be good reads. Possessed is published by Allison & Busby and is out now.

Read more about the previous Matt Hunter novels by clicking this link.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best thriller

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In the dear, dead days beyond recall, when I was still working as a teacher – casting (as a friend once memorably said) artificial pearls before real swine – someone suggested we apply the WILF principle when explaining to sullen teenagers how to improve their work. WILF stood for What I’m Looking For. Applying the WILF principle to what constitutes a thriller, I would suggest a mixture of the following: severe personal stress, violence, unexplained events, evil masquerading as benevolence, mysterious threats – feel free to add your own criteria, but those will do for me. Click the links to read a full review of each novel.

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for the physically lost, David Raker, faced his hardest challenge yet in No One Home when he was hired to find not merely a missing husband or a disappeared friend, but an entire community, albeit a tiny moorland hamlet. As ever Tim Weaver provided a plausible solution to what seemed an impossible conundrum.

severedClergymen writing crime novels? That can only mean cosy village mysteries centred around tweedy villages and eccentric old ladies, surely? Not if Peter Laws has his way. He is a minister in the Baptist Church in Bedforshire, but his Matthew Hunter novels are dark, scary and blood-spattered. In Severed, Hunter encounters a reclusive sect whose primitive and baleful version of Christianity has left a trail of death and disruption.

till-morning-is-nighBen Bracken is a Jack Reacher do-alike transported to contemporary England. Much as I have enjoyed the invincible Reacher over the years, Rob Parker has created a more thoughtful and vulnerable – at least psychologically – version in Ben Bracken, a former soldier who exists in the shady hinterland which lies between law enforcement, special services and officially-sanctioned skullduggery. Till Morning Is Nigh is the fourth in the series and is, by some way, the best yet. Our man infiltrates an extremist far-right group and contributes to a spectacular shootout at a school nativity play.

tbl-coverSad to say, there is no-one more vulnerable in modern society – at least in novels – than a single mother trying to bring up her child. In The Body Lies Jo Baker takes a look at the dichotomy between fictional tropes and reality. Her unnamed protagonist is a lecturer at a minor university, separated from her husband and trying to juggle a job and childcare. Baker spins a delightfully elaborate yarn which begins when the woman is targeted by a stalker.

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Click the image above to read just why I thought A Book Of Bones is
MY BEST THRILLER 2019

SEVERED . . . Between the covers

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In a structurally ramshackle – but otherwise unremarkable – rural parish church in the gently undulating Chiltern Hills, the scant congregation is watching their parish priest reach the most sacred part of the Sunday morning Holy Communion service, where they join together in the belief that “God was man in Palestine, and lives today in Bread and Wine”. In a few violent seconds, however, the wine symbolising Christ’s blood is dramatically spilled and mixed with real human blood, as the vicar is savagely attacked by a young man wielding an axe.

severedThus begins another case for Professor Matt Hunter, a university lecturer in religion and belief. He has previously helped the police in cases which involve sacred or supernatural matters (see the end of this review) and he is called in when it becomes clear that the wielder of the axe was none other than the teenage son of the Reverend David East, and that the boy was under the spell of a cult of deviant Christians whose central belief is that God The Father is a brutal tyrant who murdered his only son. They are also convinced that all other humans but them are ‘Hollows’ with evil in their eyes. Consequently, they shun all contact with the outside world, and live in a remote farmhouse, deep in the hills at the end of a rutted farm track.

Laws manages to recast the relatively benign uplands of the Chilterns as a scarred and brooding landscape with many a nameless terror lurking in its valleys, waiting to pounce on the unwary. There is blood by the pint, a coven of homophobic Christian evangelicals, a storm of biblical ferocity plus every Gothick image you could ever think of – plus a few more besides. Oh yes, I almost forgot – a very convincing and horribly plausible shape-shifter.

As the chapters spin by, Laws dusts off one of the oldest tricks in the book of narrative devices, but deftly breathes new life into it. There are basically two stages in his theatre of horrors; one shows us what is happening around Matt Hunter, while on the other, the members of the sect enact their weird dance of death. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, so we whirl through the next few pages to see what is going to happen, but then that chapter leaves us in suspense too, so we become caught up in an addictive mad scramble. It’s a ridiculously simple ploy but, good heavens, how well it works.

LawsOne of the most intriguing aspects of the Matt Hunter books is the relationship between the fictional former man of God and the very real and present minister in the Baptist church, the Reverend Peter Laws himself . We get a very vivid and convincing account of how Hunter has lost his faith, but also the many facets of that belief that he has come to see as inconsistent, illogical, or just plain barbaric. It suggests that Laws has identified these doubts in his own mind but, presumably, answered them. In these days of CGI nothing is impossible, so a live debate between Reverend Laws and Professor Hunter would be something to behold.

The finale of this brilliant thriller is apocalyptic enough to satisfy the most ardent fan of the horror genre, but Laws is smart enough – like Phil Rickman in his Merrily Watkins novels – to give everything (well, almost everything) a natural explanation, and when the emotional roller-coaster finally comes to rest we know that it is human beings, images and clones of ourselves if you will, that are capable of far more dreadful deeds than any supernatural monster conjured up from the bowels of Hell. Severed is published by Allison & Busby, and will be available at the end of January 2019.

For more on the extraordinary adventures of Professor Matt Hunter, read the reviews of:

Unleashed

Purged

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017 … Best thriller

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What constitutes a thriller? I suppose that could be one of those ‘how long is a piece of string questions’. I would hope that any crime novel worth its salt would be ‘thrilling’ in some shape or form, but for the sake of clarity, I’m excluding books which rely heavily for their impact on police investigations, or are given added ambience by an historical setting. So, what did I enjoy? Harlan Coben always delivers, and his renegade policeman Napoleon ‘Nap’ Dumas left official procedural behind and certainly did the business in Don’t Let Go. Domestic Noir has become a very fruitful field for many authors and publishers, and I enjoyed having the wool pulled over my eyes by Simon Lelic in The House.

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Another writer who kept one or two brilliant tricks up his sleeve was Tim Weaver when he gave us another mystery for David Raker to solve in I Am Missing. Michael Robotham played the ‘unreliable narrator’ trick when he challenged us to decide just which of the expectant mums was telling the truth in The Secrets She Keeps, while Karen Perry dangled several versions of the truth in front of us in a brilliant tale about memory, old friendships and illusion in Can You Keep A Secret? 

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unleashed1So, who thrilled me the most? First across the line by a nose, in a very competitive field, was Unleashed, by Peter Laws. Laws sends his alter ego, Professor Matt Hunter, to the dull south London suburb of Menham to investigate a Hieronymus Bosch-like scene at a primary school concert, where the highlight of the evening is the music teacher being found dead in a cupboard full of recorders, plastic tambourines and chime bars – with her throat ripped out, apparently by her own pet dog. Hunter’s investigations lead him to to 29 Barley Street, where a young girl was found hanging from a beam in her bedroom. The soul of Holly Watson, however, is not at rest, and her presence still lingers in the claustrophobic gloom of her home. Occasionally – and unashamedly – playing to the gallery, and using every colour on his palette, Laws paints a picture that disquiets us. He makes us think to ourselves, “This is nonsense, but …..” The ‘but’ is his key weapon. He evokes old fears, conjure up ancient and deep-rooted uncertainties – and makes us glad that Unleashed is only a book.

My verdict?

“Laws takes a leaf out of the book of the master of atmospheric and haunted landscapes, M R James. The drab suburban topography of Menham comes alive with all manner of dark interventions; we jump as a wayward tree branch scrapes like a dead hand across a gazebo roof; we recoil in fear as a white muslin curtain forms itself into something unspeakable; dead things scuttle and scrabble about in dark corners while, in our peripheral vision, shapes form themselves into dreadful spectres. When we turn our heads, however, there is nothing there but our own imagination.”

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017 … Best debut novel

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Writing as an aged hack, and a commentator on other people’s creativity (having little of my own), I can hardly imagine what a mixture of triumph, joy – and trepidation – must run through the minds of writers when they finally have a book that makes it into print. I have read some very good self-published books this year, but to have actually convinced a hard-nose publisher that your novel is worth printing – that must be an amazing feeling. Likewise, it must be what sports commentators call “squeaky bum time” waiting to see if members of the public actually stump up and buy your book.

The notable debuts in crime fiction this year have been many and varied. I was much taken by the main character in RG Oram’s Much Needed Rain, whose perceptions and awareness of his fellow mortals are so acute that he is, effectively, a human polygraph. Lloyd Otis served up a dystopian London in 1977 with his Deadlands – splendidly both crime and grimy. In another urban landscape similarly blighted, Augustus Rose, in The Readymade Thief, described a delinquent girl turned loose in a Chicago that was a potent mixture of gritty realism and fantasy.

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Without doubt the most compelling three words uttered in a 2017 debut novel were, “Choose one, bitch”, the strapline for Samantha King’s The Choice, where she created a nightmare world of domestic Noir where a mother is forced to choose between the lives of her two children. TA Cottrell provided another peep between the curtains of an apparently normal house, when What Alice Knew laid bare the scars of memory, guilt and bitterness that can be borne by old relationships. Peter Laws is an intriguing chap. He is a serving Baptist minister, with a fascination for horror and the supernatural. In Purged, he introduced us to Matt Hunter, a former minister himself who, in between lecturing on comparative religions, investigates dark deeds – in this case a series of murders connected to a charismatic church and its congregation. A novel which received huge praise around the world for its power and elegiac qualities was The Dry, by Australian Jane Harper. This was a compelling account of how a Federal policeman returns to his hometown, a five hour dusty drive from Melbourne, to investigate the slaughter go a local family.

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KnoxEvery book I’ve mentioned won admirers from different sections of the reading public but, for me, the die was cast when a rather shy young man read the opening paragraphs of his soon-to-be-published novel at a book promotion evening in a smart Fitzrovia Hotel. Joseph Knox (left) may still have work to do to become a Richard Burton in the making, but Sirens is comfortably my debut novel of 2017. On a very superficial level it’s a police procedural, set in Manchester, where we share the trials and tribulations of a young copper, Aidan Waits. Waits is a complex character, attended by his own demons and obsessed with bringing down a local drug baron. That’s where any resemblance to a bog-standard cops and robbers tale ends. Knox writes with the kind of savage poetry which reminded me very much of the great Derek Raymond and the bleak world and urban eloquence of his Factory novels. I am delighted that a follow-up novel is on its way, but what a challenge, to equal such a stunning debut!

“Knox has penned a black tale which is certainly not a comfort read. There are passages which made me physically wince, but the author has the confidence to give us an ending, once the mayhem has died down, which is both bitter-sweet and poignant.”

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Click the links to see who won

Best historical crime novel

Best police procedural novel

UNLEASHED … Between the covers

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Matt Hunter was once a man of God. Now he is a man of gods. The beliefs that led him to ordination and the ministry of the church have, like Prospero’s insubstantial pageant,

“ .. melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

“Not a rack behind…”? Not strictly true. His former faith has left a bequest in the form of an encyclopaedic knowledge of religious symbols, liturgies both sacred and profane, and profound knowledge of different theologies across the world. The former Reverend Hunter is now Professor Hunter, and he lectures in the Sociology of Religion. He also acts as unpaid advisor to the police in cases where there seems to be a supernatural element.

UnleashedIf the South London suburb of Menham could be described as unremarkable, then we might call the down-at-heel terraced houses of Barley Street positively nondescript. Except, that is, for number 29. For a while, the home of Mary Wasson and her daughters became as notorious as 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville. But the British tabloid press being what it is, there are always new horrors, fresh outrages and riper scandals, and so the focus moved on. The facts, however, were this. After a spell of unexplained poltergeist phenomena turned the house (almost literally) upside down, the body of nine year-old Holly Wasson was found – by her older sister Rachel – hanging from a beam in her bedroom.

Now, years later, Menham hits the headlines again. At an otherwise uneventful open evening for future parents of a local primary school, events take a tragic and horrific turn. A much loved music teacher is found dead in her own store cupboard, the life ripped out of her, apparently by her own pet dog. The dog, crazed and covered in blood, is battered to death by panic-stricken dads who, expecting a recorder ensemble, are instead treated to a scene more suited to the hellish imagination of Hieronymus Bosch.

The local police are totally unable to make any sense of the carnage in the classroom and are puzzled by several pieces of evidence which seem to indicate a supernatural – or at least Satanic – element to the death of Steph Ellis. Investigating officer DS Larry Forbes enlists the help of Matt Hunter, who soon discovers a sinister collection of potential ‘persons of interest’, including a pair of self-styled demonologists and a troubled – and troubling – evangelical sect. For good measure we have a dark history of child abuse carried out in old air-raid shelters far beneath the local park, and a terrifying witch’s familiar straight from the pages of a seventeenth century grimoire.

LawsLaws (right) takes a leaf out of the book of the master of atmospheric and haunted landscapes, M R James. The drab suburban topography of Menham comes alive with all manner of dark interventions; we jump as a wayward tree branch scrapes like a dead hand across a gazebo roof; we recoil in fear as a white muslin curtain forms itself into something unspeakable; dead things scuttle and scrabble about in dark corners while, in our peripheral vision, shapes form themselves into dreadful spectres. When we turn our heads, however, there is nothing there but our own imagination.

Unleashed is terrific entertainment. Laws lays on the shocks thick and fast, but never loses sight of the fact that he is writing a well-plotted crime story. We certainly have victims but, in the end, we also have flesh and blood criminals. Unleashed is out now, and you can read a review of the first Matt Hunter novel, Purged, by clicking the blue link.

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COMPETITION … Win UNLEASHED by Peter Laws

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OUR LATEST COMPETITION PRIZE is an absolute rip-snorter. It’s the second novel in the Matt Hunter series by Peter Laws. Those who read the first tale, Purged (read our review) will have some idea what to expect, but for new readers, Matt Hunter is a former clergyman who, having had a Road To Damascus (but in reverse) now lectures in the sociology of religion and faith at a university.

UnleashedIn Unleashed, his scepticism is shaken by events at an otherwise unremarkable terraced house in South London where, several years ago, a troubled nine-year-old girl committed suicide in the midst of a troubling sequence of poltergeist phenomena.

Now, little Holly Wasson appears to lie uneasy – her mother and sister are convinced she is trying to reach them from beyond the grave. Matt Hunter is recruited by local police to make sense of the disturbing events, but even he is unsure if he is dealing with straightforward murder or something much darker.

YOU HAVE TWO WAYS TO ENTER THE PRIZE DRAW

(1) Simply email fullybooked2016@yahoo.com putting the word Unleashed in the subject box.

(2) Go to our Facebook page (click the blue link) and ‘like’ the post.

All entrants will have their names put in the proverbial hat, and a winner selected. The winner will be notified by email or Facebook personal message.

Competition closes 10.00pm GMT, Tuesday 25th July, 2017

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COMPETITION …Win ‘Purged’ by Peter Laws

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Recently, Purged, the debut crime fiction thriller from Peter Laws was reviewed here on Fully Booked. Now you have a chance to win a crisp new copy for yourself. Simply send us an email as outlined below, and your name will go into the draw.

With ‘Purged‘ as the subject, just email:

fullybooked2016@yahoo.com

Your name will go into the hat, and a winner will be drawn in the usual way. The competition closes at 10.00pm GMT on Sunday 29th January. Due to postage costs, entry is restricted to people who live in Great Britain and the Irish Republic.

PURGED … Between the covers

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peter-lawsOrdained Baptist minister Peter Laws (right) has produced a 110mph debut crime thriller featuring Matt Hunter, a former clergyman and now devout sceptic who, like most fictional crime consultants, has special skills which make him invaluable to the police in murder cases. I don’t know if Laws has himself gone down the same Road to Damascus In Reverse as his fictional character, but the depth and bitterness of Hunter’s scepticism about God and all His works certainly makes for compelling reading.

Hunter is in a seemingly idyllic Oxfordshire village with his family, taking a sabbatical while his architect wife prepares to put in her bid for the contract to build an extension to Hobbs Hill church. If you are expecting a saintly country vicar with kindly eyes and a dwindling congregation, you will be in for a rude awakening. This church has become home to a congregation of over three hundred, and is led by a charismatic minister who goes in for full-immersion Baptism and the kind of wild call-and-response services which seem to be de rigeur in ‘new’ churches.

purged-coverFirst, an anorexic teenage girl goes missing, and then a lesbian artist who is in the terminal throes of stomach cancer disappears. Matt Hunter is sucked into the investigation via the simple ruse that photos of the missing women turn up as attachments in his email box. They stay there for a few hours but then mysteriously morph into pictures of a rainbow accompanied by a smiley face GIF.

The slightly manic minister of the Hobbs Hill church is no stranger to Matt Hunter. He and Chris Kelly studied together at bible college, where Kelly was an awkward and  unpopular student due to his fervent proselytising and strange behaviour. Hunter tries his best to be diplomatic with the over-intense church folk, if only to help his wife get the design commission, but when the isolated cottage where his family are staying becomes the target of sinister visitors, he senses that there is something malign lurking beneath the joyous born-again aura of Kelly and his congregation.

Peter Laws captures the essence of New Age Christian church groups in all their arm-waving, eyeball-rolling, tongues-speaking exuberance. We have the obligatory performance stage, complete with sound-system and live rock group, and every single man woman and child in the congregation has a steely determination to play The Ancient Mariner and grasp innocent visitors by the arm to save their souls from eternal damnation.

The concept of a small community gripped by a pervasive religious cult is not new. We have been there many times, and our tour guides have included Stephen King, John Connolly, Phil Rickman and John Wyndham. Laws grabs the cliché with great enthusiasm, and manages to conjure up menace from ostensibly benign surroundings. He also spins the tale cleverly so that we are persuaded to look in completely the wrong direction for the culprit, and he keeps us blind-sided until the last few pages of the book.

The only blot on the landscape for me was a literal one: the powerful and noisy waterfall, Coopers Force, which is central to events in the story, seemed out of place in the gentle hills and meandering streams of Oxfordshire. I could picture the feature in The Lakes, Scotland, Snowdonia, or the Pennines, but such an elemental force of nature didn’t seem to belong in the golden Cotswolds. That aside, I found Purged to be exciting, convincing and well written. Best of all, it has that one essential feature of all good novels – the reader actually cares what happens to the main actors in the drama.

Purged is published by Alison & Busby, and will be available on 16th February. You can pre-order a copy here.

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