Saturday 21 January 2017

Simon Kernick heads to The Bonefield

It was not long after the turning of the Millennium that writer Simon Kernick emerged with his debut The Business of Dying. This novel set the scene for Kernick’s future work; tales about amoral law enforcers such as Denis Milne, who by day is an agent of the police, but by night, an undercover hitman.

I recall the acclaim of that debut with vivid clarity, and the determination of Simon Kernick to hone his craft; the telling of tough, violent thrillers, which detailed the games of cat and mouse between the Police and the Criminal underworld. Though initially his work was praised by the critics, it would be the awarding of a Richard and Judy summer read that pushed Simon Kernick’s crime thrillers into the ranks of the best-seller.

Many years ago, Simon and I spent much time together, including many interesting, and late nights with colleagues. Simon and I would often share a room at conventions and literary events, and talk late into the night, about the absurdities of life.

We enjoyed Dead-On-Deansgate 2002 during which  we even interviewed Paul Johnston; drank until incoherent with Michael Marshall [Smith] and Mike Stotter in 2004, attended many Theakstons Crime-Writing Festivals, Crimefest Bristol events as well as Bouchercon 2003 in Las Vegas.

Simon even helped out at Shots, interviewing Larry Block in 2004 for Shots Magazine when he received the Diamond Dagger Award from the Crime Writers Association, hosted by London’s The Savoy.

One aspect of Kernick’s crime-thriller fiction is the incredible level of research he undertakes, to ensure that his work is as believable, as it is troubling. Simon ensures that the detail he uncovers in his research does not get in the way of story-telling, for his narratives are renowned for their pace [one-sitting reads], as well as at times, startling action, and insight into the human mind; especially that of the criminal underworld and its interface with law enforcement. 

My own Father [who at that time had just retired as a Psychiatrist] assisted Simon by proofing a chapter [of his current work-in-progress] that featured a psychiatric consultation. Though I recall that my Father was startled by Simon’s prose; and the authenticity of the scene, which needed very little tweaking; it did disturb dear old Dad.

I have been fortunate to have shared much time with Simon, especially when he started in those early days as a novelist; and have many anecdotes, though one of the most amusing relates to a research-visit that I took Simon on [over a decade ago]. With the imminent release of his latest thriller The Bone Field, the memory of that visit came back to me and made me laugh again.

Simon had finished A Good Day to Die, and was planning his next book, when we attended a book launch at an Occult bookstore in London. Why we were invited to a launch of a book about the Occult is a long [and amusing story] and related to my own writing; though we met up with Mike Stotter later to celebrate the launch of John Connolly’s The Black Angel. It was a late evening, so I organised a hotel that night. When we finally thanked John Connolly and Hodder and Stoughton [for a wonderful launch party] we hailed a cab, and headed to our hotel room in Hammersmith.

I always enjoyed having a night cap and late night drinks with Simon Kernick, even if at times the conversations would make us laugh like hyenas, for we both share an avid interest in the absurdity of reality. That night Simon and I while having our night-cap ended up discussing methods of disposing of dead bodies. Simon was writing a novel and needed to come up with an interesting way that an underworld gang would dispose of some dead bodies, following a London Gangland turf-war. The bodies had to be completely eviscerated, and untraceable.

We discussed the Maggot Farms in Essex that breed the larvae of flies for the fishing industry; so chopped up cadavers would be placed in the Maggot-Bays for the insects to eat and therefore destroy all evidence. However Simon wanted something less well considered; as rumour has it that many gangland bodies have found themselves traversing London, to Essex’s Maggot Farms in the cover of darkness.  

I soon came up with a more interesting idea. I asked Simon what he had planned the following day, and he remarked ‘sleep’. I indicated that I had a meeting at an edible-oil recycling plant the following day, where I was involved in the bulk tanker logistics and the chemistry of the processing of used edible Oils. In those days, when restaurants, fish and chip shops, as well as industrial food manufacturing plants [such as Crisp manufacturers] changed their frying oils [as cyclical reheating / boiling and cooling] of edible oils causes them to oxidise and turn brown; retaining and accumulating water and organic matter [as debris]; so they needed recycling. Today these oils are filtered, de-watered and blended to produce Bio-Diesel. But in the past they were filtered and cleaned and then blended with other oils, such as fish oils, palm oils, rape seed oils, and added to grain, to produce food for poultry; ensuring the correct ratios of fatty acids [such as Linoleic and Linolenic Acids] ensuring correct nutrition for chicks and chickens. The raw material was termed RVO [recovered vegetable oil], but often had hardened; so the process was to first heat up the oils with steam so the viscosity was reduced, and the heat boiled off the moisture, and the oil could be filtered [to remove solid impurities], before further refining and blending. In my imagination, I considered how such a plant could be utilised for the nefarious purpose of disposing of human remains, so no evidence would remain.

I told Simon as I had a meeting at such a Plant the following day, and that he could accompany me. As I knew the Directors; while I held my meeting, I could organise a site visit where Simon could be shown the process in action; including the use of Sodium Hydroxide, in the process. The Concentrated Alkali is ideal to dissolve Organic Material, [including a human body] and the filtration process would remove any non-Organic material. So if a body was dissolved in hot 55% Sodium Hydroxide [NaOH / Caustic] e.g. teeth fillings, metal hip joints, pacemakers would be the only evidence left and these could be strained by the filtration process.

I warned Simon that the one drawback visiting such a plant - is the smell; for hot used-Oil, that was oxidised, as well as the industrial chemicals used in the process made the plant stink to high-heaven. Particularly noxious were the hoppers and vats of raw incoming oil - being steamed. I explained that the smell around that area of the plant resembles part vomit and part excrement. Simon being Simon said “I can take it”.

So the following morning we headed off to the Oil recovery plant. As we arrived, I passed Simon a clipboard, gloves, overalls and a respirator. He looked at the respirator, smiled, and said ‘I won’t need that’ confidently. I said ‘suit yourself’, opening the car door and continued ‘brace yourself’. As Simon stepped out of the car, he turned to me laughing, ‘piece of piss, where’s this smell of shit and vomit you mentioned?’ when a gust of wind blew a foul blast of what resembled a rancid aroma that did indeed resemble part-vomit and part-excrement. ‘Sheesh, fuck me!’ was all he said as he turned and vomited, and quickly wiped his mouth, jamming on the respirator.

The rest of the morning I watched Simon from the window of the boardroom where I held my meeting. It took huge will-power not to laugh, as I watched this young novelist [in my overalls] being escorted around the plant by a Supervisor, making notes on the process of edible oil recycling.

When my meeting concluded, and we were back in the car, Simon ripped off the respirator and said “fuck me; that has got to be the worst smell I have ever experienced; un-fucking believable”. He would tell me later that it took weeks to get that smell of ‘shit-vomit’ off his clothes, his hair and skin, which always makes me smile. In fact, it was at the same time Simon started using aftershave liberally liberally, as he grew paranoid as the smell seemed to be coated in his nasal hair, and took a long time to disappear.

Later, Simon generously dedicated one of his thrillers to ‘Mr Pink and Ali Karim’ as a thank you to a Counter Terrorism Officer from the Metropolitan Police [code-named ‘Mr Pink’] and his Industrial Chemist friend who have helped him in his research.

Anyway, as ever I digress, as the title of his latest thriller, just released in the UK ‘The Bone Field’ brought back memories of the disposal of dead bodies that Simon and I investigated; so what has Simon in store for his readers?

A missing girl

A ruthless crime gang

A man so evil he must be stopped at any cost

DI Ray Mason and PI Tina Boyd begin a desperate hunt for the truth that will take them into a dark and terrifying world of corruption and deadly secrets, where murder is commonplace, and nothing and nobody is safe ...

When the bones of a 21-year old woman who went missing without trace in Thailand in 1990, are discovered in the grounds of an old Catholic school in Buckinghamshire, an enduring mystery takes on a whole new twist. Her boyfriend at the time, and the man who reported her missing, Henry Forbes, now a middle-aged university lecturer, comes forward with his lawyer and tells DI Ray Mason of the Met’s Homicide Command that he knows what happened to Kitty, and who killed her.

Bob Cartwright commented on his review at Shots Magazine  Judging by the pace, the twists and the turns that energise The Bone Field, it could be a series well worth following.” Read the full review at Shots Here

Simon kindly agreed to be interviewed, to discuss his new work, as well as a glance back down memory lane.

AK       So Simon, how long has it been since you debuted with the police procedural ‘The Business of Dying’, and that dodgy anti-hero Dennis Milne? And your memories of when you left the day job to write full-time?
SK      Blimey, Ali; that is a long time ago. I finished writing The Business of Dying and got my first publishing deal in September 2001, and I always remember the day I handed in my notice because it was 9/11. I resigned in the morning, and then all hell broke loose in the afternoon as America came under attack. My memories of that day and the weeks afterwards, when I became a full-time writer, are a strange mix of fear for the future, sadness at what was happening with the world, but a real hope too. I was excited to be doing something I’d always wanted to do, but even then I never guessed at that time that I’d last as long as I have.
 AK       I know you are renowned for your Thrillers after the Richard and Judy acknowledgment; but many of them are actually Police Procedurals at their narrative core – so what is your fascination with law-enforcement?
SK      A good question.  I think all crime novels require an element of detective work, and that’s best served by the introduction of police characters. However, although my books have a police procedural core, there are always plenty of other things, involving plenty of other characters, going on and I find that gives me much more flexibility to introduce the thriller element.

AK      And of course what do you consider is the difference between a crime fiction novel and a thriller novel? And is there is one, or does it matter?
SK      I guess it’s linked to what I said above. I consider a crime fiction book to be primarily a detective story, following a reasonably straight route to its conclusion (although there are exceptions) whereas I consider a thriller to be something with more pace, usually more primary characters, and which doesn’t actually need a detective element at all.  But of course that’s just my view, and I suspect a lot of people would beg to differ.
 AK       All your characters have flaws [some of which; cost them dearly], in fact sometimes it is hard to discriminate the bad guys from the good in the     amoral world you detail; so what’s your take on morality between     Protagonists and Antagonists in thriller fiction?
SK      Very few people I meet in life can be described in pure black and white. Everybody has weaknesses and bad points, just as they have strengths and good points. In short, we’re all various shades of grey, and I think that’s just amplified in crime fiction where both the protagonists and the antagonists are operating under much more pressure, and with a lot more to lose. The world of crime brings out the best and the worst in people, and I just try to reflect that in my books. 
AK       So with THE BONE FIELD upon us; tell us the genesis and also why did your long term character Tina Boyd appear – and where did Ray Mason spring from?    
SK      The Bone Field is the first in a series of four books with a single story arc, so each book follows on from the other. It revolves around the mystery of a young woman, Kitty Sinn, who went missing while backpacking in Thailand in 1990, only for her bones to be dug up, along with those of a 13 year old girl who went missing in 1989, in a field in Buckinghamshire. Only one person seems to know how Kitty got there from Thailand, and when he’s murdered, it’s up to newly demoted DS Ray Mason to try to find out what happened and who was responsible.

I’ve had the idea for the series in my mind for a long time, and I wanted a relatively new character to bring in as my central protagonist. Ray Mason, a troubled cop with a controversial past, who appeared in The Witness, seemed to fit the bill. I also wanted to bring Tina back as I have something of a soft spot for her, and thought she could add something to proceedings. In the book, she’s still a private investigator, and ends up partnering with Ray.

AK       When you sent Tina Boyd to France to investigate the cold case disappearance of Kitty Sinn in The Bone Field; a chase ensues which is as vividly retold as it is nerve shredding. Do you plot extensively or allow your imagination to power the tale?
SK      To be honest, I plot extensively. I tend to have a chapter by chapter plan running to 50 odd pages before I even put pen to paper to write the first line of the book, so I’d already mapped out every part of that chase months in advance. I did, of course, add in a few flourishes, and took out a few bits, so my imagination still got a chance to be used!
 AK       So this is a new series? So is the next publication a follow-up to THE BONE FIELD or something else?
SK      As I mentioned above, The Bone Field is the start of a series, and the next publication, entitled The Hanged Man (which I’m in the process of planning at the moment) will be the follow-up.
AK       I enjoyed the digital short-story FLY-TRAP which has a Caribbean backdrop; and I know you are a keen scuba diver, so what is the fascination with foreign beaches like the ones in S E Asia that pepper your work?
SK      I always think it’s nice to add some exotic locales to my stories, especially considering so much of the action tends to take place in the UK, because it gives the books a little bit of variety. I also like reading about places in the world I’ve never been so I’m hoping my readers do as well.
AK       Your work has been commented upon with regard to the kinetic violence you depict; so what’s your take in the deployment of viscera in Crime-Thrillers? And are there any areas you struggle with yourself in the writing process?
SK      I like to think my work isn’t as visceral as that of a lot of other writers, and in fact, I’m actually quite squeamish. Most of the violence in my books tends to be off screen, so to speak. And I also avoid writing about violence towards children because, as a father, I find it too hard to do.
AK       So what’s passed your reading table that you have recently enjoyed? And what about the new age in TV what series have you followed and     enjoyed?
SK      I’ve read some great books in the past year. For me, the best crime thriller by far was The Cartel by Don Winslow, a terrifying journey into the Mexican drug wars. I also loved Walking the Woods and the Water by Ben Hunt, a really enjoyable tale of the author’s walk across Europe from Rotterdam to Istanbul as he followed in the footsteps of adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermon, who made the journey himself in 1933.
TV-wise, I absolutely loved Netflix’s Narcos, as well as HBO’s Billions, and am currently just coming to the end of Quarry, the tale of a Vietnam veteran who becomes a hitman on his return from the war, which is based on the series of books by Max Allen Collins. It’s compulsive viewing.
AK       Thank you for your time, and well done with THE BONE FIELD a remarkable thriller
SK      A pleasure, Ali. Thanks for having me on here. 
Shots Magazine have discounted copies of THE BONEFIELD available from our Bookstore – Click Here

More information about the work of Simon Kernick – Click Here and Here

No comments: