Crime Writers Emerging from Lockdown with JG Harlond

Escaping through a picture window…

My study has a sliding picture window opening onto a balcony. From my desk I can see the Sierra de Las Nieves in the Province of Málaga, Spain. This was where the Moors of al-Ándalus harvested snow for sherbet and to keep medicines cool. To the right, is the bandalero (bandit) country across which the heroine of my first novel, The Empress Emerald, escapes. To the left, out of sight beyond mauve-shaded mountains, lie the fishing villages that were once prey to the Barbary corsairs featured in The Chosen Man Trilogy. Nowadays the area is called the Costa del Sol. As you may imagine, this window is conducive to creative time travel. If I ignore a nearby road, I can escape the twenty-first century and be back in any epoch I choose.

As various of my novels are historical thrillers, I am fairly practised at getting out of difficult and life-threatening situations. So, even though we’ve had two rounds of Covid house arrest, then been unable to leave our local area for weeks on end, I’ve had a secret escape mechanism right here in my study.
Running away in my fictional experience, however, is rarely straightforward. Despite careful plotting, unexpected situations requiring my characters to literally think on their feet often crop up. In The Empress Emerald, for example, the naïve heroine Davina is forced to use a melon to kill a brigand. (I didn’t plan that to happen but I tested it out: Spanish toadskin melons are conveniently shaped like a rugby ball and seriously tough.) Here is another example from the novel, where what should have been a straightforward transitional scene is complicated by unforeseen circumstances.

As a small child, the anti-hero, Leo Kazan, was abandoned in a Bombay orphanage, where he was selected as an ‘intelligencer’ for the British due to his exceptional language and thieving skills. In 1920 he is sent to Russia. Like his 17th Century ancestor Ludo da Portovenere, The Chosen Man, Leo is a rogue with a heart of gold running a lucrative, private side line in precious gems. In this scene, he is trying to smuggle diamonds out of Moscow for an elderly jeweller. Leninist thugs have tracked Leo to the jeweller’s building. His only way out is across the rooftops, but some unexpected people get in his way.

Grabbing his attaché case, Leo bounded up an elegant, winding staircase two at a time and burst through the door to the attic flat. Ignoring a terrified woman clutching a shawl to her breasts, he danced around the compartmented room, looking for a sky light.

A chair, a table, and up on the roof. He shoved his leather case out first. The tiles were like a playground slide and it nearly hurtled to the street below. Catching it by the handle just in time, he set it more safely on its side. Then, a large man on an unhealthy diet, he clasped the window frame and struggled up after it. Grasping the freezing bricks of a long-cold chimney he cast about him, wondering how the hell he had ever found rooftops fun. It was ten years since his escapade over the roofs and fences of the houses on Malabar Hill – and all that for an emerald. But this was a very different game.

He laughed inwardly at his own absurdities and checked the pink diamond ring tucked into his inside jacket pocket. If he fell four storeys down to the street it might pierce his heart on impact. A suitable irony. If the case fell, they’d know exactly where to find him.

A shot rang out. If he couldn’t see them, surely they couldn’t see him, could they? Another shot pinged off stone. Leo was astonished. Uniforms on surveillance didn’t waste ammunition. Slowly, awkwardly, he rolled onto his stomach and tried to peer into the street below. A uniform was coming out of the building.
He waited. How long before they found the widow’s skylight? How long before he froze into a gargoyle? He looked at his watch, calculating how long before it was completely dark. His mind wandered back to Malabar Hill. That had been a hoot: up and over roofs and garden fences, staying out of reach of snarling, snapping dogs. No chance of getting from one building to another there, not with those huge gardens, but here, yes. He could probably get to the end of Goldman’s street if he moved from chimney to chimney. If he was careful. He had to be careful: the pink diamond would fetch more than a fortune. (…)
Leo peered down again. He couldn’t see anyone, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t see him. Hitching up his heavy overcoat, he tucked his wide trousers into his socks, double-knotting his shoe laces while he was at it. Little by little, on hands and knees, shuffling his case in front of him, he made his way across the steep, wet roof until he hoped he’d gained the next house. A few minutes later, he noted a flatter roof below. If he tied the case to his back with his belt and risked a drainpipe, he might be able to reach it. He pulled off his belt and fastened it through the handle of the leather case then round his doubled-up overcoat as best he could. If they got him now, they might shoot straight into the case. It was a minor comfort. And then, bingo! Shiva and Ganesh and all the sainted Christian saints had come to his rescue. There was another sky-light just a few yards on, and it was open!

Open – on a late September evening in Moscow – why? It was a trap. He edged back the way he’d come and tried to get behind a chimney stack, waited for any sounds, then crawled back to the sky-light and peered in. Four old women were sitting around an empty bottle of vodka and a mah-jong board in enough cigar smoke to fill a Marseilles brothel.

“Evening, ladies. Do excuse me.” Leo pushed the window frame up as far as he could and dropped inelegantly into their midst, up-ending an ashtray and disturbing various Chinese winds in the process.

The women goggled, speechless.

Then he was round the table, through the door and haring downstairs – attaché case banging the back of his legs black and blue – down to what had once been the mansion’s back yard.
“Yes!” A rickety old wheelbarrow, and sacks of coal and, oh, disgusting mouldy potatoes. “Wonderful!”
Half an hour later, a lumbering peasant robed in smelly sacks trundled a wheelbarrow down a busy city street, across the open square in front of the tall portals of Kazansky station, and into the ticket hall.

Apart from these international settings, I have recently been indulging in a certain nostalgia for pre-21st century England and escaping back to my West Country roots in the Bob Robbins Home Front Mysteries. Not that this is gentle cosy crime – if you have ever seen a derelict farm (Private Lives) or been on bleak moorland in a tearing wind, which is how Bob Robbins’ new murder enquiry begins in Courting Danger, you’ll understand that. Despite having lived in a number of different countries, and having developed a somewhat Latinised outlook (my husband was a Spanish naval officer), what I see when I escape through my picture window in Málaga is still mostly with an Englishwoman’s eyes.

You can read more about JG Harlond and her books here.

Crime Writers Emerging from Lockdown with Louise Burfitt-Dons

How an escape story inspired The Secret War

Some years ago when I was living in Australia I met someone whose family had escaped the Cultural Revolution. The planning required utmost secrecy for the father to organise their ‘trip to Hong Kong to visit relatives’ from which she, her mother and sister never returned. He couldn’t travel too. Or the plot would have been exposed. He never saw them again. A true sacrifice for love. I’ve wanted to create a thriller which focuses on China ever since then, and with lockdown, with Wuhan being at the core of global conspiracy theories, here was my chance.

The papers were full of Chinese interference in UK universities and the CCP recruiting scientists from overseas. Espionage isn’t just an issue in war, it is also a major factor in every aspect of business, particularly virus research. Today spy work is less about ducking behind parked cars and more about stalking the internet, entrapment and blackmail. I wanted to investigate that. The more I explored the subject, the more convinced I became The Secret War, a story about our vulnerability to bioterrorism, was timely and significant.

I like doing research, because it takes me directly into the world of the book I am working on. For the first in my Karen Andersen thriller series, which featured a female Jihadist, I studied Arabic for a year; for my second, I interviewed members of a banned Far Right group. However, for The Secret War, first-hand experience was completely out of the question. To account for what happens on a luxury crossing from Southampton to New York, I had to rely on the experiences of friends who have either done the voyage or worked on cruise liners. I look forward to sailing the route myself one day.

The complexity of behaviour is my fascination and exploring the human condition. I draw all my characters from scratch. While they’re pure fiction, each contains an essence of a person I’ve either known or come upon. Likeability doesn’t draw me. More fascination with the unpredictable and irrational of personality traits. The older I get, the longer the list. In The Secret War, apart from the usual crew of the sometimes impetuous private investigator Karen Andersen and ex-Met detective ‘Quacker’ Partridge, I enjoyed crawling into the minds of eccentric professor Tomio Nakamura, his Beijing counterpart Ned Wang and his petulant young mistress Yoyo Chen with her waist-length blonde wig. I have encountered several women who distract themselves with manic delusions and pathologically high self-esteem like Helen Rogers, have lost at chess to superior players such as Haruto Fraser, and feared many bullying Colonel Lis over my lifetime. My own memories kept my heart pacing during the writing of The Secret War, but when they didn’t, I had those of my Chinese friend Beth to fall back on. I hope they have the same effect on you.

The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The Secret War is published by New Century as an eBook on June 21 and in paperback form on 12 July.

You can read more about Louise Burfitt-Dons and her books here.

Crime Writers in Residence – at home with GJ Minett

Crime Writers in Residence – at home with GJ Minett

Hi! My name is GJ Minett and my fourth novel, which will be published on July 9 by Bonnier Zaffre, is called The Syndicate.


The CRA: Please tell us a little about yourself and the books you write. 

For several years I taught in an 11-18 comprehensive. I’ve always written so I decided to do a part-time MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. My dissertation for that course won a national competition and ultimately became the Prologue for my debut novel, The Hidden Legacy. I’ve been a full-time novelist ever since and live in Pagham on the south coast.

I write psychological suspense novels built around a strong lead character. For me the storyline comes from knowing the characters well enough to be able to identify the Achilles heel and then put that weakness to the test. I enjoy reading novels that provide me with a puzzle and do not short-change me with some unlikely coincidence or contrived ending, so I try to offer the same courtesy to my own readers and respect their intelligence.

The CRA: Tell us about what you are doing during lockdown/while social distancing? 

Pretty much what I’d have been doing under normal circumstances, with a book a few months away from publication. There’s a need for greater planning maybe when it comes to getting the book out there and attracting the attention of readers who haven’t come across my novels so far. Oh . . . I’m also working my way through the Harry Potter books, re-reading them over the phone to my two grandsons every day. Otherwise . . . not a lot has changed.

The CRA: How does the above differ from your usual routine?

Not much. I’m maybe exercising more, finding it harder to come up with plausible reasons why I don’t have time to do some gardening but I’m incredibly fortunate not to be affected as badly as many others.

The CRA: Tell us about your forthcoming book. 

Jon Kavanagh has, for the past 20 years, been leading a quiet and uneventful life, running a bookshop in Wareham, Dorset and exercising every morning up over Durdle Door. It’s in marked contrast to the life he used to lead as an enforcer for an organised crime group in London. He’s been able to walk away from it all thanks to an agreement he’s hammered out with Maurice Hayes, the head of the syndicate. But twenty years on, Maurice has died and others who see Kavanagh’s defection as a dangerous precedent are now calling the shots. Haunted by ghosts of his own, Kavanagh realises his past is about to catch up with him . . . and with a vengeance.

The CRA: Why will it appeal to lovers of crime fiction? 

It is a redemption novel, the story of a man with a conscience and his determination to right the wrongs of the past.

The CRA: What CWA member writers are you reading during NCRM? 

Several. In recent weeks I’ve read novels by Chris Whitaker, Lisa Hall, Simon Brett, CJ Carver, Gilly MacMillan, David Jackson . . . all great writers.

The CRA: What one thing are you planning to do once lockdown is over? 

First chance we get, my wife and I will meet up with our two daughters and son, whom we haven’t seen other than online since March, take them for a meal somewhere and give them the biggest hug imaginable. It’s been too long.


The Syndicate is available for review now on NetGalley and can be pre-ordered from Amazon: