Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Shock and Awe: The Horror of our Situation

It has been reported in both psychological as well as medical research that a feeling of awe; a sensation of wonder helps our immune systems. It also promotes a sense of well-being [physical as well as mental]; it also increases our empathy toward others – as it makes us think about our place in this reality, and question our existence and that of others.

“That sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” They point out that people commonly experience awe in nature, but also feel a sense of awe in response to religion, art, music, etc.”

Read More Here

Though, as life is a cognitive sine-wave for we have to manage the ups and downs in our lives – the highs and lows of our experience of reality – there is an opposite to our sense [or feeling] of Awe – namely the feeling of dissatisfaction. This has to be managed too, as it also has an effect upon our immune systems, as well as empathy toward others, but negatively.  

Having a once-in-a-lifetime peak experience can lead to an unexpected blasé feeling of dissatisfaction. Peggy Lee sums up the malaise you can feel in the aftermath of a peak experience in her song, "Is that All There Is?" The song was inspired by the existential story Disillusionment by Thomas Mann

Read More Here

Managing the sine-wave of our feelings can at times be tricky, for after an intense period, or after a feeling of Awe, it can be hard to manage cognitively – for often we feel a vacuum within or a feeling of disillusionment in consequence.   

Recently I have been awed [in fact stunned would be a better word] by three films though marketed as Horror; the real horror within these movies comes from what I term, the Horror of our situation in this reality; and the fear of what we don’t understand. These three films are examinations, reflections of being human in a scary reality, where the horror comes from our situation, and is often cloaked in the shadows and within our imaginations. They also provoke deep, deep thought and contemplation.

The test of how deeply a piece of film has affected me is usually how long I remain in the cinema, or when the DVD finishes how long I sit immobile and lost in my thoughts - as the credits roll.

The following three films held me, lost in deep-thought as the credits rolled as I contemplated the significance of what I just experienced – bathing in the sense of awe with my thoughts swirling. 

The effect of these films [like last year’s Midnight Special by Jeff Nichols] remain within me; that feeling of awe with no sensation of disillusionment – for they are food for the mind.


Get Out is a 2017 American horror film written, co-produced and directed by Jordan Peele, in his directorial debut. The film stars Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, LaKeith Stanfield and Catherine Keener, and follows a young interracial couple who visit the mysterious estate of the woman's parents.


It Comes at Night is a 2017 American psychological horror film written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. It stars Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Riley Keough. This claustrophobic tales centers on a highly contagious disease that has ravaged the outside world. Paul, his wife Sarah, and their teenage son Travis have secluded themselves in a country home. One night they are awoken by the sound of someone [or something] trying to break into their fortified home in the dark forest.


Personal Shopper is a 2016 French psychological thriller film written and directed by Olivier Assayas. It stars Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin, Hammou Graia, Nora von Waldstatten, Benjamin Biolay, Audrey Bonnet and Pascal Rambert. It tells the story of Maureen [Kristen Stewart] a personal shopper in Paris for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), a celebrity. She travels to European capitals to shop for her, buying clothes, accessories and jewels. Her twin brother Lewis recently died from a heart attack; they shared the same genetic heart problem. They were both interested in spiritualism and believed they had connections to the spirit world.

With an honourable mention to a film from last year that I still think about from time to time.


Midnight Special is a 2016 American science fiction film written and directed by Jeff Nichols, and produced by Sarah Green and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones. The film stars Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher and Sam Shepard. The story revolves around Roy Tomlin and his biological son, Alton Meyer, escaping from both the government and a cult, after discovering that Alton has special powers.

These films are like lucid dreams, they remain within my mind and I think of them and their significance from time to time – for they gave me a sense of awe, one that that made me think deeply as well as reflect upon something Stephen King once postulated in his book “On Writing” -

“Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around.”

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Doppelgänger : Peter Rozovsky & Ali Karim discuss Donald Westlake & Richard Stark

Doppelgänger from the German [literally "double-goer"] is a look-alike or double of a living person, sometimes portrayed as a paranormal phenomenon, and is usually seen as a harbinger of bad luck.
Ever since I witnessed some mysterious and frightening incidents as a child; something I still cannot explain, something that I still think of from time to time – the role of the Doppelgänger has always fascinated me, as well as acting as a warning to me, about personality, and the dangers of existence.

Like many writers, I use pen names and enjoy traversing the edges of personality, be it my own or that of others. The reasoning is that most people are not who they present themselves as; for we have facets of character that remain hidden - often to survive.
As the 1980s were closing Stephen King's pen name Richard Bachman was exposed as he battled the last stages of his alcohol and pharmaceutical misuse.

The novel THE DARK HALF is from that time though rarely mentioned; with its surreal story of Author Thad Beaumont a writer of literary fiction battling his Pen Name George Stark's creation the disfigured and dangerously malevolent Alexis Machine. George Stark wrote two ultra-violent and renowned pulp thrillers MACHINE'S WAY and STEEL MACHINE that were far more popular commercially than Thad Beaumont’s literary output.
This underrated King novel THE DARK HALF is a thinly disguised homage to Donald Westlake and it would be filmed later by George A Romero starring Timothy Hutton.
I recall King’s THE DARK HALF because like Donald Westlake, some of us have a little Richard Stark in us, to help traverse the dangers in this world; but like Nietzsche's abyss, when the inner Parker is revealed to others, the abyss that is Parker looks back into you. The dark side of human nature is an evolutionary necessity; but also a danger - one we keep locked away.
“The office women looked at him and shivered. They knew he was a bastard; his big hands were born to slap with, they knew his face would never break into a smile when he looked at a woman. They knew what he was, they thanked God for their husbands, and still they shivered. Because they knew how he would fall on a woman in the night. Like a tree".” ― Richard Stark, The Hunter
Here's a few words I wrote for Jeff Pierce's THE RAP SHEET when Quercus Publishing brought back Parker to the UK in 2007. Jeff featured a staggering outpouring in 2009 when Donald Westlake passed away, and here's some thoughts from the Crime / Thriller Community from The Rap Sheet Part One and Part Two
I wrote at the time in 2009 when hearing of the passing of Donald Westlake -
"I first discovered Donald Westlake thanks to the movie version of The Hot Rock with Robert Redford, which led me to explore more of the Dortmunder books, as well as muttering “Afghanistan, Bananistan” to strangers from time to time. But my true love was the Richard Stark series featuring Parker. I loved the spartan style of Stark, and was overjoyed when I read Stephen King’s tribute to Stark in his brilliant novel about split personalities, The Dark Half. (“Anyway, for reasons you’d have to ask Westlake about, he eventually stopped writing novels about Parker, but I never forgot something Westlake said after the pen name was blown. He said he wrote books on sunny days and Stark took over on the rainy ones ...”) It was an apt tribute to a great man.
I only met Westlake once when we came to the CrimeScene convention in London in 2005. I was humbled in his presence, despite his modesty and gentle nature. I find it surreal that when I heard of the awful news [of Westlake’s death], the first words that came into my head were “Afghanistan, Bananistan,” which echoed as a lament for our loss. I miss his words already, as the world just darkened a tad, knowing that he is no longer with us.
Watch Detectives Beyond Borders Peter Rozovsky and I discuss Donald Westlake and Richard Stark in an amusing and unscripted post-Crimefest 2017 Sunday afternoon.

In memory of the late Donald Westlake and Darwyn Cooke

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Doppelgänger Tales

Some of my friends and colleagues know of my interest in the “Doppelgänger” [a ghostly duplicate of a living person, derived from the German term Doppelgänger, literally: double-goer].

My interest is both of times that I have been mistaken for someone else; as well as encountering Doppelgängers of other people that I know.

My current interest in the Doppelgänger stems from something I am writing, something that takes over much of my current thinking.

I have a few Doppelgänger tales, some that are seriously disconcerting [as anyone who has shared a late evening in a bar with me will attest to]. I will share one of my Doppelgänger tales here; but this one is an amusing anecdote from my recollections of days now passed.

It was early/mid 1980s, England. I’d just returned back from the American Midwest where I had been studying for a Doctorate in Chemistry. On my return, my Father had been livid with me [as I had given up a good job at ICI, Runcorn to further my studies in America]. He told me in strong terms that I had to get a job after ‘fucking around academia’ and messing up a career in Imperial Chemicals Industries [ICI].

The first job I applied for I got an interview straightway and headed to London, as they needed me to start immediately. I worked as a young Industrial Chemist, for a Chemicals Storage and Logistics company on the Thames [London and Coastal Oil Wharves Ltd], which I helped get into chemical processing with Automotive Antifreeze manufacture as well as Chemical blending.

The company had taken a stand at The European Chemical Trade Fair, hosted at Heathrow’s Penta Hotel. The Managing Director asked me to ‘man the stand’ over the three-day trade fair [as I was cheap, and he wanted to show off his young Chemist to his customers as well as attract new customers].

I enjoyed the few days having a superb room in the Penta; and as I was single it meant I got all my meals and drinks on account. Various managers from the company drifted in and out of the Chemical Trade Fair, helping me man our company stand.

On the final night Martin Wells, our MD had organised a celebratory dinner in the Penta, with three of our managers and a dozen or so of his top customers. The affair was a long and enjoyable evening. I drank rather a lot of wine, followed by generous quantities of Gin. I needed very little encouragement as our long table was in celebratory mode after the Chemical trade fair. So after a few hours in the bar, it was time to say goodnight and farewell to my colleagues and our guests. I stumbled up to my room which was a feat in itself, due to the amount of Gin I consumed.

On entering my room, I was way too drunk to function correctly, so I just fell asleep on the bed in my suit, only loosening my tie. I noted that the red LED on the bedside clock-radio said it was past three AM. The next thing I recall was that I was dreaming about a ringing phone; or so I thought. The dream woke me up, and I realised that I was not dreaming at all, but the phone by my bedside was ringing, and ringing and ringing. I grabbed the receiver and as I pushed it to my ear, the clock-radio informed me it was coming to five thirty in the morning.

It’s reception. Mr Karim, your taxi is here” said the voice on the line.
“I’ll be right down” I replied in my drunken fugue. Looking back, I don’t know why I hadn’t queried the call about an early morning cab. I knew Martin Wells and the other managers were staying in the Penta too; and we were leaving in the morning, but not at this fucking early hour.

Somehow I managed to navigate myself down to reception, where a perplexed Night Porter and Cab Driver [who was leaning on the reception counter] stared back at me; this dishevelled young Asian bloke staggering in a crumpled suit obviously as drunk as a skunk.
The Night Porter quickly swivelled his chair back to his computer and looked back at me and said “You are Abdul Karim of Egyptian Airlines?”

“No, I’m Ali Karim of London and Coastal Oil Wharves” I replied hiccuping and then running to the nearby toilet, as I felt my stomach heave in my drunken state as reality started to spin around me.

As I ran, I remember hearing the Cab Driver laughing “thank fuck for that, as I thought that cunt is flying the 0700 hrs to Cairo.”

Though strictly not a true Doppelgänger Tale; I have two more about a person, persons or thing that may be a true Doppelgänger of mine; but that’s for when I am in a bar late at night and someone wants me to follow Peter Straub’s gathering of old men, when one asks “tell us all the scariest thing that has ever happened to you.”

Until then, back to my writing, and the issue of coming face to face with your Doppelgänger.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Anyone know the way to Shell Beach?

I was recently reading that there are plans to remake the Wachowski brother’s 1999 movie THE MATRIX, and then I learned that Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel Shutter Island is being adapted into a TV series. The recent HBO reboot / reworking of the Michael Crichton 1973 directorial debut Westworld was a remarkable piece of work, and proved hugely popular commercially despite its immense cost. What these works share in common is their interpretation of what we perceive as our reality; something that most of us ponder upon from time to time, as well as the purpose and reason for our ‘being’ here on the third rock from our power source, our Sun.

My favourite sub-genre of film and books are those that questions what we perceive as reality, of which I have read many work as well as viewed many mind-bending films. Though The Matrix and its two sequels are probably the most commented upon; I still have very warm feelings toward three films that were released around the same time [before the Millennium], and mined similar themes - David Cronenberg’s 1999 eXistenz Josef Rusnak 1999’s The Thirteen Floor and of course my favourite Alex Proyas’ 1998 Dark City.

Though there are many, many others; but particular mention should be made of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris which was first filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972 and remade / reworked in 2002 by James Cameron and Steven Soderbergh.

Though the earliest recorded thoughts that question what we perceive as reality can be traced to Plato’s Republic in his “Allegory of the Cave”

In the allegory, Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire.  Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. 

Read More Here and view a short Ted-Ed video on the nature of reality as seen via Plato’s Cave

Anyone with a basic understanding of Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics will tell you that the world we perceive with our sensory apparatus is a mere fraction of what is actually around us. Advancement in technology is making us realise that there are many other aspects / forms within the reality that surrounds us; and which we cannot detect from our sensory apparatus - in the narrow bands of light, sound, taste, touch and smell that we use to navigate reality. In fact we also know that we are now creating our own realities virtually. In David Cronenberg’s 1999 film eXistenz, we see that the rabbit holes of interconnected realities is deep, for in each of our artificially created realities, the occupants create or engineer their own, and to quote Kurt Vonnegut ‘and so it goes’; layer upon layer of artificially created virtual realities.

As the relentless march of technology and science marches on headlong, there are many reports coming that the reality we are experiencing is far from what we see around ourselves, for perhaps Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is correct. Reports that our reality is indeed a construct or a form of artifice is coming from credible sources, including these. There were interesting ripples in the scientific community when Dr. James Gates Jr explained that in his experiments in particle physics and string theory, he found a form of computer code; strings of One and Zeros called error correcting codes, embedded within, or resulting from, the equations of supersymmetry that describe fundamental particles.

When one works through Lord Martin Rees work, and that of Professor Nick Bostrom we see that the simulation argument has indeed merit, and that the chances are close to 100% that we are indeed trapped in a ‘construct’ akin to Plato’s Cave; in a simulation or reality that is a form of artifice. As troubling as this sounds; the reality of our situation has a paradoxical twist, for it matters little if we are in the Cave with much hidden from our senses, or to quote Peggy Lee’s question ‘Is that all there is?’ from the song penned by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller [which in turm was derived from the 1896 story Disillusionment [Enttäuschung] by Thomas Mann – used to great effect in John August’s 2007 film that also questioned the nature of our reality The Nines.

The march of technology may well further prove or disprove the veracity of our reality, as primitive man came from Caves, and we may soon discover that we are still cave dwellers, pursuing our lives with artificial meaning in the allegorical Cave that Plato proposed.

The scary downside is that the sheer scale of the weapons we are capable of manufacturing [with the march of technology] in these times, can appeal dangerously to the dark-side of human nature. We must also remember that the dark-side of our natures helped us evolve in the competitive games we term evolution, for without our dark-side we would never have survived predation – but today, in so-called civilised society, that dark-side has dangers when the scale of our weapons are now unspeakable.

So “reality is, what it is” and we have to navigate it as well as we can, but from time to time we see things that we cannot explain, things we put down to the randomness of our reality; coincidences as well as the vagaries of our skills in pattern recognition [another tool that is necessary for our evolution as a species]. 

Last year, when my editor and close friend Mike Stotter and I went to New Orleans for Bouchercon 2016, The World Crime and Mystery Convention, we had a wonderful time, shared with our friends from the genre we support. Though New Orleans has its own mysteries in its own right, and sure we drank a lot and partied however some things remain with me, things that made me think, made me ponder like seeing pixilation of reality, of glitches. I know many of us are cynical however, like that sensation of Déjà vu, it can also be unsettling.

One memory that makes me smile is related to a favourite film of mine. I often make reference to Alex Proyas’ 1998 Dark City as it a firm favourite. During Bouchercon 2016, Mike and I spent a wonderful evening with our friends Chris Whiteside and Martina Cole. Martina is one Great Britain’s most popular crime-writers and has been a very dear friend of Mike and I for many years. She is celebrating her 25th year in publishing and during Bouchercon, she generously treated Chris, Mike and I to a wonderful dinner and drinks at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orlean’s French Quarter. I know we consumed a great deal of Gin, but after a fabulous dinner I felt a little strange which I put down to the drinking but the feeling was more akin to Déjà vu, and I kept thinking of the film Dark City and the significance of this reality. I noticed that the bar-singer start a song that made me smile. It was the renowned Mexican song “Sway” and I quickly grabbed my Iphone to record it for the coincidental line with my thinking was perplexing.

The song ‘Sway’ features in Dark City, with Jennifer Connelly, though the vocal recording was actually with Anita Kelsey. I know it was coincidence that I was thinking about the Alex Proyas film while seated in the hotel bar in New Orleans, and maybe the ambience reminded me of that scene with William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly. Though coupled to a few other events / coincidences, the memory still makes me smile; as does the understanding that if we are indeed inside Plato’s Cave then there are some rules to make the experience worthwhile.

For those who have seen Dark City, may follow the significance of why Rufus Sewell’s character is searching for Shell Beach. It would not be until I returned to England that I discovered that Shell Beach is actually located not far from New Orleans, in Louisiana.

This line of thinking will of course narrow itself to whether we take the Blue or Red Pill, because as Grace Slick once said with Jefferson Airplane, “one Pill makes you larger and one Pill makes you small”.

Perhaps next time I will find myself in New Orleans, I will indeed seek out Shell Beach, because I heard it's the end of the line. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Logan's Run : When The Man Comes Around

Well James Mangold's LOGAN is indeed remarkable, beautiful, thought-provoking, ultra-violent and poignant.
In a curious turn of events, I ending up seeing the film with my eldest daughter Sophia this afternoon; and for those who have seen Logan, may smile at the Father & Daughter subtext.

In the 1970s/1980s I found comfort like so many adolescents with Marvel Comics The X-Men; especially the Chris Claremont / John Byrne reboot and the Frank Miller Wolverine.
The nature and theme of young misfits in a harsh and intolerant world that the comics portrayed, always gave comfort as we grappled with reality, emerging from our infant cocoons.
Decades later I found myself in a Cinema with my 24 year old daughter viewing a film version of the characters from my childhood comics - Professor Charles Xavier and Wolverine in 'LOGAN'

As the film ended, to silence and the screen faded to black, I thought of those lines all adolescents hear in their minds from time to time when adversity knocks on their door - 'everything will work out fine'
And as the credits rolled, and everyone sat silently, I heard Johnny Cash's voice
Logan, the final chapter in the tales of Wolverine is a very powerful film, exploring similar themes to Jeff Nicholls' Midnight Special, and proving the maxim we hear in our minds when under stress - 'everything will work out fine'
When the Man comes around

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Tower of Song: Travels with Thomas H Cook

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

Leonard Cohen

A book arrived in the post at my office on Friday that made me gasp with joy; even though it is ultimately a melancholic lament; a reflection upon sadness. But perhaps most interestingly it is an examination of what it means to traverse a reality, a planetary landscape that is as random, as it is dangerous. It also reminds us what it means to be human when monsters surround us [many of whom hide among us, well disguised], and observations of the places [on this planet] that haunt us. But it is a work that is ultimately uplifting; for the human condition is a complex one, where the extremes are troubling and where our existential thoughts can become real.

Melancholia is one of many characteristics of what it means to be human. As an emotional state of mind, Melancholia often lays dormant, awaiting a trigger or triggers. It is often a by-product of our thinking – ‘existential’ but it can be transformed into ‘the real’ by external as well internal forces [and dangerous lines of thought, or inquiry].

I am often reminded of the words [and music] of Leonard Cohen, who I turn to when my own mind turns melancholic, reflective.

Though melancholia as a state of mind has to be handled carefully, as it has legitimate purpose; for those who can manage the dark feelings that confront us from time to time. For those who understand Melancholia and can wrangle these feelings and gain strength from these existential thoughts.

Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’ alludes to this, particularly with this line -

There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in”

If you cannot tame feelings of melancholia that many of us get from time to time, there can be danger, as melancholia can alter our thinking, and brain chemistry leading us mentally into some dark places.

Incidentally, Cohen’s ‘Anthem was truncated and adopted [with permission] by the award-winning [and fellow Canadian] mystery writer, Louise Penny for the title of one of her Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries. It was Headline Publishing of Great Britain that first brought Penny’s mystery novels into print, with ‘Still Life’ being first showcased at the Canadian Embassy in London where many of us from the CWA gathered to celebrate its publication in 2005. Louise’s debut was a runner-up in the Crime Writers Association’s 2004 Debut Dagger Competition.

Many of us were deeply saddened last year to hear of the passing of her devoted husband Michael. Many of us had gotten to know this gentle Paediatrician over the years, as he often accompanied Louise to many events and cheered away when her talent was acknowledged by her peers [when her work gained award recognition]. To many of us, Louise and Michael, were one person, but in two bodies. The loss of a partner on the human mind is a hard thing to bear, and the management of grief and melancholia a task that takes effort and resolve; avoiding what writer John Irving once referred to as ‘the allure of the open windows’, from his 1981 novel The Hotel New Hampshire, which was filmed in 1984 by Tony Richardson.

A few colleagues [and friends] have my business address, so on occasion I receive reading material mailed to me at work. When that happens, it’s usually an item that is either ‘urgent’ or ‘important’. Anyone who has been sent on a time management’ or a ‘getting things done’ course will know the importance of being able to discriminate between these two existential states.

Last week was a tough but an enjoyable one. I arrived back in the office Friday, weary and looking forward to the weekend for a break. Despite having a number of pressing books awaiting my time; as well as a page count [in my own writing] that sits like a petulant child waiting for attention; something extraordinary arrived Friday morning in the mail that made me gasp.

My colleague Dan passed a parcel to me as he sifted through the incoming correspondence. I opened the package without thinking. When I saw the book it contained, I let out a ‘whoop!’ much to the amusement of Dan and my fellow colleagues. From the corner of my eye, I could see the good natured smiles and chuckles from my team. My colleagues understand my love affair with books, and the written word; in fact sometimes my passion for dark literature and film spill out into my day-job.

As I held the book in my hand, I realised I held a physical manifestation of the existential thoughts captured by one of the greatest exponents of mystery writing; now ripped from his mind, and held onto paper for others to absorb. It was a book I had thought a great deal about for some time now, as well as pondering about the life of its writer, and his own journeys; some which provoke deep and at times troubling thoughts.

I am talking about Thomas H Cook, one of the most literate of crime writers and an enigma in his own right.

I have to thank Publisher, Editor, Writer, Raconteur Otto Penzler, as well as George Easter and Larry Gandle of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine for first introducing me to the work of Thomas H Cook; a writer who has challenged my way of thinking, as well as providing me insights into the dark side of human nature, while entertaining me with narratives that remain in my mind, like shards of jagged glass.

It was during my first Bouchercon, back in 2003 when I first met Otto, Larry and George. As bibliophiles we always exchange notes on our reading. Otto, George and Larry were surprised that I had never read the work of Thomas H Cook. In fact their surprise indicated to me [that as well read as I consider myself], something was missing, something lacking, something I had overlooked.

Thomas Cook has been published sporadically in Great Britain; back then he was with the Orion Publishing Group. Anyway, I corrected this omission in my reading by devouring as many Thomas Cook novels that I could lay my hands on, and ordering from the US any work not available in the UK. 

Over the years Tom’s path and mine have crossed either in London, Harrogate or at an annual US Bouchercon event; for the insight his imagination [coupled to his narrative ability] have brought to me has been very important. The novels of Thomas H Cook have made me ponder about human nature [especially its darker side], as well as providing me outstanding entertainment.

I have reviewed his work many times, as his fiction has deeply affected me so much so it is always a highlight when we meet up, and we talk. A particular time that is retained fondly in my memory is the lunch Tom and I shared with David Morrell and Larry Gandle during 2009’s Bouchercon Indianapolis. It was good to break bread and suck back a beer with very dear and old friends who share the pleasures of Crime and Thriller Literature. David Morrell is a literature professor, while Tom Cook also has a distinguished academic background in literature; while Larry Gandle and I are both Scientists and in our free time are Assistant Editors at Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine and Shots Magazine respectively – but all four of us are very good friends so when we meet up – it’s like we were never apart.

The main topic over lunch was the runaway success of Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, as Tom, Larry and David were amused at my championing this work from the get-go; though there was also a blanket of melancholia over the lunch. We knew of some recent troubling news from David Morrell. I am always in awe of David’s ability to manage unimaginable adversity; and then to have to confront heart-breaking adversity again; holding strong for the family takes inner resolve, stoicism – and for some, this means we have to write, in order to manage our thinking.

With writers, sometimes you can detect the frame of mind that they were in [at the time of writing a specific novel]. With David Morrell, his mind sometimes reflects and examines the melancholia in the lives of his fictional protagonists. David [like many writers when faced with deep adversity] threw himself into writing; fictionalizing the adventures of the Victorian writer Thomas De Quincey, in a stunning sequence of historic thrillers, which started with the award-winning Murder as a Fine Art. The third instalment in the series Ruler of the Night has just been released. David admitted to me that the Thomas De Quincey historical thrillers came to him during that dark period in 2009; though it would not be until 2014 during Bouchercon Long Beach that ‘Murder as a Fine Art’ would be awarded the 2014 Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award [as presented by Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers International].

I am reminded of some words from British writer Graham Greene that helps explain why some of us are compelled to write.

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”

Anyway, as ever I digress.

I was delighted when Quercus Publishing was set up, as the hands of Anthony Cheetham and Otto Penzler were evident in this niche publishing house’s inception. One of their first publications was Thomas H Cook’s Red Leaves, which was awarded the 2006 MWA Edgar Award, as well as Nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger. I have reviewed Tom’s work many times, as have far more lucid and qualified literary commentators. Though one factor that always haunts me is why Thomas H Cook’s work is not Stephen King in terms of sales; sure his mantelpiece is congested with many literary awards, from around the world, and is known and read avidly by the key critics of the Crime and Mystery Genre; so sure he sells well – but in my opinion, he should be selling in the volumes of someone like Stephen King. My reasoning is that he is the most literary of writers that have traversed my reading table; and he can tell a fine story, one that makes you think, ponder about our situation – the human condition.

The theme of Thomas H Cook being one of the treasures on the Crime and Mystery Genre, but a secret [of sorts], became the pivot in my 2009 feature interview at Linda Richards’ January Magazine [with a fine edit by Jeff Pierce] –

Ali : And you’ve become quite prolific since. So why -- despite your having received awards and critical acclaim -- do you remain a secret to many readers?

Tom : I truly don’t know the answer to that question, but the experience can be very disheartening, let me tell you. I think many readers just want a fast read. Which is fine. They have that right. But I don’t write fast reads. I think mystery readers in particular are quite demarcated in their reading habits. People who read puzzle mysteries don’t read thrillers, and people who read thrillers don’t read puzzle novels, and so on down thorough several subgenres. I write a combination mystery-mainstream novel, and that is a big problem, I think, in that mainstream readers very often never give mysteries a chance. I fall through a lot of cracks, and so far, despite wonderful reviews over a period of 20 years, I am still one of the best-known unknown writers out there.

Oddly enough, I have absolutely broken through in France and Japan, and seem close to doing it in England. The U.S., however, has not yet fallen under my spell. But I’m still working on it.

Ali : It just isn’t fair. I mean, some of my all-time favorite novels have come from your pen. Something’s not right here.

Tom : I couldn’t agree more, of course. And I am trying very hard to write the best books of my career at this point in my life. I may not always succeed, but I am always trying to deliver a very strong story, one that delivers in the writing, the story itself, and what lingers once the story has been put down, that strange, haunting aftermath.

Ali : Might the problem be that some readers classify you as a “literary writer”?

Tom : I am a literary writer in the sense that the writing really matters to me, and I try to do it well. But I am, more than anything, simply a storyteller, and for that reason I try not to abandon the story to my prose. I want each to serve the other, and yes, that makes me literary in that sense. That said, I would never write a novel in which the main character is a cigarette butt floating in a urinal, or a novel about a number, say eight, or a novel about a family so freakishly repellant that I wouldn’t spend dinner with such people, much less the time it takes to read 500 pages.

Read the Full Interview Here

Tom’s work often features in my best annual ‘reads of the year’, such as his remarkable novel Sandrine’s Case which was published in 2013 by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press and by Anthony Cheetham’s Head of Zeus in Great Britain.

I wrote at the time –

Cook constructs his narrative like a courtroom drama, but this novel offers a much more compelling tale about what actually led to the death of Sandrine, a woman as enigmatic as the ancient history she taught and brooded upon. Cook deftly explores the question of what we truly know about the people we love -- and, in reflection, what we truly know about ourselves. This novel was published in Britain as Sandrine (Head of Zeus).

Read more Here, and you may be amused to see that my review of this remarkable novel, has my thoughts regarding Stephen King’s Joyland just above it. As book reviewers, we do what we can to support writers that help our thinking, our insights into the world we find ourselves in. I am not ashamed to state that I have felt my eyes moisten at the end of some of Tom Cook’s novels; such has been the emotional impact his narrative skills and stories have brought to bear on this reader.

I know Facebook gets much maligned as a time-waster; but I have to temper that comment, that for many writers who work on a keyboard all day; it provides a break from the swirl of our thoughts as well as a quick way of keeping in touch with people [especially when they are scattered globally]. I had grown fond of Thomas Cook’s presence on FB as he had been putting up photographs of his travels, with his beloved wife Susan and daughter Justine. I have been fascinated by travel and what it does to our mind, and understanding of others, so I enjoyed seeing Tom Cook’s photographs. My annual trips to Bouchercon have allowed me to traverse North America over the years, and with purpose – my fascination with Crime, Mystery and Thriller fiction.

A specific series of photos from Tom’s FB page haunted me – they were images of ‘The saddest places on Earth’. Like the magnetism of viewing a car crash, I found the photographs intriguing as well as provoking deep thought. During some correspondence with Tom, he indicated that he was considering publishing a book featuring his travels to these sad places; regions on our planet that today are solemn reminders of the dark side of humanity and our plight here.

Then I heard the tragic news in 2014 that Susan Terner passed away, leaving Tom and Justine alone. He wrote an eloquent and heart breaking lament and celebration at the time about his wife, which I have pasted the opening -

Justine and I would ask that you remember Susan fondly as one who danced on table tops in Paris, Madrid and New York City; who belted songs and directed actors on the stages of Cape Cod; who put every conceivable thing in a plastic bag; who never saw a hammock or a cat she didn’t love; who claimed to have only 30 pairs of shoes when she actually had 147 and who, when confronted with that fact, declared that the additional 117 pairs in her collection didn’t “count” because they were inexpensive; who staunchly held to her non-belief through all her pain and anguish; who edited manuscripts so superbly her method is taught in master classes; who incessantly corrected everyone’s grammar, and once told a doctor to stop touching the bottom of his shoes; whose true vocation, as I often reminded her, would have been to be the Third Grade Teacher of the World.

So let’s move these recollections of mine to December 2016.

It was during the Peter James Christmas Lunch, hosted by The Ivy, in London that I found myself seated next to Alice Greary; a publicist who works with my very dear friends Tony Mulliken and Sophie Ransom. Over lunch, Alice and I got talking and she remarked that she really enjoyed my 2009 interview with Thomas Cook at January Magazine and found it most useful in researching a book and author she was working on. I asked which Author? Which she replied ‘Tom Cook’, and then told me about a non-fiction book by Thomas Cook that Quercus Publishing were going to release in 2017. 

The book was titled Tragic Shores : A Memoir of Dark Travel. The penny dropped, and I realised that it was indeed the book that Tom had alluded to with the photos he posted on Facebook, detailing some of the world’s saddest places. Poor Alice witnessed the heights that my enthusiasm can scale, for when I get excited, I can become quite a sight. I pleaded with Alice, that when the first review copies are available I implored her to send me a copy.

Now we’re in January 2017.

The book arrived last Friday, and was inside the package that made me yelp and gasp amusing my colleagues; and the same book that I alluded to at the opening of this article.
I called Alice immediately to thank her. I asked her that I had assumed that Tom’s book on the ‘Saddest Places on Earth’ would have some illustrated pages from Tom’s Photos. Alice confirmed that indeed, there will be photographic plates in the finished book; but they were not present in the Galley-Proof. She kindly emailed me the photos, which I have permission to re-print a few here.

I also contacted Tom who currently resides in Los Angeles and he too granted me permission to reproduce any of his photos I wished; including the one that opens this article - of his beloved Susan and himself in a Tropical forest.  

Alice also sent me this synopsis of Tragic Shores : A Memoir of Dark Travel

'I have come to thank dark places for the light they bring to life.'

Thomas Cook has always been drawn to dark places, for the powerful emotions they evoke and for what we can learn from them. These lessons are often unexpected and sometimes profoundly intimate, but they are never straightforward.

With his wife and daughter, Cook travels across the globe in search of darkness - from Lourdes to Ghana, from San Francisco to Verdun, from the monumental, mechanised horror of Auschwitz to the intimate personal grief of a shrine to dead infants in Kamukura, Japan. Along the way he reflects on what these sites may teach us, not only about human history, but about our own personal histories.

During the course of a lifetime of traveling to some of earth's most tragic shores, from the leper colony on Molokai to ground zero at Hiroshima, he finds not darkness alone, but a light that can illuminate the darkness within each of us. Written in vivid prose, this is at once a personal memoir of exploration (both external and internal), and a strangely heartening look at the radiance that may be found at the very heart of darkness.

Melancholia manifests itself in many shapes and forms, and one way of managing this state from becoming high anxiety, is [quoting Graham Greene] to write. In the hands of Thomas H Cook, rarely has a feeling of Melancholia been as insightful as to our condition; our humanity – and all from his mastery of the darkest edges of literature, Crime and Mystery Fiction.

I look forward to re-entering the thoughts and emotions that Thomas Cook’s narratives provide; but this time, it’s his first non-fiction work, a travelogue of sorts that appears as insightful and as thought-provoking as his fiction.

So to close this feature, I leave you with a cover version of Leonard Cohen’s The Tower of Song, by the Jesus and Mary Chain which not only provides the title for these thoughts of mine, about one of the finest of Crime and Mystery Writers.

You will be hearing from me again, as I will be reviewing this long anticipated work by Tom Cook, who has also kindly agreed to be interviewed by me again.

Until then, we’ve made sure that the Shots Bookstore has copies of Tragic Shores : A Memoir of Dark Travel by Thomas H Cook available for pre-order [release date 6th April 2017] – Here

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

Leonard Cohen

Click Here, for the comprehensive 2009 interview with Tom Cook from January Magazine, that Alice Geary found on the Damp Floor of the Internet that Tom and I recorded during Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

I hope you found this article of interest, and piqued your interest in the work of Thomas H Cook, David Morrell and Louise Penny.

Ali Karim
London, England, January 2017


The only issue I see with regard to British Publication of this highly anticipated first non-fiction work by Thomas Cook, is that in the UK, the name Thomas Cook is synonymous with the nation’s most well-known travel agency; so some who purchase Tragic Shores : A Memoir of Dark Travel maybe a tad confused with this poignant travelogue; but will be ultimately rewarded by writing of the highest order; even if this volume is not what they anticipated by the Thomas Cook slogan “Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it!”.

Photos from Ali Karim, Thomas H Cook and Quercus Publishing reprinted with permission