Hall of Fame Review: Ashes to Ashes by Paul Finch

Wednesday 12 April 2017
Title: Ashes to Ashes
Author: Paul Finch
Publisher: Avon Books
Publication Date: 6th April 2017
Pages: 480
Source: Review Copy
Rating: 5/5
Purchase: Amazon
John Sagan is a forgettable man. You could pass him in the street and not realise he’s there. But then, that’s why he’s so dangerous.

A torturer for hire, Sagan has terrorised – and mutilated – countless victims. And now he’s on the move. DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg must chase the trail, even when it leads him to his hometown of Bradburn – a place he never thought he’d set foot in again.

But Sagan isn’t the only problem. Bradburn is being terrorised by a lone killer who burns his victims to death. And with the victims chosen at random, no-one knows who will be next. Least of all Heck…

It seems live forever since I last read a DS Mark Heckenburg novel and so I was beyond thrilled when it was announced that Paul Finch would be returning to this character and I am once again well and truly Hooked on Heck. I have to say that I think Paul is one of the darkest crime writers writing in the UK today, his work at times reminds me of Chris Carter in just how brutal some of his bad guys are, and the ones within the pages of Ashes to Ashes are perhaps some of the worst. He clearly isn't afraid to write about the absolute worst of humanity, but to do so in a totally believable way rather than a sensationalist way.

In Ashes to Ashes we have two bad guys. One is torturer for hire John Sagan, who on the surface is an Average Joe but who in reality drives around in a pimped up caravan, it just so happens that the pimping up has turned the caravan into his very own torture chamber, and it sounds terrifying. Heck is part of the team tracked with following Sagan and hopefully finding this caravan and bringing him to justice, Sagan's not soft though and manages to escape from the police barely leaving Heck alive and the investigation soon finds him returning to a place he thought he would never go back to again, his home town of Bradburn. Bad guy number two is also residing in Bradburn and it's someone who the press has nicknamed The Incinerator because somebody is going around Bradburn setting people on fire, seemingly at random and for no good reason whatsoever. Safe to say that Heck has more than enough to contend with without battling his inner demons at returning to his hometown.

I love Heck. I've said it before and I've said it again but he really is a fantastic character and one that I could never tire reading about. One of my favourite things about him is his relationship with his boss (and ex) Gemma Piper and she comes along for the ride up to Bradburn and once again there's some fantastic scenes between the pair. An author has done their job when everything about two characters is utterly believable, and when the tension between them can be felt on the page with neither of them speaking, just the descriptions from the author. Gemma herself is a fantastic character and the relationship between these two is just so intriguing. He's a police officer that doesn't abide by the rules, but for the most part he has always done it for the right reasons, and for me it says more about the politics of policing and the rules officers must follow rather than Heck just being a tear up the rulebook police officer just for the sake of it. There's always reasons behind why he does what he does and this is what sets him apart from your typical fictional detective who goes renegade just because it's the done thing in this genre.

I love London and often dislike it when an author who has previously set their books there takes their character away to somewhere else. But, Heck's job now sees him moving around the UK and this time around he's returning to Bradburn. Paul's created a fantastic and totally believable setting in Bradburn, it being the kind of place found right across the North of England and it being one of the places that the inhabitants of Manchester push to the back of their minds when they are singing about Scousers signing on when they visit Liverpool and Anfield stadium. It's a gritty setting perfectly imagined for the story that unfolds within, and what an immensely gripping story that is. The scenes following The Incinerator were some of the most uncomfortable to read, and yet I just couldn't take my eyes off the page of read quick enough. It left me wondering just who could have the kind of hatred within them to carry out something like this. In John Sagan also, the reader is left wondering just what type of mind a person could have to torture people in the way that he does. Lucky enough it's up to Heck and not the reader to work all of that out.

Ashes to Ashes isn't a short book, however I absolutely stormed through it and found the pages just flew by. This is because of Paul's ability to really lure you in as a reader, and to hold you there in a vice like grip with some of the best storytelling, and some of the best examples of policing that you will find on the UK crime fiction market today. It should be said that you do need a strong stomach to read this book, and it is an extremely dark and twisted crime novel. But, if you enjoy those types of books then you will love this one. I absolutely loved learning more about Heck's background, and seeing how he manages to deal with these personal issues alongside protecting the public and bringing down some truly nasty individuals. Paul Finch is one of the UK's best crime writers, and despite however many books he sells I still feel like he's quite an underrated author as I know of quite a few crime fans who are yet to pick up one of his books and all I can say to that is you aren't a crime fan until you have read one of Paul's books because they are some of the best you will find within the genre. I absolutely loved this book and my only disappointment was when I reached the end.

A Guest Post from Paul Finch

One question I’m often asked is … what is it like, writing two separate series, in other words, two different lead-characters, both at the same time?

This is particularly relevant at present, because while my previous book, STRANGERS, featured my female police character, PC Lucy Clayburn, ASHES TO ASHES is now out, and that is centred around my male character, DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg. Ironically, of course, while everyone is currently talking about Heck, I myself am writing the next Lucy book. And so it goes on … there is certainly a lot of back-and-forthing between the two of them.

I suppose it’s possible, at first glance, to say that in actual fact there isn’t much difference between Heck and Lucy Clayburn, aside from the gender. They’re both cops, they’re both from the Northwest of England, they both investigate violent crime, their cases often taking them into the heart of urban darkness. But I hope a second glance will prove this to be erroneous. Because once you get into the nitty-gritty, Heck and Lucy are actually very different indeed.

The most obvious gap between them stems from their rank and role within the police force.
Like Lucy, Heck commenced his career in the Greater Manchester Police, but moved down to London after two years. He’s now been in the job 22 years in total, and is a detective sergeant with the National Crime Group, based at Scotland Yard. The National Crime Group are a kind of British FBI, which comprises the Kidnap Squad, the Organised Crime Division and the Serial Crimes Unit. It’s to the latter of these, SCU, that Heck is attached. So, I think we can already see that, though he’s only a sergeant, Heck has reached an elite level of service.

In contrast, Lucy, though she’s eight years younger than Heck, is still in Manchester and is now an 11-year-veteran of the job – no small thing, though most of that time has been spent in uniform. If you read her first book, STRANGERS, you’ll know that she made detective quite early in her career, but made one spectacular mistake during her first week in plain clothes, which almost saw her dismissed from the force altogether. Somehow, she survived that, though it meant she was kicked back into uniform. The disgrace of this incident was difficult to live down, and though she managed to redeem herself by the end of STRANGERS, she’d still only earned enough brownie-points to justify a return to divisional CID at detective constable level. She has no expectation that she’ll ever be promoted in actual rank.

So, Lucy has got a long way to go before she catches up with Heck, and, as a result of this, their day-to-day experience of policework is going to be very different. Heck works exclusively on serial or mass-murder cases, and as part of NCG, has a remit to cover the whole of England and Wales. Lucy, on the other hand, deals with more mundane crime: burglaries, car thefts and assaults in the Crowley division of Manchester, where she grew up as a child and has worked all her career as a cop (though suffice to say that she always eventually manages to find herself pursuing one of the bigger boys – in her brief time in CID so far, Lucy has now taken down a crime syndicate and captured a pair of tag-team serial killers).

All this aside, there is clear blue water between them in terms of the approach I take as author.
When I first set out to write these books, in both cases I intended to produce gritty, hardboiled cop stories, modern day British noirs filled with reprehensible characters and set against difficult urban backdrops. Heck, for whom ASHES TO ASHES, is the sixth outing, has had more time to evolve in that world, and mostly because of the unit he works for, has found himself on the trail of some outlandish criminals, real maniacs with no other purpose than the destruction of modern society. As such, he’s occasionally had no option but to use extreme methods to collar them, and frequently engages in all kinds of derring-do, which, if it wasn’t for the presence of his ex-girlfriend-now-turned-boss, Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper, would have seen him turfed out of the job some time ago.

The upshot is that I often describe the Heck novels as action-thrillers wrapped in police procedural, and judging by the feedback I get from readers, I don’t think that will change.

In contrast, the Lucy novels are more grounded in the everyday. But though Lucy, as a divisional detective, is not automatically assigned to each serious enquiry that comes along – with an ordinary but busy crime-log to work her way though, she has no time for this, often juggling five or six lesser cases all at the same time – she will always, as I’ve already hinted, become involved in major investigations in due course (often by elbowing her way in).

All that said, readers and potential readers must never fear. One thing I do NOT do with either Heck or Lucy is bury them in welters of paperwork. I like authenticity, but too much of it can be boring. I don’t write police textbooks; so even when Lucy is investigating routine crime while waiting to become embroiled in something bigger, I don’t portray her wading through documentation, or sitting in court, yawning, or kicking her heels waiting for solicitors or social workers. No, none of that. Lucy may not lead as action-packed a life as Heck, but she gets in among the villains, at every opportunity. ‘I’m a cop,’ as she often says, ‘not a secretary.’

I suppose the question still stands, though: how is it, writing both Heck and Lucy at roughly the same time?

Well, ultimately it’s pretty straightforward, because I can safely rely on the characters. As I think I’ve intimated already, they’re pretty well drawn, in my mind at least, so they speak for themselves, producing their own dialogue, setting their own pace, and this, to a degree, applies with other characters too. Heck, who, as I say, is six books in, has a cast of old reliables to work alongside him on a regular basis (though there’ll be a couple less after ASHES TO ASHES!). But Lucy, who’s still finding her feet in the world of CID, is a new kid on the block, and so is gradually getting used to a whole new range of colleagues.

But none of that is a problem. If there’s any big issue for me, I suspect it’s the horror and the action.
The Heck books contain both of these in abundance. Reviewers have spoken approvingly about moments of intense tension and terror, and about bone-jarring violence. There are certainly plenty of fights, chases and shoot-outs in Heck, not to mention some (hopefully) blood-chilling encounters with genuinely crazy killers, but then this is what you get when you’re an adversarial character who regularly confronts the worst of the worst.

With Lucy, I consciously try to be more measured, but it can never be the case with either of my cop characters that it risks being formulaic. Lucy may be the less high-octane of the two, but the very last thing I want is to pitch her into mundane investigations that hold no interest. No way; Lucy will also be exposed to that much nastier side of police life, and she will respond to it in her own inimitable (and, with luck, very entertaining) way – if for no other reason that it’s largely the same readership who follow the Heck canon, and they will expect nothing less.

So, it’s a balancing act. And at the end of the day, though I hope this doesn’t sound like too much of a cop out, the readers are going to have to trust me to get it right. Though so far, judging from their responses, I think I’ve managed it.

Paul Finch, April 2017

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