Monthly Archives: May 2016

John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps

Last year marked the centenary of the first book publication of John Buchan’s classic thriller. I blogged on the book itself on March 19th 2015 in celebration. But I want to recommend to you a quite excellent book about the background and genesis of The Thirty Nine Steps, which I’ve really enjoyed reading.

The title is John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps – An Exploration by John Burnett and Kate Mackay, published by National Museums Scotland.

If you enjoy reading Buchan as much as I do, you’ll love this book. The authors begin with a brief biography of Buchan himself, before examining the thriller in considerable detail, looking at the book’s origins, describing the events within chapter by chapter – there are spoilers here, so I would recommend that you read the thriller first if it’s new to you.

If you’ve ever thought of writing your own thriller you’ll find this book quite inspirational; it takes you on a journey across the Galloway and Borders landscape through which Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay escapes his enemies, look at the characters of the various Scots he meets on the way, takes an in-depth look at the way disguise is used in the novel, and investigates pre-Great War espionage and its links with the chase thriller.

There are a number of nods in the direction of other Buchan thrillers as well, so the devotee of his work will find much of value here.

John Buchan is only now getting the reputation he deserves as an important writer of Scottish fiction. It is good to see the appearance of books like this which examine his work with such readable scholarship.

To order a copy please click on the link below:






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Researching Balmoral Kill

I always like to root my plots and characters in a real landscape whenever that is possible. I might alter it, fictionalise it, or just change the odd feature – but I like to start with a reality. And at some point in my fiction I like to use an actual place I know, walk around it and imagine my characters playing out their adventures upon it.

Loch Muick (c) John Bainbridge 2015

I always knew, right from the beginning, that my Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest would come to a dramatic conclusion on Holkham Beach in Norfolk. And I knew that the final duel between my hero and villain in Balmoral Kill would have to be in some remote spot in the Cairngorms, though within easy reach of the royal residence of Balmoral Castle.

But I wasn’t sure where.

In all my Scottish stravaiging I had never been to Loch Muick (pronounced without the u), though I had read about it in my numerous Scottish books and looked at it on the map. It seemed an ideal location for the conclusion of a thriller.

Glas-Allt-Shiel House (c) John Bainbridge 2015

So the summer when I was writing the book, when we were staying in Ballater, we walked up to take a look, circling the loch and examining the wild mountains and tumbling rivers round about. Plotting a gunfight (even a fictional one) takes some care. I wanted it to be as probable and realistic as possible. This is, after all, a book about experienced assassins. I wanted the line of sight of every rifle to be exact.

We also had to check out the hills around. Both my hero and villain are great walkers and “walk-in” to places where they expect to see some action

And a beautiful wild place Loch Muick is. It was a favourite picnicking place of Queen Victoria, who used to linger for days on end at the lonely house of Glas-Allt-Shiel, in mourning for her beloved Prince Albert. Today’s royal family picnic there even now. The house is as I describe it in the book, as is the surrounding scenery. Believe me, I checked out those sightlines. Every shot described in the book could be taken in reality. Even now when I think of that loch and the Corrie Chash above it, I think of my characters being there. Sometimes they are all very real to me.

Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

We also revisited Balmoral Castle (actually they only let you into the ballroom!), strolled through its grounds and examined the countryside round about. I was able to work out the exact routes taken by all of the characters who found themselves on the shores of Loch Muick on a late summer day in 1937.

Other areas of Scotland feature in the book too. I partly fictionalised the places I used in the Scottish Borders, though those scenes are based on the many walks I’ve done around Peebles, the Broughton Heights and Manorwater. In one flashback scene in the Highlands I have a character journey from Taynuilt and out on to the mighty twin peaks of Ben Cruachan, and then into the glens beyond, to kill a man in Glen Noe. Some years ago I did a lot of walking in that area and had considerable pleasure in reliving my journeys as I penned those scenes.

Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

The book begins in London and journeys into the East End. I’ve walked the streets and alleys of Whitechapel, Stepney and Limehouse by day and night over the years. Balmoral Kill is set in 1937, so there has been a great deal of change in nearly eighty years. The East End was very badly bombed in the War and thoughtless planners have destroyed a lot more. But enough remains to give you the picture. Once more, I could take you in the steps of my characters through every inch of the places mentioned.

Very often going to these locations inspires changes to the writing. Balmoral Kill was half-written by the time we explored Loch Muick. The real-life topography of the place inspired me to make several changes to the novel’s conclusion.

And now I’m writing an historical novel set in the 1190s. The landscape where it is set has changed very considerably in the centuries since. So more imagination is needed, though I still try to root my scenes in reality.

As a walker as well as a writer I find going on research trips is the best way to conjure up locations with the written word.

If you haven’t yet read Balmoral Kill please do give it a try. It’s out now in paperback as well as in eBook form on Kindle. I’d be pleased to know what you think of it. And if you ever do get the chance do take the journey from Ballater up to Loch Muick. It’s well worth while.

Click on the link below to read Balmoral Kill.


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Josephine Tey’s “The Singing Sands”


It must be forty years since I last read one of Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant novels, and thought it would be interesting to look at one of them again. The Singing Sands is a brilliant if flawed detective story; not that that matters to me, for the brilliance of the writing much outweighs the flaws. It was one of the last pieces of writing Tey undertook, and was published in the year she died, 1952. There is a somewhat elegiac feel to the whole piece.

It is not a detective story in the conventional sense. Alan Grant is on leave suffering from stress and claustrophobia. The suggestion is that this is from overwork, though there are references to his time in World War Two.

Grant, on his way by the overnight sleeper train to a fishing holiday in Scotland, witnesses the discovery of the body of a man called Charles Martin. Martin has apparently fallen and banged his head in his compartment. As this appears to be an accidental death, Grant wanders away, not realising that he has picked up the dead man’s newspaper, on which are scribbled a verse of geographic clues.

But as he tries to enjoy his holiday, the words of the verse play on his mind. He begins to discover the background of the dead man, but is he who everyone believes him to be?

And what are the geographic clues in the verse? What are the singing sands?

In descriptive Scottish scenes worthy of John Buchan, Grant goes to the Hebrides in search of a solution. Some of the novel’s best writing is here. You get a real feeling of just how a Scottish island would have been in the years immediately after the war. Tey’s feeling for the Scottish landscape is superbly presented.

When Grant returns to London he finds out a great deal about the past of the dead man. All is not what it seems, for the dead man seems to have a double-past.

And was Charles Martin’s death on the train accident or murder? I won’t say anymore because I think this is a detective story you should read for yourself. And Tey, as we witness in some of her other books, is quite skilled at bending the rules of detective fiction to achieve her effects.

If the solution to the mystery didn’t quite work for me, I’m not that bothered. The journey was vastly entertaining and Tey is quite a page-turner.

The Singing Sands is not up there with her very great classics such as Brat Farrer and The Franchise Affair, but it is a terrifically atmospheric read, and her descriptions of the Scottish landscape and people are quite beautifully executed.

Well worth reading.

To order a copy click on the link below:




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Writing the Second William Quest Novel

A couple of years ago I wrote the first adventure of a Victorian vigilante called William Quest, a gentleman adventurer with a swordstick who seeks to right wrongs and even up the injustices of society.

William Quest has pleased me by his popularity and the book has achieved good sales, not only in his home country but in the USA and several other lands around the world.

A big thank you to everyone who’s bought a copy, told friends about it and left reviews on the online sites. If you’ve enjoyed the book and haven’t left a review on the online sales site please do. Every good review helps with sales.

At the moment I’m writing the sequel. Hopefully it should be out in about August. There will be several more William Quest adventures, all being well.

The new book doesn’t yet have a title, though it will certainly be ‘the something of William Quest.’  Normally I get the title for my books quite early on, or at least a working title. Sometimes, the title is the first thing that actually comes along, inspiring the whole plot. But this new Quest is proving difficult. At the moment he’s filed as “Quest the Second”.

I gave away virtually the whole of Mr Quest’s back story in the first novel, explaining why he decided to take the law into his own hands, fighting for truth and justice and so on. So in the new book we start with a completely clean slate.

Many of the characters from ‘Shadow’ make a re-appearance, and there are a number of villains waiting to be vanquished.

There was also going to be another major character, dominating a sub-plot of the novel. I wrote a number of scenes with this character, before realising he’d wandered into the wrong novel. And yet those thousands of words written are not wasted. This character will encounter William Quest – just not yet.

“The Shadow of William Quest” had multiple settings – London, Norfolk and Hope Down, and covered quite a period of time. But the new Quest will be set entirely in a very dark and sinister London, over just a few weeks, as Quest faces some very deadly enemies. Danger is lurking down by the Thames, and not just in the rookeries of London.

So do follow this blog for updates.forgotten_00051-Kindle-Fina

And if you haven’t read the first William Quest novel here’s the link…





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The Durable Desperadoes

The Durable Desperadoes by William Vivian Butler

William Vivian Butler’s classic account of what I call “Rogue Literature” has always been a great favourite of mine, and I’ve just enjoyed a re-read.

The Durable Desperadoes are those rascals of crime and thriller literature who operate on both sides of the law, though always with an innate sense of  justice – often standing up for the weak and vulnerable, righting wrongs, and persecuting the powerful who prey on the dispossessed, i.e. other crooks without such a moral compass.

Think of Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar-the Saint, John Creasey’s John Mannering, alias the Baron, Bruce and Roderick Graeme’s Blackshirt and you are in the right literary territory.

Those are probably the best and most remembered examples, though William Vivian Butler draws his net wider, right back to E.W. Hornung’s Raffles, Edgar Wallace’s “Four Just Men”, Sexton Blake, and Sapper’s politically dubious Bulldog Drummond.

Interestingly, the best examples had the heyday in the 1920s and 30s, those two increasingly frenetic decades between the two World Wars, when society seemed to welcome heroes who went slightly off the rails.

This book is also a scintillating account about how writers prospered and became famous, starting out almost as penny a line authors for magazines such as Thriller, before finding fame, glory and bestseller status across the world.

Leslie Charteris dropped out of Cambridge and created several characters before getting the Saint just right – though, as Mr Butler shows – his character Simon Templar evolved as the decades went on. Personally, I like the earliest Saint adventures best of all, when he was more a devil-may-care though charming villain, who occasionally kills greater villains who have crossed the line.

Although the public loved the Saint from the very beginning, Mr Butler shows how Charteris struggled financially until he took himself and his creation to America. The Saint became a phenomenon, resulting in several Hollywood movies and a much-loved television series.

But perhaps the best example, dealt with at some length in this book, is the writer John Creasey, creator of the Toff and the Baron, as well as numerous other characters. Creasey was a writing phenomenon who would often pen a couple of full-length novels in a week.

Yes, in a week.

In the year 1937 alone, he produced some 27 novels, not just crime and detective stories but romances, juvenile fiction, westerns, action novels and… it’s hard to believe. I’ve recently re-read some of the novels featuring the Baron. There are no signs whatsoever of this pace of writing. Creasey was such a master of his craft. The characters are richly-drawn, the plotting superb, the writing standard excellent.

Despite already having created the Toff, Creasey was on the dole in the 1930s when he wrote the first Baron story “Meet the Baron”. He was working as a temporary Christmas postman, and had written the first 5000 words in the hope of entering the story in a competition to ‘find a new Raffles’.

He forgot about it. Only on Christmas Day did he remember that the deadline was just six days away. So he sat down and wrote the remaining 75,000 words in that time and won the competition.

For those of us who struggle to get up to a couple of thousand words of fiction in a day it’s almost unbelievable. And Creasey maintained this pace for much of his writing career, even though his bestseller status removed the financial need to do so.

There are other heroes featured at some length in Mr Butler’s book, though they have sadly gone out of fashion. There is Blackshirt, (nothing to do with the British Union of Fascists) created by literary agent Bruce Graeme, a cracksman very much in the Raffles tradition. When Bruce Graeme retired from penning his yarns, his son Roderick took over giving the character a post-war new lease of life.

There is Norman Conquest, the creation of Berkeley Gray (Edwy Searles Brooks), slightly in the Saint tradition, known to his pals, obviously, as 1066.

Mr Butler shows how these creations led up a certain Mr James Bond.

“The Durable Desperadoes” is a wonderfully readable and inspiring book, especially for those of us trying to create Desperadoes of our own, every page filled with humour and sympathy.

A terrific introduction to this engaging sub-genre of the crime thriller novel. Sadly, “The Durable Desperadoes” is out of print, though copies are available through online retailers. It would be wonderful if some enterprising publisher made it available once more.

Click on the link below to find a copy…




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Writing A Revenge Thriller

Writing a Revenge Thriller

by John Bainbridge

When you think about it a large proportion of published thrillers are about revenge. It is one of the great sub-genres of fiction. Vengeance is a considerable motivating force. And the quest to mete out vengeance keeps many a reader turning the page.

forgotten_00051The need to seek revenge is an unpleasant but undeniable human instinct. Turning the other cheek might be the best real-life policy, but it simply won’t do in a thriller. The Bible tells us that “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay.”

Admirable, but not quite what thriller readers want to hear.

I was amused at a recent Amazon review of my Victorian thriller “The Shadow of William Quest”. The reviewer suggested he had seen it all so many times before. The poor boy making his way in the world and seeking retribution against those who had crossed him.


Too right you have, chum! That was the whole point of my Quest novel.

I deliberately set out to write a book in this very sub-genre of revenge thrillers. That’s what my William Quest book is really all about. It’s not for nothing my anti-hero is called William Quest. I was gratified that the reviewer saw, and mentioned in his review, that it was Bruce Wayne and Batman territory. A terrific compliment to be mentioned in the same sentence.

Remember Batman? Bruce Wayne, a young lad at the time, sees his parents gunned down in an alley. When he grows up he becomes the caped crusader imposing his own version of justice on sundry villains.

In a nutshell there you have the basic plot of a revenge thriller. It might be as blatant as Batman or rather more subtle.

Geoffrey Household’s classic thriller “Rogue Male”, opens with the unnamed hero in  Germany, aiming his rifle at Adolf Hitler. The first-person narrator describes his actions throughout much of the book as a ‘sporting stalk’ – to see if he can get away with it. He even denies ever intending to take the shot. Only later do we discover the revenge thriller aspect. That he had every intention of shooting. And that he has a good reason for doing so. In his later novel “The Watcher in the Shadows”, Household twists the whole premise around by telling the whole tale from the point of view of the victim of the avenger, a novel and very exciting twist. Another neglected novel well worth seeking out.

Even going back to medieval ballads, we have Robin Hood. Why is he in the greenwood as an outlaw? Because the Norman overlords have put him there because of their harsh laws. Much of the rest of the stories of the famous wolfshead are about his quest for vengeance. My Robin Hood novels “Loxley” and “Wolfshead” certainly are.

The motivations in the modern revenge thriller are manifold. The hero, or very often the anti-hero, might be fighting back for very personal reasons. Someone has wiped out his family, or launched a war of attrition against him personally. Or he might be what I call a second-person revenger, where he seeks vengeance or at least intervention for something that’s happening to somebody else, but where he is emotionally or politically engaged.

My William Quest might take up the armed struggle of vengeance to settle personal scores, but he then goes on to recognise that there are other victims in society who might benefit from having an avenger on their side. One of my American reviewers kindly mentioned Rafael Sabatini’s “Scaramouche” as well as Baroness Orczy’s “Scarlet Pimpernel” novels when trying to describe my Quest novel. I was very flattered at such comparisons.

“Scaramouche” is a wonderful example of the revenge thriller. It might technically be an historical novel, but at its roots it is one hell of a thriller. Set just before the French Revolution Andre-Louis Moreau is set on the path of vengeance by the murder of a friend by a decadent aristocrat who just happens to be the finest swordsman in France. He swears revenge. And then spends much of the book getting himself into a position where he might strike back at his adversary, and solving the knotty problem of just exactly how you teach yourself to cross swords with such a noted duellist. It’s all cracking stuff, a real page-turner by a novelist who is sadly neglected these days. It’s worth reading as it demonstrates quite admirably the plot-structure of the revenge novel, whether you describe it as a thriller or not.

And the avenger can very successfully be a woman, and the plot domestic. A great example is Magdalen Vanstone in Wilkie Collins’ classic novel “No Name”. Here the need for vengeance comes from the the unfair laws on illegitimacy that prevailed at the time. Collins was the master of the Sensation Novel. Thrillers have deep roots in those Victorian Sensation novels.

The Victorian novelist Charles Reade suggested that the great plot-line of most fiction should be along the lines of ‘Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait!’

And if you want a thriller to work you need to build up very slowly to the final vengeance, the bloody denouement. That doesn’t mean that the novel should be devoid of conflict up to that point. There have to be lots of other minor conflicts, near-misses, moments when the tables are turned. Times when those who are targeted by the avenger come close to removing – usually violently – the avenger himself.

In a way I made this easier for myself in “The Shadow of William Quest” by making Quest a kind of social functionary, taking on the evils – and the evil – of society on behalf of a wider and persecuted population. He only gets near to his real quarry at the end of the book. Though there are run-ins long before that.

And as my novel is set in the 1850s, we don’t have to bother very much with the constraints of political correctness. This was the age of sword-sticks, lead-weighted life-preservers, bludgeons, coshes, and great hulking walking canes of hard-wood and blackthorn. Society was unsafe. People rarely travelled into the sinister hinterlands of Victorian England without some form of protection. My William Quest has quite an armoury at his disposal.

Believe me, he needs every last weapon!

I’m currently writing the second William Quest novel, which will be out later in the year. Having devoted much of the first to the genre of the revenge novel, I’m aiming to go even further in the new one. I always have liked thrillers where the hunter becomes the hunted. Which is all I’ll say about it at the moment.

But to conclude, I would just like to make the case of the revenge thriller being an important sub-genre of the thriller as such. Revenge is a dish best served cold? Maybe, at least for a while in the pages of your novel. The dish best served cold builds up both the tension and the excitement.

So that when the cold revenge becomes the hot revenge, the thrills burst out of the page.

If you haven’t read “The Shadow of William Quest” yet it’s out in paperback and on Kindle.

And – as a special offer – I’ve reduced the price on Kindle to just 99 pence/cents for the next week only. So do please click on the link and take a look…


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The False Inspector Dew by Peter Lovesey

Peter Lovesey is one of my all-time favourite crime writers. A truly exceptional talent, one of his many strengths is his versatility. Formulaic is the last word you could apply to his novels and given the nature of the genre – detective must find murderer – that’s quite a trick. Equally brilliant in writing period and contemporary crime, series and stand-alones, Peter Lovesey brings a fresh approach to every novel.

The False Inspector Dew is probably his most famous stand-alone. Published in 1982 it won the CWA Gold Dagger and is listed in The Times’ 100 Best Crime Novels of the 20th Century. This novel has one of the cleverest plots I’ve ever read and re-reading it recently has been a delight.

Set in 1921, this is the story of Alma Webster who reads Ethel M. Dell and dreams of romance. When she falls for Walter Baranov, a meek, married dentist, the scene is set for the murder of his wife. Meanwhile we meet a cast of intriguing, believable characters from all walks of life who will converge on the five-day sailing of R.M.S. Mauretania from Southampton to New York.

The novel is loosely inspired by the capture of Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve by the real Inspector Walter Dew, as they attempted to escape by ship to Canada in 1910. It has a vivid sense of place and the details of the Atlantic crossing are very well-researched. They’re interesting to me as my Grandad served on the Mauretania, reminiscing of ‘her’ as one of his favourite ships. With this particularly enclosed setting, the novel reminds me of a play.

The writing captures the authentic feel of a Golden Age yarn or a Hollywood talkie. The dialogue is witty and stylish and there’s a lovely sense of fun about the whole deadly caper. You feel that Peter Lovesey was thoroughly enjoying himself and that shines through this wonderful homage.  He sends up the whole business of being a detective – although when murder occurs on board and Walter is mistaken for the real Inspector Dew, he turns out to be rather good at investigating his own plot.

Written in short chapters, this novel races along with a series of Lovesey’s trademark brilliant twists. He shuffles readers’ expectations like a card-sharp, one of the many reasons I love his books. If you enjoy period crime, The False Inspector Dew is simply a masterpiece.


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