Sandman, the conspiracy of outcasts

Sandman review Charlie Laidlaw2

Just off the genteel Quakers Walk weaving its way amongst rolling fields towards Devizes’ White Horse sprawled upon Roundway Hill, a timid narrow footpath dives into a deep wood. The path is frequented by shady individuals: most of them skinny and unkempt, dressed in threadbare garments, looking older than their actual years due to what one would describe as falling on hard luck.

I once followed that path. It took me down a slippery slope and across a lazy stream towards a well-camouflaged network of under-the-scarp caves. Their existence was betrayed by rugs flapping in entrances and sheets of corrugated iron wedged on top of them. There were also signs of a campsite, a stack of firewood and a few empty bottles and drugs paraphernalia scattered around. The place had a distinct vibe of alienation, depravity and wretchedness about it. It was the homeless’ colony.

In the bushes not far from the path, I heard grunting noises. A quick reconnaissance revealed a couple engaging in the act of fornication. Out in the open! In broad daylight! Those were my first indignant reactions to what I was witnessing. Later on however, upon further reflection, I concluded that I couldn’t really expect the homeless to go and get a room, could I?

That god-forsaken place would a few years later make a perfect setting for Sandman. Haji had to find a hiding place, hole up in there and stay under the radar for days. He had to hide in plain view. He had to blend in. He had to look like he belonged. An Afghan outsider in an alien land, he could not book a hotel in the city or waltz into a quaint village pub in search of low-key accommodation. But he could sit around a campfire with a bunch of like-minded outcasts, and look like he was one of them. They were as disenfranchised as he was. The pariah status was his and their common denominator.

But was their shared existence on the outer perimeter of respectable society enough to give them strength in togetherness – well, let’s see…

Sandman is out tomorrow, 11th April 2019, the fourth instalment in the DI Marsh crime series.

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Inside the mind of a cold-blooded killer

Sandman (1)

When I decided that the hero – or rather anti-hero – of my next book would be a terrorist who crosses the width of the earth to inflict death and destruction on the West, I knew I had a tough nut to crack: getting into his head.

I didn’t want to make it easy for myself. It would be all too simple to blame it on the radicalisation of some hapless 16-year old by the social media frenzy. I wanted my villain to have a past, a life before he died inside, a background in the shape of a nation, a country and its history. I didn’t want a brain-washed, new-born fundamentalist or a convert who would need some external, divine intervention in order to grow his own backbone.

So, I found 60-year old Haji, an Afghan veteran of the Soviet War, a scientist educated in the best schools in Moscow, an agnostic, a man open to western values, a rational man, an artist, a family man. You could say, I found a good and ordinary man who turned to terrorism before my eyes. And now, I had to give him reason and credibility. I hope I succeeded on some level.

A lot of research has gone into Sandman. I knew of course first-hand of the effect Soviet rule had on all its satellite countries, of the oppression and the tight grip they had on their neighbours’ politics, security and people’s everyday lives. But I didn’t know the unique Afghan perspective: its rich religious, ethnic and historical tapestry. So, I read all I could about that country and I learned, and I was amazed. It is astonishing how little we, the so-called fat cats of the West, know of any other place on this planet! We are dangerously Eurocentric, and to survive, we have to reach out and find out how the other half lives. But that’s just a small reflection.

Going back to my research for Sandman, I must acknowledge a brilliant book by Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy, the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89. Without it, Sandman would be a shallow puddle of guesswork.

Sandman is due for publication on 11th April 2019. It is ready to pre-order on Amazon and with the Publisher, Accent Press.

“The Woman in Black” by Susan Hill

It is only appropriate that I should look at a ghost story on this stormy Halloween evening. I understand that both a West End play and a film with Daniel Radcliffe (also known as Harry Potter) have been made, based on this book. I have seen neither of them though I can imagine how the book may lend itself to adaptation for stage or, even more so, for a cinematographic recreation. Especially if special effects come into play.

The story is about a young solicitor, Arthur Kipps, travelling to a remote, derelict house on the outskirts of a God-forsaken little town surrounded by marshes, in order to sort out the affairs of his firm’s deceased client, Mrs Drablow. Something sinister hangs in the air even before he sees the apparition of a black-clad woman. The locals are afraid to talk about her. There is a conspiracy of silence. And fear. When Arthur gets cut off the rest of the world whilst working alone in Mrs Drablow’s house, the haunting intensifies. A chair rocks relentlessly in one of the rooms. The woman crosses his path at a cemetary. Then, in the thickest of the night, he hears the distressed sound of a drowning pony and screams of a child.

Susan Hill builds up the atmosphere with skill. She has a gothic touch. She knows the tools of horror writing: the air of secrecy, the hapless locals, an empty old house and some great tragedy lingering in the background. What I would like to see more of is the characters of the people inovlved in the ghostly affair to be more indepth, more developed. I want to know them better. I want to know them, not just the man who, randomly and irrelevantly, happens to be in the house and happens to be haunted. On the other hand, perhaps the mystery of those characters is what a good ghost story is all about?

Finally, to the ending. I won’t reveal it in case there are still people out there who have not read or seen “The Woman in Black”, but I will say that the ending, for me, was the weakest point. There was no vindication. No reason for what happened in the end. Again, it was random and unjustified and so, I felt no compassion for those affected by the original tragedy.

Overall, a decent 3 stars out of 5. A book you could read under the covers in just one single night, especially when it is raining and the tide is high.