The Undead Blues

18 Oct

Note: This isn’t my usual blog post.  It’s not a review or even an opinion piece.  What it is is a short story.  The first original piece of fiction I’ve written in years.  It came about due to a brief Twitter conversation with author Ben Aaronovitch on coffee, banjos, and zombies (don’t ask!).  Anyway, it created a plot bunny, the result of which is below.  Enjoy.


If you know the Soho/Bloomsbury area at all, you probably know the place.  A dingy little dive tucked away up the sort of back alley no sane person goes down in daylight, let alone after dark.

Me, I’m not sane.  Never have been, and certainly never will be again.  Not after the events I’m about to relate.

It was spectacular autumn day, clear and crisp, with a whisper of wood smoke in the air, which was probably a combination of carbon monoxide and my imagination.  I was looking for coffee, when a blackboard for a new café caught my eye.  The blackboard had an arrow pointing down the alley, so off I trotted in search of coffee.

The café was a little weird.  Dark and gloomy, and liberally decorated with what looked like the remnants of a macabre Victorian museum – stuffed ravens, bejeweled skulls.  That sort of thing.  Still the coffee was good.  Rich and dark and bitter.  I sat close to the door, sipping slowly.

I became aware of someone watching me.  A tall dude, who looked a little like Lurch from the Addams Family.  I watched him out of the corner of my eye and realized that he wasn’t so much watching me, as the instrument bag at my feet.  I’d spent the last couple of hours in the park near the kid’s hospital busking for the staff and the few tourists lurking around.

I turned my head just enough to meet his gaze.

He gestured at the bag.  “What do you play?”  Jeez, the voice was the sort of dark rumble that had women falling over themselves to remove their knickers.

I took a sip of my coffee, stalling for time.  People usually have one of two reactions when I mention what instrument I play: they’re either deeply embarrassed or they snigger.

“Banjo.  I play the banjo.”

The big fella’s face contorted into a rictus that took me a moment to realize was a grin.  “Banjo.  We need a banjo player for the band.”


“Oh yes.  Can’t play blues without a banjo, so the maestro says.”

“The maestro?”

“Mmmm.  I think you should come and meet him.  Now.”  Why did that feel like an order rather than a suggestion?

I drank the last of my coffee, and got to my feet, hoisting my instrument bag over my shoulder.  Lurch lead the way into the bowels of the place.  I use the word advisedly.  It was dark, fetid, and vaguely damp.

At the end of a long corridor, he stopped before a heavy, iron bound, oak door and knocked.  From within came a murmur of assent.  He pushed the door open as if it was as light as a feather and ushered me into the room.

A large, polished, oak desk dominated the furnishings.  The rest of the room was dominated by the occupant.  Nearly as tall as my escort, he had auburn curls, vaguely cat like grey eyes that glinted unpleasantly, and the sort of wide smile that made me want to find a very tall tree to climb.

“And who is this, Herbert?”

Herbert?  Herbert?  That couldn’t possibly be Lurch’s name!

“He’s a banjo player, Maestro.”

“Banjo, mmm?”  Why did that sound like a purr?  And why was I starting to sweat?

“What is your name, banjo player?”


“Benjamin who?”

“Just Benjamin will do.”  There was no way on earth that I was given this guy my name.  That felt like a really bad idea.

Well, Just Benjamin, how would you like to join our little blues band?  It would be worth your while.”


“Why don’t you join us tonight for a try out?  If we are mutually suited, you can join the regular line up?”

I really couldn’t find a reason not to agree, so I found myself shaking his rather cold hand, and agreeing to be back at the café at 10pm, ready to go on at 11.

Ten o’clock that night found me in a smallish room behind the little stage that I hadn’t noticed, due to the gloomy nature of the décor.  There was the maestro on guitar, Herbert on drums, a tall lanky git named Tom who played the hammered dulcimer, a petite blonde chick named Mary who played the fiddle, and me on banjo.

We worked our way through a selection of blues standards: ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, ‘Catfish Blues’, ‘Dust My Broom’, ‘Little Red Rooster’, ‘Key to the Highway’, ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’, finishing off with ‘The Thrill Has Gone’.  The maestro and I even managed a pretty good bash at ‘Dueling Banjos’ for the cheering audience.  Not a bad mix, and a pretty good gig for a group of musicians I hadn’t played with before.

Tom gave me a wide grin when we finished.  “I hope you’re joining us.  That was a blast.”  Mary nodded her assent and winked at me.

After we’d packed up, the maestro gestured for me to accompany him back to his office.  Herbert came along behind.  I was starting to feel like dead man walking.

In the office, the maestro indicated I should sit in the chair in front of the desk.  He sat on the other side of the desk and smiled at me.  “Well, Benjamin, I would say that was very satisfactory.  I think you should consider joining our little ensemble.”

I murmured something polite.

“There is only one drawback that I can see.”

“And what’s that?”

The smile grew hungry.  “You’re human.”

I tried to laugh it off.  “And you’re not?”

“None of us are.  Tom is a fire demon, and Mary is a succubus.  Herbert here…” he gestured to the hulk guarding the door, “…is a zombie.”

I blinked at him.  Bonkers.  Completely stark, raving, bonkers.  He kept talking, never taking his eyes off me.  “Herbert wants to turn you into a zombie.  Contrary to popular opinion, however, banjo players do need their brains, so allowing him to lobotomize you for supper doesn’t suit my purpose.”

I managed a nervous laugh.  It sounded more like a slightly hysterical squeak.  “Where does that leave me then?”

The maestro’s smile suddenly grew fangs – literally.  “My supper.”  I shrank back in the chair in horror.  Eyes wide with terror, unable to move, trapped like a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming lorry.  His face filled my vision.  “This won’t take long.”

I screamed and the world went black.

I don’t drink coffee much these days.  Type O, now, that’s my drink of choice.

A Study in Sable

16 Oct

In “A Study in Sable” by Mercedes Lackey, Sarah Lyon-White and Nan Killan, a medium and a mind reader attached to the White Lodge, are assigned by Lord Ashcroft to assist a gentleman who resides at 221 Baker Street.  Not Sherlock Holmes, but John Watson, Water Elemental Master, and his wife, Mary, an Air Elemental Master.  They handle the magical cases that Holmes refuses to touch.

But when one of John and the ladies cases intersects with one of Sherlock’s cases, then the great Sherlock Holmes gets a lesson in improbable versus impossible, and finds out that, really, very little is truly impossible.

Wonderfully written.  Holmes and Watson are not out of character.  Even as an Elemental Master, Watson is still Watson.  Solid and down to earth.

The story fairly bounces along.  You don’t need to be familiar with Mercedes’ “Elemental Masters” series, as she makes enough references for the general reader to grasp how the world works and who the characters are.  I had read a couple of the series years ago, but am now enthused to go and read them all.

I got “A Study in Sable” from my library, but I will now be sourcing a copy for my Sherlock Holmes collection.

Highly recommended to all lovers of urban fantasy, Victoriana, and Sherlock Holmes.

Marvel 1602

9 Oct

“Marvel 1602” written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Andy Kubert is my first graphic novel…and the word graphic is used advisedly.  The novel is set during the last days of Elizabeth I and into the reign of James I.  As torture and execution were common, Neil Gaiman has not shied away from this aspect of the times.

The premise is that something has brought the Marvel universe into being 400 years too early.  The cause has to be found and reversed before the universe is destroyed.  Leading this is Dr Stephen Strange, court magician and physician to Elizabeth I, and her “intelligencer”, Sir Nicholas Fury.  These two are the principal characters, but others rotate in and out, to greater and lesser degrees.

Needless to say, when Elizabeth dies, everything goes to hell in a hand basket.  One thing I did like was the way Neil Gaiman picked up on James’ nasty hypocrisy.  Executing witches for “heresy” whilst chasing pretty young men into his bedchamber.

I grew up on a steady diet of DC’s Wonder Woman, and Marvel’s Doctor Strange (with a little Thor and Loki thrown in), so many of the characters I am only familiar with from recent movies.

You will have fun picking out who’s who.  Some of them are obvious, and others are a little more subtle.

Neil Gaiman’s love of Norse mythology shines through in places too.   There was a somewhat blatant analogy to the oracular head Mirmir.

Fantastic story, with all of Gaiman’s flair and verve, and Kubert’s illustrations were brilliant.

Highly recommended to both history geeks and Marvel geeks.

Sisters of Treason

3 Oct

I will state right now that Philippa Gregory has SERIOUS competition.  Elizabeth Fremantle is by far the best historical fiction writer I have come across in years.

In “Sisters of Treason” Elizabeth Fremantle tells the story of Lady Jane Grey’s two younger sisters, Katherine and Mary.  Katherine, who was a serious contender as Elizabeth I’s heir, and Mary, who suffered the curse of the Plantagenet’s, scoliosis, are often ignored by historical fiction writers in favour of their cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.

Interwoven with the story of the Grey sisters is that of artist Levina Teerlinc, a reknowned miniaturist whose work is held in the V&A, amongst other places.

Katherine and Mary are interestingly portrayed.  Katherine as a woman lead by her emotions, and Mary, as one lead by her intellect.  Indeed, from what we know of Mary, she was considered as precocious a scholar as her older sister Jane and her cousin Elizabeth.

Both women lived their lives in the shadow of both their father and sister’s treason, and the displeasure and distrust of their cousin Elizabeth.
Beautifully written and enthralling, Elizabeth Fremantle is a writer to watch.  I’ve read two of her books, and am keen to get my hands on her other two (all she has written – so far).

Highly recommended to all lovers of historical fiction.

The Missing and The Dead

2 Oct

“The Missing and the Dead” is the first book by Stuart MacBride that I have read.  It will not be the last.

In his protagonist, Logan McCrae, MacBride has created a very interesting character.  An Acting Detective Inspector for four years, he’s back in uniform as sergeant and posted to the arse end of nowhere in Scotland.  The body of a little girl washes up, and all kinds of hell is let loose, and various serious crime squads, and McCrae’s former boss, DCI Roberta Steele, all converge on the area.

This is a very in depth book for a police procedural, almost 600 pages!  But it is damn near un-put-downable.  As well as the major crimes, we get a look at Scottish regional policing at its down and dirtiest.  There are wonderful supporting characters in the form of Janet, Deano, and Tufty – MacRae’s little team of hapless coppers.

It is rare for a novel like this to have more than a few moment of levity, but Stuart MacBride captures the dark, twisted, nature of the cop sense of humour perfectly.  I literally laughed until I cried on many occasions.

A gorgeous gem of a novel.  I look forward to extending my acquaintance with Stuart MacBride’s work.

New Sherlock Holmes Xmas story

23 Sep

Another delicious new book of Sherlock Holmes stories to look forward to.

Mortal words

mx-anthology-xmas-adventuresI’m delighted to announce that I have another short story coming out this year. What’s more, it’s in a Sherlock Holmes anthology that is raising funds for a school housed in Arthur Conan Doyle’s old home, Undershaw.

The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories Part V: Christmas Adventures is the latest anthology from MX Publishing. The book is, as the name implies, the newest of the MX anthology series containing trraditional, canon-era adventures, with sale proceeds all going to support the Stepping Stones school for children with learning difficulties. (This means that I and my fellow writers have waived payment to ensure the maximum funds go to this project.)

The anthology is edited by well-known Holmesian writer, David Marcum, and its contributors include Wendy C. Fries (author of The Day They Met), Denis O. Smith and James Lovegrove, with forwards by Jonathan Kellerman and Steve Emecz, among others.

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Queen’s Gambit

18 Sep

Historical fiction set in the Tudor period is pretty much the main stay of historical fiction, so it takes something pretty special to catch my eye.

“Queen’s Gambit” by Elizabeth Fremantle is special.  A look at Henry VIII’s final queen, Catherine Parr.

It’s a very different look at the woman who survived Henry’s machinations.

Different, but, given the times, not unbelievable.

Elizabeth Fremantle has created fairly strong characters.  Catherine Parr and Dr Robert Huicke stand out very strongly.  I think this is the first historical novel I’ve read where Huicke has been more than simply been a name mentioned in passing.

A lot of the story swings on the character of Dorothy Fownten (Dorothy Fountain) who did exist and was a waiting woman to Catherine since her days as Lady Latymer.

Many Tudor historicals are male focused, which is fair, because it was a male dominated time period, but “Queen’s Gambit” is a book about strong women.

Highly readable and highly recommended.

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