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Book Review- They’re Watching by Gregg Hurwitz

Whether it’s on the right or wrong side of the law I prefer my crime story protagonists to have some experience with crime. If they don’t know how to handle themselves in a fight or come up with strategic solutions to problems I’m usually not interested. So I’m not a fan of the crime and noir stories that involve everyday people who become ensnared in dark and disturbing plots. Gregg Hurwitz’s latest thriller “They’re Watching” is one of those types of tales though and I’ve enjoyed the writer’s work on the Marvel Comics series “Vengeance of the Moon Knight”and the ABC television series “V”. Hurwitz has also written nine other crime and thriller novels and I always meant to give those a try. So I decided to pick up “They’re Watching” and see what it was like. I’m glad I did.

“They’re Watching” is a first person narrative told from the point of view of Patrick Davis, a man whose dream job and dream marriage have recently been taken from him. Davis was a screenwriter on the verge of his big break in Hollywood when the actions of a temperamental star got him blacklisted. Now he’s eking out a living by teaching the art of screenwriting at a small college. That same star also orchestrated an incident that sent Patrick’s marriage off the rails and onto the rocks.

When “They’re Watching” begins Patrick’s already shook up world gets tossed around even further by the arrival of some mysterious DVDs. The DVDs are of Patrick and his wife. They’re being watched by shadowy enemies. Those enemy wants Patrick to do some jobs and it quickly becomes clear that they have the power enforce their will on Patrick. During the course of one job Patrick finds himself on the wrong side of the law and suddenly he has to deal with both the cops and his enigmatic assailants. In order to break free from his faceless adversaries, clear his name, and save his wife Patrick will have to call upon the friends he still has and a sense of cunning he’s not sure he possesses.

In the first half of “They’re Watching” Hurwitz really succeeds at creating a complex, shadowy, and scary mystery. At first you don’t know the true agenda of the people watching Patrick and Hurwitz keeps you guessing right along with his protagonist. It made the early portion of the book a highly compelling read. The scenes where Patrick went on missions for his faceless enemies were full of fun tension. I truly felt like almost anything could happen.

In the later half of “They’re Watching” you find out exactly what Patrick’s enemies want him for and it still makes for an entertaining and satisfying read, but I didn’t enjoy it much as the early scenes. I think it was a case of Hurwitz manipulating my imagination so that all that I thought was going on ended up being slightly more interesting than what was actually going on. Again though, that doesn’t mean the second half of the book wasn’t fun. There’s a lot of twists and turns and you start to really admire how resourceful Patrick Davis becomes.

Another reason “They’re Watching” works is because of the characters. At first you don’t really like Patrick, but once you come to understand him, and the first person narrative helps with that, you start to root for him. And eventually it becomes clear that Patrick is guy who wants nothing more than the love of his wife and to make the world a better place. Some other interesting characters include the actor who screwed up Patrick’s fantasy life, an older female but still very capable police detective, and an ex-cop who works as a consultant on movie sets.

So “They’re Watching” was a fun and enjoyable thriller that has made me reconsider my thoughts on the average joe style crime story. Hurwitz shows that with the right blend of plot and characterization these types of tales can be just as fun and compelling as crime stories featuring skilled lawmen and lawbreakers.

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Categories: Book Review

Mike Carey on the Haunted World of Felix Castor

June 24, 2010 3 comments

Fans of British writer Mike Carey’s comic book work know that he’s got a knack for spinning powerful, poignant, and gripping tales. Currently he’s chronicling the four color exploits of some very interesting characters like the veteran X-Men member Rogue, who Carey writes every month in Marvel Comics’ “X-Men: Legacy” series. Or Tom Taylor and his friends who are locked in a battle with a secret sinister power for control of the world’s stories . Their adventures unfold every month in Carey’s creator owned series “The Unwritten” from DC Comics Vertigo imprint. Carey doesn’t just tell interesting four color stories though. He’s also the author of several exciting and highly acclaimed supernatural noir thriller prose novels featuring the character of Felix Castor. I spoke with him about those novels.

Like most good noir protagonists Felix Castor is haunted by the ghosts of his past, but the nature of the world he lives in means he’s haunted in a literal sense not a metaphorical one. “In Castor’s world the dead have risen. The existence of ghosts, zombies and a host of other supernatural entities isn’t even debated any more,” Carey explained. “Almost everyone has seen a ghost except for a handful of people whose personal dispositions make them sort of psychic insensitive and incapable of seeing ghosts.

“In the Castor books, we’ve got a wide supernatural bestiary which includes ghosts, zombies, demons and werewolves, but there’s just one mechanism operating throughout,” Carey continued. “If a ghost comes back in its own flesh that’s a zombie. Similarly if you have a human ghost invading an animal body and reshaping it you’ve got a werewolf. There’s even a connection between humans and demons. So instead of having all these different monsters we have this one kind of rationale for all these different creatures.”

The restless dead didn’t always play a role in Castor’s world. In fact it was a world that was almost identical to our own, but something mysterious happened that made that made the dead very interested in the world of the living. “There had always been a trickle of ghosts coming through, but some time around the year 2000 the trickle became a flood. You began to get ghosts rising in unprecedented numbers especially in cities because cities have very large populations and histories that go back centuries. So in cities, the dead outnumber the living by a pretty steep ratio, which means like Castor, if you have this skill to banish the dead and send ghosts away then you’re very much in demand,” Carey said. “Exorcists are able to charge for their services. In the Castor books it’s not an activity carried out primarily by people of faith or religion. These are people who offer a service and do it for 100 quid a day plus expenses.”

What makes Castor and the other freelance exorcists even more invaluable is that their ghost busting ability is not something which can be learned. “The nature of the exorcists’ abilities isn’t exactly explained. Castor tells us early on that it’s something that was probably always there. It’s like some people have perfect pitch or have good aim, or whatever. They have a genetic predisposition towards a particular thing,” Carey remarked. “So the exorcism gene was probably always there as part of human potentiality, but before the ghosts started to rise they had nothing to work on. Then suddenly you get these people who are aware that they’re particularly sensitive to ghosts in a way that allows them to manipulate the spirit world. That talent expresses itself in terms of other things that you’re familiar with.

“So since Castor knows how to play the tin whistle he exorcises through music,” Carey continued. “Then you’ve got other characters who perform exorcisms through playing cards or with things like drawings, words, or even string. Whatever is important or interesting to you becomes a conduit for your power.”

While the presence of things like ghosts and demons makes for some harrowing moments much of the danger Felix Castor faces comes from the mortal world. As a freelance exorcist working the mean streets of London, Castor often finds himself the target of the people responsible for creating the ghosts he’s hired to get rid of, or worse yet, living people who want to manipulate the dead to further their own sinister agendas.

“First and foremost these are noir thrillers with supernatural overtones. If there’s one big inspiration behind the books it’s the works of Raymond Chandler, but that’s not immediately obvious because it’s not done in LA and there are strong horror overtones as well. I love the way Chandler uses setting and the narrative voice Marlowe has,” Carey remarked. “Nobody seems quite sure where to classify the Castor books on the shelves. You’ll see them in horror, you’ll see them in crime and you’ll see them in fantasy. They’re all of that. They’re supernatural crime thrillers.”

In many private eye stories the protagonist gets by with the help of a morally, murky “muscle” type character. Robert B Parker’s Spenser has Hawk. Robert Crasis’s Elvis Cole has Joe Pike and Felix Castor has Juliet. “ I created Juliet for the first book and I got very interested in her and decided to keep her around. She’s raised from Hell in order to kill Castor, but then decides as long as she never completes that assignment she never has to go home. And as you say she is the muscle,” Carey stated. “She’s pretty much indestructible and she has this interesting power to seduce any man or woman she wants. Sexually she’s completely irresistible and yet she ends up in a very unlikely and unusual relationship. And it’s not with Castor, much to his chagrin. She’s great fun to write and I keep discovering new aspects of her nature as we go on.”

Carey has rounded out the rest of the supporting cast of the Castor novels with an eclectic bunch that includes an undead informant, a landlady, and the physical embodiment of Castor’s greatest mistake. “Nicky Heath is a zombie that Castor uses for information,” the writer said. “Being a zombie he doesn’t have much use for the physical world, but what Castor does is give him things like old music on 78 records or wax cylinders. Especially early Jazz recordings. He also gives him red wine, which Nicky isn’t able to drink but likes to smell. Nicky is a great character to write as well. I did a Nicky Heath short story in an anthology called ‘The New Dead.’”

“Then there’s Rafi Ditko who was Castor’s best friend at college and who is now – partly due to Castor’s actions – the host for the demon Asmodeus. He can’t get ride of the demon and he’s locked up in a lunatic asylum as a result,” Carey continued. “Penn Bruckner is Castor’s land lady and another important supporting character. She is in love with Rafi and at one point in her life she might have become Castor’s girl friend but that never came to fruition.”

London may be the setting of the Castor books, but Carey also views the city as another member of his supporting cast. “I’ve been told that you can do noir in country settings and so on, and I’ve read some noir novels that don’t use the city as an element. I love the Los Angeles of Chandler though,” Carey stated. “So Castor’s London is meant to be like that, it’s meant to be both a setting and a very important story element. I’ve used areas of London that I know very well. You can map out Castor’s London and it’s much more north of the river than south of the river. There are areas around Brixton and Finsbury Park. I think London is an incredible patchwork city. It’s a city with lots of different personalities. Every area of London has its own unique flavor and I do try to convey some of the sense of those places into these stories.”

The action Castor sees on the streets of London isn’t just about doing what’s right. It’s also about righting the things he’s done wrong. “He’s made some very serious mistakes in his life. The very first exorcism he carried out, long before he knew he could do it, was his own sister. Her ghost came back to him after she had been killed in an accident. And he essentially banished her, but he doesn’t know where to or what happened to her as a result,” Carey explained. “Then in college he screws up spectacularly with Rafi by wielding this demon on to his soul. So in everything Castor does there’s a certain sense of trying to play catch up. Trying to make amends for the awful things he’s done in his past and can’t undo”

Castor’s quest to make amends has taken him on a very interesting emotional journey. “The first novel took him to this big point where he had to choose whether or not he’s going to carry on living his life this way or redefine what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. Then from the second book onward he becomes more and more interested in the bigger mystery of why all this is happening. And what’s really going on in his world,” Carey remarked. “So he’s examining all of these weird phenomena and that’s going to be the big reveal for book six. That’s what we’re heading towards; a solution to that mystery. And each novel also has a self contained mystery that usually involves a murder that needs to be solved. Castor changes a lot over the course of the books and there’s a big catalyst for change that comes right at the start.”

That catalyst for change in the first Castor novel, “The Devil You Know”, comes when Castor visits a public archive. “That’s very much a self contained mystery. Castor is called to a public archive, a library essentially, which is haunted by a female ghost. Castor is hired to get rid of the ghost, but while he’s there he becomes curious about why she’s even there at all,” Carey explained. “Why is this dead woman haunting a library, where no one has ever actually died? What’s the connection between her and the building? So he investigates her death and ends up getting on the wrong side of a group of human gangsters who have no scruples about raising demons.”

In Castor’s second adventure, “Vicious Circle”, the freelance exorcist is asked to employ his unique talent in a different way. “’Vicious Circle’ was sort of a quantum leap in terms of complexity because although it’s still a self contained mystery we begin to fill in more of the details of Castor’s world. We learn a lot more about the infrastructure and how it’s changed to accommodate the living dead,” Carey said. “In ‘Vicious Circle’ Castor is hired to find a missing person, but that missing person is already dead. He has to find the ghost of a girl. This time out his enemies are bigger and more organized – like the Satanist Church of the Americas, which is a very scary organization.”

In the third Castor novel, “Dead Man’s Boots”, Carey pits his protagonist against a horde of vicious and angry ghosts. “In ‘Dead Man’s Boots’ we have a conspiracy that seems to involve dead criminals from past eras coming back to life,” Carey stated. “An American serial killer from the 1950s and a whole bunch of East End gangsters from London all seem to be rising from the grave in inexplicable ways.”

“Thicker Than Water”, the fourth Castor novel, is currently available in the UK and hits stores in the US on October 1st. “’Thicker Than Water’ is in a lot of ways a very personal story for Castor,” Carey told me. “He’s called on to help his brother who seems to be guilty of murder and Castor’s investigation uncovers a lot of disconcerting and unpleasant skeletons in the family closet.”

The fifth Castor novel “The Naming of the Beasts” is also currently available in the UK. It arrives in US stores on January 5 2011. “The Naming of the Beasts’ is a big resolution to the story involving Castor’s friend Rafi,” Carey explained. “Castor tries to finally put right the terrible thing that he did to his best friend. And we get a revelation there about the nature of demons; the connection between demons and the other supernatural elements of Castor’s world, which will play into a bigger revelation in book six.”

Carey is hard at work on the sixth Castor novel and it’s a story that promises to wrap up many of the big stories in the freelance exorcist’s world. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the final book in the series though. “It pays off everything we’ve done so far, so it is a finale in that sense, but we can continue to tell stories that take place in Castor’s world,” the writer revealed. “I do have some ideas for a seventh book in the series, which I would love to write. It would either be a Nicky story or a Juliet story. Castor would take a back seat to some of his supporting cast.”

As a series of prose novels progresses many writers struggle to keep their stories fresh, but Carey hasn’t had that problem with the Castor books. That’s partly because the Castor novels are told in first person narrative and the writer always has a great time seeing the the world from the freelance exorcist’s point of view. “When I started out I didn’t know at all what I was doing. I used to write novels in my late teens and early 20s. They were awful, structureless things and when I was writing ‘ The Devil You Know’ I really didn’t know what I was doing and I chose to do it as a first person narrative because that’s part of the genre for noir,” Carey explained. “Castor’s voice came together over the course of that novel and I really ended up with a strong sense of who this guy was, how he talked, and where he was coming from. That’s become a big part of the pleasure of writing these books; using that voice and slipping back into that persona.”

Categories: Author Interviews