Book Week Scotland kicks off tomorrow and it brought to mind this piece from a few years ago. I’ll be visiting libraries in Greenock, Lochgilphead and Tobermory as well as Glasgow’s Mitchell.

 

There are many things we hold dear that are under threat in this not so brave new world of ours.

Truth is one. Justice is another. Compassion, too.

And one institution that can house all three is the library.

And, yes – you’ve guessed it – they are under threat, too.

A library is more than a place to find the latest Lee Child or JK Rowling. It is a sanctuary for knowledge, for understanding, a building which can house the entire world.

What follows is a love letter I wrote a couple of years ago to Glasgow’s most famous library as part of a mass show of affection by writers for the entire system of libraries that we must honour and protect.

 

Dear Mitchell Library,

 

As a writer I’ve been privileged to visit many great Scottish libraries, primarily for research. Edinburgh Central Library, Carnegie Library in Ayr, Perth Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Archives of Scotland have all proved invaluable but it is you, dear Mitchell, which has more often been my source, my fount of wisdom and knowledge. Hell – it’s proved the solid rock on which my writing has been based. Each of the facilities listed above – and all the other libraries across the country, some of which are struggling to survive – are just as vital to the cultural and historical wellbeing of their community, and the nation, but my love letter must go to that magnificent building at Glasgow’s Charing Cross.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Glaswegian that I hold this great cavern of books and records and newspapers and documents in such high regard. It’s the jewel in the city’s library collection. A magnificent building in its own right, a venue for literary festivals and talks, a quiet spot above the thunder of the M8, a refuge from the sturm und drang of life.

It’s over 100 years old now – it opened in 1911 and has grown in size since then – and it houses over one million items. It is one of the largest public libraries in Europe. That’s something to be proud of. It’s also something good to come out of smoking, for it was created thanks to a bequest by Stephen Mitchell, a tobacco tycoon.

There was something about sitting in its great reading room that I found so settling. The quiet whisper of inquiries at the desk, the rustle of pages being turned, the gentle slap of a volume being laid on the table. As Randy Newman once wrote, feels like home to me. Of course, the same could – and should – be said of every library in the land.

But not every library in the land has what I still call the Glasgow Room, although I believe it’s changed now.

When I was writing my true crime books and feature articles this was where I spent so many hours, poring over old volumes, sifting through newspapers, fast-forwarding through microfiche records. For as author and journalists Jack House once said, to steal from one source is plagiarism, to steal from many is research. I was there so often and for so long I’m surprised I wasn’t invited to staff parties.

I’m a crime writer so naturally my probes centred on murder and all things nasty. However, it’s so wide-ranging a subject that in the past I’ve had to research housing, social mores, the traditional history of Glasgow – and beyond – as well as matters bloody and unpleasant. And the Mitchell has never let me down. Here I’ve had queries answered by knowledgeable staff, been guided, led, pointed in the right direction until finally, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I found what I’ve been looking for. For it’s true, if you can’t find the answer there to any question about what was once known as the Second City of the Empire, then it just didn’t happen.

Over the years there have been cutbacks and changes. Nothing ever stays the same, especially when beans have to be counted and bottom lines have to be drawn. I recall at least one occasion when the Mitchell was under threat. Common sense prevailed, though, and it remains there still, its treasure trove of arcane knowledge a slip of paper away. Or, this being the 21st century, at the click of a mouse. But if it comes under threat again, I will be happy to man the barricades while humming ‘Can You Hear the People Sing?’

I’ve not been there for some time and I miss it. I moved away from the city and it was not so easy to just drop in and dip a toe into the vast pool of knowledge. The Carnegie Library filled part of the void while for two Edinburgh-based projects the city’s Central Library became the touchstone.

But my heart remains with the Mitchell.

For I belong to Glasgow.

 

Yours

 

Douglas Skelton,

author

 

 

 

Come and be part of the jury next Monday in Largs Library.

I’m visiting Largs Writers and will be outlining some real-life cases from the past – names and locations changed – and inviting the audience to debate the guilt or innocence of the accused.

It’s based on the long-running series of articles I did for a Sunday newspaper magazine a few years ago and have presented a similar event in Ayr.

So come along and join in – it’s free but spaces are limited so phone the library on 01475 673309

 

The Carry on Sleuthing gang are heading for the seaside – with an ocean-based mystery!

You’d think we planned it.

But anyone who has seen Sleuthing knows that’s just not true.

We’re appearing in Troon Library on Wednesday November 14.

So come along and join Caro Ramsay, Pat Young, Michael J. Malone and Douglas Skelton for an evening of fun and mayhem.

Space is limited so booking is essential. Tickets are priced £8 and can be booked in the library on South Beach or by phoning 01292 315352.

I’ve got a new book out. You may have noticed this if you’re a Facebook friend or follow me on Twitter.

I can’t speak for other writers but I know how I feel when a new title is released.

In a word, terror.

Once it’s printed, bound and distributed there’s no going back. There’s no further tweaking, no further correcting, no further rewriting. The story that began as a notion and grew into a book will now succeed or fail in the eyes of readers.

THE JANUS RUN is something of a gamble. It’s not set in Glasgow, or even Scotland. It’s not even in this collection of nations we call Britain. It’s set in New York.

And I hope I’ve pulled it off. I like to think I have.

A good friend of mine spent a number of years there and she told me I’ve managed it, which is a relief.

The reviews have been spectacular, which is also something of a relief.

Here’s a sample of some of them:

Scots Whay Hae called it “a proper page-turner thriller, pure and simple – enthralling from start to finish.”

You’ll find the full review here:

https://scotswhayhae.com/2018/10/23/begin-again-a-review-of-douglas-skeltons-the-janus-run/

Live and Deadly said Tense, full of action and packed with double dealing and intrigue, this is a first class read that leaves you wanting more.”

https://liveanddeadly.net/2018/10/09/the-janus-run-by-douglas-skelton-douglasskelton1-sarabnadbooks-bookreview/

Undiscovered Scotland said “This is a book that sinks its teeth into its readers like a Rottweiler and simply never lets go”

https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usreviews/books/contrabandjanus.html

Liz Loves books said “An intelligent character driven novel, one that leaves you wanting more”

http://lizlovesbooks.com/lizlovesbooks/latest-reads-the-janus-run-douglas-skelton/

Simply Suze Reviews said: The action begins on the first page and doesn’t let up until the last.”

https://simplysuzereviews.blogspot.com/2018/09/the-janus-run-by-douglas-skelton.html

Raven Crime Reads said “the characterisation was first class, and supported by whip-smart dialogue”

https://ravencrimereads.wordpress.com/2018/09/30/douglas-skelton-the-janus-run/

Chapter In My Life said “Authentically brutal, powerfully plotted and perfectly executed The Janus Run will be ringing in your ears for a long time after you turn the last page!”

https://chapterinmylife.wordpress.com/2018/09/19/bookreview-thejanusrun-from-douglas-skelton-douglasskelton1-sarabandbooks-bloodyscotland-tidelinesfest/

I’ll be heading to Waterstones in Argyle Street for the Glasgow launch of THE JANUS RUN.

I’ll be chatting about the book, writing about a city in which I don’t live, thrillers, mobsters, black ops agents and possibly tap dancing cats with fellow crime writer Neil Broadfoot.

And before you, ask no – I couldn’t get anyone better.

Kidding.

Maybe.

Anyway, it all kicks off at 6.30pm and I hope to see you.

Tickets are free but the store asks that you book, so here’s the link:

https://www.waterstones.com/events/douglas-skelton-launches-the-janus-run/glasgow-argyle-street

The second date on the Four Blokes in Search of a Plot whistlestop tour sees us in Edinburgh.

We’re back in Blackwells bookstore, where we first appeared a couple of years ago under the old Crime Factor format.

This time, though, we’re presenting the new, let’s put the show on right here format where we get the audience to give us a main character and a murder weapon and then proceed to create a crime story between us.

Further details on the show and how to book tickets here:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/four-blokes-in-search-of-a-plot-tickets-47473837526

They seem to have been searching for that elusive plot for a long time – will they find it in Glasgow?

Why not come along and find out!

Neil Broadfoot, Gordon Brown, Mark Leggatt and Douglas Skelton return to Waterstones in Sauchiehall Street with the brand new, all fun format of their unique panel game.

Four crime writers are given a protagonist and a murder weapon by the audience and have to create a new crime story within the hour.

The audience select which writer will batter out the next 100 words and while that author dons the sacred Tea Cosy of Inspiration, the other three answer questions about the genre.

Don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity see them.

Okay, there’ll be other opportunities, but it sounded good.

You can book your place here:

https://www.waterstones.com/events/four-men-in-search-of-a-plot/glasgow-sauchiehall-street-53940

A very serious Caro Ramsay, Neil Broadfoot and myself. I think we’d just been told Michael J. Malone was going to sing his selection of The Krankies Greatest Hits. We promise to be jollier for Room 101.

Caro Ramsay is in the chair (unless we pull it out from under her) for what promises to be an entertaining evening of likes and dislikes and the sending of items, phrases and whatever comes to mind to Room 101.

I’ll be joining Lesley Kelly, Michael J. Malone, Neil Broadfoot, Mason Cross and Frank Muir to help raise funds for the RNIB and launch the short story collection ‘Ten Year Stretch’.

Come along and see us, raise money for a good cause, have some tablet and a Pringle (one each), maybe a wee glass of wine. And a laugh.

 

More details here:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/crime-writers-room-101-in-glasgow-argyle-st-tickets-46929104214

 

A blank page.

That’s what all authors begin with.

Pristine white, apart from the blink of the cursor, flashing like some kind of Morse Code challenge.

Come on, it says, amaze me. Thrill me. Fill me with wonder.

Sometimes though, the author stares back, knowing that filling anything with wonder is just not on the cards. Not today, thank you.

I’m often asked the question, “Do you know your ending before you begin?”

The answer is always, “Sometimes.”

Let me give you an example – I know how my current Work in Progress ends. I know who did it. I know what’s going to happen to that person.

It’s getting there that’s the problem.

You will have guessed that I’m not a planner. I don’t meticulously work out the book ahead of time. I don’t do chapter breakdowns. I don’t have a white board. I don’t have cards.

I do have lots of Post-It notes on which I scribble character names, ideas and aide memoires as I write. Not to mention phone numbers, names, computations and other notes which I often incomprehensible, my handwriting being on the chaotic side of legible.

My writing approach is just  as chaotic and I wish I could take the time to really think about the plot and characters.

The thing is, I want to get on with it and all that preparation seems to me – well – too much like work. Also, I want to have a sudden epiphany that will surprise or even shock the reader as much as it surprises or shocks me that I thought of it in the first place.

Here’s an example – I didn’t know I was going to kill off one of the main characters in my first crime novel ‘Blood City’ until I actually did it. I also didn’t know the character who pulled the trigger was going to turn out to be the big bad. Had I planned that ahead of time the delicious pleasure of going all Game of Thrones on Glasgow crime would have been denied me. In my mind, at least.

The opposite also happened – a character I’d planned to kill off survived to die another day, in another book. All spontaneous, as I wrote, in the moment.

Now, planners might get the same thrill as they plot it all out, I don’t know. I’m too eager, or perhaps too lazy, to sit down and try it.

When writing ‘The Dead Don’t Boogie’, the first of my Dominic Queste thrillers, I set out to follow Raymond Chandler’s advice about whenever things are dull, have a couple of guys kick the door in with guns in their hands. I knew roughly what my protagonist was going to be, although I added layers as I wrote. I knew he was searching for a young girl in a seaside town in Scotland. I knew there would be other people searching for her.

What I didn’t know was why.

I was well over half way through, moving from one plot twist and action beat to another (let’s just say a LOT doors were kicked), when I realised I’d have to decide what the hell was going on. I did work it out and it required some additional scenes earlier on but hey – that’s what second and third drafts are for!

Would I recommend my approach? Actually, no. Deep down, I may even grudgingly agree that planners have the right idea.

Am I going to change my approach?

Hell, no. I’m WAY too impatient to do that….

OVER on that Facebook place, I was challenged by pal Richard Bruce to come up with seven books that influenced me.

My regular reader – she’s a nice woman – will know that I’ve been influenced very much by Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and the western ‘SHANE’. She also knows that one of my favourite books is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and in the past I have praised Dennis Lehane’s MYSTIC RIVER.

I decided to find other titles for this list – books that I enjoyed, have read more than once, and that I still own.

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First up was William Goldman’s debut novel THE TEMPLE OF GOLD.

Written in the late 50s, this is a funny and tragic coming of age story.

Goldman’s narrative style is so wonderful, his dialogue so easy to read – he’s an Oscar winning screenwriter, remember – that whenever I return to it, and I’ve done so many times, I’m filled with admiration and, yes, envy.

Again, my regular reader will know that when I’m pressed to name my favourite film, my mind instantly turns to ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, which Goldman wrote.

And just recently I was talking to crime writer and Carry on Sleuthing alum Michael J. Malone about Goldman’s other works and I heartily recommend ‘Marathon Man’, ‘Control’ and ‘Brothers’ as incredible thrillers.

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CASTLE KEEP by William Eastlake was a book I discovered in my teens. In fact, I believe this and TEMPLE OF GOLD were in the same bundle given to me by my nana (Yeah, go ahead, yukk it up, I called my gran my nana. Get over it).
It’s an anti-war novel about a disparate group of US soldiers occupying a chateau in the Ardennes on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge. Eastlake himself was in the US Army and fought at the Bulge, so there is a sense of truth underlining every crazy episode in the novel. It’s told from numerous viewpoints, each new chapter a different character talking in first person. What?! You can’t do that! But he did and it works. Sure, it’s rambling and unstructured but the characters are so well drawn, so varied, the dialogue so weird, wonderful and witty, the incidents wacky and, ultimately, tragic. It’s funny. It’s profane. It’s moving.

I would imagine very few of you have read the book, but you may have seen the 1969 film, directed by Sidney J. Pollack, starring Burt Lancaster and Peter Falk. It’s an unusual war film, couldn’t be anything but considering the source, but it failed to capture the anarchy of the novel.
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There was more war and tragedy in John Prebble’s CULLODEN.
Frankly, I could have picked any one of his books. His LION IN THE NORTH is a fabulous whirlwind ride through Scottish history. His book on travelling round Scotland has never been bettered. His account of the Highland Clearances is white hot with rage. Then there are his accounts of the highland regiment mutinies, the Darien Disaster and the bloody events of Glencoe. All absolutely terrific.
But I chose this one. It is wonderfully written, immaculately researched. It is fascinating and moving. It’s one of the best historical accounts ever published, as far as I’m concerned.

Packed with detail and told with the mind of an historian but the heart of a storyteller, it’s a dense read but a rewarding one. The battle was not simply a case of the Scots against the English. It was also brother to brother, father to son. The aftermath was brutal and bloody and it echoes through the centuries.

The battlefield is one of the most potently atmospheric sites I’ve visited and can only be profaned by the new housing schemes already agreed and the proposed holiday camp. We must protect it.
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THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE by Evan Hunter was, like most of these books, one I read in my teens. I was already a fan of Ed McBain and didn’t know that the authors were one and the same. And neither of them was his real name. It was, in fact, Salvatore Albert Lombino.

This book and the subsequent film with Glenn Ford, Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow were controversial in their day. It kicked off the mini-genre of troubled school movies. The very title entered into the modern day lexicon. Is it slightly dated? Yes, but that’s not a bad thing. The language, considered shocking then, is tame now. But it still packs a punch and established Hunter/McBain, or any of his many pseudonyms, as a force to be reckoned with.

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RED FILE FOR CALLAN by James Mitchell brought me back to the chilly, homegrown espionage landscape of the 60s and 70s.

I was a huge fan of the TV series, which ran from 1967 to 1972 and made Edward Woodward a household name. And, frankly, fantastic actor though he was, he was never better than this haunted, complex killer for HMG.
And who can forget the melancholy theme, a guitar melody with a bare light bulb swinging in front of a brick wall?
The book was based on James Mitchell’s own TV play ‘A Magnum For Schneider’, which introduced us to David Callan. It was so successful a series followed. It also later formed the basis for the 1974 big screen spin-off. I have three further titles in the series – Russian Roulette, which Russell Hunter once told me he wished would be filmed because it had a belter of a role for Lonely (the character he played), Smear Job and Death and Bright Water. And Callan’s influence on me? If you’ve read the Davie McCall novels, you’ll see them. Both characters are flawed, loners who are part of worlds they don’t really want to be, but their skills find them trapped.
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I found Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES in the library at secondary school. I liked it so much I bought my own copy. At the time I was reading a lot of horror and a few bits of science fiction. I mean, a LOT of horror. Dracula, Robert Bloch, those Pan compendiums, the Alfred Hitchcock collections, plus all sorts of things I wouldn’t go near today. This book, though, is more than horror, or fantasy. It’s a right of passage. It’s about family. It’s a look at small town life. It’s a yearning for lost youth. And it’s both poetic and creepy in equal measure. I love it.

It was also filmed, back in the 80s. Produced by Kirk Douglas’s other son Peter (the man himself was an executive producer), it was a very decent stab at bringing Bradbury to life but lacked the magic of the printed page, despite Bradbury himself providing the screenplay, although British writer John Mortimer was called in for rewrites.

It boasted a fine score by James Horner, who replaced French composer Georges Delerue. I have the rejected score in my collection but not the Horner one, which is a shame.

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My final pick was a difficult choice. The more I thought, the more titles I came up with. Next week I could probably come up with seven new ones. Anyway, I have plumped for this from John Wyndham (real name John Wyndham Lucas Parkes Beynon. Need a helluva big cover for that) I’ve read a number of his books and I could have gone for any one – Day of the Triffids, Kraken Wakes, Midwich Cuckoos, Chocky, the Trouble With Lichen. But I chose THE CHRYSALIDS. I really can’t explain why. Perhaps in the current political climate it resonated. Nowadays this tale of a post nuclear world peopled with religious zealots eager to root out deviations and abominations would be called YA. Perhaps not. Triffids has been filmed a few times for screen and TV. Midwich became Village of the Damned in 1960 and spawned a sequel, Children of the Damned in 1964. ‘Village’ was remade in 1994 by John Carpenter, but not very satisfactorily. Chocky was turned into a children’s drama. It’s time someone turned their attention to the Chrysalids. It would make a great film. All I can say is that Wyndham remains one of the UK’s foremost science fiction writers.

 

So there we are. Seven books over seven days. And I’ve already thought of seven more…