You may recall my excitement last when I read Martyn Waites’s The Mercy Seat – the start of a new series featuring investigative journalist Joe Donovan. This dark thriller was well received in the US – Waites’s American debut. A year later we have the follow-up: Bone Machine - an even more disturbing look at violent crime set in the north east of England, sharing its title with an album from the singer Tom Waits.
I’ve got to know Martyn’s work over the years and enjoy his dark, cynical insights of what lies beneath the veneer that we call society; so I asked him to tell us a little about what we can look forward to with Bone Machine – Ali Karim
From the desk of Martyn Waites:
Bone Machine is the second novel to feature my protagonist Joe Donovan. He's an ex-journalist who went off the deep end when he lost his six year old son. He now runs an information brokerage in Newcastle where the novels are all set. Bone Machine sees him and the team tracking down a serial killer.
Ah yes, a serial killer. I have to admit, I'm not a big fan of serial killer books. There was a time when, yeah, I would read and rave about them. When Thomas Harris was on form (obviously we're going back a bit here) and even before that, when Joe Lansdale's novel Act Of Love just about singlehandedly kicked off the genre. A fantastic book, by the way, never gets the recognition it deserves. But anyway, that was then. In the meantime we've had serial killers everywhere. A veritable plethora. To paraphrase Andrew Vachss, serial killer chic infected the nation. Christ, even Coronation Street's had its own resident serial killer. And now they’re done to death. Yesterday’s genre. As fashionable as spats and two-tone shoes. Serial killer fatigue had set in. Or so I thought.
After The Mercy Seat (Joe Donovan's previous outing) I was pitching the follow up to my editor. I had two ideas. I explained the first one carefully, pointing out what it was about, themes and structure, what the resolution would be, etc. She nodded and asked what the second one was.
'Well,' I said, 'it's kind of a serial killer novel—'
'Do that one.'
I didn't have to tell her the rest. I tried, but she didn't want to know. Because I'd said the magic words. The words that get the novel into bookshops. On the front table. With a three for two sticker on them. That the sales team can sell, the marketing people can market, the publicity people can publicise.
So she assured me it would still be a valid idea once the book came out and I set about it and wrote it. Now to me, Bone Machine is not a serial killer novel. There's one in there, sure, but it's much more than that. I think it has to be, because I believe that the reader is more sophisticated than that. They want something more from a story than just mindless brutality and a high body count. So it’s also a meditation on life, on life after death, on the structure and history of cities, on what we perceive as ghosts. It's about illegal sex trafficking, the value of human life. And if all that sounds worthy and dull, it's not meant to. Because it's got car chases, shoot outs, sex and violence, a proper story . . . all the usual stuff that a crime novel needs to entertain the reader. And a serial killer. Now one of my objections to serial killer novels is that they're all about the killer with little thought or compassion spared for the victims. That was the last thing I wanted to do with mine - let readers get their prurient kicks from my work. I was with the victim all the way. Whoever they are.
Now when it came time for the book to be released, I honestly thought that no one would be interested in serial killers anymore. But then the Ipswich thing happened. And the newspapers, the TV and the internet were full of the serial killer stalking prostitute women in Ipswich and murdering them. And the general public couldn't get enough of them. And amidst all the death and fear something interesting happened. The tabloids started out by making the story as salacious and sensationalist as possible. Streetwalkers getting murdered, dirty slags, asking for it, etc . . . And then, curiously, the general public decided they’d had enough and didn't want to hear that. These were girls who were unfortunate enough to have to sell their bodies to make ends meet. Backgrounds of abuse, or alcohol, drugs, whatever . . . the public saw them as victims. They sympathised with them. They could have been their daughters, their sisters, their mothers. This was a new thing. And bowing to this pressure, the reporting changed accordingly.
Luckily they've caught him now. But I don't think the story will go away. Because, and this I think explains the public's ongoing fascination with murder and serial killers in particular, I think it cuts to the heart of us as human beings. It directly addresses our concerns. It talks about the only two things that people, if they’re honest, ever really think are important. In fact, vital. Sex and death. One, the beginning of life (or the fun you can have in not creating it) and two, the end of life. And serial killers mainline directly into this. There’s the vicarious experience of death and identification (there but for the grace of God . . .) but within a controlled environment. It’s terrible about those girls, but they’ve caught him. Life goes on. For me. The case has brought those thoughts and feelings up and despatched them. It’s postponed the inevitable. And that's what I hope I've tapped into with Bone Machine.
But that's not for me to say. I just write them, I don't judge them. That's for readers to do. I know one likes it - I've just had an email from Lydia Lunch saying she couldn't put the book down. So I must have got something right.
© 2007 Martyn Waites
Click here to read the Shots Review
Click here to download / read an interview with Martyn Waites from Crimespree Magazine
An edited version of this article first appeared in www.therapsheet.blogspot.com