The acclaimed crime writer on setting his work in Belfast. Read the second chapter from his new book, The Dark Place, below
Sam Millar was born in Belfast in 1958. In 1998 he won the Brian Moore Short Story Award for his story 'Rain', and has published several crime novels - The Redemption Factory, The Darkness of Bones and Bloodstorm. His latest novel, The Dark Place, is due for release on September 2, published by Brandon Books. He lives in Belfast.
I have deliberately used my city as a backdrop for all my crime noir novels for a number of reasons - mainly because I know it so well - but chiefly to bring the imaginary one-dimensional Belfast of badly written novels into the modern era.
For too long there has been a conveyor-belt of ‘novels’ about Belfast worming their way into book stores, and in all honesty, even though different names adorned the covers, they could easily have been penned by the same lazy and unimaginative writer with a stereotypical mindset of a place they had never visited except through the screens of their TV: drunken priests/preachers, mad bombers, sectarian mindsets, leprechauns, or the people of Belfast rescued - usually by an outsider with superior intelligence and humanity.
I have changed all that, and from what the critics - and more importantly readers of my books - have said, it’s for the better. My Belfast is modern, present-day, edgy and dark, and with all the horrors and social problems that modernisation brings to all cities. Be it paedophiles, drug dealers, or corrupt politicians and equally corrupt police, I have always refused to shy away from the issues we are struggling with, but not forgetting that as a writer I must also entertain the reader.
People often ask me why use Belfast as a backdrop? Why not London or New York or some exotic location? My answer to that is: Why not Belfast? All the ingredients are there for terrific crime and murder stories.
Always write about what you know, is an old maxim I was taught when first starting seriously as a crime writer, and it has stood by me well. I have used the Cave Hill as a backdrop for some of my novels, as well as the city itself, hoping to capture the sinister atmosphere of both the old and new battling continually against each other.
Well-known faces people the pages of my crime novels - though rarely complimentary. Beauty spots? I prefer to call them warts. And that is what you get in my stories: the warts and all of a big city struggling to find an acceptable identity for itself and its inhabitants. Belfast has been smothered by 'the Troubles’, and so I have made a conscious decision not to resurrect that repeatedly flogged dead horse.
Dark Souls showed that children can be as ruthless and as sadistic as adults when it comes to murder; The Redemption Factory told the tale of a killer haunted by the killing of an innocent man, and the killer’s chance of redemption for the grisly deed, many years later in a Belfast abattoir; The Darkness Of Bones, recalled the Kincora scandal through the eyes of the victims; Bloodstorm focused on police cover-ups and political corruption and the deadly consequences of those cover-ups.
The aforementioned books have all been set in and around Belfast and have been critically acclaimed, not just at home, but in the USA and in Europe, in particular, France where crime noir is king. So you better get it right.
Without giving too much away about The Dark Place [the follow up to Bloodstorm], young homeless women and drug addicts are being abducted before being brutally mutilated and murdered and the city is held in a grip of unspeakable terror. The police are unable - or unwilling - to apprehend the elusive serial killer and corrupt politicians turn a seemingly blind eye to the catalogue of murders. But by abducting Katie, the young daughter of legendary private investigator Karl Kane, the killer makes his first mistake - and one which may well be his last.
Writing The Dark Place became a cathartic experience for me. As a one-time inhabitant of that grisly dark place, by destroying it at the end of the novel, I gave myself a chance to move on and join the modern world. The struggle Karl Kane has with his father’s quickly deteriorating health also made me consider options I would never have contemplated a few years ago.
I suppose, upon reflection, just like my beloved Belfast, my mindset is no longer set in cement. Visit me on www.millarcrime.com, and leave a wee note. Always great to hear from you. Warts and all...
The Dark Place - Chapter 2
Karl Kane sometimes goes on a hunch – a feeling in his piss – and today, sitting in his favourite chair in his office/apartment in Belfast’s Hill Street, was no exception. Private Dickey running in the three o’clock race. The horse favoured firm ground. Last time it ran, it came fifth. An improvement from a previous race, staggering in eighth like a drunk on a Saturday night.
Not to be deterred by cold statistics, Karl pencilled the eight-to-one long shot in with the rest of his certainties, all with the ease of casualness that Saturday afternoons bring.
“I’ve a good feeling about you,” said Karl, wiping his forehead for the umpteenth time in a desperate attempt to shift the lazy sweat camping on his face and semi-naked torso. Despite two cold showers in less than an hour, the insufferable heat was saturating his body with uncomfortable sticky dampness, wilting a nicotine patch on his upper arm.
Standing, he walked to an open window, trying to widen it further. The air travelling through felt gummy on his skin. A chugging ceiling fan directly above his head did little to moderate the stifling air. “Bastarding heat,” he mumbled, scratching vigorously on the legend of his underwear: Caution: Contains Nuts.
Checking the newspaper again, his thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a voice screaming his name.
“Karl!” exclaimed a young woman, popping her head in through the doorway, applying lipstick to her mouth while talking – a feat that always amazed Karl, no matter how many times he witnessed it.
Extremely attractive and lissom, Naomi Kirkpatrick was dark-skinned with large hazel eyes, and wild black hair cascading in every direction. Despite the northern cadence in her voice, there remained a slight trace of the south.
Twelve years Karl’s junior, Naomi had met Karl three years earlier during a fist-fight between Karl and a writer at the John Hewitt pub in Belfast. On the verge of being arrested, the spirit-filled Karl was quickly
spirited into the night by an amused Naomi. Two days later – offered a job as secretary to the debt-ridden Karl – Naomi reluctantly accepted, with the strict understanding that there was to be no hanky-panky.
Recently over a messy, financially draining divorce, Karl fully agreed. The last thing he wanted at that particular moment in his battered life was another relationship with a woman. Within one week of the agreement, they had become lovers.
“Huh?” mumbled Karl.
“What are you doing staring out the window, newspaper in your hand? You haven’t even dressed!” There was accusation in Naomi’s tone.
“Can’t we just have lunch here, save all the hassle, Naomi? We can head out later for a drink at Nick’s Warehouse. Don’t forget, we’ve still got unfinished bottles of Hennessy and Bacardi in the fridge, screaming to be emptied.”
“No, we can’t stay here,” answered Naomi, quickly snatching the newspaper out of Karl’s hands. “Five days a week in this place is enough punishment for anyone to endure. Now, get your clothes on. I’ll be finished in a minute. And make sure that you bring your wallet with you this time. I’m not ending up paying the bill again. And remember: this is pure vegetarian. No meat, under any circumstances.”
“No meat?” Karl made a face. “You’ve become very militant since becoming a vegetarian, all of six weeks ago.”
“Stop being sarcastic. You know that I don’t like the taste of meat any more.”
“I could answer that with a witty riposte...”
“I was always a vegetarian; didn’t realise it until I saw that horrible documentary about the abattoir in the city. It isn’t right, eating living creatures.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, Naomi, they’re usually dead by the time they reach the cold plate.”
“Don’t start, Karl.”
“Answer me this: if God didn’t want people to eat animals, then why the hell did He make them out of meat, and to taste so damn good roasted?”
Naomi’s face was reddening by the second. “I’m really not in the mood for this. Just hurry and get ready before we miss our place in –”
The doorbell to the office, down below, sounded.
“I don’t believe I just heard what I just heard,” said Karl. “Can’t people read nowadays? Big sign on the door saying closed all day Saturday and Sunday, and if that –” The bell rang again, irritatingly longer. “Finger must be stuck. I’ve a good mind to go down there and –”
“You’re going nowhere in your underwear, except to get dressed,” stated Naomi. “If you go down, you’ll end up falling for a sob story. Could be the postman with a delivery.”
“Probably my latest manuscript rejected by the publishers,” said Karl, a wry smile appearing on his face.
“More than likely it’s Jehovah’s Witnesses, though. Tell them we’re Scientologists and that Tom and Katie are dropping by for tea and plenty of crumpets, later on. Do bailiffs work on a Saturday? Bet the bastards do.”
While Naomi journeyed downstairs, Karl began dressing, finally shoehorning into a pair of nice Samuel Windsor leather loafers, all the while scanning the discarded newspaper, trying to pick more potential winners. Just as he eyed one, an irritating ache echoed from his arse.
“For fuck sake... don’t you start.” Quickly opening a drawer, he removed a cap from a tube of haemorrhoid cream labelled Roid Rage.
Dropping his pants, he quickly applied the cream to the offending area, sighing with relief as the cream’s coldness calmed the heat between his buttocks.
“Karl!” Naomi’s voice sounded from downstairs.
“For fuck sake...” he hissed, almost dropping the tube.
“Karl! I need you down here.”
“Give me a bloody minute!” shouted Karl, quickly pulling up his pants before dumping the tube back in the drawer.
“Karl? Can you come down, right now?”
Slipping into his jacket, mumbling, Karl quickly descended the stairs, tripping in his haste.
“Almost broke my bloody neck, Naomi. I told you I was...”
“Karl,” said Naomi, rather sheepishly, “this is Geraldine Ferris. She’s come all the way up from Dublin.”
Geraldine Ferris, to Karl, looked about thirteen years of age. Pretty but unhealthily concentration-camp thin, with a face full of festering freckles and hair the colour of scrapyard rust. Large doe-like eyes complimented the rest of her face.
“Yes,” said Karl, slightly puzzled. “What can we do for you... Geraldine?”
“I’m searching for my younger sister, Mister Kane. The ones in charge of the hostel, where she normally stays, claim she ran away, almost a month ago. She didn’t run away. I get vibes from her. She’d have told me first. I know they’re all lying. You’ve got to believe –”
“Easy. Easy. Come up for air, Geraldine,” smiled Karl. “Try and calm down a wee bit.”
“To be honest, we don’t usually operate on a Saturday, Geraldine, and normally we don’t cover alleged runaways. You’ve spoken to the police?”
“Yes,” replied Geraldine, nodding half-heartedly.
“What did they say?”
Geraldine’s mouth suddenly tightened. The bones of her face looked like they would rip through the skin. “Lies.”
“Whatever they told Geraldine, Karl, it obviously hasn’t alleviated her anxiety,” cut in Naomi. “Isn’t that right, Geraldine?”
“Why don’t we let Geraldine answer, Naomi?” said Karl, barely containing his irritation. “Geraldine?”
Geraldine swallowed hard before answering.
“They... they said she has a reputation for running away, and they can’t waste valuable resources on runaways. Said she’s probably down in Dublin.”
“Has she? A reputation for running away?” asked Karl.
“Sometimes,” conceded Geraldine, glancing at Naomi for some support. “But there’s no one in Dublin any more for her to run away to, except me.”
“You know what cops are like, Karl,” interrupted Naomi. “They don’t have time for teenagers or their problems. They want newspapergrabbers.”
“Thank you for that, Oprah. That was very enlightening,” said Karl, before turning his attention back to Geraldine. “If you don’t mind me asking, Geraldine, why aren’t your parents here enquiring about your sister instead of you? You must be no older than what? Fourteen or fifteen?”
“I’ll be seventeen next month – one year older than my sister – if you need to know,” stated Geraldine, irritably. “My da’s in Mountjoy Prison. He’s doing a stretch of twenty years.”
“Twenty years?” said Karl, feeling his arse tingle in a bad way. His haemorrhoids were beginning to act up, again. “And your mother?”
“My ma is dead, Mister Kane. She was a heroin addict – just like me.”
“I’m sorry to hear –”
“My first memory of a needle was my mother injecting herself while I watched. Often, she would break the needle off and let me play with the syringe when she was finished. I remember everyone telling her that
heroin would kill her. They were wrong. A man killed her. My father.”
Naomi stood closer to Geraldine, gently touching her elbow.
“You’ve come to the right place for help, Geraldine. If anyone can help find your sister, Karl can. That’s why he’s Belfast’s greatest private investigator. Isn’t that right, Karl?”
Karl’s eyebrows almost fell from his face. “Let’s not be too hasty, Naomi – or condescending.” He gave her a what-the-hell-are-you-playing-at look.
“You sit down, over there, Geraldine,” encouraged Naomi, indicating a group of chairs. “Karl was about to order some food for us. Weren’t you, Karl?”
“What? Oh... of course,” responded Karl, slipping off his jacket while easing out of his Samuel Windsors.
“How did you hear about Karl, Geraldine?” asked Naomi.
“This,” replied Geraldine, handing Naomi one of Karl’s business cards. “There were loads of them stuck in all the phone boxes in Royal Avenue. When I first saw them, I thought they were those other type of
cards. You know, the ones with the phone lines to naked women?”
Naomi glared at Karl. “Don’t tell me you’re sticking your business cards any old where?”
“A brass neck sometimes leads to a silver lining,” replied Karl, looking slightly uncomfortable. “Besides, if I hadn’t placed them there, Geraldine wouldn’t be standing here now, seeking my help. Well? Would she?”
“You always have an answer.”
“Do you have any recent photos of your sister, Geraldine?” asked Karl, ignoring Naomi’s sarcasm.
“I’ve one,” replied Geraldine, searching her tiny handbag before producing a photo. “This was taken last year. It’s a bit creased, but it was the best I could find of her.”
A skeletal girl with a denim jacket too big stared out at Karl. Pointed hipbones jutted out over the waistline of her jeans. Her face was serious, as if all the fun in her life had been sucked out, her fingers seemingly playing nervously with the tines of a comb. But it was the left eye that Karl found himself focusing on.
“She was stabbed in the eye with a pen, when she was ten,” said Geraldine, as if reading Karl’s mind. “She lost the eye, and they replaced it with a glass... with an artificial one. She hates it and has a terrible complex about it, thinking everyone’s staring at her. She doesn’t believe she is beautiful. But she is. That’s why people stare at her.”
“I hate to have to ask this, Geraldine, but does your sister take drugs?” asked Karl.
“She...” Geraldine seemed to be pondering the question. “Yes, but she’s been clean for almost six months – both of us have. Why? Does this mean you won’t search for her?”
“At the minute, we’re up to our necks in work, Geraldine. I don’t honestly know if I could take more caseloads. It wouldn’t be fair to either you or your sister. And even if –”
“None of our ongoing cases involve a missing person, Karl,” cut in Naomi.
“Really? I didn’t know that,” replied Karl, sarcastically, giving Naomi a withering look. “I’ve got some money saved up. You won’t be working for free, Mister Kane. Tell me how much you charge and I’ll get it – one way or another.”
Before Karl could reply, Naomi began smiling, saying, “I’d be willing to work on it, Karl, for free. I do have a few weeks’ holidays coming up, if I remember correctly.”
“Holidays?” replied Karl, gritting his teeth. “Every day is a holiday for you here, Naomi. There’s a law against blackmail. You know that?”
“Everything I know about the law, I’ve learned from you, you lovely man. Should I pack my holiday suitcase, or not?”
“Okay, blackmailer. You win. But don’t start moaning about being paid.”
“I’ve already told you, Mister Kane,” said Geraldine. “Somehow, I’ll get the fee you charge.”
“We can discuss fees later, Geraldine. For now, I need you to relax a wee bit. Worrying solves nothing; only exaggerates the problem. Okay?”
Geraldine slowly nodded.
“Chinese or pizza, Geraldine?” asked Naomi.
“I’m really not that hungry...”
“Yes, I can see you’re a picture of health,” interjected Karl, searching the top drawer of his desk before finding a menu. “Here. Find something in this. Either you tell Naomi what you want or I’ll have to guess it. You really don’t want me to guess.”
For the first time since entering the office, Geraldine smiled slightly, taking the menu before scanning its table of contents.
Naomi smiled all luvvy-duvvy at Karl. He quickly returned the smile with a wait-until-I-get-you-alone withering look, mouthing, “And you have the cheek of accusing me of falling for a sob story?”
Studying the photo more closely, Karl asked: “Your sister’s name, Geraldine? I don’t think you told us it.”
“I’m sorry. It’s Martina, Mister Kane. Martina...”
The Dark Place by Sam Millar is out now. Click here to visit the author's website.