Masterclass melding of crime and horror

Dark tales, sinister tales, thrillers, chillers, horrors, crime and suspense – whatever you want to call them, multimillion book-selling heavyright PETER JAMES excells at them. But you won’t need to analyse his sales figures to know this.

Just check out A TWIST OF THE KNIFE, his short story collection published by Macmillan in 2014. In an age when short tales tend to be seen as non-viable by mainstream publishers, especially on the printed page (in ebook terms it’s increasingly a different story, of course), the fact that Peter James’s collection came out both in hardback and softback, and now adorns the top shelves in all the best high street bookstores is a very good sign for the great man. It indicates that he long ago passed into that highest echelon of literary endeavour, wherein format, labelling, pigeon-holing etc doesn’t matter one jot. The quality of the work is all.

And quality is the bottom line here.

Regular followers of this blog will know that I’m not in the habit of reviewing books. Whenever I come across a piece of work that really does it for me, I tend to either tweet my approval or slam a few sentences onto Facebook. But I’m going to make a big exception for A TWIST OF THE KNIFE, because not only does it comprise 30 (yes, you read that correctly – 30!) amazingly tense, mysterious and sublimely well-written short stories, it also blends my two real literary loves – crime and horror.

Fans of Peter James will know that he’s long had a foot in both camps, though his worldwide fame undoubtedly stems from the soaring success he’s had with the Roy Grace novels. These are hard-edged but massively readable crime thrillers following the investigations of a Brighton-based detective superintendent as he pursues badmen of every ilk.

But A TWIST OF THE KNIFE is somewhat different. Yes, it contains several wickedly-plotted murder-mysteries – Roy Grace himself pops up in one story – but overall there is a slightly different feel to this book. To call it ‘otherworldly’ would not be completely accurate. There is nothing overtly weird or fantastical about these tales; all are firmly grounded in the contemporary here and now – and yet you never feel as if the supernatural is very far away.

Take Dream Holiday, for example. An urbane couple – there is surely no-one else working in thrillers today who writes the sophisticated middle-class better than Peter James! – are planning a luxurious holiday in Switzerland, though wife Annie, instead of looking forward to it, is increasingly bewildered and frightened by a recurring dream that seems to promise disaster. Well … you won’t need me to tell you that disaster does duly come, but in the very last way the reader expects. Trust me, this tome is well named, because horrendous twists in the tale are fully the order of play, as perfectly exemplified in this contribution.

Even those tales without an outr√© edge skate along the boundaries of purest nightmare. Sun Over The Yard Arm, a satsifyingly lengthy piece, which tells the story of a husband and wife team’s ill-fated yachting trip across the Indian Ocean, is spook-free but would not be out of place in one of those big, chunky anthologies of the world’s greatest horror stories. I won’t say anything else for fear of providing spoilers, but it’s a spellbinding and ghoulish read.

At the same time, two other chillers, Venice Aphrodisiac and A Christmas Tradition are what you might once have called twisted tales (no pun intended, I’m sure): short but erotically charged chillers, again with deceptively simple but, when you think about it, astonishingly transgressive concepts at their heart.

All in all, this a supreme collection of dark tales. Scary, mysterious, suspense-filled, and yes, at times rather sexy. If you read crime, it’s a must for your collection. If you read horror, it’s exactly the same. A TWIST OF THE KNIFE gets my strongest recommendation.