Me, Danny Sanchez and Journalism

The Daily Mail and The Sun are both pretty shitty newspapers.

I ought to know: I wrote for them both.

Why? Because they were the only newspapers that paid decent money to journalists working out of Spain.

SpanishAnyway, stories that were suitably comic, tragic or grotesque enough for The Mail or The Sun only occurred infrequently on my patch – but when they did, I entered an incredibly stressful, real life version of the cartoon, “Wacky Races”, as the first journalist to get there and get the pictures and facts, got the sale. The rest just wasted time and petrol, and I was always in competition with at least 3 or 4 others.

And it was those missed sales that started chipping away at my integrity. Because if you work for shitty newspapers, you very quickly begin to behave in a shitty way.

With me, it began with a bit of cheeky chicanery. Much of rural Spain consists of unmarked dirt tracks, the names of which are known only to locals, so most reporters rely on rural petrol station attendants for guidance, and I often slipped the staff a tenner to misdirect any other strangers asking around.

Pretty tame stuff, but it was the start of the road to Shitsville. And once you’re on it, the question quickly raises itself: How far down the road are you prepared to go?

I found out in 2010, when I covered a story about the collapse of a house which had killed two expats in a tiny hamlet way up in the mountains.

When I got there, I deployed my usual set of tricks. First of all, in order to find the house, Arroyo_Albanchez1I lied and said I was a friend of the dead couple and was there to pay my respects. This got me detailed directions, as well as plenty of pats on the back and commiseration from local Spaniards. I may even have squeezed out some crocodile tears for their benefit.

The property was all locked up and wrapped with police incident tape, so I climbed the fence and started looking for a decent angle from which to take a photograph, clambering, hopping and jumping all over the rubble as I did so. When a neighbour of the dead couple emerged and asked me what the hell I was doing, I ignored his question and asked him the only thing that interested me: ‘Have you seen any other reporters here before me?’

When he said, ‘No’, I climbed back over the fence and started looking for somewhere with Wi-Fi coverage.

I got the sale. But as I was celebrating in a local bar, looking through the photos I had taken, I began to notice that there was dried blood and other types of biological matter all over the collapsed concrete pillars and rubble. Then I noticed some of it had stained the tip of my desert boot as I’d been merrily desecrating a place where two people had died a sudden and likely very painful death.

I lay awake that night, and slowly came to the realisation that I did not have what it took to be a fulltime tabloid journalist. My journey along the road to Shitsville had ended.

And that’s where Danny Sanchez was born. Because Danny does have what it takes and I enjoy exploring the grottier side of journalism through the prism of the character.

Most readers warm to Danny immediately, but others don’t, and I suspect it is the ruthless side of Danny’s character that is the reason for this – he climbs walls, he lies, he goes through bins, he enters people’s homes uninvited and he “borrows” documents – in short, he does whatever he has to in order to get the story.

The trick is to make the people he is investigating so loathsome that the reader sympathises with Danny, despite his shady behaviour.

Anyway, for those of you who dislike the character, I’d ask that you cut the guy some slack – he trawls through the shitty side of journalism so I don’t have to.

Me, Danny Sanchez and Alcoholism

My name is Matthew, and I’m an alcoholic.

There, that was easy.

Of course, I’ve had plenty of practice saying that particular series of words in that particular order, because I got sober by attending AA meetings, and I make no secret of it: secrets create those scummy, cobwebbed little corners in life where relapses reside. I know, as I relapsed once after 18 months of sobriety and ended up sitting alone in a room, drinking 4 bottles of wine a day, desperately trying to ignore the symptoms of the Type 2 diabetes my outrageous sugar intake had caused. (The photo in this post shows just how fat and red-faced my diet and illness had left me.) Alcoholic 1

Given all this, many people have asked me why Danny Sanchez drinks and smokes so much. After all, isn’t he me?

The simple answer is that, when I began writing the books and creating Danny, I was a proud and unrepentant alcoholic. Small matter that, when going to interview people as a journalist, my bag bulged with beer cans or emitted the sound of wine bottles chinking together. It didn’t even matter if people noticed – I was playing out the role of the world-weary hack, slouching from one assignment to the next, and heavy-drinking was all part of the charade.

Of course, I now realise this sort of bullshit rationalisation is all part of the madness that is any form of addiction – had I not been a journalist, I would have found other excuses to drink.

But the really interesting part of this story is not whether Danny drinks or not. The interesting part is what happened when one of the Danny books was published and in the acknowledgements section, I thanked my “AA sponsor for speaking sense”.

Less than a half-a-dozen words, tucked away in the back of a book, the part that most people don’t bother to read . . . and yet, over the course of the next few months, I had six people contact me through Facebook saying, ‘Alcohol is ruining my life. Can you help me?’.

And so I did what I could to help them – part of the AA 12-step process is a commitment to carry a message of hope to all those who still suffer.

Some got better, some lost contact, some returned to drinking – such is the “cunning, baffling and powerful” foe that is alcohol to the alcoholic.

But I wonder how many of my readers missed that part about my AA sponsor – the vast majority I’m willing to bet – and of those, I wonder how many bear the same secret burden that I did for more than 20 years?

If you do, you know where to find me.

Me, Danny Sanchez and Sex

I have never had much luck with the ladies. I am not particularly handsome and – despite outward appearances – I am quite a shy person, especially around women. Precisely why this is, I don’t know. Fear of rejection, probably, as the brash, distant and unfriendly exterior I try to maintain around strangers has always been there to hide an interior that is raw and vulnerable.

There was a brief spell, as a young man, when I played in a moderately popular band cropped-capture2.pngand enjoyed the sort of female attention that only young men in moderately popular bands get; but apart from that, relationships have been sporadic, but long-term – when I do find the right type of woman, I stick with her (usually because women able to handle my many irritating eccentricities – playing guitar on the toilet for example – are few and far between).

It was important to me that this aspect of my personality was reflected in my written work. Far too many writers indulge themselves by creating bed-hopping thriller-heroes who stride from one conquest to another while (somehow) getting a crime solved; but the moment a writer begins to engage in wish-fulfilment on the page is usually the moment he or she disengages with their readership.

I knew from day one as a writer, my protagonists were never going to be this way. Danny Sanchez is really me in disguise, and that is why his romance with a woman named Marsha is shy, awkward and yet intimate and (hopefully) real: they bicker about why Danny walks around in his underpants and eats handfuls of cereal straight from the packet, and Marsha wants Danny to stop smoking.

But most of the time they are warm and gentle and supportive of each other, the way middle-aged lovers are when love is good and it comes naturally. Danny is romantic in his own offbeat way, he comforts Marsha when she cries or is worried, and he makes her laugh as much as he can . . . which is exactly how I am with my current girlfriend, as it is really all I have to offer.

And as for their sex life . . . well, I leave that behind closed doors. I write crime thrillers, not erotic fiction, and most of my readership is adult and knows full well what happens in the boudoir – thrillers (and films) that depict sex scenes in graphic detail I find either embarrassing or boring. Don’t expect to find any Mummy Porn between the covers of my books.

Danny Sanchez: Illegal Adoptions, Stolen Lives and Spain’s Secret Shame

Spain’s civil war casts a long shadow – it is still an occasional cause of argument in bars and at family gatherings – but as the years pass, its effect on Spanish society diminishes.

Except in one case.

Television and newspaper reports continue to appear detailing the judicial exhumation of stillborn babies. What the police find in the coffins beggars belief: sometimes there is nothing; other times, there are bags of sand, or bones belonging to much older children; in one case, the remains of a dog were found inside a coffin.

And every time these coffins are opened, Spanish society is forced to confront a secret that is almost too terrible to contemplate: the theft of tens of thousands of children from their rightful parents and given away in illegal adoptions.

cropped-e7802954392a2288ea6005c019a5bb36d40fbce910bbd71476pimgpsh_fullsize_distrThe practice began immediately after the war. The state and church ran hospitals, and doctors and nuns targeted families stigmatised as being “Reds” or the poorly educated. Their modus operandi was very simple: upon birth, the child would immediately be whisked to a separate room. A doctor or nurse would then go straight back to the mother, inform her that her child had died, and that the state would pay for the burial.

In some clinics and hospitals, they even went as far as to have a dead baby’s body frozen, which could then be presented to parents as “proof” of the child’s death. Nuns even took photos of mother’s holding their supposedly dead babies, to allay the suspicions of other family members, and then the mothers were hoofed out onto the street. One mother describes being discharged within an hour of giving birth, ‘numb from grief and with my thighs still wet with blood’.

The real babies were then given away to families close to the regime, or sold to those who could afford to pay for them. And meanwhile, empty coffins were being buried all over Spain.

Doctors, priests, nuns, and orphanages were all complicit in this and could act with total impunity: with the Franco dictatorship having a firm hold on Spanish society, no one ever dared questions – but because of this overconfidence, the paperwork relating to the illegal adoptions was extremely sloppy and left paper trails all over the place. One clinic had listed 37 stillbirths due to “earache” in a two year period, all signed by the same doctor.

Once democracy returned to Spain, people began to ask questions, but it was not until the onset of widespread internet access that the scale of the problem became apparent. People who had assumed their case was an isolated one, suddenly realised there were dozens of others; and those dozens became hundreds; and then thousands; and then tens of thousands.

It is now estimated that the problem could even run into hundreds of thousands of cases between 1939 and 1987 – the practice was so ingrained in Spanish society that it continued for 12 years after Franco’s death in 1975.

And so, the heartache continues as mothers seek children, siblings seek brothers and sisters, and men and women seek parents. And every time those coffins are dragged from the ground, a little part of Spain’s soul is dragged with them.


Why Write Crime Fiction?

Like most novelists, I write because I love to read. But when I first tried to set pen to paper, this posed me something of a problem. What was I going to write? After all, I loved to read everything: literature, fantasy, reportage, crime, horror, history. Hell, I’d even tried to read some scientific text books on one occasion. And yet, four years later, here I am, a fledgling crime writer with two published books under his belt, and a third on its way. So, how did I get from there to here?Broken Arrow

The first novel I ever wrote had nothing to do with crime. This was an attempt to follow the write-what-you-know maxim, and so I created a humorous book about a failed rock musician. Ironically, the book itself turned out to be the failure, but it did get me the attention of a literary agent who gave me some good advice. I was a journalist, living and working in Spain, he said. Why didn’t I try my hand at crime?

This was one of those Doh! moments we all get in life when the blatantly obvious suddenly shifts into focus. My shelves were stacked with crime books, and I spent a considerable portion of each week in contact with the Spanish police and Guardia Civil. But, upon reflection, these weren’t the only reasons I decided to try to make a life of crime pay.

Raymond Chandler’s books played a big part. I remember the first time I opened a copy of The Big Sleep and read that glorious opening paragraph. In five sentences, Chandler made me a convert. It also opened my eyes to the fact that genre fiction can be literature. I don’t care what literary snobs might say, the prose styles employed by top crime writers are right up there with the Hemingways and Joyces of the world.

Thankfully, this perception seems to be shared by the general public. When people ask me precisely what it is that I write, I’m glad I can say crime fiction as there is (normally) a genuine interest in their eyes that I suspect would only be feigned were I to answer “swords and sorcery fantasy” or “teen fiction”.

Ian Rankin was another reason I chose to write crime. The Rebus books showed me how effectively crime fiction can conjure up a sense of time and place. I’ve never actually ventured further north than Sunderland, but I will always feel an affinity with the city of Edinburgh, having walked so many of its streets in my imagination.

Four years of writing crime fiction has also put me in contact with some truly fascinating people while researching my books: forensic scientists, psychiatrists, ex-CID officers, historians, doctors, research chemists, nuclear physicists. All have been extremely generous with their time and advice, and have opened my eyes to just how many recondite – and yet truly fascinating – branches of human knowledge there are.

Finally, there is the popularity of crime fiction with the reading public. After all, I figured, if you’re going to put yourself through the hell of writing a book, you might as well maximise your chances of getting the damned thing read by someone afterwards . . .





Albums that Influenced The 109s

Kiss – Alive!

The cover says it all: coloured lights, dry ice, flash bombs and Kiss in all their gaudy glory. But behind the greasepaint, spandex and platform heels, there lurked a ferociously good rock band, as proven by every one of the 16 songs on Alive!

By 1975, Kiss had three studio albums under their belts, so they could cherry pick the best songs for a storming live set. Controversy still continues about how much was really recorded “live”, but the simple kiss-alivetruth is the versions of the songs on Alive! have a raw drive and power to them that the studio versions lack and, while the band’s lyrics straddle the divide between sexy and sexist, there is an enormous sense of fun to the music: the band clearly love the songs they are playing and are hungry for a greater audience, and this infectious combination of good times and relentless ambition is the core of the album’s appeal.

So, how did the album help shape The 109s’ sound?

Hearing the way Stanley, Simmons and Criss combine their voices on the album convinced me that harmony vocals were going to be at the heart of The 109s’ sound. The album also influenced my guitar-playing in a number of ways: the dual-harmony lines in “Watchin’ You”, the funky counterpoint in the verses of “100,000 Years”, the succession of riffs and dynamics that brings “Let Me Go, Rock ‘n’ Roll” to its epic conclusion.

And then there are the solos. While Ace Frehley is far from being my favourite guitar player, he plays a no frills style of lead guitar that is relatively easy to learn, and from which fledgling guitarists can easily lift licks to add to their own palette.

I know I certainly did.

Albums that Influenced The 109s

AC/DC – Powerage

An often overlooked classic within the DC canon, Powerage is the last album made with the Vanda-Young production team and, for an AC/DC album, contains a fair amount of experimentation. Check out the wandering bass on Gimme a Bullet (one of the few DC songspowerage to lack a guitar solo), The Stones-style stomp of Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation (which comes complete with a maracas-and-handclap percussion section) and the slow-burn blues groove of Gone Shootin’. The album also contains two of the band’s heaviest songs in Riff Raff and Up to My Neck in You.

The influence of AC/DC is all over The 109s’ music, especially in the way we structure our guitar solos: although it may appear AC/DC solos are all about Angus Young’s showboating, listen a little harder and you’ll notice how the entire band contributes to the dynamism and excitement of the solos, often switching from staccato notes to open chords halfway through to add drive, or providing a subtle shift in the chord pattern.

Hopefully, listening to the music of The 109s carefully, you’ll hear the same techniques being used (Cut Me Loose being a prime example).

I Love Muff

The Big Muff – another classic FX pedal, and a key component to my studio sound. The Big Muff is quite simply the best, most aggressively fun distortion pedal out there and an essential for anyone looking to achieve that classic, creamy late ’60s overdriven sound.

I love my muff. For starters, the range of different tones I can produce from it is awesome, 225and the separate volume knob means I can really give my solos a boost – that was until Damian (The 109s’ singer and rhythm guitarist who stands opposite and facing my amp at practices) complained that every time I clicked on the Big Muff, the resultant sonic boom was like “being kicked in the stomach” – which was a pretty accurate description of the feral bellow a Big Muff at high volume produces. This is why I only really use it in the studio now as, like Jurassic Park’s T Rex, the Big Muff requires careful handling. (Damian’s incipient tinnitus was also another deciding factor.)

There are two versions of this pedal – a small compact one and a giant, 1970s’ replica stomp box. Guess which one I chose.

FX pedals I use

First and foremost among the pedals I use, it has to be the wah wah. And if you’re going to use a wah wah, it has to be the Jim Dunlop Cry Baby – simple, elegant, classic, and the wah you hear at the beginning of Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Good enough for Jimi, baby, good enough for me . . .

As a young man, I was very fussy about using FX pedals. Everyone else around me in the early ’90s seemed to be hacking away at guitars drenched with chorus and delay and dozens of 195other effects (used, I suspect, to hide the fact they didn’t have the determination to develop their technique through 8 hour-a-day practice sessions) so I set my face to the wind and determined to use no pedals at all: vibrato, palm muting, pick up switching and clean/crunch amp channels would be enough for me.

But from studying Hendrix’s technique I quickly realised a wah wah was going to be essential. There’s a reason the pedal has an onomatopoeic name, as its sound is so organic it almost ceases to be an effect pedal and becomes an extension of the guitarist’s imagination – I, like many others, mouth the wah sounds I make as I play them.

So be it providing that funky edge to clean, muted strings, or adding some trebly scream to a high bend during a solo, the wah wah is my go-to pedal.

Albums that inspired The 109s

Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power

Ever heard of James Williamson? If you’re serious about rock guitar, you should have. In the first six songs of this 1973 album, Williamson takes rock guitar into a highly original, hyper-aggressive direction which foreshadowed the Sex Pistols by three years while effortlessly surpassing every punk guitarist that followed in terms of technical ability. I can’t think of any other guitarist who created such an influential sound in a single album.iggy

First, there are the album’s rockers – “Search and Destroy”, “Raw Power” and “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell”. Williamson’s slashing chords are linked by riff runs played on the low strings which create a lead/rhythm hybrid that is far more accessible to a student of guitar than the dense webs woven by Hendrix, and in many cases, is far more driving and dynamic.

Then there are the slower songs, some played on acoustic guitar, where Williamson’s genius really shines as he takes the dirge-blues of “Gimme Danger”, “I Need Somebody” and “Penetration” and creates guitar lines that sound like nothing that has come before or since, mixing open strings with unusual chord voicings.

OK, so the last two songs on the album are almost unlistenable, but then The Stooges always had an avant-garde, art-rock noise edge to them. But as Johnny Marr said, Williamson ‘has the technical ability of Jimmy Page without being as studious, and the swagger of Keith Richards without being sloppy’ – the first six songs of Raw Power more than prove this.