The smell is terrible, but as you slowly approach the charred corpse in the centre of the circle, your sense of smell is overwhelmed by the sight in front of you. The mangled, twisted figure appears to defy all laws of nature. It is hard to imagine that it was ever alive in the first place. As the forensic team poke and prod about in the ashes, you hear a call as one of the white suited officials calls you over. They point to the corpse and you struggle to see what they are getting excited about.
Then you see it. Like one of those magic eye pictures that only come together when you look at them in a certain way, the image in front of you slowly coalesces into something familiar.
You look across to your colleague who looks as confused as you feel.
As the crime scene official carefully removes the loose ashes with a fine brush, underneath are revealed markings, carefully cut deep into the flesh of the corpse.
There’s no doubt about it it. You reach for your notebook and scribble down the words that are now clearly apparent in front of you.
Looking at your notes your worst fears are confirmed.
The killer has written a…. blurb:
A serial killer is burning people alive in the Lake District’s prehistoric stone circles. He leaves no clues and the police are helpless. When his name is found carved into the charred remains of the third victim, disgraced detective Washington Poe is brought back from suspension and into an investigation he wants no part of . . .
Reluctantly partnered with the brilliant, but socially awkward, civilian analyst, Tilly Bradshaw, the mismatched pair uncover a trail that only he is meant to see. The elusive killer has a plan and for some reason Poe is part of it.
As the body count rises, Poe discovers he has far more invested in the case than he could have possibly imagined. And in a shocking finale that will shatter everything he’s ever believed about himself, Poe will learn that there are things far worse than being burned alive …
Hey, puppets are fun aren’t they? Can you think back into the depths of your childhood and recall a time when puppets weren’t a part of it? I know I can’t and I most definitely had a childhood.
Many people’s first foray into the world of puppets would most likely have been the hand puppet. This was the one where you forcibly shoved you hand into the poor puppet’s bottom and expected it to behave reasonably. It was no wonder that so many of them didn’t. Take Emu for example. He was a right cantankerous old bird. Throughout the 1970s he helped his partner Rod Hull to assault people of every creed, colour, gender and in between, all in the name of comedy, and I reckon you can firmly put that down to him having Rod’s arm firmly up his fundament pretty much to the elbow.
Another questionably behaved hand puppet was Spit the Dog. Spit was owned by Bob Carolgees and was very popular throughout the 1980s on British TV. His forte was to, er, spit. One of his ‘funniest’ gags was one where Bob would tell Spit to “Sit!” only for Spit to start straining and then for Bob to hastily say, “No, I said sit!”. Oh, how we laughed. In fact we did, I found Bob and Spit hilarious back in the day, but then again I laugh whenever someone says the word ‘knob’. Tee hee hee hee hee… see?
But again, I reckon you can land Spit’s highly unsociable and questionable behaviour at the fact that Bob had his hand stuck up his bum, despite trying to fool us all, as Rod Hull also did, by having a false arm onto which Spit sat. As far as I know no one has ever proved it to be false, but sometimes when you know something you just know.
My first ever puppet was indeed a hand puppet and it was, of course, Sooty. Aww, little Sooty, now there was a bear who, for reasons best left to the late great Harry Corbett and his son Matthew, didn’t appear to mind the whole hand thing at all. He was a very good natured and respectable bear, if a little cheeky at times. His friend Sweep was the misbehaved one, but even then he never sunk to the ASBO lows of Emu or Spit. Maybe both Harry and Matthew (and even now, with his new owner Richard Cadell), just have very small hands. Or at least their right one is very small.
There were also finger puppets. Now these puppets were never quite as mischievous as their hand counterparts. Take Finger Mouse for example:
Finger Mouse, along with his mates Tortoise, Sea Gull and a variety of others led quiet and creative lives. I personally feel that this can be attributed to the fact that Rick only used a single finger, and also had the decency to wear a glove.
It’s not all about hand puppets though; there are many kinds of puppet:
Take the string puppet, or marionette, for example. Familiar, I imagine, to most people through the work of Gerry Anderson and such classic television shows as Thunderbirds, Joe 90, Captain Scarlett, Terrahawks, Stingray, Supercar, etc and so on and so forth and so farth.
I had a marionette of my own, a Pelham Puppets Pinocchio, exactly like that one down there…
… and exactly like that one up there it spent most of its time as a tangled mess either hanging from the back of a door or on the floor. But I loved him and if it didn’t teach me much about the art of puppeteering it did teach me the art of patience as I spent hours and hours untangling those bloody strings for the sweet, sweet moments of pupetty pleasure before the inevitable re-tangling of said strings and the subsequent inevitable throwing of said puppet and said tangled strings against a said wall. But as I say, it taught me patience 🤨. Nowadays I quite enjoy untangling a thing on occasion, be it a necklace, kite string or a knotted hosepipe, thus saving someone’s day or at least their nerves, and I have my little Pelham Pinocchio to thank for that. So, that’s something, innit?
There are shadow puppets; stop motion puppets; puppets lit by ultraviolet light; body puppets operated by people inside; sock puppets; ventriloquist dummies… in fact you name it there’s probably a puppet version of it somewhere.
As a child, going to see a puppet show was an endless source of excitement to me. I often went to see the Sooty Show live when it came to a theatre near me, and even the traditional Punch and Judy shows made me giggle until the sinister nature of them dawned on me and they just became creepy. I’m sure it’s the same now for children, and even some adults, alike at the thought of seeing little bits of card and cloth being brought to life and losing oneself in the moment for the duration of the performance or show.
Now, if I had received an invitation to M C Craven’s The Puppet Show, my life would’ve turned out very differently indeed. You see, the puppet master in his story isn’t of the children’s entertainment variety. He hasn’t got a fluffy hand puppet to violate in the name of entertainment. Neither does he have a finger puppet to bounce about in front of an excited child who is wondering what silly things it’ll get up to next. Nor has he a marionette that he can skip gaily about, wiping its brow or feigning collapse only to spring back up again and skip off again about its way.
This puppet master has real people, a lot of petrol, plenty of homemade accelerant to ensure a good ‘whoomph’, and a Zippo lighter. If you ask me, those are the ingredients for a disastrous puppet show. What kid is going to enjoy watching that? Ok, there may be some kids who would, and we’ll gloss over that, but in general I reckon that this guy needs a rethink of his act.
Oh, and he’s called The Immolation Man.
That’s catchy: Roll up, roll up, see The Immolation Man! One night only. See the man everyone is talking about… noliabilitywillbetakenforanyburnsscaldsorsingemarkspunterssitonthefirsttworowsattheirownrisk… roll up roll up!
To be fair to him he didn’t call himself that, it was the press who monikered him thus, but I guess it looks good on flyers, etc. Plus it’ll have people rushing to Google to look up what ‘immolation” means:
“Immolation comes from the Latin word immolat-, meaning “sprinkled with sacrificial meal.” Immolation always involves a sacrifice or offering of some sort. The word often invokes burning, a common method of sacrifice.”
Oh, of course I jest. Could you tell? Did you see what I did there? I was pulling your strings very much like a puppeteer would if you indeed were, er, puppets. String puppets, obviously. I’m not forcing my hand into anyone’s bottoms without seeing the money up front first. But I digress…
You see, much like I pulled the strings over your, um, eyes there, the Immolation Man is pulling the strings in The Puppet Show. Throughout the entire book he runs rings, or should I say he runs strings, around the police attempting to catch him. He’s one clever bastard and no mistake. He has a penchant for men of a certain type:
“Whoever he was – and they’d made an early assumption he was male – he didn’t seem to like men in their sixties and seventies. In fact, he disliked them so much, he was setting them on fire.”
I guess it’s cheaper than putting them into a nursing home. Maybe he had a particularly unpleasant experience with the elderly as a child? Maybe, one day, he kicked his football into the garden of an elderly person squashing their dahlias or prize marrow, and they wouldn’t give it back? Maybe, gasp, maybe they punctured said football, laughing while they did so. Oooh, that would be enough to irk any child. Not enough to immolate them I would have thought, but it would be a close thing.
Anyway, it would appear that setting fire to people in the middle of some of Cumbria’s most well known, historic and culturally important stone circles is a bit of a no no. It’s literally going kill the tourist trade. Not to mention those people who like to sit there and paint them, and to those who make little models of them to sell in tourist shops and what have you. All the same, the Cumbrian Police and the National Crime Agency (NCA) are taking a very dim view of the macabre occurences, and you can’t really blame them.
The investigation is going swimmingly, if slowly, until the name of one of the NCA’s officers is discovered carved into the body of the third victim. The name? Washington Poe.
Who? Is that some kind of made up name? Well yes, this is a novel, but in the world of this story, Washington Poe is the name of Washington Poe, a former Detective Inspector with the NCA but now under suspension after muffing up a previous enquiry. Poe now lives in a remote croft in the Cumbrian fells:
“Washington Poe had enjoyed his day repairing the dry stone wall. It was one of several new skills he’d learned since moving back to Cumbria. It was backbreaking work but the reward of a pie and pint at the end of the day was all the sweeter for it. He loaded his tools and a few spare rocks into his quad’s trailer, whistled for Edgar, his springer spaniel, and then began the drive back to his croft. He’d been working on the outer boundary wall today so was over a mile from his home, a rough-stone building called Herdwick Croft. It would take him fifteen minutes or so to get back. The spring sun was low and the evening dew made the grass and heather shine. Birds chirped territorial and mating songs and the air was fragrant with early flowers. Poe breathed in deeply as he drove. He could get used to this.”
Doesn’t that sound great? I’ll be all over that kind of life. As long as I had a decent Wi-Fi signal, because, blogging.
After the gruesome discoveries of the Immolation Man, Poe’s idyllic life is shattered when he is called back into action by his former DS and now superior, DI Stephanie Flynn. After some reluctance to get back into the fray, she finally convinces Poe into action after showing him the photos of his name carved into the chest of one of the victims and the suggestion that he will be the 5th victim.
Ooooh, now, if that were me I don’t think that that would entice me out of anything! In fact, it would have totally the opposite effect and, er, un-entice me somewhere nice and cosy and utterly, utterly fire retardant. Possibly underground. On an island. Surrounded by man-eating sharks and shit; just to be sure.
But no, our hero Poe is given his badge back and he and Flynn take on the case. They are under the jurisdiction of the Cumbrian Police, Poe’s old stomping ground before joining the NCA, and as such is reunited with his childhood friend and colleague Kylian Reid. But Kylian appears to be pretty much the only friend that Poe has as everyone else seems to take against him in some way or the other. It would appear that Poe has that effect on people.
Washington Poe is a great character. He is determined, tenacious, fiercely intelligent, doesn’t suffer fools at all, let alone gladly, and is as stubborn as a mule who is determined to win “Most Stubbornest Mule 2019 And In Perpetuity”. That mule really wants to win that title. But Washington, as mentioned before, rubs people up the wrong way with his methods, and bedside manner, and likes nothing better than to go in over the heads of his superiors sometimes to get results, other times just because he wants to.
There’s another character in The Puppet Show who is possibly one of literary crime fiction’s finest creations: Tilly Bradshaw. Tilly is brilliant. She is a very withdrawn, shy and insecure young lady when we first meet her, who has led a very sheltered and withdrawn existence up until her appointment working at the Serious Crime Analysis Section (SCAS). Tilly is fiercely intelligent. Her IQ is close to 200 and she has a highly analytical brain and way of thinking. She is also someone who takes things very literally. Take this moment from when Poe first meets Tilly:
“Poe studied her; 90 per cent of being a sergeant was managing people. She wore no makeup and behind her gold-coloured Harry Potter glasses were grey, myopic eyes. She was fish-belly pale. The front of her brightly coloured T-shirt showed the logo of the all-girl Ghostbusters remake. Her canvas trousers were khaki with large side pockets. Cargo pants, he thought they were called. Her fingers were long and fine-boned. The nails were chewed to the quick. Despite her earlier show of defiance, she looked apprehensive. ‘Do you know who I am?’ She nodded. ‘Your name is Washington Poe. You’re thirty-eight years old and you were born in Kendal, Cumbria. You transferred from Cumbria Constabulary to SCAS and it is believed that a mistake you made led directly to the torture and death of a suspect. The IPCC are investigating you. You’re on suspension.’ Poe stared at her. His piss-taking radar wasn’t beeping; she was being serious. This was how she talked. ‘Wrong. As of,’ he said, checking his watch, ‘five minutes ago, I’m Detective Sergeant Washington Poe. And from now on, if I ask you to do something, you do it. Are we clear?’ ‘DI Stephanie Flynn says I’m only to do what she says.’ ‘Did she now?’ ‘She did, Detective Sergeant Washington Poe.’ ‘Poe’s fine.’ ‘She did, Poe.’ ‘I meant you should call me Sergea . . . actually . . . you can call me what you want,’ Poe said, realising he didn’t have the energy for a meaningless discussion over forms of address. ‘And why did DI Flynn tell you that?’ ‘Sometimes people like to joke with me. They tell me to do things I’m not supposed to,’ she replied, pushing her glasses back up her nose and tucking an errant lock of wispy brown hair behind her ear. A flickering of understanding crept up on him. ‘OK. But I’m your new sergeant so you do have to do what I tell you to do,’ he said. She stared at him. Eventually Poe said, ‘Wait here.’ He walked into Flynn’s office. She was talking to Barrett. ‘That was quick,’ she said. Poe could have sworn she was suppressing a smile. ‘Can you pop into my office and tell Miss Bradshaw that she is also to do what I tell her?’ ‘Of course.’ She followed him into his office. ‘Tilly, this is Washington Poe and he’s our new sergeant.’ ‘He wants to be called Poe,’ she replied. Flynn glanced at Poe, who shrugged in a what-you-gonna-do kind of way. ‘Well whatever, you’re to do what he says as well now. OK?’ Bradshaw nodded.”
Sadly this also means that she is a target for the kind of person who likes to think that they are better than her and that her unique qualities are something to be derided. Poe hates bullies with a passion and defends Tilly very vigorously, and on occasion violently, indeed when he sees anyone taking advantage of her.
There is some gentle teasing of her naivety too though. When Tilly first meets Poe’s dog, Edgar, Kylian gently ribs her over their instant friendship:
“Poe passed Tilly some treats to give Edgar and their friendship was cemented.
‘Remember, Tilly, if he shows you his lipstick, don’t touch it,’ Reid said, winking at Poe. Bradshaw buried her head in the spaniel’s neck. ‘You don’t have any lipstick do you, Edgar? What a silly goose DS Reid is. He must mean your penis.’”
See, she’s not that daft 😂
Poe and Tilly become very firm friends and their relationship is one of the true highlights of this book. Their dynamic is excellent and Tilly really grows as a character throughout the story whilst still retaining the qualities that make her so special. Poe instantly ‘gets’ her and you feel that they have the beginnings of a life-long friendship.
Their relationship also highlights the humour that prevails throughout The Puppet Show. It really is laugh out loud funny in parts. Not only is it through Poe and Tilly’s exchanges, but also from Poe’s inner monologue and his acerbic put downs and insights.
“Poe knew he should care that the deputy despised him, but he found not giving a shit was far easier.”
That’s my kind of thinking, that is 😂
The Puppet Show is a truly excellent book: it shocks, it intrigues, it infuriates, it enthrals and it repels in equal measure. It’ll have you laughing out loud and then going “ewwwwwwww” within the same page. But as gross and macabre as the crimes are, it’s in the characters where The Puppet Show excels. In Tilly Bradshaw and Washington Poe, Craven has created one of literary crime’s greatest pairings. They are wonderful creations indeed. But the characters are not limited to them alone and the supporting cast are equally as well rounded and fleshed out. DI Stephanie Flynn is a very valuable and respected part of the investigative team and I look forward to seeing more of her too. It’s not just the good guys who are memorable: in the Immolation Man, Craven has created a complicated, intelligent and determined killer; someone who has a plan and will not stop until it is carried out to its completion. But as warped and disturbed as the Immolation Man may be, there are darker and more insidious evils at play in this book.
The Puppet Show is also a love letter to Cumbria; our heroes travel the length and breadth of the county and you really feel the love for it coming off the page. Though the weather can leave a lot to be desired 😅
The Puppet Show really is unputdownable; a hugely entertaining novel that I guarantee will leave you wanting more. I’ll stake my beard on it. The sequel, ‘Black Summer‘, is already on the horizon (June 2019), and I cannot wait to return to the world of Poe and Tilly to see what happens next. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.
Buy your copy of The Puppet Show here and pre-order Black Summer while you’re at it.
About M W Craven
“I was, and remain, a happy person. I love to laugh and I’m forever on the lookout for new and innovative ways to do this. Other than my father dying when I was fourteen, I had a brilliant childhood. I was born in Carlisle but grew up in Newcastle. When I was sixteen I joined the army by accident (may that wily recruiting sergeant have a lifetime of TV programmes with incorrectly synced audio . . .). I spent the next decade travelling the world sweeping leaves. When every leaf was off every tree in every barrack in Germany, and safely in a bin liner, I dug a tunnel with a reconditioned mess-tin and escaped.
At a loose end, I considered becoming an expert in otters (sadly this is true). To further this aim I did a degree in social work. Thirty-one years after I’d left Cumbria as a babe-in-arms, heralded by the seven trumpets of the apocalypse, I returned to take up a probation officer role in Whitehaven. It was . . . boisterous.
Sixteen years later, and at the rank of assistant chief executive, I made the jump and became a full-time author. As one half of Mr and Mrs Craven, I am contractually obliged to say that getting married is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. With this in mind, a job you can do in your pyjamas comes a pretty decent second . . .
So here I am. Living in a beautiful and historic part of the country. Fells and mountains to pretend you’ve climbed. Forgotten villages to explore. Lakes to swim in and rivers to kayak down (I’ve done neither and I never will.). There are castles and mazes to get lost in, Roman ruins to scramble on (don’t do this, people will shout at you), and, as you’ll see in The Puppet Show, sixty-three Neolithic stone circles to run around naked (again, don’t do this; people really shout at you).
Also we have a lot of sheep.
So. Many. F*****g. Sheep . . .
I’m happily married to a beautiful woman (Jo) and, like Poe, I have a mischievous springer spaniel (Bracken – who once ate my cheese muffin when I wasn’t looking). When I’m not out with Bracken, or talking bollocks in the Kings Head, I can be found in the bar at punk gigs and writing festivals up and down the country. I’ve written several books now. One has been optioned for TV and translated into foreign languages. I really can’t complain. And I’m not. Really I’m not. Writing for a living is the best life I could have imagined for myself.
So, I’m happy. And I often think about where the darkness comes from. Put me in front of a blank screen and the laughter stops, immediately replaced by sinister thoughts.
It’s just as well someone pays me to write them down . . .”