Matt Hilton worked in the private security industry for 18 years, then as a cop for four. He quit his career as a police officer with Cumbria Constabulary to pursue his love of writing tight, cinematic American-style thrillers. His Joe Hunter series of books are on the shelves with more to come. He has just brought out the first ACTION: Pulse Pounding Tales. It’s a great collection of hard core crime writing from a range of talent including Paul Brazill, Absolutely Kate, Graham Smith, Col Bury, K.A. Laity and myself. Matt met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about the appeal of vigilantes and jury nobbling.
What advice would you give to yourself as a younger man?
If I could go back and speak to my younger self, I’d tell myself not to be so shy, and go for my dreams. I know it sounds a little pat, but I used to live my life thinking of how my actions would impact on those around me, and preferred to hold back and go with the flow. I missed quite a few opportunities along the way as a result. But then, maybe fate does exist and things were meant to happen the way they did and on the timescale they did, so who am I to worry now? I did all right in the end – I think.
Tell us about your Joe Hunter series.
I often find it difficult to describe the Joe Hunter books in a few words, but I’ll have a go. They’re called ‘crime thrillers’ in the UK, or ‘suspense thrillers’ in the USA. They’re not your typical crime fiction novel. Hunter isn’t a cop, private eye or even amateur sleuth. He’s an ex soldier, now loose in the world with a strong compulsion to put the world’s bad guys to rights. Many readers rightly or wrongly (dependent on your take), make comparisons with Lee Child’s superb creation, Jack Reacher. It’s true that they’re both tough guy, ex soldiers, and that they both take their own form of uncompromising vigilante justice to the world’s villains, but there are as many differences as likenesses. Reacher is a thoughtful, keen-minded Investigator, with a mean head butt and cigarette punch, Hunter on the other hand is driven by impulse and can sometimes be a little hot-headed and trusts a lot on daring and luck in battle. The series kicked off with Dead Men’s Dust – shortlisted for the International Thriller Writers’ Debut Novel Award 2009 – and saw Hunter – a Brit – heading off to the USA in search of his wayward step-brother, John. Unbeknown to Hunter, John had taken up on his minor criminal ways and in doing so had attracted the attention of vengeance-seeking mobsters, and worse – a bone collecting serial killer named Tubal Cain. Hunter, along with his old comrade in arms, Jared ‘Rink’ Rington, enters a chase to save John before one or more of his enemies catch up.
In the USA, four books in the Hunter series have been published, while in the UK, we’re ahead of the game a bit, with book 7 – No Going Back – published this past February, as well as a collection of short Hunter stories – Six of the Best – released as an eBook collection. The books are action-packed, and when I write them, one of the most important factors for me is pace. I’m a fan of Robert Crais, John Connolly and the aforementioned Mr Child, but the Hunter novels have been inspired by some of my earlier reading experiences, primarily the so-called ‘Men’s Action Books’ of the 1970s and early 1980s. I won’t win any prizes for literary excellence, but I might win a few smiles and cheers as readers join Hunter for the ride.
Do you think that the vigilante appeals because readers feel justice is commonly denied to people?
As an ex Cop, I should answer no. There should be no place in a civilised world for vigilantism. But as someone who has also seen how hampered by red tape and bureaucracy our police forces find themselves, then who can blame people getting pissed off when repeat offenders seemingly get away with crime time after time. Many of us has wished that we had it in us to give the local drug dealers a good slap and tell them to sling their hook off our neighbourhood, but we can’t. Otherwise we become the one that ‘the law’ turns on and throws us in the very cell the bad guy should have been in a long time ago.
In fiction, I think the vigilante act isn’t frowned upon, because deep down we’d like to think that if placed in a similar situation we’d stand up for what we felt was right, and we can actually cheer for the hero of the story when they put the real villains in their place.
I’m not advocating vigilantism, but I am saying people should stand up for themselves. Criminals are in a minority, and it’s only through fear and intimidation that they rule. Many times as a cop I heard people complaining about certain individuals and that the police should do something about them. But when asked those same complainants weren’t prepared to stand up and have their voices heard for fear of retribution. It’s understandable, but if enough people took a stand then the criminals would no longer hold the power and would be shown up for the petty bullies that they are. Often, I found, a neighbourhood would have one particularly bad family, from whom most of the problems originated. The other thousands of families shouldn’t fear one bunch of ingrates. But the law – who ironically can’t touch the criminals because of a lack of willing witnesses – seemed unable to touch them and their legend of invulnerability grew. It was nonsense, and I often thought to myself, if the gloves came off, and I gave them a good slap, that would be the problem sorted.
These days, I do my slapping on the page, of course. Joe Hunter is my big raw knuckled hand, and yes, I think readers do cheer because they feel a form of justice has been served.
How much do you think jury nobbling affects peoples’ willingness to act as witnesses, especially when you juxtapose the sentence served to Tony Martin and the case of Kenny Noye, even after he bragged about stabbing a policeman to death?
To be honest, I’ve no experience dealing with jury nobbling, albeit I did on occasion deal with witness intimidation, which I suppose is the same thing on a smaller scale. I think it’s the perception that criminals will come back and get revenge on witnesses that makes people hesitant to put their signatures on a witness statement. Usually the fear of the perceived retribution is enough to put witnesses off testifying, and I’ve seen witnesses withdraw their statements a few days after a crime had occurred. Usually this was as a result of having had a few days to think about the consequences, and their initial anger at being a victim or witness to someone’s suffering has worn off and doubt has began to creep in.
In the case of Tony Martin, who shot dead a teenage burglar, I believe that the system wanted to make an example of him: the last the government wants is for the public to take the law into their own hands, because it shows them up for losing the fight against crime. If Martin had been a middle or upper class gent, I suspect he’d have been treated differently. Because he was a bit of a recluse, and allegedly a ‘bit strange’ he was a likely candidate for them to throw to the dogs and put the fear of God into anyone who decided to follow suit. In Kenny Noye’s case, I think he got away with the murder of the policeman (stabbing him to death in self-defence?) because it was far easier to guarantee a conviction on the Brinks Mat money laundering scam he was involved in, which he was subsequently jailed for. Sadly, anything to do with money seems to take more precedent in the law’s mind than it does the sanctity of life. By law, I’m talking literally. In general the police officers I knew and worked alongside were decent people who wanted to help good people have a better quality of life. They were usually as frustrated as the victims as to how criminals seemed to be protected by the law. Lets not forget, a defence lawyer/solicitor/barrister makes more money than a prosecutor, and invariably all the best lawyers/solicitors and barristers end up working on behalf of the bad guys. Sad but true. There were times when I was a cop that I’d arrest a criminal, take them to the nick, and they were back out on the street again before I’d even finished writing up my notebook. There has to be something wrong there, but that’s the way things are these days. Like I mentioned earlier, I prefer that my crime fighting days are over and are now all on the page.
Tell us about your time editing the brilliant magazine Thrillers Killers N Chillers.
I think it’s apt that I give a little background to Thrillers, Killers ‘N’ Chillers, and how it came into being. When I was first contracted to write the Joe Hunter thriller series, it was for a five-book contract, and was somewhat of a record breaking deal for a debut thriller author. Because of this it made the news. As a result a lot of aspiring authors got in touch with me thinking that perhaps I had the lucky formula for getting published. To be honest, I was no different from anyone else in that I had a hefty dose of luck on my side. As it was I was getting loads of requests asking if I’d read people’s work and to give feedback to them. With the best will in the world it was a task I couldn’t possibly complete, not having a punishing publishing schedule of two books a year to fulfil, but I did want to help those authors out and pay back some of my own good fortune. I set up TKnC, and invited authors to submit their work to the site, where it could be shared and readers and other authors could help by offering constructive feedback and support. At first only a few stories trickled in, and things were manageable: then the floodgates opened. Thankfully, I’d made a good friend in Col Bury, who was an aspiring author himself at the time, and I asked Col to come onboard and help me out. With Col halving the workload it helped a great deal, and together we established the site and began to gain a good following.
However, sometimes a good idea can prove too successful, and the deluge of stories coming in began to impact on our own writing commitments. Thankfully again, we’d made a great friend in Lee Hughes, a terrific horror writer, and Lee came onboard to help. At this time we broke the submissions process up so that the correct stories went to the correct editor: Col took crime, Lee horror, and me thrillers and everything else. The site saw terrific hit numbers, and some brilliant stories, and was nominated and won a couple of awards along the way. Some of the authors also won awards for their work, and some literary agents began cruising the site checking out the talent, and actually offering some of the contributors representation. A little while back, other commitments meant Lee Hughes taking a backseat for a while, but another terrific talent in the shape of Lily Childs stepped in to fill the horror editor slot. The site continues to go from strength to strength and has now become a respected webzine for those seeking fresh genre short stories and flash fiction.
Through the process of running and editing TKnC I’ve met some great authors, and read some terrific stories, and hopefully helped a few authors on the right path to publication and careers. In the last few months I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by work and if I hadn’t had Col, Lee and Lily onboard I’m not sure what would have become of the site. But it’s going strong, and I foresee more awards and agent representations in the future. Over all, I’ve loved being involved and have no intention of backing off from the site any time soon.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
I’ll probably sound really contradictory here, but that’s the way I feel about eBooks in general. As an aspiring author, all I wanted was to see my by line on a real honest to God printed book. I spent the best part of thirty years learning the trade, writing the books, sending them to agents and publishers and getting continuous knock backs and rejections. After thirty-odd years of ‘learning the trade’ I finally got my lucky break and was picked up for publication by not one but two of the biggest publishing houses in the world. To say I was stunned and not a little flabbergasted is a supreme understatement, but it was what I seen as the culmination of a dream. I was tremendously lucky. Lucky to find the right agent, who had the right contact, who was looking for a certain kind of book, that thankfully I’d just written. But at much the same time as I was signing contracts the global financial meltdown struck, and as with many industries, the publishing industry took a real kick in the dooda’s. Book chains were closing down over night, independents were shutting their doors, libraries were threatened with closure, and even the supermarket chains decided they could no longer compete with the online book retailers and dropped most of the lines they used to carry. The knock-on effect was that anyone involved in the production or sale of traditional books took a savaging. At around about the same time, the buzz words were eReaders and Kindles and – heaven forbid – electronic books and I took an immediate and lasting dislike to the entire notion. I’m one of those readers who loves to hold a real book in my hands, not read from a glorified Etchasketch. I hated the notion altogether and for long enough whenever I heard the words Amazon or Kindle it was enough to make me spit.
But…a year or so back, having spent the last eight months or so writing a horror thriller, which – due to such lame excuses from publishers as “We wouldn’t know how to market such a book: is it a thriller or a horror?” – wasn’t picked up for publication, I decided to look into this upstart idea of ‘publishing it myself as an eBook’. To be honest, I wasn’t sure about the entire process, and still hated the idea. But I wasn’t so blind that I didn’t recognise something that was happening in the world. People were beginning to read ‘genre’ writing, the kind of books that didn’t appear in the bookshops because those in charge didn’t know how to market them. It finally hit me that here was an avenue to get writing out to readers who were willing to take a chance on something new/different. It seems that some people who decide to pick up an eReader are willing to take a chance on something off the wall, and not follow the trend of the latest Harry Potter or tattooed girl or Scandinavian whatever. I tested the eBook world by publishing ‘Dominion’, best described as ‘Alien meets 28 Days Later’, followed soon after by another horror thriller set against World War 2, called ‘Darkest Hour’, which has been described as being like Van Helsing meets Saving Private Ryan. I wouldn’t say that either eBook has seen tremendous sales success (except for the three days I gave a copy away free funnily enough) but being greedy for readership, i was happy that the books were out there in one form or another.
eBooks have brought about a revolution in publishing – good or bad – and I think it’s here to stay. I’d be a fool not to embrace it. I was told some statistics that anyone born after 1996 hasn’t known a world without mobile phones and home computers, not to mention all the other gizmos and devices that they’ve subsequently grown up with: this generation of people are used to reading from electronic devices, and when I thought about it, it’s obvious that they will be comfortable reading books the same way. In the next few years, the eBook market will continue to grow and grow. Sadly that might mean that the traditional form of publishing ‘paper’ books might continue to decline. it saddens me, but then I’m a writer, and if it means that I have to find an avenue to get my writing out to readers then I won’t complain if it happens to be via reading devices.
Here’s a strange situation: My paper books sell moderately well; my eBooks sell moderately well, and though i haven’t the actual figures in front of me suspect that they’re roughly about the same. So, I took an idea for a short collection of Joe Hunter stories to my publisher, with a view to publishing them as an ebook. The collection is called Joe Hunter: Six of the best. What I’ve found is that people who might not have purchased a full length novel have taken a chance on the short stories. As a reaction to that, they’ve discovered my writing and then gone on to buy my novels, in whatever form they fancy most. So, I can’t knock the ebook idea there. it has actually helped build my readership in a way i couldn’t have hoped for via the traditional publishing route.
So, having been a total Luddite at the beginning, and spitting at and decrying the idea of electronic books, I’ve actually realised that it makes sense to move with the times, and embrace the idea.
I mentioned earlier about people now having the opportunity to read ‘genre’ books. I love crime fiction, I love horror, but I also love the old ‘action books’ that were popular back in the 1970s and early 1980s. Having looked around at the eBook world, I saw that there were others out there with a like mind, and I saw an opportunity to bring back that particular genre to a whole new readership. I thought it would be cool to put out a call for submissions and put together a collection of short action stories, and the response was brilliant. Now here’s the truth: if I took the idea of an anthology of this type to a traditional publisher I know exactly what the answer would have been when I offered publication rights: A big fat resounding NO. People don’t buy short story collections anymore apparently (well, not from bookshops they don’t, but I have a feeling that’s because there are so few short story collections traditionally published). However, I know that isn’t true when it comes to eBooks. Anthologies and collections sell well as eBooks. I think it’s because of the time constraints on people these days, in that they like their reading to be in manageable five or ten minute sittings and short stories hit the right spot. So, I’ve gone ahead and published ACTION: Pulse Pounding Tales Vol 1, which is out now as an eBook. The response to my call for submissions was brilliant, and the collection is something special, in my opinion. I have stories from some top authors, including best-selling thriller author Stephen Leather to name drop just one.
I will say I still prefer a paper book, and will do my damnedest to secure a traditional publishing contract every time. But I’m coming round to the idea of eBooks too.
Told you I was a bit contradictory.
What are you working on now?
Some people might think I’m nuts to have taken on the workload I have recently, but here goes…
Having just finished editing and designing ACTION: Pulse pounding Tales Vol 1, I’m working on book 10 in my Joe Hunter crime thriller series. It’s early days with this one and I’m just pulling a few ideas together and writing the introductory chapters in a rough draft.
Also, I’m planning on starting a second ongoing series, if I can entice a publisher, and am hard at work writing an action-packed thriller that has elements of sci-fi and time travel thrown in for good measure. This is the first in a planned ongoing series featuring a balls-to-the-wall action figure called James Rembrandt. It’s kind of early days to say too much about the Rembrandt books, but fans of Joe Hunter won’t be disappointed. If anything, the action’s even bigger and ballsier than ever.
I’ve just completed writing a 10k words Joe Hunter short story and am about to embark on another. Both of these stories should be released first as eBooks, and then later as special additions to future Joe Hunter novels.
Next up, I’ll be writing a 25k word novella for inclusion in Steven Savile’s brilliant ‘Viral’ series of techno-thrillers, currently doing great guns as eBooks through Barnes and Noble, and coming soon to Kindle.
Also, I’ve written an introduction to Black Dogs Books’ upcoming Dan Fowler, G-Man book, and have two short stories coming out in Paul D. Brazill’s ‘True Brit Grit’ anthology and Weldon Burge’s ‘Uncommon Assassin’s’ anthology.
All of this doesn’t include the publicity I’ll be doing for my next Joe Hunter book. I’ve paperback editions of both ‘No Going Back’ and ‘Judgment and Wrath’ to promote here in the UK and in the USA this summer. So, you might say I’m kind of busy. But, hey, it’s what I love doing so I’m not complaining.
Do you see a future for the traditional crime novel with no law and order?
Although it appears that law and order is going out of the window, it’s only a perception, a zeitgeist, and not wholly true. There’ll always be a form of law and order in one form or another (unless we fall into total anarchy when the Mayan prophesy proves true, or the promised Zombie apocalypse hits) and by virtue there’ll always be crime novels. They’ve been around for centuries and I can’t see them disappearing any time soon. People enjoy crime novels, it’s their way of facing their demons in a safe (and enjoyable) manner, so I don’t see the genre going away. What I do think we’ll see is a broadening of the various sub-genres in the crime novel world, and what’s popular at the moment (Scandinavian crime) will be superseded by another (hopefully the crime thriller, eh?).
Graham Greene said writers have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?
To write the kind of stories crime writer’s do, it’s important to have that slither of ice in their hearts. It allows them to conjure the kind of scenes necessary to make their story telling dramatic and authentic. It would be difficult to convey the mind of a serial killer or hit man for instance, if all that you thought about were bunny rabbits hopping around flower-garlanded fields. Of course, that doesn’t make the author a monster; they only have the capacity to think like a murderer for instance. But alongside that shard of ice, there should be boundless empathy. It’s important that the slither of ice is balanced by good winning out. That’s where the author’s compassion must come in. I think we’re all capable of ‘thinking’ about committing murder or doing violence – it’s human nature. But what we also have is a moral compass that tells (most of) us, that those impulses are wrong and we don’t act out the darker siders of our imaginations. This is the dark font of an author’s imagination, which they can tap when required, but they also have the capacity to cap it when necessary.
Tell us something that your readers might not know about you.
Although I’m portrayed as a roughty-tufty action thriller author, I am very laid back and shy by nature. I love nothing more than a quiet life, and my great pleasure is lounging around on the porch of a log cabin on the shore of a Scottish Loch. I’m kind of an Old Fashioned Romantic, and still shed a tear at the end of the movie ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, or when King Kong falls to his death from the Empire State Building.
Thank you Matt for an informative and perceptive interview.
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