First, it’s not a new novel — it’s about 25 years old. Second, it’s not by me. Third, it’s by a writer who went missing for twenty years and who still remains something of an enigma.
The tale of how I tracked down Chuck Loyola is almost as mysterious as the brooding, dark, angry, noir-ish novel, Blood Libel, itself. Almost, but not quite. But as publishing stories go, it has a few twists and turns and a whiff of mystery.
Chuck Loyola wrote Blood Libel in 1990 and published it in a small paperback run that constituted an early self-publishing venture that was twenty years ahead of its time.
I first stumbled across a paperback copy in a small Trotskyist book store which stocked exclusively Marxist literature. Bob, the manager, though, had a penchant for the odd literary title (they even had, quite bizarrely, an edition of Finnegans Wake in store for a year or two. No one ever bought it.)
Perhaps having Blood Libel on the shelves of an independent Marxist bookstore was no surprise in the end. The novel was a gritty exposé of inner-city political corruption at the height of the Thatcher years.
It’s a cracking inner-city noir, which sets up idealistic black journalist Howie Earls against an array of foes in the shape of crooked local councillors, violent political gangsters, satanic child abusers, and a one-eyed killer called the Cyclops.
Howie is also up against his own boss, a hapless magazine publisher who’s in over his head and has a pathological fixation with getting sued.
But down these mean streets a man must walk, and ask questions, and get beaten up. A lot.
The book has been on my shelves (various shelves, in various countries) ever since 1990, and I sometimes wondered if Chuck Loyola had ever followed it up with another Howie Earls case.
The radical black journalist was a character that deserved at least another book, if not a TV series, I thought. But I never saw any follow-ups, even though I often found myself checking under ‘L’ in most bookshops over the years. It seemed that Chuck Loyola’s self-publishing venture ran out of gas before the race had begun.
Over the years I occasionally reached for my copy, sandwiched between Victor Headley’s Yardie and Ian Rankin’s Hide and Seek, and found myself reading it again. It was such an explosive, short hit of adrenalin that once I’d glanced at a few lines, I always found myself reading the entire story.
I never expected to hear from Chuck Loyola again, but those re-readings had made me curious, and, like the character of Howie Earls (the black journalist who just can’t resist making a petrol bomb out of a burning question) I started making enquiries.
It’s easier to make enquiries these days. Much easier than it is for the staff of City Life in the novel, which was written a few years before the World Wide Web changed our lives. But Google threw up only an artist and a clerk at the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Chuck Loyola was neither of those.
I asked around, casually at first, whenever in the presence of someone who’d had any knowledge of the late ’80s/early ’90s writing and publishing scene, or even thriller fans. “Do you ever remember that book Blood Libel by Chuck Loyola?” almost always drawing a blank. Eventually I posted a blog about it on my website, to no response at all, and forgot about it. Until I got a surprise email a few years later, with the subject line: About your blog post. I almost deleted it without looking, thinking it was spam. Luckily, I glanced at the content and realised it was from someone telling me where Chuck Loyola lived.
As it turned out, he was within a half mile of my house. I’d probably passed him on the street or nudged elbows at the same bar, never realising I was standing next to the author of Blood Libel.
The poster told me where he lived and gave me his real name, and an email address that was suitably anonymous.
Chuck Loyola wasn’t his real name. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. He liked it because it sounded a bit more like the kind of guy who’d be writing about a tough, inner-city private investigator in the modern incarnation of idealistic journalist.
Chuck Loyola wasn’t on Facebook. He wasn’t on Twitter. Or LinkedIn. He was, it seemed, someone who resolutely clung to anonymity; someone who preferred living in the shadows.
I emailed him and a week later he answered and arranged to meet me in the back room of a nearby pub. Not the local pub, the busy one that most people drank in, but an off-the-beaten-track pub where few people ventured on a Wednesday afternoon.
When he arrived, he was pretty much what I expected: a black man pushing fifty, a little shy, wearing a chocolate brown shearling peacoat, a spiral bound notebook peeping out of the hip pocket, topped with a natty pork pie hat.
We talked over a few pints and he loosened up, telling me he was still scraping a living as a journalist, but it was all different now.
He’d been one of the last investigative journalists, writing up stories over a pint and ringing in copy from a phone booth, but now he sat at a desk all day and subbed press releases. No one was investigating anymore.
He had scraped a living on listings magazines around the country; magazines that burned brightly for too short a time and then folded. He’d moonlighted as a language teacher in Germany for a few years before drifting back to Britain and becoming a sub-editor.
He was a little surprised to find someone who knew his book so well, and who talked about it with such enthusiasm. A bona-fide fan. Twenty years too late. Except, it wasn’t too late. The modern self-publishing revolution means it’s never too late for any writer.
As we talked about Blood Libel, Chuck let slip mention of a further Howie Earls story: Dread Operator. Had he written it? I asked, my heart skipping a beat and my mouth going a bit dry.
He nodded. He’d written a film script sequel, set in Germany against the Dortmund sound system scene. The film never got picked up.
We agreed to meet again and when I visited his house a week later, he dug out the script, still surprisingly pristine white, held together with brass paper fasteners, and told me he’d had a batch of five or more printed. He had sent a few of them out to production companies, with the novel of Blood Libel. But they all came back. The scripts, that is. They always kept the novel (I wonder how many people who used to have film and TV jobs still have it sitting on their bookshelves).
He’d novelised Dread Operator but hadn’t published it. It was still on a floppy disk somewhere. And there was a third Howie Earls adventure, intriguingly titled, When You Go Home, You Die. My throat went dry as he casually let this information out.
There was a glow in his eyes as he talked, and I could tell that the world of Howie Earls was what he’d always wanted to write about, but the indifference of publishers had destroyed that dream: a left-wing black journalist wasn’t their idea of a contemporary literary hero.
And then there was the fact that technology had changed everything.
Blood Libel was written when computers were only just changing the working landscape. The office of City Life in the book is populated by manual typewriters; journalistic copy is snail-mailed to a printing press; interviews are recorded on mini-cassettes (then the cutting edge of technology); the internet hasn’t been invented, and if you had to guess what a blogger was, you’d plump for a children’s TV character.
The world of the political journalist has now changed beyond all recognition.
But I still felt strongly that Blood Libel was relevant, in the way that Ripper Street or Peaky Blinders is relevant: it’s a period drama that tells us much more about the modern day than we like to think.
And that same technology that had changed everything was the technology that could revive Howie Earls and make him walk those mean streets again.
Chuck listened with growing amazement as I talked about the indie-publishing revolution and how a lone unknown writer like me could publish a series of novels and gain a worldwide readership for them, with no publisher behind him.
It was exactly what he’d done way back in 1990, with naïve confidence, but back then he’d had to spend his redundancy money on a few hundred paperbacks that ended up in obscure bookshops and community centres. Now there was Print on Demand and ebooks offering worldwide distribution at the click of a few buttons.
But, as with many writers I talk to, I could see Chuck thinking he was too old for that game.
So I suggested something I’ve not suggested to any other writer I know who’s wavering on the self-publishing question.
I said, “Why don’t you let me publish it?”
He wondered why the hell I’d want to take valuable time away from my hectic publishing schedule to dig up the fossils of his own long dead literary ambition and exhibit them.
Well, the answer is:
- I’m a fan.
- It gives me a chance to revive a lost book. A book I’ve always loved.
- If I put out Blood Libel, I might also get to read those other Howie Earls stories I always wondered about,
- Maybe, just maybe, if those work out, Chuck Loyola will open his laptop, crack his fingers, and start writing about what Howie Earls is doing today. And I’m pretty certain that Howie Earls is doing something today, and whatever it is, it’s interesting.
So here it is, Chuck Loyola’s Blood Libel, a political conspiracy thriller that’s all about 1990. And all about today. Because when you look at it really closely, very little has changed.
Blood Libel is published by Andy Conway’s Wallbank press. The ebook is available now for anyone with the free Kindle app, at the special introductory price of 99p until Friday. The paperback edition will filter through in about a week.
GET IT HERE: Chuck Loyola’s Blood Libel