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The Death List (Matt Wells Series #1)

The Death List (Matt Wells Series #1)

3.5 6
by Paul Johnston

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Writer's block is nothing compared to the tale London-based novelist Matt Wells is now caught in. A chain of seemingly innocent e-mails from a devoted fan turns sinister when Matt discovers his correspondent is a cold-blooded killer with an agenda for murder.

This is the real thing, and soon Matt is plunged into a plot more twisted than any he could dream up for


Writer's block is nothing compared to the tale London-based novelist Matt Wells is now caught in. A chain of seemingly innocent e-mails from a devoted fan turns sinister when Matt discovers his correspondent is a cold-blooded killer with an agenda for murder.

This is the real thing, and soon Matt is plunged into a plot more twisted than any he could dream up for his novels. With each killing the man known as the White Devil tightens his grip by incriminating Matt at the murder scene. Cast not only as the victim but also the ghostwriter of the grisly story, Matt must risk everything to protect those he loves. But with the police closing in and Matt's friends being picked off, the White Devil is out there…plotting Matt's ultimate ending.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A blocked mystery writer whose recent career seems to echo that of his creator (Water of Death, 2001, etc.) gets energized in the worst possible way: by a battle of wits with a vengeful, verse-quoting killer. Beaten by his adoptive father and picked on by the school bully, Leslie Dunn killed them both at the age of 12. Now he's set his sights on bigger game: a murder spree that he's picked suspense novelist Matt Wells to immortalize in prose. Though Matt's profile could use a boost-he's been dropped by his publisher, his agent and his wife-being blackmailed into serving as the accomplice of the so-called White Devil isn't exactly what he had in mind. At first a helpless puppet kept in line (and forced to get himself ever deeper into the Devil's clutches) by threats to his nearest and dearest, he grabs the reins when he realizes as the bodies begin to pile up around the City of London that the Devil is setting him up as his fall guy. Johnston lets the pressure drop by giving Matt a bunch of muscular ex-rugby allies, cutting away to the police investigation, introducing another trio of freelance avengers and showing the Devil switching gears. Instead of butchering Matt's ex-wife, daughter and girlfriend, he strengthens the case against Matt by choosing throwaway victims Matt dislikes. The morbidly inventive death scenes are likely to test readers' stomachs, the arbitrary violence-at-will their patience.

Product Details

Gardners Books
Publication date:
Matt Wells Series , #1

Read an Excerpt

The day I made my deal with the devil started the same as any other.

It was one of those sunny late spring mornings when your soul was supposed to take to the air like a skylark. Mine hadn't.A few miles to the north, the white steel circle of the London Eye reflected the rising sun, its iris vacant and its pods already full of tourists who were more in awe of the ticket prices than the supposedly inspiring view. Suckers.

I was on my way back from walking Lucy to school in Dulwich Village. The stroll down there, hand in hand with my beautiful eight-year-old, chattering away, was one of the high points of every weekday. The other was when I met her in the afternoon. The uphill slog back to my two-room flat was the nadir. A blank computer screen was waiting for me there, and in the last month I hadn't managed more than a couple of album reviews. Today my next novel seemed as far away as the skyscrapers of Manhattan; tomorrow it would probably have moved on to Chicago.

I had to face up to it, I told myself as I walked along Brant-wood Road. I was blocked, good and proper. Suffering from terminal writer's constipation. About as likely to make progress as the government was to increase taxes on the rich. It was time I came up with an alternative employment strategy. There seemed to be plenty of work available destroying the pavements for the cable companies. I stepped across the uneven, recently laid strip of asphalt and went up the path to my front door. Except it wasn't mine. I was renting it from the retired couple below. The Lambs were charming on the surface, but sharp as butchers'knives when it came to anything financial or contractual. I'd only taken the place so I could be near Lucy after the divorce. She and my ex-wife, Caroline, were round the corner in what had been our family home overlooking Ruskin Park. The way things were going, I wouldn't even be able to afford this dump for much longer.

There wasn't anything special in the mail—certainly no checks; a music magazine I was forced to subscribe to even though I wrote for it occasionally, the electricity bill, and an invitation to a book launch. Someone in the publicity department of Sixth Sense, my former publishers, was either stunningly incompetent or was winding me up. No way was I going anywhere near what they were calling "a low-life party" to celebrate Josh Hinkley's latest East End gangster caper. When he started, the toe-rag had half the sales I had. Now I was a nobody and he was a top-ten bestseller. Could he write? Could he hell.

I made myself a mug of fruit tea, trying to ignore what Caroline had said when I gave up caffeine. "Brilliant idea, Matt. You'll be even less awake than you are now." She could nail me effortlessly. A top job in the City, daily meetings with business leaders, international credibility as an economist—and a tongue with the sting of a psychotic wasp. How had I managed to miss that when we got together? It must have been something to do with the fact that she was the owner of a body that still turned heads in the street. Who was the sucker now?

I logged on to my computer and opened my e-mail program. I had several writer friends who proudly said that they never checked their mail until they'd finished work for the day. I'd never had that sort of discipline. I needed to feel in touch with the world before I wrote my version of it. Or so I'd convinced myself. Deep down, I knew it was a displacement activity on the same level as arranging your paper clips or dusting your diskettes. When I was moderately successful, I still got a rush from unexpected good news, even if it was only my agent's assistant proudly telling me that they'd sold the translation rights for one of my books to some Eastern European country for a small number of dollars. It had been almost a year since something as insignificant as that had happened.

The contact page on my Web site was connected to my inbox. For the time being. I was struggling to pay the bill, so www.MattStonecrimenovelsofdistinction.com wouldn't be online for much longer. When my books were selling, I used to get up to five messages a day from fans bursting to tell me how much they loved my work. Now that I wasn't the apple of any publisher's eye, I was lucky if I got five a week. But I lived in hope. There was nothing like a bit of undiluted praise to crank the creative engine.

After I'd deleted the usual cumshot and cheap drugs spam, I looked at what was left. A brief mail from the reviews editor of one of the lad mags I contributed to. I'd sent him a message begging for work and here he was informing me that my services were not required this month. Great. That went the same way as the spam. Then there was yet another message from WD. I had to hand it to him or her. No, it had to be a guy—he knew too much music and movie trivia. He was as loyal as it got. And as regular. Three times a week for the past two months. I had foolishly made a commitment on my Web site to reply to every message, so I'd kept the correspondence going. But WD had a solicitous way with words and I'd made my feelings about some of the issues he raised clear enough. In short, I'd given him a glimpse of the real me.

I double-clicked on the inbox icon and went into the file I'd made for WD—giving all my correspondents their own file was another displacement activity that had kept me going for days.

I ran down the messages, opening some of them. They had started off as standard fan stuff— Dear Matt (hope first name terms are acceptable!), Really enjoyed your Sir Tertius series. Great depictions of Jacobean London. Squalor and splendor, wealth and violence. My favorite is The Revenger's Comedy. When's there going to be another one? To which I'd replied, with the deliberate vagueness that I used to cultivate when I had a publishing contract, Who knows, my friend? When the Muse takes me. Dickhead.

WD was also one of the few people who liked my second series. After writing three novels set in 1620s London featuring "the resourceful rake" Sir Tertius Greville, I'd decided to pull the plug on him. The books had done pretty well—good reviews (sarcasm and irony, always my strong suits, turned a lot of reviewers on); The Italian Tragedy had won an award from a specialist magazine for best first novel; I'd had plenty of radio and TV exposure (admittedly mostly on local channels) and I'd done dozens of bookshop events.

Then, for reasons I still didn't fully understand, I had decided that "A Trilogy of Tertius" was enough. I wanted to jump on the bandwagon of crime fiction set in foreign countries. I didn't know it at the time, but jumping on bandwagons is a talent possessed only by the very brave or the very lucky. I was neither. My choice of country probably didn't help. WD wrote, Your private eye Zog Hadzhi is a superb creation. Who would have thought that a detective would prosper in the anarchy of post-communist Albania? I particularly enjoyed Tirana Blues. Very violent, though. I suppose you must have seen some terrible things on your research trips out there. I didn't tell him that I'd never been near the benighted country and that all I knew I'd learned in the local library. No one seemed to realize. The critics were still approving (apart from a scumbag called Alexander Drys who called Zog "an underwear-sniffer"), but sales plummeted from the start. By the time my intrepid hero had defeated the Albanian Mafia in the second novel, Red Sun Over Durres, they were down to a couple of thousand and my overworked editor had declined any further offerings from me.

I'd known the series was in trouble from the start. There was a strong correlation between falling sales and the number of e-mails from fans. But I hadn't expected my publishers to deposit me in the dustbin of unwanted authors with such alacrity. After all, they'd invested in me for five books and I was already planning a new departure to get myself back on track. But they were more interested in twentysomethings with pretty faces and, if at all possible, blond hair, rather than a thirty-eight-year-old former music journalist whose looks could at best be described as rugged and whose author photograph had scared more than one sensitive child.

Never mind, Matt, WD had said. You have so much talent that I know you'll be back in print soon. James Lee Burke went unpublished for years. And look at Brian Wilson. Decades of silence and then a great new album. He was trying to help, but he didn't succeed. I didn't have five percent of Burke's talent and, besides, I'd never liked the Beach Boys' warblings.

Normally authors who have been dropped by their publishers do their best to keep that fact from their readers. Not me. In what my ex-wife described as "a career-terminating act that Kurt Cobain would have been proud of," I decided to air my grievances in the columns of a broadsheet newspaper. I'd met the literary editor at a party and I thought he'd be interested in an insightful piece on the cutthroat nature of the modern publishing business. He was, but not for the reasons I'd assumed. I bitched about how much money my publishers had invested in me only to cut their losses before I made the big time, I whined about how the author's appearance was more important than a skilled turn of phrase, and I looked back nostalgically to the weeks I'd spent on the road chatting up booksellers—all thrown away at the whim of a callous managing director. Controversy flowed for almost a week, and then the literary world moved on to more pressing issues (the next bald footballer's ghosted biography, the kiss-and-tell story of a large-bosomed singer).

And, too late, I realized that, by deploying my cannon as loosely as a blind-drunk pirate captain, I'd made myself unpublishable. Smart move. It got worse. A few days later my agent, a rapacious old dandy called Christian Fels, sent me an e-mail in which he graciously relinquished his representation of me. I had hit rock bottom. No publisher, no agent, no income.

At least WD remained supportive. Loved your piece in the paper, Matt. Such a shame the people running publishing are so shortsighted. So what if so-called experts like Dr. Lizzie Everhead tear you to shreds in public. Don't lose heart. There's a story out there waiting for you to write! Typical nonwriter, I thought. Stories didn't hang around like pythons waiting to ambush passing writers. Stories were in writers' heads, hidden away like lodes of precious metal. You had to dig deep and hard to find them, and I wasn't up to that anymore. I was too dispirited, too cynical, too ground down. I could have done without being reminded of Lizzie Everhead, as well. She was a poisonous academic who'd taken exception to my use of the Jacobean setting in the Tertius books. She and Alexander Drys were my biggest hate-objects.

Then I clicked open WD's latest message and entered a world of pain and torment.

Something I'd noticed as I scrolled down the messages in WD's file was that the e-mail address was always different. I'd been aware of that before, but I hadn't paid much attention, assuming my correspondent was the kind of cheapskate who jumped from Microsoft to Google to Yahoo, setting up free accounts and giving himself all sorts of different identities for fun. Except WD was always WD, no matter what his e-mail server was. This time he was WD1612@hotmail.com.

Dear Matt, I read. Hope you're well. I've made the most interesting discovery. You haven't been honest with me! There I was thinking that your name was Matt Stone and now I find that you're actually called Matt Wells.

That was interesting. I'd never revealed my real name anywhere on my site or in the media. I was a music journalist before I started writing novels, and I wanted to keep my two professions separate. I had the feeling that people who read my interviews with the Pixies and my career assessments of Neil Young and Bob Dylan might not be too impressed by the fact that I also wrote crime novels. I should have realized that being embarrassed about what I did was a bad sign. But the point was, how the hell had WD uncovered my real name?

Don't worry, I won't hold it against you, my correspondent continued. After all, some of the greatest writers hid behind nom de plumes. George Eliot, Mark Twain, Ross Macdonald, Ed McBain, J.J. Marric—yes, I know, Matt, it is rather a downward progression in terms of quality and you're at the end of it, but you get my drift. I imagine you wanted to keep your two audiences unaware of your alter ego. Didn't your publisher's publicity department give you a hard time about that?

Who was this guy? Not only had he found out my pseudonym, but he'd latched on to the fact that my former publicist had spent years trying to get me to be open about my music journalism in order, as she put it, "to make people realize how cool you are." Well, I couldn't be any cooler than I was now in career terms. Cool, as in stone-cold dead. But how did WD know all this?

Anyway, Matt, I imagine you're wondering how I came by this information. Well, that'll remain my little secret, for the time being at least. If we come to an agreement, as I'm sure we will, I'll try to be more forthcoming.

Agreement? What agreement? The only time I'd made an agreement by e-mail with a fan was when a woman called Bev pestered me into meeting her in a Soho pub. She was bigger than I was, not to mention more pissed and substantially more determined to exchange saliva. Fortunately I was a faster runner. Just.

You see, Matt, I have an ongoing project that I think you might be interested in. Before you get too uncomfortable, let me assure you that this is a genuine business proposition. And, as the blessed Zog says in Tirana Blues, "business only works on a cash-up-front basis, my friend."

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Death List (Matt Wells Series #1) 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I find it interesting how Johnston uses Jacobean tragedy to fashion Matt's books, as well as how Leslie's kills resemble deaths in Matt's books. Leslie seems like a really devoted fan that has a thing for revenge. I like that Johnston didn't hold back like most authors. Many authors don't kill animals or describe the deaths so vividly, which is a reason I liked this book. Also, there were unexpected parts, like the deaths of Reggie and Mandy, or the revelation of Sara's heredity. However, this was like most books in that Matt lived. True, there was suspense, but it was always obvious Matt and his friends and family would survive and Leslie would die. Nonetheless, I'll be sure to read the sequel. Three out of four stars. Sidenote: Anyone who did not like this book is an Alexander Drys and will die as such.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
BookAddictFL More than 1 year ago
I realize that this is fiction but fiction still needs to make sense. And this book often did not. What was supposed to be heroic (I assume), I found to be ridiculous. Many characters' behavior was questionable at best. The writing kept me at a distance. I was never able to latch onto the characters and experience their emotions. For instance, if a character whose viewpoint I'm reading from is being tortured prior to being murdered, I expect to feel something. But this read more like a newspaper account. I figured out the "twist" at the end about halfway through the book. And way things came together at the end, I thought, was just plain silly. This story had promise, though it never delivered.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Excellent book about an author who is being framed by a fan of his old crime novels. The fan kills people in a fashion that represents the authors crime novels to frame him. Now the author has to outsmart the fan in order to save people he loves as well as himself from being the next victim of the fan ! A great book with fantastic twists that will make you feel like you cant set the book down! A great thriller !!!
harstan More than 1 year ago
The Death List Paul Johnston Mira, Jul 2007, $24.95 ISBN: 0778324818 --- In London, novelist Matt Wells receives a series of e-mails from a fan that gives him the idea for a story. Initially he thinks nothing of this beyond someone likes his work, which makes him feel good. However, he soon finds a lethal pattern that frightens him Matt believes his biggest fan is a cold blooded serial killer who has targeted him, his ex-wife and his daughter for execution. --- The White Devil is working his death list getting closer to reaching Matt and his loved ones. Chief Inspector Karen Oaten and her police force suspect Matt is the killer as the White Devil cleverly leaves incriminating evidence that places the writer at the murder scene. Matt realizes he must risk his life before the police arrest him if he is to keep his beloved family members safe from a diabolical killer who knows him and watches his every move. --- From the onset, this is an exciting thriller that will have readers guessing how the White Devil is performing his deeds that set up Matt who is under tight police surveillance the climax reveals the means, which the audience in a Monday morning look back will say is obvious if one applied Holmesian logic. Although the characters are developed enough to matter, it is the anticipation throughout that the White Devil is methodically coming one corpse at a time towards the final kill that grips readers even when the plot seems over the Thames embankment. --- Harriet Klausner