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SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN . . . A Warwickshire murder (part three)

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THE STORY SO FAR … Fanny Dodd and Joseph Hewitt, two “star-crossed lovers” if ever there were, had a brief relationship in the summer of 1886. The result? A baby girl named Daisy Hewitt Dodd. In April 1887, the body of a baby is found beside a stream. Arrests are made.

MachinThen, as now, criminal cases are first presented at Magistrates’ Courts. On Wednesday 11th May 1887, Charlotte Dodd and her daughter Fanny  appeared at Kenilworth Magistrates’ Court, charged with the wilful murder of Daisy Hewitt Dodd.  The presiding magistrate was Colonel John Machen (left), a distinguished local figure and a surgeon by profession.. His military rank was an honorary one, awarded for his prominent role in raising the 10th (Leamington) Warwickshire Rifle Corps in 1860, becoming its first Captain.

The hearing was a brief one because, for some reason, the court demanded a formal identification of the victim. Consequently, the court was adjourned and a submission sent to The Home Office requesting that the recently interred body of baby Dodd be exhumed. The request was granted, and the poor child had one last, pointless indignity inflicted on her. The next day, the coffin was brought from the ground and opened in the presence of PC Standley and the church sexton. The newspaper report makes for grim reading:

Exhumation

On 18th May, the adjourned hearing reopened, and a bizarre tale unfolded. On the morning of 26th April, Charlotte and Fanny Dodd, carrying baby Daisy, had set out from their Moreton Morrell home to walk to Warwick. They were accompanied for part of the way by an elderly neighbour, a Mrs Wincote. She was told that Fanny was taking the baby to Stoneleigh, where it would be looked after by its paternal grandmother, Mrs Hewitt. The party arrived in Warwick and went to sit in The Castle Arms, where they ate bread and cheese, and drank beer. Not long after they arrived, Fanny Dodds left with the baby, presumably heading for Stoneleigh, some five miles away.

The landlady of The Castle Arms, Elizabeth Hannah Butler, testified that Fanny Dodds returned later on that afternoon, holding a bundle of baby clothes, stating that the grandmother didn’t need them, as she had plenty of her own.

Justice_Wills_Vanity_Fair_25_June_1896The magistrates’ hearing, despite its length, was a formality. Colonel Machen decided that there was a case to answer, and the cavalcade moved on – to the Warwick Assizes to be held at the beginning of August. The presiding judge was Sir Alfred Wills, (right) a Birmingham man whose career defining moment was yet to come,as he would be the judge in the third trial of Oscar Wilde and when the writer was found guilty of gross indecency, Wills sentenced him to two years hard labour.

As was customary in those days, the names of the jurors were published in the press, and it is worth noting that among their number was Colonel Machen, who had been the magistrate when Charlotte and Fanny were first brought to court. The press report began in this fashion:
Prisoners pleaded not guilty. Mr Soden with Mr Keep conducted the prosecution, and the prisoners were defended by Mr Hugo Young, with whom was Mr Cartland. The Court was crowded and much interest was excited by the case. The younger prisoner, whose appearance is somewhat prepossessing, apparently felt her position keenly. Mr Soden, for the Crown, having given an outline the facts of the case, adduced the following evidence :”

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The evidence was provided by the old lady who had walked into Warwick with Charlotte and Fanny on that fateful morning, the landlady of The Castle Arms, Joseph Hewitt and his father and, of course the police. The principle argument by the defence counsel was that Fanny, pausing at Wootton Court Bridge, had accidentally killed the baby by dropping it and had then panicked. Mr Young stated:

If that occurred  – and he submitted it was a most probable inference – it was only natural that the girl, with no one to advise her what do, should take means to hide the body, in order that she should not be charged with having intentionally killed the child. In the fear which was then upon her, it was a likely thing that she would take off its clothes so as not to leave any traces of identity. If it was her intention to have killed the child, he submitted that it would be improbable that she would go to Warwick, where she would be seen by many people, or that she would go far in the direction of Stoneleigh.

It was far more probable that she would have disposed of the body in another direction, without running the great risk of going to Warwick. After the occurrence he had described, the girl, upon getting home, told her mother all the had happened, and it was quite natural that the mother, in her endeavour to shield her daughter, would support her story.”

Another bizarre possibility was raised, and it was that Daisy had been killed in Moreton Morrell, and then carried into Warwick and on towards Leek Wootton. This was inferred from the fact that neither the old lady who accompanied them nor the pub landlady never once heard the baby cry or witnessed it being fed. The judge, in a lengthy summing up hinted that there was no evidence that Charlotte Dodd had done anything except cover up for Fanny which, as a mother, would be perfectly understandable. The Leamington Spa Courier reported the dramatic conclusion to the trial:

“The jury then retired their room, and were absent about half an hour. Upon their return into Court, and in answer to the usual question put the Clerk of Arraigns, the foreman said they found the younger prisoner, Fanny Goldby guilty, but strongly recommended her to mercy. They found the elder prisoner Dodd not guilty. The prisoner Goldby then stood with the assistance of the gaolers, and the Clerk of Arraigns (Mr Coleridge), who exhibited much emotion, put the formal question as whether she had anything to say as to why she should not die, according law.

The prisoner upon hearing this screamed in the most agonizing manner, and threw herself upon the floor the dock. She was held upon her feet by the gaolers and surgeon (Dr. Browne), and the Judge, having assumed the black cap, said: “Fanny Goldby, you have been found guilty of the crime of wilful murder. The jury recommended you to the mercy of the Crown, and that recommendation shall be conveyed to the Secretary of State, but I am bound say there is little except your youth to justify that recommendation, for it was a cruel murder of an unoffending child. There is but one sentence for this crime, and it is that you taken hence to the place from whence you came, and thence to the place of execution, and there hanged by the neck till you are dead and your body buried within the precincts of the gaol. May the Lord have mercy your soul.” The prisoner uttered several loud screams during the sentence, and was removed from the dock in a fainting condition.”

An application for clemency was sent to the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, and Fanny was spared the death sentence, but was sentenced to penal servitude for life.

AFTERMATH

The sorry affair raises several questions that remain unanswered. Firstly, why was Fanny calling herself Goldby? She may have assumed the name when she fled to Birmingham, but one would have thought that the authorities would have insisted she revert to her maiden name during the legal process. Secondly, if Daisy was killed intentionally, what was Fanny’s motive? She had every reason to believe that Joseph Hewitt would continue his support for his daughter, and up until the fateful day there was every sign that the baby was loved and looked after – Fanny had even taken Daisy to the vaccination clinic. Thirdly, where did the baby die? It seems improbable that the two women would have carried a corpse all the way to Warwick and beyond, but for a normal baby to be silent for the duration of the six mile walk, and then still show no signs of life while the women had lunch in the pub is, at the very least, strange.

As to what became of the people in this story, we know that in 1891, Fanny was in the female prison at Knaphill near Woking, After that, apart from one mention, she goes off the radar. The Dodd family were still in Moreton Morrell

Prison

in 1901, but not in 1911. In 1901, the Hewitts still kept the shop in Stoneleigh, but Joseph had left home, destination unknown.

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BEFORE SHE DISAPPEARED . . . Between the covers

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It was around this time last year when I reviewed Lisa Gardner’s When You See Me, and in January 2018 Look For Me came under the Fully Booked microscope. These both featured the ‘odd couple’ Flora Dane and DD Warren, but this January the New Hampshire author has produced a standalone thriller – Before She Disappeared.

BSD coverCentre stage is a woman called Frankie Elkins. She is middle-aged and a recovering alcoholic. Her purpose in life is to find missing people. People who have been taken. People who have just walked away into oblivion. People who the police have made an effort to find, but have given up. This mission may remind British readers of the David Raker books by Tim Weaver (click the link to read more), but Frankie is rather different in that she doesn’t work for a fee. She follows cases on internet message boards and then just ups sticks, and with all her belongings in a suitcase heads of to where the trail went cold. I have to say that this was, initially, a fairly improbable premise. Frankie seems to have no money, little other than the clothes she stands up in, so why would she do this? Stay with it, though, like I did, and there will be an explanation. She carries the burden of a terrible trauma, and Lisa Gardner teases us about its actual nature until quite late in the story, and when we learn what happened, the past has a terrible resonance with the present.

In Before She Disappeared, Frankie goes to Boston, but this isn’t the upper crust Boston of the Kennedy dynasty, Leonard Bernstein or Harvard. She heads for Mattapan, a hard-scrabble and tumbledown district home to thousands of Haitians and other refugees from strife, poverty and natural disasters. Her mission? To find out what happened to Angelique Badeau, The Haitian teenager had been living with her aunt, sent to America after an earthquake devastated her home. One day she set of for school as normal, and nothing has been seen or heard of her since.

As a white woman in Mattapan Frankie is something of a curiosity, but she takes a job in a bar and slowly makes friends. The downside is that as her probing into Angelique’s disappearance starts to uncover some dark secrets, she also makes some serious – and deadly – enemies.

Frankie gains the begrudging trust of a local cop, Detective Lotham, and the pair begin to generate a certain electricity between them. This is, of course, a very handy – but perfectly plausible – plot device,as it enable Frankie to have access to all kinds of information, such as CCTV footage which, as a civilian she would otherwise not have.

The problem for Frankie is that Angelique was almost too good to be true. Studious, punctual, respectful, no boyfriend interest and certainly no connection to the local gangs, there seems to neither rhyme nor reason behind her disappearance. Then, after a more thorough search of the Badeau’s apartment Frankie makes a shocking discovery. She finds a huge stash of cash hidden in the hollow base of a standard lamp. When most of these bills are found to be rather good forgeries, the case swerves in a totally different direction.

I had in the back of my mind the comment, “a typical American thriller.” This is in no way derogatory. In the best of these books there is a slickness, a tight control over the flow of events, a sense of darkness that gives an edge without being too disturbing, and a cinematic quality. Before She Disappeared certainly fits into this slot. It is taut, sharply original and very, very readable. It is published by Century/Penguin Random House and is out now.

SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN . . . A Warwickshire murder (part two)

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THE STORY SO FAR . . . It is the spring of 1887, a young woman from the Warwickshire village of Moreton Morrell, Fanny Dodd, has given birth to a baby girl. The child, registered as Daisy Hewitt Dodd is, in the parlance of the day, illegitimate. The father, Joseph Hewitt, a baker from Stoneleigh has accepted that the child is his, and has sent money by post to Fanny to help with the child’s upkeep.

On the morning of 26th April a man named Thomas Hoare, of Chesham Place, Leamington Spa was on the road between Warwick and the village of Leek Wootton. He was described in the press as a hawker – someone who sells items from place to place. By the very nature of the job, the goods have to be carried, and Hoare paused to rest, perching on the parapet of a little bridge, under which ran a small stream. He often used the spot to rest his legs on his journey from Warwick to Kenilworth, but out of the corner of his eye he noticed something unusual. Lying at the edge of the stream was what appeared to be a small bundle. When he took a closer look, Hoare was shaken to the core when he realised that it was the body of a baby.

Hoare alerted two other men who were on the road, and they went to find a policeman. First on the scene was a PC Fletcher, and he later stated that the dead infant wore only a nappy and a little shirt and, incongruously, was wrapped in brown paper. Two days later a Kenilworth surgeon, Mr Clarke conducted a post mortem examination. An inquest was held the next day at The Anchor inn in Leek Wootton. He found:

“…the child to be about five or six weeks old. It was not a particularly small one. He examined the body externally, and found that the child had thick dark hair. was well nourished. Upon feeling over the head, he discovered the symptoms of a fracture of the skull, and there was discolouration around the right eye, and opaqueness of the pupil. The discolouration was something like a bruise. There was no evidence to show that the child had been drowned. He took off the skull, and found extraverted blood. The fracture was about four inches in length and two in breadth. It involved two bones – the parietal and temple bones, and extended from the right eye. He removed the bones at the seat of the fracture, and found effusion of blood on the brain.

The fracture was sufficient to cause death. He was of opinion the fracture was caused during life, because there was the effusion of blood. At that time he formed an opinion that the child had been dead only a few hours, as it presented such very fresh appearance. It was quite possible for child to been there four or five days during that cold weather without decomposing. Judging by the appearance of the child, and the cold weather, he was now of opinion that it might have been dead four or five days.”

Anchor

The child – its short life ended – was  buried in the churchyard at Kenilworth, but for the police this was just the beginning. There was only one clue as to the possible identity of the child. On the brown paper were written the words “Dodd, passenger to Milverton Station”. Contemporary archives shed little light on the police investigation, or how they made the connection to the Dodd family in Moreton Morrell, but we know that on 5th May Sergeant Alcott and PC Standley visited the cottage. They found Charlotte Dodd, aged 47, and asked her if she had a daughter with a baby. Mrs Dodd answered in the affirmative, but said that her daughter had moved away, taking the child with her.Mrs Dodd was arrested and taken into custody.

The police searched the cottage and found brown paper identical to that which had been used as a makeshift shroud for the dead baby. Crucially, they also found a letter, which the newspapers later printed:

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Sergeant Alcott In company with Detective Baker, went to 144, Monument Road. Birmingham, and found Fanny Dodd, now calling herself Goldby. They went outside together, and Alcott asked her if her name was Fanny Goldby, and if she had been living at Moreton Morrell, and she replied
“Yes.”
He also asked her she if had had a child about six weeks ago and she replied,
“About two months ago, sir.”
He asked her where the child was, and she replied,
“Morton Morrell.”
He then told her he should charge her with the murder of the child on or about the 20th April, and she made no reply. He then took her into custody, and brought her Kenilworth. After the remand at Milverton, he took the prisoner her to Warwick Gaol in a cab. She said,
“How long have I got to stay here, sir?”
Alcott told her that she would stay in gaol until the magistrates’ hearing the coming Wednesday. She then said,
“Do you think they will hang me? “
He replied,
“I can’t say.” 

IN PART THREE

An exhumation
The law takes its course
Unanswered questions

NO GOOD DEED . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2021-01-13 at 19.14.13First, a word about the author, Ewan Lawrie (left). He comes to the book world by a rather different route than many of his fellow writers. There cannot be many authors who served for nigh on a quarter of a century in the armed forces – in this case, the RAF – and then turned to writing. His first novel, Gibbous House, (2017) introduced us to a gentleman called Alasdair Moffat, who rejoices in the appellation Moffat the Magniloquent. In that novel he was a prosperous and successful criminal in Victorian London, but now, a decade later, he  – having fallen on hard times – has relocated to America, along with countless other folk of the “huddled masses”, the “wretched refuse” and the “tempest-tossed”. Unlike them, however, he is not seeking the “lamp beside the golden door”, but a rather better place in which to exercise his criminal talents.

It is 1861, and America is on the verge of the disastrous conflict which will shape the nation’s future for decades to come. Moffat has fetched up in St Louis, pretty much stony broke. With an unerring talent for sniffing out trouble, he murders a man named Anson Northrup, assumes his identity and, in order to pay off a brothel bill he cannot afford, accepts the task of delivering a mysterious package further down the Mississippi River. He boards the steam-driven riverboat The Grand Turk. The package he is carrying contains operational details of what was known as The Underground Railroad – a network of secret routes and safe houses established in America used by slaves to escape into freedom. Moffat, of course, being British, takes the metaphor literally, and it is some time before he realises that he is not carrying a conventional railway timetable, and that the late Anson Northrup is a key figure in a plot to steal silver bullion from the Mint in New Orleans – the major city in the state of Louisiana, which had just seceded from the United States.

NGD1In his guise as Northrup (although not everyone is fooled) Moffat meets several larger-than-life and almost grotesque fictional characters, and lurches from one crisis to the next, but one of the most spectacular parts of the novel is when he meets Marie Laveau, a real life New Orleans character renowned for her mystical qualities, as well as her expertise in the black arts of voodoo.

Lawrie is an entertaining writer who has clearly done his historical homework, but also adds a heady combination of whimsy, smart jokes and improbable situations to make for an entertaining read. The rather old fashioned literary term picaresque came into my mind as I was reading this, but I needed to check what it meant. The ever-present Google says that it is:

“relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.”

I think that pretty much sums up No Good Deed. The novel succeeds not through the particular integrity of the plot, but more through the relentlessly entertaining episodes, and the grim allure of Moffat himself. There is more than a touch of George MacDonald Fraser and his likeable coward Harry Flashman about this book, and I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed that series of novels. No Good Deed is published by Unbound Digital, and is out now.

SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN . . . A Warwickshire murder (part one)

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In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described the Warwickshire village of Moreton Morrell like this:

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The 1881 census records that living in a cottage on Morrell Farm in the village were the Dodd family.

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Just six years later, Charlotte Dodd and her daughter Fanny were to be the central figures in a murder case which shocked the country. Fanny Dodd was evidently something of a beauty. In the court case which decided her fate she was described thus:

“The younger prisoner, whose appearance is somewhat prepossessing….”

By 1886, Fanny had taken a very common career route for young women from poor backgrounds – she went into service. Wealthy families had servants, and the Trueloves of Stoneleigh – a village between Leamington and Coventry – were no exception, and Fanny was their domestic servant. Stoneleigh is the site of a Cistercian abbey, but it suffered the fate of so many similar institutions at the hands of Henry VIII. The Leigh family had acquired the site in 1558, and in the eighteenth century, a grand house was built on the site, and Benjamin Truelove was a tenant farmer of the current Lord Leigh.

Stoneleigh had a Co-operative Stores, and it was managed by William Hewitt. His son, Joseph, had learned the bakers’ art, and had a comfortable life in the family home. At some point in 1886 the 18 year-old lad had come into contact with Fanny Dodd, a couple of years older than he, and something of a beauty. Evidence given at Fanny’s trial suggests that on Whit Sunday  – 13th June – the pair had gone for a walk together, and somewhere near Pipe’s Mill – a water mill on the River Sowe – one thing had let to another, and the couple had, well, coupled (please feel free to substitute your favourite euphemism).

Getting pregnant was certainly not in the job description of domestic servants in Victorian times, so at some point later in 1886 Fanny returned to Morton Morrell. On 8th March, 1887, Fanny gave birth to a healthy girl. The child was duly registered, and her name was Daisy Hewitt Dodd.

At this point there was no evidence to show that Fanny Dodd had any feelings other than love for her daughter. Indeed, records showed that she had taken Daisy to nearby Wellesbourne to be vaccinated – probably against snallpox.

On 15th March, Fanny sent a letter to the young man she believed to be the father of her child.

Morton Morrell, 15th March.

Dear Joe
l dare say you will surprised hear that I was confined last Tuesday—a little girl. Of course it has come from last Whitsunday, when of course you know what took place by Pipe’s Mill. It comes exactly from that time. At least I know it belongs you, because there has not been any transaction between me and any man since I went with you then. Dear Joe, I hope you will come to some arrangement. Once, when you asked me, I said not, but I did not know for certain then, but I knew before I left Trueloves for I had gone half my time nearly when I left her. I hope you will either have me or come to some pairing arrangement without going to any further trouble. I ought to have written to you before now, but I kept it from everyone, not even my mother knew I was in the family way until the child was born on Tuesday. I am very weak and can scarcely scribble this letter. I ought to have written to you before. I very sorry it ever occurred. I think the child will own you anywhere. It is a strong healthy looking baby, and likely to live. I think have told you all at present. Believe me, yours sincerely Lizzie, or, as they call me, Miss Dodd.

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Joseph Hewitt was evidently not prepared to settle down to married life. A couple of days later, he replied. The substance of what he wrote was never recorded, but one can guess what he wrote, judging by Fanny’s reply:

Mr J. Hewitt – I am writing to thank you for the money that you sent me, which I received quite safe last Tuesday morning, but I was quite surprised at the abusing letter you sent me: and as to saying the child belongs to Charley, that quite untrue, for I am quite sure it belongs to you, and if you do not continue to pay the money I shall swear it on you, because I have things against you to show plain proof. You know you bought me gin and came to meet me with it, but I didn’t take it. and then you sent me that 10s. That has done it at once if I was to swear you. I shall be sure to get pay, for Lord Leigh only asks the girl a few questions and if I tell him you cannot get over it, and it will be nothing but the truth. The time will tell anyone; it comes from Whit-Sunday, at least. I never had any dealings with anybody else, and if old Joe says he can prove it, I should like him to do so. And as for my carrying on here with chaps, I have only spoken to one since I left Stoneleigh. I can get that proved by the people at Moreton Morrell, and can get it proved that those people that told you are very great liars. If they were to look at home and themselves, they have no room to talk about me, and as for you calling me a prostitute, I think you had better mind, or I shall come over and see you and some one else too. I shall expect to hear from you again on the eighth of next month, or I shall swear it was you. The child belongs to you. I should never have said it was yours if you did not get me into trouble, and now you must help me to get out it. People were great liars to say we knocked French’s wheat down, and if we had, the child did not come from that, but we did not. F. Dodd.

Several truths emerge from this exchange. Firstly, Fanny and Joe had enjoyed a brief but tumultuous sexual relationship. Secondly, Fanny had what we might call something of a reputation – she was clearly a very attractive and passionate young woman. Thirdly, Joe Hewitt had been swept off his feet but, while being prepared to send money for the upkeep of his daughter, saw no future in a long term relationship with Fanny Dodd.

IN PART TWO

A gruesome discovery…
A brown paper clue
A trip to Birmingham


COMPETITION TIME . . . !

FOUR ACTORS – ONE ROLE. The character is from one of the most famous crime fiction novels ever written. Here are a few clues:

  1. This dog DID bark in the night.
  2. As Shakespeare wrote in King Lear, “Howl, howl, howl …..”
  3. The family name even has a font named after it…

Send me a Twitter message with the answer to be in the draw. Entries close 10pm, Friday 22nd January.

THE ART OF DYING … Between the covers

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Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym for a collaboration between Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman (pictured below). They  live in Glasgow,  slightly less genteel – at least in popular image – than Edinburgh, where this novel is set. It novel weaves together two stories, both of which have have factual origins. One strand deals with an horrific serial killer and her victims, while the other story is seen through the eyes of a young doctor in the middle years of the 19th century. The novel is a follow-up to the 2018 publication, The Way of All Flesh.

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SimpsonThis is not a book for those squeamish about medical details – especially those common in the 19th century. There are tumours, painful deaths both lingering and sudden, surgical procedures that involve much guesswork and hopeful blundering about the human body – externally and internally. If you are still with me, then the story is this. It is 1849, and we first meet young Dr Will Raven when he is involved in a street brawl in Berlin, where he has been studying. He survives the encounter, and returns to Edinburgh, where he is reunited with his former mentor, Dr James Simpson. Simpson – a real-life character, pictured –  is highly regarded, but also the object of much jealousy from less gifted physicians, and is facing charges of malpractice brought about by his envious peers.

Raven had hoped to find an earlier object of his affections – a young woman called Sarah, who also worked with Dr Simpson – available for further dalliance, but in the interim, she has married another doctor, Archie Fisher. He is terminally ill, and as both Will and Sarah are aware of this, the sad fact adds a certain piquancy to the relationship.

TAOD cover2Away from the relative gentility of the Simpson household, we have a young woman who moves in very different circles. She has suffered a brutal and traumatic childhood. This has either directed her on a devilish pathway, or kindles a spark which was already there but, either way, she has become a murderer. The writers employ an obvious – but effective – counterpoint here, in that Sarah Fisher desires to become a doctor, while Mary Dempster seeks to hone her skills as a killer. Contemporary society believes that a woman cannot possibly be a success in either occupation.

It takes a while for Will and Sarah to come round to thinking the unthinkable – that Mary Dempster is a clever and a successful killer. Because we, as readers, have had the advantage of reading first-person-viewpoint chapters, we know that she is a devious and malevolent individual. Yes, she has had a terrible upbringing, involving degradation and abuse, but not all orphans who suffered at the hands of Victorian institutions turned out to be serial killers.

As I said earlier, if you are the kind or reader who would shudder at the thought of reading a cut-by-cut account of an early surgical attempt to save a woman from an ectopic pregnancy, then this may not be the book for you. Bolder souls will enjoy a gripping and twisty murder mystery shot through plenty of gore and passion. The Art of Dying came out in hardback in August 2019. This paperback edition is published by Black Thorn and is out now.

House With No Doors . . . Between the covers

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HWND cover008This has the most seriously sinister beginning of any crime novel I have read in years. DI Henry Hobbes (of whom more presently) is summoned by his Sergeant to Bridlemere, a rambling Edwardian house in suburban London, where an elderly man has apparently committed suicide. Corpse – tick. Nearly empty bottle of vodka – tick. Sleeping pills on the nearby table – tick. Hobbes is not best pleased at his time being wasted, but the observant Meg Latimer has a couple of rabbits in her hat. One rabbit rolls up the dead man’s shirt to reveal some rather nasty knife cuts, and the other leads Hobbes on a tour round the house, where he discovers identical sets of women’s clothing, all laid out formally, and each with gashes in the midriff area, stained red. Sometimes the stains are actual blood, but others are as banal as paint and tomato sauce.

Hobbes makes a more thorough investigation of the strange house, and finds a cellar in which he discovers something even more disturbing. Author Jeff Noon introduced us to Hobbes in Slow Motion Ghosts (2019 – click for the review) and, like that earlier novel, this one is set in the 1980s. Hobbes is a bit of a misfit. He is certainly not ‘one of the lads’ back at the station. He is quiet, cerebral and single, his marriage to Glenda being certainly on the rocks and close to being sunk. As he tries to work out what secrets lie within the walls of Bridlemere, he has personal problems, the chief of which being the fact that his 17 year-old son has left home to live in a squat, where both his health and sanity are threatened.

Hobbes believes that although Leonard Graves did probably take his own life, an enigmatic note he left suggests that there is a body concealed somewhere in the house.. While an intensive search produces no human remains, what Hobbes calls The Case of The Thirteen Dresses becomes a genuine murder enquiry when the body of the old man’s son is found, battered to death in Richmond Park.

Kusozu

The more Hobbes learns about the Graves family, the more he feels drawn into their sinister world. Mary Estelle, Leonard’s wife, a former actress of renown, is living out her days in an old folk’s home, absorbed in her glittering memories, but was she responsible for corrupting her three children Rosamund, Camilla and Nicholas? Was there a fourth child, Adeline, mentioned in Leonard’s suicide not? And what of the grandson, David, and his obsession with Kusozu, the macabre Japanese art form that depicts the very corruption of death?

Jeff NoonMy verdict on House With No Doors? In a nutshell, brilliant – a tour de force. Jeff Noon (right) has taken the humble police procedural, blended in a genuinely frightening psychological element, added a layer of human corruption and, finally, seasoned the dish with a piquant dash of insanity. On a purely narrative level, he also includes one of the most daring and astonishing final plot twists I have read in many a long year.

Jeff Noon takes us to places unvisited since the days of the late, great Derek Raymond. This novel is crime fiction, yes, but also a journey into the darkest corners of the human soul. Raymond’s nameless copper also walked the bleaker streets of London, and he had a passion verging on obsession for avenging the victims of crime by finding the people who killed them. Henry Hobbes shares this single mindedness. House With No Doors is a chronicle of madness wearing a mask of normality. It is deeply moving and as Hobbes mines deeper and deeper into history of the Graves family, he shows us that it is not only the dead who are victims. The book is published by Doubleday and is out on 14th January.

DOUBLE AGENT . . . In brief

DA 1Political journalist, TV news presenter – and novelist – Tom Bradby is as close to the centre of British international relations as it is possible to get without signing The Official Secrets Act. His first novel, Shadow Dancer, was published in 1998, and now his eighth book – Double Agent – which came out in hardback earlier this year, is available from 7th January in paperback.

The central character in this spy thriller is MI6 agent Kate Henderson, and fans of Bradby’s work will know her from Secret Service, which came out in 2019. Then, as now, the villains of the piece are the Russians – and those in the West who share the Russian ideology behind a mask which allows them to operate at the very centre of the British establishment.

51UTZczpwoL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_If this has an echo of the late and much-lamented David John Moore Cornwell, better known to us as John le Carré, then so be it. Bradby carries the torch for a younger generation of novelists who are intrigued by the complex relationship between the Russian soul and the British mind. In Double Agent, Kate Henderson becomes the reluctant keeper of a terrible secret – the British Prime Minister is working for the Kremlin.

How she handles this potentially deadly information makes for a riveting read for anyone who likes political thrillers. Double Agent is published by Corgi/Penguin, and is available here, and from all good bookshops. Fans of Kate Henderson will be pleased to know that a third book in this series – Triple Cross – will be out in May this year.

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