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fullybooked2017

CRIME FOR THE COGNISCENTI!

WELCOME TO FULLY BOOKED! If you are a fan of crime writing – old, new, true or fiction – you should find something to entertain you here. Among the regular features will be a focus on real life crimes, both in the UK and further afield, the classic fiction of The Golden Age, and the latest new releases from top authors and publishers.

CHECK OUT A SELECTION of our best graphics – covers, descriptions and images relating to crime novels. A click on the Pinterest icon will take you straight there!

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PRIZE DRAW …Win Chris Nickson’s The Hanging Psalm

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I YIELD TO NO-ONE in my admiration of Chris Nickson and his Leeds historical crime novels, and so it is with a heavy heart that I am launching this competition to win a prize that is so gorgeous, I am tempted to assume an alias and enter the draw myself.

THE HANGING PSALM is a dark and brooding novel set in Georgian Leeds, and is a tale steeped in revenge, murder, astonishing period detail and a certain amount of social anger.

MAY I SUGGEST two small steps? First, click the blue link to read my review of The Hanging Psalm. Then, email me at fullybooked2016@yahoo.com – no need to do any more than put ‘The Hanging Psalm’ in the subject box. Alternatively, if you are a Facebook user, go to the Fully Booked Facebook page and ‘like’ the post about this competition. The image link below will take you straight there.

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PROBABLY EVEN EASIER, if you belong to the Twitterati, is to either like or retweet my daily posts about this competition. Click the little blue bird below to go the Fully Booked Twitter timeline.

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ENTRIES please by 10.00pm GMT on Sunday 30th September. The winner will be drawn from the Fully Booked digital hat, with United Nations observers present to ensure fair play. One entry per person only, please, and I will let the lucky winner know sometime on Monday 1st October.

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TRUE CRIME … The killing of George Belverstone

 

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I have always had a morbid fascination with canals
. There is something sinister about the unnatural way they snake into towns and cities, often hidden between and beneath buildings. The water is always murky and impenetrable; it could be three feet deep, it could be ten feet deep; the latter is, of course unlikely, but the awful possibility remains. I associate canals with death. Dead bodies. People who have had enough. Rivers are capricious things. They flow, they run shallow, they run deep; they are unreliable. But the canal is different. For someone contemplating what is surely the most awful method of suicide, drowning, the canal offers stillness and silence. The canal will be unlovely, unvisited, and a place where the past hangs heavy. For a killer, wishing to dispose of a body, the same attractions apply. Even as I write, an urban legend grows in strength. People believe The Manchester Pusher is a serial killer (click the link to read the story) who haunts the cold, bleak and dark canal network that runs through the city. There are few lights along the canal towpaths. There is no-one to hear you when you scream. Figures from the Manchester City Area coroner’s office show there have in fact been 35 drownings over the past decade. Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) say there have been 22 such deaths in the city centre since 2009.

Wisbech had a canal. It was dug out of the Fenland soil in the dying years of the 18th century, and was relatively short, but connected the tidal River Nene with the Great Ouse and was, in its prime, a way to transporting the valuable fruit and vegetable produce of the Fens to the coast, and then onward to other markets. In 1853, the canal remained a viable thoroughfare for farmers. merchants and traders. It was also still enough, cold enough and deep enough to embrace human bodies in its watery arms.

In the grey dawn light of May 29th 1853, a body was found floating in the canal. A witness at the subsequent court case stated:

“I heard someone shout, “There’s a man in the water.” I did not get up until I heard someone say, “It’s young Belverstone!” I knew Belverstone well. I knew Wilson by his nickname ‘The Russian Hog’, but I was not well acquainted with him. I had been brought up with Belverstone from a child. When I heard the cry that he was in the water, I went downstairs and went to the canal side. I then saw Wilson, with several other people. The body was out of the water, and on the bank. I asked Wilson to let me see the body, but he refused. When I asked him who it was, he said, ‘Young Belverstone.’ I asked to see his face, but Wilson said, ‘No – you are a female, and don’t want to see him. When I afterwards saw the body, it was young Belverstone.”

Suspected murder

Frederick Wilson, as his nickname might suggest, was a fearsome local brawler. Built like a heavyweight, he held court in several Wisbech pubs. Belverstone, (24) was not unused to pub life, as his father, William, was landlord of another local tavern, The Wheatsheaf.

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It seems young George had been drawn to Wilson’s circle of hard characters and female hangers-on, but they saw him as gullible and a prime target for jibes and jokes at his expense. Again, another witness statement from Wilson’s trial for murder:

“At about one o’clock, I was in bed, but woken up. I thought the noise was in our yard. People were laughing, larking and scuffling about in the lane. I went to the window to look. There was a gas lamp in the lane, fifteen or twenty yards from where I was looking. I saw the prisoner and Belverstone, and two women. I didn’t know the women. I saw Belverstone knocked up against Mr Oldham’s door by Wilson and the two women. They did not appear to be angry, but seemed to be all larking. I then saw young Belverstone knocked down on the ground several times. I don’t mean knocked down with fists, I couldn’t see that. They all kept about him larking. He was pushed down three or four times, and then they helped to pick him up, as far as I could see. One of them kept saying, ‘Pick him up, pick him up!’ I don’t know that he was drunk. Once, when he was knocked up against the door he cried out. I saw Wilson strike Belverstone once or twice, but whether by the fist or the back of the hand I cannot say.”

Belverstone’s fatal final evening had been spent in a back street pub called The Bowling Green Tap. It was demolished in the 1970s, but local people still recollect it fondly:

Memories

Back in May 1853, it seems that the hapless young Belverstone had supped well but not wisely. He had chosen the company of people who sought entertainment through his vulnerability. In court, the evening’s merrymaking at The Bowling Green Tap was described thus:

“I left about six persons in the house. Belverstone was drinking, and was not sober. He was so tipsy that he fell off his chair, but did not hurt himself.” Mr Power asked, “How would you know?” Mallet replied, “I fancy he didn’t.” The judge asked, “Was he so tipsy that he couldn’t sit on his chair?” Mallet said, “Oh he could sit very well, and he was laughing to see another man so drunk that he fell down.” Mr Power then stated, “Ah, so one man was so drunk that he laughed so much at another drunken man that he could not retain his seat!” Mallet said, “Yes, but there was no quarreling when I was there.”

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It seems that Belverstone was struck down by Wilson, who was clearly acting up to impress his female entourage. Somehow Belverstone ended up in the canal. Wilson was arrested and detained on suspicion of murder. His trial was held during the Cambridgeshire Summer Assizes in the July of 1853. There were two key questions which needed answers; Did Belverstone drown, or was he killed by a blow from Wilson? How did he come to be in the canal?

The local surgeon who carried out the post mortem on Belverstone provided an unequivocal answer to one of the questions. He said that the dead man had received a violent blow to the skull, just behind the ear, but saw nothing to indicate death by drowning. As for how Belverstone found his way into the canal, a prisoner called Peter Brett who talked to Wilson while he was on remand seemed to solve the mystery.

“I have known Wilson for two years. I am a prisoner from Wisbech. I met Wilson in prison. He asked me how long I had to stop. I said I was in for a month, and asked him what he was in for, and he said, ‘murder’. He said no more that day, but I saw him a few days after (the 5th of June) and he said, ‘ I have thrown a man into the river.’ I asked him what man, and he replied, ‘George Belverstone.’’’

1stLordWensleydaleAfter an elaborate summing up by Judge James Parke, 1st Baron Wensleydale, (left) the jury retired to consider the precise cause of Belverstone’s death. Not for them days of deliberation, or purdah in some hotel away from the public eye. After a full five minutes, they returned and the foreman stated that George Belverstone had been killed by a blow from Wilson’s fist. The prisoner, at this point, must have had visions of the hangman’s knot swimming before his eyes, but the 1st Baron Wensleydale was minded to differ. Unbelievably, he was of the opinion that although Wilson struck the fatal blow, “the violence was attributed to accident,” and pronounced:

“Frederick Wilson, I quite approve of the verdict of the Jury. You have aggravated your offence by adding the guilt of falsehood to your crime of having deprived a fellow creature of life whilst in state of intoxication; I punish you now only for the blow inflicted ; It does not appear that you were in state of anger at all, and there are other mitigating circumstances in your case. I therefore sentence you six months’ imprisonment, with hard labour.”

Six months in jail for killing a man? I believe that those who rail against what they see as the soft sentences handed out to modern criminals should study legal history. The law is, always was, and ever will be – an ass.

My thanks to the members of the Facebook group Wisbech Pictures Old and New, particularly the family of the late Geoff Hastings, Andy Ketley, Roger Rawson, Steve Williams, Andy Ward, Patricia Warden and Pat Prewer for their photographs and memories.

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THE HANGING PSALM . . . Between the covers

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Honest broker that I am, and the modern equivalent of Robespierre in my sea-green incorruptibility, I must declare an interest here. I am an unashamed and avid fan of anything written by Chris Nickson. I hope that if he did write a duff book – or chapter – or page – or sentence – I would say so. Happily, that dilemma is one that I have yet to face.

hanging-psalm-revisedNickson’s latest book introduces a new character, Simon Westow, who walks familiar streets – those of Leeds – but our man is living in Georgian times. England in 1820 was a kingdom of uncertainty. Poor, mad King George was dead, succeeded by his fat and feckless son, the fourth George. Veterans of the war against Napoleon, like many others in later years, found that their homeland was not a land fit for heroes. The Cato Street conspirators, having failed to assassinate the Cabinet, were executed.

Simon Westow is a thief-taker. These days, he might be a bounty hunter or a PI. There is no established official police force, merely a Constable who is neither use nor ornament.
“The constable. It was a name rather than a job. A position. All the ceremony and the money that went with the post, but none of the work. Cecil Freeman had been part of the council long enough to earn the sop, a nest to gild his retirement. He supervised the watch, old men who covered the different wards of Leeds and hobbled a mile rather than risk a fight.”

Westow is a tradesman, just like a plumber. He is paid by results, and when he is tasked with finding the kidnapped daughter of a prominent mill owner, it poses no major problem and the young woman is soon found and returned to her family. But – and it is a huge ‘but’ – Westow and his ally, a wraith-like and embittered girl of the streets called Jane, learn that there is much more to the kidnapping than meets the eye. Their nemesis is a vengeful and resourceful man called Julius White, who has returned from a seven year transportation sentence to settle scores with those who put him on the prison ship sailing to Australia.

Samuel Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” but Nickson has eyes and ears only for Leeds. I am always drawn to writers who make a vivid sense of place a major character in their novels, hence my fascination with the London of Christopher Fowler, Jim Kelly’s Fenland and the brooding hills of the Welsh Marches as portrayed by Phil Rickman. Nickson, and his Leeds across the generations, is up there with the best. Think of the subtleties of a Rembrandt portrait, every line and wrinkle faithfully reproduced, but also think of that great painter’s warmth and the deep compassion of his vision.

Nickson employs a simple but astonishingly effective plot device, that readers of his novels will recognise. A crime is committed. The perpetrator is either unknown, or a known villain who has gone to ground in the alleys and ginnels of Leeds. The central character, be it Richard Nottingham, Tom Harper, Lottie Armstrong or Dan Armstrong, must then call in favours, walk the streets, mingle with pub low-life or knock on the front doors of posh houses in search of information. This enables Nickson to bring Leeds to life across the centuries, its dark places with poverty so intense that it reeks, and those airy vaulted buildings where men of property and money take their leisure and talk business.

The author is also a highly respected music journalist, and he will be aware that the great Woody Guthrie said something along the lines of, “I only use three chords; maybe four, if I’m trying to impress a girlfriend.” Nickson is equally parsimonious with his prose. There are no flounces, no frills and no flourishes but, maybe because of this economy, there is memorable poetry, albeit bleak, such as when he describes the ‘fallen women’ of Leeds.

“Too many were desperate. All it took was the promise of a meal and a bed. And then enough gin and laudanum to dull the pain of living and the agony men inflicted. If a few died, there was ample room for the burials. Girls without names, without pasts; no one would ever ask questions.”

Westow’s pursuit of Julius White is thrilling stuff. The ex-convict’s desire for revenge has created a fire, and the character forged in its flames emerges as the embodiment of evil. Maybe it’s just me, but this novel casts a more sombre shadow than previous Nickson Leeds novels. Westow certainly carries deep psychological scars from his institutional upbringing, and Jane is a very dark, complex and troubled soul.

The Hanging Psalm is published by Severn House and will be available from 28th September. In case you are puzzled by the price on the Amazon listing, you need to know that the publishers sell mainly to public libraries, so check that your own library has this book on its acquisition list.

If you are new to the books of Chris Nickson, then click the blue link to discover why I am such an admirer.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Hugh Fraser

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There aren’t too many female assassins out there in crime fiction, and even fewer English ones, so Hugh Fraser’s Rina Walker is a person of interest. For fans of the series – this is the fourth – Ms Walker will need no introduction, but for newbies, she had a childhood which shaped her future. Notting Hill, London, in the 1950s was not the chic neighbourhood it is today. 15 year-old Rina is a thief and a scavenger, of necessity. She avenges an attack on her younger sister, by killing the perpetrator – a local gangster. From here on it is either downhill – or uphill, depending on your view – all the way.

Stealth sees the fearsome lady back on the revenge trail. This time it is 1967 and the victim is a London ‘working girl’; Rina’s actions, however bring her face to face not only with the usual gangland suspects, but the faceless power brokers of British Military Intelligence, and Cold War spooks.

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Stealth will be available from 8th October in paperback, and is brought to us by Urbane Publications. Watch for alerts on Twitter and Facebook pointing you in the direction of the full review. Meanwhile, you can follow the author on Twitter at @realhughfraser and he is, incidentally, a great fan of the East Anglian county of Suffolk.

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WHAT FALLS BETWEEN THE CRACKS … Between the covers

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A maintenance man is called to a nondescript block of London flats. Water is dripping through a ceiling. Up he goes to the flat above. Problem solved. It’s a broken down fridge-freezer. He opens the door of the offending item of kitchen furniture. No problem? Big problem. Among the usual items – past-sell-by yoghurts, limp lettuce, yellowing chunks of Cheddar and a couple of shriveled courgettes – is something that really, seriously, does not belong. I mean, who would put a severed hand (minus a finger) in a domestic freezer?

ScraggWith that grim discovery acting as a starting pistol, debut author Robert Scragg (left) starts a middle-distance race to discover who murdered Natasha Barclay. For she is the person, identified by simply reading the opened mail strewn around the tomb-like flat, and checking rental records, whose hand lies in the freezer drawer.

Detective Inspector Jake Porter and Sergeant Nick Styles face enough questions to serve a whole series of University Challenge. Why did Natasha Barclay simply disappear from the radar in 1983? Is she dead? If so, where is the rest of her body? Why have those in her extended family – a stepmother and her second husband – remained silent about her disappearance. Why did her blood father shoot himself all those years ago?

Porter and Styles certainly have the required chemistry to succeed as fictional cop duos. Porter is the senior: he tries not to be trapped in a mindset dominated by the senseless death of his wife Holly, mown down by a hit-and-run driver. Porter seems to be the thinker, while Styles is the doer.

“Styles had his weakness for all things Hugo Boss, his image neat and orderly, close cropped hair, number two all over. A few had referred to him as the Met’s answer to Thierry Henry, until they saw him play five-a-side football. Porter was from Irish stock, his wardrobe more high street fashion and his appearance, while not unkempt, had a more lived-in feel to it; hair so dark it bordered on black, refusing to be fully tamed by gel, but with a sense of messy style to it.”

Porter and Styles scrape away like archaeologists. First one layer of deception is removed, then another, until they uncover substantial foundations hidden beneath decades of criminality, terrible violence and – most shocking of all – police corruption on a devastating and appalling scale. A thrilling shoot-out as a team of officers raid the HQ of the villains involved seems to bring the novel to an end, but Scragg has a couple more twists yet to apply to what is already a very complex and riveting story.

WFBTC coverIf ever there were an single implausible plot device, it might be the premise that a suburban London flat, complete with a severed hand sitting quietly in a freezer compartment, could remain untouched, unvisited and unnoticed for over thirty years. It is, however, a tribute to Robert Scragg’s skill as a storyteller that this oddity was so easily forgotten. The dialogue, the twists and turns of the plot, and the absolute credibility of the characters swept me along on the ride. Porter and Styles have made an impressive debut, and the author may well have elbowed them into that crowded room full of other fictional police partners. They are all out there; Bryant & May, Zigic & Ferrera, Rizzoli & Isles, Wolfe & Goodwin, Morse & Lewis, Jordan & Hill, Kiszka and Kershaw – watch out, you have company!

What Falls Between The Cracks is published by Allison & Busby and is available on 20th September.

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THE DARKEST PLACE … Between the covers

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There can be few tropes – either using visual imagery or words – to match the allure of an disused and desolate lunatic asylum. The more Victorian and ‘Gothick’ the building is, the more it is likely to attract both those brave but foolhardy folk known as Urban Explorers – and writers of atmospheric thrillers. Place the building on a desolate island off the south western coast of Ireland and we have a dream – or nightmare – location for a murder mystery. Then let the tale be told by one of our finest modern writers of crime fiction and, as Wilkins Micawber once said, “Result, happiness.” Happiness at least for those of us who love a good read, but there is less joy for the characters in Jo Spain’s latest novel, The Darkest Place.

TDP coverDublin copper DI Tom Reynolds is summoned from the dubious delights of his family Christmas to solve a murder. Readers of the previous three Tom Reynolds books might think there is little remarkable about that, but this time the corpse has been in the ground for rather longer than usual. Forty years, in fact. On the island of Oileán na Caillte, the pathologists have been disinterring corpses from a mass grave of the unfortunates who passed away as patients of the long-defunct psychiatric institution, St Christina’s. Those involved in the grim task discover nothing illegal, as all the residents of the burial pit were laid to rest in body bags, tagged and entered onto the hospital records. With one exception. That exception is the corpse of one of St Christina’s medical staff Dr Conrad Howe, who mysteriously disappeared forty Christmases ago. No body bag or tag for Dr Howe, but a rather surreptitious last resting place wedged between two other corpses.

For Howe’s widow Miriam the discovery comes as a shock but a release of sorts. For all the Christmases in between she has, like a latter day Mrs Hailsham, laid out the seasonal trappings in the same way each year, half hoping that her husband would return. Her children, now grown up, have humoured her in this ritual up to a point, as has a doctor colleague of her husband’s, Andrew Collins, who retains his connection to Oileán na Caillte. The fact that Collins has been hopelessly in love with Miriam all this time is not lost on Reynolds as he tries to discover who killed Howe with – as tests on his bones reveal – a length of electrical flex which left copper traces on his thoracic vertebrae.

Reynolds is no-one’s fool. As he pores through the almost indecipherable scrawl of Howe’s diary (we share that task with him, but minus the scrawl) he realises that the truth about who killed the idealistic physician involves not only the dead of Oileán na Caillte, but those who are still very much alive. One of the most telling lines in the diary says:

“It is though we are sharing this island with the devil.”

JSOther than that dark angel, the cast of suspects includes another former physician, now himself just days away from death, and others whose culpability in the inhuman treatment of St Christina’s patients has left psychological scars, some of which have become dangerously infected. Of course, this being, among other things, a brilliant whodunnit, Jo Spain (right) allows Tom Reynolds – and us readers – to make one major assumption. She then takes great pleasure, the deviously scheming soul that she is, in waiting until the final few pages before turning that assumption not so much on its head as making it do a bloody great cartwheel.

Jo Spain is a brilliant writer. It really is as simple as that. She takes the humble police procedural and not only breathes new life into it, but makes it dance and jitterbug like a flapper on cocaine. Not content with that, she shifts a heavy old stone covering some of the less palatable aspects of her country’s history, and lets us gaze squeamishly at some of the nasty things that click and scuttle about beneath, disturbed by exposure to the light.

The previous Tom Reynolds novel was Sleeping Beauties, and you can check that out by clicking the blue link. Do the same to see the review of her brilliant standalone novel The Confession. The Darkest Place is published by Quercus and will be available on 20th September.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES … Skin Deep by Peter Dickinson

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In June 1968 USA publishers Harper & Row released a book titled The Glass Sided Ants’ Nest. The novel, by Peter Malcolm de Brissac Dickinson, aka Peter Dickinson, was simultaneously published in Britain by Hodder & Stoughton as Skin Deep and won a CWA Gold Dagger in that year. Both titles are still available

dickinson_3529483kIncidentally, I don’t think there are many Old Etonian authors around these days, but Dickinson (left) was there from 1941 to 1946, and it is tempting to wonder if he ever rubbed shoulders in those years with another Eton scholar by the name of Robert William Arthur Cook, better known to us as the Godfather of English Noir Derek Raymond, who was there from 1944 until 1948.

Skin Deep introduces us to London copper, Superintendent Jimmy Pibble, who was to feature in several subsequent mysteries. Already, Dickinson sets out his stall. Writers more ready to twang the purse strings of the book buying public might name their hero something more suggestive of intrigue and danger, like Jack Powers, Max Stead, Dan Ruger, Will Stark or Tom Caine. But Jimmy Pibble? He sounds more like a walk-on player in a Carry On film. But this, we soon learn, is Dickinson’s little joke, perhaps at the expense of lesser writers or less demanding readers. Pibble is highly intelligent, sensitive, but no-one’s pushover and, despite several bitterly ironic turns of events, nothing in the story is played for laughs.

The stage set of Skin Deep is brilliantly bizarre. Even the modern maestro of wonderfully eccentric plots, the Right Honorable Member for King’s Cross, Mr Christopher Fowler, might have baulked at this one. In a sturdily-built but nondescript London suburb, Flagg Terrace, live the exiled sole survivors of an ancient New Guinean tribe, the Kus. They survived a massacre by Japanese invaders in 1943 and have relocated to London. These folk, some crippled by genetic ailments, have transformed their home into a strange replica of their home village. The men lead separate lives from the women, and they practice a religion which is a perplexing blend of missionary Christianity and their native beliefs. Flagg Terrace has not been gentrifird:

“The tide of money had washed around it. The hordes of conquering young executives, sweeping down like Visigoths from the east and driving the cowering and sullen aboriginals into the remoter slums of Acton, had left it alone. Neither taste nor wealth could assail its inherent dreadfulness.”

When Aaron, the leader of the Ku folk, is found dead, battered to death with a carved wooden owl, Pibble is given the task of discovering the killer. He is clearly regarded by his more conventional superiors as a good copper, but something of an oddball, and someone to be kept as away as possible from high profile cases.

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To say that the Kus are an odd lot is an understatement. Among the residents are Dr Eve Ku, a distinguished anthropologist. She is married to Paul Ku, but she can only be referred to as ‘he’ due to her countryfolk’s distinctive take on gender politics. Robin Ku is, on the one hand a rather clever teenager who has an alter-ego as a Ku drummer, beating the traditional slit drums as an accompaniment to sexually charged tribal rituals. Add into the mix Bob Caine, a neighbour of the Ku’s. He is what John Betjeman called “a thumping great crook”, but he is a sinister fraudster who was not only implicated in the Japanese destruction of the Ku people, but has serious connections to organised crime in the here-and-now.

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Skin Deep is a wonderful example of literary crime fiction in which the author doesn’t write down to his audience, but skillfully uses language to evoke mood, ambience and atmosphere. Dickinson’s ear for dialogue is attuned to the slightest inflection so that we instantly know how is talking, without the need for clumsy prompts. Jimmy Pibble is a delightful character with a gentle streak of misanthropy in his soul. His idea of a good pub is:

“…a back street nook kept by a silent old man who lived for the quality of his draught beer. It would be empty when Pibble used it, save for two genial dotards playing dominoes.”

Pibble’s view of the policeman’s lot is similarly sanguine:

“That was the whole trouble with police work. You come plunging in, a jagged Stone Age knife, to probe the delicate tissues of people’s relationships, and of course you destroy far more than you discover. And even what you discover will never be the same as it was before you came; the nubbly scars of your passage will remain.”

Don’t be misled into thinking that there is anything remotely Golden Age or cosy about this book. It is often darkly reflective, and Aaron’s killer is both unmasked and punished in one tragic moment of unfortunate misjudgment by Jimmy Pibble. There were to be five more novels featuring the distinctive detective:

A Pride of Heroes (1969); US: The Old English Peep-Show
The Seals
(1970); US: The Sinful Stones
Sleep and His Brother
(1971)
The Lizard in the Cup (1972)
One Foot in the Grave (1979)

Peter Dickinson was also a successful and widely admired author of children’s books. He died in 2015 at the age of 88. Click the link to read an obituary.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Knight & Scragg

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OH….SEPTEMBER … Such a cause for melancholy. Even though it is six years since the end of August, for me, meant one terrible truth. The days ahead would mean a return to work. A return to the classroom.  A return to hour upon hour of dreadful, pointless and unproductive staff meetings. A return to the sight of six hundred – well maybe twenty or thirty – shining young faces turned in my direction, desperate to hear my wise words, to share my hard-earned wisdom, to rejoice in a mutual love of learning. (Spot the bare-faced lie or three)

OH….SEPTEMBER … even though I am retired your first dawns still bring a little shiver of fear, but then I roll over in bed, hug my Teddy, and lapse into a smug sleep, safe in the knowledge that I am no longer responsible for shaping the lives of Britain’s future leaders, scientists, composers, authors and philosophers. Nor the lives of apprentice muggers, drug dealers, drunk drivers, sex pests, wife beaters and Jeremy Kyle guests.

OH….SEPTEMBER … thank you for new books, new plots, new writers and the prospect of afternoons spent feet up on the sofa, worlds away from the beige mundanities of small town Cambridgeshire, transported to the world of murder, deception, intrigue and violence. New books, then.

KNIGHTSCRAGGS2Renée Knight worked for the BBC directing arts documentaries before beginning her writing career. She has written television and film scripts for the BBC, Channel Four and Capital Films. Her first screenplay, Mother’s Day, made it onto the 2010 Brit List of best unproduced scripts of that year.

Her first novel, Disclaimer, was published by Transworld in 2015, and she is currently adapting for the screen for Fox Searchlight. Renée lives in London with her husband and two children.

Her new novel, The Secretary, is a psychological thriller based around the concept of someone who is largely ignored and taken for granted, but is always there listening, making mental notes of indiscretions, weaknesses and fallibility. What if that someone, Christine Butcher for example, is pushed to her limit and needs to strike out? Her knowledge and little book of secrets may well prove to be fatally powerful. The Secretary is published by Doubleday, and will be out in early 2019.

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KNIGHTSCRAGGS2What Falls Between The Cracks is the first published novel from Robert Scragg.He is a northerner born and bred, and has had a random mix of jobs to date, including bookseller, pizza deliverer, Karate instructor, and Football Coach. He originally intended to join the legal profession, but after getting his degree, ended up with a job in Telecoms.

Writing was something he hadn’t done much of since he left school, until around seven years ago when an idea for a book popped up that he found too interesting to ignore, and his lead character, Jake Porter, plus his partner Nick Styles started to nag him to write it. His first novel, What Falls Between the Cracks, is the first in the Porter & Styles series. It was pitched during the 2016 Theakston’s Crime Festival at the “Dragon’s Pen”, to a panel of agents and editors, managing to get four ‘yes’ votes, and has since been picked up by Allison & Busby. It was released in hardback and e-book on 19th April 2018, and the paperback follows on 20th September.

Robert lives in Tyne & Wear, with his wife, children and dog. Away from work and writing, he’s a long-suffering follower of Newcastle United, fan of all things martial arts, scuba diving and mountain climbing, and self-confessed crime fiction junkie. His favourites in the genre include Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Linwood Barclay, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Sarah Hilary, Mari Hannah, Mark Billingham and Howard Linskey to name but a few.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES … The Burden of Proof by James Barlow

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James BarlowJames Barlow was a Birmingham-born novelist who served as an air gunner with the RAF in WWII. Invalided out of service when he contracted tuberculosis, he faced a long convalescence. He began writing at this time, and after he worked in his native city as, of all things, a water rates inspector, he made the decision to write for a living. His first novel, The Protagonists, was published in 1956, but made little impact. It wasn’t until Term of Trial (1961) that he began to make a decent living from writing, and then more because film director Peter Glenville saw the cinematic potential in the story of an alcoholic school teacher whose career is threatened when he is accused of improper behaviour with a female pupil. The subsequent film had a star-studded cast including Sir Laurence Olivier, Simone Signoret, Sarah Miles, Terence Stamp, Hugh Griffith, Dudley Foster, Thora Hird and Alan Cuthbertson.

TERMOFTRIALTerm of Trial was a powerful and controversial film, but clearly had nothing to do with crime fiction. Barlow’s 1968 novel The Burden of Proof was another matter. By the time it was published, the Kray twins’ days as despotic rulers of London’s gangland were numbered. They were arrested on 8th May in that year and the rest, as they say, is history. The Burden of Proof is centred on a Ronnie Kray-style gangster, Vic Dakin. Dakin is psychotic homosexual, devoted equally to his dear old mum and a succession of pliant boyfriends, while finding time to be at the hub of a violent criminal network.

The cast of the subsequent film version of The Burden of Proof was similarly stellar to that of Term of Trial. Villain (1971) starred none other than Richard Burton, Ian McShane, Nigel Davenport, Joss Ackland, Donald Sinden and T.P, McKenna.

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Barlow seems to have been a fairly misanthropic fellow who raged at what he believed was a gathering darkness afflicting an England that he once loved. A year after The Burden of Proof was published he decided he’d had enough, and decided to relocate to a place to which many Englishmen of a previous generation were sent as a punishment – Van Diemen’s Land, latterly rebranded as Tasmania. Barlow’s departure was accompanied by a fanfare of his own devising, a rancorous demolition job on what he saw as a corrupted and increasingly shallow country – Goodbye England (1969)

Much of Barlow’s intense disgust at what was happening around him spills out onto the pages of The Burden of Proof. The crime plot centres on Dakin’s plan to pull off a lucrative wages heist, but this almost becomes secondary to Barlow’s polemic about his homeland being reduced to what he saw as an obscene freak show where morality and integrity were turned on their heads in favour of a mindless and debased popular culture. Re-reading the novel exactly half a century after it was published, I am astonished by how contemporary his words sound. They could be put in the mouths of many modern alt-right commentators. Given access to today’s social media he would rage like an Old Testament prophet and, just like his modern counterparts, he would enrage and delight in equal measure.

Barlow on Speakers’ Corner and the how the statuary of London acts as a metaphor:

“The small indifferent crowds hung around the rostrums on Sundays, laughing at the remnants of free speech. The pigeons excreted as they stood on the heads of statues of forgotten men of a time despised now by the liberals who knew better …”

1960s London is portrayed in the bleakest of descriptions:

“London was tired, seedy, cunning, ugly, here and there beautiful. In 1914 it had been at its most powerful; in 1940 at its most heroic. Now, in the 1960s, it was impotent and had the principles and self-importance of an old queer.”

As I read Barlow’s cri de cœur about what he clearly saw as the triumph of the metropolitan elite, I might have been something by Rod Liddle in one of his recent rants in The Spectator or The Sunday Times;

“Nobody could do anything now without being accountable to the scorn of the liberal intellectuals in print or on television. England was too articulate at the top. Nobody, even in a Socialist liberal permissive society, had the slightest notion of the wishes of the people, out there beyond the great conversational shop of London.”

8317246In the city which is portrayed as little more than a moral sewer, we have the vile Dakin and his criminal associates; we have an earnest and incorruptible copper, Bob Matthews who Barlow sets up – along with Bob’s mild-mannered and decent wife Mary – as the apotheosis of what England used to be before the plague took hold. We have Gerald Draycott, a dishonest and manipulative MP who flirts with the dangerous world of gambling clubs, casinos, girls-for-hire and drugs-for-sale, but still dreams of becoming a cabinet minister.

Back to the crime story. Dakin’s attempted wage-snatch, described in terrifying detail, does not go according to plan, but such is the depth, ferocity and intensity of the man’s evil, that there are casualties a-plenty beforte he gets his come-uppance. There is also a terrible incident, unconnected and not criminal by intent but more a result of negligence, which is described in horrific detail and left me dry-mouthed with a mixture of pity and shock. Of the people, volunteers, who help with the consequences of the disaster, Barlow says;

“They came when England and London needed them, and sank back into obscurity afterwards while the more important people postured before cameras with their guitars or explained the need to hate Rhodesians, or Arabs, or Israelis, or Americans…”

Nothing else I have read by Barlow comes close to The Burden of Proof in terms of its rage, its disgust and the sheer firepower of words when used by someone who believes he is on a mission. You may be appalled, you may be left thanking whoever you believe in that we live in more ‘enlightened’ times, but if you read this bitter and brilliant novel and don’t experience an emotional jolt then you may well be in a permanent vegetative state.

For a more recent slant on the real life connection between Ronnie Kray and powerful political figures in the 1960s, take a look at Simon Michael’s novel Corrupted.

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