August 2016


Dark EyesWhen I reached the grand old age of 60, I treated myself to an expensive – and very beautiful guitar. It almost played itself. The simplest chord sounded epic. This song is far from epic, but is a journey back to the years when being in love kept you awake at night, and sometimes got you up in the morning in the hope of a letter. Yes, that’s how long ago it was.




JBSir John Betjeman is so unfashionable these days that it is an utter delight to be an admirer. His directness and accessibility have been mocked, but only by those whose lack of talent and perception can only be measured in geological numbers. Here, he pokes his head round a curtain, and sees an ageing debutante, lamenting the passing years and her own decline




We were all brought up to revere the war poets such as Owen and Sassoon. Quite rightly so, for their message still has an undying resonance. If I had to choose one poem, however, to sum up the devastation and waste of The Great War, I would turn to a man who never fought in the conflict, but whose perception and vision have made this a classic. Like Betjeman’s work, it is direct, accessible and heartbreaking. Philip Larkin’s poem captures the last August of an England that had already begun to change. It would never, ever, be the same again.



Postman 2HOME by Harlan Coben
The New Jersey based author is one of the bigger beasts in the crime fiction jungle, and he has created one of the more distinctive ‘accidental detectives’ in the genre. Myron Bolitar, the 6 feet 4 inches tall former basketball player, has already won three major awards for his creator, an Edgar (for Fade Away), a Shamus (Drop Shot) and an Anthony (Deal Breaker). In this latest adventure for the sports agent, he tackles the case of a disappeared boy who has, almost inevitably, been assumed dead. But now he shows up after a decade. Is he the real deal, or is he part of a sinister and devious scam? Home will be out in a variety of formats on 22nd September, and you can check the details here.

BODY ON THE BAYOU by Ellen Byron
Away from the city lights we go and we pay a visit to the town of Pelican, Louisiana, and as the title suggests we can expect plenty of alligators, snakes, spoonbills and other assorted fauna who make their homes in the mysterious watery glades. But this isn’t a wildlife Ellen Bdocumentary – it’s a case of murder. Byron (right) reintroduces the characters she created in Plantation Shudders (2015) and this time the Crozat family have another murder on their hands when a woman’s body is found floating on the still waters of their plantation. The publicity tells us that the Crozats have “a gumbo potful of suspects on their hands.” Just to be clear, this isn’t Southern Noir, but more an example of Southern Cosy, and it’s out on 13th September. Find out more here.
Postman 1

OUT OF BOUNDS … Between The Covers

Val HeaderThere’s an old expression that describes someone as “having a way with words’. There can’t be any contemporary writer who has a better “way with words” than Val McDermid. There are no dramatic flourishes, no histrionics and no scatter-gun blasts of redundant adjectives. What we have is simplicity, purity, and a command of language that is almost minimalist. She describes DCI Karen Pirie, thus:

“…a wardrobe that always looked slightly rumpled;
a haircut that never quite delivered what it had promised in the salon.
Women never felt threatened by her,
and men treated her like a wee sister or a favourite auntie.”

 This is the fourth book featuring Karen Pirie, but newcomers learn just enough of Pirie’s backstory. Her lover, a fellow police officer has been killed. She is coping with her grief, but not easily. She tells civilians that she is attached to the Police Scotland Historic Cases Unit. The reality is that she – and her nice-but-dim assistant, DC Jason ‘The Mint’ Murray – are the PSHCU. An idiot boy and his mates steal a Land Rover, and decide to test it to destruction by driving over roundabouts. It works once, but the second time, the four-by-four flips, killing the hapless passengers and delivering driver Ross Garvie to the local hospital ICU. A routine DNA test links him to an unsolved rape and murder in Glasgow, years earlier. It clearly wasn’t him, but who was it?

 To add to Pirie’s complicated life, a mentally troubled man is found shot through the head beside Loch Leven. He was harmless, occasionally foolish and always garrulous, but why was he a threat? Did the fact that his mother had been killed in an assumed IRA assassination mark him out for this totally unwanted attention? The trail of Ross Garvie’s DNA leads Pirie through a minefield of botched investigations, incorrect assumptions and misdeeds sheltering behind fiercely protected rights to privacy.

 As you might expect, McDermid is completely at home in her geographical surroundings. We have the stark contrasts of the historic streets and alleyways of Edinburgh and the city’s brutal and depressing tower blocks clinging to its suburban coat tails. All too rarely, Karen Pirie gets to sit in her beautifully situated apartment, and we share her reverie as she looks out over the dark waters of the Firth of Forth, and across to the lights twinkling away on the Fife shore. The setting of the novel is cleverly done, but it is just one piece of the jigsaw – along with the fascinating details which make up the police procedural aspects of the story.

 McDermid puts most of the pieces in place for us, but leaves us plenty to do for ourselves, and the completed picture is one that shows jealousy, human frailty, the sheer darkness of some people’s lives – but also a glittering thread of compassion and redemption. If the novel inspires you to check up on Karen Pirie’s backstory, then you will find it in The Distant Echo (2003), A Darker Domain (2008), and The Skeleton Road (2014)

It is lazy of critics to talk about “Queens” of crime, but since the deaths of PD James and Ruth Rendell, there is only one heir to the throne. McDermid just gets better and better with every book. Some writers grab us by the throat and drag us through the narrative; there are others who take us by the hand and lead us; McDermid simply has to beckon – and we follow.

You can follow the link to see your buying choices for Out of Bounds

STOP PRESS MURDER …Between the covers

SPM GraphicSome historical crime fiction takes us back to times way, way before our own memories could have any validity. Then there are stories set in periods that many of us could reasonably have experienced at first hand. With the former, it is simply the author’s research versus the depth – or lack of – our own historical knowledge. The latter is a much more tricky enterprise, as someone who sets their book in the 1960s, for example, can be exposed to a more searching light – that of readers who actually lived through the years in question.

Peter Bartram’s mileu of choice is the early 1960s. We are in Brighton, the celebrated seaside town on England’s south coast. Its days of fame as the Gay capital of Western Europe, and infamy as the first large local authority to be mismanaged by the Green Party were yet to come, but the seeds of eccentricity have already been sown. Our guide through the Sussex town is Colin Crampton, the scoop-hungry reporter for The Evening Chronicle – a Brighton newspaper. He is a thoroughly engaging character with a quick wit, and it isn’t too fanciful to imagine that he might resemble the author in his younger days. If you read Bartram’s biography, you will be forgiven for thinking that if Crampton is not Bartram, then he is someone who the author knew very well in his early days as a journalist.

The basic plot is that we have a long-retired star of What The Butler Saw machines – Marie Richmond – who dies in a mysterious road accident. Then, a machine featuring her in her prime is broken into, and the revealing footage is stolen. The man who should have been guarding the pier is found bludgeoned to death – with a coconut. Crampton/Bartram introduces us to some memorable characters, including a camp, overdressed theatre critic and a toupéed old thespian, both of whom are crying out for the much-missed talents of John Inman and Charles Hawtry to bring them to life.

As Crampton attempts to unravel the mystery of why the ample charms of a silent movie star should have given someone cause for murder, there are some delightful period references and jokes which made me laugh out loud, although younger readers might not get the gags unless they are students of British popular culture in the second half of the 20th century.

There may well be readers who, by this point, have been receiving ‘cosy’ messages on their genre radar. All well and good, as there are elements of cosy crime here. We have an unambiguously likeable central character, a familiar and lovingly-painted background, and a cast which includes several amiably odd characters. We reviewers love our genres, and some readers may even share this obsession, so I’ll pop Stop Press Murder into the Cosy pigeonhole, with one or two caveats. Although the tone is generally as gentle and as light as a Brighton breeze, Bartram finds enough dark corners in the seaside town to keep the interest of those who like their crime fiction with a harder edge. The style of the book reminds me very much of the sharply humorous writing of Colin Watson and his Flaxborough novels, which also delight in the dafter aspects of English life, as well as boasting a collection of folk with similarly improbable surnames

Crampton is convinced that there is a link between the odd events on the pier, and discovers that Richmond – or to use her real name, Sybil Clackett – has a twin sister who is no lesser personage than the Dowager Marchioness of Piddinghoe. The local police and the Chronicle’s rival newspapers are seeing the case differently, however, and Mr Figgis, Crampton’s boss, is becoming increasingly twitchy as he fears for his sales figures.

Peter Bartram explores all possibilities inherent in the twin sisters storyline, and delivers an excellent novel, full of twists and turns, plenty of action scenes, crackling dialogue – and a great sense of fun. I’m looking forward to yet more encounters with the Evening Chronicle’s star turn. You can find a copy of Stop Press Murder by following the link.

SPM Graphic2


WBS By Peter Bartram

It’s August Bank Holiday in England and Wales – and we do like to be beside the seaside. So as we huddle under the pier out of the rain – an English bank holiday tradition – let’s take a look at a subject which is never far away at the seaside. I refer, of course, to murder. Fictional murder, I hasten to add.

When it comes to seaside murder mysteries, Graham Greene set the benchmark with Brighton Rock. The story of Pinkie Brown’s killing of Fred Hale and his desperate bid to avoid the consequences is a gritty one – made bleaker for being set against the backdrop of holidaymakers having fun by the sea.

But seaside murder mysteries don’t need to be bleak. So when I was developing the Crampton of the Chronicle series of murder mysteries, I decided I’d go with the flow of the fun – rather than try to use it as a counterpoint for dark deeds. I also wanted to build different seaside elements into the plot.

So in the first book in the series – Headline Murder – a mini-golf course and a peppermint rock shop take centre stage. In the second book – Stop Press Murder – the pier’s amusement arcade and particularly the What the Butler Saw machines play a key role in the plot.

Back in 1963, when the book is set, I remember that the machines on Brighton’s Palace Pier were on their last legs. They’d typically be showing short films of Edwardian beauties in a state of what used to be known in those far-off days as décolletage. By today’s standards they’d be regarded as an innocent entertainment. But it’s an irony that when decimal currency was introduced in Britain in 1971, most of the machines’ owners decided the cost of adapting them to handle the new coins was too great. Instead, many were sold to Denmark where they were re-equipped to show hard-core porn.

When I came to research the book, I found it very difficult to track down any surviving What the Butler Saw machines in this country. I finally discovered one in a museum in Herne Bay, Kent. In the US, where the machines are known buy their inventor’s name of mutoscope, there is a collector who specialises in renovating them and the films they played.

The term What the Butler Saw entered the language in the UK following a sensational divorce case in 1886. Lord Colin Campbell and his wife, the gorgeous Gertrude, were fighting like two pit-bulls over the terms of their divorce. To support his case, Campbell called his butler to give evidence.

The butler claimed to have watched through the keyhole of Campbell’s home at 79 Cadogan Place, London while Gertrude performed with her lover. But the court case turned on how much the butler could see through the keyhole.

I don’t remember whether What the Butler Saw machines turned up in Greene’s Brighton Rock. But in the 1947 film version, which stared Richard Attenborough as Pinkie, there is an exciting finale on Palace Pier – the starting point of Stop Press Murder. So even though we do like to be beside the seaside – a murder mystery will never be far away.


CARNAGE ON PARADE … The atrocities of 20th July 1982

Hyde Park HeaderThere is, perhaps, a legitimate debate to be had over what to call killings which are carried out in the name of a political cause. No-one in their right mind would label the millions of soldiers who died in the two world wars of the 20th century as murder victims. The wearing of a uniform, and the acceptance of the King’s shilling has always legitimised the act of pulling the trigger, firing the shell, or dropping the bomb.

But what about guerilla activities? What about resistance movements? When does a killing become a murder? Is one man’s freedom fighter another man’s terrorist? I am far from unique in being unable to resolve those conundrums. The men who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich on a Prague boulevard in June 1942 have been hailed as heroes. What about the Irishmen who killed eleven British soldiers in a few hours on the streets of London in July 1982? They wore no uniform and carried no flag, but in their hearts their targets were legitimate.

My view? Emotionally, I am drawn to the view that soldiers engaged in ceremonial duties in a nation’s capital are not fair game. Therefore, I am treating the events of 20th July 1982 as murder. Cold blooded murder, pure and simple.

London, 20th June, 1982. The weather was warm, but unsettled, with a promise of showers. A troop of The Household Cavalry, the ceremonial guardians of the English monarch, were calmly riding along South Carriage Drive in Hyde Park, on their way to the ceremony known as The Changing Of The Guard. Unknown to them, a blue Morris Marina car, parked alongside their route, was packed with gelignite and nails. At 10.40 a.m. the device was triggered, presumably by a nearby operative. The result was carnage.


The road was littered with flesh,  of the three guardsmen who were killed instantly (that telling euphemism which denotes catastrophic injuries) – and that of horses. The three soldiers who died at the scene were Lieutenant Anthony Daly, Trooper Simon Tipper and Lance Corporal Vernon Young. Corporal Raymond Bright was rushed to hospital, but died on 23rd July. The men are pictured below, left to right.

Daly etc

The SunJust a couple of hours later, as emergency services struggled to deal with the mayhem in South Carriage Drive, the terrorists struck again. It seems barely credible that in another part of the city, life was going on as normal. Remember, though, that these were the days before mobile ‘phones and social media, the days when news was only transmitted in print, by word of mouth and on radio and television. The regimental band of The Royal Green Jackets was entertaining a small crowd clustered round the bandstand in Regent’s Park. They were playing distinctly un-martial music from the musical ‘Oliver!’ when, at 12.55 pm, a massive bomb went off beneath the bandstand. The blast was so powerful that one of the bodies was thrown onto an iron fence thirty yards away, and seven bandsmen were killed outright. They were: Warrant Officer Graham Barker, Serjeant Robert “Doc” Livingstone, Corporal Johnny McKnight, Bandsman John Heritage, Bandsman George Mesure, Bandsman Keith “Cozy” Powell, and Bandsman Larry Smith.

Keith Powell’s mother, Mrs Patricia Powell was later to say:

“On the day (20th July 1982) at 1pm – I was rinsing a cup at the sink in my classroom – I suddenly felt very ill and mentioned it to a colleague – saying I’d no idea why I felt so ill. On the way home I went to the music store to purchase the score of Oliver – No idea why I wanted it suddenly nor did I have any idea this was what the band was playing. Got it – went to the bus station and saw on the placards news about the bombs in London – I knew instantly that he was dead. This was confirmed later that evening.”

Keith Powell’s comrades gave him his nickname because of the celebrated rock drummer Colin Powell, who played with bands such as Black Sabbath, the Jeff Beck Group and Whitesnake. No-one was ever convicted of the Regent’s Park atrocity, but responsibility was claimed by the IRA. In 1987, Gilbert “Danny” McNamee, an electronics engineer from Northern Ireland, was jailed for 25 years after being found guilty of building the radio-controlled bomb used in the Hyde Park attack.

He was released from prison in 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and later that year the Court of Appeal overturned his conviction on the grounds that it was unsafe. Another suspect, John Anthony Downey, was to be tried for his part of the Hyde Park bombing as recently as 2014, but his trial collapsed when it was revealed that he was one of those Republican activists who had been sent a ‘comfort letter’ by the British government, promising them immunity from prosecution. Following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought something resembling peace to Northern Ireland, there was an ongoing issue over what to do about IRA suspects who were still “on-the-run”. As part of the peace deal, IRA terrorists serving prison terms were granted early release but that could not apply to those on the run. A deal was reached between the Tony Blair government and Sinn Fein to carry out an exercise whereby checks would be carried out and for those who were no longer wanted by police, they would be sent a letter informing them of that fact.

XU*7493716Downey (right) may or may not have been implicated in the Hyde Park murders. Only he knows for certain. At least he had the decency to cancel a party planned in his honour when he was released. He said:

“The party had been planned as a simple get-together of family, friends and neighbours who supported me after my arrest. Some elements of the media are portraying the event planned for tonight as triumphalist and insulting to bereaved families. That was never what it was about.”

There was a macabre and tragic postscript to the Hyde Park murders. One of the horses, named Sefton, survived the attack despite terrible injuries. The horse became something of a media celebrity, which is not surprising given the British public’s sentimental obsession with animals. Sefton’s days of celebrity were, at least, harmless. Not so the fate of his rider on that day, Michael Pedersen. He survived the attack physically, but suffered irreparable hidden mental damage. In 2012, after two failed marriages, he drove himself and his two children, Ben and Freya, to a remote lane near Newton Stacey in Hampshire, stabbed them to death, and then took his own life.



Braybrook_Massacre_Memorial“Harry Roberts is our friend, is our friend, is our friend.
Harry Roberts is our friend, he kills coppers.

Let him out to kill some more, kill some more, kill some more,
let him out to kill some more, Harry Roberts”

(sung to the tune of London Bridge Is Falling Down)

 With that gem of traditional English folk music – football supporter style – the career criminal Harry Roberts has achieved a rather brutish and threadbare immortality. Given that many of the morons singing the song from what used to be the terraces have no idea who Harry Roberts is, my good deed for the week is to educate them.

Roberts was born in Wanstead on 21st July 1936. He was quickly into his criminal stride, and as a teenager was sent to Gaynes Hall Borstal for robbery with violence. There is a circular irony attached to this, which will become clear later. After his release, Roberts joined another institution well known for harbouring young men with a tendency towards violence – the British Army, in particular The Rifle Brigade. For some young contemporaries of Roberts, National Service was spent disagreeably, but fairly close to home. Roberts, however, seemed to take to the life and was made an NCO, seeing activity in Malaya and Kenya.

After the army, Roberts teamed up with two fellow villains, Jack Witney and John Duddy, and mapped out a life of violent crime. Roberts was lucky not to be delivered to the hangman in 1959, when an old man he had savagely beaten with an iron bar, died of his injuries, but two days outside an archaic rule that stated that in order for such deaths to qualify as murder, they must occur within a year and a day of the assault. Instead, Roberts was given seven years in jail. It is a tragic irony that if the old fellow had died just three days earlier, the lives of three police officers might have been spared.

On Friday 12th August 1966, together with Witney and Duddy, Roberts was sitting in a van on Braybrook Street, Acton, within sight of Wormwood Scrubs Prison. Three plain clothes police officers were on patrol in the area. Detective Sergeant Christopher Head, map-acton-6aged 30, and 25-year-old Temporary Detective Constable David Wombwell were both members of the CID based at Shepherd’s Bush police station. Their driver was Police Constable Geoffrey Roger Fox, aged 41. As the unmarked police car pulled up nearby, DS Head and DC Wombwell got out and walked over to check the van. They noticed that it had no tax disc. While the officers were checking Jack Whitney’s documents, Roberts panicked, and shot DC Wombell with a Luger pistol. When DS Head ran back towards the police car, Roberts shot him, too. Duddy sprang from the back of the van, brandishing an old Webley revolver, and joined Roberts by the police car where, together, they shot dead PC Fox. The two killers ran back and got into the van, which Whitney drove away at high speed. (Below) The murdered officers PC Fox, DC Wombwell and DS Head, and their funeral cortege.

Fox Wombwell Head2

A massive police operation followed. Witney and Duddy were soon found and arrested, but Roberts went on the run. He avoided capture for nearly three months, and ended up living rough in the countryside. He was eventually found and arrested on 15th November in farm buildings near Bishops Stortford. He had been sleeping in nearby Matham’s Wood.

matham's wood

Witney and Duddy had been in custody since August, and the three men were tried together after Roberts had been captured. On 12th December 1966, all three men were given life imprisonment for murder and firearms offences. Mr Justice Hildreth Glyn-Jones recommended that the men serve at least 30 years before being considered for parole.

 DuddyWhat became of the Shepherd’s Bush Killers? It should be noted that the murders took place in Acton, but possibly because the dead officers were based at Shepherd’s Bush, that name has stuck. John Duddy (left) died in Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight in 1981, at the age of 53, while Witney, possibly because he never fired a shot back in 1966, was released in 1991. He had eight years left to enjoy his freedom before death was to seek him out.

Witney was living on licence on Douglas Road, Horfield, Bristol, and sharing the flat with a man called Nigel Evans, who had a history of petty crime and a serious heroin habit. At first, Evans and Whitney got on well, but Evans’s drug use led to him running up £750 Whitneyof rent arrears. The two rowed over the money and daily household chores like washing up, Bristol Crown Court heard during Evans’ trial. Then, on August 15, 1999, Evans attacked Witney, (right) beating him around the head with a hammer. He grabbed him by the throat and Witney, who by then was quite frail, was throttled to death. Evans, aged 38, was found unanimously guilty, and given a life sentence.

Harry Roberts,  until recently, shared the dubious honour with Ian Brady of being the two longest serving prisoners in Britain. In 2014, Roberts was still in jail, at Littlehey Prison in Cambridgeshire. After much public debate and controversy about Roberts’s continuing anti-social behaviour, he was finally released in November of that year. The irony I mentioned earlier? Littlehey was built on the site of Gaynes Hall Borstal, where Roberts (below) was first kept in custody, so the police killer’s long life of violent crime had come full circle.




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