February 2017



This new book reminds me that gender choice is very much a hot topic these days on and off social media, but in ‘the good old days’ people weren’t blessed with Facebook’s bewildering 71 gender options, which seem to have expanded rather after the fashion of satellite TV channels, minus the remote control, obviously. Gender flipping was usually confined to the lyrics of folk songs where young women pretended to be either cabin boys or army drummers so that they could stay close to their chosen young man as he sailed – or marched – off to do battle with Johnny Foreigner.

da-coverThe main character of ES Thomson’s Dark Asylum – the second in a series of Victorian crime novels – is Jem Flockhart. Jem is not who he seems to be. In fact, he isn’t ‘he’ at all. Jem is actually a young lady who is forced to transform herself into a man in order to be accepted in the medical profession. She first made an appearance in Beloved Poison (2016) and now she returns to investigate the murder of the principal physician at an insane asylum. Among all the usual tropes of Victorian London, including grim slum ‘rookeries’, brothels, violent convicts and brothels that cater for every depravity, Jem and her partner in solving crime, Will Quartermain search for the person who killed Dr Rutherford – after cutting off his ears and sewing his eyes and lips tight shut.

As I hope you can see from the images, Dark Asylum is handsomely printed, and if the novel is as gripping as it is well presented and designed, then it should be an excellent read. Look out for an in depth review on Fully Booked in the near future. Published by Constable/Little, Brown, it is out on 2nd March.


I WAS DORA SUAREZ … Derek Raymond

There can be few books in print which have explored the depths of human criminal depravity with such forensic and painful detail as this book by the acknowledge master of English Noir. The un-named detective sergeant who seeks revenge for a murdered prostitute takes us to places that those who have read the book will have seared on their imagination as long as they have life and breath.

Musicians Terry Edwards and James Johnston – Gallon Drunk – persuaded Raymond to read extracts of his corrosive 1993 novel, while they provided a haunting soundtrack. With the permission of Edwards and Johnston – sadly, Raymond is long gone – here is part of that original recording. Click on the image of Derek Raymond to watch the video.


THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Oswald & Westworth


The Postman Delivers…except that he didn’t, quite. My regular chap is resigned to regular and frequent booky parcels, and always leaves them by the servants’ entrance if he can’t make me hear, or I am somewhere away on my rambling ancestral estate. But regular chap is on holiday, so replacement chap took yesterday’s books back to the sorting office, from where I had to collect them. The little red ticket from the postie wasn’t enough to prove my identity, neither was my haughty, “Don’t you know who I used to be..?” So, I had to show them the scandalously unflattering photo on my driving licence, the one where I look like one of Bertie Wooster’s less intelligent friends. But, eventually, the books were collected, and they were well worth the effort.

back-cover007First out of its protective wrapper was the latest from one of my favourite British writers, Frank Westworth. He has created a noirish world of grimy London music venues, peopled with frequently freakish characters and misfits, all of whom live out the heartbreaking three-chord trick of the Blues in their real lives. Presiding over the mayhem is a moody and reclusive investigator, cum killer, cum doer-of-dirty-deeds for the British establishment. His name is JJ Stoner, and as well as bending his guitar strings into shivering blue notes, he has an uneasy and unique relationship with three weird sisters. Note the absence of capitals, as these ladies are not the cauldron-stirring crones of The Scottish Play, but three violent and devious sexual predators. We have met Charity and Chastity in the first two books of the trilogy, but as Westworth wraps the series up, he introduces us to Charm.

troc2What happens in the book? I can do no better than to quote a line from the best motorbike song ever written. Like the biker outlaw James in Richard Thompson’s awesome Vincent Black Lightning 1952, JJ is “running out of road …running out of breath,” Stoner is surrounded by brutal enemies on all sides, and all the old acquaintances from whom he might expect a favour or three are walking by on the other side. This is one book which will certainly not end up in a charity shop or casually passed on to friends, because mine came with a personal touch. You folks are definitely not going to lay hands on my copy, and I’m afraid you will have to wait until the end of next month for yours. In the meantime, you can check out a mischievous and beautifully written piece by Frank Westworth in our features section, and watch this space for my full review of The Redemption of Charm.


Having punched the air (in a elderly gentleman kind of way) at receiving the new Frank Westworth, I then joyfully repeated the gesture when I found that my second parcel contained the new novel by James Oswald. Apart from having one of the more interesting ( bonesand demanding) day jobs of current authors, Oswald has achieved what might have seemed to be an impossible task. He has created a engaging and totally believable Scottish copper who, over the space of six previous novels, has sharp-elbowed his way in the room crowded with such characters as John Rebus and Logan McRea.

Oswald’s Edinburgh Detective is Tony McLean, and Written In Bones has McLean once again up to his elbows in a sinister and mysterious murder. A body is found in a tree in The Meadows, Edinburgh’s scenic parkland, and the forensics suggest the corpse has fallen from a great height.

McLean has to decide whether it was an accident, or a murder designed to send a chilling message. His work is made more complex by the fact that the dead man was a disgraced ex-cop turned criminal kingpin who has reinvented himself as a philanthropist. McLean’s investigation takes him back to Edinburgh’s haunted past, and through its underworld. He is forced to rub shoulders with some of the city’s most dangerous people and, in extreme contrast, folk who are among the most vulnerable on the capital’s streets.

Oswald’s day job? He farms on 350 acres in Fife, and when he is not delivering lambs or tending his pedigree Highland cattle, he writes best-selling crime novels such as this one, which is published by Penguin, and is out now.



THE SHIMMERING ROAD … Between the covers

USA - Tourism - Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Cates has plenty of experience in holding the shitty end of life’s stick. Her childhood was scarred with rejection and loss and , talking of loss, the sudden death of her son the previous summer has proved to her that while fate can take, it can also take some more. But now, circumstances have partnered her in a bewildering kind of dance; she has given up her job as a journalist on a sleek New York magazine; she has a new partner, a rough and tumble Mr Nice Guy from Sidalie, Texas, who, in addition to running a very successful landscaping firm, is ridiculously rich. Charlie is also 32 weeks pregnant, albeit accidentally, with a baby daughter for her and Noah Palmer.

shimmeringThen, as Noah is trying to tempt Charlie into marrying him, and agree to their moving into a luxurious new home, comes the ‘phone call which triggers the enthralling next chapter in Charlie’s life. She takes a call from a distant aunt, and the news is that Charlie’s estranged mother Donna, and her half sister Jasmine, have been found shot dead in Jasmine’s Tucson apartment. There is another complication. Jasmine’s daughter Micky was also in the apartment but in another room. She is shaken, but very much alive, and has been taken into protective care.

So, Charlie and Noah head off to Arizona to try to make sense of the shattered family that Charlie hardly knew she still had. They meet, in no particular order, the strangely savant Micky, Donna’s lesbian lover, Jasmine’s cop boyfriend, and an apparently saintly woman who runs a refuge for battered women. What follows is a brilliantly plotted journey into the murky world of USA-Mexican social politics and the disturbing lengths which people will go to in order to have children, when nature has ordained that it simply ain’t gonna happen.

For the book to burn on full heat, you have to accept that Charlie Cates is, to an extent, governed by what could be dreams, or maybe fleeting out-of-body experiences. Charlie confides:

“My dreams are not like other people’s. They show me things.”

She has a terrifying recurring nightmare which involves her – and her unborn daughter – being shot dead while taking a shower. At other times she meets, on this spectral level, other key characters in the story. Some of them are alive, but some of them are dead. Personally, I have no problem with this. Two of my favourite writers, John Connolly with his doom laden PI Charlie Parker, and Phil Rickman with his delightful-but-slightly-scary Merrily Watkins, both take thrilling liberties with our working hypothesis that The Dead are dead and The Living are living.

Hester Young writes like an angel, even if that celestial being has a distinctly dark tinge to its wings. There are sharp observations on some of the absurdities of the American way of life. This is a Texan realtor (estate agent to us Brits):

“Brandi Babcock may possess the name of a porn star, but she has the body of a butternut squash, a solid top that flares out into an epically large backside.”

tjb3vcybThe greatest strength of the book is the magical spell Hester Young (right) casts as she links the reader to Charlie Cates. As a cynical, autumnal English male, with a downbeat view of life and the tricks it can play, I am not the obvious candidate to be entranced by a slightly manic, conflicted and complex American female journalist, but by the time the novel reached its gripping conclusion in the Arizona desert, I was ready to crawl over broken glass to make sure that Charlie survived with body and soul intact. Hester Young slaps a winning hand down on the green baize table – dry humour, suspense, atmosphere, superb characterisation – and deservedly rakes in all the chips.

The Shimmering Road is out now in Kindle and paperback format.



PAPERBACK PICK … The Hanging Club


Tony Parsons has created an intriguing character in the shape of DC Max Wolfe, and Thursday sees the paperback release of his London based thriller, The Hanging Club.

When the video of an apparent execution is posted online, DC Max Wolfe and officers of the Major Incident Team, along with thousands of online viewers, watch in horror as the kitchen stool is kicked out from under the feet of a Pakistani taxi driver, and he chokes to death, swinging by an improvised noose.

thcThe random murder of an innocent man? Not exactly. Mahmud Irani was part of a gang of men who groomed, raped and abused a number of white teenage girls. He served a jail term which many believe was too short, considering his crimes.

Another video surfaces. A handful of masked executioners use the same location, apparently deep underground somewhere. The hanged man? A young city trader who killed a boy cyclist, served a few months in jail, and then returned to his job, which had thoughtfully been kept open for him.

Wolfe and the MIT realise that they have a vigilante group on their hands, and their search for the culprit takes them to some of London’s hidden places, including the eventual location of the hangings. A little research on Google reveals that the surprise underground setting still actually exists, and is in remarkable good state.

The Hanging Club is out on Thursday 23rd February, published by Arrow. Watch out for our forthcoming review of Die Last, the new Max Wolfe story, coming soon.

AT WHAT COST … Between the Covers


Sacramento. Capital city of California. Named after its river, which was in turn named after the most holy offering in the Catholic liturgy. But there is nothing sacred and everything profane about the butchered corpse found on the river levee. Maybe ‘corpse’ is the wrong word for what lies at Detective John Penley’s feet. The pouring rain, caught in the glare of the crime scene halogen lights, patters remorselessly on a headless, limbless trunk. It had been a man. And that man, judging by the Aztec inspired tattoo spreading over what is left of the chest, was a member of a Latino gang, The West Block Norteños.

awclThe remains of Daniel Cardozo are hauled off to the city morgue to join those of several of his professional associates who have met a similar fate in recent months. Penley and his new partner Detective Paula Newberry know only that the killer is also a butcher, perhaps not by trade, but certainly by intent. They also become aware that the human remains are minus their soft tissue organs – hearts, livers, kidneys.

Newberry and Penley make an uneasy pair. Newberry, because she is treated like a leper by fellow officers ever since she orchestrated a surveillance sting that ended the careers of a couple of corrupt cops in the department. And Penley? His mind is forever straying to thoughts about his young son Tommy whose life is slowly but inexorably drifting away as he waits his turn for a kidney transplant.

As the tale unfolds, there are echoes of England’s infamous and unsolved Whitechapel Murders. As with the person who slaughtered prostitutes in that fateful London autumn of 1888, Penley’s killer seems to have more than a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy. And, like the detectives in Victorian London, Penley is actually sent a kidney as a taunt, but unlike the Ripper’s handiwork, the one Penley receives is most definitely human.

 L’Etoile’s story rapidly adds an extra dimension to the standard hunt for a ruthless serial murderer, as it become a medical thriller, too. The villain is, we soon learn, harvesting organs for the lucrative international trade in spare body parts. Like so many other aspects of life, the search for viable organs operates on two levels; the first is, of course, the regular – and highly regulated – world of transplant waiting lists; the second operates within the freemasonry of hard cash, and the opportunities afforded to unscrupulous traders – and their desperate customers – by The Dark Web.

It all too quickly becomes horribly personal for Penley and his family. His son narrowly avoids being given an intentionally damaged kidney, and it is clear that the detective’s personal anguish has handed the killer an invaluable tool with which he can torment the man whose professional job it has become to unmask him and bring him to justice. With someone hacking into hospital records and falsifying clinical data, Penley runs out of people he can trust, and is forced to play a dangerous game of deception with the killer, his colleagues and – worst of all – his own family.

jamesThe author (right)  certainly knows his way around the American justice system, with his background in probation, parole, investigation and prison operation. An experienced Associate Warden, Chief of Institution Operations, Hostage Negotiator and Director of Parole, he has also done extensive homework on the medical background to the complex world of organ donation and transplants. The plot rattles along with scarcely a breath being drawn, and in Penley and Newberry, L’Etoile has created a partnership which is complex and attractive enough to feature in more adventures further down the line.

At What Cost is published by Crooked Lane Books and is out now.





Celebrity killings in Britain are rare, and in London itself almost unheard of. But on the morning of 26th April 1999, a woman who was, ironically best known to millions of TV viewers as the co-presenter of a True Crime TV show, became the UK’s most talked about victim. To this day, her killer remains unknown to the police and, in all probability, will ever remain so.

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-19-45-16Jill Dando was an elegant woman, a typical English Rose with more than a little of the Princess Diana about her. As on-screen partner to Nick Ross in BBC’s Crimewatch, she had become one of the best known faces in living rooms across the country. Dando had spent the night with her fiancee in Chiswick, West London, but as she turned the key to enter her own house in nearby Gowan Avenue, Fulham (right), she was attacked. The investigative journalist Bob Woffinden describes what he believes happened next.

“As Dando was about to put her keys in the lock to open the front door of her home in Fulham, she was grabbed from behind. With his right arm, the assailant held her and forced her to the ground, so that her face was almost touching the tiled step of the porch. Then, with his left hand, he fired a single shot at her left temple, killing her instantly. The bullet entered her head just above her ear, parallel to the ground, and came out the right side of her head.”

Dando was found slumped on her front porch, but her final journey to Charing Cross Hospital need not have been accompanied by sirens and a speeding ambulance. The single shot, from a 9mm handgun, had killed her instantly.

It had been a mere two years since the British public had been robbed of another celebrity icon, Diana Princess of Wales, and there was an intense clamour for Jill Dando’s killer to be brought to justice. No-one was really sure who was responsible for Diana’s death, but surely it wouldn’t be beyond the wit and wisdom of the London police to track down a man assassinating a much-loved public personality, in broad daylight, on a peaceful suburban street?

barry-georgeIn a move which seems more bizarre as every day passes, police arrested a man named Barry George (left) for the killing. George had extensive mental problems, was a fantasist, and had form as being a total indaquate who was obsessed with celebrities. He was convicted of Jill Dando’s muder on 2nd July 2001 but, beyond the jury at his trial, and a few desperate police officers, no-one really believed that he was the killer. After a retrial, he was acquitted of the killing in August 2008. To say he was a loser is misleading, because since his acquittal he has won substantial damages from various newspapers and media outlets. How much of this money has been retained by the wronged man is uncertain: what is more likely is that opportunist lawyers and publicists have trousered much of the loot as a reward for their services.

Dando’s killer will never be found. It was clearly a professional job, and has all the hallmarks of a state-sponsored hit. The hats of many possible suspects have been thrown into the ring including a killer in the employ of the Serbian government. As off-the-wall as this sounds, there is a faint thread of logic running through the claim. Dando had presented televised appeal for donations to a fund in aid of Kosovan refugees fleeing Serbian aggressors. Bear in mind that in the late 1990s the Balkans were the scene to some of the worst atrocities of an already blood-besmirched 20th century. Remember that Serbian military and political leaders at the time have subsequently been convicted for war crimes. Consider the unpalatable fact that execution, assassination and brutality had been a common tactic used by Serb nationalists over decades.

Jill Dando’s murder remains one of the enduring unsolved killings to have occurred on a London street. Usually murders are personal and the killers are so stoked up with passion or the desire for revenge that they leave traces and are soon brought to justice. Not so with the death of the much-loved TV presenter. The conspiracy theorists have had a field day, but the case is cold. As Blackadder might have said, as cold as a frozen icicle clinging to an ice-wall in a Siberian refrigerator.


BLUE LIGHT YOKOHAMA … Between the Covers


The lights of the city are so pretty
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
I’m happy with you
Please let me hear
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
Those words of love from you
I walk and walk, swaying
Like a small boat in your arms
I hear your footsteps coming
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
Give me one more tender kiss

This 1960s Japanese pop song, banal though it is, provides a chilling soundtrack to this fascinating novel by Nicolás Obregón. The lyrics pepper the narrative, and the very triteness of the song with its synthetic and saccharin sentiments, is in stark contrast to the grim and bloodstained efforts of a discredited and damaged Tokyo detective to bring a brutal killer to justice.

blyInspector Kosuke Iwata’s personal life is as scarred and trauma-ridden as the human tragedies he faces daily as a member of the Homicide division of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department. He was abandoned by his mother in a bus station when he was a child, but has become partly Americanised since she reappeared, now married to a prosperous US citizen, to reclaim him. In the intervening years, Iwata grew up in a Catholic orphanage, and his sleep is frequently disturbed by fretful dreams of those days, with the voices of both his disturbed best friend, as well as the abusive head of the institution, forever whispering in his ear.

Even in adulthood, Iwata has attracted tragedy like a flame attracts winged creatures of the night. His marriage to an American girl ended in horror, when she threw herself off a cliff, clutching their little child. The child perished on the rocks, but the woman survived, after a fashion. She now sits mute in a care home, her body reconstructed, but her mind and soul long since scattered, just as her daughter’s bones were on the jagged rocks at the foot of the cliff.

Iwata has been assigned a murder case which has, albeit briefly, shocked Tokyo. The Kaneshiro family, parents and children have been butchered in their home. The fact that they were of Korean origin, and the much more newsworthy death of Mina Hong, a glamorous celebrity, has consigned the story to the inside pages of the newspapers. Iwata and his assistant, the beautiful but aloof Sakai, discover that the reason they have been given the Kaneshiro case is that the previous investigating officer, Hideo Akashi, inexplicably threw himself to death from a towering Tokyo bridge just weeks earlier.

Iwata is disgusted when the police department announces to the press that it has hunted down the Kaneshiro’s killer – a confused and obsessive young man known to have stalked Mrs Kaneshiro. The fires of Iwata’s suspicions are further stoked when he hears that the so-called killer has died in custody before he could be brought to trial. Now, Iwata is told that he is off the case. Problem solved. Move on, nothing to see here. As fictional detectives usually do, Iwata goes it alone and, after traveling to Hong Kong, he senses that the real killer – who adorns his victims with a mysterious image of a black sun – is within his reach.

He is wrong. Obregón leads Iwata – and us – on an elaborately constructed and beautifully executed wild goose chase. I can’t remember a book where all the apparently random and disconnected threads of the story are finally woven together so cleverly, and with such aplomb. And all the while, the studio kitsch of the song jingles, jangles and jars on our senses as one death leads to another, and deception heaps on deception.

I hear your footsteps coming
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
Give me one more tender kiss
I walk and walk, swaying
Like a small boat in your arms
The scent of your favorite cigarettes
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
This will always be our world 

obregonThis a superb novel and goes way beyond the restraints and conventions of crime fiction. In his afterword, Obregón says of Iwata:

He wouldn’t be wisecracking and he wouldn’t be tough. He would be alone and full of sorrow, fighting the battles of the dead.

Of the novel itself, he adds:

I realised then that Blue Light Yokohama would be a crime novel only in façade. At its heart, I wanted to write about people in pain. About people who had lost something. So it was that Inspector Kosuke Iwata was born.

Blue Light Yokohama is out now, and is published by Michael Joseph. Click the image below to hear the original song.



COMPETITION … The Page 69 Rule

mayo-bannerThis fiendish competition has been devised by American crime writer Mike Mayo. He says:

“Marshall McLuhan came up with the page 69 test. According to Wikipedia, he said that when you’re trying to decide about buying a book, you should turn to page 69 and read the page. If it appeals to you, buy the book. If not, move on. All right, given that standard, take a look at these page-69 selections from three excellent mystery novels. Most of them are from the first edition, but I think the rule should apply to any hardback or paperback.”

What we want you do is to identify the three books which Mike Mayo has chosen. We have given you a pretty massive visual clue as to the author in each case!







blackoutTHE PRIZE? A copy of Marc Elsberg’s new bestseller, Blackout. This has been around in one form or another since 2012, but since it is billed as “a 21st century high-concept disaster thriller”, it is probably safe to assume that the latest edition has been made future-proof. Elsberg (aka Marcus Rafelsberger) was born in Vienna, and after training as an industrial designer worked as a strategy consultant and creative director in the advertising world. Blackout has a simple but rather scary premise. Quite simply, hackers decide to shut down Europe. They start in Milan, with the electricity grid. Then they rack up the attacks further afield. Half the continent is plunged into darkness while  people freeze and struggle to find food and water. Elsberg turns this nightmare scenario into an entertaining but disturbing thriller.

To win the book, identify the three novels quoted above. With Page 69 as the subject, email your answer to:

1. The first correct answer drawn out of ‘the hat’ will be the winner.
2. UK and Irish Republic entries only, on this occasion, due to postal costs.
3. Competition closes 10.00pm GMT on Wednesday  15th February

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