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April 2017

WHAT ALICE KNEW … Between the covers

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WAKBack in late 2016, I had the pleasure of listening to T A Cotterell read an extract from his debut novel, What Alice Knew. He made it clear that this was a book about secrets, and about that strange beast, family life. Family life. The words are anodyne, mild and reassuring, but we all know that many families are not what they seem to be to an outsider. Cotterell’s question, though, is simply this: “How well do members of a family know each other?”

This particular family is as close to the notion of perfection as can be. Husband Ed Sheahan is a senior obstrician at a Bristol hospital while Alice Sheahan, née Tenterden, is a successful and highly regarded portrait painter. They have two adorable children and a beautiful house in a sought-after Bristol district – one of those places which delights in calling itself a village, complete with ‘proper’ shops which strive to be terribly artisan and traditional.

As Alice is driving home from painting a commission in Suffolk, she takes a ‘phone call from daughter Nell. The first five words send a stab of anxiety through her. “Mummy – Daddy hasn’t come home.” Ed Sheahan simply isn’t the kind of father to leave his children alone in the house at night. He is not answering his mobile, he is not at the hospital, his suitcase, hold-all and travel bag are still in their cupboard. Eventually Alice discovers that Ed was last seen at a party with some younger colleagues.

Much to Alice’s relief, the absent Ed finally breaks surface and reveals, much to his embarrassment, that he had drunk well rather than wisely and had passed out in an expensive apartment belonging to a mature art student called Araminta Lyall. The apartment is in the district of Stokes Croft, which Cotterell describes as:

“..home to artists’ studios and vegan cafés, squatter collectives that sprout in disused buildings, all-night clubs, wraith-like dealers, protest groups.”

Ed Sheahan makes his way home very much with his tail between his legs. Alice is actually rather amused, because he is no sort of a party animal and much less a drinker. She is just happy that the temporary scare and anxiety have passed with no real harm being done to the family. But – and of course there is always a ‘but’ in domestic noir thrillers – her contentment is short lived when she reads the newspaper headline SOCIETY GIRL DIES, and when she reads to story, one name leaps out at her. Araminta Lyall.

T-A-CotterellFrom this point on, the dreamy soft-focus life of the Sheahan family descends into a nightmare reality, all jagged edges and harshly grating contrasts. The visual metaphor is actually totally appropriate, as one of the great strengths of the novel is how Alice sees much of life through her painterly eyes. Rose madder, cadmium yellow, viridian, alizarin crimson and flake white. Alice’s world is the world of the quaintly named oil paints on her palette. It came as no surprise to me to learn that Cotterell (right) studied History of Art at Cambridge.

One of the most gripping chapters in the book is the description of Alice being commissioned to paint a mystery sitter, who turns out to be a woman who was her best friend at school, but from whom she parted under traumatic circumstances. The woman has become dazzlingly rich through business, and has changed her name. In an atmosphere that could be sliced with a razor, the two eventually come face to face. Even if you read another two hundred books this year you will not experience a more tense and excoriating account of the power of memory, guilt and bitterness.

The tale is told from first to last by Alice herself. This poses interesting possibilities for the reader, particularly in the light of the shocks contained in the final few pages of the novel. Is Alice a reliable narrator? Does her ruthless honesty as a portraitist extend to what she is telling us – and herself? Cotterell certainly takes a huge gamble and puts our credulity on the table as stakes. I think it works, thus seating him up there on the High Table where the more established purveyors of domestic noir sup and dine. As ever, you must judge for yourselves. What Alice Knew is published by Transworld/ Black Swan/Penguin Random House and is available here.

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BRIGHT SHINY THINGS … Between the covers

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barbara-nadel-c-teri-varholBarbara Nadel (left) has created one of the more adventurous pairings in recent private eye fiction. The pair return for another episode set in the modern East End of London. Lee Arnold is a former soldier and policeman but now he is the proprietor of an investigation agency, partnered by a young Anglo Bengali widow, Mumtaz Hakim. Abbas al’Barri was an interpreter back in the first Gulf War, where he became close friends with Arnold. He escaped from Iraq with his family, and settled in London, but now he has a huge problem for which he requires the services of Arnold and Hakim. Fayyad – Abbas’s son – has become radicalised and gone to wage jihad in Syria. After receiving a mysterious package containing a significant religious artifact, Abbas and his wife are convinced that it represents a cry for help from Fayyad who, they believe, is desperate to return home.

Like all his fellow crusaders for The Caliphate, Fayyad has cast off his familial name and now has an identity more fitting, in his eyes, for someone wielding the sword of Islamic justice against the kaffir. Abu Imad also knows his way about the internet and he has established a very distinctive social media profile. On the basis of this, Arnold and Hakim hatch a scheme to lure the young jihadi to Amsterdam where they can discover if his parents’ belief in his change of heart is justified, or simply wishful thinking.

BSTTheir plan, it must be said, is fraught with danger and is almost bound to go pear-shaped, but within the confines of crime fiction thrillers, makes for a nail-biting narrative. What could possibly go wrong with Hakim befriending Abu Imad on Facebook and pretending to be a starstruck Muslim lass called Mishal who would like nothing better than to travel out to Syria to be at her hero’s side? Facebook leads to Skype, and with the help of make-up and a head covering, ‘Mishal’ arranges to travel to Amsterdam, complete with Abu Imad’s shopping list from Harrods. As you might expect, everything then goes wrong, in bloody and spectacular fashion.

Nadel, cleverly, has two plotlines operating in tandem, quite different but subtly linked. We have a standard police procedural centred on the murder of a flamboyant Hindu shopkeeper, Rajiv Banergee, who has been openly gay for a long time. This exposes the flaws and fault lines within Islamic society in regard to its attitude towards homosexuality but also keeps us grounded on familiar territory, fiction-wise. The second plot, of course, is the attempt to ‘rescue’ Fayyad al’Barri. This narrative is laden with tension. We soon realise that Arnold and Hakim are in way over their heads, and we can only hope that the pair escape with their lives from a maelstrom of terrorism, counter terrorism and industrial-strength deception

Nadel gives us an unflinching portrait of the social stresses and strains of the Bengali community in and around its Brick Lane heartland. She pulls no punches when describing how the position and treatment of women by many Bengali men is so often at odds with what could be called modern British and, indeed, Western European values.

The novel never becomes mere polemic, but Nadel does address one of the apparent conundrums of Islam, and that is how a so called religion of peace can allow the atrocities carried out by ISIS and other jihadis. Her answer is not the complete solution, but she neatly points out that most of the carnage is carried out by relatively young people, much to the shock and shame of their parents and, in turn, she poses the question, “Since when, in any society, have young people ever listened to their elders?”

Mumtaz Hakim has a considerable back-story which will be familiar to those who have read previous books in the series. For newcomers, the grim events are described with a deft touch which tells the reader everything they need to know, while enabling that part of the plot to simmer away nicely in the background. This is a gripping read which will entertain and cause nails to bitten to the quick. It also raises some significant questions about British society. Bright Shiny Things is available now in all formats.

 

A CRIMINAL ANCESTOR

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Many will tutt and nod their heads sagely when told I confess that I am a direct descendant of a criminal. “I thought as much,” might be the common response. The crime for which this ancestor of mine – John Prestidge – was sentenced brings to mind the old adage that suggests someone might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, and in this case the reference is literal.

moreton_pinkney_church_623x400This first child of John Prestidge and Elizabeth Hickerson was named John like his father and grandfather before him, and was baptized in the Church of St. Mary at Moreton Pinkney (left) on 6 January 1765. Also, like most of his forebears John would have no formal education and was therefore unable to read and write. He would have worked as a casual farm labourer on farms in the district from quite an early age, perhaps 8 or 10 years, at whatever suitable employment was available. At the age of 22 John married Elizabeth Lovell in the parish church of St. Mary Magdalen in Wardington, Oxfordshire (below) on 9 July 1786.

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Some three months before their marriage, the first of the couple’s eight children, a daughter Esther was baptized on 8 April 1786 at Moreton Pinkney. If life had been hard for John before his marriage it became harder still as his family increased. On 23rd November 1795, by this time John and Elizabeth had five children and another on the way, John appeared at the Northampton Quarter Sessions before Samuel Blencowe convicted of stealing several faggots of thorn wood, the property of Joseph Gilkes. John’s friend Robert Talbot was also accused of the same offence at the Quarter Sessions at Thorpe Mandeville,.

Six years after the first offence, the Northampton Mercury of 14th November 1801 reported. “On Tuesday was committed to the gaol of this county, by Samuel Blencowe Esq. John Prestidge, charged with having feloniously stolen a wether sheep, the property of Wm. Painter, farmer of Sulgrave”. By this time John and Elizabeth had eight children, and faced with so many hungry mouths to feed John was tempted to steal a sheep. He was tried at the Northampton Assizes in March 1802, found guilty, and sentenced to death. He was later reprieved by the Lord Chief Justice, Baron Graham (right)john-singleton-copley-baron-graham-1804, and sentenced to transportation for life. John was subsequently transferred from gaol to a prison hulk at Langston, Portsmouth to await transportation.The ship was HMS Calcutta, commanded by Captain Woodruff.

On 9th October 1803 after a stormy passage across the Indian Ocean, the Calcutta arrived at Port Phillip Bay (modern Melbourne) After disembarking, the fledgling colony was set up at the site that the Governor, David Collins, named Sullivan Bay near present day Sorrento in the State of Victoria.
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Governor Collins
(left) soon became aware that the site chosen for the colony at Port Phillip was less than ideal. Searches had failed to discover adequate supplies of fresh water, the soil was poor and he was aware of increasing antagonism between elements in his party and the local aboriginal tribes. He therefore sought permission from Governor King to abandon Sullivan Bay and remove the settlement to Van Diemen’s Land.

Arriving in what is now Tasmania, the convicts were quickly put to work helping to build shelters and clear land and establish the permanent camp that eventually grew into the township of Hobart. Clearing of land to plant crops must have been a priority and convicts like John Prestidge who were experienced in agricultural work would have been valued. Perhaps it should be mentioned here that the Calcutta convicts appear to have been selected as being non-violent and indeed larceny was the crime of which most were convicted.

The colony was becoming desperately short of food. Supplies coming in by sea arrived irregularly and were often in poor condition and of indifferent quality. Much of the salted meat arrived unfit to eat and the colony depended on supplies of kangaroo and emu meat, and whatever else in the way of birds and fish that could be caught. Gov. Collins could see the necessity to restrict the taking of too much wild life, in order to ensure future food supplies for both the colonists and the local aboriginal population.However, seeing the problem and being able to control it was a different matter.Problems with the local aboriginal population over diminishing supplies of game soon became evident.

On Wednesday 8th May 1805 eight convicts, including John Prestidge, were apprehended.They were accused of conspiring to make away with the new government whaleboat and escape in it to New Zealand.The eight were brought before Lt. Gov. Collins and the appointed magistrates, Rev. Robert Knapweed and William Sladden Esq., at 11 am on the 9th May. Although thoroughly questioned they were not convicted. Perhaps hunger and fear of starvation was the reason for this attempted escape. During August 1805 Rev. Knapweed, the Chaplain to the colony, records in his diary that the ration allowance per person from the government store was 2 lbs 10oz of very bad salt pork, 2 lbs flour, 2lbs wheat and 2 lbs fresh kangaroo meat per week.The threat of starvation must have been a very real and frightening one.

Despite all the difficulties, the food shortage and the constant hard labour John Prestidge seems to have managed to keep out of trouble and worked satisfactorily. He was granted one of the earliest conditional remissions in 1806.This conditional pardon meant that whilst he remained in Tasmania he was no longer a convict, but a free man. However he was unable to legally return to England unless he obtained a full pardon.

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In 1813 he was granted 40 acres of land at Iron Creek in the District of Gloucester, present day Sorell. The grant document signed by Gov. Lachlan Macquarie (above) declares that the land is “granted unto John Prestage, his heirs and successors to have and to hold forever”. This must have seemed a monumental step to John, by now aged 49, taking him from convicted felon to free man, farmer and landowner in just ten years. Never in England could he have achieved land ownership, and one can sense his determination to succeed, for, from this time on John became as he is described in the Hobart Town Gazette on 31st May 1817, “an industrious settler”.

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There is evidence to suggest that John had been in communication with his family in England from time to time during the sixteen or so years that he had by now been in exile. Although he could not read or write, it seems that verbal messages were passed on by ex-convicts and others returning to England or coming back again to Van Diemen’s Land for whatever reason. However on at least one occasion John had a letter written for him, which was sent to his second son Thomas, by then aged about 30, married to Maria Wells and still living in Moreton Pinkney. In this letter dated 5th January 1821 at Hobart Town, John tells Thomas that he intends to return to England when he is able to arrange his affairs in Van Diemen’s Land, however the “state of his property would detain him abroad for some years longer”.

Several reasons present themselves for John’s delay in returning to England, if that was truly his intention. The life he had built for himself in Tasmania must have seemed like paradise compared with the poverty which had led him to commit the original crime, and he must have suspected that his family would – in many ways – have become strangers to him.

Throughout this long period of her husband’s exile, Elizabeth had a life to lead and a family to raise. Six years after her husband was transported “Anne daughter of Elizabeth Prestidge” was baptized on 21st February at Moreton Pinkney, but no name is given for the father of the child. Edward Franklin and his wife Susannah nee Haddon were neighbour of John and Elizabeth and had raised their families in Morten Pinkney at about the same time.Susannah died in early 1821 and less than six months later Edward and Elizabeth made arrangements to marry. However at a reading of the banns John and Elizabeth’s second son Thomas objected, declaring before the congregation that he knew of just cause why Elizabeth and Edward Franklin should not be married.

On the 12th August 1821 Rev. J.L. Tyler, then Vicar of St. Mary’s in Moreton Pinkney wrote a Memorandum concerning the event.Thomas stated that his father was still alive in Van Diemen’s Land, and in a letter had said he was “desirous of returning to his wife and family, when he could arrange his affairs.” This letter, written for John was from Hobart Town and dated 5th January 1821. The memorandum concluded that it would be impossible for Elizabeth and Edward to have their relationship sanctified by a church wedding.

Elizabeth Prestidge was certainly a woman of distinction, by village standards. Tyler wrote:

“I had not at first identified the object of this long attachment; but I did soon, for I must have seen her, and much admired her, every day from my arrival. I frequently saw from my window a tall, thin, singularly upright, graceful figure, twirling a mop before a cottage door.” A hundred yards off she might still be thought young. She was near eighty, and, including husbands and wives, had a hundred descendants.She was the mother of most of the Prestidge including five large families bearing her name”

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Elizabeth Prestidge died in Moreton Pinkney in 1848 aged 78 and was buried on 20th July 1848. Such was the concentration of the Prestidge family in Moreton Pinkney, that a row of cottages bears the family name to this day. The supreme irony is that the cottages are now top drawer real estate, an estate agent’s dream, a far cry from the grinding poverty of the families who once lived there.

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Sadly for the family name, the Prestidge clan had an unenviable reputation for villainy throughout the 19th century, and regularly made the court reports for the Northampton Mercury.

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Much of the information in this feature is taken from research conducted by Margaret Prestege and Sheila Frewin.

COMPETITION … Win ‘Home’ by Harlan Coben

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HERE AT FULLY BOOKED TOWERS  we have a lovely crisp new paperback edition of Home, the mesmerising thriller by suspense-meister Harlan Coben, and it is crying out for a new owner. We reviewed the hardback edition a while ago, and were knocked out by the incredibly clever plot which twists and turns this way and that.

SO, HOW DO YOU ENTER? Dead simple. Fans of Coben’s investigator Myron Bolitar will already know the answer, but if you are new to the series, read our review, which is on the end of this link. You will see that Bolitar is a former professional sportsman. Simply use that sport as the email subject, eg “Cricket” and email Fully Booked at the address below.

fullybooked2016@yahoo.com

ALL CORRECT ANSWERS will be put into the digital hat, and the winner will be notified in due course. To keep postage costs down, the competition on this occasion is only open to readers from the UK and the Irish Republic. We have a Bank Holiday next weekend, and so the competition closes at 10.00pm UK time on Monday 1st May.

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SKELETON GOD … Between the covers

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It is hard to believe that in the not-so-distant past western crime authors were prone to portraying Chinese detectives as little more than grotesques, acting out every preconception of what such a person must look and sound like, and how they should behave. The excellent Robert van Gulik, with his Judge Dee novels (1950 – 1968), was one of the earliest writers to move crime fiction set in China out of the Fu Manchu mode, and into a more credible world. Eliot Pattison introduced us to his modern day Chinese policeman, Shan Tao Yun, in Mandarin Gate (2012).

Shan is a former Beijing Police Inspector who has managed the not-so-difficult task of upsetting the monolithic party machine which controls The Motherland. After exile to the Chinese equivalent of the gulags, he has been paroled to an isolated town in Tibet, where he is officially The Constable. His main tasks seem to be rescuing yaks stranded in the winter mud or chasing goats away from municipal buildings. Above all, he must and uphold the law in a community largely stripped of its traditional identity by decades of Chinese Imperialism.

Skeleton GodThe book actually begins with Shan rescuing one of the aforementioned yaks, but events take a more sinister turn. An ancient grave is uncovered, but the inhabitants are unlikely bedfellows. The original occupant is a long dead priest, mummified and gilded. But his companions are the remains of a Chinese soldier, and the very recent corpse of an American visitor. There is cultural confusion when a mobile ‘phone, presumably not the property of either the priest of the soldier, chimes out Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus across the chill mountain air and into the ears of alarmed Yangkar locals.

Shan discovers that the American is an ex-US Navy rating called Jake Bartram. Unlikely though it may seem, Bartram’s mother is Tibetan, and came from Yangkar itself, before marrying an American citizen and settling in Pennsylvania. Rather like the relationship between Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther and his Nazi bosses, Shan is regarded with a mixture of caution and tolerance by those who sit in power within the Communist Party of China and, ipso facto by every single one of its eighty million members.

Shan walks a never-ending tight-rope. If he falls to one side he risks the wrath of The Party, and he is ever aware of their power. Should he fall to the other side, he knows that he will betray the Tibetan people with whom he lives. A young Chinese Public Security officer who is, effectively, moonlighting, alerts Shan to the misdeeds of a prominent retired military hero, General Lau, and the resultant investigation taxes to the limit both Shan’s integrity and his instinctive desire to keep his head in physiological contact with the rest of his body.

Pattison’s evocation of the fragile remnants of Tibetan culture is masterly. The rich and mystical Buddhist past is now little more than the rags on a scarecrow, buffeted and shredded by the savage winds of conformity which have howled from the east since the 1950s. The monasteries have gone, and their timbers and stone recycled to build barns. Gone, too, are the monks, but the ancient Tibetan ghosts remain, at least in the minds and imaginations of those who still scratch out a living in the valleys and high passes.

Readers are left in little doubt as to where Pattison’s sympathies lie, between the hard put-upon Tibetans and their Chinese masters. The sheer enormity of the chain of command between Sinophile officials in the windswept uplands of Tibet and their Pattison-2masters far away to the east is described with wit and a certain degree of compassion. I am never completely convinced by the regular use of italicised foreign language nouns in novels, particularly when the original words would have used an entirely different alphabet, but this is a tiny complaint dwarfed by what is a brilliant and evocative police procedural, albeit one set in a world as far away from our European certainties as it is possible to recreate. Pattison (right) has written a novel which  reminds us that China’s eminence as a world power has not been achieved painlessly.

Skeleton God is published by Minotaur Books and is out now.

THE KILLER ON THE WALL … Between the covers

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There are towns and villages the world over which in themselves are insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but whose names are indelibly imprinted on the public consciousness for the evil deeds committed there. My Lai, Sandy Hook, Columbine, Dunblane, Hungerford: the names resonate, and cause us to shudder. In the latest novel from Emma Kavanagh, Briganton is such a place. It is a village otherwise little worthy of note, with nothing to detain either the traveller or the tourist save, perhaps, for its proximity to the remains of the winding wall built to protect the northern limits of Roman Britain from so-called Celtic barbarians.

TKOTWThe name Briganton, to most British people, conjures up a series of murders, where the victims were dragged up the steep hillside and posed, in death, gazing with sightless eyes out over the windswept moorland. But all that was long ago. The killer, Heath McGowan, was brought to justice by the determination of Eric Bell, a local policeman who has since been promoted and has achieved national celebrity due to his solving the case. His triumph had added poignancy because it was his teenage daughter, Isla, who discovered the first bodies while out for an early morning run.

Twenty years have past, and now Isla Bell is Professor of Criminal Psychology at the University of Northumberland. Her husband, Ramsey Aiken was one of the original victims of The Killer On The Wall, but he survived his injuries, and is now a freelance journalist, while her father, Superintendent Eric Bell has become something of a police legend.

Isla is working on a project to identify physical differences between the brains of serial killers and normal people, and her work takes her to the prison where Heath McGowan is serving several life sentences for his murderous activities in and around Briganton. As she persuades him to undergo an MRI scan, she tries to persuade him to talk about the killings, but he treats it as a game, and refuses to divulge any useful information.

Then, the unthinkable – even the impossible – happens. In quick succession, two more local women are murdered and take the places of the long-dead bodies propped up against the limestone blocks of Hadrian’s Wall. Clearly, McGowan is not the killer, but does he have an imitator? An accomplice, maybe, who was never caught decades earlier? A young Detective Constable, Mina Arian, has made her home in Briganton and she becomes obsessed with finding – or disproving – links between the original killings and the new murders.

Emma Kavanagh has a doctorate in psychology, and her understanding both of what we know – and what we don’t know – about the workings of the human mind give this novel a very distinct and disturbing potency. Her academic credentials aside, she is a very gifted writer. As far as the plot is concerned she gives us a trawl net full of red herrings to sift through, and her vivid characterisations, particularly of Mina Arian, Eric Bell and Isla Aiken, give the narrative an electric charge.

This is a guided missile of a book: it explodes into life, and then keeps burning, inexorably homing in on a target which you will only foresee by cheating and flipping through to the last few pages. When it comes, the detonation is as devastating as it is unforeseen. Only the very best writers have the daring and dexterity to deliver such a plot twist and make it as credible as it is shocking, and Emma Kavanagh must be a founder member of that exclusive club.

You can read our review of The Missing Hours, an earlier novel by Emma Kavanagh, and she also wrote a very perceptive feature on Trauma. The Killer On The Wall is out now.

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THE MOTHER OF ALL COMPETITIONS …

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TKOTWTHIS IS A COMPETITION TO TEST SERIOUS CRI-FI BUFFS To win a copy of Emma Kavanagh’s brilliant new psychological thriller The Killer On The Wall you will need to exercise the grey matter. It may well be a distinct advantage if you are old enough to remember the 1960s! To be in the draw, you will need to identify the title of a 2009 novel which dramatised the Hammersmith Murders, and featured several real life personalities who feature in the montage below. We will post the prize worldwide, so followers in Europe, the Far east USA or Australasia are welcome to compete.
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A: David “Screaming Lord’ Sutch, a minor pop star, who contested many elections as the leader of The Monster Raving Loony Party.
B: Michael Holliday, a popular crooner who suffered from terrible stage fright, and committed suicide in 1963.
C: Pauline Boty, an outrageously talented painter and designer, who died of cancer in 1966
D: Freddie Mills, a brave light-heavyweight boxer who made a career as a TV personality after he retired from the ring. He died, allegedly at his own hand, in 1965.
E: The cover of the mystery novel, minus any text.

To enter the draw, write the title ( three words) of the novel as the subject, and email Fully Booked at the address below.

fullybooked2016@yahoo.com

The competition closes at 10.00 GMT on Sunday 23rd April.
Competition is open worldwide – we will post the prize anywhere!

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DIE LAST … Between the covers …

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Tony Parsons has passionately held political views, and he takes no prisoners in this searing account of how human life has become a mere commodity in the biggest criminal racket ever to infect British society. Worse than drugs, more damaging than financial fraud and with a casualty list that makes the Kray twins and the Richardson brothers look like philanthropists, the trafficking of people into Britain is a growth industry which attracts the investment of evil men and women, and pays guaranteed dividends – in blood money.

DLHis London copper, DC Max Wolfe, becomes involved when a refrigerated lorry is abandoned on a street in London’s Chinatown. The emergency services breathe a huge sigh of relief when they discover that the truck is not carrying a bomb, but their relaxed mood is short-lived when they break open the doors to discover that the vehicle contains the frozen bodies of twelve young women. The bundle of passports – mostly fake – found in the lorry’s cab poses an instant conundrum. There are thirteen passports, but only twelve girls. Who – and where – is the missing person?

One of the young women shows a flicker of life, and she is rushed off to hospital, but hypothermia has shut down her vital organs beyond resuscitation, and she dies with Max Wolfe at her bedside. He discovers her true identity and vows to bring to justice the people responsible for her death, the people who brought her from poverty in Serbia, the people who promised her that she would find work as a nurse.

The search for the slavers – and the missing girl – takes Wolfe and his colleague Edie Wren to the hell on earth that is the makeshift migrant camp near Dunkerque. They discover a brutal racket run by a group of anarchists posing as voluntary workers, but police attempts to infiltrate the network – whimsically called Imagine – end in tragedy.

Wolfe feels that he has blood on his hands, but this makes him all the more determined, and the deeper he digs, the more convinced he is that someone more powerful and with a much bigger bank balance than the hippies of Imagine is at the heart of the operation. From the mud, despair and violent opportunism of the Dunkerque camp Wolfe follows the trail to millionaire properties in central London and the influential men and women whose lifestyles reek of privilege and wealth.

tony_400x400Max Wolfe certainly gets around for a humble Detective Constable, but he is an engaging character and his home background of the Smithfield flat, young daughter, motherly Irish childminder and adorable pooch make a welcome change from the usual domestic arrangements of fictional London coppers with their neglected wives, alcohol dependency and general misanthropy. Parsons (right)  is clearly angry about many aspects of modern life in Britain, but he is too good to allow his writing to descend into mere polemic. Instead, he uses his passion to drive the narrative and lend credibility to the way his characters behave.

The plot twists cleverly this way and that, and Parsons lays one or two false trails to entice the reader, but in the end, a kind of justice is done. This is compelling stuff from one of our best crime writers, and his anger at the utter disgrace of modern slavery drives the narrative forward. Die Last is a novel that will hook you in and keep you turning the pages right to the end. Your natural disappointment at finishing a terrific book will be tempered by the excellent news that Max Wolfe returns in 2018 with Tell Him He’s Dead. You can grab a copy of Die Last from all good booksellers, or by following this Amazon link.

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PRUSSIAN BLUE …Between the covers

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Philip Kerr’s long suffering and world weary policeman Bernie Gunther returns in this superb novel which straddles WW2. With astonishing skill, Kerr keeps two stories on the go, the earlier being set in Bavaria in April 1939, with the blue touch-paper for war already lit and Europe simply waiting for the bang: the second story takes us to October 1956, with a large part of Germany suffering under another tyranny – that of the Russian puppet government of the so-called German Democratic Republic. The two stories appear to be spinning happily along in their own unconnected orbits, but Kerr brings them ever closer together until they meet in a dazzling finale.

Philip_KerrBernie Gunther fans will already be aware of the company he is forced to keep in the years before and during Hitler’s war. Previous books have found him working uneasily alongside such monsters as Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Gruppenführer Arthur Nebe, but it is his relationship with SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich that Kerr (left) has explored in the greatest depth. Now, Heydrich, ever mindful of his place in Hitler’s hierarchy, sends Gunther to Hitler’s Bavarian retreat in Berchtesgaden, ostensibly to investigate the murder of a minor functionary, but hopeful that Gunther’s investigations will embarrass Martin Bormann, personal secretary to the Führer, and Heydrich’s political rival.

The parallel 1956 story finds Gunther struggling to keep his false identity as a hotel concierge in the French Riviera. In The Other Side of Silence, the previous book in the series, Gunther became tangled in a net of espionage and treachery involving the writer Somerset Maugham, a former Nazi war criminal, and the British Secret Service. A British woman he befriended – and bedded – now proves to have been a ‘person of interest’ to the GDR, and in particular Erich Mielke, the boss of the East German Ministry for State Security, better known as the Stasi. Mielke travels to the Cote d’Azur, and makes Gunther an offer he can’t refuse. He must either go to England and kill Anne French, preferably with the GDR’s poison of choice, Thallium. The alternative? To be disposed of by the gang of Stasi thugs Mielke has brought with him from East Berlin.

PBThe human link between these two episodes in Gunther’s life is a fellow policeman called Friedrich Korsch. In his former life, Korsch helped Gunther discover who actually put the bullet from a Mannlicher hunting rifle through the head of a corrupt bureaucrat called Karl Flex on that brisk April day seventeen years earlier. Korsch is nothing if not a survivor. Unlike Gunther, who is forced to sail the post-war seas like a latter day Flying Dutchman, Korsch has taken the King’s Shilling – or at least Erich Mielke’s Deutschmark – and is under strict orders to make sure his former boss gets to England to kill the fugitive Anne French.

Gunther escapes his Stasi minders and goes on the run in rural France. By hook or by crook, his aim is to get himself into West Germany where he stands a better chance of being protected from the East German thugs who want him dead. As he travels north and east, the two stories begin, slowly but inexorably, to converge. They used to say that all roads lead to Rome. In this novel, all roads lead to abandoned mines dug deep into a hillside in the Saar region – the Schlossberghöhlen. Here, Gunther tracks down the Berchtesgaden killer, and is violently reunited with the former policeman who helped track him down.

Kerr’s genius lies in the fact that he allows Gunther to drink Schnapps and share a cigarette with some of the most notorious killers of the twentieth century. He allows Gunther to make silent moral judgments on those with whom he is forced to rub shoulders, but when it comes to making big decisions, Gunther always takes the path which allows his head to remain connected to the rest of his body. The dialogue, as always, bristles with wisecracks. Kerr lets his hero come to within a cigarette paper’s thickness of signing his own death warrant, but grants Gunther the wit and wisdom to talk – or fight – his way out of potentially fatal confrontations.

Follow this link to read a review of an earlier Bernie Gunther story, A Man Without Breath. Prussian Blue is published by Quercus, and is out now.

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