Search

fullybooked2017

Month

July 2017

THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS . . . Between the covers

TSSC header

Two women. Two lives. Two worlds. Two pregnancies. Two sets of very different secrets.

Meghan Shaughnessy is a former journalist but now something of a super-mum via her blog about family life. Her husband Jack is an ambitious and confident sports presenter for a television company. They live, comfortably and pleasantly, with their two existing children, in an affluent district beside the River Thames, a district so full of delis, bookshops, fine restaurants and boutiques that the residents, rightfully smug about their little enclave, have added the word ‘Village’ to the perfectly acceptable name by which it has been known since being recorded in The Domesday Book.

Meghan’s third pregnancy is something of an accident but nonetheless welcomed. She has been advised by her obstetrician to have a Caesarian section this time, to avoid the painful tearing she has suffered at the the previous births, but she is anxious to explain this to her thousands of blog readers, as she doesn’t want them to think that she is Too Posh to Push.

Secrets coverAgatha Fyfle works for peanuts in a ‘Village’ supermarket but Mr Patel, her boss, is not the kind of man to be offering generous maternity leave. He is so tight that he once docked her pay for putting the wrong price on a tin of peaches. The father of her baby is far, far away on a Royal Navy ship patrolling the Indian Ocean, chasing Somali pirates. Despite her nothing job and the desperate ordinariness of her life, Agatha has her imagination and her dreams:

“Shrugging on my winter coat, I slip out of the rear door, skirting the rubbish bins and discarded cardboard boxes. Pulling my hood over my head, I imagine I look like Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She was a whore abandoned by a French ship’s officer, and she spent her life staring out to sea, waiting for him to return. My sailor is coming home to me and I’m giving him a baby.”

Agatha lives in a shabby flat, and her life would be as grey as a December dawn were it not for one simple blessing:

“I love being pregnant, feeling my baby inside me, stretching, yawning, kicking. It’s like I’m never alone any more. I have someone to keep me company and listen to my stories.”

Agatha ‘knows’ Meghan in the sense that she comes into the shop to buy essentials, but they have never spoken. Agatha also knows that frumpy women stacking shelves are rarely – if ever – noticed by customers, but sometimes, of a morning, she watches wistfully through the window as Meghan takes her children Lucy and Lachlan to their highly regarded schools. Some days Meghan goes off to her yoga group, other days she meets other Yummy Mummies for skinny cappucinos, chai lattes and pots of herbal teas.

Robotham tells his tale through alternate chapters spoken by Agatha and Meghan. The two women are due to give birth at around the same time, and as their due dates come nearer, we learn more and more about their families, their childhoods, their hopes and fears. And their secrets. Ah yes, those secrets. Those mistakes, those misfortunes, those cruelties of Fate, even those occasional acts of mad jealousy collison between which turn lives on their heads, and inseminate the body with an embryonic demon who grows daily stronger and more malevolent until it is time to burst out and cause devastation to both the host and their nearest and dearest.

TSSK middle

Robotham orchestrates a collision between the lives of Agatha and Meghan. The two ships are slowly and inexorably heading towards each other and by the time they realise what is happening, there is no time to turn.

It would be an act of criminal irresponsibility to reveal any more about the plot. Suffice it to say that Robotham boxes very cleverly for several chapters, but then unleashes a series of crunching blows which put our preconceptions on the canvas. To say the plot twists would be an understatement – it spins, but always in a stable way, a little like a gyroscope, dizzyingly fast but always under control.

This is a brilliant example of Domestic Noir. The tension is ratcheted up a notch at a time, and sometimes it becomes almost unbearable. We know what is about to happen but, like Meghan and Agatha, we are powerless to alter the course of events. Readers of Robotham’s Joseph O’Loughlin novels will not be surprised at the psychological intensity in The Secrets She Keeps. Readers new to the author need to be prepared for an uncomfortable few hours.

We reviewed Close Your Eyes, a novel featuring Robotham’s forensic psychologist O’Loughlin, a little earlier and you can check buying choices for The Secrets She Keeps by clicking this link.

TSSC footer

THE MUSIC OF CRIME FICTION

TMOCF header

IV. SCHERZO

I like to think I have a wide taste in music, and can get something out of almost every genre and style. I do draw the line at ‘modern’ jazz, however. My view is – and I show my age by borrowing a phrase from the 1957 Wolfenden Report – that it should be permissible only between consenting adults, and very definitely in private. So, no Crime Fiction set around an alto sax player who plays thirty-five minute solos (sadly, he’s not fictional, but he is certainly committing a crime.)

51G3AhWKo0L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_I do love Operas, though – at least those written up to the death of Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini (who would be just as wonderful even if he didn’t have six christian names.) I would add the personal caveat that for me it is sometimes better heard than seen, as stage productions can sometimes demand too much suspension of disbelief. Our chosen book, then, is Spur Of The Moment by David Linzee, and it is set around the St Louis Opera company as they prepare a performance of Bizet’s wonderful, preposterous, exhilarating four-act classic, Carmen.

The central character in the book is Renata Radleigh, an English mezzo-soprano who is employed by the St Louis Opera to sing the relatively minor role of Mercédès. Her brother, fellow ex-pat David, is also employed by the SLO, but his task is to tout far and wide for commercial sponsorship.

When a key company patron Helen Stromberg-Brand is found brutally murdered, the police suspect David Radleigh and arrest him. His motive? It seems that Helen – nicknamed Sturm und Drang – and her husband were on the verge of cancelling a huge donation. Could they have argued? Did David lose his temper with the headstrong woman?

But there could be another motive. Helen Stromberg-Brand was a national celebrity, at least in the field of pharmaceutical research. She and her team were on the threshold of patenting a revolutionary drug to combat urinary tract infection in women. In partnership with the charismatic billionaire Keith Bryson – who has the casual dress sense, long hair and boyish charm of Richard Branson – Helen’s unit at the Adams University Medical Centre were about to find even greater fame and riches. Now she lies in the police mortuary, her head shattered by a heavy glass bowl.

Renata is not the world’s most loving sister, but she refuses to accept that David could have killed Sturm und Drang, if only because he is far too wet and wimpy for murder. Together with a former reporter, Peter Lombardo, she thinks the lady’s demise was less to do with the SLO, and more to do with the cut-throat world of drug patenting.

DLDavid Linzee has himself been a ‘supernumary’ – basically the opera equivalent of a spear carrier – and he enjoys several digs at the way an opera company in a mid-sized city is run. I particularly enjoyed his jibes at the ubiquitous need for sponsorship. Linzee (right) explains that the SLO has to make sure that literally every brick in the building has corporate support. Thus we have the Peter J Calvocoressi Administration Building, the Charles Macnamara III Auditorium and – best of all – the Endeavour Rent-a-Car Endowed Artist. In this case it’s Amy Song, the woman playing Carmen.

By the time Renata and Peter think they have unraveled the mystery of who killed the formidable Mrs Stromberg-Brand, the unorthodox stage set of the Carmen production experiences a malfunction. A giant playing card land on the heroine’s head. An all-points-bulletin is issued for the only actress who can replace the stricken Ms Song – none other than our very own Renata Radleigh. Renata takes the stage in triumph, but before the distraught Don José can plunge his stage dagger into Carmen’s heart, a real killer pre-empts the drama at the bull-fighting arena.

SOTM middle

If anything, the plot of Spur Of The Moment is even more unlikely than the full blooded passion and drama taking place on stage between the doomed gypsy girl and her battling lovers, but what the tabloid press might call THE SHENANIGANS IN SEVILLE make a wonderful backdrop for this beautifully written and sharply funny murder mystery. A tad cosy, perhaps? Maybe, but when something is as well written as this, you won’t hear me complaining. A final word, if I may. Try to get to a production of Bizet’s masterpiece as soon as you can. Why the hurry? Well, it stands to reason, surely? Not only was Bizet not Spanish, his opera may well come to be classified as ‘cultural appropriation’ as well as making harmful stereotypes of people from Seville, women who make cigars, gypsies, policemen and bullfighters. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Spur Of The Moment is published by Coffeetown Press and is available here.

You can catch up with the previous parts of this series by clicking the links.

I. PRELUDE and FUGUE
II. MARCHE FUNEBRE
III. RONDO

SOTM footer

THE MUSIC OF CRIME FICTION

TMOCF header

III. RONDO

Existing fans of Phil Rickman’s superbly evocative Merrily Watkins novels can skip this paragraph. As in all the best fiction series, there is a stable cast of recurring characters. So, for new readers, the Rickman Repertory Company is led by the Reverend Merrily Watkins: widow, mother, parish priest and Dioceson Deliverance officer (modern C of E speak for exorcist). Then comes Jane, her teenage daughter and inveterate dabbler-into-things-she-oughtn’t-to-be-dabbling-in. Gomer Parry, local drainage contractor, voice of common sense and elderly savant. Representing the forces of law and order is Frannie Bliss, detective with the Herefordshire Constabulary, scouser and all-purpose square peg. The musical director of this ensemble is Lawrence ‘Lol’ Robinson, dazzling guitarist, singer songwriter, sometime depressive, sufferer from paralysing stage fright – and the long term boyfriend of Merrily.

Lol has a serious back-story. In To Dream of The Dead, Rickman spells it out in stark clarity:

“Barely twenty and convicted of sexually assaulting a fourteen-year-old girl while on tour with Hazey Jane. An offence actually committed, while Lol was asleep, by the band’s bass player, who’d walked away, leaving Lol on probation, unjustly disgraced, disowned by his creepy Pentecostalist parents, swallowed by the psychiatric system. His career wrecked, his spirit smashed.”

As he creates Lol’s complex character, Rickman wants us to think of a real-life singer and guitarist, Nick Drake. Cynics might say that when the Gods take young musicians, it is a cast iron guarantee that both victim and music will achieve a kind of immortal celebrity that they may not have reached had they lived. Who can say with certainty that Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Marc Bolan, Jimi Hendrix and others in the pantheon of dead rock stars would now be as famous in life as they have become in death?

Lol Robinson shares Nick Drake’s intensity, delicate guitar playing, haunting voice and sense of sublime anxiety about himself and the world he lives in. But, thanks to the support of Merrily Watkins and others, Lol comes through his bad times and lives to perform and record again. As he emerges from the darkness, he almost becomes as one with his guitar. Like Frank Westworth, Phil Rickman clearly knows, loves and plays the instrument, and he gifts Lol a beautiful hand-made guitar. Its maker is Al Boswell, a unique craftsman; part gypsy, part mystic and a man whose hands seem guided by forces older than any skills learned in a school woodwork class.

LOL

Not content with making one of the spear-carriers in his ensemble a fascinating and compelling character, Rickman goes one step further. He has actually recreated Lol’s band Hazey Jane, and they have made videos and sound recordings to prove the point.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ND_CkcUb78

Click on the image below to visit Phil Rickman’s own site, and learn more – and hear more – about Lol Robinson and Hazey Jane II.

Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 21.01.10

philrickmanBefore he had the brainwave which gave us Merrily Watkins in The Wine of Angels (1998), Rickman wrote several standalone novels. The most music-centred one was December (1994). It begins on the evening of Monday 8th December, 1980. For most people of a certain age, that date will be an instant trigger, but Rickman (right) sets us down in a ruined abbey in the remote Welsh hamlet of Ystrad Ddu, which sits at the foot of one of The Black Mountains, Ysgyryd Fawr – more commonly known by its anglicised form The Skirrid. Part of the medieval abbey has been fitted out as a recording studio and, in a cynical act of niche marketing, a record impresario has contracted a folk rock band, The Philosopher’s Stone, to record an album of mystical songs in the haunted building, and he has stipulated that the tracks must be laid down between midnight and dawn.

Shortly before 4.00am, as the band are playing a song which relates the tragic story of Aelwyn, a young Celtic man who was hacked to death in the abbey grounds by Norman invaders in 1175, what was already a fractious and uneasy atmosphere turns distinctly sinister. Acoustic guitarist Dave Reilly is overcome by disturbing visions and, as he escapes the studio to shelter under an ancient oak tree, over three thousand miles away it is 10.50 pm and a disturbed young Hawaiian man called Mark David Chapman is pumping four bullets into former Beatle and musical legend, John Lennon.

As if the ill-fated recording session is not already attracting enough malevolent vibrations, things are about to get worse – much, much worse. Lead guitarist Tom Storey – as notorious for his abuse of drink and drugs as he is celebrated for his guitar virtuosity – has had enough. He has left his pregnant wife Deborah in a nearby hotel and, angry at the shambolic and disturbing recording session, commandeers a Land Rover and storms off to be with her. Deborah, meanwhile has decided to come out to Ystrad Ddu to ‘rescue’ her husband. As John Lennon is bleeding to death in the back of a police car, Tom’s Land Rover smashes into Deborah’s Lotus sports car.

“Twenty yards away, the old blue Land Rover driven by Tom Storey has brought down a low, sleek Lotus Elan, like a lion with a gazelle. The Land Rover has torn into the Lotus and savaged it and its guts are out and still heaving, and Dave can see flames leaping into the vertical rain …..”

December middle.jpg

Rickman takes us forward to the present day. The Philosopher’s Stone is no more. It died on that fateful December night. Tom Storey has remarried, but lives as a recluse in a Cotswold mansion with his second wife and daughter Vanessa, removed from the dying body of her mother but afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. Singer Moira Cairns has flirted with the folk music scene, but has largely retreated from public life. Dave Reilly has eked out a threadbare living as a musician, but is cursed with an ability to sense the supernatural, and his ‘gift’ has done him no favours. Bass player Simon St John has abandoned music altogether (apart from in the privacy of his own room) and has taken holy orders.

Novels and, indeed, films, would not be able to create their magic were it not for the priceless ability of fictional characters to make decisions which turn out to be disastrous – and often fatal – mistakes. So it is in December. An unscrupulous music executive, desperate for something that will give his flagging career an edge, discovers a box of tapes, all that remains of the fatal pre-dawn music making in December 1980. A highly respected producer, Ken ‘Prof’ Levin (who features as a mentor to Lol Robinson in the Merrily Watkins novels) is persuaded to restore the tapes. To say that all hell breaks loose as a consequence is putting it mildly. Ghosts don’t like being woken from their dreamless sleep by money-grubbing mortals, and they exact a high price for their inconvenience.

Amid all the psychic mayhem, this is unashamedly a novel about guitars and their magic. We have Stratocasters, Martins, Takemines, Ovations, Telecasters and Les Pauls. Rickman’s fascination with his chosen instrument shines through, and his enthusiasm will inspire many a lapsed player to blow the dust off their guitar case, open it up and coax an old tune from their neglected lover.

Check out the buying options for December, and other Phil Rickman novels, here.

You can also read the Fully Booked review of the most recent Merrily Watkins novel
All Of A Winter’s Night

You can catch up with the previous parts of this series by clicking the links.

I. PRELUDE and FUGUE
II. MARCHE FUNEBRE

Guitars

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑