September 2017

CORNERSTONE CELEBRITIES (and a cracker of a competition!)


I was lucky enough to receive an invite to Crimenight, an event hosted by Cornerstone, which is part of the Penguin group and one of the most successful commercial imprints in the UK. It was a chance to rub shoulders and swap yarns with some of the biggest names in crime fiction – and a couple of people who have a foot on the first rungs of the ladder.

Back L-R: John Harvey, Phil Redmond, Anthony Horowitz, Tony Parsons, Simon Kernick
Front L-R: Araminta Hall, Selina Walker (Publisher, Century and Arrow), Amy Lloyd, Lisa Jewell


Getting the celebrity name-drop out of the way first, it was brilliant to be able to shake hands and chat with Tony Parsons, one of my favourite current UK crime writers – check out the review of his most recent Max Wolfe novel Die Last, and you can see why. He is a genuinely nice guy and right up at the top of my list. Was I starstruck? Well, yes, just a little, because in addition to Tony, John Harvey, the creator of Charlie Resnick and Frank Elder, was in attendance, as was thriller specialist Simon Kernick, award-winning producer and screenwriter Phil Redmond (Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks look pretty good on his CV),and Lisa Jewell, who has a string of best-selling domestic thrillers like The Third Wife and  I Found You under her belt. You can win a copy of her latest, Then She Was Gone, at the end of this feature.

The amazingly versatile Anthony Horowitz was another of the guests who has featured on Fully Booked before. Horowitz, as well as having millions of us glued to the small screen on Sunday nights with his brilliant Foyle’s War series, and writing the best selling Alex Rider novels aimed at young adults, has also written Sherlock Holmes adventures and stand-alone CriFi. Take at a look at our review of The Word Is Murder, his most recent novel.

OKOC007It was a privilege to talk to two authors who represent the next generation of fine crime writers. Amy Lloyd is from Cardiff, but her debut novel is set far, far away in the badlands of Florida. The Innocent Wife tells the story of a convicted killer whose claims to innocence attract the attentions of the worldwide media – and those of Samantha, a young woman from England. She is obsessed with his case and, after an intense relationship based on letters, she leaves home and marries him. It is only when the campaign for his release is successful that Samantha’s problems begin in a deadly fashion. Amy, by the way, has already won the Daily Mail and Penguin Random House First Novel Competition with The Innocent Wife.

OKOC006Araminta Hall is no novice author, as she has written successful psychological thrillers such as Everything and Nothing. Her latest novel Our Kind Of Cruelty is due to be published in 2018, and it concerns a couple, Mike and Verity, whose relationship features a deadly game called the Crave. Mike describes the rules:

“The rules of the Crave were very simple. V and I went to a nightclub in a pre-determined place a good way from where we lived, but entered separately. We made our way to the bar and stood far enough apart to seem that we weren’t together, but close enough that I could always keep her in vision.”

Verity basically makes herself very visible, catching the eyes of any lone male who might be interested, and then drawing him into her web with her stunning looks and overt sexuality. Then, the game kicks in:

“We have a signal: as soon as she raises her hand and pulls on the silver eagle she always wears around her neck I must act. In those dark throbbing rooms I would push through the mass of people, pulling at the useless man drooling over her, and ask him what he was doing talking to my girlfriend.”

When the relationship eventually sours, and Verity needs to move, she finds to her cost that the perverse twist in her relationship with Mike cannot be simply cast off like an unwanted piece of clothing.

TSWGLisa Jewell knows a thing or three about locating the strings that pull on a reader’s senses, particularly those of anxiety, sympathy and tension. In Then She Was Gone she tweaks these strings to maximum effect with the story of a woman whose life is shattered when her fifteen year-old daughter disappears without trace or reason. Ten years pass and, while Laurel will never come to terms with Ellie’s disappearance, she has learned to live with the numbness. Her life seems to be taking a turn for the better when she is begins a relationship with an intriguing man called Floyd. The intrigue, however, turns to shock when she meets his young daughter – who is the spitting image of the her missing Ellie.

To win a hardback copy of Then She Was Gone, simply email us at the address below, putting Lisa Jewell in the subject box, or go to the Fully Booked Facebook page and ‘like’ the post. The winner will be drawn from all entries received. The competition closes at 10.00pm GMT on Sunday 8th October. On this occasion, we will be unable to send the prize to the USA due to postal costs.



THE HOUSE … Between the covers

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Do houses have souls? Do they retain some of the psychological warmth – or chills – of the people who have lived there previously? When a young couple, against the run of play in terms of the asking price, find themselves proud owners of a higgledy-piggledy house, they can’t believe their luck The previous owner has struck lucky in the romance game, albeit late in life, and has hotfooted it to Australia to be with his love. He has left the house ‘as found’, and this includes paintings, random stuffed animals and a plethora of clutter. And the ‘soul’ of this house? Once rid of the examples of the taxidermists’ art, Jack and Syd begin to transform the house into something more reflective of their own moods and personalities.

the-house-book-review-Simon-Lelic-credit-Justine-StoddartThere is, however, that strange smell. A certain je ne sais quoi which will not go away, despite the couple’s best efforts. When Jack finally plucks up the courage to climb up into the roof space, he finds the physical source of the smell but unpleasant as that is, he also finds something which is much more disturbing. Simon Lelic (right) then has us walking on pins and needles as he unwraps a plot which involves obsession, child abuse, psychological torture and plain old-fashioned violence.

The novel does pose one or two challenges. The first is that we have two narrators, Syd and Jack. We see events retrospectively. At some point we learn that they have challenged each other to write up their personal version of what has happened. Inevitably, their stories are not identical. While this is part of the charm, we do have to ask ourselves the key questions,”do we trust Syd or do we trust Jack? Do we believe both – or neither?”

This leads to the second challenge, and it concerns our judgment about the personality of the two individuals. I can only tell it as I see it, and for what it’s worth, neither came over as being particularly likeable. I am sure that there are dozens – hundreds, maybe tens of thousands – of perfectly worthy people who work in and on the fringes of the social services, but in fiction – and the perception of some journalists – there exists a stereotype. He or she is mild mannered, anxious, keen to please and with a tendency to be naively trusting when dealing with people (I believe ‘clients’ is the preferred word) who are scrabbling around, for whatever reason, at the fringes of comfortable society. Jack certainly has all his ducks in a row here.

Syd, by contrast, is spiky enough to give the biggest Saguaro cactus a run for its money. Of course, Lelic doesn’t just shove her on stage and make her behave badly without giving us her backstory. It is a pretty grim narrative and, trying to avoid any spoilers, I have to say that it is fundamental to what happens in the book.

This is a genuinely disturbing psychological thriller, and we are kept guessing almost until the last page as we try to make sense of what has happened. Not all new novels live up to the entertaining and inventive hype which precedes their publication, but this one certainly does. The House, by Simon Lelic, is published by Penguin and is out now on Kindle, and will be available in paperback from 2nd November.

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THE FORGOTTEN … A series re-evaluating forgotten authors. Part Three – Colin Watson (2)

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The introduction to this feature on Colin Watson,
including a biographical timeline, is here.

CSUCoffin Scarcely Used – the first of The Flaxborough Chronicles –   begins with the owner of the local newspaper dead in his carpet slippers, beneath an electricity pylon, on a winter’s night. Throw into the mix an over-sexed undertaker, a credulous housekeeper, the strangely shaped burns on the hands of the deceased, a chief constable who cannot believe that any of his golf chums could be up to no good, and a coffin containing only ballast, and we have a mystery which might be a Golden Age classic, were it not for the fact that Watson was, at heart, a satirist, and a writer who left no balloon of self importance unpricked.

The permanent central character of Inspector Walter Purbright is beautifully named. ‘Purbright’ gives us a sense of sparky intelligence gleaming out from a solid, quintessentially English, impermeable foundation. He is described as a heavy man, with corn coloured hair. He has a deceptively reverential manner when dealing with the aldermen and worthies of Flaxborough, but he is no-one’s fool.

The sheer joy of this book in particular, and the Flaxborough novels in general, is the language. Perhaps it looks back rather than forward, but there are many modern writers who would happily pay homage to the unobtrusive Lincolnshire journalist. Of Mr Chubb, the Chief Constable, Watson observes:

“Not for the first time, he was visited with the suspicion that Chubb had donned the uniform of head of the Borough police force in a moment of municipal confusion when someone had overlooked the fact that he was really a candidate for the curatorship of the Fish Street Museum.”

Of the detecting skills of Sergeant Love, Purbright’s long-suffering subordinate, we learn:

“The sergeant was no adept of self effacing observation. When he wished to see without being seen, he adopted an air of nonchalance so extravagant that people followed him in expectation of his throwing handfuls of pound notes in the air.”

With such an ability to turn a phrase, it is almost irrelevant how the book pans out, but Watson does not let us down. Purbright uncovers a conspiracy involving loose women, a psychotic doctor and a distinctly underhand undertaker – hence the title. Watson himself remains mostly unknown to today’s reading public, but is rightly revered by connoisseurs of crime fiction. He was politically incorrect before the phrase was even invented and, although his pen pictures of self important provincial dignitaries are sharply perceptive, they also portray a fondness for the mundane and the ordinary lives lived beneath the layers of pretension.

There were to be be eleven more Flaxborough novels, and the final episode was Whatever’s Been Going On At Mumblesby? It again features Mr Bradlaw, the shamed undertaker from the very first novel. He has served his time for his part in those earlier misdeeds, however, and has returned to Flaxborough, thus giving the series a sense of things having come full circle. In 2011, Faber republished the series digitally, but the Kindle versions are not cheap and you might be better off seeking a secondhand paperback.

SnobberyIn addition to such delightful titles as Broomsticks Over Flaxborough and Six Nuns And A Shotgun (in which Flaxborough is visited by a New York hitman) Watson also wrote an account of the English crime novel in its social context. In Snobbery With Violence (1971), he sought to explore the attitudes that are reflected in the detective story and the thriller. Readers expecting to find Watson reflecting warmly on his contemporaries and predecessors will be disappointed. The general tone of the book is almost universally waspish and, on some occasions, downright scathing.

He is particularly unimpressed by the efforts of writers such as H C McNeile (Sapper), Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward (Sax Rohmer) and E W Hornung. Whereas modern commentators might smile indulgently at the activities of Bulldog Drummond, Denis Nayland Smith and Arthur J Raffles, and view them as being ‘of their time’, Watson has none of it. He finds them racist bullies, insuperably snobbish and created purely to pander to the xenophobic and blinkered readership of what we would now call Middle England.


Watson’s apparent contempt for the Public School ethos prevalent in these writers of the first part of the twentieth century seems, at first glance, strange. He was educated at Whitgift School in Croydon, but in his day the school was a direct grant school, meaning that its charter stipulated that it provide scholarships for what its founder, Archbishop John Whitgift, termed,”poor, needy and impotent people” from the parishes of Croydon and Lambeth. The school has been fully independent for many years, but in Watson’s time there may have been an uneasy mix of scholarship boys and those whose wealthy parents paid full fees. Despite Watson and other local lads having gained their places by virtue of their brains, it is quite possible that they were looked down on by the ‘toffs’ who were there courtesy of their parents’ wealth.

As Watson trawls the deep for crime writers, even Dorothy L Sayers doesn’t escape his censure, as he is irritated by Lord Peter Wimsey’s foppishness and tendency to make snide remarks at the expense of the lower classes. Edgar Wallace and E Phillips Oppenheim who, between them, sold millions of novels, are dismissed as mere hacks, but he does show begrudging admiration for the works of the woman he calls ‘Mrs Christie’, despite rubbishing her archetypal English village crime scene, which he scorns as Mayhem Parva. Watson admires Conan Doyle’s clever product placement, Margery Allingham’s inventiveness and ends the book with a reasonably affectionate study of James Bond, although he is less than sanguine about 007’s prowess as a womaniser:

‘The sexual encounters in the Bond books are as regular and predictable as bouts of fisticuffs in the ‘Saint’ adventures or end-of-chapter red herrings in the detective novels of Gladys Mitchell, and not much more erotic.”

EdgeIn the end, it seems that Watson had supped full of crime fiction writing. Iain Sinclair sought him out in his later years at Folkingham, and wrote

“Gaunt, sharp-featured, a little wary of the stranger on the step, Watson interrupted his work as a silversmith. Eyeglass. Tools in hand. He couldn’t understand where it had all gone wrong. His novels were well-received and they’d even had a few moments of television time, with Anton Rodgers as the detective. The problem was that Watson, lèse-majesté , had trashed Agatha Christie in an essay called ‘The Little World of Mayhem Parva’.

Watson put away his instruments, took me upstairs to the living room.   He signed my books, we parted.   He was astonished that all his early first editions were a desirable commodity while his current publications, the boxes of Book Club editions, filled his shelves.  He would have to let the writing game go, it didn’t pay.  Concentrate on silver rings and decorative trinkets.”  (Iain Sinclair   “Edge of the Orison”   Hamish Hamilton 2005.)

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CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET? … Between the covers

This is the latest from Karen Gillece and Paul Perry
, the successful Dublin writing partnership. How two people can write one novel remains a mystery to me but, my goodness, Gilece and Perry do the business. Who contributes what may well remain a trade secret, but if you have any misgivings about the effectiveness of collaborations, ditch them now. This narrative is seamless, gripping, intensely creepy, and an object lesson in how to to convince the reader that they know what is going on, while cooking up surprise after surprise and twist on twist. Eventually, a rather sinister rabbit is pulled out of a bloodstained hat.

CYKAS coverLindsey Morgan is our narrator. She is a photographer with the Irish police, the Garda Síochána, and her frequent visits to gory crime scenes mean that she must don a cloak of cold objectivity as she looks through her camera at the damage people do one another. The distance between the person behind the viewfinder and the scene captured by the lens is a key motif in the story, as you will discover when you read the book.

Lindsey finished her education at an independent school, and it was there that she met the players in this drama. There’s Niall, Marcus and Hilary but, most significantly we have Rachel Bagenal and her older brother Patrick. Rachel and Patrick are the children of what used to be called landed gentry. Their home is Thornbury, a substantial mansion in the countryside.

We have two separate timelines here. First, we have the present day, where Patrick Bagenal, living alone in the decaying house, invites his old school friends for a final weekend at Thornbury. The house has deteriorated beyond Patrick’s ability to maintain it, and so he has been forced to sell. His parents, Peter and Heather, are both dead. The second timeline takes us back to the early 1990s. The youngsters are all still at school, but enjoy being invited for weekends at Thornbury. It is one such visit – for Patrick’s lavish eighteenth birthday party – which ends in a tragedy which will resonate down the years.

As with all reunions, the adults appraise each other and remember how they used to be, and how they have changed. Marcus has embraced modern acceptance of homosexuality and is comfortably gay, while Niall has made a success of his business but failed in the marriage game. Hilary has metamorphosed from the archetypal fat girl into a waif-like lifestyle coach. Patrick retains his boyish charm, but has grey hairs because of the demands imposed on him by being the sole tenant of Thornbury. Rachel? Rachel was always the force of nature, the woman among the teenagers, the assured femme fatale among the gauche schoolgirls. Now, she returns from a life in London to preside over a weekend which will self destruct in a clatter of betrayal, guilt, recrimination and violence.

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This is an outrageously brilliant thriller, and we are pretty much hit with every shot in the stylistic locker. We have a classic convergence of past and present, where convergence becomes a collision, and the collision explodes into a catastrophe. We have the timeless element of a crumbling old house, complete with secrets, unexplained noises, and the shades of the dead – some of them malevolent, but some of them wronged. Thornbury is every bit as haunted as Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley. We may not have a Mrs Danvers, but we certainly do have a Rebecca.

Throughout the book, I felt an over-arching sense of regret for lost innocence, but the authors are far too canny to make that straightforward as they shine a torch into all the little guilty corners in the lives of the characters. And, the novel’s tour de force, the narrator herself. Victim? Catalyst for tragedy? Innocent observer? As the saying goes, if I told you, I would have to kill you. You can avoid further bloodshed by buying your own copy of Can You Keep A Secret, which is published by Penguin.

For more top quality Irish crime fiction, check out our reviews of:

So Say The Fallen by Stuart Neville

Beneath The Surface by Jo Spain

THE FORGOTTEN … A series re-evaluating forgotten authors. Part Three – Colin Watson (1)

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To be unfashionable is no crime, especially at a time when fame is so fleeting that it makes Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes seem like a lifetime. Even if he were still alive and working, the books of Colin Watson would not be found bulk-bought and jostling for space with the latest James Patterson between the party goods and the lottery machine at the local ASDA. Am I being snooty? Almost certainly I am, but I’m also more than happy to wear my love of Watson’s humour, ingenuity and exquisite use of English, as a badge of honour. Watson was, in his day, very well thought of. His Flaxborough novels sold well, and until relatively recently were always well represented on library bookshelves, because local library users were not, by and large, fools.

It would be tempting – but incorrect – to think that Watson would be turning in his grave at some of the writing which is passed off as crime fiction these days. Incorrect because he was a man who, by all accounts, was at peace with himself and with those around him. Another Lincolnshire man, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, imagined his pale Queen Guinevere describing Sir Lancelot:

“For manners are not idle, but the fruit
Of loyal nature, and of noble mind.”

Those words are inscribed on Watson’s tombstone in the village churchyard at Folkingham, where he is buried under a beautiful and ancient chestnut tree. It was a curious reflection on the fickleness of fame that when I first visited Folkingham, the good natured locals who showed me to the headstone had no idea who Watson was, or what he had written. In part two of this feature, I will look in more detail at Watson’s novels, but I am indebted to Stuart Radmore who has researched and prepared this timeline for Colin Watson.

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DON’T LET GO … Between the covers

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Napoleon. Dumas. Two names resonant of nineteenth century France. A warrior and a writer. Put them together, and you have an unusual combination. Unusual, certainly, for a New Jersey cop. He has been known as ‘Nap’ for as long as he can remember, and he takes centre stage in the latest thriller from Harlan Coben. Dumas was born in Marseilles but since his family moved to Westbridge, NJ, he hasn’t strayed far from his home town. Nap Dumas is not, however, all he seems to be. On the one hand:

DLG cover“Mr Nice Neighbour. See, I am that rarest of creatures in suburban towns – a straight, single, childless male is about as common out here as a cigarette in a health club – so I work hard to come across as normal, boring, reliable.”

That’s the Nap Dumas who waves to his neighbours Ned and Tammy and never forgets to inquire how their son’s team is doing in the little league. There is another Nap Dumas, too. He’s the man who tracks down Trey, a lowlife bully who has been beating up his girlfriend and abusing her daughter. He’s the man who explains the problem to Trey. With a baseball bat.

There’s a third Nap Dumas, who never lets a day go by without talking to his twin brother Leo. That’s the Leo who, fifteen years ago was found by the railway tracks with his girlfriend Diane. Both of them turned into little more than roadkill by the impact of 3000 tons of freight train. The sequence of events of that terrible night play on loop inside Nap’s head, along with a nightmare tangle of unanswered questions. Why did the pair commit suicide? Why did Nap’s girlfriend Maura Wells disappear that night and simply drop off the radar?

When ex-Westbridge boy Rex Canton – now a traffic cop in neighbouring Pennsylvania – takes two bullets in the back of the head while conducting a routine traffic stop, the investigators come looking for Nap Dumas. At first he is puzzled. He hasn’t seen Rex Canton in years, and they were never particularly close. But when they tell him whose fingerprints they found in the car realisation dawns:

“I have always heard the expression,’the hairs on my neck stood up,’ but I don’t think I ever quite got it until now.”

One of the investigating officers spells it out, just in case the penny hasn’t dropped:

“The prints got a hit …. because ten years ago, you, Detective Dumas, put them in the database, describing her as a person of interest. Ten years ago, when you first joined the force, you asked to be notified if there was ever a hit.”

The discovery of Maura’s prints triggers a journey into a nightmare that some people in Westbridge had tried to forget. A nightmare made up of lies, lives shattered, deception and cold blooded murder. Nap Dumas, however, is determined to prise up the stone from the ground, even though he knows that dark and deadly things will be scuttling about underneath.

Harlan Coben 2014 bis (c) Claudio Marinesco (3).jpgCoben is never anything but readable and he is great form here. This was one of those books which pose a delicious dilemma – do I carry on reading as the hook of the action bites deeper and deeper, or do I put it down for a couple of hours to make it last longer? As a regular reader of Coben’s books I knew that the big reveal – in this case the truth about the deaths of Leo and Diane – would be a definite “Oh, my God!” moment, but try as I might, I didn’t get close to guessing the actual shocking detail.

Coben doesn’t usually spend too much energy on giving us anything remotely romantic but, as a bonus, he allows himself to tug a few heartstrings at the end of this gripping – and affecting – thriller. Fans of Coben’s sporting investigator Myron Bolitar (read our review of Home here) will also be pleased to know that he puts in an appearance – albeit a brief one – in Don’t Let Go, which is published by Century and will be available in all formats from September 26th.

THE FORGOTTEN … A series re-evaluating forgotten authors. Part Two – Rex Stout (2)

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Fer-de-Lance was published in 1934 by Farrar & Rinehart, Inc. I doubt there will be any readers living for whom this novel was their introduction to the series. Most, like me, will have read one of the other 45 first. I mention this because it is astonishing how Stout brings the curtain up on the whole Wolfe household so that we feel we have known them for ever. Not for him the clumsy explanations or contrived insertion of the back-story. “Here they are”, he seems to say, “.. let’s get on with the story.”

Fer de LanceAnd what a story it is. A wealthy and highly regarded academic, Peter Oliver Barstow dies from an apparent heart attack while he is engaged in a foursome on a golf course. Meanwhile, an Italian metalworker, Carlo Maffei, has disappeared, but then turns up – as a corpse – murdered, if the knife embedded in his chest is anything to go by. As Wolfe uses his phenomenal intellect to link these cases, we learn that he is partial to a glass (or six) of beer. Bear in mind that Prohibition in America had only ended in 1933. Wolfe, perhaps disheartened by the lack of a decent drink, decides to cut down on his intake:

“I’m going to cut down to three quarts a day. Twelve bottles. A bottle doesn’t hold a pint. I am now going to bed.”

Archie is sent (because Wolfe rarely if ever leaves the house) to interrogate the residents of the house where Maffei lived. Archie Goodwin, remember, is the sole narrator of these stories. He sums up Anna Fiore:

“I went over and shook hands with her. She was a homely kid about twenty with skin like stale dough, and she looked like she’d been scared in the cradle and never got over it.”

 It turns out that Barstow was killed by a poison dart which was loaded into the specially prepared shaft of a golf club. The club’s shaft was adapted by the late Carlo Maffei to release its deadly projectile when the face of the club head made contact with the ball. Wolfe directs operations from the brownstone house, where he sits like a fat spider at the centre of a deadly web. When it emerges that Barstow was not the intended victim, and that the truth behind the killing implicates so many people, Wolfe pronounces:

“It is an admirable dilemma; I have rarely seen one with so many horns and all of them so sharp.”

Eventually, of course, after encounters with a deadly snake and a a scheming attorney, the mystery is solved, but not before Wolfe demonstrates that he is prepared to dispense his own rather harsh brand of justice. We are also treated to his own lordly – and almost Dickensian – use of language:

“I have just being explaining to Mr Anderson that the ingenious theory of the Barstow case which he is trying to embrace is an offence to truth and an outrage to justice, and since I cherish the one and am on speaking terms with the other, it is my duty to demonstrate its inadequacy.”

The relationship between Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe lies at the heart of these novels. There is a sense of servant and master, and Goodwin clearly worships the ground that Wolfe walks on, despite his frequent frustrations and occasional attempts to ruffle Wolfe’s imperious demeanour. In his own magisterial way, Wolfe treats Goodwin like a much-loved but slightly wayward son. This affection occasionally gives way to acerbic put-downs:

“Some day, Archie, when I decide you are no longer worth tolerating, you will have to marry a woman of very modest mental capacity to get an appropriate audience for your wretched sarcasms.”

 Stout always had a weather eye open for commercial opportunities, and he was able to arrange for an abbreviated version of this story to be re-hashed as a pulp short story re-named Point of Death – complete with illustrations.

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Fam_Affair_1stEd_fsAlmost the first thing which strikes you as you settle in to read A Family Affair (1975) is the sheer breadth of real life events straddled by the Nero Wolfe novels. When Fer de Lance was published America was in the dying throes of Prohibition, John Dillinger, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had only recently been shot dead, but Pretty Boy Floyd was still at large. By the time Stout’s final novel was published, America was still reeling from the Watergate scandal, Nixon had resigned, The Rocky Horror Show had opened on Broadway, and a man called Bill Gates was playing around with words which could describe his new micro software.

If you want a literally explosive opening to a novel, look no further. Late at night, Paul Ducos, a waiter from Wolfe’s favourite New York restaurant, rings the bell on the front door of the old brownstone, and beseeches Archie to let him speak to Wolfe. He says his life is in imminent danger. Fearful of waking his boss at such an inhospitable hour, Archie compromises, and allows the fearful Frenchman to stay the night in a spare room, with the promise of an audience with Wolfe in the morning.

As Archie prepares for bed, the house shakes and there is a terrible noise. The spare bedroom being bolted from the inside, he clambers in through the shattered window via the fire escape, and sees Ducos lying on the floor:

“He had no face left. I had never seen anything like it. It was about what you would get if you pressed a thick slab of pie dough on a man’s face and then squirted blood on the lower half.”

We learn fairly quickly that Ducos has been killed by a bomb he was inadvertently carrying. A doctored aluminium cigar tube had been planted in his jacket. He discovered it and, fatally, unscrewed the cap. Wolfe reacts to the death with barely suppressed fury. Ducos is dead, yes, but the real assault is on his sanctuary, his own home, the place he values so much that he rarely leaves it.

Archie – assisted by the usual supernumaries Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Ollie Cather – is turned loose to find out who killed Paul Ducos. One of the leads takes Archie to the dead man’s home which he shares with his father and daughter. The old man is wheelchair bound, and speaks no English, and the young woman is unwilling – or unable to help. Archie is unimpressed by the contents of her bookshelves and has something to say about Lucile Ducos’s espousal of the feminist agenda:

“All right, she’s a phony. A woman who has those books with her name in them wants men to stop making women sex symbols, and if she really wants them to stop she wouldn’t keep her skin like that, and her hair, and blow her hard-earned pay on a dress that sets her off. Of course she can’t help her legs. She’s a phony.”

 It becomes clear that Paul Ducos was a bit-player in a wide screen drama involving senior industrialists and lawyers, one of whom died the week before the waiter was killed. When Lucile Ducos is also killed, Archie and Wolfe find themselves not working alongside the local cops, but prime suspects, and they spend several uncomfortable hours under lock and key. When they are released, and despite the demands of the case, Wolfe does not lose his appetite, neither does master chef Fritz Brenner succumb to the pressure:

“He tasted his lunch, alright. First marrow dumplings, and then sweetbreads poached in white wine, dipped in crumbs and eggs, sautéed and then doused with almonds in brown butter.”


This is one of the more serious and deadly episodes in the career of New York’s most celebrated private investigator, but there is still time for humour. Wolfe’s magisterial demeanour and studied delivery does not go un-noticed or unchecked by his right-hand man:

“’Whom did you hear say what?’
I have tried to talk him out of “whom”. Only grandstanders and schoolteachers say “whom”, and he knows it. It’s the mule in him.”

The Goodwin-Wolfe partnership has never come under such strain, and the servant comes within a couple of breaths of finally severing ties with his master but, thanks to a social link with Archie’s long-time lady friend. Lily Rowan, it dawns on all concerned that the villain of the piece is not one of the highly placed lawyers or politicians, but someone much closer to home. By the by, Archie’s admiration for Lily Rowan is unashamed, but he cannot resist a seasoning of irony:

“I’d buy a pedestal and put her on it if I thought she’d stay. She would either fall off or climb down. I don’t know which.”

 amer3Eventually, in a chilling and brutal conclusion, justice of a kind is served. Wolfe and Archie escape the clutches of the District Attorney and his officers, but there is a final knock on the door from an angry policeman. Fully aware of his machinations but frustrated by Wolfe’s ability to enforce his own law while remaining invulnerable to the laws of the city of New York, Inspector Cramer lashes out, bitterly, but his barb simply bounces off and rolls harmlessly into a dark corner of the office:

“He went and got his coat and put it on and came back, to the corner of Wolfe’s desk, and said, ‘I’m going home and try to get some sleep. You probably have never had to try to get some sleep. You probably never will.’”

This is the last episode in the long and illustrious career of the gargantuan, pompous – but eerily perceptive consulting detective. Of his origins we learn little, except that he is, by origin, a Montenegran, and that he has an aged mother living in Budapest to whom he sends money. It is tempting to ascribe elegiac qualities to Wolfe’s last bow. Rex Stout was to die in the same year as the novel was published. Wolfe had survived the greatest challenge – a challenge made from within his trusted family, and a challenge aimed at the high altar of his own church – the brownstone on West 35thStreet. That altar has been desecrated but, in the end, Wolfe clings to his certainties.

“When the sound came of the front door closing, Wolfe said,
‘Will you bring brandy, Archie?’”

The last word should go to Thomas Gifford (1937 – 2000) who was no slouch at crime writing himself.

“Through Wolfe and Archie, Stout shows you how people are supposed to behave. How grownups act when the pressure is on. So in the very best and wisest sense, and quite painlessly too, Stout shares his code with you, and you are improved a bit.. You would be hard pressed to find another popular writer of his era who more subtly and ably defined what it was to be civilised, to have standards.”

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PART ONE of our celebration of the Nero Wolfe novels is HERE

THE FORGOTTEN … A series re-evaluating forgotten authors. Part Two – Rex Stout (1)

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Rex Todhunter Stout (above) packed several lives into his 88 years on God’s earth. He was a publisher, a propagandist, a radio celebrity, a campaigner for author rights, inventor, husband and father – and the creator of one of the immortal crime fiction partnerships. The son of Quaker parents, Stout was born in Noblesville Indiana in 1886, and if the tale of him reading the Holy Bible from cover to cover twice by his fourth birthday is true, then he must have been an extremely precocious child.

After serving in the U.S. Navy and honing his writing skills with magazine articles and stories for pulp periodicals Stout achieved some level of financial independence in an unusual fashion. Had it been in the digital age, his achievement would probably be that he designed a piece of software, but this was 1916, and his creation was a banking system designed for school to keep track of cash paid in by children. Stout was clearly canny enough to demand royalties, and the income enabled him to travel widely, and to write what he wanted to write, rather than what paid.

ArchieFor all that Stout was an intellectual and a vigorous campaigner for what he believed in, his legacy remains the creation of Nero Wolfe. Wolfe is an obese, physically lazy but improbably intelligent detective who loves his food and alcohol, cultivates orchids, but never leaves his brownstone house on New York’s West 35th Street. Much of Wolfe’s crime solving is done from the comfort of his armchair, or while consuming fine food and drink. His mind can only achieve so much, however, and he needs access to the streets. This comes in the form of Archie Goodwin (pictured left in a period illustration). Archie would, in truth, have made a perfectly good PI on his own. He is physically fit, handsome, as sharp as a tack, and can handle himself when it comes to physical violence. He lives on another floor of Wolfe’s house, and according to a memo written from Rex Stout to a friend, Archie is:

“Height 6 feet. Weight 180 lbs. Age 32.”

The pair first appeared
in 1934 in Fer de Lance, published by the New York company Farrar & Rinehart. Re-reading it for the first time in many years, I was struck by how easily Stout introduces the Wolfe household, almost as if he is gently reminding us of old acquaintances of long standing. As well as Wolfe and Archie, we have Fritz Brenner the cook, and Theodore Horstmann the cantankerous expert who does the hard work up in the expertly-designed cultivation rooms where the precious and capricious orchids are pampered like dissolute and demanding princesses from a bygone era. When heavy lifting out on the tough streets of New York is needed, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Ollie Cather can always be called upon to get their knuckles grazed.

It is little short of astonishing how Fer de Lance delivers the Nero Wolfe template complete and ready formed, almost as if Stout had already written all the books in one superhuman creative effort. A Family Affair (1975) was the 46th and final Nero Wolfe mystery, and it shows just how successfully Stout was able to keep the train chugging along on the same rails for over 40 years. Goodwin and Wolfe have, of course, not aged by a day, nor do their characteristics and personality quirks deviate by so much as the thickness of a cigarette paper. Wolfe still takes the lift up to his orchid rooms twice a day, while Fritz prepares the gourmet meals. Goodwin still likes the odd slug of whisky, but his drink of choice remains a glass of cold milk.

In Part Two of this feature, we will look in detail at both Fer de Lance and A Family Affair, while assessing Rex Stout’s legacy. To close, though. here’s a quote from the early chapters of Fer de Lance, where Goodwin gives us some idea of the sheer physical presence of his boss.

“Wolfe lifted his head. I mention that, because his head was so big that lifting it struck you as being quite a job. It was probably really bigger than it looked, for the rest of him was so large that any head on top of it but his own would have escaped your notice entirely.”

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Coben, Perry and Otis

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September traditionally sees publishing houses very busy with new books, launches and showcases of debut talent – and this activity always is guaranteed to keep my long-suffering postman extremely busy!

Coben005Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben
Nap Dumas is a cop, but his dedication to the badge only goes skin deep. He tends to play the game his own way, and if this involves delivering rough justice to scumbags on the street, then so be it. Dumas has a history, though. His childhood was scarred by a double death – that of his brother Leo who died with his girlfriend Diana in what the cops dismissed as a teenage suicide pact. Nap thought that was a crock then. Now, fifteen years later, he still thinks it was a crock. As Nap learns to his cost in this latest mesmerising novel from the master of twists and double twists, some past traumas never fully heal, but lie embedded like dormant tumours just waiting to metastasize the  present.
We reviewed an earlier novel by Coben this time last year, and you can check it out by clicking this link. Don’t Let Go is published by Century and will be out in hardback on 26th September.

SEcret004Can You Keep A Secret? by Karen Perry
They often say that two heads are better than one, and this was never more true than in the case of Dubliners Paul Perry and Karen Gillece. They are both widely respected and successful writers in their own right, but their collaboration under the pen name of Karen Perry has been a triumph where the qualities of each have been enhanced rather than diluted. In this, their latest psychological thriller they use the ever-potent theme of the reunion which goes badly wrong. Patrick Bagenall held his eighteenth birthday party in the family home, Thornbury Hall. Now, years later, with the mansion too decayed to be worth restoring, he holds a reunion gathering which should be a tearfully poignant farewell to the past, but a stepping stone to a positive future. Instead, dark secrets slither into the light and buried misdeeds scrabble their way to the surface. Can You Keep A Secret is published by Penguin, and will be available in paperback and Kindle at the end of November.

Book1003Dead Lands by Lloyd Otis
London, 1977.
“He buried his tormentor under the glare of the moon and went to sleep that night, with the dirt from the makeshift grave still caked underneath his fingernails.”
Dead Lands begins with a murder and continues with a violent journey through an urban landscape which wears its hippy-happy-peaceful mantle as a poor disguise, which fools no-one.
Lloyd Otis  was born in London and graduated in Media and Communication. Having written reviews for music sites,  and after gaining several years of valuable experience within the finance and digital sectors, he completed a course in journalism. He now works as an editor. Lloyd  has blogged for The Bookseller, and The Huffington Post and also wrote a regular book review column for WUWO Magazine. Two of his short stories were selected for publication in the Out of My Window anthology. He has also had articles appear on the Crime Readers’ Association website, and in the magazine Writers’ Forum. Dead Lands, his debut full length novel, is published by Urbane Publications, and will be available on 12th October.

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