Search

fullybooked2017

Month

September 2017

THE FORGOTTEN…. A series re-evaluating forgotten authors. Part One – Philip Maitland Hubbard (2)

CGAAP header

Hubbard_DancingThe Dancing Man was published in 1971, and is set in Welsh hill country. An engineer, Mark Hawkins travels to a remote house to collect his late brother’s belongings. Dick Hawkins was an archaeologist by profession and mountaineering was his drug of choice. He set off one day for the nearby mountains, and never returned.

The house where Dick Hawkins was staying when he disappeared is called Llanglas and it is owned by Roger Merrion, another archaeologist, who lives there with his wife Ethel and sister Cynthia. Near the house is the site of a ruined Cistercian monastery circled by a much more ancient earthwork, and the woods which surround the ruin also contain a strange obelisk on which is engraved a primitive but sinister figure – of a dancing man.

Of the Hubbard novels I have read, this one reveals most about what I believe to be one of the major influences on his work. The ghost stories of MR James are uniquely frightening, due in no small part to the writer’s skilful powers of suggestion. In A School Story, a boy in a boarding school sees something frightful trying to creep in through the window of one of the masters in the dead of night. He tries to describe it to a chum:

ASS quote

In The Dancing Man, Mark Hawkins describes his first sight of the shiveringly disturbing Old Evans.

“He was enormously tall. His clothes flapped round him in the wind, but I got the impression that he was very thin under them, and his head looked disproportionately small. He was too much like a walking scarecrow for comfort.”

That description also immediately brought to mind the hideous entity which conjures itself up out from bedsheets and pursues the unfortunate Professor Parkins along the seashore in Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.

In James’s A View From A Tower, Mr Fanshawe makes the mistake of using a particularly strange pair of field glasses, and finds himself in a very unfriendly wood:

AVFAH quote

Hawkins has a similar experience in the woods by Llanglas, but his is made infinitely worse by the fact that he is about to have company:

“I came to the stone as unexpectedly as I had that first evening. I never seemed to know how far it was. I stopped about fifteen yards from it, suddenly unwilling to go any further. I could see it quite clearly, standing up and motionless, while the trees threshed about over it. I started to turn my back on it, and then the dancing man came out from behind it, white all over and capering in the moonlight with his white matchstick arms straight up over his head.”

Mark Hawkins ponders his brother’s mysterious disappearance, becomes erotically involved with both Mrs and Miss Merrion, but the climax of the story involves the discovery of the hidden twin of the standing stone – and what lies beneath it.

Scroll

Hubbard_Thirsty_Evil2With A Thirsty Evil (1974) Hubbard once again mines Shakespeare for his title, in this case, Measure For Measure.

“Our natures do pursue
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.”

In almost every respect this has a much less complex plot than The Tower or Flush As May, but one which is just as powerful and – ultimately – shocking. It is the story of an obsession. Ian Mackellar is a fledgling novelist with the added luxury of a private income from his family business. He sits opposite a woman on a train for a couple of hours, and although not a word – and scarcely a glance – is exchanged between them, he is hopelessly smitten. She leaves the train – and Mackellar – at her destination. He says:

“That could have been the end of it, but in fact it was only the beginning.”

By sheer chance, Mackellar sees the woman again, at a publishers’ party. She is with an older man, but convinced that this is not her husband, he makes small talk and gives her his telephone number.The next few weeks are something of an agony for Mackellar as he waits for her call, but just when he has given up hope, she does ring from a call box, reversing the charge. She makes it clear that she has only called out of good manners, and that it would be quite impossible for them to actually meet. She does, however, tell him that her name is Julia Mellors.

Her call is like one of those intrinsically harmless incidents, so beloved of Thomas Hardy, which trigger a sequence of unintended – and fatal – consequences. Mackellar traces her to a farm called Windbarrow (again, strange echoes of Hardy). Such is his persistence, Mackellar presents himself, and finds that Julia heads a household consisting of herself and her younger siblings Beth and Charlie.

The relationship between the three is complicated by Julia’s remoteness, Beth’s unashamed sexuality and Charlie’s mental condition. He is physically fit and active, but with a psychological flaw which is only controlled by medication. Despite himself, Mackellar is both magnetised and repelled by Beth:

“… it was the way she looked at you. There was nothing secretive about her. Like Cressida, there was language in her eyes, her cheeks, her looks, and like Ulysses I set her down instantaneously as a daughter of the game.”

As with the other Hubbard stories under consideration, the power of the landscape is never far away, and while he tends to deal in tumps, tumuli, barrows and other high places which our ancestors carved out of the landscape, here he gives us something quite different. In the valley carved out by the stream which runs near Windbarrow, long ago, someone dammed the stream and created a deep pool, known as Grainger’s. The Mellors use it as a swimming pool, but Charlie takes Mackellar beneath the surface – literally – and shows him a strange and menacing stone obelisk which rises from the impenetrable depths of the dam.

PMHThe story moves swiftly on. Hubbard’s novels are, anyway, relatively short but his narrative drive never lets us rest. Beth’s carnality and opportunism get the better of Mackellar in a brief but shocking encounter, but this is only a staging post on the path to a violent and tragic conclusion to the novel. Mackellar survives, but he writes his own epitaph in the very first chapter.

“She was the only woman I have ever really wanted. For the matter of that, she still is. I suppose she may always be.”

I came fresh to Hubbard’s books, and I read three or four in quick succession. I found them powerful, frightening and written with icy brilliance The novels are still available, thanks to the Orion imprint, The Murder Room. It must be said, however, that the paperbacks are very expensive, but the KIndle versions are more accessible for readers on a limited budget.

PM Hubbard – Amazon UK author page

MAKING CHARACTERS GENUINE … Cheryl L Reed

 

Poison header
CherylCheryl Reed
(left) is an author and a journalist. Currently, She is  working on a series of novels set in Chicago. Her first novel, Poison Girls, will be in bookstores on September 12, 2017. The novel explores the intersection of drugs, wealth, politics and race when dozens of daughters from politically connected families die mysteriously from a strand of street heroin.Here, she writes about the challenges of making characters believable – and she starts with a homeless Chicago drug user.

When I met Theodore on the needle exchange truck, he wore a dirty ski vest and a candy necklace—the kind with little sugary o’s that you bite off. Only it was harder for Theodore to chew on his necklace because he had only a single jagged front tooth. Maybe it was because I’d worn that same kind of necklace when I was nine years old or maybe it was because I was two inches taller and had fifty pounds on the guy, but I didn’t hesitate to follow Theodore when he offered to show me the heroin house he ran near the El tracks on the South Side of Chicago.

Chicago

The house’s owners had abandoned the unstable structure after a fire ravaged much of the upper floors, including the staircases marred with gaping holes. I hadn’t expected to be tramping through a drug house that morning, and had stupidly worn high heels. I used the spiky heels like cleats, digging them into the soft wood of the stairs to pull me over the gaps. When we finally reached the upper perch, Theodore proudly showed me his shooting room. Vanilla bean-scented candles lined the floor. A single bed, its nylon bedspread neatly tucked into the corners, took up one side of the room. It was too early in the day for customers, but Theodore’s trip to the needle exchange truck allowed him to stock up on supplies—new needles, cotton balls and little bottles of distilled water he kept neatly in a basket, as if they were door prizes at a Longaberger basket party.

I learned a lot that day from Theodore. And Theodore was his real name. He showed me how he tested his clients’ heroin to see if it contained the deadly fentanyl that was leaving bodies in its wake all over Chicago and its suburbs. He told me how he helped his clients find veins, how he took a cut —about 10 percent—of their drugs in return.

poisongirls-coverlargeI didn’t have to meet Theodore. But I would argue that my new debut novel, Poison Girls, is much richer for my having done so. Theodore was just one of many real characters I met as I explored the underbelly of the heroin drug culture, researching the real story of fentanyl-laced heroin in Chicago that killed more than 250 people in a few months. One thing I learned working for more than two decades as a journalist—many of those as a crime reporter—is that real people are far more complex and interesting than solely relying on my imagination. I’ve read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies that feature drug dealers and drug fixers, but I’ve never read one named Theodore who wore a candy necklace that he chewed on with a single fang. Shit like that, you just can’t make up.

That’s not to say that the Theodore in my book Poison Girls isn’t more interesting and vivid than the real life version. The Theodore 2.0 I created is more sure of himself, a sort of sage character, a drug dealer who advises other drug dealers. That’s the beauty of twisting the real details with the imagined ones.

Every crime novelist comes to the genre by way of their own unique navigation. My map started when I was a street reporter, vicariously living through my subjects, using my job to infiltrate subcultures and soak up their secrets. When I was a newspaper crime reporter—back in the day when people read newspapers—my work provided access to the macabre and the maddening. I interviewed mothers who forced their babies to drink Draino, love-struck girls whose boyfriends convinced them to kill strangers for their sneakers, and teenage serial killers who detailed their crimes with dry eyes.

I’m a visual writer and often have to see the story before I can write it. For me, when the writing isn’t going well, it’s usually time to take a field trip, hit the streets, meet some real folks who can infuse my fictional story with unique details.

When I wrote Poison Girls a story about dozens of suburban girls from political families in Chicago mysteriously dying of poisoned heroin and the reporter who is obsessed with tracking down their killer — my biggest fear was inventing characters that felt too familiar. Theodore appears on only four pages, but even minor characters deserve to be authentic.

You can find out more from Cheryl’s website
and
Check buying choices for The Poison Girls

 

 

 

 

THE YEAR OF THE GUN … Between the covers

TYOTG header

Charlotte ‘Lottie’ Armstrong would not be everyone’s choice as a crime-fighting heroine. She is a widow, not in the first flush of youth, and a promising career as a woman police officer was terminated as a result of her own bloody-mindedness and the misogynistic jealousy of senior officers. But needs must when the devil drives, and in 1944, like all other cities across Britain, Leeds has been drained of men. As in previous centuries, Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier, and the local police force is struggling. Crime doesn’t stop because there’s a war on. Quite the reverse in fact, as the blackout, shortages of almost any consumer goods worth having and a thinning of police ranks have combined to create numerous temptations which are proving irresistible to the criminals of West Yorkshire.

TYOTGSo, Lottie is back in uniform again, but this time as a lowly member of the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps. Her main job is to drive her boss, Detective Superintendent McMillan, to wherever he needs to go. McMillan, a veteran of The Great War, certainly needs his transport as a killer seems to be stalking vulnerable young women across the city. Kate Patterson, a Private in The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) is found dead in the sombre ruins of the medieval Kirkstall Abbey. She is the first victim, but others follow, and Lottie and McMillan are soon convinced that the killer is a member of the American forces based in the city.

Nickson paints a vivid contrast between the drabness and general sense of privation in the lives of ordinary British people with the freshness, optimism and overflowing abundance of consumer items prevalent among the Americans. As part of the investigation, Lottie comes across a typically clean-cut and bright-eyed American officer, Captain Cliff Ellison of the US Army CID. He is divorced – and available – and, despite herself, Lottie is entranced and flattered by his attention.

Romance may be in the air for Lottie and “her American” – as her mates call him – but the murders continue and blind alleys become even blinder for McMillan who, begrudgingly, becomes more reliant on the insights provided by his driver. Eventually, a suspect is identified and he is, as suspected, one of the visitors. He is, however, apparently untouchable because of his links with the Intelligence Agencies, and his importance in forthcoming vital operations.

 NicksonmaxresdefaultYou will note the date – spring 1944 – and will not need a degree in military history to work out what those ‘vital operations’ might be. Invasion or no invasion, McMillan still has a job to do, and the murderer is eventually cornered. Don’t anticipate a comfortable outcome, however. Nickson (right)  doesn’t do cosy, and the conclusion of this fine novel is as dark as a blacked out city street.

The story ends on a sombre note, but one of the many qualities of Chris Nickson’s Leeds novels is that he has established a quartet of characters who walk the same streets, breathe the same air and gaze at the same distant hills – but centuries apart. If the ghosts of Richard Nottingham, Tom Harper, Lottie Armstrong and Dan Markham were all to meet, they would walk together along streets which would be mutually familiar. Millgarth, Kirkstall Road, The Headrow, Castle Grove, Kirkgate, Lower Briggate – all witness to countless decades of life, death, loss, salvation and hope and, of course, generations of murderers, fraudsters, thieves and deceivers. There is a lovely poem by Geoffrey Winthrop Young which sums up the brilliant sense of history and continuity which Chris Nickson creates:

“There will be voices whispering down these ways,
The while one wanderer is left to hear,
And the young life and laughter of old days,
Shall make undying echoes”

Chris Nickson’s Amazon page is here.
You can read our review of a Tom Harper novel, On Copper Street, by clicking the link.
Click the link to learn more about real life murders by American servicemen in wartime Britain.

 

THE FORGOTTEN…. A series re-evaluating forgotten authors. Part One – Philip Maitland Hubbard

Forgotten header

Fashion in crime fiction, like in all other aspects of life – and literature – is a strange business. Who are the ‘immortals’, and who are the fine writers who have simply vanished from shelves both in the bookshop and the home? The ‘immortals’ number just a handful. I would nominate Conan Doyle, Chandler, Christie and Simenon. There are other writers who have produced books which regularly feature in ‘best of’ lists, such as Capote, Sayers, Du Maurier, Wilkie Collins, Leonard and Highsmith, but whose body of work does not stand up with the four ‘immortals’. This series will focus on a handful of authors whose works, for whatever reason, have passed from mind and familiarity.

PMHOne of my favourite contemporary writers, Phil Rickman, pointed me in the direction of PM Hubbard (left) who wrote English crime novels with just a hint of supernatural menace about them. After a career in public service, he became a full time writer, and contributing to  the magazine Punch as well as writing verse, both of which activities contrast strongly with his dark novels. Although Hubbard died in 1980 his books are still available, and although I have come late to the feast, I can still savour the meat. This is the first of a two part examination of Hubbard’s writing.

CGAAP header

FAMFlush As May (1963) takes its title from a soliloquy by Hamlet, and Hubbard sets the piece in an ostensibly idyllic rural England, contemporary with the time of the novel’s publication. Margaret Canting is an Oxford undergraduate staying in the nearby village of Lodstone She takes it upon herself to see in May Morning, not by carolling from the top of a church tower, but with a dawn stroll. Her idyll is interrupted when she finds the corpse of a man, sleeping his final sleep against the grassy bank at the edge of a field.

She strides back into Lodstone and rouses the village policeman, PC Robin. His scepticism about her discovery is confirmed when the pair arrive at the scene to find – absolutely nothing. Humiliated by the constable’s scorn, Margaret returns to her B & B, having briefly made the acquaintance of a young chauffeur at the roadside. She learns, upon her return to Oxford, that his name is Jacob Garrod and that he is a fellow undergraduate. The pair meet for a drink, and Margaret reveals the full story of her May Morning adventure.

Together, the pair decide to get the bottom of the mystery of the missing corpse, with the assistance of one or two of Margaret’s well connected relatives. What has so far been something of a ‘jolly jape’ becomes infinitely more serious when they discover that an unholy alliance of old established farming families in and around Lodstone has an unhealthy influence on local events.

This is a lighter novel than those which followed, and there is plenty of gentle humour, such as when Jacob  tries to find out more about the agricultural mafia by attending a cattle auction:

“…..where he bid unsuccessfully for a lot of heifers whose air of gentle bewilderment appealed to him. They attended the event placidly, like a consignment of Circassian virgins under the hammer in ancient Rome …”

But as if he were holding his fire until he could see the whites of our eyes, Hubbard gently ramps up the music of unease by turning our attention – alongside that of Margaret and Jacob – to the landscape itself. We discover that the residents of Lodstone and their ancestors have an allegiance to the shape of the hills and fields that is fired by a folk memory which stretches back much further than the laws and conventions of either the Christian church or the civil justice system. The climax of the story brings Margaret face to face with the very embodiment of an ancient evil.

Scroll

Hubbard_The_Tower_GreenThe Tower (1968) begins with Hubbard tipping his hat in a gentlemanly fashion in the direction of a lady. The lady is none other than Dorothy L Sayers. Her masterpiece (other opinions are available), The Nine Tailors, begins with Bunter and Lord Peter abandoning their car in a snowy ditch outside a remote Fenland village. So it is that John Smith, the central character in The Tower, finds his car refusing to travel an inch further on an inky black night, a mile or so outside the village of Coyle. That, however is pretty much where the homage ends. Coyle is a far more sinister place that Fenchurch St Peter, and its vicar, Father Freeman, is infinitely less benevolent than dear old Reverend Venables.

After roadside assistance provided by a mysterious young woman Smith is able to get as far as The Bell, Coyle’s only pub. Given a room for the night, Smith signs the register with an all-too-familiar misgiving.

“That was the trouble with John Smith. They always expect you to bring in a giggling blonde with the wrong initials on her suitcase.”

Smith realises, as he drinks his pint of strong bitter and eats the meal provided by the landlord’s wife, that the customers of The Bell are not the average clientele of a rural boozer. He eavesdrops on a fairly foul-mouthed argument, but then:

“A man started to sing, casually, as if he was singing to himself, but loud enough to be heard above the general uproar. Gloria Deo – ‘ he sang, with a long twisting run of notes ….two more voices took it up in different parts, a very sweet clear tenor led the way into Et Filio, and by the time ‘Sancto was reached he counted four parts going great guns with several voices to each.”

Clearly, this is not a regulation saloon bar singsong. Smith’s curiosity is aroused, and he decides to stay for a few days. He meets local academic, Charles Hardcastle, and his daughter Cynthia – who he realises immediately is the enigmatic wraith who repaired his car the night before. Hardcastle – and George Curtis, Landlord of The Bell – explain to Smith, in very different ways, what is going on in the village.

The tower of Coyle’s parish church (dedicated to the fictional St Udan) is structurally compromised due to a series of unwise modifications over the last century. Father Freeman is obsessed with raising the £20,000 it would take to restore the tower and make it safe. His only hope of raising the cash is the benevolence of Mrs Mary Garstin, the widow of Sir Gerald Potter, and heir to his land and fortune. She has remarried, unhappily, and seems strangely drawn to the menacing priest.

John Smith and Cynthia Hardcastle are drawn into Coyle’s business, and find that it is far from straightforward, and that Father Freeman’s zeal is linked to something far older than his avowed Christianity. The conclusion of the novel is violent and incendiary. In addition, without writing anything remotely explicit by today’s standards, Hubbard bestows Mary Garstin with an erotic persona which is all the more startling, given the rural conformity and apparent benevolence of her surroundings.

PART TWO of this account of the writing of PM Hubbard will follow

 

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑