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February 2018

INSIDIOUS INTENT . . . Between the covers

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Crime Fiction’s Most Distinctive Odd Couple? There would be several nominations in this category, were it to be at an awards dinner of some kind. You can make your own suggestions, using whatever criteria you wish; eccentricity, diversity of character and background, problem-solving methods – the choice is yours. I am going for sheer darkness, grim back stories, and an occasional incompatibilty that sometimes verges on the disastrous, but also a symbiotic need for each other that has no sexual element but is unique in the annals of crime fiction If this sounds like the relationship between DCI Carol Jordan and clinical psychologist Dr Tony Hill, then we are spot on.

Val McDermid introduced them to us in 1995, with The Mermaids Singing, and now they are back for the tenth episode in their turbulent career. As we turn the first page, Jordan is already in trouble. She has tried to drink her way out of the life-shattering experience of feeling responsible for the terrible murders of her brother and his wife but, inevitably, one glass too many has resulted in a drink driving charge. Her bosses, not always as supportive, have conspired to declare the breathalyser equipment faulty, and Jordan is aquitted. But, having been tested with the same equipment, so is hell-raising young driver Dominic Barrowclough. When Barrowclough celebrates his freedom by killing himself and four other road users, Jordan’s guilt begins to reach crisis level.

II CoverBut there is still a job to be done, and in Carol Jordan’s case this is to head up a new police unit, called ReMIT – Regional Major Investigations Team – and their first case is a shocker. In a windswept lay-by on a lonely moorland road, a car is discovered, blazing out of control. When the flames die back sufficiently for the emergency services to get close, the charred remains of a young woman are discovered in the driving seat. The post mortem reveals that she has been strangled, and the blaze started, of all things, by a large box of potato crisp packets. Another such death soon follows, and the ReMIT team discover that they are dealing with a supremely clever killer who befriends his victims at weddings. He ‘crashes’ the wedding with consummate ease, and then targets young women who have attended the wedding unaccompanied. Spinning a yarn that he is a widower still mourning his late wife’s death from cancer, he seems to be the perfect gentleman. Caring, considerate, sexually undemanding – to the unfortunate women he seems like all their Christmases have come at once.

By sheer persistence and a stroke of good fortune, Jordan and her team find themselves a suspect, a young businessman called Tom Elton. But the evidence against him is, at best, circumstantial, and he attends the police interview alongside one of the smartest and most abrasive criminal defence lawyers in the region. Elton is scornful, triumpant, and he literally laughs in the faces of his accusers.

“I thought you lot were supposed to be the elite? I remember the news stories when you were formed. Top Guns, they said,” He scoffed, “Top Bums, more like. If I was your man, I’d be dancing in the streets. With you lot running the show, anyone could get away with murder.”

 All the while, as the investigation gathers speed – and then founders – McDermid demonstrates why she is considered by many to be the greatest contemporary British crime writer. The black clouds loom ever lower over Carol Jordan. Her team, some with their own demons to exorcise, look in vain to their boss for inspiration, while Tony Hill, perhaps for the first time in his career, can see no obvious way out of their travails.

Thomas Hardy, in his Wessex novels, was the master of wicked coincidences; a misinterpreted gesture, words said or unsaid, a lover innocently going to the wrong church for her wedding – these all set in train events which will bring the worlds of these characters down around their heads. McDermid creates one here, albeit one very much of the 21st century. and it contributes to the dramatic and totally unexpected finale of this fine novel. Insidious Intent came out in hardback and Kindle in 2017, and this paperback edition will be available on 22nd February from Sphere.

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THE GREAT DARKNESS . . . Between the covers

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Cambridge, in the early autumn of 1939, is like every other city and large town across Britain: war has been declared, the army is everywhere – as are rumours of German spies and infiltrators under every metaphorical bed. Observers scan the skies night and day vainly searching for enemy aircraft while in Belgium, the British Expeditionary Force sit waiting the German Army’s first move. In hindsight, of course, we know that this was the ‘phony’ war, and that Hitler’s forces had, for the moment at least, more pressing work further east.

Jim004In this febrile atmosphere are many men and women who have memories of “the last lot”. One such is the latest creation from Jim Kelly, (left) Detective Inspector Eden Brooke. He saw service in The Great War, but were someone to wonder if his war had been ‘a good war’, they would soon discover that he had suffered dreadful privations and abuse as a prisoner of the Turks, and that the most physical legacy of his experiences is that his eyesight has been permanently damaged. He wears a selection of spectacles with lenses tinted to block out different kinds of light which cause him excruciating pain. For him, therefore, the nightly blackout is more of a blessing than a hindrance.

One of Brooke’s stranger habits is moonlight bathing in the River Cam. It is on one such visit to the river that he overhears a conversation. Because of blackout, he can see nothing, but it seems a group of ‘squaddie’ soldiers under the command of an NCO are digging pits to bury something – and it is not a pleasant job. Daylight, and an inspection by one of Brooke’s officers, provides no answer.

With the mysterious burials in St John’s Wilderness nagging away at him like a toothache, Brooke must divert his attention to violent deaths. With military minds convinced that barrage balloons will prove the answer to death being delivered from the skies by the Luftwaffe, the ‘blimps’ are tethered all over the city. To us, they have a slightly comedic aspects, but when one breaks free from its mooring and catches fire, the results leave no-one laughing. As the balloon careers across the Cambridge rooftops it trails a deadly mesh of netting and steel cable. A man, subsequently identified as American research student Ernst Lux, has been caught up in this obscene accidental fishing expedition and when his body eventually returns to the ground it looks as if it has been savaged by some dreadful predatory beast. The second death is just as brutal but mercifully quicker. The body of Chris Childe, a conscientious objector and an active member of the Communist Party, is found slumped over his parents’ grave in Mill Road Cemetery. He has been shot through the head at point blank range.

Brooke is pulled this way and that with the investigations, but then there is a further complication. Three lorries, running on false plates, are found parked up on Castle Hill, their drivers gone. When the investigation gathers speed it becomes clear that this is an operation in black market meat, controlled by criminal gangs in Sheffield. Brooke is convinced that there is a military connection between all these events, but in order to make any sense of them he needs to get straight answers from the top brass at regional army HQ out at Madingley Hall. The Inspector is, literally, an ‘old soldier’ and he knows precisely how the military mind works, so attempts by officers such as Colonel George Swift-Lane to ‘baffle him with bullshit’ are doomed to failure.

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The relationship between the deaths, the digging and the dirty dealing are eventually laid bare by Brooke’s intelligence and persistence. Kelly’s writing has never been more atmospheric and haunting; he gives us one spectacular and horrific set-piece when a demonstration by the Auxiliary Fire Service goes terribly wrong, and he makes sure that the killer of Chris Childe dies a death more terrible than that of his victim. Above all, though, we have a brilliant and memorable new character in Eden Brooke. There is a little something of Christopher Foyle about him, although his wife Claire is very much alive, but Brooke’s son is also away doing his bit, with the BEF in Belgium, waiting for the push that would eventually. just seven months later, drive them into the sea.

 

Brooke’s portrait is subtle, nuanced and, while revealing up to a point, leaves us with the impression that this a man who we may never completely understand, and that he is someone whose actions, thoughts and decisions will always have the capacity to surprise us. I can only say to Jim Kelly, “Thank you, Mr K – this is as brilliant and evocative a piece of crime fiction as I will expect to read all year. You’ve gone and done it again!”

The Great Darkness is published by Allison & Busby and will be generally available on 15th February.

For a background to Jim Kelly’s work and his use of landscape, place and history in his novels, click the link below.

LANDSCAPE, MEMORY – and MURDER

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JIM KELLY . . . Landscape, memory – and murder

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Phil RickmanWhen it comes to creating a sense of place in their novels, there are two living British writers who tower above their contemporaries. Phil Rickman, (left) in his Merrily Watkins books, has recreated an English – Welsh borderland which is, by turn, magical, mysterious – and menacing. The past – usually the darker aspects of recent history – seeps like a pervasive damp from every beam of the region’s black and white cottages, and from every weathered stone of its derelict Methodist chapels. Jim Kelly’s world is different altogether. Kelly was born in what we used to call The Home Counties, north of London, and after studying in Sheffield and spending his working life between London and York, he settled in the Cambridgeshire cathedral city of Ely.

jim kelly Small_0It is there that we became acquainted with Philip Dryden, a newspaperman like his creator but someone who frequently finds murder on his doorstep (except he lives on a houseboat, which may not have doorsteps). While modern Ely has made the most of its wonderful architecture (and relative proximity to London) and is now a very chic place to live, visit, or work in, very little of the Dryden novels takes place in Ely itself. Instead, Kelly, has shone his torch on the bleak and vast former fens surrounding the city. Visitors will be well aware that much of Ely sits on a rare hill overlooking fenland in every direction. Those who like a metaphor might well say that, as well as in terms of height and space, Ely looks down on the fens in a haughty fashion, probably accompanying its haughty glance with a disdainful sniff. Kelly (above)  is much more interested in the hard-scrabble fenland settlements, sometimes – literally – dust blown, and its reclusive, suspicious criminal types with hearts as black as the soil they used to work on. Dryden usually finds that the murder cases he becomes involved with are usually the result of old grievances gone bad, but as a resident in the area I can reassure you that in the fens, grudges and family feuds very rarely last more than ninety years

deat1In the Peter Shaw novels, Kelly moved north. Very often in non-literal speech, going north can mean a move to darker, colder and less forgiving climates of both the spiritual and geographical kind, but the reverse is true here. Shaw is a police officer in King’s Lynn, but he lives up the coast near the resort town of Hunstanton. Either by accident or design, Kelly turns the Philip Dryden template on its head. King’s Lynn is a hard town, full of tough men, some of whom are descendants of the old fishing families. There is a smattering of gentility in the town centre, but the rough-as-boots housing estates that surround the town to the west and the south provide plenty of work for Shaw and his gruff sergeant George Valentine. By contrast, it is in the rural areas to the north-east of Lynn where Shaw’s patch includes expensive retirement homes, holiday-rental flint cottages, bird reserves for the twitchers to twitch in, and second homes bought by Londoners which have earned places like Brancaster the epithet “Chelsea-on-Sea.”

With these two best-selling series under his belt, Jim Kelly would have been forgiven if he had played safe and simply ping-ponged Dryden and Shaw in his future novels. But, like Ulysses of old, he has given us a new character.

“’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset …….”

I am not suggesting for one second that Jim Kelly is anywhere near his metaphorical sunset but, just as Ulysses pushed his boat off into unknown waters, so Kelly begins a voyage that takes us to Cambridge in the golden autumn of 1939. Britain is officially at war with Germany, and Detective Inspector Eden Brooke has mysterious deaths to solve. Set in the glorious university town – yes, ‘town’, as Cambridge did not become a city until 1951 – The Great Darkness will enthral Kelly fans and new readers who like the landscape to be a significant character in their fiction.

The Fully Booked review of The Great Darkness will be available in the next couple of days, but here are several links to features on Jim Kelly and Phil Rickman.

All of a Winter’s Night by Phil Rickman

Jim Kelly – A Landscape of Secrets

The Seaweed That Started A War

Books Of The Year 2016

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