DUE TO THE AWFUL NEWS that Philip Kerr has died, the current prize draw for a copy of Greeks Bearing Gifts will be suspended for the time being. I will be writing a tribute to Philip, one of our finest writers, in due course. The competition will be re-run later in the year. People who have already entered will have their names carried forward.
If a more extraordinary duo of fictional detectives exists than Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May, then I have yet to discover them. The peculiar pair return in Hall of Mirrors for their fifteenth outing, and this time not only are they far from their beloved London, but we see a pair of much younger coppers on their beat in the 1960s. Fowler’s take on the period is typified by each of the fifty chapters of the novel bearing the title of a classic pop hit. We are also reminded of the strange fashions of the day.
“Two young men in Second World War army uniforms painted with ‘Ban The Bomb’ slogans were arguing with a pair of Chelsea Pensioners who clearly didn’t take kindly to military outfits being worn by trendy pacifists. They were briefly joined by a girl wearing a British sailor’s uniform with a giant iridescent fish on her head.”
In attempt to keep them out of trouble, our heroes are given the task of being minders to an important witness in a fraud trial, but Monty Hatton-Jones is due at a country weekend party deep in rural Kent, and so John and Arthur must accompany him to Tavistock Hall. What follows is a delicious take on the Golden Age country house mystery, with improbable murders, secret passages, an escaped homicidal maniac and suspects galore. Things are complicated by nearby military manoeuvres involving the British army and their French counterparts. Fowler (above) reprises the great gag from Dr Strangelove – “Gentlemen – you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” Captain Debney, the British Commanding Officer is having a bad day.
“The menu for tonight’s hands Across The Water dinner has already gone up the Swanee. We had terrible trouble getting hold of courgettes, and now I hear there’s no custard available. I don’t want anything else going wrong. These are international war games. We can’t afford to have anyone hurt.”
The urbane John May is quite at home in the faded grandeur of Tavistock Hall, but Arthur is like a fish out of water. He also has an aversion to the countryside.
“It appeared to be the perfect Kentish evening, pink with mist and fresh with the scent of the wet grass. Bryant looked at it with a jaundiced eye. There was mud everywhere, the cows stank, and were all those trees really necessary? As a child he had been terrified of the bare, sickly elm in his street with a branch that scarped at his bedroom window like a witch’s hand and sent him under the blankets.”
As usual with the B & M books, the jokes come thick and fast, but we are reminded that Fowler is a perceptive and eloquent commentator on the human condition. Arthur investigates the local parish church as its rector, Revd Trevor Patethric is a house guest – and suspect.
“Bryant pushed open the church door and entered. He had never felt comfortable in the houses of God, associating them with gruelling rites of childhood: saying farewell to dead grandfathers, and the observance of distant, obscure ceremonies involving hushed prayers, peculiarly phrased bible passages, muffled tears and shamed repentance.”
Eventually, of course, the pair – mostly through Arthur’s twisted thought processes – solve the crimes. Prior to revealing his theories on the murder to the assembled guests, however, Bryant has a slight misfortune with a missing painting hidden in a very unswept chimney. Covered in soot, he somehow lacks the gravitas of a Poirot or a Marple.
“Bryant had made a desultory attempt to wipe his face, but the result was more monstrous than before. He rose before them now, a lunatic lecturer in the physics of murder.”
Reading a crime novel shouldn’t be about being educated, but Hall of Mirrors teaches us many things. Those who didn’t already know will learn that Christopher Fowler is a brilliant writer. He is, in my view, out on his own in the way he weaves a magic carpet from a dazzling array of different threads: there is uniquely English humour, the sheer joy of the eccentricities of our language and landscape, labyrinthine plotting, and an array of arcane cultural references which will surely have Betjeman beaming down from heaven. Those of us who, smugly perhaps, consider ourselves as old Bryant & May hands will also now know the origins of Arthur’s malodorous scarf and also his cranky, clanky Mini.
Amidst the gags, the fizzing dialogue and the audacious plot twists Fowler waves his magic wand, and with the lightest of light touches dusts a page near the very end with poignancy and great compassion. Look out for the section that ends:
“Bryant looked in his mirror to try and catch another glimpse of them, but they had disappeared, ghosts of a London yet to come.”
And do you want to know the best five words of the entire book? I’ll tell you:
Bryant and May Will Return
Hall of Mirrors is published by Quercus, and is available from 22nd March.
IN FOR THE KILL by ED James
East London cop DI Steve Fenchurch makes a welcome return for the fourth book in this popular series by Ed James (left). It is part of urban folklore that attractive female students are sometimes tempted to use their charms to attract Sugar Daddies who will help with their fees and living costs. When one such young woman is found strangled in her bedroom, Fenchurch soon discovers that she was in the pay of a notorious city gangster. With his superiors poised to pounce on him at the first sign of a professional mistake, and his family in mortal danger, Fenchurch is faced with a no-win dilemma. If he persists in finding out who killed the young woman, he will attract incoming fire from very powerful people. If he just keeps his head down and allows the investigation to drift into the ‘unsolved’ file, his bosses will have him clearing his desk and locker before he can utter the word ‘sacked’. In For The Kill is published by Thomas & Mercer and will be available from 19 April in Kindle, paperback and MP3 CD.
ROGUE by JB Turner
This is first in what promises to be a popular series with readers who love their novels spiced with the double-dealing and other shenanigans which are part and parcel of the work of American intelligence organisations. Nathan Stone is a former CIA covert operative who has been critically wounded, and thought to be dead. But behind closed doors, he has been rehabilitated by a highly secretive government organization known as the Commission, given a new identity and appearance, and remoulded into a lethal assassin. His brief: to execute kill orders drawn up by the Commission, all in the name of national security. Turner (right) provides enough thrills to keep even the most jaded reader on their toes. Rogue is published by Thomas & Mercer, and will be available in June.
SAVAGE LIBERTY by Eliot Pattison
I first came across Pattison (left) and his Revolutionary Wars hero Duncan McCallum when I was writing for Crime Fiction Lover. I reviewed Blood Of The Oak in March 2016, and you can read the piece by following the blue link. More recently, wearing my Fully Booked hat, I enjoyed Pattison’s Skeleton God, set in Tibet, light years away both in time and context from eighteenth century America. Savage Liberty brings us a further chapter in the eventful life of Duncan McCallum. The action begins in 1768. We are in Boston, where a ship from London has exploded, leaving the body parts of its crew and passengers scattered like flotsam in the cold waters. McCallum is a trained physician and his analytical mind soon detects the work of French secret agents. His investigations bring him onto extreme peril, however, and he finds himself in a jail cell accused of treason, with the hangman’s rope just days away. McCallum realises that his only hope is to escape and bring the true villains to justice. Savage Liberty is published by Counterpoint, and will be available in June
SUMMER CAMP – that particularly American institution which, for those of us in our dotage, evokes memories of Allan Sherman’s letter home from Camp Granada.
RILEY SAGER (aka Todd Ritter) however takes a darker view. When Emma goes to Camp Nightingale, it is her first summer away from home. She learns how to play games, but she also learns a more sinister skill – how to lie. That golden summer dream becomes a twisted and feverish nightmare when three of Emma’s new-found friends set off to explore the woods, but are never seen again. It is inevitable that he subsequent furore spells the end for Camp Nightingale as a safe holiday destination for teenage girls. But times change. memories fade. Years after the terrible events of that summer, Emma is asked to return to the newly reopened camp. Will her return lay old ghosts to rest, or wake the spirits of the dead and rip away the veil of innocence to reveal a much darker truth?
LAST TIME I LIED is published by Ebury Press/Penguin Random House, and will be available later this year. To find out more about Riley Sager, you can follow these links.
The distinguished Australian crime writer Peter Temple has died of cancer at the age of 71 at his home in the Victorian city of Ballarat. When some modern writers might have their output weighed rather than critically assessed, Temple wrote just nine novels and devoted much of his career to journalism – at which he excelled – and teaching others how to write. Nine novels only, but each is a gem – polished, hard, multi-faceted and brilliant. If he is known at all among casual readers of crime fiction in Britain, it may be for his four novels featuring the gritty private investigator, Jack Irish.
Irish, a former lawyer, inhabits an Australia which might surprise those who have never lived and worked in Melbourne. November through to March in the Victorian capital is pretty much the stereotype beloved of those who caricature Aussie life. It gets bloody hot, you don’t leave home without fly repellant and, across at the MCG, cricket fans, with the obligatory Eskies full of beer, are baying at the opposition players. But visit Melbourne between April and October, and you see a different city. The winter rain is usually an incessant but penetrative drizzle rather than a downpour and the wise supporter wraps up well to go and support his ‘footie’ team on a Saturday afternoon. The world of football – that strange hybrid we know as Aussie Rules – is one of the two contrapuntal themes in the Jack Irish novels, the other being the big business of horse racing. Whereas Jack Irish comes no closer to football than gloomy suburban pubs where old men rage against the dying of the light – and the current losing streak of their local team – his horse racing connections are far more potent. He has an uneasy relationship with a millionaire former jockey and the ruthless minder who looks after him, and his loyalty to the pair is sometimes repaid in cash but, on other occasions, with supportive but devastating violence.
The four Jack Irish novels are all in print, as follows:
Never content to rest comfortably in the arms of a literary formula, Temple also wrote five other novels, each with a different protagonist, as follows:
An Iron Rose – featuring Mac Faraday (1998)
Shooting Star – featuring Frank Calder (1999)
In The Evil Day – featuring John Anselm (2002)
The Broken Shore – featuring Joe Cashin (2005)
Truth – featuring Steven Villani (2009)
In The Evil Day is the only one of Temple’s works that has an international flavour. John Anselm is an ex-Beirut hostage who is eking out an existence working in surveillance in Hamburg, but becomes involved with a beautiful investigative journalist in London and an unscrupulous mercenary. Messrs Faraday, Calder and Cashin, on the other hand, ply their trade in deeply conservative country towns a couple of hours up the highway from the bright lights of Melbourne. Steven Villani, however, is back in Melbourne (which may seem more English than England, with its daily evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, and its exclusive gentleman’s clubs) but there is nothing cosy or quaint about the corruption and venality that the hard-bitten police officer must confront.
Peter Temple was a fine journalist. Part of his training would have involved being cudgeled by hard-nosed editors into saying as much as possible in the fewest words. In his novels he added the imagination of a poet and the compassionate humility of a medieval saint. We have lost a writer who employed a style that was so terse and direct that it gave him the space and time for moments of such grace and perception that they take the breath away.
Have you ever heard of Chip Taylor? No, me neither until I researched this post. He is still with us, and was born James Wesley Voight in 1940 and, yes, he is the brother of John and uncle to the fragrant Angelina Jolie. His claim to fame? He penned the immortal line (if you’re a fan of The Troggs, that is)
“Wild Thing – you make my heart sing..”
Some things, wild or otherwise, do make my heart sing. For example, in no particular order, the first heady sip from a glass of the luxury single malt, Lagavulin. Hearing, via Test Match Special, the unique subdued hum of thousands of spectators at Lords. Fishing on my favourite water in the tiny French hamlet of Aizelles, and feeling the line scream off the reel as a fat carp takes my bait. Snuggling in an armchair with my little granddaughter as we watch yet another re-run of a classic Tom and Jerry cartoon. And – this one is special – opening a parcel to reveal a new Bryant & May book by one of my favourite authors – Christopher Fowler.
The dust jackets of the Bryant & May novels are a work of art in themselves, but between the covers is where the true genius lies. Arthur Bryant and John May are detectives working for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, an imaginary department of London’s Metropolitan Police. Their adventures take them mostly to curious and forgotten corners of London where the past is just below the modern surface. Fowler has many talents as a writer, not least of which is his comedic talent. He is a direct descendant of English humourists such as George and Weedon Grossmith and HV Morton, and the jokes come thick and fast amid the serious business of solving murders or strange crimes.
The new book? It’s called Hall of Mirrors, and takes us back to 1969. Our intrepid pair are sent to Tavistock Hall to investigate dark deeds on a country house weekend. I’ve already started to read the book, so look out for a full review very soon. The publicist, in full alliteration mode, warns us to expect ‘murder, madness and mayhem in the mansion,’ but me? I’m looking forward to meeting the one-armed brigadier, Nigel ‘Fruity’ Metcalf!
By my reckoning this is the fifteenth outing for Alex Gray’s veteran Glaswegian copper, William – now Detective Superintendent – Lorimer. A woman – who, if witnesses are to be believed, was a deeply unpleasant person – is found stabbed to death, her hands clutched around a top-of-the-range kitchen knife. Dorothy Guilford was widely disliked both within her own family and further afield while her husband, Peter – by contrast – has few detractors. Yet the working hypothesis of the police investigating Dorothy’s demise is that Peter Guilford did the deed.
Lorimer has become bogged down in a partially – and only partially – successful investigation into murder, prostitution and people trafficking based in Aberdeen. In the Granite City some entrepreneurs, denied a living by the decline in the oil and gas industries, have taken to trading in other commodities – human lives. However, to borrow the memorable line from The Scottish Play, Lorimer’s team have “scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it.” The head of the gang responsible for taking young and innocent Romany women from impoverished Slovakian villages, and setting them to work in Scottish brothels is known only as “Max”. The very mention of his name is enough to silence witnesses, even those who have every reason to long for his downfall. But how – if at all – is Max connected to Peter Guilford, arrested for his wife’s murder, but now beaten within an inch of his life while on remand in Glasgow’s Barlinnie prison?
Alex Gray gives us an enthralling supporting cast. Ever present are the consultant psychologist, Dr Solomon Brightman and his wife Rosie, a pathologist who has the essential – but unenviable – task of literally eviscerating the human bodies which are the result of murder most foul. Young Detective Constable Kirsty Wilson goes above and beyond the call of duty to make sense of the confusing and contradictory ‘facts’ of the Dorothy Guilford case. All the while, though, she is facing a personal dilemma. Her boyfriend has just won the promotion of his dreams – a prominent position in his bank’s Chicago operation. But will Kirsty cast aside her own imminent promotion to Detective Sergeant, and follow James in his pursuit of The American Dream?
The British police procedural – the Scottish police procedural, even – is a crowded field, and each author and their characters tries to bring something different to choosy readers. Where Alex Gray (right) makes her mark, time and time again, is that she is unafraid to show the better things of life, the timeless touches of nature in a summer garden, or the warmth of affection between characters, particularly, of course, the bond between William and Margaret Lorimer. Here is one such moment:
“She smiled as he selected a bottle from the fridge. The dusk was settling over the treetops, a haze of apricot light melting into the burnished skies …….she pulled a cardigan across her shoulders as she settled down on the garden bench, eyes gazing upwards as a thrush trilled its liquid notes. Live in the moment, she thought, breathing in the sweetness that wafted from the night-scented stocks.”
This is not to say that Gray wears rose-tinted spectacles. This is far, far from the case, and her scenes depicting the violence – both emotional and physical – that we inflict on one another are powerful, visceral and compelling.
A particular mention needs to be made of the deft touches Gray uses when writing about Margaret Lorimer. Here is a woman much to be envied in many ways. She has a loving husband, a stable and prosperous home life, and a teaching career in which she touches the lives of so many young people in her school. And yet, and yet. A cloud hovers over Margaret, and it is one that can never be blown from the otherwise blue sky. The couple’s inability to have children sometimes weighs heavily, especially when friends and colleagues are gifted with children. But Gray never allows Margaret to become embittered, and if she envies Rosie and Solomon, for example, then she keeps it to herself.
Only The Dead Can Tell is, quite simply, superbly written and plotted. It sums up everything that is golden and enthralling about a good book. It is published by Sphere, and will be out as a hardback and a Kindle on 22nd March.
Younger readers, please bear with me for a moment. People of my generation will need no introduction to the wonderful world of HM Bateman, a satirical cartoonist whose brilliance often matched that of Gillray and Hogarth. He was prolific and, like many cartoonists before and since, was a sublime draughtsman. One of his most popular series was ‘The Man Who ….” – and each featured someone who has committed a terrible social faux pas and provoked expressions of disdain, anger and astonishment on the faces of other characters in the picture. My personal solecism is that I remain lukewarm about much crime fiction which has its origins in Scandinavia. Not because I doubt the worth of the original, but more because of the insertion of a third party – the translator – into the relationship between reader and author. Yes, I know that puts me on shaky ground in many people’s opinions regarding writers such as Simenon and Vargas, but my stance is what it is, and I will happily defend my stance at another time and in another place.
That lengthy preamble is by way of an introduction to the latest book to be passed from my postman into my grateful hand. Acts of Vanishing by Fredrik T Olsson came out in Kindle in August 2017, but Sphere are publishing the paperback version in just a couple of days – 8th March – and those who love hardback editions will be able to buy it from Little Brown in April. Olsson (right) hails from the Swedish city of Gothenberg and is not only a successful novelist, screenwriter and director, but also a stand-up comedian.
Translated by Michael Gallagher, Acts of Vanishing is the story of Sara Sandberg. The publicity tells us:
“It was ten past four on the afternoon of the third of December. Everything was darkness and ink, and the snow falling turned to water. Through it ran Sara Sandberg, the girl who was about to die, and somewhere in the cold, lead-grey hell that was Stockholm was a man who called himself her father. In her rucksack, she had a warning for him.Now whether he would receive it or not was all down to her.”