Coming across a very, very good book by an author one has never encountered before and then realising that she has been around for a while is a shock to the system, and if the downside is that the experience further highlights one’s own ignorance, then the blessing is that as a reviewer and blogger, there is something new to shout about. Jane A Adams made her debut with The Greenway back in 1995, and has been writing crime fiction ever since, notably with four-well established mystery series featuring Mike Croft, Ray Flowers, Naomi Blake and Rina Martin. She began the saga of London coppers Henry Johnstone and Micky Hitchens in 2016, with The Murder Book. Their latest case is Kith and Kin.
The novel has a split timeline. It is mostly set in 1928, but uses flashbacks to earlier events. Two bodies are washed up on the muddy banks of the confluence of the rivers Thames and Medway, on the Kentish shore. Even with the relatively primitive technology available to them at the time, Johnstone and Hitchens realise that the two corpses were not drowned, but stabbed, and then cast into the river. The two sailors who bring the corpses to the attention of the police are then found not to be sailors at all, but henchmen of a feared and brutal London gangster, Josiah Bailey.
I don’t know if the author intended it that way, but the violent paranoia of Josiah Bailey is a perfect echo of the self obsessed madness of a certain Mr Ronald Kray, whose bloodlust has enlivened many a subsequent crime novel – and court report. But I digress. Johnstone and Hitchens have to scrabble and scratch for information, because the dead bodies found on the Kentish marshes are connected to the two most secretive and distrustful communities in the land – Gypsies, and London gangsters. Those groups should not be conflated, and Johnstone does not make this mistake. Instead, he nags away at a connection between the dead men and the cataclysmic events of 1914-1918 – events in which both he and Hitchens were involved, and of which they have indelible memories.
The world of Gypsies remains closed to most of us. We may suffer from Travelers occupying a seafront, a playing field or a car park near us and when they leave behind a mountain of litter and waste we can curse about cultural diversity. This image, understandably negative, can be given a different focus when, as Adams does here, writers remind us of the tight-knit, self-sufficient communities of the old Romany families. The Gypsies in Kith and Kin have a strong sense of honour and a knowledge of the world which could never be imparted in a school classroom.
The period is set to perfection, and Adams (right) skilfully combines past, present and future. The past? There can scarcely have been a man, woman or child who escaped the malign effects of what politicians swore would be the war to end wars. The present? 1928 saw devastating flooding on the banks of the River Thames, a book called Decline And Fall was published, and in Beckenham, not a million miles away from where this novel plays out, Robert ‘Bob’ Monkhouse was born. The future? Johnstone’s sister, who has married into money, has a head on her shoulders, and senses that in the financial world, a dam is about to break – with devastating effects.
Kith and Kin is excellent. Adams gives us a spider’s web of a plot; we are attracted, drawn in – and then consumed. Johnstone and Hitchens strike sparks off each other; the bond between them has been forged in the blood and fire of the Flanders trenches. We have memorable characters; Sarah Cooper, the matriarchal Gypsy is strong and wise, but remote; Josiah Bailey is as mad as a box of frogs and a hundred times more dangerous; Johnston’s sister is wordly wise, but compassionate and perceptive.
I apologise for preaching to the converted, but for me, Jane A Adams is a new star in my firmament. Kith and Kin is published by Severn House and is out now.
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