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September 2019

PLENTY UNDER THE COUNTER . . . Between the covers

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T redhis 1943 novel by Kathleen Hewitt is the third in the excellent series of Imperial War Museum reprints of wartime classics, but couldn’t be more different from the first two, From The City, From The Plough and Trial By Battle. Whereas they were both literary novels shot through with harrowing accounts of men in battle, Plenty Under The Counter is an almost jolly affair, a conventional murder mystery set against the trials, tribulations and financial opportunities of civilian life in wartime London.

PUTC coverA jolly murder? Well, of course. Fictional murders can be range from brutal to comic depending on the genre, and although the corpse found in the back garden of Mrs Meake’s lodging house – 15 Terrapin Road – is just as dead as any described by Val McDermid or Michael Connelly, the mood is set by the chief amateur investigator, a breezy and frightfully English RAF pilot called David Heron on recuperation leave from his squadron, and his elegantly witty lady friend Tess. He is from solid county stock:

“There was his Aunt Jane, enduring the full horror of only having two servants to wait on her. There was an uncle, retired from the Indian Army, now clinging like a cobweb to the musty armchairs in his club.”

R redeaders will not need a degree in 20th century social history to recognise that the book’s title refers to the methods used by shopkeepers to circumvent the official rationing of food and fancy goods. More sinister is the presence – both in real life and in the book – of criminals who exploit the shortages to make serious money playing the black market and for whom deadly violence is just a way of life.

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Hewitt gives us plenty of Waugh-ish social satire on the way, partly courtesy of David’s friend Bob Carter, a young man with what they used to call ‘a dodgy ticker’. Turned down from active service he expends his energy on extracting donations from rich people in order to open a bizarre club, where he hopes that people of all nations (barring Jerry, the Eyeties and the Nips, of course) will mingle over a glass or two and thus further the cause of nation speaking unto nation. There is also the grotesque Annie, who serves as Mrs Meake’s maid of all work. Annie is painfully thin, a little short of six feet tall, and the first thing that most people see of her when she enters a room is her teeth.

T redhe ingredients simmering away in the pot of this murder mystery are exotic. There is Mrs Meake, matronly now in her middle age, but still dreaming of the days when she was a beauty in the chorus line on the London stage; her daughter Thelma, a thoroughly spoiled brat who has movie aspirations above her ability; also, who was the swarthy seafaring man trying to sell a fancy-handled knife in the local pub? David’s fellow residents at 15 Terrapin Road are a study in themselves – Cumberbatch, the retired rubber planter with a secret in his room; Lipscott, the Merchant Navy man besotted with a waif-like girl, and the misanthropic Smedley, with his limp and a sudden need for £100.

Kathleen Hewitt WC_01_AThe story rattles along in fine style as the hours tick by before David has to return to the war. He has two pressing needs. One is to buy the special licence which will enable him to marry Tess, and the other is to find the Terrapin Road murderer. Hewitt (right) is too good a writer to leave her story lightly bobbing about on the bubbles of wartime champagne (probably a toxic mix of white wine and ginger ale) and she darkens the mood in the last few pages, leaving us to ponder the nature of tragedy and self-sacrifice.

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THE PENNY BLACK . . . Between the covers

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No, this is not a novel about stamp collecting, and it would be a skillful writer who could turn the rather dry pursuit of philately into a thriller. The Penny Black is a pub – one of three – in the apparently languid and peaceful Norfolk riverside village of Horning. On the river pleasure boats glide, coots skate and squabble while, beneath the ripples, Esox Lucius bides his time, ready to snap up an unwary Roach or two, or perhaps a duckling who has strayed too far from its siblings.

Rob ParkerThis riparian idyll is about to suffer a tsunami of turbulence however, partly due to one of its temporary residents. To call Ben Bracken, the creation of author Rob Parker (left), a Wild Card is something of an understatement. In A Wanted Man and Morte Point (review here) Bracken manages to use his Special Forces training to run rings around his government handlers, notch up an impressive body count, and still evade the clutches of the men, both good and bad, who would rather like to see him incarcerated either in a prison cell or – better still – a coffin.

Bracken has assumed the identity of an itinerant nobody. His day job is swilling out the chemical toilets on the hire boats which putter up and down the river on their journey through the Norfolk Broads. He lodges with an unassuming local couple who have no idea about his turbulent background. After a chance midnight encounter on the river Bracken learns that one of the local pleasure boats, owned by a villager, is actually a floating cannabis farm. A separate incident involving local yobs pushes Bracken into a limelight that he has to escape from, and in order to establish a new identity, he stages a bank robbery with a difference – he only steals money from his own account.

Penny coverWith the cash needed to pay for a fake passport and drivers’ licence Bracken prepares to bid farewell to Horning, a brutal murder and an encounter with a new enemy puts him – literally – on his back, recuperating in a lonely farmhouse. We learn that Norfolk’s would-be Medellin Cartel are actually dancing to the tune played by a London mobster called Terry “Turn-up” Masters, with whom Bracken has serious history. When Masters and his thugs turn up in Horning at the same time as a government Black Ops unit determined to eliminate Bracken, the scene is set for a spectacular shootout involving a buried cache of Home Guard weapons, gallons of blood sprayed liberally over the walls of The Penny Black and enough corpses to keep the local pathologist busy for weeks.

Rob Parker writes in a full-on style which frequently exceeds the speed limit and sometimes skates dangerously on the thin ice of probability, but he is never less than entertaining. Amid the mayhem, there are some sharp social observations:

“….he looks as retired as anyone I’ve ever seen. Natty purple v-neck sweater over cream chinos, wire glasses on a face near split by age-old laughter lines. He’s the poster boy for an over-fifties life insurance plan.”

There is also poignancy, such as when the elderly villager Eric recalls his late wife, collateral damage in the Horning drug wars:

“She had a mouth on her, at times. Sometimes she would put us in a sticky situation, simply because she had something to say, and couldn’t persuade herself not to say it. I’d sit there sometimes waiting for her to do it, just like a time bomb, waiting for her to go off…… But that’s all. That was the only thing. I used to get a bit wound up by it ….. Everyone’s allowed to have flaws, you’re not human if you don’t have flaws.”

The Penny Black is published by Endeavour Media and is available now.

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NOTHING ELSE REMAINS . . . Between the covers

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WFBTCWe first met London’s Detective Inspector Jake Porter and Sergeant Nick Styles in Robert Scragg’s debut novel What Falls Between The Cracks (review here) almost exactly a year ago. This description of the pair is from that book:

“Styles had his weakness for all things Hugo Boss, his image neat and orderly, close cropped hair, number two all over. A few had referred to him as the Met’s answer to Thierry Henry, until they saw him play five-a-side football. Porter was from Irish stock, his wardrobe more high street fashion and his appearance, while not unkempt, had a more lived-in feel to it; hair so dark it bordered on black, refusing to be fully tamed by gel, but with a sense of messy style to it.”

NERPorter is still haunted by the death of his wife in a hit-and-run accident and, like all good fictional DIs, he is viewed by his bosses – in particular the officious desk jockey Milburn – as mentally suspect. He is forced to go for a series of counselling sessions with the force’s tame psychologist, but after one hurried and fruitless encounter, he becomes totally immersed in a puzzling case which involves an old friend of his, Max Brennan. Brennan has arranged to meet his long-estranged father for the first time, but the older man fails to make the rendezvous. When Brennan’s girlfriend is abducted, he turns to Porter for help.

The heavy stone that Porter turns over in his search for Brennan’s missing father reveals all kinds of nasty scuttling things that recoil at the daylight. Principal among these is a list of missing people, all businessmen, whose common denominator is that they have each resigned from their jobs with minimal notice given, citing personal health issues as the reason.

Meanwhile, Styles has a secret. His wife is expecting their first child and she has grave misgivings about her husband continuing as Porter’s partner, as their business puts them all too often – and quite literally – in the line of fire. Understandably, she recoils at the possibility of raising the child alone with the painful duty, at some point, of explaining to the toddler about the father they never knew. Styles has accepted her demand to transfer to something less dangerous, but as the Brennan Affair ratchets up in intensity, he just can’t seem to find the right moment to break the news to his boss.

This is a well written and entertaining police procedural with all the necessary tropes of the genre – maverick cop, desk-bound boss, chaotic personal lives, grimy city background and labyrinthine plot. Naturally, Porter finally gets to the bottom of the mystery of the missing businessmen, but this point was reached with a fair few pages left to go, so clearly something else is about to happen. Sure enough, it does, and it is clever plot twist which I certainly didn’t see coming. Robert Scragg may be a relative novice in the crime fiction stakes but, to mangle a metaphor, he casts his red herrings with the ease and accuracy of an expert.

Nothing Else Remains is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

Allison

TRIAL BY BATTLE . . . Between the covers

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Alan Mart is a bookish, completely unmiitary young man who, fresh from Cadet College, is posted as a Second Lieutenant to an Indian Army Battalion in the autumn of 1941. The Japanese army is on the move, but are still believed to be just swarms of little yellow men who will melt away when faced with troops led by decent British officers. Mart is taken under the wing of Acting Captain Sam Holl:

“Holl rose from his chair. He seemed to go on rising for an interminable time, lurching from one side to the other, before he found his stature. He was a large-boned man, corded with muscle unsoftened by any spare flesh; his khaki bush shirt and slacks looked flimsy on him, and his rather small squarish head inadequate as a terminal for his torso. He had pale grey eyes, a thin mouth, and a thin pale feathering of hair, delicate and shallow as seedlings. His teeth were yellowish, with an exclamation of pure gold on the left hand side, and he sucked a great deal at them.”

Trial coverThe figure of Sam Holl struck an immediate chord with me, and I wondered momentarily where I had met him before. He is a more warlike version of Guy Crouchback’s brother in arms, Apthorpe. In Men At Arms (1951) and Officers And Gentlemen (1955) Evelyn Waugh gives us a pompous and priggish chap with completely bogus military and social airs and graces. He invites us to scorn Apthorpe and his pretensions while slyly revealing the pathos of Apthorpe’s real identity; probably an orphan, brought up by an elderly aunt; sent to a very minor public school, and packed of, virtually penniless, to serve in some down at heel colonial service. When Apthorpe dies in hospital as a result of Crouchback having smuggled him a bottle of whisky, the comedy turns to tragedy, and our mockery turns to shame-faced guilt.

Despite Alan Mart being our eyes and ears as the real war gets nearer and nearer to the battalion, Holl is, literally and metaphorically, a towering figure. He has the worst aspects of the blinkered British imperialist, but he displays immense physical courage. His bluster, near alcoholism and debased view of native women contrast poignantly with moments of extreme social vulnerability:

“They stood in the moonlight. There was nothing left except to go to bed, but they hesitated.
‘Good night, Holl,’ said Alan.
‘Good night,’ and Holl turned. But after a few steps, he stopped.
‘Alan.’
‘Yes.’
‘You might call me Sam.’
‘Oh. Of course. I’m sorry. Good night, Sam.’
‘Good night, Alan.'”

Mart goes off to train as a Signals Officer, and treads in the footsteps of his Victorian forbears as he becomes an expert operator of the Heliograph. When he returns to Battalion, however, he finds he has a stack of boxes containing brand new shiny radio sets. In a stroke worthy of Joseph Heller, we learn that all the battalion vehicles have been painted out in wonderful desert camouflage designed to baffle Rommel and his men in the deserts of North Africa – the unit’s undoubted destination. Africa or Iraq here we come? Not a bit of it. The Battalion embarks in a shabby tramp steamer. Destination? The dense rubber plantations and jungle of Malaya.

When Mart and Holl reach Malaya they learn many things, few if any of them to their advantage. The sparkling new radio sets abjectly refuse to work over any distance further than the line of sight and, more disturbing still, the despised little yellow men are resolutely disinclined to scatter at the bark of a British military command. Quite the reverse; they are numerous, well trained, superbly equipped, utterly remorseless and, seemingly, irresistible.

PiperDavid Piper’s biography is covered comprehensively in the publicity for this series, so suffice it to say he writes of what he knows. I am reminded of the lines from the old hymn;

“We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains he had to bear.”

Unlike so many of his comrades, he did survive the brutality of Japan’s POW camps which, although well documented, still take the breath away for their unrivalled sadism and absence of the tiniest evidence of humanity. Trial By Battle is a beautifully written account of men and war; there is no sweeping narrative, no epic battle scenes (but those described are terrifyingly vivid) and no broad historical context. Instead Piper zooms in on the fascinating anthill of conflict until we can see every detail, hear the snap of every bullet and squirm at the awkward pause in every conversation.

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FROM THE CITY, FROM THE PLOUGH … Between the covers

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T redhis 1948 best seller echoes Alexander Baron’s own military career as it follows a battalion of a fictional infantry brigade as they prepare for – and then take part in – D Day in the summer of 1944. The Fifth Wessex is, as the book’s title suggests, made up of a mixture of clumsy red-cheeked farm boys from the chalk uplands, well-read introverts who keep themselves to themselves, streetwise chancers and bewildered lads who are virgins in both bedroom and battlefield. They could be soldiers from earlier wars, and their ancestors might have known Agincourt, Marston Moor, Malplaquet, Talavera, Spion Kop and Arras. Baron has no time for the thinly veiled homo-eroticism of some of the Great War writers. His men can be uncouth, foul-mouthed, brutalised by their social background, yet given to moments of great compassion and charity.

City Plough coverThe British officer class have been long the object of scorn in both poetry and prose, but Baron deals with them in a largely sympathetic way. Those leading the Fifth on the ground are decent fellows; people who are only too aware of the frequently uneven struggle between shards of steel and the breasts of brave men. Even the Brigadier, whose plans prove so costly, is well aware of what he asks. He is, however, resolute in the way he shuts down his personal qualms in order to maintain the integrity of the battle plan. The one exception is the odious Major Maddison, a cold and sexually troubled narcissist whose demise is as satisfying as it is inevitable.

It is worth comparing From The City, From The Plough to another deeply moving novel of men at war, Covenant With Death, (1961) by John Harris. Both deal at length with preparation for an assault; both conclude with the devastating outcome. In Harris’s book the ‘band of brothers’ is a thinly fictionalised Pals Battalion from a northern city. Their Gehenna is the morning of July 1st 1916 and if it is just as brutal as the fate of the Fifth Wessex, it is perhaps more shocking for its suddenness. Harris concludes his book with the words;

Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our story.”

B redaron writes lyrically about the midsummer grace of the French countryside, its orchards and abundance of wild flowers, some of which grace the helmets and tunics of the passing soldiers, their fragility which will contrast cruelly with the total vulnerability of the crumpled and shattered bodies of the men who wore them. For the driven and exhausted men of the Fifth Wessex, unlike their fathers before them, there is always a new unspoiled hillside, a grove of trees untouched by shellfire, a fresh sunken lane lined with roses and willow herb. For the war in Normandy is a war of movement. A field reeking with the blood of dead horses and cattle is soon left behind, as the Brigadier stabs his finger at the map and finds another bridge, another crossroads and another copse that must be taken.

baronThe heroes in From The City, From The Plough come in all shapes and sizes, but there are no winners. Let Alexander Baron (right) have the last word.

“Among the rubble, beneath the smoking ruins, the dead of the Fifth Battalion sprawled around the guns they had silenced; dusty, crumpled and utterly without dignity; a pair of boots protruding from a roadside ditch; a body blackened and bent like a chicken burnt in the stove; a face pressed into the dirt; a hand reaching up out of a mass of brick and timbers; a rump thrust ludicrously towards the sky. The living lay among them, speechless, exhausted, beyond grief or triumph, drawing at broken cigarettes and watching with sunken eyes the tanks go by.”

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Three debuts

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T redo adapt the words of a former MP, and son of Hull:

“Carcassonne’s a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace..”

Frankly, it was far too hot for any embracing, apart from metaphorically cuddling a touch of Sud de la France hedonism. We were staying on a working vineyard, after all. But Time’s wingèd chariot, ( Ryanair’s Boing 737), had us back in Deserts of vast eternity (Fenland) all too soon. My downbeat mood was lifted by seeing that both the postman and Alexa Davies at Matador Books had been busy. Three new books, three debuts.

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DARKNESS by David Fletcher

David FletcherBack when I was at school, scratching on my slate, and climbing up chimneys as a weekend job – OK, OK, I’m exaggerating. My primary school had dip pens, porcelain inkwells and I was the ink monitor. The last bit is actually true, and it’s also true that we could refer to Africa as The Dark Continent without invoking the fury of The Woke. Working on the assumption that Africa was ‘darker’ the further you went into it, then the Congo was blacker than black. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case feasted royally on the remoteness of the Congo, and the consequent imaginings of a land where the moral code was either abandoned or perverted.  David Fletcher’s Dan Worthington has suffered loss, heartbreak, and  the almost surgical removal of his life spirit. A chance encounter offers him a renaissance and a reawakening, but there is a price to be paid. A flight to Brazzaville takes him to the divided modern Congo, and a sequence of events which will test his resolve to its core. Darkness came out on 13th August and is available here.

THE MULHOLLAND FILES by Sandy Jones

Sandy JonesWhen Edward Covington opens a letter one winter morning to find it contains only a photograph of an unknown woman he is curious, naturally, but no alarm bells ring. He clearly needs to read more thrillers, as we all know that this is just the beginning of his troubles. Violence, kidnap, ransom, secret codes, industrial espionage, international security alerts – all are about to break rather messily on Edward’s head. Author Sandy Jones (right) lives in the delightful county of Wiltshire,  and The Mulholland Files is on sale here.

 

DESPITE THE DARKNESS by David Maughan Brown

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Despite The Darkness is available now.

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A STORY WITHOUT WORDS

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GIFT
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BROKEN SEAL
BEAUTY
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THE ROOKS DIE SCREAMING . . . Between the covers

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T redhe dramatic events of The Rooks Die Screaming take place in the spring of 1921 in the Cornish market town of Bodmin. The bare bones of the story are that Detective Inspector Cyril Edwards of Scotland Yard has come to Bodmin to investigate murder and treachery involving a group of spies known as The Four Rooks. This book is a sequel to The Woman With The Red Hair, and to say there is a back-story is something of an understatement. The eponymous young woman is called Morag and, amongst other things, is Edwards’ sister-in-law. Elisha Edwards was one of the millions of unfortunates taken by an agent even deadlier than high explosives and machine gun bullets – Spanish Influenza.

The-Rooks-Die-Screaming smallerMorag is now Lady Frobisher. Her husband Harry, heir to The Fobisher Estate on the outskirts of Bodmin, is blind, victim of a grenade in the Flanders trenches. In the previous novel, Frobisher Hall was the scene of great torment for Morag, as she fell into the clutches of Morgan Treaves, an insane asylum keeper and his evil nurse. Treaves has disappeared after being disfigured with a broken bottle, wielded my Morag in a life or death struggle.

If you are picking up a sense that this novel has something of a Gothick tinge (note the ‘k’) you will not be far wrong. It is high melodrama for much of the way; secret tunnels; a sinister woman in the woods who, guarded by a lumbering giant mute forever silenced by the horrors he witnessed in the war, mixes deadly potions; a cottage where a sensitive soul can still hear the ghostly creaking of the former occupant’s body swinging from her suicide beam; a woman who, in falling prey to her own desires, has two terrible deaths forever on her conscience.

Clive-TuckettThat said, The Rooks Die Screaming is inspired escapist reading. It would be unfair to say that Tuckett (right) writes in an anachronistic style. This is much, much better than pastiche, even though there are elements of Conan Doyle, the Golden Age, John Buchan and even touches of Sapper and MR James. So, eventually, to the plot, but we need to know a little more about Cyril Edwards. Like many a fictional detective inspector he is his own man. In another nice cultural reference Tuckett adds a touch of Charters and Caldicott as Edwards explains to the bumptious Standish, a mysterious officer from Military Intelligence;

“‘I love cricket …. When I’m not turning down invitations to join dubious organisations, and thumping arrogant members of the royal family, I love nothing more than to relax at Lord’s and watch a game of cricket.’

Edwards stretched and picked up his Fedora hat, thinking of getting up and walking out of the room.

” I’m hoping to see the Second Test at Lord’s next month against Australia.”‘

S redtandish orders Edwards to investigate the possibility that Harry Frobisher is one of the Rooks, but one who has betrayed his country. Arriving in Bodmin his first task is to explain to the local police how a corpse found on a train is that of a notorious London contract killer. Tuckett’s Bodmin is full of stock characters, including a stolid police sergeant, an apparently tremulous clergyman and a punctilious but respected solicitor who is privy to all the secrets of the local gentry, but is oh, so discreet. To add to the fun, Frobisher Hall also has its requisite roll call of faithful retainers.

The secret of The Four Rooks is eventually revealed, but not before the author throws a few red herrings onto the table. I could probably have done without the finer details of Lady Morag’s marriage bed, and some tighter proof-reading coupled with a more enticing cover would have done wonders for the book. That said, I enjoyed every page and I hope Clive Tuckett has another Inspector Edwards case up his sleeve, especially if it involves the redoubtable Morag Frobisher.

The Rooks Die Screaming is published by The Book Guild and is available now.

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