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May 2020

GRAVE’S END . . . Between the covers (click for full page)

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Former music journalist William Shaw (left) introduced us to Detective Sergeant Alex Cupidi in Salt Lane (2018). This was followed by Deadland in 2019, and the third in the series is Grave’s End. Alex Cupidi is socially something of a loner: she has a teenage daughter, Zoe, who she has raised pretty much on her own; her only other family is her mother, 80 miles or so up the road from the bleak Kent marshes, in London. Zoe Cupidi, like many other idealistic young people, is a fervent defender of nature, and sees the adult world in which her mother has to work as a grimy conspiracy to fell every tree and concrete over as much of green England as possible.

For those who know something of England, Alex Cupidi’s Kent is not the rosy cheeked rural idyll of The Darling Buds of May. This is the coastal Kent of the Romney Marshes and Dungeness; beautiful in its own way, perhaps, but bleak; the coastal fringes are flat, scoured by cruel winds, and shunned by holidaymakers who prefer deck-chairs and the friendly smell of fish and chips to solitude and the mournful cry of the curlew.

GE coverThis taut thriller is  distinctly unusual, in that one of its main characters is neither a fellow member of Kent Police, nor one of the villains they spend their professional lives trying to put behind bars. Instead we see – or sense – some of the action through the perceptions of an elderly badger. Before such thoughts can gain foothold, I can assure you that this is no Wind In The Willows. Our badger is not an avuncular personification. He is old, fearful of younger rivals, and hungry – always hungry.

Of course, readers have to accept that the badger’s perceptions are expressed in our language. Since this particular representative of Meles Meles has none that can be written, what is the alternative? I was not convinced at the start of the book that the idea was going to work, but after reaching the last page, I think it does. Shaw keeps the badger’s subterranean activity linked to the plot, and from the very start it is his sense of smell that alerts us to the fact that something is very, very wrong.

“By now, the air should smell of fresh grass, cow parsley, other badgers and dog shit. He moves forward more cautiously in the blackness and his snout meets something hard. At the end, where darkness should change to dusk, he finds the tunnel blocked. He digs, but there is something in his way, so hard his big claws make no impression on it at all. He sniffs. It smells rank. People stink.”

When an enterprising junior estate agent decides to impress his girlfriend, he ‘borrows’ the keys to an impressive empty property, but his hopes of a passionate afternoon’s grappling on someone else’s bed are dashed when they find a dead body in a freezer. Alex Cupidi and her team soon identify the frozen corpse of that of a local wildlife activist. Further investigations lead them in the direction of a controversial housing development on a site inhabited by, among other various fauna, our friend the badger.

Alex Cupidi is like the proverbial dog with its bone as she relentlessly follows the trail leading away from the murdered activist. High profile government ministers, avaricious property speculators, a minor public school with a terrible secret – every time she lifts a stone, nasty things scuttle about, unaccustomed to the light. Grave’s End is a totally compelling read. It is published by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, and will be available in July.

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A KILLING MIND . . . between the covers (click for full screen)

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Icame late to the party regarding Angela Marsons and her Kim Stone series of police procedurals set in England’s West Midlands, but I thoroughly enjoyed Child’s Play (2019) and was very pleased to have the chance to read and review the latest in the series, Killing Minds.

KMA murder where the body is arranged to make the death look like suicide is a well-worn feature in crime novels, but Marsons takes the trope and gives it new life. When Sammy Brown is found dead in her featureless flat, her throat cut apparently by her own hand, everyone – DI Kim Stone included – is initially prepared to tick the suicide box and move on. It is only when Stone interviews Sammy’s parents that she begins to sense that things are not quite what they appear to be.

Stone has a strong sense that Myles and Kate Brown are concealing something, but it is a second look at the crime scene photographs that triggers her response:

She stopped speaking as her gaze returned back to the photo of the hand. Something struck her and it was like seeing it for the first time.

She turned the phone and looked at the photo from every angle.

‘Penn, get me a red pen and ruler. Now.'”

Meanwhile, Stone’s assistant, DS Bryant, has his own fixation to deal with. He was involved in the capture, trial and conviction of a notorious killer, Peter Drake, and has become involved with Richard Harrison, father of one of Drake’s victims. A previously unrepentant Drake has, suspiciously, turned over a new leaf in jail and has become a model prisoner, thus transforming his application for parole from a forlorn hope into a distinct probability. Both Harrison and Bryant are powerless to prevent Drake’s release. Both have a sense of foreboding about what may follow.

When another body – that of a young man – is discovered in a nearby lake, the fact that he apparently new Sammy Brown sets more alarm bells ringing. After painfully prising the truth – or a version of it – from Sammy Brown’s parents, Stone’s attention is turned on a nearby community, mostly made up of young people who have chosen to step away from real life. They all live in Unity Farm. Sammy Brown was a member of the group – as was the lad in the lake, Tyler Short.

Stone and Bryant pay a visit to Unity Farm, and they meet the leader of the community, Jake Black:

“A man in his mid-fifties appeared behind her. His hair was completely white, but thick and cut well. His shoulders were broad beneath an open-neck pale blue shirt. His skin was smooth with enough colour to radiate good health. His eyes were the purest blue she had ever seen. Once your gaze met those, the rest was forgotten.”

When Stone makes the decision to send one of her younger officers into Unity Farm, posing as a distressed and unhappy young woman, things do not turn out according to plan and Marsons orchestrates a tense and nerve-shredding finale to the book. When the murderer is unmasked, it came as a cleverly constructed surprise. Killing Mind is published by Bookouture, and is available now.

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THE NOVELISTS WHO WENT TO WAR 4

This is the last of four podcasts about novelists who saw action in various wars. Some were already published authors, while others were young men whose literary careers blossomed in later years.

PART THREE – THE SECOND WORLD WAR

Click on the image below. This will take you to my Soundcloud page where you can listen to the podcast.

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THE NOVELISTS WHO WENT TO WAR 3

This is a series of four podcasts about novelists who saw action in various wars. Some were already published authors, while others were young men whose literary careers blossomed in later years.

PART THREE – THE GREAT WAR

Click on the image below. This will take you to my Soundcloud page where you can listen to the podcast.

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Part three of the series – WORLD WAR TWO

 will go live on Thursday 21st May

THE SARACEN’S MARK . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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SW-Perry-photo-1-2-300x482SW Perry (left) whisks us away from our disease ridden present misery to – with almost supernatural prescience – the streets of London in 1593, where plague is also keeping the gravediggers and the parsons working around the clock! The late sixteenth century versions of  plucky NHS employees come in the shape of Bianca Merton, a young Anglo-Italian woman who keeps The Jackdaw, a Bankside tavern (and who is also much in demand as a herbalist – a purveyor of what we now call alternative medicine) and her close friend Dr Nicholas Shelby, whose medical knowledge is more conventional.

The disease has, so far, gone about its malevolent business north of the River Thames, but with no daily calls for social distancing, it finds its way south:

“Her name is Ruth. She is returning to the lodgings on Pocket Lane that she shares with her husband. Ruth feels uncomfortable hot. By the time she reaches home, she will have a fever. She will awake the next morning to find painful swellings in her armpits. Young and strong, she is in the habit of thanking God for a strong constitution. But in a few days she will be dead. The pestilence has crossed the river.”

Bianca is much in demand among the worried residents of Bankside for her concoctions:

“Pomanders of rose leaves, tragacanth gum and camphor to hang around the neck … clove and lemon to mix in a posset . . . also a tincture of bezoar and sorrel. Mix that in water or small beer every morning.”

TSM coverNicholas, however, has been sent on a mission by one of the most powerful men in Queen Elizabeth’s kingdom – her spymaster Sir Robert Cecil. England has a complex relationship with what we now call Morocco, and in particular with the ruler of Marrakesh, but the death of Adolfo Sykes:

“..a small, somewhat bow-legged half-English, half-Portuguese merchant with a threadbare curtain of prematurely white hair that clung to the sides of his otherwise- unsown pate.”

… needs to be investigated, as Sykes is a key strand in Cecil’s silken – but deadly – web of spies and agents. When Nicholas finally arrives in Marrakesh, he discovers that Sykes had uncovered a slavery ring involving, among others a brutal and violent sea captain called Cathal Connell. Now that Nicholas is aware of the secret, it is only a matter of time before Connell and his accomplices come looking for him. While the unpredictable world of Moorish politics find him alternating between foul prison cells and  a life of luxury surrounded by servants, back in London ….

“The pestilence has returned with a vengeance. The Savoy hospital has closed its doors to new patients and posted guards on the water stairs to deter visitors. The chapel’s death-bell tolls with increasing frequency.”

This is a richly rewarding novel, full of fascinating historical detail, but Perry never allows the authenticity of  his main characters to be hidden beneath a superfluity of information about what they are wearing, or the contents of their dinner plate, or elaborate architectural descriptions. Bianca and Nicholas are separate from each other for most of the narrative, but each drives the story forward relentlessly. As we are only too well aware just now, plague knows no historical boundaries, but Perry’s skill as a storyteller is equally timeless – and magical. The Saracen’s Mark is published by Corvus, and is out now.

If you like the sound of what the author calls The Jackdaw series,
then read my review of The Serpent’s Mark.

BORROWED TIME . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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The latest novel from David Mark, Borrowed Time, is seriously dark stuff. There were times when I felt I had entered the nightmare world of distorted humanity, shocking violence and suffering that was distilled into a kind of bleak poetry by Derek Raymond in such masterpieces as I Was Dora Suarez and The Devil’s Home On Leave.

BT coverAdam Nunn is a decent enough fellow, but like all of us, he has made his mistakes. He lives with Zara, a struggling restaurant owner, but has a child of his own, Tilly, who lives with Grace, her mother. Adam has discovered that he is adopted, and has employed a fairly seedy private investigator to try to trace his birth parents.

When the investigator is found dismembered in a spot notorious for being the burial ground of many victims of old Essex gang wars, Adam is about to have an unpleasant surprise. On the (severed) hand of Larry Paris was a scrawled National Insurance number – and it is Adam’s. The police think they have an instant suspect, but after a bruising initial encounter, they realise they have nothing with which to tie Adam to the killing

Adam Nunn lives in Portsmouth. And it is not a particularly fragrant place:

” A city drawn in charcoals and dirt: a place of suet-faced pensioners, of teenagers in baby clothes; of egg-shaped women and puddled men, big middles and conical legs.”

His search for the truth about his identity leads him inexorably to an Essex gangster family, the Jardines. Alison is the daughter of ailing patriarch, Francis. She runs the firm and is not a woman much given to empathy with some of her Essex contemporaries:

“She likes to imagine all those golden-blond, size eight bitches, sobbing as they inject Botox into their foreheads and splurge their life savings on surgeries and rejuvination procedures; their skin puckering, spines beginning to curve, veins rising like lugworms on their shins and the backs of their age-mottled hands.”

Neither is Alison’s son Timmy someone for whom she has a great deal of conventional maternal affection.:

“He’s an ugly, rat-faced little specimen who, at twenty years old, has yet to master the art of having a conversation without thrusting both hands down his jogging trousers and cupping his gonads. She loves him, but not in a way that makes her want to touch him, look at him, or spend time breathing him in.”

Eventually Adam learns who his mother was, but the nature of his conception and the fate of his mother is just the start of the nightmare. The identity of his father is only revealed after a journey through the inferno, the flames of which threaten to consume him along with everyone else he holds close.

David markAlong the way, Mark (right) introduces us to some loathsome individuals who have all played their part in Adam Nunn’s terrible back story. There’s local politician Leo Riley, for example:

“He knows that cash is an aphrodisiac. Power enough to loosen any pair of knickers. And fear a crowbar to stubborn legs.”

Alison’s fearsome minder, Irons, is a creature from hell:

“His face is a butcher’s window, all pink and red, meat and offal: a rag-rug of ruined flesh. he still has to apply lotions five times a day to stop his cheeks tearing open when he laughs. Not that he laughs often. He’s a quiet man. Hasn’t engaged in much chit-chat since the brothers went to work on him with a bayonet, a blowtorch and a claw hammer.”

There is compassion within the pages of Borrowed Time, but it is in short supply.  We don’t just glimpse the worst of people, we come face to face with them, and close enough to smell their rancid graveyard breath. This is a brilliant and sometimes moving piece of storytelling, but within its pages the only redemption comes in death. Borrowed Time is published by Severn House and is out now.

THE NOVELISTS WHO WENT TO WAR 2

This is a series of four podcasts about novelists who saw action in various wars. Some were already published authors, while others were young men whose literary careers blossomed in later years.

PART TWO – THE YEARS BEFORE 1914

Click on the image below. This will take you to my Soundcloud page where you can listen to the podcast.

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Part two of the series – THE GREAT WAR 

will go live on Monday 18th May

THE NOVELISTS WHO WENT TO WAR

This is a series of four podcasts about novelists who saw action in various wars. Some were already published authors, while others were young men whose literary careers blossomed in later years.

PART ONE – INTRODUCTION

Click on the image below. This will take you to my Soundcloud page where you can listen to the podcast.

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Part two of the series – THE YEARS BEFORE THE GREAT WAR 

will go live on Thursday 14th May

MAKING WOLF . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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Weston Kogi is a security guard in a London supermarket, and the most excitement in his life is when he has to chase shop-lifters across the car park. When he hears that the woman who brought him up, his Auntie Blossom, has died at her home – the city of Ede in the West African republic of Alcacia – he decides to attend the funeral. You will look in vain for Alcacia on a map, but Tade Thomson describes it thus:

“He brought out a map of Alcacia. It was shaped like a sperm whale on the West African map, tiny, squeezed between Nigeria and Cameroon, the mouth of the whale drinking from the Atlantic.”

MW2017At his aunt’s funeral he meets Churchill “Church” Okuta. Church is a nightmare from Kogi’s schooldays, and the meanest person he has ever met. When asked what he does in London, Kogi, on impulse says that he is a homicide detective. Bad move. Church orchestrates the drugging and abduction of Kogi, and when he wakes up he finds that he is in the camp of the Liberation Front of Alcacia, one of two warring rebel groups trying to overthrow the government. Their leader, Enoch ‘Papa’ Olubusi has been assassinated, and the LFA, in the mistaken belief that Kogi is a crack British detective, want him to prove that the killing was the work of their bitter rivals – the People’s Christian Army.

Sucked into a deadly game of recriminations, treachery and mind-numbing brutality, Weston Kogi soon finds himself unsure of who are the good guys and who are the villains. You might think, at first sight, that the People’s Christian Army and the Liberation Front of Alcacia are comedy turns, like the rival factions in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, but as you turn the pages of Making Wolf, you will encounter graphic and disturbing descriptions of violence in a dystopian Africa where fair is foul and foul is fair. Even everyday domestic scenes have a touch of the nightmare about them:

“Dogs howled at the full moon, took a break, and then howled some more. People came out on raffia mats, deckchairs and carved stools. Children ran around the central wood-fed fire, squealing their delight and roasting wild mushrooms on dirty sticks. Wasps, sand flies, stick insects, confused termites and other arthropods flew into the flames for one shining moment before dying.”

Amid the corruption, cheap death and commonplace brutality, Tade Thompson has a keen eye for the absurd. Kogi and Church pay a visit to a Fagin-like character who is the lord of all the many beggars in Ede.

“The King of Boys wore a crown to receive us. The crown was jewelled with marbles – children’s marbles. It was a band of tin, beaten together from old Burma-Shave containers. His head was completely bald, shining from within the rim of his crown. He had a back tailcoat on and he looked like an impoverished Fred Astaire.”

As he lifts layer after layer of lies and deception, Kogi decides to visit the widow of the assassinated politician, and she invites him to an evening at the theatre. Diane Olubusi has dressed to kill:

“She wore a low-cut white dress, designed in such a way to give the impression of a woman wrapped in a bolt of silk which was about to slip off. She smelled like a botanical garden with all the flowers in full bloom.”

Weston Kogi discovers that Alcacia is awash with money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars – in suitcases, money belts, plastic bags – are traded back and forth between  sinister men in dark suits and their military friends in combat fatigues. All this while little people grind out their miserable lives in squalor and hardship. There is grim comedy, astonishing violence and a certain brutal poetry in Making Wolf. It is a book that will certainly shock you, but make no mistake, Tade Thompson is a writer to be reckoned with.

Making Wolf was first published in 2015, but is being reissued by Constable, and will be available from 7th May.

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