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October 2020

SMOKE CHASE . . . Between the covers

Jack Callan’s debut novel Smoke Chase introduces John Chase, a six foot, sixteen stone army veteran of colonial wars, now working with the embryonic Special Branch, a police department set up to combat the violent threat of Fenian revolutionaries in late 19th century London. It is the winter of 1885 and, as always, Chase is operating very much undercover, dressed as a working man.

smoke001After a long night shift, Chase is having his breakfast in a cafe when he is alerted to a bomb going off in the vicinity of nearby Tobacco Dock. When he arrives on the scene he finds a dead man – or, at least, what remains of him – but in what is clearly a set-up he is pounced on by a number of police officers, and hustled off in manacles to 26 Old Jewry, the HQ of The City of London Police.

Despite providing his warrant card, Chase – and a union official called Burns are taken to a rotting prison hulk moored in the Thames. Chase soon worked out that he and Burns are being targeted because they have come too close to a huge web of corruption involving a gang of bent import-export fraudsters aided and abetted by senior police officers.

Chase overpowers his guards and escapes to the shore where he begins to plot the downfall of Mordecai and Elisha Smithson, the gangsters who are in charge of the smuggling ring. We have pretty much everything served up from this point on including, in no particular order, rape, torture, Russian thugs, suicide, enough stabbings and shootings to fill a morgue, families being kidnapped and depraved assassins. Participants fall like flies, even unto the last paragraph of the last page

John Chase is rather like a modern-day Bulldog Drummond, and the novel, despite the gore, harks back to a more innocent time when characters like Dick Barton overcame even the most beastly assailant – “with one bound he was free!”

Jack Callan has certainly done his homework, however. The topographical background – London’s dockland when it was it was a rough and tumble working environment, the Lea Valley and the sordid nooks and crannies of East London – is enthusiastically painted,and we even have fleeting acquaintance with the music hall singer Bessie Bellwood and the women’s rights campaigners Annie Besant and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

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To borrow a cliché beloved of football commentators, Jack Callan leaves nothing in the changing room. Smoke Chase has enough blood and thunder to satisfy the most demanding addict. Callan’s debut novel is published by Matador and is out now.

For more novels set in Victorian England,
just click on the image of Her Majesty.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . Somebody’s Sister by Derek Marlowe

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ss4Brackett discovers that the dead girl was selling herself to feed a drug habit, and that she went under different names. There’s no money in the case but with a sense that his business is going nowhere fast, Brackett puts some time – and his dwindling supply of cash – into discovering who would want the girl dead. He trawls a familiar sea of locations much loved by hardboiled PI novelists – bars, skin joints, pay-by-the-hour hotels and boxing gyms. Driven by no other motivation than a desire to give the dead girl some kind of identity and being other than the tag tied to her big toe in the police morgue, he uncovers a web of greed, lust and exploitation.

ss2There is probably an MA thesis to be written on the subject of authors who have written a ‘Chandleresque’ novel. These books will feature a slightly down-at-heel but morally staunch private investigator, a man who reluctantly immerses himself in the sleazy underworld of murder and general criminality, but always has a sarcastic and cutting one-liner on his lips. How well does Marlowe’s novel sit within this genre? Walter Brackett doesn’t do sharply funny one-liners, that’s for sure, but he is a lonely man, far more so than, say, than that other hero of the mean streets, Robert B Parker’s Spenser. Brackett shares with other PIs a relationship with the police that is, at best, mutually ambivalent but, like Newman in Janet Roger’s outstanding recent contribution to the genre, Shamus Dust (2019 – click to read the review) has a code of conduct that is more humane and decent than his contemporaries who wear a badge or a uniform.

It is fitting that this beautifully written but rather melancholy novel ends as it does. The girl is never really identified as anyone other than “somebody’s sister’. Brackett learns that he has jumped to all the wrong conclusions and – horror of horrors for any self respecting American PI – he has been out-thought and out-investigated by the police. He does, however, have one surreal and ironic moment of success – he finds the missing dog.

Derek Marlowe moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s, but while working there, he contracted leukaemia, and died of a brain haemorrhage in 1996 after a liver transplant. Somebody’s Sister is no longer in print, but copies are widely available for just a few pounds from Amazon, Abe Books and other sources.

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BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . .

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A journalist and author best remembered for inventing a form of four-line droll poetic biography that bears his middle name is an unlikely author, you might think, of one of the classic crime novels in English literature. Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) wrote Trent’s Last Case, which was first published in 1913. It has been filmed three times, first as a silent film in 1920, again (directed by Howard Hawks) with both a silent and talkie version in 1929, and – the version I will refer to – in 1952, directed by Michael Wilcox.

The book’s title is misleading, as it was actually the first time the character of Philip Trent had appeared. The novel is regarded as a classic, and was widely admired by such fellow writers as Dorothy L Sayers, but it seems odd that Trent only featured in two more books and then only after a gap of many years.

Trent's Last Case.2-1Philip Trent is a successful painter, journalist – and amateur detective. He is summoned by his sometime employer, newspaper boss  Sir James Molloy, to investigate the shooting of American businessman Sigsbee Manderson, at his country house in the south west of England. Manderson was a ruthless plutocrat who had made many enemies in his pursuit of riches, but even discounting those, the house itself offers a hatful of suspects, including the butler, Mabel (Manderson’s wife) and two male secretaries who dealt, respectively, with his social and business affairs.

Check the date of publication. 1913. I am not sure if The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins, 1868) is exactly a Country House Mystery, but I can’t think of anything else that comes before Trent’s Last Case that includes elements we have come to regard as staples of the genre – the grand house, the butler, the maids, the examination of movements and motives among the house residents. Remember that it was to be another seven years before Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the subsequent flowering of such companion talents as Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham. To put Bentley’s novel into sharper context, bear in mind that His Last Bow and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes were still be published, in 1917 and 1927 respectively.

OrsonSo, to the book, the film and how they relate to each other. Readers of the book may have to keep pinching themselves so that they remember this takes place in 1913. We are still, despite ‘Bertie’ dying three years earlier, in Edwardian England. The ravages of The Great War were still to come. The film sets the action pretty much contemporary with the production, that is to say, post-war England. In the novel, we only see Sigsbee Manderson through Trent’s examination of his personal possessions, and the testimonies of the other inhabitants of White Gables. The box office potential of having Orson Welles play the odious businessman, however, was obviously too much for the producers to resist, and the big man (right, complete with strange prosthetic nose) puts in a characteristically bravura performance in a flashback cameo towards the end of the film.

The film is workmanlike and sticks fairly closely to the narrative of the book, including the eventual solution to Manderson’s death. Although the film ends with Margaret Lockwood (Mabel Manderson) and Michael Wilding (Trent) having a fairly chaste snog, the screenplay doesn’t come close to the intensity of Trent’s infatuation – although he behaves like a perfect gentleman – with Mabel. The film Trent is matinee-idol suave – as indeed Wilding was at this stage of his career – but is much tougher than Bentley’s Trent. Not that the Trent in the book is flabby. In between the initial investigation and the denouement, Trent goes away and acts as a war correspondent in a blood-soaked civil war somewhere in Central Europe. It is more that the literary detective is much more loquacious and passionate, and is given to quoting Shelley and Swinburne.

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Again, I say remember the date. 1913. Some critics have even suggested that Bentley had his tongue discreetly in his cheek when he wrote the novel, but by the time the film was made, almost forty years and two world wars later, huge swathes of the novel would never have got into the script, and the social and emotional nuances would have bemused 1950s cinema audiences.

To sum up, Trent investigates, gets it almost right, falls in love with the widow, sets out his solution on paper and then, unwilling to disclose his solution for fear of the hurt it will cause, goes off to a frightful war to seek oblivion. When he returns, he presents his version of events, only to find he was correct in all but the crucial detail of whose finger was on the trigger when Manderson was shot. The book is spirited, and full of entertainment as Bentley harmlessly shows off how clever he is. The film does an adequate job and is worth watching, if only for Orson Welles hamming it up for dear life, and a brief appearance by Kenneth Williams (even then as camp as a row of tents) as the gardener (below) who discovers the body.

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LOST . . . Between the covers

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Leona Deakin introduced to Dr Augusta Bloom, her psychologist-turned-PI in Gone, which came out in 2019. Click here to read the review of that and get something of the background to Lost, the second novel in the series.

Augusta and her professional partner Marcus Jameson have had a major professional and personal falling out after their involvement with a manipulative psychopath called Seraphine. Jameson is a former military intelligence analyst, and has a decent pension, so he hasn’t needed the work, but Bloom’s latest case is just too intriguing for him to turn down.

An apparent Islamic terrorist has bombed a social event at the Royal Navy base of Devonport. There have been a handful of fatalities, but one of the injured – a Navy officer called Harry Peterson – has disappeared. He was seemingly taken away by ambulance, but his girlfriend Karene – dazed but uninjured in the bomb blast – has been unable to locate him in any of the local hospitals.

Karene gets no joy from either the Navy or the police, and so she turns to her friend Dr Augusta Bloom for help. Peterson eventually turns up, smuggled into a hospital by person or persons unknown. He has head injuries which were not sustained in the Devonport bombing and, when he wakes, he has suffered a substantial loss of memory.

Someone, somewhere is desperate for Harry Peterson to have no memory of the previous four years. Unfortunately for, those four years saw Peterson’s wife begin an affair which led to the breakup of their marriage and, more crucially, the beginning of Peterson’s romance with Karene. Now, he has literally no idea who Karene is.

As Bloom and Jameson chip away at what seems to be a granite wall of military secrecy, Peterson’s cousin, living a blameless and apparently mundane life in rural France, is found tortured to death. Photographs found in his cottage hint at a link to the goings on in England.The re-appearance of the malevolent Seraphine does nothing to clear the miasma round who is cleverly messing around with Harry Peterson’s mind – and why?

In the last quarter of the book, the pace turns frenetic, the plot ever more knotted and the scenery – from a torture room in a Central African Republic military base to a bank safe deposit vault in Peterborough – diversifies. Leona Deakin has great fun mystifying not only Bloom and Jameson but us the readers. The relationship between the pair of investigators is tested to breaking point with Jameson increasingly believing that he is being played for a fool, and when the case splits wide open to reveal not only political chicanery but links to people trafficking, then all bets on a peaceful and tidy solution are definitely off.

Lost, published by Transworld Digital, first came out in Kindle in the summer of this year. It will be available as a paperback, under the imprint of Black Swan, at the end of October.

PEOPLE OF ABANDONED CHARACTER . . . Between the covers

There can be no historical event – save, perhaps, the assassination of John F Kennedy – which has attracted more theories, speculation and books, both fiction and non-fiction, as the killings attributed to Jack The Ripper in the autumn of 1888. My feature JACK THE RIPPER . . . In fiction, from the early days of this website, looks at just a few novels which have retold the tale.

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Now, debut novelist Clare Whitfield has her moment on the stage with People Of Abandoned Character. Susannah Chapman is a rather unusual woman, in her early thirties, who has known at first hand the dreadful deprivation of that part of the east End of London known as The Nichol. The contemporary map of the area (below) grades streets with colours according to the level of poverty, with red indicating relatively comfortable residents through blue to black – the depths of squalor.

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Susannah has no recollection of her father, and a memory of her mother so horrifying that she only turns to it in her nightmares. She is eventually rescued by her grandparents who take her to live with them in Reading. She chooses to become a nurse, and is accepted as a trainee at The London Hospital on Whitechapel Road, seen below in a 19thC photograph.

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When Susannah attracts the attention of a young doctor, Thomas Lancaster and, after a whirlwind romance, she leaves The London as Mrs Lancaster to become the mistress of a delightful riverside home in Chelsea. Mistress? Not quite. The first sign that all may not be well is that Thomas Lancaster has a housekeeper named Mrs Wiggs, and the lady is a graduate of the Mrs Danvers school of domestic management. Yes, I know that’s an anachronism, but fans of Judith Anderson and Rebecca will know what I mean.

The early passion and harmony of the marriage soon dissipates, and Susannah begins to be disturbed both by her husband’s violent sexual demands and his frequent nocturnal absences, from which he returns feverish and dishevelled. Soon, the narrative of the novel begins to synchronise with what we know about the actual Ripper murders. Ripperologists can take the roll call of well-known characters safe in the knowledge that The Gang’s All Here. We meet the victims themselves, of course, but also the walk-on parts such as the actor Richard Mansfield, John Pizer, the Police Surgeon Dr Phillips and dear old Fred Abberline put in an appearance.

People Of Abandoned Character is a bravura piece of story-telling which gleefully rises above a tale of real-life horror which, by its very familiarity, has lost some of its sting. We eventually learn that Susannah is not quite the put-upon damsel in distress she might want us to believe in. The conclusion of the story is as astonishing and enterprising a solution to the eternal Ripper mystery as I have ever read, and fans of Gothick gore and melodrama will certainly not be disappointed. It is published by Head of Zeus and is out now.

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