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November 2020

RIVER OF SINS . . . Between the covers

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A little while ago I reviewed a novel set in Worcestershire – it was the beginning of WW2, and it centred on the fictional village of Ambridge and, of course, featured The Archers. History of a very different kind now. River of Sins is the seventh in a series of historical mysteries written by Sarah Hawkswood set in and around the city of Worcester in the 12th century.

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I am new to the series but I enjoyed the fact that we have that most dependable of crime fiction tropes – a pair of investigators. There is a slight variation a theme in this case, as they are aided by an intrepid young apprentice. The dynamic between the three works well. Hugh Bradecote is the Under Sheriff, and is of noble birth with a degree of hauteur, while Sergeant Catchpoll is Worcester through-and-through, rough and ready, but very street-wise. Walkelin – the apprentice – is something of a ‘gofer’, but is bright, perceptive, and not afraid to speak his mind.

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The novel begins with a woman being brutally done to death on a small island in the River Severn on the northern outskirts of Worcester. We learn that the woman and her killer are acquainted, but just how, and what the significance is, only unfolds with the investigation.

The dead woman is Ricolde, known throughout the city as The Whore of Worcester. She was widely despised by the gentlewomen of the city, while being used by their husbands, but as Bradecote and Catchpoll discover, there was another dimension to Ricolde. Educated, and perfectly content to talk the night through with men who demanded nothing other than her company, she also gave money to the church to be used to ameliorate the misery of other women of the street who were less resilient than she.

The investigators struggle to find a motive for the murder. Moral disapproval doesn’t usually lead to someone being dismembered with a woodsman’s axe, but does the clue to Ricolde’s death lie deep in her past, and has it to do with the horrific scars on the soles of her feet, inflicted decades earlier?

Sarah Hawkswood’s Worcester is a place we can see, hear, feel, breathe – and smell – as the mystery unfolds. What is the River of the title? It is the River Severn, broad and deep, a source of fresh food, a vital artery of transport at a time when roads were just beaten dirt, but also a means of escape and concealment. With only the most rudimentary forensic skills available, Bradecote and Catchpoll must rely on the most basic and time-honoured methods of detection, means, motive and opportunity. This is an excellent detective story which also gives us an intriguing glimpse into a long-lost world.

River of Sins is published by Allison & Busby and will be out in paperback and as a Kindle on 19th November.

Hawkswood books

THE BEACH PARTY MYSTERY . . . Between the covers

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41FEXmDAJYL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_It’s the summer of 1966 and Brighton journalist Colin Crampton – he’s the crime reporter for the Evening Chronicle – gets a tip off from a friendly local copper that there has been a murder in Embassy Court, an upmarket block of flats on the seafront. Racing to the scene to try to out-scoop his rival from the Evening Argus, he ducks under the crime scene tape and learns that the dead man is Claude Winterbottom, a financial consultant.

Reporters are sometimes accused of muck-raking, and Crampton does literally that as he holds his nose and sifts through Winterbottom’s dustbin. He soon finds a motive for the man’s death. The so-called ‘financial consultant’ was actually a fraudster, selling get-rich-quick schemes to people with more money than sense. The list of people Winterbottom has scammed is quite impressive, and it even includes Crampton’s landlady, the redoubtable Mrs Gribble.

indexPeter Bartram (right) doubles up on the enjoyment by giving us a parallel plot (which eventually weaves in with the murder of Winterbottom) involving an off-shore pirate radio station, Radio Sea Breeze. Younger readers used to the communication free-for-all we have today may be puzzled by the concept. Back in the 1960s licences to transmit radio were not readily available in the UK and record companies had a tight grip on who played their music. Taking their cue from America, enterprising broadcasters exploited a loophole in the law by using ships anchored in international waters as their radio stations. The most famous was probably Radio Caroline which was on the air, using five different ships with three different owners, from 1964 to 1990. It still exists, but is now fully digital – and legal.

The Beach Party Mystery is a highly entertaining merry-go-round involving, in no particular order, The Rolling Stones, the FBI, the KGB, MI5, auditions for a James Bond movie, a Mary Whitehouse soundalike – and the world’s most insanitary pub. Unsurprisingly, for a man who has spent his life as a journalist, Peter Bartram has a nice turn of phrase, and a keen eye:

“It was one of those picture book places you find in the Sussex countryside. There were ancient houses with oak beams and sagging roofs. There were moss-encrusted flint walls. There was an old stone church and graveyard with weathered headstones. There was a village hall with a noticeboard. It carried news of scouts’ picnics’ Women’s Institute keep-fit sessions and parish council meetings.”

I make no apology for being a huge fan of the Colin Crampton novels. Yes, they may be light in tone, and they don’t set out to examine the darker recesses of the criminal mind, but I love them. The Beach Party Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership and is out now, For reviews of the previous novels in the series, and also feature articles by Peter Bartram, click on the image below.

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THE GLORY OF SINGING

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I have been a singer for most of my life. My first recalled performance was dressed up in a kilt and velvet bonnet singing The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, at the age of five, on the stage of the Methodist church hall. Some would say it went downhill from then, but I have enjoyed singing opera, oratorio, folk music and in even rock bands. I no longer perform except to the microphone at home,  but a good singing voice can make my spine tingle like no other instrument. Here are ten pieces of music by great singers. One or two of my choices might surprise you, but please take a listen. Click each graphic to link to a YouTube video of the song. I’ll upload one every couple of days until we get to Number One.

Hush

Francoise

Bowlly

10 BOOTS

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THE MUSEUM OF DESIRE . . . Between the covers

MOD coverThe strange-looking empty mansion in the dry hills above Los Angeles is rented out as a venue for everything from cancer charity fundraisers to wild parties. As the much put-upon guy from the agency wearily pushes his cart of cleaning materials up the hill, he is expecting the usual joyless cocktail of spilled food, used needles and condoms. What he actually finds causes him to part company with his breakfast burrito.

In a stretch limo parked in front of the house, he finds four people, each very, very dead, and with the floor of the car swimming in blood. Cue another case for LAPD Detective Milo Sturgis and psychologist Dr Alex Delaware. Veterans of the long-running series (this is book number 35 since When The Bough Breaks in 1985) will know the basic set-up. Delaware’s day job is in child psychology, while Sturgis is, in now particular order, gay, unkempt, a brilliant cop and eternally hungry.

The four corpses in the limo seem to have nothing at all in common aprt from being dead; a thirty-something professional bachelor with an insatiable – but perfectly legal – love life, and elderly chauffeur, a gentle and harmless man with mental problems who lives in sheltered accommodation, and a rather unprepossessing middle-aged woman who, it transpires, had drink and drug issues, and lived mostly on the streets. To add to the mystery, the forensic team analyses the blood on the floor of the car – and it is canine.

Delaware and Sturgis are convinced that the killings took place elsewhere, and the interior of the limo was an elaborate stage set. But who is the director of this hellish drama, what is the message of the play, and who was the intended audience?

jonathan-kellermanBit by bit, one slender thread at a time, the tangle of the mystery is unpicked. As per usual Kellerman (right) gives us a spectacularly complex solution to the quadruple murder. It’s almost as if we are passengers on a train journey, and some of the sights that flash by the window before we reach our destination include erotic Renaissance paintings, a chillingly damaged autistic teenager and a brief glimpse of Herman Göring’s fabled collection of looted art.

There will be, no doubt, some people who will look down their noses at this book – and others like it – while dismissing it as formulaic. Of course it is written on a certain template, but that’s what makes it readable. That’s why readers turn, again and again, to books that are part of long running series. We don’t want John Rebus to start behaving like Jack Reacher, any more than we will be happy for Carol Jordan to turn into Jane Marple. The Museum of Desire is slickly written, for sure, but I think a better word is ‘polished’. Both the dialogue and interaction between Delaware and Sturgis crackle with their usual intensity, and we are not short-changed in any respect in terms of plot twists and deeply unpleasant villains.

The Museum of Desire is published by Century/Arrow/Cornerstone Digital, came out in hardback  and Kindle earlier this year, but this paperback edition will be available from 12th November.

AMBRIDGE AT WAR . . . Between the covers

Archers001Followers of these pages will know well that my strapline is Crime For The Cogniscenti and might wonder what I am doing reviewing a book about the Archers. I was intrigued to be offered this, written by Catherine Miller, but was prepared to be underwhelmed. It just shows how wrong one can be, and why it is never a good idea to prejudge things.

There may well be some transatlantic readers of my reviews who have never heard of Ambridge or the Archers, but I won’t waste words on the background other than to say that Ambridge is a fictional village in Worcestershire, and the long-running radio serial – it first broadcast on 1st January 1951 – was described as “an everyday story of country folk.”

I have to say at this point that I parted company with BBC Radio 4 in general, and The Archers in particular some time ago. Both have become far too ‘woke’ and socially aware for this curmudgeonly man in his 70s to be bothered with, but this book reminded me of what I used to enjoy about the programme.

It is January 1940, and rural England is having to come to terms with the expression, “don’t you know there’s a war on?Dan Archer and his wife Doris run Brookfield Farm, and Dan is now the Ambridge representative on the ‘War Ag’ – The War Agricultural Executive Committee, whose main job it is to put every available acre of land under the plough to grow food. And that means everything from grazing land to rose gardens. The first evacuees from London have arrived, and Doris is in charge of checking that the newcomers are being looked after.

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Archers fans can find the family tree elsewhere on the internet, but who else would they recognise? That depends on the longevity of their Archers ‘habit’. Walter Gabriel and his son Nelson put in an appearance, as do various members of the disreputable Horobin family. A central figure in the story is the village Squire, Alec Pargetter, who is having an affair with a comely young widow, but not doing too well at concealing it from the nosy villagers – or his aloof wife Pamela. Their rather strange son, Gerald, will go on to be the father of the nice-but-dim Nigel who was, of course, controversially killed off by the producers when he fell off a roof in 2011.

51KaDaIRGaL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Someone is leaving handwritten notes around the village hinting at various moral indiscretions taking place. The notes are, naturally, anonymous, but are the slurs true? Unfortunately, the author of the allegations seems to be uncannily wired into the private lives of the people of Ambridge, and has the unfortunate ability to see through closed doors and curtained windows.

Aside from those we might call canonical characters, whose descendants serious Archer buffs will know and love, Catherine Miller has assembled an intriguing cast; there is the bedridden and pampered Blanche Gilpin –  plump and sweet-smelling, like an apple left to rot.” – who is waited on hand and foot by her downtrodden sister Jane; Kitty Dibden-Rawles is a beautiful young Irish woman, widowed and left in debt by a profligate husband; Dr Morgan Seed, keeper of many a village secret, is long a widower, but has he the chance to love again? And Lisa – poor Lisa Forrest – Doris Archer’s mother, in the terrifying grip of what we now call Alzheimers.

It took just nine words – and these were quoted on the first chapter heading –  to alert me to the possibility that this book might be something special.

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Catherine Miller is clearly – like me – a lifelong devotee of Thomas Hardy. Not only does each chapter heading use a line or two from one of his bitter-sweet poems, she shapes plot resolutions as Hardy-esque ironies, of which the great man would have been proud. Another little in-joke is that when Kitty writes love notes to her lover, they are signed “G.Oak.

Make no mistake. This is not a cosy rural idyll – the war claims more casualties than are caused by bombs or bullets and, despite the bedrock decency of Dan and Doris Archer, the cruelties of fate are explored with raw honesty. The book is billed as Volume 1, so enthusiasts – of which I am one –  will have more joys to come. The Archers – Ambridge At War is published by Simon & Schuster and is out now.

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