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January 2021

House With No Doors . . . Between the covers

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HWND cover008This has the most seriously sinister beginning of any crime novel I have read in years. DI Henry Hobbes (of whom more presently) is summoned by his Sergeant to Bridlemere, a rambling Edwardian house in suburban London, where an elderly man has apparently committed suicide. Corpse – tick. Nearly empty bottle of vodka – tick. Sleeping pills on the nearby table – tick. Hobbes is not best pleased at his time being wasted, but the observant Meg Latimer has a couple of rabbits in her hat. One rabbit rolls up the dead man’s shirt to reveal some rather nasty knife cuts, and the other leads Hobbes on a tour round the house, where he discovers identical sets of women’s clothing, all laid out formally, and each with gashes in the midriff area, stained red. Sometimes the stains are actual blood, but others are as banal as paint and tomato sauce.

Hobbes makes a more thorough investigation of the strange house, and finds a cellar in which he discovers something even more disturbing. Author Jeff Noon introduced us to Hobbes in Slow Motion Ghosts (2019 – click for the review) and, like that earlier novel, this one is set in the 1980s. Hobbes is a bit of a misfit. He is certainly not ‘one of the lads’ back at the station. He is quiet, cerebral and single, his marriage to Glenda being certainly on the rocks and close to being sunk. As he tries to work out what secrets lie within the walls of Bridlemere, he has personal problems, the chief of which being the fact that his 17 year-old son has left home to live in a squat, where both his health and sanity are threatened.

Hobbes believes that although Leonard Graves did probably take his own life, an enigmatic note he left suggests that there is a body concealed somewhere in the house.. While an intensive search produces no human remains, what Hobbes calls The Case of The Thirteen Dresses becomes a genuine murder enquiry when the body of the old man’s son is found, battered to death in Richmond Park.

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The more Hobbes learns about the Graves family, the more he feels drawn into their sinister world. Mary Estelle, Leonard’s wife, a former actress of renown, is living out her days in an old folk’s home, absorbed in her glittering memories, but was she responsible for corrupting her three children Rosamund, Camilla and Nicholas? Was there a fourth child, Adeline, mentioned in Leonard’s suicide not? And what of the grandson, David, and his obsession with Kusozu, the macabre Japanese art form that depicts the very corruption of death?

Jeff NoonMy verdict on House With No Doors? In a nutshell, brilliant – a tour de force. Jeff Noon (right) has taken the humble police procedural, blended in a genuinely frightening psychological element, added a layer of human corruption and, finally, seasoned the dish with a piquant dash of insanity. On a purely narrative level, he also includes one of the most daring and astonishing final plot twists I have read in many a long year.

Jeff Noon takes us to places unvisited since the days of the late, great Derek Raymond. This novel is crime fiction, yes, but also a journey into the darkest corners of the human soul. Raymond’s nameless copper also walked the bleaker streets of London, and he had a passion verging on obsession for avenging the victims of crime by finding the people who killed them. Henry Hobbes shares this single mindedness. House With No Doors is a chronicle of madness wearing a mask of normality. It is deeply moving and as Hobbes mines deeper and deeper into history of the Graves family, he shows us that it is not only the dead who are victims. The book is published by Doubleday and is out on 14th January.

DOUBLE AGENT . . . In brief

DA 1Political journalist, TV news presenter – and novelist – Tom Bradby is as close to the centre of British international relations as it is possible to get without signing The Official Secrets Act. His first novel, Shadow Dancer, was published in 1998, and now his eighth book – Double Agent – which came out in hardback earlier this year, is available from 7th January in paperback.

The central character in this spy thriller is MI6 agent Kate Henderson, and fans of Bradby’s work will know her from Secret Service, which came out in 2019. Then, as now, the villains of the piece are the Russians – and those in the West who share the Russian ideology behind a mask which allows them to operate at the very centre of the British establishment.

51UTZczpwoL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_If this has an echo of the late and much-lamented David John Moore Cornwell, better known to us as John le Carré, then so be it. Bradby carries the torch for a younger generation of novelists who are intrigued by the complex relationship between the Russian soul and the British mind. In Double Agent, Kate Henderson becomes the reluctant keeper of a terrible secret – the British Prime Minister is working for the Kremlin.

How she handles this potentially deadly information makes for a riveting read for anyone who likes political thrillers. Double Agent is published by Corgi/Penguin, and is available here, and from all good bookshops. Fans of Kate Henderson will be pleased to know that a third book in this series – Triple Cross – will be out in May this year.

TO THE DARK . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2021-01-03 at 21.02.58I am delighted to say that my first review for 2021 is a new book by the reliably excellent story-teller, Chris Nickson. For those new to his books, he is a widely travelled former music journalist, who has rubbed shoulders with some of the big names in rock, but now pursues a rather more sedentary lifestyle in the Yorkshire city of Leeds. When he is not tending his treasured allotment, he writes historical novels, based around crime-solvers across the  centuries, most of them based in Leeds.

You can click the link to check out his late 19th century novels featuring the Leeds copper Tom Harper, but his latest book takes us back a little further, to Georgian times. Leeds is undergoing a violent transformation from being a bustling, but still largely bucolic centre of the wool trade, to a smoky, clattering child of the Industrial Revolution.

There are fortunes to be made in Leeds, but crime is still crime, and Simon Westow is known as a thief-taker. Remember, this is before the emergence of a regular police force, and what law there is is enforced by (usually incompetent) town constables, and men like Westow who will recover stolen property – for a fee.

the-darkWestow is a man who has survived a brutal upbringing as an institutionalised orphan, and there is not a Leeds back alley, courtyard or row of shoddily-built cottages that he doesn’t know. He doesn’t work alone. He has an unusual ally. We know her only as Jane. Like Westow, this young woman has survived an abusive childhood, but unlike Westow – who isn’t afraid to use his fists, but is largely peaceable – Jane is a killer. She carries a razor sharp knife, and uses it completely without conscience if she is threatened by men who remind her of the degradation she suffered when younger.

When a petty criminal is found dead in a drift of frozen snow, Westow frets that he will be linked with the murder as, only a week or so earlier, he had completed a lucrative assignment that involved returning to their owner stolen goods that had come into the hands of the dead man. Instead of being harassed by the lazy and vindictive town constable, Westow is asked to try to solve the crime. It seems that two aristocratic officers from the town’s cavalry barracks might be involved with the killing, and this sets Westow a formidable challenge, as the soldiers are very much a law unto themselves. Meanwhile a notebook has been found which is connected to one of murdered criminal’s associates, but it reveals little, as it is mostly in code. Someone cracks the cipher for Westow, but he is little the wiser, especially when the text contains the enigmatic phrase ‘To The Dark.’

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The discovery of a stolen handwritten Book of Hours, potentially worth thousands of gold sovereigns, further complicates the issue for Westow, and when the seemingly invincible Jane suffers a crippling injury, his eyes and ears on the Leeds streets are severely diminished. Still, the significance of ‘To The Dark’ escapes him, and when his life and those of his wife and children are threatened he is forced to face the fact that this seemingly intractable mystery may be beyond his powers to solve.

As ever with Chris Nickson’s novels we smell the streets and ginnels of Leeds and breathe in its heady mixture of soot, sweat and violence. In one ear is the deafening and relentless collision of iron and steel in the factories, but in the other is the still, small voice of the countryside, just a short walk from the bustle of the town. Nickson is a saner version of The Ancient Mariner. He has a tale to tell, and he will not let go of your sleeve until it is told. To The Dark is published by Severn House and is out now.

THE MADNESS OF GEORGE TIMMS . . . Part Two

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With his father behind bars awaiting trial, the melancholy task of burying his mother fell fell to Henry Timms As the newspaper report suggests, there was a great deal of public interest in the poor soul’s demise.

“The funeral of the murdered women took place on Monday afternoon, when the remains were interred at Borough Cemetery. A large number of people gathered in the neighbourhood of Charles Street, and stood in groups near the house where the unfortunate women met her death. The body had been enclosed in an elm coffin with black mountings, and a brass plate bearing the following inscription. “Harriet Fanny Timms, born 10th May. 1835. Died 19th January. 1888″ A single wreath of flowers had been placed the coffin. The mourners were the deceased’s son. Henry, his wife and sister, and two other relatives, who were accompanied by two friends of the late Mrs Timms. The least frequented route was taken, but by the time the hearse and coach had arrived at the cemetery a considerable crowd had assembled in the vicinity of the grave. After a short service in the Church, the coffin was borne to the where the last offices were performed by the Rev Scarborough, Wesleyan Minister of Warwick. Directly the ceremony was over the, sexton proceeded to fill up the grave, and the crowd dispersed.”

With there being no doubt at all that George Timms had battered his wife to death with a fire brick, the police and prosecutors were left to ponder the exact state of the man’s mind. He was being held in Warwick Gaol on Cape Road (below), and the poignant scene when he was visited there by his son and daughter-in-law was described with a great sense of melodrama by the local papers, although how on earth they knew the details, I cannot imagine. It is hardly likely that reporters were present, but who knows?

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“In an interview with his son and daughter-in-law at Warwick Gaol on Thursday afternoon, Timms is described as having been prostrated in grief, and when questioned by his son as why he killed the deceased, he repeated his former declaration that he could give no explanation whatever. He paced up and down the cell, wringing his hands and said:

” Poor soul, do you think I’d knowingly have hurt a hair of her head?”

“When somewhat calmer he inquired whether his wife’s funeral was over. and also asked several questions relating domestic matters. During all this time he seemed comparatively cool and collected in his manner, but before the close of the interview he lapsed into the condition of melancholy and indifference which has occasionally characterised him since has been in prison.”

“When he had recovered himself, his son and daughter-in-law – the interview having terminated – shook hands with him, and wished him good-bye. He then cried bitterly again, and it was some time before he could be pacified. The prisoner, it is said, looks much thinner, and has a most careworn appearance.”

Timms appeared before Warwick Magistrates – the Mayor (Councillor S. W. Stanton), Major Mason, Mr Baly, and Mr James Baly – and was represented by Mr Boddington who, on the behalf of the prisoner, pleaded “not guilty”. The grim litany of events on that January night was put before the court, and in just under tow hours, George Timms was declared guilty of his wife’s murder, and the case transferred to the next Warwick Assizes.

HuddlestonThe March Assizes was presided over by a distinguished judge, Baron Huddleston, (left) and, unlikely though it may seem to us today, the names of the members of the jury were published in the newspapers, complete with names and addresses. Look at the bottom of the list, and you will see the name of a Mr G H Nelson. We will never know, but this could be one of the family who not only employed Timms for a number of years, but built the cottage in which he battered his wife to death. Judge Huddleston, incidentally, was in very poor health, and would die the following year at the age of 75. As his formidable appearance might suggest, Huddleston was was opinionated and unafraid to exert a strong influence on juries. He was reputed to wear colour-coded gloves to court: black for murder, lavender for breach of promise of marriage and white for more conventional cases. In this instance, however, he was quick to agree to the request by Timms’ defence team, that the case should stand over until the next Assizes so that a more detailed report into the prisoner’s mental health could be presented.

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When the next Assizes came around, at the end of July, sufficient medical evidence had been gathered to convince both judge and jury that George Timms was not of sound mind. He was, of course convicted of murder, but his sentence was that he should be detained as a criminal lunatic. In a headline that modern day tabloid papers would be proud of, the verdict was announced to the world.

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The nearest asylum to Warwick was, of course, the brooding mock-Tudor hulk of Warwick County Lunatic Asylum at Hatton, which opened in 1852. It was renamed Warwick County Mental Hospital in 1930, changed its name to Central Hospital in 1948, and finally closed in 1995. I have an personal interest, albeit, a rather gloomy one. My great grandfather, Richard Prestidge, died there in 1909 at the age of 48, of what was termed General Paralysis of The Insane. We now know it as terminal syphilis, so I suspect that my ancestor had been something of a bad lad in his youth. His youthful indiscretions had a fatal consequence, sadly, in those pre-antibiotic days. As for George Timms, it was later reported that he was a resident of Hatton, happily engaged with a new skill, that of a shoemaker.

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THE MADNESS OF GEORGE TIMMS . . . Part One

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Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 21.36.11A lifetime ago, when I was a pupil (remember that word? These days they are ‘students’ or ‘learners’) at Warwick School, I remember a gentleman coming to speak to us in the assembly hall we knew as Big School. He was Mr Guy Nelson, and we knew nothing of him, but it transpires he was the current head of a family which had been a major industrial presence in Warwick for generations. The Nelsons had a variety of interests, including gelatine manufacture and meat shipping, but the time we were assembled to listen to him, the firm had been absorbed by bigger competitors.

What the Nelsons stood for, however, was rather special. They were enlightened employers who took a philanthropic view of the relationship between worker and master. They built houses and social clubs for their workforce and, for some time, the area around their factory in Emscote was known as Nelson’s Village. Central to this was Charles Street, and this is where we come to the True Crime aspect of this feature.

At a few minutes past one o’clock in the morning, on 19th January 1888, Police Constable Salt was stamping his feet and trying to keep warm as he stood on duty at the far end of Smith Street, Warwick. The silence of the night was broken by a man’s voice in the near distance, shouting and calling out.  Walking towards the disturbance, Salt shone his bulls-eye lantern into the dimly lit street, and he saw a figure come staggering towards him, lurching from one side of the road to the other, still shouting and moaning incomprehensibly.

With his free hand, Salt caught hold of the distressed man, and immediately noticed that his hands seem to be covered in blood. In a hoarse voice, the man cried out:

“I’ve murdered my wife; the Devil has tempted me to do it.”
“Where do you live?” asked Salt, but received no answer.
“Have you been home?” At this, the man replied,
“Yes – I’ve been to bed and got up again.”

A man called Henry Harris, who was the night-watchman at the nearby fire station, attracted by the fracas, joined the pair, and between them, he and PC Salt managed to march the man to the police station, which then stood at the top end of Northgate Street. manning the front desk was Police Constable Lewis. Salt informed Lewis what the man had told him, and Lewis asked for his name:

“My name is George Timms. I live at No. 1 Charles Street and, yes, I have murdered my wife. You will find her there. I have left the back door open.”

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From here, the pace of events quickened. The two constables, realising that this was something way above their pay grade, wasted little time in summoning the help of their senior officers. Dr. Guthrie Rankin of 23 Jury Street was called to the scene. What he found was later reported in the press as follows:

“On going into the bedroom he saw the woman lying on the bed, halfway across, and quite dead. Her face was lying in a pool blood. There was no evidence that any struggle had taken place. From a superficial examination, he found some wounds on the back of the scalp, from which the blood had evidently come. Death had only recently taken place. He made a post mortem examination some hours later. There were four scalp wounds, one of them very large, and the bone underlying the wounds was fractured in several places. Two the fractures penetrated to the brain. There was a large bruise over the back of the neck, and the back of the left shoulder was also discoloured. All these wounds were, undoubtedly, such as might be caused by blows from a brick.”

In Part Two of The Madness of George Timms
A FUNERAL
WARWICK ASSIZES
A NEW CAREER AS A SHOEMAKER

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