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October 2021

WHEN GHOSTS COME HOME . . . Between the covers

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Wiley Cash lives in North Carolina, and I reviewed his first two novels, A Land More Kind Than Home (2013) and This Dark Road To Mercy (2014). Both had an intense, brooding quality. The first was more of a literary novel but the second – while still thoughtful and haunting – sat more comfortably in the crime genre. You can read my interview with Wiley Cash here.

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His latest novel is set, once again, in the writer’s home state. It is 1984 and Winston Barnes is the Sheriff of Oak Island, a  town on the state’s southern-facing coastline. It’s separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway. Barnes is sixty, he is up for re-election and faces a wealthy and brash challenger who has money to burn on his election campaign. In the small hours of an autumn morning Barnes and his wife – who is suffering from cancer – are woken by the sound of an aircraft apparently heading for the island’s tiny airstrip. Barnes knows that something is wrong, as no legitimate aircraft would be flying in the dead of night. When he reaches the airstrip his flashlight reveals two things: a ditched aircraft, much larger than those the facility can safely handle, and a man, recently shot dead. The aircraft is devoid of clues as to its origin, and any fingerprints have been wiped. The corpse is, however, less mysterious. It is the twenty-something son of a  local black teacher, and civil-rights activist.

What starts as merely a bad day for Barnes turns into a nightmare. His daughter Colleen, who lives in Dallas with her lawyer husband, and who is mourning a still-born child, turns up unannounced, an emotional wreck. The ditched aircraft case is summarily handed over to the FBI, and the local rednecks (including Barnes’s rival in the upcoming election) assume that the aircraft was carrying a drug shipment from South America, and that Rodney Bellamy – the murdered man – was part of the deal. Consequently, they turn up in the dead of night at Bellamy’s home, in their pick-up trucks, flaunting Confederate flags and shooting guns into the air.

Barnes knows that he unless he can cool hot heads, he is going to have a race war on his hands. No-one sitting here in Britain reading this can have the remotest idea of the intensity of the emotions stirred up in the southern states of America by the matter of race. There’s a vivid depiction of the issue in the Penn Cage novels by Greg Iles, and you read more about them by clicking this link. I have family in North Carolina and know – from a relatively recent visit – that public institutions are at great pains to distance themselves from the past. The whole business of statue-toppling and contemporary apologies for what some see as past offences is a contentious one. But this novel is set in 1984, almost four decades ago, and Wiley Cash paints a haunting picture of a community where the past still collides violently with the present.

Winston Barnes still has a murder to solve, and against the background of his wife’s illness and the mental fragility of his daughter, he has to summon up all his resolve to keep things on an even keel. The FBI sends a qualified pilot and engineer, Tom Groom, up from Florida to repair the aircraft’s damaged landing gear and fly it out so the the Oak Island airstrip can resume business. Barnes is asked to put Groom up for a few nights as the local hotels are all closed for the winter. Colleen, after meeting Groom, has a sixth sense that something is not quite right.

Screen Shot 2021-10-31 at 19.19.37Wiley Cash is at his best when describing the complex social history of his home state, and the ways in which it affects families and relationships, and he is on good form here. Where the book didn’t work so well,  for me at least, was in the ending. In literally two and a half pages, everything we thought we knew about what was happening on Oak Island is turned violently on its head. Abrupt? Yes. Enigmatic? Certainly. There’s no rule that says every plot has to end neatly tied up like a parcel with every question answered, and many readers may enjoy the ambiguity at the end of this book. You could say that Cash (right) gives us the dots and leaves it up to us how we join them up. When Ghosts Come Home is published by Faber and Faber, and is available now in Kindle and paperback. The hardback is due in February 2022.

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 1: London and Cambridge

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I am taking a journey around England to revisit places associated with great crime novels. One or two might be a surprise!

London is a great place to start, and one of its finest crime writers was Derek Raymond (real name Robert William Arthur Cook 1931 – 1994). His Factory series featured an un-named Detective Sergeant working out of a fictitious police station in Soho. He is part of the Unexplained Deaths division and a man already haunted by tragedy. His mentally unhinged wife killed their daughter, and he is alone in life except for her ghost. This is a London of almost impenetrable moral darkness, an evil place only infrequently redeemed by intermittent acts of kindness and compassion. The detective devotes himself to seeking justice or revenge (and sometimes both) for the victims.

DRWe are left to imagine what he looks like. He never uses violence as a matter of habit, but his inner rage fuels a temper which can destroy those who are unwise enough to provoke him. Why is he so bitter, so angry, so disgusted? Of himself, he says:

I’m a solitary man. Sometimes, mind, there’s happiness in solitude, still, it helps to talk to other people sometimes and  dig back together to a time when people felt that the past mattered and something good might happen in the future. But when I open the next door I’m sent to and find the dead inside, overturned bottles and tables, bloody, dishonoured, defamed people lying there, I sometimes accept that dreaming and hoping the way I do is absurd.”

Raymond is regarded as the Godfather of English Noir and is an acknowledged influence on most modern writers in the genre. A good novel to start with is He Died with His Eyes Open (1984) but you will need to steel yourself before tackling his brutal masterpiece I Was Dora Suarez. There’s more on Derek Raymond and his books here.

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SERGEANT SALINGER . . . Between the covers

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This fictionalised biography of the life of JD Salinger certainly begins with a name-dropping bang. Within the first twenty pages, we are in Manhattan’s legendary Stork Club, and we are rubbing shoulders with – alongside the young writer himself – Ernest Hemingway, Walter Winchell, Merle Oberon, Peter Lorre, and the bewitchingly erotic daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, Oona, who would later – much to Salinger’s chagrin – marry Charlie Chaplin.

FA8rkugXIAMOsiBThis prelude takes place in 1942, but two years later Salinger is in literally much deeper and more dangerous waters. He is a sergeant in the American army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) and has been posted to Tiverton in Devon, where the 4th Infantry Division is preparing for the D-Day landings. Salinger has to count the corpses as the US Army desperately tries to cover up two separate disasters which result in the deaths of over nine hundred American servicemen. The Slapton Sands fiasco (Operation Tiger) is described here.

The novel follows Salinger’s progress as he survives D-Day and the push through Normandy. He finds himself busy in French villages where former Nazi collaborators are trying to reinvent themselves as patriots, and he witnesses the scenes in Paris where the population takes revenge on men and women who co-operated with the German administration.

By far the toughest part of Salinger’s war, in terms of physical danger, is what he calls ‘The Green Hell.‘ The American forces were held up in the autumn and early winter of 1944 as the retreating German army took up positions in the Hürtgen Forest – over 50 square miles of dense and mountainous woodland on the Belgian German border. With splinters from shell-shattered trees causing as many casualties as bullets, the Americans suffered huge losses and only took the area when the German Army was eventually defeated at what has become known as The Battle of The Bulge.

Worse awaits Salinger, however. Not in terms of his own physical safety, but through a dreadful discovery which was to scar the minds of many of those who were present. As the Americans advance into Bavaria, they come across Kaufering Lager IV – part of the Dachau concentration camp complex. All but a handful of camp guards and administrators have fled, leaving behind them a scene from hell.

“Sonny climbed down from the jeep. He saw several axes near the siding, axes covered in blood. The guards must have been in a great hurry. They’d slaughtered prisoners of the camp even while they were herding them into the cars. Sonny found several bodies without head, hands or feet. He could follow the path of their butchery, footprints etched in blood.”

He discovers that the stationmaster of the railway siding is still hiding in his house. He gives Sonny (Salinger) a kind of perverse and depraved guided tour.

“The stationmaster led Sonny to three barracks that were partly underground, like wooden bunkers, but these bunkers had been nailed shut and set on fire while still packed with ‘citizens’ of Kaufering, the camp’s slave labourers. Sonny had to wear a handkerchief over his mouth and nose, otherwise he would have fainted right in the Lager. He couldn’t understand how the stationmaster had survived the stench, the crippling acid of rotten flesh.
‘Open the barracks,’ Sonny said, ‘Every one.’
‘But that is impossible,’ the stationmaster said, ‘It is not my job. I am responsible for the trains.’
‘Open’, Sonny said, handing him a bloody axe, ‘Or I’ll execute you on the spot.’
The stationmaster saluted Sonny with a sudden respect. ‘Yes, Herr Unteroffizier.’
He chopped away at the wood, pried out the nails, and opened the barracks, one by one. Some of the charred bodies were still smouldering. They were packed so tight, skull to skull, covered in shreds of their own burnt hair, that they had a perverse, horrifying beauty, as if they’d been sculpted out of fire.”


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This horrific experience, on top of so many other traumas, tips Salinger into a kind of temporary insanity, and he checks himself into a German psychiatric clinic, where he meets a young German doctor, Sylvia Welter. They have a strange, but doomed attraction to each other and, when, war ends, they marry. Eventually the couple return to New York but, as they set up a kind of home with Salinger’s Jewish parents, it is clear that the marriage is dead, and Sylvia returns to Germany.

Sergeant Salinger is both dazzling and disturbing, and Jerome Charyn has written a brilliant account of Salinger the soldier, Salinger the writer and – above all – Salinger the troubled but deeply compassionate man. It is published by No Exit Press and is available now.

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THE APPARITION PHASE . . . Between the covers

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BorleyI don’t review too many non-crime novels on here, but this one really appealed to me. It begins in the 1970s in an unnamed English town. Tim and Abi are teenage twins and, like many such siblings, have an almost preternatural bond that often transcends the spoken word and visual communication. They also have what might be called an unhealthy fascination with ghosts and the paranormal. One of Tim’s hobbies is painting pictures of bygone execution methods, and their favourite book is a well worn copy of The End of Borley Rectory (1946) by Harry Price. Price was a well-known ‘ghost-hunter’ in the 1930s and 1940s and although he is widely regarded as a charlatan these days, he was a celebrated and popular author, particularly on the topic of Borley Rectory in Suffolk, once known as “the most haunted house in England”.

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The twins are also keen photographers, but bear in mind that this is the 1970s, and unless you had a home darkroom, photography for most people involved taking the roll of film from the camera and handing it over to Boots to be developed and printed. Tim and Abi are connoisseurs of paranormal photography and, even though they do not have the expertise to create elaborate fakes such as the celebrated ghost that haunted The Queen’s House Greenwich (right), they have imagination to spare. They have sole use of the attic in their house, and their well-meaning but rather ‘hands-off’ parents seldom venture up the ladder into Tim and Abi’s terrain.

TAP coverOn a blank wall, they draw a rather convincing image of a tormented woman, and take a whole roll of photographs of it. Harmless fun? Yes, it might have been, until they decide to take one of the more convincing images to school, and show it to a classmate, backed up with an elaborate story that Abi has seen the ghost of a former occupant of their house, a young woman who, shamed by her cheating fiancé, hanged herself in that very attic. The victim of their prank is Janice Tupp, a seemingly unremarkable girl who the twins despise because of her very ordinariness. Rather like those who tormented Carrie White, they have picked the wrong victim. Janice collapses at school after being shown the photograph, and when, some days later, the twins invite her round to their house in order to explain their deception (and to avoid getting into serious trouble) Janice shocks them by making a puzzling prediction which Tim and Abi can make no sense of. A few weeks later, however, something shocking happens which will change everything – for ever.

Further references by me to specifics of the plot will be, perforce, cautious, as I have no wish to diminish readers’ enjoyment – if that is the right word. I add that caveat, because Will Maclean takes us into  very dark territory. Suffice it to say that Tim becomes involved with two researchers and a group of people more or less his own age who have rented an old Suffolk manor house with the purpose of conducting experiments into the paranormal. At this point, cynical readers are entitled to use the cliché “And what could possibly go wrong…?” but Maclean skillfully avoids the more obvious pitfalls, and steers an intriguing course between Hamlet’s famous statement to Horatio, and our knowledge of the nature of reality and deception.

I wouldn’t say that I am a blasé reader, but any reviewer of mostly crime and thriller novels encounters fictional grief and trauma on a daily basis. The Apparition Phase genuinely had my anxiety levels tipping into the red zone – and staying there. Will Maclean references the unrivaled master of ghost stories – MR James – but in a sense, he goes one better. James wrote short stories, and therefore had only to keep the menace going for twenty pages or so, but to keep us engaged and anxious for four hundred is something else altogether.

This deeply unsettling novel, published by William Heinemann, came out in paperback earlier this month and will be available in Kindle and hardback on 29th October

WITHOUT A TRACE . . . Between the covers

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We are in the fictional Derbyshire town of Bainbridge. Recently divorced Ruth Prendergast has finished work for the day, done her shopping, and is keen to be inside her new house in Hollywell Close, warm, snug and out of the icy winter rain. She fancies a night in, with a pizza and a glass or two of wine. What she gets, however, is a ghastly shock. Turning on the bedroom light she finds a man apparently asleep under her duvet. When she plucks up the courage to wake him, she finds she cannot. Because he is dead. Stone dead, with a knife embedded in his body.

WAT coverThe team investigating the murder is led by Detective Inspector Isabel Blood, her Sergeant and a brace of DCs. They soon learn that the dead man is Kevin Spriggs, a middle-aged car mechanic, with a failed marriage behind him, an estranged son – and an argumentative temperament often fueled by drink. The murder raises many questions for Blood and her people. How did Spriggs and the person who killed him gain access to a locked house? Who hated Spriggs – admittedly not one of life’s natural charmers – enough to kill him? After all, he was something of a nobody, tolerated rather than loved by most people who knew him, but why this brutal – and mysterious – death?

The investigation – code named Operation Jackdaw – has achieved precisely three-fifths of five-eighths of diddly-squat, when it is rocked by the discovery that Ruth Prendergast, who discovered the corpse of the unfortunate Spriggs has herself disappeared. She was due to go on a walking trip with a lady friend, but she failed to make the rendezvous and, to borrow from The Bard, she has “melted into air, into thin air ….. leaving not a rack behind.

There are enough fictional Detective Inspectors out there in the world of crime fiction to run a large county police force, so what makes Isabel Blood – to steal a sporting cliché  – achieve a podium finish? Refreshingly, she is middle-aged, comfortable in her skin and appears to have no hidden demons. She is happily married with two teenage daughters, and the only kink in this domestic bliss is that her father was apparently bigamously involved with Isabel’s mother, and now lives in France where he has two grown up sons with his legal wife. Now, Isabel’s father and her half-brother have arrived in Bainbridge for a visit at precisely the time that the unfortunate Kevin Spriggs is discovered in Ruth Prendergast’s bed. Eventually, the team discover how – and why – the man was murdered, and the solution is complex, but it very neatly echoes Isabel’s own difficulties with her double family and half-siblings.

Without A Trace is a well plotted and nuance police procedural with credible coppers and equally convincing villains. It is published by HQ Digital, and will be out in Kindle on 29th October. A paperback edition will be available in January.

ORDERS TO KILL . . . Between the covers

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It’s always a pleasure to find a new (to me) historical police series, and especially one set during The Great War. I have read most of the Inspector Hardcastle series but, sadly, Graham Ison is no longer with us. RN Morris’s Silas Quinn books are great fun too, but most of those I have read recently are re-published editions of books written some years ago. Orders To Kill, by the accomplished and prolific historical novelist Edward Marston, is bang up to date, publishing wise, and it is the ninth in what is called the Home Front Detective series.

OTK cleanInvestigating duos are always a reliable way to spin a police novel, and in this case we have Inspector Harvey Marmion and Sergeant Joe Keedy of the Metropolitan Police. Marmion is married to Ellen, with a son and daughter. Son Paul has been mentally damaged by his time on the Western Front, and has now disappeared leaving no clue as to his whereabouts, while daughter Alice – also a service police officer – is engaged to Keedy.

It is December 1917 and Marmion and Keedy are investigating the brutal murder of a prominent surgeon, Dr Tindall, who has been working at a military hospital in London. He is found dead in his house, horribly mutilated by – according to the pathologist – a large bladed weapon, perhaps a bayonet. The dead man was highly thought of at his hospital, and widely admired by others who knew him, but when attempts are made to establish a possible motive, serious questions arise. Why, for example, can police find no trace of George Tindall’s parents at the Scottish address listed on his file? Why does the current owner of what was named as his Brighton home say that she has never heard of him?

He was clearly a wealthy man, and one who paid cash for his elegant Savile Row suits, but what motive could he possibly have had for fabricating a personal background? As the equanimity of the Marmion household is disrupted by alarming family news from Somerset, the women take a train to Shepton Mallett, while Marmion himself is confronted with fresh discoveries about the George Tindall many thought they knew well.

edward-marston-new-bestwbEdward Marston (real name Keith Miles, right) keeps us well tuned in to the news from abroad, as the Tindall case plays out against news of General Allenby’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and how the initial British success at Cambrai was tainted by a fierce German fight back. For Marmion and Keedy however, the Tindall case seems to be spiraling out of control as it seems his killers are two men taking their orders from a higher authority – and Tindall is not their first victim. The detectives travel to Brighton, Kent, Bristol and Staffordshire in their efforts to make the case make sense, but ultimately they must make one last – and infinitely more dangerous journey – before they reach a solution to this most intractable of mysteries.

Orders To Kill is highly readable, written by an author who clearly knows his history and is an accomplished storyteller. Published by Allison & Busby, it will be available on 21st October.

PAST LIFE . . . Between the covers

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I won’t repeat my spiel about coming late to an established series (which I seem to do all too often), so here’s a brief account of where we are in Past Life. Aector McAvoy is a Detective Sergeant working in Hull, on the north bank of the Humber Estuary. He is married to Roisin, who is of Irish Traveller heritage, and they have two children, Fin and Lilah. His boss is Detective Superintendent Trish Pharoah. McAvoy is a bear of a man, born to a Scottish crofter family. He is capable of great violence, but is fundamentally a gentle soul but perhaps too conciliatory and thoughtful for his own good. Author David Mark tells us:

“He is not a man at ease with the world or his place in it. He feels permanently displace; dislocated – endlessly cast as an outsider. He’s still the lumbering red-haired Scotsman who left the family croft at ten years old and has been looking for home ever since.”

Screen Shot 2021-10-10 at 20.06.34The story begins with a murder, graphically described and, at this point in the review, it is probably pertinent to warn squeamish readers to return to the world of painless and tidy murders in Cotswold manor houses and drawing rooms, because death in this book is ugly, ragged, slow and visceral. The victim is a middle-aged woman who makes a living out of reading Tarot cards, tea leaves, crystal balls and other trinkets of the clairvoyance trade. She lives in an isolated cottage on the bleak shore of the Humber and, one evening, with a cold wind scouring in off the river, she tells one fortune too many.

When McAvoy and Pharoah arrive at the scene they find the ravaged remains of Dymphna Lowell, and understand why one or two of the police officers first to respond to the 999 call have parted company with their last meal. Trish Pharoah has seen worse, but then she has been a regular onlooker at grisly tableaux that demonstrate the depths that humans can sometimes plumb. She is the wrong side of middle age, but not going gently into that good night. She has four daughters and nursed her husband – although he was an absolute bastard – day and night as he took a long time to die from an aneurism.

As McAvoy and Pharoah hunt the killer, the back-story is crucial and it needs to be explained. Roisin’s family have been engaged in a decades-long blood feud with another clan, and there has been copious amounts of blood shed along the way. Part of this history involved Roisin saving McAvoy from an infamous killer nicknamed ‘Cromwell’. Cromwell was then gruesomely punished by Roisin’s father, she and McAvoy fell in love and married, but the savage murder of Roisin’s aunt – another fortune teller – cloaks the narrative like a shroud. Roisin is a woman not at ease with the world or herself:

Screen Shot 2021-10-12 at 10.29.37“She has found herself some mornings with little horseshoe grooves dug into the soft flesh of her palms. Sometimes her wrists and elbows ache until lunchtime. She sleeps like a toppled pugilist: a Pompeian tragedy. She sees such terrible things in the few snatched moments of unconsciousness.”

When the satanic Cromwell strikes hard at McAvoy’s family, the big man goes off the radar and hunts down the killer. David Mark (right) gives us what we think is the climax as McAvoy and Cromwell go head to head in a terrifying and violent  battle in a disused WW1 sea fort, but just as we relax and think “job well done”, there is a plot twist that few will see coming, and we learn that there is a final trauma to be endured by the McAvoy family.

This is a dark, brooding novel, with more than a touch of Derek Raymond-esque nihilism and despair but, like his late, great Noir predecessor, David Mark also gives us searing honesty and compassion. Past Life is published by Severn House and is available now in hardback, and as a KIndle in November.

DEATH THREATS and other stories . . . Between the covers

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Penguin have been quietly publishing new translations of all the Maigret novels and short stories for the last few years, and this is a recent collection of stories. What more is there to say about Georges Simenon? For me, the genius is in the economy. He never wastes a line, never provides an unnecessary description, and never uses twenty words when ten will do. He remains, quite simply, the master story-teller.

Monsieur Owen

Maigret is on holiday. He has taken the opportunity because Madame Maigret is away in Brittany tending to an ailing aunt. He is in one of the best hotels in Cannes. Rather out of his price range? Perhaps, but he has a friend in the trade, Monsieur Louis, an man who was once one of the top hoteliers in Paris, and a man who owes Maigret a favour or two. The detective “had eaten like a horse, drunk like a sailor and soaked up the sun through every pore like a bathing belle.” But his reverie is interrupted when M. Louis knocks on his door to say there has been a terrible murder. A mysterious guest called Monsieur Owen has taken rooms in the hotel along with his attractive young nurse. And now, a body has been found, naked and dead, in the bath of Monsieur Owen’s room – but it is not Monsieur Owen! In the pages that follow, Simenon weaves a delightfully complex mystery – and Maigret provides an equally intricate solution. This was first published as a magazine story in 1938.

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This is slightly unusual, as it was also first published in 1938, just seven years after Simenon introduced Maigret in Pietr-le-Letton, and yet in this story Maigret has retired after a long career with the Paris police, and is living in Meung-sur-Loire. He is grumpy and bored, so Madame Maigret persuades him to join a nightly card school in a town café. The men play Manille, a variant of Whist. It is a game for four players, and one of the group – the town butcher, a family man – is reputed to have eyes for Angèle, the café waitress. When the butcher is found dead in his van, killed by a bullet from a wartime revolver, everyone – including the young police inspector investigating the death – expects Maigret to take charge of the case. He refuses, quite churlishly, and retires to his shed to fuss over his fishing tackle. It is only some time later, when Maigret and his wife attend the funeral of the café owner’s wife, that he reveals the reason for his silence and, once again, Simenon gives us a beautifully symmetrical solution.

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This was first published under the title Le prisonnier de la rue in the Sept jours newspaper (15th and 22nd December 1940). It is worth noting at this point that Simenon remained in France during the  occupation but none of the Maigret stories set during the war references the German presence. Operating as a civilian policeman in wartime Paris would have been a very different experience from what we read here. What the papers are calling THE BAGATELLE MURDER because the body – of a handsome young Viennese doctor –  was found near La Porte der Bagatelle is puzzling Maigret and his  trusty team, Torrence, Lucas and Janvier. Eventually, they identify a suspect, and take it in turns to follow him through the streets of a wintry Paris. The man – identified as a Pole – becomes more haggard and hungry as his money runs out until, exhausted and desperate, he surrenders to Maigret. Simenon gleefully lets us know that the killing was un crime passionelle but then pulls the rug out from under our feet as he reveals who fired the fatal shot.

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Maigret is working as the head of the Nantes Flying Squad, and he is summoned south to a God-forsaken village in a marshy area of the Vendée. Groux, A farmer down on his luck, has been forced to sell his property and has arranged a Candle Auction (click the link for an explanation) in the local inn, run by former criminal Frédéric, his slatternly wife Julia and barmaid Thérèse. During a lengthy card game on the evening preceding the auction, one of the prospective bidders – Bourchain – is found dead in his bed, his head ruined by blows from a hammer, and his wallet – containing the thousands of francs with which he intended to buy the farm – missing. Maigret creates his own version of the classic locked room mystery by re-assembling the participants in the card game, and painstakingly forces them to re-enact every card played, every break for drinks and every trip to the toilet until he discovers who wielded the coal hammer that shatters Bourchain’s head. Not for the first time, we play cherchez la femme. This was first published in serial form in 1942.

Death Threrats

A wealthy (to the tune of three million francs) rag and bone man, Emile Grosbois has requested a meeting with Maigret’s boss, and has produced a letter composed of words cut from a newspaper. It is a threatening prediction that Grosbois will be dead before before 6.00pm on the following Sunday. The Grosbois family – Emile, twin brother Oscar, their widowed sister Françoise and her two grown-up children Eliane and Henri – live on the premises of the scrap yard, but travel down to their riverside home outside Paris every weekend. Maigret is told he must join the family for the duration of the fateful weekend, and if the great man ever suffered a more miserable few days, Simenon never told us about it. The tensions between the disfunctional family simmer and burn until – just before the doom hour of 6.00pm – Maigret must intervene to save a man’s life and, in doing so, unmask the would-be murderer. This was first published, in serial form, as Menaces de Mort in 1942.

THIS COLLECTION WAS TRANSLATED BY ROS SCHWARZ,
PUBLISHED BY PENGUIN, AND IS AVAILABLE HERE

TO ALL THE LIVING . . . Between the covers

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This is the latest in the series of excellent reprints from the Imperial War Museum. They have ‘rediscovered’ novels written about WW2, mostly by people who experienced the conflict either home or away. Previous books can be referenced by clicking this link.

MonicaAuthor Monica Felton (1906 – 1970) was certainly an unusual woman and, to borrow a modern phrase, somewhat to the left of Lenin. In 1951, she visited North Korea as part of the Women’s International Democratic Federation commission and outlined her impressions in the book That’s Why I Went (1954), adhering to an anti-war position. In the same year, she was awarded a dubious and deeply ironic honour – the International Stalin Prize “for peace between peoples”

We are, then, immediately into the dangerous territory of judging creative artists because of their politics, which never ends well, whether it involves the Nazis ‘cancelling’ Mahler because he was Jewish or more recent critics shying away from Wagner because he was anti-semitic and, allegedly, admired by senior figures in the Third Reich. The longer debate is for another time and another place, but it is an inescapable fact that many great creative people, if not downright bastards, were deeply unpleasant and misguided. To name but a few, I don’t think I would have wanted to list Caravaggio, Paul Gauguin, Evelyn Waugh, Eric Gill or Patricia Highsmith among my best friends, but I would be mortified not to be able to experience the art they made.
To All The Living
So, could Monica Felton write a good story, away from hymning the praises of KIm Il Sung and his murderous regime? To All The Living (1945) is a lengthy account of life in a British munitions factory during WW2, and is principally centred around Griselda Green, a well educated young woman who has decided to do her bit for the country. To quickly answer my own question, the answer is a simple, “Yes, she could.”

Another question could be, Does she preach? That, to my mind, is the unforgivable sin of any novelist with strong political convictions. Writers such as Dickens and Hardy had an agenda, certainly, but they subtly inserted this between the lines of great story-telling. Felton is no Dickens or Hardy, but she casts a wry glance at the preposterous bureaucracy that ran through the British war effort like the veins in blue cheese. She highlights the endless paperwork, the countless minions who supervised the completion of the bumf, and the men and women – usually elevated from being section heads in the equivalent of a provincial department store – who ruled over the whole thing in a ruthlessly delineated hierarchy.

Amid the satire and exaggerated portraits of provincial ‘jobsworths’ there are darker moments, such as the descriptions of rampant misogyny, genuine poverty among the working classes, and the very real chance that the women who filled shells and crafted munitions – day in, day out – were in danger of being poisoned by the substances they handled. The determination of the factory managers to keep these problems hidden is chillingly described. These were rotten times for many people in Britain, but if Monica Felton believed that things were being done differently in North Korea or the USSR, then I am afraid she was sadly deluded.

The social observation and political polemic is shot through with several touches or romance, some tragedy, and the mystery of who Griselda Green really is. What is a poised, educated and well-spoken young woman doing among the down-to-earth working class girls filling shells and priming fuzes?

My only major criticism of this book is that it’s perhaps 100 pages too long. The many acerbic, perceptive and quotable passages – mostly Felton’s views on the more nonsensical aspects of British society – tend to fizz around like shooting stars in an otherwise dull grey sky.

Is it worth reading? Yes, of course, but you must be prepared for many pages of Ms Felton being on communist party message interspersed with passages of genuinely fine writing. To All The Living is published by the Imperial War Museum, and is out now.

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