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January 2022

THE BLOOD COVENANT . . . Between the covers

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One of my sons was at Leeds University, and my impression of the city during visits either to move house or to bring food and supplies, was of a place very much sure of itself, embracing the past while relishing a vibrant future. But this was largely Headingly, the university quarter, full of bookshops, trendy cafes and largely peopled by the offspring of comfortable middle class people like me and my wife.

TBCChris Nickson’s Leeds is a very different place. In the Tom Harper novels (click link) and in this,  the latest account of the career of Simon Westow, thief-taker, things are very, very different. This is Georgian England (1823, in this case) and Westow – in an age before a regular police force – earns his living recovering stolen property, for a percentage of its value. He has no judicial authority, save that of his quick wits, his fists and- occasionally – his knife. Recovering from a debilitating illness, Westow is back on the streets, and is juggling with several different investigations. A man has been hauled out of the river. His throat has been fatally slashed, and one of his hands has been hacked off. His brother hires Westow to answer ‘who?’ and ‘why?’.

A rich and powerful Leeds entrepreneur called Arden sets Westow the task of recovering a pair of valuable candlesticks, stolen from his son. But when the investigation is concluded, all too easily, Westow is forced to wonder if he is not being used as a dupe in some larger scheme. To add to his workload, Westow sets out to avenge the deaths of two lads, apparently starved then beaten to death by brutal overseers at a Leeds factory owned by a mysterious man named Seaton.

Westow’s assistant is a deceptively fragile young woman called Jane. Raped by her father and then thrown out on the street by her mother, she has learned to survive by cunning – and a fatal ability to use a knife, without a second thought, or her dreams being haunted by her victims. She has, to some extent, ‘come in from the cold’ as she no longer lives on the street, but with an elderly lady of infinite kindness.

As Leeds is cut off from the rest of the world by deep snow, there are more deaths, but few answers. The only thing that is clear in Westow’s mind is that there is that – for whatever reason – a blood covenant exists between Arden and Seaton. Two rich and powerful men who have the rudimentary criminal justice system within Leeds at their beck and call. Two men who want ruin – and death – to come to Westow and those he loves.

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Before we reach a terrifying finale at a remote farm in the hills beyond Leeds, Nickson demonstrates why he is such a good – and impassioned – novelist. He burns with an anger at the decades of of injustice, hardship and misery inflicted on working people by the men who built industrial Leeds, and made their fortunes on the broken bodies of the poor strugglers who lived such dark lives in the insanitary terraces that clustered around the mills and foundries. In terms of modern politics, Chris Nickson and I are worlds apart and there is, of course, a separate debate to be had about the long term effects of the industrial  revolution, but it would be a callous person who could remain unmoved by the accounts of the human wreckage caused by the huge technological upheavals of the 18th and 19th centuries.

There is. of course, a noble tradition of writers who exposed social injustice nearer to their own times – Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley, Robert Tressell and John Steinbeck, to name but a few, but we shouldn’t dismiss Nickson’s anger because of the distance between his books and the events he describes. As he walks the streets of modern Leeds, he clearly feels every pang of hunger, every indignity, every broken bone and every hopeless dawn experienced by the people whose blood and sweat made the city what it is today. That he can express this while also writing a bloody good crime novel is the reason why he is, in my opinion, one of our finest contemporary writers. The Blood Covenant is published by Severn House and is out now.

ON MY SHELF . . . January 2022

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TS Eliot thought that April was the cruelest month, but I reckon he was wrong. I’ll go for January, every time. The joys of Christmas are reduced to a few deflated plastic Santas, only the last dregs of that litre bottle of Baileys remain and – for some – a reckoning with a credit card provider awaits. Yes, the days are getting longer, by tiny increments, but the metaphorical rebirth that Spring brings seems an age away. Thank God, then, for books. I am grateful to publishers and publicists for these arrivals:

THE LENSKY CONNECTION by Conrad Delacroix

This political thriller is set in the uncertain days of post communist Russia, when the old certainties – grim as they were – were being replaced by a power struggle between oligarchs, gangsters, and those who hedged their bets as to which new power group was most likely to succeed. Major Valery Grosky is a Federal Security Bureau officer fighting organised crime, but when he is pulled off normal duties to build a case against one of the oligarchs, he finds links that run between the most powerful politicians in both Russia and America. This dangerous knowledge plunges Grosky into a fight to save not only his career – but his life. The Lensky Connection is published by Matador, and is available now.

HIVE by April Doyle

There can’t be too many books where bees are the main characters. I seem to remember that in A Slight Trick of The Mind, a Sherlock Holmes homage from Mitch Culln, bees played a pivotal part, but this novel is centred on a criminal conspiracy involving the death of bee colonies and the attempts of a research entomologist Dr Annie Abrams to prevent an ecological disaster. To enter a prize draw to win a copy of the book, go to April Doyle’s Twitter page which is @aprilcdoyle. This will be out on 28th January and is published by The Book Guild.

THE DIGNITY OF SILENCE by June Felton

This book begins in the turmoil of Prague in 1942, where the every breath taken and every move made by the Czech people are controlled by their Nazi masters.  Ernst – and his daughter – have managed to escape to London, but the ensuing years only enhance the sense of guilt he feels, and when he finally returns to the city of his youth, old grievances and bitter memories threaten his sense of himself, and what he once was. Also published by The Book Guild, The Dignity of Silence is out now.

ONE STEP TOO FAR by Lisa Gardner

Sometimes, being a book reviewer feels like wading through a fierce, tugging torrent of flood water. Make a wrong step, and you are done for. Fortunately, there are some authors who provide rock-solid and reliable stepping stones, and Lisa Gardner is one such. Her latest novel is the second in the Frankie Elkin series, following on from Before She Disappeared. You can read my review of that here, but now Frankie returns to discover the truth about a young man who disappeared years ago during a stag weekend. As Frankie and the missing man’s friends try to retrace his steps, they are unaware that they are heading into deep trouble.  This is a Penguin book, and will be published on 20th January. (The cover image is the proof copy)

A FATAL CROSSING by Tom Hindle

This debut novel is set on a transatlantic liner travelling to New York in 1924.  The Endeavour has 2,000 passengers – and a killer – on board, as well as James Temple, a dtermined Scotland Yard inspector. When an elderly gentleman is found dead at the foot of a staircase, ship’s officer Timothy Birch is ready to declare it a tragic accident. But Temple is certain there is more to this misfortune than meets the eye. This is a must for those who like period CriFi and locked room – albeit of a nautical kind – mysteries. Published by Penguin, A Fatal Crossing will be on the shelves from 20th January. Originally from Leeds, Tom Hindle now lives in Oxfordshire, where he lives with his fiancée. He is Inspired by masters of the crime genre, from Agatha Christie to Anthony Horowitz.

CITY OF THE DEAD by Jonathan Kellerman

I don’t know why I should term this “a confession”, but I absolutely love the Alex Delaware/Milo Sturgis novels. More erudite reviewers than I might scoff and summon up metaphors of comfortable slippers and cardigans, but they can go forth and multiply. Yes, there is a formula. Yes there are a several well-worn-grooves, like Milo’s gayness, his gluttony, Alex Delaware’s girfriend’s luthier skills, and the ever-present bloody dog, but the books are superbly written, and Kellerman deserves all the success that comes his way. Here, a corpse discovered almost by accident in a wealthy LA suburb proves to be a professional colleague of Alex, and the case takes on a disturbing – and deeply dangerous aspect. This is also from Penguin, but you will have to wait until 17th February to get your hands on a copy.

AND ON MY KINDLE

TBC KIndleA new book from Chris Nickson is always a joy, even if the times and circumstances he writes about are seldom a cause for celebration. His cerebral connection with the downtrodden and exploited people who once walked the streets of his native Leeds is almost tangible, and here his words burn white hot as his Georgian thief taker – Simon Westow – becomes involved in several cases at once. He is determined to avenge two boys brutalised in a local mill, while also trying to solve the mystery of a corpse dragged from the local river, throat cut and minus a hand. All this while unwillingly coming to the attention of one of the richest – and most dangerous men in the city. Expect another star turn from the enigmatic – but deadly – assassin known only as Jane, as a ghost from her past threatens to disturb her fragile equilibrium. The Blood Covenant is from Severn House and is available now. Regular visitors to Fully Booked will know I am a great admirer of Chris Nickson. My thoughts on his books are here.

FOUR MORE ANGELS IN HEAVEN TONIGHT . . . The Wimblington Tragedy (2)

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SO FAR – It is February 1896, and Mary Jane Farnham has moved back to Wimblington following the death of her husband, Henry, a former Stationmaster in Essex. She has five children, but is  comfortably provided for, thanks to savings, insurance and a pension from the Railway Benevolent Fund. She and the children have rented a roomy cottage, not far from Wimblington railway station. The children are universally liked, and she is regarded as a quiet and respectable woman. She and the four younger children – Lucilla, aged 12, is in service with a family in nearby March – are regular church-goers. But something is very wrong. She has mentioned to her parents that the strain of being alone troubles her. Her words were later quoted in the press:

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It can have been no comfort to Mary Jane Farnham to be living within sight and sound of Wimblington railway station, and it must have been a daily reminder of better days, when she and her husband lived in a similar building, were pillars of the community, and with their whole lives ahead of them.

I have been researching and writing these true crime stories for many years, and I can truthfully say that none of the human tragedies I have investigated comes close to this one in terms of loss and despair. The Farnhams were last seen alive at some time on Saturday 15th February. It needs to be remembered that communities were much smaller and ‘in-each-other’s-pockets’ in those days, and the comings and goings of villagers in a place like Wimblington were very public. Bit by bit, villagers suspected that something was wrong.

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What the Peacock brothers and the village policeman found in the upstairs bedrooms would probably haunt them for the rest of their lives. Marjorie May, 11, Sidney Harold, 8, Henrietta Mary, 6, and Dorothy Esther, 4, were dead in their beds, killed while they slept, and their throats cut so deeply that their heads were nearly severed. Beside them was the body of their mother, a white handled knife, savagely sharp, in her dead hand. The bedsheets around the bodies were saturated with blood. It was.literally, a bloodbath.

This was no spur of the moment act of desperation by Mary Jane Farnham. On a table in the house was an envelope containing the outstanding rent on the cottage. Even more chilling, It was later revealed that she had sent a letter to the Railway Benevolent Fund requesting that her widow’s pension be terminated. This mixture of propriety and savagery is hard to comprehend, even though a century and more has passed.

The inquest verdict on the five dead was a formality – murder and suicide while temporarily insane. To the eternal credit of the community, Mary Jane Farnham was not separated from her children even in death, and their joint funeral, just seven days after their deaths, attracted widespread attention. 

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This remarkable photograph of the funeral is used with permission of its owners, the Fisher Parkinson Trust, a local heritage archive.

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These accounts of man’s inhumanity to man are not intended as judgments, or condemnations, but it is difficult to balance out sympathy for Mary Jane Farnham’s grief and the sheer inhumanity she showed when she cut the throats of her four younger children. They all had lives to lead, as we can see by following the progress of Lucilla, the daughter who was lucky enough to be elsewhere on that fateful Saturday night in February 1896. By 1901, she was living in Leeds with her aunt, working as a draper’s assistant, by 1911 she had moved to Bournemouth, and  in 1917 the records tell us that she married Daniel Meaney in Exeter. She died in 1968 at the age 0f 86.

Judgement is for God alone, so I conclude this sad tale with a picture taken in the churchyard at Wimblington. (NB – the ages of the two younger children are incorrectly inscribed)

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FOUR MORE ANGELS IN HEAVEN TONIGHT . . . The Wimblington Tragedy (1)

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Mary Jane Peacock was born, some registers say, in Upwell in 1855, but the 1861 census says that she was born in Wimblington, and shows her living there with her parents.

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Screen Shot 2022-01-04 at 20.28.32Her father was John Peacock, who kept The Cock Inn on Eastwood End. In the autumn of 1877, she married Henry Farnham, who worked for The Great Eastern Railway. He became the Stationmaster at Takeley, (left) a station on the Bishops Stortford – Braintree line. The Stationmaster’s house was substantial, and survives to this day, (although the line it once served has long since disappeared. The 1891 census seems to show the Farnhams – still living at Takeley – as a happy and prosperous family which included Lucella (8), Marjorie (6), Sidney (3) and Henrietta (3 months).

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Then, in 1893, the family welcomed another child – Dorothy – but within months tragedy struck. Henry Farnham died of “congestion of the lungs’ which sounds like pneumonia. The family were immensely well thought-of in the area. A newspaper reported:

“The family, were always held the very highest respect, and had the sympathy of all classes in the neighbourhood ou the death of the father, which led to their removal from the village. The late Mr. Farnham came to Takeley station-master from his native fen country about years ago, bringing with him his newly wedded bride. He had formerly held similar position on the G.E.R. at Wilburton. Mr. and Mrs. Farnham made many friends and were regarded as exemplary couple. He was a man that nobody could help liking— the most amiable and obliging man ever met with the railway service. He was held much esteem the Earl and Countess Warwick, who used the station frequently while residing at Easton, and H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, when making visits to Easton Lodge, always had cheery word to say to Farnham, and when, after the station master’s death, subscription was set on foot for the widow and family, his Royal Highness gave handsomely towards it, as also did the Earl and Countess of Warwick, Sir Walter Gilbey, and other residents of the neighbourhood.

Mr. and Mrs. Farnham were thrifty people, and despite the expense of bringing up young family they had put away for future use a nice little sum, which with £100 that the widow received from an insurance company upon the death of her husband, and about £80 which was subscribed for them locally, and various benefit club payments, amounted something like £400. The Great Eastern Railway Company allowed her £10 a year for life.”

No-one who attended Henry Farnham’s funeral could have possibly predicted an even greater tragedy which was to follow

In the autumn of 1895, Mary Jane Farnham moved back to Wimblington with her children, and settled in what was described as a comfortable four roomed cottage situated near the station, rented from a Mr Fisher. February 1896 was to witness an event which sent shockwaves, not just across Fenland, but throughout Britain

IN PART TWO – A HEARTBREAKING DISCOVERY

SNOW AND STEEL . . . Between the covers

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I thought it was high time I included some non-fiction reviews. I am a keen (amateur) military historian, so I am happy to start this little adventure into the unknown by reviewing a superb history, written by Peter Caddick-Adams, of one of the bloodiest battles of WW2. I was going to use the word ‘decisive’, but that would be inappropriate as it suggests that the outcome of the Battle of The Bulge, which began in December 1944. was a pivotal point in the war. It wasn’t. Hitler’s war was already lost, mainly thanks his disastrous attempt to invade Russia.

SAS coverBy the autumn of 1944, German forces had been pushed out of France and were being systematically overwhelmed by the Red Army in the east. The allies had control of the Channel coast, but the Germans had effectively wrecked the French ports. Antwerp, however, had been taken more or less intact, and when the Germans had been removed from their strong-points controlling the estuary of the River Scheldt, the Belgian port became a massive conduit for the arrival of men, machines and supplies for the Allies.

Hitler believed that if he could reach Antwerp and choke the Allies’ massive superiority in materiel, he could somehow wrench victory from the jaws of defeat. Caddick-Adams tells a tale as tense and addictive as any murder mystery. Let’s look at the three main ingredients of such tales:

Motive; in the east, the Russians were just too many, too implacable, and too powerful, so Hitler needed a win – somewhere, anywhere.

Opportunity; the largely American forces in the Ardennes area were a mixture of battle-hardened veterans who has stormed the Normandy beaches on 6th June, and more callow units. Some had been battered and bloodied by the savage fighting in the Hurtgen Forest earlier that year. For a first hand account of that battle seen through the eyes of JD Salinger, click this link. None of these American units were expecting anything other than a steady but remorseless slog eastwards until they crossed the Rhine, until they were able to beard the Fuhrer in his den.

Means? Aye, there’s the rub.  Caddick-Adams explains that the cream of the German army had already been wiped out on the undulating fields of Normandy and bleaker killing grounds of East Prussia. The Werhmacht – comprising its three branches of land, sea and air forces – was on its uppers. To boost the forces attempting to storm their way across Belgium and recapture Antwerp, navy men from the Kriegsmarine and ground-crew from the Luftwaffe were given a helmet and a gun, and pitched against American forces.

Screen Shot 2022-01-01 at 09.41.39It is one of the great paradoxes of WW2 that on the ground, at least, the Germans had the best guns, the best artillery and the best tanks. The problem was that although the formidable Panzers were easily able to overcome the relatively underpowered Sherman tanks used by the allies, the German vehicles were high maintenance and, some would say, over-engineered. The ubiquitous Shermans were rolling off the production lines in their thousands, while the formidable Tigers and Panthers – when they developed a fault – were fiendishly difficult to repair or cannibalise. Caddick-Adams (right) also reminds us how well-fed and supplied the American GIs were compared with their German foes. In one particularly eloquent passage, he tells us of the utter joy felt by a unit of Volksgrenadiers when they seized a supply of American rations. When their own kitchen unit eventually reached their position, the cooks and their containers of watery stew were given very short shrift.

Snow and Steel covers ground familiar to many amateur historians – the Malmedy Massacre, the heroic defence of Bastogne, and Hitler’s manic distrust of his generals, amplified by the Stauffenberg plot. The eventual outcome of this battle is a matter of history so, although his narrative is as good as any found in contemporary thrillers of mysteries, Caddick-Adams knows we expect no surprises. What he gives us, however, is what used to be called (in the age of vinyl) a double A-side. We have a brilliant, methodical and comprehensive account of a battle where we get to see both the strategic and tactical implications of a military campaign. Flip the metaphorical record over, and we have a vivid account of a battle as seen by men who were there, told in their own words, and thus made even more chilling through its immediacy. Snow and Steel is published by Arrow and is available here.

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