March 2022

A GEOGRAPHY OF HORROR . . . Between the covers

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Ghost_stories_of_an_antiquaryWho was the most celebrated writer of ghost stories? The genre doesn’t lend itself particularly well to longer book form, and even classics like Henry James’s The Turn of The Screw and Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black are relatively slim volumes. The master of the shorter version and, in my view, a man who unrivalled in the art of chilling the spine, was MR James. Montague Rhodes James was born in Kent in 1862, and in his main professional life he became a renowned scholar, medievalist and academic, serving as Provost of King’s College Cambridge, and Provost of Eton. His first collection of ghost stories, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, was published in 1904 and has, as far as I am aware, never been out of print.

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From the age of three, until he was in his forties, James’s  home was in Suffolk, and several of his most chilling tales were set in the county. Now, Simon Loxley, himself a Suffolk man who is a celebrated expert on typography, has written a book which examines James’s links with the county and the places which he is convinced that James had in his mind as the settings for such stories as Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Older readers of this review may remember a magnificent television adaptation of this story which was first shown in 1968, starring the great MIchael Hordern as the sceptical academic who, after rubbishing the very existence of a supernatural world, has a very nasty encounter with bed-sheets in his hotel room. A DVD is available (at a price), but as with so many other things, it’s on YouTube.

Simon Loxley’s book is, among other things, a superb piece of research. He has walked every inch of his territory, and has read every word that James wrote. He notes the distinctive Englishness of the characters and , in particular, their emotional restraint:

“They are people who would not normally foist their life story upon you at a moment’s notice. They have no-one close to confide in, so they carry the story with them, unspoken until, perhaps underv the encouragement of a social setting, they tell. That fits in with the perceived British national character of the period. The sanity and the solidarity of the characters is emphasised.”

Here, Loxley hits the button which reveals why the  MR James stories are so believable. The people who experience the unpleasant, dusty, scuttling – and long since dead – entities that still terrify us today, are not gullible fools, nor are they emotionally fragile. Instead they are solid, pragmatic ‘tweedy types’ who live their lives based on evidence and things empirical.

The book is lavishly illustrated with maps and photographs, and the author examines James as a man, as a writer, and also looks at his contemporaries, predecessors in the genre, and those he influenced. Loxley is also a perceptive critic and does not shy away from identifying the stories which he believes are weaker than James at his very best. Anyone who lives in Suffolk, or plans a visit. will find  particularly fascinating the  examination of the eight stories that are precisely linked with locations within the county.


The first of these, The Ash Tree, remains embedded in the darkest corner of my imagination, and has been there ever since I first read the story in my teens. I am an incurable arachnaphobe and, despite having lived for several years in Australia, where daily acquaintance with the eight-legged devils was commonplace, the very though of hand-sized versions of the worst thing that God ever created leaping onto your face as you lie asleep still makes me sweat with terror. MR James may not have shared my visceral fear of these creatures. but he certainly knew that his words would strike terror into the minds of people who see spiders as the ultimate evil.

A Geography of Horror is a mini-masterpiece, and an absolute ‘must’ for anyone who has read MR James, and, like the unfortunate Professor Parkins. still worries about the hunched and menacing shape of a dressing-gown carelessly hung on the inside of their bedroom door. To buy a copy, the best thing is to go to Simon Loxley’s website, or contact him on

ON MY SHELF . . . March 2022

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TALL BONES by Anna Bailey

Tall BonesWhatever other qualities the book may have, the name of the town in which it is set gets first prize for the most sinister sounding location – Whistling Ridge. You just know that this is a town with dark secrets and simmering tensions that have festered for generations. Throw in a charismatic hellfire preacher who seems to have the town in his thrall, a girl who inexplicably disappeared into the woods, and a mysterious outsider who fascinates the young folk but arouses deep resentment in their parents – and you have a crackerjack thriller. Published by Doubleday, Tall Bones is out on 1st April.


WHWKA husband disappears, leaving only a one word scribbled note that says “Sorry“. As the police assume Oscar has committed suicide and put the case at the back of the file drawer, wife Beth is determined to find out the truth and, to re-use an old metaphor, when people turn over stones, they shouldn’t be dismayed at what they see scurrying about underneath. Expect elements of deceit, revenge and betrayal – with many a plot twist.  This is a Vintage publication, and is available now in audiobook, Kindle and paperback.

THE FATAL OATH by Michael L Lewis

TFOSchool stories, at least those written for younger readers, were once ‘a thing’ but something of a rarity these days. This book, the third in a series, is aimed at adult readers, and is set in 1957 within a boys’ boarding school in Yorkshire, and is centred on a Jewish teenager who is made to feel an outcast by senior boys who feel he is not “one of us“. His fate, and that of his friend, another ‘outsider’ is in the hands of a powerful clan of senior pupils who bully even the ineffectual school leadership team. The Fatal Oath will be available on 28th of March and is published by The Book Guild.

THE RETREAT by Sarah Pearse

RetreatSarah Pearse’s previous (and debut) novel The Sanatorium (click for review) was a huge commercial and critical success and now she returns with another psychological thriller based on the same theme – that of isolation, secrets, and mysterious death. There’s more than a touch of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels (choose the title you prefer!) here, as a group of people are stranded on an island retreat as a destructive storm prevents anyone leaving or arriving. It’s a case of “as soon as the weather clears..” but much can (and does) happen in the meantime! Published by Bantam Press, this will be available in July.

THE PEOPLE OPPOSITE by Georges Simenon

PeoplePenguin are publishing new translations of Simenon’s  stories. I’ve reviewed The Little Man From Archangel and Death Threats & Other Stories. This is another non-Maigret story, set in pre-war Russia, and tells the tale of Adil Bey, a lonely Turkish diplomat sent as consul to a dilapidated port on the Black Sea. He is viewed with suspicion by the locals, and when he develops a relationship with his Russian secretary, he soon learns that living in Stalin’s Russia as an outsider has many pitfalls. Translated by Sian Reynolds, this is a Penguin Classic, and is available now.

BLIND JUSTICE . . . Between the covers

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In the thirteenth episode of what is a genuinely impressive series, David Mark’s Hull copper Aector McAvoy returns, along with the established cast – his wife Roisin and their two children, and his boss, Detective Superintendent Trish Pharoah. McAvoy is, as the name suggests, a Scottish exile, and he is built like the proverbial brick you-know-what. Despite his forbidding appearance, McAvoy is a peaceable and studious man, shy with other people, but perceptive and with an attention to detail that matches his formidable appearance.

Screen Shot 2022-03-15 at 19.07.34The book begins with a flashback to an attempt by young men to carry out what seems to be a robbery in an isolated rural property. It ends in horrific violence, matched only by the destructive storm that rages over the heads of the ill-advised and ill-prepared group. Cut to the present day, and another storm has lashed Humberside, bringing down power lines, flooding homes, and uprooting trees. One such tree, an ancient ash, reveals something truly awful – a human body, mostly decayed, entwined within its roots in a macabre embrace.

McAvoy is called to the scene, and it doesn’t take too much evidence – in this case a pair of fashionable trainers – for McAvoy to deduce that this body has been put into the ground in living memory. What is astonishing, however, is that two Roman coins have been nailed into the victim’s eyes. The gentle policeman can only hope and pray that this act was not done while the victim was still alive. To make matters more disturbing, the fragile bones of two babies are also found.

The body is soon identified as that of a university student who went missing in the 1990s, but what on earth was he doing in this remote spot, and who had cause to kill and maim him in such a fashion? The owners of the adjacent property are interviewed, but add nothing to the investigation. Pharoah and McAvoy discover that the case may be linked to the trade in ancient artifacts discovered by illegal metal detectorists – nighthawks – and there is disturbing evidence that a notorious Manchester gangster – convicted of horrific torture just a few years earlier – may be involved on the fringes of the case.

Screen Shot 2022-03-20 at 19.29.57David Mark (right) writes with a sometimes frightening intensity as dark events swirl around Aector McAvoy. The big man, gentle and hesitant though he may seem, is, however, like a rock. He is one of the most original creations in a very crowded field of fictional British coppers, and his capacity to bear pain for others – particularly in this episode his son Fin and Trish Pharoah – is movingly described. Mark’s work may – at first glance – seem miles away from the Factory novels of that Noir genius Derek Raymond, but McAvoy shares the same compassion, the same sworn vow to find justice for the slain, and the same awareness of suffering shown by the nameless sergeant in masterpieces like I Was Dora Suarez.

The terrifying climax to Blind Justice is also straight out of the Derek Raymond playbook and is not for the squeamish, but vivid and visceral. Where David Mark does differ from his illustrious predecessor is that he allows McAvoy the redemption and respite denied to Raymond’s sergeant with his dead child and mad wife, and it comes in the shape of his intriguing part-gypsy wife and their children.

If I read a better book all year, be sure that I will let you know. Blind Justice is published by Severn House and will be out on 31st March.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Darkin-Miller and MacBride


IT’S ALL ABOUT TEDDY by Lee Darkin-Miller

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This is the debut novel from Lee Darkin-Miller (left),  an award-winning composer and multi-instrumentalist whose work has featured in film, TV and video games. From first impressions it seems to be a blend of fantasy, black humour and crime, and it tells the story of a man called TC, “a hapless middle-aged widower desperate to find his green-eyed angel. The blurb tells us we can expect violent death, a mysterious cult, and a new street drug called Fudge, which is deadly to those who misuse it. It’s All About Teddy is published by The Book Guild and will be available from 28th March

NO LESS THE DEVIL by Stuart MacBride

Screen Shot 2022-03-17 at 19.24.30It seems like an eternity since I read a Stuart MacBride (right) novel, and it was back in his Logan McRae days. The last of those was All That’s Dead (2019) but this might be the start of a new police procedural series featuring Detective Sergeant Lucy McVeigh. We are once more in Aberdeen, and a serial killer known as The Bloodsmith is doing his grisly business,  McVeigh’s police team, working under the name Operation Maypole, having failed to get close to the killer. To add to her problems, she has to deal with a young man who, at the age of eleven, inexplicably killed a homeless man. He served his time, and now is out and about again – and convinced that a mysterious ‘they’ are out to kill him. Does McVeigh ignore him and concentrate on finding The Bloodsmith, or could she have another potential maniac on her books? No Less The Devil will be published by Bantam Press on 28th April.

MURDER AT CLARIDGES . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2022-03-14 at 19.49.22Jim Eldridge (left) and his aristocratic Detective Chief Inspector Edgar Saxe-Coburg are working their way around the best hotels in 1940s London, investigating murder We have had The Ritz  (click for my review), The Savoy, and now Claridges. Setting a murder against a grand backdrop is a simple but agreeable  formula which Eldridge has employed in his ‘museum series’, which are set in late Victorian England. The action takes place in October 1940, with Londoners under the hammer from Hitler’s bombers each and every night.

The concept which underpins the plot is similar to the one used in Murder at The Ritz. In the late 1930s, there were still countries in Europe ruled by what we might dismiss as ‘minor monarchies’. Albania, Yugoslavia and Romania all had ruling families, and some of them decamped to London, along with their coffers of gold. Also in London, which adds spice to the plot, were less fortunate people, some of them with a political agenda. One such, a Romanian kitchen hand at Claridges, is found garotted outside on the pavement. Saxe-Coburg’s boss calls hands him the murder investigation. The reason he wants Edgar on the case is touchingly naive. He thinks that when peace returns, and the ruling families of the Balkans resume their thrones, they will remember fondly the  discretion and tact used by an English detective. The garotter then finds another victim, but what possible connection does a young woman working for the Free French headquarters in London have the unfortunate Romanian?

murder-at-claridge-sLurking in the background of this tale is a man who is less than noble, but with more power than all the kings and queens sheltering in London’s best hotel suites. Henry ‘Hooky’ Morton is a London gangster who is building his empire on black market scams, the most profitable of which is his manipulation of the petrol market. We think of fuel supply – or lack of it – as a very modern problem, but in 1940, having fuel to put in your car was crucial to many organisations. Hooky Morton has a problem, though. Someone has infiltrated his gang, and is making him look stupid. Then, Hooky does something really, really stupid and, no nearer identifying the garotte killer or their motives, Saxe-Coburg becomes involved in investigating what is, for any copper, the worst crime of all.

Saxe-Coburg’s wife Rosa, a popular pianist and singer does her bit for morale in concert halls and hotels in the evening, but her day job is more exacting and brings her face to face with the havoc raining down on London from the sky – she drives an ambulance. Her assistant is killed when a bombed building collapses on him, and a little while later, when Rosa goes to visit his widow. she is horrified to find the woman dead on the kitchen floor, killed with the same method used to despatch the Romanian kitchen hand and the young Frenchwoman.

I suppose Murder at Claridges is, if genres mean anything, on the fringe of cosy crime, but is a genuine page-turner. Despite the grimly authentic background of London being battered by the Luftwaffe, it gives us larger-than-life characters and, of course, it allows us to peep into a world which only the truly rich inhabit. The suave Saxe-Coburg is a timely antidote to the damaged, troubled and – frankly – disturbing world of so many fictional Detective Inspectors who inhabit our contemporary world. Eldridge is a fine writer and never has escapism been so elegantly penned. This book is published by Allison & Busby, and will be out in Kindle and hardback on 21st April, with a paperback edition due in the autumn. To read my reviews of two of Jim Eldridge’s ‘museum series’, click the links below.

Murder at Madame Tussaud’s

Murder at the British Museum

SHAKING HANDS WITH THE DEVIL . . . Between the covers

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There is an interesting debate which raises its head periodically, and it involves the tricky subject of what can – or should not – become the subject of comedy. Jimmy Carr was in the news only the other day, because he made a joke about the deaths of Roma people in The Holocaust. There are numerous TV sitcoms from back in the day which are fondly remembered by us older folks, but would not survive the heightened sensibilities of modern publicists and producers. This preamble is by way of a warning that Bryan J Mason’s novel, Shaking Hands With The Devil, will not be for everyone. There are jokes and themes in here which, as they say, push boundaries, so if you are someone who takes offence at words on a page, then I think it’s probably ‘Goodnight Vienna‘. For those made of sterner stuff, here’s the story.

We are in late 1980s London – the autumnal years of Thatcher’s Britain – beset by strikes and endless assaults by the IRA. A predatory killer called Clifton Gentle – think Denis Nilsen – is enticing young homosexuals to come back to his home, where they have sex, but the post coital routine is that he kills them and chops them up into pieces. Sometimes the pieces stay in his flat, but when they become too noxious, he leaves them spread about the capital, in skips, under bushes or in Biffa bins.

SHWTD coverOn his trail is a grotesque cartoon of a copper – DCI Dave Hicks. He lives at home with his dear old mum, has a prodigious appetite for her home-cooked food, is something of a media whore (he does love his press conferences) and has a shaky grasp of English usage, mangling idioms  like a 1980s version of Mrs Malaprop.

The other gags come thick and fast. We have three new police cadets – Oldfield, Abberline and Slipper –  working on the case (Google if you’re not sure}, while the editor of The Herald Review (one of the newspapers covering the case) is a certain Mr Charles Manson.

Mason’s final audacious name-check is when he reveals that there is a second killer on the loose, a young man who has won all the glittering prizes, but has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Peter Kurten is determined to make the most of his final six months by a bit of casual ‘triple D’ – Date, Death, Dismember. A confession. Suspecting that this was another joke, I Googled the name (so you don’t have to) and found that Peter Kurten a.k.a The Vampire of Düsseldorf was a notorious German serial killer who went to the guillotine on 2nd July 1931.

When he learns that he has a rival, Clifton Gentle is most aggrieved. That is not his only problem, however, because a young rent boy called Jimmy is Clifton’s only failure. Not only did Jimmy escape before fulfilling his date with the cleaver and hacksaw, he has now located his would-be assassin and is blackmailing him.

Hackney’s finest, Dave Hicks or, as he prefers to be known, ‘The Dick from The Sticks’ is also up against it. As clueless as ever, he unwisely announces in a news conference that he had set himself just fourteen days to bring the killer to justice. The days and hours tick by, without Hicks having any genuine leads. Then, on the eve of the expiry of his deadline, he decides to save his reputation. In a a bizarre attempt to blend in with the crowds in London’s gay clubs, Hicks sets out to attract the killer (he is unaware that there are two) and is dressed to kill, decked out in:

BJM“A fuchsia -pink shirt with outsize wing collar, over-tight lime green denim jeans, a brand new squeaky-clean leather jacket and, just for good measure, a black beret with white trim.”

The finale of Dave Hicks’s  quest to catch his man is set in an old fashioned Soho of seedy clubs, touts and pimps that would be unrecognisable to the trendsetters who frequent it today. Bryan Mason (right) has written a dystopian novel which is, in turn, ghastly, eyebrow-raising and hilarious, but is also a must for those who like their satire as black as night.

Shaking Hands With The Devil is published by Vanguard Press/Pegasus Publishing, and is available now.

THE STRANGE DEATH OF CATHERINE GEAR . . . A Lincolnshire murder (2)

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SO FAR: On the afternoon of October 8th 1907, a strange weekday drinks party had been held in a tied cottage belonging to Guy’s Head Farm near Sutton Bridge. Some of the drinkers went home for tea, the tenant of the cottage, William Gear, departed in fetch more beer, leaving his wife, Kate, alone in the house with their lodger, William Duddles. When her returned, he found that his neighbours had found Mrs Gear lying on the floor of the cottage, mortally wounded, a bloodstained hammer by her side. Of Duddles, there was no sign.

The police went in search of Duddles, and he was soon found. A newspaper reported:

“Sergeant Taylor, of Long Sutton, went in search of him. and he was discovered in the Marsh, near to the sea bank. He was then charged with attempted murder, the deceased at that time not being dead. His hands and clothing bore marks of blood, and in answer to the charge he said, “A still tongue makes a wise head,” and made no definite statement.”

The same newspaper went on to say:

“At Long Sutton, on Wednesday, William Duddles, aged forty-seven, was charged with the wilful murder of Catherine Gear, aged thirty-six, at Lutton Marsh, on October 8th. Supt. Osborn, of Spalding, gave evidence similar what is stated above. Sergt. Taylor, stationed Long Sutton, said he charged the prisoner with the attempted murder of Mrs. Gear, in Lutton Marsh, that afternoon. Prisoner replied : ” I have never done anything wrong before ; I am a bad ‘un, I know. I have been put on.” A short time afterwards he said: “A still tongue makes a wise head ; I shan’t say nowt.”

“That morning, from further information, and after cautioning him again, witness charged him with the wilful murder of Catherine Gear, and he made no reply. The prisoner was remanded until Wednesday, the l6th. He appeared in court with a black eye and cuts on the left temple and over the left eye, which, it was suggested, indicated that the woman had tried to defend herself. The inquest was held on Wednesday evening, before Dr. Barritt the Spalding District Coroner, at Lutton Marsh. William Gear, the husband, said that he and his wife got on very well together. A lodger named Duddles had been with them about two years, he occasionally had some words with them when was in drink, and sometimes made imputations against deceased.”

“They had some words recently. Duddles called his wife some some abusive names, and witness, taking her part, struck him. On Tuesday, witness went out at four o’clock to fetch some beer, and upon returning found his wife lying on the floor with her head in a pool of blood, a coal hammer lying few yards away. She was not dead, but was unconscious. Evidence was also given by Edwin Hocking, living next door, and a neighbour named Towson. The inquiry was adjourned until Monday next, and a post-mortem examination was ordered. The hammer, with which the tragedy alleged was alleged to have been enacted was produced in Court; it is an engineer’s hammer, fifteen inches long, with a heavy head of iron.”


The funeral of Kate Gear was a lonely and bleak affair:


Justice moved swiftly in the case of William Duddles. He was swiftly indicted for murder, and sent for trial at the November Assizes in Lincoln. This was not before the national press had a few things to say about him.


IPNThe “diminutive man of repulsive appearance” was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death by the judge, despite the jury recommending mercy due to the prisoner’s mental state. One of the strange things about this case is that newspapers at the time normally reported verbatim anything said in court, either by the accused or his legal representatives. In this case, I have been able to find absolutely nothing. Defence barristers are known to this day for concocted elaborate excuses when pleading clemency for their clients, but here they either had nothing to say, or it was never reported. The obligatory plea for mercy was sent to the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone (son of the great former Prime Minister) but it fell on deaf ears, and William Duddles was executed on 20th November in Lincoln Prison. In charge of proceedings were the Pierrepoint brothers, Henry and Tom – father and uncle to the more celebrated Albert.

The classic mantra of solving murders – both real and fictional –  is ‘Means, Motive and Opportunity’. In the case of William Duddles, the means and opportunity are obvious, but the big question remains “why”? From the limited evidence that remains available through old newspapers, it is hard not to conclude that there was a sexual element in this murder. Out of consideration for the dead woman and her family, the newspapers would have remained silent, but it seems to me that Kate Gear was, in some way, tormenting Duddles over a period of time, perhaps promising much but delivering little, and the teasing became too much for a man of limited intelligence made dangerous by drink.

Does this excuse what he did? Never in a million years. He battered a woman to death and, depending on your views on capital punishment, was punished accordingly. There is a strange undercurrent to this case – the mid-week drinking binge being the strangest – that will remain a mystery. Kate Gear lies in the peaceful churchyard of St Nicholas, Lutton, while her killer is buried in the poignant little plot reserved for hanged men within the grounds of Lincoln Castle.

THE STRANGE DEATH OF CATHERINE GEAR . . . A Lincolnshire murder (1)

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On a bright summer day, the table-flat marshland between Long Sutton and The Wash is beautiful. Endless blue skies, waving fields of wheat and skylarks singing overhead. On a grey autumn afternoon, however, the countryside takes on a much more menacing aspect. It was on such an afternoon in October 1907 that a brutal murder took place near Guy’s Head Farm. Two people are central to the drama, a 36 year-old farm labourer’s wife named Catherine Gear, and a 47 year-old man called William Duddles.

William Duddles was born in 1860 in High Toynton, just on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds. In the 1891 census he is living with his mother and sister in Boston. Somehow he doesn’t appear in the 1901 census, but we know that in 1907 he was working on Guys Head Farm, on the left bank of Tycho Wing’s Channel, the arrow straight cut that takes the River Nene into The Wash. He was lodging with another farm worker in their tied cottage. William Gear and his wife Catherine, always known as Kate. They had married in 1898, and she was from the Bontoft family, born in Wrangle, between Boston and Skegness.

On the afternoon of Tuesday 8th October 1907, some employees of Guy’s Head Farm were, for whatever reason, not engaged in honest toil. In the Gear’s cottage Kate, William, Duddles and two other workers, James Towson and Edwin Hocking, were having a party which certainly involved drinking beer, if nothing more sinister. At some point, the beer ran out, and William Gear volunteered to walk the mile or so to Gedney Drove End and fetch more beer from one of its three pubs. By the time he returned, Towson and Hocking had, as they used to say, ”made an excuse and left”, leaving Kate Gear and William Duddles in the cottage on their own.

What William Gear found in his cottage when he returned with fresh supplies was not a convivial booze-up, but a dying woman – his wife. She had been battered about the head with something heavy and deadly. She lay on the floor, her life oozing away inexorably from a terrible head wound. Gear’s return to the cottage had coincided with neighbours hearing some kind of disturbance and going to the cottage to investigate. Their evidence was later reported in the newspaper:

“Whilst witness (Mrs Jane Hocking) was getting her tea a friend who was with her remarked, ” I think I can hear a scream,” and upon going into Gear’s house they found the woman in a dying condition. Robert Stebbings, labourer, of Lutton Marsh, said about the time of the tragedy he noticed William Duddles coming from the direction of Gear’s cottage, and at the same time Mr Gear was going an opposite direction, Duddles turned off to avoid him. When Duddles passed witness he noticed that he was in excited and frightened state, and witnessed confessed to being alarmed at his appearance. He stated that a fortnight previously he had heard Duddles say, ” I will be the death of the **** if I swing for it.”

The sensationalist newspaper, The Ilustrated Police News, were quick to have one of their house artists draw a dramatic reconstruction of the discovery of Kate Gear’s body.


The police and medical help were summoned, but Kate Gear was beyond help, and she died later that evening without ever recovering consciousness. A heavy coal hammer, its head bearing the marks of blood, bone, hair and skin tissue had been discarded next to the woman’s body, and was obviously te murder weapon, but where was William Duddles, the obvious culprit? The Boston Guardian reported on Duddle’s movements – and the amount he had drunk:

After the murder


An arrest, a funeral, an execution – and a mystery

MURDER MOST VILE . . . Between the covers

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Having not come across author Eric Brown before, I did a quick search, and Wiki told me that he was a prolific science fiction writer, and I immediately thought I must have got the wrong chap, but he is one and the same. His versatility in writing Golden Age-ish mysteries set in the 1950s as well as futuristic fantasies is to be commended, but after all, he was born and raised in Haworth which, if you are looking for literary connections, is as good a place as any, and better than most.

MMV coverWhat is happening then, in Murder Most Vile? All too often these days, I am a late arrival at the ball and this is the ninth in a series centred on a pair of investigators in 1950s England. Donald Langham is a London novelist, who runs an investigation agency with business partner Ralph Ryland. Langham’s wife, Maria Dupré,  is a literary agent. Here, Langham is engaged by a rather unpleasant and misanthropic – but very rich – old man named Vernon Lombard. Lombard has a daughter and two sons, and the favourite one of the two boys, a feckless artist called Christopher, is missing.

Old Lombard has history, and not a particularly salubrious one in terms of British politics in the 1930s. He was a fervent supporter of Oswald Mosley and his fascists, and while this years ago, it is to rake up uncomfortable memories for  Ralph Ryland when it emerges that the boss of a London brewery is also a pervert, a gangster – and, like Vernon Lombard – someone who longs for the glory days of the British Union of Fascists.

Langham and Ryland are an interesting team, with Langham the more urbane and middle class of the two, while Ryland’s father was a London docker who was on what we now consider to be the wrong side of things during the infamous Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when Mosley’s fascists went head to head with an opposing force of trade unionists, Jewish groups and communists, with the police trying to keep the sides apart. Out of loyalty to and, perhaps, fear of his father, Ryland was there that day, and what he saw – and did – has continued to haunt him, especially since he was among the Allied troops who liberated Belsen in April 1945 – a month that has special significance for some of the characters in this novel.

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What the pair uncover is that most poisonous of situations – bitter family jealousy. It transpires that Christopher Lombard’s apparent success as an artist is due to his father buying up most of his canvases, and the other two siblings are not happy. There are abductions, murders and mysteries – and Eric Brown provides a clever plot twist which I never saw coming.

It’s not always helpful to shepherd crime novels into genres, but I know that many readers are not comfortably retired like me, and the time they have for settling down with a good book is limited, and that is why they sometimes welcome a ‘heads-up’ as to what kind of book to pick up next. I would say that Murder Most Vile is cosy crime, but with a hard edge. It is also, I suppose, historical crime fiction, because, for some, 1957 is as far away as 1757 in terms of social attitudes and the trappings of technology. It might also be doffing its trilby to the world of bygone investigators – Paul Temple, certainly, with maybe just a hint of Bulldog Drummond. We have dead bodies, escapes from dungeons, powerful embittered and influential old men and  – essential to all private investigators – friends in the police force. The bottom line, however, is that this is cleverly written by Eric Brown, and is well worth a few hours of anyone’s time. Murder Most Vile is published by Severn House and is out now.


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