April 2022

NO LESS THE DEVIL . . . Between the covers

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610XqcYjnhL._SX450_This is a new police procedural from Stuart MacBride (left) and it introduces Detective Sergeant Lucy McVeigh. Her beat is the fictional town of Oldcastle (not to be confused with the actual city of Oldcastle, which lies between Aberdeen and Dundee). Aberdeen, of course, is where DS Logan McRae operated in the hugely successful earlier series from MacBride. Also, DS McVeigh comes across – to me at any rate – as a younger version of McRae’s boss, the foul-mouthed and acerbic DCI Roberta Steel. McVeigh is equally sharp tempered, and similarly indisposed to suffer fools gladly.

Early on, we are aware that McVeigh has been involved a high profile incident where she killed a man – Neil Black –  in the line of duty. This requires her to suffer – by order of her bosses – psychological treatment and counselling. Like the good storyteller that he is, MacBride doesn’t let us know the nature of the incident right away, thus keeping us guessing for a while. When we do learn what happened, over seven terrifying pages, it is horrific stuff.

McVeigh is involved in the  hunt for a serial killer nicknamed The Bloodsmith. He – or she – eviscerates victims and scrawls “Help Me’ on the wall of the murder scene, using the blood of the unfortunate prey. The trail is cold, but when a new victim emerges McVeigh and her ‘gofer’ Detective Constable Fraser (aka The Dunk) have some fresh clues to work with. It turns out that the latest corpse is the remains of a former police officer who did time for petty theft, and then ended up as a vagrant on the streets.

Women are supposed to multi-task better than men, but Lucy McVeigh has two other problems. Firstly, she is being harassed by the family of the man she killed. They are determined to end her career by fair means or foul, and the press are lapping up every minute of the feud. Secondly, a case from the past surfaces. Years earlier, McVeigh was involved in putting behind bars an eleven year-old boy who, along with another boy as yet unidentified, committed a terrible murder. Now a young man, Benedict Strachan  is back – literally – on the streets, using an alias, misusing drugs, living rough, and he is convinced that someone is trying to kill him.

Screen Shot 2022-04-19 at 19.51.13As the search for The Bloodsmith continues, and Lucy McVeigh struggles to keep abreast of that investigation, as well as her battle with the Black family and coping with the mental agonies of Benedict Strachan, MacBride treats us to his signature mixture of Noir, visceral horror and bleak humour. Even though his Oldcastle is a fictional place, it is vividly brought to life to the extent that I would not be in the least surprised if the author has a map of the place hanging on the wall of his writing room. The situation becomes ever more complex for Lucy McVeigh when she learns there is a connection between the murdered former policeman and Benedict Strachan. That connection is a prestigious and exclusive independent school, known colloquially as St Nicks’s. When she visits the school, she unearths more questions than answers.

Novels that use the name of the Devil in their title are making a statement that the writer has to live up to. No-one did it better than the great Derek Raymond in his 1984 The Devil’s Home On Leave, but what about this book? I won’t over-egg the pudding and say that it’s an existential treatise on the nature of evil. It’s just a crime novel, albeit a very superior one. Suffice it to say that Stuart MacBride takes us to some very dark places, and convinces us that the Devil is real, if only in the sense that he lives in the hearts and souls of certain human beings.

No Less The Devil will be published by Bantam Press on 28th April. As a postscript, I have to say that I found the last hundred or so  pages seriously strange, and it took me all the way back to the 1990s and my weekly (and increasingly puzzled) visits to Twin Peaks. Without any further spoilers, I will simply say that I think I know what happens, but I aIso believe readers will be divided over the plot swerve.  I would be interested to hear from other people what they made of it.

LAST SEEN ALIVE . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2022-04-16 at 20.05.42Last Seen Alive is the third  book by Jane Bettany (left) featuring the Derbyshire copper DI Isabel Blood. The story begins when Anna Matheson, a single mother who works at a large confectionery firm, fails to pick up her infant son from the child minder after a social event at work. Lauren Talbot, the child minder, raises the alarm late at night, but precious hours elapse before morning comes and the police are able to start making enquiries.

I wonder where crime stories would be without the ever-reliable assistance of dog walkers? Inevitably, it is one such who makes the grim discovery of a body which turns out to be that of Anna Matheson. She has been strangled, but there is no evidence of sexual assault. Isabel Blood’s team begin their investigations at Allwoods – the successful firm where Anna was marketing manager. The firm is jointly owned by Fay Allwood – widow of Barry – and their son, Ross. Suspicion initially falls on a member of the management team, James Derenby, who has been unsuccessfully trying to date Anna for some time, but this is, apparently, a blind alley.

Isabel Blood is convinced that the key to the mystery lies in discovering who was the the father of Benedict – the dead woman’s baby son. Anna Matheson had steadfastly and consistently refused to reveal his identity – even to her own mother. What follows is an intensely complex voyage of discovery for the detectives, as they encounter what becomes almost a criminal version of Who Do You Think You Are? Old secrets are revealed and – like creatures scuttling away from the light when a large flat stone is lifted – many people try to avoid their past indiscretions being made public.

DI Blood is an interesting character. Lord knows, there are probably as many Detective Inspectors in crime fiction as there are real ones, so what makes her stand out? Thankfully, she is happily married, comfortable in her own skin and, praise be, we don’t have regular updates about her CD collection. Like many of her fictional counterparts, she is constantly being admonished by her boss for becoming too involve with cases and doing more investigating than inspecting. Another reason for the empathetic portrayal of the Derbyshire detective is, I suspect, that she and her creator are in more or less of the same age and, perhaps, family circumstances.

Last Seen Alive is elaborately plotted, totally convincing, and as good an example of a contemporary English police procedural as you are likely to find. It is published by HQ Digital (Harper Collins), is out now in Kindle, and will be available as a paperback on June. If you want to read my review of the previous novel Without A Trace click the link.

MAILED FIST . . . Between the covers

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The superb Wartime Classics series from the Imperial War Museum includes stories from the home front, such as Plenty Under The Counter, To All The Living, and Mr Bunting at War. Eight Hours From England took us to the undercover war in Albania, Patrol was set in the North Africa campaign, and in Trial by Battle, we sweated along with the men fighting in the Malayan jungle. The battle in the air was covered by Pathfinders and Squadron Airborne. Now, in the twelfth of the series, Mailed Fist joins Warriors For The Working Day and Sword of Bone with an account of the fighting in mainland Europe.

Cedric John Foley MBE (7 March 1917 – 8 November 1974) was a British Army officer, author, broadcaster, and public relations specialist. A regular soldier between 1936 and 1954, he was made MBE for his services to the Royal Armoured Corps during WW2. A man of wide interests, he was also known as a broadcaster and scriptwriter, and was military advisor to the popular ITV comedy show, The Army Game.


This is perhaps the least fictionalised of all the books in the series. Foley faithfully records his own experience after being commissioned into the Royal Armoured Corps in 1943. He was to command Five Troop – a trio of Churchill tanks named Avenger, Alert, and Angler. Foley follows the progress of the Allied forces through Normandy, the Ardennes and eventually – after bitter and brutal fighting against German forces – across the Rhine into Germany itself.

Earlier editions of the book had a very gung-ho blurb on the front but it is worth  pointing out that although Foley is, as one might expect, intensely loyal to the Churchill tank, it was widely regarded as being something of a lame duck in the tank world. The massed-produced American Shermans, the devastating Panthers and Tigers of the Panzerkorps, and the Russian T34s were all probably superior in overall performance.

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The book is markedly different from Warriors For The Working Day, another account which included a description of  a tank regiment advancing through Normandy. Peter Elstob’s writing is much more, for want of a better word, poetic, while Foley’s words have more the feel of a diary. He also concentrates more on the mechanics of the war, rather than the emotions of the men fighting it. That isn’t to say that Mailed Fist isn’t well written, and there are some memorable passages, such as this description of a column of German prisoners:

“One cheerful imp-faced man – obviously the platoon jester –  gave a Nazi salute grinned broadly as he turned it into a mime of pulling a lavatory chain. At the end of the column came a boy, he looked about thirteen years old and as he stumbled past he used the sleeve of his greatcoat to wipe the tears from his eyes.”

If you hadn’t worked it out from the featured illustration, the book’s title refers to the cap badge of the Royal Armoured Corps. Mailed Fist is a highly readable and authentic account of a crucial stage during WW2. It is published by the Imperial War Museum, and will be available on 21st April.


BESA British version of a Czech machine gun, frequently mounted in WW2 British tanks. Fired 7.92 Mauser rounds.
BOCAGE Countryside in Normandy typified by small fields, dense hedgerows and sunken roads. Difficult country for offensive warfare but ideal for defenders.
CHURCHILL British tank, well armoured, but lacking the firepower of its German adversaries. Still in use in the 1950s.
ENSA Entertainments National Service Organisation – dedicated to bringing light entertainment to serving military units.
LST Landing Ship, Tank. American boat used to transport tankson D-Day
PANTHER German tank considered one of the best of the war in terms of fire power, protection and mobility.
SHERMAN The ubiquitous Allied tank of WW2. American designed and built, easy to run and maintain, produced in huge numbers.
SPANDAU German machine gun, firing up to 1200 rounds a minute/Known to the Allies as ‘Hitler’s Buzzsaw’.
TELLERMINE Literally ‘Plate Mine’ – German anti-tank mine.
TIGER Probably the supreme tank of WW2, at least in theory. Fast, manoeuvrable, with a powerful gun and formidable armour, it was, difficult to repair and too highly engineered to be produced in sufficient numbers.


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HHH024The Tucumcari Press is based in Tucson, Arizona, and they have kindly sent me a couple of books by  Kirk Alex. So who is he? He can tell us:

“I was born in Sarajevo in 1951. My family moved to Brussels when he was eight. I loved Brussels and wanted to stay on. Had the French language down in no time and wished to remain in Europe, at the least. But no, my parents felt like moving again, and there we were, two years later, U.S.-bound. Chicago, to be exact.

After finishing out my two-year military bit returned to Chicago in pretty sorry shape, dealing with bad dreams and a general state of numbness; I was dead inside. Got myself a slave-wage job not far from the Loop, picked up a typewriter for thirty bucks (on layaway; they had layaway back then) and started writing short stories. Got nowhere. After six months of that, tossed what few possessions I had (some paperbacks and clothes) into the used convertible I owned at the time, and headed west. Thought that’s what I had to do, go along with the Pull of the Mythical West, to pursue a dream or two.

I was young and naive, didn’t realize I could just as easily have remained in the Windy City like the great Nelson Algren and written my ass off right there. Live and learn. Instead, ended up in a vicious pit called L.A. for too many years to count.

HNH025In L.A., unless you have the flashy car, luxury apartment, good paying job, you can forget about having a woman in your life to be with, any of that; so yeah, we hung in there alone. What doesn’t break you makes you stronger, so they say.

Was a furniture mover, delivered phone books door-to-door, drove a taxi, was a movie extra, did factory work, painted apartments, did TV repos even, sold rebuilt mattresses to Sunset Strip prostitutes and out-of-work Hollywood actor types. Kept writing and reading. Amassed my share of rejection slips.

Bottom line: My olivetti/LETTERA provided the only light at the end of the tunnel. Granted it may have been a weak light, still, it was the only lifeline available. Without books/writing, I might easily have ended up in a straightjacket in a rubber room somewhere, or dead.

Found myself in the jungles of ‘Nam at nineteen, ducking sniper fire and mortar shrapnel, when I wasn’t busy burning leeches off my testicles and side-stepping snakes and boobytraps.”

Kirk Alex’s novel Lustmord: Anatomy of a Serial Butcher was a finalist in the Kindle Book Review’s Best Book Awards of 2014. He is also the author of Zook, Fifty Shades of Tinsel, the story collection: Ziggy Popper at Large, and the Love, Lust & Murder series:

So what about the Edgar ‘Doc’ Holiday books? You might meed to be a fan of Westerns to get the nickname. The LA private eye’s near namesake (there’s an extra ‘L’) wasn’t a doctor at all, but an infamous gambler and gunfighter, who happened to be a dentist. He was a chum of Wyatt Earp, and took part in the legendary shoot-out at the OK Corral in Tombstone. One thing is for sure, the Edgar ‘Doc’ Holiday books are long – the two I have run to 573 and 631 pages respectively. Alex is also an admirer (as am I) of one of the all-time geniuses of crime fiction, and he includes a couple of quotes from the great man in the frontispiece to the books.


To give you an idea of Alex’s prose style, there’s a vivid scene (probably not for pet lovers) in Hard Noir Holiday where the detective ends up at an Arizona dogfight as part of his investigation.

“The MC waved his arms and the killers were released. NightDemon’s lunge was so fierce and carried so much force that the black pit bull not only knocked the other down, but was already plowing his jaw back into the other’s snout. He was tearing away at the left side of Max Pain’s mouth. The tan pit bull attempted to pull away and only managed to lose a chunk of his snout in the process.”

With characters called Biffle, McCrud, Jack Spot and Ilsa Goth, there is no mistaking that we are deep in Noir territory, and this novel is clearly not for the faint of heart, or those who like their fictional crime committed in sleepy English villages. I intend to make a start on these books as soon as I can fit them in around blog tour commitments, but for now, they are available on Amazon.

MR BUNTING AT WAR . . . Between the covers

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This is another in the superb series of republished novels set in the Second World War. As author Wiliiam Boyd remarked:

“If poetry was the supreme literary form of the First World War the, as if in riposte, in the Second World War, the English novel comes of age. This wonderful series is an exemplary reminder of that fact.”

Robert Greenwood introduced Mr Bunting to the world in the book of the same title, published in 1940. He is something of a ‘stuffed shirt’, but entirely without malice, and he lives with his family in Essex, but within commuting distance of his work at an ironmongers in London. This is set in 1941, with London under siege from the skies, but by the end of the book the strategically unimportant district where the Buntings live is feeling the full wrath of the Luftwaffe.

George Bunting and his wife Mary have three grown up children, Chris, Ernest and Julie. Chris is, it could be said, George’s favourite son. He is practical, endlessly optimistic and cheerful, while Ernest is more introspective – and a gifted pianist. Both young men are trying hard to make a go of their respective careers, while Julie is something of a dreamer, and looking for suitable work.

The day to day world that Robert Greenwood describes would have been completely familiar to thousands of readers in 1941. So many elements of life then, however, are almost unimaginable to us now: the sheer terror of being under regular attack from the skies, the dread of receiving a telegram from the armed forces, the privations and shortages of food and the heavy hand of a wartime government laid on every aspect of normal life.

I was initially tempted to compare Mr Bunting with another  gentleman from an earlier generation, Charles Pooter. Mr Pooter (the creation of George and Weedon Grossmith in Diary of A Nobody) lived closer to ‘town’,  in Holloway. His house was called The Laurels, while Mr Bunting lives at Laburnum Villa. While the Grossmiths wanted us to laugh at Mr Pooter, Robert Greenwood takes a very different approach. He invites us, perhaps, to smile and raise an eyebrow at Mr Bunting’s rigid view of the world and his own place in it, but he never mocks. Bunting is a man of simple pleasures:

“There was nothing Mr Bunting liked better than to escape from the war and listen to his wife and daughter-in-law discuss the technicality of ‘turning the heel’ or report on experiments with recipes recommended by the Ministry of Food. To sit placidly smoking and listening to these discussions was to realise one had a home and a wife who was a jewel. If there was anything better in life, Mr Bunting wanted to know what it was.”

Through Mr Bunting, as he travels into London each day on his morning train, we see the carnage being wrought on the city. As he walks from the station to Brockleys, things almost become too much for him:

“Through the devastation he walked, stepping over hoses, skirting the edge of craters, threading his way past grimed and bloodshot firemen, single-mindedly pursuing his own particular business. There were gruesome sights, too, sensed rather than seen, tarpaulins stretched over what he knew were human forms. Once, a lock of a girl’s hair fluttered brightly as the wind ruffled her crude shroud. He bit his lip, and looked away.”

In George Bunting, Robert Greenwood created a character who is ordinary in the extreme, socially gauche, but from a generation of people who simply ‘got on with things’ when the darker side of life – in this case, a world war – threatened to overwhelm them. When tragedy strikes the family, he is devastated, but breaking down is simply something that was ‘not on’ in those days. To the fraudulent modern day gurus of self-love and ’emotional intelligence’, George Bunting would seem like someone from another planet, but Greenwood gives him courage, dignity and – above all – common decency. Mr Bunting at War is an Imperial War Museum Classic, and will be out on 21st April.


For reviews of other IWM Classics, click the link below.


THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Fuller & Jacobsen

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TREVIGGEN by Edward John Fuller

You won’t need to be an expert in English place names to work out where this is set – and no, it’s not a grim piece of domestic Noir set in Stoke-on-Trent. As the name suggests, we are in the brooding and romantic country of Cornwall, where Emma Courteis just wants to live quietly with her daughter in Cornwall and paint. Of course, that’s not how things turn out, and we are promised revenge, and a tale that is brutal, romantic and sensual. It is available now, published by Matador and, just for a change, here’s a link to buy it from somewhere other than Amazon.


SHADOWS OF FURY by Keith Jacobsen

We remain in Cornwall, where a dying woman is suffocated in her hospital bed. Her last visitor, Madeleine Reed, is accused of the crime. There are no witnesses. Madeleine cannot recall committing the murder and has no motive. Claiming to be pursued by the Furies, punitive figures from Greek mythology, she is found guilty of manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility. After her release from a secure hospital she is drawn back to the Cornish coastal village where she lived before the murder and where her mother had died years before in mysterious circumstances.

Slowly, her memories begin to return. She knows that she must finally confront the hideous Furies who alone can bring the truth to light. But can she bear to uncover the horrific, distant memories she has repressed for so long? This is published by The Book Guild and is available now.


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