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September 2022

A DARK STEEL DEATH . . . Between the covers

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Chris Nickson’s long running saga about  Leeds copper Tom Harper continues with our man now Deputy Chief Constable. We are in January 1917 and, like in other major cities, patrols are on the look out for the silent peril of Zeppelins, while Harper has a possible act of sabotage to investigate after a pile of newspaper and kindling is found inside a warehouse used for storing military clothing. The book begins, however, a month earlier with a true historical incident.

In nearby Barnbow, a huge munitions factory had been established from scratch in 1915. Its prime function was the filling of shells. With the constant drain of manpower to the armed forces, the workforce at Barnbow became over 90% female. On the night of 5th December 1916 a massive explosion occurred in Hut 42, killing 35 women outright, maiming and injuring dozens more. In some cases identification was only possible by the identity disks worn around the necks of the workers. It is believed that the explosion was triggered by a shell being packed with double the required amount of explosives. The dead women, at last, have their own memorial.

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With the Barnbow investigation ongoing, Harper has more problems on his hands when a sentry outside a barracks in the city is shot dead with, it turns out, a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfield) .303 rifle, adapted for sniping, which was stolen from the barracks own armoury.

There are so many things to admire about this series, not least being the meticulous historical research carried out by the author. One example is the development of police investigative techniques. Back at the beginning, in Gods of Gold (2014), the idea that people could be identified by their fingerprints would have been seen as pure fantasy but, as we see in this novel, it was an essential tool  for the police by 1917.

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Back to Tom Harper’s current case. As he and his detectives sift what little evidence there is, they seem to be chasing their own tails. Harper’s worries don’t end as he closes his office door each evening. In an earlier book, we learned the grim news that his vivacious and beautiful wife Annabelle, a tireless campaigner for female equality, has developed early-onset dementia. Harper has employed a Belgian refugee couple to run Annabelle’s pub, and keep a close eye on his wife, but he never knows from one day to the next what state she will be in. If he is lucky, she will show glimpses of her old self; when she is having a bad day, she inhabits a totally imaginary world and slips from all the anchors of reality. The most painful moments for Harper come when Annabelle believes that he is her late first husband, Harry.

Eventually the case breaks. Harper and his team are astonished to find they are facing not just one killer, but a partnership. Two former soldiers, Gordon Gibson and James Openshaw were virtually buried alive when a shell exploded near them on the Western Front. Openshaw was a sniper and Gibson, not much of a shot but with superb eyesight, was his spotter. Both men were invalided out, but Openshaw, after a spell at the famous Edinburgh hospital, Craiglockhart, remains under constant medical care at Gledhow Hall, a Leeds stately home used as a hospital for the duration of the war. It seems that for whatever motive, Gibson smuggled Openshaw  and the rifle out of the hospital to commit the murder of the sentry. Now, Gibson is at large with the rifle and, despite his poor marksmanship, has shot at Tom Harper’s official car, and badly wounded a policeman.

The endgame takes place as Gibson uses all his fieldcraft to find his way into a heavily guarded Gledhow Hall to liberate Openshaw and resume their killing spree. The finale is breathtaking, powerfully written – and deeply moving. A Dark Steel Death is published by Severn House and is available now.

FOR MORE ON THE TOM HARPER SERIES CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW

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DEMOLITION . . . Between the covers

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Former Lancashire copper and now best-selling novelist Nick Oldham doesn’t muck about. By the time you have read the first half dozen pages of his latest Henry Christie novel, we have had a gangster shot dead in his own swimming pool, another very rich but rather ‘iffy’ businessman bludgeoned to death with a huge spanner he has been using to rebuild a WW2 aircraft – and Henry himself dodging bullets.

High speed back story for new readers (Where have you been? This is book 30 in the series!) Henry Christie, former senior copper, now in his 50s, rather tragic ‘love life’, runs a pub in Kendleton on the Lancashire moors, frequently engaged by his former employers as a civilian investigator, usually involving crimes committed by local gangsters operating a kind of triangle-of-death between Preston, Blackpool and Fleetwood. No kiss-me-quick hats here, just deprivation, drugs and violence.

As has been customary in the recent novels, Christie is signed back on to help with the two murders – a perfectly plausible move by the Lancashire Constabulary, as  their staffing levels have taken a hit through Covid. Henry’s police ‘chaperone’ is DS Deb Blackstone. She is a feisty and competent officer who just happens to dress like a slightly deranged Goth, with spiked pink hair and all the trimmings.

Our man has other things on his plate, too. One of the regular groups to meet in his pub rather like rural Lancashire’s answer to The Thursday Murder Club, and the case they are currently working on is not so much cold as embedded in the permafrost. It concerns the murder of Lucas Grundy, back in 1941, and spice is added to the investigation by the fact that Eric, the murdered man’s brother is still alive, albeit aged 100. Christie learns from an elderly woman in the village that she believes Eric Grundy raped her, many decades earlier, but the crime was never properly dealt with.

A couple of days before Lucas Grundy was murdered, a Heinkel bomber, damaged in a raid, crashed on the moors nearby. Three of the five-man crew died at the scene and were buried in the local churchyard, but nothing was ever found of the other two. Was it possible that they were somehow involved in Grundy’s death, and how did they simply seem to disappear of the face of the earth?

As a humble reviewer, I can’t begin to comprehend how Nick Oldham keeps so many sub plots going at the same time without the narrative collapsing in confusion. One metaphor, I suppose, is that of the plate-spinning juggler, who manages not to break any of the plates, but stacks them neatly one on top of the other at the end of his performance. Oldham rounds off the action with his customary inventiveness and panache, but be warned  – there is a particularly venomous sting in the tail. Demolition is published by Severn House, and is available now.

FOR REVIEWS OF EARLIER NOVELS IN THE SERIES,
CLICK THE AUTHOR’S IMAGE BELOW

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THE MURDER OF LUCY LINGARD . . . A Grimsby tragedy (part two)

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SO FAR: Grimsby, 18th November 1902. Lucy Lingard is separated from her husband John. She and her children live in Hope Street, and she has been in a relationship with Samuel Harold Smith (Harry), a trawlerman. He has returned from sea, and the couple have spent the afternoon and evening drinking and arguing. Smith has hit Lucy several times, but they return to their house, both drunk. A newspaper reported what happened next.

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InquestThe report was overly optimistic. Lucy Lingard hovered between life and death for a while, but on the Sunday, four days after the attack, she died of her injuries, described below at the subsequent inquest.

Dr Harold Freeth, house surgeon at the Hospital, gave evidence to the effect that the deceased died in the Hospital from exhaustion, following on from injuries, which he described. There were eleven incised wounds in all, chiefly on the chest and the left arm. One of the most serious wounds was that on the upper side of the left breast, and penetrated through the first rib into the chest cavity. The deceased had lost a great deal of blood. Witness had made a post-mortem examination. The wound which penetrated the chest had set up acute inflammation, and there was also inflammation of the pericardium. In reply to a juryman, the witness said the deceased’s organs were quite healthy before the injuries were inflicted.”

Bizarrely, despite the eye-witness testimony of Lucy Lingard’s daughter, who had witnessed the attack, and the fact that he had admitted his guilt when arrested, Smith pleaded not guilty. Another newspaper reported on young Rose’s demeanour.

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Sir_William_Rann_Kennedy_1915Inevitably, the Coroner’s court, convened at the beginning of December, declared Smith to be guilty of murder, and now it would be up to the Lincoln Assizes court, Judge and Jury, to determine his fate. Smith spent the rest of December – including Christmas – and the greater part of February in Lincoln gaol. On Wednesday 25th February 1903, before Mr Justice Kennedy (right), Samuel Henry Smith  ‘had his hour in court’. Despite the suggestion to the jury that the charge should be reduced to one of manslaughter, it all went badly for Smith.

“The Lincolnshire Assizes were resumed yesterday before Justice Kennedy. Samuel Henry Smith, aged 45, fisherman, was indicted for the wilful murder of Lucy Margaret Lingard. at Grimsby, on the 18th November last. Mr Etherington Smith and Mr Lawrence appeared for the prosecution, and at the request of the Judge Mr Bonner undertook the defence. The case was sordid one. The deceased woman lived apart from her husband at 3, Taylor’s Terrace, Hope Street, Grimsby, and the accused had been in the habit of staying with her. On November 18th last the couple were out together during the afternoon, and on their return had some words, and the prisoner struck the woman. Afterwards they again went out, and when they returned late at night with a lodger and another woman, they were the worse for drink. The quarrel was resumed after a time, and, according to the evidence of the woman’s thirteen-year-old daughter, the accused took out a knife, and, rushing at the deceased, stabbed her several times. She died in the hospital on the following Sunday. On the prisoner’s behalf, Mr Bonner suggested that the jury would be justified in finding him guilty of manslaughter. The crime was undoubtedly due to drink, and he submitted that at the time of its commission the prisoner was not in condition to exercise any discretion as to the result of what he was doing. The jury found the prisoner guilty of Wilful Murder,” and he was sentenced to death.”

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Smith’s legal team had applied to the Home Secretary, Viscount Chilston, for a reprieve, but he was not minded to be merciful. Likewise a petition set up by residents of Smith’s home town, Brixham, was ignored. On Tuesday 10th March, Samuel Henry Smith was marched to the scaffold by the executioner, William Billington (left). The role of state executioners was often kept within families. Just as the Pierrepoint family had several hangmen – Henry, Thomas and Albert, William Billington took over the job – along with brothers John and Thomas – when their father, James, died in 1901. Newspaper reporters, at this time, were still officially allowed to witness executions first hand, but in practice, most prison governors (and the hangmen) preferred if they didn’t, due to sensationalised and lurid accounts of the prisoners’ last moments. Whether the reporter from the LIncolnshire Chronicle saw the end of Samuel Henry Smith with his own eyes, or simply used his imagination, we do not know:

“According to recent Home Office regulations the black flag is not now displayed and all that told of the end was the tolling of the prison bell just after hour had struck. Inside the Prison, where there were only officials, the scene was impressively quiet. Wm. Billington the executioner, and his brother John, had arrived on the previous night. Early on the fateful morn the Rev. C.H. Scott visited the condemned man, who listened to his ministrations with attention and apparent gratitude. At ten minutes to eight o’clock County Under-Sheriff (Mr. Chas. Scorer) entered the cell, and approaching Smith requested him to prepare for execution. To all appearance he remained quite calm, and with a steady voice intimated that he was prepared to meet his death. Quietly he submitted himself to the executioner for the necessary pinioning process, and walked unfalteringly to the scaffold, and within two minutes all was over. Billington allowed a drop of 7ft. 3in. To the witnesses death appeared to be absolutely instantaneous and there was scarce a motion of the rope after the body disappeared from sight in the space below the drop.”

All that remained was for Samuel Henry Smith’s body to be buried in the gaol cemetery, along with dozens of other executed killers, and his name to be entered in the official record book.

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THE MURDER OF LUCY LINGARD . . . A Grimsby tragedy (part one)

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Lucy Margaret Mullins was born in the village of Worlaby in 1869. Her father James was Irish, and worked as a groom. Her mother Jane was from the Lincolnshire village of Great Limber. In the 1881 census the family had moved to Little Limber Grange, near Brocklesby. In April 1889, Lucy married John Lingard in St James Church, Grimsby, and the census two years later shows that they were living at 6 Vesey’s Buildings in Grimsby, and they already had two children, Rose (2) and William (10 months). By 1901 they had moved to Sixth Terrace, Hope Street, and had two more children, Nellie (8) and Arthur (4). Also living in the house were two of Lucy’s adult relatives.

The 1901 census was taken on 1st April, and by the autumn of the next year John and Lucy Lingard had separated, Lucy remaining in Hope Street with the children. By the autumn of 1902 she had given birth to another child, born earlier in the year. The census also tells us that a fisherman named Samuel Henry Smith was also living in Hope Street, apparently on his own. His background has been difficult to track. The census records that he was born in Norfolk, but later newspaper reports suggest that his home town was Brixham in Devon.

It is not clear if Harry Smith was in any way responsible for the break up of the Lingards’ marriage, but by November 1902 it was clear that Lucy Lingard and Harry Smith (also separated from his spouse) were in a relationship, when he was not out on the North Sea on a trawler.

At this point, it is worth pausing the story to compare how people lived – in terms of house occupancy – back in the day. It was very common for ordinary working people to share houses with others. I was born in 1947, and my parents rented a room in a Victorian terraced house, which was shared with another couple and the owner, a single man. Each had a bedroom to themselves, and the kitchen and scullery were shared. There was no bathroom. There was running water, but also a pump in the scullery which drew water from a well. There was no electricity until, I think, 1951 and lighting was from gas lamps which were lit by pulling a little chain, which struck a flint, rather like the mechanics of a cigarette lighter.

Before demolition

Screen Shot 2022-09-10 at 18.37.47Hope Street in Grimsby was cleared of its terraces in the late 1960s (pictured above, thanks to Hope Street History), but a late 19th century map shows back-to-back houses opening directly onto the street, and every so often there would courtyards, each open area being surrounded on three sides by further dwellings. For those interested in the history of Hope Street, there is a Facebook page that gives access to an excellent pdf document describing the history of the street. That link is here. It is also worth pointing out that house ownership, certainly in 1902, would have been in the hands of landlords. The great majority of people in streets like Hope Street would be tenants.

We must now move on to the events of 18th November 1902. Harry Smith’s trawler docked that morning, and he had spent the best part of the afternoon and early evening in the company of Lucy Lingard. Smith at one point went down to the docks to collect his wages from his latest voyage. He and Lucy Lingard were at each other’s throats, perhaps because she had refused him ‘conjugal rights’, and he had struck her several times, giving her two black eyes. In spite of this, they went out drinking again, but what happened when they returned to Hope Street later that evening was to send a shiver of revulsion through the whole area.

IN PART TWO
A daughter’s testimony
Denial, trial – and the black cap

FROM THE ASHES . . . Between the covers

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Deborah Masson is back with another gritty police thriller set in her home town of Aberdeen. This time, DI Eve Hunter (previously seen in Out For Blood and Hold Your Tongue) faces the grimmest challenge presented to police officers all over the world – the death of a child. Lucas Fyfe – dead mother, drug addicted father and unfeeling grandmother – has been in care since he was little. When someone deliberately sets fire to Wellwood, a children’s home, he is the one resident who doesn’t make it out. Why? Because the body of the eleven year-old is discovered in the cellar, and the trapdoor which is the only access is concealed under a heavy carpet.

Literally from page one, Masson gives us another perspective – that of the presumed arsonist. We know it’s a ‘he’, and we know that he was a former resident of Wellwood when it was run by the current warden’s father, William Alderton and the sadistic Sally Fields. I find that the backstory narrative trope can be irritating when an author uses too many viewpoints and too many time frames, but here it is used with subtlety and works very well.

Eve Hunter’s team consists of DS Cooper, DS Mearns and DC Ferguson, and the sparky dynamics between them provide an intriguing counterpoint to the investigation. Scott Ferguson is peripherally involved in a road accident on his way to work, but his obsession with the young man who was the main casualty starts to distract him from the Wellwood case. When a further shocking discovery is made in the cellar where Lucas Fyfe died, Ferguson’s lack of attention becomes even more serious. We eventually learn why Ferguson feels compelled to be at the bedside of the young vagrant who was badly injured in the RTA, and it turns the case on its head.

Hunter and her team soon realise that the surviving children and the three adult staff of Wellwood are not telling all that they know. That much is obvious, but penetrating the veil of secrecy proves more difficult. With both of the original owners dead, and local Children’s Services being very protective of the few remaining historic records of the children who were residents, the case seems to go round in circles, until Ferguson’s with Archie, the young RTA victim, finally pays off.

Deborah Masson is a writer who enjoys providing her readers with the unexpected, and the finale of the novel, in the grim basement of Wellwood, is a prime example. Eve Hunter comes over as tough and uncompromising in pursuit of the bad guys, but her family background has left her with a strong streak of compassion, and when Scott Ferguson finally reveals his own secrets – and his link to the Wellwood basement – she is well-equipped to provide emotional support.

This novel is dark, cleverly plotted, full of well-concealed surprises and a master class in how to write a good police-procedural. From The Ashes is published by Transworld/Penguin and is available now.

JOSEPHINE TEY . . . New editions from Penguin

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Screen Shot 2022-09-05 at 19.33.36Penguin have a treat in store for fans of British ‘Golden Age’ crime novels. On 22nd September they are publishing new editions of three novels by a woman who many people feel deserves to be up there with Allingham, Christie, Marsh and Sayers in the Pantheon of female crime fiction giants.

Elizabeth Mackintosh was born in Inverness on 25th July 1896. When she left college, her day job was what we now call PE teacher at various schools in England and Scotland, but she returned to Inverness in 1923 to care for her invalid parents. Writing as Gordon Daviot, she published her first novel, Kif: An Unvarnished History, in 1929, but her work had appeared in periodicals and magazines before this.

She is best known today for her crime novels featuring Inspector Alan Grant. The first of these, originally called Killer in the Crowd, but later retitled The Man In the Queue, appeared in 1929, still under the Gordon Daviot pen-name. For the following five she adopted the name of her great-great grandmother. The books are:

A Shilling for Candles (1936)
The Franchise Affair (1948)
To Love and Be Wise (1950)
The Daughter of Time (1951)
The Singing Sands (1952)

THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR

The ‘Franchise’ in question is the country home of Marion Sharpe and her mother. When the apparently mild mannered pair are accused of kidnap and abuse by a local war orphan, Betty Kane,  Inspector Alan Grant and local solicitor Robert Blair are called in to get to the bottom of the story.

TO LOVE AND BE WISE

Once again, we are in that most favoured setting of mystery writers of the time, a peaceful and sleepy English village. Salcott St Mary has a celebrated and rather exotic resident, the young and gifted Hollywood photographer, Leslie Searle. When Searle disappears without trace, Alan Grant has to discover if the disappearance is voluntary, or the result of something much more sinister.

THE DAUGHTER OF TIME

Tey’s most celebrated novel and probably one of the greatest crime novels of all time, has a delightfully simple but clever plot. Alan Grant is laid up in bed, recovering from a broken leg and bored out of his mind. While looking at the celebrated portrait of Richard III, Grant struggles to see the evil fiend of Shakespeare’s imagining. With the help of the British Museum and an eager American researcher, Grant sets out to solve one of history’s greatest unanswered questions – who killed Edward and Richard, the Princes in The Tower?

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These three novels with introductions by Tana French, Kate Mosse and Alexander McCall Smith, will be available on 22nd September, and nearer the time I will be running a give-away competition to win all three books .

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BRYANT & MAY’S PECULIAR LONDON . . . Between the covers

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Yes, yes, Arthur Bryant died peacefully at the end of London Bridge Is Falling Down, but the old boy isn’t speaking from beyond the grave, or ectoplasmically appearing at his former landlady’s spritualist church. This delightful conceit – and I use the word in its literary sense – is Christopher Fowler (aka @Peculiar on Twitter) imagines a long conversation between Arthur and his long-time colleagues from the Peculiar Crime Unit, to put in print a kind of concordance of the wonderful quirks and hidden histories of London which underpinned the memorable series of novels featuring the two detectives.

This is not a geographical street-by-street tour, but more a recollection of bizarre events and strange legends that darts this way and that, rather like the working of Arthur’s mind. Most of the PCU team have an input with something that has taken their fancy, except (naturally) poor old Raymondo – Raymand Land, the exasperated, ineffectual and much mocked titular head of the PCU. He is given the wrong time for the meeting, and so when he arrives, everything is done and dusted. This little episode is a reminder that (imaginary) cruelty is an essential ingredient of English comedy.

The reader can dip in and out of this book pretty much taking the chapters in any order There is, quite rightly, no sense of one thing leading to another as, perhaps for the first and only time in this series, there is no need for a coherent plot. The events described have already happened – or not, as the case may be. Christopher Fowler, as an expert Londoner, is well aware that fable and legend do not need to cling too closely to probability.

For those wondering where this blissful blend of the arcane, the shocking, the macabre, the comical and the eccentric comes from, the author provides a ‘further reading’ list.

Reading list

It is right and fitting that the closing words in this book should be spoken by Artur Bryant himself:

“London.
According to the playwright Ben Jonson it was the city of bawds and roysters, claret-wine and oysters. To me it is just home, where I am on the inside looking out instead of somewhere outside looking in. It’s my city, not yours. Which is to say that I see it in a certain way that you do not, and vice-versa.
I have no fantasies involving a comatose retirement on the Isle of Wight, like poor old Raymondo. I have no intention of leaving this grubby, exhausting, maddening city.
London is like a greedy old landlady. She didn’t ask me to come, didn’t invite me to stay and won’t miss me when I’ve left.
And that suits me fine.”

Bryant and May’s Peculiar London is published by Doubleday, and is available now.

For more about Christopher Fowler and the Bryant & May novels, click the image below.

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