April 2023

KILLING THE INVISIBLE . . . Between the covers

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KTI cover014 copyKeith Dixon’s Porthaven is a fictional town on England’s south coast. It doesn’t seem woke or disfunctional enough to be Brighton, maybe neither big nor rough enough to be Portsmouth or Southampton, so it’s maybe a mix of all three, seasoned with a dash of Newhaven and Peacehaven. Inspector Walter Watts is a Porthaven copper. He is middle-aged, deeply cynical, overweight, and a man certainly not at ease with himself – or many others – but a very good policeman. When a young woman, later identified as Cheryl Harris, is found murdered on a piece of waste ground, the only thing Watts accomplishes on his visit to the scene is that his sarcastic exchanges with a female CSI officer result in in an official complaint, and  him being moved off the case. From the sidelines, Watts knows that whoever killed the young woman was definitely trying to pass on a message. The woman’s face has been obliterated by a concrete slab, with her mobile ‘phone  jammed into what was left of her mouth.

His new job is to liaise with Porthaven council over the security aspects for a proposed housing development. This is where Keith Dixon throws in the first of several delightful plot devices. Superintendent Tony ‘Frog’ French is Watts’ boss and the man who gave the order for the sideways move. Watts happens to be having an affair with Frog’s wife Felicity – and guess who is the council executive in charge of the building project? None other than Felicity (using her maiden name) Gable.

When the officer brought in to head up the murder enquiry is himself sidelined (due to some clever calling-in of old favours by Watts) our man is back in business. He senses that the murder of Cheryl Harris is somehow connected to the business dealings of Kurt Swanpool, a millionaire property developer (with a criminal record) who is working with Porthaven Council on the housing development with which Watts was – briefly – involved.

Screen Shot 2023-04-23 at 19.30.47Watts was brought up by his father – and in boarding schools – after his mother left the home. There has been no contact with her from that day to this, until he receives a message from the desk sergeant at Porthaven ‘nick’ simply saying that his mother had ‘phoned, and would he call her back on the number provided. This thread provides an interesting and complex counterpoint to the police investigation into the killing of Cheryl Harris. It also allows Keith Dixon (right) to better define Watts as a person; on the one hand he is aloof, selfish, socially abrasive and enjoys showing his mental superiority; on the other, he is vulnerable, unsure, and shaped by a childhood lacking conventional affection.

Kurt Swanpool may be modeled on a real life notorious Sussex millionaire landlord and part-time criminal with connections to southern Africa. Who knows? Swanpool retains dirty connections, even as he tries to establish his philanthropic credentials. Did anyone – or anything – decent ever come out of the Balkans? The jury is out, and two villains name Milo and Drago appear in the story, and don’t advance the cause of Serbia or Montenegro being nominated for an international human rights award one little bit.

Watts gets his murderer. That’s not me being intentionally oblique, but a rather gentle suggestion that you read a famous 1911 poem by Rudyard Kipling, which begins:

“When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside. “

Killing The Invisible – the second in the Porthaven Trilogy – is superior crime fiction. By turn intense, dark, literate and sardonic, it is published by Spellbound Books, and is available now.

MOSCOW EXILE . . . Between the covers

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MESome writers who have authored different series occasionally allow the main characters to meet each other, provided that they are contemporaries, of course. I’m pretty sure that Michael Connolly has allowed Micky Haller to bump into Harry Bosch, while Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone certainly knew each other in their respective series by Robert J Parker. Did Spenser ever join them in a (chaste) threesome? I don’t remember. John Lawton’s magnificent Fred Troy series ended with Friends and Traitors (2017), and since then he has been writing the Joe Wilderness books, of which this is the fourth. I can report, with some delight, that in the first few pages we not only meet Fred, but also Meret Voytek, the tragic heroine of A Lily of the Field, and her saviour – Fred’s sometime lover and former wife, Larissa Tosca. As an aside, for me A Lily of the Field is not only the best book John Lawton has ever written, but the most harrowing and heartbreaking account of Auschwitz ever penned. Click the link below to read more.


The notional central character in this novel is Joe Wilderness, although he does not appear until the half way point of the book. For readers new to Joe, a bit of background. First, his real surname is Holderness – his nickname rather cleverly reflects a character who is beyond the pale of conventional loyalty and morality. His WW2 service career was marked by insubordination and bootlegging, and his eye for the main chance found him operating various scams in post war Berlin, where his deviousness brought him to the attention of the British intelligence agencies. Since then, he has been involved in various covert operations on behalf the government – and himself.

The background action in Moscow Exile begins with the activities and subsequent shock-waves caused by the scandal of The Cambridge Five – Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Cairncross and Blunt – pillars of the British establishment who were actively working for Moscow in the 1950s, but the novel has a wide timespan – from the late 1940s to 1969. Charlie Leigh-Hunt, a British toff with a distinguished WW2 record carries the story for a while, as he is sent to be chief spook in Washington after the hurried departure of Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby. Charlie has an affair with Charlotte ‘Coky’ Shumaker a British socialiter, whose husband is Senator Bob Redmaine – a thinly disguised version of Joe McCarthy, he of the notorious anti communist witch hunts. Ironically, Coky is in the pay of Russia, as is Charlie, who eventually ends up as a Moscow resident.

Joe Wilderness has also, since a disastrous attempted prisoner exchange on a Berlin bridge between the East and West sectors, been a guest of the KGB, and Lawton sets up a delicious plot twist when Fred Troy – now a Lord, and a British diplomat – is persuaded to be ‘Our Man In Moscow.’ Again, readers new to Lawton’s books might welcome some background on Fred (see below)


The plotting, by this stage, in terms of bluff and double-bluff, makes John le Carré look like Enid Blyton but, to cut to the chase, HM government decides that it is too dangerous to allow Joe to remain in Moscow, and so he has to be ‘extracted’. It doesn’t hurt that Joe’s father in law, Colonel Burne-Jones is a senior figure in MI5, and his boss – Roderick Troy – is both Home Secretary and Fred’s brother. Normally, spies are only released in exchange for other spies, but the woman handling the Russian end of things, General Volga Vasilievna Zolotukhina is just as big a crook as Joe, and she wants money – £25,000 in the proverbial used notes.

Publicists and other book people who make lists might dub this the fourth Joe Wilderness novel but, for me, it’s the latest saga in Fred Troy’s career – and all the better for it. It is a dazzling and erudite journey down the complex back roads of Cold War diplomacy and skullduggery. Lawton is one of our finest writers, and every page he writes is pure pleasure. Moscow Exile is published by Grove Press and will be available on 4th May.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Lawton and Macmillan


Two beguiling new books have arrived in the last couple of days, one by an author with who is new to me, and one by a writer whose novels have held me spellbound since I borrowed his first novel from the local library in 1995.

MOSCOW EXILE by John Lawton

MEI believe that John Lawton’s novels are every bit as significant as Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time sequence. Lawton’s books were never marketed in the same way – as a developing saga –  but from start to finish, they all interconnect. Not all the characters appear in every book, but they are all there in the background. Moscow Exile is, notionally, one of the Joe Wilderness books, but within the first few pages we become reacquainted with familiar characters from the Fred Troy novels. The actions focuses on the spy game from the outbreak of WW2 to the Cold War in 1960s Berlin. I will post a full review soon, but for now, this is published by Grove Press and will be out on 4th May.

THE FALL by Gilly Macmillan

The FallThe Bristol-based author is a former art historian and photographer who studied at Bristol University and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She now has a strict of bestselling psychological thrillers to her name, including What She Knew, The Perfect Girl and The Long Weekend. Her latest novel tells the tale of a couple who win a fortune on the lottery, and move into what they hope will be a dream home. When the husband – Tom – is found dead in their state-of-the-art pool – the police have no option but to focus their attention on his wife – Nicole – and thus her nightmare begins. The Fall is published by Century/Penguin Random House and will be on the shelves from 25th May.

THE MONK . . . Between the covers

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The idea of an investigating detective having what some people see as a disability is an interesting one. Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme is a tetraplegic who, effectively, cannot do ‘normal detective things’; Nero Wolfe is morbidly obese and rarely leaves his apartment – his cases are solved by his brain power and Archie Goodwin‘s leg-work; more recently, Harry Bingham’s Fiona Griffiths suffers from Cotard’s Delusion, aka Walking Corpse Syndrome, which gives her telling insights into murder investigations. Tim Sullivan introduced us to Detective Sergeant George Cross in The Dentist (2021). Cross has Asperger’s Syndrome* I will say now that this was one of those rare book that I simply didn’t want to end. I noted the advance of my bookmark through the pages with definite sadness.

*Symptoms include an inability to understand figurative speech, obsession with detail, difficulty with recognising emotional responses and lack of social awareness and empathy.

Author Tim Sullivan, very cleverly, pairs George Cross with fellow DS Josie Ottey, a married woman who is as ‘normal’ as Cross is ‘odd’. She acts as a kind of buffer between Cross and the people he must question as part of the job. What Cross brings to the party, however, is a kind of cold objectivity which, to counteract his inability to read a facial expression or tone of voice, gives him a laser-like clarity regarding the truth and logic of what witnesses or suspects tell him. The Monk is set in the Bristol area, and a body is found in the intriguingly named Goblin Combe*, a rural beauty spot beloved of hikers and tourists.

*A small dry valley beneath a hill. Commonly used in southern and south western England.

The  body, brutally beaten, is found strapped to chair and abandoned in a ditch. It turns out to be that of a Benedictine monk, Brother Dominic, who had only recently been reported missing from a nearby monastic community, St Eustace’s Abbey. The victim was killed elsewhere and the corpse dumped. There only a dozen members of the order, all men who, for whatever reason, have chosen to reject the modern world in favour of a life of prayer and contemplation. George Cross rapidly sees that there are two obvious lines of enquiry; was Brother Dominic killed because of something that happened within the walls of the monastery, or did his murder relate to something in his previous life, where he was a very successful investment banker?

Screen Shot 2023-04-05 at 18.42.44Without giving the game away, it is in Brother Dominic’s previous life where the clues are to be found, but answers don’t come easy for Cross and Ottey. Although there was a very clever plot twist involving the identity of the killer, I was far more involved with George Cross as a person than wondering who murdered Brother Dominic.The relationship between Cross and his father, the discombobulating effect of the re-emergence of his mother – lost to him since she left the family home when he was five – and his attraction to the unambiguous world of order, silence and simplicity of Dominic’s fellow monks,  all contribute to the power of this compelling read.

The book is full of little treats and bonuses. Rather in the same way that The Nine Tailors doubled as a treatise on the arcane art of bell ringing, we learn that George Cross is an accomplished church organist, despite the concept of religious faith being totally alien to him. He spends his spare time by pushing the murder case to a corner compartment of his mind, and patiently dismantling the dysfunctional abbey pipe organ, then cleaning and re-assembling the separate parts so that the instrument can once again play a part in the liturgy. Sullivan (above left) also gives the staple of police procedural novels – the recorded interview – a new twist; Cross’s ‘disability’ is a blessing when it comes to his interview technique, as neither the suspect nor the duty lawyer can make head nor tail of his literal approach to everything that is said. Mistaking him for an idiot, however, becomes a serious error of judgment.

Sullivan’s experience as a film director and screenwriter gives the narrative an intensely visual feel, but he wisely lets us picture George Cross in our own way, providing little or no physical description of him.  The Monk is a brilliant police procedural with an engaging central character and a clever plot. Published by Head of Zeus, it will be out on 27th April.

I WILL FIND YOU . . . Between the covers

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Sometimes, the best writers set themselves challenges by posing a plot problem that appears to deny a plausible solution. One such was back in 2021 when, in The Perfect Lie, Jo Spain pulled the wool over our eyes. There, the deception hinged on a few words – and our (wrong) assumptions.

In his latest novel, Harlan Coben – to use the metaphor of Houdini – has wrapped himself in so many chains and padlocks that it seems impossible that he can set himself free. Why? Try this. Five years ago, David Burroughs was jailed for life for murdering his three year-old son, Matthew, with a baseball bat. He now languishes in the protected section of a high security jail, alongside child rapists, cannibals, and other monsters. After refusing to see any visitors for five years he is finally forced to see one – because he omitted to fill in the annual paperwork. It is his former sister-in-law Rachel; his wife, Cheryl has, inevitably, divorced him. Rachel shows David a photo (taken by a friend) of a family group at an amusement park. On the edge of the picture is a little boy, clutching the hand of an adult, otherwise out of picture. It is Matthew.

Coben gives us a drive-through account of the back story. David Burroughs was home-alone with Matthew that night. Cheryl, a surgeon,  was at work. David was in a bad mood, put his son to bed without a bedtime story, and proceeded to get outside of the best part of a bottle of Bourbon. Somehow awakened by a sixth sense that something was wrong, or perhaps by the smell of blood, David staggered to his son’s bedroom only to find a mangled and unrecognisable corpse on the bed.

The first key to the mystery is, of course, that the shattered boy’s corpse was just that – unrecognisable. It was, however, in Matthew’s bed, wearing Matthew’s pyjamas. When, a little while later a baseball bat, with David’s fingerprints all over it, is found buried in the garden, David’s status changes from bereaved father, through suspect, to convicted killer.

The next key has to be putting David in a situation – i.e. no longer behind bars – where he can investigate the possibility that the child in the photograph is Matthew, and prove that the murdered boy in Matthew’s bed was someone else. The Governor of Briggs Penitentiary is Philip Mackenzie, and he has history with David Burroughs. David’s dad, Lenny, was, long ago, a grunt in Vietnam with Phil. The pair survived and went on to become partners in crime prevention as precinct cops. Now, Phil is just months away from retirement and a double pension, while Lenny is in the advanced stages of dementia. Suffice it to say there is a fairly improbable break-out from Briggs but this is, after all, crime-fiction.

Coben then throws a fairly heavy spanner into the works by revealing that at a rough stage in their marriage, when Cheryl and David were unable to conceive, Cheryl booked an appointment at a sperm donor clinic. This cleverly opens up all manner of potential twists and questions, which the author exploits to the maximum. It certainly had me guessing right up to the final few pages. If I say this a typically American slick thriller, it is meant as an entirely positive description. Somehow – and I won’t say they are better than British writers – American novelists such as Coben, Connolly, Baldacci and Kellerman produce a polished and gleaming product which has, to extend the automobile metaphor, a distinctive ‘new car smell’. I Will Find You is published by Century and is out now.

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