April 27, 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.

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