May 2023

FLESH AND BLOOD . . . Between the covers


This is book number eleven in the series, so a quick heads-up for new readers.
Time: the present
Place: Humberside
Main characters: Detective Inspector (recently promoted from DS) Aector McAvoy. He is a Scot, huge and bear-like, a gentle soul but a formidable copper. His wife Roisin; she is of Irish Gypsy stock, romantic but fiercely protective of Aector and their children – Fin and Lilah. Detective Superintendent Patricia ‘Trish’ Pharoah, thirty years in the force, and as tough as nails. Trish and Aector worship each other, but it is a purely platonic relationship. McAvoy is on holiday with his family in the Lake District, living in a traditional Romany Vardo.

In this book:
Reuben Hollow, a serial killer, serving several life sentences for murdering people he judged as having escaped justice. He was captured by McAvoy. Detective Chief Superintendent George Earl. Promoted because Trish Pharoah turned down the job. Earl is the very model of a modern media friendly senior police officer:

Trish is not immune to the pleasures of the flesh, and she is in bed with an Icelandic copper she met on a course. Their post coital bliss is disturbed by Trish’s car alarm going off, and Thor Ingolfsson runs downstairs to investigate. He is attacked with an adze and left for dead. Thor happens to be a dead ringer for Aector, and when the local police arrive to find the man face down in the road, they put two and two together, and make seventeen. Aector is very much alive and well, however and, despite being told to stay well away by Earl, he is determined to find out what is going on. David Mark’s description of Earl will ring horribly true to anyone who has experienced senior management in corporate services in recent years:

“George Earl is a tall, slim, straight-backed careerist who exudes the gentle earnestness and Anglican-priest sincerity of a Tony Blair. He has a habit of clasping his hands together when he talks, and makes a great show of telling his staff that his door is always open, and there’s no such thing as a stupid question.”

David Mark spent years as a crime reporter for a regional newspaper, and so he is well aware of the depths of villainy which are regularly plumbed by apparently ordinary and innocuous men and women. He also knows that – despite graduate entry – some of the people who are accepted as police officers are not “the brightest and best of the sons of the morning.” (Activists – please feel free to substitute the gender of your choice)

“The three uniformed constables milling around at the rear….he’s noticed that none of them seem to be able to breathe through their nose. All in their twenties and look as though they would be more comfortable working in a phone shop or flogging gloriously chavtastic trainers in a sports shop.”

What follows is pure mayhem. A former police colleague of Trish Pharoah meets an elaborate death by wood-carving chisels, McAvoy narrowly escapes death by hanging, in an execution house probably last used by Albert Pierrepoint, the chaos of Trish Pharoah’s previous life is laid bare to the world, and our man emerges – not unscathed – but able to fight another day.

Flesh and Blood veers violently between the darkest noir imaginable and a simple – but affecting – poetry. It is published by Severn House and will be available on 6th June. The final sentence sums up this brilliant series:

“And inside McAvoy’s head, another voice joins the chorus of the dead.”

THE FALL . . . Between the covers

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The Lancaut peninsula is a real place. It was created back in geological time when the River Wye made a spectacular loop on its way south to merge with the Severn. On the eastern bank is Gloucestershire, and to the west lies Monmouthshire and Wales. Gilly Macmillan has taken taken this rather special and ancient place, and used it as a backdrop for this intriguing thriller. The houses she describes – The Manor and The Barn –  do not exist, but the beautiful landscape certainly does.

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The Barn is an ultra-modern glass and steel construction, something from a modern architect’s wildest dream. Rarely do building designers have a free reign, but when Tom and Nicole Booth won millions on the lottery, they were happy for the brutalist architects to let rip. In contrast, a couple of fields away, is The Manor. A crumbling jumble of genuine styles dating back to Tudor times, it is owned by Olly Palmer and his partner Sasha Dempsey. Olly is an aspiring novelist, perhaps the next literary ‘big thing’, while Sasha runs yoga classes in the The Manor’s former Great Hall. Aspiring (and perspiring) middle-class ladies are happy to pay over the odds to work on their Asana, Bandha and Chakra in such a historic environment.

Nicole returns to The Barn after a day out at a local agricultural show to find Tom dead, floating in their creatively designed swimming pool. The police are called, and Nicole seeks temporary refuge with Olly and Sasha while the emergency services do their thing. The obvious question is, ‘Who killed Tom Booth?”, but the answer to that is saved until very late in the book. Meanwhile we enjoy the frisson of each of the central characters unraveling, one strand at a time.

In addition to all the lies and gaslighting going on between the occupants of The Barn and The Manor, the modern house takes on a demonic life of its own, as Tom and Nicole were persuaded to install a complex AI system where everything – windows, doors, blinds, the sound system and security – all operate by voice command. Except (of course) they don’t, and this allows Gilly Macmillan licence to create all manner of horrors for Nicole, who is very much low-tech.

As with all good psychological thrillers set in domestic situations, no-one – save the two investigating coppers Hal Steen and Jen Walsh – is quite who they appear to be, particularly The Manor’s much put upon housekeeper Kitty, aka – well, that’s for you to discover, but her real identity is central to the story. I have to be honest and say that when I turn a page and see the chapter heading ‘Five Years Earlier’, I am tempted to throw the book down and consign it to the charity shop. I hate split time narratives, but I confess that Gilly Macmillan makes it work here, probably because she uses the device sparingly.

There are enough ironic twists in this story of deception and violent death to earn a benevolent smile from Thomas Hardy as he gazes down from his seat with The Immortals, and I particularly liked the way the pesky voice controlled system in The Barn is used to commit a rather clever murder. The Fall is published by Century and is out on 25th May.

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . 1974 and 1977 by David Peace

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This occasional series of retrospective reviews seeks to ask and – hopefully – answer a few simple questions about crime novels from the past. Those questions include:
How was the book received at the time?
How does it read now, decades after publication?

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I have departed from the usual format by examining two books, published in 1999 and 2000 by Serpents Tail. They were the first two in a quartet of novels by David Peace (left), which have come to be known as the Red Riding Quartet. The books are set in West Yorkshire, and each references real criminal events of the time

1974 is set in a bleak December in Leeds. Edward Dunford is the crime correspondent for a local paper which publishes daily morning and evening editions. He is keen to make his mark, but is overshadowed by his more experienced predecessor, Jack Whitehead. Mourning the recent death of his father, Dunford covers the abduction of a schoolgirl, Clare Kemplay, whose body is later found sexually assaulted and horrifically mutilated. Wings, torn from a swan in a local park, have been been crudely stitched to the little girl’s back. Dunford is convinced that the killing is connected to earlier missing children, but then his search for answers becomes tangled up with crooked property dealers, blackmail, corrupt politicians and a dystopian police force. Dunford receives several graphically described beatings, there is violent, joyless sex and, in almost constant rain, the neon-lit motorways and carriageways around Leeds and Wakefield take on a baleful presence of their own.

Screen Shot 2023-05-09 at 20.04.301974 was praised at the time – and still is – for its coruscating honesty and brutal depiction of a corrupt police force, bent businessmen who have, via brown envelopes, local councillors at their beck and call in a city riven by prostitution, racism and casual violence. In a nod to a real life case David Peace has a man called Michael Myshkin, clearly with mental difficulties, arrested for the Clare’s murder. It is obvious that this refers to the ordeal of Stefan Kiszko (right)  – arrested, tried and convicted for the murder of Lesley Molseed in 1975. He remained in prison until 1992, but was then acquitted and released after the case was re-examined.

1977 is a re-imagining of the how the Yorkshire Ripper murders began to imprint themselves on the public’s imagination, and baffle police for many years. It is the early summer and we are reunited with many characters from 1974, including Jack Whitehead, DS Bob Fraser and several of the senior police officers who made Eddie Dunford’s life a misery. Apart from the obvious mark of Peace’s style – jagged paragraphs of single figure words, stream of consciousness narrative, fevered sequences of bad dreams and relentless brutality, there are other thematic links. Eddie Dunford’s father has just died, shriveled to a husk by cancer; Bob Fraser’s father in law is just days away from death from the same disease. Both  Whitehead and Frazer have their sexual demons, and in Fraser’s case it is a prostitute called Janice who he first arrested, and then became transfixed by. She is murdered, and he is arrested.

When straightforward narrative clarity is abandoned in favour of literary special effects, the downside is that it is sometimes hard work to know who is imaging what. Someone in 1977 is referencing the Whitechapel murders of 1888 and, in particular, the destruction of Mary Jane Kelly in Millers Court. Likewise, someone is using the slightly artificial jollity of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee as a sour counterpoint to the carnage being inflicted on the back streets of Leeds. The novel ends inconclusively, but it seems that both Whitehead and Fraser become the victims of their obsessions.

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It is worth looking at the chronology of what I call ‘brutalist’ crime fiction (aka British Noir). The grand-daddy of them all is probably Jack’s Return Home, (1970) later re-imagined as Get Carter, and featuring corrupt businessmen, although there is little or nopolice involvement. This was Ted Lewis’s breakthrough novel, but aficionados will argue that his GBH – a decade later – is even better. 1974 and 1977 are explicit, bleak and visceral, but we would do well to remember that I Was Dora Suarez, the most horrific of Derek Raymond’s Factory novels, was published in 1990, and featured a similar leitmotif to 1974 – that of wounds, pain and suffering. To revisit IWDS click the link below.

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As compelling as these two novels are, David Peace wasn’t exploring ground unvisited by earlier writers. Tastes and descriptions in crime fiction are all relative. Val McDermid’s excellent Tony Hill/Carol Jordan novels were lauded as visiting dark places where other writers had feared to tread, but they were relatively mild, at least in terms of gore and viscera. Great stories, yes, from a fine writer, but not exactly pushing boundaries. Given the free use of vernacular words to describe ethnicity and sexual preferences, had Peace’s novels been submitted by an unknown writer in 2023, it is improbable that the books would see the light of day, given the cultural eggshells on which mainstream publishers seem to tiptoe.

Final verdict? I’ll answer the two questions I posed at the top of this piece. Firstly, the contemporary reactions were pretty enthusiastic, and included, from Time Out (remember that?):
“The finest work of literature I’ve read this year – extraordinary and original”
The Independent on Sunday enthused:
“Vinnie Jones should buy the film rights fast!”
The Guardian offered:
“A compelling fiction – Jacobean in its intensity.”

are not wrong about the books, but I suspect that the soundbites were from reviewers who perhaps did not have a very great overview of what had gone before. As for how they read these days, I came to them new, via a Christmas present from my son, and they certainly grab you by the throat. I read both books in two days but did I care very much about what happened to Eddie Dunford, Jack Whitehead or Bob Fraser? Not much, to be honest. The Aeschylean/Shakespearean view of a tragic figure is that he/she is someone who is basically a decent person brought low by a combination of fate and accident. For me, Eddie, Jack and Bob might have appeared to tick the first box, but actually didn’t. The two later books in the quartet were published in 2001(1980) and 2002 (1983) so they fall outside this remit. As for Vinnie Jones buying the film rights, the books were filmed as a trilogy, more or less omitting 1977 altogether. They were broadcast in March 2009.


TOO GOOD TO HANG . . . Between the covers


Confession time. I try to be honest and objective in my reviews, but there are certain authors who are so sure-footed that I know their novels will not disappoint, even before I have read the first page. One such is Sarah Hawkswood and her beguiling Bradecote series. They are not complicated. Central figure is Hugh Bradecote, noble of birth and Under-Sheriff of Worcestershire in the middle years of the 12th Century. I suppose he is the early medieval equivalent of a modern Detective Inspector and – like them – he has underlings. Bradecote is supported by the grizzled and worldly Sergeant Catchpoll and the Under Sergeant – a callow but rapidly maturing young man called Walkelin. My earlier reviews of the series can be found by clicking the link below:

This story begins in April 1145 with a terrible miscarriage of justice in a tiny hamlet called Ripple, the southernmost parish of Worcestershire. It is a real place, a beautiful village just north of Tewksbury. A young ploughman called Thorgar is about to be hanged for murder. He was found in the village church, crouched over the lifeless body of the priest, Father Edmund. Despite his protestations that he is unscyldig (Middle English – innocent), at the insistence of the Reeve, a man called Selewine, the villagers bear him away and he is hanged from an ancient oak tree. Thorgar’s sister Osgyth makes her way to Worcester and reports what she sees as the murder of her brother, which prompts Bradecote, Catchpoll and Walkelin to ride south to investigate.

They soon discover that Father Edmund’s death is linked to two deadly sins. The first is avarice; Thorgar, while ploughing has unearthed a treasure trove of silver artifacts – a priceless chalice, some coins and ornamental buckles dating back to Saxon times. The second is lust; this is far more sinister, as Father Edmund has been using his priestly influence to abuse young girls in Ripple, thus giving every angry father a motive for striking the ungodly cleric down.

Bradecote and his men eventually expose not one murderer – but two  – and there is a macabre finale when the respective killers are forced to disinter the mortal remains of their victims and take them to be given a Christian burial. Apart from the powerfully evocative atmosphere, this is a bloody good detective novel, but particularly impressive is the way Sara Hawkswood handles the dialogue. I suspect no-one has the faintest idea about how people spoke to each other in the 12th century, but the author establishes a style and sticks to it. As a long-time critic of what I consider to be botched attempts at authentic historical conversation in novels, I found Sarah Hawkswood’s method to be both satisfying and convincing.

EM Forster’s most celebrated – and enigmatic – dictum was, “Only connect.” Taking him literally, my goodness how Sarah Hawkswood connects. She connects us to the wonderful landscape of the Worcestershire/Gloucestershire borders, overlooked by the golden heights of the Malvern Hills. She connects us to the powerful – and sometimes destructive – presence of the River Severn. She connects us to a time when poor people lived hard-scrabble lives, totally dependent upon the whims of nature and weather and almost umbilically bound to the central focus of every town, village and hamlet – the church. She connects us to a world, perhaps not “better” than the one we live in, but one which had a firmer grasp of natural justice, common sense and spirituality. Too Good To Hang is a further gem in the crown of what is one of the best current historical series – the Bradecote novels. It is published by Allison & Busby and will be out on 18th May.

DON’T LOOK BACK . . . Between the covers

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Having had the pleasure of meeting Jo Spain
, I can tell you that she is a delightful person. That said, when she is in writing mode, don’t believe a word she says. Away from her superb police procedural series featuring Dublin copper Tom Reynolds, she has written several stand-alone thrillers, in which she practices to deceive. In The Perfect Lie, she bowled us a Googly or, for American readers, threw us a massive curve-ball:

THE PERFECT LIE . . . Between the covers

In Don’t Look Back she runs through the complete repertoire of her trickery. She tells us the main characters are:
Luke Miller: A decent – but driven – investment banker who fall in love with, and marries –
Rose Miller: An Irish lass, née Gillespie, now a teacher in London and married to Luke, Has an abusive ex boyfriend called:
Kevin Davidson: A member of a rich and powerful Donegal family, whose wealth may not have been acquired entirely legally.
Mickey Sheils: A former lawyer, and onetime lover of Luke Miller. Originally from Ireland, now working in London to protect abused women from their abusive former partners. Able to act mostly pro-bono, thanks to her marriage to:
Nathan Sheils: A big man in The City, formerly Luke’s boss.

Be prepared, however, for some of these people to be –  how best to put it? –  not entirely who they appear to be. The story starts off in a fairly straightforward manner. Rose and Luke are married, but due to Rose’s trauma at the hands of Kevin Davidson, their courtship had been a case of two steps forward, one step back. Rose turns up at Luke’s workplace, complete with airline tickets and packed bags, and announces that she has arranged a super surprise – a delayed honeymoon on the idyllic Caribbean island of Saint-Thérèse. Their stay is blissful, but on the last night, Luke senses that Rose has become agitated and distracted. Then, she blurts out that they cannot possibly be on their return flight to London the next day.

The reason? Because on the floor of their bedroom in Luke’s flat, lying there since the day they left for Saint-Thérèse, is a corpse. It is the mortal remains of Kevin Davidson, who had been stalking Rose for weeks, and finally made his big appearance. They had fought, Rose had pushed him, he lost his footing and cracked his skull – with fatal consequences – on the sharp edger of a very solid  piece of Edwardian furniture. Rose’s initial panic had metamorphosed into a plan. A desperate one, yes, but a temporary solution. Luke’s flat is the only one occupied on that floor, and its remoteness would give them at least a few days’ grace.

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Luke books them out of their hotel and, despite having had a fairly frosty relationship with Mickey Sheils since he ended their affair, he calls her and asks her to go to his flat and investigate. Reluctantly, she does, but when she gets there, guess what? There is plenty of dried blood – but no body.

What follows is classic Jo Spain (left). One block at a time, she kicks away the supports of what we think we know about what is going on. I read the book on my Kindle, and even when it said 99%, there was time for one more surprise. This is wonderfully inventive stuff, and shows that one of Ireland’s finest writers is at the top of her game. As a footnote, I enjoyed the dramatic contrast in settings, with the tropical tourist paradise of Saint-Thérèse starkly juxtaposed against the bleak Donegal coast, where the icy horizontal rain takes no prisoners. Don’t Look Back is published by Quercus, and will be available on 11th May.




Victorians loved a freak. Think of Joseph Merrick. Think of The Bearded Lady and The Crocodile Woman at traveling funfairs. Are we any better today? Think of Dylan Mulvaney, and I guess not. However, to the book. Twin sisters Keziah and Tilly Lovell are far from identical. They are both fifteen years old, but Tilly hasn’t grown an inch since she was five. Their father uses the pair to promote a fake elixir at his traveling show, but then he sells them to a mysterious Italian impresario, known as ‘Captain’, who senses an opportunity to make money. All roads lead to London, where within Dr Summerwell’s Museum of Anatomy, the twins meet a young man called Theo, and are drawn into a web of intrigue, deceit and criminality. This is published by Orenda Books, and will be out on 22nd June.

TO DIE IN JUNE by Alan Parks

The blurb says, “ONE LOST CHILD. TWO MEN DEAD. A MIDSUMMER NIGHTMARE. This is the sixth in the Harry McCoy series, which is new to me, but the book sounds a cracker. A word-association test using the word ‘Glasgow’ would, certainly among crime fiction fans, produce obvious results. Hashtags might include:

#grit #violence #deprivation #noir #murder #drugs #gangs #extortion #hardman

McCoy investigates the disappearance of a boy, whose parents are devotees of a a bizarre cult, The Church of Christ’s Sufferings. At the same time, reports come in of unexplained poisonings among the city’s down-and-out community. McCoy has a dog in this fight. His own father is one of the dispossed. Throw into this toxic mix a case of police corruption which McCoy cannot ignore, and you have a spellbinding police thriller. Published by Canongate Books, this will be available from 25th May.

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