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"Blood Will Be Born"

BLOOD WILL BE BORN . . . Between the covers

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GDBelfast and its grim sectarian past is the epitome of noir. But, sadly, it is a non-fiction noir, as real events over the past fifty years or so would have been dismissed as preposterous had they been penned by a novelist. Such novelists would have to be writing historical fiction, though – wouldn’t they? Surely the momentous events of the spring of 1998 signaled a slow but irrevocable process of healing across the province? Gary Donnelly (left) has written a blistering debut novel Blood Will Be Born which says otherwise.

DCI Owen Sheen is a London copper born and brought up in the Sailorstown district of Belfast. His childhood was brutalised when an IRA car bomb devastated the street where he and his brother were playing. He survived, but his brother did not. Now, decades later, he has been seconded to work with the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland assisting their historic crimes unit. He has a hidden agenda, though, and it is to track down the people who set the bomb which killed his brother.

His Belfast minder is to be DC Aoifa McCusker, an ambitious and headstrong young officer widely distrusted by her male colleagues. Even before Sheen and McCusker have the chance to discover how they each like their coffee, author Donnelly introduces us to two of the spectacularly grotesque villains of the story. First up is John Fryer, a brutal republican hitman with too many deaths to his name. Too many? Fryer’s murderous career has been haunted by a grisly mythical beast known as The Moley, who rises up from the primeval bog and is only placated by the shedding of fresh blood. Fryer is contained – for now – in a secure mental hospital.

Fryer’s partner in crime also has his ghost, but the spectre is more personal for Christopher Moore. His father, a trusted and brave RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) officer, committed suicide when the changes forced upon policing by the Good Friday Agreement became too radical for him to cope with. Christopher Moore who, physically, looks as if he should be hunched up in his sweaty bedroom playing a computer game, is actually barking mad, as we learn when he butchers his own grandmother.

bwbb coverFryer and Moore, for their own reasons, are determined to set Belfast on fire. Not the triumphalist – but literal and containable – fire of The Loyalist bonfires on the eve of 12th July, but a fire which will lay waste to the fragile peace enjoyed in the divided city. Sheen and McCuskey, with different motives, are desperate to bring down Fryer and Moore.

It’s a certainty that no-one in mainland Britain today – nor their recent ancestors – has ever experienced anything as divisive and embedded with visceral hate as the social and religious conflict in Northern Ireland. We need to go back centuries to find anything remotely comparable. The English Civil War, perhaps, or the Wars of The Roses? Those two conflicts would certainly bear comparison in terms of casualties, but the dead of those wars were overwhelmingly soldiers killed in set-piece battles. What is euphemistically termed The Troubles has, over the decades, forced itself into homely living rooms, pub parlours, chip shops, trains and buses, public squares and almost every domestic nook and cranny across Ulster.

Blood Will Be Born is breathtakingly violent, vividly written and a bleak commentary on a seemingly terminal bitterness which makes normal human beings behave like creatures from a warped vision of hell. Not even Hieronymus Bosch at his coruscating best could have created monsters as fearsome as those who walk the streets of Donnelly’s Falls Road and Shankhill. Blood Will Be Born is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

THE HISTORY OF BLOOD …Between The Covers

AHOBWith a worldwide wave of support, optimism and hopes for a bright future, the African National Congress swept to power in 1994, and post-apartheid South Africa was born, blinking in the light, but healthy and vigorous. Paul Mendelson’s gripping novel of crime and corruption shows that the rainbow dream has not yet turned into a fully grown nightmare, but it reveals a country where racial and social tensions are never far from the surface.

Mendelson introduced readers to Colonel Vaughn de Vries of The Special Crimes Unit in The First Rule Of Survival (2014) and now de Vries returns to investigate the grim world of the international drug trade. The novel is set mostly in Cape Town, where Mendelson lives for part of the year, and it begins with the sad discovery of the body of a young woman in a run-down hotel. Chantal Adam is the adopted daughter of Charles Adam, a rich and influential businessman, but her blood father was Willem Fourie Adam, Charles’s brother, who was assassinated in 1994, after the elections.

Chantal lived the dream as a successful model and advertising poster girl, but a move to America brought only grief, heartbreak, and a bitter separation from her adoptive family. Now she lies dead, wrists slashed with glass, in a shabby hotel room usually used for by-the-hour sexual sexual activities. She is haggard and emaciated, but her degradation is complete when the post mortem reveals that she has ingested a large number of condoms packed with heroin.

We follow de Vries as he picks up the trail from the wretched death of Chantal Adam, to a stable of girls used by ruthless men to ferry drugs to the Far East, and then on to a man whose organised crime CV includes running a game park offering forbidden targets to American trophy hunters, and being at the very centre of political and financial corruption in South Africa and neighbouring states. Reluctantly, de Vries enlists the help of John Marantz, a former British intelligence agent, whose life has been rendered meaningless by the abduction and murder of his wife and daughter.

Like all interesting fictional coppers, de Vries is conflicted. He suffers fools with a bad grace, if at all, and his contempt for incompetence in fellow police officers is entirely colour blind. There aren’t too many of his comrades-in-print who have happy and flourishing marriages, and he is not one of them, although his fierce love for his daughters remains undiminished. He is not a man to back away from a fight, either political or physical, but neither is he a stone cold killer, as a key incident in this book reveals. He is also human enough to make dumb personal decisions which threaten to derail his career.

There are two distinct backdrops to this excellent novel; the first shows a country where the natural landscape can be harsh or almost impossibly beautiful; the second is the socio-political climate, and here Mendelson shows compassion, subtlety, but – above all – honesty. This is not a hatchet job where the white minority watch with sneers on their faces as the country’s new rulers make mistake after mistake, but a thoughtful and perceptive account of the pitfalls and temptations facing those for whom high office is, in some cases, a genuine challenge.

The complexities of the politics make for an intriguing read, but above all this a thoroughly good crime thriller, and I look forward to Vaughn de Vries returning for a new battle with the forces of evil. The History Of Blood is available online and if you want another fine novel set in contemporary South Africa, then try The Monster’s Daughter by Michelle Pretorius

KILLING IN YOUR NAME . . . Between the covers

In February this year – remember when everything was normal, and Covid-19 was just something nasty that was happening in China and Italy? – I reviewed Blood Will Be Born, the debut thriller by Belfast writer Gary Donnelly. I said it was:
“… breathtakingly violent, vividly written and a bleak commentary on a seemingly terminal bitterness which makes normal human beings behave like creatures from a warped vision of hell.”

The full review of that book is here, but in no time at all, it seems, comes the second episode in the career of Met Police detective Owen Sheen. He has been seconded to the historic crimes unit of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. If ever there were a British city where historic crimes still haunt the streets, it is Belfast. Sheen was born in Belfast, and watched his own brother being blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb as the two youngsters played football in the street. Donnelly says:

“Over the decades, so much blood had spattered the streets of Belfast, all now washed away, and forgotten by many. But there would always be those, the ones who had been left behind to count the cost, for which the stain and the pain would never really go.”

The (literally) explosive conclusion to the previous case has left Sheen sidelined and his PSNI partner Aoifa McCusker walking with a stick and suspended from duty after a stash of Class ‘A’ drugs were planted in her locker. Sheen is haunted by the discovery of a boy’s body, found in remote Monaghan bogland on the border with the Republic. The body has been partially preserved by the acidic water, but even a post mortem examination reveals few details.

Meanwhile, a spate of horrific killings has perplexed PSNI detectives. A priest has been decapitated in his own sacristy; the teenage daughter of a prominent barrister has been abducted and then killed; her body, minus one of its hands has been dumped at her father’s front door. The adult son of a former hellfire Protestant preacher and politician has been found dead – again, butchered.

Against the better judgment of senior officers, Sheen is allowed to ‘get the band back together’ and so a limping McCusker, and colleague George ‘Geordie’ Brown are joined by Hayley, a mysterious transgender person who calls herself an ‘instinctive’ because she has what used to be called a sixth sense about death or extreme violence.

As ever in Belfast, the answers to modern questions lie irremovably in the past and, almost too late, Sheen and his team discover that the killings are bound up with acts of scarcely credible evil that took place decades earlier. Revenge is certainly being served cold and, for someone, it tastes delicious.

Donnelly (below) has another winner on his hands here, and it is partly due to his superb sense of narrative, but also to his ability to create truly monstrous villains, and there is at least one in Killing In Your Name to rival anything his fellow Irishman John Connolly has created. Connolly’s creations tend to have a sulphurous whiff of the supernatural about them. Donnolly’s monsters are human, if in name only. Killing In Your Name is published by Allison & Busby and is out today, 20th August.

ON MY SHELF . . . July 2002

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CHAOS by AD Swanston

Dr Christopher Radcliff is an ‘Intelligencer’ for the security services of Queen Elizabeth 1st. Despite the bitter winter weather of 1574, the threats of Catholic plots and rumours of a Spanish invasion are producing a political fever which has nothing to do with the temperature on the streets of London. Radcliff and his agents must use all the wiles of their devious trade to combat a threat against the Queen herself. Bantam Press, 20th August.

KILLING IN YOUR NAME by Gary Donnelly

I was hugely impressed with Donnelly’s debut police thriller Blood Will Be Born (click for review) and now London copper DI Owen Sheen tackles the second case of his secondment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. As before, the misdeeds and brutality of The Troubles are never far away as Sheen and his colleague DC Aoife McCusker search for justice for an unnamed boy whose body has been found in bogland. Alison & Busby (Kindle) 20th August

A PHILOSOPHCAL INVESTIGATION by Philip Kerr

Kerr’s untimely death has been ameliorated, at least in a literary sense, by the republication of some of his earlier stand-alone novels. This novel, first published in 1993, looks forward to 2013 and we are in a London terrorised by a serial killer who uses algorithms to identify potential violent criminals, and then executes them – even if they have not yet committed the predicted misdemeanours. Quercus, out now.

KEEP HER QUIET by Emma Curtis

A must for fans of domestic angst and tortured family life, Keep Her Quiet tells the story of an adored new born baby, a cheated husband and another young mother whose baby has died at her side. Guilt, grief, secrets and betrayal fester for years until pay-back time turns their world upside down. Black Swan, Kindle 6th August, PB 17th September.

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REVIEWS 2020

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OCTOBER

Smoke Chase by Jack Callan 18th October

Lost by Leona Deakin – 5th October

People Of Abandoned Character by Clare Whitfield – 1st October

SEPTEMBER

The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves – 29th September

Bad Timing by Nick Oldham – 28th September

Chaos by AD Swanston – 20th September

Squadron Airborn by Elleston Trevor – 16th September

Gathering Dark by Candice Fox – 9th September

The Shot by Philip Kerr – 2nd September

AUGUST

Still Life by Val McDermid – 29th August

A Private Cathedral by James Lee Burke – 21st August

Killing In Your Name by Gary Donnelly – 20th August

Cry Baby by Mark Billingham – 11th August

Lost Souls by Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman – 10th August

After The Fire by Jo Spain – 3rd August

JULY

Oranges and Lemons by Christopher Fowler – 31st July

The Finisher by Peter Lovesey – 20th July

Find Them Dead by Peter James – 15th July

Dark Waters by GR Halliday – 12th July

Far From The Tree by Rob Parker – 9th July

Whitethroat by James Henry – 1st July

JUNE

Warriors For The Working Day by Peter Elstob – 15th June

Off Script by Graham Hurley – 13th June

Patrol by Fred Majdalany – 8th June

MAY

Grave’s End by William Shaw – 30th May

Killing Mind by Angela Marsons – 23rd May

The Saracen’s Mark by SW Perry – 17th May

Borrowed Time by David Mark – 16th May

APRIL

The Final Straw by Jenny Francis – 26th April

The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan – 27th April

Making Wolf by Tade Thompson – 25th April

The Music Box Enigma by RN Morris – 18th April

The Dirty South by John Connolly – 15th April

Hitler’s Peace by Philip Kerr – 13th April

The King’s Beast by Eliot Pattison – 7th April

Hammer To Fall by John Lawton – 2nd April

MARCH

The Molten City by Chris Nickson – 25th March

The Evil Within by SM Hardy – 23rd March

The Boy From The Woods by Harlan Coben – 21st March

Keep Him Close by Emily Koch – 9th March

The Second Wife by Rebecca Fleet – 4th March

february

The Night Raids by Jim Kelly – 28th February

Blood Will Be Born by Gary Donnelly – 25th February

Possessed by Peter Laws – 19th February

Bury Them Deep by James Oswald – 11th February

The Better Liar by Tanen Jones – 6th February

The Foundling by Stacey Halls – 3rd February

Wildfire by Nick Oldham – 1st February

JANUARY

Killing Beauties by Pete Langman – 29th January

When You See Me by Lisa Gardner – 25th January

Happy Ever After by CC MacDonald – 21st January

All That Is Buried by Robert Scragg – 17th January

Six Wicked Reasons by Jo Spain – 14th January

The Unforgetting by Rose Black – 8th January

Stop At Nothing by Tammy Cohen – 6th January

Nine Elms by Robert Bryndza – 1st January

ON MY SHELF . . . December 2019

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NINE ELMS by Robert Bryndza

BryndzaBryndza already has an established audience for his Detective Erika Foster series, and he now introduces another female copper to the crime scene. Fifteen years earlier, Kate Marshall was an emerging talent with London’s Met Police – until a near fatal encounter with a serial killer ended her career. When a copycat killer starts to mimic the work of the man who nearly killed her, she is inexorably drawn back into the investigative front line. Nine Elms is published by Sphere, is out now as a Kindle and in hardback on 9th January.

 

STOP AT NOTHING by Tammy Cohen

CohenThis came out in Kindle back in the summer of this year, but now readers who like the feel of a printed book in their hands get to join the party. They say there is nothing as ferocious, either in the animal world or the human sphere, as a mother protecting her young. A woman has to look on helplessly as the man accused of attacking her daughter is set free. Tess’s quest for justice, however, plunges those she loves most into a cauldron bubbling with hatred and danger. Out on 26th December, Stop At Nothing is published by Bantam.

 

BLOOD WILL BE BORN by Gary Donnelly

DonnellyIt may well be that someone, somewhere, has written a cosy ‘feet up in front of the fire’ crime novel set in Belfast. If they have, it has passed me by, as the streets of that city, their very stones stained to the core with the ancient bitterness of sectarian violence, always seem to provide a natural backdrop for gritty thrillers. When London Detective Inspector Owen Sheen returns to his home turf to set up a special crime unit, he is sucked into an investigation which, in double quick time, becomes political – and personal. This, Gary Donnelly’s debut thriller will be out on 20th February and is published by Allison & Busby

 

 

FREE FROM THE WORLD by John Johnson

FFTWSet in a 1960s mental hospital with the ominous name of Black Roding, this is the story of an idealistic and progressive young psychiatrist, Ruth, whose ideas for a more enlightened regime find no favour with the suspicious staff. Becoming rather too close to a complex and troubled inmate of Black Rodings, Ruth’s determination to find new ways of doing things draws her into a horrifying vortex of hidden crimes and shocking revelations. Published by Matador, Free From The World is out now.

 

WHO DID YOU TELL? by Lesley Kara

Lesley-Kara-author-photo-cropped-300x450Lesley Kara captured the potentially poisonous dynamic of small town gossip in her 2018 thriller The Rumour (click to read the review) Her follow up novel mines the same rich seam, and lovers of Domestic Noir are in for a treat. Astrid, a recovering alcoholic, moves in with her mother in an attempt to rebuild her life and make amends to the people she has hurt. Someone out there, however, has been following Astrid’s fragile progess towards redemption, and is determined to ruin things. Who Did You Tell? is published by Bantam, is out as a Kindle on 5th December, and in hardback on 9th January.

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TRUE CRIME . . . A Warwickshire tragedy

Drive east on the A425 out of Royal Leamington Spa and you will soon come to the village of Radford Semele. The Semele is nothing to do with the princess in Greek mythology or Handel’s opera of the same name, but apparently relates to a Norman family from Saint Pierre-de-Semilly who were lords of the manor in the twelfth century. These days it is a rather prosperous village, much expanded from 1947, when it housed a mixture of the well-off and the rural poor, with nothing much in between.

Number 23 Radford Semele housed the Ashby family. Frederick, aged 48, his wife Marie, 51, son Frederick Philip, 27 and a younger daughter. Frederick junior was in the RAF. In 1947 people didn’t tend to move about as much as they do these days, and the 1911 census tells us that Frederick lived with his grandparents in Radford, while wife Marie had been born in Napton, a few miles down the road. They had married in 1921.

The late winter had been particularly savage, and after a brief heatwave in June, the July weather was cloudy and humid. Those with a radio or a gramophone could have been listening to Frank Sinatra sing Among My Souvenirs, which topped the charts for three weeks. Fred Ashby junior had been a pupil at Clapham Terrace School in Leamington and, being something of an athlete, was a member of the celebrated Coventry Club, Godiva Harriers. After a spell as a draughtsman at the Lockheed works in nearby Leamington, he had joined the RAF. He had come home from nearby Church Lawford on weekend leave, and on the morning of Sunday 27th July, had set off across the fields with a friend, Cyril Bye, to try and shoot a few rabbits for the pot.

It seems that the relationship between Fred Ashby (left) and his father was anything but harmonious. Fred senior, who was a foreman at the Coventry Radiator factory in the village, was often involved in loud arguments when his son was home on leave. At around 4.00pm that Sunday afternoon, a Radford teenager called Rose Marie Summers was standing talking to a friend outside a nearby house, when she saw Fred senior staggering out of the Ashby’s house, clutching his side, in obvious pain. He cried out, “He has kicked me.”

The girl saw Ashby walk round to the rear of the house and return with a shotgun in his hands. He pointed it through the open window of the cottage and fired.

Witnesses who entered the house shortly afterwards never forgot the horrific scene, Young Fred Ashby was kneeling on the floor, his head face down on the sofa. In his back was a gaping wound, pumping blood. The police and ambulance were quickly summoned, and the young man was rushed to the Warneford Hospital, just little over a mile away in Leamington. There was nothing doctors could do to save his life, however, and he died later that evening with his mother at his bedside.

There was never a more cut and dried case for Warwickshire Police. Even as the local bobby, PC Haines, arrived at the scene, Fred Ashby was beside the body of his dying son, trying desperately to staunch the fatal wound, saying, “I did it. I shot him.”

As the case progressed up the ladder of the criminal justice system, from local magistrates’ court to Birmingham Assizes, it became clear that the evidently mild-mannered Fred Ashby was, for whatever reason, regularly bullied by his physically powerful son and, having been knocked about and abused during the afternoon of 27th July, had finally snapped and,in a red mist, fired the shot that ended his son’s life. His plea of manslaughter was accepted, and he was sentenced to ten years penal servitude.

Whatever grief he bore for the killing of his son, Frederick Ashby survived his prison sentence and died in 1984. His wife Marie pre-deceased him by nine years. The senior policeman in the case, Chief Superintendent Alec Spooner of Warwickshire CID, is celebrated by True Crime enthusiasts as the man who led the case investigating the as-yet-unsolved ‘witchcraft murder’ of Charles Walton, at Lower Quinton in 1945, but that is a story for another day.







FAR FROM THE TREE . . . Audio book

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There’s a first time for everything, even when you are a conservatively-minded old curmudgeon who has, begrudgingly, accepted that digital books are here to stay. But audio books? Never – until now. Faced with the fact that the latest novel by one of my favourite writers – Rob Parker –  is only going to be printed on paper next year, I bit the bullet and accepted what I suppose could be called an Advanced Listening Copy of Far From The Tree.

Brendan Foley is a Detective Inspector with Cheshire Police, based in Warrington. If the name Cheshire conjures up a gentle county famed for its delicious cheese and half-timbered villages, that would not be wrong, but Warrington is a place with rougher edges. Situated on the River Mersey it grew in the Industrial Revolution with its steel (particularly wire), textiles, brewing, tanning and chemical industries. The word ‘industrial’ is what comes to mind when Foley is called out one Sunday morning to investigate not just one corpse, but twenty seven of them. All neatly packaged in heavy-duty plastic, and laid to rest – if that is the correct word – in a shallow trench.

Foley has been called away from the christening of his youngest child, but when he is summoned back to the venue to pay the caterers, we learn that his family is far from being a collection of model citizens. It is, nevertheless, with a deep sense of shock that when he attends the post mortem of the first batch of the corpses, he recognises that one is his nephew.

Screen Shot 2020-07-09 at 18.05.57This is a very different Rob Parker (left) from the previous novels of his that have come my way. Crook’s Hollow (click the links to read my reviews) was rather like The Archers meets The Hills Have Eyes, while his Ben Bracken Books, Morte Point, The Penny Black, and Till Morning Is Nigh are hugely entertaining but somewhat escapist in places. Far From The Tree is real. Very, very real. It is dark, unflinching, and, to my mind, Parker’s best book yet.

Foley is a superbly drawn character – a decent man who has to face a shocking challenge, involving his own flesh and blood, and a brave man, too, as he is forced to make decisions which would unhinge a lesser person. I also enjoyed his sidekick – Sergeant Iona Madison – who among other things is a boxer. Rob Parker himself is a pugilist, and he allows himself a little enjoyment as he describes Iona’s battles in the ring.

Not the least of the pleasures of Far From The Tree is that it is read by none other than Warren Brown, of Luther fame. It certainly does no harm to the authenticity of the recording that Brown – like Rob Parker –  was born and bred in Warrington!

Far From The Tree is an Audible Original and is available here.

BETWEEN THE COVERS . . . The Final Straw (click for full screen)

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I had not come across anything by Jenny Francis before, so I did a little research before beginning The Final Straw, and discovered that the author isn’t one person, but a writing partnership between Patricia Scudamore and Hilton Catt. Furthermore, the pair’s day job, as it were, is writing self-help manuals for commerce and business. Titles such as Successful Career Change, Cover Letters In A Week and The Interview Coach didn’t initially indicate that I was about to read an entertaining crime novel, but I was wrong.

TFS cover019Charlie Moon is yet another fictional Detective Inspector, but slightly different in one or two ways from many of his fellow CriFi coppers. For a start, his patch is the rather unfashionable West Midlands, probably the city its locals affectionately refer to as Brummagem. Also, although he carries the cross born by most of his fictional counterparts – corrupt or incompetent bosses – he has a stable and happy family life, and neither drinks nor smokes to excess. When he goes home at night, it is to the solace of his wife and daughter, rather than the solitary vice of falling asleep on the sofa, whisky glass in hand, while something from his obscure CD collection plays in the background.

Moon is contacted by a notorious local criminal, currently a guest at HMP Winson Green. Denny Wilbur might shrink at being described as public spirited, but he has an injustice to share with Moon. A simple minded black man, Wilson Beames, was twenty years into a life sentence for murdering a teenage girl, Sharon Baxter, back in the 1970s, but he has been found hanged in his cell.

“He couldn’t read or write, yet they reckoned he’d signed a confession. Besides which, he wouldn’t have had the brains to know what he was signing anyway.”
“Are you suggesting he was stitched up?”
“We all know what went on the seventies, don’t we, Inspector? Some naughty people in your mob occasionally did some naughty things.”

When Moon suggests to his bosses that this needs investigating, he is warned off in no uncertain terms. Being a contrary so-and-so, Moon decides to do a little investigating on his own, with the help of Jo Lyon, a local journalist. Bit by bit, they fit the pieces of the jigsaw together, and the emerging picture is not a pretty one. It shows a desperately corrupt senior policeman, a paedophile ring, and a ruthless local businessmen prepared to provide certain services. As Moon closes in on Sharon Baxter’s killer, he is unaware that when he does solve the mystery, it will provide a shock that he could never have anticipated.

The Final Straw is cleverly written, fast paced, and with an authentic sense of time and place. If, like me, you are impressed with Charlie Moon, there are two previous novels to check out – The Silent Passage and Blood Ties. All three are published by Matador, and The Final Straw is out on 28th April.

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