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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 BLOODLESS BOY . . . Between the covers

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It is the first day of 1678, and snow is settling over a London that is mostly rebuilt after the great conflagration, but still has patches of nettle covered gaps where buildings used to be. Scientist Harry Hunt, assistant to the great polymath Robert Hooke, is summoned to his master’s side to attend what appears to be a a murder scene. On the muddy banks of the open sewer known as the Fleet River, an angler has found the dead body of a boy, perhaps two or three years of age. When examined by Hooke, a the behest of senior magistrate Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, it is discovered that the boy has been expertly drained of blood. Found upon the body is a letter containing a single sheet of paper, a cypher consisting of numbers and letters arranged in a square.

Screen Shot 2021-11-22 at 19.04.53Thus begins a thoroughly intriguing murder mystery, steeped in the religious politics of the time. For over one hundred and fifty years, religion had defined politics. Henry VIII and his daughters had burned their ‘heretics’, and although the strife between Charles I and Parliament was mainly to do with authority and representation, many of Oliver Cromwell’s adherents were strident in their opposition to the ways of worship practiced by the Church if England. Now, Charles II is King. He is reputed to have sired many ‘royal bastards’ but none that could succeed to the throne, and the next in line, his brother James, has converted to Catholicism. In most of modern Britain the schism between Catholics and Protestants is just a memory, but we only have to look across the Irish Sea for evidence of the bitter passions that can still divide society.

Harry Hunt is charged with breaking the code, and learns that it is a cypher last used over twenty years early when the current King was smuggled out of the country after his defeat at the battle of Worcester. Hunt and Hooke have another mystery death on their hands, however. With this one, Robert J Lloyd departs from recorded history, in its pages tell us that Henry Oldenburg, the German-born philosopher, scientist, theologian – and Secretary of The Royal Society –  died of an undisclosed illness in September 1677, but the author has him shooting himself through the head with an ancient pistol. Lloyd jiggles the facts again – and why not? – with the killing of Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, whose corpse is found strapped to  the fearsome Morice water wheel under London Bridge (below). Sir Edmund was actually found dead in a ditch near Primrose Hill, impaled with his own sword.

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We find ourselves immersed in a plot of dazzling complexity which weaves together political and military history, a plot to kill the king, and a highly secret medical experiment undertaken with the best of intentions, but turning into something every bit as horrific as those carried out by Joseph Mengele centuries later. In the middle of the turmoil stands Harry Hunt – an admirable and courageous hero who is underestimated at every step and turn by the men involved in the conspiracy.

Screen Shot 2021-11-22 at 19.07.36How on earth this superb novel spent many years floating around in the limbo of ‘independent publishing’ is beyond reason. While not quite in the ‘Decca rejects The Beatles‘ class of short sightedness, it is still baffling. The Bloodless Boy has everything – passion, enough gore to satisfy Vlad Drăculea, a sweeping sense of England’s history, a comprehensive understanding of 17th century science and a depiction of an English winter which will have you turning up the thermostat by a couple of notches. The characters – both real and fictional – are so vivid that they could be there in the room with you as you read the book.

Looking back at my reviews over the last eighteen months, I see there is no shortage of novels set in 17th century London, but this is a tour de force. Lloyd (above right) doesn’t just rely on the period detail to bring the history to life, he lights the pages up with fascinating real-life figures who make the narrative sparkle with authenticity.

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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DECEMBER

Long Bright River by Liz Moore – 27th December

The End of Her by Shari Lapena – 9th December

NOVEMBER

Out For Blood by Deborah Masson – 27th November

River of Sins by Sarah Hawkwood – 20th November

The Beach Party Mystery by Peter Bartram – 20th November

The Museum of Desire by Jonathan Kellerman – 9th November

The Archers – Ambridge at War by Catherine Miller – 1st November

OCTOBER

One Way Street by Trevor Wood – 28th October

When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott – 26th 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

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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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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND. . . 6: Worcester and Bath

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Just 50 miles or so from the town of Shrewsbury is Worcester and it is here, more or less inhabiting the same time frame as Cadfael, we find Under-Sheriff Hugh Bradecote and his rough-hewn assistant, Serjeant Catchpoll. Worcester, at that time, was a busy market town, and it would be many years before the Benedictine Priory would be transformed into what is now Worcester cathedral.

WolfBRTAuthor Sarah Hawkswood is a serious academic historian, and she has set the series against the political and military turmoil that prevailed during the reign of King Stephen, and his war with the Empress Matilda. Such was the insularity of even relatively large towns like Worcester, however, that national events can take weeks and months to impinge on the lives of townsfolk and villagers. Hawkswood paints a picture of a time that was a brutal struggle for the majority of the population. Disease, hunger, violence and intemperate weather were constant threats, but in these novels we come to appreciate the rhythm of the seasons and the wildness of the landscape beyond the scattered villages and hamlets.

Best of all, though, is the fact that these are great crime novels, with tantalising plots and storylines in the great tradition of detectives and detecting. Sarah Hawkswood’s website is here, and you can also read detailed reviews by clicking on the cover images in this feature.

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Screen Shot 2021-11-14 at 19.45.58To Bath now, and a character created by (I think) Britain’s longest living (and still writing good books) crime author. Peter Lovesey was born in Middlesex in September 1936 and, after National Service and a career in teaching, he published his first novel in 1970. Wobble To Death was the first of a hugely successful series of historical novels featuring Sergeant Daniel Cribb and his assistant Constable Thackeray. Older readers will remember the superb BBC TV adaptations starring Alan Dobie (left) as Cribb. The stories were also dramatised by BBC radio.

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But Cribb was very much rooted in London, and we must look at a more modern detective, plying his trade in the ancient town of Bath, with its Roman baths and glorious Georgian heritage. We first met Peter Diamond in 1991, in The Last Detective. The title refers to Diamond’s outright reluctance to adopt modern technology, as he sees gadgets and gizmos as the enemy of good old fashioned police work. Lovesey describes his man:

Difficult to tell whether Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, on duty in the gardens, was overt or covert. If he had been in the race, you might have taken him for one of the jokers in fancy dress. He might have stepped out of a nineteen-forties film, a sleuth on the trail of Sydney Greenstreet. The gabardine trench coat and dark brown trilby, his so-called plain clothes, weren’t plain at all in twenty-first century Bath.”

In The Last Detective the naked body of a woman is found floating in the weeds in a lake near Bath with no one willing to identify her, and neither marks nor murder weapon. Diamond’s reliance on tried and trusted methods  are tested to the limit. Struggling with a jigsaw puzzle of truant choirboys, teddy bears, a black Mercedes and Jane Austen memorabilia, Diamond doggedly stays on the trail of the killer even after this bosses have decided there’s enough evidence to make a conviction.If you click the image below you can read my review of the 2020 novel, The Finisher.

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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 4. York and Preston

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NecroEver onwards, and ever northward to the ancient city of York. For all that it houses the magnificent medieval minster and has a history going back to the Eboracum of Roman times, fewer people remember that York was also a great railway city, and there can be no more appropriate place to house the National Railway Museum. Like many men now in the autumn of their years I was an enthusiastic trainspotter back in the days of steam, so it is – I hope – perfectly understandable that I have chosen the Jim Stringer novels by Andrew Martin for this stop on our trip. Martin introduced Stringer in The Necropolis Railway (2002) when Stringer is very much at the bottom of the railway hierarchy, and working in London, but by 2004 in The Blackpool Highflyer, Stringer has married his landlord’s daughter – the beautiful Lydia – and has been promoted to a job in York.

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The next four novels see Jim rising steadily through the ranks of railway nobility, but in 1914 the world changes for ever, and Jim, like tens of thousands of other fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, answers the country’s call and joins up to fight the Kaiser, but with his expertise as a railwayman. The Great War, while not as completely global as the conflict that followed just twenty five years later, was not confined to the blood-soaked farmlands of France and Flanders. After solving a front-line murder in The Somme Stations (2011) Jim goes east in The Bagdhad Railway Club (2012) and Night Train To Jamalpur (2013) and emerges some years after the war, more or less unscathed and back home in York, in Powder Smoke (2021)

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Andrew Martin is many things – steeped in railway lore from his childhood, Oxford graduate, qualified barrister, performing musician, born in York and writer of novels light years distant from crime fiction. If he were ever to have a tombstone inscription, I do hope he would include (in brackets) “also known as Jim Stringer”. Stringer is a brilliant creation; not a ‘bish-bash-bosh’ hero, for sure, but a man with a well-defined moral compass and a gimlet eye for wrong-doing – be it in railway procedure or life in general.

Although I don’t quite belong to Jim Stringer’s era, when I read his books I am back in my relatively blameless youth (remember when Philip Larkin said sex was invented) and I am on a station platform somewhere in the Midlands, probably showered with soot from a venting steam engine, pen in one hand, notebook in the other, and with a school satchel containing sandwiches and a bottle of pop slung over my shoulder.

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We now face a long haul over The Pennines and, just after the ancient town of Skipton, we trade the white rose for the red, and pass into the County Palatine of Lancashire. It is just possible that we might pass within a stone’s throw of a moorland pub called The Tawny Owl. Were we to call in for refreshment we might be serves by a fifty-something chap called Henry Christie. More than likely, though he will be out somewhere between Preston and Blackpool ‘helping police with their inquiries’. In Henry’s case, however, this is not the standard police cliché for being ‘nicked’ but is to be taken absolutely literally, as retired copper Christie has a new role as a consultant to his former colleagues.

ATFJHis creator, Nick Oldham, knows of what he writes, as he is a former police officer, and the 29th book in this long running and successful series is due out at the end of November. So, what can readers expect from a Henry Christie story? It depends where you start, of course, because if you go back to the beginning in 1996, Peter Shilton was still in goal, but for Leyton Orient, England lost to Germany (on penalties, naturally) in the Euros semi-final, the trial of men accused of murdering Stephen Lawrence collapsed and John Major was in his second term as British Prime Minister. In A Time For Justice Christie is a relatively junior Detective Inspector – and someone who is seriously out of favour with his bosses, and has to tackle a cocky mafia hitman who thinks the English police are a joke. As the novels progress over the years, Christie rises through the ranks, but he is still someone who is viewed with some suspicion by the few officers who outrank him – the chief constables and their assistants.

NOHenry Christie is always hands on, and he has the scars – mostly physical, but one or two mental lesions – to prove it. His personal life has been a mixture of love, passion, tragedy and disappointment. His geographical battle grounds are usually confined to the triangle formed of Preston, Lancaster and Blackpool. This is an area that Oldham (right) himself knows very well, of course, thanks to his years as a copper, but it is also very cleverly chosen, because it allows the author to play with very different human and geographical landscapes. The brooding moorland to the east is a wonderful setting for all kinds of wrong-doing, while the seaside town of Blackpool, despite the golden sands, donkey rides, candy floss and cheerful seaside ambience, houses one of the worst areas of deprivation in the whole country, with run-down and lawless former council estates controlled by loan sharks, traffickers and criminal families of the worst sort.

What comes as standard in this superb series is tight plotting, total procedural authenticity, some pretty mind blowing violence and brutality but – above all – an intensely human and likeable main character. Click on the images below to read reviews of some of the more recent Henry Christie novels.

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