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JIM KELLY: A Landscape of Secrets

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Jim Kelly’s brooding and atmospheric crime novels are set in the eastern counties of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. I am a huge admirer of his books, and you can click the link below to watch a short video which tries to distill the essence of his work into a brief juxtaposition of images and music.

JIM KELLY: A Landscape of Secrets

JIM KELLY . . . Landscape, memory – and murder

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Phil RickmanWhen it comes to creating a sense of place in their novels, there are two living British writers who tower above their contemporaries. Phil Rickman, (left) in his Merrily Watkins books, has recreated an English – Welsh borderland which is, by turn, magical, mysterious – and menacing. The past – usually the darker aspects of recent history – seeps like a pervasive damp from every beam of the region’s black and white cottages, and from every weathered stone of its derelict Methodist chapels. Jim Kelly’s world is different altogether. Kelly was born in what we used to call The Home Counties, north of London, and after studying in Sheffield and spending his working life between London and York, he settled in the Cambridgeshire cathedral city of Ely.

jim kelly Small_0It is there that we became acquainted with Philip Dryden, a newspaperman like his creator but someone who frequently finds murder on his doorstep (except he lives on a houseboat, which may not have doorsteps). While modern Ely has made the most of its wonderful architecture (and relative proximity to London) and is now a very chic place to live, visit, or work in, very little of the Dryden novels takes place in Ely itself. Instead, Kelly, has shone his torch on the bleak and vast former fens surrounding the city. Visitors will be well aware that much of Ely sits on a rare hill overlooking fenland in every direction. Those who like a metaphor might well say that, as well as in terms of height and space, Ely looks down on the fens in a haughty fashion, probably accompanying its haughty glance with a disdainful sniff. Kelly (above)  is much more interested in the hard-scrabble fenland settlements, sometimes – literally – dust blown, and its reclusive, suspicious criminal types with hearts as black as the soil they used to work on. Dryden usually finds that the murder cases he becomes involved with are usually the result of old grievances gone bad, but as a resident in the area I can reassure you that in the fens, grudges and family feuds very rarely last more than ninety years

deat1In the Peter Shaw novels, Kelly moved north. Very often in non-literal speech, going north can mean a move to darker, colder and less forgiving climates of both the spiritual and geographical kind, but the reverse is true here. Shaw is a police officer in King’s Lynn, but he lives up the coast near the resort town of Hunstanton. Either by accident or design, Kelly turns the Philip Dryden template on its head. King’s Lynn is a hard town, full of tough men, some of whom are descendants of the old fishing families. There is a smattering of gentility in the town centre, but the rough-as-boots housing estates that surround the town to the west and the south provide plenty of work for Shaw and his gruff sergeant George Valentine. By contrast, it is in the rural areas to the north-east of Lynn where Shaw’s patch includes expensive retirement homes, holiday-rental flint cottages, bird reserves for the twitchers to twitch in, and second homes bought by Londoners which have earned places like Brancaster the epithet “Chelsea-on-Sea.”

With these two best-selling series under his belt, Jim Kelly would have been forgiven if he had played safe and simply ping-ponged Dryden and Shaw in his future novels. But, like Ulysses of old, he has given us a new character.

“’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset …….”

I am not suggesting for one second that Jim Kelly is anywhere near his metaphorical sunset but, just as Ulysses pushed his boat off into unknown waters, so Kelly begins a voyage that takes us to Cambridge in the golden autumn of 1939. Britain is officially at war with Germany, and Detective Inspector Eden Brooke has mysterious deaths to solve. Set in the glorious university town – yes, ‘town’, as Cambridge did not become a city until 1951 – The Great Darkness will enthral Kelly fans and new readers who like the landscape to be a significant character in their fiction.

The Fully Booked review of The Great Darkness will be available in the next couple of days, but here are several links to features on Jim Kelly and Phil Rickman.

All of a Winter’s Night by Phil Rickman

Jim Kelly – A Landscape of Secrets

The Seaweed That Started A War

Books Of The Year 2016

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JIM KELLY … A landscape of secrets

jim kelly Small_0JIM KELLY (above) grew up in the shadow of some of the worst criminal misdeeds the country had ever experienced and, as his childhood progressed, the evil that men do was seldom far away from the Kelly family. So, he had a brutal and disadvantaged upbringing? No, far from it – just the opposite. His father Brian was a top detective in the Metropolitan Police, and his maternal grandfather, too, had a background in keeping the peace as a special constable – he actually was there on the street, as it were, in 1911, when Home Secretary Winston Churchill and others managed to turn a hunt for anarchist criminals into the expensive and bungled farce that we know as the Siege of Sidney Street.

 Kelly was born in Barnet, originally a small Hertfordshire town, but now a borough long since absorbed into the suburban sprawl of north London. It was near Barnet on 14th April 1471, that one of the most influential battles of the Wars of The Roses secured the throne for the Yorkist King Edward IV. The only battles that Kelly recalls were, however, between his beloved Barnet Town Football Club and their rivals. ‘The Bees’ have been back and forth between league and non-league football over the years, with all the regularity of a fiddler’s elbow, but as long as hope springs eternal in the human breast, Barnet can be sure of at least one man’s loyalty.

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After several years in journalism, which culminated in writing for The Financial Times, Kelly decided to put his skills to the ultimate test. He would become a full time novelist. By this time, he and his family had moved to the beautiful Cambridgeshire cathedral city of Ely, which had all the advantages of wide open spaces as well as the crucial railway connection to London. Before we continue, a word from one who knows. Ely is, geographically, in Fenland – an area of such fertile soil that it is said that a man only has to spit on the black soil for it to start growing into something productive. But Ely, with its tea-rooms, artisan bakeries, arts centre and elegant cafés may be in The Fens, but it is certainly not of The Fens. To explore the real Fenland, the traveler must visit such hard-scrabble towns and villages as Wisbech, Chatteris, March, Welney and Three Holes. It is among these sometimes insalubrious settlements that Kelly sets the series that first brought him to public attention.

Philip Dryden is the editor of Ely’s local newspaper. When he was first introduced, in The Waterclock (2002), local ‘rags’ had yet to feel the full force of digital competition, but they were already on the rocky road of no longer charging a cover price, but giving themselves away for nothing, hoping to cover costs from advertising revenue.

In Kelly’s books there is always a sense of déjà vu, of history coming back to bite people on the bum, and a telling awareness that despite tomorrow being another day, it is yesterday that casts the longer shadow on people’s lives. This is even evident in the fact that Dryden’s exotic wife Laura is lying alive, but insensate, in an Ely hospital. She is there as a result of a catastrophic road accident when she and Dryden ended up in a deep Fen ditch late on a winter’s night. When I first met Kelly, he came and spoke about his books at my local library. He revealed that one of his favourite authors is Dorothy L Sayers. And how does her most celebrated book begin?

“That’s torn it!” said Lord Peter Wimsey.
The car lay helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch,
her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank,
as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth
and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifting snow.

Thus Lord Peter Wimsey and the faithful Bunter have to seek the help of the inhabitants of Fenchurch St Paul and, in doing so, become involved in the celebrated mystery of The Nine Tailors. The Sayers connection is further developed by Kelly in his novel The Funeral Owl (2013), the most recent Philip Dryden mystery, where much of the action is centred in the Fen village of Brimstone Hill. This village is easily identifiable on the ground as Christchurch, which is little more than a huddle of houses in the lonely expanse of flat farmland between March and Ely. And who was the Rector of the little Victorian church in the village (below), between 1917 and 1928? The Reverend Henry Sayers, whose daughter went on to become one of the great literary figures of her day, and also a member of the elite writers of Golden Age crime fiction.

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Like all amateur detectives, Dryden sticks his nose into places where it is likely to get stung or at least severely nipped. The fact that he lives on a houseboat moored on Ely’s River Great Ouse always adds a touch of the exotic, but his day job as newspaper man allows him access to places that mere interested passers by could never penetrate. After refusing ever to drive again after the accident which left his wife paralysed, Dryden relies for transport on an obese and sedentary taxi driver called Humph. Humph serves several functions, including playing the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on and observing at a small distance the complications and dramas with which his regular customer involves himself. On a less cerebral level Humph has an inexhaustible supply of snacks, as well as an impressive collection of spirit miniatures harvested during his frequent trips to Stansted airport.

Kelly’s other crime fiction series hovers closer to the police procedural landing strip than the Philip Dryden novels. Peter Shaw is a high-ranking detective based in King’s Lynn. He too has his Watson, but in this case it is in the form of the taciturn and misanthropic copper, Sergeant Valentine. Kelly’s portrayal of King’s Lynn is as accurate and revealing as his frank picture of the bleak, inhospitable, historically incestuous and endlessly resentful villages of Fenland. Lynn, as it is known to locals, is also a paradox. On the one hand we have the magnificent churches, the prestigious Festival, and the unbreakable connection with a certain family who have a country home just up the road in Sandringham. But we also have the rough estates, the ill-at-ease migrant workers, and the tough-as-teak descendants of the fishermen who once sailed out of Lynn in search of seafood for the tables of rich men in their castles.

Like Dryden, Shaw is a complex character. He conceals from his bosses the fact that he may be losing his sight as a result of an old injury. His father – like Kelly’s – was a hugely respected policeman. Unlike Detective Superintendent Brian Kelly, however, Shaw père may not have been as honest as the day is long. In recent Peter Shaw novels, readers have been taken away from King’s Lynn and led up the Norfolk coast to such places as Brancaster and Holme. This part of Norfolk has been called Chelsea-on-Sea, due to the rising numbers of wealthy second-homers who have invested money, if not time, in the area. Shaw’s beautiful wife, who runs a beach shop and store at Hunstanton, and our man’s part-time job as a member of the local lifeboat crew, certainly add depth to the character.

As a master of landscape and what has been called pyschogeography – the invisible pull that past deeds, embedded in the fabric of buildings and streets, exert on modern day events – Jim Kelly has only one equal, and that is Christopher Fowler, whose elderly detectives Bryant and May are always jerked this way and that by the powerful magnets of history which lie beneath the streets of London.

If you are yet to read one of Kelly’s novels, then you should do so as soon as possible. If, like me, you are a devout disciple, then I hope that I have summed up just a hint of the man’s magical writings.I am presenting the two series of novels as separate graphics, but you can find out more by visiting Jim Kelly’s Amazon page.

PHILIP DRYDEN NOVELS

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PETER SHAW NOVELS

Peter Shaw

 

 

THE MATHEMATICAL BRIDGE . . . Between the covers

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“Detective Inspector Eden Brooke trudged into Market Hill, the city’s great square, as snowflakes fell, thick and slow, each one a mathematical gem, seesawing down through the dead of night. Every sound was muffled, a clock striking the hour out of time, the rhythmic bark of a riverside dog, the distant rumble of a munitions train to the east, heading for the coastal ports. The blackout was complete, but the snow held its own light, an interior luminescence, revealing the low clouds above. Brooke stopped in his tracks, his last crisp footstep echoless, and wondered if he could hear the snow falling; an icy whisper in time with the sparkling of the crystals as they settled on the cobbles, composing themselves into a seamless white sheet.”

TMB“Begin as you mean to go on” says the old adage, and Jim Kelly sets himself a hard task with the brilliant and evocative first paragraph of The Mathematical Bridge. The beautiful use of language aside, Kelly’s first 126 words convey a wealth of information. A country at war. Midwinter. A city preparing for an attack from the air. A policeman out and about when honest men are abed.

Eden Brooke first appeared in The Great Darkness (2018) and you can read my review by clicking the blue link. A copper in the university city of Cambridge, he is a war veteran, not of the Western Front, but of the desert campaign, one of ‘Allenby’s Lads.’ We join him in that first winter of the Second World War, when German bombers have yet to inflict their terror on the houses and streets below them. Tragedy strikes when a boy, evacuated from his London home to the relative safety of a Roman Catholic community in Cambridge, is feared drowned in the fast-freezing River Cam. His body is eventually recovered, but not before Brooke has unearthed a plot to bring death and destruction to the streets of Cambridge.

The conspirators are not Germans but people from much nearer home who firmly believe that their enemy’s enemy is their friend. With two Irish republican conspirators sitting in a Birmingham jail, sentenced to death for a 1939 bomb atrocity in Coventry, Brooke realises that the next potential target for the IRA is Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, younger brother to the King. Henry is due to make a morale-boosting visit to Cambridge to boost the war effort, and Brooke is desperate to find the link between the dead boy in the river and the Irish community who worship at St Alban’s church.

Eden Brooke is an engaging character. Blighted by vision problems and chronic insomnia – both the result of his wartime treatment at the hands of brutal Turkish captors – he goes about his work with a steely intensity, much to the despair of his wife and daughter. Kelly’s portrait of provincial England in the first months of WW2 is mesmerising, more so given the added piquancy of our knowledge of what will happen, contrasted with the uncertainty of the characters in the novel.

Give Jim Kelly a landscape, a town, a city, an isolated village, and he will mobilise and send it off to war. Fans of his Philip Dryden novels will know the dramatic chiaroscuro he paints that shows how the comfortable middle-class cathedral city of Ely sits surrounded by dark and broken hard-scrabble villages out in the Fen. His Norfolk copper, Peter Shaw, knows only too well the contrast between the rough estates of King’s Lynn and the Chelsea-On-Sea second homes further up the Norfolk coastline. Eden Brooke’s Cambridge is a vivid and vital character in The Mathematical Bridge. Kelly makes it, despite the murders, an island of relative calm and rationality, for beyond it, out there in the flat darkness, lies The Fen.

doublesmallmathematicalbridgeThis is writing of the highest quality. Not just with the lame caveat ‘for a crime novel’ but writing with a touch of poetry and elegance gracing every line. Even when the crime is solved, the perpetrators are behind bars, and the delightfully complex contradictions of the plot have been explained, Kelly (right) still has the emotional energy to give us a last scene which manages to be poignant but, at the same time, life-affirming.

The Mathematical Bridge is published by Allison & Busby and is out on 21st February. For more about Jim Kelly and his writing click this link.

 

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . .The Nine Tailors

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I’ll start by being mildly controversial; I have been reading crime fiction for sixty years, and I can’t think of another novel which has such a complex plot. Another masterpiece, Chandler’s The Big Sleep certainly has its moments (after all, who did kill the chauffeur?) but even having read The Nine Tailors more than once I would still struggle to write a concise bluffers’ guide to exactly what happens from memory alone. This is neither criticism nor praise; it simply is what it is.

dorothy-l-sayers-grangerLet’s look at a few relatively simple background facts, and I apologise to fans of the author for whom this may be tedious. Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893 – 1957) was a notable English writer, poet, classical scholar and dramatist. She introduced the aristocratic private detective Lord Peter Wimsey in her 1923 novel, Whose Body? and by the time The Nine Tailors was published in 1934, Wimsey and his imperturbable manservant Bunter were well established.

The story begins in the depth of the English winter.

“That’s torn it! said Lord Peter Wimsey.
The car lay, helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch, her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank, as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth, and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifted snow……right and left, before and behind, the fen lay shrouded. It was past four o’clock and New Year’s Eve; the snow that had fallen all day gave back a glimmering greyness to a sky like lead.”


Their journey through the Cambridgeshire fens rudely interrupted, Wimsey and Bunter seek help from the nearby village of Fenchurch St Paul. With this simplest of literary devices, Sayers gives Wimsey a perfect excuse to stay overnight, courtesy of the amiable vicar; one of Wimsey’s many skills is bell-ringing and so he joins the church team in their traditional New Year peal, thus embedding him in a labrinthine set of circumstances involving robbery, missing jewels, coded messages, bigamy, deception and murder.

The Nine Tailors are not people, but the ancient bells hanging in the church tower, and Sayers endows them with mystical significance both to the readers of the novel, and to the people in Fenchurch St Paul. Her father was a clergyman, but Sayers later claimed to have had no particular previous knowledge of the arcane lore of church bells. The novel is, however, shot through with references to the bewildering mathematics involved in change ringing. Too much so, for some critics: HRF Keating wrote that Sayers had;

“incautiously entered the closed world of bell-ringing in The Nine Tailors on the strength of a sixpenny pamphlet picked up by chance.”

I am not sure if a book over eighty years old can be subject to plot spoilers, but suffice it to say that, among the several criminals features in the story, the bells do not escape without blame.

So, why is it such a good book, always in print, and often dramatised on screen? Wimsey himself, although deprecatingly described by his creator as a mixture of Bertie Wooster and Fred Astaire, is perhaps the greatest of the gentleman detectives of The Golden Age. He does not patronise the rougher folk of Fenchurch St Paul; he wears his breeding and education lightly and, like Kipling’s ideal man, he can talk with crowds and keep his virtue, and walk with Kings without losing the common touch. Wimsey is a hero of the Great War; this much we know from earlier novels, although his history is alluded to with some subtlety in The Nine Tailors. He has seen the best and worst of men, survived shell shock, and felt the bond between fighting men that transcends class barriers. Sayers was acutely aware of the fact that the horrors of 1914 – 18 pursued men long after the guns fell silent, and incidents in the war play a significant part in the story of The Nine Tailors.

Sayers gives landscape a greater significance in The Nine Tailors than in any of her other books. She was no stranger to Fenland. Her father was rector of Bluntisham, a prosperous village on the edge of the fens, and if you walk in its churchyard, you will see several surnames borrowed and given to characters in The Nine Tailors. The Rev. Henry Sayers later moved to the much more modest parish of Christchurch, slap dab in the middle of the Cambridgeshire fens. Incidentally, that fine writer Jim Kelly happily admits his admiration for Sayers, and set his own novel The Funeral Owl in Christchurch, which he renames Brimstone Hill.

Dorothy

What can the literary traveler find in today’s Cambridgeshire? The fictional Fenland in The Nine Tailors features everything the actual Fenland does. It has drainage rivers named after their width such as The Thirty Foot, back roads called Droves, and clusters of villages with the same name, but modified by the patron saints of their respective churches. Just as she gives us Fenchurch St Paul and Fenchurch St Peter, in real life we have Terrington St Clement, Terrington St John, Wiggenhall St Peter and Wiggenhall St Mary. Sayers takes all the familiar topographical features of the Fens and rearranges them into an authentic but original pattern.

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She also teases us with her place names. When we think we have matched Van Leyden’s Sluice with Denver, she confounds us by mentioning that Denver Sluice is much bigger. When you feel certain that Leamholt must be one of the bigger towns such as King’s Lynn, she introduces the actual King’s Lynn in a passing reference.

Here in the Fens, we love our skies and churches
while treating with respect the long, arrow-straight, deep black drains which keep our feet dry. Given that large parts of the fens are only inches above sea level we still have cause to fear tidal surges down the Great Ouse and the Nene. No author has ever rivaled Sayers in describing with such power the sheer devastation that the angry waters can bring. Having narrowly escaped death by the bells, Wimsey claws his way to the relative safety of the top of St Paul’s church tower, and looks out on a drowned land:

“The whole world was lost now in one vast sheet of water. He hauled himself to his feet and gazed out from horizon to horizon. To the south-west, St Stephen’s tower still brooded over a dark platform of land, like a broken mast upon a sinking ship. Every house in the village was lit up: St Stephen was riding out the storm. Westward, the thin line of the railway embankment stretched away to Little Dykesey, unvanquished as yet, but perilously besieged. Due south, Fenchurch St Peter, roofs and spire etched black against the silver, was the centre of a great mere. Close beneath the tower, the village of St Paul lay abandoned, waiting for its fate … outward and eastward the gold cock on the weathervane stared and strained, fronting the danger, held to his watch by the relentless pressure of the wind from off The Wash. Somewhere amid that still surge of water, the broken bodies of Will Thoday and his mate drifted and tumbled with the wreckage of farm and field. The Fen had reclaimed its own.”

Read the novel. Absorb the period details and accept the leisurely pace. Hold on firmly to Wimsey’s great sense of compassion and humanity. Wonder at the language and allow yourself a thankful shudder that you are safe at home, dry and warm. I can’t think of a more gripping description of a watery hell, unless it lies in the words of Herman Melville’s Ishmael, clinging to his wooden spar at the end of Moby Dick:

“…his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it. Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its watery sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

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Click on the picture to watch a short reflection in images and music

 

 

 

THE HANGING PSALM . . . Between the covers

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Honest broker that I am, and the modern equivalent of Robespierre in my sea-green incorruptibility, I must declare an interest here. I am an unashamed and avid fan of anything written by Chris Nickson. I hope that if he did write a duff book – or chapter – or page – or sentence – I would say so. Happily, that dilemma is one that I have yet to face.

hanging-psalm-revisedNickson’s latest book introduces a new character, Simon Westow, who walks familiar streets – those of Leeds – but our man is living in Georgian times. England in 1820 was a kingdom of uncertainty. Poor, mad King George was dead, succeeded by his fat and feckless son, the fourth George. Veterans of the war against Napoleon, like many others in later years, found that their homeland was not a land fit for heroes. The Cato Street conspirators, having failed to assassinate the Cabinet, were executed.

Simon Westow is a thief-taker. These days, he might be a bounty hunter or a PI. There is no established official police force, merely a Constable who is neither use nor ornament.
“The constable. It was a name rather than a job. A position. All the ceremony and the money that went with the post, but none of the work. Cecil Freeman had been part of the council long enough to earn the sop, a nest to gild his retirement. He supervised the watch, old men who covered the different wards of Leeds and hobbled a mile rather than risk a fight.”

Westow is a tradesman, just like a plumber. He is paid by results, and when he is tasked with finding the kidnapped daughter of a prominent mill owner, it poses no major problem and the young woman is soon found and returned to her family. But – and it is a huge ‘but’ – Westow and his ally, a wraith-like and embittered girl of the streets called Jane, learn that there is much more to the kidnapping than meets the eye. Their nemesis is a vengeful and resourceful man called Julius White, who has returned from a seven year transportation sentence to settle scores with those who put him on the prison ship sailing to Australia.

Samuel Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” but Nickson has eyes and ears only for Leeds. I am always drawn to writers who make a vivid sense of place a major character in their novels, hence my fascination with the London of Christopher Fowler, Jim Kelly’s Fenland and the brooding hills of the Welsh Marches as portrayed by Phil Rickman. Nickson, and his Leeds across the generations, is up there with the best. Think of the subtleties of a Rembrandt portrait, every line and wrinkle faithfully reproduced, but also think of that great painter’s warmth and the deep compassion of his vision.

Nickson employs a simple but astonishingly effective plot device, that readers of his novels will recognise. A crime is committed. The perpetrator is either unknown, or a known villain who has gone to ground in the alleys and ginnels of Leeds. The central character, be it Richard Nottingham, Tom Harper, Lottie Armstrong or Dan Armstrong, must then call in favours, walk the streets, mingle with pub low-life or knock on the front doors of posh houses in search of information. This enables Nickson to bring Leeds to life across the centuries, its dark places with poverty so intense that it reeks, and those airy vaulted buildings where men of property and money take their leisure and talk business.

The author is also a highly respected music journalist, and he will be aware that the great Woody Guthrie said something along the lines of, “I only use three chords; maybe four, if I’m trying to impress a girlfriend.” Nickson is equally parsimonious with his prose. There are no flounces, no frills and no flourishes but, maybe because of this economy, there is memorable poetry, albeit bleak, such as when he describes the ‘fallen women’ of Leeds.

“Too many were desperate. All it took was the promise of a meal and a bed. And then enough gin and laudanum to dull the pain of living and the agony men inflicted. If a few died, there was ample room for the burials. Girls without names, without pasts; no one would ever ask questions.”

Westow’s pursuit of Julius White is thrilling stuff. The ex-convict’s desire for revenge has created a fire, and the character forged in its flames emerges as the embodiment of evil. Maybe it’s just me, but this novel casts a more sombre shadow than previous Nickson Leeds novels. Westow certainly carries deep psychological scars from his institutional upbringing, and Jane is a very dark, complex and troubled soul.

The Hanging Psalm is published by Severn House and will be available from 28th September. In case you are puzzled by the price on the Amazon listing, you need to know that the publishers sell mainly to public libraries, so check that your own library has this book on its acquisition list.

If you are new to the books of Chris Nickson, then click the blue link to discover why I am such an admirer.

Severn House

THE HIDDEN BONES . . . Between the covers

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Strangers to the south of England may be unaware of the rolling uplands known as the Malborough Downs. Also known as the North Wessex Downs, the area is full of important Neolithic and Bronze Age sites as well as being the setting for much of Hardy’s Jude The Obscure and the 1972 best-seller by Richard Adams, Watership Down. Now, the area provides a brooding and often menacing backdrop to The Hidden Bones, the first of a new mystery series written by Nicola Ford.

THB coverClare Hills is an archaeologist who is struggling to hold her life together after the death of her husband. Her grief at his passing is tempered by the fact that he has left her virtually penniless. When she is invited by her former tutor, Dr David Barbrook, to help explore and archive the papers of Gerald Hart, she welcomes the chance to use her expertise. Hart was a gentleman archaeologist whose Palladian villa, Hungerbourne Manor, was the centre of his life’s work – investigating the Hungerbourne Barrows. The Bronze Age burial sites were Hart’s obsession, but whatever secrets they held, he seems to have taken them with him to his grave.

As Hills and Barbrook are soon to discover, Gerald Hart’s work was not without controversy, much of which centred around the discovery of a beautiful ornament known as a Sun Disc, evocatively described thus:

“In his hand he cradled the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Not much bigger than a ten pence piece, an orange-red disc lay at its centre. The ruddy amber disc was encased within a circle of gold decorated with four delicately incised concentric grooves that ran right around its rim.”

Archaeologists must expect, from time to time, to uncover human remains, but these are usually nothing sinister except, perhaps, in the masterly ghost stories of M R James. The problem is, however, that one of the discoveries made by Hills and Barbrook do not date back four millennia: far from it – they are much more recent, and have a chilling significance.

Gerald Hart, like many obsessives, collected friends and enemies with equal ease, and most of these are still in the land of the living. As Hills and Barbrook delve deeper into the affairs of the late archaeologist, they themselves become potential targets for a killer who was involved in the original excavations at Hungerbourne.

Nicola_Ford_smlI have many guilty pleasures, and one of them is being a sucker for a crime novel where the landscape plays a vital part in the plot. My two particular favourite writers in this regard are Phil Rickman and Jim Kelly, but with this excellent debut novel, Nicola Ford (right) has elbowed herself into their company.

The Hidden Bones has all the best elements of a cosy crime novel mystery, but is spiced with both fascinating historical detail and a definite touch of the macabre. It is published by Allison & Busby and will be available on 21st June.

Nicola Ford is an archaeologist who works for the National Trust at Stonehenge, and under her working name of Dr Nick Snashall she regularly appears on national television and radio.

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THE GREAT DARKNESS . . . Between the covers

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Cambridge, in the early autumn of 1939, is like every other city and large town across Britain: war has been declared, the army is everywhere – as are rumours of German spies and infiltrators under every metaphorical bed. Observers scan the skies night and day vainly searching for enemy aircraft while in Belgium, the British Expeditionary Force sit waiting the German Army’s first move. In hindsight, of course, we know that this was the ‘phony’ war, and that Hitler’s forces had, for the moment at least, more pressing work further east.

Jim004In this febrile atmosphere are many men and women who have memories of “the last lot”. One such is the latest creation from Jim Kelly, (left) Detective Inspector Eden Brooke. He saw service in The Great War, but were someone to wonder if his war had been ‘a good war’, they would soon discover that he had suffered dreadful privations and abuse as a prisoner of the Turks, and that the most physical legacy of his experiences is that his eyesight has been permanently damaged. He wears a selection of spectacles with lenses tinted to block out different kinds of light which cause him excruciating pain. For him, therefore, the nightly blackout is more of a blessing than a hindrance.

One of Brooke’s stranger habits is moonlight bathing in the River Cam. It is on one such visit to the river that he overhears a conversation. Because of blackout, he can see nothing, but it seems a group of ‘squaddie’ soldiers under the command of an NCO are digging pits to bury something – and it is not a pleasant job. Daylight, and an inspection by one of Brooke’s officers, provides no answer.

With the mysterious burials in St John’s Wilderness nagging away at him like a toothache, Brooke must divert his attention to violent deaths. With military minds convinced that barrage balloons will prove the answer to death being delivered from the skies by the Luftwaffe, the ‘blimps’ are tethered all over the city. To us, they have a slightly comedic aspects, but when one breaks free from its mooring and catches fire, the results leave no-one laughing. As the balloon careers across the Cambridge rooftops it trails a deadly mesh of netting and steel cable. A man, subsequently identified as American research student Ernst Lux, has been caught up in this obscene accidental fishing expedition and when his body eventually returns to the ground it looks as if it has been savaged by some dreadful predatory beast. The second death is just as brutal but mercifully quicker. The body of Chris Childe, a conscientious objector and an active member of the Communist Party, is found slumped over his parents’ grave in Mill Road Cemetery. He has been shot through the head at point blank range.

Brooke is pulled this way and that with the investigations, but then there is a further complication. Three lorries, running on false plates, are found parked up on Castle Hill, their drivers gone. When the investigation gathers speed it becomes clear that this is an operation in black market meat, controlled by criminal gangs in Sheffield. Brooke is convinced that there is a military connection between all these events, but in order to make any sense of them he needs to get straight answers from the top brass at regional army HQ out at Madingley Hall. The Inspector is, literally, an ‘old soldier’ and he knows precisely how the military mind works, so attempts by officers such as Colonel George Swift-Lane to ‘baffle him with bullshit’ are doomed to failure.

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The relationship between the deaths, the digging and the dirty dealing are eventually laid bare by Brooke’s intelligence and persistence. Kelly’s writing has never been more atmospheric and haunting; he gives us one spectacular and horrific set-piece when a demonstration by the Auxiliary Fire Service goes terribly wrong, and he makes sure that the killer of Chris Childe dies a death more terrible than that of his victim. Above all, though, we have a brilliant and memorable new character in Eden Brooke. There is a little something of Christopher Foyle about him, although his wife Claire is very much alive, but Brooke’s son is also away doing his bit, with the BEF in Belgium, waiting for the push that would eventually. just seven months later, drive them into the sea.

 

Brooke’s portrait is subtle, nuanced and, while revealing up to a point, leaves us with the impression that this a man who we may never completely understand, and that he is someone whose actions, thoughts and decisions will always have the capacity to surprise us. I can only say to Jim Kelly, “Thank you, Mr K – this is as brilliant and evocative a piece of crime fiction as I will expect to read all year. You’ve gone and done it again!”

The Great Darkness is published by Allison & Busby and will be generally available on 15th February.

For a background to Jim Kelly’s work and his use of landscape, place and history in his novels, click the link below.

LANDSCAPE, MEMORY – and MURDER

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Three keepers!

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MOST BOOK REVIEWERS do not have the space to keep all the books they read and review. I’m no exception, despite living in a five bedroom property bought to house a missus and four sons. The four sons have now grown up and gone, but Mrs P is, happily, still in residence. Friends, giveaways and charity shops are the usual beneficiaries of the unwanted books, but there are some writers whose novels I will only be parted from after a brutal battle where I have, like John Cleese’s Black Knight, been dismembered. These books are usually dotted about throughout the year, and some only exist as a digital file on my Kindle, but to get three ‘keepers’ in one delivery is something special. Two of these writers could be called Elder Statesmen of the crime fiction world, but the third has established himself, in my eyes at least, after just one superb novel.

THE SMILING MAN by JOSEPH KNOX

KnoxI met Joseph Knox (left) at a publisher’s showcase event in London, where he presented his debut novel, Sirens. I was hooked after hearing him read the opening paragraphs, and my initial impression was confirmed when I read the novel, featuring a conflicted young Manchester police officer, Aidan Waits. Knox talked about his work and influences in this interview, but now Aidan Waits makes a very welcome return. Once again, the city of Manchester looms as a malign and dystopian presence in The Smiling Man. In the crumbling and echoing emptiness of a former hotel, Waits finds a corpse whose killers have been so determined to render him anonymous that his teeth and fingertips have been replaced. In death, his face has assumed the rictus of a fatal smile. You can find out if – and how –  Waits solves this crime on 8th March. The Smiling Man is published by Doubleday.

GREEKS BEARING GIFTS by PHILIP KERR

Philip KerrJust as George MacDonald Fraser had his magnificent bounder Harry Flashman working his way through all the major political and military events of the the second half of the 19th century, so Philip Kerr (right) has positioned his wearily honest – but cynical –  German cop Bernie Gunther in the 20th. We know Gunther fought in The Great War, but his service there is only, thus far, alluded to. We have seen him interact with most of the significant players in the decades spanning the rise of the Nazis through to their defeat and escape into post-war boltholes such as Argentina and Cuba. In the 13th book of this brilliant series, Gunther, joints creaking with advancing old age, is now working for an insurance company who want him to investigate a possible scam involving a sunken ship. His work takes him to Athens, where he discovers an unpleasantly familiar link to evil deeds committed under the baleful gaze of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen. Some of Bernie Gunther’s earlier exploits are covered here, while you can get hold of his latest case on 3rd April, courtesy of Quercus.

THE GREAT DARKNESS by JIM KELLY

Crime fiction readers are addicted to character series, and who can blame writers for feeding the fire. It is a matter of record that some very successful novelists have come to hate their creations, and have killed them off and started anew. Not all are successful – witness a certain Edinburgh physician – but Jim Kelly (below) has done the deed once, and now he is brave enough to do it again. His Peter Shaw books have matched his Philip Dryden novels for ingenuity, sense of place and history, and beautiful writing, but now he begins a third series, stepping back in time to the early days of World War Two. He has kept faith with his East Anglian setting, but we have moved sixteen miles down the road from Dryden’s cathedral city of Ely, to Cambridge where, in The Great DarknessDetective Inspector Eden Brooke, struggling with the titular ban on night-time lights, discovers a gruesome killing o the banks of the gently flowing River Cam. The Great Darkness is published by Allison & Busby, and is out on 15th February. You can read more about Jim Kelly and his books here.

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