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OFF SCRIPT . . . Between the covers

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It’s just as well that I don’t work in publishing, because I have no nose whatsoever for what makes an author popular. Some of my very favourite writers clearly have their audiences, but never have their names “up in lights’. One such is Graham Hurley. He created one of the truly original fictional coppers – Joe Faraday – and then killed him off. Poor Joe didn’t survive his Reichenbach Falls moment but subsequently, Hurley gave us a quartet of beautifully crafted novels featuring Faraday’s young sergeant, Jimmy Suttle.

Hurley’s latest creation is not a police officer. She is an actress, Enora Andresson, who doesn’t even solve crimes as an amateur, but her circle of acquaintances and personal circumstances lead her into dangerous situations. The first two books in the series are pictured below,and clicking the images will take you to a detailed review of each.

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Now we have a new Enora Andresson novel, Off Script, and it is every bit as cleverly written and perceptive as Graham Hurley fans have come to expect. For newcomers, here is a quick precis of Enora’s world.

She is a distinguished and much-admired actress, having appeared in many stage productions and is best known for her roles in what used to be known as art-house films. She lives with a brain tumour which she hopes is now in remission. Her former husband, whose name she retains is, as they say, a ‘nasty-piece-of-work’. She has a rather feckless son, Malo. We learned in Curtain Call that his father is a gangster-gone-legit, Hayden Prentice. Another significant figure in Enora’s life is a former scriptwriter called Pavel. Once Enora’s lover, he is now blind, and paralysed after a freak accident.

41tNcNbzycL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_In Off Script, the early focus is on Carrie, one of Pavel’s carers. She has received a terrifying small-hours visit from an apparent psychopath, and when she confesses how much this has disturbed her, Enora sets out to find the strange young man who, after his chilling threats to Carrie, seems to have disappeared into the twilight world of the homeless and uprooted.

Enora’s world is tipped on its head when she discovers a terrible murder:

“She’s sprawled on her side, one knee up, a semi-foetal pose. Her eyes are wide open in the blankness of her face. Naked, she’s lying in a drying pool of what must be her own blood. It’s everywhere, over the sheets, the duvet, the pillows, the wallpaper, everywhere.”

The search intensifies for Carrie’s midnight visitor, and along the way Enora and an investigative journalist take a trip to the Somerset seaside, but it is far from idyllic.

“Mitch has never been to Weston before but what he sees on the way in doesn’t surprise him. Scruffy industrial estates. Boarded up units. Heavy security outside supermarkets. Kids on their bikes pulling wheelies in the middle of the road, eager for their day in court.”

Enora is blindsided by a new man in her life, and makes a terrible mistake. She eventually realises what she has done, and it takes all her skills as an actress to prevent catastrophe. Not the least of Graham Hurley’s wizardry is the bravura way he tells the tale through the eyes of a 39 year-old woman. Enora is utterly convincing, and has become another example of Hurley’s brilliant storytelling.

Off Script is published by Severn House and is out now.

RESTLESS COFFINS . . . Between the covers

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This is the final part of MP Wright’s trilogy which began with Heartman in 2014. That, and the middle novel All Through The Night (2016), tell the story of Joseph Tremaine “JT” Ellington, an ex-cop with a tragic past. JT has been forced to leave his native Barbados as a result of his upsetting certain powerful people on the island; his personal fate, however, is nothing compared to that of his wife and daughter who have perished in a fire that was anything but accidental.

TRCEllington, broke and broken-hearted has ended up in 1960s Bristol, where he uses his police training to eke out a living as a private investigator. When he receives the news that his only sister, Bernice, has died in Barbados, he is compelled to return home to wind up her affairs. Hovering in the background, however, is Ellington’s violent criminal cousin Victor, who has reappeared after rumours of his tumbling to his death on the rocky slopes of Bristol’s Clifton Gorge prove to be greatly exaggerated. When Ellington arrives in New York after the first leg of his journey home, he rapidly realises that ‘born-again’ Vic is involved in something much more dangerous – and potentially lethal – than his previous mildly illegal entrepreneurship within the West Indian community in Bristol.

Hooked into a deadly game of guns, drugs, deceit, deaths – and then more deaths – Ellington eventually arrives in Barbados, but only after a sojourn in New Orleans, where the city’s reputation for exotic violence is further enhanced. By now, three coffins have joined the travelling party. Much too honest and trusting for this venture, it eventually dawns on Ellington that these coffins are part of not only a drug deal, but also the means by which the violently despotic Barbados criminal named Monroe – almost certainly the killer of Ellington’s wife and daughter – will be despatched to join his ancestors.

Restless Coffins is strong stuff. There is no shortage of corpses, and endless variety in the ways they are killed. The villains are evil personified and the good guys – with the exception of Ellington himself – are few and far between. Mark Wright certainly takes a position regarding the way black people in the 1960s were treated by the indigenous British population. Although very little of the action in Restless Coffins takes place in England, readers of the previous two books will know that the attitude of white people towards those we now call The Windrush Generation is almost entirely negative. And, reading today’s newspaper, it seems that those problems are far from over.

M.P._Wright_2016_2Wright has made the decision to phonetically transcribe all the dialogue between the main characters in his books. I have to admit that in Heartman it was a source of irritation to me, but such is the pace and vigour of the action in Restless Coffins that it didn’t seem to matter as much this time around. The new ‘crime’ of Cultural Appropriation seems to me to be one of the most pointless, misguided and irrelevant of fashionable 21st century dogmas, so you will hear no complaint from me about a white Englishman writing a novel with an almost entirely black cast, complete with speech patterns, vocabulary and inflections.

The bottom line is that this is a crackerjack novel, full of action, humour, social observation, historical accuracy, brilliant topographical descriptions and the absolute sine qua non of a good book – a central character who is credible and described with subtlety and nuance. If you read this, and don’t care about JT Ellington and what happens to him, then you have a heart of stone and the emotional sensibility of a fruit fly.

Restless Coffins is published by Black and White Publishing and is out now.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Coffeetown Press

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It’s unusual to devote a news update to one publisher, but since I received a lovely parcel all the way from America, it would be rude to do anything otherwise. Coffeetown Press has been publishing the finest fiction and nonfiction since 2005. They are based in Seattle, Washington. They publish memoirs, literary fiction, academic nonfiction, nonfiction, and literary mysteries. Coffeetown is an approved publisher with both International Thriller Writers (ITW) and Mystery Writers of America (MWA).

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Let The Dead Bury The Dead by David Carlson
Our All-American feature begins in the city of Detroit, once a powerhouse of car making – and amazing music – but now little more than a rotting skeleton. Crime-solving partnerships are two-a-penny, but the combination of a Detroit cop and a Greek Orthodox priest certainly explores virgin territory. This is the second of the Christopher Worthy/Father Fortis mystery series, and the pair combine their unique skillsets to track down the killer of a priest found brutally strangled before the altar of Detroit’s St. Cosmas Greek Orthodox Church
Out on 1st September

FredThe Nutting Girl by Fred de Vecca
New profiles for CriFi heroes are increasingly difficult to create, but how about a man who is a blind monk, a cop, a private detective, and a hard drinker? Allow me to introduce Frank Raven who, if you add ‘former’ to those descriptions, ticks all the boxes. We are a mere 700 miles from Detroit, in Shelburne Falls, a historic village in Franklin County, Massachusetts. The village (population 1,731) becomes a film set, and Raven takes a break from dancing and singing with the local Morris Dance group to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the film’s star, Juliana Velvet Norcross, aka VelCro.
Out now as a Kindle, but on 1st August in paperback.

rich_zahradnik-214x300Lights Out Summer by Rich Zahradnik
This is the fourth in a very popular series featuring New York cop Coleridge Taylor. In his latest adventure he is hunting – with the help of his PI girlfriend Samantha – none other than the notorious serial killer Son Of Sam. Set in the spring and steamy summer of 1977, this is not the first novel this year to include the catastrophic NYC power failure in July 1977. In No Middle Name, the collection of Jack Reacher short stories, The Big Man actually locks horns with David Berkowitz on the night when the lights went out.
Available on 1st October

Maggie2013Dadgummit by Maggie Toussaint 
Amateur sleuth Baxley Powell has a distinctive talent. She calls it ‘Dreamwalking’. This enables her to go to sleep, and to transcend, in her dreams, the constraints, secrets and conventions of mere mortals. In the fourth book of the Dreamwalker series, Powell tackles the mysterious death of a young man beside a north Georgia lake, but her efforts to find a solution in the spectral world are hindered at every turn by native Cherokee folk, who know a bit about folklore. Out now as a Kindle, but available on 1st August in paperback.

 

Contact Information:

Coffeetown Press
PO Box 70515
Seattle, WA 98127
info@coffeetownpress.com

LIGHTS DOWN . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2022-07-06 at 18.26.33For those new to this wonderful series, here’s the back story. Enora Andressen is an actress  in her early forties. She has won fame, if not fortune, by starring in what used to be known as ‘art films’ – often European produced and of a literary nature. She has a twenty-something son, Malo, the product of a one-night-fling with a former drug boss, Harold ‘H’ Prentice. ‘H’ and Enora have become reunited, after a fashion, but it is not a sexual relationship. In the previous novel, ‘H’ is stricken with Covid, and barely survives. That story is told in  Intermission.

Curtain callTaking an extended break from her nursing of ‘H’ down at Flixcombe, his manor house in the south of England, Enora returns to her London flat. She is contacted by Rémy Despret,  a film director with whom she has worked many times. He is a charming as ever, but seems to have lost his touch regarding viable screenplays. He pitches his latest – Exocet – to Enora, but she thinks it is rubbish, and turns him down. She also suspects he is using his yacht to smuggle drugs, and may be in serious trouble with some very dangerous people. She also meets her agent, Rosa, who tells her she is representing  a woman who has written a potentially explosive – because real identities are thinly concealed –  novel about the extra marital affairs of a senior politician.

Enora receives a chilling ‘phone call from the woman who is in charge of things at Flixcombe. Not only is ‘H’ suffering physically from Long Covid, it seems he has developed dementia. When Enora drives down to see for herself, she is staggered to find that ‘H’ has no idea who she is. In the previous books, ‘H’ has been a force of nature. Physically imposing and nobody’s fool, the former football hooligan, has to borrow from Shakespeare, been a criminal Caesar:

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men.
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.”

sight-unseenNow, sadly, he is much reduced physically and mentally and is given to such bizarre behaviour as appearing naked at windows. Also, his money is running out. Huge sums of it went on private nursing care during his battle with Covid, as he absolutely refused to go into an NHS hospital. Incidentally, readers will always conjure up their own mental images of the characters in books they read, but I occasionally play the game of casting books ready for imaginary film or TV adaptations. My four penn’orth has a young Anne Bancroft as Enora, and Bob Hoskins as ‘H’.

Off ScriptWith the help of long time friend and former copper Dessie Wren Enora discovers that the ‘bonking politician’ novel has more sinister undertones than being simply a kiss-and-tell story. Graham Hurley makes it convincingly up to date with the inclusion of the Russian state-backed mafia and PM Boris Johnson, although with the latter, the story has been overtaken by events.

Undaunted by Enora’s rejection of Exocet, Rémy Despret has come up with an idea which she finds much more interesting. Evidently Flixcombe was used during WW2 as base for Free French intelligence agents and propagandists and the  ‘Vlixcombe‘ movie has already attracted  backers with the big money. If the project comes off, there will be a starring role for Enora, and enough money to keep at bay the predators circling the ailing ‘H’ Prentice. But then there is a murder, things begin to unravel, and Graham Hurley writes the most astonishing ending I have read in many a day.

I make no apology for my enthusiasm for  Graham Hurley’s writing. Not only was his Joe Faraday series one of the most intelligent and emotionally literate run of police procedurals I have ever read, but the sequels featuring Faraday’s former sergeant Jimmy Suttle were just as good. Hurley is also a brilliant military historian, and has written several novels centred around particular conflicts in WW2. His book Kyiv seems particularly relevant just now, and if you read it, it will give you a huge insight into the subtext of the Ukraine-Russia relationship which is barely mentioned in current news coverage.

Lights Down
is published by Severn House and is available now. If you click on the cover images above, a review of each novel should open in a new tab.

 

INTERMISSION . . . Between the covers

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For readers new to this excellent series from Graham Hurley, here’s what you need to know. The central character is Enora Andressen, an English stage and screen actress in her early forties. She is in remission from a brain tumour, lives in Holland Park and is in a platonic relationship with a former cocaine baron, now a ‘reputable’ businessman, Hayden Prentice. He is the father of Enora’s son Malo, the product of a drunken fling on a yacht moored at Cannes a couple of decades earlier. Like ‘Bazza’ Mackenzie, the memorable anti-hero of Hurley’s magnificent Joe Faraday books, Prentice – nicknamed HP or ‘Saucy’ – has his tribal roots in the violent world of Portsmouth football supporters.

412ff7zLF2SIntermission is, I am sure, the only novel I have read so far that has, as its spine, the Covid-19 pandemic. The action begins in that fateful early spring of 2020, and Hayden Prentice learns that one of his old friends, a former bent copper known as Fat Dave has been laid low with the virus and is in the local ICU, and not expected to live. Visiting is, of course, completely off limits, but the sight – via a video link –  of his friend expiring amidst a sea of tubes and monitors chills HP to the bone. He travels from his Dorset manor house and summons Enora down to Portsmouth, where they have been given the use of a shabby flat owned by HP’s solicitor.

Fat Dave dies, and the newly announced lockdown measures prevent HP from organising the kind of send-off he was planning. Then, another bombshell. HP contracts the virus himself but refuses point blank to go into hospital. Enora has previously learned, via Malo, that due to the collapse of an insurance business he has set up, HP – formerly awash with the money he made in his criminal days – is in serious financial difficulties, but trapped in the claustrophobic flat Enora and Malo have no option but to buy in private care, involving  a rotating shift of nurses, the attention of a consultant, and  specialist medical equipment. The cost of all this is going to prove ruinous, but Enora is told by a violent psychopath called Wesley Kane – a sometime employee of HP – that before the virus laid him low, HP had a little investment plan. A plan that didn’t involve the risky world of insurance, hedge funds or commodity futures, but one where huge percentage profits are almost guaranteed – class “A” drugs. Back in his Dorset mansion, HP has kept a substantial stash of cash – in the proverbial used notes – and his housekeeper Jessie delivers this to Enora.

It seems that there is a woman in town named Shanti who has a long history of drug dealing. The restaurant she runs has gone bust, the power has been cut off, and she is hungry for money. Despite her attempts to run a straight business, she has retained contacts with the wholesalers of the ever-popular pharmaceuticals, and Enora pays her a visit.

There are complications, however. Enora meets Dessie Wren, a serving police officer and former colleague of the late Fat Dave, but rather more honest. He makes it very clear that the Hampshire police have not given up on their long running campaign to nail Hayden Prentice for his past misdeeds. To add to the woes of HP – and those close to him – someone whose father died as ‘collateral damage’ in a drug deal that went wrong is out for revenge.

There are so many good things about this series (click the links to read reviews of the earlier books Off Script, Sight Unseen and Curtain Call). Graham Hurley is a brilliant storyteller and a man of great learning and wide interests; as if the Joe Faraday books, the Jimmy Suttle series and these books are not sufficient evidence of that, he also writes superb military history thrillers like Kyiv. Enora herself is a wonderfully nuanced character. There is nothing remotely criminal about her, but through loyalty she is drawn into the murky world of Hayden Prentice, rather like Chandler’s investigator who finds that, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

The best contemporary English crime writers always give us an almost palpable sense of place; Christopher Fowler gives us London, Phil Rickman draws us into the haunted borderland between England and Wales; Chris Nickson has us treading the cobbles and breathing in the dense air of industrial Leeds, while Jim Kelly leaves us with the quiet menace of the Fen country. Graham Hurley has a recurrent major character in many of his novels, and it is the city of Portsmouth itself. Enora muses:

It’s an island community. It’s a bit cut off, a bit claustrophobic. It seems to expect the worst, and I get the feeling that it’s rarely disappointed, but for all its stoicism, it remains oddly upbeat. It also has a long memory. The thirst for a fight evidently lies deep in the city’s DNA, and I get the feeling the Pompey tribes have been picking quarrels for ever. Tim, my thespy friend, is very good on this. First, he says, Pompey’s finest went to sea and took on the Spanish, then the Dutch, and then the French. Trafalgar was a great moment, a really tasty ruck, and then came two world wars and shoals of sneaky U-boats. The monument on the front, visible from this flat, tallies the thousands of lives lost, but even so the city has never abandoned its passion for lots of blood and lots of treasure.”

Intermission is published by Severn House and is out now.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Thriller

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If you want to read the full review of each novel, just click the title. The review should then open in a different window

THE SECOND WIFE by REBECCA FLEET

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POSSESSED by PETER LAWS

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BORROWED TIME by DAVID MARK

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BEST THRILLER 2020
OFF SCRIPT by GRAHAM HURLEY

Screen Shot 2020-12-11 at 19.20.17If you were to ask the man or woman browsing in the books aisle at ASDA or TESCO to name a distinguished living British crime fiction writer, I would wager that few would come up with name Graham Hurley. , Rankin, James, McDermid and Child might get a mention – and all credit to them – but Graham Hurley is something of a connoisseur’s choice. I’ll be quite up front – I love his writing. The Joe Faraday novels were just wonderful, but then Mr H killed him off. He kept us entertained with the Jimmy Suttle stories which were, in a way, Faraday novels without Faraday, but then Jimmy disappeared. Hurley’s latest creation is not a copper. She is a 39 year-old actress with a brain tumour, and a back story that involves a very ‘dodgy geezer’, a former criminal ganglord called Hayden Prentice. Yes, there is plenty of crime, and an abundance of thrills but, above all, there is Hurley’s superb ability to create memorable characters and tell a mesmerising story. Click the author’s picture (above right) to learn more.

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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

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

FLESH AND BLOOD . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://fullybooked2017.com/tag/david-mark/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://fullybooked2017.com/tag/i-was-dora-suarez/

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

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

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

 

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