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fullybooked2017

A retired Assistant Head Teacher, mad keen on guitars. Four grown-up sons, one delightful grandchild. Enjoys shooting at targets, not living things. Determined not to go gently into that good night.

NO ONE HOME . . . Between the covers

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Over the years, missing persons investigator David Raker has, courtesy of his creator Tim Weaver, solved some perplexing cases. There was the man who disappeared into the bowels of London’s underground railway system, the amnesiac who was found on a deserted south coast shingle beach, the straight ‘A’ student with the secret life who just vanishes and, memorably, the time his dead wife walked into a London police station and back into his life. Raker tends to be looking for troubled individuals, as in just the one person. But this time it’s different.

NOHA whole village has disappeared. OK, let’s put that into context. The village is the isolated moorland community of Black Gale, and it consists of a farm and three expensive and fairly recent houses arrayed in a semi-circle around the older building. Black Gale. Population, nine souls. And on Halloween, two years since, they vanished. Into thin air. Like Prospero’s insubstantial pageant, the four families have left not a rack behind.

Raker has problems of his own, principally in the shape of his long time friend, former police officer Colm Healy. Healy featured in the very first Raker mystery Vanished (2012) and his misfortunes have been ever present over the series (No One Home is the 10th book). Healy is officially dead – and buried, He has a gravestone to prove it, but for a variety of reasons the former copper now exists under a variety of aliases, under the protection of David Raker. A persistent and intrusive journalist wants to write Raker’s life story, but also suspects the truth about Healey, and uses his knowledge in an attempt to force Raker to co-operate. Keeping the hack at bay – just – Raker begins to unpick the mystery of Black Gale.

Fans of the series will know that Tim Weaver doesn’t like Raker’s cases to be geographically confined, and so it is that the Black Gale conundrum is linked with a grisly unsolved murder in a flyblown California motel decades earlier. I say “unsolved”. The local Sheriff’s Department think the case is a wrap. They have a vic and a perp and have moved on to other things. Detective Joline Kader, however, has other ideas. She is unconvinced that the body lying face down in a bathtub of muriatic acid is simply the victim of a drug deal gone wrong, and the case stays with her over the years, right through her police career and her subsequent vocation as a college lecturer. Right up until the moment where her old obsession collides with David Raker’s fatal unpicking of a very clever and murderous conspiracy.

Screen Shot 2019-05-25 at 19.45.47No One Home is a brilliant thriller. It runs to over 500 pages, with not a single one wasted. The action is constant and the plot spins about all over the place, so you will need to be on your mettle to keep track of what is going on. Tim Weaver (right) has never been shy of creating apparently improbable conundrums for Raker to solve, and this is no exception. Suspend your disbelief for a few hours and go with the flow. I read it in three intense sessions and although I don’t use “Wow!” in normal speech, it certainly applies here. No One Home is published by Penguin and is out now.

POSTSCRIPT: It is unlikely that anyone reading this is a book reviewer with a yet-to-be-read advance copy of No One Home, but if you are, then please be advised that the ending in your copy makes no sense at all. Reverse sections 9 and 10, however, and things fit into place much better, and I believe this is the version which is now on sale to the public.

ON MY SHELF . . . Late May 2019

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STRANGE AFFAIRS, GINGER HAIRS by Arthur Grimestead

SAGHCurrently lengths ahead in the Strangest Title of The Year contest, this novel is by an author who describes it, “Like the King James Bible, Strange Affairs, Ginger Hairs is a wedge of enthralling made up shit.” Set in 1990s Hull, it is the tale of an apparently mediocre northern city and an equally mediocre teenage resident, the titular Ginger, whose escape from mundanity, like that of Bilbo Baggins, is afforded by possession of a gold ring. Ginger’s ring, however, doesn’t draw him into an epic battle with Sauron and his Orcs. Rather closer to home, Ginger’s enemies are some of the meanest and most violent men Humberside has to offer. Arthur Grimestead’s novel is published by Matador and is available now. Arthur has his own website, complete with music –  and endorsements from Boris Yeltsin and Marie Curie.

COME BACK FOR ME by Heidi Perks

CBFMPerks is the best-selling author of Now You See Her (2018) and she follows her debut with this chilling mystery set on an island off the Dorset coast of southern England. Islands and their inhabitants tend to be, well, insular, and prone to strange happenings and dark secrets. Stella Harvey was brought up on Evergreen Island. Her family fled that home a quarter of a century ago, but when a body – long dead – is discovered in the garden of the family home, Stella is compelled to return and solve the grisly mystery. The warm and fondly remembered island atmosphere of her childhood is, however, just that, and she finds that her youthful illusions are shattered by a grim and uncompromising present. Published by Century, Come Back For Me will be out on 1st June as an eBook and in hardback on 11th July.

THE MADNESS LOCKER by EJ Russell

TML033First off, it appears that EJ Russell is no relation to the EJ Russell who writes paranormal romances. This author appears to be a chap, his book is set in Australia, and is as far away from a romance as could be imagined. The story begins with the oft-told but ever horrific account of the Nazi’s attempt to cleanse their Thousand Year Reich of all undesirables, whether they be Jews, the disabled, homosexuals , Roma or those considered as of no worth to the state. A young girl survives Auschwitz – unlike her parents – but decades later seeks to avenge herself on the person she considers individually responsible for her harrowing journey into the jaws of death. Her search takes her to Australia where, in the late 1980s, the body of a widow was found dumped in a wheelie bin. Now, the police have consigned the death to their cold case files, but does the murder hold the key which will unlock Ruth’s search for the truth? The Madness Locker is out on 28th May from Matador.

THE SERPENT’S MARK by SW Perry

TSMEnglish politics? I write this at a time when the height of public disapproval seems to be typified by throwing eggs or milkshakes over people with apparently disagreeable views. Things were a little more harsh in 1591, however, and in the days of Good Queen Bess, a ‘wrong’ view was likely to result in a spell in The Tower, an unpleasant encounter in a torturer’s workshop or a sword thrust through your vitals. SW Perry returns to the turbulent London of heretics, Catholics, plotters and assorted Thames-side lowlife that he had such success with in The Angel’s Mark (2018), of which one reviewer wrote, “Wonderful! Beautiful writing, and Perry’s Elizabethan London is so skilfully evoked, so real that one can almost smell it”. Perry’s new book, once again features physician and reluctant spy Nicholas Shelby, and the all-too-real figure of the Queen’s devious spymaster Robert Cecil. The Serpent’s Mark is published by Corvus and will be available from 6th June

OF CRIME AND HUMANITY by Ma’on Shan

OCAHThe profile of the Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi has taken something of a battering in recent times. From the being the tiny but graceful lady with a will of iron, heroine to all seekers of democracy, her ambivalence over the mistreatment of the Rohinga people has caused some commentators to tone down their eulogies. This book, however, puts ‘The Lady’ back in the context of the Myanmar freedom struggle, and is viewed through the eyes of a young girl who, through no wish of her own, is thrust into the bloody and violent guerilla battle against a brutal military dictatorship. ‘The Lady’ herself, under house arrest, is just too much of a worldwide public figure for the Myanmar generals to do away with, while far away in the jungle, her adherents brutalise others – and themselves – in search of a notional freedom. Ma’on Shan’s novel is published by Matador, and is out now.

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THE LOST SHRINE . . . Between the covers

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The LostOn a lonely and ancient hill in south western England, a group of amiable but earnest hippy cranks prepare to celebrate a pagan festival. What their leader finds when he climbs the hill to consummate the ritual sends him reeling and retching to his knees. There, strung up from the trees is a grisly collection of local wildlife, butchered and bloody. That is bad enough, but the centrepiece of this obscene display is – or was – human.

The corpse is that of Beth Kinsella, an intense and controversial archaeologist who has been excavating Bailsgrove Hill prior to much of it being consumed by a building development. She was convinced that the site contained the remains of a rare Bronze Age shrine, much to the frustration of Paul Marshall who, although paying the wages of the dig team has his JCBs and concrete mixers massing on the horizon waiting for the academics with their trowels, sieves and brushes to be gone.

Enter, stage left, Clare Hills. She is an academic who works with Dr David Barbrook. Barbrook’s main job is lecturer, but together with Hills he has established the Hart Unit, a team of archaeologists totally dependent on commercial funding and meagre trickle-down money from the university. Clare’s personal life is anything but robust. She is recently widowed, and finds that her late husband has blown their life savings on failed investments. She is literally scratching out a living with the tools of her trade, but Barbrook asks her to go and complete the work Kinsella started at Bailsgrove.

More corpses – both ancient and modern – are discovered, while Clare Hills is run ragged by a combination of unsettling discoveries about her late husband’s business affairs, and a bizarre conspiracy centred on the  site, involving the dark and devious word of online antiquity sales.

Among the many strong features of this highly readable murder mystery are the delicious sense of place – a real bonus for those who know and love this part of England, – a credibly vulnerable and appealing main character, and a hard-headed knowledge of the problems that archaeologists have in earning any sort of a decent living. One of my sons is a professional archaeologist who spent his degree years immersed in the magic of the past. Now he has a family to house, feed and clothe, so he is on the staff of a major construction company and faces, on a daily basis, the dilemma between recording and – sometimes – preserving the past in the face of commercial and financial pressures.

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The Lost Shrine is published by Allson & Busby and will be out on 23rd May. Nic Ford is the pen name of Dr Nick Snashall (above), National Trust Archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. My review of her first novel in the Hills and Barbrook series, The Hidden Bones, is here.

For eBook fans, The Lost Shrine is on offer
from 29th May until 5th June at a bargain 99p!

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THE NEW IBERIA BLUES . . . Between the covers

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Occasionally I miss out on ARCs and book proofs, and so when I realised the magisterial James Lee Burke had written another Dave Robicheaux novel, and that I was not on the publicist’s mailing list, I went and bought a Kindle version. Just shy of ten quid, but never has a tenner been better spent.

TNIBTo be blunt, JLB is getting on a bit, and one wonders how long he can carry on writing such brilliant books. In the last few novels featuring the ageing New Iberia cop, there has been a definite autumnal feel, and The New Iberia Blues is no exception. Like his creator, Dave Robicheaux is not a young man, but boy, is he ever raging against the dying of the light.

Aseries of apparently ritualised killings baffles the police department, beginning with a young woman strapped to a wooden cross and set adrift in the ocean. This death is just the beginning, and Robicheaux – aided, inevitably, by the elemental force that is Cletus Purcel – struggles to find the killer as the manner of the subsequent deaths exceeds abbatoir levels of brutality. There is no shortage of suspects. A driven movie director deeply in hock to criminal backers, a preening and narcissistic former mercenary, a religious crazy man on the run from Death Row – you pays your money and you takes your choice. We even have the return of the bizarre and deranged contract killer known as Smiley – surely one of the most sinister and damaged killers in all crime fiction. Smiley is described as looking like a shapeless white caterpillar. Horrifically abused as a child, he is happiest when buying ice-creams for children – or killing bad people with Dranol or incinerating them with a flame thrower. Even Robicheaux’s new police partner, the fragrantly named Bailey Ribbons is not beyond suspicion.

As ever, the Louisiana landscape and climate is a larger-than-life presence. As the name suggests, New Iberia was founded by settlers from Malaga, but then came the Acadians, French settlers driven from Canada by the British. Their name was whittled down over the years until it became Cajun. Add to the mix Creole people, and the result is a culture that matches the tempestuous weather and exotically dangerous creatures that swim in the bayou.

Robicheaux’s take on the psychological and moral wasteland inhabited by conscientious cops is bleak and graphic:

“You can drink, smoke weed, melt your brains with downers or whites on the half shell, or transfer to vice and become a sex addict and flush your self-respect down the drain. None of it helps. You’re stuck unto the grave, in your sleep and during the waking day. And that’s when you start having thoughts about summary justice – more specifically, thoughts about loading up with pumpkin balls and double-aught bucks and painting the walls.”

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Ghosts are never far from Robicheaux. His sense of history, of the glories and the miseries of the past, of old love and even more ancient hate, are only ever an arms reach away:

“When I sat under the tree at three in the morning, an old man watching a barge and tug working its way upstream, I knew that I no longer had to reclaim the past, that the past was still with me, inextricably part of my soul and who I was; I could step through a hole in the dimension and be with my father and mother again, and I didn’t have to drink or mourn the dead or live on a cross for my misdeeds; I was set free, and the past and the future and the present were at the ends of my fingertips ….”

With writing that is as potent and smoulderingly memorable as Burke’s, the plot is almost irrelevant, but in between heartbreakingly beautiful descriptions of the dawn rising over Bayou Teche, visceral anger at the damage the oil industry has done to a once-idyllic coast, and jaw-dropping portraits of evil men, Robicheaux patiently and doggedly pursues the killer, and we have a blinding finale which takes The Bobbsey Twins back to their intensely terrified – and terrifying – encounters in the jungles of Indo China.

The New Iberia Blues is published by Orion and is available now.

 

THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (4): The Natchez Trilogy by Greg Iles

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Greg_IlesGreg Iles was born in Stuttgart where his father ran the US Embassy medical clinic. When the family returned to the States they settled in Natchez, Mississippi. While studying at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Iles stayed in a cottage where Caroline ‘Callie’ Barr Clark once lived. Callie was William Faulkner’s ‘Mammy Callie’ and different versions of her appear in several of Faulkner’s books. Iles began writing novels in 1993, with a historical saga about the enigmatic Nazi Rudolf Hess, and has written many stand-alone thrillers, but it is his epic trilogy of novels set in Natchez which, in my view, set him apart from anyone else who has ever written in the Southern Noir genre.

Natchez, Mississippi. Just under 16,000 souls. A small town with a big history. It perches on a bluff above the Mississippi River, and some folk reckon they can still hear the ghosts of paddle steamers chunking away down there on the swirling brown waters. The central character in Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood is Penn Cage. Cage is the classic enlightened white liberal character of Southern Noir. His background is privileged; his father, Tom, is a doctor who is hugely respected by the black community in the area for his colour blind approach to his vocation. Medical bills too numerous to mention have been written off over the years, and Cage senior is the closest thing to a living saint but, of course, he is regarded with a mixture of fear, distrust and loathing by Natchez residents who still hang portraits of Robert E Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest in their hallways. Penn says of him:

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Penn Cage, though, has made his own money. He is a hugely successful author, long-time DA for the County and now, after a bitter political struggle, The Mayor of Natchez. He has made many enemies in his rise to fame, not the least of which are the corrupt Sheriff Byrd and the deeply ambitious and oleaginous public prosecutor Shadrach Johnson. Cage is not without his own ghosts, however, and he is haunted by the death of his wife Sarah, crippled and then tortured by cancer. He has, however, established an unofficial second marriage with the campaigning journalist, Caitlin Masters.

The politically correct and socially comfortable world inhabited by Penn Cage and his family is about to suffer a brutal invasion. Hidden deep at the end of the rutted dirt road which leads away from the relatively polite discourse between liberals and conservatives in Natchez society, is a dark and dangerous place occupied by a group of men known as the Double Eagles. They are united by a bitterness provoked by their view that the Ku Klux Klan went soft. Their anger, however, was not limited to tearful and rancorous drinking sessions around some backwoods table, but was the match that lit the gunpowder trail to a devastating explosion of focused violence which resulted in the assassinations of the three Ks – Kennedy, Kennedy – and King.

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Of course, Iles takes a great risk here. We know – or think we know – who killed these three men. But do we? Iles is confident and fluent enough to turn history on its head and present a credible alternative truth. While the Double Eagles are concerned with matters of national importance, they also have time for vicious local issues. The bombshell which threatens to reduce to ruins the cosy edifice of the Cage family, is that Tom Cage fell in love with a black nurse who worked for him, fathered a son by her, but then sat back and watched as she fled north to Chicago in disgrace. When she returns to Natchez to die, riddled by cancer, what she and Tom Cage knew – and did – about the malevolent Double Eagles back in the day becomes a public shit-storm.

The Bone Tree is a terrible place. Deep in a snake and gator-infested swamp it is an ancient cypress tree where generations of slave owners and white supremacists have taken their black victims and executed them, For Tom Cage’s nurse, Viola Turner, it is a place of nightmares, because under its rotten and gnarled branches her brother was tortured, mutilated and executed.

Tom Cage is accused of mercy killing Viola. Unwilling to face the public disgrace, he goes on te run with a couple of a trusted former Korean War buddy, and they outwit the authorities for a time. Eventually, Tom Cage is captured and put on trial for murder. He refuses the help of his son and, instead, relies on the charismatic courtroom presence of Quentin Avery, a celebrated black lawyer. Mississippi Blood contains one of the best courtroom scenes I have ever read. I realise this feature is 700 words in with not a critical word, but each of the three novels is a lengthy read by any standards, being well north of 600 pages in each case.

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So why are the books so good? Penn Cage is a brilliant central character and, of course, he is politically, morally and socially ‘a good man’. His personal tragedies evoke sympathy, but also provide impetus for the things he says and does. Some might criticise the lack of nuance in the novels; there is no moral ambiguity – characters are either venomous white racists or altruistic liberals. Maybe the real South isn’t that simple; perhaps there are white communities who are blameless and tolerant and shrink in revulsion from dark deeds committed by fearsome ex-military psychopaths who seek to restore a natural order that died a century earlier.

The world of crime fiction – peopled by writers. readers, publishers and critics – is overwhelmingly progressive, liberal minded and sympathetic to persecuted minorities, and so it should be. It is probably just as well, however, that embittered, dispossessed and marginalised white communities in Mississippi, Texas. Louisiana and other heartlands of The South are not great CriFi readers. Penn Cage fights a battle that definitely needs fighting. Greg Iles has given Cage a voice, and has written a majestic trilogy which sets in stone the chapter and verse about generations of Southern people whose hands drip blood and guilt in equal measure. Maybe the moral perspective is very one-sided, and perhaps the books pose as many questions as they answer, but for sheer readability, authenticity and narrative drive, Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood have laid down a literary challenge which will probably never be answered.

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THE AMERICAN SOUTH. . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (3): The Dead Are Still With Us

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I’ll kick off (before it all kicks off) and say that for no other reasons than style and simplicity, I am going to use the word black to describe characters in crime novels who other people may wish to call Afro-American or People of Colour. If that decision offends anyone, then so be it.

The racial element in South-set crime fiction over the last half century is peculiar in the sense that there have been few, if any, memorable black villains. There are plenty of bad black people in Walter Mosley’s novels, but then most of the characters in them are black, and they are not set in what are, for the purposes of this feature, our southern heartlands.

heatfirstedition-a2c9af52Black characters are almost always good cops or PIs themselves, like Virgil Tibbs in John Ball’s In The Heat of The Night (1965), or they are victims of white oppression. In the latter case there is often a white person, educated and liberal in outlook, (prototype Atticus Finch, obviously) who will go to war on their behalf. Sometimes the black character is on the side of the good guys, but intimidating enough not to need help from their white associate. John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books are mostly set in the northern states, but Parker’s dangerous black buddy Louis is at his devastating best in The White Road (2002) where Parker, Louis and Angel are in South Carolina working on the case of a young black man accused of raping and killing his white girlfriend.

Ghosts, either imagined or real, are never far from Charlie Parker, but another fictional cop has more than his fair share of phantoms. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux frequently goes out to bat for black people in and around New Iberia, Louisiana. Robicheaux’s ghosts are, even when he is sober, usually that of Confederate soldiers who haunt his neighbourhood swamps and bayous. I find this an interesting slant because where John Connolly’s Louis will wreak havoc on a person who happens to have the temerity to sport a Confederate pennant on his car aerial, Robicheaux’s relationship with his CSA spectres is much more subtle.

As a Vietnam veteran, he recognises the wordless bond between fighting men everywhere, irrespective of the justice of their causes. One of the magnificent series, which started in 1987 with The Neon Rain was actually called In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993). When it was filmed as In The Electric Mist (2009) Tommy Lee Jones made a very good fist of Dave Robicheaux, but the director’s take on Dave’s interaction with the long-dead soldiers was treated rather literally by the director Bertrand Tavernier, particularly in the final few moments. Incidentally, I have a poser: name me the link between The Basement Tapes and this movie, and I will buy you a pint.

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Burke’s Louisiana is both intensely poetic and deeply political. In Robicheaux: You Know My Name he writes:

“That weekend, southern Louisiana was sweltering, thunder cracking as loud as cannons in the night sky; at sunrise, the storm drains clogged with dead beetles that had shells as hard as pecans. It was the kind of weather we associated with hurricanes and tidal surges and winds that ripped tin roofs off houses and bounced them across sugarcane fields like crushed beer cans; it was the kind of weather that gave the lie to the sleepy Southern culture whose normalcy we so fiercely nursed and protected from generation to generation.”

robicheaux-1Elsewhere his rage at his own government’s insipid reaction to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina rivals his fury at generations of white people who have bled the life and soul out of the black and Creole population of the Louisian/Texas coastal regions. Sometimes the music he hears is literal, like in Jolie Blon’s Bounce (2002), but at other times it is sombre requiem that only he can hear:

“…the dead are still with us, like the boys in butternut marching through the flooded cypress at Spanish Lake, and the slaves who beckon us to remove the chains that bind them to the auction block, and all the wandering souls who want to scratch their names on a plaster wall so someone will remember their sacrifice, the struggle that began with the midwife’s slap of life, and their long day’s journey into the grave.”

In the final part of this series, I will look at a trilogy of novels which, for me, are the apotheosis of the way in which crime fiction has characterised the often grim but never less than fascinating persona of The Southern States.

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THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey (2): Tropes, Tribes and Trauma

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An opening word or three about the taxonomy of some of the crime fiction genres I am investigating in these features. Noir has an urban and cinematic origin – shadows, stark contrasts, neon lights blinking above shadowy streets and, in people terms, the darker reaches of the human psyche. Authors and film makers have always believed that grim thoughts, words and deeds can also lurk beneath quaint thatched roofs, so we then have Rural Noir, but this must exclude the kind of cruelty carried out by a couple of bad apples amid a generally benign village atmosphere. So, no Cosy Crime, even if it is set in the Southern states, such as Peaches and Scream, one of the Georgia Peach mysteries by Susan Furlong, or any of the Lowcountry novels of Susan M Boyer. Gothic – or the slightly tongue-in-cheek Gothick – will take us into the realms of the fantastical, the grotesque, and give us people, places and events which are just short of parody. So we can have Southern Noir and Southern Gothic, but while they may overlap in places, there are important differences.

I believe there are just two main tropes in Southern Noir and they are closely related psychologically as they both spring from the same historical source, the war between the states 1861 – 1865, and the seemingly endless fallout from those bitter four years. Despite having a common parent the two tropes are, literally, of different colours. The first is set very firmly in the white community, where the novelists find deprivation, a deeply tribal conservativism, and a malicious insularity which has given rise to a whole redneck sub-genre in music, books and film, with its implications of inbreeding, stupidity and a propensity for violence.

Real-life rural poverty in the South was by no means confined to former slaves and their descendants. In historical fact, poor white farmers in the Carolinas, for example, were often caught up in a vicious spiral of borrowing from traders and banks against the outcome of their crop; when time came for payback, they were often simply back to zero, or ALMKTHthrown off the land due to debt. The rich seam of dirt poor and embittered whites who turn to crime in their anger and resentment has been very successfully mined by novelists. Add a touch of fundamentalist Christianity into the pot and we have a truly toxic stew, such as in Wiley Cash’s brilliant A Land More Kind Than Home (2013).

No-one did sadistic and malevolent ‘white trash’ better than Jim Thompson. His embittered, cunning and depraved small town Texas lawman Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me (1952) is one of the scariest characters in crime fiction, although it must be said that Thompson’s bad men – and women – were not geographically confined to the South.

Although not classed as a crime writer, Flannery O’Connor write scorching stories about the kind of moral vacuum into which she felt Southern people were sucked. She said, well aware of the kind of lurid voyeurism with which her home state of Georgia was viewed by some:

“Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-07 at 20.13.46Her best known novel, Wiseblood (1952) contains enough bizarre, horrifying and eccentric elements to qualify as Gothick. Take a religiously obsessed war veteran, a profane eighteen-year-old zookeeper, prostitutes, a man in a gorilla costume stabbed to death with an umbrella, and a corpse being lovingly looked after by his former landlady, you have what has been described as a work of “low comedy and high seriousness”

There are a couple of rather individual oddities on the Fully Booked website, both slanted towards True Crime, but drenched through with Southern sweat, violence and the peculiar horrors of the US prison system. The apparently autobiographical stories by Roy Harper were apparently smuggled out of the notorious Parchman Farm and into the hands of an eager publisher. Make of that what you will, but the books are compellingly lurid. Merle Temple’s trilogy featuring the rise and fall of Michael Parker, a Georgia law enforcement officer, comprises A Ghostly Shade of Pale, A Rented World and The Redeemed. I only found out after reading and reviewing the books that they too are personal accounts.

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The second – and more complex (and controversial) trope in Southern Noir is the tortuous relationship between white people both good and bad, and people of colour. My examination of this will follow soon.

THE AMERICAN SOUTH . . . A Crime Fiction Odyssey: Introduction

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INTRODUCTION

It is starkly obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of international history that the most brutal and bitterly fought wars tend to be between factions that have, at least in the eyes of someone looking in from the outside, much in common. No such war anywhere has cast such a long shadow as the American Civil War. That enduring shadow is long, and it is wide. In its breadth it encompasses politics, music, literature, intellectual thought, film and – the purpose of this feature – crime fiction.

Charlotte NC 1920x1350There have been many commentators, critics and writers who have explored the US North-South divide in more depth and with greater erudition than I am able to bring to the table, but I only seek to share personal experience and views. One of my sons lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. It is a very modern city. In the 20th century it was a bustling hive of the cotton milling industry, but as the century wore on it declined in importance. Its revival is due to the fact that at some point in the last thirty years, someone realised that the rents were cheap, transport was good, and that it would be a great place to become a regional centre of the banking and finance industry. Now, the skyscrapers twinkle at night with their implicit message that money is good and life is easy.

Charlotte is, to put it mildly, uneasy about its history – that of a plantation state based on slavery. The main museum in the city is the Levine Museum of the New South. The title is significant, particularly the word ‘New’. Like most modern museums in the digital age, it reaches out, grabs the attention, constantly provides visual and auditory stimulation, and is a delightful place to spend a couple of hours. Its underlying message is one of apology. It says, “OK, over 150 years ago we got things badly wrong, and it took us a long time to repair the damage. But this is us now. We’re deeply sorry for the past, and we are doing everything we can to redress the balance.”

Drive out of Charlotte a few miles and you can visit beautifully preserved plantation houses. Some have the imposing classical facades of Gone With The Wind fame, but others, while substantial and sturdy, are more modest. What they have in common today is that your tour guide will, most likely, be an earnest and eloquent young post-grad woman who will be dismissive about the white folk who lived in the big house, but will have much to say the black folk who suffered under the tyranny of the master and mistress.

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Confederate-Museum-Things-to-Do-Historic-District-Charleston-SC%u200E-By contrast, a day’s drive south will find you in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is energetically preserved in architectural aspic, and if you are seeking people to share penance with you for the misdeeds of the Confederate States, you may struggle. In contrast to the spacious and well-funded Levine Museum in Charlotte, one of Charleston’s big draws is The Confederate Museum. Housed in an elevated brick copy of a Greek temple, it is administered by the Charleston Chapter of The United Daughters of The Confederacy. Pay your entrance fee and you will shuffle past a series of displays that would be the despair of any thoroughly modern museum curator. You definitely mustn’t touch anything, there are no flashing lights, dioramas, or interactive immersions into The Slave Experience. What you do have is a fascinating and random collection of documents, uniforms, weapons and portraits of extravagantly moustached soldiers, all proudly wearing the grey or butternut of the Confederate armies. The ladies who take your dollars for admission all look as if they have just returned from taking tea with Robert E Lee and his family.

William-FaulknerSix hundred words in and what, I can hear you say, has this to do with crime fiction? In part two, I will look at crime writing – in particular the work of James Lee Burke and Greg Iles (but with many other references) – and how it deals with the very real and present physical, political and social peculiarities of the South. A memorable quote to round off this introduction is taken from William Faulkner’s Intruders In The Dust (1948). He refers to what became known as The High Point of The Confederacy – that moment on the third and fateful day of the Battle of Gettysburg, when Lee had victory within his grasp.

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances…” *

* Lee made the fatal mistake of ordering General Longstreet’s corps to charge uphill, and over open ground, towards strong Union positions on Cemetery Ridge. Known as Pickett’s Charge, it was a catastrophic failure which ended Lee’s invasion of the North. Although Lee enjoyed several subsequent victories he was, from that point on until his surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, fighting a defensive war against Union forces far superior in supplies, armaments and leadership.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COMPETITION . . . Win the new Tom Thorne novel!

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First up, read my review of Their Little Secret. Back in the day when I was too busy earning a living to be able to spend time on a book review website, I had to get books from my local library. One of the authors I revered the most was Mark Billingham, and my joy at finding an unread Tom Thorne novel on the ‘B’ shelves of the Crime Fiction section was genuine.

I’ll be quite blunt now. Running this website doesn’t bring in any money, and the only costs to me are the postage when sending out competition prizes. BUT – and it’s a huge BUT – publishers and publicists trust me with their books, and I have a lovely To Be Read pile thanks to their generosity. Occasionally, I’m able to read a book on my Kindle while still having a print copy of the novel in question. Then, I usually offer the untouched book as a competition prize. So who fancies Their Little Secret?

Ican’t make it too random, so here’s a little decider. You can answer by email to fullybooked2016@yahoo.com putting Their Little Secret in the subject box. Alternatively, you can follow Fully Booked on Twitter, and send me your answer as a private message. Don’t just Tweet the answer, as you will give the game away! Tom Thorne loves his music, but which genre is he most likely to put on his CD player at the end of a long day, when he slumps on his sofa with a beer in hand? Make your choice and let me know your answer. The competition will close at 10.00pm UK time on Sunday 12th May, and a winner will be drawn from the digital hat.

Tom Thorne’s favourite music is ….?

Baroque

or is it …

Death Metal

or could it be …

Country

or how about …?

Celtic

 BEST OF LUCK – AND HAPPY READING!

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