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fullybooked2017

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

HAMMER TO FALL . . .Between the covers

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English author and screenwriter John Lawton has long been a favourite of those readers who like literary crime fiction, and his eight Frederick Troy novels have become classics. Set over a long time-frame from the early years of WW2 to the 1960s, the books feature many real-life figures or, as in A Little White Death (1998), characters based on real people, in this case the principals in the Profumo Affair. In Then We Take Berlin (2013) Lawton introduced a new character, an amoral chancer whose real surname – Holderness – has morphed into Wilderness. Joe Wilderness is a clever, corrupt and calculating individual whose contribution to WW2 was minimal, but his career trajectory has widened from being a Schieber (spiv, racketeer) in the chaos of post-war Berlin to being in the employ of the British Intelligence services.

HTFHe is no James Bond figure, however. His dark arts are practised in corners, and with as little overt violence as possible. Hammer To Fall begins with a flashback scene,establishing Joe’s credentials as someone who would have felt at home in the company of Harry Lime, but we move then to the 1960s, and Joe is in a spot of bother. He is thought to have mishandled one of those classic prisoner exchanges which are the staple of spy thrillers, and he is sent by his bosses to weather the storm as a cultural attaché in Finland. His ‘mission’ is to promote British culture by traveling around the frozen north promoting visiting artists, or showing British films. His accommodation is spartan, to say the least. In his apartment:

The dining table looked less likely to be the scene of a convivial meal than an autopsy.”

Some of the worthies sent to Finland to wave the British flag are not to Joe’s liking:

“For two days Wilderness drove the poet Prudence Latymer to readings. She was devoutly Christian – not an f-word passed her lips – and seemed dedicated to simple rhyming couplets celebrating dance, spring, renewal, the natural world and the smaller breeds of English and Scottish dog.It was though TS Eliot had never lived. By the third day Wilderness was considering shooting her.”

Before he left England, his wife Judy offered him these words of advice:

“If you want a grant to stage Twelfth Night in your local village hall in South Bumpstead, Hampshire, the Arts Council will likely as not tell you to fuck off …. So, if you want to visit Lapland, I reckon your best bet is to suggest putting on a nude ballet featuring the over-seventies, atonal score by Schoenberg, sets by Mark Rothko ….. Ken Russell can direct … all the easy accessible stuff …. and you’ll probably pick up a whopping great grant and an OBE as well.”

JohnLawton.-Credit-Nick-Lockett-318x318So far, so funny – and Lawton (right) is in full-on Evelyn Waugh mode as he sends up pretty much everything and anyone. The final act of farce in Finland is when Joe earns his keep by sending back to London, via the diplomatic bag, several plane loads of …. well, state secrets, as one of Joe’s Russian contacts explains:

The Soviet Union has run out of bog roll. The soft stuff you used to sell to us in Berlin is now as highly prized as fresh fruit or Scotch whisky. We wipe our arses on documents marked Classified, Secret and sometimes even Top Secret. and the damned stuff won’t flush. So once a week a surly corporal lights a bonfire of Soviet secrets and Russian shit.”

But, as in all good satires – like Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, and Catch 22 – the laughter stops and things take a turn to the dark side. Joe’s Finnish idyll comes to an end, and he is sent to Prague to impersonate a tractor salesman. By now, this is 1968, and those of us who are longer in the tooth know what happened in Czechoslavakia in 1968. Prague has a new British Ambassador, and one very familiar to John Lawton fans, as it is none other than Frederick Troy. As the Russians lose patience with Alexander Dubček and the tanks roll in, Joe is caught up in a desperate gamble to save an old flame, a woman whose decency has, over the years, been a constant reproach to him:

“Nell Burkhardt was probably the most moral creature he’d ever met. Raised by thieves and whores back in London’s East End, he had come to regard honesty as aberrant. Nell had never stolen anything, never lied …led a blameless life, and steered a course through it with the unwavering compass of her selfless altruism.”

Hammer To Fall is a masterly novel, bitingly funny and heartbreaking by turns. I think A Lily Of The Field is Lawton’s masterpiece, but this runs it pretty damned close. It is published by Grove Press, and is out today, 2nd April 2020.

 

For more about John Lawton click this link

THE MOLTEN CITY . . . Between the covers

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TMCWe first met Leeds policeman Tom Harper in Gods of Gold (2014) when he was a young CID officer, and the land was still ruled by Queen Victoria. Now, in The Molten City, Harper is a Superintendent and the Queen is seven years dead. ‘Bertie’ – Edward VII – is King, and England is a different place. Leeds, though, is still a thriving hub of heavy industry, pulsing with the throb of heavy machinery. And it remains grimy, soot blackened and with pockets of degradation and poverty largely ignored by the wealthy middle classes. But there are motor cars on the street, and the police have telephones. Other things are stirring, too. Not all women are content to remain second class citizens, and pressure is being put on politicians to consider giving women the vote. Sometimes this is a peaceful attempt to change things, but other women are prepared to go to greater lengths.

This small but increasingly vocal movement provides one of two plot threads in what is, to my mind, Chris Nickson’s finest novel yet. Prime Minister HH Asquith and his Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone are due to visit Leeds, and it will be Harper’s task to make sure that the visit passes off peacefully. He knows there is likely to be a protest from unemployed men whipped up by anarchist Alf Kitson, but his greatest fear is that a demonstration led by suffragette Jennie Baines will provoke more intense publicity. At this point, it is essential to point out the difference between suffragettes and suffragists. The latter have the same aims as the former, but they are avowedly peaceful in their methods. Harper’s wife Annabelle is a suffragist. She has worked for women’s rights for many years, and has passed on her zeal to their teenage daughter Mary.

The parallel thread in The Molten City begins when Harper receives an anonymous letter:

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As he uses his local knowledge and that of his older officers, Harper begins to piece together a jigsaw. As the picture begins to take shape, it is clear that it is one that contains elements of tragedy, greed, desperation – and downright criminality, and that solving the puzzle will bring joy to no-one. As the past players in this old drama start to realise that the past is catching up with them, anxiety leads to violence,and violence leads to murder.

There are so many dazzlingly good elements to this novel. Nickson, like many of his readers is someone of the twentieth century, and he has a keen eye and ear for little social mannerisms that certainly struck a chord with me. As Annabelle imagines her husband in a Chief Constable’s uniform, she says:
You’d look a right bobby-dazzler.”
Only those of us who were brought up having their tea made in a pot will remember this gesture:
“She felt the side of the teapot and poured herself another cup.”
Teenagers were as hungry in 1908 as they are today, but few sit down with their parents at a set table and have their meal:
“She’d already cleaned her plate right down to the pattern and was working her way through the suet pudding.”

Tom Harper is still fit, active, and able to handle himself in a scrap, but like Tennyson’s Ulysses who laments tho we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;” he is all too aware of the passage of time:
“And it was a detective’s job to follow every possibility. That was what his old boss, Superintendent Kendall, had instilled in him when he was starting out in CID. Another one who was dead now; Harper had filled his shoes at Millgarth. Billy, Kendall, so many others …very soon the dead in his life would outnumber the living.”

Nickson orchestrates the dramatic disorder – based on real events – of the Prime Minister’s visit with panache and the skills of a born storyteller. We know – as does Harper himself – that finding the truth about the child stealing will benefit no-one alive or dead, but he is a policeman who must do his duty while being all too well aware that the truth is frequently uncomfortable.

The Molten City is published by Severn House and is out now. If you want to find out more about Chris Nickson and his books, then click the image below.

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THE EVIL WITHIN . . . Between the covers

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profile-750x750SM Hardy, aka Sue Tingey, has put together a thoroughly enjoyable and, at times, genuinely scary ghost story. The Evil Within tells the tale of Jim Hawkes, a young London banker who has an attack of conscience about the bloodthirsty nature of his trade, and tells his boss to go forth and multiply. This rush of blood to the head is not entirely unconnected to the fact that he is still grieving for his dead sweetheart, who drowned herself after breaking off their engagement in a calamitous row. Jim decides that a physical exit from London is essential, and so he takes out a short term lease on a cottage in England’s West Country.

When he arrives in Devon he finds that the cottage – and its immediate surroundings – have, shall we say, history. The back story involves a dead girl, who was found hanged from the banisters. While exploring the adjacent churchyard, Jim meets the vicar, and is invited in to the rectory for a welcoming chat and a nice cup of tea. All good so far, but when he meets two of the long term residents, widowed Emma and Jed, the local handyman, fixer of lawnmowers and general village sage and factotum, his equilibrium is seriously disturbed when they tell him that the rectory is not only unoccupied, but the reverend gentleman has been dead for some time.

TEWBy now, of course, we have to suspend disbelief, because this is going to be a book where weird things are going to happen. There is one key question, as it ever was in ghost stories. Are the strange events actually happening independent from the main character’s perception or, as the title hints at, are they in his mind? SM Hardy certainly gives Jim Hawkes plenty to cope with. We have a Don’t Look Now style figure in a red coat who not only flits in and out of Jim’s peripheral vision, but occasionally holds his hand in her dead, cold fingers. Again with a nod to Daphne du Maurier’s wonderful short story, there are also two sisters, who may possible be sinister as well as spinster. We mustn’t forget a mysterious and hulking man in grey who clearly wishes Jim harm and may – or may not – be an astral projection of a malevolent criminal who lies in a vegetative state at a mysterious local mental hospital.

Clichés only become clichés when they are wearisome, and there is nothing remotely wearisome about The Evil Within. Yes, SM Hardy mines deep into the seam of supernatural fiction and comes up with many recognisable elements, but she welds them together to make a compelling novel. Best of all, even though she deal in familiar tropes – the haunted cottage, the startling face in the window, the conversations with the dead and the events that no-one in the village pub will talk about – we genuinely care about Jim Hawkes and what happens to him. The possibility that Jim’s apparitions may be just the product of his own mental fragility in the wake of his fiancée’s tragic death doesn’t diminish our concern for him, nor prevent us from fearing the worst when events take a disturbing turn.

I have never written a novel, nor could I, but I have read many and I know from experience that if the author doesn’t forge that link between reader and character, the book may as well be cast aside and sent to the charity shop. SM Hardy ticks this box – and many other important ones – and ensures that The Evil Within is both entertaining, credible and enthralling – with a sharp sting in the very tip of its tail. It is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

Click on the image below for a short but spooky video

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THE BOY FROM THE WOODS . . . Between the covers

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Harlan Coben’s ability
to write gripping stand-alone crime thrillers is little short of astonishing. Yes, we loved his character series featuring Myron Bolitar and then the three novels centred on his nephew Mickey, but here’s the thing. In The Boy From The Woods he introduces us to a couple of characters right out of the blue, as it were, but after just a few pages we feel that we have known them for ever. We might resolve to catch up on the previous books in the series, but then we remember there are none. This is our first acquaintance with the enigmatic young man known only as Wilde, and his hotshot lawyer friend Hester Crimstein.

91ZT8HhFQnLSo, who is Wilde? No-one knows his real name. He was rescued (if that’s the right word) as a child, after living alone and by his own wits in remote woods not far from New York City. How he got there, no-one in authority knows, and if he does, he isn’t telling. Subsequently fostered, he then went on to have a distinguished career in the special forces, and he now earns a living as a security consultant.

Hester? She is a delightfully sharp Jewish lawyer with a laser mind and a tongue as keen as a Damascus knife.Widowed some years earlier when husband David died in a car crash, she defends high profile clients as well as being the central attraction in a reality TV show featuring legal cases.

Naomi Pine, a socially awkward teenage girl who is the subject of relentless bullying at school, goes missing. Is it foul play, or is it somehow connected with Naomi’s relationship with Crash Maynard, the silver-spoon son of Dash Maynard, a millionaire TV producer who is connected to all that is good, bad and ugly about East Coast politics.

The plot of The Boy From The Woods is complex and intriguing. While Wilde and Hester try to find out why Naomi has disappeared and where she is, there is another plot strand involving Rusty Eggers a rich and ambitious politician whose bid for power may be derailed by old #meetoo tapes held by Dash Maynard.

One of the cover blurbs for The Boy From The Woods says “Coben never, ever lets you down.” Many such claims these days are just spin, but this one is totally correct. The book is published by Century and is out now. For more Fully Booked features and reviews of Harlan Coben’s books, click the image below.

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KEEP HIM CLOSE . . . Between the covers

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Keep Him Close is quite an apt title for Emily Koch’s second thriller. The key word is ‘close’ as the whole story has the feel of events and emotions being observed at very close quarters, almost through the lens of a microscope. We see every little twitch and tremor in the lives of the two main characters, and the tension is quite claustrophobic at times. Two women. Two mothers. Two lost teenage sons. Alice’s son Louis is now in a police mortuary after falling – or having been pushed – from the roof of a car park. Indigo has, effectively lost Kane, but this time to the criminal justice system as he awaits trial for murder, after he admits responsibility for Louis’s death.

KHM cover017The two women have little in common except the convergence of the social lives of their sons and the fact that neither has a husband in the house. Alice was married to Etienne, but he is long gone, having fallen in love with someone else. Indigo’s husband took his own life. Indigo is what some might call an ageing hippy. She dresses rather chaotically and earns a living as an art therapist. Alice once had dreams of being a concert pianist, but now works as a librarian. She has a certain primness associated – rightly or wrongly – with that profession. Let us be generous and say that Alice appreciates order and method.

What began as a night out for post-exam teenagers ends with the dreaded late night knock on the door by police officers and expands into a nightmare as Alice and older son Ben try to come to terms with the death of Louis, while Indigo can only look on in confusion as Kane is, first, identified on CCTV as someone who the police would like to speak to and, second, blurts out his guilt in a police interview room.

Where the story develops its edge is when Indigo – something of a flustered airhead when it comes to technology – goes to the local library to use one of their computers. By investigating Kane’s social media activity she hopes to locate other youngsters who were witnesses to the apparent fracas which ended with Louis plunging to his death. Who should be the kindly library assistant who helps Indigo check her son’s Facebook profile? Why, none other than Alice! The frisson starts to do its shivery work because Alice recognises Indigo, but Indigo has no idea of the identity of her helper.

There are one or two sub plots by way of diversion. Former hubby Etienne turns up, we suspect that the police have been less than thorough in their investigation and we are given to wonder if Ben knows more than he is telling. We only meet the soon-to-be-late Louis in the early pages, and while he comes over as not being the most adoring of sons, we later learn the reason for his apparent antipathy.

KHM author018The structure of the book is intriguing; we learn about the contrasting characters of Alice and Indigo in different ways; Alice’s story is told third-party, while Indigo tells us herself. This has the effect of making Alice more aloof and remote, and is a clever device which hints she is somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

Emily Koch (right) ratchets up the social and emotional tension as Alice and Indigo dance their stately sarabande to the tune of the legal recriminations following the tragic conclusion of what may have been just a drunken scuffle – or something far more sinister. This book is a must for those who like their psychological dramas acted out on a small stage but exquisitely observed. Keep Him Close is published by Harvill Secker and is out in Kindle on 12th March and in print on 19th March

THE SECOND WIFE . . . Between the covers

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The Second Wife is Rebecca Fleet’s second novel. Her first, The House Swap, was well received and now she takes her skill at writing engaging domestic thrillers to the next stage. I will say at the outset that as much as I was gripped by The Second Wife, I was cursing quietly to myself because it contains a seismic plot shift towards the end which completely demolishes every assumption the reader may have made about what is going on, based on what he or she has been told by the different narrators. But why the curses? Simply because it makes a summary doubly difficult, because no reviewer wants to be known as the person who gave the game away. I loved the book, however, and I want you to love it too, so here goes – treading on eggshells.

TSWThere are three narrative viewpoints; centrally, there is Alex. He is a widower with a teenage daughter, Jade. He works in an advertising agency in Brighton, on England’s south coast. His first wife died from cancer when Jade was just a little girl, but he has remarried. The titular second wife Natalie is one of the storytellers, and she does her best to be a decent ‘second mum’ to Jade, although hormones have started to kick in and Jade is, like every modern teenage girl, obsessed with her social media profile and perceived slights from her step mum.

The novel begins with a serious fire in Alex’s house. Natalie, overcome by the smoke and flames, has been unable to rescue Jade, but the emergency services arrive in time to bring the teenager to safety. Temporarily relocated to a hotel, Alex and Natalie take turns at Jade’s hospital bedside as she slowly recovers from the ordeal. As Jade comes back to life, Alex is both puzzled and horrified at his daughter’s insistence that there was a strange man in the house at the time of the fire. Now, Alex’s disquiet turns to genuine alarm, and Natalie admits to him that she has a disturbing back-story.

RF014Her estranged sister, Sadie, has led a wayward and self-destructive existence which has forced Natalie to put some distance between herself and her sister, and reinvent herself using a different identity. Sadie’s obsession with a violent criminal has gone disastrously wrong, and Natalie is trying to lead a new life. By this time, Fleet (right) has given Sadie a voice of her own, and we listen to the musings of a sexually promiscuous young woman who has used men like Kleenex, and has a moral compass that barely makes the needle flicker beyond zero on the scale. But she has fallen under the spell of Kaspar, a London club owner who uses women in the same way that Sadie has come to use her queue of suitors.

So, we have the three viewpoints. Timewise, they span almost a decade. All I can say is that one of them – and you have to choose – is telling the mother of all lies. The Second Wife is anxiety-on-a-stick and, although the plot twist left me wondering who on earth I could rely on to tell me the truth, this was a brilliant read, and a novel that confirms Rebecca Fleet’s place at the top table of contemporary crime fiction writers. The Second Wife is published by Doubleday and is out today, 5th March.

THE TV DETECTIVES . . . Part three

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The final five in my personal list of the best twenty five British TV detectives all have one thing in common, and it is that they were dominated by bravura performances from the lead characters. Of course the other twenty actors, Helen Mirren, George Baker, Rupert Davies et al were good – maybe even excellent – but these five were in a different league.

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A big man, playing an outsize role – that was Robbie Coltrane’s portrayal of Eddie ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, the criminal psychologist whose astonishing powers of analysis gave him the nickname Cracker. Fitz smoked too much, drank too much, gambled way, way too much; in so many ways, especially for his long suffering wife (Barbara Flynn) and the police officers who employed him (Christopher Eccleston and Geraldine Somerville), the overweight and overbearing Scotsman simply was too much. Cracker was no Sunday evening show to snuggle up with; it was brutal, bleak and frequently uncomfortable viewing, featuring some genuinely disturbed and disturbing criminals, perhaps none more so than the truly frightful Albie Kinsella (Robert Carlyle). There were three series between 1993 and 1995, with two specials in 1996 and 2006. The series was set in Manchester, but the initial writing by Jimmy McGovern, and the inclusion of such actors as Ricky Tomlinson somehow gave the shows a Liverpool mood. This was never more evident than the episodes featuring the murderous Kinsella, who claimed that much of his rage was fuelled by the injustices which followed the Hillsborough disaster. There were moments of bitter humour, particularly in the exchanges between Fitz and some of the more unreconstructed coppers:

Jimmy Beck: Shall I tell you why I can’t stand lesbians?
Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald: Please.
Jimmy Beck: Queers are OK, as long as I don’t turn my back on you, you’re OK. Two queers doing it, that’s two women going spare. But two lesbians doing it, that’s two men going short.
Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald: You can tell he reads The Guardian can’t you?

Four

Fictional detectives can be many things. Some are brutal, some are happily married with stable families, many are embittered, doing a difficult job despite personal heartbreak Few, however, have been poets. One such was Adam Dalgliesh. His creator, PD James not only made him a published and widely respected poet, but also gave him the highest police rank of all my chosen coppers – by the end of the novels he had risen to the rank of Commander in London’s Metropolitan Police. Of the fourteen Dalgliesh novels ten were filmed for ITV, each starring Roy Marsden ans the cerebral detective. Two other novels, Death In Holy Orders and The Murder Room were commissioned by the BBC with Martin Shaw playing Dalgliesh. Marsden was perfect as the slightly old fashioned gentleman detective who, rather like Lord Peter Wimsey, was of independent means, thanks to his wealthy family. Tall, always beautifully dressed and with a studied elegance almost out of keeping with the often brutal deaths he had to investigate, he was a compelling screen presence. Dalgliesh does have romantic relationships with women, but they are usually on his own terms, and characterised by his reluctance to commit himself fully. Althouh the TV adapatations were not always resolutely faithful to the novels, they still retained the original elegance and sense that we were engaging with something rather more profound that a crime fiction potboiler. The series began with Death Of An Expert Witness in 1983 and concluded with A Certain Justice in 1998.

Three

Another suave and quietly spoken detective graced our screens across eight series between 2002 and 2015. Foyle’s War had the benefit of being almost exclusively written by its creator Anthony Horowitz, and the continuity of tone and atmosphere was almost tangible. Michael Kitchen played Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, a policeman operating on the south coast of England during WWII. He is a Great War veteran, a widower, and has a son serving as a pilot in the RAF. Wartime England was not a tranquil oasis of plucky folk all pulling together, keeping calm and ‘carrying on’. Regular criminals rejoiced in the police losing manpower to the armed services and relished the blackout regulations. A new breed of villain emerged – men and women who sought to exploit the stringent austerity regulations imposed by the wartime government. Sometimes Foyle finds these are relatively petty spivs, ‘Wholesale Suppliers’ like Private Walker of Dad’s Army, but on other occasions they are much higher up the food chain – factory bosses or high ranked civil servants. With the rather dour and troubled Sergeant Milner (Anthony Howell) at his side, and ferried everywhere by Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) with her ‘jolly hockey sticks’ charm, Foyle is frequently underestimated by the criminals he pursues, and often viwed with suspicion by his superiors, who suspect him of being a member of ‘the awkward squad’. The final two series saw the end of the war, and Foyle working for MI5, but Kitchen’s impeccable and understated screen presence never faltered. He had a superbly quizzical facial tic, something like a sideways grimace; when he produced that, we always knew that he knew he was being told lies, and it was only a matter of time before he upset the official apple-cart, and had the real crooks under lock and key.

Two

I haven’t made it the basis of my long-deferred PhD thesis, so there is no peer-reviewed data, but there can be no fictional detective with as many stage and screen – and radio – impersonations as Sherlock Holmes. In my lifetime I can name Rathbone, Cushing, Wilmer, Hobbs, Merrison, Gielgud, Plummer, McKellen – and that’s without mentioning the times he was played for laughs, or modernised beyond the pale. Each of these gentlemen brought something different to the role, but for me the late Jeremy Brett will never be bettered. His untimely death in 1994 ended a series which began a decade earlier, but with forty two canonical stories completed his legacy is beyong compare. Why was he so good? Where to start! Purely physically, Brett had the dry and sometimes sardonic voice, the crisp and mannered delivery and the piercing stare. The raised eyebrow, the steepled fingertips and the eyes half-closed in contemplation were, of course, totally studied and practiced, but how effective they were. Brett was rarely called upon to demonstrate Holme’s skill as a pugilist, but nonetheless his movements gave the impression of a man of intense vitality and energy stored like a coiled spring. The wonderful production values did the series no harm at all, neither did the fact that several ‘A’ list actors graced the show with their presence, in particular Colin Jeavons as Lestrade, Eric Porter as Moriarty and Charles Gray as brother Mycroft. Watson? I think that such was Brett’s dominance that it didn’t matter too much who played Watson, and although David Burke and Edward Hardwicke put in perfectly adequate performances, neither would come to be mentioned in the same sense that we look back on Rathbone and Bruce, or Cushing and Stock. Jeremy Brett’s personal life was complex in the extreme, and his deteriorating health became a great challenge as the series reached its premature end. Perhaps it was this personal distress which made viewers of a different and more complex Holmes – a troubled man whose inner conflicts were hidden beneath the icy exterior.

One

And so to number one, the nonpareil. Some of my choices – or their positions in the ‘chart’ – will not have met with universal agreement, but that is fine. This, and any other ‘best of’ feature is never going to be based on irrefutable data, or numbers, or scientific evaluation. It’s all about emotional impact, memory, and whichever heart-strings are tugged. I was pointed in the direction of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels when I was an earnest young teacher at a posh preparatory school back in the mid 1970s. Last Bus To Woodstock was still relatively hot off the press and – thank God for public libraries – I followed the progress of the quirky Oxford copper into the 1980s. When TV finally caught up with the reading public, and commissioned The Dead of Jericho, broadcast in January 1987, it was a revelation. In my mind’s eye I saw Morse as being a rather younger version of his creator, but here was a revelation. John Thaw was already a TV star, but gone was the brash violence, snarling cockney slang and horribly flared trousers of The Sweeney. Instead, we were shown a private, circumspect and conflicted man. Sometimes uncomfortable in company, but bolstered professionally – and sometimes personally – by the down-to-earth solidity of Sergeant Robbie Lewis, Morse was a genuine one-off. Apparently from a humble background, his intellect encompassed rattling through The Times crossword, a love of the divine music of Mozart and Wagner and a ‘cleverness’ which made him a constant irritant to Chief Superintendent Strange, memorably played by James Grout. This will be controversial, but I contend that John Thaw took the character of Colin Dexter’s Morse and shifted it from being simply memorable, to being immortal. A screen version better than the original book? I can already hear cries of ‘heretic!’, ‘burn him!’. Sorry, but I will approach my funeral pyre with my head held high. Thaw’s Morse will live for ever in my memory, whether cruising around the streets of Oxford in his blissful red Jaguar, or hunkered down over a decent pint trying to explain something to the slightly dim Lewis (beautifully imagined by Kevin Whately) or – most memorably, alone in his house with a glass of single malt in his hand, pondering the imponderable with, perhaps, Siegfried’s funeral music from Götterdämmerung playing in the background. Nothing will ever cap this for me and, for what it’s worth I can still hum every bar of Barrington Pheloung’s wonderful theme music to what was the best detective series ever broadcast on British television.

READ PARTS ONE AND TWO OF MY BEST TV DETECTIVES
BY CLICKING ON THE IMAGE BELOW

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THE NIGHT RAIDS . . . Between the covers

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Detective Inspector Eden Brooke, Jim Kelly’s 1940s Cambridge copper returns for his third case, in The Night Raids. Those readers who met Brooke in The Great Darkness and The Mathematical Bridge (the links will take you to my reviews) will know that he is cultured, educated, but afflicted with an aversion to bright light as a result of horrific treatment by his Turkish captors during The Great War. One consequence is that he must wear spectacles with special lenses; another is that finds sleep both difficult and troubled, in that when he when he can find repose, his dreams are stark and threatening. He lives in Cambridge with his wife Claire and two grown up children, of whom Joy is a nurse like her mother, while Luke is in the army. We learn that he is currently training with Special Forces. Because of his condition, Brooke is something of what used to be called a night owl. He is most at ease when he is outside, enveloped in the still watches of the night, and he has regular ports of call such as an all-night tea stall, a friend who is an air-raid observer, and a college porter.

Cambridge sits on the Western edge of the Fen Country – formerly a vast expanse of freshwater peat bog, meres and ever-changing rivers. By the time in which the book is set, the Fen had long since been tamed by numerous arrow-straight drainage channels and sluices, but in the Eden Brooke stories it sits out there, beyond the lights of the town, like a huge dark and silent presence. Water is, in fact, an essential theme of these novels. Brooke himself swims in the river for exercise and contemplation; it is also a place where people die, sometimes by their own hand, but also at the hands of others.

41Yeq64CwrLIn Night Raids we see some of the story through the eyes of a crew of a German Heinkel bomber. Their mission is to destroy an essential bridge over the river; the bridge, crucially, carries the railway taking vital men and munitions to the east coast, where invasion is a daily expectation.The bombers come over at night, and have so far failed to destroy the bridge. What they have done, however, is unload some of their bombs on residential areas of the town, and inside one of the terraced houses wrecked by the raid, Brooke finds the body of an elderly woman. Her death is clearly attributable to Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe, but the fact that her left ring finger and middle finger have been removed with a hacksaw cannot, sadly be laid at the door of the Reichsmarschall.

When one of the dead woman’s granddaughters goes missing, along with her naturalised Italian boyfriend, Brooke can only look on in frustration as the case becomes more complex, and threatens to spin out of control. In what seems to be a totally unconnected incident, Brooke has discovered that someone – either intentionally or by accident – has released a pollutant into the river, possibly as a result of black market skullduggery. Once again, the river itself becomes a key element in the story. A body is discovered submerged near a fish farm which breeds pike, a delicacy served at High Table in some of the colleges. Bodies in rivers are commonplace in crime fiction, but this is as haunting and macabre as anything I have ever read:

Boyle bent down to see if he could feel her breath between the blue lips, but the slightly bloated flesh, and the glazed eyes, told Brooke that she’d been dead for several days. The still-flowing blood told a lie. The pike had nibbled at the flesh but these wounds were puckered and bleached. The blood ran from black leeches which dotted her neck and legs, secreting their magic enzyme, which had stopped the blood from clotting. They stood back in silence as the cold corpse bled.

Jim Kelly is one of our finest writers. Were I ever to be asked what my Desert Island third book choice would be, after the Bible and a complete Shakespeare, it would be a complete works of Jim Kelly. In The Night Raids he conjures up a narrative tour de force which combines the Cambridge murders, an exploitative criminal gang and the malevolent intentions of the Luftwaffe – into a dramatic and breathtaking final act. The Night Raids is published by Allison & Busby and is out now.

FOR MORE ON JIM KELLY CLICK THIS LINK

THE TV DETECTIVES . . . Part two

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You can never have too many Detective Inspectors, can you? Well, I’m afraid you can in crime novels and TV adaptations, and a DI’s annual convention would need to book a very large hotel and conference centre. My ‘best of’ list only has twenty five names on it, and so some famous names had to accept early retirement. Apologies to fans of Banks, Barnaby, Lynley, Thorne and Wycliffe (OK, he was a Superintendent) – but there are always the box sets to enjoy. My next selection of TV series to remember starts with the most elderly, date-wise.

0014In more recent times Michael Gambon and Rowan Atkinson have made decent stabs at characterising Jules Maigret, Simenon’s Parisian detective, but the Rupert Davies version is the one for me. The grainy black and white presentation would now be considered as un hommage to moody 1940s crime films but, more prosaically, it was all our TV sets could cope with back in the day. Maybe it was the iconic title sequence – the match being struck to light the ever-present pipe, with Ron Grainer’s haunting accordion soundtrack. Maybe it was a teenage Brit’s first glimpse of those beautiful rakish Citroen cars. Maybe it was Ewen Solon’s brilliant turn as Maigret’s sidekick Lucas, but whatever the reason, this was TV gold. (1960 – 1963)

0013The twenty four novels by Reginald Hill featuring the overweight and irascible Yorkshire copper Andy Dalziel had the fat man firmly centre stage, but when he was brought to the small screen, his rather more politically correct Sergeant, Peter Pascoe shares the billing. There were eleven series between 1996 and 2007 and Warren Clarke played Dalziel throughout, Clarke was certainly blunt and low on corporate charm, but he was never quite as gross as the written character. The series had tremendous writers, including Malcolm Bradbury and Alan Plater in the early days. Pascoe’s lecturer wife Ellie provided what we would now call a ‘woke’ response to Dalziel’s ‘gammon’ but by series six she and Peter they had gone their separate ways, his disdain for wrong-doers clashing once to often with her metropolitan liberal values.

0012Another Sunday evening comfort blanket was provided by the long running – fifteen series between 1992 and 2010 – A Touch of Frost. Here was another policeman who, like Andy Dalziel, trod on toes and infuriated his superiors. William ‘Jack’ Frost, however, was less abrasive and with a more melancholy approach to life’s vicissitudes. Sir David Jason was a National Treasure before he took on the mantle of Frost, and his wonderful combination of jaunty disregard for protocol and inner sadness was masterful. RD Wingfield only wrote six Frost novels, and so the TV series outdistanced the books by many a mile. One of the delights of the show was the constant sparring between Frost and his starchy boss Superintendent Mullett, beautifully played by Bruce Alexander.

0011The Hazell books were an oddity. They were written by jobbing Scots journalist Gordon Williams, with the unlikely assistance of football’s wide-boy, Terry ‘El Tel’ Venables. Under the pseudonym PB Yuill, they were tight and well-written tales of a London wide boy making a living as a private detective. On screen, Nicholas Ball – all bouffant hair, snappy clothes and attitude – was simply perfect. As a general rule, British PI dramas are never going to compete with their USA counterparts in the violent, mean and noirish stakes, but the Hazell shows tapped into a ‘cheeky cockney’ chic which could only have worked in a London setting. Stuart Radmore, who sometimes writes for Fully Booked, is an erudite and voracious collector of rare crime novels, but one of his most prized possessions is a glossy covered Hazell annual, with graphic novel versions of stories, with helpful translations of cockney rhyming slang, The trendy locations combined with solid support from actors such as Roddy MacMillan made this relatively short lived series one to be remembered with affection. (1978 – 1979) For Stuart’s take on the Hazell books, click this link.

0010Fictional enquiry agents are supposed to wear old raincoats and no-one wore one quite like Frank Marker in Public Eye. World-weary, downtrodden, shabby, tired and frequently unsuccessful, Marker was played brilliantly by Alfred Burke. Public Eye was intended as a counterweight to flashy, urbane detective series headed up by some lantern-jawed alpha male rodding around in a flashy car. First written by Roger Marshall and Anthony Marriot, the show aired on on ABC television in 1965, in glorious black and white. The last episode of the final series, the seventh, was broadcast in April 1975 and was in colour. The glossier format had no effect on Marker’s misfortunes, and by then he had been in prison, as well as changing locations from London to Brighton and then to Eton. Public Eye could only have succeeded in Britain. Certainly Colombo was dishevelled and apparently scatterbrained, but he always had the last laugh. Not so Frank Marker, who frequently ended up with the proverbial egg on his face. The British – English, even – predilection for the enigmatic and downbeat was echoed in the intriguing titles of many of the episodes. “Well—There Was This Girl, You See…”,Cross That Palm When We Come To It” and “Nobody Kills Santa Claus” were typical. Alfred Burke was also a theatrical actor of great distinction. He died in 2011, a few days short of his 93rd birthday.

0009Ian Rankin’s saturnine Edinburgh copper John Rebus, over the course of twenty two best-selling novels, has become the doyen of gritty Scottish coppers – often imitated but never bettered. With so many examples of voracious demand for TV productions outstripping the original novels by other authors, it is worth noting that there were just fourteen TV episodes between 2000 and 2007, and there was a change of Rebus in there, too. John Hannah was our man in the first series, but Ken Stott took on the role for the other three series. Opinion is divided on their respective merits. Some said that Hannah did not match the physicality of the detective, but others thought his version had more psychological depth than the later episodes. The crucial support characters of DS Siobhan Clarke and DCI Gill Templer also changed actors across the series. Given that Rebus has an army background where he even graduated to the elite SAS, the abrasive Ken Stott has my vote, for what it’s worth.

0008Idris Elba, the star of Luther, cut his crime drama teeth in the American series The Wire, but when Luther first appeared in 2010, it was obvious that Elba had made the big time as the conflicted, violent but analytical London DCI. The plots were dark and full of menace, and the writers struck gold when they introduced the character of Alice Morgan, a psychopathic killer. After Luther fails in his attempt to to bring her to justice, it becomes clear that there is more unites Luther and Morgan than divides them, thus raising the uncomfortable thought that there is a fine line between ruthless policing and getting away with serious crime. Series Five of the drama in 2019 was, effectively a movie length production, split into four episodes broadcast on consecutive nights. Luther’s chaotic personal life comes back not only to haunt him, but it seems to weave a fatal web around everyone – colleague or criminal – who becomes involved with him. The violence was as graphic as anything seen on British TV for some time, and the story ended by posing more questions than it answered about the future of DCI John Luther.

0007While Ruth Rendell was a master at writing stand-alone psychological thrillers, her creation of Chief Inspector Reg Wexford will be her abiding achievement in the eyes of many readers and viewers of TV crime dramas. He first appeared an improbable 56 years ago in From Doon With Death and his last appearance in print was in No Man’s Nightingale (2013) just two years before Rendell’s death. It wasn’t until 1987, however, that he first appeared on TV screens.There were twelve series in all, lasting until 2000. The first title was The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, but as Wexford became something of a fixture, the name changed to The Inspector Wexford Mysteries. Wexford was, however, to play an increasingly marginal role in the later broadcasts, as the writers played Lego with various fragments and short stories from the author. George Baker was Reg Wexford and those whose only memory of him is as the avuncular, rather old-fashioned family man – with an endearing Hampshire burr – may be surprised to learn that Baker had been a dashing male lead in his day, so much so that he was Ian Fleming’s first choice as a screen James Bond. As always in great TV shows, there was stellar teamwork from such supporting actors as Christopher Ravenscroft as the waspish and rather uptight Mike Burden, and Louie Ramsay as Dora Wexford, his long suffering wife.

0006Prime Suspect broke new TV ground in many ways. It was certainly the first notable crime drama centred on a female character, and it also created an appetite among TV viewers for movie length dramas to be broadcast on consecutive nights, such as a long Bank Holiday weekend. By the time the series began in 1991, Helen Mirren was already an established box office star, having gone from Shakespeare to Broadway and conquering all before her. The only time I ever saw her live was at the RSC in 1970, when she was a mesmerising Elizabeth Woodville being brutally wooed by Norman Rodway’s Richard III. Mirren brought both glamour and determination to the role of DCI (to become Detective Superintendent) Jane Tennison. There were seven series between 1991 and 2006 and for the first five at least the viewing figures were in the 14 million range. So did people just tune in to see a genuine ‘ball-breaker’ in action? Certainly anti-female bias in the police force was part of the deal, but a brilliant initial concept by writer Lynda LaPlante, superb supporting turns from actors like Tom Bell, Tom Wilkinson, Zoe Wanamaker, Ralph Fiennes and Mark Strong and, of course, Mirren’s own nuanced and steely brilliance meant that the show could hardly go wrong.

WATCH OUT FOR THE THIRD AND FINAL PART OF THIS SERIES
WHEN I WILL REVEAL MY TOP FIVE TV DETECTIVES OF ALL TIME

Part One of the feature is HERE

 

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