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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.

SIX WICKED REASONS . . . Between the covers

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SCelticartre insisted that the celebrated line from his 1944 play Huis Clos (No Exit), “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” was forever misinterpreted, but the idea that hell is other people has stuck, despite the protestations of the Great Existentialist. Some, like Jo Spain in her latest novel Six Wicked Reasons, would suggest – to mix and match poets – that Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell could be condensed into an overpowering tenth – Family.

SWRThe Lattimer family, patriarch Frazer, sons James, Adam and Ryan, daughters Ellen, Kate and Clíodhna – Clio – have assembled at the family home in south east Ireland overlooking the waters of Spanish Cove in the Irish Sea, so called because of its earliest recorded casualties – sailors from a Spanish galleon blown adrift from the Armada and then shattered on the hidden rocks.

Something has gone badly wrong. With the family gathered aboard a luxury yacht moored just off-shore, and apparently partying, Frazer Lattimer has been hauled from the water, as dead as any Spanish sailor, with a mortal wound to his head. Now his children are huddled on shore, wrapped in space blankets, being interrogated by a member of the local Garda Síochána. And, of course, one of them must be the killer. Mustn’t they?

RCeltic lettereaders new to Jo Spain’s novels will welcome the apparently straightforward back-stories of Frazer Lattimer’s children, and their motives for wanting him dead. Those who know that the author is The Mistress of Misdirection will suspect, correctly, that this is only the start. But, for the record, I give you the Lattimer children. James is a big media name, with TV screenwriting and production credits on his CV. Lives in Dublin, of course with ex-model wife and step daughter. Adam – now there’s a tale. He now lives abroad, making money for fun, but he disappeared ten years earlier, broke the heart of his late mother Kathleen, and has now re-appeared, equally mysteriously, and it is his return ‘from the dead’ which has prompted the reunion. Ryan, alas poor Ryan. Drug addicted as a teenager, he has somehow survived industrial intakes of pharmaceuticals, and now lives in Italy, just about getting by as an odd-job man.

ECeltic letterllen Lattimer is the female equivalent of the Prodigal Son’s brother. Remember, the bloke who stayed at home while his brother was out on the town, giving it all away? Ellen has stayed at home, cleaning, cooking, dusting – and paying for the upkeep of the house. She is prim, joyless, and what Private Eye used to call “tight-lipped and ashen-faced.” Kate, on the other hand, has spread her wings and learned to fly. Having overcome a teenage weight problem which caused her to be known locally as King Kong, she is now svelte, lean and lovely. Also, married to a filthy rich Chinese businessman with a chain of luxury hotels. Clio, though has been in the wars. Summoned from a dingy bedsit in downtown New York to attend the family gathering, she is the most volatile of the children, the antithesis of the line from the old hymn which described Our Lord as “slow to chide and swift to bless.”

You could write what Jo Spain doesn’t know about plotting on the back of a postage stamp and still have room to inscribe the Lord’s Prayer, but she also has an ear for dialogue that is purely musical in its accuracy. We have the six Lattimer siblings, their father in flashback, plus his recently acquired Polish fiancée; to complete the line-up add Rob, an intriguing local policeman, and Danny, the grizzled mariner whose platonic love for Kathleen Lattimer broke his heart and yet made it sing. Ten totally different people, yet when each of them speaks, they are totally credible down to every word, every syllable and every inflection.

ACeltic letters an amateur wordsmith I can only guess at Jo Spain’s writing technique; her prose is so assured, so fluent and has that sense of flair that cannot, surely, be the result only of endless hours of editing. No matter how long you spend polishing a piece of coal, you will never transform it into a gem stone. Six Wicked Reasons is a diamond, multi-faceted and reflecting both the light and the darkness of the human soul. It is published by Quercus and is out on 16th January.

For more reviews of Jo Spain’s novels click the image below

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THE UNFORGETTING . . . Between the covers

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As she gazes up at her bedroom ceiling, Lily Bell daydreams of becoming an actress. She is, to be sure, beautiful enough, with her long almost-white blond hair and her flawless complexion, but for the stepdaughter of a struggling artist in the London of 1851, her dreams of becoming Ophelia, Juliet or Desdemona are just foolish fantasies. Until the day her penniless stepfather receives a visit from one of his creditors, a mysterious self-styled Professor – Erasmus Salt. Salt is actually a theatrical showman, with a macabre interest in that overwhelming Victorian obsession, communicating with the dead. He offers Alfred Bell respite from the debt in return for Lily accompanying Salt and his spinster sister Faye to become the star of a new production, in which he will convince audiences that he has raised the dead.

Unforgetting coverDespite her misgivings, Lily is intrigued by what appears to be a chance to achieve her ambition. After all, Salt’s theatrical illusion may be faintly sinister, but who knows what career doors it might unlock? Bell, despite the tears and misgivings of his wife, cannot get Lily out of the door fast enough, and soon the girl is on her way south, to the seaside town of Ramsgate, where Salt’s production is due to be presented at The New Tivoli theatre.

Salt’s production is, literally, smoke and mirrors. Lily is not to appear on stage at all, but is confined to a cubicle, where her image is projected onto the stage via a huge mirror and the swirling aura produced by the burning of quicklime. On stage, an actor plays the role of a grieving husband trying to summon up the image of his dead wife. When she ‘appears’, he tries to clasp her to his arms but her wraith vanishes, and he ends it all, courtesy of a knife and a bladder of pig’s blood concealed under his shirt.

At first, Lily does not object to her new career, strange though it might be. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Salt – in order to further foster the illusion of Lily’s miraculous reincarnation – publishes notices announcing her death, and has a headstone bearing her name erected over an (empty) grave in a nearby cemetery.

By now we, as readers, know much more about Salt than does the hapless Lily. Having experience a terrible trauma in his youth, the balance of his mind has been disturbed; he may also be a murderer, and his obsession with the dead could be leading further than simply the creation of a melodramatic theatrical illusion.

Lily is an admirable character and becomes more resilient as her fortunes take a downturn at the hands of Salt, but the most intriguing part of the story is the way that Rose Black brings Faye Salt more and more centre stage, from being a slightly forbidding Mrs Danvers-like character, to becoming a vivid and compassionate woman. In the end the book was, for me, more about Faye than it was about Lily.

Rose Black has created an elegant conjuring trick of her own in The Unforgetting. She has stuck with all the conventional trappings of a Victorian melodrama, but written something much more subtle and affecting. Yes, we have a sneering villain, his grotesque henchman, a gothic mansion witness to a terrible tragedy, a wronged woman, a dying mother, exotic travelling gypsies, a noble young man who turns the tables on the degenerate despoiler – but there is more, so much more than that. The Unforgetting is published by Orion and is out now.

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BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . .

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In 1952, Jim Thompson published The Killer Inside Me, the novel which was to make his name. The central character is Lou Ford, an apparently mild mannered Texas Deputy Sheriff. Behind the bland mask he is, however, manipulative sexual sadist and a stone cold killer. For a detailed review of the novel, click the image below.

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The Killer Inside Me is astonishingly frank for 1952, so much so that the implications of sadistic sex, paedophilia and substance abuse would make anyone writing a screenplay tread very warily indeed. The first movie version wasn’t until 1976, and it featured Stacey Keach as Lou Ford. Director Burt Kennedy transposes Central City Texas to Montana. Sometimes this geographical shift is echoed by the storyline, resembling that of the novel in the same way that the mountains of Montana mirror the vast flatlands of the Texas oilfields, but at other times, such as the jail scene between Ford and Johnny (now Hispanic rather than Greek) the dialogue is lifted straight from the novel.

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The novel has Ford speaking from the very first page and we know immediately who and what he is, whereas the film takes a while to reveal to us Ford’s true character. Ford still ends up shot dead by his former colleagues, but his demise comes much quicker and with less ceremony than in the novel. For the complete cast and credits, click here. Keach makes a decent enough fist of the part but in a brilliant cameo as Joyce Lakeland, Susan Tyrell was the stand-out performer, brief though her role was. Her New York Times obituary decribed her ‘talent for playing the downtrodden, outré, and grotesque.

A second adaptation, directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Casey Affleck as Lou Ford, was released in 2010. Thirty-odd years is a long time in cinema, and while remakes are rarely considered to be as good as the original, in this case Winterbottom gave us a movie which was altogether more thoughtful and complex, partly because it stuck closely to the original story and dialogue. There is an abundance of softcore sex and hardcore violence which made it controversial. Interestingly, while the roles of prostitute Joyce and Ford’s school-ma’am girlfriend Amy remained intact plot-wise, there was something of a reversal in how they were played. Jessica Alba was almost impossibly beautiful and vulnerable as Joyce, while Kate Hudson was often seen slouching around Ford’s house in slutty underwear with a cigarette between her lips.

Ford’s frequent flashbacks to his dark and doomed relationship with Joyce link explicitly to the damage done to him when he was a child. Joyce herself, as in the novel,  did not die from Ford’s beating, and true to Thompson’s plot she gets to appear in the Grand Guignol final scene where Ford is confronted by his accusers before everything literally explodes in flames.

The film is violently stylish with an ironic soundtrack of country schmaltz and gauche 1950s rockabilly, but punctuated with operatic arias, most tellingly at the end, where Caruso sings ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’ from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’Amore.

For full cast and crew, plus production details, click the image below.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The Killer Inside Me

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James Myers ‘Jim’ Thompson (1906 – 1977) was an outrageously talented novelist, screenwriter – and drunk. When he died in Los Angeles of an alcohol-induced stroke he left a legacy of hard hitting crime novels and brilliant screenplays, perhaps none better than that for Paths Of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film set in the French trenches of The Great War. With a dazzling performance by Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, the film has become a classic.

killer_inside_meThompson’s first major success came in 1952 with The Killer Inside Me and it remains grimly innovative. Psychopathic killers have become pretty much mainstream in contemporary crime fiction, but there can be few who chill the blood in quite the same way as Thompson’s West Texas Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. His menace is all the more compelling because he is the narrator of the novel, and a few hundred words in we are left in no doubt that the dull but amiable law officer, who bores local people stupid with his homespun cod-philosophical clichés, is actually a creature from the darkest reaches of hell.

Ford has homicidal urges which he refers to as the sickness. They date from childhood, and we learn that he was used for sex by his father’s housekeeper and went on to murder a girl – a crime for which his foster brother took the blame.  Ford’s downfall begins with a visit to a beaten up house, outside the city limits;  the resident of the house, Joyce Lakeland, is a prostitute, and Sheriff Bob Maples has given his amiable deputy – renowned for not carrying a gun, and being able to sweet-talk his way out of difficult situations – the task of telling her to move on.

KillerInsideMe01_cvrSUBJoyce is savvy, and world-weary, but when Ford’s “pardon me, Ma’am,” charm strikes the wrong note, she slaps him. He slaps her back and the encounter takes a dark turn when Ford takes off his belt and gives Joyce what used to be known as “a leathering.” She responds to the beating with obvious arousal, and the pair begin a violent sado-sexual affair.

Ford’s involvement with Joyce becomes complicated when he is summoned by Chester Conway, the major employer in the city. Conway’s feckless son Elmer is one of Joyce’s paying customers and Conway senior wants Ford to engineer a meeting where Elmer is to give Joyce a large sum of money on the understanding that she leaves immediately. Ford twists the situation to his own advantage by giving Joyce a near fatal beating, shooting Elmer and setting up the scene to look as if there has been a violent quarrel which has left both participants dead.

His plan seems to have worked, but seeds of doubt have been sown in the minds of some of Ford’s associates, including Joe Rothman, a sceptical union official, and also Bob Maples, who is old, ill and drinking himself away from thoughts that his deputy may be a murderer.

KillerInsideMe02_cvrSUBA key figure in Ford’s life is Amy, his long-time girlfriend. Thompson paints her as physically attractive, but socially constrained. She is a primary school teacher from a good local family who, despite responding to Ford’s violent sexual ways, is determined to marry him. As the dark clouds of suspicion begin to shut the daylight out of Lou Ford’s life, she is the next to die, and Ford’s clumsy attempt to frame someone else for her death is the tipping point. Thereafter his downfall is rapid, and his final moments are as brutal and savage as anything he has inflicted on other people.

We live in a different world now. While violence against women is pretty much standard fare in the scores of serial killer novels which are published every year, The Killer Inside Me is different. Nowadays, if a book is classed (by whom, one could ask) as a literary novel, then almost anything goes. American Psycho attracted all kinds of labels; it was satirical, it was post-modern, it was transgressive, it was New York chic. Firmly rooted in the crime fiction genre, I Was Dora Suarez was horrifically violent, but shot through with author Derek Raymond’s overwhelming compassion and pity. Could, would, should The Killer Inside Me be written and published in 2020? I doubt that a mainstream publisher would handle it, and I am certain that critics would kill it dead, leading to social media vultures hovering over the remains.

For an account of the two movie adaptations of
The Killer Inside Me, click the image below

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STOP AT NOTHING . . . Between the covers

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Tessa Hopwood is a fifty-something mum, a journalist recently ‘let go’ by a top magazine, a serious drink-driving conviction on her CV to accompany a failed marriage and one of two daughters estranged – they haven’t spoken in months. When the younger daughter, Emma, is attacked on her way home, Tessa’s life is turned on its head. Em is shocked and shaken, physically bruised but – most importantly – saved from any sexual assault by the timely intervention of a passer by. When the police organise an ID parade to identify the culprit, neither Em nor witness Frances can identify the ‘right’ man and Tessa, convinced that she knows who Em’s assailant is, decides to do things her own way.

SANPoor Tessa is a mess, actually. Struggling to cope with the physical and psychological effects of the menopause and her self-esteem battered by redundancy, she is prey to all manner of fancies, midnight imaginings and “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Much of Stop At Nothing is pure anxiety porn, as Tessa makes bad judgment after bad judgment, wrong call after wrong call. Readers will see the picture – at least part of it – way, way before she does, and in places the narrative reminded me of the frequent moments in Hammer horror films where the heroine (usually scantily clad) insists on going down into the cellar clutching only a flickering candle. We want to grab Tessa by the arm and say. “Do. Not. Do. This!

TCPersonally, I warmed to Tessa – and her unfailing knack of getting things wrong – much more when her relationship with her elderly parents moved to centre stage. The tragedy of dementia is a natural cruelty that makes even the most devout religious person want to howl with rage at the heavens, and Tammy Cohen (right) handles this poignant mix of frustration and fury with a deft touch.

This is a novel of great subtlety, less a crime novel, more a detailed portrait of obsession and  deception. Tessa Hopwood’s north London life is one that will be uncomfortably familiar to many readers, with its mixture of social angst, financial pressures and the constant urge to “keep up, don’t dawdle – just keep up..

Stop At Nothing is published by Bantam Press and is available now. For a review of another novel by Tammy Cohen, writing this time as Rachel Rhys, click the link to Dangerous Crossing (2017)

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NINE ELMS . . . Between the covers

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Kate Marshall lectures in criminology at a university in the south west of England, but when she speaks to her students it is not as an academic, making judgments based purely on the research of others; neither does she approach the subject as an outsider, albeit one who is well read and well prepared. Fifteen years earlier, when she was a humble detective constable with London’s Metropolitan Police, she brought to justice one of the country’s most prolific and perverted serial killers. In doing so, she paid a heavy price; only skilled surgeons prevented her death from terrible injuries, but her career – and personal reputation – were both beyond saving.

Nine ElmsFifteen years on, the former police officer dubbed The Nine Elms Cannibal is serving multiple life sentences in a secure mental institution, and Kate Marshall, if not exactly dining out on her experiences, uses her involvement in the case as part of the course she delivers. She lives alone and while not exactly lonely, she is a changed woman from her days as part of London’s police force. She battles alcoholism, but with the support of Alcoholics Anonymous and, in particular, a local AA member called Myra, Kate sips her iced tea and pretends it contains a hefty shot of Jack Daniels.

Kate Marshall has a rather distinctive connection with The Nine Elms Cannibal, aka Peter Conway, but to elaborate further would be to spoil your fun. Suffice it to say that when a series of copycat killings – young women found dead with savage bite marks on their bodies – Kate is drawn into the investigation despite the misgivings of some police officers, who are only too aware of her back-story.

Of course the new killer can’t be Peter Conway – he is held under Hannibal Lecter – style restraints in prison, but what is his mother – author of a best-selling lurid true crime book called No Son Of Mine – up to? Is she acting as malignant go-between, a conduit between her son and an admirer who seems to have studied Conway’s modus operandi, and is proving the old adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

With her research assistant Tristan Harper, Kate tries to reassemble the pieces of an increasingly complex puzzle, but it is not until events take a spectacular turn that she comes face to face with both the apprentice New Elms Cannibal – and his master – in a fast and furious finale which is not for the faint of heart.

Author Robert Bryndza is British, but lives and works in Slovakia. He has a successful series featuring Detective Erika Foster already under his belt. Nine Elms is published by Sphere, and will be out on 9th January.

I have an unopened hardback copy of Nine Elms up for grabs. Watch the Fully Booked Twitter feed for a prize draw competition – coming soon.

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HOLD YOUR TONGUE . . . Between the covers

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HYT coverDeborah Masson’s police procedural Hold Your Tongue is as gritty as the granite in the Aberdeen where it is set. Fictional Detective Inspectors tend to be brilliant, yet with fatal flaws; perceptive, but incapable of managing calm personal lives; honest and principled, but concealing their own dark secrets. Masson’s Eve Hunter ticks all the boxes, and adds a few of her own. She is returning to work after a catastrophic encounter with a notorious criminal family. After the son of the crime gang’s Capo sustains life changing injuries in a car chase, Johnny MacNeill has exacted brutal revenge resulting in Hunter’s partner DS Nicola Sanders being paralysed from the neck down, while Hunter herself has a permanently damaged leg and intense psychological scarring.

There is no ‘Welcome Back’ party for Hunter. There are former colleagues who blame her impulsive and driven approach to police work for what happened to Nicola Sanders. Her boss doubts she is ready for a return, particularly as her first case will be to solve the savage murder of an aspiring model, found dead in a hotel room, surrounded by an elaborate and deliberate staging of fashion magazines, make-up and mirrors. Melanie Ross’s tongue has been cut out, and taken away by her killer.

Masson makes telling use of Aberdeen itself as a baleful presence looming behind the misdeeds of its citizens. Despite the grim grandeur of its municipal buildings, the passing of the North Sea oil bonanza has left a legacy of closed shops and tatty, uncared-for neighbourhoods. A prostitute called Rosie, who is involved with one of the suspects, provides a chilling metaphor for the city:

“Rosie pulled together the edges of the flimsy unbuttoned black raincoat that she wore; it barely concealed the bony chest in a low-cut top and laddered fishnets below a skirt that could pass as easily for a belt.”

The pre-Christmas weather
is vile and utterly inhospitable. The sleety rain slants down, the wind blows in squalls from the North Sea, and the grey light of dawn reveals city streets slick, wet and icy, decorated only with discarded takeaway meals, the odd abandoned high-heeled shoe, and a general air of attempts at gaiety which ended in failure.

More murders follow, and they are clearly the work of the same person. Eventually Hunter realises what the elaborate posing of the victims signifies. The killer has somehow become obsessed with the old nursery fable:

Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay.

71VcTMOa58L._US230_As the killer works towards the Sabbath Day child, Hunter and her colleagues dash this way and that, always vital hours behind the murderer. Masson (right) contributes to the mayhem with some elegantly clever misdirection. Early in the piece she teases us with the suggestion that the series of murders has something to do with brothers and sisters, but even when we – and Eve Hunter – think we are close to the truth, there is one big surprise left. Hold Your Tongue is an assured and convincing debut, and I hope there will be more cases to come for Eve Hunter. The book is out now, and published by Corgi/Penguin.

 

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best book

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There’s no competition, I don’t have a prize to offer, but there are are certainly no losers. like many other amateur book reviewers I can only be grateful to publicists, publishers and, of course, writers, who trust me with their work. Here are five of the best books of 2019 – feel free to agree or disagree with my thoughts.

htds-coverVal McDermid’s wonderful odd couple Tony Hill and Carol Jordan don’t have it in them, for a variety of complex reasons, to love each other in any conventional sense, and How The Dead Speak finds their relationship more fractured than ever. Tony is in prison and Carol’s bosses have finally lost patience, and she is left to pace the moors around her solitary home. Tony’s venomous mother makes an appearance as she coerces Jordan into investigating a fraud case, while the equally abrasive Bronwen Scott seeks her help as she tries to put together a case for an appeal against a murder conviction. Back in Bradfield, Jordan’s former team are almost literally knee deep in the mysterious case of dozens of skeletons found in the grounds of a former Roman Catholic care home. As ever, McDermid puts in front of us a plate full of delicious mysteries and a few elegantly salted red herrings – crime fiction haute cuisine at its best.

tnibJames Lee Burke celebrated his eighty third birthday earlier this month and, thankfully, shows no sign that his powers have deserted him. His brooding and haunted Louisiana lawman Dave Robicheux returned in The New Iberia Blues with another adventure set in the humid bayous and crumbling colonial mansions of Acadiana. Dave – with, of course, his long-time offsider Clete Purcell – tries to solve a series of grisly killings involving a driven movie director deeply in hock to criminal backers, a preening and narcissistic former mercenary and a religious crazy man on the run from Death Row. 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. As ever, there’s a deep vein of morality and conscience running through the book, amid the corpses, shoot-outs and hot spoonfuls of Southern Noir.

6104xARjgmLThere is an understandable temptation to lionise a book, irrespective of its merit, when it is published posthumously, the last work of a fine writer who died far too soon. Metropolis, by Philip Kerr, however, is a bloody good book irrespective of any sentiment the reader may have about the passing of its author. Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, has traversed the decades – and half the globe – in his adventures. Peron’s Argentina, the cauldron of Nazi Germany, Somerset Maugham’s Riviera in the 1950s and the haunted Katyn Forest. Now, though, Kerr puts Gunther firmly back where it all started, in 1920s Berlin. While Gunther poses as a crippled war veteran in an attempt to catch a serial killer, we rub shoulders with the likes of Otto Dix, George Grosz and Lotte Lenya. Philip Kerr is gone, but Bernie Gunther – cynical, brave, compassionate and resourceful – will live for ever.

The Lonely HourSometimes, the sheer bravura, joy and energy of a writer’s work makes us happily turn a blind eye to improbabilities. Let’s face it, Christopher Fowler’s Arthur Bryant and John May have been solving crimes since the Luftwaffe was raining bombs down on London and, by rights, they should be, like Betjeman’s Murray Posh and Lupin Pooters “Long in Kelsal Green and Highgate silent under soot and stone.” But they live on, and long may they defy Father Time. In The Lonely Hour, in this case the haunted moments around 4.00 am, they try to track down a killer who is using an arcane and archaic weapon – a surgical device called a trocar. The trocar was a tube devised to allow the body to be punctured in order to facilitate the escape of gases or fluids. There is comedy both high and low, a mesmerising journey through hidden London – and just enough darkness to remind us that murder is a serious business.

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Click the image above to read my full review

 

 

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best historical crime

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I have always been a fan of historical fiction and, more recently, crime fiction set ‘back in the day’. Sadly, there are those writers whose thirst for period accuracy produces lavish costume drama at the expense of a decent plot and good storytelling. Happily, the five books on my 2019 shortlist don’t fall into that trap – take a look, and if you haven’t read them yet, do so – you won’t be disappointed.

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 19.34.11The Familiars by Stacey Halls was one of the publishing successes of 2019, and rightly so. The evocative visual presentation was matched by superb writing and the conviction of a natural storyteller. The story is not a conventional crime mystery, but involves suspicion, injustice, intrigue, political chicanery and personal bravery. We are in rural Lancashire in the early years of the seventeenth century and young Fleetwood Shuttleworth has been married off to a wealthy landowner. Far away in London, King James is obsessed with a fear of witches and daemons, and those anxious to please His Majesty are falling over themselves to demonstrate their loyalty. Fleetwood’s new home, Gawthorpe Hall, sits under the looming Pendle Hill, and all around the district, harmless old women – and some not so old – are being rounded up as witches. Fleetwood is under pressure from husband Richard to provide a male heir and when, after several miscarriages, she seeks the help of a young peasant midwife, Alice Gray, her actions put her in direct conflict with the King’s men.

thg-coverChris Nickson’s historical novels may be narrow in geographical scope – they are mostly set in Leeds across the centuries – but they are magnificent in their emotional, political and social breadth. In The Hocus Girl, we meet Simon Westow who earns his living as a thieftaker. In America they still have them, after a fashion, but they call them bail skip tracers, or bounty hunters. Leeds in the 1820s had no police force except inept and frequently infirm Parish Constables, and so thieftakers pursued criminals on commission from victims of crime. Westow has a formidable ally in the shape of a teenage girl called Jane. Sexually abused as a youngster, she is ruthless and streetwise, and God help the man who mistakes her for a waif. Westow and Jane have a different kind of fight on their hands here, as they try to prevent a campaigner for social justice being sent to the gallows by political conspirators.

tsm-coverSW Perry has written an excellent thriller about religious extremism, media manipulation and political treachery. The fact that The Serpent’s Mark is set in Elizabethan London rather than 2019 can only make the reader wonder at how little things have changed. Nicholas Shelby is a physician who, despite his relative youth, has served on the battlefields of Europe and has emerged from a debilitating period of alcoholism caused by the tragic death of his wife and child. With many a real life character – including Robert Cecil and John Evelyn – making an appearance, Shelby becomes involved in a desperate affair which seeks to supplant Queen Elizabeth herself with a hitherto unknown child of Mary Tudor – and return the land of Gloriana to the old faith, Roman Catholicism.

night-watch-coverFor all that the era was in my lifetime, the 1950s may just as well be the 1650s given the gulf between then and the modern world. In Nightwatch David C Taylor takes us back to New York in 1954, and we follow a convincingly tough and hard-nosed NYPD cop, Michael Cassidy, who becomes involved in a case which is way, way above his relatively humble pay grade. There were many former Nazis who escaped Nuremburg and had vanished into the ether by 1954 and although many of them were undoubtedly bastards, the sinister folk in American intelligence agencies gave them a lifeline by making sure that they became their bastards. Awkwardly for the CIA, there were also survivors of Hitler’s death camps who had made their way to America, and although they may have been scratching a relatively meagre living, they still had access to information and a burning desire for revenge. Cassidy battles both the indifference of his bosses and the unwanted attention of some very powerful people as he tries to solve a series of murders and make his streets a little less mean.

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Click the text image above to link to my review of The Mathematical Bridge.

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