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fullybooked2017

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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.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . People of Abandoned Character

There is no single real-life criminal event in history which has captured the imagination of readers, writers, historians and criminologists like the gory saga of the Whitechapel Murders. The word ‘enthusiast’ seems inappropriate to describe someone drawn to the butchering of five women in that dreadful autumn of 1888. How can someone be ‘enthusiastic’ about such carnage? Ripperologist doesn’t work, either, as it seems to conjure up images of a harmless hobby like stamp collecting or fossil hunting.

POAC001There have been countless non-fiction books written on the subject, some providing solutions, but none conclusive. Several fictional detectives have gone head-to-head with The Ripper, and if you click this link, you can read a piece I wrote about the genre. Most recently, Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five sought to transform the murdered women from mere corpses to real people.

Now, first-time author Clare Whitfield enters the lists with People Of Abandoned Characters, which centres on a  woman who begins to suspect that her new husband, a doctor, may be involved with the unfolding horror of the Whitechapel murders. Do his absences really coincide with the grisly discoveries of the murdered women, or is she putting two and two together and making five?

The advanced publicity says that People Of Abandoned Character:

“… explores the smoke and mirrors of perceived social mobility, the role of wealthy society and the responsibility to the poor (or not as it may be the case), toxic relationships and narcissistic abuse, gender equality and freedom to pursue personal ambition.”

The printed book looks and feels absolutely gorgeous, and I hope the story lives up to the advanced publicity. It is published by Head Of Zeus and will be out on 1st October. Watch this space for the detailed review.

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TRUE CRIME . . . A Warwickshire tragedy

Drive east on the A425 out of Royal Leamington Spa and you will soon come to the village of Radford Semele. The Semele is nothing to do with the princess in Greek mythology or Handel’s opera of the same name, but apparently relates to a Norman family from Saint Pierre-de-Semilly who were lords of the manor in the twelfth century. These days it is a rather prosperous village, much expanded from 1947, when it housed a mixture of the well-off and the rural poor, with nothing much in between.

Number 23 Radford Semele housed the Ashby family. Frederick, aged 48, his wife Marie, 51, son Frederick Philip, 27 and a younger daughter. Frederick junior was in the RAF. In 1947 people didn’t tend to move about as much as they do these days, and the 1911 census tells us that Frederick lived with his grandparents in Radford, while wife Marie had been born in Napton, a few miles down the road. They had married in 1921.

The late winter had been particularly savage, and after a brief heatwave in June, the July weather was cloudy and humid. Those with a radio or a gramophone could have been listening to Frank Sinatra sing Among My Souvenirs, which topped the charts for three weeks. Fred Ashby junior had been a pupil at Clapham Terrace School in Leamington and, being something of an athlete, was a member of the celebrated Coventry Club, Godiva Harriers. After a spell as a draughtsman at the Lockheed works in nearby Leamington, he had joined the RAF. He had come home from nearby Church Lawford on weekend leave, and on the morning of Sunday 27th July, had set off across the fields with a friend, Cyril Bye, to try and shoot a few rabbits for the pot.

It seems that the relationship between Fred Ashby (left) and his father was anything but harmonious. Fred senior, who was a foreman at the Coventry Radiator factory in the village, was often involved in loud arguments when his son was home on leave. At around 4.00pm that Sunday afternoon, a Radford teenager called Rose Marie Summers was standing talking to a friend outside a nearby house, when she saw Fred senior staggering out of the Ashby’s house, clutching his side, in obvious pain. He cried out, “He has kicked me.”

The girl saw Ashby walk round to the rear of the house and return with a shotgun in his hands. He pointed it through the open window of the cottage and fired.

Witnesses who entered the house shortly afterwards never forgot the horrific scene, Young Fred Ashby was kneeling on the floor, his head face down on the sofa. In his back was a gaping wound, pumping blood. The police and ambulance were quickly summoned, and the young man was rushed to the Warneford Hospital, just little over a mile away in Leamington. There was nothing doctors could do to save his life, however, and he died later that evening with his mother at his bedside.

There was never a more cut and dried case for Warwickshire Police. Even as the local bobby, PC Haines, arrived at the scene, Fred Ashby was beside the body of his dying son, trying desperately to staunch the fatal wound, saying, “I did it. I shot him.”

As the case progressed up the ladder of the criminal justice system, from local magistrates’ court to Birmingham Assizes, it became clear that the evidently mild-mannered Fred Ashby was, for whatever reason, regularly bullied by his physically powerful son and, having been knocked about and abused during the afternoon of 27th July, had finally snapped and,in a red mist, fired the shot that ended his son’s life. His plea of manslaughter was accepted, and he was sentenced to ten years penal servitude.

Whatever grief he bore for the killing of his son, Frederick Ashby survived his prison sentence and died in 1984. His wife Marie pre-deceased him by nine years. The senior policeman in the case, Chief Superintendent Alec Spooner of Warwickshire CID, is celebrated by True Crime enthusiasts as the man who led the case investigating the as-yet-unsolved ‘witchcraft murder’ of Charles Walton, at Lower Quinton in 1945, but that is a story for another day.







THE SHOT . . . Between the covers

The late Philip Kerr is justifiably renowned for his magisterial series of fourteen historical books featuring the sardonic German copper Bernie Gunther. Kerr, however, was good enough – and confident enough – to write superior stand-alone novels. I read one such – Hitler’s Peace –  earlier this year and if you click the link it will take you to the review.

41PpZhwb-wLQuercus has just republished The Shot, a 1999 novel by Kerr. We are in America and it is the late autumn of 1960. In the pop charts, The Drifters were singing Save The Last Dance For Me, and a youthful looking senator called John Fitzgerald Kennedy had just won the election to become the thirty-fifth President of The United States.

Just a hundred miles or so from the tip of the Florida peninsula lies the island of Cuba, but its traditional role as puppet state of America, complete with Mafia-owned casinos, sex clubs and hedonistic lifestyles came to an  end in 1958 when communist rebels, led by Fidel Castro, finally overturned the regime of Fulgencio Batista. Cubans have fled in their thousands to Florida, while the American government looks across the waters for signs of Russian influence over the fledgling state.

Central to the story of The Shot is an American assassin who calls himself Tom Jefferson. We never learn his real identity. We only know that his aliases are always those of American Presidents, such as Franklin Pierce and Martin Van Buren. Tom is a military trained sniper who earns his living killing political targets by blowing off the tops of their skulls with a .30 calibre bullet.

PKAs ever with a Philip Kerr novel, we are in a world populated by a mix of fictional characters and real-life figures. Among the latter are Jack Kennedy himself and the Mob boss Sam Giancana. Giancana hires Jefferson to assassinate Fidel Castro so that the revolution will collapse, and the mafioso can return to their old lucrative ways. Jefferson does his homework and seems all set to put a bullet in Castro’s head.

In the wake of 22nd November 1963, Jack Kennedy achieved temporary sainthood, and it is only relatively recently that his less-than-saintly private life has become common knowledge. When one of his exploits affects Tom Jefferson personally, the whole plan to kill Castro is turned on its head. Jefferson goes missing, and becomes the object of a manhunt by the FBI, the CIA and the Mafia.

This novel shows Philip Kerr at his wondrous best. The historical characters are made flesh in front of our eyes, while the fictional participants are vividly convincing. Kerr’s grasp of history is immense, and he serves up a winning mixture of The Day Of The Jackal and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. The Shot is out now.

STILL LIFE . . . Between the covers

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Still Life sees the return of Val McDermid’s DCI Karen Pirie for her sixth case. For readers new to the series, Pirie is tough, intuitive and compassionate – qualities which stand her in good stead as leader of the Historic Crimes Unit. She has her vulnerable side, and it is never more obvious than when she contemplates the emotional scars inflicted by the murder of her former colleague and lover Phil Parhatka. In the previous book, Broken Ground, she met Hamish Mackenzie, a wealthy businessman and gentleman crofter. They are not completely ‘an item’. For Karen, the jury is still out.

McDermid loves nothing better than to juggle plot strands, and here we have two absolute beauties or, should I say, bodies. In the Blue Corner we have the corpse of a male (happily for the police complete with passport in his back pocket) recovered by fisherman tending their lobster pots. In the Red Corner is the desiccated corpse of a woman, discovered in an elderly and tarpaulined camper van, rusting away in a suburban garage.

51UwcxaxExL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The dead man is quickly identified as the brother of a long-disappeared Scottish public figure. Iain Auld, depending on your cultural terms of reference, did either a Reggie Perrin, John Stonehouse or Lord Lucan a decade earlier. He has officially been declared dead, but Pirie’s antennae are set all of a quiver, as her investigations into Auld’s disappearance have been fruitless.

The dead woman? Just as complex and convoluted. She may have been a capriciously talented jewellery designer, neither seen nor heard of for months after a troubled residence in a Highland artists’ commune. Then again, she might be the designer’s lesbian lover, a minor talent in the world of water colour landscapes.

McDermid creates her usual magic in this brilliant police procedural. Yes, all boxes are ticked, including starchy superior police officers, duplicitous figures at the heart of the world of Fine Art, sexual jealousy and crimes passionelle, government corruption and likeable (but slightly gormless) junior coppers. Long time fans of the former director of Raith Rovers FC will know that there is more – so much more. She pulls us into the narrative from page one. We are smitten, hooked, ensnared, trapped in her web – choose your own metaphor

Val McDermid is a political person, but she generally wears her views lightly. She cannot restrain herself, however, from having a little dig at her fellow Kirkcaldian Gordon Brown for ‘bottling out’ of an election in 2009 and thus succumbing the following year to a decade or more of rule by the ‘auld enemy’. The lengthy gestation period of novels usually prevents authors from being totally topical, but the final pages of Still Life have DCI Pirie and her crew clearing their desks and preparing for a Covid-19 lockdown. Karen, as we might expect, is made of stern stuff, and she faces an uncertain future with determination:

” – people would always need the polis – and even in a pandemic, murder should never go unprosecuted.”

For my reviews of the previous two Karen Pirie novels Broken Ground and Out of Bounds, click the links and you will get each in a new tab. Still Life is published by Little, Brown and is out now.

TRUE CRIME . . . The Easter Monday Murder

Header1953 had not begun auspiciously for East Anglia. Overnight on 31st January a fierce storm had brought devastating flooding to the coast from Lincolnshire to Norfolk. Amost exactly a year earlier, King George VI had died at Sandringham, and the preparations for the June coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth were well advanced. Wisbech Town were struggling in the Midland League, but did manage to beat Gainsborough 5-3 on Easter Saturday, 4th April.

On Thursday 2nd April, Claude Butter arrived at his mother’s house in Wisbech, having traveled down from his lodgings in Church Street, Blackpool. The 51 year-old was a civilian instructor at RAF Weeton, in Lancashire. He had been away from home since he was 16. When his father died he was abroad but in a later statement he said:

“I tried to get home, but I understand that the then Superintendent of police said my presence was not necessary. That sort of gave me the impression that I was not really wanted.”

81 year-old Susannah Elizabeth Butter lived on Summerfield Close, in a modest 1930s council house in a set of terraces built around a circular green. Her other son, Charles, lived either in Milner Road, Wisbech, or with his mother – newspaper reports differ.

That Sunday, 5th April, was Easter Day. On Easter Monday, Mrs Butter and her sons sat down to supper. It was to be her last meal. At 7.45am the next day, Mrs Butter’s next door neighbour was roused by a frantic knocking on the door. When he answered the door, he saw a dishevelled Claude Butter, who said:

Fetch the police. I have killed my mother. I am mad.”

Mr Jackson and his wife went into number 74, and found Mrs Butter slumped at the foot of the stairs, her head a bloody mess. Claude, meanwhile sat slumped at the kitchen table, muttering:

“To think I should have done this.”

Several times he also said,
“I sent her to heaven. God rest her soul.”

When the doctor arrived, Mrs Butter was pronounced dead. The police had found a poker near to her body, and subsequent tests revealed that it was stained with the old lady’s blood.

When Butter appeared in Wisbech Magistrate’s Court on 22nd April, the national press were preoccupied with the misdeeds of a certain John Christie, who had been arrested on 31st March. While the full horror of what Christie had done would only emerge over the next weeks and months, Butter’s crime was relatively cut and dried, the only question being “why?”.

Being a trial for murder, business was transferred to Cambridge Assizes, and on Tuesday 20th May, Claude Butter was found guilty of his mother’s murder, but declared insane, and sentenced to be detained “until The Queen’s pleasure be known.”

Police and solicitors struggled to find a motive for Butter’s senseless act. Defending Butter in court, Mr George Pettefar called Charles Butter to the stand. Butter said:

“The accused man, my brother, was a bachelor whose life had been centred round our mother. The relationship between them was of the highest and there was genuine affection on both sides.”
(Pettefar) “Would you agree he would not have killed her had he not had a brainstorm of some kind?”
“Yes.”

“What he did that morning was to kill the nearest and dearest person to him on this earth?”
“Yes.”

There was little for the police to do except take Butter to a secure place and try to fathom out what had possessed him to kill his mother.

It was disclosed in court that Claude Butter had made the following statement to police:

“I was not the fellow she thought I was or who anyone thought I was. I didn’t want her to know. I do things on mad impulse. All my life I have been bewitched by the devil.”

Summing up the case for the prosecution, Mr Jardine reminded the jury:

“One thing you may think is lacking in this case is any evidence of any motive for the crime. It is not essential for the prosecution’s case to prove motive, and in this case I am unable to produce any evidence of motive.”

The inner torment which drove Claude Butter to kill his mother can only be guessed at. His death was registered in the St Pancras district of London in the summer of 1960, which suggests he spent the final years of his troubled life in one of the capital’s longest established mental health institutions, St Pancras Hospital.

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A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL . . . between the covers

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Is it tempting fate to wonder who is the oldest living crime writer? James Lee Burke (below) is now 83, but writing better than ever. A Private Cathedral is another episode in the tempestuous career of Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux and the force of nature that is is his friend Clete Purcel. Ostensibly about a simmering war between two gangster families, it goes to places untouched by any of the previous twenty two novels.

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All the old familiar elements are there – Dave, as ever, battles with drink:

“No, I didn’t want to simply drink. I wanted to swallow pitchers of Jack Daniels and soda and shaved ice and bruised mint, and chase them with frosted mug beer and keep the snakes under control with vodka and Collins mix and cherries and orange slices, until my rockets had a three-day supply of fuel and I was on the far side of the moon.”

Then there are the astonishing and vivid descriptions of the New Iberia landscape, the explosive violence, and Louisiana’s dark history. But this novel has a villain unlike any other James Lee Burke has created before. We have met some pretty evil characters over the years, but they have been human and mortal. Robicheaux,  long prone to seeing visions of dead Confederate soldiers, is now faced with an adversary called Gideon, who is also from another world, but with human powers to wreak terrible violence.

APC cover008The Shondell and the Balangie families manipulate, pervert and use people. Robicheaux suspects that seventeen year-old Isolde Balangie has, to be blunt, been pimped out by her father to Mark Shondell. A ‘friendly fire’ casualty is a talented young singer, Johnny Shondell, Mark’s nephew. Ever present, bubbling away beneath the surface of the Bayou Teche is the past. At one point, we even get to walk past the great man’s house, so why not use his most celebrated quote?

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
William Faulkner, Requiem For A Nun

The past involves Mafia hits, grievances nursed and festering over generations, and the sense that the Louisiana shoreline has been witness to countless abuses over the years, from the brutality of slavery through to the rape of nature to which abandoned and rotting stumps of oil rigs bear vivid testimony.

Music – usually sad or poignantly optimistic – is always ringing in our ears in the Robicheaux books. Sometimes it is Dixieland jazz, sometimes blues and sometimes the bitter sweet bounce of Cajun songs. At one point, the young singer Johnny takes his guitar and plays:

“He sat down on the bench and made an E chord and rippled the plectrum across the strings. The he sang ‘Born to Be with You’ by the Chordettes. The driving rhythm of the music and the content of the lyrics were like a wind sweeping across a sandy beach.”

In A Private Cathedral, the plot is not over-complex. It is Dave and Clete – The Bobbsy Twins – against the forces of darkness. Burke gives us what is necessary to ensure the narrative drive, but everything is consumed by the poetry. Sometimes it is the poetry of violence and passion; more tellingly, it is the poetry of valiant despair, the light of decency and honour, guttering out in the teeth of a malignant gale which forces Dave and Clete to bend and stumble, but never quite crack and fall.

A Private Cathedral is published by Orion and is out now. For more on James Lee Burke and Dave Robicheaux, click here.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Raya, Curtis & Williams

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POETIC JUSTICE: FAME by Fran Raya

This is the third book in Raya’s series featuring a shamanic criminal with telepathic gifts called Randal Forbes. He uses his dark talents to enrich himself and outwit the police. He is no amiable villain,however. In his wake he has left shattered lives, death and mayhem. In her preview, Raya writes:

“So, I’ll raise a glass to authors, artists and aspirations. My Characters are waiting in the wings, so sit back, kick off your shoes and let the drama unfold. It’s dark, but with chinks of light, together with Randal’s laconic wit.”

Poetic Justice is published by The Book Guild and is out on 28th August.

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KEEP HER QUIET by Emma Curtis

This nail-biting domestic psycho-drama begins with Jenny crying tears of joy as she cradles the new born child she thought she would never have. Her joy is countered by the despair of her husband Leo, whose desolation and betrayal stems from the bitter truth that he knows the child is not his.

In another place, Hannah weeps over her new born child, because it is lifeless.

Years down the line, the four lives become entangled in a fatal coming together that will be bring only tragedy to all involved. Keep Her Quiet is published by Black Swan and is out on 17th September.

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FATAL REVENGE by James L Williams

The action jumps between rural Canada and England as RCMP officer Sergeant Vic Holland finds family links to an unsolved series of brutal murders that took place in ‘the old country.’

Vic returns to his old beat to gather evidence, but he uncovers more than he was bargaining for. Someone is plotting revenge on several individuals, including Vic’s family back in Pine Creek Falls. But who is making these attacks and how is Vic connected to all of this? Fatal Revenge is published by The Book Guild and is out now in KIndle, and will be available in paperback on 28th August

KILLING IN YOUR NAME . . . Between the covers

In February this year – remember when everything was normal, and Covid-19 was just something nasty that was happening in China and Italy? – I reviewed Blood Will Be Born, the debut thriller by Belfast writer Gary Donnelly. I said it was:
“… breathtakingly violent, vividly written and a bleak commentary on a seemingly terminal bitterness which makes normal human beings behave like creatures from a warped vision of hell.”

The full review of that book is here, but in no time at all, it seems, comes the second episode in the career of Met Police detective Owen Sheen. He has been seconded to the historic crimes unit of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. If ever there were a British city where historic crimes still haunt the streets, it is Belfast. Sheen was born in Belfast, and watched his own brother being blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb as the two youngsters played football in the street. Donnelly says:

“Over the decades, so much blood had spattered the streets of Belfast, all now washed away, and forgotten by many. But there would always be those, the ones who had been left behind to count the cost, for which the stain and the pain would never really go.”

The (literally) explosive conclusion to the previous case has left Sheen sidelined and his PSNI partner Aoifa McCusker walking with a stick and suspended from duty after a stash of Class ‘A’ drugs were planted in her locker. Sheen is haunted by the discovery of a boy’s body, found in remote Monaghan bogland on the border with the Republic. The body has been partially preserved by the acidic water, but even a post mortem examination reveals few details.

Meanwhile, a spate of horrific killings has perplexed PSNI detectives. A priest has been decapitated in his own sacristy; the teenage daughter of a prominent barrister has been abducted and then killed; her body, minus one of its hands has been dumped at her father’s front door. The adult son of a former hellfire Protestant preacher and politician has been found dead – again, butchered.

Against the better judgment of senior officers, Sheen is allowed to ‘get the band back together’ and so a limping McCusker, and colleague George ‘Geordie’ Brown are joined by Hayley, a mysterious transgender person who calls herself an ‘instinctive’ because she has what used to be called a sixth sense about death or extreme violence.

As ever in Belfast, the answers to modern questions lie irremovably in the past and, almost too late, Sheen and his team discover that the killings are bound up with acts of scarcely credible evil that took place decades earlier. Revenge is certainly being served cold and, for someone, it tastes delicious.

Donnelly (below) has another winner on his hands here, and it is partly due to his superb sense of narrative, but also to his ability to create truly monstrous villains, and there is at least one in Killing In Your Name to rival anything his fellow Irishman John Connolly has created. Connolly’s creations tend to have a sulphurous whiff of the supernatural about them. Donnolly’s monsters are human, if in name only. Killing In Your Name is published by Allison & Busby and is out today, 20th August.

ON MY SHELF . . . August 2020

OMS headerIt looks as though the bastards at WordPress have done their worst, and inflicted the ‘new improved’ system on us. Bastards. I rarely swear in print, but this time I have a good excuse.The good news, however, is that I have some lovely new books in my shelf. Full reviews will follow in due course, but here’s a little introduction to each.

A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL by James Lee Burke

The great man is knocking on 84 years old, but he has lost none of his creative drive. Dave Robicheaux and his explosive buddy Cloetus Purcel are back in A Private Cathedral, another dose of Southern Noir for addicts like myself. It seems that Dave, long prone to seeing visions of dead Confederate soldiers, is about to enter an even more terrifying supernatural world, as he tries to dampen down a violent feud between two Louisiana crime families – and combat an adversary who is not constrained by normal human bounds. A Private Cathedral is out now, from Simon & Schuster.

GATHERING DARK by Candice Fox

Last year I reviewed Gone By Midnight by the Australian writer Candice Fox, and I was very impressed. Now, she crosses the ocean to Los Angeles and introduces us to two strong women – Detective Jessica Sanchez and Blair Harbour, a former top surgeon jailed for a murder she didn’t commit, and now caught up in a vendetta which involves crooked cops and senior gangland figures. The Kindle for Gathering Dark came out in March this year, the paperback is due on 3rd September, but hardback fans will have to wait until next year for a copy. Publishers are, respectively, Cornerstone Digital, Arrow, and Forge.

AND THE SEA DARKENED by Vicki Lloyd

It sounds as if we have a touch of the Agathas here – a remote island, a storm closing in, an intractable and violent sea and – of course – a relentless killer on the loose. Throw into the mix an outside world bitterly split by false news and tribalism, and brothers Magnus and Nick, habitually at each other’s throats, are at first captivated by the arrival of a young academic called Jasmin, but then her presence threatens to turn a bleak situation into a catastrophe. And The Sea Darkened is published by Book Guild and is out on 28th August.

STILL LIFE by Val McDermid

A new book by the most celebrated supporter of Raith Rovers is always an event. 2019 saw the latest episode in the troubled saga of Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, How The Dead Speak, but now we have a book featuring another long-term favourite, DCI Karen Pirie. A body washed up on a bleak shore by fishermen spells the beginning of a traumatic investigation in which Pirie must confront a legacy of secrets, conspiracy and betrayal involving some very high profile names. Still Life is published by Little, Brown in Kindle and hardback on 20th August, and a paperback is due next year.

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