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Past Times – Old Crime

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . Hell Is A City by Maurice Procter

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The name Maurice Procter is not one that is regularly bandied around at crime fiction festivals when the Great and The Good are discussing pioneering and innovative writers of the past. He is, just about, still in print thanks to the wonders of Kindle and specialist reprinters such as Murder Room. I’m reluctant to use the fatal words “in his day”, but Procter was a prolific and popular writer of crime novels between 1947 and 1969.

mp1Born in the Lancashire weaving town of Nelson, Procter (left) joined the police force in nearby Halifax in 1927 and remained a serving officer until the success of his novels enabled him to write full time. In 1954 he published the first of a fifteen book series of police procedurals featuring Detective Inspector Harry Martineau. Martineau is a detective in the city of Granchester. Replace the ‘Gr’ with “M’ and you have the actual location pegged.

Hell Is A City is a dark tale which pivots around the enmity between Martineau and a violent and resourceful criminal called Don Starling. Starling is as hard as nails and doesn’t shrink from brutality towards fellow men – or women. Starling is ‘doing time’ but acts like a reformed man in order to escape close prison supervision. Naturally, he seizes his moment and goes over the wall and on the run.

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Starling wastes no time in organising his next heist, and it is a daring cash grab. The victims are two hapless young clerks who work for city bookmaker Gus Hawkins. On their way to the bank with a satchel full of takings from Doncaster races, they are waylaid. Colin Lomax is coshed and left with a serious head injury but Cicely Wainwright fares even worse. Because the money bag is chained to her wrist, she is flung into the back of the getaway van and is killed by Starling as the gang make their escape over the moors to the east of the city. The bag is cut from Cicely’s wrist, and her body is dumped. Of course, this ups the stakes, much to the discomfort of Starling’s gang members, each of whom realises that they face the hangman’s noose if they are caught and convicted as accessories to murder. The hangman, by the way, is a well-known local resident:

“Clogger and Jakes turned their heads quickly, their smiles fading. They stared. Then Jakes pulled Starling’s knee aside and looked down at the girl’s face.
‘Cripes!,’ he said unhappily, “She’s croaked.’
Starling nodded. ‘Some time ago,’ he said.
‘You bloody fool,’ said Jakes, his voice rising with panic.
‘Hell fire!’ Clogger whispered, and he had indeed turned pale. ‘You didn’t have to do that, did you?’
Laurie Lovett was silent. He kept his eyes on the road as if nothing had happened. But a muscle of his jaw had started to twitch.
The same fear was upon them all. They were reminded of a man they knew by sight. He kept a pub in Hollinwood. The name of the pub was Help The Poor Struggler. The man’s name was Albert Pierrepoint.”

HIAC first edI was quickly hooked by this novel, for a variety of reasons. Anyone who has driven east out of Manchester in the direction of Sheffield (which makes a brief apparance as Hallam City) will recognise the changeless face of the moors, with their isolated pubs and gritstone houses clinging to the roadside. What has changed, however, is the view back towards Manchester. Where, in the early 1950s Martineau saw mill chimneys belching smoke, today we could probably, apart from the haze of vehicle emissions , see almost to the Irish Sea. We also know that Cicely Wainwright’s’s body would not be the last to be abandoned in the cottongrass, heather and bilberry of the Dark Peak.

CriFi buffs know that fictional Detective Inspectors are meant to have disfunctional personal lives. Few and far between are happy family men and women with faithful and understanding spouses who understand and compensate for the rigours of police work. Intriguingly, it is Martineau’s wife who is, at least initially, the guilty party. She is vain, socially over-conscious and, perhaps, sexually repressed.

“Julia Martineau was not unfaithful and it was impossible to suspect that she ever would be. She was only interested in fine clothes, social standing, attractive houses, and the affairs of her acquaintances. The connubial behaviour of other people (as a topic of scandalous conversation) was of more interest to her than her own or her husband’s. She was rarely aroused. The conjugal act was sometimes a duty, sometimes a favour to be granted, and always a ceremony which she allowed to be performed after it had been suitably prayed for. Lately, Martineau had ceased to pray.”

There are few happy marriages or standard relationships in Hell Is A City. Gus Hawkins has a young wife is a libidinous and money-grabbing charmer who has history with the dangerous Starling. Martineau’s driver and gofer, DC Devery, has a loving but precarious relationship with the beautiful Silver, who is a deaf mute. By the by, your Starter For Ten: which legendary fictional policeman is married to a beautiful deaf mute? No prizes, but that detective operates a long, long way from Manchester.

It would be pretentious and anachronistic to push this novel into the category box labelled Noir. That said, its low-key realism and unflinching depictions of the criminal class not only reflects Procter’s time with the police service but a reveal a gift for brevity and the essentials of story-telling which mark him out as a natural author, untaught but with an acute ear for dialogue and a genuine sense of the rough edges and frailties of human lives where unfulfilled aspirations nag away at happiness.

Murder Room do a budget-printed paperback of Hell Is A City, and second-hand editions are also available if you are prepared to splash the cash. The novel was made into a film, starring Stanley Baker as Martineau, and I will write about that in a later post.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The CALLAN novels of James Mitchell (part 2)

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James Mitchell (1926 -2002) held a number of jobs, including actor, teacher and journalist, before his first novel was published in the mid ‘fifties. Between 1964 and 1969 (as James Munro)  he wrote four well-received thrillers featuring “John Craig of Department K, British Secret Service, whose activities involve jobs too dangerous – or too dirty – for anyone else to handle.”.  It’s unsurprising that Mitchell would wish to adapt a Craig-like character for a television audience.

Death and Bright Water (1974)

DABWThere had been big changes since the last novel appeared a year earlier. The tv series had finished and Callan had transferred to the cinema in a moderately successful feature film (apparently the first to utilise Dolby sound).  It seems that James Mitchell saw Callan’s future as on the big screen. The plots of this novel and the next one reflect that change.

The story begins with Callan once more out of the Section and this time working with a road building gang. He is approached, via the KGB, to rescue an important Greek communist’s daughter from house arrest on Crete. Callan turns down the job, but is persuaded to take it after some pressure from the Section.  A crack squad is assembled, but it’s soon clear that some team members have plans of their own.

 While Hunter and the Section play a much smaller role than before, Lonely, however, was far too valuable a character to omit; and so he is brought along to assist in the inevitable house-breaking that will be required for the Crete stronghold.

The story moves along at a cracking pace, but James Mitchell has moved into 1970s international thriller territory, and this involves exotic locales (well, Crete) and a certain amount of travelogue writing.

Smear Job (1975)

Smear JobBy now Callan (and Lonely) are more or less free agents, pursuing lucrative careers in the world of personal security. The Section exists only to tie them, and potential readers, to the TV series.

From the blurb:

“There were two little tasks which Callan had to carry out for Hunter; he had to make sure that Gunther Kleist lost a very large sum of money at cards, and he had to steal a book from Lord Hexham’s library, a paperback edition of Mein Kampf….but that was only the start, an appetiser to a plot of diabolical complexity weaved by Hunter; a plot that was to take Callan from Sicily to Las Vegas, then on to Mexico, with death waiting at every turn.”

We have come a long way from the swinging light bulb of seven years ago….perhaps too far. This was to be the last Callan novel for twenty-seven years. It’s not hard to see why; the TV series was over and with it the loyal army of viewers and readers. I don’t how the sales compared with the earlier novels, but I don’t think that either this book or Death and Bright Water ran to more than a single printing in paperback. James Mitchell and his publishers might well have concluded that, commercially at least, Callan had run his course…

In any event, James Mitchell turned his attention back to screen-writing (When the Boat Comes In) and to a three book series in the mid 1980s featuring reluctant adventurer Ron Hoggett, and his minder Dave – “ex-student, ex-paratrooper, ex drop-out”.

To summarise – James Mitchell was incapable of writing a dull book and the last two novels are fast moving adventure thrillers. Seen from the present day they perhaps don’t capture the authentic atmosphere of the TV series in the way that the first two novels do. But all four books remain very readable.

Bonfire Night (2002)

Bonfire NightWritten when James Mitchell was old and unwell, and published a  year before his death, this is something of a curio. Callan has been free of the Section for at least a decade, and in that time he and Lonely have made vast fortunes in the electronics business. This at least follows on from the conclusion of the previous novel, when Callan and Lonely were establishing something  of a living outside the Section.  But the plot, which need not detain us here, is difficult to credit when it’s not merely confusing.   The book is not without its moments, but is for Callan completists only.

 

 

Stuart Radmore, April 2019

The first part of Stuart’s account of the Callan novels is here.

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The CALLAN novels of James Mitchell (part 1)

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James Mitchell (1926 -2002)
held a number of jobs, including actor, teacher and journalist, before his first novel was published in the mid ‘fifties. Between 1964 and 1969 (as James Munro)  he wrote four well-received thrillers featuring “John Craig of Department K, British Secret Service, whose activities involve jobs too dangerous – or too dirty – for anyone else to handle.”.  It’s unsurprising that Mitchell would wish to adapt a Craig-like character for a television audience.

A Magnum for Schneider (1969)

Mitchell_Callan_SchneiderThe first Callan novel, and perhaps the locus classicus of all Callan plots, on page and screen:  A disillusioned Callan has left the Section  and is living and working in reduced circumstances, until “persuaded” by Hunter to return and carry out one more job. The target is Herr Schneider who, once Callan knows more of him, doesn’t seem to be as black as he’s painted…
James Mitchell certainly put this plot to good use. It began life as a one-off episode of Armchair Theatre (1967), which in turn led to the making of the first Callan television series, later that year.
Now, in 1969, it formed the basis of the first Callan novel. This is no quick cash-in book on the back of a TV success.  Considerably expanded from the tv play, the novel has greater depth and characterisation, and it benefits for being less studio bound.
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A paperback edition followed in 1971
, re-titled Red File for Callan.  This was much reprinted, as by now the TV series, with the massive assistance of Edward Woodward in the title role, had hit its stride.
Then in 1974, after the TV series had ended, there was a feature film. Once more, the same plot and characters were used, but the film (perhaps for copyright reasons) relied more on the novel than on the Armchair Theatre script. This time the movie tie-in paperback was simply re-titled Callan. If there’s ever a Callan: Rebooted, this is the plot they’ll return to.
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Russian Roulette (1973)

RRAlthough published in 1973 this book makes no reference to the events of high drama with which the final TV series concluded a year earlier. Here, Callan is still settled in the Section and all the supporting characters are in place.
The premise, it must be said, is preposterous.  The KGB have captured the Section’s top man in Russia.  They will return him unharmed if Hunter allows three of their operatives to come to London and attempt to kill Callan, who is to be denied any weapons. Hunter agrees. And the Russians have a big dog. Oh, and Callan’s eyes are playing up; he must attend a doctor’s for drops every few days while awaiting an operation to save his sight.
However, because of the quality of the writing, disbelief is soon suspended.    Relatively short, at 200 pages, all the action is splendidly economical and convincing.    This is a first class thriller and James Mitchell deservedly received his best reviews for this book.
The story ends with Callan and Lonely toasting each other’s survival, and with Callan vowing never to return to work for the Section….

© Stuart Radmore 2019. To be concluded

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . .The Nine Tailors

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I’ll start by being mildly controversial; I have been reading crime fiction for sixty years, and I can’t think of another novel which has such a complex plot. Another masterpiece, Chandler’s The Big Sleep certainly has its moments (after all, who did kill the chauffeur?) but even having read The Nine Tailors more than once I would still struggle to write a concise bluffers’ guide to exactly what happens from memory alone. This is neither criticism nor praise; it simply is what it is.

dorothy-l-sayers-grangerLet’s look at a few relatively simple background facts, and I apologise to fans of the author for whom this may be tedious. Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893 – 1957) was a notable English writer, poet, classical scholar and dramatist. She introduced the aristocratic private detective Lord Peter Wimsey in her 1923 novel, Whose Body? and by the time The Nine Tailors was published in 1934, Wimsey and his imperturbable manservant Bunter were well established.

The story begins in the depth of the English winter.

“That’s torn it! said Lord Peter Wimsey.
The car lay, helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch, her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank, as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth, and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifted snow……right and left, before and behind, the fen lay shrouded. It was past four o’clock and New Year’s Eve; the snow that had fallen all day gave back a glimmering greyness to a sky like lead.”


Their journey through the Cambridgeshire fens rudely interrupted, Wimsey and Bunter seek help from the nearby village of Fenchurch St Paul. With this simplest of literary devices, Sayers gives Wimsey a perfect excuse to stay overnight, courtesy of the amiable vicar; one of Wimsey’s many skills is bell-ringing and so he joins the church team in their traditional New Year peal, thus embedding him in a labrinthine set of circumstances involving robbery, missing jewels, coded messages, bigamy, deception and murder.

The Nine Tailors are not people, but the ancient bells hanging in the church tower, and Sayers endows them with mystical significance both to the readers of the novel, and to the people in Fenchurch St Paul. Her father was a clergyman, but Sayers later claimed to have had no particular previous knowledge of the arcane lore of church bells. The novel is, however, shot through with references to the bewildering mathematics involved in change ringing. Too much so, for some critics: HRF Keating wrote that Sayers had;

“incautiously entered the closed world of bell-ringing in The Nine Tailors on the strength of a sixpenny pamphlet picked up by chance.”

I am not sure if a book over eighty years old can be subject to plot spoilers, but suffice it to say that, among the several criminals features in the story, the bells do not escape without blame.

So, why is it such a good book, always in print, and often dramatised on screen? Wimsey himself, although deprecatingly described by his creator as a mixture of Bertie Wooster and Fred Astaire, is perhaps the greatest of the gentleman detectives of The Golden Age. He does not patronise the rougher folk of Fenchurch St Paul; he wears his breeding and education lightly and, like Kipling’s ideal man, he can talk with crowds and keep his virtue, and walk with Kings without losing the common touch. Wimsey is a hero of the Great War; this much we know from earlier novels, although his history is alluded to with some subtlety in The Nine Tailors. He has seen the best and worst of men, survived shell shock, and felt the bond between fighting men that transcends class barriers. Sayers was acutely aware of the fact that the horrors of 1914 – 18 pursued men long after the guns fell silent, and incidents in the war play a significant part in the story of The Nine Tailors.

Sayers gives landscape a greater significance in The Nine Tailors than in any of her other books. She was no stranger to Fenland. Her father was rector of Bluntisham, a prosperous village on the edge of the fens, and if you walk in its churchyard, you will see several surnames borrowed and given to characters in The Nine Tailors. The Rev. Henry Sayers later moved to the much more modest parish of Christchurch, slap dab in the middle of the Cambridgeshire fens. Incidentally, that fine writer Jim Kelly happily admits his admiration for Sayers, and set his own novel The Funeral Owl in Christchurch, which he renames Brimstone Hill.

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What can the literary traveler find in today’s Cambridgeshire? The fictional Fenland in The Nine Tailors features everything the actual Fenland does. It has drainage rivers named after their width such as The Thirty Foot, back roads called Droves, and clusters of villages with the same name, but modified by the patron saints of their respective churches. Just as she gives us Fenchurch St Paul and Fenchurch St Peter, in real life we have Terrington St Clement, Terrington St John, Wiggenhall St Peter and Wiggenhall St Mary. Sayers takes all the familiar topographical features of the Fens and rearranges them into an authentic but original pattern.

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She also teases us with her place names. When we think we have matched Van Leyden’s Sluice with Denver, she confounds us by mentioning that Denver Sluice is much bigger. When you feel certain that Leamholt must be one of the bigger towns such as King’s Lynn, she introduces the actual King’s Lynn in a passing reference.

Here in the Fens, we love our skies and churches
while treating with respect the long, arrow-straight, deep black drains which keep our feet dry. Given that large parts of the fens are only inches above sea level we still have cause to fear tidal surges down the Great Ouse and the Nene. No author has ever rivaled Sayers in describing with such power the sheer devastation that the angry waters can bring. Having narrowly escaped death by the bells, Wimsey claws his way to the relative safety of the top of St Paul’s church tower, and looks out on a drowned land:

“The whole world was lost now in one vast sheet of water. He hauled himself to his feet and gazed out from horizon to horizon. To the south-west, St Stephen’s tower still brooded over a dark platform of land, like a broken mast upon a sinking ship. Every house in the village was lit up: St Stephen was riding out the storm. Westward, the thin line of the railway embankment stretched away to Little Dykesey, unvanquished as yet, but perilously besieged. Due south, Fenchurch St Peter, roofs and spire etched black against the silver, was the centre of a great mere. Close beneath the tower, the village of St Paul lay abandoned, waiting for its fate … outward and eastward the gold cock on the weathervane stared and strained, fronting the danger, held to his watch by the relentless pressure of the wind from off The Wash. Somewhere amid that still surge of water, the broken bodies of Will Thoday and his mate drifted and tumbled with the wreckage of farm and field. The Fen had reclaimed its own.”

Read the novel. Absorb the period details and accept the leisurely pace. Hold on firmly to Wimsey’s great sense of compassion and humanity. Wonder at the language and allow yourself a thankful shudder that you are safe at home, dry and warm. I can’t think of a more gripping description of a watery hell, unless it lies in the words of Herman Melville’s Ishmael, clinging to his wooden spar at the end of Moby Dick:

“…his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it. Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its watery sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES … Skin Deep by Peter Dickinson

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In June 1968 USA publishers Harper & Row released a book titled The Glass Sided Ants’ Nest. The novel, by Peter Malcolm de Brissac Dickinson, aka Peter Dickinson, was simultaneously published in Britain by Hodder & Stoughton as Skin Deep and won a CWA Gold Dagger in that year. Both titles are still available

dickinson_3529483kIncidentally, I don’t think there are many Old Etonian authors around these days, but Dickinson (left) was there from 1941 to 1946, and it is tempting to wonder if he ever rubbed shoulders in those years with another Eton scholar by the name of Robert William Arthur Cook, better known to us as the Godfather of English Noir Derek Raymond, who was there from 1944 until 1948.

Skin Deep introduces us to London copper, Superintendent Jimmy Pibble, who was to feature in several subsequent mysteries. Already, Dickinson sets out his stall. Writers more ready to twang the purse strings of the book buying public might name their hero something more suggestive of intrigue and danger, like Jack Powers, Max Stead, Dan Ruger, Will Stark or Tom Caine. But Jimmy Pibble? He sounds more like a walk-on player in a Carry On film. But this, we soon learn, is Dickinson’s little joke, perhaps at the expense of lesser writers or less demanding readers. Pibble is highly intelligent, sensitive, but no-one’s pushover and, despite several bitterly ironic turns of events, nothing in the story is played for laughs.

The stage set of Skin Deep is brilliantly bizarre. Even the modern maestro of wonderfully eccentric plots, the Right Honorable Member for King’s Cross, Mr Christopher Fowler, might have baulked at this one. In a sturdily-built but nondescript London suburb, Flagg Terrace, live the exiled sole survivors of an ancient New Guinean tribe, the Kus. They survived a massacre by Japanese invaders in 1943 and have relocated to London. These folk, some crippled by genetic ailments, have transformed their home into a strange replica of their home village. The men lead separate lives from the women, and they practice a religion which is a perplexing blend of missionary Christianity and their native beliefs. Flagg Terrace has not been gentrifird:

“The tide of money had washed around it. The hordes of conquering young executives, sweeping down like Visigoths from the east and driving the cowering and sullen aboriginals into the remoter slums of Acton, had left it alone. Neither taste nor wealth could assail its inherent dreadfulness.”

When Aaron, the leader of the Ku folk, is found dead, battered to death with a carved wooden owl, Pibble is given the task of discovering the killer. He is clearly regarded by his more conventional superiors as a good copper, but something of an oddball, and someone to be kept as away as possible from high profile cases.

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To say that the Kus are an odd lot is an understatement. Among the residents are Dr Eve Ku, a distinguished anthropologist. She is married to Paul Ku, but she can only be referred to as ‘he’ due to her countryfolk’s distinctive take on gender politics. Robin Ku is, on the one hand a rather clever teenager who has an alter-ego as a Ku drummer, beating the traditional slit drums as an accompaniment to sexually charged tribal rituals. Add into the mix Bob Caine, a neighbour of the Ku’s. He is what John Betjeman called “a thumping great crook”, but he is a sinister fraudster who was not only implicated in the Japanese destruction of the Ku people, but has serious connections to organised crime in the here-and-now.

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Skin Deep is a wonderful example of literary crime fiction in which the author doesn’t write down to his audience, but skillfully uses language to evoke mood, ambience and atmosphere. Dickinson’s ear for dialogue is attuned to the slightest inflection so that we instantly know how is talking, without the need for clumsy prompts. Jimmy Pibble is a delightful character with a gentle streak of misanthropy in his soul. His idea of a good pub is:

“…a back street nook kept by a silent old man who lived for the quality of his draught beer. It would be empty when Pibble used it, save for two genial dotards playing dominoes.”

Pibble’s view of the policeman’s lot is similarly sanguine:

“That was the whole trouble with police work. You come plunging in, a jagged Stone Age knife, to probe the delicate tissues of people’s relationships, and of course you destroy far more than you discover. And even what you discover will never be the same as it was before you came; the nubbly scars of your passage will remain.”

Don’t be misled into thinking that there is anything remotely Golden Age or cosy about this book. It is often darkly reflective, and Aaron’s killer is both unmasked and punished in one tragic moment of unfortunate misjudgment by Jimmy Pibble. There were to be five more novels featuring the distinctive detective:

A Pride of Heroes (1969); US: The Old English Peep-Show
The Seals
(1970); US: The Sinful Stones
Sleep and His Brother
(1971)
The Lizard in the Cup (1972)
One Foot in the Grave (1979)

Peter Dickinson was also a successful and widely admired author of children’s books. He died in 2015 at the age of 88. Click the link to read an obituary.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES … The Burden of Proof by James Barlow

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James BarlowJames Barlow was a Birmingham-born novelist who served as an air gunner with the RAF in WWII. Invalided out of service when he contracted tuberculosis, he faced a long convalescence. He began writing at this time, and after he worked in his native city as, of all things, a water rates inspector, he made the decision to write for a living. His first novel, The Protagonists, was published in 1956, but made little impact. It wasn’t until Term of Trial (1961) that he began to make a decent living from writing, and then more because film director Peter Glenville saw the cinematic potential in the story of an alcoholic school teacher whose career is threatened when he is accused of improper behaviour with a female pupil. The subsequent film had a star-studded cast including Sir Laurence Olivier, Simone Signoret, Sarah Miles, Terence Stamp, Hugh Griffith, Dudley Foster, Thora Hird and Alan Cuthbertson.

TERMOFTRIALTerm of Trial was a powerful and controversial film, but clearly had nothing to do with crime fiction. Barlow’s 1968 novel The Burden of Proof was another matter. By the time it was published, the Kray twins’ days as despotic rulers of London’s gangland were numbered. They were arrested on 8th May in that year and the rest, as they say, is history. The Burden of Proof is centred on a Ronnie Kray-style gangster, Vic Dakin. Dakin is psychotic homosexual, devoted equally to his dear old mum and a succession of pliant boyfriends, while finding time to be at the hub of a violent criminal network.

The cast of the subsequent film version of The Burden of Proof was similarly stellar to that of Term of Trial. Villain (1971) starred none other than Richard Burton, Ian McShane, Nigel Davenport, Joss Ackland, Donald Sinden and T.P, McKenna.

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Barlow seems to have been a fairly misanthropic fellow who raged at what he believed was a gathering darkness afflicting an England that he once loved. A year after The Burden of Proof was published he decided he’d had enough, and decided to relocate to a place to which many Englishmen of a previous generation were sent as a punishment – Van Diemen’s Land, latterly rebranded as Tasmania. Barlow’s departure was accompanied by a fanfare of his own devising, a rancorous demolition job on what he saw as a corrupted and increasingly shallow country – Goodbye England (1969)

Much of Barlow’s intense disgust at what was happening around him spills out onto the pages of The Burden of Proof. The crime plot centres on Dakin’s plan to pull off a lucrative wages heist, but this almost becomes secondary to Barlow’s polemic about his homeland being reduced to what he saw as an obscene freak show where morality and integrity were turned on their heads in favour of a mindless and debased popular culture. Re-reading the novel exactly half a century after it was published, I am astonished by how contemporary his words sound. They could be put in the mouths of many modern alt-right commentators. Given access to today’s social media he would rage like an Old Testament prophet and, just like his modern counterparts, he would enrage and delight in equal measure.

Barlow on Speakers’ Corner and the how the statuary of London acts as a metaphor:

“The small indifferent crowds hung around the rostrums on Sundays, laughing at the remnants of free speech. The pigeons excreted as they stood on the heads of statues of forgotten men of a time despised now by the liberals who knew better …”

1960s London is portrayed in the bleakest of descriptions:

“London was tired, seedy, cunning, ugly, here and there beautiful. In 1914 it had been at its most powerful; in 1940 at its most heroic. Now, in the 1960s, it was impotent and had the principles and self-importance of an old queer.”

As I read Barlow’s cri de cœur about what he clearly saw as the triumph of the metropolitan elite, I might have been something by Rod Liddle in one of his recent rants in The Spectator or The Sunday Times;

“Nobody could do anything now without being accountable to the scorn of the liberal intellectuals in print or on television. England was too articulate at the top. Nobody, even in a Socialist liberal permissive society, had the slightest notion of the wishes of the people, out there beyond the great conversational shop of London.”

8317246In the city which is portrayed as little more than a moral sewer, we have the vile Dakin and his criminal associates; we have an earnest and incorruptible copper, Bob Matthews who Barlow sets up – along with Bob’s mild-mannered and decent wife Mary – as the apotheosis of what England used to be before the plague took hold. We have Gerald Draycott, a dishonest and manipulative MP who flirts with the dangerous world of gambling clubs, casinos, girls-for-hire and drugs-for-sale, but still dreams of becoming a cabinet minister.

Back to the crime story. Dakin’s attempted wage-snatch, described in terrifying detail, does not go according to plan, but such is the depth, ferocity and intensity of the man’s evil, that there are casualties a-plenty beforte he gets his come-uppance. There is also a terrible incident, unconnected and not criminal by intent but more a result of negligence, which is described in horrific detail and left me dry-mouthed with a mixture of pity and shock. Of the people, volunteers, who help with the consequences of the disaster, Barlow says;

“They came when England and London needed them, and sank back into obscurity afterwards while the more important people postured before cameras with their guitars or explained the need to hate Rhodesians, or Arabs, or Israelis, or Americans…”

Nothing else I have read by Barlow comes close to The Burden of Proof in terms of its rage, its disgust and the sheer firepower of words when used by someone who believes he is on a mission. You may be appalled, you may be left thanking whoever you believe in that we live in more ‘enlightened’ times, but if you read this bitter and brilliant novel and don’t experience an emotional jolt then you may well be in a permanent vegetative state.

For a more recent slant on the real life connection between Ronnie Kray and powerful political figures in the 1960s, take a look at Simon Michael’s novel Corrupted.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . PB Yuill and Hazell

Yuill1Something we do all too rarely on Fully Booked, mea culpa, is to feature articles and reviews by guest writers. I am delighted that an old mate of mine, Stuart Radmore (we go back to the then-down-at-heel Melbourne suburbs of Carlton and Parkville in the 1970s, where he was a law student and I was teaching art at Wesley College) has written this feature on a writer who, as an individual, never actually existed. Stuart’s knowledge of crime fiction is immense, and so I will let him take up the story.

P.B Yuill was the transparent alias of Gordon Williams and Terry Venables, who in the early to mid 1970s wrote a number of novels together. Gordon Williams (1934-2017) and pictured below, started out as a straight novelist, but over time would turn his hand to almost anything literary – thrillers, SF screenplays, even ghosted footballer’s memoirs. Terry Venables (b. 1943) was at this time described as “top football star already worth over £150,000 in transfer fees”.

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Yuill3Their first joint outing (published under their own names) was They Used To Play On Grass (1971).   Described, not incorrectly, on the paperback cover as “the greatest soccer novel ever”, it’s still an enjoyable read, with each man’s contribution being pretty obvious.

Next up was The Bornless Keeper (1974), published under the name of PB Yuill.   A credible horror/thriller, set in modern times.

“Peacock Island lies just off the English south coast. But it could belong to an earlier century; its secret overgrown coverts, its strange historic legends are maintained and hidden by the rich old lady who lives there as a recluse.”.  

If the tale now seems overfamiliar – the moody locals, the over-inquisitive visiting film crew, the one person who won’t be told not to go out alone – it’s partly because these elements, perhaps corny even then, have been over-used in too many slasher movies since. Although credited to P.B Yuill, the setting and theme of the novel reads as the work of Gordon Williams alone

Now to Hazell. There are three Hazell novels, published by Macmillan in 1974, ’75 and ’76 – Hazell Plays Solomon, Hazell and the Three Card Trick, and Hazell and the Menacing Jester.

The premise of the first novel is original; James Hazell, ex-copper and self-described “biggest bastard who ever pushed your bell button” is hired by a London woman, now wealthy and living in the US, to confirm her suspicion that her child was switched for another shortly after its birth in an East London maternity hospital.   Clearly, there can be no happy ending to such enquiries, and the story leads to dark places and deep secrets.

The next two novels are a little lighter in tone, but still deal with the grittier side of London life.   In Three Card Trick a man has apparently suicided by jumping in front of a Tube train.   His widow doesn’t accept this – there is the insurance to consider – and hires Hazell to prove her right.

In Menacing Jester we are on slightly more familiar PI ground; a millionaire and his wife are apparently the victims of a practical joker. Or is there something more sinister behind it?

All three novels contain plenty of sex, violence and local colour – card sharps, clip joint hostesses, Soho drinking dens – and the authors were clearly familiar with the more picturesque aspects of the London underworld and portray these with energy and humour. Readers looking for evidence of the “casual racism/sexism/whatever” of the 1970s will not come away empty-handed.

terry-venables-bannerThe authors were keen to develop the Hazell character into a possible TV series, and the later two books seem to be written with this in mind. This duly came to pass, via Thames Television, and the first series was broadcast in 1978, starring Nicholas Ball as a youthful James Hazell.   Gordon Williams, with Venables (right) and other writers, was responsible for a number of the episodes (including ‘Hazell Plays Solomon’), and it remains a very watchable series. The second, and final, series broadcast in 1979/80 was not so successful. The hardness was gone, Hazell and Inspector ‘Choc’ Minty had become something of a double act and, while not outright comedy, it came close at times.   It’s not surprising to learn that Leon Griffiths, one of the second series screenwriters, went on to create and develop the very successful series Minder later that year.

And that was about it. But there was to be a last hurrah for Hazell in print. Two Hazell annuals, “based on the popular television series”, appeared in 1978 and 1979. The tales in these books are surprisingly tough, bearing in mind the intended teenage readership.   Hazell’s adventures are told via short stories and comic strips, and include strong-ish violence, blackmail and other criminality.   While the contribution of “P. B Yuill” was probably nil, the stories are true to the feel of the first series of the TV programme.

Annuals

To conclude: English fictional private eyes are a rare breed, and fewer still can claim to have begun as a literary, rather than television, creation. Hazell is among the best of these. The three novels rightly remain in print, and are eminently readable.

There is a postscript. There was one last appearance of P.B Yuill.   In early 1981 ‘Arena’, a BBC2 documentary series, devoted a programme to the attempts of Williams and Venables to write a new Hazell adventure – tentatively entitled ‘Hazell and the Floating Voter’ – and it featured such worthies as John Bindon and Michael Elphick playing the part of Hazell. It’s never been broadcast since, and while it was pleasing to see the authors discussing the character of Hazell, in retrospect the programme seems like an excuse for a few days’ drinking on licence-payers’ money.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . A Hive of Glass by PM Hubbard

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Hubbard-Hive-GlassI have a close friend who keeps himself fit by walking London suburbs searching charity shops for rare – and sometimes valuable – crime novels. On one particular occasion he was spectacularly successful with a rare John le Carré first edition, but he is ever alert to particular fads and enthusiasms of mine. Since I “discovered” PM Hubbard, thanks to a tip-off from none other than Phil Rickman, my friend has been on the lookout for for anything by this English writer (1910 – 1980) and his latest find, A Hive of Glass is a Panther Crimeband paperback, published in 1966. This was a year after Michael Joseph published the first edition (left), and Hubbard fans could have bought the paperback for the princely sum of 3s/6d (about 16.5p in modern money).

In his best works Hubbard gives us an ostensibly benevolent rural England; small towns, pretty villages, ancient woodlands, the warm stone of village churches and old parkland (always with a time-weathered manor or house at its centre). This England, however, invariably has something menacing going on behind the façade. Not simply, it must be said, in a cosy Midsomer Murders fashion, but in a much more disturbing way. Hubbard doesn’t engage with the overtly supernatural, but he teases us with suggestions that there might – just might – be something going on, an uneasy sense of what Hamlet was referring to in his celebrated remark to Horatio in Hamlet (1.5.167-8)

In A Hive of Glass, a gentleman of undisclosed means, Jonnie Slade, pursues his lifelong interest in antique glassware. He is an auctioneers’ and dealer’ worst nightmare, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of styles, techniques – and market value. He becomes aware of an important piece of sixteenth century glass – to the uninitiated, not much more than a glass saucer – whose provenance includes the crucial involvement of none other than Gloriana herself. Looking to find more information on the tazza, made by the legendary Giacomo Verzelini, he visits an elderly man whose knowledge of the period is legendary, only to find him dead in his study. With only a couple of amateurish photographs and a diary entry to guide him, Slade drives out of London to the remote village of Dunfleet.

In Dunfleet he meets a young woman called Claudia. Their erotically charged relationship is central to the story, as is the fact that she is the niece of Elizabeth Barton, the elderly woman in whose house the tazza is hidden. Even to himself, Slade’s motives are unclear. Does he want to steal the tazza? Does he just want to confirm its location? Does he suspect Claudia of attempting to defraud her aunt?

hubbard1Seldom, however, can a treasure have been protected by two more menacing guardians in Aunt Elizabeth and her maid-of-all-work Coster. Remember Blind Pew, one of the more terrifying villains of literature? Remember Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and the decades that it was hidden from sight? With a freedom that simply would not escape the censor today, Hubbard (right) taps into our visceral fear of abnormality and disability. Hubbard has created two terrifying women and a dog which is makes Conan Doyles celebrated hound Best In Show. The dog first:

“It was pinky-white all over and looked quite naked and scrofulous. Even from sideways its eyes were almost invisible behind puckered pink lids. It waddled and wheezed like a fat dog, but you could see most of the bones under the hanging skin. Its smell went past me as it it walked.”

Attached to the vile animal is blind Aunt Elizabeth:

“On the end of the lead came a long black glove and behind it Claudia’s Aunt Elizabeth. I had no idea, seeing her through a curtained window like that, how tall she was. She must have been all of six foot and her elaborately coiled hair put as much on her height as a policeman’s helmet…Her feet were as big as the rest of her. The skin was grey but clear and glossy and her smile, as she passed me, came back almost under her ear.”

Aunt Elizabeth’s maid, Coster, is equally terrifying. She is stone deaf, huge, and mutters to herself in a constant high-pitched monotone:

“She was a tall soldierly woman, with a frame much too big for that little thin, continuous voice. She wore a bunchy black skirt with a long apron over it and some sort of blue and white blouse over her great square top half. As it was, I could hear a continuous stream of sound, inflected and articulated like speech, but defying my analysis.:

I would have turned tail and ran as far from this trio of horrors as fast as my legs could carry me, but Slade is made of sterner stuff, and he stays to discover the hiding place of the Verzelini tazza, but not without considerable cost to his own sanity and sense of well-being.

A Hive of Glass is available as a Murder Room reprint, or you can search charity shops for an original version. For more on PM Hubbard and his novels, follow this link.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The Best of Winter’s Crimes

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MR BULMER’S GOLDEN CARP by John Bingham (1971)

Author John Bingham, the 7th Baron ClanmorrisMr Bulmer is a uniquely repulsive little man who manages a dry cleaning shop in Mayfair, and uses the opportunity of searching through the jackets and trouser pockets of wealthy individuals to service his own very profitable blackmail industry. His malignant little sideline has provided him with a regular income – and driven at least one of his victims to suicide. When he seizes upon what he sees as the opportunity of a lifetime, he is unaware that is about to be snared by his own hook. John Bingham, in addition to being a writer of distinction, was also a highly placed official in British Intelligence operations.

WE KNOW YOU’RE BUSY WRITING… by Edmund Crispin (1969)

crispinCrispin, aka Robert Bruce Montgomery, is best known for his Gervase Fen novels but here he spins a delightfully black tale of a struggling writer whose hospitality is impinged upon by a pair of runaways, both seeking a new life away from their spouses. Crispin intersperses the narrative with vivid accounts of a writer desperately searching for the words which will bring his latest novel to life. Sadly for the would-be lovers, their fate is to be organic fertiliser for Mr Bradley’s vegetable plot.

INDIAN ROPE TRICK by Lionel Davidson (1981)

DavidsonDavidson’s internationally themed thrillers were his bread and butter, but we must not forget that he was a writer of immense sensitivity with a wide range of influences. His own upbringing as a child of a hard-scrabble Polish-Jewish family might have made it unlikely that he would compose a chilling tale of murder on the banks of s Scottish river frequented only by rich Englishmen with the money to buy the rights to snare incoming salmon. A man whose sexual abilities have been devastated by a potentially fatal illness plans revenge on a friend whose libido remains undiminished. The denouement takes place on the banks of Scotland’s sacred salmon river – the Spey.

AT THE LULU-BAR MOTEL by Colin Dexter (1981)

DexterColin Dexter? Cue Oxford, an irascible senior policeman, pints of English beer and crossword puzzles? Think on. When this story was published, Dexter was already four books into his Inspector Morse series, but the TV adaptations were still six years away. In this tale, Dexter takes us to, of all places, rural America, where a coach load of middle-aged and elderly tourists take a rest stop at the eponymous wayside hotel. The action is centred around a game of vingt-et-un, designed to empty the wallets of the gullible travellers. Dexter describes a scam-within-a -scam -but saves until the last few paragraphs a chilling finale in which the scammer becomes the scammed.

DEATH OF AN OLD DOG by Antonia Fraser (1978)

FRaserPeople might forget that Antonia Fraser, as well as being the daughter of Lord Longford the widow of Harold Pinter and a superb historical biographer, is no slouch when it comes to crime fiction. Here, she taps into that strange love affair that English people have with their dogs. Richard Gavin is a successful barrister (is there ever another sort?) who has kept his upper lip stiff and tremble-free during the death of his first wife, and remarried. The new lady of the Gavin household is Paulina – young. bright and adorable. Her judgment, however is brought into question, when her decision to put an aged, smelly and incontinent spaniel out of its misery coincides with Richard opening an ominous letter from his London doctor.

THOSE AWFUL DAWNS by Patricia Highsmith (1977)

HighsmithThis is the most shocking and slap-in-the-face story in the collection. I would go as far as to suggest that it would not have been written – let alone published – today, with our heightened awareness of child abuse and domestic violence. As an account of casual violence, domestic cruelty, alcohol abuse – and the pervasive power of the Roman Catholic church – it makes for uncomfortable reading. Highsmith’s misanthropy can never have been more glaringly or honestly displayed. her publisher wrote:
“She was a mean, cruel, hard, unlovable, unloving human being…I could never penetrate how any human being could be that relentlessly ugly…. But her books? Brilliant.”
Otto Penzler was right, and his verdict resonates in every single sentence of this account of the misfortunes of Eddie, Laura – and their children.

MARY by PM Hubbard (1971)

hubbard1Like Hubbard’s longer works, which are examined in this feature, a dream-like quality pervades this story, but the dreams are not necessarily pleasant ones. The first words are:
“The nastiest house I have ever been in was the Margesons’ house at Marlowe.”
Bill, the narrator is referring to the style and decor, rather than anything more sinister, but the darkness is about to descend. The lawn stretches down to the river and one day when Bill is sitting outside with Gerald and Janet Margeson, a waif-like teenage girl dressed only in a swimming costume walks up the path from the river. The girl, Mary, has thus invited herself into the otherwise humdrum world of the Margesons, and so  begins a subtly erotic tale of obsession, betrayal and, ultimately, murder.

THE GIRL WHO LOVED GRAVEYARDS by PD James (1983)

PD JamesThis exquisite masterpiece tells of a nameless girl, an orphan, who is brought up in a loveless terraced house in east London, the home of her Uncle Victor and Aunt Gladys. Her only joy is the adjacent cemetery which becomes a place of mystical and endless attraction:
“Even the seasons of the year she experienced in and through the cemetery. The gold and purple spears of the first crocuses thrusting through the hard earth. April with its tossing daffodils. The whole graveyard en fête in yellow and white as mourners dressed the graves for Easter. The smell of mown grass and the earthy tang of high summer as if the dead were breathing the flower-scented air and exuding their own mysterious miasma. Seeing the cemetery transformed by the first snows of winter, the marble angels grotesque in their high bonnets of glistening snow.”
Amid the poetry, however, James does not lose sight of the fact that we readers are in search of shocks and sensation. When the girl becomes a young woman, and is determined to find the grave of her dead father, we sense that her quest will end in tears. And so, in a drab suburb of Nottingham, so it does – but not quite in the manner which we have been led to expect

The Best Of Winter’s Crimes 1 has long been out of print, but as it was meant for mass circulation there are plenty of second-hand copies available from dealers such as Abe Books for less than the price of a pint.

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