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HAMMER TO FALL . . .Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

For more about John Lawton click this link

THE MOLTEN CITY . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE EVIL WITHIN . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

Click on the image below for a short but spooky video

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THE BOY FROM THE WOODS . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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KEEP HIM CLOSE . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SECOND WIFE . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

THE NIGHT RAIDS . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOR MORE ON JIM KELLY CLICK THIS LINK

BLOOD WILL BE BORN . . . Between the covers

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GDBelfast and its grim sectarian past is the epitome of noir. But, sadly, it is a non-fiction noir, as real events over the past fifty years or so would have been dismissed as preposterous had they been penned by a novelist. Such novelists would have to be writing historical fiction, though – wouldn’t they? Surely the momentous events of the spring of 1998 signaled a slow but irrevocable process of healing across the province? Gary Donnelly (left) has written a blistering debut novel Blood Will Be Born which says otherwise.

DCI Owen Sheen is a London copper born and brought up in the Sailorstown district of Belfast. His childhood was brutalised when an IRA car bomb devastated the street where he and his brother were playing. He survived, but his brother did not. Now, decades later, he has been seconded to work with the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland assisting their historic crimes unit. He has a hidden agenda, though, and it is to track down the people who set the bomb which killed his brother.

His Belfast minder is to be DC Aoifa McCusker, an ambitious and headstrong young officer widely distrusted by her male colleagues. Even before Sheen and McCusker have the chance to discover how they each like their coffee, author Donnelly introduces us to two of the spectacularly grotesque villains of the story. First up is John Fryer, a brutal republican hitman with too many deaths to his name. Too many? Fryer’s murderous career has been haunted by a grisly mythical beast known as The Moley, who rises up from the primeval bog and is only placated by the shedding of fresh blood. Fryer is contained – for now – in a secure mental hospital.

Fryer’s partner in crime also has his ghost, but the spectre is more personal for Christopher Moore. His father, a trusted and brave RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) officer, committed suicide when the changes forced upon policing by the Good Friday Agreement became too radical for him to cope with. Christopher Moore who, physically, looks as if he should be hunched up in his sweaty bedroom playing a computer game, is actually barking mad, as we learn when he butchers his own grandmother.

bwbb coverFryer and Moore, for their own reasons, are determined to set Belfast on fire. Not the triumphalist – but literal and containable – fire of The Loyalist bonfires on the eve of 12th July, but a fire which will lay waste to the fragile peace enjoyed in the divided city. Sheen and McCuskey, with different motives, are desperate to bring down Fryer and Moore.

It’s a certainty that no-one in mainland Britain today – nor their recent ancestors – has ever experienced anything as divisive and embedded with visceral hate as the social and religious conflict in Northern Ireland. We need to go back centuries to find anything remotely comparable. The English Civil War, perhaps, or the Wars of The Roses? Those two conflicts would certainly bear comparison in terms of casualties, but the dead of those wars were overwhelmingly soldiers killed in set-piece battles. What is euphemistically termed The Troubles has, over the decades, forced itself into homely living rooms, pub parlours, chip shops, trains and buses, public squares and almost every domestic nook and cranny across Ulster.

Blood Will Be Born is 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. Not even Hieronymus Bosch at his coruscating best could have created monsters as fearsome as those who walk the streets of Donnelly’s Falls Road and Shankhill. Blood Will Be Born is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

POSSESSED . . .Between the covers

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Possessed coverPeter Laws introduced us to Matt Hunter in Purged (2017) and we learned that he is a former priest whose total loss of faith coincided with tragic personal events. Now, he lectures in the sociology of religion and belief systems, and has a reputation (one which does not sit lightly with him) for being the go-to guy when the police have a case which is ‘not dream’t of in our philosophy’.

When a good old fashioned milkman, driving his ecological sound electric milk float, makes an horrific discovery in a suburban greenhouse, the result is that the police have an apparently raving madman on their hands. He is emaciated, disheveled and both frightened and frightening. This creature from hell does, however, have a day job. Tom Riley is the chef at a local pub and has, apparently, a Shepherds’ Pie to die for. When the baffled police summon Matt Hunter to talk to this fellow he finds him manacled to a chair and spitting out Exorcist-style obscenities.

H redunter discovers that Riley is a devotee of a local church, one which, depending on your view might be termed either ‘charismatic’ or ‘a bunch of eyeball-rollers’. Things take a dramatic turn for the worse when Riley’s wife is discovered, horribly mutilated, in one of the customer chairs of her home hairdressing salon.

As the case begins to attract lurid national interest, Hunter is roped into a no-holds-barred reality TV show, to be one of the talking heads in an investigation into demonic possession. While stoutly sticking to his sceptical opinions Hunter is swept along in the flood-tide of the media frenzy, and comes face to face with an infamous American evangelist who makes a living from casting out demons. The TV company, cameras eagerly devouring every second of the interplay between the apparently tormented victims of demonic possession and their potential saviour, book a rural retreat for a blockbuster special which will see Good and Evil come face to face, interrupted only with tasteful ads from the show’s sponsors.

W redhat happens next is violent, bloody, improbable – but totally gripping. Of course, Matt Hunter survives to return to his delightful wife and children, but not before he is forced to question his firmly-held disbelief in ‘ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night.’

There are two interlinked paradoxes in Possessed. The first is that Matt Hunter is a disbeliever in all things paranormal and in any possibility that there are any beings or forces outside man’s own imagination and mental state. He is, however,the creation of an ordained church minister whose own sense of the spiritual life is, I assume, central to his faith. Secondly – and do read the afterword to Possessed which is separate from the usual authorial Oscars speech thanking all and sundry – behind all the comic book gore and satirical swipes at the grossness of TV reality shows, Laws makes a serious point about troubled people searching desperately for supernatural answers to problems which come from within themselves.

LawsLaws (right) doesn’t exactly play it for laughs, but amid the knockabout spookery and Hunter’s own predilection for making wisecracks, there is serious stuff going on. It is worth comparing Matt Hunter with another fictional investigator of strange things – Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins. Like the real life Peter Laws, Merrily Watkins is a priest. Like Matt Hunter, merrily doesn’t necessarily believe in the supernatural, but she is totally convinced that some folk do.

Possessed is evidence that Peter Laws goes from strength to strength as a story teller, and that his tales of Matt Hunter’s encounters with possible demons are cast iron certainties to be good reads. Possessed is published by Allison & Busby and is out now.

Read more about the previous Matt Hunter novels by clicking this link.

Allison

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