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DARK WATERS . . . Between the covers

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Police Scotland DI Monica Kennedy is a distinctive woman. Tall, angular, gaunt, even. She can seem forbidding, and has little personal life outside of bringing up her daughter with the help of her long suffering mother. Monica Kennedy can be brusque with her young male DCs, Fisher and Crawford, but she is not without charm. Towards the end of the book, she and Crawford are having a rare bevy in an Inverness bar.

He tilted his head. She could tell he was already a little drunk.
“You know, you could be a model.”
Monica laughed. Almost choking on the mouthful of vodka and orange she’d just taken. Sensing the hysteria that proximity to death seemed to encourage. Sex, anger, laughter – anything to keep the reaper at bay.
“What?”
Crawford screwed his forehead up and glanced round the pub.
“You’re statuesque. It was a compliment.”
“You’re funny, Crawford.”
She finished her drink and stood up to leave, but lingered for a second, glancing around the bar. The sounds of casual drunken conversation were a comforting reminder of normality.’

DW coverThe dark waters of the title are both literal and metaphorical. Deep in a cave system beneath a mountain lies a sump, whose black depths feature in the tense and frightening final stages of this story. The dark metaphorical waters are mainly centred on a deeply disturbed – and disturbing – family who have lived their lives in a remote Highland glen, happily divorced from civilisation and its moral code. If I drop the names Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes, you should get a snapshot of the Slate family.

In a nutshell the plot of Dark Waters is that the remains of two horribly butchered men have been found, separately, in water near a huge hydro-electric dam in the Highlands. The autopsy reveals that the atrocities inflicted on the bodies were not the cause of death. As Kennedy and her lads try to identify the two men, and unpick the tangled knot of how they came to be where they were found, Halliday has a neat little game going on. A young woman disappears in the same area. The police have no idea she is missing, let alone know who she is, but we do. The first paragraph of the book is a cracker:

“When she still had all of her arms and legs, Annabelle liked to drive. And it was while she was on one of her drives that she made her first mistake.”

We share every agonising second of Annabelle’s fate,and I should mention that people with even a hint of claustrophobia or nyctophobia will not enjoy parts of this entertaining novel, nor do those who enjoy a good plate of meat get off scot-free.

halliday006Talking of Scots, GR Halliday (right) has an interesting bio:

“G.R. Halliday was born in Edinburgh and grew up near Stirling in Scotland. He spent his childhood obsessing over the unexplained mysteries his father investigated, which proved excellent inspiration for his debut novel. He now lives in the rural Highlands outside of Inverness, where he is able to pursue his favourite past-times of mountain climbing and swimming in the sea, before returning to his band of semi-feral cats.”

I might be mistaken, but I think the author makes a brief appearance in his own novel. Monica’s daughter Lucy has long wanted a cat, and Monica knows just the person to provide one:

“Michael Bach was outside in the hall, crouched over a cat basket. He stood up when he heard the door opening. He was almost as tall as Monica and seemed even larger than the last time they’d met, months before. Michael was a social worker Monica and Crawfor had previously collaborated with on a case. More important on this occasion was the fact that a number of semi-feral cats had moved in with him at his remote croft house.”

Dark Waters is a gripping crime thriller, well crafted and certainly not for the squeamish. It is published by Harvill Secker and will be out on 16th July.

FAR FROM THE TREE . . . Audio book

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There’s a first time for everything, even when you are a conservatively-minded old curmudgeon who has, begrudgingly, accepted that digital books are here to stay. But audio books? Never – until now. Faced with the fact that the latest novel by one of my favourite writers – Rob Parker –  is only going to be printed on paper next year, I bit the bullet and accepted what I suppose could be called an Advanced Listening Copy of Far From The Tree.

Brendan Foley is a Detective Inspector with Cheshire Police, based in Warrington. If the name Cheshire conjures up a gentle county famed for its delicious cheese and half-timbered villages, that would not be wrong, but Warrington is a place with rougher edges. Situated on the River Mersey it grew in the Industrial Revolution with its steel (particularly wire), textiles, brewing, tanning and chemical industries. The word ‘industrial’ is what comes to mind when Foley is called out one Sunday morning to investigate not just one corpse, but twenty seven of them. All neatly packaged in heavy-duty plastic, and laid to rest – if that is the correct word – in a shallow trench.

Foley has been called away from the christening of his youngest child, but when he is summoned back to the venue to pay the caterers, we learn that his family is far from being a collection of model citizens. It is, nevertheless, with a deep sense of shock that when he attends the post mortem of the first batch of the corpses, he recognises that one is his nephew.

Screen Shot 2020-07-09 at 18.05.57This is a very different Rob Parker (left) from the previous novels of his that have come my way. Crook’s Hollow (click the links to read my reviews) was rather like The Archers meets The Hills Have Eyes, while his Ben Bracken Books, Morte Point, The Penny Black, and Till Morning Is Nigh are hugely entertaining but somewhat escapist in places. Far From The Tree is real. Very, very real. It is dark, unflinching, and, to my mind, Parker’s best book yet.

Foley is a superbly drawn character – a decent man who has to face a shocking challenge, involving his own flesh and blood, and a brave man, too, as he is forced to make decisions which would unhinge a lesser person. I also enjoyed his sidekick – Sergeant Iona Madison – who among other things is a boxer. Rob Parker himself is a pugilist, and he allows himself a little enjoyment as he describes Iona’s battles in the ring.

Not the least of the pleasures of Far From The Tree is that it is read by none other than Warren Brown, of Luther fame. It certainly does no harm to the authenticity of the recording that Brown – like Rob Parker –  was born and bred in Warrington!

Far From The Tree is an Audible Original and is available here.

WHITETHROAT . . . Between the covers

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There are locations for British crime novels that fit certain moods. You can have rural idylls which are shattered by evil deeds – the Cotswolds, the Yorkshire Dales and the majestic Scottish Highlands all fit that bill. Then you have the criminals hiding behind the bright lights of cities like London, Glasgow, and Manchester. James Henry has chosen a rather more understated milieu for his Nick Lowry police novels – Essex, and in particular, the garrison town of Colchester.

9781529401134Essex has become something of a trigger word in recent years, conjuring up images such as lavish mansions owned by London gangsters and dumb bottle-blondes with their perma-tanned, medallioned boyfriends. James Henry, however, takes us back forty years to the 1980s. DI Nick Lowry and his boss, Chief Superintendent Sparks, inhabit a police HQ which leaks, has rotten floorboards, and is maybe only months away from the demolishers’ wrecking ball. Sparks contemplates his desk:

“He studied the wooden surface of his desk. Countless semicircles, rings from years of mugs, cups, scotch glasses, placed carelessly and staining the untreated grain. The there were more pronounced wounds and scars: cigarette burns, knife scores, unusual marks – traces of events only the man behind the desk could read.”

Since Roman times, the history of Colchester has been inextricably intertwined with that of soldiering, and it is the death of a young ‘squaddie’ (an unranked private soldier) that Lowry investigates. Improbably, it seems that the dead man was shot in a Victorian-style duel, complete with gentlemanly observance and the presence of Seconds. With the help of his friend Captain James Oldham, of the Military Police, Lowry discovers that the two men had been fighting over a woman. But who was the other duellist, and who was the woman?

The plot goes this way and that, but this is a book that is always about the quality of the prose. Lowry has a young subordinate called Kenton, who has been on leave since being traumatised by the death of a young girl. Kenton is clever, well-educated, but enjoys his stimulants. In pursuit of the more legal kind, he observes pub life:

“..it was different being here as a punter. You saw the place through different eyes; peaceful and inviting and shabbily familiar. Flaking paintwork, worn hardwood surfaces, the yellow, cracked ceiling; a naked aging structure smoothed by the warmth of alcohol and density of cigarette smoke.”

And again:

“The first to arrive were the regulars. Men in their sixties. One, Wilf, was already in situ, perched quietly at a corner table, steadfastly drinking IPA. He would sut there until last orders, then leave as silently as he had arrived. Around midday, the bohemian set – ‘intellectual dossers’, Sparks called them – would drift in. Young men clutching tatty paperbacks. Sucking the end of biros and staring pensively into the middle distance.”

Like most self-respecting fictional police detectives, Lowry’s personal life is something of a wasteland. He is divorced, and his wife has poisoned their son against him. He feels that the years are taking their toll on him, but he remains compassionate:

“Lowry moved to place his arm across Sparks’s shoulders, but instead grasped the nearest arm, squeezed the firm bicep and bowed his head. He was winded by a surge of sympathy, revealing an attachment to the older man that seldom surfaced. Even now – more and more, in fact, the older he became – life caught Lowry out, introducing unsolicited emotions and concerns, age bringing with it a new sort of awareness.”

HenryThe plot is the least important part of this fine novel, but it unfolds gradually. The woman whose favours are being fought over by the duellists is not a woman at all, but a fifteen year-old schoolgirl, the daughter of a local businessman. He, in turn, has unfinished business with a local enrepreneur, and business that dates back to a racial attack three decades earlier. We are in a world of simmering resentment born out of old slights, and the result? The proverbial dish that is best served cold.

Whitethroat is bleak, downbeat and mesmerising; a subtle, compassionate and beautifully written novel that is something of an elegy to a way of policing – and living – that is gone for ever. James Henry (above right), as James Gurbutt, has also written prequels to RD Wingfield’s Jack Frost series. Whitethroat is published by Riverrun and will be out in hardback on 9th July. The two previous Nick Lowry novels are pictured below.

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WARRIORS FOR THE WORKING DAY . . . Between the covers (click for full page)

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Shakespeare’s words have an uncanny relevance to this novel. First published by Jonathan Cape in 1960, it is the story of another “band of brothers” who, like Henry V’s army six centuries earlier, were fighting in the fields of France. This time, the “happy few” are the crew of a British tank, fighting their way inland from the beaches of Normandy.

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Like most of the other novels in this excellent Imperial War Museum series of republications (see the end of this review) Warriors For The Working Day is semi-autobiographical. Peter Elstob (left) was a tank commander as part of the 11th Armoured Division. His own service closely mirrors that of Michael Brook, the central character in the novel.


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vividly captures the intense claustrophobia of being part of a tank crew, and the awareness that they were sitting inside a potential bomb:

“Uncertainty and a preoccupation with defence ran through the troop like a shiver and reminded them that they were imprisoned in large, slow moving steel boxes full of explosive and gallons of readily inflammable petrol.”

Brook and his comrades are fighting an enemy who is frequently invisible and most probably using a better machine than theirs. An understanding the technology of tank warfare in 1944 is crucial to getting closer to the mindset of the men in the novel.

 

For the greater part of the book, Brook and his crew are in a Sherman tank. These were American, produced in vast numbers, and relatively easy to repair and maintain. The main danger came from the 8.8cm Flak artillery piece, originally designed as an anti-aircraft weapon, but utterly lethal when used as an anti-tank gun, particularly when firing armour-piercing rounds, which would cut into a Sherman like a knife through butter. The enemy tanks – Panzers – would have included the formidable Tiger, with its hugely superior firepower and armour plate. Luckily for the Allies, the German tanks were fewer in number and probably over-engineered, making repairs in the field very difficult.

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The relentless movement
of the narrative follows the tanks as they break out of Normandy and head north-east towards the old battle grounds of the Great War, through the debacle of Operation Market Garden and then, in the depths of winter, to face what was Hitler’s last throw of the dice in what became known as The Battle of The Bulge. The final episode of the saga sees Brook and his weary colleagues crossing The Rhine and fighting the Germans on their own soil.


Along the way
, Brook gains new friends but loses old ones, while learning something about the nature of battle fatigue:

“Most of them were unaware that anything much was wrong with them, for they were uncomplicated men not given to introspection. They knew they were frightened, but they knew that everyone else was frightened too, and had come to realise that wars are fought by a few frightened men facing each other – the sharp end of the sword …’

 

Violent death is ubiquitous and frequent, but has to be dealt with:

“‘I’ve just been talking to the Q – Tim Cadey’s dead.’
He told them because he had to tell them. They said the conventional things for a minute or two and then changed the subject. It was not the time to recall the small details of Tim Cadey, or ‘Tich’ Wilson, his driver, or Owen and his singing. It was best to try and forget them all immediately.”


In their progress into Germany
, Brook and his crew pass a mysterious wired enclosure surrounded by tall watchtowers:

‘They certainly don’t intend to let their prisoners escape,’ said Bentley. ‘What’s the name of this place, Brookie?’
Brook reached for the map on top of the wireless and found their route. ‘That village the Tiger was in front of was called Walle … and the town up ahead is Bergen, so this must be …Belsen. Yes, that’s right, it’s called Belsen.’

‘Never ‘eard of it, ‘ said Geordie, jokingly. ‘But I wouldn’t want to live ‘ere.'”


Warriors For The Working Day
is a deeply compassionate and moving account of men at war, simply told, but without bitterness or rancour; it is the work of a man who was there, and knew the tears, the laughter, the bravery – and the human frailty.

 

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To read my reviews of other books in this series, click on the image below.
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OFF SCRIPT . . . Between the covers

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It’s just as well that I don’t work in publishing, because I have no nose whatsoever for what makes an author popular. Some of my very favourite writers clearly have their audiences, but never have their names “up in lights’. One such is Graham Hurley. He created one of the truly original fictional coppers – Joe Faraday – and then killed him off. Poor Joe didn’t survive his Reichenbach Falls moment but subsequently, Hurley gave us a quartet of beautifully crafted novels featuring Faraday’s young sergeant, Jimmy Suttle.

Hurley’s latest creation is not a police officer. She is an actress, Enora Andresson, who doesn’t even solve crimes as an amateur, but her circle of acquaintances and personal circumstances lead her into dangerous situations. The first two books in the series are pictured below,and clicking the images will take you to a detailed review of each.

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Now we have a new Enora Andresson novel, Off Script, and it is every bit as cleverly written and perceptive as Graham Hurley fans have come to expect. For newcomers, here is a quick precis of Enora’s world.

She is a distinguished and much-admired actress, having appeared in many stage productions and is best known for her roles in what used to be known as art-house films. She lives with a brain tumour which she hopes is now in remission. Her former husband, whose name she retains is, as they say, a ‘nasty-piece-of-work’. She has a rather feckless son, Malo. We learned in Curtain Call that his father is a gangster-gone-legit, Hayden Prentice. Another significant figure in Enora’s life is a former scriptwriter called Pavel. Once Enora’s lover, he is now blind, and paralysed after a freak accident.

41tNcNbzycL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_In Off Script, the early focus is on Carrie, one of Pavel’s carers. She has received a terrifying small-hours visit from an apparent psychopath, and when she confesses how much this has disturbed her, Enora sets out to find the strange young man who, after his chilling threats to Carrie, seems to have disappeared into the twilight world of the homeless and uprooted.

Enora’s world is tipped on its head when she discovers a terrible murder:

“She’s sprawled on her side, one knee up, a semi-foetal pose. Her eyes are wide open in the blankness of her face. Naked, she’s lying in a drying pool of what must be her own blood. It’s everywhere, over the sheets, the duvet, the pillows, the wallpaper, everywhere.”

The search intensifies for Carrie’s midnight visitor, and along the way Enora and an investigative journalist take a trip to the Somerset seaside, but it is far from idyllic.

“Mitch has never been to Weston before but what he sees on the way in doesn’t surprise him. Scruffy industrial estates. Boarded up units. Heavy security outside supermarkets. Kids on their bikes pulling wheelies in the middle of the road, eager for their day in court.”

Enora is blindsided by a new man in her life, and makes a terrible mistake. She eventually realises what she has done, and it takes all her skills as an actress to prevent catastrophe. Not the least of Graham Hurley’s wizardry is the bravura way he tells the tale through the eyes of a 39 year-old woman. Enora is utterly convincing, and has become another example of Hurley’s brilliant storytelling.

Off Script is published by Severn House and is out now.

PATROL . . . Between the covers (click for full page)

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Fred Majdalany was born in Manchester in 1913. During the war he fought in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, was wounded and was awarded the M.C. In addition to his novels, he also wrote accounts of the battles for Cassino in the Italian campaign, and the pivotal Battle of El Alamein. Patrol was first published in 1953, and has been reprinted many times, selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

Patrol follows the fortunes of a young army officer, Major Tim Sheldon, in the 1943 North Africa campaign. Sheldon is posted with his battalion in a forward outpost somewhere in the vast desert. The disconnect between these soldiers and the planners and analysts hundreds of miles away, is obvious from the start.

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Although the Germans are not far away, the biggest enemy of Sheldon and his men is the ever-present desire of those in comfortable far-off HQs to be seen to be “doing something”. Endless – and pointless – patrols have worn the men down; nerves are shredded; morale is sapped. Sheldon knows the true nature of bravery:

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When it is decided that a patrol is required to investigate White Farm, which may – or may not – be in enemy hands, Sheldon has to gather a patrol together, but he is all too well aware of the futility of what they are being asked to do.

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The novel is beautifully structured. The beginning and end of the story deal with the genesis and outcome of the patrol, while the central section recounts Sheldon’s experiences while being treated for a wound sustained earlier in the campaign. He experiences the complex and often cumbersome machine that clanks away in the background. He reflects on the contrasts between the world of fighting men and that ‘somewhere else’ that seems so distant and unattainable.

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This is almost a novella at just 143 pages, but it is brutal, and shot through with a bitter poetry. Majdalany was no stranger to battle, nor to the concept of unavoidable sacrifice, but the last words of the book make uncomfortable reading:

“In a club in St James’s Street, London, an old man opened his newspaper and querulously read the communique from Algiers. It said, simply,
‘Nothing to report. Patrol activity.’ “

For reviews of the other books in this excellent series, click the image below

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GRAVE’S END . . . Between the covers (click for full page)

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Former music journalist William Shaw (left) introduced us to Detective Sergeant Alex Cupidi in Salt Lane (2018). This was followed by Deadland in 2019, and the third in the series is Grave’s End. Alex Cupidi is socially something of a loner: she has a teenage daughter, Zoe, who she has raised pretty much on her own; her only other family is her mother, 80 miles or so up the road from the bleak Kent marshes, in London. Zoe Cupidi, like many other idealistic young people, is a fervent defender of nature, and sees the adult world in which her mother has to work as a grimy conspiracy to fell every tree and concrete over as much of green England as possible.

For those who know something of England, Alex Cupidi’s Kent is not the rosy cheeked rural idyll of The Darling Buds of May. This is the coastal Kent of the Romney Marshes and Dungeness; beautiful in its own way, perhaps, but bleak; the coastal fringes are flat, scoured by cruel winds, and shunned by holidaymakers who prefer deck-chairs and the friendly smell of fish and chips to solitude and the mournful cry of the curlew.

GE coverThis taut thriller is  distinctly unusual, in that one of its main characters is neither a fellow member of Kent Police, nor one of the villains they spend their professional lives trying to put behind bars. Instead we see – or sense – some of the action through the perceptions of an elderly badger. Before such thoughts can gain foothold, I can assure you that this is no Wind In The Willows. Our badger is not an avuncular personification. He is old, fearful of younger rivals, and hungry – always hungry.

Of course, readers have to accept that the badger’s perceptions are expressed in our language. Since this particular representative of Meles Meles has none that can be written, what is the alternative? I was not convinced at the start of the book that the idea was going to work, but after reaching the last page, I think it does. Shaw keeps the badger’s subterranean activity linked to the plot, and from the very start it is his sense of smell that alerts us to the fact that something is very, very wrong.

“By now, the air should smell of fresh grass, cow parsley, other badgers and dog shit. He moves forward more cautiously in the blackness and his snout meets something hard. At the end, where darkness should change to dusk, he finds the tunnel blocked. He digs, but there is something in his way, so hard his big claws make no impression on it at all. He sniffs. It smells rank. People stink.”

When an enterprising junior estate agent decides to impress his girlfriend, he ‘borrows’ the keys to an impressive empty property, but his hopes of a passionate afternoon’s grappling on someone else’s bed are dashed when they find a dead body in a freezer. Alex Cupidi and her team soon identify the frozen corpse of that of a local wildlife activist. Further investigations lead them in the direction of a controversial housing development on a site inhabited by, among other various fauna, our friend the badger.

Alex Cupidi is like the proverbial dog with its bone as she relentlessly follows the trail leading away from the murdered activist. High profile government ministers, avaricious property speculators, a minor public school with a terrible secret – every time she lifts a stone, nasty things scuttle about, unaccustomed to the light. Grave’s End is a totally compelling read. It is published by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, and will be available in July.

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A KILLING MIND . . . between the covers (click for full screen)

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Icame late to the party regarding Angela Marsons and her Kim Stone series of police procedurals set in England’s West Midlands, but I thoroughly enjoyed Child’s Play (2019) and was very pleased to have the chance to read and review the latest in the series, Killing Minds.

KMA murder where the body is arranged to make the death look like suicide is a well-worn feature in crime novels, but Marsons takes the trope and gives it new life. When Sammy Brown is found dead in her featureless flat, her throat cut apparently by her own hand, everyone – DI Kim Stone included – is initially prepared to tick the suicide box and move on. It is only when Stone interviews Sammy’s parents that she begins to sense that things are not quite what they appear to be.

Stone has a strong sense that Myles and Kate Brown are concealing something, but it is a second look at the crime scene photographs that triggers her response:

She stopped speaking as her gaze returned back to the photo of the hand. Something struck her and it was like seeing it for the first time.

She turned the phone and looked at the photo from every angle.

‘Penn, get me a red pen and ruler. Now.'”

Meanwhile, Stone’s assistant, DS Bryant, has his own fixation to deal with. He was involved in the capture, trial and conviction of a notorious killer, Peter Drake, and has become involved with Richard Harrison, father of one of Drake’s victims. A previously unrepentant Drake has, suspiciously, turned over a new leaf in jail and has become a model prisoner, thus transforming his application for parole from a forlorn hope into a distinct probability. Both Harrison and Bryant are powerless to prevent Drake’s release. Both have a sense of foreboding about what may follow.

When another body – that of a young man – is discovered in a nearby lake, the fact that he apparently new Sammy Brown sets more alarm bells ringing. After painfully prising the truth – or a version of it – from Sammy Brown’s parents, Stone’s attention is turned on a nearby community, mostly made up of young people who have chosen to step away from real life. They all live in Unity Farm. Sammy Brown was a member of the group – as was the lad in the lake, Tyler Short.

Stone and Bryant pay a visit to Unity Farm, and they meet the leader of the community, Jake Black:

“A man in his mid-fifties appeared behind her. His hair was completely white, but thick and cut well. His shoulders were broad beneath an open-neck pale blue shirt. His skin was smooth with enough colour to radiate good health. His eyes were the purest blue she had ever seen. Once your gaze met those, the rest was forgotten.”

When Stone makes the decision to send one of her younger officers into Unity Farm, posing as a distressed and unhappy young woman, things do not turn out according to plan and Marsons orchestrates a tense and nerve-shredding finale to the book. When the murderer is unmasked, it came as a cleverly constructed surprise. Killing Mind is published by Bookouture, and is available now.

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THE SARACEN’S MARK . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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SW-Perry-photo-1-2-300x482SW Perry (left) whisks us away from our disease ridden present misery to – with almost supernatural prescience – the streets of London in 1593, where plague is also keeping the gravediggers and the parsons working around the clock! The late sixteenth century versions of  plucky NHS employees come in the shape of Bianca Merton, a young Anglo-Italian woman who keeps The Jackdaw, a Bankside tavern (and who is also much in demand as a herbalist – a purveyor of what we now call alternative medicine) and her close friend Dr Nicholas Shelby, whose medical knowledge is more conventional.

The disease has, so far, gone about its malevolent business north of the River Thames, but with no daily calls for social distancing, it finds its way south:

“Her name is Ruth. She is returning to the lodgings on Pocket Lane that she shares with her husband. Ruth feels uncomfortable hot. By the time she reaches home, she will have a fever. She will awake the next morning to find painful swellings in her armpits. Young and strong, she is in the habit of thanking God for a strong constitution. But in a few days she will be dead. The pestilence has crossed the river.”

Bianca is much in demand among the worried residents of Bankside for her concoctions:

“Pomanders of rose leaves, tragacanth gum and camphor to hang around the neck … clove and lemon to mix in a posset . . . also a tincture of bezoar and sorrel. Mix that in water or small beer every morning.”

TSM coverNicholas, however, has been sent on a mission by one of the most powerful men in Queen Elizabeth’s kingdom – her spymaster Sir Robert Cecil. England has a complex relationship with what we now call Morocco, and in particular with the ruler of Marrakesh, but the death of Adolfo Sykes:

“..a small, somewhat bow-legged half-English, half-Portuguese merchant with a threadbare curtain of prematurely white hair that clung to the sides of his otherwise- unsown pate.”

… needs to be investigated, as Sykes is a key strand in Cecil’s silken – but deadly – web of spies and agents. When Nicholas finally arrives in Marrakesh, he discovers that Sykes had uncovered a slavery ring involving, among others a brutal and violent sea captain called Cathal Connell. Now that Nicholas is aware of the secret, it is only a matter of time before Connell and his accomplices come looking for him. While the unpredictable world of Moorish politics find him alternating between foul prison cells and  a life of luxury surrounded by servants, back in London ….

“The pestilence has returned with a vengeance. The Savoy hospital has closed its doors to new patients and posted guards on the water stairs to deter visitors. The chapel’s death-bell tolls with increasing frequency.”

This is a richly rewarding novel, full of fascinating historical detail, but Perry never allows the authenticity of  his main characters to be hidden beneath a superfluity of information about what they are wearing, or the contents of their dinner plate, or elaborate architectural descriptions. Bianca and Nicholas are separate from each other for most of the narrative, but each drives the story forward relentlessly. As we are only too well aware just now, plague knows no historical boundaries, but Perry’s skill as a storyteller is equally timeless – and magical. The Saracen’s Mark is published by Corvus, and is out now.

If you like the sound of what the author calls The Jackdaw series,
then read my review of The Serpent’s Mark.

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