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LAST TIME I LIED . . . Between the covers

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Riley SagerI was working in Australia when Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic At Hanging Rock premiered. I remember pub and dinner party talk for months after being dominated by interpretations and explanations about what might have happened to the ‘lost girls’. In the endpapers of Last Time I Lied American author Riley Sager, (left) acknowledges his debt to this film (and the short story on which it was based). Instead of a 1900 Melbourne, Sager beams us into up-country New York State in, more or less, our times.

When Emma Davis, a skinny and gawky thirteen year-old just on the verge of young womanhood, wins a place at a prestigious summer camp for privileged teenagers, she falls under the spell of three older girls with whom she shares a cabin. In particular, the assured and sexually aware Vivian captivates Emma, just as she has captivated the other two, Natalie and Allison.

Camp Nightingale was created by a timber baron in the early years of the twentieth century. His master design featured a lake and, as there wasn’t one to hand, he simply evicted the inhabitants of a nearby valley, dammed the river and created his own huge water feature, Lake Midnight. Now the property is in the hands of his descendant, Francesca Harris-White, who presides in benign dictatorship over the gathering of rich city girls every summer.

LTILEmma’s summer idyll is destined to come to an abrupt and tragic end, however, when the three older girls in the cabin disappear one night, never to return. Despite the massive search and rescue operation, Vivian, Natalie and Allison remain missing, and Franny is forced to close the camp in disarray.

Now, fifteen years on, Emma Davis is a successful artist who is on the verge of giving up her day job in an advertising agency to paint full time. Her huge canvases create a stir in the New York art world, but they contain a hidden image known only to the artist. Each painting begins as a depiction of the three missing Camp Nightingale girls, who are progressively painted over by ever more intense foliage until only tantalising glimpses of them remain.

Emma is shocked when she receives an invitation to have lunch with Franny, and her shock turns to panic when she learns that the heiress plans to reopen Camp Nightingale and wants Emma to return for the season as artist in residence. Can she bear to relive the tragic events of that fateful summer? What is Franny’s real motive for reopening the camp? And, most importantly for us as readers, is Emma providing us with a classically misleading unreliable narrative?

Emma does return to Camp Nightingale and, naturally enough, since this is a thriller all about fate and coincidence, she has to sleep in the cabin called Dogwood – the selfsame one which she shared with Vivian, Natalie and Allison. Her new companions are Miranda, Krystal and Sasha. But now, of course, they are the giggly fifteen year-olds, and she is the mature and experienced woman.

Riley Sager packs the story with the literary equivalent of Improvised Explosive Devices, destined to go off at any moment with devastating consequences. We have Theo, Franny’s adoptive son, the subject of Emma’s massive and breathless crush all those years ago. There is Ben, the moody ‘bit of rough’ who has always been the camp maintenance man. Added to the mix are Lottie and Becca, both ‘survivors’ of the first downfall of Camp Nightingale. Above all – or, better, beneath all – is the moody presence of Lake Midnight itself, beneath which lie the stone memories of the displaced villages from over a century ago. Incidentally, if anyone can think of something more dramatically Gothick than Sager’s drowned lunatic asylum, whose roof appears only when the lake suffers from drought, I will give them a prize!

Bitte bei Verwendung Hinweis an: bilder@joexx.de

Last Time I Lied cleverly alternates between Emma’s recollections and the present time. Events in the reopened Camp Nightingale come to resemble nothing more nor less than a disturbing re-enactment of a cold-case crime, where the spectral presence of the fifteen-years-lost girls looms larger and larger with every page.

The eventual solution to what happened to the three girls is dazzling, ingenious, gasp-provoking – and fairly improbable – but, hey, this is a cleverly constructed and blissfully entertaining novel and no lesser person than Aristotle, in his Poetics, declared

“for it is probable that many things may take place contrary to probability.”

Riley Sager is the pseudonym of a New Jersey author who has published several mysteries under his own name, Todd Ritter. Last Time I Lied is published by Ebury Press (an imprint of Penguin Random House) and will be out on 12th July.

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KILL THE ANGEL . . . Between the covers

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“I pledge my allegiance to the Italian Republic,
to faithfully observe and execute its Constitution
and the laws of the state, and to comply with the duties
of my office in the interestof the administration for the public good.”

Well said, Signorina! Well sworn! Thus spake Colomba Caselli when she joined the Italian police force. Now she is Deputy Chief Caselli of the Third Section of Rome’s Homicide Squad, but this outrageously entertaining novel details a thousand and one different ways in which Caselli – “thirty-three years old in her body but a few years older in the green eyes that changed hue with her mood.” – breaks her vow to be an obedient police officer.

kill-the-angel-9781471165528_hrSide by side with a pharmaceutically-addicted genius called Dante Torre she attempts to solve a grotesque mass murder. The express train from Milan to Rome arrives safely. Safe, that is, except for the passengers in the first class compartments who have all died in grotesque agony. Their bodies are discovered by an officer of the Railway Police and when he alerts his superiors,la merda colpisce il ventilatore..” as they might (but probably don’t) say in Rome. Ironically, it is the fan from the air conditioning unit which has spread the deadly gas.

Despite the usual suspects – none other than the “Allahu Akhbar”- chanting killers from ISIS – claiming responsibility for the atrocity, Caselli smells a particularly putrid rat, and she breaks away from official shackles to track down the real killer. Dazieri does a fair job of explaining relationship between Colomba Caselli and Dante Torre, but the full picture relies quite heavily on the back story which played out in the earlier novel, Kill The Father. It seems that Torre had been held captive by a malevolent psychopath – The Father – but, with the help of Caselli has escaped, but not before both he and the policewoman have sustained significant physical and mental damage.

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As readers, we learn that the real killer sought by Caselli and Torre is an almost supernaturally gifted killer, a woman known as Giltine, the Lithuanian Angel of Death. The action spins back and forth between Rome, Venice and Berlin and, just as peeling an onion reveals further layers, a complex collision of events is revealed. At the root of the malevolent and seemingly indestructible Giltin’s thirst for violent revenge is something which happened in a remote region of Ukraine on 25th April 1986. Watch out, though, for a very, very clever twist regarding the avenging angel. A clue, but no plot spoiler, I hope – have any of you ever read Harry Bingham’s amazing Fiona Griffiths novels?

shugaar-picture2Kill The Angel, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar (right), is ridiculously entertaining. The narrative constantly breaks the speed limit, and Colomba Caselli and Dante Torre are wonderfully imagined character. We can boo and hiss as Colomba is screwed – in all senses of the word – by sinister global forces, but she is a truly modern kick-arse (‘ass’ for US readers) heroine and she scorches her way across the pages of this gripping novel.

Be warned: even readers who might think themselves strong of stomach and with a healthy capacity to absorb horrors might find themselves reaching for Aunt Maud’s smelling salts. Visions from Hell loom large, like the child forced to sit with a deadly arachnid sealed in his mouth, or the hideously scarred man who, having survived a catastrophic fire in a night club, recovers – only to be eviscerated with a shard of mirror glass wielded by an enraged sociopath. ‘Kill The Angel, by Sandrone Dazieri (below) is published by Simon and Schuster, and is out now.

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THE KILLING HABIT . . . Between the covers.

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Mark Billingham’s perpetually disgruntled and discomforted London copper DI Tom Thorne returns in The Killing Habit for another three way battle. Three way? Yes, of course, because Thorne and his resolute allies sit on their stools in one corner of the triangular boxing ring, while in the blue corner are his politically correct bosses. In the red corner, of course, are the various chancers, petty and not-so-petty crooks who challenge the law on a daily basis.

TKHThe Thorne novels have a recurring cast list. As Salvatore Albert Lombino, aka Ed McBain said, quoting a 1917 popular song, “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here!” Indeed they are. Its members include Helen, Tom Thorne’s long suffering partner plus little boy Alfie, and the bizarrely tattooed and pierced Mancunian pathologist Phil Hendricks. We have Nicola Tanner the police officer scarred by the murder of her alcoholic partner, Susan, and the perpetually cautious DCI Russell Brigstocke. Between them, they pursue two killers; one who murders losers-in-the-Game-of-Life on the periphery of a drugs gang, and another who seems to be targeting lonely women via a match-making service.

It’s a staple of serial killer crime fiction that the bad guy starts out as a youngster by pulling wings off flies or torturing hamsters before graduating to ever darker deeds. Either that, or he is the victim of some terrible childhood trauma which poisons his view of humanity. I say ‘he’ and realise that I may be risking the wrath of the Equal Opportunities Police here, but I don’t recall reading a novel about female mass murderers. They may be out there. Numbered among their ranks may be homicidal Two Spirit Persons or Gender Fluid Otherkins. I do not know. If I have offended any potential killers by using the wrong pronoun, please accept my (almost) sincere apologies.

But I digress. Billingham puts Thorne on the trail of a serial killer – of cats. Why on earth? Two reasons. One is that nothing inflames the fury of Middle England like the killing of domestic animals. The debate that compares this crime with that of the murder of humans is for another day, but Billingham recognises that we are more likely to become incandescent over the death of a domestic pet than the death of a child. The second reason I have already suggested. If someone is waging a covert war on cats, is this just a prelude to something far, far worse? Indeed, it seems so. A succession of women meet their deaths at the hands of a killer who has hacked into the database of Made In Heaven, a low-rent match-making website.

Billingham gives us a parallel plot which eventually converges with the main story. A shadowy but powerful criminal organisation smuggles addictive synthetic drugs into British prisons. The recipients, grateful at the time, are eventually released into the wider world owing the gang an impossible amount of money, repayable only by becoming foot soldiers of the gang itself. An elderly woman, known only as “The Duchess” plays Postman Patricia in this deadly cycle of addiction and dependence and, when her role as amiable ‘auntie’ visiting prisoners is exposed, the connection between the drug scam and the dating killer is made.

As with every Mark Billingham novel, The Killing Habit is incisively written, impeccably authentic as a police procedural and, above all, totally human. No character walks onto the stage without their weaknesses and their frailties becoming exposed in the icy blue of the spotlight. We are not reading about cardboard cut-out people here: they are real, fallible and convincing. They may even be living a couple of doors down from you.

1430895baJust when you think that he has provided all the answers to the complex plot, and the characters are, to quote the only bit of Milton I can remember from ‘A’ Level, “calm of mind and all passion spent,” Billingham (right) provides a breathtaking epilogue which, in addition to turning my preconception on its head, (feel free to add your own metaphor) bites you on the bum, punches you in the gut, hits you over the head with a piece of four by two, takes the wind out of your sails and grabs you by the short-and-curlies. Hopefully recovering from this multiple assault, you will be hard pushed to disagree with me that this is a brilliant crime thriller written by a master storyteller at the very top of his game.

The Killing Habit is published by Litte, Brown and will be available on 14th June. For a review of the previous Tom Thorne novel, click the link to Love Like Blood.

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CORRUPTED . . . Between the covers.

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Corrupted is the fourth novel in the 1960s London crime series written by Simon Michael. Its predecessors were The Brief (2015), An Honest Man (2016) and The Lighterman (2017). Each has, as its central character, Charles Holborne. Corrupted is good – very good – but let’s first take a look at the real life events which form the backdrop to the story.

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Whichever definition you choose, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Kray twins and their misdeeds have become the stuff of legend. The villains who were minor fragments in their constellation have made an honest living – of a sort – by producing ghost-written autobiographies. There are popular websites which are nothing more than broadside ballads featuring the Bethnal Green brothers. The real life twins Gary and Marin Kemp played them on the wide screen, as did – more convincingly – a doppleganger Tom Hardy. They even appeared, as the Piranha Brothers, in a Monty Python sketch, although some would argue that this owed more to the equally diabolical Richardson brothers, inimical foes of Reg and Ron from south of the river. Authors such as Jake Arnott and John Lawson have used the twins in novels, and Simon Michael has added his four penn’orth with his Holborne stories.

Holborne was born Horowitz, son of an East End Jewish tailor. After an adventure-strewn youth working as a lighterman on the bustling River Thames in post-1945 London, he has become a successful barrister, having anglicised his name to smooth his way through the distinctly sniffy – and anti-semitic – world of London’s law chambers. Existing readers of the series will know that our man has already crossed swords with the dangerous and vengeful Krays.

CorruptedIt is 1964, and Alec Douglas-Home’s Conservative government is on its last legs. The sex scandals which brought down his predecessor Harold Macmillan may have faded, but another one threatens to be just as explosive. Holborne is persuaded to defend a teenage boy accused of murdering one of the Krays’ stooges, but the fact that the youngster is what we would now call a rent boy sees Holborne accused of bringing his chambers into disrepute.

As Holborne digs deeper into the affair, he realises he is touching the tip of a scandal which, if exposed, will have devastating political consequences. The fact that important figures in both the Conservative party and the Labour opposition are involved means that the barrister is pitting himself not just against Reg and Ron Kray, but the entire British establishment.

Corrupted is a brilliant piece of historical crime fiction, and the court room scenes, which are both intriguing and authentic, are informed by Simon Michael’s career and experience as a barrister in the criminal courts. Many real life figures play a part in the drama: the Krays – particularly the psychotic Ron – are totally convincing; Bob Boothby and Tom Driberg, both dripping corruption, send a shiver of revulsion down the spine, while the larger-than-life figure of Lord ‘the Blessed Arnold’ Goodman is horribly oily and manipulative.

SM-boxing-gloves-2-278x300Charles Holborne is a powerful and attractive central figure, but he is far from perfect. His chaotic private life reveals both passion and weakness. His judgement of human character also leaves something to be desired, as Simon Michael (right) shows, with a delicious and unexpected plot twist in the final pages of the novel. Corrupted is published by Urbane Publications and will be available on 21st June.

Simon Michael’s website is here, and you can follow the link to read the Fully Booked review of The Lighterman

 

YOU WERE GONE . . . Between the covers

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David Raker is a former journalist who has been at the sharp end, the places where bullets fly, knives flash, and explosions separate the bodies and limbs of decent men. Now, he has left the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan behind, and he plies his trade in what is, ostensibly, a more civilised environment, but still one where greed, violence, depravity and deception are an everyday – and very viable – currency. Where could that be? Correct. The dark streets of London. Raker’s business sounds simple. He looks for missing people. Sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives and parents who have disappeared. Vanished. Went to work one day, and never caught the ‘bus home. People whose absence becomes more grievous day on day for their loved ones, but folk whose here-today-gone-tomorrow status has defeated the limited resources of the police.

Raker has a special empathy with his clients. Like them, grief and loss still gnaw away at his heart and soul, but he has the slight advantage of knowing what happened to his loved one. Derryn. His adored wife. Taken in a prolonged tug of war between her spirit and the implacable demon of cancer. Raker watched her fade away, watched her beautiful skin turn to fragile parchment as the disease ate its way through her body.

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 11.58.41But he has, as far as is possible, moved on. He has an unexpected family in the form of a daughter from an early relationship, and he keeps his chin up and his eyes bright. Because to do otherwise would mean self destruction, and he owes the physically absent but ever-present spirit of Derryn that much. His world, however, and such stability as he has been able to build into it, is rocked on its axis when a woman turns up at a West End police station claiming to be his wife. Derryn. Dead and buried these nine years. Her fragile remains consigned to the earth. He sees the woman through a viewing screen at the police station and he is astonished. In front of him sits his late wife, the love of his life, and the woman for whom he has shed nine years of tears.

In terms of improbable plot lines, Tim Weaver has form. You Were Gone is his ninth David Raker novel, and he has staked out his territory as a writer who sets questions which seem unanswerable. I have to confess that in the earlier books, I was tempted to think, “Oh, come on – you cannot be serious..!” Now, however I have learned to trust Tim Weaver, and I know that however impossible the conundrum he sets, he will provide a plausible – if audacious – resolution.

Raker faces a series of events which force him to question his own sanity. Someone, somewhere has constructed a brilliant plot to undermine his sense of self and his memories. Who can he trust? The police investigation into the ‘reappearance’ of his wife seems skewed and slanted against him. Why has a widely respected doctor offered the police evidence that he had treated Raker for an obscure psychological syndrome? Why does Raker have no memory of this? What secrets lie in the overgrown ruins of a London mental hospital?

Tim WeaverSo many questions. The answers do come, and the whole journey is great fun – but occasionally nerve racking and full of tension. Tim Weaver (right) has crafted yet another brilliant piece of entertainment, and placed a further brick in the wall built for people who know that there is nothing more riveting, nothing more calculated to shut out the real world and nothing more breathtaking than a good book.

You Were Gone is published by Michael Joseph and will be out on 17th May. To read a review of the previous David Raker novel, I Am Missing, click the blue link.

BODY AND SOUL . . . Between the covers

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A police detective may like to think he can just walk away from the job that has consumed most of his adult life. He is entitled to believe that a new life in a remote Cornish cottage will wash away the blood of the countless victims whose cases he has investigated, and wipe the images of their broken bodies from his eyes. If anyone is entitled to joys of retirement, it is Frank Elder.

But being a copper isn’t the only thing he has walked away from. There is the wife who betrayed his trust, but more crucially there is the daughter, Katherine whose own life has been fractured, partly by her parents falling out of love, but more savagely by the fact that she herself was at the heart of one of Elder’s cases, when she was abducted, abused and violated by a psychotic killer.

Body and SoulWhile Elder whittles away his time helping out the local police force with difficult cases, and his wife gets on with her own life, Katherine is eking out an existence in a North London flat share, trying to hide the scars – both real and figurative – of her abduction. She has taken to modelling for life drawing classes in an effort to pay the rent independent of her mother’s generosity, and this has led her into a relationship with a highly respected artist whose career is on a definite upward surge.

When the artist is found brutally murdered on the floor of his studio, Elder is drawn into the case, first as a suspect himself, albeit briefly, but then in defence of Katherine who the police, in the absence of any other suspects or motives, have decided is a person of interest.

What follows is a multi-faceted precious stone. We have a police procedural, viewed largely through the eyes of the investigating officer in London. We have a whodunnit? with a clever set of misdirections – and clues both false and real. We have John Harvey’s quietly elegant prose, clever observation of character and deep sympathy for decent but flawed individuals who have made wrong choices in their lives. But then – and it is an explosive “but then” – something happens, something unthinkable, something potentially life-changing for Elder and his family, and the whole focus of the novel swings violently in an unforeseen direction.

In my mind I am moving this fine novel from the shelf marked Crime Fiction to the place where I put memorable books that leave a lasting impression. Call them literary fiction if you will, but names and categories aren’t worth a penny piece. Body and Soul is an elegy on everlasting themes that have seared the hearts of great writers down the years. It is about death; it is about regret and longing; it is about duty, loyalty and people who do what they think to be right despite a chorus of lesser mortals who are chanting, “leave it – forget it – don’t get involved.”

john-harveyBody and Soul also takes an unflinching look at how love in itself is sometimes not enough – or possibly too much. I read elsewhere that this is to be John Harvey’s last novel. If this is the case then regret is permissible, but dismay would be churlish. We can only thank John Harvey (right) for his matchless legacy. Body and Soul is published by William Heinemann, and is available now.

HOWEVER – and here’s a thing – if you would like a hardback copy of this brilliant novel, I have one (just the one, sadly) up for grabs. The winner will be decided by a draw from a proverbial hat (actually a random number generator, but scrupulously fair!) How do you enter? Dead easy, and you have three ways to enter.

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  • On Twitter, just click the ‘heart’ box under one of the many posts about this book. My Twitter name is @MaliceAfore

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  • On Facebook, go to the Fully Booked page and ‘Like’ the post.

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JUST A FEW TaCs:

(1) One entry per person, please.
(2) The competition closes at 10.00pm GMT on Sunday 13th May.
(3) Because of postage costs, the competition is open only to readers in Britain, the Irish Republic and mainland Europe.

SAVAGE LIBERTY . . . Between the covers

Early map of Colonial America.

We are in pre-revolutionary America, Massachusetts to be precise, and it is 1768. Five years earlier, the Seven Years War between Great Britain and France had ended with The Treaty of Paris, and much of France’s former possessions in North America now lay in British hands. Despite the ending of formal hostilities, the French are still meddling in the affairs of the colony, and their mischief-making further stirs a political situation which is, day by day, becoming more unsettled. The citizens of Massachusetts are becoming more dissatisfied with rule from London and with King George’s redcoats are an ever-more ominous presence.

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It is against this restless background that we meet Duncan McCallum, an exiled Scotsman with medical training who is bondsman to Sarah Ramsey, the widow of a nobleman. They are, as they say these days, ‘an item’ but, in terms of the narrative, very coyly so.

When the Arcturus, a ship from London, blows up in Boston harbour, McCallum is summoned to view the consequences, and they are stomach churning. Body parts of the crew are washed up on the beach, chomped by marauding sharks and pecked by gulls. Even men whose bodies remain more or less intact are denied dignity in death as their shrouds comprise drifts of seaweed and predatory crabs.

Savage LibertyAs McCallum investigates the tragedy, it becomes clear that the ship was sabotaged. But what was within its cargo that made someone think it imperative that it should never reach its destination? A party of British soldiers are on hand determined to guard the scene of the wreck from inquisitive eyes, but who is the man named Beck who is pretending to be an army officer, but is so obviously not a military man?

We learn that the whole sorry affair is connected to documents vital to the plans of a mysterious group known as The Sons of Liberty, a group of powerful men whose ultimate aim is to fight for the independence of the American colonies from Great Britain. We meet, fleetingly, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who went on to become prominent Patriots in The Revolutionary War which was to begin in earnest with “the shot heard ’round the world.” at Lexington in 1776.

Agent Beck makes it know that McCallum is responsible for the Boston deaths, and a warrant is issued for his arrest. McCallum has no option but to head north to evade the bounty hunters and soldiers who will not rest until he is swinging from a gibbet. As he moves through the wild countryside, accompanied by an electic collection of Native Americans, an evangelical priest, a traveling conjurer – and a monkey – McCallum knows he will never be safe until he finds the truth about the events in Boston until he finds the instigators of that fatal conspiracy.

pattison-2If your knowledge of that period of American history is sketchy, than fret ye not. Pattison (right) provides a wealth of detail about real life events which were taking place during McCallum’s fictional quest to clear his name. I use the word ‘quest” advisedly, as the novel has a distinct Lord of The Rings feeling – “Roads go ever on”.

There is some genuine detective work – and some very graphic violence – wrapped up in the period detail, and Pattison is clearly a man who has charted the catastrophic decline and subjugation of the Native Americans, their culture, their awareness and their sensitivity to landscape. It may be of little consolation to us modern readers, but Pattison shows that the European assault on this vibrant and diverse society did not just happen on our watch.

Savage Liberty is the fifth installment of the Duncan McCallum series which began with Bone Rattler in 2009. It will be published by Counterpoint on 7th June.You can read a review of an earlier Eliot Pattison novel Skeleton God, set in contemporary Tibet, by clicking the blue link.

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THE TANGO SCHOOL MYSTERY . . . Between the covers

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Colin Crampton and his beautiful – if rather vulgar – Australian girlfriend are eating out at a Brighton restaurant. Shirley likes her steak rare, and she subscribes to the old adage about cooking a huge slice of beef, “Knock its horns off, wipe its bum, and lead it quickly through a warm kitchen,” Unfortunately, the blood on her Porterhouse has an additional source – a growing stain in the ceiling above their table.

In this sanguinary manner we get straight into the action in Peter Bartram’s third tale of Colin Crampton, the intrepid 1960s reporter for the Evening Chronicle. Colin races upstairs to the flat above the restaurant and finds an extremely leaky corpse, later to be identified as the mortal remains of one Derek Clapham.

tsm-tnColin’s day has already been bad enough. He has been summoned to the office of Frank Figgis, the News Editor, and given a daunting task. The newspaper’s Editor, Pope by name (dubbed “His Holiness”, naturally) has a brother called Gervaise. Gervaise is in trouble. He has been mixing with some rather unsavoury characters, namely the adherents of Sir Oscar Maundsley, the aristocratic former fascist leader. Interned by Churchill during the war, he now dreams of Making Britain Great Again.

Due to internal feuds among the fascist folk – which has also resulted in the stabbing of Derek Clapham, and the spoling of Shirley’s steak – Gervaise Pope has threatened to shoot Maundsley. Figgis has been told by His Holiness to find the errant brother and stop him from committing murder. One problem. Gervaise has disappeared and so, Figgis, with all his fabled capacity for delegation, has handed the task to Colin Crampton.

What follows is a fascinating and completely beguiling journey through a 1960s England that seems now, at least to those of us old enough to have been there, as far away and foreign as medieval Cambodia, including a visit to the bizarre school for dancing mentioned in the title. Maundsley is a thinly disguised …. ? Well, since neither Peter nor I can afford expensive libel lawyers, you must do your own homework. Along the way we are reminded that the Prime Minister of the day was the curiously archaic Alexander Frederick Douglas-Home (pronounced ‘Hume’), and Bartram also has great fun as he remembers – more or less with affection – the way we were and the things we ate and wore.

Peter Bartram doesn’t mind at all if this book is popped onto the ‘cosy’ shelf of your library, but he serves up just enough violence and and downright malice to blow away the gentle mists of human kindness which can soften the outlines of dark deeds. Like the old trick where you were persuaded to put your tongue on the terminals of a 9 volt battery – and then regretted it – the dialogue tingles and sparks. The gags, puns and one-liners come thick and fast, and – as befits the experienced newspaperman that he is – Bartram never wastes a word.

In terms of plot content, Bartram audaciously brings A Very Important Person into the narrative at the end of the book and, my goodness, how well it works. In the hands of a lesser writer, this episode could have fallen flat on its face, but such is Bartram’s skill, it works beautifully and with added poignancy, given what was to happen just a few months later.

I reached the final page with that mix of sadness and satisfaction which will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a good book. The Tango School Mystery is a delight from start to finish and, sentimental old sod that I am, I want to find a tree and carve ‘Colin 4 Shirley’ on it, inside a big heart. Yes, well spotted – amidst the murder, mayhem and subterfuge, there is an enchanting love story, too! The Tango School Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership.

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THE WOMAN IN THE WOODS . . . Between the covers

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TWITWIn the dark woods of Maine a tree gives up the ghost and topples to the ground. As its roots spring free of the cold earth a makeshift tomb is revealed. The occupant was a young woman. When the girl – for she was little more than that – is discovered, the police and the medical services enact their time-honoured rituals and discover that she died of natural causes not long after giving birth. But where is the child she bore? And why was a Star of David carved on the trunk of an adjacent tree? Portland lawyer Moxie Castin is not a particularly devout Jew, but he fears that the ancient symbol may signify something damaging, and he hires PI Charlie Parker to shadow the police enquiry and investigate the carving – and the melancholy discovery beneath it.

Those who are familiar with the world of Charlie Parker may, as they say, look away now. Or, at least, skip to the next paragraph. New readers expecting a reprise of the standard US gumshoe who is a hard drinking, wise-cracking, fast moving womaniser, will not find Parker ticking those boxes. He is a deeply reflective man who bears the scars of tragic events. The physical scars are deep enough, true, but the mental and spiritual damage is far more severe. Years before, his wife and daughter were butchered in front of him by a man-creature not entirely of this world. Now Parker is literally haunted by the shade of that daughter, Jennifer, although he has played the relationship game again, but unsuccessfully. He now has another daughter, Sam, who shares his ability to see things that more mundane folk would would say are “just not there.” Parker scratches a living as an investigator, helped by two colleagues, Louis and Angel. It has to be said that they are both criminals but, if there are such things as good criminals, then that is what they are.

The crumbling remains of the woman in the woods give up few clues, but Parker slowly pieces together the jigsaw. The picture that emerges is not one to grace the top of a festive biscuit tin, nor is it likely to be reproduced as a popular wall decoration. Karis Lamb has had the misfortune to be in a relationship with a disturbing and menacing man called Quayle. She fled the abusive relationship carrying not only his unborn child, but an antique book from Quayle’s collection. Remember the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad? The network of safe houses which formed a chain of refuges for escaped slaves? Parker learns that a similar system exists to aid abused and battered women and that Karis Lamb used it in her flight from Quayle. As individuals who provided refuge for the women go missing, or are found dead, Parker realises that he is in a deadly race with Quayle to find the missing book – and Karis Lamb’s child.

JCIn another life John Connolly would have been a poet. His prose is sonorous and powerful, and his insights into the world of Charie Parker – both the everyday things he sees with his waking eyes and the dark landscape of his dreams – are vivid and sometimes painful. Connolly’s villains – and there have been many during the course of the Charlie Parker series – are not just bad guys. They do dreadful things, certainly, but they even smell of the decaying depths of hell, and they often have powers that even a gunshot to the head from a .38 Special can hardly dent.

Connolly brings to the printed page monsters unrivalled in their depravity, and vileness unseen since the days when MR James created his dreadful beings that skipped, scraped, slithered and scrabbled into the terrified minds of the schoolboys for whom, it is said, he wrote the stories. Transpose these horrors into the modern world, and add all the ingredients of murder mysteries, police investigation and the nerve-jangling thriller and you have the distinctly uncomfortable – but wonderfully gripping – world of Charlie Parker. The Woman In The Woods is published by Hodder & Stoughton, and is out now.

An earlier Charlie Parker novel, Time of Torment, won our Best PI Novel Award in 2016.

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