Search

fullybooked2017

Category

REVIEWS

THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE LOST . . . Between the covers

Cemetery

Occasionally I review a novel which lies outside the crime fiction genre, but within my own field of interest. Such a book is The Photographer of The Lost by Caroline Scott. It is centred on the events of 1914-18 but, more particularly, their aftermath. Picture a Britain where over 800,000 fathers, brothers, husbands and sons have been killed. The vast majority of those – if they have a known grave – are buried far from home. Sometimes the only things relatives have left are the initial fatal letter from the authorities, a mass-produced scroll of honour ‘signed’ by the King on behalf of a grateful nation and probably a Death Penny – a large copper disc bearing a picture of Britannia and inscribed with the name of the deceased.

DEATH PENNY

TPOTL coverIt is 1921. In Britain, dignified war memorials, paid for by public subscription, are beginning to be dedicated. In France and Belgium most cities and towns within artillery range of the Old Front Line stand in ruins, while villages are usually reduced to random piles of shattered bricks. The dead are everywhere. In places where the living have yet to re-establish themselves there are crosses. Thousands upon thousands of simple wooden crosses, distinguished one from the other with a basic aluminium strip, letters stamped on it and pinned to the wood. A former officer, now a worker for what would become the Commonwealth War Graves Commission explains his mission:

“There are going to be cemeteries with white grave markers – gardens of sleep – real English gardens. There will be wallflowers and forget-me-nots and pansies and bible words cut in stone. They’ll be places that their families can visit and hopefully find some comfort. I was meant to bring their boys home; this is the best alternative that I’m able to offer.”

Harry Blythe makes his living meeting a macabre but necessary demand. He travels the shattered countryside, on commission from relatives, taking photographs of the crosses, or the places of which dead men spoke in their letters home. There were three Blythe brothers, Will, Harry and Francis. Only Harry has survived the conflict. As in other silent houses across the country, mothers did what mothers always do – adjust and try to get on with things:

“In the weeks after Will’s death, Margaret Blythe had cleaned out his room, boxing up her son’s books, birds’ eggs and football boots ….. everything of Will had moved up into the attic.”

The story hinges on Harry and Francis’s widow Edie. Edie has received an envelope in which is photograph of Francis. No words. No explanation. No sender. The postmark is smudged beyond interpretation. She and Harry have, in the years since Francis was reported missing in action, exhausted themselves interrogating an overwhelmed bureaucracy in a vain attempt to locate a grave.

Body text

“Most of the burials here have no names, he sees. These men have all been swallowed up by the earth, their identities gone, along with their futures. Thy have lost their bones, their blood, and the name that bound it all together and made them into that particular man.”

Harry and Edie travel to The Old Front Line independently, but their paths converge. There is a painful frisson running through the narrative because Harry is – and probably always was – deeply in love with Edie, and in one of their last conversations, fuelled by whisky and within the sound of the guns, Francis bitterly confronts his brother with the prospect of Edie being a fraternal legacy after his own death.

By 1921, pilgrimages to The Old Front Line have become big business. Visitors are everywhere, armed with commercially printed guide books; some search for graves, others visit their old haunts. Caroline Scott lets us shadow Harry and Edie on their heartbreaking journey from the Houthulst Forest and Ypres in the north, via Arras and down further south to the point where the French manned the front line trenches of a line that ran from the Belgian coast to Switzerland.

TPOTL008

Ironically, the answer to the mystery of Francis and the anonymous letter is revealed not on Flanders Fields but far away in the dusty south, in a sun kissed village physically untouched by the carnage, but with a brand new memorial to its missing sons waiting to be unveiled.

Wilfred Owen wrote, concerning his work, “The Poetry is in the pity.” Caroline Scott echoes this message. Such was the disconnect between life in the trenches and home that, for many men, returning on leave was not the joyous temporary reprieve from hell that we might imagine:

“How could she admit to anyone how difficult she had found it to be with him? That she didn’t know how to speak to him? That she felt some relief when the week ended and he went back? How can she tell anyone how she opened all the windows after he went, and scrubbed the floors, and boiled the bed sheets?”

The power and poignancy of this novel will cause it to be spoken of alongside such classics as Covenant With Death, the Regeneration Trilogy and Birdsong. It is available now, and published by Simon & Schuster.

TPOTL010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A MINUTE TO MIDNIGHT . . . Between the covers

AMTM header

There’s probably a PhD somewhere waiting for the person who writes a thesis on the ratio of fictional female FBI agents to their male counterparts, then setting this against the equation among real-life graduates of Quantico. In the world of crime fiction, there is certainly equal opportunity. The most celebrated is probably the indominatable Clarice Starling (Thomas Harris) but many others run her close, including Alex Morse (Greg Iles), Smokey Barratt (Cody McFadyen), Kathryn Dance (Jeffery Deaver), Kimberley Quincy (Lisa Gardner) and Lacey Sherlock (Cathrine Coulter). David Baldacci has bought into the idea with his Agent Atlee Pine, who he introduced in Long Road To Mercy (2018). That title is something of a pun because Atlee Pine’s twin sister was abducted one mysterious night thirty years earlier and her name – you’ve guessed it – is Mercy.

AMTM coverAtlee Pine has anger management issues, and A Minute To Midnight begins as she is put on gardening leave for kicking the you-know-what out of a child rapist. She decides to use this enforced leisure time in another attempt to find out what happened on the fateful night when her sister was abducted and she was left with a fractured skull. Accompanied by her admin assistant Carol Blum, she revisits the scene of the trauma, the modest town of Andersonville, Georgia. Tumbleweed is the word that first comes to mind about Andersonville, but it scrapes a living from tourists wishing to visit the remains of the Confederate prisoner of war camp which, in its mere fourteen months of existence, caged over thirty thousand Union prisoners of whom nearly thirteen thousand were to perish from wounds, disease and malnutrition.

The house where Pine, Mercy and their parents lived is now little more than a tumbledown shack lived in by a shambolic old man, and revisiting her childhood bedroom brings the agent emotional grief but no further clues as to what happened that night. Why was she spared and Mercy taken? Or was it the other way round? Were her parents drunk and drugged out of their minds downstairs while the abductor did his business?

David BaldacciA series of apparently motiveless murders in Andersonville diverts Pine from the search for her own personal truth, and she is soon enlisted to help the understaffed and under-resourced local cops. The first murder victims – a man and a woman – are killed elsewhere but then delivered to Andersonville bedecked as bride and groom respectively. When it turns out that they were both involved in the porn industry, what first appears to be a significant lead runs into a brick wall.

Pine’s personal quest is ever present, and Baldacci weaves this thread into the fabric of the search for the present day serial killer. For my taste there are rather too many occasions where the narrative is propped up by the investigators explaining things to each other, but this is a cleverly written thriller by a master craftsman in the genre. The Andersonville killings are solved, and Atlee Pine is subject to some uncomfortable revelations about her own back-story, but this is not the end of the matter. David Baldacci clearly has more secrets up his sleeve as an addictive series begins to take shape. A Minute To Midnight is published by Macmillan and is out on 14th November.

For more on books by David Baldacci click here.

 

 

THE BLACK HILLS . . . Between the covers

TBH header

He may not have been the first to do so, but George MacDonald Fraser entertained many of us with the idea of writing novels where we get to meet actual key players from history. His archetypal bounder Harry Flashman, himself nicked from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, rubbed shoulders and crossed swords with a variety of celebrities, including Otto von Bismarck, Abraham Lincoln, and Emperor Franz Joseph. The late Philip Kerr narrowed things down as he introduced us to Heinrich Himmler, Reinhardt Heydrich and Joseph Goebbels in his Bernie Gunther novels.

MJ Trow is a former history teacher who knows his stuff. He has written successful series featuring a much-maligned Inspector Lestrade, a nosy (autobiographical) history teacher-cum-sleuth ‘Mad’ Maxwell, and the Elizabethan dramatist and, if Trow is to be believed, spy – Kit Marlowe. The Black Hills is the latest in the series featuring former US army captain Matthew Grand, and London ex-journalist James Batchelor. Click the links to read my reviews of The Ring and The Island – two earlier episodes in the career of these private investigators.

TBHOne of the enjoyable conceits of the series is the comparison of how the two men behave when out of their cultural comfort zone. Grand is no gnarled backwoodsman, as his parents are wealthy New Hampshire patricians, but there is generally more fun to be had when Batchelor is trying to navigate the social niceties – or lack of them – in America. Trow, like MacDonald Fraser and Kerr, is a shameless name-dropper and we are not many pages into The Black Hills before we have bumped into George Armstrong Custer and broken into The White House to have a conversation with its current occupant, Ulysses Simpson Grant.

Custer is, to my generation and those before it, a ‘big name’. His vainglorious death at the Battle of The Little Bighorn remains the stuff of legend, but it was only fairly recently that I learned of his dashing exploits in the American Civil War. Back, however, to our current plot. Custer is a key witness in a financial fraud case which threatens to expose grave wrongdoings at the heart of US government and, after an attempt on his life on the streets of Washington, Grand and Batchelor are given the task of watching his back when he returns to Fort Abraham Lincoln, an outpost in North Dakota beyond which lie only the eponymous Black Hills and numerous ‘hostiles’ – those we now call native Americans but, in the usage of the day, ‘injuns’.

CJI readily put my hand up. When I read the words The Black Hills, the first image that flashed before my eyes was that of Doris Day in her buckskins and with her blonde bob under a troopers’ hat. Yes, my age is showing, but the 1953 film Calamity Jane starring Doris Day in the title role featured great songs like The Deadwood Stage, Secret Love and The Black Hills of Dakota. Trow is pretty much of my generation. He was a couple of years behind me at a minor public school (but don’t hold that against either of us). Never one to miss a trick, he features Calamity Jane in The Black Hills but, my oh my, Doris Day she ain’t. Short, pug-ugly and a stranger to personal hygiene, Jane Cannery is a fixture at Fort Abraham Lincoln. She is rarely sober and earns her living by washing the long johns of the Seventh Cavalry men who guard the frontier. She is notoriously quick on the draw with her Navy Colt, and the soldiers take care to give her a wide berth when she is in one of her moods.

Military history buffs will wince when I tell them that Frederick Benteen and Marcus Reno are among the officers who cross the path of Grand and Batchelor in this hugely entertaining novel, as they will know precisely what lies ahead. Even a wonderful storyteller like MJ Trow cannot rewrite history but they can bring it to life and weave an enthralling story between the threads of what actually happened.

The Black Hills is published by Severn House and is available now in print. The Kindle is out on 1st November.

bhsummer00027

ENGLAND’S FINEST . . . Between the covers

EF header

For newcomers to the sublime world of Arthur Bryant and John May, the new collection of short stories written by their biographer, Christopher Fowler, contains a handy pull-out-and-keep guide to the personnel doings of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. OK, I lie – don’t try and pull it out because it will wreck a beautiful book, but the other bits are true.

Bryant & May are both impossibly old, and so this gives Fowler the licence to set their investigations anywhere between the Blitz and Brexit. These stories gleefully span the years, and established B&M hands are rewarded with the usual mix of arcane cultural references, one-liner gags, London psychogeography and stunning investigative insights from Arthur. Cosy entertainment? Not a bit of it. Fowler leavens the fun with a sense of melancholy which provides a haunting echo to the laughter.

9780857525697.jpg-nggid047297-ngg0dyn-292x0-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010Leaving aside the pen pictures, introductions and postscripts, there are twelve stories. They are, for the most part, enjoyably formulaic in a Sherlockian way in that something inexplicable happens, May furrows his brow and Arthur comes up with a dazzling solution. Think of a dozen elegant variations of The Red Headed League, but with one or two being much darker in tone. Bryant & May and the Antichrist, for example, is a sombre tale of an elderly woman driven to suicide by the greed of a religious charlatan, while Bryant & May and the Invisible Woman reflects on the devastating effects of clinical depression. The stories are, of course set in London, apart from the delightfully improbable one where Arthur and John solve a murder within the blood-soaked walls of Bran Castle, once the des-res of Vlad Dracul III. Bryant & May and the Consul’s Son revisits Fowler’s fascination with the lost rivers of London, while Janice Longbright and the Best of Friends lets the redoubtable Ms L take centre stage.

The gags are as good as ever. While investigating a crime in a tattoo parlour, Arthur is mistaken for a customer and asked if he has a design in mind:

“I once considered having something on my right bicep but I couldn’t make up my mind between Sir Robert Peel and Dianor Dors.”

When PCU boss Raymond Land is faced with a difficult choice:

“There crept upon his face the anxiety of an Englishman stricken with indecision. It was a look you could see every day in Pret A Manger when middle managers struggled to choose sandwich fillings.”

Idon’t know Christopher Fowler personally, but I infer from his social media presence that he is a thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan chap and, with his spending his time between homes in Barcelona and King’s Cross, he could never be described as a Little Englander. How wonderful, then, that he is the most quintessentially English writer of our time. His Bryant & May stories draw in magical threads from English culture. There is the humour, which recalls George and Weedon Grossmith, WS Gilbert, and the various ‘Beachcombers’ down the years, particularly DB Wyndham Lewis and JB Morton. Fowler’s eagle eye for the evocative power of mundane domestic ephemera mirrors that of John Betjeman, while his fascination with the magnetic pull of the layers of history beneath London’s streets channels Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair.

This collection of short stories is a bar counter full of delicious Tapas rather than the sumptuous four course meal of a full novel, but the appetisers do what they are meant to do – stimulate the palate and make us hungry for more. England’s Finest is published by Doubleday and is out on 31st October.

For more reflections on Bryant & May – and the genius of their creator – click the image below.

Link

ALL HIS PRETTY GIRLS . . . Between the covers

AHPG header

AHPG coverAlyssa Wyatt is pretty much your showcase American Mom. Not Middle American geographically, as she lives in New Mexico, but she ticks most of the other boxes; handsome successful husband, two teenage kids, nice house and a fulfilling career – as a cop. Like so many fictional law enforcement types, she has a dark past centred in childhood trauma, but what is done is done, and she lives for Holly, Isaac and husband Brock.

Detective Wyatt and her professional partner Cord are at the forefront of the investigation into a missing woman. Callie McCormick has no apparent enemies apart from the person who has abducted her from her smart home. There is no ransom demand, no body and no progress in the police investigation. What we do have is an increasingly angry Mr McCormick and a detective squad room with a worryingly empty whiteboard, and fanciful sightings multiplying by the hour once McCormick offers a hefty cash reward for information.

Charly CoxCharly Cox reveals to us the identity of the bad guy fairly early in the piece. Or, rather, she doesn’t. Over enigmatic? Quite probably, but to say more would ruin the fun. Alyssa and Cord chase their tails with more determination than success, while the sadist at the centre of the mayhem plans his next atrocity.

What it may lack in nuance, All His Pretty Girls more than compensates for in punch, narrative drive and sheer energy. Albuquerque, New Mexico, is known as The Land of Enchantment, and also the setting for the epic TV series Breaking Bad. It is also home to author Charly Cox. She says that she enjoys eating copious amounts of green chili and other spicy foods, and there is plenty of heat and burn in this novel. She has come up with a sensational – and very clever – plot twist in this, her debut novel and, although the first half of the story is familiar Silence of The Lambs territory – serial killer, murdered women, frustrated cops desperate for clues – Cox then springs a breathtaking surprise on us and the remaining pages just fly by.

All His Pretty Girls is available as a Kindle on 23rd October, and is published by Hera. Hera is a brand new, female-led, independent digital publisher, founded in 2018. They say:

“We’re on a mission to publish the very best in commercial fiction. From gripping psychological suspense, police procedurals and serial killer thrillers, to romance, heartwarming sagas, quirky uplifting fiction and sexy, glamorous contemporary fiction.”

Don’t be misled, however, into thinking that All His Pretty Girls is Chick Lit. Yes, a female is the central character, but there’s no shortage of graphic violence and enough of the ‘mean streets’ to satisfy fans of hard-boiled crime.

hera_logo.f9dd7a1f0ca9

THE MAN ON THE STREET . . . Between the covers

TMOTS header

J blue greenimmy Mullen has been round the block. In the Falklands War his ship takes a direct hit from an Argentine fighter bomber and he watches his mates consumed by the ensuing fireball. Back home recuperating, with a pittance of a pension, he stacks supermarket shelves, battles with his nightmares and presides over the slow erosion of his marriage as drink becomes his only solace. Walking home one night from the boozer, he intervenes to prevent a girl being slapped around by her boyfriend. All very gallant, but the result is the boyfriend (an off-duty copper) lying insensible on the pavement in an expanding pool of blood.

TMOTSAfter the inevitable prison sentence Jimmy is now out on early release, but homeless, his ex-wife now remarried, and his daughter a complete stranger to him. Home is anywhere he can kip out of the rain. His social circle? A few fellow vagrants, raddled by drink, mental instability, drugs – or a toxic combination of all three. Their home-from-home is a charity called The Pit Stop where volunteers provide, food, showers and clothing.

One night as Jimmy lies under the stars on the banks of Newcastle’s River Tyne, voices intrude on his uneasy dreams. These are not the screaming ghosts of his former shipmates, but real human voices, here and now. And they are arguing. Two men, becoming increasingly agitated. Jimmy rolls over in his sleeping bag and takes a look. One man, tall, bulky, looks a bit like a bricklayer. The other fellow, slightly built, long hair, carrying a man-bag, looks a bit like a social worker. “Not my fight” thinks Jimmy. He learned that lesson years ago on his fatal walk home from the pub. As he drifts back into fitful sleep, he hears what he thinks is a splash, but the cocoon of his sleeping bag enfolds him. The words “not my fight” murmur in his ear.

S blue greenome time later Jimmy sees a newspaper article featuring a young woman appealing for news about her missing father. The picture she is holding is of a man Jimmy thinks he recognises. It is the smaller man from the argumentative pair who disturbed his sleep a few weeks since. Or is it? With the help of a couple of his more social-media-savvy pals from The Pit Stop, Jimmy contacts the woman – Carrie Carpenter – and they are drawn into a mystery involving police (both complacent and corrupt), environmental activists, crooked businessmen and – as we learn near the end of the book – grim sexual deviancy.

This is a well written and convincing thriller with sensitive eyes and ears for the plight of ex-servicemen who, like Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy are only accepted by society when there is rough work to be done.

Trevor WoodA blue greenuthor Trevor Wood (right) has lived in Newcastle for 25 years and considers himself an adopted Geordie, though he says that he still can’t speak the language. Despite this, his phonetic version of the unique Geordie accent is good. Normally, I shy away from books where writers try too hard to convey accents in dialogue, but I think Trevor Wood does rather well here. Perhaps this is a result of my addiction to my box set of When The Boat Comes In.

The Man on the Street, Trevor’s debut novel, will be published by Quercus as a Kindle on 31st October, and as a hardback in Spring 2020.

Quercus

 

SIGHT UNSEEN . . . Between the covers

SU header

E bluenora Andresson is a distinguished English actress. Perhaps slightly past her youthful allure, she remains a beauty who can pick and choose her projects, and her films are highly thought of. She has three problems clouding her horizon. The first is, as they say, a bastard. She has a brain tumour. It has been treated but she is only too aware that she may have won a battle, but not the war. Problems two and three are related – literally. She is separated from her Swedish husband, but they have a son – a young man called Malo – who is something of a wrong ‘un. The third problem relates to the words “they have a son”. Fact is, she does – her husband doesn’t. Malo’s father is actually a millionaire businessman named Hayden Prentice, and Malo was conceived during a drunken one-nighter just before Enora’s wedding. So why is Harold a problem? Although he is now an honest man, with legitimate investments and business interests, he made his initial fortune as a drug baron.

Although Enora and Prentice (known hereafter as ‘H’) are now reunited after a fashion, the relationship does not extend to the bedroom, and Enora’s current interest is Pavel, an enigmatic scriptwriter. Pavel’s Eastern European allure is rather manufactured, however, as his real name is the more prosaic Paul. What he says about the art of story-telling, however, could equally apply to Graham Hurley’s own magic wand:

“The best stories detach you from real life. You float away down the river of fiction, lie back and enjoy he view. The storyteller’s challenge is to cast a spell, and the longer that spell lasts, the better.”

T bluehe main plot of Sight Unseen hinges around the kidnapping of Malo’s Colombian girlfriend Clemmie. When a ransom demand of a million dollars is received her father, who, like many rich men from that benighted republic, has kidnap insurance, simply hands the case over to the experts. H, however, has other ideas, and decides to do things his way.

SUHayden Prentice is a brilliant creation and is, in many ways, at the centre of the book, as he was when we first met Enora in Curtain Call. Formerly known as Saucy from his initials, he is hewn from the same rich vein of villainy that produced the elemental force that was Bazza McKenzie in Graham Hurley’s brilliant Joe Faraday novels. H is blunt, foul-mouthed but very, very shrewd. Hurley will not be at all perturbed were readers to visualise H rather like the formidable Harold Shand, as portrayed unforgettably by the great Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday.

As the ransom deadline passes, with the customary video as proof-of-life, and a hiking up of the cash demand, H is increasingly convinced that Malo is, somehow more involved in the affair than simply being the anxious boyfriend. The insidious and infamous County Lines drug trade raises its ugly head, and H delivers a brief but brilliantly incisive summary of the endgame he sees engulfing the England he once knew:

“You think your own little town is safe? You think those sweet kids of yours won’t ever get in trouble with drugs? Wrong. And you know why? Because something we all took for granted has gone. Families? Mums? Dads? A proper job? Getting up in the morning? Totally bolloxed. No-one has a clue who they are any more, or where they belong, and there isn’t a single politician in the country who can tell them what to do about it.”

H has a country mansion, Flixcombe, not far from the Dorset town of Bridport. Despite its artisan bakeries, galleries and twee delis there is a grim underbelly which involves, inevitably, drugs. A local tells Enora that although the main players are little more than children:

“Nothing frightens these little bastards …. streetwise doesn’t begin to cover it. They think they’re immortal. Remember that.”

T bluehe finale is astonishing – a bravura affair which only a fine writer like Graham Hurley could hope to get away with. No spoilers, but it involves a doomed English explorer and an old ballad which once inspired Bob Dylan. Sight Unseen is published by Severn House and is out now.

SH

THE HOCUS GIRL . . . Between the covers

THG header

I redt was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that Britain had anything like an organised police force. The Hocus Girl is set well before that time, and even a developing community like Leeds relied largely on local Constables and The Watch – both institutions being badly paid, unsupported and mostly staffed by elderly individuals who would dodder a mile to avoid any form of trouble or confrontation. There were, however, men known as Thieftakers. The title is self-explanatory. They were men who knew how to handle themselves. They were employed privately, and were outside of the rudimentary criminal justice system.

THG coverSuch a man is Simon Westow. He is paid, cash in hand, to recover stolen goods, by whatever means necessary. His home town of Leeds is changing at an alarming rate as mechanised cloth mills replace the cottage weavers, and send smoke belching into the sky and chemicals into the rivers. We first met Westow in The Hanging Psalm, and there we were also introduced to young woman called Jane. She is a reject, a loner, and she is also prone to what we now call self-harm. She is a girl of the streets, but not in a sexual way; she knows every nook, cranny, and ginnel of the city; as she shrugs herself into her shawl, she can become invisible and anonymous. Her sixth sense for recognising danger and her capacity for violence – usually via a wickedly honed knife – makes her an invaluable ally to Westow. I have spent many enjoyable hours reading the author’s books, and it is my view that Jane is the darkest and most complex character he has created. In many ways The Hocus Girl is all about her.

T redhe 1820s were a time of great domestic upheaval in Britain. The industrial revolution was in its infancy but was already turning society on its head. The establishment was wary of challenge, and when Davey Ashton, a Leeds man with revolutionary ideas is arrested, Simon Westow – a long time friend – comes to his aid. As Ashton languishes in the filthy cell beneath Leeds Moot Hall, Westow discovers that he is treading new ground – political conspiracy and the work of an agent provocateur.

The books of Chris Nickson which are set in the nineteenth century have echoes of Blake contrasting England’s “green and pleasant land ” with the “dark satanic mills”. Yes, scholars will tell us that this is metaphor, and that the Blake’s mills were the churches and chapels of organised religion, but a more literal interpretation works, too. By the time we follow the career of Tom Harper, all the green has turned black, and the pounding of the heavy machinery is a soundtrack which only ceases on high days and holidays. Simon Westow, on the other hand, half a century or more earlier, sees a Leeds where twenty minutes walk will still find you a cottage built of stone that is still golden and unblackened by industrial soot. There are still becks and streams which run clear, uncoloured by cloth dyes and industrial sludge. Just occasionally – very occasionally – there is an old woman still working on her hand loom, determined and defiant in the face of mechanised ‘progress’.

“Up on a ridge, a large steam engine thudded, powering a hoist. A single stone chimney rose, belching out its smoke. No grass anywhere. The land seemed desolate and wasted, people by miners in pale trousers ans waistcoats, blue kerchiefs knotted at the neck. Women and children bent over heaps of coal, breaking up bog black chunks as they sorted them.

This was progress, Simon thought as he watched. It looked more like a vision of hell on earth.”

I red am not sure if Nickson would have been battling with the Luddites as they fought to hold back mechanisation. He is too intelligent a writer to be unaware that the pre-industrial age may have had its golden aspects but life, for the poor man, was still nasty, brutish and short. His anger at the results of ordinary people being sucked into cities such as Leeds to be set to work tending the clattering looms and feeding the furnaces is palpable. Chris Nickson is a political writer of almost religious intensity who, paradoxically, never preaches. He lets his characters have their hour on the stage, and lets us make of it what we will. The Hocus Girl is powerful, persuasive and almost impossible to put down. It is published by Severn House and is available now.

For more on Chris Nickson’s historical novels click the image below.

Click image

 

SHAMUS DUST . . . Between the covers

SD HEADER

“Lately, I’d lost the gift. As simple as that. Had reacquainted with nights when sleep stands in shrouds and shifts its weight in corner shadows, unreachable. You hear the rustle of its skirts, wait long hours on the small, brittle rumours of first light, and know that when they finally arrive they will be the sounds that fluting angels make.”

Every so often a book comes along that is so beautifully written and so haunting that a reviewer has to dig deep to even begin to do it justice. Shamus Dust by Janet Roger is one such. The author seems, as they say, to have come from nowhere. No previous books. No hobnobbing on social media. So who is Janet Roger? On her website she says:

Janet Roger was apprehended for the first time at age three, on the lam from a strange new part of town. The desk sergeant looked stern, but found her a candy bar in his pocket anyway. Big mistake. He should have taken away her shoelaces. She’s been on the run ever since.”

Make of that what you will, but she goes on to admit that she is a huge Raymond Chandler fan:

“But what really got under my skin was Marlowe’s voice guiding me around the next street corner, and beyond it into a stale apartment block or a down and low bar. He invited me in to look over his shoulder, let me see the highs and the lows, talked me through them and then put me in the seat beside him to drive me home.”

So, what exactly is Shamus Dust? Tribute? Homage? Pastiche? ‘Nod in the direction of..’? ‘Strongly influenced by ..’? Pick your own description, but I know that if I were listening to this as an audio book, narrated in a smoky, world-weary American accent, I could be listening to the master himself. The phrase ‘Often imitated, never bettered’ is an advertising cliché and, of course, Janet Roger doesn’t better Chandler, but she runs him pretty damn close with a taut and poetic style that never fails to shimmer on the page.

SD3

Newman – he’s so self-contained that we never learn his Christian name – fled to to Britain during the Depression, had a ‘good war’ fighting Hitler, and now scratches a living as a PI in a shattered post-war London. It is late December 1947, and the cruelties of a bitter winter are almost as debilitating as Luftwaffe bombs. Newman is hired by a prominent city politician to minimise the reputational damage when a tenant in one of his properties is murdered.

Big mistake. Councillor Drake underestimates Newman’s intelligence and natural scepticism. Our man uncovers a homosexual vice ring, a cabal of opportunists who stand to make millions by rebuilding a shattered city, and an archaeological discovery which could halt their reconstruction bonanza.

There are more murders. The weather worsens. The clock ticks relentlessly towards 1948 as a battered but implacable Newman defies both the conspirators and corrupt coppers to see justice done. Along the way, he is helped – and entranced – by a young doctor, but she seems elusive and beyond his reach. As he goes about his grim business, however, he views London with eyes which may be weary, but still have laughter in them:

“..two paintings in the centre of each of the blank walls, one gray on white, the other white on gray to ring the changes. They might have been Picassos from his plumbing period, or a layout for steam pipes in an igloo; either way, they gave the room the all-round charm of an automated milking parlor.”

“At the street corner there was record store closed for lunch, with a sign over that read, Old Time Favourites, Swing, Hot Jazz, Popular, Classical, Opera and Foreign. The rest it was leaving to the opposition.”

By the end, Newman has played a game of chess in which his board has had most of the key pieces knocked off it by a succession of opponents not necessarily cleverer than he, but certainly with more power and fewer scruples. He survives the endgame – Janet Roger creates a divine metaphor in the final three pages – and his darkness is lifted by an extraordinary act of compassion and generosity to a fellow pawn in the cruel game. I started with Newman’s voice. Let him have the final say as he raises a glass to his lost doctor.

“Waiters ghosted. The company men were long gone. My table was cleared excpt for the glass in my hand. I held it up to the light, turned it round through a hundred shades of red, and wished the doctor all the good luck in the world. Then drank and set the empty glass on its side and called Alekhine over for the check.”

Shamus Dust is published by Matador and is out next month.

SD1

 

 

 

 

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑