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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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RESTLESS COFFINS . . . Between the covers

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This is the final part of MP Wright’s trilogy which began with Heartman in 2014. That, and the middle novel All Through The Night (2016), tell the story of Joseph Tremaine “JT” Ellington, an ex-cop with a tragic past. JT has been forced to leave his native Barbados as a result of his upsetting certain powerful people on the island; his personal fate, however, is nothing compared to that of his wife and daughter who have perished in a fire that was anything but accidental.

TRCEllington, broke and broken-hearted has ended up in 1960s Bristol, where he uses his police training to eke out a living as a private investigator. When he receives the news that his only sister, Bernice, has died in Barbados, he is compelled to return home to wind up her affairs. Hovering in the background, however, is Ellington’s violent criminal cousin Victor, who has reappeared after rumours of his tumbling to his death on the rocky slopes of Bristol’s Clifton Gorge prove to be greatly exaggerated. When Ellington arrives in New York after the first leg of his journey home, he rapidly realises that ‘born-again’ Vic is involved in something much more dangerous – and potentially lethal – than his previous mildly illegal entrepreneurship within the West Indian community in Bristol.

Hooked into a deadly game of guns, drugs, deceit, deaths – and then more deaths – Ellington eventually arrives in Barbados, but only after a sojourn in New Orleans, where the city’s reputation for exotic violence is further enhanced. By now, three coffins have joined the travelling party. Much too honest and trusting for this venture, it eventually dawns on Ellington that these coffins are part of not only a drug deal, but also the means by which the violently despotic Barbados criminal named Monroe – almost certainly the killer of Ellington’s wife and daughter – will be despatched to join his ancestors.

Restless Coffins is strong stuff. There is no shortage of corpses, and endless variety in the ways they are killed. The villains are evil personified and the good guys – with the exception of Ellington himself – are few and far between. Mark Wright certainly takes a position regarding the way black people in the 1960s were treated by the indigenous British population. Although very little of the action in Restless Coffins takes place in England, readers of the previous two books will know that the attitude of white people towards those we now call The Windrush Generation is almost entirely negative. And, reading today’s newspaper, it seems that those problems are far from over.

M.P._Wright_2016_2Wright has made the decision to phonetically transcribe all the dialogue between the main characters in his books. I have to admit that in Heartman it was a source of irritation to me, but such is the pace and vigour of the action in Restless Coffins that it didn’t seem to matter as much this time around. The new ‘crime’ of Cultural Appropriation seems to me to be one of the most pointless, misguided and irrelevant of fashionable 21st century dogmas, so you will hear no complaint from me about a white Englishman writing a novel with an almost entirely black cast, complete with speech patterns, vocabulary and inflections.

The bottom line is that this is a crackerjack novel, full of action, humour, social observation, historical accuracy, brilliant topographical descriptions and the absolute sine qua non of a good book – a central character who is credible and described with subtlety and nuance. If you read this, and don’t care about JT Ellington and what happens to him, then you have a heart of stone and the emotional sensibility of a fruit fly.

Restless Coffins is published by Black and White Publishing and is out now.

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THE LONG SILENCE . . . Between the covers

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Tom Collins is a former cop. He has been persuaded by an American Irish compatriot to give up the blue uniform and night stick and move to Los Angeles where, in 1922, the burgeoning movie industry can use a guy who is handy with his fists and can be a reassuring and intimidating presence around stars besieged by reporters and other opportunists.

After a bright start working for the Famous Players-Lasky outfit, Collins has blotted his copybook and been sacked. He is now picking up scraps, albeit those dropped by the king of movie comedy, Mack Sennett. Sennett is not alone in his adoration of actress Mabel Normand, and when she is implicated in the sensational murder of top director William Desmond Taylor, he sets Collins the near-impossible task of solving Taylor’s shooting.

TLS coverThe most intriguing feature of this novel – and there are many – is the way O’Donovan drops us into the real life Hollywood of 1922. I knew something about the demise of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, was aware of Mack Sennett and, of course, the names Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford resonate with people of my generation who are reasonably well-read. But I had neither heard of – nor seen pictures of – Mabel Normand and, thanks to the wonders of Google, I could see instantly how she was able to mesmerise a generation of movie goers and readers of magazines. Those eyes! Tom Collins tells us about them quite early in the book.

“She was an odd-looking creature, with those huge, half-hooded eyes. Beautiful, no doubt about it, with that little-girl ringlety innocence so favored by the movie-going public. Once, at a party, he saw her light up a room with her laughter.”

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Collins is stranded in a Hollywood sea full of different kinds of sharks, but all of them deadly.The local cops figure him for the shooting of a Shorty Madden, a drug dealer who has been supplying cocaine, but they are minnows compared with the repulsive and vindictive Aloysius Divine, who was busted for corruption when serving with Collins back in New York. He blames Collins for his downfall, and has sworn vengeance. Now, Divine is in The City of Angels working as a customs officer; he smells blood, and it belongs to Collins. Even more vindictive and remorseless is mob boss Tony Cornero. His business has been seriously compromised by the death of Madden, and he wants either the actual killer’s head – or that of Collins – on a plate.

ODonovanThis is a cracker of a book. To the casual observer, looking on from the safe distance of the best part of a century, Hollywood in the 1920s appears innocent and other-worldly. We might smile at the fluttering eyelashes and coy gestures of the female stars, and the black-and-white (both figuratively and literally) lack of ambiguity of the male heroes and villains but in reality the movie world was just as venal, corrupt and hard nosed as it is today. Gerard O’Donovan (right) lifts the stone from the ground and we see all manner of unpleasant – and deadly – creatures scurrying around in the unwelcome light. The first pages of the book might suggest that Tom Collins has told us all that he has to say, but I hope this is not the case. The Long Silence is published by Severn House, is available now in hardback and will be available as a Kindle on 1 May.

BAD COPS . . . Between the covers

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It is fair to say that Nick Oldham’s Lancashire copper Henry Christie has been around the block a few times. Twenty-four times, to be precise. Bad Cops is his twenty-fifth trip and Detective Superintendent Christie is off work, recovering from a gunshot wound. He has been making vague promises to his pub landlady girlfriend Alison that his days at the sharp end of British law enforcement are over, and he is going to spend his last days on the force sitting safely behind his desk until his pension pot matures and he can retire to The Tawny Owl and concentrate on pulling pints and working the restaurant’s elaborate coffee machine.

imageHis resolve weakens, however, when he is visited by two of his more senior officers, his own Chief Constable and the newly appointed boss of the Central Yorkshire force, John Burnham. The Yorkshire police has suffered a disastrous inspection, and Burnham has been appointed to cleanse the Augean Stables.

Christie is assured that he will only be required to cast his experienced eye over the murder books pertaining to two unsolved killings look for omissions and inconsistencies, and report back to Burnham. What follows is a journey into a nightmarish world of police corruption, people trafficking, financial fraud – and contract killing.

Nick Oldham gives us a fascinating cast of characters. Readers new to Henry Christie will discover a bruised and (frequently) battered old style officer who, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, is “not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven.” Even he accepts that his philandering days are over, much as he is attracted to his investigating partner Detective Sergeant Diane Daniels. Those of us who have followed breathlessly in Christie’s turbulent wake in previous novels will know that Nick Oldham doesn’t mess about when creating villains, but he has certainly outdone himself here with Detective Chief Inspector Jane Runcie, who is as corrupt, foul-mouthed, sexually predatory and downright malevolent as anyone he has previously brought to the page.

imageOldham (right) is a retired copper himself, so readers are guaranteed procedural details which are described with total authenticity, whether they be the smelly reality of unmarked police cars used for observation, complete with the detritus of discarded fast food wrappers and the inevitable flatulent consequences, and an intriguing – and quite scary – use for Blutac and two pence pieces.

Like the previous Henry Christie novels Bad Cops is short, sharp, and sometimes shocking. You will get through it in a couple of sessions at the most and if ever a novel deserved the old latin adage multum in parvo it is this. Oh, yes, one last thing. If you can find a more powerful and gut-wrenching final paragraph this year, I’ll buy you a pint. Or six. Bad Cops is published by Severn House and is out now.

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MIND OF A KILLER . . . Between the covers

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We are in London and it is the Spring of 1862. William Ewart Gladstone is two years into his second spell as British Prime Minister, The Irish Question dominates domestic politics and the campaigning journalist WT Stead is deputy editor of the evening newspaper The Pall Mall Gazette. Among his journalists is Alec Lonsdale, younger son of the Vicar of Raunds and brother of the prominent barrister, James Lonsdale.

Alec, on his way home from an unsuccessful attempt to interview the director of the Zoological Gardens, chances upon a very public emergency. A terraced house is ablaze, and its occupant – a Mr Donovan – has perished in the fire. When his body is hauled from the wreckage his head has been destroyed, but further examination reveals the astonishing fact that part of his brain – the cerebrum – has been surgically removed.

imageSimon Beaufort provides an exhilarating and madcap journey through the contrasting mileus of Victorian London. We experience gentlemen’s clubs with their subtle ambience of brandy and fine cigars, the visceral stench of low-life pubs and doss houses and the clatter of the hot lead printing presses of a vibrant daily newspaper. Lonsdale – with the assistance of Hulda Friedrichs, a fiercely independent early feminist journalist – painstakingly uncovers a nightmarish plot hatched by scientists who are obsessed with eugenics, and believe that the future of the human race depends on selective breeding and the suppression of ‘the undeserving poor’.

Alec Lonsdale is a thoroughly admirable hero who is as handy with his fists as he is with his pen. Most of the staff at the Pall Mall Gazette are actual historical figures, beautifully researched and described. We have gore, mortuary scenes, fights a-plenty, scrupulous period detail and also a sly sense of fun as we observe the elaborate formal minuet of courtship, particularly between Alec and his future sister-in-law Anne. Eventually the conspiracy is exposed by Alec and Hulda, but not before we have an exuberant reprise of the ‘mad scientist’ trope.

Simon Beaufort? Simon is a ‘they’ rather than a ‘he’. Beau Riffenburgh is a Californian born and bred, an expert in polar exploration, and an American Football coach. His wife – and writing partner – is none other than Liz Cruwys, better known as Susanna Gregory, best-selling author of many historical novels featuring medieval investigator Matthew Bartholemew. Mind Of A Killer is published by Severn House, came out in hardback just before Christmas 2017, and is now available in Kindle.

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THE TIN GOD . . . Between the covers

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“And the guardians and their ladies,
Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
Put pudding on pauper plates.
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
They’ve paid for — with the rates.”

Verse two of the celebrated – and often parodied – ballad poem by the Victorian campaigning journalist George R Sims, In The Workhouse, Christmas Day. Most of us older folk know the poem and its melancholy message. An old man is sitting down to his Christmas dinner in the workhouse, but one memory is too much for him, and he angrily relates the tale of his late wife, who was forced to die of hunger on the streets because of the harshness of the workhouse regulations. The relevance of this to Chris Nickson’s The Tin God lies in the first line of the verse above, because the heroine of the story is the wife of Leeds copper Tom Harper, and she is standing for election to the workhouse Board of Guardians.

So? This Leeds in October 1897, and women simply did not stand for office of any kind, and when Annabelle Harper, along with several colleagues from the fledgling Suffrage movement decide to enter the election, it is a controversial decision, because the concept of women migrating from their proper places, be they the bedroom, the withdrawing room or the kitchen, is anathema to most of the ‘gentlemen’ in Leeds society.

TTG coverOutraged leading articles appear in local newspapers, but someone believes that the sword – or something equally violent – is mightier than the pen, and a homemade bomb destroys a church hall just before Annabelle Harper is due to speak to her supporters. The caretaker is tragically killed by the explosion, and matters go from bad to worse when more bombs are found, and several of the women candidates are threatened.

Superintendent Tom Harper is already involved in investigating the criminal aspects of the case, but when the husband of one of the women is murdered while sitting at his own kitchen table, the affair becomes a hunt for a murderer. The killer leaves a few tantalising clues, and Harper becomes conflicted between devoting every hour that God sends to tracking down the killer – and keeping his wife from becoming the next victim.

Nickson drops us straight onto the streets of his beloved Leeds. We smell the stench of the factories, hear the clatter of iron-shod hooves on the cobbles, curse when the soot from the chimneys blackens the garments on our washing lines and – most tellingly – we feel the pangs of hunger gnawing at the bellies of the impoverished. We have an intriguing sub-plot involving a smuggling gang importing illegal spirits into Leeds, authentic dialogue, matchless historical background and, best of all, a few hours under the spell of one of the best story tellers in modern fiction.

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You want more? Well, it’s there. Nickson is a fine musician and a distinguished music journalist, and he cunningly works into the plot one of the more notable musical names associated with Leeds and West Yorkshire, the folksong collector Frank Kidson (above). The killer shares Kidson’s passion for the old songs – if not his humanity and feelings for his fellow human beings – and he leaves handwritten fragments of English songs at the scenes of his attacks.

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The Tin God is published by Severn House and is available now. It will be obvious that I am a great admirer of Chris Nickson’s writing, and if you click the images below, you can read the reviews for some of his other excellent novels.

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GREEKS BEARING GIFTS . . . Between the covers

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philip-kerr“One of the greatest anti-heroes ever written,” says Lee Child of Bernie Gunther, the world weary, wise-cracking former German cop, and sometime acquaintance of such diverse historical characters as Reinhard Heydrich, Joseph Goebbels, Eva Peron and William Somerset Maugham. I was several chapters into this, the latest episode in Gunther’s career, when I heard the dreadful news of the death of his creator, Philip Kerr (left) at the age of 62. “No age at all,” as the saying goes.

We rejoin our man in 1957, where he is eking out a living in the economic miracle that is Konrad Adenauer’s West Germany. The prosperity and new international respectability created in a country that just ten years earlier lay devastated by war, has largely passed Gunther by. Under an assumed name, he is working as a mortuary attendant in a Munich hospital. It is not his ideal job, but as he says:

“So, until I could find myself something better, I was stuck with it and my customers were stuck with me. I certainly didn’t hear any of them complaining about my bedside manner.”

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After being blackmailed into taking part in a financial scam involving local politicians, Gunther manges to come out of the affair smelling, if not of roses, like something fairly neutral, like amaryllis. He is rewarded with a new job – that of an insurance adjuster, investigating fraudulent claims and saving his employers precious deutschmarks. Gunther reflects, with typical hard nosed perception, about the state of modern West Germany, with the Third Reich having done one of the most spectacular disappearing acts in history.

” Germany would try its best to be nice to everyone and, in the interests of making money, everyone else would try their best to forget what Germany had done during the war. Bureaucracy and trade were to be my country’s new method of conquering Europe, and lawyers and civil servants were to be its foot soldiers.

adenauerHitler could certainly have taken a lesson from the Old Man (Adenauer, left) It was not the men with guns who were going to rule the world but businessmen …. with their slide rules and actuarial tables, and thick books of obscure new laws in three different languages.”

Gunther is sent to Greece to investigate the sinking of boat used by a German maker of underwater films, but soon he finds the owner shot dead through both eyes, and a trail of deception and murder that links the sunken boat to the shameful treatment of Thessaloniki’s thousands of Jews during the war. They were deceived, robbed, brutalised – and finally shipped off to the death camps – by men who seem to be still alive and well in Athens.

As Isaac Watts wrote so memorably, “Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away..” and Gunther, while not dead yet, is not the man he was. He suffers a minor heart attack while chasing one of his suspects, but his remedy is not one that would appeal to modern cardiologists.

“But straightway I knew what needed to be done: I lurched into the café, ordered a large brandy, and lit a cigarette but not before snapping the filter off the filter to smoke it plain and get my breath. The old remedies are usually best. Throughout both wars it was a strong cigarette and a tot of something warm that kept the nerves in check, especially when the shells were falling around you like rocks at Muslim stoning. Once the nerves were sorted, the bullets wouldn’t touch you; and if they did, you hardly cared.”

Part of the delightfully complex plot involves the intervention of the Israeli secret service, the fearsome Mossad. The woman who is heading up their Athens operation is witheringly sarcastic when Gunther claims that, albeit under trying circumstances, he had kept a relatively clean conscience during the 1930s and 1940s.

” I’ve heard of the unicorn, the griffin, the great auk, the tart with a heart, and little green men from outer space. I’ve even heard of the good German, but I never thought to see one myself. You never voted for the Nazis, and you never liked Hitler. I suppose there was even a Jew you helped to survive the war. You hid him in your lavatory for a couple of days. And of course some of your best friends were Jews. It amazes me how many of us died.”

This is a magnificent book. Gunther’s cynicism, his basic decency, and his ability to keep the candle flame of his conscience flickering in the dark while still keeping his head attached to his body, are described by an author at the very peak of his powers. Philip Kerr may have passed from the sight of men, but Bernie Gunther is immortal.

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HALL OF MIRRORS . . . Between the covers

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HOMIf a more extraordinary duo of fictional detectives exists than Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May, then I have yet to discover them. The peculiar pair return in Hall of Mirrors for their fifteenth outing, and this time not only are they far from their beloved London, but we see a pair of much younger coppers on their beat in the 1960s. Fowler’s take on the period is typified by each of the fifty chapters of the novel bearing the title of a classic pop hit. We are also reminded of the strange fashions of the day.

“Two young men in Second World War army uniforms painted with ‘Ban The Bomb’ slogans were arguing with a pair of Chelsea Pensioners who clearly didn’t take kindly to military outfits being worn by trendy pacifists. They were briefly joined by a girl wearing a British sailor’s uniform with a giant iridescent fish on her head.”

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In attempt to keep them out of trouble, our heroes are given the task of being minders to an important witness in a fraud trial, but Monty Hatton-Jones is due at a country weekend party deep in rural Kent, and so John and Arthur must accompany him to Tavistock Hall. What follows is a delicious take on the Golden Age country house mystery, with improbable murders, secret passages, an escaped homicidal maniac and suspects galore. Things are complicated by nearby military manoeuvres involving the British army and their French counterparts. Fowler (above) reprises the great gag from Dr Strangelove – “Gentlemen – you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” Captain Debney, the British Commanding Officer is having a bad day.

“The menu for tonight’s hands Across The Water dinner has already gone up the Swanee. We had terrible trouble getting hold of courgettes, and now I hear there’s no custard available. I don’t want anything else going wrong. These are international war games. We can’t afford to have anyone hurt.”

The urbane John May is quite at home in the faded grandeur of Tavistock Hall, but Arthur is like a fish out of water. He also has an aversion to the countryside.

“It appeared to be the perfect Kentish evening, pink with mist and fresh with the scent of the wet grass. Bryant looked at it with a jaundiced eye. There was mud everywhere, the cows stank, and were all those trees really necessary? As a child he had been terrified of the bare, sickly elm in his street with a branch that scarped at his bedroom window like a witch’s hand and sent him under the blankets.”

 As usual with the B & M books, the jokes come thick and fast, but we are reminded that Fowler is a perceptive and eloquent commentator on the human condition. Arthur investigates the local parish church as its rector, Revd Trevor Patethric is a house guest – and suspect.

“Bryant pushed open the church door and entered. He had never felt comfortable in the houses of God, associating them with gruelling rites of childhood: saying farewell to dead grandfathers, and the observance of distant, obscure ceremonies involving hushed prayers, peculiarly phrased bible passages, muffled tears and shamed repentance.”

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 Eventually, of course, the pair – mostly through Arthur’s twisted thought processes – solve the crimes. Prior to revealing his theories on the murder to the assembled guests, however, Bryant has a slight misfortune with a missing painting hidden in a very unswept chimney. Covered in soot, he somehow lacks the gravitas of a Poirot or a Marple.

“Bryant had made a desultory attempt to wipe his face, but the result was more monstrous than before. He rose before them now, a lunatic lecturer in the physics of murder.”

Reading a crime novel shouldn’t be about being educated, but Hall of Mirrors teaches us many things. Those who didn’t already know will learn that Christopher Fowler is a brilliant writer. He is, in my view, out on his own in the way he weaves a magic carpet from a dazzling array of different threads: there is uniquely English humour, the sheer joy of the eccentricities of our language and landscape, labyrinthine plotting, and an array of arcane cultural references which will surely have Betjeman beaming down from heaven. Those of us who, smugly perhaps, consider ourselves as old Bryant & May hands will also now know the origins of Arthur’s malodorous scarf and also his cranky, clanky Mini.

Amidst the gags, the fizzing dialogue and the audacious plot twists Fowler waves his magic wand, and with the lightest of light touches dusts a page near the very end with poignancy and great compassion. Look out for the section that ends:

“Bryant looked in his mirror to try and catch another glimpse of them, but they had disappeared, ghosts of a London yet to come.”

 And do you want to know the best five words of the entire book? I’ll tell you:

Bryant and May Will Return

Hall of Mirrors is published by Quercus, and is available from 22nd March.

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ONLY THE DEAD CAN TELL . . . Between The Covers

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By my reckoning this is the fifteenth outing for Alex Gray’s veteran Glaswegian copper, William – now Detective Superintendent – Lorimer. A woman – who, if witnesses are to be believed, was a deeply unpleasant person – is found stabbed to death, her hands clutched around a top-of-the-range kitchen knife. Dorothy Guilford was widely disliked both within her own family and further afield while her husband, Peter – by contrast – has few detractors. Yet the working hypothesis of the police investigating Dorothy’s demise is that Peter Guilford did the deed.

OTDCT COVER SMALLLorimer has become bogged down in a partially – and only partially – successful investigation into murder, prostitution and people trafficking based in Aberdeen. In the Granite City some entrepreneurs, denied a living by the decline in the oil and gas industries, have taken to trading in other commodities – human lives. However, to borrow the memorable line from The Scottish Play, Lorimer’s team have “scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it.” The head of the gang responsible for taking young and innocent Romany women from impoverished Slovakian villages, and setting them to work in Scottish brothels is known only as “Max”. The very mention of his name is enough to silence witnesses, even those who have every reason to long for his downfall. But how – if at all – is Max connected to Peter Guilford, arrested for his wife’s murder, but now beaten within an inch of his life while on remand in Glasgow’s Barlinnie prison?

Alex Gray gives us an enthralling supporting cast. Ever present are the consultant psychologist, Dr Solomon Brightman and his wife Rosie, a pathologist who has the essential – but unenviable – task of literally eviscerating the human bodies which are the result of murder most foul. Young Detective Constable Kirsty Wilson goes above and beyond the call of duty to make sense of the confusing and contradictory ‘facts’ of the Dorothy Guilford case. All the while, though, she is facing a personal dilemma. Her boyfriend has just won the promotion of his dreams – a prominent position in his bank’s Chicago operation. But will Kirsty cast aside her own imminent promotion to Detective Sergeant, and follow James in his pursuit of The American Dream?

AlexGrayThe British police procedural – the Scottish police procedural, even – is a crowded field, and each author and their characters tries to bring something different to choosy readers. Where Alex Gray (right) makes her mark, time and time again, is that she is unafraid to show the better things of life, the timeless touches of nature in a summer garden, or the warmth of affection between characters, particularly, of course, the bond between William and Margaret Lorimer. Here is one such moment:

“She smiled as he selected a bottle from the fridge. The dusk was settling over the treetops, a haze of apricot light melting into the burnished skies …….she pulled a cardigan across her shoulders as she settled down on the garden bench, eyes gazing upwards as a thrush trilled its liquid notes. Live in the moment, she thought, breathing in the sweetness that wafted from the night-scented stocks.”

This is not to say that Gray wears rose-tinted spectacles. This is far, far from the case, and her scenes depicting the violence – both emotional and physical – that we inflict on one another are powerful, visceral and compelling.

A particular mention needs to be made of the deft touches Gray uses when writing about Margaret Lorimer. Here is a woman much to be envied in many ways. She has a loving husband, a stable and prosperous home life, and a teaching career in which she touches the lives of so many young people in her school. And yet, and yet. A cloud hovers over Margaret, and it is one that can never be blown from the otherwise blue sky. The couple’s inability to have children sometimes weighs heavily, especially when friends and colleagues are gifted with children. But Gray never allows Margaret to become embittered, and if she envies Rosie and Solomon, for example, then she keeps it to herself.

Only The Dead Can Tell is, quite simply, superbly written and plotted. It sums up everything that is golden and enthralling about a good book. It is published by Sphere, and will be out as a hardback and a Kindle on 22nd March.

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