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OUT FOR BLOOD . . . Between the covers

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Aberdeen, Scotland.The Granite City. To say that Police Scotland’s DI Eve Hunter has baggage would be something of an understatement. Physically and mentally damaged by a ruinous encounter with a notorious crime family, she is only allowed back to work on the understanding that she undergoes tortuous (for her) therapy sessions with Dr Shetty, the police psychologist. We first met Hunter in Hold Your Tongue, and you can read that review by clicking the link.

OFB 001We start with two corpses. One is an unidentified young woman, strung up by her neck to a tree on a golf course. The other, a young man, is found in more comfortable surroundings – his flat – but he is equally dead. As Hunter’s team begin to investigate the cases it seems that they could not be further apart. The dead man is an old boy of one of the area’s most prestigious independent schools, and has a rich father. The girl, however, is an Eastern European prostitute. Links between the two deaths slowly turn from gossamer to steel. Was one using the other? Is it that simple? Why do the names of powerful local figures crop up over and over again on the peripheries of the case?

In some ways we are on familiar territory here. We have the classic police procedural trope of the tired and overworked detectives trying to keep their family lives on track, while still having to give everything to ‘the job’. We have some coppers who are, if not actually corrupt, downright idle, their only concern being how to protect their pension Somehow, these stresses and strains of police work come over as fresh and as harrowing as if it were the first time we had read them.

This is not the first novel in recent years to highlight the deeply unpleasant trade in human lives carried out by Eastern European criminals. I live in a town where it happens, and nothing Deborah Massen (below) has written here is in any way exaggerated or fanciful. She vividly portrays the brutality of the men – and women – who run the rackets, and the misery of the girls who become enslaved.

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Masson showed in her previous book that she has a talent for having her police characters (and with them, we readers) pursue one line of enquiry, convinced that solution can only lie in that single direction, only for events to take a startling turn in another direction altogether. In proving that we are all wrong, and making the plot twist plausible, she takes a great risk, but I have to say her gamble pays off, and she produces a startling conclusion with the true flourish of a literary magician. Out For Blood is available in Kindle from Transworld Digital now, and will be out in paperback under the Corgi imprint on 10th December.

RIVER OF SINS . . . Between the covers

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A little while ago I reviewed a novel set in Worcestershire – it was the beginning of WW2, and it centred on the fictional village of Ambridge and, of course, featured The Archers. History of a very different kind now. River of Sins is the seventh in a series of historical mysteries written by Sarah Hawkswood set in and around the city of Worcester in the 12th century.

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I am new to the series but I enjoyed the fact that we have that most dependable of crime fiction tropes – a pair of investigators. There is a slight variation a theme in this case, as they are aided by an intrepid young apprentice. The dynamic between the three works well. Hugh Bradecote is the Under Sheriff, and is of noble birth with a degree of hauteur, while Sergeant Catchpoll is Worcester through-and-through, rough and ready, but very street-wise. Walkelin – the apprentice – is something of a ‘gofer’, but is bright, perceptive, and not afraid to speak his mind.

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The novel begins with a woman being brutally done to death on a small island in the River Severn on the northern outskirts of Worcester. We learn that the woman and her killer are acquainted, but just how, and what the significance is, only unfolds with the investigation.

The dead woman is Ricolde, known throughout the city as The Whore of Worcester. She was widely despised by the gentlewomen of the city, while being used by their husbands, but as Bradecote and Catchpoll discover, there was another dimension to Ricolde. Educated, and perfectly content to talk the night through with men who demanded nothing other than her company, she also gave money to the church to be used to ameliorate the misery of other women of the street who were less resilient than she.

The investigators struggle to find a motive for the murder. Moral disapproval doesn’t usually lead to someone being dismembered with a woodsman’s axe, but does the clue to Ricolde’s death lie deep in her past, and has it to do with the horrific scars on the soles of her feet, inflicted decades earlier?

Sarah Hawkswood’s Worcester is a place we can see, hear, feel, breathe – and smell – as the mystery unfolds. What is the River of the title? It is the River Severn, broad and deep, a source of fresh food, a vital artery of transport at a time when roads were just beaten dirt, but also a means of escape and concealment. With only the most rudimentary forensic skills available, Bradecote and Catchpoll must rely on the most basic and time-honoured methods of detection, means, motive and opportunity. This is an excellent detective story which also gives us an intriguing glimpse into a long-lost world.

River of Sins is published by Allison & Busby and will be out in paperback and as a Kindle on 19th November.

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THE BEACH PARTY MYSTERY . . . Between the covers

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41FEXmDAJYL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_It’s the summer of 1966 and Brighton journalist Colin Crampton – he’s the crime reporter for the Evening Chronicle – gets a tip off from a friendly local copper that there has been a murder in Embassy Court, an upmarket block of flats on the seafront. Racing to the scene to try to out-scoop his rival from the Evening Argus, he ducks under the crime scene tape and learns that the dead man is Claude Winterbottom, a financial consultant.

Reporters are sometimes accused of muck-raking, and Crampton does literally that as he holds his nose and sifts through Winterbottom’s dustbin. He soon finds a motive for the man’s death. The so-called ‘financial consultant’ was actually a fraudster, selling get-rich-quick schemes to people with more money than sense. The list of people Winterbottom has scammed is quite impressive, and it even includes Crampton’s landlady, the redoubtable Mrs Gribble.

indexPeter Bartram (right) doubles up on the enjoyment by giving us a parallel plot (which eventually weaves in with the murder of Winterbottom) involving an off-shore pirate radio station, Radio Sea Breeze. Younger readers used to the communication free-for-all we have today may be puzzled by the concept. Back in the 1960s licences to transmit radio were not readily available in the UK and record companies had a tight grip on who played their music. Taking their cue from America, enterprising broadcasters exploited a loophole in the law by using ships anchored in international waters as their radio stations. The most famous was probably Radio Caroline which was on the air, using five different ships with three different owners, from 1964 to 1990. It still exists, but is now fully digital – and legal.

The Beach Party Mystery is a highly entertaining merry-go-round involving, in no particular order, The Rolling Stones, the FBI, the KGB, MI5, auditions for a James Bond movie, a Mary Whitehouse soundalike – and the world’s most insanitary pub. Unsurprisingly, for a man who has spent his life as a journalist, Peter Bartram has a nice turn of phrase, and a keen eye:

“It was one of those picture book places you find in the Sussex countryside. There were ancient houses with oak beams and sagging roofs. There were moss-encrusted flint walls. There was an old stone church and graveyard with weathered headstones. There was a village hall with a noticeboard. It carried news of scouts’ picnics’ Women’s Institute keep-fit sessions and parish council meetings.”

I make no apology for being a huge fan of the Colin Crampton novels. Yes, they may be light in tone, and they don’t set out to examine the darker recesses of the criminal mind, but I love them. The Beach Party Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership and is out now, For reviews of the previous novels in the series, and also feature articles by Peter Bartram, click on the image below.

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THE MUSEUM OF DESIRE . . . Between the covers

MOD coverThe strange-looking empty mansion in the dry hills above Los Angeles is rented out as a venue for everything from cancer charity fundraisers to wild parties. As the much put-upon guy from the agency wearily pushes his cart of cleaning materials up the hill, he is expecting the usual joyless cocktail of spilled food, used needles and condoms. What he actually finds causes him to part company with his breakfast burrito.

In a stretch limo parked in front of the house, he finds four people, each very, very dead, and with the floor of the car swimming in blood. Cue another case for LAPD Detective Milo Sturgis and psychologist Dr Alex Delaware. Veterans of the long-running series (this is book number 35 since When The Bough Breaks in 1985) will know the basic set-up. Delaware’s day job is in child psychology, while Sturgis is, in now particular order, gay, unkempt, a brilliant cop and eternally hungry.

The four corpses in the limo seem to have nothing at all in common aprt from being dead; a thirty-something professional bachelor with an insatiable – but perfectly legal – love life, and elderly chauffeur, a gentle and harmless man with mental problems who lives in sheltered accommodation, and a rather unprepossessing middle-aged woman who, it transpires, had drink and drug issues, and lived mostly on the streets. To add to the mystery, the forensic team analyses the blood on the floor of the car – and it is canine.

Delaware and Sturgis are convinced that the killings took place elsewhere, and the interior of the limo was an elaborate stage set. But who is the director of this hellish drama, what is the message of the play, and who was the intended audience?

jonathan-kellermanBit by bit, one slender thread at a time, the tangle of the mystery is unpicked. As per usual Kellerman (right) gives us a spectacularly complex solution to the quadruple murder. It’s almost as if we are passengers on a train journey, and some of the sights that flash by the window before we reach our destination include erotic Renaissance paintings, a chillingly damaged autistic teenager and a brief glimpse of Herman Göring’s fabled collection of looted art.

There will be, no doubt, some people who will look down their noses at this book – and others like it – while dismissing it as formulaic. Of course it is written on a certain template, but that’s what makes it readable. That’s why readers turn, again and again, to books that are part of long running series. We don’t want John Rebus to start behaving like Jack Reacher, any more than we will be happy for Carol Jordan to turn into Jane Marple. The Museum of Desire is slickly written, for sure, but I think a better word is ‘polished’. Both the dialogue and interaction between Delaware and Sturgis crackle with their usual intensity, and we are not short-changed in any respect in terms of plot twists and deeply unpleasant villains.

The Museum of Desire is published by Century/Arrow/Cornerstone Digital, came out in hardback  and Kindle earlier this year, but this paperback edition will be available from 12th November.

AMBRIDGE AT WAR . . . Between the covers

Archers001Followers of these pages will know well that my strapline is Crime For The Cogniscenti and might wonder what I am doing reviewing a book about the Archers. I was intrigued to be offered this, written by Catherine Miller, but was prepared to be underwhelmed. It just shows how wrong one can be, and why it is never a good idea to prejudge things.

There may well be some transatlantic readers of my reviews who have never heard of Ambridge or the Archers, but I won’t waste words on the background other than to say that Ambridge is a fictional village in Worcestershire, and the long-running radio serial – it first broadcast on 1st January 1951 – was described as “an everyday story of country folk.”

I have to say at this point that I parted company with BBC Radio 4 in general, and The Archers in particular some time ago. Both have become far too ‘woke’ and socially aware for this curmudgeonly man in his 70s to be bothered with, but this book reminded me of what I used to enjoy about the programme.

It is January 1940, and rural England is having to come to terms with the expression, “don’t you know there’s a war on?Dan Archer and his wife Doris run Brookfield Farm, and Dan is now the Ambridge representative on the ‘War Ag’ – The War Agricultural Executive Committee, whose main job it is to put every available acre of land under the plough to grow food. And that means everything from grazing land to rose gardens. The first evacuees from London have arrived, and Doris is in charge of checking that the newcomers are being looked after.

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Archers fans can find the family tree elsewhere on the internet, but who else would they recognise? That depends on the longevity of their Archers ‘habit’. Walter Gabriel and his son Nelson put in an appearance, as do various members of the disreputable Horobin family. A central figure in the story is the village Squire, Alec Pargetter, who is having an affair with a comely young widow, but not doing too well at concealing it from the nosy villagers – or his aloof wife Pamela. Their rather strange son, Gerald, will go on to be the father of the nice-but-dim Nigel who was, of course, controversially killed off by the producers when he fell off a roof in 2011.

51KaDaIRGaL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Someone is leaving handwritten notes around the village hinting at various moral indiscretions taking place. The notes are, naturally, anonymous, but are the slurs true? Unfortunately, the author of the allegations seems to be uncannily wired into the private lives of the people of Ambridge, and has the unfortunate ability to see through closed doors and curtained windows.

Aside from those we might call canonical characters, whose descendants serious Archer buffs will know and love, Catherine Miller has assembled an intriguing cast; there is the bedridden and pampered Blanche Gilpin –  plump and sweet-smelling, like an apple left to rot.” – who is waited on hand and foot by her downtrodden sister Jane; Kitty Dibden-Rawles is a beautiful young Irish woman, widowed and left in debt by a profligate husband; Dr Morgan Seed, keeper of many a village secret, is long a widower, but has he the chance to love again? And Lisa – poor Lisa Forrest – Doris Archer’s mother, in the terrifying grip of what we now call Alzheimers.

It took just nine words – and these were quoted on the first chapter heading –  to alert me to the possibility that this book might be something special.

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Catherine Miller is clearly – like me – a lifelong devotee of Thomas Hardy. Not only does each chapter heading use a line or two from one of his bitter-sweet poems, she shapes plot resolutions as Hardy-esque ironies, of which the great man would have been proud. Another little in-joke is that when Kitty writes love notes to her lover, they are signed “G.Oak.

Make no mistake. This is not a cosy rural idyll – the war claims more casualties than are caused by bombs or bullets and, despite the bedrock decency of Dan and Doris Archer, the cruelties of fate are explored with raw honesty. The book is billed as Volume 1, so enthusiasts – of which I am one –  will have more joys to come. The Archers – Ambridge At War is published by Simon & Schuster and is out now.

ONE WAY STREET . . . Between the covers

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TrevorWood-600x600Trevor Wood (left) introduced us to Jimmy Mullen in The Man On The Street (click to read my review) in October last year. Mullen is a Royal Navy veteran who has fallen on hard times. Not the first man to struggle after a military career ends, he has served time for manslaughter, lost his wife and daughter, and lives in a Newcastle hostel for homeless men. His PTSD means that his dreams are often invaded by visions of the several hells he went through in his service career. In the previous book he gained a certain temporary celebrity as the ‘Homeless Private Eye’ when he tracked down a murderer, but now life has returned to its drab normality. He still lives in the hostel, dines at The Pit Stop, a drop-in centre that feeds the homeless, goes everywhere with his dog (called ‘Dog’) and has a precarious friendship with a man called Gadge who is also homeless, but is a regular user of the computers in the local library, and has a grasp of modern technology that is often useful to Mullen.

Into Mullen’s life comes a young man called Deano. Deano is a wreck of a boy with a stack of criminal convictions, addicted to whatever can ease the pain of the next couple of hours, traumatised by being pimped out as a male prostitute, and forever searching for his missing mother and brother. Deano’s brother Ash has turned up dead in nearby Sunderland, and Deano convinces Mullen to take a look at the case, as several other youngsters have turned up dead in a variety of unpleasant ways, apparently out of their heads on Spice – a cheap and potent chemical version of cannabis.

OWS coverThe search for answers takes Mullen not just into the grimy underworld of the Newcastle drug scene, but brings him face to face with a prominent local politician, a clergyman whose teenage daughter has been leading a double life and – more painfully – the wreckage of his relationship with his ex-wife and their daughter.

On the way to resolving the mystery of the murdered children, Mullen survives attempts on his life and struggles hard to subjugate his own violent and retaliatory instincts as he encounters some seriously depraved individuals.

As you may gather, this book is not a bundle of laughs. Mullen is convincing, likeable even, but his world is full of human shipwrecks. To extend the analogy, Mullen appears at low tide, but some of the other characters are many leagues down at the bottom of the human ocean. I cannot imagine what personal research has gone into this, but Trevor Wood has produced another addictive read. One Way Street is published in Kindle by Quercus, and will be available on October 29th. It will be out in hardback in March next year.

 

WHEN I COME HOME AGAIN . . . Between the covers

WICHA bannerThe poet Vernon Scannell, himself a veteran of WW2 wrote a haunting poem he called The Great War. The closing lines are:

And now,
Whenever the November sky
Quivers with a bugle’s hoarse, sweet cry,
The reason darkens; in its evening gleam
Crosses and flares, tormented wire, grey earth
Splattered with crimson flowers,
And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.”

There is something about that war, something that echoes down the decades. Even now, when those who fought and survived are all long since dead, the conflict is seared into the national psyche. Caroline Scott is, like many of us who lack her grace and talent as a writer, gripped not so much by the military details, but by the colossal aftershock that continued to cause devastation long after the last shot was fired in November 1918.

WICHA coverIn her 2014 novel Those Measureless Fields she began her own personal exploration of what happened to the men and families who had to pick up the pieces of their lives after the Armistice. She followed this in 2019 with what was, for, me one of the books of the year, The Photographer Of The Lost (click to read my review), also known as The Poppy Wife. Now she returns to her theme with When I Come Home Again.

Just weeks after the Armistice, a filthy, dishevelled young man, wearing a tattered soldier’s uniform, is arrested by the police after causing minor damage to monuments in Durham cathedral. In custody, he refuses – or is unable – to give his name, or any other clue as to his identity. The police, thinking they may have a case of severe shell-shock on their hands, put him in the care of a young doctor, James Haworth. For want of any other name, they call him Adam Galilee.

Article006At a rehabilitation centre in the Lake District, Haworth tries to find the key that will unlock Adam’s memory. James and his boss, Alec Shepherd, take a bold decision. They release a photograph of Adam, and what little they know of him, to the national press. This triggers a wave of mothers, wives and sisters who yearn for the impossible – a virtual resurrection of their lost son, husband and brother. From the tragic queue of broken hearted souls, three women seem to be the most convincing. They are Celia Daker, who believes that Adam is her missing son, Robert, Anna Mason, a young wife who dares to dream that she is no longer a widow, and Lucy Vickers a sister who is now bringing up the children of her lost brother.

Haworth is a former soldier himself and is haunted by terrifying dreams of the horrors he experienced during the Battle of The Somme. As he tries to come to terms with the hopes of the three women who believe that Adam is theirs, his own mental health – and with it his marriage – begin to shatter.

I’ll be quite frank here. This is not an easy read. I’ll say that the bleakest and most harrowing novel I have ever read is Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure. If I give that a 10 for heartbreak, then When I Come Home Again is a nailed-on 9. It is, however, haunting and beautifully written and works on so many different levels. In her descriptions of how Adam reacts to the intricacies of the natural world around him, Caroline Scott is surely channelling her inner John Clare, or perhaps remembering Matthew Arnold:

“Through the thick corn the scarlet poppies peep,
And round green roots and yellowing stalks I see
Pale pink convolvulus in tendrils creep;
And air-swept lindens yield
Their scent, and rustle down their perfumed showers
Of bloom on the bent grass where I am laid.”
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As the book builds towards its conclusion, there is the terrible irony of Adam’s palpable fear of returning to his old life – wherever that was – as he retreats more and more into the solace of rebuilding the ruined and neglected walled garden at Fellside House. As for the women who long for Adam to be their son, brother and husband, we fear that they are fated to lose their men twice over, thus doubling the pain. There is dramatic catharsis still to come, and an act of irony worthy of the aforementioned Thomas Hardy. Life must go on, however, and in Adam’s restored garden, perhaps Caroline Scott has created a metaphor for regeneration. There is deep, deep sadness at the very heart and soul of this book but, like the blossom on the damson trees of Fellside Hall, this fine novel leaves us, to borrow Milton, “calm of mind all passion spent.” and with a sense that renewal might – just might – be possible.

When I Come Home Again is published by Simon & Schuster and will be available from 29th October.

SMOKE CHASE . . . Between the covers

Jack Callan’s debut novel Smoke Chase introduces John Chase, a six foot, sixteen stone army veteran of colonial wars, now working with the embryonic Special Branch, a police department set up to combat the violent threat of Fenian revolutionaries in late 19th century London. It is the winter of 1885 and, as always, Chase is operating very much undercover, dressed as a working man.

smoke001After a long night shift, Chase is having his breakfast in a cafe when he is alerted to a bomb going off in the vicinity of nearby Tobacco Dock. When he arrives on the scene he finds a dead man – or, at least, what remains of him – but in what is clearly a set-up he is pounced on by a number of police officers, and hustled off in manacles to 26 Old Jewry, the HQ of The City of London Police.

Despite providing his warrant card, Chase – and a union official called Burns are taken to a rotting prison hulk moored in the Thames. Chase soon worked out that he and Burns are being targeted because they have come too close to a huge web of corruption involving a gang of bent import-export fraudsters aided and abetted by senior police officers.

Chase overpowers his guards and escapes to the shore where he begins to plot the downfall of Mordecai and Elisha Smithson, the gangsters who are in charge of the smuggling ring. We have pretty much everything served up from this point on including, in no particular order, rape, torture, Russian thugs, suicide, enough stabbings and shootings to fill a morgue, families being kidnapped and depraved assassins. Participants fall like flies, even unto the last paragraph of the last page

John Chase is rather like a modern-day Bulldog Drummond, and the novel, despite the gore, harks back to a more innocent time when characters like Dick Barton overcame even the most beastly assailant – “with one bound he was free!”

Jack Callan has certainly done his homework, however. The topographical background – London’s dockland when it was it was a rough and tumble working environment, the Lea Valley and the sordid nooks and crannies of East London – is enthusiastically painted,and we even have fleeting acquaintance with the music hall singer Bessie Bellwood and the women’s rights campaigners Annie Besant and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

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To borrow a cliché beloved of football commentators, Jack Callan leaves nothing in the changing room. Smoke Chase has enough blood and thunder to satisfy the most demanding addict. Callan’s debut novel is published by Matador and is out now.

For more novels set in Victorian England,
just click on the image of Her Majesty.

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LOST . . . Between the covers

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Leona Deakin introduced to Dr Augusta Bloom, her psychologist-turned-PI in Gone, which came out in 2019. Click here to read the review of that and get something of the background to Lost, the second novel in the series.

Augusta and her professional partner Marcus Jameson have had a major professional and personal falling out after their involvement with a manipulative psychopath called Seraphine. Jameson is a former military intelligence analyst, and has a decent pension, so he hasn’t needed the work, but Bloom’s latest case is just too intriguing for him to turn down.

An apparent Islamic terrorist has bombed a social event at the Royal Navy base of Devonport. There have been a handful of fatalities, but one of the injured – a Navy officer called Harry Peterson – has disappeared. He was seemingly taken away by ambulance, but his girlfriend Karene – dazed but uninjured in the bomb blast – has been unable to locate him in any of the local hospitals.

Karene gets no joy from either the Navy or the police, and so she turns to her friend Dr Augusta Bloom for help. Peterson eventually turns up, smuggled into a hospital by person or persons unknown. He has head injuries which were not sustained in the Devonport bombing and, when he wakes, he has suffered a substantial loss of memory.

Someone, somewhere is desperate for Harry Peterson to have no memory of the previous four years. Unfortunately for, those four years saw Peterson’s wife begin an affair which led to the breakup of their marriage and, more crucially, the beginning of Peterson’s romance with Karene. Now, he has literally no idea who Karene is.

As Bloom and Jameson chip away at what seems to be a granite wall of military secrecy, Peterson’s cousin, living a blameless and apparently mundane life in rural France, is found tortured to death. Photographs found in his cottage hint at a link to the goings on in England.The re-appearance of the malevolent Seraphine does nothing to clear the miasma round who is cleverly messing around with Harry Peterson’s mind – and why?

In the last quarter of the book, the pace turns frenetic, the plot ever more knotted and the scenery – from a torture room in a Central African Republic military base to a bank safe deposit vault in Peterborough – diversifies. Leona Deakin has great fun mystifying not only Bloom and Jameson but us the readers. The relationship between the pair of investigators is tested to breaking point with Jameson increasingly believing that he is being played for a fool, and when the case splits wide open to reveal not only political chicanery but links to people trafficking, then all bets on a peaceful and tidy solution are definitely off.

Lost, published by Transworld Digital, first came out in Kindle in the summer of this year. It will be available as a paperback, under the imprint of Black Swan, at the end of October.

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