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THE WRECKING STORM . . . Between the covers

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In the early summer of 1641, London is one of the most dangerous places in Europe. King Charles is facing growing challenges from Parliament and many of London’s people, stirred up by firebrand politicians such as John Pym, sense change is in the air. For Roman Catholics – such as the Tallant family – the mood is doubly dangerous. The Tallants are spice merchants, importing the precious condiments and selling them to those wealthy enough to afford to disguise badly-kept meat with pepper, cinnamon, cardamom and ginger. When two Jesuit priests disappear, Thomas Tallant is asked to investigate. When their bodies are found, it is obvious that they have been executed.

Both Sir Robert Tallant and his son Thomas are Members of Parliament, and they are about to witness one of the most famous scenes in British history, but first they must discover who is behind attacks on their premises – both their warehouse beside the River Thames, and their family home out in what was then countryside beyond the City. Are the attacks at the behest of rival merchants, jealous of the Tallants’ connections to the powerful Dutch East India Company, or is something more personal involved? And who is fomenting the violent activism of the Apprentice Boys?

These days we might think of The Apprentice Boys as purely a phenomenon of the political divide in Northern Ireland, but the Apprentice Boys in London predate the Derry incident by over forty years. The London Apprentices in the 1640s were a loosely organised group of many hundreds of young men who took to the street in protest at what they saw as exploitation by their masters. Inevitably but not necessarily correctly, they equated what they saw as their own servitude with the Royalist cause.

The author gives us a brilliantly described account (albeit moved a few months earlier) of the celebrated visit to the House of Commons by King Charles on 4th January 1642 in order to arrest the five members – John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Hollies, John Pym and William Strode – who he saw as central to the plot to bring him down. In this novel, their absence is attributed to a secret message passed earlier in the day to John Pym, and results in the King declaring ruefully, “All my birds have flown.

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Michael Ward does a sterling job of recreating the political and social tensions on the streets of London during what was, arguably, the most turbulent period of British history. The Wrecking Storm is published by Sharpe Books and is available now.

A CORRUPTION OF BLOOD . . . Between the covers

 

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Simpson_James_Young_signature_pictureAmbrose Parry is the pseudonym used by husband and wife writing team Dr Marisa Haetzman and Chris Brookmyre. As a pseudonym goes, it is a pretty good one, especially for historical novels, as it has a rather convincing resonance to it. Writing partnerships are more common than you might think, and in some cases it remains a mystery as to who contributes what. Not so, possibly, in this case, as Dr Haetzman was a consultant anaesthetist at Wishaw General Hospital in Scotland, and the central characters in this novel are a young doctor in early Victorian Edinburgh – Will Raven – and his mentor, the real life James Young Simpson (left), a pioneer in the use of anaesthesia (chloroform in the early days) in surgical procedures.

This is the third novel in the series so, as ever, there is a back-story, part of which you can find in my review of the previous book The Art of Dying. Raven’s love interest in that book is a young woman called Sarah who was a domestic servant in the Simpson household. She had a brief flirtation with Raven, but then married another Edinburgh doctor. He died, but left Sarah a considerable fortune, which is helping her pursue her ambition to become a doctor. When this book begins, she has left Edinburgh on her version of The Grand Tour, during which she hopes to meet the first woman to be officially recognised as a professional physician, the American Dr Blackwell.

Screen Shot 2021-09-02 at 18.26.27Meanwhile, Raven has met – and fallen in love with – Eugenie Todd, the beautiful and intelligent daughter of another Edinburgh doctor, and has also become involved in a murder mystery. Sir Ainsley Douglas, a powerful and influential man of means has been found dead, and the post mortem reveals traces of arsenic in his stomach. His wastrel son Gideon is arrested on suspicion of poisoning his father, with whom he has had a fairly unpleasant falling-out. Raven is an old acquaintance – but far from a friend – of Gideon. The two knew each other from university and Raven has a very low opinion of his former fellow student, and is very surprised when he is summoned to Gideon’s prison cell and asked if he will investigate Sir Ainsley’s death.

Sarah returns from her trip to the continent, but she is chastened by her meeting with Dr Blackwell, who suggested that she simply did not have the depth of education required to become a physician. Uneasy and uncertain at the news of Raven’s new romantic venture, she distracts herself from this unwelcome news by investigating an illegal trade which involves the selling of unwanted babies.

As Raven attempts to piece together the events of the last evening of Sir Ainsley’s life, the arsenic poisoning looks increasingly unlikely since – if it had been administered by Gideon – a former medical student would know that the poison is easily traced in the body. Raven has more personal matters on his mind, too, as he suspects that Eugenie and her father are keeping something from him about the young woman’s past.

There are some grisly scenes in the novel involving both the living and the dead, but the story is suitably – and fiendishly – complex. Readers will have to wait until the very last few pages for all to be revealed and, for what it’s worth, I didn’t foresee how the plot eventually worked itself out. There are no prizes on offer for guessing which parts of the narrative are written by Dr Haetzman, but these authentic descriptions of surgical procedures and spotlights on the history of medicine blend seamlessly with the crime fiction plot to make for a riveting and convincing murder mystery. A Corruption of Blood is published by Canongate Books and is available now.

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A HUNDRED YEARS TO ARRAS . . . Between the covers

Arras1006Ask the average person to name a Great War battle, and they will probably come up with The Somme, or perhaps Paschendaele. Few would mention Arras. It was certainly shorter than the more infamous prolonged slogging matches, officially lasting from 9th April to 16th May 1917. A brief historical background: after the Battle of the Somme ground to a halt in November 1916, the German army began planning a strategic withdrawal between Arras and Reims. The effect of this would be to shorten their line, making defence easier. The Germans called the new line the Siegfriedstellung, while the British and their allies called it the Hindenburg Line. The withdrawal was conducted with great skill and secrecy, and the Germans conducted a scorched earth policy on the terrain they vacated. The Sam Mendes film 1917 was set against this backdrop.

Arras1005In the spring of 1917, the British planned a major offensive either side of the ancient city of Arras, and J.M. Cobley makes this the climax of his novel. The main protagonist, Robert Henson, is a farmer’s son from Somerset and he enlists with the county regiment, the Somerset Light Infantry. We follow him through training and early skirmishes with the enemy, along with other men who become his close friends, and Cobley makes clever use of the contrast between the Cider With Rosie idylls of life in rural England and the harsh realities of life in the British Army. The author does, however, make the telling point that for some young men the plentiful – if unimaginative – army diet was actually a huge improvement on what they had been used to at home.

Robert Henson soon learns the difference between life out of the line and the very different world in the trenches, where insanitary conditions, rats, lice, dead bodies and haphazard meals – not to mention the danger of sudden death – are ever present. Robert’s skill with a gun – honed since he was a young lad hunting rabbit, pheasant and hare on his father’s farm – comes back to haunt him when he is chosen to be part of a firing squad who must execute two lads who have cracked under the pressure and deserted.

Cobley is not much given to mysticism in this book but, like many who have visited the old battlefields and stood in the silence contemplating the fallen, he senses a crucial link between time, landscape and dramatic events:

“The land sweeps. The mind strays. The soil can be swept away, but the heart is deep-rooted. It always returns. The land, broad and deep, is home. The warmth of the farm and the embrace of the hills, the coldness of the battlefield and the pulse of blood are one in the earth.”

No novel set in the Great War will – for me –  ever come close to John Harris’s magisterial Covenant With Death, but Jason Cobley’s novel is up there with the challengers. The closing pages reveal that the author has a personal connection to Robert Henson. Cobley’s military research is pretty good, and he leaves us with a heartbreaking account of the cruelty of war, the pity of war and the devastation that war brings to the lives of ordinary men and women. We also have a sober – and sombre – reflection on the interweaving mysteries of time and memory. A Hundred Years to Arras is published by Unbound and is out now.

Please read the novel. Then, if you are minded, click here to read more about the real life Robert Gooding Henson.

THE MANNEQUIN HOUSE . . . Between the covers

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I do love the mysterious world of Detective Inspector Silas Quinn, RN Morris’s rather distinctive London copper from the 1900s. For reviews of earlier novels Summon Up The Blood, The White Feather Killer and The Music Box Enigma click the links. I say “earlier”, but it’s not that simple, as the Silas Quinn books are being reissued by a new publisher, having coming out a few years ago, but since the events they describe are all from a very narrow time frame, the actual chronology doesn’t matter too much.

MannequinQuinn and his sergeants – Inchball and Macadam – are The Special Crimes Department of the Metropolitan Police. This department has a passing resemblance to Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (Rest In Peace) insofar as the unit has been constructed around the unique talents of its lead investigator. Like Arthur Bryant, Silas Quinn has strange gifts, and is just as likely to exasperate his superior officers as win their praise, but he is a bloody good copper.

It is March 1914, and most of the citizens of London go about their bustling business oblivious to the gathering storm which would break over their heads in just a few months. Blackley’s Emporium is one of the most successful department stores in the city. You can buy anything and everything that is made, mined or grown on God’s earth, and you may even be greeted by the beaming proprietor himself as you walk through the doors. You can even – should you be minded to take a break from spending money – visit the in-house menagerie which is full of weird and exotic creatures.

One of Benjamin Blackley’s most profitable departments is his haute couture fashion house, where (plus ça change) slender young women wearing must-have gowns and fripperies parade in front of not-so-slender older women. Blackley ‘keeps’ – and I use the word advisedly – his slips of things in a suburban house, presided over by a formidable matron. When the most beautiful of these mannequins – Amélie – doesn’t turn up for work, and her room is found locked from the inside, the police are called. Two things happen when the door is eventually opened. First, an enraged Macaque monkey runs screaming from the room and, second, Amélie has a very good excuse for missing work, as she is dead on her bed, strangled with a silk scarf.The subsequent post-mortem examination reveals that the girl may have been raped, and also that she has maintained her desirability as a fashion model by disastrous self-abuse of her body. 

Morris takes the classic ‘locked room’ trope and has his wicked way with it. There is some knockabout comedy in this book, particularly with Quinn’s wildly contrasting underlings Inchball and Macadam, but there is a vein of darker material running through the narrative. Quinn may be a clever copper, but he is also psychologically damaged from a traumatic childhood. The uneasy personal dynamics between fellow lodgers at the house where Quinn sleeps are a signal that the detective is not at ease with other people. It has to be said, that later (already available) Silas Quinn novels shine a revealing light on this situation. There is great fun to be had within the pages of The Mannequin House, but we are never far away from the evil that men (and women) do, and you must be prepared for a rather shocking and violent end to the story.

As ever, Roger Morris gives us a delicious mystery, a totally authentic background and an absorbing book into which we can escape for a few precious hours. The Mannequin House was first published in 2013, but this new paperback edition from Canelo is out now.

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WOLF AT THE DOOR . . . Between the covers

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s-l400Rather like Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s White Rabbit, I am always late. Late, that is, to many excellent crime fiction series that have been on the go for some years. I often come to them a few books in and, having enjoyed what I have read, try to solve the dilemma, which is this. Do I abandon everything else on the TBR pile to read the earlier books, or do I shrug my shoulders and convince myself that the books will always be there, and that I will get round to them “at some point”? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about being a book reviewer. Publishers send me free books on the understanding that I will read them and that my reviews will help to sell the novels. That’s all good, but one gets locked in to a reading timetable that can be very unforgiving, particularly when blog tours are involved. Reading for pure pleasure and relaxation has to take a back seat, I’m afraid.

That long digression is a background to this review of the latest Bradecote and Catchpoll novel by Sarah Hawkswood. I read – and loved – two of the series, River of Sins and Blood Runs Thicker, and you can read my reviews by clicking the links. Now, the ninth in the series, Wolf At The Door, is with us, and it is every bit as good as the other two have read..

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For people who are even later arrivals to the party than I, we are in 12th century Worcestershire. Hugh Bradecote is the Under Sheriff of the county, 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. This story begins with the discovery of a man who has met a violent death. His face has been removed and his throat has been ripped out. Extensive damage to his limbs suggests an assault by a violent animal. A wolf, perhaps? But even in the Royal hunting Forest of Feckenham1, wolves have not been seen for many a year.

Hugh Bradecote is on what we could call paternity leave. He is particularly anxious about his heavily pregnant second wife, as his first wife died in childbirth. With some villagers of Feckenham convinced that Durand Wuduweard 2 was savaged by a wolf, and the more credulous of them even believing that the killing was the work of a werewolf, Bradecote has to return to duty.

We are some half way into the book before the officers have any concept of who – and what – is responsible for the death of Durand. More corpses and a savage attack on a landowner prompt an even greater sense of urgency to the quest, but then Bradecote, Catchpoll, Walkelin and their boss De Beachamp finally realise that the motive for the crimes is one of the oldest and deadliest – revenge, bitterly fermented and long standing.

One of the qualities of a natural and gifted storyteller is the ability to provide atmosphere. Sarah Hawkswood recreates a cold and grey Worcestershire at the onset of November. Many of the poorer folk will struggle to survive the next four months and will succumb to cold, hunger, disease – or a mixture of all three. The wolves may have mostly disappeared, but the forest is a dark and unforgiving place for the people who have hacked out space within it for their precarious lives. The grimly authentic setting aside, this is a bloody good detective story from one of our finest writers. Wolf at the Door is published by Allison & Busby and is out on 19th August.

  1. Feckenham Forest was a royal forest, centred on the village of Feckenham, covering large parts of Worcestershire and west Warwickshire. It was not entirely wooded, nor entirely the property of the King. Rather, the King had legal rights over game, wood and grazing within the forest, and special courts imposed harsh penalties when these rights were violated.
  2. A Wuduweard (old English) was the warden of a forest. It is probably the origin of the surname Woodward.

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GUILT . . .Between the covers

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Michelle Kidd is a new name to me, and the central character in this novel – DI Nikki Hardcastle – will be a new name to everyone, as Guilt is the first in a series. The author practiced law for 10 years, specialising in criminal and civil litigation. A career change in 2008 took her to work for the NHS where she still works today. Michelle’s Interests are varied but are mostly reading, wine and cats – but not necessarily in that order. She is no novice author, however. In 2018 she published her first novel, which featured Detective Inspector Jack MacIntosh. There have been three subsequent Jack Macintosh novels and the fifth is expected in 2022.

GuiltNikki Hardcastle is a detective in the pleasant Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds, but being, as the tourist board suggests, “A Jewel in the Crown of Suffolk” is no deterrent to criminals of all kinds, and the particular one at the centre of this story is perhaps the worst sort of all – an abductor of children. My four sons are all grown up now, and they have children of their own, but no matter how many times I read accounts (fictional or otherwise) of that awful moment when a parent first realises that their child is missing, it still chills me to the bone.

One minute Sophia Jackson’s little boy Lucas – enjoying his birthday treat at the traveling fair – is there, and the next minute he is gone. The initial panic, the momentary hope that that the child will suddenly appear, and then the numbing, growing dread that someone has taken him – are described with uncomfortable realism. The police become involved, and Nikki Hardcastle heads up the search – against the better judgment of her boss. His reasons? Nothing to do with Nikki’s competence, but the knowledge that many years ago, she, too, was with her young brother at a funfair, and in the twinkling of an eye was taken while Nikki lingered a little too long at the candy-floss stall. And little Dean – Deano – has never been seen since. Michelle Kidd lets us know quite early where Lucas is and what is happening, and this makes for a tantalising kind of tension as we watch the police go round in circles, while the author explains the traumas – without excusing the deeds – that have shaped the monster who has taken Lucas.

We also learn of the terrible childhood of the abductor, and the awful twists of human cruelty that can make beasts of the psychologically vulnerable. The book also explores the complexity of guilt, and the corrosive effect it can have on families and individuals. Eventually Nikki Hardcastle and her team manage to complete the jigsaw, but the grueling case has one final shock in store for the mentally and physically exhausted detective.

Be warned. This is not a humdrum or cosy (in any shape or form) police procedural. There are descriptions of cruelty and malice which some readers may find difficult. This is however, a cleverly written – and sometimes painfully convincing –  crime novel which shines a light on the darker corners of the human psyche. Guilt is published by Question Mark Press and is available now as a Kindle or in paperback. If you want to find out more about Michelle Kidd, you can visit her website by clicking on her image below.

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THE NAMELESS ONES . . . Between the covers

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Fans of the series can skip this paragraph. Charlie Parker is private eye based in Portland, Maine. His life has been shaped by the savage murder of his wife and daughter some years earlier, and he is – literally – haunted by the spirit of the dead daughter Jennifer. His cases frequently involve contact with people who are not actually spirits but although they have human shape, they are not entirely of this world. Long standing members of the dramatis personnae of the novels include Louis – an African American assassin, very loyal to Parker, and his personal and professional partner Angel, a skillful thief and locksmith who is recovering slowly from cancer. For more on Charlie Parker, click this link.

nameless046Parker takes something of a back seat in this novel (which is the 20th in a magnificent series) as Louis & Angel take centre stage. The first backdrop to this stage is Amsterdam, where a criminal ‘fixer’ called De Jaager goes to an address he uses as a safe house to meet three of his colleagues. He finds one of them, a man called Paulus, shot dead, while the two women, Anouk and Liesl, have been tied up. In control of the house are two Serbian gangsters, Radovan and Spiridon Vuksan. They have come to avenge the death – in which De Jaager was complicit – of one of their acquaintances, who was nicknamed Timmerman (Timber Man) for his love of crucifying his victims on wooden beams. What follows is not for the faint of heart, but sets up a terrific revenge plot.

At this point it is essential to replay what author John Connolly tells us about modern Serbia. Those with a strong stomach can find plenty on the internet and in books about the atrocities committed by Serbians against Bosnian Muslims – and others – in the brutal wars which erupted after the death of President Tito, the communist strongman who had kept the historical enemies – Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia – from each others’ throats between 1945 and 1980. Connolly paints a picture of a state where, despite former leaders like Milošević, Karadžić and Mladić being brought to justice by war crimes courts, Serbia is still largely run by career criminals who, while they may wear suits rather than Kevlar vests, are at the centre of a huge web of international crime which ranges from human trafficking to the drug trade.

I am guessing that John Connolly might not be on the top table of any future festival of crime fiction in Belgrade, but no matter – we have a seriously good story on our hands. Louis, for a variety of reasons, owes De Jaager, and when news reaches him of the Dutchman’s death he prepares to fly to Europe with the physically fragile Angel, but he is also aware that key USA figures inside The White House and the CIA would not be too dismayed were the Vuksan brothers to come to a sticky end.

With Parker otherwise engaged back in Maine, the supernatural element is largely absent here, as Louis and Angel don’t operate on the same psychic wavelength as their buddy. Largely absent, but not totally. Spiridon Vuksan has a murderous little friend called Zorya. She looks, at first glance, like a little girl, but on closer inspection she is a woman, and not a young one. She reminded me of the malevolent red-hooded little figure in Don’t Look Now – and we all know how that ended. Zorya is, as far as her human form goes, one of the Vlachs people, an ethnic group from the southern Balkans. She is also a strigoi.  in Romanian mythology they are troubled spirits that are said to have risen from the grave. They are attributed with the abilities to transform into an animal, become invisible, and to gain vitality from the blood of their victims. Her fate is not in the hands of Louis and Angel, however, but governed by the spirit of Jennifer Parker who, once a victim, is now distinctly menacing.

John Connolly is an inspired storyteller, and if this novel doesn’t play merry hell with your heartbeat, then you may need medical attention. The Nameless Ones is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is out now.

LONDON BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN . . . Between the covers

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If you are new to the Bryant & May series, then I could be rude and say, “You’re a bit bloody late!” More charitably, I could direct you to some of my earlier reviews of books in this magnificent sequence. Take a look here.

After many false twilights and surviving more execution attempts that John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee, it looks as though the Peculiar Crimes Unit has finally succumbed to the bureaucrats who have been plotting its demise for decades. The vandals have moved in and pulled out all the computer terminals, cut off the electric, and the ineffectual and (rightly) much mocked nominal supremo of the PCU – Raymond Land –  has given his valedictory address to the staff (rostered below)

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But fate – in the shape of a deceased old lady – has one last trick to play. When Amelia Hoffman is found dead in her flat, the regular police are happy to file the death in the file marked “Elderly Widows, No Family, Neglected By Social Services, Death Of.” But all is not what it seems. Arthur Bryant finds that the dead woman was one of three women who, having worked at Bletchley Park, were then absorbed into the post war British intelligence service. Arthur grabs at this straw with grateful hands, declares it ‘specialized’ enough to warrant the attention of the PCU, and launches a murder investigation.

Unusually for a Bryant & May investigation, there is an international element, courtesy of a frightful chap called Larry Cranston. He holds a British passport, but is in the employ of the CIA and various dark branches of the American state. When he drunkenly runs down and kills a pedestrian, he looks for diplomatic immunity and it is dangled in front of his nose – but at a price. The price is that he hunts down and ‘neutralises’ three old ladies – one of whom is Mrs Hoffman – who hold the key to exposing a sensitive intelligence operation, code-name ‘London Bridge‘.

Arthur Bryant, to the exasperation of his colleagues, has the habit – when he finds the solution to a problem – of going into a kind of investigative purdah. He refuses to share his thinking or his evidence, mostly on the grounds that John May and the others will neither understand it nor believe it. Such is the case here, and Arthur knows that he is dealing with the kind of historical criminal crossword, the esoteric clues for which only he can explain. By the end of the novel, however, even Arthur realises that he has been played, and nothing about the case is what it seems.

As ever, Christopher Fowler’s writing is exquisite. His deep reverence for – and knowledge of – the dark and lonely pathways trodden by centuries of Londoners is compelling. As usual the dialogue sparkles and the jokes are laugh-out-loud, but there is a sense of endgame here. Arthur, it seems, is wearing his inner Ulysses like a suit of armour:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

As the old joke goes, Pretentious? Moi?” Quoting Tennyson in a crime fiction book review? I make absolutely no apologies. Christopher Fowler has, over the long sequence of Bryant & May novels, shown that he lives under the same roof as many great writers who understood ‘Englishness’. In my mind, he sits down happily with such names as John Betjeman, JB ‘Beachcomber’ Morton, George and Weedon Grossmith and – in terms of London – Peter Ackroyd.

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It was with great dismay that many B&M fans read on the author’s Twitter the other day that this would be the last novel in the series. After all, the two fellows are impossibly old, given all they have witnessed and been through together, so it was not unexpected. Sad times then, but the last few pages of the book are as poignant – and beautifully written – as anything you could ever wish to read. Think Julius Caesar, Act III, Sc2, line 148. And yes – I did. London Bridge Is Falling Down is published by Doubleday and is out now.

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A CASE OF ROYAL BLACKMAIL . . . Between the covers

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Sherlock Holmes pastiches, if not a growth industry, provide regular and steady employment for many writers. There is an erudite and entertaining feature on Holmes impersonations by Stuart Radmore here, but now we have a new entrant to the lists. It is written by none other than the great man himself (of which more later) and the 24 year-old sleuth has stolen some of his future companion’s thunder by recounting the case in his own words.

acorb cover039We are in London in the summer of 1879, and young Holmes has yet to meet the man who will write up his greatest cases. Holmes works for a guinea a day, and is striving to build his reputation. Within the first few pages, he has been hired to investigate two cases on behalf of a man who was already a celebrity, and another who would become infamous in his lifetime, but revered and admired after his death. The celebrity is Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, a notorious Lothario whose battleground has been country houses and mansions the length and breadth of the country, the vanquished being a long list of cuckolded husbands. It seems that the heir to the throne has been in the habit of entering his sexual achievements in a diary – a kind of fornicator’s Bradshaw, if you will – but it has gone missing, and Holmes is charged with recovering it.

The second case is a strange request by a 25 year-old Irish aesthete and writer – one Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, who has lost – of all things – an amethyst tie-pin, a gift from his mother, the formidable Jane Francesca Agnes, Lady Wilde, and is desperate for Holmes to find it before an impending visit from Wilde mère.

Rosa_Corder,_by_James_McNeill_WhistlerOne hundred pages in, and it is clear that the author is enjoying a glorious exercise in name-dropping. James McNeill Whistler, Lillie Langtry, Francis Knollys, Patsy Cornwallis-West, Frank Miles, Sarah Bernhardt, John Everett Millais and Rosa Corder (right) are just a few of the  real life characters who make an appearance, and it is clear that ‘Sherlock Holmes’ moves in very elegant circles.

In the course of his investigations our man presages some of the talents for which he will later became famous when the as-yet-unmet Dr John Watson takes over the narrative. He disguises himself as a waiter at a royal banquet on one occasion, and manages to impress his clients with his uncanny observational skills. The case is complicated when Holmes becomes inadvertently involved with the attempt by scandal-sheets to sell papers off the back of the very public rift between Lillie Langtry and her husband Ned. The case of Oscar’s missing tie pin rather goes on the back-burner as the hunt for the royal blackmailer intensifies, but it is resolved at the very end of the book with a rather delicious twist.

So just who, exactly, is this particular Sherlock Holmes? The last five words of the book reveal the true identity of the author, but I won’t do all the work for you. A little clue that you can Google – this person is a peer of the realm, an old Etonian, and wrote the biography Never Fear: Reliving the Life of Sir Francis Chichester.

The worst that can be said of A Case of Royal Blackmail is that is a little over-egged with the cast of celebrity names, but once in a while we all need a few hours of enjoyable escapism, and this well-researched and cleverly plotted homage fits the bill perfectly. It is published by Affable Media, and is available now.

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