London. 1873. It would be another fourteen years before a gentleman calling himself a Consulting Detective would make his first appearance in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, but Matthew Grand and James Batchelor are just that – people consult them, and they try to detect things. That is pretty much where any resemblance to the residents of 221B Baker Street ends. Neither Grand nor Batchelor is nice but dim, nor is either given to bashing out a melancholy bit of Mendelssohn on a Stradivarius. Matthew Grand, though, has seen military service; rather than battling the followers of Sher Ali Khan in Afghanistan, he has had the chastening experience of fighting his fellow Americans during the War Between The States a decade earlier. While James Batchelor is an impecunious former member of The Fourth Estate, his colleague comes from wealthy New Hampshire stock.
The River Thames plays a central part in The Ring. Although Joseph Bazalgette’s efforts to clean it up with his sewerage works were almost complete, the river was still a bubbling and noxious body of dirty brown effluent, not helped by the frequent appearance of human bodies bobbing along on its tides. In this case, however, we must say that the bodies come in instalments, as someone has been chopping them to bits. PC Crossland makes the first grisly discovery:
“… he knew exactly what the white thing was. It was the left side of what had once been a human being, sliced neatly at the hip and below the breast. There was no arm. No head. No legs.”
Trow gives us a Gilbertian cast of comedy coppers, in this case the River Police, led by the elephantine Inspector Bliss. While Bliss and his minions are trying to put together a case – and also the various limbs and organs of an unfortunate woman – Grand and Batchelor are visited by Selwyn Byng, an unseemly and ramshackle character, who believes his wife has been abducted, and has the ransom note to prove it. Byng may look cartoonish, and lack moral fibre; “Where’s your stiff upper lip?” “Underneath this loose flabby chin!” (quoted with due reverence to Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams) but he has a bob or two, and so our detectives take on the search for the missing Emilia Byng.
It occurs to me that in dismissing any resemblance between H&W and G&B I am missing out one very important personage, and that is the housekeeper. The much revered Mrs Hudson is felt, rather than seen or heard, but Mrs Rackstraw is another matter entirely. The formidable woman dominates the apartment supposedly ruled over by the two young gentlemen:
“Mrs Rackstraw had been brought up in a God-fearing household and didn’t really hold with young gentlemen of their calibre not going to church. Had they been asked, both Grand and Batchelor would have preferred the constant nagging; her frozen silence and the way the boiled eggs bounced in their cups as she slammed them down on the table was infinitely worse.”
MJ Trow (right) has been entertaining us for over thirty years with such series at the Inspector Lestrade novels and the adventures of the semi-autobiographical school master detective Peter Maxwell. Long-time readers will know that jokes are never far away, even when the pages are littered with sudden death, violence and a profusion of body parts. Grand and Batchelor eventually solve the mystery of what happened to Emilia Byng, both helped and hindered by the ponderous ‘Daddy’ Bliss and a random lunatic, recently escaped from Broadmoor. Trow writes with panache and a love of language equalled by few other British writers. His grasp of history is unrivalled, but he wears his learning lightly. The Ring is a bona fide crime mystery, but the gags are what lifts the narrative from the ordinary to the sublime:
“They adjusted their chairs and faced the wall. Mr and Mrs Gladstone stared back at them from their sepia photographs, jaws of granite and eyes of steel. Since he was the famous politician and she was merely loaded and fond of ice-cold baths, he sat in the chair and she stood at his shoulder, restraining him, if the rumours were true, from hurtling out of Number Ten in search of fallen women.”
The Fully Booked review of The Island, the previous Grand and Batchelor mystery, is here. The Ring is published by Severn House, and will be out on 28th September.
There are 25 delightful windows for you to open in the countdown to Christmas. Each one reveals an excellent crime fiction novel, with a few seasonal images and some beautiful music thrown in for good measure. Here are the windows for Week 3. Clicking each one will open the window in another screen!
Jack Reacher. Deadly. Calculating. Fearless. Invincible. Lee Child has probably created the nearest possible thing to James Bond, but has tailored his hero to a modern world and its expectations. Not for Jack Reacher is the lurid appeal of a Monaco casino, or the precision of a beautifully shaken (but not stirred) vodka Martini. Fast cars are not his thing, and his sexual needs seem, for the most part, to be sublimated beneath a rugged desire to mind his own business. As for tailored dinner jackets and Jermyn Street shirts, Jack normally replaces his wardrobe every hundred miles or so for a handful of dollars in a main street store. His only concession to style is a pair of beautifully made English leather brogues – which come in very handy when kicking the bejasus out of bad guys.
If you would like a lovely crisp hardback collection of Jack Reacher short stories, then try this: simply type the words No Middle Name into the subject box of your email, and send it to:
Your entry will be put unto the proverbial hat, and a winner will be drawn from the entries.
Due to postage costs, participation limited to people living in the UK or the Irish Republic.
Competition closes at 10.00pm GMT, Monday 22nd May.
One entry per household only.
THIS IS A COMPETITION TO TEST SERIOUS CRI-FI BUFFS To win a copy of Emma Kavanagh’s brilliant new psychological thriller The Killer On The Wall you will need to exercise the grey matter. It may well be a distinct advantage if you are old enough to remember the 1960s! To be in the draw, you will need to identify the title of a 2009 novel which dramatised the Hammersmith Murders, and featured several real life personalities who feature in the montage below. We will post the prize worldwide, so followers in Europe, the Far east USA or Australasia are welcome to compete.
A: David “Screaming Lord’ Sutch, a minor pop star, who contested many elections as the leader of The Monster Raving Loony Party.
B: Michael Holliday, a popular crooner who suffered from terrible stage fright, and committed suicide in 1963.
C: Pauline Boty, an outrageously talented painter and designer, who died of cancer in 1966
D: Freddie Mills, a brave light-heavyweight boxer who made a career as a TV personality after he retired from the ring. He died, allegedly at his own hand, in 1965.
E: The cover of the mystery novel, minus any text.
To enter the draw, write the title ( three words) of the novel as the subject, and email Fully Booked at the address below.
The competition closes at 10.00 GMT on Sunday 23rd April.
Competition is open worldwide – we will post the prize anywhere!
Philip Kerr’s long suffering and world weary policeman Bernie Gunther returns in this superb novel which straddles WW2. With astonishing skill, Kerr keeps two stories on the go, the earlier being set in Bavaria in April 1939, with the blue touch-paper for war already lit and Europe simply waiting for the bang: the second story takes us to October 1956, with a large part of Germany suffering under another tyranny – that of the Russian puppet government of the so-called German Democratic Republic. The two stories appear to be spinning happily along in their own unconnected orbits, but Kerr brings them ever closer together until they meet in a dazzling finale.
Bernie Gunther fans will already be aware of the company he is forced to keep in the years before and during Hitler’s war. Previous books have found him working uneasily alongside such monsters as Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Gruppenführer Arthur Nebe, but it is his relationship with SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich that Kerr (left) has explored in the greatest depth. Now, Heydrich, ever mindful of his place in Hitler’s hierarchy, sends Gunther to Hitler’s Bavarian retreat in Berchtesgaden, ostensibly to investigate the murder of a minor functionary, but hopeful that Gunther’s investigations will embarrass Martin Bormann, personal secretary to the Führer, and Heydrich’s political rival.
The parallel 1956 story finds Gunther struggling to keep his false identity as a hotel concierge in the French Riviera. In The Other Side of Silence, the previous book in the series, Gunther became tangled in a net of espionage and treachery involving the writer Somerset Maugham, a former Nazi war criminal, and the British Secret Service. A British woman he befriended – and bedded – now proves to have been a ‘person of interest’ to the GDR, and in particular Erich Mielke, the boss of the East German Ministry for State Security, better known as the Stasi. Mielke travels to the Cote d’Azur, and makes Gunther an offer he can’t refuse. He must either go to England and kill Anne French, preferably with the GDR’s poison of choice, Thallium. The alternative? To be disposed of by the gang of Stasi thugs Mielke has brought with him from East Berlin.
The human link between these two episodes in Gunther’s life is a fellow policeman called Friedrich Korsch. In his former life, Korsch helped Gunther discover who actually put the bullet from a Mannlicher hunting rifle through the head of a corrupt bureaucrat called Karl Flex on that brisk April day seventeen years earlier. Korsch is nothing if not a survivor. Unlike Gunther, who is forced to sail the post-war seas like a latter day Flying Dutchman, Korsch has taken the King’s Shilling – or at least Erich Mielke’s Deutschmark – and is under strict orders to make sure his former boss gets to England to kill the fugitive Anne French.
Gunther escapes his Stasi minders and goes on the run in rural France. By hook or by crook, his aim is to get himself into West Germany where he stands a better chance of being protected from the East German thugs who want him dead. As he travels north and east, the two stories begin, slowly but inexorably, to converge. They used to say that all roads lead to Rome. In this novel, all roads lead to abandoned mines dug deep into a hillside in the Saar region – the Schlossberghöhlen. Here, Gunther tracks down the Berchtesgaden killer, and is violently reunited with the former policeman who helped track him down.
Kerr’s genius lies in the fact that he allows Gunther to drink Schnapps and share a cigarette with some of the most notorious killers of the twentieth century. He allows Gunther to make silent moral judgments on those with whom he is forced to rub shoulders, but when it comes to making big decisions, Gunther always takes the path which allows his head to remain connected to the rest of his body. The dialogue, as always, bristles with wisecracks. Kerr lets his hero come to within a cigarette paper’s thickness of signing his own death warrant, but grants Gunther the wit and wisdom to talk – or fight – his way out of potentially fatal confrontations.