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#TAKEN . . . Between the covers

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OK, so Liam Neeson and Luc Besson got their anti-Albanian-gangster campaign in first, but Tony Parsons’ version has a hashtag, and only two citizens of the Adriatic republic bite the dust during DC Max Wolfe’s latest investigation. So, what do we have? Fans of the previous Max Wolfe novels The Murder Bag (2014) The Slaughterman (2015) The Hanging Club (2017) Die Last (2017) Girl On Fire (2018) can look away for a moment during a quick bio of DC Wolfe. He lives in a flat overlooking Smithfield Market. He is a single parent to daughter Scout (as in To Kill A Mockingbird), and has a dog called Stan, to whom he is devoted. Wife Anne is vaguely in the background, but is more concerned with her looks, career and latest boyfriend than she is about her daughter. The Wolfe household is run by a benevolent Irishwoman called Mrs Murphy.

Taken#Taken kicks off, appropriately enough, when a young ballet dancer, Jessica Lyle, is snatched from her borrowed car just yards from the gated luxury home she shares with another girl. From here, Wolfe and his alcoholic boss DCI Pat Whitestone face a veritable University Challenge of questions. Their starter-for-ten is to decide if Jessica was actually the intended victim. Although her father is a retired copper who may have run up an impressive list of enemies, isn’t it more likely that Jessica was mistaken for her flatmate, Snezia? After all, Snezia is not only a dancer of a different kind from Jessica (think ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs, tiny thong and shiny pole) but she is the mistress of fabled former gang boss Harry Flowers. Jessica was driving Snezia’s car when she was taken. Isn’t this just another example of the stupidity of hired thugs?

As if Wolfe doesn’t have enough on his plate, he is forced to cover for his boss when she gets herself into a whole world of trouble. He is far from being a stupid man, but makes assumptions about the Lyle abduction which lead him down a succession of dark alleys, with Whitestone’s obsession with nailing Harry Flowers adding more heat than light as he gropes for the truth.

Parsons takes us on a white knuckle ride through London’s gangland, a place where unpredictable violence à la Ronnie Kray is a marketable commodity, and luxury homes on the Essex fringes are paid for by dark deeds committed in the shadows cast by mountains of wrecked cars in scrap dealers’ yards. Lovers of London will be entranced by some of the locations, including a ghostly disused underground station and the spectacular mortuary extravagance of Highgate West cemetery.

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Amid all the thuggery, armed police raids and visits to some of London’s least-visited curiosities, Parsons (above) finds space and time to deal with Wolfe’s tortuous relationship with his estranged wife. The writing here is full of emotional intelligence, sensitivity, perception, and not without pain. Wolfe’s devotion to his daughter, Scout, could not be more of a stark contrast with Anne’s insouciance, and yet there is still a sense that, to paraphrase Bobby McGee’s un-named companion, he would trade all his tomorrows for a single yesterday. Those who are familiar with Parsons’ best-seller Man and Boy will know that he is writing from the heart.

#Taken is published by Cornerstone/Century and will be out as a Kindle on 1st March, and in April as a hardback. If you click on the image below it will take you to a video of Tony Parsons talking about the book, and reading the first chapter.

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THE MATHEMATICAL BRIDGE . . . Between the covers

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“Detective Inspector Eden Brooke trudged into Market Hill, the city’s great square, as snowflakes fell, thick and slow, each one a mathematical gem, seesawing down through the dead of night. Every sound was muffled, a clock striking the hour out of time, the rhythmic bark of a riverside dog, the distant rumble of a munitions train to the east, heading for the coastal ports. The blackout was complete, but the snow held its own light, an interior luminescence, revealing the low clouds above. Brooke stopped in his tracks, his last crisp footstep echoless, and wondered if he could hear the snow falling; an icy whisper in time with the sparkling of the crystals as they settled on the cobbles, composing themselves into a seamless white sheet.”

TMB“Begin as you mean to go on” says the old adage, and Jim Kelly sets himself a hard task with the brilliant and evocative first paragraph of The Mathematical Bridge. The beautiful use of language aside, Kelly’s first 126 words convey a wealth of information. A country at war. Midwinter. A city preparing for an attack from the air. A policeman out and about when honest men are abed.

Eden Brooke first appeared in The Great Darkness (2018) and you can read my review by clicking the blue link. A copper in the university city of Cambridge, he is a war veteran, not of the Western Front, but of the desert campaign, one of ‘Allenby’s Lads.’ We join him in that first winter of the Second World War, when German bombers have yet to inflict their terror on the houses and streets below them. Tragedy strikes when a boy, evacuated from his London home to the relative safety of a Roman Catholic community in Cambridge, is feared drowned in the fast-freezing River Cam. His body is eventually recovered, but not before Brooke has unearthed a plot to bring death and destruction to the streets of Cambridge.

The conspirators are not Germans but people from much nearer home who firmly believe that their enemy’s enemy is their friend. With two Irish republican conspirators sitting in a Birmingham jail, sentenced to death for a 1939 bomb atrocity in Coventry, Brooke realises that the next potential target for the IRA is Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, younger brother to the King. Henry is due to make a morale-boosting visit to Cambridge to boost the war effort, and Brooke is desperate to find the link between the dead boy in the river and the Irish community who worship at St Alban’s church.

Eden Brooke is an engaging character. Blighted by vision problems and chronic insomnia – both the result of his wartime treatment at the hands of brutal Turkish captors – he goes about his work with a steely intensity, much to the despair of his wife and daughter. Kelly’s portrait of provincial England in the first months of WW2 is mesmerising, more so given the added piquancy of our knowledge of what will happen, contrasted with the uncertainty of the characters in the novel.

Give Jim Kelly a landscape, a town, a city, an isolated village, and he will mobilise and send it off to war. Fans of his Philip Dryden novels will know the dramatic chiaroscuro he paints that shows how the comfortable middle-class cathedral city of Ely sits surrounded by dark and broken hard-scrabble villages out in the Fen. His Norfolk copper, Peter Shaw, knows only too well the contrast between the rough estates of King’s Lynn and the Chelsea-On-Sea second homes further up the Norfolk coastline. Eden Brooke’s Cambridge is a vivid and vital character in The Mathematical Bridge. Kelly makes it, despite the murders, an island of relative calm and rationality, for beyond it, out there in the flat darkness, lies The Fen.

doublesmallmathematicalbridgeThis is writing of the highest quality. Not just with the lame caveat ‘for a crime novel’ but writing with a touch of poetry and elegance gracing every line. Even when the crime is solved, the perpetrators are behind bars, and the delightfully complex contradictions of the plot have been explained, Kelly (right) still has the emotional energy to give us a last scene which manages to be poignant but, at the same time, life-affirming.

The Mathematical Bridge is published by Allison & Busby and is out on 21st February. For more about Jim Kelly and his writing click this link.

 

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ON MY SHELF . . . The Boy In The Headlights

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Samuel Bjørk is the pen name of Norwegian novelist, playwright and singer/songwriter Frode Sander Øien. Øien wrote his first stage play at the age of twenty-one and has since written two highly acclaimed novels, released six albums, written five plays, and translated Shakespeare, all in his native Norway. Øien currently lives and works in Oslo.

His third crime novel, The Boy In The Headlights is due to be published by Doubleday on 21st March, and once again features the Special Investigations cops Holger Munch and Mia Krüger who will be no strangers to the readers who enjoyed their previous two cases.
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In The Boy In The Headlights, which is translated by Charlotte Barslund, Munch and Krüger try to nail a serial killer who has already struck on four occasions, each time leaving a clue to taunt the investigators. It becomes clear that the murders are linked to a bizarre incident fourteen years earlier, when a motorist, driving home through the a typical Norwegian winter’s night narrowly avoids running into an animal, frozen in the car’s headlights on the lonely road. Except this is no startled forest creature. It is a terrified boy, with deer antlers strapped to his head. Norwegian critics have nothing but praise for Bjørk and his writing:

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Any UK media enquiries should be addressed to Tom Hill at Transword Publishers thill@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk
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CURTAIN CALL . . . Between the covers

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Graham Hurley could never be accused of playing safe. Having created one of the genuine originals in English crime fiction, Portsmouth copper Joe Faraday, he has the poor bloke take an overdose to end it all. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but it was a few years ago. Then, he takes Faraday’s brightest apprentice and moves him down to Devon along with his restless wife and their daughter. Jimmy Suttle was another ‘one-off’ in terms of crime writing, but although he is presumably still in the land of the Quick rather than the Dead, he was last heard of in The Order Of Things (2015)

Hurley has never been a slave to police procedurals. His many standalone novels will testify to this, but now he brings us a deliciously inventive thriller which is a smartly-delivered slap in the face to those people who simply have to organise their To-Be-Read pile into genre boxes. Curtain Call, published by Severn House, describes a few week in the life of Enora Andresson. She is 39 years old and an established actress with CV boasting several highly thought of movies. She is estranged from her charismatic film director husband and, in collateral damage, from their teenage son Malo.

Enora’s world is wickedly spun off its comfortable axis when she is diagnosed with a brain tumour. Surgery removes the immediate threat and Enora picks herself up, dusts herself down, and tries to resume her career. Her life becomes infinitely more complicated when she is contacted by a campaigning Left Wing journalist. Mitch Culligan has done his homework and discovered that Enora has a link to a controversial businessman/fixer/gangster called Hayden Prentice. Prentice, nicknamed ‘Saucy’ after his initials (HP – geddit?) once had his way with Enora aboard a luxury yacht moored off Antibes. But this was back in the day, both enjoyed the fling, and there were no recriminations.

Culligan’s mission is to write an exposé outing Prentice as a mystery donor to the campaign which made all the pollsters look stupid, and ended up with Britain voting, in 23rd June 2016, to leave the European Union. Like many people, now categorised as ‘Remainers’, Culligan is determined to prove graft and corruption, and wants Enora to revisit her relationship with Saucy and feed back any juicy details.

As Robert Burns so memorably put it:

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley”

CCEnora’s reunion with her one-time lover has unintended consequences, particularly in relationship to her son, who turns up in London having fallen out with his father who, in turn is facing bankruptcy after a severe career downturn. There is crime – of a sort – in the novel, most horrifically when Culligan’s Syrian boyfriend is beaten within an inch of his life, but Curtain Call is much more complex and multi-layered. Admirers of the Faraday novels will love the fact that Saucy was a long-time confrère of the ebullient and occasionally unhinged King of the Portsmouth underworld, Bazza Mackenzie, a nemesis who Joe Faraday spent twelve memorable novels trying to put behind bars.

Enora is a wonderfully drawn character; intelligent, worldly and occasionally sentimental, but the linchpin of the novel for me was Hayden Prentice. He is a constant surprise, and a walking tangle of contradictions. Hurley does a brilliant job of first establishing him as an archetypal barrow-boy turned ruthless businessman, with all the sensitivity of an axe murderer, but then dismantling all our impressions one presumption at a time. Saucy delivers his pithy opinion of UKIP supporters:

“They don’t much like abroad, and they definitely don’t like Pakis nicking their seat in the bus, and given half a chance they’d shut their doors and spend the rest of their lives listening to the fucking Archers.”

Enora’s view of political zealotry is more measured:

“Beware of Causes, I tell myself. No matter how worthy.”

Readers will no doubt build their own visual image of Hayden Prentice and Enora Andresson but if I may be allowed to play the indulgent game of Fantasy Casting for a moment, I see Bob Hoskins playing opposite Anne Bancroft. Other pairings are, of course, available and if, when you have read this splendid novel, you would like to have your turn, then please do get in touch!

It’s only February, and there will be dozens more books to come in 2019, but I will be a lucky man if I find one more nuanced, thoughtful and stamped through with a lucid honesty about modern England than Curtain Call. One final nod to those who get misty eyed about the glory days of the Joe Faraday novels, Saucy’s favourite preface to any of his many sardonic utterances about the state of mankind, is just two words:

“Happy Days….”

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COLD AS THE GRAVE . . . Between the covers

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This is a welcome return to the world of Edinburgh copper Tony McLean. He is now Chief Inspector, and to quote, appropriately enough, the Scottish Play, he feels he is dressed in ‘borrow’d robes’. On his desk are small mountains of files, reports, initiatives and consultation documents: beyond the door of the nick are thieves, rapists and murderers. McLean knows where his heart is leading him, and it is out away from his desk and onto the mean streets.

When McLean uses the excuse of a potential clash between rival demonstrators to desert his office, he discovers a corpse abandoned in a derelict cellar. As the technicians and medics swarm round the body it seems obvious that the remains – of a young girl – have been there for some considerable time. When, however, the pathologist is able to take a closer look under the spotlight above the mortuary slab, he comes to the astonishing conclusion that the girl has only been dead for a matter of days, despite her desiccated and leathery skin.

indexCold As The Grave is the ninth novel in the Tony McLean series, but fine writers – and Oswald is up there with the very best – make sure that it is never too late to come to the party. For anyone new to the series, McLean is something of an individual. Due to an inheritance, he is exceedingly wealthy, but has a modest lifestyle and chooses to remain a police officer. He has a long-standing ‘significant other’ in Emma Baird, but the previous novel, The Gathering Dark, (click to read the review) ended with her having a disastrous miscarriage. McLean is a fine detective, but he is blessed, or perhaps cursed, with an awareness of the supernatural. The two characters in the books who operate in this sphere are Madame Rose, a bizarre but benign transvestite clairvoyant, and the considerably more sinister Mrs Saifre. She is, on the surface, merely a very rich and influential owner of newspapers and media outlets, but McLean senses that there is something existentially evil and elemental behind her smooth corporate image.

Back in Cold As The Grave, more bodies are found, each apparently mummified in the same way as the poor child found in the tenement cellar. McLean makes an important connection between the deaths and the rising tide of people trafficking which has hit the city. Girls and young women from the war zones of the Middle East are being brought in and, at best, set to work for a pittance in local factories but, at worst, forced into prostitution.

With his bosses exasperated at the amount of time he is spending away from his paper shuffling duties, McLean’s investigation reaches a crucial fork in the road. To the left is the grim possibility that someone at the heart of the trafficking gang is using some kind of deadly serum, derived from snake venom, to carry out murders and threaten other victims: to the right, however improbable, is the presence of some kind of evil djinn reincarnated from Aramaic legend and folklore. McLean knows that following the road to the right will lead only to ridicule by both his superior officers and those who work for him, but he has learned to trust his instincts, even if they terrify him.

joDoes McLean follow his head or his heart? The road to the left or the right? Cold As The Grave is a brilliant police procedural, but there is more – so much more – to it. For those who love topographical atmosphere Oswald (right) recreates a wintry Edinburgh that makes you want to turn up the central heating by a couple of notches; for readers drawn by suggestions of the supernatural there is enough here to induce a shiver or three, while making sure the bedroom light remains on while you sleep. The sheer decency and common humanity of Tony McLean – and the finely detailed portraits of the people he works with – will satisfy the reader who demands authentic and credible characterisation. Cold As The Grave is published by Wildfire/Headline and will be out on 7th February.

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THE FAMILIARS . . . Between the covers

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Fleetwood’s peace of mind and the healthy bloom in her cheeks are short-lived, however. First she discovers a dreadful secret that husband Richard has been keeping from her, and then Alice is caught in the gathering storm conjured up by an ambitious and over-zealous magistrate. It is, quite literally, a witch hunt, and people who are guilty of no more than carrying out folk medicine are rounded up and flung in jail, with the prospect of summary trial and execution. Fleetwood is forced to defy her husband – and convention – to seek a stay of execution for a young woman who, she believes, is all that stands between her and another stillborn child.

Stacey Halls has written a vivid and memorable account of a dark period in English history. The Familiars is based on the infamous events that we know as The Pendle Witch Trials. With the ominous bulk of Pendle Hill louring over events, we meet many real life characters. Roger Nowell of Read Hall, Justice of the Peace for Pendle is there, as are the Device family of whom Alizon, Elizabeth and James were hanged on Gallows Hill in Lancaster on 20th August 1612. Gawthorpe Hall, home to Fleetwood and Richard Shuttleworth is now run by the National Trust.

The Familiars is so much more than a dramatisation of historical events, however. Stacey Halls has a prose style which is uncluttered and often pared to the bone; this has the effect of making her descriptions diamond sharp and brilliant. What is left when unnecessary verbiage is chopped away is a memorable account of a determined young woman, exposed to social expectations which would now be termed abusive, but with a soul of steel.

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Stacey Halls has produced something that is little short of a modern masterpiece. The Familiars is full of passion, the distant poles of human weakness and strength and, above all, has a central character who lives and breathes so vividly that we share her hopes, fears and vivid nightmares. Fleetwood’s courage burns through the book like a white-hot iron, and she tells a tale which is, in turn, both disturbing and heart-warming.

“More men were approaching now. The gate clanged open and an iron grip held my arm. Alice and I were wrenched apart and suddenly I was outside the gate and she was being marched back down into the darkness.
          ‘Alice!’ I cried. ‘I’ll come back! I’ll come back!’
While a fierce bulk of a man escorted me back to the gatehouse, the door to the dungeon clanged open and the shrieking grew louder.
          ‘She’s dead! She’s dead! She’s dead!’
The words flew out like crows from a forest, echoing around the walls with nowhere to land.”

The Familiars is published by Bonnier Zaffre, and is out on 7th February.

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ON MY SHELF . . . Late January 2019

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The TBR pile is beginning to look menacing, but that’s fine. It’s January. It’s bleak outside. The rain sluices against the window panes. The central heating is working a treat, so all is good. How do I find the time? It’s called being retired, and I can thoroughly recommend it. So, in alphabetical order of author, here we go.

RUN AWAY by Harlan Coben

harlan-cobenOne of the more reliable tropes in crime fiction, and one that never fails to hit a nerve, is the one about the father whose daughter is taken from him by fate, circumstance or – memorably in the case of Bryan Mills/Liam Neeson – by the bad guys. In this case, however, Simon Greene has lost his daughter to a more complex enemy – drugs, disenchantment and mental instability. Greene’s wife has had enough of the wayward Paige and has shut her out of her life, but Greene never stops looking. And then he finds her. Emaciated, filthy, and addicted. His determination to follow her down into her own private hell and bring her back is a terrifying journey through New York’ dark side, and a stark portrait of human obsession. Century will be publishing Run Away on 21st March, and there’s plenty to read about Harlan Coben on the Fully Booked website

TOO CLOSE by Natalie Daniels

claraNatalie Daniels is the pseudonym for screenwriter, author and actress Clara Salaman who starred as DS Claire Stanton in the long running British TV cop show The Bill. Her talent as a writer is on display here in a psychological drama about a woman who wakes up in a secure mental hospital, her hair torn out in clumps, emaciated and with no memory of how she got there. What is the connection between Connie’s present state and the friendly lady she met in the park watching their children play? Can psychiatrist Emma Robinson untangle the twisted knots that make up Connie’s memory, and come anywhere near to rationalising what Connie has done? Transworld Digital brought out Too Close in November 2018 as a Kindle, but people who like to get their hands on the printed page can get a paperback version on 7th March.

THE PASSENGERS by John Marrs

john-marrs-author-imageIf you are long in the tooth and a bit ‘old school’ like me, you may well share my bafflement at the concept of driverless cars. It will all end in tears, I say, and this entertaining mixture of crime fiction and SciFi may add weight to my argument. Eight driverless cars set off on their separate journeys. The passengers are: a TV star, a pregnant young woman, a disabled war hero, an abused wife fleeing her husband, an illegal immigrant, a husband and wife – and parents of two who are travelling in separate vehicles – and a suicidal man. What could possibly go wrong? Someone hacking into the IT system which controls these vehicles is precisely what goes wrong, with predictably disastrous consequences. Marrs  is the author of best sellers The One, The Good Samaritan, When You Disappeared, Welcome to Wherever You Are and Her Last Move. The Passengers will be out in Kindle on 1st April, and there will be a paperback version from Del Rey at the end of May.

TAKEN by Tony Parsons

tony_parsonsThere are few modern writers who know London as well as Tony Parsons, and his intrepid London copper Max Wolfe gets to explore the many nooks and crannies, foibles, eccentricities – and dark places – of England’s capital in the course of his investigations. When a gangland revenge kidnapping goes spectacularly wrong, Wolfe is drawn into the nightmare world of London’s underbelly, and he is pitted against men for whom power, money, sex and horrific violence are simply tools of their trade. I am a huge fan of Tony Parsons and his Max Wolfe novels, so while you wait for Taken to appear –  on 18th April –  check out my reviews of Die Last and Girl On Fire.

 

NO ONE YOU KNOW by Michelle Richmond

michelleEllie Enderlin’s life has been blighted by the unsolved murder of her sister. Lila’s death cast its black shadow over her parents, too, but when Ellie finds her sisters notebook what she reads opens up the possibility that Lila’s killer may, at last, be identified. Knowledge, however, rarely comes without a price, and as Ellie reconstructs her sister’s life – and death – she comes to realise that when heavy stones are lifted, there may be unpleasant things scuttling around underneath. Set in San Francisco, this first came out in 2008, and second hand copies can be picked up fairly easily, but this is a brand new paperback reissue, and is out now,

 

KARIM, KING OF ENGLAND by Baz Wade

karimThis is a futuristic political thriller which takes as its subtext the anxieties many British people share about the rise and rise of Islam in the commercial, educational and social life of the country. Readers will not need subtitles to recognise the real-life palimpsest of this story, where a dazzling English princess bears a child whose father is a wealthy middle-eastern playboy. Karim is that child, and when he returns to England after a Muslim upbringing in Dubai, he becomes involved in a political and social struggle which threatens to engulf the country, and turn his golden dreams into ashes. Karim, King Of England came out late last year and is readily available.

 

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SEVERED . . . Between the covers

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In a structurally ramshackle – but otherwise unremarkable – rural parish church in the gently undulating Chiltern Hills, the scant congregation is watching their parish priest reach the most sacred part of the Sunday morning Holy Communion service, where they join together in the belief that “God was man in Palestine, and lives today in Bread and Wine”. In a few violent seconds, however, the wine symbolising Christ’s blood is dramatically spilled and mixed with real human blood, as the vicar is savagely attacked by a young man wielding an axe.

severedThus begins another case for Professor Matt Hunter, a university lecturer in religion and belief. He has previously helped the police in cases which involve sacred or supernatural matters (see the end of this review) and he is called in when it becomes clear that the wielder of the axe was none other than the teenage son of the Reverend David East, and that the boy was under the spell of a cult of deviant Christians whose central belief is that God The Father is a brutal tyrant who murdered his only son. They are also convinced that all other humans but them are ‘Hollows’ with evil in their eyes. Consequently, they shun all contact with the outside world, and live in a remote farmhouse, deep in the hills at the end of a rutted farm track.

Laws manages to recast the relatively benign uplands of the Chilterns as a scarred and brooding landscape with many a nameless terror lurking in its valleys, waiting to pounce on the unwary. There is blood by the pint, a coven of homophobic Christian evangelicals, a storm of biblical ferocity plus every Gothick image you could ever think of – plus a few more besides. Oh yes, I almost forgot – a very convincing and horribly plausible shape-shifter.

As the chapters spin by, Laws dusts off one of the oldest tricks in the book of narrative devices, but deftly breathes new life into it. There are basically two stages in his theatre of horrors; one shows us what is happening around Matt Hunter, while on the other, the members of the sect enact their weird dance of death. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, so we whirl through the next few pages to see what is going to happen, but then that chapter leaves us in suspense too, so we become caught up in an addictive mad scramble. It’s a ridiculously simple ploy but, good heavens, how well it works.

LawsOne of the most intriguing aspects of the Matt Hunter books is the relationship between the fictional former man of God and the very real and present minister in the Baptist church, the Reverend Peter Laws himself . We get a very vivid and convincing account of how Hunter has lost his faith, but also the many facets of that belief that he has come to see as inconsistent, illogical, or just plain barbaric. It suggests that Laws has identified these doubts in his own mind but, presumably, answered them. In these days of CGI nothing is impossible, so a live debate between Reverend Laws and Professor Hunter would be something to behold.

The finale of this brilliant thriller is apocalyptic enough to satisfy the most ardent fan of the horror genre, but Laws is smart enough – like Phil Rickman in his Merrily Watkins novels – to give everything (well, almost everything) a natural explanation, and when the emotional roller-coaster finally comes to rest we know that it is human beings, images and clones of ourselves if you will, that are capable of far more dreadful deeds than any supernatural monster conjured up from the bowels of Hell. Severed is published by Allison & Busby, and will be available at the end of January 2019.

For more on the extraordinary adventures of Professor Matt Hunter, read the reviews of:

Unleashed

Purged

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DANGEROUS DECEITS . . . Between the covers

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dd covrYou might guess that a crime novel featuring an amateur detective called Gawaine St Clair is not going to take you down many mean streets; furthermore, were one to Frenchify its chromatic tint, then it would probably be nearer beige than noir. This being said, if you are a Golden Age fan, like dry humour, enjoy a clue-laden whodunnit and are never happier than when luxuriating in the follies and foibles of the English middle classes, then Cherith Baldry’s Dangerous Deceits will be a joy.

Gawaine St Clair seems to be a man of independent means, not unlike his aristocratic predecessor Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, and his affluence enables him to take up criminal investigations without having to make excuses to an employer for his absence from the workplace. In this case he is called upon by his aunt Christobel to solve the mysterious death of a vicar. Father Tom Coates disappeared into his vestry moments before the beginning of a service, and was not seen again until he was found some time later, all life extinct due to a fatal blow to his head with the time-honoured blunt object.

It needs to be said at this point that the novel is very, very ‘churchy’. I use the term to describe a way of life centred around the Anglican church, with attendant church wardens, vergers, flower ladies, Parochial Church Councils, the occasional Bishop, and heated disputes over liturgical practices. Anthony Trollope de nos jours? Possibly, but as an Anglican, albeit rather lapsed, I share Cherith Baldry’s obvious love of the sonorous prose of The Book of Common Prayer – the proper 1662 version, not some squeaky clean modern adaptation designed to appeal to ‘the younger generation’. She uses suitably resonant quotes as her chapter headings, none more appropriately than:

“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live.”

St Clair is faced with a whole repertory company of likely suspects, all – or none – of whom may have had their reasons to bash Father Tom’s head in. In no particular order, we have a choleric prep school Headmaster straight out of Decline and Fall, a woman denied communion because of her marital woes, a glib local solicitor, the dead man’s brother and sister, with whom he owned valuable shares in a family business, and a dowdy local GP with a beautiful and sophisticated wife.

cbGawaine may be too arch and precious for some tastes but he fits perfectly into the Home Counties landscape with its manicured village greens and faux Tudor dwellings. I thoroughly enjoyed Dangerous Deceits and Father Tom’s killer is unmasked not amid the dusty shelves of a country house library, but in the altogether more fractious atmosphere of an extraordinary (in the procedural sense) meeting of the Ellingwood PCC. The solution, as in many a whodunnit, rests with everyone – including Gawaine, the local coppers and, in this particular case, me – making a seemingly obvious assumption early in the piece.

Cherith Baldry (right) is an acclaimed writer of children’s fiction and fantasy novels. The first in her Gawaine St Clair series was Brutal Terminations, which came out in February 2018. Dangerous Deceits is available now and is published by Matador.

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