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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Learner & Oswald

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THE MAGICK OF MASTER LILLY by Tobsha Learner

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Rumour had it that both Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess were obsessed with astrology, despite the Nazi regime having banned the dark art in 1934. A belief that the future could be told by studying the alignment of the planets, is, however, as old as human history itself. Tobsha Learner’s latest novel is centred on a real-life seventeenth century astrologer, William Lilly, and you can read a straightforward account of his life in this article by David Plant.

Learner has the luxury of being able to use her imagination to enhance what is already a fascinating biography, as Lilly was to be involved in one of the most turbulent periods of English history – the struggle between King and Parliament, 1642-1651. Not only did the Civil War set father against son and brother against brother, it ushered in two decades where natural disasters were to take their to toll on the country, particularly in London, where first pestilence and then apocalyptic fire would come down on the hapless citizens like outriders of the Four Horsemen.

Lilly is living as far as possible from the political heartbeat of the country, since Parliament has a vengeful way with anyone who appears to be dabbling in the occult, but as King Charles is blissfully unaware of his unpopularity and his fate, the astrologer is summoned to court. What he sees in the alignment of the planets is disaster heaped upon disaster. Will he be believed, and will his vision alter the course of history? The Magick of William Lully is published by Little, Brown and came out in Kindle earlier this year. This paperback edition is due to be on the shelves on 1st November.

NO TIME TO CRY by James Oswald

JOThe Tony McLean novels have established James Oswald as one of the stars in the current British crime fiction firmament. We reviewed the most recent, The Gathering Dark, and it was powerful stuff, leaving the likeable detective to deal with a devastating episode in his personal life. The sequel, Cold As The Grave (the ninth in the series) is due out next year, but fans of the writer, who keeps himself very busy running a farm in Scotland, have the first in a new series to tide them over.

Oswald takes us south of the border (but not Down Mexico Way) and we are introduced to a new heroine, undercover cop, DC Constance Fairchild. I don’t know if they exist so much in real life, but within the pages of crime novels, they are guaranteed to provoke bitten nails and deep anxiety. How good is their cover? Do the crims suspect them? How far will they go to maintain the illusion?

Fairchild’s already nervy existence is thrown into turmoil when she finds her boss dead. Executed, to be precise. The single shot to the head is something of a giveaway. Professionals are involved, and things get no better when Fairchild is made the scapegoat for an undercover sting which has gone badly wrong. Her grief at DI Pete Copperthwaite’s death fuses with anger at her professional betrayal. The mix is a toxic hatred for those who are responsible and, even though she becomes a target herself, she will not take a backward step until the guilty are punished. No Time To Cry is published by Wildfire Books, came out in Kindle in the summer, and will be available in paperback on 1st November.

 

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BROKEN GROUND . . . Between the covers

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BGThe Body In The Bog is a nicely alliterative strapline normally used to liven up reports of archaeologists discovering some centuries-old corpse in a watery peat grave. The deaths of these poor souls does not usually involve an investigation by the local police force, but as Val McDermid relates, when the preserved remains are wearing expensive trainers, it doesn’t take the tenant of 221B Baker Street to deduce that the chap was not executed as part of some arcane tribal ritual back in the tenth century.

A pair of hopefuls from England have traveled to the bleak Scottish moors of Wester Ross, armed with what they hope is a treasure map. They hope to uncover not a sturdy wooden chest bursting with pirate doubloons or King John’s lost gold, but treasure of a different sort – two mint condition vintage motor cycles, worth a fortune at 2018 prices. They disinter the motorcycles with the help of a friendly local crofter and his mini JCB, but their elation is soured by – yes, you’ve guessed – the aforementioned fellow and his 1995 Nike Air Max sportswear.

Motorcycles? Buried in a Scottish peat bog? Marked on a map? Has Val McDermid finally lost her marbles after years of inventing fiendish ways for people to die? Leaving no question unanswered, I have to say yes, yes, yes – and an emphatic NO! Breaking Ground is the fifth in McDermid’s DCI Karen Pirie series and is shot through with the author’s trademark brilliance. McDermid does complex, clever, conflicted women like no-one else, and Pirie – of Police Scotland’s Historic Crimes Unit – is a fine cop, scarred by personal tragedy, studiously unglamorous in looks and style, but with a fierce determination to seek justice for victims of crime, both living and dead. The police procedural aspect of the story is cleverly done, and provides the essential counterpont of rivalry, betrayal and bitterness which run beneath the main tune which is the public face of policing.

ValMcDermidIf music halls were still in vogue, McDermid would be the dextrous juggler, the jongleur who defies gravity by keeping several plot lines spinning in the air; spinning, but always under her control. There is the Nike bog body, a domestic spat which ends in savagery, a cold-case rape investigation which ends in a very contemporary tragedy, and an Assistant Chief Constable who is more concerned about her perfectly groomed press conferences that solving crime. They say that the moon has a dark side, and so does Edinburgh: McDermid (right)  takes us on a guided tour through its majestic architectural and natural scenery, but does not neglect to pull away the undertaker’s sheet to reveal the squalid back alleys and passageways which lurk behind the grand Georgian facades. We slip past the modest security and peep through a crack in the door at a meeting in one of the grander rooms of Bute House, the official residence of Scotland’s First Minister, even getting a glimpse of the good lady herself, although McDermid is far too discreet to reveal if she approves or disapproves of Ms Sturgeon.

Karen Pirie battles the metaphorical demons of her own personal history, while facing more literal malice in the person of a senior officer who is determined to bring her down. The death of her beloved partner Phil has bequeathed emotional turmoil, anger and longing. When she meets a potentially interesting man in the course of a murder investigation, she is conflicted. Is he lying to her? Is he just a glib charmer, ruggedly beautiful in his kilt, or is his interest in her – intentionally dowdy and brusquely professional as she is – genuine?

Val McDermid answers all these questions, and poses a few of her own, particularly about the state of modern Scotland and the role of cash-strapped police forces in a society which demands quick solutions, and to hell with integrity. Broken Ground is published by Little, Brown and is available in hardback and as a Kindle. Amazon says that it will be out in paperback early in 2019.

Click the link to read the review of McDermid’s previous novel, Insidious Intent.

 

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . .The Nine Tailors

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I’ll start by being mildly controversial; I have been reading crime fiction for sixty years, and I can’t think of another novel which has such a complex plot. Another masterpiece, Chandler’s The Big Sleep certainly has its moments (after all, who did kill the chauffeur?) but even having read The Nine Tailors more than once I would still struggle to write a concise bluffers’ guide to exactly what happens from memory alone. This is neither criticism nor praise; it simply is what it is.

dorothy-l-sayers-grangerLet’s look at a few relatively simple background facts, and I apologise to fans of the author for whom this may be tedious. Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893 – 1957) was a notable English writer, poet, classical scholar and dramatist. She introduced the aristocratic private detective Lord Peter Wimsey in her 1923 novel, Whose Body? and by the time The Nine Tailors was published in 1934, Wimsey and his imperturbable manservant Bunter were well established.

The story begins in the depth of the English winter.

“That’s torn it! said Lord Peter Wimsey.
The car lay, helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch, her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank, as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth, and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifted snow……right and left, before and behind, the fen lay shrouded. It was past four o’clock and New Year’s Eve; the snow that had fallen all day gave back a glimmering greyness to a sky like lead.”


Their journey through the Cambridgeshire fens rudely interrupted, Wimsey and Bunter seek help from the nearby village of Fenchurch St Paul. With this simplest of literary devices, Sayers gives Wimsey a perfect excuse to stay overnight, courtesy of the amiable vicar; one of Wimsey’s many skills is bell-ringing and so he joins the church team in their traditional New Year peal, thus embedding him in a labrinthine set of circumstances involving robbery, missing jewels, coded messages, bigamy, deception and murder.

The Nine Tailors are not people, but the ancient bells hanging in the church tower, and Sayers endows them with mystical significance both to the readers of the novel, and to the people in Fenchurch St Paul. Her father was a clergyman, but Sayers later claimed to have had no particular previous knowledge of the arcane lore of church bells. The novel is, however, shot through with references to the bewildering mathematics involved in change ringing. Too much so, for some critics: HRF Keating wrote that Sayers had;

“incautiously entered the closed world of bell-ringing in The Nine Tailors on the strength of a sixpenny pamphlet picked up by chance.”

I am not sure if a book over eighty years old can be subject to plot spoilers, but suffice it to say that, among the several criminals features in the story, the bells do not escape without blame.

So, why is it such a good book, always in print, and often dramatised on screen? Wimsey himself, although deprecatingly described by his creator as a mixture of Bertie Wooster and Fred Astaire, is perhaps the greatest of the gentleman detectives of The Golden Age. He does not patronise the rougher folk of Fenchurch St Paul; he wears his breeding and education lightly and, like Kipling’s ideal man, he can talk with crowds and keep his virtue, and walk with Kings without losing the common touch. Wimsey is a hero of the Great War; this much we know from earlier novels, although his history is alluded to with some subtlety in The Nine Tailors. He has seen the best and worst of men, survived shell shock, and felt the bond between fighting men that transcends class barriers. Sayers was acutely aware of the fact that the horrors of 1914 – 18 pursued men long after the guns fell silent, and incidents in the war play a significant part in the story of The Nine Tailors.

Sayers gives landscape a greater significance in The Nine Tailors than in any of her other books. She was no stranger to Fenland. Her father was rector of Bluntisham, a prosperous village on the edge of the fens, and if you walk in its churchyard, you will see several surnames borrowed and given to characters in The Nine Tailors. The Rev. Henry Sayers later moved to the much more modest parish of Christchurch, slap dab in the middle of the Cambridgeshire fens. Incidentally, that fine writer Jim Kelly happily admits his admiration for Sayers, and set his own novel The Funeral Owl in Christchurch, which he renames Brimstone Hill.

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What can the literary traveler find in today’s Cambridgeshire? The fictional Fenland in The Nine Tailors features everything the actual Fenland does. It has drainage rivers named after their width such as The Thirty Foot, back roads called Droves, and clusters of villages with the same name, but modified by the patron saints of their respective churches. Just as she gives us Fenchurch St Paul and Fenchurch St Peter, in real life we have Terrington St Clement, Terrington St John, Wiggenhall St Peter and Wiggenhall St Mary. Sayers takes all the familiar topographical features of the Fens and rearranges them into an authentic but original pattern.

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She also teases us with her place names. When we think we have matched Van Leyden’s Sluice with Denver, she confounds us by mentioning that Denver Sluice is much bigger. When you feel certain that Leamholt must be one of the bigger towns such as King’s Lynn, she introduces the actual King’s Lynn in a passing reference.

Here in the Fens, we love our skies and churches
while treating with respect the long, arrow-straight, deep black drains which keep our feet dry. Given that large parts of the fens are only inches above sea level we still have cause to fear tidal surges down the Great Ouse and the Nene. No author has ever rivaled Sayers in describing with such power the sheer devastation that the angry waters can bring. Having narrowly escaped death by the bells, Wimsey claws his way to the relative safety of the top of St Paul’s church tower, and looks out on a drowned land:

“The whole world was lost now in one vast sheet of water. He hauled himself to his feet and gazed out from horizon to horizon. To the south-west, St Stephen’s tower still brooded over a dark platform of land, like a broken mast upon a sinking ship. Every house in the village was lit up: St Stephen was riding out the storm. Westward, the thin line of the railway embankment stretched away to Little Dykesey, unvanquished as yet, but perilously besieged. Due south, Fenchurch St Peter, roofs and spire etched black against the silver, was the centre of a great mere. Close beneath the tower, the village of St Paul lay abandoned, waiting for its fate … outward and eastward the gold cock on the weathervane stared and strained, fronting the danger, held to his watch by the relentless pressure of the wind from off The Wash. Somewhere amid that still surge of water, the broken bodies of Will Thoday and his mate drifted and tumbled with the wreckage of farm and field. The Fen had reclaimed its own.”

Read the novel. Absorb the period details and accept the leisurely pace. Hold on firmly to Wimsey’s great sense of compassion and humanity. Wonder at the language and allow yourself a thankful shudder that you are safe at home, dry and warm. I can’t think of a more gripping description of a watery hell, unless it lies in the words of Herman Melville’s Ishmael, clinging to his wooden spar at the end of Moby Dick:

“…his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it. Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its watery sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

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PRIZE DRAW . . . Win Hugh Fraser’s Stealth!

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THIS IS PRETTY MUCH THE STANDARD REACTION from those in the know when some foolish functionary in a 1960s London gang decides that Rina Walker is a fragile female who can be taken out of circulation. Rina is a born killer, with fists, firearms, blades – or anything that happens to be handy.

NOW SHE IS BACK in the fourth novel of Hugh Fraser’s popular series. If you would like to win a copy of Stealth (published by Urbane on 8th October) you have three ways to enter the prize draw.

Email

Simply email me at fullybooked2016@yahoo.com, and put ‘Stealth’ as the subject

Twitter

Retweet or like one of the posts about Stealth on the Fully Booked Twitter feed (image link below). These regular posts will link directly to the review of the novel.

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Facebook

Just click the ‘like’ option on the Fully Booked Facebook page, (image link below)

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Competition closes at 10.00pm GMT on Sunday 7th October. The winner will be notified via social media.

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STEALTH … Between The Covers

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StealthLondon in 1967 seems to have been an exciting place to live. A play by a budding writer called Alan Aykbourne received its West End premier, Jimi Hendrix was setting fire to perfectly serviceable Fender Strats, The House of Commons passed the Sexual Offences Act decriminalising male homosexuality and Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell featured in a murder-suicide in their Islington flat. This is the backdrop as Hugh Fraser’s violent anti-heroine Rina Walker returns to her murderous ways in Stealth, the fourth novel of a successful series.

I am new to Ms Walker’s world, but soon learned that a brutal childhood deep in poverty, where attack was frequently the best form of defence, and a later upbringing embedded in the world of London gangsters, has shaped her view of life. Although parliament had decreed that chaps could sleep with chaps, provided both were willing, there was little public approval for chapesses having the same latitude, and so Rina’s love affair with girlfriend Lizzie is accepted but not flaunted.

Lizzie has been set up by Rina as proprietor of a Soho club, more or less legit, but with a multitude of blind eyes which fail to focus on minor breaches of the moral code. When a young tart is found in a club back room, battered to death with a hammer, Rina not only takes offence but wreaks summary revenge. The killer, a bare-knuckle fighter called Dave Priest, is not only thumped by his latest opponent on the cobblestoned back yard of a dingy pub, but becomes the latest victim of what might be called Rina’s Law when she kills him and artfully arranges his corpse to look as if he had slipped on the stairs.

Rina is locked into a world where she is forever repaying favours, or earning them and taking rain checks for a later day. One of her debts is to a grim and sordid gang boss who, in turn, owes a favour to a homicidal maniac currently a patient in Broadmoor. This particular penance involves her bumping off a perfectly innocent builder who has had the temerity to offer the maniac’s wife a new life in the dreamy suburbs of Romford. Rina is not totally without moral scruples, although if you blink you will miss them as they whizz past your eye line at the speed of light. She tries to scam her employer by staging the death of the honest builder, but she is found out in a complex sting involving shadowy operatives of military intelligence.

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Is Rina fazed by the step-up in class from bumping off Essex builders to the complex world of international intrigue, Cold War deception and men in expensive suits who never, ever are who they say they are? No, not for one moment. Whether downing large whiskies in backstreet pubs, or sipping chateau-bottled claret in expensive hotel suites, our Rina is equal to the task, be it on home turf or in the romantically sleazy cafes and bars of Istanbul.

The list of fine actors who have turned their hand to crime fiction is extremely short, not to say minuscule. Even more invisible, except via an electron microscope, is the catalogue of crime writing actors who play languid toffs. I yield to no-one in my admiration for Hugh Fraser in his roles as Captain Hastings and – my absolute favourite – his insouciant Duke of Wellington in Sharpe. The difference between Fraser’s screen persona and the world of Rina Walker could not be more extreme.

To cut to the chase, does Stealth work? It does, and triumphantly so. Fraser might be just a tad too young to have experienced the Soho of the mid 1960s, but if the scene setting isn’t from personal recollection, he has certainly done his homework. My only slight criticism is that I found that the constant mood/time/product placement via contemporary pop song titles began to grate after a while. There is a touch of “with one bound she was free” about Rina Walker, and you  would certainly think twice about taking her home to meet mummy and daddy in Virginia Water, but under the capable direction of Hugh Fraser her adventures provide an enjoyably violent and escapist crime read. Stealth is out on 8th October and is brought to us by Urbane Publications.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Sheila Parker

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MERCY OR MERCENARY by Sheila Parker

mercyThis very English mystery revolves around the death of a distinguished biographer, Ralph Maguire. Maguire is in the terminal throes of dementia, and in his moments of lucidity he is trying finish his book about a celebrated actor.

When he is found dead, and the post mortem points to an overdose, the net of suspicion falls upon those around him, including his wife and those around him. The police investigation, led by Detective Inspector Kershaw uncovers family secrets as well as certain people who stand to gain by the biography remaining unpublished.

Mercy or Mercenary is published by Matador/Troubador and is out now.

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THE RING . . . Between the covers

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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 RingThe 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.”

MJMJ 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.

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PRIZE DRAW …Win Chris Nickson’s The Hanging Psalm

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I YIELD TO NO-ONE in my admiration of Chris Nickson and his Leeds historical crime novels, and so it is with a heavy heart that I am launching this competition to win a prize that is so gorgeous, I am tempted to assume an alias and enter the draw myself.

THE HANGING PSALM is a dark and brooding novel set in Georgian Leeds, and is a tale steeped in revenge, murder, astonishing period detail and a certain amount of social anger.

MAY I SUGGEST two small steps? First, click the blue link to read my review of The Hanging Psalm. Then, email me at fullybooked2016@yahoo.com – no need to do any more than put ‘The Hanging Psalm’ in the subject box. Alternatively, if you are a Facebook user, go to the Fully Booked Facebook page and ‘like’ the post about this competition. The image link below will take you straight there.

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PROBABLY EVEN EASIER, if you belong to the Twitterati, is to either like or retweet my daily posts about this competition. Click the little blue bird below to go the Fully Booked Twitter timeline.

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ENTRIES please by 10.00pm GMT on Sunday 30th September. The winner will be drawn from the Fully Booked digital hat, with United Nations observers present to ensure fair play. One entry per person only, please, and I will let the lucky winner know sometime on Monday 1st October.

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TRUE CRIME … The killing of George Belverstone

 

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I have always had a morbid fascination with canals
. There is something sinister about the unnatural way they snake into towns and cities, often hidden between and beneath buildings. The water is always murky and impenetrable; it could be three feet deep, it could be ten feet deep; the latter is, of course unlikely, but the awful possibility remains. I associate canals with death. Dead bodies. People who have had enough. Rivers are capricious things. They flow, they run shallow, they run deep; they are unreliable. But the canal is different. For someone contemplating what is surely the most awful method of suicide, drowning, the canal offers stillness and silence. The canal will be unlovely, unvisited, and a place where the past hangs heavy. For a killer, wishing to dispose of a body, the same attractions apply. Even as I write, an urban legend grows in strength. People believe The Manchester Pusher is a serial killer (click the link to read the story) who haunts the cold, bleak and dark canal network that runs through the city. There are few lights along the canal towpaths. There is no-one to hear you when you scream. Figures from the Manchester City Area coroner’s office show there have in fact been 35 drownings over the past decade. Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) say there have been 22 such deaths in the city centre since 2009.

Wisbech had a canal. It was dug out of the Fenland soil in the dying years of the 18th century, and was relatively short, but connected the tidal River Nene with the Great Ouse and was, in its prime, a way to transporting the valuable fruit and vegetable produce of the Fens to the coast, and then onward to other markets. In 1853, the canal remained a viable thoroughfare for farmers. merchants and traders. It was also still enough, cold enough and deep enough to embrace human bodies in its watery arms.

In the grey dawn light of May 29th 1853, a body was found floating in the canal. A witness at the subsequent court case stated:

“I heard someone shout, “There’s a man in the water.” I did not get up until I heard someone say, “It’s young Belverstone!” I knew Belverstone well. I knew Wilson by his nickname ‘The Russian Hog’, but I was not well acquainted with him. I had been brought up with Belverstone from a child. When I heard the cry that he was in the water, I went downstairs and went to the canal side. I then saw Wilson, with several other people. The body was out of the water, and on the bank. I asked Wilson to let me see the body, but he refused. When I asked him who it was, he said, ‘Young Belverstone.’ I asked to see his face, but Wilson said, ‘No – you are a female, and don’t want to see him. When I afterwards saw the body, it was young Belverstone.”

Suspected murder

Frederick Wilson, as his nickname might suggest, was a fearsome local brawler. Built like a heavyweight, he held court in several Wisbech pubs. Belverstone, (24) was not unused to pub life, as his father, William, was landlord of another local tavern, The Wheatsheaf.

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It seems young George had been drawn to Wilson’s circle of hard characters and female hangers-on, but they saw him as gullible and a prime target for jibes and jokes at his expense. Again, another witness statement from Wilson’s trial for murder:

“At about one o’clock, I was in bed, but woken up. I thought the noise was in our yard. People were laughing, larking and scuffling about in the lane. I went to the window to look. There was a gas lamp in the lane, fifteen or twenty yards from where I was looking. I saw the prisoner and Belverstone, and two women. I didn’t know the women. I saw Belverstone knocked up against Mr Oldham’s door by Wilson and the two women. They did not appear to be angry, but seemed to be all larking. I then saw young Belverstone knocked down on the ground several times. I don’t mean knocked down with fists, I couldn’t see that. They all kept about him larking. He was pushed down three or four times, and then they helped to pick him up, as far as I could see. One of them kept saying, ‘Pick him up, pick him up!’ I don’t know that he was drunk. Once, when he was knocked up against the door he cried out. I saw Wilson strike Belverstone once or twice, but whether by the fist or the back of the hand I cannot say.”

Belverstone’s fatal final evening had been spent in a back street pub called The Bowling Green Tap. It was demolished in the 1970s, but local people still recollect it fondly:

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Back in May 1853, it seems that the hapless young Belverstone had supped well but not wisely. He had chosen the company of people who sought entertainment through his vulnerability. In court, the evening’s merrymaking at The Bowling Green Tap was described thus:

“I left about six persons in the house. Belverstone was drinking, and was not sober. He was so tipsy that he fell off his chair, but did not hurt himself.” Mr Power asked, “How would you know?” Mallet replied, “I fancy he didn’t.” The judge asked, “Was he so tipsy that he couldn’t sit on his chair?” Mallet said, “Oh he could sit very well, and he was laughing to see another man so drunk that he fell down.” Mr Power then stated, “Ah, so one man was so drunk that he laughed so much at another drunken man that he could not retain his seat!” Mallet said, “Yes, but there was no quarreling when I was there.”

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It seems that Belverstone was struck down by Wilson, who was clearly acting up to impress his female entourage. Somehow Belverstone ended up in the canal. Wilson was arrested and detained on suspicion of murder. His trial was held during the Cambridgeshire Summer Assizes in the July of 1853. There were two key questions which needed answers; Did Belverstone drown, or was he killed by a blow from Wilson? How did he come to be in the canal?

The local surgeon who carried out the post mortem on Belverstone provided an unequivocal answer to one of the questions. He said that the dead man had received a violent blow to the skull, just behind the ear, but saw nothing to indicate death by drowning. As for how Belverstone found his way into the canal, a prisoner called Peter Brett who talked to Wilson while he was on remand seemed to solve the mystery.

“I have known Wilson for two years. I am a prisoner from Wisbech. I met Wilson in prison. He asked me how long I had to stop. I said I was in for a month, and asked him what he was in for, and he said, ‘murder’. He said no more that day, but I saw him a few days after (the 5th of June) and he said, ‘ I have thrown a man into the river.’ I asked him what man, and he replied, ‘George Belverstone.’’’

1stLordWensleydaleAfter an elaborate summing up by Judge James Parke, 1st Baron Wensleydale, (left) the jury retired to consider the precise cause of Belverstone’s death. Not for them days of deliberation, or purdah in some hotel away from the public eye. After a full five minutes, they returned and the foreman stated that George Belverstone had been killed by a blow from Wilson’s fist. The prisoner, at this point, must have had visions of the hangman’s knot swimming before his eyes, but the 1st Baron Wensleydale was minded to differ. Unbelievably, he was of the opinion that although Wilson struck the fatal blow, “the violence was attributed to accident,” and pronounced:

“Frederick Wilson, I quite approve of the verdict of the Jury. You have aggravated your offence by adding the guilt of falsehood to your crime of having deprived a fellow creature of life whilst in state of intoxication; I punish you now only for the blow inflicted ; It does not appear that you were in state of anger at all, and there are other mitigating circumstances in your case. I therefore sentence you six months’ imprisonment, with hard labour.”

Six months in jail for killing a man? I believe that those who rail against what they see as the soft sentences handed out to modern criminals should study legal history. The law is, always was, and ever will be – an ass.

My thanks to the members of the Facebook group Wisbech Pictures Old and New, particularly the family of the late Geoff Hastings, Andy Ketley, Roger Rawson, Steve Williams, Andy Ward, Patricia Warden and Pat Prewer for their photographs and memories.

BGT double

 

 

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