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MURDER AT MADAME TUSSAUDS . . . Between the covers

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This is the sixth book in the delightful series from Jim Eldridge set in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, and featuring a private investigator partnership between Daniel Wilson and Abigail Fenton. The pair are so mismatched that they make a delightful fit, if that makes any sense. Former policeman Daniel is short, stocky and of solid working class London stock, while Abigail is of more ‘noble birth’,  tall, elegant, and an expert in archaeology, particularly that of the classical world. As you can see from the banner above, they have worked their way around the major museums of England, but now they are called to a slightly less academic venue – Madame Tussaud’s waxworks on Baker Street.

One of the night watchmen is found decapitated, his body (and head) posed next to the instrument of death that caused Anna Maria “Marie” Tussaud née Grosholtz to fear for her own life during the French Revolution – the guillotine. Wilson and Fenton immediately smell a rather large and malodorous rodent. The dead man – Eric Dudgeon – and his fellow watchman, Walter Bagshot, were lifelong friends, and former army colleagues. Now Dudgeon is dead and Bagshot is missing. Even stranger is the fact that some months earlier the previous watchmen, Donald Bruin and Steven Patterson, both left at the same time and, within days, Dudgeon and Bagshot arrived at the exhibition asking if there were any vacancies for security staff.

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Meanwhile, Eldridge has introduced some real life characters (pictured above) – Prime Minister the Marquess of Salisbury, Sir Matthew White Ridley the Home Secretary, and William Melville head of the Special Branch. The men are concerned about a series of successful bank robberies, each of which has been carried out by the robbers tunneling into the bank vault from the cellar of an adjoining building. The sums taken have been eye-wateringly huge – so much so that the government is concerned about a run on the banks. Dedicated Sherlockians, when hearing about the robbers’ method, will raise an eyebrow and say, “A-hah – The Red Headed League!*

The murder plot becomes more twisted, when a young man, working on the basis that if he can scare his girlfriend she will succumb to his advances, hides with her in a Tussaud’s broom cupboard at closing time, and then sneaks out into The Chamber of Horrors. What they find is a genuine horror rather than a wax version, and all thoughts of dalliance go out of the window. Abigail, meanwhile, is courted (in a gentlemanly way) by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, who wants her to lead an expedition to excavate an obscure group pf pyramids in Egypt. Both she and Daniel have their lives threatened, however; Abigail by an obsessed young woman who lusts after Daniel, and Daniel himself by a powerful and seemingly untouchable crime boss, Gerald Carr. But is Carr the real spider at the centre of this web, or is it someone much more closely connected to high society?

Screen Shot 2021-06-20 at 19.30.31This shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘comfort reading’. Yes, we know what we are going to get – the atmospheric late Victorian setting, the warm human chemistry between Daniel and Abigail, the absence of moral ambiguity and the certainty that good will prevail. Any genuine reader of fiction – and in particular, crime fiction – will know that, rather in the manner of Ecclesiastes chapter III , there is a time for everything; there is a time for the dark despair of Derek Raymond, there is a time for the intense psychological dramas of Lisa Jewell, and a time for workaday police procedurals by writers like Peter James and Mark Billingham. There is also a time for superbly crafted historical crime fiction which takes us far away in time and space, and allows us to escape into an – albeit imaginary – world which provides balm and healing to our present woes. Murder at Madame Tussaud’s is one such book. It is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

*The Red-Headed League” is a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which Sherlock Holmes takes the case of a businessman who feels that he’s been duped. A small business owner named Wilson tells Holmes how a man named Spaulding convinced him to take a job with The Red-Headed League. The League pays Wilson to copy out the Encyclopedia Britannica in longhand. Wilson does this for seven weeks, until the League is disbanded. Holmes realizes that Spaulding just wanted Wilson out of the shop so that he could dig a tunnel into the nearby bank.

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . Whatever’s Been Going On In Mumblesby? by Colin Watson

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I make no apology for returning to one of my all time favourite authors, the unassuming and hugely underrated Colin Watson. For a closer look at the man and his work, you can have a look at my two part study which is here. Whatever’s Been Going On In Mumblesby? was published in 1982, a year before Watson died and is the last of The Flaxborough Chronicles. This, then, is the final appearance of Detective Inspector Walter Purbright, and his earnest assistant Detective Sergeant Sydney. Love. The fun begins with this announcement in the local newspaper.

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Mr Loughbury had since remarried, as they used to say, a much younger model, the undoubtedly attractive but ostensibly rather vulgar Zoe. Purbright becomes involved when, after the funeral of her husband, Zoe Loughbury, née Claypole, is discovered locked in the bathroom of The Manor House while someone seems to have set fire to the building. The fire is soon put out, but Purbright becomes aware (with the help of Miss Lucy Teatime, a local antique dealer who may not be entirely honest, but is scrupulously observant) that the late solicitor had in the house a collection of very valuable artifacts and paintings, all of which seem to have been ‘acquired’ from former clients, without a single bill of sale involved. Most bizarre among this collection is a piece of wood supposed to be a remnant of the True Cross.

Screen Shot 2021-06-08 at 18.43.59The true provenance of this is only revealed when Purbright investigates an apparent suicide which happened in the village church. Bernadette Croll, the wife of a local farmer was, in life, “no better than she ought to be”, and in death little mourned by the several men who shared her charms. Purbright eventually sees the connection between Mrs Croll’s death and  Mr Loughbury’s collection of valuables, when he discovers that the wood came from somewhere far less exotic than Golgotha.

One of Colin Watson’s more unusual achievements is that he is supposed to be one of the few people to have successfully sued Private Eye. He took exception to their writer describing his work as ‘Wodehouse without the jokes.’ He took them to court, and was awarded £750 in damages. Watson was no Wodehouse nor, I am sure, would he have claimed to be, but his jokes are not bad at all. Here. he reacts to a report from Sergeant Love:

“Love’s accounts were robbed of dramatic point somehow by his customary obliging, pleased with life expression. He would have described a public execution or a jam-making demonstration with equal cheerfulness.”

Purbright has a good but wary relationship with his boss, Chief Constable Chubb. They are discussing the vagaries in the behaviour of one of the females in the case:

“Mr Chubb waved his hand vaguely. ‘Who can say? Nervous trouble? Change of life?’ Menopause loomed as large in the chief constable’s mind as central heating and socialism.”

The owner of Mumblesby’s main restaurant has a wife who is not in the first flush of youth, but maximises her charms:

“She wore a dress of such deep cleavage that it resembled a long pair of partly drawn curtains, with a glimpse of navel at the bottom of the V, like the eye of an inquisitive neighbour, peeping out.”

As ever, Purbright’s mild manner and courtesy are totally underestimated by the criminals and schemers in and around Flaxborough. He has a steely perception which is more than a match for the rich but vulgar farmers who are up to their necks in the death of Bernadette Croll and, to show that he is no respecter of persons, he is equally merciless with the impoverished gentry. The jokes and comedy aside, for Walter Purbright justice is, indeed, blind – at least to class divisions and the county social hierarchy.

The Flaxborough novels are redolent of another time, certainly, and I suspect that they may well have been even when they were first published. Watson is a craftsman rather than a showman, but his plots are  clever and intricate. His humour, which failed to impress the literary critic of Private Eye, is in the indisputably English vein of George and Weedon Grossmith, and JB (Beachcomber) Morton, and I suggest it has modern echoes in the Bryant and May books by Christopher Fowler. Flaxborough is a place I continue to visit, and it never fails to please. Finally, thanks to Peter Hannan and Stuart Radmore for the lovely map of Flaxborough used in the feature image, which was originally created by Salim Patel.

THE KILLINGS AT KINGFISHER HILL . . . Between the covers

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I am delighted to host a guest review from Andrew Mann. You can find him on Twitter at @YorkshireBook48. He is a fan of Sophie Hannah and her Hercule Poirot books.

Screen Shot 2021-06-20 at 10.35.43This is the fourth Hercule Poirot novel by Sophie Hannah (left), The Killings at Kingfisher Hill is a whodunnit written in the style of legendary crime writer Agatha Christie and captures all the magic of the books first published in the the 1920’s. At 330 pages it is a very enjoyable read and I personally flew through it in a few short days.

The story begins with Poirot and his assistant, Inspector Catchpool boarding a coach to Kingfisher Hill, a country estate with several grand houses one of which we soon learn was the scene of a murder. Frank Davenport, disgraced son of the houses owner Sydney, has been pushed to his death from a balcony. As with many crime books the reader is challenged along with Catchpool and Poirot to work out the identity of the murderer along the way by placing together the clues littered throughout by author Hannah, however this one has a slightly unique twist in that from the off we know that one of the characters has already confessed to being the culprit, although of course all is not as it seems.

In the first chapter we meet Joan Blythe, another passenger boarding the coach who reveals that she has been warned previously if she sits in a certain seat she will be murdered. This of course ends up being the case although in typically genius circumstances and the mystery of how this scenario came about runs alongside the murder and is brilliantly unraveled by Poirot and explained in the conclusion of the book.

As the chapters unfold we meet more characters, all of whom come under suspicion from the various Davenport family members, friends Verna and Godfrey to Oliver, fiancée of the deceased mans sister. To further add to the plot a second murder takes place within the house during the investigation which adds further mystery to the plot.

I absolutely loved this book. I found it very funny in places especially the dialogue between Poirot and Catchpool at times. I felt as though I could relate to the narrator Catchpool who is always one step behind in his thinking and never quite works it all out until the very end. The ending for me was very satisfying and gave a watertight explanation to all the events of the book, in an ingenious manner that I would never have guessed.

If you like classic crime mysteries, I would definitely recommend this book for you. It is a great read that more than does justice to the style and character made famous by Agatha Christie and can of course be read as a stand alone novel if you have not read any Poirot before. The Killings at Kingfisher Hill is published by Harper Collins, and is available now.

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IN THE SILENCE LONG-FORGOTTEN, ALMOND TREES BLOSSOM . . . In brief

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This is certainly the longest title of the year, and the most poetic. I wondered if it was a quote from somewhere, but Google just directed me to the book itself. If any poetry experts can source the words, please let me know. There used to be an adjective used to describe long novels with a complex time structure – “sprawling”. I was never sure if it was entirely complimentary, but this book, with 425 pages and a time span ranging between 1985 and 2031 might fit the bill.

It is set in Libya, more specifically the ancient regions of Cyrenaica, Triplotania and Fezzan, which have been fought over almost since time began. Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Italians, Nazi Germany, the British Empire – the sands are stained with the blood of fighting men.

Jack Meredith is the central figure in this saga. While working as a geologist in Libya in the 1980s he is thrown in prison but rescued by Bushra, a wealthy woman of Greek/Libyan parentage. Their relationship is not a happy one, however, and their twin children eventually go their separate ways, Emma to London and Stavros to Benghazi.

That was then, but Mayne imagines a future – 2024 –  where a rampant Russia reclaims the Baltic states it lost and seeks to dominate the Mediterranean. A desperate United Nations cedes Cyrenaica to the Russians, who also control Greece The remaining parts of Libya are held by The European Defence Alliance.

Skipping ahead even further, to 2031, Jack and Bushra are temporarily reunited, with their grand-daughter Isabel and their son Stavros both become involved in resistance movements against the Russians.

The cover describes the story as “a novel of love, tragedy, and reconciliation.” It is published by The Book Guild, and is out on 28th June.

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DYING INSIDE . . . Between the covers

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Back in the day when I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue was actually funny, and I’m talking about the late 1970s, one of my favourite rounds was Late Arrivals At The Ball, where a servant announces the arrival of . . . cue wonderful and bizarre puns, such as:

(The Astronauts’ Ball) Mr and Mrs Secondstoblastoff and their Scottish son, Fife
(The Booksellers’ Ball) Mr & Mrs Zeen, & their disgusting daughter, Margaret – known as ‘Dirty Maggie’
(The Butchers’ Ball) Mr and Mrs Poundamince and their son, Arfur

I only mention this because twice now, within a few days, I have found a crime series to which I have come very late. This, for an avowed fan of police procedural novels, is pretty damning. At least the Trevor Negus novels featuring Danny Flint was only a three book series, but much to my shame I find that there have been ten previous books in the DCI Nick Dickson series. All I can do, is review the eleventh – Dying Inside – and mutter “mea culpa.” Below, numbers one to five in the Nick Dixon Books.

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51olmknWKqS._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Nick Dickson works for Avon and Somerset Constabulary, so his beat covers much of England’s glorious West Country from Bristol down to Weston super Mare. He is relatively recently promoted, which is good for his salary and pension, but has dragged him into the vortex of tedium which includes mission statements, performance reviews and coma-inducing courses with titles like Developing Inclusive Management Styles In A Modern Police Service. ( I just made that up, but a pound to a penny something very like it actually exists) Dixon, like his creator, is a former solicitor, so he is very wise to the standard stunts pulled by defence lawyers, and it also accounts for his rapid promotion through the ranks. Witnesses often remark that he looks “too young to be such an important officer”, to which his response is usually a neutral smile

Here though, he has dead bodies to deal with. Not so good for the victims – firstly a number of sheep, secondly a dodgy accountant and then an HMRC manager investigating fraud – but good for Dixon’s state of mind. The two humans and the sheep have all been killed with fatal shots from a powerful crossbow. Were the sheep just practice targets while the killer honed his or her skills, or were they unrelated incidents? And what is the true story behind  the ocean-going yacht owned by the dodgy accountant capsizing and sinking taking with it one of its crew, Laura Dicken?

Bit by bit, Dixon completes the jigsaw, and is convinced that the deaths are revenge attacks by one of the people who were lured into a scam which ruined their pensions and left them more or less destitute. With his bosses anxious for him to wrap the case up and devote himself to the serious business of Neighbourhood Watch Liaison Committees and Diversity Webinars, Dixon has one or two surprises up his sleeve before the case can finally be closed. Dying Inside is a thoroughly entertaining read, full of twists and turns, and is published by Thomas and Mercer. It is out in paperback and Kindle on 22nd June.

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A COLD GRAVE . . . Between the covers

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I had not come across Trevor Negus and his DCI Danny Flint novels, and it was only a browse through Netgalley that brought it to my attention, and I am glad I found it – but sorry to come late to the series, which began with Evil in MInd, and was followed by Dead and Gone. The three books all came out in May this year from Inkubator Books, but A Cold Grave was first published in 2018 with the title A Different Kind of Evil, from Bathwood Manor Publishing, which seems to be no more. I am glad that Inkubator have picked up the torch and are running with it.

I have to say that the police procedural genre is my absolute Alpha and Omega in crime fiction, and chancing upon a new (to me) series is a ‘punch the air’ moment. The acid test of course, is deciding if the book is any good. I think police procedurals are harder to get wrong than most genres, but it does happen. I am happy to say that Trevor Negus does most things right in this novel, and so he hasn’t dropped the Ming vase to shatter into a thousand pieces. The book is set in 1986, so in one sense it is Historical Crime Fiction, but only the absence of mobile phones stands out as a major difference between then and now. One of the elements that make this novel work so well is the sense – and continuity – of place. We certainly aren’t in the most romantic or obviously atmospheric part of Britain, but Negus knows Nottinghamshire like the back of his proverbial, and so he should; his bio reveals:

“In 1975 Trevor joined the Nottinghamshire Constabulary as a Police Cadet, becoming a regular officer in 1978. As a uniform constable he learned his craft in the pressure cooker environment of inner city Nottingham which at that time had one of the highest violent crime rates in the United Kingdom.

During a varied thirty year police career Trevor spent six years as an authorised firearms officer and sniper, before transferring onto the CID. He spent the last twelve years of his career as a detective, becoming a specialist interviewer involved in the planning and implementation of interviews with murder suspects.”

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One of the most notorious places in Nottinghamshire is Rampton Secure Hospital, and it is here that the story begins. Two prisoners escape, after inflicting serious violence on several staff. One is quickly tracked down, but the other, Jimmy Wade, gets clean away, almost certainly helped by a member of the public with a car. Wade is a seriously deranged psychopath, and every day he remains at large is a day of anxiety for Detective Inspector Danny Flint and his team.

Flint has something else on his plate, though. That ever-reliable participant in murder enquiries (real and fictional)  – a dog walker – has discovered the decomposing body of a boy. The boy is soon identified as Evan Jenkins, who has been removed from the ‘care’ of his mother, a drug addicted prostitute, and placed in a care home called Tall Trees. Flint has a bad feeling about the couple who run the home – Carol and Bill Short – and he connects them both to a drug ring and – even worse – a ring of paedophiles  whose members include several civic dignitaries and influential businessmen. Meanwhile, Wade’s whereabouts remains a mystery.

Unlike Danny Flint, we know that Wade is living in a remote cottage on a country estate, aided and abetted by his girlfriend Melissa Braithwaite, who is drawn to him by a poisonous mixture of fear of his violence and the worst kind of sexual attraction. Wade has a revenge mission he hatched while under lock and key – the abduction of two prison officers who had given him a particularly hard time in Rampton. Danny Flint’s hunt for Wade and the paedophile ring responsible for Evan Jenkins’s death is played out against an impressively authentic geographical background – the Nottinghamshire towns of Retford, Newark and Mansfield. A police procedural this may be, but Dixon of Dock Green it certainly is not. It is dark, and sometimes frighteningly violent, but always compellingly readable. A Cold Grave is out now.

BLACKSTOKE . . . Between the covers


HeaderMany readers have come to associate Rob Parker with his energetic thrillers featuring the redoubtable runaway Special Forces operative Ben Bracken (click to read more) but one of his early novels, Crooks Hollow (2018), suggested that he had a flair for the macabre, and here he has produced a fully fledged horror novel.After a brief and enigmatic prologue, which tells us very little but suggests bad times are ahead, we are introduced to the residents of Broadoak Lane, Blackstoke, which is an upmarket but only partially finished housing estate somewhere in the north west of England. We have, in order of appearance:

Peter and Pam West. Married, but not entirely happily, they have two teenage children. Peter, after a promotion at work, has put down the deposit on their large house, but he suspects that the mortgage may be a great test of his equanimity.

David and Christian. They are a couple, and they have adopted a child, Olivia.

Fletcher Adams and his wife, Joyce. Adams is an up-and-coming MP. His long hours at work – or at least long hours out of the house – have placed a strain on their marriage, but Joyce seems to have given up the ghost, and has settled for the comforts of a quiet life. They have twins, unkindly likened by someone to the ghostly pair in The Shining.

Grace Milligan, a young, bright and thus-far successful solicitor, she lives alone – except for her Irish wolfhound Dewey. She is another who is having to make serious sacrifices to keep up the mortgage on a house she never wanted, but her father was insistent that it was the right thing to do.

Quint and Wendy Fenchurch, a retired couple. He spent a lifetime as a police officer, she as an employee of the NHS. He lives his life as if had never left the force, while his gentle wife has never revealed to him that by the end of their careers, she was earning much more than he was.

black032Parker ratchets up the ‘something nasty this way comes’ mood in gentle increments: there is a slight, but unmistakable smell of decay in the air, a much-loved guinea pig meets an unfortunate end, little Olivia makes some distinctly Regan MacNeil sounds over the baby monitor, and Dewey the dog is accused of doing something malodorous and messy. But then, after this phoney war between the residents and whatever is lurking in the shadows of Broadoak Lane, it all goes to hell in a hand-cart and we go into full The Hills Have Eyes mode.

I don’t think I have read a horror novel from choice in years, at least not one that has no supernatural element, but this was highly entertaining stuff. I won’t give any more away, except to say that the mayhem hinges on what was on the Blackstoke site before the unscrupulous developers bought it, and that the menace comes as a result of the terrible things human beings do to each other, rather than any intervention from ghosts or ghouls. If you are likely to cringe at the description of someone being emasculated with a meat cleaver, a man’s skull being decoratively rearranged by a fearsome blow from a cricket bat, or the havoc that repeated consanguinity can wreak with the human body, then you might want to give this a miss. Otherwise, if you enjoy a touch of visceral David Cronenberg style body-horror, then this inventive and fast paced thriller will tick all the boxes. It is published by Red Dog Press and is available now.

OUTBREAK . . . Between the covers

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This is the third Luke Carlton thriller by the BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, following Crisis (2016) and Ultimatum (2018). Carlton is a former Special Forces operative who now works for MI6, the foreign intelligence service of the United Kingdom. The novel begins in the frozen wastes of Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago formerly known as Spitzbergen, and three environmental scientists from the UK Arctic Research Station have been caught out by a blizzard and, too far from their base camp to make it back safely, they seek refuge in a hut. What they find there makes them wish they had braved the snow and wind and tried for home. They find a gravely ill man, and one of the scientists, Dr Sheila Mackenzie gets rather too close to him:

“As Dr Mackenzie turned back to face the sick man, without warning he arched his body forward off the back of the couch with surprising speed. His whole body shook with involuntary convulsions. In that same moment, he coughed violently. His mouth wide open in a rictus gape, he emitted a spray of blood, bile and mucus into the air, his face less than two feet from hers, before collapsing, quivering on to the wooden floor.”

Screen Shot 2021-06-06 at 18.46.45That, then, is the Aliens moment. Events move with terrifying speed. Mackenzie is airlifted back to England and isolation and the wheels of government and the intelligence agencies begin to whirr. Given that there is a large Russian presence in Svalbard, ostensibly for mining operations, the fingers of guilt begin to point towards Moscow, particularly when the virus is found to be man-made.

Gardner doesn’t allow either Carlton or readers pause for either thought or breath. The action zig-zags between the MI6 building at Vauxhall Cross in London, the Arctic Circle, Vilnius, Moscow, GCHQ in Cheltenham and – less exotic but rather more deadly – a down-at-heel industrial estate near Braintree.

This is an impeccably researched novel, as you would expect from someone with Gardner’s experience in the worlds of soldiering, news gathering and international affairs. Most of the story is all-too-horribly plausible, given what we know about what is euphemistically known as ‘mischief’ from Moscow and Beijing, but then Gardner has a surprise for us. The Russians are involved, certainly, but not the Russians we might have expected. To say more would spoil the entertainment but I did find the identity of the conspirators not entirely plausible, given what we know (or think we know) about terror cells operating around the world. But hey-ho, this is not a documentary but a novel – and a bloody good one, too.

Gardner has a box full of thriller writer tools, and he uses them to great effect – punchy, short chapters, many of them shamelessly cliff hanging, whirlwind globe trotting, a convincing (if rather conventional) hero, something of a romantic backstory, breathtaking amounts of cyber-wizardry, and enough military intelligence acronyms to satisfy the geekiest security geek. You won’t be surprised to hear that Carlton eventually triumphs, but I advise caution. The last twelve words of the book might set alarm bells ringing …..

Outbreak is published by Bantam Press and is out now.

SCARRED . . . Between the covers

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If ever there were an appropriate title for a Henry Christie novel, it is this. For newcomers, former Lancashire copper Nick Oldham created Christie in 1996 with A Time For Justice. Scarred is, I believe the 28th in the series, and while Christie hasn’t quite aged the full twenty five years since we first met him, he is rather like Tennyson’s Ulysses:

“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;”

Sticking with the Bard of Somersby, Christie is also;

“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Back in the day, Henry Christie was a senior detective with the Lancashire Constabulary. He is now long since retired, running a moorland pub, but unable to resist the call to arms when he is asked to operate as a civilian consultant with his old force. Back to the title, though. Christie has endured many a beating at the hands of his criminal adversaries. He carries scars which are both physical and mental from his days battling bad men – and equally malignant women. Without giving too much away, I can say the word ‘scarred’ has a wider connotation than Henry’s war wounds.

I have become weary in recent years of what I call the “four years earlier – six months later” school of narrative, and I raised the tiniest hair of an eyebrow when I saw that this book starts in 1985, when Christie was (I almost said “nobbut a lad” but then remembered that they say that on the other side of the Pennines, not in Lancashire) a young Detective Constable, trying to nab shoplifters. One particular pursuit ends in Christie being severely beaten, and ending up in intensive care. Wisely, Nick Oldham stays with this period of his man’s career for some considerable time, and doesn’t follow the irritating (to me) pattern of lurching between time slots every three or four pages.

81RhPuniszSThe 1985 episode links crucially with the second part of the book which is firmly in present day Covid-restricted Lancashire, complete with masks and elbow bumps. A teenage boy who was the object of Christie’s near fatal pursuit – but then disappeared off the face of the earth – turns up again, but in an unexpected and deeply disturbing way.

A word or two about the places where the book is set. I have spoken of this in previous reviews of Henry Christie stories, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that because some of the action centres on the Blackpool area, there is any sense of sun and fun, saucy postcards and kiss-me-quick hats. The ubiquitous Google provides a statement from Lancashire Country Council:

“Blackpool (20.9%), in the Lancashire-14 area, has the largest proportion of its working age population employment deprived in England, and the third largest percentage income deprived (24.7%). Blackpool has the largest number of people employment deprived and income deprived in the Lancashire-14 area.

Where you have the ‘D’ word you always have crime, meanness of spirit and Oldham doesn’t shy away from describing the littered streets, the drug-ridden estates, the human desert speckled with steel-grilled convenience stores and tattoo shops, the youngsters who have turned feral by the age of twelve, and the desperate single mothers, endlessly betrayed by the absent fathers of their children, and whose only solace is tobacco and cheap alcohol. It doesn’t make the Henry Christie novels Noir, exactly, mainly because HC is such a decent fellow. He is a man who remains optimistic in spite of everything, and perhaps he is a soulmate of the man so superbly described by Raymond Chandler:

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.”

Back to the book. Mr Civilian Christie has been partnered with a firebrand Detective Sergeant, xxxxx who is fixated on the fact that there has been systematic collusion between the police and criminals in Lancashire over a long period of time. Because of this, she has been shunted sideways into investigating cold case crime, an operation which may make for good police procedurals on TV, but is probably frustrating for officers who want to be at the sharp end of investigation and law enforcement. What starts as a hunt for man who raped a young girl many months ago morphs into the discovery of a huge child abuse scandal, and ends with one of the most ferocious finales you could want to read. Scarred is published by Severn House and is out now. To read my reviews of earlier Nick Oldham novels, click the image below.

 

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