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THE TAINTED . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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When I was offered the chance to read The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan, I sensed that it wasn’t my usual fare, but I was drawn in by the historical and military background of the story. I’ll say right now that I loved it. The narrative spans sixty years, is set in India between 1920 and 1982 and deals with two very different families – that of an Anglo-Irish soldier, and a young Anglo-Indian woman and her descendants.

The TaintedThis is a fine novel, and as is to be expected with any such story set in historical India – think A Passage To India or The Jewel In The Crown – at its heart are the various tensions that exist between native Indians, Anglo-Indians (people of mixed race) and the British rulers. Cauvery Madhavan doesn’t stop there, however. She introduces another theme of social conflict which shimmers and reverberates rather like the sympathetic strings on a sitar, and this is the relationship between another group of subjects and masters – the Roman Catholic population of The Irish Republic and the English landed gentry who, for so long, governed them.

The story begins in 1920, in the garrison town of Indaghiri. Private Michael Flaherty of the Kildare Rangers falls in love with Rose Twomey, a young woman who works as a maidservant in the house of Colonel Aylmer, the head of the regiment. Historical background is crucial here, but I’ll be as concise as possible. The Kildare Rangers are fictional, but their factual counterparts were the Connaught Rangers. The southern Irish regiments had fought bravely for the British cause in The Great War, but with republican unrest simmering in Ireland, many of the units had been posted overseas.

Rose Twomey is fair of skin, with delightful freckles, but she is mixed race. Her father married an Indian woman, and so Rose carries the crucial taint of being Anglo-Indian and, to use the brutal logic of the time, she is neither one thing nor the other. Michael and Rose sup well, but not wisely, and the result is that Rose, pregnant with Michael’s child, is disowned by both her father and the Aylmer family.

One of the remarkable things about the logistics of the British Army in The Great War was that it was able to deliver letters from home with pinpoint accuracy to even the most God-forsaken trench on the Western Front, and so it that the men of the Kildare Rangers have a ready supply of news from home. And it is not good news. In an attempt to stifle Irish nationalism, the British have created an auxiliary police force attached to the Roral Irish Constabulary. Known as the Black and Tans, they are mostly unemployed former soldiers, and their brutal intimidation of the civilian population is causing unrest among the men of the Rangers. When this unrest turns to outright mutiny, it is soon quashed, but Michael and several other men are arrested and face the firing squad.

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 19.56.18The second part of The Tainted jumps forward to 1982. India is rapidly emerging as a modern nation, but it retains the vast web of bureacracy bequeathed to it by the long departed British. Mohan Kumar is the Collector for the Nandagiri district. He is, in the vast scheme of things, a relatively minor functionary, but one with great local power and prestige. He is asked to accommodate a photographer from Ireland, Richard Aylmer, who is none other than the grandson of the late Colonel of the Kildare Rangers. The Colonel was a talented artist, and Richard’s mission is to match contemporary photographs with the scenes his grandfather painted. Mohan points Richard in the direction of Gerry Twomey, a forestry manager whose knowledge of the local landscape is unmatched.

Of course, Gerry Twomey – and his sister May – are descendants of Rose Twomey, and I will say no more other than to promise that what follows is enchanting, heartbreaking and beautifully written. Cauvery Madhavan (above right) takes many risks, plot-wise in this book, but everything not only falls into place, but does so with style and bravura. The Tainted is published by HopeRoad and is out on 30th April.

Men of the Connaught Rangers did stage a brief mutiny against their commanders, and some of the ringleaders were executed. Those buried in India were, as suggested in The Tainted, eventually disinterred and their remains repatriated to Ireland. You can find out more here.

For more about the Raj in 20th century India, take a look at the excellent Christian Le Fanu novels by Brian Stoddart.

BETWEEN THE COVERS . . . The Final Straw (click for full screen)

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I had not come across anything by Jenny Francis before, so I did a little research before beginning The Final Straw, and discovered that the author isn’t one person, but a writing partnership between Patricia Scudamore and Hilton Catt. Furthermore, the pair’s day job, as it were, is writing self-help manuals for commerce and business. Titles such as Successful Career Change, Cover Letters In A Week and The Interview Coach didn’t initially indicate that I was about to read an entertaining crime novel, but I was wrong.

TFS cover019Charlie Moon is yet another fictional Detective Inspector, but slightly different in one or two ways from many of his fellow CriFi coppers. For a start, his patch is the rather unfashionable West Midlands, probably the city its locals affectionately refer to as Brummagem. Also, although he carries the cross born by most of his fictional counterparts – corrupt or incompetent bosses – he has a stable and happy family life, and neither drinks nor smokes to excess. When he goes home at night, it is to the solace of his wife and daughter, rather than the solitary vice of falling asleep on the sofa, whisky glass in hand, while something from his obscure CD collection plays in the background.

Moon is contacted by a notorious local criminal, currently a guest at HMP Winson Green. Denny Wilbur might shrink at being described as public spirited, but he has an injustice to share with Moon. A simple minded black man, Wilson Beames, was twenty years into a life sentence for murdering a teenage girl, Sharon Baxter, back in the 1970s, but he has been found hanged in his cell.

“He couldn’t read or write, yet they reckoned he’d signed a confession. Besides which, he wouldn’t have had the brains to know what he was signing anyway.”
“Are you suggesting he was stitched up?”
“We all know what went on the seventies, don’t we, Inspector? Some naughty people in your mob occasionally did some naughty things.”

When Moon suggests to his bosses that this needs investigating, he is warned off in no uncertain terms. Being a contrary so-and-so, Moon decides to do a little investigating on his own, with the help of Jo Lyon, a local journalist. Bit by bit, they fit the pieces of the jigsaw together, and the emerging picture is not a pretty one. It shows a desperately corrupt senior policeman, a paedophile ring, and a ruthless local businessmen prepared to provide certain services. As Moon closes in on Sharon Baxter’s killer, he is unaware that when he does solve the mystery, it will provide a shock that he could never have anticipated.

The Final Straw is cleverly written, fast paced, and with an authentic sense of time and place. If, like me, you are impressed with Charlie Moon, there are two previous novels to check out – The Silent Passage and Blood Ties. All three are published by Matador, and The Final Straw is out on 28th April.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Making Wolf

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I don’t know how other reviewers are getting on, but here in the Fens the lock-down in publicity departments has meant that the normal flow of printed ARCs has shrivelled. I know of several launch dates that have been postponed until happier times, so I was especially pleased to receive an actual printed book this week.

Making Wolf by Tade Thompson tells the tale of a London supermarket security bloke who travels to his former home in West Africa to attend a funeral. As the beer flows and he meets old friends, Weston Kogi can’t resist egging the pudding a little by telling his mates that he is a murder detective in far-off London.

His little charade explodes in his face, however, when he becomes involved in a bloody feud between two political factions, and made to investigate a real life killing.

Making Wolf is published by Constable, and will be out on 7th May. I will be reading the book soon, and writing a full review.

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THE MUSIC BOX ENIGMA . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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Fans of period police procedurals are in for a treat at the end of the month when RN Morris’s distinctive London copper, Chief Superintendent Silas Quinn makes a welcome return. It’s December 1914, and the war that was meant to be over by Christmas is showing only signs of intensifying. DORA – the Defence of The Realm Act – has been enforced, and among the many strictures it imposes on the populace are imprisonment without trial, a ban on publishing any description of war or any news that is likely to cause any conflict between the public and military authorities and, bizarrely, an interdiction on buying rounds in pubs.

MBE coverBut Christmas is coming, and a rather upper-crust choir, The Hampstead Voices, is rehearsing for its seasonal concert, with all proceeds going to Belgian refugees, forced from their homes by the brutal Hun invaders. Directed by Sir Adrian Fonthill, the concert will include not only much-loved carols such as O Little Town of Bethlehem and Adeste Fideles, but choral works by Bizet and Handel. Special guest artistes will include dancers from Ballets Modernes and the distinguished violinist Emile Boland, but the evening will conclude with a performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s A Christmas Greeting, in the presence of the composer himself. It is also believed that Winston Churchill, First Lord of The Admiralty, will be in the audience at University College School on the evening of 24th December.

Silas Quinn may have many qualities, but a musical ear is not one of them, so how does he come to be involved in the doings of The Hampstead Voices? Rehearsals for the concert may not be going too well, perhaps due to the many tenors and basses who have answered the call to arms, but preparations take a distinct downturn when the Director of Music is found dead, slumped at his grand piano, with the sharpened handle of a tuning fork stuck into his ear. As boss of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Unit, Quinn is summoned to the scene of this musical murder.

It seems that the late Sir Adrian, despite his musical sensitivities, was not a paragon of virtue. He has a roving eye – and hands – for young sopranos and altos, and has a weakness for gambling which has left him in debt to some very dangerous people. But who stands to benefit from his death? Not those to whom he owes money,surely? A resentful husband, perhaps, who has been cuckolded?

MorrisAs Quinn tries to penetrate the wall of silence thrown up by Fonthill’s widow, his attention is drawn to a mysterious music box sent to Sir Adrian just before his death. When it is wound up and played, however, the resulting tune simply seems – even to Quinn’s tin ear – a haphazard sequence of random notes. But help is at hand. One of the Special Constables from Hampstead Police Station could be said to have an ear for music. He is none other than Sir Edward Elgar, celebrated composer of Salut d’Amour, Variations on an Original Theme and The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar takes the discordant melody and uncovers a message which rveals that Sir Adrian’s death is not to be the last associated with the ill-fated Christmas concert.

RN Morris (above right) gives us an inventive and delightfully improbable conclusion to this very readable novel. If you want something to lose yourself in for a few hours and a diversion to push to one side the misery and discomfort of the lock-down, then you will find nothing better than The Music Box Enigma. It is published by Severn House and will be out in hardback on 30th April.

For a review of an earlier Silas Quinn novel, The White Feather Killer, click here

THE DIRTY SOUTH . . . Between the covers

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John Connolly’s private eye Charlie Parker rarely ventures south of the Mason Dixon line; his natural habitat is the brooding forest wilderness of Maine, a place where he communes with ghosts older than those of his murdered wife and daughter. As the name suggests, The Dirty South, his 18th case, sees him in Arkansas. The books begins and ends in the present day, but the greater part of the action takes place in 1997. The state’s former Governor and Attorney General has gone on to greater things, but his elevation has brought little in the way of material benefits to the small town of Cargill.

81hCyWuPLKLParker is still hunting the man who brutalised and then murdered his family and, thanks to former colleagues on the NYPD, he has a file on a girl murdered near Cargill, the manner of her death – and that of two others – give him cause to believe that her killer may be of interest to him. At this point, Connolly has a little fun with what might be called the In The Heat Of The Night trope. OK, so Parker isn’t black, but he is a stranger in town, asking questions. He is not inclined to say much about who he is and what his intentions are so he gets to spend a night in the town’s jail. While he is under lock and key, the body of another missing girl is found – horribly brutalised and left in woodland on the edge of the Ouachita mountains.

Parker’s back story is determined by a police civilian clerk making a call to New York:

“She picked up and listened as the caller identified himself. She wrote the name CHARLIE PARKER in block capitals across the top of a fresh page, and began taking notes.
‘Christ,’ she thought, as the lines began to fill with her handwriting, ‘Kel and the chief need to get back here, and fast. They need to let this man out of his cage before he has a mind to break out of it himself.’”

P Capitalarker is given an apology, and asked to help with the hunt for Donna Lee Kernigan’s killer. He soon learns that the Jurel Cade, a special investigator for Burden County, has been involved in the investigations – or lack thereof – into the earlier deaths. The Cade family are rich, influential and undoubtedly corrupt. They have also managed to entice Kovas, a massive defence procurement company, to build a plant in the vicinity, a deal which will put food on tables, dollars in wallets and hope in hearts for the long neglected locals. A few murdered black girls mustn’t be allowed to embarrass the PR machine that deals with the Kovas public image.

This is a very different Charlie Parker novel. The only supernatural element comes when Parker communes with his daughter who may be dead in physical terms, but is very much alive in his heart, mind and soul. The unspeakably malign villains of previous novels, all of whom were, in some way, connected with the paranormal, are absent. The disfunctional Cade family, and the malign shadow of serial child abuser Hollis Ward are bad enough, but they are flesh and blood. We do, happily for their fan club, have a brief appearance from Louis and Angel. They are as potent a force as ever, but Angel’s possibly terminal illness is many years away.

C Capitalonnolly writes like an angel, and there is never a dead sentence, nor a misplaced word. Occasionally, within the carnage, there is a wisecrack, or a sharp line which sticks in the memory:

“The radio was playing in Rhinehart’s back office: KKPT out of Little Rock, one of only two classic rock stations the device was able to pick up. Nobody was permitted to change the station for fear that it might never be located again, thereby leaving Rhinehart to subsist on a diet of Christian Contemporary Gospel, and Regional Mexican, until he eventually blew his brains out.”

If ever we needed an absorbing and substantial read to distract us from our nightmare, it is now. The Dirty South is published by Hodder and Stoughton and is out on 16th April. Buy it, blag it or borrow it – but don’t ignore it. It is a brilliant read which will provide a few hours of enchantment away from the miserable present.

More Fully Booked musings on John Connolly and Charlie Parker are available here.

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HITLER’S PEACE . . . Between the covers

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Of modern novelists, the two who have most successfully employed the device of using real characters in their stories are John Lawton and the late Philip Kerr. Lawton, happily still with us, has assembled a cast which has included, to name but a few and in no particular order, Nikita Kruschev, Hugh Gaitskell, Lyndon Johnson, Guy Burgess and Lord Beaverbrook. Lovers of Kerr’s magnificent Bernie Gunther novels will testify that sometimes, Gunther appears to be the only fictional character in the stories. Over the fourteen books we encounter pretty much everyone who was anyone in Nazi Germany, as well as a few post WW2 figures such as William Somerset Maugham and Eva Peron. The 2005 standalone novel Hitler’s Peace is being republished this month, and although there is no Bernie Gunther, the cast list is of epic proportions.

HPWe are in the autumn of 1943. Hitler’s war has, to be vulgar, gone tits-up. In Italy, Mussolini has been overthrown, imprisoned and then rescued by German special forces, but the Allies have a foothold on mainland Italy. On the eastern front, the Wehrmacht divisions and the Red Army have fought each other to a bloody standstill at the Battle of Kursk, but it is clear to anyone but a fool that the Russian advance is inexorable. Against this background, there are voices within the Nazi party – notably SS chief Heinrich Himmler – who are in favour of putting out tentative peace approaches to both the Russians and the Americans.

There are two central characters in Hitler’s Peace. One is very much a historical figure, Walter Schellenberg, the top man in the Nazi intelligence agency, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and a confidante of Heydrich and Himmler. The second man is fictional. Willard Mayer is an American philosopher, academic and linguist, who is recruited by none other than Franklin D Roosevelt to work for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS – the forerunner of the CIA).

What is the trajectory which brings Schellenberg and Mayer together? The German is sent to neutral Sweden with secret peace proposals. Roosevelt, with re-election in mind, knows that the tens of thousands of American lives which will be lost should an invasion of France become necessary, earmarks Mayer for a similar task.

Schellenberg, though, has come up with a radical plan of his own. The so-called Big Three – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – are due to meet at a conference in nominally neutral Iran. What if long range Luftwaffe bombers, aided by a ground force of crack troops, could destroy the leadership of Germany’s foes at one stroke? This hit on the Soviet embassy in Teheran could destabilise the Western alliance and make it susceptible to peace proposals from Germany.

SchellenbergKerr’s use of so many real characters is hypnotic. Of course it’s fiction. Of course the writer has only his research – and imagination – to use when describing Himmler’s mannerisms, or those of Roosevelt and Stalin. Of course, it being Philip Kerr, it works beautifully. Schellenberg (right) is a cleverly drawn character; resourceful, intelligent and attractive to women, in particular Lina Heydrich, widow of the Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. The fictional Mayer, for his part, is equally convincing; urbane, debonair, gifted, hyper intelligent but not lacking in physical courage. His part in the finale of this book is both heroic and crucial.

So what happens in Teheran, when Himmler’s scheming, Schellenberg’s master-plan and Mayer’s secret mission collide? To use a cliché, that would be telling. All I will say is that readers are in for a surprise that, for me at least, was literally breathtaking. Philip Kerr’s grasp of the military and political nuances of the period is masterly; add that to his gift (yes I know we already know he is brilliant) as a storyteller and we have a book that grips from the first page to the last. I tried to ration it, given the current huge increase in available reading time, but it was to no avail – Hitler’s Peace is just too good. Published by Quercus, it is out on 16th April.

For more about Philip Kerr and his novels, click here

THE KING’S BEAST . . . Between the covers

 

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The King’s Beast is the sixth novel in Eliot Pattison’s series featuring the Scottish exile Duncan McCallum, and his adventures in America before the Revolution. The story begins in 1769, just a few years before the start of the actual conflict which saw Americans shaking off what they saw as the dead hand of British colonialism. However, as Pattison points out in his preface, and as readers of the earlier novels will know, the events of 18th April 1775, and subsequent battles, were the culmination of years of political intrigue and discontent.

TKB coverSo who is Duncan McCallum? Like many of his countrymen, he fled his homeland to escape the brutal recriminations following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746. His father and brothers were not so fortunate. McCallum has nightmares about his kin swinging from an English gibbet, food for crows and ravens. McCallum is a trained physician, but open-minded enough to know that the natural remedies used by the Native Americans he meets can be extremely potent.

Earlier novels in the series have seen McCallum all over the parts of America which had been colonised – Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia – but now he is in Kentucky, overseeing the excavation of fossils, on the instructions of none other than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin – writer, polymath, journalist, scientist and political activist – has been in London since 1757, lobbying on behalf of Pennsylvania, and is anxious to have the fossils – relics of prehistoric mastodons.

The fossils, known at the time as American Incognitum, are not just historical artifacts but, with tensions rising between various political factions on both sides of the Atlantic, they become chips in an increasingly deadly game. By the time McCallum sets sail for London on the Galileo, blood has been shed, and brave men lie buried.

As McCallum and his friends try to avoid the malign intentions of British soldiers and get the fossils to Franklin, they are sidetracked by efforts to secure the release of McCallum’s mentor, a native American called Conawago, who has been incarcerated in the notorious Bethlehem Hospital – Bedlam. The hospital’s evil reputation is well-earned:

“…noxious smells wafted through the hall. The stench of excrement and urine mingled with those of soap, vinegar and strong black tea. Men in matching brown waistcoats and britches, apparently staff, were emerging from chambers at the back of the main gallery, shepherding patients out of a dining chamber and opening windows, which created new currents of air that seemed to just circulate the same foul odours.”

McCallum finally contacts Franklin, and realises that the American is viewed with some ambiguity by the British establishment. On the one hand his political activism makes him a figure of suspicion, while his learning and scientific mind link him to the most powerful man in the land – King George III. The King respects learning and research, but is surrounded by advisors who do not share his enthusiasm.

I am always slightly wary of historical fiction where some of the characters have remarkably modern attitudes to diversity and cultural tolerance, but McCallum is not a member of the ‘woke’ fraternity transported back two and a half centuries – he is decent, just, honorable, and a convincing man of his time. Pattison’s scholarship is immense, and his grasp of historical detail is formidable. This is to be expected from an international lawyer, perhaps, but this is a historian who can also tell a good tale. Readers will look long and hard before they find another writer who can teach us about a particular period, with all its social and political complexities, while at the same time entertaining and enthralling us. The King’s Beast is published by Counterpoint and is out today, 7th April.

For more about Eliot Pattison, click on the image below.

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HAMMER TO FALL . . .Between the covers

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English author and screenwriter John Lawton has long been a favourite of those readers who like literary crime fiction, and his eight Frederick Troy novels have become classics. Set over a long time-frame from the early years of WW2 to the 1960s, the books feature many real-life figures or, as in A Little White Death (1998), characters based on real people, in this case the principals in the Profumo Affair. In Then We Take Berlin (2013) Lawton introduced a new character, an amoral chancer whose real surname – Holderness – has morphed into Wilderness. Joe Wilderness is a clever, corrupt and calculating individual whose contribution to WW2 was minimal, but his career trajectory has widened from being a Schieber (spiv, racketeer) in the chaos of post-war Berlin to being in the employ of the British Intelligence services.

HTFHe is no James Bond figure, however. His dark arts are practised in corners, and with as little overt violence as possible. Hammer To Fall begins with a flashback scene,establishing Joe’s credentials as someone who would have felt at home in the company of Harry Lime, but we move then to the 1960s, and Joe is in a spot of bother. He is thought to have mishandled one of those classic prisoner exchanges which are the staple of spy thrillers, and he is sent by his bosses to weather the storm as a cultural attaché in Finland. His ‘mission’ is to promote British culture by traveling around the frozen north promoting visiting artists, or showing British films. His accommodation is spartan, to say the least. In his apartment:

The dining table looked less likely to be the scene of a convivial meal than an autopsy.”

Some of the worthies sent to Finland to wave the British flag are not to Joe’s liking:

“For two days Wilderness drove the poet Prudence Latymer to readings. She was devoutly Christian – not an f-word passed her lips – and seemed dedicated to simple rhyming couplets celebrating dance, spring, renewal, the natural world and the smaller breeds of English and Scottish dog.It was though TS Eliot had never lived. By the third day Wilderness was considering shooting her.”

Before he left England, his wife Judy offered him these words of advice:

“If you want a grant to stage Twelfth Night in your local village hall in South Bumpstead, Hampshire, the Arts Council will likely as not tell you to fuck off …. So, if you want to visit Lapland, I reckon your best bet is to suggest putting on a nude ballet featuring the over-seventies, atonal score by Schoenberg, sets by Mark Rothko ….. Ken Russell can direct … all the easy accessible stuff …. and you’ll probably pick up a whopping great grant and an OBE as well.”

JohnLawton.-Credit-Nick-Lockett-318x318So far, so funny – and Lawton (right) is in full-on Evelyn Waugh mode as he sends up pretty much everything and anyone. The final act of farce in Finland is when Joe earns his keep by sending back to London, via the diplomatic bag, several plane loads of …. well, state secrets, as one of Joe’s Russian contacts explains:

The Soviet Union has run out of bog roll. The soft stuff you used to sell to us in Berlin is now as highly prized as fresh fruit or Scotch whisky. We wipe our arses on documents marked Classified, Secret and sometimes even Top Secret. and the damned stuff won’t flush. So once a week a surly corporal lights a bonfire of Soviet secrets and Russian shit.”

But, as in all good satires – like Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, and Catch 22 – the laughter stops and things take a turn to the dark side. Joe’s Finnish idyll comes to an end, and he is sent to Prague to impersonate a tractor salesman. By now, this is 1968, and those of us who are longer in the tooth know what happened in Czechoslavakia in 1968. Prague has a new British Ambassador, and one very familiar to John Lawton fans, as it is none other than Frederick Troy. As the Russians lose patience with Alexander Dubček and the tanks roll in, Joe is caught up in a desperate gamble to save an old flame, a woman whose decency has, over the years, been a constant reproach to him:

“Nell Burkhardt was probably the most moral creature he’d ever met. Raised by thieves and whores back in London’s East End, he had come to regard honesty as aberrant. Nell had never stolen anything, never lied …led a blameless life, and steered a course through it with the unwavering compass of her selfless altruism.”

Hammer To Fall is a masterly novel, bitingly funny and heartbreaking by turns. I think A Lily Of The Field is Lawton’s masterpiece, but this runs it pretty damned close. It is published by Grove Press, and is out today, 2nd April 2020.

 

For more about John Lawton click this link

THE MOLTEN CITY . . . Between the covers

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TMCWe first met Leeds policeman Tom Harper in Gods of Gold (2014) when he was a young CID officer, and the land was still ruled by Queen Victoria. Now, in The Molten City, Harper is a Superintendent and the Queen is seven years dead. ‘Bertie’ – Edward VII – is King, and England is a different place. Leeds, though, is still a thriving hub of heavy industry, pulsing with the throb of heavy machinery. And it remains grimy, soot blackened and with pockets of degradation and poverty largely ignored by the wealthy middle classes. But there are motor cars on the street, and the police have telephones. Other things are stirring, too. Not all women are content to remain second class citizens, and pressure is being put on politicians to consider giving women the vote. Sometimes this is a peaceful attempt to change things, but other women are prepared to go to greater lengths.

This small but increasingly vocal movement provides one of two plot threads in what is, to my mind, Chris Nickson’s finest novel yet. Prime Minister HH Asquith and his Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone are due to visit Leeds, and it will be Harper’s task to make sure that the visit passes off peacefully. He knows there is likely to be a protest from unemployed men whipped up by anarchist Alf Kitson, but his greatest fear is that a demonstration led by suffragette Jennie Baines will provoke more intense publicity. At this point, it is essential to point out the difference between suffragettes and suffragists. The latter have the same aims as the former, but they are avowedly peaceful in their methods. Harper’s wife Annabelle is a suffragist. She has worked for women’s rights for many years, and has passed on her zeal to their teenage daughter Mary.

The parallel thread in The Molten City begins when Harper receives an anonymous letter:

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As he uses his local knowledge and that of his older officers, Harper begins to piece together a jigsaw. As the picture begins to take shape, it is clear that it is one that contains elements of tragedy, greed, desperation – and downright criminality, and that solving the puzzle will bring joy to no-one. As the past players in this old drama start to realise that the past is catching up with them, anxiety leads to violence,and violence leads to murder.

There are so many dazzlingly good elements to this novel. Nickson, like many of his readers is someone of the twentieth century, and he has a keen eye and ear for little social mannerisms that certainly struck a chord with me. As Annabelle imagines her husband in a Chief Constable’s uniform, she says:
You’d look a right bobby-dazzler.”
Only those of us who were brought up having their tea made in a pot will remember this gesture:
“She felt the side of the teapot and poured herself another cup.”
Teenagers were as hungry in 1908 as they are today, but few sit down with their parents at a set table and have their meal:
“She’d already cleaned her plate right down to the pattern and was working her way through the suet pudding.”

Tom Harper is still fit, active, and able to handle himself in a scrap, but like Tennyson’s Ulysses who laments tho we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;” he is all too aware of the passage of time:
“And it was a detective’s job to follow every possibility. That was what his old boss, Superintendent Kendall, had instilled in him when he was starting out in CID. Another one who was dead now; Harper had filled his shoes at Millgarth. Billy, Kendall, so many others …very soon the dead in his life would outnumber the living.”

Nickson orchestrates the dramatic disorder – based on real events – of the Prime Minister’s visit with panache and the skills of a born storyteller. We know – as does Harper himself – that finding the truth about the child stealing will benefit no-one alive or dead, but he is a policeman who must do his duty while being all too well aware that the truth is frequently uncomfortable.

The Molten City is published by Severn House and is out now. If you want to find out more about Chris Nickson and his books, then click the image below.

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