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THE WISBECH TRAGEDY . . . Part Two

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It was also alleged that after the woman was in this fearful condition, Day did nothing to help extinguish the fire except to pour some water on the woman from a small teapot. He was also said to have threatened do the same for a man who was trying put out the flames if he made fuss about it. There was no other possible conclusion at the inquest other than that Frances Parlett had met her painful end through the violent actions of John Day, and that Day must face trial for murder.

The past is never far away, and it is interesting to note that the initial defence for John Day was conducted by Mr TR Dawbarn – a distinguished Wisbech name. One of the chilling things about this case is the fact that, before she died, Frances Parlett was able to give a lucid account of events. At the trial of John Day, she spoke from beyond the grave:

“I live in Wisbech with the accused. About one o’clock this morning I and accused were alone together downstairs. I woke him up as he had fallen asleep. We had no words during the evening. He said “You ….. cow. 1 will blind you.” He then took the lamp up off the table, which was alight, and threw it at me. I caught fire, and everything I had on was burnt. I was burnt, too, almost all to pieces. I screamed and ran out. but he has knocked me about so that the people took no notice it. He is always at it. The accused did nothing, not even attempt put the fire out. Mr. Brightwell, the next-door neighbour, put it out. The accused threw some buckets of cold water over me, but not before my clothes were burnt off me. I cannot remember anything else. We have been living together nearly two vears.’’

Mr-justice-bucknillAt Day’s trial in June 1905, presided over by Mr Justice Bucknill, (left, as caricatured by ‘Spy’) much was made of the fractious and often violent relationship between Frances Parlett and himself. The poor woman did not die until the next day, and in the immediate aftermath of the attack initially defended Day, but then the following exchange was relayed to the court. Sergeant Watson took the prisoner upstairs to see the deceased, and they had a conversation.
Day said,

 

“Frances, did I do it ?”
She answered,
Yes, you bad boy, you know you did it,”
Day said,
“It’s false.”
Frances repeated,
You did, you bad boy, you know you did.”
She was also heard to say,
You murderer, you have done it this time. You have had a good many tries, and you have done it this time.”

BarristerIn the event, the defence barrister for Day made great play on the grave responsibility that the jurors held. If they found Day guilty of murder, he would surely hang. In the words of the newspaper report, Mr Stewart, for the defence, remarked that the punishment for the crime with which the prisoner was charged was death, and it was not necessary to say more than that to bring home the jury the great and terrible responsibility that rested upon them. The onus of proof against the prisoner lay with the prosecution, and it was for them to satisfy the jury beyond the possibility of reasonable doubt that the prisoner was responsible for the deed. He contended that this had not been done. The statement of the woman was not in nature of a dying declaration, and it ought not to regarded as more important, or have more credence attached to it than was attached to any of the evidence called before the Court during the day.

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THE WISBECH TRAGEDY . . . Part One

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Wisbech is a small Cambridgeshire market town on the banks of the River Nene. It is Spring 1905. The Mayor is Mr H.C. Elgood, patriarch and owner of the local brewery. The Rev. R.E.R Watts, Vicar of Wisbech is retiring due to ill health, and his grateful parishioners have raised the sum of £224.19s as a testimonial. Sadly, due to the cleric’s infirmity, there is to be no public presentation.

Away from the rectories and grand villas, the world goes on. In the insanitary slum courts off the main thoroughfares, men get drunk. their women goad them, and there is violence a-plenty. One such instance is the tragic – and painful – death of Frances Parlett. Most of the following narrative is taken from contemporary newspaper reports.

Frances Parlett was married about six years previously, but left her husband, and for two years she had lived with the John Day at 18a Carpenter’s Arms Yard. At one o’clock in the morning May 2nd they were in their living room, one of two rooms in which they lived. Day, having fallen asleep, was awakened by the woman, and it was said that either in sudden anger or with malice aforethought, he seized a lighted paraffin lamp which was on the table, and threw it at her. She was at once covered in flames, and screamed and rushed to the front door.

A very worthy man who lived near, and who often heard screams, went out and saw the poor creature. With remarkable courage and pluck, this elderly man rushed hack into his house and secured some blankets, with which he put out the flames. Next day the woman died, fearfully burnt. The evidence was that the accused, about 11 o’clock that night, was heard to say to her that he would do something to her when he got home.

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Nothing remains of Carpenter’s Arms Yard today
. It was a narrow lane running off what is now West Street, and it ended just short of Tillery Field, which in those days was a cemetery. Its position was more or less where St Paul’s Close is now. By all accounts it was one of the meaner streets of the town. I have been unable to find any image of Carpenter’s Arms Yard, but it is safe to imagine that it would have been narrow, dirty and the tiny terraced houses would have been packed with residents  who were at the bottom end of society.

PretendThe photo on the right is of an existing Wisbech alley which, due to its central position has survived more or less intact, and gives us an idea of what the Yard might have looked like. Carpenter’s Arms Yard was earmarked for slum clearance in the late 1920s along with its near neighbour Ashworth’s Yard, and both were gone before the outbreak of World War II. What is now St Peter’s Road was probably more prosperous than either of the Yards, and its terraced houses were spared the redevelopments of the 1930s. It is tempting to look back and wish that more of old Wisbech had been preserved, but we would do well to remember that conditions in these old houses would be awful, even by standards of the time. Damp, insanitary and built on the cheap, these grim places contributed to the general poor health and high death rate of the time. The cemetery at the bottom of the slight slope of Carpenter’s Arms Yard was actually instituted as an overflow burial ground when a cholera epidemic struck the town earlier in the 19th century.

Back to the terrible events of May, 1905. Sadly, Frances Parlett died of her burns the next day, and the wheels of the law began to grind. The first step was a Coroner’s Inquest. At the inquest, it was reported that:

“Deceased was suffering from extensive superficial burns, extending from the knees to the armpits, and the front part was worse than the back. If deceased had been sitting at a table and the lamp capsized one would have expected more severe burns at one particular spot. There were no marks on her face or chest to show that they had come in contact with a hard substance, and would have expected to have found some marks on the body if it had been struck by the lamp with much violence.”

In answer to the Foreman, a witness said he thought the lamp could be thrown with sufficient force on the steel of the deceased’s corsets to break the lamp and not mark the body. The skin was discoloured too much to see any bruise. Herbert Brightwell, bootmaker, of 19a, Carpenter’s Arms Yard, said he heard the deceased and Day come home about 11 o’clock on the night in question. At about one o’clock he was awakened by the shuffling of feet, but he heard no voices. Immediately afterwards he heard a woman scream, and saw a bright light flash across his window. The woman continued to scream, and he went downstairs. When he opened the door of Day’s house the deceased, who was in flames, fell into his arms. Brightwell attempted to put out the flames by wrapping blankets round her.

Brightwell asked Day to assist him, but he did not do so, and said nothing. Having put out the flames, Brightwell ran to tell Frances Parlett’s sister, and Day ran after him, saying:

“What the **** are you exciting yourself about. If you don’t come back here I will jolly well put you through it as well.”

NEXT – John Day is tried for murder,
and faces an appointment with Henry Albert Pierrepoint

Part Two of A WISBECH TRAGEDY,  will go live on the evening of Friday 24th July.

THE FINISHER . . . Between the covers

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51bAlRSlCzL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Fictional police officers come in an almost infinite number of guises. They can be lowly of rank, like Tony Parsons’ Detective Constable Max Wolfe, or very senior, such as Detective Superintendent William Lorimer, as imagined by Alex Gray. Male, female, tech-savvy, Luddite, happy family folk or embittered loners – there are plenty to choose from. So where does Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond fit into the matrix? As a Detective Superintendent, he pretty much only answers to the Assistant Chief Constable, but for newcomers to the well established series, what sort of a figure does he cut? Lovesey lets us know fairly early in The Finisher, the nineteenth in a series that began in 1991 with The Last Detective. Diamond is on plain clothes duty keeping a wary eye on a half marathon race in the historic city of Bath:

“Difficult to tell whether Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, on duty in the gardens, was overt or covert. If he had been in the race, you might have taken him for one of the jokers in fancy dress. He might have stepped out of a nineteen-forties film, a sleuth on the trail of Sydney Greenstreet. The gabardine trench coat and dark brown trilby, his so-called plain clothes, weren’t plain at all in twenty-first century Bath.”

Neither is Peter Diamond a vain man, nor one who gives excessive attention to his personal appearance:

“He didn’t waste time showering or shaving. A swish of tap water took the sleep from his eyes and a squirt of deodorant completed his grooming. Unshaven jowls were standard among the younger members of his team.”

The book’s title is a clever play on words and has a double significance. It can be someone who manages to complete ‘The Other Half’ – an alternative half marathon pounded out along the elegant streets, disused railway tunnels and steep wooded hillsides of Bath. It also has a more sinister connotation – a person who gets things done, even if doing so involves a lack of compassion and, even, a willingness to use violence.

Lovesey’s clever novel combines the events surrounding the race, as well as a particularly brutal example of modern day slavery – illegal immigrants forced to work for a pittance, housed in grim conditions, and for ever in thrall to men and women who earn fortunes exploiting the vulnerable.

Finisher021There’s a dazzling array of characters to act out the drama. We have an earnest school teacher who forces herself to run the race in order to make good a lost donation to a charity; there is a statuesque Russian, wife of a cynical businessman, determined to lose weight and gain her husband’s respect; instant villainy is provided by a paroled serial seducer and sex-pest who has taken on a new role as personal trainer to the rich; at the bottom of the pond, so to speak, are a pair of feckless Albanian chancers who have escaped from an illegal work gang, and are trying to avoid the retribution of their controllers.

Throw into this mix a fascinating geographical background which comes vividly to life, even to someone like me, who has only a limited knowledge of Bath. Like most, I knew of its Roman heritage and the wonderful Georgian architecture, but I was totally unaware that the hills surrounding the city conceal warrens of quarries, caves and tunnels from which the beautiful local limestone was hewn.

Throughout his long and celebrated writing career, Lovesey has never given away his solutions without putting the reader through their own private marathon of false clues, and misdirections. So it is with The Finisher. If you get within ten pages of the end and reckon you know who did what to whom – then trust me, you don’t! This wonderfully entertaining novel by one of our finest living writers is published by Sphere and is out now.

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FIND THEM DEAD . . . Between the covers

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Brighton copper Roy Grace seems to have been with us for ever. Since Peter James introduced him in 2005 there have been sixteen episodes in the career of the resolutely honest and decent man who shares none of the character faults of some of his fictional contemporaries. Yes, there was the protracted mystery of his missing wife – now solved, thank goodness – but Grace has few demons; certainly none that involve drink, drugs, dodgy tastes in music or sexual fallibility. Neither is Roy Grace, perceptive and intuitive though he may, cursed with second sight or prone to supernatural whimsies.

So what keeps him as a permanent resident in the crime fiction best-seller charts? It hasn’t hurt that Peter James has pretty much patented the use of that potent four-letter word DEAD in his titles. Simple, Looking Good, Not … Yet, At First Sight are just a few of the the inventive titles James has used. I’ll answer my own question with a simple reply. Peter James is a bloody good writer. End of.

dead013Strangely though, Find Them Dead sees Roy Grace rather in the background. He binds the narrative together by his presence, of course he does, but he mostly takes a back seat in this tale of drug dealers, bent lawyers and jury-nobbling. He has returned to Sussex after a spell working with the Metropolitan Police in London. The sheer depth and depravity of London’s crime has been an eye-opener, but the south coast is not without its villains.

A Brighton solicitor called Terence Gready – what a wonderful Dickensian name – has been arrested on suspicion of being near the top of a multi-million pound drug ring. His favourite modus operandi has been importing the pharmaceuticals packed into bodywork cavities of fake classic cars. His main man on the ground has also been arrested and Gready is in grave danger of spending the rest of his life in jail.

The spine of Find Them Dead concerns the ordeal of Meg Magellan, a middle-aged widow who has been summoned for jury service in the trial of Terence Gready. The bent solicitor is not quite at the apex of his organisation; his bosses believe that his downfall would also implicate them,and so they they target the jury – Meg in particular – in whose hands Gready’s fate lies.

Meg’s daughter is on a gap-year jaunt to Ecuador, and it is by threatening her that the bad guys hope to persuade Meg to emulate Henry Fonda’s Davis in the 1957 classic Twelve Angry Men. If Meg can persuade her fellow jurors that Gready is innocent, then all will be well. If she fails, then Laura will never leave Ecuador alive.

James ratchets up the tension with the true zeal of a torturer. As Grace – and his long term offsiders Norman Potting and Glenn Branson try to get to the bottom of who knows what in the case, we tread a tightrope of anxiety where it is never clear what the next step will bring.

Find Them Dead is published by Macmillan and is out now.

DARK WATERS . . . Between the covers

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Police Scotland DI Monica Kennedy is a distinctive woman. Tall, angular, gaunt, even. She can seem forbidding, and has little personal life outside of bringing up her daughter with the help of her long suffering mother. Monica Kennedy can be brusque with her young male DCs, Fisher and Crawford, but she is not without charm. Towards the end of the book, she and Crawford are having a rare bevy in an Inverness bar.

He tilted his head. She could tell he was already a little drunk.
“You know, you could be a model.”
Monica laughed. Almost choking on the mouthful of vodka and orange she’d just taken. Sensing the hysteria that proximity to death seemed to encourage. Sex, anger, laughter – anything to keep the reaper at bay.
“What?”
Crawford screwed his forehead up and glanced round the pub.
“You’re statuesque. It was a compliment.”
“You’re funny, Crawford.”
She finished her drink and stood up to leave, but lingered for a second, glancing around the bar. The sounds of casual drunken conversation were a comforting reminder of normality.’

DW coverThe dark waters of the title are both literal and metaphorical. Deep in a cave system beneath a mountain lies a sump, whose black depths feature in the tense and frightening final stages of this story. The dark metaphorical waters are mainly centred on a deeply disturbed – and disturbing – family who have lived their lives in a remote Highland glen, happily divorced from civilisation and its moral code. If I drop the names Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes, you should get a snapshot of the Slate family.

In a nutshell the plot of Dark Waters is that the remains of two horribly butchered men have been found, separately, in water near a huge hydro-electric dam in the Highlands. The autopsy reveals that the atrocities inflicted on the bodies were not the cause of death. As Kennedy and her lads try to identify the two men, and unpick the tangled knot of how they came to be where they were found, Halliday has a neat little game going on. A young woman disappears in the same area. The police have no idea she is missing, let alone know who she is, but we do. The first paragraph of the book is a cracker:

“When she still had all of her arms and legs, Annabelle liked to drive. And it was while she was on one of her drives that she made her first mistake.”

We share every agonising second of Annabelle’s fate,and I should mention that people with even a hint of claustrophobia or nyctophobia will not enjoy parts of this entertaining novel, nor do those who enjoy a good plate of meat get off scot-free.

halliday006Talking of Scots, GR Halliday (right) has an interesting bio:

“G.R. Halliday was born in Edinburgh and grew up near Stirling in Scotland. He spent his childhood obsessing over the unexplained mysteries his father investigated, which proved excellent inspiration for his debut novel. He now lives in the rural Highlands outside of Inverness, where he is able to pursue his favourite past-times of mountain climbing and swimming in the sea, before returning to his band of semi-feral cats.”

I might be mistaken, but I think the author makes a brief appearance in his own novel. Monica’s daughter Lucy has long wanted a cat, and Monica knows just the person to provide one:

“Michael Bach was outside in the hall, crouched over a cat basket. He stood up when he heard the door opening. He was almost as tall as Monica and seemed even larger than the last time they’d met, months before. Michael was a social worker Monica and Crawfor had previously collaborated with on a case. More important on this occasion was the fact that a number of semi-feral cats had moved in with him at his remote croft house.”

Dark Waters is a gripping crime thriller, well crafted and certainly not for the squeamish. It is published by Harvill Secker and will be out on 16th July.

FAR FROM THE TREE . . . Audio book

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There’s a first time for everything, even when you are a conservatively-minded old curmudgeon who has, begrudgingly, accepted that digital books are here to stay. But audio books? Never – until now. Faced with the fact that the latest novel by one of my favourite writers – Rob Parker –  is only going to be printed on paper next year, I bit the bullet and accepted what I suppose could be called an Advanced Listening Copy of Far From The Tree.

Brendan Foley is a Detective Inspector with Cheshire Police, based in Warrington. If the name Cheshire conjures up a gentle county famed for its delicious cheese and half-timbered villages, that would not be wrong, but Warrington is a place with rougher edges. Situated on the River Mersey it grew in the Industrial Revolution with its steel (particularly wire), textiles, brewing, tanning and chemical industries. The word ‘industrial’ is what comes to mind when Foley is called out one Sunday morning to investigate not just one corpse, but twenty seven of them. All neatly packaged in heavy-duty plastic, and laid to rest – if that is the correct word – in a shallow trench.

Foley has been called away from the christening of his youngest child, but when he is summoned back to the venue to pay the caterers, we learn that his family is far from being a collection of model citizens. It is, nevertheless, with a deep sense of shock that when he attends the post mortem of the first batch of the corpses, he recognises that one is his nephew.

Screen Shot 2020-07-09 at 18.05.57This is a very different Rob Parker (left) from the previous novels of his that have come my way. Crook’s Hollow (click the links to read my reviews) was rather like The Archers meets The Hills Have Eyes, while his Ben Bracken Books, Morte Point, The Penny Black, and Till Morning Is Nigh are hugely entertaining but somewhat escapist in places. Far From The Tree is real. Very, very real. It is dark, unflinching, and, to my mind, Parker’s best book yet.

Foley is a superbly drawn character – a decent man who has to face a shocking challenge, involving his own flesh and blood, and a brave man, too, as he is forced to make decisions which would unhinge a lesser person. I also enjoyed his sidekick – Sergeant Iona Madison – who among other things is a boxer. Rob Parker himself is a pugilist, and he allows himself a little enjoyment as he describes Iona’s battles in the ring.

Not the least of the pleasures of Far From The Tree is that it is read by none other than Warren Brown, of Luther fame. It certainly does no harm to the authenticity of the recording that Brown – like Rob Parker –  was born and bred in Warrington!

Far From The Tree is an Audible Original and is available here.

SHERLOCK HOLMES . . . Personation, pastiche and parody

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Soon after his first short story appearance in 1891, Sherlock Holmes became a phenomenon.   The first parodies, by JM Barrie and Robert Barr (friends of Arthur Conan Doyle), were published within months, and dozens of light-hearted short parodies and pastiches continued to appear regularly in magazines for the next twenty years or so.

Conan Doyle’s final Holmes story appeared in 1927, and Conan Doyle himself died in 1930.   From about 1940 “new adventures” by Holmesian specialists began to appear, fitfully, in magazines and private printings. More so than earlier pastiches, these tended to keep closely to the fictional world established by Conan Doyle. A selection of these tales was later collected in “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1985), edited by Richard Lancelyn Green.

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Conan Doyle’s copyright
of his works originally lasted for fifty years after the author’s death. These rights were jealously guarded by the Conan Doyle Estate, in the person of Adrian Doyle, the author’s youngest son (above).  So it’s no surprise that he should be involved in the publication of the first authorised Holmes pastiches. These “Exploits of Sherlock Holmes” (1954) comprise twelve cases mentioned but never recorded in the original stories. They were to be written by Doyle and mystery writer John Dickson Carr, but  Carr fell ill after writing (or co-writing) six tales, and the remainder were written by Doyle alone.

Looking at the Exploits, it’s clear that the stories plotted by Carr are extremely imaginative.  Carr was the master of the locked room mystery and he re-used ideas from his earlier writings here. The six stories by Adrian Doyle are closer to the language of the original Holmes stories. However, they are also closer in plot; each of the tales has taken its main story line from one of the Holmes adventures written by Conan Doyle.   That said, it remains an enjoyable collection. Both men realised that the strength of the Holmes legacy lay in the short stories, which were generally superior to the novels.

The next pastiches were the by-product of two Sherlock Holmes films.

Ellery-Queen-Sherlock-Holmes-Versus-Jack-TheThe first, Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper, by ‘Ellery Queen’ was published in 1967. This was a novelisation of the screenplay of  ‘A Study in Terror’, co-produced by Sir Nigel Films Limited, a company formed by the Estate to exploit Conan Doyle’s works on screen.   The book added a framing story wherein Ellery Queen reads a manuscript (written by Dr Watson) which sets out the action shown in the film. Queen then applies his own detective skills to ascertain whether Holmes correctly identified the Ripper.  The Ripper section of the book was the work of pulp writer Paul Fairman, and the Ellery Queen part by presumably ‘Ellery Queen’ himself.  An early line of Dr Watson’s narrative reads:

“It was a crisp morning in the fall of the year 1888″:

A warning for American writers attempting this sort of thing.

Next, in 1970, came The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a novelisation (by Michael and Mollie Hardwick) of the screenplay of Billy Wilder’s film of the same name. Again, produced in association with Sir Nigel Films.   Wilder called the screenplay respectful but not reverential. The film was much cut by the studio before its release, and the resulting story is unwieldy and at times near parody. All this is reflected in the book.  Still, some say it captures the Holmesian atmosphere reasonably faithfully.

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The early 1970s
saw a growing interest in Victorian/Edwardian detective fiction, and with Sherlock Holmes in particular. The Estate was aware that its copyrights would expire at the end of 1980, and authorised a number of Holmes pastiches (for which they took a share of the sale proceeds).

The first was Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution (1974).    A contemporary review states:-

Seven_Percent_Solution_first_edition_US“The story is couched as an alternative explanation for the period between Holmes’s  supposed death at the hands of Moriarty (‘The Final Problem’) and his resurrection (‘The Empty House’). The hiatus which began with Holmes drying out extends into a case involving a pasha, a baron and a red headed temptress, during which Holmes instructs Freud in the mechanics of detection and gives some advice about the meaning of dreams.”

This highly successful novel is influential for two reasons.   It’s the first story to mix Sherlock Holmes with  real historical figures – in this case Sigmund Freud in 1890s Vienna – a plot device which has formed the dubious basis of countless tales since;  and it’s the first book  to question the accepted facts of the canon. Nicholas Meyer would develop both these themes in his second Holmes pastiche The West End Horror (1976), set in London’s 1890’s theatreland.

Now the gates had opened. 1977/8 saw the publication of Loren D Estleman’s Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula, Robert Lee Hall’s Exit Sherlock Holmes, and Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story.    The first is a re-telling of a Dracula legend, with Holmes involved in the investigation; the second a Moriarty Lives! tale with elements of science fiction in the conclusion, and the last a return  to the world of Jack the Ripper. These novels can best be described as adventure stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, rather than Sherlock Holmes stories.   None of them were bestsellers, but they have all been reprinted over the years and have in turn inspired many more variations on these themes.

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A few years earlier
, another promising seam was opened with the publication of The Return of Moriarty by John Gardner; the first of what now seems an never-ending series of books by various hacks featuring subsidiary characters from the canon.

Finally, to top off the decade’s continuing fascination with all things Holmesian, 1979 saw the release of the film Murder by Decree  – a grafting of Sherlock Holmes onto Steven Knight’s then popular Freemasonry/Ripper theories. A novelisation of the screenplay duly followed.

Now seems a convenient place to stop. By December 1980 when the Doyle copyrights initially expired (they were extended to 2000 a few years later) almost all the elements of the present day copyright-free Sherlock Holmes industry were in place. For good or ill, all had been authorised by the Conan Doyle Estate.

From now on, almost all the pastiches were in the form of novels (short stories required too much work, and didn’t sell).

This presented a problem. The original Holmes novels are structurally flawed; the author cannot present a very intelligent central character with a case to solve, and then have that character take two hundred pages to solve it without making him look slow or obtuse.  Sub-plots, or  a back story,  must be introduced to fill the pages.   This is why the genius of Holmes (and Doyle) is best seen in the short stories.

Conan Doyle only once solved this conundrum – with The Hound of the Baskervilles – the pasticheurs never have.

WHITETHROAT . . . Between the covers

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There are locations for British crime novels that fit certain moods. You can have rural idylls which are shattered by evil deeds – the Cotswolds, the Yorkshire Dales and the majestic Scottish Highlands all fit that bill. Then you have the criminals hiding behind the bright lights of cities like London, Glasgow, and Manchester. James Henry has chosen a rather more understated milieu for his Nick Lowry police novels – Essex, and in particular, the garrison town of Colchester.

9781529401134Essex has become something of a trigger word in recent years, conjuring up images such as lavish mansions owned by London gangsters and dumb bottle-blondes with their perma-tanned, medallioned boyfriends. James Henry, however, takes us back forty years to the 1980s. DI Nick Lowry and his boss, Chief Superintendent Sparks, inhabit a police HQ which leaks, has rotten floorboards, and is maybe only months away from the demolishers’ wrecking ball. Sparks contemplates his desk:

“He studied the wooden surface of his desk. Countless semicircles, rings from years of mugs, cups, scotch glasses, placed carelessly and staining the untreated grain. The there were more pronounced wounds and scars: cigarette burns, knife scores, unusual marks – traces of events only the man behind the desk could read.”

Since Roman times, the history of Colchester has been inextricably intertwined with that of soldiering, and it is the death of a young ‘squaddie’ (an unranked private soldier) that Lowry investigates. Improbably, it seems that the dead man was shot in a Victorian-style duel, complete with gentlemanly observance and the presence of Seconds. With the help of his friend Captain James Oldham, of the Military Police, Lowry discovers that the two men had been fighting over a woman. But who was the other duellist, and who was the woman?

The plot goes this way and that, but this is a book that is always about the quality of the prose. Lowry has a young subordinate called Kenton, who has been on leave since being traumatised by the death of a young girl. Kenton is clever, well-educated, but enjoys his stimulants. In pursuit of the more legal kind, he observes pub life:

“..it was different being here as a punter. You saw the place through different eyes; peaceful and inviting and shabbily familiar. Flaking paintwork, worn hardwood surfaces, the yellow, cracked ceiling; a naked aging structure smoothed by the warmth of alcohol and density of cigarette smoke.”

And again:

“The first to arrive were the regulars. Men in their sixties. One, Wilf, was already in situ, perched quietly at a corner table, steadfastly drinking IPA. He would sut there until last orders, then leave as silently as he had arrived. Around midday, the bohemian set – ‘intellectual dossers’, Sparks called them – would drift in. Young men clutching tatty paperbacks. Sucking the end of biros and staring pensively into the middle distance.”

Like most self-respecting fictional police detectives, Lowry’s personal life is something of a wasteland. He is divorced, and his wife has poisoned their son against him. He feels that the years are taking their toll on him, but he remains compassionate:

“Lowry moved to place his arm across Sparks’s shoulders, but instead grasped the nearest arm, squeezed the firm bicep and bowed his head. He was winded by a surge of sympathy, revealing an attachment to the older man that seldom surfaced. Even now – more and more, in fact, the older he became – life caught Lowry out, introducing unsolicited emotions and concerns, age bringing with it a new sort of awareness.”

HenryThe plot is the least important part of this fine novel, but it unfolds gradually. The woman whose favours are being fought over by the duellists is not a woman at all, but a fifteen year-old schoolgirl, the daughter of a local businessman. He, in turn, has unfinished business with a local enrepreneur, and business that dates back to a racial attack three decades earlier. We are in a world of simmering resentment born out of old slights, and the result? The proverbial dish that is best served cold.

Whitethroat is bleak, downbeat and mesmerising; a subtle, compassionate and beautifully written novel that is something of an elegy to a way of policing – and living – that is gone for ever. James Henry (above right), as James Gurbutt, has also written prequels to RD Wingfield’s Jack Frost series. Whitethroat is published by Riverrun and will be out in hardback on 9th July. The two previous Nick Lowry novels are pictured below.

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THE FIVE LITTLE MARTYRS . . . Part two

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The story so far. “SCHOOLBOY GANGSTERS ROUNDED UP!”  screamed the local papers. According to Dr Meacock, who chaired the Special Children’s Court, the boys,

“constituted a centre of vice in the town,and they must be dealt with drastically.”

John Bull

Those of you who follow my posts will remember that Dr Meacock was at the very heart of the controversy surrounding the life and death of Dr Horace Dimock, twenty years earlier, an unfortunate situation which resulted in the infamous riots. So, who were these five desperadoes, and what were the Industrial Schools to which they were to be packed off, until they reached the age of 16?

Firstly the names of the boys. I received this information from the County Record Office. I imagine they are all now deceased, but at the time their names would not have been available in the press, for legal reasons. They were:

Horace Stephen Freear, age 7
Frederick Hunt, age 8
Stanley Johnson, age 9
Harry Rivett, age 10
Harry Worth, age 10

Their sentence? To spend the years in an Industrial School, until they reached the age of 16. For Worth and Rivett – a 6 year sentence; for Johnson, 7 years; Hunt would serve 8 years, and Freear a staggering 9 years.

The words ‘Industrial School’ have a vaguely worthy ring to them. There’s a suggestion that they were places where youngsters could learn a trade, benefit from a healthy lifestyle, and be taught the errors of whatever ways had led them to become inmates. Older readers will remember the words ‘Reform School’ and ‘Borstal’. These days we skip around the  truth with phrases like ‘Young Offenders Institution’, but the fact remains that Industrial schools were usually grim places which probably served as training grounds for future lawbreakers. The industrial schools were invariably grim and forbidding places but it doesn’t seem that one existed in Cambridgeshire, with the nearest one being in Suffolk.

IS

To their eternal credit, there were those in Wisbech who thought the sentence handed down to these boys was excessive. To use modern parlance, they may well have been “thieving little scrotes”, but even so, this was a draconian sentence, even by the standards of 1933. Spearheaded by a Baptist minister, the Reverend R N Armitage (pictured below), a fund was started to appeal the boys’ sentence.

Armitage

Then, the big guns turned on Dr Meacock and the other people alongside him who actually were magistrates. It seems that Meacock had no business being in that court, and with the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the infamous Old Pals’ Act was alive and well in Wisbech. The popular national periodical, John Bull, said its piece. After repeating the findings of the magistrates, the journal then let rip.

Montage3

Martyrs clippingThe case of the Five Little Martyrs is not simply one of a wrong being righted. It has a curiously modern feel to it, with its far-reaching echoes of relatively minor misdeeds being met by extravagant punishment. The boys were clearly beyond parental control. and their group had a velocity and dynamic all of its own. Yes, the hauls from their thieving – ten bob, some pig serum, cycle lamps and a packet of Aspros (remember them?) seem comical.

However, you only need to follow local Facebook groups nowadays to read accounts of similar misdemeanours, on the same streets as the Infamous Five frequented, to read violently worded responses from people who feel that ‘feral youths‘   (a term not yet invented in 1933) are making their lives a misery. The people who ran Wisbech in 1933 – in particular Dr Meacock – don’t emerge from this saga with any honour. Sadly, some things never change.

I write as someone who lives in Wisbech, and I can tell you that in 2020, eighty seven years on from the events I describe in this feature, modern day versions of Dr Meacock are alive and well, still with theirhands on the tiller.

So, what became of The Five Little Martyrs? The records tell us that a Horace Stephen Freear died in 1978, and that a Frederick Hunt died in 1971. Of the others, no-one knows what they did with their lives after they, briefly, became national figures.

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