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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . A thing of beauty

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ch011Yes, my reviews always carry the banner  ‘between the covers‘ and, at the end of the day, it’s the written content which counts. Carefully worked covers are part of the package for me, though. Of course we have to live with – and work with – digital editions, and they have their moments. They’re cheaper and in some ways more convenient, but a physical book, decently printed and bound is for many of us the nonpareil. The cover designs for – to name just a few – books by Christopher Fowler, John Connolly, Jim Kelly and Stacey Halls always add to the experience, and now Penguin have done something rather marvellous and secured images by Romare Bearden to grace their new editions of the superb Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones novels by Chester Himes.

Bearden (September 2, 1911 – March 12, 1988) was an artist of many talents who, as well as being a semi-professional baseball player, also composed music. He served with the American army during WW2, but it is his pioneering work with collage that has attracted the editors at Penguin. The  cover of A Rage In Harlem is Summertime 1967, which is owned by The Saint Louis Art Museum. They say:

“This work….. which belongs to a small number of large-scale collages he created in the 1960s, exemplifies the artist’s commitment to the African-American experience. A woman eats an ice-cream cone in front of a brownstone, a man sits on a chair, and two oversized faces peer from behind window shades. The ice cream and open windows evoke the summer’s heat. The woman’s pose suggests a singer holding a microphone, and the title summons Cole Porter’s lyric that “the living is easy.”

Enjoy the artwork, and look out for my review of A Rage In Harlem coming up soon.

NEVER ASK THE DEAD . . . Between the covers

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This is the third in a compelling series featuring police officer Owen Sheen. He is Belfast born and bred, but is currently employed by London’s Metropolitan Police. He has been seconded to work in his home city heading up SHOT – the Serious Historical Offences Team. Inevitably, these historical offences are all bound in to the  horrendous sectarian violence committed during the bizarrely euphemistic ‘Troubles’. But now, since the Good Friday Agreement, hatchets are buried, enemies have become friends and all is serene on the sunlit uplands. Isn’t it? Actually, no. Former gunmen, torturers, knee-cappers, car-bombers and violent thugs are now in politics, schmoozing and shaking diplomatic hands at the highest level. But beneath the men in suits – yes, mostly men, because parts of Ulster society remains hugely patriarchal – there are still dozens of killers, some as yet uncaught, but others pardoned by political expediency.

Sheen’s latest case concerns an investigation into ‘The Cyprus Three’ – three IRA operatives gunned down by SAS men on a street in Cyprus. The official line is that the three were about to plant a huge bomb to destroy British troops.The courts decided that the killings were lawful, despite the three Irish people being unarmed. The more elderly among us will recognise that this scenario is a mirror image of a real event – the killing of three IRA members in Gibraltar in 1988.

Screen Shot 2021-02-17 at 18.05.34Sheen is given the task of re-investigating the Cyprus shootings, with a strong hint that it would suit the contemporary political narrative were the SAS  men to be found guilty of unlawful killing. As he turns over the stones, Sheen isn’t surprised to see all kinds of unpleasant creatures scuttling away from the light. He has his own issues, as his own brother was the collateral damage of a terrorist bomb in their childhood street while they were kicking a football about.

As his investigation mines deeper into the landfill of lies and deception that makes up Belfasts’s political history, Sheen is drawn into the search for a legendary double agent, nicknamed TOPBRASS. He has played both sides – the IRA hierarchy and the British Special Branch. But why is he still ‘an item’ in the malevolent undertow of Ulster politics, and how high are his connections in ‘high places’?

Screen Shot 2021-02-21 at 18.34.42Donnelly has written a brilliant and terrifying novel that should remind people that despite the outward air of calm and reconstruction there is a parallel Belfast – a place where grievances are bone-deep and still burning white hot.

We can sit in our suburban homes and tut-tut about the barbarity of ISIS, Boko Haram or Hezbollah, but Gary Donnelly (right) reminds us that acts of incalculable horror were carried out on a regular basis on the streets of a British city by the IRA and its Unionist opponents. The only thing that I can take from this savage history lesson is that religious zealotry fuels bigotry, which in turn provides the spark to the tinder of sectarian violence. This is a great read, but not a happy one. Never Ask The Dead is published by Allison & Busby and is out now.

DEATH AT SANDOWN VILLA . . . True crime in Leamington Spa (3)

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PART THREE

So far …. 21 year old Maida Warner, from Stockton, has been arrested after a dead baby was found in the room she occupied at Sandown Villa, the home of Mr and Mrs Patterson, who employed Maida as a domestic servant. The bay was found with string tied tightly around its neck.

On 23rd June, at the second Coroner’s Inquest into the baby’s death, (the first was adjourned because Maida Warner was too ill to attend) the grandly named Mr. J. J. Willington Wilmshurst, spoke to a packed room in Leamington Police Station. This time, Maida Warner was present. The newspaper reported:

“The young woman, Maida Warner, who has been charged with the wilful murder of the child, was present, accompanied by a wardress from Warwick Gaol. She looked white and ill, and after the evidence of the first witness was obliged to retire for a few minutes.”

The jury heard medical evidence which was ambivalent about whether the baby was born alive. This was to be a key issue in the criminal proceedings which followed. The legal phrase was “separate existence”. In simple terms, if the baby had drawn breath, even for a few seconds after the umbilical cord had been cut then was deemed, by law, to have had a separate existence and, as such, was entitled to the protection of the law. Despite one of the doctors saying:

“It is my opinion that the child was healthy child, at, or near, full time, that it had lived and breathed freely. The cause of death was suffocation by strangulation, which might have been caused the cord round the infant’s neck. The child was alive when this constriction was put round it.”

But he then muddied the waters by saying:

“It is impossible to say that the child was wholly born, at the time it was done.”

Despite the confusion, the Coroner could only pass the case on up the legal ladder to the criminal courts. It was at this inquest, however, that another piece of evidence emerged which was to have an important bearing on the date of Maida Warner. Knowing that the young woman would not – whatever the outcome of the trial – be coming back to Sandown Villa, John Patterson had gone to clear up Maida’s room. He found a letter, torn up and thrown in the fire grate. It was signed, “Your dear little husband, S.B.C. – Warwick

Stockton was a small village, and it wouldn’t have taken a Sherlock Holmes to discover who S.B.C. was. In 1901 Sidney Cox had been living with his sister and their large family in a house on Napton ad, Stockton.
Sidney Cox

Probably very much against his wishes, he was produced as a defence witness when Maida was brought to trial at Warwick Assizes on July 28th, in front of Mr Justice Wills (left) By this time – and Maida must have had a very clever defence team – the charge had been reduced to that of concealing a death. The judge seemed to put great store by the presumption that Maida was fully prepared for – and happy with – the fact that she was about to give birth. Evidence for this was produced, in the form of newly purchased baby clothes found in Maida’s trunk. Sidney Cox had his moment in court as reported in the local newspaper:

“A young man named Sidney Cox was then called, and stated that he had been keeping company with the prisoner, and it was arranged that they should be married next month.

Judge; “Did you know that she was about to be confined?”
Cox,“No”
Judge, “Did you know what she intended to do?”
Cox,“No”
Judge, “Are you now prepared to marry her, and is it you intention of doing so at the earliest opportunity?”
Cox, “Yes.”

To cut a long story short, the Judge – despite the strange and unexplained matter of the string knotted round the baby’s neck, decided that Maida Warner was guilty of concealing a death, and sentenced her to twelve months hard labour. This story has a happy ending, after a fashion. In December 1906, the local news from Stockton column had this announcement:

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It is good to know that, whatever the truth of what happened on that fateful day at the end of May 1905, Maida went on to live her life in full. The last we see of her, at least in official records, is that in 1911 she was living with her husband in George Street, Stockton.

1911 census

For me, looking back at something which happened over a century ago, it is a curious case, and no mistake. What was the string doing around the baby’s neck? Was it something to do with a young woman giving birth on her own, and perhaps misguidedly remembering – as a country girl –  how calves were hauled from their mothers’ wombs with stout cord? Did the baby have “a separate existence”? We will never know. I believe there are Neals and Warners still living in and around Stockton to this day, and I hope that they will think that I have reported this strange episode with respect and fairness.

DEATH AT SANDOWN VILLA . . . True crime in Leamington Spa (2)

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PART TWO

The story so far. It is May, 1905, and 21 year-old Maida Warner, who had been working as a domestic servant for Mr and Mrs Patterson on Rugby Road, has been sent home to her parents in Stockton, after a mysterious medical emergency. Maida has taken the train from Milverton Station and once they are sure she has gone, John and Lizzie Patterson go up to the girl’s room. Let the newspaper report take up the narrative:

“In the bedroom, Mr Patterson found Maida Warner’s tin traveling trunk. It was strapped up, and appeared the same as when she first came to the house with it. There was also parcel of clothes on the top of the box, and on opening it he saw that which aroused his suspicions still further. He took up the tin box to see how heavy it was, and he found it heavier than he expected. On opening he found a lot of underclothing, and moving these he discovered a parcel, wrapped up in an apron and tied with string. He left the parcel on the floor. and from what saw he went and called Mrs. Moffat, a neighbour, and told her of his suspicions. Patterson asked her to examine the parcel and, with his wife, left the room. When Mrs Moffat returned downstairs she informed them that she had found a dead baby.”

Mary Moffat lived with her husband at Cliff Cottage, next door to the Pattersons, and her testimony at a later court hearing chills the blood, even today.

“I went into the servant’s bedroom. Mrs. Patterson pointed out a parcel to me, which I examined. It contained soiled linen, and evidence that a child had been born. I then examined the contents of the tin box. and found a fish basket, tied with string. Cutting the string, I found a parcel fastened with a safety pin and tied round with a necktie. This I also cut, and on unwrapping the parcel saw the body of a child. It was quite blue in the face, but I did not notice whether anything was tied round the neck. I thought the body looked as it had been washed.”

In a state of shock, Patterson sent for the police. Detective-Sergeant Matthews arrived and went into the back bedroom, and there saw two bundles as described by John Patterson and Mary Moffat. The second bundle contained the body of a male child, wrapped in towels and apron. Matthews removed the body to the mortuary, where Dr Rice made a post-mortem examination. The next day, accompanied by Chief Constable Earnshaw, Matthews went to Stockton and saw the girl, Maida Warner, at her father’s house in Elm Row (below).

Elm Row

He took her to Leamington Police Station, and, after cautioning her, charged her with the wilful murder of the male child on or about May 31st. She replied, “I am innocent of that.” When he saw her first at Stockton she was walking about, and he did not notice anything unusual about her. Warner was subsequently removed to the Warneford Hospital, and from there to the Infirmary at Warwick Gaol.

Dr. Rice’s post mortem report to the Coroner at the inquest into the baby’s death makes for grim reading:

“On the evening of June 3rd I saw the body of the child at the mortuary. I made a post-mortem examination on Sunday, and found that it was a male child, fairly well developed, weighing 51bs. 6oz. On Saturday I had come to the conclusion that the child had lived, but had been dead one or two days. I found a string tied three times round the neck, and firmly knotted at the end of the second round, and again at the end the third round. The child’s face was livid, the tongue protruding, and the fingers clenched. The body was wrapped in an apron which was marked M. Warner.

I made the post-mortem in company with Dr. Ross. Decomposition was just beginning. There were two small punctures of the skin on the left of the stomach, such might have been caused a large pin, but they did not penetrate deeplv. The brain was healthy, but congested, and there was good deal of blood under the scalp, which was the natural process of child birth. The heart was healthy and the lungs inflated. I am of the opinion that the child was healthy child, at, or near, full time, that it had lived and breathed freely. The cause death suffocation by strangulation, which might have been caused the cord round the infant’s neck. The child was alive when this constriction was put round it. It was impossible to say that the child was wholly born, at the time it was done.”

THE FINAL PART WILL BE AVAILABLE
AT 6.00pm ON MONDAY 1st MARCH

DEATH AT SANDOWN VILLA . . . True crime in Leamington Spa (1)

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PART ONE

Employment options for young women in the England of the early 1900s were pretty limited, especially from poorer households. Educational opportunities for most would have rudimentary, and many thousands would seek work in domestic service in wealthier households, and hope for a reasonable marriage when they had turned twenty or so.

Such a young lady was Maida Warner. In 1905 her family lived in the village Stockton, between Leamington and Rugby. Her father – like many men in the vicinity was employed at the cement works, which was owned by the Nelson family of Warwick. The 1901 census has the Warners living on Beck’s Lane.

1901 census
After working for a lady in Coventry, 21 year-old Maida took up a position with Mr John Percival Patterson and his wife Lizzie on 10th May. They lived in the rather grand sounding Sandown Villa, on Rugby Road in Leamington. The house showed up in the 1948 Kellys Directory as No. 251 Rugby Road, but that puzzled me, as the present day 251 is obviously a semi built in the 1950s or 60s. Thanks to some excellent detective work by Steve Hawks we found that there was renumbering of the houses at some stage, and what was named Sandown Villa is the modern day No. 269, and to the left of it in the picture was Cliff Cottage, of which more later.

Sandown Villa
Back to the events of May 1905. Later in the month, having seen plenty of the young lady, the Pattersons began to suspect that Maida might be pregnant. In the rather euphemistic words of a newspaper report, they “became suspicious of her condition”. Lizzie Patterson broached the subject but Maida strongly denied that she was expecting. It rather suggests to me that she was, as they say, “of a fuller figure” as had she been just a slip of a thing it must have been glaringly obvious. On 28th May, Lizzie Patterson again spoke to Maida about the matter, but received the same reply. What happened next was reported fully in the newspapers when Lizzie Patterson (witness) gave evidence in court.

“On the Thursday she did her work as usual, but after tea she complained of a headache and went upstairs. Witness advised her to go for a short walk, but she said she felt too ill. Witness asked her if she wanted anything, and she said no. She went to bed, and just after nine o’clock Witness took her a cup of cocoa. When Witness went into the room she felt sure something was wrong and she asked Warner if she would have a doctor. She declined, but Witness insisted on having a doctor. When she went downstairs she sent for the doctor.

Witness did not hear anything of the girl, and the doctor arrived about 11 o’clock. When the doctor went upstairs the bedroom door was locked and Witness called “Open the door.” Warner replied, “Is the doctor there?” and the doctor then asked her if she was all right. She said “Yes,” and added that she did not want the doctor. She refused to open the door. If she wanted help she would let them know.

Later Witness again went to the door, and Warner then said she was all right. She did not hear anything of her during the night. Next morning Witness sent some breakfast to Warner, and a little later went to her room to see her. She asked her how she was and she said she was very much better. Warner had drunk her tea and had eaten some food. The girl appeared very much better. She remained in bed until Saturday afternoon, but still refused to have the doctor. Witness suggested that she must either see him or go home, and Warner said she would rather home. She walked to the station and went by the 4.10 train.”

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The railway station – Milverton – was literally just around the corner, and from there Maida could take the train – a twenty minute ride on the old London and North Western Railway – to Napton & Stockton Station.

LNW ∑ Napton and Stockton ∑ Warwks ∑ anon ∑ by 10/1910

As soon as Maida had gone, John and Lizzie Patterson went up to Maida’s room. What they found there would haunt them for many a year.

PART TWO WILL BE AVAILABLE AT 6.00pm
ON SUNDAY 28th FEBRUARY

MURDER AT THE RITZ . . . Between the covers

MATR headerZogAny novel which features – in no particular order – Commander Ian Fleming, King Zog of Albania, a dodgy lawyer called Pentangle Underhill, and a Detective Chief Inspector named The Hon. Edgar Walter Septimus Saxe-Coburg promises to be a great deal of fun, and Murder At The Ritz by Jim Eldridge didn’t disappoint. It is set in London in August 1940, and Ahmet Muhtar Zogolli, better known as King Zog of Albania (left) has been smuggled out of his homeland after its invasion by Mussolini’s Italy, and he has now taken over the entire third floor of London’s Ritz Hotel, complete with various retainers and bodyguards – as well as a tidy sum in gold bullion.

Anyone who has studied the history of Albania will know that it has always been a chaotic place. In the 1920s, while working at the League of Nations, the famous sportsman CB Fry was reputedly offered the throne. For a rather more serious memoir of Albania during WW2, Eight Hours From England (click for the review) by Anthony Quayle is well worth a read, and we all know – thanks to the Taken franchise, starring Liam Neeson, that Albania’s chief export to the rest of the world is organised crome, drug-running, money laundering and people trafficking.

Screen Shot 2021-02-25 at 19.08.38Back to the story, and when a corpse is discovered in one of the King’s suites, Coburg is called in to investigate. The attempt to relieve the Albanian monarch of his treasure sparks off a turf war between two London gangs who, rather like the Krays and the Richardsons in the 1960s, occupy territories ‘norf’ and ‘sarf’ of the river. After several more dead bodies and an entertaining sub-plot featuring Coburg’s romance with Rosa Weeks, a beautiful and talented young singer, there is a dramatic finale involving a shoot-out near the Russian Embassy. This is a highly enjoyable book that occupies the same territory as John Lawton’s Fred Troy novels (click to read more). It is nowhere near as dark and dystopian as those books, but Murder At The Ritz is none the worse for that.

Since 2016 Jim Eldridge has concentrated on writing historical crime fiction for adults. Previously he worked as a scriptwriter and wrote books for children and young adults. As a scriptwriter he had over 250 TV and 250 radio scripts broadcast in the UK and internationally. In 2019 I read, enjoyed and reviewed an earlier book by this writer, and if you click on the title – Murder At The British Museum – you can see what I thought. Murder At The Ritz is published by Allison & Busby and is out now.

THE ST MICHAEL’S ROAD MURDER . . . The madness of a daughter (part 2)

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Louth. February 1950. Gladys Hirschberg is living with her mother Alice Wright at 32 St Michael’s Road (below). 55 year-old Gladys has had an eventful life. She married a soldier, Victor King, in 1916, was widowed the next year, and then went to Rhodesia with a new husband, and took his name, von Hirschberg. Gladys returned to England at the beginning of World War Two and served with the ATS. After a brief return to Rhodesia, she came back to Louth in 1946.

32 St Michaels

On the morning of Sunday 19th February, Mrs Lena Gibson who was a neighbour of Gladys and her mother answered a frantic knocking on her door to find Gladys, shaking and white faced. Gladys said to Lena:
You had better come and see. I have killed my mother. I hit her on the head with a hammer.”
Entering No.32, Lena was horrified to see Alice Wright unconscious on the sofa, with a dreadful head wound.

Todd

An ambulance was summoned and the police came and took Gladys into custody, She was formally charged with attempting to kill her mother. The senior officer who read the charge was none other than Superintendent George Todd (above), Gladys Hirschberg’s co-star in the Louth Playgoer’s production of The Winslow Boy in April the previous year.

Alice Wright never recovered consciousness and died two days later, so when Gladys Hirschberg appeared at Louth Magistrates Court on 21st February, the charge was murder. After another hearing on 11th March, Gladys was committed for trial at Lincoln Assizes in June.

It seems that Gladys was in such a bad way
that she was sent to Winson Green prison in Birmingham, because it had a secure mental unit, and it was from there that she came to trial at Lincoln on Tuesday 6th June. The presiding judge was George Lynskey.

This is the newspaper report of proceedings:

In court she wore a black coat and a grey jumper. She looked pale but seemed composed. She pleaded not guilty in a clear voice. While the Jury was sworn in she stood with bowed head and downcast eyes between two women prison officers. The courtroom was crowded, the majority there being women.

Hirschberg was defended by Mr. R. C. Vaughan. K.C.. and Mr. W. K Carter. Mr S.L.Elborne, prosecuting, said that Hirschberg had been living in Rodesia and had returned to England to look after her mother. Later, after living at home and then working in London, she had an offer of another job in Rhodesia, and her mother was going with her. The home and furniture were to be sold. Mrs Wright was over 80, and apparently the accused thought she was doing right by moving her to Rhodesia.

Hirschberg then became more troubled about the situation, and February 19th she told a neighbour that she had hit her mother on the head with a hammer and had killed her. Mrs Wright was found with severe head injuries and died later in hospital.

The neighbour, Lena Marjorie Gibson said Hirschberg had worried about taking her mother to Rhodesia and felt she was taking away her security by selling the house. Hirschberg had been widowed in the first war, married a Belgian and had said this marriage was unhappy. She had sought refuge in Army work during the war and became a junior commander in the ATS.

Mrs. Gibson described how Hirschberg became more worried, had financial worries when her husband stopped her allowance, and felt she was a failure and her life futile.

She had fits of depression and on one occasion was seen crouching in an animal attitude with staring eyes and twitching face.

“I was afraid she was no longer sane.” said Mrs. Gibson. She had also said herself she felt her mind was going. In statements to the police Hirschberg was alleged to have said that her mental state made her want to escape from her responsibilities. She tried to gas herself, and then decided it would be best if they both “went out” because some aspects of her life had been a failure.


“Quite suddenly a cloud came over me and 1 felt I must end it all for both,” Something in her brain told her she must do it but only part of her knew what she was doing with the hammer. She had hit herself on the head with the hammer. The last few weeks had been a terrible effort as if her hands and brain had not co-operated without terrific effort.

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Called for the defence, Dr J Humphreys of Birmingham prison said Hirschberg considered herself a failure in her job in London and had a feeling of guilt that her friends were having to do things for her mother which she felt she should have been doing. She was suffering from an acute sense of chronic depression which was a mental disease. While in prison,said the doctor, Hirschberg swallowed five needles because she said she wanted to suffer physical pain instead of the anguish she was feeling.

She had told him she was an outcast and dare not approach God in prayer – which was born out by the fact that she refused to go to the prison chapel or see the chaplain.

When she committed the act she would not know that what she was doing was wrong. Evidence that she was suffering from a mental disease was also given by Dr. M. Sim, a psychiatrist at a Birmingham hospital.


The prosecution didn’t challenge the assertion that Gladys Hirschberg did murder her mother whie insane, and she was sentenced to be detained “at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.”

There is a poignant postscript to this sad tale. A few years later, Messrs Falkner & Co, Solicitors, of 17 Cornmarket, Louth acted for Gladys Hirschberg as she applied to change her surname to King. This was of, course, in remembrance of Victor Algernon Robert King, her young husband who had perished in Flanders thirty seven years earlier. In this legal claim, her address was given as Crowthorne, Berkshire, which is home to the secure mental hospital known as Broadmoor.

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THE ST MICHAEL’S ROAD MURDER . . . The madness of a daughter (part 1)

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Gladys Wright was born in Louth in 1894. Her father, Edward Wright was a schoolmaster, and the census of 1911 has the family living at Egmont – No. 4 South Street, Louth. Edward Wright went on to become Headmaster of St Michael’s School, where his wife Alice also taught.

Wright census
In December1916, Gladys married a young man named Victor King, in Richmond, Surrey. Their marriage was to be short lived, however. Victor was Second Lieutenant in The Machine Gun Corps, and on 29th September, he was killed during the Third Battle of Ypres, better known perhaps as the Battle of Paschendaele. His name is one of 34,000 others inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing, which indicates that if he was given a battlefield burial, his grave was later lost. A grimmer option is that his body was simply destroyed by shellfire.

Like so many other young widows, Gladys had the rest of her life to live, and at some point between the end of the Great War and the beginning of World War Two, she met and married a man called von Hirschberg. It seems that they tried to begin a new life in what was then Rhodesia, where the von Hirschberg family had lived for decades. Whatever happened to the marriage was never recorded publicly, but by World War Two, Gladys was back in England and serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service – the ATS – a volunteer unit for women. After the war, the ATS became the WRAC, but Gladys chose not to continue with service life and, after another brief spell in Rhodesia, returned to Louth to live with her widowed mother Alice in her house in St Michael’s Road.

Gladys, now in her 50s, was a keen amateur actress and a member of the Louth Playgoers group. The only surviving photograph of her dates from 1949, when she played the role of Mrs Winslow in Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play, The Winslow Boy. One of the strange ironies of this story is that the gentleman playing Mr Winslow in the play was George Todd. When he wasn’t learning his lines, Todd was better known as Superintendent Todd of Louth police. He and his co-star were to meet again a year later in rather different circumstances.

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Part two of this story will go live at 6.00pm on Sunday 21st February

WHAT WILL BURN . . . Between the covers

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As the title suggests, What Will Burn is all about fire. It begins with an old woman, badly beaten and then set alight. There are passages which hark back to the late sixteenth century, and describe the dreadful end of women who were accused of witchcraft and burnt at the stake. A man apparently spontaneously combusts as he sits in his basement flat. It ends with a grim parallel to those scenes when one of the book’s main characters, suffers a similar fate in a grim parody of those historical executions.

So, what has all this to do with James Oswald’s Edinburgh copper
, Detective Chief Inspector Tony McLean? Or, to be more accurate, Detective Inspector McLean, as he returns to duty busted down a rank after a lengthy investigation into misconduct.

His ‘welcome back Tony” case is that of the agonising death of Cecily Slater, an elderly member of an aristocratic family, who has lived alone in a crumbling cottage in the woods above Edinburgh. Her charred remains have gone unnoticed for some time, until an estate worker who runs the odd errand for the old woman makes a grisly discovery.

McLean also becomes involved with a controversial campaign called Dad’s Army. They are not the avuncular dodderers from Walmington-on-Sea, but a group of embittered men who, for one reason or another, have been denied access to their children. They are led – and empowered – by a lawyer called Tommy Fielding, a man who who has a seemingly pathological hatred of women, and is undeterred by the fact that many of his clients have been separated from their children due to allegations of serious sexual abuse.

All good police procedural series
need a repertory company of regular characters, and the Tony McLean books are no exception. There’s Grumpy Bob, guardian of the cold case records down in the basement, Detective Constable Janie Harrison – now Acting Detective Sergeant Harrison, the lugubrious Detective Constable ‘Lofty’ Blane. McLean himself is a fascinating character. Thanks to a legacy, he has the luxury of being financially independent of his job, but loves the work. He also has the mixed blessing of being someone who is sensitive to things paranormal, and beyond the ken of the Police Scotland operational handbook. Away from the station, there is the strange character of Madame Rose, a transexual psychic who can always be relied upon to provide a sense of things “not dreamt of in our philosophy”.Last but not least, there is Mrs McCutcheon’s cat. We never see the owner, but the moggie is a permanent resident in McLean’s house.

There is a new member of the cast
in this novel, in the person of Chief Superintendent Gail Elmwood, freshly signed from the Metropolitan Police to head up Tony’s team. Let’s just say that she is not your conventional senior police officer.

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As the reviewers’ cliché has it, the body count gets higher. Readers expecting a conventional solution to the criminal activity in What Will Burn will search in vain. James Oswald takes this book to a new level of dark imaginings, intrigue, human venality and sinister happenings which, if they don’t scare you, it perhaps means that you are in a persistent vegetative state. What Will Burn is published by Wildfire, and is out today, 18th February.

I am a confirmed and long-standing fan of the Tony McLean series. To read reviews of earlier novels, click here.

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