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WOLF AT THE DOOR . . . Between the covers

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s-l400Rather like Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s White Rabbit, I am always late. Late, that is, to many excellent crime fiction series that have been on the go for some years. I often come to them a few books in and, having enjoyed what I have read, try to solve the dilemma, which is this. Do I abandon everything else on the TBR pile to read the earlier books, or do I shrug my shoulders and convince myself that the books will always be there, and that I will get round to them “at some point”? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about being a book reviewer. Publishers send me free books on the understanding that I will read them and that my reviews will help to sell the novels. That’s all good, but one gets locked in to a reading timetable that can be very unforgiving, particularly when blog tours are involved. Reading for pure pleasure and relaxation has to take a back seat, I’m afraid.

That long digression is a background to this review of the latest Bradecote and Catchpoll novel by Sarah Hawkswood. I read – and loved – two of the series, River of Sins and Blood Runs Thicker, and you can read my reviews by clicking the links. Now, the ninth in the series, Wolf At The Door, is with us, and it is every bit as good as the other two have read..

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For people who are even later arrivals to the party than I, we are in 12th century Worcestershire. Hugh Bradecote is the Under Sheriff of the county, and is of noble birth with a degree of hauteur, while Sergeant Catchpoll is Worcester through-and-through, rough and ready, but very street-wise. Walkelin – the apprentice – is something of a ‘gofer’, but is bright, perceptive, and not afraid to speak his mind. This story begins with the discovery of a man who has met a violent death. His face has been removed and his throat has been ripped out. Extensive damage to his limbs suggests an assault by a violent animal. A wolf, perhaps? But even in the Royal hunting Forest of Feckenham1, wolves have not been seen for many a year.

Hugh Bradecote is on what we could call paternity leave. He is particularly anxious about his heavily pregnant second wife, as his first wife died in childbirth. With some villagers of Feckenham convinced that Durand Wuduweard 2 was savaged by a wolf, and the more credulous of them even believing that the killing was the work of a werewolf, Bradecote has to return to duty.

We are some half way into the book before the officers have any concept of who – and what – is responsible for the death of Durand. More corpses and a savage attack on a landowner prompt an even greater sense of urgency to the quest, but then Bradecote, Catchpoll, Walkelin and their boss De Beachamp finally realise that the motive for the crimes is one of the oldest and deadliest – revenge, bitterly fermented and long standing.

One of the qualities of a natural and gifted storyteller is the ability to provide atmosphere. Sarah Hawkswood recreates a cold and grey Worcestershire at the onset of November. Many of the poorer folk will struggle to survive the next four months and will succumb to cold, hunger, disease – or a mixture of all three. The wolves may have mostly disappeared, but the forest is a dark and unforgiving place for the people who have hacked out space within it for their precarious lives. The grimly authentic setting aside, this is a bloody good detective story from one of our finest writers. Wolf at the Door is published by Allison & Busby and is out on 19th August.

  1. Feckenham Forest was a royal forest, centred on the village of Feckenham, covering large parts of Worcestershire and west Warwickshire. It was not entirely wooded, nor entirely the property of the King. Rather, the King had legal rights over game, wood and grazing within the forest, and special courts imposed harsh penalties when these rights were violated.
  2. A Wuduweard (old English) was the warden of a forest. It is probably the origin of the surname Woodward.

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GUILT . . .Between the covers

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Michelle Kidd is a new name to me, and the central character in this novel – DI Nikki Hardcastle – will be a new name to everyone, as Guilt is the first in a series. The author practiced law for 10 years, specialising in criminal and civil litigation. A career change in 2008 took her to work for the NHS where she still works today. Michelle’s Interests are varied but are mostly reading, wine and cats – but not necessarily in that order. She is no novice author, however. In 2018 she published her first novel, which featured Detective Inspector Jack MacIntosh. There have been three subsequent Jack Macintosh novels and the fifth is expected in 2022.

GuiltNikki Hardcastle is a detective in the pleasant Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds, but being, as the tourist board suggests, “A Jewel in the Crown of Suffolk” is no deterrent to criminals of all kinds, and the particular one at the centre of this story is perhaps the worst sort of all – an abductor of children. My four sons are all grown up now, and they have children of their own, but no matter how many times I read accounts (fictional or otherwise) of that awful moment when a parent first realises that their child is missing, it still chills me to the bone.

One minute Sophia Jackson’s little boy Lucas – enjoying his birthday treat at the traveling fair – is there, and the next minute he is gone. The initial panic, the momentary hope that that the child will suddenly appear, and then the numbing, growing dread that someone has taken him – are described with uncomfortable realism. The police become involved, and Nikki Hardcastle heads up the search – against the better judgment of her boss. His reasons? Nothing to do with Nikki’s competence, but the knowledge that many years ago, she, too, was with her young brother at a funfair, and in the twinkling of an eye was taken while Nikki lingered a little too long at the candy-floss stall. And little Dean – Deano – has never been seen since. Michelle Kidd lets us know quite early where Lucas is and what is happening, and this makes for a tantalising kind of tension as we watch the police go round in circles, while the author explains the traumas – without excusing the deeds – that have shaped the monster who has taken Lucas.

We also learn of the terrible childhood of the abductor, and the awful twists of human cruelty that can make beasts of the psychologically vulnerable. The book also explores the complexity of guilt, and the corrosive effect it can have on families and individuals. Eventually Nikki Hardcastle and her team manage to complete the jigsaw, but the grueling case has one final shock in store for the mentally and physically exhausted detective.

Be warned. This is not a humdrum or cosy (in any shape or form) police procedural. There are descriptions of cruelty and malice which some readers may find difficult. This is however, a cleverly written – and sometimes painfully convincing –  crime novel which shines a light on the darker corners of the human psyche. Guilt is published by Question Mark Press and is available now as a Kindle or in paperback. If you want to find out more about Michelle Kidd, you can visit her website by clicking on her image below.

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THE NAMELESS ONES . . . Between the covers

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Fans of the series can skip this paragraph. Charlie Parker is private eye based in Portland, Maine. His life has been shaped by the savage murder of his wife and daughter some years earlier, and he is – literally – haunted by the spirit of the dead daughter Jennifer. His cases frequently involve contact with people who are not actually spirits but although they have human shape, they are not entirely of this world. Long standing members of the dramatis personnae of the novels include Louis – an African American assassin, very loyal to Parker, and his personal and professional partner Angel, a skillful thief and locksmith who is recovering slowly from cancer. For more on Charlie Parker, click this link.

nameless046Parker takes something of a back seat in this novel (which is the 20th in a magnificent series) as Louis & Angel take centre stage. The first backdrop to this stage is Amsterdam, where a criminal ‘fixer’ called De Jaager goes to an address he uses as a safe house to meet three of his colleagues. He finds one of them, a man called Paulus, shot dead, while the two women, Anouk and Liesl, have been tied up. In control of the house are two Serbian gangsters, Radovan and Spiridon Vuksan. They have come to avenge the death – in which De Jaager was complicit – of one of their acquaintances, who was nicknamed Timmerman (Timber Man) for his love of crucifying his victims on wooden beams. What follows is not for the faint of heart, but sets up a terrific revenge plot.

At this point it is essential to replay what author John Connolly tells us about modern Serbia. Those with a strong stomach can find plenty on the internet and in books about the atrocities committed by Serbians against Bosnian Muslims – and others – in the brutal wars which erupted after the death of President Tito, the communist strongman who had kept the historical enemies – Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia – from each others’ throats between 1945 and 1980. Connolly paints a picture of a state where, despite former leaders like Milošević, Karadžić and Mladić being brought to justice by war crimes courts, Serbia is still largely run by career criminals who, while they may wear suits rather than Kevlar vests, are at the centre of a huge web of international crime which ranges from human trafficking to the drug trade.

I am guessing that John Connolly might not be on the top table of any future festival of crime fiction in Belgrade, but no matter – we have a seriously good story on our hands. Louis, for a variety of reasons, owes De Jaager, and when news reaches him of the Dutchman’s death he prepares to fly to Europe with the physically fragile Angel, but he is also aware that key USA figures inside The White House and the CIA would not be too dismayed were the Vuksan brothers to come to a sticky end.

With Parker otherwise engaged back in Maine, the supernatural element is largely absent here, as Louis and Angel don’t operate on the same psychic wavelength as their buddy. Largely absent, but not totally. Spiridon Vuksan has a murderous little friend called Zorya. She looks, at first glance, like a little girl, but on closer inspection she is a woman, and not a young one. She reminded me of the malevolent red-hooded little figure in Don’t Look Now – and we all know how that ended. Zorya is, as far as her human form goes, one of the Vlachs people, an ethnic group from the southern Balkans. She is also a strigoi.  in Romanian mythology they are troubled spirits that are said to have risen from the grave. They are attributed with the abilities to transform into an animal, become invisible, and to gain vitality from the blood of their victims. Her fate is not in the hands of Louis and Angel, however, but governed by the spirit of Jennifer Parker who, once a victim, is now distinctly menacing.

John Connolly is an inspired storyteller, and if this novel doesn’t play merry hell with your heartbeat, then you may need medical attention. The Nameless Ones is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is out now.

LONDON BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN . . . Between the covers

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If you are new to the Bryant & May series, then I could be rude and say, “You’re a bit bloody late!” More charitably, I could direct you to some of my earlier reviews of books in this magnificent sequence. Take a look here.

After many false twilights and surviving more execution attempts that John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee, it looks as though the Peculiar Crimes Unit has finally succumbed to the bureaucrats who have been plotting its demise for decades. The vandals have moved in and pulled out all the computer terminals, cut off the electric, and the ineffectual and (rightly) much mocked nominal supremo of the PCU – Raymond Land –  has given his valedictory address to the staff (rostered below)

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But fate – in the shape of a deceased old lady – has one last trick to play. When Amelia Hoffman is found dead in her flat, the regular police are happy to file the death in the file marked “Elderly Widows, No Family, Neglected By Social Services, Death Of.” But all is not what it seems. Arthur Bryant finds that the dead woman was one of three women who, having worked at Bletchley Park, were then absorbed into the post war British intelligence service. Arthur grabs at this straw with grateful hands, declares it ‘specialized’ enough to warrant the attention of the PCU, and launches a murder investigation.

Unusually for a Bryant & May investigation, there is an international element, courtesy of a frightful chap called Larry Cranston. He holds a British passport, but is in the employ of the CIA and various dark branches of the American state. When he drunkenly runs down and kills a pedestrian, he looks for diplomatic immunity and it is dangled in front of his nose – but at a price. The price is that he hunts down and ‘neutralises’ three old ladies – one of whom is Mrs Hoffman – who hold the key to exposing a sensitive intelligence operation, code-name ‘London Bridge‘.

Arthur Bryant, to the exasperation of his colleagues, has the habit – when he finds the solution to a problem – of going into a kind of investigative purdah. He refuses to share his thinking or his evidence, mostly on the grounds that John May and the others will neither understand it nor believe it. Such is the case here, and Arthur knows that he is dealing with the kind of historical criminal crossword, the esoteric clues for which only he can explain. By the end of the novel, however, even Arthur realises that he has been played, and nothing about the case is what it seems.

As ever, Christopher Fowler’s writing is exquisite. His deep reverence for – and knowledge of – the dark and lonely pathways trodden by centuries of Londoners is compelling. As usual the dialogue sparkles and the jokes are laugh-out-loud, but there is a sense of endgame here. Arthur, it seems, is wearing his inner Ulysses like a suit of armour:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

As the old joke goes, Pretentious? Moi?” Quoting Tennyson in a crime fiction book review? I make absolutely no apologies. Christopher Fowler has, over the long sequence of Bryant & May novels, shown that he lives under the same roof as many great writers who understood ‘Englishness’. In my mind, he sits down happily with such names as John Betjeman, JB ‘Beachcomber’ Morton, George and Weedon Grossmith and – in terms of London – Peter Ackroyd.

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It was with great dismay that many B&M fans read on the author’s Twitter the other day that this would be the last novel in the series. After all, the two fellows are impossibly old, given all they have witnessed and been through together, so it was not unexpected. Sad times then, but the last few pages of the book are as poignant – and beautifully written – as anything you could ever wish to read. Think Julius Caesar, Act III, Sc2, line 148. And yes – I did. London Bridge Is Falling Down is published by Doubleday and is out now.

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A CASE OF ROYAL BLACKMAIL . . . Between the covers

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Sherlock Holmes pastiches, if not a growth industry, provide regular and steady employment for many writers. There is an erudite and entertaining feature on Holmes impersonations by Stuart Radmore here, but now we have a new entrant to the lists. It is written by none other than the great man himself (of which more later) and the 24 year-old sleuth has stolen some of his future companion’s thunder by recounting the case in his own words.

acorb cover039We are in London in the summer of 1879, and young Holmes has yet to meet the man who will write up his greatest cases. Holmes works for a guinea a day, and is striving to build his reputation. Within the first few pages, he has been hired to investigate two cases on behalf of a man who was already a celebrity, and another who would become infamous in his lifetime, but revered and admired after his death. The celebrity is Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, a notorious Lothario whose battleground has been country houses and mansions the length and breadth of the country, the vanquished being a long list of cuckolded husbands. It seems that the heir to the throne has been in the habit of entering his sexual achievements in a diary – a kind of fornicator’s Bradshaw, if you will – but it has gone missing, and Holmes is charged with recovering it.

The second case is a strange request by a 25 year-old Irish aesthete and writer – one Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, who has lost – of all things – an amethyst tie-pin, a gift from his mother, the formidable Jane Francesca Agnes, Lady Wilde, and is desperate for Holmes to find it before an impending visit from Wilde mère.

Rosa_Corder,_by_James_McNeill_WhistlerOne hundred pages in, and it is clear that the author is enjoying a glorious exercise in name-dropping. James McNeill Whistler, Lillie Langtry, Francis Knollys, Patsy Cornwallis-West, Frank Miles, Sarah Bernhardt, John Everett Millais and Rosa Corder (right) are just a few of the  real life characters who make an appearance, and it is clear that ‘Sherlock Holmes’ moves in very elegant circles.

In the course of his investigations our man presages some of the talents for which he will later became famous when the as-yet-unmet Dr John Watson takes over the narrative. He disguises himself as a waiter at a royal banquet on one occasion, and manages to impress his clients with his uncanny observational skills. The case is complicated when Holmes becomes inadvertently involved with the attempt by scandal-sheets to sell papers off the back of the very public rift between Lillie Langtry and her husband Ned. The case of Oscar’s missing tie pin rather goes on the back-burner as the hunt for the royal blackmailer intensifies, but it is resolved at the very end of the book with a rather delicious twist.

So just who, exactly, is this particular Sherlock Holmes? The last five words of the book reveal the true identity of the author, but I won’t do all the work for you. A little clue that you can Google – this person is a peer of the realm, an old Etonian, and wrote the biography Never Fear: Reliving the Life of Sir Francis Chichester.

The worst that can be said of A Case of Royal Blackmail is that is a little over-egged with the cast of celebrity names, but once in a while we all need a few hours of enjoyable escapism, and this well-researched and cleverly plotted homage fits the bill perfectly. It is published by Affable Media, and is available now.

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INTERMISSION . . . Between the covers

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For readers new to this excellent series from Graham Hurley, here’s what you need to know. The central character is Enora Andressen, an English stage and screen actress in her early forties. She is in remission from a brain tumour, lives in Holland Park and is in a platonic relationship with a former cocaine baron, now a ‘reputable’ businessman, Hayden Prentice. He is the father of Enora’s son Malo, the product of a drunken fling on a yacht moored at Cannes a couple of decades earlier. Like ‘Bazza’ Mackenzie, the memorable anti-hero of Hurley’s magnificent Joe Faraday books, Prentice – nicknamed HP or ‘Saucy’ – has his tribal roots in the violent world of Portsmouth football supporters.

412ff7zLF2SIntermission is, I am sure, the only novel I have read so far that has, as its spine, the Covid-19 pandemic. The action begins in that fateful early spring of 2020, and Hayden Prentice learns that one of his old friends, a former bent copper known as Fat Dave has been laid low with the virus and is in the local ICU, and not expected to live. Visiting is, of course, completely off limits, but the sight – via a video link –  of his friend expiring amidst a sea of tubes and monitors chills HP to the bone. He travels from his Dorset manor house and summons Enora down to Portsmouth, where they have been given the use of a shabby flat owned by HP’s solicitor.

Fat Dave dies, and the newly announced lockdown measures prevent HP from organising the kind of send-off he was planning. Then, another bombshell. HP contracts the virus himself but refuses point blank to go into hospital. Enora has previously learned, via Malo, that due to the collapse of an insurance business he has set up, HP – formerly awash with the money he made in his criminal days – is in serious financial difficulties, but trapped in the claustrophobic flat Enora and Malo have no option but to buy in private care, involving  a rotating shift of nurses, the attention of a consultant, and  specialist medical equipment. The cost of all this is going to prove ruinous, but Enora is told by a violent psychopath called Wesley Kane – a sometime employee of HP – that before the virus laid him low, HP had a little investment plan. A plan that didn’t involve the risky world of insurance, hedge funds or commodity futures, but one where huge percentage profits are almost guaranteed – class “A” drugs. Back in his Dorset mansion, HP has kept a substantial stash of cash – in the proverbial used notes – and his housekeeper Jessie delivers this to Enora.

It seems that there is a woman in town named Shanti who has a long history of drug dealing. The restaurant she runs has gone bust, the power has been cut off, and she is hungry for money. Despite her attempts to run a straight business, she has retained contacts with the wholesalers of the ever-popular pharmaceuticals, and Enora pays her a visit.

There are complications, however. Enora meets Dessie Wren, a serving police officer and former colleague of the late Fat Dave, but rather more honest. He makes it very clear that the Hampshire police have not given up on their long running campaign to nail Hayden Prentice for his past misdeeds. To add to the woes of HP – and those close to him – someone whose father died as ‘collateral damage’ in a drug deal that went wrong is out for revenge.

There are so many good things about this series (click the links to read reviews of the earlier books Off Script, Sight Unseen and Curtain Call). Graham Hurley is a brilliant storyteller and a man of great learning and wide interests; as if the Joe Faraday books, the Jimmy Suttle series and these books are not sufficient evidence of that, he also writes superb military history thrillers like Kyiv. Enora herself is a wonderfully nuanced character. There is nothing remotely criminal about her, but through loyalty she is drawn into the murky world of Hayden Prentice, rather like Chandler’s investigator who finds that, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

The best contemporary English crime writers always give us an almost palpable sense of place; Christopher Fowler gives us London, Phil Rickman draws us into the haunted borderland between England and Wales; Chris Nickson has us treading the cobbles and breathing in the dense air of industrial Leeds, while Jim Kelly leaves us with the quiet menace of the Fen country. Graham Hurley has a recurrent major character in many of his novels, and it is the city of Portsmouth itself. Enora muses:

It’s an island community. It’s a bit cut off, a bit claustrophobic. It seems to expect the worst, and I get the feeling that it’s rarely disappointed, but for all its stoicism, it remains oddly upbeat. It also has a long memory. The thirst for a fight evidently lies deep in the city’s DNA, and I get the feeling the Pompey tribes have been picking quarrels for ever. Tim, my thespy friend, is very good on this. First, he says, Pompey’s finest went to sea and took on the Spanish, then the Dutch, and then the French. Trafalgar was a great moment, a really tasty ruck, and then came two world wars and shoals of sneaky U-boats. The monument on the front, visible from this flat, tallies the thousands of lives lost, but even so the city has never abandoned its passion for lots of blood and lots of treasure.”

Intermission is published by Severn House and is out now.

NINE LIVES . . . Between the covers

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This thriller is relatively brief, but it buzzes like an angry hornet. It begins in rural Ireland in 1979, when a terrified girl escapes from being held by an unknown assailant. She finds refuge in a farmhouse, and the farmer’s wife arranges for a neighbour to drive her to the nearest Garda Síochána station. Neither the girl nor the neighbour is ever seen alive again. Some months later, the girl’s remains are found. There is little left of Hazel Devereaux, but just enough to reveal, on examination, that her throat had been cut.

Screen Shot 2021-07-19 at 18.16.06The action skips thirty years, and Jim Mulcahy who was the rookie detective covering the girl’s disappearance is now Superintendent, and heading for retirement. When recreational scuba divers find the rusting remains of a car at the bottom of a local lough with a skeleton on the back seat – which turns out to be the headless remains of Frank Rudden – the case is reopened. It was Rudden who drove off in his VW Beetle that fateful night three decades earlier, with Hazel Devereaux as his passenger. We are now, of course, in the age of smartphones and internet search engines, and it doesn’t take the Irish coppers long to link this cold case to several similar murders in that Irish home-from-home, Boston Massachusetts. Detective Ray Logue is sent to liaise with the Boston PD, in particular Officers Sam Harper and Olivia Callaghan.

The rough-and-ready Irish policeman manages to ruffle the feathers of his more sophisticated American counterparts, but they soon make three interesting discoveries. One is that the dates of the Boston murders have an uncanny connection – they are all numerically linked with the number nine. You can Google it, and see that there is a long tradition of mysticism connected to the number, but Ray is initially unimpressed by what he feels is “hocus pocus.” The second discovery is that Donal Keane, an Irish academic was in the area at the time of Hazel Devereaux’s murder and then immediately decamped to Boston, where he has been ever since. The third – and most sinister – connective element is that each of the victims has been sent a brief note containing a quotation from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

Screen Shot 2021-07-19 at 18.16.23As Logue, Callaghan and Harper close in on who they think is the killer, Kevin McManus bowls us a couple of googlies – or perhaps I should say, since we are in Boston, throws down some curve balls – and all is not what it seems to be.

Kevin McManus (right) primarily writes Crime Fiction novels but also delves into writing poetry and short stories. He lives in County Leitrim in Western Ireland with his wife Mary and their dog Jack. He works by day as a secondary school teacher. In addition to the Ray Logue books Kevin has written a series based around a New York Detective called John Morrigan. His debut novel, published in 2016, was The Whole of the Moon. Nine Lives is a highly original and cleverly conceived thriller which gives a new twist to the serial killer genre. It is published by Spellbound Books and is available now.

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ON MY SHELF . . . July 2021

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I have a healthy To Be Read stack as July swelters its way towards August, as well as some interesting-looking blog tour stops to fulfil.

THE NAMELESS ONES by John Connolly

A new Charlie Parker novel is always one of the significant way-points in my reading year. Centre stage in this latest adventure for the Portland private eye is his loyal – but violent – friend, Louis. Instead of the customary Maine woods or the craggy North Atlantic shoreline, the actions shifts to Amsterdam, where an old friend of Louis’ has been murdered after tangling with Serbian war criminals. Fans of this excellent series will know what to expect – violence, a sense of deep unease that echoes Hamlet’s famous advice to Horatio, and a genuine present day battle between good and evil. The Nameless Ones is published by Hodder and Stoughton, and is available now.

INVITE ME IN BY Emma Curtis

The trope of the seemingly happily married woman with lovely children and and a handsome, supportive husband – but who is hiding a terrible secret – has become very popular in domestic thrillers, but Emma Curtis, in this account of what happens when Eliza Curran takes on a new tenant, gives it fresh legs. Published by Transworld Digital, Invite Me In is out now as a Kindle, and the paperback version will follow in September.

THE DAY OF THE JACKAL by Frederick Forsyth

As the late lamented Sandy Denny once sang, “Who Knows Where The Time Goes?” It was fifty years ago that former RAF pilot and journalist Frederick Forsyth’s political thriller was first published. If you want a copy of the UK first edition, you might need a grand or so to play with, but this 50th anniversary edition from Arrow – with the added bonus of an introduction by Lee Child – is much more reasonable. I won’t waste time and space by outlining the plot (which is still as original and compelling as when it was written) but you can get this paperback here and still have change from a tenner.

A SLOW FIRE BURNING by Paula Hawkins

In the publicity blurbs all the great and the good among contemporary crime fiction jostle to praise Paula Hawkins and her writing. The Zimbabwe-born author certainly hit the big time with her breakout bestseller The Girl on The Train and her second novel Into The Water. Can she make it a hat-trick of triumphs? All the ingredients seem to be there – female centred, tense, anxiety-driven and a complex emotional undertow which threatens to drag the unwary participants away. Three women – Laura, Carla and Miriam – face different challenges that force them to re-evaluate how they calibrate innocence, guilt – and danger. A Slow Fire Burning will be out on 31st August and is published by Transworld Digital

SAFE AT HOME by Lauren North

More domestic angst and tension now from Lauren North, whose debut novel was The Perfect Son (2019). Her latest novel features Anna James, described as “an anxious mother” When she has to leave eleven-year-old Harrie home alone one evening, she can’t stop worrying about her daughter. But nothing bad ever happens in the sleepy village of Barton St Martin. Except something does go wrong that night, and Anna returns to find Harrie with bruises she won’t explain. The next morning a local businessman is reported missing and the village is sparking with gossip. Anna is convinced there’s a connection and that Harrie is in trouble. But how can she protect her daughter if she doesn’t know where the danger is coming from? This is, again, from Transworld Digital and will be out as a Kindle at the beginning of September, and in paperback at the end of that month.

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THE HANGMAN’S SONG . . . Executions in 19th century Warwick (2)

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PART TWO

WillsOn 6th April 1863, Henry Carter, aged 20, was hanged for the murder of his sweetheart, 18 year-old Alice Hinkley, in December the previous year. The murder occurred in Bissell Street, Birmingham, and was relatively unusual for a ‘domestic’, as it involved a firearm, in this case a double-barrelled pistol. When the case came to Warwick Spring Assizes Carter’s defence was that the pistol had been discharged accidentally, but the jury was having none of it. They found him guilty, but with a recommendation to mercy. Mr Justice Willes (left) donned the black cap, and told Carter”

“I must implore you not to entertain any fond hope that the recommendation can save your life from the consequences of so awful and dreadful an act.”

He was right to be pessimistic. Home Secretary Sir George Grey was disinclined to be merciful, and Henry Carter was hanged. The newspaper reported thus:

“Yesterday morning Henry Carter was executed at the County Gaol, Warwick, in the presence of an immense assemblage of persons. It will be remembered that the culprit was tried at the recent assizes on the 28th ult. before Mr. Justice Willes, for the wilful murder of a young woman named Alice Hinkley, to whom he was paying his addresses, at Birmingham. He admitted when taken into custody that he had shot the unhappy girl. The execution took place at ten minutes after ten o’clock, and it is understood that the culprit confessed his crime ; but as Warwick is one of the gaols from which the press is rigorously excluded, any details are impossible to be given.”

Another account had more detail:

“Henry Carter, brass-founder, aged about twenty, was executed in front of the County Gaol at Warwick, on Thursday, for shooting with a pistol Birmingham, on the 4th of December last, his sweetheart. Alice Hinkley. The facts of the case have been recently reported. Carter had been Sunday-school teacher at Car’s Lane chapel, Birmingham, and spent the chief part of his time since his condemnation in religions devotions. On Thursday week a petition was forwarded the Secretary of State praying for commutation sentence, the grounds of Carter’s youth. An intimation that the the law must take its course was received on Saturday, and the warrant for execution once made out.

The services of Smith* of Dudley, Palmer’s executioner, were retained as hangman. The ceremony commenced shortly before ten o’clock on Thursday morning, when the prisoner attended prayers in the chapel of the gaol, then formed one of the procession of the prison officials to the pinioning room, and thence on to the scaffold. He was asked whether the pistol went off accidentally, and he said, “No. There was no quarrel between us while talking. I shook her hand, and kissed her before parting, and then shot her. It was through jealousy.” On reaching the scaffold in his prison dress he addressed the crowd below, warning them not to give way to similar feelings lest they should meet the fate which he was about to receive. and which, he well deserved. He then repeated a prayer from a book entitled “The Prisoner’s Memorial,” after which the bolt was removed and the drop fell. Death ensued almost instantly.”

George-Smith*George Smith (1805–1874, pictured right), popularly known as The Dudley Throttler , was an English hangman from 1840 until 1872. He was born in Rowley Regis in the West Midlands where he performed the majority of his executions. Although from a good family he became involved with gangs and petty crime in his early life, and was imprisoned in Stafford Gaol on several occasions for theft.

Carter was the last person to be publicly executed in Warwick, and the last to die in front of the old gaol. A new prison was built on Cape Road and the old gaol was converted into a militia barracks. There were to be seven more executions, the last being William Harris on 2nd January 1894. Harris, also known as Haynes, had murdered his girlfriend, Florence Clifford in Aston, Birmingham in September the previous year. The 17 year-old girl, tired of Harris’s brutal behaviour towards her, had decided to leave him, and went to her mother’s house to collect some clothes. Harris followed her there, and murdered her with an axe. He then went on the run, but gave himself up to Northamptonshire police. At his trial, he said:

“I wish I could have chopped the girl’s mother up, and then I should have been satisfied. I would have chopped her into mince-meat, and made sausages of her. I am ready for execution now.”

Defiant and unrepentant during his trial, Harris cut a sorrier figure when he went to the gallows.

Harris execution

It is worth remembering that the death penalty was widely available for a large range of offences until penal reforms in 1835 saw the end of capital punishment for crimes other than murder or attempted murder. The chart below gives an analysis of executions in Warwick during the 19th century. “Uttering” was, basically what we would now call fraud, while “coining” was the crime of counterfeiting or otherwise interfering with currency. It was also considered to be high treason.

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