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METROPOLIS . . . Between the covers

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Metro1012First up, Metropolis is a bloody good detective story. Philip Kerr gives us a credible copper, he lets us see the same clues and evidence that the central character sees and, like all the best writers do, he throws a few false trails in our path and encourages us to follow them. We are in Berlin in the late 1920s. A decade after the German army was defeated on the battlefield and its political leaders presided over a disintegrating home front, some things are beginning to return to normal. Yes, there are crippled ex-soldiers on the streets selling bootlaces and matches, and there are clubs in the city where the determined thrill-seeker can indulge every sexual vice known to man – and a few practices that surely have their origin in hell. The bars, restaurants and cafes of Berlin are buzzing with talk of a new political party, but this is Berlin, and Berliners are much too sophisticated and cynical to do anything other than mock the ridiculous rhetoric coming from the National Socialists. Besides, most of them are Bavarians and since when did a Bavarian have either wit, word or worth?

The copper is, of course, Bernie Gunther. Enthusiasts have followed his career from its infancy in the Berlin kripo of the Weimar Republic, through the dark days of World War II (accompanied by such luminaries as Reinhard Heydrich and Joseph Goebbels.) We have held our breath in the 1950s as Gunther tries to elude hunters who, mistakenly, have his name on a list of Nazi war criminals. We have been in the same rooms as Eva Peron and William Somerset-Maugham. Our man has led us a merry dance through mainland Europe, Cuba and Argentina but, sadly:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Metro2013Metropolis sees Gunther in pursuit of a Berlin Jack The Ripper who is certainly “down on whores.” Four prostitutes are killed and scalped, but when the fifth girl to die is the daughter of a well-connected city mobster, her death is a game-changer, and Gunther suddenly has a whole new world of information and inside knowledge at his fingertips. He is drawn into another series of killings, this time the shooting of disabled war veterans. Are the two sets of murders connected? When the police receive gloating letters, apparently from the perpetrator, does it mean that someone from the emergent extreme right wing of politics is, as they might put it, “cleaning up the streets”?

As ever in the Gunther novels, we meet real people from the period, exquisitely researched and re-imaged by the author. As well as the actual senior police officers of the Berlin Kriminalpolizei, Kerr introduces us to the artists Otto Dix and George Grosz. Gunther rubs shoulders with theatre folk too, but he is no fan of the singing of Lotte Lenya:

“..the mezzo-soprano could hold a note no better than I could hang on to a hot poker. She was plain, too – I caught sight of her onstage as I made my way up to one of the dressing rooms – one of those thin, pale-faced, red-haired Berlin girls who remind me of a safety match.”

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On the bright side, Gunther’s trip to The Neues Theater (above) is not entirely wasted, as he meets Brigitte Mölbling. He sees:

“..an Amazonian blonde whose perfectly proportioned windswept head lookd like the mascot on the hood of a fast car; she had a cool smile, a strong nose, and eye-brows that were so perectly drawn they might have been put here by Raphael or Titian.”

PKMölbling helps Gunther disguise himself as one of the disabled ex-soldiers, as he reluctantly accepts the role in order to attract the killer who, in his letters to the cops, signs himself Dr. Gnadenschuss. Gunther’s trap eventually draws forth the predator, but not in the way either he or his bosses might have anticipated.

Philip Kerr died on 23rd March 2018 and Metropolis is his final work. Of all the many portraits of Bernie Gunther, which one does he leave us with? Our man is young. He is handsome. His four years in the trenches were brutal, but he survived and he is resilient. The cynicism? If new-born babies feel anything other than hungry or full, cold or warm, wet or dry, then perhaps the infant Bernhard ruefully first opened his blue eyes and gazed on a world which he already knew was full of imperfections and disappointment. But let Bernie have the final word. The entrancing Brigitte ends their relationship, unable to become close to a man who has seen – and will continue to see – so much horror and blood:

“I burned her letter. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t had one before, and I suppose that before my time is up, I’ll have others. Never forget, always replace. That’s the first rule of human relationships. Moving on: this is the important part.”

Metropolis is published by Quercus, and is out on 4th April.

Click the link for more opinion and information about the Bernie Gunther series.

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HARDCASTLE’S QUANDARY . . . Between the covers

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London, 1927, and Divisional Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle is summoned to the office of Chief Constable Frederick Wensley[1], who has received a letter from a Norfolk parson. The Rev. Percy Stoner is convinced that his nephew Guy has met with misfortune. The former army Captain has disappeared, and when Hardcastle despatches men to visit the business young Stoner had set up with another Great War veteran, they make a chilling discovery.

Hardcastle himself was too old to serve in the war, but for his younger colleagues who knew the Western Front, body parts hold few terrors. The human remains found in the burnt-out premises in Surrey are examined by none other than Sir Bernard Spilsbury[2] and his findings complicate Hardcastle’s case. Is the first body that of Guy Stoner, or is it that of his business partner? And who was the young woman whose butchered remains shared the same ignominious burial place?

HQForced to play cherchez-la-femme, the detectives stumble down one blind alley after another, but as they do so they learn a few home truths about the fate of the young men who went to fight in the war-to-end-all-wars, and returned home to find that their birthplace was not the ‘land fit for heroes’ glibly promised by politicians. There is a peacetime army with no place for young officers whose courage was welcome in the trenches, but whose humble upbringing is now seen as an embarrassment as the cigars are lit, and the port passed in the correct direction at mess dinners. Such young men, not all heroes, but men nevertheless, are forced to find civilian employment which is neither honest, decent nor lawful.

Eventually, after an investigation which takes the detectives on many a trip into the provinces and away from their metropolitan stamping grounds, the case is solved, and there is work for the hangman to do, but not before an intervention by the Home Secretary.

GIGraham Ison is a master story-teller. The Hardcastle books contain no literary flourishes or stylistic tricks – just credible characters, excellent period detail and an engaging plot. Cosy? Perhaps, in the sense that we know how Hardcastle and his officers are going to react to any given situation, and their habits and small prejudices remain unchanged. Comfortable? Only because novels don’t always need to shock or challenge; neither do they always benefit from graphic descriptions of the damage humans can sometimes inflict on one another. Ison (right) credits his readers with having imaginations; he never gilded the lily of English life in the earlier Hardcastle cases which took place during The Great War, and he doesn’t start now, nearly a decade after the final shots were fired. The suffering and trauma of those four terrible years didn’t end at the eleventh hour on that eleventh day; they cast a long and sometimes baleful shadow which frames much of the action of this novel.

Hardcastle’s Quandary is a great read. As well as being a fascinating period police procedural, it is a gently reflective but sharply observant look at England in the 1920s. We sense that Hardcastle, deeply conservative and instinctively opposed to the steady advance of technology, has entered his autumn period. Colleagues like Marriott and Catto tolerate his idiosyncrasies and work around the fact that he sometimes appears to be a creature from a bygone age, preserved in his own block of amber. Hardcastle’s quandary? That is for the reader to judge, and it may only be resolved in the final pages. The novel is published by Severn House and is available here.

[1] Frederick Porter Wensley OBE KPM (28 March 1865 – 4 December 1949) was a British police officer from 1888 until 1929, reaching the rank of chief constable of the Scotland Yard Criminal Investigation Department. Serving in Whitechapel for part of his career, Wensley was involved in the investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders, details of which he would later publish in his memoirs in 1931.

[2] Sir Bernard Henry Spilsbury (16 May 1877 – 17 December 1947) was a British pathologist. His cases include Hawley Harvey Crippen and the “Brides in the Bath” murders by George Joseph Smith,. Spilsbury’s courtroom appearances became legendary for his demeanour of effortless dominance.

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A GENTLEMAN’S MURDER . . . Between the covers

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It is the autumn of 1924 and we are in London. London has always been – and will ever be – a city of contrasts but now, six years on from the Armistice that ended The Great War, the differences between the men who survived the conflict are marked. On the streets the less fortunate are selling matches, bootlaces, carrying placards asking for work, many of them reduced to displaying mutilated limbs, less as a badge of honour, more in a desperate attempt to provoke compassion and pity. Inside the Britannia Club, however, the members are known by their former military rank and it’s ‘Major’ this, ‘Lieutenant’ that and ‘Captain’ the other.

AGMEric Peterkin is one such and, although he carries his rank with pride, he is just a little different, and he is viewed with some disdain by certain fellow members and simply tolerated by others. Despite generations of military Peterkins looking down from their portraits in the club rooms, Eric is what is known, in the language of the time, a half-caste. His Chinese mother has bequeathed him more than enough of the characteristics of her race for the jibe, “I suppose you served in the Chinese Labour Corps?” to become commonplace.

Having served King and Country is a prerequisite for membership of the Britannia, so eyebrows are raised when Albert Benson appears as a new member. Benson, it transpires, was a conscientious objector but redeemed himself by service as a stretcher bearer until severe wounds sent him back to ‘Blighty’. When Benson is found dead in the club’s basement, with a paper knife projecting from his neck, Eric Peterkin is drawn into investigating his murder. All roads lead back to a Sussex military hospital where Benson – and several other of the club members – were treated during the war.

HuangChristopher Huang (right) was born and raised in Singapore where he served his two years of National Service as an Army Signaller. He moved to Canada where he studied Architecture at McGill University in Montreal. Huang currently lives in Montreal.. Judging by this, his debut novel, he also knows how to tell a story. He gives us a fascinating cast of gentleman club members, each of them worked into the narrative as a murder suspect. We have Mortimer Wolfe – “sleek, dapper and elegant, hair slicked down and gleaming like mahogany”, club President Edward Aldershott, “Tall, prematurely grey and with a habit of standing perfectly still …like a bespectacled stone lion,” and poor, haunted Patrick “Patch” Norris with his constant, desperate gaiety.

Huang writes in a style which is archaic in one sense, as he pays homage to the conventions and narrative style of books written nearly a century ago, but it is none the worse for that. He clearly has a huge empathy with the men and women who, while they may have survived the War physically more or less intact, they carry hidden scars and memories which we know, long after the event, were to stay with them until death. On more than one occasion, Huang strikes a particularly sonorous chord:

“Eric joined the sombre crowds at the Cenotaph on Whitehall for the service in remembrance of the War at eleven o’clock – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It began with two minutes of silence: one for the fallen and one for the survivors. After that would come wreaths and remembrances and men marching with grim salutes …boots on rain glossed pavements, artificial poppies blooming blood red on black lapels, tears in the eyes of men who never cried. But first, there were two minutes of silence. England held her breath.”

If you are a fan of the Golden Age, enjoy the challenge of a good locked room mystery and appreciate literate and thoughtful crime fiction, then A Gentleman’s Murder will not disappoint. It is published by Inkshares and will be available in paperback on 31st July.

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THE LONG SILENCE . . . Between the covers

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Tom Collins is a former cop. He has been persuaded by an American Irish compatriot to give up the blue uniform and night stick and move to Los Angeles where, in 1922, the burgeoning movie industry can use a guy who is handy with his fists and can be a reassuring and intimidating presence around stars besieged by reporters and other opportunists.

After a bright start working for the Famous Players-Lasky outfit, Collins has blotted his copybook and been sacked. He is now picking up scraps, albeit those dropped by the king of movie comedy, Mack Sennett. Sennett is not alone in his adoration of actress Mabel Normand, and when she is implicated in the sensational murder of top director William Desmond Taylor, he sets Collins the near-impossible task of solving Taylor’s shooting.

TLS coverThe most intriguing feature of this novel – and there are many – is the way O’Donovan drops us into the real life Hollywood of 1922. I knew something about the demise of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, was aware of Mack Sennett and, of course, the names Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford resonate with people of my generation who are reasonably well-read. But I had neither heard of – nor seen pictures of – Mabel Normand and, thanks to the wonders of Google, I could see instantly how she was able to mesmerise a generation of movie goers and readers of magazines. Those eyes! Tom Collins tells us about them quite early in the book.

“She was an odd-looking creature, with those huge, half-hooded eyes. Beautiful, no doubt about it, with that little-girl ringlety innocence so favored by the movie-going public. Once, at a party, he saw her light up a room with her laughter.”

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Collins is stranded in a Hollywood sea full of different kinds of sharks, but all of them deadly.The local cops figure him for the shooting of a Shorty Madden, a drug dealer who has been supplying cocaine, but they are minnows compared with the repulsive and vindictive Aloysius Divine, who was busted for corruption when serving with Collins back in New York. He blames Collins for his downfall, and has sworn vengeance. Now, Divine is in The City of Angels working as a customs officer; he smells blood, and it belongs to Collins. Even more vindictive and remorseless is mob boss Tony Cornero. His business has been seriously compromised by the death of Madden, and he wants either the actual killer’s head – or that of Collins – on a plate.

ODonovanThis is a cracker of a book. To the casual observer, looking on from the safe distance of the best part of a century, Hollywood in the 1920s appears innocent and other-worldly. We might smile at the fluttering eyelashes and coy gestures of the female stars, and the black-and-white (both figuratively and literally) lack of ambiguity of the male heroes and villains but in reality the movie world was just as venal, corrupt and hard nosed as it is today. Gerard O’Donovan (right) lifts the stone from the ground and we see all manner of unpleasant – and deadly – creatures scurrying around in the unwelcome light. The first pages of the book might suggest that Tom Collins has told us all that he has to say, but I hope this is not the case. The Long Silence is published by Severn House, is available now in hardback and will be available as a Kindle on 1 May.

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