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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 2: Norfolk and Boston

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“A little onward lend thy guiding hand” as Samson said in Milton’s interminable poem, and we are headed towards the Norfolk coast, where we will meet up with an engaging archaeologist who has a disturbing habit of discovering present day corpses, along with the bones of long-dead Bronze Age folk. Ruth Galloway is the creation of Domenica de Rosa, better known to readers as Elly Griffiths, and she is one of the most convincingly human of present day crime fiction heroines. Galloway is, of course, in a long line of amateur investigators and, like many of her predecessors, she needs a connection to the professional police force so that the stories remain plausible. In Galloway’s case, the connection is deeply personal, as her police contact is a King’s Lynn based detective who was once her lover. Harry Nelson (and there’s a proud Norfolk name) is the father of Galloway’s daughter Kate, yet he still lives more-or-less peaceably with his wife Michelle, and they too have children. The relationship between Galloway and Nelson is unusual, to say the least, but it provides an interesting counterpoint to the  discovery of bodies and the search for murderers.

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The crime fiction tropes which lead to bodies being discovered, thus setting in chain a murder investigation, are many and varied. A long standing favourite is the dog-walker, and then there is the cleaner who makes an unwelcome discovery when she enters a house. People on boats or perhaps fishing on river banks are pretty good for ‘floaters’, but archaeologists – whose very job involves digging – are better than most. Elly Griffiths makes excellent use of this device, but it never becomes trite, mainly because she is such a gifted writer.

A resident player in the Galloway-Griffiths Repertory Company is an ageing hippy called Cathbad. His real name is Michael Malone, and he frequently adds a touch of mysticism (real or imagined) to proceedings. To my shame, I always imagine him as Nigel Planer in The Young Ones, but that, perhaps, does him – and Elly Griffiths – a disservice.

Crime novels are not all about location, but having an affinity with landscape – and the ability to make it a character in the narrative – never hurts, and Elly Griffiths brings the North Norfolk Coast to life. I live not too far away, and cynical locals have re-christened the area ‘Chelsea-on-Sea’, due to the gentrification of villages, and the surge in properties being bought up as weekend retreats for wealthy people from the Home Counties. There remains, of course, a rougher local under-current, and this features in the most recent Ruth Galloway novel, The Nighthawks. Click the link to read my review, and keep an eye open for the next novel in the series, The Locked Room, which is due to be published in early 2022.

BostonThe next stage of our journey is to a town that doesn’t exist – at least on an Ordance Survey map. Writers have always created fictional towns based on real places – think Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge, Trollope’s Barchester, Arnold Bennett’s Bursley, Herriot’s Darrowby, and Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub – but remember that each was based on a real life place well known to the writer. Thus we drive along a road that skirts the windswept and muddy shores of The Wash until we arrive in Boston, Lincolnshire. It was here that the journalist and writer Colin Watson lived and worked for many years, and it was in Boston’s image that he created Flaxborough – the home and jurisdiction of Inspector Walter Purbright.

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Watson wrote an entertaining book about English crime fiction. He called it Snobbery With Violence (1971), and he was not particularly complimentary about several crime writers who contributed to what we call The Golden Age, but it shows that he was a man who read widely, and took his craft seriously. CWAny serious student of crime fiction should read it, but must bear in mind it was written by a man who became seriously disillusioned with writing and the world of publishing. The last book in the series was Whatever’s Been Going on at Mumblesby? which was published in 1982. Watson died in 1983, but had retired to the village of Folkingham, where he had taken up silver-smithing, and had remarked to a visiting journalist that writing was something of a mugs’ game, with too little reward for too much effort. His characters had, however briefly, been adapted for a four-episode TV series in the 1970s, with Anton Rodgers as Purbright and Christopher Timothy as Sergeant Love. For more about Colin Watson on the Fully Booked site, click the author’s image.

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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BEFORE SHE DISAPPEARED . . . Between the covers

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It was around this time last year when I reviewed Lisa Gardner’s When You See Me, and in January 2018 Look For Me came under the Fully Booked microscope. These both featured the ‘odd couple’ Flora Dane and DD Warren, but this January the New Hampshire author has produced a standalone thriller – Before She Disappeared.

BSD coverCentre stage is a woman called Frankie Elkins. She is middle-aged and a recovering alcoholic. Her purpose in life is to find missing people. People who have been taken. People who have just walked away into oblivion. People who the police have made an effort to find, but have given up. This mission may remind British readers of the David Raker books by Tim Weaver (click the link to read more), but Frankie is rather different in that she doesn’t work for a fee. She follows cases on internet message boards and then just ups sticks, and with all her belongings in a suitcase heads of to where the trail went cold. I have to say that this was, initially, a fairly improbable premise. Frankie seems to have no money, little other than the clothes she stands up in, so why would she do this? Stay with it, though, like I did, and there will be an explanation. She carries the burden of a terrible trauma, and Lisa Gardner teases us about its actual nature until quite late in the story, and when we learn what happened, the past has a terrible resonance with the present.

In Before She Disappeared, Frankie goes to Boston, but this isn’t the upper crust Boston of the Kennedy dynasty, Leonard Bernstein or Harvard. She heads for Mattapan, a hard-scrabble and tumbledown district home to thousands of Haitians and other refugees from strife, poverty and natural disasters. Her mission? To find out what happened to Angelique Badeau, The Haitian teenager had been living with her aunt, sent to America after an earthquake devastated her home. One day she set of for school as normal, and nothing has been seen or heard of her since.

As a white woman in Mattapan Frankie is something of a curiosity, but she takes a job in a bar and slowly makes friends. The downside is that as her probing into Angelique’s disappearance starts to uncover some dark secrets, she also makes some serious – and deadly – enemies.

Frankie gains the begrudging trust of a local cop, Detective Lotham, and the pair begin to generate a certain electricity between them. This is, of course, a very handy – but perfectly plausible – plot device,as it enable Frankie to have access to all kinds of information, such as CCTV footage which, as a civilian she would otherwise not have.

The problem for Frankie is that Angelique was almost too good to be true. Studious, punctual, respectful, no boyfriend interest and certainly no connection to the local gangs, there seems to neither rhyme nor reason behind her disappearance. Then, after a more thorough search of the Badeau’s apartment Frankie makes a shocking discovery. She finds a huge stash of cash hidden in the hollow base of a standard lamp. When most of these bills are found to be rather good forgeries, the case swerves in a totally different direction.

I had in the back of my mind the comment, “a typical American thriller.” This is in no way derogatory. In the best of these books there is a slickness, a tight control over the flow of events, a sense of darkness that gives an edge without being too disturbing, and a cinematic quality. Before She Disappeared certainly fits into this slot. It is taut, sharply original and very, very readable. It is published by Century/Penguin Random House and is out now.

Look For Me . . . Between the covers

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Boston Police Department dates back to 1893 and has employed many brave and distinguished real-life officers, but the Queen of fictional Boston cops is surely the redoubtable DD Warren. Author Lisa Gardner first introduced her in the 2005 novel Hide, which was later adapted as a Ted Turner made-for-TV movie of the same name. The episodes in Sergeant Warren’s career now run into double figures, and now she returns in Look For Me – aided and abetted by none other than Flora Dane, who featured in Find Her (2016). Flora is a victim turned avenger. Kidnapped and tortured for 472 days by the sadistic Jacob Ness, she emerged from the horror of her captivity and has now focused her energies on extracting violent revenge on men who abuse women.

Look For MeWe are taken to an autumnal Boston. Initially, Warren has nothing more on her mind than the consequences of giving in to the demands of her young son that they should adopt a dog. Her domestic reverie is rudely and violently interrupted when she is called to a house in the Brighton district of the city, where she is confronted by a scene of carnage. Householder Charlie Boyd is sitting on his sofa, as dead as a doornail. His girlfriend Juanita Baez is in the kitchen, shot as she was taking something from the cupboard. In the bedroom, even worse horrors await. Lola and Manny Baez, two of Juanita’s children, are clasped in a protective embrace, but just as dead as the adults.

Warren is faced with an immediate question. Where is Roxanne, Juanita’s elder daughter, and where are the elderly dogs which were a vital part of thr Baez family? The missing Roxanne has recently joined a social media group, founded by Flora Dane, which aims to provide solace, advice – and suggestions for pay-back – for female victims of male violence. Thus, Flora and DD are reunited in an uneasy alliance. Their task? To find the elusive Roxanne and determine if she is responsible for the gunning down of her immediate family.

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The story plays out with three narrators. Flora Dane speaks for herself, as does Roxanne, via a series of school essays on the subject of The Perfect Family. The actions of DD Warren and her colleagues on the BPD are reported in third-person observation. Lisa Gardner is nothing if not a consummate storyteller, and she paces out the action in classic funnel-fashion. Everything – action, timelines and discoveries – narrows down to the point when the killer is revealed.

As Warren and Dane pursue their parallel investigations, we become a fly-on-the-wall of a perfectly horrendous foster home, presided over by a grotesque woman whose only concern is to make sure that her outgoings – food, heat, lighting, clothes – are well below what the state of Massachusetts pays her to look after an ever-changing roll call of damaged children.

In the meantime, however, we have a masterclass in how to blend a police procedural with a domestic Noir thriller. The main characters – DD Warren and Flora Dane – are convincing and authentic. Above all, Lisa Gardner makes them enough to compel us to care about what they think and what happens to them. If, as a crime writer, you can do this, then the battle is won.

Lisa Gardner’s website is here

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