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British Crime Fiction

THE KILLING HABIT . . . Between the covers.

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Mark Billingham’s perpetually disgruntled and discomforted London copper DI Tom Thorne returns in The Killing Habit for another three way battle. Three way? Yes, of course, because Thorne and his resolute allies sit on their stools in one corner of the triangular boxing ring, while in the blue corner are his politically correct bosses. In the red corner, of course, are the various chancers, petty and not-so-petty crooks who challenge the law on a daily basis.

TKHThe Thorne novels have a recurring cast list. As Salvatore Albert Lombino, aka Ed McBain said, quoting a 1917 popular song, “Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here!” Indeed they are. Its members include Helen, Tom Thorne’s long suffering partner plus little boy Alfie, and the bizarrely tattooed and pierced Mancunian pathologist Phil Hendricks. We have Nicola Tanner the police officer scarred by the murder of her alcoholic partner, Susan, and the perpetually cautious DCI Russell Brigstocke. Between them, they pursue two killers; one who murders losers-in-the-Game-of-Life on the periphery of a drugs gang, and another who seems to be targeting lonely women via a match-making service.

It’s a staple of serial killer crime fiction that the bad guy starts out as a youngster by pulling wings off flies or torturing hamsters before graduating to ever darker deeds. Either that, or he is the victim of some terrible childhood trauma which poisons his view of humanity. I say ‘he’ and realise that I may be risking the wrath of the Equal Opportunities Police here, but I don’t recall reading a novel about female mass murderers. They may be out there. Numbered among their ranks may be homicidal Two Spirit Persons or Gender Fluid Otherkins. I do not know. If I have offended any potential killers by using the wrong pronoun, please accept my (almost) sincere apologies.

But I digress. Billingham puts Thorne on the trail of a serial killer – of cats. Why on earth? Two reasons. One is that nothing inflames the fury of Middle England like the killing of domestic animals. The debate that compares this crime with that of the murder of humans is for another day, but Billingham recognises that we are more likely to become incandescent over the death of a domestic pet than the death of a child. The second reason I have already suggested. If someone is waging a covert war on cats, is this just a prelude to something far, far worse? Indeed, it seems so. A succession of women meet their deaths at the hands of a killer who has hacked into the database of Made In Heaven, a low-rent match-making website.

Billingham gives us a parallel plot which eventually converges with the main story. A shadowy but powerful criminal organisation smuggles addictive synthetic drugs into British prisons. The recipients, grateful at the time, are eventually released into the wider world owing the gang an impossible amount of money, repayable only by becoming foot soldiers of the gang itself. An elderly woman, known only as “The Duchess” plays Postman Patricia in this deadly cycle of addiction and dependence and, when her role as amiable ‘auntie’ visiting prisoners is exposed, the connection between the drug scam and the dating killer is made.

As with every Mark Billingham novel, The Killing Habit is incisively written, impeccably authentic as a police procedural and, above all, totally human. No character walks onto the stage without their weaknesses and their frailties becoming exposed in the icy blue of the spotlight. We are not reading about cardboard cut-out people here: they are real, fallible and convincing. They may even be living a couple of doors down from you.

1430895baJust when you think that he has provided all the answers to the complex plot, and the characters are, to quote the only bit of Milton I can remember from ‘A’ Level, “calm of mind and all passion spent,” Billingham (right) provides a breathtaking epilogue which, in addition to turning my preconception on its head, (feel free to add your own metaphor) bites you on the bum, punches you in the gut, hits you over the head with a piece of four by two, takes the wind out of your sails and grabs you by the short-and-curlies. Hopefully recovering from this multiple assault, you will be hard pushed to disagree with me that this is a brilliant crime thriller written by a master storyteller at the very top of his game.

The Killing Habit is published by Litte, Brown and will be available on 14th June. For a review of the previous Tom Thorne novel, click the link to Love Like Blood.

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GETTING CARTER … Between the covers

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One of the many feelings I had after finishing Nick Triplow’s superb account of the life and writing of Ted Lewis was that it was all such a long time ago. The crucial decade from 1970 to 1980 just seems – and there is no other phrase that fits – like another country. A summary, then, for people who may not even have been born when Lewis was writing. Ted Lewis was born in 1940 in Manchester. After the war he and his parents moved to Barton on Humber, in North Lincolnshire. On leaving school, Lewis, a talented artist, traveled every day across the River Humber to art school in Hull. After graduating, Lewis found work further south with various advertising agencies, but his abiding passion was his writing. As well as enjoying a drink, however, Lewis was a serial womaniser. Lewis’s old Barton friend, Mike Shucksmith, recalls that the writer had a way with women.

“There was something about him that snapped their knicker elastic. I couldn’t see it, but whatever it was, he had it.”

Jacks_Return_HomeIn 1965, All the Way Home and All the Night Through was published. It is a thinly disguised autobiographical novel, but Lewis’s breakthrough came in 1970 with the publication of Jack’s Return Home. The title was, bizarrely, taken from a spoof melodrama acted out by Tony Hancock, Hattie Jacques, Sid James and Bill Kerr as an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour. The novel, however, has few laughs. It describes the revenge mission of a London-based enforcer, Jack Carter, as he returns to his northern home town to investigate the death of his brother. The novel was adapted and filmed as Get Carter, and the rest, as they say, is history. Fame – and money – did not sit comfortably on Lewis’s shoulders, however. A mixture of drink and personal demons led to the break-up of his marriage, and a solitary return to Barton to live with his widowed mother. He died there, of heart failure connected to his ruinous drinking, in 1982.

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Nick Triplow (above) examines Lewis’s other books, all concerned with the dark side of British criminal life, far far away from the cosy crime novels where long-suffering policemen chased cheerily crooked villains. One of the most controversial later novels was Billy Rags (1973) – the story of a convicted robber and his attempts to escape from prison. Many of the book’s key moments are, word for word, identical to a memoir written, from his prison cell, by the ‘celebrity criminal’ John McVicar. A final novel, GBH, published in 1980, tells the story of a doomed London gangster trying to escape vengeful rivals by moving to a windswept and isolated coastal village in Lincolnshire.

91Kh85WdIYLThe centrepiece of Triplow’s book is, quite rightly, concerned with the novel itself, and its journey from a brutally honest and ground-breaking novel through to a partial re-imagining as one of the finest crime films ever made. Of Jack Carter, Triplow stresses that, despite the iconic image created by Michael Caine and director Mike Hodges

“it’s important to place him in context as Lewis originally intended. An ultra-real small town enforcer, violent, sadistic, irretrievably flawed, shouldering the burden of guilt; one of us maybe, if we dare to think it, taken a wrong turn, corrupted and unflinching.”

It would take a reader with a heart of stone and devoid of empathy to finish this book with anything other than a sense of sadness. The heartbreak is, of course, in our wisdom after the event, in our knowing that for Lewis the 1970s – the Get Carter years – were the apogee of his personal success and realisation that his immense talent had been recognised and rewarded, both financially and in terms of reputation.

GBHAside from describing what must have been harrowing conversations with Lewis’s widow and children, Triplow employs both the depth and breadth of his knowledge of British crime fiction to convince us just how good Ted Lewis was. It is intriguing that Triplow, supported by no less an authority than the magisterial Derek Raymond, makes a fascinating case for GBH being the apotheosis of Lewis’s talent, despite the groundbreaking style and success of Jack’s Return Home. Getting Carter is a sober and sombre account of the life of a man whose talent both defined and destroyed him, and Triplow makes no attempt to sanitise his subject. Lewis was clearly a man of huge personal charm when not in the grip of drink, but from the early days of illegally bought pints of beer in the 1950s through to the grim years of decline and death, alcohol had him firmly by the throat.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in the evolution of British crime fiction should read Getting Carter and celebrate the brilliance of the man at the centre of the story. It would be salutary, however, to keep Shelley’s words in mind:

“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Getting Carter is published by No Exit Press and is on sale now.

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WHEN THE MUSIC’S OVER – Between The Covers

BanksThe van skids to a halt on the lonely hill top lane. Occasional distant lights from isolated farms and cottages are all that pierce the darkness. The young men inside the van giggle as they open the rear doors and throw the girl from the dirty mattress on which she has been sprawled. She hits the roadside with a body-jarring crunch.

Thus begins the 23rd episode in the career of Yorkshire copper, Alan Banks, who we first met in 1987, when he had moved from London to the Yorkshire Dales to work in the market town of Eastvale. Banks is now Detective Superintendent, but what long-time readers of the series might call The Eastvale Repertory Company are pretty much all present and correct, in the shape of fellow cops Annie Cabbot, Winsome Jackson and Ken Blackstone. We even have a guest appearance from one of Banks’s less wholesome colleagues, Richard “Dirty Dick” Burgess, who is now working for the National Crime Agency, the closest thing to the FBI within the UK.

The unfortunate girl we meet in the first few pages does not take the stage again, unless we include her appearance on the mortuary slab. She has been found by a shocked cyclist, the morning after her ride in the van ended so abruptly. She is stark naked, and has died from a severe beating. Whatever took place on Bradham Lane is not the most pressing concern for Alan Banks, however. He is called to a high level conference and brought into what will become an investigation into the life and crimes of Danny Caxton, a much loved and respected entertainer and performer on stage and TV. Caxton, like his real life counterparts Savile and Harris, was ever-present in living rooms and lounges of ordinary people up and down the land, for decades. Now in his eighties, he has been accused of historic sex crimes.

While Banks must focus on the Caxton case, by his new seniority he must also oversee the investigation into the murder of the girl on Bradham Lane. Annie Cabbot is doing most of the legwork on this, and with the help of Detective Constable Geraldine Masterson, she discovers that the dead girl is Mimosa ‘Mimsy’ Moffat. Mimsy was 15, knocking-on 25, sexually attractive and experienced, and with a home life so bad that neither ‘home’ nor ‘life’ seem to be the right words. Cabbot and Masterson begin to explore the connection between Mimsy and the Pakistani Briton who runs a kebab shop on the edge of a nearby run-down estate.

By this time, we have met Danny Claxton in his Ponderosa-style home, and a thoroughly reptilian character he seems to be – a far cry from the smiling, handsome and genial TV presence of his younger days. Banks’s chief witness – and accuser – is Linda Palmer. She is now a widow in middle age, but has become a respected and well published poet. Her accusation about Caxton dates back to what should have been a happy family holiday in Blackpool in the 1960s.

As the two cases run their parallel courses, I found the investigation into Mimsy Moffat’s death the more compelling. Robinson takes an unflinching look at the issue of vulnerable white girls being groomed and abused by men of Pakistani origin. He exposes the extremes of views held by all those involved, from the men themselves, the girls and their relatives and – most tellingly – those in positions of power, such as the police and social workers. Banks himself, probably due to his management responsibilities, keeps his own anger in check, but Robinson allows Annie Cabbot to voice her violent disgust – a feeling which I infer is shared by the author.

The book is only a whodunnit for a short period of time, as there are enough clues for CriFi buffs to work out who murdered Mimsy. Robinson’s broader message seems to be a variant on Who Killed Cock Robin? For the fly, the fish, the beetle and the owl we could probably substitute:

‘”I,” said the policeman, “with my fear of being called racist.”‘
‘” I,” said the social worker, “with my political correctness.”‘
‘”I,” said the kebab shop owner, “with my attitude towards women.”‘
‘”I,” said the mother, “with my drug addiction and neglect.”‘

There is closure, of a kind, in both cases, but Robinson, in his epilogue, offers us nothing resembling a happy ending. This book is, at its core, a brilliant police procedural. Crime fiction fans are no strangers to the police interview room, but Robinson not only uses the staple ingredient very cleverly, he gives it a lick of fresh paint, a new carpet – and maybe even a nice vase of flowers on the table. My only irritation was – as always with Banks – that we learn far more than we ever need to know about his tastes in music, but an irritation is all it was, and it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this excellent book.

When The Music’s Over is on Amazon, as well as in all decent book shops, and you can find out more about Alan Banks and his creator by visiting Peter Robinson’s website.

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