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KILLING IN YOUR NAME . . . Between the covers

In February this year – remember when everything was normal, and Covid-19 was just something nasty that was happening in China and Italy? – I reviewed Blood Will Be Born, the debut thriller by Belfast writer Gary Donnelly. I said it was:
“… breathtakingly violent, vividly written and a bleak commentary on a seemingly terminal bitterness which makes normal human beings behave like creatures from a warped vision of hell.”

The full review of that book is here, but in no time at all, it seems, comes the second episode in the career of Met Police detective Owen Sheen. He has been seconded to the historic crimes unit of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. If ever there were a British city where historic crimes still haunt the streets, it is Belfast. Sheen was born in Belfast, and watched his own brother being blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb as the two youngsters played football in the street. Donnelly says:

“Over the decades, so much blood had spattered the streets of Belfast, all now washed away, and forgotten by many. But there would always be those, the ones who had been left behind to count the cost, for which the stain and the pain would never really go.”

The (literally) explosive conclusion to the previous case has left Sheen sidelined and his PSNI partner Aoifa McCusker walking with a stick and suspended from duty after a stash of Class ‘A’ drugs were planted in her locker. Sheen is haunted by the discovery of a boy’s body, found in remote Monaghan bogland on the border with the Republic. The body has been partially preserved by the acidic water, but even a post mortem examination reveals few details.

Meanwhile, a spate of horrific killings has perplexed PSNI detectives. A priest has been decapitated in his own sacristy; the teenage daughter of a prominent barrister has been abducted and then killed; her body, minus one of its hands has been dumped at her father’s front door. The adult son of a former hellfire Protestant preacher and politician has been found dead – again, butchered.

Against the better judgment of senior officers, Sheen is allowed to ‘get the band back together’ and so a limping McCusker, and colleague George ‘Geordie’ Brown are joined by Hayley, a mysterious transgender person who calls herself an ‘instinctive’ because she has what used to be called a sixth sense about death or extreme violence.

As ever in Belfast, the answers to modern questions lie irremovably in the past and, almost too late, Sheen and his team discover that the killings are bound up with acts of scarcely credible evil that took place decades earlier. Revenge is certainly being served cold and, for someone, it tastes delicious.

Donnelly (below) has another winner on his hands here, and it is partly due to his superb sense of narrative, but also to his ability to create truly monstrous villains, and there is at least one in Killing In Your Name to rival anything his fellow Irishman John Connolly has created. Connolly’s creations tend to have a sulphurous whiff of the supernatural about them. Donnolly’s monsters are human, if in name only. Killing In Your Name is published by Allison & Busby and is out today, 20th August.

THE WHITE FEATHER KILLER . . . Between the covers

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TWFK coverI’m a great fan of historical crime fiction, particularly if it is set in the 19th or 20th centuries, but I will be the first to admit that most such novels tend not to veer towards what I call The Dark Side. Perhaps it’s the necessary wealth of period detail which gets in the way, and while some writers revel in the more lurid aspects of poverty, punishment and general mortality, the genre is usually a long way from noir. That’s absolutely fine. Many noir enthusiasts (noiristes, perhaps?) avoid historical crime in the same way that lovers of a good period yarn aren’t drawn to existential world of shadows cast by flickering neon signs on wet pavements. The latest novel from RN Morris, The White Feather Killer is an exception to my sweeping generalisation, as it is as uncomfortable and haunting a tale as I have read for some time.

If Morris were to have a specialised subject on Mastermind, it might well be London Crime In 1914, as the previous books in the DI Silas Quinn series, Summon Up The Blood (2012), Mannequin House (2013), Dark Palace (2014) and The Red Hand Of Fury (2018) are all set in that fateful year. Silas Quinn, like many of the best fictional coppers, is something of an oddball. While not completely misanthropic, he prefers his own company; his personal family life is tainted with tragedy; he favours the cerebral, evidence-based approach to solving crimes rather than the knuckle-duster world of forced confessions favoured by his Scotland Yard colleagues.

London – like the rest of Britain in the late summer of 1914 – is convulsed with a mixture of outrage, mad optimism and a sense of the old world being overturned. There is the glaring paradox of the first BEF casualties from Mons and Le Cateau being smuggled into the capital’s hospitals on bloodstained stretchers while, the length and breadth of the city, young men are jostling and queuing around the block in a testosterone fuelled display of patriotism, with their only anxiety being the worry that it will all be over before they can ‘do their bit’.

Morris takes his time before giving us a dead body, but his drama has some intriguing characters. We met Felix Simpkins, such a mother’s boy that, were he to be realised on the screen, we would have to resurrect Anthony Perkins for the job. His mother is not embalmed in the apple cellar, but an embittered and waspish German widow, a failed concert pianist, a failed wife, and a failed pretty much everything else except in the dubious skill of humiliating her hapless son. Central to the grim narrative is the Cardew family. Baptist Pastor Clement Cardew is the head of the family; his wife Esme knows her place, but his twin children Adam and Eve have a pivotal role in what unfolds. The trope of the hypocritical and venal clergyman is well-worn but still powerful; when we realise the depth of Cardew’s descent into darkness, it is truly chilling.

rogerHistorical novels come and go, and all too many are over-reliant on competent research and authentic period detail, but Morris (right) plays his ace with his brilliant and evocative use of language. Here, Quinn watches, bemused, as a company of army cyclists spin past him:

“The whole thing had the air of an outing. It did not seem like men preparing for war. The soldiers on their bicycles struck Quinn as unspeakably vulnerable. Their jauntiness as they sped along had a hollow ring to it, as if each man knew he was heading towards death but had sworn not to tell his fellows.”

Quinn has to pursue his enquiries in one of the quieter London suburbs, and makes this wry observation of the world of Mr Pooter – quaintly comic, but about to be shattered by events:

“Elsewhere, in the bigger, flashier houses, the rich and servanted classes might indulge in their racy pastimes and let their jealous passions run wild. Here the worst that could be imagined of one’s neighbours was the coveting of another man’s gardenias, or perhaps going hatless on a Sunday afternoon.”

The White Feather Killer is published by Severn House, and is available now. Let Morris have the last word, though, and he takes us back to that autumn when, after those heady weeks when everything seemed possible, innocence finally died.

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THE HOUSE … Between the covers

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Do houses have souls? Do they retain some of the psychological warmth – or chills – of the people who have lived there previously? When a young couple, against the run of play in terms of the asking price, find themselves proud owners of a higgledy-piggledy house, they can’t believe their luck The previous owner has struck lucky in the romance game, albeit late in life, and has hotfooted it to Australia to be with his love. He has left the house ‘as found’, and this includes paintings, random stuffed animals and a plethora of clutter. And the ‘soul’ of this house? Once rid of the examples of the taxidermists’ art, Jack and Syd begin to transform the house into something more reflective of their own moods and personalities.

the-house-book-review-Simon-Lelic-credit-Justine-StoddartThere is, however, that strange smell. A certain je ne sais quoi which will not go away, despite the couple’s best efforts. When Jack finally plucks up the courage to climb up into the roof space, he finds the physical source of the smell but unpleasant as that is, he also finds something which is much more disturbing. Simon Lelic (right) then has us walking on pins and needles as he unwraps a plot which involves obsession, child abuse, psychological torture and plain old-fashioned violence.

The novel does pose one or two challenges. The first is that we have two narrators, Syd and Jack. We see events retrospectively. At some point we learn that they have challenged each other to write up their personal version of what has happened. Inevitably, their stories are not identical. While this is part of the charm, we do have to ask ourselves the key questions,”do we trust Syd or do we trust Jack? Do we believe both – or neither?”

This leads to the second challenge, and it concerns our judgment about the personality of the two individuals. I can only tell it as I see it, and for what it’s worth, neither came over as being particularly likeable. I am sure that there are dozens – hundreds, maybe tens of thousands – of perfectly worthy people who work in and on the fringes of the social services, but in fiction – and the perception of some journalists – there exists a stereotype. He or she is mild mannered, anxious, keen to please and with a tendency to be naively trusting when dealing with people (I believe ‘clients’ is the preferred word) who are scrabbling around, for whatever reason, at the fringes of comfortable society. Jack certainly has all his ducks in a row here.

Syd, by contrast, is spiky enough to give the biggest Saguaro cactus a run for its money. Of course, Lelic doesn’t just shove her on stage and make her behave badly without giving us her backstory. It is a pretty grim narrative and, trying to avoid any spoilers, I have to say that it is fundamental to what happens in the book.

This is a genuinely disturbing psychological thriller, and we are kept guessing almost until the last page as we try to make sense of what has happened. Not all new novels live up to the entertaining and inventive hype which precedes their publication, but this one certainly does. The House, by Simon Lelic, is published by Penguin and is out now on Kindle, and will be available in paperback from 2nd November.

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