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DANGEROUS DECEITS . . . Between the covers

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dd covrYou might guess that a crime novel featuring an amateur detective called Gawaine St Clair is not going to take you down many mean streets; furthermore, were one to Frenchify its chromatic tint, then it would probably be nearer beige than noir. This being said, if you are a Golden Age fan, like dry humour, enjoy a clue-laden whodunnit and are never happier than when luxuriating in the follies and foibles of the English middle classes, then Cherith Baldry’s Dangerous Deceits will be a joy.

Gawaine St Clair seems to be a man of independent means, not unlike his aristocratic predecessor Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, and his affluence enables him to take up criminal investigations without having to make excuses to an employer for his absence from the workplace. In this case he is called upon by his aunt Christobel to solve the mysterious death of a vicar. Father Tom Coates disappeared into his vestry moments before the beginning of a service, and was not seen again until he was found some time later, all life extinct due to a fatal blow to his head with the time-honoured blunt object.

It needs to be said at this point that the novel is very, very ‘churchy’. I use the term to describe a way of life centred around the Anglican church, with attendant church wardens, vergers, flower ladies, Parochial Church Councils, the occasional Bishop, and heated disputes over liturgical practices. Anthony Trollope de nos jours? Possibly, but as an Anglican, albeit rather lapsed, I share Cherith Baldry’s obvious love of the sonorous prose of The Book of Common Prayer – the proper 1662 version, not some squeaky clean modern adaptation designed to appeal to ‘the younger generation’. She uses suitably resonant quotes as her chapter headings, none more appropriately than:

“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live.”

St Clair is faced with a whole repertory company of likely suspects, all – or none – of whom may have had their reasons to bash Father Tom’s head in. In no particular order, we have a choleric prep school Headmaster straight out of Decline and Fall, a woman denied communion because of her marital woes, a glib local solicitor, the dead man’s brother and sister, with whom he owned valuable shares in a family business, and a dowdy local GP with a beautiful and sophisticated wife.

cbGawaine may be too arch and precious for some tastes but he fits perfectly into the Home Counties landscape with its manicured village greens and faux Tudor dwellings. I thoroughly enjoyed Dangerous Deceits and Father Tom’s killer is unmasked not amid the dusty shelves of a country house library, but in the altogether more fractious atmosphere of an extraordinary (in the procedural sense) meeting of the Ellingwood PCC. The solution, as in many a whodunnit, rests with everyone – including Gawaine, the local coppers and, in this particular case, me – making a seemingly obvious assumption early in the piece.

Cherith Baldry (right) is an acclaimed writer of children’s fiction and fantasy novels. The first in her Gawaine St Clair series was Brutal Terminations, which came out in February 2018. Dangerous Deceits is available now and is published by Matador.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . And how!

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Robert_Goddard_author_photographI became a firm fan of Robert Goddard (left) after reading and reviewing his excellent Maxted trilogy, set in the turbulent days after The Great War. The best novelists are, in a way, both gamblers and alchemists. They are never afraid to try something different, to alter the formula, to ‘go for it’ with a fresh set of characters or, in extreme cases like Graham Hurley’s Joe Faraday, kill off the golden goose and incubate a new brood. Due out on 22 March, Goddard’s Panic Room draws us away from the post-Versailles world of James Maxted, and positions us firmly in the modern era. Part political thriller, part psychological drama and part social nightmare, Panic Room deals with the trauma of a young woman escaping those who would do her harm. She takes refuge in a huge empty villa, perched on a wind-buffeted Cornish cliff top. It is vast, and its array of unexplored rooms contains that most modern of social constructs – a panic room. Can Blake find it, and will it be secure enough to save her life?

ParkerRobert Parker is one of CriFi’s ‘bright young things’. His debut novel, A Wanted Man was published in 2017, but hard on the heels of that tale of a released prisoner seeking revenge on his enemies in the violent criminal hinterland of Manchester, he returns with Crook’s Hollow. Who knew that there was a CriFi genre called Country Noir? Not me, but the ‘Country’ in this case is not pedal steel guitars, yee-haw, banjos and frilled shirts, but the rough and ready hardscrabble rural landscape of north west England. The isolated village of Crook’s Hollow is not Ambridge, and readers hoping for an everyday tale of country folk should look away now. The Loxley family, with their extensive farms, have exerted an almost feudal influence over the valley for generations. But now their hegemony is being challenged by rapacious property developers, hired muscle and – above all – another local family whose grudges go back a century or more, and will only be expiated in blood. Crook’s Hollow is out at the end of March.

McDermid-Val-author-photo_credit-Alan-McCredie-crop-318x318Some modern writers are so popular, so much read and so far down the road to becoming national treasures, that it almost seems like an affront to their status for (adopting Uriah Heep-like crouch and wringing hands) ‘umble reviewers to voice an opinion. Kirkcaldy’s First lady, Val McDermid, (left) is one such daunting figure. I have never had the pleasure of meeting Ms M, but she comes over on social media as being good- natured, endlessly patient and courteous to a fault. It goes without saying that she is a bloody fine writer and there can be few modern CriFi partnerships to match that of DCI Carol Jordan and Tony Hill. Now, heaven be praised, they return in paperback. Insidious Intent came out in Kindle and hardcover in summer 2017, but if you can hang on until the last week in February, you can get your paws on a paperback edition. Carol and Tony have to solve a macabre mystery; what is the true story behind the burned body found in a torched car on a remote country road?

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PURGED … Between the covers

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peter-lawsOrdained Baptist minister Peter Laws (right) has produced a 110mph debut crime thriller featuring Matt Hunter, a former clergyman and now devout sceptic who, like most fictional crime consultants, has special skills which make him invaluable to the police in murder cases. I don’t know if Laws has himself gone down the same Road to Damascus In Reverse as his fictional character, but the depth and bitterness of Hunter’s scepticism about God and all His works certainly makes for compelling reading.

Hunter is in a seemingly idyllic Oxfordshire village with his family, taking a sabbatical while his architect wife prepares to put in her bid for the contract to build an extension to Hobbs Hill church. If you are expecting a saintly country vicar with kindly eyes and a dwindling congregation, you will be in for a rude awakening. This church has become home to a congregation of over three hundred, and is led by a charismatic minister who goes in for full-immersion Baptism and the kind of wild call-and-response services which seem to be de rigeur in ‘new’ churches.

purged-coverFirst, an anorexic teenage girl goes missing, and then a lesbian artist who is in the terminal throes of stomach cancer disappears. Matt Hunter is sucked into the investigation via the simple ruse that photos of the missing women turn up as attachments in his email box. They stay there for a few hours but then mysteriously morph into pictures of a rainbow accompanied by a smiley face GIF.

The slightly manic minister of the Hobbs Hill church is no stranger to Matt Hunter. He and Chris Kelly studied together at bible college, where Kelly was an awkward and  unpopular student due to his fervent proselytising and strange behaviour. Hunter tries his best to be diplomatic with the over-intense church folk, if only to help his wife get the design commission, but when the isolated cottage where his family are staying becomes the target of sinister visitors, he senses that there is something malign lurking beneath the joyous born-again aura of Kelly and his congregation.

Peter Laws captures the essence of New Age Christian church groups in all their arm-waving, eyeball-rolling, tongues-speaking exuberance. We have the obligatory performance stage, complete with sound-system and live rock group, and every single man woman and child in the congregation has a steely determination to play The Ancient Mariner and grasp innocent visitors by the arm to save their souls from eternal damnation.

The concept of a small community gripped by a pervasive religious cult is not new. We have been there many times, and our tour guides have included Stephen King, John Connolly, Phil Rickman and John Wyndham. Laws grabs the cliché with great enthusiasm, and manages to conjure up menace from ostensibly benign surroundings. He also spins the tale cleverly so that we are persuaded to look in completely the wrong direction for the culprit, and he keeps us blind-sided until the last few pages of the book.

The only blot on the landscape for me was a literal one: the powerful and noisy waterfall, Coopers Force, which is central to events in the story, seemed out of place in the gentle hills and meandering streams of Oxfordshire. I could picture the feature in The Lakes, Scotland, Snowdonia, or the Pennines, but such an elemental force of nature didn’t seem to belong in the golden Cotswolds. That aside, I found Purged to be exciting, convincing and well written. Best of all, it has that one essential feature of all good novels – the reader actually cares what happens to the main actors in the drama.

Purged is published by Alison & Busby, and will be available on 16th February. You can pre-order a copy here.

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