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David C Taylor

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best historical crime

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I have always been a fan of historical fiction and, more recently, crime fiction set ‘back in the day’. Sadly, there are those writers whose thirst for period accuracy produces lavish costume drama at the expense of a decent plot and good storytelling. Happily, the five books on my 2019 shortlist don’t fall into that trap – take a look, and if you haven’t read them yet, do so – you won’t be disappointed.

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 19.34.11The Familiars by Stacey Halls was one of the publishing successes of 2019, and rightly so. The evocative visual presentation was matched by superb writing and the conviction of a natural storyteller. The story is not a conventional crime mystery, but involves suspicion, injustice, intrigue, political chicanery and personal bravery. We are in rural Lancashire in the early years of the seventeenth century and young Fleetwood Shuttleworth has been married off to a wealthy landowner. Far away in London, King James is obsessed with a fear of witches and daemons, and those anxious to please His Majesty are falling over themselves to demonstrate their loyalty. Fleetwood’s new home, Gawthorpe Hall, sits under the looming Pendle Hill, and all around the district, harmless old women – and some not so old – are being rounded up as witches. Fleetwood is under pressure from husband Richard to provide a male heir and when, after several miscarriages, she seeks the help of a young peasant midwife, Alice Gray, her actions put her in direct conflict with the King’s men.

thg-coverChris Nickson’s historical novels may be narrow in geographical scope – they are mostly set in Leeds across the centuries – but they are magnificent in their emotional, political and social breadth. In The Hocus Girl, we meet Simon Westow who earns his living as a thieftaker. In America they still have them, after a fashion, but they call them bail skip tracers, or bounty hunters. Leeds in the 1820s had no police force except inept and frequently infirm Parish Constables, and so thieftakers pursued criminals on commission from victims of crime. Westow has a formidable ally in the shape of a teenage girl called Jane. Sexually abused as a youngster, she is ruthless and streetwise, and God help the man who mistakes her for a waif. Westow and Jane have a different kind of fight on their hands here, as they try to prevent a campaigner for social justice being sent to the gallows by political conspirators.

tsm-coverSW Perry has written an excellent thriller about religious extremism, media manipulation and political treachery. The fact that The Serpent’s Mark is set in Elizabethan London rather than 2019 can only make the reader wonder at how little things have changed. Nicholas Shelby is a physician who, despite his relative youth, has served on the battlefields of Europe and has emerged from a debilitating period of alcoholism caused by the tragic death of his wife and child. With many a real life character – including Robert Cecil and John Evelyn – making an appearance, Shelby becomes involved in a desperate affair which seeks to supplant Queen Elizabeth herself with a hitherto unknown child of Mary Tudor – and return the land of Gloriana to the old faith, Roman Catholicism.

night-watch-coverFor all that the era was in my lifetime, the 1950s may just as well be the 1650s given the gulf between then and the modern world. In Nightwatch David C Taylor takes us back to New York in 1954, and we follow a convincingly tough and hard-nosed NYPD cop, Michael Cassidy, who becomes involved in a case which is way, way above his relatively humble pay grade. There were many former Nazis who escaped Nuremburg and had vanished into the ether by 1954 and although many of them were undoubtedly bastards, the sinister folk in American intelligence agencies gave them a lifeline by making sure that they became their bastards. Awkwardly for the CIA, there were also survivors of Hitler’s death camps who had made their way to America, and although they may have been scratching a relatively meagre living, they still had access to information and a burning desire for revenge. Cassidy battles both the indifference of his bosses and the unwanted attention of some very powerful people as he tries to solve a series of murders and make his streets a little less mean.

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Click the text image above to link to my review of The Mathematical Bridge.

NIGHT WATCH . . . Between the covers

 

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David C Taylor,
the author of Night Watch, has been around the block. He says that he and his brother:
“..were free-range children in New York who early on discovered the joys of Times Square, the games arcades, the pool halls, and the jazz clubs.”

Despite this, Taylor went on to graduate from Yale. After volunteering with The Peace Corps he scratched out a living teaching and writing short stories, but eventually had to bite the commercial bullet and had a successful career as a film and TV screenwriter in Los Angeles. He introduced us to the tough 1950s New York cop Michael Cassidy in Night Life (2015) and followed it with Night Work (2017). Cassidy returns now, in Night Watch. He has an unusual background for a New York cop. His father, a refugee from Eastern Europe, is a successful Broadway producer. His godfather is Frank Costello, a Mafia boss.

Night Watch coverCassidy is an ex-serviceman, and in Night Watch he becomes involved in an issue which is way, way above his pay-grade. The initial reaction of the USA to former Nazis in the months immediately following May 1945 was simple – Hang ‘Em High. But as the government realised that highly trained German scientists and engineers were being harvested by the new enemy – Soviet Russia – the bar was significantly lowered, with the philosophy that these men and women might be bastards, but at least they’re our bastards.

One of Cassidy’s buddies sums up the dilemma perfectly:

“We fight them for years,. We’re told that they’re the worst of the worst, the end of civilisation and freedom if they win, and when it’s all over, the same guys who’ve been telling that stuff start bringing them over here to work for us.”

A concentration camp survivor, ostensibly just an old guy driving tourists around Central Park in his horse cab, but secretly hunting down those who imprisoned him and killed his family, is found dead with strange puncture wounds in his neck. A businessman dives through the high window of his hotel – without bothering to open it first – and no-one saw anything. Not the concierge, and especially not the dead man’s co-workers, who were in an adjacent room. Two deaths. Two cases which Cassidy’s boss wants put to bed as quickly as possible. Two lives snuffed out, and Cassidy senses a connection. A connection leading to money, national security, powerful people – and big, big trouble for a humble NYPD cop.

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Not only does Cassidy face a shitstorm of fury from major league conspirators, he has a more personal problem. Someone, maybe a vengeful con, or someone with a huge grudge, is out to kill him. The killer plays with him by trying to push him in front of a subway train, and then reshaping the woodwork of his front door with slugs from a sniper rifle. With a narrative conjuring trick half way through the book, Taylor merges the two threats to Cassidy, and from that point on we must fasten our seat belts for a very fast and bumpy ride.

Like many people, I only know New York in the 1950s from novels and movies. I don’t know for certain David C Taylor’s age and I suspect his 1954 New York would have been viewed through the eyes of a youngster, but, my goodness, what a vivid scene he sets, and what a gritty backdrop he paints for the deeds – and misdeeds – of Michael Cassidy. Who knows if this description is accurate, but more importantly it works like a dream, so who cares?

(The diner) “ …was a Buck Rogers dream of curved aluminium, big slanted windows, Formica-topped tables in weird shapes, and waitresses in high-waisted slacks, ruffled white shirts with black bowties, and funny little hats that looked like fezzes. To pay for all that the joint charged an exorbitant buck twenty-five for a plate of ham and eggs, toast and potatoes, but they threw in the coffee for free.”

There are one or two significant name drops which help boost authenticity, amongst them a guest appearance by the sinister head of the CIA, Allen Dulles. Cassidy himself doesn’t do wisecracks, but there is plenty of snappy dialogue and verbal slaps in the face to keep us awake. This, after a post mortem:

“ ‘And a couple of other things make him interesting ….’
‘Okay. What?’
‘He had his underpants on backward.’
‘Sure. Why not? What else?’
‘I found someone’s fingertip in his stomach.’ ”

Taylor joins an elite bunch of writers whose novels are set in those turbulent post-war years of urban America. Jim Thompson, Ed McBain, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Micky Spillane – there are some big, big names there, but Taylor (below) doesn’t disgrace himself in their company. Cassidy is believable, flawed, but honest and with that elusive moral imperative that he shares with the better-known heroes in the genre. He has limited means, but he’ll be damned if he allows himself to be trampled on.

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Night Watch is available in all formats and is published by Severn House.

David C Taylor has his own website, and you can find him on Twitter at @DTNewYorkNoir

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