Eliot Pattison

THE KING’S BEAST . . . Between the covers



The King’s Beast is the sixth novel in Eliot Pattison’s series featuring the Scottish exile Duncan McCallum, and his adventures in America before the Revolution. The story begins in 1769, just a few years before the start of the actual conflict which saw Americans shaking off what they saw as the dead hand of British colonialism. However, as Pattison points out in his preface, and as readers of the earlier novels will know, the events of 18th April 1775, and subsequent battles, were the culmination of years of political intrigue and discontent.

TKB coverSo who is Duncan McCallum? Like many of his countrymen, he fled his homeland to escape the brutal recriminations following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746. His father and brothers were not so fortunate. McCallum has nightmares about his kin swinging from an English gibbet, food for crows and ravens. McCallum is a trained physician, but open-minded enough to know that the natural remedies used by the Native Americans he meets can be extremely potent.

Earlier novels in the series have seen McCallum all over the parts of America which had been colonised – Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia – but now he is in Kentucky, overseeing the excavation of fossils, on the instructions of none other than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin – writer, polymath, journalist, scientist and political activist – has been in London since 1757, lobbying on behalf of Pennsylvania, and is anxious to have the fossils – relics of prehistoric mastodons.

The fossils, known at the time as American Incognitum, are not just historical artifacts but, with tensions rising between various political factions on both sides of the Atlantic, they become chips in an increasingly deadly game. By the time McCallum sets sail for London on the Galileo, blood has been shed, and brave men lie buried.

As McCallum and his friends try to avoid the malign intentions of British soldiers and get the fossils to Franklin, they are sidetracked by efforts to secure the release of McCallum’s mentor, a native American called Conawago, who has been incarcerated in the notorious Bethlehem Hospital – Bedlam. The hospital’s evil reputation is well-earned:

“…noxious smells wafted through the hall. The stench of excrement and urine mingled with those of soap, vinegar and strong black tea. Men in matching brown waistcoats and britches, apparently staff, were emerging from chambers at the back of the main gallery, shepherding patients out of a dining chamber and opening windows, which created new currents of air that seemed to just circulate the same foul odours.”

McCallum finally contacts Franklin, and realises that the American is viewed with some ambiguity by the British establishment. On the one hand his political activism makes him a figure of suspicion, while his learning and scientific mind link him to the most powerful man in the land – King George III. The King respects learning and research, but is surrounded by advisors who do not share his enthusiasm.

I am always slightly wary of historical fiction where some of the characters have remarkably modern attitudes to diversity and cultural tolerance, but McCallum is not a member of the ‘woke’ fraternity transported back two and a half centuries – he is decent, just, honorable, and a convincing man of his time. Pattison’s scholarship is immense, and his grasp of historical detail is formidable. This is to be expected from an international lawyer, perhaps, but this is a historian who can also tell a good tale. Readers will look long and hard before they find another writer who can teach us about a particular period, with all its social and political complexities, while at the same time entertaining and enthralling us. The King’s Beast is published by Counterpoint and is out today, 7th April.

For more about Eliot Pattison, click on the image below.

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BONES OF THE EARTH . . . Between the covers

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Inspector Shan Tao Yun is a Chinese policeman whose honesty and integrity has discomforted the faceless members of whatever dreadful committee deals with public employees who don’t toe the line. Considered too valuable to be dispatched with a 9mm Parabellum round, he is exiled to the wilds of Tibet to be the constable for the settlement of Yangkar. As an extra insurance, his son is arrested and kept in a prison camp; if Shan’s independent streak becomes too troublesome, then his son will simply become collateral damage.

BOTEIn Bones Of The Earth (the tenth and final book in the series) Shan becomes involved in a complex murder mystery involving a massive civil engineering project and a dead American.archaeology student, whose father has come to Tibet to investigate if his daughter’s death was, as the authorities declare, an unfortunate accident or something more sinister. As ever in the series, Shan’s complex relationship with Colonel Tan, the governor of Lhadrung county, is central to the narrative. Tan is as brutal and ruthless as his party masters need him to be, but there is a tiny spark of something – perhaps not integrity, but something close – which enables him to do business with Shan.

The sheer intensity of the detail Pattison adds to the narrative is astonishing, particularly when he is describing the humdrum world of Yangkar. As eavesdroppers, flies on the wall or what you will, it seems a grey kind of place; the ubiquitous breeze block is everywhere, naked light bulbs swing from the ceilings and even the food – rice, noodles, vegetables, dumplings – is functional and plain. Yangkar is, of course, dwarfed by the sheer immensity of the mountain peaks and snow fields. When colour emerges it is not chromatic in a visual sense, but in the indomitable spirituality and humanity of the Tibetans themselves. Try as they might, the Chinese rarely come close to understanding or even identifying the primal bond the people of Tibet have with their religion. It is a bond partly forged in fear, but also made of a oneness with the caves, the rocks and the wild peaks where the gods – and devils – dwell.

Pattison_EliotI doubt that Pattison (right) is on the diplomatic Christmas Card list of President Xi Jinping and, were the author to fly into Lhasa, he is unlikely to be greeted with open arms. His disdain for the charmless and monolithic mindset of The People’s Republic is obvious, but Inspector Shan has to stay alive and keep himself on the outside of the Re-education Camps. Shan reminds me of another great fictional detective who has to do business with monsters: the late Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther sits down with minsters such as Goebbels and Heydrich; he will even smoke a cigar with them and accept a snifter of Schnapps while, metaphorically, holding his nose. Such is Shan’s relationship with his Chinese masters. He is a realist. If he says the wrong thing he (or his imprisoned son) is dead. Raymond Chandler’s immortal words fit the Inspector very well:

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. “

Bones Of The Earth is published by Minotaur Books and is available now.

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ON MY SHELF . . . March 2019


SPRING IN THE EAST OF ENGLAND has been played rather a nasty trick by the weather Gods. February fooled us with its sunshine, gentle breezes and benign temperatures. March is taking its revenge. Blossom, daffodils and narcissi are nodding gamely but only just about holding their own in the teeth of savage winds. Still, indoors is relatively calm, and with a stack of excellent new books to ponder, I think I will make it through to May. Our four authors are all on Twitter, so just click on the little birdy to see what they are all up to.



square-twitterThis sounds as if it could be one of those bawdy recollections of a Victorian courtesan which passed for erotic literature in pre – 50 Shades days. It is, I am glad to say, nothing of the kind. It is, instead, a literary whodunnit set in early 19th century England. Then, as now, the media love an exotic criminal, no matter what crimes they may have committed. The chattering classes in the London of 1826 are, in turn, horrified and luridly curious about the defendant in a murder trial. The accused is a young woman, brought up on a slave plantation in her native Jamaica, and now she stands in the dock of the Old Bailey, charged with the murder of her employers, Mr and Mrs Benham. The indictment is sensational:

“FRANCES LANGTON, also known as Dusky Fran or Ebony Fran, is indicted for the wilful murder of GEORGE BENHAM and MARGUERITE BENHAM in that she on the 27th day of January in the year of Our Lord 1826 did feloniously and with malice aforethought assault GEORGE BENHAM and MARGUERITE BENHAM, subjects of our lord the King, in tat she did strike and stab them until they were dead, both about the upper and middle chest, their bodies having been discovered by EUSTACIA LINUX, housekeeper of Montfort Street, London.”

Frannie Langton tells her story courtesy of Sara Collins who, after a successful career as a lawyer, took a Masters degree in creative writing at Cambridge. This, her debut novel, is published by Viking/Penguin and will be available on 4th April.

THE LONELY HOUR by Christopher Fowler

square-twitterI have never written anything more eye-catching or erudite than these book reviews, so I don’t really know what real authors use (apart from sales figures) as ‘performance indicators’ for success. I use the speech marks to show that I would never normally use such examples of Management Speak, so it’s irony, OK? I imagine, though, that when you have created a central character, or in this case a duo, that is is so recognisable that it gets a bigger font than both the book title and the author’s name on the dust jacket, then maybe you have made it. Christopher Fowler’s ageless pair of investigators are, in the nicest possible way, an in-joke before the first page is turned. Fowler is second to none in his ability to use obscure British brand names as he puns and funs his way through what are the most irresistibly English novels of our time, and his two constabulary codgers are, for younger readers, named after a brand of British matches which were first sold in the mid nineteenth century. Their latest adventure begins, as ever, in London, with a mysterious death which may be connected to black magic. The book blurb promises “murder, arson, kidnap, blackmail ….. and bats.” Expect brilliant use of language, an eccentric and bewildering plot with a breathtaking resolution  – and many a good joke. The Lonely Hour is out on 21st March and is published by Doubleday. The more perceptive among you might infer that I am a fan of Christopher Fowler. To find out more about his books, click on the gentleman’s image below, and all will be revealed.


BONES OF THE EARTH by Eliot Pattison

square-twitterEliot Pattison is an American writer who has written a superb series of novels, of which this the tenth, featuring a Chinese detective, Inspector Shan Tao Yun, who has upset the Communist regime by his honesty and single minded integrity. Managing to escape a state firing squad he has, instead, been exiled to the wilds of Tibet where, or so his masters believe, he can do no harm. The Inspector is forced to witness the execution of a Tibetan for corruption, but he can’t shake the suspicion that he has instead witnessed a murder arranged by conspiring officials. As ever, Shan chooses the hard road, and his investigations bring him into contact with the vengeful father of a murdered American archaeologist who is determined to find justice for his dead son. Shan becomes slap dab in the middle of a deathly struggle between the mystical world of Tibetan gods and the implacable bureacrats back in Beijing. Bones Of The Earth is out on 26th March, and is published by Minotaur Books. I’ve reviewed and recommended earlier novels by Eliot Pattison, so click the image below to find out more.


NO ONE HOME by Tim Weaver

square-twitterIt seems like only the other day that Tim Weaver introduced us to his investigator David Raker, yet No One Home is the tenth novel in the series. Raker has, you might say, a niche talent. He finds missing people. People in whom the police have lost interest, with just their distraught wife, husband, son or daughter left to care. Raker pursues his missing folk to some of the most far-flung parts of the world, but here, the mystery begins close to home. In a baffling disappearance to rival the unsolved mystery of the Marie Celeste, Raker isn’t just chasing one elusive subject – he’s after an entire community. The nine members of a tiny hamlet sit down to eat, drink and have fun on All Hallows Eve. When the grey dawn comes, they are gone. Every single one of them. Is Raker about to unravel a breathtaking conspiracy, or will he just have to settle for corpses? You will have to be patient to read how David Raker tackles this latest challenge, as Michael Joseph will be publishing the book on 16th May. Meanwhile click on the picture below to find out a little more about how Mr R operates.




SAVAGE LIBERTY . . . Between the covers

Early map of Colonial America.

We are in pre-revolutionary America, Massachusetts to be precise, and it is 1768. Five years earlier, the Seven Years War between Great Britain and France had ended with The Treaty of Paris, and much of France’s former possessions in North America now lay in British hands. Despite the ending of formal hostilities, the French are still meddling in the affairs of the colony, and their mischief-making further stirs a political situation which is, day by day, becoming more unsettled. The citizens of Massachusetts are becoming more dissatisfied with rule from London and with King George’s redcoats are an ever-more ominous presence.

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It is against this restless background that we meet Duncan McCallum, an exiled Scotsman with medical training who is bondsman to Sarah Ramsey, the widow of a nobleman. They are, as they say these days, ‘an item’ but, in terms of the narrative, very coyly so.

When the Arcturus, a ship from London, blows up in Boston harbour, McCallum is summoned to view the consequences, and they are stomach churning. Body parts of the crew are washed up on the beach, chomped by marauding sharks and pecked by gulls. Even men whose bodies remain more or less intact are denied dignity in death as their shrouds comprise drifts of seaweed and predatory crabs.

Savage LibertyAs McCallum investigates the tragedy, it becomes clear that the ship was sabotaged. But what was within its cargo that made someone think it imperative that it should never reach its destination? A party of British soldiers are on hand determined to guard the scene of the wreck from inquisitive eyes, but who is the man named Beck who is pretending to be an army officer, but is so obviously not a military man?

We learn that the whole sorry affair is connected to documents vital to the plans of a mysterious group known as The Sons of Liberty, a group of powerful men whose ultimate aim is to fight for the independence of the American colonies from Great Britain. We meet, fleetingly, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who went on to become prominent Patriots in The Revolutionary War which was to begin in earnest with “the shot heard ’round the world.” at Lexington in 1776.

Agent Beck makes it know that McCallum is responsible for the Boston deaths, and a warrant is issued for his arrest. McCallum has no option but to head north to evade the bounty hunters and soldiers who will not rest until he is swinging from a gibbet. As he moves through the wild countryside, accompanied by an electic collection of Native Americans, an evangelical priest, a traveling conjurer – and a monkey – McCallum knows he will never be safe until he finds the truth about the events in Boston until he finds the instigators of that fatal conspiracy.

pattison-2If your knowledge of that period of American history is sketchy, than fret ye not. Pattison (right) provides a wealth of detail about real life events which were taking place during McCallum’s fictional quest to clear his name. I use the word ‘quest” advisedly, as the novel has a distinct Lord of The Rings feeling – “Roads go ever on”.

There is some genuine detective work – and some very graphic violence – wrapped up in the period detail, and Pattison is clearly a man who has charted the catastrophic decline and subjugation of the Native Americans, their culture, their awareness and their sensitivity to landscape. It may be of little consolation to us modern readers, but Pattison shows that the European assault on this vibrant and diverse society did not just happen on our watch.

Savage Liberty is the fifth installment of the Duncan McCallum series which began with Bone Rattler in 2009. It will be published by Counterpoint on 7th June.You can read a review of an earlier Eliot Pattison novel Skeleton God, set in contemporary Tibet, by clicking the blue link.


ON MY SHELF . . . James, Turner & Pattison



ed-jamesEast London cop DI Steve Fenchurch makes a welcome return for the fourth book in this popular series by Ed James (left). It is part of urban folklore that attractive female students are sometimes tempted to use their charms to attract Sugar Daddies who will help with their fees and living costs. When one such young woman is found strangled in her bedroom, Fenchurch soon discovers that she was in the pay of a notorious city gangster. With his superiors poised to pounce on him at the first sign of a professional mistake, and his family in mortal danger, Fenchurch is faced with a no-win dilemma. If he persists in finding out who killed the young woman, he will attract incoming fire from very powerful people. If he just keeps his head down and allows the investigation to drift into the ‘unsolved’ file, his bosses will have him clearing his desk and locker before he can utter the word ‘sacked’. In For The Kill is published by Thomas & Mercer and will be available from 19 April in Kindle, paperback and MP3 CD.

ROGUE by JB Turner

TurnerThis is first in what promises to be a popular series with readers who love their novels spiced with the double-dealing and other shenanigans which are part and parcel of the work of American intelligence organisations.  Nathan Stone is a former CIA covert operative who has been critically wounded, and thought to be dead. But behind closed doors, he has been rehabilitated by a highly secretive government organization known as the Commission, given a new identity and appearance, and remoulded into a lethal assassin. His brief: to execute kill orders drawn up by the Commission, all in the name of national security. Turner (right) provides enough thrills to keep even the most jaded reader on their toes. Rogue is published by  Thomas & Mercer, and will be available in June.

SAVAGE LIBERTY by Eliot Pattison

Pattison-2I first came across Pattison (left) and his Revolutionary Wars hero Duncan McCallum when I was writing for Crime Fiction Lover. I reviewed Blood Of The Oak in March 2016, and you can read the piece by following the blue link. More recently, wearing my Fully Booked hat, I enjoyed Pattison’s Skeleton God, set in Tibet, light years away both in time and context from eighteenth century America. Savage Liberty brings us a further chapter in the eventful life of Duncan McCallum. The action begins in 1768. We are in Boston, where a ship from London has exploded, leaving the body parts of its crew and passengers scattered like flotsam in the cold waters. McCallum is a trained physician and his analytical mind soon detects the work of French secret agents. His investigations bring him onto extreme peril, however, and he finds himself in a jail cell accused of treason, with the hangman’s rope just days away. McCallum realises that his only hope is to escape and bring the true villains to justice. Savage Liberty is published by Counterpoint, and will be available in June


SKELETON GOD … Between the covers

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It is hard to believe that in the not-so-distant past western crime authors were prone to portraying Chinese detectives as little more than grotesques, acting out every preconception of what such a person must look and sound like, and how they should behave. The excellent Robert van Gulik, with his Judge Dee novels (1950 – 1968), was one of the earliest writers to move crime fiction set in China out of the Fu Manchu mode, and into a more credible world. Eliot Pattison introduced us to his modern day Chinese policeman, Shan Tao Yun, in Mandarin Gate (2012).

Shan is a former Beijing Police Inspector who has managed the not-so-difficult task of upsetting the monolithic party machine which controls The Motherland. After exile to the Chinese equivalent of the gulags, he has been paroled to an isolated town in Tibet, where he is officially The Constable. His main tasks seem to be rescuing yaks stranded in the winter mud or chasing goats away from municipal buildings. Above all, he must and uphold the law in a community largely stripped of its traditional identity by decades of Chinese Imperialism.

Skeleton GodThe book actually begins with Shan rescuing one of the aforementioned yaks, but events take a more sinister turn. An ancient grave is uncovered, but the inhabitants are unlikely bedfellows. The original occupant is a long dead priest, mummified and gilded. But his companions are the remains of a Chinese soldier, and the very recent corpse of an American visitor. There is cultural confusion when a mobile ‘phone, presumably not the property of either the priest of the soldier, chimes out Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus across the chill mountain air and into the ears of alarmed Yangkar locals.

Shan discovers that the American is an ex-US Navy rating called Jake Bartram. Unlikely though it may seem, Bartram’s mother is Tibetan, and came from Yangkar itself, before marrying an American citizen and settling in Pennsylvania. Rather like the relationship between Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther and his Nazi bosses, Shan is regarded with a mixture of caution and tolerance by those who sit in power within the Communist Party of China and, ipso facto by every single one of its eighty million members.

Shan walks a never-ending tight-rope. If he falls to one side he risks the wrath of The Party, and he is ever aware of their power. Should he fall to the other side, he knows that he will betray the Tibetan people with whom he lives. A young Chinese Public Security officer who is, effectively, moonlighting, alerts Shan to the misdeeds of a prominent retired military hero, General Lau, and the resultant investigation taxes to the limit both Shan’s integrity and his instinctive desire to keep his head in physiological contact with the rest of his body.

Pattison’s evocation of the fragile remnants of Tibetan culture is masterly. The rich and mystical Buddhist past is now little more than the rags on a scarecrow, buffeted and shredded by the savage winds of conformity which have howled from the east since the 1950s. The monasteries have gone, and their timbers and stone recycled to build barns. Gone, too, are the monks, but the ancient Tibetan ghosts remain, at least in the minds and imaginations of those who still scratch out a living in the valleys and high passes.

Readers are left in little doubt as to where Pattison’s sympathies lie, between the hard put-upon Tibetans and their Chinese masters. The sheer enormity of the chain of command between Sinophile officials in the windswept uplands of Tibet and their Pattison-2masters far away to the east is described with wit and a certain degree of compassion. I am never completely convinced by the regular use of italicised foreign language nouns in novels, particularly when the original words would have used an entirely different alphabet, but this is a tiny complaint dwarfed by what is a brilliant and evocative police procedural, albeit one set in a world as far away from our European certainties as it is possible to recreate. Pattison (right) has written a novel which  reminds us that China’s eminence as a world power has not been achieved painlessly.

Skeleton God is published by Minotaur Books and is out now.

ON MY SHELF … 21st March 2017

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Last year I read and enjoyed Blood of the Oak, Pattison’s saga of revolutionary America, but now he returns with a very different kind of tale altogether, and it is the ninth novel in the series featuring Inspector Shan Tao Yun. Previous books in the series have highlighted how the Inspector has struggled with his conscience over his government’s treatment of Tibet. Now, Shan Tao Yunh has, ironocally, been exiled to a remote Tibetan town. His latest case involves a violent ghost and two corpses – one over fifty years old, and another all too recent. Once more, Pattison writes an engaging and intricate thriller while shining a light on the complex and sometimes murderous relationship between the ancient mountain kingdom and its powerful master. Available as a Kindle or in hardback from 13th April.

Walker-Author-Photo-cropFATAL PURSUIT by MARTIN WALKER
From troubled Tibet to deception in the Dordogne, as Martin Walker brings us another ‘ninth in the series’, but fans of Chief of Police Bruno Courreges will know not to expect political polemic, but something with rather more of a warm glow about it. They will not be disappointed as, against the inimitable backdrop of the the Périgord and what has been described as Gastroporn, Courreges takes time out from enjoying the good life to solve a mystery involving a mythically rare vintage car, a murdered researcher and – heaven forfend – links to international terrorism. Fatal Pursuit was published as a hardback and in Kindle in June 2016, and is now available as a paperback

michael_ridpath1AMNESIA by MICHAEL RIDPATH
“My way of life
Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have..”
Macbeth’s lament could equally apply to Alastair Cunningham. Living alone in his lochside cottage in the Scottish Highlands, the retired doctor certainly lacks troops of friends. When he falls and knocks himself out, his recovery in a hospital bed is attended by a loss of memory. His confusion about his past – and present – is thrown into sharp relief when it the possibility arises that he could have been involved in a murder – that of his lover – decades earlier. A young woman named Clémence finds a manuscript in Cunningham’s cottage, and as she reads, she finds to her horror that the murder victim was none other than her grandmother. You can get hold of Amnesia in paperback and Kindle format from 4th May.

Joseph Kanon’s books have been described as “John le Carré meets Graham Greene” and he has certainly occupied the same territory as his illustrious fellow writers. With such best sellers as Leaving Berlin, Istanbul Passage and The Good German already regarded as classics of the genre, fans of the Pennsylvania-born author will be delighted that he has a new title due in the early summer. He takes us back to 1961. Stalin is eight years dead, and has been named and shamed as a vicious despot by Nikita Khruschev, who has tightened his grip on power in the Kremlin. When an American defector to the Soviet Union decides to publish his memoirs, they expose truths which shock both the CIA in their Virginia stronghold of Langley and their Soviet counterparts the KGB in Moscow’s Lubyanka. This will be on sale as hardback or as a Kindle from 1st June.

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