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English Crime Fiction

WHITETHROAT . . . Between the covers

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There are locations for British crime novels that fit certain moods. You can have rural idylls which are shattered by evil deeds – the Cotswolds, the Yorkshire Dales and the majestic Scottish Highlands all fit that bill. Then you have the criminals hiding behind the bright lights of cities like London, Glasgow, and Manchester. James Henry has chosen a rather more understated milieu for his Nick Lowry police novels – Essex, and in particular, the garrison town of Colchester.

9781529401134Essex has become something of a trigger word in recent years, conjuring up images such as lavish mansions owned by London gangsters and dumb bottle-blondes with their perma-tanned, medallioned boyfriends. James Henry, however, takes us back forty years to the 1980s. DI Nick Lowry and his boss, Chief Superintendent Sparks, inhabit a police HQ which leaks, has rotten floorboards, and is maybe only months away from the demolishers’ wrecking ball. Sparks contemplates his desk:

“He studied the wooden surface of his desk. Countless semicircles, rings from years of mugs, cups, scotch glasses, placed carelessly and staining the untreated grain. The there were more pronounced wounds and scars: cigarette burns, knife scores, unusual marks – traces of events only the man behind the desk could read.”

Since Roman times, the history of Colchester has been inextricably intertwined with that of soldiering, and it is the death of a young ‘squaddie’ (an unranked private soldier) that Lowry investigates. Improbably, it seems that the dead man was shot in a Victorian-style duel, complete with gentlemanly observance and the presence of Seconds. With the help of his friend Captain James Oldham, of the Military Police, Lowry discovers that the two men had been fighting over a woman. But who was the other duellist, and who was the woman?

The plot goes this way and that, but this is a book that is always about the quality of the prose. Lowry has a young subordinate called Kenton, who has been on leave since being traumatised by the death of a young girl. Kenton is clever, well-educated, but enjoys his stimulants. In pursuit of the more legal kind, he observes pub life:

“..it was different being here as a punter. You saw the place through different eyes; peaceful and inviting and shabbily familiar. Flaking paintwork, worn hardwood surfaces, the yellow, cracked ceiling; a naked aging structure smoothed by the warmth of alcohol and density of cigarette smoke.”

And again:

“The first to arrive were the regulars. Men in their sixties. One, Wilf, was already in situ, perched quietly at a corner table, steadfastly drinking IPA. He would sut there until last orders, then leave as silently as he had arrived. Around midday, the bohemian set – ‘intellectual dossers’, Sparks called them – would drift in. Young men clutching tatty paperbacks. Sucking the end of biros and staring pensively into the middle distance.”

Like most self-respecting fictional police detectives, Lowry’s personal life is something of a wasteland. He is divorced, and his wife has poisoned their son against him. He feels that the years are taking their toll on him, but he remains compassionate:

“Lowry moved to place his arm across Sparks’s shoulders, but instead grasped the nearest arm, squeezed the firm bicep and bowed his head. He was winded by a surge of sympathy, revealing an attachment to the older man that seldom surfaced. Even now – more and more, in fact, the older he became – life caught Lowry out, introducing unsolicited emotions and concerns, age bringing with it a new sort of awareness.”

HenryThe plot is the least important part of this fine novel, but it unfolds gradually. The woman whose favours are being fought over by the duellists is not a woman at all, but a fifteen year-old schoolgirl, the daughter of a local businessman. He, in turn, has unfinished business with a local enrepreneur, and business that dates back to a racial attack three decades earlier. We are in a world of simmering resentment born out of old slights, and the result? The proverbial dish that is best served cold.

Whitethroat is bleak, downbeat and mesmerising; a subtle, compassionate and beautifully written novel that is something of an elegy to a way of policing – and living – that is gone for ever. James Henry (above right), as James Gurbutt, has also written prequels to RD Wingfield’s Jack Frost series. Whitethroat is published by Riverrun and will be out in hardback on 9th July. The two previous Nick Lowry novels are pictured below.

Books

GRAVE’S END . . . Between the covers (click for full page)

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Former music journalist William Shaw (left) introduced us to Detective Sergeant Alex Cupidi in Salt Lane (2018). This was followed by Deadland in 2019, and the third in the series is Grave’s End. Alex Cupidi is socially something of a loner: she has a teenage daughter, Zoe, who she has raised pretty much on her own; her only other family is her mother, 80 miles or so up the road from the bleak Kent marshes, in London. Zoe Cupidi, like many other idealistic young people, is a fervent defender of nature, and sees the adult world in which her mother has to work as a grimy conspiracy to fell every tree and concrete over as much of green England as possible.

For those who know something of England, Alex Cupidi’s Kent is not the rosy cheeked rural idyll of The Darling Buds of May. This is the coastal Kent of the Romney Marshes and Dungeness; beautiful in its own way, perhaps, but bleak; the coastal fringes are flat, scoured by cruel winds, and shunned by holidaymakers who prefer deck-chairs and the friendly smell of fish and chips to solitude and the mournful cry of the curlew.

GE coverThis taut thriller is  distinctly unusual, in that one of its main characters is neither a fellow member of Kent Police, nor one of the villains they spend their professional lives trying to put behind bars. Instead we see – or sense – some of the action through the perceptions of an elderly badger. Before such thoughts can gain foothold, I can assure you that this is no Wind In The Willows. Our badger is not an avuncular personification. He is old, fearful of younger rivals, and hungry – always hungry.

Of course, readers have to accept that the badger’s perceptions are expressed in our language. Since this particular representative of Meles Meles has none that can be written, what is the alternative? I was not convinced at the start of the book that the idea was going to work, but after reaching the last page, I think it does. Shaw keeps the badger’s subterranean activity linked to the plot, and from the very start it is his sense of smell that alerts us to the fact that something is very, very wrong.

“By now, the air should smell of fresh grass, cow parsley, other badgers and dog shit. He moves forward more cautiously in the blackness and his snout meets something hard. At the end, where darkness should change to dusk, he finds the tunnel blocked. He digs, but there is something in his way, so hard his big claws make no impression on it at all. He sniffs. It smells rank. People stink.”

When an enterprising junior estate agent decides to impress his girlfriend, he ‘borrows’ the keys to an impressive empty property, but his hopes of a passionate afternoon’s grappling on someone else’s bed are dashed when they find a dead body in a freezer. Alex Cupidi and her team soon identify the frozen corpse of that of a local wildlife activist. Further investigations lead them in the direction of a controversial housing development on a site inhabited by, among other various fauna, our friend the badger.

Alex Cupidi is like the proverbial dog with its bone as she relentlessly follows the trail leading away from the murdered activist. High profile government ministers, avaricious property speculators, a minor public school with a terrible secret – every time she lifts a stone, nasty things scuttle about, unaccustomed to the light. Grave’s End is a totally compelling read. It is published by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, and will be available in July.

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A KILLING MIND . . . between the covers (click for full screen)

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Icame late to the party regarding Angela Marsons and her Kim Stone series of police procedurals set in England’s West Midlands, but I thoroughly enjoyed Child’s Play (2019) and was very pleased to have the chance to read and review the latest in the series, Killing Minds.

KMA murder where the body is arranged to make the death look like suicide is a well-worn feature in crime novels, but Marsons takes the trope and gives it new life. When Sammy Brown is found dead in her featureless flat, her throat cut apparently by her own hand, everyone – DI Kim Stone included – is initially prepared to tick the suicide box and move on. It is only when Stone interviews Sammy’s parents that she begins to sense that things are not quite what they appear to be.

Stone has a strong sense that Myles and Kate Brown are concealing something, but it is a second look at the crime scene photographs that triggers her response:

She stopped speaking as her gaze returned back to the photo of the hand. Something struck her and it was like seeing it for the first time.

She turned the phone and looked at the photo from every angle.

‘Penn, get me a red pen and ruler. Now.'”

Meanwhile, Stone’s assistant, DS Bryant, has his own fixation to deal with. He was involved in the capture, trial and conviction of a notorious killer, Peter Drake, and has become involved with Richard Harrison, father of one of Drake’s victims. A previously unrepentant Drake has, suspiciously, turned over a new leaf in jail and has become a model prisoner, thus transforming his application for parole from a forlorn hope into a distinct probability. Both Harrison and Bryant are powerless to prevent Drake’s release. Both have a sense of foreboding about what may follow.

When another body – that of a young man – is discovered in a nearby lake, the fact that he apparently new Sammy Brown sets more alarm bells ringing. After painfully prising the truth – or a version of it – from Sammy Brown’s parents, Stone’s attention is turned on a nearby community, mostly made up of young people who have chosen to step away from real life. They all live in Unity Farm. Sammy Brown was a member of the group – as was the lad in the lake, Tyler Short.

Stone and Bryant pay a visit to Unity Farm, and they meet the leader of the community, Jake Black:

“A man in his mid-fifties appeared behind her. His hair was completely white, but thick and cut well. His shoulders were broad beneath an open-neck pale blue shirt. His skin was smooth with enough colour to radiate good health. His eyes were the purest blue she had ever seen. Once your gaze met those, the rest was forgotten.”

When Stone makes the decision to send one of her younger officers into Unity Farm, posing as a distressed and unhappy young woman, things do not turn out according to plan and Marsons orchestrates a tense and nerve-shredding finale to the book. When the murderer is unmasked, it came as a cleverly constructed surprise. Killing Mind is published by Bookouture, and is available now.

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BORROWED TIME . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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The latest novel from David Mark, Borrowed Time, is seriously dark stuff. There were times when I felt I had entered the nightmare world of distorted humanity, shocking violence and suffering that was distilled into a kind of bleak poetry by Derek Raymond in such masterpieces as I Was Dora Suarez and The Devil’s Home On Leave.

BT coverAdam Nunn is a decent enough fellow, but like all of us, he has made his mistakes. He lives with Zara, a struggling restaurant owner, but has a child of his own, Tilly, who lives with Grace, her mother. Adam has discovered that he is adopted, and has employed a fairly seedy private investigator to try to trace his birth parents.

When the investigator is found dismembered in a spot notorious for being the burial ground of many victims of old Essex gang wars, Adam is about to have an unpleasant surprise. On the (severed) hand of Larry Paris was a scrawled National Insurance number – and it is Adam’s. The police think they have an instant suspect, but after a bruising initial encounter, they realise they have nothing with which to tie Adam to the killing

Adam Nunn lives in Portsmouth. And it is not a particularly fragrant place:

” A city drawn in charcoals and dirt: a place of suet-faced pensioners, of teenagers in baby clothes; of egg-shaped women and puddled men, big middles and conical legs.”

His search for the truth about his identity leads him inexorably to an Essex gangster family, the Jardines. Alison is the daughter of ailing patriarch, Francis. She runs the firm and is not a woman much given to empathy with some of her Essex contemporaries:

“She likes to imagine all those golden-blond, size eight bitches, sobbing as they inject Botox into their foreheads and splurge their life savings on surgeries and rejuvination procedures; their skin puckering, spines beginning to curve, veins rising like lugworms on their shins and the backs of their age-mottled hands.”

Neither is Alison’s son Timmy someone for whom she has a great deal of conventional maternal affection.:

“He’s an ugly, rat-faced little specimen who, at twenty years old, has yet to master the art of having a conversation without thrusting both hands down his jogging trousers and cupping his gonads. She loves him, but not in a way that makes her want to touch him, look at him, or spend time breathing him in.”

Eventually Adam learns who his mother was, but the nature of his conception and the fate of his mother is just the start of the nightmare. The identity of his father is only revealed after a journey through the inferno, the flames of which threaten to consume him along with everyone else he holds close.

David markAlong the way, Mark (right) introduces us to some loathsome individuals who have all played their part in Adam Nunn’s terrible back story. There’s local politician Leo Riley, for example:

“He knows that cash is an aphrodisiac. Power enough to loosen any pair of knickers. And fear a crowbar to stubborn legs.”

Alison’s fearsome minder, Irons, is a creature from hell:

“His face is a butcher’s window, all pink and red, meat and offal: a rag-rug of ruined flesh. he still has to apply lotions five times a day to stop his cheeks tearing open when he laughs. Not that he laughs often. He’s a quiet man. Hasn’t engaged in much chit-chat since the brothers went to work on him with a bayonet, a blowtorch and a claw hammer.”

There is compassion within the pages of Borrowed Time, but it is in short supply.  We don’t just glimpse the worst of people, we come face to face with them, and close enough to smell their rancid graveyard breath. This is a brilliant and sometimes moving piece of storytelling, but within its pages the only redemption comes in death. Borrowed Time is published by Severn House and is out now.

BETWEEN THE COVERS . . . The Final Straw (click for full screen)

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I had not come across anything by Jenny Francis before, so I did a little research before beginning The Final Straw, and discovered that the author isn’t one person, but a writing partnership between Patricia Scudamore and Hilton Catt. Furthermore, the pair’s day job, as it were, is writing self-help manuals for commerce and business. Titles such as Successful Career Change, Cover Letters In A Week and The Interview Coach didn’t initially indicate that I was about to read an entertaining crime novel, but I was wrong.

TFS cover019Charlie Moon is yet another fictional Detective Inspector, but slightly different in one or two ways from many of his fellow CriFi coppers. For a start, his patch is the rather unfashionable West Midlands, probably the city its locals affectionately refer to as Brummagem. Also, although he carries the cross born by most of his fictional counterparts – corrupt or incompetent bosses – he has a stable and happy family life, and neither drinks nor smokes to excess. When he goes home at night, it is to the solace of his wife and daughter, rather than the solitary vice of falling asleep on the sofa, whisky glass in hand, while something from his obscure CD collection plays in the background.

Moon is contacted by a notorious local criminal, currently a guest at HMP Winson Green. Denny Wilbur might shrink at being described as public spirited, but he has an injustice to share with Moon. A simple minded black man, Wilson Beames, was twenty years into a life sentence for murdering a teenage girl, Sharon Baxter, back in the 1970s, but he has been found hanged in his cell.

“He couldn’t read or write, yet they reckoned he’d signed a confession. Besides which, he wouldn’t have had the brains to know what he was signing anyway.”
“Are you suggesting he was stitched up?”
“We all know what went on the seventies, don’t we, Inspector? Some naughty people in your mob occasionally did some naughty things.”

When Moon suggests to his bosses that this needs investigating, he is warned off in no uncertain terms. Being a contrary so-and-so, Moon decides to do a little investigating on his own, with the help of Jo Lyon, a local journalist. Bit by bit, they fit the pieces of the jigsaw together, and the emerging picture is not a pretty one. It shows a desperately corrupt senior policeman, a paedophile ring, and a ruthless local businessmen prepared to provide certain services. As Moon closes in on Sharon Baxter’s killer, he is unaware that when he does solve the mystery, it will provide a shock that he could never have anticipated.

The Final Straw is cleverly written, fast paced, and with an authentic sense of time and place. If, like me, you are impressed with Charlie Moon, there are two previous novels to check out – The Silent Passage and Blood Ties. All three are published by Matador, and The Final Straw is out on 28th April.

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THE EVIL WITHIN . . . Between the covers

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profile-750x750SM Hardy, aka Sue Tingey, has put together a thoroughly enjoyable and, at times, genuinely scary ghost story. The Evil Within tells the tale of Jim Hawkes, a young London banker who has an attack of conscience about the bloodthirsty nature of his trade, and tells his boss to go forth and multiply. This rush of blood to the head is not entirely unconnected to the fact that he is still grieving for his dead sweetheart, who drowned herself after breaking off their engagement in a calamitous row. Jim decides that a physical exit from London is essential, and so he takes out a short term lease on a cottage in England’s West Country.

When he arrives in Devon he finds that the cottage – and its immediate surroundings – have, shall we say, history. The back story involves a dead girl, who was found hanged from the banisters. While exploring the adjacent churchyard, Jim meets the vicar, and is invited in to the rectory for a welcoming chat and a nice cup of tea. All good so far, but when he meets two of the long term residents, widowed Emma and Jed, the local handyman, fixer of lawnmowers and general village sage and factotum, his equilibrium is seriously disturbed when they tell him that the rectory is not only unoccupied, but the reverend gentleman has been dead for some time.

TEWBy now, of course, we have to suspend disbelief, because this is going to be a book where weird things are going to happen. There is one key question, as it ever was in ghost stories. Are the strange events actually happening independent from the main character’s perception or, as the title hints at, are they in his mind? SM Hardy certainly gives Jim Hawkes plenty to cope with. We have a Don’t Look Now style figure in a red coat who not only flits in and out of Jim’s peripheral vision, but occasionally holds his hand in her dead, cold fingers. Again with a nod to Daphne du Maurier’s wonderful short story, there are also two sisters, who may possible be sinister as well as spinster. We mustn’t forget a mysterious and hulking man in grey who clearly wishes Jim harm and may – or may not – be an astral projection of a malevolent criminal who lies in a vegetative state at a mysterious local mental hospital.

Clichés only become clichés when they are wearisome, and there is nothing remotely wearisome about The Evil Within. Yes, SM Hardy mines deep into the seam of supernatural fiction and comes up with many recognisable elements, but she welds them together to make a compelling novel. Best of all, even though she deal in familiar tropes – the haunted cottage, the startling face in the window, the conversations with the dead and the events that no-one in the village pub will talk about – we genuinely care about Jim Hawkes and what happens to him. The possibility that Jim’s apparitions may be just the product of his own mental fragility in the wake of his fiancée’s tragic death doesn’t diminish our concern for him, nor prevent us from fearing the worst when events take a disturbing turn.

I have never written a novel, nor could I, but I have read many and I know from experience that if the author doesn’t forge that link between reader and character, the book may as well be cast aside and sent to the charity shop. SM Hardy ticks this box – and many other important ones – and ensures that The Evil Within is both entertaining, credible and enthralling – with a sharp sting in the very tip of its tail. It is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

Click on the image below for a short but spooky video

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KEEP HIM CLOSE . . . Between the covers

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Keep Him Close is quite an apt title for Emily Koch’s second thriller. The key word is ‘close’ as the whole story has the feel of events and emotions being observed at very close quarters, almost through the lens of a microscope. We see every little twitch and tremor in the lives of the two main characters, and the tension is quite claustrophobic at times. Two women. Two mothers. Two lost teenage sons. Alice’s son Louis is now in a police mortuary after falling – or having been pushed – from the roof of a car park. Indigo has, effectively lost Kane, but this time to the criminal justice system as he awaits trial for murder, after he admits responsibility for Louis’s death.

KHM cover017The two women have little in common except the convergence of the social lives of their sons and the fact that neither has a husband in the house. Alice was married to Etienne, but he is long gone, having fallen in love with someone else. Indigo’s husband took his own life. Indigo is what some might call an ageing hippy. She dresses rather chaotically and earns a living as an art therapist. Alice once had dreams of being a concert pianist, but now works as a librarian. She has a certain primness associated – rightly or wrongly – with that profession. Let us be generous and say that Alice appreciates order and method.

What began as a night out for post-exam teenagers ends with the dreaded late night knock on the door by police officers and expands into a nightmare as Alice and older son Ben try to come to terms with the death of Louis, while Indigo can only look on in confusion as Kane is, first, identified on CCTV as someone who the police would like to speak to and, second, blurts out his guilt in a police interview room.

Where the story develops its edge is when Indigo – something of a flustered airhead when it comes to technology – goes to the local library to use one of their computers. By investigating Kane’s social media activity she hopes to locate other youngsters who were witnesses to the apparent fracas which ended with Louis plunging to his death. Who should be the kindly library assistant who helps Indigo check her son’s Facebook profile? Why, none other than Alice! The frisson starts to do its shivery work because Alice recognises Indigo, but Indigo has no idea of the identity of her helper.

There are one or two sub plots by way of diversion. Former hubby Etienne turns up, we suspect that the police have been less than thorough in their investigation and we are given to wonder if Ben knows more than he is telling. We only meet the soon-to-be-late Louis in the early pages, and while he comes over as not being the most adoring of sons, we later learn the reason for his apparent antipathy.

KHM author018The structure of the book is intriguing; we learn about the contrasting characters of Alice and Indigo in different ways; Alice’s story is told third-party, while Indigo tells us herself. This has the effect of making Alice more aloof and remote, and is a clever device which hints she is somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

Emily Koch (right) ratchets up the social and emotional tension as Alice and Indigo dance their stately sarabande to the tune of the legal recriminations following the tragic conclusion of what may have been just a drunken scuffle – or something far more sinister. This book is a must for those who like their psychological dramas acted out on a small stage but exquisitely observed. Keep Him Close is published by Harvill Secker and is out in Kindle on 12th March and in print on 19th March

THE NIGHT RAIDS . . . Between the covers

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Detective Inspector Eden Brooke, Jim Kelly’s 1940s Cambridge copper returns for his third case, in The Night Raids. Those readers who met Brooke in The Great Darkness and The Mathematical Bridge (the links will take you to my reviews) will know that he is cultured, educated, but afflicted with an aversion to bright light as a result of horrific treatment by his Turkish captors during The Great War. One consequence is that he must wear spectacles with special lenses; another is that finds sleep both difficult and troubled, in that when he when he can find repose, his dreams are stark and threatening. He lives in Cambridge with his wife Claire and two grown up children, of whom Joy is a nurse like her mother, while Luke is in the army. We learn that he is currently training with Special Forces. Because of his condition, Brooke is something of what used to be called a night owl. He is most at ease when he is outside, enveloped in the still watches of the night, and he has regular ports of call such as an all-night tea stall, a friend who is an air-raid observer, and a college porter.

Cambridge sits on the Western edge of the Fen Country – formerly a vast expanse of freshwater peat bog, meres and ever-changing rivers. By the time in which the book is set, the Fen had long since been tamed by numerous arrow-straight drainage channels and sluices, but in the Eden Brooke stories it sits out there, beyond the lights of the town, like a huge dark and silent presence. Water is, in fact, an essential theme of these novels. Brooke himself swims in the river for exercise and contemplation; it is also a place where people die, sometimes by their own hand, but also at the hands of others.

41Yeq64CwrLIn Night Raids we see some of the story through the eyes of a crew of a German Heinkel bomber. Their mission is to destroy an essential bridge over the river; the bridge, crucially, carries the railway taking vital men and munitions to the east coast, where invasion is a daily expectation.The bombers come over at night, and have so far failed to destroy the bridge. What they have done, however, is unload some of their bombs on residential areas of the town, and inside one of the terraced houses wrecked by the raid, Brooke finds the body of an elderly woman. Her death is clearly attributable to Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe, but the fact that her left ring finger and middle finger have been removed with a hacksaw cannot, sadly be laid at the door of the Reichsmarschall.

When one of the dead woman’s granddaughters goes missing, along with her naturalised Italian boyfriend, Brooke can only look on in frustration as the case becomes more complex, and threatens to spin out of control. In what seems to be a totally unconnected incident, Brooke has discovered that someone – either intentionally or by accident – has released a pollutant into the river, possibly as a result of black market skullduggery. Once again, the river itself becomes a key element in the story. A body is discovered submerged near a fish farm which breeds pike, a delicacy served at High Table in some of the colleges. Bodies in rivers are commonplace in crime fiction, but this is as haunting and macabre as anything I have ever read:

Boyle bent down to see if he could feel her breath between the blue lips, but the slightly bloated flesh, and the glazed eyes, told Brooke that she’d been dead for several days. The still-flowing blood told a lie. The pike had nibbled at the flesh but these wounds were puckered and bleached. The blood ran from black leeches which dotted her neck and legs, secreting their magic enzyme, which had stopped the blood from clotting. They stood back in silence as the cold corpse bled.

Jim Kelly is one of our finest writers. Were I ever to be asked what my Desert Island third book choice would be, after the Bible and a complete Shakespeare, it would be a complete works of Jim Kelly. In The Night Raids he conjures up a narrative tour de force which combines the Cambridge murders, an exploitative criminal gang and the malevolent intentions of the Luftwaffe – into a dramatic and breathtaking final act. The Night Raids is published by Allison & Busby and is out now.

FOR MORE ON JIM KELLY CLICK THIS LINK

HAPPY EVER AFTER . . . Between the covers

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C.C. MacDonald’s debut novel is a psycho-thriller which mines the rich seam of middle-class anxiety and social neuroses which has become a staple of recent English crime fiction. Naomi and Charlie, along with toddler Prue, have relocated from the hipster London district they can no longer afford, kissing goodbye to the artisan bakeries, faux village ambience and the coffee shops where the wi-fi signal is as vital as the alchemy of the barrista. They now live in a rambling Victorian house in Margate, on the Kent coast, a town which MacDonald himself refers to as Shoreditch-on-Sea.

Naomi is a feature writer of some sort, while Charlie is an entrepreneur designer in the tech industry. While a succession of sharp-intake-of-breath builders and carpenters transform the neglected house into a Sunday supplement paradise, Naomi is desperate to conceive a second child. Naturally, both she and Charlie have smartphone apps which track her fertility cycle and give the couple vital windows when hurried coupling should produce little Prue’s sibling. Sadly, none of the digital wizardry seems to work. Charlie is all-too-often not up-to-snuff, and Naomi’s obsessive quest is becoming counter productive.

HEA coverWhile on her daily run there and back to Prue’s nursery school, Naomi meets a stunningly attractive alpha male called Sean, and his bluff insouciance is such a contrast with Charlie’s needy self-absorption that she is smitten. One thing leads to another – the ‘another’ being hurried stand-up sex in the shower cubicle at a local leisure centre – and guess what? Sean’s urgent thirty seconds has done the job, and Naomi is, at last, pregnant, but possibly by the wrong man.

Cue much heart-searching by Naomi as she tries to get to grips with the moral dilemma of her situation. Sean, however, is not around, however, either to help or to hinder. When Naomi discovers that Sean was only at the nursery on a baby-sitting job, she tries to find him. His apparent disappearance is resolved when Naomi discovers that he has not only been hiding in plain sight, but actually conspiring to stalk her and threaten the already fragile happy family she has tried to create.

MacDonald doesn’t set out to make us laugh with obvious satire, but he has fun casting a jaundiced eye on Naomi’s preoccupations. She is at a rather pretentious playgroup called ‘Sing, Sign and Movement.’

“She looks around the huge room at bored dads looking at football news on their phones, harassed mums in sportswear attempting to marshall small-scale civil wars between siblings and sugar-amped children rocketing around like derailed dodgems. She never feels further from her life in London than when she’s somewhere like this.”

Later, she is living the life at a popular café:

“Kids run riot between the replica Eames chairs as Charlie bustles between them carrying a tray. Some people talk a good game when it comes to doing everything for their children but the parents here have come for the artisan coffee and to talk to people like them in a décor that resembles something they’ve seen on Instagram and sod it if their child has to fight with ten others to play with the lone Ikea kitchen.”

CCMAny sense of lifestyle mockery, gentle or otherwise, dissipates once we reach the final quarter of the book. Naomi discovers that whoever Sean really is, his plans for her and her family involve much than a few moments of lust. I certainly didn’t see the plot twist coming, and MacDonald (right) springs one surprise after another, right up to the final paragraphs. If you can’t make sense of the brief chapter interludes which consist of MSN messages (remember them?) between some bitchy schoolgirls, don’t fret – you will.

While Happy Ever After won’t leave you with a warm and life affirming glow about people’s basic decency, it is a rattling good read, full of acerbic observation and dark character insights. It is published by Harvill Secker and is out on 23rd January.

I have a mint unopened hardback copy of Happy Ever After, and it needs a good home. To be in the draw to win it, just ‘like’ this post here or on the Fully Booked Facebook page. You can also check my twitter feed, and RT or like any of the links to this review. Competition closes 10.00pm Tuesday 28th January. UK addresses only, please.

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