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TRANSFUSION . . . Between the covers

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This begins very differently from any of the previous books in the excellent series. Instead of finding retired Lancashire copper Henry being barman and barrista in his moorland pub, or helping his one-time colleagues chase villains around the mean backstreets of Blackpool, we are in Cyprus, where Viktor Bakshim, head of an Albanian crime syndicate has his lair in a heavily guarded mansion. He has, naturally, a bodyguard of muscled young men in black T-shirts, but his security on the island is further enhanced by the Cypriot authorities’ determination (thanks to wads of used Euros) to “see no ships..”

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Bakshim is old and frail, and his body is pretty much shutting down one function at a time, like shops on a run-down town centre. At the heart of his operation is his ruthless and resourceful daughter Sofia, and she looms large as the plot develops.

The problem for the wider authorities – including the CIA, FBI and MI6 – is that Bakshim is dead. At least, he is supposed to be. It seems, however, that a co-ordinated hit on the ageing villain was foiled by crafty switching of personnel between the Land Cruisers carrying him and his hoodlums. The DNA of all the deceased thugs has been established, except the most crucial one – Bakshim himself.

A shadowy operator called Flynn, a former colleague of Christie’s, who now has connections to official intelligence agencies, is on Cyprus trying to establish what Bakshim – if he is indeed still alive – is up to. After a chase and a shoot-out, Flynn manages to evade the protective heavies, and heads out to sea with his girlfriend. Meanwhile, also on the island, American agent Karl Donaldson, with a little help from his friends in London’s Metropolitan Police, has nabbed a Russian hitman called Sokolov – violent and brave, but none too bright – and wants to turn him for his own purposes.

Back in chilly England, Henry Christie is, once again, employed as a civilian consultant to his former employers, and is working with his new partner DS Debbie Blackstone on an historic – and grim – case of child sexual abuse. The case is harrowing, and there are no easy days, but at least there are no bullets flying. This all changes when the ultra-violent world of Albanian gangland comes to Lancashire. When the Bakshims visit a  British criminal who has been working hand in hand with them, they find that their man in the UK has grown greedy, and is demanding a bigger slice of the cake. Bad move. All hell breaks loose.

Sofia has employed a violently competent hitman known as The Tradesman, a psychopath whose business front is running a crematorium for deceased pets. While Viktor and his daughter are spirited away from the carnage, The Tradesman goes on  a murderous spree that leaves the Lancashire cops reeling and struggling to make sense of what is going on. Henry Christie gets caught up in the bloodbath, but remains physically unscathed. His heart (the metaphorical one) however, takes a severe hit as, yet again, his romantic illusions are shattered. This happens very publicly, and in a humiliating fashion, but the heartache doesn’t prevent him – almost accidentally – cracking the case wide open as he investigates an apparently trivial case of card fraud involving his pub.

In the aftermath, Flynn and Donaldson decide that the Bakshims have done enough damage, and are determined to act “off the books” and kill them. In a delicious twist, however – and I’ll stop there, because the ending is just too good for me to spoil things. Nick Oldham delivers the goods again with violence and mayhem sufficient to satisfy the most demanding reader, but – best of all – we have another outing for the most endearing of English fictional coppers. Henry Christie is frequently bowed, but never, ever broken. Transfusion is published by Severn House and is out now.

For more about Henry Christie and Nick Oldham,
click the author’s picture below.
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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND. . . 6: Worcester and Bath

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Just 50 miles or so from the town of Shrewsbury is Worcester and it is here, more or less inhabiting the same time frame as Cadfael, we find Under-Sheriff Hugh Bradecote and his rough-hewn assistant, Serjeant Catchpoll. Worcester, at that time, was a busy market town, and it would be many years before the Benedictine Priory would be transformed into what is now Worcester cathedral.

WolfBRTAuthor Sarah Hawkswood is a serious academic historian, and she has set the series against the political and military turmoil that prevailed during the reign of King Stephen, and his war with the Empress Matilda. Such was the insularity of even relatively large towns like Worcester, however, that national events can take weeks and months to impinge on the lives of townsfolk and villagers. Hawkswood paints a picture of a time that was a brutal struggle for the majority of the population. Disease, hunger, violence and intemperate weather were constant threats, but in these novels we come to appreciate the rhythm of the seasons and the wildness of the landscape beyond the scattered villages and hamlets.

Best of all, though, is the fact that these are great crime novels, with tantalising plots and storylines in the great tradition of detectives and detecting. Sarah Hawkswood’s website is here, and you can also read detailed reviews by clicking on the cover images in this feature.

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Screen Shot 2021-11-14 at 19.45.58To Bath now, and a character created by (I think) Britain’s longest living (and still writing good books) crime author. Peter Lovesey was born in Middlesex in September 1936 and, after National Service and a career in teaching, he published his first novel in 1970. Wobble To Death was the first of a hugely successful series of historical novels featuring Sergeant Daniel Cribb and his assistant Constable Thackeray. Older readers will remember the superb BBC TV adaptations starring Alan Dobie (left) as Cribb. The stories were also dramatised by BBC radio.

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But Cribb was very much rooted in London, and we must look at a more modern detective, plying his trade in the ancient town of Bath, with its Roman baths and glorious Georgian heritage. We first met Peter Diamond in 1991, in The Last Detective. The title refers to Diamond’s outright reluctance to adopt modern technology, as he sees gadgets and gizmos as the enemy of good old fashioned police work. Lovesey describes his man:

Difficult to tell whether Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, on duty in the gardens, was overt or covert. If he had been in the race, you might have taken him for one of the jokers in fancy dress. He might have stepped out of a nineteen-forties film, a sleuth on the trail of Sydney Greenstreet. The gabardine trench coat and dark brown trilby, his so-called plain clothes, weren’t plain at all in twenty-first century Bath.”

In The Last Detective the naked body of a woman is found floating in the weeds in a lake near Bath with no one willing to identify her, and neither marks nor murder weapon. Diamond’s reliance on tried and trusted methods  are tested to the limit. Struggling with a jigsaw puzzle of truant choirboys, teddy bears, a black Mercedes and Jane Austen memorabilia, Diamond doggedly stays on the trail of the killer even after this bosses have decided there’s enough evidence to make a conviction.If you click the image below you can read my review of the 2020 novel, The Finisher.

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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 4. York and Preston

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NecroEver onwards, and ever northward to the ancient city of York. For all that it houses the magnificent medieval minster and has a history going back to the Eboracum of Roman times, fewer people remember that York was also a great railway city, and there can be no more appropriate place to house the National Railway Museum. Like many men now in the autumn of their years I was an enthusiastic trainspotter back in the days of steam, so it is – I hope – perfectly understandable that I have chosen the Jim Stringer novels by Andrew Martin for this stop on our trip. Martin introduced Stringer in The Necropolis Railway (2002) when Stringer is very much at the bottom of the railway hierarchy, and working in London, but by 2004 in The Blackpool Highflyer, Stringer has married his landlord’s daughter – the beautiful Lydia – and has been promoted to a job in York.

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The next four novels see Jim rising steadily through the ranks of railway nobility, but in 1914 the world changes for ever, and Jim, like tens of thousands of other fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, answers the country’s call and joins up to fight the Kaiser, but with his expertise as a railwayman. The Great War, while not as completely global as the conflict that followed just twenty five years later, was not confined to the blood-soaked farmlands of France and Flanders. After solving a front-line murder in The Somme Stations (2011) Jim goes east in The Bagdhad Railway Club (2012) and Night Train To Jamalpur (2013) and emerges some years after the war, more or less unscathed and back home in York, in Powder Smoke (2021)

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Andrew Martin is many things – steeped in railway lore from his childhood, Oxford graduate, qualified barrister, performing musician, born in York and writer of novels light years distant from crime fiction. If he were ever to have a tombstone inscription, I do hope he would include (in brackets) “also known as Jim Stringer”. Stringer is a brilliant creation; not a ‘bish-bash-bosh’ hero, for sure, but a man with a well-defined moral compass and a gimlet eye for wrong-doing – be it in railway procedure or life in general.

Although I don’t quite belong to Jim Stringer’s era, when I read his books I am back in my relatively blameless youth (remember when Philip Larkin said sex was invented) and I am on a station platform somewhere in the Midlands, probably showered with soot from a venting steam engine, pen in one hand, notebook in the other, and with a school satchel containing sandwiches and a bottle of pop slung over my shoulder.

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We now face a long haul over The Pennines and, just after the ancient town of Skipton, we trade the white rose for the red, and pass into the County Palatine of Lancashire. It is just possible that we might pass within a stone’s throw of a moorland pub called The Tawny Owl. Were we to call in for refreshment we might be serves by a fifty-something chap called Henry Christie. More than likely, though he will be out somewhere between Preston and Blackpool ‘helping police with their inquiries’. In Henry’s case, however, this is not the standard police cliché for being ‘nicked’ but is to be taken absolutely literally, as retired copper Christie has a new role as a consultant to his former colleagues.

ATFJHis creator, Nick Oldham, knows of what he writes, as he is a former police officer, and the 29th book in this long running and successful series is due out at the end of November. So, what can readers expect from a Henry Christie story? It depends where you start, of course, because if you go back to the beginning in 1996, Peter Shilton was still in goal, but for Leyton Orient, England lost to Germany (on penalties, naturally) in the Euros semi-final, the trial of men accused of murdering Stephen Lawrence collapsed and John Major was in his second term as British Prime Minister. In A Time For Justice Christie is a relatively junior Detective Inspector – and someone who is seriously out of favour with his bosses, and has to tackle a cocky mafia hitman who thinks the English police are a joke. As the novels progress over the years, Christie rises through the ranks, but he is still someone who is viewed with some suspicion by the few officers who outrank him – the chief constables and their assistants.

NOHenry Christie is always hands on, and he has the scars – mostly physical, but one or two mental lesions – to prove it. His personal life has been a mixture of love, passion, tragedy and disappointment. His geographical battle grounds are usually confined to the triangle formed of Preston, Lancaster and Blackpool. This is an area that Oldham (right) himself knows very well, of course, thanks to his years as a copper, but it is also very cleverly chosen, because it allows the author to play with very different human and geographical landscapes. The brooding moorland to the east is a wonderful setting for all kinds of wrong-doing, while the seaside town of Blackpool, despite the golden sands, donkey rides, candy floss and cheerful seaside ambience, houses one of the worst areas of deprivation in the whole country, with run-down and lawless former council estates controlled by loan sharks, traffickers and criminal families of the worst sort.

What comes as standard in this superb series is tight plotting, total procedural authenticity, some pretty mind blowing violence and brutality but – above all – an intensely human and likeable main character. Click on the images below to read reviews of some of the more recent Henry Christie novels.

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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 3: Scunthorpe and Leeds

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Screen Shot 2021-10-30 at 18.48.53A trip to Scunthorpe might not be too high on many people’s list of literary pilgrimages, but we are calling in for a very good reason, and that is because it was the probable setting for one of the great crime novels, which was turned into a film which regularly appears in the charts of “Best Film Ever”. I am talking about Jack’s Return Home, better known as Get Carter. Hang on, hang on – that was in Newcastle wasn’t it? Yes, the film was, but director Mike Hodges recognised that Newcastle had a more gritty allure in the public’s imagination than the north Lincolnshire steel town, which has long been the butt of gags in the stage routine of stand-up comedians.

Author Ted Lewis (right) was actually born in Manchester in 1940, but after the war his parents moved to Barton-on-Humber, just fourteen miles from Scunthorpe. Lewis crossed Screen Shot 2021-10-30 at 18.54.40the river to attend Art college in Hull before moving to London to work as an animator. His novels brought him great success but little happiness, and after his marriage broke up, he moved back to Lincolnshire to live with his mother. By then he was a complete alcoholic and he died of related causes in 1982. His final novel GBH (1980) – which many critics believe to be his finest – is played out in the bleak out-of-season Lincolnshire coastal seaside resorts which Lewis would have known in the sunnier days of his childhood. In case you were wondering about how Jack’s Return Home is viewed in the book world, you can pick up a first edition if you have a spare £900 or so in your back pocket.

There is a rather arcane conversation to be had about the original name Jack’s Return Home. Yes, Carter’s name is Jack, and he returns to his home town to investigate the death of his brother. But take a look at a scene in the film. Carter visits his late brother’s house, and amid the books and LPs strewn about, there is a very visible copy of a Tony Hancock record, Check out the discography of Tony Hancock LPs, and you will find a recording of The East Cheam Drama Festival and one of the plays – a brilliantly spoof of a Victorian melodrama – is called …….. Jack’s Return Home.

You can find out much more about Ted Lewis and his books by clicking the image below.

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Before we leave the delights of ‘Scunny’, here’s a pub quiz question. Three England captains played for which Lincolshire football team? The answer, of course, is Scunthorpe United. The three captains?
Kevin Keegan – Scunthorpe 1966-71, England captain 1976-82
Ray Clemence – Scunthorpe 1965-67, England captain once, in a friendly against Brazil
Ian Botham – Scunthorpe 1980-85, England (cricket) captain 1980-81

Ouch! Anyway, back to crime fiction and we start up the Bentley and head into darkest Yorkshire to meet a policeman and his family in the city of Leeds.

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Screen Shot 2021-10-25 at 19.01.43Does Chris Nickson preach? Absolutely not. This is the beauty of the Tom Harper books. No matter what the circumstances, we trust Harper’s judgment, and we can only be grateful that the struggles and sacrifices that he and his wife endured paid – eventually – dividends. The books are relatively short, but always vibrant with local historical detail, and I swear that I my eyes itch with the tang of effluent from the tanneries, and the sulphurous smoke from the foundries. We also meet real people like Herbert Asquith, Jennie Baines and Frank Kitson. Chris Nickson takes them from the dry pages of the history books and allows our imagination to bring them to life. For detailed reviews of some of the Tom Harper books, click the author’s image (left)

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 1: London and Cambridge

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I am taking a journey around England to revisit places associated with great crime novels. One or two might be a surprise!

London is a great place to start, and one of its finest crime writers was Derek Raymond (real name Robert William Arthur Cook 1931 – 1994). His Factory series featured an un-named Detective Sergeant working out of a fictitious police station in Soho. He is part of the Unexplained Deaths division and a man already haunted by tragedy. His mentally unhinged wife killed their daughter, and he is alone in life except for her ghost. This is a London of almost impenetrable moral darkness, an evil place only infrequently redeemed by intermittent acts of kindness and compassion. The detective devotes himself to seeking justice or revenge (and sometimes both) for the victims.

DRWe are left to imagine what he looks like. He never uses violence as a matter of habit, but his inner rage fuels a temper which can destroy those who are unwise enough to provoke him. Why is he so bitter, so angry, so disgusted? Of himself, he says:

I’m a solitary man. Sometimes, mind, there’s happiness in solitude, still, it helps to talk to other people sometimes and  dig back together to a time when people felt that the past mattered and something good might happen in the future. But when I open the next door I’m sent to and find the dead inside, overturned bottles and tables, bloody, dishonoured, defamed people lying there, I sometimes accept that dreaming and hoping the way I do is absurd.”

Raymond is regarded as the Godfather of English Noir and is an acknowledged influence on most modern writers in the genre. A good novel to start with is He Died with His Eyes Open (1984) but you will need to steel yourself before tackling his brutal masterpiece I Was Dora Suarez. There’s more on Derek Raymond and his books here.

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TGD

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WITHOUT A TRACE . . . Between the covers

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We are in the fictional Derbyshire town of Bainbridge. Recently divorced Ruth Prendergast has finished work for the day, done her shopping, and is keen to be inside her new house in Hollywell Close, warm, snug and out of the icy winter rain. She fancies a night in, with a pizza and a glass or two of wine. What she gets, however, is a ghastly shock. Turning on the bedroom light she finds a man apparently asleep under her duvet. When she plucks up the courage to wake him, she finds she cannot. Because he is dead. Stone dead, with a knife embedded in his body.

WAT coverThe team investigating the murder is led by Detective Inspector Isabel Blood, her Sergeant and a brace of DCs. They soon learn that the dead man is Kevin Spriggs, a middle-aged car mechanic, with a failed marriage behind him, an estranged son – and an argumentative temperament often fueled by drink. The murder raises many questions for Blood and her people. How did Spriggs and the person who killed him gain access to a locked house? Who hated Spriggs – admittedly not one of life’s natural charmers – enough to kill him? After all, he was something of a nobody, tolerated rather than loved by most people who knew him, but why this brutal – and mysterious – death?

The investigation – code named Operation Jackdaw – has achieved precisely three-fifths of five-eighths of diddly-squat, when it is rocked by the discovery that Ruth Prendergast, who discovered the corpse of the unfortunate Spriggs has herself disappeared. She was due to go on a walking trip with a lady friend, but she failed to make the rendezvous and, to borrow from The Bard, she has “melted into air, into thin air ….. leaving not a rack behind.

There are enough fictional Detective Inspectors out there in the world of crime fiction to run a large county police force, so what makes Isabel Blood – to steal a sporting cliché  – achieve a podium finish? Refreshingly, she is middle-aged, comfortable in her skin and appears to have no hidden demons. She is happily married with two teenage daughters, and the only kink in this domestic bliss is that her father was apparently bigamously involved with Isabel’s mother, and now lives in France where he has two grown up sons with his legal wife. Now, Isabel’s father and her half-brother have arrived in Bainbridge for a visit at precisely the time that the unfortunate Kevin Spriggs is discovered in Ruth Prendergast’s bed. Eventually, the team discover how – and why – the man was murdered, and the solution is complex, but it very neatly echoes Isabel’s own difficulties with her double family and half-siblings.

Without A Trace is a well plotted and nuance police procedural with credible coppers and equally convincing villains. It is published by HQ Digital, and will be out in Kindle on 29th October. A paperback edition will be available in January.

HUNT . . . Between the covers

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Leona Deakin started her career as a psychologist with the West Yorkshire Police. She is now an occupational psychologist, so you can rest assured that her career has given her a valuable insight into how a fictional criminal psychologist would go about their work. Such knowledge, however, is worthless if the author can’t write. In Deakin’s hands the result is that we have a totally convincing character (Dr Augusta Bloom), an intricate plot with whiplash-inducing twists and turns, and a book that you just don’t want to end.

Screen Shot 2021-09-27 at 19.35.58Screen Shot 2021-09-27 at 19.36.16Hunt is the third episode in Augusta Bloom’s career, and you can read my reviews of the previous two stories by clicking the images. Bloom has an uneasy relationship with Marcus Jameson (a former military intelligence analyst), notionally her partner in their investigation agency. Rather than Ying and Yang, they are more chalk and cheese. The book begins with Bloom being summoned south from her Yorkshire Dales hideaway. Who demands her services? None other than the Foreign Secretary Gerald Porter. Where is he? In a London police cell, detained on suspicion of selling information to Britain’s enemies. But why does he need Dr Augusta Bloom?

Hunt coverThe answer to that conundrum forms the central premise of the book. Porter’s niece Scarlett has been drawn into the orbit of a feminist organisation called Artemis led by a charismatic woman called Paula Kunis. Porter will only answer police questions about his activities if Bloom undertakes to track down Scarlett and extract her from the clutches of Artemis. Bloom is smart enough to realise that Porter is up to something, but cannot work out why he is so worried about his niece, when every other aspect of his behaviour suggests that he is a cold and devious man, with psychopathological elements to his character.

On-line investigations by Bloom and Jameson get them only so far, and so Bloom decides to go to a seminar run by Artemis, to see what manner of creature it is. The women running the presentation are warm, friendly and convincing, but give little away, as Bloom tries to question them as subtly as possible. Having hardly scratched the surface of the veneer, Bloom signs up for a weekend retreat at the Artemis headquarters in an isolated village in the Scottish highlands. Jameson is dubious about this as he has a sixth sense that Artemis is not the benevolent campaigner for women’s rights that its glossy literature and media presence claim it to be. Bloom reassures him. After all, this the 21st century, the age of mobile phones and instant connectivity. What can possibly go wrong over a long weekend?

Bloom and a minibus full of other attendees arrive at the location, and are met by a flock of charming and smiling women who seem overjoyed to welcome potential recruits to the cause. It is all very fragrant, but a tiny alarm begins to ring in Bloom’s head as she sees all mobile phones and watches being handed over to the Artemis greeters. This tinkling bell becomes more clamorous when Bloom realises that the new arrivals are being subjected to sleep deprivation, time disorientation and one-to-one social monitoring by the Artemis devotees.

Back in the outside world, three things have happened. Firstly, Jameson has discovered that the Scottish retreat is entirely surrounded by high fences topped with barbed wire facing inwards, all the better to keep people in rather than to keep intruders out. Secondly – and much more worrying – is the appearance on the scene of Seraphine Walker, a sinister and clever criminal fixer, rather like a 21st LDcentury Professor Moriarty, who has crossed swords with Bloom and Jameson before. Thirdly, Gerald Porter has inexplicably disappeared from police custody and, almost immediately, a huge social media campaign vilifying Paula Kunis and Artemis has been launched, with the result that scores of husbands and fathers of women “poached” by Artemis have headed to the Scottish retreat and are angrily congregating at its gates.

Leona Deakin (right) has written an absolute cracker of a thriller, and her portrayal of how cults go about their business preying on innocent and needy people is chilling. The conclusion of Hunt is dramatic, violent and utterly gripping.

Hunt is out now, published by Black Swan/Penguin, and you can investigate buying choices by clicking the images below. Or, visit your local bookshop if you are lucky enough to have one.

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GUILT . . .Between the covers

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Michelle Kidd is a new name to me, and the central character in this novel – DI Nikki Hardcastle – will be a new name to everyone, as Guilt is the first in a series. The author practiced law for 10 years, specialising in criminal and civil litigation. A career change in 2008 took her to work for the NHS where she still works today. Michelle’s Interests are varied but are mostly reading, wine and cats – but not necessarily in that order. She is no novice author, however. In 2018 she published her first novel, which featured Detective Inspector Jack MacIntosh. There have been three subsequent Jack Macintosh novels and the fifth is expected in 2022.

GuiltNikki Hardcastle is a detective in the pleasant Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds, but being, as the tourist board suggests, “A Jewel in the Crown of Suffolk” is no deterrent to criminals of all kinds, and the particular one at the centre of this story is perhaps the worst sort of all – an abductor of children. My four sons are all grown up now, and they have children of their own, but no matter how many times I read accounts (fictional or otherwise) of that awful moment when a parent first realises that their child is missing, it still chills me to the bone.

One minute Sophia Jackson’s little boy Lucas – enjoying his birthday treat at the traveling fair – is there, and the next minute he is gone. The initial panic, the momentary hope that that the child will suddenly appear, and then the numbing, growing dread that someone has taken him – are described with uncomfortable realism. The police become involved, and Nikki Hardcastle heads up the search – against the better judgment of her boss. His reasons? Nothing to do with Nikki’s competence, but the knowledge that many years ago, she, too, was with her young brother at a funfair, and in the twinkling of an eye was taken while Nikki lingered a little too long at the candy-floss stall. And little Dean – Deano – has never been seen since. Michelle Kidd lets us know quite early where Lucas is and what is happening, and this makes for a tantalising kind of tension as we watch the police go round in circles, while the author explains the traumas – without excusing the deeds – that have shaped the monster who has taken Lucas.

We also learn of the terrible childhood of the abductor, and the awful twists of human cruelty that can make beasts of the psychologically vulnerable. The book also explores the complexity of guilt, and the corrosive effect it can have on families and individuals. Eventually Nikki Hardcastle and her team manage to complete the jigsaw, but the grueling case has one final shock in store for the mentally and physically exhausted detective.

Be warned. This is not a humdrum or cosy (in any shape or form) police procedural. There are descriptions of cruelty and malice which some readers may find difficult. This is however, a cleverly written – and sometimes painfully convincing –  crime novel which shines a light on the darker corners of the human psyche. Guilt is published by Question Mark Press and is available now as a Kindle or in paperback. If you want to find out more about Michelle Kidd, you can visit her website by clicking on her image below.

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LONDON BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN . . . Between the covers

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If you are new to the Bryant & May series, then I could be rude and say, “You’re a bit bloody late!” More charitably, I could direct you to some of my earlier reviews of books in this magnificent sequence. Take a look here.

After many false twilights and surviving more execution attempts that John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee, it looks as though the Peculiar Crimes Unit has finally succumbed to the bureaucrats who have been plotting its demise for decades. The vandals have moved in and pulled out all the computer terminals, cut off the electric, and the ineffectual and (rightly) much mocked nominal supremo of the PCU – Raymond Land –  has given his valedictory address to the staff (rostered below)

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But fate – in the shape of a deceased old lady – has one last trick to play. When Amelia Hoffman is found dead in her flat, the regular police are happy to file the death in the file marked “Elderly Widows, No Family, Neglected By Social Services, Death Of.” But all is not what it seems. Arthur Bryant finds that the dead woman was one of three women who, having worked at Bletchley Park, were then absorbed into the post war British intelligence service. Arthur grabs at this straw with grateful hands, declares it ‘specialized’ enough to warrant the attention of the PCU, and launches a murder investigation.

Unusually for a Bryant & May investigation, there is an international element, courtesy of a frightful chap called Larry Cranston. He holds a British passport, but is in the employ of the CIA and various dark branches of the American state. When he drunkenly runs down and kills a pedestrian, he looks for diplomatic immunity and it is dangled in front of his nose – but at a price. The price is that he hunts down and ‘neutralises’ three old ladies – one of whom is Mrs Hoffman – who hold the key to exposing a sensitive intelligence operation, code-name ‘London Bridge‘.

Arthur Bryant, to the exasperation of his colleagues, has the habit – when he finds the solution to a problem – of going into a kind of investigative purdah. He refuses to share his thinking or his evidence, mostly on the grounds that John May and the others will neither understand it nor believe it. Such is the case here, and Arthur knows that he is dealing with the kind of historical criminal crossword, the esoteric clues for which only he can explain. By the end of the novel, however, even Arthur realises that he has been played, and nothing about the case is what it seems.

As ever, Christopher Fowler’s writing is exquisite. His deep reverence for – and knowledge of – the dark and lonely pathways trodden by centuries of Londoners is compelling. As usual the dialogue sparkles and the jokes are laugh-out-loud, but there is a sense of endgame here. Arthur, it seems, is wearing his inner Ulysses like a suit of armour:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

As the old joke goes, Pretentious? Moi?” Quoting Tennyson in a crime fiction book review? I make absolutely no apologies. Christopher Fowler has, over the long sequence of Bryant & May novels, shown that he lives under the same roof as many great writers who understood ‘Englishness’. In my mind, he sits down happily with such names as John Betjeman, JB ‘Beachcomber’ Morton, George and Weedon Grossmith and – in terms of London – Peter Ackroyd.

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It was with great dismay that many B&M fans read on the author’s Twitter the other day that this would be the last novel in the series. After all, the two fellows are impossibly old, given all they have witnessed and been through together, so it was not unexpected. Sad times then, but the last few pages of the book are as poignant – and beautifully written – as anything you could ever wish to read. Think Julius Caesar, Act III, Sc2, line 148. And yes – I did. London Bridge Is Falling Down is published by Doubleday and is out now.

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