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English Crime Fiction

DYING INSIDE . . . Between the covers

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Back in the day when I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue was actually funny, and I’m talking about the late 1970s, one of my favourite rounds was Late Arrivals At The Ball, where a servant announces the arrival of . . . cue wonderful and bizarre puns, such as:

(The Astronauts’ Ball) Mr and Mrs Secondstoblastoff and their Scottish son, Fife
(The Booksellers’ Ball) Mr & Mrs Zeen, & their disgusting daughter, Margaret – known as ‘Dirty Maggie’
(The Butchers’ Ball) Mr and Mrs Poundamince and their son, Arfur

I only mention this because twice now, within a few days, I have found a crime series to which I have come very late. This, for an avowed fan of police procedural novels, is pretty damning. At least the Trevor Negus novels featuring Danny Flint was only a three book series, but much to my shame I find that there have been ten previous books in the DCI Nick Dickson series. All I can do, is review the eleventh – Dying Inside – and mutter “mea culpa.” Below, numbers one to five in the Nick Dixon Books.

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51olmknWKqS._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Nick Dickson works for Avon and Somerset Constabulary, so his beat covers much of England’s glorious West Country from Bristol down to Weston super Mare. He is relatively recently promoted, which is good for his salary and pension, but has dragged him into the vortex of tedium which includes mission statements, performance reviews and coma-inducing courses with titles like Developing Inclusive Management Styles In A Modern Police Service. ( I just made that up, but a pound to a penny something very like it actually exists) Dixon, like his creator, is a former solicitor, so he is very wise to the standard stunts pulled by defence lawyers, and it also accounts for his rapid promotion through the ranks. Witnesses often remark that he looks “too young to be such an important officer”, to which his response is usually a neutral smile

Here though, he has dead bodies to deal with. Not so good for the victims – firstly a number of sheep, secondly a dodgy accountant and then an HMRC manager investigating fraud – but good for Dixon’s state of mind. The two humans and the sheep have all been killed with fatal shots from a powerful crossbow. Were the sheep just practice targets while the killer honed his or her skills, or were they unrelated incidents? And what is the true story behind  the ocean-going yacht owned by the dodgy accountant capsizing and sinking taking with it one of its crew, Laura Dicken?

Bit by bit, Dixon completes the jigsaw, and is convinced that the deaths are revenge attacks by one of the people who were lured into a scam which ruined their pensions and left them more or less destitute. With his bosses anxious for him to wrap the case up and devote himself to the serious business of Neighbourhood Watch Liaison Committees and Diversity Webinars, Dixon has one or two surprises up his sleeve before the case can finally be closed. Dying Inside is a thoroughly entertaining read, full of twists and turns, and is published by Thomas and Mercer. It is out in paperback and Kindle on 22nd June.

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A COLD GRAVE . . . Between the covers

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I had not come across Trevor Negus and his DCI Danny Flint novels, and it was only a browse through Netgalley that brought it to my attention, and I am glad I found it – but sorry to come late to the series, which began with Evil in MInd, and was followed by Dead and Gone. The three books all came out in May this year from Inkubator Books, but A Cold Grave was first published in 2018 with the title A Different Kind of Evil, from Bathwood Manor Publishing, which seems to be no more. I am glad that Inkubator have picked up the torch and are running with it.

I have to say that the police procedural genre is my absolute Alpha and Omega in crime fiction, and chancing upon a new (to me) series is a ‘punch the air’ moment. The acid test of course, is deciding if the book is any good. I think police procedurals are harder to get wrong than most genres, but it does happen. I am happy to say that Trevor Negus does most things right in this novel, and so he hasn’t dropped the Ming vase to shatter into a thousand pieces. The book is set in 1986, so in one sense it is Historical Crime Fiction, but only the absence of mobile phones stands out as a major difference between then and now. One of the elements that make this novel work so well is the sense – and continuity – of place. We certainly aren’t in the most romantic or obviously atmospheric part of Britain, but Negus knows Nottinghamshire like the back of his proverbial, and so he should; his bio reveals:

“In 1975 Trevor joined the Nottinghamshire Constabulary as a Police Cadet, becoming a regular officer in 1978. As a uniform constable he learned his craft in the pressure cooker environment of inner city Nottingham which at that time had one of the highest violent crime rates in the United Kingdom.

During a varied thirty year police career Trevor spent six years as an authorised firearms officer and sniper, before transferring onto the CID. He spent the last twelve years of his career as a detective, becoming a specialist interviewer involved in the planning and implementation of interviews with murder suspects.”

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One of the most notorious places in Nottinghamshire is Rampton Secure Hospital, and it is here that the story begins. Two prisoners escape, after inflicting serious violence on several staff. One is quickly tracked down, but the other, Jimmy Wade, gets clean away, almost certainly helped by a member of the public with a car. Wade is a seriously deranged psychopath, and every day he remains at large is a day of anxiety for Detective Inspector Danny Flint and his team.

Flint has something else on his plate, though. That ever-reliable participant in murder enquiries (real and fictional)  – a dog walker – has discovered the decomposing body of a boy. The boy is soon identified as Evan Jenkins, who has been removed from the ‘care’ of his mother, a drug addicted prostitute, and placed in a care home called Tall Trees. Flint has a bad feeling about the couple who run the home – Carol and Bill Short – and he connects them both to a drug ring and – even worse – a ring of paedophiles  whose members include several civic dignitaries and influential businessmen. Meanwhile, Wade’s whereabouts remains a mystery.

Unlike Danny Flint, we know that Wade is living in a remote cottage on a country estate, aided and abetted by his girlfriend Melissa Braithwaite, who is drawn to him by a poisonous mixture of fear of his violence and the worst kind of sexual attraction. Wade has a revenge mission he hatched while under lock and key – the abduction of two prison officers who had given him a particularly hard time in Rampton. Danny Flint’s hunt for Wade and the paedophile ring responsible for Evan Jenkins’s death is played out against an impressively authentic geographical background – the Nottinghamshire towns of Retford, Newark and Mansfield. A police procedural this may be, but Dixon of Dock Green it certainly is not. It is dark, and sometimes frighteningly violent, but always compellingly readable. A Cold Grave is out now.

SCARRED . . . Between the covers

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If ever there were an appropriate title for a Henry Christie novel, it is this. For newcomers, former Lancashire copper Nick Oldham created Christie in 1996 with A Time For Justice. Scarred is, I believe the 28th in the series, and while Christie hasn’t quite aged the full twenty five years since we first met him, he is rather like Tennyson’s Ulysses:

“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;”

Sticking with the Bard of Somersby, Christie is also;

“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Back in the day, Henry Christie was a senior detective with the Lancashire Constabulary. He is now long since retired, running a moorland pub, but unable to resist the call to arms when he is asked to operate as a civilian consultant with his old force. Back to the title, though. Christie has endured many a beating at the hands of his criminal adversaries. He carries scars which are both physical and mental from his days battling bad men – and equally malignant women. Without giving too much away, I can say the word ‘scarred’ has a wider connotation than Henry’s war wounds.

I have become weary in recent years of what I call the “four years earlier – six months later” school of narrative, and I raised the tiniest hair of an eyebrow when I saw that this book starts in 1985, when Christie was (I almost said “nobbut a lad” but then remembered that they say that on the other side of the Pennines, not in Lancashire) a young Detective Constable, trying to nab shoplifters. One particular pursuit ends in Christie being severely beaten, and ending up in intensive care. Wisely, Nick Oldham stays with this period of his man’s career for some considerable time, and doesn’t follow the irritating (to me) pattern of lurching between time slots every three or four pages.

81RhPuniszSThe 1985 episode links crucially with the second part of the book which is firmly in present day Covid-restricted Lancashire, complete with masks and elbow bumps. A teenage boy who was the object of Christie’s near fatal pursuit – but then disappeared off the face of the earth – turns up again, but in an unexpected and deeply disturbing way.

A word or two about the places where the book is set. I have spoken of this in previous reviews of Henry Christie stories, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that because some of the action centres on the Blackpool area, there is any sense of sun and fun, saucy postcards and kiss-me-quick hats. The ubiquitous Google provides a statement from Lancashire Country Council:

“Blackpool (20.9%), in the Lancashire-14 area, has the largest proportion of its working age population employment deprived in England, and the third largest percentage income deprived (24.7%). Blackpool has the largest number of people employment deprived and income deprived in the Lancashire-14 area.

Where you have the ‘D’ word you always have crime, meanness of spirit and Oldham doesn’t shy away from describing the littered streets, the drug-ridden estates, the human desert speckled with steel-grilled convenience stores and tattoo shops, the youngsters who have turned feral by the age of twelve, and the desperate single mothers, endlessly betrayed by the absent fathers of their children, and whose only solace is tobacco and cheap alcohol. It doesn’t make the Henry Christie novels Noir, exactly, mainly because HC is such a decent fellow. He is a man who remains optimistic in spite of everything, and perhaps he is a soulmate of the man so superbly described by Raymond Chandler:

“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.”

Back to the book. Mr Civilian Christie has been partnered with a firebrand Detective Sergeant, xxxxx who is fixated on the fact that there has been systematic collusion between the police and criminals in Lancashire over a long period of time. Because of this, she has been shunted sideways into investigating cold case crime, an operation which may make for good police procedurals on TV, but is probably frustrating for officers who want to be at the sharp end of investigation and law enforcement. What starts as a hunt for man who raped a young girl many months ago morphs into the discovery of a huge child abuse scandal, and ends with one of the most ferocious finales you could want to read. Scarred is published by Severn House and is out now. To read my reviews of earlier Nick Oldham novels, click the image below.

 

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THE DISTANT DEAD . . . Between the covers

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I was gifted this to review by Head of Zeus, so huge thanks to them. The Distant Dead is the eighth in a series by Lesley Thomson, so I am coming late to the party. What attracted me to the book? Two things, really. Firstly there was a mention of a WW2 element, and I am a sucker for anything war-related. Secondly, some of the action takes place in the Gloucestershire town of Tewksbury. Years ago now, a very dear friend of mine, Miles Amherst – long since gone,sadly – founded a choir school at Tewksbury Abbey. I had taught with him in Ely, but we had gone our separate ways. When the choir school was running, I was teaching in a Shropshire prep school, and I always had a half day on Mondays. It was a bit of a drive, but sometimes I used to motor down to Tewksbury, rehearse with the choir and help them sing Evensong. Afterwards was always beer, food – and an small-hours drive back to Salop.

So, happy memories, but what of the book? I am not the biggest fan of split time narratives, but many authors are, so it is what it is. In this case, at least, the connection between the narratives is clear. In Blitz-torn London, a young woman is found dead – strangled in an abandoned house. The pathologist called to the scene, and who later carries out the post mortem, is a man called Aleck Northcote. He tells the police investigating the case that the woman, Maple Greenhill was a common prostitute.

TDDYears later, Northcote has retired to Tewksbury, but is found dead. His wastrel son is convicted of his murder. Pretty much present day, Stella Darnell, the daughter of a policeman, now working as a contract cleaner in Tewksbury, meets a man named Roddy March who has produced a podcast about the 1963 murder of Northcote. Roddy investigates cases where he thinks the wrong person went to prison – or, in this case, the gallows. When Roddy is found murdered next to an ancient tomb in Tewksbury Abbey, Stella feels connected enough to find out the truth about how past and present have merged – with fatal consequences.

So, what exactly happened in 1940?. We know – from the prologue – that Maple Greenhill has gone into an empty house with a man friend, and that he strangles her. When her body is found, London copper George Cotton is called, but his investigation leads nowhere until a cigarette lighter is found at the scene. It is engraved with the initials AXN. Cotton puts two and two together, and assumes that the pathologist – Aleck Xavier Northcote – must have dropped it when he was called to look at the body. Then, in a separate breakthrough, a garment repair ticket is found in Maple’s coat. When Cotton visits the tailor, he is astonished to be joined by a woman who says she has lost the self-same ticket. The woman is Mrs Aleck Northcote.

Lesley Thomson switches the narratives very cleverly and poses important questions as the book progresses. Was Northcote Maple’s man-friend, and did he kill her? If he did, how then did he avoid prosecution and survive to be murdered in his own house twenty three years later? And if Giles Northcote – who had visited his father on than fateful evening to ask for money to pay off a gambling debt – didn’t kill his father, then who did? And was the killer somehow connected to the death of Maple Greenhill.

Obviously, I am not about to reveal the answer to the conundrum, but you will enjoy – as I did – how Lesley Thomson has Stella Darnell – and her companions –  searching for, and then finding, the truth. The actual solution to what turns out to be multiple murders is breathtakingly complex, but this a clever, literate and totally convincing murder mystery – and thoroughly, thoroughly English. People who follow the news know that Tewksbury is notoriously susceptible to flooding, standing as it does at the confluence of the rivers Severn and Warwickshire Avon, and Lesley Thomson uses the power of the river as it hurtles over weirs and beneath bridges as a very effective metaphor for the violence in human souls. The Distant Dead is available now, and the previous books in the series are pictured below. If you click the image, you will be taken to Lesley Thomson’s website.

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Blood Runs Thicker . . . Between the covers

BRT HEADERThis is the eighth book in a very popular series set in 12th century Worcestershire. I am a latecomer to the party, but I thoroughly enjoyed the previous book River of Sins, and you can read my review by clicking this link. Now, Under-Sheriff Hugh Bradecote and his grizzled ally Serjeant Catchpoll – along with apprentice lad Walkelin – investigate the murder of an irascible and little-loved nobleman, Osbern de Lench.

The late man had a habit of sitting on his horse atop a small hill near his house and gazing at his land. It was said that doing so calmed him down when he was in one of his more wrathful moods. On the fateful day the horse comes back alone and a search party finds de Lench stabbed to death. His family was certainly not a happy one. Baldwin, his son by his first wife (who died in a mysterious riding accident) has the same choleric temper as his father. There is a second son – the result of de Lench marrying again, but Hamo is very different from his half brother. He is studious and solitary and probably has what we now call Asperger’s Syndrome.

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Incidentally, there are three real-life villages near Worcester which rejoice under the names Church Lench, Ab Lench and Rous Lench, but I believe Osbern de Lench exists only in Sarah Hawkwood’s vivid and blessed imagination. Back to the novel, and Bradecote & Catchpoll learn that de Lench had ‘history’ with other local landowners, but was this enough to link any of them to his death? And was Fulk, the family Steward providing home comforts to Lady de Lench, a woman not unused to being roughly dealt with by her husband? The seemingly pointless murder of Mother Winflaed, a harmless woman who ministers to the villagers with her herbal knowledge – and also delivers its babies – only adds to the confusion.

The ingredients that make up the chemistry between the three investigators is cleverly worked. Young Walkelin is callow, but clever and inquisitive, while Catchpoll’s world-wearness is an excellent counter balance to Bradecote’s more lofty idealism.

By no means is this a preachy or political novel, but Sarah Hawkswood has some pertinent points to make – via Hugh Bradecote – about the treatment and role of women, and the very real perils of childbirth. As a man of advanced years I can find much to moan about in current society, but modern obstetrics (at least in the western world) is something for which we should all be eternally grateful.

I am very much an amateur book reviewer, and there are probably hundreds of us who love to read, and are grateful for publishers and publicists who trust us to deal fairly with the books they send us. One of the downsides is that there is always a To Be Read pile, with deadlines to meet, and little chance to sit back and read purely for pleasure. I am determined, however, to find time to catch up with the previous books in this series. If they are all as good as this one, then my time will not be wasted

 This novel is thoroughly immersive and the blend of classic whodunnit, gritty historical detail and the sense of a glorious landscape now all but vanished is utterly beguiling. Blood Runs Thicker is published by Allison & Busby, and is available now.

THE NIGHT HAWKS . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 19.46.09Elly Griffiths, (left) whose real name is Domenica de Rosa, has created an endearing heroine in the person of Ruth Galloway, an English archaeologist who, over the course of a dozen novels, has managed to find herself at the centre of murder mysteries where the corpses are considerably more recent than the ones she normally excavates. She is a senior lecturer at the fictional University of North Norfolk, and the novels are set in and around the north and west of Norfolk. Griffiths uses real locations like King’s Lynn, Blakeney and Sheringham, and has also constructed a reliably entertaining cast of supporting players, principally Ruth’s once-upon-a-time lover, a refreshingly old fashioned married police detective called Harry Nelson. They have a child, Kate, who lives with Ruth, while Harry remains more-or-less happily married to Michelle, with whom he also has children.

In the thirteenth book in the series, The Night Hawks, we have the characters who long time readers of the series will recognise, including the middle aged druid who calls himself Cathbad. His real name is Michael Malone, but he can usually be relied upon to bring to bring a touch of the supernatural – imagined or otherwise – to the proceedings. The Night Hawks in this tale aren’t remotely sinister, despite their name. They are group of men whose hobby is traversing the ancient Norfolk landscape with their metal detectors, searching for buried artifacts. They operate at night, because it is quieter and they are less likely to be disturbed.

They get the story started with a classic Elly Griffiths trope – the finding of a Bronze Age hoard, including an ancient skeleton, alongside a body that is much more recently deceased. While the older gentleman can wait his turn to be studied and catalogued, the young man’s body is whisked off to King’s Lynn for the attention of the police pathologist.

51D4BGVpbxLShortly after the grim discovery, the police are called to a remote farmhouse a few miles inland, where there are reports of gunshots being heard. This time, there is no doubt about the identity or the cause of death of two dead people found inside Black Dog Farmhouse. Dr Douglas Noakes and his wife Linda are dead from gunshot wounds, and it appears to be a clear case of murder-suicide. This clear cut diagnosis becomes rather more tenuous when questions are raised about firearms technicalities, despite an apparent suicide note being found.

The plot becomes pleasantly complicated from this point on. The late Dr and Mrs Noakes had two children, from whom they had become estranged, but was the separation bitter enough to provoke murder? Noakes was not a GP, but a research scientist, and it seems that he had been working with a Cambridge lab developing vaccines. Was this why one of the rooms at Black Dog Farmhouse was kitted out like a doctor’s surgery, complete with bed? The dead young man – the twentieth century one – is eventually identified as Jem Taylor, a 25 year-old from Cromer, who had only recently been released from prison.

There is another murder. This time the victim is a member of The Night Hawks, a retired teacher with connections to several of the people in the story. He has been battered over the head with a lump of rock, and his death further complicates matters.

Elly Griffiths has great fun by introducing some ‘spookery’ by way of a local legend – that of Black Shuck. Tales of a ghostly hellhound are spread far and wide through English folklore, and this Norfolk version is equally menacing. Like all literary amateur sleuths, Ruth Galloway’s involvement with active police investigations is pretty implausible, but delightfully so. The odd relationship between Ruth, Harry Nelson and his wife makes for an intriguing read, and added to the impeccably researched location details, The Night Hawks provides a thoroughly enjoyable and gripping few hours of entertainment. The book is published by Quercus and will be out on 4th February.

I KNOW WHAT I SAW . . . Between the covers

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Imagine having a perfect memory. Being able to replay words, sounds, situations – from years ago. It’s all there, in your head, ready to be recalled. Great for exams when you were younger, but what about when something unpleasant happened to you, and it won’t ever go away? Nicola Walker has Hyperthymesia. She has been the subject of scientific studies and examinations, but her condition is what it is. Now, it’s 2020 and, at the age of 51, she has a humdrum job in London’s British Library. Sher marriage ended half a lifetime ago, and now she lives from day to day with only her cat for company. Until she receives an alarming telephone call.

The call is from a Metropolitan Police detective. Her former husband, Declan, has been arrested on suspicion of murdering his father, years earlier. And his only witness? Nicola and her perfect memory.

We are basically in two time zones. The present day, 2020, and a summer Sunday in June 1985, which is Arty Robbins’s 50th birthday. The event is being celebrated at a pub called The Mary Shelley, and the landlord is Arty’s father, Vincent. Nicola, aged 16, and Declan Robbins, aged 18, son of Arty, are ‘an item’. A list of the other characters is not something I normally compile, but it might be useful in this case.

Craig Walker, Nicola’s father
Susan Walker, Nicola’s mother
Dave Crane, friend of the Walkers. He married Susan after Craig’s death from cancer.
Kat Clarke, Nicola’s contemporary, and best friend. Her father Daniel, Arty Robbins’s brother, walked out on them years earlier.
Chloe Clarke, Kat’s mother
Gary Barclay, Kat’s boyfriend. They later marry.
Anne Robbins, wife of Arty, mother of Declan

ikwis022Arthur Robbins is a pillar of the community. Successful estate agent, all-round diamond geezer and school governor. But then, he just disappears. He was last seen in the small hours on the night of his birthday party. Lost for 35 years – until his remains turn up in the foundations of a building being demolished to make way for a new development.

We have, in one sense, a traditional whodunnit, but it is unconventional insofar as  the usual police work, while still taking place, is secondary to the agonising replays going on inside Nicky’s head. What did she see? Who did she see? Where were they? How do these memories stack up against the ticking clock on that warm summer night 35 years ago? Has she mis-remembered? What if she is shutting out some memories in order to protect someone she loves? There’s no shortage of suspects, as the real Arty Robbins is far from the jovial character he pretends to be.

The killer of Arty Robbins is eventually unmasked, and SK Sharp leads us down many a blind alley as the narrative unfolds, and Nicola finally completes the jigsaw of her memories. It’s clever stuff, and gripping – I read it in two enjoyable sessions – but for me, the strength of the novel is the relationship between Declan and Nicola, both then and now. I don’t remember a more sensitive and perceptive account of teenagers falling in love with each other, but the most moving and effective counterpoint to this is how it all plays out, decades later, with so much water under the bridge, so much hurt, so many mistakes and so much misunderstanding.

This is a fine novel, a thriller, yes, but full of compassion and telling insights into what people do to each other, and how secrets corrode trust. I Know What I Saw was first published in October 2020 by Cornerstone Digital. This paperback edition is from Arrow, and is out now.

SK Sharp (aka Stephen Deas) is on Twitter

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House With No Doors . . . Between the covers

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HWND cover008This has the most seriously sinister beginning of any crime novel I have read in years. DI Henry Hobbes (of whom more presently) is summoned by his Sergeant to Bridlemere, a rambling Edwardian house in suburban London, where an elderly man has apparently committed suicide. Corpse – tick. Nearly empty bottle of vodka – tick. Sleeping pills on the nearby table – tick. Hobbes is not best pleased at his time being wasted, but the observant Meg Latimer has a couple of rabbits in her hat. One rabbit rolls up the dead man’s shirt to reveal some rather nasty knife cuts, and the other leads Hobbes on a tour round the house, where he discovers identical sets of women’s clothing, all laid out formally, and each with gashes in the midriff area, stained red. Sometimes the stains are actual blood, but others are as banal as paint and tomato sauce.

Hobbes makes a more thorough investigation of the strange house, and finds a cellar in which he discovers something even more disturbing. Author Jeff Noon introduced us to Hobbes in Slow Motion Ghosts (2019 – click for the review) and, like that earlier novel, this one is set in the 1980s. Hobbes is a bit of a misfit. He is certainly not ‘one of the lads’ back at the station. He is quiet, cerebral and single, his marriage to Glenda being certainly on the rocks and close to being sunk. As he tries to work out what secrets lie within the walls of Bridlemere, he has personal problems, the chief of which being the fact that his 17 year-old son has left home to live in a squat, where both his health and sanity are threatened.

Hobbes believes that although Leonard Graves did probably take his own life, an enigmatic note he left suggests that there is a body concealed somewhere in the house.. While an intensive search produces no human remains, what Hobbes calls The Case of The Thirteen Dresses becomes a genuine murder enquiry when the body of the old man’s son is found, battered to death in Richmond Park.

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The more Hobbes learns about the Graves family, the more he feels drawn into their sinister world. Mary Estelle, Leonard’s wife, a former actress of renown, is living out her days in an old folk’s home, absorbed in her glittering memories, but was she responsible for corrupting her three children Rosamund, Camilla and Nicholas? Was there a fourth child, Adeline, mentioned in Leonard’s suicide not? And what of the grandson, David, and his obsession with Kusozu, the macabre Japanese art form that depicts the very corruption of death?

Jeff NoonMy verdict on House With No Doors? In a nutshell, brilliant – a tour de force. Jeff Noon (right) has taken the humble police procedural, blended in a genuinely frightening psychological element, added a layer of human corruption and, finally, seasoned the dish with a piquant dash of insanity. On a purely narrative level, he also includes one of the most daring and astonishing final plot twists I have read in many a long year.

Jeff Noon takes us to places unvisited since the days of the late, great Derek Raymond. This novel is crime fiction, yes, but also a journey into the darkest corners of the human soul. Raymond’s nameless copper also walked the bleaker streets of London, and he had a passion verging on obsession for avenging the victims of crime by finding the people who killed them. Henry Hobbes shares this single mindedness. House With No Doors is a chronicle of madness wearing a mask of normality. It is deeply moving and as Hobbes mines deeper and deeper into history of the Graves family, he shows us that it is not only the dead who are victims. The book is published by Doubleday and is out on 14th January.

RIVER OF SINS . . . Between the covers

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A little while ago I reviewed a novel set in Worcestershire – it was the beginning of WW2, and it centred on the fictional village of Ambridge and, of course, featured The Archers. History of a very different kind now. River of Sins is the seventh in a series of historical mysteries written by Sarah Hawkswood set in and around the city of Worcester in the 12th century.

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I am new to the series but I enjoyed the fact that we have that most dependable of crime fiction tropes – a pair of investigators. There is a slight variation a theme in this case, as they are aided by an intrepid young apprentice. The dynamic between the three works well. Hugh Bradecote is the Under Sheriff, and is of noble birth with a degree of hauteur, while Sergeant Catchpoll is Worcester through-and-through, rough and ready, but very street-wise. Walkelin – the apprentice – is something of a ‘gofer’, but is bright, perceptive, and not afraid to speak his mind.

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The novel begins with a woman being brutally done to death on a small island in the River Severn on the northern outskirts of Worcester. We learn that the woman and her killer are acquainted, but just how, and what the significance is, only unfolds with the investigation.

The dead woman is Ricolde, known throughout the city as The Whore of Worcester. She was widely despised by the gentlewomen of the city, while being used by their husbands, but as Bradecote and Catchpoll discover, there was another dimension to Ricolde. Educated, and perfectly content to talk the night through with men who demanded nothing other than her company, she also gave money to the church to be used to ameliorate the misery of other women of the street who were less resilient than she.

The investigators struggle to find a motive for the murder. Moral disapproval doesn’t usually lead to someone being dismembered with a woodsman’s axe, but does the clue to Ricolde’s death lie deep in her past, and has it to do with the horrific scars on the soles of her feet, inflicted decades earlier?

Sarah Hawkswood’s Worcester is a place we can see, hear, feel, breathe – and smell – as the mystery unfolds. What is the River of the title? It is the River Severn, broad and deep, a source of fresh food, a vital artery of transport at a time when roads were just beaten dirt, but also a means of escape and concealment. With only the most rudimentary forensic skills available, Bradecote and Catchpoll must rely on the most basic and time-honoured methods of detection, means, motive and opportunity. This is an excellent detective story which also gives us an intriguing glimpse into a long-lost world.

River of Sins is published by Allison & Busby and will be out in paperback and as a Kindle on 19th November.

Hawkswood books

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