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English Crime Fiction

THE LOST SHRINE . . . Between the covers

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The LostOn a lonely and ancient hill in south western England, a group of amiable but earnest hippy cranks prepare to celebrate a pagan festival. What their leader finds when he climbs the hill to consummate the ritual sends him reeling and retching to his knees. There, strung up from the trees is a grisly collection of local wildlife, butchered and bloody. That is bad enough, but the centrepiece of this obscene display is – or was – human.

The corpse is that of Beth Kinsella, an intense and controversial archaeologist who has been excavating Bailsgrove Hill prior to much of it being consumed by a building development. She was convinced that the site contained the remains of a rare Bronze Age shrine, much to the frustration of Paul Marshall who, although paying the wages of the dig team has his JCBs and concrete mixers massing on the horizon waiting for the academics with their trowels, sieves and brushes to be gone.

Enter, stage left, Clare Hills. She is an academic who works with Dr David Barbrook. Barbrook’s main job is lecturer, but together with Hills he has established the Hart Unit, a team of archaeologists totally dependent on commercial funding and meagre trickle-down money from the university. Clare’s personal life is anything but robust. She is recently widowed, and finds that her late husband has blown their life savings on failed investments. She is literally scratching out a living with the tools of her trade, but Barbrook asks her to go and complete the work Kinsella started at Bailsgrove.

More corpses – both ancient and modern – are discovered, while Clare Hills is run ragged by a combination of unsettling discoveries about her late husband’s business affairs, and a bizarre conspiracy centred on the  site, involving the dark and devious word of online antiquity sales.

Among the many strong features of this highly readable murder mystery are the delicious sense of place – a real bonus for those who know and love this part of England, – a credibly vulnerable and appealing main character, and a hard-headed knowledge of the problems that archaeologists have in earning any sort of a decent living. One of my sons is a professional archaeologist who spent his degree years immersed in the magic of the past. Now he has a family to house, feed and clothe, so he is on the staff of a major construction company and faces, on a daily basis, the dilemma between recording and – sometimes – preserving the past in the face of commercial and financial pressures.

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The Lost Shrine is published by Allson & Busby and will be out on 23rd May. Nic Ford is the pen name of Dr Nick Snashall (above), National Trust Archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. My review of her first novel in the Hills and Barbrook series, The Hidden Bones, is here.

For eBook fans, The Lost Shrine is on offer
from 29th May until 5th June at a bargain 99p!

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THEIR LITTLE SECRET . . . Between the covers

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mark-billinghamLondon copper DI Tom Thorne has been entertaining us since his debut in Sleepyhead (2001). His creator, Mark Billingham, (left) has developed an enviably reliable repertory company of other players who share the stage with the main man. There is his best mate Phil Hendricks, a pathologist who, despite being gay, supporting Arsenal against Thorne’s beloved Spurs and having piercings in places where most folk don’t even have places, is the voice of sanity in Thorne’s often chaotic world. Thorne’s love interest (from whom he is currently living apart) is Helen, another police officer, but one who works in the traumatic world of child protection. Nicola Tanner is Thorne’s professional partner and they have history, but not one that either reflects on with much pleasure. Tanner’s partner Susan was brutally killed in a previous episode, and her death hangs over the pair like a pall.

Their Little Secret begins with the much-loved trope of an apparent suicide which is viewed with suspicion by the central character. This time, however, it is slightly different. When a woman goes fatally head-to-head with an underground train, there is no suspicion that she was physically pushed, but Thorne believes that something traumatic – and criminal – tipped her over the edge in both sense of the phrase. He discovers that she had been targeted by a conman who had relieved her of a large sum of money and then disappeared, leaving her heartbroken, ashamed of her own gullibility and with her self-respect shredded. Despite the reluctance of his boss to spend any more time (and money) on the case, Thorne discovers that Philippa Goodwin is not the first victim of the conman.

TLSIn an ostensibly unconnected narrative thread, Billingham introduces us to a Sarah, a vulnerable single mum who is anxious to gain the approval of other mums with whom she waits at the primary school gate twice each day. They seem confident, successful and financially comfortable. Sarah tries to join in with their daily sojourn at a pretentious ‘artisan’ coffee shop after the morning school run, but she still feels like the outsider. Her world is just herself and her son Jamie, and she struggles to compete with the gossip and banter that fly like sparks between Karen, Caroline, Savita and Heather. Until. Until the day when, sitting apart at her own table in HazBeanz, Sarah is chatted up by distinctly fanciable slightly older fellow. Almost instantly, Sarah finds the others anxious to swap phone numbers in return for daily updates about the new romance.

So, we can all see where this is going, yes? Sarah is about to become the latest victim of the romantic predator who Thorne and Tanner will eventually track down and bring to justice? At this point, I will disengage from the plot so as not to spoil things. Suffice it to say that Billingham plays the Pied Piper, and we are the innocent children of Hamelin.

If you are new to the world of Tom Thorne, don’t dismiss this book as just another police procedural. Yes, the atmosphere of the Incident Room, the evidence gathering, the financial pressures and the grim fare of the police canteen – everything is just as it should be, authentic and convincing. But Billingham gives us so much more. Thorne is, in some ways, unlovely. He can be insensitive, self-centred and, it has to be said, something of a slob. His impulsiveness has got him – and others – into bother on more than one occasion, and as for his musical obsession with the lonesome highway world of Hank Williams, you must be your own judge. Earlier novels in the series told of Thorne’s impotent distress at the decline of his father as dementia took hold and turned a fine mind into mush. As middle age peaks and ‘the other side’ beckons, he still dreams of his mum and dad. He is not alone.

There is poetry within the pages of any Tom Thorne novel. It may be brutally comic, and it may be poignant and stark. Thorne recalls the first suicide he had to attend:

“It had been a teenage girl, that first one. A slip of a thing dangling from the branch of an oak tree in Victoria Park. A ripped blue dress and legs like sticks and the muddy heels of her trainers kissing.”

On a grimly humorous note, Thorne/Billingham has a sour take on the pretentiousness of the middle class London enclave of Shoreditch:

“ It was all a little ….full of itself for his liking. ‘Dirty’ burgers, whatever they were, and shops knocking out overpriced tat that was probably meant to be ironic. A few too many gastropubs serving parsnip dust or garlic foam and more artisan bakeries than you could shake a shiitake mushroom at.”

Their Little Secret is a masterpiece of misdirection, suspense and contains as convincing a portrayal of insanity as I have read in many a long year. Tom Thorne is the perfect hero for our troubled times. Emotionally and professionally, he ploughs a lonely furrow, but his honesty and – sometimes clumsy –  care for those he loves are deeply moving. Their Little Secret is published by Little, Brown and will be available from 2nd May.

More of Tom Thorne and Mark Billingham here.

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SLOW MOTION GHOSTS . . .Between the covers

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England. 11th April 1981. While the music charts bubble with the froth of Bucks Fizz, Shakin’ Stevens, Adam and the Ants and The Nolans, London – at least the place south of the river called Brixton – is aflame with violence, racial hatred and mayhem. As the police struggle to control the streets a middle aged Detective Inspector called Henry Hobbes is bused in to help. No matter that Hobbes – and many other senior detectives likewise – is a stranger to riot control, it is a case of all hands on deck.

SMG coverLater that year, with Brixton quieter, despite other English towns and cities erupting in copycat anger, Hobbes has become embroiled in a bitter internal dispute. A fellow copper, Charlie Jenkes (who rescued Hobbs from the mob on that fateful April night) after being indicted for savagely beating a black suspect, has taken his own life. And the officer who testified to Jenkes’s violence? Henry Hobbes, who, with that single act of honesty, is branded as a Judas by his own colleagues.

But now Hobbes has something to distract him from his disintegrating family life and his pariah status among fellow officers. A young man is found dead, wth his body gruesomely mutilated. Brendon Clarke was a minor celebrity, the lead singer with an aspiring band called Monsoon Monsoon, whose chief claim to fame is that they play the music of another dead rockstar – Lucas Bell. Bell’s celebrity rests on hs apparent suicide, his angst-ridden persona, and, most of all, his adoption of the identity of King Lost, a charismatic figure with a gruesome mask.

As Hobbes tries to unpick the complex knot which ties together the identities of Brendan Clarke and Lucas Bell, he discovers that the King Lost legend has its roots in a bizarre fantasy world created by a group of teenagers in the Sussex town of Hastings. With more murders being linked to the world of King Lost, Hobbes is drawn into an investigation which exposes child abuse, blackmail, madness and revenge.

Genre compartmentalising books is not always helpful, but it is fair to say that Noon’s previous novels have used tropes from science fiction, psychedelia and dystopian fantasy. Slow Motion Ghosts adopts conventions of the police procedural, but is more adventurous, asks more questions and has a distinctly noir-ish feel. Noon uses his knowledge of the music scene to bore down into the strange phenomenon of the celebrity cult, and the lengths to which worshippers of dead heroes are prepared to go in order to keep their fantasies alive.

Jeff Noon was born in Droylsden in 1957. He was trained in the visual arts, and was musically active on the punk scene before starting to write plays for the theatre. His first novel, Vurt, was published in 1993 and went on to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He reviews crime fiction for The Spectator.

Slow Motion Ghosts is published by Doubleday, and is out now.

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THE LONELY HOUR . . . Between the covers

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The impossibly geriatric constabulary codgers Arthur Bryant and John May return for another journey into London’s darkside in pursuit of those who kill. This time, the killer appears to be armed with a trocar – an obscure but deadly surgical instrument originally intended to penetrate the body allowing gases or fluid to escape. From the undergrowth of a copse on Hampstead Heath, and the unforgiving undertow of the Thames, via an exclusive multi-story apartment complex, to the pedestrian walkway of a Thames bridge, the victims seems to have nothing in common except the time of their demise – the deadly hour of 4.00 am.

Screen Shot 2019-03-22 at 19.10.55Bryant and May – and the rest of the Peculiar Crimes Unit – have been threatened with closure before, but this time their impatient and disapproving police bosses mean business. The PCU, both collectively and individually flounder around trying to work out what connects the corpses, and who is expertly wielding the trocar. Like Andrew Marvell’s ‘Time’s Winged Chariot’, the accountants and political schemers of the Metropolitan Police are ‘hurrying near’, and failure to catch this killer will certainly mean that the shambolic HQ of the Peculiar Crimes Unit on Caledonian Road will soon be in need of new tenants.

Don’t be misled by the jokes, delightful cultural references, and Arthur’s frequent put-downs of the PCU’s hapless boss, most of which go over Raymond Land’s head but, fortunately, not ours. Physicists will probably say that their world has different rules, but in literature light can only exist relative to darkness, and Fowler does not allow the chiffon gaiety within the Peculiar Crimes Unit to disguise a dystopian London woven from a much darker thread. He says:

“Approaching midnight, the black and grey striped concourse of King’s Cross Station remained almost as busy as it had been during the day. Some Italian students appeared to be having a picnic under the station canopy. A homeless girl ms on her knees next to a lengthy cardboard message explaining her circumstances. A Jamaican family dressed in home-made ecclesiastical vestments were warning everyone that hell awaited sinners. A phalanx of bachelorettes in tiny silver dresses, strappy shoes and bunny ears marched past, heading to their next destination like soldiers on a final tour of duty. Inside the station, tourists were still lurking round the Harry Potter trolley that had been originally set there as a joke by the station guards, then monetized when queues appeared. As flinty-eyed and mean as it had ever been, London was good at making everyone pay.”

If a better paragraph about London has been written in recent years, I have yet to read it

Fowler’s London is a place where the same streets, courtyards, alleys and highways have been walked for centuries; Roman legionaries, Norman functionaries, medieval merchants, Tudor politicians, Restoration poets, Georgian gamblers, Victorian philanthropists, Great War Tommies, and now City spivs with their dreams and nightmares spinning about in front of them on their smartphones – all have played their part in treading history down beneath their feet into a compressed and powerful seam of memory. This memory, whether they know it or not, affects the lives of those who live, work, lust, learn and – ultimately – die in London. Other writers, notably Peter Ackroyd, have been drawn to this lodestone and tapped into its power. Some authors have taken up the theme but befuddled readers with too much arcane psychogeography. Fowler gets it right. Every single time. With every sentence of every paragraph of every chapter.

Bryant is neither Mr Pastry, Charles Pooter nor Mr Bean. He is as sharp as a tack despite such running gags as his coat pockets being full of fluff covered boiled sweets long since disappeared from English shelves. If we knew no better, we might describe him as having a personality disorder somewhere on the autism spectrum, but there are precious moments in The Lonely Hour where the old man brings himself up short with the realisation that he is, most of the time, chronically selfish.

CF_Thanks to Bryant’s genius, the mystery is solved and the killer brought to justice, but these are certainly the grimmest days ever for the PCU, and as this brilliantly entertaining story reaches its conclusion, Fowler (right) slowly but irrevocably turns the tap marked Darkness to its fully open position. The Lonely Hour is published by Doubleday and is out now.

I have a beautiful hardback copy of this novel to give away. If you want to be in the prize draw, simply click this link.

MARKED MEN . . . Between the covers

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Manchester writer Chris Simms intoduced us to Detective Constable Sean Blake in Loose Tongues (Severn House, 2018) where he was making his debut in the city’s Serious Crimes Unit. Crime buffs will know that Simms has been around for a while, building a serious readership with his books about another Manchester copper, the rather more senior Detective Inspector Jon Spicer, as well as earlier novels featuring DC Iona Khan of the Manchester Counter Terrorism Unit.

MMMarked Men begins on an idyllic Spanish beach, but then switches to the less salubrious setting of urban Manchester, and we only learn the significance of the opening much later in the plot. This way of starting a novel has become rather well-worn, but Simms handles it well and times to perfection the revelation of its significance. The Manchester action begins with Blake in waders and hard hat at the bottom of a drained lock on a local canal. There is a body, naturally, with more to follow, and as Blake and his immediate boss, DS Dragomir criss-cross the city trying to make sense of the crime scenes we – like them – are drawn into thinking that the deaths are revenge killings. But who, exactly, is avenging what? This is where Chris Simms leads us – and his detectives – a merry dance. There is a clue, but I have to confess I didn’t get it any quicker than did Blake and Dragomir.

Police procedurals come and go; some writers, in an effort to take the genre in a new direction, make the featured police officers ever more quirky and disagreeable, to the extent that they are barely functioning as normal human beings. Simms has a steadier hand, and is happy to have Sean Blake as thoroughly decent fellow, perhaps a tad naïve at times, but – as an officer – alert and intelligent. The shadow of his late mother is slowly receding as he makes his on way through the complex office politics of the police station. For a boy brought up in rural Sussex and then spending his university days in Newcastle, Simms certainly knows his Manchester and, as in the Jon Spicer novels – he makes the city a strong and vibrant character.

Marked Men will be published by Severn House in hardback at the end of March, while Kindle users will have to wait for the Darling Buds of May to open before they get their chance. Chris Simms has his own website, a Facebook page, and is also on Twitter. Click on the images below to find out more.

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CURTAIN CALL . . . Between the covers

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Graham Hurley could never be accused of playing safe. Having created one of the genuine originals in English crime fiction, Portsmouth copper Joe Faraday, he has the poor bloke take an overdose to end it all. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but it was a few years ago. Then, he takes Faraday’s brightest apprentice and moves him down to Devon along with his restless wife and their daughter. Jimmy Suttle was another ‘one-off’ in terms of crime writing, but although he is presumably still in the land of the Quick rather than the Dead, he was last heard of in The Order Of Things (2015)

Hurley has never been a slave to police procedurals. His many standalone novels will testify to this, but now he brings us a deliciously inventive thriller which is a smartly-delivered slap in the face to those people who simply have to organise their To-Be-Read pile into genre boxes. Curtain Call, published by Severn House, describes a few week in the life of Enora Andresson. She is 39 years old and an established actress with CV boasting several highly thought of movies. She is estranged from her charismatic film director husband and, in collateral damage, from their teenage son Malo.

Enora’s world is wickedly spun off its comfortable axis when she is diagnosed with a brain tumour. Surgery removes the immediate threat and Enora picks herself up, dusts herself down, and tries to resume her career. Her life becomes infinitely more complicated when she is contacted by a campaigning Left Wing journalist. Mitch Culligan has done his homework and discovered that Enora has a link to a controversial businessman/fixer/gangster called Hayden Prentice. Prentice, nicknamed ‘Saucy’ after his initials (HP – geddit?) once had his way with Enora aboard a luxury yacht moored off Antibes. But this was back in the day, both enjoyed the fling, and there were no recriminations.

Culligan’s mission is to write an exposé outing Prentice as a mystery donor to the campaign which made all the pollsters look stupid, and ended up with Britain voting, in 23rd June 2016, to leave the European Union. Like many people, now categorised as ‘Remainers’, Culligan is determined to prove graft and corruption, and wants Enora to revisit her relationship with Saucy and feed back any juicy details.

As Robert Burns so memorably put it:

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley”

CCEnora’s reunion with her one-time lover has unintended consequences, particularly in relationship to her son, who turns up in London having fallen out with his father who, in turn is facing bankruptcy after a severe career downturn. There is crime – of a sort – in the novel, most horrifically when Culligan’s Syrian boyfriend is beaten within an inch of his life, but Curtain Call is much more complex and multi-layered. Admirers of the Faraday novels will love the fact that Saucy was a long-time confrère of the ebullient and occasionally unhinged King of the Portsmouth underworld, Bazza Mackenzie, a nemesis who Joe Faraday spent twelve memorable novels trying to put behind bars.

Enora is a wonderfully drawn character; intelligent, worldly and occasionally sentimental, but the linchpin of the novel for me was Hayden Prentice. He is a constant surprise, and a walking tangle of contradictions. Hurley does a brilliant job of first establishing him as an archetypal barrow-boy turned ruthless businessman, with all the sensitivity of an axe murderer, but then dismantling all our impressions one presumption at a time. Saucy delivers his pithy opinion of UKIP supporters:

“They don’t much like abroad, and they definitely don’t like Pakis nicking their seat in the bus, and given half a chance they’d shut their doors and spend the rest of their lives listening to the fucking Archers.”

Enora’s view of political zealotry is more measured:

“Beware of Causes, I tell myself. No matter how worthy.”

Readers will no doubt build their own visual image of Hayden Prentice and Enora Andresson but if I may be allowed to play the indulgent game of Fantasy Casting for a moment, I see Bob Hoskins playing opposite Anne Bancroft. Other pairings are, of course, available and if, when you have read this splendid novel, you would like to have your turn, then please do get in touch!

It’s only February, and there will be dozens more books to come in 2019, but I will be a lucky man if I find one more nuanced, thoughtful and stamped through with a lucid honesty about modern England than Curtain Call. One final nod to those who get misty eyed about the glory days of the Joe Faraday novels, Saucy’s favourite preface to any of his many sardonic utterances about the state of mankind, is just two words:

“Happy Days….”

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SEVERED . . . Between the covers

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In a structurally ramshackle – but otherwise unremarkable – rural parish church in the gently undulating Chiltern Hills, the scant congregation is watching their parish priest reach the most sacred part of the Sunday morning Holy Communion service, where they join together in the belief that “God was man in Palestine, and lives today in Bread and Wine”. In a few violent seconds, however, the wine symbolising Christ’s blood is dramatically spilled and mixed with real human blood, as the vicar is savagely attacked by a young man wielding an axe.

severedThus begins another case for Professor Matt Hunter, a university lecturer in religion and belief. He has previously helped the police in cases which involve sacred or supernatural matters (see the end of this review) and he is called in when it becomes clear that the wielder of the axe was none other than the teenage son of the Reverend David East, and that the boy was under the spell of a cult of deviant Christians whose central belief is that God The Father is a brutal tyrant who murdered his only son. They are also convinced that all other humans but them are ‘Hollows’ with evil in their eyes. Consequently, they shun all contact with the outside world, and live in a remote farmhouse, deep in the hills at the end of a rutted farm track.

Laws manages to recast the relatively benign uplands of the Chilterns as a scarred and brooding landscape with many a nameless terror lurking in its valleys, waiting to pounce on the unwary. There is blood by the pint, a coven of homophobic Christian evangelicals, a storm of biblical ferocity plus every Gothick image you could ever think of – plus a few more besides. Oh yes, I almost forgot – a very convincing and horribly plausible shape-shifter.

As the chapters spin by, Laws dusts off one of the oldest tricks in the book of narrative devices, but deftly breathes new life into it. There are basically two stages in his theatre of horrors; one shows us what is happening around Matt Hunter, while on the other, the members of the sect enact their weird dance of death. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, so we whirl through the next few pages to see what is going to happen, but then that chapter leaves us in suspense too, so we become caught up in an addictive mad scramble. It’s a ridiculously simple ploy but, good heavens, how well it works.

LawsOne of the most intriguing aspects of the Matt Hunter books is the relationship between the fictional former man of God and the very real and present minister in the Baptist church, the Reverend Peter Laws himself . We get a very vivid and convincing account of how Hunter has lost his faith, but also the many facets of that belief that he has come to see as inconsistent, illogical, or just plain barbaric. It suggests that Laws has identified these doubts in his own mind but, presumably, answered them. In these days of CGI nothing is impossible, so a live debate between Reverend Laws and Professor Hunter would be something to behold.

The finale of this brilliant thriller is apocalyptic enough to satisfy the most ardent fan of the horror genre, but Laws is smart enough – like Phil Rickman in his Merrily Watkins novels – to give everything (well, almost everything) a natural explanation, and when the emotional roller-coaster finally comes to rest we know that it is human beings, images and clones of ourselves if you will, that are capable of far more dreadful deeds than any supernatural monster conjured up from the bowels of Hell. Severed is published by Allison & Busby, and will be available at the end of January 2019.

For more on the extraordinary adventures of Professor Matt Hunter, read the reviews of:

Unleashed

Purged

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DANGEROUS DECEITS . . . Between the covers

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dd covrYou might guess that a crime novel featuring an amateur detective called Gawaine St Clair is not going to take you down many mean streets; furthermore, were one to Frenchify its chromatic tint, then it would probably be nearer beige than noir. This being said, if you are a Golden Age fan, like dry humour, enjoy a clue-laden whodunnit and are never happier than when luxuriating in the follies and foibles of the English middle classes, then Cherith Baldry’s Dangerous Deceits will be a joy.

Gawaine St Clair seems to be a man of independent means, not unlike his aristocratic predecessor Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, and his affluence enables him to take up criminal investigations without having to make excuses to an employer for his absence from the workplace. In this case he is called upon by his aunt Christobel to solve the mysterious death of a vicar. Father Tom Coates disappeared into his vestry moments before the beginning of a service, and was not seen again until he was found some time later, all life extinct due to a fatal blow to his head with the time-honoured blunt object.

It needs to be said at this point that the novel is very, very ‘churchy’. I use the term to describe a way of life centred around the Anglican church, with attendant church wardens, vergers, flower ladies, Parochial Church Councils, the occasional Bishop, and heated disputes over liturgical practices. Anthony Trollope de nos jours? Possibly, but as an Anglican, albeit rather lapsed, I share Cherith Baldry’s obvious love of the sonorous prose of The Book of Common Prayer – the proper 1662 version, not some squeaky clean modern adaptation designed to appeal to ‘the younger generation’. She uses suitably resonant quotes as her chapter headings, none more appropriately than:

“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live.”

St Clair is faced with a whole repertory company of likely suspects, all – or none – of whom may have had their reasons to bash Father Tom’s head in. In no particular order, we have a choleric prep school Headmaster straight out of Decline and Fall, a woman denied communion because of her marital woes, a glib local solicitor, the dead man’s brother and sister, with whom he owned valuable shares in a family business, and a dowdy local GP with a beautiful and sophisticated wife.

cbGawaine may be too arch and precious for some tastes but he fits perfectly into the Home Counties landscape with its manicured village greens and faux Tudor dwellings. I thoroughly enjoyed Dangerous Deceits and Father Tom’s killer is unmasked not amid the dusty shelves of a country house library, but in the altogether more fractious atmosphere of an extraordinary (in the procedural sense) meeting of the Ellingwood PCC. The solution, as in many a whodunnit, rests with everyone – including Gawaine, the local coppers and, in this particular case, me – making a seemingly obvious assumption early in the piece.

Cherith Baldry (right) is an acclaimed writer of children’s fiction and fantasy novels. The first in her Gawaine St Clair series was Brutal Terminations, which came out in February 2018. Dangerous Deceits is available now and is published by Matador.

THE MOTHER’S DAY MYSTERY . . . Between the covers

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Robin Williams, Paul Krassner, Pete Townshend, Grace Slick, Timothy Leary, and many others have been credited with the saying, “If you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there.” Fortunately for us, Peter Bartram can and was. His lifetime of working as a journalist has produced an alter ego, an enterprising young journalist called Colin Crampton who works for The Brighton Evening Chronicle. He has a gorgeous Australian girlfriend called Shirley, a pantomime landlady by the name of Mrs Gribble, a chain-smoking news editor called Frank Figgis, an amazing habit of getting involved in murder mysteries – and he drives an MGB.

mothercoverIn The Mother’s Day Mystery, Crampton discovers the body of a schoolboy who has evidently been knocked off his bike and fatally injured. What on earth was Spencer Hooke doing away from his dormitory in Steyning Grammar School at the dead of night, cycling along a lonely and windswept clifftop road? In pursuing this conundrum, Crampton whisks us into a world of stage vicars, seedy pub landlords, archetypal leather-elbowed schoolmasters and impecunious toffs. There are jokes a-plenty, and Bartram indulges himself – and those of us who are, similarly, in the autumn of our years – with many a knowing cultural reference that might puzzle younger readers. He takes us into a wonderful sweet shop, the kind which can nowadays only be found in museum recreations:

“I stepped into a small room with a wooden counter topped with a glass-fronted case. To the side of the case was a set of balance scales with its weight tokens. Behind the couter were shelves loaded with jars of sweets. There were chocolate drops and sherbert lemons and liquorice allsorts. There were humbugs and fruit gums. There was barley sugar which glowed yellow like it was radioactive.

The air was loaded with a sickly scent like it had been sprinkled with sugar dust. If you breathed in deeply, you felt you were dancing.”

There is an unashamed sense of the risqué seaside postcard about much of the humour:

‘She was pouring coffee into a mug.

I ambled over and said, “Mine’s white but strong.”
Susan said: “So I’d heard. But how about your coffee, honeybunch?”
She guffawed at her joke and made her chins wobble.’

The wisecracks are not all end-of-the-pier stuff, however. When Crampton meets the owner of the gorgeous sweet shop, he is almost Chandleresque:

“She had a figure that would get Brigitte Bardot demanding a recount …. little laugh lines crinkled around her mouth as her full lips parted in the kind of welcome smile I felt I could pay into the bank.”

PBAnyone who is a student of English humour will soon see that Bartram is part of a long and distinguished tradition of comic writers who find meat and drink in the absurdities of English life and social structures. In the world of crime fiction, however, comedy does not always sit well with murder and bloodshed. The great and sadly under-appreciated Colin Watson did the job beautifully in his Flaxborough novels, while modern writers such as MJ Trow and Christopher Fowler perform the balancing act with similar verve. I am happy to put Peter Bartram (right) up there on the podium with those past and present masters. Incidentally, and quite appropriately for a Sussex man, Bartram knows and loves his Kipling, and manages to quote the great man on a number of occasions

Such is the joyful nature of the writing that the plot is almost irrelevant, but Bartram remembers that Crampton has a murder to solve, and he gives us the classic Golden Age denouement scene in the library. Except it’s not in the library, but in the village church, under the shocked gaze of the pompous Rev. Purslowe. Before the riddle of Spencer Hooke’s death is solved (with an “I’m Spartacus” moment) we get the best joke in the book.

“Georgina had caused a stir when she’d walked into the church. She was wearing a low-cut blouse and a mini-skirt which ended a couple of inches below the Book of Revelations.”

The Mother’s Day Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership, and is out now. Watch the Fully Booked Twitter feed for a chance to win this novel.

Follow the links to check out other features and novels by Peter Bartram.

The News Editor, The Woodbines, and a Eureka Moment

Switched On: The Story of 1960s TV Game Shows

The Tango School Mystery

Front Page Murder

Stop Press Murder

I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside …

Peter Bartram also has an excellent website where you can Meet The Characters

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