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English Crime Fiction

ENGLAND’S FINEST . . . Between the covers

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For newcomers to the sublime world of Arthur Bryant and John May, the new collection of short stories written by their biographer, Christopher Fowler, contains a handy pull-out-and-keep guide to the personnel doings of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. OK, I lie – don’t try and pull it out because it will wreck a beautiful book, but the other bits are true.

Bryant & May are both impossibly old, and so this gives Fowler the licence to set their investigations anywhere between the Blitz and Brexit. These stories gleefully span the years, and established B&M hands are rewarded with the usual mix of arcane cultural references, one-liner gags, London psychogeography and stunning investigative insights from Arthur. Cosy entertainment? Not a bit of it. Fowler leavens the fun with a sense of melancholy which provides a haunting echo to the laughter.

9780857525697.jpg-nggid047297-ngg0dyn-292x0-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010Leaving aside the pen pictures, introductions and postscripts, there are twelve stories. They are, for the most part, enjoyably formulaic in a Sherlockian way in that something inexplicable happens, May furrows his brow and Arthur comes up with a dazzling solution. Think of a dozen elegant variations of The Red Headed League, but with one or two being much darker in tone. Bryant & May and the Antichrist, for example, is a sombre tale of an elderly woman driven to suicide by the greed of a religious charlatan, while Bryant & May and the Invisible Woman reflects on the devastating effects of clinical depression. The stories are, of course set in London, apart from the delightfully improbable one where Arthur and John solve a murder within the blood-soaked walls of Bran Castle, once the des-res of Vlad Dracul III. Bryant & May and the Consul’s Son revisits Fowler’s fascination with the lost rivers of London, while Janice Longbright and the Best of Friends lets the redoubtable Ms L take centre stage.

The gags are as good as ever. While investigating a crime in a tattoo parlour, Arthur is mistaken for a customer and asked if he has a design in mind:

“I once considered having something on my right bicep but I couldn’t make up my mind between Sir Robert Peel and Dianor Dors.”

When PCU boss Raymond Land is faced with a difficult choice:

“There crept upon his face the anxiety of an Englishman stricken with indecision. It was a look you could see every day in Pret A Manger when middle managers struggled to choose sandwich fillings.”

Idon’t know Christopher Fowler personally, but I infer from his social media presence that he is a thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan chap and, with his spending his time between homes in Barcelona and King’s Cross, he could never be described as a Little Englander. How wonderful, then, that he is the most quintessentially English writer of our time. His Bryant & May stories draw in magical threads from English culture. There is the humour, which recalls George and Weedon Grossmith, WS Gilbert, and the various ‘Beachcombers’ down the years, particularly DB Wyndham Lewis and JB Morton. Fowler’s eagle eye for the evocative power of mundane domestic ephemera mirrors that of John Betjeman, while his fascination with the magnetic pull of the layers of history beneath London’s streets channels Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair.

This collection of short stories is a bar counter full of delicious Tapas rather than the sumptuous four course meal of a full novel, but the appetisers do what they are meant to do – stimulate the palate and make us hungry for more. England’s Finest is published by Doubleday and is out on 31st October.

For more reflections on Bryant & May – and the genius of their creator – click the image below.

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THE MAN ON THE STREET . . . Between the covers

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J blue greenimmy Mullen has been round the block. In the Falklands War his ship takes a direct hit from an Argentine fighter bomber and he watches his mates consumed by the ensuing fireball. Back home recuperating, with a pittance of a pension, he stacks supermarket shelves, battles with his nightmares and presides over the slow erosion of his marriage as drink becomes his only solace. Walking home one night from the boozer, he intervenes to prevent a girl being slapped around by her boyfriend. All very gallant, but the result is the boyfriend (an off-duty copper) lying insensible on the pavement in an expanding pool of blood.

TMOTSAfter the inevitable prison sentence Jimmy is now out on early release, but homeless, his ex-wife now remarried, and his daughter a complete stranger to him. Home is anywhere he can kip out of the rain. His social circle? A few fellow vagrants, raddled by drink, mental instability, drugs – or a toxic combination of all three. Their home-from-home is a charity called The Pit Stop where volunteers provide, food, showers and clothing.

One night as Jimmy lies under the stars on the banks of Newcastle’s River Tyne, voices intrude on his uneasy dreams. These are not the screaming ghosts of his former shipmates, but real human voices, here and now. And they are arguing. Two men, becoming increasingly agitated. Jimmy rolls over in his sleeping bag and takes a look. One man, tall, bulky, looks a bit like a bricklayer. The other fellow, slightly built, long hair, carrying a man-bag, looks a bit like a social worker. “Not my fight” thinks Jimmy. He learned that lesson years ago on his fatal walk home from the pub. As he drifts back into fitful sleep, he hears what he thinks is a splash, but the cocoon of his sleeping bag enfolds him. The words “not my fight” murmur in his ear.

S blue greenome time later Jimmy sees a newspaper article featuring a young woman appealing for news about her missing father. The picture she is holding is of a man Jimmy thinks he recognises. It is the smaller man from the argumentative pair who disturbed his sleep a few weeks since. Or is it? With the help of a couple of his more social-media-savvy pals from The Pit Stop, Jimmy contacts the woman – Carrie Carpenter – and they are drawn into a mystery involving police (both complacent and corrupt), environmental activists, crooked businessmen and – as we learn near the end of the book – grim sexual deviancy.

This is a well written and convincing thriller with sensitive eyes and ears for the plight of ex-servicemen who, like Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy are only accepted by society when there is rough work to be done.

Trevor WoodA blue greenuthor Trevor Wood (right) has lived in Newcastle for 25 years and considers himself an adopted Geordie, though he says that he still can’t speak the language. Despite this, his phonetic version of the unique Geordie accent is good. Normally, I shy away from books where writers try too hard to convey accents in dialogue, but I think Trevor Wood does rather well here. Perhaps this is a result of my addiction to my box set of When The Boat Comes In.

The Man on the Street, Trevor’s debut novel, will be published by Quercus as a Kindle on 31st October, and as a hardback in Spring 2020.

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SIGHT UNSEEN . . . Between the covers

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E bluenora Andresson is a distinguished English actress. Perhaps slightly past her youthful allure, she remains a beauty who can pick and choose her projects, and her films are highly thought of. She has three problems clouding her horizon. The first is, as they say, a bastard. She has a brain tumour. It has been treated but she is only too aware that she may have won a battle, but not the war. Problems two and three are related – literally. She is separated from her Swedish husband, but they have a son – a young man called Malo – who is something of a wrong ‘un. The third problem relates to the words “they have a son”. Fact is, she does – her husband doesn’t. Malo’s father is actually a millionaire businessman named Hayden Prentice, and Malo was conceived during a drunken one-nighter just before Enora’s wedding. So why is Harold a problem? Although he is now an honest man, with legitimate investments and business interests, he made his initial fortune as a drug baron.

Although Enora and Prentice (known hereafter as ‘H’) are now reunited after a fashion, the relationship does not extend to the bedroom, and Enora’s current interest is Pavel, an enigmatic scriptwriter. Pavel’s Eastern European allure is rather manufactured, however, as his real name is the more prosaic Paul. What he says about the art of story-telling, however, could equally apply to Graham Hurley’s own magic wand:

“The best stories detach you from real life. You float away down the river of fiction, lie back and enjoy he view. The storyteller’s challenge is to cast a spell, and the longer that spell lasts, the better.”

T bluehe main plot of Sight Unseen hinges around the kidnapping of Malo’s Colombian girlfriend Clemmie. When a ransom demand of a million dollars is received her father, who, like many rich men from that benighted republic, has kidnap insurance, simply hands the case over to the experts. H, however, has other ideas, and decides to do things his way.

SUHayden Prentice is a brilliant creation and is, in many ways, at the centre of the book, as he was when we first met Enora in Curtain Call. Formerly known as Saucy from his initials, he is hewn from the same rich vein of villainy that produced the elemental force that was Bazza McKenzie in Graham Hurley’s brilliant Joe Faraday novels. H is blunt, foul-mouthed but very, very shrewd. Hurley will not be at all perturbed were readers to visualise H rather like the formidable Harold Shand, as portrayed unforgettably by the great Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday.

As the ransom deadline passes, with the customary video as proof-of-life, and a hiking up of the cash demand, H is increasingly convinced that Malo is, somehow more involved in the affair than simply being the anxious boyfriend. The insidious and infamous County Lines drug trade raises its ugly head, and H delivers a brief but brilliantly incisive summary of the endgame he sees engulfing the England he once knew:

“You think your own little town is safe? You think those sweet kids of yours won’t ever get in trouble with drugs? Wrong. And you know why? Because something we all took for granted has gone. Families? Mums? Dads? A proper job? Getting up in the morning? Totally bolloxed. No-one has a clue who they are any more, or where they belong, and there isn’t a single politician in the country who can tell them what to do about it.”

H has a country mansion, Flixcombe, not far from the Dorset town of Bridport. Despite its artisan bakeries, galleries and twee delis there is a grim underbelly which involves, inevitably, drugs. A local tells Enora that although the main players are little more than children:

“Nothing frightens these little bastards …. streetwise doesn’t begin to cover it. They think they’re immortal. Remember that.”

T bluehe finale is astonishing – a bravura affair which only a fine writer like Graham Hurley could hope to get away with. No spoilers, but it involves a doomed English explorer and an old ballad which once inspired Bob Dylan. Sight Unseen is published by Severn House and is out now.

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LOVE FROM ANGELA DYSON . . .

A tad early for a Valentine, but hey ho . . . . . . .

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She loves me, she loves me not . . . .

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In the pink . . .

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THE LOVE DETECTIVE: THE NEXT LEVEL  is written by Angela Dyson, published by Matador, and is out now.

THE ROOKS DIE SCREAMING . . . Between the covers

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T redhe dramatic events of The Rooks Die Screaming take place in the spring of 1921 in the Cornish market town of Bodmin. The bare bones of the story are that Detective Inspector Cyril Edwards of Scotland Yard has come to Bodmin to investigate murder and treachery involving a group of spies known as The Four Rooks. This book is a sequel to The Woman With The Red Hair, and to say there is a back-story is something of an understatement. The eponymous young woman is called Morag and, amongst other things, is Edwards’ sister-in-law. Elisha Edwards was one of the millions of unfortunates taken by an agent even deadlier than high explosives and machine gun bullets – Spanish Influenza.

The-Rooks-Die-Screaming smallerMorag is now Lady Frobisher. Her husband Harry, heir to The Fobisher Estate on the outskirts of Bodmin, is blind, victim of a grenade in the Flanders trenches. In the previous novel, Frobisher Hall was the scene of great torment for Morag, as she fell into the clutches of Morgan Treaves, an insane asylum keeper and his evil nurse. Treaves has disappeared after being disfigured with a broken bottle, wielded my Morag in a life or death struggle.

If you are picking up a sense that this novel has something of a Gothick tinge (note the ‘k’) you will not be far wrong. It is high melodrama for much of the way; secret tunnels; a sinister woman in the woods who, guarded by a lumbering giant mute forever silenced by the horrors he witnessed in the war, mixes deadly potions; a cottage where a sensitive soul can still hear the ghostly creaking of the former occupant’s body swinging from her suicide beam; a woman who, in falling prey to her own desires, has two terrible deaths forever on her conscience.

Clive-TuckettThat said, The Rooks Die Screaming is inspired escapist reading. It would be unfair to say that Tuckett (right) writes in an anachronistic style. This is much, much better than pastiche, even though there are elements of Conan Doyle, the Golden Age, John Buchan and even touches of Sapper and MR James. So, eventually, to the plot, but we need to know a little more about Cyril Edwards. Like many a fictional detective inspector he is his own man. In another nice cultural reference Tuckett adds a touch of Charters and Caldicott as Edwards explains to the bumptious Standish, a mysterious officer from Military Intelligence;

“‘I love cricket …. When I’m not turning down invitations to join dubious organisations, and thumping arrogant members of the royal family, I love nothing more than to relax at Lord’s and watch a game of cricket.’

Edwards stretched and picked up his Fedora hat, thinking of getting up and walking out of the room.

” I’m hoping to see the Second Test at Lord’s next month against Australia.”‘

S redtandish orders Edwards to investigate the possibility that Harry Frobisher is one of the Rooks, but one who has betrayed his country. Arriving in Bodmin his first task is to explain to the local police how a corpse found on a train is that of a notorious London contract killer. Tuckett’s Bodmin is full of stock characters, including a stolid police sergeant, an apparently tremulous clergyman and a punctilious but respected solicitor who is privy to all the secrets of the local gentry, but is oh, so discreet. To add to the fun, Frobisher Hall also has its requisite roll call of faithful retainers.

The secret of The Four Rooks is eventually revealed, but not before the author throws a few red herrings onto the table. I could probably have done without the finer details of Lady Morag’s marriage bed, and some tighter proof-reading coupled with a more enticing cover would have done wonders for the book. That said, I enjoyed every page and I hope Clive Tuckett has another Inspector Edwards case up his sleeve, especially if it involves the redoubtable Morag Frobisher.

The Rooks Die Screaming is published by The Book Guild and is available now.

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COME BACK FOR ME . . . Between the covers

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CBFMOn a tiny island off the Dorset coast of southern England, a little girl lives a dream childhood. Loving parents, the beauty of the sea and the sky, and the cloudless blue optimism of the young. But then, one terrible night, Stella Harvey’s idyll is shattered. On a September evening, with a violent storm lashing the tiny harbour of Evergreen Island, David Harvey ushers his family on board the ferry he runs for a living, and takes them away to the mainland. For ever.

“At eleven, I wasn’t prepared to accept our parents’ hurried reasons for leaving the island. I couldn’t believe that this was for good and I couldn’t understand one bit why they were dragging us away in the middle of a storm. ‘Will we come back?’ I whispered to my sister? Bonnie’s hand shook as it reached for mine under my mac. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t believe we ever will.’”

Years have flown by. Stella is now a consulting psychotherapist. Sister Bonnie is married with children. Their mother, Maria, is long dead, killed in a road accident. Father David, having left Maria for another woman, is now in the throes of dementia.

Stella’s equanimity is cruelly disturbed when she sees a TV news report that human remains have been discovered on Evergreen, but worse is to follow. The body a of a woman, long dead, has been found very close to her old home, and police have not ruled out foul play. Despite Bonnie’s advice to leave well alone, Stella is hypnotically drawn to unfolding events, and decides to return to her old home.

Inevitably, as night follows day, Stella’s arrival on Evergreen is not a joyful homecoming, and several skeletons come dancing and rattling their bones out of the cupboard to which time has consigned them. Firstly, Stella learns the tragic reason why her best friend and sworn blood-sister never replied to any of the letters she sent when the Harvey family began their new life on the mainland. Then, with the cruel perceptiveness of adulthood stripping away the illusions of youth, Stella looks on with horror as, first, the grisly remains are identified and personalised and then, second, questions from the past, smothered by time for so long, leap out into the present and demand answers.

HPWhen Stella’s long-since-estranged brother, Danny, is drawn into what has become a murder investigation, the novel takes a seriously dark turn as it examines the nature of truth, loyalty, memory and love itself. Heidi Perks (right) has written a novel which will entrance readers who like a good psychological thriller, and she leaves us with a sense of sadness, certainly, but also an affirmation that, in the words of St Paul:

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

As timeless as his remarks are, we should not let St Paul have the last word. Stella Harvey says:

“Yes, I decide, I can live with a lie, because the alternative is unbearable…And I’ll live with it hanging over me forever, because that’s the trouble with secrets. They never go away.”

Come Back For Me will be published by Cornerstone Digital as a Kindle on 1st June, and in hardback, by Century, on 11th July.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . an intriguing puzzle.

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To adapt, abuse and assault the beautiful words of Elizabeth Browning, née Barrett:

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The creative folk at Penguin Random House are certainly pushing the boat out in support of Gone, a new psychological thriller and the debut novel by former police psychologist Leona Deakin.

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This intriguing pack has just arrived, and although the digital version of Gone will not be available until August, and the print version way after that in October, it’s never to early to set people’s curiosity on fire. There’s clearly some kind of mystery behind the mystery, so here are the clues.

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There will be more to come, no doubt, on this puzzle. Let’s see if we can work out exactly what is going on!

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THE SLEEPWALKER . . . Between the covers

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In a fictional world overflowing with disfunctional detectives who happen to be rather good at their jobs, Joseph Knox has raised, or perhaps lowered, the bar considerably with his DC Aidan Waits. We first met Waits in Sirens (2017) and then in The Smiling Man (2018). Now, in The Sleepwalker, Knox takes us on another guided tour of the dystopian underbelly of contemporary Manchester.

TSTogether with his grotesque partner and immediate boss, DI Peter Sutcliffe, Waits always gets the shitty end of the stick. ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe is, you might say, a good old fashioned copper. Waits goes to meet him in a dingy rock-and-roll boozer:

“Sutty was standing in the corner, explaining something to one of the other customers. To make sure the man was really listening, he’d lifted him off the ground by his ears and begun banging his head into the wall to the beat of the drum.

He let the smile slide, dramatically, off his face when he saw me.

‘Oh’, he said, over the music. ‘It’s the great depression. Shouldn’t you be queuing up for a loaf of bread instead of buying beer?’ “

Waits and Sutcliffe have been assigned to a Death Watch. In hospital, a notorious serial killer nicknamed The Sleepwalker because of the bizarre circumstances of his arrest, is dying of cancer. Years ago, he was convicted of slaughtering a family – wife and children – and the older daughter’s body has never been found. In the faint hope that Martin Wick’s dying breath will reveal the final resting place of twelve year-old Lizzie Moore – a sombre echo of the misplaced faith that believed Ian Brady would finally say where he had buried Keith Bennett – Waits and Sutcliffe sit by the dying man’s bedside, their ears close to whatever utterance escapes his shriveled lips.

Why is Aidan Waits such a tortured character? Well, how long have you got? His childhood was loveless and chaotic, and spent largely in institutions where he rubbed shoulders with trainee failures, malcontents and killers. Echoing Nietzsche’s chilling remarks about the moral abyss, Waits has, more recently, gazed too long into a chasm inhabited by a repellent Manchester crime lord called Zane Carver. Carver has fed Waits’s drug habit, and the two have fought over women. Carver has a particular talent with women:

“Zain Carver was a magician when it came to ruining women’s lives.

He surrounded himself with these beautiful assistants and then delighted in sawing them up, making them disappear. Sometimes a new girl on his arm might end up on the game, or in hospital, or back with her parents feeling five years older, a permanent faraway look in her eyes.”

As distinctive as Knox is as a stylist, and as much as he is a master of the inky black metaphor, he has a tale to tell and a plot to spin. The sepulchral calm of Martin Wick’s closely guarded hospital room is shattered by a savage attack which Waits survives, but puts him at the head of the queue as the police and the gutter press search for scapegoats. With Carver having decided to exact revenge on Waits by donning his black cap and pronounced the death sentence, Waits is on the run both from the gangster and, no less implacably, his politically motivated senior officers, but he keeps them at bay. He discovers faint-but-fatal fault lines in the original case against Martin Wicks, and finds that both Kevin Blake, the detective who brought Wicks to justice, and Frank Moore, the father of the murdered children, still have songs to sing.

KnoxJoseph Knox writes like an angel. Possibly an Angel of Death, but he grasps the spluttering torch of English Noir once carried by such writers as Derek Raymond, and runs with such vigour that the flame burns brightly once again. He is not without humour, and there are many – if unrepeatable – gags exchanged between the cynical cops and their low-life prey. The politically correct nature of modern policing doesn’t escape his attention, either:

“The conference space and interview rooms had a bland, mass-produced, modern aesthetic. If Hitler’s bunker had been designed by Travelodge, it couldn’t have communicated quiet despair any more effectively.”

 No-one who has had the misfortune to require A & E treatment on any given weekend evening – in Manchester, Middlesborough, Maidenhead or Milton Keynes – will be unfamiliar with this baleful description, as Waits searches for a suspect:

“I looked about me. Bloodshed, fist-fights and stab wounds. Confused, stunned people, drunk, on drugs, with life-altering injuries. Stick-thin single mothers on food bank diets, with morbidly obese babies.”

Knox has his grim fun with a Manchester police force that is barely honest, city down-and-outs who have lost most of the trappings of humanity, and an infestation of tattooed, Spice-addicted thugs straight from Central Casting – with Hieronymus Bosch as the agency’s head of HR. He also leaves us with a delightfully enigmatic final few pages. The Sleepwalker is published by Doubleday and will be on the shelves from 11th July

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ONE WAY OUT . . . Between the covers

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If fictional coppers need to be idiosyncratic to attract readers, then DI “Harry” Hardeep Singh Virdee ticks all the required boxes and also a good few new ones of his own devising. The Bradford policeman is a Sikh, but has enraged his father and his wider community by doing the unthinkable in marrying a Muslim woman. His brother Ronnie also happens to be a ruthless career criminal.

OWO coverThe latest novel from AA Dhand is a gripping thriller which goes well beyond the constraints of the conventional police procedural. One Way Out begins with a huge bomb going off in the centre of Bradford. Although there has been sufficient warning to minimise civilian casualties, the perpetrators – an extreme right wing group known as The Patriots – have a further trick up their sleeve. It is a Friday, and with all 105 mosques in the Yorkshire city being full of worshippers, the terrorists announce that they have planted a bomb in one of the mosques, and it will be detonated unless the police track down and hand over the members of a notorious Islamic militant group called Almukhtaroon. The Patriots have pre-empted the obvious evacuation of the mosques by stating that if one single worshipper attempts to leave, the bomb will be detonated.

Virdee’s wife Saima is trapped inside the Mehraj mosque where the massive bomb is eventually located, but that is just one of his problems. He is sought out by the Home Secretary Tariq Islam, with whom he has, shall we say, history, and given the task of rounding up  the four leading members of Almukhtaroon while the government maintains the façade of refusing to negotiate with terror groups.

What we then have is an entertaining and thoroughly readable mix of all the best thriller tropes – race against time, threatened love one, maverick cop, violence-a-plenty, double-dealing politicians and embittered fanatics – Dhand relishes every minute of it, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Screen Shot 2019-06-19 at 20.18.59Dhand is a Bradford man, born and bred, and he paints a vivid – if occasionally depressing – picture of the results of racial and religious bigotry. While he is justifiably harsh on right-wing extremism, he doesn’t spare the blushes of the Asian community, whether they are warring Muslim factions or Sikhs with more angry pride in their hearts than compassion. I’m not sure I totally bought into the relationship between Virdee and Tariq Islam, but no matter what the plot, suspension of disbelief is what we fiction readers are good at, otherwise we would spend our days reading history books or browsing the Argos catalogue.

One Way Out is a genuine page-turner. Futuristic? Maybe, but who would have said, a decade ago, that we would have a Muslim Home Secretary? Another nod to reality is the charismatic leader of Almukhtaroon, the self-styled Abu Nazir. He is not only a genuine Geordie, but he is also a ginger-haired convert to Islam. I seem to recall that one of the notorious followers of the hate preacher Anjem Choudry fits that description, at least in his ethnicity and hair colour. Virdee is a compassionate and credible hero, but with just enough of a mean streak to allow him to go head-to-head with he genuinely bad guys. One Way Out is published by Bantam Press and will be available from 27th June

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