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English Crime Fiction

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.

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THE BEACH PARTY MYSTERY . . . Between the covers

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41FEXmDAJYL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_It’s the summer of 1966 and Brighton journalist Colin Crampton – he’s the crime reporter for the Evening Chronicle – gets a tip off from a friendly local copper that there has been a murder in Embassy Court, an upmarket block of flats on the seafront. Racing to the scene to try to out-scoop his rival from the Evening Argus, he ducks under the crime scene tape and learns that the dead man is Claude Winterbottom, a financial consultant.

Reporters are sometimes accused of muck-raking, and Crampton does literally that as he holds his nose and sifts through Winterbottom’s dustbin. He soon finds a motive for the man’s death. The so-called ‘financial consultant’ was actually a fraudster, selling get-rich-quick schemes to people with more money than sense. The list of people Winterbottom has scammed is quite impressive, and it even includes Crampton’s landlady, the redoubtable Mrs Gribble.

indexPeter Bartram (right) doubles up on the enjoyment by giving us a parallel plot (which eventually weaves in with the murder of Winterbottom) involving an off-shore pirate radio station, Radio Sea Breeze. Younger readers used to the communication free-for-all we have today may be puzzled by the concept. Back in the 1960s licences to transmit radio were not readily available in the UK and record companies had a tight grip on who played their music. Taking their cue from America, enterprising broadcasters exploited a loophole in the law by using ships anchored in international waters as their radio stations. The most famous was probably Radio Caroline which was on the air, using five different ships with three different owners, from 1964 to 1990. It still exists, but is now fully digital – and legal.

The Beach Party Mystery is a highly entertaining merry-go-round involving, in no particular order, The Rolling Stones, the FBI, the KGB, MI5, auditions for a James Bond movie, a Mary Whitehouse soundalike – and the world’s most insanitary pub. Unsurprisingly, for a man who has spent his life as a journalist, Peter Bartram has a nice turn of phrase, and a keen eye:

“It was one of those picture book places you find in the Sussex countryside. There were ancient houses with oak beams and sagging roofs. There were moss-encrusted flint walls. There was an old stone church and graveyard with weathered headstones. There was a village hall with a noticeboard. It carried news of scouts’ picnics’ Women’s Institute keep-fit sessions and parish council meetings.”

I make no apology for being a huge fan of the Colin Crampton novels. Yes, they may be light in tone, and they don’t set out to examine the darker recesses of the criminal mind, but I love them. The Beach Party Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership and is out now, For reviews of the previous novels in the series, and also feature articles by Peter Bartram, click on the image below.

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THE DARKEST EVENING . . . Between the covers

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Confession time. Up until recently I may have been the only crime fiction reviewer who had never read a novel by Ann Cleeves (left), nor watched the long running TV adaptations of her Vera Stanhope novels. No particular reason why, except the purely practical one that no publicist had ever sent me an ARC, and possibly because, in my bigoted way, I thought that anything served up as Sunday evening TV must be impossibly cosy.  I was wrong. Mea Culpa. Hair shirt. Ten – no, make that twenty – Hail Marys. I have just finished The Darkest Evening and loved every word of it.

My take on Vera Stanhope first, uncoloured by the reportedly excellent TV personation by Brenda Blethyn. is that Vera is frumpish, rather alone in the world, wedded to her job as a Detective in North East England, totally without vanity and completely indifferent to the figure she cuts. Criminals underestimate her at their peril, however, as she has a sharp intelligence – both as a human being and as an investigating police officer.

TDE coverThe story begins in a blinding December snowstorm, as Vera takes a wrong turning on her way home, and unwittingly steps onto the stage of a murder mystery. For newbugs like myself, this gives Cleeves a chance to flesh out part of Vera’s back story. The early action in The Darkest Evening takes place near a crumbling stately home – Brockburn – to which Vera has familial connections via her father Hector who, we learn, was rather a bad lot. The current residents of Brockburn are Harriet, the widow of Crispin Stanhope, and her daughter Juliet and husband Mark. Mark has thrown a party for the local gentry in order to get them on board with his plan to turn the old house into a vibrant regional theatre. The evening takes a turn for the worse when the body of Lorna Falstone is found outside in the snow. She has been bludgeoned to death.

Lorna was the daughter of a local hard-scrabble farmer and his wife, and her short life has been framed by a near fatal eating disorder, and then a mysterious pregnancy, which has left her the lone parent of baby Thomas.

The novel is beautifully plotted and a classic whodunnit. It is more, though – much, much more. Vera Stanhope is a complex and subtle character despite her apparently ramshackle appearance and manner, and the sometimes bleak rural setting is magically described. Fans of the series will, no doubt, be shaking their heads and saying something like, “Tell us something we don’t know – what took you so long?” All I can reply is, “I know, I know – the fault is all mine.” The Darkest Evening is published by Macmillan and is available now in all formats.

A quick quiz question that any CriFi buff worth his or her salt should be able to answer. Which classic (and complex) crime fiction classic also begins in the snow, with the main character’s car in a ditch? DM me the answer on my Twitter feed – @MaliceAfore and I will send you a free novel. I’ll give you a choice of several, but UK postcode only, please.

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BAD TIMING . . . Between the covers

IMG_1893-2-2Nick Oldham (left) is a former copper from Lancashire,and his novels featuring Henry Christie have been delighting readers for many years. I believe that Bad Timing is the 27th in a series dating back to A Time For Justice, which came out in 1996.

Here’s a very quick Henry Christie CV ( or resumé for American readers). He worked his way up through the ranks of Lancashire Police, but never wanted the kind of seniority that meant braid on his ceremonial uniform or role where he spent most of his time behind a desk massaging crime figures for the Home Office or, even worse, managing the force’s diversity targets. He has been shot, beaten up, sacked and re-instated, and has seen the very worst of criminal lowlife in England’s north-west. He has now retired and is running a moorland pub, while still mourning the deaths and various departures of women in his life.

Bad TimingBad Timing is a kind of sequel, or perhaps the final chapter of a story which began in the previous novel, Wildfire. If you click the link you can get the background story. In short, a married couple who made a tidy living out of creative accounting – laundering money for some seriously bad gangsters have been murdered in their luxurious converted farmhouse. The problem is that huge sums of money have gone missing, probably sucked into a Bermuda Triangle of dodgy companies, offshore investments and Swiss bank accounts. And now, the bad guys want the money back.

A word to the wise. Don’t be misled into thinking that the partly rural setting of these novels mean that it you will be reading a cosy Heartbeat-style tale of lovable rogues and amiable coppers on push-bikes. Oldham tells it how it actually is, and Christie’s world is one of ruthless criminal families, vicious thugs, appalling council estates with endemic crime, and toxic traveller sites populated with opportunists who are as violent as they are anti-social.

When the body of the daughter of the murdered accountants is found in a remote lake, the police realise that the case is far from closed and there is still a killer out there. Henry Christie is brought back as a consultant, and although he is ‘chaperoned’ by Detective Diane Daniels, it is his nose for danger that pitches them into a head-on collision with a gangland killer who is as black of heart as anyone Christie has encountered in his long career.

Christie is, to put it mildly, getting on a bit. His body is just about up for the demands of pulling pints, concocting exotic designer coffees and serving full English breakfasts at his pub, The Tawny Owl, but now he is out there challenging a man half his age and twice as malevolent.

Bad Timing is as brutal and unflinching a thriller as you will read all year. It is published by Severn House and is out on 30th September.

THE FINISHER . . . Between the covers

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51bAlRSlCzL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Fictional police officers come in an almost infinite number of guises. They can be lowly of rank, like Tony Parsons’ Detective Constable Max Wolfe, or very senior, such as Detective Superintendent William Lorimer, as imagined by Alex Gray. Male, female, tech-savvy, Luddite, happy family folk or embittered loners – there are plenty to choose from. So where does Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond fit into the matrix? As a Detective Superintendent, he pretty much only answers to the Assistant Chief Constable, but for newcomers to the well established series, what sort of a figure does he cut? Lovesey lets us know fairly early in The Finisher, the nineteenth in a series that began in 1991 with The Last Detective. Diamond is on plain clothes duty keeping a wary eye on a half marathon race in the historic city of Bath:

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

Neither is Peter Diamond a vain man, nor one who gives excessive attention to his personal appearance:

“He didn’t waste time showering or shaving. A swish of tap water took the sleep from his eyes and a squirt of deodorant completed his grooming. Unshaven jowls were standard among the younger members of his team.”

The book’s title is a clever play on words and has a double significance. It can be someone who manages to complete ‘The Other Half’ – an alternative half marathon pounded out along the elegant streets, disused railway tunnels and steep wooded hillsides of Bath. It also has a more sinister connotation – a person who gets things done, even if doing so involves a lack of compassion and, even, a willingness to use violence.

Lovesey’s clever novel combines the events surrounding the race, as well as a particularly brutal example of modern day slavery – illegal immigrants forced to work for a pittance, housed in grim conditions, and for ever in thrall to men and women who earn fortunes exploiting the vulnerable.

Finisher021There’s a dazzling array of characters to act out the drama. We have an earnest school teacher who forces herself to run the race in order to make good a lost donation to a charity; there is a statuesque Russian, wife of a cynical businessman, determined to lose weight and gain her husband’s respect; instant villainy is provided by a paroled serial seducer and sex-pest who has taken on a new role as personal trainer to the rich; at the bottom of the pond, so to speak, are a pair of feckless Albanian chancers who have escaped from an illegal work gang, and are trying to avoid the retribution of their controllers.

Throw into this mix a fascinating geographical background which comes vividly to life, even to someone like me, who has only a limited knowledge of Bath. Like most, I knew of its Roman heritage and the wonderful Georgian architecture, but I was totally unaware that the hills surrounding the city conceal warrens of quarries, caves and tunnels from which the beautiful local limestone was hewn.

Throughout his long and celebrated writing career, Lovesey has never given away his solutions without putting the reader through their own private marathon of false clues, and misdirections. So it is with The Finisher. If you get within ten pages of the end and reckon you know who did what to whom – then trust me, you don’t! This wonderfully entertaining novel by one of our finest living writers is published by Sphere and is out now.

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FIND THEM DEAD . . . Between the covers

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Brighton copper Roy Grace seems to have been with us for ever. Since Peter James introduced him in 2005 there have been sixteen episodes in the career of the resolutely honest and decent man who shares none of the character faults of some of his fictional contemporaries. Yes, there was the protracted mystery of his missing wife – now solved, thank goodness – but Grace has few demons; certainly none that involve drink, drugs, dodgy tastes in music or sexual fallibility. Neither is Roy Grace, perceptive and intuitive though he may, cursed with second sight or prone to supernatural whimsies.

So what keeps him as a permanent resident in the crime fiction best-seller charts? It hasn’t hurt that Peter James has pretty much patented the use of that potent four-letter word DEAD in his titles. Simple, Looking Good, Not … Yet, At First Sight are just a few of the the inventive titles James has used. I’ll answer my own question with a simple reply. Peter James is a bloody good writer. End of.

dead013Strangely though, Find Them Dead sees Roy Grace rather in the background. He binds the narrative together by his presence, of course he does, but he mostly takes a back seat in this tale of drug dealers, bent lawyers and jury-nobbling. He has returned to Sussex after a spell working with the Metropolitan Police in London. The sheer depth and depravity of London’s crime has been an eye-opener, but the south coast is not without its villains.

A Brighton solicitor called Terence Gready – what a wonderful Dickensian name – has been arrested on suspicion of being near the top of a multi-million pound drug ring. His favourite modus operandi has been importing the pharmaceuticals packed into bodywork cavities of fake classic cars. His main man on the ground has also been arrested and Gready is in grave danger of spending the rest of his life in jail.

The spine of Find Them Dead concerns the ordeal of Meg Magellan, a middle-aged widow who has been summoned for jury service in the trial of Terence Gready. The bent solicitor is not quite at the apex of his organisation; his bosses believe that his downfall would also implicate them,and so they they target the jury – Meg in particular – in whose hands Gready’s fate lies.

Meg’s daughter is on a gap-year jaunt to Ecuador, and it is by threatening her that the bad guys hope to persuade Meg to emulate Henry Fonda’s Davis in the 1957 classic Twelve Angry Men. If Meg can persuade her fellow jurors that Gready is innocent, then all will be well. If she fails, then Laura will never leave Ecuador alive.

James ratchets up the tension with the true zeal of a torturer. As Grace – and his long term offsiders Norman Potting and Glenn Branson try to get to the bottom of who knows what in the case, we tread a tightrope of anxiety where it is never clear what the next step will bring.

Find Them Dead is published by Macmillan and is out now.

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