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English Crime Fiction

GUILT . . .Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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LONDON BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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INTERMISSION . . . Between the covers

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For readers new to this excellent series from Graham Hurley, here’s what you need to know. The central character is Enora Andressen, an English stage and screen actress in her early forties. She is in remission from a brain tumour, lives in Holland Park and is in a platonic relationship with a former cocaine baron, now a ‘reputable’ businessman, Hayden Prentice. He is the father of Enora’s son Malo, the product of a drunken fling on a yacht moored at Cannes a couple of decades earlier. Like ‘Bazza’ Mackenzie, the memorable anti-hero of Hurley’s magnificent Joe Faraday books, Prentice – nicknamed HP or ‘Saucy’ – has his tribal roots in the violent world of Portsmouth football supporters.

412ff7zLF2SIntermission is, I am sure, the only novel I have read so far that has, as its spine, the Covid-19 pandemic. The action begins in that fateful early spring of 2020, and Hayden Prentice learns that one of his old friends, a former bent copper known as Fat Dave has been laid low with the virus and is in the local ICU, and not expected to live. Visiting is, of course, completely off limits, but the sight – via a video link –  of his friend expiring amidst a sea of tubes and monitors chills HP to the bone. He travels from his Dorset manor house and summons Enora down to Portsmouth, where they have been given the use of a shabby flat owned by HP’s solicitor.

Fat Dave dies, and the newly announced lockdown measures prevent HP from organising the kind of send-off he was planning. Then, another bombshell. HP contracts the virus himself but refuses point blank to go into hospital. Enora has previously learned, via Malo, that due to the collapse of an insurance business he has set up, HP – formerly awash with the money he made in his criminal days – is in serious financial difficulties, but trapped in the claustrophobic flat Enora and Malo have no option but to buy in private care, involving  a rotating shift of nurses, the attention of a consultant, and  specialist medical equipment. The cost of all this is going to prove ruinous, but Enora is told by a violent psychopath called Wesley Kane – a sometime employee of HP – that before the virus laid him low, HP had a little investment plan. A plan that didn’t involve the risky world of insurance, hedge funds or commodity futures, but one where huge percentage profits are almost guaranteed – class “A” drugs. Back in his Dorset mansion, HP has kept a substantial stash of cash – in the proverbial used notes – and his housekeeper Jessie delivers this to Enora.

It seems that there is a woman in town named Shanti who has a long history of drug dealing. The restaurant she runs has gone bust, the power has been cut off, and she is hungry for money. Despite her attempts to run a straight business, she has retained contacts with the wholesalers of the ever-popular pharmaceuticals, and Enora pays her a visit.

There are complications, however. Enora meets Dessie Wren, a serving police officer and former colleague of the late Fat Dave, but rather more honest. He makes it very clear that the Hampshire police have not given up on their long running campaign to nail Hayden Prentice for his past misdeeds. To add to the woes of HP – and those close to him – someone whose father died as ‘collateral damage’ in a drug deal that went wrong is out for revenge.

There are so many good things about this series (click the links to read reviews of the earlier books Off Script, Sight Unseen and Curtain Call). Graham Hurley is a brilliant storyteller and a man of great learning and wide interests; as if the Joe Faraday books, the Jimmy Suttle series and these books are not sufficient evidence of that, he also writes superb military history thrillers like Kyiv. Enora herself is a wonderfully nuanced character. There is nothing remotely criminal about her, but through loyalty she is drawn into the murky world of Hayden Prentice, rather like Chandler’s investigator who finds that, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

The best contemporary English crime writers always give us an almost palpable sense of place; Christopher Fowler gives us London, Phil Rickman draws us into the haunted borderland between England and Wales; Chris Nickson has us treading the cobbles and breathing in the dense air of industrial Leeds, while Jim Kelly leaves us with the quiet menace of the Fen country. Graham Hurley has a recurrent major character in many of his novels, and it is the city of Portsmouth itself. Enora muses:

It’s an island community. It’s a bit cut off, a bit claustrophobic. It seems to expect the worst, and I get the feeling that it’s rarely disappointed, but for all its stoicism, it remains oddly upbeat. It also has a long memory. The thirst for a fight evidently lies deep in the city’s DNA, and I get the feeling the Pompey tribes have been picking quarrels for ever. Tim, my thespy friend, is very good on this. First, he says, Pompey’s finest went to sea and took on the Spanish, then the Dutch, and then the French. Trafalgar was a great moment, a really tasty ruck, and then came two world wars and shoals of sneaky U-boats. The monument on the front, visible from this flat, tallies the thousands of lives lost, but even so the city has never abandoned its passion for lots of blood and lots of treasure.”

Intermission is published by Severn House and is out now.

DEAD SORRY . . . Between the covers

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I am new to Helen H Durrant’s Calladine and Baylis mysteries, but I do love a good police procedural, and this fits the bill nicely. My heart did sink (for a nanosecond) when I saw the first chapter was headed ‘Twenty five years earlier’, as split time narratives are something of a bête noire for me, but in this case it ended up working quite well.

Detective Tom Calladine and his partner DS Ruth Bayliss work in the fictitious town of Leesdon, which seems to be in the north west of England, with views of the Pennines and somewhere on the border between the counties of the Red and White Rose. They are called to a seedy block of flats where the decaying corpse of a woman is found but, as neighbourliness in the flats is in short supply, so no-one had reported her missing or noticed anything untoward.

Dead SorryAs the plot develops we learn that the dead woman, Becca O’Brien, was pretty much human wreckage, drug addicted and feckless. Interestingly, her daughter (who now lives in sheltered accommodation0, was involved in an act of criminality which happened twenty five years earlier (see first paragraph) at a moorland location called Gorse Farm, where human bones have recently been discovered. In an ostensibly separate plot thread, Calladine is being threatened by a criminal adversary (something of a stage eastern European gangster) called Lazarov. When Lazarov threatens to harm Calladine’s grand-daughter if he doesn’t facilitate the Bulgarian’s take-over of the Leesdon drug scene, the tension ratchets up several notches.

So far, the plot has something of a “we’ve been here before feel” to it, but Helen Durrant plays her strongest cards relatively late in the story, and the narrative becomes anything but straightforward as ‘knowns” become “unknowns” and several assumptions made by Calladine and his team (and us) are proved to be very wide of the mark. The quest to unravel what actually happened at Gorse Farm a quarter of a century earlier meshes in nicely, plot-wise, with the Leesdon coppers search for a trigger-happy criminal with a Glock automatic.

Tom Calladine is an interesting character and, like many another fictional Detective Inspector, his personal life is something of a mess. Sometimes, he doesn’t always seem to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but Ruth Baylis is usually there to put him right.

Another interesting feature of the book (I read the KIndle version) was that it ended with a ‘Glossary of English Usage For US Readers’. I don’t know if this is something peculiar to the series, or to crime books from this publisher, as it contained explanations of words and terms as diverse as Bun: small cake, Desperate Dan: very strong comic book character, Lovely jubbly: said when someone is pleased, and War Cry: Salvation Army magazine. Most odd!

Dead Sorry is a well crafted and engaging police procedural which proves that even if detective duos are something of an old dog, this particular one still has plenty of life in it. Published by Joffe Books, it is out now. Helen has a Facebook page and is also on Twitter. You can find her by clicking on the icons below.

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BRASS LIVES . . . Between the covers

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The prolific and ever-reliable Yorkshire author Chris Nickson has been writing his Tom Harper series since 2014 when he introduced the Leeds copper in Gods of Gold. Since then he has stuck to the  theme of metal in the book titles, and now we have Brass Lives. Harper is now Deputy Chief Constable of the city where we first met him as a young detective in the 1890s.

As is customary, the action doesn’t stray much beyond the city and its surrounding (and rapidly diminishing) countryside, but a slightly exotic element is introduced by way of two American gangsters. One, Davey Mullen, was born in Leeds, but emigrated across the Atlantic, where he has found infamy and wealth as a New York gangster. He has returned to his home town to visit his father. Louis Herman Fess, on the other hand has no interest in Leeds other than the fact that it is the current whereabouts of Mullen. Fess is a member of the delightfully named Hudson Dusters gang. They shot rival hoodlum Mullen eleven times, but he survived, and it seems as if Fess has come to West Yorkshire to resolve unfinished business. When Fess is found shot dead, Mullen is the obvious suspect, but try as they may, Harper and his team can find no evidence to link Mullen to the killing.

BrassPolitics are never far away in Chris NIckson novels, and in this case it is the enthusiasm of his delightful wife, Annabelle, for the Suffragist cause that takes centre stage. Note the word ‘Suffragist’ rather than ‘Suffragette’, a term we are more familiar with. The Suffragists were the earliest group to seek emancipation and electoral parity, and they believed in the power of persuasion, debate and education, rather than the direct action for which the Suffragettes were later known. Annabelle has always been careful not to embarrass her husband by falling foul of the law, but she plans to march alongside other campaigners in a march which is shortly due to enter Leeds. (See footnote * for more details) Annabelle’s plans are, however, thwarted at the last moment by a cruel  twist of fate.

There is more murder and mayhem on the streets of Leeds and Tom Harper finds himself battling to solve perhaps the most complex case of his career, made all the more intractable because he faces a personal challenge more daunting than any he has ever faced in his professional life. Guns have played little part in Harper’s police career thus far, but the theft of four Webley revolvers – plus ammunition – from Harewood Barracks, and the subsequent purchase of the guns by members of the Leeds underworld, adds a new and dangerous dimension to the case.

Nickson’s love for his city – with all its many blemishes – is often voiced in the thoughts of Tom Harper. Here, he declines the use of his chauffeur driven car and opts for Shanks’s Pony:

“A good walk to Sheepscar. A chance to idle along, to see things up close rather than hidden away in a motor car where he passed so quickly. All the smells and sounds that made up Leeds. Kosher food cooking in the Leylands, sauerkraut and chicken and the constant hum of sewing machines in the sweatshops. The malt from Brunswick brewery. The hot stink of iron rising from the foundries and the sewage stink of chemical works and tanneries up Meanwood Road. Little of it was lovely. But all of it was his. It was home.”

Harper, rather like WS Gilbert’s Ko-Ko, has a little list. It contains all the victims – and possible perpetrators – of the spate of crimes connected to Davey Mullen. One by one, through a mixture of persistence, skill and good luck, he manages to put a line through most of them by the closing chapters of Brass Lives. The book ends, however, on a sombre note, rather like a funeral bell tolling: it warns of a future that will have devastating consequences not only for Tom Harper, his family and his colleagues, but for millions of people right across Europe.

I believe that this series will be seen by readers, some of whom are still learning to read, as a perfect sequence that epitomises the very best of historical crime fiction. The empathy, the attention to detail, and the raw truth of how our ancestors lived will make the Tom Harper novels timeless. Brass Lives is published by Severn House in hardback, and is available now. It will be out as a Kindle in August. For reviews of other novels in this excellent series, click on the graphic below.

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*The Great Pilgrimage of 1913 was a march in Britain by suffragists campaigning non-violently for women’s suffrage, organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Women marched to London from all around England and Wales and 50,000 attended a rally in Hyde Park.

MURDER AT MADAME TUSSAUDS . . . Between the covers

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This is the sixth book in the delightful series from Jim Eldridge set in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, and featuring a private investigator partnership between Daniel Wilson and Abigail Fenton. The pair are so mismatched that they make a delightful fit, if that makes any sense. Former policeman Daniel is short, stocky and of solid working class London stock, while Abigail is of more ‘noble birth’,  tall, elegant, and an expert in archaeology, particularly that of the classical world. As you can see from the banner above, they have worked their way around the major museums of England, but now they are called to a slightly less academic venue – Madame Tussaud’s waxworks on Baker Street.

One of the night watchmen is found decapitated, his body (and head) posed next to the instrument of death that caused Anna Maria “Marie” Tussaud née Grosholtz to fear for her own life during the French Revolution – the guillotine. Wilson and Fenton immediately smell a rather large and malodorous rodent. The dead man – Eric Dudgeon – and his fellow watchman, Walter Bagshot, were lifelong friends, and former army colleagues. Now Dudgeon is dead and Bagshot is missing. Even stranger is the fact that some months earlier the previous watchmen, Donald Bruin and Steven Patterson, both left at the same time and, within days, Dudgeon and Bagshot arrived at the exhibition asking if there were any vacancies for security staff.

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Meanwhile, Eldridge has introduced some real life characters (pictured above) – Prime Minister the Marquess of Salisbury, Sir Matthew White Ridley the Home Secretary, and William Melville head of the Special Branch. The men are concerned about a series of successful bank robberies, each of which has been carried out by the robbers tunneling into the bank vault from the cellar of an adjoining building. The sums taken have been eye-wateringly huge – so much so that the government is concerned about a run on the banks. Dedicated Sherlockians, when hearing about the robbers’ method, will raise an eyebrow and say, “A-hah – The Red Headed League!*

The murder plot becomes more twisted, when a young man, working on the basis that if he can scare his girlfriend she will succumb to his advances, hides with her in a Tussaud’s broom cupboard at closing time, and then sneaks out into The Chamber of Horrors. What they find is a genuine horror rather than a wax version, and all thoughts of dalliance go out of the window. Abigail, meanwhile, is courted (in a gentlemanly way) by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, who wants her to lead an expedition to excavate an obscure group pf pyramids in Egypt. Both she and Daniel have their lives threatened, however; Abigail by an obsessed young woman who lusts after Daniel, and Daniel himself by a powerful and seemingly untouchable crime boss, Gerald Carr. But is Carr the real spider at the centre of this web, or is it someone much more closely connected to high society?

Screen Shot 2021-06-20 at 19.30.31This shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘comfort reading’. Yes, we know what we are going to get – the atmospheric late Victorian setting, the warm human chemistry between Daniel and Abigail, the absence of moral ambiguity and the certainty that good will prevail. Any genuine reader of fiction – and in particular, crime fiction – will know that, rather in the manner of Ecclesiastes chapter III , there is a time for everything; there is a time for the dark despair of Derek Raymond, there is a time for the intense psychological dramas of Lisa Jewell, and a time for workaday police procedurals by writers like Peter James and Mark Billingham. There is also a time for superbly crafted historical crime fiction which takes us far away in time and space, and allows us to escape into an – albeit imaginary – world which provides balm and healing to our present woes. Murder at Madame Tussaud’s is one such book. It is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

*The Red-Headed League” is a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which Sherlock Holmes takes the case of a businessman who feels that he’s been duped. A small business owner named Wilson tells Holmes how a man named Spaulding convinced him to take a job with The Red-Headed League. The League pays Wilson to copy out the Encyclopedia Britannica in longhand. Wilson does this for seven weeks, until the League is disbanded. Holmes realizes that Spaulding just wanted Wilson out of the shop so that he could dig a tunnel into the nearby bank.

DYING INSIDE . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A COLD GRAVE . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCARRED . . . Between the covers

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

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;”

Sticking with the Bard of Somersby, Christie is also;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.”

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

 

Nick

 

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