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WHITETHROAT . . . Between the covers

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There are locations for British crime novels that fit certain moods. You can have rural idylls which are shattered by evil deeds – the Cotswolds, the Yorkshire Dales and the majestic Scottish Highlands all fit that bill. Then you have the criminals hiding behind the bright lights of cities like London, Glasgow, and Manchester. James Henry has chosen a rather more understated milieu for his Nick Lowry police novels – Essex, and in particular, the garrison town of Colchester.

9781529401134Essex has become something of a trigger word in recent years, conjuring up images such as lavish mansions owned by London gangsters and dumb bottle-blondes with their perma-tanned, medallioned boyfriends. James Henry, however, takes us back forty years to the 1980s. DI Nick Lowry and his boss, Chief Superintendent Sparks, inhabit a police HQ which leaks, has rotten floorboards, and is maybe only months away from the demolishers’ wrecking ball. Sparks contemplates his desk:

“He studied the wooden surface of his desk. Countless semicircles, rings from years of mugs, cups, scotch glasses, placed carelessly and staining the untreated grain. The there were more pronounced wounds and scars: cigarette burns, knife scores, unusual marks – traces of events only the man behind the desk could read.”

Since Roman times, the history of Colchester has been inextricably intertwined with that of soldiering, and it is the death of a young ‘squaddie’ (an unranked private soldier) that Lowry investigates. Improbably, it seems that the dead man was shot in a Victorian-style duel, complete with gentlemanly observance and the presence of Seconds. With the help of his friend Captain James Oldham, of the Military Police, Lowry discovers that the two men had been fighting over a woman. But who was the other duellist, and who was the woman?

The plot goes this way and that, but this is a book that is always about the quality of the prose. Lowry has a young subordinate called Kenton, who has been on leave since being traumatised by the death of a young girl. Kenton is clever, well-educated, but enjoys his stimulants. In pursuit of the more legal kind, he observes pub life:

“..it was different being here as a punter. You saw the place through different eyes; peaceful and inviting and shabbily familiar. Flaking paintwork, worn hardwood surfaces, the yellow, cracked ceiling; a naked aging structure smoothed by the warmth of alcohol and density of cigarette smoke.”

And again:

“The first to arrive were the regulars. Men in their sixties. One, Wilf, was already in situ, perched quietly at a corner table, steadfastly drinking IPA. He would sut there until last orders, then leave as silently as he had arrived. Around midday, the bohemian set – ‘intellectual dossers’, Sparks called them – would drift in. Young men clutching tatty paperbacks. Sucking the end of biros and staring pensively into the middle distance.”

Like most self-respecting fictional police detectives, Lowry’s personal life is something of a wasteland. He is divorced, and his wife has poisoned their son against him. He feels that the years are taking their toll on him, but he remains compassionate:

“Lowry moved to place his arm across Sparks’s shoulders, but instead grasped the nearest arm, squeezed the firm bicep and bowed his head. He was winded by a surge of sympathy, revealing an attachment to the older man that seldom surfaced. Even now – more and more, in fact, the older he became – life caught Lowry out, introducing unsolicited emotions and concerns, age bringing with it a new sort of awareness.”

HenryThe plot is the least important part of this fine novel, but it unfolds gradually. The woman whose favours are being fought over by the duellists is not a woman at all, but a fifteen year-old schoolgirl, the daughter of a local businessman. He, in turn, has unfinished business with a local enrepreneur, and business that dates back to a racial attack three decades earlier. We are in a world of simmering resentment born out of old slights, and the result? The proverbial dish that is best served cold.

Whitethroat is bleak, downbeat and mesmerising; a subtle, compassionate and beautifully written novel that is something of an elegy to a way of policing – and living – that is gone for ever. James Henry (above right), as James Gurbutt, has also written prequels to RD Wingfield’s Jack Frost series. Whitethroat is published by Riverrun and will be out in hardback on 9th July. The two previous Nick Lowry novels are pictured below.

Books

KILLING GOLDFINGER … by Wesley Clarkson

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Even if it seems faintly indecent to make such comparisons, British gangsters and crime bosses have usually paled into insignificance when compared to their transatlantic cousins. Even The Krays, whose legend grows ever more lurid with the passing of the years, were regarded as nickel and dime operators by American crime syndicates. Reg and Ron, by the way, were not even the nastiest gangsters in Britain. That dubious crown rests securely on the heads of the deeply dreadful Richardson brothers from ‘Sarf London.’ British gangsters have generally been like lightweight boxers in the ring with heavyweights, and nothing epitomises that gulf like the painful demise of Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday, who perishes like a pygmy among giants.

Goldfinger035Perhaps the world has shrunk, or maybe it is that organised crime, like politics, has gone global, but more recent British mobsters have become bigger and, because we can hardly say “better”, perhaps “more formidable” might be a better choice of words. No-one typifies this new breed of gang boss than John “Goldfinger” Palmer. His name is hardly on the tip of everyone’s tongues, but as this new book from Wensley Clarkson shows, Palmer’s misdeeds were epic and definitely world class.

Born in Warwickshire in 1950, Palmer found that school and conventional education offered him nothing. After working with his brother for a spell, he started dealing in gold and jewellery from a Bristol address, and first came to the attention of the police in a significant way with his involvement in the Brinks Mat gold bullion heist in 1983. Palmer’s part in the affair sounds scarcely credible, but it was to melt down the gold bars into more saleable items – in his back garden. It was this action which earned him his nickname, but his claim that he didn’t know where the gold had come from convinced the jury at his trial in 1987.

Clarkson036Meanwhile, Palmer had not been idle, at least in the sense of criminality. He had set up in the timeshare business, perpetrating what was later proved to be a massive scam. When he was eventually brought to justice, it was alleged that he had swindled 20,000 people out of a staggering £30,000,000. In 2001 he was sentenced to eight years in jail, but his ill-gotten gains were never recovered.

Despite his prodigious earnings, it seemed to go against Palmer’s grain to go straight, and he continued to dabble in fraudulent timeshare selling and money laundering. He had semi-retired to a Ponderosa style property in Essex (where else?) but it seems clear that no-one spends their life stealing on a grand scale without making enemies, and he was shot dead in a professional hit on 24th June, 2015.

This brief account is all in the public domain, but Wensley Clarkson can tell the full story because of his intensive research ‘on the inside’. His knowledge has not been gathered without cost, as he and his family have been subject to death threats by criminals terrified of being exposed. Killing Goldfinger is the definitive account of an extraordinary life – and death. It is published by Quercus, and is due to be published on 1st June.

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TRUTH WILL OUT … Between the covers

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Truth Will Out compNick Fennimore is a forensic psychologist, and a Professor at the University of Aberdeen. His past gives him a painful and heartfelt stake in the hunt for a serial killer, as his own wife and child were snatched. Both are now lost to him; wife Rachel, because her body was found shortly after the abduction., and daughter Suzie – well, she is just lost. Neither sight nor sound of her has been sensed in the intervening years, but Fennimore clutches at the straw of her still being alive, and he feverishly scans his own personal CCTV footage of the Paris streets and boulevards in the hope of catching a glimpse of her.

 Fennimore has an uneasy relationship with DI Kate Simms, a senior police officer now working in Manchester. They too have a past, but Kate is unhappily married to Keiron, an ambitious schoolteacher who seems more concerned with his own professional advancement than keeping their marriage alive. Keiron may have a justifiable grievance, as Kate has only just returned from a high profile secondment to America, while he has been left to keep the home fires burning, and their two children fed and watered.

 Julia Myers and her six year-old daughter Lauren have been taken, perhaps by the same killer who inflicted such trauma on Fennimore. Just as in the Fennimore abduction, the mother – Julia – turns up dead, but where is the daughter? We have the occasional chapter narrated in Lauren’s voice, and Garrett captures her intensity, bafflement and frustration perfectly.

 Fennimore has been pursued by a persistent Essex reporter, Carl Lazko, who wants to make a headline-grabbing story out of the wreckage of Fennimore’s personal life, in addition to mounting a campaign to prove that a man called Graham Mitchell is innocent of a murder which has no connection with Fennimore but has all the hallmarks of the academic’s family tragedy.

 Josh Brown is a research assistant to Fennimore and as part of his campaign to get the academic on-side, Lazko reveals that Josh is on a witness protection programme and is a member of a notorious Essex crime family. Josh has turned Queen’s Evidence, thus indicting several close family members, hence his new life and new identity. When they appear, in the later part of the book, Josh’s family – his brothers, no less – are chillingly depicted as murderous and callous hooligans. As a Briton, I do sometimes ask the question, “What is it about Essex?” That I fully expected the vindictive brothers to be thoroughly odious probably tells its own story. As I write, I can tell you that there is currently a pressure group working hard to force the removal of the term ‘Essex Girl’ from a popular and inclusive dictionary.

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A.D. Garrett
is the pseudonym for prize-winning novelist Margaret Murphy (above left), working in consultation with policing and forensics expert, Helen Pepper (above right). I found their latest novel well-paced and accurately researched with intense scientific detail, as one would expect from a novel co-authored by a scientist. My only criticism is that the abduction case is eventually solved in a very dramatic fashion, and this was a master-class in how an author should bring a plot to a thrilling – and bloodstained – conclusion. But then, just as we – that’s you and me, the readers – are calming down after a thrilling denouement, the authors decided to wrap up Fennimore’s own personal obsession – the whereabouts of his daughter. This is done at 110 mph, in very few pages, and I felt that it could easily have been left to another day and another novel, to allow its dramatic potential to be fully exploited.

 The two previous books in the series are Everyone Lies (2013) and Believe No One (2014). Truth Will Out will be available from 3rd November in hardback and Kindle, with a paperback version promised for early 2017. The novels are published by Corsair, which is an imprint of the Little Brown Group.

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