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Graham Hurley

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.

KYIV . . . Between the covers

 

HEADERGraham Hurley is, for me, one of the outstanding crime writers of this generation. His Joe Faraday series was simply wonderful, and the Jimmy Suttle spin-off books were just as good. His Enora Andresson series is very different, but equally compelling. It is only relatively recently, though, that I became aware of Hurley’s fascination with military history, and so I jumped at the chance to read and review Kyiv. We know the city as Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and in this novel Hurley starts with the fateful day, 22nd June 1941 when Adolf Hitler, desperate for Ukraine’s agricultural riches, but with an eye on the oil fields of the Caucuses beyond, launched Operation Barbarossa.

Screen Shot 2021-06-16 at 18.48.16Knowing, as we do now, that the invasion of Russia was a disastrous strategic mistake which eventually brought the downfall of the Third Reich, shouldn’t diminish our appreciation of this book. In some ways, we are in John Lawton and Philip Kerr territory here, with the complex mixture of real life characters and fictional creations. For some of the real people, please see the infographic at the end of this review. The novel focuses on two (fictional) people, Isobel ‘Bella’ Menzies and Tam Moncrieff. Both work for British intelligence. Moncrieff is loyal to Britain, but Bella’s allegiance is more ambiguous. She works for both Russia and Britain, and both states seem to be well aware of this. Naturally, before the launch of  Barbarossa, Stalin was – on paper, at least – an ally of Hitler, so what now?

Bella is sent on a mysterious mission to Moscow but, with the fearsome NKVD (Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) on her case, she diverts to Kyiv, with the German Army Group Centre just days away from capturing the city. Soon, the shattered remains of the Red Army (and party officials like Nikita Kruschev) are scrambling eastwards over the River Dnieper and the bemused Ukranians, most of them no fans of the departing Soviets, look on as the Germans arrive and start what seems to be a fairly peaceful Nazification of Kyiv. This soon changes, however. Pro-Soviet agents have planted huge bombs in many of the city’s major buildings, and in particular those they knew that the new German administration would appropriate as accommodation for their army of bureaucrats. These bombs are detonated, one by one, by radio signal, and all hell breaks loose.

Back in Britain, Tam Moncrieff has been made a fool of by fellow intelligence officer Kim Philby, and is then abducted and drugged. When he finally finds himself free, much of his memory has gone. Someone has used him to send a mocking message to the British intelligence agencies, but who?

Bella, meanwhile, has met Larissa, a Ukranian journalist, and they have become lovers. As the SS attempt to end the bombings Bella falls foul of sadistic Standartenführer Kalb, but with the help of Wilhelm Strauss, a sympathetic Abwehr officer she knew from her days in Berlin before the war, she and Larissa play a dangerous cat and mouse game with Kalb.

Hurley depicts Strauss as a “good German’ in a similar way that Philip Kerr treated Bernie Gunther, but for all his disgust at the tactics of the SS, Strauss is unable to prevent one of the most horrific and bestial acts of the war being visited on the Jews of Kyiv.

William Tecumseh Sherman famously stated, “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell.” Graham Hurley paints as hellish a picture of war as you could wish to read, and spares neither the Germans or the Soviets as he describes their predilection for barbarity. Onto this grim background, he paints a haunting picture of human love and suffering. Kyiv is published by Head of Zeus and is out on 8th July.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Thriller

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If you want to read the full review of each novel, just click the title. The review should then open in a different window

THE SECOND WIFE by REBECCA FLEET

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POSSESSED by PETER LAWS

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BORROWED TIME by DAVID MARK

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BEST THRILLER 2020
OFF SCRIPT by GRAHAM HURLEY

Screen Shot 2020-12-11 at 19.20.17If you were to ask the man or woman browsing in the books aisle at ASDA or TESCO to name a distinguished living British crime fiction writer, I would wager that few would come up with name Graham Hurley. , Rankin, James, McDermid and Child might get a mention – and all credit to them – but Graham Hurley is something of a connoisseur’s choice. I’ll be quite up front – I love his writing. The Joe Faraday novels were just wonderful, but then Mr H killed him off. He kept us entertained with the Jimmy Suttle stories which were, in a way, Faraday novels without Faraday, but then Jimmy disappeared. Hurley’s latest creation is not a copper. She is a 39 year-old actress with a brain tumour, and a back story that involves a very ‘dodgy geezer’, a former criminal ganglord called Hayden Prentice. Yes, there is plenty of crime, and an abundance of thrills but, above all, there is Hurley’s superb ability to create memorable characters and tell a mesmerising story. Click the author’s picture (above right) to learn more.

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OFF SCRIPT . . . Between the covers

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It’s just as well that I don’t work in publishing, because I have no nose whatsoever for what makes an author popular. Some of my very favourite writers clearly have their audiences, but never have their names “up in lights’. One such is Graham Hurley. He created one of the truly original fictional coppers – Joe Faraday – and then killed him off. Poor Joe didn’t survive his Reichenbach Falls moment but subsequently, Hurley gave us a quartet of beautifully crafted novels featuring Faraday’s young sergeant, Jimmy Suttle.

Hurley’s latest creation is not a police officer. She is an actress, Enora Andresson, who doesn’t even solve crimes as an amateur, but her circle of acquaintances and personal circumstances lead her into dangerous situations. The first two books in the series are pictured below,and clicking the images will take you to a detailed review of each.

Sight UnseenCurtain Call

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now we have a new Enora Andresson novel, Off Script, and it is every bit as cleverly written and perceptive as Graham Hurley fans have come to expect. For newcomers, here is a quick precis of Enora’s world.

She is a distinguished and much-admired actress, having appeared in many stage productions and is best known for her roles in what used to be known as art-house films. She lives with a brain tumour which she hopes is now in remission. Her former husband, whose name she retains is, as they say, a ‘nasty-piece-of-work’. She has a rather feckless son, Malo. We learned in Curtain Call that his father is a gangster-gone-legit, Hayden Prentice. Another significant figure in Enora’s life is a former scriptwriter called Pavel. Once Enora’s lover, he is now blind, and paralysed after a freak accident.

41tNcNbzycL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_In Off Script, the early focus is on Carrie, one of Pavel’s carers. She has received a terrifying small-hours visit from an apparent psychopath, and when she confesses how much this has disturbed her, Enora sets out to find the strange young man who, after his chilling threats to Carrie, seems to have disappeared into the twilight world of the homeless and uprooted.

Enora’s world is tipped on its head when she discovers a terrible murder:

“She’s sprawled on her side, one knee up, a semi-foetal pose. Her eyes are wide open in the blankness of her face. Naked, she’s lying in a drying pool of what must be her own blood. It’s everywhere, over the sheets, the duvet, the pillows, the wallpaper, everywhere.”

The search intensifies for Carrie’s midnight visitor, and along the way Enora and an investigative journalist take a trip to the Somerset seaside, but it is far from idyllic.

“Mitch has never been to Weston before but what he sees on the way in doesn’t surprise him. Scruffy industrial estates. Boarded up units. Heavy security outside supermarkets. Kids on their bikes pulling wheelies in the middle of the road, eager for their day in court.”

Enora is blindsided by a new man in her life, and makes a terrible mistake. She eventually realises what she has done, and it takes all her skills as an actress to prevent catastrophe. Not the least of Graham Hurley’s wizardry is the bravura way he tells the tale through the eyes of a 39 year-old woman. Enora is utterly convincing, and has become another example of Hurley’s brilliant storytelling.

Off Script is published by Severn House and is out now.

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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CURTAIN CALL . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

As Robert Burns so memorably put it:

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

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

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

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

Enora’s view of political zealotry is more measured:

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

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

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

“Happy Days….”

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