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Historical Crime Fiction

HAMMER TO FALL . . .Between the covers

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English author and screenwriter John Lawton has long been a favourite of those readers who like literary crime fiction, and his eight Frederick Troy novels have become classics. Set over a long time-frame from the early years of WW2 to the 1960s, the books feature many real-life figures or, as in A Little White Death (1998), characters based on real people, in this case the principals in the Profumo Affair. In Then We Take Berlin (2013) Lawton introduced a new character, an amoral chancer whose real surname – Holderness – has morphed into Wilderness. Joe Wilderness is a clever, corrupt and calculating individual whose contribution to WW2 was minimal, but his career trajectory has widened from being a Schieber (spiv, racketeer) in the chaos of post-war Berlin to being in the employ of the British Intelligence services.

HTFHe is no James Bond figure, however. His dark arts are practised in corners, and with as little overt violence as possible. Hammer To Fall begins with a flashback scene,establishing Joe’s credentials as someone who would have felt at home in the company of Harry Lime, but we move then to the 1960s, and Joe is in a spot of bother. He is thought to have mishandled one of those classic prisoner exchanges which are the staple of spy thrillers, and he is sent by his bosses to weather the storm as a cultural attaché in Finland. His ‘mission’ is to promote British culture by traveling around the frozen north promoting visiting artists, or showing British films. His accommodation is spartan, to say the least. In his apartment:

The dining table looked less likely to be the scene of a convivial meal than an autopsy.”

Some of the worthies sent to Finland to wave the British flag are not to Joe’s liking:

“For two days Wilderness drove the poet Prudence Latymer to readings. She was devoutly Christian – not an f-word passed her lips – and seemed dedicated to simple rhyming couplets celebrating dance, spring, renewal, the natural world and the smaller breeds of English and Scottish dog.It was though TS Eliot had never lived. By the third day Wilderness was considering shooting her.”

Before he left England, his wife Judy offered him these words of advice:

“If you want a grant to stage Twelfth Night in your local village hall in South Bumpstead, Hampshire, the Arts Council will likely as not tell you to fuck off …. So, if you want to visit Lapland, I reckon your best bet is to suggest putting on a nude ballet featuring the over-seventies, atonal score by Schoenberg, sets by Mark Rothko ….. Ken Russell can direct … all the easy accessible stuff …. and you’ll probably pick up a whopping great grant and an OBE as well.”

JohnLawton.-Credit-Nick-Lockett-318x318So far, so funny – and Lawton (right) is in full-on Evelyn Waugh mode as he sends up pretty much everything and anyone. The final act of farce in Finland is when Joe earns his keep by sending back to London, via the diplomatic bag, several plane loads of …. well, state secrets, as one of Joe’s Russian contacts explains:

The Soviet Union has run out of bog roll. The soft stuff you used to sell to us in Berlin is now as highly prized as fresh fruit or Scotch whisky. We wipe our arses on documents marked Classified, Secret and sometimes even Top Secret. and the damned stuff won’t flush. So once a week a surly corporal lights a bonfire of Soviet secrets and Russian shit.”

But, as in all good satires – like Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, and Catch 22 – the laughter stops and things take a turn to the dark side. Joe’s Finnish idyll comes to an end, and he is sent to Prague to impersonate a tractor salesman. By now, this is 1968, and those of us who are longer in the tooth know what happened in Czechoslavakia in 1968. Prague has a new British Ambassador, and one very familiar to John Lawton fans, as it is none other than Frederick Troy. As the Russians lose patience with Alexander Dubček and the tanks roll in, Joe is caught up in a desperate gamble to save an old flame, a woman whose decency has, over the years, been a constant reproach to him:

“Nell Burkhardt was probably the most moral creature he’d ever met. Raised by thieves and whores back in London’s East End, he had come to regard honesty as aberrant. Nell had never stolen anything, never lied …led a blameless life, and steered a course through it with the unwavering compass of her selfless altruism.”

Hammer To Fall is a masterly novel, bitingly funny and heartbreaking by turns. I think A Lily Of The Field is Lawton’s masterpiece, but this runs it pretty damned close. It is published by Grove Press, and is out today, 2nd April 2020.

 

For more about John Lawton click this link

THE MOLTEN CITY . . . Between the covers

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TMCWe first met Leeds policeman Tom Harper in Gods of Gold (2014) when he was a young CID officer, and the land was still ruled by Queen Victoria. Now, in The Molten City, Harper is a Superintendent and the Queen is seven years dead. ‘Bertie’ – Edward VII – is King, and England is a different place. Leeds, though, is still a thriving hub of heavy industry, pulsing with the throb of heavy machinery. And it remains grimy, soot blackened and with pockets of degradation and poverty largely ignored by the wealthy middle classes. But there are motor cars on the street, and the police have telephones. Other things are stirring, too. Not all women are content to remain second class citizens, and pressure is being put on politicians to consider giving women the vote. Sometimes this is a peaceful attempt to change things, but other women are prepared to go to greater lengths.

This small but increasingly vocal movement provides one of two plot threads in what is, to my mind, Chris Nickson’s finest novel yet. Prime Minister HH Asquith and his Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone are due to visit Leeds, and it will be Harper’s task to make sure that the visit passes off peacefully. He knows there is likely to be a protest from unemployed men whipped up by anarchist Alf Kitson, but his greatest fear is that a demonstration led by suffragette Jennie Baines will provoke more intense publicity. At this point, it is essential to point out the difference between suffragettes and suffragists. The latter have the same aims as the former, but they are avowedly peaceful in their methods. Harper’s wife Annabelle is a suffragist. She has worked for women’s rights for many years, and has passed on her zeal to their teenage daughter Mary.

The parallel thread in The Molten City begins when Harper receives an anonymous letter:

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As he uses his local knowledge and that of his older officers, Harper begins to piece together a jigsaw. As the picture begins to take shape, it is clear that it is one that contains elements of tragedy, greed, desperation – and downright criminality, and that solving the puzzle will bring joy to no-one. As the past players in this old drama start to realise that the past is catching up with them, anxiety leads to violence,and violence leads to murder.

There are so many dazzlingly good elements to this novel. Nickson, like many of his readers is someone of the twentieth century, and he has a keen eye and ear for little social mannerisms that certainly struck a chord with me. As Annabelle imagines her husband in a Chief Constable’s uniform, she says:
You’d look a right bobby-dazzler.”
Only those of us who were brought up having their tea made in a pot will remember this gesture:
“She felt the side of the teapot and poured herself another cup.”
Teenagers were as hungry in 1908 as they are today, but few sit down with their parents at a set table and have their meal:
“She’d already cleaned her plate right down to the pattern and was working her way through the suet pudding.”

Tom Harper is still fit, active, and able to handle himself in a scrap, but like Tennyson’s Ulysses who laments tho we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;” he is all too aware of the passage of time:
“And it was a detective’s job to follow every possibility. That was what his old boss, Superintendent Kendall, had instilled in him when he was starting out in CID. Another one who was dead now; Harper had filled his shoes at Millgarth. Billy, Kendall, so many others …very soon the dead in his life would outnumber the living.”

Nickson orchestrates the dramatic disorder – based on real events – of the Prime Minister’s visit with panache and the skills of a born storyteller. We know – as does Harper himself – that finding the truth about the child stealing will benefit no-one alive or dead, but he is a policeman who must do his duty while being all too well aware that the truth is frequently uncomfortable.

The Molten City is published by Severn House and is out now. If you want to find out more about Chris Nickson and his books, then click the image below.

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THE NIGHT RAIDS . . . Between the covers

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Detective Inspector Eden Brooke, Jim Kelly’s 1940s Cambridge copper returns for his third case, in The Night Raids. Those readers who met Brooke in The Great Darkness and The Mathematical Bridge (the links will take you to my reviews) will know that he is cultured, educated, but afflicted with an aversion to bright light as a result of horrific treatment by his Turkish captors during The Great War. One consequence is that he must wear spectacles with special lenses; another is that finds sleep both difficult and troubled, in that when he when he can find repose, his dreams are stark and threatening. He lives in Cambridge with his wife Claire and two grown up children, of whom Joy is a nurse like her mother, while Luke is in the army. We learn that he is currently training with Special Forces. Because of his condition, Brooke is something of what used to be called a night owl. He is most at ease when he is outside, enveloped in the still watches of the night, and he has regular ports of call such as an all-night tea stall, a friend who is an air-raid observer, and a college porter.

Cambridge sits on the Western edge of the Fen Country – formerly a vast expanse of freshwater peat bog, meres and ever-changing rivers. By the time in which the book is set, the Fen had long since been tamed by numerous arrow-straight drainage channels and sluices, but in the Eden Brooke stories it sits out there, beyond the lights of the town, like a huge dark and silent presence. Water is, in fact, an essential theme of these novels. Brooke himself swims in the river for exercise and contemplation; it is also a place where people die, sometimes by their own hand, but also at the hands of others.

41Yeq64CwrLIn Night Raids we see some of the story through the eyes of a crew of a German Heinkel bomber. Their mission is to destroy an essential bridge over the river; the bridge, crucially, carries the railway taking vital men and munitions to the east coast, where invasion is a daily expectation.The bombers come over at night, and have so far failed to destroy the bridge. What they have done, however, is unload some of their bombs on residential areas of the town, and inside one of the terraced houses wrecked by the raid, Brooke finds the body of an elderly woman. Her death is clearly attributable to Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe, but the fact that her left ring finger and middle finger have been removed with a hacksaw cannot, sadly be laid at the door of the Reichsmarschall.

When one of the dead woman’s granddaughters goes missing, along with her naturalised Italian boyfriend, Brooke can only look on in frustration as the case becomes more complex, and threatens to spin out of control. In what seems to be a totally unconnected incident, Brooke has discovered that someone – either intentionally or by accident – has released a pollutant into the river, possibly as a result of black market skullduggery. Once again, the river itself becomes a key element in the story. A body is discovered submerged near a fish farm which breeds pike, a delicacy served at High Table in some of the colleges. Bodies in rivers are commonplace in crime fiction, but this is as haunting and macabre as anything I have ever read:

Boyle bent down to see if he could feel her breath between the blue lips, but the slightly bloated flesh, and the glazed eyes, told Brooke that she’d been dead for several days. The still-flowing blood told a lie. The pike had nibbled at the flesh but these wounds were puckered and bleached. The blood ran from black leeches which dotted her neck and legs, secreting their magic enzyme, which had stopped the blood from clotting. They stood back in silence as the cold corpse bled.

Jim Kelly is one of our finest writers. Were I ever to be asked what my Desert Island third book choice would be, after the Bible and a complete Shakespeare, it would be a complete works of Jim Kelly. In The Night Raids he conjures up a narrative tour de force which combines the Cambridge murders, an exploitative criminal gang and the malevolent intentions of the Luftwaffe – into a dramatic and breathtaking final act. The Night Raids is published by Allison & Busby and is out now.

FOR MORE ON JIM KELLY CLICK THIS LINK

THE FOUNDLING . . . Between the covers

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B ornamenteing a middle class British father and grandfather, the concept of abandoning a newly born baby is totally beyond my experience of life and (the fault is perhaps mine) my comprehension. The fact is, however, that since Adam had his way with Eve, biology has trumped human intention, and babies have come into the world unloved and unwanted. Thankfully, there have been charitable institutions over the centuries which have done their best to provide some kind of home for foundlings. Abandoning babies is not something consigned to history: modern Germany has its Babyklappe, and Russia its Колыбель надежды – literally hatches – rather like an old fashioned bank deposit box – built into buildings where babies can be left. Back in time, Paris had its Maison de la Couche pour les Enfants Trouvés while in Florence the Ospedale degli Innocenti is one of the gems of early Renaissance architecture. London had its Foundling Hospital, and it is the centre of The Foundling, the new novel by Stacey Halls.

TFCoverBess Bright is a Shrimp Girl. Her father gets up at the crack of dawn to buy Essex shrimps from Billingsgate Market, and Bess puts the seafood in the brim of a broad hat and, clutching a tiny tankard to measure them out, she walks the streets of 1750s London selling her wares. For American readers it is worth explaining that British shrimps are tiny crustaceans, not ‘shrimp’, the larger creature we call ‘prawns’. In my opinion, the British shrimp is fiddly to prepare but spectacularly more tasty than its larger cousin.

Bess has, to put it politely, ‘an encounter’ in a dingy back street, with an attractive young merchant who deals in whalebone – the staple component of 18th century corsets and also a carvable alternative to the more expensive tusks of elephants. Bess’s moment of passion has an almost inevitable consequence, and in the dingy rooms she rents with her father and brother, she gives birth to a healthy baby girl. During her pregnancy, however, Daniel Callard has died, thus ruling out any possible confrontation where Bess presents the child to its father, and says, “Your daughter, Sir!”

Sornamentelling shrimps from the brim of your hat is not an occupation destined to provide sufficient funds to keep a growing child, and so Bess presents herself and baby Clara at The Foundling Hospital, London’s only repository for unwanted children. The Hospital does, however, offer hope to young mothers. Each child’s admittance is scrupulously recorded, and the mothers are asked to leave a small token – perhaps a square of fabric or another physical memento which – when circumstances permit – mothers can use to prove identity when they are able to return and claim their children.

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Bess works and works and works; her meagre profits are salted away until, some six years later, she returns to the Hospital with the funds to pay them back and collect Clara. Her mild anxiety at the prospect of being reunited with her daughter turns to horror when she is told that the baby was reclaimed, the day after she was admitted, when a woman calling herself Bess Bright arrived and showed the requisite token – the matching half of a divided heart, fashioned from whalebone.

Hornamentalow – and where – Bess finds her missing daughter is for you to discover, but I promise that The Foundling is ingenious, delightful, and the author’s skills as a storyteller are magnetic. The attention to detail and the period authenticity are things to be wondered at, but what elevates this novel above the humdrum is how Stacey Halls conjures up our sheer emotional investment in the characters, each one beautifully observed. Art lovers will recognise the painter – and the title – of the picture below and, were he alive to read it, the great observer of London life would thoroughly approve of The Foundling, which is published by Manilla Press and is out on 3rd February in Kindle and 6th February in hardback

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The previous novel by Stacey Halls, The Familiars is here.

KILLING BEAUTIES . . . Between the covers

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KB frontThe idea of the female spy has attracted writers and dramatists over the years with its unbeatable combination of danger and sexual allure. Pete Langman comes to the party with his enjoyable new novel, Killing Beauties set in the England of 1655. Remember those old historical movies that began with a dramatic piece of text scrolling over the opening titles, giving us a lurid and enticing potted background to whatever we were about to watch? The blurb for Killing Beauties might say something like, “England’s King Charles is six years dead and the brutal tyrant Oliver Cromwell rules the land with an iron fist, aided by his evil spymaster John Thurloe. While the dead King’s son waits impatiently across the English Channel, a beautiful woman plots the downfall of Cromwell’s savage regime.”

Tornamentalhe beautiful woman is Susan Hyde, whose brother Sir Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon is principle advisor to the King in exile. With the aid of another young woman, Diane Jennings, Susan – and other members of the secret society known as Les Filles d’Ophelie – work with The Sealed Knot, coordinating underground Royalist activity in England and preparing for a general uprising against the Protectorate. Readers may be aware that the modern version of The Sealed Knot is a popular organisation of English Civil War re-enactors, but their historical namesakes were in deadly earnest, and organised two major rebellions before Charles II was finally crowned in 1661.

Killing_Beauties_ETP_3In order to succeed in her mission, Susan must use the deadliest weapon at her disposal – her sexuality. The beneficiary of her attention is none other than John Thurloe himself. Thurloe is a fascinating historical figure, and has featured in several other novels, most notably in the Thomas Challoner series by Susanna Gregory, and in the SG MacLean’s Seeker stories. I reviewed MacLean’s The Bear Pit and The Black Friar, and you can click the links to go to the reviews.

Killing Beauties, as you might expect, gives us much general skullduggery, swordplay, concealing messages in all kinds of unlikely places, fatal potions (one swallowed, memorably, by an unfortunate goat) and hearts beating with passion beneath many a female bodice. Langman writes with great energy, and his style reminds me rather of a long forgotten historical novelist whose books I still read from time to time – Jeffery Farnol. Farnol, however was much too delicate – or perhaps his readers were – to revel in the stink and squalor of the time. Langman has no such qualms:

“Walking through the filthy streets of London was always a hazardous proposition for a lone woman. If she wasn’t slipping in piles of animal dung or sliding in puddles of their stale, she was avoiding the buckets of human waste that appeared from every angle …. and once this was negotiated, there was the matter of the animal life. The kicking, braying, pissing, shitting, trotting, running, flying and fleeing animal life that abounded.”

Oornamental.jpgne of the problems facing writers of historical fiction is how to handle dialogue. We know how they wrote to each other in letters, but what were conversations like? Despite one or two of his characters occasionally lapsing into more recent vernacular, Langman negotiates this particular minefield successfully. Killing Beauties is an engaging and well researched piece of costume drama acted out on a turbulent and dangerous stage. It is published by Unbound and is out now.

THE UNFORGETTING . . . Between the covers

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As she gazes up at her bedroom ceiling, Lily Bell daydreams of becoming an actress. She is, to be sure, beautiful enough, with her long almost-white blond hair and her flawless complexion, but for the stepdaughter of a struggling artist in the London of 1851, her dreams of becoming Ophelia, Juliet or Desdemona are just foolish fantasies. Until the day her penniless stepfather receives a visit from one of his creditors, a mysterious self-styled Professor – Erasmus Salt. Salt is actually a theatrical showman, with a macabre interest in that overwhelming Victorian obsession, communicating with the dead. He offers Alfred Bell respite from the debt in return for Lily accompanying Salt and his spinster sister Faye to become the star of a new production, in which he will convince audiences that he has raised the dead.

Unforgetting coverDespite her misgivings, Lily is intrigued by what appears to be a chance to achieve her ambition. After all, Salt’s theatrical illusion may be faintly sinister, but who knows what career doors it might unlock? Bell, despite the tears and misgivings of his wife, cannot get Lily out of the door fast enough, and soon the girl is on her way south, to the seaside town of Ramsgate, where Salt’s production is due to be presented at The New Tivoli theatre.

Salt’s production is, literally, smoke and mirrors. Lily is not to appear on stage at all, but is confined to a cubicle, where her image is projected onto the stage via a huge mirror and the swirling aura produced by the burning of quicklime. On stage, an actor plays the role of a grieving husband trying to summon up the image of his dead wife. When she ‘appears’, he tries to clasp her to his arms but her wraith vanishes, and he ends it all, courtesy of a knife and a bladder of pig’s blood concealed under his shirt.

At first, Lily does not object to her new career, strange though it might be. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Salt – in order to further foster the illusion of Lily’s miraculous reincarnation – publishes notices announcing her death, and has a headstone bearing her name erected over an (empty) grave in a nearby cemetery.

By now we, as readers, know much more about Salt than does the hapless Lily. Having experience a terrible trauma in his youth, the balance of his mind has been disturbed; he may also be a murderer, and his obsession with the dead could be leading further than simply the creation of a melodramatic theatrical illusion.

Lily is an admirable character and becomes more resilient as her fortunes take a downturn at the hands of Salt, but the most intriguing part of the story is the way that Rose Black brings Faye Salt more and more centre stage, from being a slightly forbidding Mrs Danvers-like character, to becoming a vivid and compassionate woman. In the end the book was, for me, more about Faye than it was about Lily.

Rose Black has created an elegant conjuring trick of her own in The Unforgetting. She has stuck with all the conventional trappings of a Victorian melodrama, but written something much more subtle and affecting. Yes, we have a sneering villain, his grotesque henchman, a gothic mansion witness to a terrible tragedy, a wronged woman, a dying mother, exotic travelling gypsies, a noble young man who turns the tables on the degenerate despoiler – but there is more, so much more than that. The Unforgetting is published by Orion and is out now.

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THE POKER GAME MYSTERY . . . Between the covers

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H redistorical crime fiction is all the more accessible when the history is recent enough for readers such as I to recognise it as authentic, and give a nostalgic sigh when some piece of popular consumer ephemera – a brand of chocolate, a radio programme or a make of car – crops up in the narrative. Colin Crampton may possibly be the autobiographical alter ego of author Peter Bartram, himself a distinguished and experienced journalist who remembers the deafening sound of the printing presses, the smell of ink, the jangle of telephones in the press room, the scratch of a pen on the paper of a notebook, and the overiding miasma of Woodbines and Senior Service drifting on the air. The Poker Game Mystery is the latest episode in the eventful career of Colin Crampton, crime reporter for the Brighton Evening Chronicle.

51D8xOLcEFLOne of the many joys of the Colin Crampton novels is that Peter Bartram usually manages to set the tales against actual circumstances appropriate to the period and, sometimes, we have a very thinly disguised version of a real person. In this case, we meet an outlandish minor aristocrat, heir to daddy’s millions but, more luridly, a fancier of young women. He collects them, rather like a lepidopterist collects butterflies, but rather than sticking his prizes into a display case with a pin, he keeps his young lovelies in cottages the length and breadth of the extensive estate, and has managed to organise one for each day of the week. For the life of me, I can’t think of whom Peter might have as his template for this roué, but I expect it will come to me in the middle of the night, rather like Ms Monday and the others do to their lord and master.

W redhen the body of a widely disliked local bouncer is found – his face a rictus of horror and agony – with a suspiciously large sum of used notes beside him, Crampton is sucked into a case which involves a shadowy WW2 home defence unit known as The Scallywags. Crampton discovers that they were a strange combination of Dad’s Army and the SAS – trained to wreak havoc on the Germans should they ever succeed in invading Britain. To enliven matters further, the aforementioned noble Lothario becomes the new owner of The Chronicle on the death of his father, but then promptly signs away the paper as a stake in a losing card game, this threatening the existence of The Chronicle – and those who sail in her.

A redided by his feisty (and rather beautiful) Australian girlfriend, Crampton is up to his neck in a sea of trouble involving, among other things, dead bodies, wartime gold bullion, a predatory newspaper baron, and the arcane skill of doctoring a set of playing cards. It’s wonderful stuff – not just a crime caper, but another fine novel from a writer who wears his learning lightly.

pbColin Crampton’s Brighton is slightly down at heel but all the more charming for not yet having succumbed to the deadening hand which has now made it the world capital of all things green, ‘woke’, diverse and inclusive. There are still saucy postcards to be bought at the sea-front newsagent, and incorrect jokes to be delivered by Brylcreemed comedians in faded variety halls. Peter Bartram (right) has set the bar very high with his previous Crampton novels but he just gets better and better, and The Poker Game Mystery clears that bar with loads to spare. We even have a finale worthy of Indiana Jones, albeit in a murky tunnel somewhere in Sussex rather than in some more exotic location. A word of warning. If the words Atrax Robustus make you feel queasy, then you might need someone to mop your fearful brow while you read the final pages. Clue – not all of Australia’s exports are as cuddly as Crampton’s gorgeous girlfriend, Shirley Goldsmith.

The Poker Game Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership
and is out now.

For further enjoyment of all things Colin Crampton
and Peter Bartram click the image below

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THE BLACK HILLS . . . Between the covers

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He may not have been the first to do so, but George MacDonald Fraser entertained many of us with the idea of writing novels where we get to meet actual key players from history. His archetypal bounder Harry Flashman, himself nicked from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, rubbed shoulders and crossed swords with a variety of celebrities, including Otto von Bismarck, Abraham Lincoln, and Emperor Franz Joseph. The late Philip Kerr narrowed things down as he introduced us to Heinrich Himmler, Reinhardt Heydrich and Joseph Goebbels in his Bernie Gunther novels.

MJ Trow is a former history teacher who knows his stuff. He has written successful series featuring a much-maligned Inspector Lestrade, a nosy (autobiographical) history teacher-cum-sleuth ‘Mad’ Maxwell, and the Elizabethan dramatist and, if Trow is to be believed, spy – Kit Marlowe. The Black Hills is the latest in the series featuring former US army captain Matthew Grand, and London ex-journalist James Batchelor. Click the links to read my reviews of The Ring and The Island – two earlier episodes in the career of these private investigators.

TBHOne of the enjoyable conceits of the series is the comparison of how the two men behave when out of their cultural comfort zone. Grand is no gnarled backwoodsman, as his parents are wealthy New Hampshire patricians, but there is generally more fun to be had when Batchelor is trying to navigate the social niceties – or lack of them – in America. Trow, like MacDonald Fraser and Kerr, is a shameless name-dropper and we are not many pages into The Black Hills before we have bumped into George Armstrong Custer and broken into The White House to have a conversation with its current occupant, Ulysses Simpson Grant.

Custer is, to my generation and those before it, a ‘big name’. His vainglorious death at the Battle of The Little Bighorn remains the stuff of legend, but it was only fairly recently that I learned of his dashing exploits in the American Civil War. Back, however, to our current plot. Custer is a key witness in a financial fraud case which threatens to expose grave wrongdoings at the heart of US government and, after an attempt on his life on the streets of Washington, Grand and Batchelor are given the task of watching his back when he returns to Fort Abraham Lincoln, an outpost in North Dakota beyond which lie only the eponymous Black Hills and numerous ‘hostiles’ – those we now call native Americans but, in the usage of the day, ‘injuns’.

CJI readily put my hand up. When I read the words The Black Hills, the first image that flashed before my eyes was that of Doris Day in her buckskins and with her blonde bob under a troopers’ hat. Yes, my age is showing, but the 1953 film Calamity Jane starring Doris Day in the title role featured great songs like The Deadwood Stage, Secret Love and The Black Hills of Dakota. Trow is pretty much of my generation. He was a couple of years behind me at a minor public school (but don’t hold that against either of us). Never one to miss a trick, he features Calamity Jane in The Black Hills but, my oh my, Doris Day she ain’t. Short, pug-ugly and a stranger to personal hygiene, Jane Cannery is a fixture at Fort Abraham Lincoln. She is rarely sober and earns her living by washing the long johns of the Seventh Cavalry men who guard the frontier. She is notoriously quick on the draw with her Navy Colt, and the soldiers take care to give her a wide berth when she is in one of her moods.

Military history buffs will wince when I tell them that Frederick Benteen and Marcus Reno are among the officers who cross the path of Grand and Batchelor in this hugely entertaining novel, as they will know precisely what lies ahead. Even a wonderful storyteller like MJ Trow cannot rewrite history but they can bring it to life and weave an enthralling story between the threads of what actually happened.

The Black Hills is published by Severn House and is available now in print. The Kindle is out on 1st November.

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THE HOCUS GIRL . . . Between the covers

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I redt was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that Britain had anything like an organised police force. The Hocus Girl is set well before that time, and even a developing community like Leeds relied largely on local Constables and The Watch – both institutions being badly paid, unsupported and mostly staffed by elderly individuals who would dodder a mile to avoid any form of trouble or confrontation. There were, however, men known as Thieftakers. The title is self-explanatory. They were men who knew how to handle themselves. They were employed privately, and were outside of the rudimentary criminal justice system.

THG coverSuch a man is Simon Westow. He is paid, cash in hand, to recover stolen goods, by whatever means necessary. His home town of Leeds is changing at an alarming rate as mechanised cloth mills replace the cottage weavers, and send smoke belching into the sky and chemicals into the rivers. We first met Westow in The Hanging Psalm, and there we were also introduced to young woman called Jane. She is a reject, a loner, and she is also prone to what we now call self-harm. She is a girl of the streets, but not in a sexual way; she knows every nook, cranny, and ginnel of the city; as she shrugs herself into her shawl, she can become invisible and anonymous. Her sixth sense for recognising danger and her capacity for violence – usually via a wickedly honed knife – makes her an invaluable ally to Westow. I have spent many enjoyable hours reading the author’s books, and it is my view that Jane is the darkest and most complex character he has created. In many ways The Hocus Girl is all about her.

T redhe 1820s were a time of great domestic upheaval in Britain. The industrial revolution was in its infancy but was already turning society on its head. The establishment was wary of challenge, and when Davey Ashton, a Leeds man with revolutionary ideas is arrested, Simon Westow – a long time friend – comes to his aid. As Ashton languishes in the filthy cell beneath Leeds Moot Hall, Westow discovers that he is treading new ground – political conspiracy and the work of an agent provocateur.

The books of Chris Nickson which are set in the nineteenth century have echoes of Blake contrasting England’s “green and pleasant land ” with the “dark satanic mills”. Yes, scholars will tell us that this is metaphor, and that the Blake’s mills were the churches and chapels of organised religion, but a more literal interpretation works, too. By the time we follow the career of Tom Harper, all the green has turned black, and the pounding of the heavy machinery is a soundtrack which only ceases on high days and holidays. Simon Westow, on the other hand, half a century or more earlier, sees a Leeds where twenty minutes walk will still find you a cottage built of stone that is still golden and unblackened by industrial soot. There are still becks and streams which run clear, uncoloured by cloth dyes and industrial sludge. Just occasionally – very occasionally – there is an old woman still working on her hand loom, determined and defiant in the face of mechanised ‘progress’.

“Up on a ridge, a large steam engine thudded, powering a hoist. A single stone chimney rose, belching out its smoke. No grass anywhere. The land seemed desolate and wasted, people by miners in pale trousers ans waistcoats, blue kerchiefs knotted at the neck. Women and children bent over heaps of coal, breaking up bog black chunks as they sorted them.

This was progress, Simon thought as he watched. It looked more like a vision of hell on earth.”

I red am not sure if Nickson would have been battling with the Luddites as they fought to hold back mechanisation. He is too intelligent a writer to be unaware that the pre-industrial age may have had its golden aspects but life, for the poor man, was still nasty, brutish and short. His anger at the results of ordinary people being sucked into cities such as Leeds to be set to work tending the clattering looms and feeding the furnaces is palpable. Chris Nickson is a political writer of almost religious intensity who, paradoxically, never preaches. He lets his characters have their hour on the stage, and lets us make of it what we will. The Hocus Girl is powerful, persuasive and almost impossible to put down. It is published by Severn House and is available now.

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