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Historical Crime Fiction

MURDER AT THE RITZ . . . Between the covers

MATR headerZogAny novel which features – in no particular order – Commander Ian Fleming, King Zog of Albania, a dodgy lawyer called Pentangle Underhill, and a Detective Chief Inspector named The Hon. Edgar Walter Septimus Saxe-Coburg promises to be a great deal of fun, and Murder At The Ritz by Jim Eldridge didn’t disappoint. It is set in London in August 1940, and Ahmet Muhtar Zogolli, better known as King Zog of Albania (left) has been smuggled out of his homeland after its invasion by Mussolini’s Italy, and he has now taken over the entire third floor of London’s Ritz Hotel, complete with various retainers and bodyguards – as well as a tidy sum in gold bullion.

Anyone who has studied the history of Albania will know that it has always been a chaotic place. In the 1920s, while working at the League of Nations, the famous sportsman CB Fry was reputedly offered the throne. For a rather more serious memoir of Albania during WW2, Eight Hours From England (click for the review) by Anthony Quayle is well worth a read, and we all know – thanks to the Taken franchise, starring Liam Neeson, that Albania’s chief export to the rest of the world is organised crome, drug-running, money laundering and people trafficking.

Screen Shot 2021-02-25 at 19.08.38Back to the story, and when a corpse is discovered in one of the King’s suites, Coburg is called in to investigate. The attempt to relieve the Albanian monarch of his treasure sparks off a turf war between two London gangs who, rather like the Krays and the Richardsons in the 1960s, occupy territories ‘norf’ and ‘sarf’ of the river. After several more dead bodies and an entertaining sub-plot featuring Coburg’s romance with Rosa Weeks, a beautiful and talented young singer, there is a dramatic finale involving a shoot-out near the Russian Embassy. This is a highly enjoyable book that occupies the same territory as John Lawton’s Fred Troy novels (click to read more). It is nowhere near as dark and dystopian as those books, but Murder At The Ritz is none the worse for that.

Since 2016 Jim Eldridge has concentrated on writing historical crime fiction for adults. Previously he worked as a scriptwriter and wrote books for children and young adults. As a scriptwriter he had over 250 TV and 250 radio scripts broadcast in the UK and internationally. In 2019 I read, enjoyed and reviewed an earlier book by this writer, and if you click on the title – Murder At The British Museum – you can see what I thought. Murder At The Ritz is published by Allison & Busby and is out now.

CROW COURT . . . Between the covers

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We begin in the peaceful Dorset town of Wimborne in the spring of 1840. Just a few months earlier, in the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace, London, Queen Victoria had marred Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. Louisa Chilcott and Samuel Portman are also due to be married, in the equally beautiful Wimborne Minster, but the joy of their day is short-lived.

CC cover015Just days earlier, Samuel had approached his best man, Charles Ellis, with a request for help. Louisa’s young cousin, Henry Cuff, is a member of the Minster choir, but it has been reported that he is desperately unhappy, is absenting himself from school, and refusing to sing in the choir. So how can Charles help? His half brother, Matthew Ellis is the Choirmaster. Could Charles please intercede, and try to find out what is the matter with young Henry?

Charles agrees, but with a heavy heart. He and his half brother are barely on speaking terms. Charles is gentle, urbane and conciliatory, while Matthew – a brute of a man – is bad tempered, censorious, and has an evil reputation. Charles speaks to Matthew, but gets nowhere. A visit to Henry Cuff and his parents is equally fruitless. The boy is clearly terrified, and Mr and Mrs Cuff are unhelpful.

Louisa and Samuel’s wedding goes off as planned, but Henry Cuff – who was due to sing a solo – is nowhere to be found. As the happy couple are basking in the love of well-wishers after the ceremony, a townsman interrupts the festivities with the terrible news that Henry Cuff’s body has been found in the river.

Resentment and anger at Matthew Ellis begins to seethe in the town. Things worsen when it becomes clear that Ellis has not only been cruel and bad-tempered with his boys, but has been abusing them in the vilest manner imaginable. When a  group of men decide to take things into their own hands, and Ellis disappears, the consequences are far reaching.

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The structure of this fascinating novel is worth examining. It is, in effect, fourteen short stories, cleverly written so that they stand alone – indeed, three of the episodes have been published separately – but are linked to a central event, in this case the disappearance of Matthew Ellis. I am struggling for a suitable metaphor; ripples in water spreading out from a central disturbance, maybe? The trouble with that one is that literal ripples weaken the further they spread, and in this case, with the time span being twenty years or more, the ‘ripples’ don’t weaken – they become stronger and more deadly.

I suspect that the author knows and loves his Thomas Hardy. There are tragic outcomes for many of the characters in this novel, not because they are bad people (the only malignant person is Matthew Ellis) but because they have made errors of judgment, or pursued a wrong option. The words that are singing in my ears come from the last page of Tess of the d’Urbervilles:

“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.”

This book operates on so many levels. At its simplest it is a murder mystery, a whodunnit, almost, (and yes, we do learn the identity of the killer in the final pages) but it is also brilliant history reflecting, as it does, on the hardships inflicted on the rural poor by increased mechanisation. I won’t call it a comedy of manners, because there is very little to laugh about, but we are treated to intriguing glimpses of social conventions and the sensitive hierarchies of the mid nineteenth century. Finally, the book is shot through with beautifully imagined descriptions of the Dorset countryside across the seasons. Crow Court is Andy Charman’s first full length novel. It is published by Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher, and is available here.

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NO GOOD DEED . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2021-01-13 at 19.14.13First, a word about the author, Ewan Lawrie (left). He comes to the book world by a rather different route than many of his fellow writers. There cannot be many authors who served for nigh on a quarter of a century in the armed forces – in this case, the RAF – and then turned to writing. His first novel, Gibbous House, (2017) introduced us to a gentleman called Alasdair Moffat, who rejoices in the appellation Moffat the Magniloquent. In that novel he was a prosperous and successful criminal in Victorian London, but now, a decade later, he  – having fallen on hard times – has relocated to America, along with countless other folk of the “huddled masses”, the “wretched refuse” and the “tempest-tossed”. Unlike them, however, he is not seeking the “lamp beside the golden door”, but a rather better place in which to exercise his criminal talents.

It is 1861, and America is on the verge of the disastrous conflict which will shape the nation’s future for decades to come. Moffat has fetched up in St Louis, pretty much stony broke. With an unerring talent for sniffing out trouble, he murders a man named Anson Northrup, assumes his identity and, in order to pay off a brothel bill he cannot afford, accepts the task of delivering a mysterious package further down the Mississippi River. He boards the steam-driven riverboat The Grand Turk. The package he is carrying contains operational details of what was known as The Underground Railroad – a network of secret routes and safe houses established in America used by slaves to escape into freedom. Moffat, of course, being British, takes the metaphor literally, and it is some time before he realises that he is not carrying a conventional railway timetable, and that the late Anson Northrup is a key figure in a plot to steal silver bullion from the Mint in New Orleans – the major city in the state of Louisiana, which had just seceded from the United States.

NGD1In his guise as Northrup (although not everyone is fooled) Moffat meets several larger-than-life and almost grotesque fictional characters, and lurches from one crisis to the next, but one of the most spectacular parts of the novel is when he meets Marie Laveau, a real life New Orleans character renowned for her mystical qualities, as well as her expertise in the black arts of voodoo.

Lawrie is an entertaining writer who has clearly done his historical homework, but also adds a heady combination of whimsy, smart jokes and improbable situations to make for an entertaining read. The rather old fashioned literary term picaresque came into my mind as I was reading this, but I needed to check what it meant. The ever-present Google says that it is:

“relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.”

I think that pretty much sums up No Good Deed. The novel succeeds not through the particular integrity of the plot, but more through the relentlessly entertaining episodes, and the grim allure of Moffat himself. There is more than a touch of George MacDonald Fraser and his likeable coward Harry Flashman about this book, and I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed that series of novels. No Good Deed is published by Unbound Digital, and is out now.

THE ART OF DYING … Between the covers

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Ambrose Parry is a pseudonym for a collaboration between Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman (pictured below). They  live in Glasgow,  slightly less genteel – at least in popular image – than Edinburgh, where this novel is set. It novel weaves together two stories, both of which have have factual origins. One strand deals with an horrific serial killer and her victims, while the other story is seen through the eyes of a young doctor in the middle years of the 19th century. The novel is a follow-up to the 2018 publication, The Way of All Flesh.

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SimpsonThis is not a book for those squeamish about medical details – especially those common in the 19th century. There are tumours, painful deaths both lingering and sudden, surgical procedures that involve much guesswork and hopeful blundering about the human body – externally and internally. If you are still with me, then the story is this. It is 1849, and we first meet young Dr Will Raven when he is involved in a street brawl in Berlin, where he has been studying. He survives the encounter, and returns to Edinburgh, where he is reunited with his former mentor, Dr James Simpson. Simpson – a real-life character, pictured –  is highly regarded, but also the object of much jealousy from less gifted physicians, and is facing charges of malpractice brought about by his envious peers.

Raven had hoped to find an earlier object of his affections – a young woman called Sarah, who also worked with Dr Simpson – available for further dalliance, but in the interim, she has married another doctor, Archie Fisher. He is terminally ill, and as both Will and Sarah are aware of this, the sad fact adds a certain piquancy to the relationship.

TAOD cover2Away from the relative gentility of the Simpson household, we have a young woman who moves in very different circles. She has suffered a brutal and traumatic childhood. This has either directed her on a devilish pathway, or kindles a spark which was already there but, either way, she has become a murderer. The writers employ an obvious – but effective – counterpoint here, in that Sarah Fisher desires to become a doctor, while Mary Dempster seeks to hone her skills as a killer. Contemporary society believes that a woman cannot possibly be a success in either occupation.

It takes a while for Will and Sarah to come round to thinking the unthinkable – that Mary Dempster is a clever and a successful killer. Because we, as readers, have had the advantage of reading first-person-viewpoint chapters, we know that she is a devious and malevolent individual. Yes, she has had a terrible upbringing, involving degradation and abuse, but not all orphans who suffered at the hands of Victorian institutions turned out to be serial killers.

As I said earlier, if you are the kind or reader who would shudder at the thought of reading a cut-by-cut account of an early surgical attempt to save a woman from an ectopic pregnancy, then this may not be the book for you. Bolder souls will enjoy a gripping and twisty murder mystery shot through plenty of gore and passion. The Art of Dying came out in hardback in August 2019. This paperback edition is published by Black Thorn and is out now.

TO THE DARK . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2021-01-03 at 21.02.58I am delighted to say that my first review for 2021 is a new book by the reliably excellent story-teller, Chris Nickson. For those new to his books, he is a widely travelled former music journalist, who has rubbed shoulders with some of the big names in rock, but now pursues a rather more sedentary lifestyle in the Yorkshire city of Leeds. When he is not tending his treasured allotment, he writes historical novels, based around crime-solvers across the  centuries, most of them based in Leeds.

You can click the link to check out his late 19th century novels featuring the Leeds copper Tom Harper, but his latest book takes us back a little further, to Georgian times. Leeds is undergoing a violent transformation from being a bustling, but still largely bucolic centre of the wool trade, to a smoky, clattering child of the Industrial Revolution.

There are fortunes to be made in Leeds, but crime is still crime, and Simon Westow is known as a thief-taker. Remember, this is before the emergence of a regular police force, and what law there is is enforced by (usually incompetent) town constables, and men like Westow who will recover stolen property – for a fee.

the-darkWestow is a man who has survived a brutal upbringing as an institutionalised orphan, and there is not a Leeds back alley, courtyard or row of shoddily-built cottages that he doesn’t know. He doesn’t work alone. He has an unusual ally. We know her only as Jane. Like Westow, this young woman has survived an abusive childhood, but unlike Westow – who isn’t afraid to use his fists, but is largely peaceable – Jane is a killer. She carries a razor sharp knife, and uses it completely without conscience if she is threatened by men who remind her of the degradation she suffered when younger.

When a petty criminal is found dead in a drift of frozen snow, Westow frets that he will be linked with the murder as, only a week or so earlier, he had completed a lucrative assignment that involved returning to their owner stolen goods that had come into the hands of the dead man. Instead of being harassed by the lazy and vindictive town constable, Westow is asked to try to solve the crime. It seems that two aristocratic officers from the town’s cavalry barracks might be involved with the killing, and this sets Westow a formidable challenge, as the soldiers are very much a law unto themselves. Meanwhile a notebook has been found which is connected to one of murdered criminal’s associates, but it reveals little, as it is mostly in code. Someone cracks the cipher for Westow, but he is little the wiser, especially when the text contains the enigmatic phrase ‘To The Dark.’

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The discovery of a stolen handwritten Book of Hours, potentially worth thousands of gold sovereigns, further complicates the issue for Westow, and when the seemingly invincible Jane suffers a crippling injury, his eyes and ears on the Leeds streets are severely diminished. Still, the significance of ‘To The Dark’ escapes him, and when his life and those of his wife and children are threatened he is forced to face the fact that this seemingly intractable mystery may be beyond his powers to solve.

As ever with Chris Nickson’s novels we smell the streets and ginnels of Leeds and breathe in its heady mixture of soot, sweat and violence. In one ear is the deafening and relentless collision of iron and steel in the factories, but in the other is the still, small voice of the countryside, just a short walk from the bustle of the town. Nickson is a saner version of The Ancient Mariner. He has a tale to tell, and he will not let go of your sleeve until it is told. To The Dark is published by Severn House and is out now.

RIVER OF SINS . . . Between the covers

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A little while ago I reviewed a novel set in Worcestershire – it was the beginning of WW2, and it centred on the fictional village of Ambridge and, of course, featured The Archers. History of a very different kind now. River of Sins is the seventh in a series of historical mysteries written by Sarah Hawkswood set in and around the city of Worcester in the 12th century.

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I am new to the series but I enjoyed the fact that we have that most dependable of crime fiction tropes – a pair of investigators. There is a slight variation a theme in this case, as they are aided by an intrepid young apprentice. The dynamic between the three works well. Hugh Bradecote is the Under Sheriff, and is of noble birth with a degree of hauteur, while Sergeant Catchpoll is Worcester through-and-through, rough and ready, but very street-wise. Walkelin – the apprentice – is something of a ‘gofer’, but is bright, perceptive, and not afraid to speak his mind.

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The novel begins with a woman being brutally done to death on a small island in the River Severn on the northern outskirts of Worcester. We learn that the woman and her killer are acquainted, but just how, and what the significance is, only unfolds with the investigation.

The dead woman is Ricolde, known throughout the city as The Whore of Worcester. She was widely despised by the gentlewomen of the city, while being used by their husbands, but as Bradecote and Catchpoll discover, there was another dimension to Ricolde. Educated, and perfectly content to talk the night through with men who demanded nothing other than her company, she also gave money to the church to be used to ameliorate the misery of other women of the street who were less resilient than she.

The investigators struggle to find a motive for the murder. Moral disapproval doesn’t usually lead to someone being dismembered with a woodsman’s axe, but does the clue to Ricolde’s death lie deep in her past, and has it to do with the horrific scars on the soles of her feet, inflicted decades earlier?

Sarah Hawkswood’s Worcester is a place we can see, hear, feel, breathe – and smell – as the mystery unfolds. What is the River of the title? It is the River Severn, broad and deep, a source of fresh food, a vital artery of transport at a time when roads were just beaten dirt, but also a means of escape and concealment. With only the most rudimentary forensic skills available, Bradecote and Catchpoll must rely on the most basic and time-honoured methods of detection, means, motive and opportunity. This is an excellent detective story which also gives us an intriguing glimpse into a long-lost world.

River of Sins is published by Allison & Busby and will be out in paperback and as a Kindle on 19th November.

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PEOPLE OF ABANDONED CHARACTER . . . Between the covers

There can be no historical event – save, perhaps, the assassination of John F Kennedy – which has attracted more theories, speculation and books, both fiction and non-fiction, as the killings attributed to Jack The Ripper in the autumn of 1888. My feature JACK THE RIPPER . . . In fiction, from the early days of this website, looks at just a few novels which have retold the tale.

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Now, debut novelist Clare Whitfield has her moment on the stage with People Of Abandoned Character. Susannah Chapman is a rather unusual woman, in her early thirties, who has known at first hand the dreadful deprivation of that part of the east End of London known as The Nichol. The contemporary map of the area (below) grades streets with colours according to the level of poverty, with red indicating relatively comfortable residents through blue to black – the depths of squalor.

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Susannah has no recollection of her father, and a memory of her mother so horrifying that she only turns to it in her nightmares. She is eventually rescued by her grandparents who take her to live with them in Reading. She chooses to become a nurse, and is accepted as a trainee at The London Hospital on Whitechapel Road, seen below in a 19thC photograph.

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When Susannah attracts the attention of a young doctor, Thomas Lancaster and, after a whirlwind romance, she leaves The London as Mrs Lancaster to become the mistress of a delightful riverside home in Chelsea. Mistress? Not quite. The first sign that all may not be well is that Thomas Lancaster has a housekeeper named Mrs Wiggs, and the lady is a graduate of the Mrs Danvers school of domestic management. Yes, I know that’s an anachronism, but fans of Judith Anderson and Rebecca will know what I mean.

The early passion and harmony of the marriage soon dissipates, and Susannah begins to be disturbed both by her husband’s violent sexual demands and his frequent nocturnal absences, from which he returns feverish and dishevelled. Soon, the narrative of the novel begins to synchronise with what we know about the actual Ripper murders. Ripperologists can take the roll call of well-known characters safe in the knowledge that The Gang’s All Here. We meet the victims themselves, of course, but also the walk-on parts such as the actor Richard Mansfield, John Pizer, the Police Surgeon Dr Phillips and dear old Fred Abberline put in an appearance.

People Of Abandoned Character is a bravura piece of story-telling which gleefully rises above a tale of real-life horror which, by its very familiarity, has lost some of its sting. We eventually learn that Susannah is not quite the put-upon damsel in distress she might want us to believe in. The conclusion of the story is as astonishing and enterprising a solution to the eternal Ripper mystery as I have ever read, and fans of Gothick gore and melodrama will certainly not be disappointed. It is published by Head of Zeus and is out now.

CHAOS . . . Between the covers

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Christopher Radcliff is a Doctor of Law and he is also what  sixteenth century England called an ‘intelligencer’. We might say ‘spy’, ‘secret agent’ or, at a pinch, ‘private eye.’ He is employed by two of the most powerful men in Queen Elizabeth’s service – the brothers Dudley. Robert is the Earl of Leicester and Ambrose the Earl of Warwick.

91c5yMTPQkLRadcliff, the creation of author AD Swanston, made his literary debut in The Incendium Plot (2018). The blurb for that book said that the country was “a powder keg of rumour, fanaticism, treachery and dissent.” Well, a few years on, and things haven’t changed a great deal. The big threat to Good Queen Bess still comes from those devious and malignant Papists, but the adherents of ‘the old religion’ have changed tack. Military conquest by Spain or France has proved ineffectual, so has a more subtle method has been chosen?

Pretty much every one of us is too young to remember a time when our currency was suspect. Yes, there have been periods of inflation (I can remember PM Harold Wilson and ‘The pound in your pocket.”) but we have never doubted that the coins in our pockets or the notes in our wallet were suspect. In February 1574, however, someone has been minting fake testons. They were, in old money, shillings, and the most common coin in circulation for everyday transactions.

BearThe fake testons also bear the image of the bear and ragged staff (right), the emblem of the Earl of Warwick. Clearly, the forgers have a double headed plan. They intend to paralyze normal day to day trade by making shop-keepers wary of accepting coins, but they also seek to diminish the status and power of the Dudley brothers by linking them to worthless coins.

When Radcliff eventually tracks down the person behind the counterfeit coins he discovers not a Papist plot, but a personal search for revenge, fired by a dreadful betrayal and a bitterness so deep that only death can sweeten it. Without giving any more away, I can say that part of this vengeance involves, strange to relate, that most delicate and ethereal of Renaissance instruments, the lute.

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Swanston has great fun immersing us in all the contrasting glory and squalor of Elizabethan England. We are led through the magnificent Holbein Gate into the Palace of Whitehall with its tapestries, panelled chambers and priceless paintings, but we also have to tread gingerly amid the horse muck (and worse) as we walk along Cheapside, and try to avoid the grasping hands of its whores and beggars.

Chaos is as authentic and swashbuckling as anyone could wish for – a must for lovers of period drama. It is published by Bantam in hardback, and by Transworld Digital as a Kindle. Both formats are available now.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . People of Abandoned Character

There is no single real-life criminal event in history which has captured the imagination of readers, writers, historians and criminologists like the gory saga of the Whitechapel Murders. The word ‘enthusiast’ seems inappropriate to describe someone drawn to the butchering of five women in that dreadful autumn of 1888. How can someone be ‘enthusiastic’ about such carnage? Ripperologist doesn’t work, either, as it seems to conjure up images of a harmless hobby like stamp collecting or fossil hunting.

POAC001There have been countless non-fiction books written on the subject, some providing solutions, but none conclusive. Several fictional detectives have gone head-to-head with The Ripper, and if you click this link, you can read a piece I wrote about the genre. Most recently, Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five sought to transform the murdered women from mere corpses to real people.

Now, first-time author Clare Whitfield enters the lists with People Of Abandoned Characters, which centres on a  woman who begins to suspect that her new husband, a doctor, may be involved with the unfolding horror of the Whitechapel murders. Do his absences really coincide with the grisly discoveries of the murdered women, or is she putting two and two together and making five?

The advanced publicity says that People Of Abandoned Character:

“… explores the smoke and mirrors of perceived social mobility, the role of wealthy society and the responsibility to the poor (or not as it may be the case), toxic relationships and narcissistic abuse, gender equality and freedom to pursue personal ambition.”

The printed book looks and feels absolutely gorgeous, and I hope the story lives up to the advanced publicity. It is published by Head Of Zeus and will be out on 1st October. Watch this space for the detailed review.

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