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Historical Crime Fiction

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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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

THE SARACEN’S MARK . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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SW-Perry-photo-1-2-300x482SW Perry (left) whisks us away from our disease ridden present misery to – with almost supernatural prescience – the streets of London in 1593, where plague is also keeping the gravediggers and the parsons working around the clock! The late sixteenth century versions of  plucky NHS employees come in the shape of Bianca Merton, a young Anglo-Italian woman who keeps The Jackdaw, a Bankside tavern (and who is also much in demand as a herbalist – a purveyor of what we now call alternative medicine) and her close friend Dr Nicholas Shelby, whose medical knowledge is more conventional.

The disease has, so far, gone about its malevolent business north of the River Thames, but with no daily calls for social distancing, it finds its way south:

“Her name is Ruth. She is returning to the lodgings on Pocket Lane that she shares with her husband. Ruth feels uncomfortable hot. By the time she reaches home, she will have a fever. She will awake the next morning to find painful swellings in her armpits. Young and strong, she is in the habit of thanking God for a strong constitution. But in a few days she will be dead. The pestilence has crossed the river.”

Bianca is much in demand among the worried residents of Bankside for her concoctions:

“Pomanders of rose leaves, tragacanth gum and camphor to hang around the neck … clove and lemon to mix in a posset . . . also a tincture of bezoar and sorrel. Mix that in water or small beer every morning.”

TSM coverNicholas, however, has been sent on a mission by one of the most powerful men in Queen Elizabeth’s kingdom – her spymaster Sir Robert Cecil. England has a complex relationship with what we now call Morocco, and in particular with the ruler of Marrakesh, but the death of Adolfo Sykes:

“..a small, somewhat bow-legged half-English, half-Portuguese merchant with a threadbare curtain of prematurely white hair that clung to the sides of his otherwise- unsown pate.”

… needs to be investigated, as Sykes is a key strand in Cecil’s silken – but deadly – web of spies and agents. When Nicholas finally arrives in Marrakesh, he discovers that Sykes had uncovered a slavery ring involving, among others a brutal and violent sea captain called Cathal Connell. Now that Nicholas is aware of the secret, it is only a matter of time before Connell and his accomplices come looking for him. While the unpredictable world of Moorish politics find him alternating between foul prison cells and  a life of luxury surrounded by servants, back in London ….

“The pestilence has returned with a vengeance. The Savoy hospital has closed its doors to new patients and posted guards on the water stairs to deter visitors. The chapel’s death-bell tolls with increasing frequency.”

This is a richly rewarding novel, full of fascinating historical detail, but Perry never allows the authenticity of  his main characters to be hidden beneath a superfluity of information about what they are wearing, or the contents of their dinner plate, or elaborate architectural descriptions. Bianca and Nicholas are separate from each other for most of the narrative, but each drives the story forward relentlessly. As we are only too well aware just now, plague knows no historical boundaries, but Perry’s skill as a storyteller is equally timeless – and magical. The Saracen’s Mark is published by Corvus, and is out now.

If you like the sound of what the author calls The Jackdaw series,
then read my review of The Serpent’s Mark.

THE MUSIC BOX ENIGMA . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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Fans of period police procedurals are in for a treat at the end of the month when RN Morris’s distinctive London copper, Chief Superintendent Silas Quinn makes a welcome return. It’s December 1914, and the war that was meant to be over by Christmas is showing only signs of intensifying. DORA – the Defence of The Realm Act – has been enforced, and among the many strictures it imposes on the populace are imprisonment without trial, a ban on publishing any description of war or any news that is likely to cause any conflict between the public and military authorities and, bizarrely, an interdiction on buying rounds in pubs.

MBE coverBut Christmas is coming, and a rather upper-crust choir, The Hampstead Voices, is rehearsing for its seasonal concert, with all proceeds going to Belgian refugees, forced from their homes by the brutal Hun invaders. Directed by Sir Adrian Fonthill, the concert will include not only much-loved carols such as O Little Town of Bethlehem and Adeste Fideles, but choral works by Bizet and Handel. Special guest artistes will include dancers from Ballets Modernes and the distinguished violinist Emile Boland, but the evening will conclude with a performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s A Christmas Greeting, in the presence of the composer himself. It is also believed that Winston Churchill, First Lord of The Admiralty, will be in the audience at University College School on the evening of 24th December.

Silas Quinn may have many qualities, but a musical ear is not one of them, so how does he come to be involved in the doings of The Hampstead Voices? Rehearsals for the concert may not be going too well, perhaps due to the many tenors and basses who have answered the call to arms, but preparations take a distinct downturn when the Director of Music is found dead, slumped at his grand piano, with the sharpened handle of a tuning fork stuck into his ear. As boss of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Unit, Quinn is summoned to the scene of this musical murder.

It seems that the late Sir Adrian, despite his musical sensitivities, was not a paragon of virtue. He has a roving eye – and hands – for young sopranos and altos, and has a weakness for gambling which has left him in debt to some very dangerous people. But who stands to benefit from his death? Not those to whom he owes money,surely? A resentful husband, perhaps, who has been cuckolded?

MorrisAs Quinn tries to penetrate the wall of silence thrown up by Fonthill’s widow, his attention is drawn to a mysterious music box sent to Sir Adrian just before his death. When it is wound up and played, however, the resulting tune simply seems – even to Quinn’s tin ear – a haphazard sequence of random notes. But help is at hand. One of the Special Constables from Hampstead Police Station could be said to have an ear for music. He is none other than Sir Edward Elgar, celebrated composer of Salut d’Amour, Variations on an Original Theme and The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar takes the discordant melody and uncovers a message which rveals that Sir Adrian’s death is not to be the last associated with the ill-fated Christmas concert.

RN Morris (above right) gives us an inventive and delightfully improbable conclusion to this very readable novel. If you want something to lose yourself in for a few hours and a diversion to push to one side the misery and discomfort of the lock-down, then you will find nothing better than The Music Box Enigma. It is published by Severn House and will be out in hardback on 30th April.

For a review of an earlier Silas Quinn novel, The White Feather Killer, click here

THE KING’S BEAST . . . Between the covers

 

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The King’s Beast is the sixth novel in Eliot Pattison’s series featuring the Scottish exile Duncan McCallum, and his adventures in America before the Revolution. The story begins in 1769, just a few years before the start of the actual conflict which saw Americans shaking off what they saw as the dead hand of British colonialism. However, as Pattison points out in his preface, and as readers of the earlier novels will know, the events of 18th April 1775, and subsequent battles, were the culmination of years of political intrigue and discontent.

TKB coverSo who is Duncan McCallum? Like many of his countrymen, he fled his homeland to escape the brutal recriminations following the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1746. His father and brothers were not so fortunate. McCallum has nightmares about his kin swinging from an English gibbet, food for crows and ravens. McCallum is a trained physician, but open-minded enough to know that the natural remedies used by the Native Americans he meets can be extremely potent.

Earlier novels in the series have seen McCallum all over the parts of America which had been colonised – Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia – but now he is in Kentucky, overseeing the excavation of fossils, on the instructions of none other than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin – writer, polymath, journalist, scientist and political activist – has been in London since 1757, lobbying on behalf of Pennsylvania, and is anxious to have the fossils – relics of prehistoric mastodons.

The fossils, known at the time as American Incognitum, are not just historical artifacts but, with tensions rising between various political factions on both sides of the Atlantic, they become chips in an increasingly deadly game. By the time McCallum sets sail for London on the Galileo, blood has been shed, and brave men lie buried.

As McCallum and his friends try to avoid the malign intentions of British soldiers and get the fossils to Franklin, they are sidetracked by efforts to secure the release of McCallum’s mentor, a native American called Conawago, who has been incarcerated in the notorious Bethlehem Hospital – Bedlam. The hospital’s evil reputation is well-earned:

“…noxious smells wafted through the hall. The stench of excrement and urine mingled with those of soap, vinegar and strong black tea. Men in matching brown waistcoats and britches, apparently staff, were emerging from chambers at the back of the main gallery, shepherding patients out of a dining chamber and opening windows, which created new currents of air that seemed to just circulate the same foul odours.”

McCallum finally contacts Franklin, and realises that the American is viewed with some ambiguity by the British establishment. On the one hand his political activism makes him a figure of suspicion, while his learning and scientific mind link him to the most powerful man in the land – King George III. The King respects learning and research, but is surrounded by advisors who do not share his enthusiasm.

I am always slightly wary of historical fiction where some of the characters have remarkably modern attitudes to diversity and cultural tolerance, but McCallum is not a member of the ‘woke’ fraternity transported back two and a half centuries – he is decent, just, honorable, and a convincing man of his time. Pattison’s scholarship is immense, and his grasp of historical detail is formidable. This is to be expected from an international lawyer, perhaps, but this is a historian who can also tell a good tale. Readers will look long and hard before they find another writer who can teach us about a particular period, with all its social and political complexities, while at the same time entertaining and enthralling us. The King’s Beast is published by Counterpoint and is out today, 7th April.

For more about Eliot Pattison, click on the image below.

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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

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