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Historical Crime Fiction

A TASTE FOR KILLING . . . Between the covers

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Sarah HawkswoodThose of us who are lucky enough to be sent printed copies of novels for review almost certainly have “keepers” – books which don’t go off to friends, free libraries or charity shops once they are read. Looking across at my shelves, I see books by Jim Kelly, Christopher Fowler, Philip Kerr, John Connolly, Phil Rickman, James Oswald, Peter Bartram – and Sarah Hawkswood (left). I was a late arrival at the ‘Bradecote Ball’, but these superb stories of medieval Worcester have joined my list of favourite books which I will not be parted from. A Taste For Killing is the tenth in this splendid series featuring the 12th century Worcester trio of Hugh Bradecote, Serjeant Catchpoll and Underserjeant Walkelin.

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It is a bitter January afternoon in Worcester, 1145. The wells have frozen, the streets are empty, and decent folk are huddled around their fires. In the house of Godfrey Bowyer – remember the origin of many surnames – a skilled, but widely disliked maker of longbows, it is supper time. As Godfrey sups his pottage with his wife Blanche, the servants cower in another room, listening to the customary arguments and smashing of crockery. Godfey and Banche (his second wife) frequently disagree, but they are as one when it comes to the adage about it being better to let it all out than to keep it in. Tonight’s row takes an unexpected – and fatal – turn, as both Godfrey and Blanche collapse with the symptoms of poisoning. Blanche recovers quickly enough, but it is to be Godfrey’s last night on earth.

Catchpoll and Walkelin are summoned and are joined – reluctantly – by Bradecote, who was anxiously at the side of his heavily pregnant wife. She has miscarried before, and he is reluctant to leave her, but  suspected murder is what it is, and he joins his two colleagues. The row between Godfrey and Blanche which culminated in a dish of pottage (a soup thickened with grain, containing vegetables and – when available – meat) being thrown at the wall raises the crucial question – the contents of whose bowl redecorated the wall of the house? Was it Blanche’s, and did Godfrey then sup from the bowl intended for his wife? What was the poison, and who put it in the pottage?

It transpires that the Bowyer ménage is far from simple. Runild the servant girl is pregnant, but by whom? Alwin, Bowyer’s apprentice is out of the frame as he is too shy to even look at a girl, let alone do anything more physical, but there is another suspect. The late Godfrey’s  hands often followed not far behind his roving eye, as more than one Worcester woman can testify. Furthermore, what was Blanche’s relationship with the Steward of Worcester Castle, Simon Furneaux, a pompous individual who has a hate-hate relationship with Hugh Bradecote? There was little love lost between Godfrey Bowyer and his younger brother Herluin the Stringere, also a maker of bows, and a man who has his eyes on his late brother’s business. There is even a rumour that they do not share the same father.

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One of the many captivating qualities of this book is the reminder of the potent symbolism of the Yew tree in human history. The traditional home of the Yew tree in England is the village churchyard, and there is a deep irony that its wood was used to produce the fine – and lethal – bows that were to dominate medieval warfare. The Yew is also a more direct cause of death, however, as its wood contains toxins that bow makers had to wash from their hands before eating, and the seeds in the delightful red berries contain a deadly alkaloid.

When there is yet another death in the Bowyer household, a local herbalist and bone-setter called Roger the Healer, who has thus far been on the fringe of events, takes centre stage. He suspects that Yew killed Godfrey Bowyer, but a glance at the cover of the novel will give readers a clue as to what caused the second tragedy.

The chemistry between Bradecote, Catchpoll and Walkelin is a work of alchemy in itself. Bradecote is, I suppose, minor nobility, quick-witted and well educated, while Catchpoll is grizzled, rough round the edges, but wily. Walkelin, in the earlier books, was simply a clever but callow lad. Now, however, he uses his apparent naivety and lack of guile to extract information from people who would otherwise be too deferential to Bradecote, or too fearful of Catchpoll’s reputation as a street fighter.

A Taste For Killing is raw-knuckle historical crime fiction which, while it never flinches from describing the often brutal lives of people in 12th century England, still paints a picture of decent, thoughtful folk living honest lives as best they can. Thanks to Sarah Hawkwood’s skill, that picture has a timeless quality. The book is published by Allison & Busby and is out today, 12th May. Click on the images below for my reviews of earlier books in the series.

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MURDER AT CLARIDGES . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2022-03-14 at 19.49.22Jim Eldridge (left) and his aristocratic Detective Chief Inspector Edgar Saxe-Coburg are working their way around the best hotels in 1940s London, investigating murder We have had The Ritz  (click for my review), The Savoy, and now Claridges. Setting a murder against a grand backdrop is a simple but agreeable  formula which Eldridge has employed in his ‘museum series’, which are set in late Victorian England. The action takes place in October 1940, with Londoners under the hammer from Hitler’s bombers each and every night.

The concept which underpins the plot is similar to the one used in Murder at The Ritz. In the late 1930s, there were still countries in Europe ruled by what we might dismiss as ‘minor monarchies’. Albania, Yugoslavia and Romania all had ruling families, and some of them decamped to London, along with their coffers of gold. Also in London, which adds spice to the plot, were less fortunate people, some of them with a political agenda. One such, a Romanian kitchen hand at Claridges, is found garotted outside on the pavement. Saxe-Coburg’s boss calls hands him the murder investigation. The reason he wants Edgar on the case is touchingly naive. He thinks that when peace returns, and the ruling families of the Balkans resume their thrones, they will remember fondly the  discretion and tact used by an English detective. The garotter then finds another victim, but what possible connection does a young woman working for the Free French headquarters in London have the unfortunate Romanian?

murder-at-claridge-sLurking in the background of this tale is a man who is less than noble, but with more power than all the kings and queens sheltering in London’s best hotel suites. Henry ‘Hooky’ Morton is a London gangster who is building his empire on black market scams, the most profitable of which is his manipulation of the petrol market. We think of fuel supply – or lack of it – as a very modern problem, but in 1940, having fuel to put in your car was crucial to many organisations. Hooky Morton has a problem, though. Someone has infiltrated his gang, and is making him look stupid. Then, Hooky does something really, really stupid and, no nearer identifying the garotte killer or their motives, Saxe-Coburg becomes involved in investigating what is, for any copper, the worst crime of all.

Saxe-Coburg’s wife Rosa, a popular pianist and singer does her bit for morale in concert halls and hotels in the evening, but her day job is more exacting and brings her face to face with the havoc raining down on London from the sky – she drives an ambulance. Her assistant is killed when a bombed building collapses on him, and a little while later, when Rosa goes to visit his widow. she is horrified to find the woman dead on the kitchen floor, killed with the same method used to despatch the Romanian kitchen hand and the young Frenchwoman.

I suppose Murder at Claridges is, if genres mean anything, on the fringe of cosy crime, but is a genuine page-turner. Despite the grimly authentic background of London being battered by the Luftwaffe, it gives us larger-than-life characters and, of course, it allows us to peep into a world which only the truly rich inhabit. The suave Saxe-Coburg is a timely antidote to the damaged, troubled and – frankly – disturbing world of so many fictional Detective Inspectors who inhabit our contemporary world. Eldridge is a fine writer and never has escapism been so elegantly penned. This book is published by Allison & Busby, and will be out in Kindle and hardback on 21st April, with a paperback edition due in the autumn. To read my reviews of two of Jim Eldridge’s ‘museum series’, click the links below.

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HUNGRY DEATH . . . Between the covers

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I have become a huge fan of the Cragg and Fidelis books written by Preston-born Robin Blake. They are set in the 1740s in Lancashire, Titus Cragg is the county coroner, and his friend Luke Fidelis is an enterprising  and innovative young physician. Hungry Death is the eighth in this excellent series, and to read my reviews of three of the previous books Skin and Bone, Rough Music, and Secret Mischief, click the links.

HD coverCragg is instructed to ride out to a lonely moorland farmhouse, and what he finds surpasses any of the previous horrors his calling requires him to confront. He finds an entire family slaughtered, by whose hand he knows not, unless it was the husband of the house, himself hanging by a strap hooked over a beam. To add even more mystery to the grisly tableau, Cragg learns that the KIdd family were members of a bizarre dissenting cult which encourages its members into acts of brazen sexuality. Then, in a seemingly unconnected incident, the gardener at a nearby mansion, trying to improve the drainage under his hothouse, discovers another body. This corpse may have been in the ground for centuries, as it has been partly preserved by the peat in which it was buried. When Fidelis conducts an autopsy, however, he concludes that the body is that of a young woman, and was probably put in the ground within the last decade or so.

Bodies – dead ones – are central to Titus Cragg’s world. A coroner, then and now,  must try to be led, hand in hand, by the dead until the circumstances of their demise is revealed. Sometimes, through his investigations and observations, Cragg (helped by the medical eye of Fidelis) can make the dead talk, but the peat-blackened young woman seems to have little to say. Painstaking and shrewd deduction leads Cragg to believe that she was a servant girl once employed at one of the large households in the area. But who? The girls came and went, changed their names through marriage, and the passing years have cast a shroud of fog over the matter.

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Regarding the slaughter at the farmhouse, Cragg discovers that the answer lies in the peculiar – and vengeful – nature of the Eatanswillian sect. I believe Robin Blake has used a little historical license here, as the only mention of the word  online  that I could find is that of the election in the fictional town of Eatanswill (described so satirically in The Pickwick Papers). The resolution of the case hinges on a note pinned to the door of the farmhouse, apparently written in some kind of code. Cragg hopes that  deciphering the code will lead him to the perpetrator of the slaughter.

All is resolved, of course, in the final pages, which are framed around the coroner’s inquest into both cases, and Robin Blake gives us a courtroom drama worthy of anything in the distinguished career of Perry Mason or, more recently Micky Haller. This is a cracking piece of historical crime fiction from the first word to the last, but I have to say the opening chapter was one of the most horrific passages I have read for a long time. Hungry Death is published by Severn House and is available now.

A FATAL CROSSING . . . Between the covers

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There’s a pleasantly old fashioned feel to Tom Hindle’s debut novel, and that’s not simply because it is set on board a transatlantic liner in 1924. Neither is it because Hindle (below) has chosen to write a pastiche of a Golden Age murder mystery. It’s more to do with the patient and careful plotting, and the absence of distracting then-and-now time frames and tricksy playing around with multiple narrators. So, what do we have?

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The Endeavour is sailing from England to America with 2000 passengers and crew. November in the Atlantic is not a time for the travelers to be spending much time on deck taking the sea air, but the atmosphere becomes distinctly chillier when an elderly man is found dead at the bottom of a companionway. Endeavour’s Captain – on his final voyage before retirement – and Ship’s Officer Timothy Birch are anxious to log the death as an unfortunate accident on a slippery surface, but another passenger – English Detective Inspector James Temple – is not so sure. He is heading for New York on police business, about which he initially remains tight-lipped, but he is convinced that the death of Denis Dupont is no accident.

The essence of the problem facing Birch and Temple is that once Endeavour docks in New York, the passengers, including the murderer, will disperse to the four winds. Fans of true crime will be reminded of the real life drama which was played out on the Atlantic liner Montrose in 1910 when Hawley Harvey Crippen was arrested trying to flee British justice. Things are not so straightforward for Temple and Birch, however, as they uncover a complex plot involving other passengers, art fraud and various other deceptions.

I said at the outset that the book’s style is relatively straightforward, but Tom Hindle delivers one major plot twist which turns the narrative on its head. We are drip-fed information about Birch’s personal life. We know he was wounded in The Great War, and is estranged from his wife. But what is the fragment of yellow ribbon he carries with him at all times? What is the heartbreak that seems to shadow his every waking moment? When we find out, it is a crucial and disturbing revelation.

Tom Hindle’s bio tells us that he is a Yorkshireman spending his days in the south. He hopes to one day live by the coast, with a golden retriever, as a full-time writer. For the time being though, he lives in Oxfordshire with two tortoises and works for a public relations agency. When he isn’t writing, Tom can often be found playing some kind of musical instrument, baking a mean batch of brownies or watching a film that’s likely to involve dinosaurs, superheroes or time travel. A Fatal Crossing is published by Century/Penguin and is out now.

THE BLOOD COVENANT . . . Between the covers

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One of my sons was at Leeds University, and my impression of the city during visits either to move house or to bring food and supplies, was of a place very much sure of itself, embracing the past while relishing a vibrant future. But this was largely Headingly, the university quarter, full of bookshops, trendy cafes and largely peopled by the offspring of comfortable middle class people like me and my wife.

TBCChris Nickson’s Leeds is a very different place. In the Tom Harper novels (click link) and in this,  the latest account of the career of Simon Westow, thief-taker, things are very, very different. This is Georgian England (1823, in this case) and Westow – in an age before a regular police force – earns his living recovering stolen property, for a percentage of its value. He has no judicial authority, save that of his quick wits, his fists and- occasionally – his knife. Recovering from a debilitating illness, Westow is back on the streets, and is juggling with several different investigations. A man has been hauled out of the river. His throat has been fatally slashed, and one of his hands has been hacked off. His brother hires Westow to answer ‘who?’ and ‘why?’.

A rich and powerful Leeds entrepreneur called Arden sets Westow the task of recovering a pair of valuable candlesticks, stolen from his son. But when the investigation is concluded, all too easily, Westow is forced to wonder if he is not being used as a dupe in some larger scheme. To add to his workload, Westow sets out to avenge the deaths of two lads, apparently starved then beaten to death by brutal overseers at a Leeds factory owned by a mysterious man named Seaton.

Westow’s assistant is a deceptively fragile young woman called Jane. Raped by her father and then thrown out on the street by her mother, she has learned to survive by cunning – and a fatal ability to use a knife, without a second thought, or her dreams being haunted by her victims. She has, to some extent, ‘come in from the cold’ as she no longer lives on the street, but with an elderly lady of infinite kindness.

As Leeds is cut off from the rest of the world by deep snow, there are more deaths, but few answers. The only thing that is clear in Westow’s mind is that there is that – for whatever reason – a blood covenant exists between Arden and Seaton. Two rich and powerful men who have the rudimentary criminal justice system within Leeds at their beck and call. Two men who want ruin – and death – to come to Westow and those he loves.

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Before we reach a terrifying finale at a remote farm in the hills beyond Leeds, Nickson demonstrates why he is such a good – and impassioned – novelist. He burns with an anger at the decades of of injustice, hardship and misery inflicted on working people by the men who built industrial Leeds, and made their fortunes on the broken bodies of the poor strugglers who lived such dark lives in the insanitary terraces that clustered around the mills and foundries. In terms of modern politics, Chris Nickson and I are worlds apart and there is, of course, a separate debate to be had about the long term effects of the industrial  revolution, but it would be a callous person who could remain unmoved by the accounts of the human wreckage caused by the huge technological upheavals of the 18th and 19th centuries.

There is. of course, a noble tradition of writers who exposed social injustice nearer to their own times – Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley, Robert Tressell and John Steinbeck, to name but a few, but we shouldn’t dismiss Nickson’s anger because of the distance between his books and the events he describes. As he walks the streets of modern Leeds, he clearly feels every pang of hunger, every indignity, every broken bone and every hopeless dawn experienced by the people whose blood and sweat made the city what it is today. That he can express this while also writing a bloody good crime novel is the reason why he is, in my opinion, one of our finest contemporary writers. The Blood Covenant is published by Severn House and is out now.

THE RETURN OF HESTER LYNTON . . . Between the covers

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The publisher’s website tells us:
“Tony Evans has been a full-time writer since 2008. He has written several novels of historical mystery, Gothic fiction and suspense, including the popular Jonathan Harker mystery series and the Hester Lynton detective novels, as well as study guides and novel adaptations. Tony lives in the Yorkshire Dales with his wife, and enjoys walking and the outdoors.”

So, what do we have in this second volume of short stories, the follow up to The Early Hester Lynton Mysteries (2013) ? A female detective, obviously – and her companion Ivy Jessop – and the familiar backdrop of Victorian London and crimes carried out – for the most part – by the gentry, or sometimes by the impoverished middle classes. There are ten stories.

The Case of the Fanshaw Inheritance

HesterA rich widower, a self made industrialist, dies and leaves his fortune to be divided between his two nephews. One is a down-at-heel schoolmaster, the other a disreputable roué. The lucky man has to solve a cypher set by their late uncle. The good guy brings the  cypher to Hester and Ivy. They solve the conundrum with by way of a knowledge of 18th century first editions, a journey to explore an ancient English church, and  by breaking in to a family mausoleum.

The Case of the Stolen Leonardo

When a small, but obviously valuable painting by the great artist disappears from the Ronsard gallery, Hester’s cousin, Inspector Albert Brasher of the Metropolitan Police – who has been given the task of investigating the theft – is at his wits’ end, and turns to his relative for help. She solves the case, with the inadvertent help of an aristocratic dealer in stolen artwork.  The culprit – who is also a very clever forger – is found, but his motive for the crime triggers Hester’s compassion, and she arranges a very equitable solution to the case.

The Case of the Missing Professor

When Professor Ambrose Dixon goes missing, Hester is summoned to the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Dixon – a distinguished chemist – has been working for the War Office on a revolutionary new explosive, the formula for which – if it fell into the wrong hands – could destabilise the delicate military and political balance of Western Europe. Hester discovers the whereabouts of the professor, a dangerous impostor at the heart of the country’s intelligence service, and – perhaps – the code which can unlock  the formula to Dixon’s secret.

The Mystery of the Locked Room

The cases thus far have been relatively restrained affairs, but when Hester and Ivy are called in to investigate an apparent suicide in a genteel house just outside Maidstone, there is blood aplenty. We all know that suicides in crime novels are usually cleverly disguised murders, and this is no exception. Locked room mysteries usually involve mechanical ingenuity, and this case Hester is too clever for the would-be engineer, who also falls foul of Ivy’s skill with a pearl-handled revolver.

The Adventure of the Diamond Necklace

We are now in full melodrama mood, with swarthy “furriners” (in this case a particularly oily Italian), a criminal mastermind, young ladies being kidnapped by cosh wielding London low lifes, and the priceless piece of jewellery of the title. One of Hester’s many  talents is to effortlessiy forge handwriting after the briefest glimpse at an example of the original, and she uses this skill to hoodwink a prestigious private bank into revealing the contents of a safe deposit box.

The Case of the Kidnapped Schoolboy

When a nine year-old lad disappears from his bedroom in a genteel Putney villa, Hester and Ivy play two of the oldest detective games in the book – cherchez la femme and follow the money. With the help of a couple of burly railway policemen the villains are unmasked on the Dover platform of Charing Cross Station.

The Puzzle of the Whitby Housemaid

EvansHere, Tony Evans (right) indulges in the first of two shameless  – but entertaining – instances of name-dropping. Our two sleuths, weary after a succession of difficult investigations, are enjoying some well-earned R & R in the resort of Whitby. So who do they meet? Think Irish writer and man of the theatre, blood, fangs …..? Gotcha! They are engaged by a fellow holidaymaker, a certain Mr B. Stoker to investigate the disappearance of a housemaid. She has been induced to leave her present employment to go and work for a rather dodgy doctor. Much skullduggery ensues, the housemaid is saved, and Mr Stoker says, “Hmm – this gives me an idea for a story.”

The Case of the Russian Icon

Not so much blood and gore in this tale but more a case of a victimless crime. A widow is duped into selling what turns out to be a valuable religious artifact for a pittance, only to find it on sale in a smart London gallery for many times more than the unscrupulous dealer paid for it. No crime has been committed, but Hester Lynton takes it upon herself to exact some natural justice, and she does so by employing the craftsmanship of the forger who we met in The Case of the Stolen Leonardo.

The Case of the Naked Clergyman

My first image of this involved the legendary Parson’s Pleasure on the Oxford Cherwell, where naked vicars – and other chaps – were allowed to bathe, but this story is rather more sinister. An elderly  widower cleric has been behaving strangely, and his exploits have included dancing around in the buff, bathed in moonlight. Hester and Ivy soon discover that a hefty inheritance and an access to mind-altering pharmaceuticals are the cause of the problem.

The Problem of Oscar Wilde

Another hefty name-drop concludes this selection of tales, and the Irish man of letters turns up on Hester’s doorstep and asks for help. The problem is letters, and these are missives sent by Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills to someone he admires (a ‘gentleman’, of course). A sum of £200 is demanded for the return of the billets-doux. Hester and Ivy manage to derail this particular attempt to ‘out’ the great writer but, sadly, we all know his reprieve was to be only temporary.

This is a very agreeable and diverting read. Of course, we all know of another consulting detective in Victorian London, and one who also has a companion who writes up the cases, and often dashes about the Home Counties by train after consulting  Bradshaw’s Handbook. Additionally, this fellow (with his astonishing powers of observation) and his friend also had a housekeeper who usually showed clients up to their rooms – but no matter. Hester Lynton may be a Holmes pastiche in skirts, but as long as these books are well written, then I – and thousands of others, I hope – will continue to enjoy them. The Return of Hester Lynton is published by Lume Books and is out now.

THE BLOODLESS BOY . . . Between the covers

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It is the first day of 1678, and snow is settling over a London that is mostly rebuilt after the great conflagration, but still has patches of nettle covered gaps where buildings used to be. Scientist Harry Hunt, assistant to the great polymath Robert Hooke, is summoned to his master’s side to attend what appears to be a a murder scene. On the muddy banks of the open sewer known as the Fleet River, an angler has found the dead body of a boy, perhaps two or three years of age. When examined by Hooke, a the behest of senior magistrate Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, it is discovered that the boy has been expertly drained of blood. Found upon the body is a letter containing a single sheet of paper, a cypher consisting of numbers and letters arranged in a square.

Screen Shot 2021-11-22 at 19.04.53Thus begins a thoroughly intriguing murder mystery, steeped in the religious politics of the time. For over one hundred and fifty years, religion had defined politics. Henry VIII and his daughters had burned their ‘heretics’, and although the strife between Charles I and Parliament was mainly to do with authority and representation, many of Oliver Cromwell’s adherents were strident in their opposition to the ways of worship practiced by the Church if England. Now, Charles II is King. He is reputed to have sired many ‘royal bastards’ but none that could succeed to the throne, and the next in line, his brother James, has converted to Catholicism. In most of modern Britain the schism between Catholics and Protestants is just a memory, but we only have to look across the Irish Sea for evidence of the bitter passions that can still divide society.

Harry Hunt is charged with breaking the code, and learns that it is a cypher last used over twenty years early when the current King was smuggled out of the country after his defeat at the battle of Worcester. Hunt and Hooke have another mystery death on their hands, however. With this one, Robert J Lloyd departs from recorded history, in its pages tell us that Henry Oldenburg, the German-born philosopher, scientist, theologian – and Secretary of The Royal Society –  died of an undisclosed illness in September 1677, but the author has him shooting himself through the head with an ancient pistol. Lloyd jiggles the facts again – and why not? – with the killing of Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, whose corpse is found strapped to  the fearsome Morice water wheel under London Bridge (below). Sir Edmund was actually found dead in a ditch near Primrose Hill, impaled with his own sword.

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We find ourselves immersed in a plot of dazzling complexity which weaves together political and military history, a plot to kill the king, and a highly secret medical experiment undertaken with the best of intentions, but turning into something every bit as horrific as those carried out by Joseph Mengele centuries later. In the middle of the turmoil stands Harry Hunt – an admirable and courageous hero who is underestimated at every step and turn by the men involved in the conspiracy.

Screen Shot 2021-11-22 at 19.07.36How on earth this superb novel spent many years floating around in the limbo of ‘independent publishing’ is beyond reason. While not quite in the ‘Decca rejects The Beatles‘ class of short sightedness, it is still baffling. The Bloodless Boy has everything – passion, enough gore to satisfy Vlad Drăculea, a sweeping sense of England’s history, a comprehensive understanding of 17th century science and a depiction of an English winter which will have you turning up the thermostat by a couple of notches. The characters – both real and fictional – are so vivid that they could be there in the room with you as you read the book.

Looking back at my reviews over the last eighteen months, I see there is no shortage of novels set in 17th century London, but this is a tour de force. Lloyd (above right) doesn’t just rely on the period detail to bring the history to life, he lights the pages up with fascinating real-life figures who make the narrative sparkle with authenticity.

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND. . . 6: Worcester and Bath

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Just 50 miles or so from the town of Shrewsbury is Worcester and it is here, more or less inhabiting the same time frame as Cadfael, we find Under-Sheriff Hugh Bradecote and his rough-hewn assistant, Serjeant Catchpoll. Worcester, at that time, was a busy market town, and it would be many years before the Benedictine Priory would be transformed into what is now Worcester cathedral.

WolfBRTAuthor Sarah Hawkswood is a serious academic historian, and she has set the series against the political and military turmoil that prevailed during the reign of King Stephen, and his war with the Empress Matilda. Such was the insularity of even relatively large towns like Worcester, however, that national events can take weeks and months to impinge on the lives of townsfolk and villagers. Hawkswood paints a picture of a time that was a brutal struggle for the majority of the population. Disease, hunger, violence and intemperate weather were constant threats, but in these novels we come to appreciate the rhythm of the seasons and the wildness of the landscape beyond the scattered villages and hamlets.

Best of all, though, is the fact that these are great crime novels, with tantalising plots and storylines in the great tradition of detectives and detecting. Sarah Hawkswood’s website is here, and you can also read detailed reviews by clicking on the cover images in this feature.

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Screen Shot 2021-11-14 at 19.45.58To Bath now, and a character created by (I think) Britain’s longest living (and still writing good books) crime author. Peter Lovesey was born in Middlesex in September 1936 and, after National Service and a career in teaching, he published his first novel in 1970. Wobble To Death was the first of a hugely successful series of historical novels featuring Sergeant Daniel Cribb and his assistant Constable Thackeray. Older readers will remember the superb BBC TV adaptations starring Alan Dobie (left) as Cribb. The stories were also dramatised by BBC radio.

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But Cribb was very much rooted in London, and we must look at a more modern detective, plying his trade in the ancient town of Bath, with its Roman baths and glorious Georgian heritage. We first met Peter Diamond in 1991, in The Last Detective. The title refers to Diamond’s outright reluctance to adopt modern technology, as he sees gadgets and gizmos as the enemy of good old fashioned police work. Lovesey describes his man:

Difficult to tell whether Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, on duty in the gardens, was overt or covert. If he had been in the race, you might have taken him for one of the jokers in fancy dress. He might have stepped out of a nineteen-forties film, a sleuth on the trail of Sydney Greenstreet. The gabardine trench coat and dark brown trilby, his so-called plain clothes, weren’t plain at all in twenty-first century Bath.”

In The Last Detective the naked body of a woman is found floating in the weeds in a lake near Bath with no one willing to identify her, and neither marks nor murder weapon. Diamond’s reliance on tried and trusted methods  are tested to the limit. Struggling with a jigsaw puzzle of truant choirboys, teddy bears, a black Mercedes and Jane Austen memorabilia, Diamond doggedly stays on the trail of the killer even after this bosses have decided there’s enough evidence to make a conviction.If you click the image below you can read my review of the 2020 novel, The Finisher.

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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND. . . 5: Manchester and Shrewsbury

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I’m heading south to the urban sprawl of Manchester, to meet a very different kind of copper, one who lives at the dark end of the street. Aidan Waits was memorably brought to life (and death, I think) by Joseph Knox.

Aidan Waits inhabits a place where it never seems to be fully daylight, a world where he rubs shoulders with drug dealers and their customers, a city where violence is a common currency, and streets where broken hearts and disappointment walk hand in hand. Noir? Certainly, and probably the best British example of the genre in recent years. It’s not just Waits who is a creature of the darkness. His immediate boss, the ironically named DS Peter Sutcliffe, is a pretty awful specimen of both man and copper. They both glow with a certain righteousness only when they stand next to the repulsive Zane Carver, Waits’s sworn enemy and nemesis. If you click the image below, you will be able to read reviews of the three Aidan Waits novels, Sirens, The Smiling Man and The Sleepwalker.

Knox trio

Next, I am going to a different place and time altogether. Back through the centuries, and to a place that was considerably less dystopian than Joseph Knox’s Hieronymus Bosch-like Manchester. Shrewsbury in the early 12th century was, like most other towns, no stranger to dark deeds and the general venality of its inhabitants, but in the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) there is virtue to be found as well as kindness and redemption. There were 21 novels featuring the crime-solving Benedictine monk, beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) and concluding with Brother Cadfael’s Penance (1994). It wouldn’t be fair to call the series ‘cosy’, but readers certainly became comfortable with the vividly authentic period settings, the intriguing crimes, and Cadfael’s own blend of worldliness – as befitted a man who was a former soldier – and Christian benevolence. So, what was Cadfael’s story?

CADFAEL body text

For many people, the Cadfael stories will have been defined by the excellent TV versions, starring Derek Jacobi. That’s absolutely fine, and his portrayal must be added to the surprisingly short list of definitive adaptations that matched and enhanced the printed word. In my view, only John Thaw’s Morse, David Jason’s Jack Frost, Roy Marsden’s Adam Dalgliesh and David Suchet’s Poirot should be included, although there is – due to the number of options – a separate debate about Sherlock Holmes. For the record, it is Jeremy Brett for me, but that’s a discussion for another day. Go back to the printed word, though, for the most subtle and  multi- layered portrait of  Brother Cadfael – one of crime fiction’s immortals.

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