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Historical Crime Fiction

THE POISON MACHINE . . . Between the covers

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There is nothing new in historical fiction writers having their own invented characters  mix with real life figures. Among the writers who have done this with great success in the crime genre are Philip Kerr, John Lawton, Chris Nickson, and MJ Trow (click the links for further information). I was delighted to be able to review The Bloodless Boy by Robert J Lloyd just about a year ago. He introduced us the (fictional) scientist Harry Hunt and brought back personal memories of ‘O’ Level Physics by featuring Robert Hooke, of Hooke’s Law* fame.

*Hooke’s Law states that the force (F) needed to extend or compress a spring by some distance (x) scales linearly with respect to that distance—that is, Fs = kx, where k is a constant factor characteristic of the spring (i.e., its stiffness), and x is small compared to the total possible deformation of the spring.

I didn’t understand it then, and I still don’t, but no matter. In The Bloodless Boy King Charles II played quite a significant part, but his Roman Catholic wife, Queen Catherine is more to the fore in The Poison Machine, principally because after an eventful sojourn in France, Harry Hunt discovers a plot to murder her. The story begins in London in 1679, where Harry is humiliated when an experiment he is conducting in front of some very distinguished men goes badly wrong. Feeling unsupported by Robert Hooke, he distances himself from the London scientific world by taking on a criminal investigation,

Screen Shot 2022-10-16 at 19.18.26In far-off Norfolk, men repairing flood defences near Denver Sluice have discovered what appears to be the remains of a child inside the rotted skeleton of a boat. Hunt, accompanied by Colonel Michael Field, a grizzled veteran of Cromwell’s army, and Hooke’s niece, Grace. When the trio arrive in Norfolk, Hunt soon determines that the remains are not those of a child, but the mortal remains of Jeffrey Hudson, who was known as the Queen’s Dwarf – the Queen in question being the late Henrietta Maria (left), wife of Charles I. The situation becomes more bizarre when Hunt learns that Hudson is not dead, but living in the town of Oakham, 60 miles west across the Fens. Hunt and his companions’ journey only delivers up more mystery when they find that ‘Jeffrey Hudson’ has left the town. Hunt knows that the jolly boat* which contained the skeleton belonged to a French trader, Incasble, which worked out of King’s Lynn.

*Jolly boats were usually the smallest type of boat carried on ships, and were generally between 16 feet (4.9 m) and 18 feet (5.5 m) long. They were clinker-built and propelled by four or six oars. When not in use the jolly boat normally hung from davits at the stern of a ship, and could be hoisted into and out of the water. Jolly boats were used for transporting people and goods to and from shore.

Sancy diamond ndexHunt’s odyssey continues. In King’s Lynn, Hunt and his companions are summoned to the presence of the Duchesse de Mazarin. Hortense Mancini is one of the most beautiful women in Europe. She is highly connected, but also notorious as one of Charles II’s (several) mistresses. She reveals that the mysterious dwarf – or his impersonator – may be in possession of a a legendary gemstone – the Sancy – a diamond of legendary worth, and the cause of centuries of intrigue and villainy. The Duchesse bids Harry to travel to Paris, but once there, his fortunes take a turn for the worse.

The layers of deception and double dealing in Lloyd’s plot are sometimes breathtakingly complex, but the page-and-a-half of dramatis personnae at the front of the book is a great help. When Harry Hunt, apparently betrayed by Colonel Fields, finds himself incarcerated sine die in la Bastille, one fears the worst for our intelligent (but not particularly swashbuckling) hero.

Robert J Lloyd once again works his magic in the twin roles of formidable historian and fine storyteller. We have fantastical escapes, improbable machines (a kind of 17thC steampunk) and perilous journeys to entertain us, and they do this most royally. The Poison Machine is published by Melville House and is available now.

FOUR THOUSAND DAYS Days . . . Between the covers

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I am pushed to think of another modern writer who is more prolific, but yet so consistently readable as MJ Trow. Not only that, until a few years ago he actually ‘worked for a living’ outside of his writing career. He and I walked along one or two shared paths. We went to the same school, but I was a couple of years ahead of him, and neither of us noticed one another’s presence. We both took up a career in teaching, and shared a deep contempt for the corporate management styles in English comprehensive schools. He exploited that in his superb series centred on the world of Peter ‘Mad’ Maxwell, Head of History at a fictional school in the Isle of Wight. I say fictional, but Maxwell was, to all intents and purposes, the author himself. One imagines (and hopes) that the murders in the books were purely imaginary ones, but the troubled and often complex teenagers and preposterous members of the Senior Leadership Team were all too true to life.

Before Maxwell came Trow’s homage to Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade. Bumbling and incompetent in the original books, Lestrade is portrayed by Trow as a decent copper, nobody’s fool, and doing his best, but frequently upstaged by his flashier nemesis from Baker Street. There are also series featuring Kit Marlowe, the Elizabethan dramatist, here recast as one of Gloriana’s secret agents. I have also enjoyed the Grand and Batchelor Victorian mysteries. Trow is a great humorist and punster. mixing comedy and word play with superb plotting and  – the real pull, for me – the introduction of real historical characters in to the narrative. In addition he has written extensively in other genres, including True Crime.

Having just realised I am over 200 words into the review without mentioning the book in question, I must get back on task. Margaret Murray was the first celebrated woman archaeologist, and in Four Thousand Days she is at the centre of an intriguing mystery. We are in London, October 1900, and while the Boer War is still very much alive, the Boer leader Paul Kruger has fled to Europe, the ‘game’ is pretty much over, and the first British troops are returning from South Africa.

A young woman is found dead, apparently by her own hand, in a sleazy tenement bedroom. Further investigation reveals that she led at least two different lives, one as a prostitute, but another as a modest and attentive student, a regular attendee at Margaret Murray’s free Friday afternoon lectures at University College London. Another student of Em-Em, (Margaret Murray) Angela Friend, is drawn into the case by her soon-to-be boyfriend, Police Constable Adam Crawford.

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Enter another real-life character in the shape of retired copper, Edmund Reid (above). Troubled by the recent death of his wife and his conspicuous failure a dozen years earlier to catch Jack the Ripper, he has resigned himself to a solitary existence down in Hampton on Sea, a village near Herne Bay in Kent. Hampton would eventually be obliterated by erosion and the force of the waves, but an early part of this process – the collapse of a sand dune – reveals to Reid the body of another woman, dead for some time. The fact she was another archaeologist, is too much of a coincidence. It transpires that she was attempting to excavate a Roman coastal fort. What she found – and was murdered for – has the potential to turn Christian history on its head. He teams up with Margaret Murray to solve the mystery. The book’s enigmatic title? All is revealed in the final pages, but I will not spoil it for you.

Trow introduces other historical characters, and one of his many skills is to make us believe that how they behave in his book is just how they were in real life. As in all of his novels, Trow reminds us in Four Thousand Days that his grasp of history is second to none. Add that to his wizardry as a storyteller, and you have a winning combination. Four Thousand Days is published by Severn House and is available now.

For more on the novels of MJ Trow, click the image below.

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A DARK STEEL DEATH . . . Between the covers

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Chris Nickson’s long running saga about  Leeds copper Tom Harper continues with our man now Deputy Chief Constable. We are in January 1917 and, like in other major cities, patrols are on the look out for the silent peril of Zeppelins, while Harper has a possible act of sabotage to investigate after a pile of newspaper and kindling is found inside a warehouse used for storing military clothing. The book begins, however, a month earlier with a true historical incident.

In nearby Barnbow, a huge munitions factory had been established from scratch in 1915. Its prime function was the filling of shells. With the constant drain of manpower to the armed forces, the workforce at Barnbow became over 90% female. On the night of 5th December 1916 a massive explosion occurred in Hut 42, killing 35 women outright, maiming and injuring dozens more. In some cases identification was only possible by the identity disks worn around the necks of the workers. It is believed that the explosion was triggered by a shell being packed with double the required amount of explosives. The dead women, at last, have their own memorial.

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With the Barnbow investigation ongoing, Harper has more problems on his hands when a sentry outside a barracks in the city is shot dead with, it turns out, a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfield) .303 rifle, adapted for sniping, which was stolen from the barracks own armoury.

There are so many things to admire about this series, not least being the meticulous historical research carried out by the author. One example is the development of police investigative techniques. Back at the beginning, in Gods of Gold (2014), the idea that people could be identified by their fingerprints would have been seen as pure fantasy but, as we see in this novel, it was an essential tool  for the police by 1917.

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Back to Tom Harper’s current case. As he and his detectives sift what little evidence there is, they seem to be chasing their own tails. Harper’s worries don’t end as he closes his office door each evening. In an earlier book, we learned the grim news that his vivacious and beautiful wife Annabelle, a tireless campaigner for female equality, has developed early-onset dementia. Harper has employed a Belgian refugee couple to run Annabelle’s pub, and keep a close eye on his wife, but he never knows from one day to the next what state she will be in. If he is lucky, she will show glimpses of her old self; when she is having a bad day, she inhabits a totally imaginary world and slips from all the anchors of reality. The most painful moments for Harper come when Annabelle believes that he is her late first husband, Harry.

Eventually the case breaks. Harper and his team are astonished to find they are facing not just one killer, but a partnership. Two former soldiers, Gordon Gibson and James Openshaw were virtually buried alive when a shell exploded near them on the Western Front. Openshaw was a sniper and Gibson, not much of a shot but with superb eyesight, was his spotter. Both men were invalided out, but Openshaw, after a spell at the famous Edinburgh hospital, Craiglockhart, remains under constant medical care at Gledhow Hall, a Leeds stately home used as a hospital for the duration of the war. It seems that for whatever motive, Gibson smuggled Openshaw  and the rifle out of the hospital to commit the murder of the sentry. Now, Gibson is at large with the rifle and, despite his poor marksmanship, has shot at Tom Harper’s official car, and badly wounded a policeman.

The endgame takes place as Gibson uses all his fieldcraft to find his way into a heavily guarded Gledhow Hall to liberate Openshaw and resume their killing spree. The finale is breathtaking, powerfully written – and deeply moving. A Dark Steel Death is published by Severn House and is available now.

FOR MORE ON THE TOM HARPER SERIES CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW

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THE GHOSTS OF PARIS . . . Between the covers

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It is 1947, and in Europe both victors and vanquished struggle to rebuild shattered lives, towns, cities and democracy itself. Although nearly 30,000 Australian servicemen lost their lives, their homeland remained physically untouched. Former war reporter Billie Walker has set up as a private investigator in Sydney and, with her assistant Sam, is making a decent go of things, but their cases are very parochial and largely mundane. Then everything changes. She accepts a case to investigate the disappearance of Richard Montgomery, last heard of in London, and possibly Paris.

This book is full of interesting historical detail, some of which was new to me. For example, I never knew that flights between Australia and Britain at the time were often made in hastily converted Lancaster bombers, renamed ‘Lancastrians’. Billie and Sam, aboard one of these lumbering giants, take three days to reach London, and when their hearing and sleep patterns have returned to normal, they begin their investigation.

It soon becomes clear that the Richard Montgomery’s London trail has gone cold, and so the pair move to Paris where, from their luxurious HQ of the Paris Ritz they start to make enquiries. At this point, some of the back-story needs telling. Billie Walker was once married to Jack Rake, another war reporter and photographer, but in the vicious chaos that was wartime Central Europe, they became separated. Jack was last heard of in Poland but Billie has had no communication of any kind from him since then, and she fears he is dead. Back in Australia, on an earlier investigation, Billie had accidentally uncovered part of the ODESSA network. This had nothing to do with the Black Sea port, but was an acronym for Organisation Der Ehemaligen Ss-angehörigen, a highly secret group dedicated to smuggling as many former SS men out from under the noses of the Allies as possible. The encounter pitted Billie against one of the most vicious former Nazis in the organisation. She brought about his downfall, but ODESSA have neither forgotten nor forgiven.

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Billie Walker is an admirably resilient and resourceful investigator, and Tara Moss tells a tale that gallops along at a cracking pace, and includes a very cinematic scene where Billie fights for her life on very rickety scaffolding high up on the wall of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, with Le Stryge (above) gazing impassively at the struggle. The Ghosts of Paris is published by Dutton (an imprint of the Penguin Group) and is available now.

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Author Tara Moss  (right) has a pretty impressive CV. She holds joint citizenship of Canada and Australia, and is an international advocate for human rights, particularly those of women and children. She is renowned for researching the physical action in her novels, and this has included shooting firearms, being set on fire, being choked unconscious by Ultimate Fighter ‘Big’ John McCarthy, flying with the Royal Australian Air Force, spending time in morgues and courtrooms and obtaining a licence as a private investigator. She has also been a race car driver (CAMS), and holds a motorcycle licence and a wildlife/snake-handling licence.

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.

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