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Historical Crime Fiction

MURDER AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM . . . Between the covers

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MATBMLondon. 1894. The British Museum has become a crime scene. A distinguished academic and author has been brutally stabbed to death. Not in the hushed corridors, not in the dusty silence of The Reading Room, and not even in one of the stately exhibition halls, under the stony gaze of Assyrian gods and Greek athletes. No, Professor Lance Pickering has been found in the distinctly less grand cubicle of one of the museum’s … ahem …. conveniences, the door locked from inside, and the unfortunate professor slumped over the porcelain.

The police officers from Scotland Yard have been and gone, baffled by the killing. Sir Jasper Stone, Executive Curator-in-Charge at the museum, has called in Daniel Wilson, private consulting detective and his partner, in all senses of the word, Miss Abigail Fenton. Abigail is no stranger to the world of antiquities and academia, as she is a distinguished archaeologist. Wilson has pedigree, as he was a former Metropolitan Police officer, one of the investigative team assembled by Chief Inspector Fred Abberline. Abberline who retired two years earlier is still remembered for his Jack The Ripper investigations, and for his part in the Cleveland Street Scandal, where a raid on a male homosexual brothel was followed by a notorious government cover-up in order to protect some of the brothel’s VIP clients.

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Jim-EldridgeThis is a highly readable mystery with two engaging central characters, a convincing late Victorian London setting, and a plot which takes us this way and that before Daniel and Abigail uncover the tragic truth behind the murders. Jim Eldridge (right) is a veteran writer for radio, television and film as well as being the author of historical fiction, children’s novels and educational books. Murder At The British Museum is published by Allison & Busby, and is out now.

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THE BEAR PIT . . . Between the covers

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Political disagreement in modern mainland Britain is largely non-violent, with the dishonorable exceptions of Islamic extremists and – further back – Irish Republican terror. For sure, tempers fray, abuse is hurled and fists are shaken. Just occasionally an egg, or maybe a milkshake, is thrown. You mightn’t think it, given the paroxysms of fury displayed on social media, but sticks and stones are rarely seen. Scottish writer SG MacLean in her series featuring the Cromwellian enforcer Damian Seeker reminds us that we have a violent history.

The Bear PitIn the last of England’s civil wars, forces opposed to King Charles 1st and his belief in the divine right of kings have won the day. 1656. Charles has been dead these seven years and his son, another Charles, has escaped by the skin of his teeth after an abortive military campaign in 1651. He has been given sanctuary ‘across the water’, but his agents still believe they can stir up the population against his father’s nemesis – Oliver Cromwell, The Lord Protector.

In London, Damian Seeker is a formidable foe to those who yearn for the return of the monarchy. He is physically intimidating, has a fearsome reputation for violence but, like many more modern heroes, Seeker has a fragile personal life. To put Seeker into a modern fictional context, he is Jack Reacher and Harry Callaghan in breeches, stockings and with leather gauntlets on his hands. He has a primed and cocked flintlock pistol by his side, but doesn’t trust modern technology. His weapons of choice are his own fists and a brutal medieval mace.

The story begins with the chance discovery of a mutilated corpse in an outhouse south of the river, in Lambeth – the seventeenth century version of 1970s Soho. The dead man was chained and appears to have been savaged by a dog, except that dogs don’t have five razor sharp claws on each paw. Seeker has to accept the impossible truth. The man has been mauled by a bear. But hasn’t bear-baiting been banned, and haven’t the remaining beasts been removed and killed? Like other practices banned by the zealous moral guardians of Cromwell’s government, bear-baiting and dog-fighting have simply – to use a totally anachronistic metaphor – slipped beneath the radar.

While Seeker searches for his bear, he has another major task on his hands. A group of what we now call terrorists is in London, and they mean to cut off the very head of what they view as England’s Hydra by assassinating Oliver Cromwell himself. Rather like Clint Eastwood in In The Line of Fire and Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, Seeker has one job, and that is to ensure that the No.1 client remains secure. Of course, history MacLeantells us that Seeker succeeds, but along the way SG MacLean (right) makes sure we have a bumpy ride through the mixture of squalor and magnificence that is 17th century London.

McLean’s research is impeccable. She provides us with a clutch of recognisable real-life characters, and even the desperadoes who do their best to kill Cromwell are actual historical figures. She allows herself the luxury of a little what-iffery with the identity of the mysterious Boyes, ringleader of the plot, but this is all great fun and you would have to be a dull old thing not to be carried along with this excellent historical adventure.

The Bear Pit is published by Quercus and is out now. The Fully Booked review of the precious Damien Seeker novel, The Black Friar, is here.

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J SS BACH . . . Between the covers

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This is not a conventional crime novel. There are victims, for sure, and perpetrators of terrible acts which still, when described, take the breath away in their depravity and cold, organised manifestation of evil. English academic Martin Goodman (right) MGhas written a starkly brilliant account of Nazi oppression in Central Europe in the late 1930s. He achieves his broad sweep by, paradoxically focusing on the fine detail. One family. One teenage boy, Otto Schalmek. One fateful knock on the door while Vienna and most of Austria are waving flags to welcome ‘liberation’ in the shape of the Anschluss.

 

JSSBThe Schalmek family are Jewish. That is all that needs to be said. The family becomes just a few lines on a ledger – immaculately kept – which records the ‘resettlement’ of Jewish families. Otto is taken to Dachau and then to Birkenau. His ability as a cellist precedes him, and he is sent to play in the house of Birchendorf, the camp Commandant. His wife Katja is the artistic one, and her husband merely seeks to keep her entertained by using Schalmek as a kind of performing monkey who plays Bach suites on the cello in between sanding floors and mopping up shit in the latrines.

 

The great irony is that Katja is unable to hear Schmalek’s artistry. She is, quite literally, deaf to the Baroque intricacies being played on the stolen Stradivarius. She is, however able to hear through her fingertips as she places her hands on the cello while Schalmek plays. She is pregnant, and although her other senses cause her to be repelled by the captive cellist’s physical state, there is an almost erotic connection between the two.

History, in the shape of Hitler’s madness and the relentless march of the Red Army, intervenes, and the death camps are liberated. Birchendorf is captured and arraigned for war crimes, while his wife and their young daughter manage to lose themselves in the flood of genuine refugees from the devastation caused by war. They manage to escape to a new life in Australia, while Schalmek also survives but goes on to become a revered composer whose rare performances are cherished by the international concert-goers.

Goodman’s book spans the years and the continents. Having been shown the shattering of the Schalmek family we go from the Nuremburg trials to late 1940s Canada and then, via Sydney in the 1960s, on to 1990s California, where Katja’s grand-daughter Rosa, an eminent writer and musicologist, seeks an audience with the elusive and very private genius Otto Schalmek. Rosa Cline is determined to write the definitive biography of Otto Schalmek, but their relationship takes an unexpected turn.

Another fine novel which walks the same bloodstained roads is A Lily of The Field by John Lawton. Again we have a teenage Jewish musician, also a cellist, who is dragged from the family home in Vienna and sent to the death camps. Like Goodman’s Otto Schalmek, Meret Voytek survives in hell due to her musical brilliance. Her Nazi captors may be brutal murderers, but they are not artistic philistines. There, the resemblance between the novels ends. Voytek is saved by Russians who intercept the Death March from Auschwitz, but her post-war life becomes entangled with Cold War espionage.

Screen Shot 2019-06-04 at 19.52.58is a distinctive and beautifully written novel, full of irony, heartbreak and a scholarly brilliance in the way it portrays the human devastation of Hitler’s assault on the Jews. Yes, there is the almost obligatory account of the depravity and sheer horror of the camps, but Goodman also brings a sense of great intimacy and a telling focus on the small personal tragedies and discomforts – an interrupted family meal, a tearful and hurried “goodbye”, and a new grandchild never to be cuddled by grandparents. Crime fiction? Probably not, in the scheme of things. Thrilling, often painful, and full of psychological insight? Certainly. J SS Bach is published by Wrecking Ball Press and is out now.

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THE WHITE FEATHER KILLER . . . Between the covers

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TWFK coverI’m a great fan of historical crime fiction, particularly if it is set in the 19th or 20th centuries, but I will be the first to admit that most such novels tend not to veer towards what I call The Dark Side. Perhaps it’s the necessary wealth of period detail which gets in the way, and while some writers revel in the more lurid aspects of poverty, punishment and general mortality, the genre is usually a long way from noir. That’s absolutely fine. Many noir enthusiasts (noiristes, perhaps?) avoid historical crime in the same way that lovers of a good period yarn aren’t drawn to existential world of shadows cast by flickering neon signs on wet pavements. The latest novel from RN Morris, The White Feather Killer is an exception to my sweeping generalisation, as it is as uncomfortable and haunting a tale as I have read for some time.

If Morris were to have a specialised subject on Mastermind, it might well be London Crime In 1914, as the previous books in the DI Silas Quinn series, Summon Up The Blood (2012), Mannequin House (2013), Dark Palace (2014) and The Red Hand Of Fury (2018) are all set in that fateful year. Silas Quinn, like many of the best fictional coppers, is something of an oddball. While not completely misanthropic, he prefers his own company; his personal family life is tainted with tragedy; he favours the cerebral, evidence-based approach to solving crimes rather than the knuckle-duster world of forced confessions favoured by his Scotland Yard colleagues.

London – like the rest of Britain in the late summer of 1914 – is convulsed with a mixture of outrage, mad optimism and a sense of the old world being overturned. There is the glaring paradox of the first BEF casualties from Mons and Le Cateau being smuggled into the capital’s hospitals on bloodstained stretchers while, the length and breadth of the city, young men are jostling and queuing around the block in a testosterone fuelled display of patriotism, with their only anxiety being the worry that it will all be over before they can ‘do their bit’.

Morris takes his time before giving us a dead body, but his drama has some intriguing characters. We met Felix Simpkins, such a mother’s boy that, were he to be realised on the screen, we would have to resurrect Anthony Perkins for the job. His mother is not embalmed in the apple cellar, but an embittered and waspish German widow, a failed concert pianist, a failed wife, and a failed pretty much everything else except in the dubious skill of humiliating her hapless son. Central to the grim narrative is the Cardew family. Baptist Pastor Clement Cardew is the head of the family; his wife Esme knows her place, but his twin children Adam and Eve have a pivotal role in what unfolds. The trope of the hypocritical and venal clergyman is well-worn but still powerful; when we realise the depth of Cardew’s descent into darkness, it is truly chilling.

rogerHistorical novels come and go, and all too many are over-reliant on competent research and authentic period detail, but Morris (right) plays his ace with his brilliant and evocative use of language. Here, Quinn watches, bemused, as a company of army cyclists spin past him:

“The whole thing had the air of an outing. It did not seem like men preparing for war. The soldiers on their bicycles struck Quinn as unspeakably vulnerable. Their jauntiness as they sped along had a hollow ring to it, as if each man knew he was heading towards death but had sworn not to tell his fellows.”

Quinn has to pursue his enquiries in one of the quieter London suburbs, and makes this wry observation of the world of Mr Pooter – quaintly comic, but about to be shattered by events:

“Elsewhere, in the bigger, flashier houses, the rich and servanted classes might indulge in their racy pastimes and let their jealous passions run wild. Here the worst that could be imagined of one’s neighbours was the coveting of another man’s gardenias, or perhaps going hatless on a Sunday afternoon.”

The White Feather Killer is published by Severn House, and is available now. Let Morris have the last word, though, and he takes us back to that autumn when, after those heady weeks when everything seemed possible, innocence finally died.

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THE SERPENT’S MARK . . . Between the covers

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Modern readers don’t need history degrees to understand the savagery with which followers of different religious views are prepared to torture, maim and kill one another. Sunni against Shia across the Middle East; Roman Catholic against Protestant in Northern Ireland; both are all too recent in memory.

TSM coverLondon, 1591. Queen Elizabeth has ruled England for over three decades, but the religious fires lit by her father and then – literally – stoked by the Catholic zealots driven on her half-sister Mary, may just be glowing embers now, but the mutual fear and bitterness between followers of the Pope and members of the English church are only ever a breath away from igniting more conflict. Just a few short miles from England’s eastern coast, war still rages between the rebels of The Seventeen Provinces of The Low Countries and the armies of King Philip of Spain.

Nicholas Shelby is a young physician, brought up in the rural calm of Suffolk but, in adulthood, trained in medicine. He has practised his skill among London’s poor but also in the battlefields of Flanders, dressing wounds, binding shattered limbs and offering comfort to the dying. During a dramatic episode in the service of Robert Cecil, the Queen’s spymaster, Shelby has courted death, and endured the trauma of being unable to prevent his wife and child both perishing in childbirth. He has survived a period of suicidal alcoholism and is now slowly putting his life back together in the company of Bianca Merton an Italian born apothecary and keeper of a boisterous tavern – The Jackdaw – on the southern shore of the River Thames.

The arrival of a Venetian ship on Bankside brings not only Bianca’s cousin Bruno Barrani but a violent encounter in The Jackdaw which leaves the Venetian near death with a terrible head wound. Shelby ministers to the grievously wounded Italian, but is then summoned to an unwelcome reunion with the saturnine and deeply dangerous Robert Cecil. Shelby is already aware that Samuel, the young son of his former military commander Sir Joshua Wylde is afflicted with The Falling Sickness (epilepsy) and is being tended in rural Gloucestershire by a controversial Swiss doctor, Arcampora. Shelby has already agreed to give Wylde a second opinion, but when Cecil offers him a large sum of money to do exactly the same thing, he welcomes the opportunity to both repay a favour and line his pockets.

With Shelby is away in Gloucestershire, Bianca discovers that her cousin has brought to England a coded message concealed in the lining of an elegant and expensive pair of gloves. Shelby returns with serious concerns about the welfare of Samuel, and when he and Bianca decode the mysterious message, they realise to their alarm that they have uncovered a plot to use a hitherto-unknown child of Mary Tudor to undermine the rule of Queen Elizabeth and return England to Catholicism.

SW-Perry-photo-1-2-300x482This is a riveting and convincing political thriller that just happens to be set in the sixteenth century. The smells and bells of Elizabethan England are captured in rich and sometime florid prose, while Nicholas and Bianca are perfect protagonists; she, passionate, instinctive and emotionally sensitive; he, brave, resourceful and honest, but with the true Englishman’s reluctance to seize the romantic moment when he should be squeezing it with all his might. SW Perry (right) has clearly done his history homework and he takes us on a fascinating tour through an Elizabethan physic garden, as well as letting us gaze in horror at some of the superstitious nonsense that passed for medicine five centuries ago.

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 21.06.14is a reference to the Rod of Asclepius, which was a staff around which a serpent entwined itself. This Greek symbol has always been associated with healing and medicine, existing even in our time as the badge of the Royal Army Medical Corps. SW Perry’s novel is published by Corvus and is out now.

 

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WATCHERS OF THE DEAD . . . Between the covers

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As alert habitués of these pages will recall from my review of Mind of A Killer last year, the authors of Watchers of The Dead are the Anglo-American writing partnership of Elizabeth Cruwys and Beau Riffenburgh. Now, as then, we are in Victorian London following the adventures of the fictional Alec Lonsdale and the real-life Hulda Friederichs, both reporters working for the Pall Mall Gazette under the stern gaze of its editor John Morley, and the rather more eccentric eye of his deputy WT Stead.

81Bz9Hu0AoLNote: Watchers of The Dead contains a liberal mix of fictional characters and historical figures. Where possible I have provided links to external information about the real people.

Lonsdale remains engaged to the delightful Anne Humbage but her objectionable sister Emilie (who is likewise betrothed to Alec’s brother Jack) and her pompous father cause him a certain amount of grief, especially as he is becoming rather attracted to the ill mannered, abrupt and wilfully independent Hulda who, when she has a mind to pay attention to the fact, is something of a stunner.

The pair investigate a series of bizarre and intricate murders, including that of the abrasive and controversial Archibald Campbell Tait who, although Archbishop of Canterbury, never forgot that he was, first and foremost, a Scot. For the historically alert, Tait’s death on 3rd December 1882 is not on record as being the result of foul play. The first death to attract the attention of Lonsdale and Friederichs is that of a Professor Dickerson whose corpse is found in a cellar beneath the recently opened Natural History Museum in South Kensington. As part of a scheme to attract visitors, the management – driven by the ambitious Richard Owen – intended to display three living people from the depths of the Congo. Billed as cannibals, their only vice seems to have been a delight in singing along to choruses from the Savoy Operas, but they have disappeared overnight and, in doing so, have become the prime suspects for the killing of Dickerson.

Press reportAlso on the run is a man convicted of attempting to assassinate Queen Victoria. Sentenced to life imprisonment on the grounds that he was mad, Roderick Maclean was sent to Broadmoor but, finding its treatment regime and facilities less than convivial he has, to use the modern term, done a runner.

The authors have great fun with all the familiar tropes of Victorian London: the fogs rising from the Thames, the horse-shit strewn cobbled streets and the peculiar affection most of the people feel for the plump little black widow from Windsor. The story unfolds in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and it reminds us that what we take as staple seasonal fare – the trees, the tinsel, the cards and the baubles – was regarded by many traditionalists as being a vulgar and unwelcome Germanic import.

Watchers of The Dead is great entertainment. It is sometimes implausible, but always a helter-skelter ride full of fascinating detail and superb narrative drive. The authors deftly fill the stage with fictional characters and real people, and it was a joy to read a fictional account of the great English sportsman Albert Nielson (Monkey) Hornby, immortalised (if you love cricket, as I do) in the poem by Francis Thompson:

“For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!”

Alec Lonsdale is a figment of the authors’ imaginations, but Hulda Friederichs lived and breathed. The internet has little to offer in the way of information about this remarkable woman but The British Library may be a richer seam and, when next I visit, Hulda will be at the top of my requests list. Watchers of The Dead is published by Severn House and is out now.

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METROPOLIS . . . Between the covers

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Metro1012First up, Metropolis is a bloody good detective story. Philip Kerr gives us a credible copper, he lets us see the same clues and evidence that the central character sees and, like all the best writers do, he throws a few false trails in our path and encourages us to follow them. We are in Berlin in the late 1920s. A decade after the German army was defeated on the battlefield and its political leaders presided over a disintegrating home front, some things are beginning to return to normal. Yes, there are crippled ex-soldiers on the streets selling bootlaces and matches, and there are clubs in the city where the determined thrill-seeker can indulge every sexual vice known to man – and a few practices that surely have their origin in hell. The bars, restaurants and cafes of Berlin are buzzing with talk of a new political party, but this is Berlin, and Berliners are much too sophisticated and cynical to do anything other than mock the ridiculous rhetoric coming from the National Socialists. Besides, most of them are Bavarians and since when did a Bavarian have either wit, word or worth?

The copper is, of course, Bernie Gunther. Enthusiasts have followed his career from its infancy in the Berlin kripo of the Weimar Republic, through the dark days of World War II (accompanied by such luminaries as Reinhard Heydrich and Joseph Goebbels.) We have held our breath in the 1950s as Gunther tries to elude hunters who, mistakenly, have his name on a list of Nazi war criminals. We have been in the same rooms as Eva Peron and William Somerset-Maugham. Our man has led us a merry dance through mainland Europe, Cuba and Argentina but, sadly:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Metro2013Metropolis sees Gunther in pursuit of a Berlin Jack The Ripper who is certainly “down on whores.” Four prostitutes are killed and scalped, but when the fifth girl to die is the daughter of a well-connected city mobster, her death is a game-changer, and Gunther suddenly has a whole new world of information and inside knowledge at his fingertips. He is drawn into another series of killings, this time the shooting of disabled war veterans. Are the two sets of murders connected? When the police receive gloating letters, apparently from the perpetrator, does it mean that someone from the emergent extreme right wing of politics is, as they might put it, “cleaning up the streets”?

As ever in the Gunther novels, we meet real people from the period, exquisitely researched and re-imaged by the author. As well as the actual senior police officers of the Berlin Kriminalpolizei, Kerr introduces us to the artists Otto Dix and George Grosz. Gunther rubs shoulders with theatre folk too, but he is no fan of the singing of Lotte Lenya:

“..the mezzo-soprano could hold a note no better than I could hang on to a hot poker. She was plain, too – I caught sight of her onstage as I made my way up to one of the dressing rooms – one of those thin, pale-faced, red-haired Berlin girls who remind me of a safety match.”

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On the bright side, Gunther’s trip to The Neues Theater (above) is not entirely wasted, as he meets Brigitte Mölbling. He sees:

“..an Amazonian blonde whose perfectly proportioned windswept head lookd like the mascot on the hood of a fast car; she had a cool smile, a strong nose, and eye-brows that were so perectly drawn they might have been put here by Raphael or Titian.”

PKMölbling helps Gunther disguise himself as one of the disabled ex-soldiers, as he reluctantly accepts the role in order to attract the killer who, in his letters to the cops, signs himself Dr. Gnadenschuss. Gunther’s trap eventually draws forth the predator, but not in the way either he or his bosses might have anticipated.

Philip Kerr died on 23rd March 2018 and Metropolis is his final work. Of all the many portraits of Bernie Gunther, which one does he leave us with? Our man is young. He is handsome. His four years in the trenches were brutal, but he survived and he is resilient. The cynicism? If new-born babies feel anything other than hungry or full, cold or warm, wet or dry, then perhaps the infant Bernhard ruefully first opened his blue eyes and gazed on a world which he already knew was full of imperfections and disappointment. But let Bernie have the final word. The entrancing Brigitte ends their relationship, unable to become close to a man who has seen – and will continue to see – so much horror and blood:

“I burned her letter. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t had one before, and I suppose that before my time is up, I’ll have others. Never forget, always replace. That’s the first rule of human relationships. Moving on: this is the important part.”

Metropolis is published by Quercus, and is out on 4th April.

Click the link for more opinion and information about the Bernie Gunther series.

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THE LEADEN HEART . . . Between the covers

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England, 1899. We are in the city of Leeds and the hottest summer in living memory is taxing the patience of even the most placid citizens. The heavy industry which has transformed the quietly prosperous Yorkshire town continues to clatter and roar, while the smoke from its thousand chimneys coats everything in grime, and the air is thick with soot. Superintendent Tom Harper of the city’s police force has mixed feelings about his recent promotion. The pile of paperwork on his desk adds to the tedium, and he wishes he could be out there on the busy streets doing what he believes to be a copper’s real job.

TLHHarper lives above a city pub, the Victoria. His wife, Annabelle, is the landlady, but she is also a fiercely determined advocate of women’s rights, and she has made waves by being elected to the local Board of Guardians, a largely male-dominated organisation which is tasked with administering what, in the dying years of Queen Victoria’s reign, passed for social care. When the brother of Harper’s one-time colleague, Billy Reed, commits suicide the death is dismissed, albeit sadly, as commonplace, but Reed believes that his brother’s death is due to something more sinister, and he asks Harper to investigate.

Charlie Reed was a small time shop-keeper, but his shop was in an area where large scale commercial developments are being planned, and his premises – along with many others – have been targeted by thugs who are possibly in the pay of two wealthy – but utterly corrupt and ruthless – city councillors. Like a dog with a bone, Harper chews and gnaws away at the shrouds of secrecy with which these men have surrounded themselves, but Charlie Reed’s tragic suicide is eclipsed by a string of savage killings committed by a deranged pair of brothers who are clearly acting at the behest of the two councillors and their lawyer.

Against a background of heartbreaking poverty, where needless deaths and bureaucracy trump common humanity at every turn, Harper eventually gets to come face to face with the killers and their suave masters, but not before his family is put in peril, and his own life comes to hang from a thread.

The most chilling aspect of The Leaden Heart is that it is brutally contemporary. Town and City councillors might, these days, be seen as bumbling and pompous local jobsworths, full of piss and wind, but relatively harmless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now, as in 1899, such people have huge power over planning applications and budgets which are in the millions. Now, as then, the corrupt and venal live among us and will, no doubt, be putting themselves up for re-election in May 2019.

The author’s empathy with the downtrodden and exploited, and his disgust at crooked councillors and unfeeling public guardians burns like an angry flame. The most haunting image in the book is of two drowned children killed, yes, by their drunken father, but also failed by their helpless mother and the rigid workhouse system. Nickson is a writer, however, whose passionate desire for social justice never impedes his ability to tell a great story and weave a dazzling crime mystery. What is more, he does the job with minimal fuss; there’s never a wasted word, a redundant adjective or an overblown description. His prose is pared down to the bone, but always sharp and vivid. I often think Nickson would have found lasting kinship with the great campaigning journalist and author GR Simms, (incidentally an almost exact contemporary of Tom Harper) whose most celebrated work is echoed in some aspects of The Leaden Heart. The book is published by Severn House and will be out on 29th March.

Regular visitors to Fully Booked will know that I am an unashamed fan of everything Chris Nickson writes. If you click on the image of the man himself, you can read other reviews and features on his work.

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HARDCASTLE’S QUANDARY . . . Between the covers

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London, 1927, and Divisional Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle is summoned to the office of Chief Constable Frederick Wensley[1], who has received a letter from a Norfolk parson. The Rev. Percy Stoner is convinced that his nephew Guy has met with misfortune. The former army Captain has disappeared, and when Hardcastle despatches men to visit the business young Stoner had set up with another Great War veteran, they make a chilling discovery.

Hardcastle himself was too old to serve in the war, but for his younger colleagues who knew the Western Front, body parts hold few terrors. The human remains found in the burnt-out premises in Surrey are examined by none other than Sir Bernard Spilsbury[2] and his findings complicate Hardcastle’s case. Is the first body that of Guy Stoner, or is it that of his business partner? And who was the young woman whose butchered remains shared the same ignominious burial place?

HQForced to play cherchez-la-femme, the detectives stumble down one blind alley after another, but as they do so they learn a few home truths about the fate of the young men who went to fight in the war-to-end-all-wars, and returned home to find that their birthplace was not the ‘land fit for heroes’ glibly promised by politicians. There is a peacetime army with no place for young officers whose courage was welcome in the trenches, but whose humble upbringing is now seen as an embarrassment as the cigars are lit, and the port passed in the correct direction at mess dinners. Such young men, not all heroes, but men nevertheless, are forced to find civilian employment which is neither honest, decent nor lawful.

Eventually, after an investigation which takes the detectives on many a trip into the provinces and away from their metropolitan stamping grounds, the case is solved, and there is work for the hangman to do, but not before an intervention by the Home Secretary.

GIGraham Ison is a master story-teller. The Hardcastle books contain no literary flourishes or stylistic tricks – just credible characters, excellent period detail and an engaging plot. Cosy? Perhaps, in the sense that we know how Hardcastle and his officers are going to react to any given situation, and their habits and small prejudices remain unchanged. Comfortable? Only because novels don’t always need to shock or challenge; neither do they always benefit from graphic descriptions of the damage humans can sometimes inflict on one another. Ison (right) credits his readers with having imaginations; he never gilded the lily of English life in the earlier Hardcastle cases which took place during The Great War, and he doesn’t start now, nearly a decade after the final shots were fired. The suffering and trauma of those four terrible years didn’t end at the eleventh hour on that eleventh day; they cast a long and sometimes baleful shadow which frames much of the action of this novel.

Hardcastle’s Quandary is a great read. As well as being a fascinating period police procedural, it is a gently reflective but sharply observant look at England in the 1920s. We sense that Hardcastle, deeply conservative and instinctively opposed to the steady advance of technology, has entered his autumn period. Colleagues like Marriott and Catto tolerate his idiosyncrasies and work around the fact that he sometimes appears to be a creature from a bygone age, preserved in his own block of amber. Hardcastle’s quandary? That is for the reader to judge, and it may only be resolved in the final pages. The novel is published by Severn House and is available here.

[1] Frederick Porter Wensley OBE KPM (28 March 1865 – 4 December 1949) was a British police officer from 1888 until 1929, reaching the rank of chief constable of the Scotland Yard Criminal Investigation Department. Serving in Whitechapel for part of his career, Wensley was involved in the investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders, details of which he would later publish in his memoirs in 1931.

[2] Sir Bernard Henry Spilsbury (16 May 1877 – 17 December 1947) was a British pathologist. His cases include Hawley Harvey Crippen and the “Brides in the Bath” murders by George Joseph Smith,. Spilsbury’s courtroom appearances became legendary for his demeanour of effortless dominance.

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