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A BOOK OF BONES . . . Between the covers

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ABOB COVERIn the previous Charlie Parker novel, The Woman In The Woods, John Connolly introduced us to a frightful criminal predator, Quayle, and his malodorous and murderous familiar, Pallida Mors. Even those with the faintest acquaintance with Latin will have some understanding what her name means and, goodness gracious, does she ever live up to it! Both Quayle and Mors are seeking the final pages of a satanic book, The Fractured Atlas which, when complete, will deliver the earth – and all that is in it – to the forces of evil.

Unusually for a Charlie Parker novel, most of the action takes place far from our man’s home in Portland, Maine. Parker and his customary partners Louis and Angel travel to England via the Netherlands for what may well be the final encounter with their adversaries. All is not well, however. The implacable Louis is still wounded – physically and mentally – after a previous encounter with Pallida Mors, and Angel is undergoing chemotherapy after having a significant part of his intestines removed. There is something of Tennyson’s Ulysses about Parker, Louis and Angel in this epic encounter:

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Charlie Parker aficionados will remember that in The Wolf In Winter (2014) Parker tangled with the sinister residents of a tiny village called Prosperous. They were descendants of The Familists, a pagan cult which had originated in northern England but then emigrated to America, taking the stones of their church with them in their ships. The original village, high up on the lonely moors of Northumberland is now little more than a series of ruined cottages, but it comes into dramatic focus when the body of a young schoolteacher is found with a ring of Muslim prayer beads lodged in her slashed throat.

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JCA Book of Bones is a tour de force, shot through with the grim poetry of death and suffering. Connolly (right) takes the creaky genre of horror fiction, slaps it round the face and makes it wake up, shape up and step up. He might feel that the soubriquet literary is the kiss of death for a popular novelist, but such is his scholarship, awareness of history and sensitivity that I throw the word out there in sheer admiration. Jostling each other for attention on Connolly’s stage, amid the carnage, are the unspeakably vile emissaries of evil, the petty criminals, the corrupt lawyers and the crooked cops. Charlie Parker may be haunted; you may gaze into his eyes and see a soul in ruins; his energy and motivation might be fueled by a desire to lash out at those who murdered his wife and daughter; what shines through the gloom, however, is the tiny but fiercely bright light of honesty and goodness which makes him the most memorable hero of contemporary fiction.

Astonishingly, it is twenty years since Every Dead Thing introduced Charlie Parker to the world. Seventeen books later, A Book Of Bones will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 18th April.

For more on Charlie Parker at Fully Booked, click the image below.

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SEVERED . . . Between the covers

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In a structurally ramshackle – but otherwise unremarkable – rural parish church in the gently undulating Chiltern Hills, the scant congregation is watching their parish priest reach the most sacred part of the Sunday morning Holy Communion service, where they join together in the belief that “God was man in Palestine, and lives today in Bread and Wine”. In a few violent seconds, however, the wine symbolising Christ’s blood is dramatically spilled and mixed with real human blood, as the vicar is savagely attacked by a young man wielding an axe.

severedThus begins another case for Professor Matt Hunter, a university lecturer in religion and belief. He has previously helped the police in cases which involve sacred or supernatural matters (see the end of this review) and he is called in when it becomes clear that the wielder of the axe was none other than the teenage son of the Reverend David East, and that the boy was under the spell of a cult of deviant Christians whose central belief is that God The Father is a brutal tyrant who murdered his only son. They are also convinced that all other humans but them are ‘Hollows’ with evil in their eyes. Consequently, they shun all contact with the outside world, and live in a remote farmhouse, deep in the hills at the end of a rutted farm track.

Laws manages to recast the relatively benign uplands of the Chilterns as a scarred and brooding landscape with many a nameless terror lurking in its valleys, waiting to pounce on the unwary. There is blood by the pint, a coven of homophobic Christian evangelicals, a storm of biblical ferocity plus every Gothick image you could ever think of – plus a few more besides. Oh yes, I almost forgot – a very convincing and horribly plausible shape-shifter.

As the chapters spin by, Laws dusts off one of the oldest tricks in the book of narrative devices, but deftly breathes new life into it. There are basically two stages in his theatre of horrors; one shows us what is happening around Matt Hunter, while on the other, the members of the sect enact their weird dance of death. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, so we whirl through the next few pages to see what is going to happen, but then that chapter leaves us in suspense too, so we become caught up in an addictive mad scramble. It’s a ridiculously simple ploy but, good heavens, how well it works.

LawsOne of the most intriguing aspects of the Matt Hunter books is the relationship between the fictional former man of God and the very real and present minister in the Baptist church, the Reverend Peter Laws himself . We get a very vivid and convincing account of how Hunter has lost his faith, but also the many facets of that belief that he has come to see as inconsistent, illogical, or just plain barbaric. It suggests that Laws has identified these doubts in his own mind but, presumably, answered them. In these days of CGI nothing is impossible, so a live debate between Reverend Laws and Professor Hunter would be something to behold.

The finale of this brilliant thriller is apocalyptic enough to satisfy the most ardent fan of the horror genre, but Laws is smart enough – like Phil Rickman in his Merrily Watkins novels – to give everything (well, almost everything) a natural explanation, and when the emotional roller-coaster finally comes to rest we know that it is human beings, images and clones of ourselves if you will, that are capable of far more dreadful deeds than any supernatural monster conjured up from the bowels of Hell. Severed is published by Allison & Busby, and will be available at the end of January 2019.

For more on the extraordinary adventures of Professor Matt Hunter, read the reviews of:

Unleashed

Purged

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THE BREAK LINE . . . Between the covers

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coverOne of my sons was, in his teens, an avid fan of the Andy McNab books and acquired several signed copies of the SAS man’s adventures, and even had a couple of autographed photos of the great man (complete with the obligatory black rectangle across his features, naturally). I have to confess that I didn’t share his enthusiasm, and military thrillers are not normally high on my TBR pile. When the publicists at Michael Joseph sent me a copy of The Break Line by James Brabazon two things aroused my interest. The first was the frankly terrifying background of the author, a documentary film maker and journalist who has been to some of the darkest and most dangerous spots in the world and lived to tell the tale. Second was my admiration for the team at Michael Joseph and my awareness that they don’t, in my experience, publish bad books. If The Break Line had convinced their editorial team, then maybe I should take a closer look?

They were not wrong, and neither was I. This is a breathtaking journey through a world where brave but damaged men are sent into deserts, putrid slums and disease-ridden jungles to do terrible things – mostly to other people who have, for one reason or another, become irrelevant, irritating or downright dangerous.
Who sends them? Why, the dark-suited gentlemen in Whitehall or others in the monolithic 1990s building at 85 Albert Embankment, Vauxhall which houses British intelligence services.

Max McLean is, in all senses, an orphan. Literally, because after his father was killed in a plane crash while engaged in some secret diplomatic mission, his mother cured her grief by filling her pockets with stones and wading out into a deep Irish lake. Metaphorically, because McLean has no anchors, no reference points, no comfort blankets and no safe spaces in the day-to-day world which most of us inhabit. A soldier since he was sixteen, his only family has been The Regiment and, when he bothers to think about it, he could cut his loneliness with a knife.

McLean screws up an assassination assignment through a mixture of conscience and raging hormones, and his penance is to to be sent into the anarchic trou de merde of Sierra Leone. Someone – or something – is disturbing the already fragile equilibrium of that benighted country. McLean is shown a morgue where the corpses have been literally torn apart. This is not cholera, or the dreaded ebola. This is not the work of wild animals, or even drug-crazed teenage Revolutionary United Front rebels with all the moral compass and conscience of a snake.

BrabazonExactly what it is that McLean faces will only be learned when you read the book. The instant you begin to read the first-person narrative, you will rightly assume that McLean survives his ordeal, as an action novel has yet to be written where the protagonist convincingly records his own death, but what happens between the first page and the last is a curious but utterly compelling mix of The Heart of Darkness, Indiana Jones, science fiction and visceral horror shot through with musings about the two great imponderables – life and death. Thriller fans will be able to fill their boots with the usual tropes; Le Carré style double and treble dealing at the highest level, fierce fire-fights, fascinating military detail, treacherous Russians and a cataclysmic body count. Brabazon (right) is not, however, simply ticking genre boxes. He shows an assured and convincing style of writing that puts him way above many of his contemporaries in the genre.

I mentioned at the outset that Brabazon is what used to be called, in colonial days, ‘an old Africa hand.’ He has seen the continent at its best and at its very, very worst – and it is the sheer immensity of the latter which casts a monstrous and baleful shadow over the narrative. The Break Line is published by Michael Joseph and was published in all formats on 26th July.

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . A Hive of Glass by PM Hubbard

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Hubbard-Hive-GlassI have a close friend who keeps himself fit by walking London suburbs searching charity shops for rare – and sometimes valuable – crime novels. On one particular occasion he was spectacularly successful with a rare John le Carré first edition, but he is ever alert to particular fads and enthusiasms of mine. Since I “discovered” PM Hubbard, thanks to a tip-off from none other than Phil Rickman, my friend has been on the lookout for for anything by this English writer (1910 – 1980) and his latest find, A Hive of Glass is a Panther Crimeband paperback, published in 1966. This was a year after Michael Joseph published the first edition (left), and Hubbard fans could have bought the paperback for the princely sum of 3s/6d (about 16.5p in modern money).

In his best works Hubbard gives us an ostensibly benevolent rural England; small towns, pretty villages, ancient woodlands, the warm stone of village churches and old parkland (always with a time-weathered manor or house at its centre). This England, however, invariably has something menacing going on behind the façade. Not simply, it must be said, in a cosy Midsomer Murders fashion, but in a much more disturbing way. Hubbard doesn’t engage with the overtly supernatural, but he teases us with suggestions that there might – just might – be something going on, an uneasy sense of what Hamlet was referring to in his celebrated remark to Horatio in Hamlet (1.5.167-8)

In A Hive of Glass, a gentleman of undisclosed means, Jonnie Slade, pursues his lifelong interest in antique glassware. He is an auctioneers’ and dealer’ worst nightmare, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of styles, techniques – and market value. He becomes aware of an important piece of sixteenth century glass – to the uninitiated, not much more than a glass saucer – whose provenance includes the crucial involvement of none other than Gloriana herself. Looking to find more information on the tazza, made by the legendary Giacomo Verzelini, he visits an elderly man whose knowledge of the period is legendary, only to find him dead in his study. With only a couple of amateurish photographs and a diary entry to guide him, Slade drives out of London to the remote village of Dunfleet.

In Dunfleet he meets a young woman called Claudia. Their erotically charged relationship is central to the story, as is the fact that she is the niece of Elizabeth Barton, the elderly woman in whose house the tazza is hidden. Even to himself, Slade’s motives are unclear. Does he want to steal the tazza? Does he just want to confirm its location? Does he suspect Claudia of attempting to defraud her aunt?

hubbard1Seldom, however, can a treasure have been protected by two more menacing guardians in Aunt Elizabeth and her maid-of-all-work Coster. Remember Blind Pew, one of the more terrifying villains of literature? Remember Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and the decades that it was hidden from sight? With a freedom that simply would not escape the censor today, Hubbard (right) taps into our visceral fear of abnormality and disability. Hubbard has created two terrifying women and a dog which is makes Conan Doyles celebrated hound Best In Show. The dog first:

“It was pinky-white all over and looked quite naked and scrofulous. Even from sideways its eyes were almost invisible behind puckered pink lids. It waddled and wheezed like a fat dog, but you could see most of the bones under the hanging skin. Its smell went past me as it it walked.”

Attached to the vile animal is blind Aunt Elizabeth:

“On the end of the lead came a long black glove and behind it Claudia’s Aunt Elizabeth. I had no idea, seeing her through a curtained window like that, how tall she was. She must have been all of six foot and her elaborately coiled hair put as much on her height as a policeman’s helmet…Her feet were as big as the rest of her. The skin was grey but clear and glossy and her smile, as she passed me, came back almost under her ear.”

Aunt Elizabeth’s maid, Coster, is equally terrifying. She is stone deaf, huge, and mutters to herself in a constant high-pitched monotone:

“She was a tall soldierly woman, with a frame much too big for that little thin, continuous voice. She wore a bunchy black skirt with a long apron over it and some sort of blue and white blouse over her great square top half. As it was, I could hear a continuous stream of sound, inflected and articulated like speech, but defying my analysis.:

I would have turned tail and ran as far from this trio of horrors as fast as my legs could carry me, but Slade is made of sterner stuff, and he stays to discover the hiding place of the Verzelini tazza, but not without considerable cost to his own sanity and sense of well-being.

A Hive of Glass is available as a Murder Room reprint, or you can search charity shops for an original version. For more on PM Hubbard and his novels, follow this link.

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KILL THE ANGEL . . . Between the covers

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“I pledge my allegiance to the Italian Republic,
to faithfully observe and execute its Constitution
and the laws of the state, and to comply with the duties
of my office in the interestof the administration for the public good.”

Well said, Signorina! Well sworn! Thus spake Colomba Caselli when she joined the Italian police force. Now she is Deputy Chief Caselli of the Third Section of Rome’s Homicide Squad, but this outrageously entertaining novel details a thousand and one different ways in which Caselli – “thirty-three years old in her body but a few years older in the green eyes that changed hue with her mood.” – breaks her vow to be an obedient police officer.

kill-the-angel-9781471165528_hrSide by side with a pharmaceutically-addicted genius called Dante Torre she attempts to solve a grotesque mass murder. The express train from Milan to Rome arrives safely. Safe, that is, except for the passengers in the first class compartments who have all died in grotesque agony. Their bodies are discovered by an officer of the Railway Police and when he alerts his superiors,la merda colpisce il ventilatore..” as they might (but probably don’t) say in Rome. Ironically, it is the fan from the air conditioning unit which has spread the deadly gas.

Despite the usual suspects – none other than the “Allahu Akhbar”- chanting killers from ISIS – claiming responsibility for the atrocity, Caselli smells a particularly putrid rat, and she breaks away from official shackles to track down the real killer. Dazieri does a fair job of explaining relationship between Colomba Caselli and Dante Torre, but the full picture relies quite heavily on the back story which played out in the earlier novel, Kill The Father. It seems that Torre had been held captive by a malevolent psychopath – The Father – but, with the help of Caselli has escaped, but not before both he and the policewoman have sustained significant physical and mental damage.

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As readers, we learn that the real killer sought by Caselli and Torre is an almost supernaturally gifted killer, a woman known as Giltine, the Lithuanian Angel of Death. The action spins back and forth between Rome, Venice and Berlin and, just as peeling an onion reveals further layers, a complex collision of events is revealed. At the root of the malevolent and seemingly indestructible Giltin’s thirst for violent revenge is something which happened in a remote region of Ukraine on 25th April 1986. Watch out, though, for a very, very clever twist regarding the avenging angel. A clue, but no plot spoiler, I hope – have any of you ever read Harry Bingham’s amazing Fiona Griffiths novels?

shugaar-picture2Kill The Angel, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar (right), is ridiculously entertaining. The narrative constantly breaks the speed limit, and Colomba Caselli and Dante Torre are wonderfully imagined character. We can boo and hiss as Colomba is screwed – in all senses of the word – by sinister global forces, but she is a truly modern kick-arse (‘ass’ for US readers) heroine and she scorches her way across the pages of this gripping novel.

Be warned: even readers who might think themselves strong of stomach and with a healthy capacity to absorb horrors might find themselves reaching for Aunt Maud’s smelling salts. Visions from Hell loom large, like the child forced to sit with a deadly arachnid sealed in his mouth, or the hideously scarred man who, having survived a catastrophic fire in a night club, recovers – only to be eviscerated with a shard of mirror glass wielded by an enraged sociopath. ‘Kill The Angel, by Sandrone Dazieri (below) is published by Simon and Schuster, and is out now.

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UNLEASHED … Between the covers

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Matt Hunter was once a man of God. Now he is a man of gods. The beliefs that led him to ordination and the ministry of the church have, like Prospero’s insubstantial pageant,

“ .. 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.

“Not a rack behind…”? Not strictly true. His former faith has left a bequest in the form of an encyclopaedic knowledge of religious symbols, liturgies both sacred and profane, and profound knowledge of different theologies across the world. The former Reverend Hunter is now Professor Hunter, and he lectures in the Sociology of Religion. He also acts as unpaid advisor to the police in cases where there seems to be a supernatural element.

UnleashedIf the South London suburb of Menham could be described as unremarkable, then we might call the down-at-heel terraced houses of Barley Street positively nondescript. Except, that is, for number 29. For a while, the home of Mary Wasson and her daughters became as notorious as 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville. But the British tabloid press being what it is, there are always new horrors, fresh outrages and riper scandals, and so the focus moved on. The facts, however, were this. After a spell of unexplained poltergeist phenomena turned the house (almost literally) upside down, the body of nine year-old Holly Wasson was found – by her older sister Rachel – hanging from a beam in her bedroom.

Now, years later, Menham hits the headlines again. At an otherwise uneventful open evening for future parents of a local primary school, events take a tragic and horrific turn. A much loved music teacher is found dead in her own store cupboard, the life ripped out of her, apparently by her own pet dog. The dog, crazed and covered in blood, is battered to death by panic-stricken dads who, expecting a recorder ensemble, are instead treated to a scene more suited to the hellish imagination of Hieronymus Bosch.

The local police are totally unable to make any sense of the carnage in the classroom and are puzzled by several pieces of evidence which seem to indicate a supernatural – or at least Satanic – element to the death of Steph Ellis. Investigating officer DS Larry Forbes enlists the help of Matt Hunter, who soon discovers a sinister collection of potential ‘persons of interest’, including a pair of self-styled demonologists and a troubled – and troubling – evangelical sect. For good measure we have a dark history of child abuse carried out in old air-raid shelters far beneath the local park, and a terrifying witch’s familiar straight from the pages of a seventeenth century grimoire.

LawsLaws (right) takes a leaf out of the book of the master of atmospheric and haunted landscapes, M R James. The drab suburban topography of Menham comes alive with all manner of dark interventions; we jump as a wayward tree branch scrapes like a dead hand across a gazebo roof; we recoil in fear as a white muslin curtain forms itself into something unspeakable; dead things scuttle and scrabble about in dark corners while, in our peripheral vision, shapes form themselves into dreadful spectres. When we turn our heads, however, there is nothing there but our own imagination.

Unleashed is terrific entertainment. Laws lays on the shocks thick and fast, but never loses sight of the fact that he is writing a well-plotted crime story. We certainly have victims but, in the end, we also have flesh and blood criminals. Unleashed is out now, and you can read a review of the first Matt Hunter novel, Purged, by clicking the blue link.

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COMPETITION … Win UNLEASHED by Peter Laws

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OUR LATEST COMPETITION PRIZE is an absolute rip-snorter. It’s the second novel in the Matt Hunter series by Peter Laws. Those who read the first tale, Purged (read our review) will have some idea what to expect, but for new readers, Matt Hunter is a former clergyman who, having had a Road To Damascus (but in reverse) now lectures in the sociology of religion and faith at a university.

UnleashedIn Unleashed, his scepticism is shaken by events at an otherwise unremarkable terraced house in South London where, several years ago, a troubled nine-year-old girl committed suicide in the midst of a troubling sequence of poltergeist phenomena.

Now, little Holly Wasson appears to lie uneasy – her mother and sister are convinced she is trying to reach them from beyond the grave. Matt Hunter is recruited by local police to make sense of the disturbing events, but even he is unsure if he is dealing with straightforward murder or something much darker.

YOU HAVE TWO WAYS TO ENTER THE PRIZE DRAW

(1) Simply email fullybooked2016@yahoo.com putting the word Unleashed in the subject box.

(2) Go to our Facebook page (click the blue link) and ‘like’ the post.

All entrants will have their names put in the proverbial hat, and a winner selected. The winner will be notified by email or Facebook personal message.

Competition closes 10.00pm GMT, Tuesday 25th July, 2017

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