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THE COMEDY CLUB MYSTERY . . . Between the covers

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ComClubIt is 1965 and we are basking in the slightly faded grandeur of Brighton, on the south coast of England. The town has never quite recovered from its association, more than a century earlier, with the bloated decadence of The Prince Regent, and it shrugs its shoulders at the more recent notoriety bestowed by a certain crime novel brought to life on the big screen in 1947. Brighton has its present-day misdeeds too, and who better to write about it than the intrepid crime reporter for the Evening Chronicle, Colin Crampton?

Crampton is an enterprising and thoroughly likeable fellow, with a rather nice sports car and an even nicer girlfriend, in the very pleasing shape of Australian lass Shirley Goldsmith. Crampton is summoned to the office of his deputy editor Frank Figgis and, barely discernible amid the wreaths of smoke from his Woodbines, Figgis’s face is creased by more worry lines than usual. His problem? The Chronicle’s drama correspondent, Sidney Pinker, has been served with a libel writ for savaging, in print, a local theatrical agent called Daniel Bernstein.

Bernstein has certainly seen better days. His hottest property, the redoubtable Max Miller, is two years in the grave, and Bernstein’s remaining clients consist of dodgy ventriloquists and wobbly sopranos whose top notes have long since disappeared with the last high tide. Crampton is tasked with talking the aggrieved impresario out of legal action, but his job becomes slightly more difficult when Bernstein is found dead in his office, impaled by a sword. And who is discovered with his hand on the hilt? None other than Sidney Pinker.

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Pinker, by the way, is very much in the John Inman school of caricature luvvies, so those with an over-sensitive approach had better look away now. His pale green shirts, flowery cravats and patronage of certain Brighton nightspots are pure (politically incorrect) comedy.

max-miller00Bernstein’s murder is seen as very much open-and-shut by the Brighton coppers, but Crampton does not believe that Pinker has the mettle to commit physical violence. Instead, his investigation takes him into the rather sad world of stand-up comedians. Today, our stand-up gagsters can become millionaire celebrities, but back in 1965, the old style joke tellers with their catchphrases and patter were becoming a thing of the past, as TV satire was breaking new ground and reaching new audiences. Crampton believes that the murder of Bernstein is connected to the agent’s former association with Max Miller and, crucially, the possession of Miller’s fabled Blue Book, said to contain all of The Cheeky Chappy’s best material – and a few jokes considered too rude for polite company.

Eventually, Crampton discovers the killer, but only after life-threatening brushes with American gangsters and psychotic criminal twins born much closer to home. His success is due in no small way to the ability of the delightful Shirley to deliver a debilitating karate kick to sensitive male parts.

There have been occasions – and I am not alone – when I have used the term cosy in a book review, meaning no ill-will by it, but perhaps suggesting a certain lack of seriousness or an avoidance of the grim details of crime. Are the Colin Crampton books cosy? Perhaps.You will search in vain for explorations of the dark corners of the human psyche, any traces of bitterness or the consuming powers of grief and anger. What you will find is humour, clever plotting, a warm sense of nostalgia and – above all – an abundance of charm. A dictionary defines that word as the power or quality of delighting, attracting, or fascinating others.” Remember, though, that the word has another meaning, that of an apparently insignificant trinket, but one which brings the wearer a sense of well-being and even, perhaps, the power to produce something magical.

I can’t remember in recent times reading anything more magical than the three page Epilogue which concludes The Comedy Club Mystery. I have to confess to being sentimental at times and I am unashamed to say that I put this lovely novel down rather moist eyed.

“Yes”, the man said. “Love is very important too.”

The Comedy Club Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership, and is out now. For more on Crampton of The Chronicle, follow this link.

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THE SUSPECT . . . Between the covers

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Kate Waters was introduced to readers in Fiona Barton’s novel, The Widow (2016) and made her second appearance in The Child (2017). Now she returns in The Suspect and is very much “the story” rather than just a reporter investigating the dark things that happen to other people. Two teenage girls have celebrated the end of their ‘A’ Levels by heading off on the adventure of a lifetime – a back-packing trip to Thailand. When phone calls home and emails suddenly stop, the parents of Alex and Rosie are at first uneasy, but then disquiet turns into blind panic.

ts coverSensing a very productive headline story that will run and run, Kate Waters uses all her empathy and tricks-of-the-trade to get close to the girls’ families, and the story does indeed have the whole enchilda. Beautiful teenage girls, disappearance in a Bangkok drug den, frantic parents, the possibility of incompetence by foreign police – what could possibly go wrong? Jake Waters is what could possibly go wrong. Kate’s son has been away in Thailand “finding himself” after a failed spell at university, and her journalistic glee at the ramifications of the story is brutally brought up short when she finds that her errant boy might be at the very epicentre of the story she has claimed as her own.

The technique of telling a story from several different narratives is hardly new, but few can have handled it better in recent times than Fiona Barton. The events both here in England and further afield unfold through the eyes of Kate Walters herself, the distraught parents, and the local police team lead by DI Bob Sparkes and his DS, Zara Salmond. Inevitably, the perceptions of Kate Walters are more immediate because her narrative is first person. Barton has probably forgotten more about the world of journalism than most crime writers will ever know, and she makes good use of her experience when she describes the gears grinding as Kate switches from mother to reporter and then back to mother again. On her own website, Fiona Barton writes:

“I should say here that Kate Waters is not me. I’ve been where she goes but she is a composite of many Kates I have worked with. She is in her fifties, has juggled career and family, chafing at her hospital consultant husband’s dismissal of her job and the guilt of missing parent evenings and football matches. She is world-weary at times, terrified by the technology changing the media and insecure about her role. But she is still driven by the need to find the story. And she refuses to go until she has nailed it…”

FionaIt must be said that this is a story long on personal misery and rather short on redemption, but it is beautifully written. The nuances of conversation, gesture and body language are exquisitely observed even if they sometimes make for painful reading, such as the bittersweet moments between Bob Sparkes and his dying wife. My own children are, thankfully, well past the age of “doing” Thailand, but my advice to those with gap-year offspring is, with all respect to Fiona Barton (right), don’t read this book! Once your teenagers have shouldered their backpacks and waved goodbye at the departure gate, your mind will hark back to The Suspect it will be nessun dorma for you!

The Suspect is a superior blend of psychological thriller and police procedural, and Fiona Barton keeps us guessing until the last page and a half. To be fair she does give us a fairly important clue much earlier in the novel, but – quite correctly in my case – she expects that we will forget about it in all the to-ing and fro-ing between Bangkok, Hampshire and London. The Suspect is published by Bantam Press and will be out on 24th January.

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PETER TEMPLE (1946 – 2018) . . . A tribute

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The distinguished Australian crime writer Peter Temple has died of cancer at the age of 71 at his home in the Victorian city of Ballarat. When some modern writers might have their output weighed rather than critically assessed, Temple wrote just nine novels and devoted much of his career to journalism – at which he excelled – and teaching others how to write. Nine novels only, but each is a gem – polished, hard, multi-faceted and brilliant. If he is known at all among casual readers of crime fiction in Britain, it may be for his four novels featuring the gritty private investigator, Jack Irish.

Irish, a former lawyer, inhabits an Australia which might surprise those who have never lived and worked in Melbourne. November through to March in the Victorian capital is pretty much the stereotype beloved of those who caricature Aussie life. It gets bloody hot, you don’t leave home without fly repellant and, across at the MCG, cricket fans, with the obligatory Eskies full of beer, are baying at the opposition players. But visit Melbourne between April and October, and you see a different city. The winter rain is usually an incessant but penetrative drizzle rather than a downpour and the wise supporter wraps up well to go and support his ‘footie’ team on a Saturday afternoon. The world of football – that strange hybrid we know as Aussie Rules – is one of the two contrapuntal themes in the Jack Irish novels, the other being the big business of horse racing. Whereas Jack Irish comes no closer to football than gloomy suburban pubs where old men rage against the dying of the light – and the current losing streak of their local team – his horse racing connections are far more potent. He has an uneasy relationship with a millionaire former jockey and the ruthless minder who looks after him, and his loyalty to the pair is sometimes repaid in cash but, on other occasions, with supportive but devastating violence.

The four Jack Irish novels are all in print, as follows:

Bad Debts (1996)
Black Tide (1999)
Dead Point (2000)
White Dog (2003)

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Never content to rest comfortably in the arms of a literary formula, Temple also wrote five other novels, each with a different protagonist, as follows:

An Iron Rose – featuring Mac Faraday (1998)
Shooting Star – featuring Frank Calder (1999)
In The Evil Day – featuring John Anselm (2002)
The Broken Shore – featuring Joe Cashin (2005)
Truth – featuring Steven Villani (2009)

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In The Evil Day is the only one of Temple’s works that has an international flavour. John Anselm is an ex-Beirut hostage who is eking out an existence working in surveillance in Hamburg, but becomes involved with a beautiful investigative journalist in London and an unscrupulous  mercenary. Messrs Faraday, Calder and Cashin, on the other hand,  ply their trade in deeply conservative country towns a couple of hours up the highway from the bright lights of Melbourne. Steven Villani, however, is back in Melbourne (which may seem more English than England, with its daily evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, and its exclusive gentleman’s clubs) but there is nothing cosy or quaint about the corruption and venality that the hard-bitten police officer must confront.

Peter Temple was a fine journalist. Part of his training would have involved being cudgeled by hard-nosed editors into saying as much as possible in the fewest words. In his novels he added the imagination of a poet and the compassionate humility of a medieval saint. We have lost a writer who employed a style that was so terse and direct that it gave him the space and time for moments of such grace and perception that they take the breath away.

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THE BREAKING OF LIAM GLASS … Between The Covers

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For the eternal pessimist Thomas Hardy it was simply ‘fate’. For the American sociologist Robert K. Morton, however it was The Law of Unintended Consequences. For single mum Katriona ‘Kati’ Glass, sitting in her dispiriting and down-at-heel London flat in an area known as ‘The Estates’, it was a simple mistake, a memory lapse, a silly slip of the mind, a tired thought from a tired woman living a tired life. She forgets that the pizza delivery man takes plastic.

HarrisCharles Harris (right), a best-selling non-fiction author and writer-director for film and television sets in train a disastrous serious of mishaps, each of which stems from Kati’s ostensibly harmless error. Too exhausted from her daily grind making sure that Every Little Helps at everyone’s favourite supermarket, she sends her hapless son, Liam, off to the cashpoint, armed with her debit card and its vital PIN. Sadly, Liam never makes it home with the cash, the pizza guy remains unpaid, and Kati Glass is pitched into a nightmare.

Liam is found stabbed and minutes away from death. What follows is not so much a conventional crime novel, but a journey through a dystopian world inhabited by people who we might spot in a crowded street and think, “I know that person, but where did we meet?” Central to the story is Jason Worthington, a journalist on a London local paper, The Camden Herald. The Herald is struggling to survive in a world where news – both false and otherwise – is flashed around the city from phone to phone before the conventional press can even tap out the beginnings of a story. Everything he ever wanted to be as a reporter – courageous, hard-hitting, a fighter for justice – is blocked by his newspaper bosses who, terrified of upsetting their advertisers, want only stories about cuddly kittens, school nativity plays and giant cheques being presented to worthy causes.

TBOLGTrying to find out who stabbed Liam Glass is Detective Constable Andy Rackham. He is a walking tick-box of all the difficulties faced by an ambitious copper trying to please his bosses while being a supportive husband and father. The third member of this unholy trinity is Jamila Hasan, an earnest politician of Bengali origin who senses that the attack might be just the campaign platform she needs to ensure that she is re-elected. But what if Liam’s attackers are from her own community? Sadly, in her efforts to gain credibility on the street, Jamila has been duped.

‘“Respec’ for the brothas and sistas that fight the cause. Dis am Gian’killa Mo broadcastin’ from Free Sout’ Camden …..” For months Jamila had listened to Gian’killa Mo, broadcasting illegally from the Estates. It had made her feel in-with-the-hood, until the day she visited a small flat above Sainsbury’s Local, where Gian’killa Mo turned out to be a fifty-three-year-old white primary schoolteacher with a degree in Greek drama and a room full of old valve radios.’

As Liam Glass lies in his hospital bed, kept alive only by a bewildering array of tubes and bleeping monitors, Worthington, Rackham and Hasan flutter around the light of the central tragedy like so many moths. Each is dependant on Liam’s fate in their desperate scrambling for the next rung on their career ladder. Harris has clearly spent many a productive hour in the company of journalists and he lampoons the peculiar language beloved of tabloid headline writers. Should Liam’s absent father actually prove to be a football star, how best to head up the story? Two reporters toss ideas back and forth between them:

“Premiership Love Rat Abandoned Son To Life Of Violence,’’ added Zoe with more relish than Jason thought was necessary.
‘We don’t want to be too hard on the father,’ he offered with a tremor of concern. ‘What about “Top Player’s Pain Over Stabbed Son”?’
‘” Love Child Booted Into Touch”,’ said Snipe. ‘”Cast Off Son Pays Ultimate Penalty”,’
‘” Secret Grief Of England Star”?’ suggested Jason hopefully.

In the wake of the attack on Liam Glass, tensions rise on The Estates. Jamila convenes a meeting which she hopes will calm tempers and cast her in the role of peacemaker. Inevitably, the meeting descends into chaos and then farce, as the different factions shake each other warmly by the throat. Harris saves his fiercest scorn for the concept of Community Leaders. Observing that solid, upstanding suburbs have little need for anyone to lead them, he says:

“The Estates….spawned dozens, scores, hundreds. They boasted elected leaders and appointed leaders, self-styled leaders and would-be leaders. They acquired a couple of reluctant leaders (usually the best, and in short supply). They developed voluble leaders and argumentative leaders, attractive leaders, inspirational leaders and scary leaders. There were even a few leaders who knew what they were talking about.”

The back cover of the novel likens this book to Catch 22. That claim may be a little ambitious, but The Breaking of Liam Glass is a brilliant satire on modern Britain, scabrously funny, full of venom and a crunching smack in the mouth for those who seek to protect certain ideas and practices from criticism. Perhaps nothing will ever rival Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, but Harris’s novel shares one vital element. Remember how, after hundreds of pages of surreal humor, Catch 22 suddenly darkens, and leads readers into one of the blackest places they will ever have visited? So it is with The Breaking of Liam Glass. You will laugh at the knockabout fun that Harris has with the ridiculous state of modern Britain, but in the final pages all fades to black and a shiver will run through your bones.

The Breaking of Liam Glass is from Marble City Publishing, and is available here.

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