CRY BABY . . . Between the covers

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Mark Billingham is certainly a man of many parts. To name a few, there is Gary, the dim-but-lovable stooge to the Sheriff of Nottingham in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, stand up comedian and scriptwriter, acoustic guitarist with Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers and, of course, best selling crime novelist. But author of historical fiction? Well yes, in a manner of speaking. In his afterword to his latest novel Cry Baby, Billingham says that in writing this prequel to the Tom Thorne series he had to imagine a world of clunky computers the size of refrigerators, telephone boxes and ‘phone cards, and pubs where people smoked.

We are, as ever in London, but it is the summer of 1996. The city and the country – at least many of the menfolk thereof – are transfixed with the European Cup. Crosses of St George flutter from the aerials of Mondeos up and down the land and pubs are rammed with supporters of Shearer, Sheringham, Southgate and company. Detective Sergeant Tom Thorne is trying to schedule his work around the matches, but when a boy is abducted from a London park, football has to take a back seat.

54502348._UY2560_SS2560_Kieron Coyne is playing with his mate Josh under the watchful eyes of their mothers, Cat and Maria. Cat goes off for a pee, Maria settles back on the park bench and lights a fag. One minute Kieron is there, the next he has disappeared. Josh emerges from the little wood where the boys were playing hide and seek. He neither saw nor heard anything of his friend.

A major police investigation kicks in, with Thorne doing the leg work at the best of his incompetent boss. We learn that Cat and Maria are both single mothers – had ‘lone parents’ been invented in 1996? – but in different circumstances. Kieron’s father is doing a long spell in a maximum security prison, while Maria’s doctor husband divorced her a couple of years back.

Hours turn into days and there is no sign of Kieron, dead or alive. A birdwatcher thinks he saw a boy getting into a car with a man he obviously knew, and a Crimewatch presentation by the late lamented Jill Dando turns up nothing more useful than imagined sightings the length and breadth of the country, and the usual false confessions from the mentally ill.

Thorne does find a suspect – a neighbour of Cat’s with a suspicion of ‘form’ for dodgy sexual activity – but the arrest of Grantleigh Figgis does not go well for either the police of the suspect.

Billingham manages the historical details very well, and we meet one or two regular characters from the Thorne series for the first time, none more dramatically than Phil Hendricks, the much-tattooed and oft-pierced pathologist. In a rare droll moment in a seriously dark book, Billingham has gentle fun with making Thorne’s gaydar so wonky that he has our man making enquiries as to why Hendricks hasn’t found the right woman to settle down with. We also meet Thorne’s soon-to-be-ex wife Jan, and fellow copper Russell Brigstocke who, as lovers of the series know, manages subsequently to keep his CV much cleaner than Thorne.

Fans of Billingham’s novels, both the Tom Thorne series and the stand-alones, know that he likes nothing better than a dramatic twist in the final few pages, and he doesn’t let us down here. There is something of a ‘where the **** did that come from’ moment when all the patient door-knocking, statement-taking and deduction of the coppers is spun on its head in a few dazzling pages of revelation. Cry Baby is published by Little, Brown and is out now.

DARK WATERS . . . Between the covers

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Police Scotland DI Monica Kennedy is a distinctive woman. Tall, angular, gaunt, even. She can seem forbidding, and has little personal life outside of bringing up her daughter with the help of her long suffering mother. Monica Kennedy can be brusque with her young male DCs, Fisher and Crawford, but she is not without charm. Towards the end of the book, she and Crawford are having a rare bevy in an Inverness bar.

He tilted his head. She could tell he was already a little drunk.
“You know, you could be a model.”
Monica laughed. Almost choking on the mouthful of vodka and orange she’d just taken. Sensing the hysteria that proximity to death seemed to encourage. Sex, anger, laughter – anything to keep the reaper at bay.
Crawford screwed his forehead up and glanced round the pub.
“You’re statuesque. It was a compliment.”
“You’re funny, Crawford.”
She finished her drink and stood up to leave, but lingered for a second, glancing around the bar. The sounds of casual drunken conversation were a comforting reminder of normality.’

DW coverThe dark waters of the title are both literal and metaphorical. Deep in a cave system beneath a mountain lies a sump, whose black depths feature in the tense and frightening final stages of this story. The dark metaphorical waters are mainly centred on a deeply disturbed – and disturbing – family who have lived their lives in a remote Highland glen, happily divorced from civilisation and its moral code. If I drop the names Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes, you should get a snapshot of the Slate family.

In a nutshell the plot of Dark Waters is that the remains of two horribly butchered men have been found, separately, in water near a huge hydro-electric dam in the Highlands. The autopsy reveals that the atrocities inflicted on the bodies were not the cause of death. As Kennedy and her lads try to identify the two men, and unpick the tangled knot of how they came to be where they were found, Halliday has a neat little game going on. A young woman disappears in the same area. The police have no idea she is missing, let alone know who she is, but we do. The first paragraph of the book is a cracker:

“When she still had all of her arms and legs, Annabelle liked to drive. And it was while she was on one of her drives that she made her first mistake.”

We share every agonising second of Annabelle’s fate,and I should mention that people with even a hint of claustrophobia or nyctophobia will not enjoy parts of this entertaining novel, nor do those who enjoy a good plate of meat get off scot-free.

halliday006Talking of Scots, GR Halliday (right) has an interesting bio:

“G.R. Halliday was born in Edinburgh and grew up near Stirling in Scotland. He spent his childhood obsessing over the unexplained mysteries his father investigated, which proved excellent inspiration for his debut novel. He now lives in the rural Highlands outside of Inverness, where he is able to pursue his favourite past-times of mountain climbing and swimming in the sea, before returning to his band of semi-feral cats.”

I might be mistaken, but I think the author makes a brief appearance in his own novel. Monica’s daughter Lucy has long wanted a cat, and Monica knows just the person to provide one:

“Michael Bach was outside in the hall, crouched over a cat basket. He stood up when he heard the door opening. He was almost as tall as Monica and seemed even larger than the last time they’d met, months before. Michael was a social worker Monica and Crawfor had previously collaborated with on a case. More important on this occasion was the fact that a number of semi-feral cats had moved in with him at his remote croft house.”

Dark Waters is a gripping crime thriller, well crafted and certainly not for the squeamish. It is published by Harvill Secker and will be out on 16th July.

SIGHT UNSEEN . . . Between the covers

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E bluenora Andresson is a distinguished English actress. Perhaps slightly past her youthful allure, she remains a beauty who can pick and choose her projects, and her films are highly thought of. She has three problems clouding her horizon. The first is, as they say, a bastard. She has a brain tumour. It has been treated but she is only too aware that she may have won a battle, but not the war. Problems two and three are related – literally. She is separated from her Swedish husband, but they have a son – a young man called Malo – who is something of a wrong ‘un. The third problem relates to the words “they have a son”. Fact is, she does – her husband doesn’t. Malo’s father is actually a millionaire businessman named Hayden Prentice, and Malo was conceived during a drunken one-nighter just before Enora’s wedding. So why is Harold a problem? Although he is now an honest man, with legitimate investments and business interests, he made his initial fortune as a drug baron.

Although Enora and Prentice (known hereafter as ‘H’) are now reunited after a fashion, the relationship does not extend to the bedroom, and Enora’s current interest is Pavel, an enigmatic scriptwriter. Pavel’s Eastern European allure is rather manufactured, however, as his real name is the more prosaic Paul. What he says about the art of story-telling, however, could equally apply to Graham Hurley’s own magic wand:

“The best stories detach you from real life. You float away down the river of fiction, lie back and enjoy he view. The storyteller’s challenge is to cast a spell, and the longer that spell lasts, the better.”

T bluehe main plot of Sight Unseen hinges around the kidnapping of Malo’s Colombian girlfriend Clemmie. When a ransom demand of a million dollars is received her father, who, like many rich men from that benighted republic, has kidnap insurance, simply hands the case over to the experts. H, however, has other ideas, and decides to do things his way.

SUHayden Prentice is a brilliant creation and is, in many ways, at the centre of the book, as he was when we first met Enora in Curtain Call. Formerly known as Saucy from his initials, he is hewn from the same rich vein of villainy that produced the elemental force that was Bazza McKenzie in Graham Hurley’s brilliant Joe Faraday novels. H is blunt, foul-mouthed but very, very shrewd. Hurley will not be at all perturbed were readers to visualise H rather like the formidable Harold Shand, as portrayed unforgettably by the great Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday.

As the ransom deadline passes, with the customary video as proof-of-life, and a hiking up of the cash demand, H is increasingly convinced that Malo is, somehow more involved in the affair than simply being the anxious boyfriend. The insidious and infamous County Lines drug trade raises its ugly head, and H delivers a brief but brilliantly incisive summary of the endgame he sees engulfing the England he once knew:

“You think your own little town is safe? You think those sweet kids of yours won’t ever get in trouble with drugs? Wrong. And you know why? Because something we all took for granted has gone. Families? Mums? Dads? A proper job? Getting up in the morning? Totally bolloxed. No-one has a clue who they are any more, or where they belong, and there isn’t a single politician in the country who can tell them what to do about it.”

H has a country mansion, Flixcombe, not far from the Dorset town of Bridport. Despite its artisan bakeries, galleries and twee delis there is a grim underbelly which involves, inevitably, drugs. A local tells Enora that although the main players are little more than children:

“Nothing frightens these little bastards …. streetwise doesn’t begin to cover it. They think they’re immortal. Remember that.”

T bluehe finale is astonishing – a bravura affair which only a fine writer like Graham Hurley could hope to get away with. No spoilers, but it involves a doomed English explorer and an old ballad which once inspired Bob Dylan. Sight Unseen is published by Severn House and is out now.


WE CAN SEE YOU … Between the covers

Whatever your view on lifestyle coaches, they certainly have a market, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the ever-so-socially-aware state of California. Brook Connor may not have cornered that market, but she has a best-selling ‘how to come out on top’ guide to her name, as well as wealthy clients and a regular spot on TV. She may not have absolutely everything – after all, her husband is a failed movie actor-cum-tennis coach with a roving eye, but her bank balance is healthy, her home is valued in the millions, and she has an adorable five year-old daughter.

 Correction. She did have an adorable five year-old daughter. She returns home after work one day to find both daughter Paige,and nanny Rosa gone,  and a chilling note explaining that they have been taken. A severed finger inside a prettily decorated gift box persuades Brook that these people are not fooling around.

 As ever in kidnap cases both real and fictional, the bad guys caution against any police involvement, and so Brook and husband Logan get the ransom money together and set off to make the exchange. Of course, the exchange doesn’t go to plan, and Brook is left concussed at the bottom of a gully out in the sticks, the money has gone, and there is the inconvenient matter of a body in the trunk of her SUV, lifeless mainly because of one of her own kitchen knives sticking out of his ribs.

 Brook goes on the run, confounded by her initial decision not to involve the police, and also the discovery of the body in the trunk of her car. There is nothing the media loves more than a celebrity criminal, and soon her face is plastered over every news channel. Armed only with her own automatic sidearm and a blazing desire to find her daughter, she leads the law enforcement agencies a merry dance until her race against time comes to an abrupt and bloody end in the personal gym of a notorious ‘businessman’ with links to the infamous cartels from south of the border, down Mexico way.

 Kernick very cleverly uses a split time narrative, with one showing Brook in custody facing multiple murder raps, and another detailing the events which have led to her arrest. He is not done with us, though; a seismic plot shift leads to a dramatic conclusion which even Nostradamus would not have seen coming.

This is breaking-the-sound-barrier thriller fiction at its very best; Kernick doesn’t miss a trick, and gives us the works – crooked cops, a body in the freezer, an embittered PI, an omnipotent and sadistic drug overlord (Mexican,of course), a kidnapped child and that most dangerous of creatures, a powerful female determined to protect her young. We Can See You is published by Century and is out today, 29thNovember.

THE PEOPLE vs ALEX CROSS … Between the covers

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Back in the day, James Patterson’s Alex Cross books were my go-to choice for police thrillers with something just a little different. Along Came A Spider, Kiss The Girls, Jack & Jill and Pop Goes The Weasel were all sustenance for a hungry man. But round about the time when Patterson had exhausted his nursery rhyme references for the book titles, I began to lose interest. Maybe it was the Washington cop’s implausible bad luck in choosing wives and girlfriends. For such a demonstrably clever bloke, he was becoming a serial bad judge of character. Was it his Mother Teresa of a grandmother, Nana Mama? Apart from the fact that she must have reached the age of at least 130, had her unfailing wisdom and saintliness begun to grate? Whatever the reason, I moved on. When, however, the good people at Century sent me a crisp new hardback copy of The People vs Alex Cross, I thought it would be rude not to see what the good Dr Cross was up to in his 27th outing, almost a quarter of a century after his first appearance.

Alex CrossAlex Cross is in trouble. Big trouble. He is the victim of a beyond-the-grave revenge attack from his very first opponent, Gary Soneji. Gary is long dead, blown up by his own bomb in a subway. It is not beyond Patterson’s audacity to resurrect someone, but in this case it is supporters of the late Mr Soneji who are responsible for Cross being accused of homicide. He is lured to a warehouse where members of the Soneji cult are waiting for him. In the fire fight that follows, members of the cult are killed and wounded, but when Cross summonses emergency backup, no weapons other than Cross’s own can be found. The words happy, trigger and cop are immediately rearranged into a well-known phrase or saying by the sensation-hungry media.

As Cross prepares for his trial he is, naturally, suspended from police duties. Again, perfectly naturally, since it is Dr Alex Cross we are dealing with, he becomes unofficially involved in the investigation into a series of kidnappings and murders. Whoever the kidnapper is, he or she has a penchant for willowy blonde young women. Cross’s best buddy, the almost indestructible cop John Sampson, is knee deep in the chase to find the missing girls, and the search leads the pair into the darker-than-black world of snuff movies and the mysterious cyber phenomenon known as the dark web.

Writer James Patterson promotes the new movie "Alex Cross" based on his novel "Cross" at the Four Seasons in Los AngelesHand on heart, I have to admit to really enjoying this book. Patterson (right) hasn’t achieved his world-wide pre-eminence as a best selling writer by not being able to tell a story. The action comes thick and fast and in this book at least, the portrayal of Cross disproves the old adage about familiarity breeding contempt. Yes, Nana Mama is still there, serving up delicious meals for all and sundry and being annoyingly stoical in the face of her grandson’s adversity. Yes, Cross’s annoyingly geeky nine year-old son spots something that a top FBI data analyst has missed, but at least our man’s current love interest seems to be a good sort.

The book pretty much turns its own pages. It is pure escapism, but a damn good read. Long time fans of the series will not be disappointed, and apostates like myself may well be converted back to the old religion. The People vs Alex Cross will be out on 2nd November in hardback, Kindle and as an audio CD. The paperback edition is due in April 2018.

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SCARED TO DEATH … Between the covers

RAIf there is a league table which ranks ‘Every Parent’s Worst Nightmare’ events in terms of trauma, torment and terror, having a child kidnapped must come near the top. It could be argued that death is at least final and offers – however bleak a prospect that may be – a sense of closure and a chance for the living to rebuild their lives. But kidnap? Uh-uh; cue uncertainty, recrimination, the anxious waiting for that ‘phone call, the wondering, the sheer agony of not knowing. That is the fate of Tony and Yvonne Richards in the latest novel from Rachel Amphlett (left) when they return to their Kent home from a trip to Milan to find that their daughter Melanie has been taken. Neither Tony nor Yvonne is cut out to be Bryan Mills /Liam Neeson, and so they scrape together the ransom, make the drop, and frantically drive to the derelict industrial estate where Melanie, they hope, will be waiting for them. What they actually find delivers a killer blow – literally.

Now, it is inevitable that the police become involved. The investigating officer, Kay Hunter, has endured that most bitter visitation that a young woman can suffer – a miscarriage. Was it the result of workplace stress? No-one will know for sure, but there can be few workplaces as stressful as a police incident room during a major enquiry. Not only was the Detective Sergeant up to her eyes in the action, but she ended up the subject of a professional standards investigation. Now, despite having been exonerated, the experience has scarred her physically and psychologically and left her with a powerful enemy in the shape of DCI Angus Larch. In spite of all this, she must put personal matters to the back of her mind, and do everything in her power to find the killer of Melanie Richards.

Scared To DeathHunter tugs away at the few available frayed threads of the investigation until she has enough twine to weave a recognisable tapestry that shows a victim and those culpable for the crime. Larch does his best to belittle her efforts, but she has a strong supporter in her immediate boss, DI Devon Sharp. There is a very clever twist in the final third of the story when it becomes apparent that the latest kidnap victim is the estranged daughter of a member of the investigating team. It has become commonplace for fictional coppers to have chaotic personal lives, but there is a feelgood corner of this novel where the reader can take comfort in the warm relationship between Kay Hunter and her veterinarian husband, Adam.

Some crime novels are very location-dependent and none the worse for that, but Rachel Amphlett doesn’t waste much time on the setting. We know we are in Kent, somewhere near Maidstone, but beyond that all the focus is on the people and the action. Regular readers of police procedurals will be at home with the whiteboards, the frustrated peering at indistinct CCTV footage, the tension of the team briefings and the ingrained sweaty ambience of the interview rooms. One of the strong points of this novel is the way Amphlett handles the pace. She takes a calculated risk by letting us know early in the piece who the bad guys are, but shows her narrative skills by ratcheting up the tension in a nicely judged upward curve of anxiety. In the end we know who did what to whom, and have a working knowledge of their motivation. This novel doesn’t break new ground, but is thoroughly readable and is an enjoyable journey through a familiar landscape.

You can order a copy of Scared To Death here.

THE DEAD HOUSE – Between the covers

The Dead HouseNewly promoted Detective Sergeant Fiona Griffiths, of South Wales Police, might be said to have a disability. She suffers from…, wait, we mustn’t use the word ‘suffers’, in case of causing offence. ‘Has’, maybe? OK, DS Griffiths has Cotard’s Syndrome. This strange condition can manifest itself in many ways, the most extreme of which convinces the person concerned that they are actually dead. Less extreme symptoms include partial disconnection between brain and body, and some of the traits of Asperger’s Syndrome, such as an inability to read or understand social gestures or convention.

So Fiona has been employed as part of some diversity box-ticking exercise, yes? Nay, and thrice nay. After the horrors of her teenage years, when she was institutionalised and in a pharmaceutical haze, she went to university, excelled, and then joined the police. This might be considered an odd career choice, given that Fiona has an the kind of electric intelligence which might not sit well within staid police procedures, but even more strange because her father was – and let’s not mince words – a notorious Cardiff gangster. Father? Well, no. Another intriguing ambiguity is that Mr Griffiths and his homely wife are not Fiona’s blood parents. Fiona came into their lives when they emerged from a social function to find an infant girl sitting in their Jaguar coupe. No message. No name. No reason.

At this point, it is best to make clear that Fiona’s search for her real ancestry and her ambivalence about her adoptive dad’s occupation are a recurrent theme in the career of Fiona Griffiths. Author Harry Bingham introduced us to this remarkable young woman in Talking To The Dead (2013). This debut was followed by Love Story With Murders (2014), The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths (2015) and This Thing Of Darkness (2016).

In this welcome return, Fiona is called to the strangest of crime scenes. Is it a crime scene? Maybe not. A young woman is found, very dead, but dressed in white linen, remarkably peaceful, surrounded by votive lights, and lying on a table in a Dead House – an ancient form of mortuary chapel attached to a medieval church. An autopsy concludes that she died, basically, from heart disease, as young as she was. While the local police are intent on wrapping the case up as unexplained, Fiona is struck by two irreconcilable facts. Why would a woman who has had, according to the autopsy, subtle – and expensive – cosmetic surgery, have stubbly unshaven legs?

The ensuing investigation romps along at great pace, as Fiona – teamed with a grumpy, phlegmatic Camarthen Detective Inspector – uncovers a terrifying conspiracy involving, among other things, Ukranian oligarchs, wild Welshmen who eat badgers, a secret tunnel under a Brecon hillside – and a community of distinctly unsaintly monks.

Just as in This Thing Of Darkness there was a terrifying passage where Fiona was hanging on for dear life to the a boat thrashing about in a storm, there is a section here which will be very hard going for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. Fiona and her temporary boss struggle through a tunnel system under a Welsh hillside, and I felt every second of it – the constriction, the inability to move more than a few inches, and the sheer terror of being in a virtual rock coffin.

Aside of creating a unique central character, Bingham writes like an angel. His descriptions of the Welsh countryside put you right there in the muddy field, with the smell of sheep, and the distant haze of smoke from a hard-scrabble hill farm chimney. Fans of Fiona Griffiths will know that she courts danger, gets herself into the most terrible scrapes, but will come out fighting like a five-foot-nothing whirling Dervish. Her boss says:

And well done, I suppose. I can’t think of any other officer of mine who’d have got themselves into that situation. But I can’t think of anyone who’d have got out of it either.”

I wrote, when reviewing an earlier Fiona Griffiths novel for another book site:

“In a lifetime of reading crime fiction I have never come across anyone quite like Fiona Griffiths …. Read this book. Enjoy every syllable.”

The publishers have used that quote on my edition of The Dead House, and I stand by every word. You won’t read a better book all year.

You can buy The Dead House from Harry Bingham’s Amazon page and check up on the previous adventures of Fiona Griffiths. Harry’s website is here.

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