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Lancashire

ROUGH MUSIC . . . Between the covers

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rbRobin Blake (left) introduced us to Preston coroner Titus Cragg and his physician friend Luke Fidelis in A Dark Anatomy back in 2015, and the pair of eighteenth century sleuths are back again with their fifth case, Rough Music.

The title refers to an intriguing custom in English folklore, where people in a community would take to the streets in protest at someone – usually a man or his wife – who had offended them. The unfortunates or – if they were lucky – an effigy of them, would be paraded through the streets to the accompaniment of a cacophony of noise. Francis Grose described it in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796:

“Saucepans, frying-pans, poker and tongs, marrow-bones and cleavers, bulls horns, etc. beaten upon and sounded in ludicrous processions”.

Devotees of Thomas Hardy will remember one such procession in The Mayor of Casterbridge, where it was known as The Skimmington Ride. Another name for the custom was Charivari. Older readers will recall that the late lamented Punch magazine was subtitled A London Charivari. In Georgian Lancashire, however, the display was known as a Stang Ride, and Rough Music opens with an unfortunate shrewish woman in what was then the tiny village of Accrington, being set upon by a mob who resent the fact that she brow-beats her placid husband. The episode gets out of hand, however, and when Anne Gargrave is finally brought back into her cottage, she is dead.

rm coverTitus Cragg with his wife and child have retreated from Preston to escape the ravages of a viral illness which has claimed the lives of many infants. They have fetched up in a rented house in Accrington, then little more than a scattering of houses beside a stream. Cragg is drawn into the investigation of how it was that Anne Gargrave died at the hands of her fellow villagers, but his work is complicated by a feud between two rival squires, a mysterious former soldier who may have assumed someone else’s identity, and the difficulty created by Luke Fidelis becoming smitten by the beguiling  – but apparently mistreated – wife of a choleric and impetuous local landowner.

Cragg and Fidelis solve the Gargrave case after a fashion, but their work is just beginning. A disappearance, another three deaths and a mysterious house of ill-repute in Manchester tax their deductive powers to the full, and we are provided with ingenious – but plausible – solutions. The historical background is enthralling, but Blake wears his profound scholarship lightly. Just when I thought the fun was over, the book ends with a chance meeting in a Manchester inn between Cragg and novelist whose most celebrated book was brought to the big screen in 1963, and confirmed stardom on a certain Mr Albert Finney.

accrington_1744_mapI have to admit to a not-so-guilty-pleasure taken from reading historical crime fiction, and I can say with some certainty that one of the things Robin Blake does so well is the way he handles the dialogue. No-one can know for certain how people in the eighteenth century- or any other era before speech could be recorded – spoke to each other. Formal written or printed sources would be no more a true indication than a legal document would be today, so it is not a matter of scattering a few “thees” and “thous” around. For me, Robin Blake gets it spot on. I can’t say with authority that the way Titus Cragg talks is authentic, but it is convincing and it works beautifully.

Robin Blake takes us to a pre-industrial rural Lancashire where trout shoal in clear, sweet streams and bees forage on the pure moorland heather, but he doesn’t flinch from the dark side of the idyll; there is prejudice, brutal justice and heartbreak. Rough Music is entrancing, but also a damn fine detective story. It’s published by Severn House, and is out now.

To read a review of an earlier Cragg and Fidelis novel, click the link below.

Skin and Bone

THE FAMILIARS . . . A launch to remember

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sidebar1AT THE APPROPRIATELY NAMED DEAD DOLLS HOUSE in Islington, the inventive folks at publishers Bonnier Zaffre launched Stacy Halls’ novel The Familiars with not so much a flourish as a brilliant visual fanfare.

The novel was at the centre of a vigorous bidding war and, having won it, Bonnier Zaffre celebrated in style. The book is set in seventeenth century Lancashire, and the drama plays out under the lowering and forbidding bulk of Pendle Hill. If that rings a bell, then so it should. The Pendle Witch Trials were a notorious example of superstition and bigotry overwhelming justice. Ten supposed witches were found guilty and executed by hanging.

Stacey Halls takes the real life character of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, still a teenager, yet mistress of the forbidding Gawthorpe Hall. Despite being only 17, she has suffered multiple miscarriages, but is pregnant again. When a young midwife, Alice Grey, promises her a safe delivery, the two women – from such contrasting backgrounds –  are drawn into a dangerous social upheaval where a thoughtless word can lead to the scaffold.

Back to modern London. Francesca Russell, now Publicity Director at Bonnier Zaffre, has masterminded many a good book launch, and she and her colleagues were on song at The Dead Dolls House.  We were able to mix our own sidebar2witchy tinctures using a potent combination of various precious oils. I went for Frankincense with a dash of Patchouli. I managed to smear it everywhere and such was its potency that my wife was convinced that I had been somewhere less innocent than a book launch.

We were encouraged to give a nod to the novel’s title, and draw a picture of our own particular familiar, and pin it to a board for all to see. I decided to buck the trend towards foxes, cats and toads, and went for a fairly liberal interpretation of that modern icon, the spoilt and decidedly bratty Ms Peppa Pig.

The absolute highlight and masterstroke of the evening was, however, a brief dramatisation of a scene from the novel. Gemma Tubbs was austere and elegant as Fleetwood, while Amy Bullock, with her Vermeer-like simple beauty, brought Alice to life.

That’s the good news, and I have a copy of the novel. The bad news is that it isn’t out on general release until February 2019. Here’s wishing everyone a happy winter, and I hope you all survive another one. If you need an incentive to get through the long hours of cold, darkness and northern gloom, The Familiars should fit the bill. It will be published by Bonnier Zaffre and can be pre-ordered here.

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CROOK’S HOLLOW . . . Between the covers

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My goodness, where to begin! If you are a fan of leisurely paced pastoral crime novels, complete with all the tropes – short-sighted vicars, inquisitive spinsters, toffs at the manor house with a dark secret – then maybe this book isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you want 200 pages of non-stop action which includes, in no particular order, attempted homicide by combine harvester, a centuries-old family feud, a touch of incest, more shotgun shootouts than the OK Corral and a flood of Old Testament intensity, then stay tuned.

We are in rural Lancashire, the English county which includes Liverpool, Manchester and Preston, but still has its open spaces and farms which have been in the same hands for generations. Thornton ‘Thor’ Loxley is the youngest of the Loxley clan, and something of a black sheep. Despite inheriting a patch of land according to family custom, he has chosen to cock a snook at the family’s most entrenched tradition by not pursuing the generations-old enmity with a neighbouring family – the Crooks. Thor has gone about this in a manner most likely to cause maximum offence to both houses – he has taken the youngest Crook daughter, Roisin, as his lover.

Crooks Hollow CoverThor scrapes by as a barman in a local pub, and has a rudimentary bedsit over the local post office, but his world is turned on its head when he discovers that someone is trying to kill him. Not without taking a knock or two, Thor survives, and concludes that the attempts on his life are connected to the efforts of developers to buy up his patch of the Loxley land to add to a much bigger chunk of Crook territory. The result will be thousands of newcomers to the area, complete with pressing demands for new schools, new infrastructure and new services.

As Thor staves off yet more attempts on his life, nature takes a hand. A constant deluge of rain turns meadows into swamps, streams into rivers, and rivers into torrents. The local village is becoming an unwanted version of Venice, but just as nature seems to be wreaking vengeance on humanity, the ancient feud between the Loxleys and the Crooks ignites with a white-hot flame that not even the constant rain can extinguish. Pure survival instinct takes over as Thor Loxley fights to keep both body and sanity in one piece, but in a dramatic few hours amid the biblical flood, he realises that he has been betrayed in the worst possible way.

This novel moves as fast – and with as much menace – as the catastrophic flood through which the Loxleys and the Crooks struggle to exact terrible vengeance on one another. It is not a long book – you will finish it in a couple of sessions – but it is powerful stuff and illustrates that not everything in rural England is fragrant honeysuckle on a summer evening or a kind sun highlighting the amber stone of ancient cottages.

Robert Parker lives in a village near Manchester with his family. He has degrees in both film and law and, while writing full time, still has the energy to enjoy boxing and helping local schools with literacy projects. He is a self-confessed readaholic and says that his glass is always half full. Crook’s Hollow is published by BLACK ROSE WRITING www.blackrosewriting.com and is out on 22 March 2018.

Black Rose

DEATH IN WINTER … Between the covers

AUTHOR
This is the sixth novel
in Ian McFadyen’s popular series featuring DI Steve Carmichael. We pick up the story just a few days before Christmas, and rural Lancashire has been hit with weather conditions which may be delightfully seasonal for children counting down the sleeps until The Big Day, but for tired coppers trying to find a missing woman, the thick snow is just a hindrance.

diwHayley Bell has not returned home after a night out with some lady friends, and husband Duncan is seriously concerned. Mr Bell is a disagreeably pompous fellow with some serious affectations, such as calling four rooms in his grand house after the seasons, and decorating them accordingly. Carmichael and his team, however, have no reason to suspect Duncan Bell – despite his unpleasant manner – of having anything to do with his wife’s disappearance.

CCTV footage from the railway station where Hayley Bell said goodbye to her friends on the fateful night sheds no light on the affair. In fact, the images pose a conundrum similar to a locked room mystery. Hayley Bell boarded the train, but apparently never left it. As Carmichael interviews the other members of Hayley Bell’s Reading Club, he begins to suspect that their activities may have involved something other than deciding upon the Book of The Month.

Meanwhile, chez Carmichael has been blessed with the arrival of his self-centred and ancient Aunt Audrey, but he secretly says a prayer to the gods when an astonishing development in the search for Hayley Bell – and a murder – enable him to get away from home and back to the relative sanity of the police station. The Aunt Audrey situation provides a gentle humorous counterpoint to the increasingly dark and sinister theme of the Hayley Bell disappearance.

Eventually, just as matters are being wrapped up, despite Carmichael’s misgivings that they are missing something crucial, a chance remark by the dreadful Audrey, after she has been earwigging on a private conversation between Carmichael and his wife, removes the scales from the Inspector’s eyes, and he recalls his team from their turkey sandwiches and games of Scrabble to bring about a dramatic solution to the case.

Detective Inspector-led police procedurals are two a penny in British crime fiction, so why did I enjoy this one so much? Firstly the book sticks to the three classical unities of action, place and – even if it is stretched beyond Aristotle’s recommended 24 hours – time. The whole thing is nicely wrapped up over the days immediately before and after Christmas. There is a pleasant old fashioned atmosphere about the story, even though it is obviously the present day, and even one of the murder weapons comes straight off the Cluedo board.

Lovers of serial killing, dismembered corpses, misanthropic coppers with shattered personal lives and a drink problem will have to look elsewhere for their entertainment. Those who like a good whodunnit with credible characters, a wintry atmosphere where the snow crackles beneath the feet and an ingenious plot should enjoy Death In Winter as much as I did. It’s published by The Book Guild, and is available in paperback and Kindle.

SKIN AND BONE …Between the covers

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Georgian England in the early autumn of 1743. The George in question is Number Two, and earlier in the year he had the distinction of being the last monarch to lead British troops in battle, that being at Dettingen, where an uneasy alliance of British, Austrian and Hanoverian forces – known, bizarrely, as ‘The Pragmatic Army’ – defeated those eternal adversaries, the French.

BlakeThis, then, is the England of Handel and Hogarth (at least he was English) and the looming threat from the Jacobites north of the border. Author Robin Blake, (left) however resists the easy win of setting his story in the bustle of London. Instead, he takes us to the town of Preston, sitting on the banks of the River Ribble in Lancashire.

Titus Cragg is a lawyer, and the coroner for the town. He is called to investigate a macabre and piteous discovery – that of a tiny baby found at the bottom of a malodorous sludge-filled pit, one of several used by tanners in the town to turn rough animal hides into leather. Once the muck and slurry have been washed away from the infant, Cragg discovers a nasty wound on the back of its head. It takes a more detailed examination by a local physician – Luke Fidelis – to reveal that the little girl did indeed die from violence, but of a much more sinister kind.

skin-and-boneThe investigations carried out by Cragg and Fidelis reveal a growing schism between the tanners and the wealthy men of property who run the town’s affairs. The leather workers are an inward looking community. This state is mostly driven by the fact that they live and work alongside the noisome waste materials – mostly faeces and urine – which are essential to the tanning process, and therefore most local people literally turn up their noses at the tanners. The burgesses and council-men of Preston, on the other hand, have their eyes on what they believe to be an acre or so of valuable land – ripe for redevelopment – currently occupied by the tannery.

What’s in a name? To answer the ill-fated Juliet, there is always something. Cragg, as his name suggests has something rock-like about him, while Fidelis has a touch of enigma and mystery. Fidelis, the more exotic of the pair, causes suspicion among the bluff Lancastrians of Preston, if only because his modern views and deep knowledge of the science of medicine contrast dramatically with the more superstitious practices of other local doctors. Cragg and Fidelis do eventually discover the truth about the awful death of the baby, but not before Preston is set on its collective ear by another murder and the downfall of one of its most respected residents and his family.

Skin and Bone scores highly in all the categories which make for good historical crime fiction. At its core it has an intriguing and inventive mystery, not just a standard murder parachuted into a period setting. The Georgian details are established without fuss, showmanship or over-anxious dollops of historical fact splashed on the canvas in the name of authenticity. Most importantly, the dialogue is natural and untainted by any attempt to create what the author might imagine to be the vernacular speech of the time. Cragg – and his wife – are likeable and convincing, while Fidelis provides just enough forensic flair to point his friend in the right investigative direction.

This is the fourth Cragg and Fidelis story and it came out in Kindle earlier this year. The hardback is out today, 25th October and the paperback will be out on 3rd November,  You can check further details of this and the previous books at Robin Blake’s own website, or his Amazon author page.

Blake Novels

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