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THE ARTEMIS FILE . . . Between the covers

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I redt takes a very ingenious – not to say devious mind – to fashion a fiction plot which meshes together a whole bagful of disparate elements to make a satisfying whole that challenges the imagination but does not exceed it in possibility. Adam Loxley has done just that in his latest thriller The Artemis File. George Wiggins is Mr Ordinary. He lives in what would have been called, years ago, a bijou residence in the twee Kentish town of Tenterden. He is not Mr Stupid, however. He travels into ‘town’ each day to sit at his desk in Fleet Street where he composes the daily crossword for The Chronicle under his pseudonym Xerxes. Aficionados know that in reality, all that is left of the newspaper industry in Fleet Street are the buildings, and the use of the term to denote popular journalism, but we can forgive Loxley for having the good, old-fashioned Chronicle hanging on by the skin of its teeth when all its fellows have decamped to Wapping or soulless suburbs somewhere off a dual carriageway.

front-cover-finalWhen George has a rather startling experience in his local pub after a couple of pints of decent beer, the other elements of the story – MI5, the CIA, Russian agents, immaculately dressed but ruthless Whitehall civil servants and, most crucially, the most infamous unsolved incident of the late 20th century – are soon thrown into the mix. Such is George’s conformity, it is easily compromised, and he is blackmailed into writing a crossword, the answers to which are deeply significant to a very select group of individuals who sit at the centres of various spiders’ webs where they tug the strands which control the national security of the great powers.

 

G rdeorge Wiggins might have been easily duped and he has few means to fight back, but he recruits an old chum from the Chronicle whose knowledge of the historical events of the 1990s proves key to unraveling the mystery of who wanted the crossword published – and why. While the pair rescue a dusty file from an obscure repository and pore over its contents, elsewhere a much more visceral struggle is playing out. A ruthless MI5 contract ‘fixer’ called Craven is engaged on a courtly dance of death with a former CIA agent, current American operatives and their Russian counterparts.

One of the joys of this book is Loxley’s delight in guiding us through various parts of England that he clearly loves. Winchester, the Vale of Itchen, various ‘secret’ London places – we track the characters as they play out the fateful – and frequently bloody – drama against fascinating backdrops. We are linked into real events such as the mysterious death of intelligence ‘spook’ Gareth Williams, and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. We learn that the truth behind the events of 31st August 1997 has become an chip in an international poker game with world peace at stake. Just when we think that things have been wrapped up sweetly, however, Loxley has one final ace to play, and he lays it down with, literally, the last few words of the book.

The Artemis File is published by Matador and is available now. Adam Loxley lives in the Weald of Kent. Other than creative writing his passions are making music, world cinema and contemporary art. The first book in this series was The Teleios Ring, and the concluding novel The Oedipus Gate is currently in manuscript.

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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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THEIR LITTLE SECRET . . . Between the covers

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mark-billinghamLondon copper DI Tom Thorne has been entertaining us since his debut in Sleepyhead (2001). His creator, Mark Billingham, (left) has developed an enviably reliable repertory company of other players who share the stage with the main man. There is his best mate Phil Hendricks, a pathologist who, despite being gay, supporting Arsenal against Thorne’s beloved Spurs and having piercings in places where most folk don’t even have places, is the voice of sanity in Thorne’s often chaotic world. Thorne’s love interest (from whom he is currently living apart) is Helen, another police officer, but one who works in the traumatic world of child protection. Nicola Tanner is Thorne’s professional partner and they have history, but not one that either reflects on with much pleasure. Tanner’s partner Susan was brutally killed in a previous episode, and her death hangs over the pair like a pall.

Their Little Secret begins with the much-loved trope of an apparent suicide which is viewed with suspicion by the central character. This time, however, it is slightly different. When a woman goes fatally head-to-head with an underground train, there is no suspicion that she was physically pushed, but Thorne believes that something traumatic – and criminal – tipped her over the edge in both sense of the phrase. He discovers that she had been targeted by a conman who had relieved her of a large sum of money and then disappeared, leaving her heartbroken, ashamed of her own gullibility and with her self-respect shredded. Despite the reluctance of his boss to spend any more time (and money) on the case, Thorne discovers that Philippa Goodwin is not the first victim of the conman.

TLSIn an ostensibly unconnected narrative thread, Billingham introduces us to a Sarah, a vulnerable single mum who is anxious to gain the approval of other mums with whom she waits at the primary school gate twice each day. They seem confident, successful and financially comfortable. Sarah tries to join in with their daily sojourn at a pretentious ‘artisan’ coffee shop after the morning school run, but she still feels like the outsider. Her world is just herself and her son Jamie, and she struggles to compete with the gossip and banter that fly like sparks between Karen, Caroline, Savita and Heather. Until. Until the day when, sitting apart at her own table in HazBeanz, Sarah is chatted up by distinctly fanciable slightly older fellow. Almost instantly, Sarah finds the others anxious to swap phone numbers in return for daily updates about the new romance.

So, we can all see where this is going, yes? Sarah is about to become the latest victim of the romantic predator who Thorne and Tanner will eventually track down and bring to justice? At this point, I will disengage from the plot so as not to spoil things. Suffice it to say that Billingham plays the Pied Piper, and we are the innocent children of Hamelin.

If you are new to the world of Tom Thorne, don’t dismiss this book as just another police procedural. Yes, the atmosphere of the Incident Room, the evidence gathering, the financial pressures and the grim fare of the police canteen – everything is just as it should be, authentic and convincing. But Billingham gives us so much more. Thorne is, in some ways, unlovely. He can be insensitive, self-centred and, it has to be said, something of a slob. His impulsiveness has got him – and others – into bother on more than one occasion, and as for his musical obsession with the lonesome highway world of Hank Williams, you must be your own judge. Earlier novels in the series told of Thorne’s impotent distress at the decline of his father as dementia took hold and turned a fine mind into mush. As middle age peaks and ‘the other side’ beckons, he still dreams of his mum and dad. He is not alone.

There is poetry within the pages of any Tom Thorne novel. It may be brutally comic, and it may be poignant and stark. Thorne recalls the first suicide he had to attend:

“It had been a teenage girl, that first one. A slip of a thing dangling from the branch of an oak tree in Victoria Park. A ripped blue dress and legs like sticks and the muddy heels of her trainers kissing.”

On a grimly humorous note, Thorne/Billingham has a sour take on the pretentiousness of the middle class London enclave of Shoreditch:

“ It was all a little ….full of itself for his liking. ‘Dirty’ burgers, whatever they were, and shops knocking out overpriced tat that was probably meant to be ironic. A few too many gastropubs serving parsnip dust or garlic foam and more artisan bakeries than you could shake a shiitake mushroom at.”

Their Little Secret is a masterpiece of misdirection, suspense and contains as convincing a portrayal of insanity as I have read in many a long year. Tom Thorne is the perfect hero for our troubled times. Emotionally and professionally, he ploughs a lonely furrow, but his honesty and – sometimes clumsy –  care for those he loves are deeply moving. Their Little Secret is published by Little, Brown and will be available from 2nd May.

More of Tom Thorne and Mark Billingham here.

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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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THE LONELY HOUR . . . Between the covers

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The impossibly geriatric constabulary codgers Arthur Bryant and John May return for another journey into London’s darkside in pursuit of those who kill. This time, the killer appears to be armed with a trocar – an obscure but deadly surgical instrument originally intended to penetrate the body allowing gases or fluid to escape. From the undergrowth of a copse on Hampstead Heath, and the unforgiving undertow of the Thames, via an exclusive multi-story apartment complex, to the pedestrian walkway of a Thames bridge, the victims seems to have nothing in common except the time of their demise – the deadly hour of 4.00 am.

Screen Shot 2019-03-22 at 19.10.55Bryant and May – and the rest of the Peculiar Crimes Unit – have been threatened with closure before, but this time their impatient and disapproving police bosses mean business. The PCU, both collectively and individually flounder around trying to work out what connects the corpses, and who is expertly wielding the trocar. Like Andrew Marvell’s ‘Time’s Winged Chariot’, the accountants and political schemers of the Metropolitan Police are ‘hurrying near’, and failure to catch this killer will certainly mean that the shambolic HQ of the Peculiar Crimes Unit on Caledonian Road will soon be in need of new tenants.

Don’t be misled by the jokes, delightful cultural references, and Arthur’s frequent put-downs of the PCU’s hapless boss, most of which go over Raymond Land’s head but, fortunately, not ours. Physicists will probably say that their world has different rules, but in literature light can only exist relative to darkness, and Fowler does not allow the chiffon gaiety within the Peculiar Crimes Unit to disguise a dystopian London woven from a much darker thread. He says:

“Approaching midnight, the black and grey striped concourse of King’s Cross Station remained almost as busy as it had been during the day. Some Italian students appeared to be having a picnic under the station canopy. A homeless girl ms on her knees next to a lengthy cardboard message explaining her circumstances. A Jamaican family dressed in home-made ecclesiastical vestments were warning everyone that hell awaited sinners. A phalanx of bachelorettes in tiny silver dresses, strappy shoes and bunny ears marched past, heading to their next destination like soldiers on a final tour of duty. Inside the station, tourists were still lurking round the Harry Potter trolley that had been originally set there as a joke by the station guards, then monetized when queues appeared. As flinty-eyed and mean as it had ever been, London was good at making everyone pay.”

If a better paragraph about London has been written in recent years, I have yet to read it

Fowler’s London is a place where the same streets, courtyards, alleys and highways have been walked for centuries; Roman legionaries, Norman functionaries, medieval merchants, Tudor politicians, Restoration poets, Georgian gamblers, Victorian philanthropists, Great War Tommies, and now City spivs with their dreams and nightmares spinning about in front of them on their smartphones – all have played their part in treading history down beneath their feet into a compressed and powerful seam of memory. This memory, whether they know it or not, affects the lives of those who live, work, lust, learn and – ultimately – die in London. Other writers, notably Peter Ackroyd, have been drawn to this lodestone and tapped into its power. Some authors have taken up the theme but befuddled readers with too much arcane psychogeography. Fowler gets it right. Every single time. With every sentence of every paragraph of every chapter.

Bryant is neither Mr Pastry, Charles Pooter nor Mr Bean. He is as sharp as a tack despite such running gags as his coat pockets being full of fluff covered boiled sweets long since disappeared from English shelves. If we knew no better, we might describe him as having a personality disorder somewhere on the autism spectrum, but there are precious moments in The Lonely Hour where the old man brings himself up short with the realisation that he is, most of the time, chronically selfish.

CF_Thanks to Bryant’s genius, the mystery is solved and the killer brought to justice, but these are certainly the grimmest days ever for the PCU, and as this brilliantly entertaining story reaches its conclusion, Fowler (right) slowly but irrevocably turns the tap marked Darkness to its fully open position. The Lonely Hour is published by Doubleday and is out now.

I have a beautiful hardback copy of this novel to give away. If you want to be in the prize draw, simply click this link.

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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#TAKEN . . . Between the covers

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OK, so Liam Neeson and Luc Besson got their anti-Albanian-gangster campaign in first, but Tony Parsons’ version has a hashtag, and only two citizens of the Adriatic republic bite the dust during DC Max Wolfe’s latest investigation. So, what do we have? Fans of the previous Max Wolfe novels The Murder Bag (2014) The Slaughterman (2015) The Hanging Club (2017) Die Last (2017) Girl On Fire (2018) can look away for a moment during a quick bio of DC Wolfe. He lives in a flat overlooking Smithfield Market. He is a single parent to daughter Scout (as in To Kill A Mockingbird), and has a dog called Stan, to whom he is devoted. Wife Anne is vaguely in the background, but is more concerned with her looks, career and latest boyfriend than she is about her daughter. The Wolfe household is run by a benevolent Irishwoman called Mrs Murphy.

Taken#Taken kicks off, appropriately enough, when a young ballet dancer, Jessica Lyle, is snatched from her borrowed car just yards from the gated luxury home she shares with another girl. From here, Wolfe and his alcoholic boss DCI Pat Whitestone face a veritable University Challenge of questions. Their starter-for-ten is to decide if Jessica was actually the intended victim. Although her father is a retired copper who may have run up an impressive list of enemies, isn’t it more likely that Jessica was mistaken for her flatmate, Snezia? After all, Snezia is not only a dancer of a different kind from Jessica (think ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs, tiny thong and shiny pole) but she is the mistress of fabled former gang boss Harry Flowers. Jessica was driving Snezia’s car when she was taken. Isn’t this just another example of the stupidity of hired thugs?

As if Wolfe doesn’t have enough on his plate, he is forced to cover for his boss when she gets herself into a whole world of trouble. He is far from being a stupid man, but makes assumptions about the Lyle abduction which lead him down a succession of dark alleys, with Whitestone’s obsession with nailing Harry Flowers adding more heat than light as he gropes for the truth.

Parsons takes us on a white knuckle ride through London’s gangland, a place where unpredictable violence à la Ronnie Kray is a marketable commodity, and luxury homes on the Essex fringes are paid for by dark deeds committed in the shadows cast by mountains of wrecked cars in scrap dealers’ yards. Lovers of London will be entranced by some of the locations, including a ghostly disused underground station and the spectacular mortuary extravagance of Highgate West cemetery.

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Amid all the thuggery, armed police raids and visits to some of London’s least-visited curiosities, Parsons (above) finds space and time to deal with Wolfe’s tortuous relationship with his estranged wife. The writing here is full of emotional intelligence, sensitivity, perception, and not without pain. Wolfe’s devotion to his daughter, Scout, could not be more of a stark contrast with Anne’s insouciance, and yet there is still a sense that, to paraphrase Bobby McGee’s un-named companion, he would trade all his tomorrows for a single yesterday. Those who are familiar with Parsons’ best-seller Man and Boy will know that he is writing from the heart.

#Taken is published by Cornerstone/Century and will be out as a Kindle on 1st March, and in April as a hardback. If you click on the image below it will take you to a video of Tony Parsons talking about the book, and reading the first chapter.

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THE SENTENCE IS DEATH . . . Between the covers


TSID coverFor those of you who are unfamiliar with the first book in this series
, The Word Is Murder (and you can read my review here) you need to know that Anthony Horowitz has created a quite delightful literary conceit, and it is this: the story is narrated by Anthony Horowitz, as himself, and along the way we get to meet other real people in his life, such as his wife, his literary agent, and even some of the actors in his Foyle’s War series. The principal fictional character is an ex Met Police officer called Daniel Hawthorne, who was drummed out of the service for misconduct, but now operates as a private investigator, paid by the day by his former employers to work on difficult cases. Hawthorne has persuaded Horowitz to be Boswell to his Johnson and to write up the investigations as crime fiction.

Hawthorne is an intriguing character. He is probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum, lives alone, and has few social graces, His powers of deduction and observation are, however, remarkably sound. He immediately sees through the statement one witness has just given:

“The MG was right in front of us. Hawthorn pointed with the hand holding the cigarette.

‘There’s no way that’s just driven down from Essex of Suffolk, or anywhere near the coast.’
‘How do you know?’
‘The house he showed us in that photograph didn’t have a garage and there’s no way this car has been sitting by the seaside for three days. There’s no seagull shit. And there’s no dead insects on the windscreen either. Your telling me he’s driven a hundred miles down the A12 and he hasn’t hit a single midge or fly?’”

The case which has forced the police to seek Hawthorne’s help concerns a rich divorce lawyer who has been found battered to death in his luxurious house on the edge of London’s Hampstead Heath. For a decade or more Richard Pryce has been the go-to man for wealthy people who have had enough of their wives or husbands and want a divorce, but more particularly a divorce which will leave Pryce’s clients with as much of the family loot as possible. So, it is inevitable that while Pryce is adored by some, he is bitterly hated by others, and thus there are one or two obvious initial suspects. First among these is a rather aloof literary author whose determination to conflate America’s 1940s nuclear strategy with gender politics has won her many admirers of a certain sort. Her expensively produced collection of pretentiously profound haikus (is there any other kind?) has also made her much in demand at soirées in upmarket bookshops.

Then there is Pryce’s art dealer husband who, Hawthorne soon discovers, has been ‘playing away’ with the svelte young Iranian man who is front-of-house in his so, so discreet gallery. Has his affair been rumbled? Was Pryce about to cut him out of his will? The most unlikely connection, however, relates to Pryce’s younger self when he and two university buddies were enthusiastic cavers. Did a tragedy years earlier, 80 metres beneath the Yorkshire Dales, set in train a slow but remorseless search for revenge?

AHThe abundance of questions will give away the fact that this is a tremendous whodunnit. Horowitz (right) tugs his forelock in the direction of the great masters of the genre and, while we don’t quite have the denouement in the library, we have a bewildering trail of red herrings before the dazzling final exposition. But there is more. Much, much more. Horowitz’s portrayal of himself is beautifully done. I have only once brushed shoulders with the gentleman at a publisher’s bash, so I don’t know if the self-effacing tone is accurate, but it is warm and convincing. More than once he finds himself the earnest but dull Watson to Hawthorne’s ridiculously clever Holmes.

Horowitz is, I suspect, too polite to be cruel to fellow writers, but he cannot resist a dig at earnest feminist authors who treat every moment of history as if it were a glaring example of man’s inhumanity to women. Trash fiction does not escape, either, and when his fictional self reads a page from the latest sub-Game of Thrones swords and sorcery shocker, it is horribly accurate. Above all, though, this is a classic 24 hour novel. You start reading, you dart off to do something like pick up the kids, or turn on the oven. Back you come to the book, and before you know it, you are 200 pages in. Time flies by, and then bang! It’s finished. You know who the killer is, but you just wish you could start the book all over again. It really is that good. Published by Century, The Sentence Is Death is out on 1st November.

Long Lee031

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