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THE MANNEQUIN HOUSE . . . Between the covers

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I do love the mysterious world of Detective Inspector Silas Quinn, RN Morris’s rather distinctive London copper from the 1900s. For reviews of earlier novels Summon Up The Blood, The White Feather Killer and The Music Box Enigma click the links. I say “earlier”, but it’s not that simple, as the Silas Quinn books are being reissued by a new publisher, having coming out a few years ago, but since the events they describe are all from a very narrow time frame, the actual chronology doesn’t matter too much.

MannequinQuinn and his sergeants – Inchball and Macadam – are The Special Crimes Department of the Metropolitan Police. This department has a passing resemblance to Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (Rest In Peace) insofar as the unit has been constructed around the unique talents of its lead investigator. Like Arthur Bryant, Silas Quinn has strange gifts, and is just as likely to exasperate his superior officers as win their praise, but he is a bloody good copper.

It is March 1914, and most of the citizens of London go about their bustling business oblivious to the gathering storm which would break over their heads in just a few months. Blackley’s Emporium is one of the most successful department stores in the city. You can buy anything and everything that is made, mined or grown on God’s earth, and you may even be greeted by the beaming proprietor himself as you walk through the doors. You can even – should you be minded to take a break from spending money – visit the in-house menagerie which is full of weird and exotic creatures.

One of Benjamin Blackley’s most profitable departments is his haute couture fashion house, where (plus ça change) slender young women wearing must-have gowns and fripperies parade in front of not-so-slender older women. Blackley ‘keeps’ – and I use the word advisedly – his slips of things in a suburban house, presided over by a formidable matron. When the most beautiful of these mannequins – Amélie – doesn’t turn up for work, and her room is found locked from the inside, the police are called. Two things happen when the door is eventually opened. First, an enraged Macaque monkey runs screaming from the room and, second, Amélie has a very good excuse for missing work, as she is dead on her bed, strangled with a silk scarf.The subsequent post-mortem examination reveals that the girl may have been raped, and also that she has maintained her desirability as a fashion model by disastrous self-abuse of her body. 

Morris takes the classic ‘locked room’ trope and has his wicked way with it. There is some knockabout comedy in this book, particularly with Quinn’s wildly contrasting underlings Inchball and Macadam, but there is a vein of darker material running through the narrative. Quinn may be a clever copper, but he is also psychologically damaged from a traumatic childhood. The uneasy personal dynamics between fellow lodgers at the house where Quinn sleeps are a signal that the detective is not at ease with other people. It has to be said, that later (already available) Silas Quinn novels shine a revealing light on this situation. There is great fun to be had within the pages of The Mannequin House, but we are never far away from the evil that men (and women) do, and you must be prepared for a rather shocking and violent end to the story.

As ever, Roger Morris gives us a delicious mystery, a totally authentic background and an absorbing book into which we can escape for a few precious hours. The Mannequin House was first published in 2013, but this new paperback edition from Canelo is out now.

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LONDON BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN . . . Between the covers

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If you are new to the Bryant & May series, then I could be rude and say, “You’re a bit bloody late!” More charitably, I could direct you to some of my earlier reviews of books in this magnificent sequence. Take a look here.

After many false twilights and surviving more execution attempts that John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee, it looks as though the Peculiar Crimes Unit has finally succumbed to the bureaucrats who have been plotting its demise for decades. The vandals have moved in and pulled out all the computer terminals, cut off the electric, and the ineffectual and (rightly) much mocked nominal supremo of the PCU – Raymond Land –  has given his valedictory address to the staff (rostered below)

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But fate – in the shape of a deceased old lady – has one last trick to play. When Amelia Hoffman is found dead in her flat, the regular police are happy to file the death in the file marked “Elderly Widows, No Family, Neglected By Social Services, Death Of.” But all is not what it seems. Arthur Bryant finds that the dead woman was one of three women who, having worked at Bletchley Park, were then absorbed into the post war British intelligence service. Arthur grabs at this straw with grateful hands, declares it ‘specialized’ enough to warrant the attention of the PCU, and launches a murder investigation.

Unusually for a Bryant & May investigation, there is an international element, courtesy of a frightful chap called Larry Cranston. He holds a British passport, but is in the employ of the CIA and various dark branches of the American state. When he drunkenly runs down and kills a pedestrian, he looks for diplomatic immunity and it is dangled in front of his nose – but at a price. The price is that he hunts down and ‘neutralises’ three old ladies – one of whom is Mrs Hoffman – who hold the key to exposing a sensitive intelligence operation, code-name ‘London Bridge‘.

Arthur Bryant, to the exasperation of his colleagues, has the habit – when he finds the solution to a problem – of going into a kind of investigative purdah. He refuses to share his thinking or his evidence, mostly on the grounds that John May and the others will neither understand it nor believe it. Such is the case here, and Arthur knows that he is dealing with the kind of historical criminal crossword, the esoteric clues for which only he can explain. By the end of the novel, however, even Arthur realises that he has been played, and nothing about the case is what it seems.

As ever, Christopher Fowler’s writing is exquisite. His deep reverence for – and knowledge of – the dark and lonely pathways trodden by centuries of Londoners is compelling. As usual the dialogue sparkles and the jokes are laugh-out-loud, but there is a sense of endgame here. Arthur, it seems, is wearing his inner Ulysses like a suit of armour:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

As the old joke goes, Pretentious? Moi?” Quoting Tennyson in a crime fiction book review? I make absolutely no apologies. Christopher Fowler has, over the long sequence of Bryant & May novels, shown that he lives under the same roof as many great writers who understood ‘Englishness’. In my mind, he sits down happily with such names as John Betjeman, JB ‘Beachcomber’ Morton, George and Weedon Grossmith and – in terms of London – Peter Ackroyd.

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It was with great dismay that many B&M fans read on the author’s Twitter the other day that this would be the last novel in the series. After all, the two fellows are impossibly old, given all they have witnessed and been through together, so it was not unexpected. Sad times then, but the last few pages of the book are as poignant – and beautifully written – as anything you could ever wish to read. Think Julius Caesar, Act III, Sc2, line 148. And yes – I did. London Bridge Is Falling Down is published by Doubleday and is out now.

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A CASE OF ROYAL BLACKMAIL . . . Between the covers

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Sherlock Holmes pastiches, if not a growth industry, provide regular and steady employment for many writers. There is an erudite and entertaining feature on Holmes impersonations by Stuart Radmore here, but now we have a new entrant to the lists. It is written by none other than the great man himself (of which more later) and the 24 year-old sleuth has stolen some of his future companion’s thunder by recounting the case in his own words.

acorb cover039We are in London in the summer of 1879, and young Holmes has yet to meet the man who will write up his greatest cases. Holmes works for a guinea a day, and is striving to build his reputation. Within the first few pages, he has been hired to investigate two cases on behalf of a man who was already a celebrity, and another who would become infamous in his lifetime, but revered and admired after his death. The celebrity is Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, a notorious Lothario whose battleground has been country houses and mansions the length and breadth of the country, the vanquished being a long list of cuckolded husbands. It seems that the heir to the throne has been in the habit of entering his sexual achievements in a diary – a kind of fornicator’s Bradshaw, if you will – but it has gone missing, and Holmes is charged with recovering it.

The second case is a strange request by a 25 year-old Irish aesthete and writer – one Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, who has lost – of all things – an amethyst tie-pin, a gift from his mother, the formidable Jane Francesca Agnes, Lady Wilde, and is desperate for Holmes to find it before an impending visit from Wilde mère.

Rosa_Corder,_by_James_McNeill_WhistlerOne hundred pages in, and it is clear that the author is enjoying a glorious exercise in name-dropping. James McNeill Whistler, Lillie Langtry, Francis Knollys, Patsy Cornwallis-West, Frank Miles, Sarah Bernhardt, John Everett Millais and Rosa Corder (right) are just a few of the  real life characters who make an appearance, and it is clear that ‘Sherlock Holmes’ moves in very elegant circles.

In the course of his investigations our man presages some of the talents for which he will later became famous when the as-yet-unmet Dr John Watson takes over the narrative. He disguises himself as a waiter at a royal banquet on one occasion, and manages to impress his clients with his uncanny observational skills. The case is complicated when Holmes becomes inadvertently involved with the attempt by scandal-sheets to sell papers off the back of the very public rift between Lillie Langtry and her husband Ned. The case of Oscar’s missing tie pin rather goes on the back-burner as the hunt for the royal blackmailer intensifies, but it is resolved at the very end of the book with a rather delicious twist.

So just who, exactly, is this particular Sherlock Holmes? The last five words of the book reveal the true identity of the author, but I won’t do all the work for you. A little clue that you can Google – this person is a peer of the realm, an old Etonian, and wrote the biography Never Fear: Reliving the Life of Sir Francis Chichester.

The worst that can be said of A Case of Royal Blackmail is that is a little over-egged with the cast of celebrity names, but once in a while we all need a few hours of enjoyable escapism, and this well-researched and cleverly plotted homage fits the bill perfectly. It is published by Affable Media, and is available now.

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MURDER AT MADAME TUSSAUDS . . . Between the covers

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This is the sixth book in the delightful series from Jim Eldridge set in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, and featuring a private investigator partnership between Daniel Wilson and Abigail Fenton. The pair are so mismatched that they make a delightful fit, if that makes any sense. Former policeman Daniel is short, stocky and of solid working class London stock, while Abigail is of more ‘noble birth’,  tall, elegant, and an expert in archaeology, particularly that of the classical world. As you can see from the banner above, they have worked their way around the major museums of England, but now they are called to a slightly less academic venue – Madame Tussaud’s waxworks on Baker Street.

One of the night watchmen is found decapitated, his body (and head) posed next to the instrument of death that caused Anna Maria “Marie” Tussaud née Grosholtz to fear for her own life during the French Revolution – the guillotine. Wilson and Fenton immediately smell a rather large and malodorous rodent. The dead man – Eric Dudgeon – and his fellow watchman, Walter Bagshot, were lifelong friends, and former army colleagues. Now Dudgeon is dead and Bagshot is missing. Even stranger is the fact that some months earlier the previous watchmen, Donald Bruin and Steven Patterson, both left at the same time and, within days, Dudgeon and Bagshot arrived at the exhibition asking if there were any vacancies for security staff.

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Meanwhile, Eldridge has introduced some real life characters (pictured above) – Prime Minister the Marquess of Salisbury, Sir Matthew White Ridley the Home Secretary, and William Melville head of the Special Branch. The men are concerned about a series of successful bank robberies, each of which has been carried out by the robbers tunneling into the bank vault from the cellar of an adjoining building. The sums taken have been eye-wateringly huge – so much so that the government is concerned about a run on the banks. Dedicated Sherlockians, when hearing about the robbers’ method, will raise an eyebrow and say, “A-hah – The Red Headed League!*

The murder plot becomes more twisted, when a young man, working on the basis that if he can scare his girlfriend she will succumb to his advances, hides with her in a Tussaud’s broom cupboard at closing time, and then sneaks out into The Chamber of Horrors. What they find is a genuine horror rather than a wax version, and all thoughts of dalliance go out of the window. Abigail, meanwhile, is courted (in a gentlemanly way) by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, who wants her to lead an expedition to excavate an obscure group pf pyramids in Egypt. Both she and Daniel have their lives threatened, however; Abigail by an obsessed young woman who lusts after Daniel, and Daniel himself by a powerful and seemingly untouchable crime boss, Gerald Carr. But is Carr the real spider at the centre of this web, or is it someone much more closely connected to high society?

Screen Shot 2021-06-20 at 19.30.31This shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘comfort reading’. Yes, we know what we are going to get – the atmospheric late Victorian setting, the warm human chemistry between Daniel and Abigail, the absence of moral ambiguity and the certainty that good will prevail. Any genuine reader of fiction – and in particular, crime fiction – will know that, rather in the manner of Ecclesiastes chapter III , there is a time for everything; there is a time for the dark despair of Derek Raymond, there is a time for the intense psychological dramas of Lisa Jewell, and a time for workaday police procedurals by writers like Peter James and Mark Billingham. There is also a time for superbly crafted historical crime fiction which takes us far away in time and space, and allows us to escape into an – albeit imaginary – world which provides balm and healing to our present woes. Murder at Madame Tussaud’s is one such book. It is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

*The Red-Headed League” is a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which Sherlock Holmes takes the case of a businessman who feels that he’s been duped. A small business owner named Wilson tells Holmes how a man named Spaulding convinced him to take a job with The Red-Headed League. The League pays Wilson to copy out the Encyclopedia Britannica in longhand. Wilson does this for seven weeks, until the League is disbanded. Holmes realizes that Spaulding just wanted Wilson out of the shop so that he could dig a tunnel into the nearby bank.

THE WAITER . . . Between the covers

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Kamil Rahman is a Bengali Muslim, but in name only. He enjoys a beer, and his job as a detective with the Kolkata Police Force gives him little time for religious observance. His father was a distinguished cop before him, and he tries hard to live up to that reputation. When a famous Bollywood film star is found dead in a plush hotel, Kamil is astonished to be given the job of finding the killer of Asif Khan.

We are getting ahead of ourselves. The killing of Asif Khan was in July, but the book opens in the October of the same year, and we find Kamil not heading up a crack team of investigators in the capital city of West Bengal, but waiting tables in a curry house in London’s Brick Lane.

Waiter cover007The restaurant is run by his relatives Saibal and Maya, with help from their daughter Anjali. At this point is worth  reminding people that families are the big thing in the sub-continent, and most of the characters in the book are related in one way or another. The story starts on the evening that the restaurant has been booked to provide the food for the lavish 60th birthday party of rich entrepreneur Rakesh Sharma. He and his new wife Neha – half his age – are installed in a lavish mansion on Billionaire’s Row near Hampstead Heath. It’s also worth mentioning at this point that Sharma’s first wife (and son by that union) are still very much on the scene.

As the party gets into its stride, Sharma shocks his audience when he announces that he is going to sell all his holdings and divert the rest of his life to charitable works, dedicated to his young wife. As Kamil and the other functionaries are driving home in the small hours, they receive a chilling ‘phone call. Sharma has been found dead – apparently battered about the head with a heavy object. They return to the mansion, slightly ahead of the police.

The big question with which Ajay Chowdhury teases us is, of course, why has Kamil ended up in a walk-on part in one of London’s innumerable Indian restaurants, rather than being an important detective in Kolkata. Chowdhury uses a ‘then-and-now’ narrative. It’s not my favourite literary device, but at least we have only two time slots to keep track of. We are deep into the book before we discover why Kamil is bowing and scraping in London, rather than advancing his career – and his marriage prospects to his smart and beautiful lawyer fiancée Maliha – back in West Bengal. The answer comes in the form of a terrible betrayal.

This is just a crime novel, albeit a very good one, but it does raise questions about probity in public life. People of my age have had a lifetime of reading about the depth of corruption in India and Pakistan, and Chowdhury paints an unflattering picture of the wheels-within-wheels in the Kolkata Police Force. Are we any better here? Is the corruption just more subtle, and more in people’s peripheral vision rather than in full view? I write this review at a time when news bulletins remind us of the awful, unbridgeable gulf between the haves and have-nots in present day Covid-blighted India.

Eventually, Kamil’s Kalkota downfall is explained, and we also learn who killed Rakesh Sharma. There is much entertainment on the way to the finale. The Met Police copper’s last words suggest that we haven’t heard the last of Kamil Rahman.

We are always looking for skilled detectives from diverse backgrounds.”

This is a confident and sure-footed debut, with a likeable and warmly credible hero. Chowdhury deftly captures the contrasting – yet uncannily similar – mileus of Kolkata and Brick Lane. The Waiter is published by Harvill Secker, and will be out on 27th May.

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HARDCASTLE’S SECRET AGENT . . . Between the covers


Before I became a reviewer
, and earned (I hope) the privilege of being sent books and .mobi files by publishers, I had been a lifetime library user. Crime Fiction was my first and last love, and in my regular Saturday afternoon trawl through the shelves, there were certain authors whose names I always sought out. In no particular order, these would include Jim Kelly, Phil Rickman, John Connolly, John Sandford, Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Jonathan Kellerman, James Lee Burke, Graham Hurley, Christopher Fowler – and Graham Ison.

The Graham Ison books were slimmish-volumes, usually the Brock and Poole series, but my favourites were always the Hardcastle books. Ernie Hardcastle was a London copper in and around the years of The Great War. He could come over brusque in his dealings, but other might use the word ‘avuncular’. He distrusted innovations such as the telephone, but had a true copper’s nose for villains. A couple of his books are reviewed here, but inevitably, ‘time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away..‘ Thankfully, in Hardcastle’s Secret Agent, Ernie is still with us, but long since retired, and the Hardcastle concerned is his son Walter, now a rising star in the Metropolitan Police.

HSAWe are, as ever, in London, but it is 1940. The Phony War is over, and the Luftwaffe are targetting industrial sites they believe to be involved in making parts for military aircraft. When several important employees of one such factory are burgled – clearly by an expert – but with nothing other than trinkets stolen, Hardcastle believes he may be on the track of a German spy on the look-out for plans, blueprints or important military information. Hardcastle has to deal with The Special Branch, but finds them about as co-operative as they were with his father a couple of decades earlier. This has a certain tinge of irony, as part of the author’s distinguished police career was spent as a Special Branch Operative.

The search for the German spy withers on the branch, but Hardcastle has other fish to fry. A prostitute – or at least, a young woman who was free with her favours –  has been found beaten to death, and the hunt for her killer takes Hardcastle into military quarters.

Eventually, Walter Hardcastle gets both of his men, and on the way we have a vividly recreated world of an England struggling to come to grips with a new world war. Not one that is being fought far away on some foreign field, but one which is brought to people’s very hearths and homes every single night. Hardcastle’s Secret Agent is published by Severn House/Canongate Books and will be out on 1st May.

Sad to relate, Graham Ison died suddenly in late 2020 before he could complete this book. It was finished with the help of his son Roger. Graham Ison was prolific, certainly, and critics might argue that he stuck to a reliable formula in each of his series, and never ventured into unfamiliar territory. Neither was he a darling of the crime fiction festival circuit, but I suspect after decades working as a policeman that never bothered him. What he was, however, was a reliable name for readers who bought his books and – importantly – library borrowers, who knew that they could rely on him for a story well told, and if his words took them into familiar territory, then that was nothing for either reader or writer to be ashamed about.

SUMMON UP THE BLOOD . . . Between the covers


This is a recent edition of a book that was first published by Severn House in 2012, and was the first in a continuing series featuring an unusual Metropolitan Police detective, Inspector Silas Quinn. We are in 1914, a few months before the outbreak of The Great War. I have reviewed two others in the series, and the links are below.

The White Feather Killer (2019
The Music Box Enigma (2020)

Is Summon Up The Blood any good, even if it is a reissue? An absolute and unequivocal “Yes!” from me. Quinn is an intriguing fellow. never at ease socially, particularly with women. He seems driven by his own demons – if demons they are – as he seeks to investigate the crimes that other men on the payroll of The Metropolitan Police can’t fathom (or perhaps can’t be bothered with) His  superior officers realise that Quinn has a certain talent, but one that does not fit well into the the day-to-day operations of the force. So, he has been shunted off into a siding where he can pursue his own lines of investigation, but not make himself an irritant to the establishment. Quinn is The Special Crimes Department of Scotland Yard and with the assistance of his sergeants Inchcape and Macadam he ploughs his own furrow.

When a rent boy is found dead, his throat cut from ear to ear, there is initially little interest by the police, as the lad is just assumed to have paid the price for being in a risky line of business, but when the post mortem reveals that he has had every drop of blood drained from his body, Quinn is summoned and told to investigate. After a droll episode where Quinn decides to pose as a man smitten by “the love that dare not speak its name”, and blunders around in a dodgy bookshop, but he does find out that the dead youngster was called Jimmy, and had links to a ‘gentleman’s club’ where he would find men appreciative of his talents.

After the episode in the bookshop, Quinn decides to take things one step further and, armed with a distinctive brand of cigarettes favoured by the homosexual demi-monde, he sets out to impersonate a potential customer of Jimmy and his friends. Let’s just say that this does not go well, but he manages to emulate the News of The World reporters of later decades, who used to pass themselves off as punters in brothels, strip clubs, drug dens and the rest, and would then close the resultant exposé with the words, “I made an excuse and left.

There are more deaths among what were known as renters, and Quinn’s frustration mounts. One of the enigmas is that the victims each possessed a silver cigarette case, inscribed with what appear to be literary quotes: it is not until Quinn learns that they all come from De Profundis, Oscar Wilde’s letter, written in Reading Gaol, to his lover Bosie, and subsequently published, that pieces of the proverbial jigsaw start to fit together.


Thankfully
, Morris makes no attempt to get in the politics of homosexuality and the law: his characters simply inhabit the world in which he puts them, and their thoughts, words and deeds resonate authentically. In 1914, remember, the trial of Oscar Wilde and the Cleveland Street Scandal were still part of folk memory. It’s an astonishing thought that had Morris been writing about similar murders, fifty years later in 1964, virtually nothing would have changed – think of the scandals involving such ‘big names’ as Tom Driberg, Robert Boothby and Ronnie Kray, and how their lives have been written up by such novelists as Jake Arnott, John Lawton and James Barlow.

As ever, Shakespeare said it first, but RN Morris has written a chilling and convincing murder mystery with an impeccably researched historical background. The book is an intriguing – and sometimes unnerving – mixture of grim violence, gallows humour, literary research, sexual degradation – and old fashioned detective work. Silas Quinn’s London of Spring 1914, blithely ignorant of the horrors that were to begin later in the year, is hypnotic and addictive. Summon Up The Blood is published by Canelo, and is out now.

THE HERETIC’S MARK . . . Between the covers

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SW Perry’s Elizabethan medical man Nicholas Shelby
returns in the latest of the ‘Mark’ series. We’ve had The Angel’s, The Serpent’s and The Saracen’s, (click to read reviews) and now we have another journey through the complex religious politics of the 16th century with The Heretic’s Mark. Nicholas has married his fiery Anglo-Italian lady Bianca née Merton. Her London South-Bank pub – The Magpie – has been destroyed by fire, but is being rebuilt. The newly-weds have a pressing problem, however. An innocent Jewish doctor has been executed for trying to poison the Queen, and Sir Fulke Vaesy, an embittered rival of Nicholas, has attempted to link him to the conspiracy. Fortunately, Nicholas has the ear of the Queen’s spymaster Robert Cecil, but he is advised to make himself scarce while the furore dies down.

Nicholas and Bianca decide to undertake a journey, posing as Catholic pilgrims, along the the Francigena, a route from France into Italy, its path worn by the feet of the devout. Along the way they are accompanied by a strange young woman – Hella – who they met in the Low Countries. She is a member of the Beguines – nothing to do with the dance, but a lay order, similar to Nuns. Hella is both disturbed and disturbing, as well as being sexually attractive. While Nicholas and Bianca are foot-slogging across the alps, back in London all is far from well. Rosa Monkton –  Bianca’s maid – and her husband Ned have been given oversight of the reconstruction of The Magpie, but Ned has become obsessed with trying to find out who has put Nicholas in harm’s way.

Nicholas and Bianca have arrived in the city of Padua, along with the enigmatic Hella. Padua is Bianca’s former home, and they become involved with a scheme – spearheaded by Bianca’s cousin Bruno and his friend Galileo (yes, the very same) – to build a huge and complex system of globes, rings and cogs which will predict the movements of the planets. Bianca has become (as they used to say) “with child”, but has been told by Hella – much given to doom-laden prophecies – that the child will be stillborn and, thereafter, Bianca will be unable to bear children.

Much of the action of this book takes place in Padua, but occasionally darts back to London to report on the travails of Ned and Rose Monkton. As Bruno and his acquaintances work feverishly at their great *armillary sphere, Nicholas becomes uncomfortable aware that Hella is determined to prise him away from Bianca, and her motives, as well as the obvious sexual one, are deeply sinister. No-one realises just how sinister, however, until a mysterious man in grey – who has been dogging Nicholas and Bianca’s footsteps on their journey across Europe – is unmasked.

This is seriously good historical crime fiction. SW Perry has done – as ever – an impressive piece of history homework, but that doesn’t matter, because great narrative drive, believable characters and an almost tangible sense of time and place make this a compelling read. The Heretic’s Mark is published by Corvus and is out now.

*An armillary sphere (variations are known as spherical astrolabe, armilla, or armil) is a model of objects in the sky (on the celestial sphere), consisting of a spherical framework of rings, centred on Earth or the Sun, that represent lines of celestial longitude and latitude and other astronomically important features, such as the ecliptic. As such, it differs from a celestial globe, which is a smooth sphere whose principal purpose is to map the constellations. It was invented separately in ancient Greece and ancient China, with later use in the Islamic world and Medieval Europe.

LAST NOCTURNE . . . Between the covers

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I am a huge fan of MJ Trow’s books. We have some things in common. I don’t share his gifts as a writer but we did go to the same school and we both had long careers as teachers. We certainly share the same acerbic views of the bean counters and politically correct apologists who run schools these days. If you want first hand knowledge of these miserable characters, then read any of Trow’s wonderful Peter ‘Mad’ Maxwell series. They are great entertainment – very, very funny, but with a serious side, too.

Like his creator, Peter Maxwell has left the chalk face and retired to his Isle of Wight home, but Trow’s brilliance as a historian still shines in the Grand and Batchelor series, of which Last Nocturne is the seventh. Reviews of some of its predecessors are here, and the new book has the usual dazzling mix of real-life characters – try Oscar Wilde, GF Watts, John Ruskin and James McNeill Whistler for starters –  knockabout humour and murder most foul.

41xgC83kdoLGrand & Batchelor are private investigators based in 1870s London and – much to the relief of James Batchelor, who is a terrible traveller – Last Nocturne has its feet securely on home soil. Grand is from a wealthy New England family, and fought bravely for the Union in The War Between The States, while Batchelor is a journalist by trade. Murder – what else? – is the name of the game in this book, and the victims are, you might say ‘on the game’. Cremorne Gardens were popular pleasure gardens beside the River Thames in Chelsea, but after dark, the ‘pleasure’ sought by its denizens was not of the innocent kind. ‘Ladies of the Night’ are being murdered – poisoned with arsenic – but the killer doesn’t interfere with them, as the saying goes, but instead leaves books by their dead bodies.

As the two investigators become involved in the police hunt for the bookish poisoner, they are still doing the day job which, in this case, is being employed by Grand’s fellow countryman Mr Whistler – he of the painting of his mum – to dig out any dirt they can find on art critic John Ruskin who, ‘as any fule no’ (to quote Nigel Molesworth) wrote, of one of Whistler’s paintings, “never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”


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Trow has great fun
with John Ruskin’s back story, particularly his disastrous marriage to Euphemia ‘Effie’ Gray , and the disastrous first night of their honeymoon when he was so traumatised by her luxuriant pubic hair that he was unable to continue with his marital duties. The Pre-Raphaelite painter John Millais clearly had no such qualms, as he married Effie in 1855, and they produced eight children.

The search for the killer, however, continues, but G & B, along with the police, remain mystified. They even resort to a seance involving the well-known society medium, Miss Florence Cook, whose reputation has gone before her:

“The murmurs from the guests were mixed, but Florence was used to that. Speaking for herself, she couldn’t really see why people were always so surprised when she was from time to time exposed as a fraud. What did they expect? That the dead would turn up on cue to talk to people about the other side? Why would Uncle Norman come back to a seedy scullery in Acton to tell his niece that it was all very l, he was at peace, and he’d been talking to Beethoven only the other day, who told him to tell little Bessie to carry on with her piano lessons?”

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Eventually G & B solve the mystery, but rather more by accident than design and the book comes to a dramatic and entertaining conclusion. Last Nocturne is published by Severn House, and is available in hardback and as a Kindle.

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