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BRYANT & MAY’S PECULIAR LONDON . . . Between the covers

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Yes, yes, Arthur Bryant died peacefully at the end of London Bridge Is Falling Down, but the old boy isn’t speaking from beyond the grave, or ectoplasmically appearing at his former landlady’s spritualist church. This delightful conceit – and I use the word in its literary sense – is Christopher Fowler (aka @Peculiar on Twitter) imagines a long conversation between Arthur and his long-time colleagues from the Peculiar Crime Unit, to put in print a kind of concordance of the wonderful quirks and hidden histories of London which underpinned the memorable series of novels featuring the two detectives.

This is not a geographical street-by-street tour, but more a recollection of bizarre events and strange legends that darts this way and that, rather like the working of Arthur’s mind. Most of the PCU team have an input with something that has taken their fancy, except (naturally) poor old Raymondo – Raymand Land, the exasperated, ineffectual and much mocked titular head of the PCU. He is given the wrong time for the meeting, and so when he arrives, everything is done and dusted. This little episode is a reminder that (imaginary) cruelty is an essential ingredient of English comedy.

The reader can dip in and out of this book pretty much taking the chapters in any order There is, quite rightly, no sense of one thing leading to another as, perhaps for the first and only time in this series, there is no need for a coherent plot. The events described have already happened – or not, as the case may be. Christopher Fowler, as an expert Londoner, is well aware that fable and legend do not need to cling too closely to probability.

For those wondering where this blissful blend of the arcane, the shocking, the macabre, the comical and the eccentric comes from, the author provides a ‘further reading’ list.

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It is right and fitting that the closing words in this book should be spoken by Artur Bryant himself:

“London.
According to the playwright Ben Jonson it was the city of bawds and roysters, claret-wine and oysters. To me it is just home, where I am on the inside looking out instead of somewhere outside looking in. It’s my city, not yours. Which is to say that I see it in a certain way that you do not, and vice-versa.
I have no fantasies involving a comatose retirement on the Isle of Wight, like poor old Raymondo. I have no intention of leaving this grubby, exhausting, maddening city.
London is like a greedy old landlady. She didn’t ask me to come, didn’t invite me to stay and won’t miss me when I’ve left.
And that suits me fine.”

Bryant and May’s Peculiar London is published by Doubleday, and is available now.

For more about Christopher Fowler and the Bryant & May novels, click the image below.

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THE APARTMENT UPSTAIRS . . . Between the covers

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Author Lesley Kara returns to the world she excels in describing – the apparently mundane suburban milieu where the streets and houses  serve as a  stage where families and friends act out a drama riddled with lies, secrets and deception.

Scarlett Quilter, a forty-something accountant, lives in the ground floor apartment of a suburban London house. She has a debilitating illness but is able to work from home. The titular ‘apartment upstairs’ was once occupied by her aunt, Rebecca, a former school teacher. Rebecca made a wrong romantic choice late in life by forming a relationship with a man called Clive Hamlin. Hamlin murdered Rebecca, and then committed suicide, so we know from the start that the apartment upstairs has deeply sinister connotations for Scarlett, as well as for her younger brother Ollie (who has inherited the house) and her father, Peter.

The Quilters have entrusted Rebecca’s funeral arrangements with a firm called Fond Farewells, which is run by Dee Boswell and her business partner Lindsay. Dee and Lindsay had a shared friend called Gina Caplin, who mysteriously disappeared ten years earlier, and they have both supported a campaign to find out the truth about what happened to their friend.

All is not sweetness and light between Dee and Lindsay. Lindsay has abused the trust placed in her by the friend of a dead man – think treasured possessions and eBay. She is caught out but manages to placate the grieving customer in a way which leaves Dee fuming. The contrast between the two women is cleverly drawn. Lindsay is more confident, perhaps even reckless and, in contrast to Dee, is knowingly certain of her sexuality.

When Scarlett discovers that her late aunt was connected to the missing girl, Gina, things start to get interesting. Lesley Kara lays a trail of particularly juicy red herrings which include the possibility that the truth about Gina’s disappearance might lie very close to Scarlett’s home, in a ‘Fred West patio’ kind of way.

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Lesley Kara always enjoys directing her readers up the proverbial garden path in terms of plot, and here she serves up a couple of turns which are more like double somersaults than twists. The clues are there for more suspicious readers, but they are far from obvious.

The Apartment Upstairs is a dark journey into a world where a violation of trust is made even worse because it is happening between close friends and family members.  It is published by Bantam Press and is available now. For more on Lesley Kara, click on the image (below)

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THE MIRROR GAME . . . Between the covers

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Even before I read the first page, this book ticked a number of important boxes for me, including:
1920s ✔️
London ✔️
Great War background ✔️
Beautifully imagined cover graphics ✔️
I’m happy to say my initial optimism was not to be shattered. So, what goes on? We are in 1925 and in a London that has borne relatively little structural damage from the recent war compared to what it was to suffer less that two decades later. The major damage, however is to the people and families of the city. Across Britain, the war has claimed the lives of  886,000 participants, mostly men between the ages of 18 and 40, and London has more than its fair share of widows, children without fathers and parents without sons.

TMG FIGURE013Investigator and journalist Harry Lark fought for King and Country and emerged relatively unscathed although, like so many other men, the sounds, smells and images of the trenches are ever present at the back of his mind and he has also become addicted to laudanum – a tincture of opium and alcohol. When he is contacted by a friend and benefactor, Lady Charlotte Carlisle, she tells him that she thinks she has seen a ghost. Sitting in Mayfair’s Café Boheme, she has seen a man who is the image of Captain Adrian Harcourt, a pre-war politician who was killed on the Western Front in 1918, and was engaged to be married to her daughter Ferderica. But this man is no phantom who can fade into the wallpaper. Other customers notice him. He is flesh and blood, and approaches Lady Charlotte’s table, stares into her eyes, but then leaves without saying a word. She asks Lark to investigate.

Harry’s search takes him to Harcourt’s father who throws him out on his ear. He then visits an exclusive gentleman’s club, where he asks one too many questions, and is beaten within an inch of his life by thugs in the pay of someone powerful. Helped by an old friend, retired policeman Bob Clements, he learns that Adrian Harcourt was listed as being killed in a firefight near a ruined French village, when the company he commanded were slaughtered. There were a mere handful of survivors, one of which was the son of an influential London gangster, Alec Ivers.

Harry Lark begins to get the sense that something terrible caused the death of most of Harcourt’sTMG FIGURE012 company, and that some seriously well-connected people have ensured that the truth about their demise has been successfully covered up. Iver’s son has been committed to an institution for mentally and physically damaged WW1 soldiers, and Filton Hall is Harry’s next port of call.

As he tries to learn the truth Harry himself takes both mental and physical batterings, while there are a string of deaths around the fringes of the affair. His growing love for Ferderica seems to be reciprocated, but then they both receive a huge shock which turns the case on its head.

Author Guy Gardner’s day job – or, more likely, night job – was jazz pianist, but now he teaches piano at home in  Dorset and is planning to write more novels. He also says he enjoys a glass of single malt, so I raise a glass of my favourite, Lagavulin, in his honour!

The book is certainly not short on action, intriguing characters and plot twists but, unsurprisingly, Guy Gardner is at his best when describing the occasions when music (Ferderica is a violinist, and Harry is a music journalist) is woven into the story. The Mirror Game is atmospheric and has a convincing sense sense of time and place. It would be good even coming from an established novelist, but as a debut it is excellent.  It is published by The Book Guild, and is available now.

FOR MORE FICTION WITH A GREAT WAR BACKGROUND, CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW

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MURDER AT CLARIDGES . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2022-03-14 at 19.49.22Jim Eldridge (left) and his aristocratic Detective Chief Inspector Edgar Saxe-Coburg are working their way around the best hotels in 1940s London, investigating murder We have had The Ritz  (click for my review), The Savoy, and now Claridges. Setting a murder against a grand backdrop is a simple but agreeable  formula which Eldridge has employed in his ‘museum series’, which are set in late Victorian England. The action takes place in October 1940, with Londoners under the hammer from Hitler’s bombers each and every night.

The concept which underpins the plot is similar to the one used in Murder at The Ritz. In the late 1930s, there were still countries in Europe ruled by what we might dismiss as ‘minor monarchies’. Albania, Yugoslavia and Romania all had ruling families, and some of them decamped to London, along with their coffers of gold. Also in London, which adds spice to the plot, were less fortunate people, some of them with a political agenda. One such, a Romanian kitchen hand at Claridges, is found garotted outside on the pavement. Saxe-Coburg’s boss calls hands him the murder investigation. The reason he wants Edgar on the case is touchingly naive. He thinks that when peace returns, and the ruling families of the Balkans resume their thrones, they will remember fondly the  discretion and tact used by an English detective. The garotter then finds another victim, but what possible connection does a young woman working for the Free French headquarters in London have the unfortunate Romanian?

murder-at-claridge-sLurking in the background of this tale is a man who is less than noble, but with more power than all the kings and queens sheltering in London’s best hotel suites. Henry ‘Hooky’ Morton is a London gangster who is building his empire on black market scams, the most profitable of which is his manipulation of the petrol market. We think of fuel supply – or lack of it – as a very modern problem, but in 1940, having fuel to put in your car was crucial to many organisations. Hooky Morton has a problem, though. Someone has infiltrated his gang, and is making him look stupid. Then, Hooky does something really, really stupid and, no nearer identifying the garotte killer or their motives, Saxe-Coburg becomes involved in investigating what is, for any copper, the worst crime of all.

Saxe-Coburg’s wife Rosa, a popular pianist and singer does her bit for morale in concert halls and hotels in the evening, but her day job is more exacting and brings her face to face with the havoc raining down on London from the sky – she drives an ambulance. Her assistant is killed when a bombed building collapses on him, and a little while later, when Rosa goes to visit his widow. she is horrified to find the woman dead on the kitchen floor, killed with the same method used to despatch the Romanian kitchen hand and the young Frenchwoman.

I suppose Murder at Claridges is, if genres mean anything, on the fringe of cosy crime, but is a genuine page-turner. Despite the grimly authentic background of London being battered by the Luftwaffe, it gives us larger-than-life characters and, of course, it allows us to peep into a world which only the truly rich inhabit. The suave Saxe-Coburg is a timely antidote to the damaged, troubled and – frankly – disturbing world of so many fictional Detective Inspectors who inhabit our contemporary world. Eldridge is a fine writer and never has escapism been so elegantly penned. This book is published by Allison & Busby, and will be out in Kindle and hardback on 21st April, with a paperback edition due in the autumn. To read my reviews of two of Jim Eldridge’s ‘museum series’, click the links below.

Murder at Madame Tussaud’s

Murder at the British Museum

SHAKING HANDS WITH THE DEVIL . . . Between the covers

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There is an interesting debate which raises its head periodically, and it involves the tricky subject of what can – or should not – become the subject of comedy. Jimmy Carr was in the news only the other day, because he made a joke about the deaths of Roma people in The Holocaust. There are numerous TV sitcoms from back in the day which are fondly remembered by us older folks, but would not survive the heightened sensibilities of modern publicists and producers. This preamble is by way of a warning that Bryan J Mason’s novel, Shaking Hands With The Devil, will not be for everyone. There are jokes and themes in here which, as they say, push boundaries, so if you are someone who takes offence at words on a page, then I think it’s probably ‘Goodnight Vienna‘. For those made of sterner stuff, here’s the story.

We are in late 1980s London – the autumnal years of Thatcher’s Britain – beset by strikes and endless assaults by the IRA. A predatory killer called Clifton Gentle – think Denis Nilsen – is enticing young homosexuals to come back to his home, where they have sex, but the post coital routine is that he kills them and chops them up into pieces. Sometimes the pieces stay in his flat, but when they become too noxious, he leaves them spread about the capital, in skips, under bushes or in Biffa bins.

SHWTD coverOn his trail is a grotesque cartoon of a copper – DCI Dave Hicks. He lives at home with his dear old mum, has a prodigious appetite for her home-cooked food, is something of a media whore (he does love his press conferences) and has a shaky grasp of English usage, mangling idioms  like a 1980s version of Mrs Malaprop.

The other gags come thick and fast. We have three new police cadets – Oldfield, Abberline and Slipper –  working on the case (Google if you’re not sure}, while the editor of The Herald Review (one of the newspapers covering the case) is a certain Mr Charles Manson.

Mason’s final audacious name-check is when he reveals that there is a second killer on the loose, a young man who has won all the glittering prizes, but has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Peter Kurten is determined to make the most of his final six months by a bit of casual ‘triple D’ – Date, Death, Dismember. A confession. Suspecting that this was another joke, I Googled the name (so you don’t have to) and found that Peter Kurten a.k.a The Vampire of Düsseldorf was a notorious German serial killer who went to the guillotine on 2nd July 1931.

When he learns that he has a rival, Clifton Gentle is most aggrieved. That is not his only problem, however, because a young rent boy called Jimmy is Clifton’s only failure. Not only did Jimmy escape before fulfilling his date with the cleaver and hacksaw, he has now located his would-be assassin and is blackmailing him.

Hackney’s finest, Dave Hicks or, as he prefers to be known, ‘The Dick from The Sticks’ is also up against it. As clueless as ever, he unwisely announces in a news conference that he had set himself just fourteen days to bring the killer to justice. The days and hours tick by, without Hicks having any genuine leads. Then, on the eve of the expiry of his deadline, he decides to save his reputation. In a a bizarre attempt to blend in with the crowds in London’s gay clubs, Hicks sets out to attract the killer (he is unaware that there are two) and is dressed to kill, decked out in:

BJM“A fuchsia -pink shirt with outsize wing collar, over-tight lime green denim jeans, a brand new squeaky-clean leather jacket and, just for good measure, a black beret with white trim.”

The finale of Dave Hicks’s  quest to catch his man is set in an old fashioned Soho of seedy clubs, touts and pimps that would be unrecognisable to the trendsetters who frequent it today. Bryan Mason (right) has written a dystopian novel which is, in turn, ghastly, eyebrow-raising and hilarious, but is also a must for those who like their satire as black as night.

Shaking Hands With The Devil is published by Vanguard Press/Pegasus Publishing, and is available now.

MURDER MOST VILE . . . Between the covers

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Having not come across author Eric Brown before, I did a quick search, and Wiki told me that he was a prolific science fiction writer, and I immediately thought I must have got the wrong chap, but he is one and the same. His versatility in writing Golden Age-ish mysteries set in the 1950s as well as futuristic fantasies is to be commended, but after all, he was born and raised in Haworth which, if you are looking for literary connections, is as good a place as any, and better than most.

MMV coverWhat is happening then, in Murder Most Vile? All too often these days, I am a late arrival at the ball and this is the ninth in a series centred on a pair of investigators in 1950s England. Donald Langham is a London novelist, who runs an investigation agency with business partner Ralph Ryland. Langham’s wife, Maria Dupré,  is a literary agent. Here, Langham is engaged by a rather unpleasant and misanthropic – but very rich – old man named Vernon Lombard. Lombard has a daughter and two sons, and the favourite one of the two boys, a feckless artist called Christopher, is missing.

Old Lombard has history, and not a particularly salubrious one in terms of British politics in the 1930s. He was a fervent supporter of Oswald Mosley and his fascists, and while this years ago, it is to rake up uncomfortable memories for  Ralph Ryland when it emerges that the boss of a London brewery is also a pervert, a gangster – and, like Vernon Lombard – someone who longs for the glory days of the British Union of Fascists.

Langham and Ryland are an interesting team, with Langham the more urbane and middle class of the two, while Ryland’s father was a London docker who was on what we now consider to be the wrong side of things during the infamous Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when Mosley’s fascists went head to head with an opposing force of trade unionists, Jewish groups and communists, with the police trying to keep the sides apart. Out of loyalty to and, perhaps, fear of his father, Ryland was there that day, and what he saw – and did – has continued to haunt him, especially since he was among the Allied troops who liberated Belsen in April 1945 – a month that has special significance for some of the characters in this novel.

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What the pair uncover is that most poisonous of situations – bitter family jealousy. It transpires that Christopher Lombard’s apparent success as an artist is due to his father buying up most of his canvases, and the other two siblings are not happy. There are abductions, murders and mysteries – and Eric Brown provides a clever plot twist which I never saw coming.

It’s not always helpful to shepherd crime novels into genres, but I know that many readers are not comfortably retired like me, and the time they have for settling down with a good book is limited, and that is why they sometimes welcome a ‘heads-up’ as to what kind of book to pick up next. I would say that Murder Most Vile is cosy crime, but with a hard edge. It is also, I suppose, historical crime fiction, because, for some, 1957 is as far away as 1757 in terms of social attitudes and the trappings of technology. It might also be doffing its trilby to the world of bygone investigators – Paul Temple, certainly, with maybe just a hint of Bulldog Drummond. We have dead bodies, escapes from dungeons, powerful embittered and influential old men and  – essential to all private investigators – friends in the police force. The bottom line, however, is that this is cleverly written by Eric Brown, and is well worth a few hours of anyone’s time. Murder Most Vile is published by Severn House and is out now.

ERIC BROWN’S WEBSITE IS HERE

THE RETURN OF HESTER LYNTON . . . Between the covers

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The publisher’s website tells us:
“Tony Evans has been a full-time writer since 2008. He has written several novels of historical mystery, Gothic fiction and suspense, including the popular Jonathan Harker mystery series and the Hester Lynton detective novels, as well as study guides and novel adaptations. Tony lives in the Yorkshire Dales with his wife, and enjoys walking and the outdoors.”

So, what do we have in this second volume of short stories, the follow up to The Early Hester Lynton Mysteries (2013) ? A female detective, obviously – and her companion Ivy Jessop – and the familiar backdrop of Victorian London and crimes carried out – for the most part – by the gentry, or sometimes by the impoverished middle classes. There are ten stories.

The Case of the Fanshaw Inheritance

HesterA rich widower, a self made industrialist, dies and leaves his fortune to be divided between his two nephews. One is a down-at-heel schoolmaster, the other a disreputable roué. The lucky man has to solve a cypher set by their late uncle. The good guy brings the  cypher to Hester and Ivy. They solve the conundrum with by way of a knowledge of 18th century first editions, a journey to explore an ancient English church, and  by breaking in to a family mausoleum.

The Case of the Stolen Leonardo

When a small, but obviously valuable painting by the great artist disappears from the Ronsard gallery, Hester’s cousin, Inspector Albert Brasher of the Metropolitan Police – who has been given the task of investigating the theft – is at his wits’ end, and turns to his relative for help. She solves the case, with the inadvertent help of an aristocratic dealer in stolen artwork.  The culprit – who is also a very clever forger – is found, but his motive for the crime triggers Hester’s compassion, and she arranges a very equitable solution to the case.

The Case of the Missing Professor

When Professor Ambrose Dixon goes missing, Hester is summoned to the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Dixon – a distinguished chemist – has been working for the War Office on a revolutionary new explosive, the formula for which – if it fell into the wrong hands – could destabilise the delicate military and political balance of Western Europe. Hester discovers the whereabouts of the professor, a dangerous impostor at the heart of the country’s intelligence service, and – perhaps – the code which can unlock  the formula to Dixon’s secret.

The Mystery of the Locked Room

The cases thus far have been relatively restrained affairs, but when Hester and Ivy are called in to investigate an apparent suicide in a genteel house just outside Maidstone, there is blood aplenty. We all know that suicides in crime novels are usually cleverly disguised murders, and this is no exception. Locked room mysteries usually involve mechanical ingenuity, and this case Hester is too clever for the would-be engineer, who also falls foul of Ivy’s skill with a pearl-handled revolver.

The Adventure of the Diamond Necklace

We are now in full melodrama mood, with swarthy “furriners” (in this case a particularly oily Italian), a criminal mastermind, young ladies being kidnapped by cosh wielding London low lifes, and the priceless piece of jewellery of the title. One of Hester’s many  talents is to effortlessiy forge handwriting after the briefest glimpse at an example of the original, and she uses this skill to hoodwink a prestigious private bank into revealing the contents of a safe deposit box.

The Case of the Kidnapped Schoolboy

When a nine year-old lad disappears from his bedroom in a genteel Putney villa, Hester and Ivy play two of the oldest detective games in the book – cherchez la femme and follow the money. With the help of a couple of burly railway policemen the villains are unmasked on the Dover platform of Charing Cross Station.

The Puzzle of the Whitby Housemaid

EvansHere, Tony Evans (right) indulges in the first of two shameless  – but entertaining – instances of name-dropping. Our two sleuths, weary after a succession of difficult investigations, are enjoying some well-earned R & R in the resort of Whitby. So who do they meet? Think Irish writer and man of the theatre, blood, fangs …..? Gotcha! They are engaged by a fellow holidaymaker, a certain Mr B. Stoker to investigate the disappearance of a housemaid. She has been induced to leave her present employment to go and work for a rather dodgy doctor. Much skullduggery ensues, the housemaid is saved, and Mr Stoker says, “Hmm – this gives me an idea for a story.”

The Case of the Russian Icon

Not so much blood and gore in this tale but more a case of a victimless crime. A widow is duped into selling what turns out to be a valuable religious artifact for a pittance, only to find it on sale in a smart London gallery for many times more than the unscrupulous dealer paid for it. No crime has been committed, but Hester Lynton takes it upon herself to exact some natural justice, and she does so by employing the craftsmanship of the forger who we met in The Case of the Stolen Leonardo.

The Case of the Naked Clergyman

My first image of this involved the legendary Parson’s Pleasure on the Oxford Cherwell, where naked vicars – and other chaps – were allowed to bathe, but this story is rather more sinister. An elderly  widower cleric has been behaving strangely, and his exploits have included dancing around in the buff, bathed in moonlight. Hester and Ivy soon discover that a hefty inheritance and an access to mind-altering pharmaceuticals are the cause of the problem.

The Problem of Oscar Wilde

Another hefty name-drop concludes this selection of tales, and the Irish man of letters turns up on Hester’s doorstep and asks for help. The problem is letters, and these are missives sent by Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills to someone he admires (a ‘gentleman’, of course). A sum of £200 is demanded for the return of the billets-doux. Hester and Ivy manage to derail this particular attempt to ‘out’ the great writer but, sadly, we all know his reprieve was to be only temporary.

This is a very agreeable and diverting read. Of course, we all know of another consulting detective in Victorian London, and one who also has a companion who writes up the cases, and often dashes about the Home Counties by train after consulting  Bradshaw’s Handbook. Additionally, this fellow (with his astonishing powers of observation) and his friend also had a housekeeper who usually showed clients up to their rooms – but no matter. Hester Lynton may be a Holmes pastiche in skirts, but as long as these books are well written, then I – and thousands of others, I hope – will continue to enjoy them. The Return of Hester Lynton is published by Lume Books and is out now.

THE BLOODLESS BOY . . . Between the covers

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It is the first day of 1678, and snow is settling over a London that is mostly rebuilt after the great conflagration, but still has patches of nettle covered gaps where buildings used to be. Scientist Harry Hunt, assistant to the great polymath Robert Hooke, is summoned to his master’s side to attend what appears to be a a murder scene. On the muddy banks of the open sewer known as the Fleet River, an angler has found the dead body of a boy, perhaps two or three years of age. When examined by Hooke, a the behest of senior magistrate Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, it is discovered that the boy has been expertly drained of blood. Found upon the body is a letter containing a single sheet of paper, a cypher consisting of numbers and letters arranged in a square.

Screen Shot 2021-11-22 at 19.04.53Thus begins a thoroughly intriguing murder mystery, steeped in the religious politics of the time. For over one hundred and fifty years, religion had defined politics. Henry VIII and his daughters had burned their ‘heretics’, and although the strife between Charles I and Parliament was mainly to do with authority and representation, many of Oliver Cromwell’s adherents were strident in their opposition to the ways of worship practiced by the Church if England. Now, Charles II is King. He is reputed to have sired many ‘royal bastards’ but none that could succeed to the throne, and the next in line, his brother James, has converted to Catholicism. In most of modern Britain the schism between Catholics and Protestants is just a memory, but we only have to look across the Irish Sea for evidence of the bitter passions that can still divide society.

Harry Hunt is charged with breaking the code, and learns that it is a cypher last used over twenty years early when the current King was smuggled out of the country after his defeat at the battle of Worcester. Hunt and Hooke have another mystery death on their hands, however. With this one, Robert J Lloyd departs from recorded history, in its pages tell us that Henry Oldenburg, the German-born philosopher, scientist, theologian – and Secretary of The Royal Society –  died of an undisclosed illness in September 1677, but the author has him shooting himself through the head with an ancient pistol. Lloyd jiggles the facts again – and why not? – with the killing of Sir Edmund Bury Godfrey, whose corpse is found strapped to  the fearsome Morice water wheel under London Bridge (below). Sir Edmund was actually found dead in a ditch near Primrose Hill, impaled with his own sword.

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We find ourselves immersed in a plot of dazzling complexity which weaves together political and military history, a plot to kill the king, and a highly secret medical experiment undertaken with the best of intentions, but turning into something every bit as horrific as those carried out by Joseph Mengele centuries later. In the middle of the turmoil stands Harry Hunt – an admirable and courageous hero who is underestimated at every step and turn by the men involved in the conspiracy.

Screen Shot 2021-11-22 at 19.07.36How on earth this superb novel spent many years floating around in the limbo of ‘independent publishing’ is beyond reason. While not quite in the ‘Decca rejects The Beatles‘ class of short sightedness, it is still baffling. The Bloodless Boy has everything – passion, enough gore to satisfy Vlad Drăculea, a sweeping sense of England’s history, a comprehensive understanding of 17th century science and a depiction of an English winter which will have you turning up the thermostat by a couple of notches. The characters – both real and fictional – are so vivid that they could be there in the room with you as you read the book.

Looking back at my reviews over the last eighteen months, I see there is no shortage of novels set in 17th century London, but this is a tour de force. Lloyd (above right) doesn’t just rely on the period detail to bring the history to life, he lights the pages up with fascinating real-life figures who make the narrative sparkle with authenticity.

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 8 : Brighton and London

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It has been, as the song goes, a long and winding road. Nearly 1000 miles, or thereabouts of rolling English highway and  we are nearing the end. Just two more stops, and we will be back where we started, In London. Yes, there are places and authors we might have visited; Trevor Wood’s Newcastle, John Harvey’s Nottingham and Phil Rickman’s Hereford, to name just three. But both writer and reader can suffer fatigue, so this journey is what it is. Our penultimate stop-over is Brighton, seemingly a place of bizarre contrasts. There is the elegant watering place beloved of the Prince Regent, and the cheeky seaside town beloved of London day trippers, but with a scary undercurrent immortalised by Graham Greene. There is the contemporary Brighton, a place where outlandish political and social fads make its counterparts in California look reactionary. But our Brighton is a much sunnier place. We are in the 1960s, sex had just about been invented, mobile ‘phones were undreamt of in anyone’s philosophy, and a young man called Colin Crampton is the ace crime reporter for the Evening Chronicle.

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Colin Crampton is the inspired creation of former journalist Peter Bartram, and I do wonder if Colin is, perhaps, a younger version of Peter, and I would like to think so. Peter, from, my online dealings with him, is a genial and astute fellow with a broad sense of humour, and someone with a fund of nostalgic cultural references from days gone by.  In brief, Colin is as sharp as a tack, has a gorgeous Australian girlfriend called Shirley, vrooms around Brighton in his sports car, and his boss, deputy editor Frank Figgis, is permanently wreathed in a cloud of Woodbines smoke. The books are simply delightful. Escapist, maybe, comfort reading, probably, but superbly crafted and endlessly entertaining – yes, yes, yes. If you click the graphic below, a link will open where you can read reviews of the Crampton of The Chronicle series, and also features by Peter on the background to some of his stories.The author’s photograph contains a link to his own website.

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LONDON CALLING! And the voices are none other than those of Arthur Bryant and John May – and their creator, Christopher Fowler. Bryant & May are, of course, an in-joke from the very start. More elderly readers will remember the iconic brand of matches so familiar to those of us who grew up the middle and later years of the 20th century.

Fowler devised a brilliant concept. We have two coppers who began their investigative careers during Hitler’s war. One, Arthur Bryant, is an intellectual iconoclast, a fount of obscure knowledge, be it of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Patagonia or the inner regions of the Hindu Kush. His expertise, however, is London. There is not a hidden river, an execution site, an ancient drovers’ trackway or site of an old graveyard that Arthur doesn’t have logged somewhere in his noggin. His colleague, John May, is slightly younger, but has adapted to the passing years. He wears decent suits, chooses conciliation rather than confrontation, and retains the razor sharp mind of his younger years. He is resolutely and remorselessly devoted to Arthur Bryant, and such is Fowler’s mastery of human chemistry that we know  one could never exist without the other.

Screen Shot 2021-11-21 at 18.34.16There were nineteen B & M novels, beginning with Full Dark House in 2003, plus a quartet of graphic novels and short story collections. I say ‘were’, because although Christopher Fowler (left) is still with us, those who have read London Bridge Is Falling Down (2021) will know – and I am sorry if this is a spoiler – that old age and infirmity finally catches up with the venerable pair of detectives. Where to start to talk about this series? The author himself is, as far as I can judge, a modern and cosmopolitan fellow, but his love – and knowledge – of London is all embracing. Christopher Fowler is a one-off in contemporary writing, and completely individual, but speaking as an elderly chap with many years of reading behind me, I can best put him in context with great English writers of the last 150 years or so by looking at various aspects of the novels.

There is humour in the books, plenty of it and – as you might guess – it’s very English. Imagine a chain of writers which goes back to Victorian times, starting perhaps with Israel Zangwill and the Grossmith brothers. The torch is carried onwards by Wodehouse, JV Morton and – with a more abrasive edge – by Waugh. Tom Sharpe is largely forgotten now, but his anarchic view of English customs and behaviour fits in well.

Now the city of London itself. Imagine a writer with the nostalgic fondness of Betjeman, blended with the darker imagination of writers like Ackroyd and Sinclair, and you will find that Christopher Fowler fits the bill perfectly. He makes us aware that the streets of his home town are like a stage, with troupes of actors down the ages acting out their dramas, each set of footsteps eventually fading to give way to the next, but each leaving something indelible behind, eternally available for those with ears to listen

Let’s not forget, though, that this is crime fiction, and the B&M stories have a strong vein of the Golden Age running through them, particularly with the ‘impossible’ crimes. Not content with mere locked rooms, Fowler takes us into a world where pubs vanish of the face off the earth and an 18th century highwayman commits murder in an art gallery. We started our journey in Derek Raymond’s London, with its drab streets, mean hearts, cruelty and violence. The streets walked by Bryant and May certainly have their dark corners, but Christopher Fowler fills them with joyful quirks of history, ghosts (mainly benevolent) and a sense of gleeful iconoclasm.

For reviews and features about the Bryant and May novels,
click the  image below.

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