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ENGLAND’S FINEST . . . Between the covers

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For newcomers to the sublime world of Arthur Bryant and John May, the new collection of short stories written by their biographer, Christopher Fowler, contains a handy pull-out-and-keep guide to the personnel doings of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. OK, I lie – don’t try and pull it out because it will wreck a beautiful book, but the other bits are true.

Bryant & May are both impossibly old, and so this gives Fowler the licence to set their investigations anywhere between the Blitz and Brexit. These stories gleefully span the years, and established B&M hands are rewarded with the usual mix of arcane cultural references, one-liner gags, London psychogeography and stunning investigative insights from Arthur. Cosy entertainment? Not a bit of it. Fowler leavens the fun with a sense of melancholy which provides a haunting echo to the laughter.

9780857525697.jpg-nggid047297-ngg0dyn-292x0-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010Leaving aside the pen pictures, introductions and postscripts, there are twelve stories. They are, for the most part, enjoyably formulaic in a Sherlockian way in that something inexplicable happens, May furrows his brow and Arthur comes up with a dazzling solution. Think of a dozen elegant variations of The Red Headed League, but with one or two being much darker in tone. Bryant & May and the Antichrist, for example, is a sombre tale of an elderly woman driven to suicide by the greed of a religious charlatan, while Bryant & May and the Invisible Woman reflects on the devastating effects of clinical depression. The stories are, of course set in London, apart from the delightfully improbable one where Arthur and John solve a murder within the blood-soaked walls of Bran Castle, once the des-res of Vlad Dracul III. Bryant & May and the Consul’s Son revisits Fowler’s fascination with the lost rivers of London, while Janice Longbright and the Best of Friends lets the redoubtable Ms L take centre stage.

The gags are as good as ever. While investigating a crime in a tattoo parlour, Arthur is mistaken for a customer and asked if he has a design in mind:

“I once considered having something on my right bicep but I couldn’t make up my mind between Sir Robert Peel and Dianor Dors.”

When PCU boss Raymond Land is faced with a difficult choice:

“There crept upon his face the anxiety of an Englishman stricken with indecision. It was a look you could see every day in Pret A Manger when middle managers struggled to choose sandwich fillings.”

Idon’t know Christopher Fowler personally, but I infer from his social media presence that he is a thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan chap and, with his spending his time between homes in Barcelona and King’s Cross, he could never be described as a Little Englander. How wonderful, then, that he is the most quintessentially English writer of our time. His Bryant & May stories draw in magical threads from English culture. There is the humour, which recalls George and Weedon Grossmith, WS Gilbert, and the various ‘Beachcombers’ down the years, particularly DB Wyndham Lewis and JB Morton. Fowler’s eagle eye for the evocative power of mundane domestic ephemera mirrors that of John Betjeman, while his fascination with the magnetic pull of the layers of history beneath London’s streets channels Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair.

This collection of short stories is a bar counter full of delicious Tapas rather than the sumptuous four course meal of a full novel, but the appetisers do what they are meant to do – stimulate the palate and make us hungry for more. England’s Finest is published by Doubleday and is out on 31st October.

For more reflections on Bryant & May – and the genius of their creator – click the image below.

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THE GEORGIANS RETURN TO VAUXHALL

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After her success with The Familiars (click to read the review) Stacey has moved on a couple of centuries to the 1750s. Bess Bright has reluctantly abandoned her baby daughter Clara to the mercies of London’s Foundling Hospital. This astonishing institution, founded by Thomas Coram on 1741, took in babies whose mothers were unable to care for them.

Foundlings3Zosha Nash (left), formerly Head of Development at The Foundling Museum explained, the care and love bestowed on the children was remarkable, even by modern standards. Their life expectancy exceeded that of many children at the time, and all were taught to read and write. The hospital was also famously associated with Handel, and it was in the  chapel that Messiah was performed for the first time in England

Stacey (below) explained how she had visited the museum and been overwhelmed by the poignancy of the exhibits, particularly the tokens – sometimes a scrap of fabric, sometimes a coin scratched with initials – left with the children so that they might be identified at a later date when the mothers’ circumstances had improved.

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Six years after leaving her, Bess Bright returns to claim her daughter, to be greeting with the shattering news that Clara is no longer there. She has been claimed – just a day after Bess left her – by a woman correctly identifying the child’s token, a piece of scrimshaw, half a heart engraved with letters. The authorities are baffled, but convinced that a major fraud has been perpetrated. Bess’s shock turns to a passionate determination to find Clara.

The Foundling will be published in February 2020.

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SHAMUS DUST . . . Between the covers

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“Lately, I’d lost the gift. As simple as that. Had reacquainted with nights when sleep stands in shrouds and shifts its weight in corner shadows, unreachable. You hear the rustle of its skirts, wait long hours on the small, brittle rumours of first light, and know that when they finally arrive they will be the sounds that fluting angels make.”

Every so often a book comes along that is so beautifully written and so haunting that a reviewer has to dig deep to even begin to do it justice. Shamus Dust by Janet Roger is one such. The author seems, as they say, to have come from nowhere. No previous books. No hobnobbing on social media. So who is Janet Roger? On her website she says:

Janet Roger was apprehended for the first time at age three, on the lam from a strange new part of town. The desk sergeant looked stern, but found her a candy bar in his pocket anyway. Big mistake. He should have taken away her shoelaces. She’s been on the run ever since.”

Make of that what you will, but she goes on to admit that she is a huge Raymond Chandler fan:

“But what really got under my skin was Marlowe’s voice guiding me around the next street corner, and beyond it into a stale apartment block or a down and low bar. He invited me in to look over his shoulder, let me see the highs and the lows, talked me through them and then put me in the seat beside him to drive me home.”

So, what exactly is Shamus Dust? Tribute? Homage? Pastiche? ‘Nod in the direction of..’? ‘Strongly influenced by ..’? Pick your own description, but I know that if I were listening to this as an audio book, narrated in a smoky, world-weary American accent, I could be listening to the master himself. The phrase ‘Often imitated, never bettered’ is an advertising cliché and, of course, Janet Roger doesn’t better Chandler, but she runs him pretty damn close with a taut and poetic style that never fails to shimmer on the page.

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Newman – he’s so self-contained that we never learn his Christian name – fled to to Britain during the Depression, had a ‘good war’ fighting Hitler, and now scratches a living as a PI in a shattered post-war London. It is late December 1947, and the cruelties of a bitter winter are almost as debilitating as Luftwaffe bombs. Newman is hired by a prominent city politician to minimise the reputational damage when a tenant in one of his properties is murdered.

Big mistake. Councillor Drake underestimates Newman’s intelligence and natural scepticism. Our man uncovers a homosexual vice ring, a cabal of opportunists who stand to make millions by rebuilding a shattered city, and an archaeological discovery which could halt their reconstruction bonanza.

There are more murders. The weather worsens. The clock ticks relentlessly towards 1948 as a battered but implacable Newman defies both the conspirators and corrupt coppers to see justice done. Along the way, he is helped – and entranced – by a young doctor, but she seems elusive and beyond his reach. As he goes about his grim business, however, he views London with eyes which may be weary, but still have laughter in them:

“..two paintings in the centre of each of the blank walls, one gray on white, the other white on gray to ring the changes. They might have been Picassos from his plumbing period, or a layout for steam pipes in an igloo; either way, they gave the room the all-round charm of an automated milking parlor.”

“At the street corner there was record store closed for lunch, with a sign over that read, Old Time Favourites, Swing, Hot Jazz, Popular, Classical, Opera and Foreign. The rest it was leaving to the opposition.”

By the end, Newman has played a game of chess in which his board has had most of the key pieces knocked off it by a succession of opponents not necessarily cleverer than he, but certainly with more power and fewer scruples. He survives the endgame – Janet Roger creates a divine metaphor in the final three pages – and his darkness is lifted by an extraordinary act of compassion and generosity to a fellow pawn in the cruel game. I started with Newman’s voice. Let him have the final say as he raises a glass to his lost doctor.

“Waiters ghosted. The company men were long gone. My table was cleared excpt for the glass in my hand. I held it up to the light, turned it round through a hundred shades of red, and wished the doctor all the good luck in the world. Then drank and set the empty glass on its side and called Alekhine over for the check.”

Shamus Dust is published by Matador and is out next month.

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PLENTY UNDER THE COUNTER . . . Between the covers

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T redhis 1943 novel by Kathleen Hewitt is the third in the excellent series of Imperial War Museum reprints of wartime classics, but couldn’t be more different from the first two, From The City, From The Plough and Trial By Battle. Whereas they were both literary novels shot through with harrowing accounts of men in battle, Plenty Under The Counter is an almost jolly affair, a conventional murder mystery set against the trials, tribulations and financial opportunities of civilian life in wartime London.

PUTC coverA jolly murder? Well, of course. Fictional murders can be range from brutal to comic depending on the genre, and although the corpse found in the back garden of Mrs Meake’s lodging house – 15 Terrapin Road – is just as dead as any described by Val McDermid or Michael Connelly, the mood is set by the chief amateur investigator, a breezy and frightfully English RAF pilot called David Heron on recuperation leave from his squadron, and his elegantly witty lady friend Tess. He is from solid county stock:

“There was his Aunt Jane, enduring the full horror of only having two servants to wait on her. There was an uncle, retired from the Indian Army, now clinging like a cobweb to the musty armchairs in his club.”

R redeaders will not need a degree in 20th century social history to recognise that the book’s title refers to the methods used by shopkeepers to circumvent the official rationing of food and fancy goods. More sinister is the presence – both in real life and in the book – of criminals who exploit the shortages to make serious money playing the black market and for whom deadly violence is just a way of life.

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Hewitt gives us plenty of Waugh-ish social satire on the way, partly courtesy of David’s friend Bob Carter, a young man with what they used to call ‘a dodgy ticker’. Turned down from active service he expends his energy on extracting donations from rich people in order to open a bizarre club, where he hopes that people of all nations (barring Jerry, the Eyeties and the Nips, of course) will mingle over a glass or two and thus further the cause of nation speaking unto nation. There is also the grotesque Annie, who serves as Mrs Meake’s maid of all work. Annie is painfully thin, a little short of six feet tall, and the first thing that most people see of her when she enters a room is her teeth.

T redhe ingredients simmering away in the pot of this murder mystery are exotic. There is Mrs Meake, matronly now in her middle age, but still dreaming of the days when she was a beauty in the chorus line on the London stage; her daughter Thelma, a thoroughly spoiled brat who has movie aspirations above her ability; also, who was the swarthy seafaring man trying to sell a fancy-handled knife in the local pub? David’s fellow residents at 15 Terrapin Road are a study in themselves – Cumberbatch, the retired rubber planter with a secret in his room; Lipscott, the Merchant Navy man besotted with a waif-like girl, and the misanthropic Smedley, with his limp and a sudden need for £100.

Kathleen Hewitt WC_01_AThe story rattles along in fine style as the hours tick by before David has to return to the war. He has two pressing needs. One is to buy the special licence which will enable him to marry Tess, and the other is to find the Terrapin Road murderer. Hewitt (right) is too good a writer to leave her story lightly bobbing about on the bubbles of wartime champagne (probably a toxic mix of white wine and ginger ale) and she darkens the mood in the last few pages, leaving us to ponder the nature of tragedy and self-sacrifice.

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NOTHING ELSE REMAINS . . . Between the covers

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WFBTCWe first met London’s Detective Inspector Jake Porter and Sergeant Nick Styles in Robert Scragg’s debut novel What Falls Between The Cracks (review here) almost exactly a year ago. This description of the pair is from that book:

“Styles had his weakness for all things Hugo Boss, his image neat and orderly, close cropped hair, number two all over. A few had referred to him as the Met’s answer to Thierry Henry, until they saw him play five-a-side football. Porter was from Irish stock, his wardrobe more high street fashion and his appearance, while not unkempt, had a more lived-in feel to it; hair so dark it bordered on black, refusing to be fully tamed by gel, but with a sense of messy style to it.”

NERPorter is still haunted by the death of his wife in a hit-and-run accident and, like all good fictional DIs, he is viewed by his bosses – in particular the officious desk jockey Milburn – as mentally suspect. He is forced to go for a series of counselling sessions with the force’s tame psychologist, but after one hurried and fruitless encounter, he becomes totally immersed in a puzzling case which involves an old friend of his, Max Brennan. Brennan has arranged to meet his long-estranged father for the first time, but the older man fails to make the rendezvous. When Brennan’s girlfriend is abducted, he turns to Porter for help.

The heavy stone that Porter turns over in his search for Brennan’s missing father reveals all kinds of nasty scuttling things that recoil at the daylight. Principal among these is a list of missing people, all businessmen, whose common denominator is that they have each resigned from their jobs with minimal notice given, citing personal health issues as the reason.

Meanwhile, Styles has a secret. His wife is expecting their first child and she has grave misgivings about her husband continuing as Porter’s partner, as their business puts them all too often – and quite literally – in the line of fire. Understandably, she recoils at the possibility of raising the child alone with the painful duty, at some point, of explaining to the toddler about the father they never knew. Styles has accepted her demand to transfer to something less dangerous, but as the Brennan Affair ratchets up in intensity, he just can’t seem to find the right moment to break the news to his boss.

This is a well written and entertaining police procedural with all the necessary tropes of the genre – maverick cop, desk-bound boss, chaotic personal lives, grimy city background and labyrinthine plot. Naturally, Porter finally gets to the bottom of the mystery of the missing businessmen, but this point was reached with a fair few pages left to go, so clearly something else is about to happen. Sure enough, it does, and it is clever plot twist which I certainly didn’t see coming. Robert Scragg may be a relative novice in the crime fiction stakes but, to mangle a metaphor, he casts his red herrings with the ease and accuracy of an expert.

Nothing Else Remains is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

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MURDER AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM . . . Between the covers

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MATBMLondon. 1894. The British Museum has become a crime scene. A distinguished academic and author has been brutally stabbed to death. Not in the hushed corridors, not in the dusty silence of The Reading Room, and not even in one of the stately exhibition halls, under the stony gaze of Assyrian gods and Greek athletes. No, Professor Lance Pickering has been found in the distinctly less grand cubicle of one of the museum’s … ahem …. conveniences, the door locked from inside, and the unfortunate professor slumped over the porcelain.

The police officers from Scotland Yard have been and gone, baffled by the killing. Sir Jasper Stone, Executive Curator-in-Charge at the museum, has called in Daniel Wilson, private consulting detective and his partner, in all senses of the word, Miss Abigail Fenton. Abigail is no stranger to the world of antiquities and academia, as she is a distinguished archaeologist. Wilson has pedigree, as he was a former Metropolitan Police officer, one of the investigative team assembled by Chief Inspector Fred Abberline. Abberline who retired two years earlier is still remembered for his Jack The Ripper investigations, and for his part in the Cleveland Street Scandal, where a raid on a male homosexual brothel was followed by a notorious government cover-up in order to protect some of the brothel’s VIP clients.

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Jim-EldridgeThis is a highly readable mystery with two engaging central characters, a convincing late Victorian London setting, and a plot which takes us this way and that before Daniel and Abigail uncover the tragic truth behind the murders. Jim Eldridge (right) is a veteran writer for radio, television and film as well as being the author of historical fiction, children’s novels and educational books. Murder At The British Museum is published by Allison & Busby, and is out now.

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THE BEAR PIT . . . Between the covers

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Political disagreement in modern mainland Britain is largely non-violent, with the dishonorable exceptions of Islamic extremists and – further back – Irish Republican terror. For sure, tempers fray, abuse is hurled and fists are shaken. Just occasionally an egg, or maybe a milkshake, is thrown. You mightn’t think it, given the paroxysms of fury displayed on social media, but sticks and stones are rarely seen. Scottish writer SG MacLean in her series featuring the Cromwellian enforcer Damian Seeker reminds us that we have a violent history.

The Bear PitIn the last of England’s civil wars, forces opposed to King Charles 1st and his belief in the divine right of kings have won the day. 1656. Charles has been dead these seven years and his son, another Charles, has escaped by the skin of his teeth after an abortive military campaign in 1651. He has been given sanctuary ‘across the water’, but his agents still believe they can stir up the population against his father’s nemesis – Oliver Cromwell, The Lord Protector.

In London, Damian Seeker is a formidable foe to those who yearn for the return of the monarchy. He is physically intimidating, has a fearsome reputation for violence but, like many more modern heroes, Seeker has a fragile personal life. To put Seeker into a modern fictional context, he is Jack Reacher and Harry Callaghan in breeches, stockings and with leather gauntlets on his hands. He has a primed and cocked flintlock pistol by his side, but doesn’t trust modern technology. His weapons of choice are his own fists and a brutal medieval mace.

The story begins with the chance discovery of a mutilated corpse in an outhouse south of the river, in Lambeth – the seventeenth century version of 1970s Soho. The dead man was chained and appears to have been savaged by a dog, except that dogs don’t have five razor sharp claws on each paw. Seeker has to accept the impossible truth. The man has been mauled by a bear. But hasn’t bear-baiting been banned, and haven’t the remaining beasts been removed and killed? Like other practices banned by the zealous moral guardians of Cromwell’s government, bear-baiting and dog-fighting have simply – to use a totally anachronistic metaphor – slipped beneath the radar.

While Seeker searches for his bear, he has another major task on his hands. A group of what we now call terrorists is in London, and they mean to cut off the very head of what they view as England’s Hydra by assassinating Oliver Cromwell himself. Rather like Clint Eastwood in In The Line of Fire and Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, Seeker has one job, and that is to ensure that the No.1 client remains secure. Of course, history MacLeantells us that Seeker succeeds, but along the way SG MacLean (right) makes sure we have a bumpy ride through the mixture of squalor and magnificence that is 17th century London.

McLean’s research is impeccable. She provides us with a clutch of recognisable real-life characters, and even the desperadoes who do their best to kill Cromwell are actual historical figures. She allows herself the luxury of a little what-iffery with the identity of the mysterious Boyes, ringleader of the plot, but this is all great fun and you would have to be a dull old thing not to be carried along with this excellent historical adventure.

The Bear Pit is published by Quercus and is out now. The Fully Booked review of the precious Damien Seeker novel, The Black Friar, is here.

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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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