Search

fullybooked2017

Tag

London

THE RETURN OF HESTER LYNTON . . . Between the covers

lynton004

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

tbb026 copy

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.

Morice

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

CAE HEADER

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.

Brighton

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.

Screen Shot 2021-11-19 at 19.13.44

BM header

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.

BM image

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 1: London and Cambridge

CAE HEADER

I am taking a journey around England to revisit places associated with great crime novels. One or two might be a surprise!

London is a great place to start, and one of its finest crime writers was Derek Raymond (real name Robert William Arthur Cook 1931 – 1994). His Factory series featured an un-named Detective Sergeant working out of a fictitious police station in Soho. He is part of the Unexplained Deaths division and a man already haunted by tragedy. His mentally unhinged wife killed their daughter, and he is alone in life except for her ghost. This is a London of almost impenetrable moral darkness, an evil place only infrequently redeemed by intermittent acts of kindness and compassion. The detective devotes himself to seeking justice or revenge (and sometimes both) for the victims.

DRWe are left to imagine what he looks like. He never uses violence as a matter of habit, but his inner rage fuels a temper which can destroy those who are unwise enough to provoke him. Why is he so bitter, so angry, so disgusted? Of himself, he says:

I’m a solitary man. Sometimes, mind, there’s happiness in solitude, still, it helps to talk to other people sometimes and  dig back together to a time when people felt that the past mattered and something good might happen in the future. But when I open the next door I’m sent to and find the dead inside, overturned bottles and tables, bloody, dishonoured, defamed people lying there, I sometimes accept that dreaming and hoping the way I do is absurd.”

Raymond is regarded as the Godfather of English Noir and is an acknowledged influence on most modern writers in the genre. A good novel to start with is He Died with His Eyes Open (1984) but you will need to steel yourself before tackling his brutal masterpiece I Was Dora Suarez. There’s more on Derek Raymond and his books here.

EB

TGD

TNRTMB

 

 

ORDERS TO KILL . . . Between the covers

OTK header

It’s always a pleasure to find a new (to me) historical police series, and especially one set during The Great War. I have read most of the Inspector Hardcastle series but, sadly, Graham Ison is no longer with us. RN Morris’s Silas Quinn books are great fun too, but most of those I have read recently are re-published editions of books written some years ago. Orders To Kill, by the accomplished and prolific historical novelist Edward Marston, is bang up to date, publishing wise, and it is the ninth in what is called the Home Front Detective series.

OTK cleanInvestigating duos are always a reliable way to spin a police novel, and in this case we have Inspector Harvey Marmion and Sergeant Joe Keedy of the Metropolitan Police. Marmion is married to Ellen, with a son and daughter. Son Paul has been mentally damaged by his time on the Western Front, and has now disappeared leaving no clue as to his whereabouts, while daughter Alice – also a service police officer – is engaged to Keedy.

It is December 1917 and Marmion and Keedy are investigating the brutal murder of a prominent surgeon, Dr Tindall, who has been working at a military hospital in London. He is found dead in his house, horribly mutilated by – according to the pathologist – a large bladed weapon, perhaps a bayonet. The dead man was highly thought of at his hospital, and widely admired by others who knew him, but when attempts are made to establish a possible motive, serious questions arise. Why, for example, can police find no trace of George Tindall’s parents at the Scottish address listed on his file? Why does the current owner of what was named as his Brighton home say that she has never heard of him?

He was clearly a wealthy man, and one who paid cash for his elegant Savile Row suits, but what motive could he possibly have had for fabricating a personal background? As the equanimity of the Marmion household is disrupted by alarming family news from Somerset, the women take a train to Shepton Mallett, while Marmion himself is confronted with fresh discoveries about the George Tindall many thought they knew well.

edward-marston-new-bestwbEdward Marston (real name Keith Miles, right) keeps us well tuned in to the news from abroad, as the Tindall case plays out against news of General Allenby’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and how the initial British success at Cambrai was tainted by a fierce German fight back. For Marmion and Keedy however, the Tindall case seems to be spiraling out of control as it seems his killers are two men taking their orders from a higher authority – and Tindall is not their first victim. The detectives travel to Brighton, Kent, Bristol and Staffordshire in their efforts to make the case make sense, but ultimately they must make one last – and infinitely more dangerous journey – before they reach a solution to this most intractable of mysteries.

Orders To Kill is highly readable, written by an author who clearly knows his history and is an accomplished storyteller. Published by Allison & Busby, it will be available on 21st October.

THE MANNEQUIN HOUSE . . . Between the covers

Mannequin header

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.

Blackleys

LONDON BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN . . . Between the covers

LBIFD header041

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)

Screen Shot 2021-07-21 at 19.18.41

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.

Screen Shot 2021-07-30 at 08.52.10

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.

foyles-logo-colour-590Waterstonesamazon_co_uk_logo_640

A CASE OF ROYAL BLACKMAIL . . . Between the covers

acorb header038

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.

acorb footer040

MURDER AT MADAME TUSSAUDS . . . Between the covers

Murder header

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.

BigWigs

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.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑