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THE LEADEN HEART . . . Between the covers

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England, 1899. We are in the city of Leeds and the hottest summer in living memory is taxing the patience of even the most placid citizens. The heavy industry which has transformed the quietly prosperous Yorkshire town continues to clatter and roar, while the smoke from its thousand chimneys coats everything in grime, and the air is thick with soot. Superintendent Tom Harper of the city’s police force has mixed feelings about his recent promotion. The pile of paperwork on his desk adds to the tedium, and he wishes he could be out there on the busy streets doing what he believes to be a copper’s real job.

TLHHarper lives above a city pub, the Victoria. His wife, Annabelle, is the landlady, but she is also a fiercely determined advocate of women’s rights, and she has made waves by being elected to the local Board of Guardians, a largely male-dominated organisation which is tasked with administering what, in the dying years of Queen Victoria’s reign, passed for social care. When the brother of Harper’s one-time colleague, Billy Reed, commits suicide the death is dismissed, albeit sadly, as commonplace, but Reed believes that his brother’s death is due to something more sinister, and he asks Harper to investigate.

Charlie Reed was a small time shop-keeper, but his shop was in an area where large scale commercial developments are being planned, and his premises – along with many others – have been targeted by thugs who are possibly in the pay of two wealthy – but utterly corrupt and ruthless – city councillors. Like a dog with a bone, Harper chews and gnaws away at the shrouds of secrecy with which these men have surrounded themselves, but Charlie Reed’s tragic suicide is eclipsed by a string of savage killings committed by a deranged pair of brothers who are clearly acting at the behest of the two councillors and their lawyer.

Against a background of heartbreaking poverty, where needless deaths and bureaucracy trump common humanity at every turn, Harper eventually gets to come face to face with the killers and their suave masters, but not before his family is put in peril, and his own life comes to hang from a thread.

The most chilling aspect of The Leaden Heart is that it is brutally contemporary. Town and City councillors might, these days, be seen as bumbling and pompous local jobsworths, full of piss and wind, but relatively harmless. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now, as in 1899, such people have huge power over planning applications and budgets which are in the millions. Now, as then, the corrupt and venal live among us and will, no doubt, be putting themselves up for re-election in May 2019.

The author’s empathy with the downtrodden and exploited, and his disgust at crooked councillors and unfeeling public guardians burns like an angry flame. The most haunting image in the book is of two drowned children killed, yes, by their drunken father, but also failed by their helpless mother and the rigid workhouse system. Nickson is a writer, however, whose passionate desire for social justice never impedes his ability to tell a great story and weave a dazzling crime mystery. What is more, he does the job with minimal fuss; there’s never a wasted word, a redundant adjective or an overblown description. His prose is pared down to the bone, but always sharp and vivid. I often think Nickson would have found lasting kinship with the great campaigning journalist and author GR Simms, (incidentally an almost exact contemporary of Tom Harper) whose most celebrated work is echoed in some aspects of The Leaden Heart. The book is published by Severn House and will be out on 29th March.

Regular visitors to Fully Booked will know that I am an unashamed fan of everything Chris Nickson writes. If you click on the image of the man himself, you can read other reviews and features on his work.

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HARDCASTLE’S QUANDARY . . . Between the covers

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London, 1927, and Divisional Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle is summoned to the office of Chief Constable Frederick Wensley[1], who has received a letter from a Norfolk parson. The Rev. Percy Stoner is convinced that his nephew Guy has met with misfortune. The former army Captain has disappeared, and when Hardcastle despatches men to visit the business young Stoner had set up with another Great War veteran, they make a chilling discovery.

Hardcastle himself was too old to serve in the war, but for his younger colleagues who knew the Western Front, body parts hold few terrors. The human remains found in the burnt-out premises in Surrey are examined by none other than Sir Bernard Spilsbury[2] and his findings complicate Hardcastle’s case. Is the first body that of Guy Stoner, or is it that of his business partner? And who was the young woman whose butchered remains shared the same ignominious burial place?

HQForced to play cherchez-la-femme, the detectives stumble down one blind alley after another, but as they do so they learn a few home truths about the fate of the young men who went to fight in the war-to-end-all-wars, and returned home to find that their birthplace was not the ‘land fit for heroes’ glibly promised by politicians. There is a peacetime army with no place for young officers whose courage was welcome in the trenches, but whose humble upbringing is now seen as an embarrassment as the cigars are lit, and the port passed in the correct direction at mess dinners. Such young men, not all heroes, but men nevertheless, are forced to find civilian employment which is neither honest, decent nor lawful.

Eventually, after an investigation which takes the detectives on many a trip into the provinces and away from their metropolitan stamping grounds, the case is solved, and there is work for the hangman to do, but not before an intervention by the Home Secretary.

GIGraham Ison is a master story-teller. The Hardcastle books contain no literary flourishes or stylistic tricks – just credible characters, excellent period detail and an engaging plot. Cosy? Perhaps, in the sense that we know how Hardcastle and his officers are going to react to any given situation, and their habits and small prejudices remain unchanged. Comfortable? Only because novels don’t always need to shock or challenge; neither do they always benefit from graphic descriptions of the damage humans can sometimes inflict on one another. Ison (right) credits his readers with having imaginations; he never gilded the lily of English life in the earlier Hardcastle cases which took place during The Great War, and he doesn’t start now, nearly a decade after the final shots were fired. The suffering and trauma of those four terrible years didn’t end at the eleventh hour on that eleventh day; they cast a long and sometimes baleful shadow which frames much of the action of this novel.

Hardcastle’s Quandary is a great read. As well as being a fascinating period police procedural, it is a gently reflective but sharply observant look at England in the 1920s. We sense that Hardcastle, deeply conservative and instinctively opposed to the steady advance of technology, has entered his autumn period. Colleagues like Marriott and Catto tolerate his idiosyncrasies and work around the fact that he sometimes appears to be a creature from a bygone age, preserved in his own block of amber. Hardcastle’s quandary? That is for the reader to judge, and it may only be resolved in the final pages. The novel is published by Severn House and is available here.

[1] Frederick Porter Wensley OBE KPM (28 March 1865 – 4 December 1949) was a British police officer from 1888 until 1929, reaching the rank of chief constable of the Scotland Yard Criminal Investigation Department. Serving in Whitechapel for part of his career, Wensley was involved in the investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders, details of which he would later publish in his memoirs in 1931.

[2] Sir Bernard Henry Spilsbury (16 May 1877 – 17 December 1947) was a British pathologist. His cases include Hawley Harvey Crippen and the “Brides in the Bath” murders by George Joseph Smith,. Spilsbury’s courtroom appearances became legendary for his demeanour of effortless dominance.

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RUNAWAY . . . Between the covers

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This gripping thriller opens in New York’s Central Park. To be more precise, in Strawberry Fields, the section of the public space dedicated – perhaps by a city with an uneasy sense of guilt about providing the stage for the most infamous music death of all – to the man who took five hollow-point .38 bullets in his back, just across the way on 8th December 1980. Simon Greene, a wealthy investment advisor, sits on a bench listening to a busker, also committing murder (but this time the victim is only a song, All You Need Is Love)

“Simon’s eyes stayed locked on the panhandling girl mangling John Lennon’s legacy. Her hair was matted clumps. Her cheekbones were sunken. The girl was rail-thin, raggedy, dirty, damaged, homeless, lost.

She was also Simon’s daughter Paige.”

RunawayStart a 366 page book like that, and you might be making a rod for your own back, one that will whack you squarely between the shoulder blades if you don’t keep up the poetic intensity. Does Coben manage it? Of course he does – and with the stylish flourishes and narrative élan we have come to expect from one of the great crime writers of out time.

Simon Greene tries to embrace his fallen daughter, both literally and metaphorically, and he meets not only rejection but is sucked into a vortex of desperation and violence as he defies the good advice of his family, and tries to bring Paige home. Greene has three weapons: first, a borrowed handgun he has no idea how to use; second, a relatively inexhaustible supply of cash with which to bribe the grifters who he believes can lead him to his daughter; thirdly – and perhaps the most potent – a desperate desire to reclaim his ‘little girl’ and, perhaps, assuage the inevitable feelings of guilt any parent must feel when a child goes badly astray.

Pitting a mild-mannered financial advisor against a violent underclass of drug dealers and abusers might seem an obvious ploy, but Coben turns the narrative on its head by introducing another element into Simon Greene’s quest. Think Heart of Darkness, and imagine Greene as Conrad’s Marlow, but be prepared for the elusive Kurtz to be someone – and something – way, way different and far more disturbing and dangerous.

HCHarlan Coben (right) has thirty or so best selling crime thrillers behind him, but we must never, ever, take him for granted. There is no formula, no template, and no literary flat-pack easy-to-assemble ‘give-the-audience-what-it-wants’ sameness. He takes us to uncomfortable places and introduces us to people who are not stereotype heroes or villains. He is unafraid to give us a rough ride along roads traveled by complicated people who frequently confound our perceptions. Runaway is, quite simply, a brilliant read. It is published by Century and will be out in Kindle and hardback on 21st March. The paperback version is expected in the summer. You can check out other Fully Booked reviews of Harlan Coben’s novels by clicking the links below.

Don’t Let Go

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#TAKEN . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE MATHEMATICAL BRIDGE . . . Between the covers

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“Detective Inspector Eden Brooke trudged into Market Hill, the city’s great square, as snowflakes fell, thick and slow, each one a mathematical gem, seesawing down through the dead of night. Every sound was muffled, a clock striking the hour out of time, the rhythmic bark of a riverside dog, the distant rumble of a munitions train to the east, heading for the coastal ports. The blackout was complete, but the snow held its own light, an interior luminescence, revealing the low clouds above. Brooke stopped in his tracks, his last crisp footstep echoless, and wondered if he could hear the snow falling; an icy whisper in time with the sparkling of the crystals as they settled on the cobbles, composing themselves into a seamless white sheet.”

TMB“Begin as you mean to go on” says the old adage, and Jim Kelly sets himself a hard task with the brilliant and evocative first paragraph of The Mathematical Bridge. The beautiful use of language aside, Kelly’s first 126 words convey a wealth of information. A country at war. Midwinter. A city preparing for an attack from the air. A policeman out and about when honest men are abed.

Eden Brooke first appeared in The Great Darkness (2018) and you can read my review by clicking the blue link. A copper in the university city of Cambridge, he is a war veteran, not of the Western Front, but of the desert campaign, one of ‘Allenby’s Lads.’ We join him in that first winter of the Second World War, when German bombers have yet to inflict their terror on the houses and streets below them. Tragedy strikes when a boy, evacuated from his London home to the relative safety of a Roman Catholic community in Cambridge, is feared drowned in the fast-freezing River Cam. His body is eventually recovered, but not before Brooke has unearthed a plot to bring death and destruction to the streets of Cambridge.

The conspirators are not Germans but people from much nearer home who firmly believe that their enemy’s enemy is their friend. With two Irish republican conspirators sitting in a Birmingham jail, sentenced to death for a 1939 bomb atrocity in Coventry, Brooke realises that the next potential target for the IRA is Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, younger brother to the King. Henry is due to make a morale-boosting visit to Cambridge to boost the war effort, and Brooke is desperate to find the link between the dead boy in the river and the Irish community who worship at St Alban’s church.

Eden Brooke is an engaging character. Blighted by vision problems and chronic insomnia – both the result of his wartime treatment at the hands of brutal Turkish captors – he goes about his work with a steely intensity, much to the despair of his wife and daughter. Kelly’s portrait of provincial England in the first months of WW2 is mesmerising, more so given the added piquancy of our knowledge of what will happen, contrasted with the uncertainty of the characters in the novel.

Give Jim Kelly a landscape, a town, a city, an isolated village, and he will mobilise and send it off to war. Fans of his Philip Dryden novels will know the dramatic chiaroscuro he paints that shows how the comfortable middle-class cathedral city of Ely sits surrounded by dark and broken hard-scrabble villages out in the Fen. His Norfolk copper, Peter Shaw, knows only too well the contrast between the rough estates of King’s Lynn and the Chelsea-On-Sea second homes further up the Norfolk coastline. Eden Brooke’s Cambridge is a vivid and vital character in The Mathematical Bridge. Kelly makes it, despite the murders, an island of relative calm and rationality, for beyond it, out there in the flat darkness, lies The Fen.

doublesmallmathematicalbridgeThis is writing of the highest quality. Not just with the lame caveat ‘for a crime novel’ but writing with a touch of poetry and elegance gracing every line. Even when the crime is solved, the perpetrators are behind bars, and the delightfully complex contradictions of the plot have been explained, Kelly (right) still has the emotional energy to give us a last scene which manages to be poignant but, at the same time, life-affirming.

The Mathematical Bridge is published by Allison & Busby and is out on 21st February. For more about Jim Kelly and his writing click this link.

 

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COLD AS THE GRAVE . . . Between the covers

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This is a welcome return to the world of Edinburgh copper Tony McLean. He is now Chief Inspector, and to quote, appropriately enough, the Scottish Play, he feels he is dressed in ‘borrow’d robes’. On his desk are small mountains of files, reports, initiatives and consultation documents: beyond the door of the nick are thieves, rapists and murderers. McLean knows where his heart is leading him, and it is out away from his desk and onto the mean streets.

When McLean uses the excuse of a potential clash between rival demonstrators to desert his office, he discovers a corpse abandoned in a derelict cellar. As the technicians and medics swarm round the body it seems obvious that the remains – of a young girl – have been there for some considerable time. When, however, the pathologist is able to take a closer look under the spotlight above the mortuary slab, he comes to the astonishing conclusion that the girl has only been dead for a matter of days, despite her desiccated and leathery skin.

indexCold As The Grave is the ninth novel in the Tony McLean series, but fine writers – and Oswald is up there with the very best – make sure that it is never too late to come to the party. For anyone new to the series, McLean is something of an individual. Due to an inheritance, he is exceedingly wealthy, but has a modest lifestyle and chooses to remain a police officer. He has a long-standing ‘significant other’ in Emma Baird, but the previous novel, The Gathering Dark, (click to read the review) ended with her having a disastrous miscarriage. McLean is a fine detective, but he is blessed, or perhaps cursed, with an awareness of the supernatural. The two characters in the books who operate in this sphere are Madame Rose, a bizarre but benign transvestite clairvoyant, and the considerably more sinister Mrs Saifre. She is, on the surface, merely a very rich and influential owner of newspapers and media outlets, but McLean senses that there is something existentially evil and elemental behind her smooth corporate image.

Back in Cold As The Grave, more bodies are found, each apparently mummified in the same way as the poor child found in the tenement cellar. McLean makes an important connection between the deaths and the rising tide of people trafficking which has hit the city. Girls and young women from the war zones of the Middle East are being brought in and, at best, set to work for a pittance in local factories but, at worst, forced into prostitution.

With his bosses exasperated at the amount of time he is spending away from his paper shuffling duties, McLean’s investigation reaches a crucial fork in the road. To the left is the grim possibility that someone at the heart of the trafficking gang is using some kind of deadly serum, derived from snake venom, to carry out murders and threaten other victims: to the right, however improbable, is the presence of some kind of evil djinn reincarnated from Aramaic legend and folklore. McLean knows that following the road to the right will lead only to ridicule by both his superior officers and those who work for him, but he has learned to trust his instincts, even if they terrify him.

joDoes McLean follow his head or his heart? The road to the left or the right? Cold As The Grave is a brilliant police procedural, but there is more – so much more – to it. For those who love topographical atmosphere Oswald (right) recreates a wintry Edinburgh that makes you want to turn up the central heating by a couple of notches; for readers drawn by suggestions of the supernatural there is enough here to induce a shiver or three, while making sure the bedroom light remains on while you sleep. The sheer decency and common humanity of Tony McLean – and the finely detailed portraits of the people he works with – will satisfy the reader who demands authentic and credible characterisation. Cold As The Grave is published by Wildfire/Headline and will be out on 7th February.

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DANGEROUS DECEITS . . . Between the covers

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dd covrYou might guess that a crime novel featuring an amateur detective called Gawaine St Clair is not going to take you down many mean streets; furthermore, were one to Frenchify its chromatic tint, then it would probably be nearer beige than noir. This being said, if you are a Golden Age fan, like dry humour, enjoy a clue-laden whodunnit and are never happier than when luxuriating in the follies and foibles of the English middle classes, then Cherith Baldry’s Dangerous Deceits will be a joy.

Gawaine St Clair seems to be a man of independent means, not unlike his aristocratic predecessor Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, and his affluence enables him to take up criminal investigations without having to make excuses to an employer for his absence from the workplace. In this case he is called upon by his aunt Christobel to solve the mysterious death of a vicar. Father Tom Coates disappeared into his vestry moments before the beginning of a service, and was not seen again until he was found some time later, all life extinct due to a fatal blow to his head with the time-honoured blunt object.

It needs to be said at this point that the novel is very, very ‘churchy’. I use the term to describe a way of life centred around the Anglican church, with attendant church wardens, vergers, flower ladies, Parochial Church Councils, the occasional Bishop, and heated disputes over liturgical practices. Anthony Trollope de nos jours? Possibly, but as an Anglican, albeit rather lapsed, I share Cherith Baldry’s obvious love of the sonorous prose of The Book of Common Prayer – the proper 1662 version, not some squeaky clean modern adaptation designed to appeal to ‘the younger generation’. She uses suitably resonant quotes as her chapter headings, none more appropriately than:

“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live.”

St Clair is faced with a whole repertory company of likely suspects, all – or none – of whom may have had their reasons to bash Father Tom’s head in. In no particular order, we have a choleric prep school Headmaster straight out of Decline and Fall, a woman denied communion because of her marital woes, a glib local solicitor, the dead man’s brother and sister, with whom he owned valuable shares in a family business, and a dowdy local GP with a beautiful and sophisticated wife.

cbGawaine may be too arch and precious for some tastes but he fits perfectly into the Home Counties landscape with its manicured village greens and faux Tudor dwellings. I thoroughly enjoyed Dangerous Deceits and Father Tom’s killer is unmasked not amid the dusty shelves of a country house library, but in the altogether more fractious atmosphere of an extraordinary (in the procedural sense) meeting of the Ellingwood PCC. The solution, as in many a whodunnit, rests with everyone – including Gawaine, the local coppers and, in this particular case, me – making a seemingly obvious assumption early in the piece.

Cherith Baldry (right) is an acclaimed writer of children’s fiction and fantasy novels. The first in her Gawaine St Clair series was Brutal Terminations, which came out in February 2018. Dangerous Deceits is available now and is published by Matador.

THE SUSPECT . . . Between the covers

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Kate Waters was introduced to readers in Fiona Barton’s novel, The Widow (2016) and made her second appearance in The Child (2017). Now she returns in The Suspect and is very much “the story” rather than just a reporter investigating the dark things that happen to other people. Two teenage girls have celebrated the end of their ‘A’ Levels by heading off on the adventure of a lifetime – a back-packing trip to Thailand. When phone calls home and emails suddenly stop, the parents of Alex and Rosie are at first uneasy, but then disquiet turns into blind panic.

ts coverSensing a very productive headline story that will run and run, Kate Waters uses all her empathy and tricks-of-the-trade to get close to the girls’ families, and the story does indeed have the whole enchilda. Beautiful teenage girls, disappearance in a Bangkok drug den, frantic parents, the possibility of incompetence by foreign police – what could possibly go wrong? Jake Waters is what could possibly go wrong. Kate’s son has been away in Thailand “finding himself” after a failed spell at university, and her journalistic glee at the ramifications of the story is brutally brought up short when she finds that her errant boy might be at the very epicentre of the story she has claimed as her own.

The technique of telling a story from several different narratives is hardly new, but few can have handled it better in recent times than Fiona Barton. The events both here in England and further afield unfold through the eyes of Kate Walters herself, the distraught parents, and the local police team lead by DI Bob Sparkes and his DS, Zara Salmond. Inevitably, the perceptions of Kate Walters are more immediate because her narrative is first person. Barton has probably forgotten more about the world of journalism than most crime writers will ever know, and she makes good use of her experience when she describes the gears grinding as Kate switches from mother to reporter and then back to mother again. On her own website, Fiona Barton writes:

“I should say here that Kate Waters is not me. I’ve been where she goes but she is a composite of many Kates I have worked with. She is in her fifties, has juggled career and family, chafing at her hospital consultant husband’s dismissal of her job and the guilt of missing parent evenings and football matches. She is world-weary at times, terrified by the technology changing the media and insecure about her role. But she is still driven by the need to find the story. And she refuses to go until she has nailed it…”

FionaIt must be said that this is a story long on personal misery and rather short on redemption, but it is beautifully written. The nuances of conversation, gesture and body language are exquisitely observed even if they sometimes make for painful reading, such as the bittersweet moments between Bob Sparkes and his dying wife. My own children are, thankfully, well past the age of “doing” Thailand, but my advice to those with gap-year offspring is, with all respect to Fiona Barton (right), don’t read this book! Once your teenagers have shouldered their backpacks and waved goodbye at the departure gate, your mind will hark back to The Suspect it will be nessun dorma for you!

The Suspect is a superior blend of psychological thriller and police procedural, and Fiona Barton keeps us guessing until the last page and a half. To be fair she does give us a fairly important clue much earlier in the novel, but – quite correctly in my case – she expects that we will forget about it in all the to-ing and fro-ing between Bangkok, Hampshire and London. The Suspect is published by Bantam Press and will be out on 24th January.

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THE MAN WITH NO FACE . . . Between the covers

 

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The most sinister fictional hitmen usually only have a surname, and if that name is a harsh monosyllable, then all the better. Kale is one such, and Peter May introduces him to us in his latest novel, The Man With No Face. Kale, who learned his trade in the British Army, is sent to Brussels to carry out a double killing.

The central character is not the malevolent Kale, but a Scottish journalist, Neil Bannerman, who is sent to Brussels, partly to keep him out of the way of his paper’s thrusting new editor, but also to delve for sensational stories of immorality and incompetence among the myriad employees of what we now call the European Union.

tmwnf coverBannerman initially lodges with an embittered fellow journalist, Tim Slater, who shares his apartment with his autistic daughter Tania. The child is looked after by a young Englishwoman, Sally Robertson, with whom Bannerman strikes up a relationship.  Kale’s victims are Slater himself and a senior British politician but when he strikes he is unaware that Tania is watching from the next room. Mute, she is later unable to tell the police anything, but she draws a picture of what she has seen. The drawing is intensely detailed and very graphic with one exception. The killer has no face.

Peter May aficionados will probably recognise this book in its earlier manifestations; firstly as Hidden Faces, published by Piatkus in 1981 and again with its current title a year later, but this time under the imprint of St Martin’s Press.

mayHow has the book fared, nearly forty years on? Whatever revisions the author has made, he hasn’t pushed the time slot on by four decades, so we are still in the late 1970s, so in a sense the book has become historical crime fiction by default. I don’t know what Peter May (right) thinks about the vexed question of Brexit, but here he paints a picture of the EEC in its all-too-familiar guise as a fraud-riven monolithic haven for thousands of bureaucrats, men and women pushing paper around at huge expense to taxpayers across the continent, but achieving very little except the perpetuation of their own jobs.

The vexed question of Britain’s relationship with southern Africa in the 1970s is now little more than a footnote in the history of the 20th century, but May uses it to good effect here. The setting of The Man Without A Face is a wintry Brussels that, quite literally, chills us to the bone. The snow, sleet, bitter winds and the hazy winking of car tail lights as they battle with the frozen city streets will make you want to reach for an extra layer of warm clothing. In keeping with the weather, there is a distinct noir-ish feel about much of the book, and the existential musings of Kale as he goes about his bleak business reminded me very much of Derek Raymond. Bear in mind, though, that Raymond’s classic Factory novels post date this, making me think that perhaps Peter May was ahead of the game.

Back in 1981, the trope of the mute, blind or disabled witness to a crime had already been explored, most memorably in the Audrey Hepburn film Wait Until Dark (1967), but our current awareness of the complex issue of people with Autism was not mainstream in the 1980s. Leaving aside the socio-cultural background, The Man With No Face is a cracking thriller now, as it must have been then. It is published by riverrun, which is an imprint of Quercus. and it’s out on 10th January.

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