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THE MOLTEN CITY . . . Between the covers

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TMCWe first met Leeds policeman Tom Harper in Gods of Gold (2014) when he was a young CID officer, and the land was still ruled by Queen Victoria. Now, in The Molten City, Harper is a Superintendent and the Queen is seven years dead. ‘Bertie’ – Edward VII – is King, and England is a different place. Leeds, though, is still a thriving hub of heavy industry, pulsing with the throb of heavy machinery. And it remains grimy, soot blackened and with pockets of degradation and poverty largely ignored by the wealthy middle classes. But there are motor cars on the street, and the police have telephones. Other things are stirring, too. Not all women are content to remain second class citizens, and pressure is being put on politicians to consider giving women the vote. Sometimes this is a peaceful attempt to change things, but other women are prepared to go to greater lengths.

This small but increasingly vocal movement provides one of two plot threads in what is, to my mind, Chris Nickson’s finest novel yet. Prime Minister HH Asquith and his Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone are due to visit Leeds, and it will be Harper’s task to make sure that the visit passes off peacefully. He knows there is likely to be a protest from unemployed men whipped up by anarchist Alf Kitson, but his greatest fear is that a demonstration led by suffragette Jennie Baines will provoke more intense publicity. At this point, it is essential to point out the difference between suffragettes and suffragists. The latter have the same aims as the former, but they are avowedly peaceful in their methods. Harper’s wife Annabelle is a suffragist. She has worked for women’s rights for many years, and has passed on her zeal to their teenage daughter Mary.

The parallel thread in The Molten City begins when Harper receives an anonymous letter:

Letter

As he uses his local knowledge and that of his older officers, Harper begins to piece together a jigsaw. As the picture begins to take shape, it is clear that it is one that contains elements of tragedy, greed, desperation – and downright criminality, and that solving the puzzle will bring joy to no-one. As the past players in this old drama start to realise that the past is catching up with them, anxiety leads to violence,and violence leads to murder.

There are so many dazzlingly good elements to this novel. Nickson, like many of his readers is someone of the twentieth century, and he has a keen eye and ear for little social mannerisms that certainly struck a chord with me. As Annabelle imagines her husband in a Chief Constable’s uniform, she says:
You’d look a right bobby-dazzler.”
Only those of us who were brought up having their tea made in a pot will remember this gesture:
“She felt the side of the teapot and poured herself another cup.”
Teenagers were as hungry in 1908 as they are today, but few sit down with their parents at a set table and have their meal:
“She’d already cleaned her plate right down to the pattern and was working her way through the suet pudding.”

Tom Harper is still fit, active, and able to handle himself in a scrap, but like Tennyson’s Ulysses who laments tho we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;” he is all too aware of the passage of time:
“And it was a detective’s job to follow every possibility. That was what his old boss, Superintendent Kendall, had instilled in him when he was starting out in CID. Another one who was dead now; Harper had filled his shoes at Millgarth. Billy, Kendall, so many others …very soon the dead in his life would outnumber the living.”

Nickson orchestrates the dramatic disorder – based on real events – of the Prime Minister’s visit with panache and the skills of a born storyteller. We know – as does Harper himself – that finding the truth about the child stealing will benefit no-one alive or dead, but he is a policeman who must do his duty while being all too well aware that the truth is frequently uncomfortable.

The Molten City is published by Severn House and is out now. If you want to find out more about Chris Nickson and his books, then click the image below.

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THE EVIL WITHIN . . . Between the covers

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profile-750x750SM Hardy, aka Sue Tingey, has put together a thoroughly enjoyable and, at times, genuinely scary ghost story. The Evil Within tells the tale of Jim Hawkes, a young London banker who has an attack of conscience about the bloodthirsty nature of his trade, and tells his boss to go forth and multiply. This rush of blood to the head is not entirely unconnected to the fact that he is still grieving for his dead sweetheart, who drowned herself after breaking off their engagement in a calamitous row. Jim decides that a physical exit from London is essential, and so he takes out a short term lease on a cottage in England’s West Country.

When he arrives in Devon he finds that the cottage – and its immediate surroundings – have, shall we say, history. The back story involves a dead girl, who was found hanged from the banisters. While exploring the adjacent churchyard, Jim meets the vicar, and is invited in to the rectory for a welcoming chat and a nice cup of tea. All good so far, but when he meets two of the long term residents, widowed Emma and Jed, the local handyman, fixer of lawnmowers and general village sage and factotum, his equilibrium is seriously disturbed when they tell him that the rectory is not only unoccupied, but the reverend gentleman has been dead for some time.

TEWBy now, of course, we have to suspend disbelief, because this is going to be a book where weird things are going to happen. There is one key question, as it ever was in ghost stories. Are the strange events actually happening independent from the main character’s perception or, as the title hints at, are they in his mind? SM Hardy certainly gives Jim Hawkes plenty to cope with. We have a Don’t Look Now style figure in a red coat who not only flits in and out of Jim’s peripheral vision, but occasionally holds his hand in her dead, cold fingers. Again with a nod to Daphne du Maurier’s wonderful short story, there are also two sisters, who may possible be sinister as well as spinster. We mustn’t forget a mysterious and hulking man in grey who clearly wishes Jim harm and may – or may not – be an astral projection of a malevolent criminal who lies in a vegetative state at a mysterious local mental hospital.

Clichés only become clichés when they are wearisome, and there is nothing remotely wearisome about The Evil Within. Yes, SM Hardy mines deep into the seam of supernatural fiction and comes up with many recognisable elements, but she welds them together to make a compelling novel. Best of all, even though she deal in familiar tropes – the haunted cottage, the startling face in the window, the conversations with the dead and the events that no-one in the village pub will talk about – we genuinely care about Jim Hawkes and what happens to him. The possibility that Jim’s apparitions may be just the product of his own mental fragility in the wake of his fiancée’s tragic death doesn’t diminish our concern for him, nor prevent us from fearing the worst when events take a disturbing turn.

I have never written a novel, nor could I, but I have read many and I know from experience that if the author doesn’t forge that link between reader and character, the book may as well be cast aside and sent to the charity shop. SM Hardy ticks this box – and many other important ones – and ensures that The Evil Within is both entertaining, credible and enthralling – with a sharp sting in the very tip of its tail. It is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

Click on the image below for a short but spooky video

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THE SECOND WIFE . . . Between the covers

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The Second Wife is Rebecca Fleet’s second novel. Her first, The House Swap, was well received and now she takes her skill at writing engaging domestic thrillers to the next stage. I will say at the outset that as much as I was gripped by The Second Wife, I was cursing quietly to myself because it contains a seismic plot shift towards the end which completely demolishes every assumption the reader may have made about what is going on, based on what he or she has been told by the different narrators. But why the curses? Simply because it makes a summary doubly difficult, because no reviewer wants to be known as the person who gave the game away. I loved the book, however, and I want you to love it too, so here goes – treading on eggshells.

TSWThere are three narrative viewpoints; centrally, there is Alex. He is a widower with a teenage daughter, Jade. He works in an advertising agency in Brighton, on England’s south coast. His first wife died from cancer when Jade was just a little girl, but he has remarried. The titular second wife Natalie is one of the storytellers, and she does her best to be a decent ‘second mum’ to Jade, although hormones have started to kick in and Jade is, like every modern teenage girl, obsessed with her social media profile and perceived slights from her step mum.

The novel begins with a serious fire in Alex’s house. Natalie, overcome by the smoke and flames, has been unable to rescue Jade, but the emergency services arrive in time to bring the teenager to safety. Temporarily relocated to a hotel, Alex and Natalie take turns at Jade’s hospital bedside as she slowly recovers from the ordeal. As Jade comes back to life, Alex is both puzzled and horrified at his daughter’s insistence that there was a strange man in the house at the time of the fire. Now, Alex’s disquiet turns to genuine alarm, and Natalie admits to him that she has a disturbing back-story.

RF014Her estranged sister, Sadie, has led a wayward and self-destructive existence which has forced Natalie to put some distance between herself and her sister, and reinvent herself using a different identity. Sadie’s obsession with a violent criminal has gone disastrously wrong, and Natalie is trying to lead a new life. By this time, Fleet (right) has given Sadie a voice of her own, and we listen to the musings of a sexually promiscuous young woman who has used men like Kleenex, and has a moral compass that barely makes the needle flicker beyond zero on the scale. But she has fallen under the spell of Kaspar, a London club owner who uses women in the same way that Sadie has come to use her queue of suitors.

So, we have the three viewpoints. Timewise, they span almost a decade. All I can say is that one of them – and you have to choose – is telling the mother of all lies. The Second Wife is anxiety-on-a-stick and, although the plot twist left me wondering who on earth I could rely on to tell me the truth, this was a brilliant read, and a novel that confirms Rebecca Fleet’s place at the top table of contemporary crime fiction writers. The Second Wife is published by Doubleday and is out today, 5th March.

BLOOD WILL BE BORN . . . Between the covers

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GDBelfast and its grim sectarian past is the epitome of noir. But, sadly, it is a non-fiction noir, as real events over the past fifty years or so would have been dismissed as preposterous had they been penned by a novelist. Such novelists would have to be writing historical fiction, though – wouldn’t they? Surely the momentous events of the spring of 1998 signaled a slow but irrevocable process of healing across the province? Gary Donnelly (left) has written a blistering debut novel Blood Will Be Born which says otherwise.

DCI Owen Sheen is a London copper born and brought up in the Sailorstown district of Belfast. His childhood was brutalised when an IRA car bomb devastated the street where he and his brother were playing. He survived, but his brother did not. Now, decades later, he has been seconded to work with the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland assisting their historic crimes unit. He has a hidden agenda, though, and it is to track down the people who set the bomb which killed his brother.

His Belfast minder is to be DC Aoifa McCusker, an ambitious and headstrong young officer widely distrusted by her male colleagues. Even before Sheen and McCusker have the chance to discover how they each like their coffee, author Donnelly introduces us to two of the spectacularly grotesque villains of the story. First up is John Fryer, a brutal republican hitman with too many deaths to his name. Too many? Fryer’s murderous career has been haunted by a grisly mythical beast known as The Moley, who rises up from the primeval bog and is only placated by the shedding of fresh blood. Fryer is contained – for now – in a secure mental hospital.

Fryer’s partner in crime also has his ghost, but the spectre is more personal for Christopher Moore. His father, a trusted and brave RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) officer, committed suicide when the changes forced upon policing by the Good Friday Agreement became too radical for him to cope with. Christopher Moore who, physically, looks as if he should be hunched up in his sweaty bedroom playing a computer game, is actually barking mad, as we learn when he butchers his own grandmother.

bwbb coverFryer and Moore, for their own reasons, are determined to set Belfast on fire. Not the triumphalist – but literal and containable – fire of The Loyalist bonfires on the eve of 12th July, but a fire which will lay waste to the fragile peace enjoyed in the divided city. Sheen and McCuskey, with different motives, are desperate to bring down Fryer and Moore.

It’s a certainty that no-one in mainland Britain today – nor their recent ancestors – has ever experienced anything as divisive and embedded with visceral hate as the social and religious conflict in Northern Ireland. We need to go back centuries to find anything remotely comparable. The English Civil War, perhaps, or the Wars of The Roses? Those two conflicts would certainly bear comparison in terms of casualties, but the dead of those wars were overwhelmingly soldiers killed in set-piece battles. What is euphemistically termed The Troubles has, over the decades, forced itself into homely living rooms, pub parlours, chip shops, trains and buses, public squares and almost every domestic nook and cranny across Ulster.

Blood Will Be Born is breathtakingly violent, vividly written and a bleak commentary on a seemingly terminal bitterness which makes normal human beings behave like creatures from a warped vision of hell. Not even Hieronymus Bosch at his coruscating best could have created monsters as fearsome as those who walk the streets of Donnelly’s Falls Road and Shankhill. Blood Will Be Born is published by Allison & Busby and is available now.

POSSESSED . . .Between the covers

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Possessed coverPeter Laws introduced us to Matt Hunter in Purged (2017) and we learned that he is a former priest whose total loss of faith coincided with tragic personal events. Now, he lectures in the sociology of religion and belief systems, and has a reputation (one which does not sit lightly with him) for being the go-to guy when the police have a case which is ‘not dream’t of in our philosophy’.

When a good old fashioned milkman, driving his ecological sound electric milk float, makes an horrific discovery in a suburban greenhouse, the result is that the police have an apparently raving madman on their hands. He is emaciated, disheveled and both frightened and frightening. This creature from hell does, however, have a day job. Tom Riley is the chef at a local pub and has, apparently, a Shepherds’ Pie to die for. When the baffled police summon Matt Hunter to talk to this fellow he finds him manacled to a chair and spitting out Exorcist-style obscenities.

H redunter discovers that Riley is a devotee of a local church, one which, depending on your view might be termed either ‘charismatic’ or ‘a bunch of eyeball-rollers’. Things take a dramatic turn for the worse when Riley’s wife is discovered, horribly mutilated, in one of the customer chairs of her home hairdressing salon.

As the case begins to attract lurid national interest, Hunter is roped into a no-holds-barred reality TV show, to be one of the talking heads in an investigation into demonic possession. While stoutly sticking to his sceptical opinions Hunter is swept along in the flood-tide of the media frenzy, and comes face to face with an infamous American evangelist who makes a living from casting out demons. The TV company, cameras eagerly devouring every second of the interplay between the apparently tormented victims of demonic possession and their potential saviour, book a rural retreat for a blockbuster special which will see Good and Evil come face to face, interrupted only with tasteful ads from the show’s sponsors.

W redhat happens next is violent, bloody, improbable – but totally gripping. Of course, Matt Hunter survives to return to his delightful wife and children, but not before he is forced to question his firmly-held disbelief in ‘ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night.’

There are two interlinked paradoxes in Possessed. The first is that Matt Hunter is a disbeliever in all things paranormal and in any possibility that there are any beings or forces outside man’s own imagination and mental state. He is, however,the creation of an ordained church minister whose own sense of the spiritual life is, I assume, central to his faith. Secondly – and do read the afterword to Possessed which is separate from the usual authorial Oscars speech thanking all and sundry – behind all the comic book gore and satirical swipes at the grossness of TV reality shows, Laws makes a serious point about troubled people searching desperately for supernatural answers to problems which come from within themselves.

LawsLaws (right) doesn’t exactly play it for laughs, but amid the knockabout spookery and Hunter’s own predilection for making wisecracks, there is serious stuff going on. It is worth comparing Matt Hunter with another fictional investigator of strange things – Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins. Like the real life Peter Laws, Merrily Watkins is a priest. Like Matt Hunter, merrily doesn’t necessarily believe in the supernatural, but she is totally convinced that some folk do.

Possessed is evidence that Peter Laws goes from strength to strength as a story teller, and that his tales of Matt Hunter’s encounters with possible demons are cast iron certainties to be good reads. Possessed is published by Allison & Busby and is out now.

Read more about the previous Matt Hunter novels by clicking this link.

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BURY THEM DEEP . . .Between the covers

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James Oswald’s Edinburgh copper Tony McLean is something of a fixture in the crime fiction firmament these days, and Bury Them Deep is the tenth in the series. For those readers picking up one of his cases for the first time, a little of his back story might be helpful. He is based in Edinburgh and now, of course, works for Police Scotland. He was (unhappily) educated in English independent schools thanks to his wealthy family, some of whose riches he has inherited, thus making him ‘a man of means’. He lives in an old and impossibly roomy house, left to him by his grandmother. He has a fragile relationship with partner Emma, and it is fair to say that their life together has been punctuated by both drama and tragedy. McLean drives a very plush Alfa Romeo, enjoys an occasional glass of cask-strength single malt whisky and, aside from his instinct for police work, has been known to be susceptible to stimuli and influences that are not, as Hamlet remarked, “dreamt of in your philosophy.” After many successful cases, he is now Detective Chief Inspector McLean, but if his superiors imagine he will settle for a life behind a desk, they are very much mistaken.

BTDAnya Renfrew is a rather dowdy and dull police civilian worker who seems devoted to her job, which is mastering the many databases which keep investigations fed with information. She has never had a day off in her life, and so when she goes missing it is considered rather unusual. Her mother is a former – and legendary – police superintendent, but Grace Ramsay is now old and infirm, living in a care home. Police are never more active than when investigating actual or possible harm to one of their own, and when McLean searches Anya’s house, what he finds hidden in her wardrobe indicates that Ms Renfrew’s private life was more exotic – and dangerous – than colleagues might have imagined.

A chance bit of tomfoolery by two schoolboys, bored out of their minds during the long hot summer holiday, leads not only to the discovery of Anya Renfrew’s car, but a moorland wildfire of tinder-dry heather. When the fire service manage to douse the flames, they make a disturbing discovery. Bones. Human bones. Bones that the post-mortem investigation reveals have been deliberately stripped of their flesh.

McLean’s professional life already has one big complication. A five-times serial killer called Norman Bale is in a secure mental hospital, thanks to McLean’s diligence and bravery. Now, he asks to speak to McLean, and what he has to say is both shocking and improbable. Are his words just the ramblings of a psychological disturbed killer, or does his suggestion – that Anya Renfrew’s disappearance and the moorland bone-pit are linked to a sinister piece of folklore – have any substance?

joIt takes a bloody good writer to mix crime investigation with touches of the supernatural. John Connolly, with his Charlie Parker books is one such, but James Oswald (right)  makes it work equally as well. The finale of this novel is as deeply frightening as anything I have read for a long time. Despite the drama, Oswald can use a lighter touch on occasions. There is dark humour in the way McLean sometimes needs to ingratiate himself with Edinburgh’s smart set. At an art gallery opening night he listens politely as two guests discuss one of the objets d’art:

“Fascinating how she blends the surreal and the horrific in a melange of sensual brushwork, don’t you think?”
“It all seems a bit brutal to me. The darkness crushes your soul, sucks it in, and you become one with the oils.”
Definitely Tranent, by way of the Glasgow School of Art department of pseudo-intellectualism. He’s been just as much of a twat at that age of course; in his case a student trying to impress with his rather flawed knowledge of basic psychology…”

Bury Them Deep is published by Wildfire (an imprint of Headline Publishing) and will be available on 20th February.

 

For reviews of other books by James Oswald click the link

WILDFIRE . . . Between the covers

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Back in the day, before authors and their publishers trusted me with reviewing novels, I did what the vast majority of the reading public did – I either bought books when I could afford them or I went to the local library. I had a list of authors whose latest works I would grab eagerly, or take my place in the queue of library members who had reserved copies. In no particular order, anything by John Connolly, Jim Kelly, Phil Rickman, Frank Tallis, Philip Kerr, Mark Billingham, Christopher Fowler and Nick Oldham would be like gold dust.

WildfireOldham’s Henry Christie was a particular favourite, as his adventures mixed excellent police procedure – thanks to Oldham’s career as a copper – a vulnerable and likeable hero, and an unflinching look at the mean and vicious streets of the Blackpool area in England’s north-west. Wildfire is the latest outing for Henry Christie, who has retired from the police and now runs a pleasant village pub set in the Lancashire hills.

The book’s title works both literally and as a metaphor: the moorland around Kendleton, where Christie pulls pints in The Tawny Owl is on fire, the gorse and heather tinder dry and instantly combustible. People in farms and cottages on the moors have been advised to evacuate, and The Tawny Owl has become a refreshment station, serving bacon butties and hot tea to exhausted firefighters. The violence of nature is being faithfully echoed, however, by human misdeeds. A gang of particularly lawless and well-organised Travellers* has targeted a money-laundering operation based in an isolated former farm. The body count is rising, and the sums of money involved are simply eye-watering, as Christie is asked to join the police investigation as a consultant.
Travellers

When Christie visits a refurbished ‘nick’ he finds that little has changed:

“…the complex was already beginning to reek of the bitter smell of men in custody: a combination of sweat, urine, alcohol, shit, general body odour and a dash of fear. Even new paint could not suppress it.”

D.C. Diane Daniels, Christie’s police ‘minder’ has driven him to a lawless Blackpool estate, once known as Shoreside, but rechristened Beacon View by some hopelessly optimistic council committee:

Money had been chucked at it occasionally, usually to build children’splay areas, but each one had been systematically demolished by uncontrollable youths. Council houses had been abandoned, trashed, then knocked down. A row of shops had been brought down brick by brick, with the exception of the end shop – a grocer/newsagent that survived only because its proprietor handled stolen goods.”

The locals don’t take kindly to their visit and Daniels tries to drive her battered Peugot away from trouble:

Ahead of her, spread out across the avenue and blocking their exit, was a group of about a dozen youths, male and female, plus a couple of pitbull-type dogs on thick chains, The youth’s faces were covered in scarves and in their hands they bounced hunks of house brick or stone; one had an iron bar like a jemmy.”

Eventually, the wildfires of both kinds are extinguished, at least temporarily, but not before Henry Christie is forced, yet again, to take a long hard look at himself in the mirror, and question if it was all worth the effort.

There is a complete absence of fuss and pretension about Oldham’s writing. Dismiss him at your peril, though, as just another writer of pot-boiler crime thrillers. He has created one of the most endearing – and enduring – heroes in contemporary fiction, and in his portrayal of a region not necessarily known for its criminality, he lifts a large stone to reveal several horrid things scuttling away from the unwanted light.

This brutal journey into the darkside of modern Britain ends with Christie summing up his motivation for continuing to fight on, his back to the wall:

The dead could not fight for themselves.People like him did that.”

Wildfire is published by Severn House and is available now.

SIX WICKED REASONS . . . Between the covers

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SCelticartre insisted that the celebrated line from his 1944 play Huis Clos (No Exit), “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” was forever misinterpreted, but the idea that hell is other people has stuck, despite the protestations of the Great Existentialist. Some, like Jo Spain in her latest novel Six Wicked Reasons, would suggest – to mix and match poets – that Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell could be condensed into an overpowering tenth – Family.

SWRThe Lattimer family, patriarch Frazer, sons James, Adam and Ryan, daughters Ellen, Kate and Clíodhna – Clio – have assembled at the family home in south east Ireland overlooking the waters of Spanish Cove in the Irish Sea, so called because of its earliest recorded casualties – sailors from a Spanish galleon blown adrift from the Armada and then shattered on the hidden rocks.

Something has gone badly wrong. With the family gathered aboard a luxury yacht moored just off-shore, and apparently partying, Frazer Lattimer has been hauled from the water, as dead as any Spanish sailor, with a mortal wound to his head. Now his children are huddled on shore, wrapped in space blankets, being interrogated by a member of the local Garda Síochána. And, of course, one of them must be the killer. Mustn’t they?

RCeltic lettereaders new to Jo Spain’s novels will welcome the apparently straightforward back-stories of Frazer Lattimer’s children, and their motives for wanting him dead. Those who know that the author is The Mistress of Misdirection will suspect, correctly, that this is only the start. But, for the record, I give you the Lattimer children. James is a big media name, with TV screenwriting and production credits on his CV. Lives in Dublin, of course with ex-model wife and step daughter. Adam – now there’s a tale. He now lives abroad, making money for fun, but he disappeared ten years earlier, broke the heart of his late mother Kathleen, and has now re-appeared, equally mysteriously, and it is his return ‘from the dead’ which has prompted the reunion. Ryan, alas poor Ryan. Drug addicted as a teenager, he has somehow survived industrial intakes of pharmaceuticals, and now lives in Italy, just about getting by as an odd-job man.

ECeltic letterllen Lattimer is the female equivalent of the Prodigal Son’s brother. Remember, the bloke who stayed at home while his brother was out on the town, giving it all away? Ellen has stayed at home, cleaning, cooking, dusting – and paying for the upkeep of the house. She is prim, joyless, and what Private Eye used to call “tight-lipped and ashen-faced.” Kate, on the other hand, has spread her wings and learned to fly. Having overcome a teenage weight problem which caused her to be known locally as King Kong, she is now svelte, lean and lovely. Also, married to a filthy rich Chinese businessman with a chain of luxury hotels. Clio, though has been in the wars. Summoned from a dingy bedsit in downtown New York to attend the family gathering, she is the most volatile of the children, the antithesis of the line from the old hymn which described Our Lord as “slow to chide and swift to bless.”

You could write what Jo Spain doesn’t know about plotting on the back of a postage stamp and still have room to inscribe the Lord’s Prayer, but she also has an ear for dialogue that is purely musical in its accuracy. We have the six Lattimer siblings, their father in flashback, plus his recently acquired Polish fiancée; to complete the line-up add Rob, an intriguing local policeman, and Danny, the grizzled mariner whose platonic love for Kathleen Lattimer broke his heart and yet made it sing. Ten totally different people, yet when each of them speaks, they are totally credible down to every word, every syllable and every inflection.

ACeltic letters an amateur wordsmith I can only guess at Jo Spain’s writing technique; her prose is so assured, so fluent and has that sense of flair that cannot, surely, be the result only of endless hours of editing. No matter how long you spend polishing a piece of coal, you will never transform it into a gem stone. Six Wicked Reasons is a diamond, multi-faceted and reflecting both the light and the darkness of the human soul. It is published by Quercus and is out on 16th January.

For more reviews of Jo Spain’s novels click the image below

Jo

THE UNFORGETTING . . . Between the covers

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As she gazes up at her bedroom ceiling, Lily Bell daydreams of becoming an actress. She is, to be sure, beautiful enough, with her long almost-white blond hair and her flawless complexion, but for the stepdaughter of a struggling artist in the London of 1851, her dreams of becoming Ophelia, Juliet or Desdemona are just foolish fantasies. Until the day her penniless stepfather receives a visit from one of his creditors, a mysterious self-styled Professor – Erasmus Salt. Salt is actually a theatrical showman, with a macabre interest in that overwhelming Victorian obsession, communicating with the dead. He offers Alfred Bell respite from the debt in return for Lily accompanying Salt and his spinster sister Faye to become the star of a new production, in which he will convince audiences that he has raised the dead.

Unforgetting coverDespite her misgivings, Lily is intrigued by what appears to be a chance to achieve her ambition. After all, Salt’s theatrical illusion may be faintly sinister, but who knows what career doors it might unlock? Bell, despite the tears and misgivings of his wife, cannot get Lily out of the door fast enough, and soon the girl is on her way south, to the seaside town of Ramsgate, where Salt’s production is due to be presented at The New Tivoli theatre.

Salt’s production is, literally, smoke and mirrors. Lily is not to appear on stage at all, but is confined to a cubicle, where her image is projected onto the stage via a huge mirror and the swirling aura produced by the burning of quicklime. On stage, an actor plays the role of a grieving husband trying to summon up the image of his dead wife. When she ‘appears’, he tries to clasp her to his arms but her wraith vanishes, and he ends it all, courtesy of a knife and a bladder of pig’s blood concealed under his shirt.

At first, Lily does not object to her new career, strange though it might be. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Salt – in order to further foster the illusion of Lily’s miraculous reincarnation – publishes notices announcing her death, and has a headstone bearing her name erected over an (empty) grave in a nearby cemetery.

By now we, as readers, know much more about Salt than does the hapless Lily. Having experience a terrible trauma in his youth, the balance of his mind has been disturbed; he may also be a murderer, and his obsession with the dead could be leading further than simply the creation of a melodramatic theatrical illusion.

Lily is an admirable character and becomes more resilient as her fortunes take a downturn at the hands of Salt, but the most intriguing part of the story is the way that Rose Black brings Faye Salt more and more centre stage, from being a slightly forbidding Mrs Danvers-like character, to becoming a vivid and compassionate woman. In the end the book was, for me, more about Faye than it was about Lily.

Rose Black has created an elegant conjuring trick of her own in The Unforgetting. She has stuck with all the conventional trappings of a Victorian melodrama, but written something much more subtle and affecting. Yes, we have a sneering villain, his grotesque henchman, a gothic mansion witness to a terrible tragedy, a wronged woman, a dying mother, exotic travelling gypsies, a noble young man who turns the tables on the degenerate despoiler – but there is more, so much more than that. The Unforgetting is published by Orion and is out now.

Ghost

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