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THE MEON HILL MURDER . . . Part three

The Spring of 1945 turned into summer in Lower Quinton. The barren hedges that Charles Walton had tended bore green buds. The war in Europe finally ended, and the wives, daughters, mothers and sisters who had not lost their men in the struggle against Hitler began to dream of the day when “We’ll Meet Again” would be a joyful reality rather than a sentimental song. More mundanely, the Warwickshire police were none the wiser as to who had hacked an old man to death on that fateful St Valentine’s Day. Robert Fabian had returned to London, and Alec Spooner had other cases to solve (although the Walton murder remained an obsession with him).

Just as the identity of Jack the Ripper will never be known, we will never know who killed Charles Walton, or why. As recently as 2014, the local BBC team for Coventry and Warwickshire examined the case, and sent some unfortunate trainee out there to quiz the locals. As you will see from the feature (click here) no-one was very keen to talk, any more than they were in the weeks and months after the murder.

Alfred Potter died in 1961, and whatever secrets he had went into the grave with him. The Firs farm was later demolished and was replaced by an expensive housing development. Talking of graves, the researcher will look in vain for the last resting place of Charles Walton, in St Swithin’s churchyard. It has been said that the headstone was removed to deter ghoulish sightseers, but like so much of this story, there is no hard evidence that this is the case. Walton’s meagre cottage has now been knocked through with two other adjoining properties to make a rural residence which, no doubt, is worth an eye-watering amount (below)

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My view? The only thing that stands out like the proverbial sore thumb is the total collective silence – both contemporary and future – of the villagers of Lower Quinton. 1945 was not a time of continual distraction from electronic or digital media. Lower Quinton was not a bustling place, a transport hub, or somewhere used to endless strangers coming and going. Someone – and then by definition others in their circle – knew something, and the resultant omertà is almost as chilling as the murder itself. Thirty years later, Walton’s death was still providing copy for regional journalists and, although I have no evidence that Ron Harding – who penned this piece – was in any way involved with the murder, it still sounds as certain people – or their sons and daughters – at the heart of whatever made Lower Quinton tick, were still anxious for the world to move on and leave them to their secrets.

THE MEON HILL MURDER . . . Part two

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It wasn’t long after the discovery of Walton’s body, and the arrival of PC Lomasney from Long Marston, that the police involvement escalated upwards. Detective Superintendent Alec Spooner of Warwickshire Police soon realised that this was above his pay grade, and a request was made for outside help, which soon came in the celebrated form of none other than Chief Inspector Robert Fabian of Scotland Yard.

PART2 BODY TEXT

The investigations continued for several weeks. Every single household in Lower and Upper Quinton was visited. No-one had seen anything. No-one knew anything. No-one had any idea why Charles Walton had been killed. Clutching at straws, the police remembered that at Long Marston, a couple of miles to the north, there was a camp housing Italian prisoners of war. Perhaps it was a crazed foreigner who had hacked Charles Walton to death? The POWs were considered so peaceable and harmless that they were allowed to wander around the countryside, pretty much at will. That investigative spark petered out almost as quickly as it had burst into brief flame.

Potter remained the only viable suspect. His financial probity was examined. He didn’t own the farm, but just managed it for the family business. He had apparently claimed more staff wages than he had actually paid out, and there was a suspicion that he may have borrowed money from Walton, but the amounts were trifling, even if it were true.

The police investigations, despite every inch of the fatal fields being searched, came up with a big fat nothing. Fabian returned to London, defeated by a case that would feature in his memoirs in later years. DS Alec Spooner wore the case like an itch he couldn’t scratch, and it was the proverbial irritating pea underneath his mattress. For many years he returned to the village on the anniversary of the murder, hoping that someone, somehow would yield up a secret that would solve the mystery of Charles Walton’s death.

FINALLY, in THE MEON HILL MURDER
Witchcraft and A Village of Secrets

PART THREE OF THIS FEATURE WILL BE PUBLISHED
ON THURSDAY 24th SEPTEMBER

CHAOS . . . Between the covers

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Christopher Radcliff is a Doctor of Law and he is also what  sixteenth century England called an ‘intelligencer’. We might say ‘spy’, ‘secret agent’ or, at a pinch, ‘private eye.’ He is employed by two of the most powerful men in Queen Elizabeth’s service – the brothers Dudley. Robert is the Earl of Leicester and Ambrose the Earl of Warwick.

91c5yMTPQkLRadcliff, the creation of author AD Swanston, made his literary debut in The Incendium Plot (2018). The blurb for that book said that the country was “a powder keg of rumour, fanaticism, treachery and dissent.” Well, a few years on, and things haven’t changed a great deal. The big threat to Good Queen Bess still comes from those devious and malignant Papists, but the adherents of ‘the old religion’ have changed tack. Military conquest by Spain or France has proved ineffectual, so has a more subtle method has been chosen?

Pretty much every one of us is too young to remember a time when our currency was suspect. Yes, there have been periods of inflation (I can remember PM Harold Wilson and ‘The pound in your pocket.”) but we have never doubted that the coins in our pockets or the notes in our wallet were suspect. In February 1574, however, someone has been minting fake testons. They were, in old money, shillings, and the most common coin in circulation for everyday transactions.

BearThe fake testons also bear the image of the bear and ragged staff (right), the emblem of the Earl of Warwick. Clearly, the forgers have a double headed plan. They intend to paralyze normal day to day trade by making shop-keepers wary of accepting coins, but they also seek to diminish the status and power of the Dudley brothers by linking them to worthless coins.

When Radcliff eventually tracks down the person behind the counterfeit coins he discovers not a Papist plot, but a personal search for revenge, fired by a dreadful betrayal and a bitterness so deep that only death can sweeten it. Without giving any more away, I can say that part of this vengeance involves, strange to relate, that most delicate and ethereal of Renaissance instruments, the lute.

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Swanston has great fun immersing us in all the contrasting glory and squalor of Elizabethan England. We are led through the magnificent Holbein Gate into the Palace of Whitehall with its tapestries, panelled chambers and priceless paintings, but we also have to tread gingerly amid the horse muck (and worse) as we walk along Cheapside, and try to avoid the grasping hands of its whores and beggars.

Chaos is as authentic and swashbuckling as anyone could wish for – a must for lovers of period drama. It is published by Bantam in hardback, and by Transworld Digital as a Kindle. Both formats are available now.

THE MEON HILL MURDER . . . Part one

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Walton was due to return home just after dark, but when there was still no sign of him at 6.00pm, Edie set out with a neighbour – Harry Beasley – to look for her uncle, calling in at Firs Farm to see if Potter knew where Charles was. Potter joined the search, and with the aid of a torch and a lantern, picked their way between the hedges and ditches of the dark fields. Before too long, they found the old man and, in the flickering light, saw a sight that would haunt them for the rest of their days.

The mutilated body of Charles Walton lay against the hedge he had been working on. Harry Beasley and Alfred Potter tried to shield Edie Walton from the terrible sight, but she had seen enough to tip her into hysteria. Beasley ran to a villager with a telephone, and the nearest police officer – PC Lomasney from Long Marston – was on the scene within fifteen minutes.

Charles Walton had met his death in the most horrific manner. He had been savagely beaten about the head with, it was proved later, his own walking stick. His throat had been slashed so savagely that his head was close to being parted from the body, and a pitchfork had been driven into the ground, its prongs either side of what was left of his neck. The old man had not gone down without a struggle, however, as the post-mortem revealed defensive wounds on his hands. These were the findings of the pathologist, as reported in the Tewksbury Register and Gazette:

“Walton had serious injuries received from a hedging hook and from both prongs of a hay fork. A blood-stained walking stick was nearby Some of Walton’s clothing was undone and part of it torn. The hay fork had been plunged into his body for three-quarters of its length. Several ribs on the left side were broken. There were bruises as well as cuts on the man’s head, and an injury to the back of the left hand such as might be received when defending himself against a cutting instrument.

The main wound was in the neck and was obviously made by more than one blow with the slashing hook; in fact, three separate and distinct blows had been delivered by a cutting instrument. All the main vessels of the neck were severed. Other wounds in the neck were caused by the prongs of the hayfork. One prong of the hayfork had punctured a lung.”

NEXT IN THE MEON HILL MURDER
Suspects, the search for a motive,
and Fabian of The Yard.

PART TWO OF THIS FEATURE WILL BE PUBLISHED
ON TUESDAY 22nd SEPTEMBER


GATHERING DARK . . . Between the covers

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indexCandice Fox (left) is an Australian novelist who is perhaps best known for her collaborations with James Patterson, but back in 2019 I reviewed her solo novel Gone By Midnight, and if you click the link you can read the review. That book was set in the Queensland city of Cairns, but in her latest, she goes Stateside to Los Angeles for Gathering Dark.

To borrow a cliché much loved by sports commentators, Candice Fox leaves nothing in the changing room here in the way of characters. The larger-than-life cast includes former top paediatrician jailed for murder and now working in a fast food joint, her kleptomaniac and drug-addicted chum from prison, a fixated female cop whose career seems to be spiralling out of control, and a six-foot black female gangster and strip-club owner.

What brings this formidable quartet together? The search for the missing daughter of Sneak, the aptly named kleptomaniac. After randomly robbing Blair Harbour at her greasy take-out counter, Dayly has disappeared into the nightmare neon slick that is the criminal underbelly of Los Angeles.

gd014We all love a good coincidence, and cop Jessica Sanchez just happens to have been gifted a sumptuous LA property which sits next door to the house where Blair’s son Jamie has been fostered since his mother’s unfortunate spell in jail. And who was one of the cops involved in Blair being put away for ten years? Christian name begins with J and surname starts with S!

Fox has woven a wonderfully complex web of a plot. Blair isn’t sure why the gangster, Ada, is offering to help, but she thinks it might be because she is returning a favour notched up while the two were in jail together. We eventually learn, a little way before Blair does, that Ada doesn’t do gratitude, and has an ulterior motive.

The cop, Jessica, is pretty much loathed by LAPD colleagues, and she is warned that if she accepts the multi-million dollar mansion, she will be drummed out of the force for accepting bribes.

The unholy Trinity of Ada, Blair and Jessica plough a violent and relentless furrow in their search for Dayly, and it all comes to a head in a claustrophobic and bloody shoot-out in a sewer beneath an LA suburb. Fox is a gifted storyteller and this ‘guns and gals’ thriller will guarantee a few hours of excellent entertainment. Gathering Dark is published by Arrow and is out now in paperback.

STILL LIFE . . . Between the covers

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Still Life sees the return of Val McDermid’s DCI Karen Pirie for her sixth case. For readers new to the series, Pirie is tough, intuitive and compassionate – qualities which stand her in good stead as leader of the Historic Crimes Unit. She has her vulnerable side, and it is never more obvious than when she contemplates the emotional scars inflicted by the murder of her former colleague and lover Phil Parhatka. In the previous book, Broken Ground, she met Hamish Mackenzie, a wealthy businessman and gentleman crofter. They are not completely ‘an item’. For Karen, the jury is still out.

McDermid loves nothing better than to juggle plot strands, and here we have two absolute beauties or, should I say, bodies. In the Blue Corner we have the corpse of a male (happily for the police complete with passport in his back pocket) recovered by fisherman tending their lobster pots. In the Red Corner is the desiccated corpse of a woman, discovered in an elderly and tarpaulined camper van, rusting away in a suburban garage.

51UwcxaxExL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The dead man is quickly identified as the brother of a long-disappeared Scottish public figure. Iain Auld, depending on your cultural terms of reference, did either a Reggie Perrin, John Stonehouse or Lord Lucan a decade earlier. He has officially been declared dead, but Pirie’s antennae are set all of a quiver, as her investigations into Auld’s disappearance have been fruitless.

The dead woman? Just as complex and convoluted. She may have been a capriciously talented jewellery designer, neither seen nor heard of for months after a troubled residence in a Highland artists’ commune. Then again, she might be the designer’s lesbian lover, a minor talent in the world of water colour landscapes.

McDermid creates her usual magic in this brilliant police procedural. Yes, all boxes are ticked, including starchy superior police officers, duplicitous figures at the heart of the world of Fine Art, sexual jealousy and crimes passionelle, government corruption and likeable (but slightly gormless) junior coppers. Long time fans of the former director of Raith Rovers FC will know that there is more – so much more. She pulls us into the narrative from page one. We are smitten, hooked, ensnared, trapped in her web – choose your own metaphor

Val McDermid is a political person, but she generally wears her views lightly. She cannot restrain herself, however, from having a little dig at her fellow Kirkcaldian Gordon Brown for ‘bottling out’ of an election in 2009 and thus succumbing the following year to a decade or more of rule by the ‘auld enemy’. The lengthy gestation period of novels usually prevents authors from being totally topical, but the final pages of Still Life have DCI Pirie and her crew clearing their desks and preparing for a Covid-19 lockdown. Karen, as we might expect, is made of stern stuff, and she faces an uncertain future with determination:

” – people would always need the polis – and even in a pandemic, murder should never go unprosecuted.”

For my reviews of the previous two Karen Pirie novels Broken Ground and Out of Bounds, click the links and you will get each in a new tab. Still Life is published by Little, Brown and is out now.

TRUE CRIME . . . The Easter Monday Murder

Header1953 had not begun auspiciously for East Anglia. Overnight on 31st January a fierce storm had brought devastating flooding to the coast from Lincolnshire to Norfolk. Amost exactly a year earlier, King George VI had died at Sandringham, and the preparations for the June coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth were well advanced. Wisbech Town were struggling in the Midland League, but did manage to beat Gainsborough 5-3 on Easter Saturday, 4th April.

On Thursday 2nd April, Claude Butter arrived at his mother’s house in Wisbech, having traveled down from his lodgings in Church Street, Blackpool. The 51 year-old was a civilian instructor at RAF Weeton, in Lancashire. He had been away from home since he was 16. When his father died he was abroad but in a later statement he said:

“I tried to get home, but I understand that the then Superintendent of police said my presence was not necessary. That sort of gave me the impression that I was not really wanted.”

81 year-old Susannah Elizabeth Butter lived on Summerfield Close, in a modest 1930s council house in a set of terraces built around a circular green. Her other son, Charles, lived either in Milner Road, Wisbech, or with his mother – newspaper reports differ.

That Sunday, 5th April, was Easter Day. On Easter Monday, Mrs Butter and her sons sat down to supper. It was to be her last meal. At 7.45am the next day, Mrs Butter’s next door neighbour was roused by a frantic knocking on the door. When he answered the door, he saw a dishevelled Claude Butter, who said:

Fetch the police. I have killed my mother. I am mad.”

Mr Jackson and his wife went into number 74, and found Mrs Butter slumped at the foot of the stairs, her head a bloody mess. Claude, meanwhile sat slumped at the kitchen table, muttering:

“To think I should have done this.”

Several times he also said,
“I sent her to heaven. God rest her soul.”

When the doctor arrived, Mrs Butter was pronounced dead. The police had found a poker near to her body, and subsequent tests revealed that it was stained with the old lady’s blood.

When Butter appeared in Wisbech Magistrate’s Court on 22nd April, the national press were preoccupied with the misdeeds of a certain John Christie, who had been arrested on 31st March. While the full horror of what Christie had done would only emerge over the next weeks and months, Butter’s crime was relatively cut and dried, the only question being “why?”.

Being a trial for murder, business was transferred to Cambridge Assizes, and on Tuesday 20th May, Claude Butter was found guilty of his mother’s murder, but declared insane, and sentenced to be detained “until The Queen’s pleasure be known.”

Police and solicitors struggled to find a motive for Butter’s senseless act. Defending Butter in court, Mr George Pettefar called Charles Butter to the stand. Butter said:

“The accused man, my brother, was a bachelor whose life had been centred round our mother. The relationship between them was of the highest and there was genuine affection on both sides.”
(Pettefar) “Would you agree he would not have killed her had he not had a brainstorm of some kind?”
“Yes.”

“What he did that morning was to kill the nearest and dearest person to him on this earth?”
“Yes.”

There was little for the police to do except take Butter to a secure place and try to fathom out what had possessed him to kill his mother.

It was disclosed in court that Claude Butter had made the following statement to police:

“I was not the fellow she thought I was or who anyone thought I was. I didn’t want her to know. I do things on mad impulse. All my life I have been bewitched by the devil.”

Summing up the case for the prosecution, Mr Jardine reminded the jury:

“One thing you may think is lacking in this case is any evidence of any motive for the crime. It is not essential for the prosecution’s case to prove motive, and in this case I am unable to produce any evidence of motive.”

The inner torment which drove Claude Butter to kill his mother can only be guessed at. His death was registered in the St Pancras district of London in the summer of 1960, which suggests he spent the final years of his troubled life in one of the capital’s longest established mental health institutions, St Pancras Hospital.

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KILLING IN YOUR NAME . . . Between the covers

In February this year – remember when everything was normal, and Covid-19 was just something nasty that was happening in China and Italy? – I reviewed Blood Will Be Born, the debut thriller by Belfast writer Gary Donnelly. I said it was:
“… 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.”

The full review of that book is here, but in no time at all, it seems, comes the second episode in the career of Met Police detective Owen Sheen. He has been seconded to the historic crimes unit of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. If ever there were a British city where historic crimes still haunt the streets, it is Belfast. Sheen was born in Belfast, and watched his own brother being blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb as the two youngsters played football in the street. Donnelly says:

“Over the decades, so much blood had spattered the streets of Belfast, all now washed away, and forgotten by many. But there would always be those, the ones who had been left behind to count the cost, for which the stain and the pain would never really go.”

The (literally) explosive conclusion to the previous case has left Sheen sidelined and his PSNI partner Aoifa McCusker walking with a stick and suspended from duty after a stash of Class ‘A’ drugs were planted in her locker. Sheen is haunted by the discovery of a boy’s body, found in remote Monaghan bogland on the border with the Republic. The body has been partially preserved by the acidic water, but even a post mortem examination reveals few details.

Meanwhile, a spate of horrific killings has perplexed PSNI detectives. A priest has been decapitated in his own sacristy; the teenage daughter of a prominent barrister has been abducted and then killed; her body, minus one of its hands has been dumped at her father’s front door. The adult son of a former hellfire Protestant preacher and politician has been found dead – again, butchered.

Against the better judgment of senior officers, Sheen is allowed to ‘get the band back together’ and so a limping McCusker, and colleague George ‘Geordie’ Brown are joined by Hayley, a mysterious transgender person who calls herself an ‘instinctive’ because she has what used to be called a sixth sense about death or extreme violence.

As ever in Belfast, the answers to modern questions lie irremovably in the past and, almost too late, Sheen and his team discover that the killings are bound up with acts of scarcely credible evil that took place decades earlier. Revenge is certainly being served cold and, for someone, it tastes delicious.

Donnelly (below) has another winner on his hands here, and it is partly due to his superb sense of narrative, but also to his ability to create truly monstrous villains, and there is at least one in Killing In Your Name to rival anything his fellow Irishman John Connolly has created. Connolly’s creations tend to have a sulphurous whiff of the supernatural about them. Donnolly’s monsters are human, if in name only. Killing In Your Name is published by Allison & Busby and is out today, 20th August.

CRY BABY . . . Between the covers

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Mark Billingham is certainly a man of many parts. To name a few, there is Gary, the dim-but-lovable stooge to the Sheriff of Nottingham in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, stand up comedian and scriptwriter, acoustic guitarist with Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers and, of course, best selling crime novelist. But author of historical fiction? Well yes, in a manner of speaking. In his afterword to his latest novel Cry Baby, Billingham says that in writing this prequel to the Tom Thorne series he had to imagine a world of clunky computers the size of refrigerators, telephone boxes and ‘phone cards, and pubs where people smoked.

We are, as ever in London, but it is the summer of 1996. The city and the country – at least many of the menfolk thereof – are transfixed with the European Cup. Crosses of St George flutter from the aerials of Mondeos up and down the land and pubs are rammed with supporters of Shearer, Sheringham, Southgate and company. Detective Sergeant Tom Thorne is trying to schedule his work around the matches, but when a boy is abducted from a London park, football has to take a back seat.

54502348._UY2560_SS2560_Kieron Coyne is playing with his mate Josh under the watchful eyes of their mothers, Cat and Maria. Cat goes off for a pee, Maria settles back on the park bench and lights a fag. One minute Kieron is there, the next he has disappeared. Josh emerges from the little wood where the boys were playing hide and seek. He neither saw nor heard anything of his friend.

A major police investigation kicks in, with Thorne doing the leg work at the best of his incompetent boss. We learn that Cat and Maria are both single mothers – had ‘lone parents’ been invented in 1996? – but in different circumstances. Kieron’s father is doing a long spell in a maximum security prison, while Maria’s doctor husband divorced her a couple of years back.

Hours turn into days and there is no sign of Kieron, dead or alive. A birdwatcher thinks he saw a boy getting into a car with a man he obviously knew, and a Crimewatch presentation by the late lamented Jill Dando turns up nothing more useful than imagined sightings the length and breadth of the country, and the usual false confessions from the mentally ill.

Thorne does find a suspect – a neighbour of Cat’s with a suspicion of ‘form’ for dodgy sexual activity – but the arrest of Grantleigh Figgis does not go well for either the police of the suspect.

Billingham manages the historical details very well, and we meet one or two regular characters from the Thorne series for the first time, none more dramatically than Phil Hendricks, the much-tattooed and oft-pierced pathologist. In a rare droll moment in a seriously dark book, Billingham has gentle fun with making Thorne’s gaydar so wonky that he has our man making enquiries as to why Hendricks hasn’t found the right woman to settle down with. We also meet Thorne’s soon-to-be-ex wife Jan, and fellow copper Russell Brigstocke who, as lovers of the series know, manages subsequently to keep his CV much cleaner than Thorne.

Fans of Billingham’s novels, both the Tom Thorne series and the stand-alones, know that he likes nothing better than a dramatic twist in the final few pages, and he doesn’t let us down here. There is something of a ‘where the **** did that come from’ moment when all the patient door-knocking, statement-taking and deduction of the coppers is spun on its head in a few dazzling pages of revelation. Cry Baby is published by Little, Brown and is out now.

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