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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . Hell Is A City by Maurice Procter

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The name Maurice Procter is not one that is regularly bandied around at crime fiction festivals when the Great and The Good are discussing pioneering and innovative writers of the past. He is, just about, still in print thanks to the wonders of Kindle and specialist reprinters such as Murder Room. I’m reluctant to use the fatal words “in his day”, but Procter was a prolific and popular writer of crime novels between 1947 and 1969.

mp1Born in the Lancashire weaving town of Nelson, Procter (left) joined the police force in nearby Halifax in 1927 and remained a serving officer until the success of his novels enabled him to write full time. In 1954 he published the first of a fifteen book series of police procedurals featuring Detective Inspector Harry Martineau. Martineau is a detective in the city of Granchester. Replace the ‘Gr’ with “M’ and you have the actual location pegged.

Hell Is A City is a dark tale which pivots around the enmity between Martineau and a violent and resourceful criminal called Don Starling. Starling is as hard as nails and doesn’t shrink from brutality towards fellow men – or women. Starling is ‘doing time’ but acts like a reformed man in order to escape close prison supervision. Naturally, he seizes his moment and goes over the wall and on the run.

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Starling wastes no time in organising his next heist, and it is a daring cash grab. The victims are two hapless young clerks who work for city bookmaker Gus Hawkins. On their way to the bank with a satchel full of takings from Doncaster races, they are waylaid. Colin Lomax is coshed and left with a serious head injury but Cicely Wainwright fares even worse. Because the money bag is chained to her wrist, she is flung into the back of the getaway van and is killed by Starling as the gang make their escape over the moors to the east of the city. The bag is cut from Cicely’s wrist, and her body is dumped. Of course, this ups the stakes, much to the discomfort of Starling’s gang members, each of whom realises that they face the hangman’s noose if they are caught and convicted as accessories to murder. The hangman, by the way, is a well-known local resident:

“Clogger and Jakes turned their heads quickly, their smiles fading. They stared. Then Jakes pulled Starling’s knee aside and looked down at the girl’s face.
‘Cripes!,’ he said unhappily, “She’s croaked.’
Starling nodded. ‘Some time ago,’ he said.
‘You bloody fool,’ said Jakes, his voice rising with panic.
‘Hell fire!’ Clogger whispered, and he had indeed turned pale. ‘You didn’t have to do that, did you?’
Laurie Lovett was silent. He kept his eyes on the road as if nothing had happened. But a muscle of his jaw had started to twitch.
The same fear was upon them all. They were reminded of a man they knew by sight. He kept a pub in Hollinwood. The name of the pub was Help The Poor Struggler. The man’s name was Albert Pierrepoint.”

HIAC first edI was quickly hooked by this novel, for a variety of reasons. Anyone who has driven east out of Manchester in the direction of Sheffield (which makes a brief apparance as Hallam City) will recognise the changeless face of the moors, with their isolated pubs and gritstone houses clinging to the roadside. What has changed, however, is the view back towards Manchester. Where, in the early 1950s Martineau saw mill chimneys belching smoke, today we could probably, apart from the haze of vehicle emissions , see almost to the Irish Sea. We also know that Cicely Wainwright’s’s body would not be the last to be abandoned in the cottongrass, heather and bilberry of the Dark Peak.

CriFi buffs know that fictional Detective Inspectors are meant to have disfunctional personal lives. Few and far between are happy family men and women with faithful and understanding spouses who understand and compensate for the rigours of police work. Intriguingly, it is Martineau’s wife who is, at least initially, the guilty party. She is vain, socially over-conscious and, perhaps, sexually repressed.

“Julia Martineau was not unfaithful and it was impossible to suspect that she ever would be. She was only interested in fine clothes, social standing, attractive houses, and the affairs of her acquaintances. The connubial behaviour of other people (as a topic of scandalous conversation) was of more interest to her than her own or her husband’s. She was rarely aroused. The conjugal act was sometimes a duty, sometimes a favour to be granted, and always a ceremony which she allowed to be performed after it had been suitably prayed for. Lately, Martineau had ceased to pray.”

There are few happy marriages or standard relationships in Hell Is A City. Gus Hawkins has a young wife is a libidinous and money-grabbing charmer who has history with the dangerous Starling. Martineau’s driver and gofer, DC Devery, has a loving but precarious relationship with the beautiful Silver, who is a deaf mute. By the by, your Starter For Ten: which legendary fictional policeman is married to a beautiful deaf mute? No prizes, but that detective operates a long, long way from Manchester.

It would be pretentious and anachronistic to push this novel into the category box labelled Noir. That said, its low-key realism and unflinching depictions of the criminal class not only reflects Procter’s time with the police service but a reveal a gift for brevity and the essentials of story-telling which mark him out as a natural author, untaught but with an acute ear for dialogue and a genuine sense of the rough edges and frailties of human lives where unfulfilled aspirations nag away at happiness.

Murder Room do a budget-printed paperback of Hell Is A City, and second-hand editions are also available if you are prepared to splash the cash. The novel was made into a film, starring Stanley Baker as Martineau, and I will write about that in a later post.

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THE SLEEPWALKER . . . Between the covers

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In a fictional world overflowing with disfunctional detectives who happen to be rather good at their jobs, Joseph Knox has raised, or perhaps lowered, the bar considerably with his DC Aidan Waits. We first met Waits in Sirens (2017) and then in The Smiling Man (2018). Now, in The Sleepwalker, Knox takes us on another guided tour of the dystopian underbelly of contemporary Manchester.

TSTogether with his grotesque partner and immediate boss, DI Peter Sutcliffe, Waits always gets the shitty end of the stick. ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe is, you might say, a good old fashioned copper. Waits goes to meet him in a dingy rock-and-roll boozer:

“Sutty was standing in the corner, explaining something to one of the other customers. To make sure the man was really listening, he’d lifted him off the ground by his ears and begun banging his head into the wall to the beat of the drum.

He let the smile slide, dramatically, off his face when he saw me.

‘Oh’, he said, over the music. ‘It’s the great depression. Shouldn’t you be queuing up for a loaf of bread instead of buying beer?’ “

Waits and Sutcliffe have been assigned to a Death Watch. In hospital, a notorious serial killer nicknamed The Sleepwalker because of the bizarre circumstances of his arrest, is dying of cancer. Years ago, he was convicted of slaughtering a family – wife and children – and the older daughter’s body has never been found. In the faint hope that Martin Wick’s dying breath will reveal the final resting place of twelve year-old Lizzie Moore – a sombre echo of the misplaced faith that believed Ian Brady would finally say where he had buried Keith Bennett – Waits and Sutcliffe sit by the dying man’s bedside, their ears close to whatever utterance escapes his shriveled lips.

Why is Aidan Waits such a tortured character? Well, how long have you got? His childhood was loveless and chaotic, and spent largely in institutions where he rubbed shoulders with trainee failures, malcontents and killers. Echoing Nietzsche’s chilling remarks about the moral abyss, Waits has, more recently, gazed too long into a chasm inhabited by a repellent Manchester crime lord called Zane Carver. Carver has fed Waits’s drug habit, and the two have fought over women. Carver has a particular talent with women:

“Zain Carver was a magician when it came to ruining women’s lives.

He surrounded himself with these beautiful assistants and then delighted in sawing them up, making them disappear. Sometimes a new girl on his arm might end up on the game, or in hospital, or back with her parents feeling five years older, a permanent faraway look in her eyes.”

As distinctive as Knox is as a stylist, and as much as he is a master of the inky black metaphor, he has a tale to tell and a plot to spin. The sepulchral calm of Martin Wick’s closely guarded hospital room is shattered by a savage attack which Waits survives, but puts him at the head of the queue as the police and the gutter press search for scapegoats. With Carver having decided to exact revenge on Waits by donning his black cap and pronounced the death sentence, Waits is on the run both from the gangster and, no less implacably, his politically motivated senior officers, but he keeps them at bay. He discovers faint-but-fatal fault lines in the original case against Martin Wicks, and finds that both Kevin Blake, the detective who brought Wicks to justice, and Frank Moore, the father of the murdered children, still have songs to sing.

KnoxJoseph Knox writes like an angel. Possibly an Angel of Death, but he grasps the spluttering torch of English Noir once carried by such writers as Derek Raymond, and runs with such vigour that the flame burns brightly once again. He is not without humour, and there are many – if unrepeatable – gags exchanged between the cynical cops and their low-life prey. The politically correct nature of modern policing doesn’t escape his attention, either:

“The conference space and interview rooms had a bland, mass-produced, modern aesthetic. If Hitler’s bunker had been designed by Travelodge, it couldn’t have communicated quiet despair any more effectively.”

 No-one who has had the misfortune to require A & E treatment on any given weekend evening – in Manchester, Middlesborough, Maidenhead or Milton Keynes – will be unfamiliar with this baleful description, as Waits searches for a suspect:

“I looked about me. Bloodshed, fist-fights and stab wounds. Confused, stunned people, drunk, on drugs, with life-altering injuries. Stick-thin single mothers on food bank diets, with morbidly obese babies.”

Knox has his grim fun with a Manchester police force that is barely honest, city down-and-outs who have lost most of the trappings of humanity, and an infestation of tattooed, Spice-addicted thugs straight from Central Casting – with Hieronymus Bosch as the agency’s head of HR. He also leaves us with a delightfully enigmatic final few pages. The Sleepwalker is published by Doubleday and will be on the shelves from 11th July

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THE KILLER IN ME . . . Between the covers

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Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan is the leader of an elite crime unit of Dublin’s An Garda Síochána, known as The Bureau. She has been asked by her sister in law – who works for a human rights group called Justice Meets Justice – to look over the evidence and paperwork related to a horrific historic crime, where a teenager called Seán Hennessy was convicted of the savage murder of his mother and father, and the attempted murder of his young sister. Now, Hennessy has been released, and he is the latest cause célèbre for JMJ. Sheehan reluctantly agrees, but her attention is quickly diverted to a double murder.

TKIM coverTwo bodies have been found in a church in the well-to-do coastal suburb of Clontarf. The victims are identified as a local woman and her husband, but their deaths seem strangely disconnected. Geraldine Shine has been stabbed, but her husband Alan was strangled, has been dead for much longer, and his corpse shows every sign of having been kept in a freezer.

Sheehan and her colleague Detective Baz Harwood are pulled every which way by a murder investigation which becomes more complicated when another body is found. Conor Sheridan has been shot, again kept in a freezer, but this time displayed at the edge of the beach, up against Clontarf’s sea wall. While looking like a mass of disconnected but tangled threads, the various strands of evidence – the CCTV footage, the forensic data, the human connections – seem to defy the weaver’s comb which will straighten them into a recognisable pattern. When Sheehan gets a glimpse of what it all means, she realises with horror that it links to the Hennessy murders and, indirectly, to her own family.

Despite its grim subject matter, The Killer In Me is a thing of beauty. I have, sadly, never been to Dublin or spent serious time with Irish people, but Olivia Kiernan gives the dialogue, particularly when people are using the vernacular, a gentle lilt.

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Kiernan never lets us forget, however what savagery through which, via the eyes of Frankie Sheehan, we are wading. Her immediate boss, Assistant Commissioner Jack Clancy, gives her this sombre warning.

“Be careful with this, Frankie. Sometimes when you look into the mouth of that kind of evil, it’s hard to look away. You think, give it another few moments, your eyes will adjust, you’ll see the bottom of that darkness, understand it. It’s alluring. Addictive. And while you’re standing there rooted to the spot, you’re not noticing the fucking shadow is closing over you and you’re disappearing.”

olivia-kiernanI don’t know if Dublin Noir is ‘a thing’, but if it does exist, then The Killer In Me is its apotheosis. By the by, it is also a master-class in how to write a convincing police procedural. Sheehan shares her modus operandi when interviewing a reluctant suspect:

“We rely on a man’s capacity to always think the worst couldn’t happen. That no matter what they tell us, they will be okay. And because humans want to believe that, eventually they do begin to talk. And when they do, a tongue-tied perp can morph into a grand orator.”

Dark, complex, brutal but full of compassion, The Killer In Me is breathtakingly good. It is published by riverrun (a literary imprint of Quercus) and is available now in all formats.

 

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THE ARTEMIS FILE . . . Between the covers

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I redt takes a very ingenious – not to say devious mind – to fashion a fiction plot which meshes together a whole bagful of disparate elements to make a satisfying whole that challenges the imagination but does not exceed it in possibility. Adam Loxley has done just that in his latest thriller The Artemis File. George Wiggins is Mr Ordinary. He lives in what would have been called, years ago, a bijou residence in the twee Kentish town of Tenterden. He is not Mr Stupid, however. He travels into ‘town’ each day to sit at his desk in Fleet Street where he composes the daily crossword for The Chronicle under his pseudonym Xerxes. Aficionados know that in reality, all that is left of the newspaper industry in Fleet Street are the buildings, and the use of the term to denote popular journalism, but we can forgive Loxley for having the good, old-fashioned Chronicle hanging on by the skin of its teeth when all its fellows have decamped to Wapping or soulless suburbs somewhere off a dual carriageway.

front-cover-finalWhen George has a rather startling experience in his local pub after a couple of pints of decent beer, the other elements of the story – MI5, the CIA, Russian agents, immaculately dressed but ruthless Whitehall civil servants and, most crucially, the most infamous unsolved incident of the late 20th century – are soon thrown into the mix. Such is George’s conformity, it is easily compromised, and he is blackmailed into writing a crossword, the answers to which are deeply significant to a very select group of individuals who sit at the centres of various spiders’ webs where they tug the strands which control the national security of the great powers.

 

G rdeorge Wiggins might have been easily duped and he has few means to fight back, but he recruits an old chum from the Chronicle whose knowledge of the historical events of the 1990s proves key to unraveling the mystery of who wanted the crossword published – and why. While the pair rescue a dusty file from an obscure repository and pore over its contents, elsewhere a much more visceral struggle is playing out. A ruthless MI5 contract ‘fixer’ called Craven is engaged on a courtly dance of death with a former CIA agent, current American operatives and their Russian counterparts.

One of the joys of this book is Loxley’s delight in guiding us through various parts of England that he clearly loves. Winchester, the Vale of Itchen, various ‘secret’ London places – we track the characters as they play out the fateful – and frequently bloody – drama against fascinating backdrops. We are linked into real events such as the mysterious death of intelligence ‘spook’ Gareth Williams, and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. We learn that the truth behind the events of 31st August 1997 has become an chip in an international poker game with world peace at stake. Just when we think that things have been wrapped up sweetly, however, Loxley has one final ace to play, and he lays it down with, literally, the last few words of the book.

The Artemis File is published by Matador and is available now. Adam Loxley lives in the Weald of Kent. Other than creative writing his passions are making music, world cinema and contemporary art. The first book in this series was The Teleios Ring, and the concluding novel The Oedipus Gate is currently in manuscript.

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THE WHITE FEATHER KILLER . . . Between the covers

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TWFK coverI’m a great fan of historical crime fiction, particularly if it is set in the 19th or 20th centuries, but I will be the first to admit that most such novels tend not to veer towards what I call The Dark Side. Perhaps it’s the necessary wealth of period detail which gets in the way, and while some writers revel in the more lurid aspects of poverty, punishment and general mortality, the genre is usually a long way from noir. That’s absolutely fine. Many noir enthusiasts (noiristes, perhaps?) avoid historical crime in the same way that lovers of a good period yarn aren’t drawn to existential world of shadows cast by flickering neon signs on wet pavements. The latest novel from RN Morris, The White Feather Killer is an exception to my sweeping generalisation, as it is as uncomfortable and haunting a tale as I have read for some time.

If Morris were to have a specialised subject on Mastermind, it might well be London Crime In 1914, as the previous books in the DI Silas Quinn series, Summon Up The Blood (2012), Mannequin House (2013), Dark Palace (2014) and The Red Hand Of Fury (2018) are all set in that fateful year. Silas Quinn, like many of the best fictional coppers, is something of an oddball. While not completely misanthropic, he prefers his own company; his personal family life is tainted with tragedy; he favours the cerebral, evidence-based approach to solving crimes rather than the knuckle-duster world of forced confessions favoured by his Scotland Yard colleagues.

London – like the rest of Britain in the late summer of 1914 – is convulsed with a mixture of outrage, mad optimism and a sense of the old world being overturned. There is the glaring paradox of the first BEF casualties from Mons and Le Cateau being smuggled into the capital’s hospitals on bloodstained stretchers while, the length and breadth of the city, young men are jostling and queuing around the block in a testosterone fuelled display of patriotism, with their only anxiety being the worry that it will all be over before they can ‘do their bit’.

Morris takes his time before giving us a dead body, but his drama has some intriguing characters. We met Felix Simpkins, such a mother’s boy that, were he to be realised on the screen, we would have to resurrect Anthony Perkins for the job. His mother is not embalmed in the apple cellar, but an embittered and waspish German widow, a failed concert pianist, a failed wife, and a failed pretty much everything else except in the dubious skill of humiliating her hapless son. Central to the grim narrative is the Cardew family. Baptist Pastor Clement Cardew is the head of the family; his wife Esme knows her place, but his twin children Adam and Eve have a pivotal role in what unfolds. The trope of the hypocritical and venal clergyman is well-worn but still powerful; when we realise the depth of Cardew’s descent into darkness, it is truly chilling.

rogerHistorical novels come and go, and all too many are over-reliant on competent research and authentic period detail, but Morris (right) plays his ace with his brilliant and evocative use of language. Here, Quinn watches, bemused, as a company of army cyclists spin past him:

“The whole thing had the air of an outing. It did not seem like men preparing for war. The soldiers on their bicycles struck Quinn as unspeakably vulnerable. Their jauntiness as they sped along had a hollow ring to it, as if each man knew he was heading towards death but had sworn not to tell his fellows.”

Quinn has to pursue his enquiries in one of the quieter London suburbs, and makes this wry observation of the world of Mr Pooter – quaintly comic, but about to be shattered by events:

“Elsewhere, in the bigger, flashier houses, the rich and servanted classes might indulge in their racy pastimes and let their jealous passions run wild. Here the worst that could be imagined of one’s neighbours was the coveting of another man’s gardenias, or perhaps going hatless on a Sunday afternoon.”

The White Feather Killer is published by Severn House, and is available now. Let Morris have the last word, though, and he takes us back to that autumn when, after those heady weeks when everything seemed possible, innocence finally died.

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THE BOY WHO FELL . . . Between the covers

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TBWFThis is a chillingly clever whodunnit shot through with a caustic examination of life among the moneyed classes of contemporary Ireland, particularly Dublin’s nouveau riche and their over-indulged teenage children. Fans of Jo Spain’s DI Tom Reynolds will be overjoyed to see him return for his fifth case, and those who know the author only through her spellbinding standalone novels such as The Confession and Dirty Little Secrets should make up for lost time immediately!

Glenmore House has a dark reputation. A few years ago, a husband killed his wife and child with a kitchen knife before hanging himself. Since that trauma, the house has stood empty, slowly being reclaimed by nature. Unholy. Unvisited. Unloved. Except by a little clique of privately educated teenagers who use the place to smoke a little dope and drink a little alcohol. Well, OK, rather too much of both, but our story begins, like many another good yarn on One Dark Night ….

This particular dark night ends in tragedy, as after he and his friends indulge in some horseplay with an ouija board, young Luke Connolly plunges to his death from an upstairs window. The youngsters involved in the escapade are not, however, from some run down social housing estate, the victims of neglect, poor schooling and brutalised by deprivation. No, Luke, Charlotte, Hazel, Brian, Jacob and Dylan are all students at the prestigious and very expensive Little Leaf College and their parents, while possibly having more money than sense, are pillars of the community. But. And there is a rather large but in the person of Daniel Konaté Jones. Daniel is mixed race, has a ‘job’ as a DJ, and is tolerated by the group as something rather exotic, like a strange tropical orchid springing up in the herbaceous border . The police investigating the death are quick to arrest Daniel, and their case against him is sewn up with speed and, to mix metaphors, seen as tighter than a camel’s arse in a sandstorm.

Daniel is related to one of Tom Reynolds’ most respected officers, and when she asks him to take a look at the case, he reluctantly agrees. There are just one or two complications, though. First, Daniel is refusing to say anything – not a word – to investigating officers or his lawyer. Then, Reynolds becomes aware that Daniel is gay, and that, despite protestations from parents and friends, it appears that Danny and Luke were “an item.” Thirdly, the grief of Luke’s parents at his death has to run alongside the tragic demise of Luke’s twin brother Ethan, who is near death in a local hospice.

JSJo Spain is the literary Diva of Deviousness, and while we learn early in the piece that Glenmore House has a bloody history, she waits for some while before reconnecting the earlier slaughter with the death of Luke Connolly. When she does – and Reynolds realises the connection a paragraph or three before we do – the investigation takes on a whole new slant.

It should be a serious criminal offence for someone to write with the fluency, panache and skill at misdirection as Jo Spain, but while she remains a free woman, enjoy The Boy Who Fell. You will find beautiful prose, conundrums-a-plenty and enough of the dark side to satisfy any fan of Noir fiction. Regarding her portraits of people, I can only suggest that if Rembrandt had laid down his brushes and taken up the pen, he would be pushed to make his subjects as alive – with all their flaws – as she does. The Boy Who Fell is published by Quercus and will be available on 27th June.

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THE COMEDY CLUB MYSTERY . . . Between the covers

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ComClubIt is 1965 and we are basking in the slightly faded grandeur of Brighton, on the south coast of England. The town has never quite recovered from its association, more than a century earlier, with the bloated decadence of The Prince Regent, and it shrugs its shoulders at the more recent notoriety bestowed by a certain crime novel brought to life on the big screen in 1947. Brighton has its present-day misdeeds too, and who better to write about it than the intrepid crime reporter for the Evening Chronicle, Colin Crampton?

Crampton is an enterprising and thoroughly likeable fellow, with a rather nice sports car and an even nicer girlfriend, in the very pleasing shape of Australian lass Shirley Goldsmith. Crampton is summoned to the office of his deputy editor Frank Figgis and, barely discernible amid the wreaths of smoke from his Woodbines, Figgis’s face is creased by more worry lines than usual. His problem? The Chronicle’s drama correspondent, Sidney Pinker, has been served with a libel writ for savaging, in print, a local theatrical agent called Daniel Bernstein.

Bernstein has certainly seen better days. His hottest property, the redoubtable Max Miller, is two years in the grave, and Bernstein’s remaining clients consist of dodgy ventriloquists and wobbly sopranos whose top notes have long since disappeared with the last high tide. Crampton is tasked with talking the aggrieved impresario out of legal action, but his job becomes slightly more difficult when Bernstein is found dead in his office, impaled by a sword. And who is discovered with his hand on the hilt? None other than Sidney Pinker.

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Pinker, by the way, is very much in the John Inman school of caricature luvvies, so those with an over-sensitive approach had better look away now. His pale green shirts, flowery cravats and patronage of certain Brighton nightspots are pure (politically incorrect) comedy.

max-miller00Bernstein’s murder is seen as very much open-and-shut by the Brighton coppers, but Crampton does not believe that Pinker has the mettle to commit physical violence. Instead, his investigation takes him into the rather sad world of stand-up comedians. Today, our stand-up gagsters can become millionaire celebrities, but back in 1965, the old style joke tellers with their catchphrases and patter were becoming a thing of the past, as TV satire was breaking new ground and reaching new audiences. Crampton believes that the murder of Bernstein is connected to the agent’s former association with Max Miller and, crucially, the possession of Miller’s fabled Blue Book, said to contain all of The Cheeky Chappy’s best material – and a few jokes considered too rude for polite company.

Eventually, Crampton discovers the killer, but only after life-threatening brushes with American gangsters and psychotic criminal twins born much closer to home. His success is due in no small way to the ability of the delightful Shirley to deliver a debilitating karate kick to sensitive male parts.

There have been occasions – and I am not alone – when I have used the term cosy in a book review, meaning no ill-will by it, but perhaps suggesting a certain lack of seriousness or an avoidance of the grim details of crime. Are the Colin Crampton books cosy? Perhaps.You will search in vain for explorations of the dark corners of the human psyche, any traces of bitterness or the consuming powers of grief and anger. What you will find is humour, clever plotting, a warm sense of nostalgia and – above all – an abundance of charm. A dictionary defines that word as the power or quality of delighting, attracting, or fascinating others.” Remember, though, that the word has another meaning, that of an apparently insignificant trinket, but one which brings the wearer a sense of well-being and even, perhaps, the power to produce something magical.

I can’t remember in recent times reading anything more magical than the three page Epilogue which concludes The Comedy Club Mystery. I have to confess to being sentimental at times and I am unashamed to say that I put this lovely novel down rather moist eyed.

“Yes”, the man said. “Love is very important too.”

The Comedy Club Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership, and is out now. For more on Crampton of The Chronicle, follow this link.

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NO ONE HOME . . . Between the covers

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Over the years, missing persons investigator David Raker has, courtesy of his creator Tim Weaver, solved some perplexing cases. There was the man who disappeared into the bowels of London’s underground railway system, the amnesiac who was found on a deserted south coast shingle beach, the straight ‘A’ student with the secret life who just vanishes and, memorably, the time his dead wife walked into a London police station and back into his life. Raker tends to be looking for troubled individuals, as in just the one person. But this time it’s different.

NOHA whole village has disappeared. OK, let’s put that into context. The village is the isolated moorland community of Black Gale, and it consists of a farm and three expensive and fairly recent houses arrayed in a semi-circle around the older building. Black Gale. Population, nine souls. And on Halloween, two years since, they vanished. Into thin air. Like Prospero’s insubstantial pageant, the four families have left not a rack behind.

Raker has problems of his own, principally in the shape of his long time friend, former police officer Colm Healy. Healy featured in the very first Raker mystery Vanished (2012) and his misfortunes have been ever present over the series (No One Home is the 10th book). Healy is officially dead – and buried, He has a gravestone to prove it, but for a variety of reasons the former copper now exists under a variety of aliases, under the protection of David Raker. A persistent and intrusive journalist wants to write Raker’s life story, but also suspects the truth about Healey, and uses his knowledge in an attempt to force Raker to co-operate. Keeping the hack at bay – just – Raker begins to unpick the mystery of Black Gale.

Fans of the series will know that Tim Weaver doesn’t like Raker’s cases to be geographically confined, and so it is that the Black Gale conundrum is linked with a grisly unsolved murder in a flyblown California motel decades earlier. I say “unsolved”. The local Sheriff’s Department think the case is a wrap. They have a vic and a perp and have moved on to other things. Detective Joline Kader, however, has other ideas. She is unconvinced that the body lying face down in a bathtub of muriatic acid is simply the victim of a drug deal gone wrong, and the case stays with her over the years, right through her police career and her subsequent vocation as a college lecturer. Right up until the moment where her old obsession collides with David Raker’s fatal unpicking of a very clever and murderous conspiracy.

Screen Shot 2019-05-25 at 19.45.47No One Home is a brilliant thriller. It runs to over 500 pages, with not a single one wasted. The action is constant and the plot spins about all over the place, so you will need to be on your mettle to keep track of what is going on. Tim Weaver (right) has never been shy of creating apparently improbable conundrums for Raker to solve, and this is no exception. Suspend your disbelief for a few hours and go with the flow. I read it in three intense sessions and although I don’t use “Wow!” in normal speech, it certainly applies here. No One Home is published by Penguin and is out now.

POSTSCRIPT: It is unlikely that anyone reading this is a book reviewer with a yet-to-be-read advance copy of No One Home, but if you are, then please be advised that the ending in your copy makes no sense at all. Reverse sections 9 and 10, however, and things fit into place much better, and I believe this is the version which is now on sale to the public.

THE LOST SHRINE . . . Between the covers

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The LostOn a lonely and ancient hill in south western England, a group of amiable but earnest hippy cranks prepare to celebrate a pagan festival. What their leader finds when he climbs the hill to consummate the ritual sends him reeling and retching to his knees. There, strung up from the trees is a grisly collection of local wildlife, butchered and bloody. That is bad enough, but the centrepiece of this obscene display is – or was – human.

The corpse is that of Beth Kinsella, an intense and controversial archaeologist who has been excavating Bailsgrove Hill prior to much of it being consumed by a building development. She was convinced that the site contained the remains of a rare Bronze Age shrine, much to the frustration of Paul Marshall who, although paying the wages of the dig team has his JCBs and concrete mixers massing on the horizon waiting for the academics with their trowels, sieves and brushes to be gone.

Enter, stage left, Clare Hills. She is an academic who works with Dr David Barbrook. Barbrook’s main job is lecturer, but together with Hills he has established the Hart Unit, a team of archaeologists totally dependent on commercial funding and meagre trickle-down money from the university. Clare’s personal life is anything but robust. She is recently widowed, and finds that her late husband has blown their life savings on failed investments. She is literally scratching out a living with the tools of her trade, but Barbrook asks her to go and complete the work Kinsella started at Bailsgrove.

More corpses – both ancient and modern – are discovered, while Clare Hills is run ragged by a combination of unsettling discoveries about her late husband’s business affairs, and a bizarre conspiracy centred on the  site, involving the dark and devious word of online antiquity sales.

Among the many strong features of this highly readable murder mystery are the delicious sense of place – a real bonus for those who know and love this part of England, – a credibly vulnerable and appealing main character, and a hard-headed knowledge of the problems that archaeologists have in earning any sort of a decent living. One of my sons is a professional archaeologist who spent his degree years immersed in the magic of the past. Now he has a family to house, feed and clothe, so he is on the staff of a major construction company and faces, on a daily basis, the dilemma between recording and – sometimes – preserving the past in the face of commercial and financial pressures.

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The Lost Shrine is published by Allson & Busby and will be out on 23rd May. Nic Ford is the pen name of Dr Nick Snashall (above), National Trust Archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. My review of her first novel in the Hills and Barbrook series, The Hidden Bones, is here.

For eBook fans, The Lost Shrine is on offer
from 29th May until 5th June at a bargain 99p!

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