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THE BUTCHER OF PRIORS HARDWICK . . . Murder at London End Cottage (2)

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SO FAR: November 1872. Edward Handcock, 58,  a jobbing slaughterman and butcher, lives with his third wife, Betsy, and their children, in a tiny cottage on London End, Priors Hardwick. He is prone to bouts of drunkenness, and is a profoundly jealous man. He is convinced that Betsy, ten years his junior is, to use his own words, “whoring”. On the evening of 13th November, things come to a head. A subsequent newspaper report tells the grim tale.

Report

Edward Handcock was immediately arrested. Betsy Handcock was buried a few days later in the village churchyard.

Laid to rest

The procedure with suspected murder cases was relatively straightforward in concept, but could be lengthy. First came the coroner’s inquest, before a jury, to establish cause of death and a recommendation for the next stage which, if a suspect was believed guilty, was the local magistrate court. Finally, the suspect would be sent for trial at the county assize court, before a senior judge. The inquest on Betsy Handcock was held on 15th November at the village pub, The Butchers Arms – an appropriate venue in a macabre way. The medical evidence makes for grim reading:

Mr. Bragge, surgeon, of Priors Marston, said he saw the deceased woman just before eight o’clock, and found her in a comatose condition, but still partly sensible. He asked her what was the matter, and she pointed to her thigh. Examining the wound he found there was bleeding, and at once ordered her into a warm bed, and administered stimulants. She died in a few minutes after she was placed in the bed. He had made a post-mortem examination, and found the femoral artery in the left thigh bad been severed by a clean-cut wound. The wound was deep, and such as might have been caused by the knife produced. There was also a small punctured wound under the left armpit, and two small cuts on the left arm. The wounds could not have been inflicted by the deceased. Mr. Rice, surgeon, of Southam, gave corroborative evidence. He said the cut the in thigh severed the femoral artery and the vessels.

George Shuckburgh

The worst part of these various hearings was that the two principal witnesses to the murder were the children, Walter and Eliza.  It was necessary for them to relive the ordeal three times over; first at the inquest, then in front of the Southam magistrates on 18th November, and then a third and final time in the much more intimidating surroundings of Warwick Assizes. The magistrates court was presided over by Major George Shuckburgh (left). Walter testified:

“My father’s name is Edward Handcock. I returned home from my work at Mr. Mumford’s (Prior’s Marston) Wednesday last about half-past five in the evening. I had my tea by myself as soon I got home. Before I began my tea mother said she would go and fetch a policeman, and she left the house. I did not hear what passed between my father and mother  before she went out. My father remained in the house after mother went away, and was in an adjoining room from where I was. After my mother left the house I heard my father sharpen his knife. I did not see him. but l am quite sure did so. My mother was gone about five-and-twenty minutes. She did not bring a policeman with her. I had finished my tea when she came back. Before my mother came back, my father went upstairs. I did not observe him take anything with him. I remained downstairs. When my mother came back, my father threw the casement of the window down into the court. I did not see him do it, but I heard the wood fall. My mother undressed the children when she came home. The children’s names are Eliza, Peter, and Minnie. After they were undressed, she took them upstairs, and said she expected there would be a “pillilu” when she took them up. I heard my mother say “Walter, Walter, he’s cutting me.” and I ran out of the house to tell the next door neighbour, Edward Prestidge.”

Edward Handcock was duly sent for trial at the December Assizes, in front of Sir George Bramwell Knight, and he was found guilty and sentenced to death on 18th December. What kind of Christmas he had doesn’t bear thinking about, but on Tuesday 7th January 1873, he was led to the scaffold inside Warwick Gaol. The executioner was George Smith, known as “Throttler Smith”. What was known as ‘the long drop’, where the condemned person died almost instantaneously, was some way off, and Handcock’s death was certainly not swift.

Execution

Criminal record

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THE BUTCHER OF PRIORS HARDWICK . . . Murder at London End Cottage (1)

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The 1871 census tells us that Edward Handcock and his family lived in London End Cottage, Priors Hardwick and, judging by his neighbours the Sharps, whose cottage was described as ‘near the Vicarage’, London End Cottage was in the same area. Handcock was 48, and was his wife Betsy 38. The children in the house were Walter Edward (11), Harry Mold (6), Eliza (5), Charles (3) and Minnie (2). We know for certain that Walter was not Betsy’s son, as he was the product of one of Edward’s earlier marriages.

1871 census

Edward Handcock’s marriages were, to say the least, interesting. We know that he married Betsy Mold in September 1865, so it is safe to say that Harry and the younger children were blood siblings. An earlier marriage, in 1851, was to Ann Hodgekins or Hodgkins. She died in 1862, and a newspaper report subsequent to the events of this story suggested that Handcock’s first wife was Betsy’s sister Ann, but following that trail takes us away from the narrative to no good purpose.

Edward Handcock was a butcher, but he worked for himself, more than likely dealing with the pigs that were the staple of many cottagers at the time. There is no better description of the trade than in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure but, unfortunately, Challow the pig-man doesn’t turn up, so Jude and his wife Arabella have to do the job themselves.

“Upon my soul I would sooner have gone without the pig than have had this to do!” said Jude. “A creature I have fed with my own hands.”
“Don’t be such a tender-hearted fool! There’s the sticking-knife — the one with the point. Now whatever you do, don’t stick un too deep.”
“I’ll stick him effectually, so as to make short work of it. That’s the chief thing.”
“You must not!” she cried. “The meat must be well bled, and to do that he must die slow. We shall lose a shilling a score if the meat is red and bloody! Just touch the vein, that’s all. I was brought up to it, and I know. Every good butcher keeps un bleeding long. He ought to be eight or ten minutes dying, at least.”
“He shall not be half a minute if I can help it, however the meat may look,” said Jude determinedly. Scraping the bristles from the pig’s upturned throat, as he had seen the butchers do, he slit the fat; then plunged in the knife with all his might.
“‘Od damn it all!” she cried, “that ever I should say it! You’ve over-stuck un! And I telling you all the time”
“Do be quiet, Arabella, and have a little pity on the creature!”
“Hold up the pail to catch the blood, and don’t talk!”
However unworkmanlike the deed, it had been mercifully done. The blood flowed out in a torrent instead of in the trickling stream she had desired. The dying animal’s cry assumed its third and final tone, the shriek of agony; his glazing eyes riveting themselves on Arabella with the eloquently keen reproach of a creature recognizing at last the treachery of those who had seemed his only friends.
“Make un stop that!” said Arabella. “Such a noise will bring somebody or other up here, and I don’t want people to know we are doing it ourselves.” Picking up the knife from the ground whereon Jude had flung it, she slipped it into the gash, and slit the windpipe. The pig was instantly silent, his dying breath coming through the hole.

Arabella says, “There’s the sticking-knife — the one with the point”, and this phrase will have a chilling resonance as the story of Edward and Betsy Handcock unfolds. It seems that Edward Handcock was convinced that Betsy was being unfaithful to him, although no sound evidence ever emerged that this was true. When combined with his penchant for alcohol, this put him in dangerous and violent moods, as their next door neighbours, the households only separated by a thin wattle and daub wall, were later to testify.

IN PART TWO
The events of 13th November 1872
Two terrible deaths

A DARK STEEL DEATH . . . Between the covers

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Chris Nickson’s long running saga about  Leeds copper Tom Harper continues with our man now Deputy Chief Constable. We are in January 1917 and, like in other major cities, patrols are on the look out for the silent peril of Zeppelins, while Harper has a possible act of sabotage to investigate after a pile of newspaper and kindling is found inside a warehouse used for storing military clothing. The book begins, however, a month earlier with a true historical incident.

In nearby Barnbow, a huge munitions factory had been established from scratch in 1915. Its prime function was the filling of shells. With the constant drain of manpower to the armed forces, the workforce at Barnbow became over 90% female. On the night of 5th December 1916 a massive explosion occurred in Hut 42, killing 35 women outright, maiming and injuring dozens more. In some cases identification was only possible by the identity disks worn around the necks of the workers. It is believed that the explosion was triggered by a shell being packed with double the required amount of explosives. The dead women, at last, have their own memorial.

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With the Barnbow investigation ongoing, Harper has more problems on his hands when a sentry outside a barracks in the city is shot dead with, it turns out, a SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfield) .303 rifle, adapted for sniping, which was stolen from the barracks own armoury.

There are so many things to admire about this series, not least being the meticulous historical research carried out by the author. One example is the development of police investigative techniques. Back at the beginning, in Gods of Gold (2014), the idea that people could be identified by their fingerprints would have been seen as pure fantasy but, as we see in this novel, it was an essential tool  for the police by 1917.

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Back to Tom Harper’s current case. As he and his detectives sift what little evidence there is, they seem to be chasing their own tails. Harper’s worries don’t end as he closes his office door each evening. In an earlier book, we learned the grim news that his vivacious and beautiful wife Annabelle, a tireless campaigner for female equality, has developed early-onset dementia. Harper has employed a Belgian refugee couple to run Annabelle’s pub, and keep a close eye on his wife, but he never knows from one day to the next what state she will be in. If he is lucky, she will show glimpses of her old self; when she is having a bad day, she inhabits a totally imaginary world and slips from all the anchors of reality. The most painful moments for Harper come when Annabelle believes that he is her late first husband, Harry.

Eventually the case breaks. Harper and his team are astonished to find they are facing not just one killer, but a partnership. Two former soldiers, Gordon Gibson and James Openshaw were virtually buried alive when a shell exploded near them on the Western Front. Openshaw was a sniper and Gibson, not much of a shot but with superb eyesight, was his spotter. Both men were invalided out, but Openshaw, after a spell at the famous Edinburgh hospital, Craiglockhart, remains under constant medical care at Gledhow Hall, a Leeds stately home used as a hospital for the duration of the war. It seems that for whatever motive, Gibson smuggled Openshaw  and the rifle out of the hospital to commit the murder of the sentry. Now, Gibson is at large with the rifle and, despite his poor marksmanship, has shot at Tom Harper’s official car, and badly wounded a policeman.

The endgame takes place as Gibson uses all his fieldcraft to find his way into a heavily guarded Gledhow Hall to liberate Openshaw and resume their killing spree. The finale is breathtaking, powerfully written – and deeply moving. A Dark Steel Death is published by Severn House and is available now.

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DEMOLITION . . . Between the covers

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Former Lancashire copper and now best-selling novelist Nick Oldham doesn’t muck about. By the time you have read the first half dozen pages of his latest Henry Christie novel, we have had a gangster shot dead in his own swimming pool, another very rich but rather ‘iffy’ businessman bludgeoned to death with a huge spanner he has been using to rebuild a WW2 aircraft – and Henry himself dodging bullets.

High speed back story for new readers (Where have you been? This is book 30 in the series!) Henry Christie, former senior copper, now in his 50s, rather tragic ‘love life’, runs a pub in Kendleton on the Lancashire moors, frequently engaged by his former employers as a civilian investigator, usually involving crimes committed by local gangsters operating a kind of triangle-of-death between Preston, Blackpool and Fleetwood. No kiss-me-quick hats here, just deprivation, drugs and violence.

As has been customary in the recent novels, Christie is signed back on to help with the two murders – a perfectly plausible move by the Lancashire Constabulary, as  their staffing levels have taken a hit through Covid. Henry’s police ‘chaperone’ is DS Deb Blackstone. She is a feisty and competent officer who just happens to dress like a slightly deranged Goth, with spiked pink hair and all the trimmings.

Our man has other things on his plate, too. One of the regular groups to meet in his pub rather like rural Lancashire’s answer to The Thursday Murder Club, and the case they are currently working on is not so much cold as embedded in the permafrost. It concerns the murder of Lucas Grundy, back in 1941, and spice is added to the investigation by the fact that Eric, the murdered man’s brother is still alive, albeit aged 100. Christie learns from an elderly woman in the village that she believes Eric Grundy raped her, many decades earlier, but the crime was never properly dealt with.

A couple of days before Lucas Grundy was murdered, a Heinkel bomber, damaged in a raid, crashed on the moors nearby. Three of the five-man crew died at the scene and were buried in the local churchyard, but nothing was ever found of the other two. Was it possible that they were somehow involved in Grundy’s death, and how did they simply seem to disappear of the face of the earth?

As a humble reviewer, I can’t begin to comprehend how Nick Oldham keeps so many sub plots going at the same time without the narrative collapsing in confusion. One metaphor, I suppose, is that of the plate-spinning juggler, who manages not to break any of the plates, but stacks them neatly one on top of the other at the end of his performance. Oldham rounds off the action with his customary inventiveness and panache, but be warned  – there is a particularly venomous sting in the tail. Demolition is published by Severn House, and is available now.

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THE MURDER OF LUCY LINGARD . . . A Grimsby tragedy (part two)

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SO FAR: Grimsby, 18th November 1902. Lucy Lingard is separated from her husband John. She and her children live in Hope Street, and she has been in a relationship with Samuel Harold Smith (Harry), a trawlerman. He has returned from sea, and the couple have spent the afternoon and evening drinking and arguing. Smith has hit Lucy several times, but they return to their house, both drunk. A newspaper reported what happened next.

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InquestThe report was overly optimistic. Lucy Lingard hovered between life and death for a while, but on the Sunday, four days after the attack, she died of her injuries, described below at the subsequent inquest.

Dr Harold Freeth, house surgeon at the Hospital, gave evidence to the effect that the deceased died in the Hospital from exhaustion, following on from injuries, which he described. There were eleven incised wounds in all, chiefly on the chest and the left arm. One of the most serious wounds was that on the upper side of the left breast, and penetrated through the first rib into the chest cavity. The deceased had lost a great deal of blood. Witness had made a post-mortem examination. The wound which penetrated the chest had set up acute inflammation, and there was also inflammation of the pericardium. In reply to a juryman, the witness said the deceased’s organs were quite healthy before the injuries were inflicted.”

Bizarrely, despite the eye-witness testimony of Lucy Lingard’s daughter, who had witnessed the attack, and the fact that he had admitted his guilt when arrested, Smith pleaded not guilty. Another newspaper reported on young Rose’s demeanour.

Rose

Sir_William_Rann_Kennedy_1915Inevitably, the Coroner’s court, convened at the beginning of December, declared Smith to be guilty of murder, and now it would be up to the Lincoln Assizes court, Judge and Jury, to determine his fate. Smith spent the rest of December – including Christmas – and the greater part of February in Lincoln gaol. On Wednesday 25th February 1903, before Mr Justice Kennedy (right), Samuel Henry Smith  ‘had his hour in court’. Despite the suggestion to the jury that the charge should be reduced to one of manslaughter, it all went badly for Smith.

“The Lincolnshire Assizes were resumed yesterday before Justice Kennedy. Samuel Henry Smith, aged 45, fisherman, was indicted for the wilful murder of Lucy Margaret Lingard. at Grimsby, on the 18th November last. Mr Etherington Smith and Mr Lawrence appeared for the prosecution, and at the request of the Judge Mr Bonner undertook the defence. The case was sordid one. The deceased woman lived apart from her husband at 3, Taylor’s Terrace, Hope Street, Grimsby, and the accused had been in the habit of staying with her. On November 18th last the couple were out together during the afternoon, and on their return had some words, and the prisoner struck the woman. Afterwards they again went out, and when they returned late at night with a lodger and another woman, they were the worse for drink. The quarrel was resumed after a time, and, according to the evidence of the woman’s thirteen-year-old daughter, the accused took out a knife, and, rushing at the deceased, stabbed her several times. She died in the hospital on the following Sunday. On the prisoner’s behalf, Mr Bonner suggested that the jury would be justified in finding him guilty of manslaughter. The crime was undoubtedly due to drink, and he submitted that at the time of its commission the prisoner was not in condition to exercise any discretion as to the result of what he was doing. The jury found the prisoner guilty of Wilful Murder,” and he was sentenced to death.”

William-Billington copy

Smith’s legal team had applied to the Home Secretary, Viscount Chilston, for a reprieve, but he was not minded to be merciful. Likewise a petition set up by residents of Smith’s home town, Brixham, was ignored. On Tuesday 10th March, Samuel Henry Smith was marched to the scaffold by the executioner, William Billington (left). The role of state executioners was often kept within families. Just as the Pierrepoint family had several hangmen – Henry, Thomas and Albert, William Billington took over the job – along with brothers John and Thomas – when their father, James, died in 1901. Newspaper reporters, at this time, were still officially allowed to witness executions first hand, but in practice, most prison governors (and the hangmen) preferred if they didn’t, due to sensationalised and lurid accounts of the prisoners’ last moments. Whether the reporter from the LIncolnshire Chronicle saw the end of Samuel Henry Smith with his own eyes, or simply used his imagination, we do not know:

“According to recent Home Office regulations the black flag is not now displayed and all that told of the end was the tolling of the prison bell just after hour had struck. Inside the Prison, where there were only officials, the scene was impressively quiet. Wm. Billington the executioner, and his brother John, had arrived on the previous night. Early on the fateful morn the Rev. C.H. Scott visited the condemned man, who listened to his ministrations with attention and apparent gratitude. At ten minutes to eight o’clock County Under-Sheriff (Mr. Chas. Scorer) entered the cell, and approaching Smith requested him to prepare for execution. To all appearance he remained quite calm, and with a steady voice intimated that he was prepared to meet his death. Quietly he submitted himself to the executioner for the necessary pinioning process, and walked unfalteringly to the scaffold, and within two minutes all was over. Billington allowed a drop of 7ft. 3in. To the witnesses death appeared to be absolutely instantaneous and there was scarce a motion of the rope after the body disappeared from sight in the space below the drop.”

All that remained was for Samuel Henry Smith’s body to be buried in the gaol cemetery, along with dozens of other executed killers, and his name to be entered in the official record book.

Prison record

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THE MURDER OF LUCY LINGARD . . . A Grimsby tragedy (part one)

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Lucy Margaret Mullins was born in the village of Worlaby in 1869. Her father James was Irish, and worked as a groom. Her mother Jane was from the Lincolnshire village of Great Limber. In the 1881 census the family had moved to Little Limber Grange, near Brocklesby. In April 1889, Lucy married John Lingard in St James Church, Grimsby, and the census two years later shows that they were living at 6 Vesey’s Buildings in Grimsby, and they already had two children, Rose (2) and William (10 months). By 1901 they had moved to Sixth Terrace, Hope Street, and had two more children, Nellie (8) and Arthur (4). Also living in the house were two of Lucy’s adult relatives.

The 1901 census was taken on 1st April, and by the autumn of the next year John and Lucy Lingard had separated, Lucy remaining in Hope Street with the children. By the autumn of 1902 she had given birth to another child, born earlier in the year. The census also tells us that a fisherman named Samuel Henry Smith was also living in Hope Street, apparently on his own. His background has been difficult to track. The census records that he was born in Norfolk, but later newspaper reports suggest that his home town was Brixham in Devon.

It is not clear if Harry Smith was in any way responsible for the break up of the Lingards’ marriage, but by November 1902 it was clear that Lucy Lingard and Harry Smith (also separated from his spouse) were in a relationship, when he was not out on the North Sea on a trawler.

At this point, it is worth pausing the story to compare how people lived – in terms of house occupancy – back in the day. It was very common for ordinary working people to share houses with others. I was born in 1947, and my parents rented a room in a Victorian terraced house, which was shared with another couple and the owner, a single man. Each had a bedroom to themselves, and the kitchen and scullery were shared. There was no bathroom. There was running water, but also a pump in the scullery which drew water from a well. There was no electricity until, I think, 1951 and lighting was from gas lamps which were lit by pulling a little chain, which struck a flint, rather like the mechanics of a cigarette lighter.

Before demolition

Screen Shot 2022-09-10 at 18.37.47Hope Street in Grimsby was cleared of its terraces in the late 1960s (pictured above, thanks to Hope Street History), but a late 19th century map shows back-to-back houses opening directly onto the street, and every so often there would courtyards, each open area being surrounded on three sides by further dwellings. For those interested in the history of Hope Street, there is a Facebook page that gives access to an excellent pdf document describing the history of the street. That link is here. It is also worth pointing out that house ownership, certainly in 1902, would have been in the hands of landlords. The great majority of people in streets like Hope Street would be tenants.

We must now move on to the events of 18th November 1902. Harry Smith’s trawler docked that morning, and he had spent the best part of the afternoon and early evening in the company of Lucy Lingard. Smith at one point went down to the docks to collect his wages from his latest voyage. He and Lucy Lingard were at each other’s throats, perhaps because she had refused him ‘conjugal rights’, and he had struck her several times, giving her two black eyes. In spite of this, they went out drinking again, but what happened when they returned to Hope Street later that evening was to send a shiver of revulsion through the whole area.

IN PART TWO
A daughter’s testimony
Denial, trial – and the black cap

FROM THE ASHES . . . Between the covers

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Deborah Masson is back with another gritty police thriller set in her home town of Aberdeen. This time, DI Eve Hunter (previously seen in Out For Blood and Hold Your Tongue) faces the grimmest challenge presented to police officers all over the world – the death of a child. Lucas Fyfe – dead mother, drug addicted father and unfeeling grandmother – has been in care since he was little. When someone deliberately sets fire to Wellwood, a children’s home, he is the one resident who doesn’t make it out. Why? Because the body of the eleven year-old is discovered in the cellar, and the trapdoor which is the only access is concealed under a heavy carpet.

Literally from page one, Masson gives us another perspective – that of the presumed arsonist. We know it’s a ‘he’, and we know that he was a former resident of Wellwood when it was run by the current warden’s father, William Alderton and the sadistic Sally Fields. I find that the backstory narrative trope can be irritating when an author uses too many viewpoints and too many time frames, but here it is used with subtlety and works very well.

Eve Hunter’s team consists of DS Cooper, DS Mearns and DC Ferguson, and the sparky dynamics between them provide an intriguing counterpoint to the investigation. Scott Ferguson is peripherally involved in a road accident on his way to work, but his obsession with the young man who was the main casualty starts to distract him from the Wellwood case. When a further shocking discovery is made in the cellar where Lucas Fyfe died, Ferguson’s lack of attention becomes even more serious. We eventually learn why Ferguson feels compelled to be at the bedside of the young vagrant who was badly injured in the RTA, and it turns the case on its head.

Hunter and her team soon realise that the surviving children and the three adult staff of Wellwood are not telling all that they know. That much is obvious, but penetrating the veil of secrecy proves more difficult. With both of the original owners dead, and local Children’s Services being very protective of the few remaining historic records of the children who were residents, the case seems to go round in circles, until Ferguson’s with Archie, the young RTA victim, finally pays off.

Deborah Masson is a writer who enjoys providing her readers with the unexpected, and the finale of the novel, in the grim basement of Wellwood, is a prime example. Eve Hunter comes over as tough and uncompromising in pursuit of the bad guys, but her family background has left her with a strong streak of compassion, and when Scott Ferguson finally reveals his own secrets – and his link to the Wellwood basement – she is well-equipped to provide emotional support.

This novel is dark, cleverly plotted, full of well-concealed surprises and a master class in how to write a good police-procedural. From The Ashes is published by Transworld/Penguin and is available now.

THE LONG KNIVES . . . Between the covers

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Irvine Welsh introduced us to Edinburgh detective Ray Lennox in Crime, but it has taken fourteen years for the second in the series – The Long Knives – to emerge. The title is not a metaphor, as the opening chapter describes the castration of a rather unpleasant Conservative MP in an empty warehouse in Leith.

There is no shortage of people who might have wanted Ritchie Gulliver dead. They range from political opponents, via victims of his predatory sexual habits, to activist groups he has offended. Lennox is given the case, and is immediately alerted to a recent incident in London which sounds similar. Home Office civil servant Christopher Piggott-Wilkins has been attacked in the Savoy Hotel. He managed to escape, badly wounded, and immediately transferred himself to a Harley Street hospital, after which what occurred in his suite has been cleaned up, both literally and metaphorically, by un-named but powerful agencies. Piggott-Wilkins has been left with one testicle, while Gulliver’s complete ‘package’ was discovered, draped from the Sir Walter Scott memorial, by an unsuspecting tourist.

After a lighting trip to London to speak to Mark Hollis, the larger-than-life Met copper investigating the Savoy case, Lennox returns to Edinburgh to face a sea of troubles. His fiancee Trudi not only seems to be ignoring his calls, but may have another love in her life. A former colleague, Jim McVittie, has transitioned to female, but has been found horrifically beaten up and is not expected to survive. Before the assault, Lennox meets one of the more ‘in your face’ transexuals in the local scene:

“What appears to be a brawny young man of around six foot four in a blue dress not so much enters as bulldozes in, a charged storm of bristling rage. He has a big hooked nose, and long flowing brown hair, which seems to have been given the attention of crimping tongs fashionable in the eighties. On his face a long scar bubbles thickly from under a  trowelling of foundation.”

An investigative journalist has tipped Lennox off that the two cases may be linked to a serious sexual assault at a ski resort some years earlier, and that high class prostitutes – and the men who run them – may be involved.

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Readers familiar with Welsh’s style over the years will recognise his trademarks, including the unpunctuated rapid-fire dialogue, the demi-monde of drugs, violence, sex and alcohol, and the underpinning ground-bass that tells us it’s an us-and-them world. There is even a passing reference to the most infamous of the author’s creations, Francis Begbie.

One of the more memorable characters in the drama is the brilliantly over-the-top Mark Hollis. He is more redolent of the glory days of The Sweeney than the current fashion of dancing the Macarena at Gay Pride marches. Hollis provides valuable information to Lennox, and slowly but surely the Edinburgh cop connects the pieces of the jigsaw. The picture that emerges is a chilling one. The killings are the work of a partnership. The man is linked to an act of random cruelty some years previously in Tehran, while his female partner is, indeed, seeking revenge for her abuse in a ski-lift gondola, but when her identity is revealed, Lennox is beyond shocked.

Welsh brings us horrific violence, but also the dark poetry of compassion. I can only liken Ray Lennox’s desire to avenge the murder victims whose suffering is imprinted on his soul, to Derek Raymond’s nameless Sergeant in books like I Was Dora Suarez. This is a magnificent work of fiction, not just a good crime novel. It is published by Jonathan Cape and will be out on 25th August.

UNDER THE MARSH . . . Between the covers

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This is the third novel by GR Halliday featuring Inverness copper DI Monica Kennedy, and you can read my review of the previous book, Dark Waters, by clicking on the title link. DI Kennedy’s life revolves around being the best mother she can be for her five year-old daughter Lucy, and solving serious crime for Police Scotland. When those two vocations collide, she is helped out by her willing, but rather reproachful mother.

The novel begins with one of those “She’s Leaving Home” moments, but there is a difference. The worst that we know of what became of the girl in the Beatles song is that she went off with a man from the motor trade. What happens here is worse. Much, much worse.

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UTM coverOne of Kennedy’s chief scalps was serial killer Pauline Tosh, who now faces spending the rest of her days in a remote high security jail. Out of the blue, Tosh requests a visit from the officer who ended her murderous career, and what she reveals sets off a search for a body. When it is discovered, and is revealed to be that of the long-since missing Freya Sutherland, what is in effect a massive cold-case-murder hunt is put into place.

I am not the greatest fan of the split time frame mode of storytelling, but Halliday uses it sparingly. Freya’s links with some minor celebrities back in the day provide leads for the investigation, but they are not necessarily fruitful. Along the way, the author has fun painting dark pictures of people who were once ‘something’ in the entertainment business, but whose best days are long behind them, but the questionable ethics and narcissism that brought them fame are as strong as ever. More troubling for Monica Kennedy is that one of the people who crops up in her investigation into what happened decades ago is now a prominent Scottish politician.

Monica Kennedy gets on really well with her professional partner, DC Connor Crawford, but then he goes AWOL at a time when the investigation is floundering. When he does surface, it is to tell Kennedy that he is in la merde profonde. He has become captivated with a Lithuanian stripper who works for one of Scotland’s major villains, who now has compromising footage of Crawford and Emilija. This footage will be revealed to all and sundry unless Crawford agrees to feed him with information. It is not all doom and gloom, however, as Crawford has had a bit of luck via a cassette tape which seems to indict several of Kennedy’s suspects in the search for Freya’s killer.

Screen Shot 2022-08-13 at 19.09.20As with all good crime writers, Halliday (right) leads us up the garden path, and killers (plural) are actually found, but the solution is surprising and beautifully complex. Oh yes, I almost forgot. From his bio, GR Halliday is a lover of cats, so if you share his passion, there are cats in this story. Several of them.

The author brings us a dark and compelling mystery set against the dramatic and occasionally unforgiving landscape of the Scottish Highlands. Monica Kennedy is a fully fleshed out character we can all believe in. Under the Marsh is published by Vintage, and is available now.

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