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THE THREE LOCKS . . . Between the covers

TTL006In a sappingly hot Indian Summer in central London, Dr John Watson is sent – by a relative he hardly remembers – a mysterious tin box which has no key, and no apparent means by which it can be opened. Watson and his companion Sherlock Holmes have become temporarily estranged, not because of any particular antipathy, but more because the investigations which have brought them so memorably together have dwindled to a big fat zero.

TTL007But then, in the space of a few hours, Watson shows his mysterious box to his house-mate, and the door of 221B Baker Street opens to admit two very different visitors. One is a young Roman Catholic novice priest from Cambridge who is worried about the disappearance of a young woman he has an interest in, and the second is a voluptuous conjuror’s assistant with a very intriguing tale to tell. The conjuror’s assistant, Madam Ilaria Borelli is married to one stage magician, Dario ‘The Great’ Borelli, but is the former lover of his bitter rival, Santo Colangelo. Are the two showmen trying to kill each other for the love of Ilaria? Have they doctored each other’s stage apparatus to bring about disastrous conclusions to their separate performances?

As for the missing young woman, Odile ‘Dilly’ Wyndham, she is only ‘missing’ because she has a pied-à-terre, unknown to her parents, where she can flirt with her admirers to her heart’s content, and it transpires that the thoughts of the young priest-in-waiting are not wholly as pure as the waft of incense. Was he responsible for the doll found on Jesus Lock footbridge, dressed to look like Dilly, but with its arm wrenched off?

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As an aside, this tale has Holmes and Watson as younger men, perhaps in their thirties. MacBird includes all the standard tropes – Watson’s bemused geniality and stiff upper lip, Holmes’s mood swings and reliance on cocaine when life becomes too dull, and even the stern but maternal presence of Mrs Hudson.

Much of the action takes place in Cambridge, and it is there that the murder which occupies much of the book is committed. MacBird does a fine job of keeping the two strands of the plot – the warring conjurors, and the love life of Dilly Wyndham – running together side-by-side, and she shows us some magic of her own by bringing them together by the end . Watson’s mysterious box? It does get opened eventually, and what it reveals is rather moving. Fans of the great detective will not be disappointed by The Three Locks – it has enough twists and surprises to satisfy even the sternest Holmesian.

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Is ‘pastiche’ the right word for this book? Maybe ‘re-imagining’, or ‘tribute’ might be kinder. Whichever word we use, the central problem facing modern writers of Sherlock Holmes stories is that of length. Even the four full length canonical novels – A Study In Scarlet, The Sign of The Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear – are very short compared to modern books. The bulk of the Holmes canon are the short stories, which spark and fizz brilliantly for a few thousand words, and then are gone. Yes, short story writing is an art in itself (which very few have mastered) but maintaining pace and narrative drive for four hundred or more pages is a different challenge.  A writer of a Holmes and Watson homage has to spin out every gesture, comment and impression which, in the originals, crackle and then are gone in a moment. I haven’t read the previous three MacBird Holmes novels, but The Three Locks works as well as most other novels in the genre, and certainly better than some. It is published by Collins Crime Club and is out on 1st April. If you click on the image below, it will take you to Bonnie MacBird’s website, and a very entertaining set of annotations linked to the novel.

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SERPENTINE . . . Between the covers

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No-one could ever accuse Jonathan Kellerman of not being industrious. It seems like only the other day that I reviewed The Museum of Desire (it was 9th November last year, in fact), but now Dr Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis are back again in the hills and canyons of LA, solving another mystery. A quick bio. for readers new to the series. Delaware is a practicing child psychologist who often (this is the 36th book in the series) helps LAPD detective Milo Sturgis with cases. Delware lives with a woman who repairs stringed instruments, while Sturgis has a partner, and has come through the dark years when being gay was something of a no-no in police ranks. The plot is as wonderfully convoluted and labyrinthine as ever. So (takes a deep breath), here goes.

Screen Shot 2021-02-04 at 18.47.53Sturgis has reluctantly taken on the coldest of cold cases. His orders have come down from some very well-connected people in the political and civic life of LA, and so he has been pulled off all other work. The mystery? What is the truth behind the death of a woman decades earlier, found in the wreckage of her burnt out Cadillac at the bottom of a canyon bordering Mulholland Drive? Careless driving? Might have been, were it not for the fact that she had also been shot in the head.

The woman pulling the strings is Ellie Barker, a millionaire former businesswoman, and daughter of Dorothy Swoboda the lady in the canyon. She was only three at the time, has no recollection of her mother, and never knew her natural father, having been brought up by her stepfather, Stanley Barker.

Anton Des Barres was a wealthy industrialist who made his money manufacturing high quality surgical equipment. After his second wife died, he became something of a womaniser, inviting young women back to his mansion where he and his children still lived. Delaware and Sturgis learn that Dorothy was one of Des Barres’s ‘harem’. They also discover a strange coincidence. Arlette Des Barres, the man’s second wife died after a fall from her horse in the rugged country near where Dorothy died. Stanley Barker was found dead, possibly as a result of a fall, in the same area.

Historic deaths are one thing, but when Ellie Barker’s boyfriend is shot, Delaware and Sturgis are faced with the uncomfortable thought that whatever the truth behind Dorothy’s murder, it is far from being dead and buried. It is alive and well, and extremely dangerous.

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PendantThe title of the book refers to a piece of jewellery, which Delaware and Sturgis eventually discover is deeply significant. Actually, the pair make many assumptions about the case, and most of them prove to be wrong, which only adds to the credibility as investigators. They are not super-sleuths; they are mortal, fallible – and consequently completely convincing.  It is only in the final pages that they – and we – learn the truth about the life and death of the woman who called herself Dorothy Swoboda, and it is dark stuff indeed.

Cynics might turn up their noses at this book and dismiss it as “formula fiction”. Fair enough, and, as the saying goes, “opinions are like (insert anatomical detail) – everyone has one”. What such critics find hard to cope with, I suggest, is that writers like Kellerman are rather like alchemists, in that they take base metal – cops, bad guys, slick dialogue, zooming around in cars, and turn it into gold – conviction, reading pleasure, empathy with the characters and a sense of “can’t wait for the next novel“. That is pretty impressive, at least in my book.

Serpentine is published by Century, and is out now.

THE BURNING GIRLS . . . Between the covers

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CJ Tudor gets the ball rolling by inventing a rather sinister legend  and an equally disturbing little community in Sussex. Enter, stage left, a priest called Jack (short for Jacqueline) Brooks and her teenage daughter Flo. Jack’s previous ministry was in a run-down but vibrant parish in Nottingham, but after she became involved in one of those tragic social services failures – think Victoria Climbie, Baby P, Lauren Wright – her oleaginous Bishop, more concerned about PR than prayer, moves her down to Sussex.

TBG coverWe also learn fairly early on that Jack has another skeleton in her closet, but more of that – or, more accurately, him – later. Jack’s first encounter with Chapel Croft residents is the appearance of a barefooted bloodstained child wandering towards her outside the little chapel which gives the village its name. This startling apparition, however, is not from hell, but from a nearby farm where the girl came rather too close to a pig being butchered in the farm’s abattoir.

Jack’s sense of unease about the community increases as the pages turn. In no particular order, we have a former vicar who committed suicide, two teenage girls who disappeared from the village a few years earlier, a cadaverous and saturnine churchwarden. daughter Flo’s involvement with a strange young man called Wrigley who once tried to burn down his school and who suffers from a nervous condition which makes him twitch uncontrollably. Oh yes – there is also something rather nasty buried beneath the floor of the chapel.

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As Jack tries desperately to do her job as a minister, she becomes tangled up in a sticky web which involves previous incumbents and how (and why) they died. The more she struggles, the closer the rather unpleasant spider that created the web comes; what we don’t know, however, is the name of the spider.

Screen Shot 2021-01-26 at 19.19.04One of CJ Tudor’s many talents is to lead her readers up the garden path in terms of what we think is happening. I certainly thought I knew what was what, but rather like Prospero, Tudor has the gift of sorcery, and uses it to telling effect, turning Chapel Croft into an enchanted island which is certainly “full of noises”, not all of them being pleasant. Like all good writers, she saves the biggest surprise until the final pages.

One of my early reactions while reading this was to think that we have already had a female vicar and her teenage daughter interacting with things supernatural in Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, but by the time you have reached the last page of The Burning Girls, you will be aware that we are talking about two very different beasts. This novel is suitably creepy, will appeal to crime fiction fans and horror devotees alike, and in Jack Brooks, CJ Tudor (right) presents us with a plausible and very human central character. One of the best things about the book is that the legend of the stick figures and the dark history of Chapel Croft makes one want to put it on the list of places to visit once the wretched virus recedes. Sadly, however, Chapel Croft, its haunted little church and disturbing villagers are, to return to Prospero:

“..all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.”

The Burning Girls is published by Michael Joseph and is out now.

WHEN I COME HOME AGAIN . . . Between the covers

WICHA bannerThe poet Vernon Scannell, himself a veteran of WW2 wrote a haunting poem he called The Great War. The closing lines are:

And now,
Whenever the November sky
Quivers with a bugle’s hoarse, sweet cry,
The reason darkens; in its evening gleam
Crosses and flares, tormented wire, grey earth
Splattered with crimson flowers,
And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.”

There is something about that war, something that echoes down the decades. Even now, when those who fought and survived are all long since dead, the conflict is seared into the national psyche. Caroline Scott is, like many of us who lack her grace and talent as a writer, gripped not so much by the military details, but by the colossal aftershock that continued to cause devastation long after the last shot was fired in November 1918.

WICHA coverIn her 2014 novel Those Measureless Fields she began her own personal exploration of what happened to the men and families who had to pick up the pieces of their lives after the Armistice. She followed this in 2019 with what was, for, me one of the books of the year, The Photographer Of The Lost (click to read my review), also known as The Poppy Wife. Now she returns to her theme with When I Come Home Again.

Just weeks after the Armistice, a filthy, dishevelled young man, wearing a tattered soldier’s uniform, is arrested by the police after causing minor damage to monuments in Durham cathedral. In custody, he refuses – or is unable – to give his name, or any other clue as to his identity. The police, thinking they may have a case of severe shell-shock on their hands, put him in the care of a young doctor, James Haworth. For want of any other name, they call him Adam Galilee.

Article006At a rehabilitation centre in the Lake District, Haworth tries to find the key that will unlock Adam’s memory. James and his boss, Alec Shepherd, take a bold decision. They release a photograph of Adam, and what little they know of him, to the national press. This triggers a wave of mothers, wives and sisters who yearn for the impossible – a virtual resurrection of their lost son, husband and brother. From the tragic queue of broken hearted souls, three women seem to be the most convincing. They are Celia Daker, who believes that Adam is her missing son, Robert, Anna Mason, a young wife who dares to dream that she is no longer a widow, and Lucy Vickers a sister who is now bringing up the children of her lost brother.

Haworth is a former soldier himself and is haunted by terrifying dreams of the horrors he experienced during the Battle of The Somme. As he tries to come to terms with the hopes of the three women who believe that Adam is theirs, his own mental health – and with it his marriage – begin to shatter.

I’ll be quite frank here. This is not an easy read. I’ll say that the bleakest and most harrowing novel I have ever read is Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure. If I give that a 10 for heartbreak, then When I Come Home Again is a nailed-on 9. It is, however, haunting and beautifully written and works on so many different levels. In her descriptions of how Adam reacts to the intricacies of the natural world around him, Caroline Scott is surely channelling her inner John Clare, or perhaps remembering Matthew Arnold:

“Through the thick corn the scarlet poppies peep,
And round green roots and yellowing stalks I see
Pale pink convolvulus in tendrils creep;
And air-swept lindens yield
Their scent, and rustle down their perfumed showers
Of bloom on the bent grass where I am laid.”
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As the book builds towards its conclusion, there is the terrible irony of Adam’s palpable fear of returning to his old life – wherever that was – as he retreats more and more into the solace of rebuilding the ruined and neglected walled garden at Fellside House. As for the women who long for Adam to be their son, brother and husband, we fear that they are fated to lose their men twice over, thus doubling the pain. There is dramatic catharsis still to come, and an act of irony worthy of the aforementioned Thomas Hardy. Life must go on, however, and in Adam’s restored garden, perhaps Caroline Scott has created a metaphor for regeneration. There is deep, deep sadness at the very heart and soul of this book but, like the blossom on the damson trees of Fellside Hall, this fine novel leaves us, to borrow Milton, “calm of mind all passion spent.” and with a sense that renewal might – just might – be possible.

When I Come Home Again is published by Simon & Schuster and will be available from 29th October.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . an intriguing puzzle.

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To adapt, abuse and assault the beautiful words of Elizabeth Browning, née Barrett:

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The creative folk at Penguin Random House are certainly pushing the boat out in support of Gone, a new psychological thriller and the debut novel by former police psychologist Leona Deakin.

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This intriguing pack has just arrived, and although the digital version of Gone will not be available until August, and the print version way after that in October, it’s never to early to set people’s curiosity on fire. There’s clearly some kind of mystery behind the mystery, so here are the clues.

Clue

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There will be more to come, no doubt, on this puzzle. Let’s see if we can work out exactly what is going on!

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COMPETITION … Win An Oxford Scandal

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OUR LATEST PRIZE DRAW COMPETITION is to win a copy of the latest in Norman Russell’s popular Inspector Antrobus mysteries, set in late Victorian Oxford.

Anthony Jardine is a successful and popular tutor at St. Gabriel’s College, and he finds his loyalties divided between his work, his wife Dora and his mistress Rachel. Unbeknown to Anthony, Dora is an advanced cocaine addict and he comes to resent her outrageous activities more and more, absorbing himself with the discovery of the remains of St Thomas a Becket in a hidden vault at the college. One rainy night Dora is found murdered in a tramcar out at Cowley and Jardine, who had been visiting Rachel in that area, becomes a suspect. The case is investigated by Inspector James Antrobus and his friend Sophia Jex-Blake, the pioneer woman doctor. A complex investigation follows and after Jardine’s mistress is murdered, the clues take Antrobus to London, when the mystery starts to unravel and the killer is revealed in a grand climax.

If you are a fan of the Golden Age style of mystery, and classic detective stories with an academic angle, then this is not one not to miss. And, even better, you could be getting your copy for free! There are two ways to enter: First, go to the Fully Booked Facebook page, and simply ‘like’ the competition post. Clicking on the image below will get you straight there.

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If you prefer email, then send an email to the address below, putting the word Oxford as the subject. The competition closes at 10.00pm GMT, on Sunday August 20th.

fullybooked2016@yahoo.com

 

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