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Nick Oldham

TRANSFUSION . . . Between the covers

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This begins very differently from any of the previous books in the excellent series. Instead of finding retired Lancashire copper Henry being barman and barrista in his moorland pub, or helping his one-time colleagues chase villains around the mean backstreets of Blackpool, we are in Cyprus, where Viktor Bakshim, head of an Albanian crime syndicate has his lair in a heavily guarded mansion. He has, naturally, a bodyguard of muscled young men in black T-shirts, but his security on the island is further enhanced by the Cypriot authorities’ determination (thanks to wads of used Euros) to “see no ships..”

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Bakshim is old and frail, and his body is pretty much shutting down one function at a time, like shops on a run-down town centre. At the heart of his operation is his ruthless and resourceful daughter Sofia, and she looms large as the plot develops.

The problem for the wider authorities – including the CIA, FBI and MI6 – is that Bakshim is dead. At least, he is supposed to be. It seems, however, that a co-ordinated hit on the ageing villain was foiled by crafty switching of personnel between the Land Cruisers carrying him and his hoodlums. The DNA of all the deceased thugs has been established, except the most crucial one – Bakshim himself.

A shadowy operator called Flynn, a former colleague of Christie’s, who now has connections to official intelligence agencies, is on Cyprus trying to establish what Bakshim – if he is indeed still alive – is up to. After a chase and a shoot-out, Flynn manages to evade the protective heavies, and heads out to sea with his girlfriend. Meanwhile, also on the island, American agent Karl Donaldson, with a little help from his friends in London’s Metropolitan Police, has nabbed a Russian hitman called Sokolov – violent and brave, but none too bright – and wants to turn him for his own purposes.

Back in chilly England, Henry Christie is, once again, employed as a civilian consultant to his former employers, and is working with his new partner DS Debbie Blackstone on an historic – and grim – case of child sexual abuse. The case is harrowing, and there are no easy days, but at least there are no bullets flying. This all changes when the ultra-violent world of Albanian gangland comes to Lancashire. When the Bakshims visit a  British criminal who has been working hand in hand with them, they find that their man in the UK has grown greedy, and is demanding a bigger slice of the cake. Bad move. All hell breaks loose.

Sofia has employed a violently competent hitman known as The Tradesman, a psychopath whose business front is running a crematorium for deceased pets. While Viktor and his daughter are spirited away from the carnage, The Tradesman goes on  a murderous spree that leaves the Lancashire cops reeling and struggling to make sense of what is going on. Henry Christie gets caught up in the bloodbath, but remains physically unscathed. His heart (the metaphorical one) however, takes a severe hit as, yet again, his romantic illusions are shattered. This happens very publicly, and in a humiliating fashion, but the heartache doesn’t prevent him – almost accidentally – cracking the case wide open as he investigates an apparently trivial case of card fraud involving his pub.

In the aftermath, Flynn and Donaldson decide that the Bakshims have done enough damage, and are determined to act “off the books” and kill them. In a delicious twist, however – and I’ll stop there, because the ending is just too good for me to spoil things. Nick Oldham delivers the goods again with violence and mayhem sufficient to satisfy the most demanding reader, but – best of all – we have another outing for the most endearing of English fictional coppers. Henry Christie is frequently bowed, but never, ever broken. Transfusion is published by Severn House and is out now.

For more about Henry Christie and Nick Oldham,
click the author’s picture below.
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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 4. York and Preston

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NecroEver onwards, and ever northward to the ancient city of York. For all that it houses the magnificent medieval minster and has a history going back to the Eboracum of Roman times, fewer people remember that York was also a great railway city, and there can be no more appropriate place to house the National Railway Museum. Like many men now in the autumn of their years I was an enthusiastic trainspotter back in the days of steam, so it is – I hope – perfectly understandable that I have chosen the Jim Stringer novels by Andrew Martin for this stop on our trip. Martin introduced Stringer in The Necropolis Railway (2002) when Stringer is very much at the bottom of the railway hierarchy, and working in London, but by 2004 in The Blackpool Highflyer, Stringer has married his landlord’s daughter – the beautiful Lydia – and has been promoted to a job in York.

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The next four novels see Jim rising steadily through the ranks of railway nobility, but in 1914 the world changes for ever, and Jim, like tens of thousands of other fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, answers the country’s call and joins up to fight the Kaiser, but with his expertise as a railwayman. The Great War, while not as completely global as the conflict that followed just twenty five years later, was not confined to the blood-soaked farmlands of France and Flanders. After solving a front-line murder in The Somme Stations (2011) Jim goes east in The Bagdhad Railway Club (2012) and Night Train To Jamalpur (2013) and emerges some years after the war, more or less unscathed and back home in York, in Powder Smoke (2021)

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Andrew Martin is many things – steeped in railway lore from his childhood, Oxford graduate, qualified barrister, performing musician, born in York and writer of novels light years distant from crime fiction. If he were ever to have a tombstone inscription, I do hope he would include (in brackets) “also known as Jim Stringer”. Stringer is a brilliant creation; not a ‘bish-bash-bosh’ hero, for sure, but a man with a well-defined moral compass and a gimlet eye for wrong-doing – be it in railway procedure or life in general.

Although I don’t quite belong to Jim Stringer’s era, when I read his books I am back in my relatively blameless youth (remember when Philip Larkin said sex was invented) and I am on a station platform somewhere in the Midlands, probably showered with soot from a venting steam engine, pen in one hand, notebook in the other, and with a school satchel containing sandwiches and a bottle of pop slung over my shoulder.

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We now face a long haul over The Pennines and, just after the ancient town of Skipton, we trade the white rose for the red, and pass into the County Palatine of Lancashire. It is just possible that we might pass within a stone’s throw of a moorland pub called The Tawny Owl. Were we to call in for refreshment we might be serves by a fifty-something chap called Henry Christie. More than likely, though he will be out somewhere between Preston and Blackpool ‘helping police with their inquiries’. In Henry’s case, however, this is not the standard police cliché for being ‘nicked’ but is to be taken absolutely literally, as retired copper Christie has a new role as a consultant to his former colleagues.

ATFJHis creator, Nick Oldham, knows of what he writes, as he is a former police officer, and the 29th book in this long running and successful series is due out at the end of November. So, what can readers expect from a Henry Christie story? It depends where you start, of course, because if you go back to the beginning in 1996, Peter Shilton was still in goal, but for Leyton Orient, England lost to Germany (on penalties, naturally) in the Euros semi-final, the trial of men accused of murdering Stephen Lawrence collapsed and John Major was in his second term as British Prime Minister. In A Time For Justice Christie is a relatively junior Detective Inspector – and someone who is seriously out of favour with his bosses, and has to tackle a cocky mafia hitman who thinks the English police are a joke. As the novels progress over the years, Christie rises through the ranks, but he is still someone who is viewed with some suspicion by the few officers who outrank him – the chief constables and their assistants.

NOHenry Christie is always hands on, and he has the scars – mostly physical, but one or two mental lesions – to prove it. His personal life has been a mixture of love, passion, tragedy and disappointment. His geographical battle grounds are usually confined to the triangle formed of Preston, Lancaster and Blackpool. This is an area that Oldham (right) himself knows very well, of course, thanks to his years as a copper, but it is also very cleverly chosen, because it allows the author to play with very different human and geographical landscapes. The brooding moorland to the east is a wonderful setting for all kinds of wrong-doing, while the seaside town of Blackpool, despite the golden sands, donkey rides, candy floss and cheerful seaside ambience, houses one of the worst areas of deprivation in the whole country, with run-down and lawless former council estates controlled by loan sharks, traffickers and criminal families of the worst sort.

What comes as standard in this superb series is tight plotting, total procedural authenticity, some pretty mind blowing violence and brutality but – above all – an intensely human and likeable main character. Click on the images below to read reviews of some of the more recent Henry Christie novels.

Bad Cops

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SCARRED . . . Between the covers

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If ever there were an appropriate title for a Henry Christie novel, it is this. For newcomers, former Lancashire copper Nick Oldham created Christie in 1996 with A Time For Justice. Scarred is, I believe the 28th in the series, and while Christie hasn’t quite aged the full twenty five years since we first met him, he is rather like Tennyson’s Ulysses:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;”

Sticking with the Bard of Somersby, Christie is also;

“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Back in the day, Henry Christie was a senior detective with the Lancashire Constabulary. He is now long since retired, running a moorland pub, but unable to resist the call to arms when he is asked to operate as a civilian consultant with his old force. Back to the title, though. Christie has endured many a beating at the hands of his criminal adversaries. He carries scars which are both physical and mental from his days battling bad men – and equally malignant women. Without giving too much away, I can say the word ‘scarred’ has a wider connotation than Henry’s war wounds.

I have become weary in recent years of what I call the “four years earlier – six months later” school of narrative, and I raised the tiniest hair of an eyebrow when I saw that this book starts in 1985, when Christie was (I almost said “nobbut a lad” but then remembered that they say that on the other side of the Pennines, not in Lancashire) a young Detective Constable, trying to nab shoplifters. One particular pursuit ends in Christie being severely beaten, and ending up in intensive care. Wisely, Nick Oldham stays with this period of his man’s career for some considerable time, and doesn’t follow the irritating (to me) pattern of lurching between time slots every three or four pages.

81RhPuniszSThe 1985 episode links crucially with the second part of the book which is firmly in present day Covid-restricted Lancashire, complete with masks and elbow bumps. A teenage boy who was the object of Christie’s near fatal pursuit – but then disappeared off the face of the earth – turns up again, but in an unexpected and deeply disturbing way.

A word or two about the places where the book is set. I have spoken of this in previous reviews of Henry Christie stories, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that because some of the action centres on the Blackpool area, there is any sense of sun and fun, saucy postcards and kiss-me-quick hats. The ubiquitous Google provides a statement from Lancashire Country Council:

“Blackpool (20.9%), in the Lancashire-14 area, has the largest proportion of its working age population employment deprived in England, and the third largest percentage income deprived (24.7%). Blackpool has the largest number of people employment deprived and income deprived in the Lancashire-14 area.

Where you have the ‘D’ word you always have crime, meanness of spirit and Oldham doesn’t shy away from describing the littered streets, the drug-ridden estates, the human desert speckled with steel-grilled convenience stores and tattoo shops, the youngsters who have turned feral by the age of twelve, and the desperate single mothers, endlessly betrayed by the absent fathers of their children, and whose only solace is tobacco and cheap alcohol. It doesn’t make the Henry Christie novels Noir, exactly, mainly because HC is such a decent fellow. He is a man who remains optimistic in spite of everything, and perhaps he is a soulmate of the man so superbly described by Raymond Chandler:

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.”

Back to the book. Mr Civilian Christie has been partnered with a firebrand Detective Sergeant, xxxxx who is fixated on the fact that there has been systematic collusion between the police and criminals in Lancashire over a long period of time. Because of this, she has been shunted sideways into investigating cold case crime, an operation which may make for good police procedurals on TV, but is probably frustrating for officers who want to be at the sharp end of investigation and law enforcement. What starts as a hunt for man who raped a young girl many months ago morphs into the discovery of a huge child abuse scandal, and ends with one of the most ferocious finales you could want to read. Scarred is published by Severn House and is out now. To read my reviews of earlier Nick Oldham novels, click the image below.

 

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BAD TIMING . . . Between the covers

IMG_1893-2-2Nick Oldham (left) is a former copper from Lancashire,and his novels featuring Henry Christie have been delighting readers for many years. I believe that Bad Timing is the 27th in a series dating back to A Time For Justice, which came out in 1996.

Here’s a very quick Henry Christie CV ( or resumé for American readers). He worked his way up through the ranks of Lancashire Police, but never wanted the kind of seniority that meant braid on his ceremonial uniform or role where he spent most of his time behind a desk massaging crime figures for the Home Office or, even worse, managing the force’s diversity targets. He has been shot, beaten up, sacked and re-instated, and has seen the very worst of criminal lowlife in England’s north-west. He has now retired and is running a moorland pub, while still mourning the deaths and various departures of women in his life.

Bad TimingBad Timing is a kind of sequel, or perhaps the final chapter of a story which began in the previous novel, Wildfire. If you click the link you can get the background story. In short, a married couple who made a tidy living out of creative accounting – laundering money for some seriously bad gangsters have been murdered in their luxurious converted farmhouse. The problem is that huge sums of money have gone missing, probably sucked into a Bermuda Triangle of dodgy companies, offshore investments and Swiss bank accounts. And now, the bad guys want the money back.

A word to the wise. Don’t be misled into thinking that the partly rural setting of these novels mean that it you will be reading a cosy Heartbeat-style tale of lovable rogues and amiable coppers on push-bikes. Oldham tells it how it actually is, and Christie’s world is one of ruthless criminal families, vicious thugs, appalling council estates with endemic crime, and toxic traveller sites populated with opportunists who are as violent as they are anti-social.

When the body of the daughter of the murdered accountants is found in a remote lake, the police realise that the case is far from closed and there is still a killer out there. Henry Christie is brought back as a consultant, and although he is ‘chaperoned’ by Detective Diane Daniels, it is his nose for danger that pitches them into a head-on collision with a gangland killer who is as black of heart as anyone Christie has encountered in his long career.

Christie is, to put it mildly, getting on a bit. His body is just about up for the demands of pulling pints, concocting exotic designer coffees and serving full English breakfasts at his pub, The Tawny Owl, but now he is out there challenging a man half his age and twice as malevolent.

Bad Timing is as brutal and unflinching a thriller as you will read all year. It is published by Severn House and is out on 30th September.

WILDFIRE . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wildfire is published by Severn House and is available now.

BAD COPS . . . Between the covers

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It is fair to say that Nick Oldham’s Lancashire copper Henry Christie has been around the block a few times. Twenty-four times, to be precise. Bad Cops is his twenty-fifth trip and Detective Superintendent Christie is off work, recovering from a gunshot wound. He has been making vague promises to his pub landlady girlfriend Alison that his days at the sharp end of British law enforcement are over, and he is going to spend his last days on the force sitting safely behind his desk until his pension pot matures and he can retire to The Tawny Owl and concentrate on pulling pints and working the restaurant’s elaborate coffee machine.

imageHis resolve weakens, however, when he is visited by two of his more senior officers, his own Chief Constable and the newly appointed boss of the Central Yorkshire force, John Burnham. The Yorkshire police has suffered a disastrous inspection, and Burnham has been appointed to cleanse the Augean Stables.

Christie is assured that he will only be required to cast his experienced eye over the murder books pertaining to two unsolved killings look for omissions and inconsistencies, and report back to Burnham. What follows is a journey into a nightmarish world of police corruption, people trafficking, financial fraud – and contract killing.

Nick Oldham gives us a fascinating cast of characters. Readers new to Henry Christie will discover a bruised and (frequently) battered old style officer who, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, is “not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven.” Even he accepts that his philandering days are over, much as he is attracted to his investigating partner Detective Sergeant Diane Daniels. Those of us who have followed breathlessly in Christie’s turbulent wake in previous novels will know that Nick Oldham doesn’t mess about when creating villains, but he has certainly outdone himself here with Detective Chief Inspector Jane Runcie, who is as corrupt, foul-mouthed, sexually predatory and downright malevolent as anyone he has previously brought to the page.

imageOldham (right) is a retired copper himself, so readers are guaranteed procedural details which are described with total authenticity, whether they be the smelly reality of unmarked police cars used for observation, complete with the detritus of discarded fast food wrappers and the inevitable flatulent consequences, and an intriguing – and quite scary – use for Blutac and two pence pieces.

Like the previous Henry Christie novels Bad Cops is short, sharp, and sometimes shocking. You will get through it in a couple of sessions at the most and if ever a novel deserved the old latin adage multum in parvo it is this. Oh, yes, one last thing. If you can find a more powerful and gut-wrenching final paragraph this year, I’ll buy you a pint. Or six. Bad Cops is published by Severn House and is out now.

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