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Nick Oldham

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.
Travellers

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’splay 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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