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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.

AUTHOR PROFILE – Kirk Alex

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HHH024The Tucumcari Press is based in Tucson, Arizona, and they have kindly sent me a couple of books by  Kirk Alex. So who is he? He can tell us:

“I was born in Sarajevo in 1951. My family moved to Brussels when he was eight. I loved Brussels and wanted to stay on. Had the French language down in no time and wished to remain in Europe, at the least. But no, my parents felt like moving again, and there we were, two years later, U.S.-bound. Chicago, to be exact.

After finishing out my two-year military bit returned to Chicago in pretty sorry shape, dealing with bad dreams and a general state of numbness; I was dead inside. Got myself a slave-wage job not far from the Loop, picked up a typewriter for thirty bucks (on layaway; they had layaway back then) and started writing short stories. Got nowhere. After six months of that, tossed what few possessions I had (some paperbacks and clothes) into the used convertible I owned at the time, and headed west. Thought that’s what I had to do, go along with the Pull of the Mythical West, to pursue a dream or two.

I was young and naive, didn’t realize I could just as easily have remained in the Windy City like the great Nelson Algren and written my ass off right there. Live and learn. Instead, ended up in a vicious pit called L.A. for too many years to count.

HNH025In L.A., unless you have the flashy car, luxury apartment, good paying job, you can forget about having a woman in your life to be with, any of that; so yeah, we hung in there alone. What doesn’t break you makes you stronger, so they say.

Was a furniture mover, delivered phone books door-to-door, drove a taxi, was a movie extra, did factory work, painted apartments, did TV repos even, sold rebuilt mattresses to Sunset Strip prostitutes and out-of-work Hollywood actor types. Kept writing and reading. Amassed my share of rejection slips.

Bottom line: My olivetti/LETTERA provided the only light at the end of the tunnel. Granted it may have been a weak light, still, it was the only lifeline available. Without books/writing, I might easily have ended up in a straightjacket in a rubber room somewhere, or dead.

Found myself in the jungles of ‘Nam at nineteen, ducking sniper fire and mortar shrapnel, when I wasn’t busy burning leeches off my testicles and side-stepping snakes and boobytraps.”

Kirk Alex’s novel Lustmord: Anatomy of a Serial Butcher was a finalist in the Kindle Book Review’s Best Book Awards of 2014. He is also the author of Zook, Fifty Shades of Tinsel, the story collection: Ziggy Popper at Large, and the Love, Lust & Murder series:

So what about the Edgar ‘Doc’ Holiday books? You might meed to be a fan of Westerns to get the nickname. The LA private eye’s near namesake (there’s an extra ‘L’) wasn’t a doctor at all, but an infamous gambler and gunfighter, who happened to be a dentist. He was a chum of Wyatt Earp, and took part in the legendary shoot-out at the OK Corral in Tombstone. One thing is for sure, the Edgar ‘Doc’ Holiday books are long – the two I have run to 573 and 631 pages respectively. Alex is also an admirer (as am I) of one of the all-time geniuses of crime fiction, and he includes a couple of quotes from the great man in the frontispiece to the books.

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To give you an idea of Alex’s prose style, there’s a vivid scene (probably not for pet lovers) in Hard Noir Holiday where the detective ends up at an Arizona dogfight as part of his investigation.

“The MC waved his arms and the killers were released. NightDemon’s lunge was so fierce and carried so much force that the black pit bull not only knocked the other down, but was already plowing his jaw back into the other’s snout. He was tearing away at the left side of Max Pain’s mouth. The tan pit bull attempted to pull away and only managed to lose a chunk of his snout in the process.”

With characters called Biffle, McCrud, Jack Spot and Ilsa Goth, there is no mistaking that we are deep in Noir territory, and this novel is clearly not for the faint of heart, or those who like their fictional crime committed in sleepy English villages. I intend to make a start on these books as soon as I can fit them in around blog tour commitments, but for now, they are available on Amazon.

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND. . . 5: Manchester and Shrewsbury

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I’m heading south to the urban sprawl of Manchester, to meet a very different kind of copper, one who lives at the dark end of the street. Aidan Waits was memorably brought to life (and death, I think) by Joseph Knox.

Aidan Waits inhabits a place where it never seems to be fully daylight, a world where he rubs shoulders with drug dealers and their customers, a city where violence is a common currency, and streets where broken hearts and disappointment walk hand in hand. Noir? Certainly, and probably the best British example of the genre in recent years. It’s not just Waits who is a creature of the darkness. His immediate boss, the ironically named DS Peter Sutcliffe, is a pretty awful specimen of both man and copper. They both glow with a certain righteousness only when they stand next to the repulsive Zane Carver, Waits’s sworn enemy and nemesis. If you click the image below, you will be able to read reviews of the three Aidan Waits novels, Sirens, The Smiling Man and The Sleepwalker.

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Next, I am going to a different place and time altogether. Back through the centuries, and to a place that was considerably less dystopian than Joseph Knox’s Hieronymus Bosch-like Manchester. Shrewsbury in the early 12th century was, like most other towns, no stranger to dark deeds and the general venality of its inhabitants, but in the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) there is virtue to be found as well as kindness and redemption. There were 21 novels featuring the crime-solving Benedictine monk, beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) and concluding with Brother Cadfael’s Penance (1994). It wouldn’t be fair to call the series ‘cosy’, but readers certainly became comfortable with the vividly authentic period settings, the intriguing crimes, and Cadfael’s own blend of worldliness – as befitted a man who was a former soldier – and Christian benevolence. So, what was Cadfael’s story?

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For many people, the Cadfael stories will have been defined by the excellent TV versions, starring Derek Jacobi. That’s absolutely fine, and his portrayal must be added to the surprisingly short list of definitive adaptations that matched and enhanced the printed word. In my view, only John Thaw’s Morse, David Jason’s Jack Frost, Roy Marsden’s Adam Dalgliesh and David Suchet’s Poirot should be included, although there is – due to the number of options – a separate debate about Sherlock Holmes. For the record, it is Jeremy Brett for me, but that’s a discussion for another day. Go back to the printed word, though, for the most subtle and  multi- layered portrait of  Brother Cadfael – one of crime fiction’s immortals.

SO YOU THINK YOU KNOW NOIR? Take the quiz and see if you are right!

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Noir is the dark land where brutality and the grimmer aspects of human nature are played out. A place where violence is commonplace and pity scarce, Click on the image below to see just how much you know about this genre of crime fiction.

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BORROWED TIME . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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The latest novel from David Mark, Borrowed Time, is seriously dark stuff. There were times when I felt I had entered the nightmare world of distorted humanity, shocking violence and suffering that was distilled into a kind of bleak poetry by Derek Raymond in such masterpieces as I Was Dora Suarez and The Devil’s Home On Leave.

BT coverAdam Nunn is a decent enough fellow, but like all of us, he has made his mistakes. He lives with Zara, a struggling restaurant owner, but has a child of his own, Tilly, who lives with Grace, her mother. Adam has discovered that he is adopted, and has employed a fairly seedy private investigator to try to trace his birth parents.

When the investigator is found dismembered in a spot notorious for being the burial ground of many victims of old Essex gang wars, Adam is about to have an unpleasant surprise. On the (severed) hand of Larry Paris was a scrawled National Insurance number – and it is Adam’s. The police think they have an instant suspect, but after a bruising initial encounter, they realise they have nothing with which to tie Adam to the killing

Adam Nunn lives in Portsmouth. And it is not a particularly fragrant place:

” A city drawn in charcoals and dirt: a place of suet-faced pensioners, of teenagers in baby clothes; of egg-shaped women and puddled men, big middles and conical legs.”

His search for the truth about his identity leads him inexorably to an Essex gangster family, the Jardines. Alison is the daughter of ailing patriarch, Francis. She runs the firm and is not a woman much given to empathy with some of her Essex contemporaries:

“She likes to imagine all those golden-blond, size eight bitches, sobbing as they inject Botox into their foreheads and splurge their life savings on surgeries and rejuvination procedures; their skin puckering, spines beginning to curve, veins rising like lugworms on their shins and the backs of their age-mottled hands.”

Neither is Alison’s son Timmy someone for whom she has a great deal of conventional maternal affection.:

“He’s an ugly, rat-faced little specimen who, at twenty years old, has yet to master the art of having a conversation without thrusting both hands down his jogging trousers and cupping his gonads. She loves him, but not in a way that makes her want to touch him, look at him, or spend time breathing him in.”

Eventually Adam learns who his mother was, but the nature of his conception and the fate of his mother is just the start of the nightmare. The identity of his father is only revealed after a journey through the inferno, the flames of which threaten to consume him along with everyone else he holds close.

David markAlong the way, Mark (right) introduces us to some loathsome individuals who have all played their part in Adam Nunn’s terrible back story. There’s local politician Leo Riley, for example:

“He knows that cash is an aphrodisiac. Power enough to loosen any pair of knickers. And fear a crowbar to stubborn legs.”

Alison’s fearsome minder, Irons, is a creature from hell:

“His face is a butcher’s window, all pink and red, meat and offal: a rag-rug of ruined flesh. he still has to apply lotions five times a day to stop his cheeks tearing open when he laughs. Not that he laughs often. He’s a quiet man. Hasn’t engaged in much chit-chat since the brothers went to work on him with a bayonet, a blowtorch and a claw hammer.”

There is compassion within the pages of Borrowed Time, but it is in short supply.  We don’t just glimpse the worst of people, we come face to face with them, and close enough to smell their rancid graveyard breath. This is a brilliant and sometimes moving piece of storytelling, but within its pages the only redemption comes in death. Borrowed Time is published by Severn House and is out now.

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The Killer Inside Me

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James Myers ‘Jim’ Thompson (1906 – 1977) was an outrageously talented novelist, screenwriter – and drunk. When he died in Los Angeles of an alcohol-induced stroke he left a legacy of hard hitting crime novels and brilliant screenplays, perhaps none better than that for Paths Of Glory, Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film set in the French trenches of The Great War. With a dazzling performance by Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, the film has become a classic.

killer_inside_meThompson’s first major success came in 1952 with The Killer Inside Me and it remains grimly innovative. Psychopathic killers have become pretty much mainstream in contemporary crime fiction, but there can be few who chill the blood in quite the same way as Thompson’s West Texas Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. His menace is all the more compelling because he is the narrator of the novel, and a few hundred words in we are left in no doubt that the dull but amiable law officer, who bores local people stupid with his homespun cod-philosophical clichés, is actually a creature from the darkest reaches of hell.

Ford has homicidal urges which he refers to as the sickness. They date from childhood, and we learn that he was used for sex by his father’s housekeeper and went on to murder a girl – a crime for which his foster brother took the blame.  Ford’s downfall begins with a visit to a beaten up house, outside the city limits;  the resident of the house, Joyce Lakeland, is a prostitute, and Sheriff Bob Maples has given his amiable deputy – renowned for not carrying a gun, and being able to sweet-talk his way out of difficult situations – the task of telling her to move on.

KillerInsideMe01_cvrSUBJoyce is savvy, and world-weary, but when Ford’s “pardon me, Ma’am,” charm strikes the wrong note, she slaps him. He slaps her back and the encounter takes a dark turn when Ford takes off his belt and gives Joyce what used to be known as “a leathering.” She responds to the beating with obvious arousal, and the pair begin a violent sado-sexual affair.

Ford’s involvement with Joyce becomes complicated when he is summoned by Chester Conway, the major employer in the city. Conway’s feckless son Elmer is one of Joyce’s paying customers and Conway senior wants Ford to engineer a meeting where Elmer is to give Joyce a large sum of money on the understanding that she leaves immediately. Ford twists the situation to his own advantage by giving Joyce a near fatal beating, shooting Elmer and setting up the scene to look as if there has been a violent quarrel which has left both participants dead.

His plan seems to have worked, but seeds of doubt have been sown in the minds of some of Ford’s associates, including Joe Rothman, a sceptical union official, and also Bob Maples, who is old, ill and drinking himself away from thoughts that his deputy may be a murderer.

KillerInsideMe02_cvrSUBA key figure in Ford’s life is Amy, his long-time girlfriend. Thompson paints her as physically attractive, but socially constrained. She is a primary school teacher from a good local family who, despite responding to Ford’s violent sexual ways, is determined to marry him. As the dark clouds of suspicion begin to shut the daylight out of Lou Ford’s life, she is the next to die, and Ford’s clumsy attempt to frame someone else for her death is the tipping point. Thereafter his downfall is rapid, and his final moments are as brutal and savage as anything he has inflicted on other people.

We live in a different world now. While violence against women is pretty much standard fare in the scores of serial killer novels which are published every year, The Killer Inside Me is different. Nowadays, if a book is classed (by whom, one could ask) as a literary novel, then almost anything goes. American Psycho attracted all kinds of labels; it was satirical, it was post-modern, it was transgressive, it was New York chic. Firmly rooted in the crime fiction genre, I Was Dora Suarez was horrifically violent, but shot through with author Derek Raymond’s overwhelming compassion and pity. Could, would, should The Killer Inside Me be written and published in 2020? I doubt that a mainstream publisher would handle it, and I am certain that critics would kill it dead, leading to social media vultures hovering over the remains.

For an account of the two movie adaptations of
The Killer Inside Me, click the image below

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SHAMUS DUST . . . Between the covers

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“Lately, I’d lost the gift. As simple as that. Had reacquainted with nights when sleep stands in shrouds and shifts its weight in corner shadows, unreachable. You hear the rustle of its skirts, wait long hours on the small, brittle rumours of first light, and know that when they finally arrive they will be the sounds that fluting angels make.”

Every so often a book comes along that is so beautifully written and so haunting that a reviewer has to dig deep to even begin to do it justice. Shamus Dust by Janet Roger is one such. The author seems, as they say, to have come from nowhere. No previous books. No hobnobbing on social media. So who is Janet Roger? On her website she says:

Janet Roger was apprehended for the first time at age three, on the lam from a strange new part of town. The desk sergeant looked stern, but found her a candy bar in his pocket anyway. Big mistake. He should have taken away her shoelaces. She’s been on the run ever since.”

Make of that what you will, but she goes on to admit that she is a huge Raymond Chandler fan:

“But what really got under my skin was Marlowe’s voice guiding me around the next street corner, and beyond it into a stale apartment block or a down and low bar. He invited me in to look over his shoulder, let me see the highs and the lows, talked me through them and then put me in the seat beside him to drive me home.”

So, what exactly is Shamus Dust? Tribute? Homage? Pastiche? ‘Nod in the direction of..’? ‘Strongly influenced by ..’? Pick your own description, but I know that if I were listening to this as an audio book, narrated in a smoky, world-weary American accent, I could be listening to the master himself. The phrase ‘Often imitated, never bettered’ is an advertising cliché and, of course, Janet Roger doesn’t better Chandler, but she runs him pretty damn close with a taut and poetic style that never fails to shimmer on the page.

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Newman – he’s so self-contained that we never learn his Christian name – fled to to Britain during the Depression, had a ‘good war’ fighting Hitler, and now scratches a living as a PI in a shattered post-war London. It is late December 1947, and the cruelties of a bitter winter are almost as debilitating as Luftwaffe bombs. Newman is hired by a prominent city politician to minimise the reputational damage when a tenant in one of his properties is murdered.

Big mistake. Councillor Drake underestimates Newman’s intelligence and natural scepticism. Our man uncovers a homosexual vice ring, a cabal of opportunists who stand to make millions by rebuilding a shattered city, and an archaeological discovery which could halt their reconstruction bonanza.

There are more murders. The weather worsens. The clock ticks relentlessly towards 1948 as a battered but implacable Newman defies both the conspirators and corrupt coppers to see justice done. Along the way, he is helped – and entranced – by a young doctor, but she seems elusive and beyond his reach. As he goes about his grim business, however, he views London with eyes which may be weary, but still have laughter in them:

“..two paintings in the centre of each of the blank walls, one gray on white, the other white on gray to ring the changes. They might have been Picassos from his plumbing period, or a layout for steam pipes in an igloo; either way, they gave the room the all-round charm of an automated milking parlor.”

“At the street corner there was record store closed for lunch, with a sign over that read, Old Time Favourites, Swing, Hot Jazz, Popular, Classical, Opera and Foreign. The rest it was leaving to the opposition.”

By the end, Newman has played a game of chess in which his board has had most of the key pieces knocked off it by a succession of opponents not necessarily cleverer than he, but certainly with more power and fewer scruples. He survives the endgame – Janet Roger creates a divine metaphor in the final three pages – and his darkness is lifted by an extraordinary act of compassion and generosity to a fellow pawn in the cruel game. I started with Newman’s voice. Let him have the final say as he raises a glass to his lost doctor.

“Waiters ghosted. The company men were long gone. My table was cleared excpt for the glass in my hand. I held it up to the light, turned it round through a hundred shades of red, and wished the doctor all the good luck in the world. Then drank and set the empty glass on its side and called Alekhine over for the check.”

Shamus Dust is published by Matador and is out next month.

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BASED ON THE BOOK BY . . . Hell Is A City

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Maurice Procter (1906 – 1973) was a well regarded crime writer who created a popular police procedural series based on the cases of Harry Martineau, a Manchester police officer. Many of Procter’s books are still in print and modern writers such as Nick Triplow (Frank’s Wild Years, Getting Carter:Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir) and Nick Oldham (The Henry Christie novels) regard him highly and cite him as an early influence.

Hell Is A City
was published in 1954 and was the first of the Harry Martineau series. Set in a Manchester disguised only by its name, Martineau goes head to head with a man he knew when they were both schoolboys, but he and Don Starling have little else in common. Starling, a violent career criminal has escaped from prison, fatally injuring a guard in the process, and stages a cash heist from a bookmaker in order to fund his plans for freedom. A girl cashier dies, and so Starling is now a double murderer and faces the hangman’s noose if caught.

The full history of Hammer Films
is far too complex for this feature, but suffice it to say the British company was founded in 1934, and is best known for – and synonymous with – its series of horror films in the 1950s and 60s. One of its best known directors was Val Guest, and it was he who brought Hell Is A City to the big screen in 1960.

DonaldThe cast, if not stellar by international standards, was solid, with key roles for Stanley Baker as Martineau, Donald Pleasance as the bookmaker Gus Hawkins, and Billie Whitelaw as Mrs Hawkins (left). Strangely, the key role of Don Starling was given to John Crawford, (below) a journeyman American actor whose stock in trade was tough guys and villains. His American accent is obvious throughout and, although he puts in a good performance, it stretches credibility to believe he is the same man who fought with Martineau in their school playground. Regarding the oddity of his accent, it has to be said that the rest of the cast went for Stage Northerner rather than attempt the distinctive Mancunian twang.

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Remember the opening titles
in the Police Squad/Naked Gun spoofs? The view from the driver’s seat as the squad car careens through the neon jungle on its way to the latest murder? This is precisely how Hell Is A City opens, complete with the sleazy night club jazz music. Clearly, viewers in the 1960s would not have sniggered as we might do today and, thankfully, the film itself doesn’t disappoint.

Moody monochrome is the order of the day. We might regard that as reverential, but it was probably just economics. There are some good Manchester locations for those older folks who can remember the city back then, and the moors to the east of the city, where Starling’s gang dumps the murdered bookie’s cashier are, of course, changeless. Incidentally, when a passing motorist discovers the girl’s body, I said to myself, “Surely, that looks like …..” And so it was – a drive on, drive off role for Warren Mitchell, well before his Alf Garnett heyday. (below)

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The film sticks pretty closely to the book in plot, dialogue and nuances. It is a tribute to Procter’s finely tuned ear for dialogue (he was himself a serving police officer for many years) that Val Guest’s screenplay and script remain faithful to the original. We meet Martineau’s neglected but rather prissy wife Julia (Maxine Audley) but whereas their relationship takes on a happier turn by the last pages of the novel, Val Guest leaves us wondering.

Martineau’s faithful dogsbody Deverey is rather smarter in the film than he is print, and his romance with the beautiful deaf mute Silver Steele is well-established in the book, whereas he meets her for the first time on screen. Silver’s encounter with the cornered Starling ends more happily on the screen than it does in the book.

As ever, with British films of this era, those with sharp eyes will spot a few faces who would go on to be familiar to television viewers, including a brief appearance by Doris Speed as a nurse, no doubt taking time away from her evening job of serving pints in The Rovers Return in Wetherfield.

A teaser for film buffs. There are two connections between this film and the cult Australian thriller Wake In Fright (1971). One is Donald Pleasence, but the other …. ? I have provided a pictorial clue (below)

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The film is, in short, excellent. It is available as a DVD, and if you want to read about the novel – also first class – then it just so happens that I can help …….

Hell Is A City by Maurice Procter

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

Doubleday

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