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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 8 : Brighton and London

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It has been, as the song goes, a long and winding road. Nearly 1000 miles, or thereabouts of rolling English highway and  we are nearing the end. Just two more stops, and we will be back where we started, In London. Yes, there are places and authors we might have visited; Trevor Wood’s Newcastle, John Harvey’s Nottingham and Phil Rickman’s Hereford, to name just three. But both writer and reader can suffer fatigue, so this journey is what it is. Our penultimate stop-over is Brighton, seemingly a place of bizarre contrasts. There is the elegant watering place beloved of the Prince Regent, and the cheeky seaside town beloved of London day trippers, but with a scary undercurrent immortalised by Graham Greene. There is the contemporary Brighton, a place where outlandish political and social fads make its counterparts in California look reactionary. But our Brighton is a much sunnier place. We are in the 1960s, sex had just about been invented, mobile ‘phones were undreamt of in anyone’s philosophy, and a young man called Colin Crampton is the ace crime reporter for the Evening Chronicle.

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Colin Crampton is the inspired creation of former journalist Peter Bartram, and I do wonder if Colin is, perhaps, a younger version of Peter, and I would like to think so. Peter, from, my online dealings with him, is a genial and astute fellow with a broad sense of humour, and someone with a fund of nostalgic cultural references from days gone by.  In brief, Colin is as sharp as a tack, has a gorgeous Australian girlfriend called Shirley, vrooms around Brighton in his sports car, and his boss, deputy editor Frank Figgis, is permanently wreathed in a cloud of Woodbines smoke. The books are simply delightful. Escapist, maybe, comfort reading, probably, but superbly crafted and endlessly entertaining – yes, yes, yes. If you click the graphic below, a link will open where you can read reviews of the Crampton of The Chronicle series, and also features by Peter on the background to some of his stories.The author’s photograph contains a link to his own website.

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LONDON CALLING! And the voices are none other than those of Arthur Bryant and John May – and their creator, Christopher Fowler. Bryant & May are, of course, an in-joke from the very start. More elderly readers will remember the iconic brand of matches so familiar to those of us who grew up the middle and later years of the 20th century.

Fowler devised a brilliant concept. We have two coppers who began their investigative careers during Hitler’s war. One, Arthur Bryant, is an intellectual iconoclast, a fount of obscure knowledge, be it of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Patagonia or the inner regions of the Hindu Kush. His expertise, however, is London. There is not a hidden river, an execution site, an ancient drovers’ trackway or site of an old graveyard that Arthur doesn’t have logged somewhere in his noggin. His colleague, John May, is slightly younger, but has adapted to the passing years. He wears decent suits, chooses conciliation rather than confrontation, and retains the razor sharp mind of his younger years. He is resolutely and remorselessly devoted to Arthur Bryant, and such is Fowler’s mastery of human chemistry that we know  one could never exist without the other.

Screen Shot 2021-11-21 at 18.34.16There were nineteen B & M novels, beginning with Full Dark House in 2003, plus a quartet of graphic novels and short story collections. I say ‘were’, because although Christopher Fowler (left) is still with us, those who have read London Bridge Is Falling Down (2021) will know – and I am sorry if this is a spoiler – that old age and infirmity finally catches up with the venerable pair of detectives. Where to start to talk about this series? The author himself is, as far as I can judge, a modern and cosmopolitan fellow, but his love – and knowledge – of London is all embracing. Christopher Fowler is a one-off in contemporary writing, and completely individual, but speaking as an elderly chap with many years of reading behind me, I can best put him in context with great English writers of the last 150 years or so by looking at various aspects of the novels.

There is humour in the books, plenty of it and – as you might guess – it’s very English. Imagine a chain of writers which goes back to Victorian times, starting perhaps with Israel Zangwill and the Grossmith brothers. The torch is carried onwards by Wodehouse, JV Morton and – with a more abrasive edge – by Waugh. Tom Sharpe is largely forgotten now, but his anarchic view of English customs and behaviour fits in well.

Now the city of London itself. Imagine a writer with the nostalgic fondness of Betjeman, blended with the darker imagination of writers like Ackroyd and Sinclair, and you will find that Christopher Fowler fits the bill perfectly. He makes us aware that the streets of his home town are like a stage, with troupes of actors down the ages acting out their dramas, each set of footsteps eventually fading to give way to the next, but each leaving something indelible behind, eternally available for those with ears to listen

Let’s not forget, though, that this is crime fiction, and the B&M stories have a strong vein of the Golden Age running through them, particularly with the ‘impossible’ crimes. Not content with mere locked rooms, Fowler takes us into a world where pubs vanish of the face off the earth and an 18th century highwayman commits murder in an art gallery. We started our journey in Derek Raymond’s London, with its drab streets, mean hearts, cruelty and violence. The streets walked by Bryant and May certainly have their dark corners, but Christopher Fowler fills them with joyful quirks of history, ghosts (mainly benevolent) and a sense of gleeful iconoclasm.

For reviews and features about the Bryant and May novels,
click the  image below.

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THE WORLD CUP MYSTERY . . . Between the covers

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WCMWe are in Sicily, and it is the long hot summer of 1966. Brighton crime reporter Colin Crampton has taken his Aussie girlfriend Shirley Goldsmith abroad for a holiday. While the sun beats down, and gentle breezes blow in from the Mediterranean, Colin hopes to choose a romantic location – perhaps the ruin of a Greek temple – where he will go down on one knee and propose marriage to the beautiful Shirl. He has an expensive diamond ring in his pocket to help boost his case, but it is not to be.

They encounter a young Italian woman who is being abused by her Mafioso husband, and she tells them that her father – who owns a greasy spoon café near Colin and Shirl’s home in Brighton – has been murdered, but her husband refuses to allow her to travel to England. Colin, ever the parfit gentil knight, puts his proposal on hold, flogs the ring, and manages to smuggle Rosina out of the country. Back in Blighty, Colin learns from his contacts in the constabulary, that Sergio Parisi was not only murdered but robbed of a precious ticket for the World Cup Final at Wembley on 30th July. Parisi had won the ticket in a raffle at the local football club, where it had been sent, anonymously, and for reasons yet unknown.

It is always a joy to be sent a new Crampton of The Chronicle story. I have been enjoying them since Headline Murder in 2015. People can be dismissive of so-called Cosy Crime, or ‘comfort reading’ but, like many another crime book reviewer, I have to read new stuff all the time, books that one has no idea from the outset whether or not they are going to entertain, thrill, challenge or what demands the plot is going to make on one’s credulity or attention to detail. The Colin Crampton books are reassuringly and delightfully reliable. It is a dead certainty that they will be:

(1) Full of politically incorrect – but never cruel – humour
(2) Tightly plotted and cleverly written – as one would expect from a veteran jounalist
(3) Gloriously nostalgic, and crackling with authentic period detail
(4) Peopled by outrageously over-the-top characters
(5) Built of the bedrock of the sheer decency and warmth of the two main characters – Colin and his Aussie girlfriend Shirl

Back to the specifics. Colin’s investigations uncover the fact that the murder of Signor Parisi is connected to the notorious theft of the Jules Rimet trophy and its celebrated re-discovery by Pickles the border collie. The plot becomes delightfully more absurd as Colin gets arrested for murder and we meet, in no particular order, a football groundsman who is a disciple of Kim Il Sung, the lovely Shirl modelling international football strips on the front page of The Daily Mirror (phwoar!} and Booby Moore. There is an implausible but entertaining finale in the tractor shed under Wembley Stadium just as Geoff Hurst scuppers the dastardly Huns with his extra-time goals, and  Colin and Shirley live to fight (and love) another day.

If settling down to enjoy two hundred or so pages of a book as good as this is a cultural sin, then mea culpa. Forgive me Father. for I have sinned, and I’ll do as many Hail Marys as it takes to return to a state of grace. The World Cup Mystery is published by The Bartram Partnership, and is available now. For more on the series, and features written for Fully Booked by the author, click on his image below.

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AMBRIDGE AT WAR . . . Between the covers

Archers001Followers of these pages will know well that my strapline is Crime For The Cogniscenti and might wonder what I am doing reviewing a book about the Archers. I was intrigued to be offered this, written by Catherine Miller, but was prepared to be underwhelmed. It just shows how wrong one can be, and why it is never a good idea to prejudge things.

There may well be some transatlantic readers of my reviews who have never heard of Ambridge or the Archers, but I won’t waste words on the background other than to say that Ambridge is a fictional village in Worcestershire, and the long-running radio serial – it first broadcast on 1st January 1951 – was described as “an everyday story of country folk.”

I have to say at this point that I parted company with BBC Radio 4 in general, and The Archers in particular some time ago. Both have become far too ‘woke’ and socially aware for this curmudgeonly man in his 70s to be bothered with, but this book reminded me of what I used to enjoy about the programme.

It is January 1940, and rural England is having to come to terms with the expression, “don’t you know there’s a war on?Dan Archer and his wife Doris run Brookfield Farm, and Dan is now the Ambridge representative on the ‘War Ag’ – The War Agricultural Executive Committee, whose main job it is to put every available acre of land under the plough to grow food. And that means everything from grazing land to rose gardens. The first evacuees from London have arrived, and Doris is in charge of checking that the newcomers are being looked after.

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Archers fans can find the family tree elsewhere on the internet, but who else would they recognise? That depends on the longevity of their Archers ‘habit’. Walter Gabriel and his son Nelson put in an appearance, as do various members of the disreputable Horobin family. A central figure in the story is the village Squire, Alec Pargetter, who is having an affair with a comely young widow, but not doing too well at concealing it from the nosy villagers – or his aloof wife Pamela. Their rather strange son, Gerald, will go on to be the father of the nice-but-dim Nigel who was, of course, controversially killed off by the producers when he fell off a roof in 2011.

51KaDaIRGaL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Someone is leaving handwritten notes around the village hinting at various moral indiscretions taking place. The notes are, naturally, anonymous, but are the slurs true? Unfortunately, the author of the allegations seems to be uncannily wired into the private lives of the people of Ambridge, and has the unfortunate ability to see through closed doors and curtained windows.

Aside from those we might call canonical characters, whose descendants serious Archer buffs will know and love, Catherine Miller has assembled an intriguing cast; there is the bedridden and pampered Blanche Gilpin –  plump and sweet-smelling, like an apple left to rot.” – who is waited on hand and foot by her downtrodden sister Jane; Kitty Dibden-Rawles is a beautiful young Irish woman, widowed and left in debt by a profligate husband; Dr Morgan Seed, keeper of many a village secret, is long a widower, but has he the chance to love again? And Lisa – poor Lisa Forrest – Doris Archer’s mother, in the terrifying grip of what we now call Alzheimers.

It took just nine words – and these were quoted on the first chapter heading –  to alert me to the possibility that this book might be something special.

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Catherine Miller is clearly – like me – a lifelong devotee of Thomas Hardy. Not only does each chapter heading use a line or two from one of his bitter-sweet poems, she shapes plot resolutions as Hardy-esque ironies, of which the great man would have been proud. Another little in-joke is that when Kitty writes love notes to her lover, they are signed “G.Oak.

Make no mistake. This is not a cosy rural idyll – the war claims more casualties than are caused by bombs or bullets and, despite the bedrock decency of Dan and Doris Archer, the cruelties of fate are explored with raw honesty. The book is billed as Volume 1, so enthusiasts – of which I am one –  will have more joys to come. The Archers – Ambridge At War is published by Simon & Schuster and is out now.

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JBSir John Betjeman is so unfashionable these days that it is an utter delight to be an admirer. His directness and accessibility have been mocked, but only by those whose lack of talent and perception can only be measured in geological numbers. Here, he pokes his head round a curtain, and sees an ageing debutante, lamenting the passing years and her own decline

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