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Police Corruption

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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NO TIME TO CRY . . . Between the covers

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I’ll adapt George Bernard Shaw’s famous put-down of teachers and say, “Those who can write, do, but those who cannot, write about writing.” All book reviewers would do well to keep that little homily burning like a beacon in the night, and admire the invention, the endless re-writes and the sheer physical effort required to complete a novel. On top of that, what an amazing stroke of brilliance it is when an author of crime novels creates a character who resonates with the public and is credible enough to support a series. What an even bigger stroke of daring it is when the writer is prepared to leave that person behind. either temporarily or otherwise, and introduce a new creation to faithful readers.

NTTC coverJames Oswald’s Tony McLean has not met with a Reichenbach Falls accident, but at the end of The Gathering Dark we left him facing a tragedy in his personal life. Now, Oswald begins a new series featuring Detective Constable Constance Fairchild of the Metropolitan Police. We meet her when a delicate undercover operation goes badly, badly wrong. So wrong, in fact, that she has found her boss, DI Pete Copperthwaite slumped in a chair in the office they have been using as a front for their sting. He has been tortured, and then shot through the head.

Fairchild is perplexed and hurt when she is blamed for Copperthwaite’s death, and suspended from duty. Puzzled, and seemingly powerless to get to the bottom of who murdered Copperthwaite, she seeks diversion by trying to find a missing girl, the younger sister of an old school friend. Her sense of injustice turns to anger, though, when a clumsy attempt is made on her life, and it becomes obvious that she is being followed. Is this because of the police sting operation which went, as she puts it, “tits up” or is it connected to her search for Izzy De Villiers?

So, to echo Shakespeare, who is Constance, what is she? Lovely, fair, and wise is she? Oswald lets us form our own image to a large extent. We do know that she has short spiky hair, no romantic inclinations that we can see, and has several tattoos. The latter are a result of a rebellion against her aristocratic background, because Lady Constance Fairchild, to use her correct title, is the younger daughter of the Fairchilds of Harston Magna, a Northamptonshire village, much of which is owned by her estranged father. Con, as she prefers to be known, was educated at a select girls’ boarding school, but has gone down the rebellion route at 98 mph with headlights on full beam, and has done everything she can to metaphorically spit in the eyes of her parents – including becoming a police officer.

Admirers of James Oswald will know that he has a day (and night) job as a livestock farmer in the Scottish Highlands, and he indulges himself by taking us there as Con, attempting to throw off her pursuers, retreats to the secluded family holiday home overlooking a remote Scottish loch. One of the big questions that nag at her is the apparent reluctance of Izzy’s father, an obscenely rich hedge fund manager, to locate his missing daughter. How is Roger De Villiers connected to the murder of Pete Copperthwaite? Are Con’s bosses at the Met crooked, too, or are they simply too stupid to see the obvious?

Constance Fairchild is brave, cussed, resourceful and intelligent, and James Oswald has, I believe, struck gold for a second time. The action is relentless, and Fairchild literally has No Time To Cry as she seeks to unravel a tangle of criminality and child abuse, as well as dodging bullets. Those missing the world of Tony McLean have, in addition to a terrific new novel, a crumb of comfort as Oswald cannot resist bringing in an old friend from Edinburgh for a brief cameo appearance. No Time To Cry is published by Wildfire, came out as a Kindle earlier this year, and will be available in paperback from 1st November.

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WHAT FALLS BETWEEN THE CRACKS … Between the covers

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A maintenance man is called to a nondescript block of London flats. Water is dripping through a ceiling. Up he goes to the flat above. Problem solved. It’s a broken down fridge-freezer. He opens the door of the offending item of kitchen furniture. No problem? Big problem. Among the usual items – past-sell-by yoghurts, limp lettuce, yellowing chunks of Cheddar and a couple of shriveled courgettes – is something that really, seriously, does not belong. I mean, who would put a severed hand (minus a finger) in a domestic freezer?

ScraggWith that grim discovery acting as a starting pistol, debut author Robert Scragg (left) starts a middle-distance race to discover who murdered Natasha Barclay. For she is the person, identified by simply reading the opened mail strewn around the tomb-like flat, and checking rental records, whose hand lies in the freezer drawer.

Detective Inspector Jake Porter and Sergeant Nick Styles face enough questions to serve a whole series of University Challenge. Why did Natasha Barclay simply disappear from the radar in 1983? Is she dead? If so, where is the rest of her body? Why have those in her extended family – a stepmother and her second husband – remained silent about her disappearance. Why did her blood father shoot himself all those years ago?

Porter and Styles certainly have the required chemistry to succeed as fictional cop duos. Porter is the senior: he tries not to be trapped in a mindset dominated by the senseless death of his wife Holly, mown down by a hit-and-run driver. Porter seems to be the thinker, while Styles is the doer.

“Styles had his weakness for all things Hugo Boss, his image neat and orderly, close cropped hair, number two all over. A few had referred to him as the Met’s answer to Thierry Henry, until they saw him play five-a-side football. Porter was from Irish stock, his wardrobe more high street fashion and his appearance, while not unkempt, had a more lived-in feel to it; hair so dark it bordered on black, refusing to be fully tamed by gel, but with a sense of messy style to it.”

Porter and Styles scrape away like archaeologists. First one layer of deception is removed, then another, until they uncover substantial foundations hidden beneath decades of criminality, terrible violence and – most shocking of all – police corruption on a devastating and appalling scale. A thrilling shoot-out as a team of officers raid the HQ of the villains involved seems to bring the novel to an end, but Scragg has a couple more twists yet to apply to what is already a very complex and riveting story.

WFBTC coverIf ever there were an single implausible plot device, it might be the premise that a suburban London flat, complete with a severed hand sitting quietly in a freezer compartment, could remain untouched, unvisited and unnoticed for over thirty years. It is, however, a tribute to Robert Scragg’s skill as a storyteller that this oddity was so easily forgotten. The dialogue, the twists and turns of the plot, and the absolute credibility of the characters swept me along on the ride. Porter and Styles have made an impressive debut, and the author may well have elbowed them into that crowded room full of other fictional police partners. They are all out there; Bryant & May, Zigic & Ferrera, Rizzoli & Isles, Wolfe & Goodwin, Morse & Lewis, Jordan & Hill, Kiszka and Kershaw – watch out, you have company!

What Falls Between The Cracks is published by Allison & Busby and is available on 20th September.

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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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