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Police Procedural

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . Hell Is A City by Maurice Procter

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The name Maurice Procter is not one that is regularly bandied around at crime fiction festivals when the Great and The Good are discussing pioneering and innovative writers of the past. He is, just about, still in print thanks to the wonders of Kindle and specialist reprinters such as Murder Room. I’m reluctant to use the fatal words “in his day”, but Procter was a prolific and popular writer of crime novels between 1947 and 1969.

mp1Born in the Lancashire weaving town of Nelson, Procter (left) joined the police force in nearby Halifax in 1927 and remained a serving officer until the success of his novels enabled him to write full time. In 1954 he published the first of a fifteen book series of police procedurals featuring Detective Inspector Harry Martineau. Martineau is a detective in the city of Granchester. Replace the ‘Gr’ with “M’ and you have the actual location pegged.

Hell Is A City is a dark tale which pivots around the enmity between Martineau and a violent and resourceful criminal called Don Starling. Starling is as hard as nails and doesn’t shrink from brutality towards fellow men – or women. Starling is ‘doing time’ but acts like a reformed man in order to escape close prison supervision. Naturally, he seizes his moment and goes over the wall and on the run.

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Starling wastes no time in organising his next heist, and it is a daring cash grab. The victims are two hapless young clerks who work for city bookmaker Gus Hawkins. On their way to the bank with a satchel full of takings from Doncaster races, they are waylaid. Colin Lomax is coshed and left with a serious head injury but Cicely Wainwright fares even worse. Because the money bag is chained to her wrist, she is flung into the back of the getaway van and is killed by Starling as the gang make their escape over the moors to the east of the city. The bag is cut from Cicely’s wrist, and her body is dumped. Of course, this ups the stakes, much to the discomfort of Starling’s gang members, each of whom realises that they face the hangman’s noose if they are caught and convicted as accessories to murder. The hangman, by the way, is a well-known local resident:

“Clogger and Jakes turned their heads quickly, their smiles fading. They stared. Then Jakes pulled Starling’s knee aside and looked down at the girl’s face.
‘Cripes!,’ he said unhappily, “She’s croaked.’
Starling nodded. ‘Some time ago,’ he said.
‘You bloody fool,’ said Jakes, his voice rising with panic.
‘Hell fire!’ Clogger whispered, and he had indeed turned pale. ‘You didn’t have to do that, did you?’
Laurie Lovett was silent. He kept his eyes on the road as if nothing had happened. But a muscle of his jaw had started to twitch.
The same fear was upon them all. They were reminded of a man they knew by sight. He kept a pub in Hollinwood. The name of the pub was Help The Poor Struggler. The man’s name was Albert Pierrepoint.”

HIAC first edI was quickly hooked by this novel, for a variety of reasons. Anyone who has driven east out of Manchester in the direction of Sheffield (which makes a brief apparance as Hallam City) will recognise the changeless face of the moors, with their isolated pubs and gritstone houses clinging to the roadside. What has changed, however, is the view back towards Manchester. Where, in the early 1950s Martineau saw mill chimneys belching smoke, today we could probably, apart from the haze of vehicle emissions , see almost to the Irish Sea. We also know that Cicely Wainwright’s’s body would not be the last to be abandoned in the cottongrass, heather and bilberry of the Dark Peak.

CriFi buffs know that fictional Detective Inspectors are meant to have disfunctional personal lives. Few and far between are happy family men and women with faithful and understanding spouses who understand and compensate for the rigours of police work. Intriguingly, it is Martineau’s wife who is, at least initially, the guilty party. She is vain, socially over-conscious and, perhaps, sexually repressed.

“Julia Martineau was not unfaithful and it was impossible to suspect that she ever would be. She was only interested in fine clothes, social standing, attractive houses, and the affairs of her acquaintances. The connubial behaviour of other people (as a topic of scandalous conversation) was of more interest to her than her own or her husband’s. She was rarely aroused. The conjugal act was sometimes a duty, sometimes a favour to be granted, and always a ceremony which she allowed to be performed after it had been suitably prayed for. Lately, Martineau had ceased to pray.”

There are few happy marriages or standard relationships in Hell Is A City. Gus Hawkins has a young wife is a libidinous and money-grabbing charmer who has history with the dangerous Starling. Martineau’s driver and gofer, DC Devery, has a loving but precarious relationship with the beautiful Silver, who is a deaf mute. By the by, your Starter For Ten: which legendary fictional policeman is married to a beautiful deaf mute? No prizes, but that detective operates a long, long way from Manchester.

It would be pretentious and anachronistic to push this novel into the category box labelled Noir. That said, its low-key realism and unflinching depictions of the criminal class not only reflects Procter’s time with the police service but a reveal a gift for brevity and the essentials of story-telling which mark him out as a natural author, untaught but with an acute ear for dialogue and a genuine sense of the rough edges and frailties of human lives where unfulfilled aspirations nag away at happiness.

Murder Room do a budget-printed paperback of Hell Is A City, and second-hand editions are also available if you are prepared to splash the cash. The novel was made into a film, starring Stanley Baker as Martineau, and I will write about that in a later post.

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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

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THE BOY WHO FELL . . . Between the covers

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TBWFThis is a chillingly clever whodunnit shot through with a caustic examination of life among the moneyed classes of contemporary Ireland, particularly Dublin’s nouveau riche and their over-indulged teenage children. Fans of Jo Spain’s DI Tom Reynolds will be overjoyed to see him return for his fifth case, and those who know the author only through her spellbinding standalone novels such as The Confession and Dirty Little Secrets should make up for lost time immediately!

Glenmore House has a dark reputation. A few years ago, a husband killed his wife and child with a kitchen knife before hanging himself. Since that trauma, the house has stood empty, slowly being reclaimed by nature. Unholy. Unvisited. Unloved. Except by a little clique of privately educated teenagers who use the place to smoke a little dope and drink a little alcohol. Well, OK, rather too much of both, but our story begins, like many another good yarn on One Dark Night ….

This particular dark night ends in tragedy, as after he and his friends indulge in some horseplay with an ouija board, young Luke Connolly plunges to his death from an upstairs window. The youngsters involved in the escapade are not, however, from some run down social housing estate, the victims of neglect, poor schooling and brutalised by deprivation. No, Luke, Charlotte, Hazel, Brian, Jacob and Dylan are all students at the prestigious and very expensive Little Leaf College and their parents, while possibly having more money than sense, are pillars of the community. But. And there is a rather large but in the person of Daniel Konaté Jones. Daniel is mixed race, has a ‘job’ as a DJ, and is tolerated by the group as something rather exotic, like a strange tropical orchid springing up in the herbaceous border . The police investigating the death are quick to arrest Daniel, and their case against him is sewn up with speed and, to mix metaphors, seen as tighter than a camel’s arse in a sandstorm.

Daniel is related to one of Tom Reynolds’ most respected officers, and when she asks him to take a look at the case, he reluctantly agrees. There are just one or two complications, though. First, Daniel is refusing to say anything – not a word – to investigating officers or his lawyer. Then, Reynolds becomes aware that Daniel is gay, and that, despite protestations from parents and friends, it appears that Danny and Luke were “an item.” Thirdly, the grief of Luke’s parents at his death has to run alongside the tragic demise of Luke’s twin brother Ethan, who is near death in a local hospice.

JSJo Spain is the literary Diva of Deviousness, and while we learn early in the piece that Glenmore House has a bloody history, she waits for some while before reconnecting the earlier slaughter with the death of Luke Connolly. When she does – and Reynolds realises the connection a paragraph or three before we do – the investigation takes on a whole new slant.

It should be a serious criminal offence for someone to write with the fluency, panache and skill at misdirection as Jo Spain, but while she remains a free woman, enjoy The Boy Who Fell. You will find beautiful prose, conundrums-a-plenty and enough of the dark side to satisfy any fan of Noir fiction. Regarding her portraits of people, I can only suggest that if Rembrandt had laid down his brushes and taken up the pen, he would be pushed to make his subjects as alive – with all their flaws – as she does. The Boy Who Fell is published by Quercus and will be available on 27th June.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . A Woman of Valor

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AWOVOkay, so this was the ePostman rather than the local Royal Mail employee, but US writer Gary Corbin has a new book out, and his stuff is always worth a mention.

Valorie Dawes is a rookie cop in a the small Connecticut town where she grew up. Few of the people from her childhood realise that she suffered, largely in silence, the trauma of child abuse. When a serial child molester called Richard Harkins appears to be making a fool of the law, Valorie makes it a personal mission to take him off the streets. In doing so, however, she  makes enemies not only of the predatory Harkins, but fellow members of the local Police Department who see her as an embittered loser and an embarrassment.

Her simmering rage at the treatment she received as a child – and the impotence of the authorities to punish the perpetrators – puts her on a collision course with both the local authorities and own family.

Gary Corbin is a writer, editor, playwright, and actor in Camas, a suburb of Portland, Oregon. Previous books include Lying in Judgment (2016), Lying in Vengeance (2017) and The Mountain Man trilogy (2016-18) He earned his BA in Political Science and Economics at Louisiana State University and his Ph.D. at Indiana University, writing his dissertation on the politics of acid rain (1988).

A Woman of Valor is published by Double Diamond Publishing and will be out in all formats later in June.

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THEIR LITTLE SECRET . . . Between the covers

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mark-billinghamLondon copper DI Tom Thorne has been entertaining us since his debut in Sleepyhead (2001). His creator, Mark Billingham, (left) has developed an enviably reliable repertory company of other players who share the stage with the main man. There is his best mate Phil Hendricks, a pathologist who, despite being gay, supporting Arsenal against Thorne’s beloved Spurs and having piercings in places where most folk don’t even have places, is the voice of sanity in Thorne’s often chaotic world. Thorne’s love interest (from whom he is currently living apart) is Helen, another police officer, but one who works in the traumatic world of child protection. Nicola Tanner is Thorne’s professional partner and they have history, but not one that either reflects on with much pleasure. Tanner’s partner Susan was brutally killed in a previous episode, and her death hangs over the pair like a pall.

Their Little Secret begins with the much-loved trope of an apparent suicide which is viewed with suspicion by the central character. This time, however, it is slightly different. When a woman goes fatally head-to-head with an underground train, there is no suspicion that she was physically pushed, but Thorne believes that something traumatic – and criminal – tipped her over the edge in both sense of the phrase. He discovers that she had been targeted by a conman who had relieved her of a large sum of money and then disappeared, leaving her heartbroken, ashamed of her own gullibility and with her self-respect shredded. Despite the reluctance of his boss to spend any more time (and money) on the case, Thorne discovers that Philippa Goodwin is not the first victim of the conman.

TLSIn an ostensibly unconnected narrative thread, Billingham introduces us to a Sarah, a vulnerable single mum who is anxious to gain the approval of other mums with whom she waits at the primary school gate twice each day. They seem confident, successful and financially comfortable. Sarah tries to join in with their daily sojourn at a pretentious ‘artisan’ coffee shop after the morning school run, but she still feels like the outsider. Her world is just herself and her son Jamie, and she struggles to compete with the gossip and banter that fly like sparks between Karen, Caroline, Savita and Heather. Until. Until the day when, sitting apart at her own table in HazBeanz, Sarah is chatted up by distinctly fanciable slightly older fellow. Almost instantly, Sarah finds the others anxious to swap phone numbers in return for daily updates about the new romance.

So, we can all see where this is going, yes? Sarah is about to become the latest victim of the romantic predator who Thorne and Tanner will eventually track down and bring to justice? At this point, I will disengage from the plot so as not to spoil things. Suffice it to say that Billingham plays the Pied Piper, and we are the innocent children of Hamelin.

If you are new to the world of Tom Thorne, don’t dismiss this book as just another police procedural. Yes, the atmosphere of the Incident Room, the evidence gathering, the financial pressures and the grim fare of the police canteen – everything is just as it should be, authentic and convincing. But Billingham gives us so much more. Thorne is, in some ways, unlovely. He can be insensitive, self-centred and, it has to be said, something of a slob. His impulsiveness has got him – and others – into bother on more than one occasion, and as for his musical obsession with the lonesome highway world of Hank Williams, you must be your own judge. Earlier novels in the series told of Thorne’s impotent distress at the decline of his father as dementia took hold and turned a fine mind into mush. As middle age peaks and ‘the other side’ beckons, he still dreams of his mum and dad. He is not alone.

There is poetry within the pages of any Tom Thorne novel. It may be brutally comic, and it may be poignant and stark. Thorne recalls the first suicide he had to attend:

“It had been a teenage girl, that first one. A slip of a thing dangling from the branch of an oak tree in Victoria Park. A ripped blue dress and legs like sticks and the muddy heels of her trainers kissing.”

On a grimly humorous note, Thorne/Billingham has a sour take on the pretentiousness of the middle class London enclave of Shoreditch:

“ It was all a little ….full of itself for his liking. ‘Dirty’ burgers, whatever they were, and shops knocking out overpriced tat that was probably meant to be ironic. A few too many gastropubs serving parsnip dust or garlic foam and more artisan bakeries than you could shake a shiitake mushroom at.”

Their Little Secret is a masterpiece of misdirection, suspense and contains as convincing a portrayal of insanity as I have read in many a long year. Tom Thorne is the perfect hero for our troubled times. Emotionally and professionally, he ploughs a lonely furrow, but his honesty and – sometimes clumsy –  care for those he loves are deeply moving. Their Little Secret is published by Little, Brown and will be available from 2nd May.

More of Tom Thorne and Mark Billingham here.

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SLOW MOTION GHOSTS . . .Between the covers

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England. 11th April 1981. While the music charts bubble with the froth of Bucks Fizz, Shakin’ Stevens, Adam and the Ants and The Nolans, London – at least the place south of the river called Brixton – is aflame with violence, racial hatred and mayhem. As the police struggle to control the streets a middle aged Detective Inspector called Henry Hobbes is bused in to help. No matter that Hobbes – and many other senior detectives likewise – is a stranger to riot control, it is a case of all hands on deck.

SMG coverLater that year, with Brixton quieter, despite other English towns and cities erupting in copycat anger, Hobbes has become embroiled in a bitter internal dispute. A fellow copper, Charlie Jenkes (who rescued Hobbs from the mob on that fateful April night) after being indicted for savagely beating a black suspect, has taken his own life. And the officer who testified to Jenkes’s violence? Henry Hobbes, who, with that single act of honesty, is branded as a Judas by his own colleagues.

But now Hobbes has something to distract him from his disintegrating family life and his pariah status among fellow officers. A young man is found dead, wth his body gruesomely mutilated. Brendon Clarke was a minor celebrity, the lead singer with an aspiring band called Monsoon Monsoon, whose chief claim to fame is that they play the music of another dead rockstar – Lucas Bell. Bell’s celebrity rests on hs apparent suicide, his angst-ridden persona, and, most of all, his adoption of the identity of King Lost, a charismatic figure with a gruesome mask.

As Hobbes tries to unpick the complex knot which ties together the identities of Brendan Clarke and Lucas Bell, he discovers that the King Lost legend has its roots in a bizarre fantasy world created by a group of teenagers in the Sussex town of Hastings. With more murders being linked to the world of King Lost, Hobbes is drawn into an investigation which exposes child abuse, blackmail, madness and revenge.

Genre compartmentalising books is not always helpful, but it is fair to say that Noon’s previous novels have used tropes from science fiction, psychedelia and dystopian fantasy. Slow Motion Ghosts adopts conventions of the police procedural, but is more adventurous, asks more questions and has a distinctly noir-ish feel. Noon uses his knowledge of the music scene to bore down into the strange phenomenon of the celebrity cult, and the lengths to which worshippers of dead heroes are prepared to go in order to keep their fantasies alive.

Jeff Noon was born in Droylsden in 1957. He was trained in the visual arts, and was musically active on the punk scene before starting to write plays for the theatre. His first novel, Vurt, was published in 1993 and went on to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He reviews crime fiction for The Spectator.

Slow Motion Ghosts is published by Doubleday, and is out now.

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MARKED MEN . . . Between the covers

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Manchester writer Chris Simms intoduced us to Detective Constable Sean Blake in Loose Tongues (Severn House, 2018) where he was making his debut in the city’s Serious Crimes Unit. Crime buffs will know that Simms has been around for a while, building a serious readership with his books about another Manchester copper, the rather more senior Detective Inspector Jon Spicer, as well as earlier novels featuring DC Iona Khan of the Manchester Counter Terrorism Unit.

MMMarked Men begins on an idyllic Spanish beach, but then switches to the less salubrious setting of urban Manchester, and we only learn the significance of the opening much later in the plot. This way of starting a novel has become rather well-worn, but Simms handles it well and times to perfection the revelation of its significance. The Manchester action begins with Blake in waders and hard hat at the bottom of a drained lock on a local canal. There is a body, naturally, with more to follow, and as Blake and his immediate boss, DS Dragomir criss-cross the city trying to make sense of the crime scenes we – like them – are drawn into thinking that the deaths are revenge killings. But who, exactly, is avenging what? This is where Chris Simms leads us – and his detectives – a merry dance. There is a clue, but I have to confess I didn’t get it any quicker than did Blake and Dragomir.

Police procedurals come and go; some writers, in an effort to take the genre in a new direction, make the featured police officers ever more quirky and disagreeable, to the extent that they are barely functioning as normal human beings. Simms has a steadier hand, and is happy to have Sean Blake as thoroughly decent fellow, perhaps a tad naïve at times, but – as an officer – alert and intelligent. The shadow of his late mother is slowly receding as he makes his on way through the complex office politics of the police station. For a boy brought up in rural Sussex and then spending his university days in Newcastle, Simms certainly knows his Manchester and, as in the Jon Spicer novels – he makes the city a strong and vibrant character.

Marked Men will be published by Severn House in hardback at the end of March, while Kindle users will have to wait for the Darling Buds of May to open before they get their chance. Chris Simms has his own website, a Facebook page, and is also on Twitter. Click on the images below to find out more.

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THE BOY IN THE HEADLIGHTS . . . Between the covers

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Somewhere there is a book of rules
that must be followed by writers of police procedurals, and high on the list is that senior investigating detectives must be difficult folk, with troubled personal lives, possibly prone to addiction of one kind or another. The addiction can range from being relatively harmless, like Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne and his love of mournful country songs by Hank Williams, via Nero Wolfe’s gluttony, right through to Sherlock Holmes and his occasional use of cocaine and morphine.

TBITHNorway’s Samuel Bjork ticks the boxes with his Olso cops Holger Munch and Mia Krüger. Munch is a bearded bear of a man, overweight and stuffed into his habitual duffel coat like a fat foot into a shoe two sizes too small. His home life is in disarray. Separated from his wife, his daughter Miriam recovering from a serious injury, he seems to treat those people with – at best – edgy tolerance, but his obsession is with the job, and catching criminals. Krüger’s back story makes Munch’s people look like candidates for a TV breakfast cereal advert emphasising warm family values. The story opens with her recovering from – in no particular order – alcoholism, a fatal shoot-out after which she was accused of murder, and the haunting death of her sister, victim of Oslo’s drug scene.

There is a brief but vivid prologue taking place fourteen years before the main story, which then relates a series of bizarre killings. The dead include a ballet dancer found in a remote lake, a jazz saxophonist lying on a bed in a flea-bitten budget hotel, a teenage boy in the boot of a burning car, and a Catholic priest slumped in his own confessional. All have died from being injected with antifreeze, and the killer has left a clue – a number – at each site.

Seasoned veterans of the serial killer genre will know that there are several variations on a theme as regards the answer to whodunnit? Sometimes the author gives little clues along the way, but the best writers have very devious minds, and often these little hints are designed to lead readers off in the wrong direction. One version of this trope is when some chapters allow us to observe events through the eyes of the killer, but again, how reliable is the narrator? The Boy In The Headlights uses another method altogether, which intially involves a red herring the size of a Great White Shark, but to say more would spoil the fun.

The adage suggests that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, and I felt that the only weakness of this book was in the final resolution. The journey, however, is a brilliant roller-coaster, with great dialogue, convincing sub-plots and a real feeling of pace and urgency. Munch and Krüger are partners made in crime fiction heaven, and both the atmospheric geographical setting and the police procedural detail are impressive. The translation, by Charlotte Barslund, seems faultlessly fluent, but then I suppose we monoglots are in no position to judge. The Boy In The Headlights is published by Doubleday/Penguin and will on the shelves and available for download from 21stMarch.

Click the images below to learn more
about the previous two Munch and Krüger novels

TOAHNITA

HARDCASTLE’S QUANDARY . . . Between the covers

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London, 1927, and Divisional Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle is summoned to the office of Chief Constable Frederick Wensley[1], who has received a letter from a Norfolk parson. The Rev. Percy Stoner is convinced that his nephew Guy has met with misfortune. The former army Captain has disappeared, and when Hardcastle despatches men to visit the business young Stoner had set up with another Great War veteran, they make a chilling discovery.

Hardcastle himself was too old to serve in the war, but for his younger colleagues who knew the Western Front, body parts hold few terrors. The human remains found in the burnt-out premises in Surrey are examined by none other than Sir Bernard Spilsbury[2] and his findings complicate Hardcastle’s case. Is the first body that of Guy Stoner, or is it that of his business partner? And who was the young woman whose butchered remains shared the same ignominious burial place?

HQForced to play cherchez-la-femme, the detectives stumble down one blind alley after another, but as they do so they learn a few home truths about the fate of the young men who went to fight in the war-to-end-all-wars, and returned home to find that their birthplace was not the ‘land fit for heroes’ glibly promised by politicians. There is a peacetime army with no place for young officers whose courage was welcome in the trenches, but whose humble upbringing is now seen as an embarrassment as the cigars are lit, and the port passed in the correct direction at mess dinners. Such young men, not all heroes, but men nevertheless, are forced to find civilian employment which is neither honest, decent nor lawful.

Eventually, after an investigation which takes the detectives on many a trip into the provinces and away from their metropolitan stamping grounds, the case is solved, and there is work for the hangman to do, but not before an intervention by the Home Secretary.

GIGraham Ison is a master story-teller. The Hardcastle books contain no literary flourishes or stylistic tricks – just credible characters, excellent period detail and an engaging plot. Cosy? Perhaps, in the sense that we know how Hardcastle and his officers are going to react to any given situation, and their habits and small prejudices remain unchanged. Comfortable? Only because novels don’t always need to shock or challenge; neither do they always benefit from graphic descriptions of the damage humans can sometimes inflict on one another. Ison (right) credits his readers with having imaginations; he never gilded the lily of English life in the earlier Hardcastle cases which took place during The Great War, and he doesn’t start now, nearly a decade after the final shots were fired. The suffering and trauma of those four terrible years didn’t end at the eleventh hour on that eleventh day; they cast a long and sometimes baleful shadow which frames much of the action of this novel.

Hardcastle’s Quandary is a great read. As well as being a fascinating period police procedural, it is a gently reflective but sharply observant look at England in the 1920s. We sense that Hardcastle, deeply conservative and instinctively opposed to the steady advance of technology, has entered his autumn period. Colleagues like Marriott and Catto tolerate his idiosyncrasies and work around the fact that he sometimes appears to be a creature from a bygone age, preserved in his own block of amber. Hardcastle’s quandary? That is for the reader to judge, and it may only be resolved in the final pages. The novel is published by Severn House and is available here.

[1] Frederick Porter Wensley OBE KPM (28 March 1865 – 4 December 1949) was a British police officer from 1888 until 1929, reaching the rank of chief constable of the Scotland Yard Criminal Investigation Department. Serving in Whitechapel for part of his career, Wensley was involved in the investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders, details of which he would later publish in his memoirs in 1931.

[2] Sir Bernard Henry Spilsbury (16 May 1877 – 17 December 1947) was a British pathologist. His cases include Hawley Harvey Crippen and the “Brides in the Bath” murders by George Joseph Smith,. Spilsbury’s courtroom appearances became legendary for his demeanour of effortless dominance.

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