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Police Procedural

OUT FOR BLOOD . . . Between the covers

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Aberdeen, Scotland.The Granite City. To say that Police Scotland’s DI Eve Hunter has baggage would be something of an understatement. Physically and mentally damaged by a ruinous encounter with a notorious crime family, she is only allowed back to work on the understanding that she undergoes tortuous (for her) therapy sessions with Dr Shetty, the police psychologist. We first met Hunter in Hold Your Tongue, and you can read that review by clicking the link.

OFB 001We start with two corpses. One is an unidentified young woman, strung up by her neck to a tree on a golf course. The other, a young man, is found in more comfortable surroundings – his flat – but he is equally dead. As Hunter’s team begin to investigate the cases it seems that they could not be further apart. The dead man is an old boy of one of the area’s most prestigious independent schools, and has a rich father. The girl, however, is an Eastern European prostitute. Links between the two deaths slowly turn from gossamer to steel. Was one using the other? Is it that simple? Why do the names of powerful local figures crop up over and over again on the peripheries of the case?

In some ways we are on familiar territory here. We have the classic police procedural trope of the tired and overworked detectives trying to keep their family lives on track, while still having to give everything to ‘the job’. We have some coppers who are, if not actually corrupt, downright idle, their only concern being how to protect their pension Somehow, these stresses and strains of police work come over as fresh and as harrowing as if it were the first time we had read them.

This is not the first novel in recent years to highlight the deeply unpleasant trade in human lives carried out by Eastern European criminals. I live in a town where it happens, and nothing Deborah Massen (below) has written here is in any way exaggerated or fanciful. She vividly portrays the brutality of the men – and women – who run the rackets, and the misery of the girls who become enslaved.

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Masson showed in her previous book that she has a talent for having her police characters (and with them, we readers) pursue one line of enquiry, convinced that solution can only lie in that single direction, only for events to take a startling turn in another direction altogether. In proving that we are all wrong, and making the plot twist plausible, she takes a great risk, but I have to say her gamble pays off, and she produces a startling conclusion with the true flourish of a literary magician. Out For Blood is available in Kindle from Transworld Digital now, and will be out in paperback under the Corgi imprint on 10th December.

BAD TIMING . . . Between the covers

IMG_1893-2-2Nick Oldham (left) is a former copper from Lancashire,and his novels featuring Henry Christie have been delighting readers for many years. I believe that Bad Timing is the 27th in a series dating back to A Time For Justice, which came out in 1996.

Here’s a very quick Henry Christie CV ( or resumé for American readers). He worked his way up through the ranks of Lancashire Police, but never wanted the kind of seniority that meant braid on his ceremonial uniform or role where he spent most of his time behind a desk massaging crime figures for the Home Office or, even worse, managing the force’s diversity targets. He has been shot, beaten up, sacked and re-instated, and has seen the very worst of criminal lowlife in England’s north-west. He has now retired and is running a moorland pub, while still mourning the deaths and various departures of women in his life.

Bad TimingBad Timing is a kind of sequel, or perhaps the final chapter of a story which began in the previous novel, Wildfire. If you click the link you can get the background story. In short, a married couple who made a tidy living out of creative accounting – laundering money for some seriously bad gangsters have been murdered in their luxurious converted farmhouse. The problem is that huge sums of money have gone missing, probably sucked into a Bermuda Triangle of dodgy companies, offshore investments and Swiss bank accounts. And now, the bad guys want the money back.

A word to the wise. Don’t be misled into thinking that the partly rural setting of these novels mean that it you will be reading a cosy Heartbeat-style tale of lovable rogues and amiable coppers on push-bikes. Oldham tells it how it actually is, and Christie’s world is one of ruthless criminal families, vicious thugs, appalling council estates with endemic crime, and toxic traveller sites populated with opportunists who are as violent as they are anti-social.

When the body of the daughter of the murdered accountants is found in a remote lake, the police realise that the case is far from closed and there is still a killer out there. Henry Christie is brought back as a consultant, and although he is ‘chaperoned’ by Detective Diane Daniels, it is his nose for danger that pitches them into a head-on collision with a gangland killer who is as black of heart as anyone Christie has encountered in his long career.

Christie is, to put it mildly, getting on a bit. His body is just about up for the demands of pulling pints, concocting exotic designer coffees and serving full English breakfasts at his pub, The Tawny Owl, but now he is out there challenging a man half his age and twice as malevolent.

Bad Timing is as brutal and unflinching a thriller as you will read all year. It is published by Severn House and is out on 30th September.

STILL LIFE . . . Between the covers

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Still Life sees the return of Val McDermid’s DCI Karen Pirie for her sixth case. For readers new to the series, Pirie is tough, intuitive and compassionate – qualities which stand her in good stead as leader of the Historic Crimes Unit. She has her vulnerable side, and it is never more obvious than when she contemplates the emotional scars inflicted by the murder of her former colleague and lover Phil Parhatka. In the previous book, Broken Ground, she met Hamish Mackenzie, a wealthy businessman and gentleman crofter. They are not completely ‘an item’. For Karen, the jury is still out.

McDermid loves nothing better than to juggle plot strands, and here we have two absolute beauties or, should I say, bodies. In the Blue Corner we have the corpse of a male (happily for the police complete with passport in his back pocket) recovered by fisherman tending their lobster pots. In the Red Corner is the desiccated corpse of a woman, discovered in an elderly and tarpaulined camper van, rusting away in a suburban garage.

51UwcxaxExL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The dead man is quickly identified as the brother of a long-disappeared Scottish public figure. Iain Auld, depending on your cultural terms of reference, did either a Reggie Perrin, John Stonehouse or Lord Lucan a decade earlier. He has officially been declared dead, but Pirie’s antennae are set all of a quiver, as her investigations into Auld’s disappearance have been fruitless.

The dead woman? Just as complex and convoluted. She may have been a capriciously talented jewellery designer, neither seen nor heard of for months after a troubled residence in a Highland artists’ commune. Then again, she might be the designer’s lesbian lover, a minor talent in the world of water colour landscapes.

McDermid creates her usual magic in this brilliant police procedural. Yes, all boxes are ticked, including starchy superior police officers, duplicitous figures at the heart of the world of Fine Art, sexual jealousy and crimes passionelle, government corruption and likeable (but slightly gormless) junior coppers. Long time fans of the former director of Raith Rovers FC will know that there is more – so much more. She pulls us into the narrative from page one. We are smitten, hooked, ensnared, trapped in her web – choose your own metaphor

Val McDermid is a political person, but she generally wears her views lightly. She cannot restrain herself, however, from having a little dig at her fellow Kirkcaldian Gordon Brown for ‘bottling out’ of an election in 2009 and thus succumbing the following year to a decade or more of rule by the ‘auld enemy’. The lengthy gestation period of novels usually prevents authors from being totally topical, but the final pages of Still Life have DCI Pirie and her crew clearing their desks and preparing for a Covid-19 lockdown. Karen, as we might expect, is made of stern stuff, and she faces an uncertain future with determination:

” – people would always need the polis – and even in a pandemic, murder should never go unprosecuted.”

For my reviews of the previous two Karen Pirie novels Broken Ground and Out of Bounds, click the links and you will get each in a new tab. Still Life is published by Little, Brown and is out now.

CRY BABY . . . Between the covers

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Mark Billingham is certainly a man of many parts. To name a few, there is Gary, the dim-but-lovable stooge to the Sheriff of Nottingham in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, stand up comedian and scriptwriter, acoustic guitarist with Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers and, of course, best selling crime novelist. But author of historical fiction? Well yes, in a manner of speaking. In his afterword to his latest novel Cry Baby, Billingham says that in writing this prequel to the Tom Thorne series he had to imagine a world of clunky computers the size of refrigerators, telephone boxes and ‘phone cards, and pubs where people smoked.

We are, as ever in London, but it is the summer of 1996. The city and the country – at least many of the menfolk thereof – are transfixed with the European Cup. Crosses of St George flutter from the aerials of Mondeos up and down the land and pubs are rammed with supporters of Shearer, Sheringham, Southgate and company. Detective Sergeant Tom Thorne is trying to schedule his work around the matches, but when a boy is abducted from a London park, football has to take a back seat.

54502348._UY2560_SS2560_Kieron Coyne is playing with his mate Josh under the watchful eyes of their mothers, Cat and Maria. Cat goes off for a pee, Maria settles back on the park bench and lights a fag. One minute Kieron is there, the next he has disappeared. Josh emerges from the little wood where the boys were playing hide and seek. He neither saw nor heard anything of his friend.

A major police investigation kicks in, with Thorne doing the leg work at the best of his incompetent boss. We learn that Cat and Maria are both single mothers – had ‘lone parents’ been invented in 1996? – but in different circumstances. Kieron’s father is doing a long spell in a maximum security prison, while Maria’s doctor husband divorced her a couple of years back.

Hours turn into days and there is no sign of Kieron, dead or alive. A birdwatcher thinks he saw a boy getting into a car with a man he obviously knew, and a Crimewatch presentation by the late lamented Jill Dando turns up nothing more useful than imagined sightings the length and breadth of the country, and the usual false confessions from the mentally ill.

Thorne does find a suspect – a neighbour of Cat’s with a suspicion of ‘form’ for dodgy sexual activity – but the arrest of Grantleigh Figgis does not go well for either the police of the suspect.

Billingham manages the historical details very well, and we meet one or two regular characters from the Thorne series for the first time, none more dramatically than Phil Hendricks, the much-tattooed and oft-pierced pathologist. In a rare droll moment in a seriously dark book, Billingham has gentle fun with making Thorne’s gaydar so wonky that he has our man making enquiries as to why Hendricks hasn’t found the right woman to settle down with. We also meet Thorne’s soon-to-be-ex wife Jan, and fellow copper Russell Brigstocke who, as lovers of the series know, manages subsequently to keep his CV much cleaner than Thorne.

Fans of Billingham’s novels, both the Tom Thorne series and the stand-alones, know that he likes nothing better than a dramatic twist in the final few pages, and he doesn’t let us down here. There is something of a ‘where the **** did that come from’ moment when all the patient door-knocking, statement-taking and deduction of the coppers is spun on its head in a few dazzling pages of revelation. Cry Baby is published by Little, Brown and is out now.

FIND THEM DEAD . . . Between the covers

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Brighton copper Roy Grace seems to have been with us for ever. Since Peter James introduced him in 2005 there have been sixteen episodes in the career of the resolutely honest and decent man who shares none of the character faults of some of his fictional contemporaries. Yes, there was the protracted mystery of his missing wife – now solved, thank goodness – but Grace has few demons; certainly none that involve drink, drugs, dodgy tastes in music or sexual fallibility. Neither is Roy Grace, perceptive and intuitive though he may, cursed with second sight or prone to supernatural whimsies.

So what keeps him as a permanent resident in the crime fiction best-seller charts? It hasn’t hurt that Peter James has pretty much patented the use of that potent four-letter word DEAD in his titles. Simple, Looking Good, Not … Yet, At First Sight are just a few of the the inventive titles James has used. I’ll answer my own question with a simple reply. Peter James is a bloody good writer. End of.

dead013Strangely though, Find Them Dead sees Roy Grace rather in the background. He binds the narrative together by his presence, of course he does, but he mostly takes a back seat in this tale of drug dealers, bent lawyers and jury-nobbling. He has returned to Sussex after a spell working with the Metropolitan Police in London. The sheer depth and depravity of London’s crime has been an eye-opener, but the south coast is not without its villains.

A Brighton solicitor called Terence Gready – what a wonderful Dickensian name – has been arrested on suspicion of being near the top of a multi-million pound drug ring. His favourite modus operandi has been importing the pharmaceuticals packed into bodywork cavities of fake classic cars. His main man on the ground has also been arrested and Gready is in grave danger of spending the rest of his life in jail.

The spine of Find Them Dead concerns the ordeal of Meg Magellan, a middle-aged widow who has been summoned for jury service in the trial of Terence Gready. The bent solicitor is not quite at the apex of his organisation; his bosses believe that his downfall would also implicate them,and so they they target the jury – Meg in particular – in whose hands Gready’s fate lies.

Meg’s daughter is on a gap-year jaunt to Ecuador, and it is by threatening her that the bad guys hope to persuade Meg to emulate Henry Fonda’s Davis in the 1957 classic Twelve Angry Men. If Meg can persuade her fellow jurors that Gready is innocent, then all will be well. If she fails, then Laura will never leave Ecuador alive.

James ratchets up the tension with the true zeal of a torturer. As Grace – and his long term offsiders Norman Potting and Glenn Branson try to get to the bottom of who knows what in the case, we tread a tightrope of anxiety where it is never clear what the next step will bring.

Find Them Dead is published by Macmillan and is out now.

WHITETHROAT . . . Between the covers

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There are locations for British crime novels that fit certain moods. You can have rural idylls which are shattered by evil deeds – the Cotswolds, the Yorkshire Dales and the majestic Scottish Highlands all fit that bill. Then you have the criminals hiding behind the bright lights of cities like London, Glasgow, and Manchester. James Henry has chosen a rather more understated milieu for his Nick Lowry police novels – Essex, and in particular, the garrison town of Colchester.

9781529401134Essex has become something of a trigger word in recent years, conjuring up images such as lavish mansions owned by London gangsters and dumb bottle-blondes with their perma-tanned, medallioned boyfriends. James Henry, however, takes us back forty years to the 1980s. DI Nick Lowry and his boss, Chief Superintendent Sparks, inhabit a police HQ which leaks, has rotten floorboards, and is maybe only months away from the demolishers’ wrecking ball. Sparks contemplates his desk:

“He studied the wooden surface of his desk. Countless semicircles, rings from years of mugs, cups, scotch glasses, placed carelessly and staining the untreated grain. The there were more pronounced wounds and scars: cigarette burns, knife scores, unusual marks – traces of events only the man behind the desk could read.”

Since Roman times, the history of Colchester has been inextricably intertwined with that of soldiering, and it is the death of a young ‘squaddie’ (an unranked private soldier) that Lowry investigates. Improbably, it seems that the dead man was shot in a Victorian-style duel, complete with gentlemanly observance and the presence of Seconds. With the help of his friend Captain James Oldham, of the Military Police, Lowry discovers that the two men had been fighting over a woman. But who was the other duellist, and who was the woman?

The plot goes this way and that, but this is a book that is always about the quality of the prose. Lowry has a young subordinate called Kenton, who has been on leave since being traumatised by the death of a young girl. Kenton is clever, well-educated, but enjoys his stimulants. In pursuit of the more legal kind, he observes pub life:

“..it was different being here as a punter. You saw the place through different eyes; peaceful and inviting and shabbily familiar. Flaking paintwork, worn hardwood surfaces, the yellow, cracked ceiling; a naked aging structure smoothed by the warmth of alcohol and density of cigarette smoke.”

And again:

“The first to arrive were the regulars. Men in their sixties. One, Wilf, was already in situ, perched quietly at a corner table, steadfastly drinking IPA. He would sut there until last orders, then leave as silently as he had arrived. Around midday, the bohemian set – ‘intellectual dossers’, Sparks called them – would drift in. Young men clutching tatty paperbacks. Sucking the end of biros and staring pensively into the middle distance.”

Like most self-respecting fictional police detectives, Lowry’s personal life is something of a wasteland. He is divorced, and his wife has poisoned their son against him. He feels that the years are taking their toll on him, but he remains compassionate:

“Lowry moved to place his arm across Sparks’s shoulders, but instead grasped the nearest arm, squeezed the firm bicep and bowed his head. He was winded by a surge of sympathy, revealing an attachment to the older man that seldom surfaced. Even now – more and more, in fact, the older he became – life caught Lowry out, introducing unsolicited emotions and concerns, age bringing with it a new sort of awareness.”

HenryThe plot is the least important part of this fine novel, but it unfolds gradually. The woman whose favours are being fought over by the duellists is not a woman at all, but a fifteen year-old schoolgirl, the daughter of a local businessman. He, in turn, has unfinished business with a local enrepreneur, and business that dates back to a racial attack three decades earlier. We are in a world of simmering resentment born out of old slights, and the result? The proverbial dish that is best served cold.

Whitethroat is bleak, downbeat and mesmerising; a subtle, compassionate and beautifully written novel that is something of an elegy to a way of policing – and living – that is gone for ever. James Henry (above right), as James Gurbutt, has also written prequels to RD Wingfield’s Jack Frost series. Whitethroat is published by Riverrun and will be out in hardback on 9th July. The two previous Nick Lowry novels are pictured below.

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GRAVE’S END . . . Between the covers (click for full page)

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Former music journalist William Shaw (left) introduced us to Detective Sergeant Alex Cupidi in Salt Lane (2018). This was followed by Deadland in 2019, and the third in the series is Grave’s End. Alex Cupidi is socially something of a loner: she has a teenage daughter, Zoe, who she has raised pretty much on her own; her only other family is her mother, 80 miles or so up the road from the bleak Kent marshes, in London. Zoe Cupidi, like many other idealistic young people, is a fervent defender of nature, and sees the adult world in which her mother has to work as a grimy conspiracy to fell every tree and concrete over as much of green England as possible.

For those who know something of England, Alex Cupidi’s Kent is not the rosy cheeked rural idyll of The Darling Buds of May. This is the coastal Kent of the Romney Marshes and Dungeness; beautiful in its own way, perhaps, but bleak; the coastal fringes are flat, scoured by cruel winds, and shunned by holidaymakers who prefer deck-chairs and the friendly smell of fish and chips to solitude and the mournful cry of the curlew.

GE coverThis taut thriller is  distinctly unusual, in that one of its main characters is neither a fellow member of Kent Police, nor one of the villains they spend their professional lives trying to put behind bars. Instead we see – or sense – some of the action through the perceptions of an elderly badger. Before such thoughts can gain foothold, I can assure you that this is no Wind In The Willows. Our badger is not an avuncular personification. He is old, fearful of younger rivals, and hungry – always hungry.

Of course, readers have to accept that the badger’s perceptions are expressed in our language. Since this particular representative of Meles Meles has none that can be written, what is the alternative? I was not convinced at the start of the book that the idea was going to work, but after reaching the last page, I think it does. Shaw keeps the badger’s subterranean activity linked to the plot, and from the very start it is his sense of smell that alerts us to the fact that something is very, very wrong.

“By now, the air should smell of fresh grass, cow parsley, other badgers and dog shit. He moves forward more cautiously in the blackness and his snout meets something hard. At the end, where darkness should change to dusk, he finds the tunnel blocked. He digs, but there is something in his way, so hard his big claws make no impression on it at all. He sniffs. It smells rank. People stink.”

When an enterprising junior estate agent decides to impress his girlfriend, he ‘borrows’ the keys to an impressive empty property, but his hopes of a passionate afternoon’s grappling on someone else’s bed are dashed when they find a dead body in a freezer. Alex Cupidi and her team soon identify the frozen corpse of that of a local wildlife activist. Further investigations lead them in the direction of a controversial housing development on a site inhabited by, among other various fauna, our friend the badger.

Alex Cupidi is like the proverbial dog with its bone as she relentlessly follows the trail leading away from the murdered activist. High profile government ministers, avaricious property speculators, a minor public school with a terrible secret – every time she lifts a stone, nasty things scuttle about, unaccustomed to the light. Grave’s End is a totally compelling read. It is published by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, and will be available in July.

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A KILLING MIND . . . between the covers (click for full screen)

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Icame late to the party regarding Angela Marsons and her Kim Stone series of police procedurals set in England’s West Midlands, but I thoroughly enjoyed Child’s Play (2019) and was very pleased to have the chance to read and review the latest in the series, Killing Minds.

KMA murder where the body is arranged to make the death look like suicide is a well-worn feature in crime novels, but Marsons takes the trope and gives it new life. When Sammy Brown is found dead in her featureless flat, her throat cut apparently by her own hand, everyone – DI Kim Stone included – is initially prepared to tick the suicide box and move on. It is only when Stone interviews Sammy’s parents that she begins to sense that things are not quite what they appear to be.

Stone has a strong sense that Myles and Kate Brown are concealing something, but it is a second look at the crime scene photographs that triggers her response:

She stopped speaking as her gaze returned back to the photo of the hand. Something struck her and it was like seeing it for the first time.

She turned the phone and looked at the photo from every angle.

‘Penn, get me a red pen and ruler. Now.'”

Meanwhile, Stone’s assistant, DS Bryant, has his own fixation to deal with. He was involved in the capture, trial and conviction of a notorious killer, Peter Drake, and has become involved with Richard Harrison, father of one of Drake’s victims. A previously unrepentant Drake has, suspiciously, turned over a new leaf in jail and has become a model prisoner, thus transforming his application for parole from a forlorn hope into a distinct probability. Both Harrison and Bryant are powerless to prevent Drake’s release. Both have a sense of foreboding about what may follow.

When another body – that of a young man – is discovered in a nearby lake, the fact that he apparently new Sammy Brown sets more alarm bells ringing. After painfully prising the truth – or a version of it – from Sammy Brown’s parents, Stone’s attention is turned on a nearby community, mostly made up of young people who have chosen to step away from real life. They all live in Unity Farm. Sammy Brown was a member of the group – as was the lad in the lake, Tyler Short.

Stone and Bryant pay a visit to Unity Farm, and they meet the leader of the community, Jake Black:

“A man in his mid-fifties appeared behind her. His hair was completely white, but thick and cut well. His shoulders were broad beneath an open-neck pale blue shirt. His skin was smooth with enough colour to radiate good health. His eyes were the purest blue she had ever seen. Once your gaze met those, the rest was forgotten.”

When Stone makes the decision to send one of her younger officers into Unity Farm, posing as a distressed and unhappy young woman, things do not turn out according to plan and Marsons orchestrates a tense and nerve-shredding finale to the book. When the murderer is unmasked, it came as a cleverly constructed surprise. Killing Mind is published by Bookouture, and is available now.

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BETWEEN THE COVERS . . . The Final Straw (click for full screen)

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I had not come across anything by Jenny Francis before, so I did a little research before beginning The Final Straw, and discovered that the author isn’t one person, but a writing partnership between Patricia Scudamore and Hilton Catt. Furthermore, the pair’s day job, as it were, is writing self-help manuals for commerce and business. Titles such as Successful Career Change, Cover Letters In A Week and The Interview Coach didn’t initially indicate that I was about to read an entertaining crime novel, but I was wrong.

TFS cover019Charlie Moon is yet another fictional Detective Inspector, but slightly different in one or two ways from many of his fellow CriFi coppers. For a start, his patch is the rather unfashionable West Midlands, probably the city its locals affectionately refer to as Brummagem. Also, although he carries the cross born by most of his fictional counterparts – corrupt or incompetent bosses – he has a stable and happy family life, and neither drinks nor smokes to excess. When he goes home at night, it is to the solace of his wife and daughter, rather than the solitary vice of falling asleep on the sofa, whisky glass in hand, while something from his obscure CD collection plays in the background.

Moon is contacted by a notorious local criminal, currently a guest at HMP Winson Green. Denny Wilbur might shrink at being described as public spirited, but he has an injustice to share with Moon. A simple minded black man, Wilson Beames, was twenty years into a life sentence for murdering a teenage girl, Sharon Baxter, back in the 1970s, but he has been found hanged in his cell.

“He couldn’t read or write, yet they reckoned he’d signed a confession. Besides which, he wouldn’t have had the brains to know what he was signing anyway.”
“Are you suggesting he was stitched up?”
“We all know what went on the seventies, don’t we, Inspector? Some naughty people in your mob occasionally did some naughty things.”

When Moon suggests to his bosses that this needs investigating, he is warned off in no uncertain terms. Being a contrary so-and-so, Moon decides to do a little investigating on his own, with the help of Jo Lyon, a local journalist. Bit by bit, they fit the pieces of the jigsaw together, and the emerging picture is not a pretty one. It shows a desperately corrupt senior policeman, a paedophile ring, and a ruthless local businessmen prepared to provide certain services. As Moon closes in on Sharon Baxter’s killer, he is unaware that when he does solve the mystery, it will provide a shock that he could never have anticipated.

The Final Straw is cleverly written, fast paced, and with an authentic sense of time and place. If, like me, you are impressed with Charlie Moon, there are two previous novels to check out – The Silent Passage and Blood Ties. All three are published by Matador, and The Final Straw is out on 28th April.

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