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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.

Books

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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THE MUSIC BOX ENIGMA . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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Fans of period police procedurals are in for a treat at the end of the month when RN Morris’s distinctive London copper, Chief Superintendent Silas Quinn makes a welcome return. It’s December 1914, and the war that was meant to be over by Christmas is showing only signs of intensifying. DORA – the Defence of The Realm Act – has been enforced, and among the many strictures it imposes on the populace are imprisonment without trial, a ban on publishing any description of war or any news that is likely to cause any conflict between the public and military authorities and, bizarrely, an interdiction on buying rounds in pubs.

MBE coverBut Christmas is coming, and a rather upper-crust choir, The Hampstead Voices, is rehearsing for its seasonal concert, with all proceeds going to Belgian refugees, forced from their homes by the brutal Hun invaders. Directed by Sir Adrian Fonthill, the concert will include not only much-loved carols such as O Little Town of Bethlehem and Adeste Fideles, but choral works by Bizet and Handel. Special guest artistes will include dancers from Ballets Modernes and the distinguished violinist Emile Boland, but the evening will conclude with a performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s A Christmas Greeting, in the presence of the composer himself. It is also believed that Winston Churchill, First Lord of The Admiralty, will be in the audience at University College School on the evening of 24th December.

Silas Quinn may have many qualities, but a musical ear is not one of them, so how does he come to be involved in the doings of The Hampstead Voices? Rehearsals for the concert may not be going too well, perhaps due to the many tenors and basses who have answered the call to arms, but preparations take a distinct downturn when the Director of Music is found dead, slumped at his grand piano, with the sharpened handle of a tuning fork stuck into his ear. As boss of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Unit, Quinn is summoned to the scene of this musical murder.

It seems that the late Sir Adrian, despite his musical sensitivities, was not a paragon of virtue. He has a roving eye – and hands – for young sopranos and altos, and has a weakness for gambling which has left him in debt to some very dangerous people. But who stands to benefit from his death? Not those to whom he owes money,surely? A resentful husband, perhaps, who has been cuckolded?

MorrisAs Quinn tries to penetrate the wall of silence thrown up by Fonthill’s widow, his attention is drawn to a mysterious music box sent to Sir Adrian just before his death. When it is wound up and played, however, the resulting tune simply seems – even to Quinn’s tin ear – a haphazard sequence of random notes. But help is at hand. One of the Special Constables from Hampstead Police Station could be said to have an ear for music. He is none other than Sir Edward Elgar, celebrated composer of Salut d’Amour, Variations on an Original Theme and The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar takes the discordant melody and uncovers a message which rveals that Sir Adrian’s death is not to be the last associated with the ill-fated Christmas concert.

RN Morris (above right) gives us an inventive and delightfully improbable conclusion to this very readable novel. If you want something to lose yourself in for a few hours and a diversion to push to one side the misery and discomfort of the lock-down, then you will find nothing better than The Music Box Enigma. It is published by Severn House and will be out in hardback on 30th April.

For a review of an earlier Silas Quinn novel, The White Feather Killer, click here

THE MOLTEN CITY . . . Between the covers

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TMCWe first met Leeds policeman Tom Harper in Gods of Gold (2014) when he was a young CID officer, and the land was still ruled by Queen Victoria. Now, in The Molten City, Harper is a Superintendent and the Queen is seven years dead. ‘Bertie’ – Edward VII – is King, and England is a different place. Leeds, though, is still a thriving hub of heavy industry, pulsing with the throb of heavy machinery. And it remains grimy, soot blackened and with pockets of degradation and poverty largely ignored by the wealthy middle classes. But there are motor cars on the street, and the police have telephones. Other things are stirring, too. Not all women are content to remain second class citizens, and pressure is being put on politicians to consider giving women the vote. Sometimes this is a peaceful attempt to change things, but other women are prepared to go to greater lengths.

This small but increasingly vocal movement provides one of two plot threads in what is, to my mind, Chris Nickson’s finest novel yet. Prime Minister HH Asquith and his Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone are due to visit Leeds, and it will be Harper’s task to make sure that the visit passes off peacefully. He knows there is likely to be a protest from unemployed men whipped up by anarchist Alf Kitson, but his greatest fear is that a demonstration led by suffragette Jennie Baines will provoke more intense publicity. At this point, it is essential to point out the difference between suffragettes and suffragists. The latter have the same aims as the former, but they are avowedly peaceful in their methods. Harper’s wife Annabelle is a suffragist. She has worked for women’s rights for many years, and has passed on her zeal to their teenage daughter Mary.

The parallel thread in The Molten City begins when Harper receives an anonymous letter:

Letter

As he uses his local knowledge and that of his older officers, Harper begins to piece together a jigsaw. As the picture begins to take shape, it is clear that it is one that contains elements of tragedy, greed, desperation – and downright criminality, and that solving the puzzle will bring joy to no-one. As the past players in this old drama start to realise that the past is catching up with them, anxiety leads to violence,and violence leads to murder.

There are so many dazzlingly good elements to this novel. Nickson, like many of his readers is someone of the twentieth century, and he has a keen eye and ear for little social mannerisms that certainly struck a chord with me. As Annabelle imagines her husband in a Chief Constable’s uniform, she says:
You’d look a right bobby-dazzler.”
Only those of us who were brought up having their tea made in a pot will remember this gesture:
“She felt the side of the teapot and poured herself another cup.”
Teenagers were as hungry in 1908 as they are today, but few sit down with their parents at a set table and have their meal:
“She’d already cleaned her plate right down to the pattern and was working her way through the suet pudding.”

Tom Harper is still fit, active, and able to handle himself in a scrap, but like Tennyson’s Ulysses who laments tho we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;” he is all too aware of the passage of time:
“And it was a detective’s job to follow every possibility. That was what his old boss, Superintendent Kendall, had instilled in him when he was starting out in CID. Another one who was dead now; Harper had filled his shoes at Millgarth. Billy, Kendall, so many others …very soon the dead in his life would outnumber the living.”

Nickson orchestrates the dramatic disorder – based on real events – of the Prime Minister’s visit with panache and the skills of a born storyteller. We know – as does Harper himself – that finding the truth about the child stealing will benefit no-one alive or dead, but he is a policeman who must do his duty while being all too well aware that the truth is frequently uncomfortable.

The Molten City is published by Severn House and is out now. If you want to find out more about Chris Nickson and his books, then click the image below.

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BURY THEM DEEP . . .Between the covers

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James Oswald’s Edinburgh copper Tony McLean is something of a fixture in the crime fiction firmament these days, and Bury Them Deep is the tenth in the series. For those readers picking up one of his cases for the first time, a little of his back story might be helpful. He is based in Edinburgh and now, of course, works for Police Scotland. He was (unhappily) educated in English independent schools thanks to his wealthy family, some of whose riches he has inherited, thus making him ‘a man of means’. He lives in an old and impossibly roomy house, left to him by his grandmother. He has a fragile relationship with partner Emma, and it is fair to say that their life together has been punctuated by both drama and tragedy. McLean drives a very plush Alfa Romeo, enjoys an occasional glass of cask-strength single malt whisky and, aside from his instinct for police work, has been known to be susceptible to stimuli and influences that are not, as Hamlet remarked, “dreamt of in your philosophy.” After many successful cases, he is now Detective Chief Inspector McLean, but if his superiors imagine he will settle for a life behind a desk, they are very much mistaken.

BTDAnya Renfrew is a rather dowdy and dull police civilian worker who seems devoted to her job, which is mastering the many databases which keep investigations fed with information. She has never had a day off in her life, and so when she goes missing it is considered rather unusual. Her mother is a former – and legendary – police superintendent, but Grace Ramsay is now old and infirm, living in a care home. Police are never more active than when investigating actual or possible harm to one of their own, and when McLean searches Anya’s house, what he finds hidden in her wardrobe indicates that Ms Renfrew’s private life was more exotic – and dangerous – than colleagues might have imagined.

A chance bit of tomfoolery by two schoolboys, bored out of their minds during the long hot summer holiday, leads not only to the discovery of Anya Renfrew’s car, but a moorland wildfire of tinder-dry heather. When the fire service manage to douse the flames, they make a disturbing discovery. Bones. Human bones. Bones that the post-mortem investigation reveals have been deliberately stripped of their flesh.

McLean’s professional life already has one big complication. A five-times serial killer called Norman Bale is in a secure mental hospital, thanks to McLean’s diligence and bravery. Now, he asks to speak to McLean, and what he has to say is both shocking and improbable. Are his words just the ramblings of a psychological disturbed killer, or does his suggestion – that Anya Renfrew’s disappearance and the moorland bone-pit are linked to a sinister piece of folklore – have any substance?

joIt takes a bloody good writer to mix crime investigation with touches of the supernatural. John Connolly, with his Charlie Parker books is one such, but James Oswald (right)  makes it work equally as well. The finale of this novel is as deeply frightening as anything I have read for a long time. Despite the drama, Oswald can use a lighter touch on occasions. There is dark humour in the way McLean sometimes needs to ingratiate himself with Edinburgh’s smart set. At an art gallery opening night he listens politely as two guests discuss one of the objets d’art:

“Fascinating how she blends the surreal and the horrific in a melange of sensual brushwork, don’t you think?”
“It all seems a bit brutal to me. The darkness crushes your soul, sucks it in, and you become one with the oils.”
Definitely Tranent, by way of the Glasgow School of Art department of pseudo-intellectualism. He’s been just as much of a twat at that age of course; in his case a student trying to impress with his rather flawed knowledge of basic psychology…”

Bury Them Deep is published by Wildfire (an imprint of Headline Publishing) and will be available on 20th February.

 

For reviews of other books by James Oswald click the link

WILDFIRE . . . Between the covers

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Back in the day, before authors and their publishers trusted me with reviewing novels, I did what the vast majority of the reading public did – I either bought books when I could afford them or I went to the local library. I had a list of authors whose latest works I would grab eagerly, or take my place in the queue of library members who had reserved copies. In no particular order, anything by John Connolly, Jim Kelly, Phil Rickman, Frank Tallis, Philip Kerr, Mark Billingham, Christopher Fowler and Nick Oldham would be like gold dust.

WildfireOldham’s Henry Christie was a particular favourite, as his adventures mixed excellent police procedure – thanks to Oldham’s career as a copper – a vulnerable and likeable hero, and an unflinching look at the mean and vicious streets of the Blackpool area in England’s north-west. Wildfire is the latest outing for Henry Christie, who has retired from the police and now runs a pleasant village pub set in the Lancashire hills.

The book’s title works both literally and as a metaphor: the moorland around Kendleton, where Christie pulls pints in The Tawny Owl is on fire, the gorse and heather tinder dry and instantly combustible. People in farms and cottages on the moors have been advised to evacuate, and The Tawny Owl has become a refreshment station, serving bacon butties and hot tea to exhausted firefighters. The violence of nature is being faithfully echoed, however, by human misdeeds. A gang of particularly lawless and well-organised Travellers* has targeted a money-laundering operation based in an isolated former farm. The body count is rising, and the sums of money involved are simply eye-watering, as Christie is asked to join the police investigation as a consultant.
Travellers

When Christie visits a refurbished ‘nick’ he finds that little has changed:

“…the complex was already beginning to reek of the bitter smell of men in custody: a combination of sweat, urine, alcohol, shit, general body odour and a dash of fear. Even new paint could not suppress it.”

D.C. Diane Daniels, Christie’s police ‘minder’ has driven him to a lawless Blackpool estate, once known as Shoreside, but rechristened Beacon View by some hopelessly optimistic council committee:

Money had been chucked at it occasionally, usually to build children’splay areas, but each one had been systematically demolished by uncontrollable youths. Council houses had been abandoned, trashed, then knocked down. A row of shops had been brought down brick by brick, with the exception of the end shop – a grocer/newsagent that survived only because its proprietor handled stolen goods.”

The locals don’t take kindly to their visit and Daniels tries to drive her battered Peugot away from trouble:

Ahead of her, spread out across the avenue and blocking their exit, was a group of about a dozen youths, male and female, plus a couple of pitbull-type dogs on thick chains, The youth’s faces were covered in scarves and in their hands they bounced hunks of house brick or stone; one had an iron bar like a jemmy.”

Eventually, the wildfires of both kinds are extinguished, at least temporarily, but not before Henry Christie is forced, yet again, to take a long hard look at himself in the mirror, and question if it was all worth the effort.

There is a complete absence of fuss and pretension about Oldham’s writing. Dismiss him at your peril, though, as just another writer of pot-boiler crime thrillers. He has created one of the most endearing – and enduring – heroes in contemporary fiction, and in his portrayal of a region not necessarily known for its criminality, he lifts a large stone to reveal several horrid things scuttling away from the unwanted light.

This brutal journey into the darkside of modern Britain ends with Christie summing up his motivation for continuing to fight on, his back to the wall:

The dead could not fight for themselves.People like him did that.”

Wildfire is published by Severn House and is available now.

ALL THAT IS BURIED . . . Between the covers

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ATIB coverAll the fun of the fair? They are strange throwbacks to an earlier, perhaps more innocent time, these funfairs that travel the country setting up in this or that town for a few days of loud music, strings of multicoloured light bulbs swinging in the wind, the shrieks of excited children and the unique smell of candyfloss and toffee apples. All That Is Buried, the latest case for Robert Scragg’s coppers Jake Porter and Nick Styles begins with an abduction in one such fair, pitched on a field in a London suburb. We see some of the story through the eyes of the killer. Our man – if he is indeed the culprit – describes the fair:

“Around him, the ebb and flow of the people is a chaotic palette of colour. Sounds swirl, overlap, conversations impossible to separate from the cloud of white noise as he picks his way between rides. Oversized teacups spin in lazy circles.Squeak of socks on rubber as children launch themselves skywards on a bouncy castle.”

One minute, seven year-old Libby Hallforth is at the fair. Next minute, she is gone, her mum and dad distracted for a few seconds. That’s all it takes for a child to vanish. When Porter visits the parents in their grim tower block flat he finds “lives of quiet desperation”, to be sure, but he is not convinced that Libby’s parents are quite what they seem to be at first glance.

The search for Libby goes round in ever decreasing circles until a chance sighting of someone who might be her takes Porter and his team to an East London park. They don’t find Libby, but what they do find turns the case on its head. On an island in a boating lake, they find roses:

“A mixture of blood reds, soft whites, pale peaches and buttery yellows..”

But beneath the roses lies something lacking their fragile beauty, far less fragrant and indescribably more sinister. The search for Libby Hallforth, in the time it takes for a man to turn a sod of earth with a spade, takes on a whole new dimension.

Blood roses

The book, to a degree, is formulaic. We have all the usual components of a British police procedural: a DI and a Sergeant are the main characters, the DI having the shadow of personal tragedy hanging over him; the DI has a boss who is more of a desk copper than a crime fighter; there are an assortment of nasty gangsters, druggies and petty crooks on the fringes of the story; deep at the heart of the plot, however is a distinctly malevolent individual who takes human lives – many of them.

Th said, Robert Scragg brings much more to the party. What impressed me most was the genuine sense of humanity, compassion and mutual respect between Porter and Styles. To call it a symbiosis is perhaps rather too grand, but they fight each other’s corner and make allowances when either of them slips up. There is a feel-good factor about the novel, despite the harrowing nature of the crimes the pair are trying to solve.

It would be giving too much away to divulge the outcome, but the eventual solution caught me unawares and was an imaginative plot twist that worked beautifully without being too extravagant or showy in a “look at me, no hands!” kind of way.

All That Is Buried is published by Allison & Busby and will be out in hardback and Kindle on 23rd January. For reviews of the previous two Porter and Styles novels, click on the images below.

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