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Police Procedural

DYING INSIDE . . . Between the covers

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Back in the day when I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue was actually funny, and I’m talking about the late 1970s, one of my favourite rounds was Late Arrivals At The Ball, where a servant announces the arrival of . . . cue wonderful and bizarre puns, such as:

(The Astronauts’ Ball) Mr and Mrs Secondstoblastoff and their Scottish son, Fife
(The Booksellers’ Ball) Mr & Mrs Zeen, & their disgusting daughter, Margaret – known as ‘Dirty Maggie’
(The Butchers’ Ball) Mr and Mrs Poundamince and their son, Arfur

I only mention this because twice now, within a few days, I have found a crime series to which I have come very late. This, for an avowed fan of police procedural novels, is pretty damning. At least the Trevor Negus novels featuring Danny Flint was only a three book series, but much to my shame I find that there have been ten previous books in the DCI Nick Dickson series. All I can do, is review the eleventh – Dying Inside – and mutter “mea culpa.” Below, numbers one to five in the Nick Dixon Books.

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51olmknWKqS._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Nick Dickson works for Avon and Somerset Constabulary, so his beat covers much of England’s glorious West Country from Bristol down to Weston super Mare. He is relatively recently promoted, which is good for his salary and pension, but has dragged him into the vortex of tedium which includes mission statements, performance reviews and coma-inducing courses with titles like Developing Inclusive Management Styles In A Modern Police Service. ( I just made that up, but a pound to a penny something very like it actually exists) Dixon, like his creator, is a former solicitor, so he is very wise to the standard stunts pulled by defence lawyers, and it also accounts for his rapid promotion through the ranks. Witnesses often remark that he looks “too young to be such an important officer”, to which his response is usually a neutral smile

Here though, he has dead bodies to deal with. Not so good for the victims – firstly a number of sheep, secondly a dodgy accountant and then an HMRC manager investigating fraud – but good for Dixon’s state of mind. The two humans and the sheep have all been killed with fatal shots from a powerful crossbow. Were the sheep just practice targets while the killer honed his or her skills, or were they unrelated incidents? And what is the true story behind  the ocean-going yacht owned by the dodgy accountant capsizing and sinking taking with it one of its crew, Laura Dicken?

Bit by bit, Dixon completes the jigsaw, and is convinced that the deaths are revenge attacks by one of the people who were lured into a scam which ruined their pensions and left them more or less destitute. With his bosses anxious for him to wrap the case up and devote himself to the serious business of Neighbourhood Watch Liaison Committees and Diversity Webinars, Dixon has one or two surprises up his sleeve before the case can finally be closed. Dying Inside is a thoroughly entertaining read, full of twists and turns, and is published by Thomas and Mercer. It is out in paperback and Kindle on 22nd June.

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A COLD GRAVE . . . Between the covers

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I had not come across Trevor Negus and his DCI Danny Flint novels, and it was only a browse through Netgalley that brought it to my attention, and I am glad I found it – but sorry to come late to the series, which began with Evil in MInd, and was followed by Dead and Gone. The three books all came out in May this year from Inkubator Books, but A Cold Grave was first published in 2018 with the title A Different Kind of Evil, from Bathwood Manor Publishing, which seems to be no more. I am glad that Inkubator have picked up the torch and are running with it.

I have to say that the police procedural genre is my absolute Alpha and Omega in crime fiction, and chancing upon a new (to me) series is a ‘punch the air’ moment. The acid test of course, is deciding if the book is any good. I think police procedurals are harder to get wrong than most genres, but it does happen. I am happy to say that Trevor Negus does most things right in this novel, and so he hasn’t dropped the Ming vase to shatter into a thousand pieces. The book is set in 1986, so in one sense it is Historical Crime Fiction, but only the absence of mobile phones stands out as a major difference between then and now. One of the elements that make this novel work so well is the sense – and continuity – of place. We certainly aren’t in the most romantic or obviously atmospheric part of Britain, but Negus knows Nottinghamshire like the back of his proverbial, and so he should; his bio reveals:

“In 1975 Trevor joined the Nottinghamshire Constabulary as a Police Cadet, becoming a regular officer in 1978. As a uniform constable he learned his craft in the pressure cooker environment of inner city Nottingham which at that time had one of the highest violent crime rates in the United Kingdom.

During a varied thirty year police career Trevor spent six years as an authorised firearms officer and sniper, before transferring onto the CID. He spent the last twelve years of his career as a detective, becoming a specialist interviewer involved in the planning and implementation of interviews with murder suspects.”

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One of the most notorious places in Nottinghamshire is Rampton Secure Hospital, and it is here that the story begins. Two prisoners escape, after inflicting serious violence on several staff. One is quickly tracked down, but the other, Jimmy Wade, gets clean away, almost certainly helped by a member of the public with a car. Wade is a seriously deranged psychopath, and every day he remains at large is a day of anxiety for Detective Inspector Danny Flint and his team.

Flint has something else on his plate, though. That ever-reliable participant in murder enquiries (real and fictional)  – a dog walker – has discovered the decomposing body of a boy. The boy is soon identified as Evan Jenkins, who has been removed from the ‘care’ of his mother, a drug addicted prostitute, and placed in a care home called Tall Trees. Flint has a bad feeling about the couple who run the home – Carol and Bill Short – and he connects them both to a drug ring and – even worse – a ring of paedophiles  whose members include several civic dignitaries and influential businessmen. Meanwhile, Wade’s whereabouts remains a mystery.

Unlike Danny Flint, we know that Wade is living in a remote cottage on a country estate, aided and abetted by his girlfriend Melissa Braithwaite, who is drawn to him by a poisonous mixture of fear of his violence and the worst kind of sexual attraction. Wade has a revenge mission he hatched while under lock and key – the abduction of two prison officers who had given him a particularly hard time in Rampton. Danny Flint’s hunt for Wade and the paedophile ring responsible for Evan Jenkins’s death is played out against an impressively authentic geographical background – the Nottinghamshire towns of Retford, Newark and Mansfield. A police procedural this may be, but Dixon of Dock Green it certainly is not. It is dark, and sometimes frighteningly violent, but always compellingly readable. A Cold Grave is out now.

SCARRED . . . Between the covers

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If ever there were an appropriate title for a Henry Christie novel, it is this. For newcomers, former Lancashire copper Nick Oldham created Christie in 1996 with A Time For Justice. Scarred is, I believe the 28th in the series, and while Christie hasn’t quite aged the full twenty five years since we first met him, he is rather like Tennyson’s Ulysses:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;”

Sticking with the Bard of Somersby, Christie is also;

“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Back in the day, Henry Christie was a senior detective with the Lancashire Constabulary. He is now long since retired, running a moorland pub, but unable to resist the call to arms when he is asked to operate as a civilian consultant with his old force. Back to the title, though. Christie has endured many a beating at the hands of his criminal adversaries. He carries scars which are both physical and mental from his days battling bad men – and equally malignant women. Without giving too much away, I can say the word ‘scarred’ has a wider connotation than Henry’s war wounds.

I have become weary in recent years of what I call the “four years earlier – six months later” school of narrative, and I raised the tiniest hair of an eyebrow when I saw that this book starts in 1985, when Christie was (I almost said “nobbut a lad” but then remembered that they say that on the other side of the Pennines, not in Lancashire) a young Detective Constable, trying to nab shoplifters. One particular pursuit ends in Christie being severely beaten, and ending up in intensive care. Wisely, Nick Oldham stays with this period of his man’s career for some considerable time, and doesn’t follow the irritating (to me) pattern of lurching between time slots every three or four pages.

81RhPuniszSThe 1985 episode links crucially with the second part of the book which is firmly in present day Covid-restricted Lancashire, complete with masks and elbow bumps. A teenage boy who was the object of Christie’s near fatal pursuit – but then disappeared off the face of the earth – turns up again, but in an unexpected and deeply disturbing way.

A word or two about the places where the book is set. I have spoken of this in previous reviews of Henry Christie stories, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that because some of the action centres on the Blackpool area, there is any sense of sun and fun, saucy postcards and kiss-me-quick hats. The ubiquitous Google provides a statement from Lancashire Country Council:

“Blackpool (20.9%), in the Lancashire-14 area, has the largest proportion of its working age population employment deprived in England, and the third largest percentage income deprived (24.7%). Blackpool has the largest number of people employment deprived and income deprived in the Lancashire-14 area.

Where you have the ‘D’ word you always have crime, meanness of spirit and Oldham doesn’t shy away from describing the littered streets, the drug-ridden estates, the human desert speckled with steel-grilled convenience stores and tattoo shops, the youngsters who have turned feral by the age of twelve, and the desperate single mothers, endlessly betrayed by the absent fathers of their children, and whose only solace is tobacco and cheap alcohol. It doesn’t make the Henry Christie novels Noir, exactly, mainly because HC is such a decent fellow. He is a man who remains optimistic in spite of everything, and perhaps he is a soulmate of the man so superbly described by Raymond Chandler:

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.”

Back to the book. Mr Civilian Christie has been partnered with a firebrand Detective Sergeant, xxxxx who is fixated on the fact that there has been systematic collusion between the police and criminals in Lancashire over a long period of time. Because of this, she has been shunted sideways into investigating cold case crime, an operation which may make for good police procedurals on TV, but is probably frustrating for officers who want to be at the sharp end of investigation and law enforcement. What starts as a hunt for man who raped a young girl many months ago morphs into the discovery of a huge child abuse scandal, and ends with one of the most ferocious finales you could want to read. Scarred is published by Severn House and is out now. To read my reviews of earlier Nick Oldham novels, click the image below.

 

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HARDCASTLE’S SECRET AGENT . . . Between the covers


Before I became a reviewer
, and earned (I hope) the privilege of being sent books and .mobi files by publishers, I had been a lifetime library user. Crime Fiction was my first and last love, and in my regular Saturday afternoon trawl through the shelves, there were certain authors whose names I always sought out. In no particular order, these would include Jim Kelly, Phil Rickman, John Connolly, John Sandford, Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Jonathan Kellerman, James Lee Burke, Graham Hurley, Christopher Fowler – and Graham Ison.

The Graham Ison books were slimmish-volumes, usually the Brock and Poole series, but my favourites were always the Hardcastle books. Ernie Hardcastle was a London copper in and around the years of The Great War. He could come over brusque in his dealings, but other might use the word ‘avuncular’. He distrusted innovations such as the telephone, but had a true copper’s nose for villains. A couple of his books are reviewed here, but inevitably, ‘time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away..‘ Thankfully, in Hardcastle’s Secret Agent, Ernie is still with us, but long since retired, and the Hardcastle concerned is his son Walter, now a rising star in the Metropolitan Police.

HSAWe are, as ever, in London, but it is 1940. The Phony War is over, and the Luftwaffe are targetting industrial sites they believe to be involved in making parts for military aircraft. When several important employees of one such factory are burgled – clearly by an expert – but with nothing other than trinkets stolen, Hardcastle believes he may be on the track of a German spy on the look-out for plans, blueprints or important military information. Hardcastle has to deal with The Special Branch, but finds them about as co-operative as they were with his father a couple of decades earlier. This has a certain tinge of irony, as part of the author’s distinguished police career was spent as a Special Branch Operative.

The search for the German spy withers on the branch, but Hardcastle has other fish to fry. A prostitute – or at least, a young woman who was free with her favours –  has been found beaten to death, and the hunt for her killer takes Hardcastle into military quarters.

Eventually, Walter Hardcastle gets both of his men, and on the way we have a vividly recreated world of an England struggling to come to grips with a new world war. Not one that is being fought far away on some foreign field, but one which is brought to people’s very hearths and homes every single night. Hardcastle’s Secret Agent is published by Severn House/Canongate Books and will be out on 1st May.

Sad to relate, Graham Ison died suddenly in late 2020 before he could complete this book. It was finished with the help of his son Roger. Graham Ison was prolific, certainly, and critics might argue that he stuck to a reliable formula in each of his series, and never ventured into unfamiliar territory. Neither was he a darling of the crime fiction festival circuit, but I suspect after decades working as a policeman that never bothered him. What he was, however, was a reliable name for readers who bought his books and – importantly – library borrowers, who knew that they could rely on him for a story well told, and if his words took them into familiar territory, then that was nothing for either reader or writer to be ashamed about.

THE CUSTARD CORPSES . . . Between the covers

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Sometimes a book comes along with very little by way of advanced publicity or hype, and it hits the sweet spot right away. One such is The Custard Corpses by MJ Porter. Strangely-named it might be but the reason for the title becomes more obvious - and appropriate - the more one reads. A few sentences in, and I was hooked. It ticks several of my favourite boxes - WW2 historical, police procedural, likeable and thoroughly decent English copper, the West Midlands and a plot which is inventive without being implausible.

We are in the Birmingham district of Erdington. It is 1943 and Great War veteran Sam Mason is a uniformed Chief Inspector at the local nick. He is not yet on the downward slope heading for retirement, but he is like Tennyson's Ulysses:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Screen Shot 2021-04-05 at 19.39.14Mason is a man given to reflection, and a case from his early career still troubles him. On 30th September 1923, a boy’s body was found near the local church hall. Robert McFarlane had been missing for three days, his widowed mother frantic with anxiety. Mason remembers the corpse vividly. It was almost as if the lad was just sleeping. The cause of death? Totally improbably the boy drowned. But where? And why was his body so artfully posed, waiting to be found?

Mason and his then boss, Chief Inspector Fullerton, had never solved the crime, and Mrs McFarlane died without knowing the whys and wherefores of her son’s death. When  Mason learns that there had been a similar case, a couple of years later, he is close to despair that it hadn’t come to light earlier. He realises that the fault was theirs. They hadn’t circulated the strange details of Robert’s death as widely as they should.

Attempting to make amends, albeit two decades too late, he has a circular drawn up, and sent to the police forces across England, Scotland and Wales. To his dismay, a succession of unsolved killings come to light; the dead youngsters are of different ages, but there is one bizarre common factor – the bodies have been posed as if in some kind of sporting action. Mason is given permission to devote his energies to this macabre series of killings, and with the resourceful Constable O’Rourke, he sets up an incident room, and begins to receive case notes and crime scene photographs from places as far apart as Inverness, Weston, Conway and Berwick.

Picture_Post_21-Sep-40One evening, after he has taken images and documents home with him, his wife Annie makes a startling discovery. Like nearly two million other readers across the country, she is a great fan of the magazine Picture Post, and while thumbing through a recent copy she notices that the sporting youngster drawn in an advertisement for a well-known brand of custard is posed in a way that has a chilling resemblance to the way one of the victims that Sam is investigating.

At this point, the investigation sprouts wings and takes flight and, in a journey that takes them across England, Mason and O’Rourke eventually uncover a tale of horror and obsession that chills their blood. MJ Porter has written a  series of historical and fantasy novels, mostly set in what we call The Dark Ages – Vikings, Goths and those sorts of chaps. That doesn’t tend to be ‘my thing’ but, my goodness, Porter is a good writer. The Custard Corpses goes straight onto my early shortlist for Book of The Year, and I do hope that he can tear himself away from his tales of ravens, rape, swords and general pillage to bring us another novel featuring Sam Mason. The Custard Corpses is out now.

WHAT WILL BURN . . . Between the covers

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As the title suggests, What Will Burn is all about fire. It begins with an old woman, badly beaten and then set alight. There are passages which hark back to the late sixteenth century, and describe the dreadful end of women who were accused of witchcraft and burnt at the stake. A man apparently spontaneously combusts as he sits in his basement flat. It ends with a grim parallel to those scenes when one of the book’s main characters, suffers a similar fate in a grim parody of those historical executions.

So, what has all this to do with James Oswald’s Edinburgh copper
, Detective Chief Inspector Tony McLean? Or, to be more accurate, Detective Inspector McLean, as he returns to duty busted down a rank after a lengthy investigation into misconduct.

His ‘welcome back Tony” case is that of the agonising death of Cecily Slater, an elderly member of an aristocratic family, who has lived alone in a crumbling cottage in the woods above Edinburgh. Her charred remains have gone unnoticed for some time, until an estate worker who runs the odd errand for the old woman makes a grisly discovery.

McLean also becomes involved with a controversial campaign called Dad’s Army. They are not the avuncular dodderers from Walmington-on-Sea, but a group of embittered men who, for one reason or another, have been denied access to their children. They are led – and empowered – by a lawyer called Tommy Fielding, a man who who has a seemingly pathological hatred of women, and is undeterred by the fact that many of his clients have been separated from their children due to allegations of serious sexual abuse.

All good police procedural series
need a repertory company of regular characters, and the Tony McLean books are no exception. There’s Grumpy Bob, guardian of the cold case records down in the basement, Detective Constable Janie Harrison – now Acting Detective Sergeant Harrison, the lugubrious Detective Constable ‘Lofty’ Blane. McLean himself is a fascinating character. Thanks to a legacy, he has the luxury of being financially independent of his job, but loves the work. He also has the mixed blessing of being someone who is sensitive to things paranormal, and beyond the ken of the Police Scotland operational handbook. Away from the station, there is the strange character of Madame Rose, a transexual psychic who can always be relied upon to provide a sense of things “not dreamt of in our philosophy”.Last but not least, there is Mrs McCutcheon’s cat. We never see the owner, but the moggie is a permanent resident in McLean’s house.

There is a new member of the cast
in this novel, in the person of Chief Superintendent Gail Elmwood, freshly signed from the Metropolitan Police to head up Tony’s team. Let’s just say that she is not your conventional senior police officer.

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As the reviewers’ cliché has it, the body count gets higher. Readers expecting a conventional solution to the criminal activity in What Will Burn will search in vain. James Oswald takes this book to a new level of dark imaginings, intrigue, human venality and sinister happenings which, if they don’t scare you, it perhaps means that you are in a persistent vegetative state. What Will Burn is published by Wildfire, and is out today, 18th February.

I am a confirmed and long-standing fan of the Tony McLean series. To read reviews of earlier novels, click here.

END OF THE LINE . . . Between the covers

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This is the fourth in Robert Scragg’s popular police procedural series featuring London DI Jake Porter and his trusty Sergeant, Nick Styles. The story so far: Porter still grieves for his wife Holly, killed in a hit-and-run incident a few years earlier. The driver remains unidentified, and it preys upon Porter’s mind. He has cautiously begun a new relationship with fellow cop Evie Simmons. Styles is married, with a young child, and is intensely loyal to his boss.

81TTdj6ywMLThe book starts in gory style. Ross Henderson, a young left wing activist, has a YouTube channel on which he posts regular videos denouncing his bête noire, a movement called the English Welfare Party. The EWP are right wing Nationalists vehemently opposed to immigration. As Henderson is setting up his latest live video stream from an abandoned magistrates’ court, proceedings are interrupted by a group who appear to be Islamic extremists. Live and on screen, the young man is killed using the jihadists’ favourite method – decapitation. By the time the police arrive,the killers are long gone, but the shocking video has been seen by millions on social media.

At the same time that Porter and Styles are assigned to the case, Porter hears that there is something of a breakthrough in his personal hunt for the person who killed his wife. Fingerprints from the abandoned vehicle that did the damage have finally been matched to that of a minor criminal, Henry Kaumu. All good then, except that Kaumu is lying in an intensive care unit, comatose and swathed in bandages after being battered around the head with a baseball bat, wielded by an angry homeowner whose house Kaumu was trying to burgle. Porter learns that Kaumu is an employee of Jackson Tyler, a notorious London gangster. Because the case is so personal, Porter is forbidden to take any part in it and so he goes ‘rogue’ to try to find the identity of the person who was driving the fatal car. His clashes with Tyler are painful and unproductive, until he receives information from an unlikely source.

ScraggPorter’s four year search for the person who killed his wife finally ends in a violent encounter on a suburban industrial site, and the hunt for Ross Henderson’s killer takes one or two wrong turns, but eventually Porter gets his man. Or does he? There is a clever twist at the end which I didn’t see coming. Robert Scragg clearly has a strong political stance, but that’s fine – it’s his book, and readers can take it or leave it.

I have to be honest and say that I smelled a rat from the word go. Why would Islamists murder a left wing activist who would have held all the ‘correct’ views on such topics as immigration, Palestine and cultural diversity? It takes Porter & Co. rather a long time to realise they are being played, but maybe that’s just me being a curmudgeon. That caveat aside, this is a thoroughly entertaining police procedural from the author (right) with all boxes ticked, including coppers with difficult personal lives, senior officers welded to their desks, genuinely nasty villains, and authentic locations. The room containing fictional Detective Inspectors is a crowded one, but Jake Porter’s elbows are sharp enough to make sure he has room to move.

End of The Line is published by Allison & Busby, and is out now. To find reviews of the three earlier books in the series, click on the image below.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Police Procedural

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For many of us, the Police Procedural remains the staple of our crime fiction reading diet. That the genre remains so lively after so many decades is a tribute to the ingenuity and assiduous research of the authors. Here are the four books that I enjoyed the most in 2020. To read the full review, just click the titles.

STILL LIFE by VAL McDERMID

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CRY BABY by MARK BILLINGHAM

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AFTER THE FIRE by JO SPAIN

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BEST POLICE PROCEDURAL 2020
BURY THEM DEEP by JAMES OSWALD

Screen Shot 2020-12-11 at 18.53.09The most crowded room in the mansion of Crime Fiction is the one containing all the Detective Inspectors. Why so many? Probably because in real life a DI’s seniority allows them to become involved in serious criminal cases, but they are not so elevated that they spend most of their time behind a desk juggling budgets and ticking boxes on diversity surveys. So, for a fictional DI to standout from the throng, they must have something a little bit different. With due apologies for execuspeak, Tony McLean’s USP is that he has an awareness of another world beyond the one inhabited with fellow – living – human beings. This is both a blessing and a curse, but James Oswald handles it with a great deal of nuance and restraint. There are no Woman In Black type shocks, and McLean certainly doesn’t “see dead people”. What we do have is a growing sense of unease, with something just at the corner of our peripheral vision maybe, and that something is certainly not benevolent. For more about James Oswald, click his picture (above left).

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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.

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