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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 4. York and Preston

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NecroEver onwards, and ever northward to the ancient city of York. For all that it houses the magnificent medieval minster and has a history going back to the Eboracum of Roman times, fewer people remember that York was also a great railway city, and there can be no more appropriate place to house the National Railway Museum. Like many men now in the autumn of their years I was an enthusiastic trainspotter back in the days of steam, so it is – I hope – perfectly understandable that I have chosen the Jim Stringer novels by Andrew Martin for this stop on our trip. Martin introduced Stringer in The Necropolis Railway (2002) when Stringer is very much at the bottom of the railway hierarchy, and working in London, but by 2004 in The Blackpool Highflyer, Stringer has married his landlord’s daughter – the beautiful Lydia – and has been promoted to a job in York.

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The next four novels see Jim rising steadily through the ranks of railway nobility, but in 1914 the world changes for ever, and Jim, like tens of thousands of other fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, answers the country’s call and joins up to fight the Kaiser, but with his expertise as a railwayman. The Great War, while not as completely global as the conflict that followed just twenty five years later, was not confined to the blood-soaked farmlands of France and Flanders. After solving a front-line murder in The Somme Stations (2011) Jim goes east in The Bagdhad Railway Club (2012) and Night Train To Jamalpur (2013) and emerges some years after the war, more or less unscathed and back home in York, in Powder Smoke (2021)

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Andrew Martin is many things – steeped in railway lore from his childhood, Oxford graduate, qualified barrister, performing musician, born in York and writer of novels light years distant from crime fiction. If he were ever to have a tombstone inscription, I do hope he would include (in brackets) “also known as Jim Stringer”. Stringer is a brilliant creation; not a ‘bish-bash-bosh’ hero, for sure, but a man with a well-defined moral compass and a gimlet eye for wrong-doing – be it in railway procedure or life in general.

Although I don’t quite belong to Jim Stringer’s era, when I read his books I am back in my relatively blameless youth (remember when Philip Larkin said sex was invented) and I am on a station platform somewhere in the Midlands, probably showered with soot from a venting steam engine, pen in one hand, notebook in the other, and with a school satchel containing sandwiches and a bottle of pop slung over my shoulder.

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We now face a long haul over The Pennines and, just after the ancient town of Skipton, we trade the white rose for the red, and pass into the County Palatine of Lancashire. It is just possible that we might pass within a stone’s throw of a moorland pub called The Tawny Owl. Were we to call in for refreshment we might be serves by a fifty-something chap called Henry Christie. More than likely, though he will be out somewhere between Preston and Blackpool ‘helping police with their inquiries’. In Henry’s case, however, this is not the standard police cliché for being ‘nicked’ but is to be taken absolutely literally, as retired copper Christie has a new role as a consultant to his former colleagues.

ATFJHis creator, Nick Oldham, knows of what he writes, as he is a former police officer, and the 29th book in this long running and successful series is due out at the end of November. So, what can readers expect from a Henry Christie story? It depends where you start, of course, because if you go back to the beginning in 1996, Peter Shilton was still in goal, but for Leyton Orient, England lost to Germany (on penalties, naturally) in the Euros semi-final, the trial of men accused of murdering Stephen Lawrence collapsed and John Major was in his second term as British Prime Minister. In A Time For Justice Christie is a relatively junior Detective Inspector – and someone who is seriously out of favour with his bosses, and has to tackle a cocky mafia hitman who thinks the English police are a joke. As the novels progress over the years, Christie rises through the ranks, but he is still someone who is viewed with some suspicion by the few officers who outrank him – the chief constables and their assistants.

NOHenry Christie is always hands on, and he has the scars – mostly physical, but one or two mental lesions – to prove it. His personal life has been a mixture of love, passion, tragedy and disappointment. His geographical battle grounds are usually confined to the triangle formed of Preston, Lancaster and Blackpool. This is an area that Oldham (right) himself knows very well, of course, thanks to his years as a copper, but it is also very cleverly chosen, because it allows the author to play with very different human and geographical landscapes. The brooding moorland to the east is a wonderful setting for all kinds of wrong-doing, while the seaside town of Blackpool, despite the golden sands, donkey rides, candy floss and cheerful seaside ambience, houses one of the worst areas of deprivation in the whole country, with run-down and lawless former council estates controlled by loan sharks, traffickers and criminal families of the worst sort.

What comes as standard in this superb series is tight plotting, total procedural authenticity, some pretty mind blowing violence and brutality but – above all – an intensely human and likeable main character. Click on the images below to read reviews of some of the more recent Henry Christie novels.

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WITHOUT A TRACE . . . Between the covers

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We are in the fictional Derbyshire town of Bainbridge. Recently divorced Ruth Prendergast has finished work for the day, done her shopping, and is keen to be inside her new house in Hollywell Close, warm, snug and out of the icy winter rain. She fancies a night in, with a pizza and a glass or two of wine. What she gets, however, is a ghastly shock. Turning on the bedroom light she finds a man apparently asleep under her duvet. When she plucks up the courage to wake him, she finds she cannot. Because he is dead. Stone dead, with a knife embedded in his body.

WAT coverThe team investigating the murder is led by Detective Inspector Isabel Blood, her Sergeant and a brace of DCs. They soon learn that the dead man is Kevin Spriggs, a middle-aged car mechanic, with a failed marriage behind him, an estranged son – and an argumentative temperament often fueled by drink. The murder raises many questions for Blood and her people. How did Spriggs and the person who killed him gain access to a locked house? Who hated Spriggs – admittedly not one of life’s natural charmers – enough to kill him? After all, he was something of a nobody, tolerated rather than loved by most people who knew him, but why this brutal – and mysterious – death?

The investigation – code named Operation Jackdaw – has achieved precisely three-fifths of five-eighths of diddly-squat, when it is rocked by the discovery that Ruth Prendergast, who discovered the corpse of the unfortunate Spriggs has herself disappeared. She was due to go on a walking trip with a lady friend, but she failed to make the rendezvous and, to borrow from The Bard, she has “melted into air, into thin air ….. leaving not a rack behind.

There are enough fictional Detective Inspectors out there in the world of crime fiction to run a large county police force, so what makes Isabel Blood – to steal a sporting cliché  – achieve a podium finish? Refreshingly, she is middle-aged, comfortable in her skin and appears to have no hidden demons. She is happily married with two teenage daughters, and the only kink in this domestic bliss is that her father was apparently bigamously involved with Isabel’s mother, and now lives in France where he has two grown up sons with his legal wife. Now, Isabel’s father and her half-brother have arrived in Bainbridge for a visit at precisely the time that the unfortunate Kevin Spriggs is discovered in Ruth Prendergast’s bed. Eventually, the team discover how – and why – the man was murdered, and the solution is complex, but it very neatly echoes Isabel’s own difficulties with her double family and half-siblings.

Without A Trace is a well plotted and nuance police procedural with credible coppers and equally convincing villains. It is published by HQ Digital, and will be out in Kindle on 29th October. A paperback edition will be available in January.

ORDERS TO KILL . . . Between the covers

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It’s always a pleasure to find a new (to me) historical police series, and especially one set during The Great War. I have read most of the Inspector Hardcastle series but, sadly, Graham Ison is no longer with us. RN Morris’s Silas Quinn books are great fun too, but most of those I have read recently are re-published editions of books written some years ago. Orders To Kill, by the accomplished and prolific historical novelist Edward Marston, is bang up to date, publishing wise, and it is the ninth in what is called the Home Front Detective series.

OTK cleanInvestigating duos are always a reliable way to spin a police novel, and in this case we have Inspector Harvey Marmion and Sergeant Joe Keedy of the Metropolitan Police. Marmion is married to Ellen, with a son and daughter. Son Paul has been mentally damaged by his time on the Western Front, and has now disappeared leaving no clue as to his whereabouts, while daughter Alice – also a service police officer – is engaged to Keedy.

It is December 1917 and Marmion and Keedy are investigating the brutal murder of a prominent surgeon, Dr Tindall, who has been working at a military hospital in London. He is found dead in his house, horribly mutilated by – according to the pathologist – a large bladed weapon, perhaps a bayonet. The dead man was highly thought of at his hospital, and widely admired by others who knew him, but when attempts are made to establish a possible motive, serious questions arise. Why, for example, can police find no trace of George Tindall’s parents at the Scottish address listed on his file? Why does the current owner of what was named as his Brighton home say that she has never heard of him?

He was clearly a wealthy man, and one who paid cash for his elegant Savile Row suits, but what motive could he possibly have had for fabricating a personal background? As the equanimity of the Marmion household is disrupted by alarming family news from Somerset, the women take a train to Shepton Mallett, while Marmion himself is confronted with fresh discoveries about the George Tindall many thought they knew well.

edward-marston-new-bestwbEdward Marston (real name Keith Miles, right) keeps us well tuned in to the news from abroad, as the Tindall case plays out against news of General Allenby’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and how the initial British success at Cambrai was tainted by a fierce German fight back. For Marmion and Keedy however, the Tindall case seems to be spiraling out of control as it seems his killers are two men taking their orders from a higher authority – and Tindall is not their first victim. The detectives travel to Brighton, Kent, Bristol and Staffordshire in their efforts to make the case make sense, but ultimately they must make one last – and infinitely more dangerous journey – before they reach a solution to this most intractable of mysteries.

Orders To Kill is highly readable, written by an author who clearly knows his history and is an accomplished storyteller. Published by Allison & Busby, it will be available on 21st October.

PAST LIFE . . . Between the covers

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I won’t repeat my spiel about coming late to an established series (which I seem to do all too often), so here’s a brief account of where we are in Past Life. Aector McAvoy is a Detective Sergeant working in Hull, on the north bank of the Humber Estuary. He is married to Roisin, who is of Irish Traveller heritage, and they have two children, Fin and Lilah. His boss is Detective Superintendent Trish Pharoah. McAvoy is a bear of a man, born to a Scottish crofter family. He is capable of great violence, but is fundamentally a gentle soul but perhaps too conciliatory and thoughtful for his own good. Author David Mark tells us:

“He is not a man at ease with the world or his place in it. He feels permanently displace; dislocated – endlessly cast as an outsider. He’s still the lumbering red-haired Scotsman who left the family croft at ten years old and has been looking for home ever since.”

Screen Shot 2021-10-10 at 20.06.34The story begins with a murder, graphically described and, at this point in the review, it is probably pertinent to warn squeamish readers to return to the world of painless and tidy murders in Cotswold manor houses and drawing rooms, because death in this book is ugly, ragged, slow and visceral. The victim is a middle-aged woman who makes a living out of reading Tarot cards, tea leaves, crystal balls and other trinkets of the clairvoyance trade. She lives in an isolated cottage on the bleak shore of the Humber and, one evening, with a cold wind scouring in off the river, she tells one fortune too many.

When McAvoy and Pharoah arrive at the scene they find the ravaged remains of Dymphna Lowell, and understand why one or two of the police officers first to respond to the 999 call have parted company with their last meal. Trish Pharoah has seen worse, but then she has been a regular onlooker at grisly tableaux that demonstrate the depths that humans can sometimes plumb. She is the wrong side of middle age, but not going gently into that good night. She has four daughters and nursed her husband – although he was an absolute bastard – day and night as he took a long time to die from an aneurism.

As McAvoy and Pharoah hunt the killer, the back-story is crucial and it needs to be explained. Roisin’s family have been engaged in a decades-long blood feud with another clan, and there has been copious amounts of blood shed along the way. Part of this history involved Roisin saving McAvoy from an infamous killer nicknamed ‘Cromwell’. Cromwell was then gruesomely punished by Roisin’s father, she and McAvoy fell in love and married, but the savage murder of Roisin’s aunt – another fortune teller – cloaks the narrative like a shroud. Roisin is a woman not at ease with the world or herself:

Screen Shot 2021-10-12 at 10.29.37“She has found herself some mornings with little horseshoe grooves dug into the soft flesh of her palms. Sometimes her wrists and elbows ache until lunchtime. She sleeps like a toppled pugilist: a Pompeian tragedy. She sees such terrible things in the few snatched moments of unconsciousness.”

When the satanic Cromwell strikes hard at McAvoy’s family, the big man goes off the radar and hunts down the killer. David Mark (right) gives us what we think is the climax as McAvoy and Cromwell go head to head in a terrifying and violent  battle in a disused WW1 sea fort, but just as we relax and think “job well done”, there is a plot twist that few will see coming, and we learn that there is a final trauma to be endured by the McAvoy family.

This is a dark, brooding novel, with more than a touch of Derek Raymond-esque nihilism and despair but, like his late, great Noir predecessor, David Mark also gives us searing honesty and compassion. Past Life is published by Severn House and is available now in hardback, and as a KIndle in November.

GUILT . . .Between the covers

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Michelle Kidd is a new name to me, and the central character in this novel – DI Nikki Hardcastle – will be a new name to everyone, as Guilt is the first in a series. The author practiced law for 10 years, specialising in criminal and civil litigation. A career change in 2008 took her to work for the NHS where she still works today. Michelle’s Interests are varied but are mostly reading, wine and cats – but not necessarily in that order. She is no novice author, however. In 2018 she published her first novel, which featured Detective Inspector Jack MacIntosh. There have been three subsequent Jack Macintosh novels and the fifth is expected in 2022.

GuiltNikki Hardcastle is a detective in the pleasant Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds, but being, as the tourist board suggests, “A Jewel in the Crown of Suffolk” is no deterrent to criminals of all kinds, and the particular one at the centre of this story is perhaps the worst sort of all – an abductor of children. My four sons are all grown up now, and they have children of their own, but no matter how many times I read accounts (fictional or otherwise) of that awful moment when a parent first realises that their child is missing, it still chills me to the bone.

One minute Sophia Jackson’s little boy Lucas – enjoying his birthday treat at the traveling fair – is there, and the next minute he is gone. The initial panic, the momentary hope that that the child will suddenly appear, and then the numbing, growing dread that someone has taken him – are described with uncomfortable realism. The police become involved, and Nikki Hardcastle heads up the search – against the better judgment of her boss. His reasons? Nothing to do with Nikki’s competence, but the knowledge that many years ago, she, too, was with her young brother at a funfair, and in the twinkling of an eye was taken while Nikki lingered a little too long at the candy-floss stall. And little Dean – Deano – has never been seen since. Michelle Kidd lets us know quite early where Lucas is and what is happening, and this makes for a tantalising kind of tension as we watch the police go round in circles, while the author explains the traumas – without excusing the deeds – that have shaped the monster who has taken Lucas.

We also learn of the terrible childhood of the abductor, and the awful twists of human cruelty that can make beasts of the psychologically vulnerable. The book also explores the complexity of guilt, and the corrosive effect it can have on families and individuals. Eventually Nikki Hardcastle and her team manage to complete the jigsaw, but the grueling case has one final shock in store for the mentally and physically exhausted detective.

Be warned. This is not a humdrum or cosy (in any shape or form) police procedural. There are descriptions of cruelty and malice which some readers may find difficult. This is however, a cleverly written – and sometimes painfully convincing –  crime novel which shines a light on the darker corners of the human psyche. Guilt is published by Question Mark Press and is available now as a Kindle or in paperback. If you want to find out more about Michelle Kidd, you can visit her website by clicking on her image below.

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DEAD SORRY . . . Between the covers

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I am new to Helen H Durrant’s Calladine and Baylis mysteries, but I do love a good police procedural, and this fits the bill nicely. My heart did sink (for a nanosecond) when I saw the first chapter was headed ‘Twenty five years earlier’, as split time narratives are something of a bête noire for me, but in this case it ended up working quite well.

Detective Tom Calladine and his partner DS Ruth Bayliss work in the fictitious town of Leesdon, which seems to be in the north west of England, with views of the Pennines and somewhere on the border between the counties of the Red and White Rose. They are called to a seedy block of flats where the decaying corpse of a woman is found but, as neighbourliness in the flats is in short supply, so no-one had reported her missing or noticed anything untoward.

Dead SorryAs the plot develops we learn that the dead woman, Becca O’Brien, was pretty much human wreckage, drug addicted and feckless. Interestingly, her daughter (who now lives in sheltered accommodation0, was involved in an act of criminality which happened twenty five years earlier (see first paragraph) at a moorland location called Gorse Farm, where human bones have recently been discovered. In an ostensibly separate plot thread, Calladine is being threatened by a criminal adversary (something of a stage eastern European gangster) called Lazarov. When Lazarov threatens to harm Calladine’s grand-daughter if he doesn’t facilitate the Bulgarian’s take-over of the Leesdon drug scene, the tension ratchets up several notches.

So far, the plot has something of a “we’ve been here before feel” to it, but Helen Durrant plays her strongest cards relatively late in the story, and the narrative becomes anything but straightforward as ‘knowns” become “unknowns” and several assumptions made by Calladine and his team (and us) are proved to be very wide of the mark. The quest to unravel what actually happened at Gorse Farm a quarter of a century earlier meshes in nicely, plot-wise, with the Leesdon coppers search for a trigger-happy criminal with a Glock automatic.

Tom Calladine is an interesting character and, like many another fictional Detective Inspector, his personal life is something of a mess. Sometimes, he doesn’t always seem to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but Ruth Baylis is usually there to put him right.

Another interesting feature of the book (I read the KIndle version) was that it ended with a ‘Glossary of English Usage For US Readers’. I don’t know if this is something peculiar to the series, or to crime books from this publisher, as it contained explanations of words and terms as diverse as Bun: small cake, Desperate Dan: very strong comic book character, Lovely jubbly: said when someone is pleased, and War Cry: Salvation Army magazine. Most odd!

Dead Sorry is a well crafted and engaging police procedural which proves that even if detective duos are something of an old dog, this particular one still has plenty of life in it. Published by Joffe Books, it is out now. Helen has a Facebook page and is also on Twitter. You can find her by clicking on the icons below.

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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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