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Police Procedural

MARKED MEN . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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THE BOY IN THE HEADLIGHTS . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOAHNITA

HARDCASTLE’S QUANDARY . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#TAKEN . . . Between the covers

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OK, so Liam Neeson and Luc Besson got their anti-Albanian-gangster campaign in first, but Tony Parsons’ version has a hashtag, and only two citizens of the Adriatic republic bite the dust during DC Max Wolfe’s latest investigation. So, what do we have? Fans of the previous Max Wolfe novels The Murder Bag (2014) The Slaughterman (2015) The Hanging Club (2017) Die Last (2017) Girl On Fire (2018) can look away for a moment during a quick bio of DC Wolfe. He lives in a flat overlooking Smithfield Market. He is a single parent to daughter Scout (as in To Kill A Mockingbird), and has a dog called Stan, to whom he is devoted. Wife Anne is vaguely in the background, but is more concerned with her looks, career and latest boyfriend than she is about her daughter. The Wolfe household is run by a benevolent Irishwoman called Mrs Murphy.

Taken#Taken kicks off, appropriately enough, when a young ballet dancer, Jessica Lyle, is snatched from her borrowed car just yards from the gated luxury home she shares with another girl. From here, Wolfe and his alcoholic boss DCI Pat Whitestone face a veritable University Challenge of questions. Their starter-for-ten is to decide if Jessica was actually the intended victim. Although her father is a retired copper who may have run up an impressive list of enemies, isn’t it more likely that Jessica was mistaken for her flatmate, Snezia? After all, Snezia is not only a dancer of a different kind from Jessica (think ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs, tiny thong and shiny pole) but she is the mistress of fabled former gang boss Harry Flowers. Jessica was driving Snezia’s car when she was taken. Isn’t this just another example of the stupidity of hired thugs?

As if Wolfe doesn’t have enough on his plate, he is forced to cover for his boss when she gets herself into a whole world of trouble. He is far from being a stupid man, but makes assumptions about the Lyle abduction which lead him down a succession of dark alleys, with Whitestone’s obsession with nailing Harry Flowers adding more heat than light as he gropes for the truth.

Parsons takes us on a white knuckle ride through London’s gangland, a place where unpredictable violence à la Ronnie Kray is a marketable commodity, and luxury homes on the Essex fringes are paid for by dark deeds committed in the shadows cast by mountains of wrecked cars in scrap dealers’ yards. Lovers of London will be entranced by some of the locations, including a ghostly disused underground station and the spectacular mortuary extravagance of Highgate West cemetery.

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Amid all the thuggery, armed police raids and visits to some of London’s least-visited curiosities, Parsons (above) finds space and time to deal with Wolfe’s tortuous relationship with his estranged wife. The writing here is full of emotional intelligence, sensitivity, perception, and not without pain. Wolfe’s devotion to his daughter, Scout, could not be more of a stark contrast with Anne’s insouciance, and yet there is still a sense that, to paraphrase Bobby McGee’s un-named companion, he would trade all his tomorrows for a single yesterday. Those who are familiar with Parsons’ best-seller Man and Boy will know that he is writing from the heart.

#Taken is published by Cornerstone/Century and will be out as a Kindle on 1st March, and in April as a hardback. If you click on the image below it will take you to a video of Tony Parsons talking about the book, and reading the first chapter.

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COLD AS THE GRAVE . . . Between the covers

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This is a welcome return to the world of Edinburgh copper Tony McLean. He is now Chief Inspector, and to quote, appropriately enough, the Scottish Play, he feels he is dressed in ‘borrow’d robes’. On his desk are small mountains of files, reports, initiatives and consultation documents: beyond the door of the nick are thieves, rapists and murderers. McLean knows where his heart is leading him, and it is out away from his desk and onto the mean streets.

When McLean uses the excuse of a potential clash between rival demonstrators to desert his office, he discovers a corpse abandoned in a derelict cellar. As the technicians and medics swarm round the body it seems obvious that the remains – of a young girl – have been there for some considerable time. When, however, the pathologist is able to take a closer look under the spotlight above the mortuary slab, he comes to the astonishing conclusion that the girl has only been dead for a matter of days, despite her desiccated and leathery skin.

indexCold As The Grave is the ninth novel in the Tony McLean series, but fine writers – and Oswald is up there with the very best – make sure that it is never too late to come to the party. For anyone new to the series, McLean is something of an individual. Due to an inheritance, he is exceedingly wealthy, but has a modest lifestyle and chooses to remain a police officer. He has a long-standing ‘significant other’ in Emma Baird, but the previous novel, The Gathering Dark, (click to read the review) ended with her having a disastrous miscarriage. McLean is a fine detective, but he is blessed, or perhaps cursed, with an awareness of the supernatural. The two characters in the books who operate in this sphere are Madame Rose, a bizarre but benign transvestite clairvoyant, and the considerably more sinister Mrs Saifre. She is, on the surface, merely a very rich and influential owner of newspapers and media outlets, but McLean senses that there is something existentially evil and elemental behind her smooth corporate image.

Back in Cold As The Grave, more bodies are found, each apparently mummified in the same way as the poor child found in the tenement cellar. McLean makes an important connection between the deaths and the rising tide of people trafficking which has hit the city. Girls and young women from the war zones of the Middle East are being brought in and, at best, set to work for a pittance in local factories but, at worst, forced into prostitution.

With his bosses exasperated at the amount of time he is spending away from his paper shuffling duties, McLean’s investigation reaches a crucial fork in the road. To the left is the grim possibility that someone at the heart of the trafficking gang is using some kind of deadly serum, derived from snake venom, to carry out murders and threaten other victims: to the right, however improbable, is the presence of some kind of evil djinn reincarnated from Aramaic legend and folklore. McLean knows that following the road to the right will lead only to ridicule by both his superior officers and those who work for him, but he has learned to trust his instincts, even if they terrify him.

joDoes McLean follow his head or his heart? The road to the left or the right? Cold As The Grave is a brilliant police procedural, but there is more – so much more – to it. For those who love topographical atmosphere Oswald (right) recreates a wintry Edinburgh that makes you want to turn up the central heating by a couple of notches; for readers drawn by suggestions of the supernatural there is enough here to induce a shiver or three, while making sure the bedroom light remains on while you sleep. The sheer decency and common humanity of Tony McLean – and the finely detailed portraits of the people he works with – will satisfy the reader who demands authentic and credible characterisation. Cold As The Grave is published by Wildfire/Headline and will be out on 7th February.

McLean books

 

THE SUSPECT . . . Between the covers

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Kate Waters was introduced to readers in Fiona Barton’s novel, The Widow (2016) and made her second appearance in The Child (2017). Now she returns in The Suspect and is very much “the story” rather than just a reporter investigating the dark things that happen to other people. Two teenage girls have celebrated the end of their ‘A’ Levels by heading off on the adventure of a lifetime – a back-packing trip to Thailand. When phone calls home and emails suddenly stop, the parents of Alex and Rosie are at first uneasy, but then disquiet turns into blind panic.

ts coverSensing a very productive headline story that will run and run, Kate Waters uses all her empathy and tricks-of-the-trade to get close to the girls’ families, and the story does indeed have the whole enchilda. Beautiful teenage girls, disappearance in a Bangkok drug den, frantic parents, the possibility of incompetence by foreign police – what could possibly go wrong? Jake Waters is what could possibly go wrong. Kate’s son has been away in Thailand “finding himself” after a failed spell at university, and her journalistic glee at the ramifications of the story is brutally brought up short when she finds that her errant boy might be at the very epicentre of the story she has claimed as her own.

The technique of telling a story from several different narratives is hardly new, but few can have handled it better in recent times than Fiona Barton. The events both here in England and further afield unfold through the eyes of Kate Walters herself, the distraught parents, and the local police team lead by DI Bob Sparkes and his DS, Zara Salmond. Inevitably, the perceptions of Kate Walters are more immediate because her narrative is first person. Barton has probably forgotten more about the world of journalism than most crime writers will ever know, and she makes good use of her experience when she describes the gears grinding as Kate switches from mother to reporter and then back to mother again. On her own website, Fiona Barton writes:

“I should say here that Kate Waters is not me. I’ve been where she goes but she is a composite of many Kates I have worked with. She is in her fifties, has juggled career and family, chafing at her hospital consultant husband’s dismissal of her job and the guilt of missing parent evenings and football matches. She is world-weary at times, terrified by the technology changing the media and insecure about her role. But she is still driven by the need to find the story. And she refuses to go until she has nailed it…”

FionaIt must be said that this is a story long on personal misery and rather short on redemption, but it is beautifully written. The nuances of conversation, gesture and body language are exquisitely observed even if they sometimes make for painful reading, such as the bittersweet moments between Bob Sparkes and his dying wife. My own children are, thankfully, well past the age of “doing” Thailand, but my advice to those with gap-year offspring is, with all respect to Fiona Barton (right), don’t read this book! Once your teenagers have shouldered their backpacks and waved goodbye at the departure gate, your mind will hark back to The Suspect it will be nessun dorma for you!

The Suspect is a superior blend of psychological thriller and police procedural, and Fiona Barton keeps us guessing until the last page and a half. To be fair she does give us a fairly important clue much earlier in the novel, but – quite correctly in my case – she expects that we will forget about it in all the to-ing and fro-ing between Bangkok, Hampshire and London. The Suspect is published by Bantam Press and will be out on 24th January.

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THE HOUSE ON DOWNSHIRE HILL . . . Between the covers

Compartmentalising crime novels is something we all do, especially reviewers who need to put tags in their posts, but it really isn’t too helpful, especially when a writer may seem to be firmly rooted in one genre, but in fact is offering something much more subtle. Guy Fraser-Sampson (left) is one such chap with his Hampstead Murders series. Obviously, nothing very dark can happen in the airy tree-lined streets of London’s most expensive and exclusive suburb – or can it? The House On Downshire Hill is the fifth in the series and existing admirers will welcome the return of the Fraser-Sampson repertory company, which comprises the urbane and unflappable Superintendent Simon Collison, and the earnest DI Bob Metcalfe and his former girlfriend DS Kate Willis. The impossibly glamorous Willis once had an improbable ménage à trois with Metcalfe and an eccentric psychoanalyist called Peter Collins, but Metcalfe now has a new girlfriend. Collins is less prominent in this novel and his place centre stage is taken by the enthusiastic (but slightly unworldly) DC Priya Desai.

Is this just a cosy read, and an amiable pastiche of Golden Age crime fiction? I would say not. Fraser- Sampson is unapologetic in his admiration for ‘the way we were’ and astute folk will recognise that he has produced a series of follow-ons to EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books. The House On Downshire Hill however, is not just an affectionate tribute. The writing is elegant and assured, and the characters – particularly the coppers – all have their dark moments. True, there are no scenes of butchery which will make you want to go to sleep with the bedroom light on, but this an entertaining and beautifully written crime novel. It is published by Urbane Publications and is out now.

Follow these links to read reviews of previous books in the series.

Miss Christie Regrets

A Whiff Of Cyanide

A Death In The Night

THE BOY . . . Between the covers

I do love me a good,sweaty Southern Noir, preferably down in Louisiana, with ‘gators thrashing about in the bayou, a storm blowing in from the Gulf, insects the size of golf balls on Kamikaze missions against the fly screens, and folk pushed to the limits of their tolerance by the relentless humidity. Throw in a dash of Cajun music and Acadiana French cursing, and I am set for the night. Tami Hoag’s latest novel ticks all the required boxes.

Hoag, who hails from the relatively temperate zone of Iowa, has created a brilliant husband and wife police partnership in Nick Fourcade and Annie Broussard. The pair first emerged on the printed page as long ago as 1997 in A Thin Dark Line but, of course, crime fiction time isn’t the same as real time, and the two cops are still relatively young and beautiful in Hoag’s latest thriller, The Boy. They are called to a beaten up shack in the sticks beyond the somnolent settlement of Bayou Breaux, and they find a seven year-old boy hacked to death with a knife, while his mother has apparently fled the scene, barefoot and bearing wounds from the same blade that brutalised her son.

Genevieve Gauthier has a past, however. Before settling in Bayou Breaux with son KJ, she has been no stranger to law enforcement. Blessed – or cursed – with an ethereal and vulnerable  beauty designed to act as a magnet to predatory men, she has served jail time for suffocating her first-born child. Fourcade and Broussard are faced with a dazzling and perplexing star burst of inconsistencies as they try to find who killed KJ. Why was Genevieve allowed to escape with relatively minor injuries? Where is KJ’s teenage baby-sitter, Nora? Is her disappearance connected to KJ’s death?

Fourcade and Broussard have a bitter enemy in the shape of Kelvin Dutrow, their boss. As Sheriff, he likes to dress in tactical combat gear, his belt heavy with weapons he has no idea how to use. He likes nothing better than a press conference where he can strike a pose, talk tough and play to the camera. His animosity to the pair reaches fever pitch when they discover that not only does he have a sinister past, but it comes with some highly questionable connections to the bereaved young woman nursing her injuries in the local hospital.

The identity of KJ’s killer is cleverly concealed until the final pages, and there is a blood-soaked denouement which will satisfy even the most hardened Noir fan. The Boy is lurid, yes, and certainly melodramatic, but it is a gripping read which had me canceling other activities right left and centre so that I could get to the end.

The Boy is published by Trapeze and is out as a Kindle on 31stDecember 2018, and will be available in other formats in 2019.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Boy-Broussard-Fourcade-Tami-Hoag-ebook/dp/B01MCZ5Y10/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1543917727&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Boy+Tami+Hoag

KINGDOM OF THE BLIND . . . Between the covers

I can almost hear the sneers now:

“Call yourself a crime fiction reviewer?”
“Pull your head out of the sand, mate”
“What next? You have heard of Sherlock Holmes, I take it..”

Actually, no.Crime fiction reviewers tend to be a fairly charitable lot, especially as most of us are not in it for the money, but for the love of reading (and a few ARCs, naturally) But I do have to confess a sense of embarrassment at reading a brilliant book and then realising that it is only the latest in a well established series of which I had been blissfully unaware.

Apology done and, I hope, dusted. Armand Gamache is a senior policeman with the Sûreté  in Quebec the francophile province in Canada. He is still under suspension following a controversial drugs case which resulted in one of his colleagues being badly shot up, and a potentially fatal consignment of the opioid fentanyl going missing.

Gamache is informed by a notary that he has been named as an executor of a will. He has, however, never met or even heard of the deceased woman. Intrigued, he goes to meet the notary and his fellow executors at a remote farmhouse. Arriving, in the teeth of a violent blizzard, he is bemused to discover that a friend from his home village of Three Pines, has received the same summons.

The mystery deepens when Gamache learns that the dead woman was a domestic cleaner, and she has bequeathed an estate apparently worth millions of dollars. She used to joke that she was of noble blood, but was her self-mockery founded in fact?

A murder at ‘Baroness’ Baumartner’s ramshackle farmhouse transforms the affair from peculiar to deadly, and Gamache is sucked into an investigation which can only end badly. In addition,  he has a two huge problems, massive elephants in the confined space of his professional room.  Firstly, Amelia Choqet, an unconventional young police woman who has been mentored by Gamache, has been kicked out for drug offences, and has now apparently reverted to her former lifestyle of street whore and drug abuser. Secondly he is tormented by the fear that if the missing batch of opioids gets onto the streets, there will carnage.

The murder of Anthony Baumgartner takes Gamache and his team into the murky world of investment finance and an environment where millions of dollars are flicked this way and that by financial ‘experts’.

Allegedly, native Canadians have fifty words for snow, and LouisePenny certainly makes us shiver, stamp our frozen feet, and clap our gloved hands together. The  weather becomes a baleful and powerful character in The Kingdom Of The Blind, and every step Gamache and his team take is in defiance of snowdrifts, abandoned vehicles and cold of such intensity that exposed skin is first brutalised and then destroyed.

In addition to describing the search for a murderer, Louise Penny cleverly sets off two other plot-lines for us to chase, and she takes great delight in resolving both, but neither in the way we have been led to expect. Kingdom Of The Blind is little short of perfect; a consummate crime novel with razor-sharp characterisation, a real sense of compassion, convincing dialogue and a plot that seizes the reader’s hand and will not let go. Published by Sphere, the novel (the 14th in the series) is out on 27th November.


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