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HALL OF MIRRORS . . . Between the covers

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HOMIf a more extraordinary duo of fictional detectives exists than Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May, then I have yet to discover them. The peculiar pair return in Hall of Mirrors for their fifteenth outing, and this time not only are they far from their beloved London, but we see a pair of much younger coppers on their beat in the 1960s. Fowler’s take on the period is typified by each of the fifty chapters of the novel bearing the title of a classic pop hit. We are also reminded of the strange fashions of the day.

“Two young men in Second World War army uniforms painted with ‘Ban The Bomb’ slogans were arguing with a pair of Chelsea Pensioners who clearly didn’t take kindly to military outfits being worn by trendy pacifists. They were briefly joined by a girl wearing a British sailor’s uniform with a giant iridescent fish on her head.”

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In attempt to keep them out of trouble, our heroes are given the task of being minders to an important witness in a fraud trial, but Monty Hatton-Jones is due at a country weekend party deep in rural Kent, and so John and Arthur must accompany him to Tavistock Hall. What follows is a delicious take on the Golden Age country house mystery, with improbable murders, secret passages, an escaped homicidal maniac and suspects galore. Things are complicated by nearby military manoeuvres involving the British army and their French counterparts. Fowler (above) reprises the great gag from Dr Strangelove – “Gentlemen – you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” Captain Debney, the British Commanding Officer is having a bad day.

“The menu for tonight’s hands Across The Water dinner has already gone up the Swanee. We had terrible trouble getting hold of courgettes, and now I hear there’s no custard available. I don’t want anything else going wrong. These are international war games. We can’t afford to have anyone hurt.”

The urbane John May is quite at home in the faded grandeur of Tavistock Hall, but Arthur is like a fish out of water. He also has an aversion to the countryside.

“It appeared to be the perfect Kentish evening, pink with mist and fresh with the scent of the wet grass. Bryant looked at it with a jaundiced eye. There was mud everywhere, the cows stank, and were all those trees really necessary? As a child he had been terrified of the bare, sickly elm in his street with a branch that scarped at his bedroom window like a witch’s hand and sent him under the blankets.”

 As usual with the B & M books, the jokes come thick and fast, but we are reminded that Fowler is a perceptive and eloquent commentator on the human condition. Arthur investigates the local parish church as its rector, Revd Trevor Patethric is a house guest – and suspect.

“Bryant pushed open the church door and entered. He had never felt comfortable in the houses of God, associating them with gruelling rites of childhood: saying farewell to dead grandfathers, and the observance of distant, obscure ceremonies involving hushed prayers, peculiarly phrased bible passages, muffled tears and shamed repentance.”

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 Eventually, of course, the pair – mostly through Arthur’s twisted thought processes – solve the crimes. Prior to revealing his theories on the murder to the assembled guests, however, Bryant has a slight misfortune with a missing painting hidden in a very unswept chimney. Covered in soot, he somehow lacks the gravitas of a Poirot or a Marple.

“Bryant had made a desultory attempt to wipe his face, but the result was more monstrous than before. He rose before them now, a lunatic lecturer in the physics of murder.”

Reading a crime novel shouldn’t be about being educated, but Hall of Mirrors teaches us many things. Those who didn’t already know will learn that Christopher Fowler is a brilliant writer. He is, in my view, out on his own in the way he weaves a magic carpet from a dazzling array of different threads: there is uniquely English humour, the sheer joy of the eccentricities of our language and landscape, labyrinthine plotting, and an array of arcane cultural references which will surely have Betjeman beaming down from heaven. Those of us who, smugly perhaps, consider ourselves as old Bryant & May hands will also now know the origins of Arthur’s malodorous scarf and also his cranky, clanky Mini.

Amidst the gags, the fizzing dialogue and the audacious plot twists Fowler waves his magic wand, and with the lightest of light touches dusts a page near the very end with poignancy and great compassion. Look out for the section that ends:

“Bryant looked in his mirror to try and catch another glimpse of them, but they had disappeared, ghosts of a London yet to come.”

 And do you want to know the best five words of the entire book? I’ll tell you:

Bryant and May Will Return

Hall of Mirrors is published by Quercus, and is available from 22nd March.

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ONLY THE DEAD CAN TELL . . . Between The Covers

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By my reckoning this is the fifteenth outing for Alex Gray’s veteran Glaswegian copper, William – now Detective Superintendent – Lorimer. A woman – who, if witnesses are to be believed, was a deeply unpleasant person – is found stabbed to death, her hands clutched around a top-of-the-range kitchen knife. Dorothy Guilford was widely disliked both within her own family and further afield while her husband, Peter – by contrast – has few detractors. Yet the working hypothesis of the police investigating Dorothy’s demise is that Peter Guilford did the deed.

OTDCT COVER SMALLLorimer has become bogged down in a partially – and only partially – successful investigation into murder, prostitution and people trafficking based in Aberdeen. In the Granite City some entrepreneurs, denied a living by the decline in the oil and gas industries, have taken to trading in other commodities – human lives. However, to borrow the memorable line from The Scottish Play, Lorimer’s team have “scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it.” The head of the gang responsible for taking young and innocent Romany women from impoverished Slovakian villages, and setting them to work in Scottish brothels is known only as “Max”. The very mention of his name is enough to silence witnesses, even those who have every reason to long for his downfall. But how – if at all – is Max connected to Peter Guilford, arrested for his wife’s murder, but now beaten within an inch of his life while on remand in Glasgow’s Barlinnie prison?

Alex Gray gives us an enthralling supporting cast. Ever present are the consultant psychologist, Dr Solomon Brightman and his wife Rosie, a pathologist who has the essential – but unenviable – task of literally eviscerating the human bodies which are the result of murder most foul. Young Detective Constable Kirsty Wilson goes above and beyond the call of duty to make sense of the confusing and contradictory ‘facts’ of the Dorothy Guilford case. All the while, though, she is facing a personal dilemma. Her boyfriend has just won the promotion of his dreams – a prominent position in his bank’s Chicago operation. But will Kirsty cast aside her own imminent promotion to Detective Sergeant, and follow James in his pursuit of The American Dream?

AlexGrayThe British police procedural – the Scottish police procedural, even – is a crowded field, and each author and their characters tries to bring something different to choosy readers. Where Alex Gray (right) makes her mark, time and time again, is that she is unafraid to show the better things of life, the timeless touches of nature in a summer garden, or the warmth of affection between characters, particularly, of course, the bond between William and Margaret Lorimer. Here is one such moment:

“She smiled as he selected a bottle from the fridge. The dusk was settling over the treetops, a haze of apricot light melting into the burnished skies …….she pulled a cardigan across her shoulders as she settled down on the garden bench, eyes gazing upwards as a thrush trilled its liquid notes. Live in the moment, she thought, breathing in the sweetness that wafted from the night-scented stocks.”

This is not to say that Gray wears rose-tinted spectacles. This is far, far from the case, and her scenes depicting the violence – both emotional and physical – that we inflict on one another are powerful, visceral and compelling.

A particular mention needs to be made of the deft touches Gray uses when writing about Margaret Lorimer. Here is a woman much to be envied in many ways. She has a loving husband, a stable and prosperous home life, and a teaching career in which she touches the lives of so many young people in her school. And yet, and yet. A cloud hovers over Margaret, and it is one that can never be blown from the otherwise blue sky. The couple’s inability to have children sometimes weighs heavily, especially when friends and colleagues are gifted with children. But Gray never allows Margaret to become embittered, and if she envies Rosie and Solomon, for example, then she keeps it to herself.

Only The Dead Can Tell is, quite simply, superbly written and plotted. It sums up everything that is golden and enthralling about a good book. It is published by Sphere, and will be out as a hardback and a Kindle on 22nd March.

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CROOK’S HOLLOW . . . Between the covers

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My goodness, where to begin! If you are a fan of leisurely paced pastoral crime novels, complete with all the tropes – short-sighted vicars, inquisitive spinsters, toffs at the manor house with a dark secret – then maybe this book isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you want 200 pages of non-stop action which includes, in no particular order, attempted homicide by combine harvester, a centuries-old family feud, a touch of incest, more shotgun shootouts than the OK Corral and a flood of Old Testament intensity, then stay tuned.

We are in rural Lancashire, the English county which includes Liverpool, Manchester and Preston, but still has its open spaces and farms which have been in the same hands for generations. Thornton ‘Thor’ Loxley is the youngest of the Loxley clan, and something of a black sheep. Despite inheriting a patch of land according to family custom, he has chosen to cock a snook at the family’s most entrenched tradition by not pursuing the generations-old enmity with a neighbouring family – the Crooks. Thor has gone about this in a manner most likely to cause maximum offence to both houses – he has taken the youngest Crook daughter, Roisin, as his lover.

Crooks Hollow CoverThor scrapes by as a barman in a local pub, and has a rudimentary bedsit over the local post office, but his world is turned on its head when he discovers that someone is trying to kill him. Not without taking a knock or two, Thor survives, and concludes that the attempts on his life are connected to the efforts of developers to buy up his patch of the Loxley land to add to a much bigger chunk of Crook territory. The result will be thousands of newcomers to the area, complete with pressing demands for new schools, new infrastructure and new services.

As Thor staves off yet more attempts on his life, nature takes a hand. A constant deluge of rain turns meadows into swamps, streams into rivers, and rivers into torrents. The local village is becoming an unwanted version of Venice, but just as nature seems to be wreaking vengeance on humanity, the ancient feud between the Loxleys and the Crooks ignites with a white-hot flame that not even the constant rain can extinguish. Pure survival instinct takes over as Thor Loxley fights to keep both body and sanity in one piece, but in a dramatic few hours amid the biblical flood, he realises that he has been betrayed in the worst possible way.

This novel moves as fast – and with as much menace – as the catastrophic flood through which the Loxleys and the Crooks struggle to exact terrible vengeance on one another. It is not a long book – you will finish it in a couple of sessions – but it is powerful stuff and illustrates that not everything in rural England is fragrant honeysuckle on a summer evening or a kind sun highlighting the amber stone of ancient cottages.

Robert Parker lives in a village near Manchester with his family. He has degrees in both film and law and, while writing full time, still has the energy to enjoy boxing and helping local schools with literacy projects. He is a self-confessed readaholic and says that his glass is always half full. Crook’s Hollow is published by BLACK ROSE WRITING www.blackrosewriting.com and is out on 22 March 2018.

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