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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.

FAR FROM THE TREE . . . Audio book

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There’s a first time for everything, even when you are a conservatively-minded old curmudgeon who has, begrudgingly, accepted that digital books are here to stay. But audio books? Never – until now. Faced with the fact that the latest novel by one of my favourite writers – Rob Parker –  is only going to be printed on paper next year, I bit the bullet and accepted what I suppose could be called an Advanced Listening Copy of Far From The Tree.

Brendan Foley is a Detective Inspector with Cheshire Police, based in Warrington. If the name Cheshire conjures up a gentle county famed for its delicious cheese and half-timbered villages, that would not be wrong, but Warrington is a place with rougher edges. Situated on the River Mersey it grew in the Industrial Revolution with its steel (particularly wire), textiles, brewing, tanning and chemical industries. The word ‘industrial’ is what comes to mind when Foley is called out one Sunday morning to investigate not just one corpse, but twenty seven of them. All neatly packaged in heavy-duty plastic, and laid to rest – if that is the correct word – in a shallow trench.

Foley has been called away from the christening of his youngest child, but when he is summoned back to the venue to pay the caterers, we learn that his family is far from being a collection of model citizens. It is, nevertheless, with a deep sense of shock that when he attends the post mortem of the first batch of the corpses, he recognises that one is his nephew.

Screen Shot 2020-07-09 at 18.05.57This is a very different Rob Parker (left) from the previous novels of his that have come my way. Crook’s Hollow (click the links to read my reviews) was rather like The Archers meets The Hills Have Eyes, while his Ben Bracken Books, Morte Point, The Penny Black, and Till Morning Is Nigh are hugely entertaining but somewhat escapist in places. Far From The Tree is real. Very, very real. It is dark, unflinching, and, to my mind, Parker’s best book yet.

Foley is a superbly drawn character – a decent man who has to face a shocking challenge, involving his own flesh and blood, and a brave man, too, as he is forced to make decisions which would unhinge a lesser person. I also enjoyed his sidekick – Sergeant Iona Madison – who among other things is a boxer. Rob Parker himself is a pugilist, and he allows himself a little enjoyment as he describes Iona’s battles in the ring.

Not the least of the pleasures of Far From The Tree is that it is read by none other than Warren Brown, of Luther fame. It certainly does no harm to the authenticity of the recording that Brown – like Rob Parker –  was born and bred in Warrington!

Far From The Tree is an Audible Original and is available here.

WHEN YOU SEE ME . . . Between the covers

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WYSMI first encountered Lisa Gardner’s entertaining ensemble of law enforcers just over a year ago in Look For Me. D.D. Warren, the Boston cop whose exploits began in 2005 with Hide was there, as was the rather more exotic and eccentric Flora Dane – a young woman who has been damaged physically and mentally by a long torment of captivity and abuse at the hands of Jacob Ness, a psychopath who was taken down in dramatic fashion when the FBI raided his hideout. When You See Me reunites Warren and Dane, along with one or two other key players, as a couple of hikers out for the day in the Appalachian mountains find human remains. When police give the site their full attention other bodies are found. Are they previously undiscovered victims of the unspeakable Ness, or has the area been host to another sadistic killer?

Flora Dane is at the centre of this novel, not only because of her connection with the history of the area, but because she has teamed up with Keithe Edgar, an amateur – but extremely clever – data analyst whose unofficial skills are harnessed by the federal agents as they try to unpick the knot of the case. Flora’s attitude to men has been, to put it mildly, compromised by her trauma at the hands of Ness, but in Keith she might – just might – has found a person to trust, a person with no negative motives, and someone who can ward of the fears and horrors embedded in her memory.

T redhe storytelling technique which uses multiple narrators is much used and, it must be said, often abused, but Kisa Gardner nails it here, particularly through the eyes of Bonita, a Mexican girl maimed in childhood, unable to speak and used as a maid-of-all-work in an ostensibly respectable Victorian mansion, now an upmarket Bed & Breakfast facility in Niche, Georgia – the nearest settlement to where the human remains have been uncovered. Bonita is not her real name. Only her late mother knows what it is, but when D.D. Warren meets her during the investigation, she says:

’Bonita’ D.D. said softly.’It’s the Spanish word for pretty. What do you think? I’ll call you Bonita.’”

Lisa-Gardner-2_940x529-72-ppiAlmost inevitably, the dreadful goings on in the mountains surrounding Niche must involve some of the locals, but Lisa Gardner (right) lays out several enticing red herrings before revealing precisely which of the eminent townsfolk are involved in a dreadful conspiracy, a toxic cocktail of abduction, sexual slavery and-ultimately-murder. Flora, D.D. and the other members of the team eventually corner the evil genius at the centre of Niche’s darkest secret, but not before we are treated to a spectacularly violent finale involving secret tunnels, torture and, intriguingly, death-by-dishwasher.

A redmerican crime fiction is a huge, diverse and somewhat unwieldy beast, but at its best it is slick, literate, flawlessly plotted, endlessly enthralling and with a narrative drive that seems to come as second nature to such writers as Lisa Gardner. When You See Me will be out in Kindle, published by Cornerstone Digital on 28th January and in hardback by Century on 20th February. The paperback will be available in July.

ALL THAT IS BURIED . . . Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NINE ELMS . . . Between the covers

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Kate Marshall lectures in criminology at a university in the south west of England, but when she speaks to her students it is not as an academic, making judgments based purely on the research of others; neither does she approach the subject as an outsider, albeit one who is well read and well prepared. Fifteen years earlier, when she was a humble detective constable with London’s Metropolitan Police, she brought to justice one of the country’s most prolific and perverted serial killers. In doing so, she paid a heavy price; only skilled surgeons prevented her death from terrible injuries, but her career – and personal reputation – were both beyond saving.

Nine ElmsFifteen years on, the former police officer dubbed The Nine Elms Cannibal is serving multiple life sentences in a secure mental institution, and Kate Marshall, if not exactly dining out on her experiences, uses her involvement in the case as part of the course she delivers. She lives alone and while not exactly lonely, she is a changed woman from her days as part of London’s police force. She battles alcoholism, but with the support of Alcoholics Anonymous and, in particular, a local AA member called Myra, Kate sips her iced tea and pretends it contains a hefty shot of Jack Daniels.

Kate Marshall has a rather distinctive connection with The Nine Elms Cannibal, aka Peter Conway, but to elaborate further would be to spoil your fun. Suffice it to say that when a series of copycat killings – young women found dead with savage bite marks on their bodies – Kate is drawn into the investigation despite the misgivings of some police officers, who are only too aware of her back-story.

Of course the new killer can’t be Peter Conway – he is held under Hannibal Lecter – style restraints in prison, but what is his mother – author of a best-selling lurid true crime book called No Son Of Mine – up to? Is she acting as malignant go-between, a conduit between her son and an admirer who seems to have studied Conway’s modus operandi, and is proving the old adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

With her research assistant Tristan Harper, Kate tries to reassemble the pieces of an increasingly complex puzzle, but it is not until events take a spectacular turn that she comes face to face with both the apprentice New Elms Cannibal – and his master – in a fast and furious finale which is not for the faint of heart.

Author Robert Bryndza is British, but lives and works in Slovakia. He has a successful series featuring Detective Erika Foster already under his belt. Nine Elms is published by Sphere, and will be out on 9th January.

I have an unopened hardback copy of Nine Elms up for grabs. Watch the Fully Booked Twitter feed for a prize draw competition – coming soon.

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HOLD YOUR TONGUE . . . Between the covers

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HYT coverDeborah Masson’s police procedural Hold Your Tongue is as gritty as the granite in the Aberdeen where it is set. Fictional Detective Inspectors tend to be brilliant, yet with fatal flaws; perceptive, but incapable of managing calm personal lives; honest and principled, but concealing their own dark secrets. Masson’s Eve Hunter ticks all the boxes, and adds a few of her own. She is returning to work after a catastrophic encounter with a notorious criminal family. After the son of the crime gang’s Capo sustains life changing injuries in a car chase, Johnny MacNeill has exacted brutal revenge resulting in Hunter’s partner DS Nicola Sanders being paralysed from the neck down, while Hunter herself has a permanently damaged leg and intense psychological scarring.

There is no ‘Welcome Back’ party for Hunter. There are former colleagues who blame her impulsive and driven approach to police work for what happened to Nicola Sanders. Her boss doubts she is ready for a return, particularly as her first case will be to solve the savage murder of an aspiring model, found dead in a hotel room, surrounded by an elaborate and deliberate staging of fashion magazines, make-up and mirrors. Melanie Ross’s tongue has been cut out, and taken away by her killer.

Masson makes telling use of Aberdeen itself as a baleful presence looming behind the misdeeds of its citizens. Despite the grim grandeur of its municipal buildings, the passing of the North Sea oil bonanza has left a legacy of closed shops and tatty, uncared-for neighbourhoods. A prostitute called Rosie, who is involved with one of the suspects, provides a chilling metaphor for the city:

“Rosie pulled together the edges of the flimsy unbuttoned black raincoat that she wore; it barely concealed the bony chest in a low-cut top and laddered fishnets below a skirt that could pass as easily for a belt.”

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is vile and utterly inhospitable. The sleety rain slants down, the wind blows in squalls from the North Sea, and the grey light of dawn reveals city streets slick, wet and icy, decorated only with discarded takeaway meals, the odd abandoned high-heeled shoe, and a general air of attempts at gaiety which ended in failure.

More murders follow, and they are clearly the work of the same person. Eventually Hunter realises what the elaborate posing of the victims signifies. The killer has somehow become obsessed with the old nursery fable:

Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay.

71VcTMOa58L._US230_As the killer works towards the Sabbath Day child, Hunter and her colleagues dash this way and that, always vital hours behind the murderer. Masson (right) contributes to the mayhem with some elegantly clever misdirection. Early in the piece she teases us with the suggestion that the series of murders has something to do with brothers and sisters, but even when we – and Eve Hunter – think we are close to the truth, there is one big surprise left. Hold Your Tongue is an assured and convincing debut, and I hope there will be more cases to come for Eve Hunter. The book is out now, and published by Corgi/Penguin.

 

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A MINUTE TO MIDNIGHT . . . Between the covers

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There’s probably a PhD somewhere waiting for the person who writes a thesis on the ratio of fictional female FBI agents to their male counterparts, then setting this against the equation among real-life graduates of Quantico. In the world of crime fiction, there is certainly equal opportunity. The most celebrated is probably the indominatable Clarice Starling (Thomas Harris) but many others run her close, including Alex Morse (Greg Iles), Smokey Barratt (Cody McFadyen), Kathryn Dance (Jeffery Deaver), Kimberley Quincy (Lisa Gardner) and Lacey Sherlock (Cathrine Coulter). David Baldacci has bought into the idea with his Agent Atlee Pine, who he introduced in Long Road To Mercy (2018). That title is something of a pun because Atlee Pine’s twin sister was abducted one mysterious night thirty years earlier and her name – you’ve guessed it – is Mercy.

AMTM coverAtlee Pine has anger management issues, and A Minute To Midnight begins as she is put on gardening leave for kicking the you-know-what out of a child rapist. She decides to use this enforced leisure time in another attempt to find out what happened on the fateful night when her sister was abducted and she was left with a fractured skull. Accompanied by her admin assistant Carol Blum, she revisits the scene of the trauma, the modest town of Andersonville, Georgia. Tumbleweed is the word that first comes to mind about Andersonville, but it scrapes a living from tourists wishing to visit the remains of the Confederate prisoner of war camp which, in its mere fourteen months of existence, caged over thirty thousand Union prisoners of whom nearly thirteen thousand were to perish from wounds, disease and malnutrition.

The house where Pine, Mercy and their parents lived is now little more than a tumbledown shack lived in by a shambolic old man, and revisiting her childhood bedroom brings the agent emotional grief but no further clues as to what happened that night. Why was she spared and Mercy taken? Or was it the other way round? Were her parents drunk and drugged out of their minds downstairs while the abductor did his business?

David BaldacciA series of apparently motiveless murders in Andersonville diverts Pine from the search for her own personal truth, and she is soon enlisted to help the understaffed and under-resourced local cops. The first murder victims – a man and a woman – are killed elsewhere but then delivered to Andersonville bedecked as bride and groom respectively. When it turns out that they were both involved in the porn industry, what first appears to be a significant lead runs into a brick wall.

Pine’s personal quest is ever present, and Baldacci weaves this thread into the fabric of the search for the present day serial killer. For my taste there are rather too many occasions where the narrative is propped up by the investigators explaining things to each other, but this is a cleverly written thriller by a master craftsman in the genre. The Andersonville killings are solved, and Atlee Pine is subject to some uncomfortable revelations about her own back-story, but this is not the end of the matter. David Baldacci clearly has more secrets up his sleeve as an addictive series begins to take shape. A Minute To Midnight is published by Macmillan and is out on 14th November.

For more on books by David Baldacci click here.

 

 

ALL HIS PRETTY GIRLS . . . Between the covers

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AHPG coverAlyssa Wyatt is pretty much your showcase American Mom. Not Middle American geographically, as she lives in New Mexico, but she ticks most of the other boxes; handsome successful husband, two teenage kids, nice house and a fulfilling career – as a cop. Like so many fictional law enforcement types, she has a dark past centred in childhood trauma, but what is done is done, and she lives for Holly, Isaac and husband Brock.

Detective Wyatt and her professional partner Cord are at the forefront of the investigation into a missing woman. Callie McCormick has no apparent enemies apart from the person who has abducted her from her smart home. There is no ransom demand, no body and no progress in the police investigation. What we do have is an increasingly angry Mr McCormick and a detective squad room with a worryingly empty whiteboard, and fanciful sightings multiplying by the hour once McCormick offers a hefty cash reward for information.

Charly CoxCharly Cox reveals to us the identity of the bad guy fairly early in the piece. Or, rather, she doesn’t. Over enigmatic? Quite probably, but to say more would ruin the fun. Alyssa and Cord chase their tails with more determination than success, while the sadist at the centre of the mayhem plans his next atrocity.

What it may lack in nuance, All His Pretty Girls more than compensates for in punch, narrative drive and sheer energy. Albuquerque, New Mexico, is known as The Land of Enchantment, and also the setting for the epic TV series Breaking Bad. It is also home to author Charly Cox. She says that she enjoys eating copious amounts of green chili and other spicy foods, and there is plenty of heat and burn in this novel. She has come up with a sensational – and very clever – plot twist in this, her debut novel and, although the first half of the story is familiar Silence of The Lambs territory – serial killer, murdered women, frustrated cops desperate for clues – Cox then springs a breathtaking surprise on us and the remaining pages just fly by.

All His Pretty Girls is available as a Kindle on 23rd October, and is published by Hera. Hera is a brand new, female-led, independent digital publisher, founded in 2018. They say:

“We’re on a mission to publish the very best in commercial fiction. From gripping psychological suspense, police procedurals and serial killer thrillers, to romance, heartwarming sagas, quirky uplifting fiction and sexy, glamorous contemporary fiction.”

Don’t be misled, however, into thinking that All His Pretty Girls is Chick Lit. Yes, a female is the central character, but there’s no shortage of graphic violence and enough of the ‘mean streets’ to satisfy fans of hard-boiled crime.

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HOW THE DEAD SPEAK . . . Between the covers

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Val McDermid was anxious that over-enthusiastic reviewers and fans might give away the ending of her previous Carol Jordan and Tony Hill novel, Insidious Intent (click to read my review). So, given that there will be readers who have that novel on their TBR pile, no spoiler from me. Suffice to say that the metaphorical IED that blasted Jordan and Hill off the road in the final pages of the book have left them in, shall we say, rather difficult circumstances, and at the beginning of How The Dead Speak we find Carol Jordan very much a former police officer while Dr Hill is serving a four year jail sentence.

HTDS coverAfter the events of which we will not speak, Jordan’s Regional Major Incident Team has been disbanded while the woman who was its beating heart and soul keeps her fragile psyche from harm by continuing to renovate her home, a former barn on a heather covered northern hillside. Visitors are few and usually unwelcome, but none more so than Tony Hill’s vindictive and manipulative mother Vanessa who, after inflicting her abrasive personality on her son in a prison visit, coerces Jordan into using her investigative skills to track down a fraudster who has conned her out of a small fortune. Only slightly less welcome is Bronwen Scott, Tony Hill’s solicitor. She also has a job for Jordan, but this time it is to establish grounds for an appeal against a murder conviction handed down to a gay man who, the jury believes, has murdered a rent boy.

Meanwhile, back in the fictional city of Bradfield (which I have always assumed to be Leeds/Bradford) Jordan’s old ReMIT has been given the kiss of life. Its first post-resuscitation job, under the ambitious but box-ticking leadership of DCI Ian Rutherford, is to investigate the gruesome discovery of dozens of human remains in the grounds of a former Roman Catholic children’s home. I am not privy to Val McDermid’s religious beliefs, if she has them, but she certainly gets stuck into the darker side of Roman Catholicism’s social policy. OK, perhaps it’s something of an open goal these days, but as the RMIT try to discover the why and when of the St Margaret Clitherow Refuge skeletons, we learn some dark and unpalatable truths about the ‘Brides of Christ’ whose singular duty is to obey, no matter what the command.

The forty-or-so skeletons are, to an extent, explained away, but when the investigators find a further series of bodies, much more recent and apparently asphyxiated with plastic bags taped over their heads, the police activity intensifies. McDermid is brave enough to initially consign Jordan and Hill to the outer darkness, but she is canny enough to keep us comfortable by placing familiar figures at the centre of the action. Karim Hussain, Paula MacIntyre and Stacey Chen tut and eyeball-roll behind Rutherford’s back but somehow the investigation homes in on the real truth behind the more recent corpses in St Margaret’s vegetable garden.

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There are police procedurals, and then there are Val McDermid novels. Her ingenuity and unmatched clarity as a storyteller make How The Dead Speak a very special book. The Jordan/Hill story appears to be running on separate rails for part of the journey, but in a beautiful twist, everything comes together.

And there is a bonus. McDermid – who, as fans of her band will know, is no mean singer – might just be performing a cover version of one of my favourite songs Save The Best For Last (below). If any potential readers are sentimental old (or young) sods like me, you will be permitted a little sniffle and a dab at a moist eye when you read the final pages.

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How The Dead Speak is published by Little, Brown and will be out on 22nd August.

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