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KITH AND KIN . . . Between the covers

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OKAKComing across a very, very good book by an author one has never encountered before and then realising that she has been around for a while is a shock to the system, and if the downside is that the experience further highlights one’s own ignorance, then the blessing is that as a reviewer and blogger, there is something new to shout about. Jane A Adams made her debut with The Greenway back in 1995, and has been writing crime fiction ever since, notably with four-well established mystery series featuring Mike Croft, Ray Flowers, Naomi Blake and Rina Martin. She began the saga of London coppers Henry Johnstone and Micky Hitchens in 2016, with The Murder Book. Their latest case is Kith and Kin.

The novel has a split timeline. It is mostly set in 1928, but uses flashbacks to earlier events. Two bodies are washed up on the muddy banks of the confluence of the rivers Thames and Medway, on the Kentish shore. Even with the relatively primitive technology available to them at the time, Johnstone and Hitchens realise that the two corpses were not drowned, but stabbed, and then cast into the river. The two sailors who bring the corpses to the attention of the police are then found not to be sailors at all, but henchmen of a feared and brutal London gangster, Josiah Bailey.

I don’t know if the author intended it that way, but the violent paranoia of Josiah Bailey is a perfect echo of the self obsessed madness of a certain Mr Ronald Kray, whose bloodlust has enlivened many a subsequent crime novel – and court report. But I digress. Johnstone and Hitchens have to scrabble and scratch for information, because the dead bodies found on the Kentish marshes are connected to the two most secretive and distrustful communities in the land – Gypsies, and London gangsters. Those groups should not be conflated, and Johnstone does not make this mistake. Instead, he nags away at a connection between the dead men and the cataclysmic events of 1914-1918 – events in which both he and Hitchens were involved, and of which they have indelible memories.

The world of Gypsies remains closed to most of us. We may suffer from Travelers occupying a seafront, a playing field or a car park near us and when they leave behind a mountain of litter and waste we can curse about cultural diversity. This image, understandably negative, can be given a different focus when, as Adams does here, writers remind us of the tight-knit, self-sufficient communities of the old Romany families. The Gypsies in Kith and Kin have a strong sense of honour and a knowledge of the world which could never be imparted in a school classroom.

Jane-Adams-278x371The period is set to perfection, and Adams (right) skilfully combines past, present and future. The past? There can scarcely have been a man, woman or child who escaped the malign effects of what politicians swore would be the war to end wars. The present? 1928 saw devastating flooding on the banks of the River Thames, a book called Decline And Fall was published, and in Beckenham, not a million miles away from where this novel plays out, Robert ‘Bob’ Monkhouse was born. The future? Johnstone’s sister, who has married into money, has a head on her shoulders, and senses that in the financial world, a dam is about to break – with devastating effects.

Kith and Kin is excellent. Adams gives us a spider’s web of a plot; we are attracted, drawn in – and then consumed. Johnstone and Hitchens strike sparks off each other; the bond between them has been forged in the blood and fire of the Flanders trenches. We have memorable characters; Sarah Cooper, the matriarchal Gypsy is strong and wise, but remote; Josiah Bailey is as mad as a box of frogs and a hundred times more dangerous; Johnston’s sister is wordly wise, but compassionate and perceptive.

I apologise for preaching to the converted, but for me, Jane A Adams is a new star in my firmament. Kith and Kin is published by Severn House and is out now.

Severn House

 

THE RING . . . Between the covers

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London. 1873. It would be another fourteen years before a gentleman calling himself a Consulting Detective would make his first appearance in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, but Matthew Grand and James Batchelor are just that – people consult them, and they try to detect things. That is pretty much where any resemblance to the residents of 221B Baker Street ends. Neither Grand nor Batchelor is nice but dim, nor is either given to bashing out a melancholy bit of Mendelssohn on a Stradivarius. Matthew Grand, though, has seen military service; rather than battling the followers of Sher Ali Khan in Afghanistan, he has had the chastening experience of fighting his fellow Americans during the War Between The States a decade earlier. While James Batchelor is an impecunious former member of The Fourth Estate, his colleague comes from wealthy New Hampshire stock.

The RingThe River Thames plays a central part in The Ring. Although Joseph Bazalgette’s efforts to clean it up with his sewerage works were almost complete, the river was still a bubbling and noxious body of dirty brown effluent, not helped by the frequent appearance of human bodies bobbing along on its tides. In this case, however, we must say that the bodies come in instalments, as someone has been chopping them to bits. PC Crossland makes the first grisly discovery:

“… he knew exactly what the white thing was. It was the left side of what had once been a human being, sliced neatly at the hip and below the breast. There was no arm. No head. No legs.”

 Trow gives us a Gilbertian cast of comedy coppers, in this case the River Police, led by the elephantine Inspector Bliss. While Bliss and his minions are trying to put together a case – and also the various limbs and organs of an unfortunate woman – Grand and Batchelor are visited by Selwyn Byng, an unseemly and ramshackle character, who believes his wife has been abducted, and has the ransom note to prove it. Byng may look cartoonish, and lack moral fibre; “Where’s your stiff upper lip?” “Underneath this loose flabby chin!” (quoted with due reverence to Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams) but he has a bob or two, and so our detectives take on the search for the missing Emilia Byng.

It occurs to me that in dismissing any resemblance between H&W and G&B I am missing out one very important personage, and that is the housekeeper. The much revered Mrs Hudson is felt, rather than seen or heard, but Mrs Rackstraw is another matter entirely. The formidable woman dominates the apartment supposedly ruled over by the two young gentlemen:

“Mrs Rackstraw had been brought up in a God-fearing household and didn’t really hold with young gentlemen of their calibre not going to church. Had they been asked, both Grand and Batchelor would have preferred the constant nagging; her frozen silence and the way the boiled eggs bounced in their cups as she slammed them down on the table was infinitely worse.”

MJMJ Trow (right) has been entertaining us for over thirty years with such series at the Inspector Lestrade novels and the adventures of the semi-autobiographical school master detective Peter Maxwell. Long-time readers will know that jokes are never far away, even when the pages are littered with sudden death, violence and a profusion of body parts. Grand and Batchelor eventually solve the mystery of what happened to Emilia Byng, both helped and hindered by the ponderous ‘Daddy’ Bliss and a random lunatic, recently escaped from Broadmoor. Trow writes with panache and a love of language equalled by few other British writers. His grasp of history is unrivalled, but he wears his learning lightly. The Ring is a bona fide crime mystery, but the gags are what lifts the narrative from the ordinary to the sublime:

“They adjusted their chairs and faced the wall. Mr and Mrs Gladstone stared back at them from their sepia photographs, jaws of granite and eyes of steel. Since he was the famous politician and she was merely loaded and fond of ice-cold baths, he sat in the chair and she stood at his shoulder, restraining him, if the rumours were true, from hurtling out of Number Ten in search of fallen women.”

The Fully Booked review of The Island, the previous Grand and Batchelor mystery, is here. The Ring is published by Severn House, and will be out on 28th September.

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THE HANGING PSALM . . . Between the covers

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Honest broker that I am, and the modern equivalent of Robespierre in my sea-green incorruptibility, I must declare an interest here. I am an unashamed and avid fan of anything written by Chris Nickson. I hope that if he did write a duff book – or chapter – or page – or sentence – I would say so. Happily, that dilemma is one that I have yet to face.

hanging-psalm-revisedNickson’s latest book introduces a new character, Simon Westow, who walks familiar streets – those of Leeds – but our man is living in Georgian times. England in 1820 was a kingdom of uncertainty. Poor, mad King George was dead, succeeded by his fat and feckless son, the fourth George. Veterans of the war against Napoleon, like many others in later years, found that their homeland was not a land fit for heroes. The Cato Street conspirators, having failed to assassinate the Cabinet, were executed.

Simon Westow is a thief-taker. These days, he might be a bounty hunter or a PI. There is no established official police force, merely a Constable who is neither use nor ornament.
“The constable. It was a name rather than a job. A position. All the ceremony and the money that went with the post, but none of the work. Cecil Freeman had been part of the council long enough to earn the sop, a nest to gild his retirement. He supervised the watch, old men who covered the different wards of Leeds and hobbled a mile rather than risk a fight.”

Westow is a tradesman, just like a plumber. He is paid by results, and when he is tasked with finding the kidnapped daughter of a prominent mill owner, it poses no major problem and the young woman is soon found and returned to her family. But – and it is a huge ‘but’ – Westow and his ally, a wraith-like and embittered girl of the streets called Jane, learn that there is much more to the kidnapping than meets the eye. Their nemesis is a vengeful and resourceful man called Julius White, who has returned from a seven year transportation sentence to settle scores with those who put him on the prison ship sailing to Australia.

Samuel Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” but Nickson has eyes and ears only for Leeds. I am always drawn to writers who make a vivid sense of place a major character in their novels, hence my fascination with the London of Christopher Fowler, Jim Kelly’s Fenland and the brooding hills of the Welsh Marches as portrayed by Phil Rickman. Nickson, and his Leeds across the generations, is up there with the best. Think of the subtleties of a Rembrandt portrait, every line and wrinkle faithfully reproduced, but also think of that great painter’s warmth and the deep compassion of his vision.

Nickson employs a simple but astonishingly effective plot device, that readers of his novels will recognise. A crime is committed. The perpetrator is either unknown, or a known villain who has gone to ground in the alleys and ginnels of Leeds. The central character, be it Richard Nottingham, Tom Harper, Lottie Armstrong or Dan Armstrong, must then call in favours, walk the streets, mingle with pub low-life or knock on the front doors of posh houses in search of information. This enables Nickson to bring Leeds to life across the centuries, its dark places with poverty so intense that it reeks, and those airy vaulted buildings where men of property and money take their leisure and talk business.

The author is also a highly respected music journalist, and he will be aware that the great Woody Guthrie said something along the lines of, “I only use three chords; maybe four, if I’m trying to impress a girlfriend.” Nickson is equally parsimonious with his prose. There are no flounces, no frills and no flourishes but, maybe because of this economy, there is memorable poetry, albeit bleak, such as when he describes the ‘fallen women’ of Leeds.

“Too many were desperate. All it took was the promise of a meal and a bed. And then enough gin and laudanum to dull the pain of living and the agony men inflicted. If a few died, there was ample room for the burials. Girls without names, without pasts; no one would ever ask questions.”

Westow’s pursuit of Julius White is thrilling stuff. The ex-convict’s desire for revenge has created a fire, and the character forged in its flames emerges as the embodiment of evil. Maybe it’s just me, but this novel casts a more sombre shadow than previous Nickson Leeds novels. Westow certainly carries deep psychological scars from his institutional upbringing, and Jane is a very dark, complex and troubled soul.

The Hanging Psalm is published by Severn House and will be available from 28th September. In case you are puzzled by the price on the Amazon listing, you need to know that the publishers sell mainly to public libraries, so check that your own library has this book on its acquisition list.

If you are new to the books of Chris Nickson, then click the blue link to discover why I am such an admirer.

Severn House

MIND OF A KILLER . . . Between the covers

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We are in London and it is the Spring of 1862. William Ewart Gladstone is two years into his second spell as British Prime Minister, The Irish Question dominates domestic politics and the campaigning journalist WT Stead is deputy editor of the evening newspaper The Pall Mall Gazette. Among his journalists is Alec Lonsdale, younger son of the Vicar of Raunds and brother of the prominent barrister, James Lonsdale.

Alec, on his way home from an unsuccessful attempt to interview the director of the Zoological Gardens, chances upon a very public emergency. A terraced house is ablaze, and its occupant – a Mr Donovan – has perished in the fire. When his body is hauled from the wreckage his head has been destroyed, but further examination reveals the astonishing fact that part of his brain – the cerebrum – has been surgically removed.

imageSimon Beaufort provides an exhilarating and madcap journey through the contrasting mileus of Victorian London. We experience gentlemen’s clubs with their subtle ambience of brandy and fine cigars, the visceral stench of low-life pubs and doss houses and the clatter of the hot lead printing presses of a vibrant daily newspaper. Lonsdale – with the assistance of Hulda Friedrichs, a fiercely independent early feminist journalist – painstakingly uncovers a nightmarish plot hatched by scientists who are obsessed with eugenics, and believe that the future of the human race depends on selective breeding and the suppression of ‘the undeserving poor’.

Alec Lonsdale is a thoroughly admirable hero who is as handy with his fists as he is with his pen. Most of the staff at the Pall Mall Gazette are actual historical figures, beautifully researched and described. We have gore, mortuary scenes, fights a-plenty, scrupulous period detail and also a sly sense of fun as we observe the elaborate formal minuet of courtship, particularly between Alec and his future sister-in-law Anne. Eventually the conspiracy is exposed by Alec and Hulda, but not before we have an exuberant reprise of the ‘mad scientist’ trope.

Simon Beaufort? Simon is a ‘they’ rather than a ‘he’. Beau Riffenburgh is a Californian born and bred, an expert in polar exploration, and an American Football coach. His wife – and writing partner – is none other than Liz Cruwys, better known as Susanna Gregory, best-selling author of many historical novels featuring medieval investigator Matthew Bartholemew. Mind Of A Killer is published by Severn House, came out in hardback just before Christmas 2017, and is now available in Kindle.

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LOCK 13 . . . Between the covers

 

 

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Lock 13Lock 13 features Chris Honeysett, a private detective whose cases I had never read before, despite this being the sixth in what is clearly a popular series. The previous episodes are Headcase (2005), Slim Chance (2006) Rainstone Fall (2008) An Inch of Time (2012) Worthless Remains (2013) and Indelible (2014). Honeysett, like his creator Peter Helton (more on Helton’s website here) is an artist operating near Bath in the south-west of England. His professional investigations do not pay all his bills, and he supplements his income by selling his paintings when he can, and teaching drawing and painting classes from his picturesque home, a former mill which he shares with his girlfriend, Annis.

Honeysett is engaged on an extremely dull – but possibly lucrative – case involving a gentleman called Henry Blinkhorn, an angler who, when his boat overturned in the Severn Estuary, tragically drowned. Or did he? The company faced with a hefty life insurance payout to the Widow Blinkhorn have their doubts, and Honeysett is hired to prove that Mr B is alive, well, and pulling several skeins of wool over the eyes of Griffins, the people who are taking the million pound hit over the death, or not, of the unfortunate fisherman.

A welcome distraction from the tedious observation of The Chestnuts, the Blinkhorn’s six-bedroom house in one of the many salubrious areas of Bath, comes when Honeysett’s regular model for his life drawing classes, a young lady called Verity, inexplicably disappears. With Annis – also an artist (and noticeably more successful) away painting a mural for a rich celebrity, Honeysett decides to delve into Verity’s disappearance but, as is the way with these things, he discovers that he may have bitten off more than he can chew. Verity was friendly with some rather disreputable characters, including a verminous colony of New Age Travelers who, when they are not meditating or actually traveling, have their grimy fingers in a lucrative drug dealing business.

It seems that young Verity has come into funds rather suddenly, and has realised her oft-longed-for ambition to buy a canal boat and remove herself from the stresses and strains of city life by taking to the water. By a rather fortuitous set of coincidences (both for himself and the plot) Honeysett manages to borrow a canal narrow boat in which he sets off to pursue the errant Verity. As both he and we quickly discover, “pursue’ may be over-egging the pudding, as the laws of canal boating restrict speed to 4 mph. As Honeysett makes his stately – and occasionally wayward – progress in the ironically named Dreamcatcher, he soon has a growing number of conundrums to solve. Who, for example, are the two mysteriously sunglassed gents who appear to be following him in their cabin cruiser? And what is the true story behind the tragic drowning of Neil, former owner of Dreamcatcher, in the murky depths of the titular Lock 13?

Helton-Peter-2-262x350Sometimes a novel is so delightfully written that a reader can reach the last page with a smile and sense of contentment, despite the fact that nothing very dramatic or shocking, at least by the standards of some modern thrillers, has happened during the 200 pages or so which have made up the narrative. Lock 13 is one such book. Peter Helton (right) tells the story through the eyes of Chris Honeysett, and the style is fluent, conversational, occasionally erudite, often witty – but always very, very, readable. Established fans of the Honeysett series can feel duly smug that the amiable painter-sleuth has found another convert, and they can rest assured that I shall be working my way through the file of Honeysett’s previous cases. Lock 13 is published by Severn House, and will be available from 29th December.

Helton Books

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