STEALTH … Between The Covers

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StealthLondon in 1967 seems to have been an exciting place to live. A play by a budding writer called Alan Aykbourne received its West End premier, Jimi Hendrix was setting fire to perfectly serviceable Fender Strats, The House of Commons passed the Sexual Offences Act decriminalising male homosexuality and Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell featured in a murder-suicide in their Islington flat. This is the backdrop as Hugh Fraser’s violent anti-heroine Rina Walker returns to her murderous ways in Stealth, the fourth novel of a successful series.

I am new to Ms Walker’s world, but soon learned that a brutal childhood deep in poverty, where attack was frequently the best form of defence, and a later upbringing embedded in the world of London gangsters, has shaped her view of life. Although parliament had decreed that chaps could sleep with chaps, provided both were willing, there was little public approval for chapesses having the same latitude, and so Rina’s love affair with girlfriend Lizzie is accepted but not flaunted.

Lizzie has been set up by Rina as proprietor of a Soho club, more or less legit, but with a multitude of blind eyes which fail to focus on minor breaches of the moral code. When a young tart is found in a club back room, battered to death with a hammer, Rina not only takes offence but wreaks summary revenge. The killer, a bare-knuckle fighter called Dave Priest, is not only thumped by his latest opponent on the cobblestoned back yard of a dingy pub, but becomes the latest victim of what might be called Rina’s Law when she kills him and artfully arranges his corpse to look as if he had slipped on the stairs.

Rina is locked into a world where she is forever repaying favours, or earning them and taking rain checks for a later day. One of her debts is to a grim and sordid gang boss who, in turn, owes a favour to a homicidal maniac currently a patient in Broadmoor. This particular penance involves her bumping off a perfectly innocent builder who has had the temerity to offer the maniac’s wife a new life in the dreamy suburbs of Romford. Rina is not totally without moral scruples, although if you blink you will miss them as they whizz past your eye line at the speed of light. She tries to scam her employer by staging the death of the honest builder, but she is found out in a complex sting involving shadowy operatives of military intelligence.

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Is Rina fazed by the step-up in class from bumping off Essex builders to the complex world of international intrigue, Cold War deception and men in expensive suits who never, ever are who they say they are? No, not for one moment. Whether downing large whiskies in backstreet pubs, or sipping chateau-bottled claret in expensive hotel suites, our Rina is equal to the task, be it on home turf or in the romantically sleazy cafes and bars of Istanbul.

The list of fine actors who have turned their hand to crime fiction is extremely short, not to say minuscule. Even more invisible, except via an electron microscope, is the catalogue of crime writing actors who play languid toffs. I yield to no-one in my admiration for Hugh Fraser in his roles as Captain Hastings and – my absolute favourite – his insouciant Duke of Wellington in Sharpe. The difference between Fraser’s screen persona and the world of Rina Walker could not be more extreme.

To cut to the chase, does Stealth work? It does, and triumphantly so. Fraser might be just a tad too young to have experienced the Soho of the mid 1960s, but if the scene setting isn’t from personal recollection, he has certainly done his homework. My only slight criticism is that I found that the constant mood/time/product placement via contemporary pop song titles began to grate after a while. There is a touch of “with one bound she was free” about Rina Walker, and you  would certainly think twice about taking her home to meet mummy and daddy in Virginia Water, but under the capable direction of Hugh Fraser her adventures provide an enjoyably violent and escapist crime read. Stealth is out on 8th October and is brought to us by Urbane Publications.

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BlackoutWHEN LONDON BECAME THE PRIMARY TARGET of Luftwaffe bombers in World War II, one of the first responses of the government was to institute a night-time blackout. Given that the silvery ribbon of the River Thames couldn’t be hidden, and German knowledge of the whereabouts of factories and docks, the effect of the blackout was more psychological than practical. What it did do was to liberate criminals from the fear of being seen by what remained of the police force – bear in mind that most able bodied men of fighting age were very quickly drafted into the armed forces. Despite the affectionate folk myth of plucky Londoners ‘grinning and bearing it’, domestic crime rocketed. An often used wheeze was for criminals to dress up as Air Raid Wardens. In the darkness and confusion, they could raid shops and be about their dishonest business with a new freedom. Looting was not uncommon, and more than one gang discovered the effectiveness of going around the dark streets in a fake ambulance.

Thieving is one thing, however. Cold blooded murder is something else altogether. In one frenzied spell in February 1942, a handsome, well spoken and thoroughly plausible RAF man savagely murdered four women. Two more potential victims were lucky to escape unharmed before the killer made a stupid mistake and was found.

Gordon Cummins, 28, was a serving Aircraftman. Yorkshire born, his debonair and suave manner, and his hints that he came from noble stock, had earned him the nickname ‘Duke’ or ‘Count’. He had no criminal history of any kind, and was not thought to be a violent man. And yet, in the course of less than a week, he committed four brutal murders, and attempted to attack two other women.


Bernard SpilsburyRather like the Whitechapel killer of 1888, the attacks became more frenzied and the mutilations more awful. Weapons used included razor blades, a can opener, a kitchen knife and a candlestick. After the frenzied killings of Margaret Lowe and Doris Jouannet, Sir Bernard Spilsbury (right), the most celebrated medical examiner of the century, remarked that the murders were the work of “a savage sexual maniac”. The press were quick to coin a new name for the killer, and for the brief period of his notoriety, he became known as ‘The Blackout Ripper’.

On Friday 14th February, Cummins was disturbed while attempting to attack Greta Hayward in a doorway near Piccadilly Circus. In the panic, he ran off, but left his RAF issue gas mask behind. It was simple work for the police to trace the issue number and identify Cummins. He had attacked another woman on the Friday evening but she, too, had escaped. When police searched Cummins’ flat they found items of clothing belonging to his victims.

cummins_frederick_gordonCummins was tried at the Old Bailey in April 1942, and was very quickly found guilty. The judge was none other than Lord Chief Justice Humphreys, who had been involved in many of the most high profile trials of the century. On the day Cummins was hanged on the morning of 25th June, 1942, and the hangman was Albert Pierrepoint. It is said that an daytime air-raid raged overhead when Cummins died, a bitter irony given the circumstances of his crimes.

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