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Stacey Halls

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best historical crime

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I have always been a fan of historical fiction and, more recently, crime fiction set ‘back in the day’. Sadly, there are those writers whose thirst for period accuracy produces lavish costume drama at the expense of a decent plot and good storytelling. Happily, the five books on my 2019 shortlist don’t fall into that trap – take a look, and if you haven’t read them yet, do so – you won’t be disappointed.

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 19.34.11The Familiars by Stacey Halls was one of the publishing successes of 2019, and rightly so. The evocative visual presentation was matched by superb writing and the conviction of a natural storyteller. The story is not a conventional crime mystery, but involves suspicion, injustice, intrigue, political chicanery and personal bravery. We are in rural Lancashire in the early years of the seventeenth century and young Fleetwood Shuttleworth has been married off to a wealthy landowner. Far away in London, King James is obsessed with a fear of witches and daemons, and those anxious to please His Majesty are falling over themselves to demonstrate their loyalty. Fleetwood’s new home, Gawthorpe Hall, sits under the looming Pendle Hill, and all around the district, harmless old women – and some not so old – are being rounded up as witches. Fleetwood is under pressure from husband Richard to provide a male heir and when, after several miscarriages, she seeks the help of a young peasant midwife, Alice Gray, her actions put her in direct conflict with the King’s men.

thg-coverChris Nickson’s historical novels may be narrow in geographical scope – they are mostly set in Leeds across the centuries – but they are magnificent in their emotional, political and social breadth. In The Hocus Girl, we meet Simon Westow who earns his living as a thieftaker. In America they still have them, after a fashion, but they call them bail skip tracers, or bounty hunters. Leeds in the 1820s had no police force except inept and frequently infirm Parish Constables, and so thieftakers pursued criminals on commission from victims of crime. Westow has a formidable ally in the shape of a teenage girl called Jane. Sexually abused as a youngster, she is ruthless and streetwise, and God help the man who mistakes her for a waif. Westow and Jane have a different kind of fight on their hands here, as they try to prevent a campaigner for social justice being sent to the gallows by political conspirators.

tsm-coverSW Perry has written an excellent thriller about religious extremism, media manipulation and political treachery. The fact that The Serpent’s Mark is set in Elizabethan London rather than 2019 can only make the reader wonder at how little things have changed. Nicholas Shelby is a physician who, despite his relative youth, has served on the battlefields of Europe and has emerged from a debilitating period of alcoholism caused by the tragic death of his wife and child. With many a real life character – including Robert Cecil and John Evelyn – making an appearance, Shelby becomes involved in a desperate affair which seeks to supplant Queen Elizabeth herself with a hitherto unknown child of Mary Tudor – and return the land of Gloriana to the old faith, Roman Catholicism.

night-watch-coverFor all that the era was in my lifetime, the 1950s may just as well be the 1650s given the gulf between then and the modern world. In Nightwatch David C Taylor takes us back to New York in 1954, and we follow a convincingly tough and hard-nosed NYPD cop, Michael Cassidy, who becomes involved in a case which is way, way above his relatively humble pay grade. There were many former Nazis who escaped Nuremburg and had vanished into the ether by 1954 and although many of them were undoubtedly bastards, the sinister folk in American intelligence agencies gave them a lifeline by making sure that they became their bastards. Awkwardly for the CIA, there were also survivors of Hitler’s death camps who had made their way to America, and although they may have been scratching a relatively meagre living, they still had access to information and a burning desire for revenge. Cassidy battles both the indifference of his bosses and the unwanted attention of some very powerful people as he tries to solve a series of murders and make his streets a little less mean.

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Click the text image above to link to my review of The Mathematical Bridge.

THE GEORGIANS RETURN TO VAUXHALL

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After her success with The Familiars (click to read the review) Stacey has moved on a couple of centuries to the 1750s. Bess Bright has reluctantly abandoned her baby daughter Clara to the mercies of London’s Foundling Hospital. This astonishing institution, founded by Thomas Coram on 1741, took in babies whose mothers were unable to care for them.

Foundlings3Zosha Nash (left), formerly Head of Development at The Foundling Museum explained, the care and love bestowed on the children was remarkable, even by modern standards. Their life expectancy exceeded that of many children at the time, and all were taught to read and write. The hospital was also famously associated with Handel, and it was in the  chapel that Messiah was performed for the first time in England

Stacey (below) explained how she had visited the museum and been overwhelmed by the poignancy of the exhibits, particularly the tokens – sometimes a scrap of fabric, sometimes a coin scratched with initials – left with the children so that they might be identified at a later date when the mothers’ circumstances had improved.

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Six years after leaving her, Bess Bright returns to claim her daughter, to be greeting with the shattering news that Clara is no longer there. She has been claimed – just a day after Bess left her – by a woman correctly identifying the child’s token, a piece of scrimshaw, half a heart engraved with letters. The authorities are baffled, but convinced that a major fraud has been perpetrated. Bess’s shock turns to a passionate determination to find Clara.

The Foundling will be published in February 2020.

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A STORY WITHOUT WORDS

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GIFT
INSIDE
BROKEN SEAL
BEAUTY
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THE FAMILIARS . . . Between the covers

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Fleetwood’s peace of mind and the healthy bloom in her cheeks are short-lived, however. First she discovers a dreadful secret that husband Richard has been keeping from her, and then Alice is caught in the gathering storm conjured up by an ambitious and over-zealous magistrate. It is, quite literally, a witch hunt, and people who are guilty of no more than carrying out folk medicine are rounded up and flung in jail, with the prospect of summary trial and execution. Fleetwood is forced to defy her husband – and convention – to seek a stay of execution for a young woman who, she believes, is all that stands between her and another stillborn child.

Stacey Halls has written a vivid and memorable account of a dark period in English history. The Familiars is based on the infamous events that we know as The Pendle Witch Trials. With the ominous bulk of Pendle Hill louring over events, we meet many real life characters. Roger Nowell of Read Hall, Justice of the Peace for Pendle is there, as are the Device family of whom Alizon, Elizabeth and James were hanged on Gallows Hill in Lancaster on 20th August 1612. Gawthorpe Hall, home to Fleetwood and Richard Shuttleworth is now run by the National Trust.

The Familiars is so much more than a dramatisation of historical events, however. Stacey Halls has a prose style which is uncluttered and often pared to the bone; this has the effect of making her descriptions diamond sharp and brilliant. What is left when unnecessary verbiage is chopped away is a memorable account of a determined young woman, exposed to social expectations which would now be termed abusive, but with a soul of steel.

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Stacey Halls has produced something that is little short of a modern masterpiece. The Familiars is full of passion, the distant poles of human weakness and strength and, above all, has a central character who lives and breathes so vividly that we share her hopes, fears and vivid nightmares. Fleetwood’s courage burns through the book like a white-hot iron, and she tells a tale which is, in turn, both disturbing and heart-warming.

“More men were approaching now. The gate clanged open and an iron grip held my arm. Alice and I were wrenched apart and suddenly I was outside the gate and she was being marched back down into the darkness.
          ‘Alice!’ I cried. ‘I’ll come back! I’ll come back!’
While a fierce bulk of a man escorted me back to the gatehouse, the door to the dungeon clanged open and the shrieking grew louder.
          ‘She’s dead! She’s dead! She’s dead!’
The words flew out like crows from a forest, echoing around the walls with nowhere to land.”

The Familiars is published by Bonnier Zaffre, and is out on 7th February.

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