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THE ROOKS DIE SCREAMING . . . Between the covers

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T redhe dramatic events of The Rooks Die Screaming take place in the spring of 1921 in the Cornish market town of Bodmin. The bare bones of the story are that Detective Inspector Cyril Edwards of Scotland Yard has come to Bodmin to investigate murder and treachery involving a group of spies known as The Four Rooks. This book is a sequel to The Woman With The Red Hair, and to say there is a back-story is something of an understatement. The eponymous young woman is called Morag and, amongst other things, is Edwards’ sister-in-law. Elisha Edwards was one of the millions of unfortunates taken by an agent even deadlier than high explosives and machine gun bullets – Spanish Influenza.

The-Rooks-Die-Screaming smallerMorag is now Lady Frobisher. Her husband Harry, heir to The Fobisher Estate on the outskirts of Bodmin, is blind, victim of a grenade in the Flanders trenches. In the previous novel, Frobisher Hall was the scene of great torment for Morag, as she fell into the clutches of Morgan Treaves, an insane asylum keeper and his evil nurse. Treaves has disappeared after being disfigured with a broken bottle, wielded my Morag in a life or death struggle.

If you are picking up a sense that this novel has something of a Gothick tinge (note the ‘k’) you will not be far wrong. It is high melodrama for much of the way; secret tunnels; a sinister woman in the woods who, guarded by a lumbering giant mute forever silenced by the horrors he witnessed in the war, mixes deadly potions; a cottage where a sensitive soul can still hear the ghostly creaking of the former occupant’s body swinging from her suicide beam; a woman who, in falling prey to her own desires, has two terrible deaths forever on her conscience.

Clive-TuckettThat said, The Rooks Die Screaming is inspired escapist reading. It would be unfair to say that Tuckett (right) writes in an anachronistic style. This is much, much better than pastiche, even though there are elements of Conan Doyle, the Golden Age, John Buchan and even touches of Sapper and MR James. So, eventually, to the plot, but we need to know a little more about Cyril Edwards. Like many a fictional detective inspector he is his own man. In another nice cultural reference Tuckett adds a touch of Charters and Caldicott as Edwards explains to the bumptious Standish, a mysterious officer from Military Intelligence;

“‘I love cricket …. When I’m not turning down invitations to join dubious organisations, and thumping arrogant members of the royal family, I love nothing more than to relax at Lord’s and watch a game of cricket.’

Edwards stretched and picked up his Fedora hat, thinking of getting up and walking out of the room.

” I’m hoping to see the Second Test at Lord’s next month against Australia.”‘

S redtandish orders Edwards to investigate the possibility that Harry Frobisher is one of the Rooks, but one who has betrayed his country. Arriving in Bodmin his first task is to explain to the local police how a corpse found on a train is that of a notorious London contract killer. Tuckett’s Bodmin is full of stock characters, including a stolid police sergeant, an apparently tremulous clergyman and a punctilious but respected solicitor who is privy to all the secrets of the local gentry, but is oh, so discreet. To add to the fun, Frobisher Hall also has its requisite roll call of faithful retainers.

The secret of The Four Rooks is eventually revealed, but not before the author throws a few red herrings onto the table. I could probably have done without the finer details of Lady Morag’s marriage bed, and some tighter proof-reading coupled with a more enticing cover would have done wonders for the book. That said, I enjoyed every page and I hope Clive Tuckett has another Inspector Edwards case up his sleeve, especially if it involves the redoubtable Morag Frobisher.

The Rooks Die Screaming is published by The Book Guild and is available now.

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THE WHITE FEATHER KILLER . . . Between the covers

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TWFK coverI’m a great fan of historical crime fiction, particularly if it is set in the 19th or 20th centuries, but I will be the first to admit that most such novels tend not to veer towards what I call The Dark Side. Perhaps it’s the necessary wealth of period detail which gets in the way, and while some writers revel in the more lurid aspects of poverty, punishment and general mortality, the genre is usually a long way from noir. That’s absolutely fine. Many noir enthusiasts (noiristes, perhaps?) avoid historical crime in the same way that lovers of a good period yarn aren’t drawn to existential world of shadows cast by flickering neon signs on wet pavements. The latest novel from RN Morris, The White Feather Killer is an exception to my sweeping generalisation, as it is as uncomfortable and haunting a tale as I have read for some time.

If Morris were to have a specialised subject on Mastermind, it might well be London Crime In 1914, as the previous books in the DI Silas Quinn series, Summon Up The Blood (2012), Mannequin House (2013), Dark Palace (2014) and The Red Hand Of Fury (2018) are all set in that fateful year. Silas Quinn, like many of the best fictional coppers, is something of an oddball. While not completely misanthropic, he prefers his own company; his personal family life is tainted with tragedy; he favours the cerebral, evidence-based approach to solving crimes rather than the knuckle-duster world of forced confessions favoured by his Scotland Yard colleagues.

London – like the rest of Britain in the late summer of 1914 – is convulsed with a mixture of outrage, mad optimism and a sense of the old world being overturned. There is the glaring paradox of the first BEF casualties from Mons and Le Cateau being smuggled into the capital’s hospitals on bloodstained stretchers while, the length and breadth of the city, young men are jostling and queuing around the block in a testosterone fuelled display of patriotism, with their only anxiety being the worry that it will all be over before they can ‘do their bit’.

Morris takes his time before giving us a dead body, but his drama has some intriguing characters. We met Felix Simpkins, such a mother’s boy that, were he to be realised on the screen, we would have to resurrect Anthony Perkins for the job. His mother is not embalmed in the apple cellar, but an embittered and waspish German widow, a failed concert pianist, a failed wife, and a failed pretty much everything else except in the dubious skill of humiliating her hapless son. Central to the grim narrative is the Cardew family. Baptist Pastor Clement Cardew is the head of the family; his wife Esme knows her place, but his twin children Adam and Eve have a pivotal role in what unfolds. The trope of the hypocritical and venal clergyman is well-worn but still powerful; when we realise the depth of Cardew’s descent into darkness, it is truly chilling.

rogerHistorical novels come and go, and all too many are over-reliant on competent research and authentic period detail, but Morris (right) plays his ace with his brilliant and evocative use of language. Here, Quinn watches, bemused, as a company of army cyclists spin past him:

“The whole thing had the air of an outing. It did not seem like men preparing for war. The soldiers on their bicycles struck Quinn as unspeakably vulnerable. Their jauntiness as they sped along had a hollow ring to it, as if each man knew he was heading towards death but had sworn not to tell his fellows.”

Quinn has to pursue his enquiries in one of the quieter London suburbs, and makes this wry observation of the world of Mr Pooter – quaintly comic, but about to be shattered by events:

“Elsewhere, in the bigger, flashier houses, the rich and servanted classes might indulge in their racy pastimes and let their jealous passions run wild. Here the worst that could be imagined of one’s neighbours was the coveting of another man’s gardenias, or perhaps going hatless on a Sunday afternoon.”

The White Feather Killer is published by Severn House, and is available now. Let Morris have the last word, though, and he takes us back to that autumn when, after those heady weeks when everything seemed possible, innocence finally died.

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HARDCASTLE’S QUANDARY . . . Between the covers

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London, 1927, and Divisional Detective Inspector Ernest Hardcastle is summoned to the office of Chief Constable Frederick Wensley[1], who has received a letter from a Norfolk parson. The Rev. Percy Stoner is convinced that his nephew Guy has met with misfortune. The former army Captain has disappeared, and when Hardcastle despatches men to visit the business young Stoner had set up with another Great War veteran, they make a chilling discovery.

Hardcastle himself was too old to serve in the war, but for his younger colleagues who knew the Western Front, body parts hold few terrors. The human remains found in the burnt-out premises in Surrey are examined by none other than Sir Bernard Spilsbury[2] and his findings complicate Hardcastle’s case. Is the first body that of Guy Stoner, or is it that of his business partner? And who was the young woman whose butchered remains shared the same ignominious burial place?

HQForced to play cherchez-la-femme, the detectives stumble down one blind alley after another, but as they do so they learn a few home truths about the fate of the young men who went to fight in the war-to-end-all-wars, and returned home to find that their birthplace was not the ‘land fit for heroes’ glibly promised by politicians. There is a peacetime army with no place for young officers whose courage was welcome in the trenches, but whose humble upbringing is now seen as an embarrassment as the cigars are lit, and the port passed in the correct direction at mess dinners. Such young men, not all heroes, but men nevertheless, are forced to find civilian employment which is neither honest, decent nor lawful.

Eventually, after an investigation which takes the detectives on many a trip into the provinces and away from their metropolitan stamping grounds, the case is solved, and there is work for the hangman to do, but not before an intervention by the Home Secretary.

GIGraham Ison is a master story-teller. The Hardcastle books contain no literary flourishes or stylistic tricks – just credible characters, excellent period detail and an engaging plot. Cosy? Perhaps, in the sense that we know how Hardcastle and his officers are going to react to any given situation, and their habits and small prejudices remain unchanged. Comfortable? Only because novels don’t always need to shock or challenge; neither do they always benefit from graphic descriptions of the damage humans can sometimes inflict on one another. Ison (right) credits his readers with having imaginations; he never gilded the lily of English life in the earlier Hardcastle cases which took place during The Great War, and he doesn’t start now, nearly a decade after the final shots were fired. The suffering and trauma of those four terrible years didn’t end at the eleventh hour on that eleventh day; they cast a long and sometimes baleful shadow which frames much of the action of this novel.

Hardcastle’s Quandary is a great read. As well as being a fascinating period police procedural, it is a gently reflective but sharply observant look at England in the 1920s. We sense that Hardcastle, deeply conservative and instinctively opposed to the steady advance of technology, has entered his autumn period. Colleagues like Marriott and Catto tolerate his idiosyncrasies and work around the fact that he sometimes appears to be a creature from a bygone age, preserved in his own block of amber. Hardcastle’s quandary? That is for the reader to judge, and it may only be resolved in the final pages. The novel is published by Severn House and is available here.

[1] Frederick Porter Wensley OBE KPM (28 March 1865 – 4 December 1949) was a British police officer from 1888 until 1929, reaching the rank of chief constable of the Scotland Yard Criminal Investigation Department. Serving in Whitechapel for part of his career, Wensley was involved in the investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders, details of which he would later publish in his memoirs in 1931.

[2] Sir Bernard Henry Spilsbury (16 May 1877 – 17 December 1947) was a British pathologist. His cases include Hawley Harvey Crippen and the “Brides in the Bath” murders by George Joseph Smith,. Spilsbury’s courtroom appearances became legendary for his demeanour of effortless dominance.

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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.

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A GENTLEMAN’S MURDER . . . Between the covers

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It is the autumn of 1924 and we are in London. London has always been – and will ever be – a city of contrasts but now, six years on from the Armistice that ended The Great War, the differences between the men who survived the conflict are marked. On the streets the less fortunate are selling matches, bootlaces, carrying placards asking for work, many of them reduced to displaying mutilated limbs, less as a badge of honour, more in a desperate attempt to provoke compassion and pity. Inside the Britannia Club, however, the members are known by their former military rank and it’s ‘Major’ this, ‘Lieutenant’ that and ‘Captain’ the other.

AGMEric Peterkin is one such and, although he carries his rank with pride, he is just a little different, and he is viewed with some disdain by certain fellow members and simply tolerated by others. Despite generations of military Peterkins looking down from their portraits in the club rooms, Eric is what is known, in the language of the time, a half-caste. His Chinese mother has bequeathed him more than enough of the characteristics of her race for the jibe, “I suppose you served in the Chinese Labour Corps?” to become commonplace.

Having served King and Country is a prerequisite for membership of the Britannia, so eyebrows are raised when Albert Benson appears as a new member. Benson, it transpires, was a conscientious objector but redeemed himself by service as a stretcher bearer until severe wounds sent him back to ‘Blighty’. When Benson is found dead in the club’s basement, with a paper knife projecting from his neck, Eric Peterkin is drawn into investigating his murder. All roads lead back to a Sussex military hospital where Benson – and several other of the club members – were treated during the war.

HuangChristopher Huang (right) was born and raised in Singapore where he served his two years of National Service as an Army Signaller. He moved to Canada where he studied Architecture at McGill University in Montreal. Huang currently lives in Montreal.. Judging by this, his debut novel, he also knows how to tell a story. He gives us a fascinating cast of gentleman club members, each of them worked into the narrative as a murder suspect. We have Mortimer Wolfe – “sleek, dapper and elegant, hair slicked down and gleaming like mahogany”, club President Edward Aldershott, “Tall, prematurely grey and with a habit of standing perfectly still …like a bespectacled stone lion,” and poor, haunted Patrick “Patch” Norris with his constant, desperate gaiety.

Huang writes in a style which is archaic in one sense, as he pays homage to the conventions and narrative style of books written nearly a century ago, but it is none the worse for that. He clearly has a huge empathy with the men and women who, while they may have survived the War physically more or less intact, they carry hidden scars and memories which we know, long after the event, were to stay with them until death. On more than one occasion, Huang strikes a particularly sonorous chord:

“Eric joined the sombre crowds at the Cenotaph on Whitehall for the service in remembrance of the War at eleven o’clock – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It began with two minutes of silence: one for the fallen and one for the survivors. After that would come wreaths and remembrances and men marching with grim salutes …boots on rain glossed pavements, artificial poppies blooming blood red on black lapels, tears in the eyes of men who never cried. But first, there were two minutes of silence. England held her breath.”

If you are a fan of the Golden Age, enjoy the challenge of a good locked room mystery and appreciate literate and thoughtful crime fiction, then A Gentleman’s Murder will not disappoint. It is published by Inkshares and will be available in paperback on 31st July.

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THE GREAT WAR AND CRIME FICTION … part 2

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PREVIOUSLY …
The Great War and Crime Fiction … Introduction
The Great War and Crime Fiction … Part 1

Robert Goddard and his ex-RAFC/RAF pilot and family black sheep James ‘Max’ Maxted start the ball rolling in our continuing look at crime fiction set in, or influenced by The Great War. Goddard introduced Maxted in 2013 with the first part of a trilogy, The Ways of the World. It is Spring 1919. The Great War is over. but a new war is beginning – a war of words and promises, both kept and broken and a war fought in the splendid hotels and conference halls of Paris. The victorious powers – Britain, France, the US, Italy and Japan – have sent their politicians and diplomats to the French capital to pick over the carcass of the old Europe. Amid the great and the good stands a young Englishman, James ‘Max’ Maxted. The ex-Royal Flying Corps pilot has come to Paris to investigate the mysterious death of his father, minor diplomat Sir Henry Maxted.

 

Max Trilogy

Max is used, first by an American wheeler-dealer called Ireton, then by the British Secret Service and other more shadowy organisations, to try to smoke out a German renegade called Lemmer. The story continues in The Corners of the Globe (2014). Max has still to uncover the truth about his father’s demise, and in addition to the Germans who will not accept defeat, there are some equally villainous Japanese thrown into the mix. The series concluded in 2015 with The Ends of the Earth, and it finds Max still battling the elusive Lemmer, but also locking horns with an evil Japanese aristocrat, Count Tamura. In some ways this is old-fashioned stuff, but there are hours of entertainment here for those who like their history spiced with danger and a couple of alluring femmes fatales. Max is an engaging character; a little old-school perhaps, with a nostalgic touch of Biggles and Bulldog Drummond, but equally brave and resourceful.

DMLRobert Ryan, also known as Tom Neale, is an English author, journalist and screenwriter. He has written a host of successful adventure novels and thrillers, but our microscope focuses on his Dr Watson novels. He is not the first writer to exploit the potential of Sherlockiana, nor will he be the last. M J Trow wrote an entertaining series of books featuring the much-maligned Inspector Lestrade, so the earnest, brave, but slightly dim companion to the great Consulting Detective must surely be worth a series of his own. Ryan takes our beloved physician and puts him down amid the carnage of The Great War. Too old to fight, Watson’s medical expertise is still valuable. In Dead Man’s Land (2013) Watson investigates a murder in the trenches which is due, not to a German bullet or shell, but to something much more sinister, and much closer to home.

The Dead Can Wait followed in 2014, and our man has returned from the trenches, mentally shattered by his experience. He has little time to recuperate however, as he is called to investigate what appears to be a mass killing – in a top secret research facility set up to develop a weapon that will be decisive in ending the war.

 

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2015 brought A Study In Murder, and Watson has mismanaged his life to the extent that he is now in a wintry prisoner of war camp, far behind German lines. It is 1917, and the outcome of the war hangs in the balance. Murder, however, is no respecter of history, and when some poor fellow inmate is murdered, ostensibly for his Red Cross food parcel, Watson smells a sizeable and malodorous rat. January 2016 brought The Sign of Fear. The rather clumsy amalgam of two canonical Sherlock Holmes stories finds the indefatigable Watson once more at home, but a home at the mercy of a new terror – bombing raids from German aircraft. Our man is forced to untangle a mystery involving kidnap and a floating ambulance sunk by a German torpedo.

MaisieMaisie Dobbs is both the title of a novel by Jacqueline Winspear, and the name of the central character in a series which has now run to twelve novels. In the first of the series we learn that Maisie has seen the worst of The Western Front during her time as a nurse, but now she has returned to an England which is definitely not a land for heroes. She uses her acquaintance with a distinguished French investigator to set up her own agency.   Although the series takes Maisie through the years between the wars, right up to the rise of Nazism, the shadow of the dreadful years of The Great War is cast over many of Maisie’s cases. The author herself says:

“The war and its aftermath provide fertile ground for a mystery. Such great social upheaval allows for the strange and unusual to emerge and a time of intense emotions can, to the writer of fiction, provide ample fodder for a compelling story, especially one concerning criminal acts and issues of guilt and innocence. After all, a generation is said to have lost its innocence in The Great War. The mystery genre provides a wonderful vehicle for exploring such a time,”

MametzDr Jonathan Hicks is a Welsh academic with an abiding interest in The Great War, and he has written a graphic and superbly researched history of a battle which was both one of his countrymen’s finest hours, but in terms of loss of life, arguably their darkest. A detailed look at The Welsh at Mametz Wood, The Somme 1916 is outside of our remit here, but its scholarship and interpretation of history is clearly reflected in what was his first fictional Great War novel, The Dead of Mametz (2011). His central character is Captain Thomas Oscendale of the Military Foot Police, and he has a problem to solve. An attractive French widow has been found raped and murdered in a nearby town. In her clenched fingers is a button from a British army tunic. A Welsh NCO, reputedly her lover, has just turned his Lee Enfield rifle on himself after apparently killing two of his colleagues. A mysterious British officer attends the crime scene, but then disappears. As Oscendale tries to unravel the tangle of clues, he finds a map purporting to show a site in the middle of Mametz Wood where a fortune is buried. Blind-sided by German spies and a conspiracy way above his rank, Oscendale must apply his police training to combat corrupt officials, military incompetence and the disdain – bordering on hatred – felt by front-line soldiers for ‘Red Caps’.

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Oscendale returned
in Demons Walk Among Us (2013) and he falls for a beautiful war widow in the process. When he finds that his most likely witness to corruption in high military places has been invalided home with neurasthenia, he has to resort to drastic measures that threaten his own life and sanity. The action takes us from the dust, heat, flies and bloated corpses of 1915 Gallipoli, through the bleak and devastated flatlands of Flanders, to small-town Wales, with its shattered and impoverished war widows, deserters at their wits’ end, and heroes who have been crippled both physically and mentally. One of the strengths of the Oscendale novels is that Hicks combines the horror of The Front Line with less dramatic but equally menacing events back home in Wales.

History. Crime Fiction. Railways. It’s as if Andrew Martin has written a series of books specifically tailored to three of my abiding interests, but within his Jim Stringer, Steam Detective series there is even more icing on the cake – a pair of novels set in The Great War. Jim Stringer is a railwayman through and through, and we first met him as a young man in an intriguing account of The Necropolis Railway, where he investigated shenanigans connected with the funeral trains that used to run from near Waterloo Station out to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.

the-somme-stations-andrew-martinBy 1916, however, Stringer has several years of crime detection under his belt, but he is sent to France where he survives the carnage of 1st July, and is picked out to supervise the running of ammunition trains carrying vital supplies up to the front line. The Somme Stations (2012) is both a chilling account of everyday life on The Western Front, but also an excellent murder mystery, with Stringer investigating a criminal death – as opposed to one of the scores of men killed daily by bullets and shells.

1917 sees Stringer invalided away from the trenches, but sent out to Mesopotamia to investigate apparent treachery within the British military establishment. In The Baghdad Railway Club (2012) Lieutenant-Colonel Shepherd is said to have accepted a bribe from the fleeing Turks.

BaghdadStringer goes undercover as a railway advisor to investigate, but his contact Captain Boyd is discovered murdered in an abandoned station. No further help will be sent, so Stringer is on his own catching the murderer, and preventing a giant betrayal of the British effort. He has to do so whilst navigating an unfamiliar landscape, avoiding getting caught up in an Arab uprising, fighting off a case of malaria during a sweltering Baghdad summer, and treading a careful path as he investigates members of the officer class.

We will finish with the Inspector Hardcastle novels by Graham Ison. In one sense they are well-crafted – but otherwise unremarkable – police procedurals with a period setting, but Ison has created a sequence in the series where criminal events in London are set against successive years of the war. Hardcastle is a bluff, tough, pipe-and-slippers kind of copper, but the novels have a subtle sub-plot which reflects how the war is being fought on the home front, with the inevitable shortage of manpower in the police service, and the ruthless advantage taken by those who live outside of the law. The books have a cosy tinge to them, but are none the worse for that. Ison doesn’t flinch in his portrayal of the effect of a brutal war on hard-pressed families as well as those who are financially more comfortable. For those who like a good London novel, you will find no current writer who is better than Ison at period detail and the creation of an authentic atmosphere.

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THE GREAT WAR and CRIME FICTION …part 1

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Reginald Hill (1936-2012) found fame if not fortune with his series of books and TV adaptations featuring the irascible and unreconstructed chauvinist Andrew Dalziel and his ‘New Man’ assistant Peter Pascoe. Hill wrote just as many stand-alone novels, and the one which concerns us here is his sadly neglected 1985 story, No Man’s Land. Hill takes one of the enduring legends of WWI – that there were roaming bands of deserters of all nationalities who eked out a criminal existence between the front lines. There are three main characters: from the British trenches comes Josh Routledge, a naïve country boy who has witnessed his brother’s court martial and subsequent execution for cowardice; Lothar Von Seeberg is an aristocratic German who has fled the conflict for complex personal reasons; Arthur Viney is a braggadocio Australian who has assembled a mismatched collection of deserters, and named them ‘Viney’s Volunteers. The conflict is never far away, however, and there is also an interesting and tragic interaction between the brigands and a French peasant family.

No Man’s Land is available here

Anne Perry has penned several series of superb historical novels, but the ones which concern us here are grouped together as a quintet. All five have a title taken from poems by, in order, GK Chesterton, AE Housman, Siegfried Sassoon, Alan Seeger and John McCrae.

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These highly enjoyable novels
chart the war years as experienced through the eyes of Joseph Reavley, an army chaplain who, in each book, plays amateur detective and investigates murders. There is a sub-plot of espionage, involving people in high places, anne-perry-photo-2and a recurring – and malign – character named The Peacemaker looms over proceedings. The books work very well as detective stories, and Perry has years of experience at blending crime with period settings. She has been careful to put each plotline in the context of the big events of each year; No Graves As Yet, for example, sets us down in the elegaic final summer of peace, in an England which was still Edwardian in spirit despite the old King being four years gone; in Shoulder The Sky Reavley searches for the killer of a war correspondent whose honesty made him a marked man, and his quest for answers takes him from one military debacle to another, in this case from Ypres to Gallipoli. Perry writes with great conviction and, as with her other books, mixes intrigue, adventure, high drama and impeccable period detail.

The Reavley Quintet is available as a set on Kindle

CasualtyThe First Casualty (2005), saw stand-up comedian Ben Elton continuing a not-altogether-successful foray into the world of serious fiction. He is to be commended for placing a largely unsympathetic character at the centre of his story, but the misadventures of Douglas Kingsley, a career policeman but now a conscientious objector, tend to involve issues such as homosexuality, feminism, pacifism and the Irish Question, which were more on people’s lips at the time of Elton’s TV fame than during the period of WWI itself. Kingsley is thrown in jail because of his stance on the war, and is then abused by criminals who attribute their incarceration to his devotion to duty as a copper. The apparent murder of a rebellious soldier poet (a thinly disguised Siegfried Sassoon) and the sexual misdeeds of his wife Agnes give Kingsley plenty to think about.

The First Casualty is still available in hardback, paperback and Kindle

RODRennie Airth has written a series of novels featuring a retired policeman and WWI veteran, John Madden. I am giving these an honorary mention, as Madden’s whole approach to life, his attitude towards detection, and his views on criminality are all profoundly influenced by his experience in the trenches, and when Manning is centre stage, his musings frequently recall his wartime experiences. The first of the series is River of Darkness (1999), and the events take place in 1921, when men were still dying of war wounds, and many of the country’s war memorials had still to be dedicated. Madden has returned from the war and is now a top detective with Scotland Yard. He is called down to investigate a savage multiple murder in rural Surrey, and he becomes convinced that the brutality of the killings is linked to events that happened during the war, and that the perpetrator, like Madden himself, has been left with scars that are both physical and mental. You might like to read the Fully Booked review of a later John Madden novel, The Dead of Winter.

Check here for buying options for River of Darkness

Charles Todd is actually Charles and Caroline Todd, an American mother-and-son writing team. They have a sufficient fascination with the Great War to have developed two series of novels centred around the conflict. One features a young woman called AUABess Crawford, who manages to combine the grim task of being a nurse tending to the appalling violence inflicted upon the bodies of young men fighting in the trenches, with a determination to get to the bottom of various mysteries which have more to do with individual human failings than with the inexorable mincing machine of the war. Her investigations are sometimes within sound of German guns, but also nearer home, such as in An Unwilling Accomplice (2014), when she has to accompany a celebrity wounded soldier to Buckingham Palace to receive a gallantry award, only to have him escape his wheelchair and commit a savage murder. The Todds have also invested time and words to bring to life the character of Detective Inspector Ian Rutledge, a man who suspended his police career to fight for King and Country. He returns to the police force after the war, but finds that the blood-soaked years have left a bitter legacy, such as in A Lonely Death (2011), when he is called to investigate a series of killings in a Sussex village, and finds that the deaths are all connected with the wartime service of the victims.

You can find more Bess Crawford mysteries here.

lbow-C1I’ll conclude this first part of the feature with a quick glimpse at a trio of curiosities, where the novel gives a fleeting but significant nod to The Great War. In 1917, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a collection of Holmes stories dating back across the first years of the century. In the concluding story His Last Bow: an epilogue of Sherlock Holmes, the great man disposes of a particularly dastardly German spy, and as the story finishes, he says,

“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared. Start her up, Watson, for it’s time that we were on our way.”

Dorothy L Sayers published her classic mystery The Nine Tailors as late as 1934. This was just the latest in a series which had been running since the 1920s, but by then readers will have become used to the fact that Lord Peter Wimsey served on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918, reaching the rank of Major in the Rifle Brigade, and that he met his manservant, Bunter, in the war, and they had agreed that if they were both to survive the war, Bunter would become Wimsey’s valet. The plot of The Nine Tailors is fiendishly complex, but part of the narrative is that a body found in the churchyard is believed to be that of Arthur Cobbleigh, a British soldier listed as missing in action in 1918, but who evidently deserted and stayed in France after the war.

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Price_Other_Paths_GloryAnthony Price has written many spy thrillers tinged with elements of military history, and in Other Paths To Glory (1974) he uses abandoned German fortifications deep beneath the French countryside as the central feature of the novel, most of which is set in the present day world of international realpolitik. As the bunkers in the novel are set in the Somme region, it is highly likely that they are modeled on the astonishing engineering of The Schwaben Redoubt, near Thiepval. The Redoubt was one of the most impregnable defences on The Western front, and it cost many thousands of lives before it was finally taken. The book is the fifth in the series featuring Dr David Audley and Colonel Jack Butler,  counter-intelligence agents who work for an organization modeled on MI5.

PART 2
of

TGWACH feature
THE GREAT WAR and CRIME FICTION
will be available on Friday 11th November

THE GREAT WAR and CRIME FICTION … An introduction

TGWACH header

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

Reflective essays on Fully Booked don’t usually begin with a quotation from the nearest thing to a monster that the 20th Century produced, but in the case of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, we make an exception. I suppose that when someone is the runner-up to Mao Zedong in the mass-murderer hit parade, you might hope that your words outlive your mortal life.

With Stalin’s cynical but perceptive maxim in mind, it would be excusable if a few criminal murders here or there were to be largely ignored in the maelstrom of shot and shell which was The Great War, but both in real life and in the minds of crime fiction writers, a death is a death, particularly if it occurs for reasons other than the victim being too near to the detonation of a minenwerfer or a Stokes Mortar round.

It could be said that novels set in the various theatres of WWII resonate with greater intensity to readers since 1945. In more recent times, and with pure crime fiction in mind, we have the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr, the masterly Fred Troy novels by John Lawton, and the hugely underrated John Madden books by Rennie Airth. Further back, further afield, and further from the crime genre we should not forget the contribution made by American writers such as Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller.

 

Literary

In a purely literary sense, the standout novels which have the The Great War as their backbone have to include Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and a novel which, in my view, trumps them all – Covenant With Death, by John Harris. Harris also wrote one of the iconic novels of WWII, which was a huge success both as a book and a film – The Sea Shall Not Have Them. None of these books could in any way be called a crime novel, and so they must stay outside of our collection.

DonkeysWhat needs to be held up like a bright lantern in our search for good WWI crime fiction, is the fact that those six years are like no other in British history. They have produced a mythology which is unique in modern memory, and with it a collection of tropes, images, phrases and conventions, all of which find their way into the consciousness of writers and readers. Military historians tell only part of the story: the Alan Clark theory of The Donkeys and the anti-war polemic of the the 1960s and 70s has one version of events; more recent accounts of the war by revisionist historians such as John Terrain and Gary Sheffield tell another tale altogether. In considering books and writers for this feature I have used two criteria. Firstly, there must be crime involved that is distinct from the licensed slaughter of wartime and, secondly, the events of the war must cast their shadows over the narrative either in a contemporary sense or in the form of a social or political legacy.

PART ONE of

TGWACH feature

will be published on
FRIDAY 4th NOVEMBER 2016

THE MURDER OF SIR HENRY WILSON

The Britain of summer 1922 was, in some ways, similar to the island in The Tempest:

“the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears..”

abbsThe sounds and sweet airs might have been provided by Haydn Woods’ A Brown Bird Singing or, if you were more disposed towards the art of Edith Sitwell, William Walton’s setting of her poetry – Façade. The discordant sounds of the thousand twangling instruments could have come from several sources; possibly the thousands of impoverished ex-servicemen sold short by the country they had fought for; perhaps, however, the isle which was most full of noises was that of Ireland, and in particular the newly formed Irish Republic.

wilsonSir Henry Wilson was a former General in the British Army, and his contribution to events in The Great War divides opinion. Some have him firmly in the ‘Butchers and Bunglers’ camp, a stereotypical Brass Hat who send brave men off into battle to meet red hot shards of flying steel with their own mortal flesh. Others will say that he was part of the combined military effort which defeated Germany in the field, and led to the surrender in the railway carriage at Compiègne in 1918. Whatever the truth, Wilson was never a field commander. He was much more at home well behind the front line, hobnobbing with politicians and strategists.

When the war ended, he was promoted to Field Marshall, and made a baronet. With Ireland beset by all manner of plots and factional fighting, he resigned his army post and was elected as MP for the Ulster constituency of North Down. He had made it very clear that he despised the Irish Republican movement, and had written in June 1919 that “Ireland goes from bad to worse” and that “a little bloodletting” was needed. His view of the British government’s attempts to deal peaceably with the Irish Problem is summed up by his belief that such peace moves were a “shameful & cowardly surrender to the pistol” by a “Cabinet of Cowards”. Ironically, his own demise was brought about by the pistols of two IRA killers.

In the early 1920s, there was one common activity which retired army generals shared, and it was to travel far and wide across the country, sanctifying by their presence the hundreds of war memorials bearing the names of the 704,803 men who had perished while under their command in the recent conflict. Thus, on the morning of Thursday 22nd June, 1922, Wilson had traveled by cab to Liverpool Street Station, where he had been invited to unveil the memorial to the men of The Great Eastern Railway who had died in the war. Having done his duty, and addressed the crowd of relatives and well-wishers, he returned to his house in Eaton Place in London’s Belgravia.

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As the taxi pulled away, Sir Henry was attacked by two men, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan. He was shot nine times, and the killers made their escape, only to be arrested shortly after. Newspapers made much of the possibility that Sir Henry had drawn his ceremonial sword in his own defence, and had cried, “You cowardly swine!” as he was attacked, but only he and his assailants could verify that, and they are long gone from us.

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 Wilson’s murder outraged popular opinion in England, and polarised views on the situation in Ireland. It was a widely held belief that the murder had been carried out on the orders of the Republican firebrand Michael Collins. Collins himself, incidentally, had only a few more weeks to live, as in the August of 1922, he was murdered, probably by rival Irish factions. Wilson’s funeral was a public affair attended by Lloyd George and the cabinet. French Generals Foch, Nivelle and Weygand came to pay their last respects, as well as many of his former British army colleagues including French, Macready, Haig and Robertson. The Field Marshal was buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.

 And Sir Henry’s killers? They were duly tried and convicted of his death and hanged at Wandsworth prison on 10th August 1922, and buried in the prison grounds. As befits the adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, the remains of both Dunne and O’Sullivan were repatriated to the Irish Republic and given a heroes’ burial in 1967. A final irony in a case that is positively dripping with it, is that both men had fought for King and Country, with great gallantry in the war that had made Sir Henry Wilson such a prominent public figure.

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