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HOT HOUSE . . . Between the covers

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Mari E is an LA private investigator,  distinctly low-rent to judge by her business premises, a converted container in a down-at-heel part of the city. Her premises neighbours are mostly scammers and grifters of one kind or another. She is a former government agent. She has been hired by an federal appellate judge to find out who is blackmailing him. Whoever it is wants her off the case and has been threatening her with anonymous notes. She is also certain she is being followed. For back-up she hires a partner, former LAPD detective, and now a PI himself, Derek Abernathy. He is very smart, though, and soon works out that Mari E leads a double life.

“So I have two jobs, what’s the big deal? A girl’s gotta make a living, right?”
“Jobs? More like lives,” he hissed back, pointing outside towards the parking lot.
“Mari E, as you call yourself, drives a fifteen year-old dented Honda and wears a weathered hoodie artificially inseminated with the smell of smoke and vanilla cologne. Mar-ISSA, on the other hand, drives a freaking Porsche and buys her eight-hundred-dollar Ferragamo shoes in Beverly Hills, which she wears to her Culver City art gallery!”

Hot+House+Final+CoverThat is just a quick sample of the whip-crack dialogue in the book, which fizzles and sparks like electricity across terminals. Very soon Mari and Derek realise that the blackmailed judge is also connected to the unsolved murder of a French duel-passport student, Sophie Michaud, and the fate of two women journalists who investigated the case, one of whom is dead and the other missing.

Mari has her own crusade, which is related to her being shot while on a case twelve months or so previously. Her father resolved to take his own revenge on the European crime boss responsible, but neither has been seen since. She realises that if she can discover who killed Sophie, the rest of house of cards will come tumbling down. Big problem, though. She discovers that Sophie was not just one person. Yes, physically she was one body, but psychologically two separate beings lived under that particular roof, and were even known by different names – Sophie and Sasha. One was a dreamy and talented creative artist, while the other was a calculating sexual schemer who used information about potential blackmail victims with the ruthless logic of a criminal Marie Kondo.

Good crime writers can be lyrical when they need to be, and if there were any doubt that LIsa Towles is a genuine California Girl, this passage dispels it.

“There were some places where the quality of the light is always good, and others where it’s never quite right. Too bright to see an incoming text, too dark to find your keys in the bottom of your bag. Besides California, I’d lived in three other states, and somehow the light in LA had a quality that didn’t exist anywhere else. Sometimes the sun was so high and bright, it bled out all detail leaving a luminous silvery cloak over the sand and surf. Then at dusk, that same beachfront hides in climbing shadows, with only small details visible beneath the streetlamps. It was the unsinkable promise of light and dark that anchored me to this place, this stretch of rugged coastline with its seagulls and secrets.”

LisaIn the end, the blackmailer of the judge is located, and the killer of Sophie/Sasha is brought to justice, but with literally the last sentence, Lisa Towles poses another puzzle which will presumably be addressed in the next book. Hot House is everything a California PI novel should be. It has pace, great dialogue, totally credible characters and a pass-the-parcel mystery where Lisa Towles (right) has great fun describing how Ellwyn and Abernathy peel back the layers to get to the truth. Sure, the pair might not yet stand shoulder to shoulder with Marlowe, Spade and Archer, or even more modern characters like Bosch and Cole, but they have arrived, and something tells me they are here to stay.

Hot House is published by Indies United Publishing House, LLC, and will be available in the UK as a Kindle, audiobook and hardback from 15th June. The paperback was published in March. For my reviews of three earlier novels by Lisa Towles, just click on the cover images

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THE LAST TO DISAPPEAR . . . Between the covers

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No-one will ever accuse Jo Spain of being unadventurous. With a best-selling series of police procedurals under her belt – the superb Tom Reynolds novels – a lesser writer might hunker down and play safety first by sticking to the familiar. But that’s not Jo Spain. Her last standalone thriller, The Perfect Lie (click for review), was set in Newport, Rhode Island, and now she takes us to the ski resort of Koppe in icy Finland, where Brit Alex Evans has travelled to identify the murdered body of his sister, Vicky. She was something of a ‘free spirit’, having wandered half the way round Europe doing a variety of temporary jobs (including pole dancing in a Spanish bar), always broke, but always looking for the next big adventure. Her body has been found by an ice fisherman, and has been in the water for some time.

Handling the investigation is local police chief Agatha Koskinen, but Alex is determined to ask his own questions. He discovers that Vicky had been working at a local  hotel and had made friends with an American tourist who is now back in the states, but has an alibi for the time when Vicky disappeared. Agatha has demons of her own to contend with, however, as somewhere out there is the abusive parent of her three children – Luca – and she fears for them should Luca come back into their lives.

As ever, Jo Spain weaves a complex mystery, and gives us a split time narrative. She takes us back to 1998 where we are a fly on the wall in the house of Miika and Kaya Vartinen. Miika is a Sami – one the ethnic people of what used to be known as Lapland. He is a reindeer herder. Kaya is pregnant, but Miika is not the father. She is carefully managing the usual symptoms so that when she tells him,  Miika will believe the child is his.

The significance of the book’s title becomes clear when Alex visits Agatha at her home, and she reveals that Vicky is the latest woman to disappear in a ten-year period, and that Kaya Vatinen was the first. She also tells Alex that Miika Vartinen is widely suspected as being involved in the disappearances, but no evidence has ever emerged to connect him to the cases.

With the most delicate of touches, Jo Spain hints at the darker aspects of life in Koppe, where there is an undercurrent of racism towards the Sami people, and she reminds us of the familiar theme of movers and shakers in tourist resorts – think the Mayor of Amity Island in Jaws –  not wanting anything to disturb the inward flow of visitors and their cash. There is also the spectre of an international mining company sensing a million dollar windfall from the minerals sitting beneath the pristine and picturesque Finnish landscape.

Jo Spain’s tricksy thrillers are very cleverly written. She relies on us making assumptions. She invites us to make these assumptions rather like a fly fisherman casting the cunningly constructed fly on the water, hoping it will fool the fat trout (aka the reader). When we realise we have been gulled, we might turn back a few ages and react with something like, “hang on – didn’t she tell us that …?“, only to find that what she wrote was  perfectly ambiguous, and that we have jumped to the wrong conclusion. Perhaps there’s a few too many mixed metaphors there, but I hope you get my drift.

There are only two predictable things about a Jo Spain thriller. The first? There will be a dramatic plot twist. The second? You won’t see it coming! The Last to Disappear is published by Quercus, and will be out on 12th May. For more of my reviews of Jo’s books, click the image below.

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HUNT . . . Between the covers

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Leona Deakin started her career as a psychologist with the West Yorkshire Police. She is now an occupational psychologist, so you can rest assured that her career has given her a valuable insight into how a fictional criminal psychologist would go about their work. Such knowledge, however, is worthless if the author can’t write. In Deakin’s hands the result is that we have a totally convincing character (Dr Augusta Bloom), an intricate plot with whiplash-inducing twists and turns, and a book that you just don’t want to end.

Screen Shot 2021-09-27 at 19.35.58Screen Shot 2021-09-27 at 19.36.16Hunt is the third episode in Augusta Bloom’s career, and you can read my reviews of the previous two stories by clicking the images. Bloom has an uneasy relationship with Marcus Jameson (a former military intelligence analyst), notionally her partner in their investigation agency. Rather than Ying and Yang, they are more chalk and cheese. The book begins with Bloom being summoned south from her Yorkshire Dales hideaway. Who demands her services? None other than the Foreign Secretary Gerald Porter. Where is he? In a London police cell, detained on suspicion of selling information to Britain’s enemies. But why does he need Dr Augusta Bloom?

Hunt coverThe answer to that conundrum forms the central premise of the book. Porter’s niece Scarlett has been drawn into the orbit of a feminist organisation called Artemis led by a charismatic woman called Paula Kunis. Porter will only answer police questions about his activities if Bloom undertakes to track down Scarlett and extract her from the clutches of Artemis. Bloom is smart enough to realise that Porter is up to something, but cannot work out why he is so worried about his niece, when every other aspect of his behaviour suggests that he is a cold and devious man, with psychopathological elements to his character.

On-line investigations by Bloom and Jameson get them only so far, and so Bloom decides to go to a seminar run by Artemis, to see what manner of creature it is. The women running the presentation are warm, friendly and convincing, but give little away, as Bloom tries to question them as subtly as possible. Having hardly scratched the surface of the veneer, Bloom signs up for a weekend retreat at the Artemis headquarters in an isolated village in the Scottish highlands. Jameson is dubious about this as he has a sixth sense that Artemis is not the benevolent campaigner for women’s rights that its glossy literature and media presence claim it to be. Bloom reassures him. After all, this the 21st century, the age of mobile phones and instant connectivity. What can possibly go wrong over a long weekend?

Bloom and a minibus full of other attendees arrive at the location, and are met by a flock of charming and smiling women who seem overjoyed to welcome potential recruits to the cause. It is all very fragrant, but a tiny alarm begins to ring in Bloom’s head as she sees all mobile phones and watches being handed over to the Artemis greeters. This tinkling bell becomes more clamorous when Bloom realises that the new arrivals are being subjected to sleep deprivation, time disorientation and one-to-one social monitoring by the Artemis devotees.

Back in the outside world, three things have happened. Firstly, Jameson has discovered that the Scottish retreat is entirely surrounded by high fences topped with barbed wire facing inwards, all the better to keep people in rather than to keep intruders out. Secondly – and much more worrying – is the appearance on the scene of Seraphine Walker, a sinister and clever criminal fixer, rather like a 21st LDcentury Professor Moriarty, who has crossed swords with Bloom and Jameson before. Thirdly, Gerald Porter has inexplicably disappeared from police custody and, almost immediately, a huge social media campaign vilifying Paula Kunis and Artemis has been launched, with the result that scores of husbands and fathers of women “poached” by Artemis have headed to the Scottish retreat and are angrily congregating at its gates.

Leona Deakin (right) has written an absolute cracker of a thriller, and her portrayal of how cults go about their business preying on innocent and needy people is chilling. The conclusion of Hunt is dramatic, violent and utterly gripping.

Hunt is out now, published by Black Swan/Penguin, and you can investigate buying choices by clicking the images below. Or, visit your local bookshop if you are lucky enough to have one.

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THE BURNING . . . Between the covers

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The Kellerman family – Jonathan, Faye and now Jesse – seem to be able to turn out highly readable thrillers at the flick of a switch. My personal favourites are the Alex Delaware novels, but this is the second Clay Edison book I’ve read, and it’s excellent. The Burning is billed as 4 of 4, so the series will come nowhere near the astonishing 36 books books of the Delaware series (with the 37th due next year) You can read my review of the 36th, Serpentine, by clicking the link. My review of the third Clay Edison book, Lost Souls is here.

Burning028But back to Clay Edison. He is a Deputy US Coroner in Berkeley, California, and The Burning begins, quite topically, with a destructive bush fire that has knocked out power supplies for everyone except those with their own generators. When Edison and his partner are summoned to retrieve a corpse from a mansion up in the hills, they find that Rory Vandervelde – a multi millionaire – has died from gunshot wounds. He was an avid collector. Rare baseball and basketball memorabilia, Swiss watches, antique knives – you name it, and Vandervelde had bought it. It is when Edison is inspecting the dead man’s astonishing collection of classic cars, stored in a huge garage, that he discovers something that sends a shiver down his spine, and not in a pleasant way.

“I’d missed the Camaro on my way in. So much to gawk at. Eyes not yet adjusted. I saw it now. It was, to be specific, a 1969 SS/Z28. V8 engine, concealed headlights, black racing stripes, custom leather upholstery.

A hell of a car. One that I recognised specifically. I had seen it before. Not once, but many times.

It was my brother’s.”

Edison muses that there has to be an innocent explanation why his brother’s prize possession – a car he had restored from near junk – is in the murdered man’s garage. He surely wouldn’t have sold it to him? Luke Edison is a reformed addict who has done jail time for killing two women in a drug fuelled car theft, but he has rebuilt not only the car, but his life. Simple solution – call Luke on his cell phone. No answer. Repeated calls just go to voice mail. Clay Edison has the black feeling that something is very, very wrong, but in an instinct for family protection, he tries to prevent any of his law enforcement colleagues from identifying the vehicle’s owner and linking him with the murder.

No-one – Luke’s neurotic hippy partner, his parents, his boss at a marijuana-based therapy start-up – has seen or heard of Luke for several days. Working off the record, explaining to no-one what he is doing, and sensing that his brother is a victim rather than a perpetrator, Clay Edison finally discovers that his brother is being used as bait by some seriously evil characters who – as payback for deaths in their family for which they hold him, Clay, responsible – are prepared to stop at nothing to exact their revenge.

I finished this book during a return train journey and a quick hour before bedtime. It is ridiculously readable. Yes, it’s slick, unmistakably American, and probably formulaic but, as the late, great British film reviewer Barry Norman used to say, “And why not?” Just shy of 300 pages, it is everything that is good about American thriller fiction – fast, exciting and  – like Luke Edison’s Camaro – a bumpy but exhilarating ride. I have no idea who wrote what in the Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman partnership, but who cares? Published by Century, The Burning is out on 21st September in Kindle and hardback, and will be available next year in paperback.

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OUTBREAK . . . Between the covers

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This is the third Luke Carlton thriller by the BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, following Crisis (2016) and Ultimatum (2018). Carlton is a former Special Forces operative who now works for MI6, the foreign intelligence service of the United Kingdom. The novel begins in the frozen wastes of Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago formerly known as Spitzbergen, and three environmental scientists from the UK Arctic Research Station have been caught out by a blizzard and, too far from their base camp to make it back safely, they seek refuge in a hut. What they find there makes them wish they had braved the snow and wind and tried for home. They find a gravely ill man, and one of the scientists, Dr Sheila Mackenzie gets rather too close to him:

“As Dr Mackenzie turned back to face the sick man, without warning he arched his body forward off the back of the couch with surprising speed. His whole body shook with involuntary convulsions. In that same moment, he coughed violently. His mouth wide open in a rictus gape, he emitted a spray of blood, bile and mucus into the air, his face less than two feet from hers, before collapsing, quivering on to the wooden floor.”

Screen Shot 2021-06-06 at 18.46.45That, then, is the Aliens moment. Events move with terrifying speed. Mackenzie is airlifted back to England and isolation and the wheels of government and the intelligence agencies begin to whirr. Given that there is a large Russian presence in Svalbard, ostensibly for mining operations, the fingers of guilt begin to point towards Moscow, particularly when the virus is found to be man-made.

Gardner doesn’t allow either Carlton or readers pause for either thought or breath. The action zig-zags between the MI6 building at Vauxhall Cross in London, the Arctic Circle, Vilnius, Moscow, GCHQ in Cheltenham and – less exotic but rather more deadly – a down-at-heel industrial estate near Braintree.

This is an impeccably researched novel, as you would expect from someone with Gardner’s experience in the worlds of soldiering, news gathering and international affairs. Most of the story is all-too-horribly plausible, given what we know about what is euphemistically known as ‘mischief’ from Moscow and Beijing, but then Gardner has a surprise for us. The Russians are involved, certainly, but not the Russians we might have expected. To say more would spoil the entertainment but I did find the identity of the conspirators not entirely plausible, given what we know (or think we know) about terror cells operating around the world. But hey-ho, this is not a documentary but a novel – and a bloody good one, too.

Gardner has a box full of thriller writer tools, and he uses them to great effect – punchy, short chapters, many of them shamelessly cliff hanging, whirlwind globe trotting, a convincing (if rather conventional) hero, something of a romantic backstory, breathtaking amounts of cyber-wizardry, and enough military intelligence acronyms to satisfy the geekiest security geek. You won’t be surprised to hear that Carlton eventually triumphs, but I advise caution. The last twelve words of the book might set alarm bells ringing …..

Outbreak is published by Bantam Press and is out now.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Lethal Response

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Readers first encountered Norman Townsend’s creation Paul Stafford back in 2018, in Trashed:

“Some ex-military men
find that civilian life is hard to deal with, but Paul Stafford is coping well. He has used his retirement pot to start a small recycling business and everything in the scrapyard seems to be rosy, until he wins a lucrative contract to run a further five sites. What should be a business triumph turns into a nightmare for Stafford when he realises that his new sites have been previously used by a powerful criminal organisation, and the bad guys do not take kindly to their work being interrupted. Murder and violence come as second nature to them, and when his own employees begin to feel the full clout of the gangsters, Stafford must stand and fight – both for them and his own integrity.

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lr cover017Stafford’s triumph has won him some influential friends, but also some deadly enemies. You don’t take on powerful international criminal gangs without there being a downside, and when two of Stafford’s long time buddies pay the ultimate price for being associated with him, it’s payback time. Stafford’s first job is to protect those around him from further harm, but once that is done, he will be taking no prisoners.

Something about the author. Norman’s Amazon page says:

“I’ve worked as a photographer, milkman, salesman, warehouse manager. I’ve been self-employed, I’ve bought and sold trash! Worked in the waste industry for thirty years or so, and though now retired, still buy and sell stuff. TRASHED is my first novel, and it’s based around the waste industry, recycling centres, to be specific. I’ve tried to make it a fast paced, exciting read. Literary Fiction it ain’t, but it’s getting good reviews from real readers. Thank you folks, for that”

Lethal Response is published by Matador/Troubadour and is available now.
 

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WEDDING STATION . . . Between the covers

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Coming late to a well-established series can pose problems for a reviewer but, happily, this book is a prequel to the six published previously. The series is known as the Station Series, written by David Downing, and featuring the investigative crime reporter John Russell. The titles all take their names from railway stations around Berlin. They are Zoo Station (2007), Silesian Station (2008), Stettin Station (2009), Potsdam Station (2010), Lehrter Station (2012), and Masaryk Station (2013).

Fans of the books will have to excuse me while I paint a quick background picture. It is early 1933, and Hitler has been Chancellor for just a few weeks. We begin just hours after the Reichstag fire, and the SA – Sturmabteilung – are going about their grisly business with renewed vigour. Russell is English, a veteran of WW1 – and a former communist – but due to his marriage (now failed) to a German woman, he can happily say, “Ich bin ein Berliner.

WS coverWhile reporting on the death and mutilation of a young rent boy, Russell is asked by a friend to take on another case, this time on behalf of a senior army officer whose daughter is missing. It is a delicate business, because there is a strong suspicion that Lili Zollitsch has run off with a boyfriend who is an active member of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands.

Russell seems to collect mysterious deaths and disappearances like some men collect stamps. Hard on the heels of the Colonel’s missing daughter, he hears that a prominent genealogist has been killed in what seems to be a case of hit-and-run. One of Herr Mommsen’s most popular services had been producing evidence of racial purity – as in no trace of Jewish blood – for his clients. Had he made a rather unfortunate discovery and signed his own death warrant? If this weren’t enough, a well-known astrologer has gone missing – believed permanently – and when Russell investigates via one of Harri Haum’s customers he is astonished when she tells him that in a crystal ball-reading session a few days before the event, the seer had predicting the burning of the Reichstag.

But there is yet more for Russell to deal with. One of the friends of the murdered rent boy contacts the journalist and hands him the dead lad’s diary, in which he has faithfully recorded the names of his clients, as well as intimate physical descriptions. As Russell turns the pages, he finds the names of prominent members of the SA. Now while homosexuality is – along with communism, and being Jewish – a big no-no in the eyes of the Schutzstaffel (SS) it is a different matter in the rival organisation, the SA. The SA’s head, Ernst Röhm along with a good number fellow brownshirts are, as coy newspaper obituaries used to say, “confirmed bachelors.”

The final straw for Russelland one that very nearly breaks the back of the proverbial desert beast of burden – is when a knock on the door of his apartment reveals a young woman called Evchen who, years earlier, was a communist comrade. Not only is she still a party member, she has just shot dead one SA trooper and seriously injured another. And now she seeks shelter. How Russell gets himself out of these various pickles is gripping stuff. Some of the tension is obviously diminished by the fact that we know that the journalist survives to feature in six further books, but it is still a very good read.

We are clearly in Bernie Gunther territory here, and comparisons are inevitable, but in no way negative. This is a compelling read and a chill reminder – if any were necessary – of the gathering storm facing Germany and the wider world in the 1930s. Wedding Station is published by Old Street Publishing. The hardback is available now, and the paperback version will be out on 4th May.

SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME . . . Between the covers

This is a strange one, and no mistake. Not the book itself, which is perfectly readable, but the title. Mainly because the one thing it isn’t is Robert B Parker’s. It’s Ace Atkins, re-imagining the world of the tough wise-cracking Boston PI, Spenser. I suppose it must be some legal stipulation from the estate of Spenser’s creator (1932-2010), but it certainly makes for an unwieldy title. I was a huge fan of the forty canonical Spenser novels and, also, the equally readable Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall books, but let’s remember that Spenser was himself something of a reinvention of Philip Marlowe: a few decades later, for sure, more up for a fist fight, but still with a good line in wise-cracks and sarcastic put-downs. Unlike Marlowe, however, Spenser had a reliable repertory company of helpers, notably his alluring psychologist girlfriend Susan and the implacable and intimidating Hawk.

So, to the novel. The characters are all present and correct including (regrettably, as far as I am concerned) the latest manifestation of the dog Pearl. Pearl and her little ways used to irritate me in the original books but, to be fair, Spenser simply wouldn’t be Spenser without the doggy love, so Ace Atkins gets a reluctant star for authenticity. Spenser is asked to investigate a sex crime. Not his normal bread and butter, but a very much under-age friend of a friend has been used and abused by someone much richer and infinitely more powerful. Peter Steiner and Poppy Palmer are disgustingly rich – and have disgusting moral values. To put it bluntly, Peter likes under-age girls, and Poppy likes that he likes them, and gets her kicks from sucking them into their decadent whirlpool.

The Steiners are also well-connected. Politicians great and small, financiers, socialites, fund-raisers – mostly anyone who is anyone in Boston and further afield – all tip their hats to the Steiners. Neither does it hurt that the Steiners’ clout enables them to hire serious muscle from the criminal underworld and, as most of the child rape is conducted on a private island somewhere in the vicinity of the Bahamas, neither the Boston Police Department nor the FBI can do anything to intervene.

Spenser is, if nothing else, an extremely moral man, and the plight of the youngsters stirs him to put his hands into the hornets’ nest. He has important allies in the shape of two other long-standing members of Spenser Inc. – tough and honest cup Quirk, and the voluptuous campaigning lawyer, Rita Fiore. Despite their authority, however, neither Quirk nor Fiore can lay a glove on the Steiners while they are despoiling young lives on their Caribbean hideaway.

Clearly, in real life, things work differently. Or maybe they don’t? Much closer to home we have witnessed the appalling abuse of thousands of young girls across English towns and cities, while those in authority, like the Jew and the Levite in the parable, passed by on the other side. Maybe they weren’t swayed by money directly, but their livelihoods in social services, the police and local government would have been under threat if they had done or said “the wrong thing”. Back to the fiction, Ace Atkins sets up a terrific finale here, with Spenser and Hawk travelling to an island close to the Steiners’ lair. Not only do they face a small army of minders and gunmen, but a man known as Ruger who, a few books ago, bested Spenser and left him for dead.

Spenser’s crusade is flawed, however, because someone he counts on is working for the bad guys, and the plans to liberate the youngsters goes pear shaped. Just when you think that this is finally “it” for Spenser and Hawk, something totally unexpected happens and a certain amount of rough justice is meted out. The scandal of powerful men – not just the rich and privileged, but men with social status in their communities – abusing young children seems to be a growth area. Ace Atkins has written a scathing account of one such atrocity in America. Someone needs to have the balls to write one set in Britain. Someone To Watch Over Me is published by Oldcastle Books and is out now.

PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . .The Little Man From Archangel by Georges Simenon

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Was Georges Simenon the greatest ever Belgian? He was certainly the most prolific both in his literary output and his apparently inexhaustible sexual appetite. Best known for his Maigret novels and short stories, he also wrote standalone novels. One such was Le Petit Homme d’Arkhangelsk, first published in English in 1957. This new edition, translated by Siân Reynolds (who is the former Chair of French at the University of Stirling) is, like most of Simenon’s books short – just 185 pages – but as powerful a story as he ever wrote.

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Little man013We are in an anonymous little town in the Berry region of central France, and it is the middle years  of the 1950s. Jonas Milk is a mild-mannered dealer in second hand books. His shop, his acquaintances, the café, bar and boulangerie he frequents are all like spokes of a wheel, and the hub is the bustling Vieux-Marché. Jonas appreciates his neighbours, such as Le Bouc behind the counter in his bar, Gaston Ancel the butcher, with his booming voice and bloodstained apron, and the Chaignes family in their grocery shop. Jonas values these people or, to be more precise, he values their acceptance of him, because he is an outsider. Sure, he has been in France since he was a small boy, his family – from the port on Russia’s White Sea coast – having sought refuge in France during the Revolution. They have all returned to their homeland, and Jonas does not know if they are alive or dead. He is also a Jew, but because of his fair hair and complexion he survived the attention of the Nazis during the Occupation.

Little man014 copyJonas Milk has a wife. Two years earlier he had converted to Catholicism and married Eugénie Louise Joséphine Palestri – Gina – a voluptuous and highly sexed woman sixteen years his junior. No doubt the frequenters of the Vieux-Marché have their views on this marriage, but they are polite enough to keep their opinions to themselves, at least when Jonas is within earshot. But then Gina disappears, taking with her no bag or change of clothing. The one thing she does take, however, is a selection of a very valuable stamp collection that Jonas has put together over the years, not through major purchases from dealers, but through his own obsessive examination of relatively commonplace stamps, some of which turn out to have minute flaws, thus making their value to other collectors spiral to tens of thousands of francs.

Gina has had her flings before, though, seeking physical excitement that Jonas does not provide. He has born his shame in silence, and it has never occurred to him to challenge her. This time, however, when he makes his morning purchases – his croissants, his cup of espresso – and is asked where Gina is, he makes a fatal mistake. Perhaps through embarrassment, or irritation perhaps, he tells a small lie.

“As a rule, Gina, in bedroom slippers, often with her hair uncombed, and sometimes wrapped in a flowery dressing gown, would do her shopping early on market days, before the crowd.
Jonas opened his mouth and it was then that, in spite of every instinct telling him not to, he changed the words he was going to say.
“She’s gone to Bourges.”

Four words. Each of them harmless on its own, but together, something entirely different . What happens next is a masterpiece of brilliant storytelling, as in just a few days, the world of Jonas Milk begins to unravel. Simenon’s ability to describe profound events while framing them with little inconsequential moments of observation – a blackbird pecking at crumbs in a back garden, a café owner turning his face away from the steam of his coffee machine, a wife not cleaning up the frying pan after cooking herrings – is astonishing.

You will probably read this book in a couple of sessions. Yes, it’s a short book, anyway, but my goodness, what an impact it makes. The Little Man From Archangel is published by Penguin Modern Classics, and is out on 1st April.

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