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Witchcraft

WHAT WILL BURN . . . Between the covers

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As the title suggests, What Will Burn is all about fire. It begins with an old woman, badly beaten and then set alight. There are passages which hark back to the late sixteenth century, and describe the dreadful end of women who were accused of witchcraft and burnt at the stake. A man apparently spontaneously combusts as he sits in his basement flat. It ends with a grim parallel to those scenes when one of the book’s main characters, suffers a similar fate in a grim parody of those historical executions.

So, what has all this to do with James Oswald’s Edinburgh copper
, Detective Chief Inspector Tony McLean? Or, to be more accurate, Detective Inspector McLean, as he returns to duty busted down a rank after a lengthy investigation into misconduct.

His ‘welcome back Tony” case is that of the agonising death of Cecily Slater, an elderly member of an aristocratic family, who has lived alone in a crumbling cottage in the woods above Edinburgh. Her charred remains have gone unnoticed for some time, until an estate worker who runs the odd errand for the old woman makes a grisly discovery.

McLean also becomes involved with a controversial campaign called Dad’s Army. They are not the avuncular dodderers from Walmington-on-Sea, but a group of embittered men who, for one reason or another, have been denied access to their children. They are led – and empowered – by a lawyer called Tommy Fielding, a man who who has a seemingly pathological hatred of women, and is undeterred by the fact that many of his clients have been separated from their children due to allegations of serious sexual abuse.

All good police procedural series
need a repertory company of regular characters, and the Tony McLean books are no exception. There’s Grumpy Bob, guardian of the cold case records down in the basement, Detective Constable Janie Harrison – now Acting Detective Sergeant Harrison, the lugubrious Detective Constable ‘Lofty’ Blane. McLean himself is a fascinating character. Thanks to a legacy, he has the luxury of being financially independent of his job, but loves the work. He also has the mixed blessing of being someone who is sensitive to things paranormal, and beyond the ken of the Police Scotland operational handbook. Away from the station, there is the strange character of Madame Rose, a transexual psychic who can always be relied upon to provide a sense of things “not dreamt of in our philosophy”.Last but not least, there is Mrs McCutcheon’s cat. We never see the owner, but the moggie is a permanent resident in McLean’s house.

There is a new member of the cast
in this novel, in the person of Chief Superintendent Gail Elmwood, freshly signed from the Metropolitan Police to head up Tony’s team. Let’s just say that she is not your conventional senior police officer.

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As the reviewers’ cliché has it, the body count gets higher. Readers expecting a conventional solution to the criminal activity in What Will Burn will search in vain. James Oswald takes this book to a new level of dark imaginings, intrigue, human venality and sinister happenings which, if they don’t scare you, it perhaps means that you are in a persistent vegetative state. What Will Burn is published by Wildfire, and is out today, 18th February.

I am a confirmed and long-standing fan of the Tony McLean series. To read reviews of earlier novels, click here.

THE MEON HILL MURDER . . . Part three

The Spring of 1945 turned into summer in Lower Quinton. The barren hedges that Charles Walton had tended bore green buds. The war in Europe finally ended, and the wives, daughters, mothers and sisters who had not lost their men in the struggle against Hitler began to dream of the day when “We’ll Meet Again” would be a joyful reality rather than a sentimental song. More mundanely, the Warwickshire police were none the wiser as to who had hacked an old man to death on that fateful St Valentine’s Day. Robert Fabian had returned to London, and Alec Spooner had other cases to solve (although the Walton murder remained an obsession with him).

Just as the identity of Jack the Ripper will never be known, we will never know who killed Charles Walton, or why. As recently as 2014, the local BBC team for Coventry and Warwickshire examined the case, and sent some unfortunate trainee out there to quiz the locals. As you will see from the feature (click here) no-one was very keen to talk, any more than they were in the weeks and months after the murder.

Alfred Potter died in 1961, and whatever secrets he had went into the grave with him. The Firs farm was later demolished and was replaced by an expensive housing development. Talking of graves, the researcher will look in vain for the last resting place of Charles Walton, in St Swithin’s churchyard. It has been said that the headstone was removed to deter ghoulish sightseers, but like so much of this story, there is no hard evidence that this is the case. Walton’s meagre cottage has now been knocked through with two other adjoining properties to make a rural residence which, no doubt, is worth an eye-watering amount (below)

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My view? The only thing that stands out like the proverbial sore thumb is the total collective silence – both contemporary and future – of the villagers of Lower Quinton. 1945 was not a time of continual distraction from electronic or digital media. Lower Quinton was not a bustling place, a transport hub, or somewhere used to endless strangers coming and going. Someone – and then by definition others in their circle – knew something, and the resultant omertà is almost as chilling as the murder itself. Thirty years later, Walton’s death was still providing copy for regional journalists and, although I have no evidence that Ron Harding – who penned this piece – was in any way involved with the murder, it still sounds as certain people – or their sons and daughters – at the heart of whatever made Lower Quinton tick, were still anxious for the world to move on and leave them to their secrets.

THE FAMILIARS . . . A launch to remember

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sidebar1AT THE APPROPRIATELY NAMED DEAD DOLLS HOUSE in Islington, the inventive folks at publishers Bonnier Zaffre launched Stacy Halls’ novel The Familiars with not so much a flourish as a brilliant visual fanfare.

The novel was at the centre of a vigorous bidding war and, having won it, Bonnier Zaffre celebrated in style. The book is set in seventeenth century Lancashire, and the drama plays out under the lowering and forbidding bulk of Pendle Hill. If that rings a bell, then so it should. The Pendle Witch Trials were a notorious example of superstition and bigotry overwhelming justice. Ten supposed witches were found guilty and executed by hanging.

Stacey Halls takes the real life character of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, still a teenager, yet mistress of the forbidding Gawthorpe Hall. Despite being only 17, she has suffered multiple miscarriages, but is pregnant again. When a young midwife, Alice Grey, promises her a safe delivery, the two women – from such contrasting backgrounds –  are drawn into a dangerous social upheaval where a thoughtless word can lead to the scaffold.

Back to modern London. Francesca Russell, now Publicity Director at Bonnier Zaffre, has masterminded many a good book launch, and she and her colleagues were on song at The Dead Dolls House.  We were able to mix our own sidebar2witchy tinctures using a potent combination of various precious oils. I went for Frankincense with a dash of Patchouli. I managed to smear it everywhere and such was its potency that my wife was convinced that I had been somewhere less innocent than a book launch.

We were encouraged to give a nod to the novel’s title, and draw a picture of our own particular familiar, and pin it to a board for all to see. I decided to buck the trend towards foxes, cats and toads, and went for a fairly liberal interpretation of that modern icon, the spoilt and decidedly bratty Ms Peppa Pig.

The absolute highlight and masterstroke of the evening was, however, a brief dramatisation of a scene from the novel. Gemma Tubbs was austere and elegant as Fleetwood, while Amy Bullock, with her Vermeer-like simple beauty, brought Alice to life.

That’s the good news, and I have a copy of the novel. The bad news is that it isn’t out on general release until February 2019. Here’s wishing everyone a happy winter, and I hope you all survive another one. If you need an incentive to get through the long hours of cold, darkness and northern gloom, The Familiars should fit the bill. It will be published by Bonnier Zaffre and can be pre-ordered here.

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