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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 1: London and Cambridge

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I am taking a journey around England to revisit places associated with great crime novels. One or two might be a surprise!

London is a great place to start, and one of its finest crime writers was Derek Raymond (real name Robert William Arthur Cook 1931 – 1994). His Factory series featured an un-named Detective Sergeant working out of a fictitious police station in Soho. He is part of the Unexplained Deaths division and a man already haunted by tragedy. His mentally unhinged wife killed their daughter, and he is alone in life except for her ghost. This is a London of almost impenetrable moral darkness, an evil place only infrequently redeemed by intermittent acts of kindness and compassion. The detective devotes himself to seeking justice or revenge (and sometimes both) for the victims.

DRWe are left to imagine what he looks like. He never uses violence as a matter of habit, but his inner rage fuels a temper which can destroy those who are unwise enough to provoke him. Why is he so bitter, so angry, so disgusted? Of himself, he says:

I’m a solitary man. Sometimes, mind, there’s happiness in solitude, still, it helps to talk to other people sometimes and  dig back together to a time when people felt that the past mattered and something good might happen in the future. But when I open the next door I’m sent to and find the dead inside, overturned bottles and tables, bloody, dishonoured, defamed people lying there, I sometimes accept that dreaming and hoping the way I do is absurd.”

Raymond is regarded as the Godfather of English Noir and is an acknowledged influence on most modern writers in the genre. A good novel to start with is He Died with His Eyes Open (1984) but you will need to steel yourself before tackling his brutal masterpiece I Was Dora Suarez. There’s more on Derek Raymond and his books here.

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SERGEANT SALINGER . . . Between the covers

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This fictionalised biography of the life of JD Salinger certainly begins with a name-dropping bang. Within the first twenty pages, we are in Manhattan’s legendary Stork Club, and we are rubbing shoulders with – alongside the young writer himself – Ernest Hemingway, Walter Winchell, Merle Oberon, Peter Lorre, and the bewitchingly erotic daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, Oona, who would later – much to Salinger’s chagrin – marry Charlie Chaplin.

FA8rkugXIAMOsiBThis prelude takes place in 1942, but two years later Salinger is in literally much deeper and more dangerous waters. He is a sergeant in the American army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) and has been posted to Tiverton in Devon, where the 4th Infantry Division is preparing for the D-Day landings. Salinger has to count the corpses as the US Army desperately tries to cover up two separate disasters which result in the deaths of over nine hundred American servicemen. The Slapton Sands fiasco (Operation Tiger) is described here.

The novel follows Salinger’s progress as he survives D-Day and the push through Normandy. He finds himself busy in French villages where former Nazi collaborators are trying to reinvent themselves as patriots, and he witnesses the scenes in Paris where the population takes revenge on men and women who co-operated with the German administration.

By far the toughest part of Salinger’s war, in terms of physical danger, is what he calls ‘The Green Hell.‘ The American forces were held up in the autumn and early winter of 1944 as the retreating German army took up positions in the Hürtgen Forest – over 50 square miles of dense and mountainous woodland on the Belgian German border. With splinters from shell-shattered trees causing as many casualties as bullets, the Americans suffered huge losses and only took the area when the German Army was eventually defeated at what has become known as The Battle of The Bulge.

Worse awaits Salinger, however. Not in terms of his own physical safety, but through a dreadful discovery which was to scar the minds of many of those who were present. As the Americans advance into Bavaria, they come across Kaufering Lager IV – part of the Dachau concentration camp complex. All but a handful of camp guards and administrators have fled, leaving behind them a scene from hell.

“Sonny climbed down from the jeep. He saw several axes near the siding, axes covered in blood. The guards must have been in a great hurry. They’d slaughtered prisoners of the camp even while they were herding them into the cars. Sonny found several bodies without head, hands or feet. He could follow the path of their butchery, footprints etched in blood.”

He discovers that the stationmaster of the railway siding is still hiding in his house. He gives Sonny (Salinger) a kind of perverse and depraved guided tour.

“The stationmaster led Sonny to three barracks that were partly underground, like wooden bunkers, but these bunkers had been nailed shut and set on fire while still packed with ‘citizens’ of Kaufering, the camp’s slave labourers. Sonny had to wear a handkerchief over his mouth and nose, otherwise he would have fainted right in the Lager. He couldn’t understand how the stationmaster had survived the stench, the crippling acid of rotten flesh.
‘Open the barracks,’ Sonny said, ‘Every one.’
‘But that is impossible,’ the stationmaster said, ‘It is not my job. I am responsible for the trains.’
‘Open’, Sonny said, handing him a bloody axe, ‘Or I’ll execute you on the spot.’
The stationmaster saluted Sonny with a sudden respect. ‘Yes, Herr Unteroffizier.’
He chopped away at the wood, pried out the nails, and opened the barracks, one by one. Some of the charred bodies were still smouldering. They were packed so tight, skull to skull, covered in shreds of their own burnt hair, that they had a perverse, horrifying beauty, as if they’d been sculpted out of fire.”


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This horrific experience, on top of so many other traumas, tips Salinger into a kind of temporary insanity, and he checks himself into a German psychiatric clinic, where he meets a young German doctor, Sylvia Welter. They have a strange, but doomed attraction to each other and, when, war ends, they marry. Eventually the couple return to New York but, as they set up a kind of home with Salinger’s Jewish parents, it is clear that the marriage is dead, and Sylvia returns to Germany.

Sergeant Salinger is both dazzling and disturbing, and Jerome Charyn has written a brilliant account of Salinger the soldier, Salinger the writer and – above all – Salinger the troubled but deeply compassionate man. It is published by No Exit Press and is available now.

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TO ALL THE LIVING . . . Between the covers

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This is the latest in the series of excellent reprints from the Imperial War Museum. They have ‘rediscovered’ novels written about WW2, mostly by people who experienced the conflict either home or away. Previous books can be referenced by clicking this link.

MonicaAuthor Monica Felton (1906 – 1970) was certainly an unusual woman and, to borrow a modern phrase, somewhat to the left of Lenin. In 1951, she visited North Korea as part of the Women’s International Democratic Federation commission and outlined her impressions in the book That’s Why I Went (1954), adhering to an anti-war position. In the same year, she was awarded a dubious and deeply ironic honour – the International Stalin Prize “for peace between peoples”

We are, then, immediately into the dangerous territory of judging creative artists because of their politics, which never ends well, whether it involves the Nazis ‘cancelling’ Mahler because he was Jewish or more recent critics shying away from Wagner because he was anti-semitic and, allegedly, admired by senior figures in the Third Reich. The longer debate is for another time and another place, but it is an inescapable fact that many great creative people, if not downright bastards, were deeply unpleasant and misguided. To name but a few, I don’t think I would have wanted to list Caravaggio, Paul Gauguin, Evelyn Waugh, Eric Gill or Patricia Highsmith among my best friends, but I would be mortified not to be able to experience the art they made.
To All The Living
So, could Monica Felton write a good story, away from hymning the praises of KIm Il Sung and his murderous regime? To All The Living (1945) is a lengthy account of life in a British munitions factory during WW2, and is principally centred around Griselda Green, a well educated young woman who has decided to do her bit for the country. To quickly answer my own question, the answer is a simple, “Yes, she could.”

Another question could be, Does she preach? That, to my mind, is the unforgivable sin of any novelist with strong political convictions. Writers such as Dickens and Hardy had an agenda, certainly, but they subtly inserted this between the lines of great story-telling. Felton is no Dickens or Hardy, but she casts a wry glance at the preposterous bureaucracy that ran through the British war effort like the veins in blue cheese. She highlights the endless paperwork, the countless minions who supervised the completion of the bumf, and the men and women – usually elevated from being section heads in the equivalent of a provincial department store – who ruled over the whole thing in a ruthlessly delineated hierarchy.

Amid the satire and exaggerated portraits of provincial ‘jobsworths’ there are darker moments, such as the descriptions of rampant misogyny, genuine poverty among the working classes, and the very real chance that the women who filled shells and crafted munitions – day in, day out – were in danger of being poisoned by the substances they handled. The determination of the factory managers to keep these problems hidden is chillingly described. These were rotten times for many people in Britain, but if Monica Felton believed that things were being done differently in North Korea or the USSR, then I am afraid she was sadly deluded.

The social observation and political polemic is shot through with several touches or romance, some tragedy, and the mystery of who Griselda Green really is. What is a poised, educated and well-spoken young woman doing among the down-to-earth working class girls filling shells and priming fuzes?

My only major criticism of this book is that it’s perhaps 100 pages too long. The many acerbic, perceptive and quotable passages – mostly Felton’s views on the more nonsensical aspects of British society – tend to fizz around like shooting stars in an otherwise dull grey sky.

Is it worth reading? Yes, of course, but you must be prepared for many pages of Ms Felton being on communist party message interspersed with passages of genuinely fine writing. To All The Living is published by the Imperial War Museum, and is out now.

BLACKOUT . . . Between the covers

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B0December 1939. Berlin. The snow lies deep and crisp and even, and Kriminalpolizei Inspector Horst Shenke is summoned to the Reich Security Main Office to meet Oberführer Heinrich Müller, a protege of Reinhardt Heydrich and recently appointed head of the Gestapo. Müller has a tricky problem in the shape of a former film star, Gerda Korzeny. Her husband is a lawyer and Nazi Party member who specialises in redrafting potentially awkward pieces of existing legislation in favour of the Party. And now Gerda is dead. Found by a railway track with awful head wounds. She had also been brutally raped. But what does this have to do with Heinrich Müller? His problem is that Gerda Korzeny was known to be having an affair with Oberst Karl Dorner, an officer in the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence organisation, and the Gestapo man wants the matter dealt with quickly and discreetly.

We learn that Schenke is a very good copper, but that his career has stalled because he has, thus far, refused to become a Party member. In his younger days, Schenke was a well-known racing driver, until a near-fatal accident forced him to quit the sport. His only legacy from those heady days is a permanently damaged knee. He is romantically involved with a woman called Karin Canaris, and if that surname rings a bell with WW2 history buffs, yes, she is the niece of the real-life head of the Abwehr, Admiral William Canaris.

Although he initially believes that the case will not bring him into direct conflict with local Nazi officials, Schenke’s discovery that Berlin has a serial killer on the loose is of little comfort, as everyone in the Party, from Goebbels down to the lowliest apartment block supervisor is anxious to preserve public confidence in these early months of the war.  Oberst Dorner takes a step or two down the ladder of Schenke’s suspects when the killer strikes again, but this time fails to finish the job. The victim survives with bruises and shock, but Schenke finds himself in a tight corner when, after investigating the young woman’s several false identities, he discovers that her real name is Ruth Frankel, and she is Jewish. In normal times, her racial profile shouldn’t matter, but these are not normal times, and Party officials take a dim view of wasting valuable resources on any case involving Jews.

Heinrich_MüllerOberführer Müller, (right) in an attempt to keep tracks on what Schenke is doing, sends a young Gestapo officer called Liebvitz to shadow the Kripo officer, and that allows us to meet a rather unusual fellow. These days, we would probably say he has Asperger’s Syndrome, as he takes everything literally, has no sense of humour and a formidable eye for detail. He is also a crack shot, and this skill serves both Schenke and the department well by the end of the book.

Simon Scarrow cleverly allows Schenke makes one or two mistakes, which makes for a very tense finale, but also establishes him as a human being like so many other fictional coppers before him – tired to the point of exhaustion, frustrated by officialdom and trouble by his conscience. Before the book ends, we also meet the deeply sinister – despite a superficial icy charm – Reinhardt Heydrich.

Comparisons between the worlds of Horst Schenke, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther and David Downing’s John Russell are inevitable, but not in any way damaging. A good as they are, neither Kerr nor Downing have taken out a copyright on the world of WW2 Berlin. Simon Scarrow shines a new light on a city and a time that many of us think we know well. He creates vivid new characters – and revitalises our enduring fascination with some of the historical monsters that stalked the earth in the 1930s and 40s. I sincerely hope that this becomes a series. If so, it will run for a long time, and grip many thousands of readers. Blackout was first published in hardback in March this year, and this Headline paperback is available now.
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THE DISTANT DEAD . . . Between the covers

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I was gifted this to review by Head of Zeus, so huge thanks to them. The Distant Dead is the eighth in a series by Lesley Thomson, so I am coming late to the party. What attracted me to the book? Two things, really. Firstly there was a mention of a WW2 element, and I am a sucker for anything war-related. Secondly, some of the action takes place in the Gloucestershire town of Tewksbury. Years ago now, a very dear friend of mine, Miles Amherst – long since gone,sadly – founded a choir school at Tewksbury Abbey. I had taught with him in Ely, but we had gone our separate ways. When the choir school was running, I was teaching in a Shropshire prep school, and I always had a half day on Mondays. It was a bit of a drive, but sometimes I used to motor down to Tewksbury, rehearse with the choir and help them sing Evensong. Afterwards was always beer, food – and an small-hours drive back to Salop.

So, happy memories, but what of the book? I am not the biggest fan of split time narratives, but many authors are, so it is what it is. In this case, at least, the connection between the narratives is clear. In Blitz-torn London, a young woman is found dead – strangled in an abandoned house. The pathologist called to the scene, and who later carries out the post mortem, is a man called Aleck Northcote. He tells the police investigating the case that the woman, Maple Greenhill was a common prostitute.

TDDYears later, Northcote has retired to Tewksbury, but is found dead. His wastrel son is convicted of his murder. Pretty much present day, Stella Darnell, the daughter of a policeman, now working as a contract cleaner in Tewksbury, meets a man named Roddy March who has produced a podcast about the 1963 murder of Northcote. Roddy investigates cases where he thinks the wrong person went to prison – or, in this case, the gallows. When Roddy is found murdered next to an ancient tomb in Tewksbury Abbey, Stella feels connected enough to find out the truth about how past and present have merged – with fatal consequences.

So, what exactly happened in 1940?. We know – from the prologue – that Maple Greenhill has gone into an empty house with a man friend, and that he strangles her. When her body is found, London copper George Cotton is called, but his investigation leads nowhere until a cigarette lighter is found at the scene. It is engraved with the initials AXN. Cotton puts two and two together, and assumes that the pathologist – Aleck Xavier Northcote – must have dropped it when he was called to look at the body. Then, in a separate breakthrough, a garment repair ticket is found in Maple’s coat. When Cotton visits the tailor, he is astonished to be joined by a woman who says she has lost the self-same ticket. The woman is Mrs Aleck Northcote.

Lesley Thomson switches the narratives very cleverly and poses important questions as the book progresses. Was Northcote Maple’s man-friend, and did he kill her? If he did, how then did he avoid prosecution and survive to be murdered in his own house twenty three years later? And if Giles Northcote – who had visited his father on than fateful evening to ask for money to pay off a gambling debt – didn’t kill his father, then who did? And was the killer somehow connected to the death of Maple Greenhill.

Obviously, I am not about to reveal the answer to the conundrum, but you will enjoy – as I did – how Lesley Thomson has Stella Darnell – and her companions –  searching for, and then finding, the truth. The actual solution to what turns out to be multiple murders is breathtakingly complex, but this a clever, literate and totally convincing murder mystery – and thoroughly, thoroughly English. People who follow the news know that Tewksbury is notoriously susceptible to flooding, standing as it does at the confluence of the rivers Severn and Warwickshire Avon, and Lesley Thomson uses the power of the river as it hurtles over weirs and beneath bridges as a very effective metaphor for the violence in human souls. The Distant Dead is available now, and the previous books in the series are pictured below. If you click the image, you will be taken to Lesley Thomson’s website.

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PATHFINDERS . . . Between the covers

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I can’t think of a publishing event
over the last few years which has been more impressive than the republishing of WW2 novels by the Imperial War Museum. It has become an axiom that The Great War was identified with the poets, but what was the literary legacy of the war against Hitler? This series has confirmed that the dreadful six years of global conflict inspired some superb novels. I was born just after the war ended. My father served in the British Army throughout, and had many a tale to tell but, until recently, I had no idea of the breadth of novels written by men and women who took part in the conflict. Yes, I had read Waugh’s superb Sword of Honour trilogy and Len Deighton’s magisterial Bomber, but beyond those, very little. I have reviewed all the previous books in this series, and you can find my thoughts by clicking this link. The latest in the series is Pathfinders, first published in 1944.

screen-shot-2021-05-10-at-10.46.53Cecil Lewis (left) was a combat pilot in the Great War, but returned to the colours as both an instructor and an active flier in WW2. Pathfinders tells the tale of the crew of a Wellington aircraft. Perhaps unjustly, the Wellington has not captured the public imagination as much as its big sister, the Lancaster, but the Wellington was a durable workhorse that played a vital role in the work of Bomber Command. The six men who flew the aircraft in this novel each have a specific job as the aircraft goes in ahead of a bombing raid to drop incendiary flares on the ground targets so that the following planes can see when and where to unload their bombs.

A Pathfinder crew comprised pilot, co-pilot, navigator, wireless operator, front gunner and rear-gunner. Lewis structures his book around a detailed examination of each of these men, and tells us what kind of people they are. He shows us their backgrounds, their history, their loves, their losses – and their relationship to one another. Relatively little of the text deals with the actual raid the men are involved in. Instead, we have six chapters which deal with, in turn:

Screen Shot 2021-05-10 at 10.45.35Peter Morelli, co-pilot. The American-Italian is suave, debonnaire, but is aware of the struggles and prejudice faced by immigrants in a new country.

Sam Dollar, front gunner. Raised in the brutish and fundamental wilderness of the Canadian forests, Dollar has little to say, but is determined and resolute.

Benjy Lukin, wireless operator. From a Jewish family, Lukin is well-read and erudite, In a former life he was a well-respected theatre critic.

Tom Cookson
, navigator. Born into a disfunctional English family, he was sent to live with relatives in New Zealand. In his late teens he built a sea-going yacht with his best friend, and survived hurricanes while sailing Dolphin from New Zealand to Suva.

‘Nobby’ Bligh, tail gunner. A London lad, he resolve to fight back against the Nazis after a Luftwaffe bomb demolished his father’s bakery, trapping and killing the older man beneath tons of collapsed masonry. At home, his wife is dying of leukemia.

Hugh Thornly, pilot. An Oxbridge man of genteel birth, he was determined to become either a philosopher or a politician, but then the war intervened. His wife Helen – the daughter of a distinguished General, is expecting their second child.

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After the biographies, though, Lewis returns – with devastating effect – to the matter in hand. The night raid on Kiel starts well, but then the German defences on the ground and in the air take their toll, and the final stages of the Wellington’s mission are as terrifying a description of the price of war as you will ever read.

Many will have read Lewis’s Sagittarius Rising, his classic account of the war in the air between 1914 and 1918. This wasn’t published until 1936, so there had been a considerable time lapse between his experiences and the book’s publication. Pathfinders is, by contrast, nearly contemporary. How do the two books compare? Does the unusual narrative structure of the later book work? I have to say that for the sheer white knuckle terror of flying flimsy and totally vulnerable aircraft, nothing could beat Sagittarius Rising for its sense of immediacy. As for the structure of Pathfinders, military history buffs may find the central section a rather long diversion from the matter in hand. Personally, I stuck with it, and felt that knowing the six men in person, as it were, made the eventual outcome even more poignant.

In the bitterest of ironies, the military part of Pathfinders begins and ends not in the air or on the runway from which P for Pathfinder took off and landed, but in the sea. To say more would be a spoiler, but I can say that this is a deeply moving and memorable account of brave men having to find a resolution between the horrific carnage their weapons were creating – and the greater long-term good. The only consolation, in human terms, that one can draw from this book, is that in the last few pages, we have a reversal of the solemn words of the Anglican burial sentences:

“In the midst of death we are in life”

Pathfinders is published by the Imperial War Museum and is out now.

HARDCASTLE’S SECRET AGENT . . . Between the covers


Before I became a reviewer
, and earned (I hope) the privilege of being sent books and .mobi files by publishers, I had been a lifetime library user. Crime Fiction was my first and last love, and in my regular Saturday afternoon trawl through the shelves, there were certain authors whose names I always sought out. In no particular order, these would include Jim Kelly, Phil Rickman, John Connolly, John Sandford, Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Jonathan Kellerman, James Lee Burke, Graham Hurley, Christopher Fowler – and Graham Ison.

The Graham Ison books were slimmish-volumes, usually the Brock and Poole series, but my favourites were always the Hardcastle books. Ernie Hardcastle was a London copper in and around the years of The Great War. He could come over brusque in his dealings, but other might use the word ‘avuncular’. He distrusted innovations such as the telephone, but had a true copper’s nose for villains. A couple of his books are reviewed here, but inevitably, ‘time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away..‘ Thankfully, in Hardcastle’s Secret Agent, Ernie is still with us, but long since retired, and the Hardcastle concerned is his son Walter, now a rising star in the Metropolitan Police.

HSAWe are, as ever, in London, but it is 1940. The Phony War is over, and the Luftwaffe are targetting industrial sites they believe to be involved in making parts for military aircraft. When several important employees of one such factory are burgled – clearly by an expert – but with nothing other than trinkets stolen, Hardcastle believes he may be on the track of a German spy on the look-out for plans, blueprints or important military information. Hardcastle has to deal with The Special Branch, but finds them about as co-operative as they were with his father a couple of decades earlier. This has a certain tinge of irony, as part of the author’s distinguished police career was spent as a Special Branch Operative.

The search for the German spy withers on the branch, but Hardcastle has other fish to fry. A prostitute – or at least, a young woman who was free with her favours –  has been found beaten to death, and the hunt for her killer takes Hardcastle into military quarters.

Eventually, Walter Hardcastle gets both of his men, and on the way we have a vividly recreated world of an England struggling to come to grips with a new world war. Not one that is being fought far away on some foreign field, but one which is brought to people’s very hearths and homes every single night. Hardcastle’s Secret Agent is published by Severn House/Canongate Books and will be out on 1st May.

Sad to relate, Graham Ison died suddenly in late 2020 before he could complete this book. It was finished with the help of his son Roger. Graham Ison was prolific, certainly, and critics might argue that he stuck to a reliable formula in each of his series, and never ventured into unfamiliar territory. Neither was he a darling of the crime fiction festival circuit, but I suspect after decades working as a policeman that never bothered him. What he was, however, was a reliable name for readers who bought his books and – importantly – library borrowers, who knew that they could rely on him for a story well told, and if his words took them into familiar territory, then that was nothing for either reader or writer to be ashamed about.

MURDER AT THE RITZ . . . Between the covers

MATR headerZogAny novel which features – in no particular order – Commander Ian Fleming, King Zog of Albania, a dodgy lawyer called Pentangle Underhill, and a Detective Chief Inspector named The Hon. Edgar Walter Septimus Saxe-Coburg promises to be a great deal of fun, and Murder At The Ritz by Jim Eldridge didn’t disappoint. It is set in London in August 1940, and Ahmet Muhtar Zogolli, better known as King Zog of Albania (left) has been smuggled out of his homeland after its invasion by Mussolini’s Italy, and he has now taken over the entire third floor of London’s Ritz Hotel, complete with various retainers and bodyguards – as well as a tidy sum in gold bullion.

Anyone who has studied the history of Albania will know that it has always been a chaotic place. In the 1920s, while working at the League of Nations, the famous sportsman CB Fry was reputedly offered the throne. For a rather more serious memoir of Albania during WW2, Eight Hours From England (click for the review) by Anthony Quayle is well worth a read, and we all know – thanks to the Taken franchise, starring Liam Neeson, that Albania’s chief export to the rest of the world is organised crome, drug-running, money laundering and people trafficking.

Screen Shot 2021-02-25 at 19.08.38Back to the story, and when a corpse is discovered in one of the King’s suites, Coburg is called in to investigate. The attempt to relieve the Albanian monarch of his treasure sparks off a turf war between two London gangs who, rather like the Krays and the Richardsons in the 1960s, occupy territories ‘norf’ and ‘sarf’ of the river. After several more dead bodies and an entertaining sub-plot featuring Coburg’s romance with Rosa Weeks, a beautiful and talented young singer, there is a dramatic finale involving a shoot-out near the Russian Embassy. This is a highly enjoyable book that occupies the same territory as John Lawton’s Fred Troy novels (click to read more). It is nowhere near as dark and dystopian as those books, but Murder At The Ritz is none the worse for that.

Since 2016 Jim Eldridge has concentrated on writing historical crime fiction for adults. Previously he worked as a scriptwriter and wrote books for children and young adults. As a scriptwriter he had over 250 TV and 250 radio scripts broadcast in the UK and internationally. In 2019 I read, enjoyed and reviewed an earlier book by this writer, and if you click on the title – Murder At The British Museum – you can see what I thought. Murder At The Ritz is published by Allison & Busby and is out now.

AMBRIDGE AT WAR . . . Between the covers

Archers001Followers of these pages will know well that my strapline is Crime For The Cogniscenti and might wonder what I am doing reviewing a book about the Archers. I was intrigued to be offered this, written by Catherine Miller, but was prepared to be underwhelmed. It just shows how wrong one can be, and why it is never a good idea to prejudge things.

There may well be some transatlantic readers of my reviews who have never heard of Ambridge or the Archers, but I won’t waste words on the background other than to say that Ambridge is a fictional village in Worcestershire, and the long-running radio serial – it first broadcast on 1st January 1951 – was described as “an everyday story of country folk.”

I have to say at this point that I parted company with BBC Radio 4 in general, and The Archers in particular some time ago. Both have become far too ‘woke’ and socially aware for this curmudgeonly man in his 70s to be bothered with, but this book reminded me of what I used to enjoy about the programme.

It is January 1940, and rural England is having to come to terms with the expression, “don’t you know there’s a war on?Dan Archer and his wife Doris run Brookfield Farm, and Dan is now the Ambridge representative on the ‘War Ag’ – The War Agricultural Executive Committee, whose main job it is to put every available acre of land under the plough to grow food. And that means everything from grazing land to rose gardens. The first evacuees from London have arrived, and Doris is in charge of checking that the newcomers are being looked after.

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Archers fans can find the family tree elsewhere on the internet, but who else would they recognise? That depends on the longevity of their Archers ‘habit’. Walter Gabriel and his son Nelson put in an appearance, as do various members of the disreputable Horobin family. A central figure in the story is the village Squire, Alec Pargetter, who is having an affair with a comely young widow, but not doing too well at concealing it from the nosy villagers – or his aloof wife Pamela. Their rather strange son, Gerald, will go on to be the father of the nice-but-dim Nigel who was, of course, controversially killed off by the producers when he fell off a roof in 2011.

51KaDaIRGaL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Someone is leaving handwritten notes around the village hinting at various moral indiscretions taking place. The notes are, naturally, anonymous, but are the slurs true? Unfortunately, the author of the allegations seems to be uncannily wired into the private lives of the people of Ambridge, and has the unfortunate ability to see through closed doors and curtained windows.

Aside from those we might call canonical characters, whose descendants serious Archer buffs will know and love, Catherine Miller has assembled an intriguing cast; there is the bedridden and pampered Blanche Gilpin –  plump and sweet-smelling, like an apple left to rot.” – who is waited on hand and foot by her downtrodden sister Jane; Kitty Dibden-Rawles is a beautiful young Irish woman, widowed and left in debt by a profligate husband; Dr Morgan Seed, keeper of many a village secret, is long a widower, but has he the chance to love again? And Lisa – poor Lisa Forrest – Doris Archer’s mother, in the terrifying grip of what we now call Alzheimers.

It took just nine words – and these were quoted on the first chapter heading –  to alert me to the possibility that this book might be something special.

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Catherine Miller is clearly – like me – a lifelong devotee of Thomas Hardy. Not only does each chapter heading use a line or two from one of his bitter-sweet poems, she shapes plot resolutions as Hardy-esque ironies, of which the great man would have been proud. Another little in-joke is that when Kitty writes love notes to her lover, they are signed “G.Oak.

Make no mistake. This is not a cosy rural idyll – the war claims more casualties than are caused by bombs or bullets and, despite the bedrock decency of Dan and Doris Archer, the cruelties of fate are explored with raw honesty. The book is billed as Volume 1, so enthusiasts – of which I am one –  will have more joys to come. The Archers – Ambridge At War is published by Simon & Schuster and is out now.

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