WELCOME TO FULLY BOOKED! If you are a fan of crime writing – old, new, true or fiction – you should find something to entertain you here. Among the regular features will be a focus on real life crimes, both in the UK and further afield, the classic fiction of The Golden Age, and the latest new releases from top authors and publishers.
Napoleon. Dumas. Two names resonant of nineteenth century France. A warrior and a writer. Put them together, and you have an unusual combination. Unusual, certainly, for a New Jersey cop. He has been known as ‘Nap’ for as long as he can remember, and he takes centre stage in the latest thriller from Harlan Coben. Dumas was born in Marseilles but since his family moved to Westbridge, NJ, he hasn’t strayed far from his home town. Nap Dumas is not, however, all he seems to be. On the one hand:
“Mr Nice Neighbour. See, I am that rarest of creatures in suburban towns – a straight, single, childless male is about as common out here as a cigarette in a health club – so I work hard to come across as normal, boring, reliable.”
That’s the Nap Dumas who waves to his neighbours Ned and Tammy and never forgets to inquire how their son’s team is doing in the little league. There is another Nap Dumas, too. He’s the man who tracks down Trey, a lowlife bully who has been beating up his girlfriend and abusing her daughter. He’s the man who explains the problem to Trey. With a baseball bat.
There’s a third Nap Dumas, who never lets a day go by without talking to his twin brother Leo. That’s the Leo who, fifteen years ago was found by the railway tracks with his girlfriend Diane. Both of them turned into little more than roadkill by the impact of 3000 tons of freight train. The sequence of events of that terrible night play on loop inside Nap’s head, along with a nightmare tangle of unanswered questions. Why did the pair commit suicide? Why did Nap’s girlfriend Maura Wells disappear that night and simply drop off the radar?
When ex-Westbridge boy Rex Canton – now a traffic cop in neighbouring Pennsylvania – takes two bullets in the back of the head while conducting a routine traffic stop, the investigators come looking for Nap Dumas. At first he is puzzled. He hasn’t seen Rex Canton in years, and they were never particularly close. But when they tell him whose fingerprints they found in the car realisation dawns:
“I have always heard the expression,’the hairs on my neck stood up,’ but I don’t think I ever quite got it until now.”
One of the investigating officers spells it out, just in case the penny hasn’t dropped:
“The prints got a hit …. because ten years ago, you, Detective Dumas, put them in the database, describing her as a person of interest. Ten years ago, when you first joined the force, you asked to be notified if there was ever a hit.”
The discovery of Maura’s prints triggers a journey into a nightmare that some people in Westbridge had tried to forget. A nightmare made up of lies, lives shattered, deception and cold blooded murder. Nap Dumas, however, is determined to prise up the stone from the ground, even though he knows that dark and deadly things will be scuttling about underneath.
Coben is never anything but readable and he is great form here. This was one of those books which pose a delicious dilemma – do I carry on reading as the hook of the action bites deeper and deeper, or do I put it down for a couple of hours to make it last longer? As a regular reader of Coben’s books I knew that the big reveal – in this case the truth about the deaths of Leo and Diane – would be a definite “Oh, my God!” moment, but try as I might, I didn’t get close to guessing the actual shocking detail.
Coben doesn’t usually spend too much energy on giving us anything remotely romantic but, as a bonus, he allows himself to tug a few heartstrings at the end of this gripping – and affecting – thriller. Fans of Coben’s sporting investigator Myron Bolitar (read our review of Home here) will also be pleased to know that he puts in an appearance – albeit a brief one – in Don’t Let Go, which is published by Century and will be available in all formats from September 26th.
Fer-de-Lance was published in 1934 by Farrar & Rinehart, Inc. I doubt there will be any readers living for whom this novel was their introduction to the series. Most, like me, will have read one of the other 45 first. I mention this because it is astonishing how Stout brings the curtain up on the whole Wolfe household so that we feel we have known them for ever. Not for him the clumsy explanations or contrived insertion of the back-story. “Here they are”, he seems to say, “.. let’s get on with the story.”
And what a story it is. A wealthy and highly regarded academic, Peter Oliver Barstow dies from an apparent heart attack while he is engaged in a foursome on a golf course. Meanwhile, an Italian metalworker, Carlo Maffei, has disappeared, but then turns up – as a corpse – murdered, if the knife embedded in his chest is anything to go by. As Wolfe uses his phenomenal intellect to link these cases, we learn that he is partial to a glass (or six) of beer. Bear in mind that Prohibition in America had only ended in 1933. Wolfe, perhaps disheartened by the lack of a decent drink, decides to cut down on his intake:
“I’m going to cut down to three quarts a day. Twelve bottles. A bottle doesn’t hold a pint. I am now going to bed.”
Archie is sent (because Wolfe rarely if ever leaves the house) to interrogate the residents of the house where Maffei lived. Archie Goodwin, remember, is the sole narrator of these stories. He sums up Anna Fiore:
“I went over and shook hands with her. She was a homely kid about twenty with skin like stale dough, and she looked like she’d been scared in the cradle and never got over it.”
It turns out that Barstow was killed by a poison dart which was loaded into the specially prepared shaft of a golf club. The club’s shaft was adapted by the late Carlo Maffei to release its deadly projectile when the face of the club head made contact with the ball. Wolfe directs operations from the brownstone house, where he sits like a fat spider at the centre of a deadly web. When it emerges that Barstow was not the intended victim, and that the truth behind the killing implicates so many people, Wolfe pronounces:
“It is an admirable dilemma; I have rarely seen one with so many horns and all of them so sharp.”
Eventually, of course, after encounters with a deadly snake and a a scheming attorney, the mystery is solved, but not before Wolfe demonstrates that he is prepared to dispense his own rather harsh brand of justice. We are also treated to his own lordly – and almost Dickensian – use of language:
“I have just being explaining to Mr Anderson that the ingenious theory of the Barstow case which he is trying to embrace is an offence to truth and an outrage to justice, and since I cherish the one and am on speaking terms with the other, it is my duty to demonstrate its inadequacy.”
The relationship between Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe lies at the heart of these novels. There is a sense of servant and master, and Goodwin clearly worships the ground that Wolfe walks on, despite his frequent frustrations and occasional attempts to ruffle Wolfe’s imperious demeanour. In his own magisterial way, Wolfe treats Goodwin like a much-loved but slightly wayward son. This affection occasionally gives way to acerbic put-downs:
“Some day, Archie, when I decide you are no longer worth tolerating, you will have to marry a woman of very modest mental capacity to get an appropriate audience for your wretched sarcasms.”
Stout always had a weather eye open for commercial opportunities, and he was able to arrange for an abbreviated version of this story to be re-hashed as a pulp short story re-named Point of Death – complete with illustrations.
Almost the first thing which strikes you as you settle in to read A Family Affair (1975) is the sheer breadth of real life events straddled by the Nero Wolfe novels. When Fer de Lance was published America was in the dying throes of Prohibition, John Dillinger, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had only recently been shot dead, but Pretty Boy Floyd was still at large. By the time Stout’s final novel was published, America was still reeling from the Watergate scandal, Nixon had resigned, The Rocky Horror Show had opened on Broadway, and a man called Bill Gates was playing around with words which could describe his new micro software.
If you want a literally explosive opening to a novel, look no further. Late at night, Paul Ducos, a waiter from Wolfe’s favourite New York restaurant, rings the bell on the front door of the old brownstone, and beseeches Archie to let him speak to Wolfe. He says his life is in imminent danger. Fearful of waking his boss at such an inhospitable hour, Archie compromises, and allows the fearful Frenchman to stay the night in a spare room, with the promise of an audience with Wolfe in the morning.
As Archie prepares for bed, the house shakes and there is a terrible noise. The spare bedroom being bolted from the inside, he clambers in through the shattered window via the fire escape, and sees Ducos lying on the floor:
“He had no face left. I had never seen anything like it. It was about what you would get if you pressed a thick slab of pie dough on a man’s face and then squirted blood on the lower half.”
We learn fairly quickly that Ducos has been killed by a bomb he was inadvertently carrying. A doctored aluminium cigar tube had been planted in his jacket. He discovered it and, fatally, unscrewed the cap. Wolfe reacts to the death with barely suppressed fury. Ducos is dead, yes, but the real assault is on his sanctuary, his own home, the place he values so much that he rarely leaves it.
Archie – assisted by the usual supernumaries Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Ollie Cather – is turned loose to find out who killed Paul Ducos. One of the leads takes Archie to the dead man’s home which he shares with his father and daughter. The old man is wheelchair bound, and speaks no English, and the young woman is unwilling – or unable to help. Archie is unimpressed by the contents of her bookshelves and has something to say about Lucile Ducos’s espousal of the feminist agenda:
“All right, she’s a phony. A woman who has those books with her name in them wants men to stop making women sex symbols, and if she really wants them to stop she wouldn’t keep her skin like that, and her hair, and blow her hard-earned pay on a dress that sets her off. Of course she can’t help her legs. She’s a phony.”
It becomes clear that Paul Ducos was a bit-player in a wide screen drama involving senior industrialists and lawyers, one of whom died the week before the waiter was killed. When Lucile Ducos is also killed, Archie and Wolfe find themselves not working alongside the local cops, but prime suspects, and they spend several uncomfortable hours under lock and key. When they are released, and despite the demands of the case, Wolfe does not lose his appetite, neither does master chef Fritz Brenner succumb to the pressure:
“He tasted his lunch, alright. First marrow dumplings, and then sweetbreads poached in white wine, dipped in crumbs and eggs, sautéed and then doused with almonds in brown butter.”
This is one of the more serious and deadly episodes in the career of New York’s most celebrated private investigator, but there is still time for humour. Wolfe’s magisterial demeanour and studied delivery does not go un-noticed or unchecked by his right-hand man:
“’Whom did you hear say what?’
I have tried to talk him out of “whom”. Only grandstanders and schoolteachers say “whom”, and he knows it. It’s the mule in him.”
The Goodwin-Wolfe partnership has never come under such strain, and the servant comes within a couple of breaths of finally severing ties with his master but, thanks to a social link with Archie’s long-time lady friend. Lily Rowan, it dawns on all concerned that the villain of the piece is not one of the highly placed lawyers or politicians, but someone much closer to home. By the by, Archie’s admiration for Lily Rowan is unashamed, but he cannot resist a seasoning of irony:
“I’d buy a pedestal and put her on it if I thought she’d stay. She would either fall off or climb down. I don’t know which.”
Eventually, in a chilling and brutal conclusion, justice of a kind is served. Wolfe and Archie escape the clutches of the District Attorney and his officers, but there is a final knock on the door from an angry policeman. Fully aware of his machinations but frustrated by Wolfe’s ability to enforce his own law while remaining invulnerable to the laws of the city of New York, Inspector Cramer lashes out, bitterly, but his barb simply bounces off and rolls harmlessly into a dark corner of the office:
“He went and got his coat and put it on and came back, to the corner of Wolfe’s desk, and said, ‘I’m going home and try to get some sleep. You probably have never had to try to get some sleep. You probably never will.’”
This is the last episode in the long and illustrious career of the gargantuan, pompous – but eerily perceptive consulting detective. Of his origins we learn little, except that he is, by origin, a Montenegran, and that he has an aged mother living in Budapest to whom he sends money. It is tempting to ascribe elegiac qualities to Wolfe’s last bow. Rex Stout was to die in the same year as the novel was published. Wolfe had survived the greatest challenge – a challenge made from within his trusted family, and a challenge aimed at the high altar of his own church – the brownstone on West 35thStreet. That altar has been desecrated but, in the end, Wolfe clings to his certainties.
“When the sound came of the front door closing, Wolfe said,
‘Will you bring brandy, Archie?’”
The last word should go to Thomas Gifford (1937 – 2000) who was no slouch at crime writing himself.
“Through Wolfe and Archie, Stout shows you how people are supposed to behave. How grownups act when the pressure is on. So in the very best and wisest sense, and quite painlessly too, Stout shares his code with you, and you are improved a bit.. You would be hard pressed to find another popular writer of his era who more subtly and ably defined what it was to be civilised, to have standards.”
Rex Todhunter Stout (above) packed several lives into his 88 years on God’s earth. He was a publisher, a propagandist, a radio celebrity, a campaigner for author rights, inventor, husband and father – and the creator of one of the immortal crime fiction partnerships. The son of Quaker parents, Stout was born in Noblesville Indiana in 1886, and if the tale of him reading the Holy Bible from cover to cover twice by his fourth birthday is true, then he must have been an extremely precocious child.
After serving in the U.S. Navy and honing his writing skills with magazine articles and stories for pulp periodicals Stout achieved some level of financial independence in an unusual fashion. Had it been in the digital age, his achievement would probably be that he designed a piece of software, but this was 1916, and his creation was a banking system designed for school to keep track of cash paid in by children. Stout was clearly canny enough to demand royalties, and the income enabled him to travel widely, and to write what he wanted to write, rather than what paid.
For all that Stout was an intellectual and a vigorous campaigner for what he believed in, his legacy remains the creation of Nero Wolfe. Wolfe is an obese, physically lazy but improbably intelligent detective who loves his food and alcohol, cultivates orchids, but never leaves his brownstone house on New York’s West 35th Street. Much of Wolfe’s crime solving is done from the comfort of his armchair, or while consuming fine food and drink. His mind can only achieve so much, however, and he needs access to the streets. This comes in the form of Archie Goodwin (pictured left in a period illustration). Archie would, in truth, have made a perfectly good PI on his own. He is physically fit, handsome, as sharp as a tack, and can handle himself when it comes to physical violence. He lives on another floor of Wolfe’s house, and according to a memo written from Rex Stout to a friend, Archie is:
“Height 6 feet. Weight 180 lbs. Age 32.”
The pair first appeared in 1934 in Fer de Lance, published by the New York company Farrar & Rinehart. Re-reading it for the first time in many years, I was struck by how easily Stout introduces the Wolfe household, almost as if he is gently reminding us of old acquaintances of long standing. As well as Wolfe and Archie, we have Fritz Brenner the cook, and Theodore Horstmann the cantankerous expert who does the hard work up in the expertly-designed cultivation rooms where the precious and capricious orchids are pampered like dissolute and demanding princesses from a bygone era. When heavy lifting out on the tough streets of New York is needed, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Ollie Cather can always be called upon to get their knuckles grazed.
It is little short of astonishing how Fer de Lance delivers the Nero Wolfe template complete and ready formed, almost as if Stout had already written all the books in one superhuman creative effort. A Family Affair (1975) was the 46th and final Nero Wolfe mystery, and it shows just how successfully Stout was able to keep the train chugging along on the same rails for over 40 years. Goodwin and Wolfe have, of course, not aged by a day, nor do their characteristics and personality quirks deviate by so much as the thickness of a cigarette paper. Wolfe still takes the lift up to his orchid rooms twice a day, while Fritz prepares the gourmet meals. Goodwin still likes the odd slug of whisky, but his drink of choice remains a glass of cold milk.
In Part Two of this feature, we will look in detail at both Fer de Lance and A Family Affair, while assessing Rex Stout’s legacy. To close, though. here’s a quote from the early chapters of Fer de Lance, where Goodwin gives us some idea of the sheer physical presence of his boss.
“Wolfe lifted his head. I mention that, because his head was so big that lifting it struck you as being quite a job. It was probably really bigger than it looked, for the rest of him was so large that any head on top of it but his own would have escaped your notice entirely.”
September traditionally sees publishing houses very busy with new books, launches and showcases of debut talent – and this activity always is guaranteed to keep my long-suffering postman extremely busy!
Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben
Nap Dumas is a cop, but his dedication to the badge only goes skin deep. He tends to play the game his own way, and if this involves delivering rough justice to scumbags on the street, then so be it. Dumas has a history, though. His childhood was scarred by a double death – that of his brother Leo who died with his girlfriend Diana in what the cops dismissed as a teenage suicide pact. Nap thought that was a crock then. Now, fifteen years later, he still thinks it was a crock. As Nap learns to his cost in this latest mesmerising novel from the master of twists and double twists, some past traumas never fully heal, but lie embedded like dormant tumours just waiting to metastasize the present.
We reviewed an earlier novel by Coben this time last year, and you can check it out by clicking this link. Don’t Let Go is published by Century and will be out in hardback on 26th September.
Can You Keep A Secret? by Karen Perry
They often say that two heads are better than one, and this was never more true than in the case of Dubliners Paul Perry and Karen Gillece. They are both widely respected and successful writers in their own right, but their collaboration under the pen name of Karen Perry has been a triumph where the qualities of each have been enhanced rather than diluted. In this, their latest psychological thriller they use the ever-potent theme of the reunion which goes badly wrong. Patrick Bagenall held his eighteenth birthday party in the family home, Thornbury Hall. Now, years later, with the mansion too decayed to be worth restoring, he holds a reunion gathering which should be a tearfully poignant farewell to the past, but a stepping stone to a positive future. Instead, dark secrets slither into the light and buried misdeeds scrabble their way to the surface. Can You Keep A Secret is published by Penguin, and will be available in paperback and Kindle at the end of November.
Dead Lands by Lloyd Otis
“He buried his tormentor under the glare of the moon and went to sleep that night, with the dirt from the makeshift grave still caked underneath his fingernails.”
Dead Lands begins with a murder and continues with a violent journey through an urban landscape which wears its hippy-happy-peaceful mantle as a poor disguise, which fools no-one.
Lloyd Otis was born in London and graduated in Media and Communication. Having written reviews for music sites, and after gaining several years of valuable experience within the finance and digital sectors, he completed a course in journalism. He now works as an editor. Lloyd has blogged for The Bookseller, and The Huffington Post and also wrote a regular book review column for WUWO Magazine. Two of his short stories were selected for publication in the Out of My Window anthology. He has also had articles appear on the Crime Readers’ Association website, and in the magazine Writers’ Forum. Dead Lands, his debut full length novel, is published by Urbane Publications, and will be available on 12th October.
The Dancing Man was published in 1971, and is set in Welsh hill country. An engineer, Mark Hawkins travels to a remote house to collect his late brother’s belongings. Dick Hawkins was an archaeologist by profession and mountaineering was his drug of choice. He set off one day for the nearby mountains, and never returned.
The house where Dick Hawkins was staying when he disappeared is called Llanglas and it is owned by Roger Merrion, another archaeologist, who lives there with his wife Ethel and sister Cynthia. Near the house is the site of a ruined Cistercian monastery circled by a much more ancient earthwork, and the woods which surround the ruin also contain a strange obelisk on which is engraved a primitive but sinister figure – of a dancing man.
Of the Hubbard novels I have read, this one reveals most about what I believe to be one of the major influences on his work. The ghost stories of MR James are uniquely frightening, due in no small part to the writer’s skilful powers of suggestion. In A School Story, a boy in a boarding school sees something frightful trying to creep in through the window of one of the masters in the dead of night. He tries to describe it to a chum:
In The Dancing Man, Mark Hawkins describes his first sight of the shiveringly disturbing Old Evans.
“He was enormously tall. His clothes flapped round him in the wind, but I got the impression that he was very thin under them, and his head looked disproportionately small. He was too much like a walking scarecrow for comfort.”
That description also immediately brought to mind the hideous entity which conjures itself up out from bedsheets and pursues the unfortunate Professor Parkins along the seashore in Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.
In James’s A View From A Tower, Mr Fanshawe makes the mistake of using a particularly strange pair of field glasses, and finds himself in a very unfriendly wood:
Hawkins has a similar experience in the woods by Llanglas, but his is made infinitely worse by the fact that he is about to have company:
“I came to the stone as unexpectedly as I had that first evening. I never seemed to know how far it was. I stopped about fifteen yards from it, suddenly unwilling to go any further. I could see it quite clearly, standing up and motionless, while the trees threshed about over it. I started to turn my back on it, and then the dancing man came out from behind it, white all over and capering in the moonlight with his white matchstick arms straight up over his head.”
Mark Hawkins ponders his brother’s mysterious disappearance, becomes erotically involved with both Mrs and Miss Merrion, but the climax of the story involves the discovery of the hidden twin of the standing stone – and what lies beneath it.
With A Thirsty Evil (1974) Hubbard once again mines Shakespeare for his title, in this case, Measure For Measure.
“Our natures do pursue
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.”
In almost every respect this has a much less complex plot than The Tower or Flush As May, but one which is just as powerful and – ultimately – shocking. It is the story of an obsession. Ian Mackellar is a fledgling novelist with the added luxury of a private income from his family business. He sits opposite a woman on a train for a couple of hours, and although not a word – and scarcely a glance – is exchanged between them, he is hopelessly smitten. She leaves the train – and Mackellar – at her destination. He says:
“That could have been the end of it, but in fact it was only the beginning.”
By sheer chance, Mackellar sees the woman again, at a publishers’ party. She is with an older man, but convinced that this is not her husband, he makes small talk and gives her his telephone number.The next few weeks are something of an agony for Mackellar as he waits for her call, but just when he has given up hope, she does ring from a call box, reversing the charge. She makes it clear that she has only called out of good manners, and that it would be quite impossible for them to actually meet. She does, however, tell him that her name is Julia Mellors.
Her call is like one of those intrinsically harmless incidents, so beloved of Thomas Hardy, which trigger a sequence of unintended – and fatal – consequences. Mackellar traces her to a farm called Windbarrow (again, strange echoes of Hardy). Such is his persistence, Mackellar presents himself, and finds that Julia heads a household consisting of herself and her younger siblings Beth and Charlie.
The relationship between the three is complicated by Julia’s remoteness, Beth’s unashamed sexuality and Charlie’s mental condition. He is physically fit and active, but with a psychological flaw which is only controlled by medication. Despite himself, Mackellar is both magnetised and repelled by Beth:
“… it was the way she looked at you. There was nothing secretive about her. Like Cressida, there was language in her eyes, her cheeks, her looks, and like Ulysses I set her down instantaneously as a daughter of the game.”
As with the other Hubbard stories under consideration, the power of the landscape is never far away, and while he tends to deal in tumps, tumuli, barrows and other high places which our ancestors carved out of the landscape, here he gives us something quite different. In the valley carved out by the stream which runs near Windbarrow, long ago, someone dammed the stream and created a deep pool, known as Grainger’s. The Mellors use it as a swimming pool, but Charlie takes Mackellar beneath the surface – literally – and shows him a strange and menacing stone obelisk which rises from the impenetrable depths of the dam.
The story moves swiftly on. Hubbard’s novels are, anyway, relatively short but his narrative drive never lets us rest. Beth’s carnality and opportunism get the better of Mackellar in a brief but shocking encounter, but this is only a staging post on the path to a violent and tragic conclusion to the novel. Mackellar survives, but he writes his own epitaph in the very first chapter.
“She was the only woman I have ever really wanted. For the matter of that, she still is. I suppose she may always be.”
I came fresh to Hubbard’s books, and I read three or four in quick succession. I found them powerful, frightening and written with icy brilliance The novels are still available, thanks to the Orion imprint, The Murder Room. It must be said, however, that the paperbacks are very expensive, but the KIndle versions are more accessible for readers on a limited budget.
Cheryl Reed (left) is an author and a journalist. Currently, She is working on a series of novels set in Chicago. Her first novel, Poison Girls, will be in bookstores on September 12, 2017. The novel explores the intersection of drugs, wealth, politics and race when dozens of daughters from politically connected families die mysteriously from a strand of street heroin.Here, she writes about the challenges of making characters believable – and she starts with a homeless Chicago drug user.
When I met Theodore on the needle exchange truck, he wore a dirty ski vest and a candy necklace—the kind with little sugary o’s that you bite off. Only it was harder for Theodore to chew on his necklace because he had only a single jagged front tooth. Maybe it was because I’d worn that same kind of necklace when I was nine years old or maybe it was because I was two inches taller and had fifty pounds on the guy, but I didn’t hesitate to follow Theodore when he offered to show me the heroin house he ran near the El tracks on the South Side of Chicago.
The house’s owners had abandoned the unstable structure after a fire ravaged much of the upper floors, including the staircases marred with gaping holes. I hadn’t expected to be tramping through a drug house that morning, and had stupidly worn high heels. I used the spiky heels like cleats, digging them into the soft wood of the stairs to pull me over the gaps. When we finally reached the upper perch, Theodore proudly showed me his shooting room. Vanilla bean-scented candles lined the floor. A single bed, its nylon bedspread neatly tucked into the corners, took up one side of the room. It was too early in the day for customers, but Theodore’s trip to the needle exchange truck allowed him to stock up on supplies—new needles, cotton balls and little bottles of distilled water he kept neatly in a basket, as if they were door prizes at a Longaberger basket party.
I learned a lot that day from Theodore. And Theodore was his real name. He showed me how he tested his clients’ heroin to see if it contained the deadly fentanyl that was leaving bodies in its wake all over Chicago and its suburbs. He told me how he helped his clients find veins, how he took a cut —about 10 percent—of their drugs in return.
I didn’t have to meet Theodore. But I would argue that my new debut novel, Poison Girls, is much richer for my having done so. Theodore was just one of many real characters I met as I explored the underbelly of the heroin drug culture, researching the real story of fentanyl-laced heroin in Chicago that killed more than 250 people in a few months. One thing I learned working for more than two decades as a journalist—many of those as a crime reporter—is that real people are far more complex and interesting than solely relying on my imagination. I’ve read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies that feature drug dealers and drug fixers, but I’ve never read one named Theodore who wore a candy necklace that he chewed on with a single fang. Shit like that, you just can’t make up.
That’s not to say that the Theodore in my book Poison Girls isn’t more interesting and vivid than the real life version. The Theodore 2.0 I created is more sure of himself, a sort of sage character, a drug dealer who advises other drug dealers. That’s the beauty of twisting the real details with the imagined ones.
Every crime novelist comes to the genre by way of their own unique navigation. My map started when I was a street reporter, vicariously living through my subjects, using my job to infiltrate subcultures and soak up their secrets. When I was a newspaper crime reporter—back in the day when people read newspapers—my work provided access to the macabre and the maddening. I interviewed mothers who forced their babies to drink Draino, love-struck girls whose boyfriends convinced them to kill strangers for their sneakers, and teenage serial killers who detailed their crimes with dry eyes.
I’m a visual writer and often have to see the story before I can write it. For me, when the writing isn’t going well, it’s usually time to take a field trip, hit the streets, meet some real folks who can infuse my fictional story with unique details.
When I wrote Poison Girls— a story about dozens of suburban girls from political families in Chicago mysteriously dying of poisoned heroin and the reporter who is obsessed with tracking down their killer — my biggest fear was inventing characters that felt too familiar. Theodore appears on only four pages, but even minor characters deserve to be authentic.
You can find out more from Cheryl’s website
Check buying choices for The Poison Girls
Charlotte ‘Lottie’ Armstrong would not be everyone’s choice as a crime-fighting heroine. She is a widow, not in the first flush of youth, and a promising career as a woman police officer was terminated as a result of her own bloody-mindedness and the misogynistic jealousy of senior officers. But needs must when the devil drives, and in 1944, like all other cities across Britain, Leeds has been drained of men. As in previous centuries, Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier, and the local police force is struggling. Crime doesn’t stop because there’s a war on. Quite the reverse in fact, as the blackout, shortages of almost any consumer goods worth having and a thinning of police ranks have combined to create numerous temptations which are proving irresistible to the criminals of West Yorkshire.
So, Lottie is back in uniform again, but this time as a lowly member of the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps. Her main job is to drive her boss, Detective Superintendent McMillan, to wherever he needs to go. McMillan, a veteran of The Great War, certainly needs his transport as a killer seems to be stalking vulnerable young women across the city. Kate Patterson, a Private in The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) is found dead in the sombre ruins of the medieval Kirkstall Abbey. She is the first victim, but others follow, and Lottie and McMillan are soon convinced that the killer is a member of the American forces based in the city.
Nickson paints a vivid contrast between the drabness and general sense of privation in the lives of ordinary British people with the freshness, optimism and overflowing abundance of consumer items prevalent among the Americans. As part of the investigation, Lottie comes across a typically clean-cut and bright-eyed American officer, Captain Cliff Ellison of the US Army CID. He is divorced – and available – and, despite herself, Lottie is entranced and flattered by his attention.
Romance may be in the air for Lottie and “her American” – as her mates call him – but the murders continue and blind alleys become even blinder for McMillan who, begrudgingly, becomes more reliant on the insights provided by his driver. Eventually, a suspect is identified and he is, as suspected, one of the visitors. He is, however, apparently untouchable because of his links with the Intelligence Agencies, and his importance in forthcoming vital operations.
You will note the date – spring 1944 – and will not need a degree in military history to work out what those ‘vital operations’ might be. Invasion or no invasion, McMillan still has a job to do, and the murderer is eventually cornered. Don’t anticipate a comfortable outcome, however. Nickson (right) doesn’t do cosy, and the conclusion of this fine novel is as dark as a blacked out city street.
The story ends on a sombre note, but one of the many qualities of Chris Nickson’s Leeds novels is that he has established a quartet of characters who walk the same streets, breathe the same air and gaze at the same distant hills – but centuries apart. If the ghosts of Richard Nottingham, Tom Harper, Lottie Armstrong and Dan Markham were all to meet, they would walk together along streets which would be mutually familiar. Millgarth, Kirkstall Road, The Headrow, Castle Grove, Kirkgate, Lower Briggate – all witness to countless decades of life, death, loss, salvation and hope and, of course, generations of murderers, fraudsters, thieves and deceivers. There is a lovely poem by Geoffrey Winthrop Young which sums up the brilliant sense of history and continuity which Chris Nickson creates:
“There will be voices whispering down these ways,
The while one wanderer is left to hear,
And the young life and laughter of old days,
Shall make undying echoes”
Chris Nickson’s Amazon page is here.
You can read our review of a Tom Harper novel, On Copper Street, by clicking the link.
Click the link to learn more about real life murders by American servicemen in wartime Britain.
Fashion in crime fiction, like in all other aspects of life – and literature – is a strange business. Who are the ‘immortals’, and who are the fine writers who have simply vanished from shelves both in the bookshop and the home? The ‘immortals’ number just a handful. I would nominate Conan Doyle, Chandler, Christie and Simenon. There are other writers who have produced books which regularly feature in ‘best of’ lists, such as Capote, Sayers, Du Maurier, Wilkie Collins, Leonard and Highsmith, but whose body of work does not stand up with the four ‘immortals’. This series will focus on a handful of authors whose works, for whatever reason, have passed from mind and familiarity.
One of my favourite contemporary writers, Phil Rickman, pointed me in the direction of PM Hubbard (left) who wrote English crime novels with just a hint of supernatural menace about them. After a career in public service, he became a full time writer, and contributing to the magazine Punch as well as writing verse, both of which activities contrast strongly with his dark novels. Although Hubbard died in 1980 his books are still available, and although I have come late to the feast, I can still savour the meat. This is the first of a two part examination of Hubbard’s writing.
Flush As May (1963) takes its title from a soliloquy by Hamlet, and Hubbard sets the piece in an ostensibly idyllic rural England, contemporary with the time of the novel’s publication. Margaret Canting is an Oxford undergraduate staying in the nearby village of Lodstone She takes it upon herself to see in May Morning, not by carolling from the top of a church tower, but with a dawn stroll. Her idyll is interrupted when she finds the corpse of a man, sleeping his final sleep against the grassy bank at the edge of a field.
She strides back into Lodstone and rouses the village policeman, PC Robin. His scepticism about her discovery is confirmed when the pair arrive at the scene to find – absolutely nothing. Humiliated by the constable’s scorn, Margaret returns to her B & B, having briefly made the acquaintance of a young chauffeur at the roadside. She learns, upon her return to Oxford, that his name is Jacob Garrod and that he is a fellow undergraduate. The pair meet for a drink, and Margaret reveals the full story of her May Morning adventure.
Together, the pair decide to get the bottom of the mystery of the missing corpse, with the assistance of one or two of Margaret’s well connected relatives. What has so far been something of a ‘jolly jape’ becomes infinitely more serious when they discover that an unholy alliance of old established farming families in and around Lodstone has an unhealthy influence on local events.
This is a lighter novel than those which followed, and there is plenty of gentle humour, such as when Jacob tries to find out more about the agricultural mafia by attending a cattle auction:
“…..where he bid unsuccessfully for a lot of heifers whose air of gentle bewilderment appealed to him. They attended the event placidly, like a consignment of Circassian virgins under the hammer in ancient Rome …”
But as if he were holding his fire until he could see the whites of our eyes, Hubbard gently ramps up the music of unease by turning our attention – alongside that of Margaret and Jacob – to the landscape itself. We discover that the residents of Lodstone and their ancestors have an allegiance to the shape of the hills and fields that is fired by a folk memory which stretches back much further than the laws and conventions of either the Christian church or the civil justice system. The climax of the story brings Margaret face to face with the very embodiment of an ancient evil.
The Tower (1968) begins with Hubbard tipping his hat in a gentlemanly fashion in the direction of a lady. The lady is none other than Dorothy L Sayers. Her masterpiece (other opinions are available), The Nine Tailors, begins with Bunter and Lord Peter abandoning their car in a snowy ditch outside a remote Fenland village. So it is that John Smith, the central character in The Tower, finds his car refusing to travel an inch further on an inky black night, a mile or so outside the village of Coyle. That, however is pretty much where the homage ends. Coyle is a far more sinister place that Fenchurch St Peter, and its vicar, Father Freeman, is infinitely less benevolent than dear old Reverend Venables.
After roadside assistance provided by a mysterious young woman Smith is able to get as far as The Bell, Coyle’s only pub. Given a room for the night, Smith signs the register with an all-too-familiar misgiving.
“That was the trouble with John Smith. They always expect you to bring in a giggling blonde with the wrong initials on her suitcase.”
Smith realises, as he drinks his pint of strong bitter and eats the meal provided by the landlord’s wife, that the customers of The Bell are not the average clientele of a rural boozer. He eavesdrops on a fairly foul-mouthed argument, but then:
“A man started to sing, casually, as if he was singing to himself, but loud enough to be heard above the general uproar. ‘Gloria Deo – ‘ he sang, with a long twisting run of notes ….two more voices took it up in different parts, a very sweet clear tenor led the way into ‘Et Filio‘, and by the time ‘Sancto‘ was reached he counted four parts going great guns with several voices to each.”
Clearly, this is not a regulation saloon bar singsong. Smith’s curiosity is aroused, and he decides to stay for a few days. He meets local academic, Charles Hardcastle, and his daughter Cynthia – who he realises immediately is the enigmatic wraith who repaired his car the night before. Hardcastle – and George Curtis, Landlord of The Bell – explain to Smith, in very different ways, what is going on in the village.
The tower of Coyle’s parish church (dedicated to the fictional St Udan) is structurally compromised due to a series of unwise modifications over the last century. Father Freeman is obsessed with raising the £20,000 it would take to restore the tower and make it safe. His only hope of raising the cash is the benevolence of Mrs Mary Garstin, the widow of Sir Gerald Potter, and heir to his land and fortune. She has remarried, unhappily, and seems strangely drawn to the menacing priest.
John Smith and Cynthia Hardcastle are drawn into Coyle’s business, and find that it is far from straightforward, and that Father Freeman’s zeal is linked to something far older than his avowed Christianity. The conclusion of the novel is violent and incendiary. In addition, without writing anything remotely explicit by today’s standards, Hubbard bestows Mary Garstin with an erotic persona which is all the more startling, given the rural conformity and apparent benevolence of her surroundings.
PART TWO of this account of the writing of PM Hubbard will follow
Oxford, 1895. The spires may well be dreaming, but for Anthony Jardine, Fellow of St Gabriel’s College, the nightmare is just beginning. His drug addicted wife is found stabbed to death, slumped in the corner of a horse tram carriage. His mourning is shattered when his mistress is also found dead – murdered in the house she shares with her elderly eccentric husband. With a background story of an archaeological discovery threatening to shake the English religious establishment to its very roots, Inspector James Antrobus must avoid the temptation to make Jardine a swift and easy culprit. Helped by the uncanny perception of Sophia Jex-Blake, a pioneering woman doctor, Antrobus finds the answer to the killings lies in London, just forty miles away on the railway.
Norman Russell (right) is a writer and academic, who has had fifteen novels published. He is an acknowledged authority on Victorian finance and its reflections in the literature of the period, and his book on the subject, The Novelist and Mammon, was published by Oxford University Press in 1986. He is a graduate of Oxford and London Universities. After military service in the West Indies, he became a teacher of English in a large Liverpool comprehensive school, where he stayed for twenty-six years, retiring early to take up writing as a second career.
Russell skilfully avoids the trap into which some well-intentioned historical fiction writers fall – that comprising copious and elaborate period detail which chokes the plot itself. Yes, all the Victoriana boxes are ticked; we have horse-drawn trams, the ‘upstairs-downstairs’ ambience of prosperous homes, extravagant dinner menus – and even the doomed but heroic consumptive so beloved of period painters and dramatists. Despite all these familiar tropes, the search for the killer is a genuine whodunnit, and the narrative rattles along nicely.
Not the least of the pleasures of An Oxford Scandal for me was to be reminded of the prickly – not to say downright malevolent – relationships between various versions of the Christian church. Russell enjoys a joke at the expense of the Roman Catholics, the ‘High’ Anglicans, and their humourless cousins in the ‘Low’ Church of England. The joke will probably be shared by just the few of us but I do remember, back in the day when I thought such things were important, that St Ebbe’s church in Oxford was a place to be studiously avoided by those of us who liked a whiff of incense with our worship.
Although Inspector Antrobus ends the novel frail, housebound, and trying to avoid the sight of his bloodstained handkerchief, it looks as though he may survive to undertake another adventure as a consultant detective. I do hope so. The earlier books in the series were An Oxford Anomaly and An Oxford Tragedy. An Oxford Scandal is published by Matador, and is available here.