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.
A beach in Goa, 1992. A boy and a girl, a brother and his older sister, are amusing themselves at the water’s edge. Their parents, unconventional, more in love with their own escapist lifestyle than they are with their children, are nearby. But then they aren’t nearby. They are gone. What happens next is a blur of childlike confusion, incomprehension and false memory. But Jess and Ro are now orphans.
The years pass. The remains of the children’s father are eventually discovered in the jungle not far from the beach, but of their mother, Sophie, not a trace. Well meaning but reluctantly relatives have cared for and schooled Jess and Ro until they pass from their scarred childhood into the uncertainty of adulthood. Jess, though has made a success of her life. She is a successful commercial lawyer, has a treasured daughter with husband Charlie, and she lives in a delightful house just on the edge of Clapham Common in south London.
But little brother Ro – short for his nickname, Sparrow – has fared poorly. His school days were troubled and tormented, and he has carried the trauma of that hazy day on a tropical beach like a monster clinging to his back. He has led a largely nomadic life and, like the obsessed Captain Ahab, he travels the world in search of his lost mother. His most recent attempt to track her down leads him to a hamlet in rural Ireland where Sophie Considine was known. This particular trip ends badly, however, and he makes his way to England.
Annemarie Neary gives us a chilling sense of separate events which are not fatal in themselves but deadly when they collide, and while Ro is making his way to Clapham, the normally self-assured Jess is in trouble at work. She has rejected the advances of a senior partner at an office social, and he uses the rebuff to light a fire under Jess’s professional life.
Ro arrives at his sister’s home and Neary skilfully describes how the young man’s near-autism and utter self-obsession starts to undermine the household. Charlie already holds Ro in contempt after previous clashes but the live-in au pair, a balefully unpleasant young Brazilian woman called Hana, is the final ingredient in a the shaking up of a poisonous cocktail of guilt, lust and fractured relationships.
Sensing that he has at last found gold at the end of his rainbow, Ro projects his fixation on Maya, the wife of an old family friend, Eddie. The fact that Eddie was part of the loose community of beach bums in Goa convinces Ro that Maya – complete with a tell-tale scar where a tattoo has been removed – is his mother.
Neary has a silken touch and she spins a web of potential tragedy that is gossamer light, shot through with poetry, but one that will draw you, the reader, into its folds and not let you escape. Here, she describes Ro’s conviction that his lonely quest is over.
“And as he passes under the great avenue of chestnuts, his heart rises like freshly baked bread and he imagines himself a stork, not a swallow. If he were a stork, with a sash in his beak, this is where he would take his mother. He would carry her up into the high branches, make a nest there for her. He would keep her safe from predators, out of the reach of the grubby little world.”
The book succeeds on every level: it is near perfect as a tragedy in that it has the three Aristotelian demands of drama – the unities of time, place and action. Like the tragic figures of Hardy and Shakespeare the doomed protagonist is not totally devoid of human decency, and this makes their downfall ever more bitter because we onlookers can see that it is preventable. Orphans is a tale as dark as ebony, and as convincing a description of a descent into madness as I have ever read. It is published by Hutchinson and will be available in July as hardback, paperback and Kindle.
I’ll have to come clean, declare an interest, turn out my pockets and put my hand up. Having now run out of colloquialisms I will state that I am sucker for books set in London. Leaving aside the great storytellers of the distant past, my shelves are stacked with the Bryant & May stories by Christopher Fowler, John Lawton’s masterly Fred Troy novels, the bleak and compelling Factory novels by Derek Raymond, and the Peter Ackroyd journeys through a London where the past has a mystical effect on the present. It will be no surprise then when I admit to being hooked from the very beginning of The Lighterman by Simon Michael.
Our first view of London is in 1940 and from several thousand feet above. It is through the eyes of a Luftwaffe pilot. From the cockpit of his Dornier 215, he watches as the bomb aimer releases its deadly payload on the helpless Londoners. This opening chapter is a skillful – and terrifying – piece of descriptive writing, but it also introduces us to the man who will be the chief character in the book. Charles is the elder son of Harry and Millie Horowitz, respectively tailor and milliner of British Street, Mile End. He is twelve years old, and he and his family survive the bombs relatively unscathed.
When we next meet Charles it is 1964, and much has changed. The streets of the old East End, having been substantially rearranged by Hitler’s bombs, have been redeveloped. More significantly, the Jewish people have largely moved on. Many families have prospered and they have moved out to the comfortable suburbs. Charles Horowitz has also prospered, after a fashion. His chosen career is Law, and in order to rise through the ranks of the socially and ethnically tightly knit Inns of Court, he has abandoned Horowitz and reinvented himself as Charles Holborne.
At this point, the author reminds us that Charles has a back-story. The two previous novels in the series, The Brief (2015) and An Honest Man (2016) are there for those who want to complete the picture, but with The Lighterman it is sufficient to say that Charles has made a very undesirable enemy. It is probably merely an exercise in semantics to distinguish between the equally awful twin sons of Charles David Kray and Violet Annie Lee, but most casual observers agree that Ronnie was the worst of two evils. The homosexual, paranoid and pathologically violent gangster has a list of people who have upset him. The first name on that list is none other than Charles Holborne aka Horowitz, and the brutal East End hoodlum is determined that Charles must be done away with.
Charles finds himself forced into defending a man on what seems to be a cut-and-dried charge of murder. If he wins the case, then Ronnie Kray’s rage will be incandescent; if he loses, then someone close to his heart will go to the gallows.
Simon Michael (left) combines an encyclopaedic knowledge of London, with an insider’s grasp of courtroom proceedings. I cannot say if it was the author’s intention – only he can concur or disagree – but his writing left me with a profound sense of sadness over what London’s riverside and its East End once were – and what they have become. This is a beautifully written novel which succeeds on three different levels. Firstly, it is a superb recreation of a London which is just a lifetime away, but may as well be the Egypt of the pharaohs, such is its distance from us. Secondly, it is a tense and authentic legal thriller, with all the nuances and delicate sensibilities of the British legal system pushed into the spotlight. Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – we meet characters who are totally convincing, speak in a manner which sounds authentic, and have all the qualities and flaws which we recognise in people of our own acquaintance. The Lighterman is published by Urbane Publications and is available here.
It was huge relief and a welcome distraction from the spin-speak, false sincerity and empty promises of a dire General Election campaign when two beautifully designed new hardback novels came this week. If they read as impressively as they appear at first glance, then I have some much needed hours of distraction ahead.
The first is The Final Hour by Tom Wood. It is apparently the seventh in a series of thrillers centred on an international assassin called Victor. I confess that I am new to the books, but it seems that Victor, after a string of successful ice-cold hits has developed a painful affliction for any paid killer – he has started to show remorse. CIA man Antonio Alvarez is as remorseless a hunter – but in the cause of good – as Victor, but now circumstances dictate that their orbits will collide, with devastating effect. The Final Hour is published by Sphere, and is out on 29th June.
As I flicked through the pages of Here and Gone I saw the author photo on the back inside cover, and I thought, “hang on, I know that bloke..” I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting Stuart Neville in person, but I have become a great admirer of his crime thrillers set in Ireland, both north and south of the border. But now, here he is, under the name of Haylen Beck, with a novel which he says is inspired by his love of American crime fiction.
The plot? A young mother sets off on a perilous journey across the badlands of Arizona. In the back of her car, her two kids. Sean and Louise are strapped in safely, but they are dimly aware that their mum, Audra, is escaping the verbal and physical assaults of their father. As Audra drives on through the night, she is pulled over by the cops. Enter that most reliable trope of American crime novels, the sinister and crooked Sheriff. Audra is about to learn that her troubles are only just beginning.
Depending on which Amazon page you click on, Here and Gone is out in hardback on either 20th June or 13th July. The ubiquitous internet retailer also tells us that it is published by Harvill Secker and the Crown Publishing Group, but since both are in the Penguin Random House stable, I suspect that we are looking at the same thing.
The muster room of hard-nosed female cops and investigators is not exactly a crowded place on Planet CriFi. Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski, Fiona Griffiths, Kate Brannigan, Cordelia Gray, Kay Scarpetta and Jane Marple have already taken their seats, but Temperance Brennan has, temporarily, given up hers for another child of her creator, Kathy Reichs (left). Sunday ‘Sunnie’ Night is a damaged, bitter, edgy and downright misanthropic American cop who has been suspended by her bosses for being trigger happy. She sits brooding, remote – and dangerous – on a barely accessible island off the South Carolina coast.
A former buddy, Beau Beaumonde, comes to visit and he has a job offer. A terrorist attack on a Jewish school in Chicago has left victims dead and maimed, but one girl, Stella Bright, was not among the dead, and appears to have been kidnapped. The impossibly wealthy Opaline Drucker, Stella’s grandmother, has decided to spend serious money on an investigation to find the school attackers and discover the whereabouts – or the remains – of Stella.
Sunnie decides to accept the job and heads north to The Windy City in an effort to pick up the trail of the bad guys. To say that Sunnie is ‘street smart’ is an understatement. She hardly trusts her own shadow, and checks into several different hotels, using a different alias each time. She has created several social media profiles stating that she is searching for Stella, but her bait is accepted not online, but in the corridor of a hotel. She answers the threat with extreme violence, but is determined that she will remain the hunter while those who took Stella will easily not shrug off their status as her prey.
Half way through the novel we realise the significance of the title. Sunnie Night is not waging this war alone: her twin brother Augustus ‘Gus’ Night is also on the case and, to use the cliche, he ‘has her back’. Together they are certainly a deadly combination. By this point, though, Reichs has bowled us an unreadable googly – or, for American readers, thrown us a curveball – and it isn’t until the closing pages that we realise that we have been making incorrect assumptions. Which is, of course, exactly what the author planned! Those last few pages make for a terrific finale, as the twins desperately try to prevent an atrocity being carried out at one of America’s most celebrated sporting occasions.
Sunnie and Gus, with a mixture of intelligence and gunfire, close in on the terrorist cell, and it is interesting that Reichs moves away from the obvious contemporary template for a group whose ideology drives their murderous activities. Instead, for better or for worse, we are presented us with the absolute opposite. Sunnie herself is not the kind of character that we readily warm to. In fact, she has trouble warming to herself. She says:
“Sure, I’m damaged. I live alone with no permanent phone or Internet account. I have a scar I refuse to fix. I dislike being touched and have a temper that’s my own worst enemy. I use icy showers and grueling workouts to escape stress and trick my brain into making me feel strong.”
Kathy Reichs certainly doesn’t let the grass grow under anyone’s feet in this 110 mph novel. The dialogue – usually between the eponymous Two Nights – is whip-smart and sassy. It is certainly stylised and seems tailor made for a film or TV screenplay, but that is no bad thing in itself. There are guns and bodies galore and the action criss-crosses America with the Night twins homing in on the villains. Maybe it’s not the book for fans of leisurely narrative exposition and detailed reflection by the characters – the pace of the book doesn’t allow anyone much time for introspection – but it’s a cracking and ingeniously plotted thriller. The Kindle version of Two Nights will be available on 29th June from Cornerstone Digital, as will the hardback edition, but from William Heinemann. Follow this link to read more.
Readers of the two previous books in the Hampstead Murders series, Death In Profile and Miss Christie Regrets, will know what to expect, but for readers new to the novels here is a Bluffers’ Guide. The stories are set in modern day Hampstead, a very select and expensive district of London. The police officers involved are, principally, Detective Superintendent Simon Collison, a civilised and gentlemanly type who, despite his charm and urbanity, is reluctant to climb the promotion ladder which is presented to him. Detective Sergeant Karen Willis is, likewise, of finishing school material, but also a very good copper with – as we are often reminded – legs to die for. She is in love, but not exclusively, with Detective Inspector Bob Metcalfe, a decent sort with a heart of gold. If he were operating back in the Bulldog Drummond era he would certainly have a lantern jaw and blue eyes that could be steely, or twinkle with kindness as circumstances dictate.
Not a police officer as such, but frequently the giver of expert advice is Dr Peter Collins, who is le troisième in the ménage of which Karen Willis and Bob Metcalfe make up le premier and le deuxième. In another era, Collins would be described as ‘highly strung’. His sensitivities sometimes lead him to believe that he is Lord Peter Wimsey – and that Willis is Harriet Vane – but this eccentricity aside, he frequently has insights into murder cases which remain hidden to his more workaday colleagues.
The plot? With such delightful characters, it is almost a case of “who cares?”, but we do have an intriguing story. At a crime writers’ convention in a London hotel the Dowager Duchess of English crime novels, Ann Durham, is far from happy. For the first time in recent memory, her position as Chair of The Crime Writers’ Association is being challenged – disgracefully, she feels – by upstarts who have been churlish enough to ask for a democratic vote.
As the luminaries assemble for pre-dinner drinks, Durham takes an elegant sip of her gin and tonic, utters a dramatic shriek – and falls down dead. Peter Collins is a dinner guest, due to his authorship of a forthcoming book on The Golden Age of Crime Fiction. His partner for the evening is, naturally, Karen Willis, and with Ann Durham lying dead on the floor, her police training kicks in and she soon has the scene secured.
Collison, Metcalfe, Willis and Collins have an ever lengthening list of questions to be answered. Why was Ann Durham brandishing a bottle of cyanide as she presided over one of the convention panels? Who actually wrote her most popular – and best selling – series of novels? Fraser-Sampson (right) spins a beautiful yarn here, with regular nods to The Golden Age during a convincing account of modern police procedure. Not only is the crime eventually solved, but he provides us with a delightful solution to the Willis – Metcalfe – Collins love triangle.
Not the least of the many delights to be found in this novel is the author’s sardonic wit. His take on the whole crime writers’ festival ambience will strike a chord with many who attend such events. He arranges several distinct characters on his canvas: busy PR types – perhaps upper class gels with a humanities degree – bob and weave among the notables, gushing about this and that; we have La Grande Dame, the celebrated author with millions in the bank who disdains to rub shoulders with the hoi poloi; she is drawn in stark contrast with writers who are hungry for success and are only too happy to meet and greet the punters if it will sell a few books. Fraser-Sampson fires one or two deadly accurate arrows, but my favourite was this barb from one of the characters:
“I expect half the writers of this Nordic Noir stuff actually have names like Smith or Higginbotham and live in ghastly places like Watford or Cleethorpes. Publishers are funny like that, you see ……. if you can tick the Nordic Noir box, they know exactly which neat little compartment to fit you into and in all their marketing blurb they can call you the next Jo Nesbo.”
Some people might view books like this as a guilty pleasure, but guess what? I loved every page of it, and I sleep soundly at night with not even a wisp of guilt to darken my contentment. A Whiff of Cyanide is published by Urbane Publications, and you can check purchase options here. While you are in the mood, why not read our review of an earlier novel in the series, Miss Christie Regrets
For those customers who boarded the Tom Thorne Express (driven by Mark Billingham) at the last station, here is the story so far. Tom Thorne is a middle-aged policeman currently – and probably permanently – of Detective Inspector rank. His home turf is predominantly North London, but he has survived being busted down to uniform, and banished to that godless region south of the Thames. He is a maverick’s maverick. Grumpy, impulsive, reckless, no respecter of seniority, but grudgingly admired by fellow officers who know a good copper when they see one. He lives with a child protection officer and her young son. His long time best mate is pathologist Phil Hendricks who is totally conventional apart from his addiction to body piercings, tattoos, and the Gay lifestyle. Of Thorne’s many vices, the one which exasperates his friends more than anything is his passion for country music, where his drug of choice is Hank Williams. Thorne tries not to give the many ghosts in his past free reign, but the spectre that haunts him the most is that of his late father, who suffered a long and ultimately fatal slide down into the hell of dementia.
Now, Thorne becomes involved in another kind of hell on earth, and one where all absent devils have been called home, all leave cancelled, and any recently retired fallen angels pressed back into duty. The fires stoked in this particular hellish pit illuminate the ghastly world inhabited by some British Asian communities who sanction murder in the name of their warped concept of family honour. Among the ghosts which inhabit the darker parts of Thorne’s memory is that of Meena Athwal. She was killed, he is certain, at the behest of her family, but her death remains unavenged in a court of justice.
Thorne is approached by a fellow officer, Nicola Tanner. Her partner, schoolteacher Susan Best, has been murdered in their shared home, and Tanner is convinced that it is a case of mistaken identity. She believes that the killers are a pair of professional murderers she is tracking for their role in so-called ‘Honour Killings’. Tanner wants Thorne’s help because she thinks his sheer bloody-mindedness and contempt for procedure will cut through the layers of police timidity caused by misplaced sensitivity to multicultural issues.
Thorne, reluctantly, agrees to help, but then two youngsters – Amaya and boyfriend Kamal – are abducted. They were planning to run away together to escape the stifling expectations of their families, but the CCTV shows them being abused by a drunken Irish lout on a train, but then rescued by a smartly dressed Asian man. When Amaya’s body turns up in a shallow grave, apparently raped and strangled, Thorne abandons any reluctance he may have felt, and begins to put pressure on those he feels may be responsible.
Billingham dedicates the book to two real-life victims of religious murder, Banaz Mahmod and Rahmat Sulemani. He barely keeps his anger in check, but is too good a writer to allow the novel to be just a diatribe against disgusting and inhuman beliefs. Still, his controlled fury burns white hot on every page. Here, he discusses motives for the killings with his boss:
“It’s hard to accept these are motives.”
“Because they’re not, “ Thorne said. “Not to you or me or to anyone else with an ounce of sodding humanity. The people we’re dealing with have different … standards. A different code. If you can kill your own flesh and blood because something they’ve done means you don’t think you can hold your head up in a temple or in some poxy neighbourhood café….”
We watch with anguish as another possible victim becomes a target for the deadly pair who Tanner has correctly identified. A teenage girl keeps a diary and, having realised that her brother Jad has taken to reading it, writes this entry:
“What makes me angriest is that Jad doesn’t believe a lot of this stuff any more than I do. It’s perfect for him, because of what he’s got between his legs. He gets to do what he likes while I’m bringing dishonour into the house because I’m not ashamed to use what’s BETWEEN MY EARS!”
The plot twists are little short of masterly. Billingham encourages us to make a series of assumptions, but then delights in confounding us as he reveals that the reality is something different altogether. Love Like Blood is the sixteenth Tom Thorne novel and I am certain that the series, which started in 2001 with Sleepyhead, will come to be seen as a classic of its kind. I have read every one of them, but can say with complete conviction that Love Like Blood is the most powerful and impressive yet.
Even if it seems faintly indecent to make such comparisons, British gangsters and crime bosses have usually paled into insignificance when compared to their transatlantic cousins. Even The Krays, whose legend grows ever more lurid with the passing of the years, were regarded as nickel and dime operators by American crime syndicates. Reg and Ron, by the way, were not even the nastiest gangsters in Britain. That dubious crown rests securely on the heads of the deeply dreadful Richardson brothers from ‘Sarf London.’ British gangsters have generally been like lightweight boxers in the ring with heavyweights, and nothing epitomises that gulf like the painful demise of Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday, who perishes like a pygmy among giants.
Perhaps the world has shrunk, or maybe it is that organised crime, like politics, has gone global, but more recent British mobsters have become bigger and, because we can hardly say “better”, perhaps “more formidable” might be a better choice of words. No-one typifies this new breed of gang boss than John “Goldfinger” Palmer. His name is hardly on the tip of everyone’s tongues, but as this new book from Wensley Clarkson shows, Palmer’s misdeeds were epic and definitely world class.
Born in Warwickshire in 1950, Palmer found that school and conventional education offered him nothing. After working with his brother for a spell, he started dealing in gold and jewellery from a Bristol address, and first came to the attention of the police in a significant way with his involvement in the Brinks Mat gold bullion heist in 1983. Palmer’s part in the affair sounds scarcely credible, but it was to melt down the gold bars into more saleable items – in his back garden. It was this action which earned him his nickname, but his claim that he didn’t know where the gold had come from convinced the jury at his trial in 1987.
Meanwhile, Palmer had not been idle, at least in the sense of criminality. He had set up in the timeshare business, perpetrating what was later proved to be a massive scam. When he was eventually brought to justice, it was alleged that he had swindled 20,000 people out of a staggering £30,000,000. In 2001 he was sentenced to eight years in jail, but his ill-gotten gains were never recovered.
Despite his prodigious earnings, it seemed to go against Palmer’s grain to go straight, and he continued to dabble in fraudulent timeshare selling and money laundering. He had semi-retired to a Ponderosa style property in Essex (where else?) but it seems clear that no-one spends their life stealing on a grand scale without making enemies, and he was shot dead in a professional hit on 24th June, 2015.
This brief account is all in the public domain, but Wensley Clarkson can tell the full story because of his intensive research ‘on the inside’. His knowledge has not been gathered without cost, as he and his family have been subject to death threats by criminals terrified of being exposed. Killing Goldfinger is the definitive account of an extraordinary life – and death. It is published by Quercus, and is due to be published on 1st June.
I COUNT MYSELF GENUINELY LUCKY to be sent novels by publishers and authors who are looking for coverage of their books. Any reviewer will tell you the same thing. Inevitably, it is impractical to keep all the books once they have been read and reviewed. I pass on books to like-minded friends, or take a batch to the charity shops in town. But some contemporary books I guard with my life, and they will leave my house over my dead body.
The Urban Dictionary tells me that a “keeper” is is a colloquial phrase derived from “for keeps,” which means worth keeping forever. I have an eclectic list of CriFi keepers which include such diverse talents as Walter Mosley, Phil Rickman, Harry Bingham, Eva Dolan and Jim Kelly. But top of my list is the wonderful Bryant and May series by Christopher Fowler (left). So, rest assured, I would not be putting this lovely new paperback up as a prize if I did not already have my hardback copy in pride of place on my bookshelf.
STRANGE TIDE is set, as you may expect, in London, but it’s a London few of us will ever see. It’s a world of forgotten alleyways, strange histories, abandoned amusement arcades, inexplicable legends and murder – always murder. Strange Tide was my book of the year for 2016, and you can read my review of it by following this link.
If you would like to win the paperback version of Strange Tide, then answer a simple question. Fans of the series will know the christian names of the two aged detectives. So, if you think their names are Reg Bryant and Michael May, then send me an email with Reg, Michael in the subject box. The email address is below.
• Competition closes at 10.00pm GMT on Wednesday 31st May 2017.
• One entry per competitor.• Entries accepted from Europe, America, Asia and Australasia (basically anywhere!)
• The winner will be drawn out of the (digital) hat.