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October 2016

THE GREAT WAR and CRIME FICTION … An introduction

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“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

Reflective essays on Fully Booked don’t usually begin with a quotation from the nearest thing to a monster that the 20th Century produced, but in the case of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, we make an exception. I suppose that when someone is the runner-up to Mao Zedong in the mass-murderer hit parade, you might hope that your words outlive your mortal life.

With Stalin’s cynical but perceptive maxim in mind, it would be excusable if a few criminal murders here or there were to be largely ignored in the maelstrom of shot and shell which was The Great War, but both in real life and in the minds of crime fiction writers, a death is a death, particularly if it occurs for reasons other than the victim being too near to the detonation of a minenwerfer or a Stokes Mortar round.

It could be said that novels set in the various theatres of WWII resonate with greater intensity to readers since 1945. In more recent times, and with pure crime fiction in mind, we have the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr, the masterly Fred Troy novels by John Lawton, and the hugely underrated John Madden books by Rennie Airth. Further back, further afield, and further from the crime genre we should not forget the contribution made by American writers such as Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller.

 

Literary

In a purely literary sense, the standout novels which have the The Great War as their backbone have to include Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and a novel which, in my view, trumps them all – Covenant With Death, by John Harris. Harris also wrote one of the iconic novels of WWII, which was a huge success both as a book and a film – The Sea Shall Not Have Them. None of these books could in any way be called a crime novel, and so they must stay outside of our collection.

DonkeysWhat needs to be held up like a bright lantern in our search for good WWI crime fiction, is the fact that those six years are like no other in British history. They have produced a mythology which is unique in modern memory, and with it a collection of tropes, images, phrases and conventions, all of which find their way into the consciousness of writers and readers. Military historians tell only part of the story: the Alan Clark theory of The Donkeys and the anti-war polemic of the the 1960s and 70s has one version of events; more recent accounts of the war by revisionist historians such as John Terrain and Gary Sheffield tell another tale altogether. In considering books and writers for this feature I have used two criteria. Firstly, there must be crime involved that is distinct from the licensed slaughter of wartime and, secondly, the events of the war must cast their shadows over the narrative either in a contemporary sense or in the form of a social or political legacy.

PART ONE of

TGWACH feature

will be published on
FRIDAY 4th NOVEMBER 2016

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COMPETITION TIME !

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Here’s your chance to win a crisp mint copy of Emma Kavanagh’s hit thriller The Missing Hours. Thanks to those generous people at Arrow/Penguin Random House, there’s a paperback edition (out on 17th November) up for grabs.

How do you enter? Pretty simple, really. Just solve the anagram Ah, pimplier owl – clue, he is perhaps the most celebrated PI in crime fiction – then put your answer as the subject of an email to Fully Booked:

fullybooked2016@yahoo.com

There’s no need to put any further details. There will be a draw of all the correct answers, and the winner will notified in the usual way. This time, the competition is worldwide, so we will post the USA, Australiasia or wherever. The competition closes at 10.00pm GMT on Sunday 6th November.

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RULES

  1. Competition closes 10.00pm London time on Sunday 6th November 2016.
  2. One entry per competitor.
  3. All correct entries will be put in the proverbial hat, and one winner drawn.
  4. The winner will be notified by email, and a postal address requested

SKIN AND BONE …Between the covers

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Georgian England in the early autumn of 1743. The George in question is Number Two, and earlier in the year he had the distinction of being the last monarch to lead British troops in battle, that being at Dettingen, where an uneasy alliance of British, Austrian and Hanoverian forces – known, bizarrely, as ‘The Pragmatic Army’ – defeated those eternal adversaries, the French.

BlakeThis, then, is the England of Handel and Hogarth (at least he was English) and the looming threat from the Jacobites north of the border. Author Robin Blake, (left) however resists the easy win of setting his story in the bustle of London. Instead, he takes us to the town of Preston, sitting on the banks of the River Ribble in Lancashire.

Titus Cragg is a lawyer, and the coroner for the town. He is called to investigate a macabre and piteous discovery – that of a tiny baby found at the bottom of a malodorous sludge-filled pit, one of several used by tanners in the town to turn rough animal hides into leather. Once the muck and slurry have been washed away from the infant, Cragg discovers a nasty wound on the back of its head. It takes a more detailed examination by a local physician – Luke Fidelis – to reveal that the little girl did indeed die from violence, but of a much more sinister kind.

skin-and-boneThe investigations carried out by Cragg and Fidelis reveal a growing schism between the tanners and the wealthy men of property who run the town’s affairs. The leather workers are an inward looking community. This state is mostly driven by the fact that they live and work alongside the noisome waste materials – mostly faeces and urine – which are essential to the tanning process, and therefore most local people literally turn up their noses at the tanners. The burgesses and council-men of Preston, on the other hand, have their eyes on what they believe to be an acre or so of valuable land – ripe for redevelopment – currently occupied by the tannery.

What’s in a name? To answer the ill-fated Juliet, there is always something. Cragg, as his name suggests has something rock-like about him, while Fidelis has a touch of enigma and mystery. Fidelis, the more exotic of the pair, causes suspicion among the bluff Lancastrians of Preston, if only because his modern views and deep knowledge of the science of medicine contrast dramatically with the more superstitious practices of other local doctors. Cragg and Fidelis do eventually discover the truth about the awful death of the baby, but not before Preston is set on its collective ear by another murder and the downfall of one of its most respected residents and his family.

Skin and Bone scores highly in all the categories which make for good historical crime fiction. At its core it has an intriguing and inventive mystery, not just a standard murder parachuted into a period setting. The Georgian details are established without fuss, showmanship or over-anxious dollops of historical fact splashed on the canvas in the name of authenticity. Most importantly, the dialogue is natural and untainted by any attempt to create what the author might imagine to be the vernacular speech of the time. Cragg – and his wife – are likeable and convincing, while Fidelis provides just enough forensic flair to point his friend in the right investigative direction.

This is the fourth Cragg and Fidelis story and it came out in Kindle earlier this year. The hardback is out today, 25th October and the paperback will be out on 3rd November,  You can check further details of this and the previous books at Robin Blake’s own website, or his Amazon author page.

Blake Novels

NEW BOOKS FROM MICHAEL JOSEPH

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The kind people at Michael Joseph were good enough to invite me to a drinks party right in the heart of London’s theatreland, literally a stone’s throw from the glitter of The Royal Opera House, and the more forbidding bulk of the former Bow Street Magistrates Court, surely haunted by the phantom of many infamous defendants, including Roger Casement, William Joyce and the Kray twins.

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all-our-wrongsUp on the third floor of The Covent Garden pub, however, the crime was purely fictional, in the shape of forthcoming novels from the Michael Joseph stable. Canadian Elan Mastai (pictured above)has already achieved fame as a screenwriter for such films as The F Word (starring Daniel Ratcliffe) and Fury (starring Samuel L Jackson), but his debut novel All Our Wrong Todays is already generating a considerable buzz in the book world. It concerns a young man called Tom who seizes the opportunity to energise his glum present day existence with the help of his father’s time machine. Mastrai gives us the top notes of a contemporary thriller, with the more complex harmonies of the differences between dull but predictable reality, and the altogether more dangerous world of dreams.

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More conventionally ‘crimey’ is Blue Light Yokohama – also a debut – by Nicolás Obregón (pictured above). The novel is based on Japan’s most infamous unsolved crime in recent decades – the Setagaya Family Murder. Mikio Miyazawa, 44, his 41-year-old wife Yasuko, 8-year-old daughter Niina, and 6-year-old son Rei, were found dead on the morning of Dec 31, 2000. Miyazawa’s son had been strangled, and the other three had been stabbed to death. Fingerprints and other evidence in the home indicate the killer used the computer and ate ice cream after the attack on Dec 30, spending up to 11 hours before leaving the next morning.

blue-lightApproximately 190,000 officers have been involved in the case to date, and police have received more than 16,000 pieces of information from the public, yet the killer remains at large. Fifty police officers are still assigned to the case to follow up on any leads. The reward was raised from the initial 3 million yen to 10 million yen for information which leads to the killer or killers’ arrest.

Into the middle of this true crime scene, Obregón pitches Inspector Kosuke Iwata, a policeman racked with personal pain and guilt. He senses that his integrity and persistent search for the truth will upset senior colleagues, and he knows the clock is ticking down towards his own ruin – or a fresh atrocity. The title? Obregón tells me it is a popular song from the 1960s, best described as Japanese country and western.

Both books are due out in the spring of 2017, and you will be able to read full reviews on Fully Booked nearer the time. For information on All Our Wrong Todays contact Ellie Hughes at EHughes@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk, and Gaby Young at GYoung@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk for Blue Light Yokohama.

 

Mark Edwards … interview

mark-edwardsMark Edwards writes psychological thrillers in which terrifying things happen to ordinary people. His first solo novel, The Magpies (2013), reached the No.1 spot on Amazon UK as did his third novel Because She Loves Me (2014). He has also co-written various crime novels with Louise Voss such as Killing Cupid (2011) and The Blissfully Dead (2015).

Mark grew up on the south coast of England and starting writing in his twenties while working in a number of dead-end jobs. He lived in Tokyo for a year before returning to the UK and starting a career in marketing. As well as a full-time writer, Mark is a stay at home dad for his three children, his wife and a ginger cat. Mark speaks to Fully Booked about his life and his writing.

As a six word story, explain what The Devil’s Work is about.

Dream job becomes a terrifying nightmare. (My original pitch was ‘The Devil Wears Prada rewritten by Stephen King’ but that’s eight words!)

As opposed to other types of fiction, what do you think  is the appeal of psychological thrillers?

Psychological thrillers are hot right now because readers want to connect with stories in which they can imagine themselves. Marriage, relationships with friends and children, co-workers and lovers…Psychological thriller writers take ordinary situations and add a layer of fear and darkness – from the toxic marriage in Gone Girl to the everyday voyeur in Girl on the Train, readers like those familiar situations and characters and thinking about what they would do if it were them. I think it’s a reaction to the Dan Brown years, which were followed by the Stieg Larsson-fuelled Scandinavian noir period – we’ve gone from worldwide conspiracy theories and outlandish situations to what is now called domestic noir. It’s not new but it’s never been more popular.

What made you want to set the majority of this novel in a publishing house?

I used to work in publishing, although we didn’t publish fiction. Like Sophie in The Devil’s Work I was a marketing manager. More importantly, I have been involved in the world of fiction publishing, as a writer, for years, so know that world well. I think it’s a world that readers are interested in too. It’s certainly more interesting than reading or writing about an insurance company. The thing that unites everyone who works in publishing is they loves books. They love to read, and they love books as objects. I’m like that too. If I wasn’t a writer I would want to work on the other side. People who work in publishing are like kids who say they want to work in a candy factory, doing the job they always dreamed of. But, of course, I needed something nasty to be going on in the background of my publishing company.

the-devils-work-coverWhat was the most important aspect of The Devil’s Work that you hoped to get right–the characterization/the thrill/the mystery?

I wanted to ensure all of the elements of the book worked, but it was particularly important to get Sophie’s voice right. This is the first novel I’ve written from the point of view of a woman, and I knew the whole book would fall apart if Sophie wasn’t convincing. I read a lot of books by female writers, with female protagonists, and noticed there are a number of differences between male and female narrators. For example, women tend to write more about how they feel physically, especially if they feel discomfort. That’s just a small thing but as most of my readers are women I was determined to ensure nothing about Sophie’s voice jarred.

Which authors inspire you?

I read a lot of my peers’ novels and am constantly inspired by great writing, interesting characters and original ideas. I’m always trying to improve my writing and love reading books that make me feel the need to raise my game. An example would be I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh; the twist in that book made me feel inspired to come up with a really great twist in The Devil’s Work.

My writing heroes are Stephen King, Ira Levin and Donna Tartt. King for how he puts normal people in scary situations, and because he’s had such a long, prolific career. Levin because he came up with the most fantastic concepts and executed them brilliantly. Tartt because she is so good at creating atmosphere and flawed by likeable characters. The Secret History is my favourite book and it inspired me to start writing again in my twenties.

You’ve written multiple thriller titles–did you approach The Devil’s Work differently?

The Devil’s Work is one of my ‘from hell’ books – I’ve done neighbors from hell, relationships, vacations and now co-workers – so I approached it like those. I always start out with a person or couple in an idyllic situation, full of hope and optimism, and then begin to dismantle that until everything goes horribly wrong. But with each book I put pressure on myself to get better, to create creepier situations and surprise the reader more. This book was the hardest to write because it had the most complex plot and it’s the first one I’ve written with two timelines that interweave. That was challenging. I actually wrote all of the university chapters first, and then started to write the present day story. That meant that by the time I started to write the main narrative I knew Sophie really well.

What type of advice would you give to an aspiring thriller author?

I’d give any aspiring writer the same piece of advice: only do it if you are absolutely driven, if it’s an itch that you have to scratch. Writing is hard. All the stuff that goes with writing – rejection, disappointment, criticism – is even harder. All the writers I know, no matter how successful, are dissatisfied but we can’t help ourselves. If I was unable to put them off, I would advise reading as much as they can. That’s the best way to learn.

followWhat is the most surreal thing about being a published author?

The most surreal thing about being a writer is how ordinary it is. I used to have this idea that it would be glamorous, but it’s the exact opposite of that! I get up, drive the kids to school, sit in my dining room (I don’t have my own office because it got turned into a nursery) with a view of a derelict building and a busy street, fending off demands from my three-year-old for snacks. Sometimes I go and write in Starbucks, so I at least feel like Carrie in Sex and the City. Having said all that, going to festivals in places like New Orleans, or having lunch with my publisher, the time my agent held a champagne reception for me after I sold my millionth book…that’s when I feel like a proper writer. But most of the time I wonder when I’m going to get the keys to my ivory tower (answer: never!).

You’ve traveled and lived abroad. Do you think aspiring writers should move outside their comfort zone in order to better their writing?

Living through difficult situations definitely helps you write better. It’s harder to write convincingly about emotions, places and relationships without experiencing them in some way. However, you don’t need to be well-traveled to write about the world, and you don’t necessarily need to have suffered to write about pain. The imagination is a wonderful thing. But I think that writers who have stepped outside their comfort zone and felt daunted or scared can draw on those feelings to give their books an air of truth that might otherwise be lacking.

Having said all that, writers can make the mistake of doing something they think was interesting and assuming the rest of the world will be fascinated. I tried to write a book about my year in Japan and it was the worst thing I’d ever done. It read more like a travel diary and was only interesting to me. It’s like showing someone your vacation snaps. Readers want stories they can relate to. You should only write about your true-life experiences if it makes a great story; otherwise, it’s better to take something from it and use that to invent a story around it.

What is one thing you’d love to write but haven’t gotten around to it yet?

I’ve had this idea floating around in my head for years. It’s high concept, a speculative fiction novel, with what I think is a great hook. I just haven’t figured out what to do with it yet, or where it goes. This sometimes happens: an idea can gestate for years. Sometimes they go nowhere. Or maybe I’ll suddenly work out what to do with it. But I have a feeling this particular idea could turn into something epic if I ever have the flash of inspiration that will bring it to life.

magpiesWhat is the most important element of a story to you that must be in every novel you write?

All of my books are about ordinary people in scary situations, so it’s important that the story is grounded in a reality that readers can identify with. The main character needs to be an everyman or woman, not a chiseled action hero or superstar. The most important element in my books is that I make these identifiable characters confront terrifying situations. It’s also important that, although there are hints of otherworldly goings-on, nothing is supernatural. There is always a rational explanation for everything that happens – otherwise it would feel like cheating. Each of my books describes a nightmare that could happen to anyone. It could happen to you.

Are you secretive about your writing or do you need to share and bounce ideas off of people?

I find it essential to have someone to discuss ideas with – particularly problems. My wife, who studied creative writing and is very well-read, is great for this. She works from home too and quite often, during the working day, I will seek her out and describe how I’m stuck, or run ideas past her. Sometimes the very act of verbalizing the problem helps me solve it. She just has to sit there and listen. But often we will talk it through and she will help me figure it out. Apart from my wife, I don’t let anyone else see what I’m working on until I feel it’s ready, usually after I’ve written two or three drafts. I discuss initial ideas with my editor and agent and then vanish until the book is finished.

The Devil’s Work and Mark’s author page can be found on Amazon.

ON MY SHELF …21st October

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armstrongross_Ross Armstrong is certainly a talented actor, as anyone familiar with his appearances on British television screens in such favourites as Foyle’s War and Jonathan Creek will testify. His RADA training also equipped him for weightier fare such as Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But a novelist too? So it seems, as his debut novel The Watcher is due out just after Christmas. The kind people at Harper Collins have just sent me an ARC of the novel, so what’s it all about?

It seems to take as its central plot device the well used trope of someone observing from a distance what appears to be a crime – or at least a mysterious happening. Bryan de Palma used the device in his 1984 thriller Body Double, which was itself an homage to the 1954 Hitchcock classic Rear Window. More recently, we all know what a runaway success Paula Hawkins has had with The Girl On The Train. Armstrong’s observer – or perhaps voyeur – is a young woman called Lily Gullick, an ornithologist with the obligatory pair of excellent binoculars. Her optics enable her to spy on her neighbours, and she indulges her imagination by inventing stories about them and their lives. But then one of her fantasy dramas take a very real turn, as one of Lily’s subjects – an elderly woman –  is found dead.

Lily has been watching. But she soon learns, as one of the unforeseen consequences of the old woman’s death, that someone has also been watching her, and what was just a harmless bit of nosey-parkering is, all of a sudden, a matter of life and death. Follow this link to pre-order The Watcher as a Kindle or a hardback.

gilbiogGil Hogg, although living in the West London district of Fulham, is a New Zealander. His novel Rendezvous With Death is far from a debut, as Hogg’s first novel A Smell of Fraud was published as long ago as 1976. He returns with a story which begins in the explosive atmosphere of present day Pakistan.

Nick Dyson has abandoned his career as a barrister in London to act as personal assistant to a British diplomat – Robert Laidlow –  in Islamabad. What seemed like a smart career move goes dramatically wrong when the diplomat is kidnapped. While the authorities are busy blaming the usual suspects – Islamic extremists – it dawns on Dyson that the criminals may in fact be working for a powerful European businessman with an implacable grudge against Laidlow and his family, and that his own head may be the next to roll.

Rendezvous With Death came out at in Kindle at the end of September and you can take a closer look plus a glimpse of Gil Hogg’s earlier books by visiting his author page. If you fancy a print version, then you can order one from the Troubador home page.

THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … The Bone Field

the-bone-fieldSimon Kernick has become very much the go-to man for those who like taut thrillers that take no prisoners, and inhabit the landscape between regular police procedurals and the more cut-throat world of the intelligence agencies and counter terrorism. He has written a string of best sellers since his first novel, The Business of Dying, was published by Bantam in 2002. The Bone Field is his latest work, and will not be available until January 2017, but thanks to the good souls at Penguin Random House, my friendly postie dropped off a copy at the end of last week.

It is every parent’s nightmare, perhaps more so when daughters are concerned, that something awful will happen when their offspring is far from home, perhaps away volunteering, on a gap year, or maybe just taking a long back-packing trip to somewhere like Thailand. It is Thailand that initially takes centre stage here, because it was there that 21 year-old Katherine ‘Kitty’ Sinn  was last seen, back in 1990.

Time, like an ever rolling stream, has born many of its sons – and daughters – away since 1990, and the case of Kitty Sinn is not so much cold as fossilised beneath the permafrost of unsolved crimes. But then her bones are discovered, not in what used to be called Indo-China, but six thousand miles nearer home, in the grounds of a Buckinghamshire school.

DI Ray Mason, of the Metropolitan Police Homicide Command would not normally be involved in cold case crime, but when Kitty’s former boyfriend, Henry Forbes, comes forward to state that he knows all the whys, whens and wherefores of her death, Mason has to listen. His attention turns from dutiful to totally riveted when both Forbes and his expensive lawyer are gunned down in a hit which is so proficient that it reeks of organised crime.

From here on in, Mason and his team realise that it is ‘game on’ as it is obvious that they are not dealing with a domestic tragedy, but a ruthless international crime gang led by a man whose cruelty stems from the fact that he believes himself to be untouchable.

There will be a full review of The Bone Field nearer to the publication date, but in the meantime you can pre-order a copy from Amazon, or contact Sam Deacon on 020 7840 8846

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THE MERRILY WATKINS NOVELS … A readers’ guide

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1998The Reverend Merrily Watkins, who was first brought to life by Phil Rickman in The Wine of Angels in 1998, is, on one level, your average workaday Anglican parish priest. For starters she is a woman, and the Church’s own website tells us that while male ordinations are declining, those of women are increasing rapidly. Secondly, Merrily faces a declining congregation in her Herefordshire village – just like hundreds of other parishes up and down the country. Thirdly, she observes – at a distance, admittedly – the continuing friction between modernising progressives and the traditionalists in the hierarchy of the Church of England.

But the Reverend Mrs Watkins is crucially different from most of her fellow vicars. Some of them may also be single parents, but not many would have had a husband who was a crooked lawyer, and fewer still would have lost him in a fatal car crash. While Merrily is very far from a Merry Widow – she is much too introspective and self-examining for that – she does have a love life. The object of her affection is a talented but tormented singer-songwriter called Lol Robinson. His career as a latter day Nick Drake has been blighted by stage fright and self doubt but, so far at least, unlike the late and lamented Drake, he is still in the land of the living. Rickman’s own love of music and guitars shines through in his portrayal of Robinson, and if you want a slightly left-field novel involving musicians and the supernatural, you could do far worse than to read Rickman’s December (1994), a chilling retake on the impact of the death of John Lennon.

While Merrily’s relationship with Lol is, despite her attempts to be subtle, the worst kept secret in the village, her secondary occupation is known to very few of her remaining parishioners outside of her churchwardens. Merrily is, to use her official title, the diocesan Deliverance Consultant. That is Deliverance as in the words of the Litany of The Church of England:

From all evil and wickedness; from sin;
from the crafts and assaults of the devil;
and from everlasting damnation,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Merrily Watkins does not like to use the ‘E’ word when talking about her work, as that tends to bring into people’s minds swiveling heads, the projectile vomiting of green slime and teenage girls with a rather gruff and inventive turn of phrase. Instead, she tries to offer solace and the comfort of The Holy Spirit; sometimes to people, but more often to places where the presence of the dead is disturbing those who live within the four walls. She is never sure whether she is trusted by her boss – the Bishop of Hereford – or simply tolerated. Bishops come and go, however, and in the most recent novel, Friends Of The Dusk (2015) a new incumbent brings with him the proverbial new broom, and Merrily has to put herself in personal danger if she is not to be swept away.

So, when Merrily encounters ‘the crafts and assaults of the devil’, does she believe what she is seeing and feeling? She is certainly susceptible to atmosphere, and Rickman is clever enough to keep things subtle; there are no movie special effects here, but the temperature might drop a degree or two, a weathered stone carving might take on a sinister aspect in the fading light of dusk, and a creaking floorboard is usually enough to have us reaching for the crucifix.

One of Rickman’s many skills is the way he allows real life characters to inhabit Merrily’s world. Over the series, he has brought in a star-studded cast of people who have had a real connection with the Welsh border country. In The Remains of An Altar (2007) the shades of Sir Edward Elgar and Alfred Watkins (The Old Straight Path) pay a visit, and The Magus of Hay (2013) we meet The Hay on Wye entrepreneur Richard Booth and, slightly at a tangent, Eric Gill and Beryl Bainbridge. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle puts in a retrospective appearance in The Prayer Of The Night Shepherd (2004) when Merrily’s teenage daughter Jane has a holiday job in a hotel every bit as spooky as The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, and which is the place that perhaps inspired ACD to write his masterly The Hound of The Baskervilles. The sinister presence of Fred West lurks in the corner of The Lamp of The Wicked (2003) and in The Wine of Angels (1998) the life and words of the 17th century mystical poet Thomas Traherne echo throughout the plot.

Jane Watkins, dear, dear Jane. Rickman shamelessly uses daughter Jane to scare the pants off us on a regular basis, in that she goes where angels – and her mother – fear to tread. Jane seems to age on a slightly different timescale to the adult characters, but we basically see her through sixth form and away to university. She might be what older and less charitable folk call a ‘snowflake’. She is environmentally aware, probably quite left wing, and very much the feminist. Fortunately, we have yet to hear her demand Safe Spaces or clamour for the No Platforming of some speaker with whose views she disagrees, but her vehement defence of archaeological sites has led her into conflict with some pretty unpleasant corporate types, and she is forever wandering off – usually while mum is preoccupied – into situations where she makes herself a prime target for the bad guys.

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There are several regular members of the Phil Rickman Repertory Company. Gomer Parry is a roll-up smoking drainage contractor who is intensely supportive of Merrily, and acts as a kind of Greek Chorus offering commonsense views on distinctly unusual situations. Franny Bliss is Merrily’s point of contact with the police. We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that these novels are, albeit with a decided twist, crime fiction novels, and so the Liverpudlian copper, based in Hereford, is an essential player. If Parry and Bliss sit on the Profane benches, then two occupants of the Sacred side of The House must be mentioned. Huw Owen is a bluntly spoken northern priest who has seen more of The Devil’s works than he cares to mention, but he is the closest Merrily has to a spiritual advisor, even though he spends most of his time in an obscure retreat away in the Welsh hills. Sophie Hill is the Bishop’s secretary, and she ought, by rights, with her severe manner and unimpeachable Anglican pedigree, to be very sniffy about the Vicar of Ledwardine, but she is one of Merrily’s most subtle – and caring – allies.

We have talked about Merrily’s metaphorical and spiritual landscape, but the physical landscape of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and the Welsh borders is a constant and sometimes sinister presence. The dark little valleys with their decaying Victorian chapels, the remote manor houses with their fragments of medieval and Tudor stonework and the isolated, hard-scrabble farms where lonely men might – and sometimes do – become quite mad, provide enough chills of the earthly kind even before the unquiet dead need to put in an appearance.

Phil Rickman is a fine writer and his earlier stand-alone novels and his John Dee series are proof enough of that, were any needed. It is in the Merrily Watkins novels, however, that Rickman interweaves the threads of murder, police procedure, the power of landscape and faint but potent wisps of the supernatural to produce a literary cloth of gold which is little short of miraculous. Merrily Watkins is a brilliant creation. She is brave, vulnerable, demure yet sexy and, above all, completely believable.

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WW2 Historical Crime Fiction – (5) A Man Without Breath

katynPhilip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels bestride the 20th century, from the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany to the post war period when many countries still sheltered mysterious German gentlemen whose collective past has been, of necessity, reinvented. Gunther is a smart talking, smart thinking policeman who has kept his sanity intact – but his conscience rather less so – by dealing with such elemental forces as Reinhardt Heydrich, Joseph Goebbels, Juan and Evita Peron, and Adolf Eichmann.

amwbreathA Man Without Breath (2013) sees Gunther is working for an organisation whose very existence may seem improbable, given the historical context, but Die Wehrmacht Untersuchungsstelle (Wehrmacht Bureau of War Crimes) was set up in 1939 and continued its work until 1945. In 1943, on a mission from the Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, Gunther is sent to Smolensk and entrusted with proving that the thousands of corpses lying frozen beneath the trees of the nearby Katyn Forest are those of Polish army officers and intellectuals murdered by the Russian NKVD, and not those of Jews murdered by the SS.

The action is set against a resurgent Red Army slowly grinding its way west, and a small but growing body of opinion among the more aristocratic members of joseph-goebbels-speaf9d239the German military that Hitler is a dangerous upstart who has already damaged the country beyond repair, and must be stopped. Adrift on a sea of violent corruption, Gunther constantly plays the role of the decent man, but in the end, he follows one theology, and one theology only. If he wakes up the next day with his head firmly attached to his shoulders, and has feeling in his extremities, then he has done the right thing. His conscience has not died, but it is far from well; it competes a whole chorale of competing voices in his head, each wishing to be heard. As he is left helpless by the world of spin and disinformation orchestrated by Dr Goebbels, (right) he must resort to his basic copper’s instincts to protect himself and uncover the truth.

The Katyn Forest murders are a matter of historical record, but it is only in relatively recent times that Russia has officially admitted responsibility for the massacres. As recently as 6 December 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed commitment to uncovering the whole truth about the massacre, stating “Russia has recently taken a number of unprecedented steps towards clearing up the legacy of the past. We will continue in this direction”.

History tells us that the dead of Katyn included an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 85 privates, 3,420 non-commissioned officers, and seven chaplains, 200 pilots, government representatives and royalty (a prince and 43 officials), and civilians (three landowners, 131 refugees, 20 university professors, 300 physicians, several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers, and more than 100 writers and journalists.

We know the terrible details but Gunther only has his suspicions. Kerr weaves a brilliant tale where Gunther’s arrival at the truth has the ironic consequence of removing culpability for the deaths from one group of brutal criminals and bestowing it upon another. Those of us who are old enough to remember the post-war years, if only as children, will be familiar with the feeling that the Russians were bastards every bit as awful as their Nazi opponents, but at least they were our bastards – at least until they reached Berlin.

A Man Without Breath is available in all formats.

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