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DON’T LET GO … Between the covers

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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:

DLG cover“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.

Harlan Coben 2014 bis (c) Claudio Marinesco (3).jpgCoben 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.

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THE YEAR OF THE GUN … Between the covers

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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.

TYOTGSo, 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.

 NicksonmaxresdefaultYou 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.

 

AN OXFORD SCANDAL … Between the covers

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AOSOxford, 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-russellNorman 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.

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THE ADVERSARY … Between the covers

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The bare – and true – facts are these. Jean-Claude Romand, the son of a well-to-do forestry official in the Jura region of France went off to study medicine. He never took any exams, but fooled his parents and university administrators into believing that he was – for years – on the verge of qualifying as a doctor. He pronounced himself a fully accredited physician. He married, had two children, and went to work for the World Health Organisation as a researcher into the causes and treatment of arteriosclerosis. As his career developed he became closely connected with several important figures in the world of international politics and medicine. His was a glittering career, except for one small problem. It was all a fantasy. He never qualified. There was no job. No connections with influential decision makers. No international conferences in exotic locations.

The AdversaryTo this farrago of lies and deception add fraud on a grand scale. Romand was able to keep himself and his family in relative prosperity by claiming that he had access to investment opportunities which would pay handsome dividends to those fortunate enough to be ‘in the know’. He relieved relatives and members of his wider family of hundreds of thousands of French francs – every one of which went into his numerous personal bank accounts. Separating his mistress and her vast personal fortune was his undoing. She was sharp enough – eventually – to call him out and, with his fantasy world on the verge of unraveling, Romand, on an icy weekend in January 1993, killed his wife, two children, and both of his parents.


Jean Claude Romand
is portrayed as a shabby Prospero, and the Caliban he commands is a breathtaking fantasy world of warped imagination and fraud. Such was his belief in his own plausibility – and the gullibility of others – that he had one final trick to play. He returned to his house (and the cold corpses of his family) and set it on fire. Suicide in a fit of remorse? Carrère – and the French criminal justice system – thought otherwise. Romand was carried alive from the inferno. The flames were real enough, but Romand calculated that he would be rescued. At the point where he had recovered enough to speak to the police, he would then tell of the masked intruder who killed his family and left him for dead.

Jean-Claude-Romand_width1024Inevitably, Romand was found guilty of murder, and in 1996 was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for at least twenty two years. Prior to the trial, Carrère had begun a correspondence with Romand (right) with a view to writing an account of the case. In this account, aside from the factual detail, Carrère invites us to ponder the true nature of evil and insanity, and makes us wonder if the two states are totally separate, or whether or not they are actually bedfellows.

Carrère does his best to keep a neutral tone of voice as he describes the road Romand took, from his eighteen years of astonishing duplicity, via the terrible murders, through to journey’s end where he seems to have rehabilitated himself in prison, at least in the eyes of some. It would have been cheap work to write a bloodthirsty piece of tabloid jornalism, where shock falls upon shock, and adjectives become ever more spectacular, but Carrère is flesh and blood, and a compassionate human being; there is a note of bemusement as he describes the tortuous labyrinth of deception Romand builds around himself. The killings? He does no more than lay out the facts. The callousness, the brutality, the sheer casual depravity of the deeds speak for themselves. Carrère saves his contempt for the captive Romand, who seems to have cast a spell on many otherwise decent people who have been profoundly impressed with how the killer has turned to God.

Emmanuel-Carrère-1Carrère (left) concludes:

“He is not putting on an act, of that I’m sure, but isn’t the liar inside him putting one over on him? When Christ enters his heart, when the certainty of being loved in spite of everything makes tears of joy run down his cheeks, isn’t it the adversary deceiving him yet again?”

 Up to this point, I had wondered about the book’s title, but reality dawned as I recalled the vivid and terrifying image from the first epistle of Peter, chapter 5:

“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:”

 L’Adversaire was first published in 2000, and has been the subject of several films and documentaries. This new edition, translated by Linda Coverdale, is published by Vintage Books, which is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies.

THE WALLS … Between the covers

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Lone mother. Single parent. Solo carer. Whatever the politically correct term currently favoured by The Taking-Offence Police, Kristy Tucker is it. Not only is she bringing up her teenage son Ryan, she is caring for her debilitated father. ‘Pops’ is paying the price for a lifetime of heavy smoking, and two things keep him alive. One is physical – the cannula connecting him to his oxygen tank – and the other is psychological – the faint hope that he can still be a father to his daughter and someone his grandson can look up to.

The WallsKristy puts food on the table and tries to make sure that Ryan isn’t disadvantaged. She has a job, and it is one that demands every ounce of her compassion and every droplet of her sang froid. Her official title? Public Information Officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. If that sounds like some bureaucratic walk-in-the-park, think again. Acting as mediator between inmates, the press and the prison system is one thing, but remember that The Lone Star State is one of the thirty one American states which retains the death penalty. Consequently, Kristy not only has to manage the fraught liaison between prisoners on death row and the media, but she is also required to be an official witness at executions.

Despite the stresses and strains of her professional and family life, Kristy is still young enough to hanker after a personal life, and when Ryan introduces his martial arts teacher, Lance Dobson, she is taken aback by his kindness and his humility. It doesn’t hurt that he is ruggedly handsome and totally charming. Dobson becomes more and more a part of the Tucker household and, despite Dobson’s “aw, shucks..” modesty, Kristy finds herself falling in love with him. She is dazzled by the man, and cannot believe her luck when her affection is returned, with interest, and he asks her to marry him.

Back at the prison, Kristy Tucker has become involved with a condemned prisoner, Clifton Harris. He has been sentenced to death for starting a fire which killed his two children. There have been frequent appeals and stays of execution, but Harris’s last ride on the gurney of death is imminent. Kristy becomes convinced that Harris is innocent, but her profession inhibits her from offering anything but sympathy and a kindly voice.

All too soon, Kristy becomes Mrs Dobson, and both Ryan and Pops think all their Christmases have come at once. For Ryan, Lance Dobson becomes the father he never had, and Pops takes on a new lease of life, knowing that at long last there is an alpha male in the house to take on the duty of care which his illness has prevented him from fulfilling. Gold at the end of the rainbow? Not quite. Within a matter of weeks a fatal chasm begins to open up between Dobson’s public persona and the man he has become when alone with Kristy. He is insanely jealous, sexually demanding, domineering – and brutal with his fists. Despite Ryan and Pops still worshipping the ground that Lance Dobson walks on, Kristy has finally had enough. Using her unique insight into the mistakes made both by criminals and police, she plans a route which will take her out of her misery.

hollieovertonIt will come as no surprise to learn that Hollie Overton (right) is an experienced writer for TV. In The Walls every set-piece, every scene is intensely visual and immediate. With consummate cleverness she sets up two story lines which at first run parallel, but then converge. Two men. One is definitely guilty. One possibly innocent. Both are condemned to death. One by the State of Texas. The other by his battered wife.

The Walls is a sheer joy to read. The pace of the narrative is breathtaking, the characters are beautifully drawn and utterly convincing. Of course Hollie Overton takes sides, and she expects us to do the same, but we can still hold our breath and chew our nails until the final pages. This is domestic drama at its very best. The Walls is out on 10th August in the UK, published by Century, and is available here.

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THE WORD IS MURDER … Between the covers

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Diana Cowper crosses the Fulham Road, and walks into a funeral parlour. We are told that she is:

“… a short, very business-like woman: there was a sense of determination in her eyes, her sharply cut hair, the very way she walked. She was in her sixties, with a pleasant, round face. There were plenty of women like her in the streets of Fulham and South Kensington. She might have been on her way to lunch or to an art gallery.”

TWIM058Many people in their sixties – particularly those who are comfortably off – plan ahead for their own funerals. Daytime television programmes are interspersed with advertisements featuring either be-cardiganed senior citizens smugly telling us that they have taken insurance with Coffins ‘R’ Us, or rueful widows plaintively wishing that they had been better prepared for the demise of poor Jack, Barry or Derek. However, it would be unusual to hear that the be-cardiganed senior citizen had died only hours after planning and paying for their own send-off from the world of the living.

But that is precisely what happens to Diana Cowper. She is found murdered in her smart Chelsea terraced house. It is at this point that we are introduced to the two main characters in the story. One is Daniel Hawthorne, a former police detective sacked for unprofessional conduct, but with such an uncanny ability to solve murders that he is retained as a consultant by his former employers. The other is also involved in murder, but of a fictitious kind. He is a successful author and screenwriter with a string of hit TV shows and book bestsellers to his credit. His name? None other than Anthony Horowitz.

Plot-wise, the semi-fictional Horowitz is approached by Hawthorne, who wants him to write a crime story detailing his skill as a solver of murder mysteries. Where better to start than with the mysterious death of Diana Cowper? The back-story to her murder includes her complicity in the death of a young boy in a road accident ten years earlier, her son – now one of the best known young actors between the West End and Hollywood – the shattered family of the dead boy, and the judge who let Diana Cowper walk away a free woman from her trial for causing the boy’s death.

AHDuring the story, Horowitz (right) drops plenty of names but, to be fair, the real AH has plenty of names to drop. His CV as a writer is, to say the least, impressive. But just when you might be thinking that he is banging his own drum or blowing his own trumpet – select your favourite musical metaphor – he plays a tremendous practical joke on himself. He is summoned to Soho for a vital pre-production meeting with Steven and Peter (that will be Mr Spielberg and Mr Jackson to you and me), but his star gazing is rudely interrupted by none other than the totally unembarrassable person of Daniel Hawthorne, who barges his way into the meeting to collect Horowitz so that the pair can attend the funeral of Diana Cowper.
To write a novel with yourself as one of the main characters takes a certain amount of chutzpah and a great deal of narrative skill. Does Horowitz get away with it? Yes, yes, yes – and yes again. This is a gloriously complex whodunnit and a sly dig at the bizarre intensity of the worlds of both film-making and publishing. It is one of those books where the pages are turned all too quickly. The best books draw you into their world, make you part of it, make you care about what happens to the characters and force a sigh of regret when you reach the end papers. The Word Is Murder is one such book. It is full of intrigue, enjoyment, dark humour and superb characterisation.

I genuinely hope that this is not the last of Daniel Hawthorn. Horowitz has created an intriguing anti-hero who is, at times, almost autistic, but also capable of a chameleon-like transformation into an empathetic and sensitive listener. Hawthorne can switch between figuratively holding someone’s hand but then, in the blink of an eye, stabbing them with a bodkin. We learn just enough about Hawthorne to answer a few basic questions, but Horwowitz leaves us so much more to discover. Let us hope that he delivers. The Word Is Murder will be published by Century on 24th August, and is available for pre-order here.

I AM MISSING … Between the covers.

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David Raker finds people. Mostly these people are lost in physical form: sometimes he finds them alive but sometimes dead, and in the seven Raker novels which preceded I Am Missing, author Tim Weaver has composed variations on this theme. Now, however, Raker’s latest client is very visible and tangible, if a little careworn. Richard Kite has a big problem. He has no idea who he is or who he was. Found lying on the shingle shore near Southampton Water, bruised, battered and barely conscious, he was briefly the hot property of the tabloid press, starring as a nine day wonder before the media and their public grew bored of the tale and moved on to fresh sensations.

IAM coverRaker agrees to take on the case on a more-or-less pro bono basis. Whatever and whoever Richard Kite once was, he has not brought wealth of any kind with him into his new life. Raker’s initial trip south to meet Kite is less than fruitful. Kite only recalls two shadowy images from his past; one is that he is looking out across a lonely beach to a grey expanse of water; is it the sea, perhaps, or a river? The other image is just as enigmatic; Kite sees a television screen, and on it is a graphic of a broadcasting pylon emitting what seems to be a children’s programme.

Raker is a different kind of investigator. His background is not security, law enforcement or military. His previous career was in journalism, and this means that his cases are rarely settled by force of arms or fisticuffs. Instead, he has a sharp eye for inconsistencies in statements and accounts from the people he deals with, and he can usually spot a lie or an evasion at a hundred paces. When he discovers that Kite has been receiving therapy from a distinguished psychotherapist, he makes an appointment to see her and, within just a few minutes of the interview starting, he senses that she is not telling him everything she knows.

Tim Weaver_webMeanwhile, Weaver (right) gives us what seems to be a parallel but unconnected narrative. Two girls, sister and step sister, apparently living in a remote moorland community, perhaps in the north of England, have taken to sneaking out of their house after dark, and climbing up the hill onto the moors, where they have constructed an imaginary and malevolent presence out there in the wind and rain-swept darkness. Malevolent it certainly seems to be, but is it just a figment of the girls’ lurid imaginings?

At this point, with Raker’s investigation about as productive as trying to extract blood from a stone, I will call a halt to the plot synopsis. This is because Weaver has made a beautifully designed surprise for us. It was a shift that I never saw coming, and it is one which makes the final third of the book totally compelling. Fans of the series will be pleased to learn that we get the almost de rigeur exploration of a part of underground London that has been hidden, neglected and forgotten but, having given us this, Weaver makes certain we are all safely seated expecting one thing, before using his smoke and mirrors to reveal something else altogether.

You can check buying choices by clicking the link below.

I AM MISSING

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THE NUTTING GIRL … Between the covers

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To say that Frank Raven has an unusual back-story is akin to saying that Muhammad Ali was a bit handy with his fists. Raven was once Brother Frank, until the monastery threw him out for thinking too much, and putting his thoughts down on paper. He was once Officer Raven, a policeman who lasted just one day in the job before gunshots took him not just close to Death’s Door, but across the deadly threshold. Miraculously, he recovered, only to find himself with no job, but a meagre police pension. And while we’re on the subject of miracles, we had better say that Frank Raven was once totally blind, but his sight – wherever it had been – returned. At least it returned in one eye, which is maybe just half a miracle.

Now, he lives a relatively quiet middle-aged life in the picturesque Massachusetts town of Shelburne Falls, alone except for his memories and a dog called Marlowe . Occasionally, just occasionally, he finds people who – by chance, design or accident – are reported as missing. His travails begin when he is hired by Nick Mooney, a wunderkind Hollywood producer, to watch over the mercurial star of Mooney’s latest film, which is to be shot in the streams, woods and folksy ambience of Shelburne Falls. The star in question is Juliana Velvet Norcross, aka ‘Velcro’, a gamine and winsome girl with hair of flame and the looks to make male – and female – jaws drop anywhere in the world where there is a movie screen.

indexRaven’s job seems like money for nothing until the fateful day when, after a spell of heavy rain, the normally placid stream running through Shelburne Falls is turned into a deadly torrent. ‘Velcro’ ends up in the water, and disappears. Did she fall? Was she pushed? Or is there another more disturbing and puzzling solution? Frank Raven, with the help of Sarah, the eighteen year-old daughter of Clara (Raven’s love interest), unlocks the door to a labyrinth of deception, false identities, dark motives and venal behaviour which they work their way through more in the spirit of hope than the expectation of ever finding the door marked ‘Exit’.

The book’s title drew me to it like a magnet even before I had read a single page. One of the quirky qualities of Frank Raven, is that he is a member of a local Morris Dance side. In Massachusetts? Well, yes, really. Raven dons the bells and ribbons, and dances away with the best of them. In these dark days in the real world, one of the most heinous modern sins is ‘Cultural Appropriation’. Woe betide anyone foolish enough to wear a Sombrero at a Mexican Food Night or, even worse, a white person having their hair in braids. Still, the Shelburne Falls Morris men have ‘culturally appropriated’ the English folk dance, and have become an essential part of the town’s folksy charm. They always end their performances by singing the old song, The Nutting Girl:

“It’s of this fair young damsel, she was nutting in the wood,
His voice was so melodious, it charmed her as she stood:
In that lonely wood, she could no longer stay,
And what few nuts she had, poor girl, she threw them all away.”

This fairly clumsy rural metaphor for lost innocence becomes more potent with every page we turn, as we realise that The Nutting Girl is none other than Juliana Velvet Norcross.

FredFinding a new path through the undergrowth of PI novels, overgrown as it is with violent, cynical, wisecracking and tough, amoral men (and women) must be a difficult task, but Fred De Vecca (right) makes his way with a minimum of fuss and bother. Frank Raven rarely raises his voice, let alone his fists, but his intelligence and empathy with decent people shines through like a beacon in a storm. It would be a forgivable mistake to place this novel in the pile marked ‘Cosy small-town domestic drama’, but it is a mistake, nonetheless. Of the people Raven is tasked with looking for, he finds some and loses some – because he is human, fallible and as susceptible to professional bullshitters as the next guy. What he does find, most importantly, is a kind of personal salvation, and a renewal of his belief in people, and their capacity to change.

The Nutting Girl is now available in Kindle and paperback.

UNLEASHED … Between the covers

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Matt Hunter was once a man of God. Now he is a man of gods. The beliefs that led him to ordination and the ministry of the church have, like Prospero’s insubstantial pageant,

“ .. melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

“Not a rack behind…”? Not strictly true. His former faith has left a bequest in the form of an encyclopaedic knowledge of religious symbols, liturgies both sacred and profane, and profound knowledge of different theologies across the world. The former Reverend Hunter is now Professor Hunter, and he lectures in the Sociology of Religion. He also acts as unpaid advisor to the police in cases where there seems to be a supernatural element.

UnleashedIf the South London suburb of Menham could be described as unremarkable, then we might call the down-at-heel terraced houses of Barley Street positively nondescript. Except, that is, for number 29. For a while, the home of Mary Wasson and her daughters became as notorious as 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville. But the British tabloid press being what it is, there are always new horrors, fresh outrages and riper scandals, and so the focus moved on. The facts, however, were this. After a spell of unexplained poltergeist phenomena turned the house (almost literally) upside down, the body of nine year-old Holly Wasson was found – by her older sister Rachel – hanging from a beam in her bedroom.

Now, years later, Menham hits the headlines again. At an otherwise uneventful open evening for future parents of a local primary school, events take a tragic and horrific turn. A much loved music teacher is found dead in her own store cupboard, the life ripped out of her, apparently by her own pet dog. The dog, crazed and covered in blood, is battered to death by panic-stricken dads who, expecting a recorder ensemble, are instead treated to a scene more suited to the hellish imagination of Hieronymus Bosch.

The local police are totally unable to make any sense of the carnage in the classroom and are puzzled by several pieces of evidence which seem to indicate a supernatural – or at least Satanic – element to the death of Steph Ellis. Investigating officer DS Larry Forbes enlists the help of Matt Hunter, who soon discovers a sinister collection of potential ‘persons of interest’, including a pair of self-styled demonologists and a troubled – and troubling – evangelical sect. For good measure we have a dark history of child abuse carried out in old air-raid shelters far beneath the local park, and a terrifying witch’s familiar straight from the pages of a seventeenth century grimoire.

LawsLaws (right) takes a leaf out of the book of the master of atmospheric and haunted landscapes, M R James. The drab suburban topography of Menham comes alive with all manner of dark interventions; we jump as a wayward tree branch scrapes like a dead hand across a gazebo roof; we recoil in fear as a white muslin curtain forms itself into something unspeakable; dead things scuttle and scrabble about in dark corners while, in our peripheral vision, shapes form themselves into dreadful spectres. When we turn our heads, however, there is nothing there but our own imagination.

Unleashed is terrific entertainment. Laws lays on the shocks thick and fast, but never loses sight of the fact that he is writing a well-plotted crime story. We certainly have victims but, in the end, we also have flesh and blood criminals. Unleashed is out now, and you can read a review of the first Matt Hunter novel, Purged, by clicking the blue link.

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