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FRONT PAGE MURDER … Between the covers

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PeterIn the latest novel from Peter Bartram (left) his alter ego Colin Crampton, a reporter for the Evening Chronicle in 1960s Brighton, faces his toughest challenge yet. Local artist Archie Flowerdew is due to be hanged on Christmas Eve unless Crampton and his intrepid Australian girlfriend Shirley can stop this affront to Christmas cheer by proving that Flowerdew did not murder a rival artist.

For historical background it is well to remind ourselves that the last people to be executed in England were Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans. Both were hanged at Walton Prison, Liverpool, on 13th August 1964. The Murder Act of 1965 suspended the death penalty in Great Britain, but not for Northern Ireland.

Back in Brighton, Crampton gets to grips with the Flowerdew case. Flowerdew’s alleged victim was the deeply unpleasant and embittered Percy Despart, a talented but disappointed artist whose main income came from designing that peculiarly English art form – the risqué seaside postcard. Despart’s misanthropic nature had won him many enemies, and he combined his artistic talents with his malevolent nature to put caricatures of these enemies on his best-selling postcards.

FPMPersuaded by the condemned man’s niece, Tammy, Crampton gets to work, and finds no shortage of other Brighton folk who would have clapped their hands in glee upon hearing of Despart’s demise. The plot thickens delightfully, as we encounter a crooked art dealer, a lecherous vicar, a camp artist (complete with velvet trousers) and the usual cast of boozy, chain-smoking searchers-after-truth (or a good headline) on the staff of the Evening Chronicle.

Those of you who have read and enjoyed the two previous Crampton of The Chronicle stories, Headline Murder and Stop Press Murder, will be familiar with Bartram’s style. The jokes come thick and fast. Most of them work, and although some don’t, Bartram keeps up a rapid fire delivery of gags that have an accumulative impact. Amid the merriment, however, there is a backbone of seriousness which consists of perceptive observation of the 1960s social milieu and – of course – a totally authentic newspaper background in the days of battered Remington typewriters and hot metal typesetting.

BrookeBartram introduces a fascinating contemporary note by featuring the Home Secretary at the time, Henry Brooke. He was appointed by Harold Macmillan after the Prime Minister’s infamous ‘Night of The Long Knives in 1962. Brooke (left)  was to prove one of the least distinguished holders of the post, however, and he was pilloried without mercy by the BBC’s satirical show That Was The Week That Was. They dubbed the hapless Brooke ‘The most hated man in Britain’, and Bartram recalls their mocking phrase, “If you’re Home Secretary, you can get away with murder.”

Front Page Murder is a joy from start to finish. Yes, it is escapist. Yes, we guess that the the admirable Crampton will, in the end, prevail. No, Bartram doesn’t take us deep down into the dark world of serial killers but, my goodness, Front Page Murder is wonderful entertainment, and is one of those rare books where there is a definite sense of sorrow that you have reached the final page.

Peter Bartram wrote an entertaining piece on What-The-Butler-Saw machines as an accompaniment to the plot of the previous Colin Crampton novel, Stop Press Murder. The links to both items are below. Front Page Murder is published by Roundfire Books (click the link to visit their website) and will be available on 24th November.

I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside

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FREE FROM ALL DANGER … Between the covers

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Chris-Nickson-300x251I have become a huge admirer of the writing of Chris Nickson (left) . He says on his website:

I’ve written since I was a boy growing up in Leeds. It all really began with a three-paragraph school essay telling a tale of bomb disposal when I was 11. Like a lightbulb switching on, it brought the revelation that I enjoyed telling stories. Along the way came  diversions into teenage poetry, and my other great love, music, as both a bassist and then a singer-songwriter-guitarist. At 21, I moved to the US, and spent the next 30 years there, returning to England in 2005, and finally full circle to Leeds.”

I first read – and thoroughly enjoyed – his books featuring Detective Inspector Tom Harper, and relished his recreation of the smoky, noisy and turbulent city of Leeds in the 1890s. Next, for me, came his Leeds during WWII, as seen through the eyes of Womens’ Auxiliary Police Constable Lottie Armstrong. I had not, until now, gone back to the eighteenth century to investigate Nickson’s tales of the town’s Constable, Richard Nottingham. It seems that Nickson had ushered Nottingham into a well-deserved retirement but, rather like the resurrection, by popular demand, of Sherlock Holmes after his apparent demise at the Reichenbach Falls, Nottingham has returned to duty in Free From All Danger.

free-from-all-danger-1You will be pushed to find better opening words to a novel even were you to search all year:

“Sometimes he felt like a ghost in his own life. The past had become his country, so familiar that its lanes and byways were printed on his heart.”

Thus we learn that Richard Nottingham has his best years behind him. With stiffened limbs and diminished vigour he has withdrawn to his home and family – although that family has been diminished by tragedy. When Simon Kirkstall, his successor as town Constable dies, he is persuaded by The Mayor to return to his old job, at least temporarily, while a suitable successor is found.

We are in the year of Our Lord 1736, November, and winter seems to have come early. As Nottingham dusts off his old working clothes he is immediately called into action when a body is pulled from the river. This is no drowning, as the savage slash wounds on the man’s throat testify all too readily. It is as if someone out there in the cobbled lanes, dank ginnels and misty river banks of the rapidly expanding wool town has learned of Nottingham’s return and is determined to challenge him. Murder follows murder, but despite their best efforts neither Nottingham nor his deputy Rob Lister are coming anywhere near to identifying either the assailants or their motives.

As the November 5th celebration approaches, with huge bonfires being assembled across the town, Nottingham is convinced that the killers – who have been identified as a man and his two sons – are going to target a significant victim while the fires blaze and the mill apprentices drink themselves stupid and taunt the forces of law and order.

In Nickson’s writing you will find neither false flourishes nor furbelows. He doesn’t show off, nor does he have time for tricks and verbal trinkets. Bear in mind that he is a songwriter, and you will understand that he knows how to tell a story with the minimum of fuss. Free From All Danger is a straightforward – but impressive –  police procedural, albeit one set in a time when the procedures were based on the wisdom and intuition of the coppers, rather than a two-hundred page manual.

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If you have any appreciation of good storytelling, you will enjoy this book. You will, however, need fingerless gloves, warm socks and a good woollen vest, preferably woven in Yorkshire. This November in Leeds is cold. It is a cold that gnaws at men’s bones, chills their souls, and has them heading for the hearths of home, or the fireside of a crowded inn. The cobbles glint with frost, and the mist from the rivers and becks conceals a multitude of dark deeds. Free From All Danger is historical crime fiction right out of the top drawer. It is published by Severn House, and is available here. Please take the time to read Fully Booked reviews of more Chris Nickson novels. Just click on the images below.

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GETTING CARTER … Between the covers

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One of the many feelings I had after finishing Nick Triplow’s superb account of the life and writing of Ted Lewis was that it was all such a long time ago. The crucial decade from 1970 to 1980 just seems – and there is no other phrase that fits – like another country. A summary, then, for people who may not even have been born when Lewis was writing. Ted Lewis was born in 1940 in Manchester. After the war he and his parents moved to Barton on Humber, in North Lincolnshire. On leaving school, Lewis, a talented artist, traveled every day across the River Humber to art school in Hull. After graduating, Lewis found work further south with various advertising agencies, but his abiding passion was his writing. As well as enjoying a drink, however, Lewis was a serial womaniser. Lewis’s old Barton friend, Mike Shucksmith, recalls that the writer had a way with women.

“There was something about him that snapped their knicker elastic. I couldn’t see it, but whatever it was, he had it.”

Jacks_Return_HomeIn 1965, All the Way Home and All the Night Through was published. It is a thinly disguised autobiographical novel, but Lewis’s breakthrough came in 1970 with the publication of Jack’s Return Home. The title was, bizarrely, taken from a spoof melodrama acted out by Tony Hancock, Hattie Jacques, Sid James and Bill Kerr as an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour. The novel, however, has few laughs. It describes the revenge mission of a London-based enforcer, Jack Carter, as he returns to his northern home town to investigate the death of his brother. The novel was adapted and filmed as Get Carter, and the rest, as they say, is history. Fame – and money – did not sit comfortably on Lewis’s shoulders, however. A mixture of drink and personal demons led to the break-up of his marriage, and a solitary return to Barton to live with his widowed mother. He died there, of heart failure connected to his ruinous drinking, in 1982.

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Nick Triplow (above) examines Lewis’s other books, all concerned with the dark side of British criminal life, far far away from the cosy crime novels where long-suffering policemen chased cheerily crooked villains. One of the most controversial later novels was Billy Rags (1973) – the story of a convicted robber and his attempts to escape from prison. Many of the book’s key moments are, word for word, identical to a memoir written, from his prison cell, by the ‘celebrity criminal’ John McVicar. A final novel, GBH, published in 1980, tells the story of a doomed London gangster trying to escape vengeful rivals by moving to a windswept and isolated coastal village in Lincolnshire.

91Kh85WdIYLThe centrepiece of Triplow’s book is, quite rightly, concerned with the novel itself, and its journey from a brutally honest and ground-breaking novel through to a partial re-imagining as one of the finest crime films ever made. Of Jack Carter, Triplow stresses that, despite the iconic image created by Michael Caine and director Mike Hodges

“it’s important to place him in context as Lewis originally intended. An ultra-real small town enforcer, violent, sadistic, irretrievably flawed, shouldering the burden of guilt; one of us maybe, if we dare to think it, taken a wrong turn, corrupted and unflinching.”

It would take a reader with a heart of stone and devoid of empathy to finish this book with anything other than a sense of sadness. The heartbreak is, of course, in our wisdom after the event, in our knowing that for Lewis the 1970s – the Get Carter years – were the apogee of his personal success and realisation that his immense talent had been recognised and rewarded, both financially and in terms of reputation.

GBHAside from describing what must have been harrowing conversations with Lewis’s widow and children, Triplow employs both the depth and breadth of his knowledge of British crime fiction to convince us just how good Ted Lewis was. It is intriguing that Triplow, supported by no less an authority than the magisterial Derek Raymond, makes a fascinating case for GBH being the apotheosis of Lewis’s talent, despite the groundbreaking style and success of Jack’s Return Home. Getting Carter is a sober and sombre account of the life of a man whose talent both defined and destroyed him, and Triplow makes no attempt to sanitise his subject. Lewis was clearly a man of huge personal charm when not in the grip of drink, but from the early days of illegally bought pints of beer in the 1950s through to the grim years of decline and death, alcohol had him firmly by the throat.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in the evolution of British crime fiction should read Getting Carter and celebrate the brilliance of the man at the centre of the story. It would be salutary, however, to keep Shelley’s words in mind:

“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Getting Carter is published by No Exit Press and is on sale now.

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THE HANGED MAN … Between the covers

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The tragic events described in Simon Kernick’s previous novel The Bone Field hang over this thriller like a pall of noxious smoke, darkening the landscape. Maverick police officer Detective Inspector Ray Mason staggers through the poisonous fog like Wilfred Owen’s soldier, stumbling and flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…” He and his partner Dan ‘Dapper’ Watts are, once again, trying to bring to justice an implacable criminal gang for whom murder is just too quick and simple. The gang leaders Cem Kalaman, Alastair Sheridan – and their sinister enforcer known only as Mr Bone – use Satanic rituals and blood sacrifice to spice up their recreational violence.

THM coverIn The Bone Field, Mason tried – and failed – to bring the gang down. The bloody conclusion to the confrontation at a remote Welsh farm haunts him. His bitterness and sense of a score still not settled drive him on, but he is now working under the mandate of the National Crime Agency – and they play by the rules. The fire and desire for retribution burning in Mason’s soul will force him to abide by those rules only as far as they suit him. His personal background – a childhood shaped by violence and cruelty – has endowed him with a sense of what is right and what is wrong which diverges dramatically from the code followed by his boss, Sheryl Trinder.

The novel starts with the Kalaman gang attempting to silence Hugh Manning, a lawyer who has become entangled with their misdeeds but is, at heart, a decent man caught up in a toxic spiral of temptation and his own weakness. He escapes the killers sent to eliminate him and goes on the run, pursued by both the gang and the police. He knows all too well that the gang have insiders within the criminal justice system, and he would be signing his own death warrant simply to walk into the nearest police station and offer his wrists for the handcuffs.

Kernick045Mason has a girl-friend. Tina Boyd is a former copper herself, but fate has forced her to ‘go private’ and she is now a successful and well-known enquiry agent. As she tries to unravel the complex tangle of relationships and loyalties which bind together the various members of Kalaman’s gang, she puts herself in harm’s way. She is smart and has a nose for danger, but does she have the killer gene which will enable her to tackle Mr Bone on his own terms?

As Mason rides roughshod over police procedure in his drive to avenge those who died at The Bone Field, his partner, Dan Watts, tries to reign him in and see the bigger picture, which is the one depicting Kalaman and his underlings tried in a court of law, and sentenced for their crimes. Watts, however, has secrets of his own, and these secrets make him particularly vulnerable to the manipulations of the unscrupulous men – and women – who he is trying to bring down.

Who is ‘The Hanged Man’ of the title? Kernick keeps his cards very close to his chest, but a quick internet search into the significance of the melancholy Tarot card suggests that he is:

“A martyr, renouncing a claim, putting self-interest aside, going one step back to go two steps forward, giving up for a higher cause or putting others first.”

 Or possibly:

“Having an emotional release, accepting what is, surrendering to experience, ending the struggle, being vulnerable and open, giving up control and accepting God’s will.”

I suspect that by the time you turn to the last page of this excellent thriller, you will have made up your own mind as the the identity of The Hanged Man. The book is published by Cornerstone/Century, and will be out in Kindle and hardback on November 16th.

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THE PEOPLE vs ALEX CROSS … Between the covers

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Back in the day, James Patterson’s Alex Cross books were my go-to choice for police thrillers with something just a little different. Along Came A Spider, Kiss The Girls, Jack & Jill and Pop Goes The Weasel were all sustenance for a hungry man. But round about the time when Patterson had exhausted his nursery rhyme references for the book titles, I began to lose interest. Maybe it was the Washington cop’s implausible bad luck in choosing wives and girlfriends. For such a demonstrably clever bloke, he was becoming a serial bad judge of character. Was it his Mother Teresa of a grandmother, Nana Mama? Apart from the fact that she must have reached the age of at least 130, had her unfailing wisdom and saintliness begun to grate? Whatever the reason, I moved on. When, however, the good people at Century sent me a crisp new hardback copy of The People vs Alex Cross, I thought it would be rude not to see what the good Dr Cross was up to in his 27th outing, almost a quarter of a century after his first appearance.

Alex CrossAlex Cross is in trouble. Big trouble. He is the victim of a beyond-the-grave revenge attack from his very first opponent, Gary Soneji. Gary is long dead, blown up by his own bomb in a subway. It is not beyond Patterson’s audacity to resurrect someone, but in this case it is supporters of the late Mr Soneji who are responsible for Cross being accused of homicide. He is lured to a warehouse where members of the Soneji cult are waiting for him. In the fire fight that follows, members of the cult are killed and wounded, but when Cross summonses emergency backup, no weapons other than Cross’s own can be found. The words happy, trigger and cop are immediately rearranged into a well-known phrase or saying by the sensation-hungry media.

As Cross prepares for his trial he is, naturally, suspended from police duties. Again, perfectly naturally, since it is Dr Alex Cross we are dealing with, he becomes unofficially involved in the investigation into a series of kidnappings and murders. Whoever the kidnapper is, he or she has a penchant for willowy blonde young women. Cross’s best buddy, the almost indestructible cop John Sampson, is knee deep in the chase to find the missing girls, and the search leads the pair into the darker-than-black world of snuff movies and the mysterious cyber phenomenon known as the dark web.

Writer James Patterson promotes the new movie "Alex Cross" based on his novel "Cross" at the Four Seasons in Los AngelesHand on heart, I have to admit to really enjoying this book. Patterson (right) hasn’t achieved his world-wide pre-eminence as a best selling writer by not being able to tell a story. The action comes thick and fast and in this book at least, the portrayal of Cross disproves the old adage about familiarity breeding contempt. Yes, Nana Mama is still there, serving up delicious meals for all and sundry and being annoyingly stoical in the face of her grandson’s adversity. Yes, Cross’s annoyingly geeky nine year-old son spots something that a top FBI data analyst has missed, but at least our man’s current love interest seems to be a good sort.

The book pretty much turns its own pages. It is pure escapism, but a damn good read. Long time fans of the series will not be disappointed, and apostates like myself may well be converted back to the old religion. The People vs Alex Cross will be out on 2nd November in hardback, Kindle and as an audio CD. The paperback edition is due in April 2018.

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SLEEPING BEAUTIES … Between the covers

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Spain014In the beautiful valley of Glendalough there are ancient stones, shades and spirits of the holy men who prayed in the monastery – and in the cemetery, lichen-covered headstones of generations of Byrnes, Cullens, Farrells, Nolans, Waldrons – all, both monks and villagers, at peace now. But the body of a young woman has been found. Interred without sacrament, beyond the gaze of those who would mourn her. In a shallow grave on a hillside, wearing the clothes she disappeared in. It is all that remains of Una Dolan, a twenty four year-old lass from Waterford. Last seen April 29th, 2011.

Inspector Tom Reynolds, of Dublin’s An Garda Síochána, is called to the scene on a blisteringly hot summer afternoon. The police tapes are strung out, a tent is put over the body, the hundreds of tourists shepherded away beyond gawping distance, but Una does not lie alone in her woodland grave:

“The Inspector frowned and examined the earth under the trees. As he scanned the glade, his stomach lurched.
One, two, three, four. Five, counting the mound of earth disturbed under the tent.
Tom counted five separate patches where the same delicate blue flower was blooming. And then he saw it …
Somebody had cleared the earth of its natural layer and sown their own flowers.
In five places.
Five graves.”

Reynolds and his team are already searching for another missing woman, Fiona Holland, but as the forensic experts do their macabre job and try to identify the five Glendalough women, Fiona’s name doesn’t seem to be among them. Instead, the unresolved disappearances of the last few years are narrowed down in a business-like but brutal fashion.

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While the guards go about the melancholy business of dashing the hopes of the girls’ relatives, Tom Reynolds has more than one disagreeable offering on his plate. One unpalatable mouthful is his immediate superior. The very model of a modern career policeman, Joe Kennedy sits in the ergonomically designed executive chair which Tom himself was offered, but turned down because the job would have distanced him from all the aspects of policing which energise and inspire him. Kennedy is, to put it bluntly, a prick. Worse, far worse, is that Sean McGuiness, Tom’s previous boss and mentor, is facing the retirement from hell as he tries to cope with the regressive dementia of his wife, June. Tom and his wife Louise feel helpless as their old friends face the worse crisis of their lives.

Tom Reynolds is compassionate and perceptive, but he is also driven by his own desire to see justice done. His investigative team are sympathetically drawn, and the sense of police teamwork is palpable. The guards must combat the possibility of police corruption and deal with the pent-up anger of frustrated and grieving families but, just as the killer appears to be cornered, caught and convicted, the gut-wrenching possibility arises that the case may not be ready for filing in the “solved” drawer.

50a-4glSJo Spain writes like an angel. No fuss. No bother. No pretension. The narrative flows as smoothly as a glass of Old Bushmills slips down the appreciative throat, and she has us looking this way and that as we stand beside Tom Reynolds as he searches for the killer. This is, on one level, a police procedural, but Jo Spain doesn’t let methodology bog the story down. We know that she knows how the police operate, and that is more than enough. Her rural Ireland is beautifully described without unnecessary frills and furbelows, and she gives us as perceptive a story of the heights and depths of human behaviour as you will read all year. If you have come a little late to the Tom Reynolds party, the first episode of his career is With Our Blessing, followed by Beneath The Surface.

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FRIENDS AND TRAITORS … Between the covers

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After a pause of some years, during which he has introduced the character of Joe Wilderness (Then We Take Berlin, The Unfortunate Englishman) John Lawton re-introduces his most beguiling character, Frederick Troy. Troy is the son of a Russian emigré-turned-newspaper-baron, but he has turned his back on that world (if not its riches and status) to become a London copper. Learning his trade as a bobby on the beat in WWII London, he rises to become one of the top policemen of his generation. His older brother, Sir Rodyon ‘Rod’ Troy has turned to politics, and in this novel he is Shadow Home Secretary in the 1950s Labour Opposition of Hugh Gaitskell.

FATFriends and Traitors focuses mostly on the 1951 defection – and its aftermath – of intelligence officer Guy Burgess, to the Soviet Union. A huge embarrassment to the British government at the time, it was also about personalities, Britain’s place in the New World Order – and its attitudes to homosexuality. Burgess’s usefulness to the Soviets was largely symbolic, but the crux of the story is the events surrounding Burgess’s regrets, and heartfelt wish to come home. Troy interviews him in a Vienna hotel.

“’I want to come home.’
‘Yes,’ said Troy softly. ‘I’d guessed as much.’
‘I miss it all. I miss London. I miss the clubs. I miss the Dog and Duck. I miss the Salisbury. I miss the reform. I miss the RAC. I miss the Gargoyle. I miss that bloke in the pub in Holborn who can fart the national anthem. I miss Tommy Trinder. I miss Max Miller. I miss Billy Cotton. I miss Mantovani. I miss my mother. Oh God, I miss my mother.’”

Troy becomes caught up with what is later revealed to be a plot within a plot – within a subterfuge – within a brutal exercise in double dealing. One thing is for certain, though – the British establishment has no intention of a ‘kiss and make up’ process with Burgess. Rod Troy is summoned to 10 Downing Street to meet Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who conceals his razor sharp political awareness by pottering about the kitchen in a tatty cardigan, making tea:

“But then, the old man could be amazingly elliptical, subtle to the point of obscurity, to the point where half the nation had willingly misunderstood his ‘never had it so good’ speech. However, there was nothing elliptical about ‘I don’t want Burgess back – at any price.’”

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One of the joys of the Fred Troy novels is the vast repertory company of characters, some fictional and others actual, who appear throughout the series. One such is the beguiling Hungarian musician Méret Voytek, who took centre stage in A Lily of the Field (click the link to read more). Voytek, now a Soviet agent, and Troy are temporarily reunited as part of the subterfuge surrounding Burgess’s attempts to return to Britain.

“He’d not set eyes on Voytek since the day he’d stuck her on the ferry to Calais ten years ago. At twenty-four she’d looked older than her years, her hair prematurely, brazenly white after a year in the hands of the Nazis. Now, she had more flesh on her bones, she had dyed her hair back to its youthful black, no longer wearing white as the badge of her suffering.”

AR-AM348_LAWTON_12S_20160302163714Lawton (right) was born in 1949, so would have only the vaguest memories of growing up in an austere and fragile post-war Britain, but he is a master of describing the contradictions and social stresses of the middle years of the century. Here, he describes Westcott, a notoriously persistent MI5 interrogator, sent to quiz Troy on the events in Vienna:

“His generation had not worn well. A childhood in the over-romanticised Edwardian Age, an adolescence spent wondering if the Great War would last long enough to kill him, and then thrust out into the twenties, into the General Strike and the Depression – the Age of Disappointment – and the thirties, what Auden had called ‘that dirty, double-dealing decade’ – one not designed to leave a man with any memories of heroism, cameradie, or death”

Fred Troy is something of an anti-hero. His attitude towards women would have him outed in the comments section of today’s Guardian, and his approach to moral certainties would, at best, be described as pragmatic. Over the course of the series, he beds many women, but Friends and Traitors has him attached (but not exclusively) to a wholesome lass from Derbyshire, called Shirley Foxx. They go to her home town, to rediscover and reclaim the house where she grew up. In the use of evocative product names, Lawton has found a sharp weapon, and he is not afraid to use it:

“He found her in the bedroom. Childhood spread out across a handknotted rag rug – one large doll, one small lacking its left arm, half a dozen Ladybird books, a dozen Collins classics, a shrivelled bouquet of posies in a faded red ribbon, a bar of soap in the shape of Minnie Mouse …”

While Shirley is trying to exorcise her childhood in order to make sense of her new life, Troy beds another woman but is then called to investigate her murder. Having sorted out her parents’ house, Shirley makes a surprise return to Troy’s London flat in St Martin’s Lane:

“’But it’s done now. The loo works, hot and cold running in a new sink, the house is let and Rosie and Malcolm installed. I am …..home!’ Of course she was. He didn’t think he’d noticed his home in days. He had fallen through a hole in time and space. He had lived with the dead, and could not handle the living woman in front of him.”

To put it simply, Lawton is a writer who transcends genre. His prose is subtle, stylish, pared back to the bone, but translucent, crystal clear. His portrayal of Britain and its place either side of WWII is masterly: he reflects the country’s disappointments, its uncertainties and how it seems to be stumbling, torchless, through a world of darkness quite beyond its comprehension. The Fred Troy novels lack the sequential timeline of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, but in every other sense they are its equal.

Friends and Traitors is available here,
and you can check reading options for the other Fred Troy novels.

THE HOUSE … Between the covers

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Do houses have souls? Do they retain some of the psychological warmth – or chills – of the people who have lived there previously? When a young couple, against the run of play in terms of the asking price, find themselves proud owners of a higgledy-piggledy house, they can’t believe their luck The previous owner has struck lucky in the romance game, albeit late in life, and has hotfooted it to Australia to be with his love. He has left the house ‘as found’, and this includes paintings, random stuffed animals and a plethora of clutter. And the ‘soul’ of this house? Once rid of the examples of the taxidermists’ art, Jack and Syd begin to transform the house into something more reflective of their own moods and personalities.

the-house-book-review-Simon-Lelic-credit-Justine-StoddartThere is, however, that strange smell. A certain je ne sais quoi which will not go away, despite the couple’s best efforts. When Jack finally plucks up the courage to climb up into the roof space, he finds the physical source of the smell but unpleasant as that is, he also finds something which is much more disturbing. Simon Lelic (right) then has us walking on pins and needles as he unwraps a plot which involves obsession, child abuse, psychological torture and plain old-fashioned violence.

The novel does pose one or two challenges. The first is that we have two narrators, Syd and Jack. We see events retrospectively. At some point we learn that they have challenged each other to write up their personal version of what has happened. Inevitably, their stories are not identical. While this is part of the charm, we do have to ask ourselves the key questions,”do we trust Syd or do we trust Jack? Do we believe both – or neither?”

This leads to the second challenge, and it concerns our judgment about the personality of the two individuals. I can only tell it as I see it, and for what it’s worth, neither came over as being particularly likeable. I am sure that there are dozens – hundreds, maybe tens of thousands – of perfectly worthy people who work in and on the fringes of the social services, but in fiction – and the perception of some journalists – there exists a stereotype. He or she is mild mannered, anxious, keen to please and with a tendency to be naively trusting when dealing with people (I believe ‘clients’ is the preferred word) who are scrabbling around, for whatever reason, at the fringes of comfortable society. Jack certainly has all his ducks in a row here.

Syd, by contrast, is spiky enough to give the biggest Saguaro cactus a run for its money. Of course, Lelic doesn’t just shove her on stage and make her behave badly without giving us her backstory. It is a pretty grim narrative and, trying to avoid any spoilers, I have to say that it is fundamental to what happens in the book.

This is a genuinely disturbing psychological thriller, and we are kept guessing almost until the last page as we try to make sense of what has happened. Not all new novels live up to the entertaining and inventive hype which precedes their publication, but this one certainly does. The House, by Simon Lelic, is published by Penguin and is out now on Kindle, and will be available in paperback from 2nd November.

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CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET? … Between the covers

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This is the latest from Karen Gillece and Paul Perry
, the successful Dublin writing partnership. How two people can write one novel remains a mystery to me but, my goodness, Gilece and Perry do the business. Who contributes what may well remain a trade secret, but if you have any misgivings about the effectiveness of collaborations, ditch them now. This narrative is seamless, gripping, intensely creepy, and an object lesson in how to to convince the reader that they know what is going on, while cooking up surprise after surprise and twist on twist. Eventually, a rather sinister rabbit is pulled out of a bloodstained hat.

CYKAS coverLindsey Morgan is our narrator. She is a photographer with the Irish police, the Garda Síochána, and her frequent visits to gory crime scenes mean that she must don a cloak of cold objectivity as she looks through her camera at the damage people do one another. The distance between the person behind the viewfinder and the scene captured by the lens is a key motif in the story, as you will discover when you read the book.

Lindsey finished her education at an independent school, and it was there that she met the players in this drama. There’s Niall, Marcus and Hilary but, most significantly we have Rachel Bagenal and her older brother Patrick. Rachel and Patrick are the children of what used to be called landed gentry. Their home is Thornbury, a substantial mansion in the countryside.

We have two separate timelines here. First, we have the present day, where Patrick Bagenal, living alone in the decaying house, invites his old school friends for a final weekend at Thornbury. The house has deteriorated beyond Patrick’s ability to maintain it, and so he has been forced to sell. His parents, Peter and Heather, are both dead. The second timeline takes us back to the early 1990s. The youngsters are all still at school, but enjoy being invited for weekends at Thornbury. It is one such visit – for Patrick’s lavish eighteenth birthday party – which ends in a tragedy which will resonate down the years.

As with all reunions, the adults appraise each other and remember how they used to be, and how they have changed. Marcus has embraced modern acceptance of homosexuality and is comfortably gay, while Niall has made a success of his business but failed in the marriage game. Hilary has metamorphosed from the archetypal fat girl into a waif-like lifestyle coach. Patrick retains his boyish charm, but has grey hairs because of the demands imposed on him by being the sole tenant of Thornbury. Rachel? Rachel was always the force of nature, the woman among the teenagers, the assured femme fatale among the gauche schoolgirls. Now, she returns from a life in London to preside over a weekend which will self destruct in a clatter of betrayal, guilt, recrimination and violence.

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This is an outrageously brilliant thriller, and we are pretty much hit with every shot in the stylistic locker. We have a classic convergence of past and present, where convergence becomes a collision, and the collision explodes into a catastrophe. We have the timeless element of a crumbling old house, complete with secrets, unexplained noises, and the shades of the dead – some of them malevolent, but some of them wronged. Thornbury is every bit as haunted as Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley. We may not have a Mrs Danvers, but we certainly do have a Rebecca.

Throughout the book, I felt an over-arching sense of regret for lost innocence, but the authors are far too canny to make that straightforward as they shine a torch into all the little guilty corners in the lives of the characters. And, the novel’s tour de force, the narrator herself. Victim? Catalyst for tragedy? Innocent observer? As the saying goes, if I told you, I would have to kill you. You can avoid further bloodshed by buying your own copy of Can You Keep A Secret, which is published by Penguin.

For more top quality Irish crime fiction, check out our reviews of:

So Say The Fallen by Stuart Neville

Beneath The Surface by Jo Spain

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