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ON MY SHELF 2017 … Leon, Fowler & Lovesey

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The good books come thick and fast at this time of year, and this week we have three very well known and justifiably popular authors. Each of the three has a long running series, each with its own passionate readership. The three authors between them have notched up an astonishing 57 novels featuring their lead characters. The three series have another common factor in that they are set in three of the world’s most beautiful cities – Venice, London and Bath.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti returns for another intriguing mystery set in his native Venice. Brunetti is feeling his age, and the constant pressure of the expectations of his bosses in La Questura has led to him making an error of judgment which threatens to derail his career. Rather like the football manager who substitutes a player before he can collect the second Yellow card, Brunetti’s wife insists he takes leave of absence, and packs him off to stay with a relative on the quiet and thinly populated island of Sant’Erasmo. But this, of course, is a crime thriller, and we all know that recuperating detectives always attract dark deeds. In this case it is the disappearance of Davide Casati, the caretaker of the house. Brunetti is drawn reluctantly but inevitably in the search for the man, and it soon becomes apparent that he would have had more rest if he’d stayed at home.

Earthly Remains is published by William Heinemann and will be available from 6th April.

OMS middleTo London, and most elderly pair of investigators currently still working. Existing fans of Arthur Bryant and John May have come to expect quirky humour, clever wordplay, an unrivaled knowledge of the topography and history of London, and a Betjeman-esque poetry of description which sometimes appears humdrum, but is often very profound.  Christopher Fowler loves jokes that involve popular culture and brand names, and readers of a certain age will know that even the naming of the two elderly investigators is a little gem of a joke. The cobwebby pair work for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, an esoteric (and purely fictional) branch of the Metropolitan Police. They are constantly under threat of being pensioned off, but their investigations always take them to  mysterious parts of London (usually entirely factual).  Arthur Bryant – as usual – baffles and exasperates  his colleagues, but in this tale his arcane knowledge of London helps the Unit solve the open air version of The Locked Room Mystery. The title? This is from Fowler’s erudite and entertaining website.

“London’s greenery is absurdly generous. There’s no way of avoiding it wherever you walk. London’s parks, woodlands, ancient forests, secret gardens, informal community parks, tended meadows, play areas, crescents, allotments, polygons, circuses, heaths and commons each have a different character. Add to these our obsession with back gardens (not places to be kept beautiful but somewhere messy to escape to) and you start to think that these ‘wild chambers’ are there to stop families from going mad.”

Wild Chambers is published by Bantam Press, and is out in hardback on 23rd March.

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Peter-LoveseyThis week’s award for the most menacing title must go to Peter Lovesey (right) and his Somerset and Avon copper, Peter Diamond. More used to solving high profile murder cases, Diamond is not best pleased when he is called in to investigate an apparent motoring accident. Tragically, a police vehicle, speeding late at night to a possible crime scene, spins off the road, killing one of the officers. Hours later, Diamond discovers that the officer is not the only victim. On an adjacent embankment, undiscovered by the emergency teams, is the rider of a motorised trike. The man is close to death, but Diamond administers CPR successfully enough for the victim to be taken to hospital, where he remains in a critical condition. Diamond, however, is not able to sit back and bask in the warm knowledge that he has carried out a valuable public service. His bosses are desperate that the whole RTA  is not blamed on the police force, but what causes Diamond the most anxiety is the emerging likelihood that the man whose life he saved is almost certainly a serial killer.

Another One Dies Tonight came out in hardback in 2016, but will be available in paperback for the first time on 6th April.

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COMPETITION … Win a copy of Crisis by Frank Gardner

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Most people who follow the news on the BBC will have seen its Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, or heard his compelling voice on radio. Many will know that he was a disabled by appalling gunshot wounds he received while covering a story in Saudi Arabia in 2004.

crisis-backAlready widely admired for two memoirs about his life and travels, Gardner has now written a bestselling novel, Crisis, which tells the story of an ex Special Boat Service commando in a life-or-death race to prevent a Colombian drug lord inflicting a catastrophic attack on London.

Published by Bantam, a crisp new paperback of Crisis can be yours if you enter our prize draw. Simple email Fully Booked at the address below, putting Crisis in the subject box. The competition closes at 10.00pm GMT on Sunday March 12th, 2017. On this occasion we are happy to post the prize anywhere in the world!

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Your name will go into the hat, and a winner will be drawn in the usual way. The competition closes at 10.00pm GMT on Sunday 12th March. Entries are welcome from our followers in America, Australia or Europe!

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Dark Asylum

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This new book reminds me that gender choice is very much a hot topic these days on and off social media, but in ‘the good old days’ people weren’t blessed with Facebook’s bewildering 71 gender options, which seem to have expanded rather after the fashion of satellite TV channels, minus the remote control, obviously. Gender flipping was usually confined to the lyrics of folk songs where young women pretended to be either cabin boys or army drummers so that they could stay close to their chosen young man as he sailed – or marched – off to do battle with Johnny Foreigner.

da-coverThe main character of ES Thomson’s Dark Asylum – the second in a series of Victorian crime novels – is Jem Flockhart. Jem is not who he seems to be. In fact, he isn’t ‘he’ at all. Jem is actually a young lady who is forced to transform herself into a man in order to be accepted in the medical profession. She first made an appearance in Beloved Poison (2016) and now she returns to investigate the murder of the principal physician at an insane asylum. Among all the usual tropes of Victorian London, including grim slum ‘rookeries’, brothels, violent convicts and brothels that cater for every depravity, Jem and her partner in solving crime, Will Quartermain search for the person who killed Dr Rutherford – after cutting off his ears and sewing his eyes and lips tight shut.

As I hope you can see from the images, Dark Asylum is handsomely printed, and if the novel is as gripping as it is well presented and designed, then it should be an excellent read. Look out for an in depth review on Fully Booked in the near future. Published by Constable/Little, Brown, it is out on 2nd March.

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I WAS DORA SUAREZ … Derek Raymond

There can be few books in print which have explored the depths of human criminal depravity with such forensic and painful detail as this book by the acknowledge master of English Noir. The un-named detective sergeant who seeks revenge for a murdered prostitute takes us to places that those who have read the book will have seared on their imagination as long as they have life and breath.

Musicians Terry Edwards and James Johnston – Gallon Drunk – persuaded Raymond to read extracts of his corrosive 1993 novel, while they provided a haunting soundtrack. With the permission of Edwards and Johnston – sadly, Raymond is long gone – here is part of that original recording. Click on the image of Derek Raymond to watch the video.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Oswald & Westworth

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The Postman Delivers…except that he didn’t, quite. My regular chap is resigned to regular and frequent booky parcels, and always leaves them by the servants’ entrance if he can’t make me hear, or I am somewhere away on my rambling ancestral estate. But regular chap is on holiday, so replacement chap took yesterday’s books back to the sorting office, from where I had to collect them. The little red ticket from the postie wasn’t enough to prove my identity, neither was my haughty, “Don’t you know who I used to be..?” So, I had to show them the scandalously unflattering photo on my driving licence, the one where I look like one of Bertie Wooster’s less intelligent friends. But, eventually, the books were collected, and they were well worth the effort.

back-cover007First out of its protective wrapper was the latest from one of my favourite British writers, Frank Westworth. He has created a noirish world of grimy London music venues, peopled with frequently freakish characters and misfits, all of whom live out the heartbreaking three-chord trick of the Blues in their real lives. Presiding over the mayhem is a moody and reclusive investigator, cum killer, cum doer-of-dirty-deeds for the British establishment. His name is JJ Stoner, and as well as bending his guitar strings into shivering blue notes, he has an uneasy and unique relationship with three weird sisters. Note the absence of capitals, as these ladies are not the cauldron-stirring crones of The Scottish Play, but three violent and devious sexual predators. We have met Charity and Chastity in the first two books of the trilogy, but as Westworth wraps the series up, he introduces us to Charm.

troc2What happens in the book? I can do no better than to quote a line from the best motorbike song ever written. Like the biker outlaw James in Richard Thompson’s awesome Vincent Black Lightning 1952, JJ is “running out of road …running out of breath,” Stoner is surrounded by brutal enemies on all sides, and all the old acquaintances from whom he might expect a favour or three are walking by on the other side. This is one book which will certainly not end up in a charity shop or casually passed on to friends, because mine came with a personal touch. You folks are definitely not going to lay hands on my copy, and I’m afraid you will have to wait until the end of next month for yours. In the meantime, you can check out a mischievous and beautifully written piece by Frank Westworth in our features section, and watch this space for my full review of The Redemption of Charm.

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Having punched the air (in a elderly gentleman kind of way) at receiving the new Frank Westworth, I then joyfully repeated the gesture when I found that my second parcel contained the new novel by James Oswald. Apart from having one of the more interesting ( bonesand demanding) day jobs of current authors, Oswald has achieved what might have seemed to be an impossible task. He has created a engaging and totally believable Scottish copper who, over the space of six previous novels, has sharp-elbowed his way in the room crowded with such characters as John Rebus and Logan McRea.

Oswald’s Edinburgh Detective is Tony McLean, and Written In Bones has McLean once again up to his elbows in a sinister and mysterious murder. A body is found in a tree in The Meadows, Edinburgh’s scenic parkland, and the forensics suggest the corpse has fallen from a great height.

McLean has to decide whether it was an accident, or a murder designed to send a chilling message. His work is made more complex by the fact that the dead man was a disgraced ex-cop turned criminal kingpin who has reinvented himself as a philanthropist. McLean’s investigation takes him back to Edinburgh’s haunted past, and through its underworld. He is forced to rub shoulders with some of the city’s most dangerous people and, in extreme contrast, folk who are among the most vulnerable on the capital’s streets.

Oswald’s day job? He farms on 350 acres in Fife, and when he is not delivering lambs or tending his pedigree Highland cattle, he writes best-selling crime novels such as this one, which is published by Penguin, and is out now.

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THE SHIMMERING ROAD … Between the covers

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Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Cates has plenty of experience in holding the shitty end of life’s stick. Her childhood was scarred with rejection and loss and , talking of loss, the sudden death of her son the previous summer has proved to her that while fate can take, it can also take some more. But now, circumstances have partnered her in a bewildering kind of dance; she has given up her job as a journalist on a sleek New York magazine; she has a new partner, a rough and tumble Mr Nice Guy from Sidalie, Texas, who, in addition to running a very successful landscaping firm, is ridiculously rich. Charlie is also 32 weeks pregnant, albeit accidentally, with a baby daughter for her and Noah Palmer.

shimmeringThen, as Noah is trying to tempt Charlie into marrying him, and agree to their moving into a luxurious new home, comes the ‘phone call which triggers the enthralling next chapter in Charlie’s life. She takes a call from a distant aunt, and the news is that Charlie’s estranged mother Donna, and her half sister Jasmine, have been found shot dead in Jasmine’s Tucson apartment. There is another complication. Jasmine’s daughter Micky was also in the apartment but in another room. She is shaken, but very much alive, and has been taken into protective care.

So, Charlie and Noah head off to Arizona to try to make sense of the shattered family that Charlie hardly knew she still had. They meet, in no particular order, the strangely savant Micky, Donna’s lesbian lover, Jasmine’s cop boyfriend, and an apparently saintly woman who runs a refuge for battered women. What follows is a brilliantly plotted journey into the murky world of USA-Mexican social politics and the disturbing lengths which people will go to in order to have children, when nature has ordained that it simply ain’t gonna happen.

For the book to burn on full heat, you have to accept that Charlie Cates is, to an extent, governed by what could be dreams, or maybe fleeting out-of-body experiences. Charlie confides:

“My dreams are not like other people’s. They show me things.”

She has a terrifying recurring nightmare which involves her – and her unborn daughter – being shot dead while taking a shower. At other times she meets, on this spectral level, other key characters in the story. Some of them are alive, but some of them are dead. Personally, I have no problem with this. Two of my favourite writers, John Connolly with his doom laden PI Charlie Parker, and Phil Rickman with his delightful-but-slightly-scary Merrily Watkins, both take thrilling liberties with our working hypothesis that The Dead are dead and The Living are living.

Hester Young writes like an angel, even if that celestial being has a distinctly dark tinge to its wings. There are sharp observations on some of the absurdities of the American way of life. This is a Texan realtor (estate agent to us Brits):

“Brandi Babcock may possess the name of a porn star, but she has the body of a butternut squash, a solid top that flares out into an epically large backside.”

tjb3vcybThe greatest strength of the book is the magical spell Hester Young (right) casts as she links the reader to Charlie Cates. As a cynical, autumnal English male, with a downbeat view of life and the tricks it can play, I am not the obvious candidate to be entranced by a slightly manic, conflicted and complex American female journalist, but by the time the novel reached its gripping conclusion in the Arizona desert, I was ready to crawl over broken glass to make sure that Charlie survived with body and soul intact. Hester Young slaps a winning hand down on the green baize table – dry humour, suspense, atmosphere, superb characterisation – and deservedly rakes in all the chips.

The Shimmering Road is out now in Kindle and paperback format.

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PAPERBACK PICK … The Hanging Club

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Tony Parsons has created an intriguing character in the shape of DC Max Wolfe, and Thursday sees the paperback release of his London based thriller, The Hanging Club.

When the video of an apparent execution is posted online, DC Max Wolfe and officers of the Major Incident Team, along with thousands of online viewers, watch in horror as the kitchen stool is kicked out from under the feet of a Pakistani taxi driver, and he chokes to death, swinging by an improvised noose.

thcThe random murder of an innocent man? Not exactly. Mahmud Irani was part of a gang of men who groomed, raped and abused a number of white teenage girls. He served a jail term which many believe was too short, considering his crimes.

Another video surfaces. A handful of masked executioners use the same location, apparently deep underground somewhere. The hanged man? A young city trader who killed a boy cyclist, served a few months in jail, and then returned to his job, which had thoughtfully been kept open for him.

Wolfe and the MIT realise that they have a vigilante group on their hands, and their search for the culprit takes them to some of London’s hidden places, including the eventual location of the hangings. A little research on Google reveals that the surprise underground setting still actually exists, and is in remarkable good state.

The Hanging Club is out on Thursday 23rd February, published by Arrow. Watch out for our forthcoming review of Die Last, the new Max Wolfe story, coming soon.

AT WHAT COST … Between the Covers

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Sacramento. Capital city of California. Named after its river, which was in turn named after the most holy offering in the Catholic liturgy. But there is nothing sacred and everything profane about the butchered corpse found on the river levee. Maybe ‘corpse’ is the wrong word for what lies at Detective John Penley’s feet. The pouring rain, caught in the glare of the crime scene halogen lights, patters remorselessly on a headless, limbless trunk. It had been a man. And that man, judging by the Aztec inspired tattoo spreading over what is left of the chest, was a member of a Latino gang, The West Block Norteños.

awclThe remains of Daniel Cardozo are hauled off to the city morgue to join those of several of his professional associates who have met a similar fate in recent months. Penley and his new partner Detective Paula Newberry know only that the killer is also a butcher, perhaps not by trade, but certainly by intent. They also become aware that the human remains are minus their soft tissue organs – hearts, livers, kidneys.

Newberry and Penley make an uneasy pair. Newberry, because she is treated like a leper by fellow officers ever since she orchestrated a surveillance sting that ended the careers of a couple of corrupt cops in the department. And Penley? His mind is forever straying to thoughts about his young son Tommy whose life is slowly but inexorably drifting away as he waits his turn for a kidney transplant.

As the tale unfolds, there are echoes of England’s infamous and unsolved Whitechapel Murders. As with the person who slaughtered prostitutes in that fateful London autumn of 1888, Penley’s killer seems to have more than a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy. And, like the detectives in Victorian London, Penley is actually sent a kidney as a taunt, but unlike the Ripper’s handiwork, the one Penley receives is most definitely human.

 L’Etoile’s story rapidly adds an extra dimension to the standard hunt for a ruthless serial murderer, as it become a medical thriller, too. The villain is, we soon learn, harvesting organs for the lucrative international trade in spare body parts. Like so many other aspects of life, the search for viable organs operates on two levels; the first is, of course, the regular – and highly regulated – world of transplant waiting lists; the second operates within the freemasonry of hard cash, and the opportunities afforded to unscrupulous traders – and their desperate customers – by The Dark Web.

It all too quickly becomes horribly personal for Penley and his family. His son narrowly avoids being given an intentionally damaged kidney, and it is clear that the detective’s personal anguish has handed the killer an invaluable tool with which he can torment the man whose professional job it has become to unmask him and bring him to justice. With someone hacking into hospital records and falsifying clinical data, Penley runs out of people he can trust, and is forced to play a dangerous game of deception with the killer, his colleagues and – worst of all – his own family.

jamesThe author (right)  certainly knows his way around the American justice system, with his background in probation, parole, investigation and prison operation. An experienced Associate Warden, Chief of Institution Operations, Hostage Negotiator and Director of Parole, he has also done extensive homework on the medical background to the complex world of organ donation and transplants. The plot rattles along with scarcely a breath being drawn, and in Penley and Newberry, L’Etoile has created a partnership which is complex and attractive enough to feature in more adventures further down the line.

At What Cost is published by Crooked Lane Books and is out now.

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JILL DANDO

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Celebrity killings in Britain are rare, and in London itself almost unheard of. But on the morning of 26th April 1999, a woman who was, ironically best known to millions of TV viewers as the co-presenter of a True Crime TV show, became the UK’s most talked about victim. To this day, her killer remains unknown to the police and, in all probability, will ever remain so.

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-19-45-16Jill Dando was an elegant woman, a typical English Rose with more than a little of the Princess Diana about her. As on-screen partner to Nick Ross in BBC’s Crimewatch, she had become one of the best known faces in living rooms across the country. Dando had spent the night with her fiancee in Chiswick, West London, but as she turned the key to enter her own house in nearby Gowan Avenue, Fulham (right), she was attacked. The investigative journalist Bob Woffinden describes what he believes happened next.

“As Dando was about to put her keys in the lock to open the front door of her home in Fulham, she was grabbed from behind. With his right arm, the assailant held her and forced her to the ground, so that her face was almost touching the tiled step of the porch. Then, with his left hand, he fired a single shot at her left temple, killing her instantly. The bullet entered her head just above her ear, parallel to the ground, and came out the right side of her head.”

Dando was found slumped on her front porch, but her final journey to Charing Cross Hospital need not have been accompanied by sirens and a speeding ambulance. The single shot, from a 9mm handgun, had killed her instantly.

It had been a mere two years since the British public had been robbed of another celebrity icon, Diana Princess of Wales, and there was an intense clamour for Jill Dando’s killer to be brought to justice. No-one was really sure who was responsible for Diana’s death, but surely it wouldn’t be beyond the wit and wisdom of the London police to track down a man assassinating a much-loved public personality, in broad daylight, on a peaceful suburban street?

barry-georgeIn a move which seems more bizarre as every day passes, police arrested a man named Barry George (left) for the killing. George had extensive mental problems, was a fantasist, and had form as being a total indaquate who was obsessed with celebrities. He was convicted of Jill Dando’s muder on 2nd July 2001 but, beyond the jury at his trial, and a few desperate police officers, no-one really believed that he was the killer. After a retrial, he was acquitted of the killing in August 2008. To say he was a loser is misleading, because since his acquittal he has won substantial damages from various newspapers and media outlets. How much of this money has been retained by the wronged man is uncertain: what is more likely is that opportunist lawyers and publicists have trousered much of the loot as a reward for their services.

Dando’s killer will never be found. It was clearly a professional job, and has all the hallmarks of a state-sponsored hit. The hats of many possible suspects have been thrown into the ring including a killer in the employ of the Serbian government. As off-the-wall as this sounds, there is a faint thread of logic running through the claim. Dando had presented televised appeal for donations to a fund in aid of Kosovan refugees fleeing Serbian aggressors. Bear in mind that in the late 1990s the Balkans were the scene to some of the worst atrocities of an already blood-besmirched 20th century. Remember that Serbian military and political leaders at the time have subsequently been convicted for war crimes. Consider the unpalatable fact that execution, assassination and brutality had been a common tactic used by Serb nationalists over decades.

Jill Dando’s murder remains one of the enduring unsolved killings to have occurred on a London street. Usually murders are personal and the killers are so stoked up with passion or the desire for revenge that they leave traces and are soon brought to justice. Not so with the death of the much-loved TV presenter. The conspiracy theorists have had a field day, but the case is cold. As Blackadder might have said, as cold as a frozen icicle clinging to an ice-wall in a Siberian refrigerator.

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