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THE MUSIC OF CRIME FICTION

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III. RONDO

Existing fans of Phil Rickman’s superbly evocative Merrily Watkins novels can skip this paragraph. As in all the best fiction series, there is a stable cast of recurring characters. So, for new readers, the Rickman Repertory Company is led by the Reverend Merrily Watkins: widow, mother, parish priest and Dioceson Deliverance officer (modern C of E speak for exorcist). Then comes Jane, her teenage daughter and inveterate dabbler-into-things-she-oughtn’t-to-be-dabbling-in. Gomer Parry, local drainage contractor, voice of common sense and elderly savant. Representing the forces of law and order is Frannie Bliss, detective with the Herefordshire Constabulary, scouser and all-purpose square peg. The musical director of this ensemble is Lawrence ‘Lol’ Robinson, dazzling guitarist, singer songwriter, sometime depressive, sufferer from paralysing stage fright – and the long term boyfriend of Merrily.

Lol has a serious back-story. In To Dream of The Dead, Rickman spells it out in stark clarity:

“Barely twenty and convicted of sexually assaulting a fourteen-year-old girl while on tour with Hazey Jane. An offence actually committed, while Lol was asleep, by the band’s bass player, who’d walked away, leaving Lol on probation, unjustly disgraced, disowned by his creepy Pentecostalist parents, swallowed by the psychiatric system. His career wrecked, his spirit smashed.”

As he creates Lol’s complex character, Rickman wants us to think of a real-life singer and guitarist, Nick Drake. Cynics might say that when the Gods take young musicians, it is a cast iron guarantee that both victim and music will achieve a kind of immortal celebrity that they may not have reached had they lived. Who can say with certainty that Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Marc Bolan, Jimi Hendrix and others in the pantheon of dead rock stars would now be as famous in life as they have become in death?

Lol Robinson shares Nick Drake’s intensity, delicate guitar playing, haunting voice and sense of sublime anxiety about himself and the world he lives in. But, thanks to the support of Merrily Watkins and others, Lol comes through his bad times and lives to perform and record again. As he emerges from the darkness, he almost becomes as one with his guitar. Like Frank Westworth, Phil Rickman clearly knows, loves and plays the instrument, and he gifts Lol a beautiful hand-made guitar. Its maker is Al Boswell, a unique craftsman; part gypsy, part mystic and a man whose hands seem guided by forces older than any skills learned in a school woodwork class.

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Not content with making one of the spear-carriers in his ensemble a fascinating and compelling character, Rickman goes one step further. He has actually recreated Lol’s band Hazey Jane, and they have made videos and sound recordings to prove the point.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ND_CkcUb78

Click on the image below to visit Phil Rickman’s own site, and learn more – and hear more – about Lol Robinson and Hazey Jane II.

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philrickmanBefore he had the brainwave which gave us Merrily Watkins in The Wine of Angels (1998), Rickman wrote several standalone novels. The most music-centred one was December (1994). It begins on the evening of Monday 8th December, 1980. For most people of a certain age, that date will be an instant trigger, but Rickman (right) sets us down in a ruined abbey in the remote Welsh hamlet of Ystrad Ddu, which sits at the foot of one of The Black Mountains, Ysgyryd Fawr – more commonly known by its anglicised form The Skirrid. Part of the medieval abbey has been fitted out as a recording studio and, in a cynical act of niche marketing, a record impresario has contracted a folk rock band, The Philosopher’s Stone, to record an album of mystical songs in the haunted building, and he has stipulated that the tracks must be laid down between midnight and dawn.

Shortly before 4.00am, as the band are playing a song which relates the tragic story of Aelwyn, a young Celtic man who was hacked to death in the abbey grounds by Norman invaders in 1175, what was already a fractious and uneasy atmosphere turns distinctly sinister. Acoustic guitarist Dave Reilly is overcome by disturbing visions and, as he escapes the studio to shelter under an ancient oak tree, over three thousand miles away it is 10.50 pm and a disturbed young Hawaiian man called Mark David Chapman is pumping four bullets into former Beatle and musical legend, John Lennon.

As if the ill-fated recording session is not already attracting enough malevolent vibrations, things are about to get worse – much, much worse. Lead guitarist Tom Storey – as notorious for his abuse of drink and drugs as he is celebrated for his guitar virtuosity – has had enough. He has left his pregnant wife Deborah in a nearby hotel and, angry at the shambolic and disturbing recording session, commandeers a Land Rover and storms off to be with her. Deborah, meanwhile has decided to come out to Ystrad Ddu to ‘rescue’ her husband. As John Lennon is bleeding to death in the back of a police car, Tom’s Land Rover smashes into Deborah’s Lotus sports car.

“Twenty yards away, the old blue Land Rover driven by Tom Storey has brought down a low, sleek Lotus Elan, like a lion with a gazelle. The Land Rover has torn into the Lotus and savaged it and its guts are out and still heaving, and Dave can see flames leaping into the vertical rain …..”

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Rickman takes us forward to the present day. The Philosopher’s Stone is no more. It died on that fateful December night. Tom Storey has remarried, but lives as a recluse in a Cotswold mansion with his second wife and daughter Vanessa, removed from the dying body of her mother but afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. Singer Moira Cairns has flirted with the folk music scene, but has largely retreated from public life. Dave Reilly has eked out a threadbare living as a musician, but is cursed with an ability to sense the supernatural, and his ‘gift’ has done him no favours. Bass player Simon St John has abandoned music altogether (apart from in the privacy of his own room) and has taken holy orders.

Novels and, indeed, films, would not be able to create their magic were it not for the priceless ability of fictional characters to make decisions which turn out to be disastrous – and often fatal – mistakes. So it is in December. An unscrupulous music executive, desperate for something that will give his flagging career an edge, discovers a box of tapes, all that remains of the fatal pre-dawn music making in December 1980. A highly respected producer, Ken ‘Prof’ Levin (who features as a mentor to Lol Robinson in the Merrily Watkins novels) is persuaded to restore the tapes. To say that all hell breaks loose as a consequence is putting it mildly. Ghosts don’t like being woken from their dreamless sleep by money-grubbing mortals, and they exact a high price for their inconvenience.

Amid all the psychic mayhem, this is unashamedly a novel about guitars and their magic. We have Stratocasters, Martins, Takemines, Ovations, Telecasters and Les Pauls. Rickman’s fascination with his chosen instrument shines through, and his enthusiasm will inspire many a lapsed player to blow the dust off their guitar case, open it up and coax an old tune from their neglected lover.

Check out the buying options for December, and other Phil Rickman novels, here.

You can also read the Fully Booked review of the most recent Merrily Watkins novel
All Of A Winter’s Night

You can catch up with the previous parts of this series by clicking the links.

I. PRELUDE and FUGUE
II. MARCHE FUNEBRE

Guitars

THE BREAKING OF LIAM GLASS … Between The Covers

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For the eternal pessimist Thomas Hardy it was simply ‘fate’. For the American sociologist Robert K. Morton, however it was The Law of Unintended Consequences. For single mum Katriona ‘Kati’ Glass, sitting in her dispiriting and down-at-heel London flat in an area known as ‘The Estates’, it was a simple mistake, a memory lapse, a silly slip of the mind, a tired thought from a tired woman living a tired life. She forgets that the pizza delivery man takes plastic.

HarrisCharles Harris (right), a best-selling non-fiction author and writer-director for film and television sets in train a disastrous serious of mishaps, each of which stems from Kati’s ostensibly harmless error. Too exhausted from her daily grind making sure that Every Little Helps at everyone’s favourite supermarket, she sends her hapless son, Liam, off to the cashpoint, armed with her debit card and its vital PIN. Sadly, Liam never makes it home with the cash, the pizza guy remains unpaid, and Kati Glass is pitched into a nightmare.

Liam is found stabbed and minutes away from death. What follows is not so much a conventional crime novel, but a journey through a dystopian world inhabited by people who we might spot in a crowded street and think, “I know that person, but where did we meet?” Central to the story is Jason Worthington, a journalist on a London local paper, The Camden Herald. The Herald is struggling to survive in a world where news – both false and otherwise – is flashed around the city from phone to phone before the conventional press can even tap out the beginnings of a story. Everything he ever wanted to be as a reporter – courageous, hard-hitting, a fighter for justice – is blocked by his newspaper bosses who, terrified of upsetting their advertisers, want only stories about cuddly kittens, school nativity plays and giant cheques being presented to worthy causes.

TBOLGTrying to find out who stabbed Liam Glass is Detective Constable Andy Rackham. He is a walking tick-box of all the difficulties faced by an ambitious copper trying to please his bosses while being a supportive husband and father. The third member of this unholy trinity is Jamila Hasan, an earnest politician of Bengali origin who senses that the attack might be just the campaign platform she needs to ensure that she is re-elected. But what if Liam’s attackers are from her own community? Sadly, in her efforts to gain credibility on the street, Jamila has been duped.

‘“Respec’ for the brothas and sistas that fight the cause. Dis am Gian’killa Mo broadcastin’ from Free Sout’ Camden …..” For months Jamila had listened to Gian’killa Mo, broadcasting illegally from the Estates. It had made her feel in-with-the-hood, until the day she visited a small flat above Sainsbury’s Local, where Gian’killa Mo turned out to be a fifty-three-year-old white primary schoolteacher with a degree in Greek drama and a room full of old valve radios.’

As Liam Glass lies in his hospital bed, kept alive only by a bewildering array of tubes and bleeping monitors, Worthington, Rackham and Hasan flutter around the light of the central tragedy like so many moths. Each is dependant on Liam’s fate in their desperate scrambling for the next rung on their career ladder. Harris has clearly spent many a productive hour in the company of journalists and he lampoons the peculiar language beloved of tabloid headline writers. Should Liam’s absent father actually prove to be a football star, how best to head up the story? Two reporters toss ideas back and forth between them:

“Premiership Love Rat Abandoned Son To Life Of Violence,’’ added Zoe with more relish than Jason thought was necessary.
‘We don’t want to be too hard on the father,’ he offered with a tremor of concern. ‘What about “Top Player’s Pain Over Stabbed Son”?’
‘” Love Child Booted Into Touch”,’ said Snipe. ‘”Cast Off Son Pays Ultimate Penalty”,’
‘” Secret Grief Of England Star”?’ suggested Jason hopefully.

In the wake of the attack on Liam Glass, tensions rise on The Estates. Jamila convenes a meeting which she hopes will calm tempers and cast her in the role of peacemaker. Inevitably, the meeting descends into chaos and then farce, as the different factions shake each other warmly by the throat. Harris saves his fiercest scorn for the concept of Community Leaders. Observing that solid, upstanding suburbs have little need for anyone to lead them, he says:

“The Estates….spawned dozens, scores, hundreds. They boasted elected leaders and appointed leaders, self-styled leaders and would-be leaders. They acquired a couple of reluctant leaders (usually the best, and in short supply). They developed voluble leaders and argumentative leaders, attractive leaders, inspirational leaders and scary leaders. There were even a few leaders who knew what they were talking about.”

The back cover of the novel likens this book to Catch 22. That claim may be a little ambitious, but The Breaking of Liam Glass is a brilliant satire on modern Britain, scabrously funny, full of venom and a crunching smack in the mouth for those who seek to protect certain ideas and practices from criticism. Perhaps nothing will ever rival Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, but Harris’s novel shares one vital element. Remember how, after hundreds of pages of surreal humor, Catch 22 suddenly darkens, and leads readers into one of the blackest places they will ever have visited? So it is with The Breaking of Liam Glass. You will laugh at the knockabout fun that Harris has with the ridiculous state of modern Britain, but in the final pages all fades to black and a shiver will run through your bones.

The Breaking of Liam Glass is from Marble City Publishing, and is available here.

MCP

 

 

THE MUSIC OF CRIME FICTION

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II. MARCHE FUNEBRE

Stoner044Jean-Jacques ‘JJ’ Stoner is a stone cold killer. His creator, Frank Westworth gives us a first glimpse of him as an army sergeant serving in Iraq. One of his squad has just been fatally wounded by a knife thrown by one of a group of Iraqis who:

“….. plainly considered that the knife’s flight was the result of heavenly intervention and that they were all witnesses to a miraculous act, rather than a clever murderous attempt.”

The sergeant quietly but forcefully demands information:

“His words produced only more theatrical incomprehension. Five sets of open palms were paraded before the sergeant; all of them as innocent as the other, was the suggestion. A single shot interrupted the stage grief; one of the Iraqis sagged from seated to fallen, his dark blood draining from his exploded head into the sands of his native home. The sergeant held his smoking handgun in plain view, spread his arms wide to express his regret, his masculine sorrow.”

Sergeant Stoner assassinates the remaining Iraqis with neither hesitation nor sentiment. Shortly after, he is recruited by a government official we come to know as The Hard Man. Stoner’s new job is to use sharp blades and blunt instruments to discreetly resolve difficult situations for the British government. If Stoner has a gruesome talent for taking life, he also has a paradoxical skill which requires sensitivity, a delicate touch and an awareness of the human soul and its emotional depths; he is a gifted guitarist. In one of Westworth’s short stories, First Contract, Stoner uses his musical ear to imitate a Belfast accent when in a pub full of staunch Republicans:

“Beaming broadly, Stoner took a seat with the band. His lady companion ….. watched with some surprise as Stoner changed the tuning on the borrowed acoustic guitar, acknowledged a generous introduction from the leader of the band, then launched into a medley of furious Provo protest songs, familiar to all in that Catholic bar, all with their choruses to share.”

In the short story Two Wrongs Stoner is in America and we are introduced to a character who appears regularly in the Stoner stories, the navy SEAL known as Stretch. He and Stoner are in a bar, tangling with an agent from the FBI. Stoner, though, always has time for music:

“ Stoner finished his Bud, smacked his lips, and moved smoothly through the quietened attentive crowd to the stage, where he picked up the borrowed Fender Telecaster, smacked it a little to confirm the inaccuracy of its tuning, and launched into a spontaneous version of Johnny B. Goode set to a strange rolling rockabilly rhythm which found Stretch running, actually running from the restrooms to the stage in what proved to be a successful attempt to save the song from the amused Englishman’s attempt to publicly destroy such an important icon of American history.”

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Westworth’s skill as a writer of quirky thrillers is shown to best effect in his Killing Sisters trilogy. In A Last Act of Charity (2014), The Corruption of Chastity (2015) and The Redemption of Charm (2017) Stoner encounters three sisters who are just as deadly and homicidal as he is. We also learn that in his downtime, when he is not despatching people who are being an embarrassment to HM Government, he is running a jazz and blues club called The Blue Cube. The closest thing that Stoner has to a girlfriend is a diminutive bass player called Bili who plays in the house band from which Stoner is often conspicuously absent due to his murderous day job.

“Bili swung her big red Rickenbacker bass into what might have been a comfortable playing position, and all three looked to far stage left, where Amanda rolled her eyes, took a deep breath and surprised them all by blasting from her shiny tenor saxophone the opening stanza of Baker Street, one of the most recognisable lumps of sax music of all time.”

Westworth realIt doesn’t take a genius to work out that Westworth (right) is deeply immersed in the lore and legend of pop music as well as knowing his guitars. The Killing Sisters books are scattered with references – some subtle, but others more obvious – to great songs and singers. Later in The Redemption of Charm, Stoner renews his acquaintance with his favourite guitar:

“His old Fender guitar sat easily in his lap as he tuned, fingered a few chords, tuned again, hummed a few verses, tuned some more, strangely restless. The guitar felt odd … polished maybe. The strings were certainly new enough, although of the correct weight for his taste. He replaced it in its case, wandered around and discovered another case, standing by the closed piano, this one containing an acoustic guitar, a fine blonde Gibson model unfamiliar to him.”

 Stoner is gloomy, and overcome with melancholy, states of mind with which he is unfamiliar, and strange moods sit heavy on his shoulders:

“He played a finger-picked instrumental tune he half remembered from the days before his playing focused entirely on electric solid-bodied guitars. A famous tune by Davey Graham dedicated to some woman called Anji. Unbidden and unwelcome somehow, his memory unearthed a series of images of women to whom he’d dedicated the song down the years.”

 You can follow the blue links to the Amazon pages for Westworth’s novels, and on Fully Booked we have a detailed review of The Redemption of Charm, and an entertaining piece by the author on how to kill people, again borrowing from the title of a classic song – Killing Me Softly.

Next up in our musical journey is the story of a gifted singer-songwriter whose career has been shattered by depression and stage fright, and the sombre tale of a band whose obsession with the Dakota Building and the death of John Lennon takes them to a very dark place.

Check out PRELUDE AND FUGUE,
the first movement in this composition.

THE MUSIC OF CRIME FICTION

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I -PRELUDE AND FUGUE

This look at how music features as a soundtrack to many crime fiction novels will ignore works which simply have song titles or lyrics as chapter headings, or books which mention various popular songs merely as a device to establish the authenticity of the era in which the action takes place. Also, we will largely leave alone the police procedurals of the maverick Detective Inspector type where the cop in question wears his musical taste not perhaps on his sleeve but certainly on the pages of the narrative. Much to the distaste of most of his colleagues, Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne has a penchant for country music, particularly the lonesome heartbreak of Hank Williams, while his Yorkshire counterpart Alan Banks veers in the more sophisticated direction of niche blues and jazz. Neither of these performs music, however, except perhaps humming along to something on the car music player.

While everyone is familiar with dear old Endeavour Morse, particularly in his John Thaw personification, glumly consoling himself with his precious recordings of Mozart and Wagner, he squeezes in as a performer of music only because of the TV adaptations. In the novel The Dead of Jericho (1981) he meets the soon-to-be-murdered Anne Scott at a party, but the TV version has them both as members of an Oxford choir.

Death and the MaidenColin Dexter’s stories of the wonderful curmudgeon are among the widest read in the last quarter of the 20th century, but less well known are the Vienna-set novels of Frank Tallis featuring policeman Oskar Rheinhardt and his young pyschiatrist friend Dr Max Liebermann. The younger man often plays piano for Rheinhardt melodic baritone as they seek solace from the stresses and strains of catching murderers.

Not only are the pair devotees of their sublime fellow townsman Schubert, but Death And The Maiden (2011) actually features a walk-on part by none other than Gustave Mahler, as Liebermann and Rheinhardt track down the killer of a diva from The State Opera. Among other police officers and investigators who can do rather more than knock out a tune we must include James Patterson’s prolific profiler Alex Cross who, when the mood takes him, plays a mean jazz piano. The violin offers our own Sherlock Holmes a more healthy alternative stimulus to one, two or even three pipes of his favourite tobacco, or a syringe full of his opiate of choice. In A Study In Scarlet we learn:

“His powers upon the violin were very remarkable, but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments. When left to himself he would seldom produce any music or attempt any recognised air ….he would scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee.”

In the next movement we will hear of the embittered intelligence operative who not only plays a mean Fender Stratocaster, but also owns a jazz/blues club in London.

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THE ORPHANS … between the covers

 

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A beach in Goa, 1992. A boy and a girl, a brother and his older sister, are amusing themselves at the water’s edge. Their parents, unconventional, more in love with their own escapist lifestyle than they are with their children, are nearby. But then they aren’t nearby. They are gone. What happens next is a blur of childlike confusion, incomprehension and false memory. But Jess and Ro are now orphans.

The years pass. The remains of the children’s father are eventually discovered in the jungle not far from the beach, but of their mother, Sophie, not a trace. Well meaning but reluctantly relatives have cared for and schooled Jess and Ro until they pass from their scarred childhood into the uncertainty of adulthood. Jess, though has made a success of her life. She is a successful commercial lawyer, has a treasured daughter with husband Charlie, and she lives in a delightful house just on the edge of Clapham Common in south London.

But little brother Ro – short for his nickname, Sparrow – has fared poorly. His school days were troubled and tormented, and he has carried the trauma of that hazy day on a tropical beach like a monster clinging to his back. He has led a largely nomadic life and, like the obsessed Captain Ahab, he travels the world in search of his lost mother. His most recent attempt to track her down leads him to a hamlet in rural Ireland where Sophie Considine was known. This particular trip ends badly, however, and he makes his way to England.

Annemarie-NearyAnnemarie Neary gives us a chilling sense of separate events which are not fatal in themselves but deadly when they collide, and while Ro is making his way to Clapham, the normally self-assured Jess is in trouble at work. She has rejected the advances of a senior partner at an office social, and he uses the rebuff to light a fire under Jess’s professional life.

Ro arrives at his sister’s home and Neary skilfully describes how the young man’s near-autism and utter self-obsession starts to undermine the household. Charlie already holds Ro in contempt after previous clashes but the live-in au pair, a balefully unpleasant young Brazilian woman called Hana, is the final ingredient in a the shaking up of a poisonous cocktail of guilt, lust and fractured relationships.

Sensing that he has at last found gold at the end of his rainbow, Ro projects his fixation on Maya, the wife of an old family friend, Eddie. The fact that Eddie was part of the loose community of beach bums in Goa convinces Ro that Maya – complete with a tell-tale scar where a tattoo has been removed – is his mother.

Neary has a silken touch and she spins a web of potential tragedy that is gossamer light, shot through with poetry, but one that will draw you, the reader, into its folds and not let you escape. Here, she describes Ro’s conviction that his lonely quest is over.

“And as he passes under the great avenue of chestnuts, his heart rises like freshly baked bread and he imagines himself a stork, not a swallow. If he were a stork, with a sash in his beak, this is where he would take his mother. He would carry her up into the high branches, make a nest there for her. He would keep her safe from predators, out of the reach of the grubby little world.”

The book succeeds on every level: it is near perfect as a tragedy in that it has the three Aristotelian demands of drama – the unities of time, place and action. Like the tragic figures of Hardy and Shakespeare the doomed protagonist is not totally devoid of human decency, and this makes their downfall ever more bitter because we onlookers can see that it is preventable. Orphans is a tale as dark as ebony, and as convincing a description of a descent into madness as I have ever read. It is published by Hutchinson and will be available in July as hardback, paperback and Kindle.

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THE LIGHTERMAN … Between the covers

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I’ll have to come clean, declare an interest, turn out my pockets and put my hand up. Having now run out of colloquialisms I will state that I am sucker for books set in London. Leaving aside the great storytellers of the distant past, my shelves are stacked with the Bryant & May stories by Christopher Fowler, John Lawton’s masterly Fred Troy novels, the bleak and compelling Factory novels by Derek Raymond, and the Peter Ackroyd journeys through a London where the past has a mystical effect on the present. It will be no surprise then when I admit to being hooked from the very beginning of The Lighterman by Simon Michael.

Our first view of London is in 1940 and from several thousand feet above. It is through the eyes of a Luftwaffe pilot. From the cockpit of his Dornier 215, he watches as the bomb aimer releases its deadly payload on the helpless Londoners. This opening chapter is a skillful – and terrifying – piece of descriptive writing, but it also introduces us to the man who will be the chief character in the book. Charles is the elder son of Harry and Millie Horowitz, respectively tailor and milliner of British Street, Mile End. He is twelve years old, and he and his family survive the bombs relatively unscathed.

TLWhen we next meet Charles it is 1964, and much has changed. The streets of the old East End, having been substantially rearranged by Hitler’s bombs, have been redeveloped. More significantly, the Jewish people have largely moved on. Many families have prospered and they have moved out to the comfortable suburbs. Charles Horowitz has also prospered, after a fashion. His chosen career is Law, and in order to rise through the ranks of the socially and ethnically tightly knit Inns of Court, he has abandoned Horowitz and reinvented himself as Charles Holborne.

At this point, the author reminds us that Charles has a back-story. The two previous novels in the series, The Brief (2015) and An Honest Man (2016) are there SM booksfor those who want to complete the picture, but with The Lighterman it is sufficient to say that Charles has made a very undesirable enemy. It is probably merely an exercise in semantics to distinguish between the equally awful twin sons of Charles David Kray and Violet Annie Lee, but most casual observers agree that Ronnie was the worst of two evils. The homosexual, paranoid and pathologically violent gangster has a list of people who have upset him. The first name on that list is none other than Charles Holborne aka Horowitz, and the brutal East End hoodlum is determined that Charles must be done away with.

Charles finds himself forced into defending a man on what seems to be a cut-and-dried charge of murder. If he wins the case, then Ronnie Kray’s rage will be incandescent; if he loses, then someone close to his heart will go to the gallows.

SMSimon Michael (left) combines an encyclopaedic knowledge of London, with an insider’s grasp of courtroom proceedings. I cannot say if it was the author’s intention – only he can concur or disagree – but his writing left me with a profound sense of sadness over what London’s riverside and its East End once were – and what they have become. This is a beautifully written novel which succeeds on three different levels. Firstly, it is a superb recreation of a London which is just a lifetime away, but may as well be the Egypt of the pharaohs, such is its distance from us. Secondly, it is a tense and authentic legal thriller, with all the nuances and delicate sensibilities of the British legal system pushed into the spotlight. Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – we meet characters who are totally convincing, speak in a manner which sounds authentic, and have all the qualities and flaws which we recognise in people of our own acquaintance. The Lighterman is published by Urbane Publications and is available here.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Wood and Beck

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It was huge relief and a welcome distraction from the spin-speak, false sincerity and empty promises of a dire General Election campaign when two beautifully designed new hardback novels came this week. If they read as impressively as they appear at first glance, then I have some much needed hours of distraction ahead.

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Tom Wood041The first is The Final Hour by Tom Wood. It is apparently the seventh in a series of thrillers centred on an international assassin called Victor. I confess that I am new to the books, but it seems that Victor, after a string of successful ice-cold hits has developed a painful affliction for any paid killer – he has started to show remorse. CIA man Antonio Alvarez is as remorseless a hunter – but in the cause of good – as Victor, but now circumstances dictate that their orbits will collide, with devastating effect. The Final Hour is published by Sphere, and is out on 29th June.

Here and Gone040As I flicked through the pages of Here and Gone I saw the author photo on the back inside cover, and I thought, “hang on, I know that bloke..” I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting Stuart Neville in person, but I have become a great admirer of his crime thrillers set in Ireland, both north and south of the border. But now, here he is, under the name of Haylen Beck, with a novel which he says is inspired by his love of American crime fiction.

The plot? A young mother sets off on a perilous journey across the badlands of Arizona. In the back of her car, her two kids. Sean and Louise are strapped in safely, but they are dimly aware that their mum, Audra, is escaping the verbal and physical assaults of their father. As Audra drives on through the night, she is pulled over by the cops. Enter that most reliable trope of American crime novels, the sinister and crooked Sheriff. Audra is about to learn that her troubles are only just beginning.

Depending on which Amazon page you click on, Here and Gone is out in hardback on either 20th June or 13th July. The ubiquitous internet retailer also tells us that it is published by Harvill Secker and the Crown Publishing Group, but since both are in the Penguin Random House stable, I suspect that we are looking at the same thing.

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TWO NIGHTS … Between the covers

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For-author-Kathy-Reichs-its-all-about-bones-PRA9K1L-x-largeThe muster room of hard-nosed female cops and investigators is not exactly a crowded place on Planet CriFi. Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski, Fiona Griffiths, Kate Brannigan, Cordelia Gray, Kay Scarpetta and Jane Marple have already taken their seats, but Temperance Brennan has, temporarily, given up hers for another child of her creator, Kathy Reichs (left). Sunday ‘Sunnie’ Night is a damaged, bitter, edgy and downright misanthropic American cop who has been suspended by her bosses for being trigger happy. She sits brooding, remote – and dangerous – on a barely accessible island off the South Carolina coast.

A former buddy, Beau Beaumonde, comes to visit and he has a job offer. A terrorist attack on a Jewish school in Chicago has left victims dead and maimed, but one girl, Stella Bright, was not among the dead, and appears to have been kidnapped. The impossibly wealthy Opaline Drucker, Stella’s grandmother, has decided to spend serious money on an investigation to find the school attackers and discover the whereabouts – or the remains – of Stella.

Sunnie decides to accept the job and heads north to The Windy City in an effort to pick up the trail of the bad guys. To say that Sunnie is ‘street smart’ is an understatement. She hardly trusts her own shadow, and checks into several different hotels, using a different alias each time. She has created several social media profiles stating that she is searching for Stella, but her bait is accepted not online, but in the corridor of a hotel. She answers the threat with extreme violence, but is determined that she will remain the hunter while those who took Stella will easily not shrug off their status as her prey.

Two Nights CoverHalf way through the novel we realise the significance of the title. Sunnie Night is not waging this war alone: her twin brother Augustus ‘Gus’ Night is also on the case and, to use the cliche, he ‘has her back’. Together they are certainly a deadly combination. By this point, though, Reichs has bowled us an unreadable googly – or, for American readers, thrown us a curveball – and it isn’t until the closing pages that we realise that we have been making incorrect assumptions. Which is, of course, exactly what the author planned! Those last few pages make for a terrific finale, as the twins desperately try to prevent an atrocity being carried out at one of America’s most celebrated sporting occasions.

Sunnie and Gus, with a mixture of intelligence and gunfire, close in on the terrorist cell, and it is interesting that Reichs moves away from the obvious contemporary template for a group whose ideology drives their murderous activities. Instead, for better or for worse, we are presented us with the absolute opposite. Sunnie herself is not the kind of character that we readily warm to. In fact, she has trouble warming to herself. She says:

Sure, I’m damaged. I live alone with no permanent phone or Internet account. I have a scar I refuse to fix. I dislike being touched and have a temper that’s my own worst enemy. I use icy showers and grueling workouts to escape stress and trick my brain into making me feel strong.”

Kathy Reichs certainly doesn’t let the grass grow under anyone’s feet in this 110 mph novel. The dialogue – usually between the eponymous Two Nights – is whip-smart and sassy. It is certainly stylised and seems tailor made for a film or TV screenplay, but that is no bad thing in itself. There are guns and bodies galore and the action criss-crosses America with the Night twins homing in on the villains. Maybe it’s not the book for fans of leisurely narrative exposition and detailed reflection by the characters – the pace of the book doesn’t allow anyone much time for introspection – but it’s a cracking and ingeniously plotted thriller. The Kindle version of Two Nights will be available on 29th June from Cornerstone Digital, as will the hardback edition, but from William Heinemann. Follow this link to read more.

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AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT … Brian Stoddart

Spotlight

There is a long and honourable list of crime fiction novels set in places of learning. With Harriet Vane solving murder in Shrewsbury College (Gaudy Night, Dorothy L Sayers, 1935), Sir Richard Cherrington stalking criminals in Fisher College (The Cambridge Murders, 1945, Welcome Death, 1954, Glyn Daniel), and a rich seam of Inspector Morse novels set among Oxford Colleges (Colin Dexter, between 1975 and 1999). But what of academics turning the tables and writing their own crime novels?

Emeritus professor Brian Stoddart is an academic who was the vice-chancellor of La Trobe University, Melbourne. He is a well-known commentator on sporting matters, being involved in the foundation of the Australian Institute of Sport and being the author of many books exploring the history and importance of sports in society. It is as a writer of crime fiction, however, that we focus on Brian Stoddart.

Born and raised in New Zealand, Stoddart’s academic career took him all over the world including long periods in India, Malaysia, Canada, the Caribbean, China and Southeast Asia, and it is as an ‘old India hand’ that he emerged as a crime writer. A Madras Miasma was published in 2014, and it introduces us to Superintendent Christian Le Fanu, of the Madras Police. Le Fanu is estranged from his English family and, after experiencing at first hand the horrors of the trenches in The Great War he has, some would say, cast himself adrift in post-war India.

The Great War changed many things in the world, and its aftermath has given new life to the desire of Indians to be their own masters. While many in the civilian administration cannot – or will not – see it, there is a wind of change blowing across the land, led by men such as the young lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Some of Le Fanu’s superiors think he has ‘gone native’. He has a live-in lover-cum-housekeeper, Anglo-Indian Roisin, and is far too friendly with his assistant, Sergeant Habibullah, for the liking of many in the English community.

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There have been three Le Fanu novels thus farA Madras Miasma, The Pallampur Predicament and A Straits Settlement. Le Fanu travels far and wide, particularly in the latter book, but always in the background the death knell for British imperialism is sonorously tolling. Stoddart gives us all points of view, from the starched collared and inappropriately dark suited old-style administrators who refuse to accept that the world is changing, via men like Le Fanu who can feel the winds of change, through to firebrand revolutionary types who want to see the back of the British at any price.

AHIDStoddart wears his scholarship lightly in the crime novels, but he is a gifted and compelling writer when dealing with the real world. In A House in Damascus – Before the Fall (2012) he examines the tragedy of the Syrian conflict and its effect on ordinary people for whom the complex political issues mean nothing but shattered lives, hardship – and death.

There is no activity, short of waging war, however, which arouses passions quite like sport, and for those in the southern hemisphere donning the baggy green cap, or pulling on that shirt which bears the simple – but uniquely intimidating – logo of the silver fern, is the closest many get to out-and-out conflict.

With this in mind, the closest Britain and Australia ever came to war with each other was during the legendary 1932-33 Bodyline cricket tour of Australia when every stereotype box was ticked. Douglas Jardine, the autocratic English snob, was depicted as a close relative of the army officers who sent brave Australians ‘over the top’ in The Great War. to combat German cricket-empiresteel and bullets with nothing but their manly chests. Don Bradman and Bill Woodfull, plucky Australian lads, direct descendants of the ANZACS, faced the barrage of Larwood and Voce with nothing but a small piece of shaped willow wood.  Stoddart co-authored, with Ric Sissons,  Cricket and Empire, an account of this bitter battle.

Stoddart’s fascination with cricket – not only as a game, but as a means of national identity – is never far from the surface, and co-edited Liberation Cricket, described thus:

“The essayists argue that cricket mirrors the anti-colonial tensions and ideological and social conflicts over race and class that have shaped West Indian society. In consequence, it has helped promote the region’s democratic ethos and fragmented nationalism.”

You can read more about what makes Stoddart tick both as a writer and an influential thinker by checking out his website:

https://professorbrianstoddart.com/

The most recent Christian Le Fanu novel, A Straits Settlement, was the Fully Booked Historical Novel of the Year for 2016, and you can read a detailed review of the novel by linking back to the feature here.

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