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THE WORD IS MURDER … Between the covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SOHO DEAD … Between the covers

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Kenny Gabriel is a street-smart, wise-cracking and self-mocking PI. Given another accent, he could be cruising the neon-lit strip malls of 1950s Los Angeles. But his accent, his gags, his mixture of despair and optimism, all have ‘London’ stamped through them like a pink and sickly stick of seaside rock. Gabriel, had he been on the official side of law and order, would have been retired by now, with an enviable pension, a fond reputation down at the local ‘nick’, and plenty of potential back-handers for his advice on corporate security.

But Mr G is all but penniless. His fifty seven years on this fair planet have produced only a tenuous tenancy on a shabby flat in Soho, and a badly paid job chasing down people who have reneged on a hire car contract, or swindled their partner out of the mortgage on their dispiriting semi-detached house in some grim London suburb.

Soho DeadSo, when Gabriel answers the door bell one day only to behold the wedge-shaped and granite faced personage of Farrelly – chauffeur, enforcer and general gofer for Frank Parr – he is led, like a naughty boy tweaked by his ear, to Parr’s sumptious office building. To say that Parr – now a respectable media mogul – has something of a history, is rather like saying that Vlad The Impaler was someone of interest to Amnesty International. Parr made his money – loads of it, and of the distinctly dirty variety – by publishing magazines which were not so much Top Shelf as stacked in the stratosphere miles above the earth’s surface.

Parr has a job for Gabriel. Harriet ‘Harry’ Parr – daughter of the boss and senior executive of Griffin Media – has disappeared, and her father wants her found. Gabriel has that unfortunate knack, common with fictional PIs, of finding dead bodies. Not only that, he uncovers a veritable rats’ nest of corruption, violent cynicism and corporate greed.

There’s a definite seam of Raymond Chandler running through Soho Dead. Saying that is neither inappropriate flattery nor damnation by faint praise. The plot has the onion skin quality of the great man’s best books, as layer after layer gets peeled back as we get drawn closer to the heart of things. Gabriel’s wisecracks are not as good as Philip Marlowe’s, but then neither are those of any fictional PI since those glorious days. When Gabriel blags his way into a sex club and is then brought face to face with its lady proprietor, it had me thinking of Marlowe’s legendary encounter with General Sternwood in The Big Sleep.

“The woman in the armchair had too much bone structure and not enough skin. Her short hair was grey, but she had young eyes. Time, and whatever had ravaged her face, had spared them, a pair of emeralds pushed into a parchment skull.”

Gabriel is terminally weary, but he forces himself forward as he runs the gauntlet of blows from men and women who are more powerful and less honorable than he is. In the end, he survives, but ever diminished by the deeds of those who share his stage. All that remains are memories and phantoms.

Greg Keen“For a while, I wandered the streets of Soho, as I had on the day I’d first visited forty years ago. Doorways whispered to me and ghosts looked down from high windows.”

This is a brilliant start to what I anticipate will be a highly regarded series. Soho Ghosts is due out in 2018, but in the meantime, trust me when I say that Greg Keen (right) drags the tarpaulin off one of the oldest established crime fiction genres, dusts it down, gives it a thorough service, polish and tune-up – and delivers something that not only gleams, but purrs with power and authenticity. Greg Keen’s website is here.

THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS . . . Between the covers

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Two women. Two lives. Two worlds. Two pregnancies. Two sets of very different secrets.

Meghan Shaughnessy is a former journalist but now something of a super-mum via her blog about family life. Her husband Jack is an ambitious and confident sports presenter for a television company. They live, comfortably and pleasantly, with their two existing children, in an affluent district beside the River Thames, a district so full of delis, bookshops, fine restaurants and boutiques that the residents, rightfully smug about their little enclave, have added the word ‘Village’ to the perfectly acceptable name by which it has been known since being recorded in The Domesday Book.

Meghan’s third pregnancy is something of an accident but nonetheless welcomed. She has been advised by her obstetrician to have a Caesarian section this time, to avoid the painful tearing she has suffered at the the previous births, but she is anxious to explain this to her thousands of blog readers, as she doesn’t want them to think that she is Too Posh to Push.

Secrets coverAgatha Fyfle works for peanuts in a ‘Village’ supermarket but Mr Patel, her boss, is not the kind of man to be offering generous maternity leave. He is so tight that he once docked her pay for putting the wrong price on a tin of peaches. The father of her baby is far, far away on a Royal Navy ship patrolling the Indian Ocean, chasing Somali pirates. Despite her nothing job and the desperate ordinariness of her life, Agatha has her imagination and her dreams:

“Shrugging on my winter coat, I slip out of the rear door, skirting the rubbish bins and discarded cardboard boxes. Pulling my hood over my head, I imagine I look like Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She was a whore abandoned by a French ship’s officer, and she spent her life staring out to sea, waiting for him to return. My sailor is coming home to me and I’m giving him a baby.”

Agatha lives in a shabby flat, and her life would be as grey as a December dawn were it not for one simple blessing:

“I love being pregnant, feeling my baby inside me, stretching, yawning, kicking. It’s like I’m never alone any more. I have someone to keep me company and listen to my stories.”

Agatha ‘knows’ Meghan in the sense that she comes into the shop to buy essentials, but they have never spoken. Agatha also knows that frumpy women stacking shelves are rarely – if ever – noticed by customers, but sometimes, of a morning, she watches wistfully through the window as Meghan takes her children Lucy and Lachlan to their highly regarded schools. Some days Meghan goes off to her yoga group, other days she meets other Yummy Mummies for skinny cappucinos, chai lattes and pots of herbal teas.

Robotham tells his tale through alternate chapters spoken by Agatha and Meghan. The two women are due to give birth at around the same time, and as their due dates come nearer, we learn more and more about their families, their childhoods, their hopes and fears. And their secrets. Ah yes, those secrets. Those mistakes, those misfortunes, those cruelties of Fate, even those occasional acts of mad jealousy collison between which turn lives on their heads, and inseminate the body with an embryonic demon who grows daily stronger and more malevolent until it is time to burst out and cause devastation to both the host and their nearest and dearest.

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Robotham orchestrates a collision between the lives of Agatha and Meghan. The two ships are slowly and inexorably heading towards each other and by the time they realise what is happening, there is no time to turn.

It would be an act of criminal irresponsibility to reveal any more about the plot. Suffice it to say that Robotham boxes very cleverly for several chapters, but then unleashes a series of crunching blows which put our preconceptions on the canvas. To say the plot twists would be an understatement – it spins, but always in a stable way, a little like a gyroscope, dizzyingly fast but always under control.

This is a brilliant example of Domestic Noir. The tension is ratcheted up a notch at a time, and sometimes it becomes almost unbearable. We know what is about to happen but, like Meghan and Agatha, we are powerless to alter the course of events. Readers of Robotham’s Joseph O’Loughlin novels will not be surprised at the psychological intensity in The Secrets She Keeps. Readers new to the author need to be prepared for an uncomfortable few hours.

We reviewed Close Your Eyes, a novel featuring Robotham’s forensic psychologist O’Loughlin, a little earlier and you can check buying choices for The Secrets She Keeps by clicking this link.

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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 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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A WHIFF OF CYANIDE … Between the covers

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a-whiff-of-cyanideReaders of the two previous books in the Hampstead Murders series, Death In Profile and Miss Christie Regrets, will know what to expect, but for readers new to the novels here is a Bluffers’ Guide. The stories are set in modern day Hampstead, a very select and expensive district of London. The police officers involved are, principally, Detective Superintendent Simon Collison, a civilised and gentlemanly type who, despite his charm and urbanity, is reluctant to climb the promotion ladder which is presented to him. Detective Sergeant Karen Willis is, likewise, of finishing school material, but also a very good copper with – as we are often reminded – legs to die for. She is in love, but not exclusively, with Detective Inspector Bob Metcalfe, a decent sort with a heart of gold. If he were operating back in the Bulldog Drummond era he would certainly have a lantern jaw and blue eyes that could be steely, or twinkle with kindness as circumstances dictate.

Not a police officer as such, but frequently the giver of expert advice is Dr Peter Collins, who is le troisième in the ménage of which Karen Willis and Bob Metcalfe make up le premier and le deuxième. In another era, Collins would be described as ‘highly strung’. His sensitivities sometimes lead him to believe that he is Lord Peter Wimsey – and that Willis is Harriet Vane – but this eccentricity aside, he frequently has insights into murder cases which remain hidden to his more workaday colleagues.

The plot? With such delightful characters, it is almost a case of “who cares?”, but we do have an intriguing story. At a crime writers’ convention in a London hotel the Dowager Duchess of English crime novels, Ann Durham, is far from happy. For the first time in recent memory, her position as Chair of The Crime Writers’ Association is being challenged – disgracefully, she feels – by upstarts who have been churlish enough to ask for a democratic vote.

As the luminaries assemble for pre-dinner drinks, Durham takes an elegant sip of her gin and tonic, utters a dramatic shriek – and falls down dead. Peter Collins is a dinner guest, due to his authorship of a forthcoming book on The Golden Age of Crime Fiction. His partner for the evening is, naturally, Karen Willis, and with Ann Durham lying dead on the floor, her police training kicks in and she soon has the scene secured.

GFSCollison, Metcalfe, Willis and Collins have an ever lengthening list of questions to be answered. Why was Ann Durham brandishing a bottle of cyanide as she presided over one of the convention panels? Who actually wrote her most popular – and best selling – series of novels? Fraser-Sampson (right) spins a beautiful yarn here, with regular nods to The Golden Age during a convincing account of modern police procedure. Not only is the crime eventually solved, but he provides us with a delightful solution to the Willis – Metcalfe – Collins love triangle.

Not the least of the many delights to be found in this novel is the author’s sardonic wit. His take on the whole crime writers’ festival ambience will strike a chord with many who attend such events. He arranges several distinct characters on his canvas: busy PR types – perhaps upper class gels with a humanities degree – bob and weave among the notables, gushing about this and that; we have La Grande Dame, the celebrated author with millions in the bank who disdains to rub shoulders with the hoi poloi; she is drawn in stark contrast with writers who are hungry for success and are only too happy to meet and greet the punters if it will sell a few books. Fraser-Sampson fires one or two deadly accurate arrows, but my favourite was this barb from one of the characters:

“I expect half the writers of this Nordic Noir stuff actually have names like Smith or Higginbotham and live in ghastly places like Watford or Cleethorpes. Publishers are funny like that, you see ……. if you can tick the Nordic Noir box, they know exactly which neat little compartment to fit you into and in all their marketing blurb they can call you the next Jo Nesbo.”

Some people might view books like this as a guilty pleasure, but guess what? I loved every page of it, and I sleep soundly at night with not even a wisp of guilt to darken my contentment. A Whiff of Cyanide is published by Urbane Publications, and you can check purchase options here. While you are in the mood, why not read our review of an earlier novel in the series, Miss Christie Regrets

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LOVE LIKE BLOOD … Between the covers

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For those customers who boarded the Tom Thorne Express (driven by Mark Billingham) at the last station, here is the story so far. Tom Thorne is a middle-aged policeman currently – and probably permanently – of Detective Inspector rank. His home turf is predominantly North London, but he has survived being busted down to uniform, and banished to that godless region south of the Thames. He is a maverick’s maverick. Grumpy, impulsive, reckless, no respecter of seniority, but grudgingly admired by fellow officers who know a good copper when they see one. He lives with a child protection officer and her young son. His long time best mate is pathologist Phil Hendricks who is totally conventional apart from his addiction to body piercings, tattoos, and the Gay lifestyle. Of Thorne’s many vices, the one which exasperates his friends more than anything is his passion for country music, where his drug of choice is Hank Williams. Thorne tries not to give the many ghosts in his past free reign, but the spectre that haunts him the most is that of his late father, who suffered a long and ultimately fatal slide down into the hell of dementia.

LLB coverNow, Thorne becomes involved in another kind of hell on earth, and one where all absent devils have been called home, all leave cancelled, and any recently retired fallen angels pressed back into duty. The fires stoked in this particular hellish pit illuminate the ghastly world inhabited by some British Asian communities who sanction murder in the name of their warped concept of family honour. Among the ghosts which inhabit the darker parts of Thorne’s memory is that of Meena Athwal. She was killed, he is certain, at the behest of her family, but her death remains unavenged in a court of justice.

Thorne is approached by a fellow officer, Nicola Tanner. Her partner, schoolteacher Susan Best, has been murdered in their shared home, and Tanner is convinced that it is a case of mistaken identity. She believes that the killers are a pair of professional murderers she is tracking for their role in so-called ‘Honour Killings’. Tanner wants Thorne’s help because she thinks his sheer bloody-mindedness and contempt for procedure will cut through the layers of police timidity caused by misplaced sensitivity to multicultural issues.

Thorne, reluctantly, agrees to help, but then two youngsters – Amaya and boyfriend Kamal – are abducted. They were planning to run away together to escape the stifling expectations of their families, but the CCTV shows them being abused by a drunken Irish lout on a train, but then rescued by a smartly dressed Asian man. When Amaya’s body turns up in a shallow grave, apparently raped and strangled, Thorne abandons any reluctance he may have felt, and begins to put pressure on those he feels may be responsible.

Billingham dedicates the book to two real-life victims of religious murder, Banaz Mahmod and Rahmat Sulemani. He barely keeps his anger in check, but is too good a writer to allow the novel to be just a diatribe against disgusting and inhuman beliefs. Still, his controlled fury burns white hot on every page. Here, he discusses motives for the killings with his boss:

“It’s hard to accept these are motives.”
“Because they’re not, “ Thorne said. “Not to you or me or to anyone else with an ounce of sodding humanity. The people we’re dealing with have different … standards. A different code. If you can kill your own flesh and blood because something they’ve done means you don’t think you can hold your head up in a temple or in some poxy neighbourhood café….”

We watch with anguish as another possible victim becomes a target for the deadly pair who Tanner has correctly identified. A teenage girl keeps a diary and, having realised that her brother Jad has taken to reading it, writes this entry:

“What makes me angriest is that Jad doesn’t believe a lot of this stuff any more than I do. It’s perfect for him, because of what he’s got between his legs. He gets to do what he likes while I’m bringing dishonour into the house because I’m not ashamed to use what’s BETWEEN MY EARS!”

The plot twists are little short of masterly. Billingham encourages us to make a series of assumptions, but then delights in confounding us as he reveals that the reality is something different altogether. Love Like Blood is the sixteenth Tom Thorne novel and I am certain that the series, which started in 2001 with Sleepyhead, will come to be seen as a classic of its kind. I have read every one of them, but can say with complete conviction that Love Like Blood is the most powerful and impressive yet.

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COMPETITION … Win STRANGE TIDE by Christopher Fowler

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I COUNT MYSELF GENUINELY LUCKY to be sent novels by publishers and authors who are looking for coverage of their books. Any reviewer will tell you the same thing. Inevitably, it is impractical to keep all the books once they have been read and reviewed. I pass on books to like-minded friends, or take a batch to the charity shops in town. But some contemporary books I guard with my life, and they will leave my house over my dead body.

7061d-chrisfowlerThe Urban Dictionary tells me that a “keeper” is is a colloquial phrase derived from “for keeps,” which means worth keeping forever. I have an eclectic list of CriFi keepers which include such diverse talents as Walter Mosley, Phil Rickman, Harry Bingham, Eva Dolan and Jim Kelly. But top of my list is the wonderful Bryant and May series by Christopher Fowler (left). So, rest assured, I would not be putting this lovely new paperback up as a prize if I did not already have my hardback copy in pride of place on my bookshelf.

ST back033STRANGE TIDE is set, as you may expect, in London, but it’s a London few of us will ever see. It’s a world of forgotten alleyways, strange histories, abandoned amusement arcades, inexplicable legends and murder – always murder. Strange Tide was my book of the year for 2016, and you can read my review of it by following this link.

If you would like to win the paperback version of Strange Tide, then answer a simple question. Fans of the series will know the christian names of the two aged detectives. So, if you think their names are Reg Bryant and Michael May, then send me an email with Reg, Michael in the subject box. The email address is below.

fullybooked2016@yahoo.com

Competition closes at 10.00pm GMT on Wednesday 31st May 2017.
• One entry per competitor.• Entries accepted from Europe, America, Asia and Australasia (basically anywhere!)
• The winner will be drawn out of the (digital) hat.

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