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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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“and OVER HERE!” … Wartime executions of American servicemen at Shepton Mallet

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“OVER-PAID, OVER-FED, OVER-SEXED, and OVER HERE!” The phrase is attributed to the comedian and entertainer Tommy Trinder, but for many British people his barbed catchphrase rang all too true. American servicemen had left a country unaffected by German bombing, rationing and austerity, and brought with them an abundance of delights in the way of cigarettes, alcohol, chocolate and nylon stockings. For some women, young and not so young, the brash appeal of these loud and confident young men was irresistible. But things did not always turn out for the best for either the hosts or the visitors. The American men sometimes strayed from the straight and narrow path, and in the most severe cases, justice was swift and terrible. In all, eighteen American servicemen were executed within the forbidding grey walls of Shepton Mallet Prison in Somerset. Two met their death by firing squad, but sixteen were hanged. This is the story of some of them.

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NOOSE1THE MOST HORRIFIC  of the crimes occurred not on the British mainland, but in the sleepy countryside of County Tyrone, one of the Six Counties of Northern Ireland, in September 1944. The victim, Patricia Wylie was just seven years old. There is something about a child killing that curdles the blood of even the most hardened observer of criminal misdeeds. Private William Harrison was known to the Wylie family, who lived in a cottage near the remote village of Killclopy, and when he called at the house on 25th September, he found Patricia there on her own. She said she had to go into the village to do some shopping for her mother, and Harrison went with her. Patricia never reached the village, however, and after an extensive search her bloodied body – sexually assaulted – was found in a field, casually covered up with hay.

Harrison was quickly arrested and at his subsequent court martial in Cookstown his defence was that of diminished responsibility due to being drunk, and having had a traumatic childhood in Ohio. It was stated that when he was born, his mother was a mere 14 years old, and that he had his first sexual experience at the age of 15, partly due to being drunk. Prior to his arrest he had been court martialled no fewer than 5 times for being drunk or absent without leave. The submission by his lawyer that he had insufficient moral awareness to realise that the assault on Patricia  (which he admitted) was wrong fell on deaf ears, and he was sentenced to death on Saturday 18th November 1944.

He was removed to Shepton Mallet, and was hanged on 7th April 1945, by Thomas Pierrepont and Herbert Morris.

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NOOSE1Death is no respecter of persons, but the most high profile victim of American violence during WW2 in Britain was certainly Sir Eric Teichman. He was a distinguished career diplomat, and had written books about his experiences in the far flung corners of what remained of the British Empire. He was no dour and over-cautious emissary, however, and was described as “a flamboyantly enigmatic explorer-cum-special agent.”

Sir-Eric-Teichman-2-780x1024On 3rd December 1944, whilst at home at Honingham Hall, his estate in Norfolk,  Teichman (left) heard the sound of gunfire nearby. He went out to confront two poachers (Private George E. Smith of Pittsburgh and Private Leonard S. Wijpacha of Detroit) who were trespassing in the grounds of his estate. Both intruders were American soldiers based at a nearby USAAF airfield and each was armed with an M1 carbine. Sir Eric was killed during the confrontation, receiving a fatal gunshot wound to the head.

Private Smith (army serial number: 33288266) was subsequently court-martialled at RAF Attlebridge, convicted of murder and executed by hanging  at Shepton Mallet on 8th May 1945 (i.e. VE day), despite appeals for clemency, including one from Lady Ellen Teichman. His companion, Private Wijpacha was charged with being an accessory to murder, but was not sentenced to death. The hangman on this occasion was, again, Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Herbert Morris.

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Doris StaplesNOOSE1Perhaps the most dramatic of the  murders occurred on a peaceful  street in the well-to-do Oxfordshire town of Henley on Thames. Doris Staples was 35 years old, and had been ‘courting’ an American soldier who was currently on active service in North Africa. It seems, however, that Private John H. Waters, a 38-year-old soldier from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and the old adage “while the cat’s away..” on his mind. Doris worked in a dress shop at 11A Greys Road. The building is still there, but is now a solicitors’ office. On the afternoon of 14th July 1943, locals were disturbed to hear gunshots coming from the premises. The police tried to force an entry to the shop, but it wasn’t until a tear gas grenade was lobbed in through the window, and the local fire brigade called to direct powerful jets of water into the building, that the authorities felt safe enough to enter. Once inside, they found a very dead Doris Staples, and a seriously wounded John Waters. It seems that Waters was driven to madness by his unrequited passion for Doris Staples, and after mortally wounding her, he turned the gun on himself.

Either by accident or design, Waters survived, but his appointment to meet his maker was only postponed, not cancelled. At a court martial in Watford he was found guilty, and sentenced to death. He was removed to Shepton Mallet and on 10th February 1944 he was hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint and his assistant Alex Riley.

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NOOSE1Along with other great forested areas in ancient England such as Sherwood, Arden, Epping, and Charnwood, Savernake Forest in Wiltshire owed its development to the love the English royalty and aristocracy had for hunting. In late September 1943, however, the historic woodland was the scene of a different kind of hunting – and the prey was human. It needs to be remembered, not in any sense of expiation for these terrible crimes, but by way of establishing what life was like in wartime Britain, that hundreds of thousands of husbands, boyfriends and other eligible young men were all away at the war, leaving women very much on their own. Someone once unkindly likened the situation to a careless farmer leaving the chicken run unlatched with a hungry fox in the vicinity.

Lee A. Davis was another young G.I. who could not resist the temptation of the hen coop door swinging open. near Marlborough Wilts., as On the night of 28th September, two young women walked back from the cinema near Marlborough Wiltshire. Davis asked the girls what they were doing and one, Muriel Fawden, said she was returning to the hospital where she worked as a nurse. They tried to get away from Davis who shouted after them “Stand still, or I’ll shoot”. He instructed the terrified girls to go into some bushes beside the footpath. Muriel’s companion  June Lay decided to make a run for it and Davis shot her dead.

Lee A Davis2He now forced Muriel into some bushes and raped her but surprisingly did not kill her. When she recovered from her ordeal she was able to give a full statement to the police and as a result all the rifles of the American soldiers stationed nearby were examined. Davis’ was found to have been fired and forensic tests matched it to the shell cases found near June’s body. Davis admitted he had been at the scene of the crime but said he had only meant to fire over the heads of the girls. He was court-martialled at Marlborough on the 6th of October for the murder and the rape, both crimes carrying the death penalty under US Military law. He was hanged on the 14th of December, 1943 by Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Alex Riley.

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The full list of military executions of American servicemen at Shepton Mallet is as follows:

Pte. David Cobb, a 22 year old G.I. was the first to be hanged. He had shot and killed another soldier and was executed on 12th March, 1943.

Pte. Harold Smith a a 20 year old from LaGrange, Georgia shot and killed Pte. Harry Jenkins  He made a full statement admitting his guilt and was duly hanged on the 25th of June, 1943 by Thomas and Albert Pierrepoint.

20 year old Lee A. Davis (see main article) was executed for rape and murder in 1943.

John Waters from Perth Amboy in New Jersey was, at 39, rather older than the rest of these soldiers. He was hanged on the 10th of February 1944 by Tom Pierrepoint, assisted by Alex Riley. (see main article)

J.C. Leatherberry, a 22 year old from Hazelhurst, Mississippi, was executed for the murder of Colchester taxi driver Henry Hailstone on the evening of 5th of December 1943.  Leatherberry was sent to Shepton Mallet to be hanged by Thomas and Albert Pierrepoint on the 16th of March 1944.

25 year old Pte. Wiley Harris Jr. from Greenville, Georgia, was another soldier who was stationed in Belfast in Northern Ireland. After a fight broke out in a bar, Harris stabbed a local pimp called Coogan 17 times. The court martial were not prepared to accept self defence in view of the number of stab wounds and so Harris was convicted. He was hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Alex Riley, on the 26th of May 1944.

20 year old Alex F. Miranda from Santa Ana, California, became the first American serviceman to suffer death by musketry as the US Army called shooting by firing squad, at Shepton Mallet. He was executed on Tuesday the 30th of May 1944 for the murder of his sergeant, Sgt. Thomas Evison at Broomhill Camp in Devon.

25 year old Eliga Brinson from Tallahassee Florida and 22 year old Willie Smith from Birmingham Alabama, were hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint on the 11th of August 1944 for the rape of 16 year old Dorothy Holmes after a dance at Bishop’s Cleeve in Gloucestershire.

Madison Thomas, a 23 year old from Arnaudville, Louisiana, was another soldier convicted of rape. His victim was Beatrice Reynolds.  He was court martialled at Plymouth on the 21st of August and hanged by Thomas and Albert Pierrepoint on the 12th of October 1944.

35 year old Benjamin Pyegate from Dillon, South Carolina, was the second and last US soldier to face a firing squad at Shepton Mallet. The crime – stabbing a fellow soldier –  took place at Tidworth Barracks in Wiltshire on the 15th of July 1944.

24 year old Ernest Lee Clark from Clifton Forge, Virginia and Augustine M. Guerra aged 20 from Cibolo, Texas were jointly convicted of the rape and murder of 15 year old Elizabeth Green at Ashford Kent on 22nd of August 1944. They were hanged side by side on the 8th of January 1945, by Thomas and Albert Pierrepoint.

Robert L. Pearson, a 21 year old from Mayflower, Arkansas and 24 year old Parson (also given as Cubia) Jones from Thompson, Georgia, were convicted by court martial of the rape of Joyce Brown at Chard in Somerset on the 3rd of December 1944. They were tried at Chard on the 16th of December 1944 and hanged side by side on the 17th of March 1945 by Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Herbert Morris.

22 year old William Harrison Jr. from Ironton, Ohio sexually assaulted and strangled seven year old Patricia Wylie in Killycolpy Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland. (see main article)

George E. Smith Jr. aged 28 from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, (see main article) was hanged on 8th May, 1945  by Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Herbert Morris.

Aniceto Martinez, a 23 year old Mexican American soldier from Vallecitos New Mexico was the last person to be hanged for rape – that of an elderly woman –  in the UK,  when he went to the gallows on the 15th of June 1945. Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by his nephew Albert, carried out the execution.

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There is a macabre postscript to this story. Initially, the bodies of the executed soldiers were interred in the huge cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey. Later, though, the remains were transferred to Plot E, Oise-Aisne American cemetery near Fère-en-Tardenois, Aisne, Picardy, France.

Plot E is approximately 100 metres away from the main cemetery and is a separate, hidden section which currently contains the remains of 94 American military prisoners, all of whom were executed by hanging or firing squad under military authority for crimes committed during or shortly after World War II. Their victims were 26 fellow American soldiers (all murdered) and 71 British, French, German, Italian, Polish and Algerian civilians (both male and female) who were raped or murdered. No US flag is permitted to fly over the section, and the numbered graves literally lie with their backs turned to the main cemetery on the other side of the road.

THE KILLING CONNECTION… Between the covers

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Detective Chief Inspector Andy Gilchrist struggles to keep his balance – and his dignity – as he slips and scrabbles over the slimy rocks that separate the ruins of St Andrews castle from the North Sea. The object of his attention is the corpse of a woman. The sea – and things that scuttle and nibble in its depths – have destroyed her face, but she is eventually identified. After what is left of her has been probed, sliced and weighed on the pathologist’s table, the verdict is that she has been strangled.

TKC CoverThe woman is eventually identified as Alice Hickson, a journalist, and the woman who provided the ID, a literary editor called Manikandan Lal, is flying home from holiday to give further background to her friend’s disappearance and death. ‘Kandi’ Lal fails to make her appointment with Gilchrist, however, and soon the police team realise that they may be hunting for a second victim of whoever killed Alice Hickson. Gilchrist’s partner, DS Jessie Janes has problems of own, which are become nagging distractions from her professional duties. As if it were not bad enough to learn that her junkie mother has been murdered by a family member, Jessie is faced with the heartbreaking task of explaining to her son that an operation to correct his deafness has been cancelled permanently.

Battling the Arctic conditions which have descended upon Fife like a deathly blanket, Gilchrist and Janes identify the killer, but are outsmarted at every turn by a man who they discover is not only responsible for the deaths of Hickson and Lal, but is linked to a series of murders where women have been dazzled by promises of love, but then skillfully separated from their money before being brutally killed.

One of the stars of the novel is Fife and its neighbouring districts. John Rebus has occasionally battled criminals there and, in the real world, Val McDermid is Kirkcaldy born and bred, but no-one can have described the sheer barbarity of its winter climate with quite such glee as Muir. We are a few weeks away from midwinter, but we have horizontal rain, bitter east winds, windscreen wipers failing to cope with blizzards, and ice-shrivelled bracken crackling underfoot.

“It was half-past nine already and the temperature had plunged. Ahead, in the cold mist, Alloa stood like a fortified mound. Beyond, the Ochil Hills seemed to overlap in darkening greys and rounded peaks capped in white.”

Frank-MuirDetective Inspector characters have become a staple in British crime fiction, mainly because their position gives them a complete overview of what is usually a murder case, while also allowing them to “get their hands dirty” and provide us readers with action and excitement. So, the concept has become a genre within a genre, and there must be enough fictional DCIs and DIs to fill a conference hall. This said, the stories still need to be written well, and Frank Muir (right) has real pedigree. This latest book will disappoint neither Andy Gilchrist’s growing army of fans nor someone for whom reading The Killing Connection is by way of an introduction.

Andy Gilchrist is, in some ways, familiar. He struggles to preserve what is left of his family life with the blood-sucking demands of his job. Home is a place he sleeps, alone and usually exhausted. He has a reputation as a man who battles the police heirarchy rather than seeking to join it. The account of his latest case is a thoroughly good police procedural, an expertly plotted ‘page-turner’, and a welcome addition to the shelves carrying other excellent Scottish crime novels. The Killing Connection is published by Constable, and is available here.

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A DANGEROUS CROSSING … Between the covers

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ADC014It is the summer of 1939. In Germany, the bitter ashes which have been smouldering for two decades since the punitive reparations after Versailles have been fanned into flames, and the fire is set to spread across Europe. As Hitler prepares to march into Poland, in Britain the world carries on as normal, although few would know that this would be the last summer of peace for more than six years.

In the dock of the Essex port of Tilbury stands the ocean liner Orontes. The crowds on the quayside watch and wave as their loved ones board the ship, which is bound for Australia. One of the passengers is Lily Shepherd, a quiet but pretty young woman who has had enough of waitressing at a Lyons Corner House in London, and has signed up with a scheme which will take her to Australia to work as a domestic servant.

Rachel Rhys begins the book with the closing scene. The Orontes has docked in Sydney, but before the passengers disembark, we see police escorting a woman from the ship. It is obvious she has committed some grievous crime, but her identity is not revealed and so the book becomes less of a whodunnit? than whowilldoit? Rhys carefully follows the conventions of mystery stories which take place in the enclosed spaces of ships and long distance trains, and she has assembled an excellent cast of characters. Again sticking to the tried and trusted formula, Rhys describes how most of the characters are running away from something – or someone.

Edward Fletcher and his sister Helena are travelling to Australia for the good of Edward’s health. He is suffering from tuberculosis. Months in a sanatorium have saved his life, but only the Australian climate will guarantee that it will be a long one. George Price is an embittered young man who has been sent by his father to work on a relative’s farm in New Zealand. He makes no bones about the fact that he sees Hitler’s rise to power as the best thing which could have happened to Germany in particular, and Continental Europe in general.

The typically staid and reserved social dynamic between this little group, who all share Lily’s dining table, is shattered by the arrival of Max and Eliza Campbell, an American couple who escape the stifling atmosphere of their First Class lounge hoping to find a little fun slumming it in Tourist Class. On the very fringe of things, but growing ever more dependent on Lily’s friendship, is Maria Katz, a Jewish girl who has managed to escape impending disaster in her native Austria. Her parents, however, have not been so fortunate.

Lily is ‘adopted’ by the Campbells but the couple have very different motives. As well as being dazzled by the louche and extrovert Americans, Lily begins to fall in love with the shy and hesitant Edward. As she does so we learn, little by little, about the tragic consequences of her only previous love affair.

RRRachel Rhys (right) is nothing if not a skilled storyteller, but we should not be surprised as Dangerous Crossing is no debut novel. Under her real name, Tamar Cohen, she has written a string of best selling psychological thrillers. So, as the Orontes proceeds on its stately voyage to Australia, we share Lily Shepherd’s mixture of discomfort and amazement as she goes onshore to visit such exotic places as Pompeii, Cairo and Colombo. Rather after the fashion of a modern day Patricia Highsmith, Rhys has the main players gradually revealing their secrets to one another. The rack turns, one ratchet at a time, but so elegantly and cleverly are things concealed that the crime, when it does happen, is completely shocking and unexpected.

A Dangerous Crossing is published by Doubleday and is available here.

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THE WELL OF THE DEAD … Between the covers

 

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TWOTD CoverIn the icy Scottish dawn of 16th April 1746, the last battle to be fought on British soil was just hours away. The soldiers of the Hanoverian army of William Duke of Cumberland were shaking off their brandy-befuddled sleep, caused by extra rations to celebrate the Duke’s birthday. Just a mile or two distant, the massed ranks of the Scottish clans loyal to Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, were shivering in their plaid cloaks, wet and exhausted after an abortive night march to attack the enemy.

One small group of Highlanders, however, had something else on their minds. Chancing upon a broken down wagon belonging to Cumberland’s paymaster, they discover a literal treasure chest of gold put aside for soldiers’ wages. They make off with the gold, and in doing so miss the ensuing carnage on Culloden Moor. McGillivray intends to use the riches to restore the fortunes of the Jacobite cause, but events take a contrary turn.

Modern Scotland. The Spring of 2010. Burglars break into Cullairn Castle, the ancestral home of the McGillivray clan. The present owners, and descendants of the McGillivrays, are brutally murdered in the course of the break-in. DCI Neil Strachan has to make sense of the violent deaths of Duncan Forbes and his wife, but is puzzled by the mutilations on the bodies. There is a crude copy of a clan emblem cut into the dead flesh, as well as an attempt to carve something even more obscure – a symbol which appears to be a character from the dead Pictic language, Ogham.

While simultaneously trying to discover who is stalking his girlfriend and sending her threatening text messages, Strachan works on the Cuillairn mystery and comes to the conclusion that someone has an insider’s knowledge of the McGillivray legend, and will stop at nothing until the treasure, now worth millions, is unearthed.

cliveThe Well Of The Dead is a winning combination of several different elements. It’s a brisk and authentic police procedural, written by someone who clearly knows how a major enquiry works. For those who enjoy a costume drama with a dash of buried treasure, there is interest a-plenty. Military history buffs will admire the broad sweep of how Allan (right) describes the glorious failure that was the Jacobite rebellion, as well as being gripped by the detailed knowledge of the men who fought and died on that sleet-swept April day in 1746, bitter both in the grim weather conditions and what would prove to be a disastrous legacy for the Scottish Highlanders and their proud culture.

If all that were not enough, Allan gives us a whole raft of characters, both engaging – and downright menacing , with a few in between. DCI Strachan sharp-elbows his way into the crowded room containing the swelling ranks of fictional British Detective Inspectors, but he certainly makes his voice heard above the clatter of conversation. Fans of the standard whodunnit are well catered for, as Allan misdirects readers with the skill of a long established master.

This is a huge chunk of a book of almost intimidating length. I confess that I started reading dutifully, rather than enthusiastically. It only took a few pages, however, and I was hooked. Chapter after chapter went by as Allan’s excellent skills as a story-teller worked their magic. He also has a spectacularly wide vocabulary and he is not afraid to use it. “Epicenism”? “Mordacious”? I had to reach for the dictionary on more than one occasion, but such a love of the more remote corners of our wonderful language made me smile, and I have set myself the task of recycling some of his re-discovered etymological gems in a future review. In conclusion, this is a crackerjack novel from an author who was previously unknown to me. Clive Allan is a writer whose future books I shall be anxiously looking out for. The Well Of The Dead is available now. Online buying options are here.

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ON COPPER STREET … Between the covers

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When the sad time comes for Chris Nickson to shuffle off this mortal coil you will probably find the word ‘Leeds’ engraved on his heart. His knowledge of the city encompasses every nook and cranny, every church, chapel and graveyard, every legend, every tall tale, every dark hour and every moment of joy. Give him a battered bowler hat, steel shod boots and a rough woollen suit and transport him back to the 1890s. No-one would spare him a second glance. Fans of his books telling the story a determined Leeds copper, Tom Harper, will know this already. In previous novels in the series, Harper’s common sense, decency and compassion have shone through to highlight one of the more original creations in historical crime fiction.

32970425On Copper Street opens in grim fashion, with death and disfigurement. The dead pass in contrasting fashion. Socialist activist Tom Maguire dies in private misery, stricken by pneumonia and unattended by any of the working people whose status and condition he championed. The death of petty crook Henry White is more sudden, extremely violent, but equally final. Having only just been released from the forbidding depths of Armley Gaol, he is found on his bed with a fatal stab wound. If all this isn’t bad enough, two children working in a city bakery have been attacked by a man who threw acid in their faces. The girl will be marked for life, but at least she still has her sight. The last thing the poor lad saw – or ever will see – is the momentary horror of a man throwing acid at him. His sight is irreparably damaged.

As Inspector Tom Harper and his colleagues throw themselves into the search for the killer of White and the brute who maimed the two children, there is a dramatic twist in Harper’s professional life. As he draws a much deserved breath from his energetic pursuit of the villains, he realises that his boss, Superintendent Bob Kendall is not a well man. The much respected Kendall confides in him that he is grievously ill, and will be relinquishing the position so that he can go home and await death. Harper is shocked and saddened by the revelation, but even more taken aback when he learns that he is lined up to be Kendall’s successor.

Death continues to stalk the streets of Leeds, and the killings all seem related to the original death of Henry White. A mysterious man known only as JD seems central to the hunt for the killer, but things take a calamitous turn for the worse when an ambitious and popular policeman is shot dead on the street, seemingly because he was close to identifying the mysterious JD.

Sadly, there seems to be an unwritten crime fiction rule that states British policemen of Inspector rank must tick at least two of the following boxes: misanthropic; alcoholic; divorced; obsessed by obscure music; loathes superior officers; superior officers loathe them; have a tortuous family history; carry an iceberg-sized chip on their shoulder. Thankfully for us, Inspector – soon to be Superintendent – Tom Harper fails in all aspects of this grim curriculum vitae. The narrative of this book, like those before it, is grounded in the warm family life Harper enjoys with his political activist wife Annabelle, and their delightful daughter Mary.

maxresdefaultNickson is a master story teller. There are no pretensions, no gloomy psychological subtext, no frills, bows, fancies or furbelows. We are not required to wrestle with moral ambiguities, nor are we presented with any philosophical conundrums. This is not to say that the book doesn’t have an edge. I would imagine that Nickson (right)  is a good old-fashioned socialist, and he pulls no punches when he describes the appalling way in which workers are treated in late Victorian England, and he makes it abundantly clear what he thinks of the chasm between the haves and the have nots. Don’t be put off by this. Nickson doesn’t preach and neither does he bang the table and browbeat. He recognises that the Leeds of 1895 is what it is – loud, smelly, bustling, full of stark contrasts, yet vibrant and fascinating. Follow this link to read our review of the previous Tom Harper novel, The Iron Water. Online buying options for On Copper Street are here.

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WHAT ALICE KNEW … Between the covers

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WAKBack in late 2016, I had the pleasure of listening to T A Cotterell read an extract from his debut novel, What Alice Knew. He made it clear that this was a book about secrets, and about that strange beast, family life. Family life. The words are anodyne, mild and reassuring, but we all know that many families are not what they seem to be to an outsider. Cotterell’s question, though, is simply this: “How well do members of a family know each other?”

This particular family is as close to the notion of perfection as can be. Husband Ed Sheahan is a senior obstrician at a Bristol hospital while Alice Sheahan, née Tenterden, is a successful and highly regarded portrait painter. They have two adorable children and a beautiful house in a sought-after Bristol district – one of those places which delights in calling itself a village, complete with ‘proper’ shops which strive to be terribly artisan and traditional.

As Alice is driving home from painting a commission in Suffolk, she takes a ‘phone call from daughter Nell. The first five words send a stab of anxiety through her. “Mummy – Daddy hasn’t come home.” Ed Sheahan simply isn’t the kind of father to leave his children alone in the house at night. He is not answering his mobile, he is not at the hospital, his suitcase, hold-all and travel bag are still in their cupboard. Eventually Alice discovers that Ed was last seen at a party with some younger colleagues.

Much to Alice’s relief, the absent Ed finally breaks surface and reveals, much to his embarrassment, that he had drunk well rather than wisely and had passed out in an expensive apartment belonging to a mature art student called Araminta Lyall. The apartment is in the district of Stokes Croft, which Cotterell describes as:

“..home to artists’ studios and vegan cafés, squatter collectives that sprout in disused buildings, all-night clubs, wraith-like dealers, protest groups.”

Ed Sheahan makes his way home very much with his tail between his legs. Alice is actually rather amused, because he is no sort of a party animal and much less a drinker. She is just happy that the temporary scare and anxiety have passed with no real harm being done to the family. But – and of course there is always a ‘but’ in domestic noir thrillers – her contentment is short lived when she reads the newspaper headline SOCIETY GIRL DIES, and when she reads to story, one name leaps out at her. Araminta Lyall.

T-A-CotterellFrom this point on, the dreamy soft-focus life of the Sheahan family descends into a nightmare reality, all jagged edges and harshly grating contrasts. The visual metaphor is actually totally appropriate, as one of the great strengths of the novel is how Alice sees much of life through her painterly eyes. Rose madder, cadmium yellow, viridian, alizarin crimson and flake white. Alice’s world is the world of the quaintly named oil paints on her palette. It came as no surprise to me to learn that Cotterell (right) studied History of Art at Cambridge.

One of the most gripping chapters in the book is the description of Alice being commissioned to paint a mystery sitter, who turns out to be a woman who was her best friend at school, but from whom she parted under traumatic circumstances. The woman has become dazzlingly rich through business, and has changed her name. In an atmosphere that could be sliced with a razor, the two eventually come face to face. Even if you read another two hundred books this year you will not experience a more tense and excoriating account of the power of memory, guilt and bitterness.

The tale is told from first to last by Alice herself. This poses interesting possibilities for the reader, particularly in the light of the shocks contained in the final few pages of the novel. Is Alice a reliable narrator? Does her ruthless honesty as a portraitist extend to what she is telling us – and herself? Cotterell certainly takes a huge gamble and puts our credulity on the table as stakes. I think it works, thus seating him up there on the High Table where the more established purveyors of domestic noir sup and dine. As ever, you must judge for yourselves. What Alice Knew is published by Transworld/ Black Swan/Penguin Random House and is available here.

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THE KILLER ON THE WALL … Between the covers

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There are towns and villages the world over which in themselves are insignificant in the greater scheme of things, but whose names are indelibly imprinted on the public consciousness for the evil deeds committed there. My Lai, Sandy Hook, Columbine, Dunblane, Hungerford: the names resonate, and cause us to shudder. In the latest novel from Emma Kavanagh, Briganton is such a place. It is a village otherwise little worthy of note, with nothing to detain either the traveller or the tourist save, perhaps, for its proximity to the remains of the winding wall built to protect the northern limits of Roman Britain from so-called Celtic barbarians.

TKOTWThe name Briganton, to most British people, conjures up a series of murders, where the victims were dragged up the steep hillside and posed, in death, gazing with sightless eyes out over the windswept moorland. But all that was long ago. The killer, Heath McGowan, was brought to justice by the determination of Eric Bell, a local policeman who has since been promoted and has achieved national celebrity due to his solving the case. His triumph had added poignancy because it was his teenage daughter, Isla, who discovered the first bodies while out for an early morning run.

Twenty years have past, and now Isla Bell is Professor of Criminal Psychology at the University of Northumberland. Her husband, Ramsey Aiken was one of the original victims of The Killer On The Wall, but he survived his injuries, and is now a freelance journalist, while her father, Superintendent Eric Bell has become something of a police legend.

Isla is working on a project to identify physical differences between the brains of serial killers and normal people, and her work takes her to the prison where Heath McGowan is serving several life sentences for his murderous activities in and around Briganton. As she persuades him to undergo an MRI scan, she tries to persuade him to talk about the killings, but he treats it as a game, and refuses to divulge any useful information.

Then, the unthinkable – even the impossible – happens. In quick succession, two more local women are murdered and take the places of the long-dead bodies propped up against the limestone blocks of Hadrian’s Wall. Clearly, McGowan is not the killer, but does he have an imitator? An accomplice, maybe, who was never caught decades earlier? A young Detective Constable, Mina Arian, has made her home in Briganton and she becomes obsessed with finding – or disproving – links between the original killings and the new murders.

Emma Kavanagh has a doctorate in psychology, and her understanding both of what we know – and what we don’t know – about the workings of the human mind give this novel a very distinct and disturbing potency. Her academic credentials aside, she is a very gifted writer. As far as the plot is concerned she gives us a trawl net full of red herrings to sift through, and her vivid characterisations, particularly of Mina Arian, Eric Bell and Isla Aiken, give the narrative an electric charge.

This is a guided missile of a book: it explodes into life, and then keeps burning, inexorably homing in on a target which you will only foresee by cheating and flipping through to the last few pages. When it comes, the detonation is as devastating as it is unforeseen. Only the very best writers have the daring and dexterity to deliver such a plot twist and make it as credible as it is shocking, and Emma Kavanagh must be a founder member of that exclusive club.

You can read our review of The Missing Hours, an earlier novel by Emma Kavanagh, and she also wrote a very perceptive feature on Trauma. The Killer On The Wall is out now.

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The Postman Delivers … The Well of The Dead

WELL headerThis is the second outing for Clive Allan’s Detective Inspector Neil Strachan and, as in the first book in the series, The Drumbeater, past and present collide. Glenruthven, a tiny community in the Scottish Highlands, is dominated by its distillery. When the owner, Hugh Fraser is murdered alongside his wife, the village is shattered at the thought of there being a killer in their midst.

WELL BACK017As Strachan and his police partner DS Holly Anderson set about finding the killer, they discover that the man they suspect of the double murder is obsessed with his own ancestry, and believes that he is related to a Jacobite soldier who, like so many of his fellow rebels, was slain on the bloody battlefield of Culloden on 16th April 1746.

cliveClive Allan (right) is a former police officer of thirty years’ service, and is also a keen aficionado of his country’s military history. This mixture of experience and passion combines to create a novel which will blend the lure of momentous events of the past with the gritty reality of modern policing.

The Well of The Dead is published by Troubadore/Matador and will be available on 28th April 2017.

WELL SPINE

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