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A Casualty of War by Charles Todd

A review to mark Armistice Day, A Casualty of War is the latest book in American authors Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford series. Charles Todd novels are written jointly by Caroline and Charles Todd, who are mother and son. The series begins in 1916, immersing readers in the Great War, where Bess, a Sister in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, is posted to casualty clearing stations at the Front. A Casualty of War is the ninth title in the series.A Casualty of War: A Bess Crawford Mystery (Bess Crawford Mysteries) by [Todd, Charles]

The novel begins in the last few days of war, where the authors dwell at length on the destroyed landscape and the worn-out emotions of those trying to stem the tide of the dying. I had the impression that the authors were lingering as they came to the end of several years in their writing lives, recreating the horror and chaos of the First World War. Knowing this was their last time of conveying the enormity of it all to their readers. They do a very fine job. The depiction is almost as vivid as in Vera Brittain’s legendary Testament of Youth, memoir of her experiences as a V.A.D in France.

Bess Crawford is a highly experienced, young nursing sister, dedicated to her cause. She and her colleagues are moving from shelled villages to devastated buildings, such as the crypt of a ruined church. Anywhere they can set up temporary camp. Even the birds are gone, trees and orchards cut down, livestock slaughtered and the retreating German army have left deadly booby-traps in their wake.

The medical personnel are beyond exhausted, their weariness of course, as much mental as physical. They can hardly believe the increasing rumours from the base hospital that the war is coming to a close. As the British army advance, they are treating German prisoners as well as Allied soldiers. Men are dying, limbs shattered beyond repair. They’ve so nearly made it through but the tragedy goes on to the very last minute.

The Todds evoke the relentlessness and anguish with a superb sense of place. They write literary detective novels which sets them apart from many peers. I really liked the way they described the moment of ceasefire with its feeling of anti-climax. (My aunt was a W.A.A.F in the Second World War and she remembered V.E. Day on an R.A.F base in much the same way).

Like most series, these titles can be enjoyed in any order, though they’re deeper for knowing Bess’s back-story and regular characters. Her father Colonel Crawford plays a significant part in this one. Bess is a sympathetic character, intelligent, kind, with a strong sense of moral duty to her charges.

A Casualty Of War has a terrific plot. They all begin by Bess getting involved in a mystery involving one of her patients – of necessity, including some leave in England – but they’re not formulaic. The Todds are extremely good at thinking up intriguing scenarios, often with an unusual motive – always a bonus in detective fiction.

This time, Bess is on a fortnight’s leave after the Armistice, before returning to France. She’s desperate to help an army captain from Barbados whom she met and later treated at the Front. He’s adamant that another British officer twice tried to murder him. Claims which lead him to be detained in a clinic for shell-shock injuries, where his sanity is in jeopardy.

Bess Crawford’s determination to solve the mystery takes her and an old family friend – a resourceful Sergeant-Major – to a Suffolk village, home of the captain’s distant relatives. The Todds are very good at creating believable characters and conveying a disturbing atmosphere of suspicion and hostility. They take a lot of trouble to describe attractive English villages with their hierarchical society largely as they would have been.

This story, beyond the murder mystery, is about pain and loss. It’s a snapshot of Britain with the Great War just over and almost every village mourning their dead. They write movingly of the temporary wooden memorial on the village green with the men’s names added haphazardly as their deaths were confirmed.

I really like Caroline and Charles Todd’s writing and always enjoy their other series featuring Inspector Rutledge of Scotland Yard, set just after the Great War. My only caveat is their repeated use of American terms which jerk a British reader out of their fictional world. Their mistakes are far less frequent than many American authors writing British-set mysteries, but this means they stand out all the more. It’s very odd, for instance, when they always call a village street the High, (they’ve obviously visited Oxford) and a barkeep serves in the local pub.

I’m always surprised the Todds don’t use a British editor or friend to check their work, when they obviously care very much about their research and authentic sense of place. They don’t quite ‘get’ the subtleties of our dreadful class-system as it was at the period. Understandably, as Americans are far too sensible to care about such rubbish! The Bess Crawford novels are narrated in first-person and in A Casualty Of War, it was noticeable that the authors sometimes forgot to write in Bess’s ‘voice,’ having her think phrases such as the British when our would be natural. At times I was aware of them explaining the British perspective of the Great War to their American audience.

Despite this, A Casualty Of War is suspenseful and thought-provoking. I enjoyed it a lot and the series arc is left at an interesting place. I’ll definitely be following Bess Crawford as she adjusts to peace and am glad to read that the authors have several more novels in mind.

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‘The Corpse In The Waiting Room’ by Pamela Godden

I loved Pamela Godden’s The Corpse In The Waiting Room when it was published in 2014. Set in the aftermath of The Great War, it begins in November 1920 on the eve of the Armistice commemorations. After a timely re-read, I still think it’s a superb piece of historical crime fiction.The Corpse in the Waiting Room (A Philip Tethering Mystery Book 1) by [Godden, Pamela]

The novel opens with the body of the Unknown Soldier en route from France aboard The Verdun and arriving at Dover. A reluctant Philip Tethering accompanies his sister Meg to watch the landing from the chalk cliffs above the port.

They could see it clearly now. On the deck the crew lined the rails, and further aft there was a mound of colour which puzzled Philip at first until he realised that it must be the coffin, totally buried under its wreaths. The ship crept across the harbout and nosed in to the landing stage, and the sailors sprang into action. The strains of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ floated up to them. Around them, the crowd watched reverently as the coffin was lifted and carried ashore. The ranks of soldiers drawn up on either side reversed arms. The music changed and at a slow march the coffin was borne along the pier to the Marine Station entrance. The last man home.

When they join the crowds at Dover Harbour Station, watching to see the funeral van pass by on the train to London, Philip slips away to the waiting-room and finds the body of a woman. She’s been murdered within easy reach of hundreds of people, while all their backs were turned. It’s a very clever premise.

Philip Tethering is an engaging sleuth with a very likable family. The Tetherings live comfortably at the ‘Big House’ in a village near Dover. A young officer in the recent War, Philip has almost recovered from months of physical incapacity and a degree of shell-shock.

If he had had any suspicion that he would not be able to keep his wits about him and look after his sister, he would not have agreed to come at all; all the same, he was uneasily aware of all the old anxieties lurking just beyond the edge of his thoughts and ready to pounce.

One of the story’s great strengths is its depiction of a society rehabilitating itself after several years of war and loss. Philip Tethering is gradually regaining his confidence and starting to think about how best to live in peacetime. The dead woman turns out to be from the village and events draw him into investigating her murder.

Employed by the local gentry and dependent on their custom, the villagers are mostly deferential when questioned and ready to gossip. The characters are eminently believable and the attitudes of the time are cleverly shown. It’s easy for authors to get this wrong but Pamela Godden’s portrayal of the subtleties of class and the pecking order of an English village is authentic and beautifully written.

The author clearly knows Dover and its rural surroundings intimately. There are some superb descriptions of the town and the autumn countryside slipping into winter. The Corpse In The Waiting Room is an intriguing mystery, gripping, elusive and fairly clued. It’s a very literary detective novel, elegantly evoking the psychology and atmosphere of a vanished time.

Highly recommended – especially for fans of Kate Ellis’s A High Mortality Of Doves and Charles Todd’s Inspector Rutledge series.

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The Limehouse Golem

Last week, we went to see the film The Limehouse Golem, based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, which I blogged about a couple of years ago. (I’ve put my original blog on the novel below to save you searching.) The Limehouse Golem [DVD] [2017]

It’s a terrific take on the novel, with some great acting, a literate script by Jane Goldman, and some excellent sets that take you right back into Victorian London. The photography is superb.

I’m not going to say much about the plot, because I’ve mentioned the salient parts in the book blog below. Jane Goldman has made a few minor alterations to the plot for film purposes, but these make no difference to the story.

I’m always wary of filmed Victorian crime stories, because the slightest error jars. But there are no errors here. I was completely absorbed by the telling of the tale. Rarely have I seen a crime novel set in this period so well done.

This film stars Bill Nighy as Inspector Kildare, his role slightly expanded from the novel. The part was to have been played by Alan Rickman – one of our favourite actors – who sadly died early in the project. But Nighy makes an excellent Kildare, every inch the Victorian policeman. And how good to see Nighy get a lead credit.

There’s a great deal of British acting talent here – familiar faces such as Daniel Mays, Clive Russell, Eddie Marsan and Henry Goodman. All looking as though they’ve emerged from the streets of Limehouse.

But the film rises with the talents of two newcomers to me. Douglas Booth is quite stunning in the role of Dan Leno, totally believable as perhaps the greatest of music hall showmen. I’ve always had a great interest in Leno, a fascinating individual who forged the way we perceive popular entertainment of this kind, from straight entertainment, jests and songs, pantomime to burlesque, Leno was the grand master. His relatively early death in 1904 shocked the nation.

The tragedy of music hall before this period is that we have only scratchy recordings of some of the best acts (we’ve got just such a recording of Leno). Not being able to see these stars visually makes it hard to grasp how good they might have been. I’m old enough to have seen some of the early twentieth century stars live on the stage. They were good indeed – we’ll not see their likes again. But few of the Victorians were filmed, then only silently.

But Douglas Booth surely captures a great deal of Leno’s magic. Here’s an actor to watch out for in the future.

The key role of Elizabeth Cree goes to Olivia Cooke. Cooke is as good as Booth in portraying the growing confidence of a music hall singer, caught up in the murderous twists of the tale.

Try and see it at the cinema if you can with an audience around you – more like a music hall atmosphere than watching it at home on DVD.

Though we’ll be adding it to our DVD collection when it’s out.

Here’s my blog on the original novel…

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem

Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem has now been out for over twenty years. Given my interests in Victorian crime and the history of the music hall I’ve always been meaning to read it.

Now I’ve finally got round to it and I can say that it’s a terrific read, evoking a real feel of the Victorian underworld in Ackroyd’s usual and very vivid writing style.

As a writer Ackroyd is well-known not just as a novelist but as an historian and biographer. If you haven’t read it I commend to you his London – A biography – perhaps the best of all recent histories of the city.

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is not your usual crime read. It’s a deeply literary novel which happens to be about crime and the low-life and middle-class existence of Victorian London. And there’s a lot more to it than that. Ackroyd has a way of plunging you deep into this imagined vision of a past age.

For those who don’t know, Dan Leno was perhaps the greatest star of Victorian music hall. But he is not the only real-life character encountered in this book. We also see the struggling writer George Gissing and a glimpse of Karl Marx during his London exile.

This is a book which begins with a hanging and works backwards. We see how his key character Elizabeth Cree progresses as a music hall turn, the murders of a serial killer, the legend of the Jewish golem, a trial at the Old Bailey and pages from the diary of John Cree delineating many aspects of Victorian life – for this is a novel of multiple viewpoints.

Ackroyd is so very good at exploring the sinister hinterlands of the Victorian underworld. The author’s great knowledge of London shines through on every page. Terrible secrets are revealed and the ending is just stunning.

A novel you’ll want to read more than once – thoroughly recommended!

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‘The Killings at Badger’s Drift’ by Caroline Graham

When a successful television crime drama started out based on a series of novels, the original books can sometimes be overshadowed. Especially when the drama series has the enduring popularity of Midsomer Murders, still going strong after twenty years and sold worldwide.

We love to curl up with Midsomer, both with John Nettles and Neil Dudgeon. But it’s interesting to strip away all thoughts of Midsomer Murders and re-read Caroline Graham’s The Killings at Badger’s Drift. This was her first outing for Chief Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy. Our edition, published by Headline in 2016, has the bonus of a foreword by John Nettles, who played Tom Barnaby.

Published in 1987, ten years before the television series began, it’s easy to forget what a superb whodunit this is. Though I do recall finding this in the library in the ’80s and thinking it exceptionally good. Caroline Graham used the ever popular setting of murder in a seemingly idyllic village . Probably my favourite setting – like legions of fans, I love classic British detective novels where murder sends shock-waves through a small, rural community.

Miss Simpson, a well-liked, retired village schoolmistress is found dead in her cottage. A death that at first passes for natural causes, until her old friend Miss Bellringer, uneasy at signs that Miss Simpson behaved out of character, persuades the police to investigate.

So what sets The Killings at Badger’s Drift apart from countless other English village mysteries? Elegant writing with an interesting detective and sidekick, well-drawn characters, a strong plot and appealing setting. All a necessity for a decent crime novel, you might say. We could all reel off a quick dozen novelists who deliver all that.

The Killings at Badger’s Drift is lifted to another level by the author’s sly wit and moments of humour. The quirkiness of the television series is there, without its trademark bizarre murder methods. Some characters are almost Dickensian-style grotesques, yet they are horribly believable.

I loved the way in which Caroline Graham deals at length with some secondary characters. You get vivid glimpses of their back story and understand how life has shaped them. This reminded me of P.D. James’s detective novels. I always felt it was one of her greatest strengths and in Caroline Graham too, this adds an absorbing depth to the story.

Badgers Drift is St Mary Mead updated. There are council houses and commuters, modern bungalows with over-manicured gardens around the picturesque old cottages with their bee-hives. (The council houses were there in pre-war mysteries though rarely mentioned). Miss Marple would have said that the wickedness hiding beneath the surface of village life is unchanged.

Caroline Graham came up with a fairly underused premise for her series detective – at least in modern times. Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby is notable for his ordinariness. He’s a decent chap, happily married to Joyce and affectionate father to their daughter Cully. A member of the local art club and keen gardener, he isn’t a troubled maverick, doesn’t have a drink problem and the nearest his family gets to dysfunctional is his wife’s terrible cooking.

There’s more to him than can be shown within the limits of television, though John Nettles caught the essence of the character really well. We learn that earlier in his career, Barnaby was badly affected by certain aspects of his work and discover how he came to terms with his life. He’s an interesting character with a pithy line in put-downs – especially when he needs his indigestion tablets.

The Chief could be very terse at times. He was a big, burly man with an air of calm paternalism which had seduced far sharper men than Gavin Troy into voicing opinions which had then been trounced to smithereens.

Sergeant Gavin Troy is a wonderful contrast to Barnaby. Much younger, he’s torn between wanting to impress his boss and convinced he’s the coming man. Prone to envy and sneering, his thoughts are very funny and despite his prejudices, he’s somehow endearing. In his foreword, John Nettles explains how Troy’s character was toned down for the television series. This is from when Miss Bellringer calls at the police station and speaks to Troy:

The sergeant pretended he had forgotten her name. Occasionally this simple manoeuvre caused people to wonder if their visit was really worth the bother and to drift off, thus saving unnecessary paperwork.

The foreword is well worth having. John Nettles adds some interesting background to his rôle and warmly admires Caroline Graham’s work. He’s one of a select few actors who’ve played two lead detectives in British television series, being fondly remembered as Bergerac in the 1980s.

The novel is intricately plotted with plenty of alibis and red herrings. A point that intrigued me was that Barnaby quickly pieces together the likely motive for the first murder. It’s actually mentioned in the jacket copy. This seems a bold move by the author when the reason for murder is mostly a large part of the final reveal – often, discovering the motive is what finally gives the game away. It does make the plot less formulaic and knowing – partially – why Miss Simpson had to die, doesn’t detract in the slightest from the thrill of the chase.

The Killings at Badger’s Drift is a masterclass in whodunit writing and deserves its place on the CWA list of The 100 Best Crime Novels Of All Time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Third William Quest Novel

I’m now writing the third book featuring my series character William Quest, which hopefully will be out at the end of the year. Quest will find himself a long way from London fighting against new enemies and even greater dangers in York, one of England’s oldest cities.

York amd Marston Moor 002

York Minster which plays a significant part in the new Quest novel

In the London novels (see below) Quest had the advantage over his enemies of knowing every street and alley. But York is new to him, so he’s disadvantaged from the start. And it is in York’s winding medieval streets and snickets that he faces a particular and menacing foe.

As York is one of our favourite places, I’m very much enjoying setting a book there. It’s a wonderful setting for a mystery adventure.

If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, do please click on the links. They’re both out in paperback and on the Kindle eBook reader for your smartphone, Kindle or laptop – just download the free app when you order the books. And if you have read the books and enjoyed them, I’d really appreciate it if you would leave a quick review on the Amazon sales pages.

Leaving reviews helps all Indie Authors stay in business and keep writing. 

Please do tell your friends and fellow readers. Word of mouth is the very best form of advertising.

 

 

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‘The Spy’s Wife’ by Reginald Hill

The empty avenue curved away between green-hedged villas, quiet and sinister as an old film set. Then a dog padded purposefully out of a gateway, and a milk-float whined along the gutter.

The Spy’s Wife was published in 1980 as one of Reginald Hill’s stand-alones. Much as I love his acclaimed Dalziel and Pascoe police procedural series, this is one of my favourites among his canon. Throughout his writing career, begun in 1970, Hill was writing stand-alones alongside his series, usually thrillers. In the ’70s and ‘8os, these were often brought out under his pen-name Patrick Ruell, though latterly they’ve been repackaged.

Reginald Hill was a very interesting thriller-writer and if you’ve only read Dalziel and Pascoe, it’s well-worth seeking out these other titles. I think it’s fair to say his early thrillers are less well-known than his detective fiction and later standalones such as his final novel, The Woodcutter. As far as I know, The Spy’s Wife was always published under his real name.

The Spy’s Wife isn’t an easy novel to describe as there’s a great deal to uncover. The title is a conundrum in itself, being both apt and misleading. Set in the 1970s, this is the story of Molly Keatley, a happily-married housewife in her thirties. Her cosy life in Westcliff-on-Sea collapses like a house of cards one morning when her husband Sam returns home for a few minutes and dashes off again. Her next caller informs her that Sam is a Soviet spy and traitor. No spoiler – this comes on the first page.

This is a character-driven narrative and despite a compelling plot, it’s far from your average thriller. Neither can it truly be described as an espionage novel, although an investigator from a shadowy government department – never named as M.I.5 – plays a major role. There’s no tradecraft here. This is about the nature of lies, truth and illusion. The human cost of spying as seen by an outsider.

Molly is a Yorkshire lass who, like many young girls in the Swinging Sixties, left her home town to work amid the beckoning lights of London. In the novel she returns to her ageing parents in Doncaster, where Reginald Hill taught for many years as a college lecturer. His affection for Yorkshire folk with their no nonsense attitude and core of pragmatic, understated stoicism shines through the novel. At times, Molly’s stock of pithy, common sense is reminiscent of a certain Fat Man, beloved of Hill’s fans.

There’s a great deal of reflection, wisdom and humour in this novel. It’s concerned with the accommodations we all must make as we navigate the pot-holes and craters on our path. The choices we make as we try to find the best way to get by in this baffling business we call life. Molly gets to revisit the road not taken and rediscovers an inner strength as she determines to take control of events. A profound and thought-provoking read, within a page-turner of a story that’s tense and unpredictable.

Re-reading The Spy’s Wife after many years, I was so impressed with how well Reginald Hill could write about women. All the more so, as I’ve never enjoyed Ellie Pascoe in the Dalziel and Pascoe novels. My heart always sank when she made an entrance and the titles where she played a major part, such as Arms and the Women were the ones I enjoyed least. To be fair, I think she was all too familiar, just not my type!

Molly Keatley’s ‘voice’ is completely believable. She springs off the page, as do all the characters, particularly Molly’s parents. As I read, I kept thinking what a good television drama this would make. Didn’t get as far as imagining casting. My fantasy casting – a game we often play – mostly involves actors long gone or retired.

The novel’s sense of place is wonderful. When written, of course, Reginald Hill was looking back only a few years and he captured life in the 1970s, over-hung by the Cold War, in evocative detail. I loved every page and despite recalling the main plot points, found it hard to put down.

Fans of Dalziel and Pascoe know Reginald Hill’s writing was intelligent and compassionate. Throughout The Spy’s Wife, there’s an underlying sense of his wisdom and humanity. This is the quality of writing that makes the prejudice against ‘genre’ novels, as opposed to ‘literary’ novels, look ridiculous.

At the time of posting, The Spy’s Wife isn’t out as an ebook and – as far as I know – is only available new from American publishers Felony & Mayhem. I’m greatly indebted to them for several much-wanted British titles which should still be in print in the U.K. (Though I wish they wouldn’t update Golden Age novels to politically correct language). And this time, their jacket copy is a little misleading. The Keatleys live in a suburb of Southend-on-Sea, not London.

 Be prepared to go in a different direction from thriller/espionage labels and The Spy’s Wife is a superb read. Highly recommended.

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A Dark Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine

Published in 1986, A Dark-Adapted Eye was the first novel legendary crime writer Ruth Rendell wrote under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine. The name comes from her middle name and her great-grandmother’s maiden name. In interviews, Rendell said that she wanted to differentiate these novels from her other work. They would explore the psychological motives behind crime in greater depth, particularly the secrets among families.A Dark-Adapted Eye by [Vine, Barbara]

In the introduction to a new edition, Val McDermid calls this the novel that changed the thriller landscape. A Dark-Adapted Eye is a whydunit, its structure unconventional, even among novels of psychological suspense. A compelling, enigmatic mystery that explores an old crime and a deadly accurate study of British mores in the mid-twentieth century.

The opening chapter is a master-class in fine writing. We know from the first paragraph that the narrator’s aunt is being hanged that morning. The reader is immersed in the tiny details of a home in the early 1950s as the clock ticks inexorably towards eight – the time at which British judicial hangings took place.

The layers of a rich and complex plot begin peeling back and it takes much of the novel to know who was murdered. (Or rather, that was clearly Ruth Rendell’s intention but I note new editions give away too much on the jacket copy). Readers were meant to surmise, even be fairly sure though not entirely so.

Faith Severn is contacted by a biographer who is writing a book about her aunt Vera Hillyard. This sets her on a quest of remembering, over a third of a century later, the childhood visits she made to the cottage in rural Essex. Home of her two devoted aunts, over-thin, nervy, scolding Vera and Eden, fifteen years her junior. Eden, only six years older than Faith, lovely to look at and domestically accomplished, became the young Faith’s role model.

The narrative deftly weaves between past and present as Faith reexamines her memories through adult eyes in an attempt to work out what was really going on. Her insights take us beneath the surface of a conventional English family through the War and into the early 1950s. A life of rationing and thriftiness, when respectability and conformity meant everything. No one ‘washed their dirty linen in public’, keeping up appearances mattered and few suspected what went on behind the starched net curtains. Ruth Rendell was superb at evoking that time, still within living memory, but a vanished way of life.

It seems to be hard for some people today to relate to how vastly attitudes have changed in Britain since the mid-twentieth century. Based on reviews I’ve seen, some readers view the plots of vintage detective fiction with today’s liberal attitudes and can’t understand how the strait-jacket of convention affected people’s lives.

The social history is part of my love for vintage crime novels and one reason I write historical detective fiction. I’m fascinated by a long-gone Britain with its plethora of motives for murder which no longer apply. Novels – perhaps especially crime stories – are as important as non-fiction at recording social history.

The narrative of A Dark-Adapted Eye is brilliantly constructed, often cryptic, gradually filling in the gaps in the reader’s knowledge. The story makes the reader question the nature of memory and interpretation. Memory itself is an unreliable narrator and can our understanding of events only ever be partial?

This is a novel on a slow fuse – which won’t appeal to everyone. Throughout a slow build-up, there’s a feeling of claustrophobic tension as Faith’s recall nears the crime. The characterisation is masterly and the ending ambivalent. Two alternatives are set out, almost as they would be in a courtroom and the reader is left to decide. Frustrating to readers who want a clear feeling of closure but much more true to life. A Dark-Adapted Eye is a novel for grown-ups and one that lingers in the mind.

I’ll leave the last word to another legendary crime novelist and old friend of Ruth Rendell. Couldn’t agree more.

This is a rich, complex and beautifully crafted novel, which combines excitement with psychological subtlety. I salute a deeply satisfying achievement – P.D. James

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Francis Thompson as Jack the Ripper

It’s a very long time since I last read any of the poetry of Francis Thompson, though his work is probably worth another look if you are interested in fin de siecle London. He still has his admirers and I recall that there used to be a Francis Thompson Society, and that Thompson was a leading figure celebrated long after his death by The 1890s Society.Jack the Ripper: The Works of Francis Thompson by [Patterson, Richard]

I’d almost forgotten about him until I was sent a copy of Richard Patterson’s book Jack the Ripper: The Works of Francis Thompson. A most enjoyable and intriguing read, even if it doesn’t altogether convince me that Thompson was the Whitechapel killer.

However, were I a police detective at the time, looking at Mr Patterson’s evidence, I would certainly put Thompson in the frame for further investigation.

Now, about twenty years ago, I spent a great deal of time researching Jack the Ripper. I remember long days (and nights) walking the streets of Whitechapel and many hours in dusty archives, including those of the British Library and Museum of London.  I came to no particular conclusion as to the identity of the murderer, and I thought then – and I think now – that there will never be a definitive answer as to just who Jack was.

Jack the Ripper books tend to follow the same pattern; a few chapters on the misery of the East End at the time, followed by detailed accounts of the discovery of each victim and the immediate aftermath and the police investigations. Most Ripper books then try to put a favoured suspect in the frame. Some authors go to extraordinary lengths to twist the facts to represent their chosen candidate as the Ripper.

Mr Patterson’s book takes a different approach, which I welcome. He certainly writes about the East End and the victims of this maniac but he wisely assumes that the Ripper reader is already familiar with much of the background. He then spends much of the book looking at the biography of Francis Thompson himself and explaining just why he thinks Thompson could be the Ripper.

At first glance the fragile Thompson, plagued by ill-health, seems an unlikely candidate. But Thompson was a medical student who enjoyed dissecting cadavers, wrote poetry about prostitutes, indulged in a spot of arson when he was young and was an opium addict. He was haunted by the hell-fire of an over-religious upbringing,  lived on the streets of London during the relevant period and fell in with a prostitute who at first looked after him and then betrayed him, sending him – Mr Patterson suggests – into a murderous rage.

However, even such a promising background doesn’t necessarily create a serial killer.  There are a great many sad individuals who do much of the above but don’t take it to the final extreme of murder. Though, Mr Patterson doesn’t try to force his candidate down the reader’s throat (unlike one or two Ripper authors I could mention).  The author wisely invites readers to make up their own minds.

The evidence is, as it has to be, circumstantial. There is no killer blow (no pun intended) which definitively puts Francis Thompson in the frame for the Whitechapel murders.

One problem I have with all Ripper candidate books is that we always get the case for the prosecution, but hardly much of the defence brief. And I cling to the principle that anyone accused of murder should get a fair trial. Sadly, there is no modern biographer of Francis Thompson who could look at this evidence and give an opinion.

That being said, Mr Patterson is fairer than most Ripper authors to his subject, and at the end of the day every reader and Ripperologist must make up his or her own mind.

This is a very enjoyable, well-written book and a  fascinating contribution to the age-old debate. Recommended reading for anyone interested in late Victorian crime and society.

 

 

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‘The Power-House by John Buchan

First serialised in 1913 in Blackwood’s Magazine, The Power-House was published as a book in 1916. At a slim 110 pages, we’d call this a novella if newly published today but at the time of writing, it would have been considered a short novel. The Polygon edition has a very good introduction by Stella Rimington, thriller novelist and a previous Director-General of MI5.  Power House

There’s an interesting dedication to Major-General Sir Francis Lloyd, K.G.B. Buchan ends this by saying: among the many tastes which we share, one is a liking for precipitous yarns. What a lovely description of the kind of thriller Buchan often referred to as his shockers.

The Power-House is the first full-length adventure of Sir Edward Leithen, one of Buchan’s semi-regular series’ characters. (He first appeared in Space, a short story published a year earlier). Ned Leithen is a prosperous Scottish barrister and M.P, living in London, hard-working and unashamedly unadventurous. His daily life is a round of chambers, House, club and flat.

I was a peaceful sedentary man, a lover of a quiet life, with no appetite for perils and commotions.

In many ways he’s a forerunner of Hitchcock’s ordinary chap who gets mixed up in dangerous conspiracies – although Leithen is a gentleman, a pillar of the establishment who mixes in the best circles in London clubland and country estates.

The novel opens with a preface from an editor, a device Buchan sometimes used, presumably to distance author from narrator. The preface states that Leithen recounted the following events during a sporting trip to Scotland. When six male guests settled themselves in the smoking-room for a sleepy evening of talk and tobacco.

The tale is narrated in the first person. As Leithen leaves the House of Commons, Tommy Deloraine, a fellow M.P and old pal, tells him he’s setting off abroad. He’s hot on the trail of a friend who has disappeared after getting mixed up with strange company.

Leithen has a presentiment that trouble’s brewing at home in London and decides to be watchful. Shortly afterwards, he gets his first intimation of what’s going on and the game’s afoot.

Despite being concise in length, I’ve always regarded The Power-House as one of the great London novels. Buchan was the most wonderful writer of landscape, renowned for his lyrical description of wild Scotland but equally skilled at depicting pastoral England or the crowded capital in May.

Out of doors it was jolly spring weather; there was greenery in Parliament Square and bits of gay colour, and a light wind was blowing up from the river.

In thriller-writing it’s customary for atmosphere to be sacrificed to exciting pace. With Buchan, you always get both. He was superb at evoking the dull, secretive grey streets north of Oxford Street in London’s West End. In The Power-House, you can see the seeds of several ideas later used in the Richard Hannay shockers. He returned to this part of London with great effect in The Three Hostages, published in 1924.

One of the greatest scenes in The Power-House features an early example of Buchan’s exciting set-piece chases. A stunning piece of writing, for Buchan understood that peaceful streets and indifferent passers-by can be made far more menacing than the clichéd sinister settings of lesser fiction. I can’t think of a thriller writer better at screwing up tension by juxtaposing ordinary, cheerful detail.

This is also the first time one of Buchan’s lasting themes was introduced – the fragility of civilisation, its thin veneer separating us from world upheaval. We meet the prototype of Buchan’s memorable villains. Always a compelling adversary with a double identity, cultured and welcomed among the highest in society.

It’s worth remembering that the novel would have been thought out against a background of growing unease in Buchan’s political and diplomatic circles. The rise of Kaiser Wilhelm’s sea-power had inspired another great spy novel, Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of The Sands back in 1903. The Power-House is a snapshot of London just as the long Edwardian summer is disappearing. The lights are about to go out.

If Buchan has any flaw, it’s his over-reliance on coincidence but that’s something I’m more than happy to overlook – and all writers need it somewhere. We’re lifelong fans and think him one of Scotland’s finest ever writers. Buchan’s work was strongly influenced by Robert Louis Stevenson which is recommendation enough.

Sir Edward Leithen is perhaps not as famed as Richard Hannay though he features in several more novels and short stories, all of them wonderful. The Power-House is an unmissable first adventure.

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An Interview With Crime Author Jan Edwards

We’re delighted to bring you an interview with writer Jan Edwards, author of the newly published historical crime novel Winter Downs.

I absolutely loved Winter Downs, which takes place in a fascinating time in a lovely part of Sussex that Kipling called our blunt, blow-headed, whale-backed Downs. The perfect setting for the first novel in an atmospheric new crime series. If you enjoy classic, Golden Age style whodunits with engaging sleuths, a twisting plot and a wonderful sense of place – you’re in for a great treat.

Here’s Jan to tell us about Winter Downs and her writing process…

Tell us a little about yourself and your writing.

Spike Milligan had the right answer for this one, “I was born at a very young age…” Not much to be said about me as such; usual number head and hands. And the old adage that most people do not move more than 20 miles from their place of birth has never applied to any of my tribe. I am a Sussex girl by birth, though Mother was Welsh/West Country mix and Father a Geordie/Oxfordshire lad. I currently reside in North Staffordshire with my husband Peter Coleborn and the obligatory authors’ clowder of cats. But Sussex remains my spiritual home.

On the fiction front much of my short fiction has concerned folklore because that is a passion of mine. This often reads as horror/fantasy, and I am a past chairperson of the British Fantasy Society. I have two collections of short fiction available, Leinster Gardens and Other Subtleties and Fables and Fabrications. My contemporary novel, Sussex Tales, won a Winchester Slim Volume award, and is a nostalgia piece about rural communities in the early 1960s.

Tell us about your new book.

My new crime novel, Winter Downs, is also set in Sussex (a recurring theme in my fiction).

How did I jump from all of the horror to crime? I have always read crime in large quantities, especially those Golden Age volumes set between 1920s and 1950s. The period detail is fascinating and perhaps once again it is my love of folklore that has me seeking fiction that is not set in the now. I was lured into writing Sherlock Holmes fiction for several projects and adding the sum of those factors into a recent-history crime novel was a natural progression in my mind.

The crime and horror genres frequently leach across each other as both deal with the seamier side of existence. Though Winter Downs is not a horror story in the slightest. Yes it has a body count but its a pretty straight whodunnit .

Winter Downs in brief: “In January of 1940 a small rural community on the Sussex Downs, already preparing for invasion from across the Channel, finds itself deep in the grip of a snowy landscape, with an ice-cold killer on the loose. Bunch Courtney stumbles upon the body of Jonathan Frampton in a woodland clearing. Is this a case of suicide, or is it murder? Bunch is determined to discover the truth but can she persuade the dour Chief Inspector Wright to take her seriously?”

How did you decide on the setting of Winter Downs?

Sussex is never far from my heart. It is a truly magical place so if I am honest I don’t think I ever considered setting it anywhere else. Why WW2? Growing up in rural Sussex of the 50s and 60s, amongst the pill boxes and air strips left over from that time, made an impact, though I didn’t realise it at the time. The setting for my story just evolved as these things do. Probably, as I said before, because I prefer my own reading to be somewhere and some time other than the here and now, which I don’t need to read about because I’m already here… if that makes sense.

Do you have a typical writing day?

I am far too disorganised to have a routine, so answer to that question is a resounding no. I am a bit of a night owl and write most of my fiction in the wee small hours, so perhaps I have what could be seen as a writing night?

As you’ve written a period crime novel – do you enjoy research?

I absolutely adore research. I can get lost for hours reading reams and reams of notes to find one tiny fact that may appear on the page as three words. Just recently I spent two days finding out what the applicator pads in a 1930s handbag sized powder compact would be made of, (silk/velvet appeared to be the general consensus) and that snippet took up half a sentence in the final cut.

I may appear to be totally abstract in my writing processes but fact checking is the one area that I am really strict about. I may not always get it right but it will never be for want of trying. In Winter Downs there was so much to look into. For example: despite what we are led to believe from this time and distance, by Christmas 1939 almost nobody bothered to carry their gas mask with them. Then there is the gradual introduction of rationing. Knowing the month and year in which certain items went on ration, or the fact that alcohol was never rationed at all (though spirits did get scarce), are essential detail that I hope add some authenticity to the narrative.

What first inspires you when writing fiction – a setting, plot idea or character?

Each frequently feeds off of the other. It might be a news headline or an interesting fact in a book, or someone I met on a train, but in most cases I could never identify the point of sources

Full synopsis before you start – or seat of the pants?

Generally seat of the pants. Crime does need plotting, especially with a whodunnit where the author needs to sew the breadcrumb clue trail for the reader to follow. I tend to write the story first and make sure that trail makes sense in the rewrites. I suspect that is the long winded way to go about it but Gran always told me laziest people work the hardest.

What aspects of writing do you find the most tricky?

Words? Not as silly as it sounds. I am dyslexic so using the wrong word that is almost the correct one is a very real issue. ‘To and too’ or ‘of and off’ are particular issues. Recently it was draw when it should have been drawer. Fortunately I have beta readers and a top hole editor to point those out to me!

What advice would you give to new writers?

I go to a writing group and am amazed by the number of people who cheerfully admit that they seldom read books – and when they read their work out for critique by the group that lack of reading experience always shows. So my one big piece of advice is: Read! Often and widely!

Winter Downs
Jan Edwards

3rd June 2017 | Penkhull Press
ISBN 978-0-9930008-6-7
Paperback £7.99 tbc | ebook £2.99 tbc

In January of 1940 a small rural community on the Sussex Downs, already preparing for invasion from across the Channel, finds itself deep in the grip of a snowy landscape, with an ice-cold killer on the loose.

Bunch Courtney stumbles upon the body of Jonathan Frampton in a woodland clearing. Is this a case of suicide, or is it murder? Bunch is determined to discover the truth but can she persuade the dour Chief Inspector Wright to take her seriously?

Winter Downs is first in the Bunch Courtney Investigates series. Published in paper and e formats.

Jan Edwards is a Sussex-born writer now living in the West Midlands with her husband and obligatory cats. She was a Master Locksmith for 20 years but also tried her hand at bookselling, microfiche photography, livery stable work, motorcycle sales and market gardening. She is a practising Reiki Master. She won a Winchester Slim Volume prize and her short fiction can be found in crime, horror and fantasy anthologies in UK, US and Europe; including The Mammoth Book of Dracula and The Mammoth Book of Moriarty. Jan edits anthologies for The Alchemy Press and Fox Spirit Press, and has written for Dr Who spinoffs with Reel Time Pictures.

For further information please contact Penkhull Press at: https://thepenkhullpress.wordpress.com/

 

 

 

 

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