Police at the Funeral ~ Margery Allingham

photo of teacup on top of books

When I first set out to reacquaint myself with Marjorie Allingham’s strangely self-effacing private detective, Albert Campion, I knew that some of the books would turn out to be re-reads while others I would be reading for the first time. Police at the Funeral is the fourth book in the sequence and so far I’m running at two and two, with this being one of the novels that I am encountering for the first time. By this point in the series Allingham seems to have formulated a better idea of the type of character that she wants Albert to be. The silly ass of the first novel has pretty much vanished and the rather serious young man who can, annoyingly at times, play his cards very close to his chest, is becoming much more established. This is also true of his working relationship with Inspector Stanislaus Oates, who plays quite a prominent part in this story. Alas, the same cannot be said of Lugg, who makes but fleeting appearances at the beginning and end of the tale.  For me, at least, a Campion novel without Lugg is definitely the poorer.

Although the majority of the action in Police at the Funeral takes place in and around Cambridge, the story begins in London where Oates and Campion find themselves, quite by chance (no, really!), in the same secluded courtyard, the former looking for somewhere to shelter from the rain and escape someone who is clearly dogging his heels, the latter apparently anticipating an assignation with a young lady with a family problem. Have you noticed, that there is always a young lady who needs rescuing from some sort of family problem? She will be well bred, striking in appearance and much more intelligent, brave and stalwart than most people have given her credit for. At least, that has been my experience so far. In this instance the lady in question is the fiance of an old university friend of Campion. Marcus Featherstone, now a solicitor in his father’s practice, has sought Albert’s help because Joyce, whom he describes as a species of professional daughter-cum-companion in the house of her great-aunt, a prodigious old Hecuba, is concerned about her uncle, Andrew Seeley, who has been missing for about a week. When Joyce and Oates’ stalker turn up at the same time it is very clear that they know each other but when challenged about this Joyce denies all knowledge of the individual, who has himself now vanished.

Of course, Campion agrees to go down to Cambridge, to Socrates Close, the house where Joyce lives with her Great Aunt, Caroline Faraday who rules the establishment with a rod of iron. Prodigious old Hecuba Caroline Faraday might be, but at least she appears to have her wits about her, which is more than can be said for anyone else in the household, which is made up of her son, William and her daughters, Julia and Kitty, each of whom appears to be more eccentric than the last, while the missing Andrew, Caroline‘s nephew, reportedly was the worst of the lot. Immediately recognising Albert for who he actually is, indeed, calling him by his given name, Caroline agrees to have him stay and his assistance becomes the more imperative when not only is Andrew’s body found, submerged, shot and bound in the River Granta, but that discovery is almost immediately followed by a further death in the family.

While the police are completely baffled by the case, it has to be said that so too, initially, is Campion (I knew he should have brought Lugg along) and his task is made none the easier by the eccentric behaviour of the remaining siblings and the family’s flat refusal to reveal the nature of the antagonism between them and the mystery man from London, who turns out to be Cousin George, a ne’er-do-well who turns up occasionally to blackmail a few pounds out of Caroline Faraday by threatening to reveal some deadly and dastardly family secret. It would help Campion no end if he knew what that secret was but Great Aunt Caroline flatly refuses to let the family skeleton see the light of day and so the only clue that he and we, the readers, have is Featherstone Senior’s macabre intoning of the words, I wondered when the bad blood in that family was going to tell. Well, what with the eccentric fantasies of the alcoholic Uncle William and the hypochondria of Aunt Julia and the fits of the vapours to which Aunt Kitty is disposed, there is plenty in the family that might conceivably be referred to as bad blood, however, be warned, when the mystery is finally solved and the secret that Caroline has sought so assiduously to defend is revealed, a modern audience is going to find her reticence, indeed her disgust, less than palatable. This is one Campion story which has not aged well and while Allingham’s original audience may well have had more sympathy for the Faraday position, I for one found it distasteful.

So, for me not the best of the bunch by any means. However, that won’t stop me picking up the next one, although I might leave it a month or two until the rather nasty taste has left my mouth.

These Lost & Broken Things ~ Helen Fields

IMG_0093It is September 1905 and Sofia Logan’s husband Tom is dying. Desperate, she applies to his employer, Emmett Vinsant for money to pay for a doctor. Tom dies but Vinsant does not forget the debt; Sofia owes him and in payment he wants such a little thing, simply for her to kill a man. It shouldn’t be too difficult, after all, she’s done it before.

I have really enjoyed all Helen Fields detective fiction set in modern day Edinburgh and featuring DCI Ava Turner and DI Luc Callanach, so even though historical fiction is not really my thing, when I discovered that she was publishing a thriller set in the early 20th century I decided to step out of my comfort zone and read it. And I’m glad that I did. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the Edinburgh books, and I don’t think it is quite as well plotted, but nevertheless it’s a very good read.

Sofia is by heritage a Romani, but following an incident that is horrifically spelt out in the early chapters, she leaves her family and eventually ends up in London married to Tom and with two small children, Isaac and Sadie. When Tom dies, desperate for employment to enable such basics as paying her rent and feeding her children, Sofia finds herself working for Emmett Vinsant in his gaming houses, exploiting her talent for counting cards in order to identify those who set out to cheat her employer. Counting cards is a skill that Sofia has perfected as a small child, but with that talent comes what can often be a fatal addiction: an addiction to gambling itself. With Tom bringing in good money there has been no temptation for Sofia to give way to her desire for the thrill of the game, but once she finds herself back in a gambling environment she is very soon caught up in that fatal longing for just one more win. Staking her wages, current and forthcoming, she sets out to put her talents to use on her own behalf but, like almost every other compulsive gambler, she soon discovers that ultimately the odds are always against her. Further in debt, and with the threat of her children being taken from her, she has little choice but to put that other skill learnt as a child, her ability to kill with no remorse, to her employer’s use.

Emmett Vinsant is a man with no conscience and no patience for failure. His wealth is invested in several other enterprises as well as his gaming houses, including a number of factories making materials for the ever expanding railways. He is, however, a man of little social standing, something he has done his best to rectify through his loveless marriage to Beatrice. Now, he and his wife go their separate ways. There are no children to bind the marriage and Beatrice has become involved with the Women’s Social and Political Union, the more militant branch of the growing suffrage movement. Vinsant’s business practices and his desire for both power and wealth have made him many enemies and when such enemies become too troublesome he turns to Sofia to rid him of their pestilence.

I have a great deal of sympathy for Sofia, gambling addiction runs in my family and, while some have been able to keep it under control, others have ruined not only their own lives but also the lives of their spouses, their children and their children’s children. I never gamble under any circumstances, because I know that if I once started I wouldn’t be able to stop. However, I am not in a financial situation where I need to gamble; the same is not true of Sofia. One of the themes that Fields is exploring in this book is the telling difference between those women who are in a comfortable enough situation to be able to protest their circumstances under the banner of the suffrage movement and those who must fight for every penny simply to stay alive.

How [could they] be obsessed with the right to vote when most women were struggling to put bread on the table and keep their children safe from illness and exploitation.

It is not, however, simply gambling to which Sofia finds herself addicted. We hear talk of the addictive personality and that describes Sofia precisely. Having killed on a number of occasions, she finds herself longing for the adrenaline rush that such action brings.

Reliving the killings in her imagination became habitual and dispelled the domestic monotony. In the beginning that was enough. The memories did not remain faithful to her though, and day by day they weakened, leaving herself less fulfilled, craving a greater sense of self-worth, a more vital experience.

It is almost as if Fields has set out to explore the mind of a serial killer and invite her readers to understand how such a psyche can come about; something that would perhaps be difficult to do in her more usual modern day setting.  Eventually, Sofia is asked to commit a murder at which she finds herself wanting to draw the line, but how does she square her conscience if she is to preserve her own life and those of her children?

If the book has a weakness, it is the outcome of this last murder and the way in which the story ends. Having created, as Sofia herself recognises, a monster, it is difficult for Fields to then ask readers to accept quite such a neat redemption as comes about.  Other than that, however, this was an interesting and satisfying read.

With thanks to Wailing Banshee Ltd and NetGalley for a review copy. 

Graves End ~ William Shaw

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3Not quite four years ago I was struck down by the E. coli bug.  Fortunately, I’m not yet in a position to tell you whether or not that was a better or worse experience than having the current virus, but I can tell you that you really don’t want to contract E. coli.  The first day that I felt like getting out of bed and managing some concentrated reading I picked up William Shaw’s The Birdwatcher. I’d very much enjoyed his series set in the 1960s and featuring DS Breen and WPC Tozer, three of which were available at the time. His new novel, as far as I could see, was a standalone set in present day Kent and built around Police Sergeant William South, a community police officer situated on the coast near Dungeness. South was joined in that particular investigation by DS Alexandra Cupidi, newly arrived on the Kent force from London with her teenage daughter, Zoë. I don’t usually get on very well with standalone crime novels and I wasn’t exactly up to spec on that particular day, but I was so gripped by the story I read without stopping and finished the book in one sitting. The very fact that I can remember exactly where I was and why when I read the novel speaks volumes for its worth.

Well, it turned out that it wasn’t a standalone novel and Graves End is now the fourth in a series in which each one has continued to be as well written and well told as that first episode. Cupidi has, perhaps, moved more centre stage and in this book she finds herself called to investigate the circumstances behind the discovery of a body in a freezer located in the garage of a house that is up for sale. When the body is identified it turns out to be that of a local activist well known among the wildlife enthusiast circle to which both William South and Zoë, Cupidi’s daughter, belong.  Vinnie Gibbons has been one of a number of people concerned about a new housing development, Whitelands Fields, which will destroy a landscape in which badgers have lived for many centuries. There is much local opposition to the project but the company behind it, September Homes, are confident that they are going to get both planning permission and the necessary financial backing.

The author intercuts his narrative with commentary from the viewpoint of one of the old male badgers living beneath the disputed land site and if that sounds as though it might be a bit on the twee side, believe me it isn’t. Shaw uses it to make a very serious point about the way in which all of us, humankind and badger alike, will fight to defend our territory, our families and the way of life to which we are used.  Gibbons has previously been a key witness in a trial against a group of men accused of badger baiting, something which they see as part of the tradition of the land, and initially, Cupidi and her DC, Jill Ferriter, suspect the remaining members of the group every bit as much as they question the involvement of the developers. However, the discovery of human remains, helpfully excavated by the badger, forces them to look in yet another direction.

Like most of the best in crime fiction, Shaw uses his novels to explore issues of current interest and concern. Here, as well as focusing on the grievances felt by those who consider that their long-standing traditions and way of life are being threatened by political correctness, he is also putting the debate about the need for more housing versus the destruction of the environment under the spotlight.

The bloody housebuilding lobby. They have the government wrapped around their finger. So in this region we’re expected to identify locations in which to build three hundred and fifty new homes a year. And when the housing developers get planning permission on those bits of land almost on the nod, half the time they don’t even build. They just bank the land because it’s now worth many times more because it has planning permission on it, which forces the District Council to allocate even more land for housebuilding in order to comply with government targets, which frees up more land for the money-men to buy…It’s a giant scam. It’s about ruining the English countryside for profit. It makes me furious.

But the housing developers aren’t about to get it all their own way as Cupidi discovers when she finds herself involved with one of the politicians concerned, Howard Roteman. Roteman is clearly doing all he can, without being too obvious, to make sure that the proposed development doesn’t receive the backing that September Homes are so desperately seeking and when it becomes apparent that he appears to have what might be considered suspicious connections to both the potential building site and the human remains that have been discovered there yet a third possible motive for murder raises its head.

To my mind, Shaw is one of the very best current crime writers. He plots well, he draws fine characters and he is particularly good at invoking the setting in which his stories take place. I think this is probably the best of the four Cupidi novels and if you haven’t already discovered this author’s work then I recommend him to you most strongly.

With thanks to Quercus Books and NetGalley for a review copy.

The Split ~ Sharon Bolton

IMG_0093Sharon Bolton began her career as a novelist writing one-off thrillers before moving onto an excellent series featuring DC Lacey Flint. More recently, however, she has returned to the thriller format, with, I would say, rather mixed success. The latest of these, The Split, begins deep in the southern oceans on the British Protectorate  island of South Georgia. This is not the first time that Bolton has set a novel in these distant regions, Little Black Lies, for me her most successful thriller to date, takes place on the Falkland Islands. I have no idea what draws her to such icy climes, but it seems to inspire her writing, as this new novel is, for me, one of her very best.

Felicity Lloyd is a glaciologist working for the British Antarctic Survey and based at King Edward Point.  Out on the Konig Glacier she and her co-worker, Jack, dive down into what is known as a blue lake.

The blue lake, which forms every spring from meltwater, has been steadily accumulating for five months now. Sometime in the next few weeks, possibly even today, the ice of the lake’s bed will fracture. The lake will drain sending a hundred thousand cubic metres of meltwater through an intricate, hidden drainage system until it reaches bedrock. From there, it will flow out into the southern Atlantic Ocean. The release of so much water might be the trigger that forces the ice to break apart, to send another massive iceberg tumbling into the sea. Blue lakes, it is believed, play a crucial part in the movement of glaciers and the creation of bergs … The plughole is a theory, completely unproven, that, at the deepest part of the lake’s bed, a weak spot of ice lies directly above a central drain.

As will become apparent, the lake, its bed’s fracture and the proposed plughole will become a metaphor for the action described in the novel.

For Felicity, getting away to the blue lake with Jack is a diversion from something that is clearly terrifying her. The last tourist boat of the season is due and Felicity is more than scared of the possibility that one of the people arriving on that boat is coming after her. The nebulous Freddie haunts both her and the novel. He has written to her telling her that he knows where she is and that nothing will stop him from coming to see her. Who Freddie is and what his relationship to Felicity may or may not be is something Bolton does not, at this stage, reveal, but the very threat of his presence is enough to send her out into the wilder reaches of the island, to an abandoned survey station haunted by the mysterious Bamber. When the boat docks, Freddie is indeed on board along with three other passengers who are clearly not there as part of the tourist trade, Joe, Delilah and Skye. Who they are and what their purpose on South Georgia might be is something we don’t find out immediately because the novel then switches trajectory and we return to England, to Cambridge, nine months earlier.

The central and largest section of the book is concerned with the run-up to Felicity leaving for Antarctica and her time spent in some form of psychiatric counselling with Joe. Following an incident which has left her quite badly injured, but of which she claims to have no memory, Felicity has been referred to him by her GP who isn’t happy to certify her fit to return to work until she has had some sort of psychiatric assessment. Gradually, over a series of meetings, it becomes apparent that she is suffering from a series of fugue episodes where several hours can pass without her being aware of what is happening and of which she has no recall thereafter.  However, what might be acting as a trigger to these incidents is not easy to assess. Joe himself is not in a much better state, this being his first day back at work after being attacked by one of the homeless people he has been trying to help. His mother, DI Delilah Jones is seriously overprotective, but she has good cause as the young woman concerned, although presumed dead, has never been found. Neither Joe nor Felicity is in a particularly healthy place and the death of another homeless woman and the disappearance of a third do nothing to help the situation.

As becomes increasingly apparent, the novel is tightly structured, both in form and layout, in a manner that reflects the developing storyline and themes and, as I have already indicated, the use of imagery supports this too, especially during the climax and dénouement, for which Bolton returns to South Georgia. I very much appreciated the tightness of this book as a whole. Initially, I was slightly apprehensive because I thought it might be going to turn into a cat and mouse story with Felicity fleeing across the island pursued by the mysterious Freddie. However, the shift back in time to Cambridge provided the, for me, necessary contrast and from that point on I was completely gripped. I have been rather disappointed by Bolton’s last two books, but this is undoubtedly a return to her very best form and I recommend it strongly.

With thanks to the Orion Publishing Group and NetGalley for the review copy. 

What You Pay For ~ Claire Askew

white ceramic teacup with saucer near two books above gray floral textileThere is, apparently, an old Russian saying: May you get what you pay for. It can be seen as either a blessing or a curse, depending on the type of life that you have lived and what, consequently, you are paying for. For most of the people in this, Claire Askew’s second novel set in Edinburgh and featuring DI Helen Birch, getting what they have paid for would undoubtedly turn out to be a curse. However, before some of them can be held to account and asked to pay, they have first to be caught and charged and, where longtime criminal mastermind, Solomon Carradice, is concerned, chance would be a fine thing. It isn’t just that he is too clever to put himself in a position where he might be apprehended, but also that he is so feared by those who work for him there appears to be no chance whatsoever of the police making any charge they might try to bring stick. Thus, when one of his employees turns informer and provides the details necessary for DCI McLeod, Helen’s immediate boss, to stage a raid on an incoming shipment of drugs masterminded by Solomon, there is much rejoicing at the thought that finally the combined strengths of Edinburgh and Glasgow may have enough evidence to bring him down. They are foiled, however, by the fact that, following their arrest, every one of Solomon’s underlings goes ‘no comment’ and the man himself claims that he was just out for an early morning stroll. Furthermore, the police’s position is weakened by two additional factors: somehow, they have managed to ‘lose’ the informer and Solomon has employed leading defence counsel, Anjan Chaudhry, to represent him.

For Helen, only recently back at work after a disciplinary investigation sparked by the incidents related in All the Hidden Truths, this latter is a serious complication.  She and Anjan are just setting out on what promises to be a fulfilling relationship and not only does his involvement set them at odds because of the inevitable professional conflict, but also Helen finds it difficult to understand how he can fight for the release of somebody he knows to be guilty not just of this offence but of many others and of many far worse. It is Anjan’s job to see that Solomon does not pay.

English law says that you are innocent until proven guilty and while this is clearly better than a system that operates the other way round, it does also mean that defence lawyers have the opportunity to exploit any and every loophole that may exist, especially if their clients are capable of paying large sums of money to grease the wheels. Challenged by Helen to justify his role, Anjan excuses himself saying that

‘it was the firm’s decision. I was under some considerable pressure. We’re growing our profile, and that means we get requests from defendants who are… well, let’s just say they are particularly keen to be found innocent.‘

Birch tried not to roll her eyes. ‘Particularly keen,’ she echoed, ‘in the sense that they make it worth your while.’

Anjan nodded. ’Exactly,’ he said. ‘Though again, I stress, this isn’t me. It is the firm. If we are willing to defend the guilty, and if we do it well, we can command a higher fee, and thus… Well, the gyre spins wider.’

All well and good, but how do you live with yourself if, as a result of your actions, the guilty then go free? This is the question that Helen finds herself having to answer when the missing informant turns up at her door and asks for a deal. Throughout the novel Askew moves between two distinct narratives, that which follows the initial raid and subsequent arrests, and a first person account of how one young man finds himself being drawn ever deeper into a world of criminality in which he had no intention of ever becoming involved. In this second account we watch as the unnamed narrator takes a series of decisions to continue his involvement precisely because to do anything else would be to face having to pay for what has gone before, and each successive payment would be more substantial and have greater consequences than the previous one. What does Helen do then when someone she cares for asks for an absolution that she, as a serving police officer, cannot possibly give him? Does she, like Anjan, knowingly do everything she can to help someone that she knows to be guilty of serious crimes go free?

When I reviewed Askew’s previous novel, All the Hidden Truths, I commented on the quality of her writing.  In that respect this second book is every bit as good as the first and, in terms of character development, I think it’s considerably better. Solomon Carradice is certainly a nasty piece of work, but he is a believable nasty piece of work, whereas I felt with the earlier book that the villain of the piece was little more than a caricature. I also felt that she paced this book very well and the split narrative structure works to keep the reader involved and guessing right to the end. The third book, Cover Your Tracks, is due out in August and it is one to which I am very much looking forward.

Dead Land ~ Sara Paretsky

82B816CA-FC2F-457F-A24D-6F339FA3B0F3There were times when I was in the middle of this book that I found myself thinking about Sara Paretsky’s excellent collection of essays Writing in an Age of Silence. If you don’t know the collection, then I strongly advise getting hold of a copy. In these essays Paretsky speaks about her own childhood and teenage years growing up in Kansas, the repression that both her family and community subjected her to and the political upheaval at the end of the 1960s which enabled her to break free from the restrictions that had bound her. As part of her current investigation, Paretsky’s character, Private Investigator VI Warshawski, spends several days in the state and many of the attitudes that she encounters there seem to me to be very reminiscent of the society in which she grew up. VI is in Kansas trying to locate Lydia Zamir, survivor of a mass shooting in which her boyfriend, Hector Parludo, was killed. Lydia herself is still affected by the killing both physically and mentally and at the start of the novel is living the life of a homeless person in a patch of ground on Chicago’s South Side, that is, so it seems to many, ripe for development. Well known before the massacre for her protest songs, Lydia attracts the attention of too many people for the liking of those in power, who clearly want to push their plans for the area through with as little public scrutiny as possible.  However, in order to get to Lydia they have to get past her staunch defender, Coop, not to mention his dog Bear. When two people who appear to know too much about the intentions of the developers are found dead and when one of them is the boyfriend of VI’s goddaughter, Bernie, Warshawski inevitably finds herself involved, while Coop is set up as a convenient suspect.

As is so frequently the case in Paretsky‘s novels, the author is primarily concerned with civic corruption and the lengths to which both politicians, lawyers and those with significant wealth are prepared to go to feather their own nests. This theme has been central to many of her more recent books and while each one stands on its own as a well written and well researched piece of writing, I have to say I’m beginning to wish she would ring the changes. Dead Land takes us further afield than some of her other novels have done, inasmuch as we find ourselves exploring not only the wide open farm lands of Kansas but also the aftermath of the corruption in Pinochet’s Chile, but because it follows the same pattern as so many of her more recent books I’m afraid I found it rather predictable. It’s unusual for me not to be more enthusiastic about one of Paretsky’s books, but I’m afraid that after some of the first class crime fiction I’ve read recently, this one didn’t come up to the mark. Read the essays instead.

With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and NetGalley for a review copy. 

Look to the Lady ~ Margery Allingham

IMG_0245Some considerable time ago, I set out to read all of the Marjorie Allingham Albert Campion books in the order in which they were written. I first came across Allingham’s work about forty years ago now and at that point just picked up whatever happened to be in the library at the time. Consequently, when I embarked on my self-imposed task, I was conscious that I had several gaps in my reading and equally, that in not having read the novels in order, I’d missed something of the development in Albert’s character about which more informed readers spoke.  Well, for various reasons, I didn’t get very far in my endeavour, in fact I didn’t get past book two.  Given that there are nineteen novels and several short story collections, getting as far as book two is not exactly an achievement. However, having time on my hands now and not really wanting to read anything very taxing, it seems like the ideal opportunity to take my earlier challenge up again.

Look to the Lady, the third novel in the sequence, opens with homeless and destitute Val Gyrth wandering the streets of London wondering where his next meal is going to come from and where he is going to lay his head. What appear to be a series of coincidences, but which those who know Albert Campion‘s way of working will soon realise are nothing of the sort, bring the two young men together and it quickly becomes apparent that Val is going to need to mend fences with his estranged father in order to ensure that the family treasure, the Gyrth Chalice, is saved from the clutches of an evil organisation known as the Société Anonyme.  The sole purpose of this group of immensely wealthy individuals is to acquire articles of such uniqueness that once stolen they could never be shown in public.  Their satisfaction comes simply from the knowledge that they possess them and to this end they employ the services of some of the world’s leading criminals. Next on their list of acquisitions is the chalice.

The chalice has been in the possession of the Gyrth family for centuries and it is the duty of the eldest male member of the family to protect it for King and country. This is a burden they have to bear alone until the eldest son reaches the age of twenty-five, at which point he is initiated into the secrets of the chalice and of the means by which it is guarded.  Legend reports that the guardianship is undertaken by something so terrible that anybody who encounters it is never the same again.  When the story begins, Val‘s twenty-fifth birthday is only days away and it seems likely to Albert that the moment of ceremony is the most opportune time for an attempt to be made to steal the treasure. The rules of the Société Anonyme are such that once an item has been identified attempts will go on to steal it until such time as the item is acquired or the person nominated to carry out the theft is killed. If the latter happens then said item ceases to be a target. First, however, you have to ascertain the identity of the thief and, although Albert is fairly certain he can finger some of the lesser criminals involved, the central perpetrator remains a mystery.

The two young men take themselves off to Suffolk and peace is made between father and son. As is so often the case in these novels, there are fetching young ladies in the offing, here in the person of Penny, Val‘s younger sister and Beth Cairey, the daughter of an American professor who has a long-standing interest in the legends surrounding such objects as the chalice. Should he be seen as a suspect? And what about the rather unsavoury characters that have been encouraged by Sir Perceval’s batty sister, Aunt Diana?  Then there is the seriously obnoxious Mrs Dick Shannon, whose life is apparently driven only by her love of horses and who wouldn’t know a good manner if it got up and bit her.  What are her intentions? What is it that appears to haunt the local woods? And why are there gypsies camping in Fox Hollow?

Aided and abetted as always by the less than subservient Lugg and with Inspector Stanislaus Oates on the case as well, you can be sure that eventually Albert will triumph, but not before some seriously nasty consequences for both him and Val. There are times when it’s very comforting to know that there are still at least sixteen more books in the series because it means that our hero will win through despite the pretty terrible situations in which he finds himself.

In these early novels Allingham appears to be still in the process of deciding the true nature of Campion’s character.  Although not as prevalent as it was in the first in the sequence, The Crime at Black Dudley, there is still a lot of the silly oaf about him as he goes about saving both the chalice and the Gyrth family honour. If memory serves me correctly, then this aspect of his behaviour is played down somewhat in the later books. What did surprise me here was the emphasis placed on Albert’s antecedents and the very strong hints that he is a younger scion of some important European royal family. There is usually a nod towards this, but in this instance it plays quite an important role in the Gyrth family’s decision to trust him.

Allingham is always good when you want an undemanding but satisfying read and I thoroughly enjoyed Look to the Lady.  I don’t think I will go immediately onto the next book in the series, but I certainly won’t be leaving a gap of another two years.

 

 

All The Hidden Truths ~ Claire Askew

IMG_0245All the Hidden Truths is the first novel in a series about Edinburgh-based DI Helen Birch, a serving officer with Police Scotland. I picked it up just after I had abandoned another crime novel that was so badly written I found it hard to understand why it ever got published. Perhaps the first thing I ought to say about this book then, is that the writing is exceptionally good and consequently the novel a pleasure to read from that point of view. What is more, its characters are, for the most part, believable and well drawn and the plot grips and keeps you involved right to the end.

Helen Birch is on her first day in a new post and in a new rank. Travelling into headquarters at Fettes (and regular readers of crime fiction set in Scotland must feel they know that building as well as anybody who works there) she hears about a young man who has had a dreadful accident on a building site and prays that the case will not come over her desk on that very first morning. It doesn’t, but only because it and all other cases are superseded by a mass shooting at a local college and over the days and weeks during which we follow the incident and its aftermath everything else pales into insignificance.

On the morning of the 14th of May Ryan Summers walks into The Tweed Campus of Three Rivers College and shoots thirteen girls and one young man before killing himself. Of his victims, only the young man, Jack Ryan, survives. His first victim, Abigail Hodgekiss, has the previous night had a blazing row with her mother, Ishbel, who is, of course, haunted by the fact that she and her daughter parted on such bad terms. However, her anguish is made much worse by the actions of a reporter, one Grant Lockley (the real villain of the piece if ever there was one) who, happy to do anything for a good story and miffed because the Hidgekisses refuse to speak to him, writes not only about the fact that Abigail, along with Jack Ryan, was dealing drugs, but also reveals that Isobel‘s husband, Adrian, is having an affair.

Helen is nominally placed in charge of the investigation, although in fact her overbearing boss, DCI McLeod, is happy to undermine her whenever he feels his reputation might be going to be called into question. He isn’t quite as obnoxious as Grant Lockley, but he runs him a close second.  Aware that no real justice can ever be brought to bear for the deaths of these young women, given that the perpetrator is dead himself, Helen turns her mind towards trying to discover just what motivated Ryan in his actions and whether or not anyone else was involved. In particular, she focuses her attention upon Ryan’s mother, Moira.

Moira Summers is still grieving for the death of her husband, Jackie, almost two years previously, but gradually becoming aware of the fact that wrapped up in her own grief she has lost touch with her son and failed to appreciate the extent to which he too is struggling with his feelings. Brought into the station to be questioned as to whether or not she had any foreknowledge of the attack it appears to Helen that there is something Moira is keeping back, either deliberately or because she doesn’t realise the import of what she knows. Has there been some link between Ryan and his first victim, Abigail?

Meanwhile, however, Lockley is running a campaign of hatred against Moira, demanding that the punishment that cannot be meted out to the gunman himself be brought to bear upon her. His rabble-rousering finds support among a small number of like-minded individuals and while the IT support teams working with Helen are fairly certain that most of them are simply sounding off, there is one whom they feel may well turn out to be a credible threat. Keeping on top of all the different threads involved in the investigation as well as trying to handle the resentment she feels personally against Lockley for his part in the vilifying of her missing brother, Charlie, leaves Helen reeling and vulnerable to attack from her unsupportive superior.

For a first novel this shows a great deal of promise. The writing is excellent and the plot well thought through. My only caveat is in terms of the way in which Grant Lockley and DCI McLeod are drawn. McLeod is one of a series of senior officers in fictional police forces who have no right to be in the position they hold. Justice is not a word that has any real meaning for him; his only concern is saving his own skin. I’m sure there are a few like him in UK police forces, but I can’t think that they would survive for very long. Lockley, on the other hand, is pushed so far is to be almost a pantomime villain. Again, I’m sure there are reporters who will do anything for a story, but would they be quite so blatant about it? I found myself skipping over some of the passages to do with him because they were spoiling my enjoyment of the book as a whole.  Nevertheless, by the end of the book his sting is drawn, and so I will go on and read What You Pay For, the  second volume in the series, and hope that there is no like for like replacement.

 

 

Redhead By The Side Of The Road ~ Anne Tyler

IMG_0093Maybe as much as twenty years ago I remember a librarian colleague at the University where I was then working saying to me, “Read Anne Tyler”. Most of my time then was given over to reading children’s literature to support one of the courses that I was teaching, but since my retirement I have started to catch up with Tyler’s work and, while I still have some of her back catalogue to read, I have made a point of getting hold of a copy of each new publication as it appeared. Inevitably, some have been better than others, but none have truly disappointed me and her latest, Redhead By The Side Of The Road, to my mind at least, is one of her very best.

In a recent interview, Tyler commented that she wasn’t very interested in plot, that it got in the way of her real concern which is the development of character, and it is definitely true that Redhead By The Side Of The Road is far more character driven than it is in any way led by its storyline. Central to the narrative is Micah Mortimer, in his forties and living in the basement of an apartment block where he acts as super in between running a small scale business solving other people’s computer problems.  At no point does Tyler mention the fact that Micah has Aspergers.  Well, maybe it takes one to know one, but I can’t imagine that anybody would have any difficulty in recognising his personality type. He had a system she comments.  I’ll say he has a system – for everything, from how he organises his drawers to the days of the week when he mops the floor or cleans the kitchen. And, his system comes first because his system is predictable, it doesn’t ask him to take account of how other people might be feeling, to accept the fact that they may behave in ways that can’t be predicted, perhaps most tellingly to understand that what somebody says and does on the surface may not be a true reflection of what they are actually feeling or expecting from him.

Perhaps Micah’s obsessive tidiness and organisation is a reaction to the family in which he grew up. The youngest child and, as far as I can gather, the only boy, his sisters, their husbands and the ever-growing brood of children and grandchildren live in a type of chaos that I have to say fills me, personally, with horror. Attending an engagement party for one of his nephews, Micah sits down at a table which

itself was bare, except for a portable Ping-Pong net that had been stretched across the centre for the past couple of years or so – long enough, at any rate, so that everyone had stopped seeing it.

I am still shuddering!

But, Micah’s sisters clearly love him and would dearly like to see him married with a family of his own, however, his personality proves to be most obstructive when it comes to forming friendships with women. When we first meet him he’s in a relationship with Grade 4 teacher, Cassia Slade, but we watch as his inability to read the subtext in what she is telling him about her altercation with her landlady leads to the breakdown of the friendship.  (I was going to put “romance” but it really isn’t a word I can use in respect of Micah; it’s so totally foreign to his nature.)  The break-up with Cassie is accelerated by the arrival in his life of Brink, the freshman son of his one-time college girlfriend, Laura. Brink, born out of wedlock and with no knowledge of who is father is, has elected Micah to the position. Simply by virtue of being a teenager, Brink brings chaos to Micah’s life and home, not least because he is hotly pursued both by his mother, his stepfather, Roger and the welter of emotions generated by his departure.  But, it is Roger who suddenly paints Micah’s existence in a completely different light. When Brink admits that he thought Micah might be his father because they appear to have some traits in common, Roger responds:

with a man who earns his own living…Who appears to be self-sufficient. Who works very hard, I assume, and expect no handouts…Sorry, son…but I fail to see the resemblance.

Everything that Roger says about Micah is true, but it is also true that he has allowed his obsession with order and with systems to stand in the way of developing relationships with those outside his own family. It is not that he doesn’t care about other people. His concern for those who live in the apartment block is very apparent, but then they don’t impinge upon his personal life.  Recognising that the life he has is not the life he wants, in a final act of true courage, he sets out to try and mend some broken bridges. Whether or not he succeeds you will have to find out for yourself, and please do, because this is truly an excellent piece of writing that should be enjoyed by as many as possible.

With thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Chatto & Windus and NetGalley for the review copy  

 

The Cutting Place ~ Jane Casey

Coffee-and-BooksThe arrival of a new Maeve Kerrigan novel is always something to be celebrated. This latest in the series, The Cutting Place, is all the more welcome because it is definitely one of the strongest in the sequence. Maeve is called out by the Marine Police unit to a partial body dump in the Thames. A licensed mudlarker has discovered a hand while on her early morning walk.  The body part is eventually traced back to a missing freelance journalist, Paige Hargreaves.  Subsequent investigation indicates that Paige believed that she had discovered a serious scandal inside an exclusive male only establishment, The Chiron Club. When Maeve tries to breach the hallowed halls, she is treated to a “butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth“ interview with one Sir Marcus Gley. Asking for further information about the nature of the club, having found it difficult to get any details about the way it works or what it does she is told:

that’s quite deliberate, but not for any sinister reason. The details are only of interest to members, and one cannot apply for membership. Prospective members are selected with great care. They are approached and offered the opportunity to be part of this organisation. We don’t want to attract attention from those who would be… let’s say unsuitable.

Sir Marcus might protest that there is nothing sinister about the activities of the Chiron Club but a parallel narrative, which reports events from two years previously, suggests strongly that this is not the case. In this second strand to the story a nameless young man wakens from what is clearly at least a drunken if not also a drugged stupor to find himself in a remote country house with a dead body and very little memory of what happened the night before. At various intervals the main narrative is punctuated by his attempts to escape from his situation and the consequences which then unfold over the intervening period. Blackmail is the least of it.

Maeve’s investigation brings to her attention a young man by the name of Roderick Asquith and his housemates, Orlando Hawks and Luke Gibson. Roderick and Orlando are both members of the Chiron Club. Luke, from a more humble background, watches on but is seemingly not involved. At least, Maeve desperately hopes he’s not involved, because it very quickly becomes apparent that Luke, unbeknown to both of them, is related to one of the investigating officers. What will be the fallout if she is eventually forced to arrest him?

Although it is never mentioned, the events that form the main part of this book are surely influenced by the reports in late 2018 of the sexual assaults perpetrated on young  female waitresses at a men’s only charity event held in London. They, like the events eventually revealed in The Cutting Place, were the result of the assumption of entitlement felt by a certain section of rich male society and it is the concept of entitlement that is one of the main themes of the novel. In a parallel strand, we watch the development of Maeve’s relationship with the lawyer, Seth Taylor, and it surely isn’t only her partner, DI Joss Derwent, who is concerned about the control that Taylor appears to wield over Maeve’s life. Seth is another example of someone who believes that he has the right to manipulate others for his own ends and who, when it becomes apparent that he may not be able to get his own way, resorts to violence, confident that his position in life will enable him to get away with whatever he likes. It shouldn’t be thought, however, that Casey is only exploring this theme in relation to the male of the species, and the rich and powerful.  There is also an example of a young woman who bends the law in an attempt to further her own career, firmly convinced that she has the right to do so. When Maeve and Derwent catch up with her, she complains this is so unfair. Only to be told:

No. It’s the law. And, although you might not want to believe me, it applies to everyone.

A feeling of entitlement, as we have seen in our parks and playgrounds over the past couple of weekends, is not a prerogative simply of the rich and famous.

A secondary theme in the book concerns the relationship between fathers and sons. When Luke, brought up by Claire, his single parent mother, finds out the identity of his father, there are inevitably fireworks. However, he also discovers that his father will move heaven and earth to help him. Likewise, it is the tightness of the father/son bond that the Chiron Club has exploited in the case of one of the young men involved in the central crime, placing him in a situation where he can be blackmailed so that his father will hand out any amount of money in order to prevent that from happening. There were times when what was happening in this novel made me so angry I wanted to spit!

As I said at the beginning of this review, I think this is one of the strongest books in the sequence. Casey is an excellent writer anyway, but in this novel I think she has really pulled out all the stops.  It was one of my most satisfying crime reads for some time.

With thanks to HarperCollins and NetGalley for a review copy.