Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane – Jane Housham

Non-Fiction Crime 5*s
Non-Fiction Crime

When I saw that this book was going to be published on 3 November 2016 way back in August my interest was piqued and I took the bold step of telling the publishers riverrun so, they in turn kindly supplied me with copy.

On 13 April 1866 on Carr’s Hill, Gateshead five year old Sarah Melvin disappeared, only for her body to be discovered later by a couple going to the local public house. The crime was a brutal one, the facts horrifying, even at a distance of 150 years but Jane Housham, having come across the case in the course of tracing her family history decided to use it as a springboard to examine not only the crime itself, but the psyche of the accused, the justice system and how the insane were treated in the mid-Victorian age.

The book opens with the background to the case, the journey that young Sarah Melvin is known to have taken on the day of her murder travelling to visit her father who was out seeking work. We are treated to the work of the police following the discovery of the body, its removal to the local inn, as was the custom in those days, and later to her mother’s house where an autopsy was held on the table. The rudiments of forensics were just being employed but this was as far removed from the strict chain of evidence used these days as you can get.

Unlike some historical true crime books, Jane Housham doesn’t re-examine the evidence to put forward a theory of another killer than that tried for the crime, instead she has carried out extensive research into what the make-up of the killer was. Why did he commit such a terrible crime? Was he insane? What she finds isn’t necessarily what we would expect from Victorian justice, a revelation indeed.

Jane Housham uses the contemporary media from that time, she looks at other crimes that were committed on and around Carr’s Hill within a similar time period. She also gives us a flavour of the population of the time, of the haves and the have-nots and really conjures up details of the place where the crime was committed in astonishing detail especially as the area has changed beyond recognition in the intervening years. The log books detailing the prisoner’s incarceration are also provided as well as the few remaining letters surviving from that time which indicate the level of his education as well as the workings of his mind.

Books of this nature which have to be so rigorously researched can often be quite dry as the author seeks to educate the reader, not this one, the prose is lively the tone even without a hint of condescension, the facts are displayed, the author unafraid to pose an opinion and when she is unsure of a statement she’s made, says so. Why the doubts? Because she accepts that at such a distance in time, it is impossible to really know what happened. She has a number of documents, a huge amount of knowledge, but of course there are gaps, the author wasn’t stood in the courtroom listening to the evidence although she has done a good job of spotting the discrepancies in the newspaper reporting, and rectifying some of the minor confusion caused all these years later.

This was a fascinating read, particularly for those readers who like me, are interested in Victorian provision of the criminally insane. To have the words written by those doctors who had not quite relinquished the hold of phrenology but are doing their best to embrace the new liberal ideas surrounding psychiatry at this time, and then in turn reading this  in relation to a real case, shows the practical application of thinking in a way the theory espoused at the time never can.

I am truly grateful for the opportunity to read this book, it was enlightening and despite the inevitable feeling of voyeurism in revisiting such a crime, no matter how long ago it occurred. The sheer amount of information to be gleaned from this book on a number of different related subjects was enormous but done in such a clear-sighted manner that made these facts easy to absorb and build upon. I definitely think the author hit her brief of examining the shift in ideas about insanity at this time, illustrating justice in action and sadly the life of a killer, his family and of course poor little Sarah Melvin whose life was cut short.

First Published UK: 3 November 2016
Publisher: Riverrun
No of Pages: 368
Genre: Historical True Crime
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Author Interview

Q & A with James Henry Author of Blackwater

Blackwater book jacket

Back in March I received a copy of this book from the author and simply couldn’t wait until closer to publication date to read it – yes my strict scheduling was broken for this author who also wrote the prequels to the Inspector Frost series, which he executed with the spirit of R D Wingfield.

You can read my review to Blackwater here and even better it’s published today!

I’ll start with the obvious question:

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Did you write stories as a child?  

I never thought about writing until the opportunity presented itself (with First Frost), and then it was more to see if I could, rather any burning passion to do so.

What were your five favourite childhood books?

Richard Scarry’s The Great Pie Robbery, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Fantastic Mr Fox, Comet in Moominland, Moominland Midwinter.

Oh yes! All of those were in our house too!

You wrote the three excellent prequels for R D Wingfield’s Inspector Frost series: Were you asked to or did you volunteer?

Thanks. I volunteered. I am a fan, the TV had drawn to a close and the author had sadly passed away. It is a rare privilege to be associated with the great R D Wingfield and his fantastic creation, Jack Frost.

Blackwater is set on the Essex shoreline particularly around Mersea Flats and your writing really evokes the sense of place. Is it somewhere that you have spent a lot of time?

Yes, I love it there. I have been windsurfing off West Mersea for over twenty-five years, but also visit on still days to walk on the sea wall at Cudmore Grove.

Where did the inspiration for DI Nick Lowry come from? Is he based on someone you know?

He’s not based on anyone I know (though like Lowry I keep my sherry in the fridge, but that’s where the similarity ends). His name is borrowed from the writer Malcom Lowry, a favourite of mine.

How would you introduce Nick Lowry at a party?

He’s not the party type!

Being a teenager in the 1980s I particularly enjoy stories set at this time so what one thing best evokes the 80s to you?

The music. A lot of it was truly dreadful, but on the other hand it was undeniably a varied decade, if you think about it.

It was indeed and there are some bars of music (good and bad) that instantly conjure up that time for me.

I felt quite sorry for WPC Jane Gabriel at the beginning of the book since she really is subject to the male whims of her colleagues who either dismiss her or see her as a sex object? This aspect of the book really did hammer home quite how far attitudes have changed. Was it a deliberate choice to make her quite so attractive to highlight this?

Yes – that and I wanted a new recruit from another industry/environment. Gabriel was a model and so was familiar with the drawing stares – the fact that she cannot escape this even behind a uniform made it an appealing attribute to her character.

Which book set in the 80s would you recommend to me?

It would have to be A Touch of Frost.

The pace of this thriller is far faster than Frost’s more meandering way at solving a case; which is easier to write?

Frost was easier to write, as there are (very good) precedents. Although the prequels aren’t by any means the same, the originals provide a guide to follow, with regard to structure.

Do you have a writing schedule? Perhaps you have a target of a set number of words per day?

In a way – I know how much I need to do in a month…and have deadlines (which I consistently miss).

With Colchester being a garrison town some of the members of the armed forces are under observation in relation to suspected drugs smuggling. How much research did you have to do to get the scenes where the Police force and the armed forces have different priorities right?

I didn’t research too deep, as that would have affected how I drew the characters and how they might interpret situations. That said I did get a general overview from people who were there at the time, and the whole book is influenced by stories I picked up on by dint of living in the area. For example in the 1930s Colchester Police had a boxing team that won the European Championship. The team was run by a Chief Constable who was keen to recruit sportsmen like Sparks in Blackwater. Whether they actually sparred with the army, I have no idea, but it seems feasible from a fictional point of view.

Where do you write?

On the train when I commute into London, and in very untidy room in Essex.

Are there any more books in the pipeline and do they feature DI Lowry?

There are. I’m just about to start…

The information I received with Blackwater says you work in publishing and enjoy long lunches? What do you do? Are there any openings as I like long lunches too!

Ha, yes I do work in publishing as an editor. The long lunches are infrequent now, but enjoyable when they occur… shout when you’re in town and we’ll what we can do!

James Henry_MG_5361

Thank you James for answering my questions with such good humour, I wish you every success with Nick Lowry and look forward to that book you are about to start…

Publication Date UK: 14 July 2016
Publisher: riverrun
No of Pages 496
Genre: Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

The Frost Prequels
First Frost
Fatal Frost
Morning Frost

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Blackwater – James Henry

Crime Fiction 4*s
Crime Fiction

Well James Henry has worked hard to shake off the shadow of Inspector Jack Frost who he brilliantly recreated in the three prequels he wrote following the demise of their creator R.D. Wingfield. In Blackwater there isn’t a whiff of Jack, although as these books are set in the 80s, the policing isn’t quite what we expect in these more enlightened times. This has the added advantage that the police are far more interested in actual action than meeting targets and getting overly involved in the politics of policing, although the whiff of them is just blowing faintly on the breeze!

Our chief protagonist in the force in Blackwater is Detective Inspector Nicholas Lowry, a sympathetic character who is struggling with his approaching fortieth birthday albeit with fortitude. His decision to stop smoking whilst those around him continue with abandon and to give up his position on the Boxing team is giving his boss serious cause for concern. Nick Lowry is married to a nurse, Jacqui, and although he may not fully understand why, his marriage isn’t as healthy as his New Year’s resolution. Conveniently our book covers the time the clock strikes midnight on 31 December 1982 and before too long a headless corpse is discovered on the salt marshes of Blackwater.

Meanwhile we get to hear from some smugglers with a shipment who have lost their way but are determined to start 1983 with the money they were promised but luck isn’t on their side. The discovery of the corpse has delayed them further and without the name of the buyer, it looks like they may have a long wait. Without mobile phones to handily use to pass on messages through the food-chain to explain themselves, life quickly becomes very complicated.

James Henry brilliantly gives us a sense of time period and place. The complexities of Colchester’s CID co-operation with the smaller, and often cut-off West Mersea police force are engagingly recreated for our pleasure. With the larger force at least making a nod towards more progressive policing, West Mersea are very much stuck in another time, where knowing someone is a ne’er-do-well, is reason enough to arrest and charge them for the next available crime. The author gives us some of the much loved products and historical facts to reinforce the time, without going over the top and trading on reader’s nostalgia. The setting helps here too, Colchester is a garrison town and the army features strongly as tensions rise between them and the locals, any patriotic goodwill from winning the Falklands War certainly doesn’t trump the soldiers spending their Christmas leave on using their wages to woo the local ladies.

The plot is complicated and with quite a few characters, including a very promising young female officer, to keep track of this isn’t a book to read if you don’t have plenty of concentration. Fortunately each change of view or place is helpfully signposted by giving the date, time and place, take note dear reader, especially at the beginning or I fear you may get in a terrible muddle! The switches frequent the viewpoint ever changing and with both actual and moral crimes being committed you do want to know what is what. With a steadier hand than our original two smugglers though, James Henry brings this to a fitting conclusion in the very model of a proper police procedural, with the loose ends tied up but leaving one thread to enable him to give us another episode, hopefully in the not too distant future.

I was given a proof copy by the author well ahead of the publication date of 14 July 2016 and I’m afraid I couldn’t wait until nearer this date to sample the goods!!

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Dark Winter – David Mark

Crime Fiction 3*s
Crime Fiction

Just for a change I started this series in totally the wrong place with the third book Sorrow Bound. I was impressed with Aector McEvoy, his innate goodness despite, you guessed it shadows in his past. Aector McEvoy had been instrumental in flushing out a corrupt boss, and his hangers-on which has made him feel like something of an outsider in his new role in the serious crime squad. Fortunately he doesn’t have a drink problem just a complete and absolute belief in justice.

When the sole survivor of a trawler tragedy thirty years before is wooed by the money promised by a TV show to mark the anniversary goes missing in the middle of the ocean only to be found later dead in a lifeboat floating of the coast of Finland, cause apparent suicide, no-one pays an awful lot of attention.

Aector McEvoy’s story opens in the run up to Christmas when Aector is waiting to meet his pregnant wife Roison, minding Fin, their young son in a café when he hears screaming. In a nearby church a young Somalian girl is found slashed. The crime should be easy to solve after all Aector saw him on the way out, before he got hit, but no the bodies in Hull’s morgue keep mounting up, all the victims died in different ways but Aector is determined to find the link.

This is a swiftly paced book with plenty of action. It is also a book that is very much setting the scene for a series, there are links here to the ongoing story arc that would have enhanced my understanding of the relationship between Aector and his boss Trish Pharaoh. Trish Pharaoh is a great character, tough and yet with an understanding of Aector, willing to forgive his somewhat maverick tendencies when he feels necessary. Having said that, it is a fairly standard police procedural albeit with a superb plot-line.  If you prefer your crime to come without too much violence, this probably isn’t one for you. The scenes while not gratuitous, give enough variations on how a man or woman can die to make the sternest of natures feel a little squeamish.

David Mark gives a real sense of place in Hull, this is a town which has lost its way; definitely past its best and with some understated sentences conjures up a picture of what the realities of this are. He doesn’t go down the lazy route though of painting an entirely black picture of the town, this is a realistic portrait where some homeowners are determined not to leave the area where they grew up.

The Dark Winter is an assured debut novel although perhaps if I’d read this first not quite shining enough to make me follow the series but knowing that there is better still to come means that I am now looking forward to Aector’s next outing.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Chessmen (Lewis Trilogy, #3) – Peter May

Crime Novel 5*'s
Crime Novel

The Chessmen, is sadly, the last of the trilogy featuring Fin MacLeod, a former policeman who has returned to the island of his birth.

I can’t praise this series of books enough, the writing is fantastic, the plots surprising and well paced and the characterisation brilliant. In The Chessmen Fin has a problem, he needs his old friend Whistler to stop poaching at part of his new role in security for a wealthy landowner. Together they witness the aftermath of a freak occurence, a loch has drained of water and a light aircraft has been exposed. Again secrets from the past are slowly revealed with devastating consequences.

Although I’m sure you could read this as a stand alone I believe it is the slow layer upon layer of tales told from the past and their effect on the present that makes this a true trilogy rather than a series of books. This one does justice to the previous two; The Blackhouse: Book One of the Lewis Trilogy and The Lewis Man: Book Two of the Lewis Trilogy. There is no crime novel quite like these; a real treat of a book.