Getting Away with Murder

Due South


I have had a long and rather strange relationship with Antarctica via crime fiction, though in latitude, I have never been nearer to that continent than New Orleans, where the adjective ‘frozen’ tended to refer only to strawberry daiquiris.


On the publication of my mini-history of British thrillerdom, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I was asked in an interview what was the first proper thriller I had read and after some deep memory diving, I felt it must have been Hammond Innes’ The White South which was the first book I took out of the Adult Section (and, no, it doesn’t mean that) of the local library, at the age of nine. It was an adventure thriller of good men (and a woman) struggling against bad men and the ferocious elements of Antarctica which I thought jolly exciting and once I began to collect paperbacks at the age of 13, it was one of the first I bought even though it was about commercial whaling, which I found distasteful then, as now.


In the 1970s I discovered, as a reader, that multi-talented Australian novelist Thomas Keneally and raved about his Antarctica-set (in 1911) detective novel A Victim of the Aurora long before Schindler’s Ark (or Schindler’s List if you’re American and don’t know what an ark is) made him internationally famous.

In 2002, I discovered that one of my favourite writers of spy fiction, Brian Freemantle, had turned his hand to a global eco-thriller, where, thanks to global warming, a deadly virus has been released in, you’ve guessed it, Antarctic.


And then, in 2007, I found myself presenting ‘An Evening With Morse and Lewis’ in a sell-out Chelmsford Civic Theatre, alongside author Colin Dexter and my old chum Ted Childs, the producer of the television series. At the pre-event dinner, Ted Childs arrived late, missing the first course, his excuse being that he had only just returned from holiday that morning. ‘Go anywhere nice?’ I asked politely. ‘Antarctica,’ he replied casually without word of a lie.


Two years later, I was sent this photograph taken (honestly) on Danger Island in Antarctica by a tourist on a cruise ship. It is not known whether the penguins enjoyed the book as much as the photographer said she did.


And now comes The Dark by Emma Haughton [Hodder] which features a young, female doctor parachuted (not literally) into a United Nations research station at the start of the Antarctic winter, after the station’s doctor has died out on (or in) the ice.


It is the classic locked-room scenario: a suspicious death, twelve suspects, nowhere for them to go and twenty-four hour darkness surrounding them. Our doctor heroine is perhaps not best suited to the task as, apart from fleeing from her own personal tragedy, she is addicted to pill-popping tranquilisers and is morbidly afraid of the dark. She does, however, retain all her feminine instincts and on arrival at the ice station, in the middle of a fierce snow storm, she is helped from the plane by a figure covered head to foot in cold weather gear, huge reflective goggled obscuring his eyes, but nevertheless thinks Even so, I can tell he’s good-looking...


Poisoned Pen Praise


Last month I received a report from one of my many agents running in the field of crime fiction, that I had been praised in a ‘shout out’ (as the young people say) on a podcast from the famous Poisoned Pen Bookstore of Scottsdale, Arizona in those United States.


Now I have never been to Arizona nor, to the best of my knowledge, have I ever bought anything from Poisoned Pen, and so was surprised and delighted to discover that owner Barbara Peters was one of my readers and was publicly prepared to describe Mr Campion’s Coven [Seven House] as absolutely brilliant, strongly recommending it to her official podcast guest, author Elly Griffiths.


Whilst luxuriating in praise from one so knowledgeable as Barbara Peters, I could not but feel pang of sympathy for Elly Griffiths who was supposedly there to talk about her book The Night Hawks only to have another author’s ‘wonderful new book’ (‘absolutely brilliant’ - did I mention that?) so highly praised. It could not have been pleasant - I know the feeling as it’s always happening to me - but Elly, of course, took it with good English grace and kept a stiff upper lip on her smile throughout. I’m not sure I would have.


Two True


For fans of ‘true crime’, though I am not counted among them, lockdown ends with two paperbacks perfect for holiday reading, both delving into the darkest recesses of the murderous mind (it says here).

The Dennis Nilsen Tapes by Michael Morley [Hodder] is sub-titled ‘In jail with Britain’s most infamous serial killer’ which just about sums it all up. Television executive and documentary film maker Morley spent two days interviewing Nilsen in Albany Prison and incurred the wrath of the legal establishment when he tried to broadcast the results, but Morley could handle the tension as an experienced author of crime fiction under his own name and those of Sam Christer and Jon Trace.


Dr Richard Taylor, an experienced forensic psychiatrist, has already received rave reviews (from Jake Kerridge, of the Telegraph, among others) for his The Mind of A Murderer [Wildfire]. From his experience of working on more than a hundred murder cases, Dr Taylor’s memoir makes for fascinating, if unsettling, reading.


See Naples and...


Some years ago, having just checked in to a hotel in Florence, I asked the receptionist (in my best rudimentary Italian) where can I get a good pizza? Without looking up from his computer screen or batting an eyelid, the receptionist replied simply: Napoli.


I cannot help but think of that incident whenever I read a new novel by Maurizio De Giovanni, a proud native of Naples - and fanatical supporter of Napoli football club - a place which he describes as a ‘churning, dangerous lava flow of a city’ in the latest of his police procedurals to be published in English.


Bread, or to give it its full title, Bread for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone, was first published in Italy in 2016 but now appears here in translation from Europa Editions. The ‘Pizzofalcone’ series has been adapted for television in Italy, but I am not aware that it has been shown elsewhere, which is a pity as it could only boost awareness of this most excellent set of contemporary crime novels.


When I met Maurizio de Giovanni some years ago, at the Italian Institute in London, it was to talk mainly about his earlier Commissario Ricciardi books - atmospheric, slightly spooky, historical thrillers set in Fascist Italy (in Naples, of course), but he was keen to explain his then new fictional venture based around the neglected police precinct of Pizzofalcone. Geographically surrounded by distinctly different districts of Naples (rich and smug, poor and deprived, downright criminal) the precinct was found to be ninety percent corrupt and, after internal cleansing, now only attracts the police who are either oddball loners or simply don’t fit into other departments. Surprisingly, this bunch of misfits get along and turn out to be rather good at their jobs.


Bread revolves around the murder of an artisanal baker which looks, far too conveniently, to be a local Mafia hit, but the ‘bastards of Pizzofalcone’ are not convinced. Anything which interferes with giving a Neapolitan his daily bread has got to be taken seriously.

One other thing I learned from meeting Maurizio was his admiration for the 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain, which has clearly influenced his Pizzofalcone series. Indeed, Bread is dedicated to Ed McBain -‘the greatest of them all’- and probably has nothing at all to do with the fact that McBain’s real name (before he changed it to Evan Hunter) was Salvatore Alberto Lombino, though whether his ancestors came from Naples I do not know. I’d like to think so and I’m sure Maurizio would.




Only last month I thought I had found my ideal female Indian police detective in the character Persis Wadia as created by Vaseem Khan (most recently in The Dying Day), but already Persis has competition for my admiration.


In Anita Sivakumaran’s lively debut thriller Cold Sun [Dialogue Books], the main detective hero is actually DI Vijay Patel ‘of Scotland Yard’, whose grandparents might have come from Gujarat and his parents Uganda, but he was born and raised in Leicester, which makes him a fish-out-of-water when he is seconded to Bengalura (Bangalore to old fogeys like me) in southern India to ‘consult’ on a series of baffling murders. Patel has been to India before, but only briefly during a cricketing career cut short by injury, and is not looking forward to the experience.


For a start, he has trouble obtaining a vital supply of Eno’s before embarking [for younger readers, Eno Fruit Salts were a proprietary antacid medicine invented in the 19th century, the main market for which is now India] because he is unsure of the food he might have to sample, and once there is totally disorientated by the fact that although everyone is speaking English, the locals cannot understand his Leicester accent. In addition he has to acclimatise himself to the terror of local traffic and cavalier driving styles and familiarise himself with local crimes such as ‘cow vigilantism’, all of which is fascinating, often irreverently funny, stuff and Patel is a worthy enough hero.


But the stand out character for me is Assistant Commissioner Chandra Subramanium, the straight-talking and occasionally foul-mouthed, Indian detective he is ‘advising’ and I was terribly worried that something nasty was going to happen to her. It did, but in the end she and Patel come through, not least because of Patel’s cricketing skills.


The Scandi Variant


In those far-off days before face-masks, social distancing and lockdowns, I was invited to private luncheon with the crime fiction editor of a major publishing house and asked if I thought the enthusiasm for Scandinavian crime fiction was on the wane, for surely it had run its course. My advice at the time was that by all logic the market for gloomy ‘Nordic noir’ was on its way to being swamped by gloomy ‘domestic noir’ - but what did I know? By my crude calculation, Scandinavian (including Iceland) imports now account for around 4% of the crime fiction in the UK, despite Covid and Brexit, to blame but two things at random and surely that percentage was much higher five years ago, wasn’t it? It certainly felt like it, but I cautioned against writing off the sub-genre too soon as there was plenty of life in those frozen corpses still.


At least in that I have been proved right, with two titles this month which both herald forthcoming series.


In Hell and High Water [MacLehose Press] Christian Unge’s protagonist is hospital doctor Tekla Berg, who has a photographic memory and an unfortunate predilection for amphetamines. (The second fictional doctor this month to have a pill-popping habit.) Mind you, given the manic workload of the emergency unit in which she works, you can hardly blame her. With added pressure from biker gangs, corrupt cops and Uzbek mafiosi, it makes 24 Hours in A&E look really quite restful.


There have been numerous crime novels set on the Swedish islands of Öland and I remember one from decade ago where the translation was clearly slapdash even to a non-Swedish speaker as the islanders alternated between using metric and imperial measures with gay abandon and several characters eventually turned out to be ghosts. Nevertheless, Öland is clearly a wild and lonely place and just the sort of setting where crimes can be hidden, if not forgotten. In The Night Singer by Johanna Mo [Headline] has her police detective Hanna Dunker posted from Stockholm to the island where she was brought up, the only snag being that her dead father had been convicted of murder and the islanders have long memories.


Goshawk at 50


I am delighted to see that MacLehose Press have produced a 50th anniversary edition of Goshawk Squadron, the famous WWI Royal Flying Corps novel by veteran thriller writer Derek Robinson.


Once described as an ‘anti-Biggles’ war story, Goshawk Squadron was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971. In an afterword to the MacLehose edition, Robinson reveals that John Fowles, one of the judges, had described the book as ‘execrable’ and used his veto against it. Robinson may not have one the big prize, but he got a boost to his paperback sales, sold the film rights to Hollywood (though the film was never made) and acquired a host of loyal readers who went on to devour his war stories, spy thrillers and non-fiction over the next fifty years.








Books of the Month

Twenty-five years ago, a lone gunman goes on the rampage in a small English town with an ‘automatic rifle’ and plenty of ammunition (though nobody seems to ask where he got them) and shoots eleven people dead before killing himself. As the anniversary of the event approaches, a female journalist and single mother, whilst researching the story, befriends a child survivor of the massacre, herself now a single mum with a very fractious baby in tow. (Literally, the baby goes everywhere with her.)

Key witnesses to the killings are either missing or suffering from dementia, most male characters are either unsavoury or violent control-freaks and most females are constrained, one way or another, by their children. Were the killings all that random and why is someone trying to frighten the survivor away from the truth?

At one point Laura Marshall’s The Anniversary [Sphere] looks like a homage to Agatha Christie’s plotting at its most convoluted, at another it is reminiscent (for those of a certain age) of Philip MacDonald’s The List of Adrian Messenger, but it remains true to itself and delivers suspense and tension at great pace. And even if the climax of the action is a little over-staged and not all that credible, there is a deliciously shocking final twist. This is superior ‘domestic noir’ which deals with single motherhood, early-onset dementia, battered wives and coercive control, as well as the aftermath of an appalling crime which we would like to think couldn’t possibly happen here but we know it has.

Early-onset dementia in a mother also plays a key role in Sisterhood by V.B. Grey, otherwise known as Isabelle Grey [Quercus]. This is not a conventional thriller, despite having the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as its starting point and much of the story emerging in flashbacks to World War II and a mercy mission by the Special Operations Executive to the Warsaw uprising of 1944.

Sisterhood is a perceptive, engaging novel - despite having that anathema of Gold Age afficionados: identical twins - which is all about secrets and the danger of keeping them for too long, with the scenes in wartime London and Warsaw being especially memorable, where real people are called upon to be unrealistically brave. The plot is a finely carved jigsaw, the pieces fitting together seamlessly. If you’re after blood and thunder (or serial killers), look elsewhere but for clever story-telling, give this a try.

The writer of a long-running series featuring popular recurring characters always has a problem (tell me about it) when starting a new book to balance the expectations of regular readers with the need to bring new ones up to speed. It is not surprising then that Louise Penny, with her seventeenth rural Canadian mystery The Madness of Crowds [Hodder], introduces her detective hero, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and sixteen other regular characters in the first two chapters, plus a dog called Henri, a duck called Rosa and a ‘ratmunk’ (no, me neither) called Gracie.

All this is necessary because in the village of Three Pines, Louise Penny has successfully created an award-winning (yet another Agatha Award this year) universe in microcosm where, this time, the rural idyll is shattered by a controversial lecture at the nearby university by a female statistician who has turned the recent pandemic’s death toll into a case for euthanasia, making it hardly a surprise when someone takes shot at her. Gamache has a duty to defend the right to free speech as well as maintain public order, though his extended family gives him very good grounds for loathing the visiting lecturer’s message.

As we are in Quebec, we get a few native words, such as tuque (a woollen hat) and a smattering of basic French which will delight regular fans and are common enough not to discourage any nouvelles arrivées to the series. There is also the priceless incident when a character uses a real obscenity in mixed company and has to apologise with: ‘Excuse my English’.

If you fancy a flashback to a (multiple) murder mystery of the 14th century, you are in safe, velvet-gloved hands with S.D. Sykes and her Oswald de Lacy series set on the manorial estate of Somershill. And in The Good Death [Hodder] much of the action is told in flashback, from the years 1370 (when Oswald is lord of the manor) to 1349, when a young Oswald is contemplating taking orders and joining the local Benedictine monastery, just as the Black Death reaches Kent.

His involvement there in the death of a young village girl is set to both threaten and change his life and haunt his conscience as Oswald shows himself yet again to be a gentle, sympathetic hero and a worthy banner-man for the ‘Medieval Mystery’ sub-genre of British crime-writing which Edith Pargeter (as Ellis Peters) launched with her Brother Cadfael stories in 1977. Sarah Sykes and Oswald de Lacy may not yet be as well-known a double-act as Ellis Peters and Cadfael, but they are on their way.

If your taste runs to Victorian melodramas, then I certainly recommend The Mystery of the Sorrowful Maiden [Bloomsbury] written by Kate Saunders clearly with a wry smile on her lips.

This is, I believe, the third case for Laetitia Rodd, the widow of an archdeacon and a private detective of ‘the utmost discretion’ who has, in the London of 1853, to mingle with that most unseemly lot: actors. It is a world where women are treated abominably - if noticed at all - by philandering husbands and the really posh ones can get all charges dropped by letting the Home Secretary win at billiards.

Laetitia Rodd is a joyous creation and the book a positive delight.

My knowledge of Ethiopia beyond the work of Herodotus is pitiful so I was grateful to the thoughtful introduction to Addis Ababa Noir [Cassava Republic Press] by editor Maaza Mengiste and the map showing the various districts of the capital, where the various stories in this collection are set.

Not all the stories involve crime, but the anthology contains many gems and all hold a mirror to life and death in a country riven by civil warfare, notably one by Mengiste herself where experts from Argentina are called in to identify bodies of ‘disappeared’ Ethiopians. On the lighter side there is a wonderful piece of social observation in Bewketu Seyoum’s Under the Minibus Ceiling which follows the random thoughts and conversations of passengers on a bus, which range from the price of berbere (a blend of hot spices integral to Ethiopian cooking), how to confuse the Prophet Isiah with the President of Eritrea and who, exactly, is Angelina Jolie?

Val McDermid goes back to the future in her latest novel 1979 [Little Brown] which launches a new series featuring young, female, Oxbridge-educated journalist Allie Burns, one of the few women working on a Glasgow news desk. Any similarities with Val’s own journalist background are probably coincidental, as are comparisons with her first crime fiction series thirty-odd years ago featuring journalist Lindsey Gordon, my personal favourite of her fictional creations (though Manchester private eye Kate Brannigan comes very close).

Monks and Mayhem

In his latest author newsletter, Paul Doherty, that maestro of medieval murder mysteries, discusses summary execution in the application of medieval justice, notes the publication of his latest novel Mother Midnight [Headline] and the fact

that without pausing for breath, he is busy writing a new ‘Brother Athelston’ novel.

The Gallows Tree revolves around a robbery from a fortified Westminster treasury, a seemingly impossible crime and a brutal one as the five clerks on guard are found garrotted in their chairs. Perhaps it is with tongue slightly in cheek that Paul begins his newsletter: “Dear Gentle Reader”...

Stay safe and keep reading,


The Ripster.






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