Blake and Avery and how their relationship has developed through two books.

I first had the idea for Jeremiah Blake, my inquiry agent (the prototype of the modern private eye) about 14 years ago. I was in the midst of a huge non-fiction tome about World War One, and writing a detective novel with a made-up plot seemed unbelievably alluring. I knew exactly where I wanted to put him: in London in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, when the chaotic, morally easy-going Georgian era gave way to the more uptight, energetic Victorian one, and when London became the biggest and most cosmopolitan city in the world.

The Printer's Coffin by MJ Carter

The Printer’s Coffin by MJ Carter

I knew from the start that my protagonist would be working class, self-educated, and clever, too clever not to see through the injustices and prejudices of his period, yet forced to kowtow to his social superiors in order to make a living.

It was a good nine years until I actually got round to writing my first mystery, The Strangler Vine. By then I’d decided that I wanted to write about the Thugs —the gangs of murderous bandits who haunted the roads of India in the 1820s and 30s, befriending, then strangling, unwary travelers. So the book had to be set in India which I reckoned was a good place for a sort of origins story. At the frontiers of the British Empire people from unconventional and modest backgrounds often found opportunity and reinvented themselves. I decided that Blake (he now had a name) had come from a lowlife criminal background and had been transported to India when very young by the East India Company. There he had been spotted by the Company’s intelligence department and trained up to be a spy.

Then I realised that not knowing anything about India might be a bit of a problem. I couldn’t be an omniscient narrator because I would never know enough. I couldn’t write from Blake’s perspective because I felt he needed to be mysterious and inscrutable. I couldn’t use an Indian character because again they’d know more than I ever could. I needed someone to tell the story who was new to India and a bit clueless: my ignorance could be his ignorance. Problem solved.

That was how Blake’s sidekick William Avery came about. He was a young provincial gentleman-turned-soldier, naïve, conventional and full of the prejudices of his class, but with a hidden, less straightforward side: a secret passion for books, an instinct for taking care of others, an eye for a telling detail.

The strange thing was that Avery’s voice, which started out as a response to a structural need, came to me at once: he seemed easy to write, maybe because he was so fallible and reminded me a bit of me. Blake came slower. Taciturn, cool, revealing very little about himself, but with a big hinterland that could only emerge slowly, I found it much harder to get him right.

The Strangler Vine by MJ Carter

The Strangler Vine by MJ Carter

I’d planned to kill Avery off at the end of The Strangler Vine, but as I wrote the book, I realized that I’d written a real, awkward and—I thought—touching relationship that I wanted to develop. I liked the notion of the older working-class man leading the younger posher subordinate—a relationship unusual and not altogether approved of in Victorian England. At the start Avery feels utterly humiliated by Blake and hates him. But gradually he begins reluctantly to admire him and ends by feeling intense loyalty to him. Blake, meanwhile, has convinced himself he needs no one, especially not a silly, innocent young officer. But his long suppressed humanity is brought out by Avery, whom he comes to recognize maybe ignorant and innocent but is utterly honest and loyal.

In the second book, The Printer’s Coffin, the two meet in London after three years apart. Avery still nurses a powerful admiration for and loyalty to Blake. I think he regards him as the older brother/father mentor he never had, though he disagrees with many of Blake’s views. He hopes they will pick up where they left off, but both have changed. Blake is cool and difficult, and even angrier and at odds with Victorian society. He is determined to keep the world at bay. Avery meanwhile has been traumatized by his experiences in the Afghan war, and his marriage has not been a success. Ironically, it seems to me, each one needs the other more than ever.

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PRIMITIVE FORENSICS

When my fictional 18th century coroner, Titus Cragg of Preston, investigates a suspicious death, he takes into account all the different kinds of evidence available to him, which means establishing the physical facts of a case and making deductions from those facts. When thinking like this, he is in effect practising an early form of what we call “forensic science”, in which he’s much encouraged by his modern young friend and informal assistant Dr Fidelis. But Cragg is a man of his time, in which hundreds of years of pre-scientific lore, of folk traditions and superstitions, also has to be reckoned with.

The Scrivener by Robin Blake

The Scrivener by Robin Blake

Enquiries by coroners in Cragg’s time were still governed to a considerable extent by popular belief in divine intervention. The old adage that “mordre wol out”, chillingly evoked by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, derives from the idea that murder was so abhorrent in the eyes of God that sooner or later he always exposed and punished the murderer. Long ago physical trials by water or fire had been ways of hurrying the process up: if the suspects floated, or were not burned, they were not guilty, and vice versa.  By the 18th century such procedures had long fallen out of use, but popular superstition remained a factor in any body of evidence.

Reports that a ghost had appeared to someone could be taken as proof that the dead person was haunting his murderer, just as Banquo’s ghost returns to accuse Macbeth. As psychological side-effects of guilt, such hallucinations may be plausible evidence, but another technique, the bleeding corpse trial, had rather less basis in reality. Here a suspect would be made to grip the hand of the body under inquest and, if this caused the corpse’s wounds to bleed anew, it was taken as the touch of the murderer.

Careful examination of the body, and the position it was found in, had always been essential to the coroner’s procedure. Sometimes this has a modern ring to it, as in the way wounds were precisely mapped and measured. The famous 1593 inquest into the violent death of the playwright Christopher Marlowe was very specific in finding “a mortal wound over the right eye of the depth of two inches and of the width of one inch”. However the coroner’s examination also took note of less tangible things, such as the expression on the victim’s face. Some believed this was a significant pointer towards the manner of death: a placid face would rule out a violent murder whereas a look of stark terror made it an open and shut case for homicide.

One forensic experiment, devised in the late 17th century, had a quasi-scientific basis. This was used to answer a question that had always been of special interest to coroners: whether the death of a new-born baby occurred before or after its birth. A piece of the infant’s lung was dropped into water. If it sank, that was taken as an indication that the lung had never been inflated; if it floated, it was taken that the baby had breathed before it died. This test remained in use for most of the 18th century.

Increasingly ideas in “natural philosophy”, based on observation and experiment of a kind beloved of Dr Fidelis, competed for credibility with a vast core of pre-existing beliefs and superstitions that had accumulated  over thousands of years. Coroners like Cragg were therefore working at the very cusp of change between traditional and scientific forensics. It is what makes them such interesting figures.

(Robin Blake’s The Scrivener, the third Cragg and Fidelis mystery, is published by Constable in the UK. In the United States it appears under the imprint of Minotaur Books with the variant title The Hidden Man.) Follow Robin Blake on Twitter and for more information on his books visit  robinblake.co.uk

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‘I have heard, but not believed, the spirits of the dead may walk again.’

A hidden room

When architect Johnny Carter is asked to redesign a long-abandoned Victorian shoe factory, he discovers a hidden room deep in the basement. A dark, sinister room, which contains a sixteenth-century Venetian mirror.

A love in danger

The Medici Mirror by Melissa Bailey

The Medici Mirror by Melissa Bailey

Johnny has a new love, Ophelia, in his life. But as the pair’s relationship develops and they begin to explore the mystery surrounding the mirror, its malign influence threatens to envelop and destroy them.

A secret history

The mirror’s heritage dates back to the sixteenth century, and the figure of Catherine de Medici – betrayed wife, practitioner of the occult, and known as the Black Queen.

If you are looking for a dark story, a side helping of jealousy, the obligatory love story that stands the test of time and a good twist then The Medici Mirror is the book for you. As many of you know I’m not one for love stories in literature – give me an old fashioned rom com movie any day – but this story intrigued me and I wanted to give it a go after seeing the book jacket. It kept me interested throughout and when the reveal came at the end I was suitably impressed, I hadn’t seen it coming!

The one thing that stood out for me was the writing. Melissa Bailey is a wonderful talent, the words flow and the story is beautifully crafted, it’s hard to comprehend that this is the work of a debut author. The narrative allowed me to feel part of the story and to lose myself in the sinister and beguiling powers of the mirror and those it ultimately affects.

The author effortlessly takes us back to the reign of Henri II but it’s his wife Catherine de Medici that really stands out, for me she steals the show and is without question the main character in the book – I cared more for her than Johnny or Ophelia who represent the modern era. A woman fighting for her position and her life, her insecurities literally jump off the pages and her desire to bring down her husband’s mistress – one of many – palpable.

Having said that, I would have liked a tighter relationship between Catherine and the mirror. I wanted to know why and how the mirror had developed such a sinister and dangerous aura. We never find out and this was a disappointment for me.

The author cranks up the tension gradually and you never quite know what to expect from one chapter to the next. Johnny Carter’s personality evolves throughout as he succumbs to the hidden and seductive powers of the mirror. This is a dark and atmospheric book, the scenes in the abandoned shoe factory are evocative and completely draw you in to an era gone by. Talking of which, I really enjoyed the time spent trying to discover how the previous owner of the factory had died. Was it natural causes or cold blooded murder?

For a magnificent and atmospheric blend of old and new, past and present along with the odd death thrown in for good measure The Medici Mirror will not disappoint.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Arrow (24 Oct 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099580721
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099580720
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A Treacherous Likeness

A Treacherous Likeness

In the dying days of 1850 the young detective Charles Maddox takes on a new case. His client? The only surviving son of the long-dead poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his wife Mary, author of Frankenstein. Charles soon finds himself being drawn into the bitter battle being waged over the poet’s literary legacy, but then he makes a chance discovery that raises new doubts about the death of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, and he starts to question whether she did indeed kill herself, or whether what really happened was far more sinister than suicide. As he’s drawn deeper into the tangled web of the past, Charles discovers darker and more disturbing secrets, until he comes face to face with the terrible possibility that his own great-uncle is implicated in a conspiracy to conceal the truth that stretches back more than thirty years. The story of the Shelleys is one of love and death, of loss and betrayal.

Based on fact, A Treacherous Likeness is very much a work of fiction and represents the third novel by Lynn Shepherd to feature Charles Maddox Senior and the second to feature his nephew Charles Maddox, both thief-takers – private detectives to you and me. With a narrative that is both compelling and beautifully written the novel affords a great insight into 19th century living and the idiosyncrasies of that period taking in the sights and sounds of inner city living – the aromatic smells of horse dung and human waste – and the preferred Omnibus way of travelling from one address to another.

A Treacherous Likeness is the third book I’ve read from this author and given that this is way out of my comfort zone – as I’ve alluded to in my previous reviews – and the fact that I continue to want to read these books it is testament to one thing – an incredible narrative. There’s something about Lynn’s writing that sucks you in to this alien world, it wraps you in a warm and comforting blanket and never lets you go.

Mark my words this is a complex book and not for the fainthearted. The narrative is full to the brim with intriguing and colourful characters, each with a multitude of layers and history. I did find it hard to keep up at times and even though this is a slow burner of a story that unravels with patience and deliberation the author packs in so much over two time periods – 1850 and 1816 – and you do have to take stock now and then and make sure you know where you and the book are going. That said, I finished the book over one weekend in searing heat and the company of some fine wine! By far the quickest read of all three books.

Maddox is an enigmatic character, he’s intelligent, cantankerous and a little pugnacious at times but overall he is incredibly driven and it’s this drive that makes him tick. Shepherd knows where she is taking her protagonist and it certainly shows in the stories she weaves.

Without question one of the things that stood out for me in A Treacherous Likeness – in fact there were two things – the incredible and fictional personal letters and the multiple voices throughout – each written in a different format, each with their own characteristics that made it evident someone else was taking the lead. I can only dream of writing letters of such quality! This is one of the things that kept the novel moving forward at a decent pace and at times I felt I was reading a novel within a novel, such was the remarkable difference in narrative, but they all worked and blended well together, just like a good wholesome Victorian meal at Christmas.

Families at war, secrets and reputations to protect, unsavoury deaths and a sumptuous narrative in keeping with the time period all combine to make A Treacherous Likeness a jewel in the crown. Terrifically taut, the book is a fine example of how a writer should write.

Available to buy in Hardback, paperback and kindle formats.

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Corsair (7 Feb 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1780331673
  • ISBN-13: 978-1780331676
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The Titanic Secret - Jack Steel

The Titanic Secret - Jack Steel

10 April, 1912 As the RMS Titanic leaves from Southampton Docks for her maiden voyage to New York, little do her 2,223 passengers dream of the powers at play on board the ship and the terrifying fate that awaits them far out in the icy wastes of the Atlantic. For on board the Titanic are three men – among the richest in America – who, with the President of the United States an unwitting pawn in their scheme, are about to make an announcement that will change the course of history. Aware of the gravity of the situation, the head of British Intelligence dispatches his best and most trusted agent, Alex Tremayne, onto the Titanic with one objective in mind – he has to stop the men from reaching New York, by whatever means necessary. Aided by the cooly beautiful American agent Maria Weston, is Alex prepared for the lengths he will have to go to to fulfil his mission?

We all know the story of the Titanic and as we acknowledge the 100th anniversary of its maiden and final voyage this year, it’s inevitable that there will be a deluge of books published in the coming months to mark this memorable date. Like many people I’ve had a fascination with the Titanic for as long as I can remember, I remember my parents telling me about the disaster and as a young lad with a keen interest in history I gorged on the history books trying to find out what happened. I was convinced I could discover the truth behind the conspiracy; youthful exuberance is a wonderful thing!

Jack Steel’s The Titanic Secret landed on my desk a short while ago, along with three other Titanic books and following a quick perusal of the book jacket I decided to read a fictional account of what could have happened on that fateful night in April 1912 rather than a true story – for now!

I loved the idea of the book and the most rewarding part of it for me was that it allowed my imagination to run riot as our protagonists explored the First Class accommodation, the smoking room and dining facilities. I felt part of the ship, so much so that I thought I was on the voyage myself, walking up the magnificent staircase, enjoying first class fayre and relaxing in sumptuous staterooms. It’s hard to imagine the life of the first class passenger on board the ship as I sit in my comfortable surrounds but Steel does a good job portraying the possibilities!

The narrative is a curious one. I found the first half of the book a little slow, the author taking his time and setting the scene with tales of espionage, murder and political conspiracy. It’s not until the main characters board the Titanic and begin to put their plan into action that the pace intensifies and the second half of the book flew by. With this in mind I think the book could have been 50 pages shorter.

I liked what Jack Steel did with the disaster and how he remained true to the actual events adding a little twists all of his own. There’s no getting away from the thousands who perished in the Atlantic and I’m glad to see Jack didn’t re-write history too much!

I enjoyed the partnership between Alex Tremayne and Maria Weston and watching their friendship slowly develop into trust and appreciation. They are both strong characters but it was Tremayne who stole the show with his experience and checked bravado. A great all round character, Tremayne is a wonderful action man, come spy, come assassin – is there nothing this man can’t do? He can even perform in the circus!

Published by Simon & Schuster, The Titanic Secret is available in Paperback and Kindle

448 pages — ISBN-10: 0857208624 — ISBN-13: 978-0857208620

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The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd

The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd

London, 1811. The twisting streets of riverside Wapping hold many an untold sin. Bounded by the Ratcliffe Highway to the north and the modern wonders of the Dock to the south, shameful secrets are largely hidden by the noise and glory of Trade. But two families have fallen victim to foul murder, and a terrified populace calls for justice. John Harriott, magistrate of the new Thames River Police Office, must deliver revenge up to them and his only hope of doing so is Charles Horton, Harriot’s senior officer. Harriott only recently came up with a word to describe what it is that Horton does. It is detection. Plymouth, 1564. Young Billy Ablass arrives from Oxford armed only with a Letter of Introduction to Captain John Hawkyns, and the burning desire of all young men; the getting and keeping of money. For Hawkyns is about to set sail in a ship owned by Queen Elizabeth herself, and Billy sees the promise of a better life with a crew intent on gain and glory.

The kidnap and sale of hundreds of human beings is not the only cursed event to occur on England’s first officially-sanctioned slaving voyage. On a sun-blasted islet in the Florida Cays, Billy too is to be enslaved for the rest of his accursed days. Based on the real-life story of the gruesome Ratcliffe Highway murders, The English Monster takes us on a voyage across centuries, through the Age of Discovery, and throws us up, part of the human jetsam, onto the streets of Regency Wapping, policed only by Officer Horton.

The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd is one of those books that takes its time to hit home. Normally when I read a book if it hasn’t grabbed me by the first 50 or so pages I simply put it to one side and either forget it or attempt to pick it up and try again at a later date, in the hope that I see something different. However, although I found the beginning very slow there was something in the narrative that kept me turning the pages, that in itself doesn’t happen very often. On more than one occasion during the first 100 pages I considered throwing in the towel but time and time again the characters and the 16th century storyline sucked me back in and I continued.

Having finished the book I can quite happily affirm that I was justified in continuing for the tale Lloyd Shepherd tells is complex and the narrative intelligent and mesmerising. The pace, as I have already alluded to, is slow and really doesn’t intensify until the final passages when the speed is deliberate and necessary. The author wraps up this adventure well and leaves you wanting more with the final paragraph adding a little mystification and wonder to the prose in its finality. Looking back I do believe this was never meant to be a speedy read, the narrative weaves such an intelligent story that it begs to be consumed purposefully and sedately.

Clearly well researched the author blends real life characters such as Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth, Welshman Henry Morgan and John Hawkyns – a man who will always hold the dubious honour with his part in the history of the slave trade – with an illuminating fictional story that holds you throughout. John Hawkyns’s voyage on a ship – owned by the reigning Queen Elizabeth – went in search of Black Gold or African Treasure; it’s a fascinating period in the book and one that held me captive throughout. Its sheer barbarity is shocking to say the least and the conditions Shepherd paints on and off the ship is frightening and unimaginable in this modern time.

Shepherd’s imagination is incredible as he paints a picture of ruthlessness, horror and a determination to increase one’s wealth no matter the cost. Told over two timelines – 16th and 18th century – it was the early period that intrigued me. Shepherd’s artistic license is at full stretch with his portrayal of a young sailor named Francis Drake was both chimerical and glorious. I just wanted to read more and more about the burgeoning relationship between Drake and Ablass with Drake showing young Ablass the ropes on his first voyage of discovery and education. Ablass clearly grows in stature and his development is for the most part down to Drake’s companionship and guile. Very clever stuff.

Although both time periods eventually become one I enjoyed reading Shepherd’s take on the famed Ratcliffe Highway murders in 1811 and those responsible for the vicious murders. In fact it made me want to read the true account of the slayings in Wapping. When an author manages to do that then you know he’s done something right!

God has left Wapping and The Devil has moved in, no man, woman or child is safe. The English Monster combines a narrative that -although sedentary is both intelligent and beguiling – entertains and captivates simultaneously. The murders will shock and the conditions appal but one thing it is certain to do and that is enthrall.

Published by Simon & Schuster The English Monster is available in Hardback & Kindle.

416 Pages

  • ISBN-10: 0857205358
  • ISBN-13: 978-0857205353

Also reviewed here Our Book ReviewsNotes of Life

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A Game of Lies by Rebecca Cantrell

A Game of Lies by Rebecca Cantrell

In preparation for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Nazis have rid the streets of anti-Semitic material and other propaganda, and present a peace-seeking face to the world. Journalist and part-time spy for the British, Hannah Vogel, shudders to think of what lies under the temporary coat of gloss.

Posing as travel reporter Adelheid Zinsli and lover of SS officer Lars Lang, Hannah has been collecting Nazi secrets from Lang and smuggling them back to Switzerland. Wanted by the SS, her travel in and out of Germany has always been fraught with danger, but this trip is especially treacherous.

Surrounded by former colleagues who could identify her, Hannah tries to keep a low profile while reporting on the Games as Adelheid. Her relationship with Lang gets more complicated as he sinks into alcoholism; the whispers she hears about his work in the SS give her chills. Whose side is he on?

Continuing my attempts in making inroads into a back catalogue of books I’ve acquired over the last year and a half – my to be read bookshelf for want of a better description – I picked up Rebecca Cantrell’s A Game of Lies set in Nazi Germany in 1936 a couple of days ago and began reading. Originally published in July by Forge Books (The United States), what book could be more prevalent in an Olympic year than this? The book just begs to be read with an evocative book jacket that screams for attention and a story that is so apt for 2012, having read it I’m quite glad I left it until now to read!

The third in the Hannah Vogel series, A Game of Lies is a wonderful book that effortlessly captures the identity of Nazi Germany and a city torn by a regime that is starting to suck the very life out of its inhabitants. Hitler and his cronies – for want of a better word – are in total command of Germany and the Aryan ideals are beginning to take control throughout. From the moment Hannah steps inside the stadium for the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympics I was utterly captivated, charmed even, in a city I knew little of and count my blessings that I wasn’t part of its history. Segregation is rife and although crime rates are lower under Hitler, the streets are certainly not a safe place – day or night.

One of the things I noticed when reading A Game of Lies was that this isn’t a fast read, purposely so, I relished the storyline, gladly taking my time to gorge on a narrative that is beautifully written and incredibly atmospheric, it is meant to be savoured and savour it I did. The story has a pace all of its very own with Hannah Vogel taking the lead role, guiding the reader through the streets of Berlin as she attempts to make sense of the murder of a friend and continue to spy for the British. On more than one occasion I found myself closing my eyes and imagined walking the forbidden streets of the Jewish sector, smelling the alcohol and cigarette smoke that hung in the air and the sights and sounds of a bustling city in the throes of Olympic competition, athlete Jesse Owens doing his best to spoil the party with four gold medals.

Although the third in the Vogel series, Cantrell has done an excellent job in capturing her past exploits, educating those readers – myself included – who are new to our heroine. There is no doubt, and I discovered this half way through, that you would benefit from reading the series in order to get the most out of the book but A Game of Lies certainly works as a standalone given the care and attention the author applies to this adventure. Snippets of her past life keep cropping up and each time they did it made me want to know more about her life, her family and what had led her to leave Germany and live in Switzerland.

My only disappointment with the book was with the ending – I’m being hyper critical here – and although it ends with closure and has a fitting conclusion I wanted to find out what happens next!  I didn’t want the book to end so abruptly, but maybe that’s the power of a good writer – always leave your audience wanting more and she certainly did that.

Characterisation is powerful, what do you expect when a strong willed and resolute female commands attention in whatever she does? We follow her adventure through her own eyes and she certainly doesn’t have it easy in this tale! Battered and bruised throughout she does her best to avoid capture while attempting to report on the exploits of the Swiss fencing team. As leading ladies go, Hannah Vogel is as strong willed and powerful as they come, forget James Bond, Vogel is one enigmatic and resourceful woman.

If A Game of Lies was a competitor in the London Olympics the book would be holding its own in the 1500 and 5000 metre events, a well-paced book that relies on stamina and occasional bursts of speed to beat off all rivals. A terrific read and utterly compelling, what more could you wish for in an Olympic year.

Published by Forge Books, A Game of Lies is available in the US and the UK in Hardback formats.

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The Pleasures of Men

The Pleasures of Men

I was inspired by the voices of Catherine Sorgeuil and the Man of Crows, a murderer who holds London to ransom, while spending a rather solitary summer in Paris. It was hot and the streets around my apartment were quiet at night, after the tourists had gone back to their hotels. As I was wandering around late at night past deserted looking houses, I began to imagine myself back in the early nineteenth century – it didn’t seem such a jump.

And then, as I walked, I found myself elsewhere; it was as if I was in 1840s London, not Paris at all. I had researched the period intensively as part of my work as a historian, but it had never arrived in my imagination.

Previously, the history had been a host of sources and voices – but what came to me while I was walking was a whole imagined world. And it came with the personalities of Catherine and the Man of Crows…They took me over and I found myself writing the book in cafes, so hard that my hand hurt.

Kate Williams

Kate Williams

I used black books with close lines so the words were crammed together on the page – like people in Spitalfields and London in general. For the days were not long gone when London was so spacious and near to the country that one could still see deer – but the city had become a seething, often terrifying metropolis. It harboured secrets – and crime.

My character, Catherine Sorgeuil, becomes obsessed with the crime. The Man of Crows is killing women in a brutal fashion. Catherine, haunted by her unhappy past, becomes preoccupied by him – and sure she can find him. She tries to write about him and his victims, and, as she does so, takes herself closer to the danger than she could have imagined. I wanted to write about her closeted life, how she feels like she cannot escape her situation and writing about the murderer was the only way.

Perhaps it is odd that I became preoccupied by the situation of a young woman closeted in nineteenth century London while wandering freely around twenty-first century Paris – but inspiration is a strange thing.

Kate studied her BA at Somerville College, Oxford where she was a College Scholar and received the Violet Vaughan Morgan University Scholarship. She then took her MA at Queen Mary, University of London and her DPhil at Oxford, where she received a graduate prize. She also took an MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. She now teaches at Royal Holloway. For more information please visit Kate’s site.

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It is 1939. The world stands on the brink of Armageddon. In the Soviet Union, years of revolution, fear and persecution have left the country unprepared to face the onslaught of Nazi Germany. For the coming battles, Stalin has placed his hopes on a 30-ton steel monster, known to its inventors as the T-34 tank, and, the ‘Red Coffin’ to those men who will soon be using it.

The Red Coffin

The Red Coffin

But the design is not yet complete. And when Colonel Nagorski, the weapon’s secretive and eccentric architect, is found murdered, Stalin sends for Pekkala, his most trusted investigator. Stalin is convinced that a sinister group calling itself the White Guild, made up of former soldiers of the Tsar, intend to bring about a German invasion before the Red Coffin is ready. While Soviet engineers struggle to complete the design of the tank, Pekkala must track down the White Guild and expose their plans to propel Germany and Russia into conflict.

The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland – the second in the Inspector Pekkala series – is another title shortlisted for the 2011 CWA Ellis Peters Historical award this month and a book that completely took me by surprise. I have to say when I read the book cover I wasn’t immediately blown away. Russia in 1939, the height of Stalinism, held little interest to me if I’m truthful but after finishing Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson – another title shortlisted for the awards – I wanted to tackle something completely different.

Although the idea of Russia in the late 30’s didn’t exactly excite me, the front cover did. Evoking images in my mind of Steve McQueen and his solitary thrilling ride in The Great Escape I opened the book, settled down and began reading – I didn’t stop. I couldn’t put the book down. Eastland held me captive throughout and with each turn of the page the brutality of Stalin’s rein, when a knock on the door in the early hours of the morning promised a death sentence in Siberia, came to the fore.

The narrative is wonderfully taught and flows unhindered from start to finish allowing you, the reader, to find a rhythm incredibly early on in the tale. I had expected from my earlier reticence to pick up the book, read a few pages, put it down and pick it up further down the line and try again. Nothing could be further from the truth for the combination of Eastland’s writing style and believable characters wouldn’t allow that to happen, for me at least, and the deeper I read the more I wanted to discover about the communist dictator and how his rule affected his subjects.

It was a long walk, almost an hour through the winding streets. He could have made the journey in ten minutes by taking the subway, but Pekkala preferred to remain above ground in spite of the fact that there were no reliable maps of the city. The only charts available for Moscow showed either what the city had looked like before the Revolution or what the city was supposed to look like when all of the new construction projects had been finished. Most of these had not even begun, and there were whole city block which, on these maps, bore no resemblance to what actually stood on the ground. Many streets had been renamed, as had entire cities around the country. Petrograd was Leningrad, Tsaritsin was Stalingrad. As the locals said in Moscow – everything is different but nothing has really changed.

The Red Coffin is so much more than a story about a nation’s desire to build the perfect military weapon – The T-34 tank – it relies heavily on three distinctive relationships. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the story of murder and the design of the T-34 was secondary to Inspector Pekkala’s relationships with his assistant Commissar Kirov, Josef Stalin and Tsar Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov. That said and given that the T-34 played a big part in the Second World War I would have liked Eastland to spend a little more time on the tank and its development.

The most enjoyable part of the book for me was Pekkala’s friendship with Kirov. Had it not been for the fact that both men lived in the early part of the 20th century and were the creations of Sam Eastland’s imaginative mind I would have happily spent time drinking Vodka with the pair. I thought their dialogue was incredibly humorous especially when talking about food – Pekkala guilty according to Kirov of not appreciating what he was eating – or Kirov’s constant absentmindedness in forgetting to carry his gun while investigating. It had me in stitches at certain points with both men trying to get the upper hand.

The numerous flashbacks work well, especially those with the Tsar and the Romanovs, and add another level to the book. Again, as with the T-34 history, I wanted Eastland to develop the Romanov arc purely on a selfish level for I found the blend of fiction and history incredibly moreish.

Sam Eastland’s The Red Coffin is unputdownable and proof if ever it was required that one should never judge a book by its cover. Completely engrossing and highly addictive, Inspector Pekkala is a character that oozes longevity and a certain intrigue.

Pubished by Faber & Faber The Red Coffin is available in Kindle & Paperback

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Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson

Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson

Cumbria, 1783. A broken heritage; a secret history…

The tomb of the first Earl of Greta should have lain undisturbed on its island of bones for three hundred years. When idle curiosity opens the stone lid, however, inside is one body too many. Gabriel Crowther’s family bought the Gretas’ land long ago, and has suffered its own bloody history. His brother was hanged for murdering their father, the Baron of Keswick, and Crowther has chosen comfortable seclusion and anonymity over estate and title for thirty years. But the call of the mystery brings him home at last.

Travelling with forthright Mrs Harriet Westerman, who is escaping her own tragedy, Crowther finds a little town caught between new horrors and old, where ancient ways challenge modern justice. And against the wild and beautiful backdrop of fells and water, Crowther discovers that his past will not stay buried.

Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson marks the third in a series featuring the enigmatic and fastidious Gabriel Crowther and the wonderfully captivating Mrs Harriet Westerman. A finalist in this year’s CWA Ellis Peters Historical Awards – 30th November – Island of Bones, published by Headline, is sure to be a front runner at the awards ceremony for its engaging and free flowing narrative, entertaining storyline and a very well developed investigation. Although – as I have already mentioned – part of a long standing and successful series I had no trouble in picking up the novel and beginning my journey despite having missed the earlier adventures.

I was immediately transported to the 18th century where I experienced a public hanging and the inevitable shame it brought upon a family which in turn prompted Lord Keswick to sell his family’s land, seek privacy and detachment by changing his name following his father’s murder. Determined never to visit his old ancestral home things never quite work out that way and together with Harriet Westerman the pair are drawn back to Silverside Hall to investigate a possible murder. Things move at a pace and additional crimes keep the story ticking along nicely.

Their arrival in the Lake District – welcomed by some and viewed cautiously by others – shakes things up in an unusual village that has its fair share of colourful and odd characters. The village itself is well presented and I found myself closing my eyes, imagination running riot as I wandered the muddy streets, visiting the local pub and stepping down the steps that led to the small but functional museum, I was transfixed.

There was a peculiar hush around the Tower the night before an execution. The mist from the river shushed the streets and people moved quietly. The guards nodded to each other, stamped their feet and wished for dawn, then thought of the man in the tower; they looked at the light showing faintly from his rooms and shivered again.

The fire could do little against the damp air of a February night, and nor could the wine warm the two men keeping vigil in the white/washed cell. They had been silent a long time. It was clear they were brothers – they had the same hooded eyes, the same slender figure – but they were turned away from each other, thinking their own thoughts.

Characterisation is simply wonderful and although I thoroughly enjoyed Crowther and Westerman as lead protagonists it was the relationship between Caspar Grace and Westerman’s young son Stephen that held me captivated throughout. A young lad’s inquisitive mind – with boundless energy – and his fascination with a talking bird – Joe – helped keep the narrative flowing and had me turning the page to see just what the pair would do next. Although powerful as an unlikely partnership they worked equally well alone, in fact it was rather refreshing – to me at least – to see Imogen Robertson give so much time to the young lad. It worked incredibly well and his youthful exuberance brought a limitless colour to the pages yet at the same time showed a wonderful maturity far above his years. Magnificent.

The narrative is incredibly moreish and I often found myself comparing the prose to Lynn Shepherd’s Murder at Mansfield Park – set a few years down the track in 1811 – which incidentally was one of my top books for 2010. As with Mansfield Park I struggled in the early stages to find a rhythm but once I lost myself in the narrative I was hooked. The final 150 pages were simply irresistible and I couldn’t put the book down. From the golf ball sized hail, murders, fireworks, skulduggery and greed, Island of Bones has it all. It comes highly recommended and with a fitting and exciting climax it will serve as a wonderful companion to those cold winter nights.

Published by Headline Island of Bones is available on Kindle & Hardcover.

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