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Thursday, 20 September 2018

‘The Division Bell Mystery’ by Ellen Wilkinson

Published by the British Library Crime Classics,
10 August 2018.
ISBN: 978 0 7123 5241 3 (PB)

This book, now available in the British Library Crime Classics Series, was first published in 1932 by George G. Harrap & Co. The author, Ellen Wilkinson, had been elected to Parliament in 1924 and had been one of the first of the very few women M.P.s (and the only woman on the Labour benches) to be elected. However, when she lost her seat in 1931, she was faced with the necessity of earning a living and turned to various forms of writing including the overwhelmingly popular crime fiction genre.

The story begins with the protagonist, Conservative M.P. Robert West, Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary, who is waiting for his friend, Donald Shaw, whom he will be taking to dinner in the most elegant of the various dining-rooms available for entertaining. However, they have to cut the dinner short because Robert has to take part in an important vote and it is while they are passing along the corridor where the Home Secretary is dining tete-a-tete with the American multi-millionaire Georges Oissel who it is hoped will provide a desperately-needed loan to help the country out of the financial morass resulting from the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the consequent Great Depression which had led to so much unemployment and desperate poverty. But as the division bell rings out, there is the sound of a shot from the room where the Home Secretary had been dining with Oissel. The Home Secretary had, like Robert, had to leave for a few minutes to vote so Oissel had been alone for a few minutes. And during those few minutes, he had, so it first appears, committed suicide. After all, there was a recently-fired revolver nearby. But why should Oissel have committed suicide? And in such a manner, and at such a time? Oissel’s granddaughter, the beautiful Annette, is convinced it would have been completely out of character. And then it appears that the medical evidence shows that Oissel did not after all shoot himself. But in that case, by whom? Although the inquiry is headed up by the police in the shape of Inspector Blackitt Robert is drawn into the search to uncover the truth, not just out of a natural desire to know, but by his growing attraction to Annette. Others also become involved such as Robert’s friend Don, the journalist Sancroft, Annette’s current beau Philip Kinnaird, Sir George Gleeson, the top Home Office civil servant, the young Labour M.P. Gracie Richards and the older Conservative M.P. Ivy, Lady Bell-Clinton. And there is, of course, a missing note-book. And another murder.

All this adds up to a fascinating mix. The characters are lively and varied with Robert himself most sympathetically portrayed for all the author’s own committed Socialist principles (being red-haired and very small one of her soubriquets was The Fiery Particle) and I personally found her portrayal of life in the House of Commons really interesting. This novel was her only venture into crime fiction: she was re-elected in 1935 and went on to serve in Churchill’s government during the War and briefly as Minister for Education in the post-War Attlee government before her too-early death in 1946. No doubt she contributed a great deal to public life as an M.P. but it’s a pity we don’t know any more of Robert’s later life nor of any of the other characters. Maybe some writer of today will take up the baton . . .

There is an excellent Preface by the Labour M.P. Rachel Reeves who discovered the novel while researching Ellen’s life for a biography and a most interesting Introduction, Politics in the Golden Age, by Martin Edwards.
Highly recommended.
Reviewer: Radmila May

Ellen Wilkinson (18911947) was a Labour Party politician, who played a prominent role in the Jarrow March and served as Minister of Education from July 1945 until her death. Earlier in her career, as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Jarrow, she became a national figure when she played a prominent role in the 1936 Jarrow March of the town's unemployed to London to petition for the right to work. Although unsuccessful at that time, the March provided an iconic image for the 1930s and helped to form post-Second World War attitudes to unemployment and social justice.

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

‘Cold Breath’ by Quentin Bates

Published by Constable,
11 October 2018.
ISBN: 978-1-47212-776-1(PB)

Reykjavik police officer Gunna has been given an unusual assignment: she’s to bodyguard Osman, a visitor from the Middle East who’s been invited to Iceland by their Law and Order Minister, Steinunn Strand. He’s to be held in a safe house ... but pretty soon not only the Press but also Osman’s enemies are heading his way.

This fast-moving police / political thriller follows four strands, all told in the third person. There’s Gunna herself, along with her boss, Ivar Laxdal, who are struggling to make sense of Osman – is he the charitable organiser he presents himself as, or does his organisation mask something more sinister? Skuli Snaedal is one of the journalists and editors of Pulse, a hard-hitting investigative news site, who has information on Osman that will do the Minister’s reputation no good. The mysterious Ana and her thug sidekicks are out to take Osman alive, if they can.

Finally, right at the start, we meet Hanne and Carsten, a retired couple from Denmark who are forced to bring something to Iceland in their camper van. Dare they tell the police? You need to keep your wits about you, because the narrative moves swiftly from one strand to another, with each ‘chunk’ only two to three pages long. The sympathetic characters draw you in: Gunna’s growing interest in Osman, and her concern about the family she’s had to leave behind; Skuli’s continued struggle with the ‘black dog’ and his delight in his new family life; the elderly Hane and Carsten’s dilemma.

The background is Reykjavik as winter moves slowly into spring, and Bates evokes this beautifully, with vivid descriptions of sea and land. The ending includes several good twists. This is the seventh Officer Gunhildur mystery, and while it’s good to meet the series characters again, and see how their lives are developing, it also reads well as a stand-alone. There are no spoilers for previous books.

A slick, atmospheric thriller from one of Iceland Noir’s masters.
Reviewer: Marsali Taylor

Quentin Bates  is an English novelist of mystery/crime fiction novels. Quentin found himself working in Iceland for a year, which turned into a decade, and has used some of that experience as well as a university writing course to develop his Gunnhildur series. Although he is British, Quentin is more in line with Scandinavian crime fiction authors. Quentin is also a full-time journalist and feature writer for an obscure nautical trade magazine.

Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland's scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland's distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.  Marsali also does a regular monthly column for the Mystery People e-zine.

Click on the title to read a review of her recent book Death in Shetland Waters

‘The Tall Man’ by Phoebe Locke

Published by Wildfire,
14 June 2018.
ISBN: 978 1 4722 4924 1

The Tall Man explores the story behind the urban myth of the Tall Man, a supernatural being who comes from the shadows to take daughters away. There are two ways the Tall Man will deal with a young girl, he will make her special or he will kill her. Young girls across the country embroil stories about the Tall Man and for some there are dangerous consequences.

What makes this book different is the use of the documentary team as the investigative device. The fly-on-the-wall documentary, with its insatiable public appetite for turning murderers into celebrities, merges factual re-telling with intrusive, emotional manipulation to produce tasteless entertainment, acclaim for the producers, and high ratings.

The story is told over three time-lines. In the present day the documentary film crew have managed to get access to seemingly self-obsessed teenager Amber Banner who was acquitted of murder. Questions regarding the truth of what actually happened remain unanswered and the identity of the murder victim is part of the mystery for the reader. We follow the investigation through the lonely, insecure character of Greta, the researcher/producer who is being pressurised by her boss to get the dirt on Amber by whatever means and irrespective of the consequences. All through the book the reader is left wondering if Amber is guilty of murder or the unwitting victim of something?

Interspersed with this is the story of a haunted character, Sadie. In 2000 as a new mother, fearing for her child’s safety Sadie abandons her family completely, severing all contact. Then, in 2016, thinking that it is now safe, she returns and starts to build a relationship with her daughter and estranged husband. As the book progresses, the stories converge, and we find out the unanswered questions about who was murdered, how and why.

The Tall Man is the debut novel of Phoebe Locke and is listed on Amazon as a series so there may be more using the same film crew investigative device to explore other stories, a concept that I really liked.
Reviewer Christine Hammacott
Phoebe Locke is the pseudonym of full-time writer Nicci Cloke. She previously worked at the Faber Academy, and hosted London literary salon Speakeasy. She lives and writes in London.
Christine Hammacott lives near Southampton and runs her own design consultancy. She started her career working in publishing as a book designer and now creates covers for indie-authors. She writes page-turning fiction that deals with the psychological effects of crime. To read a review of her debut novel The Taste of Ash click on the title.

twitter: /ChrisHammacott