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Sunday, 30 August 2015

‘Every Night I Dream of Hell’ by Malcolm Mackay

Published by Mantle (Pan Macmillan),
13 August 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-4472-9142-8

This latest instalment of the author’s Glasgow crime series features many of the same cast of criminal characters in his earlier novels. This time the story is mostly told in the first person by Nate Colgan, who looks and acts like the professional ‘hard man’ he actually is; usually that’s enough to scare off anyone who looks like causing trouble. Nate was nominally independent but worked for mostly for Peter Jamieson who runs the biggest crime ‘industry’ in the city; even though he is now in Barlinnie Prison he still controls his organisation through the smartest of his subordinates Kevin Currie. But Currie isn’t Jamieson and is worried about keeping control of the organisation. So at Jamieson’s behest Currie takes Nate on as ‘security consultant’, expecting that Nate’s scary reputation will mostly be enough to frighten off anyone who might be looking for rich pickings from the possibly crumbling organisation. What Currie doesn’t know, because Nate never tells anyone about his private life, is that Zara Cope, Nate’s ex-lover and mother of his beloved daughter Rebecca, is back in Glasgow to get some money that Nate still owes her – or so she claims. But nothing about Zara, the femme fatale of classic noir crime fiction, is ever simple; on the one hand Nate doesn’t trust her, on the other he still cares for her although he knows that Zara feels nothing for him. So just what does she want? Certainly not her daughter who is safely with her grandparents which is just how Nate wants to things to stay. And then trouble erupts. And a man called Lee Christie, a small cog in the Jamieson/Currie organisation, is killed in an execution-style shooting. And no-one in the organisation knows by whom or why. One guess is that it was a ‘message’ for Angus Lafferty who controls the drugs trade section of the organisation and for whom Christie worked. As for the actual ‘executioners’ the name Adrian Barrett comes up; he’s one of a trio of young hoods from Birmingham who have arrived in Glasgow – but are they acting on their own initiative or are they answering to someone?

I have praised two of the author’s previous Glasgow novels in Mystery People: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter ( and The Night the Rich Men Burned ( 2014 November) and this one deserves equal praise. It portrays a bleak, unforgiving, totally claustrophobic world in which no-one trusts anyone, quite rightly as it turns out for everyone is prepared to betray everyone else. Nothing else impinges (not even the fortunes of Celtic and Rangers football clubs!) There is an immense number of characters but the author has provided a full list of characters – very helpful to reviewers! I like the way in which in this series the protagonist varies from novel to novel; this provides a variety of outlook and tone which is welcome.

In this novel, Nate, while far from being an admirable character (as Zara tells him towards the end ‘You think you’re the good guy. You’re not. You’re the man that the beasts are scared of. You could walk away but you don’t),  sets his face against doing the one thing that he previously refused to do – kill someone in cold blood – but in the end does so. And finds that he has been ‘played like a puppet by men who now feared me. It’s a very dangerous thing, to have powerful men terrified of you.’ The outlook for Nate in future novels is not good.
Reviewer: Radmila May

Malcolm Mackay was born and grew up in Stornoway where he still lives. His debut, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, marked the beginning of the Glasgow Trilogy, set in the city's underworld and was longlisted for both the CWA John Creasey Dagger for Best Debut Crime Novel of the Year and the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Best Thriller of the Year. Every Night I Dream of Hell is his fifth novel.

Radmila May was born in the US but has lived in the UK ever since 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 has been working for them off and on ever since. For the last few years she has been one of three editors working on a new edition of a practitioners' text book on Criminal Evidence by her late husband, publication of which has been held up for a variety of reasons but hopefully will be published by the end of 2015. She also has an interest in archaeology in which subject she has a Diploma.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

‘Hostage’ by Kristina Ohlsson

Published by Simon and Schuster,
16 July 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-4711-1520-2 (PB)

Stockholm 2011. In this, the second Fredrika Bergman novel, Fredrika, now married with two children, has quit the police and has a temporary job with the Justice Department of the Swedish Government. But then an anonymous note is found on a Swedish aeroplane with 400 Swedish and US passengers already in flight from Stockholm to New York threatening to blow the plane up on landing if the Swedish Government does not immediately release a Moroccan currently in custody and awaiting deportation and if the U.S. Government does not close down an ultra-secret detention centre in Afghanistan. The perpetrators must be found and found quickly before the threat becomes reality but neither government will negotiate with terrorists. In Sweden both the police and the intelligence services must act together and Fredrika, with knowledge of both, returns to the police force to effect the liaison between her old boss Superintendent Alex Reich and the boss of the Secret Service’s counter-terrorism unit under the ambitious and abrasive Eden Lundell. With desperation mounting while the clock ticks away the hours and minutes, clues as to the identity of the would-be bomber must be found but every clue leads only to a blind alley.

I thought this was an excellent thriller which gripped me from beginning to end. The characters are well-drawn including the husbands of Fredrika  (supportive) and of Eden (anything but). The author’s own experience in working for the Swedish government gives a strong feeling of authenticity to the narrative. And the ending, although surprising, is convincing. Highly recommended.
Reviewer: Radmila May

Kristina Ohlsson is a political scientist and until recently held the position of Counter-Terrorism Officer at OSCE (the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe). She has previously worked at the Swedish Security Service, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Swedish National Defense College, where she was a junior expert on the Middle East conflict and the foreign policy of the European Union. Kristina lives in Stockholm.

Radmila May was born in the US but has lived in the UK ever since 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 has been working for them off and on ever since. For the last few years she has been one of three editors working on a new edition of a practitioners' text book on Criminal Evidence by her late husband, publication of which has been held up for a variety of reasons but hopefully will be published by the end of 2015. She also has an interest in archaeology in which subject she has a Diploma.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983)

Detectives of the Golden Age
Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983)
By Carol Westron

Gladys Mitchell was born in Cowley, Oxford.  Her father was a market gardener of Scottish descent.  In 1909 her family moved to Middlesex, North London and she attended the Rothschild School, Brentford, and the Green School.  She continued her education at Goldsmiths' College, from which she gained a teaching qualification and, a few years later, University College, London, where she earned an extra-mural diploma in European history.

From her graduation in 1921 until 1950, Mitchell continued to work as a teacher of English, history and games in a variety of schools.  In 1950 she retired.  However, three years later, the officials of the Matthew Arnold School invited Mitchell to judge a school gymnastics competition and give a speech.  Immediately after this, the headmistress asked Mitchell to leave retirement and join her staff.  Mitchell agreed and returned to teaching until her second retirement in 1961. 

When asked in an interview why she had agreed to return to teaching, Mitchell admitted that she had missed the stimulus and discipline of 'the day job' but also indicated that she found the money acceptable, as her writing was not very lucrative.

While working as a teacher, Mitchell lived in Brentford and Ealing but, in 1961, she retired to Corfe Mullen in Dorset.  Here she pursued her interest in studying medieval architecture and pre-historic sites and continued to explore her fascination with Freudian psychology and with witchcraft.  Mitchell said that her interest in witchcraft was encouraged by her friend Helen Simpson, an Australian born detective writer who died of cancer during the Second World War. Along with her literary commendations, Mitchell also received membership in the British Olympic Association, a tribute to her lifelong interest in athletics.

Throughout her adult life, even while teaching full-time, Mitchell was a prolific writer.  She published 77 adult novels; 66 featuring Mrs Bradley; 5 under the pseudonym Stephen Hockaby and 6 under the pseudonym Malcolm Torrie and 9 children's novels published under her own name.  Mitchell's interests appear in many of her novels: the detective she created under the pseudonym Malcolm Torrie is Timothy Herring, an architect concerned with the restoration of historic buildings; the supernatural, witchcraft and Freudian psychology are all central to the Mrs Bradley books.  Mitchell continued writing until her death in 1983, aged eighty-two.  Her first published novel was Speedy Death (1929), which introduced Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, who featured in another 65 of Mitchell's novels.

Mrs Bradley is a remarkable creation.  She is a remarkably ugly woman: 'a black-eyed, beaky-mouthed, yellow-skinned, reptilian old lady,' (Tom Brown's Body, 1949.)  She has a remarkably beautiful speaking voice but is prone to uttering blood-chilling cackles and screeches.  'She cackled harshly when William was introduced and chucked him under the chin, and then squealed like a macaw that's having its tail pulled.'  And her dress sense is appalling: '… her evening dress was of bright blue velvet and she was wearing over it a little coatee... of sulphur and orange.'  (The Saltmarsh Murders 1932.)  In ironical contrast to Christie's Miss Marple and Wentworth's Miss Silver, when she knits it is not delicate fluffy baby clothes but luridly coloured garments for herself.  Mrs Bradley is a well-known author and psychoanalyst, who bases her work on Freud.  She is a woman of unconventional lifestyle and original views and when asked how she 'rates' murder amongst the more heinous crimes, replies that she places it below rape and above grand larceny.  She is interested in witchcraft but she is cynical and analytical in every fibre of her being.  '”Mrs Harries is, of course, a survival,” he said.  “On the contrary, she is a charlatan,” said Mrs Bradley firmly.'  (Tom Brown's Body, 1949.)
For a character who featured in 66 books, Mrs Bradley is remarkably elusive.  It is impossible to know what she really thinks; she is ruthless but at other times kind, and her description of her personal history alters radically. 

It is never totally clear how many children Mrs Bradley has or how many times she has been married.  Unlike other writers of long series, one doesn't get the impression Mitchell has made a mistake, rather that she is sharing Mrs Bradley's outrageous sense of mischief and the pleasure of never being totally known: 

”Oh, you have sons in the plural?  I understood you had only one. The famous K.C.,” said Miss Loveday.
“Ferdinand?  He is my son by my first husband, who was of French and Spanish descent.  I have other sons, but I much prefer my nephews.  Ferdinand and I are unlike, and get on well.  He reminds me, in many ways, of his father, and that is welcome, since otherwise I might have forgotten what his father was like.  It is some time since we were married,” said Mrs Bradley alarmingly.'  (Tom Brown's Body, 1949.)
Earlier in The Saltmarsh Murders, Mrs Bradley gives us more information about her son and her first husband:
'”By the way I have briefed Ferdinand Lestrange for the defence.”
“What, Sir Ferdinand?” I gasped, thinking, of course, of the fees.
“Yes, my son by my first husband,” said this remarkable woman.  “A clever boy.  Nearly as clever as his mother, and quite as unscrupulous as his father, who cornered wheat on Wall Street and then slipped up and all the wheat fell on him!”
She screamed with Satanic mirth and poked me in the ribs.'

Despite this apparent indifference to family ties, Mrs Bradley is depicted as an attentive grandmother, whose grandson Derek is eager to spend time with her, as is shown in When Last I Died (1941.)  Although it does seem odd to hear the redoubtable Mrs Bradley called 'Gran.'   

Cynical humour is the essence of Mrs Bradley's character and the reason she lights up the books as soon as she appears.  But there is something alarming about Mrs Bradley too.  There is an omniscient, untouchable air about her, as if she were some mythical creature from Greek legend.  This impression is increased by the fact that she is untouched by Time.  She is an old woman at the start of the series and suffers no diminution of her considerable powers over fifty years later in the final book to be published, The Crozier Pharaohs, published a year after Mitchell's death in 1984.)

Mrs Bradley does have regular companions, most notably her unshakeable chauffeur, George, and her secretary, Laura Menzies.  Laura became so prominent in the books that Philip Larkin, a great fan of Mitchell, expressed the fear that Laura was going to take over from Mrs Bradley.  However, when interviewed about this, Mitchell insisted that Laura was merely there in the role of Mrs Bradley's 'Watson'.

Mitchell was an early member of the Detection Club and, in company with Christie and Sayers, was regarded as one of the 'Big Three' women detective writers.  The poet Philip Larkin was one of her fans and referred to her as ‘The Great Gladys'.

It is hard to know why someone whose star had burned so brightly should now be relatively little known.  It may be that her originality and unconventionality was the reason.  She frequently mocked the conventions of the mystery genre.  The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) is a very funny book but it is undeniably a spoof on such Christie novels as The Murder in the Vicarage and The Body in the Library.  Mitchell's Mrs Bradley was not an easy character to fit into the stereotypical detective mode and her books are too unique to fit easily into a pattern. 

When considering Mitchell in company with Christie or Sayers, it would be great fun to turn Mrs Bradley loose in the drawing rooms of St Mary Mead or sharing an investigation with Poirot.  The carnage she would wreak would only be equalled by the notion of her debating moral issues with the earnest dons in the SCR at Shrewsbury College.   

In the 1990s the Mrs Bradley Mysteries were televised with Diana Rigg in the title role.  However as Diana Rigg's depiction of Mrs Bradley lacked the crocodile looks, the cackling laugh and the hideous fashion sense, and both characters and plots were significantly altered, little of Mitchell's Mrs Bradbury remained.

By the 1990s only The Rising of the Moon (1945) remained in print in a regular edition (although some were available in Large Print editions.)  In the last few years many have been brought back in print and e-book form.  Perhaps the only way to end an article about this, the most currently neglected of the great Golden Age mystery writers is to quote Philip Larkin, writing in the Observer: 'Miss Mitchell has always stood splendidly apart from her crime-club confrères in total originality.’
Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her second book About the Children was published in May 2014.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

‘Bound to Secrecy’ by Vamba Sherif

Published by Hope Road,
April 2015.
ISBN: 978-1-90844-632-9

Set in a remote Liberian border town, this book takes a while to warm up. For the first few chapters the author sets the scene beautifully and it felt more like a Paulo Coelho (no bad thing!) than a murder mystery. This is certainly no fast-paced, gritty thriller. The style is almost more Scandi-crime (but without the alcoholism) featuring long, somehow bleak, descriptions of life and society in Liberia.

Through the eyes of our hero, William Mawolo, we learn that he is there to investigate the disappearance of the local chief. Interviewing those who knew him, William uncovers conflicting perspectives and despairs of ever solving the mystery. Along the way he lusts after the missing chief's daughter and one of her grandfather's wives makes it plain that she would like to get to know him better. So far, so incestuous!

And this is indicative of the locale: a small, tribal society where everyone seems to know their place and some of them do not appreciate William's investigation. But he perseveres despite fearing that he will be poisoned by someone who doesn't want the truth to come out. Ultimately, the truth is stranger than he could ever have expected.

This is a thought-provoking, beautifully descriptive, almost mystical novel that will sweep you gently away into a world far removed from our own.
Reviewer: Joanna Kennedy

 Vamba Sherif was born in Kolahun, Liberia in 1973. In his early teens he moved to Kuwait, where he completed secondary school. The First Gulf War compelled him to leave Kuwait and settle first in Damascus, Syria and then in The Netherlands, where he read Law. Vamba is also a journalist and film critic. His passions are music, film and rare books on Africa. His books include: The Land of the Fathers, The Kingdom of Sebah, The Witness and The Black Napoleon.

Joanna Kennedy studied French and German at university. She works in the aerospace industry and is a chartered marketer in the UK. She describes herself as a voracious reader, enjoying genres as varied as crime thrillers, historical fiction and autobiographies. Joanna lives in London. She is the daughter of crime thriller writer Leigh Russell.