“The Z Murders” by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1932)

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“Places, like people, have varying moods, and the moods of London are legion.”

As first lines go, that’s one of the best I’ve ever read. The opening paragraph describing the many moods of Britain’s capital should alone have given J. Jefferson Farjeon a place at the table of the great crime writers of the 20th century. And yet, odds are you’ve never heard of him. I hadn’t. He somehow slipped from the public consciousness despite writing over sixty novels that were, in his lifetime, highly regarded. Fans included the famously tough critic Dorothy L. Sayers, and it seems remarkable that someone so prolific could now be forgotten. Still, thanks once again to the British Library who are continuing to rediscover forgotten gems from the Golden  Age of Detective Fiction, and have brought to us here one of the alphabetically-last novels in the library. Ladies and gentlemen, The Z Murders.

We open in London, with a train pulling into Euston station at five o’clock in the morning. On it is Richard Temperley, come to London to visit his sister, and having had a disagreeable journey sat next to a loud snorer. Arriving in the city far too early to arrive at his sister’s house, he goes to a hotel over the road where he can sleep in the lounge until the dawn fully breaks. Unfortunately, the snorer comes too and is soon seen slumped in a nearby chair. But he’s not snoring anymore – he’s dead.

Shocked, Temperley examines the body and it becomes apparent he’s been shot. Is the incident at all related to the pretty but tense young woman who fled from the lounge mere minutes before the body was discovered? After the police have investigated, Temperley notices the woman’s purse forgotten in one of the chairs. He decides not to inform the police of his findings, and instead seeks the woman out. The police, however, are not stupid, and everyone is soon embarking on a game of cat and mouse that will take them all over the country, by train and taxi, on the hunt for a serial killer with a mysterious motive.

For some reason I keep being surprised when books of this age are funny, like I forgot it was possible that our ancestors had a sense of humour. The book is heavy in silly moments and smart quips, and the heroes are easily likeable. Richard Temperley is a bit gung-ho but is the sort of chivalrous chap who won’t think twice about crossing the country to help a woman in need. The woman in question, Sylvia Wynne, is secretive and you can’t be sure, really, how involved she is in everything. The policeman in charge of the case, Inspector James, is also a great character, and reminded me of Christie’s Inspector Japp, but there’s a suggestion that it’s actually his colleague Dutton who really knows what’s what.

Ted Diggs, the taxi driver who gets lumbered with driving Richard and Sylvia around the country is also great fun, and deeply fleshed out, perhaps slightly more so than even the main characters. Much of the humour comes from the difference in class between characters like Richard and Ted, which is common to novels of the time. In fact, it really is the characters that make this story. The plot is fine, but hangs a bit loose for me, and it’s a tiny bit farcical. Also, several details of it are never quite fully explained, but the resolution is satisfying enough.

The British Library also published Murder in White by Farjeon which was an unexpected success, so I daresay I’ll be returning to him at some point. After all, sixty to get through? Sounds like a challenge to me.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Career Of Evil” by Robert Galbraith (2015)

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It was that, or a career in HR.

It was that, or a career in HR.

“He had not managed to scrub off all her blood.”

Although it seems so recently that Robert Galbraith hit the shelves as a respected and renowned crime writer, truth is this is a series that’s been going for two whole years already. Following on from the success – more than a little aided by the discovery of Galbraith’s true identity – of The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, the third installment of the series takes us once more into the seedy underbelly of London with some of the greatest characters in modern literature.

Review starts now, and there might be one or two spoilers in it, so read on at your own risk.

Picking up a few months after the last book left off, it’s spring 2011 and while the country is preparing of the royal wedding, Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin Ellacott have become notable in newspapers for their involvement in bringing to justice the murderers of Lula Landry and Owen Quine. Things are ticking over nicely, but everything looks set to go wrong when Robin accepts a package delivered to the office addressed to her. She assumes it’s something for her upcoming wedding to Matthew, her fiance who disapproves of her career choice, and signs for it quite happily. Upon opening the package, she finds it isn’t the disposable cameras that she was expecting.

It’s a woman’s severed leg.

Robin, and Cormoran, are obviously shocked by this development and call in the police. Not long after, the press are crowding around the office and they two of them have to leave it for the time being. It’s clear that whoever sent the leg is mad, dangerous and out to ruin Strike’s career. Eric Wardle, police officer in charge of the case, asks Strike who on earth would want to send him a leg. But Strike has a problem. There isn’t one person he knows who’d do something like that; there are four.

With his client list drying up and his determination to find the culprit growing, Strike begins to dig deep into his past to bring out the characters he’s wronged and who would hold such a grudge against him. Meanwhile, Robin is in danger, and whoever is threatening them is after her, and far cleverer than one would imagine.

Career of Evil is the first book in a while that I’ve had trouble putting down. Oddly compelling, it keeps you going despite constantly disgusting you too. There is violence in spades here, some of it incredibly gory, and the villains in this tale include crack addicts, rapists and paedophiles. The thing that actually disgusted me most of all though was the introduction of the condition called “body integrity identity disorder” (BIID), which was a new one on me. It’s predominately a mental illness of sorts where a person believes that they shouldn’t have a certain limb, or should be disabled. It’s otherwise known as being transabled. Basically, these are people who want to be disabled. Apparently this is a real condition (although not recognised by all medical professionals) and frankly I can think of little more vile than this. Anyone who has this condition needs to take a long, hard look at themselves and seek professional psychiatric help. Given that Strike is missing a leg, this whole issue becomes quite important within the story, and he’s got little time for these people.

This book also gives us more information about the backstory of, mostly, Strike, but also of Robin, finally explaining why she dropped out of university (it won’t come as a surprise to many, I’m sure), and showing more of the rising tensions between her and Matthew. Galbraith also makes far more of the latent sexual tension between Strike and Robin, a subplot I could happily do without. Oh sure, it works within the context of the story, but I like the friendship and working partnership between the two; I don’t think the introduction of the idea that they like each other romantically was strictly necessary or would make too much difference if it was removed. But this is a very small fly in a very large pot of ointment.

It’s slick, clever and the characters (the heroes, anyway – the villains are all appropriately and wickedly macabre and disturbing) are all great. I can’t help but think though that now Strike should have a bit more money, but perhaps after solving a third huge case, things will finally be on the up for him. I haven’t seen or heard any confirmation that the series will continue, but it ends on a mighty big cliffhanger with a lot of questions still to be answered, so I’d imagine this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Strike and Robin.

And long may it be until that end comes.

“Not Dead Enough” by Peter James (2007)

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There aren't enough zombie crime novels. This isn't one, either.

There aren’t enough zombie crime novels. This isn’t one, either.

“Darkness took a long time to arrive, but it was worth the wait.”

In a jarring change from a pastoral Britain ruled by toads and badgers, I’ve shifted to last decade’s Brighton to read another of my favourite authors. Despite having only read two of his books before (the two that come before this in this particular series), I am definitely a Peter James fan. The big appeal comes from the fact that all the action takes place in Brighton and the surrounding towns, which means the characters are all in places that I know well.

This is the third book of the Roy Grace series (there’s a review of the second one here), and while you don’t need to have read the first two to enjoy it, there is a story that runs through them all, some of which may go over your head if you start here. In this one, Katie Bishop has been found tied to her bed: naked, wearing a gas mask and, most importantly, dead. Murdered.

Her husband, Brian Bishop, is the primary suspect and he is quickly whisked from his golf tournament to be informed of his wife’s death. He claims that he was in London when the murder happened, but Grace, the DSI in charge of the case, thinks he might be lying. Without enough evidence to charge him, Grace and his team begin to compile a case against him, and when a second body turns up, this time with DNA evidence left at the scene, the noose tightens and Grace begins to think he’s got his man.

On top of all this, Grace’s fledgling relationship with mortician Cleo Morey hits its first stumbling blocks when his best mate Glenn moves in after being kicked out of the family home, and another friend has just called to tell Grace that he thinks he saw his wife in Munich – news that comes as a particular surprise as Grace’s wife Sandy has been missing for nine years. Should Grace go looking for her, or has he finally begun to get over her mysterious absence?

James breaks one of the cardinal rules of crime fiction in this novel, but the story is so compelling that frankly I almost forgot to care. After all, Agatha Christie broke basically every single rule there was, and that’s what makes her the Queen of Crime. If not the King, James is certainly a regal prince of some kind. I’m wary to say much more about the plot because I don’t want to give anything away, but despite the fact the book is just over six hundred pages long, it never feels like that. It’s the first book in a long time that I’ve set aside extra time devoted specifically to reading. James’ style is easy, chatty and informal, despite the large amounts of official police terminology used. He’s a man who has clearly done his research. This isn’t a world where the policemen can only solve the crime after being taken off the force, but one where everything has to happen by the book and the policemen are shown as heroes, which is something we need to see sometimes these days, given the stories of police brutality you hear in the media.

James seems to have a fascination with the minutia, which is far from a complaint. Every character is introduced with a physical description and often a little bit of backstory, and it really helps build up a picture of the world we’re inhabiting, and never feels like it’s in the way. The books are most certainly set in the real world, using actual locations and a liberal sprinkling of brand names and references to modern novels and TV shows. The stories feel real, with little extra conversations and events that don’t seem to do anything to the plot, but just help make the thing feel more like it’s really happening, because in the real world people aren’t always sitting there waiting to help you, and don’t always have the right information to hand. Sure, there are a couple of coincidences within the novel, but you can overlook them because they are built up in such a way that they don’t feel contrived. Roy Grace is one of my favourite characters in fiction, and that’s no exaggeration, and you find yourself continually rooting for him, in both his personal and professional lives.

It’s taken me four years to read the first three books in this series. Why? These books are genius.