“Not Dead Yet” by Peter James (2012)

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“I am warning you, and I won’t repeat this warning.”

I’ve been working my way through Peter James’ series for a few years now, slowly but surely. If you want reviews for the previous ones in the series, then they’re here, and because they’re a continuation, there may be some spoilers here regarding the series as a whole. If you’re not interested in the underlying plot – and the books are enjoyable enough without it – then feel free to carry on, but you have been warned.

In the eighth installment of the series, we meet another collection of colourful characters all involved in a series of plots that, at first glance, have very little to do with one another. Detective Superintendent Roy Grace has found himself leading a new case wherein a body has been found on a chicken farm, missing its head and limbs. The police are struggling to identify the body, with little to go on but a swatch of a very unusually patterned fabric. Elsewhere, Brighton is preparing to host a film crew ready to shoot their new movie about King George IV and his mistress Maria Fitzherbert, but the producer Larry Brooker is facing difficulties from a man who claims that Larry stole the script from him, and his temperamental lead actress, the pop star Gaia Lafayette.

Gaia herself has some problems, as one of her assistants has just been murdered outside her Bel Air home, and the police there believe that the perpetrator was intending to kill the star. And this is still all before we’ve got to Gaia’s number one fan, Anna, who has convinced herself that Gaia is communicating secretly with her; Eric, the strange and insular auditor who is beginning to rub the police up the wrong way; and two figures from Roy’s past that are back on the streets of Brighton, each with their own reasons for keeping an eye on Sussex Police’s golden boy.

As ever, James makes good use of the environment of Brighton and Hove, one of my favourite cities. His attention to detail is brilliant and his research is meticulous. He manages to combine a very rigorously described police inquiry with genuinely sympathetic characters who we grow to care about. After eight books now with many of the same faces, each of them develops more and more depth. Although they all could easily be written off with a singular defining trait – Glenn is a movie buff, Bella is consigned to a life looking after her mother, Norman is an old-fashioned copper with old-fashioned ideas – each of them has three very remarkably played out dimensions, and very little in this world is black and white. Some of the new characters are great too, including Gaia, a global icon in the vein of Lady Gaga, who shows real humanity beneath her public persona, and Larry Brooker, the Hollywood producer who can’t see why a dead body should hold up his production schedule. He’s so oblivious, but you just know that there are people out there like that. The kind of people who say “time is money” without irony.

Eight books in, we also begin to see some old plot threads begin to weave themselves together. Kevin Spinella, the ruthless and slimy journalist who always seems to immediately know what the police know, finally meets his match. There are unexpected relationships slowly being exposed, thus bringing about more depth and character development, and some long-held secrets from early in the series are finally revealed to the reader, but they only further some mysteries and don’t necessarily wrap things up as neatly as you’d hope. Fortunately, I’m not bothered – it just makes me even more intrigued.

The crime story is wrapped up well with a reminder to never ignore coincidences, but the ending itself is really rather sinister, but definitely builds up the interest for carrying on, which I undoubtedly will be.

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“Dead Like You” by Peter James (2010)

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Roy Grace is on the hunt of a monster…

“We all make mistakes, all of the time.”

This is another one of those reviews that focuses on a book that’s part of a series. Unfortunately, unlike Poirot which can be read in any order, Peter James’ Roy Grace novels form a coherent narrative so some of what I say may not make sense if you haven’t read the first five novels in the series, although this one is actually a bit less about the ongoing plot.

All caught up? Good, let’s carry on.

In 1997, a serial rapist known to police and the media as the Shoe Man due to his habit of taking one of his victim’s shoes after each crime attacked several women, leaving their lives ruined. The final of these was Rachael Ryan, who saw his face, condemning her to death as he couldn’t let her go and run to the police. Twelve years later, there’s another rapist prowling around Brighton’s streets, with a very similar MO.

When women report being raped, DS Roy Grace sets about trying to piece together the story, but he overwhelmed by his feeling that this is the same man as before. Convinced that history is repeating itself, and keen to impress his new boss Peter Rigg, Grace rounds up  his finest men and women to set about putting this monster behind bars once and for all. But the rapist is clever, and all too aware of forensic evidence, seeming to never leave any behind. All they know for sure about him is that he’s obsessed with women in expensive shoes. With this one connection between all the attacks, Roy begins to solve the puzzle, but the answers may lie in the past, back when he was married, back before his wife disappeared…

Roy Grace is far and away one of my favourite fictional detectives. Hard-working, fair, competent and smart, he always comes up trumps, even if he takes a few wrong turnings along the way, and his “copper’s nose” is incredibly good at sniffing out the answers. Throughout this one, he remains convinced that the events of 1997 are related to what’s happening now, and the novel straddles the two time periods well, finally giving us a chance to see a younger Roy, as well as get to know his wife Sandy a little better. While in the earlier books Roy pines for Sandy (at this point, he’s now engaged again and his partner, Cleo, is pregnant), I found her to be a completely unsympathetic character. I don’t quite see how they ever managed to be married – but then, people come together for all sorts of reasons.

As usual, Peter James populates the book with numerous characters, each introduced with their own description and fleshed out more than just a name on the page. As I’ve surely said before, the books are incredibly real and very rich in their level of detail. Conversations that have no bearing on the plot save to reveal something about a character are fairly common, but the story doesn’t get lost among them. Despite clocking it at over 600 pages, it felt like it passed by a lot quicker.

That’s the real beauty of James’s writing. His novels are not small but the writing style is so quick and comfortable that you skip through it, desperate to know what happens next and almost feeling “at home” in his prose, despite whatever gory, macabre or twisted thing he happens to be writing about. And he has quite the imagination.

I’d solved the bulk of the crime a long time before it was revealed, but James still produces a hell of an ending with a remarkably good little extra flourish. The next book in the series sits on my shelf, ready and waiting.

If you like tales of macabre murders, may I be so bold as to suggest my novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, which gives murder a slightly more magical twist.

“Sussex Folk Tales” by Michael O’Leary (2013)

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sussex folk“When I was asked to tell stories at a place called Gumber Bothy, I thought it must be somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.”

I suppose that most people have a fondness for wherever they were brought up. Or, at the least, a fondness that means they can insult it but heaven help an outsider who tries. I happen to hail from Sussex, as far as I’m concerned, the most beautiful and interesting county (or rather, pair of counties, as it is divided into East and West) in the British Isles. Home to Rudyard Kipling, Simon Cowell, Virginia Woolf, Sir Patrick Moore among others, it also holds the claim to originating thirty variety of apple, and being the last place Lord Lucan was seen before he disappeared.

But Sussex is old, being one of the first places colonised in the British Isles as it used to be linked to the continent. It’s where the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 (near the town of Battle, not Hastings), and where the Home Guard of Dad’s Army were ready to fight on the beaches in World War Two. It has had a long history of mystery, magic and a fair bit of smuggling. Over time, stories have laced the landscape, from Gatwick Airport in the north and Brighton in the south, from West Wittering in the west, to Rye in the east. This book fills us in on those stories.

Moving around the county in a widdershins direction (anti-clockwise), O’Leary tells us many strange legends and myths. He is a professional storyteller by trade and argues that he’s not a folklorist, so cannot give explanations for anything that happens; he’s just interested in the stories themselves. He’s clearly passionate about his subject too, and constantly professes to us that he isn’t lying, because what would he have to gain from that? I’m prepared to accept all the stories as true.

It’s hard to say how many of them are well known to the wider world, but being from around here, I knew of a few of them. There’s Devil’s Dyke, a valley dug by Satan himself in an attempt to flood the county’s churches. He was bested by Old Nan, an elderly woman who lived in Amberley Swamp and turns up in numerous tales. She tricked him into fleeing before he’d finished, leaving behind an unfinished furrow and clods of Earth that became the South Downs and the Isle of Wight. Old Nan was known to be too, as I live near Nan Tuck’s Lane, a forested road where her shade still haunts and there’s a patch of ground among the trees where nothing ever grows. I was also aware of the Piltdown Man, who is not only a famous archaeological hoax, but also a strange Frankenstein-like creature who can catch you unawares as you drive through the village of Piltdown.

But there were so many other stories I had no knowledge of. There’s Lord Moon, the creepy moonlight trickster who leads people to their doom; Elynge Ellet, the frog-like demon who lives in marshland and steals your favoured possessions; Daniel Ratcliffe, the King of the Cats who walks on his hind legs and has no time for humans who are stunned by his ability to speak. And that’s before we get into the numerous knuckers (dragons) and pharisees (fairies) that seem to populate every lake and hill respectively within the county borders.

O’Leary also gives details on other stories that are well known but perhaps not usually linked to Sussex. The legend of the Flying Dutchman, the ship doomed to never arrive at shore, begins in Sussex when a man who killed his brother is sent to sea for penance, and Little Bo Peep is said to have originated somewhere in East Sussex. We learn why the Long Man of Wilmington is lacking in the private department (and why the Cerne Abbas Giant seems to be packing spare), what lives down in the Mixon Hole, and discover that folklore is still developing and growing with the new legend of Trevor’s Boots.

I may be biased, but when I stood last week looking out across the South Downs from atop the Seven Sisters cliffs (they’re probably the ones you mistakenly think of when you think of the White Cliffs of Dover) I find it impossible to not love Sussex, and this book brings home some of the magic therein. I’ve you’ve not been before, pop down and have a look round. I’ll get the beers in.

“The Sussex Downs Murder” by John Bude (1936)

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Murder on my doorstep...

Murder on my doorstep…

“Dominating that part of the Sussex Downs with which this story is concerned is Chanctonbury Ring.”

It’s a sad and brutal truth that not everyone can be remembered. Today there are so many “celebrities” and notables that it’s hard to say which of them will still be being discussed in the future (although I’d probably put money on Queen Elizabeth II being more relevant than Jeremy Clarkson in a hundred years). However, it’s not a modern thing. Although there are now more opportunities for people to make a name for themselves than ever, even when the competition was less stiff, it could still be a challenge.

During the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction” – the time between the two world wars where crime fiction was outstripping everything else, helped along by such luminaries as Michael Innes, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and, of course, Agatha Christie – some authors slipped by the wayside, through no fault of their own. One of these is John Bude, real name Ernest Elmore. His books seemed to get ignored but they have at last been reprinted by the British Library as crime classics. Being a born and bred Sussexian myself, I was of course intrigued by a book where I know all the locations (and it’s not the first time that’s been a pull on me) and so found myself exploring a murder that few people seem to have ever read since its publication in the thirties. Here’s what happened.

This is the story of brothers John and William Rother, and William’s wife Janet. They live and work at Chalklands, where they were lime-burners, providing the local area with lime. (Sussex is notoriously chalky in its geological make-up; we have some of the most limescaled kettles in the world.) One weekend, John bids William and Janet goodbye and sets off on a trip, but the following morning his car is found not far away with no sign of John near it, save a blood-stained cap. Superintendent Meredith is put in charge of the case and begins to interview the people who saw him last.

Not long after, a couple of builders at a nearby mansion discover bones in their consignment of lime. Originally thinking they’re just dog bones, they happen to ask the owner of the mansion, Professor Blenkings, an scientist of anatomy who realises that the bones are actually human. More to the point, they may very well belong to John Rother…

As Meredith begins to track down the rest of the skeleton and Blenkings is given the task of restoring it to a human shape, word gets around the local villages of the death and soon the finger of suspicion begins to wag, with John’s brother William right in its path. But when further disaster strikes, Meredith finds he’s reached a dead end with the case, and now only the evidence of the locals can bring the murderer to justice…

Christie aside, I read little from before 1980, so it took me a few pages to get into the style and language, but there’s no doubt that Bude can write. He is engaging, crafts excellent characters and knows just how to add humour at the right moments. Meredith is a charming detective. Unlike modern coppers, he lacks a drinking problem and a dysfunctional family and seems more concerned about where his next meal is coming from. He’s very human – he makes mistakes but he accepts them and continues on, determined to seek out the truth.

The crime itself is handled marvellously, making good use of real locations and not letting the reader get too far behind in what’s going on. The answers are all there if you’re smart enough to see them, but the twist is still good enough that I only realised it a couple of pages before the reveal. The tension raises gradually throughout the novel and it keeps you in suspense before explaining exactly how it was done.

One thing I found notable about this though was how gory it was. It’s not that it’s wall-to-wall organs and chainsaws, but the idea of finding human bones and then recreating the skeleton from them is a bit macarbe. I think it’s simply because I’m used to Christie where the murders are always so clean and bloodless. (Almost) no one bleeds in a Christie murder; here, barely a page goes by without a bloodstain cropping up.

Bude’s – or rather Elmore’s – name should be among those from the Golden Age and perhaps if he’d lived a little longer (he died at fifty-six) it would be. But it wasn’t to be and his books got forgotten. Hopefully, now that they have been rescued and reprinted, the world can rediscover his talent. This was a man who knew the business and didn’t hold back. A startingly wonderful book set in one of the most beautiful areas of the country. Very, very good.